The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The Pantheon, in the center of Rome, is a huge round building with a rectangular portico. Its granite columns are from Egypt and first had to float down the Nile on a barge then cross the Mediterranean in a ship before they could be erected. Even before it was built, the Pantheon already had a history of its own.

The Pantheon gets its name from the Greek πάνθεον and means, basically, “of all gods”. Its most unusual feature is the huge opening in the middle of its dome. Known as an “oculus” from the Latin word “oculus” meaning “eye”, it was meant to illuminate the interior while at the same time letting the gods look in. And when it rains, the water goes inside but doesn’t flood the slightly sloping floor as there are many carefully hidden drains. Thus nature and of man co-exist in harmony.

On the day of the Pentecost, thousands of rose petals are dropped through the dome’s hole.  This ensures that the Pantheon, once a pagan temple, is now recognized as a Christian dwelling.

Renaissance painter and lady’s man, Raffaello Sanzio, is buried here. Originally from Urbino, Raffaello was orphaned at age 11. His uncle, a priest, became his official guardian. This helped him, at an early age, to become a painter’s apprentice. Naturally gifted, Raffaello eventually made his way to Rome where he immediately was commissioned by the Pope to paint private Vatican rooms. Michelangelo, already in Rome, had to struggle for his commissions. While Raffaello was comfortably standing up to paint walls, Michelangelo was lying down on elevated scaffolding to paint the Sistine ceiling. This earned Raffaello Michelangelo’s eternal wrath. Even after Raffaello’s death, Michelangelo continued to criticize and demean his rival even accusing Raffaello of plagerism.

Raffaello had obviously appropriated from Michelangelo as well as other artists (didn’t Picasso say that “Good artists copy; great artists steal”). But Raffaello got much of his inspiration from women as well.

One morning Raffaello was walking near the Tiber when he saw a young woman bathing her feet in the river. The image hit him like a bolt of lightning and he exclaimed “I’ve found my Psyche!” The young woman’s name was Margherita Luti but she was known as “La Fornarina” as her father was a “fornaio”, a baker. The baker’s daughter became Raffaello’s lover and favorite model. But there was a slight problem. Raffaello was engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of family friend and benefactor, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena. Many marriages are arranged for practical reasons and, for Raffaello, this was no different. In no hurry to marry Maria, he kept postponing and postponing the marriage. Then, in 1520 on his 37th birthday, Raffaello unexpectedly and mysteriously died and was buried in the Pantheon.

Art historian conspiracy theorists suggest that Raffaello had been secretly married to Margherita. And when Maria’s powerful uncle, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena found out about it, he was so enraged that he had the famous artist poisoned. To further cover up the scandal, when Maria, the “widowed” fiancée, died, she was placed in the tomb with Raffaello as a means of legitimizing her position as “promessa sposa”. Margherita, instead, was sent to live in a convent where she died a couple of years later.

There are other theories, too. Such as that suggesting that Margherita had become one of Rome’s most well-known courtesans. Raffaello, so tormented by his lover’s deception, died of a broken heart. But Giorgio Vasari, in his The Lives of the Artists, claims that Raffaello died from having too much sex.

Artists and writers have based many of their works on the story of Raffaello and Margherita. Ingres painted five versions of the lovers together. Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew La Fornarina and “La Fornarina” is the name Byron gave to his Venetian mistress Margherita Cogni. Balzac modelled his Lucien de Rubemprè on Margherita and Nobakov wrote a story about her. Picasso did a series of erotic drawings of Raphaello with Margherita and Goebbels’ mistress played the role of La Fornarina in a film of the same name. The list goes on.

Love, it seems, is the greatest inspiration for both fact and fiction.

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Related: “La Fornarina” at Galleria Barberini + Art sleuth uncovers clue to secret Raphael marriage + Did Rafael Santi Have Children + Raphael death. How did Raphael died? + The Sistine Madonna by Raphael + sinkhole opens in front of Pantheon

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Beauty is the only truth I want to know

At the beginning of the lockdown, drones were sent out to immortalize a deserted Rome. The photos were stunning because, without people, the city regained its original contours and majestic beauty. How magical it would be, I thought, to walk the empty streets and carefully observe Rome without the distraction of others. Unable to do so, I made drawings instead.

The Spanish Steps

In between the church of Trinità dei Monti and the Barcaccia Fountain designed by Bernini’s father are the Spanish Steps. This monumental staircase of 135 steps has found a place in many films (such as Roman Holiday, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and The Talented Mr. Ripley). Fitzgerald writes about the steps in Tender is the Night as does Anthony Burgess in ABBA ABBA.

At the foot of the staircase to the right is the “Casina Rossa”. Here a woman named Anna Angeletti rented rooms to tourists. And one of these tourists was the poet John Keats. Suffering from tuberculosis, Keats arrived in Rome in hopes that a change in climate would improve his health. From his room on the second floor, he could hear the water gurgling in the fountain. It was this sound that kept the poet company when he was overwhelmed by that particular kind of solitude felt by those who are dying. Keat’s died in his room next to the Spanish Steps on February 23, 1821. The poet was only 25 years old. Buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, he asked for this epitaph to be placed on his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Two years before his death, Keats wrote his most well-known poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Like Isadora Duncan, Keats made many visits to the British Museum and, like Isadora, was impressed by the Greek vases. The vase paintings with women dancing around with veils inspired many of Isadora’s dance routines. Keats, on the other hand, was inspired not to dance but to write an ekphrasis, a poetic description of a work of art. So overwhelmed by the beauty of the vases, Keats decided that spontaneous emotions held more truth than did dry reasoning. Thus, he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

The vase that Keats calls the “still unravished bride of quietness” is, really, nothing more than painted clay. Nevertheless, it speaks to humanity. And for those who cannot hear it speak, Keats writes an ode. But a work of art is like the Tower of Babel and speaks as many languages as it has people looking at it.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” wrote Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in her 1878 novel Molly Bawn. But to see this beauty, you have to open up your eyes and look around you. And I wonder if, after so many days of being inside, the outside world will look any differently once the lockdown in over.

