The last morning in Rome of my honeymoon was spent in Santa Maria Maggiore (due to its proximity to our hotel) and then, to kill time until we had to leave, people watching from the steps outside. The memory is one that has long outlasted the marriage, but coincidentally I spent my last morning in Rome on my more recent trip visiting the same church.
Not so convenient this time; an early morning metro across town was needed this time, but soon I was at those steps again. (Along with signage prohibiting their use as seats by those with inclinations similar to mine from all those years ago).
There are so many things I could write about his basilica; from one side it is plainly Romanesque, from the other extravagantly Baroque, the maggiore of the name because it is the largest dedicated to Mary in the city and not because it has the tallest campanile in town, or about the relics and burials beginning with B (The Bethlehem Crib, a Borghese, a Bonaparte, and the sculptor Bernini).
Yet there was something else here that made a greater impression on me. That Romanesque apse is genuinely Roman for the church was constructed in the 5th century a few decades before the city fell to invaders and the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed (ironically called Romulus Augustulus).
The marble pillars in the church may date back to an earlier basilica but much of the building dates back to this period, including the archway between nave and choir that has become known as the Triumphal Arch. Much of the church is decorated in mosaic (a good preparation for my Sicilian journey) but here they are particularly important because of the insight they give into Roman life at the time, including wardrobe. The depictions here are arguably the most accurate views of how the characters from bible stories may have appeared since they were created by the same Romans responsible for the crucifixion.
Of course I’m not really suggesting that they are accurate; look at the seated Mary at the top of the arch and she resembles a Roman empress, and of course four centuries had passed between her life and her depiction here, but it did make me think: “If the artists of the Renaissance supposedly took their inspiration from antiquity and the remains in Rome, why did they persist in dressing their subjects in medieval garb rather than take inspiration from the evidence here?”
In Piazza di Spagna.
Postscript – I almost forgot to mention one other detail that stood out for me. Amongst the marble popes there was an African face, one carved by Bernini no less. A reminder that the countries of that continent that were colonised and raided by Europeans were not the savages we have portrayed them as through history. Antonia Manuele was sent from what is now Angola as an Ambassador to Rome in 1604. Weakened by a terrible journey he died in the city and was granted his last rights by the Pope himself. Treated with respect and importance rather than as human cargo as his countrymen would be in the centuries that followed.
Perhaps the young amphibian martial artists of New York’s sewers are to blame, but when it comes to the artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond, some getter a better deal than others in the public eye. Perhaps Caravaggio was just a syllable too many to be a catchy name for a super hero, but no more so than Michelangelo who did make it to turtle status!
I’m being flippant of course and wonder how many of the public at large appreciate why Raphael and Donatello might be names that they recognise when Giotto, Cimabue, or Brunelleschi might not. How does one differentiate between levels of genius?
You’re probably well aware of Bernini if you’ve ever visited Rome; the grand colonnade that fronts St Peter’s, the bronze baldacchino over the altar within are probably on a par with Michelangelo’s dome above the basilica and his Pieta inside in terms of public recognition. Michelangelo holds the trump card with the Sistine Chapel of course, but Bernini has other works to offer.
Why is he as a sculptor and architect any less worthy of recognition? It can’t be down to his patronage for Bernini enjoyed the favour of popes, cardinals and European royalty. He lived in a different era of course so perhaps he lacks the glamour of being a pioneer in his field. Bernini was a master of the Baroque rather than the Renaissance. All the same he fares better than his contemporary Borromini.
Most visitors to the Piazza Navona stroll the length of the former arena and pause either to partake of the many caffés or to pose for the obligatory selfie by the attention grabbing Fountain of the Four Rivers; one of Bernini’s more famous works. The fountain stands outside a fantastic baroque church, Sant’Agnese in Agone which was partly designed by Borromini.
Located elsewhere the church would have real presence, yet here it is relegated to backdrop. (There is a popular myth that Bernini’s fountain exacerbates this by having the statues which personify the rivers turn in horror from Borromini’s facade, though the story is not consistent with the construction dates of both).
Then there is that baldacchino. Actually a joint enterprise by both men, it has become known as “Bernini’s Baldacchino”.
My visit to Sant’Agnese was curtailed by the church clearing visitors, presumably ahead of some daily service, but not before I could take in the frescoes and interior decoration which draw the eye with their bright colours, colours which Borromini’s design did not include. His vision was one of white stucco throughout but a change of pope saw him lose favour and he resigned the commission, a decision he may have regretted when he saw the results.
Whether real or perceived, Borromini was probably a depressive for whom such slights can easily take on great significance. He took his own life at the age of 67 which doubtless further impacted his reputation.
I can’t recall whether it was on University Challenge or some less august programme, but I recently heard the following question asked:
Where in the world will you find the most Egyptian obelisks outside of Egypt?
The answer came to me immediately (and not entirely because I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Origins of late), but because I’ve seen so many. London has a Cleopatra’s Needle (as do Paris and New York), Catania has its famous lava elephant bearing an example, the Boboli Gardens in Florence, and even Durham University possesses one. By that count alone I’d have seen almost as many ancient Egyptian tekhenu (the original name, obelisk being a Greek word) outside of the country as Egypt herself possesses. (Eight remain there).
Cultural imperialism at work. Absolutely, but starting with the Roman Empire, for Egypt was a province of Rome for six centuries, and as supplier of much of the empire’s grain, arguably the most important. Invariably Egyptian influences found their way into Rome and continued to do so. Rome’s Piazza del Popolo features one of the city’s obelisks, but lion fountains rest on pyramidal structures, and sphinx topped walls are also present.
All of which raises the argument which in this country gravitates most frequently to The Elgin Marbles; should these artefacts be returned to the country of their origin? I’m a firm believer that the answer is an emphatic “No”, and for much the same reason that I voted against leaving the European Union.
