A Day to Treasure

Rome, Saturday, April 27, 2013

To start, breakfast at the Hotel Raphael on Piazza Navona. Rare this full breakfast, mushrooms, sliced orange, scrambled eggs, folded ham and good café latte.

First, a 20 minute walk to the Church of Santa Maria del’ Popolo. We are there to pay homage to Caravaggio. A church service is in process with a Philippino priest. Once he retires we flock to the side chapel. The Conversion of Saint Paul and The Martyrdom of Saint Peter are in the Cerasi family chapel. They are opposite each other and hard to see unless you put money in a light box which illuminates the scene. A crowd of 20, all too cheap to put €1.00 in the lightbox. The cheap pretend they don’t know why they can’t see the picture. I put the €1.00 in. Presto! Light!

In 1600 there were two conventions for artists. Art should represent ideal beauty, perfect proportion and classical decorum. Also a finished canvas should rely on many preparatory drawings. Caravaggio painted directly on canvas without elaborate planning and preparatory drawing. Not a single one of his drawings exists today.

However, he really turned the art world upside down by placing in centre stage saints being the poor, the labourer, or the servant. This runs against the convention of the time. There are no cherubs, no delicate rendition of religious tranquility, populated by figures who we have never met.

The Conversion of St. Paul (1610-1611)

Caravaggio's The Conversion of St PaulHere the colour of the horse is difficult to capture in words, a subtle confluence of browns, greys, creams and running black – a dappled dreamy off-brown.

Maybe I’m in love with the coco colour of the pinto horse’s flank, the white of the horse’s shank and shoulder setting off the creamy chocolate syrup of the sleek belly, as well as the sense of quiet stillness with the attendant caring for the horse, a sensible thing, so it doesn’t skitter and trample Paul. The details of the attendant’s huge hand on the horse’s bit, his veined legs, bigger than the horse’s, his big dirty toe nail, his knobbly toe, all real.

These are my two favourite Caravaggios. I gaze at the fallen Paul but as ever, I concentrate on the attendant with his huge toe with dirt in the nail, his meaty hand and the horse’s puzzled shying look. The cocoa belly of the horse craves a smooth-down pat.

The Martyrdom of Saint Peter (1601)

Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint PeterThe Martyrdom of Saint Peter is a portrait of strain and awkward discomfort, three sinewy workmen methodically doing their job, unconcerned about Peter, they are merely doing a job all in the order of a quick execution. One can feel the workmen spit in their callused hands while heaving to the menial task of nailing Peter’s hands and feet.

St. Peter, dirty feet, a heavy power, straining up. He is awkward, aggressive yet looking to some far off place where he can escape this excruciating torture. He is alone, at the end of his life, yet looking both past and forward. How can an artist capture such an elusive concept with mere paint?

St. Peter, in his ghastly situation is almost overshadowed by the nails in his feet and the coal black on the labourers’ feet.

These paintings never disappoint. They are immediate and crisp in contrast to the Syracuse (Sicily) Burial of Saint Lucy seen but two days ago.

Burial of St. Lucy (1608)

Caravaggio's The Burial of Saint Lucy

Moses (1513-1515)

Michelangelo's MosesNext, Michelangelo! San Pietro in Vincoli, Moses. As ever it packs a punch. It is not the blank eyes, nor the glare which arrests, it is his huge forearm, his hand holding the book and his knee, yes his knee, that speaks to originality. This is a STRONG MAN, all ready to smote.

The pictures for sale have pink in them, perhaps because of the flash camera reflection. The figure is in shocking marble white, no gray. The eyes being marble white don’t really zing. It is the one Michelangelo in Rome which is easily accessible other than the Campidoglio steps and square.

Pope Innocent X (1650)

Velazquez, Pope Innocent XThen past Mussolini’s speaking pulpit in the Piazza Venezia to the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, the cloistered cool delight. There, to visit Pope Innocent X by Velázquez. I first knew Innocent in 1954. He’s not changed much since. Still irascible, cantankerous – his eyes and his eyebrows bristle irritation.

Pope Innocent X, extraordinarily ugly – so much so it was considered to be a block to his papal ambitions. A 76 year old with the bearing, voice and complexion of an adolescent. A man mistrustful of others. Tenacious, tireless, cunning as a rat behind an outhouse.

When Innocent first saw the painting he recoiled in horror saying, “Il troppo verro” – it’s too real.

I notice this time that the white linen of his laced white gown sets off a ringed hand at first blush effeminate then upon reflection an iron grapple.

