Favorite Photos

Favorite Photos
Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Search for Caravaggio Continued

My continuing search for Caravaggio brought me to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Via Corso, where I came across, two paintings which showed yet another facet of Caravaggio.

This Palazzo is still the home (they live in a part of it) of the Doria Pamphilj family, one of Rome’s most illustrious. The family is descended from Pope Innocent X Pamphilij, to whom is credited the beginning of its fortunes, while Prince Camilo Pamphilij is credited with collecting a considerable portion of the art, paintings, bust, statuary, including the incorrupt body of St. Theodora and the relic of St. Justin (which you can actually see in the palace chapel) found in the palace today.

Palazzio courtyard with lemon trees
The picture gallery of the Palazzo Pamphilj extends around a lush courtyard and the paintings are stacked one on top of each other and side by side. Contained in this collection are many masterpieces and among these, you find two of Caravaggio’s earlier works, The Repentant Magdalene and Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. 

from ATS Italia Editrice

The Repentant Magdalene (1594-1596)  Despite commentaries on this painting identifying it as Mary Magdalene because of the long hair and the vessel of oil on the floor beside her, I see it as a painting of a young girl in tears over a set of broken beads, the portrayal of this is done so movingly, so  touchingly, making one witness .... remember? rather poignantly, heartaches of the very young. The scene is peaceful, and tranquil despite the tears. The colours though vivid and bright are soft. Even the shadows are subdued. The subdued tone displays the delicacy of the emotion which paradoxically for me at least, comes across as more intense than the dramatics of his later paintings.

from ATS Italia Editrice

Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1594-1596) This is Caravaggio’s first painting of a biblical subject. It features the Holy Family resting on their way to Egypt, as they flee from Herod. It shows a peaceful, tranquil scene with Mary and the Child sleeping while an angel plays the violin to a score held by St. Joseph. They are sheltering under a tree surrounded by foliage that is detailed, accurate and very delicate. The background landscape is very naturalistic, the colors are soft and shadows subdued.

After seeing these paintings, I came across additional information on Caravaggio that I had to grapple with. Andrew Graham Dixon, in his book on Caravaggio entitled; Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, uncovers additional, rather unsavoury aspects of Caravaggio’s life and character. Based on in-depth perusal of documents, including court documents, pertaining to incidents in Caravaggio’s life, Dixon suggests that Caravaggio was sexually adventurous, may have worked as a pimp and may have had an illegitimate child. He also believes that Caravaggio did not die of malaria but because of injuries sustained from an attack he suffered outside a male brothel, while in exile in Naples. According to Dixon, after the killing in Rome, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he tried to become a Knight of Malta. He was admitted into the order after painting a large altar centerpiece for them. However, because of an altercation with another knight, he had to flee Malta and landed in Naples where he suffered his fatal injury.

Additional information of this nature has added to my confusion, my difficulty in accepting the paradox that was Caravaggio.  The talent was unparalleled, but the human being was ultimately flawed. This difficulty is not mine alone. Italian scientists announced sometime back that they had found what they believed to be the bones of Caravaggio, which contained very high levels of lead leading them to speculate that he may have been suffering from lead poisoning, thus explaining his erratic and violent behaviours. There is some credence to this because paints and pigments used at the time contained high levels of lead. The “madness” of Van Gough was also attributed by some to lead poisoning. However, these scientists had to recant the announcement when it was discovered that the bones examined could not have been Caravaggio’s.

Undoubtedly, his temper was explosive and whether the murder of Renuccio Tomassioni was due to a disputed tennis score or as Graham-Dixon suggested a matter of love, jealousy and uncontrollable lust for a  prostitute, Lavinia, who reputedly bore him a son, it certainly points to an uncontrollable impulsivity resulting in extreme acts of violence. And tortured by guilt does he try to atone for this through his paintings? Are some of his paintings an expression of guilt? Or maybe a plea for forgiveness?

from ATS Italia Editrice

 David with the Head of Goliath. This was painted for Cardinal Borghese between 1609-1610, and is found in the Galleria Borghese. If you look closely, he painted his own face on the head of Goliath. The expression to me in David’s face is neither triumphant nor victorious, it is merely sad. Caravaggio sent this work to the pope hoping to secure his pardon for the murder.

Caravaggio from Wikipedia

I’ve come to appreciate that fully understanding Caravaggio the man may not be possible at this point in time, centuries after the fact, but one thing sure is that he has left us unforgettable images and those we can understand on our terms, we can marvel at, and enjoy!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Churches of Rome: Basilica of San Clemente

According to Wikipedia, there are almost 900 hundred churches in Rome. When you walk the streets, in any neighbourhood, no matter how small, you will, without fail, come across a church or two or three. I have entered quite a number of these churches, large and small, so many actually that they have began to merge together. But one small church located close to the Colosseum, along St. John Latern Road is a stand-out! The Basilica of St. Clement is a small, understated, but decidedly elegant church. It was named after Pope St. Clement, who died about 100 AD, and was the third successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome. Not only is the church beautiful, in my opinion, but also, no other church can rival its history. The walls of San Clemente enclose three separate places of worship built one on top of the other, spanning a period of over two thousand years!

Courtyard of San Clemente

Walking into this church is very different from entering a lot of others. Entering through the main entrance, you first step into a small, peaceful, courtyard with an unpretentious fountain in the middle. 

Interior of San Clemente
The church at the ground level is a medieval basilica, with beautiful cosmatesque floors, reputedly done by the Cosmati brothers themselves, the Cosmati family being the leading marble craftsmen creating this geometric decorative inlaid type of stonework. In front of the altar, the choir is separated from the rest of the congregation by a white marble enclosure bearing the earliest papal insignia, that of John II.

Tree of Life mosaic

Then you see the beautiful Tree of life mosaic from the 1180s on the apse. This depicts the Triumph of the cross, expressed with perfection through colored stone and glass! Truly magnificent!

On the right side, the newly restored chapel of St. Catharine feature frescoes in soft pastel colors of scenes in the life of St. Catharine.

Fresco Madonna and Child

Entering the bookshop, after paying the entrance fee, you proceed down to the excavations. The lower level features the 4th century church. You can walk through the church, encountering frescoes illustrating the life of St. Clemens, a mosaic of St. Cyril in the nave of the church and on the North aisle a Byzantine Madonna and child on a niche, slightly to the left of a hole, reputedly through which in 1857, Fr. Joseph Mulooly, then prior of St. Clement, broke through to the 4th century church after excavations began.

Temple of Mithras

Going down to the next level, lit by florescent tubes, which casts everything in a rather spooky glow, you come upon a 2nd century temple to Mithras, a pre-Zoroastrian Persian god. Mithraism was a very secretive religion. Their temples were usually in caves or made to resemble caves. Little is known of this cult because of its secret nature. It is said that it emphasized loyalty, contacts and friendship between men, especially officers of the army and rulers. There were no known women followers. They were also known to share communal meals as seen from the remains of their temples.

Rooms of Roman House

As you go through this level, you hear the constant flow of water coming from the ancient sewer, the Cloaca Maxima which is still in use. Alongside the temple you can explore several rooms of a Roman house built after the fire of 64 A.D. I continued walking across a narrow alley which brought me to the ground floor rooms of this first century house. I stepped into the first room but the sound of rushing water, coupled with the eerie lighting, the dankness of the surrounding walls and the fact that the three people whom I thought were behind me had turned back, spooked me! I hurried after them!

Before leaving the church, I sat in one of the benches placed along the wall of the courtyard, where a cool breeze wafted through. Beside me, sat an American couple, after a period of silence the wife tells her husband, "this church I like". I agreed with her!