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: Stumbling around colorblind

Time out. I wandered around Rome for almost three weeks before it hit me in the face, just as we were about to exit the Diocletian Baths. The sculpture above, the photo included in the prior post, did it.

I had been viewing remnants of ancient Rome in black and white, completing forgetting photographs in magazine and newspaper articles about exhibitions making the rounds in the United States a decade ago. The ancient Etruscans, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans – they had no inhibitions about applying color to their art. We have been brought up in an art world dominated by the influence of Renaissance artists reviving classical sculpture using the whitest of marble.

Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2008, Matthew Gurewitsch describes how our color-blindness would shock the ancients:

But we can guess that Phidias would be brokenhearted to see his sacred relics dragged so far from home, in such a fractured state. More to the point, the bare stone would look ravaged to him, even cadaverous.

Listen to Helen of Troy, in the Euripides play that bears her name:

My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.

That last point is so unexpected, one might almost miss it: to strip a statue of its color is actually to disfigure it.

I was still processing this concept as we wandered through the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Guilia (more to come later), where we encountered a couple reclining on their sarcophagus, circa 500+ years B.C. The accompanying text mentioned that the “twin” to this housed in the Louvre actually shows remnants of colors.

But the Louvre couple (on the right) still does not burst into a full technicolor-type bloom. Based on decades of work by Vinzenz Brinkmann of the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany, replicas of ancient statues colorized are probably as shocking to our senses as people accustomed to black-and-white films almost 80 years ago felt in theatres viewing the vividly bright yellow brick road in the midst of The Wizard of Oz.

This Carsten Muller video for Capitol City Media Design helps somewhat with visualizing the changes:

I got on an absurd jag in Rome of photographing statues of lions (more later). They are everywhere. I am so conditioned to thinking of them from a monochromatic perspective, I never once pictured the ancient ones in what to me is amusement-park merry-go-round colors, as is this reproduction of a Greek lion Brinkmann uses in exhibitions.

Color changes our perceptions about ancient civilizations. But ouch, with the following description in mind, would you really want to see the featured relief of Mithras or the statue of Mithras pictured below fully restored in color?

Diocletian Baths

Statue of Mithras, Diocletian Baths

But my imagination fails to make the Crayola transition on its own. My color-blinders remain in place unless confronted by the images side by side.

Which brings me back around to San Antonio. And her missions. The Native Americans herded into the flocks of the Spanish friars nearly three centuries ago were not monochrome in their tastes.

Years back, I rudely shoved through a motion at a San Antonio Conservation Society board meeting for the society to go on record supporting “colorizing” the outside of one mission the way the Native Americans originally did. The not-well-thought-out motion probably still languishes at the bottom of a list of active motions.

I would withdraw it now in favor of a different approach. Illuminate the facades of Mission Concepcion and Mission San Jose often and on a regular basis, if only for an hour at a time right after sunset to show for those of us who stand colorblind in front of these incredible landmarks failing to envision the imprint of our Native American population on them, and, by extension, the city San Antonio has become.

The City of San Antonio has worked several times now with the San Antonio Missions National Park to spotlight the missions “Restored by Light.” The photograph on the left of Mission Concepcion colorized was taken by Bonnie Arbitter and appeared in The Rivard Report, September 8, 2017. Scott Ball took the second one of Mission San Jose that appeared in The Rivard Report, September 6, 2017.

Please let the light shine on these more often.

Meanwhile, this unimaginative soul will return to viewing Roman antiquities in monochromatic tones. Am hoping your imagination adds a richness to the palette where applicable.