When we visited Rome last week with some old friends from the US, we wanted to both revisit old favorites and see some new things. Here is what we did.
The Palazzo Farnese, in the center of Rome not far from the Campo de Fiori, was designed by Michelangelo in the 16th C for the Farnese family. Today, the building houses the French Embassy and can only be seen by prearrangement. Fortunately, these days it’s easy to reserve online, and tours are offered in English as well as French and Italian.
Because the building is a showcase for the French government, all the interiors are in tip-top shape, and some of the larger rooms are even heated. The standout, for me, were the ceiling frescoes by Annibale Carracci and his brother Agostino, Bolognese painters who did most of their work in Rome. The brothers were inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, but the theme of these frescoes were drawn from ancient Roman mythology.
The ceiling frescoes, started in 1597, are noted for their brilliant use of spatial effects, which make the two-dimensional painting appear three-dimensional. For security reasons, no visitor photos are allowed inside, but fortunately professional photos are available online. In this detail from one of the ceiling frescoes, look how the two young men in the foreground are posed in front of what appears to be a painting. Their knees are shown covering the picture frame, and they are sitting on the base of what looks like an intricately carved statue. It’s hard to believe this is really just done in two dimensions.
The Vatican Museum – In Reverse
We booked an early morning entry time, and instead of going through the museum in the normal way, we decided to go to the Sistine Chapel first. Since all the suggested itineraries, and all the guided tours, visit the Sistine Chapel at the end, our hope was that we would arrive at the Chapel before the crowds. So we raced to the other side of the museum, not stopping to look at anything, which in a museum as amazing as the Vatican takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude.
It worked! When we arrived at the Sistine Chapel, there were only about 25 people there – practically empty. The guards, who during peak times enforce a 10-minute rule and encourage everyone to keep moving with metaphorical pitchforks , were much more relaxed, and we spent nearly half an hour there. There was even room to sit down on the benches along the side to better enjoy the views. (Photos are still not allowed; here’s a stock photo.)
It was a bit of a trick finding our way back to the regular tourist route, since all the signs essentially go the other way. Fortunately, the museum guides are friendly, especially in the less crowded parts of the museum, and showed us a small elevator which took us back to the Map Room, where we were able to locate our current home town (“Asculum” in Latin) on one of the maps – you can see it at the confluence of two rivers.
The Vatican is probably the only museum in the world where a Van Gogh is in an unheralded gallery – it’s a Pietà, an unusual subject for the Dutch painter. And, while the Raphael Rooms get a lot of justified attention, there are more Raphaels in the Pinacoteca, including a painting of the Transfiguration which was probably his last work.
Merlozzo di Forli was noted for his angels.
This painting by local artist Carlo Crivelli was once in the church of San Gregorio Magno in Ascoli Piceno, which is about 5 minutes from our apartment. I think it’s been in the Vatican for some time, though.
I can’t promise this “reverse” method of seeing the Vatican Museum would work as well in midsummer as it did on a weekday morning in January. And it wouldn’t have worked even in January had we not done it the first thing in the morning. We transited the Chapel again, about two hours later, on the way out (all exits go that way), and all the bench seats were full.
At the suggestion of some friends, we visited the Domus Aurea, which was envisioned as a vast landscaped palace by the Emperor Nero, who was forced to commit suicide long before the project was finished. Rome subjected Nero to the “damnatio memoriae,” by which they intended to expunge the name and his very existence from the official history of Rome. His statues were taken down, the colossal statue that framed his artificial lake was replaced with an amphitheater, and his golden house was buried by future building projects.
As a marketing strategy, the erasure of Nero from Rome’s institutional memory was a total failure. If there’s one Roman emperor whose name everyone knows, it’s Nero. And the Flavian Amphitheater is now known as the Colosseum, for the giant statue that Nero had once placed there.
The Domus Aurea, though, was well and truly buried, until it was discovered by chance in the 15th C. The spectacular paintings, including unusual designs and mythical birds and animals, caused a sensation in the artistic community, and imitations of these designs showed up all over Italian interiors for the next few hundred years. Since it was then (wrongly) believed that the paintings were in a grotto, these designs were called “grottesca” in Italian – it’s the origin of our word “grotesque,” although they are really quite pretty.
Today Italian archeologists are working to excavate the site and save the frescoes, which have suffered greatly from the humidity. Since it’s a working site, you can visit only on weekends, and only via pre-booked tour (which you can do online). And since it’s a working site, you have to wear hard hats.
The tour included a room where you were given VR glasses, which allowed you to visualize what the room might have looked like in the 1st C, when it was open to the air. I was skeptical at first, but it was well done and kind of cool.
And the Rest
Of course, we did a lot of the same stuff other tourists do in Rome – visit famous landmarks, check out the art in churches, test our honesty at the Bocca della Verita and, of course, eat.
Caravaggio imagines that St. Matthew is none too pleased to be called away from his lucrative job as a tax collector. He doesn’t seem all too pleased with his angel avatar either.
Church of San Luigi Francese
I love the way Jesus has his arm around his mother’s shoulder in this 12th C mosaic.
Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere
Bocca della Verità