The Most Beautiful Church in Rome

7.30am. The room isn’t ready. Given a map and requested to come back after lunch, reception advises Linea A would take us to the Vatican and I think I hear the number 17 bus will take us to the Colosseum and The Forum. Instead we set off on foot for tree lined Viale Manzoni; it made the promise of interesting shops to Joelle as we passed by. The further we walk the shabbier Viale Manzoni becomes. The graffiti and tattered street posters haven’t been read for some time and tree roots lift the pavement. I see the urban landscapes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. At the corner of Viale Manzoni and Via Emanuelle some early morning Romans arrange themselves into a Garry Winogrand photograph. An elderly man waking from a nightmare rambles by. A woman dressed in black, purposively chooses flowers from a street store. A grey nun steps from a doorway. A man talks to dogs. We walk on and a column rises supporting Santa Maria. A reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore preserves a fragment of Christ’s manger.

At Piazza della Repubblicca is Michelangelo’s Santa Maria degli Angeli. The light inside is late afternoon diffused summer haze.On Via XX Septembre, we open Santa Vittoria’s door onto a Mass. I can’t see Bernini’s Saint Theresa. A robed man reads from a pulpit. Behind him are seated more stern faced robed men. Saint Theresa will wait for another day. A small poster fly-pasted on the temporary wall of a construction site announces a recital of Mozart’s Requiem. It’s tonight. Jet lagged we neglect to note the venue and walk back to Hotel Center. I sleep until 4.30pm. When I wake it’s nearly dark. Joelle has been up for some time.

We search for the Mozart poster without success. An obliging tourist office worker googles and finds the concert. At 6.30pm we are seated in the back row of San Paolo entro le mura (Saint Paul’s within the walls). The introduction is brief, the Requiem begins. A soprano’s voice is almost as beautiful as our CD. We can’t believe our luck. I’m noticing the art behind the orchestra. The entire wall is a mosaic by Burne-Jones. Saint Paul within the walls is the most beautiful church in Rome.

Lunedi, November 17

Vatican museum tickets in hand, up the stairs, a huge bust of Rome’s supreme god Jupiter has the blow waved hair of a 70s rock star, out onto the terrace and hovering above the trees the dome of Saint Peter’s. The guidebook is right, the view is “breathtaking”. Domes represent the engorged breasts of Mother Earth, it’s not the cross that maps Christendom, it’s breasts.

Caravaggio’s The Deposition from the Cross is in room XII. It looks like a photograph of a scene from a play. John and Nicodemus lower Christ’s body onto a slab of polystyrene like stone. Behind John and Nicodemus is a tableau of the Madonna and the two Maries then a void of dark brown and black. The viewer is not amongst the theatres’ audience. Instead the viewer of the painting is in the wings, where a stagehand or nervous opening night director might stand, out of sight. Unexpectedly, Nicodemus looks at the viewer. He’s losing his grip on Christ’s legs and he’s forgotten his lines. The foreshortened perspective of Caravaggio’s Deposition places the viewer at the distance of the disengaged spectator like the photographer focussing through a zoom lens. Voyeuristically the audience watches transfixed by Nicodemus’ moment of panic.

A band of pilgrims gather determinedly at the steps of Saint Peter’s, some hope for a cure. We’re obliged to wait while the singing pilgrims file through the massive doors. Michelangelo’s Pieta is behind glass protected from any more hammer blows. Michelangelo’s slender Jesus doesn’t have the muscular carpenter’s body of the Jesus of Caravaggio’s Deposition. We escape Saint Peter’s smothering crowds and officials and walk along Via della Constituzione to Umberto Bridge. There is much about Rome that is like Paris with the river and its bridges but it’s also so different. Paris is elegant and sophisticated, whereas Rome is earthy with ancient columns strewn all over like dinosaur bones. The past of Paris has been tidied up, whereas Rome’s festering origins dislodge Viale Manzoni’s pavement and obstruct underground rail construction as Pagan Rome bursts out.

