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Dec 8, 2016

Santa Costanza: the perfect space.

Santa Costanza is a haven of peace in the midst of a bustling city. A magical space, no wonder it is one of the most popular sites for weddings. A new metro stop on line B (Sant'Agnese/Annibaliano), only 4 stops from Termini station, renders its access much easier. 2 miles away from the ancient city walls, it is one of the very first examples of central plan Christian buildings. Identified as the mausoleum of Costanza, the daughter of the emperor Constantine and built in one of the properties of the family, its function has recently been questioned. Probably meant to be initially the tomb of her younger sister Helen, the body of Costanza might have been placed here later. The mid IV century building housed her porphyry sarcophagus moved to the Vatican Museums in the XVIII century.
If the exterior is rather austere with a simple brick pattern, the interior is surprising. (make sure you take some coins to get the lights turned on). The IV century mosaics of Santa Costanza deal with pagan themes common in Roman funerary art largely adopted by Christianity with new meanings. So the putti harvesting grapes to make wine are no longer acting only in honor of Bacchus and the wine takes on a new meaning for Christians. It's a moment of transition but the 'revolution' is smooth and harmonious.
Harvesting putti.
Mirrors, cornucopias, peacocks.
The building is still so pagan that it was mistaken for a Temple of Bacchus and in the XVII century a group of Flemish artists known as the Bentvogels  (the gang of the birds) celebrated their ‘ initiation ritual’, toasting in front of the sarcophagus of Costanza, after partying all night (many of their names are still carved on the walls of the niches). 
XVII centuries graffiti.

The mausoleum was first converted into the baptistery of the Church of Santa Agnese (VII century) and then into a church dedicated to Santa Costanza (1254) who became a martyr in the Middle Ages without any historical evidence.
The mausoleum was located by one of the very first Christian basilicas built in Rome in the IV century sponsored by Constantine (the emperor that legalized Christianity) and dedicated to the martyr St. Agnes whose remains are supposedly in the nearby catacombs.  Despite the lack of reliable information about her, she is one of the most popular saints, supposedly martyred around the age of 13 under the reign of Diocletian. This basilica was not technically a church but a funerary hall,  its floor was covered with burials, partly discovered during recent excavations.  Used for funerary banquets, mass was held only once a year for the feast of the martyr.  Shaped as typical Roman racetracks , also called circiform from circus, these basilicas are a typical Roman solution even if they were found also elsewhere (in Bir Ftouha, north of Carthage or Aquileia). In Rome such peculiar type of building was first identified in 1915 (San Sebastiano on the Via Appia). Their shape is symbolic if we consider how initially the life of a Christian is compared to a challenging competition to get, in conclusion, the palm of victory (the heavenly bliss).
The round mausoleum and the U-shaped basilica.
Perimeter wall of the circus shaped basilica.

It was was externally surrounded by more tombs and mausoleums (such as the one of Costanza).  The remains of the Constantinian  basilica are still visible:  the great perimeter wall with buttresses and windows  is best viewed from piazza Annibaliano, the inner area is occupied by a meadow now.  Its marble columns were probably recycled for the construction of the new church that the pope Honorius in the VII century wanted to locate directly on the tomb of the martyr Agnes.
Opening hours – from 9 to 12 and from 3 to 6 pm. Free entrance.
Visits are not allowed on Sunday morning and during functions or weddings.
To visit the catacombs and the church of St. Agnes:  www.santagnese.org


Nov 25, 2016

San Marcello al Corso: a less known church.

According to tradition it was founded by the pope Marcellus, martyr under the emperor Maxentius and exiled from Rome after the riots caused by his severity against lapsed Christians who had renounced to their faith under the recent persecutions. Another version claims he was condemned to work as a slave attending the horses (he is the patron saint of horse breeders) at the catabulum:  the headquarters of the Imperial Post stables.
His remains are supposedly under the main altar of the church.
The present church, rebuilt several times, was designed by Jacopo Sansovino and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger after a fire in 1519.
The façade was added by Carlo Fontana at the end of XVII century while the interior was partly redecorated also in the XVIII century and restored by Vespignani in 1867. 

The church hosts a bizarre funerary monument:  the double tomb of Cardinal Giovanni Michiel known as Cardinal S. Angelo for his first title as cardinal of the church of S. Angelo in Pescheria (up above) and his nephew bishop Antonio Orso (down below). Designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1520 (according to Giorgio Vasari). They seem to rest on a on a bunk bed. The bishop lies on a pile of books: an allusion to his donation of 730 codes to the library of the monastery.

