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 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).


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:




Stephen, full of grace and fortitude,

was performing miracles

and great signs among the people.


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).


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.


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.


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, 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.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Today's photos:

1. The normal display window of the Gammarelli Ecclesiastical Tailor Shop.

2. A historic photo from the 1939 conclave which elected Pius XII.

3. My photo from the 2005 conclave which elected Benedict XVI.

4. The pink building directly behind the McDonald's direction sign is the barracks of the Swiss Guards. Rising above it is the apostolic palace.

5. The unassuming entrance to the McDonald's of Borgo Pio.

6. Tiber Island. Does anybody actually live here?

7. The entrance to both the police station and the Israeli hospital on the Tiber Island.

A very special Roman tailor shop

Ordinarily, you would probably not consider an ecclesiastical tailor shop to be worth your attention as you tour the city of Rome. However, anytime I happen to be in the neighborhood of the Pantheon as I'm showing people around, I like to pause in front of the Gammarelli ecclesiastical tailor shop.

This is a truly historic shop founded in 1798 by Giovanni Antonio Gammarelli. Today the shop is still owned and operated by the Gammarelli family, now in its sixth generation. It is believed to be the oldest shop in Rome still managed by direct descendants of the founder.

In addition to this distinction the Gammarelli shop is unique because it is here that the Pope's vestments are made. The first Pope whom the family served was Pius IX (1846-1878) who was followed by Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Papa Francesco – 12 popes!

If you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in Rome as a papal conclave is being prepared, stop by the Gammarelli shop and you will see displayed in its window three white papal cassocks: sizes small, medium and large because the new Pope will have to put the cassock on immediately after his election and of course nobody knows what size he will need. Truly one of the many interesting curiosities of the Eternal City.

The McDonald's controversy

Like most other large European cities, Rome also has its share of the famous American fast food chain. Maybe I should say it has MORE than its share, since there are 22 of them here! However, the latest edition which just opened last month has been assailed by protests and petitions. The reason is because of its location in Borgo Pio, the Roman neighborhood which borders on Vatican City.

In fact, the restaurant is in a Vatican-owned building directly across the street from the barracks of the Swiss Guards. It was home to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI and moved into the Vatican. The protest against the restaurant was not from Vatican officials, at least not openly, but from the neighbors who claim the restaurant is incompatible with their historic neighborhood. They even wrote a letter to the Pope asking him to intercede on their behalf!

The restaurant authorities, however, had an ace up their sleeve. Knowing the dedication of Papa Francesco to the poor and homeless, they loudly announced that every Monday at noon they would provide a lunch to be distributed free of charge to the homeless. So on the first Monday of their opening 50 lunches were prepared and distributed by volunteers to the homeless in the Borgo Pio neighborhood. The menu consists of a hefty double cheeseburger, an apple and a bottle of water. This has apparently put an end to the protests. I wouldn't be surprised now if I heard that Papa Francesco in person walked across the street to thank them and have one of those double cheeseburgers himself! Or maybe, at age 80, he would just eat the apple!

Does anyone live on the Tiber Island?

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Tiber Island can be found in my book: Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew . . . EXCEPT the following piece of information which only recently came to my attention.

Since I often show visitors around on the island, I am sometimes asked if anybody really resides there. My answer is usually a cautious "I don't think so". Of course the island is almost always teeming with people since it is home to two hospitals (one Catholic and one Israeli), two churches, a police station, a synagogue, a restaurant and two bars. Several years ago, there were a few people who actually lived on the island, but I thought that was past history by now.

Then recently there was a piece in the Rome newspaper, Il Messaggero, the large headline of which read: Paolo, il re dell'isola Tiberina: "Sono rimasto l'unico abitante" (Paolo, king of the Tiber Island: "I am the only inhabitant left.").

In fact, Paolo, an 80 year-old retiree, is the only human being who actually resides on the island. For the past 15 years he has been sharing with his faithful dog, Tiberino, an apartment of 100 square meters overlooking Piazza di San Bartolomeo, for which he pays a hefty rent of 3,000 euros (about 3,200 dollars!) per month.

