Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Pantheon: Part 4

Today's photos:

1. The dome with its oculus dominates this aerial view of the Pantheon.

2. This lady is dwarfed by the massive front doors.

3. You can enjoy this view of the dome from the terrace of the Hotel Minerva. Notice the stairway cut into the stone, leading up to the oculus.

4. The sunlight streams through the oculus creating a spotlight on the inner wall of the dome.

5. What are these firemen doing at the top of the dome?

6. It is Pentacost Sunday and the firemen are throwing rose petals down through the oculus.

7. Down come the rose petals!

8. Some of the firemen can be seen from the nearby Piazza Minerva.

9. It is April 21 and the spotlight moves inexorably toward the doorway.

10. It's almost there! (Sorry, I have lost my photo of the spotlight as it hits the door, but believe me . . . it got there!

It is interesting to see the Pantheon's dome from unusual vantage points, such as the aerial view (photo 1) and the view from the terrace of the nearby Hotel Minerva (photo 3).

As you enter the Pantheon, notice the large double doors made of bronze (photo 2). These are the original doors, but in the sixteenth century they were taken down, recast and put back up. They are so big that some people just can't believe that they are still in use, but I can assure you that they are opened and closed every day . . . by hand!

The mighty dome and its oculus

Once inside, your eyes will automatically be drawn to the magnificent dome and its circular opening in the center, the oculus (photo 4).

Many people are surprised to discover that the oculus is not covered with glass or any other material; it is open to the sky. It was built that way for practical reasons, to provide light and fresh air into the building, since there are no windows opening up to the outside. You will occasionally see birds flying around inside. And when it rains, the water comes in and drains out through several inconspicuous holes in the floor beneath it. The oculus measures 9 meters across.

A curiosity

During the middle ages there was a widespread belief that when the building was transformed into a church in the seventh century, devils which had inhabited the pagan temple flew out, bursting through the top of the dome, thereby creating the oculus.

The dome has always fascinated visitors to the Pantheon, especially trained architects. When Michelangelo was designing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, he had such great admiration for the Pantheon's architect that he declared that he would not make the dome of the basilica larger than that of the Pantheon. And in fact, this dome is one meter larger in circumference than Michelanelo's dome over St. Peter's. The circumference of the Pantheon is exactly the same distance as its height – 43.3 meters.

Pentecost in the Pantheon

Pentecost Sunday is the day when the Church recalls the Gospel story of the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. Pentecost, from the Greek word meaning fiftieth, is a movable feast in the Church which occurs fifty days after Easter. On that day in the Pantheon a solemn Mass is celebrated, at the end of which firemen throw down from the oculus thousands of red rose petals which come fluttering down on the congregation below, to recall the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire (photos 5-8).

This is an extremely old tradition in the Pantheon, begun by Pope Benedict XI (1303-1304). The custom continues to this day, even though there have been periods when it was interrupted and then taken up again. It is a spectacular sight to see all those rose petals fluttering softly down from the oculus. A large crowd gathers every year to witness this unusual sight.

April 21 in the Pantheon

When you find yourself in the Pantheon on a beautiful sunny day you will notice that the sunlight streaming through the oculus creates a spotlight effect on the interior wall of the dome. Amazingly, every year on April 21, the birthday of Rome, at exactly 12:00 noon this spotlight hits the front door, the only time this phenomenon happens. This is, of course, not a freak accident, but something planned and calculated at the time the building was constructed. The plan was for the emperor Hadrian to be present at the inauguration of the building, so it was decided that he should arrive at exactly 12:00 just as the spotlight bathes the entrance with rays of light (Photos 9-10).

It is only recently that this phenomenon has been brought to the attention of the public, so now there is always a large crowd on hand every year to witness this extraordinary event. It is interesting to be there about half an hour before noon (1:00 pm during daylight savings time) to watch the spotlight as it inexorably approaches the entrance.

A curiosity

I have my own "Pantheon dome story" to tell. I spent the summer of 1972 in Rome with a group of classics teachers in the summer program of the American Academy in Rome. We had a wonderful leader that year, the late Professor John D'Arms of the University of Michigan. He arranged for our group to climb to the top of the dome and view the interior of the Pantheon from the oculus. We took an elevator inside the six meter thick wall of the building up to the base of the dome. From there we climbed up to the oculus by means of a stairway cut into the stone on the outside of the dome. (You can clearly see this stairway in photo #3). I was able to lie on my stomach, put my hands on the edge of the oculus and look down into the Pantheon. It was truly an extraordinary and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No one is allowed to do this anymore. The only people you will ever see at the top of the dome are the firemen who throw the rose petals down on Pentecost Sunday and the maintenance workers when there is need to inspect and do repair work.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Pantheon: Part 3

Today's photos:

1. The Renaissance painter Raphael.

2. The tomb of Raphael in the Pantheon.

3. La Madonna del Sasso (Our Lady of the Rock).

4. The Transfiguration, Raphael's last work.

5. A close-up of the sarcophagus in Raphael's tomb.

6. The Annunciation in the first chapel on the right.

7. The oldest Christian item in the Pantheon.

Next to the tombs of Umberto and Margherita is the final resting place of the great artist Raphael Sanzio (photo 1) who died at the very young age of 38.

