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Ionarts at Large: Palazzo Barberini

On Sunday afternoon in Rome, a few of us spent the early evening in the Palazzo Barberini, the extensive villa near the Quirinale that the Barberini family purchased in 1625. A series of celebrated architects – Maderno, Bernini, Borromini – expanded and renovated the building, which now houses the Galleria nazionale d’arte antica. The art is displayed on the piano nobile, a floor of grand rooms intended for entertainment and the reception of business contacts. You ascend the famous staircase, in the shape of an oval, built by Borromini in the palazzo’s right side wing, which is echoed by the oval chamber of the main entrance (now closed off) constructed by Bernini. In any case, the first room you see is the main salon, decorated by Pietro da Cortona, the celebrated painter of illusionistic ceiling frescos, with The Triumph of Divine Providence and Elevation of the Barberini Family. Pietro’s “audition piece” for that commission is the so-called Square Chapel, a smaller room in the palazzo where he painted the main fresco, a crucifixion scene, and the students in his workshop made accompanying frescos.

The museum is a fairly laid-back place, open until 7:30 pm most nights and costing only five euros to see the painting galleries. The collection now on display includes some El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto, and Orazio Gentileschi. The high points include two Hans Holbein portraits, both celebrated, of Henry VIII and Thomas More (the latter is one of my intellectual and spiritual heroes), as well as Raphael’s notorious portrait of his mistress, La Fornarina (the nickname meaning that she was the daughter of a baker, in Trastevere). Some surprises came from Ribera’s Gregory the Great, a pair of intensely penitent Magdalens (by Simon Vouet and Guido Reni), and two polished portraits of the apostles Matthew and Luke by Guercino.

The main reason for me to go to the Palazzo Barberini was to see their three Caravaggios, part of a life-long project to see all of that painter’s works. The bloody, disturbing rendition of Judith and Holofernes is widely known, with the intent and seemingly well-behaved widow in the act of beheading her rapist. This painting’s erotic overtones have always disturbed me, thoughts that were only reinforced by finally seeing it in person. Perhaps more about that another time. It was also a pleasure to see the murky painting of Narcissus, transfixed by the beauty of his own reflection in the water. The erotic look, even autoerotic in this case, is a powerful thing in Caravaggio’s work.

I also spent a very pleasant half-hour lying on one of the couches provided by the museum to survey Pietro da Cortona’s overwhelming ceiling fresco. A card of curatorial text provided a handy guide to the imagery, which shows the virtues attributed to Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) triumphing over the corresponding vices. It may not be as stunning a work as Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus (at Il Gesù, where we will be singing a Mass later this week) or Carracci’s ceiling in the Palazzo Farnese, but the illusionism Pietro achieved is startling. Many of the trompe-l’œil sculptural framework is so well shaded that you continue to doubt that you are really seeing paint. One particular corner, Minerva’s defeat of the giants, features sprawling legs so convincingly foreshortened that they seem to hang down from the surface.

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