Paolo loves living in such a unique place with a history of over two thousand years, but it has one big disadvantage. Over the past few years the island has become one of several locations for the movida notturna, the lively nighttime gathering place for hundreds of carousing and noisy young people, as well as an outdoor movie theater and a stage for live music concerts. Since the movida is at its loudest during the summer months, every year Paolo and Tiberino pack their bags and move up to Tuscany where he still owns a small home. They return to the island in the fall when the movida is somewhat less rambunctious.

The man who served four Popes

This past month saw the death at age 92 of Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, for 30 years archiatra pontificio (chief papal physician). He served four popes in his career, beginning with Paul VI (1963-1978) who, impressed by the man's humanity but also by his sense of humor, called him into papal service. He would also serve John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He knew Benedict well because he had been his personal physician even before he became Pope.

The papal physician is not limited to treating the Pope. Dr. Buzzonetti had an office in the Palazzo del Governatorato (governor's palace) in Vatican City. He became known as the Vatican "family doctor" because his office was always open to anyone and everyone who knocked on his door seeking medical treatment, advice or just wanting an opinion. He traveled with the Pope on all his trips but more often than not he ended up treating the accompanying journalists and reporters for their minor ailments and accidents during the trip.

The doors of the papal apartment were always open to Dr. Buzzonetti. And it was he who would certify the deaths of "his" four popes, signing the official death certificates. Paul VI, who originally hired the doctor, remembered him in his will, leaving him a golden rose and a heartrending personal letter in which he thanked him for his faithful service.

Of the four popes he served, Buzzonetti had the most memories of John Paul II because of his long pontificate (1978-2005). He was the first physician to treat Wojtyla immediately after the assassination attempt in 1981 ordering that the pontiff be taken to the Gemelli hospital in Rome. And of course he worked closely with the physicians who operated on the Pope and treated him while he was hospitalized. On one of the rare occasions when John Paul spoke of the assassination attempt he told Doctor Buzzonetti that he believed his would-be assassin, Alì Agca, wanted to know the contents of the famous third secret of Fatima.

By his own choice, Buzzonetti's funeral was celebrated not in Vatican City, but in his parish church in the Prati neighborhood where he lived in retirement with his wife.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Michelangelo, Moses, Julius II

Today's photos:

1. An overall view of the tomb of Julius II

2-5. Various views of the statue of Moses

6. The reclining statue of Julius II

In Chapter 29 of my book, The Sights of Rome, I wrote about one of Michelangelo's

greatest masterpieces: the statue of Moses in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. This is a follow-up to that chapter, providing further information about this great work of art. But as the title of this post indicates, we will also present some interesting details about the Pope who commissioned the tomb from Michelangelo, especially as regards his death and burial.

The sculpture of Moses is the centerpiece of what was intended to be the tomb of Pope Julius II Della Rovere (1503-1513). Michelangelo's first sketches for the tomb included, somewhat unrealistically, forty statues, most of them life-size or larger. It was intended to be free standing, so that it could be admired from all four sides, in the center of the new St. Peter's Basilica. However, not only was the tomb never finished as Michelangelo had designed it, but the body of Julius was never laid to rest in it.

A curiosity

If his body is not in the tomb in St. Peter in Chains, then where is it? Incredibly, according to R.A. Scotti in his book, Basilica, the body of the great warrior Pope was unceremoniously ". . . stuffed into the same space with his uncle, Sixtus IV." A different source, Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, states that Julius was buried ". . . beside the grave of Sixtus IV in a temporary tomb."

The monument/tomb of Sixtus IV can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica in a space called the Treasury, a museum which contains many items remaining from the fourth century basilica built by Constantine. There is, however, no marker indicating that Julius II is buried here.

The statue of Moses is one of the top three masterpieces of Michelangelo. The other two are the Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica and the David in Florence, both of which were sculpted while Michelangelo was still in his 20's. It is difficult to determine the exact date when the Moses was finished, but because the artist worked on the tomb for 40 years beginning in 1505, most sources list the completion date as 1545.

