topics: spaghetti matriciana (food), Saint Peter's Square and Basilica, the Spanish Steps of Roma, HISTORY, Christianity, the papacy; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: May 21, 1998

Food of the Day: spaghetti matriciana

Spaghetti matriciana is another variation found in the infinite spectrum of Italian contributions to the pasta world. Similar to (but very different from) spaghetti carbonara, a matriciana sauce is basically a tomato base with added bits of bacon.

Person of the Day: the Pope

The history of the pope stretches back as far as Saint Peter (see the Place of the Day for more info on Saint Peter) who is considered to be the first pope.

So what does the pope do? Well, for starters he has absolute executive, legislative and judicial powers over his own state - the Vatican (see yesterday's dispatch for more about the Vatican) - but that only helps us with one of the pope's many titles. As the holder of the highest power in the church, the pope's powers are far-reaching, including adjudicating legal questions, creating dioceses, appointing bishops and granting sainthood. This is one busy guy. Interestingly, until today, never in the history of the papacy have all these powers been used as they are by the current pope, John Paul II.

While, in theory, any baptized male can be elected pope (when Anthony heard this he quickly readied his résumé), it is the College of Cardinals that elects the pope from its own ranks, as it has done since at least the 16th century. Before the 16th century, however, it was not unheard of for the election of a pope who had not yet received his priestly ordination (it would appear that Anthony is the victim, yet again, of poor timing).

But, hold your horses. Once again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Any discussion of the history of the papacy is closely tied to the history of Christianity, so we must use this opportunity to digress a little. Pay attention now, this is important! We are talking about the world's most widely followed religion, with substantial numbers of followers on every continent in the world, totaling over 1.7 billion people (almost a third of the world's population).

Let's go back almost two thousand years to the beginning of the church and the recognition of the first pope (or bishop of Roma), Saint Peter, the foundation (or literally "rock" - see today's Place of the Day for more information) upon which the church was built.

[This gets a little long winded - we are sorry - but 2,000 years of Christianity and somewhere around 300 popes (including the "anti-popes") are not easy to summarize. Go straight to the Rider Notes if you are not feeling up to the drama and strife.]

The early years of Christianity were marked by persecution at the hand of the ruling Romans (with many early Christians, like Saint Peter, ending up as lion food). The Romans saw one of the basic tenets of Christianity, "Jesus as Lord," as being in direct violation of the worship of the Roman emperor as "Lord." For this reason, Emperors Nero, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius (who in particular were committed to the unity of Romans) recognized the threat posed by Christianity and strove to eliminate it.

As has often been the case, especially when it comes to religion (two other great examples are Islam and Judaism), opposition to something causes it to grow in strength. Thus it was with Christianity. Persecution of its adherents produced the opposite reaction among the people and, by the end of the 4th century, even in the eyes of the emperor, Christianity had to be either destroyed or assimilated. Emperor Diocletian was the last emperor to try to destroy Christianity. He failed. Then his successor, Constantine the Great, seeing the writing on the wall, stopped the persecution of the Christians and even converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Shortly thereafter, Christianity became the "official" religion of the Roman Empire.

But we are supposed to be talking about popes...

When Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, he also in essence divided the church (and empire) into Eastern and Western sections. This split became more and more significant over the centuries. So, let's first take a brief look at the more prominent of the two parts at that time, the Eastern, or Byzantine Empire (we are later going to concentrate on the Western Christianity during this particular synopsis of Christianity).

Unlike in the West, the principle centers of the Eastern Empire (Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem) all developed autonomously with no real sense of central authority. Only in Constantinople, the capital and center of the empire, did the emperor hold a special relationship with the church. He presided over the general councils (the main body of ecclesiastical legislation in both faith and morals) of the church, and had some control over its day-to-day operations. This meant that the church was subject to the powers, and occasional tyranny, of the state.

