What I’m about to tell you is a completely true story. Really.
The gray sky drizzles, splashing the cobblestone streets and making soft plunking noises on my umbrella. I am in the heart of Rome’s centro historico, trudging along in muddy boots and trying my very best to make sense of impossible-to-find street signs. My art history teacher has given us a very specific assignment: locate the three churches in Rome housing Caravaggios and assess just how easily a team of thieves could steal them.
As my luck would have it, the first two churches are closed to visitors due to special events, so I shiver, soggy and searching, lost somewhere along Via Ripetta, holding out hope of finding the last church and completing at least part of my assignment.
By some miracle, I arrive at La Chiesa di San Francis, the final church, only to find that it too is closed for vague and unspecified reasons. I fume, and my angsty, angry inner Hemingway marches for answers over to a nearby member of the Carabineri, a division of the Italian Police force specifically charged with protecting antiquities. I strut over to the guard, plant a hand firmly on my hip and whisper, “Lei parla inglese?” so quietly that he asks me to speak up twice before he answers in the negative. What followed is a broken conversation in which we both exhaust our knowledge of the other’s mother tongue. Finally, after lots of gesturing and pointing and broken phrases on my part, I gather that I am being told to wait outside the church for twenty minutes. I shrug. I don’t have class for another two hours, and I’m already here. I can waste another twenty minutes, I think. I pop in my earbuds and stand on the steps of the church, watching the hoards of tourists, officers, and clergymen pass by.
In no time at all, I learn that I’m not the only one frustrated and surprised by the church’s closure. Tourists from all countries walk up to the doors, push on them (the doors had no exterior handles, probably for security purposes), and leave unsuccessful. One group, however, seems just as determined and clueless as I am: a small band of British backpackers huddle around the doors, knocking, whispering, consulting with one another. They make a once around of the church, searching for other doors, but there aren’t any open. I know because I’ve looked too.
As I watch them walk away, I catch sight of a pilgrim, a French priest by the looks of it, black frock, collar, and all, circling the church. He stops and stares at the facade for a while, just soaking in the large evergreen doors, the blue and red heraldic crest in the arch above, the smiling cherub hugging a door column, a decorative chipped carving of a dragon. I follow his gaze and stare at the emblem.
It’s cut out of white chalky stone and shooting flames from its mouth like arrows. Unharmed, it sits in a bed of fire and straw and hay. I reach my hand out and trace the fading scales etched into its back and tail, memorizing the tiny grooves and lifts. Above its head is a crown, floating silently, waiting. The beast is encircled by a Latin inscription, which I can just make out. Erit christianorum lumen in igne: The light of the christians will be in fire. And I wonder if that means that Christianity will blaze bright as dragon fire or as brutally as a dragon. Rain drips over the roof’s ledge and I watch the drops fall against the background of the gray sky, blink as they wet my face and eyes. “Chocolate” by The 1975 is running through my earbuds, and, despite the day’s problems, I feel peaceful.
Suddenly, I’m aware of someone’s eyes on me and I realize that the priest is staring at me instead of the church. His face is hard, maybe even wary, but I recognize curiosity in his eyes. I, knowing even less French than Italian, just give him a quick nod and a smile. He stiffens and sniffs and returns to the church doors, looking for the way in. Finally, like the Brits before him, he peers around the church’s sides, looks back at me and my sagging umbrella, and then makes his own once around of the place.
By this time, my twenty minutes are well up. The rain has lessened to a drip, and I close my umbrella, preparing for the trip home. Just as I surrender, the English tourists, backpacks in tow, reappear. To the right of the church is a door with a buzzer that I had assumed belonged to one of the embassies next door. The French pilgrim, back from his once around, also appears behind them. I hear a small mechanical tone, a beep, and the private doors unlock and open.
At this moment, I come to a grand realization: I am an idiot. The church was probably open the entire time; they must have just closed the doors to keep the rain out of the building. I dash down the steps and follow them into a courtyard, where we are greeted by a stern French man in a dark blue suit. He calls out in deeply accented French to a little English priest in a frock, who takes the British tourists into the apse to dry off and retire their umbrellas. The Man in Blue gives me a once over and asks the French priest something. They both look at me, and the priest nods and answers in the affirmative. The Man in Blue frowns, huffs, and gestures that I follow him inside where it is warm.
I drop my umbrella in the bucket and hasten to follow the other tourists into—an absolutely empty church. This thing is closed. The lights are off, the security is down, and the only company we keep is with the candles.
That’s when I realize I have somehow managed to join a private tour group. I am about to turn myself in to the Man in Blue when the British priest starts talking about the Caravaggio paintings. What would be the harm, I think, if I just wait until he finishes his tour? He leads us to a staircase that looks like something from a claustrophobic’s nightmare: a clay and stone spiral set of stairs barely as wide as my shoulders. Up we go, the backpackers clunking their bags against the walls, the priest narrating info on the cloister’s architecture. When we reach the top and exit onto a balcony, I am gasping for clean air—until the frescoes seven feet from my head take my breath away for good.
The woman next to me whips out her phone, snaps a picture, and starts setting a new background for her home page. I take out my phone to do the same when I hear a loud rustle of paper behind me. I turn and am met with a piece of sheet music which the British priest holds in outstretched hands. The tourists unzip their backpacks and pull out violins and pitch pipes. I have my second revelation for the day: I wasn’t on some special viewing balcony. I had sneaked into a closed church with an imported English choir!
I look down at the sheet music. This was not going to end well if people were expecting me to sing. With a fluttering heart, I crack and explain my honest confusion and my pursuit of the Caravaggio’s. The entire balcony explodes in laughter, and the British conductor directs me to the staircase and points out the chapel I need to visit. I make my way through gold plated arches under the watch of weeping Madonnas and laughing cherubim. As I explore, the choir begins their song, the lights slowly glow, and for a glorious twenty minutes, the echoes and incense, the melody and canvas are all for me.
After snapping my pictures and taking my notes, I pass through the main hall on my way to the exit. There, in one of the back rows, is the French priest, the one who looked at the carved dragon with me. His hands are clasped tightly in front of him, his head bowed. Quickly, quietly, he looks up at me and our eyes meet. He doesn’t say anything, he barely even moves, but, I think I see him nod his head ever so slightly. He returns to his prayer, and the whole movement could have been a trick of the candle light.
Regardless, I smile at him and walk toward the exit. Waiting for me is the Man in Blue, arms tightly crossed against his chest. I pick up my umbrella and head for the door. He follows me all the way to the exit.