Postcard from Rome, Italy: When hell freezes over, build a church

On summering in Rome:

…even dawn is hot…. The city is drugged with heat; the stones are dead; the streets are devastatingly quiet. From one until four, no one moves. Shutters are drawn, storefronts sealed – it might as well be 3 a.m.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

Now it’s springtime. The weather in Rome this month approaches perfection. But memories of visiting here in the summertime more than 40 years ago still sizzle in my memory.

So, if, in the midst of a sultry night, the Virgin Mary appeared to you in a dream to announce you should build a church when and where it snowed? Well, duh.

Legend has it that Pope Liberius (310-366) had what would have seemed a pipe dream, except…. One August the 5th, it snowed on Esquiline Hill. Definitely a hard-to-ignore sign to erect what would eventually evolve into the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Through the centuries, the church continued to benefit from papal enhancements. Mosaics along the central nave were added by Pope Sixtus III (390-440), while the mosaics depicting the “Coronation of the Virgin” over the apse by a Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti, were commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292), depicted on the far left of the grouping. The geometric Cosmatesque flooring was added during the same period. Lorenzo Cosmati (1140‑1210) is credited with this marquetry technique of slicing thin layers of colored stone salvaged from “leftovers” of Roman antiquity.

Pope Gregory XI (1329-1378) added the 246-foot high bell tower, the tallest in Rome, soon after his return from Avignon. King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) contributed gold from the journeys of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the New World for the coffered ceiling dating from 1450.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) commissioned architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1606) to design the Sistine Chapel. Fontana achieved acclaim for his engineering feats erecting some of the city’s massive obelisks imported from Egypt, including the one in front of Santa Maria Maggiore. The 327-ton one in front of Saint Peter’s required 900 men and 75 horses to haul and install into its upright position.

A little spirited papal competition led Pope Paul V (1552-1621) to try to outdo that chapel by enlisting architect Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) to design Cappella Paolina. Paul V was of the Borghese clan, and Ponzio also designed the Villa Borghese Pinciana, home to one of Rome’s most prominent museums. And then there is a chapel designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564) but completed by another architect.

In the heat of a summer afternoon, churches are the only refuges, dim and cool…. I want to stay in these churches for hours; I want to take off my shirt and lie on the marble, my chest against the stone, and let the perpetual dusk drift over me.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

An August snow is like a never-occurrence in Rome, but, every year on the fifth, in commemoration of the miraculous time it did, showers of thousands of snow-white flower petals flutter down from the gilded ceiling upon the congregation.

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