Postcard from Rome, Italy: Insertion of banker’s mistress in Raphael fresco a cheeky move

When Pope Julius II (1443-1513) slipped on the papal “ring of the fisherman,” the banker from Siena who helped with the Pope’s expenses prior to his election was not forgotten. Pope Julius II appointed Agostino Chigi (1466-1520) treasurer and notary of the Apostolic Camera, the Papal Treasury. Forging strong financial ties throughout Western Europe, Chigi’s financial operations employed up to 20,000.

On his way to becoming the richest man in Rome, Chigi needed suitable quarters on the Tiber on the Vatican side of the river. He commissioned a painter from Siena, Baldessare Peruzzi (1481-1536), to design his palace on Via della Lungara in 1508.

With Pope Julius II (1443-1513) summoning Michelangelo (1475-1564) to Rome in 1508 to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, frescoes were in vogue. Peruzzi turned to mythological themes for inspiration for Chigi’s main hall, named Galatea after a sea-nymph. Astrological scenes in the ceiling were surrounded by golden stars reflecting the position of constellations on the date of Chigi’s birth.

Raphael (1483-1520) was hired to finish the frescos there and in the loggia of Cupid and Psyche. The lives of putti fluttering about the ceiling appear perilous, demanding defensive maneuvers against ferocious beasts. And there, almost within the shadow of the Vatican, Chigi’s mistress brazenly posed in the buff as one of the Three Graces, the one on the left above perched atop fluffy cloud. I believe her flip side is captured as part of the same trio in another triangle in a photo below.

Invitations to parties hosted under these scenes were among Rome’s most desirable, with the guest list combining the pope and cardinals, princes, the wealthy elite, poets and artists. To demonstrate his wealth, the flamboyant Chigi was known to cast silver dishes over the wall toward the Tiber at the end of feasts; although the frugal banker in him would prearrange to have servants with nets down below to catch the falling tableware for recycling at the next soiree.

In 1579, the palace was purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), who evidently saw no need to interfere with the frolickers in the frescoes. Farnese’s career was launched when he was only 14 with his appointment as a cardinal by his grandfather, Pope Paul III (1468-1549). Lucrative appointments within the church allowed the cardinal to accumulate great wealth under several popes. Chigi’s villa became known as Villa Farnesina and is now a museum.

Directly across the street from the gardens of Chigi’s villa, Cardinal Domenico Riario commissioned construction of a palace in 1510. Presumably the neighbors coordinated their party schedule so the extremely narrow street was not impossibly clogged by guests’ carriages. This palace was rebuilt completely in 1736 for Cardinal Neri Corsini (1685-1770), named a cardinal by his uncle, Pope Clement XII (1652-1740).

Among the notable occurrences in what is now known as Palazzo Corsini was the death of Queen Christina (1626-1689) of Sweden. Christina was only six when her father, King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), found himself lost in thick smoke behind enemy lines while leading a cavalry charge during the Battle of Lutzen during the Thirty Years’ War. The Protestants won the battle, but not before the King suffered fatal wounds.

Christina’s mother did not handle the loss well, demanding that her husband’s coffin be kept open in a room in a palace so she could visit it often and saving his heart in a separate keepsake box in her room. Officials were not able to bury the decomposing king until 18 months after his death. Not surprisingly, her mother was deemed unfit for the regency or for raising her daughter.

Instructions left behind by King Gustavus Adolphus were for his daughter to be educated as a boy would be. An excellent student, Christina mastered nine languages. But, with all her studies, Christina failed to pick up many of the prevailing attributes of femininity, often dressing as a man would. Her refusal to marry and her close relationship with a lady-in-waiting sparked continual rumors.

While Sweden emerged as a major European power following the signing of the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in 1648, Queen Christina seemed tired of the weight of the crown and abdicated in favor of a cousin in 1654. She secretly had converted to Catholicism, so Rome would be more to her liking than her Protestant homeland. Rome celebrated her arrival and conversion, with Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) confirming her in the Vatican Basilica.

In Rome, she rented the palace from the Riario family and plunged herself into attending and hosting social affairs, collecting art, meddling in papal politics and even conspiring to wear the crown of Naples. Alternating between masculine attire and gowns with daring décolletages, she kept Rome guessing as to who reclined with her in her chambers under the fresco of “The Judgement of Solomon.” A cardinal frequenting the palace was chastised by the pope. Christina never married, and, when she died, her sole heir was her steadfast friend, the cardinal.

The Corsini family sold the property in 1883 and donated the entire art collection to the state. The Corsini museum is operated in tandem with another palace (more later) as the National Gallery of Paintings. The extensive gardens behind the palace are now the Botanical Gardens of Rome.

 

Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: When hell freezes over, build a church

On summering in Rome:

…even dawn is hot…. The city is drugged with heat; the stones are dead; the streets are devastatingly quiet. From one until four, no one moves. Shutters are drawn, storefronts sealed – it might as well be 3 a.m.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

Now it’s springtime. The weather in Rome this month approaches perfection. But memories of visiting here in the summertime more than 40 years ago still sizzle in my memory.

So, if, in the midst of a sultry night, the Virgin Mary appeared to you in a dream to announce you should build a church when and where it snowed? Well, duh.

Legend has it that Pope Liberius (310-366) had what would have seemed a pipe dream, except…. One August the 5th, it snowed on Esquiline Hill. Definitely a hard-to-ignore sign to erect what would eventually evolve into the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Through the centuries, the church continued to benefit from papal enhancements. Mosaics along the central nave were added by Pope Sixtus III (390-440), while the mosaics depicting the “Coronation of the Virgin” over the apse by a Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti, were commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292), depicted on the far left of the grouping. The geometric Cosmatesque flooring was added during the same period. Lorenzo Cosmati (1140‑1210) is credited with this marquetry technique of slicing thin layers of colored stone salvaged from “leftovers” of Roman antiquity.

Pope Gregory XI (1329-1378) added the 246-foot high bell tower, the tallest in Rome, soon after his return from Avignon. King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) contributed gold from the journeys of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the New World for the coffered ceiling dating from 1450.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) commissioned architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1606) to design the Sistine Chapel. Fontana achieved acclaim for his engineering feats erecting some of the city’s massive obelisks imported from Egypt, including the one in front of Santa Maria Maggiore. The 327-ton one in front of Saint Peter’s required 900 men and 75 horses to haul and install into its upright position.

A little spirited papal competition led Pope Paul V (1552-1621) to try to outdo that chapel by enlisting architect Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) to design Cappella Paolina. Paul V was of the Borghese clan, and Ponzio also designed the Villa Borghese Pinciana, home to one of Rome’s most prominent museums. And then there is a chapel designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564) but completed by another architect.

In the heat of a summer afternoon, churches are the only refuges, dim and cool…. I want to stay in these churches for hours; I want to take off my shirt and lie on the marble, my chest against the stone, and let the perpetual dusk drift over me.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

An August snow is like a never-occurrence in Rome, but, every year on the fifth, in commemoration of the miraculous time it did, showers of thousands of snow-white flower petals flutter down from the gilded ceiling upon the congregation.