“It’s impossible to do this tour or any other tour chronologically.”
This was one of the first things Lauren, a guide for the walking tour company Context Travel, told us as we stood in Largo Arenula, our starting point for a historic walk of Rome’s Jewish Quarter and Trastevere. In addition to Lauren, a British scholar who has studied the art, history, and culture of Rome for the better part of two decades, my group consisted of a quiet, young couple and a young, single woman. Context had invited me to be a guest on one of their tours and I chose to take this one as it was an area I knew the least about. I liked the idea of going on the tour as more or less a blank slate. I wanted to learn something.
At this point, I should back up and say that I have studied Rome, its landmarks, art, history, and neighborhoods for more than 15 years. Before that, I worked at an institute for German Studies and interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even with this specialized knowledge, I’ve always found it difficult to find information about Rome’s Jewish heritage. Most guidebooks give it short shrift, which isn’t surprising; there are too many layers here to cover any one topic in detail. But I would venture to say that the story of the Jewish people in Rome is one of the few threads that weaves together the story of this city in a way that is both historically comprehensive and personal.
CulturaItalia, a website operated by the Italian Culture Ministry, is seeking your help in its efforts to document the Jewish contributions to Italian society over the past 150 years. As one of its many initiatives to mark the anniversary of 150 years of Italian Unity, CulturaItalia has teamed up with with Judaica Europeana, a Europe-wide project to gather digitized information “that documents Jewish presence and heritage in European cities and make them available on Europeana.” Europeana is the the online home of digital resources culled from Europe’s libraries, archives, and museum collections.
The name of CulturaItalia’s project is called, “The Star of David and the Italian Flag, Jews and the Construction of a United Italy.” Institutions as well as the public have been asked to help CulturaItalia with this project by submitting “digital files with stories, texts, photographs, letters, postcards, illustrations and drawings, audio documents and short videos that tell of the Jewish culture in Italy in the last 150 years.” Suggested topics include:
itineraries in the city
arts and trades
parties and ceremonies
literature and theatre
If you or your family have stories to tell, photos or art to share, or anything else that will enhance the understanding of Jewish contributions to Italy over the past 150 years, you are invited to submit your files through this online form. No doubt, this is a fantastic way to ensure the Jewish history of Italy lives on digitally so that future generations may learn and seek inspiration from it.
Visitors to a small convent in Rome’s Prati neighborhood can now have a look at Rome’s newest relic – the blood-stained shirt that Pope John Paul II was wearing on the day Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The relic is housed in the convent of the Figlie delle Carità di S. Vincenzo de Paoli, Via Ezio 28, near the Lepanto Metro stop. RomeReports.com offers the full story of the relic and how it came to reside in the convent.
If you want to make sure you don’t miss this relic on your next visit to Rome, the Figlie della Carità offer rooms for budget travelers who don’t mind staying at a place with a curfew. According to Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome, room rates at the sisters’ Casa Maria Immacolata start at €40 single/€75 double and include breakfast. Curfew is at 11pm.
Springtime is a very popular time to visit Rome and the Vatican City. And for good reason. The weather is warmer. The gardens and parks are in bloom, with huge pots of azaleas providing a burst of color on the Spanish Steps. And for the thousands of churches, it is time to celebrate Easter.
Of course, the most popular place to visit during Easter is St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). The Pope presides over several services at the basilica during Holy Week, including morning and evening masses on Holy Thursday, an afternoon vigil on Good Friday, and an evening mass on Holy Saturday. The big event, Easter Sunday mass, is celebrated in St. Peter’s Square, where thousands gather to watch the Pope bless an icon of the risen Christ and hear the Pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” message delivered from the balcony of the papal apartments.
The Pope also travels to other churches in Rome during Easter time to perform holy rites. On Maundy Thursday, the Pope typically delivers the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), the church for the Bishop of Rome – the Pope’s other official title. After St. Peter’s, this is the second-most important basilica in Rome and worth a visit even if you aren’t in town during Easter. (Also in this area is the Scala Santa, purported to be the “holy stairs” that led to the throne of Pontius Pilate. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, brought these stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D. and Christians have been venerating them ever since.)
The Stations of the Cross Vigil in the Colosseum
Click here if you are unable to see the video above.
Another intriguing site to visit during Easter is the Colosseum, where the Stations of the Cross are held during an evening vigil on Good Friday. The Pope presides over this rite in the arena where many ancient Christians are said to have been “thrown to the lions.” The Colosseum was consecrated as a church in 1749 to commemorate these early persecutions of Christians and stem the pillaging of the structure’s building materials.
