Pope City; The Woes of Rome

Benedict XVI to Visit Home of Papal Conclave

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, AUG. 27, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Next Sunday, Benedict XVI will travel to Viterbo, otherwise known the «City of Popes,» about 60 miles north of Rome.

The city has a fascinating history and boasts a wealth of Etruscan and Roman archaeological finds. It also has a magnificent — if not a little bizarre — festival in honor of its patron saint, but more on that later.

Primarily, Viterbo is a medieval city and perhaps best known for being the birthplace of the papal conclave. Five pontiffs were elected in the city between 1261 and 1281, but it was the election of Pope Gregory X, which is arguably the most interesting. His accession to the papal throne in 1271 took 33 months owing to a protracted dispute over the Kingdom of Sicily. The College of Cardinals was split between which ruler of the kingdom the Pope should support. In the end they chose Gregory X (Tebaldo Visconti) as he was considered to be reasonably neutral in the dispute.

Visconti, then taking part in a crusade, wasn’t even a priest when he was chosen, but came to Viterbo six months after his election and ordained a month later. He soon made it a priority to improve the process of papal elections and so, in 1274, published the decree «Ubi periculum» (Where there is danger). The decree consisted of a series of strict rules aimed at speeding up papal elections. These included stipulations (with certain provisos) that the election should take place in the city where the pontiff had died, that all cardinals were to live in common in one room, and that they were to be completely locked in with no one else allowed to enter (hence the name conclave, meaning «under lock and key).

A further rule was that if, after three days, there had been no election, the cardinals were allowed only one dish at lunch and supper. After five days, they were only allowed bread, wine and water until they decided on a new Pope. The new system was quickly put to work and appeared to be effective: Pope Gregory died suddenly in Arezzo in 1276 and his successor, Pope Innocent V (Cardinal Pierre of Tarentaise), was elected in the relatively short time of just three weeks. Gregory X’s decree, however, didn’t always shorten the election process, and was even temporarily rescinded shortly afterward by Pope John XXI.

Benedict XVI, no doubt well-versed in the city’s history, will pay a visit to Viterbo’s Conclave Hall and the Palace of the Popes soon after he arrives by helicopter Sept. 6. He will then celebrate Mass in the city and recite the Angelus before praying at two Marian shrines.

Although the Holy Father has most probably seen it before, he will unfortunately just miss the grandiose procession of St. Rose, the city’s patron who lived in the 13th century and was renowned for interceding in miracles. At around 9 p.m. every Sept. 3, a colossal, illuminated tower, nearly 100 feet high and dedicated to the saint, is paraded through the city by a team of strong-armed locals. The tradition is over 750 years old, although the tower hasn’t always been so high.

Shortly before it begins its procession, the town’s lights are turned off, and the vast and highly decorative «La Macchina di Santa Rosa,» made of papier-mâché type material, slowly comes into view, accompanied with cheers from a large crowd lining the route. The procession culminates with the tower’s carriers dramatically sprinting up the final hill with the St. Rose tower resting precariously on their shoulders. If you happen to be visiting Rome at this time of year, it’s most certainly worth seeing.

Before leaving Viterbo, the Pope will then make a brief stop in Bagnoregio, where St. Bonaventure was born in 1217. There he will venerate a relic of the saint, on whom the Holy Father wrote his postdoctoral thesis, before flying back to Castel Gandolfo in the evening.

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Focusing on the Positive

Romans who perhaps couldn’t afford a vacation to escape the stifling August heat in Rome, had to face further depressing news this month: The city is more expensive than its arch rival Milan, and the salaries are lower.

According to a survey carried out by Swiss bank UBS, and reported widely in the Italian press this month, Rome is rated the 17th most expensive major city in the world, while Milan comes in at 30th. It also revealed that Romans are paid on average half what New Yorkers earn, yet the standard of living is almost the same.

To add to these pecuniary woes, even those Romans who could afford to get away during the dog days of August faced further misery. Italian media reported Aug. 20 that Rome’s main airport, Fiumicino, was rated the worst in Europe for delays. One in every two flights is late, and the average delay is 25 minutes.

Reasons are many and varied, but the airport blames them mostly on Alitalia, the struggling national carrier, which has had problems integrating its services with Air One (the two airlines merged earlier this year). But the problems can also affect low-cost airlines. A recent Easyjet flight I took from the airport was delayed nearly two hours because airport ground staff had suddenly fallen out with the airline, despite having signed a contract. «They just don’t like us here,» the air stewardess told me. «This is what we get at Fiumicino,» she said, shrugging her shoulders.

But knocking Rome for its inefficiency and expensive living is easy to do, forgetting that this unique city more than compensates in other, more obvious ways. Rome, like much of Italy, essentially closes down from the end of July to early September when many Romans head for the mountains and beaches, leaving the city less crowded and uncharacteristically calm.

Yet there is still plenty going on, in addition to all the year-round historical and cultural attractions. Key events include the open-air operas, which take place every August in the breathtaking, ancient Baths of Caracalla. There are also jazz concerts at Villa Celimontana and, if you’re feeling confident in the lingo, in the Villa Borghese is a replica of London’s Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays are performed in Italian. Also along the banks of the Tiber is a wide selection of bars, restaurants, shops, stages for live music, and even an open-air cinema, put up just for the summer months.  

Regarding museums, in September and October the Vatican Museums are to historically open its doors after dark every Friday, staying open until 11 p.m. It follows the success of its first night-time opening in its 503-year history in July.

Also this year the Villa Medici’s private rooms are open to the public for special visits. And with an extended showing until Sept. 13, the Museo del Corso is hosting an exhibition by Japanese artist Hiroshige.

The Eternal City’s costs can seem extortionate, and its transport delays occasionally interminable, but if you can put up with these drawbacks — and the summer heat — Rome must still rank as one of the top cities in the world to visit. «Urbem lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit» (Augustus found a city [Rome] of bricks and left a city of marble).

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.

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