The bells we hear in our apartment, on the hours and before Mass, come from the church of Santa Cecilia, just a few rooftops away. This morning the tall ironwork gates were open when we arrived, and we walked through the courtyard with its Roman urn and still-blooming roses to the wide portico, where, as in many of the churches, Roman inscriptions and reliefs found on the site are embedded in the stuccoed walls. Santa Cecilia is built on the site of the home of an early Christian noblewoman who converted her husband, Valerian, to Christianity, and was martyred in AD 230 for her beliefs. According to the story, at first Cecilia was imprisoned in the steam bath of her own home for three days, but when the door was opened, she was not dead, but came out singing. After that they tried to behead her, but she hung on for three more days. Her body was interred in the catacombs, but discovered several centuries later by Pope Paschal I, and moved in 820 to the church that had been built above her family home.
I had expected the church to contain symbols or images of music -- after all, we choirs celebrate Saint Cecilia's Day on November 22, singing Odes that have been written by famous composers -- but there was only an elderly nun from the convent next door practicing the organ, rather badly, and the sculpture of Cecilia herself in white marble, lying on her side, beneath the altar. The sculptor, Stefano Maderno, was present when her tomb was opened in 1599, and he swore that her body was uncorrupted, and lying on its side, just as he depicted in his work. Cecilia has become known as the inventor of the organ and the patron saint of music, but actually there is little evidence that she was a musician. Nevertheless, we musicians are happy to have a patron saint, and I am especially pleased that she is a woman.
Above the altar is a mosaic by Pietro Cavallini, a painter and mosaic designer who was the major Roman artist of the late 13th century, who influenced his much more famous contemporary, Giotto. Though almost unknown today, Cavallini was a pioneer in breaking with the stiff Byzantine tradition; his figures have solidity, weight, and individuality.
The apse mosaic at Santa Cecilia has a frieze of lambs similar to those in Santa Maria of Trastevere, the major mosaic by the same artist. I puzzled over this smaller work, fascinated by the shimmering schools of red, green and blue fishes, the palm trees dripping with clusters of dates, the tiny head on the priest holding a model church on the far left, and curious about the identities of the two women pictured in the mosaic - who were they?
The exhaustive Blue Guide to Rome answered my question: on the right are the white-bearded St. Peter - holding keys; St. Valerian (Cecilia's husband); and Saint Agatha. On the left are St Paul, holding a book; St. Cecilia; and St. Paschal (Pope Paschal I), holding a model church, with a square "nimbus" around his head that indicates he was still alive at the time the mosaic was made. The palm trees represent the Garden of Eden. The twelve lambs below this scene are the twelve apostles coming from the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, on either side of Christ, the Lamb of God; and the mosaic inscription describes the finding of St. Cecilia's relics by Pope Paschal and his work to restore the church.
But the church's secret treasure is the Cavallini fresco (c.1300) of the Last Judgement in an upstairs balcony, hidden behind the screen dividing the nun's chapel from the church below. I had read that access was only at certain hours, and only through the convent, so I went into the little bookstore at the back, where another elderly nun was bent over her crochet work, and inquired with my rudimentary Italian, holding a postcard that pictured a detail from the frescoes and pointing to my eyes. She smiled and gestured outside and to the left, and said something like "sonnere," miming a finger pushing a button, which I took to mean "sonnez" or "ring." I thanked her, paid for my postcard, and went to collect Jonathan.
This door behind a magnificent lantana, on the opposite side of the church, doesn't lead to the convent, but it's the same idea.
Outside, we found a wooden door in the building to the left of the church, with a small buzzer beside it.
"Are you sure about this?" he asked, looking dubious.
"That's what she told me," I said, and pushed the buzzer.
A young woman in street clothes answered the door and invited us to come in. Near an even tinier giftshop, with a few postcards, rosaries, and crochet work, a sign was pinned to the doorframe reading "Cavallini," with an arrow beneath it. I pointed to it and said "Cavallini?" She nodded, and replied, "Due." Two euros. I took the coins out of my purse and paid her. Then she said something to a black-clothed figure sitting in the gift shop, and a tiny nun arose and very slowly took the three or four steps out of the little room and moved away from us down a hallway. She was only four and half feet tall, stooped, and so old as to seem ancient; intelligent eyes shone in her face, which was as creased and crumpled as tissue paper, but behind them was a kind of unreadable darkness and immense fatigue. In one hand she held a rosary made of green beads, and when we hesitated, she raised the other hand slightly and with a small gesture of her fingers indicated we should follow her down the hallway.
At the end of the hall was an elevator; we entered. Slowly she pushed the button for the next floor, facing away from us. I glanced at Jonathan; he met my gaze, wide-eyed. When the elevator stopped, she gestured to us to go ahead of her, through a vestibule that connected the church to the convent, furnished simply and beautifully with a wooden bench, and a table beneath a window. A step up led to the unlit balcony at the back of the church, behind its grille. Here, behind the wooden benches for the nuns when they attended mass, were Cavallini's paintings, some very badly damaged, but in places bright and intact.
No photographs of Cavallini's frescoes were allowed. This is an image of the fresco I found on the internet; we certainly couldn't see it like this as there was little light and the figures, from shoulder height, are hidden behind wooden benches that are within a foot or so of the painted wall. Later, at Padua, Giotto would paint a Last Judgement with the apostles seated on thrones in a composition nearly identical to this one.
The nun took a seat to the side, and her fingers moved over her rosary as she watched us, carefully guarding the frescoes. "How old do you think she is? I whispered to J., as we moved across the room, peering at the painted wall over the backs of the benches.
"I don't know. 200!"
Another visitor, a young woman, came into the room, took a cursory glance around, and left. We stayed for perhaps twenty minutes, looking carefully at the portraits of Jesus, apostles and saints on the plaster -- men, women, and angels -- and then nodded to the nun that we were ready to leave. I waited for her to get to her feet, and she again gestured for us to go ahead, but she saw our concern for her as we waited, and slowly glided past us into the elevator. Again she did not raise her head to look at us, until we were finally at the end of the corridor again and I bent down and said "grazie, grazie," with as much warmth in my voice as I could, and she gave me the smallest of smiles and nodded in acknowledgement. Then we opened the door and went out into the world, and she remained in the home where she had spent the past century.
(There will be more about this church and the nuns who care for it, toward the end of this journal)