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Cardinal Pietro Bembo, A Renaissance Papal Latinist

On this day in the year 1470 was born one of the great literary men of the later Italian Renaissance, Cardinal Pietro Bembo. His father was a scion of one of the most highly ranked noble families of Venice, a scholar and man of letters, and twice served as his city’s ambassador to Florence, bringing his son there with him. It was during his stays in Florence that Pietro conceived a deep love of the Tuscan dialect, which he would later ardently promote as the pre-eminent Italian literary vernacular. It was to no small degree through the efforts of this Venetian that the Florentine dialect came to be modern “standard” Italian.

After spending two years in Sicily to learn Greek, Bembo obtained his degree at the University of Padua, and then accompanied his father to the court of Ferrara, where he became close friends with the poet Ludovico Aristo, and continued his Latin studies. After brief sojourns in his native city, in Ferrara again, and in Rome, he lived from 1506-12 at the court of Urbino, then one of the great centers of Italian culture, and began a highly influential treatise on vernacular literature. This was completed and published in 1525, and did much to canonized Petrarch and Boccaccio as the authoritative models for Italian poetry and prose respectively.

In 1513, Card. Giovanni de’ Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s younger son, who had known Bembo in his youth, was elected Pope with the name Leo X, and soon after appointed him to an important office in the Papal chancery. During his time in Rome, he encouraged the careers of many writers and scholars, and engaged in a dispute with one Giovan Francesco Pico over the degree to which Latin should be written in imitation of classical models. Bembo believed that writers of Latin should treat Vergil and Cicero as those of Italian should treat Petrarch and Boccaccio. It has to be said that took the classicizing trend of his era to absurd extremes, preferring “senatores” to the non-classical “cardinales”, and “virgines vestales” to the various later Latin terms for “nun.”

Leo X was succeeded in 1523 by Adrian VI, a Dutchman who was far less sympathetic to the Italian humanists, seeing in them some part of the justification for the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. (In this he was not wholly unjustified; Bembo himself was not a priest, but had taken on religious vows as a member of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, now commonly known as the knights of Malta. Vows notwithstanding, he had a mistress for many years, who gave him three children.) Bembo departed from Rome and spent the next several years in Padua, publishing several works before he was made head of the great Library of St Mark in Venice. In 1539, Pope Paul III made him a cardinal, in which role he would serve the Church as apostolic administrator (bishop pro tempore, as it were) of various cities until his death in 1547. He is buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

(Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo 1545, by Titian. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

A few minutes’ walk from his grave, one of Bembo’s Latin compositions is seen thousands of times a day by visitors to the Pantheon. In 1520, one of the other lights of Leo X’s court, the painter Raphael, died, and was buried there, since it was the seat of the artists’ confraternity to which he belonged. His sarcophagus has carved onto it an elegiac distich by Bembo.

Ille hic est Raphael, timuit quo sospite vinci,
Rerum magna parens, et moriente mori.

(Here lies the great Raphael, by whom the great mother of all things (i.e. nature itself) feared to be outdone, and as he was dying, she feared she was dying.)

The teacher with whom many of us at VSI once studied, Fr Reginald Foster, worked for over forty years in the Vatican in a position broadly analogous to that once held by Bembo. I once heard himself about this this dense and grammatically complex inscription by his “colleague”, “If you can read that, my friends, well, then I’ll know that you’ve learned something.”

(The tomb of Raphael. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Paschal Reusch; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Column of Justinian in Constantinople

Last week, we noted the anniversary of the foundation of Constantinople on May 11th, 330 A.D., and saw the oldest surviving monument from the period of its founding, the column of Constantine. Over its long history as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city lost many of its early monuments to all kinds of vicissitudes, including a number of severe earthquakes. (The statue of Constantine which originally stood on top of his column was blown off by a storm.) One of the worst of these, however, was not a natural disaster, but a riot that broke out in January of 532 against the Emperor Justinian, who had become very unpopular for his tax policies, for his attempts at governmental and judicial reform, and an unsuccessful military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy on her eastern border, Persia.

The riot broke out in the Hippodrome, the large chariot racing stadium next to the imperial palace. It is generally known as the “Nika” riot, a Greek imperative form that means “Conquer!”, since this was the chant of the crowd as they first assaulted the palace, and then spread out through the city, bringing mayhem to every corner of it. The ancient sources report that Justinian was tempted to flee the city, but dissuaded from doing so by his formidable wife Theodora. The riots were put down with such violence that 30,000 people are reported to have been killed.

(The site of the Hippodrome in Constantinople, now known as Sultanahmet Square. The two obelisks stood on the long wall down the middle around which the chariots ran. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dennis Jarvis; CC BY-SA 2.0.)

When it was all over, about half the city, including the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had been burnt down; the famous former church which is seen today is Justinian’s rebuilding of it. And indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that he had to rebuild so much of the New Rome that it might well have been given a new nickname, Justinianopolis. (This name was actually given to seventeen different places in the Eastern Empire.)

By 543, Justinian’s military fortunes had changed dramatically; although the campaign against Persia was still bogged down, the Byzantines had retaken North Africa from the Vandals, and were gaining ground in Italy, which meant the return of the Old Rome to the domain of the New. In keeping with the tradition of many earlier Emperors, and as part of his program of rebuilding the city, he set up a column to celebrate these victories in the Augustaeum, the large public piazza between the palace and Hagia Sophia.

Justinian’s column was clearly modelled on two similar columns that survive in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and has the same basic arrangement of a large stepped pedestal, a column shaft, a platform and a statue. His differs, however, in that the shaft was made of brick, and the decorative frieze that ran up it in a spiral, showing the events of the military campaign which it celebrated, was made of bronze panels mounted onto the shaft. The platform at top was surmounted by an enormous bronze equestrian statue of the emperor, which appears to have been recycled from an earlier monument to one of the two earlier emperors named Theodosius.

The column survived intact even past the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but in the 1420s, the orb in the statue’s hand fell off, which was seen as a harbinger of impending doom. It was of such tremendous height, 70 meters (230 feet) by some accounts, that it could be clearly seen from the sea, but since no one had seen the statue itself close up in so long, its identity had been forgotten, and it was often described as a statue of Constantine or some other emperor. Shortly after the Turkish conquest, the statue was taken down and broken; enormous fragments of it were still in the sultan’s palace in the 1540s, but these were later melted down to make canons. The column itself was taken down in 1515.

(A reconstruction of the column’s original appearance, from Die Baukunst Konstantinopels, by Cormelius Gurlitt, 1912: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Medieval Latin Science Fiction

In Ireland, today is the feast of a Sainted monk named Brendan, who is traditionally said to have been born in Clonfert in the year 484, and to have died in 577 at the age of 94. He is sometimes called “the Younger” to distinguish him from another Brendan, of Birr, or “the Elder.” They were both disciples of St Finnian, the founder of one of the first abbeys in the country, Clonard, and belong to the group known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland for their labors in the evangelizing the Irish. As with many of the early Irish Saints, the traditional stories of his life are regarded as historically unreliable. The most famous of these is that he and a group of companions sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean searched for “the Promised Land of the Saints,” or the Garden of Eden, and has given him the nickname by which he is more generally known, “the Navigator.”  The account of the ensuing adventures, known as the “Navigatio Sancti Brendani”, was very popular, and over 100 manuscripts of it survive.

One of the stories in this account (chapter 10 and 11) involves a stop on an island which turns out to be a very unusual place indeed.

