Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pantheon: Part 1

Today's photos:


1. This amazing photo, sent to me by my friend and editor, Gianfranco Mandas, literally takes my breath away.


2. Here is one of my photos which includes the fountain and just a small part of the famous dome.


3. This is an 18th century print showing the unfortunate addition provided by Bernini for Urban VIII. What animal does it bring to mind?


The Pantheon is not only the best preserved of Rome's ancient monuments, it is also and foremost an amazing architectural masterpiece. The handsome inscription which runs along the top of the façade of the building tells us who built it and when.


M. AGRIPPA. L. F. COS. TERTIUM FECIT

Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, made this


From our knowledge of history, we know that Marcus Agrippa was consul for the third time in 27 BC.


A curiosity


The office of consul was the second highest office in the Roman Empire, just behind the emperor himself who at this time was Augustus. But Agrippa had a close personal tie to Augustus as well because he was his son in law, married to the emperor's daughter, Julia. In addition, Augustus intended for Agrippa to succeed him as emperor, but the latter predeceased him.


A temple and more than a temple


The Pantheon was officially built as a temple dedicated to all the gods, but even more so to recall the famous Roman military victory of Octavian over Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. This was in 31 B.C. shortly after Caesar's assassination when the two men were challenging each other to take over the power once held by Caesar. The victory consolidated this power into the hands of Octavian, whose name was thereafter changed to Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The Pantheon soon became, and remains today, the living symbol of the mighty Roman empire.


The building we see today, however, is not the original Pantheon built by Agrippa. In the year 80 A.D. it was heavily damaged by fires in this part of Rome. Then in 110 A.D. it was struck by lightning which severely damaged the structure of the building. It was then that the emperor Hadrian (117-138) decided to rebuild it. This was done in the amazingly short time of ten years: 118-128.


A curiosity


Hadrian did something very unusual for a Roman emperor; he ordered that the inscription of Agrippa be put back on it. We do not know for sure who the architect of the Pantheon was, but many believe it was Hadrian himself. We know that he was a skilled architect and that he designed several buildings in Rome, including the temple of Venus and Rome, the largest temple in the Roman Forum.


From pagan temple to christian church


So why has this building come down to us almost perfectly preserved after so many centuries? The answer is that in the year 609 it was donated by the emperor Foca to Pope Boniface IV (608-615) who immediately turned it into a church. This is what saved the building for us because the Church has kept it up for all these centuries. Its transformation from a pagan temple to a christian church has a strong symbolic meaning: the victory of Christianity over paganism.


A curiosity


In order to further emphasize this symbolism, Boniface IV ordered that cartloads of the bones of Christian martyrs be brought from the Catacombs and buried in the Pantheon: Christian martyrs replacing pagan idols. This accounts for the name of the church: Santa Maria ad Martyres, St. Mary at the Martyrs. And that name remains even to this day.


The portico


The Pantheon proper is preceded by a rectangular portico with 16 enormous monolithic columns of red and gray granite. There are two huge niches carved into the back wall, one on either side. These once held colossal statues, one of Augustus and one of Agrippa. Unfortunately, those statues have been lost. What a prize it would be if we still had them!


The ceiling of the portico has its own interesting story. In 1625, Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644) called in his young architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and told him to build a baldacchino (canopy) to go over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica which was nearing completion at the time. He told Bernini that he wanted the baldacchino to be built of bronze and he asked the artist if he could do such a thing. Bernini's response was: "Yes, I can do it, but where will I get all the bronze I need?" And the Pope assured him: "This is not a problem, friend. Go over to the Pantheon and take all the bronze you need from the ceiling of the portico." And that's what Bernini did! If you go into St. Peter's Basilica, look at the enormous baldacchino which is supported by four twisting columns. All of that bronze was once on the ceiling of the portico of the Pantheon!


A curiosity


There was much criticism of the Pope for taking this bronze and using it in the church. One very clever man composed a short saying in Latin critical of the pontiff's Barberini family.


Quod non fecerunt barbari fecerunt Barberini


What the barbarians did not do the Barberini did


Bernini's blunder


Urban VIII and Bernini teamed up for another project on the Pantheon which turned out to be a colossal blunder. Since the building was a church, the Barberini Pope thought it should have a bell tower, just like any other church, and of course he instructed Bernini to build it, or rather them, since he wanted the grand building to have two such structures. Bernini dutifully carried out the Pope's wishes and attached two bell towers to the building, one rising up from each side. The result, however, was comical as the two structures appeared to resemble the ears rising up from the head of a donkey. It wasn't long before the bell towers had earned the title: the ass ears of Bernini! They remained in place for almost 200 years but were finally removed in the late 1700s, much to the relief of everyone.


