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A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Marble tiles in the Jewish Quarter of Rome

 

“It’s impossible to do this tour or any other tour chronologically.”

This was one of the first things Lauren, a guide for the walking tour company Context Travel, told us as we stood in Largo Arenula, our starting point for a historic walk of Rome’s Jewish Quarter and Trastevere. In addition to Lauren, a British scholar who has studied the art, history, and culture of Rome for the better part of two decades, my group consisted of a quiet, young couple and a young, single woman. Context had invited me to be a guest on one of their tours and I chose to take this one as it was an area I knew the least about. I liked the idea of going on the tour as more or less a blank slate. I wanted to learn something.

At this point, I should back up and say that I have studied Rome, its landmarks, art, history, and neighborhoods for more than 15 years. Before that, I worked at an institute for German Studies and interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even with this specialized knowledge, I’ve always found it difficult to find information about Rome’s Jewish heritage. Most guidebooks give it short shrift, which isn’t surprising; there are too many layers here to cover any one topic in detail. But I would venture to say that the story of the Jewish people in Rome is one of the few threads that weaves together the story of this city in a way that is both historically comprehensive and personal.

Following are just a few of the sites I learned about on the three-hour tour. Continue Reading →

Help Tell the Story of Jewish Italy

La Sinagoga, Florence

La Sinagoga in Florence, Italy

CulturaItalia, a website operated by the Italian Culture Ministry, is seeking your help in its efforts to document the Jewish contributions to Italian society over the past 150 years. As one of its many initiatives to mark the anniversary of 150 years of Italian Unity, CulturaItalia has teamed up with with Judaica Europeana, a Europe-wide project to gather digitized information “that documents Jewish presence and heritage in European cities and make them available on Europeana.” Europeana is the the online home of digital resources culled from Europe’s libraries, archives, and museum collections.

Star of David and the Italian FlagThe name of CulturaItalia’s project is called, “The Star of David and the Italian Flag, Jews and the Construction of a United Italy.” Institutions as well as the public have been asked to help CulturaItalia with this project by submitting “digital files with stories, texts, photographs, letters, postcards, illustrations and drawings, audio documents and short videos that tell of the Jewish culture in Italy in the last 150 years.” Suggested topics include:

  • itineraries in the city
  • arts and trades
  • fashion
  • schooling
  • private life
  • parties and ceremonies
  • public events
  • food culture
  • literature and theatre

If you or your family have stories to tell, photos or art to share, or anything else that will enhance the understanding of Jewish contributions to Italy over the past 150 years, you are invited to submit your files through this online form. No doubt, this is a fantastic way to ensure the Jewish history of Italy lives on digitally so that future generations may learn and seek inspiration from it.

Photos © harshlight, CulturaItalia

See the Shirt John Paul II Wore On Day He Was Shot

Visitors to a small convent in Rome’s Prati neighborhood can now have a look at Rome’s newest relic – the blood-stained shirt that Pope John Paul II was wearing on the day Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The relic is housed in the convent of the Figlie delle Carità di S. Vincenzo de Paoli, Via Ezio 28, near the Lepanto Metro stop. RomeReports.com offers the full story of the relic and how it came to reside in the convent.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss this relic on your next visit to Rome, the Figlie della Carità offer rooms for budget travelers who don’t mind staying at a place with a curfew. According to Santa Susanna, the American Catholic church in Rome, room rates at the sisters’ Casa Maria Immacolata start at €40 single/€75 double and include breakfast. Curfew is at 11pm.

Visiting the Vatican and Rome During Easter


Springtime is a very popular time to visit Rome and the Vatican City. And for good reason. The weather is warmer. The gardens and parks are in bloom, with huge pots of azaleas providing a burst of color on the Spanish Steps. And for the thousands of churches, it is time to celebrate Easter.

Of course, the most popular place to visit during Easter is St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). The Pope presides over several services at the basilica during Holy Week, including morning and evening masses on Holy Thursday, an afternoon vigil on Good Friday, and an evening mass on Holy Saturday. The big event, Easter Sunday mass, is celebrated in St. Peter’s Square, where thousands gather to watch the Pope bless an icon of the risen Christ and hear the Pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” message delivered from the balcony of the papal apartments.

The Pope also travels to other churches in Rome during Easter time to perform holy rites. On Maundy Thursday, the Pope typically delivers the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), the church for the Bishop of Rome – the Pope’s other official title. After St. Peter’s, this is the second-most important basilica in Rome and worth a visit even if you aren’t in town during Easter. (Also in this area is the Scala Santa, purported to be the “holy stairs” that led to the throne of Pontius Pilate. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, brought these stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D. and Christians have been venerating them ever since.)

The Stations of the Cross Vigil in the Colosseum

Click here if you are unable to see the video above.

Another intriguing site to visit during Easter is the Colosseum, where the Stations of the Cross are held during an evening vigil on Good Friday. The Pope presides over this rite in the arena where many ancient Christians are said to have been “thrown to the lions.” The Colosseum was consecrated as a church in 1749 to commemorate these early persecutions of Christians and stem the pillaging of the structure’s building materials.

