Rome Diaries - Week 73

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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March 12, 2009

The day begins with a visit to the offices of the diocese of Rome for the usual stamp of approval for a foreign wedding. After this, I pause before the Lateran Obelisk, out of its scaffolding after years of restoration. It was the only unpaired obelisk in Luxor’s temple of Karnak; now it is the tallest, still-standing obelisk in the world. Constantine wanted it shipped to his new capital of Constantinople


but death intervened. Today, it memorializes the traditional place of his baptism by Pope Sylvester I. The Latin inscription on its base reads: “Constantine was victorious through the cross and here Sylvester baptized him, increasing that cross’s glory.” When first brought to Rome, this wedge of pink granite served as a marker in the “spina” of Circus Maximus, but by the 16th century it had toppled and lay buried beneath 23 feet of dirt and rubble. For an object weighing a bit more than two fully loaded 747’s (455 tons), that’s a lot of moving around. On my way to an exhibit documenting the history of Roman roads at the National Library, I realize I am walking near the still undisturbed tombs of Vestal virgins who, for serious misconduct, had been buried alive. They would genteelly step down into their tomb by ladder and be given some bread and milk just before the stone was rolled shut and the earth piled on. The pioneering archeologist Rodolfo Lanciani (1845-1929) describes this and more in his book “Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries.” In his detailed map of ancient Rome, Forma Urbis Romae, this drab area comes alive with a rediscovered gate in the city wall (Porta Collina) and the barracks of the Praetorian Guard, appropriated by the military to this day. The furious amalgamation that went on first during Napoleon’s occupation of Rome and then during Italian reunification, can be seen in the exhibition. Many of the oldest books and manuscripts in the show were once part of illustrious libraries controlled by religious orders and the Vatican; during the 19th century, they were seized by the State. The same fate awaited “La Sapienza,” the university adjacent to the National Library. Begun by the popes in fits and starts during the middle ages, it opened in magnificent downtown quarters in 1659. After becoming a State institution, a larger complex was needed and in 1932 Marcello Piacentini, who also designed the suburb of EUR for Italy’s Fascist government, constructed the vast new campus. Towering slabs of travertine form the backdrop for a central fountain featuring a titanic bronze of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. After World War II, a campus chapel was constructed in the same style. A few students sit quietly in this Pantheon-sized space while a poster for a Passolini film festival hangs near the chapel entrance. The great left-wing director would not be pleased.


March 14, 2009

I join a pilgrimage to the town of L’Aquila, about two hours away in the Abruzzi region. Flanked by some of the highest peaks of the Apennines, it was conceived by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as a stronghold against a corrupt, but still formidable Rome; inhabitants of the surrounding castles joined forces to build it. In 1259, a mere six years after completion, L’Aquila was destroyed and abandoned as punishment for siding with the pope. The French then reconquered the area for their Kingdom of Naples and rebuilt L’Aquila. The height of the town’s influence coincided with two distinctive personalities: Pope Blessed Celestine V, who was crowned with the Papal Tiara here in 1294, and Saint Bernardine of Siena, who preached to the King of Naples in L’Aquila and died there in 1444. Pietro Angelerio, the future Celestine V, became a Benedictine monk and, still in his 20’s, lived as a hermit in a cave on nearby Mount Morrone. Like Benedict himself, Pietro attracted followers and began an order of ascetics in 1244. At the end of his long life, a series of incidents propelled Pietro to prominence and possible assassination. In 1289, he consecrated the church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio, a showpiece of regional medieval architecture. Three years later, he sent a blistering letter to the 12 cardinals deadlocked in a papal election process in Perugia. Pietro’s letter galvanized the cardinals. Perhaps the squabbles among powerful nobles could be overcome by electing an esteemed and holy monk! The circumstance was exploited by the King of Naples who backed Pietro’s election, arranged for his coronation at Santa Maria di Collemaggio and for his permanent residence at the royal castle in Naples.


In less than six months, it was clear to all that Pietro’s docile character and naïve ways would ruin the papacy. After asking forgiveness for his mistakes, the monk now known as Celestine V removed his insignias of office and said:


Behold, my brethren, I have resigned the honor of the papacy. Now I implore you by the blood of Jesus and by his holy Mother, quickly to provide for the Church a man who will be useful to it, for the whole human race, and for the Holy Land.


That man was Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, a diplomat and canon lawyer. Shortly after his resignation, Pietro left Naples, seeking a monk’s cell, far from any center of power. The new pope tracked him down and imprisoned him. Clearly, an abdicated pope, no matter how saintly, is a political liability. To this day, it is unclear if Pietro’s death was hastened by harsh treatment, but our L’Aquila guide comments, “there is a hole in his skull” and leaves it at that. The new pope did have the good sense to make universal and routine Pietro’s idea of having a Jubilee Year in which the punishments of purgatory would be forgiven. But this gesture of goodness would eventually be turned into an extraordinary commercial opportunity and become a flashpoint in the Protestant Reformation. Saint Bernardine of Siena (1390-1444), the beloved evangelizer of Italy, once spent some time in L’Aquila and created there a sign with the letters “IHS” and rays of light emanating from it. He used the image, an abbreviation for “Holy Name of Jesus,” in sermons promoting peace between the warring factions who favored either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. He also told the noble families to do away with their partisan crests and use the sign of Jesus. Bernardine also encouraged the making of “bonfires of vanities,” burning in the street all objects that lead to temptation. One card painter was ruined when Bernardine spoke out against gambling and the game of cards. So the saint enlisted him in painting cards with the image “IHS” – the craftsman’s fortune was restored. A century after Bernardine’s death, Ignatius of Loyola would incorporate the “IHS” image as part of the emblem of his Society of Jesus. At the very end of his life, Bernardine made a return to L’Aquila to be with his fellow Franciscans at his death. He had come down with severe dysentery soon after preaching in Rieti. While resting by a stream, he received a vision of Blessed Celestine who told him that God had committed the care of L’Aquila to him as co-patron with himself. It had to have been this account of intervention from above that allowed such a famous saint to remain forever in a city so far from the one of his birth. Siena received only his few belongings for their reliquaries. In 1532 the Spanish directed that a massive fortress be built in the city not for defense, but as a punishment; L’Aquila had remained loyal to the French and so lost both her independence and prosperity. An entire neighborhood was torn down to accommodate the structure. Only in the past 70 years has the bleak castle hill been softened with a forest park of exotic conifers. Our group searches in vain for the famous saffron of L’Aquila, a spice that is laboriously gathered from fall-blooming crocuses; it was cultivated here as one of the remedies against the plague, which decimated the city more than once in the 14th century. After a very satisfactory lunch and more walking about, we are more than ready to return to Rome, the Grotto of Stiffe, we are told, must be seen. No one is prepared for the rushing cataracts, whirlpools and waterfalls formed by a fast-moving river that disappears into a system of caverns somewhere above the town of Stiffe. In the failing afternoon sun, steel railings guide us around a plunging torrent and into a tunnel and a series of theatrically lit caves which open up at a second and even higher waterfall, giving us the impression we have made a journey to the center of the earth,


although we have walked less than a third of a mile. This early evening experience has the effect of refreshing our spirits after a long day of history and medieval saints.


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