Strange papal signatures


A curiosity


Urban VIII Barberini and Alexander VII Chigi left their marks on the building in an unusual way which is missed by most visitors. The three columns on the left side as you face the front door were damaged and needed to be taken down. The outer one was replaced by Urban and the two behind it by Alexander. Keep in mind that the coat of arms of Urban has the three bees, while that of Alexander sports a star. If you look carefully at the three columns you will see a bee in the center of the capital of the outer column and a star in the same spot on the other two columns. This, of course to recall the coats of arms of the two Popes and to remind the people in a subtle way who replaced the columns!


The fountain


In the middle of the piazza in front of the Pantheon is a fountain originally built by Giacomo della Porta in 1575 for Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585). Usually you will find on the fountains in Rome the coat of arms of the Pope who had them built. But you won't find anything here referring to Gregory because in 1711 another Pope, Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) had the fountain restored and greatly revised, replacing the coat of arms of Gregory with his own. The changes included adding the small Egyptian obelisk which we see on the fountain today. It was originally one of two small obelisks which decorated a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis which existed in this area of Rome in ancient times.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Sights of Rome books

The Sights of Rome

Uncovering the legends and curiosities of the Eternal City

(hard cover, 163 pages, 118 photos)


This book will take you on a fascinating visit to some of the most interesting sites of the Eternal City. You will learn about many of Rome's most famous monuments, such as the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum and the Moses and Pietà of Michelangelo. But you will also come across lesser-known places and people seldom discussed in other guide books, such as the story of Righetto, a young hero of the Italian Risorgimento, two fifteenth-century courtyards hidden away in a modern hospital and a beautiful stairway in Trastevere dedicated to a young drummer boy. Read the intriguing behind-the-scenes story of the building of Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers and Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Climb the Janiculum hill to enjoy a breathtaking view of the city and see a fountain made of marble from the Forum of Nerva.


The book is filled with interesting legends, myths and curiosities associated with Rome. How did Borromini pay tribute to Urban VIII when he built the church of St. Ivo alla Sapienza? Why does the Bocca della Verità no longer perform its gruesome task of biting off the hand of a perjurer? What possible connection can there be between Pope Gregory XIII and Julius Caesar? Why is a cannon fired every day from the Janiculum hill? Where can you find today the original doors of the Roman senate house? All of these curiosities and much more await you in this intriguing book.



Rome: Sights and Insights

The Eternal City reveals its secrets and mysteries

(hard cover, 253 pages, 212 photos/prints)


In this companion volume to The Sights of Rome, the fascination of this incredible city continues. Many of the mysteries and secrets of Rome are revealed in a simple, straightforward style which will delight Rome-lovers everywhere. Some of the well-known landmarks visited are Trajan's Column, the Spanish Steps, the Ancient Appian Way, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and many others. Less well-known, but no less interesting, are stories about the emperor Constantine, Queen Cristina of Sweden, the annual blessing of the lambs and the talking statues of Rome. Vatican City is represented by chapters on the Swiss Guards, the Sistine Chapel and the Loggia delle Benedizioni (the most famous balcony in the world).


Like its predecessor, this book is filled with legendary stories and intriguing curiosities, seldom found in other guidebooks. Why does Campo dei Fiori have a decidedly anti-clerical reputation? How does a design by Michelangelo on a famous Roman gate ridicule a pope? Why is there an angel at the top of a pagan emperor's tomb? What is the story behind the ancient cobblestones found today on many Roman streets? What famous stairway are you allowed to climb only on your knees? How did the Pizza Margherita get its name? The answers to these questions and many more can be found in the pages of this book.


The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere

A blend of history, art and faith

(soft cover, 95 pages, 108 photos/prints)


In this guidebook of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Vincent Drago will lead you step by step through one of the Eternal City's oldest and most fascinating churches which happens also to be his parish church. For centuries Santa Maria has been the focal point of the Christian community in the historic Trastevere neighborhood. Its twelfth and thirteenth-century mosaics on the façade and in the apse are stunning. Many of the decorations in the basilica are recycled pieces from the third-century baths of the emperor Caracalla. The basilica is home to a sixth-century painting, one of the oldest representations of the Virgin and Child in existence.


