Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Return to Rome

I did not need to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain in order to return to Rome.

Recently, I was back in Rome to meet up with friends and family that I hadn't seen in years. The weather was lovely, the Prosecco flowed and I revisited some of my favourite spots: Piazza Navona, Pantheon and the Galleria Borghese.



The river gods of the Piazza Navona still float my boat; Bernini is, in my humble opinion, the sculptor with the best statues to be found in Rome. He has had a lasting effect on me since my first view of his work.

In the Piazza Navona, Rome on a hot August afternoon some years ago, with a partner that I no longer wished to be with, I started a new love affair.It was in the Piazza Navona that my love affair began. In front of me was the most incredible piece of sculpture I had ever seen. The almost ubiquitous obelisk rose out of the centre, but at its base were sculptures of such beauty and power that I was awestruck.
Four men, river gods; their perfectly proportioned, magnificent musculature made my fingers tingle. I wanted to trace my hands across their torsos, run my fingers through their hair; they almost breathed. Four figures frozen in a moment, only their size telling me that these were not mortal men of flesh but gods created by human hand – Bernini’s hands; hands that turned cold marble into warm flesh. 
Ganges, the river of Asia, held in his strong left hand an oar, representing his navigability; his body twisted as his right arm, biceps and triceps bulging, rested on the travertine rock beneath which the water poured into the fountain’s basin. 
Danube, his curly long beard cascading onto his chest faced inwards, his hand touching the papal coat of arms. As Europe’s river, he demonstrated by that action his proximity to Rome and the church. The creases in his stomach as he leant back and turned slightly gave him a softness that contrasted to his muscular strength. Between Danube and Plata, a horse emerged from the creviced rock, mane flowing and forelegs raised as, nostrils flaring, it plunged through the water. 
Above the horse a snake slithered towards Plata who recoiled in fear, hand raised, fingers splayed. Plata’s veins bulged with increased blood flow from the fear, his toes gripped the rock. I found him singularly unattractive, with huge ears and snub nose. From the viewpoint of Danube, Plata looked as if he was about to slip from the pile of coins upon which he sat, the coins symbolic of the riches of the Americas. From the other side he was firmly sat on his coins defending his riches from the snake – symbolic of the fear of rich men of losing their wealth. 
And then there was Nile. Nile’s head was covered, his body ripped with muscles. Africa’s representative demonstrated his power and potency and the mystery of his source. He sat next to a palm tree beneath which a lion crouched ready to attack. Each river god and animal had movement, life and power within it. Bernini’s hands had changed the hard, inflexible material so that it appeared supple, soft and graceful. This was going to be an enduring love affair. (excerpt published in Wanderlust magazine)

 It really is an enduring love. I returned to the Galleria in the Villa Borghese with the sole intention of seeing the 'Rape of Persephone' and 'Apollo and Daphne'. If I could own any two pieces of art, these would be they. Bernini turns hard marble to soft flesh - it is pure mastery, and on my third look at Persephone I could feel tears prick my eyes. 

My appreciation of statuary, BB (before Bernini), had run something along the lines of, "well, it's a statue, innit", but when confronted with the river gods and Persephone and Daphne my outlook changed. 

It was the  metamorphosis  of  Daphne  that  Bernini  captured. Apollo’s arm  reaches around Daphne’s waist, his drapery billowing behind him as he  rushes to catch her. As we walked around the sculpture the metamorphosis took place before our eyes. Apollo was no longer grasping at a female form but a tree. From Daphne’s right side we saw a woman fleeing in terror; from the left we saw a tree. Daphne’s fingers become twigs, her hair becomes leaves and her left side is encased in bark. The facial expressions of Daphne and Apollo contribute to the whole affect. Apollo looks at Daphne, eyelids heavy with desire and adoration as she turns her head in fear and terror. We kept circling, each turn allowing a new view, a new discovery. It was an exquisite piece of art and we had  to tear ourselves away. Other artwork in the room followed the theme of metamorphosis. All the mythological metamorphoses were given a Catholic significance by Cardinal  Maffeo Berberini, later Pope Urban VIII, with the moral couplet he had engraved on the base of the Bernini work:
                   Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure,
                    In the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.
 A fleeting pleasure was more than Pluto sought from Persephone in Room IV. In the centre of the room another of Bernini’s works captured the eye. Domination, power and fear ran off of every curve. Pluto, god of the  underworld,  accompanied by Cerebes his three- headed dog, abducts Persephone the daughter of Gea, earth. I wanted to touch Persephone’s smooth skin, run my fingers over the strength of Pluto. Bernini’s skill lay not only in creating the shapes but using the tactile nature of the stone. Pluto’s hands, grasping his  trophy, squeeze her flesh, her thigh dimples, his fingers dig into her waist. Pluto’s  face creases as Persephone pushes him away trying to free herself,  crying  out  for  help.  The  movement  changes  from  each perspective. From the left Pluto is seen taking a giant stride, grasping hold  of  Persephone.  From  the  front  Pluto  is  seen  triumphantly bearing his trophy away, despair on the face of his victim. Whereas from the right, with wind-blown hair, the dog barking and her tears flowing, Persephone’s torment is the focus. Every nuance of the story was captured in one sensual piece of art. (extract from 'A Little Bit of Italy')





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