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Jan 12 17 5:58 AM
For Italy's Art Police, An Ongoing Fight Against Pillage Of Priceless WorksItaly has been described as the world's biggest open-air museum.And with illegally excavated antiquities, looting of unguarded, centuries-old churches and smuggling of precious artworks, it's also an art theft playground.But thanks to an elite police squad, Italy is also at the forefront in combating the illicit trade in artworks — believed to be among the world's biggest forms of trafficking and estimated to be worth billions.Italy's Carabinieri for Protection of Italy's Cultural Heritage recently sponsored an exhibit at Rome's Palazzo Barberini museum, showcasing some of its biggest successes.A fifth grade class of a Roman elementary school came to see some 200 artworks that were stolen and then recovered.Lt. Sebastiano Antoci, a 20-year veteran of the elite squad, told the kids how its investigations work."We tail suspects or use wiretaps so we can listen to the bad guys' phone calls or we check their bank accounts. And when we're out in the field," he said, "we look like everyone else, we don't wear uniforms."The fifth-graders listened attentively to the art detective as he pointed to two medieval frescoes."We recovered the lamb in Switzerland," he said, "and the Christ in the United States. They're back together again for the first time since they were stolen" — in 1978 from a small church in Guidonia, a town south of Rome.In 1969, Italy created the world's first specialized police force to combat art crime. It now numbers 280 investigators who also safeguard artworks in regions struck by floods and earthquakes. The unit also combats antiquities trafficking fueled by conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.At the Rome exhibit, Antoci showed the schoolchildren a marble sculpture that depicts a man and his two sons. It originates from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra — which recently came under ISIS control.Adding to his knowledge of art history the excitement of a detective tale, Antoci tells the kids the story of the sculpture, which was tracked down as part of an investigation into financial irregularities and dates back some 2,000 years. "It's a funerary sculpture," he tells them. "The terrorists smuggled it out of Syria and put it on the illicit antiques market. We tracked it down to an Italian businessman in Piedmont, who bought it just it a few months ago."Gen. Fabrizio Parulli, the commander of this unique police force, explains what's needed to become a good art sleuth. "First of all, you need to be a good investigator," he says.Speaking in his Rome office — located in a Baroque square that looks like an opera stage set — Parulli says his agents start as police officers and then get specialized training in art history, archaeology, restoration and recognizing counterfeit works.But the heart of the investigative work is done elsewhere, in a large barracks in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood.Sitting at a computer, Lt. Francesco Ficarella demonstrates the jewel in the crown of the cultural heritage protection squad — a database known as Leonardo, containing names and photos of close to 6 million registered artworks, mostly from Italy. Of those, 1.2 million are listed as stolen, missing, illegally excavated or smuggled.Leonardo, he says, "is a crucial instrument not only for our national police forces but also for those abroad — it's the biggest artworks database in the world," he says.The squad's recovery record is high. In 2014, it managed to recover 137,000 works with an estimated value of $500 million.Until they're returned to the owners, recovered pieces are warehoused on the ground floor of the Trastevere building. Behind an armored door, tens of thousands of artworks are stored — wooden crucifixes, marble busts, bronze statues and hundreds of paintings, all carefully labeled.These recovered pieces serve as evidence in criminal cases that are still open.One of them, "Leda and the Swan," by 16th century painter Lelio Orsi, was auctioned for $1.6 million in New York. Smuggled out of Italy, it was tracked down, thanks to cooperation from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.But there's one piece that has eluded this elite art squad for almost three decades: a 6-square-foot canvas of the Nativity by the Baroque master Caravaggio. It was stolen in Sicily in 1969, the same year this special unit was created.Lt. Calogero Gliozzo says the painting's whereabouts were known until the early 1980s. "We know the names of the robbers and we know the Mafia family that was hiding it," he says, "but then there was a Mafia war and we lost track of the painting."One Mafia informant told police he had heard that the canvas had been destroyed by rats at a farm where it was hidden.But here at the police squad, the art sleuths are convinced the masterpiece still exists — and that one day, they will succeed in recovering this No. 1 artwork on their most wanted list.
