Saturday, March 26, 2016


If creation is full of expectancy,
that is because it is waiting
for the sons of God to be made known.
Created nature has been condemned to frustration;
not for some deliberate fault of its own,
but for the sake of him who so condemned it,
with a hope to look forward to;
namely, that nature in its turn
will be set free from the tyranny of corruption,
to share in the glorious freedom of God’s sons.
The whole of nature, as we know,
groans in a common travail all the while.

And not only do we see that,
but we ourselves do the same;
we ourselves,
although we have already begun to reap our spiritual harvest,
groan in our hearts,
waiting for that adoption
which is the ransoming of our bodies from their slavery.

It must be so,
since our salvation is founded upon the hope of something.

Romans 8:22-24 [Knox]

Maronite Year XXXVII

Great Saturday of the Light
Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 27:62-66

O Lord, we have battled!
We have fought to exhaustion;
we have borne long combat,
we have known the endless ordeal.
In the night we have watched;
we held the line despite the pain;
we served Your covenant.
Have mercy on us, Most High God,
for you are rich in grace.
In compassion blot out our sins.
Wash us clean, purely clean,
Do not forget us, Lord our God,
on the reckoning day.

Your will we disobeyed;
You we offended with our sins.
Your judgment was righteous
on we who were born into sin.
But You love faithfulness,
and You have taught us Your wisdom,
planted truth in our hearts;
now sprinkle us with Your mercy,
cleanse us with hyssop wand,
that we may be made right and true,
washed whiter than pure snow.
Do not forget us, Lord our God,
on the reckoning day.

How great is Christ's bright love!
Who can understand its vastness?
Its scope is truly great,
its width, its length, its height, its depth.
It was seen on the cross,
in His passion and death for us.
Love is the light of grace;
by it mysteries are unveiled,
without it none are known.
Christ loved to the border of love:
He died for us, His friends.
Do not forget us, Lord our God,
on the reckoning day.

We in hope await peace.
We are confident of glory,
confident in trouble,
knowing that pain proves endurance,
that endurance proves faith,
that proved faith is ground for sure hope.
Turn Your eyes from our sins,
blot out the record of our guilt!
Breathe new life into us
as we await resurrection.
Strengthen us in Your grace.
Do not forget us, Lord our God,
on the reckoning day.

Lent XL

With regard to Christ's death, His patience and constancy in enduring death are commended, and all the more that His death was the more despicable: but in His honorable burial we can see the power of the dying Man, who, even in death, frustrated the intent of His murderers, and was buried with honor: and thereby is foreshadowed the devotion of the faithful who in the time to come were to serve the dead Christ.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 3.51.2 ad 1

Friday, March 25, 2016

God's Foolishness

To those who court their own ruin,
the message of the cross is but folly;
to us, who are on the way to salvation,
it is the evidence of God's power.
So we read in scripture,
I will confound the wisdom of wise men,
disappoint the calculations of the prudent.

What has become of the wise men, the scribes,
the philosophers of this age we live in?
Must we not say that God
has turned our worldly wisdom to folly?
When God shewed us his wisdom,
the world, with all its wisdom,
could not find its way to God;
and now God would use a foolish thing,
our preaching,
to save those who will believe in it.

Here are the Jews asking for signs and wonders,
here are the Greeks intent on their philosophy;
but what we preach is Christ crucified;
to the Jews, a discouragement,
to the Gentiles, mere folly;
but to us who have been called,
Jew and Gentile alike,
Christ the power of God,
Christ the wisdom of God.

So much wiser than men is God's foolishness;
so much stronger than men is God's weakness.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25 [Knox]

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part VI

The last installment ended with looking out over the Forum Magnum, or Forum Romanum, after having seen the Forum of Trajan and the Forum of Caesar. In long ages ago, the Forum was an extremely marshy area among the hills, but the development of irrigation technologies made it possible to give the area a proper drainage and build. However, one of the consequences of this is that the area covers over more quickly than many other ruins do; erosion from the higher area around increases the height of the ground at a brisk pace -- at least, at a brisk pace for the slow creep of sedimentation. This means that the Forum through its centuries has picked up many layers, since as the ground rose, people just paved over what was there before. Here's an interesting map showing the Forum in two of the different stages -- red for the Republic and black for the Empire -- whose remnants we can still recognize:

Platner-forum-republic-96 recontructed color

Here is the Basilica Aemilia:

The Basilica Aemilia was begun by Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in about 179 BC on the site of what had originally been a butchers' market; it was originally called the Basilica Fulvia. It seems to have taken the name Basilica Aemilia because it was actually only completed by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Marcus Fulvius's successor and political enemy, if we assume that Lepidus's building was the same as Nobilior's rather than a neighboring one. The building underwent reconstructino in 55 BC by Lucius Aemilius Lepidus Paullus; Julius Caesar had bribed Paullus for support, and Paullus funded the reconstruction with the bribe money. Various events required various restorations in the centuries, but at some point, people just stopped maintaining it, and it fell to ruin. And so with the whole area.

