We had our first lecture yesterday with the brilliant historian Paolo Alei. Paolo has been a part of our program since we began it in 2012 and we’ve been fortunate to count him as one of our program historians. He completed his undergraduate degree here in Rome, then his MA at Columbia and his PhD at Oxford. He is supremely busy, teaching courses, researching, coordinating the restoration of an Orsini castle outside of Rome, so we are especially grateful that he is able to make time to connect with our program. If Piranesi and Nolli are are conceptual bookends for our Rome drawing class, Paolo Alei – and Antonella de Michelis, who you’ll meet later) are our historical experts, guides, mentors, muses.
We began at the Fountain of Moses, at Largo Santa Susannah, on the ancient Via Pia – that street established by Pope Pius as one of the entry points into Rome, through a gate designed by Michelangelo. The Via Pia – as one of the most important pilgrimage walks into the Eternal City – links Michelangelo’s gate to the Piazza Quirinale, and to a beautiful view of St. Peters. Along the way are, among other things, four churches. Santa Maria della Vittoria is home to the Coronaro Chapel and to Bernini’s masterwork – the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. We lingered her for a while, learning about Teatrum Sacrum – “Sacred Theatre” and Bernini’s perfection of the Belle Composto – the beautiful composition and fusion of Art, Architecture and painting.
Cardinal Rusticello’s Largo Santa Susanna was next – designed by Carlo Maderno (and a mini facade version of St. Peters). We stopped in the middle of a traffic circle – surrounded on one side by motorcycle parking, by Santa Susanna, by the Church of St. Bernard (built into a remnant of Diocletian’s Baths) and a view towards the Quirinale. The reliquary head of Santa Susanna would be displayed here on a balcony overlooking the street at an intersection of faith and urban planning.
We proceeded to the Borromini’s San Carlino – located at an intersection of the Via Pia and probably the most important axial street in Rome; a street that links the obelisks at St. John the Lateran to the one at Piazza del Popolo, while passing through the sites of Santa Maria Maggiore (where Bernini is buried) and the Spanish steps. San Carlino is a gem of a building, a tour-de-force (and Bernini’s first commission) of geometry, philosophical abstraction and phenomenal restraint. We learned about how Bernini hybridized and transformed theoretical norms (creating architectural chimeras – as he was disparagingly accused of by many during the Baroque); expanding Michelangelo, extending Serlio, creating his unique and visionary approach to architecture and space.
Unfortunately, Sant Andrea alla Quirinale was closed (a victim of the sudden bureaucracy of Roman timetables); but has particularly scheduled hours so a repeat visit will be necessary to see the church that Bernini claimed as his favorite. We were thwarted again at the Piazza del Quirinale, where a visiting dignitary was popping into the presidential palace and as a result, we were diverted from the Piazza onto an unexpected itinerary. We had spoken of water at Largo Santa Susanna, of how Pope Pius had cast himself as an emperor (as had many of the previous popes), and in this case, at the Fountain of Moses – as the great Prophet of old, striking the rock with his staff, water bursting forth – a boon for tired, thirsty, journey weary pilgrims.
We wound up instead (after a glimpse at St. Peter’s that pilgrims would have seen at the Piazza del Quirinale – then the summer palace of the popes), at the Trevi Fountain, where Paolo spoke to us about allegory and personification, how the urban design of much of Rome’s spaces were for the public – and in a way – also to be seen by God. Salvi’s fountain, recently restored to a pristine white through financial support from Fendi, was the theatric backdrop for our last stop. Salvi himself, we learned, studied with Pietro Metastasio at the Arcadian Academy – an institution dedicated to the preservation of good taste. Trevi is, like Bernini’s St. Theresa, a fusion of art, architecture and narrative. Salvi designed it as a stage, with cascading platforms of water, an urban and spatial allegory of the Principle of Water – here represented by the figure of Oceanus, who rises from the center of the earth with two Tritons and the positive and negative aspects of water. If you look closely, you can see Salvi’s fountain, “cracking” the base of the Fountain’s facade – itself a Triumphal Arch (like the Fountain of Moses), an earthquake of water.
Our first lecture was a great introduction to the urban spaces of Rome, of the interplay between facade and street, between artifact and space, between narrative and experience. We’ve got a few more lectures with Paolo and are looking forward to that. Incidentally, he recommended coming back to the Trevi in the evening, when most of the tourists are gone, and like a spectator at a great theatre, to listen to your favorite opera and to take in the fountain. He recommended Carmen.