26 October 2014

The Story of Rome

Someday everything's gonna be different......

Art is civilisation.  Without creative work our caves would still be undecorated, and we would never learn from the stories we hear, or see, or read.  Whether it is high art, sophisticated and subtle, or the puppetry of commerce is of minor significance.  Without art we would be nothing.  

These painted eyes from two and a half millennia ago are young in the history of the world, but date from about the time that Rome began to flourish, and it is this continuum that makes Rome so fascinating.  

Terracotta Head of a Woman,
First half of the fifth century BC

You don't need to be an art historian to enjoy what you see in Rome, but sometimes a little imagination and a brush with learning might help.  I met these two in the Villa Giulia, and hastily sketched them for my records.  Now I look at the picture though, I wonder, is she giving me the eye?  And is his right hand warning me off?  

Sarcophagi degli Sposi.
c 525 BC
found at Cerveteri in 1881 (in 400 pieces)

The Etruscan civilisation predated the Roman Empire in central Italy, but the Rape of Lucretia by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (how's that for egoism?) in about 510 BC brought about a reversal of fortunes for Etruscan kings and the Roman Republic was established.  In the meantime, the Greeks were producing some very fine art, combining stories from their mythology with exquisite craftsmanship.  I was attracted to this young woman in the Palazzo Massimo, but had to give way to the paramedics when I realised she had an arrow in her back.....

One of the 14 daughters of Niobe, struck in the back by an arrow
Greek sculpture from the 5th century BC, but found in the Horti Sallustiani

Terracotta, marble, bronze.... the artists of old knew all the tricks. This fight-scarred and weary boxer was created in Greece using the lost wax process (as also used by Henry Moore in the twentieth century). His ears, nose and cheeks bear the marks of his trade, and his deep eyes perhaps convey a slight puzzlement as to what brought him here.

Boxer at rest
Hellenistic, 2nd - 1st century BC
formerly in the Baths of Constantine

A similar expression I note on the visage of my old friend Antonio, whose twenty seven years at the British Embassy in Rome we celebrate in anticipation of his imminent retirement from the ring....

In the meantime, with the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian, nephew to Julius Caesar, came to power in Rome.  In 27 BC, taking the title Augustus, he ushered in a period of stability that lasted over forty years - a lifetime then.

Emperor Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, 27 BC - 14 AD
A statue that emphasises his authority and piety

An idea of the continuity of Rome's architecture can be seen on the site of the Forum of Augustus, where layers of buildings are still occupied above the imperial remains....

The House of the Knights of Rhodes, 1470,
overlooking the Forum of Augustus
(Originally reached by a stairway to the central door)

And also in the placing of this giant Bull's head by the central fountain of Michaelangelo's vast cloister in the Carthusian Monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was built over the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.  Originally this head was one of five symbolic stone beasts in the Forum and Market of Trajan, built next to Augustus's Forum by Apollodorus of Damascus in 112 AD.

One of five colossal animal heads in the Great Cloister of Santa Maria Degli Angeli, designed by Michaelangelo.

Though the empire's days were numbered, its power, and its habits, lingered well into the Christian era, and bulls were still being slaughtered to Mithras several hundred years after the birth of Jesus. This marble bas relief still bears some of its original colour, the red being particularly striking....

, 3rd century AD
Mithras slaughters a bull
from the Mithraeum of the Castra Perigrinorum

The period known as the Dark Ages, roughly between the fall of Rome in the 6th century to the Renaissance in the fourteenth century, would not have been completely without light, as many churches bear witness.  One particularly luminous place is the Chapel of San Zeno in the 9th century Basilica di Santa Prassede, originally commissioned by Pope Hadrian I in 780 AD, but completed by Paschal I in 822.  

Christ Pantocrator
Byzantine style mosaics, possibly influenced by those in Ravenna

And on the streets of the city ancient statues, such as this so-called Talking Statue of Madame Lucrezia which sits outside the Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini had his office, held their own, despite the ignominies of time. 

