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Articles by: Dominique Fernandez

  • View of Ragusa
    Art & Culture

    Baroque Sicily. When History and Art Join Forces — and Win

    Four baroque corners in Palermo

    Known throughout the world for its rowdy vitality, Palermo is also renowned for its marvelous baroque architecture. It’s the perfect place to start our trip, focusing on four corners all of which will surely take your breath away. The first sports marmi mischi (colored or inlaid marble): a sumptuous local specialty that bears witness to the wealth and politics of a few eighteenth- century polychrome churches that never cease to amaze.

    One of the most beautiful is the Chiesa del Gesù, set in the heart of a working class neighborhood and laden with marble inlays of every color, numerous putti, scantily clad figures, angels, peacocks, winged dogs and griffins clinging to pillars in an lively blend of realism and fantasy.

    Behind the altar, in the recesses of the choir, the sculptor Vitagliano recreated scenes from the Old Testament taken from the story of David. The statues are set against a backdrop of yellow and blue inlay and depict three workaday commoners – a miller, a vintner and a man delivering bread – who stand in sharp contrast to the church’s theatrical pomp, naturalist motifs in a lyrical setting. Palazzo Gangi, our second baroque corner, was made famous by Visconti in his movie Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).  

    A remnant of Palermo’s old aristocracy, Palazzo Gangi is the only family house of its kind in such good condition, thanks to the ingenious work of the current owner, a woman from Lyons who married Prince Gangi. The princess offers private tours of the adjoining halls she has restored bit by bit, wall hanging by wall hanging, trinket by trinket – repairing, gluing, scrubbing and polishing with admirable earnestness and self-sacrifice.

    Rare cabinets, chandeliers teeming with branches, armchairs with gnarled feet and intricate lace adorn every room without a care for how much it once cost – or will cost in the future. The ballroom and adjoining hall of mirrors are among the most beautiful antique remnants of a class that has all but disappeared. What impeccable taste! What unpretentious beauty!   

    On the third corner we find the three oratories decorated by Giacomo Serpotta, a stucco worker about whom little is known. In fact, his talents never made it off the island. Besides his work on the Santo Spirito Monastery in Agrigento, Serpotta exclusively operated in Palermo, where he was born in 1656 and died in 1732. His body, buried in the basement of the Chiesa di San Matteo, disappeared when the cemetery was removed. Until recently, there had been no mention of his work. For two and a half centuries, he was forgotten, confirming how little Sicilians care to boast of their reputation.

    Or should their silence be attributed to indifference? Contempt? Distaste for attention? Sicilians, you might say, prefer to stay in the shadows, where their talents may remain intact, intangible, sacred, like a diamond in the depths of a mine. Indeed inside Serpotta’s three oratories you will discover the work of a sculptor of striking imagination and skill, whose medium was not marble or bronze but stucco.

    The artist’s specialty was a snake or lizard (serpiotta) that he would sometimes carve into the corner of his statues. Serpotta’s world is entirely white, and you’re not immediately aware of it, given that the first oratory he worked on, the Rosario in San Domenico, houses massive paintings by van Dyck, Pietro Novelli and other famous artists, which are embedded in the walls and above the altar.

    In the next chapel Serpotta decorated, Santa Zita, a flurry of white shapes fills the space. You see nothing but white – life-size female Virtues and playful putti frolicking about like acrobats, skipping, swaying, playing with their mouths and genitals, among garlands of roses, bunches of fruit, and war trophies. But this child-like space can’t muffle the noise of war: the Battle of Lepanto is rendered in admirable detail in a large panel above the entrance and between two older boys—one, holding his head high and staring insolently, symbolizes the victor; the other, in a turban, the defeated Turks. The twelve alcoves along the walls reveal the mysteries of the Rosary.

    These miniature theaters were fashioned with exquisite precision and poetry. Serpotta may have never set foot off the island, but his deep understanding of perspective makes you wonder if his bas- reliefs were borrowed from Donatello. Shapes gradually recede, creating a sense of depth. The last oratory is in San Lorenzo, adjacent to the church of San Francesco d’Assisi, and introduces a new kind of human next to the serious Virtues and whimsical babies, several naked adolescents stretched out or prone in poses redolent of Michelangelo’s Ignudi or those by Carracci in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome.

