It’s not for lack of trying. The church, and the other structures on the island, and in fact the island itself, are privately owned and while at one time not long ago it was possible to visit by hopping on a ferry or joining a group who were planning to picnic, sometime in the last ten years the owners of the place shut down that possibility. Rumor has it that a part of one of the churches – perhaps this one that I dream of – fell near an unsuspecting tourist, almost causing great physical harm and resulting in a complete shutdown of anyone else’s visitation rights. It seems somewhat uncharitable that I would blame that tourist for my never having set foot on the island, but I do nonetheless.
Some quick history. The island is the larger of two in the middle of Lago Bolsena, a volcanic lake in northern Lazio. From the 9th century the island was a haven for people escaping ‘barbarians,’ and has passed in the centuries since through the hands of popes and rich families (often the same groups), who used it for summer vacations, hunting, and idyllic getaways. Because no one is allowed there today, the island maintains a large diversity of plant and animal life. It is currently (as much as can be discerned online) owned by Princess Angelica of the Dragon, but as far as I can tell she is a mythical creature, hardly seen or heard of.
The church that haunts my desires, one of seven on the island, is called the Church of Saints James and Christopher. It was built in the 16th Century by the Farnese family, friends of popes. It is in the shape of a cross, as was typical. The dome is of iron, and often attributed to Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola – one of the three most famous Renaissance architects. He worked with Michelangelo, and had a part in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but while it would be nice to think he created this dome on the church of my dreams, he was dead by the time it was built. As mentioned, its walls are covered with vines and flowers, and the whole is juxtaposed with beautifully kept gardens; the Princess employs a veritable fleet of gardeners to maintain the grounds for no one.
Inside, by all accounts, are frescoes as beautiful as any 500 year old frescoes can be, neither more nor less amazing than any other church. This should be a comfort really, and take some of the sting out of my inability to see them. And of course Italy is full of ancient churches, far more than I’ll ever be able to see up close. None of this helps, and my desire only grows.
I’m not sure why this one pulls at me the way it does, or what I hope to find when I finally am able to walk on its manicured lawns, enter the shadow of its ancient doorways, walk on its marble floors and drink in the frescoes painted by long-ago hands. But I trust this inner knowledge that it’s worth the attempt. And oh yeah, the entire island is guarded by a stone lion. That must mean something.