ROME — “SILENZIO!” says the sign just past the massive bronze doors marking the entrance to St. Mary and the Martyrs Catholic Church in Rome, one of the two or three most important churches in Christian history.
The sign reminds all that this is a house of worship. Indeed, visitors from around the globe flock to the Piazza della Rotonda to see its austere, columned portico.
But the true beauty of the church is inside, where a geometrically perfect sphere could fit between ceiling and floor. A thick shaft of light flows into the space from a large circular hole — called an oculus (“eye”) — at the apex of the domed roof. It’s a design copied around the world. Two Italian kings and the artist Raphael are entombed along the walls.
Yet, if you got into a Roman cab and asked to go to St. Mary and the Martyrs, you’d likely get a blank stare from the driver. No one uses the name of the church.
This is the Pantheon, and despite the altar at the back, it is revered not as a Catholic church, but as the great temple to all gods that was finished by the pagan Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. Though Hadrian put it up, Pope Boniface IV is the man who ensured that it wasn’t taken down.
In the seventh century, Boniface ordered the temple cleansed of its “pagan filth” and consecrated as a church to Christian martyrs. The practical impact was to halt the stripping away (well, mostly) of the marble and stone, saving the Pantheon from the fate of hundreds of ancient treasures torn apart to build new churches, homes, shops and roads of the post-pagan Rome.
The newest pope, Francis, ruling from nearby Vatican City, doesn’t hold the power of his predecessors in the Middle Ages. The pope is no longer the spiritual leader of a vast unified empire. Nor is he the temporal ruler of The Papal States that once stretched across much of northern Italy.
Though his voice is heard throughout the world, all Francis has to truly rule is the Holy See, based in Vatican City, one of the smallest countries in the world. It stretches a mere 0.2 square miles, entirely surrounded by Rome. With his predecessor, Benedict XVI, living in retirement there, the joke in Rome goes that the Vatican has 5.9 popes per square mile.
There is little in Rome that has not been influenced by popes. But for the visitor, here are some of the more interesting sites where visitors can trace history by seeing places important to the men who have worn “The Shoes of the Fisherman.”
The apostle St. Peter was the first pope, a position that — like so many in the first three centuries of Christianity — led to his martyrdom. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and the popes sat atop the spiritual world of the West. All around them were the creations of the old empire, which met with a mixed fate.
It’s known as the best-preserved ancient building in the world, a space that still captivates thousands of visitors a day. Originally built as a temple to “all gods” (pan theos), it’s renowned for the perfect spherical dimensions of its interior. It was ordered shut, along with Rome’s other pagan temples, in 356. The temple was saved by Pope Boniface’s edict converting it to a church. This lucky intervention might have been based on the erroneous belief that the space had been used to torture and execute Christians.
Whatever the reason, the decision allows modern visitors to see the brilliance of classic Roman Empire design. Inside are the tombs of kings Victor Emmanuel II and III, along with that of the artist Raphael, whose decoration of the papal apartments in the Vatican is second only to Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, the Vatican dome and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel as artistic treasures of the church in Rome.
Look for: A thunderstorm. There are few sights as dramatic as going to the Pantheon in heavy rain, the water flowing through the oculus onto the marble floor and down into the recessed drains. When lightning flashes, the walls are illuminated in blue light.
Unlike the Pantheon, there is little doubt the Colosseum was the site of Christian martyrdom. Beginning in 80 A.D., the Colosseum was home to spectacles in which tens of thousands, including likely some Christians, were killed in games or public executions. But in the early Middle Ages, it was not considered a sacred Christian place, as evidenced by the large amount of masonry carted away for use on other projects. By the 16th century, though, popes had declared it the site of martyrdom and it was included on pilgrimage routes.
Today, the pope each year leads a “Way of the Cross” procession on Good Friday at the Colosseum. The site is remarkably well-preserved compared with the other great “bread and circuses” site, the Circus Maximus. The once-great racetrack (it’s the site of the chariot race in “Ben-Hur“) has been reduced over the centuries to little more than a grassy bowl.
Look for: Missing marble. The Colosseum was once clad in travertine marble, giving it a white sheen. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the marble was used for other buildings. The front steps of St. Peter’s Basilica include marble from the Colosseum.
The Christians liked to appropriate what Emperor Hadrian built. This was opened in 139 as a mausoleum for Hadrian and his family, but by medieval times, Hadrian had been evicted and his cylindrical tomb towering over the Tiber River turned into a convenient fortress for pope-fleeing invaders descending on Rome or urban riots welling up within the city walls. An elevated walkway was built from the papal apartment in St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo, allowing pontiffs to flee to a stronghold without having to set foot on city streets. Today, it is a museum with a popular rooftop cafi that’s the perfect setting to gaze out at Rome on a warm day.
Look for: Pons Aelius. The second-century bridge that stretches from Castel Sant’Angelo across the Tiber to the old city of Rome. Known today at Ponte Sant’Angelo, it’s a much simpler space than in the distant past.
Homes and a triumphal arch once stood on the bridge, until its foundations began to crack and the extra structures were stripped away in the 17th century. Today, it is a pedestrian-only space popular with artists and newlyweds.
