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Two Hours of Ecstasy in Rome

If you’re passing through Rome from the airport or en route to Florence or Naples, I recommend these two hours of ecstasy in Rome.

First, leave the train station. Don’t turn right toward Monti or left, as you will bump into a big chunk of Aurelian’s wall. Go straight past the taxi line and the newsstands selling bobbleheads of Lionel Messi and the Pope. You’ll reach a covered gallery where you’ll find your destination: Dagnino.

Inside the shops’ counters are filled with Sicilian pastries and confections, either ready to eat right there or have packaged to-go dressed better than you. Dagnino has been here since 1955, where well-to-do Roman families enjoy Sicilian arancini surrounded by murals in the dining room.

Waiters in white jackets carry silver trays with Negronis that glow like Christmas lights to tables in the gallery’s promenade. Rome-based writer Gillian Longworth McGuire’s “favorite thing to get at this mid-century time capsule is a late morning cappuccino and cornetto stuffed with ricotta & chocolate chips.” You may wonder why, with only two hours in Rome, you should spend half of it in a Sicilian pastry shop. It’s because Dagnino will open your pleasure sensors. Have a mini-cassata or a freshly filled cannolo. If you’re in Rome at Easter time, buy a small box of marzipan fruit made from almond paste pressed into historic copper and terracotta molds and painted by hand. Nobody makes pastry so beautiful as the Sicilians.

Now buzzed on sugar, coffee (or a Negroni), plunge back into Rome and continue in the same direction, past the St. Regis hotel, to the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Cover your shoulders, and uncover your head as you enter a different realm. The narrow church is a Baroque feast, meaning there’s no place for your eyes to rest. Slices of inlaid stone swirl in every direction, and you may need to steady your stance if you look up. Just don’t lean on the balustrades — they are made from African marble whose quarries were depleted in the 17th century. Inside this church, I like to imagine I am an earring inside a closed jewelry box.

And there it is, to your left, "The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa," a young woman floating on a marble cloud. Her eyes are closed, her lips barely parted, and her bare foot dangles. An angel with a devilish smile holds a dart in his delicate wrist, about to plunge it into Teresa’s heart. But notice the ecstasy spread across her face, which also seems to ripple up and down her gown….she’s already been pierced.

What I may love best about this sculpture is that it illustrates Teresa’s own words. It was commissioned by the Cornaro family and made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini between 1647 and 1652. During the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church tore down the literal walls between the altar and the congregation. It commissioned dramatic, emotional art that challenged the starkness and simplicity of Protestant churches. As Martin Luther’s words inspired sober vessels for worship, the Catholic church was like a glamorous old woman wearing a fur coat and dripping in gold jewelry. She wants to look you in the eyes and hold you in her loving, incense-laden embrace.

Looking up at Saint Teresa, you cannot help but stare and wonder how the artist made marble look like cotton candy. Or you may think — is this as overtly sexual as it seems? Never assume that because you are in a church or a museum, both such serious places, it’s just you that has a dirty mind. Good art knows you’re busy being a person, dashing in from the train station. It understands the need to shake you loose from this mortal coil for a moment and have a direct conversation about something extraordinary on terms you will understand.

Take in Teresa for as long as you can. Then shake it off, and head back to Roma Termini.


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