The Best Kept Treasures of Italy – A Garden Suspended Over Rome Skyline

The entrance of the beautiful basilica Santa Sabina at the Aventino in Rome

If I had to pick one out of the seven hills that make up the Eternal City, I’d choose the Aventino hands down. There’s something special about that hill, with its discreet elegance that seems to set it apart from the rest of its sister hills.

Well-kept, with beautiful buildings and villas, the Aventino hosts a few extra-special sites: the Giardino degli Aranci (“The Orange Garden”), the famous gate of the Cavalieri di Malta (the Knights of Malta, where it is possible to see St Peter’s dome perfectly centered in the keyhole of its door) and the beautiful basilica of Santa Sabina. And there’s hardly anything better for catching the “Rome bug” than strolling on the Aventino on a summer afternoon. Or on one of those warm October days that Rome is famous for, the so-called Ottobrata Romana — perhaps a local version of the American Indian Summer.

And that’s what I did just a couple of weeks ago. Not only was the day perfect but I had an extra reason to visit my favorite hill. I wanted to check on something I’d heard about but never seen: a beautiful “Last Supper,” hidden in a garden behind the church of Santa Sabina and called the “Altar in Stone”.

The “Altar in Stone” appearing in the secret garden behind the Santa Sabina basilica

It took me a while to convince the Dominican father to let me in, despite the fact that it was closing day (the garden is accessible most days of the week, provided you know about its existence!); but my insistence was well worth it. The garden is small and cozy and nested on some sort of terrace delimited on three sides by the church and sacristy walls, while it is entirely open on its fourth side with the Tiber River and the whole city spread out below. The view is stunning with an atmosphere that inspires silence and introspection. And right there, under a beautiful cypress tree and surrounded by ivy and orange trees, emerges with a certain majesty, the bronze installation of the “Altar in Stone”.

The Christ of the “Altar in Stone” at the Santa Sabina basilica

Made by the Roman sculptor Valerio Gismondi and his father, Tommaso, in 1976, the installation is powerful and of great impact. It is the work’s human character, so tangible and intense, with those faces expressing the complexity of conflicting emotions that commands respect and humility. The figure of Christ, wrapped in a narrow cloak, is represented with his hands opening up in a gesture of hope, while his face, dramatized by blind eyes, seems to express a look beyond time and a subtle smile of tired serenity. I sat, relaxed and let the perfection of the moment sink in.

Beyond the terrace wall, the city skyline was shining at distance with the sunlight reflecting on roofs. Yet, at closer proximity, details of the trees of the Lungotevere, the roof of the Roma Synagogue, the Isola Tiberina were crisp and sharp. Everything seemed like suspended in harmony, as the warm sun rays seemed to wrap me in their embrace.

Basilica di Santa Sabina – Rome Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, 1 (Aventino) -Ph: +39 06 579401 – 06 57940600. Opening hours: every day 8:15am-12:30pm / 3:30pm-6:00pm – Masses: Holidays 8:00am-10:30am-11:30am – weekdays: 7:15am (during Masses visits to the church are not allowed. It may be a good idea to double check times, since the time table is subject to change due to functions and other activities).[/box]



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