Posted on September 1, 2015
Ask a friend heading off to Rome what they’re going to see and the Sistine Chapel will be on the short list. When they come home, they’ll tell you that the Sistine Chapel was so magnificent. And that they got a sore neck just looking up so very long. True. But no one tells you how much bother can be involved with the Sistine experience — or how to make it hassle free.
Because if you decide to do the Sistine the old style way, you’ll be in the ticket line for an hour or more. And once you’re in that famous little Chapel, you’ll find there’s way too many people pushing against you to be completely charming.
Many smart travelers avoid the line by doing a Sistine Chapel tour. Sign up for it online, show up at the meeting spot, the ticket line is avoided. Plus there are some excellent Vatican tour guides out there.
But… But regardless of whether you take that tour or go solo, once you get in, it’s still gonna be crowded in the little chapel.
So on this trip, I tried a different tactic, the early (8 am) tour. Several tour companies provide this early entrance tour. It costs $10 or $15 more but you eliminate the crowds for that entire first hour — and see stuff you might not find otherwise. You’re not alone, several tour groups offer the early morning variation. But you avoid the real crowds.
I signed up for one the WalksOfItaly.com tours, “Pristine Sistine.” And it was great. Our guide has been doing that tour for years. He gave just the right amount of detail going from one sight to the next. Artistic, historical, biographical info that an academic would know — shared in a way that was fun and observant.
But my favorite part was him showing us to the Raphael Rooms before anyone else arrived. Sweet.
The Raphael Rooms began life in the early 1500s as a private waiting area, the place the Pope put his important visitors before the formal meeting:
The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) form a suite of reception rooms in the place, the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican. They are famous for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Together with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome. [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
But let’s step back and put Raphael into his time. Rafael Sanzio, 8 years younger than Michelangelo, had taken a far different route than from the older painter. (Michelangelo had phenomenal luck in getting in with the Medici so young.) Raphael’s father had been a court painter, so painting was his cultural DNA. He apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, one of the best painters of the time. The young teen apprentice would have started off as studio boy who handled basic art prep and every other chore he was given.
According to Vasari, the great biographer of that age, Perugino instantly saw Raphael’s talent and soon the young man was intimately involved with the master’s painting projects:
… while Raphael studied Pietro’s style, he imitated it so exactly and in all its details that his portraits could not be distinguished from his master’s originals. [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists].
Raphael was a fast learner and by the time he had finished his stint as apprentice he was on the road to Florence, the town in Italy where the art form was being reinvented. Florence was like the way San Francisco was to the Counter Culture; like how New York still is to many dancers and artists. Florence was the Renaissance.
Raphael wanders into this scene at its height. Leonardo hadn’t gone up to France yet and he enjoyed the young kid with the flowing talent. Michelangelo is already down in Rome hard at work on the Sistine. Florence in 1500 wasn’t much larger than Santa Fe is. But the entire city state was aware that something new was in the air. The Renaissance explosion was something shared by artists, writers, thinkers, architects, and the Medici themselves.
Raphael spent the next 4 years on and off in Florence, connecting with some of the best artists and thinkers of the age, mastering the fine points of Renaissance painting:
[When] This exceptional painter … saw the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they made him apply himself with great intensity to his studies, and, as a result, make extraordinary improvements in his art and style. [Vasari]
Then, like Michelangelo, Raphael realized that Rome was the source of the best commissions — and that he wouldn’t have trouble getting commissions. Raphael’s friend Bramante (also from Urbino) had been working for Pope Julius II and convinced the pope to give Raphael a commission. So at 25, Raphael made the journey. That commission was the first of the Raphael Rooms.
Note: By 1500, The Catholic Church was supporting the arts at a level we can’t imagine — because in an age when congregations can’t read, art becomes the tool for communication. A painting could suggest the devotion of Mary, the journey up to Calvary or the sacrifice of the saints. That’s why the church fathers were hiring. And that’s why we have all these amazing works of art. Then as now, money drives the arts.
Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 and was hired almost immediately to paint the first of what would become the Raphael Rooms. But in that universe, artists weren’t the free agents they are now. Painters relied almost exclusively on paid commissions and were expected to please the patron. So when Pope Julius II hired the 25 year old, he made it clear what he expected.
The first room Raphael worked on, called Stanza della Segnatura, tells us what the Pope was after. It has a fresco on each of the four walls and the ceiling. But two particular wall-sized frescos tell the story — once you deconstruct the visuals. The “School of Athens” and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” are both important paintings. And both tell us why art was such a major part of the Church’s budget.
The first of these paintings shows the great philosopher/scientists of ancient Athens. This wise and harmonious group of men have Plato and his student, Aristotle, at the center. The painting is a good example of how educated Italians viewed their intellectual predecessors. And clearly, these scientists and philosophers were held in great regard. [Click on the image to give a closer look.]
But why did the pope choose to have this painting in his main reception area? As we’ll see, the pope was merely using this painting as an example of the old (i.e. pre-Catholic) approach to knowledge. So for this picture, Pope Julius just needed Raphael to invoke the idea of a gathering of Greek wise men.
Raphael wanted this fresco to be something far more. He was going to show off his chops to the money guys. So Raphael handled the pope’s requirements in a way that’s uniquely his own.
Remember, Raphael has been hanging with the top folks in Florence for the last 4 years. And to the Florence thinkers, the ancients are the cornerstone of the Renaissance. All the old philosophers were being rediscovered in Florence — and giving the Renaissance thinkers a confirmation that they were on the right track. So a painting like this was sending the thought leaders of Florence a message:
The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
This painting, one of Raphael’s most thoughtful, evokes the inner harmony of those ancient thinkers. This formal composition, set in some idealized temple of thought, is what the Renaissance means to Raphael.
The two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward … into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane … initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, his empiricist views. [Wikipedia, School of Athens]
Renaissance though includes both those philosophical impulses. And notice that for each major figure, the subject’s psyche is expressed through their physicality — a key Renaissance art principle.
Raphael also shows his personal feelings by using friends and associates as models for many of the famous Greeks. Raphael seems to have had Leonardo in mind when he painted Plato. The philosopher Heraclitus, leaning on the stone block, is a likeness of Michelangelo. And the young guy looking into the camera on the far right, that’s Raphael.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament
On the opposite wall, the painter gives us the real vision of truth that his boss, Pope Julius II, was trying to promote:
Here we have an idealized landscape with two main structural elements, a golden Heavenly Realm and below a gathering of Church elders. If you look at this picture with the eyes of a Renaissance Catholic, you can start to decode it’s deep meaning. Each of the subjects in this scene was based on a character in the Roman Catholic universe:
In the painting, Raphael has created a scene spanning both heaven and earth. Above, Christ is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and various biblical figures such as Adam, Jacob and Moses. God the Father sits above Jesus, depicted reigning over the golden light of heaven, and below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit . [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
Below this heavenly realm, we see the great thinkers of the Church from the past and present — including the pope that hired Raphael. Putting one’s patron into a Jesus or Mary painting was fairly common. But here Raphael is telling us more, that yes, our own living, breathing Pope Julius is part of the sacred grace and wisdom that flows down from on high.
Each painting stands on its own. But remember, in this room, two frescos with the same basic theme are facing each other. And that implied comparison signifies that the two visions of wisdom and greatness are a kind of before and after. This is how the wise Greeks did it. And they were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. But, with “Disputation,” the pope is telling us that the Christian model of Truth goes even beyond the reality of Plato and Aristotle. Because our church’s understanding of truth stretches from priest to church elders and the pope all the way up to the Holy Trinity. That’s the not-so-secret message of this room.
But of course, Raphael isn’t a painter of platitudes. The kid took a basic commission and turned it into one of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance. And he was able to give both paintings a level of thoughtful grace that transcends technique and message:
The compositions, though very carefully conceived in drawings, achieve “sprezzatura”, a term invented by his [Raphael’s] friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless …” [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Each painting evokes a specific aspect of human thought, each character manifests their humanity in their physicality and character. And together the paintings give us an intriguing insight into the Italian thought of the time.