As I mentioned before, we were visiting the day after the Ides of March, so the Ara di Cesare was especially notable decorated with the remnants of the previous day's festivities. A plaque with a quotation from Appian's Civil Wars 2.148:

The full passage from which this little excerpt is taken:

The people returned to Caesar's bier and bore it as a consecrated thing to the Capitol in order to bury it in the temple and place it among the gods. Being prevented from doing so by the priests, they placed it again in the forum where stands the ancient palace of the kings of Rome. There they collected together pieces of wood and benches, of which there were many in the forum, and anything else they could find of that sort, for a funeral pile, throwing on it the adornments of the procession, some of which were very costly. Some of them cast their own crowns upon it and many military gifts. Then they set fire to it, and the entire people remained by the funeral pile throughout the night. There an altar was first erected, but now there stands the temple of Caesar himself, as he was deemed worthy of divine honours; for Octavian, his son by adoption, who took the name of Caesar, and, following in his footsteps in political matters, greatly strengthened the government which was founded by Caesar, and remains to this day, decreed divine honours to his father. From this example the Romans now pay like honours to each emperor at his death if he has not reigned in a tyrannical manner or made himself odious, although at first they could not bear to call them kings even while alive.

That's actually quite ominous, if you know your Roman history. But it was also a long time ago, and the remains of the previous day's festivities were still to be seen. Flowers on the altar:

The remains of laurel crowns:

I didn't get a good look, snapping the picture hastily in passing, but I believe that this is the Arch of Septimius Severus, to commemorate his Parthian victories and those of his sons:

The ruins of the Temple of Vesta:

The Temple of Vesta was one of the most important buildings in Ancient Rome. It was said to have been built by the heroic-age king Numa Pompilius, although the remains we have are clearly from some later reconstruction or expansion. It housed the hearthfire of Rome itself (the remains above, in fact, are the last bit of the hearth); the most important legal documents and sacred artifacts of the City were stored there. If the flame went out, the Romans took it as a sign that disaster was about to strike, and it was assiduously maintained until Emperor Theodosius extinguished the flame in 394 after the Battle of Frigidus. Most of the destruction of the Temple only occurred in the sixteenth century; what we see of it now was reconstructed in the twentieth.

It seems appropriate to quote Ovid (Fasti, Book VI):

I foolishly thought for ages that there were statues
Of Vesta, later I learnt there were none beneath her dome:
An undying fire is concealed with the shrine,
But there’s no image of Vesta or of fire.

The Temple was located in a sacred grove as part of a complex that included the Regia (the house of the king) and the House of the Vestal Virgins. When Theodosius dissolved the College of Virgins, the House of Vestal Virgins continued to be used as a residence, first for Imperial officials, then for officials in the papal curia, until it just fell out of use in about the eleventh century or so. Here we have the courtyard in the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Atrium Vestae, as the sky is lightly starting to sprinkle:

And a room off to the side:

And more of it rising on Palatine Hill above the courtyard:

And here we are looking down into the Atrium:

And, finally, looking back across what we had just toured:

to be continued

Maronite Year XXXVI

The two major events in a Maronite Church on Good Friday are the Signing of the Chalice and the Adoration of the Cross.

Great Friday of the Crucifixion
Hebrews 12:12-21; John 19:31-37

Have mercy on us, O Lord, from Your great mercy;
blot out our sins according to Your grace.
Wash our garments pure as snow, and cleanse our souls,
for we do not pretend we have no sin,
for we see our sins and know our iniquity.
Against You we have sinned, doing evil;
we are judged by Your justice and saved by Your love.
By Your cross, remove hate and strife.

