Friday, January 27, 2012

A Borgia orgy tonight!

Just in case my recent post on the nefarious Borgias has whet your appetite for a little lust, violence and treachery, Italian Renaissance-style, check out this trailer for Season Two of Showtime's The Borgias. It is premiering this April for those of you in the states. If you are in Italy, you'll have to hold out at least a few more decades (we are just now getting Cheers! after all) or, a much more practical solution, just buy the DVD set online (although I believe the entire season has to air before it will be available--the world of modern television is a mystery to me). In case you missed it, Season One was highly entertaining as well and is available at Amazon UK for those of you with European DVD players.

Now, for those of you die-hard Roman history buffs, don't write it off when you see the pan of the 17th century St. Peter's Square--built nearly two centuries after the drama takes place--in one of the trailers. Evidently the same level of attention to historical accuracy wasn't paid to the making of the trailer, but rest assured, no images of the kind are used in the actual series, at least not in the first season.

In my opinion, when watching historical dramas, be they series or films, it's important not to be too much of a stickler. It grates on my nerves when unavoidable mistakes and anachronisms are made, but I do understand that for the purposes of plot development, sometimes facts need to be stretched and the order of events needs to be shaken up a bit. It's not a documentary, after all, and its first aim is to be entertaining. All in all, I found The Borgias to be fascinating and engrossing, particularly due to the brilliant portrayal of Rodrigo Borgia by Jeremy Irons.

Here is another interesting video which expands on the subtitle of the series "The Original Crime Family" with historians discussing how the Borgia family inspired Mario Puzo's epic Godfather trilogy.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Running into some old friends at an exhibit

The most enjoyable thing about taking a long afternoon to visit the Renaissance in Rome exhibit, besides getting the chance to see so much amazing art in one place, was the sensation I kept getting that I was bumping into an old friend.

Portrait of Cardinal Tommaso Inghirami, called "Fedra", Raphael Sanzio

This first one I would never have noticed on my own. The audio-guide informed me that the Cardinal above had also appeared in Raphael's School of Athens, although at the moment I couldn't imagine where.

The School of Athens, Raphael Sanzio, Vatican Museums

I had to look at it up close in a book to find him, and there he was, with a jaunty wreath around his head: Epicurius, looking much more fun-loving than his portrait above.

Detail of School of Athens, Raphael Sanzio, Vatican Museums

This commemorative coin also was too familiar, but much easier to place, given that it was minted on occasion of the laying of the first stone of the new St. Peter's Basilica in 1506.

What St. Peter's would have looked like if Bramante had had his way:

These are all well and good, but the next two works are what really brought a smile to my face:

Portrait of Michelangelo as Moses, Federico Zuccari, 1593

Michelangelo, posing (at least in Zuccari's imagination) as one of his greatest works, Moses, at St. Peter's in Chains. It is unmistakable. But what I really love is Michelangelo's smile. We usually see him wallowing in grief and self-pity in his self-portraits, so it's nice to see another artist capture a lighter side to his personality, whether or not it existed.

Moses, Michelangelo Buonarroti, San Pietro in Vincoli

Curiosity: there is a small flaw on the right knee of the Moses. According to legend, when Michelangelo finished it, he was so struck by how life-like his work was, he hit the statue on the knee with a chisel and yelled, "Now speak!"

Portrait of Raphael as Isaiah, Federico Zuccari, 1593.

Beside Michelangelo as Moses sits Federico Zuccari's similarly styled (but not nearly as moving) Raphael as Isaiah.

Isaiah, Raphael Sanzio. Chiesa Sant'Agostino, Rome.

This small fresco that inspired it can be found on a pillar in Sant'Agostino church, (but is often overlooked by tourists or art-seekers who visit that church to see the Madonna di Loreto by Caravaggio). Wait a minute? Where have I seen that angel before? The one behind Isaiah's right shoulder? Oh, yes! The very same exhibit! Ah, how everything comes full circle...

Photos 1, 4, 6, 10: Courtesy of Arthemesia Group.
Other photo sources: 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 9

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Numa Pompilius and the Vestal Virgins

My last history post, way back in November, was about Rome's second king, Numa Pompilius and his calendar reform. Now, for those of you stifling a yawn, I'll have you know that little post has become one of this blog's top all-time most read posts, and number one by far in 2011. Who knew people were so interested in King Numa? As I mentioned in an earlier post, Numa was the most religious of Rome's seven kings, so it's no surprise that he was responsible for the institution of the cult of Vesta and the order of the Vestal Virgins.

