Cocktails, Spike Heels and Skulduggery

Papal gentlemen wait for the arrival of Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican. Photo by Gregorio Borgia, June 29, 2013
Papal gentlemen wait for the arrival of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican. Photo by Gregorio Borgia, June 29, 2013

Cocktail season has arrived in Rome…. a series of swanky events at elegant Roman Villas owned by foreign embassies.  The biggest one that attracts the crème de la crème of Rome is the US Embassy Fourth of July party in the extensive gardens of the splendid Villa Taverna, home to the US Ambassador.  There you can usually find the Italian Prime Minister, most of the cabinet and a regular Who’s Who in Roman power circles. The first time I got an invite to that party, I was rushing home from work on the bus and I bumped into a Mamma friend of mine who was married to an important Italian politician.  I told her I was going home to throw on a sundress and sandals.  She looked at me aghast and said, “for this event a little black cocktail dress and spike heels are a must.”

I didn’t have any spike heels back then, but now I do, and let me tell you there is nothing more ridiculous than me tripping around the pebble stone paths of the gardens of Villa Taverna, my pro secco sloshing about.  Even worse is when you are making conversation with some VIP in the garden and one’s heels sink deep into the earth and you find yourself suddenly losing three inches of height.  All of this attire is absurd because the menu is the usual Fourth of July fare: hamburgers and hotdogs, cooked by Italian waiters in white uniforms on large outdoor grills, followed by ice cream.  Last year, as I was speaking to a Vatican official, he managed to send the ketchup squirting out of his hotdog bun and all over his tie.  He was mortified and begged me not to tweet about it.  I did not tweet a word because I got distracted with the fireworks display at the end.

Then there is the Queen’s Birthday Party at the fabulous Villa Wolkonsky, once owned by a Russian Princess, The Germans made it their headquarters during World War II, and it is now home of the British Ambassador.   Its extensive, luxuriant garden has a swimming pool built for Hitler and the remains of a Roman aqueduct.    The Brits serve up steaks and scotch (if I remember correctly) and have Scottish Bag-pipers in plaids promenading about the garden.

The spectacular Palazzo Farnese in the center of Rome is home to the French Embassy and they hold their annual party on July 14th – and who would want to miss a Bastille Day wandering among the lemon trees and oleanders in the French gardens or staring up at the frescoed ceilings of Palazzo Farnese.  No messy ketchup for the French.

But one of the best parties to hit is the Fourth of July party of the US Embassy to the Vatican.  It doesn’t attract all the Italian big-wigs but one can find oneself rubbing elbows with the Pope’s security guards, sharing gossip with friendly priests, and getting scoops from slightly sloshed Monsignors.

And that brings me to the point of this post….

The US Embassy to the Vatican party is an opportunity not to be missed this year because of all the skullduggery that’s been going on at the Vatican.  Yes, I have plagiarized that one word from the veteran British Vaticanista, David Willey who, although he has worked for decades for the BBC, has recently written an excellent article for “The Daily Telegraph” on all the “skullduggery” going on at the Vatican.  See Link Here: Scandal and Skulduggery at the Vatican

He sums it all up much better than I ever could, but let me give all my blog readers a quick summary of what is going on and why I might need to find out more.

I believe what is happening is that Pope Francis is doing a massive cleanup job and setting a few things straight behind the Vatican walls.  The result is dramatic.  The other day the Vatican announced the Pope would  NOT be nominating any more “Papal Gentlemen.”

Those of us who cover the Vatican have gotten used to these men in black tuxedoes, their chests brimming with gold medals, escorting heads of state to meet the Pope.  These men belong to the European aristocracy and have names like Prince Ruspoli, Colonna, Orsini and Torlonia.  In addition to escorting leaders through the halls of the Apostolic Palace many of them are involved in charitable causes, escorting trainloads of handicapped people to Lourdes or funding homeless shelters. But there have been some cases of Papal Gentlemen being involved in corruption and, in one prominent case, a gay prostitution ring in Rome.