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Of note: Tender is the Night gets its title from Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale”..you can read Fitzgerald’s book on Archive.org HERE + Burgess’ Abba Abba is about Keats’ final month and can be found on Archive.org HERE +

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The History of a Home in the Time of Corona

Living Room TV

The existential question of “where do I end and where does the rest of the world begin?” is even more difficult to affront these days because the distinction between one and the other has become a big blur.  Never before have I felt the outside coming in like I do now. All it takes is the existence of one infected person to contaminate another (myself included) who then contaminates another who then contaminates another and so on and so on. Like lined-up dominoes where one fall leads to total collapse, the destiny of one person potentially defines that of others.

So I stay home because, by staying home, I can protect those contours that distinguish me from the rest of the world. My home is my haven, my anchor, an extension of myself. Being forced to stay home does not make me feel, under these circumstances, imprisoned. To the contrary—it helps me continue to be me.

As an expression of gratitude, I’ve begun writing and illustrating the history of our home. As opposed to a house, a home’s history has nothing to do with who built it and when or with who’s lived there before. A home’s history begins with the moment you move in and evolves with the experiences you live and express within its four walls.

The history of a home in the time of COVID-19 begins, for me, in the living room. Because it’s here that Pierluigi and I have spent so much time sitting together for the Civil Protection’s daily briefings. It is here that we learn how many have been infected, how many have died, how many have recovered. It is here, knowing that we can depend one upon the other, that we continue to create a history of our own.

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Catering to a Seed

My Balcony Garden

Every morning I go on my balcony to see if the seeds I planted from my store bought cherry tomatoes have started to grow. Despite my desire to do things in a hurry, the seeds grow at their own pace, not mine. That I could be under the thumb of a little seed is a humbling experience. The seed doesn’t care about who I am, my race or my political/religious preferences or how much money I have or what my job is. For my little seed, there are other values, other priorities.

Every morning I talk to my planted seeds and when they start to sprout, I talk to them even more—mainly questions like did you get enough rest, do you need water, are you getting the right amount of sun, etc. I even caress them very gently. And if the seed doesn’t grow, I ask myself “where did I go wrong?”

The seeds have taught me that change is constant and, without change, nothing happens. Only via a constant metamorphoses can a tiny seed become something that will nourish and help keep us alive.

Change is important in other aspects of life as well. Take, for example, opinions. Opinions (which are not the same thing as principles and ethics) can adapt themselves to new experiences and the learning that comes from them. And since, hopefully, we are always adding to our experiences, our opinions should embrace change when necessary. That’s why many opinions we had when young are now démodé.

Unfortunately, there are those unwilling to adapt to the present tense. For example, those participating in protests against the coronavirus lockdown. Their minds, sterilized by dogma, cannot understand that some rules are meant to safeguard communal wellbeing.

In Italy, in only three months c. 130 doctors have died trying to save the lives of those infected by COVID-19. Their freedom to live was terminated, in part, by those who violated the lockdown and continued to spread infection. The protesters’ desire to put the lives of others at risk is not freedom but a calloused recklessness.

Dogma is deadly.

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Related: Secret Life of Plants, Peter Thompkins’ book on Archive free reading + Me and Bobby McGee

 

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Pulling Back the Curtains

The Curtain

Every morning, once out of bed, the first thing I do is open the shutters, pull back the curtains, and check out the sky’s mood. What I see outside the window will, in some way, influence my day.

For 37 days we’ve been living the lockdown. Every evening at six we have a briefing from the Civil Protection so we can have an idea as to how things are going. Yesterday’s good news: the number of people in intensive care continues to decrease and the number of “cured” continues to increase. But “cured” has its ambiguities as we’ve seen in China where “cured” can be followed by “relapse”.

Here in Italy massive testing for COVID continues although it slowed down a bit over the Easter week-end. People continue to be infected but, percentage wise, 20% less than a month ago. Luckily, the number in intensive care has drastically gone down and 65% of those recovered there survive. As before, the sooner you are diagnosed with COVID, the more possibility you have of surviving.

Unfortunately, people are becoming restless. When the weather is lovely (as it has been lately) people get itchy and want to go outdoors and mingle. But going out only increases the possibility of contagion.

Massimo Galli, director of the infectious diseases department at Milano’s Sacco Hospital, was asked the other day if he couldn’t be more precise as to when the lockdown would end and everything would be opened again. He replied: “Reopen everything? Get the virus to give us a date, and then we can talk about it.” It’s obvious that most people still don’t understand that COVID offers more questions than answers. There are so many variables to deal with that scientists cannot honestly give specifics at this time.  Maybe those eager for a quick superficial answer would be better off consulting a fortune teller.

One of the many things that has emerged from lockdown is that so many people have difficulties being alone with themselves and are mentally rigid. They have no flow. They continue to believe that it is their right to impose themselves on the world without understanding that it’s because we’ve imposed so much that we’re in this situation.

And the problem is not limited to Italy.

The state of New York is c. one third the size of Italy. Nevertheless, it has 202,208 COVID 19 cases compared to Italy’s 162, 488 (data from Worldometers). Why? It had so much more time to prepare itself.

In Italy (but in Europe in general), the people are overwhelmed by what they see happening in the U.S.—the homeless sleeping in parking lots, the dead buried in mass graves, and the long lines of people in line for the food bank—how can this be happening in the world’s richest country? It would seem that America is the world’s fastest growing slum.

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