A curiosity

Almost all paintings and statues of Moses show what appear to be two horns jutting out from his head. This strange sight is due to a mistaken translation of a Hebrew word in Exodus: 34.29-35. The Hebrew text uses the verb qaràn (emanates rays of light), which is very similar to another Hebrew word, qeren (horn). The error seems to have been made first in the second century B.C. when the bible was translated into Greek. Centuries later St. Jerome continued the error, using in his Latin translation the word cornuta (horned) and rendering the passage into Latin as: Ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua (he did not know that his face was horned). Most modern English versions render this passage as: He did not know that his face was radiant with light.

In the years 2001-2003, the tomb of Julius II underwent an extensive cleaning and restoration carried out by the renowned archaeologist Antonio Forcellino. Some 15 years later Forcellino returned to the tomb which by then had acquired a thin layer of dust and grime, hiding in part the natural white brightness of the marble. This second cleaning lasted four months and the sculpture was just unveiled in early December of 2016, revealing the original marble in all its brilliance.

A curiosity

We can be sure that only the finest marble available was used to create the tomb because Michelangelo himself traveled to Carrara where he remained for eight months, choosing personally the marble he wanted. He even worked with the stone cutters to cut the marble out of the mountain and he supervised its packing and transfer to Rome.

According to Forcellino, the layer of dust and grime which made this second cleaning of the monument necessary was caused by the presence of the many visitors who come to this church to admire the mighty statue of Moses. In fact, an estimated 3,000 people every day crowd in front of the monument, almost all of them snapping photos of it. (You can avoid the big crowds by going to the church at 8:30 a.m. on a cold winter morning as I did recently. You will have Moses all to yourself!).

During the cleaning Forcellino discovered a detail which had not been noticed during the previous restoration. He found that the surface of the marble had been worked by Michelangelo in different ways, making some parts of the sculpture more glossy than others in order to re-create the natural effect of the light hitting the marble from different angles. After 500 years the genius of Michelangelo in his attention to details continues to amaze us!

A curiosity

Everyone who has seen the statue of Moses has been awestruck by its strength and beauty. But it seems that even Michelangelo himself was spellbound by his creation. The story is told that when he finally finished the sculpture he struck the knee of Moses with his mallet and exclaimed: "Ma perché non parli?" (But why don't you speak?).

One final note about the death and mysterious burial of Julius II. The pontiff expressed a last wish, on his deathbed, that he be buried in the Sistine Chapel in the tomb sculpted by Michelangelo and beneath the artist's ceiling fresco commissioned by him. This wish was never honored, and the empty tomb was moved to St. Peter in Chains where it remains to this day.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

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:

To purchase:

The Sights of Rome


Rome: Sights and Insights

If you are in the U.S.A.
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

If you are in the U.K.

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

Directly from the author (10 euros)

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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Bernini in the Galleria Borghese

Several prominent names have been associated with the papacy over the centuries, an astounding number of which were within a relatively short time frame between the 15th and 17th centuries. Just to mention a few, the Della Rovere family gave us two popes, Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Julius II (1503-1513). The Farnese family is represented in papal history by Paul III (1534-1549). From the Borghese family came Paul V (1603-1621). The famous Barberini family is represented by Urban VIII (1623-1644). He was followed by Innocent X (1644-1655) of the Pamphilj family and Alexander VII (1655-1667) of the Chigi family.

All of these popes commissioned important works of sculpture and paintings from the

most famous artists of the era, such as Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Bernini and many more. Our attention today falls on one of these artists, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and his special relationship with the Borghese family, namely Paul V and especially his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese.

A curiosity

When Bernini was eight years old he was already the talk of the town for his incredible talent as an artist. Cardinal Borghese was so impressed with this child prodigy that he brought him to meet his uncle, Paul V. The Pope put the young boy to the test, telling him to sketch a human head, then and there in his presence. Using paper and pen provided to him, the eight-year-old, not the least bit intimidated, began to sketch. After a few minutes he stopped and asked the pontiff: "Do you want a man or a woman? Young or old? Sad or cheerful expression"? The Pope was impressed and amused by the questions and he told him just to draw the head of St. Paul, his patron saint. Bernini finished the sketch in 30 minutes in the presence of the Pope and several cardinals. The pontiff's comment was: "This child will be the Michelangelo of his age". The Pope gave the boy twelve gold coins which Bernini kept until the day he died, over 70 years later. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Bernini and the Borghese family.

