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Jesters at the Court of the Medici

Front view of Bronzino's double portrait of the Medici court dwarf Baccio di Bartolo (1552).

A delightful small exhibition at Palazzo Pitti in Florence (until 11th September) of genre paintings and portraits from the mid-16th century to the early 18th illustrates the protagonists of the comic, sometimes bizarre side of court life in Florence in those years, which was otherwise locked away from public view. Visitors are asked to be prepared to see the ironic humour in the works displayed. The new director of the Gallerie degli Uffizi (which now includes all the museums in Palazzo Pitti), Eike Schmidt, plans this as one of a series of exhibitions of works from the gallery’s important deposits (which include some 1,200 paintings) that will give curators a welcome opportunity to study them and restore them. Schmidt gave due credit to the late Marco Chiarini, for many years director of the Galleria Palatina, for having planned the exhibition (the lovely small catalogue is dedicated to his memory). Schmidt also invited the President of the Italian association dedicated to those affected with achondroplasia (the condition which causes dwarfism) to speak at the opening and he gave a moving account of how 'diversity' can be equated with value.

 

The exhibition occupies a suite of rooms on the landing known as the Andito degli Angiolini, below the entrance to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, and has excellent labelling together with some delightful quotes from the literature of the times, including Castiglione and Bernardo Ricci ('......everyone needs happiness and laughter'). It takes up just five well-arranged small rooms. The importance of comedy and laughter to the Medici is illustrated by the official court painter, Suttermans’s portrait of the court jester. There are also portraits of six jolly members of the ducal household in the servants' hall after a hunt; as well as a remarkable painting of two elderly peasant women, one holding a duck and one a basket of eggs, accompanied by a black page with a pearl earring (the label records that the names of all three of these people are known to us since they frequently appear in Ferdinando II's account books). Other well-known painters of the time whose works are included in the exhibition include Anton Domenico Gabbiani (a portrait of four Medici servants), Cesare Dandini (a young shepherd with a hornpipe) and Niccolò Cassano (two court jesters from Prince Ferdinando's inner circle dressed as huntsmen). But the most important painting is Bronzino’s well-known portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici's favourite dwarf, Baccio di Bartolo (ironically nicknamed after the giant Morgante), painted on both sides so seen both from front and back, and which includes extraordinary botanical details.

 

The exhibition also includes paintings by lesser-known masters such as Faustino Bocchi, who was at work in the late 17th century (a delightful, playful painting of dwarves bathing beneath huge passion flowers; and a queen riding a cat cheered on by a crowd of dwarves). There are also paintings by unknown artists, of which one of the most memorable is the portrait from the first half of the 17th century of a player of the ball game known as pallottola: the protagonist is shown dressed in magnificent breeches as he tosses the ball beneath his leg. Although not strictly related to the theme, the superb painting by Joseph Heintz the Younger entitled Orpheus in the Underworld has been included as it was owned by the Medici and shows the astonished young hero standing in a magical setting with creatures all around him in a performance which, as the label suggests, is reminiscent of a modern-day musical.

 

The exhibition extends into the Boboli Gardens, where the sculpture of the nude Morgante riding a tortoise is one of Florence's most famous statues (it is by Valerio Cioli and dates from around 1564; his statue of another dwarf, Pietro Barbino, made around the same time, can be seen in the Kaffeehaus, which has been opened specially for the exhibition). They are just some of the many statues of peasants, players and jocose figures which adorn the beautiful gardens behind Palazzo Pitti.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

02.06.2016
17:16

Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics

Photo by Hadley Kincade

Rising steep and craggy over Budapest from the west bank of the Danube is Gellért Hill, the best vantage point in the city. If you want to test the panorama photo function on your smartphone, this is the place to come. The Habsburgs were well aware of its commanding position too: after the suppression of the 1848 Hungarian revolution they built a citadel here, from which gun shafts pointed across the river into Pest to remind a rebellious population who was in charge. The Hungarians called it the Budapest Bastille and universally loathed it. Today its influence is benign. It is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its fine views.

 

Others besides the Habsburgs have been mindful of the hill’s supreme location. “It is here,” wrote the Panoráma Guide to Budapest in 1969, “at the southeastern corner of the old citadel, that Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl’s beautiful 29-metre-high Liberation Monument was erected in 1947. In the centre stands a female figure, a symbol of freedom, holding aloft the palm of victory and peace. Her silhouette can be seen from almost every corner of the city. Over the course of time this graceful sculpture has blossomed into a symbol. Small-scale copies of it can be found in offices and public buildings throughout the land.”

