Seeing :  Reflections on Dutch and other Northern European Art, in Context 

The etymology of the word see: Middle English sēn, from Old English seon (Anglian sean) “be or become aware of by means of the eye; look, behold;” also “perceive’’ …

I visited the Netherlands for the first time this June. Like many though, I have long since admired the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and of course Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) , the latter’s works were part of a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in 2017, entitled ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’ .  I also liked the works of  Gerard ter Borch (1617-81). But over the years one or two artists have come to my attention, from Northern Europe, who are lesser known and my interest in them stemmed from direct encounters with the works and in the museum context of their country of origin. (my emphasis) I actually got to see the works – using that great gift of sight.

My niece Tara, to whom I am very close, is living now in Copenhagen for over twenty years and I have been to Denmark several times.  In 2019 I was mesmerised looking at a work called Mermaid (1873), one of four paintings of mermaids, by the Polish- Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau – Baumann (1819-1881).

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann Mermaid, 1873 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek , Copenhagen

As the name suggests  it depicts a mermaid with a melancholic expression, leaning against a rock in shallow water. The night sky looms behind her and a moonlit sea. Purchased by Carl Jacobsen (he of the Carlsberg dynasty fame), the work is now in the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.  Interesting another one of her series was given to Hans Christian Andersen as a birthday gift and it is at the Funen Art Museum in Denmark.  Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann(1819 –1881) began her studies in Dusseldorf , one of the most important art centres in Europe at the time. When her work began to get recognition, she moved to Rome and spent many hours in her studio studying Italian painters. Baumann met her husband, Jens Adolf Jerichau, an art professor, in Rome. They had several children and her grandson, J.A. Jerichau (1891–1916) became one of the most significant modernist painters in Denmark. Her works are sensual and erotic, something that would have been taboo at the time in Denmark particularly work of this nature, by a woman. The canvas is huge and as I said  I was literally mesmerised by it.

When I was in my twenties, a friend and colleague, at NUIM, Greg Coogan, invited me to visit Finland. I decided as I was going ‘that direction’ I would also visit Russia and I will discuss one of the works I saw while there, that made a lasting impression shortly . The Russian architecture is incredibly beautiful. What a pity one cannot say the same about their politics.

In front of Annunciation Cathedral and Terem Palace , Kremlin, Moscow 1994

But my first visit to a museum in Northern Europe, was in Helsinki, Finland. When I saw the painting below at the Ateneum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, I was drawn to it immediately.

Albert  Edelfelt, Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood), 1893, Finnish National Gallery-Ateneum

I had my first cathartic moment in front of  this painting by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), when I stood,  rather spell bound looking at Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) . A Finnish peasant child stares out at me from the canvas, clearly exhausted from the work she is engaging in: burning the forest to help fertilise the land.  Even in the 1800s surrounding countries were having problems with Russia .The work would be considered an example of social realism in art, a new departure at the time , when the reality of the lives of those less well-off were starting to be depicted in a truthful manner in art. Why did it affect me so , I have often wondered?. Maybe because it reminded me of what I knew life was like for people in Ireland in the  1800s when famine ravaged the land and people died needlessly from hunger and Imperialist greed. In Ireland there are few works that depict the horror of this time , an exception being the work of Daniel MacDonald (1820-1853)  pictured below , which is at UCD. I would not have been aware of this work when in Finland but when I saw it years later it reminded me immediately of Edelfelt ‘s painting –  though in the Irish case those looking at the blighted potatoes were most probably anticipating their inevitable demise.

Daniel MacDonald , An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store, 1847, Irish Folklore Collection ,UCD

But to return to the Netherlands –  I was excited , earlier this year , to have the opportunity to study a module on 17th century Dutch art and we planned a short trip in June to Amsterdam to visit one or two museums when I had completed the course. One of the highlights of this recent trip to Netherland was a visit to the house of Rembrandt whose self-portrait below is a favourite of mine. I was thrilled to see it and spend time in front of it, at the  Rijksmuseum.

Laura Cummings in an article in The Guardian in the lead up to the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death , writes of his marriage to the love of his life, Saskia. Of her intelligence and personality, Cummings writes that: ‘Her character is apparent in her choice of Rembrandt, the son of a miller, rebellious, wild, at least as theatrical as his early self-portraits suggest. He had already painted the showstopping Self – Portrait With Dishevelled Hair now in the Rijksmuseum, and which she would have known, since he kept it among his studio works. Here, Rembrandt is a lone soul in the forests of the night, eyes blacker than the darkness around him. He has positioned himself at the exact boundary between that blackness and a shaft of light that ignites his smooth cheek and a flash of white lace collar, showing off his superb gift for flesh and fabric’. (Sunday 30th Dec 2018)

          Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Dishevelled Hair ,  c1628. Image: Denise Meagher

He peered out at me and I really felt he was about to ask me was I going to see his house while in Amsterdam!

In 1686 Vasari, that great documenter of the artists of the Renaissance, found he had a rival in terms of someone commenting on the arts of the Baroque period. Baldinucci (1625-1696) is considered a significant Florentine biographer/historian of art and was patronised by the Medici family. He expanded on Vasari’s work and added lives of French and Flemish artists  (omitted by Vasari), something which Svetlana Alpers ( February 10, 1936 -)  the American art historian, professor, writer and critic who specialises in  the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ , also took issue with.  She  revolutionized the field with her ground-breaking book The Art of Describing (1984) . (She has also written on Tiepolo, Rubens, and Velázquez, among others).  

But to return to Baldinucci’s , his most important work is the biographical dictionary of artists, Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua (1681) and in it he considers the possessions of Rembrandt (1606-1669) and their importance in decoding his art. Well done to him for that.  According to one critic Perry Chapman in  ‘Rembrandt on Display. The Rembrandthuis as portrait of an artist’ , (2015) an article about the significance of the Rembrandt House Museum, Baldinucci appreciated Rembrandt’s eccentricities in collecting, a hobby the Dutch exceled at. Not everyone would have agree with Baldinucci. Chapman quotes Baldinucci who writes that Rembrandt ‘ frequently attended public sales and bought old clothes that struck him as bizarre and picturesque [bizzarripittoreschi]. Although these garments were often covered in stains , he would hang them on the walls of his studio among all sorts of beautiful things, which he loved to collect, including old and modern weapons..[and] an innumerable quantity of drawings , prints, medals and all sorts of other objects that he believed a painter might need’. (pp, 230)

                                      Fabric at Rembrandt House: Image: Denise Meagher

In fact, Baldinucci compares Rembrandt’s lack of conventionality in this regard to Michelangelo . Rembrandt was not a snob and his collection habits appear to have primarily been as a support for his work, though obviously they would also have ticked other boxes, important at the time, for those who were devoted art-lovers.

Collecting unusual objects was a huge business in Netherlands in the 17th century (and other European countries), where people, usually of the middle and upper classes, put together what was termed ‘a cabinet of curiosity’, to show visitors at their homes the extent of their universal knowledge – meaning their interest and enthusiasm for many things, some scientific , some artistic, exotic glasses or shells, or natural objects . These objects were indicative of the collectors interest and respect for God’s genius as creator and , of course, proof of their own intellectual pursuits. Rembrandt had some marvellous pieces and once paid a huge sum for a shell which he of course studied closely and drew. My opening image is that work. It is stunning in its detail. To quote Perry Chapman again : ‘The shell [  ] would have been displayed not in a way of actual shells but as part of a ‘paper museum’ of works created by Rembrandt  rather than by God or nature. A such it was a testament  to his power of observation and the grounding of his art in nature. As much as the print may have been inspired by Wenzel Hollar’s etchings of individual shells of a few years before , the practice of drawing naer het leven (from life) together with the medium of etching , in which Rembrandt was especially experimental, cast Rembrandt as a naturalist and demonstrates the fluidity of the boundaries between art and science at the time’.  (pp 220/221)

He was also clearly very interested and influenced by how drawing was taught in the Renaissance atelier.  Rembrandt owned many prints by Raphael, and while his collection included several busts of Roman emperors and classical props that he could draw from – both in terms of inspiration and as objects for use in his art, as I have emphasised, he also collected fabrics and clothes and things that might be perceived as odd in a cabinet of curiosity.

Don and Joss in the Cabinet of Curiosity at Rembrandt’s House Museum. Image: Denise Meagher

It was interesting to visit the house and in particular to hear my three son’s reactions to the experience. We found the audio guide one can take on the tour helpful though it would be nicer, perhaps, to have someone tell you in person what the significance of the rooms are.  I love this picture below of my sons looking at how Rembrandt mixed his pigments in the studio of the house.

Don, Joss and Étienne looking at how Rembrandt mixed pigments in his Studio. Image: Denise Meagher

In his print below The Artist and his Model ,  one copy of which we saw at the Rijksmuseum, we can see how the items he collected came together in examples like this of his work.

Rembrandt The Artist and his Model ca. 1639  (print of incomplete drawing) Rijksmuseum

His paintings of Saskia of course are among the most memorable, at least to my eyes – in her straw hats, or in bed, or wearing her flowered headdress decorated with tulips, a flower synonymous with Netherlands.  Laura Cummings in the article mentioned earlier writes that  ‘Rembrandt drew Saskia van Uylenburgh for the first time three days after their engagement, in the summer of 1633. His future wife is a picture of spirited allure. She smiles back at him [     ]lips shining, hair tousled, eyes glowing with intelligence and humour. In her hand is a flower; round her hat are several more, perhaps gifts from her lover. Soon she will marry this prodigy, who is sitting so close to her on the other side of the table – the most famous artist in Amsterdam’. In their short marriage he painted and sketched his wife innumerable times and a particular favourite of mine is this one below, which has similar aspects as the one discussed by Cummings.

