This morning we took a long taxi ride to the top of one of Rome’s hills, the Pincian Hill, to the world-class museum, The Gallery Borghese. The Pincian Hill lay outside the original city walls, but was home to many wealthy suburban Romans.
This museum is located in the former Villa Borghese “outside Porta Pinciana.” The former villa was located on vast lands, which are now a massive public park, the Villa Borghese Gardens.
“The splendor of the archaeological marbles was echoed by the extraordinary novelty of the “modern” statuary, in constant competition with the classical models: from 1615 to 1623 the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini executed for the cardinal the famous sculptural groups still preserved today in the Museum: the Amalthea Goat , Aeneas and Anchises , the Rape of Proserpina , David , Apollo and Daphne.” (from the Galleria Borghese website)
We marveled at Gian Lorenzo (or Gianlorenzo) Bernini’s Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, sculpted when he was only 20. Quite a masterpiece for someone so young. “Bernini’s inspiration for the work was the Aeneid, the Latin epic poem which tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who left his home city and eventually ended up in Italy, where he became a progenitor of the Roman people.
The precise scene depicted is the moment when Aeneas carries his father, the elderly Anchises, and his son Ascancius from Troy, after it has been sacked by the Greek army. In his hand, Anchises carries a vessel with his ancestors’ ashes, on the top of which are two tiny statues of Di Penates, Roman household gods.”
Next, we viewed Gian Lorenzo (or Gianlorenzo) Bernini’s (1598-1680) The Rape (Abduction) of Proserpina, completed in 1622, when the great sculptor was only 23:
“The work depicts the abduction of Proserpina by the hand of Pluto, god of the Underworld.
The myth, present both in Claudiano ( De raptu Proserpine ) and in Ovid ( Metamorphosis , V, 385-424), tells of the kidnapping of the girl on the shores of Lake Pergusa, near Enna. The mother Ceres, goddess of the harvest, mad with pain, reduced the earth to drought, forcing Jupiter to intercede with Pluto to allow the young woman to return to her for six months a year.
Bernini represents the culminating moment of the action: the proud and insensitive god is dragging Proserpina into Hades, the muscles are tense in the effort to support the wriggling body, so much so that Pluto’s hands sink into her flesh. In creating this subject, Bernini looks at the virtuosity of the sculptors of the Mannerist era. But the truth of the action, sought through the profound study of ancient models, the plastic strength, the expressive intensity of the girl, are not reflected in contemporary works. The freedom of invention is made possible by the absolute mastery of the technique, pushed to the point of touching the physical limits of marble.” (from the Galleria Borghese website)
Another magnificent work by Bernini, David, completed in 1624, contrasts greatly with the other great David, finished in 1504, that by the renaissance artist, Michelangelo, housed in the Galleria Accademia in Florence. Michelangelo‘s David is intellectualized – he is seen contemplating the action he is about to take against the giant, Goliath, whereas Bernini‘s David is caught in the tense moment before he fires his slingshot, bringing down the giant.
“Compared to earlier works on the same theme (notably the David of Michelangelo), the sculpture broke new ground in its implied movement and its psychological intensity.” (from the Galleria Borghese website) “For one thing, the sculpture is no longer self-contained, but interacts with the space around it. Not since the sculptures of the Hellenistic period, such as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, had sculptures been involved in their surroundings like those of Bernini. A likely source for Bernini’s figure was the Hellenistic Borghese Gladiator. The motion of the gladiator preparing to attack is similar to how David is swinging his sling. Another difference lies in the moment that Bernini has chosen to depict. Michelangelo‘s David differs from those of Donatello and Verrocchio in that it shows David preparing for the battle, rather than victorious afterwards. Bernini, on the other hand, chose to portray David in the act of throwing the stone. This represented a novelty; throwing figures were extremely rare in post-Antiquity sculptures.” (from David on the Wikipedia website)
Another phenomenal sculpture in the Gallery Borghese by Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, completed in 1625 – “When Phoebus (Apollo), fated by Cupid‘s love-exciting arrow, sees Daphne, the maiden daughter of Peneus, a river god, he is filled with wonder at her beauty and consumed by desire. But Daphne has been fated by Cupid’s love-repelling arrow and denies the love of men. As the Nymph flees he relentlessly chases her—boasting, pleading, and promising everything.” (from the Apollo and Daphne entry on Wikipedia)
The frozen moment contained in this masterpiece is awesome, as the god and goddess are captured in motion, with hair flowing and muscles flexing.
There were also Roman sculptures on display, most notably Cavaspina, apparently of a young boy pulling a thorn from his foot. Another room had a complete Roman mosaic floor, depicting battle scenes and a warrior fighting a tiger.
The Gallery Borghese was also home to some amazing paintings, most notably those of the troubled, brawl-loving painter, Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio. Displayed were masterworks such as Saint Jerome Writing (1606), David with the head of Goliath (1610), Self-portrait as (sick) Bacchus (1607) and Boy with a basket of fruit (1593).
In Saint Jerome Writing, the painting depicts Saint Jerome, a Doctor of the Church in Roman Catholicism and a popular subject for painting, even for Caravaggio, who produced other paintings of Jerome in Meditation and engaged in writing. In this image, Jerome is reading intently, an outstretched arm resting with quill. It has been suggested that Jerome is depicted in the act of translating the Vulgate.” (from Wikipedia)
For David with the head of Goliath, “the immediate inspiration for Caravaggio was a work by a follower of Giorgione, c.1510, but Caravaggio captures the drama more effectively by having the head dangling from David’s hand and dripping blood, rather than resting on a ledge. The sword in David’s hand carries an abbreviated inscription H-AS OS; this has been interpreted as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam (“humility kills pride”)” (from Wikipedia)
Two more works by the brilliant Caravaggio were Boy with a basket of Fruit (1594) and Self-Portrait as (sick) Bacchus (1591).
