Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hidden Treasures - A Morning in Trastevre - Part 1

One of the joys of living here - dear lord it has been almost three years! - is discovering the hidden treasures around the city. Those slightly off the beaten path places which are perhaps more a reflection of the life and history of Roma than what most people see. Many of these treasures are generally off-limits or not open to the public except by appointment. Others are just generally unknown, even to Romans. I'm lucky that early on in my stay here I became acquainted with a dear friend.  She is an accomplished art historian who has lived here for the past 40 years, and much of that time has been spent organizing and leading walks of venues around the city and beyond. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and a morning spent with her is a guaranteed treat. And she seems to get me into the most intriguing places.

A few months back on a rainy February morning we went over to Trastevere (literally Over the Tiber) to visit the local museum, the Church of Santa Maria della Scala and the Farmacia Antica which was run by the monks there for centuries. Being Italy there was a mix up in the times for the visit to the Farmacia but she worked it out with a very obliging, charming, chubby young monk. He not only opened the Farmacia but turned on the lights in the church so we could see it in its full splendor.

Trastevere is more than the streets, bars and trattorias around Santa Maria in Trastevere which are the main focus for most tourists. It is very much a neighbourhood of alleyways and byways, small shops, bars and everyday Romans going about their business. I go over to that side of the river once a week for an appointment and now have a favorite bar where I don't even had to give them my order any more. As I become more familiar with the area I can understand the attraction it has for so many of my friends.

Looking down the street from Santa Maria della Scala (top) towards the old protective walls and the Porta Settimiana - a new wall built by Urban VIII meant that the old walls no longer served as protection and this gate at Via della Lungara was left open at night. As with so many Roman neighbourhoods most of the buildings date back for centuries (chances are that brick wall in the middle photo dates from the 12-13th century if not earlier) - they've been altered, added to, repaired, destroyed and rebuilt. But through it all one thing has not been changed - looking out the window and watching the world go by.

Though the organ loft is splendid, the church itself is perhaps remarkable more for what it doesn't contain than what it does. At one point in time a papal lawyer had commissioned Caravaggio to paint The Death of the Virgin to adorn his chapel in the church. Unfortunately the cadaver that the painter choose as his model was that of a notorious prostitute who had, in a drunken stupor, fallen into the river and drowned. The good barefoot brothers (Discalced Carmelites) were scandalized and refused to hang the painting, substituting for it a rather bland handling of the subject by Carlo Saraceni. Caravaggio's work now hangs in the Louvre after a rather checkered ownership which included the English king, Charles I. If only those poor brothers had realized it would have become a tourist gold mine a few centuries later I'm sure they would have kept it.

The interior of the church is fairly representative of many churches in Rome except for that elaborate organ loft. I'm not sure if the organ is still played or even playable. So often in churches here they are simply hollow shells that have gone untouched for years.

As it is the church is seldom visited except for pilgrims wishing to catch a glimpse of the miraculous icon that gives the church its name. The real hidden treasure is the Farmacia attached to it. I'll be posting a bit about it in the next day or two.

12 maggio - San Pancrazio


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Oh, that Caravaggio! He was such a scamp!

laurent said...

Isn't it the truth that Rome is full of these strange treasures of the past. All you have to do is walk and look around.

David said...

D'you know my favourite chocolate-maker's shop in Trastevere - Valzani's? When last visited, probably hadn't changed in however long it had been there.