Rome, A City Of Living Art: Part Two
Welcome to Part Two of amazing art in Rome, wherein I will attempt to nudge you towards a few artistic masterpieces that may or may not be in your guidebook.
As I was trying to come up with some way that these pieces are all connected, it occurred to me experiencing art can be quite a different thing than seeing it. For us, Trevi Fountain was empty and under restoration. Michelangelo's Pietà was behind bulletproof glass. Carravaggio's Saint Matthew was illuminated by coin-operated spotlights. All checks off my extensive art bucketlist, but not quite what I expected. Was I disappointed?
This post will take you through a who's who of Italian art, starting with a brief revisit of the Borghese Gallery. I was surprised to find Titian's painting, Sacred and Profane Love, overwhelmed by all the fabulous Bernini sculptures. I would have passed right by it, if it weren't for the audio guide.
Titian is actually considered the most important Venetian painter of the sixteenth century. He is known for his use of bright, luminous colour and was called "The Sun Admidst Small Stars" by his contemporaries. So he was a rather big deal.
This piece was painted to celebrate a marriage. The bride sits with Venus and Cupid, and far in the distance on the left, you can see the groom on a white horse. Judging by Brian's reaction to it ("...that painting with the two women and a boy?"), you won't care to know too much more than that.
More interestingly though, an offer was made in 1899 for this painting that was higher than the value of the entire Borghese Villa and its works of art combined: four million lire! But it's still hanging there, so let me know what you think it's worth!
Moving on to Trevi Fountain, which is one of the most famous fountains in the world. It was designed by Nicola Salvi, but does have a Bernini-esque feel. It features Neptune in a shell chariot led by tritons and seahorses. Like many fountains, the custom is to throw a coin in, and this one cashes in €3,000 every day.
As you can see, it's undergoing the largest restoration project in its 253 year history (sponsored by Fendi). I would have loved to see it in its full glory, but it was quite interesting to see the pool empty and the piazza still full of couples and families posing with selfie sticks and relaxing up against the construction barrier. It still draws people in, and it still calls to that loose change in your pocket.
Even covered in ugly scaffolding and workers in plastic suits, people care about this fountain. A lot. I even found a live webcam, which will broadcast the official re-opening of the fountain on November 3.
One of my bucketlist sights was Michelangelo's Pietà, which is at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Especially after seeing Bernini's sculptures up close and personal, I got butterflies at the thought of seeing it in real life. The experience was a little different than I expected.
The Pietà depicts the body of Jesus in Mary's lap after the crucifiction. It is the only piece he ever signed. According to our guide, that's because Michelangelo overheard visitors attributing it to another artist. He snuck into the church that night and carved his name into Mary's sash. He had a bit of an ego, but perhaps he earned it!
It's a beautiful sculpture, and seems perfectly balanced. But the longer you look at it, you'll realize how out of proportion the figures actually are. If Mary came to life and stood up, she would be giagantic. You would definitely not want to meet her in a dark alley!
How amazing it would have been to get that close to the sculpture! This is what seeing it was actually like.
The Pietà is now behind bulletproof glass, following an attack by a mentally ill person who hacked off Mary's arm, nose and part of her face while yelling that he was Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. I understand the desire to protect it, but bulletproof glass in St. Peter's Basilica says something really quite sad to me. Thankfully not all the precious art was so removed from its adorers!
We were not allowed to take photographs of The Sistine Chapel. But I can offer you this link to an amazing 360 degree view. Enjoy.
The Sistine Chapel exceeded all of my expectations, in large part because we took a semi-private tour offered by Walks Inside Rome. Our group was only eight people and we got into the Vatican before it opened to the public. This meant, along with a limited number of other small tours, we had the opportunity to bee-line to the Sistine Chapel and enjoy it for a whole 20 minutes in relative peace. I assure you that the experience is not like that normally, so I highly recommend booking the tour and getting up a bit earlier.
There's far too much to say about the Sistine Chapel, but I'll leave you with a few interesting notes. First, the Sistine Chapel is where Popes are chosen, and where that black smoke (no new pope) or white smoke (new pope) comes from.
The Sistine Chapel is full of paintings from a "dream team" of artists, but of course it is most known for Michelangelo's Last Judgement and ceiling frescos. A fresco is basically a mural in which pigment has been applied to fresh plaster and as the plaster dries, the paint becomes part of the wall. Michelangelo was first asked to fix a crack in the ceiling, and then later to paint it, but declined several times because, not even a painter at that time, he thought he was being set up to fail. Once he took the commission, he took liberties to make it what he envisioned, and it became nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, including The Creation of Adam.
