Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Saints and Sinners - Caravaggio's Rome

I've devised this itinerary to take place over several days to avoid museum overload! Hopefully this will leave time to explore other aspects of this fascinating city. I've shown opening times & entrance fees where applicable & also mass times as often the mass will be taking place in the very chapel you wish to view!


When Caravaggio died in 1610 aged 38 he was the most famous painter in Italy, His relatively short life had been dramatic & brutal. As a child he witnessed the devastating effect of bubonic plague upon his family – losing his father, uncle & grandparents to the disease.

He lived a Jekyll & Hyde life, creating sublime art by day & roving the streets by night as part of a gang whose motto was ‘without hope, without fear’. He mixed with cardinals & courtesans, popes, pimps & prostitutes but his art reached out to the lowliest members of society who could identify with the peasants with dirty feet created by Caravaggio in his works.

Though paintings by him now hang in museums around the world, many remain in the cities where he produced them, some still in the chapels for which they were made, many of which are in Rome. This itinerary is based around viewing his works in the Eternal City.

Day 1

Head to Piazza del Popolo, an impressive piazza with the second most important obelisk in Rome as its centrepiece ........

.............as well as the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli & Santa Maria in Montesanto on  the south side of the square.

We, however, are here for the church of  Santa Maria del Popolo on the north side of the piazza  (7.00 – 12.00, 4.00 – 7.00. Mass 8.00, 10.00, 6.30)  The entrance to is on your left as you come through the Porta del Popolo. 

The two Caravaggio paintings here are in the Cerasi  chapel , the small chapel to the left of the main altar and are the Crucifixion of St Peter & Conversion of St Paul.  Both works were painted in 1600 - 1601 and are contemporary with his pieces in San Luigi dei Francesi that you will see next.   Caravaggio knew that these works would be viewed from the side rather than straight on so he constructed the paintings to reflect this. Both works were considered extremely risqué in their time (as were his works in San Luigi dei Francesi & Sant’Agostino)    – the realism was too much for the church authorities. The light effects or ‘chiaroscuro’ are amazing, particularly in ‘St Paul’ – no reproductions can convey how marvellous the effects are.

It is believed that Cerasi deliberately commissioned two very different artist to decorate his chapel in order to showcase the opposite trends of the day – classicism versus naturalism. The story goes that when Caravaggio learned that Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece would hang between his two paintings he showed his opinion of his fellow artist by pointing the large rear end of Paul’s horse towards Carracci’s work !
Cross the Piazza to Via Corso & take the little electric 119 bus to the 4th stop on the Corso (Corso/Minghetti) There are buses approximately every 12 minutes. Walk along Via Seminario to the the front of the Pantheon to Salita de Cresenzi & turn left on to Piazza Sant’Eustachio & it’s famous cafe.
Time for a cappuccino I think! For more information on Caffe Sant’Eustachio see my previous post ‘The Waters of Rome’

From Piazza Sant’Eustachio take Via della Dogana Vecchia (named after the old customs house which stood here)to San Luigi dei Francesi. On the way you will pass Palazzo Madama where Caravaggio lodged when Cardinal Del Monte was his patron. There will be a security presence around the Palazzo as it is now the seat of the upper house of the Italian parliament.

Palazzo Madama

San Luigi dei Francesi – (10.00 – 12.30, 4.00 – 7.00, Thurs 10.00 – 12.30. Mass 7.00pm, Sat 12.30) is  the French national church in Rome & is  the home of three Caravaggio masterpieces – scenes from the life of St Matthew which were painted between 1599 – 1602. 

San Luigi dei Francesi

The paintings are to be found in the Contarelli chapel to the left of the main altar and are probably the largest area of canvas painted by Caravaggio.

In ‘The calling of St Matthew’ Caravaggio creates a beautiful shaft of light to illuminate the scene from the right. The light follows the line of Christ’s arm to the face of St Matthew. In true tax collector fashion, Matthew keeps his hand on the coins! Christ and St Peter have bare feet, symbolising the rejection of worldly goods.

In ‘Martydom of St Matthew’ Caravaggio included himself in the painting as an onlooker (on the left) in a black cloak. Take note of the black cloak as it will feature in an episode of Caravaggio’s life later.  
The final painting ‘ St Matthew and the Angel’ was initially rejected by the church as Caravaggio had originally depicted the saint as a peasant with workers hands & feet. The second version has a more saintly St Matthew in a red robe.

