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.
January 11th, 2007
This morning I walk down the Via Nazionale. I’ve been curious about a dark side street. It takes me to a tiny entrance that snakes through the ruined baths of Constantine to a palace garden of the Aldobrandini family that is now a public park. In Rome it is always wise to veer off the main street. In the afternoon I take the bus to visit St. Agnes Outside the Walls and the Mausoleum of St. Costanza. Though not an official saint, Costanza was a powerful and influential noble, the daughter of Emperor Constantine. According to legend, Constanza had been cured from leprosy by praying to St. Agnes. In any event, she and her sister Helen both wished to be buried near St. Agnes, a 12 year-old martyr. In fact, so many had the same wish, Constantine built an aboveground hall for the purpose in 330 A.D; a multi-story ancient brick wall remains. But Costanza’s circular mausoleum is intact. The interior reveals golden ceiling mosaics with scenes of re-purposed columns from ancient Roman buildings and mosaics that show a transition from pagan to Christian imagery. A tall hedge hides a neighborhood soccer field and basketball court that has been carved out of the site. So Agnes, patron saint of youth, and the noble Costanza rest peacefully together amid the sounds of school kids shooting baskets and making goals. As I leave the mausoleum, I notice a war memorial to the victorious soldiers of 1870 who marched down the street in front of the church and took the City of Rome away from the pope. A stray canon ball put a hole in the church roof. Even in our own day, people want to be remembered here.
January 25th, 2007
Rome is an on-going experiment in politics, bending art to its own purposes. The first church I visit today is Trinità dei Monti. For most, it just serves as a dramatic finale to the Spanish Steps, but as a royal church of the Bourbon kings of France, it first benefitted from this and then suffered for it. The art deposited by French nobles for three hundred years was ultimately seized by Napoleon’s troops. A masterful and beautifully restored 16th century canvas (The Deposition by Daniele da Volterra) is one of the few original artworks remaining. At the end of the day, I find myself in Trestevere marveling at the wild combination of high Baroque and modern plaster statues for present-day devotion. The place is in part a memorial to St. Francis of Assisi, he stayed here when he was in Rome. Somehow I think the saint would appreciate the common touch a small shrine to the Sacred Heart can bring to a gathering of victorious angels.