For more than 1,500 years, the papacy wasn’t just a spiritual power, but also a temporal one. It was the church of a great empire. By the late Middle Ages, the popes were rulers of the Papal States, which covered thousands of miles of land in and around Rome. With an estimated 800 churches in the city, as well as dozens of convents, schools, fountains, towers and other sites, there is little that was not touched by the papacy. It all changed in 1870, when the unification of Italy secularized all of the papal holdings except for the area immediately around St. Peter’s. It would take another half-century and the intervention of a dictator to end the squabble between church and state.
ARCHBASILICA OF ST. JOHN LATERAN
Well outside the tourist areas of Rome is the most overlooked historic attraction in the Eternal City. It is the seat of the bishop of Rome, aka the pope, making it the official home church of the leader of Catholicism.
Built on the site of a palace from the time of Emperor Nero, the complex that included a palace and chapels was built over the decades to house the popes, most of whom lived here until the 14th century. A basilica has stood on the site since the fourth century, though the current baroque-style facade dates to 1735. The oldest element of the complex is the largest obelisk in the world — an Egyptian treasure dating to the 15th century B.C. that was taken to Rome and stood in the Circus Maximus until 1870.
The church was where popes were crowned. But with the occupation of Rome by Italian forces uniting the kingdom, popes refused to use the church — Pius XI refused to even leave the Vatican, claiming that he was a prisoner. An uneasy truce was maintained for 59 years until dictator Benito Mussolini hammered out the Lateran Treaty in 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. It created the Vatican State and exempted church holdings outside of the Vatican from taxes.
Look for:The bronze doors. These massive, second-century doors were taken from the ancient Roman Senate building, an example of the frequent “repurposing” of classic architectural and design elements onto new buildings.
THE SACRED STEPS
Among the greatest holy relics of the church, the Sacred Steps are believed by the faithful to be the marble stairs that Jesus climbed to see Pontius Pilate on his way to crucifixion. Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited the Holy Land from 326 to 328 and returned with several relics, including the 28 steps.
Today, the steps are housed in a chapel used by the pope just across the street from the Lateran cathedral. They are covered in wood, except for small holes left to show spots believed to be the blood of Christ. The faithful climb the steps on their knees. At the top is the Sanctum Sanctorum, the personal chapel of the popes when they resided at the nearby Lateran Palace.
Look for: A warning. A sign at the bottom reminds penitents that it is not enough to simply make the journey to the top — confession to a priest is required for the full benefits of the arduous climb to be fulfilled.
PIAZZA DEL POPOLO
Rome is roughly halfway down the peninsula of Italy. For most pilgrims and dignitaries, the city was entered from the north gate, via this imposing early 19th-century plaza, the last of a series of triumphant entryways to the city. The name has nothing to do with popes, but rather the poplar trees. Yet it was as important as any symbol of the power of the papacy.
On one side of the north gate were the villages and farms of rural Italy. On the other, a massive piazza with a 3,300-year-old Egyptian obelisk at its center, flanked by two large churches. Radiating out from the plaza were three roads, which led to the Vatican, the city center and the riverside of the Tiber. It was a place meant to startle those arriving with the power and majesty of the popes. Until 1826, it was the spot for public executions of criminals. Today, most visitors arrive in Rome via Leonardo da Vinci Airport to the south, essentially entering through the historical back door of Rome.
Look for: The quitting queen’s door. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was not the first to roil Rome. The north gate, or porta, of the city just off the Piazza del Popolo was grandly rebuilt by Pope Alexander VII as a welcoming present to Christina, the queen of Sweden who was forced to abdicate after she converted from Protestant to Catholic in 1654. She moved to Rome, where she was royally treated, including her interment in the grotto of the Vatican, usually reserved for popes.
ST. PETER’S BASILICA
The earlier St. Peter’s Basilica was in danger of falling down in the 15th century, when the Catholic Church embarked on creating the largest church in the world. Begun in 1506, it was an epic undertaking that would not be officially consecrated for more than a century, in 1626.
It remains the largest church in the world — twice the size of the National Cathedral in Washington. The square in front of the cathedral can hold more than 150,000 people, as it did during Pope Benedict XVI’s final audience in February.
Its greatest art treasure is the Pieta, the sculpture by Michelangelo of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesus after he was taken off the cross. The sculpture is behind a protective clear barrier after a crazed man attacked it with a hammer in 1972.
Look for: St. Peter’s right foot. A 13th-century bronze statue of St. Peter is a popular pilgrimage spot for the faithful, who touch his extended right foot. The toll of so many hands over so many centuries has worn the foot smooth, so the toes have all but disappeared.
The glorious chapel covered from wall to ceiling by frescoes created by Michelangelo was where the 115 cardinals met to select the new pope. The cardinals placed their votes in a chalice in front of “The Last Judgment.”
The frescoes, painted between 1508 and 1512, are one of the top attractions in Rome. It was off limits during the voting, but Vatican workers moved rapidly after the election of Francis to get it ready for visitors.