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.
Nov. 25, 2006
In reading news on the Internet, I can more easily find the odd fact. Recently, I came across a story about the discovery of a palimpsest that added hundreds of lines of text to the canon of a semi-famous ancient orator. “Palimpsest” is an odd word because it is directly taken from the Greek word “scraped again.” This well describes the process that leads to a palimpsest: You scrape off the old writing on a medieval vellum manuscript and re-use it. Little did anyone know that the shadow of that original writing would become more valuable than the new inscription! Rome is like a walk-through palimpsest. The idea of preserving the built environment has come only recently to society. (If it weren’t for the sheer awesomeness of the engineering it took to build the Pantheon, it would be gone too.) Most Roman monuments have been “scraped over” a bit; their recycled pieces can be seen in the floors and walls of many Renaissance and Baroque buildings, or their outline, as in the Piazza Navona, which follows the lines of Domitian’s 1st century stadium. In 1929 Musollini scraped off some 18th Century buildings to widen the road and a large ancient Roman temple area was revealed. The name for this famous crossroads, Largo di Torre Argentina, comes from a now unseen medieval tower nicknamed Argentina. Why “Argentina”? Because it is Latin for modern Strasbourg. Why Strasbourg? Because, in 1503, the Strasbourg-born priest and Papal Master of Ceremonies Johannes Burckardt built an eclectic-styled residence there. He eventually connected it to a nearby tower (still buried and below street level) and soon the whole area became known as Torre Argentina. So ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome and a city at the edge of the Empire are all celebrated at once, in one spot.
Dec. 3, 2006
More church sightseeing today. I now have maps marking all the main historic churches of Rome. I start halfway up the Via del Corso at Via del Tritone. Santa Maria in Via is all about a miraculous underground spring and the icon that was found on September 26, 1256 when its well overflowed. I sip some of the water, still served to all pilgrims, and then go to nearby San Silvestro in Capite. That last part stands for their most famous relic, the head of John the Baptist. It lies there dark and wrinkled in the first chapel on the left. But I am most happy to see how well preserved the church art is, at least until I talk to the Irish priest on duty. He says that the underground water in the area has ruined the late Baroque stucco on the ceiling. I say that it is holy water, I had just had a cup of it in Santa Maria in Via. “It may be holy there,” he says, “but it’s a holy terror here!”