Category Archives: art

When in Rome, Part 2


Proceeding along the Via Sacra and passing under the arch of Titus, on turning a little to the left, we beheld the amphitheatre of Vespasian and Titus, now called the Coliseum. Never did human art present to the eye a fabric so well calculated by its size and form,
to surprise and delight.
—John Chetwode Eustace, A classical tour through Italy, p. 163

Our next two days in Rome provided for a study in contrasts: the first a series of missteps, the second a non-stop delight.

The first of the two days, after copious studying of maps and bus routes, we set out on a treacherous errand: to get a close-enough view of Tourist Central of Roman ruins—the Colosseum and Roman Forum—without contending (at least unduly) with the crowds. I take full responsibility for this, even though I knew, deep down, it was probably a really bad idea.

But hey, Roman ruins! These ruins are iconic, a referent for so much art. Just take the Colosseum. There’s

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The Colosseum” (1757)

Joseph Mallord William Turner, “The Colosseum, Rome, by Moonlight” (1819)

The Colosseum by Moonlight 1819 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Francesco Menzio, “Rome, The Colosseum” (1924)

Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), “Flying Over the Coliseum in a Spiral” (1930) 

. . . and a whole host of others, some of which can be found here.*

After all, the previous day, we ourselves had seen the Colosseum tucked into a corner of Sante Monachesi’s “On a Dead Leaf over Rome” and as the central subject matter of Giovanni Stradone’s “Meeting at the Colosseum.”

Our aim was modest, after all: to be content with a view from Palatine Hill, where the ticket line was reputed to be much shorter than that for the Colosseum itself.

Fontana delle Tartarughe

En route, we stopped by a fountain to add to our growing “collection”: Fontana delle Tartarughe (The Turtle Fountain).

The original fountain design called for four bronze dolphins on the upper vasque, supported by the upraised hands of the four young men. With the removal of the four dolphins because of the low water pressure, the upraised hands of the statues seemed to have no purpose.

Probably to correct this problem and balance the composition, the four turtles around the edge of the vasque were added during a restoration of the fountain between 1658 and 1659. . . . The turtles are very realistic; If their creator was Bernini, he may have used casts of a real turtle, as he did with sculptures he made of other living creatures. . . . In 1979 one of the turtles was stolen from the fountain. After the theft the original turtles were replaced by copies. [cite]

So far, so good. We were the only visitors; all around us were Romans simply going about their day.

Largo di Torre Argentina

Next, we encountered a ruin right next to our bus stop: the Largo di Torre Argentina. It turns out, for one, that Julius Caesar was murdered here.

. . . this archaeological wonder was excavated as part of Mussolini’s rebuilding efforts in 1929, revealing four Republican victory-temples that lie sunken 20 feet below modern street level. In addition to the remains of four different temples, Torre Argentina also contains part of the famous portico of Pompey, upon whose steps dictator Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed in 44 BCE. Today, volunteers at Torre Argentina care for approximately 130 cats, many of which are disabled or suffer from illness. After the site was excavated, Rome’s feral cats moved in immediately, as they do all over the city, and the gattare, or cat ladies, began feeding and caring for them. [cite]

When we arrived at our chosen destination, a wee little problem remained: we couldn’t locate the Palatine Hill ticket booth. We swatted away vendors hawking high-priced combination tickets until we finally found someone who pointed the way. While we successfully got in line for entry to Palatine Hill, we discovered, fifteen minutes later, that it wasn’t the right line.

Villa Borghese gardens

Chalking one up to experience, we bagged it and headed for the Villa Borghese gardens, a huge green sward containing several art museums. What could go possibly wrong?

Galleria Borghese

I had the bright idea to walk over to the Galleria Borghese, pick up a timed ticket, and, while we waited for our entry time, head back to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna for a look around. Look, it’s true that we could have obtained a timed ticket . . . for several days ahead.

After a looong walk back to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Modern, we were too tired for much except to retire for a pleasant lunch in its café. Slightly resuscitated, we wandered around and managed to spot some fine de Chiricos

Giorgio de Chirico, Il tempio nella stanza (1927)

and two lovely Morandis before running out of steam.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (1946)

Fortunately, there was a bus stop in front of the Galleria, so “all we had to do” was wait for the number 19 bus. In true big city above-ground transportation mode, an eternity’s worth of number 3 buses came, with nary a number 19 in sight. I offered up some “colorful” New York City-style language, and we consulted our map, this time for the nearest metro** stop toward our home away from home.

The next day, I’m pleased to report, was an entirely a different matter, thanks to a tip-off from our friend David Nice . . .