Jan 12 17 6:02 AM
McDonald’s next to Vatican to offer free meals to the homelessVATICAN CITY (RNS) A McDonald’s opening in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica is to offer free meals to the homeless in a move aimed at defusing controversy over the fast food restaurant.McDonald’s said Thursday (Jan. 12) that it is working with the archbishop who dispenses charity on behalf of Pope Francis to provide 1,000 free lunches to the homeless who live in the area around the Vatican every Monday starting next week.A company spokesman said the Italian charity, Medicina Solidale, which offers medical care to the poor, had approached the global hamburger chain seeking the weekly donation. Volunteers from the charity will collect the meals from the restaurant, which is located near the square, and distribute them.“Providing a meal guarantees an appropriate supply of proteins and vitamins to so many men and women who live on the street,” said Lucia Ercoli, director of the charity. “I am very happy with this agreement with McDonald’s.“We have been working with the pope’s almoner” — Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewki, who provides meals and services on behalf of the pontiff — “for a while to provide these people with medical visits and care.”As severe winter weather continues to sweep across Italy and other parts of Europe, Pope Francis has urged Krajewki and his staff to take extra steps to protect the homeless from below freezing temperatures on the streets of Rome and elsewhere.Francis also called for shelters to remain open 24 hours a day and asked that Alpine-grade sleeping bags and Vatican cars to be provided for those who refuse to sleep indoors.Many homeless gather near St. Peter’s to take a daily shower in the bathrooms the pope has installed beside the square while Medicina Onlus says it is providing medical care to around 200 homeless around the Vatican each week.The McDonald’s initiative follows a backlash from cardinals and residents who opposed the opening of the store so close to the Vatican in a building owned by the Holy See.Last year Italian Cardinal Elio Sgreccia said the proposal to open a branch of McDonald’s below a Vatican-owned building where several cardinals lived was a “controversial, perverse decision.”He also said serving burgers and fries in the neighborhood was unacceptable because the American-owned chain’s cuisine breached Italian taste.“It’s a commercial decision that ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant industry,” said Sgreccia, who is president emeritus of the Vatican’s Academy for Life, which leads the church’s fight against abortion and euthanasia.Italian media reported that McDonald’s is paying $32,000 a month in rent for the store. It also said legal action by consumer group Codacons to close the store had been rejected by a Rome court earlier this week.
Jan 16 17 5:32 PM
After decades of shameful neglect, the biggest mausoleum ever to be built by the ancient Romans is to be brought alive with a spectacular multimedia experience projected onto its 2,000-year-old walls.The Mausoleum of Augustus, located in the centre of Rome just a stone’s throw from the Tiber, was constructed in 28BC and became the last resting place of the eponymous emperor, as well as his successors Nero and Tiberius.An Italian telecommunications company has contributed six million euros for its restoration, with its director promising an elaborate multimedia show that will tell the story of Augustus and ancient Rome.“Images of Rome, from ancient times to the modern era, will be projected onto the interior of the mausoleum’s walls,” said Giuseppe Recchi, the president of Telecom Italia. “Tourists will be immersed in the most sensational story of humanity, from imperial Rome to the beginnings of Christianity and the Baroque period,” he told Corriere della Sera newspaper.Mr Recchi said that the multimedia experience would be created by “Oscar-winning Italian directors”, but declined to name names, saying that negotiations were ongoing. The mausoleum was “one of the key monuments in the history of mankind,” he said.The ambitious restoration project cannot come too soon. Once the glory of ancient Rome, the mausoleum has been left in a state of forlorn neglect for decades. Surrounded by a shabby fence, invaded by scrappy vegetation and littered with rubbish, it is closed to tourists and all but ignored by passing Romans. The mausoleum should be the focus of the surrounding piazza, which was built by Benito Mussolini during the Fascist era and hosts bars, restaurants and fashion outlets. But efforts to restore the massive tomb have foundered over the years on bureaucracy, inter-departmental squabbling and lack of funding.A big restoration project was supposed to have been completed in August 2014 in time for the 2000th anniversary of the death of Augustus, but it was not even started.Augustus, the nephew of Julius Caesar, became Rome’s first emperorafter defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.He assumed absolute power and ruled an empire that stretched from Spain to Egypt and Asia Minor. On his death bed he famously said of the city: “I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble." The circular mausoleum once stood around 120ft high and had a diameter of nearly 300ft. It was topped by a 15ft-tall bronze statue of Augustus. It was converted into a fortress in the Middle Ages and then a bull-fighting ring in the 18th century. It was made into a concert hall in the early 20th century before Mussolini ordered all modern additions to be stripped away, in a bid to associate himself with the greatness of Rome’s first emperor, whom he hoped to emulate.