From here follow Via della Scrofia along to Sant’Agostino (7.30 – 12.30, 4.00 – 6.30. Mass 8.00 & 6.30) 

Legend of the Holy House of Loreto

In the first chapel on the left is Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto.The holy house of Loreto,is allegedly where Mary was born, raised & visited by the angel who told her she would be the mother of Jesus. Legend states that when  it came under threat from ‘the infidel’ in the 13th century it was flown by angels to Loreto.

Painted in 1605 after Caravaggio had  visited the Marche where the house of Loreto is situated, the painting shows two peasants at the feet of Mary – their dirty feet & clothes contrasting with the pale delicate skin of Mary. Imagine yourself as a poor citizen of Rome seeing this painting for the first time with a shock of recognition at the realistic portraying of Mary & the peasants.
The model for the Madonna was Lena, whose mother had charged Caravaggio a considerable fee for allowing her daughter to pose for the painting. A jealous young notary who was in love with Lena misinterpreted the visits & besmirched the name of Caravaggio. This led to Caravaggio attacking & wounding the notary in Piazza Navonna. Unfortunately Caravaggio left his black cloak in the piazza which was later found by a witness & subsequently used in a legal case against the artist.

At the height of his career Caravaggio was celebrated as the most famous artist in Rome but within a few years he became impoverished & lived in simple conditions with a single servant in an alley now known as Vicolo del Divino Amore which is a five minute walk away from where you are now.

 Return to Via della Scrofia & turn left. Look out for Via D’Ascanio on your right & follow it along to Piazza di Firenze. Vicolo del Divino Amore will be on the left. Continue on & turn right on to Vicolo di San Biagio. Continue on to Piazza della Torretta & then on to Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. 

This whole area from here to the river was known as  Ortaccio or Evil Garden  a red light district created by the Vatican to be a zone for the city’s prostitutes. In the 16th & 17th centuries the inns & lodgings of Ortaccio came to be popular with artists & writers & were the scenes of many brawls, arguments, feuds & vendettas. This was an area well known to Caravaggio.
It was near to Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina that, in 1606, Caravaggio killed Rannucio Tomassoni in a street fight. The circumstances remain a mystery though the popular modern theory that the brawl stemmed from a dispute over a game of tennis is probably a myth. Tomassoni was closely involved, sometimes intimately with several of the women Caravaggio knew including Fillide Melandroni  who we will hear about later.

Surely it must  be lunchtime by now – fortunately there are plenty of places to eat in the vicinity including Ciampini which is on the square itself. 

After lunch head back on to the Via del Corso & walk down to Galleria Doria Pamphilj    (10.00 – 5.00 €10.50) This palazzo houses one of the city’s largest private art collections including two of Caravaggio’s earlier works. An audio guide included in the price is narrated by Jonathan Pamphili, the current  owner of the palazzo.

Orange trees in courtyard of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
 ‘The Penitent Magdalene’  & ‘Rest on the flight into Egypt’ are in room 600. They were painted at the time when Caravaggio  lodged in Palazzo Madama & had Del Monte as a patron. His models at that time   were two well-known courtisans who frequented the palazzi of Del Monte and other wealthy and powerful art patrons, and their names were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. Anna Bianchini appeared first as a solitary Mary Magdalene in the Penitent Magdalene of about 1597. Fillide Melandroni appeared in a secular Portrait of a Courtesan done the same year for Del Monte's friend and fellow art-lover, the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani.. Fillide also appeared as Judith in Judith beheading Holofernes. she seems to vanish from his paintings after 1599. If sophisticated patrons such as Giustiniani represented but one pole of Caravaggio's life, the world of Fillide was the other. She was one of Rome's most successful prostitutes, much sought after by the Roman elite; but she had her true existence in the streets. In February 1599 she was arrested together with Ranuccio Tomassoni, who seems to have been her pimp, (he came from a good family but was continually turning up in police records in the company of prostitutes, and not as a customer), and charged with creating a disturbance.
From what I remember the audio commentary is not very complimentary regarding’ Penitent Magdalene’ which is a shame as it is one of my favourite  Caravaggios! 
Day 2
We start our Caravaggio trail today at the Capitoline Museums (Tue-Sun 9.00 - 8.00 €9.50). Obviously, as in all the museums & galleries that we visit there is so much more to see than the paintings. You will easily spend the morning here, stopping for a refreshment break of course! Before even entering the museum you will have experienced Michelangelo's Piazza Campidoglio including the replica statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback(you will see the original in the museum later)
Piazza Campidoglio

The museum is in two halves - Palazzo Nuovo & Palazzo dei Conservatori. Buy your tickets at the office on the right hand side of the piazza. 

