Thursday, March 31, 2011

Roman Bath

The presence of Mabel Watson Payne elevates the atmosphere anywhere and everywhere she goes. Of course Rome was no exception to that rule. And her pet giraffe would spread cheer on her behalf if she was busy in another room.

Rooms lighted up as soon as she entered them. (Objects also lighted up as soon as she touched them, as can be seen in the photo above, but we will explore that phenomenon in another post.) When bath time came, the kitchen sink served a higher purpose than it surely ever could have served before.

A certain spot of tile in the kitchen doorway was always peculiarly warm. This probably had to do with the hot water heaters that warmed the rooms and were fed from a boiler in the kitchen. A towel spread on this warm spot seemed to be designed as the best spot for a baby to get thoroughly dry when the bath was over.

After that, it would be time for a Roman nap on the bed made from piles of folded carpets and blankets laid out on the floor under the window in the big bedroom.

Sant' Ivo

When I wrote here last fall about Francesco Borromini's church of Sant' Ivo della Sapienza in Rome, I used photos from the Internet that were undoubtedly more accomplished than these present ones, taken myself. But like any traveler, I want to remember what attracted my own spontaneous eye, and these are the trustiest reminder of just what that was.

The smooth broad concave curve of the entrance front surprised me in person as deeper, more extreme than I'd understood from photographs taken head-on. Borromini had to fit his church into a narrow space between the already-existing arcades, and that deep curve helped him exploit the space beyond its apparent potential.

The eight-pointed stars used above as a drain in the courtyard and as air vents near the foundation are repeated (below) inside the dome, rising in vertical strips as relief-ornaments. These are a tribute to Pope Alexander VII, copied from his family coat of arms. Alexander happens to be my personal favorite among Popes – he had the good luck to live in the glorious 17th century and the good sense to commission a shitload of architecture.

Though I stopped by several times to say hello to the outside of the church, the interior was only open on Sunday mornings for two hours. When I first arrived on the fateful Sunday morning and pushed through the velvet drapes hanging over the doorway, a Mass was in progress. Sant' Ivo is so small that I would have felt impossibly obtrusive peering around and taking pictures while people were acting out their religion, so I went for a walk.

When I came back an hour later the pews had all been filled by a different audience and they were listening to a lecture in Italian about the nature of the architecture they were sitting inside of. This time I did not feel so shy about pursuing my own agenda.

According to Anthony Blunt, in 1859 the interior of Sant' Ivo was "grievously restored" and the immaculate white walls covered with "sham painted marble of extreme coarseness." These horrendous improvements were left in place for over a century and only undone in the 1970s. The glowing niches that you see in the two pictures above are the result of fluorescent strip lighting – an innovation that I found sufficiently disturbing – but minor in comparison to what the structure has suffered in the past. Truly, architects practice the most distressing of all the arts – as soon as their work is finished it is handed over to those with the power to alter it. They almost always use that power and almost never for the better.

Blunt is also eloquent enough to describe his own concrete vision of Borromini's success here – "... the eye is carried round the line of the entablature in a ceaseless swing, moving from the simple concavity of one bay to the broken and more angular form of the next. Never perhaps did the Baroque ideal of movement attain more complete and perfect expression."

On a later day I was more than a mile away from the church of Sant' Ivo, surveying the whole wide swathe of central Rome from the roof of Castel Sant' Angelo. There I found a large diagram-map showing the names and locations of at least fifty visible church domes and spires. This helped me locate Sant' Ivo, which I would never have picked out in the far distance. Thinking there was almost no chance of success, I still tried to take a maximum-zoom-photo of Borromini's funny corkscrew-structure poking up at the sky. And I felt as merry as a grig when I got something close to a recognizable image, even if not a very sharp one.

Because Sant' Ivo is great. That is all there is to say. The end.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Roman Evening

A quiet walk along the slope at the top of the Spanish Steps while Mabel Watson Payne grew drowsy. We reached the Pincio (organized around an obelisk, big surprise) and got a sense of the vastness of the Borghese Gardens beyond.

