In my mother’s footsteps

The year 2000 was Holy Year in Rome. It was a special one celebrating the end of the second millennium according to the Gregorian calendar.

I was in Rome in March and again in May, bookending a stay of several weeks in the south of Italy and in that most Catholic of countries, Malta. I travelled not as a pilgrim to the Holy City in pursuit of indulgences, but to three cities in the indulgent pursuit of some of the most powerful painted images of the counter reformation—the paintings of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

In March, new leaves were starting to appear on the plane trees but there was still a wintry feel in the air and a fairly insignificant number of visitors, measured by the relative ease of being able to squeeze in the door of the Vatican buses heading down via Nazionale.

The city was gloriously clean, its classical columns and pediments and its baroque scrolls and volutes now clearly delineated by the shadows cast by an oblique sun on their pale surfaces.

St Peter’s, no longer overbearingly dull and grey, looked manageable, visually contained and quite beautiful. Rows of plastic chairs filled Bernini’s grand piazza and dozens of young volunteer red-capped guides led hundreds of red-capped pilgrims around the basilicas.

Among the red caps in Saint Peter’s I saw my mother. At least I thought I did. I had been thinking of her, so when I saw a short, sturdy, elderly woman with a guide book in her hand and an intensely happy expression on her face, a bit of morphing happened. She returned my smile and went on her way with her group.

My mother came to Rome for Holy Year in 1950, half a century earlier.

She was 44 years old, the mother of five children aged from three to 15, a Catholic whose faith combined a keen intelligence with a simple set of Irish superstitions. In our home, serious tomes from the Catholic library sat beside the little porcelain statue of Our Lady which she put outside under an umbrella the night before any event for which rain was absolutely proscribed. This was her first trip out of Australia and she threw up all the way to Aden and all the way back to Australia. The Suez Canal and the Mediterranean must have been kinder because they were never blamed for her indisposition.

She bombarded us with letters and postcards and on her return, small souvenirs from exotic places: mille fiore mosaic bracelets, St Peter’s in a snow dome, medals and printed cotton scarves, the mandatory laced and tooled leather pouffe from Aden. My treasured favourite was a fabric doll with a scarf tied under her chin, on top of the scarf a basket in which sat a little goose. I believed that such wondrous girls walked around Rome with birds on their heads while I suffered the drab and comfortless
interior of boarding school for two whole terms.

Her letters, carefully bundled, expressed her wonder, her passion, her erudition and her faith. Settling back into suburban life must have been hard: fund raising, parish affairs, cutting lunches and ensuring that her shoes and bag matched, were mindless pastimes after poking around Rome and discovering that Michelangelo’s marbles really did exist outside the covers of the Phaidon book.

I tried hard to see Rome through her eyes but our faiths are different and my cynicism got in the way. Eugenio Pacelli was on the throne then, a distant, patrician figure in whose presence she was quite overcome when her group attended a special audience. In 2000 one of his successors wanted to beatify him, but knowledge of his failure to protect even his own Roman Jews from the Nazis was a bit of a sticking point. The inclusion of Saint Pius XII might just provide me with the departure stamp which has been hovering above my Catholic passport.

I visited many of the basilicas and churches she did, but my attention was probably more on Borrominian curves and appropriated Roman columns than on whose relics were under the altar, curious as they were. I am sure she went to mass at least once at St Peter’s and wandered around, her way unimpeded by security guards or bullet-proof shields. I too wandered through, shook my head again at the over-scaled, aggrandising opulence of the interior, paused at that serenely beautiful mother and her slaughtered son then exited into the big arms of Bernini’s superb colonnade.

I also visited Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and friends, to drool. Rome, five years after the second, devastating world war, had barely re-established its market for such luxuries. My mother probably found a pair of hand made shoes or a classy handbag. I think we both enjoyed many strong, aromatic coffees, though she probably beheld those shiny machines for making them with wonder. Did the enamel percolator plop-plopping on the gas stove at home ever seem really adequate again?

Thoughts of my mother’s travels preoccupied me intermittently on the train journey to Naples, the point of disembarkation for antipodean visitors to Rome. Apart from the vast relief that her feet were on terra firma, how did this New City of the Greeks affect a middle aged housewife from the suburbs? Early June was hot, perhaps not as dirty as now because the love affair with the car was in an unimaginable future, and industry not as widespread around the beautiful Bay of Naples. But it was poor, and, damaged by the allied bombings towards the end of the war, even more run down than its current state of what Peter Robb describes as terminal decrepitude.

Hundreds of orphaned urchins hung around the piazze and churches and the rabbit warren of streets in the Quartiere Spagnole, begging and stealing a mean living. Was she shocked by the presence of these undernourished, bare footed children the same ages as her own who were safe back home in the care of a housekeeper and boarding school nuns? Did she visit those vastly over decorated baroque churches, so different from the predominant neo-gothic equivalents in Australia, and marvel at the bejewelled statues adorned with silver offerings and flowers, candles, embroideries? St Lucy holds her eyes, St Barbara her severed breasts, eyes rolling ecstatically to heaven, tiny glass-encased corpses with wax hands and faces and dusty silken gowns were all disturbingly sensuous compared to the ubiquitous blue, brown and red plaster figures from Pelligrini at home. Probably she lit a few candles, said a few prayers for her distant family and was touched by this richer, more sentimental strand of her own faith.

