A Successful Pope, a Less-Than-Successful Papal Portrait

Today is the feast-day of Pope Saint Marcellus I, whom you’ve probably never heard of. That’s partly because Marcellus reigned less than one year. He led the Church during part of its last and most horrendous persecution, launched by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D.

San Marcello al Corso

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More Gift-Giving on Epiphany?

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, a national holiday here in Italy (the third in three weeks). Today we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem, where they humbly adored the newborn King.

IMG_7725Italian children are also celebrating Epiphany, but for an additional reason. Today marked the arrival of la Befana, the kindly old hag who brings good children even more gifts to add to their Christmas collection. Continue reading

New Year’s Day in Piazza Navona

Happy New Year 2020 to all our clients and friends around the world!

IMG_7723Temps are pretty chilly here in Rome these days, but that hasn’t stopped either Romans or visitors from continuing to celebrate. One of the go-to places in Rome at Christmas-time is Piazza Navona, a historical gem which we already told you all about in this post. During this season, it is transformed into a sort of a Christmas carnival, which is fun for both children and grown-ups alike. Continue reading

Rome’s Marvelous Medieval Mosaic

Today is the feast-day of Pope Saint Clement I, who was the Bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 A.D. He is said to have been consecrated a bishop by Saint Peter himself.

One of Rome’s most fascinating sites is the church which today houses Saint Clement’s S Clemente 1remains, and one post simply cannot do justice to all that it contains and the fascinatingly complex history behind its construction! We will focus, therefore, on just one of the many elements of a tour of the Basilica of San Clemente: its wonderful apse mosaic. Continue reading

The Oldest Bell-Tower in Rome

Today is the feast of the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs (in Italian, Santi Quattro Coronati). Chances are, you’ve never heard of them.

During the 4th century A.D., in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia near the Danube River, four stonecarvers were asked to sculpt a statue of the god Aesculapius. They refused–not because they had too much work to do, but because they were Christians, and would not create a statue of a false god.

Unfortunately, this incident occurred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305), who happened to be busy launching the worst Christian persecution in history. The four stonecarvers were martyred along with thousands of others who professed their belief in Christ.

Bell tower Continue reading

Rome’s Invisible Forum of Peace

Visitors to Rome frequently have a confused notion of the size of the Roman Forum. That’s partly because a significant percentage of the Forum is still buried underground. The addendum to the Forum constructed by Emperor Vespasian, in the 70’s A..D., is a good example of this–because until very recently, you couldn’t see it at all. Continue reading

Bernini’s VERY Bad Idea

Now you see them, and now you don’t! What change was made to the Pantheon in the past 150 years or so?

PantheonTourists invariably assume that the appearance of one of Rome’s most iconic ancient structures has always remained the same. They couldn’t be more wrong–because for over two centuries, Romans were fuming about “improvements” to the Pantheon made by none other than the great Gianlorenzo Bernini. Continue reading

How Old is the Ancient Roman Forum?

Visitors to Rome often have the idea that all the “ancient” things existed during the same period, after which they fell into ruins for some reason and stayed the way we see them today. But if you think about that for more than a nano-second, you’ll realize that history doesn’t work that way.

The fact is, the historical period that we now know as “Ancient Rome” lasted for at least 1000 years! And at any given point during that time, some ancient buildings were already quite old, others had just been built, and still others hadn’t even been conceived of yet. This is why the ages of the structures in what’s left of the Roman Forum are many centuries apart.Temple of Saturn

One of the oldest buildings that is still partially standing is the Temple of Saturn. Continue reading

The Tax-Collector Saint

Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and He said to him, “Follow me.”  And he rose and followed Him. (Matt. 9:9)

Matthew, RusconiToday the Church celebrates the feast of Saint Matthew, a former tax-collector. We know nothing else about his life before he got up and left it all for Christ, but it has nevertheless been enough information for creative artists to work with. Continue reading

The Ancient Roman Statue that Underwent an MRI

In the public square that marks the traditional center of Rome, there stood for centuries a magnificent gilded bronze Marcus Aurelius originalequestrian statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned 161-180 A.D. The statue is believed to date from the later part of the Emperor’s reign, which means it’s over 1800 years old.

