Friday, November 17, 2006

Feb. 27, 1956 (Part 2 of 2)

The main audience chamber is a long, narrow room, the vaulted ceiling in gold as in St. Peter’s. We entered through the green curtains I’d seen from the other room, & were ushered into another "corral" just to the right of the door. Far up at the other end of the room, on a raised dais surrounded by red velvet, stood the Papal throne.

Directly across from us was a huge painting—showing a woman with a sword holding the severed head of a man, while the blood poured from his neck over her feet. This struck me as being slightly out of place in the Vatican, even if it was, as I found out later, supposed to represent Ruth slaying the leader of the Philistines.

The room was rapidly filling up, & a solid mass of people choked the aisle. Into the "pen" across from us, beneath the picture, came a group of young nuns, all looking excited & happy. They wore the tight-fitting headdress that showed plainly their heads must have been shaven.

Still they came—into our enclosure came all sorts of Americans & English, as well as a few French. Three-quarters of the entire Italian Army came pouring in—some wearing the red tasseled caps of the mountain fighters—generals, enlisted men, & all ranks in between.

Civilians—women with black lace handkerchiefs on their heads, from all classes & walks of life.

I can’t imagine where they put them all—more nuns, with huge white Dutch-looking hats, Italian sailors & airmen. A Japanese priest in black & a monk in brown-&-white—more & more & more.

At long last (after an hour and fifteen minutes) the green curtains were drawn & lights went on over the thrown. A hush fell on the people—a quiet, expectant murmur.

The curtains were drawn open & the soldiers in blue & gold entered again—everyone burst into applause. I turned around to see—the Pope, dressed all in white, carried on a sedan-chair by men in red velvet. He was smiling & giving the scooping-upward movement of his hands. He looked old, but not his eighty years.

People holding up rosaries & crucifixes—one of the sailors further down held up the little blond, & the Pope patted him on the head. The soldiers with the red-tasseled hats waved them in the air & yelled something in Italian. Then someone started singing a Latin hymn, & soon everyone took it up. For some reason, it reminded me of the early Christian martyrs being thrown to the lions, singing.

He at last reached the throne, & descended from the sedan-chair & climbed the steps to the throne. Two cardinals appeared from somewhere on either side of him, & someone else placed a microphone before him.

All this I saw by standing on tip-toe & craning my neck, for he was a good half-block away.

When he began to speak, everyone fell silent—he has a soft but powerful voice &, speaking first in Italian, I notice the way he slurred the R’s, as most Italians do. He spoke to each group represented; you could tell which one by the applause.---The soldiers waved their caps & chanted again, & the nuns across the way hopped up & down & clutched their rosaries when he spoke to them. Since it was a predominantly Italian gathering, he spoke at great length to them.

During this time, I got to speaking with an American in civilian clothes—found out he’s in the army stationed somewhere in Germany & was on his way to Naples to visit the grave of his uncle, who was killed during the war. We were getting along quite well when we heard the Pope say: "And now, the Americans…." His English, I am sorry to say, is so broken it was almost impossible to understand him—of course, when one speaks as many languages as the Pope, it is difficult to be perfect in all of them. He welcomed us to Rome, & gave his blessings to all—Catholic & Protestant. And that, unfortunately, is all I was able to understand or remember.
Then he lapsed into French.

After the audience was officially over, with the Papal blessing upon us all, there was a great delay from the time he descended from the throne until I saw him again. Since I couldn’t see what he was doing, I hadn’t the slightest idea what was going on.

At last he got into his sedan-chair & was carried back down the aisle, while the people sang the Latin hymn. He was carried past me, & the green curtains closed behind him. When they re-opened, we all filed out.

I & the soldier (his name is Joe Golden) almost got lost in the maze of stairways & passages (we left somehow differently than we’d come in).

When we got outside, I went to the bus & got my camera, & Joe & I went back into St. Peter’s. Had I mentioned that Pope Leo X’s body lies embalmed in a glass coffin in one part of the church?

We left St. Peter’s & walked to the USO for dinner, then decided to go to the Forum to take pictures. It had become quite cloudy as we took a bus (No. 64—cost 25 Lire: 4 cents) to Victor Emanuel Square, which is crowned by the first Italian King’s magnificent monument—the most beautiful building in Rome—in classic style.

By the time we got there, it had started to rain. We got thoroughly soaked running back & forth wondering what to do. Finally settled on going into a bar until it let up.

About an hour later, we decided to try again—we got all the way to the Forum walls (it lies, as I said, in a valley—on one end is a street, quite high above it, & with a wall on one side & the Palatine hill on the other). This time we really got wet. We ran into a building near the head of the Forum & found it was the Carcere Marmitine—the ancient cistern-like jail in which Peter & Paul had been held nine months—we saw the post to which they had been chained & the two-foot hole (there were no stairs in it in those days) through which they’d been lowered—two levels below the street.

Made our way back to the USO for something to eat, & went to the show—some one I’d seen before, but wanted to see again. After the show we found a Restaurant-Bar called The Californian. Very modern & very good food—all American; even the menu had American prices on it. By now it was one a.m., & I was tired.

We agreed to meet at 1:00 the next day at the USO & went our respective ways….

P.S. More tomorrow—I have an acute case of writer’s cramp at the moment.




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