“God, Mom, how many of these damn paintings do you need to see?”
Thus spoke the eldest as we searched in vain for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, home to 2 Caravaggio paintings of St. Matthew. Well might the child complain.
I had planned, from the moment I snagged our very cheap tickets to Italy, to hit every possible Caravaggio in the city in our 2.5 days there; there are a dozen or so, scattered across various locations. We had begun with the magnificent Crucifixion of St. Peter and Saul on the Road to Damascus in Santa Maria del Popolo, then headed to the Borghese Gallery. It was there that I nearly howled in rage to see blank spots on the walls for 2 paintings – only to check myself immediately when I found out they’d been loaned to an exhibit with 40, count ‘em, 40 Caravaggios just about a mile away at the Quirinale.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit, and the fact that we had timed our trip to catch it felt damn providential. I had caught a show featuring the Road to Emmaus (subject of The Lost Painting, possibly the ultimate art nerd/detective story) and a roomful of Caravaggio-influenced works at the Chicago Art Institute a month before. For once, something too good to be true actually wasn’t. The kid and I strolled, to the degree one can stroll in a packed hallway, I in a sort of overwhelmed rapture.
I have no art training and in any event doubt I can add anything to the reams of great extant writing on the artist. I can barely even express my emotional response, and why this artist, of all others, rips into my soul and takes away my equilibrium. In fact, the hardest thing about the exhibit was not being able to stand in one place, mesmerized and rocking ever so slightly, no doubt (I tend to sway back and forth like a long thin plant in the water when otherwise standing still, which has always driven my daughter crazy). The faces are nearly always weary, yet with no sign of collapse; even in turmoil or terrible pain, they project a sense of serenity and, somehow, empathy. In Peter’s face, above, he’s looking out of frame with genuine concern – for whom is up to our imagination, but there doesn’t seem to be any question that it’s a whom and not a what. Is he reassuring an onlooker that this whole proceeding is part of a bigger plan, that he’s not frightened? Is he looking out for some worker who’s going to get punished if he doesn’t make sure the cross is properly in place? at a fellow condemned person, promising him that they’ll both see Paradise at the end of the ordeal? We can’t know. Masterpieces always leave blanks for us to fill.
The futile search for the church of San Luigi was hugely anticlimactic, coming as it did after finding the Piazza Navona draped in dirty canvas as part of a restoration, as well as after a rancorous lunch wherein the Eldest acted her age (18) and complained a fair amount. Worse, it ensured that we arrived at the Colosseum, easily one of the most haunted places in the world, exactly as the gates were closing. When last I’d been in Rome, 30 years earlier, there were no gates; in fact, Mom and I had managed to hit it at sunrise and we’ve never forgotten it. Alas, that’s no longer the case, and the Forum is walled off as well.
Given the tenor of the child’s discourse up to this point, I expected her to let loose with a pissed tirade. Instead, she was quite lovely, taking some beautiful shots with her deliberately low-tech Diana camera as we travelled around the perimeter.
We walked for what seemed miles (it was probably only a couple) and ended in Trastevere, ducking sun-bleached laundry on lines strung across ancient alleys. We stopped at a cafe near the main square. Thanks to it being late February, there were no hordes.
The kid lit up a smoke in the purple twilight. We clinked glasses and sipped.