                             Rembrandt ,  Flora , 1634 Hermitage , St Petersburg

I feel very fortunate to say I saw this work, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in 1994. While looking at it I wondered did Saskia make the headdress for the portrait? Or did Rembrandt buy the garments she is wearing with a view to creating this work?. Whatever the answers to these questions might be it is a jaw dropper and  I just stopped and stared at it, another moment I remember in the context of a museum. Look how naturally the tulip bows its head. Saskia is depicted here by Rembrandt  as Flora, the Roman goddess of Spring and Flowers, in a wide sleeved dress containing various oriental and sixteenth century elements comparable to the dress worn by Rembrandt’s other mythological, historical, and biblical heroines.  The tulip, the flower I mentioned as so synonymous with Netherlandish culture and art, stands out or maybe it is just that we all know the national preoccupation with it. Goldgar, writes in a chapter on ‘Art and Flowers ‘ in Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age ( 2007) that ‘the tulip craze was part of a much bigger mentality , a mentality of curiosity, of excitement, and of the piecing together connections between the seemingly disparate worlds of art and nature. It also placed the tulip firmly in the social world in which collectors strove for social status and sought to represent themselves as connoisseurs to each other and to themselves’. (pp, 115)  Perhaps then, Rembrandt was showing off his connoisseurship with this work? Or was he simply indulging his imagination and practicing his techniques using nature around him and fashions inspired by antiquity? Maybe he wanted to show that he was so talented he could not only emulate but also surpass, nature,  with his art?

Nicolay Rachkov, Ukranian Girl Ca. 1850s , Chernigov Museum

Today the work brings to my mind other styles of headdress that originate in countries like Ukraine. The Ukrainian ‘wreath’ pictured above, is a type of headdress which, in traditional Ukrainian culture is worn by girls and young unmarried women. The wreath may be part of a tradition dating back to the old East Slavic customs that predate the Christianization of Rus (the medieval name for Russia and parts of Ukraine) . The flower wreath remains a part of the Ukrainian national attire and is worn on festive occasions and on holy days and since the 2014 revolution , increasingly , in daily life.

But to return to my recent visit to the Netherlands and to the Rijksmuseum, seeing some of Rembrandt’s work and others there, was, of course, another highlight of the trip. The museum was founded in The Hague in 1798 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace  (image below), which sadly we were unable to get access to on our visit, as the Royal family, who normally reside in the Hague were there on diplomatic business.

                                     The Royal Palace Amsterdam. Image: Denise Meagher

Later the museum moved to the Trippenhuis a Neo-classical canal mansion in Amsterdam . The building where it is situated today  was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) who also designed the central station into which we and most people arrive when coming from the airport.  It was opened in 1885.  In April 2013, after a ten-year renovation project which cost 375 million euro, the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix , a member of the Dutch Royal Family on the year of her abdication.

To bring things back to Ireland , I went to see this week the exhibition Dutch Drawings: highlights from the Rijkmuseum with my family.

With Don, Joss and Étienne on August 9th at the National Gallery of Ireland. Image: Seosamh Devine

Forty-eight works by 31 different artists who lived during the seventeenth century are on display. It is wonderful to see drawing getting the attention it does not always receive in Ireland and these works are among the best of the Rijksmuseum’s collection . It is a really impressive exhibition. The works were selected by curator Anne Hodge who uses a quote by Shakespeare to contextualise her selection process : ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players …’. The exhibition encompasses the diversity of subject matter that inspired artists at the time. To quote from their website: ‘All of life is here, from studies of plants and animals to portraits of loved ones, and records of conflagrations and comets, architecture and landscape.” (NGI website) She also emphasised in her talk, that the Gallery made a decision not to use the term ‘Golden Age’ in relation to this exhibition . Let us look at a definition of the Dutch Golden Age –   ‘(17th century) a period of great wealth for the Dutch Republic. The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) caused trade to expand quickly, which attracted immigrants and stimulated the growth of the main cities and ports’.  But of course, this so called ‘Golden Age’ was also a time when the Dutch were involved in Batavia and South Africa and where slavery was employed and people and animals (like the monkey in the drawing by Hendrick Goltzius below, currently on display at the NGI ) are proof of the inhumanity used to generate some of this wealth.

Hendrick Goltzius, Seated Monkey on a Chain, c. 1595-1600, Rijksmuseum , currently at NGI

Consequently some of the wealth of this period that supported the art industry would have come from merchants who made money from  the The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) – the Dutch East Indian Company. And ironically despite this both Rembrandt and Vermeer died poor, begging one to ask for whom the ‘Golden Age’ was, actually, golden?.

Before concluding I want to mention two other artists whose work  I spent time looking at while in the Rijksmuseum: Gerard ter Borch,( 1617-1681) and Johannes Vermeer (1632 –  1675). Ter Borch is a significant painter of genre subjects and he studied under Pieter Codde (1599-1678) among others and had an influence, some critics argue, on Vermeer.  He is known for his wonderful rendering of textures in drapery like in the work I pictured at the Rijksmuseum below. Perhaps this is why I like his paintings so much. Alison McNeil Kettering in an article entitled ‘Ter Borch’s Ladies in Satin’ looks at the tug of war that exists in art historical writing about how best to interpret some works from this period, with a focus on Ter Borch in particular. Some critics believe these genre works are straightforward depictions of life as the artist saw it. Others, however, believe there are hidden meanings in these works .McNeil Kettering uses the term ‘Petrarchan’ to explain the realist interpretation.  Petrarch (1304-1374) was a poet and scholar of the early Renaissance period. He was influenced by the letters discovered of Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), . I will not try to attempt to explain how Cicero influenced Petrarch’s poetry, which was very idealistic but the ancient scholar, who was among many things, a gifted Latin scholar, was pragmatic and realistic in his political and philosophical writings.

McNeil Kettering uses the word ‘moralist’ in the context of ‘iconographic’ interpretations. However she sees Ter Borch as primarily influenced by Petrarchan ideas and therefore situates him more in the realist camp.  Svetlana Alpers, mentioned above, was one of the most vocal critics of the iconographic approach.  For instance if we take the painting below , Alpers would see this a straightforward depiction of a Father and Mother speaking to their elegant daughter on the occasion of her engagement (this would be the ‘Petrarchan’ or ‘Descriptive’ interpretation). In contrast,  other critics, those who tend to read moralistic intent by the artist in the work’s of this period, suggest iconographically, this it is potentially a scene of high class prostitution where the woman sipping wine is presenting a courtesan to a man, in exchange for money.

    Gerard ter Borch The Paternal Admonition ,1653-55 (detail),  Rijksmuseum .  Image :Denise Meagher

I won’t digress into these debates as they are complicated and nuanced just to say that while McNeil Kettering suggests that both  interpretations may be relevant she appears to favor , as I suggest above, in the case of Ter Borch at least,  the Petrarchan approach:  ‘ The satin, not the physical figure of the woman , becomes the primary material expression of her beauty. The gorgeous fabric obscures – and substitutes for – the female body, rendering the form more chaste, less troubling. The viewer ‘s potential desire for her body is immediately displaced to somethings more safely possessable. In analogous ways, the Petrarchan poets fetishized the beloved’s veil, or her brooch or her eyes mouth or neck. By asking one laudable part to carry the significance of the whole, they neutralised any latent sexual threat implicit in a discussion of her entire person’. (pp 108 my emphasis )

        Gesina ter Borch St Cecilia with Two Angels 1661,  Rijkmuseum . Image Denise Meagher

I wanted to mention that Ter Borch came  from a family of artists who collected prints to inspire their own artistic work. Gesina, whose work is pictured above,  was Gerard’s sister and frequently posed as his model for paintings. But she too was a gifted artist as this beautiful print currently showing at the National Gallery of Ireland testifies. The label at the Gallery says that she drew inspiration for this from the famous painting by Ruben’s  in the Gemaldegalerie Berlin.  It was one of my favourite pieces at the exhibition.

Finally, then I must mention Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) another huge force in the Dutch Baroque period who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life . During his lifetime he was considered a moderately successful provincial genre painter particularly in Delft. He produced relatively few works and was known for working slowly (though so to was Rembrandt at times, particularly if he felt he was being underpaid!). Vermeer was renowned for his use of very expensive pigments.  As mentioned like Rembrandt, Vermeer  died poor, leaving his wife in debt.

He is celebrated however, in particular, for his treatment of light and this I saw for myself a few years ago here in Ireland at the  ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’ exhibition in 2017 .This exhibition brought together over 60 paintings from around the world. As many as ten works by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) were included in the exhibition, which represents almost a third of the artist’s surviving oeuvre and the third highest number of works by the artist ever assembled in the world – which was a remarkable achievement for the National Gallery of Ireland in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  The National Gallery of Ireland’s own work by  Vermeer’s  Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c.1670 is of course so wonderful. To quote from their web site : ‘ regarded as one of the artist’s finest works [it] was shown alongside other exquisite works including Woman with a Balance, c.1663–1664 (National Gallery of Art, Washington); Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1663–1664 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin); The Astronomer, 1668 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and The Geographer, 1669 (Städel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main). Paintings of daily life by contemporaries of Vermeer, including Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch , Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris, also featured’.  A wonderful web site was created to compliment this for those interested in looking more into the subject connectvermeer .ie  

It  was a privilege though  to see his Woman in Blue reading a Letter  in Vermeer’s native country of Netherlands.

