I am certain things will soon start improving at a faster pace here, but I was still required to respect a 14 day quarantine, and not leave my apartment. It is almost over, but I confess I started losing my marbles a bit around day 9. My friends and family have been fantastic and have kept me company in many different ways, one of which I would love to share with you here.
You have already met my friend and colleague Alessandra Mazzoccoli, she has kindly provided pictures and ideas for this blog. Ale and I often talk about about how Rome’s complicated beauty acts as a balm on our minds and hearts when we are feeling low or troubled. We both turn to her when we feel we are wandering too far down dark paths and need to be pulled back.
Every day, Ale goes out on her bike and makes videos and takes pictures (you can enjoy them on her Facebook page A Zonzo: rambles in Rome, and http://www.romeandabout.com), and every day of my quarantine she sent some to me to lift my spirits. It worked. She has such a deep understanding of Rome’s more intimate, quiet, poetic dimensions, the ones that make her more accessible and easier to fall in love with. It takes time and patience to overcome both the faded grandeur and the chaos, to block out the louder sounds and catch the whispers and murmurings that can be so soothing and enchanting. But it is worth it.
I asked Ale if I could share my favorites pictures with you here, without further comment because no comment is needed, and she agreed. I want to offer you the comfort and solace I felt while looking at them in the strange isolation of my quarantine. Like a window on the beauty of the world we can look through for now, and a door we can throw open and walk though when you will join us here.
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 arrivedercifor 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.
This is the last exploration of details at the Borghese Gallery. I hope our way of looking together has produced ease and familiarity with the splendid art that lives there. As I write these posts, observing the photographs quietly, thinking of words exact enough to reduce the gap between what I see and what I say, I feel I am reactivating an underused muscle and find new energy and focus. As daylight stays with us longer, and hopefulness becomes less delusional, I want to ready myself. When the time comes, I want to shed the fatigue and malaise of this past year to embrace and celebrate everything around me. Yes, even now that many areas in Italy are back in total lockdown.
And Art always helps. It consoles us in darkness and amplifies our joy.
My intention this time, as we conclude, is to show you how much ground we have covered. To use the tools we have acquired here, and will always be available to us as we go forward. This post will be more about recognizing, confirming, and refining, so I hope cups of tea and wine glasses are close at hand. Andiamo, let’s meet Bernini again.
Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625)
Last time, we saw Aeneas and his remaining family advance slowly and sorrowfully, and Pluto forcefully lift Proserpina off the ground as she tries desperately to pull away.
Here, we witness a rapid chase halting brusquely, and a transformation from one state of being to another. The first two statues invited us to move around them; here we are invited to find a single, ideal point of view and stand still. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let us begin with the story. Once again, the subject matter is a Greek myth, as recounted by the Latin poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Apollo, the god of the sun, music, poetry, and many other things as well, was struck by Cupid’s golden arrow of love. As a result, he became enamoured with the nymph Daphne, the daughter of a river god, who had promised her life and chastity to the goddess of the moon. Daphne, on the other hand, was struck by the lead arrow of disdain, resisted Apollo’s advances, and was forced to flee him. The gods of classical myth are absolute brutes and know nothing of consent, we are well aware of this, so Apollo chased Daphne until she realized she would not get away. She invoked the help of her father, the river god, who transformed her into a laurel tree. Apollo realized his desire had been thwarted (but at what cost for Daphne!), and decided that one day, when Rome would rise to prominence, the leaves of the laurel tree would adorn the heads of victorious generals. The term “poet laureate” and the expression “to rest on one’s laurels”, also derive from this.
Let us focus on the artistic challenge of representing swift movement through space – the chase – and the transformation of Daphne from nymph (a nature deity with the appearance of a young woman) to tree, in marble. As always, I invite you to move closer to show you that now our eyes know what to look for and how to “read” this work of art. In his rich and varied professional life, Bernini would also become a man of the theatre. He was both a playwright and a stage director, and here he already stages and directs the event. He doesn’t want us to walk freely around the statue, he intends us to stand in a specific spot to view this story as he specifically intended. Apollo and Daphne was displayed at the center of this room at a later date. It was originally placed against a wall, close to a doorway, elsewhere. Yet we can find the right spot here, this is the angle Bernini wants us to see:
This time we are asked to stand still, and yet the movement implied in the freeze frame of the statue itself is more extreme and complex than anything we have seen so far. We picture Apollo and Daphne running. We are sharply aware of Daphne’s panic (sometimes I imagine the pounding of her heartbeat next to mine) as the distance reduces. His left arm goes around her to block her and pull her close, and in that instant, she turns into a laurel tree and escapes him at the cost of losing her very nature of a young female deity. We look at her, our feelings are all for her, we wish to sustain and help her, but we realize the metamorphosis is occurring in front of our eyes. She is no longer a nymph but not yet a tree. This is the moment Bernini captures, the in-between of her transformation. The instant that contains the before and after, as she passes from one to the other. Her fingers sprout leaves that seem to tremble in the wind, her body becomes enveloped by bark, her toes turn into roots.
The chase is over. Apollo has caught up with Daphne and lost her in the same moment. Consider what our eyes are catching and processing. Let us break away from the ideal point of view and walk around the statue:
Here are some familiar elements that we find again:
Do you recognize the marks of the claw chisel on the bark and the contrast with the perfect sheen of Daphne’s skin? We have encountered this rough texture before, with the fur of the three-headed dog Cerberus.
We know how Bernini uses projecting limbs to suggest dynamism. Apollo’s leg clearly indicates a running stance and reminds me of photographic stills of track and field athletes – I think of how heavy the marble leg must be and marvel at how nothing seems to support it. The two stones near the heel of the other, supporting leg, suggest gravel and clouds of dust lifting as they run, heightening the drama.
We know how Bernini evokes an imaginary wind, and the way it blows back her hair reminds us of Proserpina’s, but Daphne’s hair is looser and more abundant, as it is about to morph into leaves and branches. We know how the wind moulds fabric into swirls to express movement but also emotion. Here the arc formed by Apollo’s billowing cloak is carved so skilfully that in some points we see light shining through it.
The inner life of the characters. Apollo has a hesitant half smile of frozen surprise. He thought he would have his way and realizes he has not. Daphne’s mouth is open to loudly voice her distress. We can hear her. This seems an extreme version of the parted lips of the cardinal Borghese in Part 1 of this story. The cardinal urbanely answered a courtier or guest, seemingly without a care in the world. Everything Daphne is feeling is extreme and revealed in that facial expression: the fear and revulsion for Apollo, fear and uncertainty of what is happening to her very being.
All of this in white marble. A tour de force, magnificent and even exquisite in form and harrowing in content. I sincerely believe we are intellectually and emotionally equipped to contemplate both as we proceed to the last chapter in our story in stone.
As we leave this room, we look up to the ceiling and notice a rendering of the same myth in painting. I will never forget my mother’s comment the last time we came here together: “Franz, that doesn’t look like a nymph turning into a tree, it’s more like a nymph stuck in a tree trunk with leaves in her hands!”. I agree with my mom. In the contest between sculpture and painting in fabricating believable illusions (we discussed this in Part 1), in this room, sculpture brings it home, the laurel crown of triumph goes to Bernini!
Bernini is now 25 – 26 years old. He interrupted work on Apollo and Daphne to make this, a turning point in his career. We go from classical mythology and literature to the Bible. From a group to a single figure, David. Bernini may have made this statue in only seven months. Once again, there is one ideal point of view for this, let’s find it and view it together from there, as Bernini wants us to. This piece was also not intended to be walked around, it was placed against a wall and the back was left rough as no one would ever see it. We must stand in front of it.
Again, we know what to look for, we are aware of the artist’s intention. This is not Michelangelo’s Renaissance David, thinking, contemplating, getting ready to strike. This is Bernini’s Baroque David, a man of action, shown as he is just about to strike. Bernini pulls us away from the luxury and elegance of the Cardinal Borghese’s villa, into the dust and tumult of the battlefield. We feel the tension, we understand how much is at stake. Our eyes are drawn to the young shepherd-hero’s face: the intensity of his gaze, the way he bites his lip– who had ever seen that before? – his strikingly handsome features.
