Images of Pope Francis walking alone in the rain, in empty Roman streets with security men to a discreet distance. An empty Piazza San Pietro, as the lone figure in white officiated at a Holy Week function, made worldwide news, for the desolation which reigned in the city and many Italian regions hit by COVid-19 brought home this surreal situation.
I could not help comparing the recent desolation I saw to what I had seen during my last visit to my favourite of all cities. It was the complete opposite. It was indeed a lesson and a reminder of how quickly what we take for granted could easily be snatched away from us. WHO could have thought/dreamt/imagined how all this could change? Certainly not yours truly used to an average of three visits to Rome per year. He the one who is so addicted to travelling that many erroneously presume and actually declare with certainty that ‘Oh, he is never here, he spends more time abroad than in Malta!’ False: an average of 4 months or so spread over a calendar year, sometimes a little more but never too much over that.
My latest visit
Little did I know that when I set out on my last visit to Rome for just a brief 8-day stay, this was going to be my last for a very long time. I was there from 12 to 20 February. There were already rumblings elsewhere about the dreaded pandemic…the dilly-dallying about declaring it as such, theories and counter-theories as to how it left China and was spreading fast. So much has been said about it that I am fed up of reading of conspiracies and plots, of things real or imaginary and just trust myself to the mercy of the Lord while taking all necessary precautions and use common sense.
One thing is staying at home and leaving only for the most essential reasons. I am amazed at my own ability to cope and adapt to this situation. Amazing when I think how the proverbial ants in my pants made me plan different trips, very often not being happy unless I have four or five booked well in advance. Suddenly the prospect of travelling anywhere disappeared. By now I should have been away three times but I cancelled a 10-day visit to Madrid in mid-March and two weeks in the UK in April, mainly in London. I am a very practical person and faced with the utter impossibility of going anywhere I switched off any feelings about it. Useless getting stressed and upset over something absolutely beyond reach.
Before the crisis unfolded I thought I would be back in Rome in May after my usual visit to Vienna this month, which reminds that my other usual November visit has gone down the drain as well. I know it is unlikely for any kind of normal travel to resume before the end of the year or even before a vaccine is available. Any sensible country would want to check on whoever enters their space and check their vaccinated status or otherwise
So with the images of the Pope and other views of deserted and desolate streets of Rome, which I firmly think were only matched by the war-time night curfew 70-odd years ago, I recalled with cool nostalgia the last day of my last visit. I little realised then that it was going to be very long before my next visit. Incidentally, that trip was my 240th of all since I started globetrotting in 1963. It was and exclusively to Rome AND incidentally, my very first trip abroad, 2 weeks in Italy, included a full week’s stay in Rome. It was the beginning of my love affair with Roma (Amor spelt backwards, so…).
My return flight to Malta was scheduled for the evening so I had plenty of time to kill by visiting some of my favourite spots. I had been winding up my visit by going to places like Piazza di Spagna and visited the church at the top of the steps. That was about two days earlier but on my last day in the city, a most beautiful spring-like day rather than a late winter one, I wandered in other parts. It began with a bus trip from Termini down to largo di Torre Argentina. There is a church at one corner, built in 1714 on the site of a much older one and dedicated to the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi. There is a very fine altarpiece depicting the event recorded by Fra Leo who was present in 1224 when the saint received his stigmata. Unfortunately, I did not record the artist who painted the piece.
This church is at the end of the Via dei Cestari where more than one shop sells religious vestments and other sacred objects, chalices, candlesticks, icons and the like. It leads down to the Piazza della Minerva. .Whole books have been written about the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva which dominates this square. It is one of my favourite Roman churches, a great depository of art and unique in having preserved its original Gothic ceiling and shell. Gothic and late medieval, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque somehow create a harmonious whole here. The present facade is by Carlo Maderno (d.1629.) Run by the Dominicans since the 14th century, with adjacent convent it is one of the few normally open all day. I had last visited in September but found it closed in December and it was still closed in February because of restoration works in progress
A sign indicating an entrance “round the corner” allowing limited access was misleading because there was no open side entrance there. There were other baffled, would-be visitors and when I went back to the square and saw a person leaving from the convent door I dashed quickly to ask the friar where the blessed entrance was. He explained in some detail how to get there but before doing so I had a good look around the square.
There is no mistaking the quaint little monument in the centre of the square. This is that of the little elephant with a small ancient Egyptian obelisk perched on its back. In ancient times the area was known for no less than three temples which were dedicated to Minerva Calcidica,(founded by Pompey the Great), Serapis and Isis. Ancient Rome not only gobbled up vast territories but also adopted their gods adding more confusion to their own quarrelling gods. The obelisk was discovered during excavations in the Dominican convent garden where the temple of Isis stood. The obelisk is the smallest in Rome and I read that the work designed by Bernini was actually executed by Ferrata in 1667. The animal’s backside is facing what has been for many years the American Pontifical College. In Bernini’s pre-College days there was a faction in that building which was hostile to him. Therefore the story goes that in order to slight them he exposed them to the animal’s flatulence. The College had housed the Holy Office of the Inquisition, not an institution to be easily messed with. It was there that in 1600 Giordano Bruno refused to recant and in 1633 the aged Galileo forced to deny his theories while muttering “Eppur si muove”.