Vermeer, Johannes – Woman reading a letter – ca. 1662-1663. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Often Vermeer would situate his subjects close to the window and this was to use the light from outside to its best effect , in capturing his subject. Her blue dress is also picked up in the chair covering. The wall features a map, such an important object as this time of travel and Enlightenment. The painting draws you in. What is in this letter that engages her so? Is it from the man she loves? Or from someone to whom she is obliged to marry? Perhaps she is already married and pregnant, as the image suggests to me, but this letter is clearly important to her, but for what reason? We are invited into observe these private moments in Vermeer’s works.

Another one of his masterpieces I love, though not at the Rijksmuseum is his Girl With a Pearl Necklace (1664) where we can see again his treatment of light but also his interest in Chinese ceramics, another very popular product imported into the Netherlands in the 17th century.

Vermeer,  Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace ,1664, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Westesteijn writes about this in an article entitled ‘Cultural Reflections on porcelain in the 17th century Netherlands’…. ‘a large vase decorated in blue-and -white  references authentic Chinese wares very convincingly and supports intricate play of reflections. The light falling through the window on the left bounces off the girl’s face and dress before hitting not just the mirror but also the porcelain vase. [  ] The painting is suggestive of the measure onto which a Delft painter ‘s interest in optics extended to the experiments on artisan studios, attempting to recreate the reflective qualities of an unknown chemical substance’ (pp 224/225) .

In this we see how porcelain’s optical qualities attracted masters such as Vermeer, suggestive that these painters saw themselves as also alchemists of sorts ,working in the sciences as well as the arts in the creation of their masterpieces. It is hardly any surprise that optics were such an important area of enquiry at the time – seeing being at the heart of many professions but, in particular, in the artist’s genius to draw and paint. 

An example of how Porcelain was used in Dutch Homes at the Rijksmuseum. Image: Denise Meagher

I always like to link things back to Ireland . Vermeer’s Hometown of Delft gives us the  Hiberno-English word   “Delph” meaning  ‘good’ porcelain- customarily displayed on the dresser of one’s cottage . Dressers were a common feature in  the kitchens of Irish homes particularly in the countryside. This beautiful porcelain plate belonged to my dear Mother and her Mother before her and has been in our family for decades. It now graces the dresser in our cottage here at  Greenville.

Delph and memorabilia on the Dresser of Greenville Cottage. Image : Denise Meagher

I began with the definition of the word ‘see’ and this is for a very specific reason. In this blog I have discussed how some gifted artists from Northern Europe were good at just that: seeing, studying closely the objects they wanted to draw and paint, a talent that we no longer encourage when everything is fast and images are flicked through daily, at speed. And for one other reason I wished to  emphasise the importance of the word. I have documented some moments here that left a huge impression on me, and they were all in the context of being in a museum, often in a different culture, where I wanted to know more about the people and found many clues standing in front of a piece of art .

We all need to do more of that . To stop, to stand and to see , slowly, what is intelligible and beautiful, not just in museums, but around us.

Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy’. Anne Frank

Finding what you are Looking for: Grand Tour Rome Finale, Part 5 of 5

Ionic Columns at the Villa Adriana, : Image Denise Meagher

Thursday, I awake early and refreshed, and I decide to head out for a nice coffee (the hotel’s coffee was not that good, sadly) before we gather to depart to Hadrian’s Villa. Standing in the café sipping my coffee, enjoying observing the Italians chatting at the bar on route to work, U2 came on their sound system: ‘I still haven’t Found what I’m looking for’.I could not help but smile, thinking of the “grand tourists” of the 18th century and their search for antiquarian gems to take back to their countries of origin. I wondered did they always find what they were looking for, either in terms of art objects or from a social or intellectual perspective.

Tivoli, situated outside the city will be the farthest we have travelled from Rome during our stay in the city.  I discussed the Emperor Hadrian in my earlier blog that dealt with the Pantheon. In AD 118 Hadrian returned to Rome from the province of Syria . The plan he devised for his villa would cover over 120 hectares. In the Treasures of Italy and Unesco handbook I purchase in the shop on the day we visited a wonderful description of Hadrian is given : ‘a man who was an arts lover: poetry, philosophy, music, geometry and architecture  being among his favourites and it seems likely that many of the more innovative architectural /engineering solutions adopted in the Villa were due to his interest .Be that as it may his passion for sculpture and painting must be considered key to the very rich ornamentation – both sculptural and pictorial – which originally adorned the imperial estate.  (pp 9-10)

One famous feature at the villa is captured by Giovanni Battista Piranesi – The Canopus , which is a remnant of the Canopus Temple.

 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Canopus at Villa Adriana in Tivoli ca. 1769 New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

Hadrain was passionate about Greek and Egyptian culture. Just beyond the Piazza called d’Oro at the Villa is the Canopus. This long pool, measuring 119 by 18 meters, was built to remind Hadrian of the Canal built between the Nile and Alexandria, one of his favourite cities. The pool was colonnaded and each column was structurally linked to the next. Hadrain may well have read Vitruvius’s work. And centuries later this design at Hadrian’s villa would continue to intrigue other important figures in the history of art we have met on this journey. The handbook advises that ‘In the early 15th century , the fervour of the rediscovery of the ancient world which spread among scholars led to it being recognised as the Imperial Villa of Hadrian, instantly generating extraordinary interest on the part of the major artists and architects whose names constitute the empyrean of these arts: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Bramante, Piranesi as well as, in more modern times Le Corbusier ..’ (pp 13, my emphasis). I think the word ‘empyrean’ here, really says it all. Pirro Ligorio (1512 – 1583) is another who studied at Hadrian’s villa and I will discuss him shortly in relation to Villa d’ Este. He was summoned to Tivoli by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, the son of the Duke Alfonso I and Lucrezia Borgia, who was daughter of Pope Allessandro V1 , to design the Villa d’Este, a job he did brilliantly.

At the end of the Canopus is a large nymphaeum in the form of an exedrae (a room, portico, or arcade with a bench or seats where people may converse, especially in ancient Roman and Greek buildings) which is captured by Piranesi,  called the Serapeum and this, it is believed, would have been used as a dining area. Hadrian’s Villa was known for the great parties thrown at the Canopus. Again, one has to try and just go back in time and imagine partaking at one of these splendid banquets.

 Caryatids at Villa Adriana in Tivoli ,Image: Denise Meagher

There are six remaining copies of the Caryatids standing on the Southwest side of the Canopus.

One of the more impressive sights at the Villa is pictured above: the rows of Caryatid statues which recall those at the Acropolis that line the southwest side of the Canopus. A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column supporting an entablature on her head. They reminded me of the Nymphaea pictured at Villa Giulia in my previous blog. In the Greek context they were connected to the Goddess Artemis who was the Goddess of the hunt , the wilderness, wild animals , childbirth, care of children and even chastity (which is something Hadrian did not seem to value very highly if sources are correct). But seeing as his county villa was over a vast area of land in the countryside one can see why the Goddess would suit such an area. In the Roman context the Goddess Diana is the equivalent.

I am sure many who visit Rome may not take the trip out to see the ruins that remain at Villa Aadriana but I assure you, it is worth it.  And mind the scorpions!

We visited a number of Villas during our eight-day trip but the most beautiful , in my opinion, has to be the Villa d’Este, our next stop. This gem is also in Tivoli,  a 16th-century villa famous for its  hillside Italian Renaissance Garden and for the stunning fountains that feature, not just outside but also inside the building.

    Indoor Fountain at Villa d’Este: Image: Denise Meagher


The history, as with most of these buildings that go back to the Renaissance or earlier, is complex so I will summarise here a few points. The Villa was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509-1572), who I mentioned above, second son of Alfonso and grandson of Pope Alexander VI – through his mother Lucrezia Borgia. Allow me to digress momentarily but the Irish film director Niall Jordan  created a brilliant historical drama The Borgias in 2011 which I happened to watch. The series follows the Borgia family in their reputed scandalous ascension to the papacy. It depicted the Borgia family as merciless in their pursuit of power, and capable of resorting to anything to achieve their ends.

Jeremy Irons, Holliday Grainger and Francois Arnauld In ‘The Borgias’ ( promotional image)

Holliday Grainger was brilliantly cast as Lucrezia. Jeremy Irons plays Pope Alexander VI  and Francois Arnauld as Cesare . It even featured Cardinal della Rovere who later became Julius II, played by Colm Feore. The series did not reach conclusion due to some dispute with Jordan over the costs of production, which is a great shame, as it really was riveting.

But back to ‘real’ history now.  The d’Este family were famous as patrons of the arts and of humanist scholars of the Renaissance. Ippolito was destined for a career in the church and after some years abroad in France at the age of thirty Pope Paul III made him a cardinal.  He was very rich and while his ambitions to become Pope were never realised (his first candidacy for the papal position, in 1549, with the support of the French King, his distant relative and friend, was blocked by the Habsburg Emperor) d’Este using his political savvy  withdrew his candidacy and endorsed the Habsburg candidate. He was rewarded by the College of Cardinals 1549, with the lifetime position as Governor of Tivoli.

Fountains in the Gardens of Villa D’este: Image Denise Meagher

A passionate collector of antiquities and lover of the arts as mentioned it gave him jurisdiction over the site of Hadrian’s villa and other sites just being excavated. d’Este commissioned a prominent classical scholar, Pirro Ligorio (1512-1583), who had studied, like some of the greats before him, at the Villa Adriana to plan a new villa and garden which would exceed anything the Romans had built.  Fountains would be a main feature.  

                  Fountain of Diana of Ephesus and Information Board: Images Denise Meagher

He obtained marble and statuary from the ruins of Hadrian’s villa for the project and the team of people employed to design the estate followed the aesthetic principles of the Renaissance, the garden being carefully divided into regular units.