Jan 28 17 4:44 AM
Will a Celebrity Get the Vatican Ambassador Job?Rumors fly about who the next ambassador to the Vatican might be, from the Terminator to Newt Gingrich’s wife.ROME—Imagine the first day on the job for whoever is posted as President Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See. It could get a little rough. First of all, the bosses don’t exactly get along. Pope Francis famously accused Trump of not being a Christian a year ago when he gave a mass on the border between the United States and Mexico. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian,” he said. “This is not the gospel.”Trump responded by accusing the Pope of playing politics. “I think Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing,” Trump said in response. (I can't begin to describe the idiocy of this statement.)But the wall isn’t the only issue that will require diplomatic finesse to keep relations friendly between Trump’s America and Francis’ Church. Immigration issues that skim human rights issues like deportation, Trump’s attitude toward Latin America as a whole, and climate change, which has been the pope’s signature world cause, are all touchy issues.That’s why it has been especially troubling in Rome to hear news that Trump might send a celebrity ambassador to represent America with the Holy See. Over the last week, rumors have been swirling that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be tapped for the job after photos emerged of him shaking hands with the pope at a general audience. The Terminator is a Catholic and climate change champion, but the fact that he says he didn’t vote for Trump, nor donate to his campaign, might sink any potential deal. (Oh, please ... the "Terminator" is also a serial womanizer who cheated on his wife in his own home with their housekeeper!)Another familiar name on the short list is Callista Gingrich, the third wife of Newt and a devout Catholic who was able to get her twice-divorced husband to convert to Catholicism in 2008, which should count for something. While she is not a seasoned diplomat, she spent nearly two decades as a congressional aide before helming the Gingrich Productions film company she created with her husband. Among their films are a documentary on the canonization of John Paul II and two about rediscovering God in America.According to her bio on the film company website she is also a member of the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC., which sang for Pope Francis when he visited the United States last year.Gingrich, himself no longer on a list for a Trump government job confirmed to CNN that his wife was on the short list, saying he’d probably not move to Rome himself if she is officially tapped. “I'd clock in an amazing number of miles,” Gingrich told a CNN political correspondent. “You guys won't be getting rid of me. I'll be around.”John Thavis, Vatican expert and author of Vatican Prophecies and The Vatican Diaries, warns that the job of ambassador to the Holy See is not to be taken lightly.“This is not just a meet and greet post. It’s a place where a lot of actual diplomacy goes on,” he told The Daily Beast. “The ambassador is head of quite a large embassy and they are very active. I think any think any ambassador under President Trump is going to have his or her work cut out. I see a new ambassador under President Trump coming in with some very big diplomatic challenges.”He says climate change is probably the biggest and most obvious difference between Trump and Francis, and one that could keep the two divided. “There are some very problematic areas and that is going to require diplomatic skills, not stardom and celebrity status,” Thavis says. “It would be a sign of respect for the United States to send a qualified ambassador to the Vatican.” (Alas, it seems that Trump respects only one person - himself.)Other names that have been floated in Rome are William E. Simon, Jr., a close friend of Rudy Giuliani who is said to be pushing him forward. He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of California back in 2002, and is a member of the Knights of Malta, which isn’t exactly in good favor with the Vatican after an embarrassing scandal over condoms. (The real scandal is not over the condoms but over the shameless disobedience of the Grand Master and certain Knights. Were Simon to be nominated, I think he should first be asked to state where he stands in the matter concerning von Boeselager.)Other names are former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and father of eight who still has family in Italy and papal biographer George Weigel. Ronald Reagan’s speech writer Peggy Noonan is also reported to be a contender as well.The most likely choice may well be Joseph Forgione, who was also short listed as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Forgione has dual American and Italian citizenship and is said to be friends with the family of Jared Kushner as well as a substantial donor to the Trump campaign.The American embassy to the Holy See is not without its own skeletons in its not-so-cloistered closets. The daughter of Mary Ann Glendon, the last Republican ambassador to the Holy See, had a love child with a priest Thomas Williams, who was then spokesman for the now-disgraced Legion of Christ religious order. Williams left the priesthood and went on to marry Glendon’s daughter, and he is now the correspondent for Breitbart News in Rome.One of President Obama’s ambassadors, Cuban-born Miguel Diaz, was also in the public eye after he left office for allegedly sexually assaulting a married couple in Dayton, Ohio. Local media reports say he, “engaged in 'unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature' toward a married couple.” Charges were eventually dropped.On the other side of Rome, the role of Trump’s ambassador to Italy is also up for grabs, likely going to the Republican Party’s financial chairman Lew Eisenberg, according to whispers at the American embassy in Rome. But the role is very different than that of the Holy See ambassador, primarily because of Italy’s political instability and pending early elections, as opposed to the Vatican’s outspoken leader who disagrees openly with almost everything on Trump’s agenda so far.“The Vatican is a curious blend of religious and political issues,” Thavis says. “And diplomacy is key to keep the balance.” A celebrity ambassador might add a little flash to the position that requires substance instead.
Feb 6 17 7:26 AM
Rome police investigate critical posters of Pope FrancisAnti-Pope Francis posters coincide with Knights of Malta feud.Rome police have launched an investigation into the appearance of dozens of illegal posters critical of Pope Francis posted around the capital during the early hours of 4 February.City authorities wasted little time in covering up the images, which featured a stern-looking Pope Francis, and police have been studying street camera footage in an effort to identify the mystery activists behind the move.The anonymous posters, which appeared in the historic centre, Trastevere and the Vatican district, accused Pope Francis of targeting conservative Catholics, listing several contentious policies made by the pontiff.Written in Romanesco dialect, the posters’ text read: “Ah Francis, you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where’s your mercy?”, in a reference to the pope’s special Jubilee Year of Mercy which ended in November.Italian media pounced on the posters’ reference to the “beheading” of the Knights of Malta, which referred to the resignation of the order’s British Grand Master, Matthew Festing, on the request of Pope Francis.Festing’s removal as head of the order, a post usually held for life, followed a public spat between the Vatican and the 900-year-old lay religious order over Festing’s dismissal of the order’s Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over his handling of health care facilities in Myanmar, which included the distribution of condoms at an anti-HIV and family planning centre.Pope Francis has since reinstated von Boeselager, whose initial sacking was allegedly sought by the order’s papal envoy, the conservative American cardinal and outspoken critic of Pope Francis, Raymond Burke, who is Cardinal Patron of the order. In addition to reinstalling von Boeselager, Pope Francis has appointed a personal delegate to the order, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who will act as his “exclusive spokesman” until the election of a new Grand Master in several months’ time, according to the Vatican.The appointment was announced hours after the illegal posters appeared in Rome and is seen as further evidence of tension between conservative and liberal elements for control of the Vatican curia.
