The Via della Madonna dell’Orto (via is the Italian word for street) is paved with sampietrini. Chiseled from basalt found in the hills outside the city, they’re small, squarish stones, graphite-colored, and they fill the roads in uneven rows. If we weren’t in Rome, they’d be called cobblestones, but instead, they are sampietrini: “little Saint Peters.” There are supposedly as many stones in the streets of the city as there are souls saved by Saint Peter.
There’s no true sidewalk on the via della Madonna dell’Orto, just a tight space between the wall and a row of parked cars, so we find ourselves walking on the sampietrini. Apparently, many locals complain about the uneven stones, but we’re new here, so we’re mostly just charmed.
They are noisy, though. Every car, truck, and bike that speeds by does so with a resounding thump-thump-thump-thump. Add to that the sirens blaring down on the main road, the church bells tolling heavily, and the endless chatter of Romans going about their days and—well, Rome is not a quiet city.
Madeline, Colleen, and I had decided to leave our apartment and wander the city when the urge to take naps—and subsequently make our jet lag worse—became too great to stay indoors. We’d found our way to this narrow backstreet by accident.
The sampietrini led us down the via to a chiesa—a church. Its warm facade was standing sentinel at the end of the road, deep green doors flung wide open, practically beckoning.
We slipped in quietly—and gasped. It seemed like every inch of the church was covered in fine gold filigree or renaissance-esque paintings or sculpted winged cherubs. The space glowed with light and warmth. And we were the only ones in it.
As I walked slowly around the space, eyes hungrily eating up every bit of beauty, I realized how silent the church was—or, to be more accurate, I realized that the sound of my heels against the tile floor was thunderous. The silence seemed impossible considering the bustle waiting just outside those open doors. It was a sacred silence, and it was all too welcome.
We stayed long enough to watch a father and child enter the chiesa, drop a few euros into the offertory, and light a candle in front of the Chapel of the Annunciation—one of several small alcoves around the perimeter of the sanctuary depicting a saint, a biblical scene, or, in the case of the Chapel of the Crucifix, Christ Himself. In the Chapel of the Annunciation, a dove makes its from heaven towards Mary, who’s clad in blue and gazing downwards.
It almost seemed like she was looking at the young boy as he slipped the coins into the offertory. I watched the scene—all that art and grandeur, and in front of it, a young boy—and I thought, for the first time, on my very first day in Italy:
“Oh. I’m in Rome.”
The church described in this post is the Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Orto.