 

It’s all still true except for the name. The statue is now the Freedom Statue, evoking Liberty instead of “Liberation”, because the liberation in question was that of Hungary by the Soviets, the Allied troops who beat back the Germans and freed the city from Nazi rule in 1945 but brought a different tyranny in its stead. The Russian marshal Kliment Vorosilov was placed in charge of consolidating Communist control of Hungary and it was he who chose the sculptor, Kisfaludi Strobl (1884–1975), an artist known for statue groups composed of grandiose, monumental figures. Twenty years previously he had produced a memorial to the fallen of World War One for the city of Nyíregyháza, its central figure a muscular youth beating down a many-headed dragon with his bare fists. Strobl used the motif again for the Soviet memorial, but relegated it to a supporting role, placing a heroic nude dealing a death blow to the Hydra to one side. It was a good decision to leave it at the side, because this kind of bombastic allegory rings so horribly hollow. The stock hero standing for whatever he is required to stand for, defeating a stock embodiment of evil which can be equally flexibly interpreted. Posterity has chosen to ignore the allegorical side sculptures. It has also removed the pair of Soviet soldiers who flanked the Freedom statue and picked off the grateful inscription to the Soviet fallen. The statue is now dedicated to the memory of all who have given their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary. The central figure of the slender young woman reaching for the sky from her victor’s podium has remained constant, though, and her silhouette is as iconic as ever.

 

Budapest is one of the candidate cities hoping to host the 2024 summer Olympics. The Freedom Statue is its logo.

Annabel Barber

The Roman Forum Reconstructed

The Western Forum, with the Curia, Arch of Septimius Severus, Temple of Saturn and Tabularium.

Book review of Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

It needed quite a lot of collaboration between kind friends before I could own a copy of this book. It is a lavishly detailed and illustrated study of the western end of the Roman Forum throughout its history, and is understandably pricey. One of the authors, James Packer, is a professor of Classics and an authority on the Forum of Trajan that adjoins the original Forum. He has excavated here and on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. His collaborator, Gilbert Gorski, is an architect who specialises in illustrating reconstructions. Between them they have produced a truly magnificent volume.

The area of the Forum they have chosen for their intensive study includes the Tabularium on the eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, which still looks down on the valley with its original lower storey acting as a foundation for later medieval buildings. The furthest building to the east is the circular temple of the Vestal Virgins. On either side of the Via Sacra which runs through the Forum are two grand basilicas, the Basilica Julia on the south side below the Palatine and the Basilica Aemilia which is next to the Curia or Senate House. The Curia stands largely intact in the form in which it was rebuilt by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. This area encloses several temples, three triumphal arches, of which that of Septimius Severus (dedicated AD 202–3) is the most imposing today, and the rostra or speaking platforms.

 

Before discussing each building in detail, Gorski and Packer provide an architectural history of the Forum. From the start there are extensive reconstructions, notably, in the first chapter, vistas of the ensemble in its heyday. Panoramic fold-outs add to the luxury of the volume. This chapter covers the building types, techniques and materials from the reconstruction of the Forum by Augustus with an overview of his most important commissions. What is lacking is coverage of his other major projects outside this designated area, notably the Temple of Mars Ultor to the north. The authors can only give this a brief mention and so the wider study of Augustus’ vast building programme—82 temples in all are said to have been restored by him after the neglect of the late Republic—is inevitably limited.

 

Yet a broader history of imperial Rome is not the purpose of the book which benefits enormously from a focus that charts the evolution of a specific space over the centuries. The second chapter surveys the later reconstructions and restoration of the Forum until the end of the Empire. There were new buildings, such as the Temple to Antoninus and Faustina, begun by the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 141 after the death of Faustina his wife, and complete by 150. Fire was a continual hazard. Often this gave scope for new building but by the time the Basilica Aemilia was completely destroyed during Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, there was little incentive, or resources, to rebuild it. The city government closed off the ruins from sight with a brick wall, part of which still stands. Melted coins from the fire can still be seen in the basilica pavement. It was, surprisingly, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, then ruling from Ravenna, who restored some of the decaying buildings in the late 5th century. The statue of the Eastern emperor, Phocas, set up in 608 on an earlier column, is the last recorded monument of the ancient Forum.

