Whenever you’re talking or reading about the everyday lives of early Christians here in Rome, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s an awful lot that we just don’t know, and never will. We’d have to travel back in time and see them in person, in order to answer millions of questions about how they lived, the way they dressed, their occupations and social status, the ways that they interacted with each other and with non-Christians… the list goes on.
But there’s one thing about Romans in the first centuries of Christianity that we can be fairly sure of: we know how they used to pray. That’s because we have numerous images of Christians in prayer, carved by their Christian contemporaries for tombstones. Continue reading →
It seems that most adults are vaguely familiar with ancient Greek and Roman mythology, but our knowledge tends to be pretty rusty since it usually stems from those books we read back in the 5th or 6th grade. Yes, Jupiter and Juno, Minerva and Venus are names we can still recognize. But not all Roman gods and goddesses are that well known.
For instance, back in elementary school you probably didn’t learn that ancient Romans believed that every river had its own god, did you? These less famous gods are actually easy to spot, once you know the artistic rules that governed the ancient sculptors working to depict them. Continue reading →
If you’re looking for Russian art … Rome is normally not the place to find it. But that has changed dramatically for a couple of months, thanks to a spectacular exhibition taking place in Vatican City.
As any visitor to Rome can tell you, this city is filled with lots and lots of domes. Which one is the largest?
Most people will instinctively tell you that it’s the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica–and in one sense they’re right. Standing 136.57 m (448.1 ft) high, it is the tallest dome not only in Rome, but in the entire world.
But there’s another dome in Rome which actually has a larger diameter than that of St. Peter’s. Continue reading →
Happy Epiphany! Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, marking the arrival of the three Magi at the stable in Bethlehem. It’s also a national holiday in Italy, although this year it’s less confusing for tourists since it fell on a Sunday.
And today was therefore a special day at Rome’s annual living nativity, located in the ancient ruins of the Lateran Gate. This fabulous display has been presented daily since Christmas, and is a real treat for young and old alike! The people of one of Rome’s parishes put together this re-creation of the ancient city of Bethlehem every year, and it is particularly realistic when you consider that this site really existed at the time of the birth of Christ. Continue reading →
Happy New Year 2019 to all our clients and friends!
Here in Italy, the Christmas season hasn’t finished yet–because the Three Kings have yet to arrive. As everybody knows, they’ll get here on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, which is January 6. Until then, Rome is still celebrating!
While many businesses have reopened by now, there are still plenty of Romans, and lots of tourists, who continue to enjoy the holidays. And all you need to do is walk down the streets of Rome at night. You’ll quickly discover that the city is lit up like a birthday cake! Continue reading →
It’s hard to imagine celebrating Christmas without a nativity scene–and yet the first depiction of the Holy Family in the stable of Bethlehem, surrounded by adoring shepherds and the three Kings, was created by St. Francis of Assisi back in the 13th century. This means that no nativity scene in existence could be more than 800 years old.
Here in Rome, we’ve got the oldest known nativity scene in the world, sculpted by the great Arnolfo di Cambio in 1291. Continue reading →
Merry Christmas to all our clients and friends! Heaven only knows how many copies of the Christ Child’s manger exist around the world today, as they can be found in every church and millions of Christian homes. But there’s only one manger where the Baby Jesus actually lay, in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago–and it’s right here in Rome.
As Christmas approaches, the Church is striving to remind everyone that Jesus is the Reason for the Season! And as part of its efforts, the Vatican has opened a vast display of nativity scenes from all over the world. They were gathered with the help of the various countries’ Ambassadors to the Holy See, who submitted a fascinating array of Christmas cribs made in their respective nations from an amazing variety of materials. For example, the green-roofed box nativity seen here came from Taiwan, and includes miniature copies of sacred paintings found in the Cathedral in Taipei. Continue reading →
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 comparison. Continue reading →
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:
We often take our clients to see the fabulous mosaics (like this one) that adorn so many of the medieval churches in Rome. Not all of them were constructed at the same time, of course, but quite a few were built during the reign of one particular Pope: Paschal I, who reigned from 817 to 824. But have you ever even heard of him? Continue reading →
It seems that everywhere you turn in Rome, you see a sarcophagus. They’re in museums and 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 →
In one of Rome’s many Renaissance churches stands this lovely sculpture of the Madonna and Child. There’s no sign or label anywhere to explain, but it has an unusual story behind it! Continue reading →
How did ancient Romans dress? Ask anyone who studied ancient Rome in elementary school, and you’ll hear that Romans used to wear togas. But in reality, if we could travel back in time and walk down an ancient Roman street on an average day, we’d see almost no togas at all. Continue reading →
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.
