Rome Diaries - Week 63

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

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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October 6, 2008

I hear tales from the Abruzzi and Puglia regions today. Unfortunately, I cannot believe either one. An acquaintance insists on maintaining that the enormous Spanish castle in L’Aquila was a mistake and that a much smaller one was to be built there -- someone dropped off the wrong plans. But every source I read carefully explains that L’Aquila sided with the French and when the Spanish took over in 1529, they were punished by having to pay for the enormous fortress that would intimidate the town; even the silver coffin of St. Bernardine (donated by a French king) was confiscated. Then a friend, who recently visited relatives the in Greek-influenced Puglia region, gives me some strict, country wisdom: “Only kiss your children in the night, when they are sleeping.” The idea being that they spend every waking hour getting into trouble so you can only affirm them when they are asleep!


October 11, 2008

A three hour bus trip takes our parish group to Siena. Our guide exults in telling derogatory tales about Florentines. Siena famously lost out to this city during Renaissance times. Sienese nobility, by 1167, brought the city out from under the governmental control of the local bishop. Civic pride called for the construction of an elegant gothic cathedral (1196-1348); Bernini constructed its lantern dome in the 16th century. A huge new nave was planned in the 14th century, but due to faulty construction and the onset of the Black Death (during which a third of the population -- 20,000 people – died), it was never completed. The cathedral museum contains the façade’s original statues by Pisano (made from lightweight terracotta) and incorporates an entrance to the abandoned addition. From its heights you can contemplate the dashed ambitions of medieval Siena. Bands of white and greenish-black marble sheath the church inside and out, reminding the Sienese that the building is a celebration of their town, whose colors are black and white. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472, is considered to be the oldest serving bank in the world. As with other such institutions of the day, it contrived to make a profit from lending money but not by usury (excessive interest penalties). After I press the point, the guide admits that Jewish pawnbrokers were employed to do the “dirty work” of getting the rates the bank required -- medieval kickbacks, not a surprise. The head of Dante looms from the upper storey of a palazzo near the bank. Although born in hated Florence, the “Supreme Poet” was exiled from his birthplace just like the illustrious General Provenzan Salvani who, in 1260, achieved a bloody victory over Florence in which 15,000 people lost their lives. Like Dante, he had a bit of pride and for that, the Poet’s Divine Comedy places him in the first circle of Purgatory (Canto XI, 127-142). Constant vying for power among Siena’s noble families allowed Florence to dominate Siena by 1555. After a brief look at a reliquary containing St. Catherine of Siena’s head – she died in Rome, so her remains were shared – we make a return visit to the Cathedral to view its highly decorated façade in the afternoon sun. Then a walk inside to tour the 59 incised marble slabs on the church’s floor – they are only exposed a few weeks a year; Sienese military success and the Bible are equally represented. A small side door leads to the vibrant frescos of the Piccolomini Library, gift of Sienese Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, future Pope Pius III, to house the books of his uncle Pius II. Pinturicchio and Raphael created a mini-museum of their work here, but the uncle’s books never arrived. Finally, a room of the Cathedral’s museum is given over to Duccio’s grand panel, Maestà, an enthronement scene of Mary surrounded by saints and angels that would propel artists away from the Byzantine style into realism. The piece held sway over the Cathedral’s high altar for two hundred years and then at side altars for another two hundred. After this, it was disastrously sawed in half, lengthwise (both sides are painted). The side that originally faced the choir held numerous biblical scenes and many of these are now the jewels of various European and American collections. When, the piece was first installed (1311), shops closed and a large procession made its way into the church to pray in thanksgiving at the image of the Madonna who had protected the city so many times from its enemies. These days, many know Siena only from the Palio, a horserace that arose in 1590 to replace bullfighting, which the Duke of Tuscany had outlawed. Given its own complex history, Siena had the means to create a rich pageant. In the Middle Ages, various neighborhoods had been assigned names so that each could properly contribute soldiers for defense. A patriotic feeling was thus created and each ward developed a friendly rivalry. The Wolf, the Eagle, the Caterpillar, the Panther and thirteen others sectors each have their own museum, fountain, baptismal font and motto. During the twice-yearly Palio, they parade through the city and then take part in a 90-minute pageant before the 15-minute horserace. The horses are far from thoroughbreds and the prize is a simple banner of the Virgin Mary. In the 45 minutes I have left, I wander alone down the seemingly pristine medieval streets and marvel at how clever these Sienese are: they have one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Italy, invented modern banking, protected their traditions after being conquered, and survived the Black Death. The place is not just a pretty movie set like some Italian towns; it is still alert and alive, ready to make something of itself in another new century.

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