Ravishing, Rotten Rome

Two priests in "cappelli romani" watching the Finance Police marching band in Piazza del Popolo. November 5, 2015 Photo by Trisha Thomas

Two priests in “cappelli romani” watching the Finance Police marching band in Piazza del Popolo. November 5, 2015 Photo by Trisha Thomas

The other night I happened to be passing through Piazza del Popolo at dusk as I headed home from work. My mind was spinning around the events of the day: a massive corruption trial in Rome, and more scandals at the Vatican. As I briskly clipped my way over the cobblestones, my thoughts, interspersed with typical mama multi-tasking, went something like this: “Damn, I forgot to get the meat out of the freezer for dinner,” “Could Cardinal Bertone really have used 200,000 euros destined for Rome’s Vatican-run children’s hospital to renovate his spacious roof-top apartment?”, “I wonder if the girls took out the dog since I am late?”, “Where are all the defendants being held in the Mafia Capitale trial?”

Suddenly, my way was blocked by the Italian Finance Police marching band making its way around the piazza. I skirted around the edge of the band and then saw two portly priests wearing “the cappello romano” (translated: The Roman Hat) – a round hat with round top sometimes worn by the clergy. One of them grasped his plump hands behind his back. “Only man in Rome who doesn’t seem to have his hands in the cookie jar today,” I thought to myself.

I passed them and then turned back to look again. There were purplish-grey clouds in the sky and light glinting off the top of the Church of Santa Maria di Montesanto. The ravishing loveliness of Rome halted me in my tracks. And being the multi-media mama that I am, I took out my cell phone, snapped a photo and tweeted it with an inane comment, and then turned and rushed home.

But the moment remained in my mind because it happens often in this city. The beauty, the sacred and profane all mixed up, takes your breath away and makes you forget its rotting core.

So what is rotting?

Well this past week the “Mafia Capitale” trial kicked off with 46 defendants including businessmen, politicians and common criminals all accused of being wrapped up in a racket with Rome’s City Hall. The businessmen were lining the pockets of city hall officials to get lucrative contacts for garbage collection, park maintenance, and shelters for migrants, among other things. While grass has grown up in the city parks, broken fountains remain that way, fallen trees stay where they land, and garbage lies around the city streets, these men were getting rich.

Politicians from across the political spectrum are accused of making a buck off the city of Rome. (see blog post “Rome’s Middle World”)

Nighttime view of the Vatican from a bridge on the Tiber. Photo by Trisha Thomas. March 18, 2015

Nighttime view of the Vatican from a bridge on the Tiber. Photo by Trisha Thomas. March 18, 2015

Meanwhile, across the Tiber over at the Vatican, there is something that stinks of rot as well. Two new books on the Vatican have revealed financial mismanagement, corruption and strong resistance to Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Curia (the Vatican government.)

Just before the books came out, the Vatican announced the arrest of a Spanish Monsignor accused of leaking documents to the press. He is still in jail at the Vatican. With him, the Vatican accused a young woman who has been working at the Vatican (she was quickly released after agreeing to cooperate with the investigation).

“Avarice” by Emiliano Fittipaldi, revealed documents showing that the former Vatican Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, used 200,000 euros intended for a Children’s Hospital run by the Vatican to renovate his enormous Vatican apartment with a large roof terrace. “Merchants in the Temple” by Gianluigi Nuzzi showed how hundreds of thousands of euros in donations are spent to “make” Saints, with no one checking on how the money is spent.   It revealed that the Vatican owns thousands of apartments in Rome but charges rent way below market value and loses millions of euros. And both books showed how money that is donated for charity often ends up being spent on the Vatican administration.

To be honest, much of what was revealed in details, using Vatican documents, is actually common knowledge in Rome. Everyone knows that to get an apartment, store or studio owned by the Vatican in Rome is like winning the lottery – low rent, flexible arrangements. As far as Cardinals’ apartments are concerned, any journalist who has interviewed a Cardinal in his home in Rome knows that the Vatican provides the Princes of the Church generously large apartments. All this has been taken for granted for the past 23 years I’ve been in Rome, and much before that.

But now Pope Francis is trying to push through massive reforms at the Vatican. He is trying to make the church a place for the poor and is leading through example, eschewing the Papal apartment in the Apostolic palace and living in a small space in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.

At a press conference last week to promote his book, Gianluigi Nuzzi said that the Pope’s collaborators say there is a “war in the Vatican” between the reformers and those who are trying to slow the Pope’s efforts to change the place.

It wasn’t long before the Pope was speaking out himself. In his daily morning mass to a small group at the Santa Marta residence Pope Francis denigrated the priests and bishops who lead a “double life.” He spoke of his sadness on seeing those in the church who are “climbers” and “attached to money”.

