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: ‘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 Ferrara, Italy: Rambling the ramparts

Ercole d’Este (1431-1505), Duke of Ferrara, had an expansive vision for his fiefdom when he built a new fortress circling its outskirts – a circumference of approximately six miles. Protection certainly was needed to keep enemies out, as the duke had many, including Venice and powerful papal authorities of the Vatican.

But Ferrara did not emerge as a cramped medieval city confined by claustrophobic walls but as a spacious city of the Renaissance.

The remnants of the ramparts today serve as an invitation to stroll, jog and bike on upper and lower pathways, many shaded by an alley of towering trees.

The walls do discourage one invader from entering the city – the automobile. Parking is so limited inside the ramparts that most drivers choose to abandon their cars outside. The result is an entire city of residents who travel mainly afoot and on bikes, a friendly town where neighbors purposefully meet or randomly encounter friends on its welcoming plazas.

If only those founding friars had built the walls surrounding Mission San Antonio de Valero a mile or two out from the chapel, downtown San Antonio might have been forced to go carless.