Jeffrey Carson: December in Rome

12, February 2009 § 3 Comments


Part 3 of 3

On Saturday Jane, Liz, and I (John was out with his son) took bus #23 along the lungotevere and crossed the Tiber, a pretty ride.  We exited near the Castel Sant’ Angelo and crossed the bridge. A short walk found us at San Salvatore in Lauro, a Baroque church we had not visited before.  The crypt has been fixed up as an exhibition space. The exhibition was “Visions of the Grand Tour from the Hermitage 1640-1880”.  A few people waited with us for the 10:00 opening, and the ticket lady got easily confused.  The paintings were not the greatest, but there were many good pieces by Hubert Robert, Magnasco, and others of that kidney; there was even a Claude.  The subject matter, views of Rome, was in itself a pleasure, and we easily passed an hour-and-a-half. “Minor painters” doesn’t mean “bad painters”, and there was much to please the eye.

The day was pretty and we walked back through old streets new to us, and met John and Gabriel.

In the afternoon we returned to Bellini – again, first floor, coffee, second floor – and easily spent several more hours admiring his genius.  Technical master that he is, it is finally his humanity, wisdom, clarity, luminosity, and generosity of spirit that hold one. It was hard to leave, to bid farewell to some masterpieces probably forever.  But many we are sure to see again.

Back at the hotel we bade goodbye to Adrian, and then went to dinner at Al Pompiere, one of our regular restaurants and once the ghetto’s firehouse, half a block from the hotel. I had  fried artichokes (a ghetto specialty), grilled sweetbreads, and puntarella (a crispy green) with an anchovy dressing.

On Sunday morning we went to pick up our machine from San Eustachio. Then bought materials to make it breakproof and handleable.

Then we set off for the Palazzo del Quirinale, which is open only on Sunday mornings, and which contains a fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, part of which is in the Vatican and very beautiful.  We have never managed to get there in time.  A heels-clicking officer informed us politely that the palace was closed a month for the holidays: curses, foiled again.

But it was a beautiful day, so we went for a long walk.  When we reached the Pantheon we went in.  Usually when we are there in September it is so crowded as to be unbearable.  Now there were no more than a dozen people inside, and we renewed our long acquaintance with one of the world’s most noble, soaring, and amazing (it leaves you amazed) interior spaces.  We nodded to Raphael in his tomb.

After the requisite coffee, we went to the Museo Barracco, which has reopened after years of restoration.  We were the only ones there.  It contains a private collection of antique sculpture (Assyrian, Egyptian, Cypriot, Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek and Roman) which Giovanni Barracco, a rich Calabrese nobleman, donated in 1904. The elegant building is by Antonio da Sangallo from 1516. Naturally, it was the Greek pieces that most interested us.  Liz took plenty of digital snapshots as an aid to memory.  On our way back we stopped into Sant’ Andrea delle Valle, whose dome is so important to the skyline of Rome.  In every church we visited we delighted in the presepio (crèche), for which the Italians have a genius.  The only positively ugly one we saw, with big, inflated, plastic, squat figures, was in the Pantheon.

For fifteen years our favorite place to eat has been Casa Bleve.  Anacleto and his wife Tina Bleve have now retired, and their sons run the fancy place, and two nephews the old wine shop in the Ghetto.  In September we ate at the former, so this time we ate at the latter.  We drank several bottles of fine wine accompanied by plates of cold cuts, cheeses, smoked fish, and salads.  We all felt very happy.  Maybe just one more grappa….

Afterwards we took a long walk to sober up, had our last coffee at San Eustachio, and went back to the hotel to pack.  John and Liz did a great job on making our new bundles portable. For dinner we walked to Trastevere and had a porchetta panino from a street stand.  The streets, as they had been every evening, were animate with strollers.


On Monday we took a van to the airport.  Our flight from Athens to Paros had been cancelled a week before, and we stayed at a hotel near the airport.  The wind was howling as we walked twenty minutes to a taverna, but the local moschato wine was welcoming.

On Tuesday we flew to Paros.  Owing to wind, we weren’t sure that the plane would leave, but when the former mayor – now a politico in Athens – showed up, we knew it would, and the flight was smooth.  We were properly greeted by dog and cats. And our cyclamen plant was putting out new flowers.

