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Nov 24, 2013

Trappist: the historical Roman chocolate.


In Sicily it's Modica, in Tuscany Stainer, in Turin Peyrano or Caffarel, among others. 
In Rome the synonym for chocolate is Trappist, produced from 1880 by monks! 
Dark, with milk or hazelnuts, gianduia and for Christmas 'torrone' (nougat) of course.
Their recipes are ancient and strictly top secret, their logo:  the Colosseum with a cross!
Trappists are named after La Trappe Abbey in Normandy (France).  They are a reformed wing of Cistercian monks who were also originally from France (Citeaux) where the order was founded in 1098.  Trappists follow St. Benedict' s rule.
They used to speak only when necessary:  they actually have a sign language!  Even if they were actually much more rigorous until the Second Vatican Council in 1960s.
They still live by the work of their hands, not neglecting study and writing.  Monasteries are generally located in rural areas and produce cheese, bread, chocolate, beer, jams, liqueurs and also cosmetics!
Their beers contain residual sugars plus yeast so, unlike common beer, will improve with age.

Three Fountains Abbey, 1874.

The Trappist Abbey in Rome is located at the Tre Fontane (Three Fountains) on the Via Laurentina where they have three separate churches (one to St. Paul, one to the Blessed Mary and the third dedicated to the Saints Vincent and Anastasius).  The Church of St. Paul was raised on the spot where the saint was beheaded by order of Emperor Nero. Legend accounts for the three springs (fontane) asserting that, when severed from Paul's body, his head bounced and struck the earth in three different places, from which fountains sprang up. The church also holds the pillar to which St. Paul was tied according to tradition and some mosaics from Ostia Antica.

More on the Abbey:
http://www.abbaziatrefontane.it/index.php (only in Italian).

Once the area was swampy and malarial:  that's why eucalyptus trees were planted:  their liqueur distilled from the leaves is very popular.   Their specialties are sold in the little shop by the entrance.  The monks also sell an aromatic vinegar which is said to cure headaches and rheumatism and the best chocolate you can find in Rome. 
Actually till 1970 all those goods were produced by the monks, now a factory in Frattocchie supplies the shop of the Tre Fontane.

Their specialties are also online:

A brief video on the factory (better without audio):



Oct 27, 2013

St. Joseph of the Carpenters in Rome.

San Giuseppe dei Falegnami is one of those surprising non-tourist Roman parish churches definitely worth a visit.  It is located up above the Mamertine Prison, the ancient Roman prison where, according to the legend, St. Peter and St. Paul were kept before martyrdom.
At the foot of the Capitole hill, by the Arch of Septimius Severus.
It's a baroque church, 'very' baroque:  a golden light pervades the richly decorated interior.  Built in 1597 by the Congregation of the Carpenters:  many of the angels hold carpenter's instruments in honor of their patron saint St. Joseph. The project by Giovan Battista Montani is completed by G.B. Soria.

Partly remodeled at the end of XIX century.

Rest on the flight to Egypt and Prophets by Giuseppe Puglia (1634).

Nativity -1651
Carlo Maratta
(2nd altar, left).

The Oratory is the real gem.
Frescoes by a very active baroque artist from Velletri:
Marco Tullio Montagna.
One of the preliminary sketches for those frescoes is...
in the Art Museum of the School of Design in
Rhode Island!

Marriage of the Virgin Mary.


Flight to Egypt.

Oct 26, 2013

SS. Luke and Martina: Pietro da Cortona's two souls.

The church of St. Luke and Martina was designed by Pietro da Cortona next to the building which housed the Academy of St. Luke  till 1931, on the site where originally a VII century chapel to Santa Martina (martyr Septimius Severus) was erected,  facing the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Roman Forum. 

Bust of Pietro da Cortona by Bernardino Fioriti.
(lower church).
His tombstone can be seen on the floor of the nave (upper church).
In 1634, when Pietro da Cortona became the director of the Accademia, he requested to build his own funerary monument in the church.  But surprisingly during the construction of his chapel the body of Santa Martina was unearthed. 

Santa Martina (main altar) by Nicola Menghini (1635).

To celebrate the event cardinal Francesco Barberini, pope Urban VIII's nephew, commissioned Cortona the project of a new church in honor of Martina but also dedicated to St. Luke (patron saint of painters) for the building was owned by St. Luke Academy (the guild of artists founded in 1577). 