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Listening List

Respighi: Feste romane, P.157 (Roman Festivals) (1928)

In four movements:

  1. Circenses (Circuses)
  2. Giubilio (Jubilee)
  3. L’Ottorbrata (October Festival)
  4. La Befana (The Epiphany)

While, in his description of the first movement of Feste Romane, Respighi refers to the Circus Maximus, the same bloody spectacles occurred in the Colosseum.

Roman Festivals in particular is not a work for the timid — the composer proudly averred that it represented his “maximum of orchestral sonority and color.” The music speaks for itself, thanks to the composer’s acute tone-painting. In the first movement, the ferocious roaring of the wild beasts comes across loud and clear, thanks to the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trombones, tuba, timpani, cellos, and basses, playing fortissimo. [cite]

Here’s Respighi’s own description of the first movement:

Games at the Circus Maximus — A threatening sky hangs over the Circus Maximus, but it is the people’s holiday: “Ave, Nero!” The iron doors are unlocked, the strains of a religious song and the howling of wild beasts float on the air. The crowd rises in agitation: unperturbed, the song of the martyrs develops, conquers, and then is lost in the tumult. [cite]


*Particularly for those who can read Italian, but even for those who, like me, must rely on Google translate, this article on the Colosseum as an artistic subject makes for an interesting read. Here’s how it begins:

Un gigante in tenuta da miliardario – cravatta a pois, ghette, cilindro – afferra con mani rapaci un Colosseo che minuscoli operai tentano freneticamente di assicurare al suolo. Così il caricaturista Oliver Herford ritrae nel 1912 John Pierpont Morgan, figura emblematica dell’ascesa economica e politica degli Stati Uniti tra Otto e Novecento e dell’inestinguibile bramosia collezionistica che la accompagnò. Il Colosseo è qui in forma comica il simbolo di qualcosa che neppure la grande ricchezza di Morgan sarebbe riuscita ad acquistare: il valore storico del monumento più imponente della Roma imperiale non è quantificabile né negoziabile. Nella vignetta, l’Anfiteatro Flavio “resiste”, come cercherà di resistere, lungo tutto il corso del“secolo breve”, al fascismo e alla guerra, alle radicali trasformazioni dell’ambiente urbano circostante, alla strumentalizzazione ideologica e alla soffice metamorfosi pubblicitaria, sempre stupefacente, ostinato, ingombrante, salvo ritrovarsi infine ridotto al ruolo irrevocabile di smisurato spartitraffico con cui sopravvive nella distratta epoca contemporanea.

**Rome Metro is easy to navigate, but it’s not extensive. There’s good reason for that, and it has to do with . . . you guessed it, ruins!

All roads may lead to Rome, but once you get there, good luck taking the subway. The sprawling metropolis is expanding its mass transit system — a sluggish process made even slower as workers keep running into buried ancient ruins.

“I found some gold rings. I found glasswork laminated in gold depicting a Roman god, some amphoras,” says Gilberto Pagani, a bulldozer operator at the Amba Aradam metro stop, currently under construction not far from the Colosseum. [cite]

Credits: Sources for the quotations are at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

When in Rome, Part 1

Pons Fabricius, the Tiber

si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sīcut ibī*
attributed to St Ambrose

Rome doesn’t yield up its secrets easily to first-time short-term travelers, and the work attendant to their discovery can threaten to swamp the rewards. While our desire was to heed St. Ambrose’s dictum, we faced “just a few” significant challenges: we had between us about five words of Italian and next to nil in practical knowledge of the city and its ways. Continue reading

July Miscellany, with music by Jaeger, Mattingly & Trapani & performances by Dhegrae & Contemporaneous

That’s Robert Louis Stevenson contemplating the proceedings, courtesy John Singer Sargent. The proceedings include, among other things, El café by Joaquín Torres-García and the Cabinet of Geology and Mineralogy from the announcement of a project by Mark Dion at Vassar College. Continue reading

Grant Wood at the Whitney

Young Corn (1931, detail)

Not something I’d ever though to see: an exhibit devoted to Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum in New York. Eons ago, I’d seen his work on his home turf. The impression it left was indelible. I’ve often wished I could see the works on display in Cedar Rapids once again. Continue reading

At the Independent Art Fair

Charlie Billingham

With at least three art fairs on offer one March weekend in New York City, the question was how not to become overwhelmed. A review in the New York Times pointed us toward the Independent Art Fair:

If, like me, you find the full-tilt art fairs a little overwhelming, the formally ambitious but modestly scaled Independent is a godsend. With just 54 exhibits, many of them solo presentations, arranged over four spacious floors at Spring Studios in TriBeCa, it’s like a leisurely all-star game: It’s not exactly representative of the year in art, perhaps, but it feels as if it ought to be. Continue reading