All tour-books which list the top sites of Rome will tell you to visit Piazza Navona. They’ll mention 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 →
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 Christian 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 →
Tomorrow is Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day, which has devolved into a celebration of scary images of the dead. It’s a good time to clear up some chronic confusion about the tombs that one constantly encounters in the Catholic churches of Rome. Why are they so often covered with creepy images of skulls and bones? Continue reading →
In almost the exact geographical center of the modern city of Rome stands this brick ruin. Every single day, thousands and thousands of tourists walk past it, and almost none of them have the slightest idea what it is. But if you understand the story behind it, the long and diverse history of this site is exceptionally interesting! Continue reading →
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 overheard 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 →
In one of Rome’s numerous museums of ancient sculpture, you can find this unusual bust of a Satyr. Carved in gray bigio marble, it is remarkably life-like, in great part because the eyes are formed of inlaid marble of a different color.
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 a 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 →
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:
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 →
This kneeler can be found in the side aisle of a church right in the center of Rome. Thousands of tourists pop in and have a look at the place every week… but the odds that they appreciate the historical interest that this ordinary church-furnishing has are practically zero. Continue reading →
Wow! On Thursday, visitors to the Roman Forum got more than they bargained for: with an abrupt rumble and crash, the roof of the nearby church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (St. Joseph of the Carpenters) caved in completely. Continue reading →
In one of Rome’s many archaeological museums, you’ll come across this. Identified as a Greek work from about the 5th century B.C., it is known as the “Ludovisi Throne.” That’s because it was owned by the Ludovisi family, and it sort of looks like a throne. But is it? Continue reading →
We’ve shown you fabulous scenes from the side-walls of the Sistine Chapel in other posts before, like “Moses and the Sistine Chapel.” On the chapel’s opposite side, Sandro Botticelli painted The Temptation of Christ, which contains an image that is well known to the locals, but one that will go right over visitors’ heads. Continue reading →
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.
For 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 →
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, France, 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 →
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 one 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 →
“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 you 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 →
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. It 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 →
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.
Tucked 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 →
Rome is so chock-full of ancient statuary that visitors quickly start tuning it all out. It’s understandable, of course; but it’s a shame, because they tune out the ancient statuary in Catholic churches as well… but if they thought about it, that is always unusual enough to merit one’s full attention! Continue reading →
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.
“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 →
Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was cause for a procession through 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 →
Other tour guides continue to say the most amazing things…
One of our guides was in church one day, when a group of tourists arrived and gathered around this painting nearby. It was impossible not to overhear every word that this guide told the people in the group. Continue reading →
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!
The 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 →
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 exhibition of fabulous works by a British artist who not only never came to Italy… he probably couldn’t have cared less. Continue reading →
We don’t normally recommend that visitors take the“long” route through the Vatican Museums, since even the so-called “short” route is grueling enough! But if you’ve got the stamina and the time, and you love crowds… you get to see the Raphael Rooms as a reward. Continue reading →
An awful lot of the ancient statues one encounters in Rome are missing their heads. This often 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 →
When visitors enter the Sistine Chapel, they naturally focus on Michelangelo’s ceiling, and with good reason. But that means the fabulous frescos on the side walls tend to get ignored. Continue reading →
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 imagined 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 →
June is the month that is traditionally dedicated to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so maybe it’s a good time for us all to pause and be collectively appalled at the theft of a painting of the Sacred Heart from a famous church in the center of Rome. Continue reading →
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 people of Rome in the 1500’s. Continue reading →
Saint Augustine (354-430) was once walking down the beach in his native northern Africa, contemplating the difficulties inherent in understanding the mystery of the Trinity. How could three Persons be one God? Continue reading →
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.
In the center of the shopping-district of Rome stands a church that most tourists ignore. After 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 →
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 people 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 →
Visitors to Rome know very well that the city streets are filled with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They can be found on the walls of private homes, apartment houses, embassies, restaurants, you name it! Continue reading →
Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, some little Roman boys were playing ball in the street, like boys all over the world in every era. Over their heads was this nondescript fresco of the Madonna and Child, plastered onto the side of an apartment house. Continue reading →
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 →
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 climb–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 →
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?
It’s easy to imagine the proud parents of this adorable little boy–particularly his doting mother, 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 →
In one of Rome’s major basilicas is a side chapel containing this tomb. Most tourists walk right past it without a glance; a few look inside inquiringly, but can’t figure out what it’s all about, so they move on. Continue reading →
In one particularly confusing museum here in Rome, tourists can always be seen wandering around aimlessly, unsure of which displays to really focus on… and they invariably miss THIS extraordinary treasure. Continue reading →
In Rome, it happens often that you walk down a seemingly uninteresting street, and don’t pay attention to the details. But this random residential area in the center of the city contains a couple of surprises!
Happy Easter! Today we celebrate the fact that God can always, always do the impossible, and turn what appears to be a total disaster into a fabulous success! Never doubt that God is in full control, and knows exactly what He is doing… even when we don’t. Continue reading →
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 cross 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 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–and if they were unaware of that, they arrived an hour late!
In a church along one of Rome’s busiest shopping streets is a side chapel containing this 14th-century crucifix. Few tourists would even bother to venture in; those who do, almost certainly give it only a passing glance.