I knew Rome would be beautiful this time of the year, but I had no idea it would be so hot or so humid. A heatwave has bumped up temperatures to 30 degrees or more, making it more like July and August. So I made for the parks and for the banks of the Tiber, where I watched martins hunt on the wing and swifts dive low to drink from the green waters. Where diesel fumes don’t predominate, the air is thick with the scent of jasmine and of the promise of a summer to come.
This is my third time in Rome since I married here in 2000 and I went back, as I always do, to the church where I made my vows. San Girolamo della Carità looked the same as the day my wife and I crossed its threshold. It probably hasn’t changed for decades, if not centuries. With its Baroque facade blackened by fumes of one kind or another and grassy tufts sticking from cracks in its cornices, it is an easy church to ignore if one were to amble along Via di Monserrato in search of a restaurant or a bar. But inside it’s very beautiful. It is the church in which St Philip Neri founded the Oratorians. Philip was a great lover of the English and, as St John Henry Newman mentions in his “Second Spring” homily, priests at the English College opposite would seek his blessing from the steps of his church before they left for the English Mission. He would salute them with the words: “Salvete, flores martyrum!” I married there on 26 May, St Philip’s feast day. I didn’t choose that date intentionally but like to think it was no accident. “How on earth did you manage that?” an Oratorian priest once asked me. I didn’t know what to tell him, but I had an idea.
On the subject of beauty, I was determined to see Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes which is kept in the Palazzo Barberini. In the Old Testament, holiness and physical beauty are inseparable so a person was beautiful only if they were holy too. It prefigures Catholic belief in the supernatural beauty of holy souls, I suppose. In any case, Caravaggio needed a beauty and he clearly thought Filli de Melandroni was a stunner. She was his favourite model and he not only cast her as Judith but also as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and in Conversion of the Magdalene. Sure, she looks great slicing through Holofernes’ arteries but I would say that Francesco Furini’s Judith – in Judith and Holofernes, in the same gallery – is a more sensuous depiction. While Caravaggio captures violent death brilliantly, Furini gives us a pure femme fatale – a fleshy, semi-naked woman on a bed, pointing to a severed head at her feet and telling her maid to pick it up.
I longed to see these pictures because I’ve just written my debut novel, The Beast of Bethulia Park, which is partly a modern retelling of the story of Judith. On the morning I flew to Rome I received an email telling me it is “very well-crafted” and would be accepted for publication. The publisher is also here this week and, as I write, we’re planning to meet for lunch. The main reason I came, however, was as part of a delegation to the Italian Senate led by Shelina Begum, the mother of Tafida Raqeeb, the London schoolgirl flown to Italy for treatment in 2019, following a High Court battle with the NHS. As reported in these pages previously, Tafida is confounding the doom-mongers who predicted an early death and is stable and improving. Senator Simone Pillon recognises the case as a sign of hope in a world losing the Christian values that underpin civilisation and he admires the sacrifices made by the girl’s parents, praising Shelina as a “brave and strong mother”. I agree with his assessment. There is something beautiful about their heroism.
After leaving the Senate, I went to see Cardinal Francis Arinze. He invited me up to his apartment and took me onto a balcony where we looked across sunlit St Peter’s Square to the Basilica, still bedecked with tapestries depicting ten new saints who were canonised by Pope Francis just two days earlier. They include St Titus Brandsma, a Dutch martyr of the Nazis who is being spoken of as a possible patron for journalists. It was a terrific sight. I spent an hour talking with Cardinal Arinze about such subjects as Church unity and the drift toward euthanasia in the West. He is a witty, gifted communicator and a teacher whose gaze is firmly fixed on God. He consistently addressed me as “Brother” and I was moved by the idea of kinship with a man of such astonishing stature.
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