Freemasonry survives centuries of official disfavor.
University of Urbino professor Marco Rocchi is known for revealing the secrets behind ancient symbols found on buildings in this famous Renaissance town.
But there is one group of symbols scattered across the city he seldom talks about.
They reveal the secret of his private life.
Rocchi is an active Freemason. That would hardly raise an eyebrow in the U.S., where Masons have built temples, march in holiday parades, and are elected to public office. Even the nation’s founding father, George Washington, was a member.
But in Europe the secret brotherhood has faced persecution for more than 1000 years, and its members have been condemned as sinners by the Catholic Church, which remains a powerful player in Italian politics and social life. So in this country, they remain a hidden fraternity.
“We’ve been excommunicated for almost 300 years,” said Rocchi, who teaches math and statistics, but is best known for his interest in the mysterious symbols carved in Urbino’s walls and buildings. “The excommunication in Italy has an important role, since we have the Vatican. In Italy the Freemasonry is really badly seen because the church drives everything.”
Rocchi is a member of the lodge, or chapter, in Pesaro, about 40 miles away on the Adriatic coast. He says he was drawn to the society by its goals of freethinking, equality among members, and values of integrity, kindness, and fairness.
“In order to become a Freemason, one has to be nominated by a current member [in the lodge],” Rocchi explained. “Then there are elections and eventually rituals until they are a brother.”
Some scholars trace the origins of Freemasonry back to biblical times and King Solomon, but written histories in the English-speaking world start in 12th century England. American membership is as old as the country, claiming Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin. Today, it is estimated there are about six million members world-wide.
However, history shows life has often been difficult for Freemasons, especially in non-democratic states. Monarchs and dictators opposed secret societies because they had no control over them.
The Catholic Church has long had similar concerns.
“The church has always been against Freemasonry,” a priest at the Duomo in Urbino, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak officially, said. “Christianity is about love and nothing should be hidden. Freemasonry is a secret society where not everyone can be a part of it.”
That opposition carries serious consequences for the faithful. According to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1983, Pope John Paul II approved the following statement: “The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion… membership in them [Masonic associations] remains forbidden.”
Rocchi was drawn to the Freemasonry despite that hostility.
“I knew that the Freemasonry had a real important role in history,” Rocchi said. “And I knew that it has always defended values such as liberty, democracy, and so on.”
The Masons claim 18,000 members in Italy, but many must keep their membership a secret to protect their jobs due to the opposition from the church. Rocchi said Ezio Gabrielli of the Pesaro lodge was forced to resign from his Assessore of Ancona Municipality position in 2009 because he declared himself a Freemason.
The Freemasons have fought the repression by leaving their symbols in public view. Rocchi’s interest in Urbino’s mysterious symbols led him to discover those historical Freemasonry ties in the town.
“There are many symbols around Urbino that represent Freemasonry,” he said. “The symbols show the instruments used by the builders. But not many citizens realize they are here.”
One symbol is in a painting on the ceiling of the 18th century brick palazzo housing the Urbino Regional Educational Authority (Ersu). It was the home of Freemason Curzio Corboli, who allowed the lodge to meet in his home. The painting features numerous scenes relating to the Corboli family’s occupations, including one based on a builder’s supplies. This includes a square and compass, the most recognized symbol of Freemasonry.
“They were very proud of their symbols, but they tried to hide it from the church so they wouldn’t be shut down,” Rocchi said. “That’s why the ceiling was a good place for this symbol.”
Rocchi found the same symbol across the street from the Ersu Palace in the Duomo, the cathedral located in the heart of Urbino. The square and compass is carved on the front right of a marble statute of the Rafaele Sanzio, the Urbino-born master of Renaissance painting. The mayor, a Freemason, placed the statue inside the church in the 1800s as revenge for everyone opposed to Freemasonry in the past, Rocchi explained.
However, the tolerance only goes so far.
“The church still covers up the symbol during celebrations like Easter,” Rocchi said. “They are still against Freemasonry.”
A third secret symbol is carved on another Raphael statue, this one perched atop a 20-foot granite pedestal in the Piazzale Roma, a circular, tree-shaded park on the north side of the old city. The square and compass are hidden among ornamentation on the statue’s front sides. Luigi Bello crafted the statue in 1897 and, after persuasion by the mayor, added Masonic symbols to it.
The last Freemason symbol Rocchi revealed is on the floor of the International College building. A gift from a Freemason ten years ago, the marble entranceway is a checkerboard of black and white squares, a design highly valued by Freemasons. They consider this design the “golden ratio”, a mathematical equation used to design many structures.
Even though Rocchi knows some Urbino residents might frown upon his membership, he said his life has changed for the better since becoming a brother in this secret society.
“I have a connection with all my brothers,” Rocchi said. “Most importantly, the lodge is a school where we learn values and how to discuss without fighting. We learn tolerance and make an effort to understand a different point of view.”
Not many citizens know about these signs of Freemason activity in their city, but Rocchi’s lodge wants to leave behind even more symbols for future brothers.
“The university is selling bricks in the floor of Palace Bonaventura for 500 Euros,” he said. “We want to carve Masonic symbols or our lodge’s name onto them.”
Eventually Rocchi, known for revealing the Urbino’s secrets would like to tell the city about his own.
“If I could tell the citizens of Urbino anything about this organization, it would be not to be afraid of the lodge. It is formed by very good people. We just want to have the freedom to think.”