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 Bologna, Italy: Drawn to those bones

The bones above purportedly belong to the bodies of Saint Vitalis (Vitale) and Saint Agricola. The pair’s history is a bit hazy, as the two were martyred in Bologna under the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-316) somewhere in the neighborhood of the year 304. As Diocletian claimed to be the son of Jupiter himself, he was not particularly tolerant of people worshipping a supreme being other than his own father.

Catholic Online relays one version of the end of the lives of the saints above:

Vitalis was the slave of Agricola and a dedicated Christian. Arrested and condemned for his faith, Vitalis faced his death with such aplomb that Agricola was converted and accepted his own crucifixion.

The Cathedral in Bologna houses a collection of what are termed “First-Class” relics, including those above. First Class refers to relics that actually were part of the saints’ bodies, versus, say, scraps of their garments.

My fascination with relics stems from the difference of practice of Catholics growing up in Virginia Beach where we had none of which I am aware, and the practice of Catholics in Europe and Mexico where many reliquaries are displayed prominently in churches. The stories about the church and saints I find of interest are the ones nuns never ever mentioned during catechism.

Of course, the United States is not home of many canonized saints, whereas Italy has hundreds. Perhaps the practice of spreading the bones around to different churches arose naturally from the fact that the various extreme methods of exterminating the lives of early Christian martyrs did not always leave their bodies intact.

Rather than try to lamely explain why churches house reliquaries, I thought I’d see how Catholic websites define the practice:

More commonly, the saint’s bones were divided up, so various communities could have a portion of his relics: the skull here, a hand there, other bones elsewhere.

“Relics,” Catholic Answers To Explain and Defend the Faith

The article continues that Saint Jerome explained how the faithful “venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” Relics also “may be the occasion of God’s miracles.”

T.L. Frazier clarifies church policies about relics:

Harkening back to the eighth-century iconoclastic controversy and the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787), the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers that the honor given to a relic, statue, or icon was honor not to an object (fetishism and idolatry), but to the person it represented. Latria (Greek: worship) must be given to God alone, whereas dulia (Greek: veneration or respect) may be given to holy people or articles.

“No Bones about Dem Bones,” T.L. Frazier

Saint Thomas More lost his head over conflicts with Henry VIII who broke with Catholicism to accommodate his habit of engaging in serial marriages. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. During this contentious election year in the United States, we sure could use some miraculous relief from ugly rhetoric.

Relics of Saint Thomas More were on a whirlwind tour in the United States, ending up in Washington, D.C., on July 5. Hopefully, they left a residue of miraculous powers to evoke statesmanship-like behavior behind in their wake.

If you know anybody who lives in Centennial, Colorado, maybe ask them to visit St. Thomas More Catholic Church to ask for assistance from its reliquary of the saint. But wait, this one American church possesses more than 60 First-Class relics available for veneration, so all my thoughts about saints’ bones in churches in this country must be wrong.

So now I’m curious. Surely a church as ancient as San Fernando Cathedral and the seat of the Archdiocese must have some reliquaries of their own…. Might have to go on a reconnaissance mission in my own backyard.