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.

Postcard from Salamanca, Spain: Cathedrals dominate the city

Construction on Salamanca’s “Old Cathedral,” which ended up combining Romanesque and Gothic styles, began in the 12th century in honor of Santa Maria de la Sed.

But several centuries later, Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Isabella (1451-1504) had much to celebrate – expelling the Moors and opening the doors to the riches of the Americas among them.

A few years after her death, Ferdinand commissioned an even larger “New Cathedral” adjacent to the old. So as not to clash with its older neighbor, Late Gothic style was employed originally; however, after a century or two of construction, it proved impossible to resist adding a Baroque copula or two to top things off.

The siblings stand majestically side by side; both seemingly serviceable for several more centuries ahead.

The sculptural reminder that we all have to die, Memento Mori, is one of the most frightening images I’ve ever seen in church. But, at least it was placed up high in a side chapel…. Maybe if we keep traveling, it will encounter difficulties locating us?

Postcard from Lisboa, Portugal: Too Many Tiles and a Few Juicy Royal Tidbits

The influence of the Moors and world exploration opening doors to the art forms of India and the Orient are evident in the tile designs augmenting architecture throughout Portugal. The photographs here are from Museu Nacional do Azulejo, the National Tile Museum.

The home of the tiles is the Convent and Church of Madre de Deus, founded in 1509 by Queen Dona Leonor (1458-1525). The gilded church and large collection of reliquaries containing remnants of saints seem fit for a queen, and the queen did indeed spend her retirement years there praying for the poor and presumably for the souls of deceased members of the royal family who played parts in the lethal jockeying for political power and rights to the throne.

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Tile overload? Sorry, I have no power to resist them.

But, here, pause to take in some of the court conniving surrounding the family of Queen Leonor.

Leonor was only 12 years old when she wed Prince Joao (John) (1455-1495). She became queen consort when her husband rose to the throne as King John II in 1481.

Perhaps wisely so, King John II perceived many plots and conspiracies swirling about during the early years of his reign, and relatives of his wife were among the prime suspects. The King had her sister’s husband executed for treason and personally plunged in the sword ending the life of her older brother. The Bishop of Evora was imprisoned, where he succumbed to poison.

Their son Alonso (1475-1491) married into the royal family of neighboring Castille. Unfortunately, his in-laws, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, only had one feeble and frail son. They viewed Alonso’s marriage into the family as a potential threat to the sovereignty of Spain. Prince Alonso died under suspicious circumstances while out riding, contributing yet one more thorn to the relationship between the countries sharing the Iberian Peninsula.

This left the crown of Portugal without an heir apparent, and King John II lobbied hard to propel his illegitimate son into that role. Queen Leonor did not welcome those efforts and even appealed to the Pope for intervention.

King John II died unexpectedly early at only 40 years of age, quite possibly the victim of one of the poisonous plots he feared. The crown passed on to the Queen’s brother, Manuel I (1469-1521), as explorations were launching Portugal’s golden age.