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The Artpoints tour of Italy, Barcelona and Tunis.
Rome, was our first destination. We had four short days to absorb the art, food, wine and culture of the Eternal City.
Our Second Region: Tuscany can be read about here
Our home base, the Hotel Barberini was well situated just one block from the Piazza Barberini, with one of the most magnificent of Rome’s many fountains; a triton by Lorenzo Bernini, commissioned in 1642 by Pope Urban VIII.
The Galleria Borghese is situated in a large park with many sculptures, monuments, a small horse track and numerous museums.
The original Borghese collection of paintings and sculptures was collected and commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early 17th century. The learned cardinal avidly collected classical Greek and Roman art and commissioned new works by the master artists of his day. The villa that he built to house his collection in what was then the outskirts of Rome is a wonder in its own right, lavishly appointed with marble inlay on every conceivable surface. The Villa was not his residence, but a venue for parties and other gatherings. Scipione must have truly lived “la dolce vita”.
We equipped ourselves with audio guides and checked our bags in preparation for our entry time. The Galleria does not permit large bags, so if you visit, take only the minimum.
The first gallery was dedicated to Roman mosaics and sculptures some of which were excavated from a Borghese country estate in the 1830s. The floors were covered with beautifully preserved Roman mosaics portraying gladiators and wild beasts in combat. The gladiators were depicted with portrait-like individuality and identified by name. The Greek symbol for thanatos is shown next to fighters who perished in combat with man or beast.
The downstairs Borghese gallery walls were lined with priceless Classical sculptures, any one of which would command headlines should it visit the United States. No museum could possibly amass such a collection today.
The next gallery held David, carved by Bernini at the age of 24. The most notable feature of this work is the grimace of effort on David’s face which is said to be a self-portrait of the sculptor struggling with the unforgiving medium of marble.
A further small gallery held the most transfixing of Bernini’s masterpieces; Apollo and Daphne.
Here is the story as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses:
Her strength spent, pale and faint, with pleading eyes she gazed upon her father's waves and prayed, “Help me my father, if thy flowing streams have virtue! Cover me, O mother Earth! Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.” Before her prayer was ended, torpor seized on all her body, and a thin bark closed around her gentle bosom, and her hair became as moving leaves; her arms were changed to waving branches, and her active feet as clinging roots were fastened to the ground – her face was hidden with encircling leaves.—
Phoebus admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine. His form with hers, and fondly kissed the wood that shrank from every kiss. And thus the God; “Although thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt be called my chosen tree, and thy green leaves, O Laurel! shall forever crown my brows, be wreathed around my quiver and my lyre; the Roman heroes shall be crowned with thee, as long processions climb the Capitol and chanting throngs proclaim their victories; and as a faithful warden thou shalt guard the civic crown of oak leaves fixed between thy branches, and before Augustan gates. And as my youthful head is never shorn, so, also, shalt thou ever bear thy leaves unchanging to thy glory.” Here the God, Phoebus Apollo, ended his lament, and unto him the Laurel bent her boughs, so lately fashioned; and it seemed to him her graceful nod gave answer to his love.
I have seen many masterpieces of Italian art in various museums throughout the United States but nothing prepared me for experiencing Bernini’s masterpieces in the setting for which they were created. On my first day in Rome, I felt that the trip was well worth the effort and expense, even if I saw nothing further.
At this point, our precious two hour window in the Galleria Borghese was more than half expired and we had not yet gone upstairs to the painting galleries. For lovers of Caravaggio and other great Baroque painters, this collection is unrivaled. I wish I could tell you that I did it justice, but I was already exhausted.
One beautiful little portrait made a particular impression on me. In Portrait of a Man painter Antonello da Messina was one of the first Italians to explore the expressive potential of oil painting.
By the time we emerged from the Gallleria, we were hungry and the Roman sun made cooling beverages a necessity. We exited the park and soon found a sidewalk cafe shaded by sycamore trees. Grilled paninni, cold water and colder beer soon gave us the strength for a stroll back through the park towards Barberini and our hotel. On the way, we encountered a number of statues from various eras including a massive equestrian monument to Victor Emmanuel II depicted as a triumphant Roman emperor.
Our path home led us down Via Veneto, the famous boulevard that served as a backdrop for La Dolce Vita by Frederico Fellini.
After a rest, we headed to the nearby Barbarini Metro station for a packed rush-hour ride to the Colosseum. I love to ride public transportation in big cities, It is the best way to feel the pulse and vitality of a great metropolis.
Exiting the Colosseo Metro station we were confronted with the Colosseum in all of its massive glory. It was near closing time, but crowds still surged around the plaza which also features the Arch of Constantine.
By now, the early evening was cooler and even though we were were footsore and jet-lagged, but I was determined to see Trajan’s Column.
The inscription above the doorway of Trajan’s column is one of the most beautiful surviving examples of Roman inscriptional lettering. The Trajan inscription was carved circa 113 AD to celebrate the Emperor Trajan’s military victories. It has inspired countless lettering artists including Edward Catich and Carol Twombly who created a wildly popular digital typeface for Adobe derived from his photographic documentation of the inscription.
We made our way down Via Labricana to the excavated ruins of Trajan’s Market where this amazing feat of engineering has stood for 2000 years. The column stands 98 feet tall, circled by a spiral frieze glorifying the emperor’s military campaigns. The friezes would have been brightly polychromed and the inscription was originally filled with red paint. The column carved out of massive disks of Luna marble, hollow with an interior spiral staircase lit by small slot windows.
It is not possible to get close to the base of the column, so I had to be content with viewing the inscription from an angle. Even with this limitation, I felt a deep satisfaction in completing my long-dreamed-of Trajan pilgrimage.
By the time we got back to our hotel, we were exhausted from our first day in Rome. Fortunately, an excellent Trattoria was just around the corner, there we concluded our first day by feasting on mussels, clams and pasta. All washed down with Italian beer, wine and mineral water. In one day, I had already fallen in hopelessly love with the Eternal City.
Our Second Region: Tuscany can be read about here