Rome Travel Guide

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Martin Luther: an Itinerary in Rome for the 500th anniversary of his "95 Theses"

On this the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther posted his rebuke to Catholicism, his "Ninety-five Theses" (October 31, 1517), we recommend an itinerary reflecting Luther's visit to Rome, 6 or 7 years earlier.

Luther confronting the Catholic hierarchy

     That four-week visit to Rome was crucial to Luther's observations of the excesses of Catholicism.  For a brief summary of his trip, see the the write-up of scholars Ron and Abby Johnson, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Springfield, VA.  While this was a seminal period for Luther, the details of his visit remain sketchy, even the dates, as the Johnsons point out. Nonetheless, we think the following itinerary will satisfy those interested in this figure critical to modern religious thought. 

Luther's first view of Rome could have been from this spot on Monte Mario.
St. Peter's dome would not yet have been constructed.

Monte Mario:  Luther described his first sight of Rome as being from the "mountain" outside the city walls.  He is supposed to have said on his first look, "Holy Rome, I salute thee."  Of course, years later he said, "If there is a hell, Rome is built over it."

The city looked very different in the early 1500s than it did even at the end of that century, and of course very different from today, although the views would have been stupendous, as they still are.  Rome in the early 1500s was in the midst of an enormous church building spree.  The city was coming out of its "irrelevance" during the Middle Ages.  The population had grown to over 50,000 from a low of about 12,000, after being almost one million during the Roman Empire.  
The via Francigena on Monte Mario.  Where we encounter 4 British pilgrims
on their way from Orvieto to St. Peter's.
Luther would have seen the beginning of the Renaissance, though not its flowering.  Construction of the modern St. Peter's began in 1506.  In 1508 Michelangelo began painting the Sistine Chapel.  And Luther came before the 1527 Sack of Rome.  We've always found Monte Mario great 'trekking' and recommend it as a starting point for an itinerary for those who can handle the moderate heights and walking.  It's 1.2 miles from Ponte Milvio on the north bank of the Tiber to the entrance to the walk up Monte Mario, and less than a mile (and about 400 vertical feet) up to the top of Monte Mario (Lo Zodiaco).

Via Flaminia: From Monte Mario, it appears Luther came back down to via Flaminia, rather than approach St. Peter's, as do today's pilgrims on the via Francigena (St. Francis's way).  All pilgrims from the north would have walked along via Flaminia, which crosses into Rome over Ponte Milvio.  While we find the modern via Flaminia interesting (much of it is on one of our itineraries in Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler), it has little left of the medieval city.

Ponte Milvio:  Luther would have crossed the Tiber at Ponte Milvio, where on October 28, 312 Constantine, who later converted to Christianity, the first Roman Emperor to do so, defeated his rival Maxentius.  The bridge retains its medieval style, though it's mostly known now for lovers who put padlocks on its rails. Once across the bridge, it's about a two-mile walk to the northernmost entrance to the city, Porta del Popolo, and the church for which it's named. 
Ponte Milvio.  Part of the 14th century toretta (little tower), which Luther would have seen, is still standing.
Porta del Popolo: Today's highly decorated, enormous "porta"--city gate--is vastly remodeled from the smaller porta Luther came through.  The porta had been built in the 1400s, as had the renovated church (1477), but on a smaller scale than they would have once rebuilt and remodeled.
The porta is on the far left; the church of Santa Maria del Popolo to the right of it.  Luther came through a smaller porta and was at the church. No cars and scooters in Luther's day.  Nor was the obelisk in the piazza.  Though brought
 to Rome in 10 BC, the obelisk was lost, then discovered in 1587 (in the photo the base is covered for restoration).
Inside Santa Maria del Popolo today - with crowds viewing the Carravagio
Santa Maria del Popolo.  Luther no doubt next went to Santa Maria del Popolo, the small church on the piazza, now famous mostly for its 17th-century Caravaggio paintings of Saints Paul and Peter.  Even in the 1500s the church was a favorite of the Popes and had been substantially enlarged and remodeled from earlier versions.  