Symbols of the Evangelists

The remarkable stuccoes are by Camillo Rusconi, G. Battista Maini, Filippo della Valle.
Completed in 1730.

Cortona's plan is based on a Greek cross.  The dome is ribbed and it's supported by a tall drum, lightened by huge windows, rhythmically undulated.  The windows are adorned by garlands, shells, scrolls and female heads.  The dome and the vault are coffered and decorated with the Barberini bees and laurel, lilies for chastity and palms of martyrdom. 

The shrine of Santa Martina was designed by P. da Cortona
and cast by Giovanni Artusi.

In the crypt the shrine with the remains of Santa Martina.  The materials are colored, the plan is more complex.  A striking contrast with the upper monumental church, austere and white, almost entirely decorated with white stuccoes (surprising, considering da Cortona was primarily a painter).   Around this time also Borromini adopted white stucco for S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane).  Preminence is given to architecture.  They could have been influenced by Palladio who retained 'white' the most appropriate color for churches.

Sep 16, 2013

A Roman mummy and her jewels.

If you ever visit Palazzo Massimo don't forget to include the basement in your itinerary:  my favorite room houses an amazing exhibit of gold jewelry, alabaster cinerary urns and a sarcophagus still containing the mummy of an eight-year-old girl!
There's also a stunning numismatic collection, the largest one in Italy, covering all periods from the mint of Juno Moneta. 
More than 100 marble fragments illustrate the Edict of Diocletian (301 A.D.),  a measure to combat inflation, essential for understanding Roman economy.  Last but not least you'll have the opportunity to admire the 3 precious scepters of the emperor Maxentius  found in 2006 on the slopes of the Palatine by the Arch of Constantine.
But let's go back to Roman jewelry...  those treasures are precious documents to understand the opulence and the luxury of antiquity.  The little girl of Grottarossa is unique:  though embalming was practiced in Rome, this is the only mummy (II century A.D.) that survived from that period.  Her funerary kit is also on display.  She was actually found adorned with gold earrings and a gorgeous gold necklace embedded with sapphires.

Jewels from archaic period to Imperial age.

So many different ways to style the hair with gold.
A Roman Barbie (II century).  Ivory.
From the sarcophagus of Tivoli (Via Valeria).
Grottarossa Mummy
discovered in 1964.

Her doll.

Her jewels. 

Sep 12, 2013

The 'X-rated' Fountain of the Naiads in Rome.

No other city celebrates water like Rome! Almost every square is adorned with a fountain more or less monumental!  Arriving by train,  the very first fountain we come across is the modern Fountain of the Naiads, dominating Piazza della Repubblica. 

The square, a step away from Termini station,  is also known as Piazza dell' Esedra, occupying the large curved space of the former baths of Diocletian.  The porticoes designed by Gaetano Koch at the end of XIX century, replace the ancient Roman buildings originally located around the exedra

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels is actually an interesting example of converted architecture: one of the halls of the ancient Roman baths, transformed by Michelangelo into a church! Hard to tell from the exterior, since the façade is, simply, the brick wall of what was probably the ancient Tepidarium, respected and maintained by an artist that was so much ahead of his time.

The very first fountain, commissioned by the pope Pius IX in 1870, was dominated by four chalk lions by Alessandro Guerrieri, replaced in 1901 by the Fountain of the Naiads by Mario Rutelli.

Rutelli was a sculptor from Palermo, probably more known for being the great grand-father of Francesco, mayor of Rome twice between 1993 and 2001.  Mario's father was the famous architect who designed the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo: the third largest lyrical theatre in Europe.
Mario Rutelli designed also the statue of Anita Garibaldi on the Janiculum and one of the Victories on the Monument to Victor Emmanuel.

For Mussolini the fountain was ' the exaltation of eternal youth, the capital's first salute to art'.

The Naiads are nymphs, each one alluding to a particular form of water.
They can be identified by their allegorical  animal.

A frilled lizard for the nymph of underground streams.

When first unveiled the four naked bronze statues of the Naiads, deemed to be 'obscene', were fenced with a railing.  Their 'lascivious' and 'provocative' poses were considered excessive by the prude conservatives of the time!

