St. Peter's Face-lift; Genzano Abloom

Polishing a Crown Jewel of the Basilica

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 23, 2005 ( During the hot Roman summer, while the inhabitants escape to the beach, the city restorers get to work.

Road repair, facade repainting and church restoration intensify as schools get out and the city empties. Unfortunately for tourists to Rome, this can become an annoyance as souvenir photos feature scaffolding or orange marking tape.

The Vatican is no exception. Those who visited Rome in the summer of 1999 probably have indelible memories of torn-up streets, endless scaffolds and, most disappointingly, the celebrated facade of St. Peter’s Basilica shrouded in steel and canvas.

All the works were unveiled for Jubilee Year 2000 revealing a city more beautiful than ever before, but that was only the beginning for St. Peter’s. Over the last five years the sides of the church have been cleaned, new marble statues added to the niches and the excavated area under the basilica has been restructured.

This month, the crowning glory of St. Peter’s is preparing to get a face-lift. The lantern, bronze orb and cross surmounting the great dome will be cleaned and restored. Visitors this summer will see the gleaming bronze ball trapped in a sort of giant bird cage.

The Fabbrica di San Pietro — the workshop of St. Peter’s — is directing this project which will send workers to a platform 436 feet in the air. There they will clean the columns of the graffiti left by tourists and polish the gilded ball and cross.

As St. Peter’s dome is the tallest structure in Rome, storms have taken quite a toll since the last restoration in1975. Some extensive repairs will be undertaken to fix damage caused by lightening as well as installing a new lightening rod.

The elegant lantern was built by Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana, the architects who brought Michelangelo’s dome project to its conclusion in 1590. The immense globe was added in 1593. While the sphere looks tiny from the square, it can actually fit 14 people inside.

An old basilica legend holds that on the eve of the orb being hauled into place there was a dinner party held within the globe.

The restoration is expected to be completed by September, just in time for the vacationing Romans’ return to the city and for Rome’s busiest tourist season.

Summer pilgrims needn’t despair. The terrace around the lantern will remain open all during the restoration so those stalwart enough to climb the 320 steps to the top (in August heat) will still be able to admire the breathtaking view of the urbs, if not the orb.

* * *

Floral Carpet Treatment

It is not surprising that in a city dominated by stone, the Romans get hungry to see flowers from time to time.

As a respite from travertine, tufa, basalt and marble, in the spring, residents flock to the city’s rose garden, or the Spanish Steps decorated with azaleas, or simply turn their balconies into oases of jasmine and gardenias.

By far and away the greatest expression of the Roman love of flora takes place right before the summer equinox in the little town of Genzano, which swells with visitors to the festival of flowers known as the «Infiorata di Genzano.» This year festivities took place from June 18-20.

This little village in the Castelli Romani, 15 miles from Rome and very near the site of the Pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, blankets the streets with blooms covering about 2,000 square meters.

This festival has been a tradition in Genzano for 200 years and originally took place the Sunday after Corpus Domini. The tapestry of flowers extends along the Via dell’Infiorata with the old Duomo of Santa Maria della Cima as its backdrop.

The whole road is cordoned off with garlands while petals arranged in patterns or to resemble paintings fill the street. The artisans who create these magnificent arrangements go out into the hills around the village searching for the greatest variety of colors and textures of flowers, collecting them in enormous baskets sorted by hue.

The morning of the festival, drawings are made in the pavement to be filled in with roses, poppies, azaleas, begonias and many more. Two hundred men, women and children work for five hours to lay in the 350,000 flowers. Water is sprayed over the petals in minute droplets to keep them fresh and glistening throughout the day. In earlier years, at the end of the day, the labor of the artisans became a splendid carpet for the Corpus Domini procession.

In the 1870s, Massimo D’Azeglio, statesman of the anti-papal Risorgimento movement, lamented that this «magnificent carpet» had to be "ruined by the feet of a procession.» Modern festivals now last three days and the procession circumvents the flowers.