Documents tell us this is a self-portrait of Bernini himself as he worked on David’s face, on this statue. A mirror was held up to him and he practiced facial expressions to get it right (don’t you wish you had been there to watch him makes faces in the mirror?), and thus represented his own challenge as well: carving this work of art.
We indulge in details, as has become our habit. The rope of the sling is rough, the stone projectile also has texture but it is not the same.
David’s body is twisted as it gathers power, it implies the moment of release and we can almost see the stone shoot over our heads, as it hits Goliath on the forehead. We evoke his giant form collapsing behind us, we almost hear the heavy thud as it hits the ground, and David triumphs.
I first learned to love Bernini’s work through visits to this Museum with my mother, and thanks to the very first book I read about him, Bernini, by American art historian Howard Hibbard (1928-1984). Professor Hibbard enabled me to look at Baroque with intense enjoyment by what he said about this statue in particular. He claimed Bernini’s David modifies, “activates” the space around it, so that there end up being three “dimensions of space”: 1) the space occupied by the marble statue itself, which is real and tangible; 2) the imaginary space created by the determined concentration on David’s face and the tension in his pose. It is in this imaginary, implied space that we feel Goliath’s presence looming behind us, we are fully aware of it as if it were real; and 3) our space, our own presence. Nothing here works without it. I fell in love with the idea of being part of the art’s reason to be. It allowed me to let go of all feelings of intimidation, to step over a threshold and be swept away by art and its power to make our lives fuller and richer. And here I am, 25 years later, reliving that life-changing moment with you.
As we leave the museum, and walk back into the Roman afternoon and then back to wherever we truly are, I realize we have looked at these statues with our eyes, as we observed their details closely, and with our hearts, as we participated in the stories they told us and defined our response to them. And finally, with our minds, as we pondered what they revealed of times long past and our own.
When I am asked what it means, specifically, to experience art in a museum, this is what I mean. To engage with everything that we are in the moment – looking, feeling, reflecting, weaving a connection. And to walk away enriched by that connection with full awareness that it will live on inside us, far beyond the time we actually spent there. And it will come back to us, as we continue on our journey in life, in many different ways – as memory, echo, epiphany, elevation, inspiration….
There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.
Arnold Bennett (1867-1931)
Next time we might pop back in the Borghese one last time for a couple of “post credit scenes” like the ones in superhero movies, something light and brief (I want to challenge myself!). We will we explore other areas as Italy emerges from its new lockdown and hopefully we start making real progress.
All artforms are in the service of the greatest art of all: the art of living.
Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)
Time to start taking a closer look at the four marble masterpieces Gian Lorenzo Bernini made for the Cardinal Borghese. When he completed the last one, he was only 27 years old and had already secured a prominent, permanent place in the History of Art. And yet he died at 82, which means at that moment he had most of his incredible career still ahead of him, an amazing thought.
We will look at the statues in the order in which he created them, to observe him as his art evolves, but also to see how he had absolute clarity on what he wanted to achieve right from the start.
Like the last post, this is not intended as a tour of the Borghese Gallery, but as a break in our day, accompanied by a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and an exploration of how to use our eyes next time we cross the threshold of a museum in person (and what a happy moment that will be!).
So we return to the rooms of the Borghese. We evoke a comfortable silence in our immediate surroundings, but also the sounds of life and joy on the other side of the walls, in the park around us. This time we will indulge in stories along with details.
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1618-1619)
Aeneas, a valiant Trojan hero is leaving his fallen city, defeated by the Greek ruse of the Wooden Horse that put an end to a ten-year war. He is carrying his elderly father, Anchises, on his shoulder and has his little boy, Ascanius, close to his side, almost hidden from view.
Creusa, Aeneas’s wife and mother of Ascanius, got lost in the chaos of besieged, burning Troy. Aeneas called out her name in the streets until he met her ghost. She entrusted their little boy to him, beseeched him to go on without her, and faded away as he tried to embrace her. Grandfather, father, and son, ancient refugees, leave their beloved, war-stricken homeland in search of a place where they can start anew. Aeneas and Ascanius will reach the coast of central Italy and become the ancestors of Romulus and Remus. The journey we see starting here will lead to the birth of Rome (the story of that journey is the subject matter of the Aeneid by the Latin poet Virgil).
They have lost everything, yet the elderly frail Anchises is clutching a small statue of the Penates, the household gods of family and ancestry, an attempt to salvage the past, their roots, their history. This starts a train of thought in my mind: what is unrenouncable and dearest to us when everything is taken away? I am there. I feel empathy. I become a witness to what I imagine is slow, hard, heartbroken progress.
Statues are three-dimensional objects, they require our curiosity, our willingness to move around them, to take in different angles; they ask us to interact with them. We allow our eyes to wander and we catch it. The intention, the transformation of the stone into something else. We walk past little Ascanius, the child, his survival the sign of a future guaranteed, carrying the eternal flame that will one day burn in the Tempe of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum, re-founding Troy in Rome. The flames flicker, it is easy to imagine that as we start seeing where twenty-year-old Bernini (lets us take a moment to think about that!) is going with this, the first non-ancient Roman statue to enter the cardinal’s collection. As we move, our eyes take in the tender plumpness of the little boy, the strength of the father’s muscular build, the back of the grandfather, his vertebrae discernible, the skin thinner and sagging. Three generations. Past, Present, Future. This is not flesh represented in marble, it is marble that turns into flesh. This is how our story begins.
And then, the expressions on their faces, what do you think? Bernini is giving these stone creatures an inner life, a psychology. What do their faces communicate to us: uncertainty, resignation, determination, awareness of the responsibilities of fatherhood and filial love? This is how the poet Virgil describes the moment in which Aeneas gathers what is left of his family around him as they embark on their journey. This is how Aeneas addresses Anchises who is unable to walk:
So come, dear father, climb onto my shoulders / I will carry you on my back. This labor of love / will never wear me down.
Here are their faces again:
We turn and walk away from this room, wondering where our young master of illusions will take us next, what story will unfold in front of our eyes.
Pluto and Proserpina (1621-1622)
If I could choose one statue I would like everyone to see, as proof that even the wildest invention of the imagination can turn into matter through art, to celebrate the supreme value of craft, the work of human hands in the art of the past, it would be this one. I miss showing it on tour, watching people turn to look at each other as if to confirm that what is in front of them is real, reaching for each other’s hands to share the wonder, fully inhabiting the here and now, looking with occhi lucidi (“shiny eyes”, as we say in Italian, when we are moved and a tear veils our eyes without falling). I miss witnessing that, the warm, gentle human connection it creates between us and the art, in a moment in time I know will live on.
Bernini is now 23 and these are Pluto and Proserpina (Hades and Persephone in Greek mythology). Pluto is the god of the Underworld and he rises from the depths of his dark kingdom on his chariot to claim Proserpina, daughter of Cerere (Demetra in Greek), the agricultural goddess who watched over crops – and has given us the English word cereal -while she was picking flowers in a field with her girlfriends. Pluto kidnapped Proserpina, stole her away from the sunshine and the love of her mother, taking her into the reign of the dead, guarded at its entrance by the three-headed dog, Cerberus.
Kids and parents who read to them before sleep often mention he looks like Fluffy from Harry Potter, and it delights me to see how contemporary children’s fiction equips them to move in museums with ease and recognize themes, just like generations of kids before them who studied the classics in more traditional ways. Go Humanities, in any shape or form! Proserpina will become Queen of the Underworld, but also goddess of Spring, as she will return each year to the Earth’s surface and her mother’s loving embrace.