The ruddy red, awash throughout the painting, the colour of blood, sets off against the agate eyes, mean, quick, nothing but nothing escapes this cat.

We walk on the soft wooden parquet floor to the tea room. Coffee and vino bianco in the tea room, quaint with flowers and whispered service.

As we go out, I stop to lovingly caress Caravaggio’s early Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1597)

Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into EgyptBack to the Raphael for sleep. Then up to visit a Brueghel exhibition behind the hotel in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pace cloister. The church is the best small baroque church (along with Saint Ivo in Sapienza) in Rome.
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pace
The Brueghel show is interesting yet a bit misleading. There is not a single Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the show. It is about his two sons, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, with his son Jan Brueghel the Younger. Notice the King of the family spelt his name without the “h”, although galleries don’t acknowledge it.

Pieter the Younger slavishly copied his father in theme and style. He was very successful in his time. But Jan, the other son, became known as Jan the Velvet. He was an expert on flowers and often worked with Rubens who did the bodies. A profusion of flowers, was a hit in the lowlands of the time. Some of his drawings and etchings are magnificent in their quiet understatement and fastidious detail. Entrancing.

Back to the hotel through the covered alleyway where a 50 year old man plays a bass viola, it’s mellow strings reverberating off the alley walls. He starts in to Beethoven’s Ninth!

I reserve for the Titian show which promised his Flaying of Marsayas but I doubt they will actually have it.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1558)

The Martyrdom of St LawrenceIt is raining when we arrive at the Scuderie del Quirinale, an irritating wait, a long walk up and we’re in. Bang, I can’t believe it! A huge Martyrdom of St. Lawrence taken from the Chancel of the Gesuiti Church in Venice. I have always heard this was a remarkable work. Years ago I got a glimpse of it in the church but it was dark, dark and all the squinting in the world couldn’t lift the murk.

So imagine, here it is, huge, at least 30’ high, 12’ wide and so clear! St. Lawrence met his end on a burning grid, roasted to death. He apparently said in the end, “My night has no darkness, everything is resplendent with light.”

Up close Lawrence is being manhandled by thugs. One meaty torturer poking him in the ribs with a pitchfork (reminiscent of his later Crowning of Thorns in Munich). The top left of the painting is dark Palladian architecture, but the fire of braziers silhouettes the buildings. Lawrence is wriggling, flames flicker off his hip while his minders are heaving him on the griddle.

Light, here flame explodes, pops and drives the painting, a glorious surprise.

The exhibit proved to be boffo. Both Self Portraits from Madrid and Berlin …

Self Portrait (1567)                                 Self Portrait (1550-1562)


Pope Paul III

Pope Paul IIIPope Paul III without Camauro from Naples (with soft, soft velvet cape), hunkered down, still foxy, still alert, looking for your weakness.

Sir Kenneth Clark, the magnificent English art critic views this as perhaps the greatest portrait of all time. As he is the legendary author of Civilization and the doyen of British culture this is special praise.

This crafty dodger had what could be considered as a speckled family history. Although he may have been the last humanist pope with subtlety and sensitivity, his provenance proved to be suspect, “In many ways he was the last of the humanist Popes. He was cradled in corruption. He was made a cardinal because his sister, known as La Bella, had been the mistress of Alexander Borgia. In culture and in sympathy he was a man of the Renaissance.” [Civilization, Kenneth Clark, British Broadcasting Corporation and John Murray, 1971, p. 118]

Ranuccio Farnese (1542)
Titian (1490-1576)

Ranuccio FarneseThe sitter but 12 years old. Originally, a source had said he was already a soldier and was to have a military career.

I discover later that the lad was not to be part of the military but was to be a cardinal. At 12 years of age he was made religious director of San Giovanni dei Forlani, an important property belonging to the Knights of Malta. He became cardinal of Santa Lucia in Sicily at the age of 15. He was an ecclesiastic prodigy and the grandson of Pope Paul III. He died at 35.

Does it make any difference when you look at this portrait whether the young lad is a soldier or soon to be cardinal?

Sister Wendy sees in the young face of a child in a powerful ambitious family which expected much of him, “a mixture of hope, fear and expectation”. Already he has the Maltese Cross.

I see just plain young and a quizzical uncertainty.

But the striking part is the candy floss pink of his doublet with its ladder of little petals and subdued buttons, reaching a near white pink under his chin (13 of them all inviting you to touch).

Portrait of Doge Francesco Venier
Titian (1485-1576)

Portrait of Doge Francesco VenierPortrait of Doge Francesco Venier from the Thyssen-Bornemisza (soon to die and the taped curator plays up his weakness, but I see a wily strong old bugger).

