Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Italy: Catholic Rome

This is what you see if you look up in the Sistine Chapel, which is accessed through
the Vatican Museums, not St. Peter's Basilica. The paintings show scenes from
various parts of the Bible but not in a sequence that I understand. I think Michelangelo
intended each section to be viewed and appreciated separately.

This part of the ceiling shows the Garden of Eden and God giving life to Adam,
perhaps the most famous of the many famous elements of this gigantic work.

"Moses" by Michelangelo at San Pietro in
Vincoli. This huge work (see it in full below)
was intended for the tomb of Michelangelo's
great patron, Pope Julius II, but work on the Sistene
Chapel intervened and the tomb was never
completed, though Julius II is interred
in this church. I'm not sure why this
muscular Moses has horns.
As someone who is not religious, I sometimes wonder why I'm drawn to churches when I travel, especially extremely ornate ones such as are found throughout Rome and most of Italy. I'd probably have the same curiosity if intact, still-functioning Greek or Roman temples were around, and in some ways, the Catholic church seems almost a continuation of those "pagan" religions. Just as Hadrian declared his young lover Antinous a god and built temples to him, the Catholic church decides some people are saints and builds churches in their honor. All of the churches we saw were named for saints.

The stories of gods, saints, their deeds, their miracles and their sufferings have been told in paintings and sculpture for thousands of years, and religious buildings are often repositories for wonderful, other-worldly art. In my posts on ancient Rome (click HERE) and on Roman palaces (click HERE), there are many photos of art depicting ancient gods as well as Christian figures, but none of those deal with the amazing art and architecture of Rome's many churches.

During our six weeks in Rome, Jane and I visited many churches and basilicas, most quite grand and some rather modest. We skipped St. Peter's Basilica because the lines were extremely long. Years ago we got in with only a short wait when Benedict XVI was pope, but the crowds drawn to the popular Pope Francis mean that one waits on line hours to get into St. Peter's. (Click HERE for how we spent three months in Italy.) I don't include addresses of the churches here -- they're all easily found on the Internet, on tourist maps and in guidebooks.  I hope this posting will encourage you to visit some of them.

 I did not take any photos in the Catacombs of San Sebastian, a basilica on the Appian Way a short taxi or bus ride from central Rome. The maze-like, multi-level catacombs were used during the centuries of Christian persecution for Christian burials and for worship. There is a small chapel carved from stone deep underground that was used for clandestine worship services. It is marked with an anchor, which was the symbol for Christianity before the cross was adopted. Above the chilly and winding catacombs is a rather conventional church dedicated to Saint Sebastian, who is interred there. I mostly but not always conformed with "no photo" signs; in the catacombs, our guide enforced the no photo rule. Given an opportunity, though, sometimes one just can't help oneself. Most churches allow photos, though not flash photography. All my photos were taken using available light.

Michelangelo's "Moses" at San Pietro in Vincoli, a rather minor basilica in Rome, despite
having a Michelangelo, the tomb of a pope, and the chains that supposedly once
bound St. Peter (below). 

"San Pietro in Vincoli" means "St. Peter in Chains." The
church was originally completed in the year 440 to house
the chains. Additions and renovations were made
through the centuries so one cannot tell what the
original basilica looked like.

San Sebastiano is built above extensive catacombs
that were used by some of the earliest Christians
in Rome. The church, miles from central Rome
on the Appian Way, is also the saint's burial
place and contains what it says are the arrows
that killed him. This was the only church in Rome
that we didn't walk to from our apartment below
the Palatine Hill.
The Archbasilica of St. John in Lateran is the oldest public church in Rome (and thus in the Western
world). It is the cathedral of Rome and the ecclesiastical seat of the pope. Its name comes
from the Lateran Palace, which was given by the emperor Constantine I to the church of Rome
around 313.  It became the seat of Pope Silvester I and was dedicated in 324. It was the
seat of the papacy until it moved to France in 1309. By 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome,
the Lateran was in bad repair; the papacy found homes in two other churches before finding its
permanent home in the Vatican.

St. John in Lateran today is quite grand, rebuilt and restored over the centuries. 

A cross tops
an Egyptian
obelisk in the plaza
outside St. John in

Mosaics tell Bible stories at St. John in Lateran.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore or Basilica of St. Mary Major is another of the churches that once housed
the papacy. Construction of the church is thought to have begun in the late 430s under Pope Sixtus III. It has
been enlarged and modified over the centuries, particularly after an earthquake in 1348. Today its stunning
and ornate spaces are admired by hundreds of visitors every day. The canopied high altar,
above, is reserved for use by the pope, who is said to visit the church often.

Pope Pius IX is a large presence at Maggiore.

One of the chapels at Maggiore.

The wonderful mosaics at Maggiore date to the fifth century.

