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Out and about

5 Dec
So what do we do every day here in Roma? Surely every day cannot be like a vacation. We have to run errands, do laundry, go to the doctor, clean the cat box, drink wine and exercise, just like people everywhere.  But one of the things we do is intersperse the mundane with field trips. We might go to a museum with a special exhibit, to a movie (in English with reserved seats), or revisit a site we saw a few years ago. Such was the case yesterday.
San Giovanni in Laterano's magnificent facade only dates to the 18th century.

San Giovanni in Laterano’s magnificent facade only dates to the 18th century.

We headed out into weak December sun to return to San Giovanni in Laterano, one of the four Papal Basilicas. We last visited in October 2010, so it was about time. 
San Giovanni was the first Christian church established in Roma, by Emperor Constantine in 318 A.D., and it is the home church of the Bishop of Rome, Papa Francesco. In fact, it was the home of all popes until the renovation of St. Peter’s and the expansion of the Vatican during the Renaissance. It is not Italy, it is part of the Vatican State.
Internal view with the Naval service in progress.

Internal view with the Naval service in progress.

On arrival at this magnificent basilica, we found it thronged with military personnel, primarily from the Italian Navy. They were commemorating their patron saint, Santa Barbara. In the U.S., if this were a military event at say the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., it is unlikely we would have been allowed to wander in and play tourist. But this is Italy, with no separation of church and state by the way, and the only price to entry was having a Carabinieri officer look in my purse to ensure I was not carrying anything explosive.
Renaissance ceiling of the basilica. Stunning!

Renaissance ceiling of the basilica. Stunning!

Instead of an empty church with tourists wandering through, we were fortunate to observe the basilica being used for its intended purpose, a service. Here is a link in Italian about the observance. On land and sea, the Italian Navy celebrated Santa Barbara yesterday, inviting their colleagues from the army, Carabinieri, Vigili del Fuoco (firefighters), and others who share the patron saint. There was an orchestra and chorus that opened the service with a captivating rendition of Handel’s “Thine is the Glory,” sung in Italian. I can only assume that is a piece with some tradition and meaning for the Italian Navy.
Close up of the doors, originally from the Curia. The acorn "studs" date to the 3rd century.

Close up of the doors, originally from the Curia. The acorn “studs” date to the 3rd century.

Though little remains of Constantine’s original church (mostly rebuilt after 1600), the art and architecture are definitely worth a visit. There are massive bronze doors from the ancient Roman Curia (Senate House), moved here in the 17th century, and the golden columns from the Temple of Jupiter which used to stand on the Capitoline Hill. The enormous statues of the 12 apostles stand guard over the nave with a fabulous Renaissance ceiling overhead.
Columns from the Temple of Jupiter.

Columns from the Temple of Jupiter.

The baldacchino over the alter. See the little statues in the upper cage? Those are silver, and are of St. Peter and St. Paul, which contain pieces of their heads.

The Baldacchino over the altar. See the little statues in the upper cage? Those are silver reliquaries of St. Peter and St. Paul which contain pieces of their heads.

Bigger than life St.Matthew.

Bigger than life St.Matthew.

Big big doors, appropriated from the Senate House. The purple smudge is me.

Big big doors, appropriated from the Senate House. The purple smudge is me.

We took our leave as the solemn Mass began. There was another church on our itinerary: Santo Stefano Rotondo.
The sanctuary at Santo Stefano Rotondo. The ancient walls wtih frescoes surround the sanctuary.

The sanctuary at Santo Stefano Rotondo. The ancient walls with frescoes surround the sanctuary.

Santo Stefano is an eerie little church built, as the name implies, in the round. Why eerie? This 5th-century church built on top of a Roman Mithraeum and named for the first Christian martyr, Santo Stephano is decorated with frescoes depicting the martyrdom of some 34 saints. No one could describe this scene better than Charles Dickens did:
“To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken…. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him.” Pictures from Italy (1846)
Please click on any photo for a larger view and caption. Warning: some rather gruesome images!
Still Santo Stefano Rotondo is a peaceful site and from what we saw this day visited by few. Off the beaten path? You won’t find many people wandering here, but it is not all that far from the Colosseo, and perhaps a 15-minute walk from San Giovanni in Laterano. Also in the neighborhood, which we visited a couple of years ago, the Case Romane del Celioan extraordinary archeological site of 2nd and 3rd-century Roman houses with vivid frescoes. (Don’t worry about the language on the web page. Just go if you have the chance.)
So this is some of what we do with our spare time. As they say “Roma una vita non basta.” (A lifetime is not enough.)
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3 Responses to “Out and about”

  1. Nigel December 5, 2015 at 16:39 #

    Oh, San Giovanni in Laterano, one of our favourites! I would have loved to have seen it in action because it has always been empty other than hordes of sightseers bopping up and down the aisles (more now after the advent of the should be banned selfie stick). To have the orchestra and all the seats full would have been amazing….

    I must say that I have never been – I don’t think – to the other church you mention but it is now on the list….

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    • gooddayrome December 5, 2015 at 16:42 #

      Always something for a return trip, Nige! We love to see the churches “in action.” You know I think the use of the selfie indoors is greatly diminished and has become the provenance of young Japanese women in the Swiss Alps. 🙂

      If you had been to Santo Stefano you would remember it. Must go!

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  1. Things to do in Roma | gooddayrome - February 11, 2016

    […] worth seeing: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, St. Ignazio, San Clemente (the famous layered church), San Giovanni in Laterano, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassede, San Luigi dei Francesi (the […]

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