Roman Pilgrimage: Churchgoing
I: Praying in Time
“Memory itself is characteristic of life,” writes Oliver Sacks, and it is above all else the presence of memory in Rome that gives the city the quality of mind. In her splendid book Rome and a Villa, Eleanor Clark notes the peculiar temporal colloquy in which Rome engages us: “The city has its own language in time, its own vocabulary for the eye, for which nothing else was any preparation; no other place was so difficult, performed under the slow action of your eyes such transformation.” The visible layers of time — ruined or restored, compatible or contentious, fabled or functional — address our attention from a stage of experience so chambered and disjunctive it resembles nothing if not a theater of dreams. And what is visible only suggests a sense of memory that is even more profound: in Rome, the reality of the city — its traffic and traditions, streets and stones, mortar and marvels — centuries ago became synchronous with its own afterlife. Marble and metaphor stand side by side while memory peruses them; nothing is lost. Churches, for instance, are everywhere, poised in the small piazzas that act like periods at the end of the narrow streets’ cobbled sentences. Often shut up, all but the most renowned open to visitors only at odd hours, they provide a brooding presence nonetheless, tattered talismans of the divine in the midst of the city’s swirling, Fiat-infested human arts. Slowly, inexorably, time has transformed them into mute, pagan-monuments to the local deities that have always inhabited the Campus Martius, tucked into a bend of the Tiber. Some things were not surrendered when the city changed its gods.
At the behest of a friend, I once sought out the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which is located in a park-like setting between the-Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla. (“The place always seems to me the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner,” wrote Henry James, “ — a place you would think twice before telling people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go.”) I was urged to descend from the modern church (modern! The Romanesque exterior dates from the 11th century, while the interior-was remodeled in 1718) — which was constructed on top of the fourth-century basilica (remains of which are still evident) built by Saint Pammachius and significantly damaged in Alaric’s sack of the city in 410 (to say nothing of the earthquake in 442) — into what is known by tradition as the “House of Saints John and Paul” below. This house, as the Blue Guide once described it, with admirable but not entirely appropriate reserve, is “an interesting two-storied construction, with 20 rooms, originally part of three buildings: a Roman palace, a Christian house, and an oratory, decorated with frescoes” of the second through fourth centuries.
The morning I made my way to Santi Giovanni e Paolo, there was no sacristan in attendance to shepherd me into these earlier epochs. I had walked a long way to get there, however, and I was determined to take away some discovery. I snooped about, and, following a guidebook’s lead down the right aisle, crossed a portion of the altar to pass through a partially draped door. Before me was a staircase barred with a velvet cordon lazy enough to invite transgression. I transgressed and descended the steps into the dimly lit labyrinth of rooms. Suddenly, strangely, I was wandering among walls decorated with frescoes: pagan frescoes of boats manned by-Cupids, of peacocks and of other birds; Christian frescoes of martyrs and praying figures; architectural frescoes, too. Up and down steps, from chamber to chamber I passed, trying to remember my reading about the Christian burial shafts and Roman baths that had been discovered here in excavations, but content to be uninformed about most of what appeared before me. Awed by the dim, dank preservation of the past I had stumbled into, I spent what seemed hours in the bowels of the basilica. Reclimbing the stairs — recalled to stealth by the bright light of the sacristy — I stepped bewildered through a different draped door and found myself on the altar in front of a crowd of people: a wedding was about to begin. Holding my guidebook solemnly in the palms of my hands, I used all the wiles of my Jesuit education to imitate an acolyte stepping slowly over the altar rail and moving intently down a side aisle to the church’s portico, where I wound my way through a gaggle of flower girls and back out into the street. “Its own language in time” indeed.
II: Caravaggio and the Saints
Not far from the Piazza Navona is the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the national church of France, through the unmarked door of which a steady stream of tourists unsurely slips, like visitors surreptitiously snaking into a disreputable club. Inside, the tired dimness of the 16th-century church is illuminated — once, back in the day at least, one put a 100-lire coin into the box marked “Luce” — by the first great religious paintings of Caravaggio. (The coinbox lighting of many Italian churches, which by now may be a thing of the past, did provide a pilgrim with a splendid opportunity for the odd good deed: more than once I startled a group of timid artlovers by shattering their squinting darkness with a shaft of timed lamplight. The operation also supplied a bit of drama to the act of observation — Let there be light — and the knowledge that vision might be occluded at any moment offered hidden metaphysical benefits, sharpening perception to an anxious point.)
The chapel which holds the Caravaggios — officially the Contarelli Chapel — is to the left of the main altar as one makes one’s way to the front of the church. The three canvases are large, dominating the otherwise nondescript alcove. On the viewer’s left, ”The Calling of Saint Matthew” depicts Christ’s summoning of Levi the tax gatherer from a party of associates. “Who, me?” the future Matthew asks, pointing to himself in response to Christ’s beckoning hand. The static, silent narrative is charged with drama. Across from “The Calling,” a more dynamic composition portrays the saint’s martyrdom. Over the altar, and most easily visible of the three works, is Caravaggio’s rendering of “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew,” which shows the evangelist, pen in hand, being visited by an angelic muse. Matthew’s face — so realistically painted, so common in its features, so uncertain in its eyes and aspect — is a marvel of imagination, his hands and bare feet sure and subtle emblems of his earthliness.
The power and vitality of these paintings is stunning, the physicality and immediacy of their embodiment of otherworldly themes stark, almost brutal in its lucidity. One longed to look longer than the light allowed, to see into them more deeply and latch onto the meaning of the mysteries they made manifest, and then to find, in the same kind of surroundings, as many other Caravaggios as one could. Next stop, then, the Piazza del Popolo, where the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo holds additional treasures by the artist, namely “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” and “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” works executed not long after the Matthew series.
Like all Caravaggios, yet unlike most religious painting, these make us think of first things first: the “Crucifixion” is a billboard of bodies, naked and clothed: the only light in the darkness that grounds the figures falls on the torso of the saint, on his legs and arm, his toes; on the arms of his tormentors, and on the broad back of one and the broad rump of another. Peter’s face is weary with humanity. The dramatic subject of the second painting is delivered with a perversity of focus that is telling: the stricken Saul is sprawled in the foreground, and two-thirds of the canvas is devoted to his unmanned horse. The flank of the animal dominates our vision, and the horse’s forelegs (and one raised hoof, seen from beneath) occupy the center of the frame. The view of Saul’s face is oblique. Strangely, the concentration on carnality and the realism of sensual detail highlights the force — the impetuousness and irony — of divine intervention. Unlike Raphael, who can paint drapes so heavenly we can surely climb them to salvation, or Michelangelo, who carries us to godly heights on the shoulders of his giants, Caravaggio rubs our eyes with veined hands, shocks us with the bottoms of dirty feet, animates the struggling body of humanity with the startling clarity of his illumination, envisaging — by his furious insistence on the presence and primacy of flesh, apprehended though it be by divine light — the mystery of incarnation: that simple, strong imagining of the intimate relations between body and soul, mortality and memory.