June 3, 2013

The tower of the Monkey

Today, the writers of "Legendary Rome" are standing between via dei Portoghesi and via dei Pianellari, near piazza Navona, and, as usual, we are on the trail of fascinating history.  Pay particular attention to the tower rising at the end of via dei Portoghesi, the so-called Frangipane's tower (see photo).  Although the tower is surrounded today by modern buildings, we know it has stood here for over one thousand years (!). 
This tower is better known as  "The Tower of the monkey".  Here's why - according to the legend.
The tower in via dei Portoghesi
The tower in via dei Portoghesi

Centuries ago a family lived in the tower who, perhaps adhering to a frivolous and exotic fashion of the time, bought a funny pet monkey, named Hilda. Hilda was tame and was permitted to roam freely around her home and follow members of the family.  She would come whenever her owners whistled for her.

This family had had a new child for a few months and clearly the baby had attracted everyone's attention, Hilda included - even if the monkey was kept away from the child. But, as people know, monkeys want to mimic everything their owners do. Hilda wished to mimic the child's mother by changing the baby's nappy, but of course this wish was always denied her.

One day, in a moment of parental carelessness, the baby was left alone with the monkey. Hilda, making the most of the opportunity, picked up the child wanting to change him; but, probably thinking she would be interrupted, she decided to go out of the window and climb up onto the tower's battlement, carrying the little one!

The statue of Our Lady and the lighted lamp
The statue of Our Lady and the lighted lamp
As soon as the alarm was given, the parents were overcome by despair seeing their son suspended at the top edge of the tower in the monkey's hands! In that moment of terrible anxiety, the parents called upon the Virgin Mary, swearing that, if their baby was returned safely, they would build a statue of her at the point on the tower where Hilda held the baby, for gratitude to Her, with a forever lighted lamp.

What happened in the end?

Well, the legend tells that with the usual whistle call, the monkey laid the baby softly on the tower's ground and rushed to her owner.  The baby was saved.  But you could have figured out yourself there was a happy-ending with a careful examination of the tower, because the oath wasn't broken...in fact, on top of the "Tower of the monkey" of via dei Portoghesi, still today, there is the statue of Our Lady, and next to Her a forever lighted lamp (see photo).

The tower of the Monkey is here.

May 29, 2013

Via Mario De' Fiori

Via Mario de' Fiori
Via Mario de' Fiori
Those who enjoy walking near Piazza di Spagna likely know of or have walked along "Via Mario de' Fiori", one of the first roads leaving Via Condotti (see photo).

No one pays particular attention to the name of this street believing it was dedicated to some famous member of the family "De Fiori" ("Mario De Fiori" is an Italian name and is translatable to something like "Marius O'Flowers").  But the names of the streets of Rome, especially in the old city, often reveal some curiosity.  This is true for Via Mario de’ Fiori.

In the second half of the 1600s Mario Nuzzi lived on the street now known as Via Mario de’ Fiori.   He was a rather good painter from the Abruzzi region of Italy who specialized in portraying a single subject ... You may have already figured out the subject we're talking about: yes, the flowers!

Romans, always shrewd in spirit, were not particularly fond of the painter’s real name.  They preferred to pin a nickname on him, and as a result, the painter was referred to by everyone as the Mario "of the flowers" (in italian, Mario "dei fiori").  Thus, Via Mario de’ Fiori could easily have been called Via Mario Nuzzi.
A painting by Mario De' Fiori (Florence, palazzo Pitti)
A painting by Mario De' Fiori (Florence, palazzo Pitti)
Now that you know why the street is called Via Mario de' Fiori, you should know more about the painter and his work.  For instance, although his paintings were excellent works (see photo), the paint he used was likely of a poor quality.  In fact, after a very short time many of his paintings faded to grey or in some cases the paint melted entirely and ruined the painting.  So it's easy now to understand this joke cracked by the people of Rome: "the flowers painted by Mario wither like the real ones"!

For this reason, there are few "surviving" paintings by our friend Mario making them very highly valued and sought after works for collectors.

Via Mario de' Fiori is here.

