A Long Overdue Word of Thanks

Seven Ways the Papacy Changed Rome For the Better

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In these summer months, when overheated, overwhelmed tourists descend in droves on the Eternal City, one often overhears much silliness about the Popes and their legacy. Perhaps it is enhanced by the new television series “The Borgias,” featuring one of Peter’s less-than-stellar successors, Pope Alexander VI. Perhaps it is merely the defense mechanism of cynicism in the face of so much history and grandeur. In any event, listening to disparaging and ignorant remarks about the institution whose fruits make Rome one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world (7-10 million people a year), always gets me down about this time of year. Since the papacy provided most of Rome’s preferred tourist activities and left the Eternal City its greatest photo ops, I wonder, wouldn’t a little gratitude be in order?

This week, I thought it would be nice to remember how much the papacy has contributed to this city, and how much their foresight enriched past pilgrimages and present vacations. Since Rome’s lucky number has always been seven, I’ll list seven examples below.

1) Straight roads and Obelisks. The fall of the Roman Empire saw its survivors abandon the area of the Forum and the surrounding seven hills to nestle into a small spur in the Tiber River known as the Campus Martius. There, using pre-existing structures as foundations, the Romans packed the area with a hodgepodge of shops, palaces, churches and markets. The maze of roads in the Campus Martius contrasted sharply with the old inhabited areas of antiquity — these were open, empty fields freckled with a few ruins.

Pilgrims coming to Rome from the eighth century on were lost either in a confusing labyrinth or a sprawling field. In the Middle Ages, the papacy began cutting streets through the winding alleys, such as the Via del Pellegrino (the road of the pilgrims) and the Via dei Coronari (the street of the Rosary bead sellers), which would conduct pilgrims (the principal visitors to Rome during the dismal and travailed centuries) from the historic areas to St Peter’s basilica with ease.

The Renaissance Popes notched things up, bestowing upon the city the majestic Piazza del Popolo and its trident of roads leading to three major areas of the city — a system later copied by both Paris and Barcelona. They also constructed the elegant boulevard of Via Giulia — the Fifth Avenue of the 16th century. Pope Sixtus V, however, produced the streets that ease every modern tourist’s over-stocked to-see list. The connecting road from the Church of the Holy Cross to St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major to the Spanish Steps was his doing, as he paved paths through the open fields and rendered the Holy Sites more accessible. To help pilgrims find their way, he restored the broken obelisks, distant trophies of the Roman conquest of Egypt, long since crumbled and ruined, and placed them as markers in front of major sites. They can be seen at great distances — the obelisk at St. John Lateran from the front of St. Mary Major, for example — and serve as beacons, guiding pilgrims and tourists alike through the city. Recycling and sagacious urban planning — aren’t those society’s most admired qualities today?

2) Conservation of Antiquities. Think of all the vacation photos with Rome’s spectacular antique monuments in the background. Where would the Pantheon, Coliseum or even the ancient Roman Curia be without the care of the papacy? The Pantheon, with its marbles, granites and bronze, built in the swampy lands of the Campus Martius, would have fallen into ruin had the papacy not reversed a policy of eschewing pagan temples as houses of Christian worship when Boniface IV asked Byzantine Emperor Phocas for permission to transform the Pantheon into a church on May 13, 609.

The Flavian amphitheater (aka the Coliseum) had been occupied by a Roman Frangipani family from the sixth to the 11th century and used as a fort. A papal decree in that era reclaimed that and other great monuments of the past from private hands that were running the structures into ruin. When an earthquake devastated the amphitheater in 1349, it then became a quarry for the reconstruction of Rome after the papal return from Avignon. In 1754 however, Pope Clement XIV declared the site a martyrium and prohibited any further dismantling of the building. His successors, Pope Pius VII and Gregory XVI, built the two wedges that still support and maintain the building today. The intact temples that we enjoy visiting today were preserved with the care, funding and attention of the Roman Church that, despite their problematic past, deemed them worthy of a new life in service to God.

