Sunday 29 April 2012

Chillin' on the Celian

On Sunday, I explored a fascinating bit of underground  Rome; a site that to me at least, is off the beaten path even though it's a mere stone's throw from the Colosseum.

The Case Romane del Celio -- The Roman Houses of the Celio. This is actually a complex on several levels encompassing at least three layers of Roman history dating back to the earliest years of Christianity.

The Celio is one of Rome's seven famous hills, but one of the lesser known, even though it is nestled right in beside the Palatine and gazes upon the Colosseum. I must confess, I hadn't paid much attention myself to the Celio until a reader, Heidi, asked me about it.

When I visited Sunday, I was very surprised by the extent of the complex that basically burrows into the hill, beneath the massive church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul.) In fact, the church itself was once a pagan building, converted at a time when Christianity was still finding its footing in Rome.

According to legend, the story of the building begins in the 2nd century AD when two homes were built on the Celian hill, near a temple dedicated to the emperor Claudius. In the third century, a third home was built by a man who then purchased the earlier two and combined them into a single building.

Christian decorations dating from this period, as well as a hidden cemetery, have been found on the site. Legend has it that two Roman military officers, John and Paul, were executed for their Christian beliefs and their bodies were buried here. However, it seems that story has been debunked.

Still, the house was venerated by early Christians, to the degree that in the 5th century, a large church was built over the burial area of the house and dedicated to saints John and Paul.

Apparently over the centuries, the earlier homes were built upon; shops set up above; all kinds of uses were made but in that most Roman of traditions, the new was always built on top of the old so nothing was really destroyed, just reconfigured.

Which is fortunate for us. The site, which is not well advertised or promoted in Rome, is a fascinating warren of rooms, large and small, some with lovely fresco fragments, others with marble altars decorated with small mosaics.

The entrance to the Roman Houses complex is on the very picturesque Clivo di Scauro, which translates as the Scairis Climb. There are numerous ruins alongside this street, which dates to the 2nd century BC and was named for the magistrate who built it. Above this ancient street are numerous arches which are actually mediaeval buttresses supporting the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo. 

I think that it's well worth finding this off-the-beaten path spot!

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Galleria Doria Pamphilj (and the family feud)

Has everyone visited the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj? It's right smack in the middle of Rome, just off the frantic Piazza Venezia, yet I imagine people walk past it all the time without realizing what a gem is in their midst.

There are a lot of things to love about this palazzo, where the family still lives (at least some of the family, some of the time.) There is, of course, some great art: a couple of Caravaggios, Titians, and other Big Names in Italian art.

Yet the palazzo is small enough that it doesn't feel overwhelming. I spent a couple of hours here today and left still able to stand up straight. I did not feel swamped by an overload of great art. Plus, there are chairs all over the place, so it's possible to sit and absorb the surroundings, from time to time. Plus, I have never seen it terribly crowded.

Plus, I love the free audio guide which is mostly narrated by one of the last remaining descendants of the Doria Pamphilj clan.

Plus, the exhibition is as much about the palazzo -- and its history, its various small apartments and wings, and its beautiful courtyard -- as it is about the art.

But there is lots of art to enjoy, never fear. In addition to Caravaggio (that's his St. John the Baptist just above) and Tintoretto, there are works by Correggio, Annibale and Lodovico Carracci, Bellini, Parmigianino and Flemish masters including Jan and Pieter Bruegel the elders, Rubens, and Hans Memling.

Also here are Titian's Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, and Bernini's Bust of Innocent X, whose sister-in-law started this entire art collection, which is still privately held by the family.

Speaking of the family, according to Wikipedia,  the collection was first opened to the public by Orietta Pogson Doria Pamphilj, whose English husband Frank Pogson added her name to his. Princess Orietta and Don Frank did much to restore the collection and the palazzo.  Following her death in 2000, guardianship of the collection was taken over by her adopted, English-born, children, Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj (who formed a Civil Partnership with Elson Edeno Braga and has two children, Emily and Filippo Andrea VII); and Donna Gesine Pogson Doria Pamphilj (married to Massimiliano Floridi, with four daughters, Anna, Elisa, Orietta and Irene).

(Photo of  Jonathan and Gesine below from The Telegraph newspaper in London.)

They all still have apartments in the palazzo, although the British press has been filled with stories about a bitter court battle between Jonathan and his sister over whether his children, born to surrogate mothers, should be allowed to inherit the family fortune. Jonathan argues his children should have the same legal standing as her children.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

A walk through history in Rome's Ghetto

This afternoon, I was walking through the Ghetto -- one of Rome's most historic and fascinating neighbourhoods -- when the plaques on this wall and others on the ground reminded me that it wasn't so long ago that this Jewish neighborhood was devastated by the Holocaust.

I am certain that I've walked this street before, but today was the first time I noticed the collection of plaques on the wall at the beginning of Via della Reginella, where it leads off Via del Portico d'Ottavia.

It was also the first time I noticed these small brass plaques among the cobblestones in front of certain old apartment buildings.

