Friday, May 29, 2009

Thoughts on Rome

Before I went to Rome I read Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. It is a memoir of the year Doerr, his wife and 6 month old twins spent in Rome on a fellowship from the American Academy of the Arts. I had come across it at Chapters when it first came out and gave it to a friend of mine because reading a bit of it in the store I thought she’d like it. She did and when I started to prepare for my trip I decided I would read it. I loved it, referred to it often in conversations with Betta until she was sick of it, and decided I would read it again when I returned. So while on retreat this week as I’ve been reflecting on my time in Rome I picked it up again only to discover that it was like reading it for the first time.

The first time I read it I loved Doerr’s descriptions of their apartment, the streets where they walked, their struggles to communicate in Italian, their adventures buying groceries and communicating with doctors. Much of what he described resonated with the year I lived in Germany studying at the Universität Tübingen. There is nothing more humbling than struggling to buy bread when you are used to taking your ability to communicate for granted. My supervisor told me that he had a button he would wear when he lived in Germany as a student. It read, “I’m really very intelligent in my own language.”

This week when I read it again, however, it wasn’t just the experience of being a foreigner that I was remembering. I was remembering the places he was describing, I could smell the smells, and hear the sounds. It was such a delight to be back in the Pantheon remembering the power of looking up into the dome and seeing the Oculus. But mostly I gave thanks that his beautiful descriptions of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza prompted me to seek it out.

He and his wife had stumbled across it and you’d have to. It isn’t one of the churches on the ‘must see’ tourist lists and it is off the street inside a courtyard. It isn’t a big church either – essentially it is the chapel for the oldest university in Rome. It was designed by Borromini and finished in 1660. His description captures part of how stunning it is – I experienced vertigo looking up into the ceiling and we sat down quickly so that we could gaze up safely.

You notice first how white it is. A few railings are touched with gold, but all the rest is white: white six-pointed stars, white windows, white balconies. And you notice how unlocked it feels, free of pillars and registries and choir stalls and auxiliary chapels. Strands of sunlight lean through two of six high windows. It seems less a church than a tabernacle, less a temple to God than a temple to light.


We sit in the corner and try counting the six points of the star as the architecture climbs toward the lantern, but we quickly get dizzy and lose count; we are honeycombed, we are trapped inside the molecules at the center of a snow crystal. The pews, the crucifix, the dwarfed altar--they all seem completely irrelevant. It is all space, all geometry, all ceiling. In the restless walls I glimpse patterns: mountains and streams, snow blowing across the freeway, a train of climbers winding along the edge of a glacier. Everything forms and re-forms. We sit on our little bench and feel the church coil and twist above us, a wintry heart, a tornado of plaster.

I will always be thankful to Doerr for the gift of this church.

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