Does that get your attention? It got mine, but I’m an easy target. One of my favorite things about Italy is all the drama! It’s everywhere, from the smallest gesture between Romans on the street, to the massive Baroque cathedrals where not an inch of the interior has been left bare, to the classic tragedies captured in marble.
Take Lacoon and his sons, at the Vatican museums in Rome. He seemed like a stand-up guy in the Aeneid when he warned the Trojans about Greeks bearing gifts once that big wooden horse arrived at their gates. But what did he get for his troubles? Strangled by sea serpents, along with his sons, for annoying Athena, since the horse was reportedly a gift from her. Tough crowd.
Poor Niobe. At the Villa Medici in Rome, these statues depict the woman (in center at the back) who had 10 (or maybe 14) kids, who were all gorgeous. She was so proud of them and their beauty that she got a little too uppity: She bragged to Leto, who had only two children—Apollo and Diana (not a bad duo, that)—about her gorgeous and abundant offspring. The gods must be crazy, because they took umbrage and proceeded to kill all of Niobe’s kids, as depicted here (the original is at the Uffizi in Florence), while they tried to flee, and turn the über-smug Niobe into a weeping rock. Kinda like this depiction. Overreaction much, Zeus and Co.?
I joked on Facebook that this (right) is what I used to feel like on Monday mornings. While that’s true enough, in actuality, this is a funeral monument in Rome’s Santa Maria Sopra Minerva designed by my crush, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (he left the sculpting to his minions), for the Spanish Cardinal Domenico Pimentel in 1653. Oh, the despair!
Some of the most fascinating, and dramatic, sculptures to be seen in Rome are funerary. I’m not sure who this one’s for, or who sculpted it, but isn’t in kinda weirdly romantic?
My friend Steve Brenner told me a story he heard from an art history scholar about Bernini and one of his seemingly less emotionally wrought works. The elephant and obelisk in the Piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, also designed by Bernini, came with its own drama. Pope Alexander VII wanted a suitable base for the obelisk, which had been discovered in 1655. Bernini was asked to create it but one of the priests, who had also submitted a design and been rejected, haggled with the great sculptor and insisted that the elephant have a cube under its belly. Bernini ultimately complied, but got his revenge: The elephant’s rear faces the monastery in which the priest lived and the beast’s tail offers a kind of salute—one that the priest no doubt didn’t appreciate. Trust Bernini to make the priest the “butt” of his joke.
Back to the funereal monuments… Here’s St. Cecilia’s tomb in Trastevere. Not too much drama.
But look more closely: St. Cecilia’s story goes that she had taken a vow of virginity. Even so, her parents married her off. On her wedding night, she convinced her husband to convert—and he didn’t force her to break her vow. Then the pair, along with her also-converted brother-in-law, started a charity giving alms to the poor. The men were martyred for refusing to worship Roman gods. Cecelia was later also killed: First the Romans locked her in her own bath, and when that failed to suffocate her, they sent a swordsman to cut off her head and it took several attempts. She didn’t die until three days later. So look closely at this funerary statue: it’s so “humanistic” that you can see where her neck was cut. See? Drama!
I don’t think much needs to be said about Michelangelo’s Pietá at St. Peter’s. Whether you’re a believer or not, not many will disagree that the story is one of the best ever told. And it’s told over and over again through the art in Rome. Much of it, like this, magnificent in capturing the most moving moments. (Tourists can create their own drama struggling to get close enough to take a picture through all the crowds.)
Finally, during my week in Rome, I learned the story of Antinous, lover of the emperor Hadrian in the first century A.D. The museum descriptions are all very coy about him being Hadrian’s “favorite,” but clearly the emperor was obsessed with his boytoy, who seems (to me, at least) to have been sculpted more than anyone else in ancient Rome. Seriously, there are about five Antinous statues or busts in every museum. You can kinda see why….
History tells that Hadrian (and his wife) took Antinous, a young Greek, with them everywhere. While Hadrian was, officially, married, in ancient Rome it wasn’t frowned upon for men to have male lovers—as long as they were the dominant partner. Sadly (or perhaps diabolically), Antinous drowned under mysterious circumstances while they were all together in Egypt.
While officially considered an accident, you have to wonder if someone had it out for Hadrian’s gorgeous “favorite.” The emperor, distraught over the loss, pretty much proclaimed Antinous a god and encouraged people to worship him in a new cult. He even built a city on the banks of the Nile called Antinoopolis. Now, that’s love. And drama.