“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 the 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, won’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 .2 square miles, entirely surrounded by Rome. With his predecessor, Benedict XVI, living in retirement there, the current joke in Rome goes that the Vatican has 5.9 popes per square mile.
But the legacy of the popes upon the Eternal City goes back nearly 2,000 years, to when St. Peter arrived from the Holy Land and became the first pope. Francis is believed to be the 266th pontiff of the Catholic church. A remarkable lineage.
From the throne of St. Peter, the pope continues to wield great influence upon Rome, spiritual home of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
There is little in Rome that has not been influenced by popes. But for the visitor, here are some of the more interesting sites to visit. As a new era begins for the church, visitors can trace history by visiting 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.
Unlike the Pantheon, there is little doubt that 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 has been reduced over the centuries to little more than a grassy bowl.
The martyrdom of Christians at the Colosseum is commemorated by a large, plain cross on the first level of the stadium, as well as a plaque in Latin affixed above the main entrance commemorating it as a place where the faithful paid the ultimate price.
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 cafe that’s the perfect setting to gaze out at Rome on a warm day.
For more than 1,500 years, the papacy wasn’t just a spiritual power but 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. Though much of the statesmanship of the Fascist era was later repealed, the Lateran Treaty remains in force and is the reason the Vatican has a nonvoting seat in the United Nations.
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.
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.
The Capital of Catholicism
Though the term “Rome” is still used to signify the Catholic Church, the modern center is in Vatican City, since 1929 a separate country from Italy. Just two-tenths of a square mile on the opposite side of the Tiber from most of the historic center of Rome, it nonetheless squeezes monumental symbols of power into a small space.
The term “Vatican” predates the papal period. The Ager Vaticanus was an area that included the Circus of Nero. Its importance to the church derives from being the site where St. Peter, the disciple of Jesus and first pope, was martyred. Peter was to be crucified but said he was unworthy to die as Jesus had and was nailed to the cross upside down.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Pope Francis was first seen as the new leader of the church from a balcony next to the cathedral in Vatican City. 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 and is twice the size of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. 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.
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. Just in time for the lines of tourists waiting to gain entry for Holy Week.