For a Catholic, the whole experience of Rome ought to be a pilgrimage. Here are the shrines sacred to the memory of the martyrs who shed their blood for Christ, here are the churches built over the tombs of the saints. To visit these places is to see the historical foundation upon which that most extraordinary religion, the Catholic Faith, is founded. And it is truly the most miraculous thing in the world, for how else could it have survived so long, grown and triumphed even in the midst of terrible persecution, heresy, and schism? The witness of the bones of God’s holy ones bears out the claims of the Christian. To visit these sites is to actually see for oneself the reality behind that long litany prayed in the Roman Canon; to see in truth where Peter and Paul lived, died, and were buried. The closer one is to the saints, the closer to Christ. In Rome, this means a lot of walking.
I had the opportunity today to visit Tre Fontane, the spot outside own the ancient walls of Rome where Saint Paul was beheaded under the reign of the Emperor Nero. After the Christians were blamed for the great fire that swept Rome in the early 60’s A.D, a great persecution broke out in which many of the faithful were martyred. This brings to mind, of course, the image of young virgins being thrown to ravenous lions for the blood-crazed amusement of a demonized Rome, which is true. But St. Paul, being a Roman citizen, received the somewhat more sanguinary means of execution by decapitation.
Tre Fontane is name after the site of his martyrdom. According to legend–often more truthful than many historical books–his head bounced three times, so mighty was the executioner’s stroke, and where it landed a natural spring was opened up. Whether this be true or not, I do not know for certain. But I do know that it is a tradition reaching far back, and that there are indeed three springs on the spot. Furthermore, the miraculous is to be accounted for. On this basis, therefore, three churches have been constructed in close proximity to each other. Each represents a different stage in history and architectural development. One is a medieval basilica dedicated to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, one is a Renaissance central-plan church dedicated to two young soldier-saints, and the last is a Baroque fusion of the previous styles built over the Three Fountains.
Trying to find this rather obscure spot was somewhat difficult, but myself and my two companions were finally able to do so–but only after asking for directions several times. It is built on the grounds of a Cistercian abbey–hence the connection with Saint Bernard–and is located in the Eur area of Rome, the region where Mussolini began his dream project of refounding an imperial city built on Fascist principles. Consequently, the faux-neoclassical fusion of ugliness that defines 1930’s architecture surrounds the hallowed ground of the Catholic Faith, and it is only after one makes his way through such a spiritual wasteland that the charming stone abbey comes in sight.
Entering through a gateway onto a long gravel road flanked by avenues of Roman oaks and plane trees, the first notable feature to see is a great statue of St. Benedict, the grandfather of the Cistercian reform and founder of Western Monasticism. He brings a forefinger to his lips, cautioning holy silence. The first words of his famous Rule: “ausculta, o film mi” are inscribed below his feet.
Passing by the saint’s likeness, the road turns in a leftward bend to face the old abbey gatehouse, as trim and pleasing an edifice as one would like. No old and well-chosen porter greeted us, but the spirit of the Regula Benedicti lingers about the place. Beyond the vault of the main gate is a little green with a forked path leading to the churches, at the intersection of which is a statue of the Madonna. To the right is a stone wall with a fontinelli that gushes out the purest, cleanest water anyone could wish for. Like the chosen men of Gideon, we weary pilgrims drank directly from the font’s nozzle. Afterwards, we entered the basilica. It is typically Roman in conception: a long nave with side aisles that is intersected by a narrow transept and ended with a semi-circular apse. This creates the cross shape that one finds in most traditionally built churches.
The church is dark (good) and silent (better). The holy water fonts have little fish carved into them, and on the piers are a series of frescoes showing the Twelve Apostles. There is a series of windows just below the roof, which are properly called fenestrated. These are pierced and allowed for natural light, unlike the stained glass of Gothic churches. The roof is wooden, with the red clay tiles found all over Rome; and the walls are built of a light brick with a reddish tinge. A rood screen separates the laity from the religious, and a wooden choir surrounds the high altar. Four side altars fill the transept, which is narrower than many basilicas, and one reserves the Blessed Sacrament.
The other churches are interesting structurally, although their interior decoration–with a few exceptions–is somewhat gaudy. The nearest to the basilica, Scala Coeli, is built in a Greek-cross plan constructed over an ancient Roman prison cell. The other, called Tre Fontane, is a Baroque church which fuses the basilica’s length with the central-plan as its transept. This church contains the three miraculous fountains, and also features a painting of Saint Peter’s execution, probably done by a student of Caravaggio because of its strong chiaroscuro. In addition, there are two exquisitely carved high reliefs panels set near the main doors that depict the martyrdom of the two Apostles. The attention to detail, especially the emotional tension captured in the figures’ positioning, is very striking.