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Rome Diaries - Week 68

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.


January 16, 2009

Caprarola, about 35 miles outside Rome off the ancient Via Cassia, was founded in the 10th century, about the same time the Farnese family began winning battles for the popes. It took five hundred years, but eventually the family made its way south from Lombardy and, thanks to a judicious marriage into the family of Boniface VIII, they became well-connected in Rome. Their fortress-palace in Caprarola was, initially, built to defend their land holdings in the region. Positioned at the brow of a hill, the pentagon-shaped fortress is served by a specially-built road that evenly ascends through the town on a series of concealed arches. About twenty-five years after it was built -- when the original owner, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, became Pope Paul III -- the property was transformed by the pope’s nephew, who engaged the architect Vignola and superior fresco artists to transform the dour fortification into a palazzo, complete with winter and summer gardens at two sides of the pentagon and a circular interior court. When the seasons changed, the entire household would move to the sunny or the shady side of the house, both equally magnificent. My journey to Caprarola begins early in the morning because my bus connections allow me only a few misses to make the trip in a single day. My horoscope in today’s free newspaper says I will “not likely feel at ease anywhere, but it is better to get away.” Also I will “expend much nervous energy.” At Ronciglione, just five miles from my goal, I must wait an hour for the only bus of the day to Caprarola. No one is waiting for it until three minutes before it arrives. Then an elderly woman shows up and assures me “It’s coming.” During the twenty-minute ride, I ask her a few times about my stop, Palazzo Farnese. She asks, “Are you coming from the capital?” “Yes, Roma.” She immediately smiles and nods. “Bella,” she says, proud I have been lured here all the way from glorious Rome. By 10:30 AM, I am hiking up that steep, straight street that leads directly to my destination – I am, in fact, its only visitor. Promptly at 11:00 AM, a guide begins her one hour circuit of the piano nobile rooms and then the gardens. The decorative themes alternate between classical antiquity and a celebration of the accomplishments of the Farnese. From the loggia, with its perfectly restored stucco grotto and frescos of the Labors of Hercules, snow-capped Monte Soratte can be seen and Gran Sasso, the region’s highest peak, looms in the distance. Giovanni Antonio da Varese’s Hall of Maps memorializes the Age of Discovery. The ceiling is a grandiose and colorful Zodiac, well-known to seafarers. In a modest chamber, the four walls are graced with the four distinct accomplishments of the Farnese: Charity, War, Theology and Administration. This last fresco has Pope Paul III and his cardinals in a book-strewn hall, evidentially doing research for the great reforming Council of Trent. A simple glass door allows the visitor to cross the dry moat, which surrounds the structure, and enter the winter garden. We pass through a great expanse of clipped laurel and holly hedges, bright red berries decorating the greenery, and head straight up the hill. A slight left turn unveils an alee of fir trees, ending at a circular fountain. When we arrive at this, a flight of stairs, divided by a watercourse in the shape of dolphins, is revealed, leading to a fountain of two river gods. But we are not finished, above us towers the three arches of a frescoed pavilion, the site of summer garden parties which would spill out onto a large terrace of pebble mosaic where a fountain, topped with a water-spraying fleur-de-lys, symbol of the Farnese, cooled things off. Georgina Masson’s Italian Gardens offers a reflection:

There can be few places where architecture is so closely allied to nature, and where mythical creatures like the sea-horses of the fountains and the guardian herms seem so natural a part of the scene. Here the beauty of the pagan world lives again and looking at it Queen Christina of Sweden’s strange comment upon the gardens of Caprarola: ‘I dare not speak the name of Jesus lest I break the spell’ can be understood. Nor would the pageant that Alessandro Farnese staged for Gregory XIII in 1585, with its procession of maidens dressed in white, bearing olive branches and clashing cymbals, have looked out of place in these surroundings…Alessandro must have been a man of ready wit who enjoyed relaxation in good company – otherwise he would not have built this Renaissance Petit Trianon or stood up to the austere San Carol Borromeo as he did. When San Carlo rebuked him for the money he had spent on Caprarola, saying it would have been better spent on the poor of the district, Alessandro is said to have replied: ‘I have let them have it all little by little, but I have made them earn it by the sweat of their brows.’

