(Fun!) Books for Readin’ Up on Rome

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So you're coming to Rome… but you don't know much (or maybe at all!) about its history or art or sites, and the idea of digging into that thick old Rough Guide you've got is less appealing than gelato in a snowstorm. What do you do?

Crack the books — the fun ones, that is.

Really. There are fun books about Rome that you can actually (gasp!) learn from. And even if you don't remember the ins and outs of what you read by the time you get here, hopefully all that educational entertainment will have done something every bit as important: made you excited to see the forum, the Vatican, or whatever it is that you only originally put on your list because, well, it sounded important.

A caveat: I'm only recommending books here that I've read. And I know I'm missing lots of great ones. So, have you read an excellent book or novel about Rome? Put it in the comments!

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King. I still haven't read The Agony and the Ecstasy (I know, I know)… but I have to say that, for me, it'll be hard to beat King's version of the Michelangelo-versus-the-pope knockdown. King is the guy who wrote Brunelleschi's Dome — also a recommendation, if you're heading to Florence. And he has a knack for narrative that will have you hanging on every twist and turn in the Sistine Chapel saga.

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This brand-new take on the woman history loves to hate wasn't quite as groundbreaking as it promised to be. After all, it's hard to completely reset someone's reputation when the only surviving sources about them come from their enemies. Even so, Schiff gets pretty close, trying to shine a light through the sources' (fortunately predictable) biases to illuminate who the real woman would have been. But all that aside, Cleopatra is, on its own, an addictive biography. You know how it all ends, but you can't help turning the page for more, more, more of this confident, extraordinary, anything-but-promiscuous woman Schiff paints for us. Plus, while most of the book deals with Alexandria, its section on what Rome would have looked like to Cleopatra on her visit (in brief: a backwater) is pretty entertaining.

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's, R. A. Scott. She's been slammed for some historical inaccuracies, but there's no denying that Scott's a storyteller. And deserves major kudos for telling the sweeping 200-year history of St. Peter's Basilica with both page-turning speed and colorful details (Michelangelo didn't just "make his escape"; he made it "wrapped in a lavendar cloak the color of dusk, riding headlong against a sharp north wind"). The enormity of the basilica, and its history, here comes compact (less than 300 quick-read pages). That's a downside if you plan to be the next big St. Peter's Basilica expert… but a positive if you don't want your head to hurt.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Adrian Goldsworthy. He's the most famous Roman to have lived, and Goldsworthy does him justice. In this fat (632-page) but readable biography, he delves into the man behind the myth, from the stand-up to Sulla that got the 18-year-old banished from Rome right up to the world-rocking murder… with all of the juicy betrayals, affairs and shenanigans in between. Better yet is Goldsworthy's deftness in contextualizing Caesar and exposing the Republic's "rot". Be warned, there's a lot of detail here, and it might be little much for anyone who's not already drawn to the Roman Republic or Caesar himself. But for geeks like me those who want a real grasp on the guy who changed it all, it's just right.

Rome: The Biography of a City, Christopher Hibbert. For those who want the whole history, told in a relatively comprehensive and non-textbook kind of way, this is the big daddy. Hibbert's book takes you right through from 753 B.C. to the 20th century. It's hefty, but readable — although this is one I wouldn't go for until you're already pretty interested in the city. It also comes with a handy section on the history of individual sites in Rome, even the more minor.

The Smiles of Rome: A Literary Companion for Readers and Travelers, Susan Cahill. If you want something that you can pick up, put down, pick up, put down, look no further. This anthology of works by writers who lived in, or visited, Rome — from Ovid to Fellini, Henry James to John Updike — is full of by turns poignant, cutting, and witty impressions of the city. At the end of each piece, there are suggestions for a walk you can take that incorporates the sites written about.

Next on my list (what should I add?):

Livia, Empress of Rome: A Biography, by Matthew Dennison

The Pope's Daughter: The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere, by Caroline Murphy

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower, by Adrian Goldsworthy

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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).

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Venetian Masters Come to Rome

Bellini's Madonna and Child, currently at Rome's I Grandi Veneti exhibit From Titian to Tintoretto, Bellini to Bassano, some of Italy's greatest masters of painting have been Venetian. But without going to Venice, it can be a little tough to get a sense of the various shapes that Venetian art took on during its peak from the 15th to 18th centuries.

That is, until now.

Through January 30, the Chiostro del Bramante is hosting an exhibit called, simply, "I Grandi Veneti" — the Grand Venetians. More than 80 Venetian paintings are on display, set up chronologically, so you can actually feel how art shifted in Venice over the centuries.

