A message from Father Nick 67

Via sacra

Drawing the lines

One fascinating aspect of Rome is the alignment of its streets and buildings. Sometimes these show outlines from its ancient past (like the hippodrome shape of Piazza Navona), but sometimes they have been updated to convey new messages.

At the heart of the ancient city was its beautiful Capitoline hill, which held the Temple of Jupiter, ultimate goal of all the roads which led to Rome. As they reached the far end of the forum, these roads finally became the “Sacred Way”: a main street leading through the forum towards Rome’s most important temple and a central axis between empire and world.

This is where “triumphs” were celebrated, Rome’s supreme display of virility. To achieve one a commander must have killed at least 5,000 of the enemy. At the other end of the forum from the Capitoline Hill stood the Colosseum (built on the site of Nero’s artificial lake) and the arch of Titus, erected to celebrate Rome’s conquest of Judea. Much of the workforce and money for building the Colosseum came from the sacking of Jerusalem.

But of course, Christianity changed Rome’s central axis, and in 1536, Pope Paul III gave Michelangelo Buonarotti the task of designing a new piazza for the old Capitoline hill.
Michelangelo adjusted its alignment by a full half circle, turning the face of Rome’s civic centre away from the forum and towards St Peter’s Basilica: the real seat of spiritual power. (In the centre of its new piazza an ancient bronze equestrian statue, believed then to be an image of Constantine, was given a place of honour. It is now recognised as showing the pagan philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius.)

Campodiglio, dome of St Peter’s in background

Times would change again. We can easily forget that Italy has only existed as a country for 150 years and that Its unification in the nineteenth century brought an end to the Papal States. An enormous monument to unification was built beside the Capitoline, dwarfing the hill and marking a new 90 degree turn. This was the famous Victor Emmanuel Monument (sometimes disparagingly called the “Wedding Cake”, or the “Typewriter”).

The monument establishes a new line of vision: down the straight mile-long road of shops and boutiques known as the Via del Corso, towards the square called Piazza del Popolo: “The People’s Square” – an alignment with a modern, much more secular world.

But another line remained to be drawn – this time from St Peter’s. Even after the building of a new 16th century basilica, problems of access remained. This was an area of densely packed religious, residential and historic buildings. To clear the way for an approach road would be a work of radical demolition which no one from the time of the Renaissance had felt able to undertake.

Via del Corso (photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera)

It was Benito Mussolini who acted decisively. Fired with the idea of a grand throughfare linking the Vatican with the heart of the Italian capital, he commissioned leading fascist architects to design a new road, and he struck the first symbolic pick-axe blow himself on 29th October, 1936.

This became the long, straight Via della Conciliazione, which offers most present-day pilgrims their first sight of St Peter’s. It is certainly impressive, but it also serves as a reminder – If such were needed – of the changing, unseen forces of history that can help to influence our own perception.

Via della Conciliazione