7. Palazzi. Everywhere in Italy there are palaces–palazzi–in a classical, Renaissance-style design. You see small signs on one building after another, identifying it as the "Palazzo Ugolino" (or some other such name) with the centuries of its construction. Occasionally you get to see through the main doors of some of these places to discover their inner courtyards with ancient fountains, sculpture, and gardens. Many of these palazzi are now apartments. Others, however, are museums, and I enjoyed going into some of these on this trip. They make for some of the best things to do in Rome, because they are practically empty. Only true art lovers find these places. The picture you see above is one I took of the Palazzo Barberini, constructed by various architects over time from the 1600s. Inside, the historic collection of paintings owned by the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Antica includes important works by Raphael, Caravaggio, and others. My interest in this place was that in the 19th-century the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvalden lived and worked in the theater (later demolished in the 20th-century), and the American sculptor William Wetmore Story lived and worked here as well. I also visited the Palazzo Corsini, which houses another part of the collection of paintings owned by the Galleria Nazionale. The two most superb palazzi I visited on this trip were the Villa Farnesina and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The former is not very large, so a visitor can see it in about 30 minutes. The most beautiful parts of this villa are the frescoes, all of which have been cleaned and conserved to reveal their original brilliance. Two rooms have frescoes by Raphael, including his famous water nymph Galatea. Upstairs the main bedroom has a series of frescoes from the life of Alexander the Great by the Sienese artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as Sodoma, who proudly wore this sobriquet as an acknowledged homosexual. The one fresco of the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana is breathtaking with its bright colors and larger-than-life figures, in particular the ephebic, nearly-nude Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover, who reaches out as if to stop him from marrying Roxana (click here to see a picture). The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is still owned by the same family after hundreds of years. They live in private quarters, but have available for tours many of the public and historic rooms, some dating back to the 1600s. I’m not a huge fan of audio tours, but the one for this palazzo narrated by the family is worth listening to, as they recount personal feelings on their home, art, and the historic events that have taken place in the palazzo. Their painting collection is enormous, although there aren’t too many major works. Most significant is Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), seen here courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art. It is a portrait so stunning in its psychological naturalism that when the Pope saw it, he hated it because it was too realistic. It’s no wonder this picture has influenced artists over the century, including most notably Francis Bacon, about whom I’ve written before on this blog, and on whom there is currently a fantastic exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
6. The Jesuit Experience. It sounds like a ride at an amusement park or a diorama display at a Christian institution, but in fact I’m referring to the experience of the Church of Il Gesú (the Holy Name of Jesus). The Society of Jesus, or Jesuit Order, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). He received his divine calling to teach and spread the word of God throughout the world. As a result, there are numerous Jesuit schools throughout the world (e.g. Georgetown University), many of which have a reputation for being among the most academically challenging institutions. From early on, the Jesuits also were the first missionaries who traveled to places as far-flung as China and the Americas, sending back to Europe some of the first detailed recordings of what these mysterious lands were like. This particular church, Il Gesú, was Ignatius’s church when he settled in Rome. Under his guidance, it was reconstructed, but not consecrated until 1584. It continued to be decorated in the ever-burgeoning Baroque fashion of the day, ultimately becoming not only the model for all Jesuit churches but also for many Counter-Reformation Catholic churches as well. When I was in Rome, I did not anticipate even going into this church. My friend Luca and I met up with his friend Marcello, and he brought us here. As it turns out, it was one of the best "churchy" afternoons of my trip. Marcello led us into the back rooms where we visited the austere chambers of St. Ignatius. It is the interior of the church, however, that is mind-boggling. The frescoed ceiling by Baciccia, painted 1672-85, incorporates incredible effects of perspective, displaying the apotheosis of the name of Jesus. (I had forgotten my camera that day, so the picture you see here of the ceiling and apse is by earthmagnified on Flickr.) Segments of the ceiling literally poke out as wooden panels, so that painted figures float, extending from the ceiling. Incorporated into this are sculptures of angels in the sinewy curvaceous forms that Bernini made famous. These angels become architectural components, reaching out and holding up what looks like segments of the ceiling, that is heaven itself. Even the architecture fools you with actual three-dimensional columns blend into painted columns and vice-versa. You cannot figure out where illusion begins or ends. And as if that weren’t enough, the entire church is gilded, dazzling you everywhere you walk. The best part, however, was that at 5:30pm on the day of our visit, we were able to watch the visual spectacle of the unveiling of the statue of St. Ignatius. This takes place in an elaborate side chapel where a panel painting about Ignatius and the Jesuits measuring at least 18 feet long is surrounded by sculpted angels, saints, and allegorical figures in marble, lapis lazuli, gold, and silver. A sculpted representation of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is at the very top of the display. Recorded music and choral singing begin, suggesting an angelic chorus. Suddenly, a voice resounds and tells the story of St. Ignatius in florid Italian. As each segment of the story is told, spotlights flash on one part of the altar after another. The choir continues to sing between each segment. All of this builds up to the climax, the grand finale, when suddenly in a boisterous exclamation of singing voices, the panel painting rolls downward and shining out from behind is a larger-than-life statue made out of silver and gold of St. Ignatius floating toward heaven. It was nothing less than a total theatrical experience. Mind you, it’s also the gaudiest, most ostentatious form of religious entertainment I’ve ever seen in my life. But you cannot help but get caught up in its theatricality. The combination of music, singing, lights, the dazzling display of art and gilding, and the climactic reveal at the end...it is true Baroque theater at its very best. If you’re fortunate to partake in the Jesuit experience, don’t forget also to visit the even-larger Basilica of St. Ignatius nearby, decorated with Andrea Pozzo’s enormous frescoed ceiling.
5. Hot Italian Men. You knew this was coming! What can I say? Rome has lots of HIMs (Hot Italian Men). You just have to be there and look around. In fact, you’ll get whiplash. And they know you’re looking at them, and they look back at you, longer than Americans usually feel comfortable, to the point that you’re not sure if they’re cruising or testing you, knowing you’re admiring them with their cocky grins and tanned complexions, smelling of some fragrance we haven’t even marketed yet in the States. Their dark hair is perfectly coiffed, their seemingly form-fitted bodies are decked out in Armani jeans, black Dolce & Gabbana belts, and white linen shirts. They saunter down Via del Corso and Via Veneto just waiting to be looked at by silly Americans, who desperately wish they had the guts to dress so confidently. (Note however that this look only works in Italy; dressing like that in America, and you’re a guido named Tony or Frankie who’s trying way too hard.) I could go on talking about HIMs, but let’s face it, if you’ve been there, you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then go there. Now.