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A New Renaissance; the Way Rome Was

Rediscovering the Sacred in Church Architecture

By Elizabeth Lev

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 10, 2008 ( It is especially during the holidays that Rome earns her title of “caput mundi,” or the head of the world. The streets teem with visitors from every corner of the world, and while they may poke around the various sites with interest, the gravitational pull comes from St. Peter’s.

Over this joyous period, several old friends passed through town, but among my many Christmas blessings was the opportunity to meet new people, and through them gain new perspectives on my beloved adopted city.

One of these was Duncan Stroik, professor of architecture at Notre Dame University and a practicing architect, who has been designing buildings for almost two decades. An instrumental figure in bringing about the new Renaissance of sacred architecture, Stroik has a particular interest in Classical design, which he imparts to his numerous projects, both religious and secular.

As part of his apostolate to help church builders, goers and designers recognize the importance of sacred space, Stroik helped found Society for Catholic Liturgy. The society produces a magazine, Sacred Architecture, packed with articles on church architecture and liturgical function, but it also boasts a spectacular news section, keeping abreast with developments in ecclesiastic architecture all over the world.

I was delighted to finally meet Professor Stroik, and as we sat in a Roman restaurant surrounded by an ancient ruin, the modern synagogue and a medieval church, it seemed a wonderful moment to talk about the architecture of Rome and its importance in modern buildings.

We talked about the definition of Catholic architecture. “After 17 centuries, Catholic architecture is both rich and varied,” Stroik began, but went on to point out three constants.

First, he said, “It is sacred. A sacred space is set apart from other kinds of places on the streets and squares. It has to look beyond and ultimately give us an intimation of heaven. When we enter a church we should understand that we are in a different realm where it is normal to see angels, to feel like we are participating with the heavenly hosts as we worship God.”

One practical sign of a sacred space is how people behave when they enter, noted Stroik. “They take off their hats and they lower their voices. It’s not just a museum or a shopping mall.”

The architect continued, “Iconography, images of God and the saints, are a part of Catholic architecture as well. Human imagery, especially that depicting our fallen nature and need for salvation is important, but at the same time art should also embrace the body.”

“Finally, Catholic architecture is transcendent,” said Professor Stroik. “It outlines our journey toward God, but also emphasizes the role of the Church in that journey. It reminds us that this voyage has already been undertaken by the saints, and of course by Christ himself, as we can see in the Stations of the Cross lining the walls.”

I asked: As an architect working in the 21st century, how does Rome influence your work? “Rome is the Eternal City as well as the city of Sts. Peter and Paul” he answered. “And as home of the Bishop of Rome, the first among equals, it has great authority.

“Rome is also one of the great places of conversion and martyrdom. Here people discovered faith, were willing to die for it and became examples to others, and this is expressed in the early churches. Catholic architecture develops through the years and is varied, but here in Rome it always retains a connection to its earliest roots.”

Professor Stroik’s comments made it clearer why Rome is dubbed the Eternal City. “Rome’s sense of timelessness and universality makes for an environment of constant revival,” he said. “Rome has, through the centuries, renewed itself over and over by learning from its past.”

“The architecture of ancient Rome was ‘baptized’ for Christian use,” continued Stroik. “Not just the forms and styles, but also the actual materials; starting with Constantine, columns and cornices were taken from pagan temples to construct churches. Ultimately, these buildings demonstrate a continuity with the past, but also a transformation from a pagan architecture into a Christian architecture.”

Thinking about continuity with the past brought us to the question of the apostolic letter “Summorum Pontificum,” issued by Benedict XVI last July, which facilitates the use of the extraordinary rite of the Mass. I asked: How, if at all, will this have any effect on church design?

“Something that often strikes Americans when they come to Rome and visit old churches is the presence of altar rails, stone altars and vestiges of choir screens. People wonder if these elements are relevant today or are they done with.”

Stroik thinks the Church should convey the message that while there has been development and change, the older practices can still teach us things today. “As a classical architect,” he said, “I particularly appreciate Benedict XVI’s ‘hermeneutic of continuity.’ It seems to me that the fathers of Vatican II who wrote about architecture in ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal were very conscious of the Roman basilica when discussing placement of elements, the presence of an apse and where the Scriptures would be read.”