There is some debate over whether Luther stayed in the rooms adjacent to the church.  They would have been the only lodging in Rome belonging to an Augustinian order.  There is agreement that he either stayed at or visited Santa Maria del Popolo - so we've kept it on the itinerary.  Luther's journey was connected to disputes between the Observant and Conventional monasteries of the Augustinian Order.  Luther belonged to the Germanic Observant group, and Santa Maria del Popolo belonged to an order of Observant Augustinians as well, although Luther seems to have rejected the lavish meals he was served at whatever monastery at which he lodged. 

We recommend a two-part itinerary, and you can end part one at Piazza del Popolo.  You can make a very un-Luther like stop at the famous cafe Canova, where Director Federico Fellini had his morning coffee.

Scala Santa: Even though his 95 Theses rejected the concept of indulgences, Luther, on his trip to Rome, "was as eager to rack them up as anyone," according to one scholar.  "He even regretted that his parents were not still alive so he could earn a few for them."  (For more on what indulgences meant to Catholics, and Luther in particular, see Tom Browning's piece.)  Luther earned indulgences for ascending these steps on his knees, an act you can still see pilgrims performing.  One story states that Luther said, "Who knows whether this is true?" when he got to either the top of the stairs, or possibly when he quit half-way through.  Again, the details of his trip are sketchy, but it is clear his doubt was developing.  The Scala Santa, supposedly the stairs Jesus climbed on his way to his trial with Pilate and that were later transferred to Rome, are across a road (now) from San Giovanni in Laterano.  If you are doing the seven churches, described below, you can add these to your itinerary when you visit San Giovanni.

San Giovanni in Laterano, rebuilt after Luther was there.
The Seven Churches:  Another way to earn indulgences was--and is--to walk to the seven churches of Rome (see suggested itinerary below).  Luther surely did that.  They are worth a visit, even without an indulgence at stake.  Besides Saint Peter's and San Giovanni in Laterano, the historical seven are three outside the city walls--San Paolo fuori le mura ("St. Paul's without the walls"), San Sebastiano, San Lorenzo fuori le mura--and two more within: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and Santa Maria Maggiore.  The street by the name "Sette Chiese" ("7 churches") still runs between San Paolo fuori le mura on via Ostiense and San Sebastiano on the via Appia Antica.  
Luther would have seen the 7th century mosaics
of St. John the Baptist at the San Giovanni baptistery

While you are at San Giovanni in Laterano, don't miss the Lateran Baptistry behind it, which Luther must have visited  It is one of the oldest buildings in Rome, dating to the 4th century, although substantially remodeled over the years, including by Borromini (post-Luther).  Luther would have seen an exterior much like the one today, however, and much of the same interior, since Borromini kept most of the existing building.  And it's one of my favorites in Rome.

Here's a suggested route for the seven churches: Start with Santa Maria Maggiore, the most central of the seven churches.  Walk 1.6 miles to San Lorenzo (outside the walls).  From San Lorenzo, walk 1.2 miles to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (which is inside, and abutting the walls); then .9 miles to San Giovanni in Laterano (again, abutting the walls - you'll walk along the inside of the walls for this stretch; it was part of one of RST's wall walks--there's a google map here to guide you on that walk); then 2.6 miles to San Paolo fuori le mura; and from there, the walk along via Sette Chiese to San Sebastiano (again, outside the walls), 2-plus miles due east.  To add St. Peter's to the walk, begin with St. Peter's and then walk to Santa Maria Maggiore, 2.3 miles. Total: about 10.5 miles.  
San Sebastiano. 1610 facade.

More specific directions and a slightly different order of churches are available here.  Some suggest a modern version that substitutes the sanctuary Divino Amore, 9 miles from San Giovanni, for San Lorenzo.  I'm a San Lorenzo fan and, of course, Divino Amore would not have been on Luther's route.  And, if you go to Divino Amore, take a bus.