Betwixt hotels and high waters
Opposite the College is the Hotel Minerva, originally the 16th century Palazzo Fonseca. Transformed into a luxury hotel in 1832 it has hosted many distinguished guests, two of whom are commemorated in marble plaques inscribed with their names: one is the French novelist Stendahl (1783-1842) and the other General President Jose’ de San Martin (1778-1850), the liberator from the Spanish rule of Argentina, Peru and Chile. He stayed in 1845. Also impossible to miss are the various small plaques fixed to the right-hand wall of the church facade. These mark the highest limits reached by the floodwaters of the Tiber and the majority span the years from 1422 to 1598. They mark various heights reached in this lowest part of Rome and it is quite frightening to realise how high the maximum was: way above two metres. The latest plaque was fixed in 1870, the year of the last great flood after which the redesigning of the river banks and the creation of the various “lungo Tevere” stretches have tamed the river. However, it reminded me that during my third visit in the late summer of 1965 the river had risen high enough to cover all the arches space under the Ponte Sant’Angelo!
With that sobering thought in mind, I finally went to visit the church or rather a limited part. I had to go into via del Seminario, then into via di S. Stefano del Cacco and then into the via Beato Angelico. At the dead-end of this street there is a simple door with a broken tympanum and running along the lower edge the words ANNO IUBILEI MDC marking the Holy Jubilee Year 1600. Going through this entrance on comes across the tomb of the famous artist Fra (Beato) Angelico (1387-1455). The high altar was accessible so one could see the shrine of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80) who harangued Pope Gregory XI into leaving Avignon in 1377 and whose death in 1378 sadly sparked off the Great Western Schism within the Catholic Church. Visited on previous occasions is the cell where this saint lived but not in an accessible part of the complex. Monuments to two of the four Medici Popes face each other in the apse. Leo X (r. 1513-21) alias Giovanni, son of the Magnifico and his first cousin Clement VII ( 1523-34) son of the assassinated Giuliano. Their faces can just about be seen because of the scaffolding which seems to envelop the whole space.
A treasure trove of artists
Vying for attention is the very beautiful fresco by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) commissioned by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa. It dates to between 1488 and a recorded visit to the church by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. It is Lippi’s biggest fresco and his only work in Rome. The central focus is upon an Annunciation scene showing the Archangel Gabriel an Our Lady while kneeling as a supplicant is a cardinal who is being presented to Our Lady by St. Thomas Aquinas. Almost completely hidden and just barely visible whole length in profile is the magnificent Cristo Portacroce, or Christ the Saviour which is mainly the work of Michelangelo. Experts consider the head and the general stance as his while the rest was entrusted to Raffaele (Sinibaldi) da Montelupo (1504-66). Even if one were to go to this church just to see this work, a sublime experience is guaranteed. Unfortunately on the other side of the high altar is a rather dull St. John the Baptist by Giovanni Obici (1807-78).a work which by comparison pales into insignificance. The Cristo’s magnificence always distracted me from noticing certain details in the left transept such as the monument to an Orsini and Dominican Pope, Benedict XIII (r. 1724-30). It was from this corner from behind scaffolding and a metal net blocking access to the nave that I could clearly see Bernini’s monument to Bl. Maria Raggi (1552-1600) the widow, nun and mystic from Chios who moved to Rome in 1584. Bernini rather took his time to work on it, on and off, and finished it in 1653.
A left foot in Rome
As I walked back to to the church square I noticed at the corner of via Pie’ di Marmo and S. Stefano del Cacco a huge, marble, left foot from a colossal statue discovered under the remains of the ancient Serapeum. From there it was a quick walk to the Pantheon where I was only intent on paying homage to Raffaello at his tomb where there is always a rose… or two. An exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale to mark the 5th centenary of his death in 1520 was to open in March…and I hoped to view it in May but the COVid-19 crisis put paid to that! Oh well, who could have told me that would happen!
It is not far to Piazza Navona, where I went passing by San Luigi dei Francesi where there are three masterpieces by Caravaggio which I had seen many times before. I never tire of seeing them and would have done so again if it were not that on Thursday the church is closed. The elation, fascination and awe experienced by these masterpieces never fade, it is something which they, like musical masterpieces of all styles provide in abundance.
PiazzaNavona is my favourite Roman square. I beg forgiveness for not remembering who very correctly dubbed “Il salotto piu’ bello del mondo”. The very shape, the architectural harmony, Palazzo Braschi and Palazzo Lancellotti at one end, the smaller fountains at either end and in the middle the splendid Bernini fountain of the four rivers. Opposite this is his rival Borromini’s S. Agnese in Agone where I paid a brief visit. This is where Melchiorre Caffa’ or Gafa’ (1635-67) was working on his last commission, a high relief in marble of “S. Eustachio and his family exposed to the lions”. The talented Maltese sculptor accidentally died near the Vatican before he could finish the work, which was completed by Ercole Ferrata. I also visited the shrine of St. Agnes who was a mere girl of 13 when martyred. The skull preserved in the shrine looks so small that either the saint musty have been very diminutive or younger than then traditionally accepted 12 or 13.
I ended this long walk with crossing over via Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to the Campo Dei Fiori, a lively bustling food market wherein the centre a statue of Giordano Bruno stands on the site where he was burnt alive for heresy on 17 February 1600, which was exactly 420 years and three days before. I had to proceed to Piazza Farnese dominated by that very elegant Palazzo Farnese, which to opera lovers is a reminder that the very dramatic second act of Puccini’s Tosca unfolds in this very building, the HQ of the evil Scarpia, Rome’s chief of police. (All fiction of course).
It was then that I moved back to my hotel where I relaxed for a little while, even updated my travel journal but not completely. When in the early evening I went to the airport I was not in much of a mood to write and eventually returned home with four days still left to update. That I managed after quite a “struggle”. I could have written more about that trip but I do not want to stretch and test your patience.