Monday, September 23, 2013

Visiting the Sixteenth Century

Palazzo Barberini (source)
Beatrice Cenci - Guido Reni 
In the year 1599 a fourteen year old girl named Beatrice Cenci was beheaded in Rome was beheaded on the Pont Sant’Angelo for the crime of murdering her father. Actually, some sources say she was 22, and that her family did most of the bludgeoning - they were executed too. But what is agreed is that the father was a monster and deserved it. Pope Clemente VIII also took the opportunity to swipe the family’s riches. Beatrice has gone down in history and legend as something of a martyr. She looks rather sadly over her shoulder at us from a painting by Guido Reni. In 1819 Percy Bysshe Shelley composed a long poem about her, after seeing the Reni portrait in Rome.

It presently hangs in the Italian National Art Collection, housed in the monolithic Palazzo Barberini, a palazzo bedecked with bees, the symbol of the Barberini family. One salon along, there is a vivid painting by Caravaggio of 'Judith Beheading Holofernes', capturing the moment when life leaves the body of the ghastly giant, beheaded by the brave Judith to save her people from the enemy. It was painted in 1599, and some say it’s rather awful accuracy was inspired by Caravaggio’s witnessing of the beheading of Beatrice.

'Judith Beheading Holofernes' - Caravaggio
'La Fornarina' - Raphael
But the sixteenth century wasn’t all brutality. A couple of salons and a few decades back, hangs 'La Fornarina'. She sits, Mona Lisa - like, contemplating us, half naked but wearing an elaborate headdress, and a golden bracelet around her upper arm inscribed with the name of her, er, portraitist. Make of that what you will. It was painted in about 1520, which was the year that Raphael died. La Fornarina (which means ‘bakeress’) is said to be Margherita Luti, and it’s also said that upon Raphael’s death, she heads into a nunnery.
Rafael’s gorgeous portrait of his mistress, known as

The Palazzo Barberini itself began as a palazzetto of the Sforza family in the sixteenth century, but was built into a huge mansion in the seventeenth, on the commission of Pope Urban VIII, who was Maffeo Barberini. The architect Carlo Maderno worked on the project, and those two great architectural rivals, Borromini and Bernini took over from him. There’s a great squared staircase at one end of the building that’s the work of Bernini; and a delicate spiralling one at the other end that’s the work of Borromini.

In its current role as the home of the Italian National Art Collection, Palazzo Barberini houses, as you can imagine, many treasures from across the centuries. I have to mention that they have Holbein’s amazing portrait of Henry VIII, for example, some exquisite early Lippi pieces, Poussin landscapes, Bernini paintings, some El Grecos, a lovely selection of those fine Dutch portraits, and - in the Salon da Cortona, a quite extraordinary ceiling.

The Cortona Ceiling (source)
I recommend visiting, as I did, in the company of an enthusiastic young art historian who can fill you in on the gossip behind the best works; and a three-piece musical ensemble  - from Romaoperaomnia - who can charm you with a little period music on period instruments, as you sit and contemplate Raphael, Caravaggio and poor Beatrice Cenci. A lute, a flute and a soprano, and you’re back in the sixteenth century. The good bit.

A Barnerini Bee.

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