Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Villa Borghese and Gallery of Modern Art, Rome, 3.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 10, 2007

We got up bright and early for our visit to the Villa Borghese, and enjoyed a stroll around the gardens while we waited for the gallery to open. Admittance is restricted to 360 people at a time, and they are very strict about the timing, so it is a very pleasant experience and one can see things properly, without a crowd around to spoil it. This was one of our best experiences in a gallery: no dreary queues and the opportunity to take our time and really enjoy it.

We bought a guide book so that we could work our way through the rooms, identifying the allegories on the ceilings, and then the paintings around the walls and the sculptures – everywhere! Cardinal Scipio Borghese (nephew of Pope Paul V) intended this villa to upgrade the importance of Rome, at a time when it was not the capital. (Italy wasn’t even a united country then, of course. Unification didn’t occur till the middle of the 19th century, when Garibaldi led the campaign to oust the assorted occupiers of the Italian states and unite them under Vittorio Emanuele in 1861. Rome and Venice were the last to join, in 1871.) Naturally, celebrating a reinvigorated Rome with magnificent artworks inspired by classical Rome meant that he himself became associated with the power of the Ancient Roman Empire (and boosted his ego). At least he had good taste!

Some people think that Bernini is too florid, but I love his sculptures. My favourites were the lifesize Daphne being turned into a laurel tree as she is pursued by Apollo in the Room of Apollo and Daphne; and The Rape of Proserpina in the Room of the Emperors. They are so lifelike that you can even see the indentations of Pluto’s hand pressing into the marble Proserpina, and Daphne’s fingers, transformed into leaves, seem like a natural extension of her body. They are magnificent.

There are fabulous paintings by Caravaggio too. They are in the Room of Silenus, and we were lucky that the ones we wanted to see were not on loan to other galleries. These treasures included Madonna of the Palafrenieri, a stunning self-portrait of the artist as Il Bacchino Malato, and most interesting of them all, St Jerome, old and scrawny but still hard at work on his scriptures while Death grins at him close by.

 From the villa, we then walked through beautiful parklands in search of the Temple of Diana and the lake. The temple was designed to look like an ancient ruin, and it’s very convincing. (Apparently there are also statues of Byron, Goethe and Victor Hugo but we’ll have to see if we can find them next time.) After getting just a little bit lost, (because the gardens are extensive) we found ourselves at – of all things – an enchanting Lost Dogs Home, called La Valle dei Cuccioli. It was such  a contrast to the LDH in North Melbourne (they do their best, but it is rather grim and forbidding in appearance) that it took us a while to work out what it was – there were cheery murals on the walls, and play places for the puppies, and a beautifully landscaped little lake with ducks. The dogs were captivating of course, especially to doglovers like us. By now I was really missing Sapphire and Chifley (who were, of course, being spoilt rotten by Aunty Glenda at home), and Tim was too, though he pretended not to.

From there we crossed the road to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. To us, modern art means 20th century art, but ‘modern’ in Rome means something different, and this gallery is devoted to works from the 18th and 19th century, though there are some from later on. It has works by Kandinsky, Cézanne, Modigliani, and there were many fine Italian impressionists that were unfamiliar to us. We saw Monet’s Water Lilies there, and also a charming portrait of The Bellelli Family by Degas, which is normally at the Musee D’Orsay. Most memorable was one which featured a couple seated in armchairs, with archaelogical monuments growing organically out of their bodies and the chairs. It’s ambigous, becuase it depicts people supported and enriched by their ancient Roman culture – but also burdened and taken over by it. If anyone reading this blog knows the name of this work or its artist, please let us know!

Another fantastic genre we hadn’t seen before was fascist art. These paintings were the response of artists to Mussolini’s regime from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and they are very striking. The most impressive was a massive mural of machine-like men arranged in rows one above the other, with Mussolini sternly overseeing his domain from the top. With some of these works it was easy to tell that they were not too impressed with the regime, but others appeared to embrace it whole-heartedly.

The sculptures were wonderful – a great gallery of the usual Roman gods, all conveniently labelled so that for once I could identify them easily. There was an enchanting one of a mother smiling fondly at her babe, and two superb small ones, of a conscript leaving, and then coming back home. Unlike the galleries in London and France, Italian galleries do not always seem to have inexpensive postcards of these interesting works of art for tourists to buy, and the rather expensive souvenir guide didn’t have pictures of the things I wanted to remember.

This gallery also has a very good restaurant, Cafe d’Arte, with most amiable waiters, who carved our turbot with great ceremony and aplomb! It was delightful to sit there in the peaceful sunshine, reflecting on our adventures, and dining on delicious food served with the usual excellent Italian wine.

Once again, we had a rest at the hotel, and then went out in the late afternoon to visit the Pantheon. Learning about it in books at university doesn’t prepare one for the experience of visiting a building that was built by the Emperor Hadrian in the second century but is still is daily use, not just by tourists but for regular worship in the parts that are roped off. Now, the ‘temple of all the gods’ hosts shrines from the Tomb of Raphael to the kings of modern Italy, and there are numerous chapels lined with wondrous artworks, but the dome, and its central hole providing the only light, is just as it was. It’s an enormous space, and it was full of people, but there was only a soft echo as they whispered to each other out of respect for the numerous nuns and priests attending mass in one of the chapels. It is a mystical experience to be there, where shafts of light from the dome pierce the gloom just as they did nearly 2000 years ago. I loved it.

From the Pantheon we went on to find Piazza Navone. It was full of artists protesting about the mayor removing their right to be there after 35-40 years. I think he may have a point, as the so-called Festival of Reading was just a bookshop under a marquee, and the ‘artists’ were churning out endless cartoons of the tourists. It’s not like Montmartre in Paris, where you can still see artists of some talent actually painting and drawing…

And then, quite by accident because we weren’t looking for it, we discovered the Church of S. Minerva. It’s actually a basilica, and was built (in the 13th century) on the foundations of a temple to Minerva. What a treat! It’s Rome’s only Gothic church, and everywhere you look there are frescoes, statues, paintings, portrait busts, and sarcophagi. The roof, with its soaring arches and frescoes of St Thomas Aquinas (by Lippi) is breathtaking. Fra Angelico’s tomb was there, (along with a couple of popes) as well as Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross, still chastely covered to suit the prudes.

Rome by night is wonderful!

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One Response to “Villa Borghese and Gallery of Modern Art, Rome, 3.11.05”

  1. […] seen a bit of fascist art in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, but like most westerners, I suppose, we’ve interpreted it as propaganda.  Well, so it is, […]

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