Finding a Way Through Rome: a Guide to Guidebooks

And Looking at the City Through the Eyes of the Century’s Most Gifted

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, Sept. 20, 2012 ( Christian pilgrims have been flooding Rome since Sts. Peter and Paul offered up their glorious witness in the first century. 

An ancient inscription housed in the Vatican Museums attests to a bishop named Albercius who journeyed from Phrygia to Rome in the mid-second century. Albercius writes, «He sent me to Rome, to behold a kingdom, and to see a queen with golden robe and golden shoes,» which many scholars hold to be the trophies of Sts. Peter and Paul. Scratched testimonies on the makeshift monuments of the apostles testify to how many pilgrims risked their lives to stand by those humble tombs.

The ranks of Roman pilgrims have swelled through the centuries. The first Jubilee year in 1300 saw a few organized groups wading through filthy streets and poor accommodations, but by the Renaissance era, Rome had hospitals, banks and roads. The Holy Year of 1600 saw 3 million pilgrims visit the sacred sites, and of course, there were 25 million people who came for the Great Jubilee of 2000.

Pilgrims come to pray and to visit the remains of the great saints and relics of Christ’s Passion, but they also love to ponder the ancient city, once the capital of a pagan empire, which, after virulent persecutions and visceral rejection of the Christian faith, finally came to accept the truth of Christ’s message. It is always heartening to remember how grim life must have been for Christians under Emperor Diocletian, and yet, less than 10 years after his attempt to annihilate all of Christ’s followers in the Empire, the Christian religion was legalized.

The dense history of this city has resulted in an urban labyrinth, despite the best efforts of several visionary popes who carved out straight streets punctuated with refreshing fountains. To help pilgrims navigate their way between the grandiose ruins of a fallen empire and the hidden tombs of the great saints and martyrs, guidebooks began to appear in the Middle Ages. Bishop Albercius wrote of the letters of St. Paul as the guide that first illuminated the path of the early pilgrims, but soon the Mirabilia Roma was produced, listing the wonders of Rome to be seen and admired.

Today the pamphlets and diaries that document the stories of the saints and the Christian growth of the city are perhaps overshadowed on bookshelves by the tourist guides proposing gelati, bargain shopping and how to race through the maximum number of photo ops in the minimum amount of time. But, nestled among these are still a few books that continue to navigate the pilgrim through the modern maze of Rome to its sacred history.

As Rome reawakens after a long summer and we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of pilgrims during the upcoming ordinations, synods and canonizations that will open the Year of Faith, I read over a few of these pilgrim books to offer a sort of mini-guide to the guidebooks of Christian Rome.

The lion of the bunch seems to be Fr. Joseph Tylenda’s «Pilgrim’s Guide to Rome’s Principal Churches,» which was just released in a new, improved edition in 2011. It this orderly guide, Fr. Tylenda presents 51 of Rome’s most famous churches. It is grouped from papal basilicas onward, starting with Rome’s heaviest hitter of St. Peter’s and gradually presenting the eclectic array of Rome’s sacred sites. It doesn’t group churches into itineraries, either by theme or area, it is more like a reference book, with a floor plan and guided visit to each site.

The Pilgrim’s Guide uses a methodical approach from the façade, to the interior and then the chapels to order the visit. Fr Tylenda does not bypass the sacred for the artistic, but at times he seems to favor anecdotes over a historical grounding of the church. It is a helpful handbook and includes a glossary, to help people handle the complicated vocabulary of church construction and decoration.

I also enjoyed «Holy Rome: Millennium Guide of Christian Sites,» a Fodor thematic itinerary assembled with the Touring Club in 1999 to assist pilgrims coming for the Year 2000. Again a very transport-friendly book, it groups churches into 12 itineraries allowing one to organize both time and movement. Fodor’s offers several excursus to deepen the understanding of Rome’s Christian history from the significance of Sts. Peter and Paul, to the age of persecution as well as a delightful forward on saints and martyrs and their role in the Church. Easy and helpful, meant to accompany a pilgrim, but not deepen faith.

«A Catholic’s Guide to Rome: Discovering the Soul of the Eternal City» by Frank J. Korn is a winner of a guidebook. It gives a wonderful grounding to each moment of Rome’s churches, not just chronologically or architecturally but also its role during the liturgical year. Professor Korn tries to capture how pilgrimage not only brings us through space but also time, closing the gap between past and present. It has moments of intense focus, particularly on St. Peter’s, so it is not an easy reference for darting in and out of churches, but it is a rich and deep guide to experiencing faith and history of the Eternal City.

Barrett Mcgurn’s «Pilgrims Guide To Rome» was also written on the eve of Jubilee 2000 and much of his information has become a little out of date. It is the smallest of the guidebooks and the easiest to carry, but what it lost in bulk it also lost in depth. The book takes a journalist’s view of the upcoming Jubilee, so there is much discussion of the mechanics of the papacy and the Holy Year; it is catchy and informative, but fails to connect with the sacred center of the city. It does, however, more than the others, give some focus on the Mirabilia of Rome, or the ancient wonders that captivated the ancient pilgrim as well as the modern one.

In closing, I have two favorites which are unfortunately not practical or useful as guidebooks to bring on one’s journey, but help me get into the pilgrim mood. One is June Hagar’s beautiful 1999 book «Pilgrimage; A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome.» Her approach and organization of the book, from Rome’s heroic women martyrs, to the glories of the Baroque era, to the most recent age, is innovative, interesting and her information goes beyond the facts and figures of the church but ties the site in with the sacred history of the city. The photos, by Grzegorz Galazka, are simply stunning. Pilgrimage allows one to relive the great epochs of faith and beauty in Rome from the comfort of a living room.

The last book isn’t properly a guidebook, but I was so taken with it that I thought it was worth a mention. «Vatican Impressions» edited by Francis Sweeney and published in 1962, compiles the many thoughts and writings of some of the most creative, intellectual and gifted minds of the past century and records their reactions to Rome. While a great many are not Catholic or perhaps even Christian, there are also others such as Hillaire Belloc speaking on visiting Rome, and the passionate words of Lord Acton who exhorts us to «GO! Go to Rome! Never mind the Journey, GO! Life is not the same afterwards.»

«Vatican Impressions» allows one to sit with an American woman at a papal audience in the 1950s, walk through the churches accompanied by poets or politicians and see the city through many different eyes. While all are both insightful and respectful, perhaps my favorite statement in the book came from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, «I love St. Peter’s Church.» Sums it up, doesn’t it?

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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. Her new
book, The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at

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