Is it possible to overdose on Rome? The question only comes up because visits to merely two sites seem to confirm that too much of a good thing is, well, too much. Something along the lines of St. Paul’s (I think) “moderation in all things” seems to be called for here (and not so coincidentally – as we’ll see below – St Paul is part of the problem on this particular occasion!).
Having had an early evening stroll along the Piazza del Popolo (so named because the splendid church on the site was financed by the people of Rome back in 1099), we were anxious to return. It is a beautiful square, and obviously a great entrance to the city, for as we approached it in the early hours today, people were flooding through the Porto del Popolo on their way to work.
We wanted to have a peek in the church – Santa Maria del Popolo – because I had discovered that four Pinturicchio frescoes had been painted for the church around 1510 or so. Having become a Pinturicchio fan when I was long ago affiliated with The University Club of New York, I wanted to see these frescoes if I could. The connection had come about because Charles Follen McKim – the club’s primary architect – had been inspired by Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Appartamento Borgia in the Vatican to seek something similar for the club’s library. McKim was successful, and in 1904 H. Siddons Mowbray was engaged to paint his version of the Pinturicchio rooms on New York’s West 54th Street, which in and of themselves represent one of the great artistic treasures of New York.
So off we took ourselves to see the church, and to put it mildly, we weren’t quite prepared for the beauty of the church. First, a personal connection for with a sister named for Saint Rita I was pleased to discover a chapel devoted to this holy woman. More to the point of my visit though, we were delighted to discover, along with everything else in this incredible space, the Pinturicchio frescoes I had heard about: The Coronation of the Virgin, Four Evangelists, Four Sibyls, and Four Doctors of the Church. They are splendid, and I was very, very happy to be able to see them.
But wait for it: there’s more. Not only did we have the Pinturicchio frescoes, we discovered that the church was the location for not one but two Caravaggio paintings, both painted 1600-1601. One we already knew was at the church – The Crucifixion of Saint Peter – and it is a stunning work of art. It’s no wonder many of the church’s leaders weren’t comfortable with the realism of Caravaggio’s work (some of which was refused – even though it had been commissioned – because it was indeed too realistic). The depiction of Saint Peter’s agony is clear and pretty scary to behold.
The other painting – which we had not known was at Santa Maria del Popolo (and which I had never known about at all) – was in fact not at the church, although there were references to it at the church and we took pains to find it. As it happened, when we visited the church the painting – The Conversion of St. Paul – was on temporary loan to the Villa Borghese, which coincidentally had already been planned as our next stop of the day (after a slight diversion for some shopping). When in Sicily, we had visited with Miki Borghese at her home – to see the remarkable and world-famous garden built from a drained lake – and had been honored to see a 1625 painting of the Villa Borghese. Although not on my original itinerary for Rome (which was a mistake – every visitor to Rome should probably see the Villa Borghese as a first stop!), after viewing that painting a visit to the Villa Borghese was now required, and we had made our plans to go there following our time at the P. del Popolo.
At the Villa Borghese, I found myself almost completely overwhelmed, a sensation experienced only once before, when back in 1988 – the days of the Soviet Union – I had been taken to one of the Kremlin Museum special collections and simply could not deal with the excess of luxury that surrounded the works of art. This doesn’t usually happen in most museums, even places like the Hermitage or the Louvre, but it happened at the Kremlin and it happened at the Villa Borghese. It’s almost as if the works of art themselves are so magnificent (as they are) they are undermined by the splendor of the space itself. Then there’s that slight irritation with the extreme elegance of the riches on display. I’m not complaining and I’m not opposed to such a venue for art, but I discovered at the Villa Borghese that I needed to spend some quiet time just orienting myself to what was on display.
And such treasures on display, including the magnificent St. Paul! What a painting! First of all, our prior references for Saint Paul are all wrong. In this painting, Caravaggio had made him a handsome fellow, not the typical older middle-age man we usually think of when we see Paul. He is flat on his back, his horse is amazed and upset with the confusion of the blinding light, and Paul himself, although seen from an almost upside-down perspective, is overwhelmed. He looks good, and he looks like a man who was indeed surprised by the great epiphany that has overwhelmed. Quite a picture!
Of course I can’t possibly describe everything that caught my attention at the Villa Borghese – or kept me from moving on to another object or work of art. There’s just too much. Obviously all the Bernini sculptures are gorgeous to behold, and I found myself spending much time in front of the David, the Apollo and Daphne, and other pieces too numerous to name. Of course I loved seeing Canova’s Pauline (which I had seen only as a plaster cast years ago), and it was amazing to see the folds of the fabric of the cushion on her couch and realize that it is nevertheless carved in marble.
A good visit, but too much frankly. Perhaps the next such excursion – the Vatican Museums, perhaps? – will be given some study beforehand, to ensure that we don’t try to do too much.