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 façades 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: 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: 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.