Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Creating a Murder Scene

       Rome has a thousand churches. When I began writing my novel that features murders in church, I couldn’t envisage building a new one, even in my imagination. I wanted a church that served as a real parish, not a pilgrimage point.
       At first, I looked outside the city center, examining churches in my own neighborhood. They are not historic; in fact, many churches near me date only from the twentieth century. I wanted something older, more in keeping with Rome’s past, so I looked elsewhere.  

Some of the key scenes of the novel take place in a restaurant that I put in a small piazza near the Pantheon. As the plot developed, it became clear that the church needed to be nearby, so, map in hand, I set off to explore the neighborhood. The Pantheon itself is a church, but it wouldn’t do. Too many tourists. Saint Louis of the French stands around the corner, but it also sees hordes of visitors every day.
Discouraged, I traipsed to a couple of other churches before stumbling towards Saint Mary Magdalene. An iron gate separates this church from a small piazza. Traffic speeds along the side, and across the street coffee drinkers chat at outdoor tables.
Four curved travertine steps lead up to the entrance. Inside, late Baroque and Rococo extravagance explodes. The altar holds six very tall bronze candlesticks supporting simple cream-colored candles and the busts of four popes. Rosettes, braids, and garlands adorn every surface. It looks as if a paintbrush dripping with gold has washed the entire sanctuary, from pope busts to capitals above the marble columns.
The piece d resistance rests on a gilded platform above the entrance: a pipe organ wrapped with putti and garlands, white stucco statues of allegorical figures and winged angels, all resplendent with garlands and scrolls. The paintbrush cut a swath here, too.
I knew I’d found my church when I walked forward. Near the altar, a priest—in collar and shirtsleeves—stood over an ironing board pressing altar cloths. A homey, neighborhood atmosphere.
I’ve since visited the church at different times of day. Once at evening mass, just three worshipers took part in the service. During Sunday mass, the church fills.
It fits my purpose. Even so, it seemed improper to commit murder in a holy space. To ease my conscience (and, as I've later learned to please publishers), I created an imaginary chapel for staging the murder.
I wanted to call it the Madonna Chapel, but Saint Mary Magdalene already has a chapel called Madonna of the Sick. That wouldn't do because it's holy space, and too public besides. I created another one reached through an actual door in the very real Crucifix Chapel. That door leads into the Via delle Colonelle where our murderer would have found very little privacy.
While I hesitate to invite tourists to visit here and interrupt my murderer, the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, known in Rome as La Maddalena, is worth a visit if only to see baroque design at its most outrageous.


Ellis Vidler said...

Perfect! What a beautiful little church. Your description makes me want to see it. Maybe you can post more pictures. Facebook?
Of course, I really want you to finish the story and get it published so I can read it. :-)

Patricia Winton said...

Ellis, thanks. I had trouble this morning finding my photos. I think some of them were lost in my computer crash last year. I'm going to go to the neighborhood in a few days (when it isn't raining) and I'll take some more. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm really hooked now! Please finish this soon.

Patricia Winton said...

Oh, thank you. I'm typing as fast as I can.

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