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Report 881: A Slow Trip to Italy for a Mother and Daughter

By stella from Brooklyn, New York, Fall 2005

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Page 12 of 16: Caravaggio and Checchino

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The Piazza Navona is a great place to take a rest

We had another sound sleep and awoke to another sunny day. Mom was really slowing down; I anticipated she would need another rest day soon. We had planned on visiting Vatican this day, but instead made a short trek to the Piazza Navona.

Like mother, like daughter, is the theory that applies here; Mom seemed to enjoy looking at churches as much as I do. This trip was certainly being dominated by visits to churches and naps! I offer no apologies; churches contain great art and usually are a peaceful respite, and naps, well, who can complain about a nap?

We next visited Sant ‘Agnese in Agone, (St. Agnes in Agony), another Baroque church, both theatrical and stately at the same time. Designed by Bernini’s archrival Borromini, it has a trompe l’oeil effect, which makes the apses appear equal in size. The church dominates the Piazza Navona, and is dedicated to the virgin martyr St. Agnes, whose hair miraculously and instantly grew to cover her entire body when her torturers stripped her in public. Her tiny skull resides, visible, in a silver box located in one of the main chapels.

We wandered around the Piazza Navona, which is quite lively at night, but has a wonderfully calming effect during the day. Bernini’s massive marble fountain and its cascading water seemed to melt the rest of the city away. Cars cannot enter the piazza for the most part, so it was a quiet oasis in the mid-morning. The massive Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was completed in 1651; the figures represent four rivers and, as was then-thought, the four known continents of the world: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Rio Plata. At the south end of the Piazza is the Fontana del Moro, depicting a Moor holding a dolphin; at the north end is Fontana dei Nettuno. Neptune wrestles a sea monster, surrounded by sea nymphs. We admired the watercolors offered by some of the artists set up in the Piazza; it was difficult, however, to contemplate transporting any of it back in our luggage.

From the peaceful Piazza, it was short walk to our next stop, the Chiesa di Santa Luigi dei Francesi, just across from the Italian Senate building. The guards with machine guns and ornate uniforms were quite impressive and ever vigilant; I only learned later on that the President of Iraq was in Rome on Thursday and Friday, which may explain why there were so many of them. The Chiesa di Santa Luigi dei Francesi is the French national church in Rome, but three treasured paintings by Caravaggio housed in one of the chapels overshadow this fact.

The St. Matthew Cycle, as they are known collectively, is breathtaking. Composed of The Calling of St. Matthew, St. Matthew and The Angel, and Martyrdom of St. Matthew, they express the anguish and inner conflict of the saint in a way that is entirely human and relatable. Caravaggio’s use of color and light to intensify the narrative is mesmerizing. You can stare at them forever, as long as you have enough euro coins to pop into the machine to illuminate the small chapel in which they hang. There was a constant stream of visitors who file in, look at the paintings and file out, but Mom and I lingered, we could not help but be transfixed by the saint’s eyes, which seemed to reveal his very soul. This experience was a perfect example of how one can see a masterpiece in Rome for free, in relative solitude. The church also has a chapel dedicated to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music who I chose to be my patron when I was confirmed. The frescoes are by Domenichino, featuring scenes from the martyred virgin’s life; the altarpiece by Guido Reni is a copy of one made by Raphael.

Back out into the brilliant Roman sunshine, we made our way to the Piazza della Rotonda, to say hello to the Pantheon once again. Mom needed lunch, so we snagged an outside table at Café M. Agrippa del Pantheon, which is one of Rome’s best cafes. I read about the history of the café in the wonderful book Café Life Rome; it was originally owned by the current proprietor’s father. In the book, he recalls his childhood in post-World War II Rome, when he used to play football in the then-empty piazza with all the other children of the neighborhood. Though the Pantheon is now a mecca for tourists, it was once a quiet residential area where neighbors knew and cared for each other. Now, it has a McDonald's.

The sun beat down upon us as we donned our sunglasses and had a light, quick lunch of salad, bruschette with various toppings and some grilled scamorza with proscuitto. Mom went inside to use the bathroom, and on her way out, she said something in Italian to the cooks. The next thing I knew, there is a party going on in there. The owner was joking and laughing with Mom and the cooks. It was very cute. I was completely upstaged by my tiny mother and her little scarlet hat wherever we went, and I loved it. The only problem was that she asked every man she encountered, ”Please marry my daughter!” She seemed to think I couldn't understand this particular question in Italian; even worse, she would then point at me and wave. Maybe one of these days that line is going to finally work. I wouldn't object to marrying an Italian Duke. Are there still Dukes in Italy, I wondered?

