It seems I am destined to end my vacations in little known churches, having a heart to heart with a painting, a saint or just myself. (My last day in Venice last year)
Many months ago I read of a Caravaggio inside the Basilica of Sant’Agostino in Rome, not often visited apparently, and sometimes hard to find in the most popular guide books. Caravaggio paintings are a dime a dozen in Rome, all spectacular as to be expected, but to be able to see just one, hanging where it was intended to be from its inception, is a special privilege.
This particular Basilica is behind Piazza Navona, across from the laboratory of a wood master, whose unaffordable but exquisite works are all jumbled on top of each other in the limited space. The outside of the church is under repair and the inside, as predicted, was rather empty. The Madonna of Loreto is just to the left of the entrance. A few cents will light it up, as it’s customary in most Italian churches, affording the view of those details only Caravaggio was able to conjure: the Madonna bare feet, the fat baby cradled in her arm as if she were a nurse, the petitioners in humble clothes (most likely the couple who commissioned the painting), the overall light that is so typical of Rome, still shining just outside.
Further down the church, other unexpected masterpieces await: a Raffaello, a Bernini and even Saint Monica’s tomb. From the little story next to her grave it is hard to understand why this Monica merited sainthood, other than she was a devoted wife – come to think of it, that is possibly quite enough. Next to the altar, a simple wicker basket is brimming with little handwritten notes, small and big wishes from parishioners and faithful the world over. This particular unbeliever would like to add her wish, you never know, just in case but, as it so happens, I don’t have either pen or paper on me. I send a mental message to Monica, letting her know that, if she sends me a sign, I promise I will perform a pilgrimage to the same spot, a year from now. She either can’t hear me or she saw through my godless life. In any case, I am still waiting.
The caretaker, busy watering the plants and not much else, is eager to talk and tell me all about this Basilica, in his Albanian accent.
When I step out again in the glare of the afternoon, Piazza Navona beckons and I just can’t resist it. Despite the tourists crowding around the fountains, the policemen on the fancy motorbikes and the taxi drivers smoking, leaning against their cars, it’s impossible not to conjure images of the Dolce Vita. Or whatever version of it is possible to incarnate here, right now.
I am not as sad as I usually am at the end of a vacation. In many ways, there is a Dolce Vita waiting for me at home.