This myth, as any story, has duration and progression, but here it must be summed up in the single freeze image captured by the statue. The word statue derives from the Latin word for the verb to stand(still). The very word describes immobility, absence of motion. These figures, in contrast, move, and their gestures seem to pierce, to rip through a veil of separation between them and us: it is our space they are moving in, humans and marble creatures truly meeting and connecting. And these stone figures also feel with great intensity. They move and they feel every time someone walks into this room and lays eyes on them. This is cinema, the story playing again and again for us viewers and we find ourselves reacting to Pluto’s arrogance and Proserpina’s desperation, and our response becomes integral part of the work. Regardless of how this statue was viewed in the past, I find it to be a powerful empathy machine, in the same way great music and literature can be. We have no doubt about whom our sympathy should lie with and who deserves our outrage.
My friend Val asked, after my last post, if Bernini’s statues were made out of a single block. This one is, and it is the finest Carrara sculpting marble (from the same source in Tuscany Michelangelo used although, unlike him, Bernini did not go there to choose his blocks in person). He discarded 10% of it – unheard of! – to create Proserpina’s right arm and the swirl of fabric beneath it, both dramatically projecting into space, and seemingly supported by nothing at all.
If you are curious about the single block versus multiple parts theme, look up Bernini’s statue of Saint Longinus in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican: it is almost 15 feet tall and made up of about five different pieces of marble. By comparison, Michelangelo’s David is 17 feet tall and is made out of a single block.
But we are here for details so let us move closer again.
Let’s consider the treatment of surfaces and texture. One block of flawless white marble, and of course Bernini turns it into very noticeably different materials: hair, dog fur, leaves, fabric. And flesh: Pluto’s grasping fingers press into Proserpina’s thigh and waist as if the stone were wax or butter, as if art had the power to change its very chemical composition.
Now let’s zoom in on the fur of the dog Cerberus. Look.
Compare the silky skin of Proserpina to the fur on the dog’s chest. Shiny versus matt, smooth versus rough. How does Bernini do it? First we consider the skin, then the dog fur. Once the marble has been roughed out with large chisels and then worked on with finer ones, the surface is made smooth with a series of files and rasps, then polished with powdered pumice stone and hay. It gleams. I always wondered about this and asked myself if wax was ever used. Ancient Greek authors describe how in their day (when statues were still mostly painted), a thin layer of wax and oil was often applied to sculpture to enhance luminosity, “warm up” unpainted flesh parts, and brighten colors. By Bernini’s time, marble statues had long been made to be unpainted, but still, Bernini never used wax on his statues (we will encounter someone who does, almost 200 years later); he did everything through the treatment of the stone surface with his tools.
The fur of the dog is rough and has a remarkable tuft on the chest that I have seen in many breeds and always makes me want to run my fingers through to rub and ruffle it. The textured fur of the dog is obtained with a tool called a claw chisel (I think of it as a fork with short tines).
It marks the surface of the stone with a series of ridges (we can compare it to crosshatching in drawing), creating a texture that receives light in a completely different way than the polished parts do. This came to my mind as I was walking by the lake near the place I call home when in Seattle. I thought of the way light reflects off the surface of the water like a mirror when it is calm, and how different it looked one blustery day when the surface was wind-whipped, rippled, and non-reflective.
And an imaginary wind exists in this museum room too (remember the palms fronds from the Fountain of the Four Rivers?).
As Pluto and Proserpina struggle, her hair is blown back, fabric moves and swirls around her, expressing and reflecting the rush of high emotion caused by the dramatic event we are witnessing. Once I read about Bernini’s “emotional use of fabric” and it just stuck with me. Proserpina’s hair is rendered with ropey, highly textured strands, the fabric is smooth but opaque and is quite different from the sheen of her skin. Bernini has both an incredibly developed imagination and astounding technical skill to translate what he imagines into this. It lights up something in my core every time I see it.
My eyes and mind are full, the stories are still unfolding, my emotions are like widening circles from a pebble thrown into a pond. My teacup is empty, there are only a few crumbs left of my cookie. Maybe it is time to return to our day. Let us say goodbye and allow this to settle and linger. We can take the time we cannot when we are there, at the Galleria Borghese, where we are (very wisely) allowed two hours and there is so much to see.
Next time, a young woman transforms into a tree and a young Bible hero pulls us onto the battlefield as he takes on an incredible challenge.
“Details make perfection and perfection is not a detail”.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
The feedback you shared and the joy I felt in mentally looking at the Fountain of the Four Rivers with you in my last post, gave me a lot to think about. I suspect we are all hungry for visual stimuli and beauty to brighten our days and remind us of all that awaits us on the other end of this experience. My friend Laura described her desire to linger more, to allow herself to slow down and look at things in detail on her next trip to Italy. Then Monday Night Travel with Rick Steves took us to the Borghese Gallery (https://classroom.ricksteves.com/videos/baroque-in-rome /starts at min. 3:48) and I saw the statues that have been my beloved companions for so many years and an idea for a post that had been floating around in my head finally took shape.
I am like a “disco rotto” – a broken record – in repeating how the Borghese Gallery is my favorite museum at every opportunity, but I have witnessed more people get excited about art there, than in any other place I know, and I include myself among them. Some art of the past requires a great deal of background knowledge to be fully experienced, and that can be intimidating. Yet a lot of the art we can explore at the Borghese, especially the marble statues by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (yes, another disco rotto!), only requires our eyes and willingness to connect in a way that can be beautifully intense in the moment, but that can also stay with us long after we have been in its physical presence, another form of lingering.
So, I invite you to look and feel with me at the Borghese, not with a tour but with a very personal selection. I want to continue the conversation we started in the last post, and try something I have been practicing for years. When we look at the same things often, sometimes we risk not really seeing them anymore, and it can happen even with great art. I have trained myself to look for details and hold them in my eyes and mind until I feel I reach full awareness of their vibrancy. I do that when I guide and like to share what I notice with visitors. I would like to do that here, with you, using pictures I took with my phone on a solitary visit to the Borghese last summer, when I was searching for solace for my anxiety and disquiet. If you have been there, I hope this brings back memories, if you haven’t, this is my invitation for you to discover it
Where are we?
The Borghese Gallery is nestled in the 148 acres of the Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s great public parks. It was created in the early17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577- 1633), the nephew of Pope Paul V (who ruled from 1605 to 1611). The popes of the past were like absolute monarchs and often favored family members by assigning important offices to them. Scipione became “cardinal nepote”, cardinal nephew, the equivalent of a secretary of state today. Interestingly, this is where the English word nepotism comes from. Scipione was powerful, incredibly wealthy, an avid art collector, and connoisseur with a keen eye for the talent in the art scene of his time. He created the Borghese Gallery to hold his art collection, and housed his collections of plants and birds in the surrounding area. The Borghese was a private collection until the 20th century when it was purchased by the Italian State and has since been a public museum. The cardinal’s collection was a reflection of his taste, his desire to flaunt power, and his era: he favored ancient Roman sculpture, Renaissance (Raphael, Titian) and contemporary art (Caravaggio and Bernini). The walls and ceilings of the rooms of the museum, although no longer as the cardinal saw them, are lavishly decorated according to the idea of the museum space as art in itself, the “container” mirroring the beauty of what it contains (if you are interested you can read my “Museum Musings” post from August 10). As we mentally walk through the rooms, we should remember that here at the Borghese, the art, the architecture of the building that contains it, and the park that contains both, must be experienced as one.
Let’s picture colourful frescoes on the walls and ceilings with some delightful, festive details (cherubs blowing soap bubbles, playing with pet doves), and on the other side of those walls, blue skies, Roman pine trees, families riding their bikes, dogs cavorting on the lawns, human voices, barking and birdsong.
We are ready, let’s go linger on a few details, turning up the intensity dial gradually, as in a musical crescendo.
Meet our Host, the Cardinal Scipione Borghese
Here he is, the man who started the Borghese collection. This bust was carved by Gian Lorenzo Bernini when the cardinal was 55. At that point in his life he had been master of Rome but was approaching the end (he died a year later). Bernini was already recognized as a master of a different kind and he was 34 years old. The artist didn’t have the cardinal sit for this portrait but made quick sketches of him as he went about his day, walking, conversing, enjoying his music, food and wine. He then transferred his impressions and produced a stone snapshot that reveals both the physical and the psychological dimensions: Scipione is a man of power but also a man of intense vitality and character. His head is turned slightly to the right, his lips are parted: someone is talking to him and we can almost hear his voice as he answers. His cardinal’s hat is slightly tilted back, his marble skin shows a sheen akin to sweat. We can imagine his shoulders moving under his vestment as he advances, we can hear the rustling of the fabric. Alive. Here. Now. Remember the Fountain of the Four Rivers? Here it is again, the talent of Bernini to infuse stone with life.
