Countdown to Rome: The Vatican

Well, since I’m going to Rome as part of a program for foreign journalists covering the Catholic Church, I suppose it’s about time my countdown gets to the Vatican, the pope and other important matters of faith in Rome. I am thrilled to be taking part in “The Church Up Close: Covering Catholicism in the Age of Benedict XVI,” which will be held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. For a full week I will attend classes, meetings and “encounters” with various Vatican officials, professors and other Church types in the know.

But all work and no play would make Mary a dull girl, and so a lot of the week will also focus on outings to the wonderful sites of Rome. The Church Up Close program actually takes care of a few of the Vatican-centered events: the tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, the Papal Audience on Wednesday, and a visit to the Scavi, the excavation site under St. Peter’s that is restricted to only 150 visitors per day. So that’s a real bonus. To top it off, I just learned that our final day of the program will be spent in Subicaco, which is where St. Benedict built his first monastery. We can visit the cave where he lived as a hermit and see some amazing frescoes, including the only portrait of St. Francis of Assisi painted during his lifetime. St. Scholastica’s monastery is in Subiaco as well. How great is that. Plus it’s just a beautiful place.

I will keep you updated throughout with photos and stories from my Vatican adventures. For those who want a little more, I read a wonderful book as part of my Italy preparation: When in Rome: A Journal of Life in Vatican City, by Robert Hutchinson. Informative but fun, respectful yet irreverent. A very good read for anyone interested in Rome in general and the Vatican in particular.
If you’ve missed my earlier Countdown to Rome posts, click the links below:
Ciao a presto!

Countdown to Rome: The Piazzas

I really can’t wait to just sit in — or wander through — Rome’s beautiful piazzas. As far as I’m concerned, that ranks right up there with the major sights that need to be visited. My hotel is very close to Piazza Navona (that’s it above), but there are so many others. Not just the big famous piazzas, but the smaller, lesser-known ones. Those are the ones I can’t wait to discover, as well as some quiet cloisters, if I get brave enough to knock on a door and ask the sisters to let me in.

I’m hoping my first day will be spent at the open market in the Piazza dei Campo de’ Fiori, also close to my hotel. If my plane is on time (please Hurricane Earl track away from NYC on Friday), I should be able to enjoy the entire morning — totally exhausted from no sleep, I’m guessing — wandering around Campo de’ Fiori before planning any specific sights to be seen. Sounds like a lovely way to dip my toes into the waters of Roman life, perhaps with a cappuccino and cornetto to give me energy.

To prepare for this trip I’ve taken out just about every guidebook to Rome from my local library. Hope no one else around here was planning a trip. I’m even taking a couple of the books with me rather than buying my own copies. I’ve been jotting down notes about the different places that catch my eye as I flip through walking tours, top-ten lists, and every other kind of guide.

I’ve also been preparing through entertainment. Do I know how to study, or what? So far I’ve watched “A Room With a View,” one of my all-time favorite films and certainly my favorite Merchant-Ivory film. I’ve watched “Under a Tuscan Sun.” Yes, yes, I know. It’s not considered “art,” but it’s got some beautiful scenes of the Italian countryside and Italian life so I love it. I watched “La Dolce Vita.” Okay, not all of it, I’ll admit. I fell asleep. But I saw Sylvia in Trevi Fountain, which was enough. I promise just to throw coins and not myself into the fountain. Tonight I have Roman Holiday on tap. And, just for good measure, I went to see “Eat, Pray, Love” with its many wonderful scenes set in Rome. (I happened to like the book very much and think the movie got a bad rap by some.)

So there you have it. Only five days till Rome.
Fino a domani.

Countdown to Rome: The Churches

Six days until Rome…Today I’m talking about the churches that have made my “must-see” list. (This list does NOT include St. Peter’s Basilica or the Sistine Chapel because they will be part of “The Vatican” post later in the week.) The church names scribbled in my travel notebook are those places that have intrigued me or inspired me for one reason or another — the saints for whom they are named, the art that resides there, the people who are buried there, the architecture, the location, etc.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (in Centro Storico) is at the top of my list for a variety of reasons, the first of which, believe it or not, has to do with the fact that to get there I can walk down Via Santa Chiara (my youngest is Chiara and so this little factoid means something to me). But even more than the road I’ll travel is the destination. St. Catherine of Siena died here (or near here) and is buried under the altar (sans her head, which is in Siena). A full length sculpture of the saint is encased in glass on view. Aside from being a Doctor of the Church, a mystic and in general a very cool woman of faith, I consider her one of my patron saints since my middle name is Kathleen. Is it a stretch? Perhaps. But my godmother came up with that assignment, so I’m sticking with it.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva also includes the tomb of Renaissance artist Fra Angelico and the tombs of two Medici popes — Leo X and Clement VII. Add to that the fact that it’s the only Gothic church in Rome, is chock full of great art, and is right behind the Pantheon and a very short walk from my hotel and it’s clear why this one is at the top of my list. Plus there’s that great Bernini elephant sculpture right outside in the Piazza della Minerva.

Santa Cecelia (in Trastevere) is home to the amazing sculpture pictured above, a replica of how St. Cecelia’s body was found when it was exhumed in 1599. Not your typical sculpture of a saint, and so I love it. She has three fingers extended on one hand and one finger extended on the other, which, according to legend, was her final testament to her belief in the Trinity — three in one — when she finally succumbed to multiple attempts to martyr her. Apparently she sang through the ordeal. Hence, her designation as the patron saint of music. This church scores big points in my sightseeing book just for being in the Trastevere neighborhood, where I have two other churches on my list: Santa Maria in Trastevere and San Francesco a Ripa, where St. Francis of Assisi actually once stayed. (Gee, here in NY the best we can do is George Washington).

Santa Maria della Concezione, home to the Capuchin crypt, which, I have to admit, I find extremely fascinating albeit morbid. This crypt is home to the exposed bones of 4,000 monks. The bones are set into the walls in a kind of macabre mosaic. Several full skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes hang from the ceiling. (It’s from these friars that we get the name for Cappuccino.) The sign in the crypt says: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” How cool and creepy is that? I promise photos if I can get them.

Closer to my hotel and in the Piazza Navona area is the Chiesa del Gesu, the Jesuit church where St. Ignatius of Loyola is buried under the altar. St. Francis Xavier is there too — well, part of his right arm is there, but he used that arm to baptize more than 300,000 people so that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Santa Maria della Vittoria in the Quirinale section, if only to see Bernini’s carving of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila.

Rounding out my list are Sant’Agostino, Chiesa Nuova, Santa Maria della Pace, and Sant’Agnese in Agone in the Centro Storico; San Bartolomeo on Isola Tiberina; San Giovanni in Laterano and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), which is home to Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture, in the Monti quarter.

I don’t know if I’ll get to all of these. Or, perhaps, I’ll go to others instead. I want to try to avoid visiting too many churches on any given day because I don’t want them to blend together, so some of these may have to be dropped as I go. Whatever happens, I know I won’t be disappointed or at a loss for amazing churches to visit.

If you missed my previous posts on Rome, check the links below:
Countdown to Rome: The Food
With Rome in My Sights

Countdown to Rome: The Food

Countdown to Rome: The Food

One week from today I leave for Rome, so for the next seven days I’m going to talk about all the things I want to do, see, taste when I’m in the Eternal City. And although I’m going to Rome because of a Church-related program, I am not starting with faith. I’m starting with food. (more…)

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