“What is interesting about Pope Benedict’s ‘motu proprio’ is that it seems to indicate that churches should allow for both forms of the rite. That probably means free-standing altars, but also stairs going up to the sanctuary and altar rails for people to kneel when they receive Communion.

The fruit of Stroik’s work is found not only in churches and buildings all over the United States, but also in the book “Reconquering Sacred Space 2000,” where the new renaissance of Catholic architecture is showcased through 40 new churches and works of art created by architects and artists from around the world.

Stroik’s blueprint for churches that emphasize Christian tradition and sacred liturgy points toward a new renaissance in appreciation of Catholic history, liturgy and theology as well as architecture.

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Papal Rome’s Last Moments

Many visitors are surprised to discover that Italy is such a young country. At only 138 years, Italy is a little brother to many countries in the world of unified nations.

After Cavour and Garibaldi seized Rome from Pope Pius IX in 1870, they declared the Eternal City as the new capital of Italy, and after 1,300 years of papal tutelage, which saw the creation of St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navona and the numerous other marvels of Rome, the city was transformed.

The new plan for Rome called for the destruction of several areas of the city, most famously the Ghetto, as well as the construction of the embankments for the Tiber river. The green fields of Prati were to be developed into a residential quarter and new bridges were to stretch across the Tiber.

A young watercolor artist, Ettore Roesler Franz, was at the beginning of his career when these demolitions and new contractions were in their final stages of planning.

From 1876, Franz dedicated the next 20 years of his life to recording the last moments of Papal Rome before they were swept away by the new era.

In honor of the centenary of his death, the Museum of Rome in Trastevere organized an exhibit of Franz’s 120 watercolors. The exhibit is well-named the “Landscapes of Memory” as the long hall of images with their gray tones and many desolate landscapes at first evokes the sad nostalgia felt by many at the time.

But as one notes Franz’s developments in technique as the series progresses and his vivid depictions of bustling piazzas alive with people and activity, the mood changes to one of happy confidence that Rome handles change as no other city.

The first section offers views of the Appian Way and the Claudian aqueduct with a herd of sheep trotting down the ancient paths, a sight still often visible today.

But Franz’s composition puts the dome of St. Peter’s shimmering faintly in the distance, while the collapsed arches of aqueduct or ruined tombs of famous ancient families in the foreground form a solemn metaphor of the end of the Papal era.

Franz’s earlier paintings use the exaggerated relations in size typical of the famed landscape artist Piranesi, but in two images of the sacred grove of Egeria, modern influences creep into his work. The first one is painted in the sunshine while the next is after the rain, reflecting the rise of the Impressionists and the use of color and brush stroke reflects his contact with this new painting technique.

The next section of the show brings visitors to various neighborhoods. The most charming are the busy scenes of Rome’s Ghetto, with the fabric sellers displaying tall piles of bright cloths as children play in the street and passing friars inspect the wares. Amid the vivacity, a sign on a wall of peeling plaster announces the imminent destruction of that very square.

The Ghetto was rife with poverty and the rickety wooden balconies perched overhead speak of unsafe conditions, but Franz seems to rue the loss of the improvised fish market clinging to the ruins of an ancient portico while the “azimelle,” sellers of unleavened bread, cook and sell their products on slabs of old foundation stones.

Franz also offers us precious testimony of lost treasures. The famous Ripetta Port, a grand curving staircase into the water, takes its final bow before being dismantled to make the embankments.

On the other side of town, the mighty tower of Paul II in Piazza Venezia and its hanging garden would be soon buried under the Victor Emmanuel monument.

The quiet lull before the explosive activity of the rebuilding is best seen in Franz’s Tiber scenes, where boys stretch out on boats in the warm sunlight while others fish lazily from the banks with the ruins of soon-to-be-demolished palaces looming behind them.

In these peaceful, loving scenes of a tranquil city, after the battles to claim Rome and before the frenetic rebuilding, this exhibit offers a special intimate glimpse of the Rome that was.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at

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