Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Pope's Last Stand: the final papal audience of Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI's final audience, St. Peter's Square, 27 February 2013

On the night of the 1st of April 2005, barely six months after moving to Rome, I stood with my roommates in St. Peter’s Square, holding vigil with thousands of others for Pope John Paul II. It was the night before he died, and the last full day of his papacy.

Today, in strangely parallel yet contrasting circumstances, I stood in St. Peter’s Square on the last full day of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. As you can imagine, the mood in the crowd was completely different: lighthearted, affectionate, nostalgic perhaps, but without a trace of grief or fear. And no surprise why: no one had died.

"Holy Father, we love you"

On that April night back in 2005, the warm spring air was heavy with collective grief. Nuns from nearly every nation prayed the rosary, young couples cried into each other’s shoulders, Latin American students sang and lit candles. And everyone’s eyes were fixed upon the Pope’s window where his light shined on, late into the night. We all expected it to be snuffed out at any moment, signifying that John Paul had breathed his last, and we were ready for the inevitable wail that would rise up from the crowd. But the light was still burning when my friends and I made our way back home.

The next evening, John Paul did die, and we returned to the square once more. Strangely, the atmosphere was different. It was as if the oppressive grief of the night before had lifted, and been replaced with a sense of peace, a knowledge that the beloved pontiff was no longer in pain. The thousands of faithful seemed filled with a sense of quiet hope.

I took some poignant photos that I would love to share with you, but alas, they were lost when I accidentally smashed my external hard drive. (Major technology fail.) Ah well, at least I have the memories, which are surprisingly vivid.

Nearly eight years later, once again I got to witness the end of a papacy, albeit a much less painful end for many Catholics. But what was, for me, so thrilling about being there was the knowledge that I was witnessing history. After all, it has been over seven centuries since a pope has voluntarily resigned, and everyone is curious about how things will play out in the next few weeks as a conclave unlike any other (with the previous pope still alive) approaches.

Walking down Via della Lungara toward St. Peter's to see the pope's final appearance

As I left my apartment around 8:30 this morning, without realizing the significance of it, my feet led me along Via della Lungara, which was originally known as Via Sancta, since it led directly from Trastevere to the Vatican, and was a well-trod route for pilgrims heading to St. Peter's. It was an ancient Roman road that was enlarged, coincidentally, by our good friend Pope Alexander VI Borgia. Is it my imagination or does il papa cattivo keep popping up everywhere I turn?

Once within sight of the Vatican, I met up with my partner in crime, Theresa, and we braced ourselves to enter the scrum. Neither of us like to be in a big crowd, but our need to be part of history triumphed over our agoraphobia and we heartily braved the masses.

Upwards of 150,000 people came to say goodbye to Benedict XVI

It was actually not as bad as I had expected. It was just after nine and the square was still filling up, so we drifted toward the left of the square's two fountains, the one built by Gianlorenzo Bernini to match Carlo Maderno's earlier one on the right (north) side. As luck would have it, the fountain was off and bone dry. Several people and a few journalists were standing up on the edge of the fountain, so we figured, why not? We pulled ourselves up, thinking we would just take the opportunity to snap a few photos over the heads of the rest of the crowd, but it was so nice up there, and so much less crowded than below, that we ended up staying there for the entire audience.

You never realize how huge those fountains are until you are actually standing inside one of them.

This cute French family was climbing up the fountain to get the best possible view.

We had a panoramic view of the entire square, and the Pope himself, under his canopy, was in our direct line of sight, although little more than a tiny white dot from where we stood. He rode past, not far away, in his little Pope-mobile, and we would have been able to get a very good look at him, had it not been for all those darned pilgrims and their cumbersome banners. 

So much for our view!

