October 13, 2012
So the papal families used to be among the richest in the world. Highly nepotistic and bent on accruing wealth and status, many amassed vast art collections on their expansive Roman villas, no one so much as Scipione Borghese, the nephew and right-hand-man of Pope Paul V. His collection — housed in the Galleria Borghese in the northeastern part of the city — is impressive to say the least. With five famous Caravaggios, several Berninis, a Titian, a Canova, and a Raphael, Scipione’s private collection is a who’s- who of Italian Renaissance artists. The gallery was opened to the public in 1903 by appointment only, and is one of the top visited sites in Rome.
Since I don’t know too much about art, I opted to do another small-group walking seminar with Context Tours. We met outside the Borghese “summer” home within the Villa Borghese, a vast green parkland of Cyprus trees and fountains, and our guide (Lauren) ran us through the history of the family, and why it was important for them to establish an family tree with ties to Ancient Rome, even though they were originally from Siena. Throughout Rome’s history, politics has been filled with people jockeying for position by allying themselves with either Romulus (who founded Rome) or Caesar Augustus (the first emperor). Even Mussolini did this in the 1920s in order to unite people under his dictatorship.
Having a guide with a doctorate in art history with a particular focus in Caravaggio was pretty frickin’ awesome. Paintings and statues that I ordinarily would have walked by with a “hey, that’s cool” were given tremendous life as Lauren told us not only about the artistic elements of the work, but also about their political and historical influences and ramifications. Every piece had a fascinating story behind it, as well as exquisite detail and underlying commentary that I never would have noticed if it were not explained to me. Lauren’s passion and excitement for the pieces was infectious, and I found myself marveling right along with her, suddenly aware of how difficult it is to carve three interacting figures out of a single piece of marble, let alone to create life and movement through a medium which is usually solid and still. In Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina, for example, Pluto’s hand presses into Proserpina‘s ribs and thigh, her flesh compressed under his powerful fingers, her hair and (meager) clothing billow out behind her, and both figures twisted, their muscles straining, pumping with life. And all of this in stone! (Also, Bernini was twenty-three when he finished the sculpture. Genius.)
After getting some pizza in Piazza Espagna, I went back to Barbara’s house, where I finally got to meet Ludo and Zoe. When I walked in, Barbara was in her room working on a new script, and so I went into the kitchen and introduced myself to the kids, who were cooking lunch. Their English is very minimal — when I said “hello, I’m Kerry,” they introduced themselves in turn, but then when I slowly and simply started inquiring about their meal, their eyes got wide and they panicked, Zoe running into the back saying “Mama! Mama!” Barbara was more than happy to translate between us, and I spent some time showing the kids pictures of Portland theatre and lots of puppies (“awwww, che bello!”).
Barbara’s large flat reminds me of a nice apartment maybe in Chelsea or the Lower West Side. A spacious living room with white walls and white couches, a red oriental rug on the floor, colorful pillows about, framed pictures leaned against the wall. The kitchen is small and inviting, and the whole place creaks with old wooden floors. I sat for a time in the living room writing in my journal, and then I headed out for an evening at the opera.
I attended a slightly-sanitized and slightly-geared-for-tourists version of La Traviata in a small opera house, which was mostly interesting and mostly entertaining, despite the fact that the main characters showed only vague emotions, largely displaying their (vague) sadness and (vague) pain by singing to the floor, sometimes with a hand to their forehead or stomach. But, you know, opera in Italy, so it was all right.
After the show, I wandered through the old city and then stopped at a small café for midnight pasta with olives, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella, the flickering light of a torch illuminating the glistening cobblestones. This is where I am now, and there are a few things I want to write about before I leave this place. Here are some random items from my journal...
Most of the churches have free admittance in Rome. Which is great, because as you are wandering the city and you come upon a church, you can just go right inside to admire the art and architecture. Many churches have, however, figured out a way to make money off of tourists: the side chapels, often the ones with impressive art, are dark… in order to see anything, you need to put a Euro into a control box that turns the lights on… Does the Catholic Church really need more money?
Many of the churches I have visited have ENORMOUS DOORS, which make me feel very small. I can only imagine that this is the architect’s intention.
A quote from John Keats: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination… O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts…”
When Keats went to Rome to die, he was accompanied by an acquaintance named Joseph Severn. In the end, Severn turned out to be an incredibly devoted friend; he sat at Keats’ bedside for months, and held him to his chest when Keats breathed his last breath. Amazing.
A quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley in the preface to his Prometheus Unbound: “This Poem was chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, among the flowery glades, and thickets of odiferous blossoming trees, which are extending in ever-winding labyrinths upon its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air. The bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening of spring in that divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to intoxication, were the inspiration of this drama.”
In the Keats-Shelley museum, there is a collection of small locks of hair that a friend saved, with several of the Romantic poets represented. I was for some reason very moved by this, finding the locks much more a vestige of life than all of the bones I have seen on my travels.
Many of Rome’s marble statues are copies of Greek statues. Also, in most cases, the copies survived in Rome, but the originals have not been discovered in Greece. I wonder why.
Many of the truly Roman statues can be dated by the women’s hairstyles. Women often copied the hairstyle of the current Empress. And how do they (and we) know what the Empresses’ hair looked like? Currency! Go coins!
Hadrian, the Roman Emperor from the years 117 through 138, was almost decidedly gay, having the same lover for many years. When this lover died, he actually proclaimed him a god and built him a temple. Many of the men from that time swung both ways. There was not nearly the same taboo on sexual exploration and orientation as was developed under Christian rule.
Things I would like to learn more about:
- the history of Christianity, particularly the first three hundred years
- Rome’s transition from Paganism to Christianity
- why there is still so much Pagan imagery in Rome, since the Christian Church seems to like to destroy things
- Raffaelo Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)
- Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon (Michelangelo)
- Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini
- marble sculpting
- the Renaissance
- the Baroque period
- how on earth people wove such enormous and detailed pictorial tapestries
- the Roman emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Trajan, and Vespasian
- how it was that so much knowledge and civilization was lost in the Middle Ages
- the idea of the ancient Roman aristocracy financially supporting the plebeians
- the whole rise and fall of the Roman empire thing
A common Italian saying used by many Roman locals to describe their city and all of the history contained therein is ”non basta una vita” or “one life is not enough.” … I definitely hope to come back to Rome over the course of several different lifetimes.