Postcard from Rome, Italy: Revving up the classics

People increasingly need decoration, because it has the same function as music: it seems not to be really necessary but it is. It’s food for our souls.

Barnaba Fornasetti

Classical sculpture. Architecture from the Renaissance. On the street corners. In the plazas. By the metro stations. Artistic creations from throughout the ages are woven into a Roman’s everyday life.

The classics cannot be avoided in this city. So why isolate statues in stagnant museum halls as though they are deceased gods with no relevance to the culture of today?

Several current exhibitions in Rome buck the traditional staid curatorial approach to displaying the art of the past. Among these is “Citazioni Pratiche (Practical Quotes): Fornasetti Palazzo Altemps” at Palazzo Altemps, part of Museo Nazionale Romano.

Curated by Barnaba Fronasetti of Atelier Fornasetti and Valeria Manzi, the exhibit setting up playful interaction between the ancient and contemporary is mounted in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the museum and 70 years of the studio’s designs. Both are treated with respect in the spacious Renaissance palace, with the classical impact and role in modern Italian design repeatedly saluted.

The palace housing the collection originally belonged to Girolamo Riario (1443-1488), a Captain General of the church under his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484). Riario played an active role in the 1478 Pazzi Conspiracy against the Medici family, an operation only partially successful: Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492) survived the plot.

Machiavelli had yet to pen his advice:

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1513

Several of the participants in the scheme were strung up above the walls of Florence by Medici allies, but Pope Sixtus IV rewarded his nephew Riario with a conciliation prize, making him Count of Forli. Accumulating an increasing number of enemies through years of intrigue and involvement in papal politics, Riario later was assassinated and thrown into the piazza below his quarters.

The ultimate Medici revenge might have been the 1568 purchase of the palazzo by the German-born Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps (1533-1595). Altemps’ rise to power in the church was facilitated by his uncle, Pope Pius IV (1499-1565), whose civilian name was Giovanni di Bicci de Medici. Possibly Altemps was responsible for the addition of capricious prancing rams in the decorative trim throughout the palazzo.

And, yes, by the way, the featured Fender takes the man and guitar harem metaphor way too literally.

Postcard from Xativa, Spain: Socarrat good for paella but not for a town

In Valencia, the crispy caramelized socarrat around the edges of the paella pan is a cook’s goal, but scorched is far from ideal when applied to your town.

Spaniards have referred to residents of Xativa as socarrats since the early 1700s. Flush with victory at the Battle of Almansa securing Spain for the Bourbons, the vengeful Phillip V (1683-1746) ordered the town taken and set ablaze. Felipe has not been forgiven, his portrait condemned to hang upside down in the city’s Almodi Museum.

The twin peaks of Monte Vernissa above Xativa have been fortified since Roman times. Himilice, the wife of Hannibal, gave birth to a son there in 218 B.C. Although the fortress appears difficult to conquer, sometimes alliances place one on the conquered side because of battles lost elsewhere.

While under Moorish control, Xativa became the 12th-century European center for production of paper. Most of the walls stretching across the two hilltops today are preserved from the Islamic and Gothic periods. Portions of the castles and fortifications were rebuilt more frequently, including the upper Santa Fe Tower – destroyed by a gunpowder explosion in 1563, an earthquake in 1748 and the French in 1813.

Xativa was home to the powerful Borgia family, known for their Machiavellian political maneuvers. Two of the Xativa-born Borgias became popes, Calixtus III (1378-1458) and Alexander VI (1431-1508). The city also takes great pride as the birthplace of the painter Jose de Ribera (1591-1652).

Out of respect for possible remaining scorched sensibilities, the Mister opted for rabo del toro instead of socarrat-crusted paella. Translated literally, this means bull’s tail, making one think this was one way Spain took care of the remnants of bullfights. But it is oxtail, slowly cooked to an extremely tender stage and served with the resulting rich broth.

Postcard from Modena, Italy: How Modena ended up with the Estense family art

A short train ride to Modena helped us tidy up a few of the loose ends lingering from the Machiavellian soap opera of long ago we began unraveling in Ferrara. For us, the main mystery was the art missing from the walls of Ferrara’s castle and palaces.

Surely you remember all the details and intrigue surrounding the Este family of Ferrara from an earlier post, so we’ll just pick up with the ducal reign of Alfonso I (1476-1534), the one who was the final husband of Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519). Alfonso I continued to remodel the castle in Ferrara, adding expansive wings to reflect his ducal power and building up the family’s art collection.

Following his death, the dukedom passed down to his son Ercole II (1508-1559). Still smarting from the trio of pesky Italian Wars in the first decade or so of the 1500s during which King Louis XII of France wrenched control of parts of Italy, some of the powerful were miffed when Ercole II had married Louis XII’s daughter Renee (1510-1574) in the year 1528. Renee assembled an artistic court around her that the same people regarded as too French-centric.

But Ercole II patched things up with Rome, if not his wife, when he inherited the title of duke from his father in 1534. He expelled the French coterie and pledged his allegiance to the pope. Maintaining the guests had been expensive, and Ercole II preferred to continue to enhance the castle in Ferrara and to accumulate artwork.

Among those to whom Renee turned for comfort was John Calvin (1509-1564), who was quickly assembling a major coalition of enemies in Rome. But Ercole II was so loyal to the papacy, in 1554 he turned his own wife into the Inquisitor for her Protestant tendencies.

(Sorry, we’re still not in Modena yet. But this is complicated.)

When Ercole II died in 1559, their son Alfonso II (1533-1597) assumed the title of Duke of Ferrara. The pope immediately required him to banish his mother Renee to France, where she was able to resume her Protestant friendships. Alfonso II tried and tried through three marriages to produce an Este heir without luck. At the time of his death not even an illegitimate child could be rounded up to follow him.

While the Roman Emperor recognized his cousin Cesare (1561-1628) as his successor, the Vatican did not. In the meantime, Alfonso II’s sister, Lucrezia d’Este (1535-1598) was conspiring with papal powers. Lucrezia had never forgiven her brother for having her lover assassinated to end her scandalous behavior. Cesare d’Este was forced to pack up his court and flee Ferrara. The now pious Lucrezia turned the castle keys over to papal powers.

Instead, Cesare assumed the title of Duke of Modena and Reggio. Most of the Este treasures were spirited away by Cesare and moved with a large contingent of Este family members and hangers-on to Modena. Which solves the mystery of the missing artwork. As you can imagine, some of the Modenese were not pleased with the Ferrarese invasion, but Cesare masterfully managed to consolidate his power.

Construction of the Palazzo Ducale of Modena was begun in 1630, with an older medieval building at its core. While I’m not sure of the square footage, the new Este compound appears both larger and grander than the one left behind in Ferrara.

After Italy finally attained unity in 1861, the ducal art collections were moved to Palazzo dei Musei, formerly a hospice for the poor. The Estense Gallery was opened to the public in 1894.

Artists represented in the collection include Correggio, Tintoretto and Velazquez. Several amazingly ornate instruments indicate the Este family patronized the musical arts as well.

This collage shows the Ducal Palace (featured photo), some items from the museum and random sites in the historic center of Modena, the home of flavorful aged balsamic vinegar.