It all started with a less-than-Biblical discussion in our Wednesday Bible study at First Christian Church. Pastor Chris Shorow was preparing to leave for a sabbatical in Italy and we were breaking the tenth commandment — coveting his upcoming experience. To pacify our envy, he promised, “While I’m there, I’ll be checking things out for a future trip when you can go.”
A year later, a few of us were still dreaming about the trip and, gathering a dozen more friends, pushed Chris into fulfilling his promise.
Working with Victor Neal at Prime Time Travel, Chris agreed to lead us in an exploration of Italian art, culture and cuisine. Our destinations: Rome and Florence with generous samplings of the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside.
We arrived in Rome in the morning and went by private bus to our hotel, the Zone. Seasoned travelers know that if you head for bed, you’re dead — so we dropped our luggage off and headed for the heart of the city.
One of the first things you notice about Rome is the traffic — and the lack of parking. Many locals drive mini-cars and park them any way they can, parallel to the curb or head-in. We let our bus driver do the worrying and, after he dropped us off, all we had to do was dodge traffic.
Our goal was the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. “It’s only a short walk,” Chris told us. We would learn to dread those words! Our ages ranged from 40s to 80s. Chris fell on the youthful end of that scale. We discovered that the older you are, the longer “short” is.
The oldest parts of the present church date back to the late 1400s when it was built on the site of earlier structures. Two of the church’s treasures are The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter painted by the artist Caravaggio in 1600 and 1601. The paintings were huge; they were magnificent. The colors were rich and the use of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark, was dramatic. Like many places we went, photography was restricted — although no photograph could truly capture the brilliance of these works.
Many of the churches we saw seemed undistinguished in external architecture but featured elaborate interiors and housed major works of art. San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), is home to what, according to tradition, are the chains with which St. Peter was shackled in the Mamertine Prison. And it is home to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
Another set of chains, those of St. Paul, are found in the church of Saint Paul Outside the Wall, along with what is thought to be the original tomb of the saint. Most of this church was rebuilt in the 1800s following a devastating fire. Restoration included fine 5th and 13th century mosaics. On the left side of the nave is a beautiful 18th century altar made of malachite and lapis lazuli.
We made a short stop in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria to see one of the world’s Baroque masterpieces, St. Teresa in Ecstasy, by Bernini. Like many of the other masterworks we saw, I knew this one from seeing it in books. What the books never show is that on either side of the sculpture, Bernini depicted members of the Cornaro family, which commissioned the work, in relief sitting in what appear to be theater boxes.
No visitor to Rome, religious or not, can miss the massive and magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s so big and so full of art that sometimes you forget you’re in a church rather than a museum or palace. Our visit was short and slightly restricted as there was a service going on. If I had seen nothing but Michelangelo’s Pieta, that would have been enough. Sculpted when he was only 24, the artist turned cold stone into a piece so infused with emotion that it moves many visitors to tears.
St. Peter’s is, of course, part of Vatican City which, though surrounded by the city of Rome, is actually a sovereign state. In addition to church offices, it houses the Vatican Museum. Most visitors, and we were no exception, see only a tiny portion of the four miles of exhibits which feature centuries of the finest paintings, sculpture, tapestries and artifacts.
Highlights of our tour included the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. No photos were allowed in the Sistine Chapel due to contract restrictions insisted on by the company that restored the frescoes — they now own the copyright to these famous images.
The Raphael Rooms consist of a four-room apartment created for Pope Julius II with paintings being done by Raphael and his apprentices. Probably the most famous of the frescoes is The School of Athens which features famous Greek philosophers and more contemporary figures like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
I know it sounds like we spent all our time in Rome in churches — but that’s where some of the finest art is. Watch for a future column highlighting some of the other sights of Rome and vicariously experience some of our culinary adventures.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond resident.