This year’s festival maintained the old tradition of using papal crests and emblems as part of the decorations as well as rendering homage to the moving events of this spring.

One lovely floral tapestry offered a portrait of Pope John Paul II, reminiscent of the tapestries hung on the basilica facade for canonizations. Other compositions, copying several of Michelangelo’s panels in the Sistine Chapel, recalled the recent conclave.

The entire village turns into a still life, where the labor of the citizens, the beauty of the flowers and the brevity of the display serve as a reminder of the transience of all earthly things.

* * *

Alec Guinness’ Journey

This year, Italy’s first taste of the summer film frenzy was the last installment of the Star Wars saga, «The Revenge of the Sith.» The die-hard Star Wars fans of Rome dutifully went and came away with the same dissatisfaction produced by the other two new films. While certainly better than the last two, even this final episode seems to lack something.

Discussing the movie with colleagues later, we agreed that one of the key elements missing was Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi. Speculating further, the question arose of whether Guinness’ firm Catholic faith played a part in the moral authority and the gravitas of Obi Wan.

While it is well known that the mighty «Force» of Star Wars is more Buddhism Lite than anything remotely Christian, Guinness infused his character with something not found in the later Jedi Knight renditions.

Unlike Jedi master Windoo who knows much but never expresses faith in the Force or super-ninja Yoda and his Force-driven martial skills, Guinness’ Obi Wan offered an example of spiritual peace and, most indelibly in the mind of the children who saw it, an example of self-sacrifice.

Timely enough, the subject of Guinness’ conversion was back on bookshelves last year with Piers Paul Reid’s biography «Alec Guinness: An Authorized Biography.» Together with Guinness’ own description of his conversion to the Catholic faith in «Blessings in Disguise,» it appears that life does imitate art.

Both the spiritual and material origins of Sir Alec Guinness were inauspicious. An illegitimate son of a woman who barely provided for him, he was confirmed in the Anglican church at 16 when he, in his own words, «arose from under the hands of the Bishop of Lewes a confirmed atheist.»

As he trained for a stage career he also started searching for a religion. His myriad of early characters — Osric in «Hamlet,» Herbert Pocket in «Great Expectations» and the astounding eight parts in «Kind Hearts and Coronets» — reflected the numerous stops on his quest for faith, from Buddhism to Tarot cards.

While Guinness himself asserted that the catalyst to his conversion was his son’s recovery from polio, there was a long, slow preparation to what would be greatest part.

As Guinness started to find himself drawn to the Catholic Church looking for inner peace, he started taking priest roles in film. In 1954, he accepted the part of Father Brown in the screen adaptation of stories of G.K. Chesterton’s beloved clerical sleuth.

in 1955, he played the heroic cardinal in the controversial film «The Prisoner,» a film banned by both the Venice and Cannes film festivals for its negative depiction of Eastern European Communism. Adapted from a stage play, it is an intense psychological duel between an interrogator representing the totalitarian regime and a prelate charged with being overly political.

While the story is loosely based on the story of Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary, the character of the cardinal has startling parallels with the actor’s own life. The shame of a poor background and an unpresentable parent, and the desire for glory to cleanse himself of the past, are all used against the cardinal in his psychological torture. This must have resonated very deeply in Guinness.

In 1956 Guinness converted. He lived out his life as a very prominent Catholic in England, becoming vice president of the Catholic Actors Guild but also a lector in his home parish of St. Lawrence in Hampshire.

Guinness was not proud of his association with Star Wars. He apparently refused to read fan mail connected with it and never uttered the phrase, «May the Force be with you.»

Nonetheless, he gave the generation that got to know him through these movies a new kind of hero. Who could forget the old man against the towering machine, weaker and out of practice in combat, who smiled as he lifted his saber to be cut down by his enemy?

Guinness gave young people a last gift, albeit reluctantly, of an example of love and courage in popular culture and in life as well.

* * *

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation