On the Road Again (Part I): Rome

After many months of being stuck close to home because of the corona virus, the ban on interregional travel within Italy was finally lifted in late May. We couldn’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Aventine

We decided to spend a few days in Rome, which is only 3 hours away from here. At the recommendation of several friends, we stayed at a small hotel in the Aventino district.

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Aventino neighborhood

The Aventino is an ancient part of Rome (the Aventine is one of the famous “Seven Hills”) but for a variety of reasons the building of modern Rome has passed it by. Today, it is pleasant residential district, more reminiscent of a leafy suburb than a place less than 20 minutes walk from Piazza Venezia. It’s relatively small, and most of its interesting sights are only a short walk from each other.

Santa Sabina is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Its original 5th C doors feature one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ. Early Christians more commonly featured a lamb (symbolizing Christ) carrying a blank cross, sometimes with a red and white banner signifying the Resurrection. The representation of Christ’s death on the cross has, over the centuries, become dominant, and ever more elaborate. Note that this early Crucifixion scene already features the two thieves.

Not far from Santa Sabina are the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. People are lining up to look through the “Aventine Keyhole,” cleverly designed to allow a surprisingly good view of the dome of St. Peter’s.

Knights of Malta Gate – keyhole view of Vatican

The optical effect is not easily reproduced on a cellphone camera, but you can get a better view of it here.

The Parco Savello, features an orange garden near Santa Sabina offers fine views of Piazza Venezia and the Vatican.

Vatican from Giardino degli Aranci

A short distance further on is the Roseto Comunale, a public rose garden open free of charge, which features over 1,200 varieties of roses. We were lucky to see it because it is open only a few months a year.

The garden was formerly the site of the city’s Jewish graveyard (peremptorily moved by Mussolini). Today, a small cenotaph marks the site’s former use.

Capitoline Museum – Torlonia Marbles

The Capitoline Museum was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our hotel. You never have to walk far in Rome to see ancient structures – some in ruins, some repurposed for more modern uses.

The museum had a special exhibit of the “Torlonia Marbles,” a private collection of ancient Roman statues amassed between the 15th and 19th C, and out of public view for decades.

The portrait busts were particularly amazing, featuring an intense interest in facial expressions that wouldn’t be seen again in European art until the Renaissance. The old farmer, in particular, is someone you could run into today.

A lot of the statues featured heroic themes. But I was more drawn to those featuring more down-to-earth themes: a woman visiting a butcher shop, selecting from a variety of hanging animals, the vendor is also a woman. More sobering was the depiction of two soldiers preparing for hand-to-hand combat – an encounter only one of them was likely to survive.

Most of the statues were collected during a period in which a damaged statue would be “repaired” to make it look as much as possible as the imagined original. The modern preference is to leave the statues in whatever damaged state they are found in. Sometimes the results can be quite startling. This headless goat, whose cranium was replaced by the young Gianlorenzo Bernini, may be better than the original. And the addition of two heads allows you to appreciate an unusual depiction of an affectionate married couple.

Roman Churches

We spent much of the rest of our time in Rome visiting churches, which is where most of medieval and Renaissance art it.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli features 15th C frescoes by Pinturicchio.

The basilica of San Clemente features 13th Byzantine-style mosaics and 15th C frescoes by Masaccio. The current church, whose structure dates from the 12th C, is actually the second Christian church on the site. You can visit the remains of the 4th C church below, and below that, the remains of an even earlier pre-Christian temple of Mithra.

The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not open any time we tried to visit (a frequent hazard of visiting Italian churches, which often have frustratingly short hours). But the elephant said hello.

Elephant at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria in Trastevere offers fine examples of late medieval mosaics. Although the flat perspective is in Byzantine style, some of the subjects (like the birth of Mary, complete with midwives) prefigure the focus on daily life that was to become one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. If you look carefully, you can see that Jesus has his arm draped affectionately around his mother’s shoulder – definitely not Byzantine. Something is happening here in the world of artistic expression.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has an astonishing Last Judgment by Pietro Cavallini. The subject is treated in a most unusual manner – along with Mary and John the Baptist, Christ is shown flanked by the 12 Apostles. Cavallini was dismissed by Vasari as a student of Giotto, but the modern view is that the two were independent artists who may have worked together in Assisi. Certainly the humanity and the individualized faces in the Cavallini fresco suggest that the Roman painter was familiar with Giotto’s work. Photos were completely forbidden in the small room where the frescoes now reside – the frescoes were covered over when the medieval church was renovated, and have only recently been rescued. But you can read about them here.

For something completely different, the church of San Ignazio offers a spectacular ceiling fresco in the Baroque style. There’s a lot of Baroque art in Rome, much of it over the top, but the best examples demonstrate a kind of exuberance that I quite enjoy.

San Ignazio

In the relatively unvisited Trastevere church of San Francesco in Ripa, you will find a stunning Bernini quite similar to the more famous Santa Teresa in Ecstasy in the church of Santa Maria di Vittoria. Although I’m sure he could profess piety, I do have to wonder about Bernini’s motivations in creating these masterpieces.

Bernini – San Francesco in Ripa

And of course, you can never get enough Caravaggio. With fewer people about, we were able to get a good shot of The Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

We did visit one museum in Rome – the museum of “modern art”, which in Rome means anything after about 1800.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Whoever decided how to display the collection had not only a good eye but an unusual sense of humor. I love the way, for example, they arranged 19th C sculptures in the classical style next to very modern pieces.

Ceres (ancient) and (cereal?) bowl (modern)

This statue by Rodin looks with at the painting by Klimt – whether with admiration or shocked surprise, that’s for you to decide.

This painting by Italian impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis offers a familiar theme – a day at the races. But perhaps because De Nittis was a man of southern Italy living in Paris, he remembered to include a depiction of the coal burning heater. Those people were cold!

Giuseppe de Nittis – Le Corse al Bois de Boulogne – 1881

This happy gardener is one of Van Gogh’s sunnier portraits.

Van Gogh – Il giardinere – 1889

We enjoyed these works by Renato Guttoso, a 20th C Sicilian painter.

During the lockdown, we followed a series of online lectures put together by the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. One of the programs featured Giovanni Segantini, a 19th C Italian painter known for Alpine landscapes. Segantini died young and is relatively unknown today. But his depictions of natural landscapes are quite extraordinary – more on him when we get to Milan (Part II).

Segantini – Alla stagna – 1886
Segantini up close

One of the best things about the museum is its location right outside the Villa Borghese, one or Rome’s large parks. After touring the museum, we walked through the park to the Pincio overlook – usually too crowded to get a picture, but not this week.

Baths of Caracalla

Not far from our hotel were the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, a public bath facility that when fully operational served 6000 people a day. In addition to the typical rooms offering hot or cold baths, there was an Olympic size (50 meter) pool for the Roman version of swimming. Although whether they were swimming laps or, more likely, hanging out with their friends is hard to know. But you can still see remnants of an ancient Roman board game, played with marbles, along one edge of the pool

The scale of the place was huge, as you can see from the photo.

Terme di Caracalla

Very little remains of the original decoration. You can see some of the original mosaic floor, and the occasional fresco. But the statuary was carted off by “collectors” over the centuries, including the Torlonias. I include the bust of the Emperor Caracalla from the Torlonia exhibit here so he can look over what still survives of his 1800 year old monument.

Torlonia Marbles – Emperor Caracalla

Did Somebody Say Food?

Of course, we remembered to eat. Here we are at our favorite restaurant in Trastevere, eating cacio e pepe (the bowl is edible cheese, although we didn’t eat it – or at least Linda didn’t).

Until next time!

Dinner at Roma Sparita