My relationship with Rome is a love-hate one. I’ve always felt pleasantly intimidated by the visible traces of the bygone Empire, but at the same time, the modern disorganization seems to convey an undying sense of fading power. However, apart from everyday mishaps, my recent stay in the Italian capital is being devoted to a pleasant self-indulgence in the city’s better and lesser known corners.
Feeling intrigued by the posters of the latest exhibition at the Capitoline Museums Rome is covered with, I decided to delve into the documents the Vatican has agreed to show from their legendary secret archives. On a Sunday morning, at around 11am, I entered the gloomy labyrinth where centuries of darkness, conspiracies and struggles for power were represented by the original documents the Holy See has lent to the Campidoglio until September 9th.
The title of the exhibition, Lux in Arcana, says it all. The light of the Christian Infinite, how D. H. Lawrence liked to call the process of abnegation the Church imposed to its members and followers, is shed on the arcane plots honorable and self-defined eminent clerics have painstakingly concocted. Wandering about centuries of Catholic history, if I were to describe the Vatican dwellers, I would say silent. Glancing an unsettling look at Europe’s troubled past through the thin manuscripts, the precious seals, the letters from the monarchs to popes and cardinals, the Holy See definitely appears what I always thought it was, a business center.
The exhibition spreads out along the beautiful decoration and works of art of the Capitoline Museums, and the only drawback is that until Lux in Arcana is up, taking photos won’t be allowed.
The journey started with philosphers, scientists and great minds, the ones the holy men had once gagged and forced to deny their beliefs and discovers, or, in the worst case scenarios, burnt at stake, as it happened to Giordano Bruno, victim of one of the darkest pages in the history of Christianity. But there were indeed other dark pages of the Catholicism, such as Galileo Galilei, of which the exhibition displays the official records of the trial, forced to deny his scientific discoveries because not in line with what the Vatican dwellers were preaching, namely, that it was the sun that rotated around the earth.
Along with scientists and philosophers who had more or less pleasant encounters with the Church, were kings, queens, caliphs, the Chinese empress Wang, newly converted to Christianity who addressed Pope Innocent X with a letter written in silk, probably to dispel any doubt about the authenticity of the message, musicians, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and even Abraham Lincoln. I was happy to see also on display the 60-meter-long paper of the official trial to the Knights Templar. A hundred original documents shed a fascinating light on twelve centuries of human history, most events widely known, others less advertised but important to have the bigger picture of the Vatican’s activities.
Now, I never thought (and I doubt any of the visitors actually did) that the Vatican had agreed to show all their secret archives, not even some of their truly dark secrets, of which a wide literature has already been published.
The temporary exhibition sits within the Capitoline Museums walls, a fascinating journey through the heart of ancient Rome, the point from where the city was built and lived its highest glory. One of the finest collections of classical art in Rome, the Museums’ permanent exhibition is a proper stroll back around ancient Rome. Ruins from the Roman Empire never fail to evoke majesty, and wandering about the untarnished statues of former luxurious gardens was by all means inspiring, although I usually prefer visiting ancient sites and masterpieces where they were originally conceived. Sure, those statues and fountains perfectly reproduce a piece of culture during the Empire, such as their rituals, cults and beliefs, and keeping them in the Capitoline Hill is probably not too far from their original settings, but certainly seeing them where their artists or commissioners wanted them at the beginning gives a more authentic hint on what was like back in those days.
This is why I loved my visit many years ago to Pompei, the ancient city destroyed by the volcano Vesuvio, and my more recent trip to Lebanon, where visiting Roman and Phoenician ruins literally meant walking in the same streets the ancestors did.