Vesta was the goddess of the home, family and the hearth, and inside her cylindrical temple in the Roman Forum, a fire perpetually burned. This ritual fire was an vital aspect to Roman life, and it was believed that while the fire burned, Rome would be protected. This sacred fire symbolized the fire that burned in the king’s own home, and the six priestesses who tended the fire represented the king’s daughters. These priestesses were called Vestal Virgins and were subject to strict rules and restrictions, but also enjoyed a high social status and privileges unknown to any other Roman women.

Vestal Virgins making a sacrifice

Vestals were chosen at between six and ten years of age and were exclusively female, with no physical or mental defects. Both of the girls’ parents had to be living, and her father had to be a freeborn Roman citizen. The more prominent the family, the more likely the girl was to get picked. (Another example of how things haven’t changed in Italy after nearly 3000 years!) In Numa’s time there were only two vestal virgins at any given time, but eventually the number increased to six. Their period of duty was 30 years, and during that time they were obliged to take a vow of chastity. After their service was finished they were permitted to marry if they wished.

Dedication of a new Vestal Virgin, Alessandro Marchesini, early 1700s

A vestal’s major duty was to keep the fire within the temple burning at all times. If the fire went out, the city would be vulnerable to attack. In addition to this they were expected to prepare offerings and sacrifices, and observe any other rituals that were not permitted to be performed by the male priests. They lived in a large and luxurious home in the heart of the Roman Forum, adjacent to the Temple of Vesta, some of which is still visitable today, that had large courtyard decorated with statues of Vestal Virgins, and each one had her own bedroom.

Vestal Virgins, Jean Raoux, 1727

As for myself, had I been unlucky enough to have been born in ancient Rome, becoming a Vestal Virgin would have been the only way I could have survived it. No other women in Rome, including the emperor’s own wife and daughters, were afforded the privileges and freedoms of a Vestal. They had their own reserved box at all games and events, including the Colosseum, directly across from the emperor's own box. They had the power to free any slave or condemned criminal simply by touching him, and if a criminal on his way to his execution was lucky enough to see a Vestal, he would be automatically pardoned. They could testify without taking an oath and anyone who injured them physically would be put to death. Perhaps most exceptional of all, they were permitted to own property, make a will and vote, the only women in Italian society with these rights.

Vestal Virgin, Sir Frederic Leighton, 1880
The only problem came when a Vestal Virgin was discovered to have broken her vow of chastity. It should be understood that it wasn't just prudishness that made the act of sex with a Vestal a crime punishable by death: the idea was that by contaminating a high priestess (whose job it was to safeguard the flame that ensured the safety of the city) with sex, you would be risking the very survival of Rome itself.  Therefore the offending gentleman would be whipped to death, but the priestess herself endured an even harsher death. Since it was a sin to spill a Vestal's blood, she would be buried alive outside the city walls with enough food and water to keep her alive for a few days.

Vestal Virgin condemned to death, Pietro Saja, ca. 1800
Now I'm guessing that my astutest little bloglings are scratching their heads right now, saying to themselves, "But if Numa Pompilius invented the Vestal Virgins, how could it be that Rhea Silvia, the mother of Numa's predecessor Romulus, was also a Vestal Virgin!?" Oh, you are so good.

I myself have often wondered at this, but the explanation is simple. King Numa did not invent the cult of the goddess Vesta or the tradition of the Vestal Virgins. This cult was already practiced in other parts of Latium. In fact, Titus Livy writes that the Vesta priesthood had its origins in Alba Longa, Rhea Silvia's hometown, coincidentally (or not). Rather, King Numa simply introduced this cult into Roman religious culture.

What have we covered so far?

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Borgia Pope, Pinturicchio and La Bella Farnese

In my mind, there's nothing better then some fabulous art, especially when a bit of mystery and scandal are thrown in.That's why I was practically giddy yesterday to be able to see a long-lost work of art with a shocking past.

Portrait of Pope Alexander VI, detail from The Ascension, Pinturicchio
Back in the 1490s, just around the time a pair of Spanish monarchs sent Christopher Columbus off in search of a new route to India, another famous Spaniard was stepping into the most important shoes in Christendom. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the notorious Borgia family, and their patriarch Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, especially thanks to the Showtime series, but just in case you need a refresher, Alexander VI went down in history as the Papa Cattivo (naughty pope) due to his unprecedented unpriestly lifestyle that included mistresses, many children, nepotism, greed, corruption, orgies, murder, and according to some, incest.

His living quarters in the Vatican Palace, the now-called Borgia Apartment, are decorated with frescoes by the great Renaissance painter Pinturicchio (who also painted some of the wall frescoes in the nearby Sistine Chapel).The most famous is probably The Disputation of St. Catherine that features his famously beautiful young daughter Lucrezia posing as the saint and The Ascension, which features the Pope himself.