… Erat autem illa insula petrosa sine ulla herba. Silva rara erat ibi et in litore illius nihil de arena fuit. Porro pernoctantibus in orationibus et in vigiliis fratribus foras (de) navi vir Dei sedebat intus.

… Mane autem facto precepit sacerdotibus ut singuli missas cantasset et ita fecerunt. Cum ergo sanctus Brendanus et ipse cantasset missam in navi, ceperunt fratres crudas carnes portare foras de navi ut condidissent sale et etiam pisces quos secum tulerunt de alia insula. Cum haec fecissent posuerunt cacabum super ignem. Cum autem ministrassent lignis ignem et fervere cepisset cacabus, cepit illa insula se movere sicut unda. Fratres vero ceperunt currere ad navim deprecantes patrocinium sancti patris. At ille singulos per manus trahebat intus. Relictisque omnibus quae portabant in illam insulam ceperunt navigare.

Porro illa insula ferebatur in oceanum. … Sanctus Brendanus narravit fratribus quod hoc esset dicens, “Fratres, admiramini quod fecit haec insula?” Aiunt, “Admiramur valde, nec non et ingens pavor penetravit nos.” Qui dixit illis, “Filioli mei, nolite expavescere. Deus enim revelavit mihi hac nocte per visionem sacramentum hujus rei. Insula non est ubi fuimus sed piscis. Prior omnium natancium in oceano querit semper suam caudam ut simul jungat capiti et non potest pro longitudine quam habet, nomine Jasconius.”

… Now that island was rocky, and without any grass; there was a thin forest there, and no sand on the shore. But as the brothers passed the night in prayers and vigils off the ship, the man of God (i.e. Brendan) remained within it.

… In the morning, he commanded the priests that they should each sing Mass, and so they did. Therefore, when Saint Brendan himself had sung Mass in the ship, the brothers began to bring raw meat out of the ship to cure it with salt, and also the fish which they had brought with them from the other island. When they had done these things, they set a pot upon a fire, and when they had added wood to the fire and the pot began to grow hot, the island began to move itself like a wave. But the brothers began to run to the ship praying for the holy father’s protection. But he drew each one of them in by the hand, and leaving behind all of the things which they had brought onto that island, they began to sail.

Now the island was being carried out into the ocean … and Saint Brendan explained to the brothers what this was, saying, “Brothers, are you astonished at what this island did?” They said, “We are very much astonished, and the greatest fear has taken hold of us.” And he said to them, “My sons, do not be afraid, for God has revealed to me this night through a vision the mystery of this matter. It was not an island where we were, but a fish. Greater than all the things that swim in the ocean, it is always looking for its own tail so that it may join it to its head, and it cannot because it is so long, and its name is Jasconius.”

(St Brendan watches from the boat as one of the priests in his group of travel companions says Mass on the back of the sea monster. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Column of Constantine in New Rome

Two days ago, we marked the anniversary of the dedication of Constantinople in 330 AD as the “New Rome.” In the nearly 17 centuries that have passed since then, the city has undergone innumerable vicissitudes which have done tremendous damage to its monuments, and very little now remains from the days of Constantine himself. The most prominent and oldest surviving monument of his era is a large column which was built a few years before the dedication ceremony.

This was set up in a circular forum also named for him, which was part of the “Mese hodos – the middle way”, a great thoroughfare that ran through the new city from the imperial palace directly to a gate in the city walls. In the latter part of the 4th century, the Emperor Theodosius would build another forum along the Mese, likewise decorated with a column dedicated to himself, but even taller; this was demolished at the end of the 15th century.

The column of Constantine is made of several drums of porphyry, an Egyptian stone which is extremely heavy and hard, difficult to work with and to transport, but much prized by the Romans, since its color was the color of royalty. It stands on a large pedestal which is now buried beneath the level of the surrounding piazza, to a depth of about 8 feet. When it was first constructed, it supported a statue of the emperor; this remained in place for almost eight centuries, until it was knocked over in 1106 by a storm, which also brought down the top three drums of the column itself. The total original height is estimated at about 50 meters or 164 feet, which would make it taller than either of the similar columns in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry A. Mottl, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The monument was also damaged by two of the great fires that broke out in Constantinople in antiquity, one in 475, and another in 532, during the famous episode known as the Nika riots, in the wake of which much of the city had to be rebuilt. In 1779, it was blackened by another fire so notably that it came to be known as “the Burnt Pillar.” But well before then, the Ottomans had it reinforced by a cage of iron hoops to prevent it from collapsing, and the piazza in which it stands is now known as “Çemberlitaş”, Turkish work for “hooped stone.”

Sometime after the original statue was brought down, the Emperor Manuel Comnenos (1143-80) had it replaced with a Cross, which was removed by Turks after the taking of the city in 1453. Later Byzantine sources report that the statue itself had held an orb in its hand with a piece of the True Cross in it, and that several other relics were kept in a shrine at the base, including the crosses of the two thieves crucified with Christ, and (rather more improbably) the baskets used at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jar, plus (more improbably still) the ax of Noah and the staff of Moses. Likewise, it was also said to include the Palladium, a statute which the Romans believed had been brought from Troy to Italy by Aeneas himself. This was kept in the temple of Vesta in the Forum, and served as a protective talisman for the city. Although it is perfectly possible that Constantine could have moved such an object from the old Rome to the new, it is not known if he actually did so.

(A reconstruction of the column’s original appearance, from Die Baukunst Konstantinopels, by Cormelius Gurlitt, 1912: Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

A Homily by St Gregory the Great Carved in Stone

Today is the feast of two Roman Saints named Nereus and Achilleus. An inscription placed over their burial place by Pope St Damasus I (366-84) tells us that they were soldiers who were forced to participate in the persecution of the Christians, but threw away their weapons and armor, and were in turn martyred for the Faith. The date of their death is uncertain, and the various details later added to their story are considered legendary, but there can be no doubt of the authenticity of their martyrdom, or that their feast is very ancient. They were buried in part of the Christian cemetery complex now known as the Catacomb of Domitilla, about 1½ miles from the Aurelian Walls down the via Ardeatina. Pope Damasus built a small basilica on the grounds over this cemetery, and it was here that Pope St Gregory the Great preached his 28th homily.

Around 800 AD, Pope St Leo III built a church in honor of these Saints right next to the Baths of Caracalla. When Pope Clement VIII elevated the great Church historian Cesare Baronio, a priest of the Roman Oratory and close friend of its founder, St Philip Neri, to the rank of cardinal in 1596, he gave him this church as his cardinalitial title. Baronio immediately set about giving the building a much-needed top-to-bottomrestoration. At the time, it was mistakenly believed that this was this church in which St Gregory had preached the aforementioned homily, and the cardinal therefore had the full text of it carved onto the episcopal throne in the apse, where it can still be seen today.

Here is the conclusion as an excerpt which shows how beautifully St Gregory could write. If it seems very pessimistic about the state of the world, one must remember that Rome was in a terrible state after the Gothic wars of the sixth century, and he would have walked through roughly 2 miles of ruins to get to the place where he preached it. Assuming he took the shortest route from the Lateran, where the Popes lived at the time, he would have passed by at least one broken aqueduct, and abandoned bath complex, and a good many large but long-empty houses.

