Friday, 30 April 2010

Caravaggio in Rome

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (29 September 1571, Milan – 18 July 1610) was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta and Sicily between 1593 and 1610. His intensely emotional realism and dramatic use of lighting and darkness had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting.
Presently at the Scuderie del Quirinale Museum an exhibit of all of his major works is on display. It is next to impossible to get tickets and you have to line up just to see if there is some cancellations. Museums and private collections have loaned works from their collections for this very special and important exhibit.

Caravaggio used ordinary street people as his models, even once using the corpse of a drowned prostitute fished out of the Tiber river in Rome as the model for a dead Virgin Mary. This in itself was a revolution in painting, his works are very different from the other painters of his era and though he was totally forgotten after his death, his rediscovery in the 20th century makes him very popular today.

This brings me to last weekend when after our visit to the Church of the Santissimi Apostoli in Rome and to the Palazzo Colonna we went for lunch. At the table next to us was this lady who told us she had seen a report on CNN (a news channel I avoid like the plague) which talked about the current sex scandal at the Vatican and the whole paedophilia story which is now consuming the Holy See. More lurid revelations this week and now it extends back to the days of Jean-Paul II and his friends, truly disturbing.
So this lady asks our friend the Art Historian if Caravaggio was a pedophile. Our friend asks her why she is asking this question.
The lady goes on about how she saw the documentary on CNN about the Vatican and the sex scandal and how she also saw the exhibit of Caravaggio paintings at the Scuderie and was wondering about this because she did notice lots of young naked boys in Caravaggio paintings.

Our friend was taken aback with this association which leaps over 400 years to today. She pointed out that Caravaggio lived in a very different time and it is not possible to associate his paintings with what is going on in the Church today, there is no link. The world and people of the 16th Century did not think the way we do and did not see or feel things in the same way,
it was a very different time. Our friend then pointed out that in the 16th century, classical thought was still very much the leading school, the male body in classical thought is the expression of an ideal, of beauty and perfection.

The lady was not satisfied, she wanted to know why not little girls, why little boys. Again our friend patiently explained to her that women or girls in the 16th century were considered property and simply kept under key at home. It was unthinkable to represent women in a fashion other than what was allowed by the Church who then controlled tightly all expressions of art.
She explained that works showing the Virgin Mary breast feeding baby Jesus which were acceptable before the Council of Trent were not appropriate after the Council in response or as a reaction to Protestant ideas. Works that did not conform where destroyed and the artist could face severe punishment. A woman could be a mother, working in fields or at home taking care of children or she could be the Virgin Mary. Society was also divided in strict social classes which did not mix and from which you could not escape. She also pointed out to her that in our way of seeing things today, we often forget how different the world was then compared to today. Women became objects of beauty about 150 years ago and still very gradually as society changed. She also explained to her that the whole concept of childhood or children as we know it simply did not exist 100 years ago, children were nothing more than little adults, only in the 20th century would all this change.

It just reminded me of how unfortunately we today are ignorant of the past and how our concept of what is acceptable dictates what we think was good or bad in the past, as if we could go back and correct the past. We are always ready to apologize for our ancestors. How often we hear today people say, back then they were not as open minded as we are or knowledgeable or advanced. I am sure that 50 years from now the same will be said about us.

Unfortunately for this lady, she did not like Caravaggio's paintings because she believed that they encouraged paedophilia, seeing evil behaviour where none existed. She was unable to understand classical thought, she probably did not know about classicism, forgetting that Caravaggio was only expressing the ideas and ideals of his time, nothing more. The so called boy angels is beauty not something disgusting. Caravaggio had a dissolute life, murdered 2 people, had debts and a terrible temper and was himself murdered on a beach by his enemies, but he was also a very great artist, not a paedophile.

I pointed out to her, that in the following centuries other artists would use putties and cherubs to decorate Palaces and Churches, are they not naked male babies one would think, no they were merely the expression of an ideal at a time in history, because if you study those putties you will see that their faces represent innocence, playfulness and that they are unaware of sin.

Her comment and questions reminded me of my visits to Greece where there is plenty of male nudity both adult and youthful, Praxiteles the great sculptor of the classic age followed the ideal of beauty expressed in the male body. Male nudity expressed in painting or sculpture may not be acceptable to some for whatever reason, but it is nonetheless the expression of timeless classical beauty.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

May program

In May we will be going to Salzburg for the Music Festival. This year marks the 90th Anniversary of the Whitsun Festival, a beautiful program of music awaits us, see the site of the Festival for an idea of what we will be hearing and seeing,
This Festival is dedicated to a period of time in the history of Music and the director of the Festival is Italian Maestro Riccardo Muti, he titled it ''Naples, Metropolis of Memories''.

