Monday, November 30, 2009

Roma: Don’t Try to Choose – It’s the Churches

If the attractions of Rome are too many and too splendid, there appears to be only one solution: don’t try to choose. Don’t try to do everything and run yourself ragged attempting to connect to ancient Rome, musical Rome, artistic Rome, historical Rome, or even shopping Rome. Indeed, perhaps it is the latter that might be considered the eternal of “eternal Rome,” since this is a city that has apparently been designed to lure every visitor into purchasing the best of the best, Italian design being what it is and Rome being its design center (with a dutiful nod of course to any of Italy’s other fabulous design “centers,” each of which could probably claim the title with some accuracy). No, shopping is obviously what is going to draw many people to Rome, and they are smart to make the journey. There are few pleasures that delight the senses like those enjoyed in the shops of Rome, regardless of what one is shopping for.

Yet there is a single “theme,” one might say, that would seem to connect all of the many elements of this splendid place and that turns out to be – accidentally enough – the many churches (far too many to count!) that are all over the city. So far we have limited ourselves to the Centro Storico, not yet having ventured into the other neighborhoods. Before we came to Rome, we decided that we would choose a hotel in the historical quarter and it was a wise choice, enabling my first intimations of Rome’s famous past to link easily and almost seamlessly (except for the shopping of course) to the city’s amazing and rewarding history of nearly three millennia.

And yes, that reference to “first” is correct. Despite all my travels, I have never before had an opportunity to visit Rome, and it made sense to come to this wonderful place at long last. I am not sorry I came.

The churches-of-Rome association or theme might not be ideal for some, but for me – arriving midday on a Sunday and having our first stroll through the city on a Sunday afternoon and early evening, when so many of the churches are open – was a splendid introduction. I had hardly gone outside the hotel before I was confronted with the simple façade (well, when “simple” can be used to describe a Baroque front, however modest) and stepped into a riot of Baroque angels, paintings, overcolorings, and all the other trappings of the style. And all wrapped up in the sweet experience of a student of the organ – working with his or her master – playing hymn tunes in a collection of charming improvisations. This was Chiesa S. Maria Maddalena, and it provided us with a lovely place to start.

I won’t try to list all the churches we visited, but several stand out: Yes, I was a little disappointed to find the splendid beauty of piazza Navona somewhat cheapened by the holiday market, with all the bright lights of the stands and the not-so-attractive items on offer. But the fair did not at all affect the impression made by the glorious sculptures in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, with its accompanying Fontana di Nettuno and Fontana del Moro). Even so, I was still unprepared to be as overwhelmed as I was with the beauty of the Chiesa di Sant’ Agnese in Agone. What a splendid place! And the beauty of the artwork is only enhanced by the subtle trompe l’oeil of the painted niches, which made everything around them appear to be so perfectly framed.

In the Pantheon, despite the wandering in-and-out of many of Rome’s citizens (reminding one of visits to a place like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey or any of the other great cathedrals), there was a service in progress. It was very special to stand in this enormous space, surrounded by all that it is – the architecture, the tombs of Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, and, quite frankly, the design – and not be impressed with the not overly pompous organ music and lovely sound of the soprano soloist, singing so sweetly a very pretty piece of music, with the echoes sounding throughout the space adding an unusual flavor to the experience. A very splendid visit indeed.

At the piazza della Minerva, just steps from the Pantheon, stands the mighty Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. To keep the mood light, the walk from the Pantheon to the Basilica includes – in the center of the piazza – Bernini’s delightful elephant. Charming, handsome, and obviously designed to make anyone passing smile at his happy expression. It worked.

As for the church itself, one is surprised as one enters through an appropriately simple façade to be confronted with an interior is simply overwhelming (a word probably destined for overuse in these dispatches from Rome). Built on the site of an ancient temple to Minerva (hence the “sopra” of the name), the interior is simply ablaze with magnificent things to look at including, for me, a Michelangelo sculpture simply called “The Redeemer.” At the base of the Main Altar is the Sepulcher of Saint Catherine of Siena and, yes, my first question was “Why is the tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena in Rome?”

As it turns out, Saint Catherine (this Saint Catherine) is the patron saint of Italy and of all Europe, so of course it makes sense to have her in Rome, at the seat of the Church. The body in the tomb is not altogether together, since – not to disappoint the citizens of Siena – the head was removed and sent to Siena in 1385. Fast forward to the Holy Year of 2000: on this important occasion, the tomb was restored to its original look, with the colors that had been added later and plaster decoration, added in the mid-19th century, removed.

Even more impressive to me – since I’m not very well versed in the mysteries of the saints – is the splendid Carafa Chapel off to the right of the Main Altar. With its famous frescoes by Filippino Lippi and including an altar piece, The Annunciation with Saint Thomas of Aquinas presenting Cardinal Carafa to the Virgin, this – for me – is a very special work of sacred art. It is one of the most beautiful of the many depictions of the annunciation I’ve ever seen (and I’m somewhat partial, since the annunciation to the virgin is perhaps my favorite of all the Bible stories), stunning in its detail and colors and showing an almost translucent lily in the hand of the angel. What a joy to see this lovely picture!

As for the other churches, there were too many visited during our one afternoon and evening to be described here (and many were quite spectacular in the darkness of a Sunday night). And there was one disappointment: San Andrea della Valle was closed for renovation, and we were mighty let down. We had planned to enter quietly, take our seats, sure if we waited long enough we would hear Floria Tosca come to summon her lover. Ah, to hear the sound of “Mario, Mario,” ringing out in that splendid space. What a joy it would have been! But it was not to be.

Perhaps instead when we visit the Farnese Palace we’ll run into the spirit of Scarpia.

No. Don’t want that. It wouldn’t be quite the same.

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