Italy: Spirit of Rome

By Julia Shallcrass

Julia Shallcrass explores the ancient remnants of Rome, from its dark history to the Vatican City.

Looking down on the Colosseum, Rome. Photo / Supplied
Looking down on the Colosseum, Rome. Photo / Supplied

On our recent visit to the Eternal City, we uncover Rome's gruesome history and its spiritual light.

Standing outside the Colosseum, we could be forgiven for thinking that the Roman Empire has not yet fallen.

Where thousands of spectators once gathered to watch gladiators fight, today my husband and I join hundreds of tourists for gory stories of life and death.

In Emperor Nero's day, gladiators fought exotic animals including elephants, lions, and giraffes at the Colosseum. We see the pits which housed these animals before battle.

While most gladiators were slaves, the professionals were apparently treated like football stars. Rumour has it that women had to sit far away from the arena to resist throwing themselves at these superstars.

We discover that the dark side of Rome did not end with the fall of the Empire.

At night, we discover secrets of the Roman Middle Ages on the "Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Rome" walking tour. Our American Dark Rome tour guide Graham knows how to tell a good ghost story. He meets us at 9pm and escorts us to 10 different locations, including the Ponte Sisto Bridge.

"Stay away from this bridge after dark," Graham warns us. "If you encounter the ghost of Donna Olimpia riding in a carriage, pulled by four demons, you may not live to see another day."

According to tradition, Donna Olimpia's illicit liaisons with Pope Innocent X led to her playing a powerful role in the Vatican. Following the Pope's death, she attempted to flee Rome with acquisitions from the papal treasury, but died of the Plague on her way out of the city.

Graham explains that Rome was a violent city in the Middle Ages. Street shrines known as "Madonnelle" helped to change the citizens' behaviour. These small Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Madonna, often holding a baby Jesus, remain in street alleys today.

The spiritual light of Rome appears as legendary as the city's dark past.

Emperor Constantine ordered the building of the original St Peter's Basilica after legalising Christianity. Today the tomb of the Apostle Peter lies below the altar in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican City.

We join thousands of pilgrims and visitors at the Vatican for a blessing from the successor of Apostle Peter, Pope Benedict XVI.

We clear security to enter the Hall of Pope Paul VI. Swiss guards perform security in uniforms designed by Michaelangelo several centuries ago. Such is the tradition at the Vatican.

It is nearly a two-hour wait for the Pope, and excitement within the crowd of two thousand builds. Groups of pilgrims and choirs sing hymns and anthems, while Cardinals sit quietly on the stage in a semi-circle.

As the Pope emerges in white, the crowd stands and cheers.

He greets us in English as well as several other languages, including his native German. He remains sitting on central stage as he delivers a message about his recent travels to Lebanon.

After leading us in the Our Father prayer in Latin, the Pope raises his hands to impart his Apostolic blessing on us all - a blessing which extends to loved ones sick or suffering around the world.

Tips

To book a tour with Dark Rome Tours, visit darkrometours.com.

Papal Audiences are free for audience members, and are held on Wednesday mornings at either St Peter's Square or in the Hall of Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. You can book a ticket at papalaudience.org/tickets.

- nzherald.co.nz

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