ROME, MARCH 18, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Spring has arrived in the Eternal City in what seemed to be an overnight flush of blossoming trees and pastel shop-front decor. With the same swiftness, Rome shed its lethargic winter pace, and picked up in an array of events and openings promising a very exciting season.
Last Saturday, 9,000 university students from all over Italy responded to John Paul II’s invitation to pray the rosary together for the 10 new countries scheduled to join the European Union on May 1, which were linked via satellite and simultaneously televised in Paul VI Hall.
In the audience hall, delegations from Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Cypress, Malta, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Slovenia processed down the aisles placing their national flags on the podium like bouquets before a 17th-century painting of the Madonna and Child by Sassoferrato.
Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of the Rome Diocese, handed representatives copies of the apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa.” He reminded them that European universities “speak loudly of the Christian roots” of the continent and that they must “proclaim in a loud voice Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The “loud voice” of European students took the form of a 1,800-voice choir from universities and conservatories all over Italy. Together with a 210-piece orchestra, mighty sound punctuated the various moments of the event.
Song changed to chants and cheers when the Pope arrived at 6:30 p.m. The hall burst into color as people waved flags, scarves, hats and banners. Cheerful, he presided over the rosary, each mystery led by a different nation.
An offbeat moment arose when Malta’s turn to lead the mysteries came. All the other nations had been reciting in Latin, so the crowd was perplexed when the first Hail Mary rang out in Maltese. Fortunately, the presence of several Maltese students helped the audience understand when to chime in.
Malta was occupied from 1530 to 1798 by the Order of the Knights of Malta. They were organized into different languages as they came from all over Europe, so Latin was their common language.
At the end of the rosary, the participants gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a candlelight procession to the Church of St. Agnes in Piazza Navona. Walking along Via della Conciliazione, I caught up with a friend of mine with the Collegium Musicum Alma Mater of the University of Bologna, who had come down to sing in the choir.
She, her husband and 9-year-old son had all started the day at 5 a.m. to get to Rome for the concert, but walked with a bright step through the warm March evening. I was wondering how all those singers managed to coordinate from all over the Italian peninsula.
She explained that the pieces had been sent to them earlier by Internet, but they only rehearsed together once, at 2 that afternoon. As they entered Paul VI Hall, the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses were put into separate seating and they practiced up until the arrival of the participants at 4:30 p.m. “It was a little hectic,” she admitted.
I asked her what her favorite piece to sing was and she answered that it was the opening piece “Psallite” by maestro Monsignor Valentine Miserachs, head of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. Besides being pleasant to listen to, “it expresses the lighthearted joyousness that people bring to these audiences,” she said.
The first time singing before the Holy Father, how did it feel? She said she found herself singing through tears. After the horror of the Madrid attack, an example of hatred in the world, she found herself with “thousands of people who loved the Pope, expressing that love in song, it was a moment of great unity and brotherhood.”
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When Rome Recalls One of Its Own
Tuesday was one of my favorite Roman days. March 16 commemorates the miracle of St. Philip Neri, the saint I always pray to when looking for an open restaurant downtown during off-hours.
In 1583, the young prince Paolo Massimo was dying. He had been visited daily by Father Philip, founder of the Oratorians and one of the greatest religious figures of Rome. On March 16, however, the priest was delayed and by the time he arrived, Paolo was dead.
According to the testimony of the child’s father, Father Philip began to pray at the side of the bed with his hand on the boy’s forehead. After seven or eight minutes of intense prayer he sprinkled the youth with holy water and called his name. Paolo opened his eyes.
The boy spent several minutes talking with the holy priest, but then explained that he would rather go to heaven to join his mother and sister. Hugging Father Philip one last time, Paolo fell back on the cushions and died.
The Massimo family presented this miracle for the cause of Philip Neri, who was eventually canonized on March 12, 1622, by Pope Gregory XV.
Every year the Massimo princes, who hold the claim of being one of the oldest families in Rome, allegedly descending from a Roman emperor, open their splendid 16th-century palace designed by Sienese architect Baldassare Peruzzi on this day. For many Romans and tourists this is a rare opportunity to explore a jewel of Renaissance architecture. It is also a rare and beautiful spiritual experience.