    The total absence of adult men among dozens of figures is novel and mysterious; it’s a world of white with only women and children. When Serpotta was fourteen years old, his father was sent to the galleys and died a slave. Does the color white, combined with the absence of virile characters, suggest a boy who has erased his father from his mind? Or is it a post-mortem homage to the idealized criminal according to the Sicilian code of omertà?

    Our fourth and last corner lies at the opposite of this relatively sober style. It is represented by the over-the-top baroque of Bagheria, a small town about ten miles from Palermo. Here, the Prince of Palagonia topped the wall surrounding his villa with extravagant “monsters” that would startle Goethe, one of the first visitors to see them. Dwarfs riding lions, hunchbacks donning large wigs, dragons with donkey ears, bird-women, fish-men, and oversized heads on contorted bodies. If you attribute them to the wild imaginings of the mentally insane, then you fail to grasp the Mediterranean mindset.

    Like a Pirandello character, the “mad” prince was fully aware of what he was doing. Humor and ridicule were to blame, not mental illness. Indeed, chances are he commissioned these statues to tarnish the image of a Sicily forever bound by the cult of restraint and reason. Bagheria’s brand of baroque is merely an exaggeration of a quintessential island trait: a tendency to defy Greek clichés and impatiently dispel a myth that had reduced the island to a subject of academic investigation.

    On the contrary, what has best represented Sicily since the end of antiquity are not the columns you see on the temples, the tiered seats in the theaters or the grandeur of the ruins, but rather art that express a lust for life, the direct result of a tragic and turbulent history and the constant threat of violence from the earth and below the earth – the island’s erratic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. “Sicilitude” is a permanent state of anxiety. Mount Etna beckons.

    Lava, basalt, blackened prisms, black lava flows, heaps of carbonized ash, clouds of black smoke, random craters formed by ice melt: the world as it was, a telluric jumble. It’s not uncommon to emerge from the slag heaps and see a shrub suddenly burst into flames, reclaimed by the fire underneath the surface. How can you maintain your composure or your bourgeois lifestyle when you can’t even trust the earth your house stands on? It’s as if the notion of saving for the future, planning ahead, meeting obligations and building a career did not exist in Sicily. What’s the point when at any minute it could all go up in smoke?

    Catania

    The provinces of Catania, Ragusa and Syracuse were devastated by the 1693 earthquake. Catania was almost entirely rebuilt out of Etna’s lava and rock, which explains the city’s strange black hue. A rational urban plan was drawn up. Streets were designed to intersect at right angles (or almost) and, unlike the labyrinth that is Palermo, hold very few surprises. The austere monuments are baroque, which was the style of the day.

    Around 1730, the city’s authorities called on the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini, a native of Catania who trained in Rome. He brought the noble and grand Roman style to Sicily and extinguished any local imagination. His greatest works are the city hall and the facade of the cathedral in Catania’s Piazza del Duomo. There is something about them that is regular and cold, a curious blend of puritanism and the baroque, further underscored by the juxtaposition of white stone and black lava.  

    Catania is home to less officious but infinitely more delightful places and monuments. Near the port, the facade of Palazzo Biscari is laden with herms, putti and copious floral decorations. Inside the palace, the ballroom, which has an uneven, arched ceiling decorated with stucco and painted with extravagant volutes, is punctuated by an oval opening that draws the eye to a cupola with an allegoric fresco.

    The Via dei Crociferi is “short but infinitely beautiful,” according to writer Vitaliano Brancati. Covered in gates and chains, San Giuliano, San Francesco Borgia, San Benedetto and the other churches lining this street evoke a past where devotion, intrigue and gluttony (the pastries and ice cream in Catania are divine!) come together powerfully and harmoniously.

