Today we began the week by giving the Rome bus system a try. We had to wait for our bus #87 to make its way though what we later recognized as a daily traffic jam on Rome’s streets during rush hour which for the Italians seems to start around 9:00 (their Mediterranean work day begins rather late) and lasts all day. Once on our bus we sped rather easily down to the Coliseum and around Piazza Venezia, up Vittoria Emannuel IV, to our stop near the Pantheon.
Our walk around the area took us first to the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, one of the few Gothic churches in Rome, built over (sopra) a Roman temple of Minerva. Here we were
Bernini’s Elephant at Sopra Minerva
greeted outside by Bernini’s charming sculpture of an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. Inside we found an early Michelangelo sculpture of a muscular “Risen Christ” and the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena who raised a ruckus with a couple of Popes back in the 14th century during the Great Schism. Her headless body is entombed here; we’ll see the rest her when we visit Siena on Saturday.
We popped into St. Ignatius of Loyola around the corner to see two intriguing illusory ceilings by the baroque painter Fra Andrea Pozzo. The first depicts Jesuit missionary work on four continents and the Apotheosis of S. Ignatius, with the saint appearing to disappear high into the sky due to the artist’s use of foreshortened figures and painted architectural elements that make it seem that the walls of the church have opened up to the heavens beyond. The other ceiling, further on in the church, was done to solve a problem. The Jesuits wanted to construct a dome, but the nuns in a neighboring convent objected because it would obstruct the view of their garden. So Pozzo painted, on a flat ceiling, a trompe-l’oeil of a non-existent dome’s interior surface. So the Jesuits got their “dome,” and the nuns got their view.
Just down the street from Pozzo’s visual trickery is a wonder that is the real thing — the Pantheon, a temple dedicated to all the Roman gods. It was built during the reign of Emperor Agrippa, and was simply too fine a building to be torn down and have a church built over it. Instead, it was converted INTO a church, which is the reason it has survived to this day as an architectural example for later architects. Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Dome, Brunelleschi’s Florence Cathedral dome, and even the U.S. Capital dome all owe their existence to the Pantheon‘s engineering wizardry.
Inside we saw Raphael’s tomb, the niches where the Roman gods once tood and then were replaced by biblical fgures and then Italian dignitaries. We could see the coffers in the dome’s interior that helped lghten the load of the dome n the supportng pillars, and the oculus, the opening n the center, that lets lght and rain into building. Around the corner from the Pantheon we slipped into the church of San Luigi del Francesi to see three Caravaggio paintings on the subject of St. Matthew, chief among them the rightly famous “The Calling of Saint Matthew.”
The Fountain of the Four Rivers
Then we walked to the Piazza Nuvona, in Roman times a Circus or oval track used for chariot races, athletic events, and the occasional martyrdom. Today it is a display ground for Bernini’s fountains, all three of them, but especialy the Fountan of the Four Rivers, from the continents of Asia (the Ganges), Africa (the Nile), the Americas (the Plate), and Europe (the Danube)..
From the Piazza we walked to the Campo dei Fiori to pay homage to Giordano Bruno and his statue that marks the place where he was burned at the stake for heresy when he championed Copernicus’s theory about the earth revolving around the sun. The daily market was in full swing selling everything from blood oranges and pistachios to t-shirts and tennis shoes. We broke for lunch and everyone explorded Rome on thei own for the rest of the day and worked on the scavenger hunt.