Jeffrey Carson: December in Rome

6, February 2009 § Leave a comment


Part 2 of 3

On Thursday, sunny and bright, we took the bus up along the Corso, and then walked a few blocks until we found the Casa di Goethe. Carefully refurbished, it opened a few years ago; this was our first visit. The exhibition was “Italians in Weimar: Italian drawings from the 16th to the 19th centuries.” Our kind of stuff: sheets by Carracci, Rosa, and others whose drawings are often better than their paintings. The permanent collection of Goethe memorabilia – letters, paintings, and such – was also worthy, and we stayed about an hour-and-a-half. Then we walked to the nearby Piazza del Popolo, but the church was closed. We browsed the Christmas stalls in the piazza, stopped into two small churches, and then took the bus, a small electric job, to the Ghetto, where we like an inexpensive little Jewish trattoria, where Liz had braised beef with rughetta and I tripa ala romana.

The previous day we had made reservations to visit the Palazzo Farnese. We had attempted several times in the past to get there, but success evaded us. Our reservation was accepted at the last minute – it is open only Thursday and Sunday afternoons, and one must take a tour in either Italian or French. The palace, the largest in Rome, is a High Renaissance masterpiece by Antonio da Sangallo; the top story and cornice are by Michelangelo. It has been the French embassy since 1874, and is immaculately maintained. When we got there, standing by one of the two fine fountains in the piazza, we realized that we had forgotten our reservation paper, and Gabriel ran back to the hotel to get it and also identification. Our tour was in French, but since we knew whereof our polite and pretty guide spoke, we understood well enough. What a beautiful place, quiet and polished: the “neoclassical” courtyard, the formal garden, the beige stone courtyard with travertine trim, all perfect. Perhaps the highlight is the Camerino frescoed by Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio’s great rival. It is tastefully lit and beautifully decorated, and contains fine classical statues in the niches; the mythological scenes of the Loves of the Gods are a dancing mixture of exuberance and restraint, libidinous and learned. Baroque decorative painting starts here.

We needed a walk. Off to San Eustachio to admire our machine, and to drink a cup. From there we went to San Luigi dei Francesi, which was in restauro, and thence to San Agostino to admire Caravaggio’s moving Madonna di Loreto (the peasant with the dirty feet), Raphael’s Michelangelesque Isaiah, Andrea Sansovino’s lovely marble Madonna and Child with Saint Anne, and Jacopo Sansovino’s fine but ickily venerated Madonna del Parto.

For dinner we all walked to a fancy place near the Farnese. It is fashionable and lively and has good food. Liz had tonno carpaccio and scallopini di limone. I had two-color pasta with ceci and clams. Fresh frutti di bosco suited all for dessert, and a Sicilian white wine proved extremely refreshing. The gently twinkling Christmas lights strung over many street of the Centro Storico echoed our mood accurately.

Back in the room, I thought to put the television on after I lay down, but fell asleep before I managed it. Liz was already asleep.

Friday again was sunny. Liz and I strolled about the Campo. Later, we went, mostly by bus, to the new Museo di Corso to see a great exhibition: “From Rembrandt to Vermeer: Civil values in 17th century Flemish and Dutch painting”. The museum is another refurbished old palazzo. There were two paintings by Rembrandt, a couple by Rubens, a couple by De Hoogh (one a masterpiece), and the general level was very high. They all came from Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, and among them was Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace, a masterpiece of the geometry of light. Elegantly dressed, she admires herself in a mirror on the wall. One of Vermeer’s great ones, it can be quietly contemplated for a long time. This was a perfect show for us, for it does not compete in the mind with Bellini – the sensibility is too different.

We went for a walk, and ended up at a shop where Jane had purchased a blouse on the preceding day. Liz bought a silk scarf. The shop’s owner took us to his girlfriend’s little restaurant, where we had lunch. We spoke Greek with her, who lived much of two decades in Rhodes. Liz and Jane had beef with various pâtés, I had a voluptuous crostone, and John had tiny gnocchi. After a walk past the Trevi fountain, we indulged in gelato at Giolitti.

John had booked tickets for a 5:00 o’clock concert in Sant’ Agnese, Borromini’s undulating church on the Piazza Navona. The church has been renovated, and though small feels spacious and sparkling; the over-the-top statuary is by Algardi’s followers. The concert was in Borromini’s sacristy, which has just reopened. An excellent Norwegian violinist played a Bach Partita, then a virtuosic modern piece, and then, accompanied by an Italian pianist, the Franck sonata, which I always enjoy, vulgar though it be.

We ate at an old favorite, Da Sergio, where I had boiled beef and cicoria. O.K., I admit it, I had another gelato for dessert.

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.

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14, October 2008 § Leave a comment

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