We had a tour today with Context, a company that we have enjoyed for its knowledgeable, intellectually stimulating guides, and small groups. Our first was a fabulous food tour of Paris, and to this day I am Facebook friends with one of the participants. Since then we have visited the food stalls of Padua, met Rembrandt in Amsterdam and learned history in Venice, and enjoyed each one. Today’s topic, “The Mean Streets of Caravaggio,” was led by Dr. Lauren Golden (left), an excellent guide and a force of nature. She was dressed in a long skirt, an elegant scarf and golden sneakers. Besides being glamorous in an artsy way, she was incredibly knowledgeable and full of great stories. She also had a remarkable ability to get us to SEE the pictures and tell each other what we were seeing.
We met in the Piazza de Popolo, a large square with striking statuary at each end. In the middle was yet another Egyptian obelisk,
moved here in 1589 from its original location in the Circus Maximus.
There was just one other person joining us, Deborah from California who was small and smart and quiet. As the only Catholic in the group, she had secret inner knowledge about what we were seeing and was often told by Lauren not to answer the questions because of her advantage. 😉
We started out at Santa Maria del Popolo, which features two stellar Caravaggios, The Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus.
Lauren encouraged us to look at where the light came from, the muscularity of the figures, the angles of the composition, and not least the man’s behind brilliantly lit at bottom left. Facing this incredible painting is this one:
Again, the light, the angularity, the muscles and not least the horse’s behind. Is it just by chance that the behind is facing the third painting in this altar, The Assumption of the Virgin by his rival Carraci? It is powerful in its own way but much sweeter and more pastel, everything Caravaggio hated, so perhaps he really was making a statement. I wouldn’t put it past him.
The northern end of the piazza is anchored by one of the original gates into Rome, while the southern end leads to the “trident,” three streets which angle out from here into Rome. Rather than the ancient Via del Corso, we followed the Via di Ripetta, a street where Caravaggio lived and painted. He was a difficult, violent, wildly talented man, easy to characterize as a bad boy but more complicated than that facile assessment. I had read Graham-Dixon’s biography, so it was wonderful to see the building where Caravaggio had, according to his landlady, poked a hole in the ceiling to get more light. Lauren spoke movingly of the few details we know from public records about him, including the number of books in his library that was left behind and sold after he was evicted – if only we could know just which books they were!
As we walked along Lauren pointed out the simple fountains that are found everywhere in Rome, along with the bigger and more famous ones. To this day, Romans are proud of their clean water that is still transported into the city via aqueducts. This everyday fountain is the kind called nasone, or big nose.
Do you see that little hole at the top of the spout? The trick is to put your finger on the spout, and the water will come straight up from the little hole, just perfect for bending down and drinking! Otherwise, you can fill your bottles from the spout, and enjoy fresh, clean, free water. (And notice the SPQR that is found on each fountain to this day.)
As we walked, we went by the Mausoleum of Augustus,
and the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Augustan Peace, enclosed in a glass box, but we just strolled by these great momuments on our way to the next church.
Sant’Agostino was on the list because of this painting of the Madonna of Loreto.
This is such a classic Caravaggo: the elegant Madonna in the doorway of a broken-down building, her delicate features and velvet top contrasting with her bare feet and the dirty soles of the feet of the pilgrim. Lauren made us really LOOK at the painting, again where the light comes from, the contrast among the figures, the lines. Stimulating!
San Luigi dei Francesi, or the church of St. Louis of the French, was our last destination. Our main interest was in the trio of St. Matthew paintings. First is The Calling of St. Matthew, with this dramatic lighting and diagonal lines. Lauren let us through an interesting discussion about who’s who in this painting. Is Matthew the bearded man, or perhaps the boy slumped at the end of the table? Theories differ.
Lauren managed the churches really well, chastising those who used flash or were too noisy but never quite being obnoxious about it. Along the way, she showed us where Caravaggio probably worked, railed against the Italians who are constantly on their mobiles (she’s right, even security people and guards are looking at them all the time) and envied us for our Malta trip and our Caravaggio views. You know it’s a good tour when you are still talking about the ideas and opinions at dinner that evening!
After an afternoon rest (our MO on this trip), we walked up to the Trevi Fountain, which was TEEMING with people on this sunny Saturday afternoon. We just gave in to the good-natured crowd, forced our way to the front and snapped away. Here’s an idealized photo
and here’s the reality. Lots of selfies and selfie sticks, women throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain, and generally the teeming masses enjoying themselves hugely. Us, too.
Dinner was in the Campo again, fish again, delicious again. Notice the little votive inside the tomato.