The light turned strangely blue as it faded, a sure sign it was time to head down toward the city and take the baby home to bed.

Vatican Pinacoteca

The extension that houses the Vatican picture galleries as they exist now only dates back to the 1930s, those golden Mussolini years when so many good things happened for the Church in Rome. Appropriately then, it was through the intervention of an earlier dictator that the present collection of paintings came into existence at all. This was Napoleon. Most of what currently hangs in the Vatican formerly hung in various Roman churches, commissioned and paid for by various individuals or groups. Napoleon went in and stole all the best stuff his people could locate for the Louvre in the early 19th century. After his defeat in 1815 the Allies returned the lion's share of this booty to the Pope. But the Pope did not return the pictures to the churches. Using Napoleon as his model, he kept them. For all their dicey history, however, this long chain of naturally lighted galleries was absolutely beyond sublime on the afternoon I went there, full of heart-stopping things to look at and plenty of creaky comfortable old wooden chairs to sit in and look at them.

The greatest of all Caravaggios, for example. Some books call it the Deposition, others the Descent from the Cross or Entombment or even Pietà. According to the argument of the pious (and charming) Vatican guidebook, "as regards the subject, the work is not a burial because the main figures are not portrayed in motion: it is not an actual deposition as the body of Christ is not being lowered into the tomb but laid on a stone slab; and in spite of the presence of the Virgin Mary, it is not a Pietà, given the number of and type of figures present. The moment represented here is that of the deposition of the body of Christ onto the oiling stone ... which forms the ideal base to support and develop the whole group of figures and can be interpreted from a symbolic point of view, given that Christ is referred to in the Sacred Scriptures as the cornerstone on which the Church would be built. "

Facing it across the room – what I had never anticipated – a gorgeous Poussin of similar shape and force, The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus – much more violent and florid (much more like Caravaggio) than the typical Poussin product. Poussin claimed to resist Caravaggio's influence and to deplore it, but the hanging of the two pieces together proved that he did not resist it consistently.

The Poussin was originally installed as an altarpieces in St. Peter's, until all the paintings in St. Peter's were replaced with mosaic replicas (as above) and then the paintings had to find other homes. Those big mosaic pseudo-paintings in St. Peter's definitely contributed their share to the cold, surreal atmosphere there.

Below, half a dozen more Pinacoteca stars that currently stand at the peak of memory's favor.

Guido Reni
Crucifixion of St Peter

Incredulity of St Thomas

St Helen Dreaming of the True Cross

Giorgio Vasari
Stoning of St Stephen

Giovanni Bellini


Pope Julius II (sponsor of Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel) wanted not only a fancier chapel for himself but also a suite of rooms freshly decorated for his own use, and Raphael got that job – covering walls and ceiling in fresco. One of those rooms, the Stanza della Segnatura (the place where Julius would formally sign documents) was to me literally unbelievable. I could by contrast believe that I was in the Sistine Chapel, somehow the reality fitted with my expectations, high as they were. But in Raphael's Stanza (several views below) I kept pinching myself to see if I was awake, and I still don't know if I altogether believe I was.

Stanza della Segnatura

Ceiling detail
Judgement of Solomon

Ceiling detail
Adam & Eve

Stanza della Segnatura
Disputation on the Holy Sacrament

Disputation detail

Disputation detail

The main reason Julius II wanted new apartments was that his predecessor Alexander VI was the wicked Rodrigo Borgia, whose name was considered a disgrace throughout the world. The Borgia apartments in the Vatican, which had been elaborately frescoed in the 1490s, were abandoned and remained deserted until the 1880s when Leo XIII (after 400 years) decided the evil spirits had faded enough to permit a restoration job and renewed human habitation. That background made me glad for the chance to wander through the Borgia rooms, even though the style was kind of unappetizing in its archaic stiffness.

After eating a truly terrible panini and drinking a truly terrible cappuccino in the museum cafeteria I staggered outside and grabbed a taxi with a gruff old man driver who would not be persuaded that I could not speak Italian. We conversed in our own version of Italian as he drove me up Via Cola Rienzo which has very fine shops both on the left and on the right – if I understood him correctly.