Pope Francis has said he wants a “Poor church dedicated to the Poor” and clearly he thinks the Papal Gentlemen are an anachronism that doesn’t present an image of poverty and it is time to phase them out after centuries of service in the “papal court”.

One June 22, Pope Francis sent shock-waves through the Vatican by not showing up at a classical concert at the Vatican.  He said he had too much work to do and remained in his office at the Santa Marta Residence.  The photo of his empty “Papal Throne” was in all the Italian papers the next day and it was widely reported that Pope Francis,  when asked why he chose not to attend, said “I am not a Renaissance Prince.”

Then things really started to rock and roll on the clean up front last week when I was taking time off for my son’s graduation from high school.

First the Vatican announced the Pope had set up a five-person commission (including two Americans) to investigate the Vatican bank and get to the bottom of all the accusations of corruption, money-laundering and mafia links.

Then on Friday a powerful Monsignor who worked at the Vatican bank was arrested by Italian police– together with two Italian men– for attempting to smuggle 20 million euros (that’s 26 million dollars) in cash in a suitcase from Switzerland in a jet owned by the Italian government.  The plot was discovered by telephone wiretaps.

Monsignor Nunzio Scarano already was known around the Vatican as “Monsignor 500” for his habit of flashing his 500 euro notes around.  He is currently being held at the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome (interestingly just below the Ganicolo where tonight’s cocktail party will be held).  Scarano has asked for house arrest.

(As I was not working, I did not cover this breaking news, but if any blog readers want to know more you can check out my AP wire colleague Nicole Winfield’s excellent reports.  You can find them through her twitter account @nwinfield )

There is so much going on I can barely keep up…

So, I am off to iron my dress, sharpen my spikes, and enjoy a few parties.

7 thoughts on “Cocktails, Spike Heels and Skulduggery”

  1. Thanks for giving us a picture that makes the connections between the parties, the scandals, the gentlemen, and Pope Francis’ huge endeavors at clean up. Fascinating stuff. I wish the Pope well and pray for him. And wonder, what behind-the-scenes role do the embassies play in all this? With such vast money at play, it would be unbelievable to say that they remain apart from it all. Hope you can get some unguarded comments from the tipsy monsignors at the parties!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hi Nancy — I suppose it depends on the embassy, but in the case of the United States, I think they have a definite role in this period. I know a lot of the US Cardinals were pushing hard for a clean-up at the Vatican. In addition, a lot of Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus give lots of money to the Vatican and want to make sure it is used properly. So, just to give you an idea, Mary Ann Glendon, a former US Ambassador to the Vatican, was appointed last week by Pope Francis to be part of the five person commission to oversee the Vatican Bank. She was at the Vatican party. I also met a fascinating woman who studied at the University of Massachusetts and now is running the “Fabbrica di San Pietro”, the Vatican office that is in charge of St. Peter’s Basilica. I also saw Cardinal Law lurking about the party (dressed is simple priest attire), which wouldn’t make anyone from Boston very happy.

  2. Last evening I was bemoaning my lack of interesting and intelligent friends which always follows the newest issue of Vanity Fair, The NYT (love Sundays!) and even various fashion magazines with fabulous writing. This morning I open my email to this post and again live vicariously through your prose in a world filled with power, politics, art and history with a little religious skullduggery thrown in to boot. I am once again thankful for my many friends over these 50+ years who(m?) I have known solely through the magical art of the pen. Great post. Off to follow your links…

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Ah yes, the Sunday New York Times, that is one of the things I miss most living in Italy. I am so flattered you think I write well. I guess being a TV journalist I feel that I am good at working with words and pictures together but have a bit of a complex about my talent with the pen (keyboard) alone, and living in Italy for so many years I suddenly feel like by vocabulary in English is slipping away from me for lack of use. Thank you for boosting my ego!!!

  3. Trisha, how glamourous Rome sounds, maybe the stilettos seem a bit of a bore but what an eclectic social life it must offer, I am sure that they adore an American, Roman naturalised Mamma who hides her journalistic talents in a very skulldugerry manner ;))!!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Ah yes, it is fun to be a bit “skullduggeryish” while where sinking stilettos and sipping pro secco!!

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