(The basilica of Ss Nereus and Achilleus; image from Wikimedia Commons by Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Ecce mundus qui diligitur fugit. Sancti isti, ad quorum tumbam consistimus, florentem mundum mentis despectu calcaverunt. Erat vita longa, salus continua, opulentia in rebus, fecunditas in propagine, tranquillitas in diuturna pace; et tamen cum in seipso floreret, jam in eorum cordibus mundus aruerat. Ecce jam mundus in seipso aruit, et adhuc in cordibus nostris floret. Ubique mors, ubique luctus, ubique desolatio, undique percutimur, undique amaritudinibus replemur; et tamen caeca mente carnalis concupiscentiae ipsas ejus amaritudines amamus, fugientem sequimur, labenti inhaeremus. Et quia labentem retinere non possumus, cum ipso labimur, quem cadentem tenemus. Aliquando nos mundus delectatione sibi tenuit; nunc tantis plagis plenus est, ut ipse nos jam mundus mittat ad Deum. Pensate ergo quia nulla sunt quae temporaliter currunt. Finis temporalium ostendit quam nihil sit quod transire potuit. Casus rerum indicat quia res transiens et tunc prope nihil fuit cum stare videretur. Haec ergo, fratres charissimi, sollicita consideratione pensate, in aeternitatis amore cor figite; ut dum terrena culmina adipisci contemnitis, perveniatis ad gloriam, quem per fidem tenetis, per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum, qui vivit et regnat Deus cum Patre in unitate Spiritus sancti, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Behold, this world which is loved flees away. These saints at whose grave we stand trampled the flourishing world with contempt. They had long life, continual health, material riches, many children, tranquility in long-lasting peace, and yet, though it flourishing in itself, this world had already withered in their hearts. Behold, now this world is withered in itself, and still, it flourishes in our hearts. Everywhere is death, everywhere mourning, everywhere desolation; on all sides we are struck, on all sides we are filled with bitterness; and yet, in the blindness of our mind, we love the very bitterness tasted of fleshly desire, we pursue what flees, we cling to what falls. And since we cannot hold onto that which falls, we fall with what we hold onto. Once, the world captivated us for itself with its delight; now it is now full of such misfortunes that already it sends us back to God, Consider, therefore, that what happens in time does not count. For the end of all temporal things shows how meaningless is that which can pass away. The collapse of things shows us that something which passes away were almost nothing, even when it seemed to stand firm. Dearest brothers, think of these things with careful consideration; fix your hearts in the love of eternity; so that, while you disdain to reach the heights of earth, you may come to that glory which you hold by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is God, and lives and reigns with the Father in unity of the Holy Spirit, through all the ages of ages. Amen.”

(The throne with the sermon carved into the niche at the back; image from Wikimedia Commons by Lalupa, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Dedication of Constantinople

On this day in 330 AD, the emperor Constantine presided over the dedication of a new capital of the Roman Empire, after six years of building on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium. Herodotus places the founding of Byzantium in 656 B.C., and in 334 AD, Constantine also presided over celebrations of its millennial anniversary; this indicates that he did not view his new city as a complete erasure of the old one, and indeed, its older name never dropped out of use. But of course, it was as “Constantine’s city – Constantinople” that it would become one of the greatest cities of human civilization, although its official name was always “New Rome.” It would continue as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and remains the spiritual capital, so to speak, of Orthodox Christianity to this day.

Much has been written and debated as to why exactly Constantine felt the need to create a new capital at all, but some things seem very certain. Despite its prestige and antiquity (which were in many ways synonymous concepts for the ancient Romans), the old Rome was no longer the empire’s political center of gravity. And indeed, in the period of the Tetrarchy which preceded Constantine’s accession to the throne, the emperors often kept their capitals elsewhere. Byzantium had never served in this role, but had the advantage of being a Mediterranean port with access to the Black Sea, and the crossing of major roads running both East and West, by which an emperor could quickly reach the frontiers of either the Danube in Europe or the Euphrates in Asia.

Historians have often represented the founding of New Rome as Constantine’s project to recreate the ancient capital as a purely Christian city. This is unquestionably an exaggeration, although one which has unfortunately driven other historians to the opposite exaggeration, the complete denial of his Christian faith. Constantine unquestionably favored Christianity, granting it a privileged status and acting as its benefactor in a way which is not true of any other religion.

(A coin minted in 330AD to commemorate the founding of Constantinople; the image of Romulus and Remus being nursed by the she-wolf on the reverse is clearly a sign of continuity between the new and old Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ancientcointraders, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Last week, we saw a bit of the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s treatment of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, St Helena. Here is how he imagines the emperor’s decision to found the new city.

“ ‘Take the place,’ said Constantine to Pope Sylvester. ‘It’s all yours. I am leaving and I shan’t come back – ever. When the time comes my sarcophagus … must lie in Christian surroundings. Rome is heathen and always will be. Yes, I know, you’ve got the tombs of Peter and Paul. I hope I have not shown myself insensible to that distinction. (This refers to his construction of the first Christian basilicas over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.) But why are they here? Simply because the Romans murdered them That’s the plain truth. Why, they even thought of murdering me. It’s an ungodly place, your holiness, and you’re welcome to it.

One must start something new. I’ve got the site, very central; it will make a sublime port. (This is a pun on one of Constantinople’s many nicknames, ‘the Sublime Port.’) The plans are drawn. Work will start at once on a great Christian capital, in the very centre of Christendom; a city built round two great new Churches dedicated to – what do you think? – Wisdom and Peace. (Constantine did in fact build a church dedicated to Holy Peace as the new city’s cathedral, but the first Holy Wisdom, or ‘Hagia Sophia’ was built by his son.) … You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations;” …

“Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church,” said Pope Sylvester. (Another pun, on a famous saying of the Christian writer Tertullian, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”)

(The column of Constantine, built in 328 AD, and dedicated along with the rest of New Rome on May 11, 330; this is the oldest monument that survives in the city from the era of Constantine himself. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry A. Mottl, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Prodigious Memory of St Antoninus

Today is the feast of St Antoninus, a Dominican friar who became archbishop of Florence in 1446, and died in that office in 1459. He was born in Florence in 1389, and christened “Antonio”, but because of his small stature, was always known by the diminutive form “Antonino.”

The bull of his canonization, issued by Pope Adrian VI in 1523, tells the story of a prodigious feat of memory which gained him admission to the scholarly Dominican Order at a very young age. This excerpt, which is partly paraphrased from the original bull, was formerly incorporated into the Dominican Divine Office, and is a nice example of the extremely high quality of late Renaissance Latinity.

“Cum annum decimum tertium agens, beatus Antoninus Ordinis Praedicatorum habitum in conventu Faesulano summa humilitate deposceret, ob teneriorem aetatem, exilemque corporis formam, ferendo Religionis jugo impar est habitus. Verum ne pii adolescentis animum aperta praecipitique repulsa Prior offenderet, quaesito specioso diverticulo repondit, facturum se pro votis, cum universum Decretum, cui jam tunc studebat, memoriae commendasset. Responsa bona fide accepto, Decretorum lectioni totis viribus coepit incumbere, tantumque assidua lectione sedulaque oratione profecit, ut ejusdem anni spatio, Decretum integrum memoriae mandaverit; quod prae sui magnitudine, tam brevi tempore a quoquam vix legi potest. Priorem Faesulanum, subinde convenit, enixe rogans ut expleta conditione, promissi fidem liberaret. Qui facto memoriae periculo, reique veritate comperta, totum miraculo ducens, divino numine vocatum juvenem intellexit, eundumque ad habitum religionis admisit.”