Upon the cross, O Lord, Your side was pierced by spear.
The Church approaches You with open hands,
in hope to receive the Blood and living water,
the signs that You are divine and human;
May we be worthy to praise the chalice You give,
which was filled with salvation on the cross:
the blood of forgiveness poured down in Your passion.
By Your cross, calm tempest and wrath.

From before our birth we bore the burden of man,
swept away by the revolt of Adam;
but You have made divine things manifest to us.
You have sprinkled us that we may be cleansed,
washed us clean that we might be whiter than pure snow.
You have anointed us with great gladness,
and our bones shall leap up with joy on the last day.
By Your cross, humble the haughty.

By grace, O Lord, clothe us with the robe of justice,
the vestment for serving Your mysteries,
the bright uniform of Your heavenly kingdom.
May we be worthy to praise Your chalice,
to rejoice in the Blood in which we are baptized.
With the threefold crown of faith, hope, and love,
crown us kings and queens in the kingdom of our God.
By Your cross, establish Your Church.

O Lord, turn Your face away from our wickedness,
blot out all record of our transgressions.
Create in us a clean and reasonable heart,
a bright temple for Your Holy Spirit,
and refresh our spirits with Your glory.
Shower us with the joy of salvation,
strengthen us with the anointing Spirit of God.
By Your cross, protect Your people.

Engrave on our hearts the image of Your passion;
conform us to the mercy of Your death.
Between two thieves You were raised on the wood of shame,
in mortality naked on the cross,
that the sons of Adam may be robed in glory.
Your cup was filled with salvation for us,
and by the wine of Your Blood we rejoice with hope.
By Your cross, pardon all sinners.

Shall we not speak of Your ways to the unrighteous,
we who were unrighteous but may be cleansed?
With the blood of ages our clothes were stained, O Lord,
but by Your Blood they are made like white light.
Open our lips that we may praise Your great justice,
God of our salvation, let us rejoice,
for You who wished more than sacrifice gave Yourself.
By Your cross, bring truth to our words.

Of Your own free will You offered Yourself for us;
You did not complain that You bore our sins.
You are the Lamb of God who takes away all sin;
by Your humility we are raised up.
Therefore Your Father has given You a nation,
a royal priesthood delivered from death,
because You gave Your soul to death and bore our sins.
By Your cross, sanctify Your flock.

Is any sacrifice better than contrition?
Repentance is a gift the Lord loves.
Spread Your graces richly among Your people, Lord,
build up the walls of Your Church and guard it.
Receive, O Lord God, the sacrifice of justice
upon the altar of Your merciful cross,
by Your Blood and living water purify us.
By Your cross, raise us to new life.


...the gifts of the Holy Spirit are seven in number for the sake of helping us suffer in the same spirit as Christ. In accepting his passion, Christ was moved to endure his sufferings by the will of the Father, by the needs of humanity, and by the strength of his own virtue. He was moved by the will of the Father, which he knew through understanding, loved through wisdom, and reverenced through fear. He was moved by our needs, which he was led to understand through knowledge and for which he was led to show compassion through piety. Not least of all, he was moved by the strength of his own virtue, which counsel made capable of farsighted choice, and fortitude, of vigorous achievement.

Bonaventura, Breviloquium, Monti, tr. Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 189 [Part V, Chapter 5, Section 6].

Thursday, March 24, 2016


let us love one another;
love springs from God;
no one can love without being born of God,
and knowing God.
How can the man who has no love have any knowledge of God,
since God is love?

What has revealed the love of God,
where we are concerned,
is that he has sent his only-begotten Son into the world,
so that we might have life through him.
That love resides,
not in our shewing any love for God,
but in his shewing love for us first,
when he sent out his Son to be an atonement for our sins.

if God has shown such love for us,
we too must love one another.

1 John 4:7-4:11 (Knox)

Maronite Year XXXV

Thursday of the Mysteries
1 Corinthians 11:23-32; Luke 22:1-23

O Christ, Word of God, one with the Father,
You became man and submitted yourself to law,
that we might worship in spirit and truth.
You fulfilled the law that it might be light for us.
You washed the feet of Your own disciples
that we might learn humility and gracious love.

O Christ, Word of God, one with the Father,
You observed the holy Passover of the lamb
that You might become our Passover Lamb.
By Your Body and Your Blood we are purified,
saved by Your death, reborn by Your rising,
raised to heavenly heights by Your abounding love.