A horse for the nymph of the Oceans (detail).

The models who posed for Rutelli's sensual naiads were renowned for their beauty:  they came from Anticoli Corrado, a little village perched on a hill, not too far from Rome, known in XIX century for the legendary beauty of local women, apparently so attractive that the little borgo became the village of artists and models, literally colonized by sculptors and painters!

A giant snake for the nymph of rivers.

Fortunately, in spite of the opposition and the initial censorship, the naiads remained in place and the railing was finally removed. 

A swan for the nymph of the lakes.

Rutelli completed the fountain with some sculptures to be placed in the centre:  three human figures, a dolphin and an octopus tangled together. 
The first version in mortar placed in 1911 for the International Exposition was greeted with so much sarcasm, that the final bronze version was never added.
The group nicknamed the fish fry, was replaced by the statue of the sea-god Glaucus which received more positive feedbacks. 
The much criticized concrete fish fry lies abandoned in the gardens of Piazza Vittorio today. 

Sep 7, 2013

San Vito, a surprising church in Rome.


The little church dedicated to St. Vitus in the rione Esquilino, is only 10 minutes from the more known Basilica of St. Mary the Major. 
It's first recorded at the end of VIII century as S. Vito in Macello since it was near the macellum, the ancient Roman indoor market.

The location of the church is bizarre, almost leaning on the Arch of Gallienus.
The arch was originally an ancient Roman gate (Esquiline) in the Servian walls, the very first walls of Rome (IV century B.C.).  Rebuilt in monumental style in the Augustan period, it was dedicated to the emperor Gallienus and his wife Cornelia Salonina in 262,  by the equestrian Aurelius Victor (the inscription is on the architrave). From the gate two important Roman roads started:  the Labicana and Tiburtina.
The Church is actually dedicated to St. Vitus,  Modestus and Crescentia:  IV century martyrs under the emperor Diocletian, much venerated the Middle Ages.
St. Vitus is more known; Modestus, and Crescentia were, respectively, his tutor and his nurse, husband and wife.  According to the legend Vitus, the son of a Sicilian senator, was brought up by Modestus and his wife as a Christian. His father tried in vain, even torturing him, to shake his faith, but Vitus was resolute and did not betray the two.  They managed to escape by boat to Lucania but were captured and taken to Rome where St. Vitus also cured the emperor Diocletian's son of devil possession.  Accused of sorcery they were tortured and condemned to death.
An angel would have brought them back to Lucania where they died. 
The three saints are very popular in Southern Italy and Sicily.  Much venerated also in Prague where the huge cathedral is dedicated to St. Vitus, the patron saint of Bohemia.
In the late Middle Ages in Germany St. Vitus feast (June 15th) was celebrated in a singular way:  worshippers danced around his statue.  As a matter of fact he is the patron saint of dancers (besides actors, comedians). He is also invoked for protection against epilepsy, lightnings, animal attacks and... oversleep!  The expression 'St. Vitus dance' also refers to a neurological disorder characterized by uncoordinated movements. 

The church in Rome was originally a diaconia, a 'welfare center' for the care of poor people and the distribution of alms. It was rebuilt at the end of XV century by the pope Sixtus IV in the present location, near the original site.  The Cistercian monks to whom it was entrusted at the time, established also a small monastery, adjacent to the church.  Further restorations followed and with the expansion of the neighborhood beyond the Roman walls a new façade was opened on Via Carlo Alberto.  In the 70s such alterations were fortunately removed.
The interior is incredibly plain and sober:  one nave, the apse, a lacunar ceiling, almost white. 
So modest that, walking toward the altar, you don't expect the impressive fresco on the right wall.
XV century fresco

It's a Renaissance work attributed to Antoniazzo Romano or Melozzo da Forlì (XV century) depicting a Madonna and Child, between Crescentia and Modestus and, down below, from the left St. Sebastian, Saint Margaret (the dragon, one of her attributes, has almost disappeared, only the tail is visible) and St. Vitus with a dog.
St. Sebastian, St. Margaret, St. Vitus and ...the dog.

