July 1st, 2010
Today I go on a day trip to Assisi. St. Clare of Assisi was fifteen years old when she first heard Francis preach a Lenten series of sermons at the Church of San Giorgio. From then on, she was determined to follow “Father Francis.” Three years later, with help from female relatives, she escaped her life of wealth and entitlement for one of following gospel-inspired poverty under his expert direction. Some of the most moving of all relics remain the patched tunics of Francis and Clare and a glass reliquary containing Clare’s shorn blonde tresses, cut off by Francis when she professed her religious vows. The name “Clare” means “light” and it was an unusual name for its time. We don’t know why her mother chose it, but Clare’s persistent effort to reveal a new path as the first female follower of il Poverello, shows she came to embodied it. Single-mindedly, she insisted on not owning anything, as impossible then as it is today, but in grappling with the paradox, she constructed the foundations of her order. Francis, at first, entrusted Clare and her followers to the Benedictines, hoping that prayerfully following their rule of life would be enough for her, but Clare firmly expressed her wish to follow poverty exactly as Francis and his wandering band of brothers did. The times dictated that she remain cloistered, but in drawing up her rule of life for her followers, she spelled out how carefully they should examine ownership:
Nevertheless, let both the sister who is in office, as well as the other sisters exercise such care and farsightedness that they do not acquire or receive more land about the place than extreme necessity requires for a vegetable garden. But if, for the integrity and privacy of the monastery, it becomes necessary to have more land beyond the limits of the garden, no more should be acquired than extreme necessity demands. This land should not be cultivated or planted but remain always untouched and undeveloped (from Testament of St. Clare).
Days before she died, the pope rushed through an approval of her rule, which allowed for no communal ownership of property. When she received the news, Clare is said to have kissed the parchment again and again. (After her death, resistance to this unprecedented way of living continued in some foundations.) It is a steep walk to San Damiano, an uncompromising cluster of buildings which were put together, stone by stone, by Francis himself. The jumble of rooms, artless prayer stalls and refectory tables (dating from the time of Clare) recall a relentless search for simplicity. And a copy of the miraculous crucifix that spoke to Francis hangs in the nearly windowless chapel -- its bright painting subdued by the shadows -- reminding visitors that it was here Clare found her ideal of poverty. But, most reassuring is the continuance of this way of life – two sisters sit in a corner working on handicrafts. The shock Francis of Assisi created in his prosperous hill town 800 years ago comes into focus when I enter a church built to preserve the remains of the closet-sized room his father locked him up in. The young man was either mad or the sanest man in Christendom. His mother made her own decision about that, she freed him when her husband was away on a business trip. He just could not be stopped.
July 17th, 2010
As soon as Camillo Borghese became Pope Paul V (1605), he elevated his young nephew, Scipione, whom he had educated, to the level of cardinal. Together, they set out to increase the glory and wealth of the Borghese family. Art collecting was the path to glory chosen by Scipione. He wished to pluck to best from the past (avoiding the rather depressing Middle Ages) as well as the cutting-edge contemporary (which included the likes of Bernini and Caravaggio) and place them together in a heady temple of the Golden Age. He sketched out his ideas for a party villa close to Rome’s Pincian gate and by 1613 construction was underway. About 150 years after Scipione’s death, another Borghese, Marcantonio, burnished and updated the family imagery further by removing the tired, leather-embossed wall coverings and heavy wooden furniture in favor of Neo-classicism; he also moved the most eye-popping statues front and center. This is largely the house-musuem we see today and for two exhausting nights it will be open, free, from 7 PM to 9 AM to celebrate (what else?) the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death. By the time I arrive at 7:30 PM, there is a two and a half hour wait, but the ambience is special. Scipione and Caravaggio would have enjoyed the open air bars, jumbo screen videos and probably even the Dixieland music. I am encouraged by all the bobbing black balloons tied with bright ribbon that materialize from one of the villa’s dark side gardens, Caravaggio perfected a chiaroscuro style that played dramatically with light and dark. Besides, the balloons seem to keep the children content. An unplanned Caravaggesque moment occurs when a man with a disfigured face distributes slips of paper with photos of himself before and after his burn accident. In French, Dutch and English is written, “Purpose: Gift for my face operation. Thank you. Every Pound helps me.” His directness, need and humility touch many on line and they make donations. At 10 PM, I am finally confronted with Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” – a beautiful woman making a shockingly bloodly mess – and, above, a fictional battle between one of Pope Paul V’s ancesters and Romulus, the founder of Rome. The room is alive with monumental ancient and Baroque statuary in what can only be called perfect harmony. Just behind this entrance hall is the Room of the Emperors, known also as “the most noble room in the world.” Ringed with porphyry and cream-colored alabaster busts of Roman emperors, the rich colors of red and gold are repeated in precious marbles throughout this salon. In other rooms, featured Bernini works, a life-like David at the moment of slinging his stone, Daphne’s soft flesh turning to a laurel tree, astonish like a circus show. After unrestricted wandering, I return to the party outside. People are strolling through the clipped garden hedges and some, trying to avoid what is now a four-hour wait in line, are peering into the rooms I just visited, hoping for a glimpse of the fabulous treasure of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Yes, his memory does linger.