Feb 16 17 6:46 AM
What does it mean to speak at the Vatican? Days before the Democratic presidential primary in Catholic-heavy New York last April, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would be taking a few days off the campaign trail in order to speak at the Vatican.Fans of the self-described democratic socialist viewed the invitation as a nod from Pope Francis while foes decried Vatican interference in a particularly divisive U.S. presidential contest.Inquiries into how Mr. Sanders secured a spot at a conference on global inequality hosted by the Pontifical Council on Social Sciences offered a rare glimpse into the political maneuvering that takes place in the highest levels of the church.The president of the council, Margaret Archer, said that Mr. Sanders had breached protocol by seeking an invitation to speak.But the Argentinian bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who outranks Ms. Archer, dismissed those claims, saying that not only had he invited the Vermont senator himself, but that Ms. Archer had granted her approval. A copy of the invitation, with both Bishop Sorondo’s and Ms. Archer’s names affixed, was eventually leaked to the press.Mr. Sanders, an outspoken admirer of the pope whose campaign initially thought they were being duped with the invitation, gave his speech. He even managed a brief encounter with Pope Francis before heading back to the United States, where he lost the New York primary and eventually conceded the nomination to Hillary Clinton.But the episode demonstrates the fraught nature of what it means, and does not mean, when individuals and organizations say that they have been invited to “speak at the Vatican.”An appearance at the Vatican is often used by supporters to signal—sometimes subtly but other times more ostentatiously—papal support for an individual or a cause, but the reality is far more complex.“The Vatican is such a big institution, it’s like the White House,” Miguel Díaz, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told America. During his tenure, he co-sponsored conferences with Vatican offices. “People have to be very careful when claiming they spoke there, because the pope didn’t necessarily invite them. Usually invitations come from a particular institution or a particular office within the Vatican.”The Vatican is both a campus and a country, so stating that one spoke there can be akin to being on a panel at Boston University or giving a workshop in Canada.Under its auspices are dozens of offices and departments, including 11 Pontifical Academies and 12 Pontifical Councils, as well as several buildings, including many libraries, churches and museums. Each is semi-autonomous and charged with hosting conferences, publishing papers and facilitating dialogues.In some instances, they partner with organizations not directly linked to the church in order to facilitate dialogues that either fall within their realms of expertise or simply are interesting to church officials.Take a 2014 speech from President Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon.BuzzFeed News reported last year that Mr. Bannon gave a speech about threats to the West via Skype that was “beamed into a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican.”On its face, it’s true. But the details show that while the conference took place in Vatican City, it was not affiliated with the church.The event, hosted by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a small think-tank headquartered in Rome, was held inside the Casina Pio IV. That building houses three Pontifical Academies and has, under Pope Francis, become something of a Catholic think-tank or university research center, hosting conferences and speakers on a range of issues. It also allows organizations to use its space for convening purposes, even if there is no official partnership with the church, like the conference that Skyped in Mr. Bannon.If a group wants to host an event inside the Vatican—either because it supports the church’s agenda or simply wants to say it held an event inside the Vatican—it works with a church official to secure space. This might mean further collaboration about topics and speakers, in the case of co-hosted conferences.Or it might mean hosting a conference off-site that includes a brief visit to a room inside the Vatican for a papal greeting, as was the case with a November forum hosted by Fortune and Time magazines for global business leaders.And in October 2014, Porsche rented out the Sistine Chapel to host a fundraiser for a charity that helps the homeless.In all those scenarios, attendees can add to their bios that they participated in a Vatican event.Then there are the more official events hosted by Vatican offices.For example, on Feb. 14, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the University of Florence co-hosted a conference about the values of a Mediterranean diet at Casina Pio VI, where the author of The Olive Oil Diet: Nutritional Secrets of the Original Superfood, Simon Poole, led a panel on food and health.While a cookbook author’s talk is unlikely to generate as much heat as that of a controversial political operative, Mr. Poole can now say that he, too, spoke at the Vatican.And later this month, two Pontifical Academies are co-hosting a conference at Casina Pio IV about biological extinction, an issue that worries Pope Francis and one that he addresses in “Laudato Si’,” his encyclical on the environment.Scheduled to speak during a session about causes of extinction is Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. Some conservative commentators, at places such as Breitbart and Life Site News, have blasted Mr. Ehrlich’s invitation, noting that his support of population control contradicts church teaching.But supporters of Pope Francis note that he has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to work toward common goals even with people who might not agree with the church on everything.
