Sunday 28 July 2013

The War in Rome

"Courage, my love," reads the message carefully stitched inside the old wool sock given by a grieving family to a loved one held inside Rome's dreaded Gestapo prison located mere steps from the city's historic and magnificent church San Giovanni in Laterano.

Today, Via Tasso 145 is no longer the torture chamber of the Second World War but is instead the nondescript Historical Museum of Liberation - a small collection of artifacts, commemorating mostly Italians but also some Allied soldiers who lived and usually died fighting for Italy's liberation from Hitler's forces.

Rooms are lined with newspaper clippings from clandestine journals of the day and posters warning the populace not to harbour members of Resistance or Jews. Some boast numerous photos or letters by the 2,0000 prisoners who passed through Via Tasso, as well as stories of some of the most famous Resistance members, particularly the heroic Colonel Giuseppe Cordero di Montezemolo. An officer in the Italian Army who organized the Roman resistance, it is said that the Nazi SS interrogated and tortured Montezemolo at Via Tasso for 58 days, but he uttered not a word.

Intensely personal messages can be seen scratched into the windowless cells where prisoners were crammed, including many women who were part of the Resistance. Broken pocket watches showed the hour of seizure, while the personalized sock and articles of blood-stained clothing attest to the purpose of the prison.

The story of the Gestapo crackdown in Rome was immortalized in a brilliant 1945 film by Roberto Rossellini called "Roma: citta aperta" (Rome: Open City.) These photos were all from the deeply moving film which Rossellini conceived of and wrote with a partner while the war still raged around them.

The museum particularly focuses on the nine dark months of the Nazi occupation of Rome - from September 11, 1943 to June 4, 1944 - when the apartments on Via Tasso were used as a prison by the command of the German security police headed by Herbert Kappler.

When it was finally liberated on June 4, 1944, the public raced into the palazzo, freed prisoners and plundered the building, the museum says in its official history. Some displaced people lived there for a time until 1950 when the building's owner, the Ruspoli family, donated four of the apartments to the state.

I would highly recommend a visit but warn that almost all information is in Italian (with a bit in German.)

Sunday 21 July 2013

A Rome church filled with ghosts......

When my friend Laura asked me if I wanted to visit a haunted church in central Rome, I did not hesitate. I am not sure I believe in ghosts, or if they believe in me, but it certainly sounded interesting.

The Chiesa del Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, or the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage, is on the banks of the Tiber, just opposite the historic centre and really just a stone's throw from the Ara Pacis (which isn't that far from Piazza del Popolo.)

It was built in neo-Gothic style between 1894 and 1917 by the architect Giuseppe Gualandi, so by Roman standards, it's extremely modern.

Why, then, the rumours of ghosts and the dead skulking about? It's not so old that it has had time to collect many dead, or old enough that any of Caesar's contemporaries would be hanging around here.

The link is explained by its Museum of Souls in Purgatory and the fact the church was founded in memory of the souls in Purgatory. (Just a reminder, the Catholic Church sees Purgatory as a kind of state or place where souls can be cleansed of sin enroute to heaven.) As a Catholic, I was raised with this concept so I can roll with it quite easily.

(Images are from Wikipedia; the art is illustrating Dante's version of Purgatorio)

Adding to the drama of this particular church, legend has it that on one of the pillars in the church, the shadow of man's head was once seen and this supports the notion that souls in Purgatory are stopping by. Presumably, on their way to Saint Peter's Square and the Vatican, about a kilometre down river from the church.

So, the priest who made the initial discovery began collecting further evidence, including strange fingerprints on a tablet, demonstrating that souls of the dead, now in Purgatory, stopped by.

Included in the one-room museum is a prayer book, where one page bears the handprint of a dead person that a priest swore appeared out of nowhere late one night as he was reading. And several scorched garments where witnesses said a dead soul touched them to get their attention. Why this tended to scorch fabric remains a mystery.

Speaking as a Catholic, and as a woman of the world, I find all of this to be rather farcical and far closer to superstition that faith. But then again, this was far more interesting and less freakish and offensive than the Crypt of the Capuchin monks at Rome's Barberini metro stop. That is just creepy and not worth the 6-euro admission fee.

Monday 1 July 2013

Rome is full of surprises!

Rome is full of surprises. Take Villa Torlonia, one of the more unusual that I've seen in a while, including a very interesting complex of buildings and a beautiful park with large, shady palm trees not too far from Termini in Rome's centre. Its history includes providing a home and command centre for both the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, from the 1920s through the Second World War, followed by the Allied command.

It also features some very fanciful twists.

I laughed out loud when I saw the unique and playful Casina delle Civette, one of the most whimsical buildings in the complex. Although the House of the Owls (civette) was designed in 1840 as a kind of Swiss chalet, it drew its nickname from the owl motif that is used almost obsessively throughout the house.

The present structure, which is choc-a-bloc with interesting, Liberty/ Art Nouveau style stained glass, is apparently vastly changed from the original chalet style which was built to provide an escape from the main and massive villa.

The Casina delle Civette, which has two sections linked by an overhead walkway, now hosts a small museum and exhibition space.

Nearby, the larger and formal  Villa Torlonia, which was renovated during the 1990s and completed in 2006, now belongs to the city of Rome and is the site of a large museum of contemporary art and changing exhibitions. (Photo from AFP)

But for 18 years the villa, on Via Nomentana, was home to the family of Mussolini who actually built a large air-raid shelter underneath the historic home. Subsequently, in June 1944 the property was taken over by the Allied High Command, which remained there until 1947.

Today, the gardens also include a historic Temple to Saturn, a large theatre, a conservatory, an extensive collection of classical sculptures, fountains, great walking paths. And of course, a lovely bar/cafe!