This special connection between the church and the state (sometimes called Caesaropaism) created a culture where the greatest elements of the entire society blended with the best elements of Christianity. Out of this grew the central belief of the Eastern Empire which is based in its liturgy (way of worship). However, to westerners, the liturgy of the east seemed to be centered on mysticism. This seeming mysticism, combined with the Eastern Empire's continued use of the Greek language and culture (the West used Latin), caused the division between the churches to grow. Another major contribution was the isolation of the east due to the expansion of Islam. One by one, the principle eastern Christian cities fell to the invading Muslims. By the 9th century, only Constantinople was left; despite the Crusades, it too fell in 1453).

The end result of all these differences is what historians call the East-West schism. Dates for the schism vary from 1054, when the religious leaders of Roma and Constantinople excommunicated one another (to excommunicate is to deprive someone of the right of church membership by a church authority), to 1204, when crusading Western Christian armies on their fourth march to free the Holy Land from the Turks (see our dispatches from Malta, Jerusalem, and Turkey), attacked and ravaged Constantinople itself.

But, again, we are supposed to be talking about popes...

So, during the early years of the same time period (starting around the 2nd century), back in Roma and the Western Empire, the power of the church became centralized in a pyramid-like structure with the pope at the apex.

By the end of the second century and the time of Pope St. Victor (and especially during the years under Pope St. Stephan [254-57]), there were churches scattered all over the Roman Empire (especially in the east). The idea that the bishops of Roma were responsible for all the other churches began to take hold.

By the mid 5th century and Pope St. Leo I (the Great), the powers of the papacy began to be detailed and enforced. It was during this period that the "canon of apostolic succession" (in other words, the manner in which the power of the pope is handed down to successive popes in a direct line from Saint Peter, the first pope), which had already been proposed as the standard in the 2nd century, was fully developed. It was at this early date that Leo, using his power inherited from Saint Peter (he was, after all, his direct successor), seeing as within the purview of papal authority the right to intervene in the affairs of other Western states, set a precedent followed even today.

The Middle Ages were a greatly formative period for the papacy. First, Pope Saint Gelasius amassed a collection of Christian legal and disciplinary texts that emphasized papal authority and played a vital role in the way canonical (or church) law developed. Second, the late 6th century saw the advent of the papacy as a political power. This occurred during the time of Pope St. Gregory I (the Great). Gregory's skill in dealing with his violent neighbors (the Lombards) in the north of Italy increased the political force of the papacy and, incidentally, as a result, decreased the papal dependency on the East. (Also, It was Gregory who sent the monk Augustine off on his mission to England in 596. This is important because it was Augustine who, through the Christianity of Northern Europe, was able to inspire a feeling of loyalty and thankfulness towards the papacy that would serve Gregory's successors well.)

This loyalty towards the papacy contributed to its power and the church in several major ways. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Franks, under Charlemagne, protected the popes and gave to the church immense tracts of land in central Italy (which would become the Papal States). In turn, Pope Saint Leo crowned Charlemagne in St. Peter's Basilica on December 25, 800 - thus laying the framework for the medieval German empire (an attempt to revive the Western Roman Empire centered around the Germanic countries).

Jumping ahead to the 10th century (we are playing loose and fast with the dates but you get the idea) we find the papacy (and Roma) in dire shape. Having fallen into the hands of the local nobility, the popes during this period were little more than liturgical spokespeople in a city that had been practically abandoned (see a little more about Roma and its history). Many popes of these years were moral degenerates consumed by their own passions and desires or manipulated by corrupt barons. It wasn't until Pope St. Leo IX (1049-54) that an initial push was made towards papal recovery and reform of the church. The central them of this recovery, especially in the 11th and 12th centuries, emphasized papal authority as being a vital element to the restoration of the church. This period is known as the Investiture Controversy or Gregorian Reform (its greatest advocate was Pope St. Gregory VII). (One of the more memorable popes of this period was Pope Urban II who launched the First Crusade in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks.)

