Units Overseas Tour: Italy

Written by: Lynn Young, President General
November 4, 2014

On October 20, 2014, Mindy, Virginia, Steve and I flew from Madrid to Rome, City of the Seven Hills, for our official visit with the Pax Romana Chapter.  After a drive to our hotel and a quick lunch, we were greeted by the Chapter Regent, Cara Kavanaugh, who gave us a delightful tour of the area.  We drove to the oldest section of Rome and took a walking tour while Cara provided lessons on the art and history of the area. Cara is very knowledgeable about the art, architecture and history of Rome and we enjoyed having her as our guide.

Our first visit was to the church now known as Saint Mary Major, built under Pope Sixtus III (432-440) following the Council of Ephesus. Damaged by the earthquake of 1348, the church features magnificent fifth century mosaics and statues, including a marble statue of Jesus sculpted by Michangelo, entitled “The Risen Christ.”

Our second visit was to the San Luigi dei Francesi (Church of St. Louis of the French) built for the French community between 1518 and 1589.  The church's most famous items are the paintings by the Baroque master Caravaggio in 1599-1600 about the life of St. Matthew.

We walked to the Pantheon, built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD. The most recognizable part of the building is the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.  One of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings, it has been in continuous use throughout its history.  Used as a Roman Catholic Church since the 7th century, among the notable burials are the painter Raphael and two kings of Italy.  As the best-preserved example of an Ancient Roman monumental building, the Pantheon has been enormously influential in Western architecture, including the Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia. 

We walked to the nearby Piazza de Novona for dinner where we discovered Tonnerell al Cacio pepe (pasta with Romano pecorino cheese and black pepper).  It was delicious and I’m looking forward to preparing it when we return home.

The next morning we rode to the Non-Catholic Cemetery, formerly the Protestant Cemetery, where member Sharri Whiting, who has extensively researched the burials and history of the cemetery, conducted an excellent tour.  About 300 years ago the Pope gave permission for a burial ground for non-Catholics, many of whom were foreign travelers who died before returning home.  Over 800 Americans are buried in this sacred place, and about one-third are people of note.  The land is adjacent to two ancient monuments – the Pyramid of Caius Cestius dating to approximately 12 B.C. and the Aurelian city wall - that form an impressive backdrop for the Cemetery.

Our tour began with the visit to the grave of John Keats, known as the Young Poet of England.   Other notable burials include poet Percy Shelley.  American Sculptor William Whitmore Story erected one of the most visible and beautiful sculptures in the entire cemetery for the grave of his wife, Emely, the Angel of Grief.  That style has been copied in other cemeteries, including Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, where members of my father’s family are buried.

We visited the grave of four DAR members: Annie Sampson Woodruff and her daughter, Elizabeth and Virginia Taylor Smoot and her daughter, Katherine Smoot Tuccimei, a past regent of the first chapter organized in Rome, and enjoyed learning about these women from Past Chapter Regent Candace Biamonti.

Cara led us to the marker for Sarah Parker Remond, an African American woman who was an abolitionist, suffragette and medical doctor in the mid-19th century.  Cara is working with the Cultural Attache’ to place a historical marker on the building in which Sarah Remond lived as her Chapter Regent’s project.

At the conclusion of our tour, we walked a short distance to a neighborhood restaurant, Flavio al Velavevodetto, built into the side of the city’s most historic landfill.  We were seated in front of a glass wall offering a glimpse into the ancient terracotta fragments, remaining when olive oil was emptied into other containers, and the jars were tossed in the dump.  Centuries of discarded pottery – some almost intact and some in shards -  were an amazing look into the past.

That afternoon we stepped back to the time of the Roman Empire with a walk through the Roman Forum where centuries of ancient government buildings were in ruins.  We then toured the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre in the world, built from 70-80 AD.  Holding between 50,000-80,000 spectators, we learned the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, animal hunts and executions. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 1349 and by centuries of neglect, Diego Della Valle, head of the shoe firm Tod's, has agreed to sponsor a €25 million restoration of the Colosseum. 

On Wednesday morning, Cara and I had the honor of placing a wreath at the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), a monument which holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of World War I with an eternal flame. This honor is usually reserved for heads of state and our tribute to the soldiers who fought alongside the U.S. in World War I was appreciated by the many onlookers, members and guards.

After the wreath laying, we walked a short distance to the Capitoline Museums, a group of art and archeological museums on a piazza by Michelangelo in 1536 and built over a period of more than 400 years. The history of the museums can be traced to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome and located them on Capitoline Hill. Open to the public in 1734 under Clement XII, considered the first museum in the world, we were invited to sit in the Julius Caesar Hall where the city government convenes.

That afternoon the chapter meeting was held at Villa Aurora, home of Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi and her husband, Prince Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi.   A native Texan, Rita joined the DAR almost 35 years ago and eventually moved to Rome when she married her husband. Prior to the meeting, Rita graciously gave us a tour of the 16th century palace including the magnificent frescoes on the ceilings painted by Caravaggio and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri.  Among her husband’s ancestors were Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582 and Pope Gregory XV.

Members of the Amerigo Vespucci Society, C.A.R. presented flowers and welcomed us to Rome.  During the meeting, Mindy, Virginia and I greeted the members and shared some of the news of the National Society.  It was a pleasure to administer the Oath of Membership to two new members.  Special guests were Alberto Merola, a maker of fine gloves which the chapter has sold at the Units Overseas Luncheon for many years, and Consul Riccardo Guariglia, Chief of Diplomatic Protocol of the Italian Republic, which whom we enjoyed visiting during the post-meeting reception.

As our time in Italy came to an end, we bid Arriverderci and returned to our hotel to prepare for our departure for Vienna, Austria.


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