Churches in Rome


So, I’m sitting on the stone benches that surround the Palazzo in the early evening. I’m looking across the cobbled square as families gather, tourists perspire and Romans sit to watch the world. I have just eaten a fine piccolo coppa di pistachio with some even finer tortellini in my bag for later, and I’m thinking about melancholy. Why has the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud that fosters the droop headed flowers all?


Twice today it has struck me that this is the underlying condition of the city. The first time, fittingly, in Keats’ house.


Outside the window, on the Spanish Steps there are many, many people dressed in Austrian costume for some reason; they are having a noisy jolly time. Others are trying to sell them things, mostly wilting red roses and those strange plastic lumps with faces that you throw at the pavement. Inside it is dark and still the early 19th century. In the narrow room in which Keats died, parallel to the steps and jolly Teutons, the sense of place, of loss, of mortality is almost painful.

Nothing physical is here from that specific time, not even the wallpaper; all was burnt after his death. His death mask, by Canova’s mask maker no less, is on the wall beside the bed. It was a thin face (unsurprising in one who died from tuberculosis) and a long thin nose. A clever face, certainly not soft or self-indulgent, or indulged. Many copies of letters in frames on the walls, and in cabinets next door.

What makes the pain greater, is the description that, aware of his tubercular death sentence from the moment he first coughed up blood, Keats could not bear to even open the letters he was sent. Particularly those from Fanny Brawne, the women to whom he had been engaged and could not marry because of his lack of health or money.

Even an astoundingly pretty girl with unfeasibly blue eyes in a short flowery dress, telling someone loudly on her mobile that there was “No probs, we’ll be right down” cannot break the spell of the past in this small, quiet space. I sit in an old leather chair in the corner of this room, at the end of the bed, cheerfulness outside comes through the window, and I am close to tears.

The Second occasion for the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven came from a visit to St Lorenzo in Damaso.

It is a gloomy, half lit basilica of a church, rectangular with a narthex, side aisles, apse and a coffered ceiling, huge and dusty and empty. Bells start to ring, an elderly woman in a housecoat walks in from the left, a priest from the right. She goes to a pew somewhere in the middle, he fiddles with things on the altar, tests a microphone and goes to sit with her. They go through the responses, the place is so big the echoes repeat constantly; his higher pitch, her constant low monotone. A pair of women are now kneeling before candles at a distant chapel, they look like mother and daughter. There is no one else, at no point will he use the microphone, there is no one to broadcast to. This church must be easily the length of a cricket pitch and half as high and wide. The responses go on, the echoes repeat, as they must at mass every day. The priest and his celebrant, alone together until one of them moves to another place.

Next to me on the stone bench at the Palazzo is an American, he is ordering about his two young children who are playing with a green plastic toy. After a while an Italian man introduces his equally young daughter who has been playing with an orange balloon. The Italian suggests that the three children could play together. Solemnly the children swap toys and continue to play separately. The two men watch the children playing in the Piazza, they do not speak.

Roma is the opposite of Amor as Carlo Levi points out:

“The roaring of the lions in the night

Of the depths of time to memory

Owls, Madonna symbols interrupted

Events timeless outside of history”

From: ‘Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita’, By Carlo Levi

Thinking about the Albertian notion of the picture plane as a window frame, I have been looking from my window here. I am staying on the 5th floor (100 steps and no lift) of a block in the Centro Storico. It is difficult to tell the age of the building. I would think the façade is probably 18th, might be 17th, Century. But the maze of intersecting buildings it covers could be much, much older.

The point is, that these arrangements, still on a mediaeval street pattern, hold a familiar form and what do I see from my window? I see stories, many other windows randomly arranged with different lives, all autonomous, all operating in their own complex spaces, all with their own ‘agency’.

There is for example, as there always is in these built up ancient centres where people live as they have done for centuries, a child screaming; there is always a child screaming somewhere. In this case, I can see him in a window across a little piazza to my right, about 2 storeys down. I can see bunk beds and a tiny head just reaching up to the window ledge. The screaming has stopped, he, (and it has to be a he) raises his arm above his head so it can clear the open  window frame and throws a toy out into the world- through his own picture plane to land in an unknown, inaccessible world below.

To my left is a church that proclaims strong missionary connections on a board outside the doors. One of the transepts has an altana (roof terrace) I have seen young priests hanging out their washing sometimes. This evening a man in a white T shirt is jogging on a running machine. The machine faces the wall, not the view of the Roman sky line and a striking, setting sun.

There is shouting opposite, the errant boy disappears suddenly and an enormous woman wearing vast black underwear fills the entire open window, her bra bulges ominously as she leans out of the window to look down. She does not pierce her picture plane so much as grow through it, the giant cupolas of her undergarments jostling for space with a small fleshy head. More rapid shouting, down in the piazza old women, sitting on the inevitable white plastic chairs, give helpful advice. This is almost exactly the scene you can see in Canaletto’s ‘The Stonemasons’ Yard’

On the first floor of a building, left hand side of that painting, you can see an identical, though slightly thinner, woman leaning out a window to shout at children below.