May 23, 2013

The obelisk of Saint Peter's Square

There is a famous anecdote about the obelisk at the center of Saint Peter's Square and while the historical facts surrounding the story are themselves extraordinary, the legend as it has been passed down to us is more charming.

Saint Peter's Square viewed from the dome
Saint Peter's Square viewed from the dome
The grandiose obelisk (see photo) which adorns the center of the famous elliptical square is renown. It comes from Ancient Egypt and is 3200 years old. According to Pliny, a ship was constructed for the sole purpose of bringing the obelisk to Rome in 37 A.D.  Once the obelisk was delivered, the ship was made part of Caligula's Circus.

The famous relic sat exactly where Caligula placed it for 1500 even while its surroundings dramatically changed.  The reason is sat undisturbed for so long is because it is 25 meters high and weighs 350 tons. It was not easily moved and eventually it became half-buried and forgotten due to the carelessness of men over the course of centuries.

Yet, interest in the landmark was renewed around the time of Pope Nicholas V (approximately 1450).  Those put in charge sought to place the obelisk at the center of the square.  They attempted to move it 250 meters from its original location, but significant technical obstacles foiled their efforts. Moving the obelisk was a challenge for the ages and early plans were insufficient failures. The object sat another 150 years until the energetic Pope Sixtus V took up the challenge. The Pope selected the plans of architect Domenico Fontana from a number of candidates and hired Fontana to execute the relocation  of this colossus.

Technical drawings by Domenico Fontana
Technical drawings by Domenico Fontana
Fontana had designed a solution with great care.  He erected a large and robust scaffold around the monolith creating a sort of wooden road upon which to move the object and then built a "castello" or scaffolding around the final position (see the picture) to lift it onto its base. He designed a bold and daring system of winches and pulleys to move the obelisk along its path. The operation was quite complex and lasted from April until September 1586.  His operation employed the simultaneous use of 44 winches, 900 workers and 140 horses. To direct his large company, the famous architect constructed a personal scaffold from which he gave his orders to subordinates. These orders were transmitted using auditory and visual signals from trumpets, drums, and semaphores.

Anticipating the difficulties and dangers of his work at St. Peter's Square, Fontana sought to completely forbid the crowds of curious onlookers from creating any noise; from uttering a single word. The Pope threatened the death penalty for any offender of this noise ordinance. An ancient chronicler tells us that a gallows was constructed in the square with a hangman and his helpers nearby to make the strange papal edict more effective.

At this point in the story, legend and fact are truly blended.

On September 10, 1586 the final step was to be put completed. The obelisk would be hoisted onto its base.  This step was comprised of 52 stages and each stage was completed that day until the monument reached an almost vertical position, ready to be lifted onto its base.   Suddenly, the workers realized there was incredible friction and the ropes were about to break.  They halted and the obelisk stopped its ascent.  Realizing the grave threat to his task the architect panicked. He was completely at a loss for a response to would save his project and reputation. Seemingly from nowhere, a sudden cry was let out by a man standing in the crowd, heedless of the Pope's edict: “Water to the ropes!!!”.

It was the cry of a Genoese navy captain named Bresca who knew from long experience that under the action of water the ropes would shrink and become even stronger. Thanks to his advice, the obelisk was straightened and lifted and Fontana’s project was a success.

Bresca, rather than being executed, was called to appear before Sixtus V to request a papal favor. The man, a native of Sanremo, asked only to have the privilege, for himself, for his family and for his descendants, to supply the Vatican with the palms of Palm Sunday's ceremony. Pope Sixtus V granted the favor and the monopoly was awarded.

'Parmureli', during the Palm Sunday's ceremony
'Parmureli', during the Palm Sunday's ceremony
Although the story of Captain Bresca of Sanremo is just a legend, it is a well-founded fact that the Vatican remains loyal to the tradition of this ancient, legendary agreement.  Even today, the descendants of Captain Bresca officially provide the traditional plaited palms (called "Parmureli", see the photo) to the Vatican. We may reasonably speculate that it is thanks to the courage of their ancestor that Captain Bresca’s descendants enjoy a comfortable lifestyle to this day!

In Sanremo, a square in the center of the city’s seaside district is dedicated to Captain Bresca.

