Chapter 15: Reviewing Rome – ancient and modern. Autumn 1960

Reporting home with a review of my adventures in Italy before setting out for Spain. Being in Rome during the Olympics then experiencing life with an Italian family in the Abruzzo hills gave me lots to reflect on.


Calvary Hospital.

Via di San Stefano Rotondo. Rome. 17 October 1960.

Dear Mum and Dad,
No need to be alarmed — I am in perfect health, if a little exhausted. I have been staying here at the hospital as a guest since last Wednesday evening, when both uncle and I arrived back in Rome but from different directions.

He stays here each year when he visits Rome, – the sisters found accommodation for me too, so I’m lucky to have a nice little  room in the nurse’s quarters.  It is such a treat to be here — it has the usual atmosphere of a Lewisham Hospital, quiet, pleasant, efficient and friendly. I have my meals here as well, not with the nurses but in the visitor’s dining room, so I am eating well and feeling very much looked after.

Sister Clare, a very sweet young Irish nurse at the hospital

Sister Clare, a very sweet young Irish nurse at the hospital

This is the mother house of the order. It was a surprise to me that the nuns had a hospital here in Rome. Another delight was finding a beautiful tall gum tree growing in the garden near the entrance to the hospital. I hadn’t realised how much I missed them.
The last time I had seen eucalypts was near Cairo and I am feeling as if I have landed in a little Ozzie enclave.

This is proving to be a great place to reflect and integrate the great variety of experiences of the last couple of months since leaving London, meeting up with my good friend Peppino, travelling together through some wonderful cities in Southern Germany,  back to Italy beginning with beautiful Venice and then on to the Rome Olympics .

I have come to understand and appreciate so much about the nature of family life over the times I have spent in Italy, especially during the stay in the Abruzzo hills with my friend’s family.

Every individual’s first loyalty is to whoever constitutes their whole family, mainly blood relatives.
After that might come their town or village, then their region, defined not just by geography but also by whatever its dialect and character might be, and finally the nation.

It is the first place that a person will look for refuge, advice, allies, financial help, even many of the things that we look to our social services to provide for us . This goes for young and old alike. Children are completely doted on, especially the males, and it is wonderful to see how much care and respect the elderly are given within the family circle.

It is regarded as the one fundamental institution in the country that can be relied upon, and one reason for this would certainly be the numerous times that Italy has been invaded and partitioned and ruled by other nations, and even the serious conflicts between neighbouring regions of the Italian Peninsula over the centuries.

Much of this was made clear to me through my Italian history course last year in Perugia.     (Our prescribed text book was a paperback entitled  “Twenty seven centuries of Italian history”!!)   After all, the unification of Italy didn’t come about until 1860!  Someone described it as a mosaic of 1 million families instinctively sticking together, especially during insecure and dangerous times.

There is not a lot of respect for or reliance on governments or whoever happens to be making the laws at the time. I’ve heard quoted an Italian saying  ”the law is for your enemies and the exception is for your friends”.

Out on the town with the two Meneghini boys .

Out on the town with the two Meneghini boys . Note my fine new overcoat!

Speaking of families, I visited the Meneghinis –  ( you remember I stayed with them during the Olympics ) – only to find the two little boys bedridden with the flu and their maid as well.

Gheta was frantic as she had not been able to leave the apartment to do any shopping, so I spent the afternoon consoling and entertaining them so that she could go and restock the larder and do any other necessary chores.

I enjoyed seeing them all again and giving a hand — they had looked after me well only a few weeks ago.

Checking out the seals ine the Rome Zoo with the two young boys.

Checking out the seals in the Rome Zoo with the two young boys.

Uncle went off to Trieste on Friday morning for a few days to meet up with Don Alfredo at the CRS office and check up on the plans to bring more European migrants to Australia.

–  in the meantime I have been catching up on more sightseeing – so far I have done so little exploring in Rome and there is still much to see.

The other day Thea Flynn’s aunt walked into the guests’ dining room — you remember that she took me to dinner once in London — I didn’t even know t she was in Rome. She has been wandering around Europe on her own and certainly getting the most out of it. She seems almost sorry to be going home.

The Spanish Steps

She was keen to go shopping so we caught a bus and made for the area near the bustling Piazza di Spagna where there are the most elegant boutiques, exclusive antique and furniture shops interspersed with lovely little galleries and cafes.