“This is the finish,” says the guide who has been very patient with my many questions. I exit the palace from a side door in the garden wall, after a finale demonstration of a spigot-controlled dripping grotto filled with moss and ferns. In the noontime sun, I open my packed lunch of Sicilian oranges and a local cheese and notice a spot of brilliant pink high above me; behind me, the camellias of the winter garden are already blooming. By sundown, I am back in Rome. My horoscope was only half right: much nervous energy was expended, but I definitely could make a home in the palazzo of Caprarola.

January 29, 2009

Thanks to the national lottery an out-of-the-way palazzo has been completely refurbished. I take the train to Oriolo Romano to see it. The town grew up around a castle of the Orsini family. In 1562, the surrounding hills were deforested and farmers from Tuscany and Umbria were brought in to create what amounted to a support staff for the castle-palace. The town still retains its modest stone walls which flank the Via Clodia (225 BC). A graceful arrangement of ramps and stairs leads to the town square. Today is market day; vans and trailers of fish sellers, cheese vendors and peddlers of cheap clothing put their wares out on folding tables or in refrigerated display cases until the early afternoon. One picturesque mini-van is covered with handmade fans, spread out to show off their painted woodland scenes, but most of the decorative items are wood carvings from Africa and India. A 16th century fountain, sporting a column topped with the star of the Altieri family, presides over this happy chaos. The Altieri purchased the town soon after the Orsini finished constructing it. Benches under the dense shade of trees would provide a pleasant retreat on summer days, but on this chilly morning, I go right in to see what the losses of a few million Lotto players have accomplished. Pope Clement X’s coat of arms of dominates the entrance hall. He had been an excellent diplomat but was elected pope largely due to his advanced age: After four months of argument, warring factions decided a compromise was in order. But having a pope in the family was the apex of success and the Altieri began a unique project to celebrate it. They commissioned a series of rectangular oil paintings of every pope. A 215 foot wing was built here to house the sober likenesses. They are grouped by eras, starting with the modern popes (some unsung benefactor has continued the project even after the State acquired the property). I search in vain for my favorite pope, Pius IX, the last of the temporal rulers. Further down are largely unhappy-looking medieval popes. The one exception is Celestine V (1294), he desperately wanted to return to his hermitage and abdicated, but the Altieri portrait has him looking like a court jester with his pointed beehive tiara and wide, white collar (he died after an arduous imprisonment by his successor). Peter is the only pope with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is as it should be, he was the first. Frescos, in the grotesque style made popular when Nero’s Golden House was discovered in the 16th century, fill the public rooms, but nothing is as singular as a hallway filled with popes. The palazzo, built in many stages, is not wonderful architecture though it conveys a dignity to the town center. From below, on Via Clodia, the long picture gallery wing seems a fortress, its unpainted stucco exterior wall gleaming with mica flecks. Five Roman arches form a focal point of its ochre-painted façade and, from the piazza, the building’s clock tower stands as the town’s tallest structure, melodious bells ringing every half-hour. As I walk down each of the town’s three long streets, I see that most of the buildings are a mere two stories high and are well-patched but made from the solid, volcanic stone of the region. Some have religious emblems or family crests cut into the keystone of their arched doorways. The only new adornments are wrought-iron street lamps from the 19th century, jutting out at intervals from some houses. I notice that the forlorn rose bushes, kept on doorsteps throughout the winter, sport white paper roses – town gardeners will have their daydreams. Aside from a few details, things haven’t changed in 500 years. Since 1999, Oriolo has been part of a nature reserve intended to protect the caldera regions of Lakes Bracciano and Martignano. Nearby, stands of birch and beech trees thrive at much lower elevations than normal and a sign recommends visiting La Faggeta, a forest of beech trees just outside of town. I have no problem getting directions but it is unfortunate that beech trees loose all their leaves in the winter. I use my imagination and then return to the central piazza ready to go home. Two final discoveries await: On the west side of the town’s trident of streets lie two long intersecting promenades lined with hundreds of lichen-encrusted beech trees, a hint of the forest I just visited. Here I have my packed lunch of oranges and pecorino romano watching the swirling of hawks. At the end of the second walkway stands the Convent of St. Anthony, built by Clement X in the Jubilee Year of 1675. The church is closed and one side of its convent is in ruins, but the intact section hosts a residential program for alcoholics. Garlanded angels that decorate the church’s façade still have a reason to watch over this spot.

Rome Diaries - Week 68
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