February 4th, 2010
I make my way quickly past the elegant Palazzo della Cancelleria, the first building in Rome constructed in the Renaissance style, its bone-colored travertine exterior and black Egyptian granite columns scavenged from the nearby ruins of the Theater of Pompei. A warren of streets named after tailors, milliners and crossbow-makers leads me to the outdoor market at Campo de Fiori. Above the fresh produce, marking the start of the cheap clothing sellers is the hulking, hooded figure of the heretic Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake here on February 17, 1600 – when fear of the Protestant revolt was running high. I veer away from the shoppers and begin the course of Via di Monserrato, stopping at the convent of nuns who care for the church of San Girolamo, the church St. Philip Neri loved. My calling ahead to see the saint’s room does not help me, the nun who answers my buzz tells me she will not come down. I look forlornly into the mounted TV camera, but this does not move her. Resolving to return, I walk to the beginning of Via Giulia to see again San Giovanni, the national church for Florentines. Pius Florentine artists working in Rome would donate one of their works to this church. A sacristan who also operates the elevator to the church’s small museum tells me he is from India -- Rome’s churches couldn’t afford to open without such immigrant labor. The museum’s featured object is an inspirational statue of the young John the Baptist attributed, at various times, to Donatello and Michelangelo. The open-faced figure, who is pointing at himself, seems to be looking at the viewer and asking, “Are you calling me?” It used to be on a niche in the main church, but no doubt became too valuable to remain there. I set out for a palazzo near Piazza Navona; the City of Rome is hosting a large show of aboriginal art from Australia. A few gems from the 1960’s and ‘70’s still use the earth pigments of carbon and ochre, they speak another language compared to the market-driven acrylics aboriginal artists use today. It took me a long time but now I can see: new is not always better. In the afternoon, I visit the Scala Sancta. Tradition holds that these are the stairs leading to Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, brought to Rome for veneration by St. Helena (mother of Constantine). Pope Sixtus V later placed them in a new building as the means of visiting a papal reliquary room called the “Holy of Holies.” A friend and gallery director takes me into a private 16th chapel, its frescoes perfectly restored by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A full-length portrait of Sixtus V dressed as Pope St. Sylvester links him to the unproven baptism of the emperor by St. Sylvester in 326. But my guide wants to tell me about the beautiful landscapes by Dutch artist Paul Bril, an influential landscape painter. She thinks it was the discovery of these works, under centuries of soot, and not the aura of a pope that convinced the Getty to go ahead. Meanwhile, pilgrims make their way up the holy stairs on their knees amid 17,000 square feet of unlit, un-restored gloom: two million dollars is needed to complete the monument’s transformation. As I start to leave, my friend invites me to visit an artist who has become well known for recycling used soccer balls from India into works of art. On the way, we pass a famous basilica and she confides: “The abbot there had been the business manager for a famous fashion house in Milan. He came to that church, saw what they had and installed a hotel in an unused part of the monastery. Unfortunately he had to mortgage some property. Twenty-four hours after that got out, he was on a plane to Mexico.” The Rome proverb, Festina Lente, applies: “Make haste slowly.”
February 7th, 2010
On Sunday, when the Church of San Girolamo opens for Mass, I spend some time waiting for a nun from its attached convent to finish her prayers and then ask about the room of St. Philip Neri. I say I phoned ahead, but no one came to the door to let me in. She pleasantly explains, “The sister who answers the phone is not the one who answers the door. That’s why we did not know you were coming.” Yes, it all makes sense now. I seek some consolation in the church’s wild, baroque chapels. One contains a statue of Philip Neri by Pierre Le Gros. The saint, arms outstretched and vestments flapping in an imaginary wind, is backlit by a gold-colored stained glass window. By the side door, Borromini built a chapel for the Spada family that vibrates with inlaid marble walls designed to look like damask. The chapel floor has a “carpet” of inlaid marble flowers; a piece of carved jasper has been carved to look like a communion cloth furled out by two angels. A few paces down Via Monserrato lies the church for which the street is named: Santa Maria de Montserrat, the national Church of Spain in Rome. Usually the place is locked, but Mass is going on and I am able to take in the richly colored, yet austere altarpiece – a crucifixion scene by Sermonetta. My eyes wander to the last chapel and I notice a papal tiara atop a tomb. Could a pope be buried here? Actually, two – both from the notorious Borgia family. Certainly, it is a modest resting place for them. Alfonso Borgia (Pope Callixtus III), although he exonerated Joan of Arc (after her execution), he is better known for making sure his ambitious nephew, Rodrigo, would have all the power necessary to make it to the top. In 1492, Rodrigo ascended to the papal throne, taking the name Alexander VI. Scholars now believe his daughter Lucretia was used as a tool by the pope in three advantageous marriages. But the murder and scheming resulted in nothing for posterity; when Alexander VI died, the ashes of the two Borgia popes were mixed together and placed here. Perhaps, at last, Callixtus tempered the corrosiveness of his favorite nephew.