I can only say, about our last days in Rome, that we certainly did not go out with a whimper. The opposite of anything we planned, it seems, in retrospect, that we’d been building up to this apotheosis from the moment we arrived.
The Palazzo, among other things, could validly claim “the Queen slept here.” Indeed, Queen Christina of Sweden not only slept in the Palazzo, but also lived there after renouncing Protestantism and, with it, the Swedish throne. She brought with her “her library and fortune . . . to the delight of the Chigi pope, Alexander VII.” [cite] She also brought with her erudition and an “unconventional lifestyle” [cite], amusingly recounted here.
She has the distinction of being one of only three women buried in the Vatican grottoes, as well as the subject of a film starring Greta Garbo.
A more scholarly account tells us this:
. . . Christina took little satisfaction in her life as queen. Sweden’s orthodox Protestantism smothered her freethinking, and her daily obligations at court thwarted her intellectual pursuits. For her, Catholic Rome, at the time the center of learning and culture, would provide a more stimulating, less restrictive environment. On June 6, 1654, Christina abdicated the throne . . . . In 1659, Christina set up permanent residence at the Palazzo Riario (now Corsini) . . . [cite]
Christina, both in Sweden and Rome, was a great patron of the arts, including patronage of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. She first met him on the day she “officially entered Rome, through the Porta del Popolo. Alexander VII had commissioned Bernini to design her carriage and refurbish the Porta to mark the occasion.” [cite]
While the art currently on display at the Palazzo Corsini doesn’t appear to contain any of Christina’s collection, there are several pieces of interest and a few of particular note.
Here’s a detail of Ruben’s Head of an Old Man:
Here’s a triptych by Fra Angelico:
Domenico Gargiulio is less well-known, but he vividly captured a moment-in-time with Macaroni Eaters, which depicts
Three Neapolitan beggars, or lazzaroni, eating a dish of macaroni with their hands in the middle of a street. . . . Domenico Gargiulo [was] a 17th-century native of the city where cheap wheat and rising meat prices were turning pasta into an affordable staple. [cite]
Another, less cheerful, moment-in-time is captured in Wrongdoers hanged:
The painting is based on an etching by Jacques Callot, The Hangman’s Tree, part of his series Les Grandes Misères de la guerre.
Each etching in Callot’s series is accompanied by three couplets, added after images were etched. Below is the only translation I could find of the lines accompanying The Hangman’s Tree (I’ve substituted “mob” for the translation of “engeance,” as “series” made no sense, and I’ve rendered the verse in couplets, more or less as they break in the original French text.)
Finally these infamous and abandoned thieves,
Hanging from this tree like wretched fruit,
Show that crime (horrible and black mob)
Is itself the instrument of shame and vengeance,
And that it is the fate of corrupt men
To experience the justice of heaven sooner or later. [cite]
Agostino Chigi, banker to popes, commissioned the villa and chose its site “to be close to the papal court and away from his business cronies.” [cite] Chigi, who received from his hometown of Siena the moniker “il Magnifico” [cite], was
a merchant prince who, as a banker in Rome, developed one of the richest business houses in Europe, lending money to popes, administering church revenue, and spending lavishly on display and the patronage of artists and writers. It was he who built the palace and gardens later known as the Farnesina . . . . [cite]
Among others, Chigi commissioned Raphael for work on the villa. Vasari offers a bit of perhaps less-than-reliable back story about the commission:
Raffaello was a very amorous person, delighting much in women, and ever ready to serve them; which was the reason that, in the pursuit of his carnal pleasures, he found his friends more complacent and indulgent towards him than perchance was right. Wherefore, when his dear friend Agostino Chigi commissioned him to paint the first loggia in his palace, Raffaello was not able to give much attention to his work, on account of the love that he had for his mistress; at which Agostino fell into such despair, that he so contrived by means of others, by himself, and in other ways, as to bring it about, although only with difficulty, that this lady should come to live continually with Raffaello in that part of the house where he was working; and in this manner the work was brought to completion. [Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects]
The frescoes of several artists may be found in the Loggia di Galatea (Loggia of Galatea) (and throughout the villa).
One, however, that appears to be Raphael’s alone, both in design and execution, is The Triumph of Galatea, which Kenneth Clark anointed as “the greatest evocation of paganism of the Renaissance.” [cite]
Only fifteen years earlier, pagan antiquity was still handled awkwardly, with timid, angular gesture: now it is perfectly understood. When Renaissance poets came to write Latin verse (very beautiful verse, too), they had plenty of models. But what wonderful imaginative insight it required for Raphael to create from scraps and fragments of sarcophagi a scene that must be very much like the great lost paintings of antiquity. [cite]
Baldassare Peruzzi, who designed the building, also contributed the frescoes of Chigi’s horoscope.
