October is my favorite month in Rome. It brings the gift of ideal temperatures, intense azure skies, light so perfect it seems staged, and the city just glows. The weather has been a bit unstable all week, but this Sunday is the epitome of what we call an Ottobrata Romana. The word comes from the name of the festival that marked the end of the grape harvest, when the Romans of all social classes rode in carts and carriages to the countryside just outside the city to feast, dance and be merry. A walk to see Rome basking in the afternoon sun seems the perfect way to keep melancholy thoughts at bay and, as always, I invite you to come with me.
I start my walk in St. Peter’s Square to find the familiar way the sunlight hits the clean travertine of Bernini’s colonnade against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The columns, designed to feel like arms embracing pilgrims arriving after exhausting journeys from all over, appear molded by the light, and the blue behind them looks so dense, I could stir it with a stick like undiluted paint. Blue and white, beautifully uncomplicated as so little is in Rome.
I wander down to the Tiber River and the Castel Sant’Angelo, an imperial mausoleum, papal fortress, prison, museum, in which every layer grows organically like a plant from what existed before. At the top is the statue that gave the building its name. During the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory the Great came by here in a procession of prayer. Looking up to top of the monument, he had a vision of the Archangel Michael putting his sword back in his scabbard to announce the end of the epidemic. Fifteen centuries have gone by, yet part of me would love to receive a sign of some sort today.
The statues of the angels carrying symbols of the Passion of Christ on the bridge, were carved by Bernini’s assistants and ideally accompanied pilgrims crossing the river here on their way to the Vatican. I like the idea of the art of a city that doesn’t just embellish it, but has an active role, such as accompanying and embracing those who come here.
I compare angel wings and pick these: long, soft, slightly curved plumes like the quills of a writer from long ago. Art also has the power to turn heavy, static stone into its opposite, and allows it to become, almost literally, light as a feather.
I walk in the direction of Via dei Coronari and indulge in the happiness of sifting through everything I see for details that speak of Rome in a gentler, more intimate manner: an outdoor table waiting for good food and good company, the window of a favorite gelato shop – Il Teatro – with ingredients on display (what could be paired with prickly pear?), and an exhortation I make my own as I wander through here.
I start thinking of the walks I took here last year at this time with travelers and friends, and wonder where I would take a guest today, this afternoon, if I really wanted to impress them. Among the million things I love about this city is that it is full of surprises. Many people walk by this church, for instance, and never think of entering. It is the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (built 1626-50).
I recommend walking into every open doorway you come by, you never know what it can reveal…
This is a very Roman experience that offers a striking contrast between an imposing, stern exterior, and a burst of artistic imagination inside. The ceiling of the nave is a creation of Father Andrea Pozzo, painter, architect and master of Baroque illusions. The architectural elements of the church almost magically turn into their painted version, and the ceiling itself seems to burst open to let in the sky and a vision of Heaven, where Ignatius is received by Christ amidst puffy clouds, angels and other saints.
As I walk towards the altar, I imagine you are here with me, and I mentally point out the dome at the end of the nave, a bit dark and unimpressive. As we get closer, I invite you to realize the dome was never actually built, that what we see in its place is a flat canvas: the dome is “merely” painted. To prove it, I ask you to look up at it when standing directly beneath it: see how off-center it is? The illusion works perfectly, and the gasps and chuckles of visitors are a delight every time I witness them.
Ilaria and I like to sum up Baroque art, invented in Rome in the 17th century and then exported everywhere with spectacular variations, in three key features: Action (everything moves), Emotion (both in what is represented and in our reaction to it), Illusion (it conjures spatial dimensions and textures that are not real).
I love Baroque for these reasons and for the creative imagination that seems to stop at nothing to impress us and fill us with wonder. This allows me to enjoy even the dizzying excess of the funerary chapel of Pope Gregory XV and his nephew, the cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Sometimes think I need dark sunglasses and a headache pill to look at it! It is pure theater: a stone curtain opens suddenly, angels hold up one of its corners or blow trumpets, cherubs mourn the deceased, in a splendid combination of sculpture and architecture that includes even the color element of painting.
The technical ability that allows carefully placed alabaster tiles to suggest the folds of heavy fabric sends my mind back to the marble wings of the angel on the Sant’Angelo bridge. I marvel at the work of human hands (no power tools here!), and the attention to detail in every corner of Rome’s churches, even in the symmetrical, open-book effect of the marble on this pilaster that looks like a Technicolor Rorschach test…
It is time to be outside again and head home, just a couple more things to capture before I put my phone back in my pocket.
Another October favorite is Trajan’s Column (2nd century AD) for the same reason I started this walk with the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.
The white marble glows against the blue sky, highlighting the shallow ancient relief, 2500 once colorful figures that tell the story of the Emperor Trajan’s campaigns in Eastern Europe. I enjoy the fabric-like texture of Rome in which a great monument celebrating the deeds of a pagan emperor shares the afternoon sunshine with Christian churches, apartment buildings, and even seagulls, everything coexisting peacefully side by side.
I decide my last picture will be of a Roman pine tree projecting its shadow on a truncated medieval tower
but then my eyes are drawn to a souvenir shop display.
Roman calendars for 2021. A sweet reminder that this moment, this hard year, will pass, that a brighter future awaits us. We WILL plan trips again and maybe even meet in Rome, to enjoy intense azure skies, perfect light and temperature, in person, to celebrate an Ottobrata Romana, create new, luminous memories, and heal.
I put my phone and that thought in my pocket and walk home.