|Jesus covered for Lent|
|The Floor of the Pantheon in the rain|
And as was the case thirty years ago, I was astounded by the degree to which the Catholic Church defined my experience of Rome. Of course, my visit coincided with Francesco’s induction, so perhaps there was more Catholic pomp and circumstance than usual. And I have to admit that, in the moment, I was swept up by all the excitement: as I did my morning run along the Tiber on Tuesday, listening to the sounds of the Vatican choir interspersed with Francesco’s address to the world, I looked left up via della Conciliazione, and there he was up the end of the street. I almost wished I was Catholic. I also loved the familiar sight of black robed priests young and old, rushing, walking, riding mopeds and bicycles through the streets, defining the world around them.
|The floor of Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva|
the sun shines through a stained glass window
And then in the basilicas and churches where I joined the tourists, it was a different kind of tension between the Church and the mignons. In the oldest of old, the Pantheon, a shaft of daylight penetrates the wondrous vaulted ceiling and illuminates the world below. This architectural wonder is heaving with tourists, and so I took a seat out of the rain (because the hole in the ceiling opens the basilica to all elements, not just sunlight. My sense of the crowd was that they were very well behaved. As people do, they chatted among themselves, read their guidebooks out loud and asked me to take their photographs (somehow I became the official Pantheon photographer for all Italian tourists who needed to record their moment together with Jesus at the altar). And then, as if negating the beauty and wonder of the shaft of light, a voice over the loudspeaker announced in five different languages, that is, five repetitions, “Please respect the silence in this Basilica”. I wondered why it had obviously not occurred to them that the loudest, most disrespectful noise was the booming voice telling everyone to keep quiet. There was no opportunity for quiet contemplation as the announcement was loud and long.
As I entered Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, on the same piazza as the Trevi fountain — read: church was all but empty — I was surprised not to see the requisite young priest protecting the sacred spaces. That was, until I sat down and rested my tired feet on the kneeler. All of a sudden he appeared, or more likely, bolted through a hatch in a door that must have extended 20 feet up the left transept. He reprimanded me through the familiar Italian mixture of gestures and words, turned around and raced back through the hatch. A group of elderly women appeared and were gathered around one of the chapels at the back, obediently listening to their guide. Lo and behold, out he came again. The young priest stood right in the middle of the ladies and dealt them a warning not to go inside the chapel, even though they were quietly standing at least two feet from the altar rail, listening to their guide. He must have been safely back behind the door for no more than two or three minutes when an American with a camera came and sat near me. I wanted to tell him not to take photographs as there would be consequences, but this seemed a little too like self surveillance. There must have been either a spy hole in the hatch of the 20 foot door, or a surveillance camera. I couldn’t see a camera anywhere – so I imagined the young priest sitting behind the door, eagerly awaiting the next infringement of his domain.
In the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a major church in the Roman Catholic order, an old priest sat next to a makeshift table selling books on Michelangelo, reading his iphone. He showed complete disinterest in any of the goings on in the Basilica. I watched a group of tourists from India stroke the legs of Michelangelo’s Il Cristo. The smooth erotic surface of the perfect form is of course, just waiting to be stroked, so why not. A group of young Italian school children were being led around, given a talk on each of the Basilica’s attractions. While they were relatively well behaved, by the time they reached the Carafa chapel with Filippino Lippi’s frescoes, they couldn’t contain themselves. One chased another around the altar space and the others followed, and the let out muffled shrieks. The priest did not look up from his iphone.
|The floor just outside the Basilica San Pietro|