For enthusiasts of Renaissance art, the exhibit has some true gems. Pisanello's Portrait of Lionello d’Este (about 1441) revolutionized portraiture, blending Gothic traditions while giving a nod to the shape that Renaissance portraits would take. There's also Bellini's lovely Madonna and Child (about 1460) (at top), with its mixture of serenity and sumptuousness that the artist would be renowned for, and a gorgeous series of Madonnas by masters like Jacobello di Antonello, Marco Marziale, and Bartolomeo Veneto (1505). The exhibit traces the rest of Venice's 15th and 16th centuries, taking in Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and Lotto along the way. (Below, Lorenzo Lotto's Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, 1523). Lorenzo Lotto, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, at I Grandi Veneti in Rome

The rest of the exhibit — Venice's 17th and 18th centuries' output — has paintings that are probably a little less familiar. That is, except for the ever-ubiquitous Canaletto, whose scenes of the Venetian canals are just as precise and just as lovely in this exhibit as ever. My favorite of this section, though, had to be the simultaneously creepy and tongue-in-cheek Il Ridotto (Maschere Veneziane), done by Pietro Longhi in 1757 — just as criticism of Venice as a "dead" city clinging to her past were ramping up (below). (They still haven't gone away).

Il Ridotto by Pietro Longhi, at I Grandi Veneti in Rome

I Grandi Veneti is at the Chiostro del Bramante until Jan. 30. The Chiostro is at Arco della Pace 5, a stone's throw from Piazza Navona. The exhibit costs €10. For more information, click here.

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Orvieto: An Umbrian Escape from Rome

Orvieto was my first real day trip from Rome. I’ve been partial to it ever since.

But that’s not the only reason why I love Orvieto.

Orvieto is one of Umbria’s many excellent offerings, with the added advantage of being just an hour’s drive or train ride from Rome. It boasts an Etruscan museum, underground tunnels, gorgeous views, great food, and a gorgeous duomo with game-changing frescoes (yes, I just said “game-changing” to refer to Renaissance art). Oh, and those little winding streets, hidden churches and medieval-hilltop-town character that, if you’ve traveled in Umbria before, are ho-hum to you by now.

(Just kidding. This stuff never gets ho-hum. I don’t think).

Part of Orvieto’s unique character comes from its history. Etruscans lived here as early as the 8th century B.C., and you can still see — even touch — the remnants they left behind. Like the tunnels and chambers that they dug into the soft tufa underneath the current city. This underground, which includes some 1,200 caves, passages and chambers, is a labyrinth that reaches several stories deep. Underground caverns at Orvieto

You can explore Orvieto’s underground either by taking a tour of a section of it (tours leave from the piazza of the Duomo, and take you through chambers with wells and olive mills built by the Etruscans), or simply by stumbling onto a section. Like at lunch. Below, the Grotte del Funaro, a restaurant that’s built into underground caverns where locals made rope in the Middle Ages. Le Grotte del Funaro, Orvieto

Don’t miss, either, Orvieto’s two archaeological museums. The National Archaeological Museum, right next to the duomo, boasts delicate bronze hand mirrors, sculpture with the paint traces remaining, and even a full suit of armor. All, you know, about 2,300 years old. The most exciting part, though, is the museum’s two chambers with frescoes taken from 5th century B.C. necropoli discovered nearby. If the rooms aren’t open, ask the guard to let you in. The other archaeological museum, meanwhile, is across from the duomo and has more finds from Orvieto’s prehistoric, Etruscan, and Roman eras.

Then there’s the duomo itself. It’s… well, it’s a masterpiece. Begun in 1290, it’s the epitome of the Italian Gothic style, its exterior elaborate with mosaics, stonework and detailed carvings.
Duomo of Orvieto, exterior

Inside, though, the duomo is something else entirely. For worshipers, it’s most famous for an event said to take place not far from here in 1263: A priest traveling to Rome stopped at Bolsena to pray, and blood started to seep from the consecrated host. The bloodstained linen is still enshrined at the duomo of Orvieto, where it had been brought that year. It’s in the last chapel on the left, with 14th-century frescoes.

But don’t miss, either, the last chapel on the right-hand side, which is where Luca Signorelli painted his Last Judgment in 1499. That’s thirty-six years before Michelangelo would start his own version, and you can see the inspiration Michelangelo took from the older artist: The vibrant, muscular, tortured-looking figures of Signorelli’s frescoes aren’t that far off from what you see in the Sistine Chapel today. Below, his image of the damned, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.The Damned, Luca Signorelli, Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto duomoEtruscan tunnels, medieval duomo, Renaissance frescoes — but there’s more to do in Orvieto, too, whether exploring its myriad other churches or simply wandering through its streets. Don’t miss it.

Orvieto is easy to get to; you can either drive (it’s a straight shot on the highway) or take the train, which takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, depending on the price. Check train times at www.trenitalia.com. Be aware that the train station is at the bottom of the hill, so you will have to take the funicular up to the city.

 

 

 

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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.