Let’s get closer. The detail I offer you here is the focus and direction of his gaze. Forget the blank stares of the majority of stone statues we have seen elsewhere.
The puffiness suggests the softness of the delicate flesh of the eye area through the alternation of light and shadow. The iris and pupil are defined and outlined, and the little white dot at the center is the highlight, the reflection of light off the eye, easier to see in paintings, drawings and cartoons (I googled “drawings of eyes” to doublecheck!), far less common in marble sculpture. The eyes of ancient Greek and Roman statues were mostly painted, carved, made of glass or different types of metal that were damaged or lost over time, leaving us with the empty, lifeless gazes we see today. The directness of Scipione’s stare helps us imagine the look of ancient statues as far more more life-like too.
Another detail: see that strange line above his brow that seems to divide the head into two sections?
That was an unexpected, unpredictable flaw in the marble block that appeared when the work was almost completed and forced Bernini to “open” the bust, create a cavity within it and insert a joint to seal the two sections back together and make the work stable. Realizing that the fracture was visible, making the portrait unpresentable to his illustrious patron, Bernini made a replica in record time, then showed both busts to the cardinal who was delighted as we are today as we view the two versions side by side.
And his Uncle, the Pope
Despite the slightly furrowed brow, this “desktop” (13 inches high) portrait of Pope Paul V by Bernini doesn’t seem to burst with vitality as that of his nephew; the eyes are uncarved and blank, but there is a detail worth lingering on. My favourite Bernini scholar, Tommaso Montanari, defined this a “still life of a pope” so let’s look at the inanimate elements, let’s look at his clothes: the shirt, vestment and jewelled clasp. I can almost feel the difference in texture between the light soft linen fabric of the shirt with its multiple creases, and the lace trim on the collar, a bit rumpled on one side as the pope moves and the vestment pulls. The fabric of the vestment itself looks much heavier, I can imagine its weight on his shoulders, and then picture the bright gold and colors of the embroidery and of the gem and goldwork on the clasp. Fabric, light and heavy, embroidery, jewels, all in white marble.
Father and Son
I overlooked this Bernini piece for years and now stop whenever I can, to share an anecdote I love. This is the Goat Amalthea, one of those kind female animals of ancient myth that fed babies in danger who then grew up to become powerful gods and heroes. Amalthea provided milk to baby god Jupiter, kept in hiding from his dangerous father Saturn who had swallowed his brothers and sisters, and is seen here with his little pal, a Faun. Before dismissing this statue for its slight awkwardness, as I confess I did in the past, observe the wonderful realism of the goat’s rough, matted hair, and the marble milk pouring from the little cup into the Faun’s lips.
This sculpture is a bit of a puzzle because we don’t know exactly when Bernini made it and exactly where to place it within his early career. Let’s look to the label for information.
So he was between 11 and 17 years old, Gian Lorenzo was clearly a child prodigy.
Bernini’s father, Pietro, was a respected sculptor in his day; he recognized and nurtured his son’s talent and was his first “maestro” (teacher). The son’s talent soon surpassed the father’s and one day, a cardinal who saw the greatness that lay ahead for Bernini junior, chided Pietro by saying: “Take care, Signor Bernini, this child will soon surpass you and will certainly be greater than his master!” Bernini senior had both the intelligence and the heart to reply: “Your Eminence knows that in this game the one who loses, wins”. And he continued to support his son’s work and talent for the rest of his life.
And now, for a few moments, we walk from room to room, painting to painting, allowing our eyes to wander freely and see what catches our attention. ‘
A Last Supper (1546, by Jacopo Bassano, Venetian): a cramped, busy tavern, Christ and the Apostles, a world away from the splendid idealism of Leonardo’s painting of the same scene, but let’s get closer. We find an early example of Italian still life, highly symbolic: a simple loaf of bread, and the wine in the glass and the bottle reflecting pink on the tablecloth. The hand of an apostle pushes the tablecloth forward causing the fabric to bunch so believably; the long horizontal crease that for me evokes human hands taking it out of a cupboard were it was neatly folded and spreading it over the table for this most meaningful moment in Christian history. And the brilliant solution to the imperfect perspective that gives us the impression that the table is tilting towards us: the napkin folded over the edge of the table and the handle of the knife sticking out beyond it help define its position in space and correct the slipping and sliding sensation.
Or consider the outfit (those colors!) of this angel by Savoldo (Tobias and the Angel, 1527). Born in Venice but active in Lombardy, he influenced Caravaggio with his nights scenes and was a also master at painting draped fabric. Here he gives the folds a silvery sheen that makes them look almost wet. I just love how much fabric there is and imagine this beautiful angel taking flight with a mile of shimmering pink and blue trailing behind him from his sleeves and hem. (Apologies for the light reflecting off these oil paintings.)
Raphael is a superb portrait painter and capable of being inspired by his contemporaries and elaborating that inspiration into a style that is uniquely his. The Lady with the Unicorn (1505-6) reminds us of the Mona Lisa (three quarter pose, hazy landscape in the background) and this painting announces that she will be married. The Unicorn stands for the bride-to-be’s chastity and faithfulness but also looks like a contented lapdog; she seems to be absentmindedly stroking his little knees, his legs bent, as our pets often do. The girl wears an interesting necklace that her contemporaries read very easily as chastity (the pearl), love (the ruby), and a new family (the knot in the gold chain is the tie of marriage).
Bernini calls. Next time we will look at the masterpieces he created for the Cardinal Borghese when the artist was between the ages of 20 and 27 (1618-1625).
We will see how these stories in marble rely on our presence; we will linger on details and discuss technical aspects, but I want to create a foundation before we say goodbye for today.
Sculpture vs. Painting
Michelangelo died in 1564 and after his death, painting seems to have taken the spotlight, causing sculpture to fall slightly by the artistic wayside. Leonardo da Vinci had already claimed that painting was superior to sculpture in a debate that went back to the ancient Romans, and even Galileo, who studied optics, said the same in a letter in 1612. He claimed sculpture could never provide the complete illusion of something real as painting could. A statue is already three dimensional so it cannot match the magic of three-dimensionality and naturalism created on a flat surface by painting through color, light and shadow, etc. We can paint believable flames of a fire but we can’t sculpt believable flames out of stone. Hmmm.
Pietro Bernini, Bernini Sr, (we met him earlier when he won a prize for best dad), took active part in this debate, was likely miffed by Galileo’s statement, and may very well have shared it with his teenage son, Gian Lorenzo, who was already displaying dizzying talent with hammer and chisel. I like to picture a possible conversation between father and son that sparked something in the thirteen-year-old Gian Lorenzo Bernini that led him to pick up the challenge and devote his life to pushing marble sculpture to new, triumphant heights by creating illusions of lightness, color and life so believable they captivate and enchant us to this day.
Flickering flames, slingshots, leaves and roots, dog fur (how does Bernini do that?), fabric swirling in the wind…..
What did Galileo say about sculpture? It can’t create illusions that look like the real thing? Really?
After spending time with my mother in Sicily, I returned to Rome and then came to Seattle. Like everyone, I have been struggling with the everchanging status of the light at the end of the tunnel – one day bright, next day the faintest of flickers.
I compare states of mind with friends as we try to talk each other out of mental ruts and corners and what feels like our 940th dark moment. We all comment on how we have never felt so constricted by the Present, by how tight and narrow it feels. Sometimes I picture it as a tiny, bare room, and try punching windows through it and furnishing it with my memories and longings, until it feels like I can pull open a door and walk out. And on the other side, always, is Rome. In my mind, I wander through its streets and often decide I am in the mood for something festive and beautiful, for one of those icons whose magic has been dimmed and flattened by its very renown. How exciting it will be to go back to these places with fresh eyes and eager hearts and rediscover why they matter, why they became such beloved icons in the first place! But I do not want to wait, let’s go to Piazza Navona and walk around the Fountain of the Four Rivers (1648-1651), let’s go there, together, now.