 

The bulk of the volume examines each of the major buildings one by one. So there is a description of the site and its previous buildings before the new commission. In some cases texts or even inscriptions survive that honour the patron and the background to the decision to build. So Augustus celebrates the return of the standards captured by the Parthians with a small triumphal arch. His successor, Tiberius, uses the spoils of campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia to rebuild the Temple of Concord and grace it with Greek statuary. The temple is later used by the senators as an alternative meeting place to the Curia. The Portico of the Dei Consentes (honouring in its origins the gods of Olympus) was developed as a series of shops faced by the columned portico itself by a succession of emperors from Titus through to Hadrian in the 2nd century.

 

Overall the book is a triumph of digital reconstruction. Not least of its glories is the imaginative use of illustrations, coins that show the original buildings, fragments of the cornices or paving, earlier depictions of the ruins before they had vanished still further. Photographs show the interior of the Curia when it was the Baroque church of Sant’Adriano and a page displaying the various marbles gives a hint of the vanished opulence of the interiors. So generous are the illustrations that there is even room for alternative reconstructions; what kind of roof did the Temple of the Vestal Virgins have and did the Basilica Julia have a second-storey terrace or not? The final chapter concentrates on how visitors over the centuries would have seen the Forum as they entered it.

 

After all the bright, shining—and perhaps rather clinical— reconstructions, the end has to come. There is a final view from the late 6th century that shows the buildings still standing but the bronze chariots and horses from the triumphal arches have vanished. Grass is growing in their place and the pavements too are full of weeds. This melancholy scene is suitably backed by a thunderous sky.

 

Much survived into the Middle Ages with some buildings used as strongholds by one aristocratic faction or other. However the mass of stone or marble was too tempting for the popes. So Poggio Bracciolini records the Temple of Saturn in 1402 as ‘almost intact with fine marble work’. By the time he visited Rome again in 1447 ‘the Romans’ had taken the cella and part of the portico of the temple to the lime kiln, detached the columns and demolished the rest. Houses then filled the site as the rest of the Forum gradually silted up.

 

The frontispiece shows the view of the Forum from an opulently marbled pavilion in the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine Hill. Two toga-ed Romans stand together scrutinising plans of what lies before them. They turn out to be our authors and who can deny that their intensive study and knowledge of the buildings entitle them to be honorary Roman citizens. Few of their forebears would have known as much about the centre of their city as they do. The have produced a sumptuous and informative book which I will treasure.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Bernini's Beloved

With the new edition of the Blue Guide to Rome just off to press, it is time to catch up on new books to accompany it. I recently reviewed Richard Bosworth’s excellent Whispering City, Rome and its Histories for this site and now there are two more studies that have received widespread attention. Both are set in Rome at a time when it was ruled directly by the popes, both are the result of meticulous, even inspired, research in the archives and both focus on strong women. Yet what different women they are!

 

Costanza Piccolomini is perhaps best known as the mistress of Bernini, her face slashed on the orders of the enraged architect when he discovered she was also sleeping with his brother. She is the subject of one of his most striking busts, a wonderful work and explored here from every angle (it is now in the Bargello museum in Florence.) After the rupture with Bernini, Costanza was thought to have vanished from the record, but by assiduously ferreting through archives of every kind, McPhee revives the later life of a courageous and successful woman.

 

In contrast, there are the manipulations of Maria Luisa, a nun who made herself madre vicaria of the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome (the building was in the Piazza Mattei by the lovely Fontana delle Tartarughe). There is not much to redeem Maria Luisa as she uses her feigned spiritual prestige to seduce her fellow nuns and even to murder those who oppose her. It is only thanks to an opportune misplacing of the once-secret Inquisition files that the scandal can be told at all.

