Monthly Archives

May 2012


An Interesting Thought

In order to encourage Italians to take advantage of all the history they pass on their way to work each day, at some point the Italian government decided to start a lovely institution known as “La Settimana della Cultura.”  In English, it’s usually referred to as “Culture Week.”  I just like to call it “Museums Are Free Week”; no matter what you call it, though, it’s just pretty great all around.

On Tuesday after class, Jake and I grabbed a kebab and moseyed over to the “Mercato Traiano,” or Trajan’s Market, which we actually do pass on the way to school each day.  Inside, a museum explained the market itself as well as the Imperial Forum, which was actually five or six fora put in place when the older Roman Forum couldn’t handle the necessary volume of citizens, shops, and traffic.

Later in the week I stopped by the Barberini Palace, which today houses not nobility but the art of the National Gallery, including Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, a work by Raphael, and this gem, which could have little artistic importance but I really like it anyway:


Giovanni Serodine - Parting of Sts Peter and Paul Led to Martyrdom


Then, on Friday, I went for the first of two visits to the Capitoline Museum.  As Italian institutions are wont to do, it closed at the odd hour of 1:15pm, just as we reached the end of the 45-minute line.  I returned the next day for the second of three visits, and saw everything that wasn’t the Lux in Arcana exhibit, which displayed texts from the Vatican Secret Archives on everything from Martin Luther to the Lateran Treaty and a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Pope Pius IX.  I didn’t see these things…yet.  They would wait until the next week when we were to be given tickets by the Bernardi household’s faculty member, Dr. Boyle.  But I did see the only surviving Roman bronze equestrian statue, the Hall of the Philosophers and the Hall of the Emperors, the Dying Gaul, and Bernini’s Medusa, among a host of other magnificent statues, frescoes, stuccoes, tapestries, paintings and artifacts.


The Dying Gaul


It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Two of our classes here in Rome wrestle with the question of the Church and culture; one looks at how Man relates to Man and to God, and the other examines the world of art and architecture.  This semester we’ve really seen signs of past culture at every turn, with every ancient ruin, medieval monument, and baroque church.

It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Both classes take place in a world whose culture is decidedly different today than it was in the past.  We’ve been reading Pope Benedict, who firmly directs an increasingly secular Europe to remember its Christian cultural roots.

It’s an interesting idea the Romans have, a week of culture.  Rome is a fountain of cultural gold.  But it needs to turn the fountain back on.  As a center of culture, Rome is in the unique position to say to the rest of the modern, culture-bereft world:




…or like it’s Culture Week, at least.


Easter Break, Part 4: The Other Eternal City

The second week of break was a fascinating and adventurous one.  I learned and saw a great many things over those seven days: the categories into which they fall are three.


1. Byzantium – The Ancient City

My desire to go to Istanbul harks back to a conversation I had with my friend Michael over Christmas break.  We discussed the then-distant city of Istanbul, and how it was historically the Rome of the East.  After 326, it became the center of the Roman empire, and for centuries it amounted to a co-capital along with Rome, politically, religiously, and culturally.  In fact, when Constantine made it the political capital of his empire, he originally called it New Rome.  Since we were both looking forward to a semester in Rome it made sense, in a certain way, to visit this historically complementary city.  At the time, it seemed like a long shot.  After all, half of the city wasn’t even in Europe, and we hadn’t a clue as to the state or safety of the modern city.  I wanted badly to visit, but I just wasn’t quite sure…


Mosques pepper the horizon of the foggy/smoggy city.


So I went to Istanbul.  My pals Chris, John and I hopped on a jet of the aptly named airline “Pegasus Air” and landed in the sister city to Rome three hours later.  Badda bing, badda boom.

