Sunday, January 16, 2011

To the Pope: Here's looking up your old address

Popes didn’t always live in palaces, though once used to the idea it has proved difficult to convince them to move out, not without obvious reasons. The first centuries of the Church were marked by intermittent periods of persecution where the bishop and other prominent leaders of the Roman Church had to “hide out” to protect their necks. Nevertheless, even before Constantine “The Great” (a title deserved in some respects but not others—maybe a future posting here) granted the “liberty of the Church” following the battle of the Milvian Bridge the Christian communities of the empire had grown into a considerable percentage of the population and that of Rome was particularly large and economically secure. It had several property sites where it gathered for worship and its bishop usually lived at a house adjoining one of these sites or another. We know, for example, that both Pope Miltiades (pope: 311-314) and Pope Sylvester I (pope: 314-335)lived, at least for a time at the Titulus Equitii, a third-century worship site over which the present Basilica of SS Martino e Sylvestro ai Monti now stands. It was during the reign of Miltiades that Constantine gave the palace of his wife Fausta (and that will be an interesting story when we get to her) to Miltiades. The palace had at one period belonged to the Laterani family, a family who had long served various emperors as ranking administrators and thus bore their family name as the domus Laterani (the house of the Laterani).
Constantine and Fausta’s marriage was far from rock solid. (She was not his first wife—whom he had divorced in order to marry Fausta, a more politically advantageous consort. He would end up murdering her along with his son by Minervina, who had been his first wife. It seems that the son and the step-mom may have grown a little too close—but all that is still in the somewhat distant future, maybe another dozen years after the palace was "donated.") Nevertheless, at this point Fausta was still in favor so in no way was the confiscating of her palace a punishment or sign of disfavor—she probably just didn’t need it any more, living in her husband's palace.
The palace of the domus Laterani contained a basilica. A basilica was not an ecclesiastical structure at the time, but a sort of great hall. In fact, it means a “royal hall” and is related to the Greek word Basileus meaning “king.” Constantine and the various Roman bishops (and bishops elsewhere where such royal halls could be found—e.g. Trier) found that these royal halls made great gathering places for Christian worship. Constantine set about converting the royal hall at the Lateran into a Christian worship space, presumably in time for a synod of Bishops that Miltiades was gathering for the following year to condemn the Donatist heresy. It was this basilica which became the cathedral (site of the bishop’s cathedra or teaching “chair”) for Rome and which still today remain, at least in title, as the Pope’s Cathedral. The Basilica was not named for Saint John—that is another story—but consecrated as the Basilica of the Holy Savior (Sancti Salvatoris). Although the basilica was presumably ready for Miltiades synod, the popes themselves seem not to have moved in right away and, indeed, Pope Sylvester was still using his church at the Titulus Equitii as late as the 320’s. Nevertheless, at some point the popes moved into the extensive palace and kept enlarging it until it filled pretty much the entire site of what is today the piazza San Giovanni in Laterano standing to the east and north-east of the present basilica. It was so large and magnificent that Dante said that it was “beyond the achievement of mortals.” A less complimentary comment was issues by Saint Francis who, when Pope Innocent III showed the palace and its treasures to the poor man from Assisi and said “No longer must we say with Peter, ‘Gold and silver we have not’,” Francis replied “No, and neither can you say to the cripple “Arise and walk.” (Check out Acts of the Apostles chapter 3 for how the Church is empowered by its poverty.”)
It was fortunate that Francis found Innocent at home because while the palace was quite splendid, Rome was a sort of “rust belt” town of its day. (I was going to use a specific city name here, but charity made me reconsider.) Inthe 11th century popes had become quite peripatetic, spending time in France (the cuisine?), Germany (the beer?) Tuscany (the wine?), but rarely in Rome. The population of Rome had shrunk dreadfully; the city was infamous for malaria; and Romans were a tumultuous lot who liked to riot and cause trouble. The 12th century proved no better and popes were rarely at home, preferring such Italian towns as Viterbo. Innocent III himself had a preference for Perugia (where he was long, but no longer, buried—another future posting). The 13th century found the popes in various Tuscan and Umbrian towns and Boniface VIII at the bridge of the 14th century seemed to favor Agnani. All this time the Lateran most usually sat fairly empty. One of the last popes to make this his principle residences and who liked to play late at night with his chemistry set was Sylvester II (pope 999-1003). Sylvester was no crazy fiend (people “in the day” had thought these little midnight explosions coming from the Lateran were indications of diabolic conversations between the pope and, well with whom else does one have diabolic conversations, the devil) but a serious scientist (and mathematician) who as a young monk (his name had been Gerbert of Aurillac) had studied in Islamic Spain (which today for Rush or Glen or the rest of the Fox News team would be enough to confirm the theory of diabolic communications).
In any event, the next things one knew after Boniface’s debacle at Agnani in 1303, was that the papacy was moving off to Avignon in France. We will pick up the story of the Lateran and papal residences in a future episode, perhaps even tomorrow. After all, the Lateran was the site of the pornocracy of which we spoke yesterday. It is almost midnight here in Rome and I want to get this posted today. Fell asleep--it is not tomorrow, but i can still get this posted before the day is over in the States.
The image today is the papal "cathedra" in San Giovanni in Laterano

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