Sunday, 15 May 2016

San Luigi dei Francesi

                                                                                   The calling of St Matthew. Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma.

San Luigi dei Francesi is one of my very favourite churches in Rome.

Situated between Piazza Navona and the Parliament building it has, by virtue of that latter circumstance, also the advantage of being close to my very favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Of which perhaps I'll say a little more later.

San Luigi, you will gather from its name, is the French church in Rome. It is mainly visited on the tourist trail by reason of its three great Caravaggios, featuring scenes from the life of St Matthew. But to nip in and out just for the Caravaggios would be a tragedy. For its interior is, since its completion at the end of the sixteenth century, a miniature history of the French nationals once resident in the (now) Italian capital.

The completion of the church itself starts that story, benefiting from the personal patronage of Catherine de' Medici, widow of one King of France, mother of three others and mother-in-law of a fourth.

Inside the pillars of the church, the walls and even any unused space in the side chapels boast barely an empty piece of wall, such are the plaques and funerary monuments to the countless famous Frenchmen who at one time worshipped in the church, often dying in the eternal city.

You could spend a day, more, just reading these and placing the departed faithful referred to within the context of the events of their time.

But for the modern visitor the most moving plaques bear more recent dates. Countless bearing little more than a name, a rank and a date of death, the latter at an age seldom stretching beyond a thirtieth birthday. And beyond that, a simple encomium, "Tué en Italie pour La Liberation de France". Killed in Italy for the freedom of France.

You forget the role the free French played in the Italian campaign during the Second World War but in 1943 and 44 they fought alongside us and the Americans and, more famously in British legend, the Poles in the long slog up the peninsula. And, as the plaques in San Luigi testify, died alongside us as well.

The Italian campaign saw as much fighting and misery as anywhere else on the "Western front". And as much brutality, it can now with the passage of time be confessed, not least from the French colonial troops deployed in that campaign.

But had the church a conscious existence, that brutality would have been no stranger the the stones of San Luigi. Its patroness, Catherine de' Medici, was of course mired in the Wars of Religion. But her departure from the scene was marked by nothing approaching peace. Through the transitional events of the Thirty years war, still, even including 1914-45, regarded by the Germans themselves as the single greatest calamity to befall their nation, the focus only shifted from confessional disputes to those involving nation states in the constant warring for supremacy that bedevilled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Now, we British have been sheltered from much of this, the last land battle here was in 1746, but by the time of the culmination of this gory history, this isolation of our civilian population was no more. In the horrific clash of competing nationalisms and ideologies that saw the deaths marked in San Luigi's memorial plaques, and so many, many more deaths, our civilian population could die in their own beds in London, or Coventry or Clydebank just as readily as continental Europe's  peasantry had once been at the random disposal of any marching army or mercenary band.

And then it stopped. There has not been a war in Western Europe for seventy one years.

And I defy anyone not to concede that the European Union has been central to that great achievement. It is no accident that the genesis of the EEC came from the desire to create a joint German and French "Steel and Coal" Community that would make war between its participants practically impossible. Or that the greatest British advocates of  membership were commonly those  who had seen the reality of war close up. Or that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central European countries who queued up to join saw membership not just as a road to prosperity but as a passport to continued peace.

It has been said that those who defended the British Union in the Scottish referendum were too blind to legitimate criticism of it. There is a degree of truth to that. No "UK OK" sticker was ever displayed by me. For the UK is far from OK, particularly for those at the bottom. And there are certainly many legitimate criticisms of the EU: Its excessive bureaucracy and the waste that goes with it; the lack of transparency, indeed democracy, in much of its decision making; the lack of compassion or exception when it comes to its economic prescriptions. These things are all true and even the most Europhilic, such as myself, need to make that concession. You vote In not because of these things but despite them. And in the belief that they can change. Indeed that continued British membership makes them more likely to change.

But it has also been said that the Scottish Referendum was won by too much appealing to heart over head. Indeed that victory in that manner explains the continuing bitterness on the losing side in its aftermath. We might have had the better prose but they had all the poetry. And there is also a degree of truth in that.

It would be a mistake to repeat that error over the next six weeks. To allow the narrative to become "a proud island nation making its own distinctive way in the world" head to head with little more than "that's all very well but house prices will fall."

The European Union was and remains a great enterprise and its greatest achievement is peace. And there is no greater achievement than that for any political arrangement.

But it's not just peace through bureaucracy. It is peace through love. If you visit San Luigi you encounter visitors of all and every European nationality. The older visitors are polite to each other and to the surroundings, perhaps boldly venturing a few words of mutual appreciation of the vista in another's language. But the younger ones....they are a very babble of conversation. Proud of their own country, often wearing its football colours, but no more reserved about speaking to those of differing nationalities than would a Glaswegian hesitate to speak to a Dundonian. These kids are European.  And indeed we Brits can be proud that their lingua franca is almost invariably English.

I'm not for walking away from that or, worse still, starting a wider crisis of confidence in the European institutions the end product of which would inevitably be be far from certain,

So I'm voting in, not blind to the flaws but nonetheless with a song in my heart. An ode to joy.

And that's that. In my minds eye I'm now off for lunch in the Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino, just round the corner in the Vicolo Rosini. Antipasto di verdure; fettucine con cinghiale; ossobuco (to die for); seasonal veg; pannacotta; litro di vino rosso (compulsory); acqua gassata; coffee and an Averna.

Take cash. Despite being next to the Parliament and filled with deputati, it's a strictly cash only establishment. In Italy, there are some things even the EU will never change.


  1. Nice piece Ian enjoyed it, just want to add a footnote that Scotland was a significant player in the Thirty Years War; around 50,000 Scots (mostly under warrant)served, ad Scotland actually declared war on France and Spain.

    Thousands of Scottish soldiers returned and formed the muscle and leadership for both Covenanter and Royalist forces, as the European war tipped over into The Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Britain and Ireland. In 1644, the parliamentary 'Army of Both Kingdoms' was led by a Scots veteran of the Thirty Years War, Alexander Leslie, as was the Royalist army, by Patrick Ruthven.

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