Example of Fresco at Villa D’Este: Image Denise Meagher


It is hard to explain the feeling one gets walking through the rooms of this building  – the frescos on the walls and ceiling are so beautiful and the views from the windows overlooking the garden make you wish you were born in a different era and lived in a place like this.

Example of Window Overlooking the Gardens of Villa D’Este: Image Denise Meagher


The images I am selecting I hope can convey something of the magnificence of this place.  Reluctantly we return to the nearby town to catch the return train into Rome. This is our last evening and we plan to eat together at a local restaurant . Tomorrow Friday we have a few more wonderful sites to see starting with the Villa Borghese.

‘The Villa Borghese consisted in part of formal gardens ‘ write Georgina Masson  ‘ largely composed of hedged plots of trees , divided by walks and ornamented with herms and fountains laid out around the casino and other buildings. But, as in Hadrian’s villa, there was no overall symmetrical plan : this is in direct contrast to the smaller Renaissance gardens which preceded it and the great parks Le Notre was later to design for Louis X1V’ (pp 289)

The Baroque style was emerging and the Renaissance style we saw at Villa d’ Este was being replaced .

The focus on our visit is on the museum collection of works by great masters. I am very excited to see the sculptures  by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680)  whose work I discussed outside the Church of St. Agnes – The Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) Image: Denise Meagher

This seems an average work when you see his work at the museum.  Katherine Eustace in  Sculpture Journal ( vol. 20, n. 2, 2011, p. 109) writes that “What Shakespeare is to drama , Bernini may be to sculpture :  the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful …”        He was multi-talented, could write, and direct and act in plays; create set designs; paint; understood architecture, just incredibly brilliant.  Really nothing can prepare you for   The Rape of Prosperine 1622 or his Apollo and Daphne (1618-1619)

 Gian Lorenzo Bernini,The Rape of Proserpine (1622) Image: Denise Meagher


My photographs do not do justice and really this is certainly a good example of where it is totally necessary to simply walk around these majestical pieces slowly and take in the sheer genius that created them. I will not go into the mythology behind them but I hope my blog might encourage you to do so for yourself.

                                Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1618-19)  Image: Denise Meagher.

The facial expressions are so real, the bodies so lifelike, even that of the daughter of a God, the river nymph Daphne,  in the process of being turned into a tree. They remain among the art works that left me totally breathless. 

We were privileged to see some more wonderful works by Caravaggio – his Boy with a Basket of Fruit was one I  wanted to see .  Still the work by him that made the most impression on me was probably the one we saw in the Church of San Luigi  dei Francesi (1599-1600) pictured in the second blog in this series.

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit 1593 Image: DeniseMeagher

And of course  Titian’s masterpiece  Sacred and Profane Love is well known. Titian (1488-90-1576) whose work we saw at the Doge’s palace in Venice also, was considered the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice, and had a following outside Italy, unusual to the time. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting, which ’embody’ the development of art during his epoch. Embody is a great word. However, it was through contact with Giorgione, (1477-1510) who was considered the genius of the High Renaissance in Venice and who died so young, that he developed his unique style. . The ‘Giorgionesque’ appearance of Titian’s early work, the pastoral scenes and atmosphere, is considered proof of their closeness. In 1508-9 they worked together on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love,  1514 Image: Galleria Borghese

I was interested in this piece because I was aware of a much later work by John Collier (1850-1934), of the same title, where he took inspiration from Titian’s work to show his preference for one style of more traditional dress, over a more ‘modern’ style that was infiltrating , not only society in the early 20th century, but also, by consequence, art. Too much of a digression to elaborate but this is the work I am referring to below.

John Collier, Sacred and Profane Love , 1919 Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

On route to our final stop, the Accademia di San Luca we stop to study the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is one of Rome’s greatest attractions, standing twenty-six meters tall, and forty-nine meters wide, it is famous for its intricate artwork decorated in the Baroque style.  The Baroque-style fountain depicts Oceanus, the God of water surrounded by the statues of Abundance, Salubrity, Tritons (a merman, son of Poseidon, God of my birth sign) and hippocamps , which are sea horses.

Built in 1762, Trevi Fountain has required renovation over the years, most recently in 2015.  Prior to the current reconstruction of the Trevi Fountain, another fountain dating back to Roman times existed in its place. In 1629 Pope Urban VIII concluded the fountain was insufficient so he commissioned that genius we looked at – the Italian architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to sketch some renovation ideas. However, following the Pope’s death in 1744, the plans were never bought to life, though experts can see some of Bernini’s influence and work on the fountain today. 

Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) and Giuseppe Panini (1691-1765),Trevi Fountain, Image : Denise Meagher

In 1730 work began on the fountain after Italian architect Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) won the re-design contest held by Pope Clement XII. Using local Travertine stone, the same material used in the construction of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain slowly began to take its current shape, with intricate detail carved into every section and sculpture. Unfortunately, Salvi did not live to see the finished piece either, but with the help of four sculptors and architect, Giuseppe Panini (the son of the other Panini I have mentioned a few times in these blog posts) Trevi Fountain was completed 30 years later in 1762. It is customary to throw coins in– however I did not get around to that.

The National Academy of San Luca is, as one might expect,  an academy geared towards the promotion of the arts and architecture. To quote its statute its role is to : ‘honor the merits of artists and scholars by electing them into the academic body, to work for the valorisation and promotion of Italian art and architecture.” [Article 1 of the 2005 Statute]. It was founded in 1593 and uses the image of the evangelist Luca, painter and patron saint of artists as its symbol since the 1600s.  It is here that I can reintroduce another wonderful artist as I come to concluding this series , one who played an important role at the Academy and who I mentioned in the first blog in the series: the Venetian Antonio Canova (1757-1822)

An Italian Neoclassical sculptor he was famous for his work in marble . Often regarded as the greatest of the Neoclassical artists, his sculpture was inspired by the  Baroque and the classical revival and has been characterised as having avoided ‘the melodramatics of the former’, and ‘the cold artificiality of the latter’.  A little harsh, perhaps, to both styles. Canova’s family worked as stonecutters. In 1761, his father died and in 1762, he was put into the care of his paternal grandfather Pasino Canova, who was a stonemason, owner of a quarry and was a sculptor who specialized in altars with statues and low reliefs in late Baroque style. He led his grandson into the art of sculpting. Before the age of ten, Canova began making models in clay, and carving marble. Indeed, at the age of only nine, he executed two small shrines of carrara marble, which still exist.  Like many in his trade with such skill he moved from Venice to Rome and spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo.

Antony Canova The Three Graces : Hermitage Museum, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons      


The Three Graces pictured above is one of his most celebrated Neoclassical pieces in marble, and a favorite of mine, depicting the mythological three Charities, daughters of Zeus   – identified on some engravings of the statue as, from left to right, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia   – who were said to represent mirth (Euphrosyne), elegance (Aglaea) , and youth/beauty (Thalia). The Graces presided over banquets and gatherings, to delight the guests of the gods. The original sculpture is in the Hermitage Museum, and another is owned jointly and exhibited in turn by the V&A and the Scottish National Gallery . 

At the Academy we see an interpretation of this theme by the Danish sculpture Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).


   Bertel Thorvaldsen, Le Grazie 1842 .Image: Prof. Lynda Mulvin


The Three Graces have served as subjects for many historical artists like Thorvaldsen (pictured above , but from the back) and other big names such as Sandro Botticelli, (1445-1510) the artist reared by the famous Medici family in Florence . And just as a link is made in this powerful work , that has inspired so many others, between the three graces of youth, beauty and elegance, the Academy takes three items – a paintbrush, a ruler and a compass , as its triangular emblem , in order to express the equal dignity and unity of the three arts: painting, sculpture and architecture, under the aegis of drawing.

It is not an easy site to gain access to ( we were all very grateful to Professor Lynda Mulvin and Associate Professor Philip Cottrell for their help here) but it is one of those places you visit where you cannot help imagining the people who have walked these staircases in previous generations. The walls depict the portraits of many of the Academy ‘s glittering alumni and patrons.  

Scuola di Guido  Reni  The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne  The Stairs at Accademia di San Luca. Image: Denise Meagher

It is also notable that several women were welcomed into the academy, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun , Angelica Kauffman and  Rosalba Carriera to mention just a few I had the privilege to study in more detail this year.

Nearing to a conclusion I raise a few thoughts about this period and how it relates to today. Edmund Burke, the Irish Statesman and Philosopher was considering questions about aesthetics, the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste in the mid 1700s. In his famous work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which was published 1757, he argued that the beautiful is formed proportionately and is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The sublime, on the other hand, he believed had the power to overpower and maybe even destroy us. Interesting this appears to me, at some level, as a debate about the past (beautiful = Classical?) and the present (sublime= Romantic/Modern). Earlier in 1753 the English artist William Hogarth was considering similar themes and he wrote a book called The Analysis of Beauty which set out to describe his theory of aesthetics in a way that a wider audience might be able to understand. Hogarth was interested in how the body is depicted in artistic form and he developed a theory of the ‘serpentine line’ as a guide to doing this. Hogarth was a keen observer (like Pietro Longhi (1702-1785) who I mentioned in the first blog in this series), and Hogarth also wanted to depict the world around him, in his art, as he saw it. This would demand presenting dress and new fashions of the day in a realistic way , while still holding fast to the values aesthetically of the ancient classical world. It is in this way that his achievements artistically reminded me, somewhat, of those by Veronese (1528-1588) who irritated the academic hierarchy in art of his day with his ‘free depictions of costume’, mentioned in the first blog in the series. They both built on the learning of the past but improvised to represent the present. The critic Ernst Gombrich in his famous work The Story of Art (1995 ed) described The Analysis of Beauty as Hogarth’s ‘grim campaign against fashionable taste’ (pp 519)

William Hogarth The Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1 ( Book engraving by Author) 1753 , New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

You can see in the plate above how Hogarth was working out some of these ideas through his sketches and drawing and these include sketches of fashion accessories used in the 18th century. You will recognise famous art works I discussed in these blogs – the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, Venus and even Hadrian’s lover Antonius are all here. But we also see Hogarth thinking about how the dress and fashions that were popular in his time could be sincerely represented in art.

