Rome’s Christmas-Tree Controversy

Why has it become so difficult for the City of Rome to erect a Christmas tree in the center of town? It’s not just tourists who have been left scratching their heads the last couple of years; Romans have been hopping mad about both the ugly trees and the exorbitant costs involved in transporting them to the Italian capital.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when and why this started, but let’s go back to 2016, when the city’s main Christmas tree was declared by many residents to be “The Ugliest Tree in the World.” You can read about it, and see photos of that year’s pitiful evergreen here.

But it’s all relative!  Next year’s disaster made the 2016 tree look pretty good by Christmas tree 2017comparison. Continue reading


The 2018 Vatican Nativity and Christmas Tree

For several years now, different Italian cities have taken turns providing a nativity scene for display in St. Peter’s Square. This year’s nativity came from Jesolo, a coastal town not far from Venice. Or to be more specific, the town of Jesolo donated not a nativity scene per se, but the 700+ tons of sand used to make one:


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Buying a Pre-Fab Sarcophagus in Ancient Rome (Yes, Really)

It seems that everywhere you turn in Rome, you see a sarcophagus. They’re in museums IMG_5522and churches. They’re being used as flower-pots and fountains. Few visitors, however, stop to wonder what happened to their contents! Were the remains of the person inside simply dumped, so his tomb could be recycled into a decoration for some rich Roman’s garden?

The history behind these sarcophagi, many of which are beautifully carved, is complicated. Continue reading

The Third Bishop of Rome

Happy feast-day of Saint Clement! Pope Clement I (reigned 88-99 A.D.) was the third Pope after Peter and Linus, and like them he was martyred for the faith. Clement’s subsequent history, however, is arguably even more interesting than his life and death–and Rome is at the center of it all.

Clement Ghezzi Vat Museums Continue reading

The Trendy Piazza, Where Christian Martyrs Died

All tour-books which list the top sites of Rome will tell you to visit Piazza Navona. They’ll Piazza Navonamention the Bernini fountain, the Borromini church, the artwork for sale by local artists, and the (bad and overpriced) restaurants where you can sit and people-watch.

And that’s a shame, because they’re failing to explain the origins of this piazza, and its tremendous historical significance! Continue reading

Roman Tombs–and Roman Numerals

Today is the feast of All Souls, when Catholics pray particularly for the repose of the Souls in Purgatory–and so it’s appropriate to take a look at some of the tombs of the IMG_5467Christian faithful, which can be found in many of the churches of Rome. Most of the inscriptions are in Latin, which we can read (can you? If not, you’ll be glad to visit these churches with us!). But on top of that, the dates are invariably written in Roman numerals. Continue reading

Sistine-Chapel Fiction

Other tour-guides continue to say the most amazing things…

This week, one of our guides was with some of our clients in the Sistine Chapel, and the Sistine Chapeloverheard yet another gem. A tourist asked his own tour-guide, “Does the Pope ever say Mass or do anything else liturgical in the Sistine Chapel?” Continue reading

Modern Art (Not Blasphemous at All)

In one of Rome’s modern art museums stands this nearly life-sized bronze sculpture. Recently one of our guides visited the museum and stopped to admire it… and overheard IMG_5196a group of tourists saying to each other, “Christ was a woman?!” They were perplexed and quickly went on to the next room.

What a shame! They failed to understand who and what this sculpture is all about. It is actually a very reverent depiction of the 4th-century Spanish martyr, Saint Eulalia. Continue reading

Happy Feast of Saint Michael!

Today is the feast-day of Saint Michael the Archangel–a good day to take a look at a rare example of German woodcarving on display in one of Rome’s art museums.