In the desert the people tempted God,
demanding the food for which they hungered.
"Why does the Lord leave His people to starve?
Can God spread a table in the desert?"
They did not believe, nor trust in His help.
But He in mercy opened up the skies,
raining down heavenly bread for their food.
The bread of angels was eaten by men,
abundant provision beyond all hope.

O Christ, Word of God, Savior of the world,
Your great compassion was a divine compassion,
and You stooped to help the sinner in need.
You descended to him that You might exalt him;
By your assumption of humanity,
You invested our race with Your divinity.

O Christ, Word of God, Savior of the world,
as Lamb of God, You bore the sins of the whole world.
By Your love You became the Paschal Lamb,
the fulfillment in grace and truth of Passover.
You offered Yourself a true sacrifice,
and gave us the food and drink of salvation.

Lent XXXVIII gifts are given by the Holy Spirit to help us act effectively. For if our actions are to be fruitful, we must be helped to distance ourselves from evil, and this is done by fear. We must also be aided to progress in good, both that demanded by God's command and that of supererogation. In what is demanded, we are helped by knowledge, which directs our actions, and by piety, which helps us carry them out; in matters that are of supererogation, we are aided by counsel, which directs us, and by fortitude, which helps us carry them out. Lastly, we must find our rest in the Most High, both by knowing the supreme truth and loving the supreme good; the first comes about through the gift of understanding, the second through the gift of wisdom, in which there is true repose.

Bonaventura, Breviloquium, Monti, tr. Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 189 [Part V, Chapter 5, Section 7].

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part V

On Wednesday morning, we left for Rome.

Our hotel was in the Trevi district, so the first Roman sight we saw was the Fontana di Trevi:

Nobody knows for sure what 'Trevi' means, but the most plausible and commonly accepted etymology is that it's just the short form of tre vie, because the fountain is found where three very old streets meet. According to legend, in the days of Augustus a bunch of thirsty Roman soldiers met a young virgin girl who led them to a spring about eight miles from Rome. According to some late sources, the virgin was called Trivia, and that is another possibility for the origin of 'Trevi'. Hearing about this, the legend goes, Augustus Caesar ordered the creation of an aqueduct from the spring to Rome to feed the Baths of Agrippa. You can see the story represented on the fountain (upper left-hand and right-hand sides).

A fountain was eventually put in place, but in 1629, Pope Urban VIII decided that there needed to be something a bit more impressive at that location. So he held a design contest, and the design was awarded to Nicola Salvi. The whole fountain took thirty years to build, and Salvi died in the meantime; it was finished by Giuseppe Pannini in 1762 when a sculpture of Oceanus by Pietro Bracci was put in the central position. It is now perhaps the most famous fountain in the world, and is certainly the largest Baroque-style fountain in the world.

The church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi is right there at the fountain:

The current church was completed in 1650 by Cardinal Mazarin, and has a fairly distinctive facade because nobody imitated it -- the Romans made fun of it and called it The Canebrake. The church is most famous because it has all the hearts of the popes from Sixtus V to Leo XIII; which, you must admit, is a very unique kind of collection. The building to the left of the church is the Palazzo Castellani; if it weren't in the way, I could have given you a picture of the Quirinal Palace, for which it was once the parish church.

Rome is not as easy to navigate, nor as friendly to tourists, as Florence, so it helps to have a tour guide. (Tour guides have to be properly licensed, and apparently it is both difficult to pass the licensing test and the police rigorously enforce the license requirements.) Our tour guide was Ilaria Marsili, who was excellent. Tuesday afternoon we met up with her to explore ancient Rome, particularly around Palatine Hill.

We started near the Altare della Patria, which commemorates Vittorio Emanuele II and the Unification of Italy:

That's the Italian interpretation of 'gaudy monstrosity'. It is immense and pretentious, to the point that it is almost ridiculous, and its visibility is about the only aesthetic feature it has going for it. Apparently it was very controversial almost from the beginning because building it required destroying an entire neighborhood of Rome near the Capitoline Hill. It does have one redeeming feature, since when it inevitably gets destroyed at some point in the future, whether that's centuries away or millenia, it will leave lots of room for much better monuments.

