Diary: Three Go to Rome

‘Thurifer’ and chums range from ancient to baroque Fog.

The autumn mists conspired to delay our flight, and we had to endure an extra two hours in the hell that is Stansted Airport. The noise; the people. The return was even worse: an hour's delay waiting to reclaim baggage, with no information from the Information Desk. None of this, however, detracted from a wonderful week in the Eternal City. And it was summer weather at the beginning of November: shirt-sleeve order. The rain one afternoon came curiously from a perfectly clear sky.

A friend about to visit Rome for the first time was asked, ‘Which Rome are you visiting? Ancient Rome, Medieval Rome, Baroque Rome, Fascist Rome?' We spanned ancient to baroque. Inevitably with a cleric in the party, the first port of call was Gammarelli: for Catholics and Anglo-Catholics the clerical tailor of choice and par excellence. While HJ negotiated amicably for a cassock to be re-lined, a new cassock to be made, and a gilet to be bought, his previous purchases and measurements were swiftly produced. Meanwhile, PP and I enjoyed observing a bishop – recently retired from the Papal Household – advising and kitting-out the new bishop of Palermo with all the necessities of episcopal office. At the heart of their conversation was an animated discussion about buttons.

Earlier in the year I took with me to Venice Hugh Honor's exquisite book The Companion to Venice. To Rome it was Roman Mornings, by James Lees- Milne. He chooses eight buildings and the Trevi Fountain to illustrate the epochs of the city's history. Those who know his printed Diaries will find the same rich, elegant, evocative prose and similar detailed observation. However, since reading Michael Bloch's biography, it was difficult to disengage the prose from the man. He emerges from that book as a clear-eyed, calculating up-market rent boy in his youth; and in later years a ferocious snob and accomplished freeloader.

Another whose rackety, not to say squalid and criminal, life has to be set against the genius of his art was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Having recently read the admirable and rigorously researched work by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and absorbed his detailed reading of the paintings, it made the viewing of ‘The Calling of St Matthew’, ‘The Martyrdom of St Matthew’, and ‘The Inspiration of St Matthew' (all in St Louis de France) all the more rewarding. They are spectacular and unlike anything that went before them, and little that has come after.

‘Normally I enjoy the sound of the trumpet’, said HJ as we entered the Piazza della Rotunda. A less-than-accomplished executant was blaring away, butchering several tunes, while a Luciano Pavarotti look-a-like – not entirely convincing: too slim – wandered around, mercifully without singing. We reflected on the fact that it appears nowadays, both in Rome and London (and, no doubt, elsewhere), impossible to enter a square or turn a corner without some form of street entertainment being forced upon you.

There were, of course, many highlights. PP put the Pantheon at the top of his list. Its mighty and compelling structure encompasses the whole history of Rome from the time of Marcus Agrippa. Your diarist was torn between Caravaggio's paintings, the spectacular view of St Peter's from the Ponte Sant’Angelo – a view made possible by Mussolini: how much will that weigh in the balance at the final judgement? – before settling on St Mary Major and its golden ceiling. HJ initially chose the Chapel of St Clement in St Peter's Basilica, notably for its beautiful gilding; but gave first prize to the visit to the Scavi (highly recommended and completely absorbing). This, despite the presence on the guided tour of a group of well-rounded Americans, one of whom opined loudly from a position of impregnable, opinionated ignorance. He had hesitated over the sight of a man kneeling at a prie dieu to retrieve his wife's mobile 'phone, which he was charging from the supply illuminating the statue of Our Lady in St John Lateran.

Among the many sights, one of the most memorable, and much enjoyed by my companions, was that of Raymond Leo, Cardinal Burke – a champion of doctrinal orthodoxy for some, a focus of dissent for others – walking purposefully along the road behind the Chiesa otti look-a-like Nuova, reciting his rosary as he passed by.

There were a few blemishes. The plain, even ugly, façade of the Church of the Stigmata of St Francis promised more than it delivered. The magnificent Gesù – the template for baroque churches near and far, that triumph of Jesuit simplicity, not a single inch without marble, gold, precious stones, or painting – had a truly hideous and offensive cube as its main altar, totally out of proportion, with a matching ambo and presidential bench that doubled as a lectern (don't ask) and all on a crude dais of battleship grey.

All that was lacking was an ancient Jesuit, with an alb half way up his calf, shrouded in a horse-blanket chasuble, shuffling to that altar to illustrate the vulgarity of the times. Cardinal Farnese, whose name is emblazoned across the pediment of the portico, must be asking himself how anyone could possibly think this a worthy setting for the perfect sacrifice. Later, a misplaced sense of loyalty took us into All Saints in Baboon Street to see Street's fine neo-Gothic building. We looked at it to the soundtrack of ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’. It was beyond parody.

Twenty-two churches visited, and it was time to go. We have been friends for many years, and for several years have met once a month for dinner. This was our first holiday together, and it was a triumph: every day, every hour punctuated with much laughter. However, one of the troika received notification while we were there that he was to relocate to another part of the country within a few months. And so our farewell to Rome was rather more bittersweet than we had expected.

ND

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