March 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Past less traveled

Young Fascists about-town in 1938.
By Andrew Giarelli
Published: 2008-11-11

ome has about 130 museums, depending on whether you count some truly obscure and rarely open saints’ shrines and catacombs. Some are so exclusive you need a reservation (Villa Borghese), others so popular you can almost never find time to enjoy them properly (the Vatican Museums). Some of the city's most interesting museums, however, offering glimpses into daily Roman life through the centuries, are often nearly empty. Two days of edifying solitude in one of the world’s most crowded and noisy cities can be downright weird, but undeniably healing.

Start in the staid Prati neighborhood, where good Catholic tourists cozy up to St. Peter's and wealthy Roman ladies nibble on €6 ices. The neo-Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart, built between 1914-1916, looms over the Tiber. The church itself is striking, but no guidebooks mention its Little Museum of the Souls of Purgatory. It takes some asking, but near the sacristy is a dim corridor with a wall of 10 framed proofs, apparently, that the dead do return. They come from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. The souls have seemingly avoided this world since 1920; who can blame them?

The ghostly hand or finger-mark, seared into something earthly, was the preferred contact method. Those souls knew how to make an impression. Asleep the night of June 5, 1894, Sister Margaret in a nunnery near Perugia was visited by her late colleague Sister Maria, who'd died that morning. Sister Maria had suffered for two years with tuberculosis, longing for release. That night she told Sister Margaret that she was in Purgatory because of her impatience, and she needed prayers. She burned her finger-mark into Sister Margaret’s pillowcase, on display here, and promised to return. Later that month she did return with the good news that the sisters’ prayers had sprung her.

Other handprints are from a mother returned to warn her son off his errant ways and from a man’s dead brother, seeking prayers to counter his impious life. The most recent is a photocopy of a 10-lire banknote with a handprint from a dead monk of the monastery of San Leonardo in Montefalco who left 30 such bills there between Aug. 18 and Nov. 9, 1919, asking for Masses. The monks have the original banknotes, the display said.

If you're lucky, you'll exit into a gloomy autumn Roman evening, as I did, one that soon exploded with a cloudburst. I ran for my favorite old school haven of Roman comfort food on this side of the Tiber, Ai Villini. The distant but unswervingly polite elderly waiters serve a heavenly stracciatella, egg drop soup, and stracetti di vitello and manzo brasato, inadequately translated as "veal strips" and "braised beef" (Via Marcantonio Colonna, 48; dinner for two about €40).

Pauline Bonaparte: Hedonism, syphilis, death. But nice slippers.

Purgatory must have seemed milder than earthly Roman justice under the popes, judging from the Museo Criminologico, run by Rome's police in a narrow, four story building off tasteful Via Giulia back on the Tiber’s trendier eastern side. It makes for a nice early morning visit, especially if you need to unload some unrealistically rosy notions about human nature. An inappropriately whimsical wooden miniature of "la Veglia" ("The Vigil"), carved and painted by 1930s inmates, recalls this punishment: a man is tied astraddle a pointed wooden block, his limbs weighed down. A real and well-worn example of "La Mordacchia" ("The Muzzle," an iron mask fastened around the mouths of litigious and slanderous women, hangs nearby.

Next up is a cilice, notorious thanks to the "Da Vinci Code." It was indeed used for penance, but it also punished adulterers, who were forced to sit on a churchyard "seat of penance" with its triple spine digging into their thighs. There was a banco di fustigazione, the whipping block used to punish beggars and unlicensed vendors, who also often had their ears cut off and foreheads branded. The whips on display were corded and heavy, and they made the next attraction, the guillotine, seem kind.

The French introduced Rome to the guillotine during their short-lived Roman Republic in 1798. Its operator, nicknamed Mastro Titto, executed his first man with it on Feb. 28, 1810 and followed with 52 more over the next three years. When the popes returned to rule Rome in 1815, they nostalgically brought back the stake, but pragmatically kept the guillotine, too, continuing to employ Mastro Titto. He "was called to rest," says his display, in 1868, at age 85. His beloved guillotine was last used shortly after his death on Nov. 24, 1868, to behead two revolutionaries who’d killed 25 papal troops with a bomb in their barracks.

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