We enter Piazza Navona through one of its shorter sides. I want it to pull us in from one of its many side streets, as if the Spirit of the City could lead us there herself, by the hand, telling us to keep our eyes closed until we can finally open them and be surprised by the incomparable suddenness of Roman squares. The fountain is there, waiting at the center, but let’s linger a moment and take in this unusual expanse of space. The square’s elongated shape is a perfect example of how the ancient city lives on in the new and never dies. 2000 years ago, at a much lower level than the one we walk on now, this was the site of the Stadium of Domitian (the last emperor of the second dynasty, the Flavians). It was used for athletic competitions and could hold 30,000 people. I try to see them and hear it, the athletes competing, the crowds cheering for them. Over the centuries, silt layered by the floods of the nearby river Tiber gradually raised the ground level and later Romans built their homes on top of the seats, around the track, preserving its shape like a footprint or an echo. Ancient buildings in Rome can lose their original function and much of their structure over time but they survive in the fabric of a city where the present always implies the past.
We walk further into the piazza and I turn up the volume of Roman vividness in my head. I want the sky above us to be that shocking Roman blue with a few white clouds staggered for depth, or with sunshine so bright it makes the dark grey cobblestones incandescent, banishing shadows inside and out. I evoke the loud whistling call of swallows and the promise of Spring, the ever-present sound of water trickling (is there a more Roman soundtrack?). Or maybe Christmastime, when the square is filled with market stalls selling decorations and figurines for Nativity scenes, roasted chestnuts and cotton candy. I even long for the worn sentimentality of old classics coming through the cheap amplifiers of street singers: My Way – O Sole Mio – Time to Say Goodbye, blending into each other in rapid succession as we walk. Above all, people and their voices, languages from all over the globe (oh, how I miss that!). And then more color. The ochre and cream tones of the buildings surrounding the square, the reds and pinks of potted flowers lining balconies and windowsills, the bright oil paintings of the Italian Riviera sold by artists catering to tourists who wish to take the sentiment that is Italy home with them.
And now the Fountain. I invite you to approach it slowly with the verses of the poet Corrado Govoni (1903-1958) as an introduction and welcome: “Every piazza makes a toast/to the Italian sky/with the raised glass/and the sparkling wine of its fountain” (Ogni piazza fa un brindisi/al cielo d’Italia/con il calice alzato/e spumante della sua fontana…”). The Fountain of the Four Rivers was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598- 1680), master of Baroque and the artist to whom Rome owes so much of its splendor. Prodigious sculptor, architect, set designer, playwright, among many other things (he even designed desserts for a papal reception!), he defined himself amico delle acque, a friend of water. He renovated fountain design forever by substituting pre-existing functional but unremarkable basins with fantastical illusions of stone and water. The path to Trevi Fountain, created almost a century later, starts here.
What are we looking at? At first glance, from the bottom up: a shallow basin, a massive block of travertine limestone supporting four marble statues of bearded men and an Egyptian obelisk (well, not quite Egyptian, an ancient Roman imitation of one), topped off with a bronze dove holding an olive branch in its beak. There are no high jets of water due to insufficient pressure in the pipes that feed it, but the gentle pouring of the springs and little waterfalls we see and hear very clearly, truly enhances the design and the overall effect.
The four bearded giants represent four rivers (Nile, Rio de La Plata, Danube and Ganges) and the four continents known at the time (Africa, America, Europe and Asia), so what better thing to do today, right now, than take a trip around the world by circumnavigating a Roman fountain in our imaginations? When we are ready to get out there again our presence will be as real and integral to Piazza Navona as the stone and the water, but we can evoke it even now.
The Nile for Africa and the Rio de la Plata for America
The Danube for Europe and the Ganges for Asia
What captivates us and holds us in a state of joyful wonder is the way the huge block of travertine that is the base and the core of the whole composition, is not solid but hollowed out. This has two effects: we can see through it, it doesn’t block our perception of the space around it, it blends seamlessly into the vibrancy and life of the piazza.
Yet it also makes the block itself appear a lot lighter than it is, so that the heavy granite obelisk it supports seems to float in the blue sky. I acknowledge and bow to Bernini’s imagination and faith in the power of art to achieve anything. He had travertine limestone quarried in what we can imagine were rough blocks, brought in from the same place the Romans got it from to build the Colosseum 1500 years before him. Then he had his assistants carve the stone artfully to make it look like what? Stone, coarse and jagged as it exists in its natural state, ha! I am delighted by this brilliant paradox!
We meet the Rivers and notice the difference between their smooth marble surfaces and the porousness of the travertine mass they are rather precariously balanced on. Their animated, dynamic poses introduce us to the greatest illusion this fountain provides: the pulsing of life and movement. Nile is shown pulling a (stone!) drape over his face to hide his identity as a way of telling us that the source he came from was unknown at the time.
Bernini creates a stone Africa around him with a fabulous lion panting slightly, the powerful and well-defined muscles on his shoulders and back help us imagine him lowering himself to drink from the fountain’s basin, his massive paws gripping the rocks and the sunlight reflecting off the water on his proud features. If we move to other side of Nile, we see the rest of the lion, with his tail twitching and the delightfully realistic tuft at the end that makes him look as tame as a housecat from this angle.
An odd-looking armadillo emerges from the water with dramatically pouting lips (I guess there weren’t many occasions to see a real one in 17th century Rome!) and announces the Rio de la Plata, twisting and turning on his travertine seat.
He is identified by a small treasure of coins right beneath him, referring to the riches of the New World or the color of the river – plata means silver in Spanish. A snake slithers across the top of the rock, we see the rapid loop-like movements of its coils and can almost hear it hiss.
A bizarrely placed prickly pear plant leads to Europe where a horse seems to burst out of the fountain at full gallop, its beautifully coiffed mane moving in the wind, we can picture him rushing past us and into the valleys of the Danube.
The river turns his back to us slightly, drawing our attention to the coat of arms of Pope Innocent X of the noble Pamphilj family, who commissioned this fountain to Bernini and is one of the nine popes who ruled during his long life and career.
Notice the papal tiara (crown) and keys (symbolically the ones that Christ entrusted to St. Peter, considered to be the first pope) and the dove with the olive branch in its beak we have already seen at the top of the obelisk. It stands for the pope’s name, for peace, the reach of the Catholic Church and the Holy Spirit, layer upon layer of meaning, how Roman! At Danube’s feet, swims a dolphin-like sea creature whose mouth acts as the drain of the fountain.
I remember years ago, during a scorching Roman summer, a person I would euphemistically define as a nincompoop (an homage to my American mother), stepped into the fountain to cool off and climbed on the sea creature causing a large piece of it to break off. I remember the deep anguish many of us felt and the public debate it ignited on whether to start building iron fences around Rome’s treasures. I spent many happy hours of my childhood and youth with friends sitting on the marble lip of the fountain’s basin, which is not high up on a pedestal but at street level, and feels like an invitation to do just that, sit and chat. I loved how close we could get to all those stone creatures and plants, the coolness of the water I could feel without even touching it. These fountains were made to be lived and enjoyed, to fence them off would be a betrayal to them, their creator, Rome, and the best of what makes us human. So no, no fences, but we can no longer sit on the basin and I have learned to live with that.
The Ganges brings our trip around the world to a close. He is holding an oar to indicate the navigation of its waters, with the nice touch of a sea dragon wrapped around it. We see the back of the galloping horse, mirroring the back of the lion on the other side, and just as impressive.
I think of how many people, Romans and visitors, have circumnavigated this miniature world in almost four hundred years. I like to imagine that the fountain keeps the memory of them, of all the distracted or lingering glances that brushed its surfaces over the centuries. We always come back to how this was created by people for people: it needs us, it always will.