The Borghese family owned an immense piece of property in Rome which still bears the family name, Villa Borghese, today a sprawling public park. On this spacious site between 1607 and 1613 the Borghese Pope had a magnificent building constructed called Villa Pinciana (photo 1) after the name of the hill where it is located. He gave this magnificent villa to his nephew, Cardinal Scipione, who began to furnish it with his personal and extensive collection of artwork. The cardinal showered Bernini with commissions, putting many of his sculptures on display in his villa. This is the building which we know today as the home of Galleria Borghese, one of the most prestigious museums in Europe.

What follows is a list of seven amazing sculptures of Bernini in the museum today, along with a short description of the subject matter and a few curious comments.

Photo 2: David

The biblical story of David and Goliath has been a favorite subject of artists for centuries. This work was commissioned by Cardinal Borghese when Bernini was 25 years old. David is depicted at the culminating moment, just as he is about to hurl the stone with his slingshot.

A curiosity

The face of David is one of several self portraits by Bernini. An eagle is depicted on the base of the statue, representing the eagle on the coat of arms of the Borghese family.

Photo 3: Apollo and Daphne

Apollo, the god of youth and manly beauty, fell in love with Daphne, a beautiful young nymph. She, however, disdained his attentions and attempted to avoid him. One day Apollo was chasing the poor girl and in order to escape his clutches she asked the gods to turn her into a laurel tree. Bernini masterfully depicts the moment at which the god reaches Daphne just as her body begins to change into a tree. This work was commissioned by Cardinal Borghese in 1622 when Bernini was 24 years old.

Photos 4: The Rape of Proserpina

Pluto, god of the Underworld, carries down to Hades a beautiful young girl, Proserpina. This sculpture, created by Bernini at age 24, perhaps more than all his other works, displays the incredible skill and genius of the artist.

Photo 5: The She-goat Amaltea

A legend says that the god Zeus was nursed as a baby by the nymph Amaltea, depicted as a she-goat and considered the personification of abundance. This was the first work created by Bernini for Cardinal Borghese in 1615 when the artist was only 17 years old.

Photos 6 and 7: Busts of Scipione Borghese

In 1632, while Bernini was busy decorating the interior of St. Peter's Basilica, he began work on a portrait-bust of Cardinal Borghese, his great patron. In the final phase of the work a lesion emerged on the surface of the marble near the forehead of the bust. Bernini himself repaired the abrasion, but, being a perfectionist, he was not satisfied with the result, so he decided to carve a new one. Photo 7 is the original and photo 8 is the second version.

A curiosity

According to Francesco Boldinucci, writing in 1692, Bernini finished the second version in 15 days; three days according to Domenico Bernini, the artist's son, writing in 1713.

Photo 8: Bust of Paul V Borghese

This is another work by the youthful Bernini carved in 1617 when he was 19 years old. According to Domenico, in his biography of his father, the pontiff was so pleased with the little bust that he kept it permanently on his writing desk.

I can't praise this museum enough. It is also home to many other sculptures by other artists, as well as several paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael and many others. Maybe I should do a part 2 of the Galleria Borghese in an upcoming post?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Baths of Caraclla

Today's photos:

1. The Aqua Appia, the first aqueduct built in Rome in 312 B.C.

2. One of the two fountains in Piazza Farnese.

3. The columns in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

4. A section of the wall which surrounded the baths.

5. A small part of the enormous interior.

6. A section of pavement in one of the rooms.

7. Waiting for the opera to begin!

8. The same scene during the non-opera season.

9. The original Three Tenors Concert in 1990.

10. The baths look down on the modern Stadium of Caracalla.

One of the works for which ancient Rome is justly famous is its system of aqueducts (photo 1). This amazing structure, a marvel of hydraulic engineering, brought an abundance of water into the city to supply its fountains and especially the great imperial baths. Ancient Rome boasted eleven aqueducts, each one bringing water to a different part of the city. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Papal State, the popes continued to keep the aqueducts functioning, some of which are still operating today, maintained by the Italian State.

Some stretches of the aqueducts were above ground, but the majority of them were underground. Only the very wealthy were able to tap into the aqueducts in order to bring running water into their homes. The vast majority of the population needed to go to the public fountains and carry water back to their homes. The public baths, however, were for everyone, not just the wealthy.