Disputation of St. Catherine, Pinturicchio, Borgia Apartments, Vatican Museums

But these were not the only portraits the Pope had Pinturicchio slip into his paintings. According to Vasari, the father of art history, "In the palace he also portrayed over the door of one of the living rooms Signora Giulia Farnese in the features of Our Lady and in the same picture the face of Pope Alexander, who is adoring the Madonna," (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Penguin Classics, vol. II, translation by George Bull, pg 83).

This might not have been so scandalous if the Giulia Farnese in question hadn't been the Pope's teenage mistress at the time. It was a well-documented fact that the already married Farnese, called La Bella Farnese and known as being the most beautiful woman in Rome at the time, was not only the Pope's official mistress, but had also borne him child. (Some even supposed that their baby daughter Laura, born in 1492--the very year that Borgia became pope--modelled for the Baby Jesus!)

Scandalous indeed. Only one problem: the fresco doesn't exist. At least not in the Borgia Apartments. In fact, in my copy of The Lives of the Artist, in the notes at the back, the editor states that Vasari was clearly mistaken in what he wrote because the work does not exist. Well, as it turns out, it did exist, but was destroyed. 

Nearly 200 years later, during the reign of Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) that moralizing pontiff decided a fresco of the "Naughty Pope" adoring his teenage mistress dressed as the Virgin (and possibly their female lovechild) was not only inappropriate for the Vatican, but blasphemous as well. So the fresco was hacked right off the wall. However, it seems that at least a few pieces of the errant work were salvaged by either the Pope himself, or someone in his family, because a small fragment of a fresco depicting an unusually beautiful Christ child held by pair of graceful hands with another hand caressing his foot (eventually dubbed The Baby Jesus of the Hands) was listed as part of the collection of Flavio Chigi, relative of the late Alexander VII Chigi, in 1693, as well as a half-figure fresco of the Madonna. Both works were at the time attributed to Perugino.

Baby Jesus of the Hands, Pinturicchio, Fondazione Guglielmo Giordano

The two fragments were passed down through the Chigi family, on display at the Palazzo Chigi on Via del Corso, by this time correctly attributed to Pinturicchio, until 1912, when Eleonora Chigi married Enrico Incisa della Rochetta and brought the fragments with her, eventually passing them down to their descendant Marchese Giovanni Incisa della Rochetta, who was also an art historian. 

Copy of Pinturicchio's Baby Jesus blessing Pope Alexander VI, Pietro Facchetti, Mantova
In 1940, Marchese Giovanni, travelling in Mantova, happened to see a painting on canvas that looked very familiar to him. It was the work of a 17th century copyist Pietro Facchetti, who had been commissioned by Francesco IV Gonzaga in 1612 to recreate this scandalous work. The Gonzagas were apparently looking for a way to make fun of their rivals, the Farnese. Contemporary chronicler Stefano Infessura reports that Facchetti managed to gain access to the Borgia Apartment in the Vatican by bribing a guard. Even during the papacy of Paul V, the work was considered inappropriate and therefore had been covered by a veil of fabric. Facchetti convinced the guards to uncover the work and eventually painted a copy. When Marchese Giovanni saw Facchetti's work, and carried out some more research of his own, he concluded that his two fragments were part of the long ago destroyed fresco that had once decorated Rodrigo Borgia's own bedroom. Even if the exact likeness of the Christ figure (and possibly the Madonna figure as well, although we do not have the possibility of knowing) wasn't enough to convince him, the portrait of Alexander VI is almost identical to that in the Ascension.

In 2004, the fragment of Baby Jesus of the Hands resurfaced on the antique market and was purchased by the Guglielmo Giordano Foundation. It is on temporary display in the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museums free of charge until 5 February, and I urge you to go see it if you have the chance. Besides the exceptional beauty of the work, the story behind it is truly unique. But a question remains: where is the second fragment, that of the face of the Virgin, i.e. Giulia Farnese? It belongs to a private collector who prefers not to be named.

A hypothesized sketch of Pinturicchio's original work with the two fragments indicated.

Below is another Madonna and Child, not long ago attributed to Pinturicchio, on display along side the fresco fragment in this mini-mostra. It is tempera on a wood panel and has nothing to do with the other work, but definitely worth seeing. For more practical information, see my Exhibits on Now page.