(St Antoninus and Bl. John Dominici, by an anonymous Florentine artist, ca. 1600-30, from the Dominican convent at Fiesole. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

“When in his thirteenth year, the blessed Antoninus asked with the greatest humility for the habit of the Order of Preachers in the house at Fiesole, because of his excessively tender age and slightness of body, he was deemed unequal to bearing the yoke of religious life. However, so as not to offend the devout young man’s spirit with a flat-out and hasty refusal, the prior (Bl. John Dominici, whose biography Antoninus would later write) answered his request by putting him off with a jest, saying that he would do as the boy wanted, when he had memorized the whole of the Decretals, which he was already studying. (This means the Decretum of Gratian, the collection which formed the basis of all medieval canon law.) Taking this answer seriously, (Antoninus) began to devote himself with all his strength to the reading of the Decretals, and made such progress with frequent reading and persistent prayer that in the space of that same year, he committed to memory the whole of a text which for its size, one could hardly read in so short a time. (This is a rhetorical exaggerationm but not by much.) He then met with the prior at Fiesole, earnestly requesting that he respect his promise, since he had fulfilled the condition. And when the prior had tested his memory, and learned the truth of the matter, attributing the whole thing to a miracle, he understood that the young man was called by divine inspiration, and admitted him to the religious habit.”

(The first page of the Decretum Gratiani which St Antoninus had to memorize, from a manuscript of the later 12th century which runs to about 600 pages. Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque National de France.)

St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Teacher of St Jerome

On the liturgical calendar of the usus antiquior, today is the feast of the bishop St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the most important theologians of the fourth century. He, his close friend St Basil the Great, and Basil’s younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers, after the region of east-central Asia Minor from which they came, and where they held their respective episcopal sees. Since 1568, he and Basil have been formally recognized as Doctors of the Church in the West.

When he was in his early 40s, under strong pressure from St Basil, he accepted appointment as bishop of a very small town called Sasima, and then of his native place, Nazianzus, but this office was not at all congenial to him, and the appointment was the cause of no small friction between the two friends. As soon as he was able, he retired to a monastery far from either place at Seleucia, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, and took up a quiet life of contemplation and writing. However, in 378, the Emperor Valens, an enthusiastic supporter of the Arian heresy, died, and was succeeded by the orthodox Theodosius. The imperial capital had not had an orthodox bishop in 50 years, and Gregory was persuaded to go there, not to be bishop of the city, but to lead a restoration of the orthodox faith, almost as a private citizen. His work there was met with much opposition, but nevertheless bore very great fruit, such that he was able to withdraw after only a few years, and return to a purely contemplative life. He died about seven years later in 390, at the age of roughly 60.

One of his students during his time in Constantinople was St Jerome. Despite the well-known irascibility of the latter, and Gregory’s peaceable temperament, there is no evidence of any conflict between them, and Jerome always speaks well of him, referring to him as “vir eloquentissimus.” In the Apology Against Rufinus, he writes:

“Numquid in illa epistola Gregorium virum eloquentissimum non potui nominare? Quis apud Latinos par sui est? quo ego magistro glorior et exsulto. – Could I fail to mention in that letter the most eloquent Gregory? Who among the Latins is his equal? And I boast and rejoice that he was my teacher!”

Jerome’s book On Illustrious Men is a collection of notices of important figures in the history of the Church from its beginning to his own time, mostly notable writers. They are very brief, many no more than a single sentence; subtracting the nine Biblical personages at the beginning, they average about 70 words each. It is therefore significant that he devotes more space than typical to his teacher.

“Gregorius, primum Sasimorum, deinde Nazianzenus episcopus, vir eloquentissimus, praeceptor meus, quo Scripturas explanante, didici, ad triginta millia versuum omnia opera sua composuit. … vivoque se episcopum in loco suo ordinans, ruri vitam monachi exercuit. Decessitque ante hoc ferme triennium sub Theodosio principe.

Gregory, bishop first of Sasima, then of Nazianzus, a most eloquent man, and my teacher, from whose explanations I learned the Scriptures, composed works amounting in all to thirty thousand lines, among which are (there follows a list of his more signigficant works, and a mention of a rhetorician whose style Gregory followed). While he was still alive, he ordained his successor in the bishopric, and lived the life as a monk in the country, and died about three years ago in the reign of Theodosius.”

(A twelfth century manuscript of the homilies of St Gregory of Nazianus; Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. gr. 550)

Treasures of the Cotton Library

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1631 of Sir Robert Cotton, the creator of a famous and very important collection of books and manuscripts. On Wednesday, we described the arrangement of the collection, and how the items were given call numbers based on the busts of the Roman emperors mounted above the bookcases. So today, we’ll have a quick look at some of the more noteworthy treasures from this collection, going by order of the emperors after whom they are named.

The Julius Work Calendar – the oldest known calendar in England, written ca. 1020 at Canterbury Cathedral.

A portfolio (Augustus ii) of Anglo-Saxon charters and a few medieval ones, including one of the collection’s two original copies of the Magna Charta.

Tiberius A ii, a Gospel book copied out ca. 800 AD., believed to have been given by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (936-62) to the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (924-39), who in turn presented it to the priory of Canterbury Cathedral.

Caligula A vi, one of only two complete manuscripts of the Heliand. This is a paraphrase of the Gospels, composed in the first half of the 9th century, in the language of the Saxons as a way of evangelizing them, by translating the life of Christ into cultural terms which they would be able to understand and accept. The manuscript itself is from the second half of the 10th century.

Claudius C vii, the Utrecht Psalter, a mid-9th century illuminated manuscript considered to be one of the masterpieces of Carolingian art, with over 160 illustrations, one for each psalm or canticle. Produced on the Continent, it came to Canterbury Cathedral ca. 1000. This is one of the fairly few items to permanently leave the Cotton Collection; it is now at the University of Utrecht in Holland.

(A folio of the Utrecht Psalter, illustrating Psalm 149. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Nero A x, the only surviving copy of the works of the anonymous writer of the late 14th century known as the Pearl Poet, with his poems Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and two lesser-known pieces, Patience and Cleanness. Also within the Nero section are the Lindisfarne Gospels (D iv), made ca. 720 AD at the monastery of Lindisfarne, one of the finest illuminated manuscripts of its period, and one of the oldest items in the collection. In the 10th century, a priest named Aldred at a monastery in Chester which then possessed the book added between the lines an Old English translation, which is the oldest known version of the Gospels in English.

(As an aside, the dissolution of the English monasteries was a catastrophe for the vernacular literature of pre-Reformation England. Had it not been for Sir Robert Cotton gathering them into his collection, many of these works might well have been lost forever.)

Vitellius A xv, also known as the Nowell Codex, ca. 1010, the only surviving copy of the Old English epic poem Beowulf.

The Vespasian Psalter (A i), an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript ca. 765 AD, which contains an interlinear Old English translation, the oldest surviving English version of any part of the Bible, and the oldest surviving illuminated manuscript from the southern part of Anglo-Saxon England.

In 1731, the house where the collection was temporarily stored was destroyed by fire. Among the most badly damaged items was a manuscript known as the Cotton Genesis (Otho B vi), a Greek manuscript of the Biblical book produced in the 4th or 5th century, with about 350 illustrations, of which there now survive 18 fragments. Many of the images are preserved in a 17th century copy now in the National Library of France in Paris.