Finally, somebody realized that leaving this priceless work of art outdoors in the rain and wind, where birds routinely perched all over it (and left their calling-cards) was not a good idea. Continue reading

The Roman Noble Who Threw It All Away

In the historic center of Rome, there’s a tiny side-street which tourists sometimes visit St Vincent Pallotti 4because it’s lined with jewelry shops. Many of them fail even to notice the nondescript facade of a church which tends to blend right in with all the other buildings–and that’s a shame, because it houses the tomb of an extremely interesting saint! Continue reading

Italians and Ice-Cold Showers

One of our guides was waiting for a bus here in Rome, and somehow struck up a Showerconversation with some American tourists (father and daughter) doing the same. After chatting a while, the dad hesitated, and then brought up a question that had obviously been bothering him:

“Do Italians ever take hot showers?” he asked. Continue reading

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Art

Happy feast of the Assumption! Today, we Catholics commemorate the fact that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Pope Pius XII formally declared this to be a dogma of our faith in 1950.

Note that we’re not sure whether the Virgin Mary actually died or not, and so Pope Pius left that open. For centuries, however, artists have not hesitated to portray the death of the Blessed Virgin, surrounded by the Apostles, with her Son coming down to take her to heaven with Him. In fact, depictions of the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary were so common that in the Middle Ages, they acquired a standardized form and are easily recognizable. Here in Rome, we have a couple of exceptional, late 13th-century mosaics depicting this scene in our churches. Take a look at the work of Jacopo Torriti, who completed this mosaic in Saint Mary Major in 1295:

Assumption St Mary Major

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Rome Finally Staggers Into the 20th Century

If you’ve been to Rome before, we’re sure that there is one thing you can definitely remember: business establishments of all kinds never, ever seem to be open when you need them.  Maybe your flight landed late and you’re starving at 10 PM; or you decided to run to the supermarket before heading back to your hotel around 8 PM; or you wanted lunch after you left a museum at 2:30 PM; or you need a bottle of aspirin on a weekend or holiday.  The odds are almost 100% that at some point in your visit, you went to X … and found that it was closed.


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Rome’s Unrecognizable Medieval Skyline

When we tell our students that if ancient Romans were able to time-travel, they wouldn’t be able to find their way around their own city, it’s pretty easy for them to understand. What’s a little harder to fathom is the radical difference between modern Rome, and the Rome of the Middle Ages. That’s because, as you can see in this faded pen-and-ink map from the 1400’s, medieval Rome was chock-full of tall, square towers–over 100 of them! What happened to them all?


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When Architecture and Liturgy Meet

Many tourists/pilgrims are so overwhelmed with everything they see in Rome that they Santa Cecilia Trasteveremiss important patterns that have historical significance. The design of early Christian churches like Santa Cecilia (seen here) is a good example. Notice what these churches have in common, out in front of the main entrance? Continue reading

The Genius of Bernini: When Artistry Hides an Engineering Problem

When we look at a lovely sculpture, a fountain, or a fresco, we usually admire its beauty, without bothering to inquire about its construction. And sometimes that’s a shame, because knowing about the practical difficulties which the artist managed to overcome would impress us even more.

Bernini ElephantGianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) wasn’t merely a master at creating pretty things. He devised some clever workarounds when he was hired to complete projects with inherent engineering problems. Continue reading

The Saint of the Precious Blood of Jesus

In a tiny church right in the center of Rome, a stone’s throw from one of the city’s most San Gasparefamous tourist attractions, is the tomb of Saint Gaspare del Bufalo. If you judge him by his portraits, he looks like a fussy, delicate sort of person. But paintings are deceptive, because this man was tough, and led an extraordinary life which merits a closer look. Continue reading

Where 3 Temples = 1 Church

Here in Rome, the church of San Nicola in Carcere has been getting a well-deserved Nicola in Carcere 1cleaning and general face-lift. Now the scaffolding is off, and the beautiful Renaissance facade, completed in 1599 by Giacomo della Porta, is looking great!

