March 20th, 2010
After years of Saturday trips into the country, our parish is running out of destinations. Today we set off early to visit Pitigliano and Sovana in Tuscany, places, we discover, even our bus driver doesn’t know about. The two cities are historically linked. Pitigliano is the newer, brasher town, inhabiting a monumental butte of volcanic rock; Sovana, sleek, gentrified, and tourist-ready was the original capital, set on its own modest volcanic ridge. They are sometimes referred to as “frontier towns,” sitting in a buffer zone between the Papal States and Tuscany. Their respective castles tell the story of clan wars and then the final domination of the Medici in the 17th century. As the road becomes narrower and more winding, it seems as if we are driving on a path through an olive grove. We arrive at our destination over an hour late. Immediately, our guide eliminates the area’s Etruscan necropolis, she must keep to her schedule. We make our way to Pitigliano’s cathedral and peer into its dark nave, but the floors are wet so we must stand at the entrance and use our imagination. It is a forced march to the 16th century Jewish Quarter, just five Jews remain but it is the Sabbath and the synagogue is closed to the public. Someone buys the Quarter’s traditional cookies; we quietly pass them around in silence, like children on an outing gone bad. The final sight before lunch is the Orsini castle; its torture chamber (right near the bedrooms) is fully operational but its prized Madonna painting is out, being restored. Because the restaurant isn’t used to preparing for large groups, lunch takes almost as long as it took to get to the town from Rome, the bright spot being an uncommonly good lasagna with a ragù di cinghiale (wild boar). After a short drive, we are in the old capital, Sovana. Venerable relics from its medieval past include a beautifully proportioned Romanesque Cathedral which emerges from the town’s fortress like a butterfly from its chrysalis and the arm of Saint Mamiliano, the fugitive 5th century bishop of Palermo. In 2004, a horde of gold coins was found underneath the ruins of the Church of San Mamiliano, testimony to troubled times after the end of the Roman Empire. When the Orsini’s took control in 1293, the capital moved to Pitigliano and Sovana happily slipped into benign neglect. We have the pleasure of walking down an uncannily straight and deserted medieval street to our bus. The only reason everyone is sorry to leave Sovana is the long ride back with a driver who is desperate to make a soccer match -- but we remain poised on the outskirts of Rome for an hour, snarled in traffic. At that point, Sovana really began to look good.
March 26th, 2010
The great buildings of Rome are Classical and Baroque, but that doesn’t mean modern architecture is missing, it just must be hunted down. A week ago I spent an afternoon trying to re-visit Richard Meier’s Jubilee Church (Dio Padre Misericordioso) in a distant Roman suburb and ran out of time. Today I leave early to see the recently opened Santo Volto Di Gesù (The Holy Face of Jesus), south of the city center and overlooking the Tiber. Once inside, the eye is drawn to a floor-to-ceiling oval window which displays the outline of a “fool-the-eye” dome. Competing with this is a true, partial dome in the ceiling that reflects the upper reaches of the window’s light upon a rectangle of white marble serving as the altar. High-backed wooden chairs, painted white and arranged in a semi-circle, complete the environment, creating a “cloud of witnesses” for an ethereal coming together of light and space. It is as if you have just blundered into an unscheduled apotheosis. The dynamic tension is such that if you moved or eliminated one element, the illusion would be gone. My second modern church, this one built in 1992, is a 45 minute hike up river, past a muddy horse corral and close to Trestevere train station. Named after the Roman couple, Aquila and Priscilla mentioned in Acts (18:2-3), it evokes an archeological dig with raw cement walls rising to clerestory windows topped with a corrugated metal roof. Paving stones in front of the main door form a bull’s-eye marking the spot. The gritty approach fits this place which is surrounded by industrial buildings. On the long bus ride back to the familiar part of Rome, I congratulate myself; I managed to visit two modern churches and have a river walk, all before lunch!