The baths were much more than just bathing. They were more like our health clubs, including an open field for athletic games, changing rooms, as well as warm, hot and cold pools for bathing. There were masseurs, and bathers could purchase food on the premises.

One of the largest and most extravagant of the imperial baths was the one built by the emperor Caracalla (211-217). The emperor himself inaugurated the baths in the year 216, even though they were not completely finished until 235 under one of his successors, Alexander Severus (222-235).

A curiosity

But who was Caracalla? A "good guy" emperor or a "bad guy" emperor? Judge for yourselves. At the death of Septimius Severus in 211, his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, ruled together as co-emperors. A year later Caracalla had his brother assassinated and so became the sole ruler. But he didn't stop with the murder of his brother. In the early years of his reign he put to death over 20,000 people, some of them for as little as expressing sorrow for the death of Geta. Despite this cruelty, Caracalla was tolerant of the Christians; there was no persecution of Christians during his reign.

We know that the baths of Caracalla functioned for over 300 years, until 537 when the invading Goths cut the aqueducts, depriving the city of water. Thereafter the area was abandoned, and like many other structures built by the Romans, the baths of Caracalla became a stone and marble quarry during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

A curiosity

It is possible to see impressive remains of the baths of Caracalla without ever going to the site. The two fountains in Piazza Farnese (photo 2) were made in 1612 using two giant granite basins taken from the ruins. And the monolithic granite columns in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (photo 3) were taken from the baths in the mid twelfth century.

Visiting the site of the baths today you will be struck by the enormous size of the ruins (photos 4 & 5). The entire complex was surrounded by a wall 30 meters high, much of it still standing today. The arches, passageways and rooms give the impression that they were constructed for a race of giants!

The area measures 337 meters by 328, but if you consider that on the two sides was a large exedra, a kind of semicircular atrium, the 328 meters become 400. The interior walls and floors were lavishly and colorfully decorated in multi-colored marble. Unfortunately, very little of this decor remains except for a few of the rooms whose pavement partially survives (photo 6), and a few detached pieces of marble and stone.

The complex could accommodate 1,600 people at a time, and as many as 7,000 people over the course of one day. Both men and women could use the baths, but they did not bathe together; there were separate times for both.

A curiosity

In 1938 the Rome Opera House began staging its summer performances in the baths (photos 7 & 8). This activity was canceled in 1993 for fear that the ruins were being damaged. This was quite possible since in Aida a live elephant would be part of the Grand March! However, work was done and changes made to protect the ruins and the spectacular outdoor operatic and concert performances resumed in 2001, and are still going strong today. So the Baths of Caracalla are once again the home of the summer season of the Rome Opera House. No more elephants, however!

The Baths of Caracalla were also the scene of the historic, original Three Tenors Concert in 1990, featuring Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras, with Zubin Mehta as director (photo 9).

It is also possible to visit today the subterranean part of the baths. This was not an area open to the bathers; it was an extensive underground expanse of corridors and passageways which were necessary to house equipment, furnaces and huge supplies of wood, as well as the extensive hydraulic system, including all the pipes necessary to keep the water flowing. It was quite an amazing operation!

It is interesting to note that just below and to the side of the entrance to the ancient baths is a modern athletic complex appropriately called The Stadium of Caracalla (photo 10).

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Basilica of San Crisogono

Today's photos:

1. Façade and bell tower of the basilica of San Crisogono.

2. A close-up of the bell tower.

3. Overall view of the interior.

4. Seventeenth-century ceiling.

5. Ceiling painting: The Glory of San Crisogono.

6. Borghese family coat of arms on the ceiling.

7. Main altar.

8. Saint Anthony of Padua.

9. Main door with coats of arms of current pope and titular cardinal.

10. A second-century sarcophagus in the underground area.

This church (photo 1) is located in Trastevere on the busy street, Viale di Trastevere, which divides the old neighborhood into two parts. It has the distinct honor of being the only church in the world dedicated to Saint Chrysogonus (San Crisogono).

