Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nest cawed
And saw from the elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
Edward Thomas (1878-1917), “Thaw”
I feel like mirroring my last days in Seattle with a last walk through the Borghese Gallery, and with the sense that it is only an arrivederci for now, as I figure out the transition from one dimension of my life to another. I say goodbye here and reconnect on the other side of the world, with my home in Rome. I leave next week.
I imagine going from room to room of the museum, along with a few other visitors getting ready to leave, pulling my coat back on and adjusting my scarf before I really do step outside in the chilly evening. A sense of gradual quieting, like the fading out of songs on the vinyl records of my youth, a sense of lights dimming softly.
I think back to what we experienced in the last two conversations with Bernini’s masterpieces, the impressions they have left in me: movement, emotion, illusion. I can still feel the weight of Aeneas’ father, propped precariously on his son’s shoulder. I can feel Daphne’s heartbeat like that of a frightened bird we hold in our hands, as we try to rescue and reassure, hear the snarling and snapping of the three-headed Cerberus, see David biting his lip. The guards shut the doors on those statues behind us now. I realize I want to slow down, to regain balance and composure before I leave, and so I ask you to join me for just a few more moments and details.
Princess and Goddess
On our way out, we should pay homage to the most elegant woman in the gallery, Princess Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, portrayed as Venus Victorious (1805-8) by Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the greatest artist of his time and maybe the last name of international renown in Italian art.
Times changed, Baroque exhausted itself in Rococo, and was dismissed as excessive and distasteful. The 18th century brought a desire for balance and harmony, noble simplicity and quiet grandeur, best embodied by the ancient classical art that once again became the model to emulate and aspire to. The Enlightenment- the Age of Reason – appreciated its more rational appeal. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum sparked new interest, produced a more scientific approach to the study of ancient Greek and Roman art, and launched a new taste for the idealized beauty at its core. Harmony and composure stood in sharp contrast to the passions and dynamism we have seen in Bernini’s Baroque sculpture.
To sum it up: enough with barking dogs and gods running around, enough with marble forgetting itself and turning into living things. Let us all take a deep breath and settle down here! It’s time for a new look at the Classics, it’s time for Neoclassicism!
And here she is, the semi-nude princess Paolina as Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. She is lounging on an agrippina, an upholstered sofa/chaise longue with a high headrest, low footrest and plump silky pillows. She daintily holds the golden apple that was inscribed with the words “to the fairest”, the prize she was awarded in the beauty contest for goddesses. By the way, her victory in that story was like the Big Bang of Greek mythology and literature, it led to the Trojan War, to Aeneas fleeing and, ultimately, to the founding of Rome. Interesting fruit, apples.
So that’s the goddess the princess is impersonating. Now a bit of context for Paolina herself. She was Napoleon’s spirited and beloved sister. She married Prince Camillo Borghese who called the Venetian Antonio Canova to portray her. She is captured in the full bloom of her youthful splendor, at 25, and at the peak of her social success. There are delightful anecdotes about Paolina responding to slightly scandalized questions about the discomfort of her posing in the nude – “the studio was well heated” she said. She was just fine – I so hope it’s true! Tickets were apparently sold by the Borghese palace staff to curious visitors, unbeknownst to the prince, who did not take it well, was quite piqued, and decided to lock the statue in a box! Paolina as Venus found her permanent home in this room of the Borghese Gallery in 1889.
My favorite detail is the mattress or couch cushion, the way the weight of her body (no, not of the marble it is made of – the natural weight of her body) pushes the stuffing into the corner and makes a beautifully believable indentation.
Another foot picture, I know, it’s a coincidence I can assure you! But just look at the weight of it on the mattress, the way it sinks slightly into its easily imaginable softness! I find the grace of that contrast enchanting, don’t you? My friend Ilaria made me laugh so hard when she told me that she when she stops here on her tours, she always feels like telling Paolina to scoot over so she can take a nap there herself. Another expert colleague told me the protective chain surrounding it is so far from the statue because in the past, visitors could not resist the urge to test the softness themselves, their fingertips leaving oily traces on the marble that are impossible to clean.