Madonna di Loreto (Sant’Agostino)

The tourist precinct of Piazza Vavorona is easily enough found, but even with a detailed map nearby Sant’Agostino and San Luigi dei Francesci are elusive. This will be the first time we see a Caravaggio painting in the church for which it was commissioned. Rome’s smaller 15th century churches are so beautiful. Bare footed the Madonna di Loreto stands in the doorway of a Roman house with its travertine mouldings. The doorway looks like stage scenery. On a charcoal wall are painted sketchy white lines testament to the crumbling decay of a poor district. Awkwardly, the Madonna displays a naked and weighty Jesus for two kneeling and raggedy pilgrims. Pilgrims wore no shoes and so feet are soiled. The Madonna bears the same features as the women of Burne-Jones. Dark hair, a Greek sculpture profile, a strong neck, a clearly defined eyebrow that meets the other, a pronounced and rounded full jaw and chin, and Elvis Presley’s mouth. The Madonna exhausted is about to swoon.

Calling of Saint Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesci)

In nearby San Luigi dei Francesci, a group of men, some wearing fancy plumed hats and flashy striped blouses like a jockey’s, sit around a table gambling, or perhaps Matthew is collecting tax. One man is hunched over counting money. The poses adopted by the two young plumed hat wearing men are of a studied and disinterested nonchalance. In contrast, two standing and deadly earnest men, dressed in biblical clothes address the group. One is Jesus the other Peter. They point at an incredulous Matthew. A beam of light shines into the seated men’s eyes. Jesus and Peter are shadowy and mysterious silhouettes. Matthew’s days of hanging around with fancy young men are over.

Saint Matthew and the Angel (San Luigi dei Francesci)

The viewer of Saint Matthew and the Angel is seated in the front row of a theatre and looking up at the stage. A hovering angel dictates the gospel to Saint Matthew beginning with Christ’s genealogy. Caravaggio’s angels are precocious adolescents. They aren’t the angels of Yahweh’s Old Testament who destroyed civilisations with swords of mass destruction. As Saint Matthew transcribes his gospel the stool he leans on has one leg tottering over the edge of the stage. He will surely topple off. Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew is about to tumble onto someone’s lap sitting in the front row?

Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesci)

Caravaggio’s commission requested Saint Matthew murdered celebrating Mass in a temple like setting. Though Caravaggio’s Martyrdom resembles more a brawl in a sauna with three of the bodies in the busy scene naked except for mini robes tied around waists. One of the semi naked bodies, a youth wearing a headband, is the sword wielding assassin. Saint Matthew has been stabbed at least once. The on-lookers’ faces witnessing the violence are shocked, except for one at the very back of the scene; the face of Caravaggio. While there is anguish on Caravaggio’s face there is also resignation. Caravaggio is not shocked by the murder of Saint Matthew. The head banded assassin is not an Ethiopian soldier, he is a Caravaggio angel.

Martedi, November 18

Follow Viale Manzoni and Via Labicana to The Colosseum and then the Palatine Museum. There is a sculpture of Dionysus with traces of red in the long hair that snakes over his shoulders. What a pity his head has been removed. The face of Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti Christ is kept a secret. Nietzsche believed that if Beethoven’s Hymn of Joy could be turned into a painting it would provide a vision of the Dionysian. Rites with ecstatic and intoxicated initiates, tearing apart and devouring live animals, is not easy to reconcile with Beethoven’s 9th. We wander around The Forum imagining another Rome, visit Piazza Venezzia and walk to Hotel Center for a rest.
It’s 4pm, we arrive at Santa Vittoria. Opening the door this time there is no Mass. In a Capella on the left, is Bernini’s larger than life size Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. An angel with a thrusting spear smiles at the reclining and ecstatic saint. Saint Theresa’s foot is the size of a basketballer’s.