During our week-long stay, we saw a whole pile of historical sights and artifacts from the world of the ancient empire that made the city great.  Not least among these were the National Archaeological Museums, which had collections from ancient Byzantium and from other ancient sites in the Middle East and North Africa.  Two of the coolest things here were the “Alexander Sarcophagus,” which probably didn’t actually hold Alexander the Great, but was found in the ancient necropolis of Sidon, Lebanon; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the oldest known peace treaty in the world.  Then there were the exhibits on ancient Troy and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, but you can ask me about those some other time.  For now, we’ll move on.


The National Archaeological Museums


2.   Constantinople – The First Conversion

When the ancient Roman Empire was converted to Christianity, Byzantium was not left behind.  In fact, it was made the new capital by Constantine, who gave the city his own name.  There are more pieces of this more recent era throughout the city.  We climbed the Galata Tower, built by the Christian emperor Anastasius in 507.  We saw the obelisk that had stood in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.  But one thing stood above all others as a mark left by the Byzantine empire: The Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom.


Now a museum, many of the Christian frescoes in the Hagia Sophia have been uncovered and can be seen today.


Although the Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest basilica for almost one thousand years, it is a basilica no longer.  As one of we three noted, “Being in Istanbul is the first time we are part of a conquered people.”  In 1453, Muslims took the city by siege and turned the great churches into mosques.  Today the Hagia Sophia is a museum, but mosques throughout the city broadcast the call to prayer, a 5-times-daily reminder that 600 years later, Istanbul is still a thoroughly Islamic city.  Turkey does not have a state religion, and perhaps more than any other nation in the Middle Eastern nation, it has over the last decade made decisive efforts to distance itself from radical Islam.  But with its forcible conscription laws and deep economic and ethnic divides (Turks and Kurds), one thing is certain: Constantinople is no more.


The Blue Mosque


3. Istanbul – The Modern World: Islam Meets the West

So that’s what we saw in terms of history, but what about the city today?  As the bridge between Asia and Europe, it is evident that Istanbul is the meeting place of East and West, of Old and New.  A man selling bikinis next to burkas in a covered market.  A five story Burger King next door to a small mosque.


Note the small loudspeaker above Chris's head to the left, used for the call to prayer.


At the outset, this encounter of very distinct ideologies appears to be a seamless combination.  But this meeting of two cultures is also a bit of a collision.  We met many young people during our stay who had grown up practicing Islam with their traditional parents, but now had left the faith that they saw as incompatible with Western popular culture.  One young man had changed his Turkish name in favor of the Western “Alex,” and his father refused to speak to him.  Alex had served in a NATO military unit for two years.  He described how he had returned from a trip to Europe late one night, and without even the chance to return to his home, he was driven from the airport to bootcamp.  Several others we met during the week were dodging the draft, which often involved an unknown duration of service.

Earlier in the semester, in one of our courses, we discussed an address of Pope Benedict’s that explained the conflict between the inheritance of Hellenistic reason in the West, and the disconnect from reason inherent to Islam in the East.  This conflict is Istanbul’s great modern challenge: it subtly hangs over the people and the streets of Istanbul.  As an example, take these movie posters, found side-by-side in a movie theatre, which depict a society living in two worlds:

At the Theatre: American Pie in Turkish.

At the Theatre: Fetih 1453, a 3-hour glorification of Sultan Mehmet's capture of Constantinople in 1453.


















It is hard to predict what the future of this great city will bring.  It presents an odd cultural mix, having been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires; it will be interesting to watch it change and grow in the years to come.  Will Istanbul forget its proud and varied roots?  Will it slide into a secular and culturally bereft city like many European capitals are in danger of doing?  Will it turn to radical Islam under pressure from its neighbors, or as a reaction to increasing European influence?  Or will it be, as Pope Benedict said on his 2006 visit to Turkey, “a bridge of friendship and collaboration between East and West”?  Will it remain Islamic, seek Christianity once more, or revert to its past with a brand of materialistic “paganism”?

It isn’t unlikely that Istanbul will experience a cultural upheaval of one kind or another in the years ahead.  I think it is safe to remain hopeful that it could bear much fruit; and that the people, who are kind and honest, proud but tolerant, stalwart but searching, could handle such drastic change quite well.  After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.

