Saints and Sinners
by D. "Darteo" Sommese
Saints and Sinners
(A love Story at the end)
"Whoever has no more ties in his life should come to live in Rome; there he will find for company a land that will inspire his reflections and walks that will always tell him something. The stones he walks over speak to him and the dust that the wind will raise under his feet will contain some human greatness."
Historian Jean-Jaques Ampere (1800-64)
The more I learn about Rome the more I realize how true the above statement is. I realized yesterday that one of my favorite pizza stops is right down the street from what once was a hospice used by St Francis himself when he came to Rome. The church of San Francisco di Ripa is in Trastevere, (I pass it on my way to the Bohemian Bar I go to for gelato). The name of the church should have been my first clue I guess, but coming from the United States many churches are named after Saints, but how many of the Saints have actually attended mass there?
Trastevere has some of the oldest churches in the Christian world. It is hard to believe that so much history has happened under your feet as you walk the ankle numbing cobbled streets. The locals move about their daily life shopping, eating and sleeping, seemingly ignorant of the history they walk past or over daily. I guess this is as it should be really, since life is for the living, and living is for the present. For someone like me, who has no real roots in this quarter of Rome, where many people can trace their ancestry back to ancient times, just knowing St. Francis actually walked the same streets I do, stops time for a split second.
The little church of San Francesco di Ripa was founded by Count Pandolfo dell' Anguillara in the 1200's beside the hospice of San Biagio which is right down the street from the place I go to for a quick slice of pizza when my hunger alarm goes off. The church of course was called by another name when the man who came to be St. Francis attended mass there. In 1229 the church was given to the Franciscan order, by Pope Gregory IX. The dates here boggle the mind. The church today is famous for another reason. There, in one of the chapels is a statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, done by none other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini later in his life. Bernini the famous sculptor and architect, had 11 children and lived a good long productive life. His work is everywhere you look in Rome and we can only thank God he was able to contribute so many works of art for our pleasure and enjoyment. If artistic genius is contained in the dust of Rome, I am hoping some of it rubs off on me. As an artist I walk with a bowed head, humbled constantly because the art here is so astounding.
The church of San Francisco di Ripa also has a treasure that not many churches named after the Saint can boast. Inside there is an original painting of the Saint himself painted close to the time he lived and was actively doing the work of the Lord. This was painted in the 1200's as well. A copy of it is hangs in what is believed to be in the cell he stayed in the old Hospice of San Biagio, now incorporated into the present church.
The church itself was remodeled in the 1600's when so many of the older churches in Rome were given a Baroque facade and interior, mixing the blocky and austere Romanesque with the soaring bombastic Baroque. Saint Frances' plane little cell, turned into a chapel, was also given the Barque treatment, which seems odd, considering his message to the Catholic Church was a "less is more" back to basics philosophy.
A short walk from the church of San Francesco di Ripa is the church of St. Cecilia who was a woman that lived during the Roman persecution of the Christians. The church dedicated to her name was built on the ruins of what used to be her home, the very place where she was martyred. First her persecutors tried to smother her in the baths of her home and after 3 days when she would not die, they tried to chop off her head, but the axe would not go through her neck. In the days it took for her to die from her wounds, she converted hundreds of Romans to Christianity.
Many of these first churches are known as "titular" churches in the Catholic lexicon. They have gone through many changes since their inception. Before the year 312 when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire, the Church was very different, absent of the Imperial pomp and splendor. Christians before then met in homes or any available meeting halls. What was once a meeting hall became a small church, which in the interceding 2000 years became bigger and more richly adorned.
There is also a love story buried under the cobbled streets of Trastevere concerning the famous painter Raphael Sanzio, known to us in the West as simply Raphael. He lived a short life, dying at age 37 of some fever. He is reputed to have lived his short life to the fullest, burning the candle at both ends. He is a contemporary of the famous Michelangelo and they both contributed fabulous art to the Vatican as well as being listed among the architects for St. Peters cathedral. Raphael was thought so much of by the Popes he worked for, he was honored by being buried in the equally famous Pantheon, which was 1500 years old by the time he passed away.
When you consider the amount of work Raphael turned out in his short time on earth, you have to wonder when he would had the time to live the lusty life he has become famous for. Legend has it that he was quite the ladies man in his time. Among the many woman he was purported to have dallied with is a certain "Fornarina" which in Italian means "little oven". She was said to have been a bakers daughter. "Fornarina" was of course her nick name, but I am thinking it might allude to her being a "hot" little number in the slang of the Renaissance. You can see her, because she has been immortalized in a painting known as "Fornarina" where she appears to be topless in a see-through blouse, painted by none other than Raphael.
Millions of people pass through the tiny rather ignominious Piazza Santa Apollonia everyday. There is a small church there now known as Santa Margherita, but once there was a church directly across from it known as Santa Apollonia, which in turn was connected to an "open" convent run by the Franciscan order of nuns. One of the functions of the convent was to provide shelter for repentant women. Two months before Raphael died, a woman named Margherita, the daughter of local baker Francesco Luti, on August 18, 1520, signed herself into the care of the good nuns there, to repent her evil ways. The convent and the church are long gone, to be replaced in our time by a rather uninteresting relatively modern apartment building with a restaurant underneath.
