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Rome Diaries - Week 59

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.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- August 7, 2008

Instead of the usual sights of Naples, I decide to visit to the Vomero neighborhood on a day trip. Until the late 19th century, this area was referred to as “Broccoli Hill” – a place for agriculture; vomere is the Italian word for plough. When the city needed to expand, this open space was the first to be developed. It is a self-contained little world of stunning views, exclusive shops and luxury apartments. Three historic sights deepen the charm. But the first challenge is getting up the steep hill. Courteous shopkeepers and pedestrians guide me from the harbor to the funicular railway and, in three stops, I am high above Naples looking out upon the bay’s cerulean blue water, brooding Mt. Vesuvius to my left. Villa Floridiana, an early 19th century royal estate with lush gardens, now a public park, houses the Duke of Martina’s collection of ceramics. I am its only visitor for a long while and closely examine the ground floor rooms, filled with the duke’s famous collection of Chinese porcelain. Then I am escorted to the main floor where the rest of the collection is laid out almost as if he himself had displayed it. Villa Floridiana is the right setting, a vacation home for the second wife of King Ferdinand I Bourbon. I take in its quiet, ornate rooms and unmatched sea views, imagining I am her unannounced summer guest. Up and over the brow of the Vomero hill, I come to the enormous Castel Sant’Elmo, a landmark that can be seen all over the city. In the 10th century, a church dedicated to the saint stood here. Elmo (also “Erasmus”) was the bishop of the region and suffered martyrdom under Diocletian. Sailors sought his protection during storms and, when they observed a blue aura of ionized air around the masts of their ships, believed this “St. Elmo’s fire” would protect them. Times changed when the pope brought in Charles of Anjou (1263) to wrest away the kingdoms of both Sicily and Naples from their expansionist Hohenstaufen rulers. After his quick and short-lived victory in Sicily, Charles sailed to Naples in 1266. An unloved seventh child of Louis VIII of France, Charles was ever-ambitious; he made Naples a European player. His descendants began work on a monastery and then a fortress here about sixty years later; they were massively rebuilt under Spanish rule (1442-1860). The Charterhouse of St. Martin of Tours (Certosa di San Martino) is tucked beneath the towering fortifications of the castle. The inlaid marble frenzy of the monastery’s Baroque church begins a dizzying self-guided tour of cloisters, courtyards, basements and terraces that not only disorients, but explains why, in 1806, Napoleon shut the whole thing down and turned it into a museum. The exuberant Carthusians may have just gone too far. My own confusion is instensified by an odd arrangement that allows security guards to decide, on their own, when certain parts of the complex open and close. I lose the game of cat-and-mouse today, being denied entry to buildings surrounding the large cloister, they are just closing. As I leave, I am directed to a bus that would take me in the opposite direction. A few minutes later I discover why: descending by way of the Pedamentina, 414 ornate steps that pass through slum housing, is not recommended.

August 22, 2008

A friend has been dropping off copies of a newspaper from the Chicago Archdiocese. In it, each week, is an ad for “The Pope’s Cologne.” The fragrance’s formula somehow made the journey from the Vatican in the suitcase of General Charles Charette, papal confidant of Pius IX and retiring commander of the Papal Guard, ending up in a privately printed U.S. cookbook a few generations later. It was a short step from there to the kitchen of Fred Hass, MD who spends about 20 hours a week bottling and distributing the cologne. Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle (23 December 2006) asks, “So what did this famous pontiff -- the one who established the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility as church dogma -- smell like?” The doctor replies, “Surprisingly fresh, with notes of citrus and violet…I imagine being in the papal apartments 150 years ago. It's magical. There's a kind of mystical chemistry to it -- a lot of people liken it to alchemy. That's what it's about for me, the history and the magic." All of this specialness is not lost on marketers of secular brands who have their own stealthy ways of using the cachet of a pope to move their product. In a Wall Street Journal article headlined “Does the Pope Wear Prada?” (25 April 2006), Stacy Meichtry documents some placements:

"[The] Italian shoe company Geox SpA, whose founder, Mario Moretti Polegato, is a friend of papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. (Mr. Navarro-Valls is a member of Geox's ethics committee.) Following Benedict XVI's election in April of last year, Geox gave Mr. Navarro-Valls several pairs of Geox Uomo Light loafers -- featuring the brand's trademark antifoot-sweat system -- as a present for the new pope.

When the pope wore the shoes, Geox chose not to promote the event through advertisements or press materials. But the company was delighted when word got out. "If the pope uses our product that means it works. He's out in public under the sun for hours in a heavy tunic, so he risks becoming sweaty," says Geox spokesman Eros Scattolin. "What better testimony could you ask for?"

Bushnell Performance Optics got a lucky break when, during one of his first outings last year; Benedict XVI was photographed wearing a pair of its Serengeti sunglasses. Bushnell didn't advertise the photos or send out news releases, but a spokesman says the spotting helped Serengeti's business with retailers. "Our salesperson comes in and the retailer says, 'My Gosh! Did I just see the pope wearing Serengetis? “Show me that style!'" says Phil Gyori, Bushnell's vice president of marketing.

Apple Computer Inc. declined to comment on the pencil-thin iPod nano that Benedict received as a gift from employees of Vatican Radio on the station's 75th anniversary. Radio technicians specially ordered the nano from Apple with the engraving "To His Holiness, Benedict XVI" and packed it with Vatican Radio programming. But Apple trade magazines, such as Macworld, immediately trumpeted the event, peppering their Web sites with newspaper reports of the gift."

While paging through a recent New Yorker, I spot an ad for Land Rover. The huge vehicle is coming through the gates of Blenheim Palace. The copy reads:

"It has protected a pope. Transported heads of state, lords and a queen. Here, at Blenheim Palace, it is the estate vehicle…"

And so, the subtle art of “placement” continues. In a material world, popes must suffer their share of it; gone is the grandiloquence of the past, when they had a hand in actually running the world. Now the role is being one of the most rarified celebrities on the planet.

Rome Diaries - Week 59
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