A closer look at one of the mosaics.

The great artist Bernini was also a great architect, designing this
stairway at Maggiore as well as the columned porticos that surround
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. He and his family are buried
at Maggiore.

Santa Maria in Trastevere seems rather modest
on the outside, but it is considered one of Rome's
grandest churches, and one of its oldest.

Mosaics dating back 800 years make Santa Maria in Trastevere a must-see for
many tourists in Rome. The interior columns were taken from the Baths
of Caracalla. Some guidebooks say the church does more to conjure up the grandeur
of ancient Rome than anything else in the city.

Basilica di Sant'Agostino, near the famous Piazza Navona, is one of many almost hidden churches
in Rome that are well worth seeking out. There's a Caravaggio painting ("Madonna de Loreto")
and other magnificent art. Unfortunately, the painting was in too much shadow for me
to photograph it.

Another church, another Madonna. At Sant'Agostino.
This ornate ceiling is in Basilica San Clemente, a 12th-century
church built above the ruins of a 4th-century church, which itself
was built above the ruins of a first-century villa that contained
a temple to Mithras, a Persian god whose male-only cult
was a rival to early Christianity.

The 4th-century church, filled with rubble when the newer San Clemente
was built above it, has been excavated and opened to visitors. Murals
such as these survived, along with a simple altar (not shown).

Water that once supplied the Roman villa still flows, presumbably
tapped into a spring. Like the 4th-century church, the ruins of the
villa were once filled with rubble that has now been removed.

This is the temple to Mithras, which was in the Roman villa. Hundreds of similar temples, mostly
underground, were scattered around Rome. In the center is the altar and on the sides are
areas where the worshipers could recline. San Clemente does not allow visitors to enter the temple. 
The door to San Giorgio opens onto an interior
with little adornment. 

Jane and I rented an apartment for six weeks on Via dei Fienili in a tiny neighborhood surrounded by history: the Forum to the north, the Capitoline Hill to the west, the Palatine Hill to the east, and the Circus Maximus to the South.  To walk anywhere from there, we often had to pass by three very different and interesting churches.

One, the Chiesa di San Giorgio al Velabro, dates to the 7th century. It is a relatively simple and plain structure with little adornment. In fact, it seems to have been built using mismatched columns of different sizes and stone recycled from older buildings. (The fact that stones used in ancient buildings were reused centuries later for construction projects elsewhere is a major reason why so many ruins are incomplete.)

Another rather modest church practically abuts the Forum. It is Santa Maria della Consolazione. The church is named after an icon of the Virgin Mary that was placed here in the 1300s to console criminals who were thrown to their deaths from the cliff above the church; in ancient Rome, the cliff was called the Tarpeian Rock and was used for the same purpose. Today the church is one of the few obviously still functioning as a neighborhood church. It drew a congregation on Sundays complete with a priest standing by the door greeting worshipers as they left.

The grandest of our "neighborhood" churches is Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which overlooks the Piazza Venezia and is adjacent to the Michelangelo-designed Piazza Campidoglia as well as a huge white building that resembles a wedding cake and is officially known as the Altare della Patria (and shown on most maps as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument). Walking west into central Rome most days, we passed through Campidoglia and looked up at Aracoeli, which sits at the top of 124 steep steps constructed in the 14th century of white marble. The church itself dates to the 6th century and replaced a Byzantine abbey.  For centuries Aracoeli housed a olive-wood figure of the Baby Jesus, known as the Aracoeli Bambino, which supposedly could ensure pregnant women that their babies would be healthy and was also believed able to resurrect the dead. The original 15th-century Bambino was stolen in 1994 and never recovered; the replica on display now appears to be just as venerated. Over the centuries the church has been owned by Benedictines and Franciscans and in the late 18th century was deconsecrated and used as a stable. Today its interior is probably grander than ever, with many elements from the church's long history well conserved and displayed.

The altar canopy at San Giorgio.

San Giorgio al Velabro is one of the few Roman churches, I think, where a Mennonite or an Amish
person might feel at home.  The mismatched columns were recycled from ancient ruins.

Santa Maria della Consolazione overlooks Piazza Consolazione
just east of the Capitoline Hill.
On Sundays these pews at Consolazione are occupied by worshipers.

Romans say that if you climb the 124 steps to Santa Maria in Aracoeli on your knees, you'll win the lottery.

View from the top of the Aracoeli stairs.

It's hard to believe that little more than 200 years ago Aracoeli was used as a stable.

Macabre exhibits, such as this at Aracoeli, are not uncommon in
Roman churches.

Various miracles are attributed to the Aracoeli Bambino.

