It is true that, in the centre of Rome, on every corner you turn, a basilica or chapel will be there to greet you. Big or small, Baroque or Byzantine, Rome’s sacred beacons speckle the streets, each a spectacle of the precious vestiges of Christian and Italian history. It would be impossible to record all the churches I have perused around, wondered at or rested by but here are two of my favourites, completely diverse in intention but both full with art and atmosphere.
Santa Prassede – Monti
One of the finest examples of Byzantine decoration in Rome, the church was created in the 9th century under Pope Paschal, over an original 5th century structure which housed the remains of Saint Prassede. Legend tells us that she was one of the daughters of Saint Prudens, (the first convert of Christianity in Rome), who, along with her sister Pudenziana, was murdered for defying Roman law by providing Christian burial to believers. Despite its meek brown exterior, the basilica is rich in eye-popping mosaics and frescoes from a myriad of historic styles. Walking through the entrance, you are greeted with an ancient colonnaded aisle leading to the grand mosaicked triumphal arch and apse of Pope Paschal. One cannot ignore its brocaded golden illumination of the Twelve Apostles, sister Saints Prassede and Pudenziana and Saints Peter and Paul guiding souls to heaven. Even Paschal himself brightly pops out above us, hoping his architectural bequest will secure him a place in paradise.
Mosaics also run through to the chapel of Saint Zeno, a funerary chapel Paschal dedicated to his late mother. It is mainly known for holding the Column of Flagellation (doubtfully the pillar Christ was scourged on before the Crucifixion but wonder worthy all the same). Yet, it is also treasured for being the last chapel in Rome decorated entirely in mosaic.
The glistening walls of this jewelled grotto recite the springtime vitality and harmony of Christ’s resurrection, with birds, lambs, donkeys and deer lighting up archways and wild flowers sprouting under bare feet. Everywhere you turn there is colour – flecks of golds, reds, turquoises and cobalts wonkily weave a snug sanctuary around the worshiper, away from the toils outside. And it is this homely comfort which gives the Saint Zeno chapel its true uniqueness. The stumbly craftsmanship of the tesserae brings a personal air which cannot be found in the flat-pastelled grandiose chapels in the city – even the doorframe has a wonky brilliance to it. By being able to touch the bumpy, beaded walls, you feel closer to the lives that embellished and also worshipped within.
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane – Quirinale
Another small but spectacular church is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, a bulging 17th century masterpiece of the architect Francesco Borromoni. Its standard Baroque exterior could easily be walked past but make a point to wander in to see the swerving distorted interior. Borromini defied the straight lines of classicism and created an operatic dystopia of curvaceous shapes and rhythms. As your eyes scale up the florid white walls, you come to the theatre of the dome, with its geometrical stucco of bulbous crosses and octagons. This distorted symmetry coupled with the pure light that illuminates the room, creates an effect of unnerving beauty. Perhaps this perplexing spectacle was Borromini’s intention to remind us of the uncertain power of beyond.
Another, rather hidden highlight of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane is the crypt which you descend down a rather Escher-esque staircase. It was designed to house the artist’s tomb but it is completely bare; simply empty damp chapel spaces that yet still contain a strange presence. Glossing over the architectural forms and innovation, what I love most about this church is its white decadent dome. It would fit perfectly in a scene for Ken Russell’s The Devils with its puritan white light and topsy-turvy mould. It’s a space of silent white light but dizzy chaotic shapes – a unique theatrical creation.