Postcard from Rome, Italy: Hailing two more graceful Marias

In addition to being dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other bond this pair of featured Roman basilicas has is their fa├žades were undergoing restoration and hidden from view.

In 38 B.C., some claim mineral oil spewed out of the ground, a miraculous sign of the coming of Christ, on the site in Trastevere Pope Callixtus I (?-222) chose for a sanctuary dedicated to Mary. Aside from the foundation, little remains of that early church.

As Pope Honorius II (1060-1130) lay dying, a group of cardinals gathered as a committee and named his successor, Pope Innocent II (?-1143). Chaos within the church, not uncommon when determining papal succession, erupted when a majority of cardinals objected to the process and elected Anacletus II (?-1138) as their leader. Pope Innocent II was forced to flee Rome for a number of years, while the competing “Antipope,” depending on which side is relating the story, ruled.

A tomb for Anacletus II had been completed inside Santa Maria in Trastevere, but the presence of his former rival’s tomb was salt in the wound for Pope Innocent II. He had the church, and the offending memorial razed. During the reconstruction of the church, Pope Innocent II commissioned his own resting place to be built upon the spot once occupied by that of the “Antipope.”

The capitals of the columns, if not the entire granite columns, lining the nave were retrieved from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which dated from around the year 200. Centuries later, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) was informed the faces adorning the capitals were of ancient Roman gods, he had them chiseled off the columns.

The mosaic over the apse, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” with the row of sheep underneath was completed the year of Pope Innocent II’s death. Saints are clustered on the right of Jesus, with pope-approved popes on the left, including, of course, Innocent II himself. Below the herd of sheep are a series of mosaics portraying the life of the Virgin, including “The Annunciation” featured above. The mosaics of Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) represent an artistic evolution from Byzantine stiffness to more natural figurative work. Numerous glamorous features were added to the basilica by cardinals and popes in subsequent centuries.

A giant walnut tree grew atop the spot at the foot of Pincian Hill in Rome where the ashes of Emperor Nero (37-68) were relocated by a landslide from above. Foreboding ravens, and perhaps more wicked winged demons, haunted the tree, frightening the superstitious populace entering or leaving through the nearby gate to the city. Fortunately, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) in a dream with the solution. Upon her instructions, he performed an exorcism on the tree and then took an axe to it, a blow releasing the screaming evil spirits residing within. Nero’s remains underneath were thrown in the Tiber, and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected in their place.

Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) ushered Rome into the Early Renaissance with the construction of an immense church on the site, Santa Maria del Popolo, and, among other enduring landmarks, the Sistine Chapel. He restored more than 30 churches and had a half-dozen more erected in Rome during his tenure at the helm of the church.

The photographs above capture only a fraction of the art stuffing Santa Maria del Popolo, its walls lined with chapels commissioned by families enriched through papal relationships. Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) fill niches and flutter above arches; two enormous paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610) hang in a chapel flanking the apse.

Yet, my favorite memorials are a pair of slabs in the floor marking the graves of two nuns.

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.