Note that seating at the Colosseum on Good Friday and in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday is very limited. Free tickets for these events must be reserved well in advance with your local diocese.
Leading up to Holy Week, there are several other opportunities to see and/or hear a blessing from the Pope, including on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also the the typical day on which World Youth Day, a celebration initiated by Pope John Paul II, is held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope also delivers a blessing to general audiences each Wednesday throughout the year. For more information about applying to participate in a general audience with the Pope, review this information from the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
For more ideas on visiting holy Rome, have a look at the links below. You may also visit the official website of the Vatican for information on the Pope, the Holy See, and liturgical services.
No matter if you’re a devout Catholic or a curious non-believer, you should make a point to check out a few of Italy’s many religious relics.
More than 2,000 years of Christianity has produced numerous fascinating, if not gruesome, stories. And it seems that for every Biblical tale, there is a relic housed in Rome, the Vatican, or in one of Italy’s thousands of churches.
Here are a few unusual relics that you can put on your next Italy itinerary.
The Shroud of Turin
The Shroud of Turin is one of Italy’s most famous relics, housed in the Cathedral of Turin (Duomo di Torino) in the Piemonte region. The Shroud is a linen cloth that bears “the image of a man who appears to have been physically hurt in a manner consistent with crucifixion.” In short, the image on the Shroud bears a striking resemblance to the collectively agreed upon image of Jesus Christ and is thought to be Christ’s burial shroud – thus, the relic’s significance among Christians.
Because of the Shroud’s delicate nature, it is not always on display. Check the Torino Tourism website for updated information.
The Blood of San Gennaro
It’s hardly surprising that a hot-blooded place like Naples would have a relic made of blood (see main photo above). Each year, the city of Naples awaits the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), which is stored in an ampoule in a reliquary in the Naples Cathedral. An early saint of the church, having been beheaded during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian raids in the 4th century, San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. The liquefying of his blood, which can happen up to 18 times per year, is thought to signify a miracle and helps protect Naples from calamities, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
In his book, Farley writes about the town of Calcata, located in the region of Lazio (Rome’s region), where the Holy Foreskin – yes, the skin from Jesus Christ’s circumcised penis – was kept for centuries until its disappearance in 1983.
Farley has devoted himself to this subject, so you’d do well to read his book to learn about the relic and Calcata, which is known as a “village of freaks.” But here’s an interesting tidbit: apparently Saint Catherine of Siena wore the Holy Foreskin as a ring. Now that’s some devotion.
Mary’s Holy Belt
The Virgin Mary didn’t leave behind a piece of her body for future Christians to revere. But she did leave behind a belt.
The story goes that Mary gave this sacred accessory to Apostle Thomas as she ascended to heaven. The Prato Cathedral acquired the relic in the 14C and has kept it in a precious silver reliquary ever since. In fact, a special chapel was built to house the relic and the church also commissioned artists Michelozzo and Donatello to build an exterior pulpit, from which the relic is ceremoniously displayed to crowds below.
Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the Sacra Cintola is made of a more durable material – green wool – so the church readily displays it five times a year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8.
Prato is located in Tuscany, just north of Florence, so it is hardly off the beaten track should you wish to visit.
Relics in Rome
Being the center of the Christian universe, Rome has, perhaps, the most holy relics per square mile of any other city in Italy. And here you will find some wonderfully odd ones, including:
Saint John’s severed head in the church of San Silvestro in Capite (also the National Church of Great Britain in Rome)
Saint Valentine’s head in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin (the rest of the body is in Terni, Umbria)
The head of Saint Agnes, located in a side chapel of Sant’Agnese in Agone (the huge church that fronts Piazza Navona)
You no longer have to go to Rome to have an audience with the Pope. Now, with the new Vatican YouTube channel, the Benedict XVI will come to you. According to Reuters, the daily videos will be about two minutes long and will feature info about church events and the Pope’s activities. Hopefully, the site will include more than just Pope Benedict talking. It’d be neat to see a Vatican tour around Easter and Christmas – I always love to see how St. Peter’s is decked out for the holidays.
Initially, the briefings will be broadcast in English, Spanish, German, and Italian. For more info about the Vatican, you can go to www.vatican.va, where you can also find links to the Vatican’s live radio feed.
I’m always fascinated to learn about Jewish heritage in Italy. So, here’s a Jewish cultural event that will be going on this fall.