Narratives in windows, seen through an open window frame written on Windows 2010.

If I leave the window and step out onto my altana, (a rather grand term for a scrubby bit of roof with 32 pots of dying shrubs and geraniums) from this rather small and sad space I can see the dome of San Andrea della Valle; the church where Puccinni set the first act of Tosca. Turning the other way, I can just see the top of San Pietro in Montorio, on top of the Janiculum Hill. To see either, you have to look through a thicket of TV aerials and satellite dishes and inventive arrangements of cables to connect them and stop the things blowing down. I suppose they provide our current open windows on the world.

Continuing the theme: the dominance of the planimetric in the way we appreciate art and thus the world around us. Why are we not happiest, keenest to seek out the fully three dimensional?

I know from years of teaching art history students that understanding painting and forms in two dimensions comes relatively naturally, but three dimensions, architecture especially, is always a struggle; it is a foreign language.

This is even more noticeable when watching gallery goers. For example, looking at Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’, in the Galleria Borghese,

Bernini: 'Apollo and Daphne', 1625. Galleria Borghese, Rome

a triumphant example of sculpture fully in the round, a sculpture that demonstrates a different, developing section of the narrative from every angle. What really struck me was the way viewers positioned themselves; at the 4 points of the compass. That is, they saw it through 4 static picture planes, rather than walking around it observing the metamorphosis of Daphne from one stage to the next. The picture plane is that institutionalised.

Given the influence of film and, for example the tracking shot, this is surprising. Apparently one of the first films to use the tracking shot was Italian: The Cabiria, in 1914.

Artists since Alberti have championed architecture (‘De Re Aedificatoria’, 1452). If Gropius through the Bauhaus curriculum could revolutionize the British Art School and, tangentially perhaps, was therefore responsible for the birth of British Rock, Pop, Punk and the British Fashion industry. Why was he not also responsible for the main aim of that institution, to place all the arts at the service of architecture? A building is after all equally a narrative.

For instance, the church I am sitting in now to write this, It is about 4.30pm, whilst waiting for the best paneficio in Rome to open

(Forno Campo de’ Fiori

I have walked down Via Giulia and ended up at San Salvatore in Lauro. It is not a particularly special Roman church, but like any building, the way it is put together, the use of decoration, the architectural language, tells a story. That narrative is usually fairly straightforward .

The façade, the introductory paragraph, shows a huge, high naved building. That facade is pure nave, no volutes, no evidence of side aisles, it introduces the internal spaces that you will encounter, and introduces them with great clarity. Inside, narrow chapels and a very high, hemispherical, barrel vaulted ceiling. Short transepts, perfect hemispherical dome above the crossing. At a guess I would say that the nave is two cubes long, the transepts and the apse ½ a cube and the crossing a whole cube. The nave has paired, attached Corinthian columns in travertine, supporting a very large and accurate Roman entablature. Above is a narrow clerestory.

The apse is only slightly curved, the attached columns of the apse are in green marble. The apsidal pediment is both broken and curved. There is gold everywhere and above the altar a huge sunburst lit by natural light from the dome and clerestory.

Extraordinarily, on each side of the altar framed by the attached columns are theatre boxes, overlooking the action; royal boxes actually on the stage. And, they are the clue to the whole story. This is a late Baroque church, that characteristic theatricality is functional, all about getting in the faithful.

This is a post Council of Trent church: the Catholic meeting that set up the USPs of Roman Catholicism in opposition to growing Protestantism and in horrified reaction to the Sack of Rome in 1527.

The narrow side aisles and barrel vaulting, like Il Gesu not far away, concentrate the congregation on the Mass, the words of the priest and on the music (barrel vaulting was supposed to be good for acoustics).

The broken pediment is reminiscent of Borromini, an intense visual excitement, the sunburst of gold and the theatre boxes of the Colonna altar by Bernini, the cubic volumes takes us back to Bramante and Brunelleschi, the perfect hemispherical dome and the entablature to classical Rome.

This is a building that displays its knowledge of sacred architecture with great confidence, expecting us to do the same. All this glorifies us by sitting in a vision of heaven,  the architect, perhaps, the patron certainly (4 golden, jewel encrusted busts of popes sit on the altar) and above all, it glorifies God.

My main point being that it is a narrative about 3 dimensional form that self-consciously goes back to the first basilica churches in Rome. Like any building it establishes the context from the first glimpse and continues that discourse with every combination of forms that you can experience, surely this is a discourse that it is relatively easy to understand and enter into?

Perhaps to prove what I am talking about, a woman has come in to the church armed with a camera and photographed all the rather dreary paintings in the chapels, mostly by da Cortona and Turchi. The photographer did not look up or around her, and then she left. Mind you she didn’t look at the paintings either, just photographed them, presumably to prove her brief presence at this spot.