November 5th, 2009
Ardea did not make the cut for the Michelin Guide, but it holds special treasures. I take a morning bus south and west to spend the day. This costal town gave its name to a 24-mile ancient road from Rome, Via Ardeatina. It sits on a dramatic volcanic outcropping that has also been fortified since the 7th century B.C. Cars still exit through a 900 year-old archway in the defenses. Most of the benches in the piazza are filled, but the real place to exchange gossip seems to be the post office; the chatting crowd is so large no one else can get in. My first stop is the 12th century church of San Pietro (completely rebuilt); its belfry was a watchtower used to sound the alarm against Saracen invaders (10th century). Inside the church, what remains of the frescoes has been restored just to hint at what is not there. As I leave, I notice a strikingly modern silver baptismal font. A plaque indicates it was a gift from the sculptor Giacomo Mansù who came to live in Ardea in 1964. The base of the font’s pedestal is shaped like three gleaming, silver river stones, a recurring motif for Mansù. The second church involves a walk down from the heights and across the road to the town’s cemetery. An outdoor mausoleum (laced with the usual artificial flowers) forms a corridor to a church erected by the future pope Honorius III (1191). Above the door an inscription tells the pilgrim that inside is Saint Marina. At first, little seems to remain, but as my eyes become accustomed to the light, I notice the dark opening of a cave just behind the main altar. This is the burial chamber of the saint. Three red sanctuary lamps flicker deep within the gloom, their bar code stickers still intact. As I inch closer, I sense the solidity and silence of this space; it is a surprisingly comforting feeling. Directly in front of me, I make out a fresco of the 4th century saint, hovering just above the damp slab of her tomb which has the same hole on top as St. Paul’s, buried just outside the walls of Rome. The pilgrim can drop a cloth down and touch the remains of the saint, producing, at once, an official second-class relic and a souvenir of the trip. I spend a long moment here in the numinous darkness, surrounded by the tomb of the saint as well as Ardea’s recently deceased. Just down the road is a collection of Giacomo Mansù’s work and his grave. The artist was made famous by the “Door of Death” (1952-1967) he created for St. Peter’s Basilica and for his imposing sculptures of church hierarchy. His finest work miraculously combines myriad emotional subtleties with brutal realism. In “David” (1939 -1940) the crouching Biblical adolescent is so thin you can make out the bones in his back, yet his face possesses the cunning of a man. “Death by Violence” (1963) counterposes a classically-dressed female onlooker with an upside down torture victim, representing Christ. The museum is part of the National Gallery of Modern Art but is so infrequently visited that the staff have trouble unlocking the door for me. After the visit, I sit on a lichen-covered bench amid the overgrown landscaping, thankful for Mansù’s brash challenges as well as his occasional whimsy. The serpentine stone reflecting pool that serves as his memorial is surrounded by the artist’s favorite forms: river stones, his pseudonym “Mansù” and a Brancusi-like vector in bronze with a bird perched, ready to fly. Before returning to Rome, I walk up close to a marker at the base of Rocca d’Ardea – it commemorates a Fascist battalion of parachutists who “fought and died carrying the tricolor.” Thousands died in the woods and beaches here and death is quite beyond politics.
November 12th, 2009
An exhibit on Catherine de Medici draws me into the gargantuan staircases the Monument to Victorio Emanuele II. In an awkwardly connected series of rooms, a few likenesses of Catherine, a court dress and some correspondence are displayed. But the rest of the exhibit is an odd displays of over-the-top examples of current Italian craftsmanship, including a massive solid silver book cover for an illuminated copy of the pope’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, which, ironically, contains many verses about spending your treasure on the poor.