September 7 marks the European Day of Jewish Culture, and, according to Ruth Ellen Gruber’s blog Jewish Heritage Travel, “Italy is consistently probably the most enthusiastic country that takes part.” This year’s theme for Jewish Culture Day will be “Music,” and Italy is expected to host events in some 58 towns and cities, including Milan and Mantova.
On April 24, the new tomb of Padre Pio was unveiled in the Puglian city of San Giovanni Rotondo. The new tomb now features the exhumed body of Italy’s most recent homegrown saint, who died in 1968 and who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. According to Ian Fisher’s San Giovanni Rotondo Journal in the New York Times, more than 750,000 pilgrims have made reservations to see the new Padre Pio shrine. You, too, can make reservations to see the saint’s venerated body by calling (39-088) 241-7500 (we found this number online at Catholic.org, whose website bears an uncanny resemblance to the NY Times).
Just in time for Passover, I’ve found a great resource for all things Jewish in Italy. JewishItaly.org has links and info to synagogues, kosher stores, Jewish museums, and more. If you are Jewish or just interested in Jewish culture and history, you can also browse JewishItaly’s list of towns that can claim Jewish heritage or presently have a Jewish community. Also interesting are JewishItaly’s news tidbits, including a recent listing from March 1, 2008, noting that five restaurants in Rome have lost their kosher certification. As this is a part of Italian history that few travelers are aware of, this site is worth checking out.
Many tourists to Rome, both Catholics and non-Catholics, know very little about the papal basilicas outside of St. Peter’s. While St. Peter’s is the “mother church,” three others – San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore – make up Catholicism’s patriarchal basilicas. Each of the four have a “holy door,” opened once every 25 years during a Roman Jubilee, and have significance dating back to when the Catholic realm extended to Antioch and Constantinople. This is all according to the Catholic website newadvent.org.
So, we thought we’d introduce readers to the three other papal basilicas, starting with San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, as 2008 begins the Pauline Year. This church, “outside of the walls,” is a wonderfully tranquil diversion away from the main sites of Rome.
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura Address: Via Ostiense, 186 (EUR) Phone: 06-541-0341 Web: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/index_en.html Getting There: Metro Line B to San Paolo stop; Buses 23, 170, 673 History: Built on top of the grave of St. Paul, this church has existed since before the 4th century. Emperor Theodosius ordered a monumental church built on top of the original church between 384 and 395 A.D. and San Paolo was the largest basilica in Rome until St. Peter’s was completed in 1626. In 1823, most of the church was destroyed in a fire. An identical church was rebuilt using surviving architectural elements and reconsecrated by Pope Gregory XVI in 1840. What’s Cool: Elements that did survive the fire are a series of portrait medallions of each of the Popes, beginning with St. Peter. These medallions encircle the top register of the church and legend has it that when the circle of medallions is completed, then the apocalypse is nigh (!). Also interesting are the cloisters, which feature gorgeously gilded, twisting columns.
Art history junkies take note: learning about Italian art is easy with Jane’s Smart Art Guides. Order a CD set – or, even better, download the MP3s to your iPod – and you can learn more about St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo, or the Fra Angelico fresco cycle in Florence’s San Marco while you’re visiting them this summer or fall. Jane is also at work on audiotours for Orvieto’s San Brizio Chapel and Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. We especially like Jane’s blog, which is rich with information on art history and happenings around the world.
While we encourage our readers to support Jane and her excellent guides, we also want to point out another artsy podcast of note. A team called smARThistory has an interesting – and FREE – video podcast on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Upload this – rather than Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – before your next trip to Rome.
Palm Sunday – April 1 – marks the beginning of Settimana Santa, or Holy Week, in Rome. Here’s a brief schedule for attending services over which Pope Benedict will preside. More info is available on the Vatican website.
Sunday, April 1 – Palm Sunday
St. Peter’s Square, 9:30 a.m.
Monday, April 2 – Holy Monday
St. Peter’s Square, 5:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 5 – Maunday Thursday
Chrismal Mass, Vatican Basilica, 9:30 a.m.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Basilica of St. John Lateran, 5:30 p.m.
Friday, April 6 – Good Friday
Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Vatican Basilica, 5 p.m. Stations of the Cross, Colosseum, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday, April 7 – Holy Saturday
Easter Vigil in the Holy Night, Vatican Basilica, 10 p.m.
Sunday, April 8 – Easter Sunday
Mass of the Day, St. Peter’s Square, 10:30 a.m.
“Urbi et Orbi” Message and Blessing, Vatican Basilica, noon