Here is a detail of the sculpture of Pauline Borghese (see post above). She holds an apple. She is posed as Venus Victrix, or ‘Venus the Victor’. What she has won is a golden apple (made by Vulcan/Hephaestus; in some versions, at the request of Eris, the goddess of discord), who produced it to sow discontent at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a wedding to which she, Eris, was not invited. She contrived to set this spectacular apple in the midst of the banquet table around which sat the gods and goddesses of Olympia. Three goddesses immediately claimed it, as it had inscribed on it ‘To the Fairest’. Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite (Venus) all reached at once. The male gods knew not to get involved in that judgement, so it was suggested that the earth’s most handsome and eligible bachelor should decide. This happened to be a prince of Troy named Paris. Thus the ‘Judgement of Paris’; the apple went to Venus, since she took him aside and bribed him by promising him the world’s most beautiful woman. Alas, that woman was already married to a Greek king named Menelaus, brother of king Agamemnon of Mycenae. Her name was Helen. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1598-1680) most famous sculptures is the group depicting the ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’ in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Saint Teresa of Avila was a very new saint at the time; she’d died only in 1582, just a few years before Bernini was born. She was a mystic, and in her writings she described an intense religious experience: “Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form… He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times … and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God”. In Bernini’s statue, which takes inspiration from this quotation, the woman swoons with a passion partaking of both the religious and the erotic: a total commitment. I took over a hundred pictures of this statue the other day, and I couldn’t quite get one that encapsulated its complexity. This was as close as I could get. The angel’s hand is visible on the left, delicately opening Teresa’s blouse to reveal the soft breast into which he will plunge his arrow. She submits with complete abandon.
The famous Colosseum in Rome. One of the world’s most famous buildings. More properly called the Flavian amphitheater, it was built by the emperor Vespasian over what had been a personal lake built by the emperor Nero as part of his vast ‘Golden House’. From private pool to public monument. After the Roman Empire was Christianized, few had a use for the structure, gladiatorial games having gone out of fashion for obvious reasons: Christians had oft been victims in the bloody sports. The giant building became a stone quarry for the next 1200 years. The holes in the sides are from looters who dug between the stone seams to dig out metal. The Colosseum is pocked with such holes. It’s a wonder there’s something there for us to see today.
Leaving Rome’s famous Colosseum today I noticed this hole carved into one of its corners. It struck me as a reminder of the building’s uses through its 2000 years. Someone had dug out that hole (in what century who can tell?) so that they could tie their donkey or horse. They did it so many times that the stone (travertine; a limestone) was worn to a glassy smoothness. Perhaps the stone merchants, who for a thousand years quarried stone from the building, roped one of their pack animals here as they loaded the marble slabs from the seats of the giant structure.
To remember the Jewish citizens of Rome who were the victims of Fascism, the city has discretely placed bronze plaques, the same size as Rome’s famous black cobblestones, in the streets outside of where those people once lived. They are eloquent reminders; understated fragments of Rome’s history that one can come upon by chance, just as one comes across pieces of the city’s ancient past.
Of the many masterpieces in Venice, and one of the many masterworks of the painter Tintoretto, is his Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, of which this picture is a detail. It’s in the Accademia Museum in Venice and was painted between 1534 and 1538. What Tintoretto gets, in an almost uncanny way, is the luminescence of the young girl. He paints rays of light that really do seem to emanate from her. She wears a powder blue dress, but she also seems like an ordinary pretty little girl dressed for church/temple in her Sunday/Friday best. The painting was done originally for the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carita, which the Accademia Museum now occupies.
From medieval times the neighborhoods of Siena have been divided into contrade. Even today, Sienese people are born both into a country, a city, and a contrade, such as the contrade of the Selva (forest), or Civetta (little owl) or Istrice (porcupine; can you see the quills?). There is intense competition between the contrade, which reaches its height on July 2nd and August 16th when there are horse races, the famous palio of Siena. The race takes place around a course in the well-known square of the city, the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo. Each contrade has its banner or flag; this is a picture of a display of them. The winning contrade received another banner, literally a palio (from Latin pallium), which gives the race its name.
