Category Archives: Italian History

Today in Catholic History – Cesare Borgia resigns from the cardinalate

On 17 August 1498, Cesare Borgia became the first man to ever resign from the cardinalate.

Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, had placed many of his children into church offices. Cesare was made bishop of Pamplona when he was 15 and raised to the cardinalate at 18. However, Cesare himself did not desire a church career and when his brother Giovanni mysteriously died, some blamed Cesare for the death, Cesare saw the opportunity to inherit his brother’s position as captain general of the armies of the papacy. Cesare was 23 when he resigned the cardinalate.

With the approval of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned from the cardinalate to pursue a secular and a military career. As long as Alexander VI was pope, Cesare’s position was secure, but with Alexander’s death and the rise of anti-Borgia popes such as Pius III and Julius II – Cesare found himself imprisoned and then exiled.


Today in Catholic History – The Bombing of the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura

On 19th July 1943, between 11 a.m. and 12 noon, 150 Allied B-17 bombers attacked a freight yard and steel factory in Rome near the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura [Saint Lawrence Outside The Walls]. During the attack bombs fell upon the Basilica causing major damage and killing and injuring more than one thousand civilians.

Pope Pius XII had been deeply concerned about the threat war posed to Rome and the likelihood Rome might be a major target. The Allied forces first bombed Rome on 16th of May 1943, leading the Pope to ask US President Franklin Roosevelt that Rome “be spared as far as possible further pain and devastation, and their many treasured shrines… from irreparable ruin.” Roosevelt promised that Allied planes were instructed to avoid bombing Vatican City and that neither civilian nor non-military sites wold be targeted. The US command wanted to pay particular attention to preserving the safety of Catholic places because of the large number of Catholics in the US Armed Forces.

The Allied bombers had not intended to damage the basilica. Indeed, the Allied commanders had specifically ordered in regards to the Vatican, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls that they “must on no account be damaged.” Before the bombing, Allied planes dropped leaflets explaining that no attempt was being made to bomb “those cultural monuments which are the glory not only of Rome but of the civilized world.” However, some of the Allied bombs fell short of their intended targets and struck San Lorenzo.

Immediately after the bombing of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Pius XII and Msgr. Giovanni Batista Montini [the future Paul VI] went to the basilica and distributed ₤ 2 million to the victims. Those who were there on that day would remember how the white cassock of the Pope would be stained red with the blood of the victims.

On 20 July 1943, Pius XII sent an angry message to President Roosevelt in which he said, “As Bishop of this Sacred city we have constantly tried to save our beloved Rome from devastation…But this reasonable hope has, alas, been frustrated.” Several US Bishops sympathized with this response.

However, some US Bishops, such as Bishop Joseph Lynch of Dallas and Edwin O’Hara of Kansas City, defended the bombing on the grounds that the Basilica had not been deliberately targeted and that such attacks were necessary to overcome the evil of the Axis powers. American Catholics would also blame Mussolini for not declaring Rome an open city which would have protected it from Allied attack.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo would be restored in 1948. During the restoration many of the changes to the church which were made during Pius IX’s 19th century restoration were removed.

E il Papa la domenica mattina da San Pietro,
uscì tutto da solo tra la gente, e in mezzo a San Lorenzo,
spalancò le ali, sembrava proprio un angelo con gli occhiali.

[And the Pope that Sunday morning at San Pietro,
went out alone among the people, and in the middle of San Lorenzo
he spread his wings, he looked like an angel with glasses.]
Francesco De Gregori – San Lorenzo

A very interesting collection of photos of the Basilica di San Lorenzo and how it looked before the bombing, after the bombing and how it looks today
An image of Pius XII at San Lorenzo after the bombing

Today in Catholic History – Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls Almost Destroyed By Fire

On 15 July 1823, the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls was almost destroyed by fire.

The basilica, one of the five major basilicas of Rome, was originally built by Constantine I atop the site of the execution of Saint Paul, but was modified throughout its long history. From 1215-1964, it was the see of the Latin Patriarch of Alexandria.

The fire was apparently caused by worker negligence during repair of the roof. Workers were soldering the lead roof when burning coals from from a brazier used to melt the solder fell on the roof. Most of the basilica was destroyed including almost all of the paintings of the pontiffs which lined the basilica’s walls.

The Basilica would be repaired and reconsecrated in 1855 by Pope Pius IX and fifty cardinals whose names can be seen inside the basilica. Many countries would send materials for the reconstruction, including the Emperor of Russia Nicholas I who sent malachite and lapis lazuli for the tabernacle. So, while most of what can be seen at the Basilica today is modern but the repairs did attempt to use original materials and the original design of the basilica.

A print of the fire damaged basilica can be found here.

Today in Catholic History – The First Issue of L’Osservatore Romano is Published

On 1 July 1861, the first issue of L’Osservatore Romano or The Roman Observatory, the semi-official newspaper of the Holy See, was published.

The purpose of the paper was to support the power of the papacy in the face of threats to its temporal and spiritual authority. Indeed the name of the paper came from a pamphlet published by a traditionalist French Catholic group, though the Vatican initially wanted to call the paper L’ amico della verita or The Friend of Truth.

