Rome Diaries - Week 55

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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May 12, 2008

The giant display of pink and white azaleas is back on the Spanish Steps. Although the area seems an easy coming together of art and architecture, realization of the project involved the jostling of commerce, politics and a large bequest from a French diplomat. The first element to be created was the arrow-straight Via Sistina, a boon to pilgrims searching for the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In the same year, 1585, Louis XII’s monument to the French, the Church of Trinità dei Monti was finally completed on this street. Even as the church was being built papal authorities were considering a staircase to bridge the rough terrain that led down from Monte Pincio to the floodplain of the Tiber. But a certain reluctance prevailed: past wars and misunderstandings between the French and the papacy reduced enthusiasm for this project and the proximity of the Spanish ambassador’s property at the foot of the proposed steps complicated things further. In 1598, the Tiber overflowed its banks and, 25 years later, Pietro Bernini along with his soon-to-be-famous son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, were commissioned to memorialize the tragedy with the Barcaccia Fountain; it recalls the story of a fishing boat being found wrecked at foot of the hill during the flood. A few decades later, the papacy received an enormous bequest for the proposed staircase from a former French ambassador to the Holy See.


An inscription on the Spanish Steps reads:


"O spectator, this magnificent stairway which you gaze at in wonder, that it might afford convenience and no small ornament to the city, the noble Frenchman Etienne Gueffier conceived in his mind, and, money having been left in his will whence to defray expenses, ordered it to be built. He conducted himself with distinction in the service of the King at the courts of several pontiffs and other sublime princes, and died in Rome the thirtieth of June, 1661."


But a further roadblock came in the person of the anti-Spanish Cardinal Mazarin, effectively the co-regent of France. He wanted to erect an equestrian monument to King Louis XIV at the top of the stairs. Time passed. The next forty years saw an increase in shipping on the Tiber and in 1704 Clement XI built a port directly in front of the churches of San Rocco and San Girolamo. The Bourbons of France had begun to rule Spain in 1700 and the building of the stairs could now move forward as part of a redevelopment of the whole area. Francesco de Sanctis was inspired by the design of the new port and expanded what he saw to fit the hillside below Trinità dei Monti. By 1725 his staircase was finally in place – except for its crowning obelisk (in the spot of the never-built statue of Louis XIV). This ancient Roman copy of the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo was moved from the nearby Gardens of Sallust to the top of the Spanish Steps at the request of Pope Pius VI in 1788. About a hundred years later, the port that had inspired the steps was destroyed to make way for flood defense embankments along the Tiber. The magic of making effortless such a coming together of histories is why they continue to call Rome “eternal.”

May 14, 2008

I have had the metropolitan train schedules sitting on my desk for a year now and it’s time to use them. I pack a bag lunch (no Italian would be caught eating al fresco without a tablecloth and china) and hop on the Metro, following the general line of the Via Cassia, the ancient Roman road. At the end of a commuter train line, 60 miles from Rome, lies the walled city of Viterbo. Allied bombing in 1944 left much of the town in ruins, but civic organizations vowed to return the place to its glorious medieval state. I enter through the strategically angled Porta San Pietro, built that way to keep armies from entering; now it just signals that you are passing into the most thoroughly medieval quarter of the city. Dark, volcanic stone and fountains are everywhere and recall the original reason for building a settlement here in Etruscan times – copious, volcanic rock and mineral springs. The town, called by the Romans vetus urbs “old city” has a long history of valor, often to assert its own independence; the lion, a stand-in for Hercules, is the city’s emblem. Lombards imposed their own traditions on Viterbo when Roman rule ebbed and Lombard buildings are conspicuously built atop the larger stone foundations of Roman times. Medieval towers, urban fortresses really, bear witness to Viterbo’s hotly contested status as a papal state. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (ruling his patchwork domain from Sicily) wanted to keep strategically-placed Viterbo for himself. The city’s patron saint, Rose, took the position, unpopular at the time, that Frederick would be defeated by papal forces. In 1258 he was and the pope began the process of canonization for the now deceased 18 year-old and ensconced her body in the church of the convent that had not allowed her entrance while she was alive. To this day, on the night of September 3rd, a fiery 100-foot siege tower is raced through the neighborhood recalling the saint’s prediction of victory over Frederick. In 1271, Prince Henry of Almain was slain while attending Mass at San Sisto -- retribution for the massacre, six years earlier, of Simon de Montfort, a rebellious earl. Perhaps the most unusual incident of violence came in 1172 when the neighboring town of Ferento was utterly destroyed by Viterbo; they had represented Christ crucified with eyes opened. Or was it closed? No matter, they were heretical followers of the anti-pope, that’s for sure. A palm tree on Viterbo’s coat-of-arms is all that remains to remember medieval Ferento.


Because of this history of violence, Dante envisions Viterbo to be near the seventh circle of Hell (canto XIV) smothering in the sulphurous fumes of its own hot springs. But today, all is quiet as I walk up the hill to the Cathedral and the Palace of the Popes. Incongruously, the Cathedral museum is hosting a show on the esoteric religion of ancient Egypt, something that would have smacked of witchcraft in medieval times. The pope saw Viterbo as a reasonably close refuge from the chaos that was Rome in the 13th century. When Pope Alexander IV died at Viterbo in 1261, the papal court remained there through the reign of five popes. Papal elections had always involved difficult politics, but by the 11th century, deadlocks were common. In 1241 Rinaldo Orsini, a Roman senator, introduced the conclave (literally, “with key”); he simply locked the cardinals in and made life miserable for them. Viterbo was the site of the longest and most dramatic conclave. The city’s “Captain of the People” Raniero Gatti, who had built the Palace of the Popes, was concerned that the election was taking so long, 18 months and counting. Even after locking the cardinals in, reducing their rations, and tearing open the roof, it took another 15 months of deliberation…and the one elected was on Crusade. By the time the newly-elected pope arrived in Viterbo, the Church had been without a pope for three and a-half years. The palace is a medieval tour-de-force with a lion-headed fountain in a courtyard that appears to float above the piazza; it is raised, along with the Loggia of the Conclaves, on a series of arches that shoot up from the sloping hill, from here you have a commanding view of the papal domain. The municipality built a similar showcase for itself a short stroll away. It even copied the raised fountain with the view. These 13th century public halls have 16th century frescos and even today host a busy calendar of government events.


I have lunch on an empty terrace behind the Palazzo del Podestà (1264) amid a bit of modern graffiti and up-to-date litter. The tiny Romanesque church of San Marco is open even in early afternoon. I enter and spend some time with the fragments of 14th century frescoes. In 1236, Pope Gregory IX gave the site of an old fortress to the Franciscans, then a new religious order. The gentle friars were brought in to “baptize” this site and make of it a place of peace, so the church of San Francesco was built. It took less than a hundred years for this noble sentiment to be overshadowed by necessity: warrior cardinal and statesman Alvarez Carillo Gil de Albornoz constructed the Rocca, a base of operations for the pope’s reconquest of the Papal States just below San Francesco. At San Sisto, I gape at the high altar. Taking the name term seriously, the unknown architect placed the altar a good thirty feet above the congregation, linked to the rest of the church by matching flights of daunting stone steps. The altar is flanked by two pulpits (preaching was the rage). Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas sermonized here. I can easily imagine bellowing out gorgeous theology and spellbinding the congregation from such a majestic height. While waiting for the return train, a harried woman, surrounded by children and holding a heavy tray of pottery, plops it down on my bench, reminding me of another essential for the successful medieval town: good clay.


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