Our real interest, however, was in the Forums. Here's a nice layout (from Wikimedia) of the Roman Forums, as they would originally have been:

Trajan forum

One of the most famous monuments in the Forums is Trajan's Column:

It was built to commemorate Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars. Here you can see a bit of the detail of the relief:

Because of its great height, building it was a significant engineering achievement in its day -- the Romans were good at lifting things with cranes, but the Column is too tall for Roman cranes, and they had probably primarily used a lifting tower with a lot of pulleys. It's actually hollow, with a spiral staircase instead which was designed to let people come out on the top deck and see the Forum from there. Originally there was a statue of Trajan at the top, but it vanished through the centuries. Pope Sixtus V had a bronze statue of St. Peter placed on top of it in 1587, which is still there today:

Trajan's Forum was the last of the Forums in the complex to be built; it was intended to stun and amaze. Originally 980 feet by 607 feet, only fragments remain, with some of the pillars re-erected to suggest the original to the imagination:

In Trajan's Forum is Trajan's Market, a very large complex of what would once have been shops and offices:

On Trajan's side of the street, the Romans have sensibly put up a statue of Trajan:

Across the street, in front of Caesar's Forum, there is the statue of Julius Caesar:

He's decorated because we were there the day after the Ides of March.

Caesar's Forum:

And where we will be heading next:

to be continued

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part IV

From Florence it is easy to make day excursions to a number of places, Pisa, Siena, and the like, and on Tuesday morning we headed out to Pisa.

Pisa has a long history of significant events, and for much of that history it was one of the great maritime powers of Italy. Today it is mostly just a college town of limited resources that struggles with the complications that come from having one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world, the Piazza dei Miracoli. There are four major buildings in the plaza: the Cathedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, which was designed by Buscheto and whose construction began in 1064; the Battistero di San Giovanni, designed by Diotisalvi, which was begun in 1152; the Camposanto Monumentale, the ancient cemetery, designed by Giovanni di Simone, which was begun in 1278; and, of course, the Torre Pendente di Pisa, begun in 1173, which was designed to be the campanile of the cathedral, and whose original architect we do not know, probably because no architect wanted to be associated with such an egregious architectural error.

The Tower has been studied extensively in recent decades. It has always been known that the Tower leans because it is a massive weight of marble on top of weak subsoil in a fairly water-saturated part of the country. It has not, however, ever been sinking. The stability of the soil varies considerably across the entire square, and the Tower happens to be located at a point where it shifts; the Tower through its history has wobbled very, very slightly, so that on the less stable side, the pressure forces soil and water to move toward the more stable side, which then mounds up under that side of the Tower. In effect, the Tower was pumping itself up on one side. It's an unavoidable problem at this location. In fact, every building in the square is leaning; it's just that the base of the Tower is so much smaller than those of the other buildings that its lean is the only one that is noticeable to the eye; construction on the tower stopped before it was halfway done because it was already obvious that the Tower was going to fall over. In 1272 Giovanni di Simone decided he was going to continue building the Tower; what he did to prevent the Tower from falling over was to make the sides uneven, so the Tower is not just leaning but also curving. It was eventually completed in the 14th century, making it the craziest belltower in the history of the human race. In the 1990s, worries about the stability of the Tower led to massive study in order to keep it from falling; a very large quantity of soil was removed from the high side of the Tower in order to return the tilt to its 1838 inclination, and currently the Tower is no longer shifting and appears to be stuck, for now, at its current tilt.

A view from the tower:

Ascending the Leaning Tower is an interesting experience; you cannot see the tilt while going up the 296 steps, but about a third of the way you start feeling it, and you yourself start leaning. When you get up to the top, the floor feels wrong, as if it were going to tip you over. Here is one of the bells at the top:

The first miracle of Miracles Square, then, is the belltower that leans but does not fall. The second is the baptistry in which you can sing with yourself. (Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go inside; it's actually difficult to fit everything in the Piazza into just a few hours without rushing.) The Battistero in Pisa is the largest baptistry in Italy, but it is actually more famous for its acoustics, which it has due to its unusual construction. The Baptistry was originally designed by Diotisalvi to be a Romanesque building with a pyramidal roof; thus, if you look at it, the lower level has rounded Romanesque arches and a clean, uncluttered work. After Diotisalvi's death, however, Nicola Pisano took over the work, and Nicola preferred Gothic to Romanesque, so he took the building in a more Gothic direction. Thus the upper level has pointed Gothic arches and a rich, ornate look. It still has its original cone-like roof, which has a hole in the middle (like the Pantheon) to reduce stress on the structure. Instead of just replacing the roof, Nicola Pisano kept it as an internal roof and added an external roof to give the outside of the building the cupola-like shape it has. The result is that there is a space between the internal roof and the external roof, and it is this that gives the Baptistry of Pisa its very famous acoustics -- the hollow space between the two hard surfaces acts like a resonating chamber. If you sing a good, solid note in the Baptistry, the note hangs in the air. It is literally possible to harmonize with yourself.