Another detail I want to reflect on with you is how we look at sculpture today versus how people looked at it in the past. Canova was known for starting his process by creating a smaller clay model himself. He left the plaster model that followed, the roughing out and polishing of the final marble version, to his assistants. He intervened only in the final stage for l’ultima mano, the last hand. He was extremely interested in rendering the softness of flesh. Like Michelangelo and Bernini before him, he had a deep knowledge and understanding of marble (Carrara from Tuscany, again). He claimed that in its natural state, this marble is porous like a sponge, that is absorbs rather than reflects light. It needed to be treated so it would not have the appearance of a “block of salt or of refined sugar”. He considered it vital to “seal the pores” of the stone during the polishing process, but he also used specific techniques to provide an impression of life. He seems to have applied a thin layer of slightly tinted wax or acqua di rota, the water that was poured over his metal tools to prevent them from becoming hot when they were sharpened on the grindstone (rota). That water became slightly pigmented in the process and warmed the flesh parts of the statues.
You may remember that Bernini staged our experience by creating the perfect point of view for us to stand in, to imagine his stone figures moving. Canova creates an experience too, but it is completely different. We can stand still if we like, the statues will move for us, truly move, thanks to mechanical devices concealed in their bases that allowed them to rotate. Pauline is no exception, the device is still fully functioning and is inside the chaise longue (no longer used).
Furthermore, his works were intended to be best seen at night, in candlelight. The play of light and shadow on the statues and the rooms containing them, on the faces of viewers as they took in different angles, must have been both exciting and sublime.
A couple of years ago, a fantastic exhibit on Canova’s sculpture tried to recreate the experience of candlelight and movement, through careful lighting and mirrors. Walking into dark rooms that housed these eerily luminescent marble pieces, felt like moving through a dream. I took some pictures at the time to share with my friends and loved ones in the States, I want to show them to you as well.
This reminded me, yet again, that how we look is as important as what we are looking at. Awareness and curiosity for this can enrich our adventures with the art of the past and help us connect with all the generations that enjoyed it before us.
We leave Pauline as we imagine her rotating gently in candlelight. We turn around too, for one last impression of her elegance and grace.
I feel the melancholy of parting take over, so I want to end on a note of and color and lightness.
A Painting for Eternity
Look at this…
It looks like a painting but it is actually a mosaic, a micro mosaic, a glorious tradition that started with the ancient Greeks and Romans and saw a revival in the Renaissance, and then again in the 1600s. It represents our host, the cardinal Scipione Borghese, as Orpheus, the mythological figure who charmed all living things (and stones too, which I love) with his music. It was made in 1618 by Marcello Provenzale, an amazing specialist. What a delightful and unlikely menagerie is peacefully gathered around Scipione/Orpheus to listen! The mosaic measures 44 by 63 cm (17 by 25 inches), and this is the picture I took to give you a sense of the size of the tiles.
They are like the head of a pin! The artist was known to use different materials in his works, stone, glass and colored ceramic. The tiles were inserted on a layer of stucco or putty, in a clay base with raised borders, and gone over with wax at the end to polish and minimize the outlines of the tiles. The artistic merit of micro mosaics was determined by how closely they resembled actual paintings. I think this is one is wonderful in its details and the vivid colors of its materials, truly a “painting for eternity”.
Beware: Roman Children at Play
Finally, many museums in Rome show ancient statues of children at play. In their time, they could be displayed as garden art, and the children are sometimes shown with small animals, especially birds. Maybe the inspiration was baby Hercules wrestling snakes in one of his earliest enterprises, the babies and children are often quite muscular. I have always noticed how rough the play is, and cannot help siding with the poor birds who always look rather tense and uncomfortable. I imagine cartoon speech bubbles or picture them animating to make wry comments, like the ducks in The Far Side comics by Gary Larson.
I started this post in a melancholy mood but then, as always, the art in this gallery offered me a way out. In the previous posts, I felt deep, intense emotion. The statues we explored had darker aspects to the stories they told, that gave rich, important complexity to our experience of their beauty. This time, as we looked at Principessa Paolina, the colorful micro mosaic, and mischievous ancient Roman kiddies, I felt lightness and elation. I like the idea that there is room inside us for this entire range of feelings and thoughts. I think it will help me say goodbye to Seattle and my loved ones here, as I return home to Rome to see what lies ahead. I will meet you there. Thank you for journeying with me this far.