We fly this time to Vienna with Alitalia, a short flight and will spend a day there, we would usually take the train to Salzburg via Innsbruck but the schedules are all changed and the Eurostar trains have been replaced by Regional trains which makes the journey longer from Rome. No matter, we have not been to Vienna for about 10 years and it is a beautiful city. We will then take the train from Vienna to Salzburg a journey of about 2 hours through the Austria countryside, always picturesque.

You could say this is a musical vacation since we have 2 musical events per day, it will also be a formal wear weekend, even for morning concert, men wear dark suit and tie. I have never seen anyone in jeans or casual wear, it is not done. All the venues are beautiful. We are staying at the Bristol Hotel, which is a gem of an hotel, the way hotels use to be 50 years ago, with professional staff, it is a family owned hotel and they know how to provide service.

BUT before I go to Salzburg I have to go to Albania a completely different kettle of fish. I leave this weekend for a week.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Thought du Jour

“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.” - Aristotle

I love this, thank you Aristotle.
(384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato's teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle's writings constitute a first at creating a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.

Monday, 26 April 2010

More Palazzo

This weekend we took a tour with our friend and art historian Nancy de C. who has been living in Rome for 35 years. Nancy told us about her father who is now 104 going on 105, he is on his third pacemaker and it has about a year to go before it needs replacement. He apparently asked the doctor what happens if you don't replace it, the doctor said, well it will stop working. Then what says her father, well the doctor adds you would die, well that would not be so bad really, he says. I suppose not, at 105 you really can say that you have seen it all.

Nancy took us to look at the Church of the Holy Apostles on Piazza SS Apostoli which contains the remains of St-Philip and St-James the less. The church was once connected to the Palace of the Colonna family. A wedding was scheduled for 11:30 that morning so we visited first the remains of the Chapel of Cardinal Giovanni Bessarione who was a Byzantine Orthodox prelate who came to Rome in 1437 with 50 large cases containing rare manuscripts and other works from Constantinople, he gave all of it to the City State of Venice on his death and they remain to this day in a great library, testament to the once great Christian city of Constantinople before it fell to the Ottoman Turks. This small area was recently rediscovered, the chapel was badly damaged during the sack of Rome by Emperor Charles V in 1527 and then floods from the Tiber did further damage. In 1959 while doing some repairs to the main building the historians came upon marvelous frescoes showing St-Hubert at Mont Saint Michel and other fresco of the history of the Archangel Michael in Puglia. Bessarione spent his life trying to convince the Kings and Princes of Europe to come to the rescue of Constantinople to save the city from the Turkish menace, but no one was interested, the 100 years war was on and everyone was much more concerned with petty politics. In 1438, he converted to the Catholic rite and instantly became a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

The church of S.S. Apostoli also has many tombs of Cardinals and Princes and of Pope Clement XIV and of Queen Maria Clementina Sobieska, Catholic Queen of England, grand daughter of King Jan Sobieski III of Poland, she was the mother of Bonnie Prince Charlie of Scotland and wife of James I of Scotland. She lived most of her life in exile with her husband. She died young at 32 suffering from anorexia which was confused for religious fervor, she was apparently a manic depressive and given to bouts of religious ecstasy. While we were visiting the Church, the organist was practicing for the wedding, the music was splendid and added to the solemn magnificence of the Church.

We then went next door to the Palace of the Colonna Family, one of the great families of Rome, they are related to Royal families of Spain, Austria and Italy. They open the great gallery of their palace to the public on Saturday morning only from 9 am to 1pm. The Colonna have lived in Rome for at least 700 years and their Palace took 400 years to build on the site of the great temple of Serapis at the foot of the Quirinal Hill. Most of the magnificent marble columns and colored marble floors come from that ancient temple. Their claim to fame came from the naval battle of Lepanto when the Admiral of the fleet of the City State of Venice, Prince MarcAntonio Colonna (pictured above) defeated the Turkish navy on 7 October 1571.
The great gallery celebrates the victory of MarcAntonio, the ceiling is painted with great frescos commemorating the Colonna family, it is not modest. At one end you see a scene in Heaven, as MarcAntonio dressed like a Roman General is being led by the hand by a very naked and muscular Hercules to be introduced to the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary who points to a chair on a cloud next to her for MarcAntonio to sit. Other figures in the fresco are Gods of the Roman pantheon mixed in with angels and cherubs. Another fresco shows Christ resurrected ascending into Heaven on judgement day and below the dead rising from their graves being helped by angels. If you look closely you see that all the elected to enter Heaven with Christ are non other than the Colonna family. To make sure you got the message of this painting, note that the Cross of Christ stands in Heaven next to the symbol of the Colonna family, a column. Then another fresco of Pope Martin V, Colonna in ecstasy during the moment of consecration of the Mass, God the Father himself appears to him.
The Colonna Palace is truly beautiful with its great gardens, the Colonna family still lives there, it has been restored by the Italian State at tax payers expense, so great is the importance of the family in Roman and Vatican history.

