I’ve had a running list of churches to visit on my computer since the moment I decided I was coming to Rome. It got compiled by hearsay and recommendations, late night Churches of Rome Wiki binges (this website deserves a Pulitzer), and just about any other odd means you can possibly imagine. When the semester started winding down, I had to put a moratorium on adding new ones (which I broke at least five times). I also started organizing the disparate churches by location and creating itineraries for efficient trips. Yes, I’m a nerd. But, on rare occasion, we nerds are given indisputable direct affirmation and encouragement from God Himself. This was the case when I lined up five churches on my list in an area of the city that’s slightly more of a hassle to get to (think: Metro B line…) in the most efficient walking path. My moment of providential divine confirmation came when I saw that the opening times which—mind you, in the optimal order—were 8, 8:30, 9, 9:30 and 10.
OK, so maybe the first one was a little plain. But that’s fine, I was still waking up anyway. Part of His plan. This church, San Saba, is not to be confused with Santa Sabina, which has several more letters, several more Dominicans, and several more interesting things going on. I’m giving San Saba a hard time because the blue fresco you see in the apse looked like it was done by a child in the 1930s. Largely due to renovations like these, it’s evident that the church’s 4th century glory days have clearly passed.
I only stayed briefly at the next church on the itinerary—San Giovanni e Paolo—because they were setting up for a wedding! So I prayed for the new couple and booked it out of there. But not before keenly observing that the church had relics of two of my favorite saints: San Pammacchio and San Saturnino. Why they didn’t name the church after those great men (who with names like that you would expect to be the kind of Saints that didn’t actually exist, but they DID!) I’ll never understand.
San Clemente made up for any mediocrity in San Saba and any grotesque baroqueness in San Giovanni e Paolo (did I fail to mention that? It was bad.). The upper church, pictured, was built in the 11th century; beneath it was a 4th century church, and below that was an excavation site of several ancient Roman buildings. There were also Dominicans praying the Liturgy of the Hours in English, which was unexpected to say the least. Particularly because it sounded like none of them were actually native speakers (or speakers at all…).
Right next door, I was put back at ease by the very Italian Augustinian nuns at Santi Quattro Coronati, a church dedicated to four martyrs (‘crowned ones’). The church was rather nice; I took some illicit pictures. But fare more impressive was the chapel next door dedicated to San Sylvestro. I had to request entrance in Italian! This chapel is decorated with some vivid narrative frescoes. My favorite part is this:
To Christ’s right, the angel is unfurling what appears to be a large roll of cloth. This was a little confusing until I noticed that its pattern was nearly identical to that on the ceiling of the chapel: a white background with a very particular design of silver star. OK then, it’s the heavens that are being unrolled. Upon this realization, how beautiful the symbol becomes: heaven is something that is gradually revealed to us, bit by bit. We cannot enter its immensity except by an arduous, long process. Even taken literally this is true: anyone who has stargazed (or understands the mechanisms of light and the eye) knows how more and more of the sky’s fullness appears the longer you stare.
Speaking of stair-ing, I next visited the Scala Sancta, the supposed stairs of Pilate’s praetorium on which Christ ascended and descended during the Passion. They were brought to Rome by good ol’ Saint Helena, my favorite mommy-Saint after Monica. One can only climb them on one’s knees, so perhaps “speaking of arduous, long processes” would have been the more fitting transition to this paragraph. But, it was a very holy, meditative, penitential experience. The space is also masterfully decorated. The wall at the top of the stairs very fittingly has a gorgeous depiction of the crucifixion. And above this, there is a dome with God the Father depicted inside. But, one cannot tell this from the bottom. So, as one climbs (surrounded by images of the Passion), one slowly realizes the Father’s presence, beholding and united to Christ’s suffering. Thus it is that the gravity and mystery of our salvation is slowly revealed to us only by uniting our suffering to God’s. The only downside was that the person in front of me was wearing ridiculous shoes with golf tees attached to the heels. Umm, what?
