Shift Happens

February 4, 2022

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza

Geometry soothes me, and I’m not a math person.  When I feel out of sync I stand in front of the Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza church and let Borromini’s architectural genius wash over me.  

There’s a a big wooden door on Corso del Rinascimento which isn’t particularly notable and if you don’t know to look to your right walking by the State Archives of Rome you will miss the view to this gioello, a jewel of a church.  Beyond the doors is a courtyard with a stunning backdrop that is Sant’Ivo.  Considered a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture (1642) the façade, like buttercream frosting, blends into the space as if it had always been there.  But it wasn’t.  It’s a new-comer, added to an original design from the 1500s.  Borromini designed the church to fit right into the existing courtyard, as if it had always been there, as if it had always belonged.  

I confess to walking back and forth in front of the big door several times, quickly glancing to my right to be awed time and time again by Sant’Ivo glowing from within the courtyard.  Surprise me again.  Again.  I pretend my eyes are a camera click click click.  I seal the image in my mind.  This monument is my model and my muse.  Walking through the door I feel like I am walking into a camera:  Borromini is the light and I am the subject.  Click click click.  I shake my hair, I’m on the cat-walk,  pouty lips, long legs casting a shadow across the courtyard.  

In my photography I look for metaphors in the monuments I capture, and nothing better symbolizes home than Sant’Ivo’s spiral lantern looking like it was always meant to be there.  The symmetry of this space is so pleasing – order! – and yet the convex and concave façade seems to bend, smooth curves and rough edges rising and falling together harmoniously.  For me the design is like living in Rome.  Most days I wander this ancient city in awe, stunned by beauty one moment, stung by the hideous another.  The creamiest morning cappuccino, the spongiest focaccia at lunch, the smoothest evening aperitivo, gets balanced out with an interminable line at the post office, a trail of bureaucratic rubber stamps, and a tower of pungent trash on the curb.  It’s the smooth curves and the rough edges that converge and make this beauty.  It’s all in the geometry.  

Standing in the middle of the courtyard I take in the sum of the whole, all of the calculations resulting in stars, circles, spirals.  The shapes blend and swirl up, round and round into the white lantern that spirals into the shape of a bee stinger, the symbol of Pope Urban VIII Barberini who commissioned the church.

I am quickly restored.  Soothed.  My senses seem to sink into the harmonious space as if guided by a melody, a hum.  Design does that.  It’s an active verb.  Shapes shift.  “Shift Happens” read a bumper sticker on a dusty mustard-yellow pick-up, that drove around the high-desert city of Santa Fe when I lived there.  It was a play on the saying that reads the same but with out the F.   We can shift.  Evolve.  Change your mind, change your life.  But shift can also happen through shapes.  The shapes in our environment, the design we are immersed in, whether drawn by the hand of Nature or Architect.  Shapes influence our beings.  Our being.  Our being in the world.  Our perspective is formed/informed By Design.  We are shape-shifters.    

I feel centered, often elated, standing in the midst of these shapes, of this sacred geometry.  For me it is just as healing as being in nature, be it forest bathing, swimming in the ocean, or even just walking in a park.  Nature herself is sacred.  When I stand in front of St. Ivo I feel as if my whole being comes into alignment, as if a blueprint has been projected on to me and my constellation organized.   

I have a bajillion photos of Sant’Ivo.  I can’t stop – won’t stop – snapping one each time I go by.  Even though I’m a sucker for symmetry, I love taking portraits of this church slightly off kilter, slightly out of balance, sometimes even out of focus, because I’m fascinated with how at any angle I take it at, it is always in balance anyway.  Nobody bends it like Borromini.  There’s a watery quality to the curves, a bubbling effect, and standing at the door to the courtyard as I am here in this photo, I get a sudden urge to close it shut.  With doors closed the space becomes a chamber, a camera obscura.  It would be just the two of us in this sacred space.  I imagine it would feel like an embrace. 

The bee stinger rises behind me as I step out of the courtyard and become another passer-by.  Leave it to Borromini to depict the concentration of such power in a gentle and pleasing way.  Like the bee, his design is wise and giving.

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