Other Paintings – Deliverance of St. Peter
“Disputation of the Sacrament” and the “School of Athens” give Pope Julius’ basic paradigm. But the other paintings in these private chambers expand on that basic paradigm.
The Deliverance of St. Peter, painted around a window bay in the Stanza di Eliodoro, shows the story of Saint Peter being liberated by an angel for Herod‘s prison. The painting is in three parts — kinda like a comic that’s been drawn to scale. In the left panel, the guards (in Renaissance armor) are awakened to see a strange light emanating from Peter’s cell. Top center shows us the angel freeing Peter from chains. And the right panel shows them walking past the slumbering guards.
The whole thing is a wonderfully dramatic retelling of an incident in Acts 12. The painting reminds the viewer that the Church has harnessed a higher power works in ways beyond our human understanding. Peter was the foundation on which the Church was built and this image brings the power of that relationship home.
The painting is also infused with Rafael’s special magic. The angel is managing the prison guards like a Jedi knight. The escape is handled with the simplicity of parable and the transcendent elegance that Raphael embodies.
Expulsion of Heliodorus
The other major work in this room is called, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple”:
It illustrates the biblical episode from 2 Maccabees (3:21-28). Heliodorus is ordered by Seleucus IV Philopator, the king of Syria, to seize the treasure preserved in the Temple in Jerusalem…. But the money had been reserved for widows and orphans and God sent down a horseman to drive him [Heliodorus] from the temple. [Wikipedia]
Notice that among the poor widows and orphans is a bearded man on a raised litter — who looks just like Pope Julius II. But the more important part of the message from our sponsors is don’t steal from the church or else.
There’s also an interesting stylistic issue associated with this fresco. Notice the intense physical dynamism in this painting, especially on the right side. Angels flying through the air, a horse rears up, Heliodorus is punished. This is not the overly balanced composition we’ve seen in Raphael’s earlier work. At this point in his life, Raphael’s starting to stretch his craft in new directions.
The fresco was painted between 1511 and 1512. And we know that Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel even before it was completed in 1512. Raphael’s friend, Bramante, gave him access to the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo’s approval. And, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was fiercely angry about that.
The Sistine Chapel paintings were a watershed moment in the Renaissance, a formal effort by Michelangelo to inject physical dynamism and immediacy into what was then a fairly static medium. The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Raphael’s experimentation. But Raphael’s women don’t have the broad-shouldered muscularity you see in the Sistine Chapel women. And his color palette has it’s usual subtlety. As always, Raphael integrated new ideas in a way that was uniquely his own.
After The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael continued his explorations far beyond the Raphael Rooms — especially in terms of his ability to explore human experience through the medium. Earlier, when he studied Leonardo’s work in Florence, Raphael didn’t have the life experience. He couldn’t touch the level of portraiture we see in Mona Lisa. But Raphael’s later work is moving in that direction.
By 1520, Raphael was dead; dead at 37. Renaissance painters mostly followed the lead of Michelangelo towards Mannerism. The balance and harmony of Raphael wasn’t punchy and it was just too hard for most painters to pull off. Eventually Mannerism got more over-the-top and ornate and… Baroque.
But Raphael continued to be studied by leading painters well into the 19th Century. The great Joshua Reynolds summed up the importance of Raphael from the mid-1700s perspective:
The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature, the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Posted on June 24, 2015
One of the more interesting churches in Rome is Santa Maria della Vittoria. This small church is about 8 blocks north of the Termini train station. The church is open until noon and then from 3:30 to 6 or so (time is of casual interest when it comes to church visiting hours).
Vittoria is the church that has the Bernini sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. And the place is a classic example of a little church with a world-class art work. The church itself was built in the early 1600s and the interior came together later in that century. It’s not much to see from the outside:
This is the Baroque era and the church has some of the overbuilt feel from that era. But it’s nowhere near as over the top as the Gesu or as ornate as St Peter’s Basilica.
Typical of Baroque, almost every inch of surface area is covered with decoration or highly detailed marble. The alter features a Bernini starburst and a fresco.