In the Italian iconography he appears with one or more dogs. 
Probably because of his birth:  June 15h is a date preceding summer which was associated by the Romans to the star Sirius, considered to be the 'dog star' because it's the brightest in the constellation of the dog (Canis Major).  But also other explanations are possible of course, even if less credited:  the dog could be related to the fact the saint was invoked against rabies, or more simply it is a symbol of his fidelity to Christ.
A modern fresco (XIX century) on the opposite wall shows a Madonna offering the rosary to St. Catherine of Siena and St. Dominic.

On the right wall there is also an ancient Roman funerary cippus (a tomb marker) still bearing the inscription.    Known in the Middle Ages as pietra scellerata (infamous stone), it was believed that martyrs were tortured and killed on it.  Its surface is consumed because according to traditional beliefs the powder obtained by scratching the marble cured a multitude of evils, especially hydrophobia (rabies).

Sep 4, 2013

Saint Labre, the clochard that lived at the Colosseum.

A moving sculpture portrays St. Benedict Joseph Labre on his deathbed: the funerary monument sculpted by Achille Albacini, a pupil of Canova, in 1892, is in the Church of Madonna dei Monti (left transept). 
But who was this eccentric saint canonized in 1881 and known as the 'beggar of the Colosseum'?
Born in the small village of Arnettes, near Arras, the eldest of 15 children, he had good parents and lived a comfortable life. 
Fascinated by the monastic life from a young age and despite his attempts to join Trappists, Carthusians and Cistercians, he was invariably rejected, judged 'unsuitable for communal life'.
In 1769 finally admitted to the Cistercian Abbey of Sept-Fonts decided, after a short stay, that his vocation was elsewhere.  Labre entered the Third Order of St. Francis. 
He reached Rome on foot and living from begging traveled to the major shrines of Europe (Loreto, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Einsielden, just to name a few).
He lived in Rome under one of the arcades of the Colosseum (XLIII, where the ticket boot is now).
Very popular in the city where the Romans had nicknamed him the Beggar of the Colosseum.
His health soon deteriorated:  he was only 35 years old.
He collapsed in the Church of Santa Maria ai Monti and was charitably transported to one of the backrooms of a butcher in Via dei Serpenti where in the afternoon he died.  It was a Holy Wednesday (April 16, 1783).  Huge crowds gathered for his funeral.  The police had to be doubled, soldiers accompanied the body to the Church: more honor could scarcely have been paid to a royal corpse.
He died a beggar in Rome.
Within a year of his death his reputation for sanctity had spread, it would seem, throughout Europe.
The process of beatification began only one year later.

Sep 2, 2013

Borgias' troubled burial.

The dark legend of the Borgias is known.
Alexander VI, the fourth Spanish pope who occupied the papal throne (the first 3 were Damasus I, Benedict XIII and Callisto III Borgia, the uncle) was a controversial figure:  the Borgias are associated with adultery, incest, simony and murders. Maybe such dark legend was exaggerated by Romantic mythology (Hugo, Dumas, Apollinaire), for sure they were not absolutely innocent.
Alexander died of malaria or perhaps poisoned,  after a long agony on August 18th, 1503,  after 11 years of papacy.
The master of ceremonies Johannes Burkhardt gave him the funeral honors:  the body was moved to the Sistine Chapel and then to St. Peter's. Being a very hot August, the burial was hurried to prevent decomposition.  He rested in the 'Chapel of the Spanish' (disappeared with the reconstruction of St. Peter's). Originally located by the obelisk when it was still on the left side of the Basilica. Buried next to his uncle Callixtus III, the other Borgia pope.  When the obelisk was moved to the center of the square under Pope Sixtus V, the Spanish Chapel of the popes was destroyed and their remains placed in a lead coffin. In the early seventeenth century the remains were moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Monserrato, the National Church of the Crown of Aragon  Only at the end of XIX century they were given proper burial in the Chapel on the right, the first as you enter:  some Spanish aristocrats raised funds for the Chapel (their remains had been abandoned in a corner of the Sacristy where only some curious traveller would have ventured eager to see what was left of the Borgia's legend).  The present Monument is by Moratilla.  The Borgias rest finally in peace after 400 years.  The Spanish king Alfonso XIII (the last one before the Franco Regime) was deposed here after his death in Rome in 1941. 

