Tourist First

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

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.

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. 

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