There was also on display a fantastic self-portrait, by Bernini at age 25, painted in 1623. It is amazing how talented Bernini was, both as a master sculptor and as a painter. There was also another self-portrait of Bernini, aged around 40.
There was a Renaissance painting of the Colosseum overgrown with vines that I liked.
After the Galleria Borghese, we strolled through the vast Villa Borghese Gardens, downhill toward the ancient city wall of Rome. Soon, we found ourselves at the top of the Spanish Steps. This is where Rome started to feel really crowded. There were people sitting everywhere on the steps, enjoying the bright spring day.
At the base of the steps was Bernini‘s fantastic fountain, Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat), completed 1629. The fountain is fed by the Roman aqueduct, 19 B.C., Acqua Vergine.
The sculptural fountain is made into the shape of a half-sunken ship with water overflowing its sides into a small basin. The source of the water comes from the Acqua Vergine, an aqueduct from 19 BCE. “Bernini built this fountain to be slightly below street level due to the low water pressure from the aqueduct. Water flows from seven points of fountain: the center baluster; two inside the boat from sun-shaped human faces; and four outside the boat. According to legend, as the River Tiber flooded in 1598, water carried a small boat into the Piazza di Spagna. When the water receded, a boat was deposited in the center of the square, and it was this event that inspired Bernini’s creation.” (from Wikipedia)
“Under the pontificate of Innocent XIII, and with the direction of the Roman architect Francesco De Santis , the Spanish Steps (1723-26) were built, a scenic link between the slopes of the Pincio , dominated by the church of SS. Trinity , and the underlying Piazza di Spagna , which was a meeting place for all citizens. In fact, even today, the staircase is a meeting place, so much so that it is called the ” living room of Rome.”” (from the http://www.turismoroma.it/ website)
From the Spanish Steps we continued on to the Trevi Fountain – Terminal exhibition of the Vergine aqueduct, constructed in 19 B.C. , the only one of the ancient aqueducts continuously in use to this day, it is the best known of the Roman fountains. “In the center dominates the statue of Oceano driving the shell-shaped chariot, pulled by the angry horse and the placid horse, held back by two tritons.” This spot was extremely crowded as well, mobbed even, for it was next to impossible to get to the water’s edge.
From the Trevi Fountain, we followed Google Maps on my iPhone through the ancient streets of Rome, to finally find ourselves face-to-face with a Roman masterpiece, the Pantheon, constructed by the Emperor Hadrian, in 126 A.D. and still in use to this day. Along the way we passed many interesting old buildings, especially an extant Roman temple facade in front of a modern building.
“The building is cylindrical with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon‘s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43 metres (142 ft)” (from Wikipedia)
The thickness of the reinforced concrete at the base of the dome is 21 feet, while the thickness at the very top of the dome is 4 feet. “At its thickest point, the aggregate is travertine, then terracotta tiles, then at the very top, tufa and pumice, both porous light stones. At the very top, where the dome would be at its weakest and vulnerable to collapse, the oculus actually lightens the load.”
“The grey granite columns that were actually used in the Pantheon‘s pronaos were quarried in Egypt at Mons Claudianus in the eastern mountains. Each was 11.9 metres tall, 1.5 metres in diameter, and 60 tonnes in weight. These were dragged more than 100 km (62 miles) from the quarry to the river on wooden sledges. They were floated by barge down the Nile River when the water level was high during the spring floods, and then transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman port of Ostia. There, they were transferred back onto barges and pulled up the Tiber River to Rome. After being unloaded near the Mausoleum of Augustus, the site of the Pantheon was still about 700 metres away. Thus, it was necessary to either drag them or to move them on rollers to the construction site.” (from Wikipedia)
From the marvelous Roman edifice, the Pantheon, we continued through the narrow Roman streets to the Piazza Navona. “Three fountains decorate the square: the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) , so named for the statue of the Ethiopian fighting with a dolphin, the Fontana de ‘Calderari, also known as the Fountain of Neptune , both works by Giacomo della Porta and, in the center, the imposing Fountain of the Four Rivers , the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
“The Piazza Navona Fountain of the Four Rivers is imagined as a large travertine cliff, carved out of a cave with four openings, which supports the granite obelisk recovered from the Circus of Maxentius on the ancient Appian Way. On the corners of the cliff are placed the monumental marble statues of the four rivers representing the continents then known: the Danube for Europe, with the horse; the Ganges for Asia, with the oar and the dragon; the Nile for Africa, with the veiled cape (allusion to unknown sources) associated with the lion and the palm; the Rio della Plata for America with one arm raised and an armadillo beside it. On the high part of the cliff there are two large marble coats of arms of the pope’s family with the dove carrying an olive branch in its beak, and the same dove, in bronze, is placed at the top of the obelisk.” (from Wikipedia)
This evening we ate at an authentic Roman taverna, La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, on the next street over from our apartment, just off the Roman Forum. It was a warm, welcoming and cozy taverna, and we spent a good two hours eating there. Mandy had the delicious Gnocchi al Ragù Bianco dish and I had a mussels and prawns dish over pasta and broad beans, Pacchero Cozi e Pecorino, which was spectacular. The wine was spectacular as well. For dessert we had the Torta Caprese di Ciocollato e Mandorle – “The Caprese Cake is a typical Neapolitan dessert of the Island of Capri made with dark chocolate and almonds , with a very soft heart and a heavenly taste!”