During the sixteenth century, astrology was a popular activity among the elite as a form of investigation into an individual’s character. Natal charts were often employed by important figures such as the pope and cardinals to determine their personalities; significantly, Chigi commissioned his own natal chart to be depicted on the ceiling, subtly symbolizing his own magnificence. . . . In Peruzzi’s astrological rendition, rather than representing the sky as a cluster of stars, the constellations were personified as mythological figures from classical antiquity. The two main constellations, created in 1512, represent reinterpreted myths with allegoric connotations of triumph. [cite]
[Nymph Callisto] depicts the female deity as a maiden driving a chariot pulled by oxen which refers to the constellation’s name of Chariot. Similar to Galatea, Callisto is holds the reins of the chariot effortlessly as her divine being provides easy control over the bestial oxen. [cite]
Myth of Perseus and the Gorgon
Although the original myth states that Perseus cannot look directly at Medusa, in this depiction Perseus clearly gazes at the monster before beheading her suggesting a heroic figure that is even more powerful than the traditional myth and consequently emphasising Chigi’s authority. While the winged female floating above is usually identified as Fame although, she could also be Virgo trumpeting Chigi’s fame especially since Virgo was often shown as a winged maiden dressed in a long white gown. Despite the ambiguous identity of the white maiden, her role is clearly to direct the viewer’s attention to Chigi’s coat of arms in the centre of the ceiling. [cite]
Another artist, Sebastiano del Piombo, “painted the mythological scenes, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in the lunettes.” [cite]
The last of them is a monochrome painting of a daringly foreshortened large head of a young man, previously attributed to Michelangelo thanks to a well-known legend. It was said that he drew it as a competitive “prank” while he was waiting for the commissioned artist, Raphael, who was momentarily absent. [cite]
Attribution for the monochrome head varies; one, possibly authoritative, site states that “modern opinion is inclined to ascribe it to Sebastiano del Piombo or, more probably, to Peruzzi.”
Del Piombo did paint “Polyphemus, the Cyclop in love with the beautiful nymph, originally frescoed naked and afterwards covered by a light blue dress.” [cite]
Raphael’s Galatea and all the other frescoes in this richly-decorated room turned out to be just the beginning. (By the end, I wished I’d had a mat, so I could lie down and look up without craning my neck.)
In the Loggia di Amore e Psiche (Loggia of Cupid and Psyche),
although the general layout of the cycle and planning of the individual scenes and figures are attributed to the intuitive genius of Raphael (proven by a number of autographic sketches), the actual completion of the designs into frescos was carried out by his numerous workshop assistants, including Giovanni Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine. [cite]
Notwithstanding a possible error of attribution, Vasari’s descriptions of the frescoes are worth a read.
In the spandrels of the vaulting [Raphael] executed many scenes, in one of which is Mercury with his flute, who, as he flies, has all the appearance of descending from Heaven . . . [cite]
I wondered particularly about the very busy cherubs, and Vasari offered this explanation:
And in the spherical triangles of the vaulting above the arches, between the spandrels, are many most beautiful little boys in foreshortening, hovering in the air and carrying all the instruments of the gods; Jove’s lightnings and thunderbolts, the helmet, sword, and shield of Mars, Vulcan’s hammers, the club and lion-skin of Hercules, the caduceus of Mercury, Pan’s pipes, and the agricultural rakes of Vertumnus. All are accompanied by animals appropriate to their character . . . [cite]
(What I didn’t attend to at the time were the festoons, about which Vasari rightly wrote “Round these scenes he caused Giovanni da Udine to make a border of all kinds of flowers, foliage, and fruits, in festoons, which are as beautiful as they could be. [cite])
We next visited the Sala del Fregio (The Hall of the Frieze), which “was originally used as a waiting room for guests, but also for important ceremonies such as the reading of the banker’s Will.” [cite]
Baldassare Peruzzi began work on the frescoed frieze, with evident allegorical referal to the virtues of the patron. He frescoed the twelve Labours of Hercules and other deeds performed by the hero, as well as various mythological episodes, incorporating flashes of the nascent culture of classical antiquity but also supplementing the iconography with late-medieval Ovidian imagery. [cite]
Here is Orpheus and the animals:
Even at this point, we were far from done with all there was to see. The Sala delle Prospettive (Hall of Perspectives) “where . . . the rich banker held his wedding banquet, takes its name from the perspective views of urban and rural landscapes between fictitious columns, painted by Baldassare Peruzzi.” [cite]
Peruzzi has designed a splendid architecture of dark, veined marble piers and columns with gilded capitals that incorporates the actual veined marble door frames in the room. The frescoed architecture is so precisely painted that it is almost impossible to distinguish where the real marble ends and the illusion begins. Through the lofty columns one looks out to a painted terrace that opens onto a continuous landscape. [cite]
Last came the Sale della Nozze (Alexander and Roxane’s Wedding Hall). I wouldn’t want to sleep with this, but Chigi apparently did (this was his bedroom).
