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Observations from the road: Scenes from Holy Week in Rome

Basilica di Santa Maria

Sorry.  No pope sightings (or even attempts at pope sightings).

We have had a relatively low-key Holy Week while in Rome, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its memorable moments.

Palm Sunday
The priest leads the Palm Sunday procession through the streets of Monteverde to the Basilica di San Pancrazio

Olive Trees and Palm Sunday:  Our week began last Sunday with a Palm Sunday processional at the neighborhood Basilica di San Pancrazio in Monteverde.  A 6th century basilica that was extensively renovated following Garibaldi’s 1849 attack on Rome, San Pancrazio was a lively place last Sunday.

We met about a block away from the basilica and followed priests and musicians through the streets, waving olive branches in place of the palms we see in the United States.  During the service, conducted (of course) entirely in Italian, we only understood the occasional word. But we knew the shape of the liturgy and could follow along without getting lost.  The nave was filled with worshipers, while the aisles were used by parents and nuns to walk or stroll young children throughout the service.  The music was similar to Catholic folk masses in the U.S. these days – hymns sung with varying stages of enthusiasm to the accompaniment of guitars.

This service – with its local feel and universal outreach – was a heart-felt beginning to our Holy Week in Rome.

Chapel of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori
Chapel of the Convent of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori by Francesco Borromini

Finding the Special in the Ordinary – On Holy Monday, Candice and I headed down to the center of Rome, but stopped at the foot of the hill in Trastevere to visit a small baroque chapel designed by Francesco Borromini for the Convent of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori.  This is a very unassuming building from the outside and much of the original nunnery is now a hotel.  However, Karl Daubman — one of the fellows at the academy — is studying Borromini’s work and suggested we stop in to see the space.  The small chapel is simple (for Rome) yet beautiful, and we both took time to reflect in this quiet and holy space.

Architect Daniel Solomon — whose writings and commentary I admire — has noted that Borromini is a master of designing “masterworks that one can call buildings of the third kind.”  In his book Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) – which I strongly recommend – Solomon says,

In these works, architects give expression and honor to special places while simultaneously reinforcing the weave of city fabric that defines its streets and public places.  Rome with its thousands of churches, palazzos, and institutions woven through the city has scores of buildings of the third kind, none more masterful than those of Francesco Borromini.  Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites.  His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument.  Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon:  San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Sant ‘Ivo, Collegio Pamphili.

While the convent is not of the scale, complexity or beauty of San Carlo (which Solomon says “leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power”), it is nonetheless a work of beauty on a small, unassuming city lot tucked away in the corner of Trastevere.  And we can attest that it is a place where mindful reflection is not only possible but nurtured and rewarded.

Traditions – On Maundy Thursday, after the evening Mass that recalls Christ’s Last Supper with the Apostles, many churches in Rome open their doors. The academy staff told us that this is a tradition called “I Sepolchri” where churches decorate their main altars either to recall the Passion of Christ or the Eucharist. While we were unable to make it, several fellows from the academy went to Trastevere where the tradition is very much alive.  From all accounts the church not to be missed is Santa Maria dell’Orto near San Francesco a Ripa.  It is the only time they light their “Macchina delle Quarantore,” one of the few still existing in Italy that has 213 candles that are lit over the main altar.  The lights in the Church are turned off and the only source of lighting is the candles.  Our friend from the academy and the Getty, Jeff Cody, went and testified that it was truly spectacular and magical.

I Sepolchori
“I Sepolchri” at Santa Maria dell’Orto (photo credit: Jeff Cody)

Good Friday found us eating some of the freshest asparagus and peas imaginable at the vegetarian lunch at the American Academy, before heading out into the city.  While touring, we stopped in at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere for a short time to witness the Good Friday service. The basilica is a beautiful space that – on this day – was overflowing with worshipers.  We took in the scene and then headed for quieter and less crowded places.  That evening, the academy’s kitchen (which is the flagship of the Rome Sustainable Food Project) served a traditional zuppa de pesce – a thick fish soup over bread – along with a wonderful white wine that brought out the largest dinner crowd of our three weeks in Rome.

Holy Saturday light at the Pantheon
The light of a beautiful Holy Saturday shines through the Pantheon

Not all Who Wander Are Lost – Saturday was as beautiful a spring day in Rome as one could imagine.  After lunch, Candice and I started a long and meandering trek through the city, often finding ourselves heading down streets we hadn’t intended but always pointing toward an Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s Within the Walls.  We first stopped by the Pantheon, where the light was dazzling and the altars were decorated for the season.

Easter decorations at the Pantheon
Easter decorations at the Pantheon
Opera at the Piazza della Rotonda
A little impromptu opera in the Piazza della Rotonda

Tourists have filled the city this week, and we stopped to listen to an opera singer entertain the crowds.  Then we continued our walk and lingered over our evening dinner, finally arriving at St. Paul’s Within the Walls around 7:30 p.m.