The love affair is legend, recorded by none other than Giorgio Vassari, the famous Renaissance biographer and painter. Fornarina and Raphael were so smitten with each other it was affecting Raphael's work on the frescos in the Vatican for Pope Leo X. He was of course from the famous Medici family, the family who did much to make the words "art" and "Italy" synonymous. He was not about to be delayed. Fornarina was such a distraction that Leo X, appealed to his banker friend Agostino Chigi, who's family produced Pope Alexander VI 100 years later. Chigi solution was rather heavy handed however, he had Fornarina kidnapped and hidden, telling Raphael that she has run off with another man. Can you imagine how hurt he must of been? Artists are sensitive people! His anger and sense of betrayal sent him into a frenzy of work only to be followed by complete and absolute depression which caused the work to stop once again. The Pope was then forced to materialize the missing "Fornarina" going as far as to allow her to live with Raphael in the Chigi Palace as a convenient way for them to be together. Anything to get the work going again.
The semi-nude portrait of Fornarina can be seen here in Rome at the Barbarini Gallery. When it was painted, it was displayed with doors attached to the frame, so it could be modestly hidden when the occasion presented itself. Fornarina's image is said to appear in Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" and "Veiled Woman". To give further credence to our love story, it is known that Raphael's last and possibly most famous work known as the "Transfiguration" was painted in a house attached to the Piazza Santa Apollonia. You can see a copy of it for free inside St. Peter's reproduced in mosaic form. The original, on canvas, is now hanging in the Vatican Museum, a masterpiece of Christian Art.
One can only imagine the two lovers dressed in Renaissance garb together, their faces lit by the golden glow of Caravaggio candlelight. Their relationship was not only about sex, they just like being alone together in his studio. They drew comfort from one another, her sneaking over after all the nuns and all the nosey neighbors sank heavily in their mattresses made of straw. Imagine a world devoid of motors and electric lights. The sounds of the night would have still been from nature. The Tiber is close by. On a quiet night you could hear it rushing over the rocks, and the smell of wild figs hung heavy in the sultry summer's night air.
Raphael and Fornarina were more than lovers, more like soul mates than anything else. Two people attached to one another by all the cosmic forces in the universe. The sex was just one phase of the friendship. What makes people irresistibly attracted to one another is not sex, it is a far more complex biochemical mystery. He needed her, he couldn't really explain it. He was an art "star" he could have had his pick of anyone, prettier, more refined and more educated, but he chose to spend his time with her. She made him laugh and he liked that.
Fornarina knew he was wild, but she thought her love was so strong it would change him and he would eventually settle down. If love were only that strong... Fornarina fussed over him. Raphael liked that. He could not resist her open and innocent admiration of him. He loved how she love him. The love enveloped him and he ran to her innocent charm whenever he could. Her love became a drug he could not get enough of. She liked him because he was different than most of the working men in the quarter. Her father, the baker thought only about money. She knew the only reason he tacitly permitted the relationship was, because Raphael was rich and famous. Perhaps his rich friends would be persuaded to buy his bread. Her father did not see the man Raphael was, only his fame and what it might bring to him.
The Raphael Fornarina knew was different. She even liked the silly name he gave her, although she knew there was some comic sexual hidden meaning connected to it. She like his attention. She liked the little boy in him. The child in her, responded to the child in him. This was the core of their love for one another. There is danger in this type of love. One should never allow another to become the center of their life. One should never make another person responsible for their own happiness. It is too huge a responsibility. Failure is inevitable. Life is too unpredictable.
A monster was lurking in Europe at the time. Venereal disease had been creeping across the continent, coming by ship from far away places. Every people blamed another group of people for its origin, but they knew it had something to do with sex. People were dying in the circle of artists that Raphael was a part of, talented and able young men who philandered in the same places he did. No one knows for sure what the nature of his illness was. Something like Syphilis would be covered up by his friends, because he was so well liked in his powerful circle of friends. Perhaps he knew he was dying and his studio being so close to the convent gave Fornarina an opportunity to be close to him. Then she could be far away from the prying eyes of her father, he thinking she would be safe with the nuns. Perhaps the stigma of the disease had touched her as well, by association, so she took herself out of the world. The "Transfiguration", painted in the little Piazza Santa Apollonia was Raphael's last, he died two months after Margherita Luti signed herself over to the Nun's of the Franciscan order. My heart aches for her across the centuries. There is no sadder story than that of a friendship lost to something so final as death.
You realize of course that your author has left the world of fact for the world of fancy seven paragraphs ago. Maybe it was the paving stones who told me this particular version of the story. I did go stand in the Piazza for a time this evening before I came home to write this. I was trying to imagine it has it had been in that August of 1520. The story I tell you came out of the dust kicked up by hundreds of today's lovers, as they passed through this rather unremarkable piazza, arm and arm, hand in hand. It is a 500 year old love story. The tragedy is contained in the fact that you want it to end differently, but you know it can't.
The little Church of Santa Apollonia is long gone now, so is the convent, and the Franciscan nuns, but isn't there some irony in the fact that the only thing that marks the spot now is the little church of Santa Margherita? If Margherita Luti, the bakers daughter, was actually Raphael's Fornarina, than the irony is sweet indeed. The tiny church of Santa Margherita with the silent Baroque facade, which like all human facades, says nothing... a mute testimony to a great and enduring love story that transpired there. A love story that still has people talking 500 years later. An inscription in marble might be placed in the piazza some where, that should say, "Love marks this spot." Or perhaps a plague that says, "All true friends and lovers are always reunited in heaven....always." After all, isn't heaven really where love comes from?
Those days in Rome
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