May 2 17 5:00 AM
An elegant boulevard lined with expensive cafes and five star hotels, it was once a byword for glamour and sophistication.Rome’s Via Veneto was the epicentre of La Dolce Vita, a period in the fifties and sixties when the capital was known as Hollywood on the Tiber. The street featured prominently in the eponymous 1960 film, directed by Federico Fellini.Its pavement bistros and luxury hotels attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the day, from Audrey Hepburn and Orson Welles to Stewart Granger and Jean Paul Belmondo. But the broad avenue has fallen on hard times and is now beset with problems, from pot-holed pavements to uncollected rubbish and even a rat infestation.A group of 400 hoteliers, business leaders and restaurant owners has now sent an appeal to Virginia Raggi, Rome’s mayor, calling for urgent intervention.“Rubbish lies abandoned, the trees have not been pruned for a decade, the streets are dirty and full of potholes,” they wrote in an open letter to Ms Raggi, a member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement who was elected last year.There were high hopes that Ms Raggi, a political outsider, would be able to clean up the city, but so far those hopes have come to very little, as Rome continues to suffer from chronic dysfunction and a general disregard for rules and regulations.Nowhere is the slow decline of the capital more evident than along Via Veneto. In Largo Federico Fellini – a cobbled area that commemorates the film director, situated in the shadow of hulking ancient Roman walls – half a dozen cars are parked illegally on double white lines. A plastic cup and other bits of litter have been stuffed into a crack in a Liberty frame that encases a glass panel commemorating the street’s Dolce Vita golden age. Inside the panel are black and white photos of James Coburn, Henry Fonda and Salvador Dali drinking cocktails in the sunshine – a poignant reminder of Via Veneto’s heyday.In front of a giant black and white image from La Dolce Vita, which starred Marcello Mastroianni and the Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg, a forlorn Bangladeshi hawker tries to sell cheap scarves to passing tourists.“It is shameful that Via Veneto, which is famous around the world, has been left in such a state of abandonment,” said Pietro Lepore, the president of the Via Veneto Association.“There are street lamps that have not worked for months. If it wasn’t for the light coming from shops, restaurants and hotels, the street would be totally dark. It is just not acceptable,” said Mr Lepore, who is the owner of Harry’s Bar, one of the avenue’s most celebrated watering holes.Overflowing rubbish bins stand outside the Cica Cica Boom lap-dancing nightclub, just off the main drag, while kiosks along Via Veneto sell a huge range of tat, from plastic figurines of Pope Francis to kitsch cat calendars and fridge magnets depicting the Colosseum.Uncollected rubbish has led to a problem with rodents.In February a rat was spotted amid the outdoor tables of the Hotel Excelsior, and swiftly dispatched. The Italian press ran photos of it being prodded with a pole – hardly an image in keeping with the A-list glamour of the past, when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were pursued by paparazzi photographers.“The symbol of La Dolce Vita has become an avenue of filth and rats,” said Stefano Pedica, a politician from the centre-Left Democratic Party. “Is this the image of the Eternal City that the council wants to give to the world? Raggi must not allow one of the most symbolic streets of the city to die. She needs to go and see with her own eyes the state it has been reduced to.”In the absence of action by the embattled city council, some business owners have taken matters into their own hands – even resorting to buying sacks of bitumen from hardware stores and filling in pot-holed pavements. Small steps to try to spruce up what was once the jewel in Rome’s crown have been taken. A glass-paneled restaurant extension that was built illegally on the pavement outside the famed Café de Paris has been demolished recently. Council workers were busy recently laying fresh paving stones and planting flowers in tubs. “Within a few days the pavement will be restored to how it once was,” said Sabrina Alfonsi, a council official. “The extension had become a place of abandon, in one of the city’s most iconic streets.”But the Café de Paris itself is in a sorry state. It was closed years ago after it was found that it was being used as a front for money-laundering by the notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia of Calabria.Peer through its locked front doors and you can still see, in the gloomy interior, glasses and plates lined up behind the bar. The stained-glass sign above the entrance has been partially covered up with a sheet of ply-board so that it now reads “é de Paris.”Down the road, past the American embassy, more cars are parked illegally on the pavement, this time outside a 19th palazzo that houses a government ministry. “The cars are all owned by government employees. They park them where they like,” said a doorman in a crimson uniform at the adjacent Ambasciatori Palace Hotel. “That’s how it is in Italy.”
