Thursday, 29 May 2014

Some blatant fabrications about Rome that drive tourists crazy

Every now and then, it's fun to tell some good story about a monument or the like to look smart and impress your friends.
It doesn't really count as "deceiving" someone, but sure it gets weird when a made-up anecdote turns out to be more popular than reality and tourists start to take it for the truth.
In this post I'll entertain you with some of these "good stories", making sure to let you know the real deal, too!

Let's start with one of the most iconic scenes that still forces the locals to witness neverending lines of tourists squeezing their hand into the so-called Mouth of Truth:
This screenshots comes from the hyper-popular movie "Roman Holiday" directed by William Wyler and starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and it was found on Google!

The legend of the statue being a sort of "lie detector" started during the Middle Ages, when the idea that a Roman scholar of the VI century, a certain Virgilio Grammatico, who was used to the practice of magic, built it to let married couples know when their husband or wife were concealing adultery, made its appearance among both Italian and German tourists that started to spread the tale. Around the XV century, a German tale narrated about how, in ancient Roman times, a treacherous wife managed to deceive the statue with a trick, resulting into the God who took action through the Bocca to lose his powers.
In reality, the mysterious Bocca is nothing but the marble cover of a manhole used for water sewage.
The God rappresented on it is one of the fluvial deities that were supposed to give protection during such a task, to avoid floods: the God Oceanus or a personification of the river Tiber.
I found out that the French sculptor Jules Blanchard made his personal interpretation of the Bocca on a statue that can be found in Paris at the Gardens of Luxembourg, and that even the Venetian Mouths of the Lion have a connection to the Bocca because of their roles as "guardians of the truth".

Let's continue our tour with another fun story, the one concerning the uniforms of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, the military of Vatican City.

Postcard by Attilio Scrocchi portraying a Swiss Guard in their typical uniform, dated 1910-20s

The legend tells that the designer of the uniform was Michelangelo, who decided to try his hand as a fashion designer during his stay in Rome to work for Julius II.
The Florentine artist was in fact in Rome during the institution of the Guard, and sure the energic lines of the uniform and its strong colours make one think of an inspiring time as that of Roman Reinassance.
Truth is, the designer of the current uniform was a commandant of the Swiss Guards themselves, Jules Repond, and the design that you can see now is pretty recent, dated 1914, in fact.

The Reinassance suggestion is there, though: it's said that Repond took inspiration from one of the frescoes that decorate the Raphael Rooms, the Mass of Bolsena.
On the bottom right you can spot some kneeling Swiss Guards that inspired the creativity of the commandant.
Charming, uh? --Now that's a cool story that you can tell your friends without dangers!

We're approaching the conclusion of the post, and I'm offering you one of my favourite stories.
It concerns the Fountain of the Four Rivers by Bernini that you can spot in Piazza Navona.
It's said that when Pope Innocent X announced the competition for the re-design of the facade of the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, Borromini and Bernini rivalled with each other quite fiercely, since it was quite the ambitious task.
Bernini's project lost to Borromini's, but the Pope allowed him to design a fountain in front of the church, to decorate the empty square.
So when Bernini designed the fountain, he made certain to spite Borromini's work: the personification of Rio de la Plata is screaming in terror that the unsteady facade could crumble on top of him, while the Nile's is covering his eyes while turning his back to the church so that he doesn't have to see such an ugly building.

The rivalry between Borromini and Bernini is nothing but the truth, the two artists couldn't stand each other, but it must be noted that, despite this fun interpretation, the Fountain was made before the Church, thus impeding such a creative face-off: the works on the Fountain started around 1648 and ended on 1651, while to Church was re-designed during the time span covering 1652 to 1672.
The "awe" of the statues refer to their recognition of the Pope's religious authority over the whole world (the personification of the Danube points out at one of the Pamphilj's crest on the statue, as to emphatize this message) and the personification of the Nile is covering his face as to suggest the mystery surrounding the river, since at the time its source was unknown.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The "Casina delle Civette"

The most of Roman parks are the "remains" of the gardens of the aristocracy that lived in the Capital because of the sphere of influence of the Pope.
Villa Torlonia is one of them, the luxurious residence of the Torlonia family.
During one of my walks, I decided to visit one of the museums in the area because of my love for the 20s and because I was attracted by its unusual, fancy design: the Casina delle Civette (translated as "The House of Little Owls" or "The House of the Owls"), the "refuge" of Prince Giovanni Torlonia (1873–1938).
The Casina turned into his official residence once he granted the main building of the Villa, the Casino Nobile, to Benito Mussolini in the 20s, making him pay the symbolic rent of 1 lira per month.

