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.


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