Birthdays in Rome; Keeping the Soul Together

Turning Temples Christward

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 30, 2009 ( Rome may have celebrated its 2,782 year anniversary on April 21, but another important birthday is in the offing. On May 13, the Pantheon will celebrate its 1,400th year as a Christian church.

The jewel of Rome’s historical center, the Pantheon was the most ambitious building project undertaken in Roman history. The giant hemispherical dome resting on the cylindrical drum drew on every lesson the Romans had learned in 800 years of conquest and construction.

The engineering mastery displayed in the Pantheon surpassed any country in the Empire. The concrete dome spanned 143 feet in diameter, twice as large as the next runner up — a bath complex in Baiae. The sophisticated employment of pozzolana cement, instead of lime mortar, the structural arches countering the lateral stress, and the gradation of the density of the cement from foundation to dome testified to a people who had outstripped even the Egyptians and their pyramids.

This monument to man’s ingenuity was intended to symbolize the Roman fixation with deification. The first temple on the site, built in 25 B.C. by Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, featured Mars and Venus, the divine ancestors of Julius Caesar and by extension, Augustus himself. The new building constructed by Hadrian in 125 at the zenith of the Roman empire went even further.

The height and diameter of the building are equal: 143 feet by 143 feet. The equality of the horizontal and the vertical signifies the conjunction of heaven and earth. The giant open oculus, a round hole at the very top of the dome, provides the sole source of light for the temple. It was conceived as an eye (hence the name oculus)  through which the gods surveyed the emperor, the god-in-waiting on earth. And the decoration of the dome and floor were made up of intermingled circles and squares, symbols of heaven and earth, respectively.

A Pythagorean reading of the Pantheon saw the oculus as the sun, the 28 ribs extending from the oculus as the moon, and the three semicircular niches in the drum as a triangle with the emperor at the apex. This interpretation sees the design of the Pantheon as a symbol of the emperor’s apotheosis.

After almost half a millennium as a pagan structure, the Eastern Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV who conferred new life and identity on the ancient structure. On May 13, 609, it became the first pagan temple to be transformed into a Christian church.

Instead of falling into disrepair and ultimately being quarried for new projects, the Pantheon was reborn as St. Mary of the Martyrs, ready to continue through the centuries with a newer and more glorious purpose. To cement its dignity among churches, the bones of hundreds of martyrs were brought from the catacombs outside the city for safekeeping within its strong walls.

As a result of the martyrs’ translocation, the Pantheon celebrates its dedication on Nov. 1, All Saints Day.

In Rome, the roots of conversion were sunk so deep that the very urban fabric turned from its old pagan significance to a greater Christian message. Mirabilia Urbis, a medieval Roman guide book, recounts a convoluted tale of the Pantheon as a temple to the fertility goddess Cybele, claimed for Christianity in the name of Mary, mother of God.

The most wonderous manifestation of the Christianized Pantheon take place on Pentecost Sunday when red rose petals are dropped through the oculus into the church. Representing the tongues of flame of the Holy Spirit, the petals flutter among the gathered crowds, a festive reminder of how through God’s grace, all things can be made new.

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Building a state

It’s funny to think that an institution as old as the papacy resides in a state that is only 80 years old. The 500-year-old basilica, and the tomb of St. Peter, now advancing towards its 2,000th anniversary, indicate a long history, but Vatican City State, the proper name of the sovereign state of the Holy Father, celebrated its 80th anniversary last Feb. 11.

An interesting exhibit on the Charlemagne wing of St. Peter’s square sheds light on the circumstances and events surrounding the birth of this new nation.

The five-part show brings together documents, photographs, maps, models and medals to illustrate the salient moments of the unification of Italy, the negotiations of the concordat and the resulting entity that we know today.

Visitors are greeted with a scale model of today’s Vatican City State. It comprises only 104 acres, but in the densely packed space, there are monuments ranging from the dawn of Christianity to the present. A timetable illustrates the intense building activity of the 20th-century pontiffs to get the complex organized into a modern state complete with train station, post office and city hall.

For those who are not Rome denizens and therefore are not reminded by the daily canon shot at noon of the demise of the Papal States on Sept. 20, 1870, the show opens with what was termed “the Roman Question.” The unification of Italy and the wresting of Rome away from Pope Pius IX caused a conundrum in the first political maneuvers of the Italian state.