After the visit we went for lunch on Piazza Skanderbeg, named after the great Albanian hero who also lived for a time in Rome before leading a doomed revolt in Albania against the Turkish Sultan. We had the most delicious Artichoke lasagna in bechamel sauce and my favorite ice cream discovery this week, toasted Almonds and orange ice cream with real almonds and tiny bits of orange.

Friday, 23 April 2010

La terza Loggia, Vatican City

The Canadian Club of Rome was invited today to a lecture on Foreign Relations and the Holy See. This meeting took place on the third floor or Terza Loggia of the Sacred Apostolic Palace where the Pope lives. If on a Sunday morning you are in St-Peter's square you will see the Pope at the window of his apartment deliver his blessings and message to the crowd below. That is the Terza Loggia, it is also the floor where the Secretary of State has his Office. These are the closest advisors to the Pontiff on matters of church affairs and Foreign Relations with other States. I was keen to go and see the area where the Pope lives and walk in the corridor of Church power.

We entered from the St-Anne's Gate and walked to the great courtyard and through an ordinary looking door up a flight of stairs to what is the staff entrance. There you will see Vatican Police manning the door, once through an attendant in the oak paneled elevator takes you up to the third floor, we arrived in this vast corridor decorated with gigantic painted maps of the world showing the world in 1578 when Pope Pius IV had the area decorated. Note that Australia does not appear anywhere, Canada appears in the area of the Saint Lawrence river between what is today Quebec City and Montreal, Land of Cod, where the Saint Lawrence Gulf is. The USA is divided between Mexico and Canada. One map showing the Holy Land in gold leaf is on the left hand side of the door to the Secretary of State Office, each tribe of Israel is identified as they cross the Sinai Desert and you can see the figure of Moses looking at the Holy Land from Madaba. Little men in white carry the Arc of the Covenant towards Jerusalem. Above the entrance door to the Secretary of State, a painting showing God the Father with Christ to his right and the Holy Ghost to his left. Swiss Guards patrol this corridor and though we were guests, we were invited to move along, the Pope's private apartment is just a few steps away. We then went to a little room decorated by Raphael in Roman imperial style with grotesque and unto a terrace with the most incredible view of Rome I have ever seen in this city. We are way up, level with the statues of the facade of St-Peter's Basilica, in the distance you can see the Cathedral of Rome, St-John Lateran, the Pantheon and all the other monuments of the city. Below us the Pope's car waiting to ferry him to a funeral service for Cardinal Tomas Spidlik, a Czech Jesuit scholar, died in Rome on April 16 at the age of 90. He was
a theologian who specialized in the study of the Eastern Christian traditions. We were told not to look down and move along to the other side of the terrace.

In the Palace itself all you can hear is silence and the bells of St-Peter's Basilica clock marking the half-hour and the hour. There are people coming and going but all move in perfect silence. I cannot go into the details of what the lecture was about but it was interesting for what I learned on the Holy See and relations with other Foreign States.
More photos to come a bit later.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Rome's Birthday

Rome was born 21 April 753 BC or BCE if you prefer. So Wednesday Rome will be 2763 years old. Yes there are older cities in the world, Athens for one about 3500 years or Thebes (Luxor) in Egypt (5300). All these ancient cities were founded in time immemorial and myth surround their creation. Athens was founded by King Cecrops, a creature half man, half snake. Athena became the patron goddess of the city of Athens after a competition with the Sea God Poseidon. It is interesting to note that Athens at its height was a significant sea power, at one point defeating the Persian fleet at Salamis in a sea battle.
Rome is no different, founded by Romulus and Remus and protected by the Goddess Roma, who looks a lot like Athena. Today at the Monument to Italian Unity, on Piazza Venezia, the statue of the Goddess stands guard over the tomb of the unknown soldier.
It was Emperor Augustus who gave the city the title of Eternal. Has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. Augustus was referring to Rome as in the Roman Empire being eternal.
In the case of Rome the foundation of the city happens after Romulus murders his brother Remus who had made fun of his idea of having a sacred boundary (Pomerium). Many years later Romulus himself will be murdered mysteriously by the people of Rome and his body cut up in pieces. He was apparently a bit full of himself.
My wish for this birthday is that we start restricting car traffic around historic sites and clean up and repair the infrastructure.
Roma Emozioni sensa fine! Auguri Roma!

