The Exhibition    Urban Space and Worship

Reaching its apogee between the XVI and XVIII centuries, in a Holy Year the streets and piazzas of Rome would pullulate with an array of ceremonies, ritual moments, religious feasts and secular splendour; they would be thronged by Romans, pilgrims and travellers either solo or, as was more common, as part of a community. Hallmark Holy Year ceremonies and rites, such as opening and closing the Holy Door, the ritual of going through the door to obtain a pardon, and the associated pilgrimage to the basilicas, overlapped with the great many liturgical celebrations and events held in Rome during ordinary years – events like Holy Week that gained extra emphasis and solemnity during a Jubilee. Given the chance, pilgrims would eagerly attend special, religious or worldly celebrations, for example canonizations, beatifications, conversions or extraordinary blessings; an ostension of special relics, consecration of a church, or the commemoration of political or war-related events; the triumphant arrival of sovereigns, the coronation of a Pope, or a feast staged by one of the foreign communities based in Rome. These celebrations often featured dramatic backdrops and awe-inspiring specially-built contraptions. These too were part of the Jubilee experience for pilgrims, along with illuminations, fireworks, sacred representations and theatrical shows.

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One of the most picturesque features of the Roman Holy Year was the spectacle of lights, clothing, standards and banners carried by Rome’s confraternities as they walked in procession to greet the arrival of an associated company, or took their guests in procession to visit the Jubilee basilicas. Magnificent and highly scenographic processions crisscrossed the city streets, often accompanied by music and sometimes sacred representations. Processions were also put on to welcome the arrival of pilgrims, and to visit the basilicas, in accordance with precise rituals established by the various confraternities in their capitals. Roman and travelling confrères would walk together on these occasions. Arts and Crafts Guilds put on their own processions too, as would companies from various different nations.
Holy itineraries sometimes extended beyond visiting the patriarchal basilicas to include the Churches of San Sebastiano, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Lorenzo fuori le mura. Although not a compulsory requirement, the circuit of seven churches became a popular route for pilgrims and popes alike. Corpus Domini, the exhibition of the Blessed Sacrament for the Forty Hours’ Devotion, was another particularly important event in Rome’s main churches, as was the procession that the Arciconfraternita del Santissimo Crocifisso di San Marcello organized exclusively during Holy Years, when they solemnly bore to Saint Peter’s the large crucifix that, according to popular belief, had saved Rome from the plague in 1522.

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Hoping to turn around the decline in pilgrim numbers and boost Rome’s image as the epicentre of Christianity and symbols of worship, Benedict XIV meticulously prepared for the Holy Year of 1750. On the spiritual side, the Pope prepared the local populace by enlisting Franciscan Friar Leonardo da Porto Maurizio to preach. In 1749, he delivered sermons in Rome’s streets and piazzas, reputedly attracting tens of thousands of followers. His stay concluded with the consecration of the Coliseum: in 1750, the Pope granted the preacher “a permit to set up the Fourteen Stations of the Via Crucis within the Anfiteatro Flavio, otherwise known as the Coliseum”.
This was the culmination of more than two centuries of plans to Christianize the most monumental architectural symbol of pagan Rome; one about which groundless rumours circulated regarding its past as a venue for Christian martyrdom.
The Arciconfraternita del Gonfalone had held sacred representations of the Passion of Christ there in the late 1400s and early 1500s. Between the 1500s and 1700s, alternating with decades of neglect a number of plans were drawn up but never implemented to convert the Coliseum into a sanctuary and build a church inside it. Friar Leonardo’s initiative put an end to this process. It also had the beneficial side-effect of interrupting the long-standing depredations of marble and tufa rock for building sites of the day.

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Religious or civil “celebrations” have long been a distinguishing feature of Papal Rome, particularly during the centuries of the modern age. From the sixteenth century onwards, a great many travellers wrote of these feasts as must-see events for the full experience of the city. Chroniclers tell of Jubilee Year ceremonial episodes envisaged under the Holy Year ritual framework, particular the rite of the Holy Door, combining a strong spiritual dimension with the idea of a particularly solemn and communal celebration. Other celebrations included popular canonizations, which were of special significance during holy years, and blessings from the papal palazzos in the Vatican, Lateran or Quirinal, or from the main arcade of the basilicas. There were also endless celebrations that involved light shows, such as the illuminations in the basilica of San Pietro, or the Catherine Wheel at Castel Sant’Angelo, both of which were events that attracted Romans and travellers, who would go to great lengths to find the best places from which to watch the show.
In the spring of 1925, well-known journalist Ugo Ojetti penned the following description of the light show at St Peters: “The basilica vanishes, all we can see is the light.… The columns and pillars, the cornice and the tympanum of the lobby, and the cornice and coats of arms on the colonnade picked out by weaker lights, so that the Dome alone triumphs on high, surrounded by six crowns of torches, each column of the lantern transformed into a column of fire.”

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