Nowhere is the drama more evident than the many churches that sit in every quarter and offer a cool respite from the heat of the Italian sun.
It was on our first night there that I realised that one of my all time favourite art works was housed in a church only 18 minutes walk from our hotel. I went to bed that eveing not quite believing that in a few hours I'd get to see it.
The Santa Maria Della Vittoria is rather sedate from the outside, but walking through the doors and not knowing what to expect was a fantastic experience. It was like entering a huge treasure box filled with riches.
There are side chapels with ornate sculptures and canvases, yet, The Ecstacy of St Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is the piece that stands out. It sits upon it's own stage flanked by a stone audience of nobles and church officials who crane forward to witness the miracle before them.
...A young beautiful woman is supported by a cloud, she looks weightless as her nun's robes ripple about her body. A Cupid like angel, stands over her smiling. He holds a golden arrow which is aimed to once more plunge deep into her heart. In his other hand he lifts her gown uncovering his target. The woman is in a state of rapture, her fingers curl, her eyes roll back, her mouth is open and gasping. One foot hangs languid as she loses herself entirely.
I love this sculpture for it's sensuality and how Bernini took an already incredible story and ranked it up with sex and drama. No wonder those old men in their theatre boxes are staring and gossiping.
Saint Teresa of Avila was a real person who had lived in Spain almost a century before Bernini. She was a noble woman called to convent life and known for her 'embarassment of raptures' which she helpfully chronicled throughout her lifetime. The 'Ecstasy' as showcased in the scupture was recorded around the time she would have been 44 years old, she spoke of her encounter with an angel,
'I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it ..'
Bernini took the emotional, sensual and supernatural aspects of this experience and highlighted them instead of the pious canon people had been used to up that point. You only have to look at earlier representations of St Teresa to see the very staid way her 'rapture' had been conveyed.
By making the saint a young and beautiful woman and focusing on the lifting of her habit, the thrusting of the arrow, the glazing of her eyes and the curling of her toes, Bernini brought sex into the church and caused a sensation.