As well as magnificent designer clothing, the leather goods are superb too so I lashed out and bought a deep green suede handbag to bring home. Mrs. Flynn was much more adventurous and when she had finally had her fill I guided her away from further temptation and we rested for a while high up on top of the Spanish Steps in front of the Trinita dei Monti church, just watching the crowd and taking in one of the best views of Rome it is possible to find.

We then called in at the famous Babington’s tea rooms for a cup of Earl Grey tea and scones. It was set up in 1896 by two English ladies for homesick British travelers looking for their sort of food, and it has thrived ever since.

Rom, Piazza del Popolo and the twin churches

Piazza del Popolo and the twin churches  –  Santa Maria dei  Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto.

We had a quick look at the Keats- Shelley Memorial house nearby and another house where Goethe had lived — I had already seen one of his residences in Frankfurt! — And then went on to Rome’s other famous square, the Piazza del Popolo.

There are two beautiful ‘Santa Maria’ twin churches built in the neoclassical style on one side of the piazza, with the obligatory Egyptian obelisk in the centre of the piazza  – this had originally stood in the Circus Maximus near the Roman Forum.

The great early Renaissance church of Santa Maria Del Popolo is on the opposite side. It is full of great artistic treasures including Rome’s first stained-glass windows. Many of the great Italian families have their own special chapels and tombs here covering many generations. The most beautiful chapel was designed by Raphael for his patron who was a wealthy banker. The interior of its dome is covered by a mosaic depiction of God creating the seven heavenly bodies.
It was rare to discover two of Caravaggio’s paintings there as well — his style is unique and very compelling.

P1010923From there we strolled on up through the lovely tree lined  Pincio Gardens which lie above the Piazza, not far from where we went to the Olympic equestrian events where we could take in a wonderful view of Rome, and then on to the Galleria Villa Borghese which houses one of the richest private collection of sculptures and paintings in Rome.

The sculptures downstairs include a beautiful white marble half clad reclining Venus by Canova. Napoleon’s sister Pauline posed for it but it stayed out of sight for a long time

The beautiful Villa Borghese

The beautiful Palazzo which houses the Galleria Borghese. It’s the main attraction in the huge park known as the Villa Borgese. – a beautiful place to stroll through,  with lakes and fountains, splendid trees and statuary, a riding school and the “gallopatoio” – a large oval horse track where we watched the Olympic equestrian events.

afterwards because once her husband had seen it, he had it locked away — better than destroying it, I guess!It is a stunning work.

Bernini’s most famous sculpture — Apollo and Daphne-is there too, and the floor is covered with mosaic fragments from fourth century Rome.

I loved this gallery because it was small enough not to overwhelm, and the masterpieces gathered there were so diverse and individually appealing. The paintings upstairs gave a great introduction to Italian baroque and Renaissance art. Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini were all there.
Here we finally called it a day – it had been a lot of fun- and by evening we were happy to return to the hospital and rest our weary feet.

Every morning here I really look forward to coming down to breakfast, as you never know whom you will find in the visitors’  dining room — quite a few Australians and people from other lands, and usually a few clergy. We all sit at one long table, and shared discussions can be very interesting. There is much talk about the Pope and the state of preparation for the Ecumenical council.

Much loved Pappa Giovanni - John 23rd at his desk in the Vatican

Much loved Pappa Giovanni –
John 23rd at his desk in the Vatican

The latest story everyone is enjoying concerns Pope John’s difficulties with the Curia (these are the old guard Cardinals, mostly Italians, of course, who constitute the’ public service’ of the Vatican).
Their spokesman recently told him that in spite of their best efforts, they couldn’t possibly manage to have everything in place for the ecumenical Congress to begin in five years time.
He told them not to worry — three years time would do just as well!

Our cardinal Gilroy from Sydney  is one of those who have been invited by Il papa to spend several weeks overseeing the preparations. He is expected any day now and will be staying here at the hospital, so that should make breakfast interesting!

Shall continue to keep you posted about my next move as plans evolve.    Lots of love to everyone ….

Calvary Hospital, Roma. 31 October 1960.