In Rome, in Saint Peter's Square, we have the obelisk here.

May 14, 2013

The devil's stone

This time our little investigation leads us to the Basilica of Saint Sabina. We are in Piazza Pietro d'Illiria, on the center of Aventine Hill. Remember well this quadrant of Rome.  We will return here in the future to uncover more treasurers because it is a place of beauty, rich with legends and peculiarities.

The Basilica of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill
The Basilica of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill
Since the Basilica of Saint Sabina is one of the oldest and most spectacular churches in Rome, you will frequently find couples here on Sundays exchanging their wedding vows. (see photo).  But perhaps the well-educated and superstitious will change their minds before taking their "big step" here when they learn that the devil himself is a frequent visitor.

Let's imagine we're standing in the Basilica in the year 1220.  The everyday pious lives of Saint Domenico and his friars, according to several well-documented medioeval legends, were tested by "close encounters" with the devil. But a particular legend, unique from the others, catches our attention because a visual reminder of it has been left for us to see, still today.

The devil's stone
The devil's stone
One night Saint Domenico, in ecstasy, was praying prostrate at the entrance of the church when the devil, unable to tempt him, became rather annoyed  and took a heavy block of black basalt with his incandescent claws from the roof of the church and threw it at Saint Domenico with unearthly violence, all to no avail.  The block dropped down in vain glancing the saint, who had not even a scratch.  He didn't even stop praying.

People say they sometimes see Satan return to the Basilica of Santa Sabina, stop at the entrance and with a look of sadness leave.

Entering this church, look behind you, in the left corner of the Basilica (who would notice that?) there is a little spiral column. Approach the column and you can see above it a roundish black stone with heavy grooves and holes, as if made by an enormous claw....this is the "lapis diaboli" of the legend (see photo).

Observe it carefully...no, it is not a bowling ball...

The Basilica of Santa Sabina is here.

May 10, 2013

The fountain of turtles

The little piazza Mattei, located between the chaotic Piazza Venezia and the quiet ghetto, alludes tourists as well as most romans.  It is a peaceful oasis amid a busy thoroughfare.  Nevertheless, the wonderful Renaissance fountain by Giacomo Della Porta which sits in the piazza, named "the Fountain of turtles" (see photo) deserves our attention.
The fountain of turtles

The fountain of turtles
The fountain, perhaps executed on Raphael's design, is noteworthy not simply because, as many say, "the beautiful sculptural elements prevail over the architectural ones", but because, like Rome itself, it arose as part of a legend.

400 years ago, the legend begins, a duke of the Mattei family lived in a palazzo standing near the piazza which now bears his family name.  The duke was an inveterate gambler, and he lost his estate in one night, even the house where he lived.

The sensational loss came to the attention of the father of his fiancĂ©e.  After hearing the news, he warned the duke not to marry his daughter.  But the duke Mattei, offended and saddened by the warning, sought to show his father-in-law to be that he was still a man with authority and power despite his losses and the rumors of his gambling. To prove it, he swore he would build something extraordinary in just one night, something to surpass what he had so famously lost.

In a single day, from night until morning, the legend goes, he built the wonderful fountain of turtles exactly where it now sits in a square in full view of his palazzo's central window.  The duke had invited his fiancee and her father to visit his home.  That morning he walked them into the central hall then, suddenly, he opened the window, unveiling the precious fountain, and said: "see what a poor man like me is able to do in just a few hours!".  The father and the daughter were dumbfounded. The father apologized and allowed the duke to renew his marriage proposal. To mark the event in history, the duke built a wall to forever block the view from the central window.

The walled window
The walled window
In fact, still today, we can see from the fountain towards the central point of the opposite building's wall, in a perfect collocation, a window walled so neatly architects from around the world wouldn't know of the window nor the reason it was made into a wall.

Yet, if the story is not a legend but rather a true account of how the fountain was built, how did the duke and his men build it in just one night? Documents say that the fountain was built in 1585, but the Mattei's Palazzo and the legend itself were made some 50 years later. We can speculate that the duke with his men didn't construct the fountain in a single night, but moved the 50 year old fountain from another place, not so distant, but more hidden!

On the map, piazza Mattei is here