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With playful good humor, Hutchinson introduces the varied and colorful individuals who live and work in the Vatican. In the process, he explores the mysterious orders of medieval knights, some dating back to the First Crusade, which still play a vital role in the Vatican; explains how bumbling Vatican archaeologists found, and then lost, the bones of St. Peter; probes the sex lives of the popes, from the "pornocracy" of Sergius III to the incestuous orgies of Rodrigo Borgia; experiences high fashion in the Holy See, including a visit to the pope's personal tailor; encounters the weird relics of Catholicism, such as the mummified body of St. Pius X and a museum made entirely out of human bones; recounts the true story behind the True Cross, now kept in a run-down church near the Colosseum; and much, much more.
Humorous, irreverent, but ultimately respectful, When in Rome does for the Vatican what A Year in Provence did for the French countryside, in an unforgettable and unprecedented eyewitness account of one of the most fascinating places on Earth.
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine;
At least I've always found it so
One of the advantages of being a Catholic is that you get to see a lot of beautiful naked women.
You may never have realized that before, but it's true. I never could understand why thick-headed, drooling Protestants would accuse us of being prudes when they gave the world the Puritans and the Moral Majority and we gave the world Rodin's The Kiss.
From Michelangelo to Madonna, Donatello to Salvador Dali, Catholic artists have felt little compunction about letting it all hang out ad majorem Dei gloriam. The billboards outside our apartment in Rome, which each week featured a new topless model advertising perfume or a new brand of blue jeans, are merely carrying on an artistic tradition that goes back to Botticelli and Caravaggio, Titian and Bellini.
Everywhere you go in the Vatican, you see nudity.
The Sistine Chapel, of course--inside of whose echoing walls the cardinals elect the pope--is covered with naked men and women, all piled on top of one another in what looks for all the world like some sort of biblical orgy. In the Vatican Treasury there is a magnificent bronze tomb of Sixtus IV, the patron of the arts and founder of the Vatican Library, completely covered by a series of topless, buxom nymphs each representing one of the liberal arts (Arithmetic, Astrology, Music, Grammar, and so on). It's a testimony to the Catholic erotic sensibility, I think, that a pope's tomb is covered by a dozen bronze nudes.
The papal apartments in Castel Sant'Angelo are likewise decorated in frescoes that would have made Hugh Hefner proud: tall, lithe young women all raising their pendulous breasts with cupped hands to what one can only imagine were admiring papal eyes. The Stufetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, today the seat of the Vatican Secretary of State in the Apostolic Palace, features a colorful painting of a tumescent Pan about to pounce upon a naked blond nymph combing her hair. And in the oldest part of the Secret Archives, above the wooden cabinets filled with all those red-sealed papal bulls, are brightly painted seventeenth-century murals depicting scenes with bishops and popes--but interspersed throughout are full-sized decorative paintings of beautiful young women dressed in loose tunics that invariably fall off a shoulder to expose at least one jutting nipple.
Imagine the ruckus that would arise if a university or public library today decorated its walls with murals of topless teenage girls.
I bring all this up to explain why I found myself, at age thirty-nine--an aspiring if not very successful sinner better known for learned tomes on baccarat and seven card stud--living in Rome with my wife and three kids and poking around the sacred highways and byways of Vatican City. It is a long, somewhat bizarre story that is weirdly bound up with travel and religion and my own strange inability to stay put very long.
I first came to Rome when I was nineteen years old, my imagination overheated with the wonders of Renaissance architecture and the braless halter top. I was a tourist, of course, but also a pilgrim. I was then and remain now a practicing Roman Catholic--meaning I rarely miss Sunday Mass, becoming irritable and anxious if I do (a condition that my non-Catholic friends think should be treated immediately with good drugs) and take the trouble to read papal encyclicals before ignoring them. I ignore them not because I find any fault with their premises or logic--indeed, I'm always astonished by the lucidity and sane humanism of papal teaching--but just because I don't feel like living that virtuous a life.
