The Rome Palazzo You Have to Visit… By May

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.

Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).

And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.

Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.

Now, you can… or almost.

Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)

My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.

Venus Kallipygos in the Naples Archaeological Museum, currently at Palazzo Farnese, rome

That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.

As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.

Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:

Cyclops Polyphemus in Annibale Carracci's frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.

The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.

And if you’re still not convinced the Palazzo Farnese is worth beelining too — let me repeat, before it closes to the public once more — check out The Economist’s enthusiastic take on the Mostra Palazzo Farnese. (After all, if The Economist says it, it must be true).

Continue Reading

Rome’s Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?

Boxer, ancient statue at Palazzo Massimo, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Massimo, then — even if you’ve seen the ancient statues in the Vatican and the ruins in the Forum — you haven’t seen the best of Rome’s archaeological finds.

(Note: This post was updated with current information in April 2017).

At this museum around the corner from the Termini train station, you’ll find some of Rome’s most famous bronze and marble sculptures — and then some. Treasures like ancient mosaics. Elaborately-carved sarcophagi. Incredibly-preserved frescoes taken from some of Rome’s most opulent ancient villas. Even the super-cool Fasti Praenestini, an enormous marble calendar set up in the forum of a nearby town.
Fasti Praenestini, ancient Roman calendar, Palazzo Massimo

First things first, though: Palazzo Massimo’s two most famous statues. I first encountered “The Boxer” in a college art history class. And lemme tell you, it’s even better in person. You can practically feel the exhaustion and melancholy emanating from the first-century B.C. bronze, slumping after his (unsuccessful?) match. Both this piece (above), and the magnificently-muscled “Prince,” were found at the Baths of Constantine in 1885.

But those aren’t the only (rightfully famous) ancient statues. The collection boasts not one, but two, ancient Roman copies of the 5th-century B.C. “Discobolus” (that super-classical athlete tossing a disc). Several beautiful Venuses. A statue of Augustus in the hooded guise of Pontifex Maximus.

And, from about 200 A.D., this fantastic sarcophagus:

Portonaccio ancient sarcophagus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome The only sarcophagus I’ve ever seen approaching this one is the Alexander Sarcophagus. That one’s in Istanbul.

As much as I could go on and on about the Palazzo Massimo’s sculptures and sarcophagi, though, that’s not the real reason why you should go. The real reason is the ancient fresco collection. Not just because it’s fantastic, but because the museum has a whole section devoted to the Villa of Livia, Augustus’ wife. (Confused? Maybe it’s because I just wrote about the House of Livia and said that you can see it, and its frescoes, on Palatine Hill until March 30. But this is her other house, the one at Prima Porta).

Better yet, it’s set up more or less like the villa itself. So you can actually see how the rooms would have looked — complete not just with the frescoes on the walls, but delicate, detailed molding on the ceiling and mosaics on the floors.
House of Livia frescoes at Palazzo Massimo

One of my favorite rooms, though, is this one, taken from the ancient Villa Farnesina:

Garden frescoes of Villa Farnesina

Pretty sweet. Not quite as incredible as the Naples Archaeological Museum… but almost. Since it’s right next to the Termini train station, you have no excuse not to go. I promise you won’t regret it.

Palazzo Massimo is located at Largo di Villa Peretti 1. It’s open every day but Mondays from 9am to 7:45pm; the ticket is €7 adults, €3.50 reduced, and also includes entrances into Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, and Diocletian’s Baths.

Also: the 2,000-year-old sepulchre hidden underground, the “other” Pompeii and Rome’s very own pyramid.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

Continue Reading

Now at the Borghese Gallery: The Other Renaissance

"Venus and Cupid," Lucas Cranach, in the permanent Borghese collection In Rome, it's the Italian Renaissance that gets the glory. In a city filled with paintings and sculptures by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael, that's how it should be.

But with such larger-than-life pieces, it can — ironically — be easy to forget in Rome just how influential Italy's renaissance was beyond its borders. After all, the importance of the art isn't just that every tourist flocks to the Sistine Chapel to stare at more than 10,000 square feet of fresco. The real question is: Why do they? And, in no small part, it's because the Renaissance launched in Italy would go on to shape art both up until today — and across the entire European realm.

Unless you're stopping in Germany and the Netherlands and England along with Italy, that can be tough to get your mind around on one trip. Until now.

The Galleria Borghese is showing an excellent exhibit on the work of Lucas Cranach. Appropriately titled "Cranach: The Other Renaissance," it brings together, in one space, the pieces of one of the foremost artists of the German Renaissance with Italian Renaissance masterpieces… and the ancient sculptures that inspired both.

Born into the same era as Michelangelo and Raphael, Cranach became a court painter to Saxony's Frederick the Wise in 1504. He would remain a court painter until his death in 1553. With his status, he had access not just to the rulers of the realm, but also to their art — which included pieces from the Italian masters. 

The relationship between his art and that of his Italian peers (or, in many cases, predecessors) is highlighted again and again. There's no looking at his "Primitive Man (The Golden Age)," for example, and not seeing the Florentine Botticeli's "La Primavera," executed some fifty years earlier. (Sadly, Botticelli's piece isn't in the Borghese exhibition, so you'll still have to go to Florence's Uffizi Gallery to get the full picture).

Primitive Man (The Golden Age) by Lucas Cranach, currently in the Galleria Borghese "Primitive Man (The Golden Age)," Lucas Cranach, 1530

Primavera by Botticelli, in Florence "La Primavera," Botticelli, 1482

Even while Cranach drew on Italian models, though, his style was all his own. His figures are less proportionate, the clothing more sumptuous, the messages more moralizing. And his Protestantism — a close friend of Martin Luther, he introduced Luther to his future wife and painted a widely-reproduced portrait of the couple (included in the exhibit) — significantly influenced his paintings, too.

