Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In which I wax poetic about drapery, and other things

For some reason, I have a feeling that it's going to get harder and harder to write simple posts about my days in Rome. I thought Florence was packed, but this place is just ridiculous - everywhere I look, there's something interesting to mention. Might as well dive right in, though.

Today, I decided to pick up where I left off yesterday and see the inside of St. Peter's for the first time. When I walked in, I was thinking about what my brother Michael had said about his first time in St. Peter's - at first, it doesn't seem like an extraordinarily large space, but after you are inside for a while, you get to really appreciate how truly huge it is. Michael, I agree with you completely. How skillfully the architects must have planned to make this space seem human. The markers on the floor showing the lengths of other churches were telling - Washington's Immaculate Conception was the largest mentioned, and St. Peter's passes it by several bays.

Here's a quick shot of the interior, and the masses of people thronging through it. The worst is when you end up on the wrong end of a moving tour group, and suddenly they're swarming all around you and knocking into you. I'm very glad I'm not planning on taking any tours.

In the "This is why we can't have nice things" file, here's Michelangelo's Pieta:

The poor thing is set well back into a chapel behind (wouldn't be surprised it it was bulletproof) glass, I'm guessing to protect it after that crazy person attacked it with a chisel a few years ago. Too bad. I enjoyed looking at this famous and beautiful work, but it definitely wasn't as overwhelming as some of the other experiences I've had on this trip.

Now, it's time for me to engage in a little sculpture geekery, and talk about my intense love of drapery carved from marble, one of my favorite things about well-executed marble sculpture.

I don't know the sculptor of this statue of St. Teresa - can anyone help me? I realized shortly after walking into St. Peter's that I could use a comprehensive guide to the art, because it's been a long time since my last Baroque class, and this information is not fresh in my mind. Anyway, I was immediately struck by how skillfully the drapery of the saint's cloak is undercut - it's not visible in the photo, but where her cloak drapes over her left arm, it was possible to see a faint glow of light through the translucent marble. This is the kind of stuff that makes me incredibly excited - I love to see carvers who are willing to take risks with the tensile strength of marble, and succeed.

I can definitely identify this work - it's Bernini's St. Veronica, one of the four figures that appear in niches in the massive piers that support Michelangelo's dome. It's amazing that St. Veronica was able to control her veil long enough to wipe Christ's face, given that she was overcome by sic a terrible windstorm! Seriously, though, just look at how that veil just flits so effortlessly across her body. I love this stuff. And the faintly incised face of Christ on the veil isn't too shabby, either.

And this is where my brain exploded. This is Bernini's tomb for (I think) Pope Alexander VII, and if there's anything I love even more than drapery, it's colored stone. So when you're talking about a giant, magnificent cascade of perfectly rumpled and undercut drapery all rendered in colored marble, well.... I've always felt a pretty strong affinity with Bernini as an artist, and I have a feeling I'm going to be finding little valentines from him in churches all over Rome.

Anyway, that's enough about drapery. I could go on and on and on, but I know not everyone feels the way I do. :)

Katie Wood and I are going to have to get busy - we're already talking about collaborative volumes of essays on taxidermy, science and sculpture and also on the kinetic properties of sculpture, but now I'm thinking we'll need to do one on public art and its interaction with the public, as well. Here's a shot of the feet of a 13th-century statue of St. Peter, with a long queue of people all lined up to rub his feet. In fact, so many people have rubbed his feet over the years that they're just nubbins now. What is going on here? I'd definitely like to think about it some more, because I highly doubt that all the people on that line were rubbing St. Peter's feet for devotional purposes.

So that's enough on St. Peter's for now. I left the church a little after 11, knowing that I will definitely be back, maybe with a better guidebook next time. I still had plenty of time ahead, so I decided to make my way up to another major monument that I've been dying to see:

Yay! Here I am in front of the Ara Pacis! I knew that my visit to Rome would have to involve a trip to see Augustus's Altar of Peace at some point, and today seemed like a good day. It was wonderful to look at the reliefs after having read so many different opinions about them. The processions, the Aeneas, the floral motifs - so great to see them all.

One thing really shocked me, though:

For some reason, I had thought that the Ara Pacis was discovered more or less intact, and that it had remained so ever since it was first erected - I think I had this impression because it always looked so monolithic. But if you look at the photo above, you can see clearly what shocked me - the Ara Pacis as it stands is made up of less than half of its original fabric, set into a modern restoration of plaster and marble! The dark patches that you see in the vegetal motifs above are the real deal, and the rest is all plaster. I took several details of this, which I may use in classes in the future. It's interesting to think about it this way - in actuality, the Ara Pacis is a giant jigsaw puzzle, and it was up to the restorers to create the missing pieces to the best of their ability.

Rather hilarious is the panel below:

You can see the ancient fragments, and the red drawing surrounding them is an artist's conception of what the scene is believed to have been - an image of the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus, and the shepherd who found them. I don't think there's any written evidence to suggest that this was the subject of this relief, and it amazes me that most scholars seem to agree on this subject based on these fabrics. All I see are a head, and a bit of a tree, and a hip. But such is the way with our house of cards that is ancient Roman history!

On my way out of the building, I decided to take a quick shot of the modern structure that houses the Ara Pacis:

I think this building by Richard Meier has its fans and detractors, but personally, I thought it did a great job of housing this important monument, which pretty much speaks for itself.

After leaving the Ara Pacis, my feet were in a pretty unbearable state, and so I thought it might be best to start making my way home, even though it was only around 1pm. I couldn't resist stopping by the Pantheon on the way, though. I won't post my picture of the exterior, because you all know what it looks like, and also because half the facade is currently covered in scaffolding, but here's what I saw when I went in:

The light coming from the oculus is just fantastic. I'm going to have to stop by at different times of the day, to see how it changes.

While I was there, I checked out Raphael's tomb!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Raphael's body is in that box.

Honestly, I really don't get the whole thing about visiting the graves of famous people just to stand there and think about how they're famous. Now, if there's cool sculpture or architecture, I'm all about it, but then I'm there for the art, and not the remains. Honestly, I felt much closer to Raphael yesterday while standing in front of the School of Athens than I did today just a few feet away from his bones.

And one last shot from my walk home:

Bernini's elephant! I've always wanted to see that.

That's all for now, folks. I'll be back tomorrow with more adventures.


  1. 1. Do any of the Vatican's bookstores sell guides to the sculpture in St. Peter's?

    2. Did you touch St. Peter's feet to learn more about the public art experience?

  2. Did you think of Lucy when you saw Bernini's elephant? And could that be an Egyptian goose on the obelisk? Interesting take on Raphael's bones, food for thought. I touched St. Peter's feet about forty years ago! My, my. How many thousands have done so since? Did a double take when I saw the Ara Pacis pavilion; where's the reflecting pool? I've been looking at the Barcelona Pavilion too long. And I'm going on too long but your posts are so great and thought provoking. Wonderful photos! Thanks for including yourself and go back often to the Pantheon.

  3. John - 1. They do sell some guides, but the cheap ones aren't comprehensive, and the others are way too expensive. I'm hoping to find a diagram or something online. 2. I didn't, but I think I will when I go back with Charlie.

    Mama - I did think of Lucy when I saw Bernini's elephant. Also, it very well could be an Egyptian goose, given that's an authentic spoliated Egyptian obelisk.

  4. Nice post! I am also surprised about Ara Pacis although it is not unfamiliar; maybe Mieke told me. The St. Teresa is by Francesco della Valle.

  5. Yay thanks! Well, Francesco della Valle knew what he was doing when it came to drapery, or at least his workshop did.