Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A lot classier than the Popemobile

Pius IX carried into Vatican I on the Sedia
Gestatoria -- 1870.  note the large fans, the
flabella, on either side of the Pope. 
Well my time in Rome has been interesting for a variety of reasons.  I don’t know the people that Rocco Palma does with Whispers in the Loggia.  I need to remember to read that blog more often as I do like it and he really knows the right people to get the scoop on things that circulating in the back alleys of the Eternal City, but I try to keep the focus on history and not current events so I need books more than “sources.”  I have lived in Rome off and on over the last twenty-some years and been a frequent visitor in the in between times so I have had chance to develop a lot of friendships with people who are insiders to the system.  Rome is the most incredible rumor mill that I have ever encountered and I do hear the most curious things.  The problem is that since the Holy See is a bureaucracy and “power” is distributed among so many different discasteries—and at different levels of those dicasteries—is that there are few reliable ways to check rumors for whether they are “an idea,” “a proposal,” “a recommendation,” or “a decision.”   There is a rumor floating around that Benedict is going to bring back the sedia gestatoria, the portable throne on which popes were carried for centuries on the shoulders of the palafreneiri.  I had seen the sedia gestatoria on my first visit to Rome back in 1978 when I saw Paul VI carried into the Basilica of Saint Paul fuori le mura for the Corpus Christi Mass.  That was just about its last cry.  Paul died two months later and his successor John Paul II did away with the portable throne and then, at the insistence of the papal masters of ceremonies, brought it back so that he could be seen above the crowds.  It was back only a week or two when he died and his successor John Paul II flatly refused to use it.  Voila la popemobile.  We had all thought the sedia gestatoria  finished, but Benedict loves rooting around the Vatican attic as we all know and so perhaps we shall see it again.  I am a bit skeptical but maybe we should watch for Christmas Midnight Mass! 
      My biggest concern is that I would think that it might be a bit dangerous.  Should anyone take a shot at the pope while he is high above the crowd it would be difficult to get him down quickly before a second or even a third shot could be fired.  Or an attack on the footmen carrying the sedia gestoria—bring down a couple of them and send the Pope toppling down to perhaps serious injury.    Popemobiles can be speeded up—not as fast as one would like, but fast enough—and on ground level, the pope can be easily surrounded by aides and bodyguards while he is gotten to safety or medical attention as needed.  The Sedia Gestatoria might be glamorous but I don’t think it is a good idea.  However, I don’t get a vote in these things so we will see.
      As I check out sedia gestatoria, there is debate on how long the portable throne has been used.  It has certainly been around for at least six hundred years and some sources say a thousand.  Indeed some say that it is simply an adaptation of the custom of carrying Roman consuls through the streets of Rome on their chairs of office hoisted onto the shoulders of captive peoples.  Indeed, it seems to have been a common practice in the later years of the Roman Empire when Christianity was the State Religion, that not only the Pope but many bishops were carried shoulder high to their being consecrated and/or installed in their cathedrals.  Ennodius Magnus, a sixth century bishop of Pavia, specifically mentions the custom of carrying the Pope in a chair elevated on the shoulders of bearers, presumably minor clerics of the pontifical household, but it is not clear whether this was a usual practice or specifically connected with his enthronement in the Lateran Basilica.  In the context of Ennodius’ claim, some sources such as the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1917) mention the “cathedra Petri”—and ancient chair said to be the “cathedra” (bishop’s chair) of Saint Peter kept enshrined in Bernini’s magnificent tribune above the Altar of the Chair in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica as proof.  The chair in question, a lovely construction of wood and ivory panels, has rings through which the bearing poles could be, and probably were inserted.  The problem is that the chair has, subsequent to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, been dated to a gift from the emperor Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII.  For some years the original chair was on display in the Treasury of Saint Peter’s though it is now returned to Bernini’s supersized reliquary and a copy of it put on display.  The chair does indeed have rings affixed to the side and so the custom of carrying the pope on a portable throne can be dated at least back to the ninth century but reasonably could be a continuation of even more ancient practice.    What I am trying to get information on are the flabella—the large ostrich plumed fans which were carried for centuries alongside the pope as he rode on the sedia gestatoria.  I remember that they were originally a gift from the Sultan of Egypt to a pope, but I cannot find dating for the gift.  I will keep searching. 

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