Postcard from Rome, Italy: When you start zooming in on the ‘wild things’

We stayed in Rome 30 days and 30 nights. A church a day. A museum a day. We never came close to exhausting them. But it really hit me on a day toward the end. Temporarily, I was museumed-out. And you probably are as well because I have been dragging you through all of them.

The major symptom of this over-exposure was focusing on bizarre details like an adolescent, and I was stricken with this illness almost immediately upon entering the stunning Palazzo Barberini, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. It was Lorenzo Lotto’s fault. Right there at the bottom of his “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria” was an escapee from the “wild rumpus” of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I went downhill from there, as though viewing art through Max’s eyes. Or through the eyes of the bad-behaving putti in Poussin’s “Baccanale.” There was a cute little rooster perched under Jesus’ feet nailed to the cross. Those limbo-like babies awkwardly cradled in Saint Michael’s scales, and the devil’s head spilling out over the frame under his red slippers. The devil wears polka-dots? Were those seemingly anachronistic stretch white undies added to Saint Sebastian later?

Those are the strangest little pink-winged angels catching cupfuls of Jesus’ blood. Who would park Baby Jesus naked on the bare ground of the manger, without even a bed of hay, with everyone else around him was comfortably clothed? How low did I sink? I am sorry, Lippi, but that plump little man in your Madonna’s arms appears trying to and capable of choking her. And, Caravaggio, Holfernes appears to be bleeding red plastic straws as Judith beheads him.

Forgive me for this major lapse. Maturity returned. I recovered my sense of cultural appreciation by the time we stood in the grand salon under Pietro da Corona’s “Triumph of Divine Providence.” On our way out, a velvet rope prevented us from getting more than a glimpse of Borromini’s spectacular oval spiral, or helicoidal, staircase.

About the bees. You might have noticed images of a trio of bees appearing off and on in earlier posts of photos taken in Roman churches. The bees are the symbol of the Barberini family.

In 1623, Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) emerged as the candidate selected by the conclave, taking the name of Pope Urban VIII. Customs of the times dictated a pope’s family needs a palatial presence in Rome, so Pope Urban VIII purchased a villa on the Quirinal Hill that had been owned by the Sforza family.

Incorporating the original villa into the design as one side of an H-shaped palace, architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) began work in 1627 with assistance from his nephew, Francesco Borromini (1559-1667). Barely two years into the makeover, Maderno died. Despite Borromini’s presence on the job, the pope commissioned a younger rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), as the lead architect for the project.

Some time during his two decades as pope, Urban VIII most have incurred the wrath of the future Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) of the Pamphilj family, whose palace we visited quite a few posts ago. Pope Innocent X confiscated the both the Palazzo Barberini and its artwork. The family feud must have reached a truce, with Innocent returning the palace to the Barberini family two years before his death.

The companion museum that is part of the National Gallery of Paintings with Palazzo Barberini is the Palazzo Corsini, also visited in an earlier post.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.