September 26th, 2009
It is a full day of museum hopping to celebrate European World Heritage Day. I join the relatively short line on narrow Via del Seminario, near the Pantheon. In medieval times, major religious orders held large tracts of land here. (A few centuries later, the Jesuits would carve out their own position with the Church of Sant’Ignazio and adjacent Collegio Romanum.) Where I stand, the Dominicans held sway with their Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (1280), libraries and monastic headquarters. Now the Italian State has taken control of the libraries and most of the monastery complex. According to a satellite image we are handed upon entry, the area is being rebranded as Insula Sapientiae (“Buildings of Wisdom”). Our first stop is the monastery’s refectory, repurposed into a reading room and conference hall. The back wall holds a now out-of-place fresco of the Last Supper from the 18th century. We walk down the “Monumental Hall” gazing at books that would have been forbidden in other centuries: they all relate to Galileo, who was interrogated by Dominican inquisitors in the room just above us. The famous astronomer is displayed in ceramic tile at the end of the hall, a sort of secular saint in a place accustomed to the canonized. We enter a large cloister littered with Roman ruins and frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Catherine of Siena who died nearby and whose body resides in a glass casket fitted into the main altar of the church. After doing a circuit of the rooms used during the Inquisition (again, the books have changed, but the decoration remains the same) we pass through a second cloister which is being restored to its exuberant High Baroque style. Here Dominican saints mix with a design of gaudy latticework, garlands and cherubs. The sight is at once beautiful and disturbing – what exactly was on the mind of these simple friars anyway? A grand salon awaits, the magnificent Casanatense Library, one of the first “open to the public” libraries in Rome. Cardinal Girolamo Casanate (1620-1700) donated the family’s collection of 50,000 volumes in his will and the gesture inspired generous support to the monastery for a new library wing. Originally it held the entire collection in ornately carved, towering stacks but, eventually, the friars had to cede a second wing of their monastery to handle the mounting donations and purchases. The complex became one of the largest libraries of its day. A survivor of pilfering by foreign powers and waves of deaccessioning to keep the doors open, this sunny and quiet place is a miracle of sapientiae – it truly is the “island of wisdom” promised in the picture. Later, at Palazzo Barberini, I enjoy observing a young couple deep in conversation about the merits of each painting as they walk, hand-in-hand, around the vacant galleries. He seems always to be instructing her. In the Caravaggio room, he halts her progress to stop for a lingering look at the master’s bloody Judith Beheading Holofernes. Then they share a kiss.
October 3rd, 2022
A wedding in a secret chapel of the Pantheon brings me within a hair’s breadth of the 7th century icon of Mary that is preserved there. The dark, rough plank has the serene Virgin holding, with both hands, a child who looks out upon the world with wonder and apprehension. Later icon painters would have to follow strict rules on portrayal but here the artist was free to express exactly what came from his heart. The image has survived so much danger and destruction...what better image to have before two people ready to put their lives in each others’ care? When emperor Phocas agreed to give the pope ownership of the Pantheon in 609, it was a way of saving the most revered structure of Ancient Rome and, at the same time, making a dramatic statement of Christian triumph – the building formerly dedicated to all the gods, would now be dedicated to Mary and the Christian Martyrs. As I leave after the ceremony, the sacristan reminds me that a plenary indulgence is attached to my Mass; the pope is offering this opportunity to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the Pantheon as a church. It runs during the whole month of October. The place is so venerable already, this seems the perfect favor to receive during a visit.