Dear Jan,

I was really delighted to finally have a letter from you, and such a long one, full of real news. I was especially pleased to receive the family photos. I hardly recognised Leonie — she has grown up quite a bit over the last two years and Frank looks as if he has put on a bit of weight.

Tell daddy  the new teeth look fine, and that I’m looking forward to letter with details of his tropical holiday. It is good that you have all had a break from the drinking routine.

I’m really happy you have stayed well and enjoying a great social life. It’s good too that Frank has found someone new, and Claire as well. I’m curious and looking forward soon to meeting them all.

Still here in Rome and getting ready to make for Spain next week – I’m waiting for my winter clothes to arrive from Paris — I left the suitcase behind six months ago – not needed during the summer in England, but essential from now on till I reach the southern hemisphere in  January!

Approach to St. Peter's Basilica along the via della Conciliazione.

Approach to St. Peter’s Basilica along the via della Conciliazione.

A reason for the delay was the opportunity to attend the consecration by the Pope of seven bishops in St Peter’s basilica.

One of the priests to be consecrated is one of Uncle’s colleagues, the head of the Catholic Relief Service in America.

Uncle was not able to wait  for the big occasion so I went instead!  It was quite a ceremony, and the first one  I had seen in St Peter’s. Representatives of all the Caritas European offices were there and we had great seats along the side of the main altar.

The whole ceremony lasted for 3 1/2 hours but the time passed quite quickly. The cathedral is so enormous that only the area behind the central altar was used, and even that is as big as a large church, and held a large crowd. The area was beautifully lit, the marble floor covered with rich green carpet, and the seating had deep red coverings- and then there were the magentas and reds of the hierarchy’s robes!  What a spectacle it was! I don’t know who does it best, the church triumphant or royalty!


Appropriate dress code for formal Papal audiences, photo taken after my first Vatican visit after last year’s audience with Pope John23. Uncle is wearing the prescribed attire for a Monsignor.

The most moving moment for me was when the Pope was carried out on his ‘chair’ and the people all burst into applause, crying Viva IL Papa!

He always has a very affectionate and humble smile — a really lovable and popular character.  it is a pity that the word Papa, which means father  translates into English as Pope — it has a much less friendly sound to it.

That afternoon after lunch we returned again to the Vatican for a papal audience, and this time a much bigger crowd had gathered. Pope John arrived as before, made a very informal speech, gave everyone his blessing, and off he went again amidst great applause, and then it was all over.

This made me appreciate how fortunate I had been, and how exceptional it was that I had had the privilege of actually  meeting il Papa personally the last time I was in Rome!

The whole weekend turned out to be a special one for me in several ways, as all those whom I had met working in the various CRS offices — Paris, Munich, Trieste, Salzburg were all there for the big occasion. They are such an inspiring and dedicated bunch of people!
It was great to catch up with them all again  before leaving Europe, and gave me the opportunity to let them know how much they had all contributed to making my Northern Hemisphere experience such a rich one.

with Peppino and Joe in Joe's beautiful garden near Salzburg

with Peppino and Joe in Joe’s beautiful garden near Salzburg just a few months ago.

Joe Battaglia was there and was delighted when I was able to pass on a selection of Peppino’s massive tomato seeds  that he had promised him for his vegie garden in Chieti.

Dear old Jack McCloskey, head of CRS in Paris was in a state of great excitement because it looked as if John F. Kennedy was about to beat Nixon and become the first Catholic President of the United States. Jack had helped me find accommodation and my au- pair work when i stayed in Paris last spring.

I was also invited to the reception for their newly appointed Bishop held at the Grand Hotel on via Veneto – probably the most magnificent hotel in Italy – and I had plenty of opportunity to catch up with everyone.  The ever thoughtful Dr. Lucrezio, head of the Rome office, was there looking after us all, and I enjoyed watching Don Alfredo  from Trieste with his strong opinions about ostentation, coping with the cocktail party atmosphere, and stirring his colleagues along with outrageous remarks including proposing one of the more forceful women in the group to be the next pope!

It was fun watching everyone looking very elegant (including five brightly robed cardinals) all milling around making small talk, cocktail party style and enjoying the speeches.

The famous Piazza Navona

The famous Piazza Navona -a great gathering spot day and night close to a sweeping bend in the Tevere river. It is elongated and oval – following the shape of a 1st century stadium which could hold 350,00 spectators.