Notice, incidentally, the roof. The original idea, when they were building it, was to have the tile all the way around, but they ran out of money. So they put the tile on the side of the roof people would most likely see, and went with a cheaper option for the other side.

The third miracle of Miracles Square is the cloistered cemetery. (Which, alas, we also did not have time to see the inside of.) According to legend, which may or may not be true, the cemetery is built on soil from Golgotha that was brought back during the Crusades (hence its name, Holy Field). It has sometimes been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world. It seems to have originally been intended to be not a cemetery but a church in its own right; but we don't know the story of how that change happened. It has some very famous, very old frescoes. Unfortunately the whole building was severely damaged by an Allied bomb that set the building on fire and caused the lead roof to melt, but some of the frescoes survived, or were damaged lightly enough to be restored.

Here a lion prowls the medieval wall near the Camposanto:

According to the tour guide, the lion originally faced outward, but when Florence conquered Pisa, they turned the lion around to face inward as a warning to the Pisans that they were being watched.

The fourth miracle of the Piazza dei Miracoli is the Duomo itself. It is one of the great Romanesque cathedrals (with occasional snippets of other styles accumulated over the centuries), and in a square that has Italy's largest baptistry and the Leaning Tower it still manages to be the one that immediately draws the eye. When we see pictures of the Leaning Tower, we often see it isolated, but in the context of the plaza, it is not the most noticeable building; the cathedral is.

This is a famous element of the cathedral: the Pisa Griffin. (As with all the pictures, you can click it to see it more closely.)

It's actually an Islamic statue, the largest known metal sculpture from Islamic civilization, probably brought from Andalusia in Spain, possibly as the spoils of war; it has a blessing in Arabic around the base. It was originally thought to come from a fountain, but the current popular theory is that it was originally designed as a rich man's toy, to emit noises by a mechanism on the inside. Strictly speaking, Muslims are not supposed to have sculptures of animals and the like, but this (like the prohibition of wine) was sometimes, in some places, rather loosely enforced, and it has been suggested that obviously mythical and legendary beasts might sometimes have been considered not to violate the spirit of the prohibition. What you see in the above picture is actually a replica; for preservation reasons, the original was moved to the museum in 1828.

The cathedral is famous for its pulpit. It was carved by Giovanni Pisano (son of Nicola) in Carrara marble from 1302-1310; he did it entirely by himself. The current pulpit is actually reconstructed; the pulpit was packed away in 1595 and completely forgotten until 1926 when it was rediscovered.

On the ride on the way back, a fortress built by the Pisans to try to keep the Florentines at bay:

After returning to Florence, we went directly to the Galleria degli Uffizi. The Uffizi was originally designed to be an administrative office building (that's what Uffizi means, 'offices'), which shows that Renaissance Italians had an idea of what an office building should be that was rather different from ours. It was originally designed and started by Giorgio Vasari, and continued by Alfonso Parigi and Bernardo Buontalenti. Because the offices included the state archives, it became a way for the Medicis to display their art collections. The last of the Medici, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, gave the Uffizi, a number of Medici villas, and all the art within to the city of Florence on the one condition that none of it ever leave Florence. A short time after her death, Florence opened the Uffizi, first by request and then later in the eighteenth century by general admission, and one of the oldest and most important of all modern art museums was born. Its art collection is so large it actually has difficulty exhibiting it -- a number of pieces have been sent out to other Florentine museums, while a very large number are in storage. One reason the lines can be so long for the Uffizi -- five or six hours during the busy tourist season -- is that it only allows a certain number of people into the building at a time, to prevent it from being too crowded.

The most popular rooms in the Uffizi seem to be the Leonardo and Botticelli rooms, but my very favorite was the Sala della Niobe. I didn't get a picture of the room (although you can take photos without flash in the Uffizi, I kept them to a minimum), but you can see it online here. You know the story of Niobe, of course -- Niobe insulted Leto because she had only two children whereas Niobe had seven times as many. So Artemis and Apollo began hunting Niobe's children, killing one. Then another. Then another. Then another, until there were none (or in some versions, only one) left, and Niobe turned to stone, weeping forever for her children. In the sixteenth century a collection of statues depicting the Niobids fleeing futilely from the gods hunting them was discovered in Rome, and brought to the Florence in 1775, where they share a room in the Uffizi. It is a splendid room, and well worth seeing.

