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The Crass, Beautiful Eternal City

Embassy of Brazil in Rome
The gallery of the Palazzo Pamphilj, with frescoes by Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, Rome

It is not surprising to find this avid outdoorsman recounting the awful choreography of the ancient gladiatorial games with gleeful relish at the grossness of it all, but an equal and opposite passion ignites his writing about Raphael, an artist of infallible decorum as well as towering genius, to whom Hughes pays tribute without a shred of irony:

Raphael was the ideal secular as well as religious painter, faultless in his production, his meanings always clear as springwater, his saints holy, his men noble and thoughtful, his women desirable, his technique impeccable. What other artist could have painted two little angels like Raphael’s into an Assumption of the Virgin, giving them an enchanting air of childish detachment while not distracting at all from the majesty of the event? The answer is: none.

All our present-day artistic heroes are here, of course: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Francis Bacon (whose serial portraits of the Baroque Pope Innocent X are dwarfed, however, by the Velázquez original in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery), but Hughes also directs his readers to formerly immortal classicists like Poussin and Canova, reminding us that a painting like Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, with its tranquil landscape, voluptuous shepherds, and shiver of death, is as charged with eros and longing as Michelangelo’s muscular ignudi or Caravaggio’s naughty boys. Rome is the place where Hughes put aside his own Catholicism, but he still addresses religious art with respectful empathy, whether he touches on the shimmer of the twelfth-century apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente, with its lush, spiraling tree of life, or the spiritual climax of Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, as powerful an evocation of passionate love, divine or human, as has ever been hewn from marble, and yet all we see of the transported saint, aside from a frantic tangle of drapery, is a limp hand, a curling foot, and her slack, half-conscious face.

Hughes marvels over and over again at Bernini’s volcanic energy, a quality that also emerges from Franco Mormando’s new biography of Baroque Rome’s most successful artist, and rogue, about town.1 Importantly, Mormando also brings out the insecurity that lay behind that relentless productivity; this was a man who, at the apex of his career, still regarded his own achievement as temporary (like another transcendent spirit, John Keats, whose epitaph, “one whose name is writ on water,” is actually writ on a stone in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery). A ruthless self-critic as well as a great artist (the two qualities are, of course, related), Bernini understood that his contemporary and rival Francesco Borromini was an architect on an order that he himself could never match, one reason, perhaps, that Bernini underpaid Borromini so badly when they both worked on the baldacchino of St. Peter’s.

Bernini was not a nice man; he paid a thug to slash the face of his mistress Costanza after catching her in bed with his brother Luigi. Before that incident, however, he had carved a portrait of Costanza, plump and tousled, looking as if she has just risen from bed; it is perfectly clear what both Bernini boys saw in her. In recent years this irresistibly vivid woman has always been known as Costanza Bonarelli, but, as Sarah McPhee reveals in her new study Bernini’s Beloved,2 Costanza’s maiden name was Piccolomini; she was a woman of some consequence, the descendant of a noble Sienese family that produced two Renaissance popes. Although her recovery from Bernini’s attack seems to have been prolonged by complications (the wound took more than a month to heal), she continued to live in Rome for the rest of her life, prospering later as an independent art dealer.

The fact that Hughes barely mentions the third member of Rome’s Baroque troika of architects, Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, reflects one of the persistent problems with art in the city. For all its brilliance, Pietro’s work is simply inaccessible to most people. An architect of exceptional talent, he was also the foremost fresco painter of his day, but his built masterpiece, the church of Santi Luca e Martina by the Forum, is almost always closed these days (and its glorious dome has been swathed in a pigeon-proof net); it was under restoration, but money for cultural projects in Silvio Berlusconi’s money-mad Italy has somehow been hard to find.

Another major project, the church of Santa Maria della Pace, was closed for decades and is now open only a few days a week; his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pamphilj in Piazza Navona (now the Brazilian embassy), with its scenes from Vergil’s Aeneid and its chubby red-clad Cupid cannonballing across the heavens, is open only by special permission and will never be available to most readers of Rome. Many of the secret chambers of the city are as marvelous as the ones that have been put on public display. Fortunately, just about any street within the compass of the Aurelian Walls, the fortification put up to repel the barbarians in 271–275, will disclose its own intimate treasures.

And as Hughes reminds us, we could have lost it all, just as we lost Dresden, in the same cataclysm. Only a few bombs fell on Rome during World War II, enough to destroy the ancient basilica of San Lorenzo (he of the grill and drippings), but the rest of the city was largely spared. Only one street still bears the scars of shrapnel from the war. This is Via Rasella, where on March 23, 1944, a partisan bomb concealed in a trash cart blew up a column of Nazi soldiers and led to a ten-for-one reprisal, 335 Romans slaughtered in a quarry outside town known as the Fosse Ardeatine. The Fosse Ardeatine are still very much with the Romans; only this year, another of the victims was definitely identified by DNA testing.