Michael’s battle against Satan is described in the Apocalypse (12:7-9):

IMG_5077“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels [going forth] to war with the dragon; and the dragon warred and his angels; Continue reading

Caravaggio’s Controversial St. Matthew

Happy feast-day of St. Matthew! This great Apostle and Evangelist abandoned his lucrative career as a tax-collector for the Roman Empire after hearing Our Lord say only two words: “Follow Me.” the 16th century, the great Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a series of panels for a chapel dedicated to St. Matthew–but one of them caused something of an uproar. Continue reading

When “Basilica” Didn’t Mean “Church”

We all know what the term “basilica” means, right? By definition, a basilica is a very, very large church! That’s why some of our clients occasionally do a bit of research in advance of their trip to Rome… and decide that they want to visit the Basilica Julia. They assume it’s a huge and lovely church of some kind, and have no idea that they’re actually asking to see THIS:

Basilica Iulia

That’s right. That area in the Roman Forum where you see rows of column-stumps, that is the Basilica Julia. Built in the first century B.C., it most certainly was not Christian, and not a church. No, it was merely some boring government office-building, built in the era of Julius Caesar, which is how it got its name. How is this possible? Continue reading

Pizza in Rome, vs. Pizza at Home

Far too many visitors to Rome take it for granted that the way to order pizza here is exactly the same as the way it’s done back home. In reality, entering a Roman pizzeria and announcing “We’d like a large pepperoni” is a great way both to confuse and annoy the staff, and end up still being hungry after your meal.

Roman pizzaFor starters, Rome has its own style of pizza, which is served in sit-down restaurants. It’s paper-thin, runny and very hot! and must be eaten with a knife and fork. If you want to try picking up a slice with your fingers, Continue reading

The Church Where Popes Take a Back-Seat

In one of the countless churches that one encounters in the center of Rome lies one of the greatest women of all time. The uneducated daughter of a businessman, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) singlehandedly convinced the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon, Catherine of Siena tombFrance, where Popes had been living for decades. An intense mystic, Catherine didn’t eat a thing or sleep a wink for years, received direct communications from both Christ and God the Father, and miraculously learned to read and write overnight–because Our Lord declared that He would teach her how. Catherine was named Patroness of Italy in 1939, Doctor of the Church in 1970, and Patroness of all Europe in 1999. Not too shabby, for a girl who never went to school! Continue reading

How Well Do You Know St. Lawrence?

Yesterday was the feast of the Roman deacon St. Lawrence, who was martyred in the mid-200’s A.D. There’s no question that Lawrence really existed–his death is chronicled in the earliest extant Christian documents, and his burial place is still known. But in the Middle Ages, hagiographers began romantically embellishing his life story, and so it can sometimes be unclear which elements are fantasy and which are historical fact.

This 17th-century painting by Bernardo Strozzi, “The Charity of St. Lawrence,” hangs in St. Lawrence, Strozzione of Rome’s most important art galleries. Its coloring and brilliant light effects make it an artistic treasure; but how many visitors actually understand what it depicts? Continue reading

The “Great Idea” That Isn’t

“We’re planning to spend the afternoon walking along the Appian Way.”

Italians are always bewildered by tourists’ fascination with Via Appia. After all, it’s just another ancient Roman military road, much like Via Salaria and Via Nomentana, and IMG_5003you don’t hear of any tourists who are anxious to walk along those streets, do you? Further compounding the mystery, those same fascinated foreigners can never really explain why it is that they think the Appian Way is worth a visit. Continue reading

Saint Ignatius and the Hidden Statue

Happy feast of Saint Ignatius! (Okay, it was yesterday.) This tremendously holy soldier-turned-saint (1491-1556) founded the Society of Jesus, which proved to be the Pope’s secret weapon during the Counter-reformation. The Jesuits were not only staunch Catholics, but they were also brilliant intellectuals–and they managed to regain many, although not all, of the Catholic Church’s losses to Luther, Calvin and other protestants.

Right in the center of Rome stands a Jesuit church containing the tomb of Saint Ignatius. Gesu Ignatius statueIt too screams “Counter-reformation!” as it was deliberately designed to be the absolute antithesis of the dour, austere, always-wear-black mentality of Jean Calvin and many of the other protestant leaders. The chapel containing Ignatius’ tomb is simply dripping with precious marbles, lapis lazuli, silver and gold–including the jaw-dropping, larger-than-life silver statue of Ignatius which you can see here, as well as on the main page of our website. Continue reading

Centuries Apart, but Side by Side

Happy feast of St. Pantaleon! This early martyr died for the faith during the last and fiercest Christian persecution under Emperor Diocletian, around the year 305 A.D.

catalogo_urban_alta.pdfTucked in a corner in the center of Rome is a church that is partially dedicated to the memory of St. Pantaleon–but he shares that honor with a very different saint, who lived many centuries later. Continue reading

It’s a Country, an Independent Country!