3) Churches. Speaking of churches, how many times have tired tourists found a bit of respite from the heat and chaos of the streets inside one of Rome’s cool churches? The hundreds of churches built within the city walls housed religious orders, gave the various nationalities a spiritual home in Rome, or simply accommodated the many parishes of the Pope’s diocese. They are also a place to sit down in the natural air conditioning of the large stone structures. The papal basilicas in particular remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (and are equipped with bathrooms all free of charge, unlike the churches of Venice and Florence). Nor is the tired tourist accosted by some religious brother or sister “proselytizing” in exchange for the free service, but is usually surrounded by works of art, whether Raphael in Sant’Agostino, Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi or Filippino Lippi in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. These priceless paintings, which would fetch a hefty entrance fee at any museum, are the only evangelizing Roman churches offer — the possibility of contemplating Truth through great beauty and in comfort.

4) Aqueducts. The spectacular flow of water that enlivens, cools and reinvigorates this city is also a gift from the papacy. The great tradition of aqueducts was begun by the ancient Romans, who offered fresh water to the populace through extensive aqueducts traveling up to 60 miles. Those great waterworks were destroyed during the age of the barbarian invasions, along with the technology that created them. The Renaissance papacy, drawing on the greatest efforts of Rome’s past, began to restore the ancient aqueducts and build new ones.

In 1543, Nicholas V restored the Aqua Vergine, first built by Agrippa, followed by a new aqueduct, the Aqua Felice, built by Pope Sixtus V in 1586. Two more Popes added aqueducts offering Rome a steady flow of sweet, cool and refreshing water that can still be enjoyed free by any native or tourist at the hundreds of spigots around the city. The Popes also embellished Rome with its magnificent fountains: the Trevi, the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona, the Leaky Boat fountain of Piazza di Spagna and dozens of others. Beauty, pleasure and refreshment, all given freely — who could ask for more?

5) Museums. The great museums that help us while away the hours from one gelato to the next spaghetti all’amatriciana are also the fruit of papal munificence. The papal collections of the Vatican Museums are of course world-renowned, but several other treasure troves of Roman art would not exist without the papacy either. Pope Sixtus IV opened the world’s first public museum in 1471, when he donated five bronze sculptures preserved since antiquity to the Roman people, housing them in the conservator’s palace on the Capitoline Hill. That site, today known as the Capitoline museum, has been enhanced over the centuries with hundreds of other gifts from the Popes, so that the she-wolf and spinario of the original collection are now flanked by the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, the moving Dying Gaul and the celebrated Capitoline Venus.

6) Hospitals and Hostels. The Pope’s job description tends more toward the spiritual care of his sheep and lambs, yet the Roman Pontiff has always understood that his flock needs bodily assistance as well.
In the unfortunate event of illness or the problem of “no room at the inn,” the Popes also prepared contingencies to ensure no one was left without care or shelter.

The Santo Spirito hospital, built by Pope Sixtus IV in 1480, nestled next to the Vatican, treated not only the sick Romans, but also any pilgrims who fell ill during his or her time in Rome. The papacy established Trinità dei Pelligrini where pilgrims would be assured a bed, meal, counseling or help. During the Jubilee year of 1600, Trinita dei Pelligrini tended to the needs of 145,000 pilgrims. That welcoming spirit can still be found today in the dozens of convents that provide affordable places to stay for pilgrims, in the myriad information points around the city and the cheerful willingness with which any curial priest stops his busy rush from one meeting to another to bless a few pilgrims and their rosaries.

7) Prayers. The last gift of the Popes that continue to this day are their prayers for our safety, our enjoyment and most importantly for the opening of our hearts to God in this ancient and holy city.

Perhaps during our enjoyments of shopping and sightseeing, we could be gracious enough to pause and remember all the papacy has done for the city. A prayer of gratitude and petition for the Roman Pontiff seems the least we can do to give thanks for the many blessings received at their hands.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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