A cuoriosity

An interesting fact about Raphael's death is that it occurred on the same date as his birth: April 6,1483-April 6, 1520). He died, probably of some sort of venereal disease, after 15 days of agony, on Good Friday.

The Inscriptions

His simple, but dignified tomb (photo 2) is extraordinary for several reasons, not the least of which is the spectacular Latin epitaph which runs across the top of the sarcophagus, or stone coffin. It was composed by Cardinal Pietro Bembo who had been a close friend of the artist. Every time I read it, it sends shivers up and down my spine!


Here lies the famous Raphael. When he was alive, Mother Nature feared that his works were surpassing her works, and when he was dying she feared that she herself was dying.

On the face of the Sarcophagus are seen the words:


The bones and the ashes of Raphael Sanzio of Urbino

The Statue

There is a statue of the Madonna and Bambino in a niche above the artist's tomb (photos 2 & 3). It was Raphael himself who sketched the subject and left instructions that it be carved by his students and placed over his tomb. The statue is often called La Madonna del Sasso (Our Lady of the rock), because she has one foot resting on top of a rock.

To your left as you face the tomb is a niche which holds a bust of Raphael (photo 3). A corresponding niche on the right is empty. It was intended to hold the bust of Maria Bibbiana, the woman who was to be his wife, but she preceded him in death, so it was decided not to include her in the scene.

A curiosity

At the time of his death, Raphael was working on his latest masterpiece, The Transfiguration, (photo 4) which had to be finished later by his students. The unfinished work was placed in his room during the last three days of his agony and was then carried in his funeral procession. Today the original painting is displayed in the Picture Gallery of the Vatican Museums. A mosaic copy four times the size of the original painting can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica.

The Tomb

Some 300 years after Raphael's burial a doubt arose in the minds of many regarding the exact location of the tomb. They knew he had been buried in the Pantheon, but they did not know precisely where. Some, however, believed that he had been buried in the nearby basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Finally, it was decided to carry out excavations inside the Pantheon to search for the lost tomb. The work began on September 9, 1833, directly below the altar of the Madonna del Sasso.

Sure enough, at about one and a half meters below the surface they discovered a wooden casket, inside of which was an intact skeleton. Experts at the time determined that these were indeed the remains of Raphael. At that news, Gregory XVI Cappellari donated an ancient marble sarcophagus from the Vatican Museums to hold the remains (photo 5). This is the sarcophagus which we see today behind glass beneath the Madonna del Sasso.

What else is inside the Pantheon?

There are, of course, many other beautiful and historic works of art in the Pantheon. One of these, and my own personal favorite, is in the first chapel on your right as you enter the building. It is a beautiful fresco: The Annunciation (photo 6) by Melozzo da Forlì (1438-1494). This painting was beautifully restored several years ago, a restoration which revealed its original, magnificent colors.

The oldest religious item in the Pantheon can be seen high up on the wall behind the main altar. It is a Roman-Bizantine work of the Madonna and Child lined in silver and dating back to the 7th century (photo 7). It is therefore conceivable that this small icon was put in place when the Pantheon was converted into a church in 609.

To your left of the main altar, in the second to last chapel is a beautiful 16th century crucifix.

All the statues in the Pantheon today are of Christian saints, but originally they were all statues of pagan gods and goddesses. The large niche in the center, just opposite the main doors, was once home to a statue of Jupiter, king of the gods. It has been replaced by the main altar of the church.

A curiosity

When Agrippa built the original Pantheon he wanted to name it after Augustus. He also wanted to erect in it a colossal statue of the emperor. Augustus, however, refused this honor, so a statue of his deified father, Julius Caesar, was erected instead. Unfortunately, we do not know the fate of this statue or even if it was transferred to the building reconstructed by Hadrian in the second century A.D.

The fourth and final part of this series of posts on the Pantheon will be dedicated to the cupola (dome). Don't miss it!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Pantheon: Part 2

Today's photos:

1. The tomb of Victor Emanuel II in the Pantheon.

2. The Victor Emanuel Monument in Piazza Venezia.

3. A close-up of the equestrian statue.

4. Dinner is served!

5. Umberto I followed his father as king.

6. A painting depicts the assassination of Umberto.

7. The tombs of King Umberto and Queen Margherita.

8. The plaque in pizzeria Brandi in Naples.

Of the many historic monuments in Rome, my personal favorite is the Pantheon, the best preserved of all the ancient sites in the Eternal City. One of the reasons for my preference is that there are several very important people buried in the building. My research reveals a total of nine tombs in this architectural marvel, but there may even be more. In this post I would like to tell you about three of them, as well as some very interesting facts about the persons buried in the tombs. A third one will be discussed in Part 3 of this series of posts on the Pantheon.