 

Costanza’s name was a grand one: the Piccolominis had produced popes and duchesses; but the impoverishment of her branch of the family meant that her name was all she had to cling to. She even had to be given a charitable dowry, a grant to keep young girls such as herself from a life on the streets. Yet her husband, Matteo Bonucelli, scultore, was a successful craftsman, a loyal member of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s team at St Peter’s and a restorer of antique sculpture. They married in 1632 when she was eighteen and he ten years older. McPhee uses birds-eye engravings of 17th-century Rome to show where they lived, and as her husband’s career prospered so did their homes. Their house, in today’s Vicolo Scanderbeg, close to the Trevi Fountain, boasted a grand doorway of travertine blocks, loggias overlooking a courtyard and a piano nobile more suggestive of a palace than an artisan’s home. Quite how Costanza managed her varied love life is unknown and one wonders whether Matteo acquiesced in the affair to please his formidable boss. Yet, quite apart from the scar left by the face-slashing, there was more for Costanza to suffer. She was hauled off by the papal police, the sbirri, as a donna dishonesta, and incarcerated in the Domus Pia, a home for ‘wayward’ women. Bernini was, apparently, fined 3,000 scudi, but then absolved by his patron, pope Urban VIII.

 

It is from the Domus Pia that we get the first evidence of Costanza’s spirit and accomplishments. She managed to compose a petition for her release addressed to the Governatore of Rome. It was written in her own hand—and it worked. She was released back into the care of her husband and they lived together for another fifteen years until his death in 1654 left her a widow at forty. Costanza could then have faded back into obscurity, but her husband’s flourishing business had left her many contacts and she was soon being addressed as Costanza scultora, buying and selling pictures to a clientèle that gathered around the new pope, Alexander VII. Costanza stayed on in the Vicolo Scanderbeg and descriptions show that its galleries and hallways were full of works of art on offer. Among her clients was the Duc de Richelieu, to whom she sold Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod for 1,000 scudi. It is now in the Louvre.

 

Moreover, she was not alone. A year after her husband’s death, Costanza gave birth to a daughter, Olimpia Caterina Piccolomini. The father is unknown but Costanza was especially close to the Abbé Domenico Salvetti, prefect of the Vatican Archives, and it was he who became guardian of the seven-year-old child when Costanza herself died in 1662. McPhee takes us on further and it is good to report that Olimpia herself flourished. She married twice, although she had no children, and was described as ‘Illustrissima’ at her own death in 1736, when the lengthy legal struggle over her inheritance provides McPhee with even more details of Costanza’s life.

 

This is a book that overflows with detail on life in Baroque Rome. McPhee takes excursions from the main text to talk about the best way of sewing up a scar (all too often a way of inflicting permanent humiliation) or the methods used to enforce the penitence of women. She discusses and follows through the fate of pictures and sculptures known to have belonged to Matteo and Costanza. Overall she provides a model of how the portrayal of a once-vanished life can be composed from meticulous work in the archives. The illustrations are particularly splendid.

 

The archives for the Inquisition inquiry into the goings-on in the convent Sant’Ambrogio were not as scattered as those of Costanza’s story but they had vanished as completely. They were found by chance by the German church historian Hubert Wolf in the Stanza Storica, a hall of the Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in the Vatican. They took up six feet of shelf space but there was no logic to their placing and they did not seem any different from the mass of papers around them. Shelved there by mistake (or perhaps deliberately to conceal them), they showed that what sounded like an anti-clerical fantasy of misbehaving nuns was actually completely true.

 

The story begins with a German aristocrat, Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a widow who was accepted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in 1858. As a German of noble birth in an Italian community, she would always be an outsider, but within fifteen months she was clamouring to escape for very different reasons. There were secret rituals among the nuns from which she was excluded and she believed she was being poisoned. Luckily she had good connections and her cousin, who was in the circle of Pope Pius IX, managed to get her out and install her at his the estate, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Having collected her thoughts, she made a momentous decision: to write up a denunciation of the convent that she presented in person to the Roman Inquisition.

 

The convent had already had a troubled past. Its founder, Maria Agnese Firrao, had claimed to be a saint, the recipient of visions and miracles. There were many doubters, however, and her ‘false holiness’ had been formally condemned by the Inquisition in 1816. She had been removed to the seclusion of a convent in Gubbio where she had died in 1854. The convent in Rome, however, survived, but Katharina’s first accusation was that the nuns had continued to honour their founder as a saint. In other words they were defying the orders of the Holy Office. This required a full investigation.

 

The transcripts of the intrusive and persistent  interviews that followed gradually reveal the full scale of a far wider scandal. It centred on a beautiful nun, Maria Luisa, who had manipulated herself into the positions of novice mistress as well as vicaress, the deputy to the abbess, by the age of 24. Messages of support from the Virgin Mary were taken on trust by the credulous electors and Maria Luisa went on to use these to encourage sexual intimacy with her novices as a form of initiation. Whenever doubters protested, the direct commands of the Mother of God to Maria Luisa were used to overcome their hesitations. There were even letters from the Virgin Mary, always written in bad French, to back up the vicaress’ demands.