The soon-to-be-ex-pope spoke for a considerable amount of time in his timid, accented Italian, reiterating his promise that he will not abandon the church, but will be serving it in a new way. The crowd was resplendent, powerfully shouting "Vivat Papam" in chorus and handing him babies to kiss as he drove through the throngs. Flags from seemingly every nation waved, from Spain to the United States to China to Ghana to Brunei to Palastine. The sun shined brilliantly all morning and it seemed much more like April than February, even for Rome. The difference in the two "last days" that I experienced was stark. The first, somber and grief-ridden; the second, joyful and full of hope for the future. And it struck me that perhaps it's silly to continue a tradition in which the pope, elected already an old man, should be expected to serve until his dying breath. The modern life expectancy means a pope could be made to languish for decades of ill health and frailty, all the while expected to make momentous decisions and provide leadership for billions of people. 

To be honest, I haven't completely made my mind up as to how I feel about the pope's decision, but a little change certainly couldn't hurt.

As smug as I was with my prime spot, my maritino, as usual, found a way to top it. His position was just slightly better than mine, and I have him to thank for these last three photos.

Benedict XVI last popemobile
Benedict XVI's last ride in his Pope-mobile

Benedict XVI final audience
Benedict XVI's final papal appearance

All photos by author and friends
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Monday, February 25, 2013

Pope Celestine V, the Other Pope who Resigned

I’ll never forget that phone call. It came around 11am on Monday morning 11 February (just two weeks ago). It was my Maritino on the phone. “It’s never happened before! It’s the first time in history….” he shouted down the phone. “WHAT?!” “The pope has resigned!!” or to use his words, “Si è dimesso il papa!!”

St. Peter Celestine, Niccolò di Tommaso, Castel Nuovo

After expressing the appropriate amount of shock, I couldn’t stop myself from correcting my dashing spouse, “Well, actually, it has happened…at least once. You know, Celestine V?” And in the days that followed, many articles swirled around the internet listing all the other popes who have resigned throughout history, but I'm here to tell you only one (until now) did so willingly, and that would be good old Celestine V in 1294.

For whatever else you can say about me, I defy you to say I don’t know my popes. I can name them forward and backwards…literally. In order from St. Peter to Benedict XVI or vice versa (in under five minutes if there’s money on it), and I even know all their family names (from 1200 to the present).

Now, to answer the question I know you are all asking yourselves (“Why on Earth…?”), what can I say? I like to memorize things. I figured it would be a useful thing to have at my fingertips, especially as a tour guide. Still, just because I know a particular pope's name and dates, doesn’t necessarily mean I know anything about him. I might not have known a thing about Celestine V had it not been for the unforgettable exhibit at the Capitoline Museums last year, Lux in Arcana.

As I wrote in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, the exhibit brought 100 historic documents out of the darkness of the Vatican Secret Archives and put them on display in my favorite museum in the city. It was a very exciting show for us history addicts. And one of those precious documents concerned Pope Celestine V. But first a little back story:

Upon the death of Pope Nicolas IV in 1292, there were only 12 living cardinals whose task it now was to elect the next pope. The papal election, which was the last not held under lock and key, or “cum clave,” that is, in conclave, took place in Perugia. If these days the College of Cardinals is expected to select a new pope within days, the cardinals of 1292 must not have got the message. So long did the election drag on that one of the cardinals died during the proceedings. After two long years of voting and still no pope, the cardinals received a letter from Pietro del Morrone, a monk and hermit living in the mountains of Abruzzo. Brother Pietro warned that God would wreak his vengence on the cardinals if they failed to name a new pope, and right quick. 

It was as if Latino Malabranca, the dean of the College of Cardinals, suddenly had a vision from heaven (either that or we was so fed up, he figured, "What the hell, he might as well do...") for he immediately exclaimed, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I elect brother Pietro del Morrone." All the other cardinals seemed satisfied, more or less, with this solution, and the decision was ratified by a unanimous vote. This letter, drafted on 11 July 1294 and affixed with the seals of all 11 remaining cardinals, was delivered to his mountain cave. Still in remarkably good condition, it was on display as part of the Lux in Arcana exhibition for much of 2012, and I saw it with my very own eyes.