It might seem an odd way to end this series but I suppose what I want to say about these debates about beauty, as they came to a head when the Neoclassical era was coming to an end, and the Romantic period was emerging, is that they are not as anachronistic as they might initially appear to us today. In a world defined by information technology, excess waste, fears of climate change or even worse still nuclear war, thinking about art, what is beautiful or sublime or any other words that capture our study and thinking about it, may seem impractical, irrelevant or worse of all: indulgent. To state the obvious , I do not agree. We can still learn much, in many disciplines, from studying works from the ancient world, interpreted as they have been, again and again, by those of later centuries and on going, to this day.  

I learnt a huge amount on this field trip, and it brought to life for me an artistic history that continues to captivate, fascinate and most importantly teach us about deep observation, dedication, incredible craftsmanship and the power of ‘the beautiful’ to transform us.

And so an unforgettable eight days drew to a close and we retraced our steps back to the hotel, and from there to the airport. I am at a loss to say what memory stands out most vividly, but some I might mention are standing in the Longhi Room at Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, the museum where I gave my presentation; or staring up at the columns under the Temple of Antonius and Faustina at the Roman Forum; or looking at similar architectural astonishments at Hadrian’s Villa. Maybe looking at one of Raphael’s masterpieces. The room with fountains at Villa d’Este where I  felt the summer breezes blow in through the windows, overlooking the most beautiful garden I think I have ever seen, all come to mind…. Or maybe standing under Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne and feeling close to tears.  These memories and too many more to mention stand out.

A trip of a lifetime and I did find what I was looking for.


Acknowledgment: I wish to thank Professor Lynda Mulvin and Associate Professor Philip Cottrell from the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD who accompanied us and facilitated so much both before and during the trip. And to my wonderful fellow art historical students, from whom I learnt so much: Abe, Alice, Daniel, Ellen, Elissa, Helen, Isobel, Joelle, Kathleen, Marta, Michaela, Natalia , Nina, Ros, and Prolet , I thank you.

Finding what you are Looking for: Ostia, Palazzo Barberini & More .  Part 4 of 5

Ancient Mosaic in Baths , Ostia Antica . Image: Denise Meagher

I tossed and turned Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning but was none the less excited about our proposed site visits for Wednesday. Our day begins with a trip to Ostia Antica, a large archaeological site close to the modern town of Ostia , about 25 kilometres southwest of Rome. We had booked our train tickets for this  journey prior to leaving Ireland.

 “Ostia”  is a derivation of “os“, the Latin word for “mouth” – so in this context, the mouth of the River Tiber. As this then suggests Ostia was Ancient Rome ‘s seaport, but due to silting the site now lies three kilometres from the sea. The site is remarkable for its magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics. Some were used as a type of ‘shop front’, where ships could dock to offload products and these mosaics would identify the correct stopping point . You can see an example of this from my image below and another example – of the bath mosaics we saw, in the opening image.

‘Docking Shop Front’: Image: Denise Meagher

To refer again to an authority on Rome and its hinterlands, Amanda Claridge has several references to the importance of Ostia in her book and one relates to the housing and shop fronts. She writes that ‘Domus was the traditional town house of old Rome , occupied by a single wealthy family with their retinue of servants , containing an atrium in which the master of the household would receive clients and friends , generally at least one peristyle garden , and other courts. Insula can be broadly interpreted as a multi-storey apartment block accommodating several families or single individuals , the natural response to enormous influxes in population in the C2 BC.  Both might be built by speculators and rented out for profit and ground floor street frontage was frequently given over to shops or small workshops. Only fragments of either can be seen in the city but Ostia has many different examples, several preserved to the third floor’. (pp 58)

Ancient Kitchen Ostia town house: Image: Denise Meagher

As my readers will know I love to make breads so I was interested to look at this preserved kitchen we see in one of the town houses (above). This structure in the photograph is a thermopolium  – a hot food stall. It  interested me to note the ancient Romans used imagery relating to cooking in their kitchens as you can see from the piece hanging over the food stall.

However I discovered in our 17th Century Dutch module which we studied last term that in the Netherlands, in the 17th century at least, it was rare that one found art, connected to food, in the kitchen of Dutch homes from this period. This was most likely because rooms had a multi-functional role.

Rembrandt’s Kitchen . (Image Wikimedia)

In June I managed to go to Amsterdam for two days to see some museums and I will write about this in a later short blog, not in this series. I visited the former home of the famous artist Rembrandt (1606-1669) and the house where Anna Frank and her family lived (where they tried to hide to protect themselves from the Gestapo). In the image above , from the Rembrandt House Museum, you can see that there are no works of art that relate to food or cooking in the kitchen. There is a bed in the kitchen similar to the one made famous by his work of Saskia in bed, in the Salon of the house.

Returning to Italy and jumping to the 18th century – various ‘agents’ had licences from The Vatican to excavate sites such as this one in Ostia in search of ancient statues or other artifacts which were big in demand in Europe and could be sold by the agents to the young people travelling on their educational grand tours who wanted to bring items of antiquity back home on their return.  

Despite all the looting of antiquities, though obviously this was not how those procuring or buying of them interpreted their endeavours at the time, some sights in Ostia still have statues like at the Temple of Mitra . We were very  fortunate to gain access the Temple as usually this is not allowed. I won’t go into the details as to how this came about,  but suffice to say that sometimes ground maintenance and strimming can have very fortuitous reverberations for the art historical student!

‘Mithraeum of the Terme del Mitra’ Image: Denise Meagher

This is the Mithraeum di terme del Mitra which means it is the Mithraeum associated with ancient baths. It is an underground site with the skylight above the sculpture which you can see in my photograph. A central lane and benches on either side is the standard layout where the worshipers  of the Mithras could sit and /or eat a ceremonial meal.

 So, what is Mithraism I hear you ask?. It is of course the worship of Mithras, a religion that existed around the same time as Christianity and they both have quite a lot in common.  Mithraism, like Christianity, was an Eastern religion, probably originating in mid First Century AD.  Mithras had a miraculous birth. The God sprung to life from solid rock on the 25th of December.

In my photograph above and on the information board pictured below, you can see Mithras killing a bull – something that was common in Persian mythology and obviously represents some type of sacrificial ritual though this is much debated and as I am no expert on the subject, I would prefer to let those interested read more for themselves. The original of the statue is preserved in a museum for the same reasons Marcus Aurelius’ statue was taken from its original site for preservation purposes.


  Information Board: Image: Denise Meagher


Unlike Christianity however,  Mithraism was practiced by men, exclusively.  But then again most religious rituals would feature men in the main role which might say little about the reality of women and others equally involved on the periphery.

Below we see the theatre at Ostia , used for concerts, theatre and sometimes political use.

Theatre at Ostia Antica  . Image:  Denise Meagher


Coincidentally , on June 17th , I was at O’Connell House in Dublin for the  Madden- Rooney public Lecture in memory of the late Seamus Deane, delivered by Professor David Lloyd and the launch of Deane’s book Small World: Ireland  1798-2018 . Before this a former Professor of mine from NUIM Christopher Morash gave a lecture entitled ‘The Paradox of National Theatre’ and in his talk he made reference to an amphitheatre that reminded me immediately of the one pictured above we saw in Ostia – but this one was constructed in a place one might not expect: on Achill island.  The architect Noel Moffett (1912-1994) designed this outdoor theatre for a man called  Major Dermot Johnston Freyer (1883-1970) in 1941. Freyer had a house in Achill and was an Irish language and music enthusiast. Moffett was educated in Cork and Dublin and completed his BA Arch degree in the University of Liverpool . He returned to Ireland during the First world war and the two met through mutual artistic connections. Hence he got the contract.

Made from all natural materials from the bog and mountain area in Achill, it truly made for an amazing sight as you can see in this image below – modern landscape architecture at its best.

Noel Moffett Architect Open Air Theatre, Achill, Co. Mayo 1941 Image Irish Architectural Archive

Of course Moffett’s brilliant idea drew inspiration from similar Greek and Roman style amphitheatres like the one we sat in , at Ostia (pictured again, below) which too was styled on a Greek model . Though Ostia was built at a sea port rather than in a mountain, it struck me both theatres were deeply connected to the seascapes of their respective countries and were most probably conceived of, in these locations, to send a message to the broader world. In the Roman context, perhaps, as a symbol of its emerging Imperial ambitions in trade and politics (though they would have been a more common theatre design in Italy, obviously) and in the Irish case of the importance of our own ancient language and history, not to mention our recently acquired Independence.

Sitting in the Theatre listening to a colleague’s presentation: Image:  Dr. Philip Cottrell

Chris Morash quotes Seamus Deane in an essay from the book Chris edited with Nicholas Grene, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre ( 2016). In a chapter called “Places of Performance” he writes, ‘If, as Seamus Deane writes, ‘soil is what land becomes when it is ideologically constructed as a natal source’ this was a theatre of the soil’. Although owing more than a little debt to a classical Greek amphitheatre in its shape and later described as ‘one of the most eccentric architectural schemes ever undertaken in Ireland’ Moffett’s Achill theatre can still claim to be the purest attempt to produce an indigenous Irish place of performance in the first half of the twentieth century. It was however predictable doomed by West of Irish weather and demographics (the nearest town Keel, even today, has a population that would barely fill the seats); there are no records of performances in the space, and Moffett’s visionary performance space is now an indistinguishable hollow in the surrounding  heather completely reabsorbed by the materials from which it was built’ . (pp  434,  my emphasis).

