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Thursday, August 03, 2006

1511: Martin Luther at Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

For part of the year 1511, Pope Julius was away from Rome, battling enemies near Bologna … and incidentally, ignoring Michelangelo’s pleas for at least partial payment for his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

At the same time, there was much activity at the Augustinian monastery and church of Sta. Maria del Popolo . Raphael had started his extraordinary work on the Chigi chapel (pron. KEEgee). And two Augustinian monks arrived from Germany to present a petition to the head of their order, who resided in Rome. When the two monks learned that the man they sought was with the pope in Bologna, they settled into their lodging at Santa Maria del Popolo to await his return.

Upon their arrival in Rome, just inside the Porta del Popolo, the younger of the two had fallen to his knees, kissed the ground, and shouted, "Blessed art thou, holy Rome!" It was Martin Luther, aged 27.

But Luther’s joy quickly turned to dismay, and he soon came to hate everything about the city: what he viewed as the ignorance and irreverence of the priests, the highly visible prostitutes, the rubbish in the river. He deplored the Roman habit of urinating in the street, even though decorum dictated that this should not be done within view of an image of a saint! He even loathed the vigorous gesturing that accompanied Italian conversation!

It was Martin Luther’s only visit to this city, but once was all he needed to be convinced that Rome was in the clutches of the devil. His disgust was much like the reaction of St. Augustine himself, who had been appalled by Roman life more than a millennium before.

Just six years later Luther posted his 95 topics for debate on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, and started the ball rolling towards the Protestant Reformation.

When Julius returned to Rome from his military endeavors, having lost Bologna to the French, he hung above the altar in Santa Maria del Popolo -- suspended by a silver chain -- a cannonball that had almost taken his life on the battlefield.

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