Thursday, April 14, 2011

8. The Mamertine Prison

Today's photos:


1.  The church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami built over the Mamertine prison.

2.  This is the lower chamber of the prison with the column to which tradition says Peter and Paul were chained, and next to it the spot of the miraculous appearance of the water used by Peter to baptize his jailers.

3.  The fresco of Christ and Peter uncovered during the recent restoration.

4.  A modern relief representing Peter and Paul as Peter baptizes one of his jailers.

5.  The Frecce tricolori in action.  (Internet photo)

6.  The Frecce fly over the Victor Emanuel Monument.  (Internet photo)





On the slopes of the Capitoline Hill next to the ancient stairway which led from the Roman Forum to the hill, are found the remains of the oldest, and for a long time the only, prison in Rome.  Today it lies beneath the sixteenth-century church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami.  A tradition dates the origin of the prison to the time of the fourth king of ancient Rome, Ancus Marcius (640-616 B.C.).  It is believed that originally the site was a place of pagan cult, turned into a prison perhaps in the fourth century B.C.  The transformation into a Christian place of worship is believed to have occurred in 314 when Pope Sylvester I (314-335) is said to have dedicated the site to San Pietro in Carcere (St. Peter in Prison).


What remains of the prison is divided into two small rooms, one directly below the other.  The upper section, called Mamertinum since the Middle Ages, has a circular opening in the floor which reveals the lower chamber, called the Tullianum, a space about seven meters in diameter.  The name is probably due to the fact that there was in ancient times a tullus (cistern) on this spot.  There is a modern stairway today which leads to the lower chamber, but in ancient times the only entrance was the hole in the floor above.  The names of the two rooms account for some confusion of nomenclature, since some people (and books) refer to the prison as the Mamertinum while others call it the Tullianum.


It was in the lower chamber, the Tullianum, where prisoners were executed by decapitation or strangulation.  Over the centuries, some illustrious characters were executed in this death chamber, including Jugurtha, the captured king of Numidia in 104 B.C., the senators Lentulus and Cethegus, participants in the conspiracy of Catiline, in 60 B.C.,  Vercingetorix, chief of the Gauls defeated by Julius Caesar, in 49 B.C., Sejanus, head of the imperial guard under Tiberius, in 31 B.C., and Simone di Giora, defender of Jerusalem, in 70 A.D.


A curiosity


A tradition says that when Jugurtha, the king of Numidia, was thrown into the lower cell to be executed, he exclaimed contemptuously to his Roman guards:  How cold your baths are, Romans!


But there is also a Christian tradition which says that Saints Peter and Paul were held in this prison for several months during the reign of Nero (54-68).  The tradition further says that Peter converted his jailers, Processo and Martiniano, and baptized them and over 40 of his fellow prisoners with water which he miraculously caused to come forth from a rock, or perhaps water from the remains of the ancient cistern.

A curiosity


Near the modern stairway leading down to the Tullianum, there is a plaque on the wall which states in Italian:


In questo sasso Pietro dà la testa spinto da sbirri e il prodigio resta.

Against this rock Peter struck his head, having been pushed by guards, and the miracle remains.


The presumed "miracle" is a mark left by Peter's supposed collision with the wall.  A kind of smudge, in fact, is  visible behind a grate on the wall just beneath the plaque.


For over a year the prison area below the church was closed to visitors as archaeological excavations and renovations were carried out.  Before the renovations visitors to the site could enter both the upper and lower chamber unaccompanied.  This simple procedure was changed when the area was reopened to the public on June 29, 2010, the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul.  Now visitors are accompanied in small groups by an attendant on a route which includes several stops.  At each stop there is a multimedia presentation (audio, video, light) which gives some information, not only about this particular site, but also about ancient Roman and Christian history and how their stories are intertwined.


The excavations did turn up the remains of some Christian frescoes from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century on the wall of the upper room.  It fascinates me to think that I had been in this room several times before the restoration without knowing that these frescoes lay hidden on the wall behind the dirt and grime of centuries. 


A curiosity


One of these frescoes in particular, in a decent state of preservation, depicts Christ standing side by side with St. Peter.  It is very interesting and very human, as Christ has his arm around Peter's shoulder while Peter's eyes are turned toward the Lord and there is the hint of a  smile on his face.  The other frescoes are little more than fragments.                    


At one point the visitor is shown a column in the lower chamber said to be the one to which Peter and Paul were chained.  Next to the column is the spot where the water appeared which Peter used to baptize his jailers.


Celebrating the Unification of Italy: 1861-2011: Le Frecce Tricolori


The official name of this aeronautical acrobatic team is the Pattuglia acrobatica nazionale (National Acrobatic Team), but the more popular name used by just about everybody is the Frecce Tricolori  (tri-color arrows).  The team is composed of ten jets, nine in formation and one soloist.  The group made its official debut on March 1, 1961 over the airport of the city of Trento.  Before that time there was no national team, but many Italian air brigades had their own individual team.  Their colorful names remain as a part of Italian aeronautical history: Cavallino Rampante (Rearing Pony), Getti Tonanti (Thundering Jets), Tigri Bianchi (White Tigers), Diavoli Rossi (Red Devils), Lancieri Neri (Black Lancers).  Once the national team was begun the name FrecceTricolori came into being.

A curiosity


One of these individual groups had an important international performance in 1960 before the birth of the national team.  It was the year of the Rome Olympic Games and as part of the opening ceremony the Thundering Jets did a flyover in which they designed in the sky the five colored circles of the Olympic flag.


Unfortunately, there have been accidents in the history of the team.  The first one happened just two days after the team's successful debut on March 1, 1961.  During their reentry to the base after a practice exercise two of the planes collided.  One of the pilots was killed, while the other one managed to eject and parachute safely to the ground.  But the worst accident happened on August 18, 1988, during an air show at the NATO base in Ramstein, Germany.  Three of the jets collided, one of which crashed into the crowd of spectators, causing the death of fifty people.  The three pilots were also killed.


A curiosity


After the first accident in 1961, there was talk of disbanding the newly formed group, but just one month later they performed again, this time in the skies over Strasburg, where they set a record which still stands today.  With their characteristic colored smoke they designed the green, white and red Italian flag five kilometers long in the sky!


In the more recent history of the Frecce, on September 3, 1995, at the end of a twenty-seven minute performance, the group ended with a spectacular conclusion which left the 300 thousand spectators awe-struck.  While the nine planes in formation were shaping the Italian flag with their vapors, the soloist streaked across the colored fumes just as the loudspeakers on the ground below were broadcasting the final words (Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!) of the famous operatic area Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot, sung by legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  The tenor later said he was honored by the use of his voice in such a patriotic exhibition.  When Pavarotti died, the Frecce team paid him a final tribute by doing a flyover just as his coffin was being carried out of the cathedral of Modena after his funeral.


So yet another anniversary is added to the celebration of 150 years of Italian unity as the Frecce Tricolori team celebrates its fiftieth year of existence.





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