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The unofficial Jubilee Year guide to Rome

NCR Staff

By the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 2000, some 25 to 40 million extra visitors will have descended upon Rome to take part in the Catholic church’s Jubilee Year. Most will have followed the standard pilgrim’s tour: the catacombs, the Vatican museums, a papal audience on Wednesday, or his appearance for the Angelus on Sunday, and above all trips to the four great basilicas: St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

The journey to these soaring structures is time well spent. Each is a masterpiece; Christianity must have done something right over the centuries to elicit such beauty, such passion, from its artists and architects.

The pilgrim feels a spiritual kinship walking through these holy doors to receive the Jubilee indulgence, or forgiveness of sin, knowing this simple act binds one with ancestors in faith who once crossed the same thresholds, seeking the same taste of divine compassion. The experience gives flesh to the Catholic notion of a “communion of saints.”

Yet the discerning pilgrim will eventually feel something else, too, a nagging sense that the story of Rome, and hence the story of Roman Catholicism, cannot be understood simply from visiting the spots on the prescribed Vatican itinerary. These basilicas -- above all, St. Peter’s -- are not just monuments to Christianity, but also to the Roman Catholic papacy. They were constructed in part to make the Roman pontiff seem larger than life, heaven-sent and invincible, just as the temples and palaces of ancient Rome were meant to exalt the emperor. That ideological component still pulsates in the cool marble and gold overlay of these magnificent edifices.

Like any human institution, Catholicism’s story is not simply one of heroism and piety, and Rome, as its nerve center for 2,000 years, reflects this ambiguity. The city has incubated tremendous good, but it has also seen venality and occasionally spectacular cruelty in the name of Christ. Indeed, close-up exposure to Rome has threatened the spiritual health of many a believer. Rome is such a spiritual city, the old saying goes, because so many people have lost their faith here. A thorough pilgrimage, one that immerses the visitor in church tradition “warts and all,” must therefore resemble one of those paintings by Caravaggio scattered across Rome -- it must be an interplay of light and shadow.

Putting together such a tour will never be the mission of the Vatican’s pilgrimage office, and travelers will not find maps and guides in the shops that ring St. Peter’s Square. But an independent-minded pilgrim, willing to follow not just one but several roads less traveled, will be able to leave Rome both inspired by the greatness of Catholicism and sobered by its perennial temptation to do harm precisely in the name of that greatness.

The following four sites should be on the list of such a “critical pilgrimage.” For pilgrims looking to sneak out of the city for a day, two additional suggestions follow.

Monument to Bruno

in the Campo De’Fiori

Giordano Bruno, Dominican, philosopher, and -- in the eyes of the Inquisition -- heretic, was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo De’Fiori Feb. 17, 1600, allegedly with a nail driven through his tongue so he could not repeat his heterodoxies while the flames lapped around him. Today a monument to Bruno stands in the very spot he was killed, put up in the 19th century by Italian republicans and anti-clericals who came to look upon him as a hero.

The Campo De’Fiori is in the heart of the historic center of Rome, just off the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele.

Bruno, easily one of the most intriguing figures in church history, joined the Dominicans in 1565, but was forced to flee the order in 1576 because of suspicions about his increasingly novel beliefs tending toward pantheism. (He was also accused of murdering a fellow Dominican whose body was found in the Tiber River, but this was never the basis of any action against him.) He moved from place to place across Europe under constant suspicion until he was arrested by officers of the Inquisition in Venice in 1592. He spent the next seven years in Rome in the prison of the Holy Office until, refusing to recant his ideas, he was condemned. His words upon hearing the verdict were meant for posterity: “Perhaps you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.”

The popular assumption is that Bruno was killed because he accepted the Copernican theory that the earth moves around the sun, and indeed this was part of the story. Yet Bruno was not really a scientist; at heart, he was a theologian and an alchemist, and for him the new scientific theories were part of a grander picture involving the rejection of Aristotle and the resurrection of ancient Egyptian solar worship. He denied the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that the existence of more than one divine person would compromise God’s perfection. He embraced mystical Arab philosophies, theorized about the existence of extraterrestrial life and at one point speculated that Moses and Jesus may have been talented magicians rather than divine messengers.

