The Vatican Without the Pope; Weigel's Epistles

Summer Heat, and an Absence, Hangs Over Rome

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 15, 2004 ( Like a dark cloud over the otherwise flawless July sky, a touch of melancholy descended on Rome this week.

Somehow, the sight of the «sanpietrini» (the Roman name for the custodians of St. Peter’s) dismantling the Pope’s canopy in the square, stacking the plastic audience chairs and removing the wooden barriers always causes a pang. This yearly ritual signals the Holy Father’s summer move from Rome to Castel Gandolfo, a tradition dating back long before this pontificate.

It should be a pleasure, knowing that the square will be free from clutter and we can once again contemplate the vast, beautiful space the way Bernini intended, and that the majestic facade will be on full view again. But at the same time, for the next two months our weekly appointment for the Rome Sunday Angelus is canceled, and we will no longer see a reassuring light in John Paul’s study window as we walk back from our dinners.

At the moment, the Pope is in the Italian Alps for a 12-day vacation and upon his return, he will move out to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

The Holy Father will still be flying in by helicopter on Wednesdays for the weekly audience, tucked away in the air-conditioned Paul VI Hall. But that feeling of familiar daily closeness to the Pope will be missing for the next several weeks.

Castel Gandolfo is nestled in the hills of the Castelli Romani, about 10 miles outside the city, the area chosen by the Roman nobles in the Middle Ages to build their fortified retreats. Many of the towns have a more ancient pedigree.

Castel Gandolfo’s name comes from the family that owned the town from 1000 to 1200, but the remains of Emperor Domitian’s Villa date back to the first century, while tradition has it that Albano was founded by Ascanius, son of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s epic poem «The Aeneid.»

The Roman custom of summer exodus from the city does indeed date from the time of the republic. Rome’s low-lying proximity to the river made the city particularly susceptible to «bad air,» or malaria, in July and August and as a result, anyone who could afford it would leave the city during the steamy summer months.

The Vatican area was particularly notorious for its unhealthiness, the swampy area below the sharp rise of the Vatican Hill providing an ideal habitat for serpents and mosquitoes. While the papacy took up permanent residence in the Vatican in the 1400s (after a 1,000 years of on-again, off-again residence at St. John Lateran’s), by the mid-1500s the Popes were already constructing a palace on the top of the more salubrious Quirinal Hill, as a new city residence. In 1608, Castel Gandolfo was acquired as a summer retreat.

Although expropriated by the newly formed Italian state in 1870, the villa was returned to the Holy See under the Lateran Pacts of 1929, and resumed its function as a papal residence.

During World War II the villa was put to very different use. Sister Margherita Marchione’s book, «Shepherd of Souls: The Pictorial Life of Pope Pius XII,» contains some astonishing photographs of the papal apartments at Castel Gandolfo transformed into a hideout for Jewish families sought by the Nazis.

Today, the restored villa bears little evidence of the bombings, fugitives or even the wear and tear of time. It boasts a huge garden, a swimming pool and an astronomical observatory. The villa itself is set up with reception rooms and loggia much like the Apostolic Palace, many still painted in the exuberant 16th-century style.

The Pope brings a small staff with him, 17 Swiss Guards, 20 of the Vatican police to watch the huge gardens, five women religious, two secretaries and his butler. He spends his days peacefully, Mass in the small chapel in his apartments, writing, resting and probably sampling some the great local fare.

On Sundays, he recites the Angelus with crowds gathered in the courtyard. This appointment with pilgrims and tourists affords a lovely opportunity to get out of the city and into the hills for some fresh air. As Angelus is at midday, restaurant owners all through the Castelli brace themselves for the huge summer lunch rush. John XXIII used to say that that he went to Castel Gandolfo so that others besides the Romans could profit from his presence!

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Seeing the Sistine with New Eyes

Summertime holds a special appeal for pleasure reading. While last year I made the mistake of reading the irritating «Da Vinci Code,» with its historical and religious distortions, this year I picked up George Weigel’s «Letters to a Young Catholic,» a fine antidote to Dan Brown’s errors.

Obviously Brown’s book is fiction and Weigel’s is not. However, both books encourage thought about symbolism, and both move at a pace amenable to the modern reader. The similarities end here.

Beyond the superior epistolary style of Weigel, enlivened with witty epithets and anecdotes, so clear at times so as almost to hear that deep rumbling laugh of his emanating from the pages, «Letters to Young Catholic» presents the reader with a path made clear not by cloudy Gnostic codes, but by the unique Catholic perspective.

In 14 letters, Weigel takes the reader on a journey from Baltimore to Jerusalem, London, Krakow and beyond, each stop being an opportunity for reflection, similar to the 14 Stations of the Cross. The subjects of love, vocation and death are taken out of the abstract and made tangible through physical place and artistic vision whether it be literary or architectural.

Although sorely tempted to hop a plane for England after reading about G.K. Chesterson and the Olde Cheshire Cheese pub and Evelyn Waugh and Castle Howard, I took «Letters to a Young Catholic» with me to the Sistine Chapel. As I see the chapel almost every day, I was hoping to see it with new eyes.

I did.

The silly anecdotes repeated around me ad nauseam about Michelangelo’s rivalries, discomforts and dissatisfactions faded away as the underlying message of the chapel shone forth as brightly as its newly restored colors.

Weigel revisits John Paul II’s homily of April 8, 1994, celebrating the completion of the restoration. In it, the Pope commended Michelangelo and his vision of «the Invisible made Visible.» This notion would later be beautifully crafted in poetic form in the second poem of John Paul II’s «Roman Triptych.»

It is in that idea of vision and perception that the awe-inspiring beauty of the chapel takes it form. Weigel tells us that «Catholicism is … a way of seeing things, a distinctive perception of reality.» It is when one looks at the Sistine vault with the eyes of a Catholic, that the story of man’s salvation becomes powerfully, vitally real. Neither technical nor psychological viewpoints can confer the same dignity and timelessness on Michelangelo’s art.

For his reflection on the Sistine Chapel, Weigel takes as a departure point the conclusion of the Pope’s homily where he refers to the chapel as «the sanctuary of the theology of the body.»

Again, looking up at the ceiling and over at the Last Judgment, there cannot be a finer place for thoughts on the dignity and beauty of the human form. Over our heads, the sculptor-turned-painter gives us strong, pulsating bodies that fill the spaces and threaten to burst out of their architectural confinement.

Above the altar, in the Last Judgment, Michelangelo frees the bodies from an architectural framework. He first shows them awakening from the dead, smaller and darker, breaking away from the ground. The figures then increase in size and are semi-illuminated as they are assisted into heaven. But the bodies of the saints around Christ and of Christ himself are huge, luminous trophies, worn with thundering pride in paradise. Never has the human form been so exalted.

But the refl
ection I found most beautifully and subtly played out in the ceiling was that of man and woman and the gift of self. The most famous panel of the ceiling depicts Adam’s creation, while Eve awaits cradled in God’s other arm, already present in the divine plan. Her creation forms the centerpiece of the ceiling and she and Adam sin together and are expelled from Eden together.

This uniting of man and woman extends from the very beginning of man’s creation through the Last Judgment. Here, Mary nestles at Christ’s side, next to the wound of the lance, no longer only Mother but bride as well. This magnificent vision is again reserved for the Catholic perspective.

Weigel ransoms art from nebulous and deceptive interpretation and shows Catholics how to reclaim our cultural heritage, our history and our pride through our unique vision that sees «gritty» reality for what it is, but through it, can at the same time glimpse the transcendental.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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