One of our guides was walking down the street one day, and realized that a young, British tourist-couple was a few yards ahead, arguing about something. He was insisting that he was right, while she rolled her eyes and shook her head.Vatican Map-Aerial

“Babe, listen to me. I’m telling you it’s a COUNTRY, an independent country!”

The topic of their disagreement immediately became obvious: they were talking about Vatican City. Continue reading

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was cause for a procession PROCESSIONE DELLA BEATA VERGINE DEL CARMELOthrough the hot and humid streets near St. Peter’s Square. Most on-lookers were probably familiar with this Marian title… but how many people know where and how it originated? Continue reading

Look at This, Not at That!

If you visit a museum dedicated to a subject that you know little about, one thing quickly becomes evident: the biggest frustration is not knowing what to look at!

IMG_5140The fact is, even if you have all the time and patience in the world, you’re simply not going to spend time looking at every single item in the entire museum. You naturally want to concentrate on the most important pieces–but if you’re not an expert in the field, how do you even know which ones those are?

This statue is a case in point. Located in one of Rome’s many museums of antiquities, it generally is ignored by tourists. After all, the museum is chock-full of full-length, life-sized statues of pagan gods like this Athena–so why stop to pay particular attention to this one? But if you fall prey to that mentality, you’re going to miss something of tremendous historical interest! Continue reading

What’s HE doing in Rome?

Not all famous painters are Italian, of course; but for many generations it was important for every upcoming artist to come to Italy, either to study or at least to take a long, hard look at Italian art. That’s why it’s so ironic that Rome is happily playing host this summer to an Turner, Decline Carthaginian Empire 1817exhibition of fabulous works by a British artist who not only never came to Italy… he probably couldn’t have cared less. Continue reading

All Those Headless Ancient Statues…

An awful lot of the ancient statues one encounters in Rome are missing their heads. This IMG_5143often leads confused visitors to wonder whether they were beheaded deliberately. Nope! In quite a few cases, the statue simply toppled over at some point, and the thinnest parts of it broke–like the neck.

But in many other cases, there’s a different reason why the head is missing. Continue reading

NOT Kid-Friendly

Every so often, we get an email like this one: “Hi! We’re looking for a kid-friendly tour of Vat Mus 1the Vatican Museums!”

Let us translate this email for you: “Hi! We’re coming to Rome with kids and we haven’t thought for a nano-second about what they’re actually going to do and see there!” Continue reading

Ancient Heritage, Modern-day Violence

In the 1800’s, an Italian scholar amassed quite an impressive collection of antiquities, not only from Rome but from other ancient civilizations farther east. He probably never IMG_4973imagined in a million years that in a century to come, extremists would destroy many of the artifacts he didn’t manage to bring to Rome–and brutally murder at least one eminent archaeologist who vainly tried to protect and preserve them. Continue reading

A Very Different “Prince of Peace”

When Christians hear the term “Prince of Peace,” we naturally think of Christ. That’s because Christianity interprets Isaiah 9:6 as applying to Jesus directly:

His name will be called wonderful, counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Interestingly, however, the man who was Emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus’ birth IMG_5110was also styled the “Prince of Peace” by his pagan subjects. Continue reading

An “Oratorio” in the Original Sense of the Word…

Classical-music lovers are all familiar with the oratorio, a musical presentation that is partly a concert, and partly an operatic performance. Few people realize, however, that this genre had its origins here in Rome, among the Priests of the Oratory (a.k.a. Oratorians). Their founder, St. Philip Neri, popularized the practice of combining the reading of spiritual texts with musical performances, as a means of evangelizing the St Elizabeth Trinitypeople of Rome in the 1500’s. Continue reading

How Do You Lose a Saint?