The Pope went even further in his Sunday angelus, speaking from a window above Saint Peter’s Square to the crowd below he said, “I know that many of you have been upset by the news circulating in recent days concerning the Holy See’s confidential documents that were taken and published. For this reason I want to tell you, first of all, that stealing those documents was a crime. It’s a deplorable act…”

A few day later the Vatican announced that it was also investigating the two journalist/authors who wrote the books for “their possible participation in the crime of dissemination of news and confidential documents.”  Author Gianluigi Nuzzi has been summoned to the Vatican tomorrow (Tuesday morning) to talk to investigators but he has said he will not go.

I can understand the Pope’s anger and frustration over all these revelations, but I am not convinced shooting the messenger will help.

The Italian press has dubbed this month’s crisis as “Vatileaks II” bringing back to mind the documents leaked by then Pope Benedict XVI’s butler which many say led to Ratzinger’s unprecedented resignation. (see blog posts: “The Butler Did It” and “The Pope’s Butler Takes the Stand.”

An image of a Madonna with child keeps an eye on a worker on Palazzo Grazioli on the corner of Via della Gatta in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

An image of a Madonna with child keeps an eye on a worker on Palazzo Grazioli on the corner of Via della Gatta in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But what would Rome and the Vatican be with out elegant Cardinals in flowing red robes living in opulent apartments and fashionably-dressed, smarmy Italian politicians in cahoots with criminals?

Crossing back over the Tiber, leaving the luxury apartments of climbing cardinals, we can sink back into the muck beneath the magnificent surface of the city.

The “Mafia Capitale” trial will move this week from the Rome courthouse to the court inside Rebibbia Prison on the outskirts or Rome where many of the defendants are being held. Although the trial is still in its preliminary stages it is guaranteed to reveal how the city’s government was infiltrated by this criminal group and how weak politicians quickly took the money leaving Rome a ruin.

A view out over the Roman Forum towards the temple of Venus from the Coliseum. April 3, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A view out over the Roman Forum towards the temple of Venus from the Coliseum. April 3, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

 

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

6 Comments

  1. Joan Schmelzle
    2015/11/17

    Ravishing indeed! And most unfortunately rotten too. I keep up a bit on the rotten mostly on line and now and then a bit in one paper or another. It is hard to read about my favorite city in this light. I have seen the garbage and the broken fountains. One fountain is an old favorite I keep hoping to see fixed. I believe it’s called the Fountain of Joy in Villa Borghese. It shows parents (I expect) bouncing a small child who has now been headless for at least two trips there. But then as you say, the ravishing views, places, sites/sights take over, and I am happy again.
    I will be in Rome again one month from today. So looking forward to it.
    A presto,
    Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2015/11/17

      Oh, I’ve always liked that fountain too. I think it is the |”Family of Satyrs Fountain” though. I have heard they are restoring it. I will have to stop by and take a look. You may notice I did not put in any photos of broken fountains, fallen trees, and garbage on the streets — it is just too depressing.

      Reply
  2. Nancy Rockwell
    2015/11/17

    We’ve had only a slight mention of this, and I am grateful for a fuller picture, and your questions are the right ones. I think it is a good thing that this kind of corruption comes to light, and the justice issue should not be releasing the documents that show corruption, but the corruption itself. Even if technically legal, the Vatican, and its Cardinals, should be held to a higher moral vision. I think a Vatican without princely cardinals, instead with hard-working servants of God, would be a refreshing vision. Here we are, reeling from the destruction in France, and here is the Vatican, all caught up in covering its own backside. Sadly for all of us, this kind of corruption gives some credence to the mad rantings of ISIS against the West. I’ve been disappointed that the Pope has shown so little concern for the French. And no long-term concern for Syrian refugees. But I am glad he lives in the Marta and is trying to bring change.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2015/11/18

      Thanks for our comment Nancy. I like your expression “covering their backsides” — that does sum it up pretty well. In defense of the Pope, he did speak out very strongly against the terror attacks in France — but it probably got lost in the tidal wave of news on the attacks. He also continues to speak frequently on the question of refugees. As I respond to your comment I have been listening to his comments live at the weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square and he just said that the church should never lock its doors and that the migrants should never be pushed back or refused. I do think though that we are about to see a big backlash against Syrian migrants trying to enter in Europe following these attacks.

      Reply
  3. John
    2015/11/19

    You capture the ambiguity of Rome so well. And how much can Pope Francis take on? The hypocrisy of the Vatican (and the whole sex scandal.) reminds us of the ambiguity of the RC Church as well.

    Very glad to see you blogging again.

    L/D

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2015/11/20

      Thanks Dad!! Yes, I did take a break from blogging for over a month. It is hard to keep up the energy sometimes. I have a long list of blog topics I am eager to tackle though. “Piano piano” as they say in Italian (slowly, slowly)

      Reply

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