But the threats to Rome’s survival did not slink away with the Nazis. Two ruthless forces menace the city today, and Hughes is fierce in attacking them both. One is mass tourism, by now such a significant force in the Roman economy that it seems unlikely to come under control. The other is mass indifference, brought on by the distractions of contemporary life. Indifference is hardly a modern invention. Alaric and the Visigoths rampaged through Rome in 410 without giving a care to its beauties or its cultural significance. The German Landesknecht mercenaries who sacked the city in 1527 occasionally thought of themselves as religious crusaders, but any motives other than bloodlust and greed were really afterthoughts. Steve Jobs and Silvio Berlusconi have taken different tacks; but they, too, are old news in Rome. The ancients were also obsessed with decorative gadgetry, and perhaps an outmoded clepsydra, or water clock, looked as sad to them as an outmoded Mac today. As for Berlusconi’s bimbos, the ancient playwright Terence complained already in the first century BCE about losing his audience to the rope dancer in the theater next door.

Scala/Art Resource
Raphael: The Parnassus, 1511, detail showing Apollo and the Muses; fresco from the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Palace

Mass tourism was already annoying Romans in the days when trouser-clad Gauls brought down the tone in the Colosseum—real men, after all, wore togas and plucked their armpits. But the problem in a world of seven billion people is more acute than it was in the days when Rome’s million inhabitants were the largest concentration of humanity in the world. One by one, old shops in the center of the contemporary city have been transformed into brightly lit, white-paneled emporia packed to bursting with cheap Chinese-made souvenirs. Some of these places are clearly money-laundering operations for a variety of mafias, some are legitimate small businesses, but their general effect on the cityscape is as dire as the proliferation of pubs, bars, and liquor automats that has destroyed real life in neighborhoods like Trastevere and Ponte Milvio by attracting aimless mobs of drunken youth to guzzle, litter, shout, fight, and urinate.

To call this collective pub crawl the movida as if we were in the Madrid of early Almodóvar is to ignore what really makes the Roman movida move: international liquor companies and more mafia. A metastasizing population of tour buses also chokes Rome’s few broad streets, parking illegally, spewing exhaust fumes, and throttling the flow of public transport, thanks to a succession of mayors who number success in the curious unit of presenze turistiche—touristic presences.

In 1972, the writer Giorgio Bassani, a longtime resident of Rome, came to New York to promote a new organization, Italia Nostra, devoted to a vision of conservation that includes monuments together with natural wonders. As Bassani declared on that occasion:

The monuments of Italy or any other country are part of Nature, which, in turn, is part of history. No one can deny that it is in the nature of human beings to build cities, with temples, marketplaces, piazzas, and narrow streets. To say that these must be destroyed because Nature is forests and grass is as barbaric as saying that grass and forests must make room for parking lots, superhighways, and dumps for indestructible, or monumental, garbage.3

If Bassani, who died in 2000, could see what has happened to the countryside around Rome, where grass and forests have made way for shopping centers and wildcat housing projects, he would be fulminating like Moses on Mount Sinai, or Robert Hughes in full throttle en route to the Sistine Chapel:

Mass tourism has turned what was a contemplative pleasure for Goethe’s contemporaries into an ordeal more like a degrading rugby scrum. The crowd of ceiling seekers is streamed shoulder to shoulder along a lengthy, narrow, windowless, and claustrophobic corridor in which there is no turning back. At last it debouches into an equally crowded space, the chapel itself, which scarcely offers room to turn around. These are the most trying conditions under which I have ever looked at art.

The problem is, if anything, worse in the Raphael rooms that precede the Sistine Chapel, the intimate apartment of Pope Julius II—hence not so intimate as all that, but not equipped to hold thronging thousands who cannot take the time, or find the space, to experience Raphael’s graceful unfolding of world history, human and divine. There are still people living today, all by now of retirement age, who have been fortunate enough to see these places when they naturally inspired quiet awe rather than claustrophobia, but now, like Rome itself, they have been commodified unto death, and it is hard to see how new generations can ever muster the same passion to preserve them. As Giorgio Bassani said in 1972 (but might have said yesterday):

Monuments are not decoys to attract the tourist and keep him awed while the innkeepers and boutique owners despoil him of his pennies, nor are they stone prostitutes kept barely alive by the procurer government. They are reminders (this is the meaning of the word) of what we still are, in spite of television and cars, and we very much need them in order to remain what we are, and not become savages again.

Robert Hughes has written an eloquent book to drive home that very point.


The Bombing of San Lorenzo February 9, 2012

Do the Angels Mourn? January 12, 2012

  1. 1

    Bernini: His Life and His Rome (University of Chicago Press, 2011). 

  2. 2

    Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved: A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (Yale University Press, April 2012). 

  3. 3

    Scientific Patriot,” The New Yorker, April 15, 1972. My thanks to Portia Prebys for this reference. 

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