However quirky Bruno’s belief system, the memory of a church so bent on the preservation of orthodoxy that it could burn him for questioning it is a dark one indeed. It is a sobering reminder of the excesses of passion to which those who style themselves defenders of the faith -- any faith -- can succumb.

In modern Rome the monument to Bruno has become a rallying point for anyone with a beef against the Catholic church. Dozens of exhibitions and events have been scheduled over the course of this year in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s execution, representing something of a yearlong “counter-Jubilee.” Last February, reenactments of Bruno’s trial and execution were staged in the Campo along with quasi-religious services celebrating his memory. (Not everyone was thrilled; one exasperated American observer later wrote in Slate, “What’s the point of being an atheist if you are compelled to come together with a lot of other atheists to chant and holler?”)

The monument depicts Bruno in a hooded, brooding pose. Yet the surrounding ambience of the Campo De’Fiori is anything but morose; it is, in fact, home to Rome’s most lively outdoor market during the day, and a popular gathering place for young Romans at night. It was closed for much of 1999 to put in new sewers and to relay the cobblestone so the square is more user-friendly, yet there remains something charmingly seedy about it. Early morning visitors are always rewarded with the aroma of last evening’s spilled wine. The Campo also boasts a terrific restaurant, La Carbonara, which -- as the name suggests -- offers a splendid version of the pasta invented in Rome.

The Jewish ghetto

Rome’s Jewish community is the oldest in Europe, dating back to the second century B.C. Even though it is no longer home to many of Rome’s Jewish families, most still do business here or attend the massive Rome synagogue, the Tempio Israelitico, for Sabbath services.

The main entrance to the ghetto is on the Portico d’Octavia, just across from the Isola Tiberina on the Tiber River.

Harassment of Rome’s Jews, especially confinement to the ghetto, did not develop until the late Middle Ages. Prior to the 13th century, Jews worked as bankers and silk merchants and held public office. Jewish doctors were celebrated and often attended to popes. Jews could own property and live wherever they wanted.

However, by 1200, their fortunes began to change. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 forced all Jews to wear a red mantle, a circle of yellow cloth or an orange cap. Only physicians attending the popes were exempt. The annual carnival was a particularly dangerous time. In 1468, the practice of races began where Jews were sometimes dragged in barrels spiked with nails or forced to run through jeering crowds from the Piazza Navona to the Corso. The races continued for 200 years until Clement IX accepted money from the Jewish community in place of its participation.

The Counter Reformation era likewise transformed Jewish life in Rome for the worse, converting the community into one of Europe’s most impoverished. In 1555 Pope Paul IV decreed that Jews must live segregated in their ghetto behind gates; they must sell all their property to Christians (usually at tremendous discounts); they could have only one synagogue, but no Jewish signs or symbols were allowed; they could not employ Christian servants; they had to wear distinctive clothing and they could trade only in second-hand goods. During the day, they could venture into other parts of Rome, but the ghetto gates were closed from sundown to sun-up. The Jewish community, moreover, was taxed heavily by the pope, in part to support a “house of catechumens” whose specific purpose was to convert Jews to Catholicism.

Every Sunday morning, Jews were compelled to go to Mass to listen to sermons exhorting them to convert to Christianity. Several small churches just outside the ghetto were used for that purpose. One still bears a plaque with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah in Hebrew and Latin: “I stretch out my hand to my people, and they take the wrong path.” The quotation appears below a massive painting of Mary in sorrow at the feet of the crucified Christ, and the point is not lost on anyone. The image directly faces the synagogue.

The ghetto was notorious for both plague and floods when the Tiber River overflowed its banks. Sanitation was dreadful, and few civic services reached the area. Papal authorities actually taxed the Jews to pay for construction of the gates that closed them in.

