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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 15 of 16: Two Final Churches, and The Best Meal, Period

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The Tiber on a sunny autumn morning

It actually had arrived, the last full day and night of my bella vacanza in Italy were upon me. I awoke extra early; my plan was to strike out on my own and cross the Tiber into Trastevere, the funky neighborhood just across the river from the Centro Storico that I have yet to explore. It was fine with Mom; she wanted to pack up early and read the paper leisurely.

I was out the door before 8:00 AM, and my first stop was at Bar Farnese. The owner is so incredibly sweet, and I can tell it is a popular spot for people to have their morning caffé; the place was always packed. As with most Italian proprietors, all you must do is show up twice and you are considered a regular. I was now greeted so warmly, it made me misty-eyed. The cappuccino at Bar Farnese is perfect, not too hot, creamy, creamy milk and they dust it with cocoa if you like. And their cornetti are particularly nice.

I snaked back around the Campo, and down Via Guibbonari towards Via Arenula, which brings you directly to the Ponte Garibaldi, over the Tiber and onto Viale Trastevere. The river was muddy but the view of St. Peter’s Basilica was so pretty; the trees along the Lungotavere were turning shades of golden and amber. The sun was warm, with a subtle nip in the air.

Off the beaten path, the streets of Trastevere were creepily quiet. I made my way through the tangle of cobblestones; you can tell that this part of the city is very old. Cleopatra settled in Trastevere after she arrived in Rome; according to my guidebook, the inhabitants of this neighborhood consider themselves descended from the “original” Romans. I wonder if the "original" Romans anticipated the cost of real estate here! I eventually found my first destination, the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the supposedly lively Piazza surrounding it. By now it was 8:30 AM, still early for Romans; the square was completely deserted except for a backpacker dude with dreadlocks that obviously spent the night there. The church, however, was wide open.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is the oldest place of worship dedicated to the Virgin Mary in all of Rome; the spot upon which it sits is said to be the site of the miraculous fountain of oil that flowed on the day of Christ’s birth. The site was consecrated by Pope Calixtus in the 3rd century A.D.; Julius I began building the present church in 337, which was completed by Innocent II with a Romanesque façade. The Romanesque bell tower rings every 15 minutes. I enjoy Gothic churches, Renaissance churches break my heart, but the Romanesque churches are all special gems.

The interior features 21 irregular, ancient Roman columns with Ionian and Corinthian capitals, taken from the Baths of Caracalla. The apse is breathtaking, in gold mosaic depicting Christ and the Virgin enthroned, and the triumphal arch features mosaics of the four Evangelists. Isaiah and Jeremiah each hold a caged bird, which is supposed to represent Christ, imprisoned by the sins of mankind. The church was hushed and quiet; after a few moments, a lone friar, kneeling in prayer, joined me. It is these quiet times in a church that I feel the most at peace, which is probably why I spend so much time seeking them out. The crowded ones make me edgy.

From Santa Maria in Trastevere, I crossed over to the other side of the neighborhood to visit its other magnificent church, the Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. When I was confirmed in the 7th grade, I chose the name of St. Cecilia because she was the patron saint of music, one of my passions; this was a visit I looked forward to for some time. St. Cecilia’s martyrdom was particularly horrifying. She lived during the 3rd century A.D.; as a young girl she was married to a Roman patrician named Valerian. Even though she was married, she kept a vow of chastity, and Valerian was so impressed with her piety, he too was converted to Christianity. St. Valerian was martyred, killed by the Romans for his conversion. Cecilia was arrested as she buried his body. Her death was protracted and ugly. The Romans first tried to scald her by locking her in the hot baths of her own house, which is the site of the present church. When she emerged unharmed, they decided to behead her; the executor attempted several blows, which were also unsuccessful. She supposedly took three days to die, singing all the while, for this act Cecilia is the patron saint of music and musicians.

At the base of the altar, encased in glass, is an exquisite 16th-century statue of Santa Cecilia by Carlo Maderno. The sculptor was present when her tomb was opened in 1599 in order to move her remains by papal decree from the catacombs outside the city walls. Miraculously, the body was intact; Maderno sketched her pose and created the statue in her honor. The inscription below reads, “Behold, the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture of body.” You can clearly see the three blows of the executioner’s axe carved into the marble.

