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Culture : On Restoring the Home of a Jesuit Priest : St. Ignatius founded the Catholic order about 450 years ago. Now, to honor his birth, the Jesuits have restored the rooms in Rome where the former soldier lived, worked and ultimately died.

January 08, 1991|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — In 1537, a hawk-nosed Spanish soldier-turned-priest limped into the tumult of Renaissance Rome with a dream that would dramatically change the face of both the Eternal City and his church.

As a soldier, Inigo Lopez de Loyola fought 11 years for the king of Spain. As a far-sighted cleric, he served the Pope, and he is remembered by history as St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus. Four centuries later, Ignatius' Jesuits remain the largest and most intellectually influential order of priests, their works and ideas indelibly stamped across Rome and on Roman Catholic education around the world.

Now, to honor their founder during a 1990-91 Ignatian Year marking the 500th anniversary of his birth and the 450th of their society, the Jesuits have restored the rooms in downtown Rome where Ignatius lived, worked and died.

The result is a heady--and controversial--expedition into Renaissance urban history, art, architecture, archeology and religion.

"The goal was to show Ignatius in his time and place without the overlay of the centuries or the triumphalism of his sainthood," said Father Thomas M. Lucas, the 38-year-old Jesuit from Placerville, Calif., who conceived and directed the restoration.

"A person can get lost under his icon," Lucas said. "The tendency today is to strip away the pious accretions that surround saints and shrines and disclose their original meaning. Disclosure of the person makes him much more important and immediate as a religious figure."

In search of Ignatius, Lucas crisscrossed Rome by motorbike, tracking down original documents, correspondence, recollections of people who knew him and records of past restorations of the Ignatian rooms.

One of the things he discovered was that Ignatius cared more about where his Jesuits lived than how well. For his order of well-educated, urban-oriented priests, Ignatius wanted his headquarters in the heart of Renaissance Rome, the first target of the Jesuit ministry. In 1543-4, he built a rude, poor-man's house along the city's main processional route, one block from the Pope's palace in Piazza Venezia and two blocks from City Hall at the Campidoglio.

Not everybody liked the idea. Ignatius' neighbors, in fact, had no use for him, his Jesuits or his hopes of building a church. Piety might be the ticket to eternal salvation, the neighbors conceded, but amid the redevelopment of Rome, it was bad for property values.

One enraged matron, Lucrezia Muti, installed squalling peacocks under Ignatius' windows to argue her side of a property dispute. For eight years, early Jesuits lunched by candlelight because neighbors wouldn't allow them to cut windows in their rude first house. Once, Dona Lucrezia's husband, Muzio, chased away construction workers at sword-point.

Neighborhood opposition overwhelmed Ignatius: Work on the Jesuits' huge Gesu Church did not begin until 12 years after his death.

Ignatius' four-room apartment, about 800 square feet, is all that remains of the first Jesuit house in Rome. There he wrote the Jesuit constitution, and 7,000 letters supervising the order's rapid growth. There he died on July 31, 1556, at age 65.

The Jesuits' original building, La Casa Professa, was seriously undermined by floodwaters from the nearby Tiber on Christmas Eve, 1598. Devotion and architectural audacity prompted Ignatius' 17th-Century successors to replace the house while saving his rooms, enfolding them in the new structure. Craftsmen built a series of double-barreled vaults under and above Ignatius' rooms, cut away what remained of the old building and knitted the apartment into the new structure, a block-square palazzo adjacent to Gesu Church.

For Catholics, the Ignatian rooms have been a shrine since then. Coming to honor the saint, the faithful brought decoration as well as prayers.

A 1920s restoration was an adventure in Victorian opulence: Until last year, a shiny red floor matched red damask walls and gilded wooden ceiling beams. Two giant marble altars--Lucas calls them "Oldsmobile altars"--jostled for breathing space in the four tiny rooms with 22 paintings and sundry relics.

"It was a typical 19th-Century Catholic shrine; antimacassars and embroidery on everything. People come to imagine that this is the way it always looked," Lucas said.

Impressed by the effectiveness of a back-to-basics restoration at Mission Carmel in California, Lucas proposed restoring the rooms to the way they looked when Ignatius lived there.

"There was considerable hostility at first. Most people don't like their images of what is holy to be tampered with, whether it's a saint made remote by the opulence of his tomb or a site made 'precious' by a pastiche of pseudo-baroque finery," said the American Jesuit.

Armed with weighty historical research, Lucas began a let's-make-it-simple joust with authority. It led him through five levels of Italian government monument guardians and three levels of conservative church bureaucracy.

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