A bust of Marcus Aurelius from the hallway:

Some birds on the cafe balcony, which overlooks the Piazza della Signoria:

And that was Tuesday.

to be continued

Maronite Year XXXIV

Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès was born in the Matn District of Lebanon in 1832. At the age of 14, her family tried to marry her off, but the young woman did not want to be married, and, as the family did not agree about which man she should marry, it was beginning to cause serious divisions in the family. So she walked to the convent of Our Lady of Liberation and became a nun. She spent several years going here and there as she was asked, sometimes to very dangerous places. Eventually the order to which she belonged was merged with another order, and the nuns were offered the opportunity either to join the new order or to find another one; Rafqa decided to join the Baladite Order (Ordre Libanais Maronite), in which she remained the rest of her life.

In 1885, Rafqa began to experience severe pains behind her eyes; she eventually went blind and her eyes would bleed regularly. She continued, however, to do her work in the convent, spinning wool and participating in prayers, and when the Baladites founded a new convent in 1897, she went to help found it. While there, she began to suffer severe pains in her legs and joints; her wrists and fingers actually became disarticulated so that she could no longer use them. She was literally falling apart. But she continued to participate in the life of the convent in the small ways she could. She died on March 23, 1914, and, as she was canonized by John Paul II in 2001, her feast is recognized by Maronite Catholics and Latin Catholics alike.

As it happens, this year her feast is particularly appropriate; it falls on Wednesday of Passion Week, which the Maronites often call the Wednesday of Job, on which they celebrate the Anointing of the Sick during the Rite of the Lighting of the Lamps.

Feast of St. Rafqa
2 Corinthians 1:1-7; Luke 10:38-42

To God be blessing, Father of mercies,
God of all comfort in all trouble;
they who suffer may comfort by God's grace,
for as Christ's suffering is in them,
so His consolation is in their hearts.

Only one thing is needful for our souls;
only one thing cannot be taken.
Holy Face of Jesus Christ Crucified,
You gave Rafqa the love undying,
and she did not cease to love in all things.

With fortitude, Rafqa, you bore the cross;
He said, "Follow," and you followed Him.


...the gifts of the Holy Spirit are properly seven in number to assist the seven virtues in discharging their appointed tasks. Fear leads to temperance and restrains the flesh; piety leads to true justice, knowledge to prudence, fortitude to steadfastness or patience, counsel to hope, understanding to faith, and wisdom to charity. And as "charity is the consummation and mother of all the virtues," so is wisdom of every gift.

Bonaventura, Breviloquium, Monti, tr. Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 188-189 [Part V, Chapter 5, Section 5].

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


...there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit because the deviation of the vices must be repelled in the most effective way. Thus fear assists against pride; piety against envy; knowledge against anger, which is a kind of insanity; fortitude against sloth, which destroys the soul's power for good; counsel against avarice; understanding against gluttony; and wisdom against lust.

Bonaventura, Breviloquium, Monti, tr. Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005), p. 188 [Part V, Chapter 5, Section 3].

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Quick Trip to Italy, Part III

It helps, when touring Florence, to be flexible. All the museums have different schedules and exhibits close for restoration; any number of things might happen.

Monday after the Palazzo Vecchio was a very good example of this. There was one and only one thing that I regarded as absolutely must-see for Florence, and that was the San Marco museum, which has the best collection in the world of the paintings of Blessed Giovanni da Fiesole, also known as Fra Angelico. So we headed there next, only to discover that we had read the schedule wrong -- while the Museum of San Marco is open on Mondays (unlike a number of other museums in Florence), it is only open every other Monday, and not that Monday. This was a serious disappointment, because we already had something set up for Tuesday that we couldn't back out of, and we were leaving Florence on Wednesday morning. So I did not get to see my one must-see for Florence.

So what to do then? The Ospedale degli Innocenti was nearby, so we headed there -- only to discover that the whole museum was closed for restorations. So we finally ended up next door in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. As it turns out, it's a variable hours museum, so we could easily have missed out on it, too, but as it happens, third time was indeed a charm.