Madonna and Child, Pinturicchio, Fondazione Sorgente Group

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Renaissance in Rome, in the footsteps of Michelangelo and Raphael

If you are in Rome and haven't yet had a chance to visit the wonderful exhibit, Il Rinascimento a Roma, nel segno di Michelangelo e Raffaello, at Palazzo Sciarra, I suggest you high-tail it over there soon, because in just a few weeks it will be over and the amazing works will be shipped back from whence they came. I generally try to post about each exhibit just as they are beginning, but somehow this one got lost in the shuffle for me, and I apologize that I am just getting around to write about it now.

One of the reasons I haven't written about this exhibit yet is the sheer enormity of the subject. Art in the 1500s in Rome. Where does one begin? Mannerism is like God: At first you think you understand it. Then, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you actually know.

It has also come to my attention recently that my blog posts are far too long. So instead of risking writing words no one will ever read, today I will simply give you a preview of the highlights of the exhibit with as little commentary as possible. However, a few of the works I found particularly intriguing and I do want to write about them further, but I will do it one by one in the following days, for your sake, dear bloglings, as well as my own.

There are three versions of the Holy Family by Perin del Vaga presented at the exhibit, but this one is by far the most beautiful in my opinion. This is also the earliest, and therefore the most likely to have been inspired by the artist's mentor, Raphael.

Holy Family, Piero Buonaccorsi, called 'Perin del Vago', 1540. Borghese Gallery, Rome

He looks awfully sad in this self-portrait for someone who had a famously happy life.

Self-Portrait, Raphael Sanzio, 1509. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This cherub is a fragment of a fresco that has been removed from its place of origin. I have no information on where it originally lived, but I am guessing a church, since it curves inward toward the top. The fresco has been anchored to a slab of cadorite, and reinforced with aluminum brackets. I always cringe when I see transported frescoes. I am stunned they even attempt it as it seems so risky. Still, as most detailed frescoes are ususually high off the ground, having this at eye level gives you a great opportunity to see the minute details, such as cracks and brushstrokes, of a fresco.

Cherub, Raphael Sanzio, 1511. Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome

Have you seen this face somewhere before? According to the audio-guide at the exhibit, he made an appearance in The School of Athens. Can you find him? As you can see from this portrait, he suffered from astigmatism.

Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, called 'Fedra', 1513. Galleria Palatina and Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Sebastiano del Piombo adored Michelangelo, as the older artist had befriended him when he first arrived in Rome. Michelangelo, on at least four occasions, provided Sebastiano with designs that the later used for his own works.

Portrait of Michelango indicating his designs, Sebastiano del Piombo (attributed), ca 1520. Galerie Hans, Hamburg

This is one of the highlights of the exhibition. This painting, tempera on wood panel, belongs to a middle class family in upstate New York and apparently lived behind a couch for several years. Is it really the work of Michelangelo? What do you think?

Pietà di Ragusa, School of Michelangelo (with attribution to Michelangelo himself by some scholars), 1545. Private collection

This copy of Michelangelo's Last Judgement shows what the original looked like before Daniele da Volterra (the "breeches painter") was forced to censor it.

Copy of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, Marcello Venusti, 1549. Capodimonte Museum, Naples

This unfinished work is considered by some to be a depiction of David, and by others Apollo. Which do you think? More importantly, have you ever heard of this work before? Or seen an image of it? I know I hadn't and my heart skipped a beat when I saw it.

Apollo/David, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1530. Museo Nazionale di Bargello, Florence

How would you like to find a coin like this stuck between two cobblestones?

Medal commemorating the placing of the first stone of St. Peter's Basilica, Cristoforo Foppa, called 'il Caradosso', 1506. Rome Foundation Collection, Rome

This was the last work in the exhibit and my favorite. I'll write more about it soon and have purposefully not included a caption. What does it remind you of? Does it make you as happy as it makes me (i.e. a lot)?

See the Exhibits on Now page to find out practical information about visiting this wonderful exhibition.

All images provided courtesy of Arthemesia Group press office

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Viva VEneRDIi: I was at the No. 1 music event of the year! (almost)

At the close of last year, Alex Ross, cultural writer for the world-famous magazine The New Yorker, announced what he believed to be the number one music event of 2011, not in New York, but in the entire world. And I was (kind of) there! Let me explain.

Riccardo Muti, long-time director of Teatro della Scala in Milan and one of the greatest living Verdian conductors, recently signed on as director of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma (in addition to his duties at Chicago Symphony). This is a big deal for Rome, as opera in this city is not near the best in Italy. After Milan come Venice, Naples, and even Palermo. 5th is the best position Rome has been able to hope for in recent memory.

Now I could go into why this is, citing the banning of the budding art form of opera in pope-ruled Rome during the Counter Reformation, how opera was illegal in Rome until the 19th century and how the opera house wasn't even built 1880, so it's little wonder opera never really caught on here. But you don't want to read a bunch of history, right? Not on Verdi Friday.