Porto Venere, the ‘Port of Venus’, is on the Ligurian Coast of Italy, and I took this picture after arriving there on a small, wave-tossed boat on a stormy day. The coast here is rugged and rocky, and these are a few of the cliffs in a picture taken from near the port’s narrow entrance. A dramatic day, a tempest, and then the sky cleared.
As I walked along the harbour promenade this evening, at Santa Margarita di Liguria, and enjoying stracciatella gelato (those who know me know I eat no other), I came upon these two enterprising boys who had turned buoys into drums and were busking in the park. Such creativity one just can’t pass by. They were elated at the coins that were quickly appearing in their dish. I was certainly happy to add to their college funds. I suspect they’ll appear on many a Facebook page. If they keep this up through the high tourist season, they may be driving Ferraris by the end of the year.
This is the classic view of Portofino, the picturesque little tourist trap on the Ligurian Coast of Italy. The theory is–having come down to us from the Roman author Pliny the Elder,who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, when it also destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum–that the city was originally known as Portus Delphini because of the prominence of those playful cetaceans in its azure waters in ancient times. The dolphins, alas, have been replaced by the streamlined yachts of the super-rich.
I took this picture in the village of Barolo today. A pair of newlyweds came from their wedding on a scooter, dragging tin cans behind and a ‘Just Married’ sign on the back, the bride lovely in her gown. Only Italians could pull this off with this kind of style.
In the Barolo wine area of north Italy, a variety of grape called Nebbiolo is grown and made into many very fine wines. Spent a few hours there today, tasting and looking out over the rolling hills of vines, which are just now showing some new green growth.
There is a great tapestry hall in the Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella near Stresa, Italy. There are six enormous works, called the Unicorn Collection because they feature the unicorns in many scenes. The animal appears on the coat of arms of the family and represents its virtue. These extraordinary textiles were made by Flemish tapestry artists from Brussels in the mid-16th century. The tapestries are allegorical. They often show leopards, which were known by their Latin name, panthera. Pan-thera means ‘to take everything’ and was understood as a allegory of Christ by medieval theologians. Leopards went after nasty animals, like dragons. This one seems to be eyeing a lizard on the right, growling at him lest he think of bothering the little panther nursing and just visible beneath the mother’s body.
The Italian Neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova (1857-1922) did many sculptures in his career, but in no subject did he excel more than in the reclining female nude. He did a few of them, perhaps even this one in the Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella. If you live in the United States you can see one –Reclining Naiad–in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like this one, the woman’s bottom is put on especially pert display. The MMOA nude lies on a panther’s pelt, adding an extra erotic charge, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you live in the UK, you’ll find another at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and if you’re friends with royalty you can find yet another in Buckingham Palace. Say hi to Liz for me, will you? That one’s being serenaded by a cupid with a harp. In Rome you can find Canova’s famous semi-nude of Pauline Borghese, in, logically enough, the Palazzo Borghese Museum. In the same place you can see the sculpture that inspired Canova, a sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Hellenistic period, around the second century BCE. If you want to thank him you can go to Venice and visit his monumental tomb in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which locals simply call, thankfully, the Frari.
Today, while touring the Palazzo Borromeo, on the Isola Bella near Stresa, Italy (see posts below), I took a picture of the spines of some old books in the library. One was entitled ‘Statues Antique and Modern’, though I couldn’t pull it out just to see how ‘modern’ modern got. I felt sad that hundreds of volumes sat on shelves, wired shut so tourists wouldn’t filch them. An unread book is a sad thing, but I suppose, in time, reading also destroys books. The one to the left of the statues book had lost the finish on its leather; more loved but more worn as well.