    There are also sumptuous railings on the balcony overhanging the splendid doorway on the facade of Palazzo Valle. The railings were enlarged to accommodate women’s panniered dresses (fashion in Sicily was still dictated by Spanish pomp and circumstance). Too opulent and exuberant for Rome, the curves and counter- curves of the palace’s gallery make it one of the most beautiful balconies in all of Sicily. Lastly, the gigantic proportions and abundance of diamond shaped bossages, caryatids, putti and floral patterns swallowing up the windows and balconies of the monastery and church of San Nicolò are as ostentatious as any monastery in Mexico.  

    Southeast Sicily

    The southeastern towns of Noto, Modica, Ragusa, and Scicli were also destroyed in 1693. Noto, razed to the ground, was reconstructed at a new site several miles away, marking the beginning of the area’s reconstruction. Since baroque was the fashion of the day – though no one knew it as such – the area was rebuilt in the baroque style. As a result, the group of towns that were rebuilt exemplifies what we now refer to as Sicilian baroque, which is quite different from Roman or even Palermitan baroque.

    A less sumptuous, more country, more earthy baroque. No marble or gold but a soft, golden-colored stone ingeniously dispensed. The architect Rosario Gagliardi (like Serpotta, an unknown) used the slope of the land to form the facades of the Chiesa di San Giorgio in Modica, the Chiesa di San Giorgio in Ragusa, and open- air theaters that used the sun as a spotlight. Noto, or Netum, was built from the ground up. It is the most successfully reconstructed city and the most spectacular surprise in all of Sicily. Built into the side of a hill, the city boasts a main street flanked by honey-hued limestone religious buildings all facing the same direction.

    The first is the conventional Chiesa di San Francesco, which sits atop an immense staircase with three landings. Then there is the cathedral, whose staircase is equally monumental. A bit farther along, Rosario Gagliardi’s Chiesa di San Domenico has a convex facade with two orders and columns. The portal has a broken pediment and a semi- circular crown between two broken half-pediments. The street runs east to west and, in the late afternoon, the sun illuminates the gold limestone and accentuates the churches’ angles, creating a lyrical, solar parade unlike anything else you’ll see in Europe.

    It is, however, pointless to go inside these churches. Contrary to what you’d find in Palermo, their interiors are bare, cold, unexciting. They are all about the profane pleasure of the spectacle, not somber devotion. The decor created by the curves and counter curves, ceremonious staircases, added archways, pilasters and capitals of these facades would seem extravagant if it were not for the soft and sensual color of the stone. As for Noto’s Villadorata princes, their only claim to fame is the over ornate anthropomorphic and zoomorphic corbels found under the six balconies of their palace.

    Syracuse

    Finally we arrive in Syracuse. Surrounded by water, Ortygia – the former heart of the city, a white oasis in the sea, a kind of lagoon – is the most beautiful city in Sicily. The island’s history can be read in the cathedral. In the beginning, it was a Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. When it was transformed into a Christian basilica, the powerful Doric columns were integrated into the new structure and are still visible from both inside and out. In 1728, a superb baroque facade was added by Palermo architect Andrea Palma.

    A facade with two orders is joined by opulent volutes and adorned with columns and statues ingeniously detached from the wall, which create a sense of depth. The miracle is how these three styles are reunited so vibrantly and harmoniously. In front of this impressive aggregate building is a white piazza paved in white flagstones and flanked by white palaces and coffee shops where you can order white almond milk, the nectar of the gods. (The best almond milk is served at Minerva, a bar to the left of the cathedral.) At the back of the piazza, in the small ultra baroque church of Santa Lucia, with its pot-bellied iron balconies, hangs the Burial of Saint Lucy, Caravaggio’s famous work painted in Syracuse. The two giant gravediggers in the foreground create a perfectly baroque disproportion in this powerful, tragic scene.

  • Art & Culture

    Venice Against the Grain

    Are we still in Italy? Doesn’t Asia begin as soon as we perceive, at the bottom of Piazza San Marco, still so European with its flawlessly aligned arcades, its Basilica with the same name, the capricious globes of its five irregular cupolas, and then inside when we find, under mysterious vaults, the sparkle of gold and the shimmer of Byzantine mosaics?

    One of the charms of Venice is that it transports us beyond our geographic and mental borders. A place where Rome and Constantinople meet and merge, it extends an enchanted bridge between the West and the East.