St. Paul's tower
St. Paul’s Within the Walls ready to receive visitors for the Easter Vigil

The Great Vigil of Easter – The city of Rome ceased to be governed by the Vatican in 1870 and Italy’s new constitution allowed freedom of worship and the building of non-Roman Catholic churches within the walls of the city. Less than two weeks after this announcement, the Vestry of Grace Chapel in Rome – an Episcopal Church located “outside the walls” – resolved to ask the congregation and friends of Grace Chapel in the United States for funds to build a church “within the walls.”  The name of Grace Chapel was changed to “St. Paul’s Within the Walls” and ground was broken in November of 1872.  The building was designed by British architect G.E. Street, and with the laying of the cornerstone on the Feast of St. Paul on January 25, 1873, it became the first non-Catholic church building inside the walls of the City of Rome.

Mosaics at St. Paul's
Detail of Edward Burne Jones mosaic at St. Paul’s Within the Walls (photo credit: The Victorian Web)
Nave and Apse at St. Paul's
Nave and Apse of St. Paul’s set up for Easter Vigil

Because the Edward Burne-Jones mosaics are covered in scaffolding for restoration, I have included one small detail from the web – but do yourself a favor and just Google the images.  They are beautiful.

Rear Mosaic at St. Paul's
Rear Mosic at St. Paul’s designed by George Breck

The mosaic on the rear wall was designed by George Breck in 1913, when he was director of the American Academy in Rome.  They feature the nativity with the adoration of the shepherds and kings, among other scenes.

The Great Vigil of Easter is one of the oldest in Christendom, and – truth be told – is our favorite service of the church year.  Very few churches have large crowds for this Saturday evening service, as most worshipers wait for Sunday morning’s festival Eucharist.  But that doesn’t keep many churches from going all out for the dozens of people who do show up.  St. Paul’s – to our delight – was that type of church.

New fire
The lighting of the new fire

The vigil begins as the “new fire” is kindled and the Paschal Candle is lit outside the church.  Then the priest leads the procession into a darkened church, stopping along the way to intone “The Light of Christ” to which the people respond “Thanks be to God.”

The salvation story of the Christian church is then read in the candle-lit sanctuary, beginning with the great flood and Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, followed by readings and songs from the prophets. Following a homily and renewal of vows, the Easter “Alleluias” begin and the lights come up throughout the church.  What follows is the Easter liturgy and afterwards a reception to begin the season.  St. Paul’s friendly and thoughtful rector, The Rev. Austin K. Rios, welcomed us (and two friends who had joined us from the academy), we spoke with congregants and visitors alike, and then headed home in a cab for a long and satisfying sleep.

An Easter Meal to Remember – Everyone had advised us to get reservations for Easter lunch, as Romans tend to fill up the restaurants following Sunday morning’s services.  We searched Katie Parla’s recommendations and were thrilled to find that one of her top choices – Antico Arco – was mere steps from the academy.  As Katie describes it,

Situated on the Janiculum Hill near Porta San Pancrazio, Antico Arco serves carefully prepared dishes that blend creativity with seasonal Italian ingredients.

If our experience today is any indication, that’s an understatement!

Easter Breakfast
“Easter Breakfast” appetizer at Antico Arco
Negroamaro wine
Negroamaro wine

We were greeted warmly by the staff when we arrived in mid-afternoon.  The dining room was filled with multi-generational families who arrived following Easter services.  Having scoped out the menu online, we quickly ordered a tasting menu to share and I asked for a full-bodied red that would go with the food.  Candice also ordered the snapper as a second main course.

We were barely settled in when our waiter brought out a special treat – the “Easter breakfast” appetizer.  That was soon paired with a bottle of Negroamaro, a red wine grape variety native to southern Italy. It is grown almost exclusively in Apulia and particularly in Salento, the peninsula which can be visualised as the “heel” of Italy. The grape can produce wines very deep in color and this bottle was full and flavorful.

When I remembered, I took a picture of each dish as it arrived.  (There were one or two that were in my mouth before I thought to pull out my camera.)  So for Claire and all the other foodie readers, here’s the exceptional tasting menu for Easter at Antico Arco:

Roasted sea scallops, mint and stewed artichokes pickled in oil

Pigeon breast
Pigeon breast

Pigeon breast in a crust of pistachio crumbs, filled with caramelized figs and sprout salad

Lentil soup
Lentil soup

Lentil soup, seared squid and dried tomatoes


Spaghetti Verrigni with carbonara sauce and black truffle (this is one that I accidentally dug into and then had to rearrange for the picture, so their original presentation was better…but the carbonara and black truffles were amazing!)

Crispy Duck Leg
Crispy Duck Leg
Snapper with semi-dried tomatoes, caper and anchovy mayonnaise

Crispy duck leg with artichoke hearts and passion fruit (and I’ve included the snapper with the semi-dried tomatoes here, since this was the course where we shared both)

Puff pastry of burrata and tomotoes


For dessert, we chose the Cremoso – Walnut sponge cake and gelato, mascarpone cream, crystalized white chocolate and tangerine coulis

Two and one-half hours later, we both agreed that this was a memorable experience on multiple levels and we left singing the praises of the chef and staff.

Monday is a national holiday called “Il lunedì dell’Angelo” but colloquially referred to as “Pasquetta” (little Easter).  I think we’ll use it to walk off some of Easter meal before we join our friends Michael and Dorothy from the academy for a dinner in their apartment on Monday evening.

Easter blessings to you all.

More to come…


Image: Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastervere


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