Postcard from Rome, Italy: Glittering mosaics crown basilica full of saintly remains

Pope Paschal I (?-824) was partial to preserving saintly remains; you were introduced to him earlier as the pope who found Santa Cecilia’s remains and moved them to Trastevere. A round slab in the Basilica of Santa Pressede purportedly covers a well where he deposited the remains of 2,000 early Christian martyrs.

Among the relics housed in the church are those of sisters, Saints Pressede and Pudenziana, known for sheltering and caring for persecuted Christians. The sponge Pressede used to cleanse the wounds of bleeding martyrs is believed entombed there as well.

Pope Paschal I openly welcomed monks exiled from Byzantium because of their opposition to practices endorsed by church leaders in Constantinople. He also extended invitations to dissatisfied Byzantine mosaic artists. The results of their refuge in Rome are most clearly visible in the apse and chapels of Santa Pressede.

A later addition to the church is housed In one of the basilica’s most ornate chapels – a portion of a black granite column reputed to be that to which Jesus was bound as he was flogged by Roman soldiers.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: ‘Innocent’ intrigue surrounding summer soirees at papal retreat

The following all should relate to the collection of ancient B.C. art housed in the National Etruscan Museum. Although many of the photos focus on the artifacts, I find myself totally distracted by the origin of their home, Villa Giulia.

Papal politics were a mess in 1550 when the crossed keys were handed over to Pope Julius III (1487-1555). He had served as governor of Rome twice and barely escaped execution when Clement VII (1478-1534) turned him over to imperialists as a hostage following the sack of Rome in 1527.

But the cardinals were not impressed by his credentials. Three factions emerged: those in favor of continuing the Council of Trent and its response to the rise of Protestantism; the French who were against it; and the powerful Farneses pushing one of their relatives. Pope Julius III represented a compromise accepted with reluctance.

While benefitting from the ascension of the Catholic Queen Mary (1516-1558) to the throne of England, the pope’s efforts to reconvene the Council of Trent proved controversial. And the papacy became entangled in the war of Parma. The international intrigue proved overwhelming. The frustrated pope retreated to focus on creating a pleasurable escape from the turmoil.

Villa Giulia is the result. A vacation home. A palace for entertaining. A palace for the arts. And a papal playground.

Vineyards, no longer in existence, cascaded down to the Tiber, and the host and guests could travel back and forth by boat from the Vatican. Loggias surrounding and overlooking reclining “gods” in the Nympheum provided al fresco opportunities for summer parties.

All leading to gossip. Rumors. Jealousy. Fake news, perhaps, about nepotism.

Innocenzo (1532-1577) was the pope’s major Achilles’ heel. While still a cardinal, Julius found the poor 17-year-old lad on the streets of Parma; had his brother adopt the unfortunate boy; and employed him as a caretaker for his pet monkey. When elevated to Pope, Julius immediately elevated the teenager to Cardinal. We are reserving judgment about the qualifications of Innocenzo for this post; although the wags of Rome did not.

After Pope Julius III’s death, Pope Paul IV (1476-1559) confiscated the villa. His predecessor’s incredible collection of sculpture assembled there was transported through the vineyards and floated by barges down the Tiber to the Vatican.

The government of Italy confiscated Villa Giulia from the Vatican in 1870, and, in 1889, dedicated it as the National Museum of Etruscan Art. A copy of a small Etruscan temple was inserted in the middle of a courtyard in 1891.

Finally, the art. But I’m not going to blog about that much because I know very little about the period (No snide remarks necessary about how little I know about the papacy or the history of Italy overall). You (assuming you follow this blog religiously) already have been introduced to the most famous couple in the museum reclining on their sarcophagus.

As you view the tender pair from Cerveteri enjoying a banquet atop their remains, squint. Try to visualize them in color. And try not to get distracted by imagining the sumptuous parties that occurred there during the palace’s early days.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: A literal definition of a marriage made in heaven

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared
Mistaking Earth for heaven.

“A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden, 1687

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate’s severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found….

“Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day,” Alexander Pope, 1708

Some time in the first or second century, the daughter of a wealthy family in Rome was betrothed to a young pagan. A Christian, Cecilia was dragging her feet about entering into the arranged marriage, fasting and pleading with God and the Virgin Mary to help her preserve her virginity. Definitely not the vow a prospective groom envisions.

As the musicians played at the feast celebrating the wedding, Cecilia stared upward, focused on serenading the heavens with the song in her heart. Valerian, the groom, was miraculously understanding when she explained her wedding night plans to him did not include consummation of their marriage.

Cecilia claimed she had an angel protecting her. A little suspicious, he asked for proof. She directed him to the third milestone on the Appian Way and to be baptized by Pope Urban I (died in 230). Valerian complied and, upon his return, saw her guardian angel with her, crowning her head with roses and lilies. In addition to his religious conversion, he accepted her vow of chastity.

Valerian’s enthusiasm was so great, his brother followed suit. Christianity was far from the official religion in Rome at the time, so Valerian and his brother busied themselves gathering the bodies of executed Christians and providing them with burials. This chore kept them quite occupied until their dedication attracted too much attention, and they themselves became martyrs.

Cecilia then threw herself more fervently into spreading the word, converting more than 400 pagans to the still somewhat new religion. Until…

… you know where this is leading, she attracted attention of those in power. But Cecilia’s angel did not let her succumb quickly to the efforts to dispose of her. First condemned to death by “spa,” she was locked in the baths with the heat and steam stoked up unbearably high. She emerged unfazed, so a more direct approach was taken.

Chop off her head. The executioner swung his axe three times. Despite profuse bleeding, her head remained in a semi-attached state. This afforded Cecilia time to make arrangements to distribute any remaining wealth to the poor and to donate her home in Trastevere for a church. Pope Urban I complied.

In the 800s, Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church. Desiring to locate Saint Cecilia’s remains and transfer them to her church, the pope searched the catacombs. After a vision, he finally located them and those of her husband and brother-in-law. Saint Cecilia’s original robes, blood-soaked, were at her feet; she was clothed in gold. All three bodies were moved to the church.

While the mosaic in the apse from that period survives, much remodeling followed. Fast forward to the 1500s, Cardinal Niccolo Sfrondrato (1535-1591), later becoming Pope Gregory XIV, was trying to confirm the location of the remains of Santa Cecilia.

Workers uncovered a marble coffin and opened it in front of the cardinal and, even more conveniently, sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). And there she was. Santa Cecilia incorrupta. The first Catholic saint recorded as emerging in this totally preserved state, further demonstrated by the fact that she had rolled over to a more comfortable position on her side.

Word spread like wildfire in Rome, and the cardinal was fortunate to escape being crushed by the crowds eager to view their patron saint of music, still cloaked in golden cloth. Maderno recorded this miracle by sculpting a realistic depiction of her body for the altar. But her actual body was reinterred elsewhere in the church.

The Mister is wise. A sign on the left side of the church offered entrance to the basement for a couple of euros, and he said, “Never turn down an invitation to visit the crypt.” And he proved so right.

Down underneath the church are ancient crypts and the remains of an old tannery, but then you stumble into a magical space. Arcades and walls covered with glittering mosaics heralding Saint Cecilia’s final resting place.

The Mister’s fingers seem to be gliding across his travel guitar’s strings more effortlessly ever since.