Incidently there are some weird theories about the shape behind the figure of God in The Creation. Is it a brain? Is it a uterus? Is it a heart? Michelangelo may have been able to correctly render these body parts as it was common for artists of the time to study anatomy from stolen corpses, and he did like to flout authority and throw "Easter eggs" into his work.
The Last Judgement, painted when Michelangelo was in his eighties, shows a remarkably musculed Jesus surrounded by saints (pictured always with a symbol of their demise). Notably, St. Bartholomew just below Jesus to the right is pictured with his skin (he was flayed), and the face on the skin is Michelangelo's self portrait. At the bottom left, down in hell, Michelangelo did a portrait of a Cardinal who was always hasseling him - on Minos, the judge of the underworld.
Maybe you're wondering why all these people have so many muscles. Muscular men, muscular women, muscular babies. What's up with that? There are many theories, but the most sensible is just that being able to paint all those muscles, whether realistic or not, was a demonstration of skill in the Renaissance. It required knowledge of anatomy, which as discussed above would have been hard to come by, and painterly skill. It was also a stylistic choice that set him apart from other artists. Maybe he just really liked muscles.
All of these figures were originally painted naked, but after Michelangelo's death, clothing was painted on. This is a church afterall, let's have some decency! Restorers have also left a few sooty patches undisturbed after its cleaning (one in the upper right corner, and a smaller one in the lower left corner). It's a dramatic difference, and hard to imagine what it would have looked like without the vibrant colours we see today.
Also at the Vatican are the Raphael Rooms, including Raphael's Renaissance masterpiece The School of Athens, a fresco which depicts the great ancient Greek philosophers.
The two figures at centre are Plato (with the face of Leonardo Da Vinci) and Aristotle. The figure in green to the left is Socrates. The figure in the center foreground has the face of Michelangelo as a nod to the amazing work he was doing in the Sistine Chapel at the same time. And, of course, there is a self portrait of Raphael in here. Look to the far right, where a head peeks out and looks directly at you.
Now, you cannot leave Rome without seeing a Carravaggio! Carravaggio has a very realistic style that makes use of dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro, which is a fancy art word for strong lighting contrast. Many of his subjects are quite dark and violent in nature. Incidently, he trained under a student of Titian, who you may remember from that "boring" painting from the beginning of this post.
Unfortunately the painting I initially planned on seeing, Judith Beheading Holofernes, was out on loan. This can usually be found at the Barberini Palazzo, and I recommend you check if it's there on your next visit. There are a few other Carravagios there, but this one is the star of the show, and as the museum was undergoing a huge renovation displacing many of its masterpieces into a makeshift space, it was a bit of a let-down to miss it.
So, we made our way to three more Carravaggios at the Church of St. Louis of the French. These three paintings tell the story of St. Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew (left), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (center), and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (right). The Calling and The Martyrdom were his breakout works, done around 1600, while The Inspiration was done a couple of years later. It was a difficult job, and The Inspiration had to be changed and re-done several times.
The final set up is striking, and it's hard not to be captivated by the bold colours and composition of The Inspiration, wherein an angel speaks to Matthew. But this is actually not how the art was meant to be viewed, at all. There is a coin box to the left which people are constantly feeding to keep the spotlights on so they can take a good picture. I had only a minute between coin drops to appreciate the chapel in the darkness, the way it was meant to be experienced.
Carravaggios are everywhere, and I saw quite a few smaller works during my visit, but seeing the big ones, like this, in their natural habitat, is really quite special.
My final Rome art recommendation (for now!) is at the Church of the Gesu. This is a beautiful church, and best known for its ceiling fresco, Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. This ceiling is incomprehensible. I was hoping seeing it in person would help me understand its composition, but it is an illusion of epic proportions, and I still can't tell you where the painting starts and ends.
I cannot wait to revisit Rome and add more art recommendations to this list! Doubtless I'll go back to see some of these again (Trevi Fountain with water might be nice!)
It occurs to me that I've been thinking about art all wrong. I'm an art-thirsty Canadian trying to cross off a tidy list of European masterpieces one by one. But some pieces are so special, so impactful, so personal, that they're more like a favourite book that you curl up with to savour every word. But when you've turned the last page, you still feel thirsty. You want a sequel. You want a series. You want to read it all over again.
I'll be back.