The ceiling is a bit of a trompe l’oeil that looks like it’s about the fall of Icarus. But the actual content celebrates a battle between the Church and some pesky Protestants that’s called “The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels.”
But we came for the Bernini sculpture and that’s off to the left in an alcove. Bernini was a devout Catholic, one who understood the deeper teachings better than most. And the writings of St. Teresa of Avila seem to have inspired him, this is one of his greatest works.
Teresa was a true Christian “mystic” — not the type who was weird and incomprehensible. No, Teresa was the real deal. Her autobiography and other writings give a cogent and detailed analysis of her spiritual practices and her experiences.
One of my buddies, Evie Toft, did her dissertation comparing Teresa’s experiences with enlightened folks from other traditions. It turns out that there are lots of similarities in these Unity experiences once you strip away the differences in vocabulary.
And Bernini clearly knows Teresa’s writings. His sculpture shows us the key moment in her autobiography when she feels an angel penetrate her heart. The shafts of gold suggest her experience of union with the Divine.
You can see the almost fiendish glee of the angel. But the real drama lies in Teresa’s body and face. Somehow Bernini manages to get it just right, that mixture of pure bliss, pure openness, floating in the cloud of Unknowing. It’s a feeling that clearly overwhelms her with joy beyond her rational brain and her ego. Teresa’s connection with this experience is almost sexual in its totality.
The rest of the church is nice. Bernini’s sunburst alter piece seems to me to be an extension of the Teresa experience but seen as an abstract explosion of grace. But maybe he just had some extra gold leaf to get rid of.
Posted on June 24, 2015
I’ve been traveling recently. Taking lots of photos. But not having much time to post. Hopefully I can free up a block of time now. We’ve been doing a cruise of the Greek Islands (with a stop in Athens) and I will post some of those shots soon. But let’s start with where I am right now, Rome.
I’ve been to Italy before but wasn’t as prepared for the experience then and didn’t have much time. Now I have a week in Rome and my best discovery has been the churches. Obviously Rome has more than it’s share of churches. Most travelers will hit the Vatican and swing by the Sistine Chapel and St Peters. But to me, that’s just scratching the surface.
Savvy travelers know that some of the best travel experiences come when you wander into a church you’ve never heard of and discover impressive works of art and a place for reflection.
But on this trip to Italy I’ve decided to go one step further, researching holy sites that would appeal to my artistic and spiritual interests. I did some reading and looked online for images of churches that seemed special in some way. Here’s the first of my favorites.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Santa Maria sopra Minerva (let’s just call it Minerva) is one short block south of the Pantheon and just a few blocks east of Piazza Navona. It got it’s name because the site was the site of a temple to Minerva in Roman times.
The first church was built on the site in the 8th Century. It was totally rebuilt in the 1200s. You can see that in the general layout of the place, a long central area and not much in the way of side chapels — special alcoves are an architectural element that gets more developed in later churches.
The interior got a major renovation in the Baroque era. So like lots of other Roman churches, Minerva is a living history. And if you look closely you can see how these ancient sites are reimagined every few hundred years.
The exterior of the church is fairly simple. It’s a cream-white that has a Bernini sculpture you can’t miss, an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. Quite cool. The entrance faces west.
Step inside and once you get used to the light, you notice how long the church is. The ceiling isn’t like many Baroque churches, no dome, no trompe l’oeil ceiling painting. Instead you have this deep blue firmament trimmed in gold.
The alter area is fairly simple as well. But behind it are some tasteful stained glass windows and the blue ceiling gets more elaborate frescos here.
To the left of the alter area is a statue of Christ, thoughtful as he stands there holding a small cross. The statue is by Michelangelo. Not one of his major works but beautiful.
I generally avoid shooting art works on their own as you’d do in an art catalogue. That’s a popular approach with first time photographers. But I find that just capturing a photo of a sculpture or painting can lead to a static approach that tends to bore the viewer. So I shot this one from the side and pulled in the southern section of the church as my background element.
From this vantage, you can see an alcove. It holds a painting by the great Medieval artist, Fra’ Filippo Lippi.
Lippi is pre-Rennasaince so you don’t get a true perspective. But his work has a purity and sense of wonder that transcends the era.
The alcove on the other side has no art by anyone particularly famous. But I liked the way the entrance sculpture and the painting played off each other.
Minerva is worth a stop if you’re visiting Rome.
Posted on April 16, 2015
Folks who’ve been to Italy know that one of the cool thing about the churches is that you get to see great art in the places they were created for. I guess you can theoretically do that here in the USA. But here, you don’t have many churches that want to spend that much for their art, or great artists who want to paint a ceiling for 16 years. In Italy, you step into some off-the-beaten-path church and there’s an alter piece by Titian or a sculpture by Bernini.
The Sistine Chapel is the prime example of this. An entire ceiling that captures the spiritual and artistic understanding of Michelangelo. It’s like seeing our cultural DNA mapped out over our heads. Of course, with the massive crowds, your Sistine Chapel experience is also reminiscent of wading through a Tokyo subway station.
In contrast, many churches in Rome or Venice can still offer an intimate and even spiritual experience. You can sit there and take in the space and the art in your own time. Add a bit of prayer or meditation and you can almost imagine yourself a part of a 16th Century congregation.
And as I think through where I’d like to go in Rome next month, I’ve been reading up on a couple of books that cover the churches and the art they hold. The Churches of Rome by Beny and Gunn has some great details about the churches with text that walks the reader thorough the various historical eras.
The book is a great reminder that these places of worship have been displaying the core religious, artistic, architectural and cultural trends in Rome for 2,000 years.
Churches of Rome by Grimal and Rose doesn’t get into the historical details and is more issue oriented. But this book has amazing shots of the churches by Caroline Rose. Both books help to fill in the blanks for anyone who wants the context of these artistic repositories.
The challenge for me (or anyone) planning a trip to Rome is twofold. First, which churches are worth a visit? I’m spending more time in Rome than most tourists and I’ll return several times before the book is done. But I do a photo shoot at each church. And it takes time to breath in a location and capture its spirit. So which of the 200+ churches to cover?
The second challenge is more complicated – the context. If you saw several of Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings side by side with zero context, your initial reaction might be, “What’s with this guy? He’s doing the same exact painting over and over but with different colors.”
But, realize that those Monet paintings were experiments in light and perception and you start to go deeper into the dynamics of the art work. This issue plays out at the churches of Rome on far grander scale.
Decoding the Art
One of the huge travel with art and travel is decoding what you’re taking in. All those pictures start to look the same – even if you understand composition. Because every single work of art has a story, an artist who lived that experience, an economic system that supported him or her, and a cultural history. That’s why so many people take tours, to get the backstory.
For example, lets just look at one church that was in my new books. San Clemente because a church when a pre-existing Roman building was consecrated some time before 385. This Roman building was built on top of a Second Century Mithra temple (shown in Caroline Rose’s photo). The Mithra cult involved sacrificing bulls as you can see.
Then a new church got built above the old one in 1108. Back then, they used to pile up the rubble from old ruins in the area and continue up. It saved on demolition costs. The church of San Clemente was restored in the 1700s, probably to deal with structural problems and more importantly, to add frescos that would evoke the Church’s current Baroque approach to religious art. The Catholic Church became more disciplined in the artistic messages they put in their churches after the Counter-Reformation.
Here’s Caroline Rose’s photo of the upper church.
What you’re seeing here is a floor structure and tiles from (I believe) the 12th Century. That amazing gold colored mosaic behind the alter is also from that initial 12 Century construction –builders often kept mosaics from the earlier version in these Roman churches. The columns, upper windows, side wall paintings and ceiling fresco are from the Baroque era.
All that kinda works for me – if I don’t look too closely at the ceiling. But a mosaic from 1100 lives in a whole different universe from a fresco from 1700. In 1100, perspective hadn’t been invented yet. The piously flat faces of Jesus and the saints in the mosaic are so unlike the ceiling fresco with all the cherubs and saints floating around in Heaven.
The point is, just having that bit of knowledge helps me to decode that church and its artistic history. And knowing what I’m seeing helps clue me into the subtleties of the architecture and the art works.