I am quickly adjusting to the Italian tradition of things never being open when they ought. I had planned to spend most of this afternoon in the art studio working on my still life, but upon arriving at the studio building, I found that the imposing appartamento doors were locked. I knocked, waiting for the guard to buzz me in. I rang once, twice to no avail. “Whatever. I’ll come back tomorrow,” I thought placidly as I strolled away. I plugged in my iPod and started walking back, humming along with Sinatra.
I decided to take a different route back to my apartment. As I turned the corner, I tripped over a low stair. The steps led up to a large church with an open door. This week, I adopted a new rule. Every time I pass a church, I’m going to try to go inside. Rome has something like 500 churches. I won’t be able to visit them all, but I’ll see a lot more of them if I make a conscious effort to enter.
A multi-lingual sign near the door informed me that the church was a basilica parish called San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini (Saint John the Baptist of the Florentines). Michelangelo had submitted a plan for the church, but Bramante’s was selected when construction began in 1508. Maderno and Borromini designed much of the internal architecture and both are buried in San Giovanni as a result or their work.
Inside, I peered into eight or ten side chapels, navigating around a tour group of about a dozen elderly couples. Each chapel was dedicated to one of the Florentine families who funded the church. I worked my way around San Giovanni counterclockwise.
When I reached about the three o’clock position, I noticed a stairway. I noticed a poster tacked on the wall near the staircase. Arrows pointed towards the stairs, apparently leading towards the Museo di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. The poster was all in Italian, but I was able to pick out a few phrases about early works by Michelangelo, something about relics, and something about Mary Magdalene’s foot. “Mary Magdalene’s foot? Done. Time to explore.” And up the stairs I went.
I had had such good luck exploring Santa Giustina in Padua – I found the cage that had originally held St. Luke’s body around a few dark corners – so I was optimistic about my adventure in San Giovanni. As I climbed the dim spiral staircase, I thought to myself, “What are they going to do if they find me here? Yell at me? Ban me from the church? Have me arrested and deported for trespassing? Yeah right. It’s a church. There’s no way I’ll get in trouble for this. The door was open. I’m totally allowed to be here.”
But I was very alone. I kept seeing signs directing me to the museum, so I kept following them. When I reached the secondo piano, I followed the arrows to a dark hallway. Feeling on the wall, I found a light switch. “What if it’s an alarm?” I wondered. “It’s not an alarm. It’s a church. This is a museum. Calm down,” I reassured myself. Tentatively, I flicked the switch. Nothing happened, so I quickly flipped it off. “I’ll just go down in the dark. No big deal. I can see the door at the end.”
As I was halfway between the safety of the dim staircase and the door of the museum, I heard a crack as the light fixture behind me blazed to life. I whipped around to find the source of the noise and nearly smacked my face into a large portrait of Saint John. “Ok, it’s just an old building with weird wiring. Off to see Mary Magdalene’s foot.”
With the extra light from the hallway, I was able to see through the glass panes of the closed door to the museum. The room was dark, locked and empty except for a rickety chair behind a low desk. What a disappointment. As I began to descend the spiraling staircase, I looked up. “I wonder what’s up on the third level…”
Quickly, sneakily, I tiptoed up to the top floor of the church. The windows were locked, but I still had a great view. Somebody had even strung up a clothesline on the roof. I snapped a few photos and scurried back to the staircase.
As I crept down, I heard footsteps coming up towards me. “Oh no! They’re gonna yell at me! They’re gonna ban me from the church! They’re gonna arrest for trespassing! I’m gonna get deported! Oh my god, my mom is going to be SO MAD!” A reasonable thought interjected my hysterical rant, “Maybe it’s just the custodian who was changing the candles downstairs.” Then I saw a slim, bald, black-clad man with a white collar. CRAP.
“Uhhhh…dovè il museo?”
Alla sinistra, ma é chiuso adesso.
“Oh. Ok. Mi dispiace. Grazie.”
Di dovè sei?
Ahhh parli bene l’italiano!
“Grazie, ciao padre.”
The young priest continued up the stairs as I skittered down, heart racing. He was really very nice, and he didn’t seem to mind my wandering around the church at all. Most visitors probably don’t bother going upstairs to see Mary Magdalene’s foot, so I think he appreciated my curiosity.
I think I’m going to go back for Mass tomorrow morning. Maybe the museum will be open then. And if not, I noticed some stairs to the basement, too.