Monday, 19 April 2010


This week all museums in Rome are free. It also coincides with the anniversary of the Eternal City, the theme this year is ''Rome Emotions without end''. So I went to one of my favorite museums in Rome on Sunday, the Massimo on Piazza Cinquecento (500) in front of the Termini Central Train Station.

The Massimo is one of those must see museums in Rome. It concentrates on the Julio-Claudian Dynasty who basically launched imperial Rome. It has per example the dining room of Empress Livia, wife of Augustus from her country Villa at Prima Porta with its exquisite painted walls of a sumptuous garden with trees, flowers, fruits and birds. The colours alone are vibrant and shows the high quality of the art work, you have to imagine what it must have been like when the paint was still fresh with its glossy finish. There was also a special exhibit of antique gold and silver dinner ware from Morgantina in Sicily. Again very fine art work, elegant and refined from the house of a rich merchant. Morgantina was totally destroyed on the orders of Augustus in 35 BC because the city sided with Carthage against Rome. There was also a second special exhibit of funerary dinner ware used during a funeral wake. The various pieces were decorative painted marble to decorate the area of the Mausoleum used by the family for their banquet in honor of the deceased.

Then after this visit, I decided to walk around and ended up at the Barberini Palace, once the seat of the famous Florentine Family which gave us Pope Urban VIII.
Maffeo Barberini, was pope from 1623 to 1644. He was the last pope to expand the papal territory by force of arms, and was a prominent patron of the arts and reformer of Church missions. However, the massive debts incurred during his papacy greatly weakened his successors, who were unable to maintain the papacy's longstanding political and military influence in Europe. He was also involved in a controversy with Galileo and his theory on heliocentrism during his reign.

The Palace is enormous and contains mostly religious works of art by great artists of the Renaissance, of note the famous painting of King Henry VIII by Holbein. The Barberini Pope is famous because he pillaged the Pantheon, removing all the bronze in the temple to make cannons and to also built the great Baldaquino above the main Altar in St-Peter's Basilica. The Romans of the time said, What the Barbarians did not destroy, the Barberini did. The coat of Arms of the Barberini is 3 bees, though the story goes that they use to be horse flies until Maffeo became Pope and changed it to the more noble bees.

Then I came home to discover that our visitors who were to come from Canada could not come because of the Volcanic ash and that Rome airport was partially closed. In fact the Pope was in Malta for the weekend and it was not all together sure he could fly back to Rome on Sunday night. Well this only meant more Veal Saltinboca for dinner and strawberries for dessert.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

More of Palermo

I thought I would show a few more pictures of Palermo, of the people, the food, the streets, so picturesque and on a human size. Buildings are 5 to 6 floors high no more, pedestrians have the right of way and everything is within walking distance so no need for a car. People know their neighbours. Restaurants and shops are family owned. The big box stores are all on main street and nowhere else, no shopping malls, you shop where you live. Fresh produce markets are located in all neighbourhoods and you can get everything you need.
This is not to say that Palermo is without social problems, there is poverty and the Mafia still has a hold on business but that hold has been shaken and is not as before, young people have a different approach and think differently. Sicily is well worth a visit and a beautiful one it will be.
All photos here have been taken in Palermo, be its ancient church steeple or the market at Porta Cardini or marathoners in front of the Opera house Teatro Massimo.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Palermo, Sicily

I took a week of vacation and went south to Sicily. I learned quite a few things, for one Sicily only became part of Italy in 1860 or 150 years ago. To this day people in Sicily have their own language and speak of Italy as the other country next door. Sicily originally was part of greater Greece and populated by Greeks, legend says that many came after the fall of the City of Troy. Then other groups arrived, the North Africans from Carthage (Tunis), the Romans, the Arabs and then the Normand's with King Roger and his son William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066. The Germans with Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194 –1250) shaped the politics of Europe in his time, the French with Charles of Anjou and then the Spanish Bourbon, Lord Nelson had an Estate in Sicily, finally the Italians arrived with Garibaldi in 1860 to liberate the Island, the population did not have much of a choice. All this makes for a colorful history and wonderful culture.

