Rome Diaries - Week 54

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 28, 2008

My American dentist tells me how difficult it is to create a Bed and Breakfast in Rome. I imagine it is especially frustrating when you are just steps away from Piazza Navona; to an American mind, a garage and workshop sitting on such valuable real estate is nothing but a wasted opportunity, but one encroaches on his property. Of course, Italians have a entirely different approach. They value a tradition of family life that is the “fabric” of a neighborhood and so change should happen only with vigilance and occasional resistance. After my dental appoint, I make a run for the bus to Complesso Monumentale di San Michele a Ripa Grande a showpiece from the Enlightenment. In the late 17th century, forward-thinking Monsignor Tommaso Odescalchi (nephew of Pope Innocent XII) began an effort to improve the welfare of the poor living in the dockyard area of Rome (“ripa” means riverbank). Thanks to sweeping legislation by the pope, all charities became centrally administered and social services were concentrated in Carlo Fontana’s massive (290,000 squire feet) San Michele complex. Part workshop (papal tapestry-making) and part detention housing, widows and orphans were the main objects of its services. Now it is hosts the restoration laboratories of the Beni Culturali, the oversight agency for all of Italy’s art and architectural treasures. Currently on display is a restoration of Antonello da Messina’s “Annunciation” (1474). It had spent years under a chapel’s leaky roof and then decades as the victim of a “restoration” that caused much of the remaining paint to flake. One of the restorers takes our small group through the exhaustive process, speaking in the same methodical manner she employs in her work. After this seven day showing in Rome, the piece will be returned to its permanent home at a government museum in Sicily. As we leave, two of us trudge up the stairs to what was most recently a prison in the complex. Now it is an art venue. This exhibit shows pictures of disadvantaged children in Africa and the toys they make from recycled materials. It seems right at home in one of the first social welfare buildings in Europe.


May 7, 2008

The papal household is hosting a concert by the China Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s not an ordinary concert but one filled with symbolism since currently the Vatican and China are trying to resolve their differences regarding the rights of Roman Catholics in China. The Shanghai-based orchestra was created in 2000 for just such cultural diplomacy. Its first performance was a commission by the American minimalist composer Philip Glass. The next year, the orchestra visited Taiwan. This evening’s presentation has a 75-piece orchestra and full choir. But the featured piece is Mozart’s Requiem; originally scored for a just a 14-piece orchestra with organ and four voices. Even with all the extra power, the orchestra and voices seem colorless and muffled. It may have something to do with the venue, Pier Luigi Nervi’s 12,000-seat Paul VI Audience Hall. But the Swiss Guard are in their fanciest garb, helmets topped with red plumes, and the pope walks through the hall congratulating performers and various dignitaries. His brief, final speech notes that art can “deepen understanding between cultures” and that the evening demonstrates how “music expresses universal human sentiments, including the religious sentiment, which transcends the boundaries of every individual culture.” After this, the orchestra plays, “in honor of the Holy Father,” Jasmine Flower, a beloved Chinese folk song that was quoted by Puccini in Turandot. It is all over in an hour, but the two sides get just what they wanted.


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