March 27th, 2010
Enjoying the terrace on this early spring day, I read about one of my favorite buildings in R. A. Scotti’s “Basilica.” The book is filled with the tales and intrigues surrounding the building of St. Peter’s. Cardinal Raffaele Riario, it turns out, got the money to build his massive Renaissance palazzo (now Palazzo della Cancelleria) from one night’s winnings at cards. I wondered about the odd coat of arms looming in what is now a concert venue of the palazzo. Half was an oak tree and the other the famous Medici pawnbroker balls. Scotti reveals that Riario’s rival, the Medici Pope Leo X, had emptied the papal treasury and confiscated the building under the pretext of an assassination plot. The oak tree of Riario’s crest commemorates the building’s past owner; the Vatican has managed to hold onto it for 500 years.
March 29th, 2010
The magnificent Palazzo Chigi took 18 years to complete but Cardinal Flavio Chigi, the new-elected Pope Alexander VII, snapped it up from the Aldobrandini’s during construction. It had been conceived by a Medici pope, Clement VII, however his tumultuous reign, which included the Sack of Rome by the Protestant troops of Charles V, precluded any actual construction. A century before, the wily banker Agostino Chigi had paid for the Borgia’s extravagant papacy and the wars and monuments of Pope Julius II, but after Agostino, the family entered a long eclipse. With Alexander VII, the Chigis were restored and needed a nice place in the center of town. (In 1916, the Republic of Italy bought the palace as the seat of the Minister for Colonial Affairs and today it houses the offices of the president of the government of Italy.) Whenever Palazzo Chigi is open to the public, lines form early. Yesterday, Piazza Colonna -- where the building stands -- was filled with a snaking line divided in half by the column of Marcus Aurelius. A woman who seemed to be in charge told me, “The line on your right are the people who will get in today; the line on the left will not get in, we told them, but they want to wait anyway.” Italians love a line. Giacomo della Porta and Carlo Maderno are responsible for the dignified classical style of the massive structure which falls into perspective when you enter its spacious inner courtyard and are surrounded by rows of finely articulated columns and pediments. Strategically placed Roman sculptures hint at the palace’s humanist traditions: here Cardinal Giovanni Battista Deti entertained church and state nobility by holding “academies” where freshly-minted scholars could present their philosophies or read from their plays and, a few years later, Cardinal Flavio Chigi would begin a prestigious library on an upper floor. Just ten years ago, the structure went through a rigorous restoration so that the eras from Deti, the Chigis and even Mussolini are clearly shown. One side office that looks like a walk-in Faberge egg was Il Duce’s office while he was running the Foreign Ministry. Our group is only allowed a reverent peek inside. As we assemble in a room that was once Cardinal Flavio Chigi’s library, our guide becomes rather stern and we are told not to rest on the ebony bookshelves, which happen to be all that’s left of the fabled library, at least at this location. In 1922, Mussolini decided that the valuable books and manuscripts, which had been purchased by the Italian state in 1918, were best used as a bargaining chip in his complex negotiations with the Vatican. In 1922 the collection was given to the Vatican Library with the stipulation that they be easily accessible to scholars. (It took seven more years, but the Lateran Treaty, which settled, once and for all, ownership of papal properties and the legal status of the Vatican, was successfully concluded.) Right after this tour, I make a beeline for a second historic building open today and feel like a scurrying denizen of medieval Rome, threading through alleys and shortcuts, coming out just west of Piazza Navona, at the embankments of the Tiber. Here is a neighborhood of 16th century decorated facades by Polidoro da Caravaggio. Thanks to the narrow street, scratched plaster (“sgraffito”) images were protected and survive on two of the three palazzos. The Cesi family’s residence faced the river and had images of the gods associated with the Tiber on its upper façade and dockworkers, appropriately, at street level. Fortunately, a detailed etching was made before the years erased the real thing. But this building’s art is less important than two, very different, historical events that took place here. In 1603, eighteen year-old Federico Cesi, son of the First Duke of Acquasparta, put his name down as the founder of Accademia dei Lincei, a group of fervent young men who were inspired by the scientific method and especially the writings and lectures of Galileo. They supported and encouraged the scientist, who became a member of the group. And, with the brashness of youth, they sided with him even after his ideas about a heliocentric universe were condemned by the Church. Their infrequent meetings took place in the main hall of the Cesi palazzo, which is tastefully decorated with frescoes of the family’s many estates. Jumping four centuries ahead, and moving to a room next door, our guide describes the Nazi trials that took place here in 1994. After World War II, British Intelligence, which had been using the building, handed over documents incriminating those responsible for carrying out Hitler’s revenge executions after a resistance bombing on Via Rasella killed German soldiers. The papers were “forgotten” for 50 years, but those trials that could be done were conducted here, the very building where the papers were rediscovered. At the end of the tour, I confess to the guide that I did not quite get everything she said. We sit down in the sunny garden of the palace and go over its venerable history one more time, going from the trial of Galileo to the Nazi occupation. Somehow her repetition helps me to distill the disparate histories of Palazzo Cesi.