Sicily being a volcanic island like Hawaii, has incredibly rich soil and produces a great variety of vegetables and fruits. It also has many exotic flora and fauna, not exactly the distorted picture Hollywood loves to present of a dirt poor desert like wind swept island, think of the Godfather movie trilogy.
The people are very nice and hospitable, the cuisine is imaginative and delicious, lots of fresh fish and seafood, they have a deep red tuna found just off the coast of Sicily which is wonderful. Palermo has the second largest Opera house, Teatro Massimo, after Paris built between 1875-97, with its mahogany panelling and hand painted water silk ceiling. It was closed for 25 years for repairs and re-opened in 1997. It still needs a lot of maintenance.
With so many great rulers having made of the island their centre of power, there are lots of monuments, churches and palaces. The Franciscans, the Dominicans and Benedictines all had great monasteries. The 3 greatest cathedrals of the middle-ages where built in Sicily, the first one in Cefalu by King Roger II in 1150, the second by his son William the Conqueror in Monreale in 1184 and the famous jewel like Capella Palatina (1130) in the Royal Normand Palace in Palermo, all in the Byzantine style. They chose this style of architecture to indicate that culturally and politically they followed Constantinople-Byzantium and not the Pope in Rome with whom they were in conflict. The mosaics are marvelous considering that the 3 buildings are 1000 year old, all kept in pristine conditions. Both the Cathedral in Cefalu and in Monreale where the great Normand rulers are buried in imposing red porphyry mausoleums are in use to this day. How these great buildings came to be built and where did the funds come from is a mystery to this day. The Cathedral of Monreale has 2 tons of solid gold in the mosaic covering the ceiling and walls.
A friend of mine had arranged for a special visit of 3 oratories in Palermo decorated by Giacomo Serpotta who in the 18th century developed a style of decoration which became associated with Sicily and all made of stucco, which is a composite of marble dust and other ingredients which turns into a paste and can be modeled like clay. His statues and putti are a meeting of the secular and the profane. I had a professor of art history who explained the history and style and how various artists were asked to contribute, Caravaggio was one but also painters of the Flemish school like Van Dyck came to Sicily to work.
Suddenly an Island best known today for the Godfather movies and the mafia appears under a totally different light, rich in European history, an important military post in the Mediterranean and producing great art and food, a centre for humanity.
I really fell in love with Sicily, a wonderful place, well worth a visit and so much on offer.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter photos

Our friend Jack is visiting us from Beijing and he has one of those big cameras that take really professional pictures, it's a Nikon D300. He took some pictures of Nicky and Nora, the best pictures so far in their young lives, they are only 14 months old. The eyes say it all.
Our little Easter bunny killers. One has to remember that they are hounds, their parents are hunting dogs. Right now they want to kill every cat in the neighborhood, pigeons, anything basically which they think it good for hunting, nothing personal, that is what wire hair dachshunds do. Nora's mom at 5 kg, can hunt in a pack wild boars who weigh 60 kg.
We took them to the Via Appia Antica to walk on the historical road just outside the San Sebastiano gate for about 5 km. They walked it all right but when we came home, they were pooped tired and slept like logs.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

power and corruption

It is the first time in my life that I see an embattled Pontif who is more and more isolated in his Apostolic Palace in Rome. Everyday fresh revelations of this horrible pedophile scandal become public. It is very disturbing to see how the protection of status and property and the reliance on antiquated notions from the Middle-Ages appear to guide those very few people around the Pope and the Bishop of Rome himself. I was at the Teatro del'Opera the other night, the opera Tosca was featured, the plot line is easy, a love story between an artist painter who believes in a free Rome and an Italy free of Papal domination and a singer Tosca who are pitted against the Secret Police of the Pope who is desperately trying to hold on to power by arresting and executing anyone who is promoting the Roman Republic. The story is staged around 1810 at the time of Napoleon's march and liberation of Italy. Scarpia is the all powerful Police Chief and is lusting after Tosca, in the final scene of the first act while a Te Deum is being sung in the church of San Andrea della Valle in Rome, Scarpia sings, while surrounded by all the symbols of the Church's power, of his lust and how he will use his powerful office to get Tosca into his bed. In the context of today's news I could not help think how the Opera Tosca is a mirror reflection of absolute corruption. Being in Rome to see this unravel is unsettling especially during Easter week.