On a narrow, traffic congested stretch of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, in Rome’s historical centre, locals and tourists alike hustle past a little-noticed Roman Renaissance palazzo on their way to the more familiar sites of Piazza Navona and Campo de' Fiori.
It’s no wonder - the palace is not open to the general public as the ancient and once powerful Massimo alle Colonne family still live there, and they only open their doors to Rome’s public once a year, on March 16th. On this day alone, they invite people in to commemorate a miracle that happened in the bedroom of young Paolo Massimo on that day in 1583.
The Massimo family are considered to be one of Rome’s oldest families, and according to legend, they can trace their family all the way back to Republican Rome and the patrician, Fabius Maximus who, in 202 B.C. led the armies of Rome against Hannibal. They have always been great patrons of the Arts, with Rome’s first printing press residing in their palace until it, along with their palace was destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 1527.
The imposing palace that we see today was designed and built by Baldassarre Peruzzi after the Sack of Rome (1532-1536), on the site of three of their former properties. The palace, and indeed the family - take their name ‘Colonne’ from the row of six Doric columns along the central portico. Standing across the road, you will notice that it has an unusual slightly curved facade: this is because it’s built on the remains of the Odeon ( a small covered theatre) of the emperor Domitian. The whole palace is an elegant, if slightly austere, building and an amazing example of Renaissance Mannerism architecture in Rome.
It is, however, only on one day a year where we can be lucky enough to venture beyond the threshold of this magnificent palace. So what exactly happened inside Palazzo Massimo all Colonne on March 16th, 1583?
Prince Fabrizio Massimo’s fourteen-year-old son, Paolo, had been suffering from a long illness, and, on that day he passed away. The local priest, St. Filippo Neri, didn’t make it to the boy’s bedside in time to hear confession and administer the Last Rites, but once he arrived at the palace, he dashed up to the boy’s room. he sat beside him, sprinkled holy water on his face, and called out the boy’s name twice.
Paolo Massimo came back to life.
St. Filippo Neri heard Paolo’s confession, and the pair were said by the family to have chatted together for a little while, with the boy apparently looking in perfect health. Neri then asked the young Paolo if was now ready to die. Paolo said he wanted to see his mother and sister again in heaven and that he was ready. The boy then died peacefully in the saint’s arms.
The Massimo family turned Paolo’s bedroom into a beautiful chapel after his death, and this is where they invite the public on the 16th of March each year to celebrate mass.
Of course, since the Massimo family are still in residence, access to the palace is limited even on March 16th. But as you wander towards the chapel keep an eye out for stunning colonnaded courtyards, loggias and elaborate coffered and frescoed ceilings by the hand of artists such as Daniele da Volterra.
Access to part of the palace and chapel can be made only on March 16th between 9 am and 1 pm. More information can be found on the city website.
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