Piazza Martin Lutero:  In a nod to ecumenism, a piazza in Rome recently was renamed for Luther.  It took 6 years to get the piazza named for Luther, and the delay meant it did not get renamed in time for the 500th anniversary of his 1510 (if that's the date) trip to Rome. The Vatican went along with the re-naming, even though Luther was excommunicated in 1521. This piazza seems an appropriate end point for the itinerary.  The piazza is in a park, away from streets and therefore unlikely to be paved over anytime soon.  It's near the Coliseum, with a large Fascist-era fountain (1928-29 by Raffaele De Vico, for trivia lovers), trees, and views.  It's on the southeastern side of Colle Oppio, not too far from the Domus Aurea and above via Labicana.  The piazza is less than 1/2 mile from San Giovanni in Laterano, in the direction of St. Peter's.  You will note Luther's first name is not converted to Italian (that would be Martino), and his last name is.  But not even "Luther" was his name at birth; he chose it.  See the Johnsons again.  The sign erected in the piazza in 2015 describes Luther ("Lutero") simply as a "German Reform Theologian."  


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Val Melaina, Serpentara: Can Rome's outer burbs Entertain?

Dianne was skeptical.  Bill had suggested a trip to Val Melaina and Serpentara, contiguous suburbs to the northwest of the city center, not far south of the GRA (the beltway).  He was sure that the area's curving streets would yield some modern architectural treasures.  Even the name "Serpentara" sounded mysterious, possibly dangerous.  Dianne reluctantly agreed to participate.

We began our journey at Junio, the last stop on the new B1 Metro line, which connects to the B line at Piazza Bologna.  Our first site was an apartment complex, seen here from the Junio Metro exit.

A long block up to the right (north), then a left turn and--lo and behold--an historical marker:

    In Questa Palazzina il Maestro
                     Vittorio De Sica
               nel 1948 Girava il film
                   "Ladri di Biciclette"

  De Sica directed parts of "The
    Bicycle Thief" (American title)
    in and around this apartment

Wow!  Here we were at the building where the master of Italian Neorealism crafted one of the most important films ever made.  How cool is Val Melaina!  And now we know these buildings
are mid-1940s at the latest.

We continued on a broad and, to be honest, uninspiring thoroughfare lined with undistinguished apartment buildings.

A shopping center, more like a strip mall, built for the automobile, across the street (right).

But then: an open-air market, hundreds of yards long.  We liked the sign that said, "A prezzi
fissi   Perfavor...non Perditempo"  (Fixed prices. Please don't waste my time [bargaining])

Another sign, advertising some product that makes bruschetta "facile" (easy).

At the far end of the market, a circular ramp led to an underground garage.  Bill admires anything
that's circular.

Ahead, now in Serpentara, a rather forlorn arcade-style market.  Not much traffic--but it was afternoon, and Italians were eating lunch.  Via Vergilio Talli.

Further on, a circular building that held out some hope of being engaging.

Inside the circular apartment building.  If you
want to visit, the name is Largo Fernando
de Lucia.  It looks very cool on a map.  Today, at this hour, not exactly a hive of activity.

And a wine bar--miraculous!  Unfortunately, it wasn't cocktail hour.

And a not-bad stairway.  The Italians lead the world in designing stairways, imho.

As we left the complex, a Lazio fan depicted fans of the Roma team as Jews ("Romanista ebreo"). Clever!

On our return, along viale Lina Cavalieri, we passed by this monumental church in the c. 1970 brutalist style.  What a marvel! How many tons of concrete!  Might make a good bomb shelter.

And this handsome modernist structure (left), straight out of the 1930s, or so it seemed.  Perhaps it owes something to Buffalo's grain silos, which were very influential for modernist architects.

Some wall writing whose meaning wasn't clear, to us anyway:  "Valerio Combatte Communista" (complete with hammer and sickle).

Stopped at this cafe for a Coca Lite--at a table outside.  Really a bathroom break.  Though Dianne does need a regular Coca Lite fix. The tavola calda ('hot plate' lunch) looked good.

A nice piece of found art--one of Bill's hobbies.  At home
in Buffalo, Bill printed this on his Epson 3880 at 13 X 19 inches.  Looks fantastic.  Think 1920s Russian constructivism.

Back at the Jonio stop, several hours later.  They could have done better with this building.
Evaluating the walk: Thumbs up?  (Bill)  Thumbs down? (Dianne). In any event, we "burned some Cs."


