Sunday, November 16

Charles Borromeo at McDonald's

The old Milanese church of Santi Ambrogio e Carlo in the Corso is one of the most splendid churches in Rome. I'd only seen it before today in peaks and glimpses through the curious plexiglass sentry box that some unfeeling modern restorer had placed over the great central doors like a sort of space age instant narthex. But beyond the clear plastic, it is a marvel.

I'd set aside two hours this afternoon to view an exhibition on the history of the Knights of Malta and the other equestrian orders that was supposed to be going on at the Palazzo Venezia, about twenty minutes away from the studio. However, the lady in the gift shop quickly informed me that I was a year ahead of schedule and to come back later since there was another art show in progress. Once again, Italy refuses to make sense.

So, feeling moved by the spirit of the flaneur and having nothing better to do, I took a stroll along the Via del Corso. The street's entertainment value remains unrivaled even after more than two months in Rome; though today, I felt more even adventurous and began to stray down sidestreets to find graceful little churches, pleasant piazze, cozy shopwindows. I even stumbled upon San Silvestro, the English church in Rome. It had been hiding under a camoflauge of scaffolding all this time. A fragment of the skull of St. John the Baptist was on display in one of the side-chapels.

And then there was Santi Ambrogio e Carlo. I'd walked by it a dozen times before, but it was either late or early, post-dinner walks or pre-class wanders in the cool morning. Its dome was high and ornate, rising above an elaborate Baroque facade that, slightly set back from the road, had an even more dominating and solemn presence than most of Rome's great churches.

Inside, it's baroque, wonderfully flamboyant baroque. Yet it has a certain serenity that overrides the manic restlessness that often rises to the turbulent surface of that style. Gilding rings the elaborate cornices and remarkable Corinthian column capitals, elements that verge on the sculptural, but below, down to the simple bases and pedestals, the only decoration is the rich varegated pink and striped grey of the tromp l'oeil marble paintwork. It gives an elegant lightness to the heavy piers and bulbous mouldings, reflecting the rosy blue frescoed skies overhead.

I strolled along the ambulatory, listening to the organist practicing a pleasant, gentle Bach piece at some unseen console. A few priests wearing in velvet-collared cloaks over their cassocks moved along the side-aisles. There's a dozen reasons to love the church, the relic of St. Charles kept behind the high altar marked with his elaborate Gothic-lettered motto, humilitas, the altar of the Sacrament in the south transept with its massive allegorical figures of Faith and Adoration voluminously veiled and bearing a heavy book, a great cross, a blazing Host and chalice. And there's Bach again, playing in my head as I remember it.

Walking out, then I noticed one weirdly discordant note. Right on axis with the central door, and thus the crossing, the altar, and the relic, on the balcony level of the building directly opposite, was the hideously comic plastic effigy of none other than Ronald McDonald. There was a Golden Arches inset into the ground floor of the apartment block facing the church. It hardly seemed a fitting end to my visit, and so I turned around for one last pleasant gaze at the high altar.

That's a much better way to end a memory.

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