Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Celebrating Peter and Paul

Happy Saint Peter and Paul's Day!

As the patron saints of the city of Rome, their day is a special occasion (as well as a public holiday) here in the Eternal City. The day begins with a spectacular mass at St. Peter's Basilica which ends with the Pope kissing the feet of the medieval statue of St. Peter.

On tour in the basilica yesterday, as they were setting up for the big event, I was delighted to see the marvelous bronze all decked out in papal vestments and the famous three-tier papal tiara. Despite my many years in Rome, this is the first time that I have seen it all dressed up. The statue itself was almost certainly created by Arnolfo di Cambio, making it a late 13th-century work. The right foot of the sculpture protrudes slightly and for hundreds of years, faithful (and superstitious) visitors have touched, rubbed or even kissed that foot so many millions of times, that its toes have almost completely worn away.

Across town, Peter's co-honoree is celebrated at his mighty church, St. Paul's Outside the Walls with a street fair that lasts most of the day. The second largest church in Rome, and the 3rd most important (after St. John's in Lateran), deserves a post of its own, so I won't go into detail just now. Just one tiny note: even though most of what we see today is no more than 150 years old, due to the heartbreaking damage the great basilica suffered in 1823, nevertheless its external aspect, the courtyard, the columned portico, the gold mosaic facade, the dramatic pediment, is the closest Rome has to offer to what Constantine's St. Peter's Basilica must have looked like in its day.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
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Friday, June 24, 2011

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, or When the inspired outshines the inspiration

No answers? No guesses? No comments whatsoever??

This either means my question was too hard, or no one reads this blog. (I suspect it's a combination of both.)

Ok, I won't keep you in suspense any longer. I'm sure some of you couldn't sleep last night, going through a mental catalogue of every work of art, church, building and monument in the city, desperately trying to discover the work that was inspired by the brilliant mosaic ceiling of Constantia's gorgeous mausoleum. I'm heartless, I know. So here it is.

The dome of Borromini's masterpiece, San Carlo alle Quattro Fonatane. Let's take a look at both side by side.

The same interlocking crosses, hexagons and octogons grace this oblong dome designed by the greatest Baroque architect who ever lived, and the similarity cannot be a coincidence. I like to imagine the tortured and solitary Borromini visiting the Mausoleum of Constantia and being inspired by such a small and for most probably unnoticeable detail to create the dome of arguably one of the most beautiful churches in Rome (and at over 800 that's saying quite a lot).

But Borromini took this motif and made it his own, coffered instead of mosaic, stark white instead of multi-colored, and a shallow dome instead of barrel-vaulting. A rare example of Baroque art being inspired by early Medieval art. Not surprisingly, the design of Borromini's dome is famous, and the inspiration sadly obscure.

Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane ("at the four fountains", named for the fountains adorning each corner of the intersection right outside) has been nicknamed San Carlino for its tiny size. With convex and concave surfaces at every turn, columns placed at oblique angles to the altars and not a straight line in sight, the entire church seems to undulate. This sense of movement is one of the characteristics that came to define Baroque architecture, at which Borromini was head and shoulders above his contemporaries including his rival and nemesis, the ever-popular Gianlorenzo Bernini, who should have stuck to sculpting. For proof of this, visit Bernini's painfully inferior Sant'Andrea al Quirinale just down the street. (In my humble opionion, of course.)

Now, not to go on and on about my wedding (I'll do that later...), the thought of this church crossed my mind as well during the early days of planning. Tiny and intimate, just what I wanted. Achingly beautiful, a true jewel of a church, dare I say it, perfection? Only two tiny problems: my dress was a rich ivory and the chruch is blindingly white. The bride mustn't clash with the church, no? (Okay, I'm joking. I didn't actually think about this at the time.) But more importantly, the church, as glorious and serene as it is on the inside, opens up right onto a busy intersection which would hamper rice throwing quite drastically.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mysterious Mausoleum

The Mausoleum of Constantia, one of the eeriest and most evocative spots in the city, is what inspires me to write today. Constantia (sometimes called Constantina) was the daughter of Emperor Constantine and his second wife Fausta. Despite a medieval legend that would have her devoutly praying at the tomb of St. Agnes (now the site of the magnificent basilica, Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura), miraculously curing her of leprosy (curiously, a legend nearly identical to one associated with her father Constantine), she was by most accounts a vicious, greedy and not particularly religious person. However, due to her miraculous cure, she was venerated (but it seems never canonized) as a saint, although she is not recognized as one by the church. Nevertheless, her 4th-century mausoleum was later consecrated as the Santa Costanza church, and is attached to the same basilica of Sant’Agnese associated with the legend. Both are located northeast of the historic center, off of Via Nomentana.

The mausoleum is cylindrical, like the Pantheon, with exposed brick walls and intricate mosaic ceilings around the outer ring, or ambulatory. A double row of columns separates the ambulatory from the heart of the mausoleum where the altar sits, and the streaming light from the high windows above contributes to the spooky atmosphere. Perhaps the dark, gloominess of the ambulatory in direct contrast with the light, airy space beneath the dome is what makes this space so mysterious.

A rather shabby copy of Constantia’s imposing porphyry sarcophagus sits where the original (now housed in the Vatican Museums, pictured here) once stood. Much more painful is what has become of the domed ceiling. The original mosaics that once filled the dome were sadly destroyed in 1620, to be replaced with mediocre Baroque frescoes.