Then, with the explosive power of the popes and the artistic rediscovery of antiquity, all hell (proverbially at least) broke loose in Rome and villas, palazzi, fountains, basilicas, erupted all over the place. Typical of the decorative development was the Villa Giulia, now home to the national museum of Etruscan art.  Here in the heat of the summer, Pope Julius would refresh himself and his cardinals in his nymphaeum, under the watchful eye of statues representing the rivers Tiber and Arno....

The River Arno
Statue in one of the niches of the Ninfeo of the Villa Giulia
Vasari, 1553

Elaborate expressions of grandeur became the flavour, and major basilicas such as that of Santa Maria Maggiore grew in magnificence. First commissioned by Pope Sixtus III in 431 (in the Dark Ages, NB) it was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1348, and it did not gain its current appearance internally until about 1630.  

The facade was added in 1743. Inside it is as peaceful as polychromatic marbles, triumphal arches, mosaics and statuary will allow, which is then confused by groups of reverent tourists and even nuns with cameras and smart phones.....

Sister takes a selfie
Santa Maria Maggiore

Even the statues have to pose.....

Smile please!  Taking photos of Pius IX
in the Confessional of Santa maria Maggiore

And the same is happening at the Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore the current Roman seat of Pope Francis, who will no doubt particularly like the bronze statues across the piazza.....

S Francesco waves at the Doctors of the Church atop S Giovanni in Laterano

And so, through baroque and rococo we reach a neo-classical age and the unification of Italy, when Vittorio Emanuele II got on his great wide harse in Piazza Venezia before the wrong (Brescian) white marble of the Altare della Patria.....

Winged Victory and her team of four atop the Vittoriano

The dome of St Peter's is in the background

And through all these centuries, inspired by or despite the art, life has gone on.  Gentlemen exchange pleasantries, 

The elegant relax

Policemen lean on counters, their guns safely holstered.....

Tourists pose for portraitists,

Or cruise the streets,

Children attend their schools, their walls discreetly signed,

Nursery School

Some adults speed from work, 

While others take their rest,

Which reminds me of the bruised boxer, from so many centuries past,

Boxer at rest
Hellenistic, 2nd - 1st century BC
formerly in the Baths of Constantine

I, in my comparative ease, take a little lunch, as Romans do,

L'Antica Enoteca
Via Della Croce

And then a coffee, grecian style,

Antico Caffe Greco (1760)
Via dei Condotti

And then admire the true citizens of Rome,

Later, as the sky tinges over the Marian Column (1614) in front of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome takes on a different guise.  In one way it becomes more ancient, as some of the signs of modernism are obscured. In other ways the electricity of the 21st century burns the past and the city whirls into a new kind of obscurity.....

I repair to one of my old haunts, to track down my friend Gino in his bottled hideaway....

The Fiddler's Elbow
Via dell'Olmata

Later still, I wander past Harry's Bar, vaguely wondering what it might cost to dine there.  It is in a wonderful location, with the Porta Pinciana piercing the Aurelian Wall at Piazza Brasile, with the great park of the Villa Borghese beyond.  In the war, my father wandered here with his pals; in the 60's Marcello Mastroianni popped his flashbulbs here in La Dolce Vita.  Now the traffic has soured the air, and somehow the romance has gone....

And indeed on my way back to my lodging lights are flashing as an accident blocks the street. Roman traffic is chaotic.  The city is being buried under parked cars, and to drive here is to dice with the devil. 

Dylan sings that The streets of Rome are filled with rubble..... Some of this can be cleared, and some, like the Sarcophagi degli Sposi, can be painstakingly reconstructed, to reappear almost as good as new.  Whether the rubble is the detritus of centuries of city life, or the shards of splintered glass from a wrecked motorbike, Rome both fascinates and repels, as, I imagine, it always has.

In case of glass, break fire....

Sarcophagi degli Sposi. 
c 525 BC
found at Cerveteri in 1881 (in 400 pieces)

Someday everything's gonna be different....

And when it is, I will paint my masterpiece.  

Civilisation is Art.  

But I still have a long way to go.....

A dances with her shadow on the Pincio.....

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