Jun 2 17 5:16 AM
Rome’s ‘city under the city’ reveals the pioneers of the faithRome is popularly known as the "Eternal City," but there's an even older complex located beneath the teeming streets and piazzas of the modern urban space, formed by the catacombs. Explorers who have charted and made accessible those spaces have, in effect, excavated the stories of the pioneers of the Christian faith.ROME - When most people think of Rome they picture the majestic Colosseum or the countless churches and basilicas sprawled across the city, but deep underground there is another Eternal City that tells the tale of the first pioneers of the Christian faith.The Catacombs of Domitilla, a vast web of tunnels and tombs used by early Christians for refuge and burial, is finding new life under the muck and mold thanks to restorations sponsored by the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art, which completed its work May 29 and will open the painted crypts to the public next month.The catacombs “represent the concrete and legible testimony of ‘Christian death,’ seen by our early brothers as a provisory death in anticipation of the final Resurrection,” said Fabrizio Visconti, superintendent at the Commission, at the unveiling May 30.The United States is usually called the home of pioneers, from its Westward expansion to its race to the Moon, but Italians also have an extraordinary lineup of explorers such as Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci, and Christopher Columbus.Less than a year after Columbus made his voyage to the New World, Antonio Bosio, a Maltese archeologist obsessed with early Christian history, began his exploration of an old World buried under the city of Rome.In 1593 Bosio first entered the Catacombs of Domitilla, under the patronage of the Order of Malta, earning the title of the “Christopher Columbus of Rome’s underground.” Like Columbus, Bosio got lost and resorted to the mythological trick of using a ball of thread to trace his steps in the dark labyrinth.The Catacombs extended for more than 7.4 miles, with two and sometimes four underground floors with a total of 26,250 tombs. The “city under the city” first started with the Ancient Roman tombs of the first century B.C. that multiplied during the second and third centuries after Christ, when it became a popular Christian burial ground.The origin of the name “Domitilla” is disputed, since there are two plausible options. Flavius Clement, a member of the Flavian royal family and consul under emperor Domitian, was executed for being a Christian in the year A.D. 96 while his wife Domitilla was exiled for the same reason to the island of Ventotene.But Flavius also had a niece called Domitilla, who, like her eponymous aunt, was exiled to the island of Ponza for her faith. Regardless of which Domitilla gave her name to the plot of land, it became in time the largest catacomb in Rome.What contributed to the expansion of the tombs was the fact that early Christian martyrs Nereus and Achilleus, two Roman soldiers who converted to the Christian faith and laid down their weapons and lives for Christ, were buried within the complex.It was also believed that St. Petronilla, the daughter of St. Peter according to late Medieval tradition, was buried in the Catacombs under a painted vault portraying her dressed as a Roman matron as she enters paradise.The illustrious martyrs and saints made the catacombs an attractive resting ground for early Christians looking for their intercession to access the Kingdom of Heaven. The Christian pioneers dug their way under ground creating the interconnected web that still exists today.But the popularity of the catacombs slowly waned and when Pope Leo III moved the relics of Nereus, and Achilleus to a safer place they were slowly forgotten.That is until Bosio stepped into the abandoned crypt 500 years later.But after the discovery, not all explorers were well-intentioned and the catacombs became prey to tomb raiders. The vault of the Flavian Hypogeum that leads into the catacombs was stripped of the winged cherubs that once scurried up and down the painted scarlet vine.When another famous Italian archeologist, Gian Battista de Rossi, began his excavations in the site in 1874, he found the tombs robbed of their treasures and the paintings on the walls damaged and covered in graffiti.It was Rossi who asked Pope Pius IX to create the embryo of what would become the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art that would play a major role in guaranteeing the preservation of the unique artifacts within the tombs.In the past 25 years the Commission has monitored and cared for the 150 Christian catacombs in Italy. Fifty of the catacombs are in Rome containing more than 400 frescoes, of which about 70 are at Domitilla. The commission gave $60,000 to the German and Austrian archaeological institutes in order to restore half the paintings to their former glory, by using cutting-edge laser technology that slowly eliminates the limestone deposits that darkened the images.Layer after layer, the vivid paintings emerged after nearly two years of work. The room of the “Small Apostles” shows the twelve followers of Christ blending in modern and dynamic poses. Underneath the vault of the tomb, Saints Peter and Paul stand next to a black square where the image of the interred is lightly etched, giving her a ghostly appearance.The room of the “Introductio” shows Nereus and Achilleus at the center of the dome ‘introducing’ the souls of the faithful to Christ so that they may go to heaven. Painted around the room are the times when God actively intervened to help humanity, from the Lord’s hand stopping Isaac from killing his only son to Jesus multiplying the bread at Cana.Probably the most striking of the crypts, the room of the “Bakers” holds some of the most vivid images in the catacombs. A ring circling the room shows visitors the collection, transportation and distribution of bread, a fundamental part of Ancient Roman life as well as an important symbol in Christian tradition.High up are the images of the apostles circling Jesus and underneath the name “BOSIUS” is written in large and black characters, proving that Bosio, like many explorers, was a bit of a megalomaniac.On the other side is a painting showing a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. The image of the good shepherd is surrounded by pagan figures, showing that though the Christian iconography is apparent the context remains rooted in ancient traditions.Part of what makes this room so interesting is the way it shows the passage “from the civilization of myth to Christian culture,” as Monsignor Giovanni Carrù, secretary of the Pontifical Commission, said.The Commission also created a small museum, called “Myth, Time, Life,” which collects the artifacts they found in the nearby tombs. Within there are stunning marble busts as well as images showing the restoration process.A sarcophagus showing scenes from everyday life kept at the museum “Myth, Time, Life” in the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome. (Credit: Pontifical Commission of Sacred Art.)Another majestic part of the catacomb complex is the basilica dedicated to Nereus and Achilleus. Half buried underground and half over the surface, the basilica is a bridge between the catacombs and the outside world.“These tombs represent the roots of our deepest identity, the roots of Rome and of Christianity,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Commission, standing in the humid yet sun-bathed basilica.Even though the catacombs are buried underground, the paintings within are a mirror of the everyday life on the surface, leaving a lasting memory “of the other face of life,” Ravasi said.Thanks to the work sponsored by the Pontifical Commission, the witness of the early Christians who dug their way underground in search of a resting place in anticipation of Judgment day lives on. Those first Catholic pioneers searched deep within the earth, not for gold, but for Heaven so that in the words of Carrù, “death does not have the final word.”