The 4th-century mosaics are without a doubt the most interesting detail of the mausoleum. While the 5th-7th century mosaics in the apses depict Christian scenes, the barrel vaulted ambulatory mosaics are much more pagan in style, depicting mostly flora and fauna or geometrical shapes in deep colors (mostly reds and greens) on an off-white background. My favorite section of mosaic is a puzzle of interlocking crosses, hexagons and octagons. For any other lovers of Roman art and architecture out there, does it look familiar? Is there another spot in Rome (hint: much more recent) where this same pattern is repeated? I am curious to see if anyone recognizes it. Please comment if you do!!

This mausoleum-turned-church was one of the few contenders when I was first considering where to get married, a very long 18 months ago. I loved the idea of getting married in a circular space, with the guests seated all around us. The way the light streams in from the upper windows is breathtaking, not to mention the rich detail of the mosaics I love so much. What eventually deterred me were the morbid connotations of getting married in what was once a mausoleum, and the fact that I was determined to wed in the historic center. The church we eventually chose was perfect for our wedding, and before long I will write a post on that loveliest of all churches.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
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Trick of the Eye

After nearly a year’s absence, I am happily returning to my much-neglected blog. Following what has been quite surely the busiest, craziest and most overwhelming 12 months of my life (which culminated in my own unforgettable nozze), I have at last the time to devote myself once again to the simple pleasures all around me here in my often maddening and always delightful adopted city.

To ease myself back into this blogging thing, today I’ll post an article I wrote for WHERE Rome magazine, published in January. It’s brief over-view of the Eternal City’s many optical illusions. Each one thrills and fascinates me and deserves much more than a paragraph, but alas, with a limited word-count of a tourist magazine, one is forced to be succinct. I intend to expand upon this theme and write more thorough and in-depth descriptions of each one of these glorious sites in the weeks to come. In the mean time…

Just when you think you’ve seen everything in Rome, something right around the corner surprises you. Hidden alleyways, forgotten works of art, unexpected vistas waiting to amaze you at every turn. But nothing is more confounding than the Eternal City’s many optical illusions. Mischievously tricking your eye, these beguiling phenomena have mystified and delighted viewers for centuries. Go in search of them, and you won’t be the first –or the last– to be deceived.

Perhaps the largest –and most famous– optical illusion can be found in St. Peter’s Square. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s ingenious elliptical design is bordered on both sides by four rows of daunting travertine columns, 284 in all. But stand in a particular spot in the square and the outer three rows disappear from view and only the first row can be seen.

To view St. Peter’s from a different angle, hop in a cab on Via Piccolomini, high on Vatican hill, where the dome can be seen in all its glory. The trees that line the street create a kind of frame for the basilica, and as you drive toward it, the frame widens, and the dome appears to shrink on the horizon.

Illusions involving Michelangelo’s masterpiece don’t end there. Across town, on the Aventine Hill, at the villa of the infamous Knights of Malta, take a peek through the keyhole and the magnificent cupola can be viewed. Although it is miles away, it appears to be just on the other side of the door, nestled amongst the greenery in the villa’s garden.

Inside the basilica, surely the most prized work of art is Michelangelo’s first masterpiece, the moving and graceful Pietà, carved when he was only 23. The master’s grasp of human anatomy was fiercely accurate; nevertheless, if the figures of Mary and Christ were to stand side by side, she would tower over him, at least two feet taller. This can be explained both by Michelangelo’s decision to use a triangular shape for the composition, thereby necessitating Mary’s overly large lower body, as well as his choice to accent Christ’s weakened and vulnerable state in death, appearing small in his mother’s arms.

Illusions continue to abound inside the Vatican Museums, most particularly in the Gallery of Tapestries. The Resurrection of Christ, an early 16th-century Flemish tapestry based on designs of the school of Raphael, was woven using the technique of shifting perspective. View it from the left, and you will see Christ’s head turned toward you and his eyes making contact with yours. Slowly walk toward the right and not only will his eyes follow you, but his head and body turn as well, as does the rectangular stone he is stepping on. The illusion was achieved by double stitching: miniscule overlapping stitches that disappear behind one another depending on where you stand. Entranced by this effect, you might not notice yet another illusion on the vaulted ceiling of the same gallery. Using the tromp l’œuil technique of painting shadows, what appears to be an intricately carved ceiling of bas-reliefs and moldings is in reality entirely two-dimensional.

Haven’t had enough? The nave of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola near the Pantheon possesses a dramatically frescoed vault with what seem to be dizzyingly tall columns and hundreds of figures ascending straight into the heavens. More stunning still is the make-believe dome, in fact just a round canvas stretching across the church’s crossing, which –from a vantage spot marked by a marble star on the floor– appears to be a lofty, ribbed and coffered dome. Both were frescoed by master illusionist Andrea Pozzo.

Perhaps most mystifying of all is Baroque architect Francesco Borromini’s baffling perspective at the Galleria Spada near Campo de’ Fiori. Stand in the courtyard and you will see a long portico of columns that leads to a small garden and a whimsical statue. As you walk down the portico, the floor inclines upward, the columns shorten, the path narrows and the vaulted ceiling declines. The garden is just a few square feet and what seemed like a life-sized sculpture is not even as tall as your hip. You have been tricked again!
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