After a rather restless night of sleep – I think I am past jet lag and simply over-caffeinated coupled with mental overload – I caught the bus at 7 AM for the city center. From there I hiked another mile or so to meet up with Dr. Schwartz, Dr. Shotwell and the art students. This morning was dedicated to visiting churches that were artistically and theologically responding to the reformation of the early 16th century.
Our first church for the morning was Santa Maria in Vallicella. Don’t bother checking a typical guidebook because the chances are it is not mentioned, although that does not mean that it has no gifts to offer the eye. Neri was the architect of this “pre-baroque” style although it has suffered (yes, I meant to use that word) many later additions of paintings, sculptures and tapestries. The design of the church – a straightforward nave with shallower chapels and transepts, however, could still be appreciated beneath the “busyness” of everything else. There was a fine early 17th century altar piece by Peter Paul Rubens. Michael summed the interior of this church by stating, “this anticipates what we now experience of the continuous bombardment of the visual.” It made me long for something a bit simpler.
As we walked to our next church Michael took the opportunity to point out buildings we have been passing nearly every day and noting how one can determine if they were renaissance or something more modern. We next entered the Basilica San Andrea della Valle. This church is the scene of the first act of Puccini’s beautiful opera Tosca – an opera I was hoping to attend while in Rome. It also has the second largest dome in Rome (St. Peter’s is the largest). It is a church whose architectural style steadily moves into what is called Baroque. Unfortunately the outside of the church is under remodeling with the façade being completely hidden by the lattice work of scaffolding. The interior was beautifully intact and while still more “involved” than I like, it was not nearly as gaudy as our earlier visit of the morning. It was easier to see the form, style and movement of the pilasters, capitals, oculus and dome. Domenichino’s paintings of scenes of the condemnation, crucifixion and entombment of St. Andrew were stirring and worth further reflection.
Our final church for the morning was Gesu, built in the latter 16th century and the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome. Like the other two, this church in design was part of Counter-Reformation Baroque. The frescoes and ceiling paintings were beautiful, if not a bit harsh on the neck after craning upwards for too long. I have read where these churches were each intended to be harsh statements against Protestants (remember, this was all part of the larger Counter-Reformation movement), but I was not clear how aesthetically this was evidenced. This needs to be a question to take up with Michael when the opportunity allows.
The morning was nearly gone and our class field trip was concluded, but before I caught up with my family I made one final visit before lunch: St. Peter’s in Chains. As the name implies, the church was built to house the chains believed to be of St. Peter’s imprisonment in Rome. The chains are on display in an ornate glass box just below the high altar. More than the chains, however, visitors come to see Michelangelo’s Moses, part of the tomb intended for Pope Julius II. After finishing Moses, Michelangelo was taken away from the project to work on the upstart Sistine Chapel! The statue of Moses is of course magnificent, powerful and muscular. Moses looks as though he is about to leap forth with God’s covenant in hand.
I returned back to the apartment to do some more writing and reading, in part to prepare for our afternoon field trip. I suppose I am spending a bit more time on the bus than I would like, but it just goes with the territory. Around 3 PM I was back on the bus and soon back to the city center…well, near it. I got off a few stops earlier to check out the Bocca della Verita – the legendary “Mouth of Truth.” There is always an international crowd lined up outside this church to engage the stone face in the porch wall. The playful legend goes that if you stick your hand in the mouth of the face and you are a liar you will, in the parlance of my upbringing, “draw back a nub!” While I hope the truth is in me, I am fully aware that along with everyone else, I often fall short, so I chose to not wait in line and stick my hand in. Plus why would I wait a half hour and spend 50 cents for a photo-op with no one with me?
On a more cultural note, I caught up with the group and we set out walking for nearly an hour to reach our first church for our afternoon visit – the Santa Pudenziana. The foundations of this church are some of the oldest among Rome’s churches. By the fourth century a church was established and still today the mosaics in the apse date to the early 5th century. The figure of Christ glows in gold, flanked by Paul to his right and Peter to his left. In early Christianity Paul, not Peter, was the more important apostle in both writing and art. According Schwartz one of the unique depictions of the mosaic was the portrayal of Christ. Only a century early Christian art was mostly symbolic with images of fish, anchors, crosses, and the chi rho.
Our next stop was just a block or so up the hill (I failed to mentioned that for much of our hour walk we were climbing a hill; one of Rome’s seven). The Santa Maria Maggiore was according to Michael’s own admission one of his favorites and it is easy to see why. Here is a church that has architectural and artistic features from the 5th, 12th, 13th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century. Chaotic? A bit, but it all seemed to work. Outside and inside this is a magnificent and inspiring space. I find most early Christian mosaics provide sacred viewing for me and the 12th century one in the apse as well as along its walls were not disappointing. In fact, upon entering one’s eye moves rapidly along the coffered ceiling as it moves through the nave and into the altar. Words or pictures fail to describe the experience.
Michael decided that as long as we were in the area we would visit St. Peter in Chains, the church I visited earlier in the day on my own. I did not mind a repeat visit and the statue of Moses captured in the late afternoon light took on a different look.
We the day’s itinerary now behind me, I pushed through the always-crowded streets of Rome and waited for my bus. I was tired to the bone and feeling the weight of the day pressing down. Needing to pick up a few things from one of the markets, I got off the bus a few block before our apartment and patronized my favorite. The indulge my southern-fried Italian and seem to genuinely appreciate my business. With a loaf of bread, salami, cheese, and a liter of water bagged up walked home and sat down to a delicious meal Amy kept warm for me on the stove. It was 8:30 and I am told it is not a good idea to eat too soon before sleep, but by ten or so I enjoyed the best night’s sleep.
Thinking of you with peace in my heart and joy for knowing you all,