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Thursday, July 22, 2021

Hiding horses, cows, Badoglio's sedan--and Jews: Basilica SS. Quattro Coronati and the Strange Career of Pius XII

SS. Quattro Coronati sits perched on a narrow road.

In Rome's "overlooked churches" category, we offer the lovely Basilica Santi Quattro Coronati, perched on a narrow street between San Giovanni in Laterano and the Coliseum. Overlooked perhaps because it's too near both of those as well as the much more popular (with tourists) Basilica San Clemente, and because the public can see only a fraction of the Augustinian convent complex that encompasses the church. I've always felt a tie to it because it was on one of my routes to the hospital where my broken shoulder was repaired in 2009.

The small courtyard beyond the public entrance doesn't
give one a feel for the beauty of the complex.

A few years ago I found a rather dated article (2008) describing how the nuns of the convent hid Jews from the Fascists and Nazis in World War II, under - according to the article - orders from Pope Pius XII. Knowing a bit about the controversy surrounding Pius XII's road to sainthood, I checked the article more and noticed (for the first time) that its venue was "30 giorni" ("30 Days") and, per my trusted source, Wikipedia, that 30 giorni was an Italian  monthly magazine of ecclesiastical geopolitics that [was] widely read in the Roman Curia. It existed between 1988 and 2012..." and "fully reflected the politics of Vatican diplomacy." 

Recently, we reviewed the documentary, "Syndrome K," about Jews hidden in the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli on Isola Tiburina in Rome during the Fascist/Nazi era. We questioned, in that review, the statements of a representative of the US Holocaust Museum defending the pope's (in)actions during the rounding up of the Roman Jews as attributable to realpolitik. That is, the Vatican viewed itself as  incapable of helping the Jews in any significant way by its fear that the Germans would bomb, raid, or even occupy Vatican City. [We also published in RST, earlier in 2020, an excerpt from one of the brave hospital doctor's books, here.]

I was skeptical of the 30 giorni article's claim of the Pope's order, for several reasons, including the clearly biased source. I was also influenced by an excellent talk we heard in Los Angeles, by the Italian historian Guri Schwartz, then visiting at UCLA, titled, "
The ‘Myth of the Good Italian’: Origins and Evolution," which we wrote about on RST in 2014, here.

In addition, I had read in the past several books by David I. Kertzer,  a renowned historian of 20th-century Italy. We wrote a post, in 2016 here, on his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Pope and Mussolini," [about the predecessor Pius XI]. Another of his works is "The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism" (2001). [More below about Kertzer's work in the newly - 2020 - opened Vatican archives.]

Pius XII - photo from The Times of Israel with
the caption: "Documentary confronts cost of
Pope Pius XII's 'Holy Silence'
during Holocaust."

In response to my query about the claim in the 30 giorni article, Kertzer recommended Susan Zuccotti's 2002 book: "Beneath His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy." Zuccotti's critical analysis of documents from the Vatican archives, which were expurgated before being opened somewhat in those years (in what looks like an attempt to defend Pius XII), is unrelenting in drawing the conclusion that Pius XII and the Vatican were sorely lacking in words, actions, and moral authority. According to Zuccotti, had the Pope exercised moral leadership, thousands of lives could have been saved. 

Photo from 30 giorni article,
captioned "Two nuns in the cloister
of  the Santi Quattro Coronati in a photo
 from the early ’forties."
[They are small figures in
the back right, visible
with their white bib collars.]

At the same time, Zuccotti concludes in the last sentence of her book, "In Italy, at least, large numbers of priests, nuns, monks, and Catholic laypersons risked their lives to save Jews with little guidance from the pope." Those "large numbers" include, clearly, the Augustinian nuns of Santi Quattro Coronati. The 30 giorni article cites the number of 17 Jews being harbored in Santi Quattro Coronati, based on a 1961compilation by noted Italian historian Renzo De Felice. Zuccotti, while offering respect to De Felice, deconstructs his statistics, pointing out convents he missed, and the fact that some of the grand totals may be duplicates: Jews who moved from one hiding place to another (as did the Jews in Ospedale Fatebenefratelli). 

De Felice, she points out, "published an impressive list of 100 female convents" (and other male-operated monasteries, schools, etc.). These, she notes, were out of 1,120 religious institutions for women in Rome. "Given that surprisingly large number, the statistics of 100 female convents….that sheltered Jews become less impressive….What is certain is that we will never really know [the number]."

Despite its suspect history, the 30 giorni piece provides other insights into SS. Quattro Coronati. "In a large area next to the garden the nuns hid no less than eleven cars, including that of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the head of the Italian military government, who had fled from Rome the day after 8 September [1943, when the post-Mussolini Italian government signed an armistice with the Allies and the Germans moved in to occupy Rome]. And then seven mares, four cows as well…" An aerial view of the complex shows how it had room for all these vehicles, animals, and people.

The Mother Superior at the time, whose words are paraphrased by another nun to comprise the "facts" of the article, "was in constant contact with Antonello Trombadori, a Communist party leader and head of the Armed Partisan Groups in Rome, and with many other opponents of Nazi Fascism." This detail is interesting because the popes were virulently anti-Communist. They preferred Nazism and Fascism (with which they felt they could negotiate) to anti-religious Communism. It's hard to believe Pope Pius XII ever approved of contact with Communists.

I will look differently at lovely, peaceful, seemingly small Santi Quattro Coronati when I return to Rome, thinking about all that went on behind its walls, and the raging controversy to which it is still contributing.


A note on David I. Kertzer's work: the Vatican opened more of its archives in early 2020, just before Covid shut down or severely limited research everywhere. [Interesting Washington Post article headline: "Pope Pius XII was silent during the Holocaust. Now Vatican records may reveal whether he collaborated with the Nazis."] With the help of an Italian researcher, Kertzer was able to publish a lengthy article in The Atlantic, based on the newly opened archival material. The article tells the story of two French Jewish boys, hidden by Catholics and baptized, and the struggle to return them to their Jewish relatives. The story bears many similarities to Kerzer's superb book, "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," which we found so riveting, and so helpful in understanding Italian politics in the 19th century (as the country was being liberated from the popes), that we've given it to many people.

1 comment:

Bo Lundin said...

I have Robert Katz' "Fatal silence. The Pope, the resistance and the German occupation of Rome"(2003) in my shelves. 400+ pages, very much not liked by the Vatican. His most famous book is "Death in Rome" about the Via Rasella/Fosse Ardeatine story (filmed as "Massacra in Rome" with Mastroianni and Richard Burton).
Quattro Coronati ranks high among my favorite churches in Rome. Every visit I try to slink into the cloister to say hello to the flirty lion in tha fountain...