The Cardinal was the nephew of the pope Paul II and belonged to a prestigious Venetian family. A candidate for the papacy during the conclave of 1492 which ended with the election of Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI), he died in 1503, poisoned by Cesare Borgia, the pope's son,  after 2 days of agony. The truth of those rumors was never proved. Cantarella, a variation of arsenic, was the poison of choice of the Borgias. If dosed right it wasn't immediate and obvious. The cook, accused, was executed and the enormous wealth of the cardinal was confiscated by the Borgias.

Crucifixion (detail). 1613

A huge Crucifixion by Giovan Battista Ricci is frescoed on the counterfacade. The Lombard artist was also an excellent draughtsman. Mainly active as a fresco painter during the pontificates of Sixtus V, Clement VIII and Paul V, Ricci was one of the busiest painters in Rome during this period, and was elected to the Virtuosi al Pantheon in 1583 and, five years later, to the Accademia di San Luca.  

A well preserved medieval fresco (XIV century) survives in the Grifoni Chapel. The Madonna is crowned by a couple of later cherubs painted by Perin del Vaga, a pupil of Raphael. They were particularly praised by Giorgio Vasari: '...i più belli che in fresco facesse mai artefice nessuno... '.

The baptistery of the ancient church was found in 1912: one of the few for the immersion rite surviving in Rome.  The bricks are still coated with marble (VIII century, although V century remains were also discovered).  

Opening hours - 7,30 am - 11 pm (weekdays) - Saturday and Sunday 9,30 am - 11 pm.
If you wish to visit the archaeological remains under the church ask at the Sacristy (a little donation is highly appreciated).

Apr 8, 2015

5 Must-see Fine Art Nudes in Rome.

1. Esquiline Venus (Capitoline Museums).
Nudes in art date from the Paleolithic age when curvy and bumper statuettes carved in stone, female bodies with abundant breasts, were regarded as symbols of fertility (Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000 B.C.E–25,000 B.C.E.)                        

Aesthetically the representation of the naked body over the centuries is the result of different cultural systems.

In Greece, in the V century B.C. the anatomy of the human body becomes the object of scientific studies and Polykleitos provides a 'code': his aesthetic theories for artistic perfection being based on mathematics. Ancient Greeks competed naked or covered only by a thong.  Athletes became models: nudity immortalized by artists, such as Myron, a promise of perfection and beauty. 

In the Middle Ages, this conception faces a metamorphosis due to Christianity and if the body becomes the sacred urn of the spirit, it could nevertheless lead to sin and damnation.
For Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo the nude is a symbol of purity,  based on classic models, refined by the study of human anatomy and alluding to strength and spiritual courage (Michelangelo's David). 

2. Hermaphroditus
(Palazzo Massimo).

In 1545, the Council of Trent marks the end of freedom to represent the nude in art and artists are encouraged to be inspired by biblical stories. In 1559, Pope Paul IV ordered to cover Michelangelo's nudes in the Last Judgement. Through art the clergy tries to control 'heretical' ideas.

3. One of Michelangelo's
Sistine Chapel

In the 17th century, the attitude is controversial: 'sacred' and 'profane' coexist in artists like Caravaggio or Bernini. 
One century later naked human figures must be based, according to Winckelmann, on the ideals of Greek art with its fixed proportions for beauty. Repressive social conventions are rejected. Canova's conception of nudity in one of his major works, Paolina Borghese, reflects the tradition of ancient Rome, portraying a mortal as a goddess. It's still debated whether Napoleon's sister really posed nude as a model.
4. Bernini's Rape of Proserpina
Borghese Gallery.

5. Canova's Paolina Bonaparte
Borghese Gallery.

Jan 18, 2015

5 Historic Cafes in Rome.


1.Caffé Greco.  Opened in 1760 (Via dei Condotti). The most ancient in Rome and the second in Italy, preceded only by Caffé Florian in Venice (1720). So called for its first owner, Nicola della Maddalena, a Greek man.  A meeting place for intellectuals: Stendhal, Goethe, Byron, Keats, Ibsen, Wagner, Casanova, have all been here.  A Caffé celebrated in sketches and paintings which still decorate its walls forming a huge private art gallery with more than 300 works. And if lucky enough you can bump into Stellario Baccellieri known worldwide as 'the painter of the Caffé Greco': he portrayed celebs like De Chirico, Liz Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida and Lady Diana.

2.Babington's English Tea Room (by the Spanish Steps).  Founded in 1893 by Isabel Cargill and Anne Marie Babington. At the time tea could be found only in pharmacies. 19th century style interiors. It survived two world wars and the opening of a Macdonald's nearby!

