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: Never too much gild for the lily in Palazzo Decorating 101

With strongly patterned floors and walls and ceilings covered with murals and impressive paintings, a rape in the middle of the room could almost escape notice were it not illuminated by spotlights and the focus of the cameras of every tourist entering.

Roman palazzi decorating standards in the 1600s range toward the flamboyant. The larger the palette of colors of marble, the better. No surface should remain untouched. Combining geometric floor patterns with frilly wall and ceiling elements is the norm. Flowers and putti go well with anything and everything, even the darkest oil paintings. Art subjects often appear the opposite of morality plays. And there is no such thing as too much gilding of the lily.

Even in this visually overwhelming setting, “The Rape of Proserpine” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) entices you to circle it. Vicious canines nip at poor Proserpine’s heels as she tries to escape the grasp of the god of the underworld.

Some of Bernini’s best known sculptures are found in the Borghese Gallery and Museum, Museo e Galleria Borghese. The museum is housed in a villa, referred to as the Casino Borghese, built for Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) on what then was the edge of Rome. The casino sits in the midst of some of the vast acreage he managed to assemble for the Borghese clan while his uncle, Pope Paul V (1550-1621), was in charge of the Vatican.

Pope Paul V elevated his favorite nephew to cardinal as soon as he was elected. As the pope’s secretary, among the numerous titles bestowed upon him, Scipione Borghese accumulated great wealth through papal fees and taxes and then rent charged for the resulting vast real estate holdings, including several entire towns.

Despite the obvious nepotism privileges, the cardinal felt the need for a close-to-town escape for entertaining and to house his growing, also thanks to Vatican gifts, art collection. The cardinal was Bernini’s major client for a period of almost five years. The cardinal also demonstrated a penchant for collecting ancient Roman art and works by Carvaggio, Rafael and Titian.

Vatican enemies whispered, perhaps stage whispers, the cardinal was a homosexual. The viewed-as-inappropriate homoerotic art he assembled, with frolicking un-cardinal-like putti and drunken Bacchanalian figures perched around the edges of the ceiling, were viewed as contributing evidence for their claims.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese left behind a major art collection in the casino surrounded by acres and acres of parklike gardens. Subsequent Borghese family members added to or subtracted from the collection, depending on their current state of economic affairs.

The statue of Pauline Napoleon Borghese (1780-1824), Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, posed as Venus is the work of Antonio Canova (1757-1822). During her husband’s lifetime, Camillo Borghese (1775-1832) kept the sensuous statue hidden from public view. But it and all the other naked figures are out of the closet for all to see now.

The entire Villa Borghese, which includes all the surrounding parkland, came under state ownership in 1901.

 

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palace reflects vestiges of papal perks

It has never been easy to obtain first-class relics worthy of designing a gilded chapel around, but it certainly helped to have a pope in the family.

Among the prizes contained in reliquaries in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are “the perfectly preserved remains,” according to the website, of Saint Theodora. We are not sure which Theodora, but this one, before final martyrdom I assume, purportedly was spared from a fiery end by flames that parted around her. Stretched out below the chapel altar are the remains of a saintly centurion who, prior to his conversion and martyrdom, served as an imperial guard standing by during the crucifixion of Christ.

The basic structural bones of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj date from 1435, but the Pamphilj family undertook major remodeling during the second half of the 17th century. Later redo’s Rococo-ed things up a bit.

The Doria portion of the family originally was from Genoa, while the Pamphilj branch had roots in Gubbio. Both powerful families, but the glory years of consolidating prime property and accumulating wealth and art in Rome followed the papal inauguration of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj in 1644 as Innocent X (1574-1655). Papal perks awarded to friends and family were chief causes of stormy Vatican politics for centuries.

Pope Innocent X lived in office for more than a decade, a decade during which he presided over the 1650 Jubilee Celebration. Traditionally during Jubilee years of the church, currently held every 25 years:

families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“The Jubilee Year,” www.vatican.com

In honor of the Jubilee, Pope Innocent X added opulence to St. Peter’s and, for the public, made Piazza Navona the incredible landmark it remains today. He moved an immense Egyptian red granite obelisk of Domitan there and commissioned artists of the caliber of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to add ornate Baroque fountains.

But wait, was that project for the public good or for the pleasure of the Pamphilj family whose palazzo happened to be located there? The family who would flood the plaza to float boats for elaborate summertime parties? No matter now, it is a stunning, if ridiculously overcrowded, public space.

Among the major paintings included in the palazzo’s collection is a portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Some critics regard this portrait as one of the finest in the world; artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) obsessively turned to reproductions of the painting as the basis for his two-decade series of “screaming popes.”