Rome Diaries - Week 84

May 31, 2009

As the Western Empire faded, becoming more and more the domain of the Lombards, Emperor Phocas asserted his influence over Rome by presenting Pope Boniface IV with the Pantheon in 609. It became Rome’s first pagan temple to become a Christian church. The spiritual geometry of the place is clear in this quote attributed to Emperor Hadrian:

My intentions had been that this sanctuary of All Gods should reproduce the likeness of the terrestrial globe and of the stellar sphere…The cupola…revealed the sky through a great hole at the center, showing alternately dark and blue. This temple, both open and mysteriously enclosed, was conceived as a solar quadrant. The hours would make their round on that caissoned ceiling so carefully polished by Greek artisans; the disk of daylight would rest suspended there like a shield of gold; rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below, prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods.

At Pentecost, the Pantheon’s beauty becomes theatrical when four of the city’s lightest firemen are positioned around the famous opening in the dome and toss thousands of rose petals through it, recreating Pentecost’s “tongues of flame” as they fall; eventually a two-inch carpet of petals forms on the marble floor. I pick up a few petals as souvenirs. Today a visiting seagull makes an appearance in the rotunda, flying around like a stand-in for the Holy Spirit. After the service, in the sacristy, someone asks why so many German priests are concelebrating. Comes the response: “They pay for the rose petals.”


June 2, 2009

The Quirinale Palace began as a hilltop getaway for Pope Gregory XIII. In 1583, after ten summers of living in rented quarters, the pope constructed a modest villa of his own. Within a hundred years, a residential and administrative complex grew up becoming the center of papal government, only abandoned, by force, at Rome’s liberation in 1870. On June 2nd the gates to the Quirinale’s gardens open up to the common folk, celebrating the end of the rule of the House of Savoy in 1946. Given all the uniformed guards in their horse tail helmets, it’s hard to tell they left. Formal plantings, sprinkled with the requisite Roman sculptures are engulfed by sauntering adults and racing children. A non-stop brass band tops it all off sometimes offering music of a genteel outing in the park, sometimes recalling the storming of the Tuileries.

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