After this, I had planned to go to confession and Mass at San Giovanni Laterano, which is right next door. God, who we’ve established is the mastermind of this plan, decided to let there be some sort of clerical conference—unannounced online—that cancelled the 11 and 12 Masses. So I booked it over to Santa Maria Maggiore and did so there instead. Silly cathedral.
I was similarly deceived on Sunday, when I had planned to go to Mass at Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. This church is only open for a couple of hours for Sunday Mass every week, and I’ve heard great things about it, so I went. The website said there was a 9:30 Mass. A plaque outside the courtyard said it was actually at 10. A sign inside the church said “Nope, it’s at 11 sucker!” (rough translation from the Italian). So I took my holiness elsewhere, thank you very much.
There was also a very elaborate nativity set. This is to be expected: they are very popular in Italy. Just about every church has one, and they’re all horribly elaborate; I’m pretty sure their function extends no farther than “let’s one-up the church next door.” For instance, this one had running water. Yep, Italy.
I went to Mass instead at San Giovanni ai Fiorentini, because I remembered three things about this church. First, it has the foot of Saint Mary Magdalene, patron of my diocese. Good stuff. Second, it has a lot of beautiful art that I enjoyed. This goes along with being “of the Florentines.” Finally, it had a ghastly, atrocious painting that I wanted to go reexamine. I’ve discussed this “art” here. Unfortunately—no, wait, definitely fortunately—it was nowhere to be found! I can only hope that it was, in the timeless words of Gru, “accidentally maliciously destroyed.” Coincidentally, I noticed after the fact that I had been stuck in Florence on the night before my Liturgy class’ midterm, the final for which was on Monday. So perhaps that fiasco has come full-circle in a symbolically satisfying way.
Monday morning, I went to Mass at a church called San Vitale. Many churches from this one’s time have mismatched columns that were appropriated from other buildings. This one did not. Perhaps to make it feel less left out, or perhaps just in homage to the noble tradition of spoliation, the artist of this one painted on some mismatched columns.
I did quite like this church. The fresco in the apse was particularly beautiful. And it wasn’t obstructed by a giant baldachino, which is always a plus.
I also took my liturgy final and finished my economics take-home final today, but the real highlight was a procession from Santa Maria della Pace to San Salvatore in Lauro. I’ve been to a couple of these processions, and they’re great. Everyone gathers around an image or statue, lights up some red candles and incense, and takes said item from one church to another while singing, praying, chatting and having a generally good time. It’s very Italian, and it’s very wonderful. At the end, we were greeted with this “macchina barocca” (“Baroque machine”).
This experience did a lot to redeem (or at least explain) the Baroque for me. The common devotional decoration of Our Lady of the Illustrious Golden Shrapnel Explosion is actually not meant to be basked in 2 million watts of artificial light. I can’t use the word “subtlety” to describe anything going on here, but when viewed in flickering candlelight, even very bright flickering candlelight, this art is much less repulsive. It has some, well…subtlety. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an egregious misappropriation of gold and shrapnel, but now there’s at least one sense in which it can be enjoyed.
I then went to an exquisite dinner with Father Gray. Eggplant lasagna loaded with cheese and a meat dish with mushrooms covered in an unidentifiable fragrant sauce are good in any way they are taken, but are all the better with great conversation (and wine). It was a perfect evening.
After all of these adventures, I am proud to say that there are only two tituli that I have yet to visit (excluding those that have been destroyed, closed for renovation or lost to history). And, they happen to be very close to each other and open in the same two hour window on Saturday. So, one could say that I’m tituliatingly close to completing this goal.
To not leave you in uncomfortable agony, I’ll close of by saying that I wrote this on a train to Bari, Southern Italy (and you better believe it was delayed! 1 hour and 20 minutes this time). Now I can leave you angry/jealous instead. I have completed all my finals and papers, and have absolutely no obligations at all until, well, January or so. La dolce vita baby!