Jun 12 17 6:18 AM
Vatican tailors, cobblers try to adapt to Francis’s ‘papal athleisure’Pope Francis's emphasis on simplicity and frugality is a hit all around the world, but it's produced just a bit of backlash among fashion-conscious Italians, including an exclusive club of tailors and shoemakers who outfit pontiffs -- some of whom are a little nostalgic for the days when being pope also meant dressing to the nines.ROME – An exclusive group of tailors and cobblers who cater to the Vatican are slowly adapting to Pope Francis’s penchant for simple and plain clothing, which has inspired a demand for more practical and comfortable frocks from clergy around the world.The Argentinian pope’s call for a Church that is dynamic and “on the move” has translated into a preference for religious clothing reflecting that zeal, and is no longer constrained by heavy fabrics and embellishments.“Maybe once we were a bit excessive, and now slowly…” said Raniero Mancinelli, who has been a tailor for the clergy and popes for decades, in an interview with Crux.Popes through history have always been fashion trendsetters, since they exercise influence over a vast community and their choice of jewelry and clothing often says a lot about the mission and message of the pontificate.The past three “foreign popes,” meaning not from Italy, took a unique approach to classic papal style, and, sharing an astute grasp of the media, have left us with iconic images that will last for the ages.No one could rock a cape like Pope John Paul II, and pictures showing his red mantle billowing in the wind, or gently wrapped around children, have left a lasting impression on Christian and secular culture. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a European, dusted off the classic papal staples and ushered them into the new millennium with his unique sense of style.Francis’s preference for ‘papal athleisure,’ meanwhile, has already begun to leave its mark on history.In 2013, the magazine Esquire, which focuses mostly on male fashion, named Pope Francis ‘The Best Dressed Man of the Year.’ The choice was obviously controversial, and the magazine explained it by saying that the pope’s style has “signaled a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church.”Adapting to Pope Francis’s styleIn a small shop on the Borgo Pio, a picturesque street next door to the Vatican, Raniero Mancinelli slices away at fabric on the counter, scarlet and black scraps falling to the ground with every cut of his scissors.Over his head, etched in wood is his name and the date the shop was opened: 1962. Mancinelli has been in the business of dressing popes for a long time, and therefore has had a front-row seat to the changes that occurred in religious garb from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to this day.“It’s not as if before the clothes were more luxurious or pricey, maybe a bit more flashy and rich with details,” Mancinelli said. “Today this has changed a bit. Now with Pope Francis’s direction, people want things that are much lighter, simpler and more sober…. and consequently less expensive.”As an example, the veteran tailor said that the cross usually worn by bishops and cardinals used to be adorned with gems and gold plating.“Now these are more popular,” he said pointing to plain crosses made of metal and wood. A quick look at the tags shows a significant difference in price.Asked if this pope is not very good for his business, Mancinelli laughed.“Yes… a bit,” he said, because the demand has diminished and the clothes are less costly. “A double loss, in a sense.“It’s not a question of agreeing. One accepts this manner he has of doing things in a simpler fashion,” Mancinelli said.But the tailor is not saddened by the change, though he admits that, to him, religious clothing has become a little plain.“Maybe too plain compared to how they were before,” he added.Mancinelli started his business just as the Church underwent a profound revolution. He was there when Pope Paul VI eliminated the train that cardinals used to wear, which could be up to seven meters long.He spoke of a time when “a crease could not be ignored,” while today anything is acceptable. Pope Francis’s torn-up sleeve as he returned from a visit to the beach town of Ostia, for instance, took over the Internet in 2013.“His vestment is very simple, he has had it for a long time,” Mancinelli said, adding that white is a very sensitive color and, by being in close contact with so many people, is susceptible to being ruined.“I don’t exclude the possibility that in the evening he just puts it to wash, and wears it again the next morning,” he sighed.Pope Francis also chose to have a smaller sash that is not made of silk, and breaking with tradition he refused to have his emblem etched on it.“He’s not picky,” Mancinelli said. “I wanted to make him a new pair of trousers. His are black, and I wanted to make lighter pants to wear under the cassock. ‘No,’ he said. ‘These are fine.’“In everything, the pope has chosen simplicity,” he said. “Things that are not expensive.”Mancinelli admits that having grown up in a different time, he has a preference for things that are well-fitted and precise, but he also recognizes that “if the pope decided to take this position, it means that there is a reason.“Maybe now we can concentrate more on the will of God instead of men,” he added.The two main things to keep in mind when working for the pope, he said, are discretion and adaptability. (Ah yes, discretion. Something that the celebrity secretary should be reminded of, as often as possible.)“The first day can be a bit shocking,” Mancinelli said, since you have to get used to a different taste and aesthetic, but after a few days he says, “you learn the differences.”Mancinelli had a good relationship with Pope Benedict XVI. He “used vestments that were a bit more beautiful, let’s say, in the sense that they were more beautiful to look at,” he said.Now, clergy from around the world ask Mancinelli for Pope Francis-inspired cassocks, ready for the daily wear and tear. But this new style has its advantages when it comes to time consumption.