The church is beautiful; the outer façade is from the 18th century, which leads to a porticoed courtyard and a baroque inner façade The interior is mostly Romanesque; the baldachino over the altar was made by Arnolfo di Cambio, There is gold mosaic in the apse which features Christ giving a blessing, at his sides are St. Peter, St. Valerian, St. Cecilia, St. Paul, St. Agatha and St. Paschal. I had the Basilica all to myself, except for the inevitable workmen, who trudged in an out with scaffolding for the nun’s choir, which is being restored. As a result, I could not see the beautifully preserved frescoes inside it. I tried to feel the serenity, but one of men was whistling, and the other answered a ringing cell phone. Though this church is a treasure, it is still a neighborhood church, and outside of Mass, it is left unattended; other major churches in Rome have guards who ensure that there are no pictures taken or cell phones used, and they “shoosh” you if you speak too loudly.

From Santa Cecilia it is a quick walk over the Ponte Cesto to the Isola Tiberina, the island in the Tiber, then over the Ponte Fabricio and into the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. Rome’s ghetto, which dates back to the 2nd century B.C., is the oldest and longest surviving Jewish community in Europe. In 70 A.D., Titus’ victory over Jerusalem changed the status of Jews in Rome from citizen to slave; it was the sweat of Jewish slaves that built the Colosseum. Later on, the Romans confused Jews with Christians, and they became targets of the same persecution. Their rights changed over the centuries, depending upon the whims of who was in power in Rome, but in 1555, a papal decree established the walls of the Ghetto, confining the Jews and restricting their movement in the city; these walls, and the official intolerance of Jews, remained in Rome until the early 20th century. As a result, the community remained almost entirely intact, with its religious identity preserved. The streets of the Ghetto are dotted with Jewish bakeries and shops that sell Jewish artifacts; there are ancient Roman ruins here as well, including the Teatro di Marcello, and the Portico d’Ottavia, which was once Rome’s original fish market.

After my walk through the Ghetto, I popped back to the apartment for a moment. Mom was already packing, but I am not ready to face that particular task. Thankfully, I have another treat today, my final rendezvous with a Roman friend for lunch! I met up with Frank at Largo Argentina, and we hopped over a few streets to one of his favorite haunts, Ristorante La Pigna. This was possibly the best restaurant I have been to in Italy. It is owned and run by a lovely, older couple. Mamma and the very friendly maitre d' greeted Frank like an old friend; he is a regular there. Papa is in the kitchen, he wore a tall white toque and looked a little like Santa Claus.

We were seated and promptly began with small bottle of red wine and some acqua minerale. Frank and I decided to go green for our first course, and shared a delicious selection from the anitpasto misto display which included sautéed spinach, sautéed chicory, broccoli romanesco, tiny fritters of broccoli di rape, and two beautiful Roman-style artichokes. Alongside was a tender, lovely salad of puntarelle in salsa.

Afterwards, the chef himself came out to ask what we wanted for a second course, and we asked for pasta. He told us with pride that he had hunted a wild boar himself to make the wild boar ragu, and we were both sold. It came out on handmade tagliatelle with a grating of parmigiano and it was the best pasta I have ever seen or tasted. Dessert was tiny clementine and caffé. I want to take each and every person I know to Ristorante La Pigna.

Frank took me to a large bookstore, La Feltrinelli, on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II and we looked at huge coffee-table books on travel, cooking, and various Renaissance artists. I wanted badly to buy one, but my suitcase was going to be jammed already. Back out on the sidewalk, it was time to say good-bye, and I already started to feel the pangs of a painful separation from Rome. “It’s ok,” Frank said matter-of-factly, “You’ll be back soon.” A kiss on both cheeks and he was off, melting into the crowded street.

Mom was back at the apartment, ready for an afternoon passiagata, so I choked back my tears and headed home. I learned at least three shortcuts from Torre Argentina back to Via dei Chiavari; the streets that confused me so much that first night were entirely familiar to me now, which was such a great feeling. Back up the tiny, coffin-like elevator and into the front door, I found her, sitting in the armchair positioned by the huge window that extended to the ceiling, knitting. She looked up and smiled at me and I wanted to burst into tears once again. I wished I could keep us both here for a long, long time. She had eaten so well, putting a few pounds onto her tiny frame that causes me so much worry back home; she rested and had been so happy and content. But she also wanted to get back to her home; she missed New York, her sister and her routine.

We got down to the street and walked, arm-in-arm, like so many other Italian mothers and daughters I have seen, window shopping and slowly making our way towards the Campo for one last look. The trash trucks had cleared out the remains of the morning market and it looked spanking clean. It was still warm enough for the intrepid to sit outside at the cafes, and everyone was leisurely reading or chatting over wine or coffee. Tell me why I am leaving again? Oh yes, I remember. I am out of money.

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