The unusual columns in Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Madonna del Rifugio.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli is one of the oldest churches in Rome:  located on the highest summit of the Capitol hill where, according to Medieval legends, the Tiburtine Sybil would have announced Augustus the coming of Christ. Built on the ruins of the Temple of Juno Moneta, its first construction should date back to 6th century.  Rebuilt by the Franciscans in the XIII century, its grand stairway was offered as an ex-voto for the end of the plague in 1348. 

Edward Gibbon writes in his Memoirs:  'It was in Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter [the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli] that the idea of writing the decline and the fall of the city first started to my mind'. 

A fascinating contrast between Classical art and Christianity pervades the interior of the church.  It could be epitomized by the curios ancient columns of the nave: colossal columns recycled from ancient monuments and painted between XIV and XV century!

St. Luke.
Madonna of the Column.
A mysterious column (the third on the left) bears the inscription A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM.  Probably originally in the imperial palace, it is surprisingly perforated. 
That strange hole might have been used for astronomical observations.


Jul 8, 2013

The Toga: badge of Roman citizenship.

photo Toga Party Costumes - Buzzle
Toga was THE national garment of Roman citizens:  a woollen cloak with curved hem.
For men it was a symbol of their free-born status. 
Augustus revived the toga and invited Romans to wear it in the Forum and when attending races at the Circus.

Late antique writer Macrobius describes in his 'Satires' (3.13.4) the complexity of being a dandy for Hortensius: [...] to go out well dressed he checked his appearance in the mirror, and so draped the toga on his body that a graceful knot gathered the folds, arranging them not randomly but with care [...] He thought it a crime that folds should be moved from their place on his shoulder [...]

It was a statement which underlined the Roman citizenship.
Initially it was made of undyed white thick coarse woollen cloth.
A dark toga: brown or black (toga sordida) was used by poor citizens, accused people or for mourning.
Victorius generals in their processions wore the special toga picta (purple wool and gold thread).  Also worn by kings initially, emperors later, equites and priests.
The toga praetexta was for high rank people:  it had a purple stripe (clavus).
Young Roman boys, once they turned 16,  were allowed to wear the toga virilis or liberior (since it meant they were free from parental control.)  It was also named toga pura because it was white.
For the Romans dress was, like nowadays, an expression of social rank, gender and age. 

Jul 6, 2013

The topless bronze gladiatrix in Hamburg.

photo Alfonso Manas

Female gladiators existed!
A rarity, nevertheless, documented by Roman historians such as Dio Cassius (150-235 CE) who describes a festival organized by Nero for his mother (in which women fought). 
The same writer reports an event sponsored by the same emperor in the year 66 CE with Ethiopian women-gladiators in Pozzuoli in honor of the king of Armenia Tiridates.
Suetonius, another famous Roman historian and biographer (69-122 CE), describes games held under Domitian (88 CE) in which women fought against dwarfs!
Tacitus (Annales 15.32-33) reports that during a show in AD 63 some senators and noblewomen entered the arena to fight.
The satirical poet Juvenal describes Mevia hunting boars in the arena. 
Petronius (Satyricon) and Martial (Liber De Spectaculis) also refer to games involving women.
In the British Museum a marble relief found in Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey) portrays 2 women gladiators nicknamed Achillia and Amazon

A bronze statuette, almost 2000 years old, in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbein, in Hamburg,  has recently been interpreted as woman-gladiator, according to researcher Alfonso Manas, of Spain's University of Granada.  It could be a bare-chested woman brandishing a short, curved sword (sica).  The mysterious object she holds was previously identified as a strigil (used by Romans, who did not use soap, for scraping the body clean).
Manas is persuaded she is a gladiator for the pose:  typical of victorious gladiators.
Not surprising that she is topless:  women and men fought with bare chest.
Considering the audience was largely formed by men that caused a certain impact of course.

The scarcity of archaeological evidence depicting women gladiators however proves that women were rarely fighting. Such custom was banned by the emperor Septimus Severus (200 AD).

Jun 30, 2013

Tripadvisor awards Park of the Aqueducts: 6th most popular park in Italy for travellers from around the world!

(from the photo-gallery)
TripAdvisor, the largest travel site in the world, just in time for Summer, announced its first ever Travelers’ Choice Attractions awards, honoring over 1,200 of the world’s top landmarks, parks, museums.   This first edition has recognized 1,263 attractions divided into historic sites, museums, parks and amusement parks.
Winners of the 2013 Travelers Choice Attractions are distributed in 39 countries around the world.