    Everything is unique here, in fact: the delicate architecture that seems to ignore the weight of its materials; the picturesque facades, light as fabric; the improbable maze of the vicoli, so narrow that we graze each others’ shoulders as we pass; the palaces’ mossy thresholds that lead directly onto canals. Furthermore, has anyone ever seen a city built on water, where the transportation routes (canals) are radically different from the walking paths (alleys)? It’s the only city in the world where you can walk without worrying about traffic, where you can wander completely absorbed in daydreaming, where the dream is more powerful than reality.

    Beyond Melancholy But beware! The worst mistake would be, while looking at these canals straddled by high footbridges, to say, as Paul Morand did in his thoughtful melancholic tone, “The canals of Venice are as black as ink; it’s the ink of Jean-Jacques, of Chateaubriand, of Barres, of Proust.” His Venices is one of the loveliest books the city ever inspired, but this sentence tends to freeze Venice in the image of a dying or dead city devoted to twilit splendor and decadence.

    Thomas Mann and later Luchino Visconti trumped Barres and Proust with Death in Venice, whose fame helped transform Venice into a sepulchral city. Who will rid us of the clichés that literature and film have attached to Venice? No, Venice isn’t a necropolis haunted by sinister echoes, but an active city, forever young, changing colors with the seasons, gray in the winter mist, salmon in the first days of spring, radiant in summer, and rust- colored in autumn.  

    Forever young To understand how alive the city is, it’s best to visit in the colder months, when the tourists are scarce. There is boundless activity everywhere, an incessant back and forth of footsteps and ships, a quantity of open markets that resound with cries and cheerful calls, a multitude of artisanal shops where the lively murmurs of tanning, binding, shaving, chiseling and pastry-making fill the vicoli.

    The gondolas with their black funereal elegance are in the minority on the canals; the latter are crisscrossed with transport boats, barges loaded with wood and coal or drifting under the lighter weight of fruit and vegetables, since all business is done on the water.  

    Even in the fog, when the sirens and church bells emit their signals through the thick mist and we hear the pedestrians pounding the pavement before spotting their silhouettes, one is struck by the vitality of these people. Amid such diversity, imagination, the resemblance between dynamic locals and the city’s exuberant facades comes as no surprise.

    These roseatticed balconies, this festival of Gothic lace, these porphyry and serpentine inlays, the arches, the domes, the arabesques of marble and stone that made Venice glorious aren’t an illusion of folklore: all of this luxurious and inventive architecture is a manifestation of Venetian character. The most famous palace on the Grand Canal is called “Ca ‘d’Oro” (the House of Gold), with its fantastic Gothic polychrome marble given free rein throughout its arcaded galleries and open balconies, and its light fortifications crowning the building help give the appearance of a jewel rather than a house.  

    Capital of Joy If Venice is threatened today, it is not from within. It’s not undermined by the mental sickness to which Thomas Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach succumbs. The danger comes from outside: from the speedboat waves eating away at the houses’ stilts, the giant cruise ships that shamelessly drop anchor in front of the Doge’s Palace and stir their obscene propellers in the canals’ still water, and the onslaugh of tourists on the fragile vicoli pavement. Venetians love life in the same spirit they love beauty. Beauty has always been part of their decor. In every church you enter, you see a masterpiece; in each palace a fresco dazzles you.

    And these are not sad paintings. Melancholy is not a hallmark of Venetian culture. This city has always been the capital of joy. Who invented joyful music, if not Vivaldi, whose pearly cadences praise life? Who if not Tiepolo is a master of bright and luminous colors? Who if not Carlo Goldoni is the only comic playwright to rival Molière or Gogol? And who has lived a more joyful, energetic life than Casanova, whose dynamic temperament allowed him to rebound from the hardships

    he had to endure, including being imprisoned in Piombi, the famous infernal jail, which he wouldn’t have escaped from without a wholehearted desire to live? Venetians the lot of them, and they were not steeped in the black ink of the canals but in the red blood of jubilation. They would be shocked to hear their city would one day symbolize what perishes, what comes to pass, what dies. “This country, in its current state, is still perhaps the most joyful of Europe,” noted Stendhal in 1815, before the dangers mentioned above cast their shadow on this natural inclination. Carnival, which would last six months, was the popular manifestation of their taste for partying.  

