Jeffrey Carson: December in Rome
2, February 2009 § 2 Comments
Part 1 of 3
Students and friends have been asking how our December trip to Rome went. Here’s how.
On Tuesday, December 16th, on a fine day, John, Jane, Gabriel, Liz, and I flew from Paros to the Athens airport; the sea was rough below, but the flight was smooth. After a few hours wait and our last bad coffee for a week, we flew to Rome, where a preordered car took us to the Hotel Arenula, where we also stay with students.
Lazio had just drowned in a week of furious rain, and it was feared the Tiber would flood its banks. Rain was predicted, but did not come, and we enjoyed clement weather.
We went to dinner for a Roman pizza near the Piazza Navona. Proper Roman pizza has thin, crisp, curling crust, and needs to be eaten before it turns soggy. Mine was topped with quattro formaggi and rughetta (the Tuscan spelling is ruchetta, in Naples it is rucola, and in America, oddly, arugula).
Afterwards we went for a long evening walk. The city was humming with life, Christmas lights were twinkling, and on the Piazza Navona stalls were set up selling Christmas knickknacks – such vulgarization, while animated, is perhaps not the best idea for the beautiful piazza. Also, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers was out of restoration (our September students missed it), and many details formerly suppressed by grime were now evident.
On Wednesday, after our early hotel breakfast – the breakfast lady, whom we have known for twenty years, makes good espresso and provides an early morning weather report – we walked to the Tiber to ascertain the damage. The river ran brown with soil, logs floated by, the lower sidewalks were deeply inundated, a boat was completely ruined. No riparian booths this Christmas.
What a pleasure to be strolling through la città eterna! We went to the Chiesa Santo Pellegrini, a strong, simple, dirty, Baroque edifice spared the ornamentation that usually renders Baroque churches simultaneously overbearing and flighty, and inspected various fine palazzi and ancient survivals. After an espresso, we reached the imposing Chiesa Nuova, with its heavy façade. The inside is of majestic proportions, but Baroque decoration – all that gilding – trivializes it. The main attraction is the three huge altarpiece paintings made by Rubens, when as a young man he spent eight years in Rome to learn the secrets of the Italian masters, and did learn them, as evident here.
We took a bus part of the way to the hotel and met up with John, Jane, Gabriel, whence we took a cab to the Quirinale hill to see the Bellini exhibit, ostensibly our reason for going to Rome: we all love him. The show was in the Scuderie, or Pope’s stables, built in 1732. Refurbishing ancient and crumbling buildings into modern exposition spaces is an Italian specialty. The Scuderie, the Palazzo del Quirinale, and the Palazzo della Consulta compose a noble urban space, at the center of which rises an obelisk and the huge, damaged statues of the Dioscuri. Roman and Baroque are the city’s two dominant artistic periods.
The exhibition was on two floors. We spent an hour-and-a -half on the first, then sat for a coffee in the caffè, then spent another hour-and-a-half on the second floor. Former student Adrian Eisenhower joined us.
Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) started as the student of his father Jacopo, whose drawings formed the basis for Venetian art, gave the structure to hold shimmering mosaic color into the Renaissance, and let Venice know what Gentile da Fabriano and Masaccio had discovered. His brilliant brother-in-law was Mantegna, whose wiry, intellectual, cool style had a great influence on young Bellini. They both used Jacopo’s drawings, with their immaculate perspective, throughout their careers. But Bellini kept changing, and lived long. When the mysterious Sicilian master Antonello da Messina showed up in Venice in 1473, with a style heavily influenced by the rich color effects of Flemish oils, Bellini, already experimenting with oils, made his works less linear, less dramatic, and more atmospheric, calm, and monumental. Tempera was out. The unobtrusive fusion of colors and atmospheric gradation of tones led him to a serene nobility and moderated sensuality.
All through Bellini’s life his style is intuitive and unanalyzable, with an uncanny genuineness. Indeed I am willing to aver that Bellini, born two decades before Leonardo, arrived at the High Renaissance in his last works. And Leonardo was born more than two decades before Michelangelo and Raphael. Think of the old Venetian, whom tramontane Dürer called the greatest painter in Italy, painting his first females nudes in his eighties! His sensuous color, atmosphere, shadows, and intensities seem delicate, and yet produce monumentality. With a new conception of space and a personal religious sense, he is supreme. He seems to me a profound pantheist, which is not Catholic, or even Christian, and the painting that shows this off best (not in the show), was the one which first impressed me in my distant youth, St. Francis in Ecstasy, in the Frick, which we last visited in June. Did this masterpiece first turn me towards the Italian Renaissance? In old age he was influenced by his students Georgione and Titian.
The show begins with the Pesaro Altarpiece, which we previously saw in, of course, Pesaro, on the way to Urbino in 2006. Here it was better displayed and lit, and the dramatic Vatican panel was in its high place.
I had to force myself not to spend too much time in front of paintings from Venice that I know well and will see again. There were works we had seen only once, and some we had never seen and will likely never see again, and they had to be learned and assimilated now.
A few of the pieces were ill lit, most glaringly the huge Vicenza Altarpiece, which was footlighted to make it seem impressive, a Christmas decoration. Shocking to encounter such insensitivity at the Scuderie.
The Murano Altarpiece, which looked abraded and faded in its home two years ago, looked splendid here: have they cleaned it?
We had to leave sometime. Dazed by so much beauty, profundity, and quiet skill, we took a long walk through the city, and stopped at San Eustachio Il Caffè for a “gran caffè”. Here John astonished us. The unassuming, inconspicuous, crowded café is supposed to serve the world’s best espresso, and does. Well, the caffè is now marketing its own machine, and John bought one for Packs and one for Carsons. How shall we ever get the bulky macchina and box of puffy packets back to Paros?
Lunch: a street pizza slice for us three lads, and bresaola from an alimentari for the ladies. We ate sitting on the rim of the fountain in front of the Pantheon. More strolling.
Adrian joined us all for dinner at one of our regular eateries in Trastevere. The area was hopping with strollers and the bars and restaurants seemed full. Liz, Jane, and Gabriel had steaks, John had venison, and I had quail. The grill-master is a genius. We passed around a bowl of wild mushroom soup and other delicacies. On our walk back, the city was throbbing with strollers. I tried to image a richer day, but could not.