3 & 4. Caffè Rosati and Caffé Canova in Piazza del Popolo. The Caffè Rosati was the pastry shop of the Italian Royal family. In the 50s it served coffee to Pasolini and Elsa Morante.  The Caffè Canova was popular among Via Margutta artists. An interesting art gallery is dedicated to Fellini who daily visited the bar for his espresso fix.

5. Caffé Canova Tadolini located in the workshop of Neoclassical sculptor Canova and his pupil Tadolini. Have a drink or lunch among sculptures and casts, dark hardwood floors, chandeliers and vintage furniture.


Nov 17, 2014

Spanish Steps. Some trivia.

People watching is a great pastime in a city like Rome and the Spanish Steps are the ideal platform, offering stage and seating at the same time. A must in Rome.  Here’s a list of trivia concerning the most famous stairway in town, celebrated by movies (Roman Holiday or The talented Mr Ripley), loved by fashion victims (high fashion designers are concentrated on Via Condotti), pilgrimage site for literature nerds (Keats’ ghost is still lingering here).

  1. Once in the outskirts. 500 years ago this area was still ‘suburban’:  in a map by Pirro Ligorio we see ruins, vineyards and just a couple of ‘palazzi’.
  2. Why Spanish?  For the proximity of the Spanish Embassy headquarters: even if the money to build the steps came from France, donated by the French diplomat Etienne Gueffier. The area was initially occupied by a muddy slope. The ‘stairway’ was built in 1726 by Francesco de Sanctis whose project won a competition:   137 travertine steps lead up to the heights of Trinità dei Monti with its French church and small obelisk. Even cardinal Mazarin took an interest in the project, a statue of the King Louis XIV had been foreseen initially.  Too much for the popes: a compromise was found and both ‘logos’, the Bourbon fleur-de lys and pope Innocent XIII’s eagle and crown appear in the sculptural details perfectly balanced. 
  3. A busy hub for Grand Tour visitors entering from Porta del Popolo, access point from the North. In one of the rooms of the Casina Rossa (Piazza di Spagna, 26), Keats died in 1821 (aged 26). He was in Rome hoping warm climate would help him to recover from consumption. He’s buried in the protestant cemetery with his friends Severn and Shelley. The Keats and Shelley Memorial preserves also a library. The original furniture was  burnt on the pope’s order after Keats died.
  4. The ‘twin’ palace, on the left, houses Babington’s Tea room founded in 1893 by two young English ladies who started their business with the initial sum of £100: at the time the only place where you could buy tea in Rome was from a pharmacy.  The tea room was so successful  that they opened another one in St. Peter’s square which no longer exists (there are now 3 in Tokyo). Stop there for a nice cup or Earl Grey and a cucumber sandwich.
  5. At the base Bernini’s fountain shaped as an old boat not only recalls a flood in the piazza but it’s also a practical way to solve the problem of low water pressure. It ‘s still supplied by one of the most ancient Roman aqueducts (Condotti is the Italian for water pipes, that's why the name of the main avenue).
  6. In the early 19th century models used to gather here hoping to be employed by sculptors and painters who had their studios in via Margutta.
  7. On the top Villa Medici (next to Trinità dei Monti) was the residence of the Grand Duke of Tuscany:  Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Now a French property housing from 1803 the French Academy in Rome. Built on the remains of the ancient Roman villa of Lucullus and used also as a prison: his most famous guest was Galileo.
  8. The best period to come is May  when the steps are covered by azaleas.
  9. In the upper church of Trinità dei Monti – you should not miss Daniele da Volterra's Descent from the Cross. The great artist became famous for having covered Michelangelo’s nudes (in the Sistine Chapel).
  10. The Caffe' Greco in Via Condotti is almost 250 years old, opened by a Greek and mentioned also by Casanova.  Perfect stop to sip a quick espresso or sit in one of the cozy back rooms where artists like Keats, Byron, Goethe, Wagner, Listz used to meet. By the way: their cakes are delicious!

    Nov 16, 2014

    When Bernini worked for free.

    Almost 25 years after the famous Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini dealt with a similar subject for the Cardinal Paluzzo Paluzzi degli Albertoni who wished to commemorate his great great grandmother Ludovica, beatified in 1671, 138 years after her death (the cause for canonization still pending).

    Ludovica was a noble woman who, resigned to her parents' wish, married the wealthy and noble Giacomo della Cetera. They lived in Trastevere and raised three daughters together.  When she remained widow at the age of 33, she decided to enter the tertiary order of the Franciscans at the Church of San Francesco a Ripa, devoting herself to the care of sick and poor, in a very difficult period, during the Sack of Rome (1527) and the bubonic plague (1528). Died at the age of 60 she was immensely popular.  She was known for her religious ecstasies, including levitation, several miracles were attributed to her.  Buried in the family chapel in San Francesco a Ripa, her tomb soon became a venerated site of pilgrimage.