My Naples, visited in pursuit of the young painter from Caravaggio, was still dirty, noisy, poor, decrepit, but also charming, rich, stylish, exuberant. Today’s versions of urchins are four-to-ten-year-old boys and girls, tearing along the tiny streets in the evenings, three or four to a noisy little motor bike, presenting more danger to others than to themselves. Perhaps this is how Neapolitans learn to drive. In some quarters women tell you conspiratorially to watch la bursa because their own men and boys are likely to nick it. The Bay of Naples is still breathtaking if you can see it through the smog and the smoke from Vesuvio. Today’s girls are not the virgins and martyrs raising their eyes heavenward, nor are they in the demure cotton skirt and petticoats of my goose girl. That Campagna is long gone. They are bleached blonde and gorgeous, racing the boys on their motor bikes and squeezing themselves into mauve snake-print hipsters while their mothers join the evening passegiata along elegant via Chiaia lugging armfuls of shopping bags. For every Signora Maria arranging flowers in any of the dozens of still functioning churches, there is her Neapolitan sister, tawny, elegant, jewelled, sauntering on the arm of a superbly groomed man or taking aperitivi and checking herself in the mirrors at Bar Gambrinus.

There is an acute reminder of 1950s Naples, though, in the numbers of tiny elderly people, smaller than modern ten year olds, whose bodies never recovered from years of malnutrition
and poverty in the fascist and war years.

One day just before Easter, we joined a procession which wound along singing litanies, in and out of four churches, before finishing at Santa Chiara, a sort of liturgical pub crawl. Along the way, we squeezed through a short section of Spaccanapoli, the long, narrow, ancient street which slashes through the city. Shoppers and strollers accommodated us as if we were an every day occurrence, motor cyclists weaving carefully along the edges of our litanising crocodile. A line of bianchi would have created no greater stir half a millennium ago, flagellating themselves on the same street, donkeys no more inconvenienced than Vespas.

So aside from being part of what I trusted was an ancient urban tradition and enjoying bellowing out prega per noi over and over, I wondered why I was so determined to do this as I am not of the rosary rattling persuasion at all.

I realised I was doing it for my mother. This is just what she would have delighted in had she been in the back streets of Naples long enough to have discovered such a performance.

Procession over, we dropped in to see our local Caravaggio, the wonderful Seven Acts of Mercy, for about the tenth time. No museum can deliver the same experience as seeing a work in its original context and location. Seven Acts fills the space over the altar of the small and naturally lit church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Miraculously, the painter incorporates the Seven Acts and 13 figures in a shallow, vertical composition barely three metres high. The symmetry of the church is so dramatically pierced by this dark rectangle of urgent action that we feel as if a curtain is about to drop and restore architectural order any minute.

That other essential Neapolitan experience followed: pesce alla griglia straight from the open air market.

My pilgrimage continued on to Malta. Again my mother’s travels came to mind as we threw up for hours (better than six weeks) across the shallow strait between Sicily and Malta that has similarly wiped out sailors and visitors alike, voyaging by trireme, hydrofoil and every other craft in between.

There above the altar in the Oratory of St John in Valetta was our goal: Caravaggio’s largest and almost final painting, the huge, asymmetrical, dark, terrible Beheading of John the Baptist—commissioned by the Knights of St John and still in its original position. There is plenty of space in this canvas, room to move. This is a very secular painting, all narrative, the murder committed and the clean-up about to begin as two horrified prisoners look on from the otherwise empty right side of the space.

The artist’s red curtain, which seems to be his main prop, has come down to Malta with him to drape over the dead John’s lower body. He uses it again in the nearby portrait of the Grand Master Wignacourt as St Jerome, where it is rather superfluous as a piece of clothing but literally and compositionally brilliant as a slash of colour in the rich brown chiaroscuro which pervades the work. The ingenious way he reused this piece of cloth has been noted and admired, the simplest of objects used to its maximum.

In one of Carravaggio’s stabs of realism, he shows Wignacourt half naked, his warrior’s hands and face weatherbeaten and worn in contrast to his smooth white body.

Back to Rome and more Caravaggios—a special pilgrimage to the pilgrims in Sant’ Agostino. How brave of the church bosses to accept this painting of a very streetwise Mary coming to her Roman doorway to greet the road-weary pilgrims, one with his bottom and dirty feet thrust directly towards the viewer.

We then endured our version of road weariness—a 20 hour economy flight back home. Sick of Italian food, we made a bee line for a feast of Singapore noodles.

I know more about this dark, subversive and hugely influential painter now because I have followed his trail from Rome to Naples to Malta to Sicily, walked along his streets, seen the prison from which he escaped and the night harbour from which he was smuggled away, seen the lyrical sweetness of his Flight into Egypt, been overcome and buried beneath the dark, enveloping fear and desperation of his southern paintings as he ran out of places to go. His models’ faces have become familiar, as has the humanity with which he suffuses them.

My mother’s return voyage was much less endurable. She was sick again, emerging from her cabin only as the Strathaird made its way up Port Phillip Bay towards her family waiting at Station Pier.

She took me to Italian films of the New Realism genre, those suitable for children, that is, and made friends with new immigrant parishioners and shop keepers from Italy.

She planted pencil pines around the fence and lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the verandah roof to be removed from our Victorian house so she could place cumquats in tubs on the tessellated terrace. Dozens of miniature reproductions of Madonnas by Filippo Lippi, Botticelli and Raphael gradually filled the wall above the bedroom fireplace.

I don’t know how else she was changed by her pilgrimage or how it otherwise changed her view of the world because, sadly, I never asked her.

Her pines are now about three stories high and a local landmark. The verandah roof is still there and the south facing terrace was not the right place for cumquats anyway. 

Anna Griffiths is an art consultant.



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