 

At a time when a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment was leading to a renewed emphasis on the reality of miracles, it was easy for Maria Luisa to attract into her bed the confessor to the convent, the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen, who ten years before had written a scholarly book on the importance of miracles. All too readily he accepted that she needed special protection of a physical kind that allowed him to disregard the clausura, the sealing off of the nuns, and spend the night in Maria Luisa’s cell.

 

Then there were the attempts to poison other nuns, not just the German Katharina but those who saw through Maria Luisa and recognised what was going on. There were probably three deaths that could be attributed to her, all involving the symptoms of poisoning. The letters from the Virgin Mary foretold the deaths of nuns who had offended the Mother of God by their sins of pride.

 

As Maria Luisa’s guilt was revealed and condemned by the interrogators, the Inquisition did everything it could to keep the scandal secret. The supervision of the convent by its confessors had failed completely but this could hardly be admitted. The convent was closed down, ostensibly on the grounds of the misplaced veneration of its foundress. Maria Luisa was sent to a penitential cell and gradually disintegrated into mental breakdown. The confessors who had been so easily deceived by her were reprimanded and virtually nothing but vague rumour remained. The story was forgotten until Wolf’s opportune discovery, and as a result the frankness and scope of the confessions come all the more as a shock.

 

Although The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio will be read by many for its salacious details, it tackles fascinating questions of religious experience. The campaign to restore the miraculous into the centre of Catholic life had made it imperative to evaluate the visions that isolated nuns (or, in the case of Lourdes, the young girl Bernadette) claimed to have experienced. In Maria Luisa’s case the stories were fabricated, but all too readily believed, thus allowing her to achieve spiritual power over others. Who dares to challenge the Virgin Mary, especially when she write letters? Even to this day the Church finds it impossible to deal with her many appearances and the impassioned messages of despair over the troubled world that she passes on to favoured members of the faithful.

 

Wolf does not forget that he is a serious church historian and The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is also an analysis of the workings of the Inquisition within the papal government. Once it took on a denunciation, its methods were rigorous but fair and it was persistent questioning that led to the breakdown and confessions of the participants in the scandal. The punishments were mild—after all, Maria Luisa was guilty of three cold-blooded deaths by poisoning—but it was the overall demands of secrecy that conditioned much of the outcome. If there had not been an aristocrat with influential connections at hand, the goings-on might never have been exposed. In the hot-air atmosphere of papal Rome in the 1850s, when power struggles and intrigue permeated the government of the Church and city, who knows what was going on elsewhere? We can only await more lucky finds in the archives.

 

Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved, A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (Yale University Press, 2012); Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio, The True Story of a Convent Scandal, English translation by Ruth Martin (Oxford University Press, 2015). Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to the forthcoming new edition of Blue Guide Rome (spring, 2016).

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

15.01.2016
09:41

Blue Guide Paris on Amazon

We're not 100% sure the folks in Amazon Fashion have read the new Blue Guide Paris from cover to cover ... but they clearly know a good-looking guide book when they see one:

(blueguides.com/paris)


The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum

Fresco of the reluctant martyr sneaking out of the frozen pond to the warmth of the bath house.

In 1900 the archaeologist Giacomo Boni uncovered some intriguing remains in the Roman Forum: those of the so-called ‘Oratory of the Forty Martyrs’ and, leading off it, a covered brick ramp. These remains are usually closed to the public, and work on them is ongoing, but at the moment (until 10th January 2016) they are open as part of an exhibition.

 

From the street which runs alongside what would once have been the entrance portico of the great Basilica Julia (an opposite the modern public toilets), a path leads to the excavations. The Oratory, its walls covered in fragmentary frescoes, has been enlosed by a modern roof, walls and door. At first sight, you might think there is nothing remarkable about these, but signboards explain the enormous trouble that has been taken to reconstruct what might originally have been in place here: a roof which rises above the ground at the same height as the ceiling of the ramp, a door whose dimensions conform to those of ‘Golden Rectangle’, and an interior volume that, like that of the Pantheon, is exactly as tall as it is wide, so that a perfect sphere could be fitted inside. The room itself, today known as the Oratory because of its later use as a place of Christian worship, was originally constructed in the 1st century, at the time of the emperor Domitian, to form an entrance vestibule to the ramp, the covered walkway which slopes and winds its way gently up to the Palatine Hill, linking the Imperial palace and the Forum.