A searching portrait of Blessed Pius IX by Louis Gallant, reveals a concerned Pope, looking into an increasingly problematic future. Despite his careworn eyes, the Pope seems serene in the face of imminent disaster. Maps and the document of capitulation signed at Villa Albani by General Hermann Kanzler, chief of the papal defenses, round out the origin of the “Roman Question”

Under the laws of the Guarentigie promulgated in 1871, the Pope retained his honors as sovereign, but was treated juridically as an Italian subject. Italy annexed all papal land from the Vatican area to Castel Gandolfo, even objecting to Leo XIII’s admission fee to the Vatican Museums, as it was no longer his property under these laws.

The Popes rejected this loss of sovereignty, choosing voluntary exile within the Vatican walls rather than accepting the terms of the Guarentigie. Excluded from peace conferences and international policy meetings, it seemed that the era when the Popes had been world protagonists had come to an end.

The star of the show is Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 to 1939. He started his pontificate with a gesture of willingness to reconcile with Italy. Instead of appearing for the first time after his election on an internal loggia as his three predecessors had done, symbolizing the Pope’s imprisonment in the Vatican, he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s ready to face Rome again.

A magnificent white silk cope on display in the center of the room gives the impression that this great Pope is still present in the hall. A gift of his native Milan, for the closing of Jubilee Year 1925, the mantle represents textile innovation. Instead of the former heavily embroidered papal robes that were oppressively heavy to wear, Milanese silk weavers crafted a lightweight garment whose total weight — including the mitre — was a mere six pounds.

The exhibit also boasts his tiara, an elegant silver filigree crown encircled by three gilt bands flecked with lilies, while a scattering of diamonds and emeralds catch the light.

These objects underscoring the majesty of the Pope held great symbolic importance during the years that many people in the international community were attempting to subjugate him to citizenship of one land or another.

A true Pontifex Maximus, Pope Pius XI worked doggedly to build a bridge between the papacy and the newly formed Italian state, which culminated in the Lateran Treaties of 1929.

The next room seems as if one has intruded during the signing of the treaty. The table and chairs from the room where the pact was signed are arranged along the wall with a silk screen photo of each of the signatories present behind his chair. Copies of the treaty lie on the table for perusal.

The original copy of the pact was brought for the first time out of the Vatican archives to be displayed in the show. The signature of Benito Mussoini and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gaspari, framed by their respective seals, proclaim the birth of Vatican City State.

The fruit of long negotiation begun in 1925 between consistorial lawyer Francesco Pacelli (brother of the future Pius XII) and Benito Mussolini, then prime minister of Italy, the pacts established the sovereignty of Vatican City State.

The term Lateran Pacts alludes to three documents. The treaty established the independence of the Holy See. Numerous images around the room show the territories that would remain under the authority of the Holy See. Besides the Vatican area, the four basilicas, and the Castel Gandolfo villa, the Pope would retain the Gregorian University, the land on Janiculum of the North American College and the Bambino Gesu hospital, as well as a few other sites.

Not very much land, but as Pope Pius XI said quoting St. Francis, «just enough body to keep the soul together.»

The final agreement was a financial indemnity for the vast territories and holdings lost by the Holy See with the capture of Rome. The money was used to embark on a dramatic rebuilding project to transform an ancient pilgrimage center into a modern state in a modern world.

Fascinating photos show the busy activities of Pope Pius and his successors as they built the new city. A giant aerial bridge was constructed to link the Vatican with the Italian train lines, intended as the privileged entrance for heads of state. The City Hall, Vatican Radio and the new Vatican Museum were all opened one after another in a remarkable spate of building.

The Popes have continued this tradition of modernizing Vatican City State from the Casa Santa Marta built by John Paul II to the new parking lot off Piazza Risorgimento under Benedict XVI.

The forward-looking constructions in state of the art materials, illustrates a little-known fact: the Vatican doesn’t do retro.

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Truer treasure

For all those who thought that the Vatican Museums housed only artistic treasures, guess again. The museums’ custodial staff are showing their own value through an extraordinary example of charity. The 160 museum custodians have offered a day’s work to assist the earthquake-damaged region of Aquila in Abruzzo. On Sunday, May 10, normally a day when the museums are closed, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.. The custodians proposed to work for free so that the ticket sales from that day can be donated to the earthquake relief. A perfect blend of inner and outer beauty!

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and the University of St. Thomas Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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