(One of the surviving fragments of the Cotton Genesis, part of a folio which showed the meeting of Abraham and the three angels in chapter 18. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

An Excellent Homily on the Use of Latin in the Mass

VSI is very grateful to Fr Brian Becker, pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and Vocations Promoter for the Diocese of Charlotte, for his kind permission to share this video of the Mass celebrated at his church this past Sunday. The subject of his homily, which begins at 29:20, is the use of Latin and chant in the liturgy, and he makes several excellent points on this topic: that it is the will of the Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council (and also in St John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia) that Latin continue to be used as the sacred language of the Roman Rite; that it provides both a bond of unity among all Catholics who use that rite, and ensures the purity and stability of the Church’s teaching; that its unchanging character guarantees that a prayer composed in, say, the 4th century (he specifically refers to the Creed), means the same thing now that it did when it was first used, a bond of unity between ages as well as places. He also speaks of how the beauty of Gregorian chant is perfectly fitting for the sacred rites. We would encourage you to listen to the whole homily, and share it with others – feliciter!

The Cotton Collection of the British Library

I recently illustrated an article with an image of a manuscript in the British Library which is designated as “Cotton Vesp. d. xii.” The “Vesp.” here stands for the name of the Roman emperor Vespasian, for a rather interesting reason, connected to the collection from which it originally came.

When King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries and religious houses of his realm in the 1530s, the contents of their libraries were metaphorically (and perhaps in some cases also literally) scattered to the winds. Later in that same century, a lesser nobleman and member of Parliament named Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) began collecting these ancient books and manuscripts, many of which had come to the English nobility along with the former monastic properties, but whose new owners had no idea of their contents or significance. Once Sir Robert’s interest in book-collecting became known, many people either willed or sold their collections to him; his library quickly came to outrank in both size and importance the royal collection and those of several other old institutions. His house was located quite close to Parliament, and the library became a gathering place for both scholars and men in government.

Sir Robert organized his library first by bookcase, then by shelf, and lastly by position on the shelf. Each of his bookcases was surmounted by a bust of a figure from ancient Roman history: the twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian, plus Cleopatra, and Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius. Thus, the designation “Vesp. d. xii” means “the twelfth book (from the left) on the fourth shelf down, under the bust of Vespasian.”

The original library building no longer exists, and the much larger modern Houses of Parliament now stand in part on the site of it. Likewise, it appears that the original busts and bookcases are also lost. More additions were made to the collection by Sir Robert’s son and heir, Thomas, and by his son John; the latter, shortly before his death in 1702, bequeathed it in its entirety to the nation, on condition that it not be dispersed, and remain publicly accessible. The building itself, however, was in very poor condition, and in 1706, the collection was moved temporarily to nearby Ashburnham House. In 1731, a fire broke out in this building, which entailed the loss of 13 of the Cotton manuscripts, and damage from either fire or water to more than 200 others.

Subsequently, the Cotton library and two others, the Sloane and Harley Collections, were transferred to the new British Museum, shortly after its establishment in 1753, followed by the donation of the royal library in 1757. In 1973, the library holding of the British Museum were formally separated as the British Library. Despite all these vicissitudes, with the classic British love for custom, one of that nation’s most admirable traits, the British Library still to this day uses the original call numbers of the Cotton Collection.

Friday is the anniversary of Sir Robert’s death, so we will write then about specific items of interest in his collection. Since we don’t have the original busts from the library, here is one of the man himself in the British Library.

St Helena, Evelyn Waugh, and the Finding of the Cross

In 1950, the English writer Evelyn Waugh published his only historical novel, Helena, a fictionalized account of the life of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, and her discovery of the relics of the True Cross. For well over a millennium, this event was celebrated with a feast day on May 3rd, the Finding of the Cross; Waugh’s introduction to the novel begins with a funny story based on the Latin version of the feast’s title, “Inventio Crucis.”

“It is reported … that some few years ago a lady prominent for her hostility to the Church returned from a visit to Palestine in a state of exultation. ‘I got the real low-down at last,’ she told her friends. ‘The whole story of the crucifixion was made up by a British woman named Ellen. Why, the guide showed me the very place where it happened. Even the priests admit it. They call their chapel “the Invention of the Cross.” ’ ”

“a British woman named Ellen” refers to a medieval tradition that Helena was the daughter of a chieftain in Roman Britain, which Waugh incorporates into the story. He always regarded it as his best work, a fact which may well surprise those who know him for much more famous books like The Loved One or Brideshead Revisited. The latter was made into a critically acclaimed mini-series, and several of his other works have likewise been brought to film, although none as well or successfully. Helena, on the other, has not only never been filmed, but is in fact the only one of his novels that ever fell out of print, although the age of electronic books has brought it back.

(Evelyn Waugh in 1940: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Two years after its publication, Waugh was invited by Claire Booth Luce, a prominent convert to Catholicism, to contribute to a collection of essays called “Saints for Now”, and chose St Helena as his subject. His essay, essentially a summary of the theological point of the novel, is deeply insightful, especially considering that the author had no pretense of any sort to be a theologian.

What he correctly saw was that in the 4th century, once Christianity had been legalized, it was in danger of being assimilated to (if not into) the numerous other cults that existed in the ancient Roman world. Much about Christianity was already very congenial to the Roman religious mind: “(a)nother phase of existence which select souls enjoyed when the body was shed; a priesthood; a sacramental system, even in certain details of eating, anointing and washing—all these had already a shadowy place in fashionable thought. Everything about the new religion (i.e. Christianity) was capable of interpretation, could be refined and diminished…” And the then-fashionable version of the Creed, Arianism, which most of the Emperors after Constantine adopted, was just such an interpretation, refinement and diminution: the translation of Christianity into Platonism, with God the Father as Plato’s One, and God the Son as the demiurge of the Timaeus.

But Waugh goes on to specify that everything about Christianity was capable of being interpreted in such a fashion “except the unreasonable assertion that God became man and died on the Cross; not a myth or an allegory; true God, truly incarnate, tortured to death at a particular moment in time, at a particular geographical place, as a matter of plain historical fact.” And thus, in the novel, St Helena herself (a classically British self-assured older woman who could well be played by Maggie Smith if it were ever filmed), says to the Pope, St Sylvester I, “Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it… there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I’m going off to find it.”

(St Helena and the True Cross, 1495, by Cima da Conegliano; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)d

Fr Athanasius Kircher

One of the most notable figures of Rome’s intellectual history, Fr Athanasius Kircher, was born on this day in 1602, in a small town in central Germany. As was so often the case in those days, he was baptized immediately, and given the name of the Saint on the liturgical calendar, Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 373). Although the Jesuit order, which he entered at the age of 16, had and deserved a reputation for learning from its very foundation, Kircher did much to solidify and perpetuate that reputation. He was known and respected by both Catholics and Protestants alike as one of the most learned men of his age, corresponding with hundreds of other scientists and scholars throughout Europe. For several years, beginning in 1634, he taught physics, mathematics, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college in Rome, a position from which he was later released to devote himself full time to research.

(Portrait of Fr Kircher, ca. 1664)

Fr Kircher’s interests covered an extraordinary breadth of subjects; he published forty lengthy books, all in Latin, of course, to guarantee their accessibility to fellow scholars throughout the world. Among them are works on medicine and biology, including a description of plague-causing agents which he identified with a very primitive microscope; on geology, volcanism, a subject in which he took a special interest from an early age (he even had himself lowered into the crater of Mt Vesuvius when it showed signs of an imminent eruption); the study of fossils; and magnetism. He was also known for putting these studies to practical, or at least interesting, applications, constructing improved versions of the projection device known as a “magic lantern” (the invention of which is often mistakenly attributed to him), a magnetic clock, a wind harp, and a speaking automaton. Gathering together reports sent back to Rome by his fellow Jesuits serving as missionaries in China, he compiled an encyclopedia known as “China Illustrata”, which was immediately translated into several languages, including English and Dutch, notwithstanding the deep hostility of both the English and the Dutch to his religious order.

Over the course of his long career (he died in 1680 at the age of 78), Fr Kircher amassed an enormous collection of plant, animal and geological specimens, antiquities of various kinds, archeology and technological curiosities, artworks, musical instruments (sound being another field of his interest, and the subject of one of his books), etc. This collection, known as the Museum Kircherianum, was housed at the Jesuit college, and one of the most popular attractions in Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries, but was subsequently dispersed through various other museums owned by the Italian state.

Today, he is perhaps best known as a pioneer in the field of Egyptology; he was first scholar to identify Coptic as the last stage in the history of the ancient Egyptian language, and the author of the first Coptic grammar. He also created a system for deciphering hieroglyphs, and “translated” several ancient Egyptian inscriptions, including those on the obelisk which was raised on top of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome. These purported translations have no real relationship to the original texts, and his method, which based on a rather fanciful guess, has been sharply criticized by later scholars. Nevertheless, the information which Fr Kircher gathered about hieroglyphs would later prove very useful to Jean-François Champollion, who correctly deciphered them after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

(The Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona, Rome. Fr Kircher’s purported translation of the each of the four inscriptions is carved into the square base on which it rests. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Tango 7174, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vocabula Mira: “Melos”

The Greek word “melos” underwent an interesting evolution before it entered the Latin language. It originally meant “limb”, although in the earlier writers, it only occurs in the plural. From this it came to mean a “musical member or phrase” and thence “a song”, a use which first occurs in roughly the 6th century B.C., in the Homeric Hymn to Pan, followed by Pindar, Herodotus etc. Aristotle and Plato both use it to mean “the music to which a song is set.” It was also compounded with the noun “aoidē” or “ōidē”, related nouns such “aoidos – singer”, and the verb “aoidiaō – to sing”, to make “melōidē” etc., the origin of the English word “melody.”

In Latin, it was taken on as early as the 3rd century BC (by Naevius, and in the following century by Cato and Pacuvius), but only in the later, musical sense, along with some of the compounds like “melodia.” The Church Fathers often pair it with the adjectives “dulcis” or “suavis”, both of which mean “sweet”, which seems to have been inspired by its similarity to the Latin word for “honey – mel (mellis).” St Jerome, for example, writes in a letter to a friend of his named Heliodorus, speaking of the conversion of formerly barbarous nations to Christianity, that they “have broken their hissing into the sweet song of the Cross.” (stridorem suum in dulce Crucis fregerunt melos). Likewise, a sermon mistakenly ascribed to St Augustine includes the phrase “ut musicum melos sonis dulcibus reddat – that he may render a musical song with sweet sounds.” In his book of Etymologies, St Isidore explicitly connects it with “mel”: “euphonia est suavitas vocis; haec et melos a suavitate et melle dicta – ‘euphony’ is sweetness of voice; which is called both ‘song’ from its sweetness and from ‘honey.’ ”

In the Middle Ages, particularly after the 6th century, knowledge of Greek declined very greatly in western Europe (as knowledge of Latin did in eastern Europe), but never vanished completely. In some periods, especially the Carolingian Renaissance, there was even a kind of vogue for using Greek words in certain genres, one of them being the composition of liturgical hymns. A later imitator of this fashion, St Fulbert, bishop of Chartres in the early 11th century, uses the word “melos” with a Latinized form of the genitive (“meli”) in a hymn which he wrote for the Easter season. Here is the original Latin text, and a translation by the Anglican cleric John Mason Neale (1818-66), who is rightly regarded as one of the best translators of Latin hymns into good poetic English.

(This manuscript of the mid-11th century (British Library, Cotton Vesp. d. xii; folio 74v, image cropped), is one of the two oldest with the text of this hymn.)

Chorus novae Jerusalem,
Novam meli dulcedinem,
Promat, colens cum sobriis
Paschale festum gaudiis.

Quo Christus, invictus leo
Dracone surgens obruto
Dum voce viva personat
A morte functos excitat.

Quam devorarat improbus
Praedam refudit tartarus
Captivitate libera
Jesum sequuntur agmina.

Triumphat ille splendide
Et dignus amplitudine
Soli polique patriam
Unam facit rempublicam.

Ipsum canendo supplices
Regem precemur milites
Ut in suo clarissimo
Nos ordinet palatio.

Per saecla metae nescia
Patri supremo gloria,
Honorque sit cum Filio
Et Spiritu Paraclito. Amen.

Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem!
To sweet new strains attune your theme;
The while we keep, from care releas’d,
With sober joy our Paschal Feast:

When Christ, Who spake the Dragon’s doom,
Rose, Victor-Lion, from the tomb,
That while with living voice He cries,
The dead of other years might rise.

Engorg’d in former years, their prey
Must Death and Hell restore to-day:
And many a captive soul, set free,
With Jesus leaves captivity.

Right gloriously He triumphs now,
Worthy to Whom should all things bow;
And, joining heaven and earth again,
Links in one commonweal the twain.

And we, as these His deeds we sing,
His suppliant soldiers, pray our King,
That in His Palace, bright and vast,
We may keep watch and ward at last.

Long as unending ages run,
To God the Father laud be done;
To God the Son our equal praise,
And God the Holy Ghost, we raise.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna

Since yesterday we looked at the triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius in Oea, the modern Tripoli in Libya, today we will see another such arch in the ruins of Leptis Magna, roughly 75 miles to the east. Like Oea, Leptis was founded by Phoenician colonists in the 7th century BC, and like the rest of north Africa, came under Rome’s control after the defeat and destruction of her great rival Carthage. (It was called “Magna” to distinguish it from “Leptis Parva”, which was much closer to Carthage.) Already a prominent and prosperous place in the last years of the Roman Republic, it continued to thrive in the early years of the Empire, and was elevated to the status of a “municipium”, a self-governing city, under Nero, and a “colonia” under Trajan, entitling it to important tax exemptions.

This was the native place of the Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned for a bit less than 18 years, from 193 to 211. On coming to the throne, he bestowed many new privileges on the city, and immediately began several major building projects: a second and larger forum, in addition to the older one of the Augustan period; a massive basilica (over 300 feet long by 130 wide); a port (which, however quickly silted up); and a long colonnaded street leading up to a monumental fountain. A large market building of the Augustan era was also rebuilt. The population rose to around 100,000, making it a rival to the two other great cities in Roman Africa, the rebuilt Carthage, and Alexandria in Egypt.