    City of Women Look at Titian’s Venus, the allegory of physical pleasure. Look at Giorgione’s nymph, the glorification of motherhood. Look at Tintoretto’s luscious Suzanne being ogled by old men. Are they not all filled with a powerful potion? In this regard, Venice should be seen as the city of women, just as Florence is seen as the city of men. Donatello, Michelangelo, and Benvenuto Cellini paint or sculpt erect men—and lean men at that.

    Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Véronèse and Palma the Elder paint women, mostly ones whose opulent flesh finds maximum development in a reclining position. Venus lounging, Danae mute under a golden rain—these are symbolic figures of Venice, just as David is the presiding genius of Florence. Venice is entirely a female city, a town lying down, displayed, full of the shadowy folds of female secrets carpeting the ends of deep alleys.  

    It is also a blond city, making it an exception in brunette Italy. In the golden age of Venice, women would sit on balconies wearing wide straw hats with the tops cut out in order to protect their faces from being sunburnt yet allow their hair to lighten. Such was the recipe for the famous “Venetian blond.”  

    Music City Finally, Venice is a musical city. Everywhere there is the murmur of water, like a continuous bass. Need I remind you that in many of the church paintings that so delight us we see an angel at the Madonna’s feet, playing the violin in glory, like Giovanni Bellini’s winged teenager in San Zaccaria? There is also the fact that the painters themselves willingly played instruments, as evidenced by the large Veronese canvas in the Louvre, The Wedding at Cana, where the quartet has been identified as Titian on bass, Tintoretto on guitar and Veronese himself on the cello.

    Tiepolo’s angels play the trumpet in heaven and his female characters, the mandolin. “We sing all over the squares, streets and canals,” wrote Goldoni, and Goethe marveled at hearing the gondoliers setting Tasso’s or Ariosto’s stanzas to music. If songs have replaced high poetry today, it’s still not uncommon for a voice to rise up from a street corner and intone a long melody that floats along on the water.

    The first public Italian opera was opened in Venice, in 1637, followed by sixteen others until the end of that century. All but one have disappeared, the delicious San Giovanni Crisostomo, renamed Malibran, which continues to host performances. As for the Fenice, one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, it dates from 1790. A trip to Venice without an evening at La Fenice would be like visiting Paris without a walk through Montmartre.

    Rossini chose this theater to create L’Italiana in Algiers, Verdi La Traviata and Rigoletto, and Stravinsky for his only opera, The Rake’s Progress. Stravinsky asked to be buried in Venice, in the ultra poetic San Michele island cemetery next to the Russian ballet master Diaghilev’s grave, who had commissioned Petrushka and The Rite of Spring from him.  

    Vitally Modern Venice is not all about the past. It is not just a maze of ancient streets, not only a bevvy of splendid museums housing classical painting, not just the glory of the Doges epoch; it is also the city in Italy where contemporary art shares the spotlight. The Guggenheim Museum, the François Pinault Foundation at Palazzo Grassi and the Dogana da Mar, and the great masses that come to the Biennale polish the centuries- old patina. Another witness to the vitality of Venice is the international film festival on the Lido, Mostra, which has unveiled legendary directors like Kurosawa, Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Antonioni, Pasolini, Nanni Moretti and hundreds more.  

    Oh, who could possibly still say it’s only attractive for the images of decay it offers up to melancholic souls? In the waters of the lagoon, we have every right to draw on the happiness that comes with feeling of our time and part of the scene in this constant renewal of energy and artistic creation.

    *Dominic Fernaned: French writer of novels, essays and travel books. In 1982 he won the Prix Goncourt for his novel about Pier Paolo Pasolini and in 2007 he was elected a member of the Académie française. He taught in Naples at the French Institute, then Italian literature at the University of Haute-Bretagne at Rennes.