If in the top ten of the Italian sights St.Peter’s Basilica, Colosseum and Pantheon are not really a surprise (http://www.tripadvisor.it/TravelersChoice-Attractions-cLandmarks) what it’s very interesting is that Rome also won two positions in the top 10 of the most popular Italian parks for travelers from around the world. Villa Doria Pamphili, the largest park in the capital, is ranked 5th in the top ten, closely followed by the Park of the Aqueducts, which gained a sixth position!

Like no other place, it has preserved the charm and the atmosphere envisioned by travelers of the Grand Tour.  Crossed by six of the eleven major aqueducts built by the Romans plus a Renaissance one (the Aqua Felix, built in 1585 under Felice Peretti: pope Sixtus V, using the arches of the Aqua Marcia).

The most ancient acqueduct in the Park is the Anio Vetus (3rd century B.C.), almost entirely underground, the most conspicuous is the Aqua Claudia whose imposing arches still survive
above ground in the peaceful contryside where you can still see sheep grazing.  The aqueducts are supplied from natural springs in the upper valley of the Aniene beyond Tivoli, in the Alban Hills.

11 acqueducts in the Ancient Rome brought more than 200 million gallons of water into the city every day!

This wonderful park is also easy to reach: best approach from Via Lemonia.
Buy a metro ticket (€1,50), get on the metro line A, direction Anagnina and get off the at Subaugusta station. Exit toward via Tito Labieno and walk down via Tito Labieno a few blocks (about 600 m) to the park. 
When you cross via Quintilo Varo, you will know you are headed in the right direction.
Cross via Lemonia and you are there!

Jun 29, 2013

Correggio's Danae: a soft porn or Virgin Mary's prefiguration?

Danae by Correggio (1531) - Borghese Gallery - Rome.

In Greek mythology Danae, the daughter of Acrisius, king of Argos was imprisoned in a tower after an oracle predicted the king  that her son would kill him.  But men cannot fight Fate and Zeus visited her in the form of a golden shower.   Perseus, born from this divine union, will accidentally kill the king as the prophecy had foreseen. 
Interpretations of Danae have been ambivalent and often contradictory. 
For misogynist Roman poets she was interpreted as a venal woman whose love can be bought for money. 
The myth was Christianized during  the 14th century and she became a sort of 'Virgin Mary', giving birth, impregnated by the Holy Spirit. 
Artists like Correggio and Titian in the Renaissance underlined the sensuality of the scene.
Coreggio’s Danae was mistakenly interpreted as a Venus by Vasari. 
A 'soft porn', part of a cycle of Jupiter’s Loves which Correggio painted towards the end of his life.  Commissioned by Federico Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, who continued the glorious patronage of arts started by his mother Isabella d’Este. 
Correggio's style reinterprets freely Raphael and Leonardo's suggestions.  This is one of my favourite paintings at the Borghese for its fascinating ambiguity:  how shall we interpret Cupid's gesture?  Is he trying to prevent  or to favour the 'union'?  Is he covering or uncovering Danae?

Jun 28, 2013

A Day at Ostia: 5 good reasons not to miss it!

Ostia Antica is an underestimated attraction:  it should be a must, especially if you can't make it to Pompei.

1) After Pompei and Herculaneum it's Italy's best preserved Roman town.  Ostia was the port of Rome and a prosperous city with a theater, temples, baths, condominiums and patrician villas. It provides a vivid picture of Rome's everyday life!

2) It's located at about 25 km from the city and can be easily reached by train (metro B from Stazione Termini to Piramide stop and from there take a Lido train to Ostia Antica).
3) In summer classics are staged inside the ancient  Roman theater (http://www.ostianticateatro.it/).

4) If you are travelling with kids it's a perfect destination:  they will just love the combination nature & ruins.  Don't forget swim-suits and sunblock:  you can easily reach the beaches by train (just a few minutes). The water is not exactly crystal clear but the coast is lively, there are nice beach clubs (stabilimenti)  and the dark sand accelerates tanning!

5) No matter where you go you'll find bars serving delicious caprese salad, panini or pasta and also good fish restaurants.

