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.
December 18, 2008
It is amazing how many know about Mount Testaccio, but can never find it. This artificial hill is 135 feet high and about one-half mile in circumference. It lies close to the Aventine hill (another ancient trash dump) and adjacent to the Protestant Cemetery, just inside the Aurelian walls. Made of hard-to-recycle clay olive oil jars, it was engineered with terraces to help stabilize the carefully broken jars (testae) and sprinkled with lime to eliminate the odor of rancid oil. The site, in continuous use for three hundred years, finally shut down in the 3rd century. Its 53 million jars, carrying 1.6 billion gallons of olive oil, were shipped as tax payments to Rome from groves in southern Spain and North Africa (depending on where the current emperor owned estates); most jars are marked with details of weight and source to counteract fraud. Septimus Severus (who reigned from 193 to 211) introduced the distribution of free olive oil to the masses, greatly increasing demand. Until the late 19th century, the site was considered simply a feature of the landscape, used for Christian processions (a cross near the top of the hill survives from Good Friday ceremonies) and excavated to create cellars for wine storage. Now it is an active archeological dig. My worries about getting lost are baseless as a small, jar-shaped fountain marks the perfect viewpoint. Almost the entire mound is ringed with fashionably grungy bars and restaurants. Nearby, a branch of Rome’s contemporary art museum occupies a former slaughterhouse. I walk around the site, trying to get the sun at my back so I can see the layers of pottery. At number 50 Via Di Monte Testaccio, just above the Coyote Bar and Grill, a huge seam of pottery shards rises up, resembling mining tailings in the Colorado Rockies. Visually rewarded, I make my way to the Tiber’s embankments which are currently slathered in mud after the river’s rise to near flood stage about ten days ago. Here, another fountain, a large marble sculpture of the ancient olive oil jars, marks the turnoff for Monte Testaccio for those wise enough to know. From here I walk upriver to Tiber Island. Jupiter himself is supposed to have made Alba Longa’s King Tiberinus Silvius the god Tiber after he drowned in the river. This minor god would take on more significance as the world’s greatest city colonized its banks in future centuries. A plague came upon Rome in 293 BC and consultations with the Sibyl indicated that a temple to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, should be built in Rome. The Senate sent a delegation to Epidauros to obtain a statue of the diety. For good luck, the crew also obtained a snake from the temple (snakes being an element of the god’s staff). When the ship returned to Rome, the snake escaped the ship and made a home on Tiber Island. In this way, the island became the designated place for the temple. In the first century AD, the lozenge-shaped property was fitted out in marble to resemble a ship (some elements can still be seen) as a reminder of how the temple came to be there. In 998, the Holy Roman Emperor brought the remains of the apostle St. Bartholomew to Rome and placed the sought after relic in a basilica he had built over the temple. The saint soon became associated with the healing power of Aesculapius and six hundred years later, the Order of St. John of God built their hospital on the island not only to take advantage of proximity to the relics, but also to follow the wise tradition of keeping the very sick isolated from the rest of the community. I take a very slow look around the church, grateful for the preservation of a magnificent 10th century marble well that sits directly in front of the porphyry altar-sarcophagus of St. Bartholomew. Not only does it link the visitor with the temple’s sacred spring (perhaps still gurgling somewhere below) it also reminds Christians of their baptism. The church’s front portico is early Baroque but a sign notes that the odd lintel embedded in the side wall comes from the ancient temple. At the portico’s center, a simple marble slab with a horizontal line and a date, 17 December 1937, indicates the river’s flood stage on that day, six feet above the floor of the church. Something new is also going on thanks to the work of the Community of Saint Egidio which was founded in Rome in the 1960’s. To further their work of evangelizing visitors, they have inserted relics and images of “new martyrs” in all the side chapels. A sobering role call of countries (Mozambique, Lebanon, El Salvador, Guatemala, Rumania, Albania, Armenia, Algeria and Nazi-era Germany) and their modern-day acts against religion unfolds as I make the circuit. I leave the island by way of a bridge built by Luicius Censtus in the 1st century BC. His brother, Gaius, resides in a marble pyramid by the Protestant Cemetery where I began today’s walk – eons ago.
December 26, 2008
This is the traditional day for viewing Nativity scenes. I first search for one nestled among the stables of the presidential guard, but it eludes me –- special clearance is needed to see the spot, making it as hard to get into as the original Bethlehem inn. I take a bus to the Nativity put up by Rome’s street sweepers, but this one is hidden on some side street. Instead, I climb the monumental staircase that leads to the Vatican’s railroad viaduct. The 1929 Lateran Treaty guaranteed train access for the Vatican City State and Italy constructed a 470-foot spur off its Rome-Viterbo line. Thanks to a parallel walkway, pedestrians can stroll almost the entire extent of this “shortest national train system,” from Roma San Pietro station to the 35-ton iron gate that separates Vatican City station from the rest of the world. (From the look of the tracks few trains pass by these days.) Not wanting another failure, I follow the walls of the Vatican around to St. Peter’s Square to see the life-size outdoor Nativity. It is thronged with visitors, many pushing their way backward through the crowd as they try to frame the Holy Family, the Vatican Christmas tree and their own family all together in one shot of their camera (a billboard looms nearby proclaiming INA Assitalia, an insurance company, as a “supporter of the restoration of St. Peter’s.”) This year’s figures include many different skin tones and most are dressed in the kente cloth of Ghana. It is a crowd pleaser, unlike the hastily reworked Joseph’s workshop scene from last year. The Vatican’s technical services had shockingly tried basing its Nativity on Matthew 1:24-25 in which Joseph takes Mary into his home “until she gave birth to a Son.” Inside St. Peter’s, I have philosophical differences with a guard who had let me into an area reserved only for prayer. He tells me I am not praying when he spies me standing in front of a side altar reading a description instead of kneeling in a pew. I leave the area, and, a few hundred feet away, complete my prayer with a good long look at a statue of Innocent VIII holding the tip of the spear said to have pierced Christ. Across the city in the crypt of St. Mary Major, the 13th century sculptures of Arnolfo di Cambio are considered by many to be the first permanent Nativity. The half life-sized marble figures have a certain rectitude: Mary holds the Child to her side with one large hand, one of the three kings, sans crown, kneels in homage and the reliable ox and ass of the stable are placed in the background, carved from a single block of stone. From the crypt, I make my way to the confessio, a quiet place of prayer one level beneath the high altar, and spend some time gazing at a large crystal reliquary filled, it is said, with pieces of wood from the manger. A gilt image of the baby Jesus sits atop of it, his hand raised in blessing.