Just take his "Centurion at the Cross," a stark contrast to Pinturicchio's crucifixion scene. Hung side-by-side in the exhibit, the two paintings highlight the widening divide between Luther's followers and the Roman Catholics. Cranach's crucifixion scene is stark, bare, the centurion's sighting of Jesus unmediated by anyone — or anything — else. His conversion is a lonely one, undertaken because of inner faith alone.

The Centurion at the Cross, Cranach, in the exhibition at the Borghese"Centurion at the Cross," Lucas Cranach, 1539

Not so in Pinturrichio's piece. Here, the saints Jerome and Christopher mediate, praying both with — and on behalf of — the viewer. That's exactly what the Protestants rejected.

Crucifixion, Pinturrichio, in the permanent Borghese collection "The Crucifixion," Pinturrichio, 1473

The exhibit isn't perfect. Some of the rooms seem to be reaching: While you could certainly have a conversation about various types of Renaissance portraiture from looking at a line of unrelated portraits of unrelated men, for example, the resulting jumble overwhelms. The exhibit is far clearer, and more effective, when it picks more precise themes to compare.

Still, it's a treat even to just see so much of Cranach's work in one place. You can see both his style developing, and can tell when he hits on a marketable idea — like his "Ill-Assorted Couples," a humorous but moralizing theme he repeated more than 40 times in his workshop's output.

It's neat, too, to see the influence he and other German Renaissance painters may have had on other artists in the collection. Take one of Cranach's "Ill-Assorted Couples," for example, and then take a look at Gerrit van Honhorst's "The Concert" (in the Borghese's permanent collection). Yes, van Honhorst's piece is explicitly Baroque, not Renaissance. Yes, it's Caravaggesque in its realism and dramatic lighting.

But van Honhorst also seems to draw something from his fellow northern painter — particularly in showing a joyful scene debased and warped, both humorously and with a moralizing intent. In Cranach's piece, is the old woman paying off the young man for love? In Honthorst's, is the young woman stealing the man's earring and about to pass it to the old woman behind her? How else are the scenes similar… and how, separated by 100 years and their respective art movements, do they differ?

"Ill-Assorted Couple" by Cranach, at the Borghese exhibit "Ill-Assorted Couple," Lucas Cranach

07concer "Concert," Gerrit van Honhorst, 1623

It's exactly those kinds of conversations you can have at the Borghese's newest exhibit.

"Cranach: The Other Renaissance" is on at the Borghese Gallery until February 13. For more information about the exhibit, click here. For more information on the Borghese, including how to book (you must book in advance), click here. All Borghese tickets include entrance to the Cranach exhibit; the price for a ticket is now €13.50.

 All images above except for "La Primavera," "Venus and Cupid" and "Concert" courtesy of the Borghese Gallery. Images of the other pieces courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.

Continue Reading

The Newly Renovated Palazzo Barberini: The Verdict

Da Cortona's fresco of Divine Providence, Palazzo Barberini
Palazzo Barberini, home both to the powerful clan that produced Pope Urban VIII and to paintings by greats like Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and El Greco, hasn’t been a proper museum in years. Plans to create a central space for its collection were stalled for decades; until 2006, the palazzo even served as an administrative office for the Italian military. Paintings were split between various galleries across Rome, and even more of them remained in storerooms, hidden to the public.

That all changed just a couple of weeks ago.

I paid a visit to the newly-restored Palazzo Barberini today, and all I can say is: what a difference a few more rooms make.

(Note: This post was last updated with current information in April 2017).

The piece-de-resistance of the whole collection long has been Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of Divine Providence (shown above), the fresco on the ceiling of the Grand Salon, mind-boggling for its size, its spot-on execution of trompe l’oeil, and its sheer over-the-top-ness. Under restoration for months, it’s now viewable in all its Baroque glory. A plus: Two comfy, long sofas let you stretch out on your back to take it in without hurting your neck.

But there are other jewels in the collection that are only now being shown off, too. Medieval pieces that had been undisplayed, including 14th-century scenes of crucifixions and sad-eyed Madonnas, now take up several rooms. A hall of landscape paintings includes several sweeping works by Paul Brill. And one room just opened to the public features a rushing fountain, a little piece of indoor theatricality in a time that loved everything unexpected and dramatic in art.

As well as the art itself, the museum experience has improved. A description in English and Italian greets you in each room, giving an overview of how the pieces link together (usually, by period and geography), and the flow of your visit is set up so that you progress from the 14th century all the way up until the 17th. And because there’s more room, the pieces aren’t as crammed in together.

With its new rooms, the Palazzo Barberini should take you about two hours to get through.

The Palazzo Barberini is located just steps from the Barberini metro at Via delle Quattro Fontane, 13. It’s open every day but Monday from 8:30am-7pm, making it an ideal early-evening stop. The entrance price is currently €10. For more on Palazzo Barberini, click here.

Click here for more information about Palazzo Barberini, including on the pieces that have always been the main draws of the collection, like Raphael’s La Fornarina and Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Also: a good reason to head “outside the walls,” books about Italy to put on your must-read list and an answer to the question: is Rome really safe?

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

Continue Reading

The Hagia Sofia: Roman Ruin, and Symbol of a City

Interior of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
nationalism. 

DSC_0235The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).

The current
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.

See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?

You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.

Coronation disk of the Hagia Sofia, IstanbulFor a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)

On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).

Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.

Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.

Dome of the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Dome of the Pantheon, Rome

Continue Reading