The book includes many fascinating curiosities about the basilica, its contents and several of the people who have been associated with it over the centuries. Why did Pope Innocent II have such a troubled papacy? Do you know why Moses is depicted with "horns" rising up from his head? What curious connection is there between the fountain in front of the church and the legendary she-wolf of Rome? What sixteenth-century cardinal's son, executed at age twenty, has a funeral monument here? What is meant by the term "titular church"? What "miraculous" event in the year 38 B.C. led to the founding of this church? The answers to these and many other questions await you in this very readable guidebook.



Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew

A history of healing and worship

(soft cover, 94 pages, 140 photos/prints)


The Tiber Island is a remarkable piece of real estate in the very center of the Eternal City. It is steeped in history and legend, charming and at the same time mysterious. Two ancient Roman bridges connect the island to the mainland and the remains of a third ancient bridge loom hauntingly just a few yards downriver, a reminder of centuries past. One of the few remaining medieval towers of Rome still stands on the island, challenging the charming bell tower of the little church of San Giovanni Calibita just across the street from it. The church, in turn, is incorporated into the Fatebenefratelli Hospital which has been a fixture on the island since 1584.


But the centerpiece of the island is, without a doubt, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, a thousand-year-old church founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III in the tenth century. Built over the third-century B.C. Temple of Aesculapius, the basilica holds the remains of several saints, including the body of St. Bartholomew. Despite its age, the church still touches present-day reality since it was chosen by Pope St. John Paul II in 1999 as the permanent memorial of the martyrs for the faith in the twentieth and twenty-first century.


The island and the basilica are the source of many interesting curiosities. Why is there a cannonball embedded in the wall of one of the chapels? What is the story of the ancient water well which still exists in the basilica? How did the island come to have the form of a ship? Why does one of the bridges have the odd name: Bridge of the Four Heads? What bizarre story explains how a saint came to be buried in the basilica as a result of trickery? Why is there such a close bond between the Catholic neighborhood of Trastevere on one side of the island and the Jewish Ghetto on the other side? All this and much more can be found in this little volume.



La Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere

Un insieme di storia, arte e fede

(soft cover, 111 pages, 181 photos/prints)


This is an Italian version of the English Santa Maria in Trastevere book. It is intended not only for native Italian speakers, but also for non-Italians who have a reading knowledge of the Italian language. Although it is a translation of the English book, there are several differences. It has a larger format, more pages and many more photographs and prints. In addition, the text has been expanded to include several facts which are not found in the English book.


To contact the author:

vincentdrago@hotmail.com


To purchase:

The Sights of Rome

and/or

Rome: Sights and Insights

If you are in the U.S.A.

www.bookmasters.com/marktplc/02899.htm
www.amazon.com
Your local bookstore

If you are in Rome (cost: 20 euros)

The Almost Corner Book Shop, Via del Moro 45
Open Door Book Shop, Via della Lungaretta, 23

www.amazon.it


If you are in the U.K.

www.amazon.com.uk


To purchase:

Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew


The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (in English)


La Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (in Italian)

If you are in the U.S.A.

Send a check made out to Kimberly Breaux to:

Kimberly Breaux
6709 Loreauville Rd.
New Iberia, LA 70563

1 book: $10.00 plus $2.00 shipping
2 books: $20.00 plus $3.00 shipping
3 books: $30.00 plus $4.00 shipping

If you are in Rome (Cost: 12 euros)

The Almost Corner Book Shop, Via del Moro, 45
The Open Door Book Shop, Via della Lungaretta, 23

Minimum Fax, Via della Lungaretta, 90/e

Gift Shop in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island


N.B. The Sights of Rome and Rome: Sights and Insights can also be purchased from Kimberly Breaux for $16.00 each, plus shipping as stated above.



Saturday, July 1, 2017

Centrale Montemartini

It is often said of museums in Rome that the setting of the exhibits is every bit as interesting as the exhibits themselves. Several museums, for example are housed in magnificent Renaissance palaces, but there is only one museum in the Eternal City, and probably in the entire world, which displays ancient Roman sculptures in an early 20th century electric power plant!


