Rome Diaries - Week 69

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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February 1, 2009

A very good shopping street on the far side of the Tiber is named for a medieval dictator of Rome known for his outlandish costumes. Today I do a little research to find out more. Cola di Rienzo’s (1313-1354) name has been immortalized because had the singular advantage of living in Rome during a power vacuum. The brick towers that dot central Rome are fortress homes of rival medieval nobility. Cola, however, came from the lower classes; his father was an innkeeper. But the boy had intelligence, ambition and an obsession with restoring the nearly abandoned capital to imperial glory. His was a classic case of reach exceeding grasp. (Mussolini is often cited as another.) He became a notary and in 1343 the innkeepers of Rome sent him on a mission to convince the new pope to return from Avignon and provide Rome with some law and order. Rienzo’s gift of cultured speech and oratory and his friendship with Petrarch (then living in Rome) won him a position at the papal court, but not a papal return. Once back in Rome, he began preparations for his own insurrection. Being a master propagandist and showman, he drew the interest of all but the warring nobles, who laughed at him. On the night of May 9, 1347, dressed in full battle gear, flags flying, he marched up to the Campidoglio, Rome’s city hall, read his beautifully-written constitution and took over the government, forming a people’s militia and providing swift justice to criminals. Had the powerful Colonna family not been out of Rome gathering up their wheat, things would not have gone so smoothly. For seven months, Rienzo went about the city dressed in green and yellow silk, carrying a scepter topped with a silver-gilt apple that contained a relic of the True Cross. The evening before he knighted himself, Rienzo scandalously took a bath of ritual purification using the porphyry tub (actually a lidless sarcophagus) that was supposed to be the vessel in which Constantine was both baptized and cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester. In the morning, he strode onto the balcony of the Lateran palace, dressed in imperial purple and sporting the gilded spurs of knighthood and noble birth. During the ceremony, he invited all the rulers of Europe to attend a grand coronation of himself as supreme head of a new imperial Rome. Amid these posturings, Rienzo was actually petitioned by the King of Hungary for permission to avenge his brother’s assassination in Naples. But this was the apex of his reign. During a dinner meant to consolidate his rule over the great families of Rome, he felt he was insulted by Stefano Colonna and had everyone locked up. He made serious preparations to execute the entire group…and then came to his senses. He instead gave the nobles gifts, but it was too late; he had gone too far. Rienzo made a run for it. Somehow, after seven years of evasion, he managed a return, accompanying the pope’s army as it tried to regain control over the Papal States. Within two months after his reinstatement, the people of Rome realized, finally, they would have to find another way to resolve the endless fighting among the noble families of Rome. During a riot, the great showman tried to escape incognito, but was discovered and stabbed to death by the crowd. Luigi Barzini in The Italians offers this perspective:


Men like Cola are unconscious interpreters of their times and have an intuitive and prophetic understanding of what their countrymen long for. You must ignore their explanations, which are often ridiculous. You must watch them. Listen to them talk to the crowds. They speak as if they are giving words to the crowd’s own dumb sentiments. They awaken an echo in men’s hearts. They drive them to great deeds. People willingly die for such men, good people who do not like to die and would not die for simple knaves and madmen. Men like that somehow identify the great themes history is going to propose like dowsers feeling secret veins of water underground. Cola’s ideas were a disorderly and laughable hodgepodge. But inadvertently he managed to put his finger on most of the great motifs which would dominate Italian history for centuries and most of which still dominate it today.


February 3, 2009

For many, the historic Roman forums in the center of the city are Rome. Set in a depression around the seven hills, this site began as a market center and, as Rome’s power and fortunes grew, became the seat of government and religion. The victory processions of imperial Rome would make their way up the Via Sacra and then ascend the Capitoline hill to the Temple of Jupiter, still to be seen inside the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums. Begun just before the era of the Republic of Rome, the temple was eventually seen as physical proof of the superiority of the followers of Romulus (“Romans”) who had thrown out the Sabines and seized power from the Etruscans. It was dedicated in the first year of the Republic, 509 BC. We get the word capital from this site where, as recorded by Livy, the still-bloody head (caput) of a warrior was found during excavations for the temple. The mesmerizing effect of this hill was so strong that in 1538, when Charles V was expected to visit, Paul III reversed the orientation of the site: it now would have its “back” to the Forum. Rome had to shake loose from the past and face its newly-constructed Renaissance future. The Piazza del Campidoglio we see today comes from the sketchbook of Michelangelo. Here he began the fashion of positioning ancient statuary on the roof of buildings and, in his search for a centerpiece for his new civic piazza, rescued the antique bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback from its relative obscurity by the Lateran palace. The great artist and architect also plucked massive statues of Castor and Pollux from the ruins of their ancient temple on the Tiber to have them flank the top of his ramp-like, north-facing staircase. These twins were known by the Romans as the gods who rode into the Forum to water their horses and to inform the citizens that Rome had swiftly won a decisive and difficult battle. The victory was seen as another divine intervention in the story of Rome’s ascendancy to world rule. Stairs just to the side of Michaelangelo’s come from Emperor Aurelian’s Temple of the Sun. They were moved to this spot from the Quirinal Hill in the 14th century, a gift for the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in thanksgiving to Mary for her delivering Rome from the plague. The church is built on the foundations of the Temple of Juno, honoring her capacity to “warn” (moneta). This was deeply appreciated in 390 BC when her sacred geese began to squawk, alerting the embattled Romans about a siege ready to take place. A government mint was later built adjacent to the Juno Moneta temple, which gave us the origins of another word, money. As usual, the layers of history and meaning on this single spot in Rome astound. Yet the city holds many, many more.

Rome Diaries - Week 69
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