A curiosity

If I am going to tell you about four people buried in the Pantheon, you may be curious to know who the other five are whom my research has been able to "dig up", so to speak.

Baldassarre Peruzzi (1481-1536) – architect

Perin del Vega (1501-1547) – painter

Taddeo Zuccari (1529-1566) – painter

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) – painter

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) – composer

The father of his country

In the center niche on your right side as you enter the building is the imposing tomb of Victor Emanuel II (photo 1), the first Head of State of the modern country of Italy. Many people do not know that Italy, as we know it today, did not become a political entity until 1861. Before that time the peninsula was divided into several small, independent States. One by one these States fell, or willingly ceded themselves, to the Italian forces of unification. The last of the independent States to fall was the largest one, the Papal State in 1861, even though its capital, the city of Rome, held out until 1870.

Victor Emanuel had been the king of Sardinia/Piedmont. When his State joined the unification movement, he was invited to stay on as Head of State of the new Kingdom of Italy. He is to the Italians what George Washington is to Americans: Padre della Patria (Father of his country), as is inscribed on his tomb.

A curiosity

If Victor Emanuel was the first Head of State, why is he called Victor Emanuel II? The fact is that his father, Victor Emanuel I had preceded him as the king of Sardinia/Piedmont. When his son was asked to be the Head of State of the Kingdom of Italy, there was a question of whether he should be called Victor Emanuel I or Victor Emanuel II. Many thought he should be called Victor Emanuel I since he was indeed the first one. However, he himself chose to retain the name Victor Emanuel II out of respect for his deceased father.

There is probably not a city or town in Italy which does not have some kind of memorial dedicated to Victor Emanuel II. The city of Rome certainly can boast the most spectacular reminder of him: the Victor Emanuel Monument (photo 2) with its colossal equestrian statue (photo 3) of the king in Piazza Venezia and, of course, the tomb itself in the Pantheon.

A curiosity

Take a good look at the horse of Victor Emanuel. Just how big is it? Well, consider that when the monument was dedicated in 1911 they wanted to do something really spectacular to commemorate the event. So they chose 21 workers to represent all who had labored on this project over the years, and they served them a meal (photo 4) inside the belly of the horse which is said to be sixteen times life size!

The king is dead. Long live the king!

When Victor Emanuel II died in 1878 he was, of course, given a hero's burial in the Pantheon after a solemn funeral procession through the streets of Rome. It is known that the king had expressed a wish to be buried in Torino, the capital of Piedmont, but his son and successor, Umberto I (photo 5) accepted the request of the city government of Rome that his father should be buried in the capital of Italy, and indeed, in the Pantheon itself.

The assassination

Umberto I, at the death of his father in 1887, automatically became king. He ruled until 1900 when he was assassinated, shot to death as he road in his carriage in Monza, Italy, a short distance from Milan, on July 29,1900 (photo 6). His assassin was a thirty-year-old Italian-American anarchist, Gaetano Bresci, who shot the king four times.

A curiosity

The American anarchist Leon Czolgosz stated that the assassination of Umberto I inspired him to assassinate the American president William McKinley in 1901.

Bresci was immediately arrested and saved from being lynched by onlookers. He was given an unusually speedy trial and sentenced to life (ergastolo) on August 29, 1900. The official version of the assassin's death is that he hanged himself in his cell on May 22, 1901. However, many believe this version to be false because his death was not made public until after his body was so decomposed that it was impossible to determine the exact cause of death.

The royal widow

In any case, Umberto was given a hero's burial in the Pantheon in the center niche on your left as you enter the building, just opposite the tomb of his father. Umberto's wife, Margherita, lived on for another 26 years. When she died in 1926 she was also allowed to be buried in the Pantheon, in the wall just below the tomb of her husband (photo 7).

Notice the purple structure which stands in front of the two tombs. This shade of purple or dark red, called porphory, is often used on the tombs of royalty or of people held in great honor for one reason or another. This particular one is in the form of an ancient Roman altar, appropriate since the Pantheon was once a Roman temple.

A curiosity

In 1889 Umberto and Margherita went on an informal, unofficial trip to Naples where they had dinner in a modest Neapolitan pizzeria called Brandi. The owners of the restaurant decided to serve a special pizza to the king and queen. They topped the pizza dough with red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and green basil leaves, calling it their patriotic pizza since it had the colors of the Italian flag. The queen, Margherita, was so pleased by this unusual culinary concoction that it was decided, with her permission, to name the pizza after her. And that is why we have, to this day, the famous pizza Margherita!

The pizzeria Brandi still exists today, and in 1989 a plaque was displayed in the restaurant recalling the 100th anniversary, not so much of the royal visit, but of the birth of the pizza Margherita (photo 8)! The inscription is in Italian; the translation is as follows:

Here 100 years ago

was born the Pizza Margherita

1889 – 1989


Part 3 of this four part series will be dedicated to another famous person who rests in the Pantheon: Raphael. I think he deserves a post all to himself!

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.


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:

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

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.