The papacy that evolved from this reform did so having convinced everyone that the prerogatives of the church were just. In memorializing them in the new canon law being developed at the time, the foundation for the modern papacy was created. However, the indiscretions that created the need for these reforms were to haunt the papacy for hundreds of years.

These were not the only problems endured by the papacy. King Philip IV of France humiliated Pope Boniface VII and then waged psychological warfare with Pope Clement V. The result was that, from 1309-77, the seat and residence of the popes were moved to Avignon, France, where they came under strong influence of the French. The end of this period saw another Great Schism when two or three popes simultaneously contended that they were the sole legitimate pontiff (hence a series of "anti-popes" during this period).

The 16th century saw the popes finally able to centralize their political power in their holdings, called the Papal States. However, it also saw the arrival of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (calling for, among other things, the rejection of the papacy as an integral part of the Christian religion). Things got a little out of hand when Martin Luther started calling the pope the Antichirst (not so much because of the papal corruption of the previous half a century, but because of the papacy's failure to proclaim the doctrine of justification by faith, whereby faith alone should be enough for salvation and none of the ritual and hierchical demands of the Catholic Church should be necessary). This hit a chord with King Henry VIII of England (who had been having wife troubles and was getting a little tired of asking the pope to annul his marriages).

Under Pope Paul III (1534-49), great care was taken to appoint worthy men to the College of Cardinals. The response to the accusations made by the Protestant Reformers, as well as papal efforts to "clean up its act" helped move the papacy towards a more central role in Roman Catholic theology.

But the popes were still not out of hot water. The problems that the papacy was dealing with stemmed from an absence of clarity regarding the relationship of the papacy to the episcopacy (system of church government headed by bishops) and to national rulers. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the church particularly susceptible to controversial issues. One of these, Gallicanism (which advocated the independence of the French Roman Catholic Church), resulted in the first Vatican Council (in 1870) under Pope Pius IX, and defined "papal primacy of jurisdiction and papal infallibility in doctrine." Basically, this means that the pope is always right. Ethan liked this idea and tried to pass a resolution within the BikeAbout group (declaring his own infallibility) but Anthony and Padraic threatened to throw him in a fountain and he finally settled down.

It was Pope Pius IX who also withdrew from Roma (during the period of national unity in Italy that led to the incorporation of the Papal States and the city of Roma into the Italian state), thus creating the "Roman Question" of what to do with the Vatican. This was finally settled in 1929. The government of Benito Mussolini authorized the creation of a sovereign state out of the Vatican City with the pope as its ruler (see yesterday's Tech Fact of the Day).

Wow, that is some history lesson, eh?

The history of the papacy is more than a history lesson of 2,000 years of Christianity though. Looking at how the papacy has changed in response to the pressures and demands of the day, you can see how it has adapted itself to a role that was never well defined. What is the result of all this development? Well, in the last 100 years, the papacy has grown in both importance and prestige. Beginning with the Rerum Novarum (written by Pope Leo XII in 1891), the papacy has held some far-sighted beliefs concerning the morality of many social and economical questions. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the basic tenets of bishops' roles in the government of the church and put forth a more amiable attitude towards the Protestant and Orthodox churches. It also encourages a more participatory form of church government.

Which brings us to today.

Perhaps no pope in the history of the papacy has used the authority of the position more than the current pope, John Paul II. The first non-Italian pope to be chosen in the last 400 years, Pope John Paul II has traveled more than any other pope (visiting every continent except Antarctica), has influenced the restoration of democracy (and religious freedom) in many former communist Eastern Europe countries (especially in his native Poland), and virtually eradicated any dissent within the church by reasserting the church's position against abortion, birth control, homosexuality and any form of genetic engineering. He has also spoken out against any secularization of the church, the direct participation in politics by priests, and the ordination of women into the priesthood. Not stopping there, Pope John Paul II has also authorized the "sainthood" of more people than all of the previous popes combined, published numerous pieces of poetry and even a stage play. This has been one busy guy. While in the recent years, Pope John Paul II has slowed, he has nonetheless recently made some land-breaking trips, including visits to Lebanon (which helped to change its image as a war-torn country) and to one of the last bastions of Communism, Cuba (which has had repercussions all the way to the United States Senate as America's embargo against Cuba is questioned). Whether you agree with Pope John Paul II's actions or not, you have to respect his commitment to both the papacy and to the church. His affect on both institutions has been very profound.

