Postcard from Rome, Italy: Putting that saintly fashion foot forward

Away from San Antonio during Fiesta… when duchesses were bowing, weighed down by their glittering trains and flashing their fancy footwear, sometimes chanclas, from atop flowery floats… we encountered a rich array of elegant gowns in a fashion show in an unanticipated setting.

Chapels lining one side aisle of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted mannequins wearing some of the Virgin Mary’s most formal attire. Numerous outfits were complete with compatible cloaks and shoes and, of course, matching attire for Baby Jesus.

The basilica’s own Baby Jesus, Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, needed no additional clothes. Carved from olive wood from the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem, Santo Bambino always is cloaked in a much-bejeweled golden garment.

The original statue created by a Franciscan dated from the 15th century and was credited for numerous miraculous healings. At one point, Santo Bambino was carted around on house-calls to aid those too ill to visit personally.

An icon of such value attracts much interest. The French hijacked it in 1797, but it was later recovered. Thieves robbed the baby of numerous jewels in 1838, but the worst theft occurred in 1994. Santo Bambino vanished. Even thieves in prison penned public letters requesting their fellow tradesmen return the beloved Santo Bambino. Fresh olive wood was obtained from Jerusalem for the replacement now on display.

The original Santo Bambino might be missing, but, for the faithful, his powerful spirit remains with the reproduction in the basilica. Letters from around the world arrive addressed to Santo Bambino requesting mail-order miracles and are placed beside him to “read” at will. As newer ones arrive, the older requests are burned with incense.

As for the setting itself? No San Antonio ballroom can compare with the shimmering chandeliers and ornate décor found in the basilica.

Somewhere at the foundation of the enormous Basilica of Santa Maria of Aracoeli lies a Byzantine church dating from the 500s. The papacy took over the property in the 9th century, placing it under the control of Benedictines. Immense columns supporting the central nave were harvested from ancient Roman ruins. Franciscans provided much Romanesque and Gothic remodeling and expansion in the 1200s. Heavy gilding of the ceiling was completed in 1575 to thank the Virgin for her assistance in defeating the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental stairway, 124 steps, was added in 1348 for those praying for an end to the Black Plaque or seeking penance on their way up to the church (Okay, I confess. We took an easier approach through a side door.). In the Middle Ages, criminals were executed at the base of the stairway. In the 17th century, one of the royal princes who lived above took offense to international pilgrims sleeping on the steps and periodically rolled stone-filled barrels downward to chase them off.

Contemporary superstition claims the faithful who crawl up the stairway on their knees enhance their possibilities to win the national lottery. No point for us. We will never win any lottery. You have to pay to play.

 

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: 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.