I wasn’t entirely sure what to do when it was my turn. The queue for the Aventine Keyhole had taken about half-an-hour, long enough so that the sunset gave way to the early evening and so that I had enough time to ask myself why I was here. In front of me were six teenagers taking selfies and posing next to the large door. Behind were an elderly couple moaning about them. It was my turn next.
The teenagers left with a mix of impressions. Their vocal leader, on removing her face from the keyhole, pointed her nose skyward, shrugged, and stared at me as if to say, “Don’t expect anything special.” Her friend gasped loudly. She pressed her eyes against the door and, ten seconds later, returned with a wide satisfied grin. When it was my turn, I wasn’t anxious to know what they saw, but how it would make me feel. With no one ahead, I placed my eye directly where millions of others had done before me.
This is what I remember, if memory serves me right: Elegant green bushes and trees stalked my left and right, kissing at an apex. St Peter’s Basilica, washed out by a mustard Roman sunset, seemed faint and magnificent. As I pressed closer – about to feel something – a loud harumph started from behind. It was the elderly gentleman, displeased that I had spent so long looking through. Snapped out of the moment, I stepped away and walked back towards the tram, trying to piece the view together in my head.
Was it worth it? The question hung over me for a number of days. It was part of an accumulation of visual indulgence that had been building in Rome, which to me is the most beautiful city in the world. There’s so much to take in here that it feels each second should be used sparingly for only the most divine moments; and if I didn’t feel anything, I would ask what I had missed that others had found so special.
The same conundrum followed me the next day, during a visit to the Vatican Museum. The tour is around an hour and a half, and passes through Andalucian Borgia apartments and Raphaelite murals (one of which is a personal favourite of mine, The School of Athens.) It finishes in the Sistine Chapel, and with the visitor surrounded by Michaelangelo’s epic Last Judgement. By the time you reach the chapel, the tension has been building for so long that you are exhilarated by the idea of seeing something so important and famous. I was immediately moved. The dark, foreboding violence of the work coating the high ceilings is breathtaking, but the legions of fellow tourists bobbing around in head-sets made me feel as though I had wandered into a Catholic call-centre. I didn’t know what to do with that moment, just as I didn’t know what to do on the Aventine Hill. Maybe, I needed more time. Or a lot more privacy.
This goes for the other senses too, especially dining in Rome. The queues around the street for Da Enzo or Tonnarello (places the people from the magazines insist you must visit) signify a special meal. But I felt uncomfortable having people stare at me from a long line, hungry, perhaps with children, as I stuff myself greedily with burrata. A hurried pleasure is no pleasure at all, so I ducked out of the queue and called my friend Alessio, who lives in London but comes from Rome.
I’m not sure why I didn’t think to ask him before. Alessio gave me an address just five minutes away, at Da Fabrizio al 56. There was no queue; only a few students sat enjoying their lunch. The owner, pleased to see a tourist, gave me a free carafe of red wine and explained the heavy tribulations of Lazio football club. Between courses, I struck up conversation with a nearby couple. The meal was classic Roman: salted fried artichokes and a sumptuous oxtail ragù. I couldn’t imagine an influencer walking in here (not photogenic enough; perhaps not even to the same culinary standards of Da Enzo) but it was one of the most satisfying dining experiences from that week.
Like that meal, absorbing the moment requires time and patience. It isn’t, nor should be, a fleeting one. Special moments are rare – the reason we hop on a plane and fly far away from home, expecting to be swept up in the exhilarating randomness of life. If we’re not careful, our heavy expectations, often from research or following what others are doing, can build disappointment. But left alone, sometimes the stars align. As you step through an open door or take the advice of a passerby, the moment simply happens. I knew what to find on the Aventine Hill (I’d heard so many stories and seen so many pictures), but I came with no previous expectations when, by chance, I stepped into the Church of Sant’Ignazio.
Now this – this – was the moment I was searching for. The church is only a four minute walk from The Pantheon and much less overrun. It isn’t nearly as old, built around 1626, but inside is an astounding treasure: Andrea Pozzo’s painted ceiling. The fresco was designed against the baroque architecture to create a 3D perspective where the viewer is facing into the heavens. Standing there, with your neck craning upwards, angels hang along the columns and the citizens of the world reach for the sky, aiming for the gold haze in the center which symbolises the divine. It requires patience to be fully enjoyed. It demands attention, because of its inventiveness. The quiet half-full church allows a space to ponder and reflect on something open-ended, which gave me an existential feeling. Not in a religious sense, but in the way that great art can inspire within. I left Sant’Ignazio and Rome suddenly seemed even more lovely than it did before.
I did, in fact, revisit the Aventine Hill on the last day of my trip. Just to see if anything had changed, and whether I could find what I saw through Pozzo’s fresco beyond that famous door. Again, there was a long queue. Again, there were a variety of faces and voices: Italian, German, American, British, Arabic, young, and old. And again, it was my turn.
Standing by the grand door, I pressed my eye against the familiar keyhole. The view was now transformed. The blue morning sky and crisp air swallowed St Peter’s, and the green appeared lusher than ever. Thirty seconds later, and the first harrumph started from behind. “Raga…” someone mumbled impatiently. Instead of stepping back, I stood firm and kept looking, until I found what I was searching for at last.
Sometimes, a special moment requires you to be a little bit greedy.