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.

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