Mr. & Mrs. Penfire Venture Forth

It was four in the afternoon in Rome. Yet for us, still on LA time, it was six in the morning, and we had been up all night. (At least I think that’s right. For someone who is still asking, “What time is it, really?” for several days after the clocks are moved an hour forward or back every spring and fall because of Daylight Savings Time, orienting myself in time was a big challenge!) Despite being a bit tired (we had both slept a bit on the plane), we were eager to start exploring.

I had my list in hand. And the Pantheon, we knew was only a block away. First stop, though was even closer, Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which was practically next door. Out front: in the piazza in front of Sopra Minerva, there’s a sculptural curiosity that has been (understandably) called “bizarre.” An elephant that appears to be tossing its head (and trunk) in protest. On its back an elaborate tasseled blanket, and on that an even more elaborate platform supporting (of all things) an ancient Egyptian obelisk. As the story goes, back in 1665, the small obelisk was found on the grounds of the adjacent monastery (not an uncommon occurrence, to unearth such an artifact in a city built upon ruins). The Pope asked Bernini to create an appropriate base. (I did not learn who Bernini was or appreciate the scope of his genius until later in the week.) The choice of an elephant has been the topic of myth, legend, and speculation ever since.

Without a tip-off from a good friend who lived and worked in Rome for many years, I would not have even realized the structure that faced the piazza graced by the elephant was a church, as the building was shrouded in scaffolding and white tarps that signaled restoration in progress. This, the Eternal City’s only Gothic church, was built on the site of a Roman temple to Minerva (thus its name). Our visit was focused on seeing Michelangelo’s “Christ the Redeemer,” which stands by the high altar. I’m ashamed to admit that this sculpture, the rose window, and a glimpse of the gift shop (which I decided I’d come back to later) are the only images I remember from this whirlwind stop. Only after the fact, upon reading more about the places we had visited, did I realize that the adjacent convent* of Sopra Minerva had been the seat of the Inquisition in Rome; so it was here that Galileo was tried for heresy (for saying the Earth revolved around the sun) and condemned to house arrest for the rest of his life. Here, too were countless art treasures that we had missed, including “magnificent Filippino Lippi frescoes,” the tomb of the beloved Fra Giovanni da Fiesole better known as Fra Angelico (whose exquisite frescoes were on our list of “must sees” in Florence), as well as tombs of various popes, including Paul IV, “the Great Inquisitor, ” (unclear to me why he deserves an honored burial place), and poor Saint Catherine whose body lies in this church in Rome, whilst her head is “kept in Siena.” (Why?)

On to the Pantheon. But when we rounded the corner to Piazza Della Rotonda, the line to enter extended across the entire plaza. We decided to keep walking. Just a few blocks to the east was the Piazza Navona, anchored by the monumental Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Bernini, again). The translation is Fountain of the Four Rivers, but I do love using the musical Italian names for places and artworks. The  immense Piazza was so crowded that the massive fountain was not easy to see—or appreciate; in fact, we never even noticed the two other fountains that share this legendary space. Sidewalk cafes were jammed. We tried to nip into Sant’Agnese in Agone, (poor Saint Agnes was martyred on this site when it was the Stadium of Domitian). Inside however, there was a concert about to start and we did no want to stay for it, so we never got to see this church’s spectacular Baroque interior with its multi-domed cupola. No matter. As it turns out, in the course of our three weeks in Italy, we saw so many beautiful churches** and gazed upon such a multitude of artworks that memories of them all blur. Luckily, though, the overall richness of the experience remains vivid. It’s mind-boggling to contemplate that 70 per cent of the World’s art treasures reside in Italy. We would not be able to see them all. But we would do our best!

I had read about San Luigi del Francesi, thought it fronted on Piazza Navona, and was determined to see it. But we had circled the entire square and couldn’t find it . I approached the green police booth, intending tell the officer I could not speak Italian before asking for directions, but instead of the “Mee despachay, non capisco Italiano,” I had been taught by my friend, Nancy, I blurted out, “I’m sorry I don’t speak English. I mean I do speak English. I don’t speak Italian.” The serious young officer opened the back door to his enclosure, but when John put his hand on the door, brushed it away with a look on his face that was fierce, threatening and a bit alarmed (perhaps saying to himself, “Who are these idiotic old Americans?”). “Chiesa Francesci,?” I stammered, “Caravaggio?” He nodded. Then pointed up Via Agonale, and signaled with his hand to indicate, “Right. Right. Left. Right.” We marched forward accordingly, and found the Chiesa, its door open. Inside were many on the same mission. The interior of this church (like so many others) is breathtaking, yet all visitors were clustered in just one spot, gazing into the chapel at the end of the left aisle closest to the sanctuary. The chapel is the burial place of Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel (Matteo Contarelli in Italian), who helped finance the construction of this church for the French community in Rome. Gracing its walls are three masterworks by Caravaggio depicting events in the life of Saint Matthew. It’s Caravaggio, not the late Cardinal, that has drawn all these visitors. Despite instructions by every article and web site that describes this place, I soon found I did not need to bring my own coins in order to turn on the lights that briefly illuminate these paintings. There were so many eager Caravaggio fans present that as soon as the lights clicked off, someone quickly provided a coin to turn them back on again.

I first learned of Caravaggio from a young landscape designer who had studied in Italy. The first painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio that I viewed first-hand just a few years ago was “Supper at Emmaus” at the National Gallery in London. I was lucky enough to enter the gallery at a time when a docent was discussing the characteristics that make this artist’s work so remarkable—his use of light, the expressiveness, perhaps a bit exaggerated, of the body language of the figures, the fine details, the texture of the fabrics, the masterful rendering of white on white. Here, now, in this sacred place, I found the “Calling of Saint Matthew,” “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew,” and “Saint Matthew and the Angel” no less impressive. And these priceless masterpieces are here in this church, in their intended setting, available for all to see, for no fee at all—except of course for the lights.

Already we had seen works by Michelango, Bernini, and Caravaggio. And we had been in Italy only for a few hours.


*We Americans think of a “convent” as being a place where nuns live. In fact, a convent, traditionally, is the residence of any Christian community–priests, religious brothers, religious sisters, or nuns.

**There are more than 900 churches in Rome, alone.