Let's start with a bit of history as we walk around the delightful exteriors of the Casina.
During my visit it was also the stage of an exhibition by contemporary artist Antonia Ciampi, who decorated the rooms of the house with some artistic installations aimed to interpret the "mood" of each space.

"The House of the Little Owls is the result of a series of transformations and additions to the nineteenth century "Swiss Cabin", which, positioned at the edge of the park and hidden by an artificial hillock, was originally intended as a refuge from the formality of the main residence. It was designed in 1840 by Giuseppe Jappelli, as a commission from Prince Alessandro Torlonia.
Its deliberately fabricated rusticity combined the characteristics of the eighteenth century Swiss dairies with those of the lonely and romantic follies found in English gardens.
The outside of the house was faced with blocks of tufo, while the inside was painted in tempera in imitation of masonry and wooden planking.
However, as early as 1908, the "Swiss Cabin" started to undergo an increasingly radical transformation into a "Medieval Hamlet", at the behest of Alessandro's nephew, Giovanni Torlonia."

"The work was overseen by Enrico Gennari, and the small building became an elaborate residence with huge windows, loggias, porticos and turrets, decorated with maiolica and stained glass.
From 1916 the building began to be known as the "House of the Owls", perhaps because of the stained glass depicting two stylized owls among ivy shots, created by Dulio Cambellotti in 1914, or because of the motif of the owls is used almost obsessively in the decorations and furnishings of the house, expecially those related directly to the prince.
This difficult man, who delighted in esoteric symbols, chose the small and rustic dwelling as his residence and, to a great extent, determined its construction."

"In 1917 Vincenzo Fasolo was chosen as architect to the Torlonia family. He built the southern facade of the house and masterminded its fantastical decorative scheme in Liberty style, employing the most noted artists of the time: Dulio Cambellotti, Paolo Paschetto, Umberto Bottazzi, Vittorio Grassi.
For the stained glass, he selected the most skilled glass maker of the period, Cesare Picchiarini.
The architectural complex that Fasolo created and which survives today, is made up of two buildings, the main house and the out house, connected by a small wooden gallery and underground passage.
They have almost nothing in common with the romantic alpine refuge that Japelli designed in the nineteenth century except for the L-shaped wall structure which remains part of the main construction, the pitched roof, the deliberately rustic impression, and the way in which the various component materials are left on view.
Fasolo's influence can be seen in the choice of spatial volumes that adhere to one another and interrelate, taking form through a wide variety of of material and decorative details.
The unifying element of the multiplicity of architectural solutions he uses is the grey tone of the roof surface that mantles the house, for which thin slate tiles of varying shapes were used, in contrast to the vivid colours of the tiles in glazed terracotta.
The internal areas, laid out in two levels, are all particularly highly finished, with figured decorations, stucco works, mosaics, polychrome maiolica, inlaid wood, wrought iron, wall fabris, marble sculpture and made to measure furniture, which demonstrate the particular care the prince gave to his domestic comfort.
Among so many decorative elements, the ubiquitous stained glass is nevertheless the distinctive feature of the house. It was installed between 1908 and 1930 and rappresents a unique feature in the international outlook."

"The destruction of the building began in 1944, with its occupation of the Anglo-American troops, which lasted more than three years. When the Municipality of Rome acquired the park in 1978, both the houses and the grounds were in terrible conditions. A fire in 1991, along theft and vandalism, esacerbated the ruyined state of the House of the Owls.
Its current appearance is the result of long, patient and meticulous restoration work carried out from 1992 to 1997, which has been able, using the surviving remains and much documentary evidence, to restore the city one and most unusual and interesting building of the early years of the last century."

So, once I'm done with the introduction and the walk around the outside, let's get inside.

Since, as you read before, the most of the original furniture and decorations of the Casina were stolen or destroyed, the organizer decided to turn the walls and rooms into "exhibition halls" of the artists that worked on the Casina: sketches, projects and paintings of stained glass works of renowed and popular artists and glass makers can be found everywhere, suggesting the mood of the Casina and the prince's tastes.

Once we access the entrance, it's better to start from the lower level of the house, checking out the rooms dedicated to the exclusive social gatherings or studies of the prince.
The first room that we find is the Room of the Nail, so called because the stained glass decoration reminds the shape of the head of a nail.
Proceeding onwards, it's the renowed Room of the Owls.
The room was originally decorated with imperial style wood-panelling and rich drapes hanging from the ceiling, but they got destroyed; the only original part remaining is the beautiful stained glass of Cambellotti. "The little owls are made with coloured glass, partly painted with fire to improve the effect of the plumage."