The name of this unique museum is the Centrale Montemartini, named after Giovanni Montemartini who founded the first electrical power plant in Rome. It was officially inaugurated in a solemn ceremony on June 30, 1912. The plant operated continuously, even throughout World War II, providing electricity to much of the city of Rome until 1963. In 1990 it was decided to use the plant, with its massive machinery intact, as an exhibition space.


Some 400 ancient statues and fragments were transferred here from the Capitoline Museums in 1997 and now share space with machinery in areas such as the engine room and the boiler room. Although it may seem like an impossible pairing of ancient sculpture with 20th century industrial architecture, the combination succeeds beautifully.


The museum is located on the old Via Ostiense about half way between the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The items in the museum are well marked with labels which give a short explanation of them in Italian and English. What follows are a few photos and short explanations of just a handful of its exhibits, maybe enough to whet your appetite for a visit.


Photo 1: Headless statue of Aphrodite


This is a Roman copy of a fourth-century B.C. Greek original. Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love and beauty whose Roman equivalent is Venus. The statue was discovered in Rome in the forum of Julius Caesar where there was also a temple of Venus. No surprise that Caesar would have a statue of Aphrodite and a temple of Venus in his forum because he considered himself a direct descendant of Venus.


Photo 2: Togaed Barberini


This first-century B.C. sculpture, one of the museum's most famous pieces, depicts a man wearing a toga, the symbol of Roman citizenship. The toga was imposed by Augustus as a kind of uniform to be worn at the theater and on other formal occasions. The figure is shown holding in his hands sculpted heads meant to represent his father and his grandfather. This pose indicates the continuation of his family's high social status. The head of the statue is not original; it was added during a restoration sponsored by the Barberini family in the seventeenth century. The toga and the Barberini connection account for the name of the piece: Barberini togato (in Italian).


Photo 3: Colossal statue


These fragments of a colossal statue were discovered in 1925 in Largo Argentina, the area in the center of Rome where four Roman temples were unearthed, and which today is home to dozens of stray cats. It is estimated that, judging from the dimensions of the head and arm, the statue must have been about eight meters high. These colossal fragments, along with other pieces, were removed from the excavation site and placed in museums for safekeeping. (For more about this interesting archaeologidcal site, see my book: The Sights of Rome, Chapter 13, Largo Argentina).


Photo 4: Bearded Dionysus


Once again, we have a Roman copy of a Greek original of the fourth century B.C. The Romans associated Dionysus with their wine-god, Bacchus. Dionysus is often represented as a somewhat effeminate-looking youth with luxuriant hair, so it is a bit unusual to see him here as bearded. Notice in the background of the photo some of the machinery from the old electric plant.


Photo 5: Apollo and Marsyas


In Greek mythology Marsyas was a satyr (spirit of the woods and hills) who became a proficient flute player. He was so proud of his musical skill that he dared to challenge Apollo, god of music, to a contest. The two agreed that the winner could treat the loser in any way he wished. Marsyas, of course, lost his challenge and Apollo, to discourage other possible challengers, tied him to a tree and flayed him alive. In this carving, Apollo is on the left with his lyre and Marsyas next to him with his flute.


Photo 6: View from the third level


In the museum you have the opportunity to climb to the third level from where you have this interesting view of a part of the electric plant machinery with various ancient statues placed in an around it. It is truly a feature unique to this museum.


Photo 7: The train of Pius IX


Pius IX (1846-1878) fully realized the great potential of the railway system. He had rail lines built connecting Rome with other areas of the Papal State. A train was constructed specifically for him, consisting of three cars, including one with a private chapel, and one with a small apartment and private bath for the pontiff. As this photo shows, another of the three cars was open on both sides so that the Pope could impart his blessing to the crowds. The papal train was used for the first time by Pius in 1859 when he traveled from Rome's Porta Maggiore train station to Albano, a small town near the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.


Photo 8: Coat of Arms of Pius IX


This colorful representation of Pius IX's coat of arms stands out prominently on one of the coaches of the train.


Photo 9: Funeral relief of three brothers


This funeral relief which shows portraits of three brothers indicates the importance of family to the Romans. It is possible to make out the names of the brothers, along with the Latin word fratrib(us) (to the brothers). It has been dated to the early first century A.D.


Photo 10: Hygeia


The statue of Hygiea stands in front of the control panel of the diesel engine. Hygiea, from whose name we get the English word "hygiene", was the daughter of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing whose temple in Rome was built on the Tiber Island. (For the fascinating story of Aesculapius and his association with the island, see my book: Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, pp. 19-20). 