 

The ramp and its ancillary buildings were added to by succeeding emperors so that by the time of Hadrian in the 2nd century the complex consisted of the ramp itself, two separate vestibules and a grand porticoed atrium. The current exhibition has opened the ramp and the first vestibule, the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, to the public.

 

The ramp is similar in its design to that inside Castel Sant’Angelo, the ancient mausoleum of Hadrian, which winds through the core of the building to the central sepulchral chamber. It is tall and narrow and barrel-vaulted, its walls and floor made of brick. It would have been possible to travel along its length on horseback. Rooms that open off it might have been used by the Imperial guard. They have been arranged to exhibit pieces of sculpture found during excavations. At the level of the first landing, on the right, are the remains of a latrine, built during the time of Hadrian and close to a staircase inserted under Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan to link the grand atrium or forecourt to the ramp. In the early Christian era, this atrium was turned into the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and it is known that the staircase was still in use at that time. The ramp leads onward and upward, out into the sunlight again, to an elevated terrace from where there is a magnificent view of the Forum down below and across the rooftops, domes and bell-towers of the city. The continuation of the ramp from here to the summit of the Palatine is not open, and indeed excavations are not yet complete. It is proposed at a later stage to open it up and allow public access.

Interior view of the Imperial ramp.

 

The Oratory of the Forty Martyrs has interesting traces of fresco decoration. Each of the four walls was decorated with a dado of trompe l'oeil white drapery, above which are figurative scenes. On the wall on the left as you enter (the north wall) are the very scanty remains of the Forty Martyrs in Glory. You can still make out some of their heads, encircled with haloes, and their bright white robes, edged with purple like a magistrate’s toga. The east wall, with an apse at its centre, has the main scene. The Forty Martyrs were Roman soldiers of the Legio XII Fulminata, who had converted to Christianity. They were sentenced (in AD 320) to spend the night naked in a frozen pond, near which were warm baths, specially prepared to tempt any who might wish to recant rather than die of exposure. One of the company did so: the fresco shows him sneaking away from his companions to thaw his frozen limbs. His action left only thirty-nine faithful, until one of their guards came forward and confessed his Christian faith, taking the number back to forty again. To the left of this scene are large painted crosses, hung with jewels, and below one of them, a peacock, symbol of immortality. The south wall had scenes of monastic life (very ruined). The frescoes have undergone several restorations between 1969 and today. For this exhibition, they were restored (very beautifully) under the leadership of Susanna Sarmati.

 

by Annabel Barber. See here for Blue Guides on Rome.

Sabbioneta, Cryptic City

Detail of the theatre at Sabbioneta.

We came to Sabbioneta the small Renaissance city brought to its final form by Vespasiano Gonzaga in 1590, in the spring of 2015 to check it as a possible stop on a tour. Despite its World Heritage status, Sabbioneta is still little visited; we were almost alone as we explored its buildings and walked around its walls. Yet it is fascinating in itself as a time capsule of late 16th-century architecture, above all in the exquisite theatre, just a few years later than Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza but echoing it in style. It came as no surprise to find that it is the work of Vincenzo Scamozzi, who had finished Palladio’s masterpiece after his death.

 

The architect James Madge, who died in 2006, first visited Sabbioneta in January 1988, a day on which the fog of the Lombardy plain enveloped the city. As he walked around, buildings loomed from the mist and then disappeared, perspectives came and went, the length of the Galleria Grande seemed to merge into nothingness. It gave him the sense that there was more to Gonzaga’s creation than simply ‘the ideal city’ and he became fascinated by Vespasiano Gonzaga himself, ‘for whom architecture was a means to externalise a complex, often contradictory and passionate nature’. Why was Vespasiano so determined to create this small  (probably no more than 2,000 citizens), idealised city in a comparatively remote spot on the banks of the Po?

 

The result of Madge’s researches are Sabbioneta, Cryptic City, published by Biblioteque McLean (London, 2011). Madge begins by tracing Vespasiano’s background. His father had died when Vespasiano was only eleven months old, leaving the township of Sabbioneta as part of his inheritance. This was only a cadet branch of the family. Vespasiano was never to enjoy the wealth of his cousin Guglielmo, the head of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, with his thousand dependents and twenty residences, but his mother was from the ancient Colonna family and Vespasiano was profoundly conscious of his status as one of noble heritage and status. He was lucky to be brought up in the household of his aunt Giulia Gonzaga, a childless window of great learning who ensured he had the best education in the classics.