The popes have written eloquently against social injustice, and, truth be told, I would do the world a whole lot more good ladling soup at a Catholic Worker kitchen than I ever would as a writer. But I like being a writer; it's a lot easier and more interesting than working for a living. Similarly, the popes have condemned as sinful some of my favorite activities in the world, from ogling nearly naked girls on California beaches to gambling. I was sitting in the Vatican Press Office one day when John Thavis, the bureau chief of the Catholic News Service in Rome, gave me a splendid summary of why the Vatican has publicly condemned state lotteries. Having written a bit about the subject, I was naturally very interested. I couldn't find fault with a single one of the arguments John adduced--at approximately fourteen million to one, state lotteries are not exactly a smart bet--but I also knew, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, that I wasn't about to quit gambling.
For most of my friends, though, that in itself is an irrefutable argument against Catholicism, with a logic as tight as an Aristotelian syllogism:
A. The pope says it's immoral to drink to excess, indulge in wild promiscuity, and tell outrageous lies.
B. But I like drinking to excess, indulging in wild promiscuity, and telling outrageous lies.
C. Therefore, the pope is full of hooey.
A pretty airtight argument, I have to admit. But not being trained as a theologian, I've never felt the need to come up with elaborate excuses to justify my vices, preferring, instead, to simply enjoy them.
However, I've never been quite able to shake myself free of my religion either. Like a moth hovering around the flame, simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the bright light, I've always lived my life within the spiritual orbit of Rome and the Vatican.
I quite literally grew up with the events of the Second Vatican Council--beginning Catholic elementary school praying in Latin and ending it singing bad folk tunes in Swahili. And during my high school and college years with the Jesuits, I was force-fed a steady diet of Karl Rahner and Gabriel Marcel, charismatic renewal and liberation theology, the St. Louis Jesuits and the United Farm Workers.
Even after college, I struggled to make sense out of the kaleidoscopic acid trip that is Catholicism, wrestling with the contradictory impulses that flowed out of Vatican II, dutifully reading liberal (Hans Küng) and conservative (Avery Dulles) theologians, trying to understand what Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are all about.
Non-Catholics, with their traditional disdain for the alleged superstitions of Rome, aren't aware of just how ridiculously hyper-intellectualized Catholicism actually is, how the entire history of Western civilization is filtered, magnified, and reflected in its arcane symbolism and interminable philosophical disputes. When you combine the relentless philosophizing with the mind-blowing imagery of the Church's liturgy and iconography, even in their vastly simplified contemporary forms--each Sunday being offered a cup of the savior's precious blood to drink, staring up at a vivid image of his dying body on a cross--you end up, quite frankly, with very confused individuals, but also with people driven by a lifelong desire to sort it all out.
And the center of it all, no matter what the Jesuits tell you--for good or for ill--is Rome, the Holy See, the Servant of the Servants of God. Just as Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Jewish people--"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!"--Rome is the heart and soul of the Catholic Faith.
It was here that a cranky fisherman from Galilee carried a tiny, flickering flame of a new religious vision, a flame that was passed from one person to another, one family to another, until it somehow grew to engulf the mightiest empire that had, up to that time, stood upon the face of the earth. The mystery of Christianity has always been how a tiny sect of semi-literate Jewish peasants, following a grubby carpenter with little formal education, could have so quickly transformed the life, and altered the entire course, of human civilization. After all, Christianity changed everything--religion, culture, politics, science, philosophy, art, technology, sexual life--in a way that its many competitors, from the cults of Isis and Mithra to the noble philosophy of stoicism, did not. How?
The answer, at least in part, is Rome. Christianity came to Rome. It's as simple as that. Rome was the cultural, administrative, and legal center of the known universe. By taking their new faith to the very center of civilization, by daring to preach to proconsuls and tribunes, eventually even to the emperor himself--and by being willing to be tasty hors d'oeuvres for the emperor's household pets--the early Christians conquered the world. Today, I suppose, you'd go to Hollywood and get eaten alive by movie producers, agents, and lawyers, but two thousand years ago Rome was where you went if you wanted to reach a lot of people in a hurry.
