Rome: Lesser-known churches house divine art
“Too bad it’s such a dead religion,” observed an American woman at the end of our three-hour tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Squeezed, pushed and prodded past some of the best art and architecture in the world, we emerged at the other side of the Vatican feeling overwhelmed but also slightly ripped off. Maybe my colleague was hoping to have a spiritual experience. I know I was. But the crowds at the Vatican pretty much eliminated any possibility of that.
Our guided tour that started an hour before the Vatican opened its doors to the general public was fascinating, but once those doors opened we were caught up in the tidal wave of humanity that surges through the Vatican every day, crescendoing until it reaches one room — the Sistine Chapel.
Each day 20,000 people squeeze into that room, craning their necks to look at Michelangelo’s famously frescoed ceiling, while hoping not to get elbowed or pick-pocketed in the process.
The Roman Catholic religion might be in trouble elsewhere, but here in Rome you’d never know it.
And with the popularity of Pope Francis, you can bet that attendance will be even higher than usual this summer.
I had planned to go back to the Vatican on my final day — a Sunday — to see the pope address visitors from his window overlooking St. Peter’s Square. But another experience changed my mind.
Late one afternoon, after a glass of wine with a couple of writing colleagues who live in Rome, we wandered into a church I’d never heard of and I was stunned by its beauty.
The ceiling of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola is a clever trompe l’oeil, appearing to be curved when it’s actually flat. White marble, gold trim and precious stones adorn its massive interior. I’m no art expert, but this ceiling struck me as far lovelier than the Sistine Chapel’s. And there were only a couple of dozen other people inside, if that.
Clearly, Rome has lots more art than what’s enclosed by the Vatican’s walls. I decided to spend my final day visiting lesser-known churches with more elbow room. And there are plenty; according to one source, Rome has more than 900 churches.
I began at Santa Pudenziana, not far from the convent where I was staying. Its plain exterior belies its attractive, fourth-century apse, with what’s thought to be the oldest surviving Christian fresco in Rome. St. Peter — the very first pope — is thought to have lived for several years in a house where the church stands now.
Up the street looms the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of four major churches in Rome and with a dome that’s strikingly similar to St. Peter’s Basilica. Inside, a gold-embossed ceiling is impressive; the gold is apparently the first that Columbus brought back from America.
Across the piazza and down a narrow side street, the Basilica di Santa Prassede gets few visitors. Yet it’s a veritable feast of medieval art. In early Christian churches, glass tiles impressed with gold leaf were used to create pictures and patterns. The mosaics at Santa Prassede glittered in the dim light.
The church of San Pietro in Vincoli was harder to find, but when I did, I came face to face with Moses, or at least Michelangeo’s sculpture of the Old Testament leader and prophet. I thought Moses had trouble keeping his tribes in line, but you wouldn’t want to tangle with this Moses. He’s all rippling muscle.
For my next church I hopped onto the subway. San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John’s in Lateran) is on the outskirts of Rome. Yet it is this church — not St. Peter’s — that is the official seat of the pope. It’s an enormous edifice, made more imposing by larger-than-life-size statues of Christ and his apostles peering down from on high. Inside, the amount of mosaic and marble is simply astonishing.
Nine hours after beginning, I ended my self-guided tour atop the Spanish Steps at Trinità dei Monti with its twin bell towers. Evening vespers were underway and the church was filled with worshippers singing a joyful “Hallelujah!” A white-robed priest walked down the aisle flinging holy water over their heads.
I couldn’t get close to Daniele da Volterra’s painting “Descent from the Cross,” but the sun was streaming through a window at the back, illuminating Mary’s sorrowful face and the limp body of her dead son in da Volterra’s “Deposition.”
When I felt a drop of holy water on my forehead I realized I was experiencing what I had come to Rome looking for — faith and art mixed together in all their glory.
Suzanne Morphet is a freelance writer who lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
Tour info Presto Tours’ Early Bird Vatican Tour begins at 8 a.m. and includes the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Group size is 15 guests or fewer. Cost is 79 euros per person (about $100). Website: www.prestotours.com.
Papal audience See the pope on Wednesday mornings from 10:30-noon in St. Peter’s Square (at Castel Gandolfo in August) and Sundays at noon. Tickets for the Wednesday audience can be obtained from the American Catholic Church in Rome. See www.santasusanna.org. No tickets are necessary for the Sunday blessing.
Accommodations I stayed at Casa Il Rosario, a convent guesthouse run by the Dominican Sisters of Charity and booked through Monastery Stays. My large, clean room came with a private bathroom.The convent has a shaded garden and rooftop terrace for guests. My single room breakfast included cost 70 euros per night. Website: www.monasterystays.com.
Food A food tour with Eating Italy, run by former Philadelphian Kenny Dunn, introduces guests to authentic Roman eateries, a wine cellar in a former synagogue, an artisanal “gelateria” and, yes, another church. Santa Maria della Scala once operated a pharmacy for the pope, and you can still see and smell old medicinal potions. Tour costs $103 per adult. Website: www.eatingitalyfoodtours.com.— Suzanne Morphet