Rome: More churches and old Roman statuary

photo: The inside of the dome at Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

heavily coffered oval ceiling all in white, with the coffers making varying sizess of octagons and crosses

I've developed a fascination with Francesco Borromini ( ) in the last couple days, a contemporary of Bernini who concentrated more on architecture(? again, take anything I say with a large grain of salt). He was most famous for putting churches into tiny, awkward spaces and making it look good in the process. So I started the day with an attempt to get into Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza. I go on the hours provided by my guidebook, but also check Google Maps, which is usually more up-to-date and more accurate. But the open hours of Roman churches seem to change frequently and unexpectedly: whenever the Sapienza was open, it wasn't this morning. But now things get weird: I had found the correct courtyard, and went through the ritual behaviour with the next person passing through: "Do you speak English?" And then attempting to quiz them about the tourist site in question, the Sapienza. Not open today. Sunday or Monday (I'm gone by then). But she said "You would like to see the church from the first floor?" "Umm, yeah?" I wasn't entirely clear what she was asking, but yes, I want to see it. She said "wait five minutes." A few minutes later she called down from the upper balcony of the courtyard to join her. She led me through a couple doors, and I was in a balcony overlooking the inside of the church. Having by then registered that she was wearing something resembling a uniform, I think she's a security guard or something similar - but obviously she has a surprising degree of freedom (wait for the next bit). So I got a view of the church from a very limited perspective - but that I saw it at all was wonderful. And then she said "you want to see something interesting?" Hell yes. And she led me to a glorious old reading room, which turns out to be for the State Archives. Seriously - I just lucked into another awesome library? The old guy in there (keep in mind, I'm old - he was definitely older) was the quintessential librarian, stooped, grumpy, balding, and wearing a cardigan. Classic. Then she got on her phone and started talking for a long time. I think he was annoyed I was there, and I'd taken enough photos to be satisfied and didn't want to put her out (although I didn't mind more time!), but she was on her phone, so I just wandered back and forth and admired ... Eventually I was let out, and made my profuse thank-yous. Such a strange experience.

It reminded me of the old Buddhist fable about the man whose horse escaped, and his neighbours said "such bad luck!" He shrugged and said "who can tell?" A week later, the horse returned with a mare in tow. "Such good luck!" said the neighbours. "Who can tell?" There's more to the fable but you get the idea. I arrived and the Sapienza was closed when it was supposed to be open. But it doesn't appear to have been bad luck ...

My next visit was to Sant'Eustachio - I think this was serendipity, not a plan, as I was headed to Santi Apostoli. So many beautiful churches! When I got to Santi Apostoli, it was a failure on several levels - technically, they were open ... but they had a packed service I wasn't willing to interrupt, and from what I could see a large portion of the church was under scaffolding (and Rough Guide listed the place, but wasn't terribly kind). So I decided to drop it - or I thought I did, but I remembered glimpsing a case of overflowing ceiling, and eventually decided I had to go back.

("Overflowing ceiling" is my definition of the circumstance when a painting refuses to be contained by the coffered frame and comes out onto an added piece of canvas, board, or plaster. The only other place I've seen this is at the Church of the Gesù.)

On the way back to Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane I visited Sant'Andrea al Quirinale - right next door to Palazzo Quirinale that I visited a couple days ago. This was designed by Bernini, and it's oval - which is quite unusual. It's a lovely space. A short walk down the street and you're at Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, where I finally managed to step inside. This one is Borromini-designed, and rather similarly oval-shaped on another awkward plot of land, with a ceiling I particularly like. It's not as ornate as most other Roman churches, but coffered and all in white, and lovely in its simplicity. It also has an astonishingly tiny but still appealing cloister.

photo: Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane cloister

looking out an archway in the cloister at the second story and the scalloped top of the church

