Chasing Caravaggios

The first ones are stolen from a walk down to Piazza Navona, where we have promised the children a Christmas Fair. We slip down a side street and into the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Inside, little side crypts are dark, but above us, soar rococo angels dancing on clouds carved from white marble, holding up celestial balconies. The kids complain about the delay to their carousel ride. We know our time is short, and so we walk briskly down the nave. I glance around, while Vittorio tries to read the map. It’s about 6pm, and relatively quiet. And then we find it, in the south west corner. A handful of people are staring upwards at three glorious Caravaggios. I try to explain to Jacobo, what’s important about this painter. Look at the veins on that man’s hands, I say, look how the man is pointing at the others. But then the light goes out, and we can’t see them anymore. We think perhaps the church is closing, but then we realise that you must put a euro in a little slot machine to turn the lights on. It’s like a peep show. Vittorio is chilled, I watch him look. There are three huge canvases. Ahead of us and to the right are  St. Matthew and the Angel, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. But the best one is on the left, – The Calling of St. Matthew, – light falls across darkness, illuminating a slack pointed hand, just like Adam’s hand in the Sistine, and a gaggle of men in a bar, turning to look at what is interrupting their drinking. But we are out of time.

When we leave the church, the heavans have opened. We give a euro to the beggar at the door before we realise we haven’t brought an umbrella. We run along the cobbled streets to the Piazza Navona, quickly buy an umbrella from a vendor, and just as quickly realise that the Christmas fair hasn’t arrived yet. We suggest pizza as a distraction and manage to deflect dismay at the lack of fairground rides with the promise of mozzarella. We spend ten minutes looking in the window of the outrageously expensive toy shop at the top of Piazza Navona. On the way home, Vittorio ducks us down a small side street, and points up to an apartment with small high windows – Caravaggio lived there, he tells us. And that’s where the shafts of light fell from, and made their way into his painting heart.

The second ones are similarly stolen. It’s the first Sunday in December, and Vittorio remembers that all the museums in Rome are free. We are ten minutes from the Villa Borghese Museum, but because you have to book to get in, we haven’t been. We cajole reluctant children out of pyjamas and up the street, and scramble into the Museum before 9am with a frisbee in our hand. We have to leave the frisbee at security, and know, once again, that we’re on borrowed time. The children might behave well for half an hour or so, if we’re lucky, before the temptation of wide open spaces, the frisbee, and the roller blade speed skaters on the other side of the park, become too much. And so, once again, the Italian, takes the map and we go up the wide winding staircase of the outrageously over the top, Villa Borghese. The kids love this at first, because we’ve been right outside of here over and over again, but never inside. Colourful frescos adorn hugely high ceilings, marble competes with marble, – on walls, and floors. The stone sculptures seem so fluid, often capturing such movement of horses leaping, water falling, the detail of falling fabric, that it’s almost impossible to imagine that these forms were carved by hand from solid rock. All of this is very well, but we can’t find the Caravaggio room, and time is running out. Natalie is currently appeased by taking photographs, which she’s quite good at, but Jacobo has noticed, and wants a turn of my camera, so that I know we’re heading into a negotiated tussle about who gets to use the camera, and for how long, and how it isn’t fair because Natalie got to have it for ages in the horsey room, and so on . . . Vittorio comes from the next room excitedly telling us to come in, we run to be greeted by what looks like a hologram of an old-fashioned animation. It’s extraordinary, until we realise it’s depicting the murder of male children ordered by Herod. So that as we watch, babies are falling from the upper levels of the cylindrical building, whilst mothers are beaten and their babies taken. I am astonished. Slowly, the image slows, and movement stutters, until we realise that it’s an illusion of movement made from a strobe light and a great spinning model. ‘Why were they killing the babies Mummy?’ We walk away as a I try to make the story of biblical infanticide child friendly . . .

Vittorio finds the Caravaggio room, and we try and take some time. He explains that this one is probably Caravaggio – him and some fruit. Around the Villa Borghese Museum, there are beautiful contemporary animations of some of these paintings. It’s hard to explain, but they are in mirrors with black rococo borders – like something out of Sleeping Beauty, and they seem like mirrors too. You can see yourself, but ghosted here in the surface of the mirrors are some of the Caravaggios, they’re deftly and subtly done, only slight movements of heads, and breath. A foot treading on the head of a snake, a glance to the side. It has the effect of breathing flesh into these paintings.

And so, the arguments about taking photographs have upped a notch. There is sulking, requests for water, and outside. So we take a breath, walk through the growing crowds and head outside into the winter sunshine.

Share your thoughts