But if you look at more than just the facade of this unusual church, you immediately realize that something is up. What’s with the side walls? What’s going on here? Continue reading

Pentecost at the Pantheon

For the past twenty years or so, the feast of Pentecost is celebrated in a spectacular way Pantheon Iat Rome’s Pantheon. Few visitors realize that this pagan temple was consecrated as a Catholic church around 600 AD, and is officially known as Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary of the Martyrs)–and you can attend Sunday Mass here every week!

On Pentecost, a select group of Rome’s fireman climb up to the top of the dome from the outside, equipped not with firehoses, but with bags of red rose-petals. Continue reading

That Island in the Tiber

Every single day, tourists find themselves staring at the the middle of the Tiber River, Tiber Island Iwhere they see this. Determined to figure out what it is, they immediately set out across one of the bridges to check it out … and they end up confused and disappointed, because on the surface it doesn’t seem to be much of anything.

What a shame that they’re not touring Rome with a good guide! These visitors who opt to see the city on their own are missing out on the fascinating, very ancient history of this special part of Rome. Continue reading

Missionary to the Romans

Happy feast-day of Saint Philip Neri! A member of a noble Florentine family, Philip came Philip Nerito Rome in the 1530’s and humbly ministered to the poor and sick, as well as to prostitutes. Eventually he entered the seminary, and decided he wanted to work as a missionary in India. Continue reading

Mary, Help of Christians

As any Catholic can tell you, the month of May is traditionally dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. It’s therefore a great month to visit Rome and check out the large number of paintings of the Madonna and Child in the city’s churches, many of which have fascinating histories behind them.

IMG_5909This image is a great example. Continue reading

Saintly Confusion

If today weren’t Sunday, we’d be celebrating the feast of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, two early Christian martyrs who are buried here in Rome. Depending on which story you read, you’ll discover all sorts of amazing–and contradictory–information about the life and death of these two men. What’s true and what’s not?

A 4490285The tombs of Nereus and Achilleus were discovered in the oldest part of the Catacombs of Domitilla, near the Appian Way. Continue reading

The Only Da Vinci in Rome

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, and it has prompted some special exhibitions by those few museums lucky enough to have his works in their collections. Here in Rome, there’s only one painting by the great Leonardo, in the Vatican Museums; and for a limited time you can see it for free!

St Jerome Leonardo

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Easter in Rome–With Oscar Wilde?

Happy Easter to all our clients and friends! Our Lord has risen, resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia!

When you think about Easter in Rome, it’s highly unlikely that the scandalous 19th-Leo 13 sedia gestatoriacentury Irish poet Oscar Wilde comes to mind. But this talented and tragic soul visited Rome on an Easter Sunday during the reign of Leo XIII, who was Pope for most of Wilde’s short life. And as with other poems on religious subjects, Wilde’s Easter Day shows a depth of theological thought that one wouldn’t expect from a flamboyant, egotistical artist who’d been convicted of sexual perversion! The poem begins by describing the appearance of Pope Leo in St. Peter’s Square, and moves on from there: Continue reading

The Crown of Thorns–Paris and Rome

By now the whole world has seen the heart-breaking destruction of much of Notre Dame Crown Thorns Parisde Paris. Thanks be to God, a priest managed to get the Blessed Sacrament out of the cathedral before the roof collapsed, and he rescued the relic of the Crown of Thorns (shown here) as well. You can read a detailed article about it here.

There’s perennial confusion about the relic of the Crown of Thorns. If it was really made of thorns, then why does the Paris relic consist of thorn-less rushes? And if the Crown is in Paris, then why does Rome also claim to possess these thorns? Continue reading

Rome’s Medieval Wooden Crucifix, Carved (?) by a Famous Mosaicist

Tucked away in a side chapel of a quiet church in the center of Rome, you’ll find this beautiful wooden IMG_5904crucifix. It is said to have been much visited by St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), which helps us to date it to the 14th century at the latest.

