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: 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.