Postcard from Rome, Italy: ‘Innocent’ intrigue surrounding summer soirees at papal retreat

The following all should relate to the collection of ancient B.C. art housed in the National Etruscan Museum. Although many of the photos focus on the artifacts, I find myself totally distracted by the origin of their home, Villa Giulia.

Papal politics were a mess in 1550 when the crossed keys were handed over to Pope Julius III (1487-1555). He had served as governor of Rome twice and barely escaped execution when Clement VII (1478-1534) turned him over to imperialists as a hostage following the sack of Rome in 1527.

But the cardinals were not impressed by his credentials. Three factions emerged: those in favor of continuing the Council of Trent and its response to the rise of Protestantism; the French who were against it; and the powerful Farneses pushing one of their relatives. Pope Julius III represented a compromise accepted with reluctance.

While benefitting from the ascension of the Catholic Queen Mary (1516-1558) to the throne of England, the pope’s efforts to reconvene the Council of Trent proved controversial. And the papacy became entangled in the war of Parma. The international intrigue proved overwhelming. The frustrated pope retreated to focus on creating a pleasurable escape from the turmoil.

Villa Giulia is the result. A vacation home. A palace for entertaining. A palace for the arts. And a papal playground.

Vineyards, no longer in existence, cascaded down to the Tiber, and the host and guests could travel back and forth by boat from the Vatican. Loggias surrounding and overlooking reclining “gods” in the Nympheum provided al fresco opportunities for summer parties.

All leading to gossip. Rumors. Jealousy. Fake news, perhaps, about nepotism.

Innocenzo (1532-1577) was the pope’s major Achilles’ heel. While still a cardinal, Julius found the poor 17-year-old lad on the streets of Parma; had his brother adopt the unfortunate boy; and employed him as a caretaker for his pet monkey. When elevated to Pope, Julius immediately elevated the teenager to Cardinal. We are reserving judgment about the qualifications of Innocenzo for this post; although the wags of Rome did not.

After Pope Julius III’s death, Pope Paul IV (1476-1559) confiscated the villa. His predecessor’s incredible collection of sculpture assembled there was transported through the vineyards and floated by barges down the Tiber to the Vatican.

The government of Italy confiscated Villa Giulia from the Vatican in 1870, and, in 1889, dedicated it as the National Museum of Etruscan Art. A copy of a small Etruscan temple was inserted in the middle of a courtyard in 1891.

Finally, the art. But I’m not going to blog about that much because I know very little about the period (No snide remarks necessary about how little I know about the papacy or the history of Italy overall). You (assuming you follow this blog religiously) already have been introduced to the most famous couple in the museum reclining on their sarcophagus.

As you view the tender pair from Cerveteri enjoying a banquet atop their remains, squint. Try to visualize them in color. And try not to get distracted by imagining the sumptuous parties that occurred there during the palace’s early days.

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.”

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.