Once again ,I am fascinated by the connections across time and space noted here – much to think on as we take the return train back into the city.

Trees that reach Ostia: Image: Denise Meagher.

In the early 20th century, under Mussolini, massive excavations were undertaken from 1939 to 1942 but these were interrupted when Italy became a major battlefield of  World War II. The trees they planted, (see image above) the umbrella pine trees,   form a type of corridor and come all the way out from the city to Ostia.

Our next stop, after a refreshing cappuccino is the Villa Giuila.  We visited many villas on the trip and I have yet to write about my favourite one – Villa d’Este, which I will in my final blog in the series.

Example of wall Fresco over door: Villa Giulia. Image: Denise Meagher

The Villa Giulia was built by that amazingly supportive patron of the arts I discussed in earlier blogs – Pope Julius II in 1551– 1553 on what was then, the edge of the city .

Nymphaeum at Villa Giulia: Image Denise Meagher

I am particularly struck by the nymphaeum and other garden structures. A nymphaeum in ancient Greece and Rome was a monument consecrated to the nymphs especially those of Springs. The nymphaea of the Roman period was not used in a sacral way but had only a purely recreational purpose.  The inspiration for them was borrowed from similar Hellenistic constructions and the majority of them were rotundas like this one , adorned with statues, paintings or mosaics. Note also the mosaics are quite similar to those we saw, in the baths, in Ostia.  

They  also had the practical use of being a relatively cool place to siesta on a  stifling summers day, something that Renaissance architects and in this case the patron Pope Julius 11 would have appreciated.

This villa was designed under the supervision of the Pope but also Giorgio Vasari, another name I mentioned before and it is understood Michelangelo worked here. Villa Giulia is considered a fine example of  Mannerist architecture.

Today  Villa Gulia  is publicly owned and houses a collection of  beautiful Etruscan art and artifacts .

Etruscan Vases at Villa Giulia: Image: Denise Meagher

The Etruscan’s territory (sometimes known as Etruria) , centred on the area  bounded on the north by the Arno River, on the south by the Tiber and on  the west by the Appennine mountain chain.  Their  urban civilization reached its height in the 6th century BC, i.e. before the rise of  the Romans. Many features of Etruscan culture were adopted by the Romans, their successors to power in the peninsula.

We move on to another famous landmark in Rome: The Spanish Steps.

The Spanish steps  (pictured below) were designed by Francesco De Sanctis (1679 – 1731) a late Baroque Italian architect, with  Architect and Engraver, Alessandro Specchi (1668 – 1729).  Some suggest they were intended to represent, figuratively and metaphorically, the close relationship between the Sacred and the Eternal city, shown through the elevation and vastness of the monument. I do not know the veracity of this. The longest and widest steps in Europe are also an important landmark in Rome as they host events and are home to Italian traditions.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta di Piazza di Spagna , from Veduti di Roma ,1750 Yale University Art Gallery

Piranesi , an example of whose work we saw in my last blog, was captivated by the antiquity of Rome from a very young age  – the temples, palaces, bridges, and other ancient monuments. The lavish spending  of the grand tourists of the 18th  Century stimulated the economy and offered opportunities for Piranesi.  He started his career in Rome with the traditional local trade of vedutismo. He incorporated the painterly techniques he had used to portray the Venetian landscape where he grew up with an approach he developed combining the anatomically correct view of a monument with the dramatic impact and emotional experience of the view the spectator might experience .We will see this again in the final blog when I discuss Hadrian’s Villa. Piranesi purposely misrepresented scale and proportion in order to replicate the intense emotional experience of what it would be like to view a place ,like the Spanish steps, in person. 


The Spanish Steps: Image : Denise Meagher

My humble photograph shows the lovely flowers that were in bloom when we were there in late April. We climb those steps now on route to our final stop of this day.

The Palazzo  Barberini, pictured below – an impressive sight to walk towards . A fine example of Baroque architecture , I loved the highly decorative and almost theatrical gates at the entrance, suggestive of what we will see inside the gates.

Palazzo Barberini  Entrance. Image: Denise Meagher


I am excited to see the famous ceiling by Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power from 1639  that enhances the main ballroom of the building.  

Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Powerfresco ceiling, Palazzo Barberini  Image : Wikimedia Commons

I am also eager to see some of the wonderful artwork the museum boasts such as paintings by Pompeo Batoni, Francesco Guardi , Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) among many others. As the baroque style would suggest the Palazzo Barberini  dates back to the 17th-century and faces the Piazza Barberini and today  it houses  the main national collection of older paintings in Rome. The main block of the palazzo presents three tiers of great arch-headed windows, like glazed arcades, a formula that was apparently more Venetian than Roman.  

Palazzo Barberini Facade (detail). Image: Denise Meagher

You can see more famous works by Caravaggio and Raphael , all names that have featured many times now in this blog series. Raphael’s La Fornarina is particularly beautiful, and many believe the woman portrayed was the one he deeply loved, though he was engaged to a Cardinal’s niece at the time.

 Rafael Sanzio de Urbino,  La Fornarina , 1518/1519.

It is also suggested that the positioning of the hands of La Fornarina are similar to those of the Capitoline Venus, a 2nd century AD statue which, as the name suggests, is at the Capitoline  Museum. This Roman statuette is inspired by the famous Greek statue from 350 BC, carved by Praxiteles whose work created a cult  in honor of this beautiful female nude , the Goddess Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. In the Hellenistic and Roman period many copies were made and the Romans renamed their version of the  Greek Goddess,  ‘Venus Genetrix’.

Capitoline Venus, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting, and to relate this back to Ireland, there was a Venus from this period at Russborough House which the First  Earl of Milltown, an avid collector of antiquity pieces, Joseph Leeson bought back from one of his tours. It is no longer in Ireland but it is believed something quite similar resides in a museum in California. We have a long story of lost treasures in Ireland that space and speculation does not permit me to explore here.

Copy of Similar Venus now in Russborough
Image : Russborough Website

I am interested to reach the rooms showing some wonderful works by Venetian artists and on route this painting catches my eye, reminding me of our first day in Rome when we saw the statue of Marcus Aurelius. This is a capriccio by Panini , whose work we have seen before in this series.  

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Ruins with the Statue of Marcus Aurelius 1750~. Image: Denise Meagher

Another gem – an example of the work by the famous portrait artist Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) is the huge and very impressive portrait below and this brings us back to some of the characters I discussed in the first blog in the series.

Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of Senator Abbondio Rezzonico , 1766

This huge portrait depicts the newly appointed Senator of Rome, Abbondio Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII – brother to the Rezzonico who restored the building where I did my presentation in Venice. The portrait is beautifully detailed.  Abbondio ‘s position was a very important one in Rome – the highest civil magistracy, an appointment made directly by the Pope. His clothing is rich and luxurious in color and the fabric is golden brocade and red silk. He is holding a small regal ivory sceptre. The putto below, not something that often features in Batoni’s portraits,  holds a pair of scales adorned with an olive branch. This is a symbol of justice and the assurance of peace. The Gallery’s website states that: ‘  A lictor’s fasces lies on the floor, the emblem of authority in ancient Roman tradition. The artist has devised the setting in a stenographic and symbolic way, which is far from realistic’. The statue of the goddess Roma, with a spear and helmet behind Rezzonico actually stands at the entrance to the Palazzo Senatorio, whose façade can be glimpsed closing Piazza Campidoglio. But such improvisation was customary in portraiture of this time. It is a fine example of Batoni’s incredible skill , not just in capturing his sitters and their dress but his use of symbols from Rome in his work to really enhance the work. We can see Marcus Aurelius again here in the background.

All these hugely influential people in the history of art, I have mentioned so often ….start to seem familiar to me now, as though I walked these streets and sat in these magnificent palaces, with them. My mind wanders back to the Rezzonico family’s activities in Venice. Their influence may have waned there , when the Republic fell, but the Rezzonico family had wielded such power outside Venice for many decades.

Our day almost over I have decided to-night I reluctantly must return to the hotel and rest, and hard as it is , to leave the wonderful company of our group, and the art historical chat over our dinner, which I miss since the academic year ended, tonight I have to take time to think through many things. But as two of our colleagues from the Netherlands were celebrating their King’s birthday on this day ( a celebration that is customary in Netherlands) I manage to stay for a short while to clink a glass of wine with them, before departing.

Nina and Jöelle, celebrating the Birthday of Netherland’s King. Image: Denise Meagher  


We have one full day of site visits left and then on Friday, before going to the airport, we intend to see Villa Borghese and the Accademia di San Luca.

Finding What You Are Looking For:  My Grand Tour – Rome Day Five. Part 3 of 5

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of St.Peter’s and the Piazza ,(1775) Princeton University Art Museum

Day Five is going to be the busiest day of all  – also one of the most memorable and monumental. Some of the group want to take time out in the morning, so only five of us decide to walk to the Vatican Museum and take in a view of St. Peter’s Basilica on the way. We anticipate crowds and though it is early morning already the day is very warm.

There are a few things I want specifically to see and they are , not surprisingly, The Sistine Chapel; The Laocoön, The Apollo Belvedere, works by Leonardo da Vinci, the Raphael Rooms (School of Athens) … I could go on.