Keep walking, and you'll find yourself into the lovely Dining Room.
Originally there were china plates decorating the walls (now substituted by simple wooden plates) portraying foreign cities of the world, and on the little shelves you could see a collection of tin soldiers.
The table is part of the exhibition of Ciampi.

Next is the Fumoir, a place used by the prince as his smoking room, decorated with wicker furniture.
My favourite bit of the house is definitely the Room of the 24 Hours!
"This room, positioned in the octagonal cupola, is the most richly decorated in the house.
In Japelli's original design, it was a simple country kitchen. However when the house was transformed at the beginning of the twentieth century, at the wish of Giovanni Torlonia, it became a sitting room for the prince.
The vault of the cupola, which was painted in tempera in 1909 by Giovanni Capranesi, is divided into eight panels, demarcated by stucco, which depict the 24 hours dancing among rose tendrils. They are rappresented as charming children, draped with diaphanous veils, who frolic in groups of three against a blue sky.
The backdrop is painted with comets, which, along with roses, are the heraldic symbols of the Torlonia family.
The decorative scheme is completed by a central tondo with stucco cornices, which repeat the roses motif.
At the base of each ceiling rib there is a stucco relief depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The room is clearly intended as a glorification of the Torlonia family, who are symbolized by the roses and comets, and the celebration of their eternal fame, as alluded by the phoenix and the hours."

Once out, we find the Room of the Clover, characterized by its lovely, original floor decorated with a clover motif. I really love these cute floor decorations in marble tiles!

This is the end of the lower floor, now we can proceed upstairs to the "personal" rooms of the prince!

The first room that we find is the Prince's Bathroom!
"This small room, prior to the transformation of the House into a museum, still had the original bath fittings from beginning of the century. However the beautiful maiolica work, produced by Villeroy and Bosch, which once covered the walls with depictions of nymphs, had almost completely disappeared. [...] The few pieces which remain have been made into one panel and left in place to document the bathroom's original decoration."

Next is the Prince's Bedroom.
"The Prince's bedroom had retained almost none of the original furnishings that once made it into one of the places most intimately expressive of Giovanni Torlonia's dark and misanthropic character. It was originally full of the symbolism of owls and night birds in general, including the large tondo in the center of the ceiling, which depicts bats flying with their dark wings outstretched and has, fortunately, survived.
However other furnishings have been lost: once the room contained a bed with bedknobs in the form of owls, table lamps in the form of owls, a water jug also in the form of an owl, and the owl pattern wallpaper."

We keep walking, and after being distracted by a series of beautiful stained glass windows, we reach the Room of the Cyclamens, a guestroom decorated with a lovely marble floor depicting cyclamens and a beatiful stained glass work knows as "The Peacocks", made by Umberto Bottazzi.

By the guest room, you obviously can find the Guests' Bathroom!
"The second bathroom of the house in smaller than the Prince's, but no less decorative. Indeed, the small room was enterely covered with fine majolica work, depicting cascades of yellow bunches of golden chain at the high up the walls and an elegant Art Deco design in the bottom strip of the walls. The main attraction of the batroom is the set of three pieces of stained glass in the loggia. The central piece shows the scene of a lake with a white swan at its center, while the two at the side continue with the theme with floral decorations of irises and reedmaces."

Next there is another Guest Room, very simple and rarely used.
Trying to figure where to go, I reached the Turret Rooms, two tiny rooms "set next to the medieval style brick tower."
Interesting the donation of an original shawl by the maison Sorelle Piredda, presented during the exhibition of the Sardinian illustrator Pino Melis and based on one of his drawings.

Then we can see the suggestive Room of the Swallows, the last room of this tour.
"The room originally had a ceiling painted with swallows in flight, but no trace of it now remains. However the theme of the swallows is still present in the fine glass and the stucco motif.
In the four corners of the ceiling were four stucco reliefs depicting stages in the life-cycling of the swallow: courtship, brooding, hatching and feeding. These reliefs were partially destroyed in the fire that wrecked the house in 1991. It was only possible to reconstruct three of the nests from the surviving fragments: these three have been restored at put back in place.The three pieces of stained glass which decorate the gallery continue the swallow motif."

I turn around and reach the exit of the Casina, taking my time to check out the other stained glass works that follow my descent--Out in the sun.

..What can I say? LOVELY!
A must-see if you're a fan of the 20s, Liberty, Art Deco and design as I am!