I left my favourite detail until last. If I had to compile a list of charming Roman details I love, this would be close to the top. If we take a few more steps, from Asia back to Africa where we started, we see a palm tree.
It is carved out of travertine, probably by Bernini himself. We have seen this together on other strolls: hard, static, lifeless stone turns into something organic, alive. The palm’s rough, scaly trunk is slightly, believably bent; a few dry fronds hang limply against it, while others sway in the strong wind that blows through them. All of this – an imaginary yet eternal movement of palm fronds caused by an imaginary, yet eternal wind – made almost real by Art.
Rome can be such a tough city but so much of its art provides occasions for immediate joy. I read that Bernini was hoping that actual Nature would come to live here too. He welcomed the idea of moss, grasses and birds finding their home in his creation, bringing urban and natural landscapes together in ideal harmony, and anticipating the desires and concerns we have about our cities today.
I take a moment to contemplate this place as deeply as I possibly can and invite you to do the same. In the middle of a city, artistic vision and great technical skill bring us wild Nature, faraway lands: plants, animals, ancient river gods that live and move for all who come here and take a walk around it, as we can do in our imaginations for now but will do in person, in a future that no matter how many times we feel discouraged, is getting closer every day.
This post is a projection of my nostalgia, but I want to mention Professor Tomaso Montanari, whose work has taught me to look and think more deeply about Bernini’s creations and lifted my spirits during the worst of the lockdown.
Things are not improving at the rate we were hoping, and I feel a deep need to connect with my “affetti”, my affections, as we say “loved ones” in Italian, so I came to visit my mother in Sicily. We started talking about our family stories, about the combination of Italian and American that makes us who we are. My friend Betsy, an American who, like my mom, came to Italy as a young woman for love, had asked me to interview her about her first years in Italy, and so my mom and I wrote our conversations down and would like to share them with you. Grazie dear Betsy, it was a wonderful experience for us, and it allowed us and my brother Giorgio, who participated from New York, to feel closer in these hard times.
My mother Margaret is a New Yorker of German descent. She met my Italian father Giuseppe in college and they were married in 1957. She studied English in college like me and worked at the New York Times. My parents moved to Rome in 1961. When my father retired in the late 1990s, my parents moved to Sicily, Giorgio moved to New York, and I started working as a tour guide. My dad passed away two years ago and now the three of us do our best to stay close. When I think of what it must have meant for my mother to move to Rome 60 years ago, I have to remind myself that in those days there was no internet, no cheap phone plans, no reasonable flight fares, no large communities of foreign students. Moving to the other side of the world back then seems infinitely harder than it would be today, even if living away from one’s affetti is always difficult.
If our personal experiences strike a chord in you, please write to me with your comments and your own stories and perhaps we can discuss it in a future post: firstname.lastname@example.org
Una Conversazione con mia Mamma – A Conversation with my Mom
Francesca: Mom, as we all know, there is a persistent mythological aura around moving to Italy. I like to think that there is some substance to that, but I also imagine it must have been quite difficult in reality. What obstacles did you encounter on first arriving?
Margaret: My first problem in coming to live in Italy was my total ignorance of the language. Never loquacious, I was inhibited by fear of appearing ridiculous. Unwittingly, I had fallen into the “Bella Figura” syndrome, an Italian obsession with making a good impression. I needn’t have worried because Italians are kind and indulgent with those who make an effort to tackle the language. However, to this day, I am constantly reminded of my accent. Sometimes I think that even if I were to express myself in “terza rima” verse like Dante, I still would never hear the end of it: “Signora, ma lei non e’ italiana, da dove viene?”- “Ms, you are not Italian, are you? Where are you from?”
I spent the first month at Rome’s only English bookshop, The Lion Bookshop, run by two Englishwomen, where I acquired an enormous number of detective novels in an attempt to evade the issue. I finally broke down and made an effort to read and translate the captions of photographs in illustrated Italian magazines and gradually newspaper and magazine articles. Being visually minded, I couldn’t learn much by listening, although television was a help. Living in Italy was not as easy as I had hoped. Clearly, I needed a mediator.
Fortunately, I came across the American Women’s Club in Rome, an association beyond praise. As a New Yorker with a snooty attitude towards those from west of the Hudson River, I met women from all over the U.S. and other countries whom I learned to appreciate for their outgoing friendliness, desire to learn and to contribute to their host country with community service projects. At our monthly luncheons I made friends with these delightful women and I hope I became a better American as a result.
It wasn’t always easy to participate in Italian charities, but there were other possibilities, other foreign residents. For example, we contacted a refugee home where women from Eastern Europe who had lost everything through war and revolution were marooned, and, although well-cared for, they craved social contact. Through visits, strangers in a strange land were able to reach out to one another with words of comfort and encouragement.
Through the Club, Italian women gave cooking lessons in their kitchens. In the early 1960s, supermarkets were far on the horizon in Italy, and American staples hard to come by, so it was urgent to learn to deal with unrecognizable cuts of meat at the local butcher’s and cook in the Italian way. We did try to celebrate Thanksgiving in Rome but it required advanced planning and creativity. We were eventually able to get turkeys, but cranberry sauce proved an insoluble problem for many years. Excessively sweet currant jelly was no substitute for the tart cranberry sauce I made from scratch with my grandmother in New York.
Francesca: I still remember our first taste of the real thing and smile every time I see jars of cranberry sauce in specialty grocery stores here today!
What was it like to raise children in a foreign country and what did it mean to transmit your cultural identity to them?
Margaret: My ups and downs in adjusting to life in Rome were relatively unimportant because as an adult I could muddle through somehow. But was this a way to bring up children? When Giorgio came along in 1968 and you, Francesca, two years later, I had to do some serious thinking. One problem was language: should I try to speak to you in Italian so that you would be like other children or give you a head start in English? An American friend told me that my level of Italian was not going to be of much use to you and, more fundamentally, it is vital for a mother to create a strong bond with her children through speaking her native language to them. She convinced me and we started our wonderful English language adventure which is still under way. The next step was nursery school. When I heard of an international school conducted in English, I jumped at the chance and continued with a similar elementary school where Italian was also taught. Those were halcyon days, free of academic stress.
The stress was in the outside world. The 1970s were a time of troubles for Italy as domestic terrorism dominated the scene with a long series of attacks, culminating with the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro, secretary of the Christian Democrat Party and leading political figure. The discovery of a terrorist base in a building only a few doors away from the school, brought home to us the realization that there was no safe haven and that all of us were vulnerable. My Giorgio lived through those days with an extraordinarily intense feeling of participation which has never left him. A heavy burden for a ten-year old.
After elementary school, we had to decide whether to continue in the Anglo-Saxon system or opt for an Italian school. This was the occasion for anguished soul-searching which was resolved for me with the advice of another friend, an Italian this time, who urged me not to raise my children to be foreigners in their own country. She said that it was essential for Italian children living in Italy to have the experience of Italian schooling and Italian classmates, important in later life. It should be noted here that many Italians prefer living in the same place all their lives and working in a “posto fisso”, a permanent job that enables them to remain close to their families and friends of a lifetime. This aspiration has been largely jeopardized by the precarious condition of contemporary life.
The transition from the easy-going Anglo-Saxon system to the rigid Italian one was tough and caused my children considerable suffering. They came from a school that stressed the development of a child’s intellectual faculties and capacity to respond to environmental stimuli and entered one that emphasized mastery of the academic program and memorization. Both systems have much to recommend them and I hope that my children have benefited from a combination of both. What do you think, Francesca?
Francesca: I completely agree and think it was worth all the trauma. Giorgio and I are both grateful to you.
Margaret: The importance of knowing English really well was not so evident at that time but the fact that my kids had a solid foundation in a language that cannot be learned from textbooks alone but must be lived with, has opened up a whole world of experience and even a livelihood. I feel you have capitalized on your proficiency in English, Franz, whereas Giorgio, who lives in New York, has stressed his Italian side.