Mar 8, 2013

Villa Farnesina: the popes' banker's residence.

Commissioned by Agostino Chigi the banker of the popes, the villa was meant for a woman: his young Venetian mistress Francesca Ordeaschi who some years later he made his wife. They had five children, who were illegitimate.  When he became seriously ill (he was only 54) he decided to marry her and the marriage was celebrated by the pope Leo X. Chigi died the following year.
Between 1506–1510 the Sienese artist Baldassarre Peruzzi designed the villa intended to be a summer pavilion.  Best known are Raphael’s frescoes on the ground floor; in the loggia: Cupid and Psyche and The Triumph of Galatea (this one so reminiscent of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus!).

March 9th is the only day to visit Santa Francesca Romana Monastery.

For the anniversary of her death (March 9th, 1440) the Monastery where she spent the last years of her life is exceptionally open to the public (only one day a year actually - March 9th from 9 to 11,30 and from 14,30 to 18,00).  Santa Francesca Romana chose a monastic life after the death of her two children for the plague and the illness of her husband.  She was born in a wealthy and aristocratic family and she wanted to become a nun since she was 11 but at the age of 12 she was forced to marry (a happy marriage in the end which lasted 40 years). A life of constant tension between the Vocational instict and the inner sense of family.  She was canonized in 1608 for a life spent to help the poor and the sick.  She founded the Olivetan Oblates of Mary (a confraternity of pious women) and the Monastery of Tor de Specchi near the Capitole hill.  The Monastery is a beautiful exemple of the artistic transition between Medieval and Renaissance art (the very precious frescoes by Antoniazzo Romano illustrate the life of the saint and offer a valuable insight of the period including some very interesting iscriptions in Roman dialect).  In 1925 pope Pius XI declared her the patron saint of automobile drivers because of a legend that an angel used to light the road before her with a lantern when she traveled keeping her safe from hazards. Within the Benedictine Order , she is also honored as a patron saint of all oblates.
On this day admission is free for all those who wish to remember a little known Saint and visit the Monastery where she is buried.

Mar 7, 2013

3 good reasons not to miss Titian's Exhibition

1) The artist:  it is a unique opportunity to admire 40 masterpieces from all over (Titian can be considered the first great European artist).  The exhibition shows the evolution of his extraordinary and versatile long career (from sacred to mythological subjects including portraits of his powerful patrons).  From his early years with Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini, to the large canvases for the Doges, the Este dukes or the Della Rovere family up to the commissions for the Emperors Charles V and his son Philip II.
2)  The location: the Scuderie del Quirinale (Scuderie is the Italian for Staples) were originally the 18th century staples of the popes.  Very special Staples indeed designed by 2 great architects:  Alessandro Specchi and Alessandro Fuga. In 1938 the staples became a garage and a after a complete restyling in 1997 a unique exhibition space (by the way the restyling is by Gae Aulenti:  the architect who transformed the Gare d’Orsay into another great museum!)

3)   Last but not least if you are visiting Rome those days… You could feel deprived of something since the Sistine Chapel is out of the question for the Conclave.  Well, this could be an excellent plan B!!!  Tiziano will ‘replace’ his colleague and contemporary Michelangelo admirably!

An Armenian Saint in St. Peter's

Leaving the Sistine Chapel on the way to St. Peter's Basilica our attention is called by a huge marble statue located in one of the external niches of the church (side wall of St. Peter's onto the right). At the base we read: S. Gregorius Armeniae Illuminator. 
It is brand new compared to the others.  The statue was added in 2005 and blessed by John Paul II on January 19th just before one of his traditional Audiences (a few months before his death). It's more than 15 Ft tall, 18 tons of pure Carrara marble, it was sculpted in 2 years and it costed 250.000 euros. Its author: the Armenian-Lebanese sculptor Kazan Khatchick won an international contest for the project.
It is the first statue portraying an Eastern rite saint placed here.
This great Saint, more than 17 centuries ago, converted the Armenians to Christianity:  Armenia thus being the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301.
A conversion that has profoundly marked Armenian identity. The term "Illuminator", with which this Saint is called underlines the passage from darkness to the light of Christ but it also refers to the the light that comes from the spreading of culture through teaching, alluding to the mission of those monk-teachers who followed the example of St Gregory.
Interesting to know that Gregory before his monastic life married Miriam, a devout Christian,  the daughter of a Christian Armenian Prince in Cappadocia and had 2 sons.