A doge, just another doge (elected 1554, he died in 1556). The russet gold patterned robe with huge gold bauble buttons, with a cranberry red belt, gives the illusion of butterfly wings. But see the size of the sitter’s ringed left hand – huge. The picture of Venice on the left – clouds and sail. Then the face – a blotchy red nosed gimlet eyed hawk, eying the viewer with a doubting, yet piercing gaze.



Danae from Naples (not as dark or murky as I remember but, oh my, she has a sappy look on the cusp of lust!) …

and at the end …

The Flaying of Marsyas (1570-1576)

The Flaying of Marsyas

Big, big – 84” x 83”. I am worried my art book submitted last week will have missed the boat on this painting as I have never actually seen it until now.

Sister Wendy Beckett thinks Titian is the greatest painter in the world in his later works, and this she picks as the greatest Titian ever painted. She sees in it a spiritual meaning. At first blush, this is difficult to comprehend. How can it be so? This is an impressionistic picture of pagan mythical savagery. She says in 1,000 Masterpieces of Western Art,

Apollo golden and beautiful, with exquisite care, cuts away at the satyr’s skin. Marsyas hangs in agony, and yet if we look at his face, his lips are curled in a beatific smile. The true artist, as Marsyas was, aims at godlike status and will give his life if that is what art demands. Marsyas knows that he has had this privilege.

Interesting, if she hadn’t written it, this would never have occurred to me. She also sees the lady violinist on the left as the young artist embarking on a career, unaware that she might challenge the greatest as Marsyas did.

This painting may have been inspired by an actual flaying. Here is the historical base: In 1571, the Turks were fighting the Venetians and winning. A Venetian-controlled city fell and surrendered. There were terms. The Turks reneged and actually flayed the Venetian representative. He was alive watching the flaying until it reached his chest. Then he popped. The Turks presented the skin to the Sultan. In October 1571, thanks to the Doge Venier, the Turkish fleet was defeated at Lepanto. Later the Venetians raided and snatched the skin back. It was placed in an urn in the Venetian church. This sets the scene for Titian. It is not just one of savagery but of self-sacrifice just before the great victory at Lepanto in 1571.

The mythical base is this: Apollo, the God of Music, was offended by the arrogance of Marsyas, a satyr (part human, part animal, who lives in the forest and loves wine and sensual pleasures) who boasted of his excellence as a reed (oboe or flute) player. According to fable, Minerva invented the flute and played upon it to the delight of the celestial auditors, but the mischievous urchin, Cupid, having dared to laugh at the queer face which the Goddess made while playing, caused Minerva to throw the instrument indignantly away. It fell down to earth and was found by Marsyas. He blew upon it and drew from it such ravishing sounds that he was tempted to challenge Apollo himself to a musical contest. Apollo of course triumphed and punished Marsyas by flaying him alive.

Dante used the myth of Marsyas as a symbol of purification. So Titian’s work was an expression of what one is willing to suffer for one’s goals. Maybe Sister Wendy was right after all.

The victory of Apollo represents an artistic allegory — the triumph of divine art, being the stringed instrument, over natural art, the wind instrument. There are perhaps two Apollos in the picture, one back left with violin (an x-ray shows there was under it a fully developed figure with
a lyre) and one on the lower left with a scraping knife — its laurel crown is an emblem of Apollo. The reed instrument of Marsyas is replaced by a panpipe.

The sitting gowned man on the right is a representation of Midas (and also perhaps a self-portrait as it is similar to Titian’s self-portrait in the Prado), who was a judge of a music contest between Pan, who invented the syrinx, a wind instrument made by joining reeds together side by side, and Apollo. He favoured Pan, a big mistake. In revenge, Apollo makes King Midas grow donkey ears.

As I stand before this very large painting all the intellectual theories vanish. The flaying of the Venetian envoy created public revulsion and hatred. This work captures brutal savagery.

The blood spatters down on Marsayas’ bicep, a little dog nearby to lick the drippings. In Marsayas’ eye one tiny dot of white in the pupil, a label of horror.

A painting on the same subject “flaying” which is the most spine tingling blood curdling yelper is Gerard David’s The Flaying of Sisamneo (1498) Bruges, Groeninge Museum. Men carving off leg and arm skin as if carefully skinning a deer. And the victim, torpor and all appears alive. Once seen, even for a second, it terrifies and the image burns.

Then by luck a cab and off to a wonderful dinner at Clemente near the hotel.