Rome Diaries - Week 53

From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this travel diary. A new selection appears each week.

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April 14, 2008

The Irish Embassy is celebrating the 400th anniversary of “The Flight of the Earls” with a round of cultural events this weekend. According to the presentation by the Irish ambassador, it is a time of sadness and a time to contemplate the cessless wandering of the Irish. Somehow I cannot connect the metaphysical idea that the Irish need to wander and the uncomfortable fact that Ireland was taken over by more powerful England at the time of the Tudors. It all seems less romantic and more calculating than the music and speeches make it. The empire-building Tudors naturally had their eyes on nearby Ireland. The “earls” had been torn between keeping their wealth (diminished by English law) or their Gaelic heritage. After losing in battle, they realized they could not live as vassals of the English and left. Their flight from Ireland was seen a difficult decision then, but now looks like the simple admission that England had won. The French demurred from helping the earls regain their land and told them to await word from the Spain in the Netherlands. The desperate reasoning went that Philip II of Spain had been made King of Ireland by the pope in 1555 at his marriage to Queen Mary I of England, but Philip had neither the desire nor the power to stop the English after the sinking of the Armada. No message would come and the earls finally moved their entourage overland to Rome, their last hope, arriving on April 29th 1608.

Tadhg Ó Cianáin was part of this group. He writes about how they were received by the pope:

"On the fourth of May, the day of the week being Sunday, and the year of the Lord being then one thousand six hundred and eight, his Holiness the Pope consented to their coming in person into his presence at three o'clock in the afternoon. The cardinals sent a number of good coaches and some of the most excellent and most beautiful horses in the world to them, to conduct them to the place where the Pope was. They went to the splendid palace which is called Monte Cavallo. The Holy Father, Paul V, was awaiting them there. When they appeared before him, he received them with respect, with kindness, with honour, and with welcome. Then they themselves and their followers, one after another, kissed with humility and reverence his holy foot. They were about one hour of the day in his presence, and he was courteous, glad, and kind to them during that time, asking them of what occurred to them and how they had fared. They took their leave after having received holy benediction. They gave thanks to God and the holy Father for the respect and the reverence wherewith he had exhibited his great, merciful kindness to them."

The nobles, with their retinue, numbered about one hundred at the outset of their journey. In time, they dwindled away, some dying of malaria from an ill-advised visit to Ostia in the summer, others dying of old age or probable assassination. While in Italy, they were kept on a pension paid for by the pope and the king of Spain. The earls were made as comfortable as it is possible to be, when caught in a web; some might never had realized that the power politics of the day had made them irrelevant. But as for wandering and the Irish, tonight a young man named Seamus sits next to me at the presentation. He says that he and his mother walked the ten miles from the airport at Ciampino to Rome on the Appian Way. “You get off the plane and then walk through a fence near the airport and you are on the ancient road. You are out in the country, it’s beautiful. Just like the pilgrims, you first see St. Peter’s and then walk into Rome through St. Sebastian’s Gate.” Yes, maybe there is something about the Irish and wandering, after all, I’m here…


April 21, 2008

It is the 2761st birthday of Rome and the city’s museums are free. So it’s a good time to investigate Museo delle Mura, which is ensconced in St. Sebastian’s Gate, part of the Aurelian Walls (3rd century). Bits and pieces of the more ancient Servian Wall (early 4th century BC) are also strewn around Rome, some still have the markings from the tufa quarry on them. But, thanks to constant repairs, the first dating from 40 years after construction, the Aurelian walls still make a 12.5 mile circuit around the city. The last renovations, for rifle slits, were made in the 19th century. I get off the bus at St. Paul’s Gate and walk along the outside of the walls. On my right, are the open fields of the Via Appia Antica open space and on my left is a field of red and orange poppies, bordering the perimeter of the wall. This is the preferred approach the museum, if you follow the road to St. Sebastian’s Gate from the center, you could easily be side-swiped by the traffic that pours through this narrow exit. Once in the museum, an ancient arched walkway takes you on an amble through the centuries. Only a pleasant whoosh of traffic makes it through the 12-foot thick wall which, on this spring day, is protecting a field of tall, yellow wildflowers. Signs call attention to palm tree designs that workers made with ordinary bricks, the icon of Mary from a medieval hermit’s nook and the herringbone pattern created by itinerant workers from the Aegean. The wall can be read like a book. A special exhibition from China is also on display. “Beijing 2008” by Huang Rui is a sobering installation made with ash-colored bricks from that city’s destroyed old neighborhoods, known as hutongs, a Mongolian word from Kublai Khan’s time which means “water well.” The buildings that grew up around the wells are now being replaced with modern “super blocks.” Atop each collection of bricks are grey-colored figures of the Chinese Zodiac. They seem to brood over their individual platforms of hutong bricks. The Beijing Olympics occur in the Year of the Rat, an animal considered to be disciplined, charming, shrewd and over-ambitious. Bricks, especially these remnants from another distant and great city, can offer much to think upon: power (constructive and destructive); immense, coordinated labor; and the simple need for shelter we all share. Toward closing time (2 PM), a staff member takes everyone up to the top of a reconstructed 100-foot tower. From here Rome looks small and defenseless.



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