The stated aims of the paper were:
1 – to reveal and to refute the calumnies unleashed against Rome and the Roman Pontificate;
2 – to make known the most remarkable daily events occurring in Rome and elsewhere;
3 – to recall the firm principles of the Catholic religion and those of justice and the law, as the stable foundations of any kind of social existence;
4 – to educate on duties to the nation;
5 – to inspire and promote the veneration of the august Sovereign and Pontiff;
6 – to collect and illustrate all that deserves public attention in the arts, literature and sciences, and especially inventions and relative applications of achievements in the Pontifical States

The paper was deeply hostile to the movement of Italian unification being led by Piedmont-Sardinia and even after the armies of the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome in 1870, L’Osservatore Romano promised to remain faithful “to that unchangeable principle of religion and morals which recognizes as its sole depository and claimant the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth”.

Today, L’Osservatore Romano continues to present the news about and views of the Holy See to the wider world.

More on the history of the paper

Today in Catholic History – Napoleon annexes the Papal States

On 17 May 1809, Napoleon annexed the Papal States on the grounds that what Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor had given, Napoleon as the new Emperor could take away. However, one of the main reasons for Napoleon’s action was Pius VII’s refusal to support the French against the British.

Napoleon joined the Papal States to the French Empire, made Rome a free imperial city, and planned for a constitutional government to be placed upon the former territory of the Pope.

In response, Pope Pius VII had bulls of excommunication placed on the doors of Rome’s churches which imposed this sentence on anyone who participated in the annexation, including Napoleon himself. Pius VII, fully expecting to be imprisoned or executed by Napoleon also issued a bull calling for a new papal election. Indeed, French troops would arrest Pius VII in July of 1809 and he would remain a prisoner of Napoleon until May 1814.

The annexation documents

Today in Catholic History – The Pantheon becomes a Catholic Church

On 13 May 609, Pope Boniface IV converted the pagan temple known as the Pantheon in Rome into the Church Sancta Maria ad Martyrs or Santa Maria dei Martiri.

The original Pantheon had been built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus Caesar but it had been replaced by another structure after burning to the ground. In 609, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas gave the rebuilt Pantheon to the Pope who wished that no longer would the demons be the object of veneration but rather the Mother of God and the saints.

Because the Pantheon was converted into a Church it was spared the destruction that befell many of the ancient Roman buildings during the medieval period. It has since been used as a model for many other structures including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Jefferson Memorial.

More on the Pantheon

Today in Catholic History – Works of Gabriele d’Annunzio placed on Index of Prohibited Books

On 9 May 1911, the Vatican placed on the Index of Prohibited Books all of the love stories and dramatic works of Gabriele d’Annunzio, but not his poetry.

What led the Vatican to take this step was d’Annunzio’s collaboration with Claude Debussy on the musical play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien [The Martyrdom of St Sebastian]. The Jewish actress Ida Rubinstein had been cast to play the role of Saint Sebastian, indeed d’Annunzio had written the part of Saint Sebastian specifically for her. But the fact that the Christian saint would be played by a Jewish women outraged French Catholics. Moreover, d’Annunzio’s play identified Saint Sebastian with the pagan figure of Adonis and neither d’Annunzio nor Debussy were Catholic. Needless to say, neither the Vatican nor Parisian Archbishop, Cardinal Leon Adolphe Amette, expected the play to present an account of Saint Sebastian which would promote Catholic faith and spirituality.

While there was some question as to whether the Vatican prohibition would, in fact, encourage more people to see the performance; the Vatican believed that it would be giving greater moral authority to the Archbishop in regards to his response to the play. Indeed shortly before the opening night of the production, the Archbishop issued a statement reminding Parisian Catholics about the Vatican’s prohibition and that they should not attend any play which “offended Christian consciences”.

The play was not successful, though it is not known whether that was because of or in spite of the actions of the Vatican and Cardinal Amette.

New York Times article
about the Vatican and Amette response to d’Annunzio’s play

Today in Catholic History – The Foundation of Sapienza – Università di Roma

On 20 April 1303, Pope Boniface VIII issued the bull In Supremae Praeminentia Dignitatis establishing the Studium Urbis, in 1660 to become known as as La Sapienza, or Wisdom, and today known as Sapienza – Università di Roma. Which today, although no longer under the control of the Pope, is the largest university in Europe and the oldest of the three public universities in Rome.

Pope Boniface founded the university for the purpose of ecclesiastical studies. The name La Sapienza came from the 111th Psalm – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Pope Eugenius IV in October 1431 would issue a bull, In Supremae, which would establish additional funding for the university through a tax on wine. He also established the faculties of law, philosophy, medicine and theology.

In 1870, after the capture of Rome by the armies of the Kingdom of Italy, La Sapienza shifted from papal control to that of the government of Italy.

In January 2008, a hostile response from 67 professors of Sapienza and many students would cause Pope Benedict XVI to cancel a proposed lecture at the university.

More on Sapienza
Pope Benedict XVI’s proposed lecture at Sapienza and the controversy over it

#230 – Michelangelo, La Pietà and Laszlo Toth

On Pentecost Sunday 1972, Laszlo Toth took a hammer to the masterpiece of Michelangelo amidst a crowd of stunned visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica.

Video of the damage to La Pietà – again the audio is a little too apocalyptic, but the images are very moving
Articles on La Pietà
Michelangelo’s other Pietà – The Deposition or Florentine Pietà, the Rodanini Pietà and perhaps the Palestrina Pietà.

Be sure to check out the CUTH blog for more on the history of the Catholic Church

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podcasticon#230 – Michelangelo, La Pietà and Laszlo Toth

Catholic History in Other Podcasts – Savonarola

Stuff You Missed in History Class does a podcast on Savonarola, the Dominican friar who preached Church reform and ran afoul of Pope Alexander VI.