Just before Uncle left on the rest of his journey Peppino travelled over from Chieti in time to meet him, and this gave us both a last opportunity to spend time together before I set off to Spain and then on home.

We spent much of it exploring Rome in more detail than I had previously done, particularly parts of the ancient city, and it was a treat having a guide who knows the city and overall history of the country, and as always was a lot of fun to be with as well.

We started the day with a coffee in the famous Piazza Navona as is the custom – a great place to enjoy the sights and sounds of happy people, busy pigeons and the splashing waters of the three great fountains. There is Neptune and the Nereids fountain at one end, at the other a Moor doing battle with a dolphin , and four giant statues representing the great rivers, the Ganges , the Nile, the Danube and I forget the 4th!

From there we set off walking across the busy Piazza Venezia,  passing by the huge and very impressive  Victor Emmanuale monument, very Baroque and  all sparkling white marble, and heading for the

The Pantheon

The architectural marvel known simply as the Pantheon

Piazza della Rotonda to see one of Rome’s greatest architectural treasures – the splendid Pantheon, probably the best  preserved and most recently constructed  of the city’s ancient temples, and certainly it most impressive.

It is a huge circular temple with a massive but lightly and cleverly engineered dome and a rectangular portico which sits on top of an even more ancient temple –

its dome soars 142 ft. skywards and is 142 ft. in diameter. The dome was caste in concrete mixed with pumice and tufa which was poured over a temporary wooden framework.

The ancient Romans had a formula for making concrete that endured for centuries.

The temple  was built to honour all the traditional gods of roman civilization by the Emperor  Hadrian about 120 A.D – it’s considered an architectural masterpiece even today.

When you enter through a row of granite columns  the immensity of the interior fairly takes your breath away. The only source of illumination is the powerful beam of light that enters through a single central hole in the top of the massive dome. They call it the Occulus  – the Eye.

The indentations in the circles of decorative patterning in the dome were a device that ensured that  its overall weight was significantly decreased .

The walls of the drum’s supporting structure are 20 ft, thick. Can you imagine?  A beautifully restored marble floor pattern is of an original Roman design.  There are shrines right around the walls.  Raphael’s tomb is there and some of the kings of modern Italy are buried there as well.

The Emperor Hadrian was a great builder and architectural designer and transformed the city during his reign. His name crops up everywhere in the guidebooks. Castel St  Angelo near St. Peter’s was equally impressive.  He designed it to be his tomb.

On leaving the Pantheon we headed across to the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. In pre-Empire times it was originally Rome’s markets. Huge excavations have gone on over the years exposing the very heart of a great city which is now surrounded by a great modern city.

I learnt that as the empire grew this area became the hub of  Rome –  the centre of its overall

Several emperors' palaces along the hillside and the gardens of the Palatine along the crest

Several emperors’ palaces along the hillside and the gardens of the Palantine along the crest  Three remaining columns of the Temple of the twins Castor and Pollux to the right and the Curia in the centre.

administration both politically and commercially, with all its temples, palaces, and its  huge public multi-purpose buildings.

These were called basilicas and were made up of offices, meeting halls, law courts as well as sheltering spaces for socializing  and protection from the elements.

In much later times Christians took the basilicas over and converted them to major churches but still referred to them as basilicas.

The remains of the Temple of Saturn on the right and the Temple of Vespasian to the left and a medieval church behind..

The remains of the Temple of Saturn on the right and the Temple of Vespasian to the left and a medieval church behind..

Today there are four principal Papal basilicas in Rome, all magnificent buildings

– St. Peters,  St. John Lateran  (which is just down the road from Calvary Hospital,)  St. Maria Maggiore and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

As we strolled along the Via Sacra at the eastern end we came first to what remained of the great temple of Saturn, and then the smaller rounded  Temple of Vesta.

This adjoins the garden of the large House of

The scanty remains of The Basilica Julia are in front, the Rostra behind and the Curia in the background.

The scanty remains of The Basilica Julia named after Julius Caesar are in front, the Rostra is behind and the Curia in the background.

the Vestas with its row of statues honouring  the six Vestal Virgins, whose main role was to tend the Sacred Flame, Vesta being the Goddess of the Hearth. as well as attending other important religious and civic festivals .