As you enter the courtyard of the museum you will see the remains of a huge statue of Constantine that once stood in the Basilica of Maxentius in the Forum.

Before you ascend to the picture gallery on the  second floor you might like refreshments in the Terrace cafe with its fine views over Rome.
Trinita dei Monti from Capitoline Terrace Cafe
Rome skyline from Capitoline Terrace Cafe

The two Caravaggio works in the Capitoline are St John the Baptist & The Fortune Teller. Look closely at the latter & you will see the fortune teller sneakily removing the ring of the young man as he gazes into her face.
Descend the stairs to the underground corridor that connects the two palazzos of the museum. Don't miss the entrance to the Tabularium which is about half way along as this affords wonderful views of the Forum.

View of Forum from Tabularium


After exploring the Capitoline museums fully I'm suggesting that you make your way into the Jewish Ghetto for lunch. Head back down the steps from the Piazza Campidoglio. Cross Piazza d'Aracoeli & carry on down Via d'Aracoeli until you see Via dei Delfini on your left. Follow this road, crossing Piazza Campitelli until you reach Portico d'Ottavia & Trattoria Giggetto.

Artichokes at Trattoria da Giggetto 

 Now I have to be absolutely honest & say that I have a love/hate relationship with this restaurant. We have had two wonderful lunches here - sitting overlooking the ancient remains  of the Portico d'Ottavia, surrounded by Italian families & enjoying the Romano - Jewish cuisine for which they are justly famous. However our last meal there was not so good but then I suppose everyone can have a bad day. Alternative lunch spots in the Ghetto could be Piperno situated under the brooding walls of Palazzo Cenci or Nonna Betta in Via Portico d'Ottavia.

Day 3
Today starts at Palazzo Barberini (Tue -Sun 8.30 - 7.00 €7), the exterior of which will be familiar to those of you who are 'Roman Holiday' fans (see my previous post 'Rome, By all means Rome') Caravaggio has two works here - Judith beheading Holofernes & Narcissus. The former is a particularly realistic depiction of a beheading & has led experts to believe that it may have been inspired by two contempory executions, that of Giordano Bruno & Beatrice Cenci (whose portrait also hangs in this gallery). Again there is much to see in the Palazzo including a sumptuous ceiling in the Gran Salone where you can play 'spot the bees'! The bee appears in the Barberini coat of arms. Don't miss  the gardens which can be reached via a ramp at the back of the main entrance.
At the end of your visit make your way to Piazza Barberini. Head diagonally across the piazza (watch out for traffic!), admiring the Bernini Triton fountain as you pass. At the head of the Via Veneto look out for more bees, this time appearing to climb out of the aptly named Bee fountain. Head down the Via Veneto to the Capuchin Museum & Crypt (9.00 - 7.00 €6) to be found as part of the church of Santa Maria Immacolata Concezione. St Francis in Meditation, painted by Caravaggio in 1603 awaits you here but you may also be interested in the crypt itself which is decorated with the bones of around 4,000 monks - ''What you are, we once were. What we are now you will become''
Day 4
This day will have needed to be pre-planned as tickets for Borghese Gallery have to be booked in advance here. Whilst the Bernini scuptures are the big attraction there are also six of Caravaggio's works to be seen. 'Young Sick Bacchus' is said to be a self portrait when Caravaggio had malaria whilst the head of Goliath in 'David with the head of Goliath' is also said to be a self portrait. It is believed to be the artists last work and was painted for Pope Paul V to secure a papal pardon. 'Madonna of the Palafrenieri' was initially rejected by the canons of St Peters due to its realism  only to be bought by Cardinal Scipione, a nephew of the pope and original owner of the Villa. After your two hour slot (all you are allowed, I'm afraid) the Borghese gardens are a pleasure to explore. You can even pick up a picnic at the little green kiosk on the corner of Viale Fiorello Laguardia called Pic Nic to enjoy in a peaceful spot in the gardens.

The icing on the cake for any fan of Caravaggio would be a visit to Casina Ludovisi, Via Lombardia 46 (near Porta Pinciana which has a ceiling mural painted by Caravaggio for Cardinal del Monte. This work was a response to critics of Caravaggio who accused him of not being able to fresco and includes himself as a model.
To arrange a visit to this secret gem you will need to contact Amministrazione Boncompagni on 0039 06 483942 or via e-mail at ttl@glgnet.it