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Santa Pudenziana

Today's photos:


1. The façade of the basilica of Santa Pudenziana.

2. The apse and main altar of the basilica.

3. The fourth century apse mosaic.

4. The bell tower.

5. A double staircase leads down to the level of the church.

6. From street level the upper part of the façade and part of the bell tower are visible.


There are several churches in the Eternal City which can claim to be "one of the oldest churches in Rome". One of these is certainly The basilica of Santa Pudenziana on Via Urbana in the Monti neighborhood.


A curiosity


Via Urbana is a street which follows the path of the ancient road, Vicus Patricius. Its name was changed to Via Urbana in honor of the Pope who widened it in the seventeenth century, Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644).


The church is thought to have been built in 390 during the pontificate of Siricius (384-399). It underwent several restorations in its long history, the most extensive one carried out for Pope Sixtus V Peretti (1585-1590).


St. Peter


A tradition takes this church back even farther, to the year 145 when Pius I (140-155) had it built where a Roman senator, Pudens, had a house. It was the senator's daughter, Pudenziana, who requested that a church be built on the site of the house because of the tradition that St. Peter himself had been hosted here when he first came to Rome in the first century.


A curiosity


This is not the only connection to St. Peter which this church boasts. The main altar rests on an ancient Roman sarcophagus that is said to contain part of a wooden table on which the Apostle is believed to have celebrated the Eucharist.


The Apse mosaic


In the apse is a magnificent mosaic which has been dated to the year 390. In the center of the scene is depicted Christ enthroned, flanked by St. Peter at his left side and St. Paul at his right. Next to them we see figures which represent the apostles. Above the head of Christ rises a hill at the top of which is a jeweled cross flanked by the winged symbols of the evangelists: Matthew (an angel), Mark (a lion), Luke (a bull) and John (an eagle).


A curiosity


In this scene are two female figures which possibly represent Pudenziana and her sister Praxides. Both of these figures are holding a wreath, one over the head of St. Peter and the other over the head of St. Paul. They are believed to represent the converted Jews and the converted pagans. It was Peter who preached to the Jews and Paul to the pagans.


The buildings depicted in the background of the mosaic are believed to represent the city of Jerusalem.


The Caetani chapel


This chapel was begun by Volterra and finished in 1601 by Carlo Maderno, the architect who designed the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. The chapel is of special interest because it is said to have been built over the exact spot where the liturgy was conducted in the home of Pudens. The statues of the Virtues are by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.


A curiosity


On one of the altar steps of the chapel, to the left, is the imprint of a host. Tradition says that it remained impressed on the step when it fell from the hand of a priest who, as he was celebrating mass, was having doubts about the true presence of Christ in the consecrated host.


(Unfortunately, during all three of my recent visits to the basilica, it was impossible to enter the Caetani chapel because the gate in front of it was securely closed with a chain and padlock and too dark to get a decent photo).


Today the church lies well below the level of the modern street. A beautiful double stairway behind an iron fence (locked when the church is closed) leads to the level of the basilica. A magnificent twelfth century bell tower rises above the rear of the church. It consists of five stories, each with open arches.


Despite its location in the center of Rome very near Santa Maria Maggiore, it is rarely crowded with visitors, a fact which makes it a delight for those few who do take the time and effort to find and visit it.





Monday, May 1, 2017

Francesco on the island

Today's photos:


1. This photo of the Tiber Island shows all the places mentioned in this post: the large Fatebenefratelli hospital (behind the pine trees), part of the bell tower and façade of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew (in the right background) and the Jewish Synagogue (rising above the trees to the left).

2. The façade and bell tower of the basilica.

3. A view of the interior of the basilica.

4. A close-up of the main altar which consists of an ancient Roman sarcophagus covered by a marble slab. The remains of St. Bartholomew are contained inside the sarcophagus.

5. Pope Francis delivers the homily during the ceremony.

6. The Pope prays in front of one of the side altars dedicated to the martyrs.


Following in the footsteps of three of his recent predecessors, Pope Francis, on Saturday, April 22, set foot on the Tiber Island. His primary purpose was to visit the Basilica of St. Bartholomew for a ceremony recalling the modern Christian martyrs. Usually, these papal visits are made to parish churches and involve the pastor and parishioners directly. This Pope, as everybody knows, likes the personal contact with the people.