“Once we only used silk, today the fabrics are simpler. I am making clothes for some cardinals,” Mancinelli added pointing to the scarlet scraps that littered the floor. “The fabric is very simple, made of wool and light [material].”Silk takes much more time to sow, and the simpler fabrics mean less time to make the clothes, he said.Pope Francis “is more focused on being a good father, a good shepherd, rather than having a beautiful cassock or pants, or even shoes,” Mancinelli said. “I wish I could live many more years, so I can see what happens next!”The Case Of The Red ShoesAny Italian will tell you that one key to a good look is a fine pair of shoes. Footwear is not taken lightly in the Bel Paese, and a poor choice is guaranteed to provoke criticism and directions to some cousin who can fix you up.Pope Benedict XVI knew the importance of a good pair of shoes, and his custom-made red slippers became a trademark of his style and even earned him the title of ‘Best Accessorizer of the Year’ by Esquire magazine in 2007.Gossip ran wild with who might be the maker of the ruby-colored papal slippers, with some claiming that they were made by the Italian fashion powerhouse Prada. But in 2005 the rumors were finally put to rest when the a cobbler from a small town in northern Italy presented Pope Benedict XVI with the shoes for all the world to see during a general audience at St. Peter’s Square. (Alas, there are still some writers and commentators who persist in perpetuating that silly myth about the papal Prada shoes. It is immensely exasperating.)“Dressed in white with that red shoe… it really catches the eye!” Adriano Stefanelli, a cobbler and the creator of the famous slippers, told Crux in a phone interview.“When it comes to clothes and such things he is a very, very elegant person,” Stefanelli said about the emeritus pope, adding proudly that “the peak of his splendor” took place when he first wore the red shoes. (Hmmm ... I beg to disagree. Joseph Ratzinger has always looked dapper and elegant, even in a plain cleric's suit and his favourite black beret. I rather think that such elegance came from the innate dignity of the man, which always shone through, regardless of whether he was wearing a priest's ebony cassock, a cardinal's scarlet choir robes, or pristine papal white. He didn't need those red shoes to look sartorially splendid.)Stefanelli prepared six shoes in total for the German pope throughout his pontificate. He was commissioned by the Vatican for the first time in late 2013, but the high-ranking client was not satisfied with the order. Stefanelli had made the shoes in claret, the color preferred by the now-saint John Paul II, but the demand was clear: They had to be red.“During his pontificate I received requests from all over the world for the same slipper, some wanted it red, others black,” Stefanelli said, citing among the buyers the former president of the United States, George Bush, for whom he made an identical pair in black.The cobbler from Novara defines Pope Francis’s style as “rustic simplicity,” and places him as the “polar opposite of Pope Benedict” in terms of fashion.“Pope Francis represents humility. Very plain clothing and a simple cross,” Stefanelli said.“… He doesn’t wear the red shoes.”Pope Francis opted for the services of his cobbler in Buenos Aires, Carlos Samaria, after he was elected. Speaking to the Italian daily La Stampa, Samaria said that the pope insisted that there be “no red shoes, black as always.”And again, speaking to his niece Maria Ines, the pope said: “See that I am not wearing the red shoes?”Stefanelli denies being hurt by the pope choosing not to wear his flamboyant slippers.“Every man has his style,” he said.He began his career as a papal cobbler by gifting a pair of shoes to Pope John Paul II, who preferred them to be dark brown and was so pleased with them that he became a regular client.“Pope Wojtyla is kind of similar to Pope Francis. Maybe Pope Wojtyla was slightly more refined, while Pope Francis views clothing and style in a very humble way,” Stefanelli added.When asked if he would be happy to make red shoes for Pope Francis, should he ask, Stefanelli said “Gladly. But I have my doubts.”
Vatican turns off historic fountains as Rome drought continuesVatican authorities could not remember ever having to turn off the fountains beforeStanding in St Peter’s Square are two magnificent 17th century baroque fountains by architects Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maderno, where the flowing water gives the square a glorious renaissance feel and makes them an ideal photo spot for tourists. Not anymore. Thanks to a prolonged drought in Rome and across many parts of Italy, the Vatican on Monday (24 July) decided to turn the fountains off along with 98 others in the city state.The Eternal City has been experiencing suffocating summer heat since the middle of June and the lack of rainfall has left authorities considering water rationing for Rome’s residents. Meteorologists have recorded just 26 days of rain in the first six months of the year, while in June and July more than 70 per cent less rain fell than normal. [Alas, 'tis climate change, staring all of us in the face ... and still there are those who would deny it exists!]Holy See spokesman, Greg Burke, said the Vatican’s decision was a way of “living in solidarity” with the city’s inhabitants but he added that authorities could not remember ever having to turn off the fountains before. The move is also a case of Pope Francis practicing what he preaches on the environment. He’s been outspoken in urging world leaders to agree on reducing carbon emissions and wrote a landmark encyclical on protecting the planet, Laudato si’. “This decision is very much in line with the pope’s thinking on ecology: you can’t waste and sometimes you have to be willing to make a sacrifice,” Burke explained.
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