Okay, so there are a million and one articles out there about the Eternal city! Unless you have just landed on this planet and you have two heads and a green belly button, then you obviously know already what’s to see when in Rome! But this is not an article about The Fontana Di Trevi or the quaint lanes of Trastevere and I won’t waste your precious time either about the sense of cosmopolitan bliss that you get while going around the shops in Via Veneto. Instead, I will share with you a different side of Rome: the beauty of its churches which I stumbled upon on a short holiday break for The New Year a couple of years ago.
I do confess that as I set off on my sightseeing tour my original intention had been somewhat different. Other than the indispensable city guide, I had also packed a paperback edition of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”. I had already read the book from cover to cover and I had come to Rome with it, determined to follow the trail of its main character, Robert Langdon. Now, the first thing to report after visiting Rome on this strange mission is that Dan Brown is the master of research. Having investigated exhaustively each one of the locations described in the book, I can vouch that the author had his descriptions accurate down to a ‘t’ – or should I say, down to the last star, pyramid and obelisk! I won’t be mean and give you any spoilers about the novel but I will mention that I was particularly thrilled to visit two specific churches as I “followed” Robert Langdon around.
The first church is Santa Maria Della Vittoria, where the statue of “The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa” delivered with an uncanny accuracy all that my imagination had conjured up while reading the book. The other church was Santa Maria Del Popolo at the far end of Piazza Del Popolo where I located the Chigi Chapel and again, found the mystifying shapes on the coat of arms exactly as Mr Brown had claimed them to be. I know the whole book is the result of clever research and a pretty good spin of the yarn, but this specific writer demonstrates a unique prowess in creating intriguing myths behind historical facts and artwork. Visiting all the places described in “Angels and Demons” somehow brought the magic back to life in a unique and vivid way and I would recommend this to any Dan Brown fans who ever plan to visit this legendary city.
As I gradually brought the novel to life, I got to enjoy visiting the churches more than I had expected. In the end, I wound up going in every single one I came across and boy, am I glad I did this! I literally went through the whole list of them in my comprehensive guidebook and soon enough, I became addicted to the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the average Romeo Catholic place of worship. Their magnificent facades that tower over the visitor as he prepares to enter are virtually insignificant compared to what awaits him inside. Everywhere I looked, I found beauty and reverence. As the world around me expanded in vast, imposing spaces, I started to feel increasingly humble and small but the experience, far from intimidating, proved surprisingly empowering. Lifelike statues of saints and angels, high Baroque ceilings and gigantic columns rising from the floor induce to the visitor a feeling of communion with the heavens. The candle-lit shrines of serene humility offer moments of peace and an opportunity for a quiet prayer. At the main church halls, gold-decked walls, luxurious marbles and breathtaking frescoes convey a sense of grandeur. As you sit on a pew to rest for a few moments you can’t help but think that the natural light that comes through the multitude of tall windows, might as well be the warm, blessing hand of the Devine.
Some of the churches are famous for the holy relics that they house such as San Pietro in Vincoli where the original chains that once bound Saint Peter remain on display. The knowledgeable tourists among the hoards of visitors to this church will not leave until they have duly witnessed the chipped surface on the marble on Moses’ knee where according to legend, Michelangelo accidentally dropped his chisel while working on this statue.
Another famous church for its holy relics is Santa Croce in Jerusaleme (Saint Cross of Jerusalem) which was built to house the fragments from Jesus’ cross that Saint Helen had brought back from the Holy Land. Today, visitors will marvel there at the said pieces as well as the tiny thorns from Jesus’ thorn crown, one nail from His Cross and a finger that belonged to Saint Thomas.
Two churches that I specifically adored were Santa Maria Degli Angeli E Gli Martiri which I found particularly humbling and also, San Giovanni in Laterano where the main church hall is dominated by 12 statues of the Apostles. The windows let in the natural light there so beautifully, that I have classed my short stay there as one of the most unforgettable church visits of my whole life. Of course, I also visited the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica but please allow me not to speak about them. The sight of St Peter’s Dome from the interior, Michelangelo’s Pieta and the frescos in the Sistine Chapel have left me absolutely speechless. I do not think that anyone who is not an art expert can ever speak about these legendary works of art effectively and I will not shame myself by making a feeble attempt. Instead, I will say that my life feels substantially more complete since my eyes rested blissfully upon them.
With the added bonus of my excellent timing, I was able to enjoy the city’s famous piazzas beautifully illuminated and decorated for the New Year celebrations. On New Year’s Day, Piazza del Popolo was like an open air party with street bands and performers entertaining the crowds while dozens of balloons flew in the air in the colours of the Italian flag. Piazza Navona was particularly lively as well, attracting even more visitors than its famous fountains ever did, as people walked around the street market browsing at bountiful merchandise for the festive season. I quickly noticed that nearly every stall seller seemed to stock figurines of witches on broomsticks in one form or another. I used a mixture of basic Italian and confident English to question a local and as it turned out, the witches on the broomsticks were Italian versions of Santa Claus! Befana, depicted as an old hag, rides her broom and brings Italian children gifts on the eve of Epiphany day, January 5th. To naughty kids, instead of gifts, she leaves a stick or a piece of coal and being a good housekeeper she often sweeps the house on her way out!
May your houses be duly swept, your Thanksgiving be bounteous, and your stockings full of the most precious gifts. Have a wonderful and happy Holiday Season!