About Me

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

    Nov 6, 2014

    When Moses twisted his head.

    During the restoration of Michelangelo's Moses, completed in 2002, many unexpected findings were made, including significant modifications in the final years between 1542-45. The theory is supported by a great scholar on Michelangelo: Christoph L. Frommel.  In his biography on the artist Michelangelo una vita inquieta (2005) chief restorer Antonio Forcellino describes how the artist worked over time.  
    According to a document recently discovered by Forcellino, Michelangelo would have turned the head of Moses 25 years after his first version.  A letter from an anonymous acquaintance of the artist reports (shortly after Michelangelo's death) how the master had turned the head of Moses at a later time. Frommel noticed how oddly enough art history makes no reference to the fact.
    Other elements discovered during the restoration seem to confirm the theory:
    - the massive beard pulled to the right, presumably because on the left there was not enough marble left after the torsion;
    - the throne of Moses is lowered on the left and to place the left foot back the artist is forced to tighten the knee;
    - for the first time since the days of Canova the rear part of the statue was examined: a belt survives (which disappeared from the front).
    Apparently the reason who prompted Michelangelo to turn Moses' head was religious.
    Moses does not turn around and grab his beard to 'tame his passion' and save the tablets as Sigmund Freud had suggested. 
    According to Frommel Moses looks away from the altar where the venerated chains of Peter granted indulgences to countless pilgrims. 
    Just as if he had seen a new golden calf.
    Further evidence for Michelangelo's involvement with Reformation circles.

    Oct 15, 2014

    The Lanternarius at the Baths of Diocletian.

    Lanternarius with cucullus - I-II century A.D.
    Rome Tiber, Palatine bridge.
    National Roman Museum (Baths of Diocletian)
    Michelangelo's Cloister.
    A little mysterious statue rests in the shade of the cloister in the National Roman Museum (Baths of Diocletian).  Among hundreds of statues of the Imperial age, it would easily risk to go unnoticed if it were not for the seductive charm it emanates, a sense of peace, an aura of mystery.  
    Rather than statues of emperors or victorious generals,  those 'extras', background actors in history, have much more to say about daily life back then:  a little boy, a slave, holding a lantern, fallen asleep while waiting for his master.  It's chilly outside and the lanternarius is wrapped in his cucullus, a rough hooded jacket. 
    Streets had no public lighting, except when shows were held at night at the circus or amphitheater. 
    Therefore to venture out it was necessary to have a torch or a lantern, perhaps carried by a slave (lanternarius).  Especially in the heavy and noisy night traffic.
    Caesar in fact in 45 b.C. prohibited the circulation of carts and chariots during the day (Municipal Julian Law), except to transport building materials for great public works.
    The cucullus, later adopted also by medieval monks (and by the likes of Yoda in Star Wars) was the work coat used by Roman slaves:  just as the toga was worn by  Roman citizens so the cucullus was indicative of a slave, who needed to be outside in bad weather. 
    The cucullus is the ‘cloak of invisibility’ associated also with the underworld and the most renowned cucullatus divinity of Hellenistic antiquity is Telesphorus (god of sleep):  a hooded, cloaked, barefoot child-god, venerated also in association with Asklepios, the healer god who visits patients at night.  Thus often on tombs similar funerary statuettes illuminated the path of the dominus through the darkness of death. 




    May 11, 2014

    Klimt's Three Ages at Gallery of Modern Art in Rome.

    Mothers have always been a popular subject in Art,  depicted as goddesses, tender Madonnas,  timeless mythological figures.
    There is one work in particular that comes immediately to my mind when I think of motherhood. An icon. It's by Klimt, probably the greatest Austrian painter who ever lived and one of the most expensive of all time, after death.
    It is surprisingly in Rome.
    Shown for the first time at the Biennale in Venice in 1910, it won the gold medal in 1911 at the International Exhibition in Rome for the 50th Anniversary of Italian Unity. It was purchased by Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art in 1912.
    A tender portrait of a loving mother posing as a Madonna. In fact it's often referred to as Mother and Child.  
    The Three Ages of Woman (1905) - Gustav Klimt.
    Galleria d'Arte Moderna - Rome.

    But a mysterious third woman appears in the background: old, naked, an unforgiving depiction of decay.  A disturbing vision. So disturbing that in the numberless reproductions, posters and postcards, it's often simply 'cut out'.
    The old woman might have been inspired, according to some scholars, by Rodin's  Old Courtesan, in Vienna for the Secession Exhibition in 1901.  
    Three women at different stages in life: an allusion to the never-ending cycle of life and death. 
    Klimt had lost his son Otto in 1902 and besides an apparent tribute to motherhood there is a clear obsession with time ad death.  Nevertheless it evokes also youth, fertility and love.
    The vibrant colors of his palette convey a less bitter and tragic interpretation of the theme.  But the decorative elements in the background, similar to the byzantine mosaics he loved, are something else:  those mysterious shapes have been interpreted as bacteria and protozoa, symbols of decay and decomposition. He was fascinated by microbiology.
    Death and sexuality were regarded as inconceivable elements of chaos by his society. Nevertheless Eros and Thanatos were the source of  Klimt's inspiration. 
    The ageing process, especially concerning women, was a popular subject already in the Renaissance depicted by artists such as Giorgione. It became a common theme also in Klimt's Symbolist era.
    His works have even been criticized for being pornographic.  He was fascinated and obsessed by female bodies. And by women's clothing.  Some of the outfits he created for his creatures are truly spectacular. Not surprising they inspired designer John Galliano for one of his collections.
    Not much is known about his private life but he was apparently the father of at least 14 illegitimate children with his various lovers.
    He once wrote: "I have never painted a self-portrait. I am more interested in other people, especially women.'