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The “Night of Raphael” at the New Palazzo Barberini

La fornarina by Raphael, Palazzo Barberini

After two years, the €5 million restorations at the Palazzo Barberini have finished. To celebrate, the museum is opening its doors to visitors for free on Sunday, September 19.

Called "La Notte di Raffaello" in honor of one of the collection's most famous paintings, Raphael's portrait of La Fornarina or "baker's daughter" (above), the inaugural event should include free guided tours to the public. The event begins at 6pm Sunday, September 19; the exhibit will also be open on Monday, September 20. (It's usually closed Mondays). If you go, particularly make sure to check out the newly-restored fresco by Pietro da Cortona on the ceiling of the Grand Salon.

As of late August, the Palazzo Barberini folks still weren't sure exactly what the opening hours or when the guided tours would be, since they said (apologetically) that work is still continuing on the building. So stay tuned. I'll keep updating this post here as I get more information.

Update, 9/13: The Palazzo Barberini will definitely be open from 6pm till midnight on Sunday, and the Grand Salon will be open. However, they're still unsure about tour times.

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Palazzo Barberini, Rome’s Most Underrated Art Museum

Palazzo Barberini in Rome

Rome’s Palazzo Barberini is one of the best places to go if you’re tired of Rome’s overwhelming art collections (think: Vatican museums), but want to see more of what Rome has to offer. A stunning art museum in a Renaissance palace, it’s an often-overlooked gem in the heart of the city.

Palazzo Barberini boasts works by some of Italy’s best painters: Caravaggio, Raphael, Tintoretto, Bronzino. Its stars include the lush and moving “La Fornarina,” Raphael’s portrait of his lover (and possibly secret wife), the baker’s daughter; Hans Holbein’s famous portrait of King Henry VIII; and Caravaggio’s startlingly realistic — and frightening — Judith Beheading Holofernes (above).

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

For fans of Baroque art, the building alone merits a visit. Started in 1627-1633 by Carlo Maderno with his nephew Francesco Borromini, construction was handed over to Borromini and his soon-to-be-rival Bernini. (Yes, that Bernini. Some of his sculptures are also inside). The palace’s frescoes include Pietro da Cortona’s famous “Allegory of Divine Providence”; a triumph of trompe l’oeil, it literally “tricks the eye” into thinking that the ceiling opens up to show the heavens and tumbling figures. But it’s also a political piece, a tribute to the Barberini family — the powerful clan whose Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII (and started construction on the building).

Palazzo Barberini, an art gallery in the heart of Rome, Italy
An underrated art museum: Palazzo Barberini

But the piece-de-resistance is Pietro da Cortona’s Triumph of Divine Providence, 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 — which benefited from a months-long restoration in 2010 and is now on full and stunning display.

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.

Also: why the Borghese Gallery should also be on your list, the best places for gelato and Rome’s most fascinating archaeological museum.

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.

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Day Trip to Spoleto, an Umbrian Hilltop Town

Picture 1514
Umbria is the undiscovered Tuscany. It has the rolling hills, medieval towns, excellent food, and artistic treasures of its next-door neighbor — but, thanks to the fact that Frances Mayes’ book was not “Under the Umbrian Sun” (although that does have more of a ring to it), tourists haven’t discovered it. Yet.

One of Umbria’s loveliest towns is Spoleto. First settled in the 5th century B.C. by the Umbri tribes, who built the fortified walls that you can still see there today, the town isn’t just beautiful; it’s rich with history.

Rocca Albornoziana in Spoleto, Umbria

Want to see ancient Roman remains? Spoleto boasts two ancient theatres and a bridge, the Ponte Sanguinario, so-called because of the killings of Christians that took place in the theatre next door. How about medieval sites? You couldn’t miss the imposing Rocca Albornoziana, a 14th-century castle, if you tried, nor the Ponte delle Torri — a striking 13th-century aqueduct that might have been built into ancient foundations (shown above).

And that’s not to mention the surprising number of medieval churches for what feels like such a small town. Most notable among them is the Duomo of Santa Maria Assunto, completed in 1227.

Picture 1284

But the Duomo’s biggest claim to fame is actually Renaissance-era: the frescoes of Italian great Filippo Lippi (right), painted in the 1460s to commemorate scenes from the life of Virgin Mary. (Lippi is buried in the church, too).

Finally: I think it’s worth noting that Spoleto boasts some particularly good dining, including one restaurant that a friend of mine likes so much he’ll drive to Spoleto just to eat there. It’s called Il Tempio del Gusto, located on Via Arco di Druso, 11. Information is available on the restaurant’s website.

The easiest way to get to Spoleto is by train: it takes just 1.5 hours, and costs €7.45 for a second-class ticket, one way. Check for times and prices at www.trenitalia.it. If you’re lucky enough to have a car, Spoleto’s a 1.5- to 2-hour drive to the north. For a map, click here. For more information about Spoleto, click here.

 

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