Place of the Day: St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is our Sight of the Day and boy-oh-boy what a sight it is! This is the granddaddy of all churches.

While it may no longer be the world's largest church (St. John the Divine in New York City and a newly constructed church in Ivory Coast [Africa] are currently in contention for that title), it is definitely one of the most impressive religious structures in the world. This is not that surprising though; look who lent a hand during the construction: Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Carlo Maderno and Giacomo della Porta. This is the all-star team of the High Renaissance in Italy. Marked by the successful combination of ideals from classical antiquity with Christian inspirations, the High Renaissance was the Renaissance at the height of its evolution and it paved the way for the more ornate Baroque school which would follow and which also had an enormous influence in the basilica's construction. In many ways, St. Peters Basilica combines some of the best work of all the artists and is representative of the High Renaissance, as well as of the emergence of the Baroque period.

But we are getting a little off track. Let's start from the beginning.

In the area where the church now stands, there was once the Circo Vaticano constructed by the Roman Emperor Nero. It is widely believed that this is where the actual Saint Peter (as well as many other Christians) was martyred (i.e., fed to the lions or crucified) sometime between 64 and 67 AD. Legend has it that the body of Saint Peter was buried in an anonymous grave next to a wall of the circus. Later, in 160 AD, the stadium was abandoned and a group of Christians erected a small monument to Peter on the grave. Things really started rolling though in 315 when Emperor Constantine commissioned the construction of a church on the site of the apostle's tomb.

But wait a minute, we still have not really started at the beginning. Who was Peter and why was he fed to the lions? For plenty about Peter, check out the Person of the Day from Antioch, Turkey.

For more about our actual visit to the basilica, check out our Rider Notes.

Tech Fact of the Day: Bernini's disappearing columns in St. Peter's Square

What is so exciting about a bunch of columns in a square? Well, Saint Peter's Square is a huge circle made up of two semi-circular colonnades, each made up of four rows of columns. From almost anywhere you stand in the square, you can see the four separate rows of columns. click to view a photograph However, on either side of the obelisk that stands in the center of the square, there is a spot where Bernini (the architect of the square - see also his work on the Fontana dei Fiumi) designed an optical illusion. From these spots, the four rows of columns line up perfectly and appear as one column. click to view a photograph

For more about St. Peter's Square, check out today's Rider Notes.

Group Dispatch, May 21
picture of Anthony

Today's dispatch starts off with a visit to Saint Peter's Square and Basilica. Succeeding in dragging ourselves out of Gianni's apartment only after fortifying our bodies with a hearty breakfast, we set out into the sun-filled day and crossed the Tiber River to Vatican City. Our first order of business was Saint Peter's Square.

Walking the length of via della Conciliazione towards Saint Peter's Square, it is hard to not be swept away by the grandeur of the combined effect of the basilica and square. In the Place of the Day, we have already mentioned some of the Renaissance masters who participated in the design and building of Saint Peter's Square and Basilica, but to read about these masters' work and to see them are two vastly different things.

Saint Peter's Square was designed by the Renaissance master Giovanni Bernini. Trained as a sculptor (for an example of the brilliance of his work, check out the Fountana dei Fiumi in the Piazza Navona), Bernini tried not to limit himself... as can be seen in his design for Saint Peter's Square. Created in the 17th century as a place for the Christians of the world to gather and to worship, the square is considered by many experts to be a masterpiece of space, style and grace. We thought it was cool too. This square is actually two semi-circular colonnades made up of four rows of Doric columns (check out today's Tech Fact of the Day for more about these "magical columns"). click to view a photograph The tops of the colonnades are adorned with many, many statues of previous popes and saints. click to view a photograph In the center of the square stands an obelisk click to view a photograph (brought by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt to Roma) with two fountains on either side click to view a photograph click to view a photograph.