 

He was then sent off to the court of his uncle, Philip II of Spain. Perhaps it was because as an Italian he would always be an outsider, perhaps the hothouse aristocratic atmosphere of Philip’s court would have stifled anyone who was not exceptional, but Vespasiano’s achievements in Spain were always modest. There were some reckless charges in battle which he was lucky to survive, and he proved a capable diplomat, but lacked the éclat or presence to go further. His most senior posting, as Viceroy of Navarre, appears to have been largely honorary.

 

There were also problems in his intimate relationships. His first marriage proved childless and he was alienated from his wife: there were rumours of her infidelities. His second marriage, to the Spanish Anna of Aragon, did produce a daughter, Isabella, and a son, Luigi, but Anna appears to have suffered from deep depression and had withdrawn from Vespasiano’s life years before her death. Now came the tragedy of his life. Luigi, always sickly, died while still a boy, a terrible blow for a father who was so conscious of his noble heritage. A third marriage, conceived in desperation in the last hope of providing an heir, was childless. The Gonzaga-Colonna line was due for extinction. Madge analyses the poems that Vespasiano left. They were hardly of great quality but show him as solitary and unfulfilled, the women he addresses hopelessly idealised.

 

So this perhaps helps explain the impetus for a semi-private world of his own creation, a place where Vespasiano could act out the role of cultured humanist. Sabbioneta was a lifelong project, with its founder escaping when he could from his duties in Spain. He began in 1556 by creating a community from the existing township that he had inherited. Citizens would lose their privileges if they did not reside there, absentee clergy were summoned back to their parishes, a monastery was relocated within the walls and no local market was to be held outside the central piazza. Madge notes how the inhabitants soon took pride in the new town that was rising around them and their loyalty was reinforced by the benevolent rule of their patron. Vespasiano’s tolerance extended to a community of Jews, rare at a time when the Counter-Reformation was gathering strength (one can still visit the city’s synagogue). Though he kept his religious beliefs to himself, his range of contacts showed he was never closed to religious diversity.

 

This is not a guidebook to Sabbioneta, although Madge uses his architectural experience to trace some of the influences from the treatises of Leon Battista Alberti (whose masterpiece of Sant’Andrea in Mantua is not far away) and, through Alberti, back to the Roman architect Vitruvius. Vespasiano was steeped in the Roman world. He had himself presented as a Roman in the fine bronze statue of him by Leone Leoni (1588), originally outside the ducal palace but now crowning his tomb in the church of the Incoronata. Rome, as Madge puts it, ‘is immanent as a felt presence at Sabbioneta’. The city is aligned on an axis that leads southwards to the city, there are frescoes in the theatre of Rome as it was in Vespasiano’s day and his own seat there is placed in front of a fresco of his namesake, the emperor Vespasian.

 

Unlike Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, the theatre in Sabbioneta is conceived as an independent building, probably the first of its kind. With its statues of the Olympian gods, frescoes of the emperors and of Rome, and a painted loggia of local figures (reminiscent of the Veronese’s frescoes from the Villa Barbaro), it is a wonderful place to visit. Nearby the Palazzo Ducale (Vespasiano was created Duke of Sabbioneta by the emperor Rudolf II in 1577) has much of interest, but perhaps one comes closest to Vespasiano himself in the private apartments of the Palazzo del Giardino. The frescoes here, by Bernardino Campi, show his fascination with Roman literature: there are scenes from the Aeneid and mythology from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Madge attempts to make connections between the preoccupations of Vespasiano and the subjects of the frescoes but it could equally be said that these are typical expressions of the 16th-century humanism. What is special is the Galleria Grande, 96m long. Originally Vespasiano’s collection of antique statues were spaced along the walls, but towards the end of his life, he took out the busts of famous commanders and refilled their niches with antlers and other ‘natural’ objects that he had acquired while visiting his patron, the emperor Rudolf in Prague. It shows that, even in his last years, Vespasiano was still intellectually inquisitive.