A curiosity

But who was this San Crisogono whom many Christians have never heard of? In fact, little is known for sure about his life. He is believed to have been martyred during the reign of Diocletian (285-305) in the town of Aquileia in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in the north eastern part of Italy.

The first mention of a place of worship here was in the year 499. That modest fifth century church was enlarged and decorated with frescoes in the eighth century during the pontificate of Gregory III (731-741). Between the years 1123 – 1129, Cardinal Giovanni da Crema constructed an entirely new basilica on the same spot, effectively burying beneath it the earlier fifth century structure.

The bell tower (photos 1 & 2), attached to the left side of the church, was built during the medieval period (1124). The basilica which we see today dates back to 1626 when G.B. Soria re-structured it for Scipione Borghese, the titular cardinal of the church.

A curiosity

Scipione Borghese was the nephew of Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) whose name appears rather pompously in the very center of the inscription across the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. It was the Borghese pope who appointed his nephew as titular head of this prestigious basilica of San Crisogono.

In fact, the inscription across the façade of this church also places the Borghese name prominently over the main entrance (photo 1). Must be a family tradition!


Scipione Borghese, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church and Grand Penitentiary, in the year 1626

Above the inscription and atop the balustrade you will see pictured a row of eagles and dragons which appear on the famous Borghese family coat of arms.

The interior is in the typical basilica style: two rows of columns which divide the space into one large center aisle and a smaller aisle on either side (photo 3). The granite columns are from ancient Roman buildings.

The painted wooden ceiling (photo 4), among the most beautiful in Rome, displays in the center a painting by Guercino entitled The Glory of San Crisogono (photo 5).

A curiosity

Unfortunately, this is a nineteenth-century copy; the original painting was stolen in 1808, probably by the occupying Napoleonic troops, and is now in the Stafford House in London. One wonders how it ended up there!

The Borghese coat of arms featuring the eagle and the dragon can also be seen on both ends of the ceiling (photo 6).

The thirteenth-century floor (photos 3 & 6) is the typical medieval cosmatesque style found in most of Rome's early churches. It gets its name from the Cosmati family, two members of which developed this style of flooring with its geometric design. Here too, lest you forget, are the Borghese eagle and dragon!

The main altar (photo 7) is surmounted by a monumental baldacchino (canopy), another typical feature of Roman churches. Beneath the altar are preserved the relics of San Crisogono: his hand and part of his skull.

An illuminated statue of St. Anthony of Padua (photo 8) is prominently displayed against the left side wall of the church. This saint is very popular in the neighborhood because there is a statue of him in at least three of the most important churches in Trastevere: Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Bartolomeo all'Isola and San Crisogono. As a child in Catholic elementary school I was taught to say a prayer to St. Anthony whenever I lost something, and he would help me find it. Also of interest on this same side of the church is a larger than life size crucifix.

The basilica is also a titular church, another feature absolutely unique to Roman churches.

A curiosity

When the Pope creates new cardinals he assigns to each one a church in Rome in order to give all his cardinals everywhere in the world a tangible connection to Rome, the center of Roman Catholicism. The church is then known as a titular church and the cardinal becomes the titular head (in title only).

The current titular head of San Crisogono is Andrew Yeom Soo-Jung, the archbishop of Seoul, South Korea. He was appointed in February, 2014 by Papa Francesco. The titular cardinal's coat of arms is displayed on the left side of the main entrance to the church, just opposite that of the current Pope on the right side (photo 9).

Because this basilica was built over earlier churches, it has always been known that there were remains of the ancient structures several meters below the floor, but it was not until 1907 that systematic excavations began below the church. Now, for a modest fee, you can descend a modern staircase which leads from the sacristy to the underground area. The visible remains are from the two earlier churches of the fifth and twelfth century.

Among the items to be admired are fragments of eighth-century frescoes, remains of a baptismal basin, columns and column bases and other unidentified pieces. There are also several sarcofagi to be admired, one of which, from the second century, is so well preserved that it appears to have been made yesterday (photo 10)!

This church also plays an important role in the Festa de' noantri, an interesting week-long festival held every July in the Trastevere neighborhood. For the story of this very popular festival and its connection with this basilica, see my book Rome: Sights and Insights, chapter 9: La Festa de' Noantri.