I had never been to Rome, an ancient pastiche of a city of empire and High Catholicism, where the latest wearer of the shoes of the Fisherman shepherds his billion-strong flock in the hope of maintaining humility amidst magnificent opulence and ceremony. Romans seem determined to build, add to or repurpose almost all of their ancient buildings, and walking through the streets is a living tutorial in history and architecture. Even the Colosseo is being partially rebuilt.
A three or four day tour reveals the tip of one of many icebergs, but little else. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to the University monastery of San Anselmo and listening to Benedictine Vespers with a congregation of three in Capella San Anselmo was quite a delight. The hotel was a converted villa in Aventino, once a very exclusive part of town, far out of the way of the tourist scammers with a charming painting on its courtyard wall.
Our lodging was a beautiful macédoine of old and new, much like the city itself. After several nights, I still could not discern with certainty how all twelve shower nozzles could be simultaneously turned on, and the jacuzzi settings in the overly luxurious black and white marble bathroom were manifold, various and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, tea and biscuits were served free of charge at four o’clock in the peaceful, old-world lounge, a slightly wistful echo of England.
Much like Florence, the sheer weight of Roman high art quickly induces sensory overload. Every church seems to have its own private masterpiece, commissioned by a Pope, a Cardinal or a jurist and there are rather a lot of churches.
San Pietro, atop the prison-like walls surrounding the Vatican, is, of course, the hugest and most aggressively splendid beast of them all. Piercingly beautiful, exquisitely ornate, the interior gives the impression of emptiness, as if someone very rich and important once lived here but they just… left.
I had rather expected to see squadrons of priests and battalions of nuns, but there seemed to be less that I had imagined. Yes, there were a few nuns scurrying, sombre monks, hands clasped inside their habits, with that religiously determined walk so many seemed to have. Perhaps there were more, lost in the vastness of the place or in the myriads of corridors to chapels squatting like beehives on its perimeter. The queen of them all is, of course, La Sistina, Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting young, athletic and half-naked men in Renaissance poses, body doubles for various Scriptural luminaries. There was a certain thrill to being one of the first visitors of the day, so we saw her freshly cleansed by the night. I had imagined heavy gloom and incense, but the chapel was bright, colorful and airy with a modest altar at one end. People often forget that it is a chapel not a museum, so a black-clad Nigerian priest was in constant attendance to ensure solemnity. I spoke with him on the subject of confession, and we found common ground.
I have quite a short attention span for fine art, but tracing the sparse, erratic footsteps of Caravaggio to St Augustine’s near Piazza Navona is an exercise in humility; Roman cobblestones are not forgiving. The swaggering Caravaggio left Milan for Rome in 1592, doing a runner, it seemed, after “certain quarrels” and the wounding of a police officer. He arrived in Rome flat broke and of no fixed address. Eight years later he was the city’s most important painter, almost a Tarantino, shocking the public with grossly realistic images executed to perfection and a worthy successor to the mighty Raphael. This image does no justice to his 1604 masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the Madonna of Loreto, or Pilgrim’s Madonna. She stands, barefoot, just as the two kneeling pilgrims are. The original shows the dirty, wrinkled feet of the pilgrims and the exquisitely worked head of the kneeling woman, old and wizened. The Carmelites, for whom it was originally painted, rejected it in disgust, not least because he had used a famous prostitute as a model for the Virgin.
No, it wasn’t just about art, or food, Caesars (despots, not salads) or Popes. We both enjoyed the sense of ‘otherness’, the ubiquitous old Latin and Roman numerals, even the drain covers have SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Roman Senate and People – stamped on them.