I have recently visited Rome for the first time, spending an unforgettable 5 days steeped in ancient history and culture with 3 friends. My parents also visited Rome once, one of the many European trips they made with the free flights provided by Dad’s job with British Airways. The object pictured here isn’t from that trip, however: it’s a reproduction Romano-British brooch that they brought back for me from a domestic voyage to York. It’s a lovely brooch that reminds me of how thoughtful they were with gifts – this would have been chosen because of my love of horses, and the blue and green colours. I’m only using it to illustrate this post because, although I have a story to tell of their Roman holiday, I can’t find an object or photograph relating to it. Here, anyway, is the story.
As I’ve related elsewhere, my parents had friends all over the world. Some were comrades they had met at political conferences, or Party delegates from abroad who had experienced my parents’ legendary hospitality. Many others had lodged in our house as students and became lifelong family friends. So they were never short of invitations to visit people abroad, which, thanks to Dad’s free flights, they often accepted. One such friend was Bea from Hungary, who lived with us when she was studying English in the 1960s, and whose family we stayed with in Budapest on several subsequent occasions. Bea eventually married a Swedish man who worked for the FAO in Rome, where the couple settled for a while, and where my parents, in due course, visited them. This proved to be an unforgettable experience for my Dad in particular.
Dad was raised in the Catholic faith but had resolutely rejected it in his youth. His reasons (given here) included the Jesuit priests’ forbidding him to read the works of Darwin, which of course he did, drawing his own conclusions. He remained fascinated by the history of both church and science, and greatly admired those early scientists who were similarly persecuted by the church but later proved to be right, such as Copernicus and Galileo. The Roman trip would have been as fascinating for him as it was for me, in terms of the ancient history that surrounds you everywhere you look in this great city. But there was some extra special history in store for Dad.
Bea was (and still is) a firebrand of a woman: one of those people who, within weeks of moving to a new city, will have made friends with its most influential inhabitants. She always seems to have friends in high places and to know everyone worth knowing. In Rome, one of those people was the curator of the library at the Pope’s summer residence, the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo. Knowing of my Dad’s interest in church history she arranged a personal appointment for him at the library (an honour not normally bestowed upon laymen), where, amongst other treasures, he was shown the archives relating to Galileo. He was thrilled, commenting to the curator on the high quality of the facsimiles. The curator gently informed him that they weren’t facsimiles: he was holding in his hands the actual handwritten manuscripts of Galileo Galilei himself.
An unforgettable experience for this Glaswegian apostate and watchmaker; and a tale to be relished by his librarian daughter.