But let's move on to the basilica itself.

Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the front of the basilica was entirely covered in scaffolding. Thus, we cannot tell you what the front of the basilica looks like. Actually this caused a bit of confusion for Anthony and Ethan. click to view a photograph At first, they were not able to locate the basilica (it was completely hidden by the scaffolding) and panic started to grip them (they thought that somebody might have actually walked off with it, the basilica that is) before Padraic calmly pointed out the enveloped structure. click to view a photograph It was actually not that hard to locate since Michelangelo's dome majestically pokes out the top. Apparently, behind the "cocoon," workers are busy giving the church a final scrubbing before the arrival of the new millennium.

As we mentioned before, the original design of the basilica is credited to Donato Bramante. However, he died before it was completed. Various other architects dabbled at pursuing what he had begun, but it was not until Michelangelo took over that things really start moving again. Under Michelangelo's watchful eye, the several different architectural elements that had been added to Bramante's original design by intermediate architects were simplified and unified into the design that exists today. Michelangelo's own stellar additions to the basilica were the final form of the dome, and the altar end of the exterior of the building.

[Warning, we are going to run out of superlatives in the following section. If you dislike the repeated use of "incredible," "inspiring," "overwhelming," and "stunning," please skip ahead several paragraphs as we know no other way to describe the wonders contained by St. Peter's Basilica.]

Walking towards the entrance we noticed two huge statues of Saint Peter click to view a photograph and Saint Paul click to view a photograph, one standing on either side of the main entrance. These statues were huge!

Moving inside, our first impression was rather appropriately one of size and space. click to view a photograph This is one big church! It was hard not to be swept away by the grandeur of the place. This is especially true when the first statue you encounter is Michelangelo's incredible sculpture, the Pietà (finished by the time he was 25!), a masterpiece in pure white marble of Mary holding the crucified body of Christ just pulled from the cross. Mary is shown as a young woman carefully restraining her grief, seemingly resigned to the death of her son. click to view a photograph The skill with which Michelangelo shaped the marble is almost indescribable. He was able to give hard stone the appearance of soft, supple, human flesh. The effect is surprisingly emotional - the subtly passionate and lifelike sculpture seems to reach deep within the viewer and envelop him or her with the gravity of the moment.

The sense of history contained within the basilica increased as we walked by the very spot upon which Charlemagne was crowned by Pope Saint Leo (thus starting the Holy Roman Empire - see today's Person of the Day for more information). Padraic actually became a little dizzy at this point, sputtering and pointing at the floor mumbling something about the Holy Roman Empire, but Ethan and Anthony each took an arm and helped him along.

Moving towards the center of the basilica, we passed various brass markings on the floor showing how some of the other great churches of the world measure up (size-wise) to St. Peter's. Also in the center of the church stands the Baroque baldacchino (a canopy that covers an altar) designed by Bernini and simply an amazing piece of work. Standing 29 meters tall (31 feet) it was still dwarfed by Michelangelo's dome.

And the dome? Well... a majestic, inspiring, overwhelming architectural masterpiece, it soars 119 meters (390 ft) overhead. click to view a photograph Its balconies are festooned with reliefs depicting the Reliquie Maggiori - major relics - like the lance of St. Longiuns (used to pierce the side of Christ), a section of the True Cross (collected by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, who also divined the exact spot of Christ's burial - and subsequent resurrection - in Jerusalem (it is now the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), and the cloth of St. Veronica (which has a "miraculous" image of Christ).

Moving towards the high altar, we passed by a bronze statue of St. Peter thought to have been created by Arnolfo di Cambio. So many people kiss and touch the statue's right foot that it has been worn down to an almost unrecognizable lump.