A fresco uncovered in the Hagia Sophia: Justinian I and Constantine I present the Hagia Sophia and Constantinople to the Virgin and Child



The Grand Bazaar


Me, learning.

The American Embassy

A sight for sore eyes.



Easter Break, Part 3: What’s at the Center

The celebration of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection are the culmination of the liturgical year.  This is appropriate, as the events they commemorate are the center, focus, and turning point of all human history.  On a smaller scale, I knew these three days would be the center, in many ways, of my semester abroad, which in turn was a large reason I chose Catholic Studies and thus why I came to St. Thomas at all.  I have looked forward to and will forever look back upon Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday in Rome as a destination and source of many things in my life.

It was a particular blessing to have three Bernardi students participate in the Triduum liturgies at St. Peter’s in Vatican City.  I was blessed to be lector at the Good Friday service, Meghan read the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac for the Easter Vigil, and John brought up the gifts in St. Peter’s Square on Easter morning.

Personally I will never reach the end of my awe and gratitude at having participated in such an event.  It is hard to say or write what it means to me in specific terms, so once when someone asked me about it, I responded with the clearly inadequate, “The pope let me read the Bible to him!”  Until it fully sinks in back in America, I will just marvel at how fortunate I am to be here this semester, and to do what I’ve been allowed to do.  To say it’s been humbling doesn’t capture the half of it – although it may reveal something about what’s at the center.



Easter Break, Part 2: The Hills Are Alive

So where were we?  Ah yes, crossing the border from Germany into Austria, on a quick afternoon train to Salzburg.  Arriving in the early evening, we located YoHo International Youth Hostel, which had a friendly staff, many amenities and the slightly disconcerting motto, “Easy to Find, Hard to Leave!”  It turned out to be a very nice stay.

In any case, we continued with the standard operating procedure upon arrival to new cities: 1.) Find bed.  2.) Find food.  3.) Explore the heck outta that town.  Although there were several interesting monuments and a few magnificent-looking churches, we decided the monuments would be seen best in daylight and the churches would be seen best during opening hours, and called it an early night.

Several of us got up early in the morning to hike up the cliffs a couple blocks away from YoHo (it was not particularly hard to leave).  The heights offered a stunning view of the city, its churches, the castle sitting atop a small earthy bump in the landscape, and the distant mountains.

From there, spent the day in the city center, visiting Mozart’s birthplace and some more magnificent churches.  I was stuck by the huge variation among several churches near each other in Salzburg: the contemplative, stone Franciscan church (Franziskanerkirche), for example, and the jubilant Salzburg Cathedral with its white pillars and four massive pipe organs.

Somehow or another we found ourselves in Vienna that evening, a city of historical importance on a scope I had never realized – the last defense of Christendom against the Westward movement of the Turks, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an important victory for the Allies towards ending the second World War.  We visited some monuments and places associated with these things, including the Hapsburg palace apartments, which began with one hour and 22 rooms on the history of the royal silverware before it decided to be interesting.

Those dishes were vicious!

After this severe blow of lameness, things picked up.  We visited several locations from my favorite movie, The Third Man (1949), including the world’s oldest and largest operating Ferris Wheel.  We met up with another group from Bernardi for dinner.  We oo-ed and  ah-ed at splendid Gothic architecture.  We fed pigeons and joked with street performers.  We skipped rocks in the river.  We attended an organ concert.  We went to the wrong train station and had to run to the other side of town to reach our 15-hour overnight train back to Rome.

And then (15 upright hours later) that was it.  We had had a wonderful Bavarian-Austrian trip, our stomachs were full of Wurstel and Schnitzel, and all was well.  As they say in Germany, “Wirtschaft ist für die Menschen da, und nicht umgekehrt, und Demokratie gehört bei die Wirtschaft mit bei.”

The angels crown Our Lady.


This guy.


Stephensdom, Vienna

Oh my.

Es reicht!