In an ancient and historic city like Rome there is always something right under your nose that you could miss if you don’t keep eyes open and listen to other. As tourists we sometimes only focus on the main sites and literally walk past others of equal or greater historical value.
As I had mentioned in an earlier post our hotel in Rome was the Grand Hotel Palatino on the Via Cavour. The Palatino is just a few blocks from the Roman Forum and Colosseum. Many times my wife and I would leave the hotel and walk down to those famous ancient sites, ignorant of what we were passing. At breakfast one morning another guest at our table asked, “Have you been to the St. Peter in Chains Church?” “The what,” I asked. She explained that it had Michelangelo’s the famous statue of Moses. We told her we had not and asked where it was located. Her answer makes my point, “Across the street from the hotel and up a few steps.”
And she was absolutely correct in her directions. Across the Via Cavour was the narrow Via di San Francesco di Paola, which was more of a walkway in that location than a street. And she was also correct about the short set of steps up. At the top steps the walkway expanded into a street that vehicles could drive on. And there, as our tablemate had said, was San Pietro in Vicoli, Saint Peter in Chains.
Built in the fifth century this minor basilica is rather unassuming on the outside when compared to Saint Peters, Sant’Agnese in Agone, or the other majestic churches of Rome. But once you enter you’ll be surrounded by the colorful beauty of its many frescos. But it’s not the frescos, or even the holy relic that this basilica is named for that brings the tourists here, it’s the statue of Moses.
Michelangelo’s statue of Moses
There is a wonderful history behind this work of art, but first of all it wasn’t sculpted as a standalone. Michelangelo was first commissioned by Pope Julius II to create a funeral monument and tomb for him. The original design was to be massive, with 40 statues. However Pope Julius II had a big ego, and in his drive to immortalize himself with giant projects he kept pulling Michelangelo off working on the tomb to do other projects, like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter, but rather a sculpture, causing a deep friction between them. Because Julius kept veering off to other projects his tomb and monument was not finished at the time of his death in 1513, and so the complete monument was never finished. Julius’ well to do family had the finished portion of the monument, with the statue of Moses, moved to Saint Peter in Chains because of the Pope’s love for this small basilica.
Michelangelo considered his statue of Moses to be his best work. The statues surface looks more like it was brushed on rather than chiseled. It was said that Michelangelo saw this statue to be so lifelike that he asked for it to talk when he had finished it. There is also a controversy about the statue’s horns. Moses seems to have two horns coming out of his forehead. Some scholars believe that the reason for these horns could be due to a miss translation in the book of Exodus. In the most common translation of Exodus it says that Moses came down from Sinai with two rays on his forehead. This is the translation of the Hebrew word “Karan” or “Karnaim” meaning “rays.” However the confusions by Michelangelo could have because he thought the Hebrew word was “keren” which means “horns.” No one really knows what Michelangelo’s intentions were. It is also said that Michelangelo hid his profile, and those of his patrons in Moses’ beard as a joke.
The Chains of St. Peter
The statue of Moses overshadows what I think is an equally interesting and historical artifact housed in this church, and what this basilica is named and constructed to house. That would be the relic of the chains that supposedly bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem and Rome.
The story is that Empress Eudoxia, wife of Roman Emperor Valentinian II, had gotten the chains that held St. Peter while imprisoned in Jerusalem from her mother, who had gotten them from the Bishop of Jerusalem. Eudoxia then gave those chains to Pope Leo I, who already had the chains that bound Peter while he was imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison in Rome before he was martyred. Legend says that as Pope Leo was comparing the two chains they miraculously fused together.
This relic is kept in a reliquary under the main alter. You can go down a few steps at the front of the alter for a closer look. And at peek tourist time it may be easier to view those that the statue of Moses.
So as you travel to historic cities and countries don’t forget to look across the street and up a few steps, you may be surprised what you’ll find there.