This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.
As I exited the Borghese Gallery at exactly 2:00 pm I wondered, Why Caravaggio? Why Bernini? Why did they become famous, while hundreds of other artists who had created most of the art in the gallery remained nameless nobodies? How do some artists “break out” from the pack? Is it talent, connections, luck, or what?
I could appreciate how difficult it must have been to carve fingers out of marble. Were no other sculptors able to do that—is that why Bernini stands out? I could see how Caravaggio’s paintings were darker than his peers. Is that why he’s considered so much greater than other painters? Was “darker” a breakthrough in the 16th Century, like cubism would be in the 20th? Even the worst artist in the gallery—if there was one—was infinitely better than I could ever be. I felt like a philistine and resolved, as usual, to read up on what I had seen when I returned home.
I sat on a bench outside the gallery next to an elderly couple and pulled out my map so I could think about where to go next. The man leaned over to me and asked where I was from. He had never heard of Minnesota and his English was so-so, but that didn’t stop him from talking without interruption for 20 minutes straight.
He commandeered my map so I couldn’t walk away. He was very nice but he made enough suggestions to keep me busy in Rome for a month. “You must walk over to the other side of the river and see the Church of St. Celestine of the Bloody Hand,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen! It will only take you about a half hour to get there by taxi.” I made up that church name, of course.
He paused, then sighed, “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”
His wife leaned forward to peer around him at me with a look that said, “He always does this.” She must have been 80 but she didn’t have a hair out of place and she was wearing a skirt and high heels. He was wearing a black trench coat, open so I could see his tweed suit and silk tie. They were both wearing boxy, trendy eyeglasses.
He said something that sounded like “I am an avocado.” What? “A lawyer—retired,” he said in English. Ah, an avvocato—as in legal advocate— I nodded.
“You must see the Caravaggios in the Church of the Holy Martyrs of the Flagellation,” came next. “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”
“You are by yourself?” he asked. “Alone?” When I nodded he looked back at his wife and I couldn’t see their faces but I imagined they exchanged pitying glances.
Finally, I maintained eye contact and smiled while gently extracting my map from his hands, then walked off down the tree-lined lane. They were such a sweet couple. Why wasn’t I part of a sweet couple? Why? What had I done wrong? Would I ever meet Mr. Right? Why was I the Only One in the World who was alone? Blah, blah, blah went my thoughts. A few tears escaped, and I thought this would be a good time to sit on a bench, rest a bit, and gather my thoughts. But counterintuitively, it’s often when I’m over tired that I have the urge to Press On No Matter What. I was determined to find one of the things the old man had recommended—a church in the Piazza del Popolo which had two Caravaggios.
Despite it being close by, I got lost. I consulted the map, then got lost again. It was hot, I was hungry and tired. The thoughts started again: What’s wrong with you? You’re such an idiot. No one else gets lost this much. Finally I stumbled into the church and gazed at the Caravaggios. Meh. I think I had OD’d on art. After three days of nonstop touring, I told myself I had nothing to prove. I walked back to my hotel, polished off my complimentary prosecco, and slept for 12 hours.