Apparently very few tourists go to this particular museum; the staff didn't speak English, or at least not well enough to be comfortable doing it. In Florence anywhere you find tourists the staff speaks English; English is the language of tourism, since not only is it spoken by Americans and members of the British Commonwealth -- who pack a lot of monetary punch -- but it is also the most common second language. East Asian tourists almost always speak English, and two people from different parts of Europe are more likely to know English than each other's language. There was one point in a restaurant, just before leaving Italy, in which I noticed that there were eight tables filled -- four with Italians, two with Americans, one with French-speakers, and one with Spanish-speakers; the waitstaff spoke Italian with the Italians and English with the Americans, French-speakers, and Spanish-speakers. So coming to a museum in which people didn't immediately start speaking English was unexpected.

It was a very nice museum, though. It's a very typical archeological museum, but it has some every nice exhibits. They had a nice exhibit on Etruscan tombs and ancient Roman artifacts. Here are some ancient Roman figurines:

And an Egyptian hippopotamus:

Their Egyptian exhibit, without being flashy, was quite good, in fact; they had several mummies, but I didn't get a photograph of them through the glass that I liked very well, so you'll just have to imagine them.

From there we went (after gelato) to visit the Capelle Medici -- but it's one of the museums that close early, and all the museums of Florence start turning people away about half an hour before closing time, and we were just over, so we couldn't see that, either. Since the Capelle is right by the Basilica di San Lorenzo, we did that instead.

St. Lawrence was the first cathedral of Florence, before the seat of the bishop was moved to Saint Reparata, where the current Duomo is. The original church on the site went back at least to the fourth century and the current version of the church was designed by Brunelleschi. Funding became uneven, however, and the construction ended up taking longer than Brunelleschi intended; budget cuts forced him to modify his designs; and the church was still not finished when he died.

One of the curious features of the church is quite visible in the photograph above: it has no outer facade. Ordinarily the rough stone surface that you see would have had a marble facade hung on it, like all of the churches in Florence. For instance, here is Santa Maria Novella for comparison:

Michelangelo was picked to design the facade, and he did design one. However, he was pulled off the project to do other things, the originally intended funding was diverted to other projects, and the facade was never built. There is actually something of a debate in Florence today as to whether the church should be kept as-is or whether it should be completed according to Michelangelo's plan.

San Lorenzo is famous for having some of the last and greatest works of the Renaissance sculptor, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, best known by his nickname of Donatello. His works are found throughout Florence, but anyone interested in Florence has to see San Lorenzo. His work is a major part of the Sagrestia Vecchia that was completed in Brunelleschi's day, and it is the place he was buried:

There is a great deal of beauty in San Lorenzo, but for me the greatest attraction was this:

I had completely forgotten that Blessed Nicholas Steno had been buried in San Lorenzo; finding his funerary monument was a delightful moment. Steno was actually quite friendly with the Medicis. He became in-house physician to Ferdinando II, and the Grand Duke liked him so much that he was given an invitation to live in the Palazzo Vecchio, and all that was asked in exchange was that he start building up its natural history collections. He had already done his major work on glands and doing the groundwork to show that Descartes was wrong about the pituitary gland, but it was in Florence that Steno did his major work on muscles; it was in Florence that he began his work on stratigraphy and paleontology; and it was in Florence, watching the Corpus Christi procession, that he began to wonder if he, a Lutheran who had spent most of his adult life in freethinking circles, should become Catholic. He started reading the Church Fathers, and converted in 1667. It was in Florence that he was ordained a priest at the age of 37; he preached his first homily in the church of Santissima Annunziata. He went on mission to Lutheran regions of Europe for almost two decades, and then planned on returning to Florence. He died while still in Germany, but his body was shipped back at the request of Cosimo III, and they made sure that he was buried in San Lorenzo with all of the Medicis. Steno may have been born in Copenhagen, but he was truly a Florentine.

From San Lorenzo we went to the nearby Palazzo Medici Riccardi, about which I had known nothing at all beforehand. The palace was designed by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo for the Medici. It is (deliberately) unimposing from the outside; the Medicis had returned from exile and were trying to be less ostentatious about their power. Much later it was bought and expanded by the Riccardi family (hence the name), and now it is a functioning government building. Because it's in active use, the museum parts themselves only cover part of the palace, and it is quick stop. Here is a room:

And a garden:

And the same garden from the other direction:

There was also a small robotics exhibition in the museum:

And that was Monday.

to be continued