A curiosity


The first Pope to visit this island-church in modern times was John XXIII who "stopped by" unexpectedly and unofficially on August 24, 1960, the feast day of St. Bartholomew. In 1981, John Paul II came to the island to visit the Fatebenefratelli hospital just across the street from the basilica. The most recent papal visit to the basilica was by Benedict XVI who came calling on April 7, 2008.


Although the Basilica of St. Bartholomew is not a parish church, it holds a special place in the heart of Pope Francis for several reasons. The first is because this basilica was designated by John Paul II in 2000 as a permanent memorial of the modern Christian martyrs. Pope Francis has often called our attention to the fact that there are more martyrs for Christ today than during the persecutions in the early years of the Church.


A second reason for this visit is that in 1994, John Paul II gave the administration of this church to the Community of St. Egidio, a Catholic lay organization which, among other ministries, works to aid the poor, the homeless and, most recently, the immigrants who are fleeing the poverty and wars in their countries. This, too, is a favorite topic of Pope Francis.


Yet another reason for this papal visit is to reinforce the close relationship of this basilica, and the Tiber Island in general, to the Jewish community of Rome. The Jewish Ghetto (neighborhood), with its historic synagogue, is just across the river from the island. Hundreds of Jews were saved from deportation during WWII by being hidden in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew and in the Catholic Fatebenefratelli hospital.


The ceremony inside the basilica, carried live on television, was both impressive and sober. There were scripture readings followed by the homily of the Pope. Names of dozens of the martyrs were read aloud and as each name was called out, a representative of that martyr walked into the sanctuary and placed a lighted candle into a candelabrum. Pope Francis then walked to each of the six side chapels which are dedicated to specific martyrs. At each one he lit a candle which was then placed on the altar of the chapel.


The island and its basilica are very special to me because of the research I did while writing my guidebook: Tiber Island and the Basilica of Saint Bartholomew. If you have read the book, I encourage you to re-read at least the parts which deal with the subject matter of this post and which go into much more detail and have many more photos. If you don't have the book, I recommend that you get it. You will not be disappointed! For information on how to obtain it, you can contact me at vincentdrago@hotmail.com, or see the post on this blog dated December 1, 2016.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Le Fosse Ardeatine

Today's photos:


1. The monument at the entrance to the Fosse Ardeatine.

2. Via Rasella where the partisan attack took place.

3. Regina Coeli prison seen from the Janiculum hill.

4. The entrance to the caves..

5. The mausoleum where the bodies are buried.

6. The grave of the Catholic priest, don Pappagallo.

7. This marker recalls one of the martyrs from Trastevere.

8. President Sergio Mattarella at the site on March 24, 2017.


In the early afternoon hours of March 23, 1944, in a Rome brutally occupied by German military forces, a column of 160 German soldiers, while marching on Via Rasella (photo 2) in the center of Rome, was attacked by sixteen Italian resistance fighters. The attack, in the form of a bomb planted in a cart along the side of the street, resulted in thirty-two dead and thirty-eight wounded among the Germans.


All sixteen of the Italian partisans who had carried out the assault escaped unharmed. The attack was reported to Hitler who immediately ordered a terrifying reprisal: ten Italians were to be executed for every German killed, and the executions (320 total) were to be carried out within twenty-four hours.


The occupying German troops, under the command of SS Colonel Herbert Kappler, immediately began to round up Italians in order to carry out Hitler's orders within the twenty-four hour deadline. They first chose 270 prisoners from the infamous SS jail on Via Tasso near the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, and from the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere neighborhood (photo 3). Yet another fifty were taken from the Trastevere prison by the Roman police who were collaborating with the Germans. This brought the number to the "required" 320: ten Italians for each of the thirty-two Germans killed.


A curiosity


When it was learned that one of the wounded German soldiers had died, Kappler updated his list with another ten hostages, and for some unexplained reason added five more. This brought to 335 the total number of Italians to be executed. It is important to note that none of these 335 people had in any way been involved in the partisan attack the previous day. They didn't even know that the attack had taken place.


The 335 prisoners were secretly taken to the Fosse Ardeatine (photo 4) a series of caves on the southern outskirts of Rome near the Via Appia Antica, almost directly across the street from the Catacombs of San Callisto. Here they were systematically shot one at a time in the back of the neck; the bodies were piled up in the caves where they had been shot. Then the caves were dynamited in an attempt to conceal the bodies.


