Roads of Rome; Gift Fit for a Pope

Celebrating 500 Years of Via Guilia

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, APRIL 10, 2008 ( Just about everyone knows that the papacy gave Rome St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, and the ever-present keys and tiara affixed to the city’s numerous churches, fountains and shrines bear further witness to the papal generosity that made these structures possible.

Few, however, are aware that the very roads that guide our steps, leading us from one monument to another, were also part of papal design.

This year, Via Giulia, the wide avenue skirting the Tiber, is celebrating the 500th anniversary of its foundation by Pope Julius II in 1508.

Via Giulia, named for the same Pope, was the crowning glory of a 25-year-long project begun by Julius’ uncle Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). Appalled by the poor organization, sanitation and presentation of the city, Sixtus had built the first bridge to cross the Tiber since antiquity and opened a straight street on the Trastevere side of the river to bring the residents directly to the Vatican area.

Julius II, much like Augustus who had continued the urban designs of his uncle Julius Caesar, completed the project by building the Via Giulia, a veritable freeway when compared to the winding, tortuous alleys that snaked through the area.

For this monumental project, Julius called upon the finest architect of the age, Donato Bramante, who was in the midst of designing the new Basilica of St. Peter at the time. The 64-year-old native of Urbino was just the man to confer the majesty Julius desired for his new addition to the Roma cityscape.

The road soon became the most desirable residential address in Rome. Elegant palaces lined its length punctuated by little gemlike churches.

The Florentines with their customary business acumen snapped up the area at the end of the road, building their national Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, which soon become the Roman headquarters of St. Phillip Neri and his Oratorians.

Last weekend, Romans got a taste of the Renaissance Via Giulia during the weekend for the Fondo Ambiente Italiana, which supports Italy’s national treasures through conservation and restoration.

Almost all the palaces and churches opened their doors to allow visitors to see the lush courtyard gardens, the elaborate fresco cycles or the stunning marble-lined spaces.

While art lovers lined up at doorway after doorway, passersby, drawn to the bustling activity on the street, sipped coffee in street side cafes, watching children cavort and stately ladies parade their purebred dogs.

I made a beeline for the Farnese palace, the jewel of Via Giulia, now the French Embassy. Although the palace has its own piazza facing what was then the Via Papalis, the fortunate Farneses found in 1508 that their palace garden gave out on the grand new Roman avenue.

Built for Pope Paul III, the palace was begun when the future pontiff Alessandro Farnese was still a cardinal in the 1490s, and spanned several decades and architects, including Antonio Sangallo, Vignola and Michelangelo.

We entered from the garden entrance, out of the noisy crowded streets into an idyllic setting of open stone loggias framed with wisteria. Fragments of ancient cornices, columns and statues were attractively arranged in pyramids in the garden, like the Roman trophies of old.

We then walked into the main courtyard, our heels clicking on the stone floors and echoing off the high masonry walls. This part of the place had been designed by Michelangelo with his dramatic scheme of alternating closed wall with open arcades to shape the space.

But the most exciting moment came when climbing the grand staircase, passing through several lavishly painted rooms, and entering the main gallery, where the greatest fresco of the 17th century spans the vault.

This is Annibale Carracci’s “Loves of the Gods,” a fresco tour-de-force uniting the chromatism of Venice, the draftsmanship of Florence, the earthy humor of Emilia Romagna, and the monumentality of Rome to create the first truly Italian painting.

Still dazzled by the sparkling hues of Annibale, I passed by the Spanish college of Monserrato, and wandered into solemn halls of Santa Maria del Suffragio designed by Carlo Rainaldi in the early 17th century.

For my third and last visit, I selected the Palazzo Sacchetti, painted by Francesco Salviati for Cardinal Ricci in 1554. The contrast between the two palaces was remarkable. From the lighthearted romps of the Farnese, the broad walls of the Sacchetti palace were covered with more sober, panoramic views of the stories of King David.

On this single street, only about a half mile long, Spaniards and Florentines, staid churchmen and social butterflies, artisans and princes lived side by side, in the renewed Caput Mundi of Julius II.

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Giving Scripture

Last week, the Papal Foundation made its yearly pilgrimage to Rome, where they met with the Holy Father on Friday April 4.

The 150 members presented Benedict XVI with their annual donation, which this year, was the largest single donation given to the Holy Father.

The Papal Foundation was formed in 1990 with the intent of providing the Pope with funds to support his projects and charities. These have ranged from rebuilding seminaries in Eastern Europe, to sending immediate aid in the wake of natural disasters.

In the words of the foundation, “these funds are used to nourish with compassion, both physically and spiritually.”

I was privileged to meet them during their stay in Rome, and I was struck by the fact that while many were business entrepreneurs and several were quite young, all were enthusiastic and devout supporters of the Church.

No mere honorific title and perk-hunters, the members of the Papal Foundation love Christ, love the Church and love Benedict XVI.

Over the 18 years of the foundation, they have donated over $41 million to the Pope, but this year they brought the Pope another gift as well.

For the first time, the Papal Foundation gave the Pope a work of art. On Friday morning, they presented Benedict XVI with the Wisdom Books volume of the St. Peter Apostles edition of St. John’s Bible.

The St. John’s Bible project was undertaken 10 years ago by St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota and calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce the first hand-written and illuminated Bible in 500 years, using goose quills, inks and gold leaf, just as the monks did a half a millennium ago.

The rarest of the reproductions, personally supervised by Donald Jackson, is called the Apostles edition and is a limited production of 12 copies. Benedict’s copy is named for St. Peter.

The Wisdom Book volume is two feet tall and weighs 20 pounds, one of seven books that will be given to the Pope over the next four years.

Gerry Rauenhorst of the Papal Foundation described the Pope’s joy when he received the Bible, turning the pages and studying the illustrations. It was the Rauenhorst family who persuaded the foundation to offer the special edition to Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, president of the board of trustees of the Papal Foundation, said that when the Pope saw the volume “his eyes lit up” and he said “a work of art, a great work of art.”

As the Pope prepares for the synod on sacred Scriptures next fall, looking to rekindle interest in the word of God, the St. John’s Bible with its precious, patient and loving craftsmanship serves as a visible reminder of the importance of this project.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].

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