The banker commissioned its decoration from Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Sodoma . . . . Following an “initial idea” from Raphael, he designed a fresco cycle on the walls of the bedchamber, depicting the wedding of Alexander the Great and his bride Roxana, based on Lucian’s description of a famous lost painting of antiquity. [cite]
Beyond overwhelmed by all we’d seen, I wandered into a small library with books laid out for sale. I spotted a book in English (turned out to be a bit ersatz English, but just the same, I had to have it). Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New World turned out to be a close examination of the festoons by Giovanni da Udine in the Loggia di Amore e Psiche.
I’d hardly looked at them the first time around, there’d been so much to take in. So, of course, I had to retrace my steps and look again. Here’s more on the festoons from Vasari:
Having then returned to Rome, Giovanni [da Udine] executed in the loggia of Agostino Chigi, which Raffaello had painted and was still engaged in carrying to completion, a border of large festoons right round the groins and squares of the vaulting, making there all the kinds of fruits, flowers, and leaves, season by season, and fashioning them with such artistry, that everything may be seen there living and standing out from the wall, and as natural as the reality . . . . To sum the matter up, I venture to declare that in that kind of painting Giovanni surpassed all those who have best imitated Nature in such works, for the reason that, besides all the other things, even the flowers of the elder, of the fennel, and of the other lesser plants are there in truly astonishing perfection. [cite]
Da Undine “painted about a hundred and seventy botanical entities, including wild plants and cultivars.” [cite, p. 12]
. . . what gives an additional interest to Giovanni’s botanical representations, is the early presence of some species from the New World, at a time so close to the discovery of the American continent. [cite, p. 13]
Here’s a “large musky pumpkin,” a native of Central America . . . . the depiction of these plants in a fresco just twenty years after the discovery of America is the first of its kind . . .”. [cite, p. 34] In addition, the depictions of maize in this detail (the origin of which is also Central America) “are the earliest proof of their introduction to Europe.” [cite, p. 37]
Like so much else on this two-week Italian sojourn, it’s only in retrospect that I discovered what was in the few photographs I’d managed to take of the festoons. There’s only one solution, which is to return to Rome . . . though for that it would be helpful to have a magic carpet . . .
So, a mere eleven posts later, this concludes our 2018 Italian journey. To take in the entire saga in one go, a link is here.
Best wishes to all for the New Year.
Handel, Happy we, 1718 Acis and Galatea, HWV 49 (opera libretto here)
Note: Attribution of paintings to artists isn’t always straightforward. Should anyone spot an error, please let me know, and I will update.
Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The sources for images of the Villa Farnesina Loggia may be found here and here. The remainder of the photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
So many beautiful things to see in Rome. Happy New Year to you and may 2019 bring you good health and more travels.
Laurent: Yes, quite astonishing, particularly as I know we didn’t even scratch the surface of what is to be found. Happy New Year to you and yours as well!
You won’t be surprised to hear I could absorb only a small portion of what you’ve given us here. The article on Christina alone presented so many things I’d not heard about, though as a math teacher I may be your only reader who knew that Descartes went to Sweden and got done in by the harsh winter there. May your New York winter treat you better in 2019.
Steve: I love your contribution of the Descartes anecdote. I’m certainly not surprised on the “small portion,” probably the best, if not the only, way to take in what’s on offer here,. Ironically, our choosing to “stay local” our last two days in Rome meant we saw far more than we thought possible. The number of photographs I took was pure insanity, though it has been a pleasure to cull through them, revisiting the trip.
The Galatea fresco in the Villa Farnesina left the greatest impression from my first visit, when I had it all to myself. In the following years, it was restored and perhaps something has been lost, but it’s all very splendid.
David: There can’t be anything better than to have a work of art like that all to yourself–particularly if you truly know how to look, as I know you do. On returning home, as I had only one (and not very good) college course and a couple trips to Florence to go on, I was eager to get a better grip on Italian Renaissance art. I’ve now read two useful books, one the Oxford History of Renaissance Art in Italy, with a third book available for reference, and have re-read William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. How much I’ll retain is of course an open question, but perhaps something will seep in and stick for the next time I have the chance to be in the presence of such art.
On my first discoveries of Italy, interrailing as a student, I took with me the standard Peter and Linda Murray books on Renaissance and High Renaissance in the Thames and Hudson series.
David: So pleased you noted that: third book I have is the Thames and Hudson on the Renaissance–so it looks like I’m on the right track!
Rome is such an incredible city with so many wonderful pieces of art.
Hi Susan – what an amazing post … I loved it – I’ll be back to re-read and I’d love to read a copy of the book you found about Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New World about the festoons … the whole post was just brilliant and yes I need to look through all your posts about your trip – a great resource for the future, should I be able to travel. Cheers and Happy New Year to you too … Hilary