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.
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”.
In the current climate where #metoo and #blacklivesmatter seem to be heralding real change there are some interesting debates about historic artworks; either because they represent people or events that are now seen as offensive or because the behaviour of their creators has been equally unacceptable. Consequently we have seen calls for Confederate statues to be removed or destroyed (watch out Mt Rushmore), a memorial to a conscientious objector taken down, complaints about paedophilia to the Met in NY, a Manchester gallery see-sawing over whether to display a painting of naked nymphs, a some sexually active buildings planned to neighbour the Louvre given a firm “non” in Paris. Acclaimed work by Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey is now viewed very differently, but should we be able to separate the artist from their work; or see historic events as milestones in our journey to who and where we are?
Perhaps the greatest concern with this and so many debates today is that the clamour for change is stoked by social media where arguments snowball as a result of knee jerk outrage rather than any considered judgement.
One of the largest open spaces in Rome, is the Piazza del Popolo, and though it was originally named after the poplar trees around the area in modern Italian it means People’s Square, and now that it has been pedestrianised it would be the ideal place for public gatherings, or in the current climate would that run the risk of becoming a mob? This was until the 19th century the site of public executions. Italy has recently begun to suffer from populist politics too with racial attacks in a country that has long been more tolerant than many European neighbours.
Most people who visit the Piazza notice the twin churches that flank the opening of Via del Corso, the Rameses II obelisk and Egyptian styled fountains at the heart, and the steps that lead to the house and gardens of the Villa Borghese. The city gateway at the north of the space, the Porta del Popolo is quite anonymous by comparison, but even this has more impact than the church that adjoins it. I wonder what proportion of the popolo venture through the door? They should.
There are a multitude of reasons to do so; a chapel designed by Raphael, a scattering of Bernini sculptures, and a macabre moment or two, but for this photographer there is one draw that will always overshadow the others.
The altar in the Cerasi Chapel features a work by Carracci, a promising painter of his day but it is rendered invisible by the pieces on either side by another up and comer; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s realism and use of light and shade were surely precursors for every dramatic photograph.
His work here demonstrates another aspect of his character; both works proffer a backside to his rival. This is relatively subtle in The Crucifixion of St Peter, and the saint’s legs and feet are the attention grabbers; old, dirty and anything but idealised.
Turn to the Conversion of St Paul and there’s no doubt that he’s showing the horse’s arse to his rival. So Caravaggio was irrepressibly cheeky (excuse the pun), but his disregard for authority went much further. Gambling, fighting, an illegitimate child and eventually murder featured on his charge sheet.
So how did these marble reliefs that had been scattered around Italy and beyond come to be reassembled and displayed in a custom-built museum off an alley-like stretch of Via di Ripetta?
To be fair, the location is fitting. The Via di Ripetta (road of the little bank) has followed the Tiber here for about as long as the altar has been in existence, and also gives access to the Mausoleum of Augustus (sadly closed for renovation when I was there) just opposite the Ara Pacis.
Despite this there is controversy surrounding the Ara. Quite literally in fact.
Those remains of the altar that had not been collected by the most influential remained buried not far away beneath the Cinema Nuova Olimpia just off the Via del Corso until it was suggested in 1937 that they be excavated and restored to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus. Not a bad reason per se, but of course this was during the regime of a man who saw himself as a modern-day Roman emperor; Benito Mussolini. The term fascist derives from
fasces, the bundle of rods that was a symbol of legal authority for the ancient Romans, and before them the Etruscans. Interestingly it’s a symbol used internationally since to represent justice – and features on the Golden State Coach used by the British Royal Family. Mussolini sought to inherit that authority and the glories of Rome by association but in doing so created new meanings. Just as Augustus had built the altar as an act of symbolism, so Il Duce restored it. Rome had a new Augustus who once again sought to demonstrate power through association with important things.
Aiming to create a park dedicated to ancient Rome (what was wrong with the Forum?) Mussolini commissioned the rationalist architect Vittorio Morpurgo to design a pavilion which was built around the Ara, resulting in the demolition of many buildings to accommodate it. Damaged by shrapnel and filled with sandbags during the WWII the pavilion was subject to proposals and counter proposals for its future for decades thereafter. (This is Italy after all!)
Finally the Fascist structure was demolished in 2006 but the controversy wasn’t over. American architect Richard Meier‘s replacement is seen as unsympathetic to the surrounding buildings (the baroque church of San Rocco for example, and of course the Roman ruins of the mausoleum), but for me it’s just a bad building that isn’t fit for purpose.
In November 2013 the roof leaked!
At its opening protestors filled the fountains with green dye, and though that was long gone when I was there, the spray from those same fountains made the marble of the steps slick and slippery with black ice on a December morning.
I know the light is lower in the sky during the winter months, but is it acceptable that there are some months when your view of the Ara is striated with bands of blinding light contrasting with deep shadows cast by the structure of the building itself? It’s as if the artefact has been painted in dazzle camouflage, a technique that deliberately makes things hard to see.
In an odd, but nevertheless welcome piece of juxtaposition the building was also hosting a fantastic exhibition of the work of Hokusai, including his iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and so I bought a combined ticket at the entrance. Once I’d had my fill of Roman art I spent some time looking for the stairway that would take me to the Japanese. Silly me expecting it to be within the building. Instead I had to leave and return to the Via di Ripetta where another entrance existed beneath the main structure.
Schoolboy errors or Praecipua?