  • Trinità dei monti
    Art & Culture

    To Each His Own Rome

    Reverse the letters that spell ROMA and you get AMOR. Rome is the city of love. You cannot not love a city that displays its ideal so brightly. And even if 2016 will be a Jubilee Year— unespectedly called by Pope Francis ten years in advance of its traditional occurrence (the last was in 2000 and Jubilees normally occurr at 25-year intervals)—here I leave out those believers, devout pilgrims, who travel to Rome motivated by religion, faith, the “sacred love” of God. I stick to the secular reasons that each person may have to dive back into a city that offers so many subjects to relish.

    Once upon a time

    Once upon a time, when Europe read and studied Latin, the main attraction was the presence of Antiquity, palpable on every street corner. It is indeed a peculiarity of this city, as the ruins are incorporated into the very fabric of modern urban life. Certainly there are places that are specifically “ancient,” and as such are enclosed by fences: primarily the Forum, the political center of the Urbs during the reign of Virgil, Cicero, Caesar, Augustus; the Forum, with its temples, basilicas, triumphal arches, porticos, the small round temple of the Vestal Virgins, and many other ruins, sometimes simple columns left standing while the building collapsed, and so many other traces of this glorious past whose eloquence continues to touch us. But most of the vestiges in Rome are on the same level, so to speak, with everyday life. You don’t have to check the opening times or purchase a ticket; they are there at arm’s reach, collapsed or standing, ready to be regarded and admired.

    Pagan and Catholic
    You enter, for example, this rotunda-shaped church, to gather in front of Raphael’s tomb: In reality you are in the temple that Marcus Agrippa, general and advisor of Augustus, dedicated to planetary gods. The Pantheon was transformed into a church in the seventh century by Pope Boniface IV who named it “Saint Mary of the Martyrs.” Similarly, the so-called “Castel Sant’Angelo” along the Tiber is none other than the mausoleum built by Emperor Hadrian, which popes over the centuries turned into a citadel to serve as a fortified outpost of Saint Peter’s Basilica. There are countless ruses like this in Rome: the Catholic city appropriated the pagan monuments, so that the transition from one Rome to another, from one era to another, is seamless.

    Here the Coliseum, there the Theatre of Marcellus, farther away the Baths of Caracalla: they are integrated into the modern city, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Via Appia’s silent majesty

    And, if the mood strikes you to take the most romantic, most sentimental walk, the most dear to our hearts today, please don’t hesitate. Go to the Saint Sebastian doors, cut across the ramparts, and surrender yourself to the Via Appia, still paved in large uneven slabs where tanks once dug parallel ruts. The Via Appia was the road to Naples and is still lined with umbrella pines, stones, busts, and tombs, including the famous circular tomb of Cecilia Metella.

    The melancholia of this plain, dotted with statues, sarcophagi and mausoleums, is unparalleled, with the remains of aqueducts that crisscross the plain in the distance. No one has better translated the poetry and beauty of the place than Chateaubriand in his famous Letter to M. de Fontanes. “Imagine something like the desolation of Tyre and Babylon, of which the Holy Scripture speaks; a silence and a solitude as vast as the noise and tumult of the men who once occupied the same soil (...) One barely meets with a tree; but everywhere are ruins of aqueducts and tombs—ruins that appear like a forest of native plants, the growth of an earth composed of the dust of the dead.” What other details could you add that wouldn’t be mere gravy? Let’s only point out, rather prosaically, that for several kilometers this route has been maintained in this state, that cars are forbidden, and that you can only travel by foot or bicycle so as not to disturb the silent majesty of these places.

    Modern, Baroque Rome

    Now that the study of Latin is no longer part of the traveler’s education, the expectation and the taste for it have changed. It remains sensitive to the ruin’s prestige, of course, but our époque, so distanced from this ancient serenity, is drawn first towards Baroque Rome, whose fantasy, overflowing, excesses and ornamental luxuriance immediately seduce him. No more solitude or silence here but rather expansion, convulsions, an uninterrupted din. The stone itself seems to twist and scream. Remember, the Baroque was born in Rome, initially as propaganda to fight against the reformed religions of Luther and Calvin, who called for bare, white and austere churches. The Catholic Church’s response was to do the opposite: images, more and more images that strike the imagination, an overabundance of saints, angels, cherubs, putti, deliberately made to reignite a passion for the religion preached by the Vatican. Soon, however, what had been conceived as a commercial art became an aesthetic choice, the pleasure of discovering novel ways of expression.