15th-century frescoes by Pinturicchio in one of the chapels at Aracoeli. The frescoes
survived the church's deconsecration and its rehabilitation. 
Santa Maria della Vittoria, grand as it is, is known mainly for one small chapel. 
In Bernini's Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria, members of the Cornaro family
(some dead, some alive at the time it was built) watch the "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" from
a theater box. Frescoes, sculpture and architecture combine
to create a work considered the apex of the Baroque style.
St. Teresa swoons during an encounter with an angel. The chapel was
undergoing restoration when I was there and scaffolding obscured
much of it. I've cropped the scaffolding out of my photos.
This painted pieta is at San Marcello al Corso, a venerable
but easy-to-overlook church on Via Corso, the busy shopping
street that runs in a straight line between Piazza Venezia and
Piazza del Popolo. The church dates to the 4th century
but much of today's structure is from the 1500s. Worth
at stop on your way to Ferragamo or The Gap.
The Chigi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo was designed by Raphael around 1513, but he's
hardly the only famous artist represented here. In the 1600s, Bernini added oval medallions
on tombs and two statues. He also designed the organ case. In a surprisingly dark corner,
to the left of the high altar, are two characteristically dark works by Caravaggio, "The
Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "Conversion of St. Paul."  They were almost impossible to see
and impossible to photograph. I assume there are times when the church illuminates them.

Related Posts: 
Three Months: Rome to Palermo, including hotel links (Click HERE)
Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Palatial Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Italy: Palatial Rome

A hallway in the Palazzo Colonna, which is open to the public
only on Saturday mornings, gives some idea of the conspicuous
consumption of the Roman aristocracy. Downton Abbey is
downright modest by comparison with Colonna, where several
family members still live. Besides the Saturday morning
admission fees, the palace helps pay for itself by being
rented out for corporate events. 
The Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon, St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel ... I suspect those are things most people think of first when Rome is mentioned. You might also think of coffee, pasta, pizza and wine, the essentials of Italian cuisine.

When Jane and I started planning our 2018 trip to Italy and decided to rent an apartment for six weeks in Rome, we were hardly aware that palaces existed in the city and that they often can be visited. Now we look back at some palaces as highlights of our time there.

Related Posts: 
Three Months: Rome to Palermo, including hotel links (Click HERE)
Walking in Rome (Click HERE)
Eating in Rome (Click HERE)
Ancient Rome (Click HERE)
Catholic Rome (Click HERE)
A Night in Naples (Click HERE)
Visiting the Isle of Capri (Click HERE)
Pompeii and Herculaneum (Click HERE)
Trani and Castel del Monte (Click HERE)
Alberobello and the Trulli District (Click HERE)
Lecce, Otranto and Gallipoli (Click HERE)
Matea, the Cave City (Click HERE)
Maratea, and Goodbye to the Mainland (Click HERE)
Taormina, Mountain and Sea (Click HERE)
Catania, City of Surprises, Plus Mount Etna (Click HERE)
27 Centuries at Siracusa (Click HERE)
Agrigento, Valley of the Temples (Click HERE)
Marsala: Wine and More (Click HERE)
Holy Palermo! (Click HERE)

In Rome, "palazzo" can refer to an impressive public building -- many government offices and even the U.S. and French embassies are in palaces -- or it can refer to a large and grand private residence.  The French Embassy is in a palace built in the 1500s for the famous Farnese family.  The U.S. Embassy is in Palazzo Margherita, home from 1900 to 1926 of the Queen of Savoy.

It seems as if all the Renaissance (and later) families who built palaces included a pope, whose temporal political powers were used to enrich the families. The wealth is evident in Bernini sculptures, Caravagio paintings and rooms the size of hotel lobbies. Today, some of the grand private residences function as event spaces and as art galleries. Family members still live in at least two, the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and the Palazzo Colonna, though in apartments that aren't included in whatever access the public is granted. At both palaces, the family art collections have remained intact, controlled from the grave by ancestors who decreed that if one painting is sold, the entire collection must be sold, and in one case, the buyer would have to be the Italian government (which already owns a number of palaces that function as museums or art galleries). Touring family-controlled palaces, we can see past collectors at work, specializing in landscapes for a generation, or maybe neoclassical sculpture.

Most palaces are rather plain on the outside, and thanks to air pollution, rather grimy. Roman aristocrats didn't need to impress the general public; they instead impressed important visitors with breathtakingly opulent interiors. Guides or audio tours are essential for explaining the framed art on the walls, the furnishings, and the gilded rooms that exceed anything Cinderella could ever dream of. Here are some photos (photos of paintings are usually large details, often shot at an angle to minimize reflected light):

When is a table not a table? When it's a work of art. Tables such as this at the Colonna
are scattered throughout the palaces of Rome.

This ceiling painting depicts the 1571 Battle of Lepanto when a Colonna nobleman led the ships
of allied European powers to victory against a Turkish armada that threatened Italy. 
"The Bean Eater" by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609)
is a prized possession of the Colonna. It is one of the earliest
paintings to depict a person in a realistic way rather
than as an ideal.

