November 6, 2016
The first two nights, exhausted, we slept nearly twelve hours. But today we felt the jetlag more than before, waking for a long time in the night and then rising late. We had breakfast/lunch at a cafe in Trastevere, standing up at the counter like the locals to drink our espresso and caffe latte and eat a pastry chosen from the glass shelves below. Then we walked over to Santa Cecelia but found the gates closed -- many of the churches are closed at midday -- so instead we walked west across Trastevere to the Palazzo Corsini, where there were only a few tourists in the huge family villa with its beautiful gardens and grounds, along with a stunning Caravaggio.
Caravaggio's controversial and erotic young St. John the Baptist, at the Palazzo Corsini
And a different image of St. John the Baptist, also at the Palazzo Corsini.
Then we walked up the Janiculum hill a second time -- we had been there the first day -- to visit the Tempietto del Bramante, on the supposed spot where St. Peter was crucified.
Climbing up the hill to San Pietro in Montorio
The tempietto is a very small temple built to honor St. Peter by the architect Donato Bramante on the orders of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1502, to fulfill a vow made for the birth of their first son who had died a few years earlier. Now it is enclosed in a courtyard of a Spanish academy, through which you walk in order to reach the tempietto.
It was raining, and we were alone. I walked slowly around the beautiful little temple, and then entered it, standing in the dim circular interior, barely larger than my outstretched arms. I looked at the inlaid marble floor, the simple statues, the frieze depicting Peter's crucifixion, the empty crypt and inscription visible through a round hole in the floor -- and suddenly, unexpectedly, my eyes filled with tears. I stood for a while, blinked them back, went out beyond the ring of columns, and saw Jonathan raising his camera to capture me and the soft, beautiful light on the stones of grey and beige. I shook my head, no, and he lowered the lens, looked at me quizzically. I turned and went back inside.
Bramante's tempietto is considered to be the first example of a perfectly-proportioned, classically-inspired Renaissance building; it harkens back to small circular Roman temples like the Temple of Vesta and Temple of Hercules, but it is miniature, and now very nearly hidden. Located next to the 9th century church of San Pietro in Montorio, on the site where -- let's say, since we don't really know -- Peter died, on the side of an unmarked hill, it is only found by visitors willing to make a concerted effort to find the path and come at one of the few designated opening times. The circular hole in the floor marks the place where the cross stood. Peter's body was taken away, and is supposedly interred now in the grand center of Roman Catholicism, St. Peter's Basilica; this is, after all, the city of Peter, "on whose rock I will build my church." St. Peter's Basilica represents the Church triumphant, larger-than-life, the center of Catholicism, clearly competitive with Constantinople and Jerusalem. This was something entirely different: a martyrium, the silent place where one man met his death.
I have listened to the Gospels all my life: Peter, the most earnest disciple, always comes across as over-eager, talking too much, getting it wrong, insisting he'll be faithful and failing, but he was still the leader Jesus chose, perhaps because he was so quintessentially like all of us. I'm not sure I ever really connected with him before; instead I've seen him as a major character in an often-repeated story. But today, standing at the purported site of his awful death -- at his request head-down on a cross so as not to die the same way as Jesus -- I felt vividly present to the man, or perhaps he was present to me. It was more of a human encounter than a religious one -- but maybe more true for that. And I wonder if this place will always represent Rome to me, as much as anything else: a less-than-lifesize statue of a bearded man holding a set of keys, in the dim light filtering in from two small vertical openings, a pavement set in stones of white and red and green, an oculus opening not onto the sky but into the earth.