Just three Corinthian columns remain of the temple of the twins Castor and Pollux nearby.

Romans seemed to be as fond of temples as Christians are of churches!

The Three columns of what remains of the Temple of Venus in the foreground. The domed temple of Romulus is now part of the church of cosmos and damian

The Three columns of what remains of the Temple of Venus in the foreground. The domed temple of Romulus is now part of the church of Saints Cosmos and Damian

in the area nearby was a square-shaped hall known as the Curia which has been well restored in current times.

‘Curia’ is another Latin word used today by the Vatican taken from Roman times. It denotes the institution consisting of Cardinals and other officials who make up the  administrative arm of the Church under the authority of the Pope, in other words its public service.

Back then, the Curia  was where the Senate used to meet, so it was no surprise to find the remains of a large open dais called the Rostra nearby.

Here the Senators would deliver public speeches  – the one we know best being Mark Anthony’s oration  “Friends , Roman, Countrymen” when Julius Caesar was assassinated,

History seemed to come alive as we stood on what remained of the steps. I was so glad that it was Shakespeare’s story of Julius Caesar that was on the syllabus the year I studied for my Leaving Certificate.

Approach to the Roman Forum

Approach to the Roman Forum

The Rostra was also used for what we would call “state funerals”. – The Emperor or person of high importance who had died would be brought along in procession, laid  out on the platform and eulogies delivered in their honour. Julius Caesar was publicly cremated here.

Running along the length of the Forum on the hillside above  is the Palatine, a large parkland area with pine trees on the lower slopes  and a grassy area above.

This was once where the Emperors and wealthy citizens had built their palaces;  Cicero had lived here.  Rome’s first emperor Augustus was born and it was still his home when he was emperor here, with his wife Livia’s palace next to his.

Exploring it properly would have to wait for another day. There was still more to come at the western end.

Interior of the Coliseum

Interior of the Coliseum

It was now time to pass through the grand Arch of Constantine which  is still in fine condition today  and cross to the Roman Colosseum,

There is evidence that Rome’s most famous landmark was originally a very colourful and ornamented building,  but it is still so majestic as we see it today.

This time I wanted  to explore it from the inside in spite of what we know of its gruesome history.

There are 80 numbered arched entrances leading into passages and staircases and lifts, so well designed that spectators numbering  up to 50,000 could be seated quickly ready to watch the free entertainment.

Coliseum and belltower

Passing the  bell-tower of Santa Francesca Romana on the right as we leave the Forum and cross to the Coloseum. Francesca worked for the poor in 16th cent and is their patron.

There were underground rooms for the animals, and their cages were raised to the surface in lifts ready to pit them against the gladiators.


As the day was closing in it was time to head  towards the river, coming almost full circle by turning right from the Coliseum along one side of the Palatine  then right again, then

The Temple of Hercules

The Temple of Hercules, who though a Greek god, was popular throughout Rome as well,

walking along  between the Palatine and Aventine hills.  passing the long grassy area where an oval outline of  the famous Circus Maximus had once been.

This had been Rome’s biggest stadium with grandstands holding up to 300.000 spectators from where they could cheer on the athletics,  chariot races and animal contests.

We had almost come full circle  and just before we arrived  at the Tiber again we came across one last lovely little temple – the Temple of the great god Hercules – remarkably  well preserved and cared for, with a backdrop of my favourite Roman pines.

Crossing the Tevere to Trastevere

Crossing the Tevere to  the popular old quarter of Trastevere

We reached the river a little further south than when we started. with the aim of crossing over  the Palatine Bridge into the old quarter of Trastavere.

I loved coming back there, strolling through the cobbled streets and alleyways  – it’s one of the locals favourite  meeting places to relax and eat delicious food, and by this time we were looking for a well-earned pasta and a glass of red wine in one of the cafes in the lovely octagonal piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

It had been a truly memorable day.  Sadly it was finally time to part ways and for me to complete preparations for the trip to Spain, and after that would follow the long journey home to Australia!

It wont be long before I get to see you all again Jan.   Meantime, lots of love to you and all the clan.

P.S. I expect that my next letter will be from Madrid.


My thanks to a friend Anna for supplementing my Rome photos from her collection,