ROME — Visitors to the Rome Italy Temple open house beginning Jan. 28 will see the front of the uniquely oval building for the first time the way President Andrea Cordani of the Verona Italy Stake did earlier this month, by walking out of the adjacent meetinghouse and into a square.
The view initially overwhelmed President Cordani, who first saw it during daylight. Later, lit up after nightfall, it stole his breath.
To his left as he first left the meetinghouse was the granite temple, uniquely oval and regally tall at three stories. Directly ahead, across a plaza of marble, fountains, flowers and olive trees, was the patrons’ housing. And to his right was a visitors’ center with a two-story rotunda that when lit up at night becomes a jaw-dropping display case for the Carrara marble statues of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus and 12 ancient apostles from Peter to Paul.
“The way the square is built reminds me of an ancient Roman forum,” he said. “This is not just an American church planting a flag here in Rome. This feels Italian. It’s the perfect blend of excellence and culture. It was built with consideration and love for the people of Italy to help us feel it’s ours now.”
President Cordani’s sensation was exactly what the architect had in mind. Niels Valentiner came to the project with a clear concept in mind for the vast site, which, at 15 acres, is 50 percent larger than Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
“We knew we wanted to connect (the temple to Italy), and one of the most important things that was very clear in the beginning was that we really wanted to make sure that we created the concept of an Italian piazza,” said Valentiner, president of VCBO Architecture.
A piazza — the Italian word means square or courtyard — is regularly surrounded by buildings and includes fountains, gardens and/or trees.
“We had the four buildings,” Valentiner said. “They made it so obvious that we could create a piazza that I think is felt by all as being very Italian. We knew that was an important feature for us if we were going to create what we think of now as the Rome Temple Square.
“We have Salt Lake Temple Square. Now maybe we have Rome Temple Square.”
The president of Rome’s city council, Marcello De Vito, praised the square at a news conference.
“Our city is well known for its Renaissance and baroque styles,” he said. “This is a very nice modern architecture which will add to our city.”
Italian media left the news conference on Jan. 14 and lit up social media with photos of the temple and visitors’ center. The following day, the newspapers were full of stories about what in Italian is called the Tempio di Roma.
“Now we will be even more visible, and we will have a stronger presence here,” said Elder Massimo De Feo, a native Italian and General Authority Seventy who serves in the Europe Area Presidency. “We better do the right things, and we will.
“I see a bright future for the Church.”
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles agreed.
“Anywhere a temple is announced and constructed and dedicated and blesses the people, it brings a power to that place,” he said. “It’s the power of the ordinances, the power of the covenants, the power of the light that emanates from the temple, and that blessing occurs everywhere.
“The temple is a place of spiritual power,” Elder Bednar added. “And that power blesses not only Latter-day Saints, but it extends into the neighborhood and into the community. If you take, for example, the temple in Accra, Ghana: I visited there the first time in 2005, and there wasn’t much there other than the temple, a stake center and the area offices. To see how that surrounding environment, that surrounding community has been blessed and prospered in the years since then is stunning. So I think the power, the spiritual power that emanates from the House of the Lord, it’s not the building. The building is nice, but it’s the power of the ordinances and the covenants. And when you have Latter-day Saints striving to honor those covenants, who come here to be reminded to renew, to remember, that can’t help but bless the entire community, even the entire nation.”
Already, Elder De Feo said, the Church is growing in Italy, which he called a miracle.
“Now the members of the Church here will be happy and proud to take their relatives and friends to this compound and show them the temple and visitors’ center,” he added.
That’s a feeling all Church members can share, said Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“Now they have this exquisite, beautiful, magnificent temple, that will be a destination temple, not just for the Italian Saints but European Saints,” he said. “Saints throughout the world are going to come to the Rome Italy Temple.”
They will find a temple that combines contemporary Italian architecture with the local past, Valentiner said.
“We kept coming back to this oval design, which is really seen by many as an expression of Italian Baroque architecture, he said. “It takes from Italy an architectural statement and brings it into the temple.”
Elder Larry Y. Wilson, executive director of the Temple Department and a General Authority Seventy, discussed the challenge of building an oval temple with one tour of international academics.
“If you want to try a difficult construction project, build something the shape of an oval,” he said. “Many of these interior walls are the shape of an oval. That piece of furniture looks like it’s sitting flat against the wall, but if you go look at it carefully, it’s custom made in the shape of the wall. So it’s actually curved on the back of it to fit against the curved wall.”
Valentiner said the difficulty makes it likely the Rome temple will be one of a kind.
“It was not easy,” he said. “It probably will never be done again. It’s complicated to build. But I think the beauty of the temple is being appreciated and recognized.”
The temple’s square includes more significant details. A fountain flows down the steps that cover a slight incline from the temple down to the visitors’ center on the opposite end of the piazza.
The fact that the water flows from the House of the Lord to the Christus statue was a striking symbol of the living water of Jesus Christ to Susanne Torgard, who is the curator of the Church of Our Lady Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark — the church home to the original Christus statue.
“We talked about the water going directly between the symbol and the Source,” she said after a tour of the temple and visitors’ center and its statues. “The water flows from the temple because it’s higher here, but it goes to the Source (Jesus Christ) and there is this kind of a circular movement between them.”
The square sits on the site of an old farm that was covered in olive trees and Roman umbrella pines. The pines are protected, and they remain where they were, flanking the temple on both sides. Dozens of olive trees have been transplanted around the site strategically, and four olive trees ranging in age from 400 to 500 years were brought in from northern Italy as symbolic accents in the piazza.
“With the fountains, the structures and the greenery, this is a magnificent place people will flow to,” President Cordani predicted. “I can imagine spending hours here with friends.”
Finally, the visitors’ center includes a stained-glass representation of 40 of Christ’s parables.
“I just sat here for about an hour yesterday, trying to look at every one of the parables that I could figure out that were shown in this art glass,” Elder Rasband said. “On the other side of it is the magnificent Christus statue and the 12 apostles that are shown there. I’m going back to when I was a mission president but I’m thinking if I had missionaries in the Rome Italy Mission, I would surely want them to be bringing people who are interested in the Gospel to this visitors’ center, and to show them the beautiful cut-out of the temple that’s over there, and this diorama and just study it and look and bear testimony in front of the Christus statue.
“So the temple is spectacular in every way. ... Not all the temples have visitors’ centers, so this is a very special place that we’re in right here. And I hope that the members and the missionaries bring their family and their friends and teach the gospel of Christ right here in this visitors’ center.”
The center is the perfect complement to the temple, said President Cordani, who was at the temple for training to host VIP tours before the public open house. He drove more than five hours south from Piacenza in northern Italy to Rome.
“It will be farther for some Church members than the Bern Switzerland Temple, but it’s an Italian temple,” he said. “It feels like ours.”
Most of his stake is coming to the open house. They have rented buses and arranged for cars and rented camping sites.
“I have a sensation that is hard to describe,” President Cordani said as he stood in front of the statues in the glowing rotunda after dark. “It feels like we are entering a new phase in this country. This light will not just shine on this square. It will spread throughout the country.
“This is like a beacon,” he added. “This specific room attracts you. You want to be at the Savior’s feet. In our Catholic tradition, people go up and touch statues. I understand that tradition now. It’s powerful. It reminds you for whom the temple is built.”