Francesca: That is true, grazie mamma! I also love that you taught us colloquialisms from your time in the States. I will never give up expressions such as nincompoop, mad as a hornet, slow as molasses, lounge lizard, the cat’s pyjamas, etc.! You used to wake us up by whistling Reveille and singing Zippity Doo Dah to cheer us up (we hated it but that did not deter you from trying to start our day with enthusiasm!), April Showers with a comic voice when we waited for the school bus in the rain, and also read Italian children’s classics to us at bedtime with your delightful American accent we still love to imitate when we joke with you.
I don’t feel this interview would be complete without mentioning Italian food, what did you think when you first came here?
Margaret: Your dad and I greatly enjoyed eating in restaurants where genuine, fresh ingredients could be taken for granted. The friendly atmosphere with the servers and owners coming to chat at the end of a meal, made dining out seem like an invitation to a private home. True, there was a certain monotony since foreign cuisine had not yet arrived, but the variety of regional cooking somewhat made up for it. A landmark in those days, was Cesarina’s Bolognese restaurant that no longer exists. Cesarina herself ran it like a barracks, with single-minded dedication and served indescribably delicious meals of an unusual standard and uniform quality. There were no off-days at Cesarina’s!
Francesca: We continued this tradition as a family on weekends and special occasions. We are often asked if we are related to Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. Alas, we are not but my dad, Giuseppe, known to one and all as Pippo, never entirely let go of his dreams of becoming an opera singer. Giorgio and I have very vivid memories of Sunday dinners at favorite restaurants where we were doted on as bambini – little kids. We were especially fond of the guitar players who came by the table. In those days they were marvelous elderly Romans and Neapolitans with an incredible command of classic Italian melodies. My dad would stand up, one arm outstretched in front of him and the other with his hand over his heart and burst into song. Giorgio and I wanted to slide undetected under the table when he held the last note of O Sole Mio until his face turned crimson, but then the whole restaurant would cheer and applaud, and we felt a little burst of love and pride.
Margaret: Today, chefs festooned with stars turn out often improbable concoctions with an almost religious solemnity. Somehow the pleasure of enjoying good food in more spontaneous, informal conviviality seems harder to come by.
Francesca: That may be true, mom, but you often told me about how formal the Italians could be at the dinner table and how a few things were entirely new to you and seemed slightly absurd.
Margaret: Yes, sometimes there were pitfalls for the unwary foreigner; restaurants often served bowls of fresh fruit for dessert. Something told me to avoid the banana, and a good thing I did because the person who chose it proceeded to cut off both ends with a knife and fork and, with surgical precision, remove the peel. There was also a special ritual for cooked prunes. The prune was anchored onto the fruit plate with a fork and the stone deftly extracted with a dessert spoon. I side-stepped the whole fruit issue by ordering a sweet. I was not so lucky when I ordered spaghetti with highly prized vongole veraci, delicious clams with two projections, like antennae, which I thought were inedible and cut off with a knife and fork while the incredulous servers were doubled over with laughter.
Francesca: I feel for the sake of fairness that I should also mention that dad walked into the first McDonald’s to open in Rome in the 1980s with his wonderful memories of diners in New York, and asked for “a cheese burger, medium rare”, so it works both ways! The banana and clam episodes are among our favorite family stories and helped Giorgio and me imagine you as a young American in Rome before we came along. You have also helped me understand and empathize with foreign travelers as they experience Italian art in person for the first time, and this has been fundamental in my guide work.
Margaret: One of the great joys of those first times in Rome was seeing in reality the monuments and works of art I had seen previously in slide-lectures at college. The American Women’s Club’s tour guide was an elderly Roman lady whose earlier life had been shattered under Fascism, but who still stood firm in her pride in her heritage and conviction that through attentive viewing and contemplation, the works of Italian civilization could belong to us as well and give us strength.
Francesca: I find this so moving and a wonderful example of the vibrancy with which Italians experience life.
Margaret: In the 1950s, the sociologist David Riesman, co-author of The Lonely Crowd, commented on the fact that Europeans have a more intense and vivid response to life. I have witnessed this in the Italians. The present moment, the intersection of time and eternity, with its potential for the whole range of experience, not only joy but also sorrow and grief, are not denied, and accepted as part of the human condition with natural spontaneity. This attitude seems to me to be the product of an ancient civilization which oscillated from the unmatched splendor of ancient times to subsequent decline, brilliant rebirth during the Renaissance, swept away by foreign armies, centuries-long occupation and impoverishment, to hard-won independence in the 19th century. Throughout their varied history the Italians have had to develop a capacity to find ingenious solutions in adverse circumstances; this has equipped them to deal with the present crisis as well. Furthermore, their strong sense of community and care for its more fragile members, has become an interesting part of the story of my life in Italy. I now look forward to yet another Renaissance for Italy and the rest of the world.
Francesca: I agree with you! I realize how fortunate I am to be able to experience my mixed heritage from the inside and the outside and how important that is in my life and my work. Grazie mamma for being such an invaluable influence, for taking me to museums as a child, encouraging me to read good books, and for giving Giorgio and me the gift of your cultural identity, your language and your fascination with the world around us, past and present.
October is my favorite month in Rome. It brings the gift of ideal temperatures, intense azure skies, light so perfect it seems staged, and the city just glows. The weather has been a bit unstable all week, but this Sunday is the epitome of what we call an Ottobrata Romana. The word comes from the name of the festival that marked the end of the grape harvest, when the Romans of all social classes rode in carts and carriages to the countryside just outside the city to feast, dance and be merry. A walk to see Rome basking in the afternoon sun seems the perfect way to keep melancholy thoughts at bay and, as always, I invite you to come with me.
I start my walk in St. Peter’s Square to find the familiar way the sunlight hits the clean travertine of Bernini’s colonnade against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The columns, designed to feel like arms embracing pilgrims arriving after exhausting journeys from all over, appear molded by the light, and the blue behind them looks so dense, I could stir it with a stick like undiluted paint. Blue and white, beautifully uncomplicated as so little is in Rome.
I wander down to the Tiber River and the Castel Sant’Angelo, an imperial mausoleum, papal fortress, prison, museum, in which every layer grows organically like a plant from what existed before. At the top is the statue that gave the building its name. During the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory the Great came by here in a procession of prayer. Looking up to top of the monument, he had a vision of the Archangel Michael putting his sword back in his scabbard to announce the end of the epidemic. Fifteen centuries have gone by, yet part of me would love to receive a sign of some sort today.
The statues of the angels carrying symbols of the Passion of Christ on the bridge, were carved by Bernini’s assistants and ideally accompanied pilgrims crossing the river here on their way to the Vatican. I like the idea of the art of a city that doesn’t just embellish it, but has an active role, such as accompanying and embracing those who come here.
I compare angel wings and pick these: long, soft, slightly curved plumes like the quills of a writer from long ago. Art also has the power to turn heavy, static stone into its opposite, and allows it to become, almost literally, light as a feather.
I walk in the direction of Via dei Coronari and indulge in the happiness of sifting through everything I see for details that speak of Rome in a gentler, more intimate manner: an outdoor table waiting for good food and good company, the window of a favorite gelato shop – Il Teatro – with ingredients on display (what could be paired with prickly pear?), and an exhortation I make my own as I wander through here.
I start thinking of the walks I took here last year at this time with travelers and friends, and wonder where I would take a guest today, this afternoon, if I really wanted to impress them. Among the million things I love about this city is that it is full of surprises. Many people walk by this church, for instance, and never think of entering. It is the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (built 1626-50).
I recommend walking into every open doorway you come by, you never know what it can reveal…
This is a very Roman experience that offers a striking contrast between an imposing, stern exterior, and a burst of artistic imagination inside. The ceiling of the nave is a creation of Father Andrea Pozzo, painter, architect and master of Baroque illusions. The architectural elements of the church almost magically turn into their painted version, and the ceiling itself seems to burst open to let in the sky and a vision of Heaven, where Ignatius is received by Christ amidst puffy clouds, angels and other saints.
