Postcard from Rome, Italy: Afflicted by a case of leo-mania

I give up. I can’t locate a word for it. Leo-mania? Highly contagious for camera lenses, particularly when held in the hand of a Leo.

Whatever the appropriate label might be, Romans through the centuries appear obsessed by lions. Ancient art, classical art, papal art, Renaissance art and even contemporary art continually focus on the lion. Lions are everywhere.

The lion is considered a symbol of strength. A powerful hunter devouring animals. An opponent for gladiators. A way to dispose of Christians, although not employed as often as numerous other methods of torturing them to death. By the time Romans felt the need to dispose of Christians, lions were becoming rather scarce in what we now know as Italy. They had to be imported for sporting events from Greece and, more often, from Africa.

But even when behaving savagely, as with a severed human head under-paw, the lions found along the streets of Rome and in her palaces and churches generally appear gentle. As lovable as the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. Pet-able. The stylized Egyptian lions in the fountain surrounding the obelisk at the center of Piazza del Popolo rarely are permitted a moment’s rest from children eagerly climbing atop their backs.

 

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 Rome, Italy: Palace reflects vestiges of papal perks

It has never been easy to obtain first-class relics worthy of designing a gilded chapel around, but it certainly helped to have a pope in the family.

Among the prizes contained in reliquaries in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are “the perfectly preserved remains,” according to the website, of Saint Theodora. We are not sure which Theodora, but this one, before final martyrdom I assume, purportedly was spared from a fiery end by flames that parted around her. Stretched out below the chapel altar are the remains of a saintly centurion who, prior to his conversion and martyrdom, served as an imperial guard standing by during the crucifixion of Christ.

The basic structural bones of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj date from 1435, but the Pamphilj family undertook major remodeling during the second half of the 17th century. Later redo’s Rococo-ed things up a bit.

The Doria portion of the family originally was from Genoa, while the Pamphilj branch had roots in Gubbio. Both powerful families, but the glory years of consolidating prime property and accumulating wealth and art in Rome followed the papal inauguration of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj in 1644 as Innocent X (1574-1655). Papal perks awarded to friends and family were chief causes of stormy Vatican politics for centuries.

Pope Innocent X lived in office for more than a decade, a decade during which he presided over the 1650 Jubilee Celebration. Traditionally during Jubilee years of the church, currently held every 25 years:

families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“The Jubilee Year,” www.vatican.com

In honor of the Jubilee, Pope Innocent X added opulence to St. Peter’s and, for the public, made Piazza Navona the incredible landmark it remains today. He moved an immense Egyptian red granite obelisk of Domitan there and commissioned artists of the caliber of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to add ornate Baroque fountains.

But wait, was that project for the public good or for the pleasure of the Pamphilj family whose palazzo happened to be located there? The family who would flood the plaza to float boats for elaborate summertime parties? No matter now, it is a stunning, if ridiculously overcrowded, public space.

Among the major paintings included in the palazzo’s collection is a portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Some critics regard this portrait as one of the finest in the world; artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) obsessively turned to reproductions of the painting as the basis for his two-decade series of “screaming popes.”