Updated: Sep 20, 2022
November 21st, 2009
At a small wedding dinner at a family restaurant near Piazza Barberini I ask the middle-aged couple why was it they had their first marriage now. The groom, who was born in Baghdad, holds up his gold wedding ring. “See this ring? It has a story. I was the youngest in my family. My father could see there were no opportunities for us in Iraq. My brothers and sisters all went out of the country when they could and I stayed to take care of my parents. In 1991, just after the Gulf War, there was a window of a few weeks when visas were issued. I escaped then, but I had to be careful. I bought a gold wedding band. I figured if I needed money, I could sell it. When the border police asked me about returning to the country, I held up my ring and said, ‘Of course I’m returning, I’m getting married as soon as I get back.’” He would be ten years in Canada before he met his wife, but his ring, had already done the most important part of its job – keeping a prospective groom safe and sound.
December 1st, 2009
The majestic ensemble of buildings and fountains in Piazza Navona is the result of ambitious Pope Innocent X. He wanted to use this area, the largest urban space in Rome, to memorialize the social heights reached by his family. They were a long way from their little hill town of Gubbio. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became pope, he immediately began to buy property surrounding Piazza Navona; the buildings had been constructed over Domitian’s 1st century stadium which was capacious enough for 30,000 spectators. Eventually, a palace, an ornate family chapel and a seminary for peasants from Pamphili lands were built to form Piazza Navona’s dramatic Baroque backdrop. And the artistic rivalry between Boromini and Bernini is on full display: Boromini’s assertive chapel dome being successfully one-upped by Bernini’s central fountain, an obelisk encrusted with writhing personifications of the four rivers. Since 1964, the Brazilian Embassy has owned the palazzo and graciously conducts weekly tours. About twenty of us file past a magazine-reading secretary and make our way to the piano nobile’s enfilade of rooms, now used by the embassy for receptions and dinners, just as the Pamphili’s did 400 years ago. They are in immaculate condition. The Pamphili dove and olive branch insignia is everywhere – over the doors, on the deeply coffered ceilings, peeking out from the corners of frescoes. Pietro da Cortona (responsible also for the grand, self-congratulatory ceiling for the Barberini family when Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became pope) envisioned the coming of Aeneas for the block-long gallery of Innocent X. Aeneas was the right choice as he was the mythical founder of Rome as well as the purported root of the Pamphili family tree. Aside from a pocket-sized room decorated with depictions of the cardinal virtues, the frescos are relentlessly secular. Even the inscription over the gallery’s Palladian-style windows, Sub Umbra Alarum Tuar[um] (“Under the shadow of your wings”) seems more about the Pamphili dove and Roman eagle, both represented nearby, than divine protection. From this perch, the Pope Innocent would benevolently look down at the crowd and deliver a benediction, just as Emperor Domitian might have centuries before. The point is clear, imperial Rome has made a comeback.