Not Visited in a Day

Our esteemed Lady Editor – ‘Trixie’, as we recidivist misogynists understandably call her (over a malt whisky and behind closed doors, you understand) – has decreed that this column is losing its way. Too much religion and too little of the world outside, says our Editrix. I suppose I reluctantly concur. So, for this month, forget Rowan Williams (a surfeit of whom you will have had on the box and in the news anyway) and come with me on a brief holiday to Rome.

I took a cheap flight in early February and enjoyed every minute of it (despite frequent encounters with other clergy from the Diocese of Southwark, not least on the via dei Cestari).

It was bitterly cold (-3 some days) and there was a conference of young American priests at the Gregoriana, which filled the better restaurants with raucous trans-Atlanticarity. But Rome is Rome.

Let me begin by offering you some suggestions about Roman food. It can be – and often is – seriously suspect. The flash establishments on the via Veneto are indifferent-to-bad and should be avoided. You can easily walk from there (why are you there in the first place?) to a more gastronomically salubrious area. My recommendations are as follows:

Vecchia Roma, Piazza Campitelli 18: This up-market establishment is adjacent to the Piazza Venezia, the Campidolio etc and just beyond the Teatro di Marcello. Expensive. Take the woman you intend to marry to this restaurant. Authentic, bitter, Roman salads. Marvellous rabbit. Excellent roast veal. In the winter, pappadelle with hare sauce. This is a place for supper if you are prepared to pay for a really good red wine

Abruzzi, via del Vaccaro 1: This trattoria beside the SS Apostoli is a marvellous retreat. A stone’s throw from touristdom, it is quiet and local. The table of antipasti is impressive. Have lunch here and treat yourself to two courses – the veg and something carbonara (which is the house speciality). Double cream, eggs, fresh parmesan and cubes of smoked ham from Umbria. The house white is excellent.

Trattoria EH, vicolo del Babuino 3: In a quite street off the via del Babuino (and close to the Anglican Church of All Saints). This is where I ate when I was the interim parish priest at that curious effulgence of GE Street. Eight years on they are all still there! Does the present chaplain eat there, I wonder? They did not know him. But never mind; things are the same. Spaghetti con gamberoni. You will get three vast and impressive prawns with pasta which is properly al dente and a sauce to die for, with butter, good olive oil, marvellous fish stock and fresh coriander. The Soave is excellent and cheap.

Ristorante di Gilio, via Torino: Opposite the side entrance to the Opera. There are better restaurants in this area – try Agata & Romeo, beside Santa Maria Maggiore. But here I am at home. Elderly waiters, who do not speak English, ooze you to a table. It is old-fashioned in the extreme – and for entertainment you can see the sets being pulled from the last production and loaded into vans beside your window. The house escalope of veal involves mushrooms and green lentils and is a welcome sight on a cold night. The bollito misto is varied and excellent, with pigs’ feet. The puddings are all too rich for my taste; but there are always woodland strawberries, which they will do with lemon and pepper, in the Greek style, if you ask nicely.

You will ask me: why no establishments in Trastevere? The answer is simple: I am keeping those for next time!

But where should you go, culturally speaking? Well, here are a few of the not-to-be-missed.

Bernini takes precedence in this city, and I would not have you miss his two great triumphs.

Santa Teresa in Ecstasy is in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria (by the Moses Fountain on the Via XX Settembre, a stone’s throw from the Essedra at the top of the via Nazionale). Anyone who has experienced the taut, asceticism of Avila will wonder at the voluptuousness of this most fleshly yet ethereal of sculptures.

In the little church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere is the equally astounding Beata Ludivica Albertoni . This late work of Bernini is a remarkable example of bel composto, the Baroque ideal of a fusion of architecture, painting and sculpture into one beautiful whole, stirring the emotions of the beholder.

Then Borromini. Two triumphs here. The first is just down the street from Santa Maria della Vittoria. At a busy, dirty crossroads, marked by four fountains, now themselves swamped in carbon monoxide, is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (San Carlino in local parlance). From its undulating façade to its eccentric cloister this little masterpiece is the epitome of the architect’s style. He could do grander; he never did better.

The second you can only view from the outside (though it is open briefly for Mass on Sundays) Sant’ Ivo alla Sapienza is a work which influenced later baroque architects, especially the Torinese master, Guarini. The serene courtyard leading to the exciting spiral cupola is one of the most rewarding vistas in Rome.

Then, Raguzzini, a slightly disreputable Neapolitan who dominated Roman architecture under Benedict XIII (Orsini). His magical Piazza Sant’Ignazio (like a stage set for an eighteenth century opera) is the most delightful urban environment in the most delightful of cities. The Piazza Navona does not get better than this! There is, by the way, an excellent trattoria on the Corso side of the square, from which to view it all; though ‘square’, of course, is exactly what it is not!

Last of all, Caravaggio. You cannot go away until you have seen again his masterpieces in San Luigi dei Francesi of the life of St Matthew. Frustratingly set sidelong in a chapel of a church of indifferent architecture (Fontana at less than his best, and presently in restauro), they are the epitome of that ‘School of Rome’ which dominated baroque painting north of the Alps. Rubens transcends Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti (as the recent exhibition at Burlington House showed); but without them there would not have been the Rubens we love!

I commend to you my own traditional farewell to my favourite city. It is, of course a visit to St Peter’s; but one with a special flavour. On the pier immediately on entering (on the gospel side) is the tomb of the Stuarts (James III and his sons Charles Edward and Henry, Cardinal York). It is a superb piece of neo-classicism by Canova, perhaps the finest of its period in the city. I like to linger there and think of England as the Catholic country she might have been without all those Germans; and rejoice that George IV, of whom little else can be said that is good, had the decency to pay for their tomb.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of San Stephano, Casaluigi.