Feb 10, 2013

Sacred and Profane Love. Some key facts.

Sacred and Profane Love - 1515 (Borghese Gallery)

Undoubtedly one of the most mysterious paintings in art history. There are so many interpretations and the painting still remains an enigma.
  • Listed as Beauty Adorned and Unadorned when purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1608) only in a later inventory (1693) it's referred to as Sacred and Profane Love.
  • Painted by a young Titian it had to be a marriage gift commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio  for his future bride Laura Bagarotto.  A difficult proposal though since he was a member of the Venetian Council of Ten who had sentenced Laura's father to death for treason. 
  • The sarcophagus is an allusion to death but also a symbol of life since it contains water (the hope that can follow such a tragic event). 
  • Contrary to what we might think the naked woman represents Sacred Love (divine Love doesn't need any adornment).
  • For the 20th century art historian Friedländer the 2 women are Polia and Venere, two characters in Francesco Colonna’s popular 1499 romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilus' Dream).
  • The painting could more simply show the bride Laura Bagarotto and a sensual Venus teaching Laura what love is like. 
  • In 1899 the Rotschilds intended to buy the painting at a price that was higher than the estimated value of the entire Villa Borghese and all its works of art (4,000,000 Lire as opposed to 3,600,000 Lire). 

Jan 24, 2013

Barberini Palace: great anthology of Italian Art.

Beatrice Cenci (attributed to Guido Reni)
This glorious gallery is a must! 
Especially after the recent refurbishing.
Built for the pope Urban VIII, the Palace's project is by Maderno, Borromini and Bernini.
See the amazing staircases by Bernini (square) and Borromini (oval).
The Salon ceiling is decorated by Pietro da Cortona (Triumph of the Divine Providence trompe-l'oeil fresco).  The collection is stunning:  a show of the major and most important Italian paintings of all times,
arranged in order to provide an overview of the development of Italian art.  Masterpieces include La Fornarina by Raphael, The Annunciation by Filippo Lippi,  Guido Reni's Beatrice Cenci, Hans Holbein's famous portrait of Henry VIII. For Caravaggio fans the gruesome Judith beheading Holophernes and Narcissus. Hopefully the wonderful gardens will be restored very soon.

Jan 21, 2013

The Sleeping Hermaphrodite at Palazzo Massimo

Sleeping Hermaphrodite  (1st century BC) -  Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (Museo Nazionale Romano) Rome.

Hermaphrodite is the androgynous child Venus (anything but monogamous) conceived with Hermes.
From behind we perceive the curve of a female back and the suggestion of a woman’s breast.
Turning around and facing the statue we discover the figure is endowed with male genitals.
According to Ovid he was incredibly handsome and he was transformed into an androgynous being by union with the water nymph Salmacis.
Salmacis tried to seduce him but the naive youth rejected the nymph's advances.  
So when he was bathing undressed she jumped into the pool, wrapping herself around him.
He struggled of course, recalcitrant, but by invoking the gods she obtained they would be together forever. So with the aid of divine intervention their bodies blended and formed a creature of both sexes.

Jan 20, 2013


The original bronze statue of a Crouching Venus by the famous Greek sculptor Doidalsas (3rd century b.C.) no longer survives but it served as a model for many Roman copies.
One of the best versions is considered to be the one at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum).  The Crouching Venus is undoubtedly one of the most sensual statues from Antiquity.
The attention to detail is great: the mouth is half-open and we can admire her beautiful teeth.
In some versions she is accompanied by Eros who probably was not foreseen by Doidalsas.  The original Aphrodite had to be plumper and show more curves while in the marble translations she has apparently lost weight.
Twisted, she is trying to cover her nudity, almost hiding.  Pure charm and grace.

Doidalsas of Bythinia (200 B.C. - 100 B.C.) is a
Greek sculptor, mentioned also by Pliny, who describes a statue of Aphrodite bathing herself in the Portico of Octavia in Rome. 
The pose is convincing even if, standing up, the figure would be too elongated.  The effect is intentional:  her fleshiness is unparalleled in other Aphrodite types.