The following day the German command made public the news of the partisan attack and the executions, but they did not make available a list of the executed, or reveal where the killings had taken place or what had become of the bodies.


The horrifying nature of this reprisal came to light within three months after it happened. Several children, while playing in the caves, discovered one of the bodies and immediately informed the priests at the nearby Catacombs of San Callisto. The bodies were recovered and a memorial was built on the spot of the executions, including a vast burial vault containing the remains of all the dead (photo 5).


The victims were all male ranging in age from fourteen to seventy-five, representing many walks of life, including military, farmers, artists, office workers, teachers, students, laborers, professionals, a diplomat and a Catholic priest (photo 6). Seventy-three of the victims were Jews. In many of the neighborhoods in Rome today you can see plaques on the walls of buildings with the name or names of people from those neighborhoods who were among the martyrs. One such marker in the Trastevere neighborhood (photo 7) translates as follows:


On the 24th of March, 1944, Enrico Ferola died at the Fosse Ardeatine for an ideal of justice and freedom. The Action party, mindful, set up this memorial.


A curiosity


A cruel irony of this horrifying carnage which makes the episode even sadder and more tragic, is the fact that the city of Rome was liberated by the allies on June 4, 1944, just over two months after the slaughter. Had the liberation occurred two months earlier, neither the partisan attack nor the brutal reprisal would have ever taken place. Incidents like this are part of the bitter irony of history, the poignant "what ifs" of history.


On the site today you will find the mausoleum which contains the tombs of all the victims. Each of the graves of an identified victim is marked with the person's name, age and profession; some include a photograph of the victim. The tomb of the few who have not been identified are marked simply Ignoto (unknown).


Every year on March 14 there is a memorial ceremony at the site, attended by religious and government authorities. At the exact spot where the executions took place inside the caves is a poignant inscription, the translation of which is:


Here we were slaughtered as victims of a horrible sacrifice. From our sacrifice may a better fatherland arise, and a lasting peace among nations.


Photo 9 shows the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, standing next to the inscription.


In Chapter 10 of my book Rome: Sights and Insights, you can read related stories about this tragic episode, including the SS prison on Via Tasso, and two famous Italian movies, one of which tells the story of the Fosse Ardeatine; the other one tells the dramatic story of another heart-breaking incident which occurred in Rome at about the same time.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Santo Stefano Rotondo

Today's photos:


1. Through the gate you see the façade of the church of Santo Stefano.

2. The main altar, surrounded by a balustrade, is in the center of the inner circle.

3. One of the paintings on the balustrade surrounding the altar.

4. Looking at the main altar from inside the chapel of Saints Primus and Felicianus

5. The chapel is preceded by 4 Corinthian columns supporting 3 arches.

6. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows.

7. The crucifixion begins the cycle of the martyrs.

8. A Christian is thrown to the lions.

9. These lions don't seem too interested!

10. Callixtus is thrown from the window into a well. (photo from the guidebook)


The church of Santo Stefano Rotondo (photo 1) is on the Caelian hill, a short walk from the Colosseum. It is one of the oldest churches in Rome, dating back to the pontificate of Pope Simplicius (468-483). Between the years 523 and 529 John I and Felix IV enhanced it with the donation of precious mosaics and marbles. Important restorations were carried out in the twelfth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


There are several features which make this church almost unique in Rome. One is its shape – perfectly round. Because of the presence of other buildings and a surrounding wall you cannot see its round shape from the outside, but once you enter you will see immediately why it is called Stefano "Rotondo".


A curiosity


You will recall that the Pantheon (Santa Maria ad Martyres) is also a round church, much older than Santo Stefano Rotondo. The difference is that the Pantheon was not built as a Christian church, but as a pagan temple, transformed into a church in the seventh century. Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the other hand, was built originally as a church.



THE INTERIOR


The interior consists of two circular walkways separated by magnificent granite columns with Ionic capitals. Twenty-two of these columns surround the main altar, creating a circular walkway around it in the very center of the church. An additional thirty-four columns are inserted into the inner wall of the building. This creates the second circular walkway between the two rows of columns. There was originally a third, circular walkway which was, unfortunately, dismantled during the twelfth century restoration.


A curiosity


Before that twelfth century restoration, carried out by Innocent II (1130-1143), Santo Stefano Rotondo was the third largest church in Rome, after St. Peter's and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Some of you will recognize the name Innocent II as the Pope who re-built the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. (See my guidebook of that basilica).



