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Rome Diaries - Week 62

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.


October 1, 2008

The architect Vignola was well-known to cardinals in the mid-16th century. He took over St. Peter’s construction from Michelangelo and then designed the Jesuit’s first church. He remodeled the Farnese fortress in Caparola and, in 1566, was summoned to Bagnaia, in the Cimini hills near Viterbo, where Cardinal Gianfrancesco Gambara had a hunting estate. The Cardinal was deeply involved in maintaining the list of heretical books for the Inquisition and wanted to relax amid a beautifully planned garden. Vignola’s use of classical literature to create a high-minded theme would influence landscape architecture for the next three centuries. Rumors of a wildcat train strike (selvaggio) turn out to be false, so I decide to reach Bagnaia by the charming narrow-gauge railway that serves a string of hilltop communities between Viterbo and Rome. To do this, I must take the less scenic commuter train to Viterbo and run three long blocks to begin a southbound journey at a separate terminal. A few stops later, I step off the train and into Bagnaia, a medieval town with a few later improvements, the largest being Cardinal Gambara’s gardens; they occupy the higher slopes of the town’s hill. The theme of the garden is nothing less than the fall and the rise of man; the story begins high up on the third terrace, but the fountain at the property’s entrance hints at what will be unfolding:

Minerva…headed for Thebes, and Mount Helicon, home of the virgin Muses, crossing the sea by whichever way seemed quickest. Reaching it, she alighted there, and spoke to the sisters, learned in song, saying ‘Talk of a new fountain has reached my ears, that gushed out from under the hard hoof of winged Pegasus, born of Medusa. That is the reason for my journey.’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book V 251ff)

The scene of Pegasus surrounded by a semi-circular retaining wall of nine Muses recalls a vanished golden age when nature produced all things good on its own. This is the world that is beginning to be restored at the very top of the garden. There, a grotto fountain, flanked by two loggias, commemorates the deluge from twin-peaked Parnassus -- brought about by Jupiter after the corruption of his creation became too much for him:

When he had spoken, some of the gods encouraged Jupiter’s anger, shouting their approval of his words, while others consented silently. They were all saddened though at this destruction of the human species, and questioned what the future of the world would be free of humanity. Who would honour their altars with incense? Did he mean to surrender the world to the ravages of wild creatures? In answer the king of the gods calmed their anxiety, the rest would be his concern, and he promised them a people different from the first, of a marvelous creation. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I 244ff)

From this grotto, the water journeys underground, emerging from a fountain of dolphins which was originally surrounded by coral elements. The world is now turned on its head:

There are dolphins in the trees: disturbing the upper branches and stirring the oak-trees as they brush against them. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I 302)

Further downstream, the water spouts from the gills of a crayfish, gàmbero, (a play on Cardinal Gambara’s name) and descends in a rivulet to the mossy Fountain of the Giants, representing the Tiber and Arno rivers. The fertility produced by these rivers is symbolized by a functional, stone banquet table cut through with water channels, one perhaps to cool the wine and the other, the feet of the Cardinal’s al fresco diners. Below this, a fountain of seventy lamps, symbols of learning and reason, provides just the right gurgling ambience to admire, on the lowest terrace, the magnificent Fountains of Moors -- four athletes holding aloft the insignia of the 17-year-old nephew of Pope Sixtus V, Cardinal Alessandro Peretti di Montalto, a later owner of the property. An sign explains why Cardinal Gambara did not complete the garden before his death: Charles Boromeo, the soon-to-be saint and keeper of the cardinals’ purse strings, made a visit to the villa and expressed the opinion that “enough had been done.” Fortunately for us, the insignia of Gambara’s successor employs a star atop a mountain – an aesthetically pleasing focal point for the grand finale – water shooting from all five points of the star. The bronze figures are in the center of a large pool framed by clipped boxwood hedges in geometric designs. I leave this prelude, paying my 2 euro to enter the garden, the world that came after this idyllic time. Four hours of wandering is really a short time here, if you want to experience the seamless connection of garden to wooded hills beyond, the spectacular views from the “Parnasus” terrace and the mathematical precision of the whole plan. After a cursory walk in the town’s medieval section, noting the still-crooked streets and a line of laundry hanging from the castle (now cut up into apartments), I board the little train that will take me through a tunnel underneath the garden I just visited and then, very slowly, make its way past other fortress towns, a deserted marble quarry and, by sunset, the suburbs of Rome.

October 4, 2008

L'Associazione Bancaria Italiana (ABI) is opening eleven Roman palazzos usually closed to the public. After three seasons, I have caught most of these, but today I finally get into the chapel of Monte di Pietà. This pioneering organization began as a charity that functioned as a “micro loan” agency and pawnshop for the city’s poor. Nobles would also make charitable donations. Since Franciscans and Dominicans were stirring up a movement against usury; the branches of Monte di Pietà sought to provide a reasonable, money-lending alternative by controlling the amount of interest charged as well as offering a loan that was two-thirds the estimated value of the item being pawned. The contrast between the bank’s poor clientele and its opulent chapel did not, evidently, jar 17th century sensibilities. Here can be seen glorious Baroque personifications of Faith, Hope and Love joining Almsgiving in a heavenly combustion of elegance and luxury. Exotic marbles and generously gilded surfaces show just what money can do. Saint Charles Borromeo looks down from a lintel bearing the label, “Humility.” In this setting, the word not only typifies this wealthy yet humble cardinal, it recalls his relentless reforming of the Humiliati which resulted in a shot being fired at him while he was at prayer. Borromeo refused to prosecute but the congregation was suppressed in 1570. Banca di Roma now owns this historic property and, as the Vatican’s agent, continues with the same methods for making loans to the poor. A few hours later, at Palazzo De Carolis, I visit the bank’s auction display cases, filled with used Rolex oyster watches (750 euro) and medium-priced diamond jewelry. Somehow this 400 year-old pawnshop struggles on.

Rome Diaries - Week 62
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