Conflicts and prejudices are very often driven by a lack of understanding, or beliefs that have distorted truths at their hearts. The more we know and understand one another the better in my view, and the art and history of different cultures is an important element of this. Yes you can learn a lot by visiting another country (and I thoroughly enjoy doing so) but my cultural appetite for this was whetted in my teenage years by the British Museum, and though I first visited it to see a temporary exhibit, the permanent collections have had just as much impact on me over the years. (That exhibit was another Egyptian marvel by the way; the mask and grave goods of Tutankhamen).
So for me Rome should keep her obelisks. If they make people more curious to learn about Egypt so much the better. Besides which, the Vatican, the Pantheon and several other sites in the city wouldn’t be the same without them.
And if you think I’ve forgotten the crowning glory of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, it was a deliberate exclusion. The wealthier citizens of Rome commissioned a few of their own to be made in Egypt so this, the example atop the Spanish Steps, and the one outside Santa Maria Maggiore aren’t quite the genuine article. Reproductions have a long history too.
In my last post I hinted that the Sistine Chapel is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end for many of the Vatican Museums visitors, much as the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, or the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. It is spectacular in composition, colour and scope, and I’d happily bypass it.
There are two reasons for this. One is that photography is not permitted; not just flash photography, where the light may fade the pigments, any photography, but worse still you can’t really look at it. Even in December the number of visitors vastly exceeds the number of seats around the perimeter of the chapel, and woe betide anyone who seeks to sit on the floor or steps to be able to spend the time required to take in Michelangelo’s masterwork. The stewards elsewhere within the museum are gentle and scholarly. Here they are young, muscular and assertive as they actively patrol the room. Even if you find a seat, it will only afford a view of some of the room and there’ll be a long wait for one opposite!
But no matter. Accept that it will be an anti-climax. That way you can enjoy some of the other pleasures of this palace of excessive power and influence.
Some of them are obvious; Pomodoro’s Sfera con Sfera (one of a number of these golden globes around the world), the ceiling of the Gallery of the Maps, the great head of Augustus and the Momo Staircase, so often incorrectly referred to as the Bramante Staircase even though it wasn’t built until 400 years after the death of Donatello Bramante, the architect whose work elsewhere inspired both this structure and indeed Michelangelo’s dome of St Peter’s.
There are also some of the individual works from antiquity to modern day, by artists notorious and long forgotten.
And if you’re really looking for superstar artistry, where you can take as long as you like to enjoy the details, and so long as you don’t use flash take as many pictures as you like, then you can’t go wrong with the Stanze di Raffaelo, a series of rooms clothed in frescoes by another Renaissance great. When Sir Kenneth Clark published his book to accompany the TV series 50 years ago, Civilisation did not feature the Sistine Chapel on its front cover. Instead it featured a detail from one of these rooms and the image known as The School of Athens in which Euclid explains a geometrical theorem to a group of students. Of course Raphael had no idea what Euclid looked like so he turned to someone he did know to supply the face of the mathematician. Donatello Bramante.
In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.
The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope. Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.
Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise. It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court. I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.
In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality. But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).
The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old? What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre? It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century. Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:
…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.
In my Italian travels I have encountered the exquisite work of many great architects; some of whom have featured here, whilst others preceded my camera and keyboard. Andrea Pisano, Fillipo Brunelleschi, Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo Sansovino, Borromino, Bernini, Michelangelo, Michelozzo… I could easily go on for I am only scratching the surface of Italian masters, many of whom were also great artists in their time.
So you would imagine that on visiting Rome I’d be rushing to share some of its delights with you, and I may indeed in a later post, but for now I’m in less enthusiastic mode.
The end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th was an important time in European architecture with movements in France, Spain, Germany and the UK that would produce masterpieces. This period, which was fuelled by burgeoning economies and some national pride, found an additional ingredient to add to the mix in Italy; the recent unification of the country, and so perhaps this, coupled with a reputation for being architectural virtuosi, led to buildings that just went too far.
Take for example the Palace of Justice. It combines elements of Baroque and Renaissance styles in its design, both styles at which Italians have excelled, but they architect (Calderini) clearly didn’t have subtlety in his design vocabulary. The place is vast (covering about 6 acres) and is built on the silty soils of the Tiber’s banks, so unsurprisingly has required more work to stabilise it since it’s construction. In a country of “furba” many suspect that this may be due to corruption. So whether due to its appearance or its origins, it is know in Rome as Palazzaccio, the ugly or bad palace. It reeks of the municipal.
But for the citizens of Roma there is a still more conspicuous target for their derision, yet one that is visited by thousands (including me). It is slightly smaller than the courthouse, but far more imposing.
One of the things that I often reflect on when gazing in awe at the craftsmanship that followed the Renaissance, is that we will never see their like again. After all who would sponsor the decorative excesses these days? We produce buildings with dramatic gestures rather than fine detail (Grand Arch rather Arc de Triomphe). There is a structure in Rome that belies this however, resplendent in sculptures, fountains, pillars, friezes and the whitest of marble.
Would it have been less offensive in some other material? Visually yes, but morally?
Construction of the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) celebrated the unification of the state under their first king; Vittorio Emanuele II of Sardinia. To do so they removed a huge section of the Capitoline Hill and the medieval part of the city that had stood there for centuries to memorialise a royalty that lasted only decades. The surviving Piazza del Campidoglio at the summit of the Capitoline is small, beautiful… a designed by Michelangelo. It is dwarfed by the Altare, which is also known as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.
Unless you’re Roman. They refer to it less grandly as “the wedding cake”, “the trifle”, “the typewriter” and perhaps least lovingly of all… “the dentures”.