It’s hard to find a saint who’s “bigger” than Saint Jerome (347-420). Jerome isn’t merely a Doctor of the Church; he’s considered one of the Four Latin Fathers of the Church as well. (By the way, who are the other three? We can tell you…) Not only was Jerome a fantastic scriptural scholar who wrote prolifically, but he was also a monk who took very seriously the concepts of poverty, chastity, and obedience–and didn’t hesitate to call out those lukewarm monks who didn’t.

Jerome is best known for his Latin translation of the entire Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Known as the Vulgate, it is still the “official” text of the Bible that the Church uses today. Jerome spent long years working on this project in a cave in Bethlehem, living the ascetic life of a monk. He did his translating on his knees, convinced that any task that involved the Word of God was holy.

St Mary Major Jerome Continue reading

Floating on the Water

In the center of the shopping-district of Rome stands a church that most tourists ignore. Pozzo 2After all, they’re wandering that part of the city because they’re looking for bargains, not because they’re looking for a miracle. But back in the year 1256, that’s exactly what the locals got. Continue reading

Definitely Worth Missing…

As everybody knows, there’s some first-rate art here in Rome. Some is located in the churches for which it was originally created, and the rest is found in the many museums located all over the city. As scholars, we tend to know where the art that’s worth seeing can be found.

That’s why this sign gave us pause.  It hangs in a parish church which in centuries past was established for the peopleIMG_4775 of Florence, which was a different nation at the time. What “works of Michelangelo and Bernini” have they got in there, and why don’t we know about them?  Continue reading

Elizabethan England Meets Rome

When you think about the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics, you don’t tend to think of Rome. But in fact many of the Catholic priests who were martyred during the reigns of Elizabeth and her successor James were educated right here in the Eternal City–and these days a special exhibition includes rarely seen documents and other artifacts from the period. Continue reading

The Marian Month of May

In the very center of Rome, there’s a surprisingly ugly church at the top of an endless flight of stairs.  (Btw there’s actually a back entrance, which doesn’t requiring much of a Aracoeli facadeclimb–and we know exactly where it is.)  Few tourists have any indication that the history of this church goes all the way back to the very beginnings of ancient Rome.  Continue reading

One of the Greatest Popes Ever!

Happy feast-day of Saint Pius V! If you’re not familiar with this great man’s many achievements, you’re in for a surprise. Pius V reigned in the late 1500’s, when the Reformation had already ripped the Church into shreds–and on top of that, he single-handedly saved the Western World from muslim domination. Pretty good for a simple Dominican, wouldn’t you say?

Pius V 2 Continue reading

When I Grow Up…

It’s easy to imagine the proud parents of this adorable little boy–particularly his doting IMG_4974mother, who was convinced for much of her son’s life that he was the gods’ gift to Rome.  As can be seen from the child’s portrait-bust, the wealthy Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and his wife Agrippina had produced a real cherub! But no parents really know how their children are going to turn out, do they?  Continue reading

A Rarity in Rome

A Rarity in Rome

The Impressionists were French painters, not Italians.  That’s why very few of their paintings are here in Rome.  Most of their work is found today in France (surprise!).

A Good-Friday Miracle: “I Can See!”

St. John the Evangelist, who was present at Christ’s Crucifixion between the two thieves, described what happened to Our Lord’s body after His death:

“Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the Longinus Berninicross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.  Continue reading

Holy Week in Rome

Holy Week began with yesterday’s Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square.  Complicating things for visitors was the fact that daylight saving’s time began in Italy on the same day–Palm Sunday Vaticanand if they were unaware of that, they arrived an hour late!

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Other Tour Guides Say the Most Amazing Things…

There are hundreds of churches in Rome, most of them containing multiple side-chapels.  And in one of those zillions of side-chapels hangs this lovely Crucifixion by S_Pulzone_Crucifixión_Santa_Maria_in_Valicella_RomaScipione Pulzone (1544-1598).

It’s very pretty, but on Rome’s art-circuit it really doesn’t merit a second glance.  After all, when it comes to Italian sacred art, Rome contains the best of the best! Continue reading