Note that seating at the Colosseum on Good Friday and in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday is very limited. Free tickets for these events must be reserved well in advance with your local diocese.

Leading up to Holy Week, there are several other opportunities to see and/or hear a blessing from the Pope, including on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also the the typical day on which World Youth Day, a celebration initiated by Pope John Paul II, is held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope also delivers a blessing to general audiences each Wednesday throughout the year. For more information about applying to participate in a general audience with the Pope, review this information from the Prefecture of the Papal Household.

For more ideas on visiting holy Rome, have a look at the links below. You may also visit the official website of the Vatican for information on the Pope, the Holy See, and liturgical services.

Papal Basilicas of Rome
Santa Maria Maggiore
San Giovanni in Laterano
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura

Additional links of interest
Getting Into the Vatican Museums
Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics
Angels and Demons Tourism

Photo © WiltshireYan

Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics

Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro's blood

Examining the ampoule of San Gennaro's blood

No matter if you’re a devout Catholic or a curious non-believer, you should make a point to check out a few of Italy’s many religious relics. More than 2,000 years of Christianity has produced numerous fascinating, if not gruesome, stories. And it seems that for every Biblical tale, there is a relic housed in Rome, the Vatican, or in one of Italy’s thousands of churches. Here are a few unusual relics that you can put on your next Italy itinerary.

The Shroud of Turin
Shroud of Turin Exhibition Poster This is perhaps Italy’s most famous relic, housed in the Cathedral of Turin (Duomo di Torino) in the Piemonte region. The Shroud is a linen cloth that bears “the image of a man who appears to have been physically hurt in a manner consistent with crucifixion,” according to Wikipedia. In short, the image on the Shroud bears a striking resemblance to the collectively agreed upon image of Jesus Christ and is thought to be Christ’s burial shroud – thus, the relic’s significance among Christians.

As with all religious relics, the Shroud’s authenticity has been doubted. Even the Catholic Church has yet to formally endorse the Shroud. And a recent scientific study confirms the shroud as a relic of the Middle Ages (i.e., NOT 2,000 years old). Nevertheless, this sacred relic (called Santa Sindone in Italian) is well-protected by the Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud.

Because of the Shroud’s delicate nature, it is not always on display. However, in 2010, Turin will host an exhibition for the Shroud. From April 10 to May 23, 2010, the Shroud of Turin will be on exhibit for thousands of visiting pilgrims. As of this writing, online tickets have yet to go on sale. So check back with the Torino Tourism website for more information.

The Blood of San Gennaro
It’s hardly surprising that a hot-blooded place like Naples would have a relic made of blood (see main photo above). Each year, the city of Naples awaits the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), which is stored in an ampoule in a reliquary in the Naples Cathedral. An early saint of the church, having been beheaded during Emperor Diocletian’s anti-Christian raids in the 4th century, San Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples. The liquefying of his blood, which can happen up to 18 times per year, is thought to signify a miracle and helps protect Naples from calamities, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Michelle Fabio explains more about the Feast of San Gennaro for Italy Magazine. She has also posted a link to the video of the Procession of San Gennaro, which you can watch below:

The Holy Foreskin (Currently Missing)
David Farley’s book An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town was one of the inspirations for this post. In his book, Farley writes about the town of Calcata, located in the region of Lazio (Rome’s region), where the Holy Foreskin – yes, the skin from Jesus Christ’s circumcised penis – was kept for centuries until its disappearance in 1983. Farley has devoted himself to this subject, so you’d do well to read his book to learn about the relic and Calcata, which is known as a “village of freaks.” But here’s an interesting tidbit: apparently Saint Catherine of Siena wore the Holy Foreskin as a ring. Now that’s some devotion.

Mary’s Holy Belt
Mary's Holy Belt in PratoThe Virgin Mary didn’t leave behind a piece of her body for future Christians to revere. But she did leave behind a belt. The story goes that Mary gave this sacred accessory to Apostle Thomas as she ascended to heaven. The Prato Cathedral acquired the relic in the 14C and has kept it in a precious silver reliquary ever since. In fact, a special chapel was built to house the relic and the church also commissioned artists Michelozzo and Donatello to build an exterior pulpit, from which the relic is ceremoniously displayed to crowds below.

Unlike the Shroud of Turin, the Sacra Cintola is made of a more durable material – green wool – so the church readily displays it five times a year: Christmas, Easter, May 1, August 15, and September 8. Prato is located in Tuscany, just north of Florence, so it is hardly off the beaten track should you wish to visit.

Relics in Rome
Being the center of the Christian universe, Rome has, perhaps, the most holy relics per square mile of any other city in Italy. And here you will find some wonderfully odd ones, including Saint John’s severed head in the church of San Silvestro in Capite (also the National Church of Great Britain in Rome); the “doubting finger” of Saint Thomas (in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme); papal innards in the church of SS. Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain; the Santo Bambino in Santa Maria Aracoeli; and “evidence” of souls trapped in purgatory at the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio (nicely explained by Jessica at WhyGo Italy).

I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of unusual relics in Italy. So, what’s your favorite?

Photos (top to bottom): sangennarofeast.org,Torino Turismo, Gwilbor.

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