But with Muti at the helm, we can expect the quality and prestige of Rome's opera company to go nowhere but up. On occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy last March, the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma staged Verdi's Nabucco, with Muti at the podium, of course. This was an obvious choice. This opera, since its very premier in 1842, has resonated with Italians. It tells the story of the ancient Hebrews' struggle to free themselves from Babylonia King Nebuchadnezzar. In 1842, Italy was in the thick of the Risorgimento, a struggle of their own to achieve not only unification, but more importantly their independence from the nearby countries who had ruled over them in one way or another, for so many years, Spain, France, and more recently, Austria.

In the 3rd act, the Hebrew slaves perform a haunting and simple chorus, Va pensiero, in which they sing of their lost homeland and their yearning to return there. Legend has it that when the stagehands at La Scala (northern Italy was particularly subjugated by the Austrians at this time) heard the singers rehearsing Va pensiero they broke into spontaneous applause. In fact, Italians identified so greatly with the Jewish slaves' song, that on opening night the audience went wild after the chorus was performed and insisted that it be repeated immediately. As I have said before, it is always a good idea to believe in legends. They make life so much more interesting. I write a bit more about Verdi's connection with the Risorgimento in my first Viva VEneRDI post.

Ever since, Va pensiero has been the unofficial national anthem of unified Italy, and you would be hard-pressed to find a native Italian alive, from a street-sweeper to a prince, who couldn't sing at least the first stanza. Opening night of Nabucco here in Rome in March of 2011 was a high profile event. The audience was full of VIPs from all over the country. After the moving chorus (moving at any performance, but particularly on such an important anniversary) Muti did something unexpected. He put down his baton, turned to the audience and spoke. Right in the middle of the opera!

He spoke to the audience about the recent announcement of cuts to culture funding, which would cost the Opera di Roma 37% of their annual budget. He recalled the most moving line of the chorus, "Oh mia patria, si bella e perduta!" (oh, my fatherland, so beautiful and so lost!) and announced: "...if we kill the culture upon which the history of Italy is founded, it will truly be 'our fatherland, beautiful and lost'." The orchestra and singers began to applaud and cry. Leaflets were thrown from the balcony like so much confetti, some with the message, "Viva Giuseppe Verdi" others with more political messages.

But what happened next was what earned this event Ross' award. He motioned for the chorus to stand and the audience as well, and he asked that they all sing that beloved hymn together. Every Italian in that audience sang Verdi's music that night. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

When I watched it on the news the next day, I was moved to trembling, but sad that I couldn't have been there. I hadn't even hoped to attend the opera at all, but the Maritino, by some miracle, managed to score two tickets for closing night. I didn't even hope that the extraordinary event would repeat itself, in fact, it would have been silly. I teared up a bit (as usual) during the chorus, and the applause it received seemed to go on and on and on. But to my delighted surprise, at the end of the chorus, Muti turned to the audience again.

This time his speech was more hopeful. On the 21st of March, about a week after the premier, and three days before that final performance, the entire opera company played Va pensiero inside Italy's equivalent of the House of Representatives in protest. He reported to us that his protests had worked, and the proposed cuts were being reconsidered. Someone threw an Italian flag from the balcony and shouted "Viva l'Italia!" And then Mr. Muti said the words I was dying to hear. He said that on occasion of this victory, another encore of Va pensiero would be sung, and the audience was again asked to join in. I was so thankful to have memorized the words in advance and so proud to sing under Muti's baton that night.

Here is a video of the performance at Palazzo Montecitorio

That's one way to make a point!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Words, words, words: Leccornia

It's funny how I can get on a roll with blogging, pounding out several posts in a week, and then all it takes is few days of laziness and procrastination and I haven't blogged in 3 weeks! My apologies, bloglings, it won't happen again!

I'll make this a short post, to get my feet wet again. Even though I went to two amazing exhibits this week and I am dying to share them with you!

How about this for a great word: Leccornia.

It means delicacy, morsel, or something simply divine to eat. Something scrumptious. Something mouth-watering. (As usual, English can't quite do it justice.)

It comes from the word lecco, which means "I lick", as in "finger-licking goodness". OK, I completely made that up. I don't know the etymology of the word, all I know is that I like it.

It doesn't necessarily refer to something sweet, but in my mind it does. To me, a leccornia looks like this:

Or like this:

Or maybe this:

This post is in perfect timing with my New Year's Resolution to give up sugar!*

Let's try this out in a sentence: Lecco le mie dita ogni volta che mangio una leccornia. (I lick my fingers everytime I eat a delicacy.)

*Translation: to cut back on sugar

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3

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