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.


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,”

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.”

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Three-day holiday weekend a jumble of events demanding Valencian attention

Saint George (275?-303) has been the patron saint of the Aragon region since 1096. Peter I of Aragon and Navarre (1068-1104) reconquered the city of Huesca in the Battle of Alcoraz that year. After freeing them from Moorish rule, the crown of Aragon tied Barcelona and Valencia together with a common language, Catalonian.

The dialect derived from this period remains a source of civic pride in Valencia today. The distinctive spelling associated with Catalonian is featured more prominently than Spanish in museums and, as though to confuse us, on street signage.

But, back to Saint George. His saint’s day is celebrated in much of Spain as a holiday, and this year it landed on a Monday, creating a three-day weekend. At least I assumed George should get the credit.

Throughout the prior week, carpenters scrambled to erect elaborate stages, some almost as gaudy as New Orleans Mardi Gras floats, directly in front of numerous churches. We came across several women and young girls attired in crinolined full-length dresses made from yards and yards of brocade posing for portraits in front of notable landmarks. Stores displayed these quaint-looking costumes and bolts upon bolts of fabric, probably more brocade than Orville Carr used to upholster sofas and chairs for clients during his entire lengthy career in San Antonio.

The preparations remained mysterious to us at the beginning of the weekend, so we launched out with the lofty goal of finding the book fair – Fira del Llibre (note the tricky spelling). Thinking we spied it, we instead stumbled into a regional wine festival in the Turia Gardens.

Books published in languages I can barely comprehend or wine? Good intentions hijacked.

The wine festival presented my first close-up sighting of the hairpiece(s) I nicknamed dona buns. I so wanted a coiled trio for Fiesta, but, as I am ungracefully letting my hair assume its natural color, I have no idea yet what shade of gray, white or in-between stripes that is. Aside from the lack of the comb-over camouflage, these dona buns matched the hairstyles of the costumed women we noticed earlier.

The next day, we resumed our quest for the book fair. We found it. It was large, some 300 vendors, and absolutely packed with people seduced by books above the nearby wine festival. Or maybe they follow a books-first, wine-second rule.

Not lingering long at the crowded literary event, we risked temptation by taking the bridge crossing the Turia Garden above the wine festival. Could we avoid the siren-like call of all of those clinking glasses?

Amazingly, the Mister managed to steer me clear. Only, though, because I spied a trio of women wearing beautiful long black mantillas crossing the bridge (No, daughter, I was not nun-hunting again.). These mantillas were not everyday headgear. I opted to follow the path from whence they came, instead of heading for more wine. Photos snapped from where that led will be in the next post.

Back to Saint George. While I assumed the holiday in Valencia related to him, the performances on Monday made me realize the day might focus on multiple saints. The second Easter Monday in Valencia is celebrated in honor of Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), not to be confused with Saint Vincent Martyr whose semi-incorrupt arm resides in the Cathedral.

Born in Valencia, Saint Vincent Ferrer was named in honor of Saint Vincent Martyr. Fortunately, his path to sainthood was not as brutally painful as that of the martyr who preceded him. Saint Vincent Ferrer was a powerful Dominican who became embroiled in politics during the schism that created rival papacies in Rome and Avignon and was part of a panel selecting Ferdinand I (1380-1416) as king of Aragon in 1410.

Saint Vincent Ferrer reputedly spoke in tongues, allowing people of many different nationalities to understand his preaching, and his vocal chords somehow projected his sermons over massive gatherings. The church credits his words with the conversion of thousands of Jews and Moors to Catholicism.

The saintly deeds ascribed to him include bringing numerous corpses back to life; reviving a dead man to testify to free an innocent man; ending a fidelity dispute by commanding the infant to identify his real father (the child, fortunately, pointed to the woman’s spouse); and beautifying a woman who had been beaten by her husband who deemed her ugly (and, hopefully, also freeing her from the marriage).

The altars erected on plazas around town were used as stages for children under age 13 to reenact, in Valencian verse as they have for about the past 500 years or so, some of the miracles attributed to Saint Vincent Ferrer. We are not sure which miracles were included in the plays due to lack of comprehension of the dialect and one might need to be related to a cast member to endure sitting or standing through an entire performance, but probably some of the above were left out of the scripts. We missed seeing a statue of the saint carried aloft through the streets, but certainly heard the firecrackers heralding his return home.

And, as I surely have lost your attention by now, more about the dona buns and brocade parade later.