© Daniele Fregonese
Only problem was, Pietro del Morrone, nearly 80, had no desire or intention to accept the position of pope. According to his biographer, he refused outright, with the humble words, "Who am I to take up such a heavy burden, so much power? I cannot save myself; how can I save the whole world?" When the cardinals insisted, he even tried to flee, but they found him, and more or less forced the honor upon him.
The Coronation of Pope Celestine V in August 1294, French School. 
After his coronation on 29 August, one of his first acts as pope was to declare an edict making it possible for a pope to abdicate. Clever man. With no political experience, he turned out to be a weak and ineffective pope, which probably came as no surprise to himself. This seems to prove that the most devout and pious priest does not necessarily make the best pope. Remind you of someone? I recall a particular line from a recent post by Vatican-expert Trisha Thomas on her blog Mozzarella Mamma, "Pope Benedict was a bad adminastrator who wrote three books about Jesus while he was Pope, while the men around him in the Vatican were back-stabbing each other."

It surprised no one, I imagine, when he took advantage of his new edict and abdicated before the year was out, divesting himself of all his papal power and authority, and returning to his quiet hermit's life. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII Caetani apparantly didn't trust Celestine's conviction to resign, and he had him imprisoned out of fear he would threaten his reign as an antipope. Celestine died after 10 months in prison, perhaps of old age, or perhaps on order from Boniface as many suspected at the time. Let's hope Benedict XVI's successor is not so insecure.

Although a later pope, Clement V, deemed Celestine's act of humility to be worthy of sainthood, and had him canonized in 1313, other contemporaries were not so generous. Dante Alighieri condemned him to one of the antechambers in hell in book three of his Inferno, verses 59-60, saying "I saw and recognized the shade of him who by his cowardice made the great refusal."

Benedict XVI clearly did not agree with Dante. After the sainted pope's body survived the 2009 earthquake in Aquila (miraculously, many believe), Pope Benedict visited his tomb, leaving behind the woolen mantle he wore at his own papal inauguration. Was he trying to tell us something? Many are now, and rightly so, comparing Benedict XVI to Celestine V, citing that, like his 13th-century counterpart, he is an introvert, a thinker, a scholar, not a born spiritual leader, like his predecessor John Paul II.

Just in case you are reading this, thinking, I heard that there have been several other popes who resigned in history. Well, yes and no. Others have resigned, but none of their own will. Pope Pontian resigned in 235 after being exiled to Sardinia by Emperor Maximinus Thrax. Pope Silverius was forcibly deposed by Empress Theodora in 537. In 649 Pope Martin I was kidnapped, deposed, and sent into exile by another Byzantine emperor. Then there was one of the most shameful popes in history (even worse than my favorite, the Borgia pope), Benedict IX, who was deposed not once, not twice, but three times, a few contemporaries along with him in the 10th century. And last (well, almost last) but not least, Pope Gregory XII, who was a bonafide pope in the early 1400s, but since he reigned simultaneously with two antipopes (one in Avignon and one in Pisa), he was pressured to resign along with the other two, in order to peacefully end the schism. So no, not really the same thing at all. This makes Benedict XVI only the second pope in the history of the Catholic church to have willingly resigned. Unless you count this guy:

(Is Nanni Moretti psychic?)

Image sources: 1, 2: courtesy of Zetema Progetto Cultura, 3, 4
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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Best of the Blogs: Rome and Beyond

I’m excited to announce a new feature on the blog: This Week in Rome. Every weekend, I will be linking to my favorite articles, blog posts, videos and other goodies found on the Internets that week. Although I’m calling it This Week in Rome, and I expect the majority of items I post will be about this lovely city’o’mine, it will not be limited to Rome, but may include anything from around Italy and the world that I think would be of interested to my readers.

