Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.

Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: A palatial neighborhood

Saint Sebastian (?-288) generally is depicted as turned into a bristling porcupine by arrows shot into him upon orders of Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-312). Although left for dead, Sebastian managed to recover from these seemingly mortal wounds, surviving to taunt the emperor about abuses against Christians on another day. Offended, Diocletian ordered Sebastian clubbed to death. The second brutal sentence brought the results the emperor desired.

It is not surprising that a saint capable of recovering from the archers’ multiple piercings of his body was turned to for aid by those suffering from an incurable disease wiping out multitudes in Europe – the plague. In 1706 near the Matthias Church, Buda erected a column in honor of the Holy Trinity to protect the city’s residents from the Black Plague. But the plague returned, so the council reasoned the first column had not been grand or tall enough. A more impressive column was built in 1709 including the above figure of Saint Sebastian. Bigger proved better according to the belief of the city’s inhabitants of the time, with Saint Sebastian receiving credit for keeping the disease at bay these centuries since.

An impressive equestrian statue featuring Saint Stephen (975-1038), the first king of Hungary, stands nearby. Saint Stephen guides the way to Fisherman’s Bastion, a fairytale-like overlook added to this perch above the Danube at the dawn of the 1900s after the extensive remodeling of Matthias Church. The landmark was built upon the bastion protected by the fishermen’s guild during the Middle Ages.

Ascending up the hill toward Buda Castle, one encounters a sculptural fountain lorded over by a statue of Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) dressed for the hunt. The vizla dogs are the best part of this grouping, also completed in the early 1900s, but the woman on the lower right is the heart of the tableau. She represents a young peasant who supposedly fell in love with the king while he was hunting, not realizing he was king and, as such, unavailable, to her.

The Buda Castle is among the dropdead-gorgeous Budapest photo-ops viewed from the river below. Things look pretty palatial now, but the castle has had a life as tortuous as Saint Sebastian.

King Bela IV (1206-1270) first built walls to fortify the hilltop against invasions by Mongols under the command of Batu Khan. King Sigismund (1368-1437), who at one point during rather tumultuous European times served as Holy Roman Emperor, expanded the royal residence into the largest Gothic palace of the Middle Ages to demonstrate his importance among the European leaders. Later, King Matthias Corvinus rebuilt the palace to reflect the trends of the early Renaissance.

In the 1500s, the Turks managed to conquer Buda and claim it as part of the Ottoman Empire. The extensive compound was damaged during the invasion, but palace maintenance was not among the priorities of the new rulers. Portions of the castle were relegated to serve as barracks, storage halls and stables. Several failed efforts by the Habsburgs to liberate Buda from Ottoman control inflicted more damage, but the great siege of 1686 proved the most devastating.

The Turks used a remaining tower on the grounds to store their supply of gunpowder. When bombarded, the explosion was reputed so huge as to have killed as many as 1,500 of the Turkish soldiers and created a massive wave on the Danube that swallowed more upon its banks. The Christian allies were successful in their quest, but the palace fared poorly. A new Baroque structure was begun but was partly destroyed by fire in 1723.

In order to pay tribute to Queen Maria Theresa (1717-1780), the only woman ruler during the centuries of the Habsburg dynasty, the Hungarian Chamber laid the foundation stone for a new palace on the queen’s birthday in 1749. Unfortunately, the nobles’ plans were grander than the depth of their pockets, and the project remained incomplete.

After visiting in 1764, Queen Maria Theresa allotted funds for finishing the project, despite having no desire to reside in Buda. She presented one wing to the Sisters of Loreto, but it was apparent the palace was too fancy for a nunnery. A university was established there, but later moved to the Pest side of the river. After Archduke Alexander Leopold (1772-1795) of Austria tapped it for use as his royal residence in 1791, the castle again became a bustling, fashionable center of society in Buda.

Efforts to keep the Austrians and Hungarians in harmony faltered. The Hungarian army revolted in May of 1849, with the Austrians holed up in the castle atop the hill. Heavy artillery fire was required to unseat them, and the resulting flames once again destroyed much of the palace.

Work once again commenced to make it grand enough to accommodate all of the archdukes, duchesses and officials connected to royalty. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, things settled down rather comfortably for a while under the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916). Buda and Pest became one city in 1873, and both benefitted during this period of peace and affluence from a considerable boom in building and urban improvements, including some of the enhancements above.

The Varkert Bazaar, or Royal Garden Pavilion, was built at the base of the Castle Hill on the river’s banks in the late 1800s, with elegant stairways leading upward to new gates. So many wings were needed to accommodate comings and goings, the castle outgrew its narrow hilltop footprint. A three-story substructure was constructed to provide a base for an addition on the west side. Royal stables and elaborate gardens contributed to the grounds, and the newly decorated palace was inaugurated in 1912.

The castle survived for several decades until World War II. The last stand of Axis forces during the siege of Budapest in 1944 and 1945 was Buda Castle. The heavy artillery fire and intense fighting required by the Soviet forces to evict them, left the palace in ruins once more.

Reconstruction Communist-style was different; modernization eliminated much of the former ornate ornamentation.

Restoration work continues on various wings of the castle even today, with Buda Palace now home to several major museums and a library.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: Cathedral honors the dragon-slayer

Saint George is the patron saint of Ferrara, so, first, here’s a wandering tale about the saint.

Collecting water for the day was a major chore, but a fierce dragon guarding your water supply really complicates matters. The wise villagers in a kingdom somewhere, perhaps Lebanon or Libya, placated the beast by releasing two sheep to it before fetching pails of water. But the dragon consumed sheep faster than the villagers could raise them, so soon their supply was exhausted.

Some “wise” person, obviously a male, determined the best way to appease the dragon was to feed him young women. A lottery was held to see which young woman would become his supper first, and the beautiful daughter of the king drew the short straw.

The villagers took her to meet her fate, tying her near the dragon’s lair. Fortunately, just in the nick of time, along came a brave Roman soldier who heard the princess cry out for help. The brave soldier slew the dangerous beast and freed the princess.

This tale was one picked up during the Crusades and embellished by soldiers returning home. The hero was reputed to be Saint George, a patron saint of soldiers, a saint who helped protect them not only during warfare but also from diseases they might pick up along the way, such as the plague or syphilis.

The legend of Saint George and the dragon has persisted through thousands of years, mainly because it is such a fairy-tale-type story. Although to truly fit into the Disney-type mold by which many of us were shaped, shouldn’t George then have married the beautiful princess and lived happily ever after?

There are lots of hard-to-believe stories of saints, but this one is considered more legend than fact. As one early pope purportedly said, George was included in the group of saints “whose names are justly revered among men, but whose actions are known only to God.”

But George did earn his sainthood. He became a valued officer serving in the guard of Emperor Diocletian. The emperor, however, demanded all his soldiers renounce Christianity. George steadfastly resisted. The emperor sentenced him to death via several brutal methods we will not describe, but, somehow, George was revived three times. Finally, he was beheaded in April of the year 303.

The grand Duomo is dedicated to Saint George. The façade was begun in the 12th century but took another century or so to complete. Some of its treasures have been moved to the Museo della Cattedrale nearby.

The cathedral with its spacious plazas in front and on one side is an integral part of daily interactions among citizens in Ferrara constantly crisscrossing them. At some point long ago, a shopping arcade of inferior architecture was attached to one side. Fortunately, the arcade is only one story high, so much of the cathedral’s details are preserved for viewing, including the wonderfully funky pairs of wave-like columns running along the side.

These photos are of the Cathedral and some of the contents of its museum.