They're a bit hard to read, thanks to my less than great skills as a photog. But this one says:

 "Qui abitava
Leone Pavoncello
Nato 1902
Arrestato 13.4.1944
Ottobre 1944"

Several of these brass markers lie along this street, commemorating some of the 2,100 Jewish victims of the Holocaust -- and of the Second World War more generally. I say that, because I noticed one plaque was dedicated to a Jewish man who was among the 330 Romans randomly rounded up by the Nazi forces and assassinated at the Fosse Ardeatine outside Rome on March 24, 1944. The round-up occured in retaliation for an attack on German soldiers by Italian partisans.

Rome is brimming with history from so many ages.

At the end of Via della Reginella, the pain of the past is tempered a bit where the street opens up into the Piazza Mattei, with its delightful Fontana delle Tartarughe (Tortoise Fountain.) This Baroque fountain was created by Giacomo della Porta with the tortoises added later by the great sculptor Bernini.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Ancient Rome on a rainy day

What to do on a rainy Saturday in Rome? Go to a museum, of course. Especially since today is the first day of Italy's Settimana della Cultura -- Culture Week. This being Italy, culture week is actually 9 days long. After all, why not extend a good thing for as long as possible?!

What's great about Culture Week is that entry to almost all national museums, monuments and other important sites is free. This can mean significant savings, for families and for down-at-heel writers like me.

So, off I went today to visit the National Museum of Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. I especially love the frescoes including those in the above photo. These frescoes, which date from the 1st century AD, were taken from the Villa of Livia Drusilla, the third wife of Augustus.

The museum is a virtual treasure trove of  antiquity: from ancient statues to frescos to mosaics that have all been discovered and preserved, to give us a sense of what life was like 2,000 years ago. The museum is  housed in a gorgeous 19th century villa, is spacious, and its exhibits are clearly marked and explained in English as well as Italian (always helpful!)

What should I visit next? The Galleria Borghese, the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini, or the Doria-Pamphilj gallery?

There has been a bit of controversy here in Rome around this year's event, the 14th that the national government has sponsored. For the first time, some of Rome's most popular attractions will be excluded from Culture Week: visitors will have to pay to see the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill.

The event has always been popular, exposing both Italians and visitors alike to some of the country's national art and archaeological wonders.

The sheer volume of the international treasures to be found in Italy is staggering. As of 2011, Italy was home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. It boasts 47 sites among the 936 on the list collected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Sunday 1 April 2012

My favourite hidden cafe in Rome

I've talked before about this spot, but it really is a favourite -- so much so, that I recently sold a news article about it to the English-language feature service of Italian news agency ANSA.

Only a short stroll away from the chaos of Rome's Piazza Navona is an oasis of historic beauty, calm, contemplation -- and cappuccino.

The Chiostro del Bramante -- Bramante's Cloister -- once sheltered religious orders living apart from the bustling Renaissance Rome that surrounded them.

Today, its quality cafe, large bookshop, rotating art exhibitions, and air of serenity shelter Romans and guests alike from the bustling modern Rome that surrounds them.

The modern operation is the product of one family's desire to bring an historic Roman structure back to life, by giving it a new reason for existence.

“This was my mother's idea,” explains Laura de Marco, director of the Chiostro complex. “When she saw it for the first time, she immediately understood that this is perfect to organize exhibitions.”

Since 1996, the family has managed the Chiostro as a small enterprise through a single-purpose organization called Dart. The Vatican still owns the Chiostro, which was commissioned in about 1500 by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa and designed by Donato Bramante, a leading Renaissance architect for Pope Julius II and a great rival of Michelangelo.

The design of the Chiostro, as was typical during the Renaissance, was inspired by classical architecture, with very few decorative elements applied by Bramante. The common rooms of the original cloister were situated on the ground floor and the living quarters on the first floor.

These areas now host cultural events. And at the base of each large pillar of the open gallery on the first floor are seats once used by the monks and now by the public, as places to sit and read, chat, or relax over a coffee, a cocktail, or a bite to eat from the trendy cafe.

The Chiostro is also attached to the small Renaissance church of Santa Maria della Pace, where in 1514 the master painter Raphael frescoed the Four Sibyls receiving Angelic Instruction above the arch of the Chigi Chapel, commissioned by Agostino Chigi, the papal banker.

Unfortunately, the church is not often open to the public; however, an extra-special feature of the Chiostro is its reading room with a large window that looks directly into the church and onto Raphael's sibyls.

Besides the cafe, bookshop, and reading room on the first floor of the Chiostro, yoga classes are held on the second storey. After all, explains de Marco, the practice of yoga fits with the Chiostro's overall purpose.

“We think that it's important to have a spiritual, meditative connection,” she says.

Still, one of the best known functions of the modern Chiostro is its rotating art exhibitions, which date from its first show in 1997 featuring works of pop artist Andy Warhol (who was featured again in another exhibition a decade later.)

Other exhibitions have featured works from the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, representing the modernist movement in the Catalan region; modern photographers; and many Italian painters, including the Venetian masters including Pisanello, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo as well as Italian artists painting at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The newest exhibition began in mid-March 2012: “MirĂ³! Poetry and Light,” featuring the works of the late Spanish artist Joan MirĂ³.