This painted mirror depicts a putto sticking
flowers into a sleeping putto's rear end, all
the while telling the viewer not to awaken
his victim. Humor from another age,
at the Colonna.
This is one of the rooms in Princess Isabelle's apartment at the Colonna. The Lebanon-born Isabelle
married into the family and reigned over Roman society during the Mussolini years and survived
to eventually play hostess to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. She died in 1984; her children
still live in their own apartments in the palace. The palace's gardens, accessed by several bridges
above Via dei Pilotta, connect with the residence of the president of Italy. 
Venus and Eros, frolicking eternally at the Colonna.
Palazzo Spada is famous for this optical illusion. What looks like a long corridor with a life-size
statue at the other end isn't. Built in 1653 for Cardinal Bernadino Spada by the architect
Francesco Borromini, the corridor, made of angled planes (the floor rises, the ceiling drops, the walls narrow),
 is only nine meters long, with the columns to the rear shorter and closer together than the ones
 at the front. The statue is only 90 centimeters tall (less than three feet). It's called Borromini's
Perspective, a three-dimensional application of contrived perspective that Renaissance artists were
 using to great success in paintings. Otherwise, the Spada is a run-of-the-mill art museum, which,
in Rome, means it's pretty good but not otherwise a must-see.

At Palazzo Barberini, the art is often over your head.

"Judith and Holofernes" by Caravaggio at Barberini.
He used real people as models and painted them realistically.
Note the older woman on the right, Judith's servant.

Palazzo Barberini is unusual in that it has a bit of land even though
it is in a busy commercial area at the Piazza Barberini.

This is the first room visitors see at Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.

A hall at Doria Pamphilj.

A closer look at a Doria Pamphilj ceiling.

There's usually a pope in the family trees of Rome's aristocratic families. This portrait of Pope Innocent X,
painted by Valazquez in 1649-50, is the most celebrated painting at Doria Pamphilj. It's widely considered
one of the best portraits ever painted anywhere by anyone. The pope, it is said, didn't like it: "It's too
true,'' he supposedly groused.

The final judgment was a popular subject for artists during
the Renaissance and later. This one is on a ceiling at
Doria Pamphilj.

One elegant room leads into another and another at Doria Pamphilj.
This regal stairway connects the ground level
with a first-floor art gallery at Palazzo Corsini.

The Villa Farnesina is too small to be considered a palace. It was
built by a member of the Farnese family who gave it a different
name to avoid confusion with the Palazzo Farnese on the other
side of the Tiber.

Biblical scenes adorn a room at Villa Farnesina. It's interesting how much figures
in such Christian paintings resemble Greek and Roman gods. In fact, you can often
figure out what "pagan" god inspired the depiction of a Christian figure. Hera
for Mary, for example, or more famously, Apollo for David. 
Another palatial destination in Rome isn't technically a palace. The Borghese Gallery
is housed in the Villa Borghese, which the family built as a sort of suburban retreat (it
is still surrounded by their park) and used for entertaining. It was never really
a residence.  The Borgese family were ahead of the times in appreciating how
 Caravaggio and Bernini were moving beyond the idealized and static
 art of the Renaissance. Today it's hard to believe that all these works are
found in this one relatively small gallery. And this post does not have all
the works by Caravaggio and Bernini that can be seen there. Not to mention
at least two by Titian, including the iconic "Sacred and Profane Love."

Above and below, satyrs and other
 figures appear to sit on the ceiling molding to watch and laugh at visitors.

"John the Baptist" by Caravaggio. This could
just as well been titled "Resting Youth"
or something, but Caravaggio's customers
wanted biblical works.

"David with the Head of Goliath" by Caravaggio.
The face of Goliath is a self-portrait of the artist.
Bernini created this masterpiece in 1622 when he was
only 23 years old. "The Rape of Proserpina" depicts
her abduction by Pluto, the god of the underworld.  

Notice how Pluto's hand appears to compress Proserpina's flesh. Bernini combined
motion and realism, hallmarks of Baroque art.

"David" by Bernini. Note how much movement there
is in this as David prepares to wind up and
sling the stone that's in his left hand. This was
done about a century after Michelangelo's more famous
and more static "David" that's in Florence. Bernini
used his own face as the model for this work. Supposedly,
a cardinal held a mirror for him as he worked on the face.

This is probably the favorite work of art for anyone who has had a chance to spend a few
minutes looking at it. It's Bernini's telling of the tale of Apollo and Daphne. Eros shot
him with an arrow to make him love her, but shot her with an arrow to make her hate
him. She turns into a tree to escape. Her hands are already growing leaves and
her toes are becoming roots. Viewed from one angle, she appears
as only a tree, not a human at all.