Now you all know how good I am at keeping up with my weekly posts! You’ll recall my weekly bi-yearly history posts I dash out every Monday whenever I can find the time. But this is going to be different! I can no longer keep these gems to myself. When I read something fascinating, or hilarious, or spot-on true, I’ve just got to share it with you beloved bloglings, and this is where I plan to do it.

Before this feature is officially unveiled at the end of next week, I’d like to take this opportunity to sing the praises of just a few of my very favorite blogs, although there are many more wonderful ones out there. They are all on my blogroll, but a list of names often do not do justice to the uniqueness of each, so I want to give you a little taste of them here, as they are sure to show up often on my weekly review posts.

So, in no particular order:

Patricia Thomas is a foreign correspondent for Associated Press Television News, and one of the few foreign journalists with accredited access to the Vatican. Although her blog covers many fascinating news stories, it is also a chronicle of her life as a mamma in Italy, raising three children with her Italian husband, juggling her career and family life in a land where being a mamma comes with some enormous expectations.

If you’re interested in delving into the complex psyche of the average Italian, this blog is the perfect primer. Shelley Ruelle has called Rome home for over a decade, and in that time has garnered a keen understanding of the workings of the Italian mind. She blogs about everything from Italian politics to Roman culture to the random absurdities of life in Italy, all with a refreshing dose of honesty and plenty of hilarious commentary.

This is the perfect blog for people who are planning a trip to Rome and want all the insider advice and tricks. Amanda Ruggeri is an indefatigable writer who will fill you in on all of Rome’s best kept secrets, and make sure you don’t fall into any of the many dreaded tourist traps this lovely city so helpfully provides. She’s got her finger on Rome’s pulse, and doesn’t miss any of the most important cultural events that hit the city.

There is one question I get more than any other from friends, friends of friends, clients, and anyone I have ever come into contact with, who is planning a trip to Rome: Where should I eat? And my response is invariable: ask Katie Parla. Katie is a certified sommelier and holds a Masters in Italian Gastronomic Culture, so it’s safe to say she knows what she’s talking about. She has spent the last 10 years exploring Rome’s culinary jungle, her taste is impeccable and she tells it like it is. She blogs about every gastronomic option in the city, from greasy street food to Michelin-starred excellence, from craft beer to organic wine, from traditional Roman cuisine to authentic Ethiopian, Korean or Indian, and everything in between.

Diario di una Studentessa Matta (Diary of a Mad Student)
Melissa Muldoon may not be an Italian resident, but this linguistically gifted American woman has mastered the Italian language more than many of us who live here full time. After falling in love with this undeniably gorgeous language during her many trips to Italy, she decided to perfect it by regular blogging… IN ITALIAN! To be honest, I don’t know how she does it. I have a hard enough time stringing together a coherent sentence in my native tongue. If you’d like to improve your own Italian skills, reading is one of the best ways, so hop over to her blog to read her musings about Italy, all in Dante’s glorious Tuscan.

When I feel like laughing until I practically burst a spleen, all the while nodding my head in emphatic agreement, and crying with gratitude that there is somebody out there who has the same gripes and 
frustrations with life in Italy, but is able to express them with hysterical and beautifully crafted prose, I visit this site. Elizabeth Petrosian lives with her family near Florence and writes about all aspects of life in Italy, with side-splitting hilarity and not a grain of sugar-coating. Her most priceless posts tell of the antics of her almost unbelievably horrid in-laws.

There are quite a lot of us American expats living in Rome and blogging about the craziness that such a life entails. But what if the shoe were on the other foot? Laura is Italian, born and raised in Rome, with an American husband and two half-and-half kids. They live in LA and Laura blogs in Italian about the things that madden or bewilder her as an Italian expat in the US. For example, why does her doctor not acknowledge the dangers of colpo d’aria, why are her American friends so shocked when she tells her little boy, “Se non te stai zitto, t'ammazzo di botte!” (I’ll beat you to death if you don't shut up), and why, God, why, are there no bidets in America?!