THE ALTAR AND ITS BALUSTRADE


Adding to the already pronounced sense of roundness in the church is the eight-sided balustrade surrounding the altar itself. This was provided by Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585). The outer face of the balustrade is decorated with twelve paintings depicting episodes from the life of St. Stephen. Another twelve paintings on the inner face of the wall recall stories of the miracles of the saint. Embedded into the center of two sides of the balustrade are enormous ancient granite columns with magnificent Corinthian columns which support an arch high above the altar (photos 2 & 4).


Each painting on the balustrade displays a short Latin inscription at the top which acts as a title explaining the scene. As an example, in photo 3 the inscription reads as follows:


STEPHANUS PLENUS GRATIA ET

FORTITUDINE FACIEBAT PRODIGIA

ET SIGNA MAGNA IN POPOLO


Stephen, full of grace and fortitude,

was performing miracles

and great signs among the people.



THE CHAPEL OF SAINTS PRIMUS AND FELICIANUS


Immediately to your left as you enter the church is the chapel of Saints Primus and Felicianus (photo 5) who were martyred during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian (283-305). The walls of the chapel are completely covered with frescoes by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), many of which depict graphic scenes of torture and martyrdom.


A curiosity


There are several cruel scenes here of Christians being attacked by lions (photo 8), but the "lion scene" I like best is the one in this chapel which seems out of character compared to the others. It shows two lions sitting calmly and showing no interest at all in the two Christians kneeling and praying next to them (photo 9).



OUR LADY OF THE SEVEN SORROWS


As you stand facing the chapel, on your right you will see an interesting and unusual representation of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows by Antonio Tempesta (photo 6). Seven swords are shown piercing the heart of Mary. Above the handle of each of the seven swords is a medallion, in the center of which is painted a scene from the life of Jesus which caused his mother great pain and sorrow, including several scenes having to do with his passion and death.



THE CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST


Another unusual painting, which begins the cycle of the martyrs, is the scene of the crucifixion of Christ (photo 7). Several saints are shown standing next to the cross, including St. Peter on Christ's right and St. Paul on his left. At the foot of the cross are two babies who represent the babies killed in the infamous slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod. These innocent babies can be considered the first real martyrs. The cycle of the martyrs continues from this point clockwise around the perimeter of the church.



THE CYCLE OF THE MARTYRS


Another unique feature of this church is the cycle of martyrs, a series of thirty-four paintings along the peripheral wall of the church, executed by Pomarancio and Matteo da Siena in 1582. The paintings are separated from one another by the thirty-four columns embedded in the wall. They all depict explicit and extremely brutal scenes of torture inflicted on the martyrs in Rome in the early years of the Church.


These graphic scenes of intense cruelty were painted at the time the church was under the care of the Jesuit order which staffed the Hungarian-German College in Rome, where young men were being prepared for future missionary work in Hungary and Germany. Part of their preparation was to become aware of the dangers they could face and the real possibility of becoming martyrs for the faith.


A curiosity


Many of these frescoes are extremely realistic and include a wealth of cruel and bloody details. Charles Dickens was appalled by the brutality and violence of the scenes. And the Marquis de Sade is said to have fainted when he saw the painting which depicts an executioner as he rips off the breasts of a young virgin martyr.


Almost all of the paintings have a large central scene of martyrdom in the foreground with other smaller, but no less cruel scenes in the background. As you look at the paintings you are struck by the contrast between the violence of the act and the resigned and peaceful countenance of the martyrs.


A Latin inscription with a translation in Italian accompanies each of the 34 paintings, but many of them are not well preserved and difficult to read.


One of these paintings especially interests me because it represents the martyrdom of Pope St. Callixtus I (217-222), the founder of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He was killed by being thrown from a window of his house into a well (photo 10). In the 1600s a small church was built in Trastevere on the site of his home. Inside the church you can see the remains of a well said to be the one into which he was thrown. This is the only place I have ever seen the martyrdom of Callixtus represented in art. The caption which accompanies the painting reads:


CALLIXTUS ROM. PONT. PRAECEPS

IN PUTHEUM DATUR


Callixtus, the Roman pontiff, is thrown headlong into a well



-----------------------------------------------


I am limited as to how many photos I can attach to the post, so I will send out a second post next time including more photos from this amazing church of Santo Stefano, especially those depicting the tortures of the martyrs.