(The ruins of the Severan Basilica in Leptis Magna; image from Wikimedia Commons by SashaCoachman, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Preparatory to an official visit by Severus and his family, a triumphal arch was erected in 203 at the intersection of the two main roads that define every Roman city, the cardo and the decumanus. Like its counterpart in Rome, this arch celebrates the Emperor’s victories over the Parthians on the empire’s eastern border, but its form is much closer to that of the Marcus Aurelius in Oea, and gives us a good idea of what the latter would originally have looked like. The attic is well-preserved, where at Oea, it is now missing, exposing the outside of the cupola. Unlike the Roman arch, the two African ones are “tetrapylons”, which is to say, built on four columns, and essentially square, since they sit at the intersection of two roads. The Leptis arch’s most unusual element is the so-called broken pediment on each side, better described as “incomplete”, something which is rarely seen in Roman architecture, but was common in the East. A triumphal procession of Septimius and his sons Geta and Caracalla is shown on the attic stage of the side that faces towards Oea; as on the Roman arch, there are several reliefs with symbolic figures of the goddess Victory, military trophies, and depictions of barbarians subjugated by the Romans.

However, many of these are in very poor condition, much worse than those on the Roman arch. In point of fact, by the time the kingdom of Italy took over Libya from the Ottomans in 1911, the arch had completely collapsed, with only the base left sticking out of the sand. The surviving pieces were recovered after several years of excavation by Italian archeologists, and reassembled as they are seen today in 1928.

The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, Libya

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in the year 121, just under 40 years before he acceded to the imperial throne. Despite his prominence as heir apparent to Antoninus Pius (138-61), and his own rule of almost twenty years, very few public monuments of his reign survive. We have recently looked at the famous equestrian statue of him that now stands in the main piazza of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and the large columnar monument in the city center that celebrates his military campaigns. Close by the column, there once stood a triumphal arch that celebrated the same campaigns; this no longer exists, but eight relief panels were saved from it by being recycled into the Arch of Constantine near the Colosseum, and three others are now preserved in the Capitoline Museums. Like most Roman Emperors managed a half-way decent reign, Marcus Aurelius was divinized after his death, and a temple was built to honor him as a god in the same area, but nothing of it survives.

However, across the Mediterranean from Italy, in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, there survives a small triumphal arch dedicated to him, although it has suffered much from the vicissitudes of time. This city was founded in the 7th century BC by the Phoenicians, who also founded Rome’s great rival, Carthage, to the west and north along the African coast. It was originally called Oyat, which was Latinized as “Oea” after the Roman conquest in the wake of the last Punic War. Its modern name “Tripoli”, meaning “three cities”, comes from its proximity to two other major centers, Sabratha and Leptis Magna, both of which are now no more than archeological zones.

The arch was built in 165 by an official of the city named Gaius Calpurnius Celsus, to commemorate the victories of Marcus Aurelius and his adoptive brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus over the Parthians in Armenia, as recorded in its dedicatory inscription. Drawings from the 19th century show remains of the original attic, which is now destroyed; its absence reveals externally a small octagonal cupola, a very unusual feature in Roman architecture. Prominent relief sculptures show the city’s patron gods, Apollo and Minerva, riding chariots pulled by griffons and sphinxes. The empty niches on two of the four faces of the arch formerly held statues of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus; one of the latter was rediscovered during excavations conducted in the area in the nineteenth century.

(The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli, as it appear in 1803; engraving by Luigi Mayer, from the book Views of the Ottoman Empire. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The internal cupola and one of the external relief sculptures. Both images from Wikimedia Commons by Dr Esam Tabone, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Great Rogations and Plague-Causing Dragons

Today is traditionally both the feast of St Mark the Evangelist, and the observance known as the Greater Rogations. The latter is a penitential procession instituted by Pope St Gregory the Great at the very beginning of his reign (590 A.D.), to beg God’s mercy for the end of a terrible plague that struck Rome and environs, and killed his immediately predecessor, St Pelagius I. Although the plague and the institution of the procession are well attested facts, various legends accrued to them over time.

One such legend is that the Pope divided the populace into seven groups, which were to start processing towards St Peter’s Basilica from seven different parts of the city. When the seven processions converged at the Pons Aelius, the Archangel Michael appeared over the tomb of the Emperor Hadrian and sheathed his sword, a sign that the plague was over, just as happened to King David. (2 Samuel 24). Because of this episode, the late medieval fortress which was built over the tomb is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo (castle of the holy angel), and the bridge in front of it as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, and to this very day, there is a statue of the Archangel Michael on the top of the tomb.

(The Castel Sant’Angelo seen from the Ponte Sant’Angelo, with the statue of St Michael on top. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Radomil, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Dominican friar named Jacopo da Voragine (1230 ca. – 1298), who became the archbishop of Genoa in 1292, produced a famous collection of such stories known as the Golden Legend, and include this tale about the origin of the plague, one of several in which dragons play a prominent role.

“The Tiber river once overflowed its banks so far that it came over the city walls and destroyed a great many of houses. Then also a multitude of serpents with a great dragon came down by the Tiber river to the sea, but were smothered by the waves and cast onto the shore, and with their corrupted all the air.

And thus, the terrible plague which they called “the groin plague” (i.e bubonic) followed, so that arrows were seen coming down from heaven and striking various people. And first of all, it struck Pope Pelagius and killed him at once, but afterwards, raged through the population so fiercely that it left many houses empty in the city, since their inhabitants had been killed.

But because the Church of God could not be without a leader, the people unanimously elected Gregory, although he made every effort to refuse. Therefore, since he had to be consecrated, but the plague was devastating the people, so he preached a sermon to them, and organizing a procession, he instituted the litanies, and exhorted everyone to beseech God the more intently. While the entire people, being gathered together, besought God, the plague itself raged to greatly that in one hour ninety men died; but Gregory did not in any way cease to urge all the people to persist in prayer, until the divine mercy should drive away the plague.”

(The Procession of St Gregory the Great, by an anonymous Sienese painter of the mid-16th century.)

Vocabula Mira: “Pascha” and “Phase”

Between roughly 250 and 130 B.C., Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora communities of the Eastern Mediterranean produced the translations of the Sacred Scriptures collectively known as the Septuagint, which are still used by many of the Eastern churches to this day. These translations seem to have been made mostly in Egypt, but were not the result of a unitary project, and vary considerably from each another in many ways. The translators regarded a number of Hebrew and Aramaic words as technical terms which were best left untranslated, one of which was the Hebrew noun “pesach” (derived from the verb “pāsach – to pass over”), the name of both the feast of Passover and the sacrifice offered during the feast. In the Greek version of the Pentateuch, this word appears 20 times in a transcribed form derived from Aramaic, “paskha”.

This usage carries over into the Gospels, which were of course written in Greek, and all four of the Evangelists use it in connection with the narratives of the Lord’s Passion, which took place at Passover. But even before then, St Paul had used it in the sense of “the sacrifice offered at Passover”, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 5, 7, “τὸ Πάσχα ἡμῶν ἐτύθη Χριστός”, which we can translated most literally as “Christ was sacrificed as our Passover sacrifice.”

Since Passover was the time of Christ’s Passion, i.e. suffering, early Greek-speaking Christians very naturally associated the name of the feast, Paskha, with the verb “paskhein – to suffer.” This is attested in the very first surviving sermon on Easter, preached by St Melito, bishop of Sardis in the mid-2nd century. “What is the Pascha? It’s name is called from its characteristic (or “that which happened on it”); from ‘to suffer’ (τὸ παθεῖν) comes ‘suffering’ (τὸ πάσχειν). Learn, then, who is the One who suffers…” (parag. 46)

(An Egyptian papyrus of the 4th century, the lower part of which has the beginning of St Melito’s sermon on Easter; Chester Beatty Library BP XII, f.13v. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Following the lead of their Greek predecessors, the anonymous Latin translators of the New Testament simply kept the word as a transcription, “Pascha”, which is the origin of the word for Easter in the Romance languages. (Ital. “Pascua”, Fr. “Pâques”, etc.) By the time St Jerome revised the Latin text of the Gospels in the 380s, this usage had become too well established to change, and so he left the word “Pascha” alone.