And the key to this entire cultural transformation--this "revaluation of all values," as Nietzsche put it--was the spiritual dynasty that always claimed to be descended from the apostle Peter, the Roman popes. As a matter of historical fact as well as of doctrine, the popes have always acted as a kind of center of gravity for the scattered, culturally various, and linguistically distinct churches, striving above all to maintain Christian unity in the face of tremendous political, military, and philosophical pressures.
That the popes largely succeeded in this "ministry of unity" is incontrovertible, despite a number of major and minor schisms, and thus the Catholic world has largely avoided that fracturing into thousands of tiny denominations, each with its own doctrine and liturgy, that befell the Protestant churches after the Reformation. Despite the anguished howls of liberals and conservatives alike, the papal primacy--Roma locuta, causa finita est, "Rome has spoken, the case is closed"--has preserved the Catholic Church intact for two thousand years and allowed a continuity of doctrine that is largely unparalleled in the history of religions.
Once, during my first teenage trip to the Eternal City, I overheard a tourist ask one of the Swiss Guards, "Pardon me, but which way is the Inquisition?" It was the only time I've ever seen a Swiss Guard look utterly helpless.
She meant, of course, the Sant'Ufficio, the Holy Office--by then renamed the more politically correct Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--found to the left of the basilica, next to the Nervi (now Paul Vl) Audience Hall. But I thought at the time that this phrase would make a great title for a book, with all that it implied in terms of unstated assumptions and blissful ignorance. There has never really been a travelogue book, as such, written about the Vatican, if only because you can't really travel there the way you can to other countries.
Most books about the Vatican are just plain dull, often written by sexually confused ex-priests or former Catholics angry that the pope won't change two thousand years of Christian teaching on premarital sex, or the sanctity of human life, or divorce and remarriage. Worse, they rarely convey the personality of the place . . . the smells and the traffic . . . the rich delicacies of Roman food . . . the perils of the Italian language . . . the way Italian monsignori push their way to the front of the line, just like their lay countrymen.
Like most Catholics, I spent most of my life knowing practically nothing about the Vatican, despite twenty years writing, off and on, about religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. Unlike most Catholics, I had visited St. Peter's, interviewed cardinals and bishops, studied encyclicals and other official documents. But I had never really taken a close look at the Vatican itself, the actual place, as the living center of the Roman Catholic Church. That didn't prevent me from writing about it from time to time, naturally, even though I had never really checked it out firsthand.
I had friends and colleagues who were genuine vaticanisti--journalists based in Rome who spent their lives reading the tea leaves and studying the entrails of the papacy. But their focus was almost entirely on the theological or political controversies du jour and, even more important, the tidbits of curial gossip, nearly all inaccurate or at least misleading, that they could glean from their sources. They seemed singularly uninformed about, or uninterested in, the trivial, on-the-spot, touristy details I found fascinating. I was far less interested in who was plotting to get someone fired; I wanted to know how much money a Cardinal made, what those silly capelike outfits were called, where the Swiss Guards went drinking on their days off, and so on.
Some vaticanisti already knew these details, but many, I was later to discover, did not, had never taken the trouble--just like any native of any city--to see the sights and ask all the dumb questions a tourist would ask. One journalist at Vatican Radio, a Brit married to an Italian newspaperman, who had spent a dozen years in Rome, conceded to me somewhat wistfully that she had never checked out a fraction of the stories and sights inside the Vatican to which she had access. As a matter of fact, she said, most people hadn't.
As a result, twenty years after my first visit to Rome I set out to rediscover the Vatican. I wondered how it would all seem, to a smart-aleck American writer and confused Catholic, to really poke around the place, talk to the people who actually run it.
I wasn't completely naive. I knew the curial Mafia imposed a near-total curtain of silence around the inner workings of the Church. It would take a dozen years of carefully cultivated friendships to even scratch the surface. But I didn't have a dozen years--and the people who had spent a dozen years covering the Vatican didn't want to offend their sources by writing frankly about what they had seen and heard.
So, that was my idea: I would go to the Vatican, an innocent lay lamb among the curial wolves. I would see what I could see, talk to whomever I could talk to. I would ask lots of dumb questions. And then I would report back.
Posted August 28, 2005