The church of La Trinità dei Monti on top of the Spanish steps is famous for its unequal position overlooking the centre of Rome. It is one of the most memorable sights of the eternal city. I personally find the view from up there particularly enchanting at sunset. However, behind the spectacular facade, the church’s convent also holds some of the most unusual art treasures in Rome.
One of them is the 17th century hand-painted astrolabe, an ancient instrument used to show the position of the sun and the stars in the sky. Even if it was meant as a purely mathematical tool to measure time, the workmanship is such that it was turned into a masterpiece. Its author, the French monk Emanuel Maignon who was staying at the convent, spent years completing it in the late 1630s. With the help of assistants, he hand drew every single line to match the exact position of the constellations in the sky. The time of the day and the year is measured on the lines by a spot of light shining through a narrow hole in the wall. It is believed that Maignon may have been in contact with Galileo Galilei, who spent a few months in the convent while under house arrest. After his trial in 1633 during which he was condemned for supporting the theory of a heliocentric system based on the rotation of the planets around the sun, Galileo was allowed to spend time in home confinement due to his old age.
Next to the astrolabe room is another surprising work of art: the so-called anamorphosis, a wall fresco representing the life of St Francis of Paola, the founder of the Order of the Minims to which the convent used to belong. The particularity of the painting is that it is based on a strong optical illusion, whereby the subject matter changes according to the viewer’s position. Standing in front of it, the viewer sees a landscape scene with small sailing boats crossing a lake, while at a certain angle, the full size figure of St Francis starts appearing.
According to a famous story, St Francis was refused a passage while trying to cross the strait of Messina to Sicily, so he laid his cloak on the water and managed to successfully sail across this way. Born in 1416, he was from Paola in Calabria. His order, which was approved in 1506 (a year before his death) by pope Julius II, particularly flourished in France until the French Revolution. The Trinita dei Monti church and convent have traditionally been French property and still remain so. However, it is currently run by the French order of the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem. The Convent is open to visits on Tuesday and Saturday morning.