 

The theatre was inaugurated in February 1590 during carnival celebrations and a troupe of comedy players was based there over the following months. However, Vespasiano was ailing and he died in 1591, leaving the city to his daughter and her husband. Over the years that followed the city stagnated. The statues went to Mantua in the 18th century. The theatre passed from granary to warehouse, from barracks to the local cinema, before its restoration in the 1950s.

 

Meticulous readers will note that James Madge died in 2006 and Sabbioneta was not published until 2011. It is good that the book was rescued for publication, although the material, particularly that on Vespasiano’s life, might have been reorganised in a better chronological sequence. In his attempt to find the roots of Vespasiano’s personality, Freud is brought in to help, but it is hard to isolate Vespasiano’s inner traumas from the wider world in which he lived. In so many ways he represented the cultural elite of his day: tolerant, well-read, half-lost in the Classical world. Where this book has wider appeal lies in the generous selection of 16th-century humanist texts that Madge has brought together. Sadly the illustrations at the end are rather cramped but overall Madge does well to give an interpretation of Sabbioneta that explains why it came to be.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum

Archive view of the Arno looking west. Museo Bellini is further downstream on the left bank.

Almost the first house you come to on the peaceful Lungarno Soderini (which skirts the Arno as it flows downstream away from the centre of Florence) is the Museo Bellini, in a charming small building designed at the turn of the last century by the eccentric architect Gino Coppedè for Luigi Bellini, the most famous collector and antiquarian in a family still dedicated to this activity (and who still live here). A wisteria in the garden climbs all the way along the front across the little balcony. It was built specifically to house the Bellini collection, put together by generations of the family since the mid-18th century (and is connected to their residence by a spiral stair). The interior is filled with many precious works of art: paintings and sculptures; genuine, unrestored 15th- and 16th-century furniture; majolica and works by the Della Robbia, and small bronzes. The present Luigi Bellini tells of travels in Italy with his father when just a young child: while waiting outside a house while a transaction was underway he would open his bag and play with the small bronzes he found there.

 

The property is much larger than it appears from the river front: it stretches all the way back to Borgo San Frediano, and the rooms get older as the property recedes. The oldest part, Palazzo Soderini, dates from the 15th century or even earlier.

The atmosphere is unforgettable and it seems almost superfluous to name some of the treasures, or to be too fussy over the attributions (perhaps sometimes over-ambitious) and dates. But to give an idea of the diversity, there are paintings by Bronzino, Suttermans, Luca Carnevalis (a view of Venice), Guidoriccio Cozzarelli (two gold-ground panels with saints), and even a little private altar of the Madonna with the standing Child attributed to Fra' Angelico (the doors of the tabernacle are opened for you). But it is perhaps the Cupid and Psyche, thought to be by Rubens, which is the most striking painting of all. The painted wood sculpture includes two beautiful pieces by Francesco da Valdambrino, and there is a splendid collection of small Renaissance bronzes (some of them charmingly displayed in a 16th-century sacristy cupboard). There is also a painted papier-mâché bust of a female saint showing affinities with Donatello and a female bust in wood (which still has its real lace bonnet intact) probably by Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi (this, together with other pieces, was purchased in an early 20th-century sale at Palazzo Davanzati).  A very fine polychrome stucco bas-relief of the Deposition is given to the hand of Bandinelli. The majolica comes from the best known manufactories in Italy and there is very rare early Hispano-Moresque lustreware.

 

The rooms are dimly lit, some of the walls lined with velvet, others with lovely tapestries, and there are worn carpets underfoot. The atmosphere is that of a treasure-trove of other days when collecting was an art performed by connoisseurs who, one feels, surely purchased objects for their intrinsic beauty rather than their monetary value.

 

NB: Visits to the museum are by previous appointment. T: 055 214031

or contact through www.bellinmuseum.org.

 

After the visit it is worth continuing along the Lungarno as far as the piazza in front of the church of San Frediano in Cestello (open 9.30–11.30 & 5-6.30): after rain the sound of the waters of the Arno as they flow over a dyke in the river are reflected off the bare façade. The interior is interesting for its late 17th- and early 18th-century painted decorations and a lovely polychrome wood statue of the Madonna (all described in Blue Guide Florence). From here there is a charming view of the humble houses and terraces of the district of San Frediano in the Oltrarno.

 

by Alta Macadam. Alta is the author of many Blue Guides to Italy. She is currently working on a new edition of Blue Guide Rome.

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