From there I walked to the Termini station, and caught the metro to San Giovanni. San Giovanni in Laterno is listed as being open all day, but I was trying to get to the Baptistery next door before 1230 when it was supposed to close. So I tried to go around the left of the building, and found myself looking at ... a gas station? So, more concerned about time as it was 1210, I trotted all the way around the very large building in the other direction, and found what I thought was the baptistery ... but it said "enter at the main doors" and pointed back to the church. So I gave up, and went into San Giovanni. This time, no service. I photographed every one of the twelve saints - they're each sculpted into niches and a good three metres tall. One of the many things I don't fully understand about the church is that the saints are apparently doomed to be commemorated by the way they died (not so much the way they lived, even though that's why they're sainted ... isn't it?): Sant'Andreas stands beside an X-shaped cross because that's what he died on. Saint Bartholomew holds his own skin, because he was flayed (happily, he's still wearing it in the sculpture too). And my personal favourite, Saint Simon of the very large saw. As I was photographing each, I realized that each of them has another niche over their heads (it's no wonder I missed it the previous time: these are very tall statues, the niches above them are sculpted but white-on-white, and I couldn't get close enough to see last time because of the service). And those niches appear to be ... the stations of the cross. And there are twelve saints, so twelve stations, as there should be. So yes, the congregation was moving from saint to saint last time, but they may well have been following the stations of the cross as the other person suggested. <sigh> Sorry about that.

When I left San Giovanni, I walked back by what I thought was the Baptistery, and found - just beyond it - an octagonal building. And that, of course, was the real Baptistery. And - despite my guidebook claiming otherwise - it was open. So in I went.

I took the metro back to the city centre, and then took a late lunch break. I needed it more than usual as I'd skipped breakfast to get to my churches in the morning before they closed at noon. I went to PizzaRè, where I had a good pizza and drinkable house wine. And it gave me time to think. I had been upset because I had nothing I really wanted to do in Rome any more, what would I do tomorrow? And I realized that if I turned that around, I'd managed to do damn near everything I wanted to, seen everything I wanted to see in Rome - and that's a hell of an achievement. I'll find something to do: it's not a problem.

I set off for Santi Apostoli, and on the way encountered Basilica dei SS Ambrogio e Carlo. It's another attractive church, but I was entertained to find a sculpture of a sword-wielding woman holding a man's head. I was there on my last trip, and loved that image last time too. I never did figure out the how or why of that one, and I'd kind of like to ...

A fairly heavy rain came up on the way to Santi Apostoli: I was glad to get into the church. They're under heavy scaffolding, but you can still see most of the ceiling and a couple of the chapels. I spent some time in the dim light setting up the camera to take long enough shots of the ceiling so that I'll hopefully have good photos of that overflowing ceiling.

The final stop of the day was Palazzo Altemps, part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. This is their collection of old Roman statuary. I have to admit this wasn't high on my list, which is why it got left so late (as I said, I'm running out of things to do). Old Roman statuary really isn't my thing ... I went through the place pretty fast: it's definitely one hell of a collection, and their careful detailing of which parts of what statue are replacements (and may be incorrect) is good to see. (A lot of headless limbless torsos had their missing appendages re-added in the 1600s at the behest of various popes and/or rich people.) But I find most of the old Roman stuff incredibly mannered and static. Ironically, there's one very dynamic sculpture from the period, called "Galata suicida" which shows a man clutching a dying woman that he just stabbed and he's starting to drive a sword into himself - and it was in a room where they were holding some sort of ceremony with a speaker and large audience, so I had to wait that out. Also in that room was possibly the best preserved Roman marble coffin I've ever seen: graphically and nastily detailed scenes of battle carved all over it, and none of the usual wear-and-tear most of them have on them - it was spectacular.

On the way back to the B&B I caught sunset over the Tiber River with the rather interesting combination of St. Peter's in the distance and a abandoned and capsized boat in the foreground. A lot of people were on the bridge with cameras. I felt something run across my feet. I pried my eye from the camera, didn't see anything - until the woman next to me shrieked and pointed out the rat that was racing along the edge of the sidewalk and over everyone's toes ...

I returned to L'Osteria di Birra del Borgo Roma for a couple beers in the evening - sticking to the marvelous "Lost Barrel" Imperial Stout as I wrote most of this.

photo: The inside of the dome at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale

oval ceiling with hexagons, a huge amount of gold leaf, and lots of plaster cherubs