Check out these amazing blogs; I promise you won’t be disappointed! I only hope that after you’ve discovered them, you’ll still have time to visit my little blog! Stay tuned for my upcoming This Week in Rome feature, to be inaugurated next weekend.

What other exceptional Rome or Italy blogs do you love?

All images are copyright of the authors of the respective blogs.
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Rome in the time of the Borgias: has anything really changed?

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI

One of my favorite things about April, besides the glorious boughs of cascading wisteria to be seen (and smelt) all over Rome, is that it heralds the start of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, television drama, The Borgias. Following the life of the most notorious pope in history, The Borgias chronicles the intrigues, scandal, and corruption of the 15th-century Vatican court, featuring plenty of greed, violence and impermissible sex.

Jeremy Irons stars as Rodrigo Borgia, aka Pope Alexander VI, the epitome of corruption, hypocrisy and debauchery, a part he plays with obvious relish. Yet he is somehow able to turn the papa cattivo (evil pope, as he is remembered) into a lovable bad boy, whom we can’t help rooting for. Although the gaunt and ruggedly handsome Irons may be physically contradictory to the actual historic figure (fat and ugly), he does capture the inner qualities the Borgia pope possessed in abundance: magnetism, sensuality, and undeniable charisma. While critics have claimed that The Borgias dulls in comparison to the (even racier, if possible!) German version, Borgia, I can’t imagine a better cast, or one with more titillating chemistry.

The cast of Showtime's The Borgias

Now, I know April is still two months away, but, for some strange reason, I’ve got that family of miscreants on the mind right now, and I just can’t wait for Season Three to begin! Last night I went back and watched the first episode of Season One, which features the conclave of 1492 and the election of Rodrigo Borgia as pope. I couldn’t help comparing the climate of tension, suspicion and political intrigue depicted in that episode to what is going on right across town, in this, the 21st century.

Scandal! Rumors! (Almost) unprecedented occurrences!

No pope has willingly given up his position since 1294 when Celestine V, who had not even participated in his own election, and who had very reluctantly accepted the tiara, resigned after only five months to return to his life as a hermit. Despite a few hints that Benedict XVI may have dropped over the past few years, everyone was shocked when he announced on 11 February that he would be resigning, effective 28 February. While I won’t comment on my suppositions as to why the pope has chosen to resign (I prefer not to get too political on this blog), from the church’s official line to the most disparaging journalists, and everywhere in between, everyone has an opinion. Rumors are swirling and many of them are not pretty.

The headline in this morning’s La Repubblica read, “Sesso e carriera, i ricatti in Vaticano dietro la rinuncia di Benedetto XVI” (Sex and career: the Vatican extortion behind the resignation of Benedict XVI). With the “Vatileaks” debacle early last year that saw the pope’s butler thrown into a medieval prison, the on-going sex abuse scandals, accusations of money-laundering, and now this, who needs the hi-jinks of Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia and Giulia Farnese? We’ve got enough disrepute to rival the Borgia pope himself.

Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander VI and Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese
Over 500 years have passed from the time of the Borgia pope, but has life in Italy really changed that much? This is a question I have asked myself many times since I moved here and began studying Renaissance Rome and papal history. With the secrecy and intrigue within the Vatican, the rampant corruption on every level of society, a political system that still gives credence to buffoons  like Berlusconi, and a class divide that is turning into an impassable chasm, sometimes I feel it hasn’t changed at all.

Case in point: When a young priest secured the undivided attentions of his delicious teenage sister, Giulia Farnese, for the newly crowned Alexander VI, the grateful pontiff thanked him with a coveted cardinal’s hat (the key to wealth and power in Renaissance Italy). Not surprisingly, Cardinal Farnese became pope himself in his time, although he could never shake the ridiculous circumstances of his rise to power, and was laughingly referred to as Cardinal Petticoat.