Pope Pius IX flirted with liberating the Jews in 1846, but quickly recanted after the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. He said later of Jews that they are “dogs of whom there are too many present in Rome, howling and disturbing us everywhere.” Full Jewish emancipation had to await the fall of the pope’s temporal power in 1870 and the erection of a secular Italian republic.

Today, as Catholicism tries to feel its way toward a new understanding of the place of other world religions in salvation history, it is a useful act of historical memory to visit the ghetto, to recall what claims of theological supremacy once led to in this city.

Like the Campo, however, the spirit of the ghetto today is hardly morbid. There are a number of fantastic restaurants, most of them not kosher -- or more accurately, kosher moda italia. A friend tells a delightful story of visiting a kosher trattoria in the ghetto in search of a Jewish delicacy, a kind of beef made to look and taste like ham. The waiter informed him they were out and offered the real thing. “But I thought this restaurant was kosher,” the friend said; the waiter responded, “We are … Italian-style.” It’s a charming realization that the Italian Jews have developed the same gift for relativizing religious law as Italian Catholics.

The Piazza Bocca della Veritá

This site is among the most popular tourist destinations because of a stone slab bearing the likeness of a river god built into the wall of St. Mary’s in Cosmedin. Some say the slab once reposed on an altar of Jupiter, though most authorities believe it’s actually an old storm drain. In any event, legend has it that if you tell a lie and then stick your hand in the god’s mouth, it will clamp shut. Naturally enough, generations of Roman husbands and wives have brought their spouses here for tests of fidelity.

The Bocca della Verità is by the Palatino Bridge, near the ancient Circus Maximus, where more than 200,000 spectators crowded in to watch the chariot races.

The piazza, however, carries a more solemn memory for Roman Catholics, for it was on this spot that the final acts of capital punishment carried out under the authority of the pope took place. Given that John Paul II is today perhaps the world’s foremost opponent of the death penalty, the piazza stands as a memorial to the progress Catholicism has made on the issue in a little more than a century -- and a salutary reminder of how long judicial murder was both endorsed and practiced by the Catholic magisterium.

Among the last to be executed here were two 25-year-old Italian patriots, Gaetano Tognetti and Giuseppe Montini, beheaded Nov. 24, 1868, for taking part in a raid on a French barracks in October 1867. Tognetti had three small children. In the face of international appeals to spare the men’s lives, Pius IX was succinct: “I can’t and I don’t want to.”

Italy is today in the forefront of anti-death penalty sentiment. The city lights up the Coliseum every time an execution takes place, and every time a country abolishes capital punishment. For the last several weeks, the country was riveted by the story of Derek Rocco Barnabei, a young Italian-American put to death on Sept. 14 for the alleged murder of his girlfriend in 1993 (NCR, Sept. 29). Torchlight marches all over the country reflected popular outrage, though little of this sentiment penetrated the American press.

Given John Paul’s high profile, one could easily imagine that this broad Italian revulsion against the death penalty is rooted in Catholic influence. In fact, however, the reverse is closer to reality -- on this issue, Italy’s secular wing led, and the church has followed. The Papal States executed criminals well after the rest of Italy had abolished the practice. The Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, for example, barred capital punishment Nov. 30, 1786, but papal executions continued for almost another century.

Abolition of the death penalty was seen by most popes and Catholic thinkers in the 18th and 19th century as part of the broader Enlightenment offensive against church tradition. As a way of reasserting the Catholic tradition that life continued after death, and hence that the death penalty is not a final judgment, a succession of popes felt obliged to defend use of capital punishment.

Standing in this spot, where people once died by papal edict, is a sobering experience for thoughtful Catholics. It begs the question: Are there forms of papal conduct taken for granted today, that in 100 years will likewise seem incredible?

The statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi

One of the seven ancient hills of Rome, the Janiculum affords a magnificent view of the city from its high, tree-lined streets. The area boasts numerous statues of heroes from the Risorgimento, or “resurgence,” the push for Italian unification that unfolded over the second half of the 19th century. Dwarfing all else, however, is the massive monument of Giuseppe Garibaldi atop his horse.

Garibaldi made a stand on the Janiculum during the uprisings of 1849 before he fled the city in order to fight another day, and eventually led the Republicans to victory in a unified Italy in 1870. (The building in which he holed up with his wife Anita in 1849 is today the Irish embassy to the Holy See).

Garibaldi was a romantic figure, a swashbuckling revolutionary and an incredibly effective military strategist. So wide was his fame that Abraham Lincoln once offered him a commission as a general in the Union army during the American Civil War. Garibaldi, in predictably grand fashion, refused because Lincoln balked at placing him in command of all Union forces.

What Garibaldi represents to Italians today are the core values of the nation his redshirts helped forge: democracy, equality before the law, free speech and a free press, and all the other civil and human rights associated with modern civil society. Italians also remember that the foremost opponents of the Risorgimento, and hence of these rights and freedoms, were the Catholic popes of the 19th century. These popes opted to defend the Papal States, a patchwork of territories in central Italy over which the pope ruled as a secular monarch, because they regarded the states as essential to safeguarding the church’s independence.

Sometimes papal opposition to the Risorgimento went to ludicrous extremes. Gregory XVI (1831-1846), for example, refused to allow railroads in his domain, in part because he worried that a unified national rail network would lead to a unified nation. More often, the popes used the foremost weapons at their disposal, theological denunciation. Pius IX issued the “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864 attacking all the new concepts of civil rights. Among other things, he said that freedom of speech tends “more easily to corrupt the morals and minds of the people, and to propagate the pest of indifferentism.”

The pope’s opposition to modern thinking was not merely theoretical. The French troops Pius IX summoned to defend the Papal States took the lives of more than a thousand Republicans, and hundreds of papal troops died in the final stages of fighting. A trip to the Garibaldi memorial hence reminds Catholics of lives once lost to resist principles that the church herself today espouses.

Day trips

If time permits a day trip outside Rome, here are two sites that can help restore one’s spiritual optimism.

Assisi: The birthplace of St. Francis is something of a crossroads of the human spirit, since mystics and lovers of the earth from all walks of life are drawn here to celebrate the memory of Catholicism’s most popular saint. This small medieval town in the Umbrian hills, like its native son, reflects all that is best about Catholicism -- its gracious, open spirit, its odd capacity to cultivate both extreme self-sacrifice and a jaunty love of life.

A few moments in prayer in the Porziuncula, the tiny chapel where Francis took solace, is often enough to recharge one’s spiritual batteries, though to get the full effect one has to overlook the gaudy basilica constructed around it. That basilica, St. Mary of the Angels, now houses an unbelievably tacky display featuring wax models of Jesus, Mary and the Christ Child, with a waxen John Paul II, in full papal regalia, kneeling in front of them, and an altar boy standing nearby holding a censer. This flourish of papal-centrism strikes an odd note set against Francis’ universal appeal.

Make sure not to miss the prints illustrating scenes from the life of St. Clare that line the entrance to St. Francis’ tomb. One shows the pope deep in prayer while Clare blesses eucharistic bread, a scene that looks for all the world like she’s saying Mass.

Castel Gondolfo: Popes chose wisely in making this small town in the hills outside Rome their summer residence. Set on the bank of Lake Albano, the town is far cooler than Rome during the scorching summer months. But more than that, the town is smaller and the papal “castle” far less imposing and magnificent than St. Peter’s and the Apostolic Palace. Here, one feels, could reside a servant pope, a person interested in impressing the world with humility and love rather than the trappings of empire. Seeing the pope at Castel Gondolfo is an entirely different experience from a papal audience in Rome. It is more intimate, more real. But even when the pope is not in residence, it’s worth coming to see what physical form an alternative theology of the papacy might take.

John Allen’s e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000