Today is the feastday of Saint Thomas Acquinas (1225-1274). The greatest of the Catholic theologians, with Augustine, he was a Dominican friar, known as the Doctor Angelicus, the father of Thomism, who reconciled the teachings of Aristotle to those of the Church. His two greatest works were the Summacontra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica.
There are two great Domincan churches in Rome, The Sabina on the Aventine hill and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in the Campus Martius. Traditionally the Pope would say a High Mass at the Minerva on the saint’s feastday. I am checking to see if he still does!
The Caraffa chapel on the right of the nave houses the great frescoes of Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) made 1488-1490 for Cardinal Oliviero Caraffa (1430-1511), an ardent Thomist and the official Protector of the Dominican Order. The frescoes give us at the center a “double” scene, an Annunciation combined with Thomas introducing a kneeling Caraffa to the Virgin. Above this is an Assumption with an Angelic Orchestra. On the right wall, below, we have Acquinas laying waste to the heritical teachers, and above that the Miracle of the Crucifix.
When you go to Rome try to stay at the Hotel Minerva across the street. This was once the hotel to the rich and famous–now we all can get in! It is centrally located, and from the rooftop bar you can gaze across the street to the roof of the Pantheon, and in the other direction at the gargantuan Gesu, home to the Jesuits. Every day you can hop across the street and attend mass at the Minerva, home to the tomb of Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico.
Timothy and Titus were disciples of Paul. Timothy is buried with Paul in the Confessio at the Basilica of Paul outside the walls in Rome-San Paolo fuori le mura. The great Renaissance pioneer Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned in the last quarter of the thirteenth century to make a baldacchino at San Paolo and he sculpted four saints for the corners- Peter, Paul, Benedict and Timothy.
The Confessio at San Paolo has now been opened up to let us pray at the tomb of the Apostle and his disciple (Timothy and Titus are also to be found on the small doors leading into the Confessio). The Muslims desecrated Paul’s grave here and Peter’s at San Pietro in their sack of 846, and so we are not sure their relics are in their tombs.
Today we celebrate the conversion of Paul, who was knocked from his horse on the way to Damascus, and struck blind by a brilliant light, from which issued forth Jesus’ rebuke: “Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou Me?” Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi, 1571-1610, painted a splendid conversion for us for the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The Cerasi Chapel has three paintings- Caravaggio’s Conversion of Paul, the Crucifixion of Peter (opposite) and Annibale Caracci’s Assumption (center). Every time I visit this church I am dumbstruck by its artistic treasures, from Pinturrichio’s galore, to Raphael’s statute of Jonah and his Jehovah mosaics, to Bernini’s Habakkuk and Daniel.
Caravaggio, who was inspiration to Bernini in his ability to “capture the moment” of a scene, painted his Paul in 1601. He was the master of chiaroscuro, “Chiara” Italian for bright and “Scuro” for dark. All of Caravaggio’s figures, more so as he got older, come out of the dark and into the light. So much of every painting is just black! His best is the “Calling of Matthew” at Luigi dei Francesi. The Paul we have at the Popolo is masterful representation of the human form (and the horse!). Brilliant color, though immersed in darkness.
I am making a book about Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. In 2009 Michelle and I traversed Tuscany photographing the pulpits of this father and son who began the Renaissance in 1260 with the pulpit in Pisa Baptistery. They were next in Siena to make a pulpit there for the Duomo. When we went to Siena, we stayed outside the city in the hills, at a hotel recommended by our friend Peter Laird, the Borgo Scopeto. It is the best hotel at which I have ever stayed. Do you remember the scene in the Gladiator where the hero races his horse up to the family homestead to rescue his family, and the long tree lined road leading up to it. I swear they made that scene at the Borgo, for the long road leading up to the Borgo is just the very same spectacular cypress tree lined pebble avenue. Then when you turn into the property- a converted fort we were told- you encounter just three small buildings all wonderfully stonewalled with vines and shrubs everywhere and pebbles for the walkways and driveways. The central building has a welcoming room, then a small bar, and a hallway leading to the dining room. Off of the dining room is an outdoor courtyard where breakfast is served and where you can sit and have a drink underneath these orange covered massive umbrellas. The courtyard overlooks, in the distance, the city of Siena. The property sits smack dab in the middle of an olive farm and a vineyard. The rooms have 15 foot ceilings, and gargantuan windows fit for Napoleon. We had breakfast and dinner at the Borgo, and they were exquisite. Even the toaster was superlative. Plus we drank the wine produced by the vineyard. The little bar was so precious- we were the only patrons, and the chairs were to die for, and you could stroll outside. At night we slept with the windows open to the fresh night air of Tuscany– a bumble bee wandered into the room but left without stinging us.
To our surprise a few years later we are watching the movie “Letters to Juliet”, where the young lady finds the Letter to Juliet in the wall at the home of Juliet in Verona. Lo and behold, there is the Borgo Scopeto, in all its splendor, chosen as the base for the hunt for the letter writer! If you are going to Italy book this hotel.
A last note- Michelle agreed to do this trip on condition I rented a hot car like a BMW (that’s Bee-Emay-Dubley-voo in Italian) but at the small Pisa car rental all they had was a beat up Ford Focus station wagon (the list of dents they give you on the rental form had at least 20 scrapes!). When I gave the car to the valet at the Borgo Scopeto he parked it next to a Rolls Royce. Oh well the first shall be last, some day.
Yesterday we enjoyed one of my favorite Italian wines- the Barbera. This wine is made from the Barbera grape. Unlike its uncle the Nebbiolo grape, it has much less tannin and so is not as “strong”. I bought this bottle at Total Wines for just under $15. Barberas come from either the Alba or Asti region in the Piedmont in Northwestern Italy (the birthplace of wine in Europe!). I like the Albas a little better than the Astis. This bottle was made by Familia Lansavecchia under the Rocca Felice label, is a “superiore” (supposedly from choicer grapes) from the 2013 vintage. It is a DOC classified wine- Denominazione di Origine Controllata- one step down from DOCG –Denominazione di Conntrollata e Garantita.
I thought this wine was awesome- smooth, cherry, good aftertaste, not at all bitter, warming as I drank it, strong but not too strong. Twelve month aging in small barrels made it mellow and gave it a slight taste of vanilla. For the price an excellent buy!