And that clue is relevant, because there is some uncertainty about the identity of the artist who carved it! Traditionally, it has been attributed to Pietro Cavallini, who died about 1330. So far as dating goes, that makes sense. But suggesting that Cavallini created it does not. Continue reading

Bernini’s Angels

As we were telling you last week, Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo is a bridge dramatically lined with sculpted angels, each holding an object connected to the sufferings and death of Christ. Various artists carved the different angels, but they all shared one thing in common: they were pupils of the great Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).


Bernini himself actually carved two angels for the bridge project … but they’re not there today. What happened to them? Continue reading

The Roman Bridge Dedicated to Christ’s Passion

Ponte Sant’Angelo (Holy Angels Bridge) is one of the more photogenic of Rome’s many bridges spanning the Tiber River. The fact that it also happens to lead to the dramatic Castel Sant’Angelo makes your pictures turn out even better!

Ponte Sant'Angelo

But surprisingly few tourists bother to stop and take a close look at the lovely angels which line both sides of the bridge–all sculpted by the students of Gianlorenzo Bernini, based on his own designs. Continue reading

A Miraculous Image, Right in the Center of Rome

As anyone who’s ever visited Rome can tell you, there are a lot of churches here. For that reason, foot-weary tourists tend to pass by all but the best known among them. And that’s a shame, because you can inadvertently miss a genuine treasure like this one!

IMG_5900Right in the center of the city is a good-sized parish church with a side chapel containing this image of Our Lord. Records show that in 1681, it was “rescued from the hands of the infidels in Morocco.” Christ is shown wearing the badge of the Trinitarians, with their distinctive red-and-blue cross; and since the Trinitarians were founded to rescue Christian captives from their non-Christian (generally Muslim) captors, it seems safe to assume that there was some sort of Trinitarian church in this region of northern Africa back then … and it had been plundered. Continue reading

The Relic of Christ’s Passion That Really Isn’t

Now that Lent has begun, many visitors to Rome are actually Christian pilgrims, who make a point of searching out those relics which pertain to Our Lord’s sufferings and death on Good Friday. And in a little-known medieval church here, they often wrongly think that they’ve found one.

This column has traditionally been billed as the pillar to which Christ was tied when He Columnwas scourged. It was brought to Rome in 1223 by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, a member of a noble Roman family who had been sent as papal legate to Constantinople. Heaven only knows how many millions of devout Christians have prayed and meditated on the Passion of Christ in front of this column over the centuries.

There’s just one problem with this column: it can’t possibly be authentic, for a variety of reasons. Continue reading

Ash Wednesday with the Pope (and not at St. Peter’s, either)

Today the Christian world enters the penitential season of Lent. Here in Rome, of course, the Pope himself said the Mass of Ash Wednesday and distributed ashes … but not at St. Peter’s. Instead, he bowed to an old Roman tradition, which for time immemorial has mandated that the Pope celebrate this liturgy at the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill.

Sabina 1 Continue reading

Shabby Borromini

There are lots and lots of museums in Rome … and some of them are simply not worth a visit. This one belongs on you “Don’t Bother” list, thanks to years of neglect and overall disinterest.

It sounds good in the tour-book, though! A 16th-century palace, formerly owned by a fairly important Roman family, crammed from floor to ceiling with that family’s art collection. What’s not to love, right?

SpadaBut in person, it’s a tremendous let-down. Continue reading

How Early Christians Prayed

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.

IMG_5546But 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

The Pagan Gods You Never Heard Of

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

The Largest Dome in the World

As any visitor to Rome can tell you, this city is filled with lots and lots of domes. Which one is the largest?

peters domeMost 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

The Three Kings Have Arrived! Living Nativity in the Roman Ruins

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.

img_5765And 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

In Rome, All is Calm, and All is BRIGHT!

Happy New Year 2019 to all our clients and friends!

img_5786Here 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 img_5693streets of Rome at night. You’ll quickly discover that the city is lit up like a birthday cake! Continue reading

Right Here in Rome: the Oldest Nativity in the World

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.

Nativity di CambioHere in Rome, we’ve got the oldest known nativity scene in the world, sculpted by the great Arnolfo di Cambio in 1291. Continue reading

Nativity Scenes From All Around the World–On Display 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 IMG_5632nativity 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

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

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.”

www.mikeyangels.co.ukIn 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