But first as we walk we come to the Vatican. In my mind the image I have of the building is the opening one by the famous Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1770-1778). The other image I had in my mind is this one below by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), both of whom I mentioned in my  my earlier blogs in this series and both we studied in class.

Giovanni Paolo Panini , St Peter’s Basilica, (interior)  1730s . Ca’ Rezzonico , Venice

As most of you will already know Vatican City, officially the Vatican City State is an independent city – state and enclave surrounded by Rome.. The Vatican City State, also known simply as the Vatican, became independent from Italy with the Lateran Treaty (1929), and it is a distinct territory under “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” of the Holy See. What is the Holy See ? It is the Jurisdiction of the Pope in his role as Bishop of Rome. The etymology of the word ‘See’ comes from the Latin ‘sedes’, meaning ‘a seat’ , as in a Bishop’s throne. So the Vatican state is a sovereign state which maintains the city’s  temporal , diplomatic, and spiritual independence . It is the smallest state in the world with an area of forty nine hectares (121 acres) and a population of about 825 people.  The Holy See dates back to Early Christianity  and is the principal authority of the Catholic Church which has approximately 1.329 billion baptised Catholic Christians in the world ( from the 2018 statistics) in the Latin Church and 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. 

Approaching St. Peter’s for the First time . Image: Denise Meagher


Our Professor is eager to get us to the Vatican museum before the crowds become unmanageable and fortunately, because of her skill in dealing with the bureaucracy of these places and because we are students of art history , we are able to navigate our way through the queues relatively quickly and pay , in my opinion, the reasonable sum of €17 each , to gain access.

The Apollo Belvedere is important to mention. I did not get a chance to stop and study it, only glanced, as I was anxious not to lose track of where my colleagues were, as the museum was crowded.

Apollo Belvedere (120-140 AD). Image : Helen Bannon


The Apollo is considered to be an original Roman re-creation from Hadrain’s period as Emperor and  the distinctively Roman footwear is one reason scholars believe it is not a copy of an original Greek statue. It was rediscovered in central Italy in the late 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and was placed on semi-public display in the Vatican Palace in 1511, where it remains. It is now in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Pio-Clementine Museum of the Vatican Museums complex. From the mid-18th century, it was considered the greatest ancient sculpture by neoclassical scholars, and for centuries it epitomized the ideals of aesthetic perfection for Europeans and westernized parts of the world. Neo classical is, to describe it very briefly, a movement in the decorative and visual arts, theatre , music and architecture that drew its inspiration from classical antiquity. The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum were important factors in its gaining momentum, and of course the writings of key people interested in the Arts, history and philosophy at the time. It coincided with the emergence of the Enlightenment. Its popularity also spread because of the Grand Tour, which, as explained in my first blog in this series, was when young aristocrats travelled in Europe, in particular in Italy, to discover more about the ancient world.

The Greek god Apollo is depicted as a standing archer having just shot an arrow. Although there is no agreement as to the precise narrative detail being depicted, the conventional view has been that he has just slain the serpent Python  , the chthonic serpent guarding Delphi—making the sculpture a ‘Pythian Apollo’. Alternatively, it may be the slaying of the giant Tityos, who threatened Apollo’s mother Leto. And there are more possible interpretations. The lower part of the right arm and the left hand were missing when discovered and were restored by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507–1563), a sculptor and pupil of Michelangelo.

I mentioned  Neoclassical scholars who studied this work. One of them is very important and his writings have shaped art historical approaches to this day and that is the German art historian Johan Winkelmann (1717-1768). He helped make the Apollo become one of the world’s most celebrated art works when in 1755 he championed it as the best example of the perfection of the Greek aesthetic ideal. He was fascinated by its ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. These would have been considered important attributes in the Neoclassical period when Enlightenment values were beginning to emerge. Several other important writers and philosophers also endorsed it such as Goethe and Byron. Amanda Claridge writes that ‘Napoleon ordered the removal of many works of art and in 1798 famous pieces such as Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön were paraded through the streets of Paris in triumph ‘ (pp, 470). It was another Pope, Pope Pius V11 (1800s – 23) who appointed Antonio Canova (whom I mentioned in my first blog in this series and will again in blog 5) as the Inspector General of Fine Art in 1802 and after 1815 these pieces were returned to the Vatican where they have remained ever since.

Raphael Sanzio da Urbino , Pope Julius II (1511–12). London National Gallery

Of course, we have another key person to mention in the context of the Vatican Museum and that is Pope Julius II (1443 – 1513), also mentioned before . He was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 1503 to his death in 1513. Nicknamed the Warrior Pope or the Fearsome Pope, he chose his papal name not in honour of Pope Julius 1 but in honour of Julius Caesar. One of the most powerful and influential popes, Julius II was a central figure of the ‘High Renaissance’  and left a significant cultural and political legacy. As a result of his policies the Papal States remained independent and centralized, and the office of the papacy continued to be crucial, diplomatically and politically during the entirety of the 16th century in Italy and Europe.

In 1506, Julius II established the Vatican Museums and initiated the rebuilding of the St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1508, he commissioned the Raphael Rooms and the Michelangelo painting  of the Sistine Chapel. Julius II was described by Machiavelli in his works as an ‘ideal prince’. Nicholas Machiavel (1469-1527) was an Italian diplomat, philosopher and historian best known perhaps for his political treatise The Prince (1513, published 1532).

I stop quickly to look at a painting that jumps out at me , for some reason. Maybe it is because it is unfinished and therefore caught my eye .

 Leonardo da Vinci  , St.  Jerome in the Wilderness (1480). Image: Denise Meagher

It is the image above by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) of St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Jerome was a brilliant Christian scholar and translated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into quality Latin from their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. He was also a teacher of Christianity. Interestingly he was particularly concerned for women’s Christian education and taught them how to lead their lives, in a way that could help them in the society of the time, by being devotees of Christ. It sounds very condescending, but in the context of the time, it was incredibly supportive. In this painting he is in the Syrian desert having withdrawn from society. I have looked at the quick image I took (above) very often, of the painting in the museum since I came home and it still captivates me.

Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction – a genius of the High Renaissance he was a draughtsman, painter, engineer, scientist , sculptor, architect whose works and notebooks epitomise many things including the Renaissance ‘Humanist’ ideal. To explain this very simply it involved , like Neoclassicism , a deep study of the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. It was not necessarily a Godless philosophy in the way people use the word ‘humanism’ today. He had an enormous influence on many artists who came after him, but was matched perhaps by no one other than  Michelangelo (1475-1564).

I will discuss Michelangelo shortly but first , another piece I really wanted to see.

Laocoön Group , Image : Denise Meagher

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, also called the Laocoön Group  has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican  Museums, where it remains. It is very likely the same statue that was praised in the highest terms by the main Roman writer on art of the time , Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79). He was a Roman author, naturalist, and Natural philosopher. He also had friends in high places such as Emperor Vespasian  who reigned from AD 69 to 79. Vespasian, also a Senior general in the Roman army  founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire for 27 years. His reforms and consolidation of the empire generated political stability and a vast Roman building program. More on this when we reach the Colosseum .

With regards The Laocoön Group , Pliny attributes the work, then in the palace of  Emperor Titus , Vesperian’s eldest son (the other son being Domitian, later Emperor ) to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoras and Poludorus , but does not give a date or patron. In style it is considered “one of the finest examples of the Hellenistic  Baroque’. Greek Baroque as opposed to Roman? Much to think on there. While this would therefore be in the Greek tradition it is not definitely known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze, or made for a Greek or Roman commission. But it was most likely commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly an earlier Emperor.

It recounts an episode in the epic story of Virgil’s Aeneid, of the priest of Apollo , Laocoön, who offends the Goddess Minerva , a Greek partisan, when he warns the Trojans against a giant wooden horse which she has consecrated , when it sets sails, filled when Greek warriors. It is also a story Sophocles wrote about that has a less patriotic interpretation. Laocoön throws a large spear at the belly of the wooden horse and those inside groan either from injury or fright. Minerva, enraged, sends serpents to punish Laocoön and his sons. The story still fascinates to this day. Camille Paglia , the American feminist and art critic , has an interesting chapter in her publication’’ Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to ‘Star Wars‘ (2012) about it, which I read last year. She sees this story as ultimately one of theodicy, divine provenance in the face of ‘evil’ – a word I hate because of how loaded it can be with religious fundamentalist thought. However Paglia writes that ‘Laocoön blank , tormented face seems to ask whether an ethical standard exists in the universe or whether the Gods too are subject to impulse and caprice. It prefigures the agonised expression of the crucified Christ, in Medieval art, when he askes why God had forsaken him’. (pp 30) Fascinating similar themes that link huge periods of history and very different religious ideologies, one consisting of numerous Gods, the other of one.

But just as we moved on quickly through the museum in Rome, so we could see the various sites on our schedule for the day , I move on quickly now – even if my mind still lingers on these connections.