This could be likened to the case of the 25-year-old showgirl with (surprise surprise) no political experience, who was nevertheless elected to Italian parliament thanks to her inclusion on the ticket of the president of the region of Lombardia. How did she end up on that ticket? It seems it was “wanted at any cost” by then-premier Berlusconi. Don’t worry, she didn’t serve long; she was eventually indicted for her part in providing him with an underage prostitute.

This is just one example, but parallels between Renaissance Rome and today’s Rome can be drawn with sickening ease. With the parliamentary elections this weekend, it’s looking more and more like nothing is going to be changing in the near future. So I suggest you grab a bowl of popcorn and find a good seat. The new season of The Borgias may not start until April, but with the pope’s resignation and the upcoming conclave, we are about to witness a piece of history, and Showtime’s got nothing on it.

Stay tuned for more posts as I follow the Pope's (nearly) unprecedented resignation and the exciting conclave that will follow!

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Life in Italy, in a nutshell

My darlings, I have something wonderful to share with you today. (I know that about this time you are expecting a post about tempting frappe or those sinfully delectable castagnole, but you'll have to hold off a just a little longer!) This is one of the first, and very few, YouTube videos I will ever post on this blog. Trust me that I would not be sharing this with you if it were not so uncannily illustrative of the soul of the Italian people.

Yesterday, in a small town just outside Naples, a slightly-past middle-aged man was parking his car. Take this situation out of Italy and you're left with an uneventful couple of minutes that will be forgotten before the emergency  brake is on.

But in Italy, nothing is ever simple. And rarely is it boring. Frustrating, yes, gnash-your-teeth-and-tear-your-hair-out maddening, oh, hell yeah. But boring, no.

I know you're sitting there reading this, thinking: a man parks a car, and she thinks it's entertaining? What could possibly happen to make a man parking a car interesting? Could this really be worth 9 (sorry) minutes of my time?

The answer is yes.

This one little video sums up the entire country of Italy. On the surface, it shows how bereft of basic driving skills some of its inhabitants are. But it's much deeper than that. It illustrates the undying bond between an older man and his even older mother. It showcases the indignant outrage that can be inspired in a man who is clearly in the wrong yet blames everyone else around him. It tells of motorcycle gangs who strap whole hocks of prosciutto to the backs of their bikes. It shows how any occasion can be an opportunity to make a dramatic and impassioned scene and how even the simplest tasks cannot and must not ever be completed easily or quickly. It shows how everyone has an opinion on what should be done, yet somehow, nothing gets done. It reminds us that nothing can be resolved without the benevolent help of the Church. But most of all, it shows that Italians, so quick to anger, throw up their hands and scream curses in dialect, are the very same ones who will, a moment later, laugh, cheer and throw you a flower.

P.S. Please note: they are all parked on the sidewalk. Good to know it's not just Rome.
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Saturday, February 2, 2013

First day of Carnevale in Rome

Flight of the Churches, Brigid Marlin
Carnevale kicks off today, and in honor of that colorful, vivacious, and heady festival, I couldn't help but share with you this gorgeous work of art. Carnevale will be forever linked with Venice (even though it did not originate there) and this fantastical image of Byzantine balloon-churches taking off from Piazza San Marco somehow reminds me of the unforgettable Carnevale I spent in that amazing city in 2005. The painting is the work of Brigid Marlin, an American artist born in 1936 who has been described as the first in a new generation of surrealist artists.   

But this is The Pines of Rome, not The Pines of Venice, and it's been many years since I have visited La Serenissima. Instead, I am going to extol the virtues of Roman Carnevale. It's pretty fantastic, if I do say so myself.

I plan to post a few times over the next ten days of the "holiday", about the traditions, the events and, perhaps best of all, the sweets that make Carnevale Romano just about the most wonderful time of the year. But until then, I leave you with this little taste that I encountered, almost by chance, on my afternoon walk today.

For a bit of background on Roman Carnevale, check out last year's post: Eat, drink, and be merry! Carnival in Rome.

Image sources: 1; 2 and 3, by author
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