However, Jerome was perfectly well aware of the fact that the association of “Pascha – passover” and “paskhein – to suffer” was, as it were, a folk etymology based on a phonetic coincidence. In his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew, he says, “The word ‘pascha’, which is pronounced ‘phase’ in Hebrew, does not come from ‘passion’, as most people think, but from ‘passover’, since the destroying angel, seeing the blood on the doors of the Israelites, passed over them and did not slay them.” (cit. Ex. 12; Lib. 4 in Matt. 26, 2; PL 24, 190C) Therefore, in his Old Testament translations made directly from Hebrew into Latin, he replaces the transcription “pascha” with “phase.”

He must have also realized that this would sounds strange to Latin-speakers who were used to hearing the word “pascha”, and so in the very first occurrence of it in Exodus 12, 11, he also adds an explanatory note, which is still part of the Vulgate. “est enim Phase (id est, transitus) Domini. – for it is the ‘phase’, (that is, ‘the passing-over’) of the Lord.” In the traditional liturgy of Good Friday, both versions, “phase” and “pascha”, still occur, the former in the Epistle, Exodus 12, 1-11, and the second in the reading of the Passion of St John.

(St Jerome in His Study, 1451, by Antonio da Fabriano (1420-90); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

How I Celebrated Rome’s Birthday 25 Years Ago

Apart from events like birthdays and wedding anniversaries, I suspect people very rarely know exactly where they were and what they were doing on any given day one year ago, never mind a quarter of a century ago, but I do remember exactly where I was on the evening of April 21, 1997. This day is traditionally marked as the anniversary of the founding of Rome; and in 1997, it was a jubilee anniversary, 2750 years from the conventional date of 753 BC. On that day, I was on the Capitoline Hill, waiting for the unveiling of a copy of the great statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that dominates the central piazza of the hill, in front of Rome’s city hall.

In the early 1980s, it was discovered that the original, which had been outdoors for over 18 centuries at that point, was suffering badly from exposure to the elements, and so the decision was made to bring it into the Capitoline Museums, and replace it in the piazza with an exact copy. This is an aspect of the field of art restoration and preservation at which the Italians excel; the copy is incredibly precise, made by measuring every bump and notch of the original with lasers. Once the copy had been made, it was set up in the piazza, and the official unveiling of it planned for Rome’s 55th jubilee.

A crowd had gathered in the piazza, waiting for the mayor to come out at 5pm, make a speech, and announce the unveiling; when I arrived at about 4:30, the statue was completely covered by a large tarpaulin. Then, in classic Italian fashion, 5pm arrived, but the mayor did not. The minutes passed… 5:10 … 5:20 … 5:30… The crowd became restive, and like all restive Roman crowds, filled the air with a great many sarcastic and highly uncomplimentary remarks about the mayor. 5:40… 5:50…

Rome can get very windy around sunset, especially in the spring, and every once in while, a gust of wind would shake the tarp quite strongly, and the crowd would start to cheer, hoping that it would do what the people in charge of the event could not decently do until the mayor arrived. Then finally! a powerful gust of wind ripped the tarp almost completely off; the crowd cheered, and mostly left. The mayor finished whatever had been keeping him until then and came out about 10 minutes later, to the sight of an almost empty piazza. Evviva!

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Burkhard MückeCC BY-SA 4.0)

Studium Urbis – The Foundation of the University of Rome

On this day in the year 1303, the last of his reign, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull “In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis”, establishing the University of Rome. The university’s official motto is “Studium Urbis – the study of the city”, “studium” being the word most broadly used in the Middle Ages for academic institutions; since the mid-16th century, it has been nicknamed “La Sapienza”, Italian for “wisdom.” It is now considered very prestigious, and rated one of the best in the world for the study of both classics and ancient history, but for much its existence, its fortunes have vacillated considerably. Its reputation often came out the worse in competition with other academic institutions in the Eternal City, and in the days of the Papal state, more than one Pope thought of closing it. Plans for providing it with new buildings were begun during the reign of Alexander VI (1492-1503), but not brought to completion until the reign of the next Pope of that name (1655-67), although the final results include one of the splendors of the Roman Baroque, Francesco Borromini’s great church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza.

(The dome of Sant’Ivo exemplifies Borromini’s fondness for unusual geometrical forms and his dislike of color. Six-pointed stars were a traditional symbol of wisdom, and the building is permeated with patterns based on the number six. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Architas, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

The opening paragraph of Pope Boniface’s Bull is not just an excellent expression of the role of a university, but also a fine piece of Latin writing, in the best tradition of Roman rhetorical elegance, one to which our own poor effort at translation does no real justice.

“In supremae praeeminentia dignitatis divini dispositione consilii constituti, ad universas fidelium regiones nostrae vigilantiae creditas tanquam pastor Dominici gregis aciem Apostolicae considerationis extendimus, ad earum profectum quantum nobis ex alto permittitur intendentes: sed ad urbium Urbem, Romanam videlicet civitatem, quam divina clementia statuit caput Orbis, eo attentionis (attentius?) meditationis intuitum retorquemus, quo principalius in eadem nostri sedem Apostolatus caelestis dispositio stabilivit, et firmavit Ecclesiae fundamentum. Hanc profecto nimirum inter caeteras urbes sub Christianae religione fidei militantes, uberioris affectionis praerogativa prosequimur, studiosius Apostolicis munimus praesidiis, et condignis libentius gratiis honoramus, ideoque ferventi non immerito desiderio ducimur, quod eadem Urbs, quam divina bonitas tot gratiarum dotibus insignivit, scientiarum etiam fiat foecunda muneribus, ut viros producat consilii maturitate conspicuos, virtutum redimitos ornatibus, ac diversarum facultatum dogmatibus eruditos, sitque ibi fons scientiarum irriguus, de cujus plenitudine hauriant universi literalibus cupientes imbui monumentis.

Having been placed by the arrangement of God’s counsel in the foremost place of supreme dignity, as the shepherd of the Lord’s flock we extend the attention of our Apostolic regard to all those regions of the faithful entrusted to our vigilance, looking to their advancement as much as is permitted to us from above. But to the city of cities, namely, Rome, which the divine clemency appointed the head of the world, we turn the gaze of our consideration the more attentive, since there above all did the arrangement chosen by heaven establish the seat of our Apostolate, and fixe the foundation of the Church. Most assuredly do we attend this city, among all those that strive under the religion of the Christian faith, with the prerogatives of a richer affection, protecting it the more zealously with our Apostolic guardianship, and honor it the more willingly with becoming favors. Therefore, not undeservedly are we led with fervent desire that the same city, which the divine goodness had marked with so many gifts of grace, should become also rich in the works of knowledge, so that it might produce men outstanding for the maturity of their counsel, crowned with the ornaments of the virtues, and learnèd in the teachings of the various fields, and that there may be therein an overflowing fountain of the knowledge, from the fullness of which all those who desire to be fully educated in the great works of letters may draw.” (Magnum Bullarium Romanum, vol 1, p. 205; Borde, Arnaud et Rigaud, Lyon, 1655.)

(A contemporary portrait of Pope Boniface by Giotto; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, by Sailko; CC BY 3.0)