As I walk towards the altar, I imagine you are here with me, and I mentally point out the dome at the end of the nave, a bit dark and unimpressive. As we get closer, I invite you to realize the dome was never actually built, that what we see in its place is a flat canvas: the dome is “merely” painted. To prove it, I ask you to look up at it when standing directly beneath it: see how off-center it is? The illusion works perfectly, and the gasps and chuckles of visitors are a delight every time I witness them.
Ilaria and I like to sum up Baroque art, invented in Rome in the 17th century and then exported everywhere with spectacular variations, in three key features: Action (everything moves), Emotion (both in what is represented and in our reaction to it), Illusion (it conjures spatial dimensions and textures that are not real).
I love Baroque for these reasons and for the creative imagination that seems to stop at nothing to impress us and fill us with wonder. This allows me to enjoy even the dizzying excess of the funerary chapel of Pope Gregory XV and his nephew, the cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Sometimes think I need dark sunglasses and a headache pill to look at it! It is pure theater: a stone curtain opens suddenly, angels hold up one of its corners or blow trumpets, cherubs mourn the deceased, in a splendid combination of sculpture and architecture that includes even the color element of painting.
The technical ability that allows carefully placed alabaster tiles to suggest the folds of heavy fabric sends my mind back to the marble wings of the angel on the Sant’Angelo bridge. I marvel at the work of human hands (no power tools here!), and the attention to detail in every corner of Rome’s churches, even in the symmetrical, open-book effect of the marble on this pilaster that looks like a Technicolor Rorschach test…
It is time to be outside again and head home, just a couple more things to capture before I put my phone back in my pocket.
Another October favorite is Trajan’s Column (2nd century AD) for the same reason I started this walk with the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.
The white marble glows against the blue sky, highlighting the shallow ancient relief, 2500 once colorful figures that tell the story of the Emperor Trajan’s campaigns in Eastern Europe. I enjoy the fabric-like texture of Rome in which a great monument celebrating the deeds of a pagan emperor shares the afternoon sunshine with Christian churches, apartment buildings, and even seagulls, everything coexisting peacefully side by side.
I decide my last picture will be of a Roman pine tree projecting its shadow on a truncated medieval tower
but then my eyes are drawn to a souvenir shop display.
Roman calendars for 2021. A sweet reminder that this moment, this hard year, will pass, that a brighter future awaits us. We WILL plan trips again and maybe even meet in Rome, to enjoy intense azure skies, perfect light and temperature, in person, to celebrate an Ottobrata Romana, create new, luminous memories, and heal.
I put my phone and that thought in my pocket and walk home.
The quarantine is ending, it is finally time to get back out there and go greet her, Rome. I try to unravel and name my feelings. The trepidation of meeting a loved one at the arrivals area of an airport after a long time apart, an absurd desire to run and leap into her embrace. Anticipation for the instant I will first set eyes on the Pantheon, the desire to wrap myself in the fabric of her lines and shapes as in a worn, soft blanket that survived from childhood. What will it be like?
It’s over, I can go out! I had imagined a very visual post but it’s raining pretty hard, not ideal for pictures. I decide to leave grand vistas for a sunny day, and focus on Roman details I love. Andiamo – Let’s go!
The outer section of the Colosseum seems very abruptly interrupted. In the early 19th century it was shored up with the brick buttress you see on the left. I love how the original blocks were deliberately placed within it as if they were collapsing – notice the cracks and unevenness in the arches – to tell the story of plundering and destruction endured by the Colosseum, turning it into the ruin we see today. A “romantic” take on restoration, right up my alley!
I can’t resist pausing a moment at the view of the Roman Forum (il mio posto del cuore, the place of my heart) from Capitoline Hill, and thinking of how many times I experienced the passing of the seasons and every possible variation on weather, walking through those beloved ruins.
I walk across the Piazza del Campidoglio to find the statue of the River Nile — in ancient Roman art, rivers are represented as reclining bearded men, a brilliant image for their antiquity and slow progression to the sea. I especially like this representation of the River Nile for the marble it is made of, which the Romans imported from Greece. It is known as marmo cipollino (onion marble) because its texture recalls the layers of an onion, and today its greenish/grayish tones are beautiful with the sheen of the rain. I read somewhere that this variety of marble might have been chosen because its layers suggested flowing, rippling water. That stone can evoke something fluid, in motion, enchants me. I really hope it’s true.
I walk down the Capitoline Hill and continue through familiar alleys and squares looking for favorite details. It is pouring and yet these sites fill me with cheer and warmth, like standing by a fireplace after coming in from the cold.
This is the main piazza of the Jewish Ghetto and these are my favorite benches. They are not fastened to the ground and people who come here move them around all day, according to the sun and the shade, and whatever arrangement different conversations require. The piazza is a public living room, where people pull up benches instead of chairs to visit with each other.
Everything I love about Rome in one picture. The worn, gritty look of a city that wears its centuries nonchalantly, a 2000 year old Roman relief removed from a family tomb outside the city, and pasted on this building by the admirer of antiquities who lived here long ago; electric cables draped across it, a drainpipe, the wooden door of a cafe’. Past and Present, Art and Daily Life.
I smile at the surly expression of the man at the center (what a perfect frown!), and recognize my familiar tenderness for the little boy holding his pet dog in his arms; maybe his mother to the left, and the hand of her husband, resting gently on her shoulder, a sign of marriage. The relief was cut right there so we can’t see her husband. I try to imagine him and hope he was a little less stern than the other fellow! Here they are, an ancient Roman family looking out as if from a window, onto the modern families that enjoy the piazza today, and all of us as we come through.
I look into a great shop and eatery, Beppe e i suoi Formaggi– Joe and his Cheeses (if I played in a band, I would pick that as a name), and wish I could spend a week there sampling everything. A few blocks down, I roll my eyes at the extremes of Italian “fashion” that has men wearing clothes that look like they shrank five sizes in the dryer (the line between a proper fit and sausage casings is really not that fine…).
I reach Campo de’ Fiori and walk around the market stalls. I take a moment to mentally celebrate the fact that no matter how fast the pace of our world can be, how absurd this time in history is, Rome still offers moments of simple, timeless perfection, real substance, and dignity of hard work done with care, like this.
This lady is trimming coral green beans (we like them in a simple tomato sauce). and has prepared the vegetables for the minestrone, mixed salad and the puntarelle, a type of chicory shoot that is very popular in Rome as a salad dressed with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar.
The bright colors of the flowers stands offer a nice break from the grey and the rain. I stop at the Forno, the bakery, for a striscetta di pizza bianca – literally a “little stripe of white pizza”, with nothing on it except olive oil and a bit of coarse salt, another Roman favorite. Although I like its basic simplicity, it is really good with prosciutto and figs, or what a friend of mines defines “just an idea, a veil” of Nutella.
It starts raining even harder so I decide on one last stop, the Pantheon. I stand in line, have my temperature taken, enter, and follow the one way route, as I did before I left. In normal circumstances, when it rains, the center of the floor is roped off so visitors don’t walk on the slippery wet marble. For as long as I can remember, I always stood just outside that area and never actually felt it rain on me, on my head, inside the Pantheon. Today, for the first time in my life, because of the obligatory path we have to follow, I do. I stop to ponder this very tiny yet powerful sign of how everything has changed this year. A guard comes and tells us all to move on, to keep going. He is quite young and undoubtedly wants to remind those of us who just stand there gaping, that the Pantheon is a church, a religious space that requires respect, but what he says is: “Non è uno spettacolo!” – “This is not a spectacle!”. An Italian tourist behind me exclaims: “Ma lo è, è davvero spettacolare!” But it is; it is really spectacular!”. I smile in agreement, and move on.
I return home happy but also saddened to see so many businesses shut down or empty. A year ago these same streets were brimming with vitality and activity, Romans and visitors would have been bumping umbrellas on the streets. I hold onto all the beautiful moments I experienced this morning and dig deeper for necessary hope, patience and resolve.
Tomorrow the weather forecast predicts sunshine and I say arrivederci to you with that and a rainbow over the Colosseum. I was afraid it wouldn’t last so I rushed to take a picture while my glasses were both fogged up and splattered with rain, balancing my umbrella and my bag. It’s a little bit faint, but it is definitely there.