Urbi et Orbi


The funeral of John Paul II was, according to Timothy Garton Ash, "the first time Christian Rome has been at the heart of a united Europe." Well, as a native son of the Eternal City, I protest. The Jubilee of 1300—only 700 years ago, a blink in Roman time—is celebrated specifically for placing Rome at the center of the continent. Moreover, it was declared by a pope, Boniface VIII, who regarded Europe as perfectly "united" under his own universal (and quite delusional) imperium. Boniface seems hard to overlook; among the most notorious of popes, he is also a villain of The Divine Comedy. In fact, Dante hated Boniface so much that he denounced the pope in all three of the Comedia's books.

Garton Ash is on safer ground when he qualifies his claim, and observes that the funeral was "the first time in history that people from every corner of the continent—when they heard the pope died—could just take their passport out of the drawer, Google a cheap airfare and fly to Rome." They certainly couldn't do that under Boniface. Of course, Garton Ash is offering his encomia to the late pope as a liberator of Eastern Europe. I want to add a footnote to the "liberator" theme: I think John Paul II has helped strike a notable blow on behalf of Rome against Mussolini, and that he has done so in death.

For weeks, St. Peter's Square and the Via della Conciliazione, Mussolini's relatively broad avenue that leads into the square from the Tiber, have been packed with people: those holding vigil, those waiting to file past the pope's body, and finally those attending his Funeral Mass. Television imagery (especially aerial images) of the huge crowds spilling out of the Vatican grounds has made these two places, the Baroque square and the modern avenue, seemingly of a piece. Not so. The square takes its shape from Bernini, who surrounded the space with his graceful colonnades in the mid-1600s. As for the fascists' avenue, construction began in 1936 to mark the treaty of conciliation between the Papacy and Italy. (The rise of modern Italy in the late 19th century cost the Papacy its temporal power; until the treaty, popes regarded themselves as "prisoners" of the secular state.)

But Via della Conciliazione, finally finished in 1950, has been one of the most criticized—and by many regretted—developments of the modernized city. Its construction is said to have reduced the impact of Bernini's square and even to have diminished the drama of encountering St. Peter's itself. That was because building it required destroying a substantial portion of the old area known as the Borgo, with its accretion of medieval and Renaissance structures, lowly and palatial. To emerge from the Borgo's ancient, narrow, and crowded streets into Bernini's gracefully embraced open space was, reportedly, to experience a sense of churchly grandeur and serenity, even as one was still approaching the basilica. Entering the square via a modern, traffic-choked street lined with mediocre mid-century buildings was, by comparison, at best merely forgettable and at worst an infuriating reminder of irredeemable loss.

However, that very diminution of St. Peter's would have delighted Mussolini. Il Duce despised Papal Rome. He regarded the medieval and Renaissance areas of the city as so much "picturesque filth," and he intended to destroy them to undercover vestiges of the imperial capital. You can see his handiwork in various parts of town, such as the area around the "restored" Trajan's Forum, where an ancient convent was removed, and in Largo di Torre Argentina, where a group of medieval churches was razed to reveal the remains of early Roman temples.

Of course, in some instances the Church was being repaid for its 1500 years of dismantling ancient Rome, and burning its marble statues for lime. (Pope Sixtus V intended to wipe Rome clean of its classical remains entirely.) The destruction of such ancient streets as the Borgo Vecchio and the Borgo Nuovo, however, had no payoff at all, except to leave a residue of failed fascist pomp.

Unless one considers the remarkable occasions of St. Peter's, such as John Paul II's funeral. The vast crowds overflowing the Vatican grounds did seem to append Via della Conciliazione to Bernini's square, giving the modern space a purpose that was, for a change, appropriate to a broad avenue. Thus, Mussolini may have intended to build a grand route reflecting fascist modernization, but what he actually created works only as an occasional anteroom to the heart of the Papal Rome he so hated. Not much of fascist-built Rome is part of the living city, and this part lives only in Bernini's extended embrace.