From early morning (I always get there around 7 a.m. and things have already started) priests come to the palace, climbing to the room of Paolo Massimo which has been transformed into a chapel with three altars. Masses continue simultaneously at all the altars all morning.
The principal Mass, attended by the family as well as many representatives from noble Roman families such as the Colonnas, Orsinis and Barberinis, was celebrated this year by Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
The diversity of the priests who arrive for these Masses stimulates interesting reflections. Some diocesan and some religious, they testify to the dynamism of the Church.
Benedictines and Dominicans representing the older orders, Oratorians and Jesuits of the Counter Reformation orders and even new congregations come to honor one of Rome’s most beloved saints.
These celebrants, European, African, Asian, Australian or American, all offer Mass in Latin, the common language of the Church. They strikingly remind the participants how the Catholic Church, which at the time of St. Philip was just beginning to bring the message of Christ to the newly discovered worlds, has truly become universal.
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New Life for a Perugino Painting
On the same day, the Vatican Museums unveiled a newly restored painting that had not been seen by the public for 40 years.
The “Resurrection Panel” painted by Pietro Vanucci (a.k.a. Perugino) in 1499 will be the centerpiece of a special exhibit “The Pope’s Perugino: The History of a Restoration” in the Sistine Salon of the Vatican Museums until May 31.
The director of the museums, Francesco Buranelli, beamed proudly as the assembled invitees marveled over the revived colors of the large altarpiece originally painted for Giovanni da Orvieto’s family chapel in the Church of St. Francis in Perugia.
He explained that in this year, while the Umbria region is arranging shows and exhibits to honor one of its most celebrated natives, Perugino, the Vatican decided to pay its homage by restoring this painting.
A much admired work of art, the painting was requisitioned by Napoleon under the Treaty of Tolentino in 1797. It remained in Paris until 1815 when it was brought to the Vatican Picture Gallery.
Under the reign of Paul VI, the painting was moved to the papal library where it has hung behind the papal throne ever since. In many photos of the Pope with distinguished visitors, this panel serves the backdrop.
A mature masterpiece by the artist who would become the teacher of Raphael, the panel shows the risen Christ, floating above an open tomb. Two angels flank him while the guards at the sepulcher sleep. One guard, awake, recoils in shock at the vision.
Arnold Nesselrath, curator of Renaissance painting at the Vatican Museums, enlightened us with a more in-depth analysis of the imagery. The painting was originally intended to be placed by the door of the chapel and seen from a distance.
In a clever play of perspectives, “the sarcophagus becomes a focal point for the viewer,” he pointed out. The coffin recedes backward into space, with the black opening “reminding the viewer of the chapel’s funerary function as well as his own mortality.” The brilliant purple-toned color of Christ’s robe emphasizes his triumph over death.
The chief restorer of the painting, Maurizio De Luca, gave fascinating insights to the restoration technique.
Although the painting had been restored in the 1800s and again in the 1950s, the painting was in poor condition when the restorers took it down. The wood panels that supported the painting had warped and split the plaster surface. De Luca also noted the presence of “little inhabitants of the painting that had to be evicted.” The painting had been heavily varnished and was covered with a layer of grime.
In the cleaning process, the restorers discovered that Perugino had used oil paint on the panel unlike the egg tempera pigment used for his other painting in the Vatican Museums, “Madonna and Child and Four Saints.”
This technique allowed him more vitality in the colors he used masterfully to emphasize the principal figure, Christ. Perugino’s virtuosity in oil painting is but one of the talents the great master handed on to his most famous pupil, Raphael.
De Luca walked us around to see the back of the painting, where the wood has been restored and reinforced. Some of the visitors were distracted by the old-fashioned humidity counter sitting on the floor, making its paper graph. Wouldn’t the Vatican have more sophisticated devices? some wondered.
Pointing to the top of the painting, he laughed. “The electronic sensors are up there. Here at the Vatican we don’t throw away the old just because there is something new.”
Asked what will happen to the painting when the show closes, he responded that the artwork would probably return to its place in the papal apartments. “Unless the Holy Father in his kindness decides to leave it with us,” the restorer added, his eyes twinkling.
To the question of where to put it, the answer came without hesitation. “In the picture gallery next to the ‘Transfiguration’ by Raphael,” he said, “reuniting master and pupil.”
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus.