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Rome Diaries - Week 103

April 19th, 2010

Finally I am getting around to reading “Rome Before Avignon” by Robert Brentano. It deals with Rome during its most turbulent period, the 13th century. In a city that went from one million inhabitants (during the height of the Empire) to a few thousand, that’s saying a lot. Medieval Rome has few visible remains, except for the handful of defensive towers that sometimes compete with classical ruins or hide amid a jumble of wrecked palazzos on a side street. More exuberant ones exist, in the tourist town of San Gimignano but many of the ones in Rome have the virtue of being rewoven into the cityscape. In the very first paragraph of his book Brentano perfectly describes it:

Rome is not a museum of ruins set within a modern town. It is a crumbling mixture of all its pasts, jumbled together and still living, never dead but never freshly alive, all covered and covering in "casual sepulchre." The very thought of an opposite condition, of unsophisticated freshness, has been unthinkable of Rome at least since the time of Livy, and repulsive to it at least since the time of Tacitus.

April 20th, 2010

In 1681, about sixty years after Ignatius of Loyola was canonized, Jesuit lay brother Andrea Pozzo was summoned to Rome by his Superior General. At first he decorated, in his trompe-l'oeil style, the rooms of St. Ignatius, a subdued place of pilgrimage. But his talents demanded a bigger stage. Next to the rooms stood the undecorated Church of the Gesù, mother church of the Jesuits; Pozzo spent almost ten years creating its illusionistic ceiling. It is considered his masterpiece. Figures of Jesuit missionaries fly from a dazzling heaven of broken clouds, signifying both the end of heresy and clerical bad behavior. But Pozzo was not finished; in 1695, he won a competition to create the side chapel that would hold the body of St. Ignatius. The tomb is the cooperative effort of over 100 artists and craftsmen, and also serves as a device to inspire faith. It has just been updated with special lighting, and a recorded ferverino (spiritual pep talk) with musical accompaniment. I must have passed this altar half a dozen times asking myself the same question, “Where is that colossal silver statue that I remember seeing years ago?” It was floodlit in the darkened church for days because of some anniversary and now it’s gone. Just as I start to leave, I see a picture of the statue on the cover of a calendar. I am now determined to find it. I go into the sacristy, pointing a copy of the calendar, “Where?” I beg. “Out there,” says the sacristan, unhelpfully waiving in the direction of the nave. I notice that the picture has the same decoration as the altar of St. Ignatius, but when I go out to the actual altar, a painting is where the statue should be. Before I can put it all together, the fifteen minute sound and light show begins (as it does every day at 5:30 pm, I discover). And yes, at the very end, the painting drops down to a vault in the altar and the magnificent silver statue of St. Ignatius is revealed as the “topper” to the show. Pozzo, who started out as a theatrical set painter, designed the mechanism for this display and gave the commission for the silver statue to the respected sculptor Pierre Le Gros the Younger. Unfortunately this work was melted down for war reparations to Napoleon by Pope Pius VI in 1797, during the suppression of the Jesuits. Now all of Pozzo’s efforts are in service of a silver-painted, plaster copy. That’s show biz.

Rome Diaries - Week 103
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