Rome Diaries - Week 56

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 16, 2008

Just 30 years after Via Nazionale was pushed through Roman ruins to open up a grand corridor from the new train station to Piazza Venetia, this venerable piazza itself was reconfigured to make room for the outsized Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. It would still be decades before anyone bothered to explore the buried architectural treasures just a few feet below nearby Palazzo Valentini, named for the banker and art collector who was its last private owner. When first built, the palazzo was an emblem of success for Carlo Michele Bonelli, a 25 year-old Dominican friar who happened to be the great-nephew of Pope Pius V (1504-1572). Just two months after his election, the pope summoned him to Rome and made him a cardinal. Before leaving his native region for better things, the friar made sure he was inscribed as a noble of the province of Alessandria in Piedmont. (Today’s nearby Via Alessandrina, named by the young Cardinal, commemorates this act.)


As was customary, the palazzo’s architect took advantage of the existing fabric of ancient Rome, placing the 16th century building on the foundations of luxurious patrician villas constructed between the 1st to the 3rd centuries, when the area bordered a temple and libraries built by Hadrian to complete the Forum of Trajan. Thanks to this alignment, little was disturbed when, just three years ago, the Province of Rome (the palazzo’s current owner) decided to see what they had in the basement. My hour-long tour of the site, which includes a private thermal bath complex, was created by science writer and TV host Piero Angela and his video technicians. Blank walls melt away to show the view ancient inhabitants may have had; mosaic and opus sectile floors miraculously pop back to their pristine design and colors. A peristyle court suddenly is awash in raindrops, making video-generated ripples appear on the ancient pavement. The brilliant red walls that characterized Roman interiors begin to glow again in an imagined second storey and a night view of the Column of Trajan appears. As life became more difficult in Rome, entire rooms of these villas were walled off or used for storage. Finally, charred planks and the dumping of thousands of pieces of pottery (the Roman plastic) show the area’s demise in the 5th century. This ancient neighborhood would sit quietly for a thousand years until a newly-made cardinal decided to build on, what was then, vacant lots. Unlike most archeological sites in the historic center, this one has an intrusion from 1939 when Mussolini was concerned about aerial bombing. Our tour ends with a sobering walk through a fully stocked World War II bunker, complete with two bicycles to generate electricity in case of a loss of power. None of it was ever needed.


May 21, 2008

Today, at school, the Confirmation students create a “Saints’ Museum.” They don the attire and personality of the saint whose name they will take for Confirmation, position themselves under an umbrella pine and tell anyone passing by who they are. Four St. Francises tell me, in unison, the tale of how they renounced their father, left Assisi with nothing but the sackcloth on their backs (which they are wearing) and started a religious order. Under the tree next to them is Pietro, a 12 year-old waif, who today is dressed in gold miter and red cape. He is waving his arms as he tells of the exploits of Pope John Paul II, his (not yet canonized) saint. Across from him, two versions of Saint Sebastian, one in army gear, the other pierced with arrows, tell their tale of martyrdom. Next to the Sebastians are two Archangel Michaels – one in a metal breastplate and the other in wings. On the table in front of them is a copy of Guido Reni’s painting of the archangel pushing the Devil back into Hell. When I ask about angels and music, they vigorously insist that Michael, and only Michael, can blow the trumpet at the End of the World. I decide not to bring up Gabriel. Nearby, St. Paul #1 is the tentmaker Paul, before his conversion while St. Paul #2 is the preacher who tells of being blinded by a heavenly light and thrown to the ground. The tentmaker stands in stony silence as the preacher gets to say all the good lines. But, in Italy, you sometimes hear a truly personal account of a saint. A girl, dressed in the distinctive blue and white sari of the Missionaries of Charity, explains she took Teresa for her name because when Mother Teresa was recovering from a heart attack in a Rome hospital, she visited the girl’s sister who was in a bed down the hall. “Do not be sad,” Mother Teresa told her sister who had just lost her first child, “you will have two other children.” And so she did.


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