    The world of Bernini and beyond
    The rise of the Baroque as an original art form is above all credited to one man,Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He was an architect, sculptor, painter, set designer, and one-man band who filled the seventeenth century with his creative vitality and gave Rome the face she wears today.

    Of Bernini the sculptor one admires the marvelous statues housed in the Borghese Gallery: The Rape of Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, Aeneas and Anchise, David and the Slingshot, works that defy the rigidity of marble by impressing blocks of material with intoxicating movements. Bernini the architect built the Colonnade of Saint Peter, the vast semicircle of columns surrounding the square outside the Basilica, symbolizing the open arms with which the Holy Seat welcomes the faithful: Barberini Palace, built with stones torn from the Coliseum; and especially those fountains that are the glory of Rome: The Fountain of the Bees at the entrance of via Veneto; the Triton Fountain in Piazza Barberini, composed of four dolphins whose tails lift a conch shell from which a triton launches a powerful water jet; and of course, first and foremost, the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. The latter epitomizes the Baroque grammar and spirit.

    Blocks of rough-hewn rock associate nature with art; exotic plants and animals (palm, agave, crocodile, snake, American horse, lion, Indian tattoo) recall the universal vocation of the church; giant statues of the four biggest rivers in the world, one per continent—the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges and the Rio de la Plata—are there for the same reason and also represent a love of the colossal; the water that flows onto this tumult of shapes and transforms the mineral into a spectacle that changes from minute to minute displays the Baroque taste for movement, illusion and metamorphosis; finally, at the top, an Egyptian obelisk points like a finger toward the sky.

    We find this finger in another, no less illustrious, part of Rome, dated the following century: the Spanish Steps. 137 steps, a real ascension for the pilgrims going up to the Trinità dei Monti church, in front of which Pope Pius VI, completing the program of spiritual elevation, erected an obelisk in 1789 that points the way forward to escape the fate of sinful humanity—a destiny represented at the bottom of the stairs by a fountain in the shape of a boat about to sink.

    Caravaggio’s hell

    Along with Bernini, the artist who has left the greatest mark on the Roman landscape (at least for us today), is the painter Caravaggio. No doubt we should hurry to the Vatican to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms. But the Renaissance painters, isolated as they are in the formal perfection and distant nobility of their idealized characters, speak to us less than this wild, self-taught, innovative and prodigious inventor of “chiaroscuro” from Milan who burst onto the scene around 1590;

    for searching the streets for his models, having prostitutes pose for the Virgin and thugs for his saints and angels; for painting them as they are, with their worn, sinister faces; and, more importantly, for his muddled manners, angry and ardent, prosecuted and imprisoned several times for fights, and finally suspected of murder, forced to flee Rome and take refuge in Naples, then Malta, then Sicily, hounded by the law until he washed up on a beach in Tuscany and abruptly died under mysterious circumstances, likely an assassination.

    His violent life was much like Pasolini’s, and his work reflects the convulsions of a tortured soul. More than half of his paintings can be found in Rome: The Stories of Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi, The Martyrdom of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul in Santa Maria del Popolo, and The Virgin of the Pilgrims in Sant’Agostino, where for the first time the fingernails of the peasants that came from afar to worship the Virgin are shown as blackened by the dirt roads.

    Others are housed in the Capital, Vatican, Corsini and Barberini museums, where Judith Beheading Holofernes depicts the blood flowing from the large boils of a severed head, the first appearance of modern horror in art. Finally, at the Borghese Gallery, you can recognize Caravaggio’s own features in the severed head of Goliath, held at arm’s length by a beautiful and young David, as if the painter had had a premonition of his own death.

    To each his/her own Rome. Here, I wanted to counter he cliché of the “Eternal City,” timeless and disdainful of human vicissitudes, with the Rome that moves, suffers, lives, gets its hands dirty, the Rome in which we can recognize our century, bouncing from one crisis to another and resounding with tragedies.