Postcard from Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

No time to pause for even the slightest genuflection in this lightening-fast tour of more than a dozen churches in Rome.

You might think this blog has dragged you through every single church in Rome, but, no. One could spend a year visiting a church a day without exhausting that supply. Rome is divided into 339 parishes, and there are close to 70 basilicas within the city. Probably all are worth ducking into for a visit.

But, mercifully, our tour stops here.

On this whiplash final lap, am going to point out two major relics of the type upon which most American Catholics never lay their eyes. The reliquary above is said to contain “the first foot to be entered in the tomb of Christ,” that of Mary Magdalene enshrined in the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. And the other is a portion of the head of Saint John the Baptist housed in a chapel in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite.

I wonder whether anyone ever has developed a scavenger hunt for spying saintly parts tucked away in nooks and crannies in churches in Rome.

A shortcut to encountering a massive number of bones, if one is so inclined, is to seek out the Capuchin Museum and Crypt tucked under Santa Maria della Concezione. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (to whom you were introduced during my “wild things” museum meltdown) in recognition of a relative who was a Capuchin friar, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Cardinal Barberini had the remains of thousands of his Capuchin brethren transferred to the crypt, which provided monks with a creative side unusual materials for their assemblages.

The museum offers a rather dry history of the Capuchin order, somewhat interesting if not for the macabre magnetic pull of the crypt you know lies on the far side. I doubt much has changed there since Mark Twain’s visit long ago, so I will let him describe the interior:

There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – upstairs – Monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

And, as this is a whiplash tour of churches, our friend Chris’ seconds-long forbidden video recording of the interior seems appropriate.

 

I asked the monk if all the brethren upstairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

Catholicism remains a religion of many mysteries, even for someone who was raised as one, particularly during the years when mass still was said in Latin. Like, when near the end of the service, the priest would talk about Nabisco crackers: “Dominus vobiscum.” “The Lord be with you,” lost in translation between the priest’s lips and my ears.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: When you start zooming in on the ‘wild things’

We stayed in Rome 30 days and 30 nights. A church a day. A museum a day. We never came close to exhausting them. But it really hit me on a day toward the end. Temporarily, I was museumed-out. And you probably are as well because I have been dragging you through all of them.

The major symptom of this over-exposure was focusing on bizarre details like an adolescent, and I was stricken with this illness almost immediately upon entering the stunning Palazzo Barberini, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. It was Lorenzo Lotto’s fault. Right there at the bottom of his “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria” was an escapee from the “wild rumpus” of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I went downhill from there, as though viewing art through Max’s eyes. Or through the eyes of the bad-behaving putti in Poussin’s “Baccanale.” There was a cute little rooster perched under Jesus’ feet nailed to the cross. Those limbo-like babies awkwardly cradled in Saint Michael’s scales, and the devil’s head spilling out over the frame under his red slippers. The devil wears polka-dots? Were those seemingly anachronistic stretch white undies added to Saint Sebastian later?

Those are the strangest little pink-winged angels catching cupfuls of Jesus’ blood. Who would park Baby Jesus naked on the bare ground of the manger, without even a bed of hay, with everyone else around him was comfortably clothed? How low did I sink? I am sorry, Lippi, but that plump little man in your Madonna’s arms appears trying to and capable of choking her. And, Caravaggio, Holfernes appears to be bleeding red plastic straws as Judith beheads him.

Forgive me for this major lapse. Maturity returned. I recovered my sense of cultural appreciation by the time we stood in the grand salon under Pietro da Corona’s “Triumph of Divine Providence.” On our way out, a velvet rope prevented us from getting more than a glimpse of Borromini’s spectacular oval spiral, or helicoidal, staircase.

About the bees. You might have noticed images of a trio of bees appearing off and on in earlier posts of photos taken in Roman churches. The bees are the symbol of the Barberini family.

In 1623, Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) emerged as the candidate selected by the conclave, taking the name of Pope Urban VIII. Customs of the times dictated a pope’s family needs a palatial presence in Rome, so Pope Urban VIII purchased a villa on the Quirinal Hill that had been owned by the Sforza family.

Incorporating the original villa into the design as one side of an H-shaped palace, architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) began work in 1627 with assistance from his nephew, Francesco Borromini (1559-1667). Barely two years into the makeover, Maderno died. Despite Borromini’s presence on the job, the pope commissioned a younger rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), as the lead architect for the project.

Some time during his two decades as pope, Urban VIII most have incurred the wrath of the future Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) of the Pamphilj family, whose palace we visited quite a few posts ago. Pope Innocent X confiscated the both the Palazzo Barberini and its artwork. The family feud must have reached a truce, with Innocent returning the palace to the Barberini family two years before his death.

The companion museum that is part of the National Gallery of Paintings with Palazzo Barberini is the Palazzo Corsini, also visited in an earlier post.