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Before and After Series: Piazza San Silvestro

It's better, right?  Piazza San Silvestro, located in the heart of commercial and tourist Rome--2 minutes from Galleria Sardi and 5 minutes from the Trevi Fountain--used to be a major bus depot of the open air kind.  Dozens of buses stopped or turned around there.  It was convenient for shoppers, but arguably a waste of a large piazza, not to mention a source of pollution.

And so the authorities decided the bus depot would have to go--indeed, cars, too, would be banned from most of the piazza, which would become a place for pedestrians to chill out, for mothers to walk the baby in the stroller without worrying about traffic, and for tourists to sit down at one of the long, curving benches, have a look at their maps, and admire the piazza's churches.  

Demolition of the bus structures began in 2012.

And here's the result:

Today, people sit in the piazza (though not much in the heat of the day, for there are no umbrellas or other shelters from the sun), and mothers walk their babies, and no doubt tourists are glad to have place to sit and browse their guidebooks for what's in the area.  So in some sense the new piazza works.  But there's something missing, too: energy, a focus of activity, trees, enough people to more or less fill the vastness and give the space proportion--and a place to get relief from the sun.  In some sense, it doesn't work.


Monday, October 9, 2017

A powerful anti-globalization polemic: Edoardo Nesi's "Story of My People"

Prato; the wool factory was just outside of Prato in Narnali
Edoardo Nesi stares at likely illegal Chinese immigrants eating, sleeping and, yes, running machines in the same building where he and his ancestors made "the most beautiful fabrics on earth," but which is now a "filthy industrial shed."  He knows they are "an astonishingly young army of extortion victims who often fail to recognize the depth of the inadequacy of their working condition."

Edoardo Nesi, who has translated David Foster Wallace
and is the author of  a dozen books, now also a politician.
Although only a decade or two has passed, what's in his sight, as he accompanies a raid on this illegal operation, seems light-years away from his life as a young businessman in the late '80s to mid-90s. He relates a life then that "really could be exciting," flying from Florence to Munich, driving a BMW at 170 mph to meet with clients, and back in Florence in the evening, where he would "watch the dizzying back-and-forth of the workers on the loading docks...or have fabric assortment meetings and we were all focused on trying to select the best items for the coming season."

Nesi's description of his beloved Prato, the town outside of Florence that was the heart of the textile industry in Italy, as it goes from the glories of small artisan shops to abandoned land, at best - or worst - inhabited by the Chinese he sees, is perhaps the best argument I've read against globalization.

The author of "Story of My People" belongs to the tradition of Herman Melville--or in Italy Italo Svevo and Primo Levi--that subset of writer/businessperson.  The lyricism Nesi brings to the effects of globalization that he experienced first-hand almost makes the reader weep, weep over fabrics and their makers.

A third generation businessman, Nesi oversaw the sale of his family's business, sold before it went bankrupt.  "I can't manage to get out of my head that '& Figli'--'& Sons' [part of the name of his company]--that seals the end of the woolen mill, that announcement of continuity...I can't say whether I was a sly fox or a miserable coward, whether I did the right thing or betrayed my birthright....Then, of course, I get over it.  I go home and get over it."

Nesi, whose tale of growing up is of a rich, spoiled kid, merges business and philosophy and provides a good take-down of the myth that globalization would bring prosperity to Italy as the Chinese would buy Italian products:  "things didn't go the way they said they would; the Chinese didn't rush out to buy Italian style, they hurried out and produced it themselves."

And he suggests there was another way:  "We should have fought tooth and nail, every inch of the way, just as all the other nations did.  We should have negotiated, negotiated, and negotiated some more."  I have my doubts that this plan would have succeeded.  And I'm certain Nesi glamorizes the conditions of his family's factory and their workers.  Nonetheless, Nesi grabs our attention with his personal story, the story of his people.

In 2011, "Story of My People" was the first non-fiction book to win Italy's Strega Prize.  Translated by Antony Shugaar.

Prato's merchant class dates at least as far back as the middle ages.  Iris Origo's first book is "The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini, 1335-1410.

And a shout-out to my mother, who in the 1970s took me to Prato to buy me outfits made of those wonderful fabrics.