Finally, we visited the high altar (only used by the pope) which is supposedly built over the actual site of Saint Peter's grave (see today's Place of the Day). From the top of a flight of stairs that lead down below the level of the basilica's floor, crowds of people are constantly peering at a decorated crypt said to contain the remains of Saint Peter.

It was hard to absorb everything that was inside the basilica. Wandering around in a sort of daze (luckily there are benches scattered about for overwhelmed visitors), we even found several incredible paintings done by Raphael.

Finally wrapping our visit up (we were seriously in danger of being overwhelmed) and after one last glance back towards the alter (barely visible in the distance), we headed out into the bright sunlight and made our way to the post office to mail away a package of no-longer-needed winter clothes. While we had intended to use the Vatican's post office (the Vatican has its own postal system and it is cheaper and, well...more reliable than the Italian postal system) but it was closed; we were forced to rely on a nearby office of the Italian post.

The mailing accomplished, we headed back to Gianni's apartment for a quick lunch.

After the edge was taken off of our hunger (it never really goes away), Ethan headed off to an express mail service to have some important documents mailed. He had also planned a rendezvous with Padraic and Anthony at the infamous Spanish Steps. Corinne decided to stay in and work.

Built with a legacy from the French in 1725, but named after the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, sometimes known as the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti (whew, that's a mouth full), lead up to the French Trinità dei Monti church. click to view a photograph Usually if you read "steps," you think of "climbing." Not on these steps, though; these steps were made for sitting (well actually they were made for climbing but they are now used for sitting). In the 18th century, the steps were the gathering place for the beautiful people of Roma who congregated in the hopes of being chosen as an artist's model. Well, while the aim of the visit has changed, the presence of beautiful people has not. Today, the steps are still a gathering place (mainly for travelers), though apparently the "beautiful" restriction has been lifted, as we were able to plop right on down (Ethan still had some problems but, to be fair, he has not shaved recently). Mostly people just hang out and people-watch. click to view a photograph There is a beautiful fountain at the base of the steps believed to have been built by Pietro Bernini (father of the Gian Lorenzo that we waxed poetic about above) and a constant flow of people ensure that there is always something interesting to look at. click to view a photograph Anthony and Padraic seemed to get the hang of hanging out and looking cool (or at least trying to). click to view a photograph An interesting tidbit: the building just to the right of the steps is where Keats died (in 1821).

When the sun was just about ready to set and we were preparing to leave, we could not help but notice a troupe of flag throwers. Actually they were hard to miss, having been announced by drums and trumpets and people wearing silly costumes click to view a photograph one of whom was a grand marshal of sorts. click to view a photograph Anthony was all for skipping the performance (he had noticed that well within walking distance there was an excellent gelato joint recommended by our Lonely Plant Guide...) but Padraic would have none of that (he is a sucker for trumpets) and we stuck around for several flag throwing performances. It was actually quite impressive. In time to the drums and with the trumpets announcing the tricky parts of the performance, the flag throwers moved around in an orchestrated type of very physical dance click to view a photograph, flinging their flags high into the air in colorful arches, even exchanging flags several times. click to view a photograph

It was all very stirring. However, with a hot lead on a gelato shop, Anthony soon persuaded his compatriots in ice-cream decadence into leaving (mostly by promising to buy Padraic a trumpet of his own and Ethan a flag). They were not disappointed - then again, they rarely are when it come to gelato.

Returning to gather Corinne, we next headed out for dinner. Deciding that a change in culinary delights was in order, the decision was made to eat Chinese food (how long can one be expected to live without hot and sour soup anyway?). The rest of the evening was spent exploring various Chinese dishes as Anthony and Ethan attempted to eat every bit of hot sauce in the place. (They did not succeed though it was not for want of effort).

The beast of hunger temporarily subdued, we headed back to the apartment to work a little before collapsing in bed.

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