More notes from the benches of the Farnese. Context, proportion and the creation of space
It gets quieter each evening as August gets going, apart from us tourists and one or two mothers with children at the right hand side, the benches are empty.
I have been thinking further about melancholy and Borromini and the convincing use of proportion to emphasise context and therefore create meaningful spaces. At the bottom of the Palazzo Farnese, on the Via Giulia is a strange, neglected church, It is the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte set up to bury the unburied, the nameless bodies found in the streets of Rome.
The exterior is cream, crowded with Corinthian columns and deaths heads, images of Old Father Time and hour glasses; grim stuff. Inside though, it is shaped like a small 18th century theatre. Centrally planned around an oval, but unlike Borromini’s San Carlo, it has none of his claustrophobia, edginess, muscularity and strain.
Here we have green Corinthian columns, gilded capitals set against pilasters forced into interstices. This is playful, ‘let’s see what this looks like’, rather than a brooding Mannerist, Laurentian Library approach. Above the deep entablature, there are what look exactly like theatre boxes, places for the better sort to peer out on the proceedings, placed best to see the altar/ stage.
This is not perhaps as obvious as a church I saw on the Corso (Santa Gesu e Maria) this morning, in which the same arrangement of theatre boxes down the nave and around the apse have been filled with over life sized sculpted portraits of the patrons. All gesticulating and reacting as you would at a good piece of theatre; Bernini’s set piece with Colonna onlookers is to blame apparently. Possibly, but this church was playing Strauss waltzes on their sound system when I visited. Santa Gesu e Maria was also a riot of hideously expensive polychrome marble, but dedicated to barefoot, hermit Augustinian monks
Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte has none of that extreme levity, despite the underlying jolliness of the architecture. It only opens for an hour each evening and every time I have been in there are two nuns, head to foot in white, silent, still; kneeling at prayer.
Out in the piazza, a large herd of priests surge up to Saint Birgittae, it as usual, locked. The priests stand around, perplexed, they ring on the door next to the church, the one the nuns pour out off. After a long wait, but they seem a very jolly and young herd happy to enjoy the evening sun, the door opens and they file in one by one.
Two men march into the centre of the square, the y stand very close to each other, they are both on their phones. One faces east, the other north. They are both wearing black jackets, one has bright yellow trousers one bright red. They finish their calls simultaneously and, without speaking, stride back towards the Campo dei Fiori.