    The cardinal Paluzzo descendant of the 'saint' was the most powerful man in the Curia.  His nephew had married the niece of the pope.
    The pope Clement X Altieri was aged and weak: he soon adopted Paluzzi as his nephew. No wonder the powerful cardinal, the right-hand man of the pope, chose the greatest artist of the time for a monument celebrating his venerated ancestor.

    Bernini presumably sculpted the statue almost for free: surprising considering who the sponsor was. The artist was a smart 'businessman' well aware of his talent.

    In 1959 a scandal related to the project was discovered by Valentino Martinelli.  The incident was reconstructed investigating in the Vatican archives. 

    In 1670 Bernini's brother and assistant Luigi fled to Naples. Guilty of raping a young boy in the vicinity of the statue of Constantine, in St. Peter's.
    The news spread, money was offered to the boy's family while the queen Christine of Sweden, friend of Bernini, tried to intercede with the pope.

    The people of Rome could not forgive: the artist was blamed also for the tremendous amount of money made at the papal court.
    He was in his seventies, old, ill and frail, committed also to other projects.  He proceeded slowlier than usual.  The statue was completed in 2 years (1674), sculpted by him and not by pupils. 

    In the Holy Year of 1675 his brother was supposedly released from exile. 

    The scandal is not mentioned by Bernini's biographers although probably the artist worked for no compensation in reparation for his brother's crime.
    The episode sheds a different light on Bernini:  a more humanized artist who cared deeply for his family and that facing frustration and humiliation carved his masterpiece as an act of love. A commitment that must have been unprecedented.

    References:  Bernini and the Idealization of Death: The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and the Altieri Chapel. Perlove, Shelley Karen (1990). The Pennsylvania State University Press.

    Nov 9, 2014

    The elevator to Cavallini's hidden frescoes.

    There is another Last Judgement in Rome, less known than the one admired by millions of tourists each year in the Sistine Chapel, but as powerful and grand, painted almost 250 years earlier. To appreciate this masterpiece all you need to do is ring a bell.  Following modifications to the church the fresco is now in the cloistered nun's choir and can be reached only by passing through part of the convent. So ring a bell, follow the nun, a quick ride in the elevator and you are there, facing its vibrant colors in a close-up view.
    The fresco was rediscovered in 1900 during some restoration works in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, one of the most ancient titular churches in Rome. According to Ghiberti and Vasari it is by the Roman painter Pietro Cavallini, a pioneer in visual art in the late Duecento.

    Pietro Cavallini worked for most his life in Rome, active also in Naples and possibly in Assisi.  Some scholars in fact attribute to Cavallini the fresco cycle of the Legend of St. Francis traditionally considered by Giotto. Not much is known about Cavallini's training.

    The present church of Santa Cecilia was built under the pope Paschal I (817-24) who appears in the mosaic of the apse completed when the pope was still alive. Around 1300 the church was redecorated: a new ciborium by Arnolfo di Cambio was placed above the altar while the nave and the counter façade were frescoed by Cavallini. The precious cycle was largely destroyed when the cardinal Francesco Acquaviva had the interior redesigned in 1725.
    Cavallini's Last Judgement  (around 1293) was rediscovered in the beginning of XX century, behind the choir-stalls of the Benedictine nuns. Large sections of the old fresco came to light again: the middle register of the Last Judgment, fragments of the Annunciation on the north wall, and two scenes from the story of Jacob on the south wall.  It is assumed that there were cycles of the Old and New Testament on the walls of the nave.

    The monumental enthroned Christ and Apostles, the angels with feathers in graduated colors reveal a new sense of volumes, a blend of Byzantine, Roman and early Christian elements. The idea of portraying the apostles with the symbols of their martyrdom was a novelty derived from a French practice, just inaugurated at the time. The chiaroscuro models those faces who reveal true emotions, beyond the abstract Byzantine manner, inspired by the great pictorial tradition of late antiquity.  A new sense of real!

    The discovery of new frescoes by Cavallini in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in 2000 brought about another wave of interest on the artist whose reputation decline was mainly due to Vasari who relegated him to a secondary role, as a pupil of Giotto.  While the innovations of Cavallini might have inspired the younger Giotto instead.

    A Smarthistory Video on the frescoes:  http://youtu.be/pwHzN9aV1WY