On our way to Largo Argentina, we passed my very favorite church in Rome, the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Oh, how I love this church! It is one of the very few Gothic churches in Rome, and since I am not a fan of the ornate and heavy-handed Baroque churches that are more common there, I feel the most peaceful inside this oasis. It was built upon the site of ancient temple to Minerva, the goddess or wisdom and war. There are too many treasures here to describe, but I will start with my favorite feature, the ceiling; it is painted a brilliant blue, with gold stars twinkling down upon you.

The Cappella Carafa contains frescoes by Filippino Lippi, depicting scenes from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Lippi’s Annunciation. On either side of the altar are two sculptures, Michelangelo’s Christ bearing the Cross, and Sangallo’s St. John the Baptist. On the altar itself is a glass tomb that contains the headless body of St. Catherine of Siena, and there are two Medici popes buried in the apse. There is also a magnificent bronze sculpture by Bernini, and beautiful stained glass roses throughout the church, which were added in the 17th century. Another chapel is attributed to the Dominican friar and artist Fra Angelico, who is also buried there. I am very attached to this church; on my first visit to Rome, I would sit in it for a half-hour every day, just being peaceful and quiet. Many Romans, on their way somewhere else, will do this as well. They pop in, kneel in front of a chapel for a few moments of prayer, and then pop back out. One guy took it a little too far and was munching a sandwich on a wooden pew.

We left the church and headed down the street, past rows of stores that cater to the needs of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, including ornate vestments for priests, magnificent silver and gold chalices and other pieces for the altar, headpieces for nuns. They are open for business, but would a lay person enter? “Hi, I’d like to see the gold, jewel-encrusted chalice in the window, please.”

The next stop was Largo Argentina, and the cat sanctuary that operates among the ruins. It was only excavated in 1929, exposing four ancient temples, as well as the porticoed passageway to Pompey’s theatre, the site of Julius Caesar’s murder. Kitties abound now, battle-scarred street cats that are cared for, neutered, and available for adoption. They are in all colors, shapes and sizes, and they languidly sun themselves in front of their admirers, stretching across the ruins of Ancient Roman temples and pathways, curling up on soft patches of grass and flowers. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary operates solely through the work of volunteers and donations; you can even sponsor a Roman cat from afar! Tearing myself away from the many kitties, we headed home for Mom’s afternoon nap. I am wondering how I am ever going to survive in New York without a daily nap myself.

Our big plan for that night was our dinner at Checchino dal 1887 with Sue and Paul, dear friends of mine from New York, who happened to be in Rome that weekend as well. It was wonderful to be so far from home, yet surrounded with such familiarity and warmth. They had arrived in Rome from Paris, which they said was glorious with none of the current rioting problems affecting their visit. Dinner was delicious, but in honesty it was secondary to our collective gabbing about our travels. They loved meeting Mom, especially Paul, who also grew up in the Bronx and found he shared many memories with her. We thoroughly enjoyed the company after having only each other for the past ten days. The four of us lingered at that table until 11:00!!!

We all split two orders of Bucatini alla Gricia, with rendered gunaciale, pecorino and black pepper. Paul had lamb chops “scottadita,” which he reported were very good, Sue had the Coda alla Vacinara, or oxtail, braised Roman-style, which was really delicious and intensely flavored. Mom had oven-roasted, stuffed breast of veal, which was fantastic, and I had the rabbit with olives, which was also fantastic, tender and flavorful. We had sides of braised, stuffed artichokes and sautéed chicory, which was unexplainably fiery hot with red pepper. For dessert, I had a delicious torta straciatella; Mom and Paul were each given a mix of two semifreddi, candied orange, and hazelnut. Both were delicious, the orange was particularly light and refreshing. We had two bottles of wine that were fine, a Sauvignon from Lazio and a Rosso di Montalcino. With dessert, I was poured a glass of Moscato di Pantelleria, which was out of this world.

The cab ride took us past the hopping discos and nightclubs of Testaccio, traffic was at a snarl close to midnight. Back at the Campo, similar masses of young people crowded the streets outside the bars and restaurants. Anyone in search of some good nightlife would be very happy in Rome. I am now at that age when I at least consider such activities, weighing them against a comfortable bed. Inevitably the bed wins.

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