We walk through rooms filled with the most amazing art, trying desperately not to stop and stare, in an effort to reach the Sistine Chapel, as we then have a journey and metro trip to get back to our next stop of the day: The Colosseum.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Fresco Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508 to 1512)

I do not intend to go into great detail here about the significance of this chapel nor indeed  explain the meaning of this incredible piece of work by Michelangelo  (1475-1564). The complex and unusual iconography of the Sistine ceiling has been explained by some art historians as a ‘Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible’, representing the essential phases of the spiritual development of humankind seen through a very dramatic relationship between humans and God. One would need to stand alone underneath it, possibly with a small telescope, to study and form an opinion of one’s own. Sadly, that luxury is not available for the majority. What I can say is that it was not what I expected, neither in terms of scale, color, atmosphere or design. I like how Georgina Masson puts it, so I will leave it to an expert on Roman art and architecture to summarise. She writes that originally ‘the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was simply painted blue and covered with gold stars. The story of its transformation into one of the most artistic creations of all time is largely that of the personal relationship between two titanic figures of the Renaissance – Michelangelo and Julius II, whom two great historians Gregorovius and Burckhardt , described as ‘the greatest pope since Innocent III’ and the ’saviour of the papacy’. (pp 608). She continues:  ‘For months Michelangelo lay on his back on the scaffolding, with paint dripping onto his face and into his eyes. The strain on his physique was such that for long he could not read a letter unless he held it above him, tilting his head backwards. Still this extraordinary man could laugh, somewhat bitterly, at his hardships, writing satirical verses describing the effects of the appalling discomfort upon himself and his art’.  (pp, 610)

I mentioned we visited numerous churches during our trip so just to mention here in the context of Michelangelo  that we also saw his statue of Moses in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli part of Pope Julius 11 tomb. This gives some idea of the man’s versatility and sheer genius in different mediums, despite his hardships. This Basilica was consecrated in 439 by Sixtus 111. Cardinal Della Rovere, when he became Pope Julius 11 was central to some of the rebuilding between 1471 and 1503. This famous statue is pictured below. Moses is the bearded figure, below, centre.

Michelangelo , Moses  (detail) San Pietro in Vincoli. Image: Denise Meagher

Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Michelangelo captures this well : ‘Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tablets, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush’. I do not think I could put it better than that.

Returning to our itinerary , we leave the Vatican Museum, as we approach lunch time and I try to take in all we just saw, a little overwhelmed, perhaps, by it all.

As we sit on the metro my mind wanders to a painting that upset me deeply when I first saw it.


Jean-Léon Gérôme , The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (Between1863 and 1883). The Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland USA


Gérôme identified the setting as ancient Rome’s racecourse, the Circus Maximus . However the seating, it has been argued, more closely resembles that of the Colosseum. It is also said about the work that the hill in the background surmounted by a colossal statue and a temple is nearer in appearance to the Athenian Acropolis than it is to Rome’s Palatine Hill.  The Artist had the right to improvise, I guess. But I think there is no doubt it captures what happened in many places including the  Colosseum. I imagine the sheer terror the victims who were about to suffer martyrdom either by being devoured by the wild beasts or by being smeared with pitch and set ablaze must be feeling. It still upsets me to think about such barbarity.   

If the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel  had overwhelmed me, I can only say that  the sight of the Colosseum  was equally monumental.

The Colosseum 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


An oval amphitheatre  in the centre of Rome, it can be found just east of the Roman Forum discussed in my earlier blog. It is the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built, and is still the largest standing amphitheatre in the world today. Construction began under the Emperor  Vespasian ( 69–79 AD) mentioned earlier in 72 and was completed in 80 AD under his successor and heir, Titus ( 79–81), his son. Further modifications were made during the reign of  his other son Domitian ( 81–96). These three Emperors who were patrons of the work and are known as the  Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheatre was named the ‘ Flavin  Amphitheatre’, by later Classicists and archaeologists, because of its association with their family name .

The Colosseum is built of travertine limestone, tuffa which is a volcanic rock, and brick-faced concrete. It could hold an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators at various points in its history. Think about this.  It was used for gladiator contests and public spectacles including animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Roman mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval  era.

The Colosseum from Inside 2022 . Image: Denise Meagher

Later the theatre was used for other purposes like  a quarry and a Christian shrine. Despite earthquakes and being used as a quarry the Colosseum is still an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome.

As it nears 4pm Italian time we stop for a quick expresso at a café bar as we head towards our last two site visits of the day :-  Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio was built in the 5th century, possibly (although this cannot be proved) on the site of the original Titulus Sabinae, an original Parish of Rome. This makes it the oldest extant ecclesiastical basilica in Rome that preserves its original format , something I now understand is a colonnaded rectangular plan with the apse. The etymology of the word apse is from Latin absis ‘arch, vault’ from Ancient Greek ἀψίς apsis ‘arch’.

The tituli were the first parish churches in Rome, and most of them were originally private residences or commercial meeting-halls in which Christian congregations met (the so-called house-churches). We were not the only culture who improvised with such things as mass rocks during times of persecution.  St Sabina is now considered as the original founder of the church. Think of her courage. She was beheaded by Emperor Hadrain (who could be ruthless) because she had converted to Christianity. She was later declared a saint.

Interior , Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio. Image: Denise Meagher

Santa Sabina was later built by Peter of Illyria , a Dalmatian priest, ( Croatia) between 422 and 432, dates mentioned above, and near a  Temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill. Hence the longer name of the Basilica. The interior follows a basilical form, with a central nave divided from the side aisle by two rows of columns, on which rests an arcade. My picture shows this and the beautiful simplicity of the interior.  Above the arcade you can see a row of large clerestory windows i.e. above the arches. The twenty four columns of marble from Turkey with perfectly matched Corinthian capitals and bases, were, archaeologists have argued, reused from the Temple of Juno. Remnants from this Temple have been found on the site so some think  that the Temple may have been demolished in order to erect the Basilica.

Another very important aspect to this Basilica relates to Christian iconography. The doors on the exterior of Santa Sabina are made of cypress wood, and originally had a layout of twenty-eight panels. Out of these panels, ten of the original have been lost. Seventeen out of the original remaining eighteen panels depict a scene from the Old Testament and New Testament leaving one panel that does not directly relates to a Biblical story . One of the smaller top panels depicts the crucifixion of Jesus . This panel is the first known publicly displayed image of the crucifixion of Christ. I was fascinated by that.                                 

Information Board showing one of the first known depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ. Image: Denise Meagher

The door is huge and the panel depicting this scene is at the top, hence I am using the image from the information board above to illustrate. It might be a slight stretch to connect this back to Ireland but I was reminded some weeks after my Italian field trip, on a visit to Lorrha, Co. Tipperary , to celebrate the designs of Imogen Stuart , (1927 – ) when I looked at the Tabernacle in Lorrha Church . The design for the tabernacle was created by Niall O’Neill and inspired by the ‘The Stowe Missal’ also known as the ‘Lorrha Missal’, dating back to circa 792 AD (image below). This would have been a couple of hundred years later than when the door panels at St. Sabina where made, showing, perhaps, how Christian iconography was interpreted in different cultural contexts at the time. The images were reinterpreted over the centuries, as Niall would have studied in creating his work, but none the less, I was immediately reminded on seeing the tabernacle, of my visit to St. Sabina .

Tabernacle in Lorrha Church, from the brochure celebrating Heritage week, Sunday Aug 14th 2022. Image: Denise Meagher

I found the simplicity of Santa Sabina very beautiful and peaceful and very much in contrast to the next basilica we visit, our final stop on this day – Santa Maria Maggiore.   

I refer back to Georgina Masson here and her book The Companion Guide to Rome I have mentioned before in this series. Her comments will remind readers of my earlier blog about Venice when I wrote about  the significance of Classical columns in Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. She writes that ‘the famous Roman scholar Silvio Negro once put it ‘ St Mari Maggiore confuses the ordinary traveller ‘by the contrast between what they see outside and what they find within. As a matter of fact this could be applied to many other Italian churches, but in the reverse order: very often their exteriors  may be medieval or Renaissance while inside they are baroque . S. Maria Maggiore is almost completely eightieth century outside (it was encased in a shell , as it were by Ferdinando Fuga in 1746- 50) while the interior is the only example of a basilica built in the classical style to have survived in its integrity among the great patriarchal ones of Rome…..On entering S. Maria Maggiore we are struck at once by this fact: the superb Renaissance ceiling (said to have been gilded with the first gold brought from the New World) and the beautiful cosmatesque pavement appear as mere incidents in the dominating classical harmony of the whole building.’ (pp , 404) Here we see therefore, the ‘original of the species’ in a basilica context , if I can use such a term, as these are original Classical not neoclassical columns.

Santa Maria Maggiore Renaissance Ceiling and Classical Columns. Image : Denise Meagher

Masson continues: ‘The impression is chiefly due to the rows of magnificent classical columns lining the nave : their proportion and spacing accord exactly with  the canons of Vitruvius , as do the proportions of the nave itself’ ( pp 404-405) . My image , taken on entering the basilica, gives, I hope, some idea of what she is referring to.

The image of the High Altar (below) is another example of the astonishing beauty of this Basilica. My photograph is a mosaic from a later period , 1295, by Jacopo Torriti of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. However most of the mosaics as mentioned are from the 5th century and feature some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in the world.

Jacopo Torriti ,    The Coronation of the Virgin Mary , mosaic (detail) 1295, Apse of Santa Maria Maggiore Image: Denise Meagher

Inevitably these iconographic depictions of Mary would have had the function of supporting a new type of understanding of how different religious cultures could co exist – the Hebrew bible and that which came after it, Christianity, are closer connected than most think. The early mosaics from Late Antiquity would have been influenced by similar  ones from villas in Syria,  Sicily and Africa during the 5th century. We tend to forget the cultural and historical connections that appear to come together so seamlessly in the magnificent designs of these buildings.

In all some of us have walked over 16 km on this day so by the time I sit down to eat I am feeling very tired and trying to process site visits and my first viewing of some incredible pieces of art, that have, for decades, just been images I have seen in art books or on television, or , even more recently, on social media sites.  By the end of Day Five of my Grand Tour I was feeling somewhat, understandably ,overwhelmed.

Finding what you are Looking for: My Grand Tour – From Venice to Rome. Part 2 of 5


Temple of Antonius and Faustina. Image: Denise Meagher


We are scheduled to catch the 9.26am train from Venenzia S Lucia to Roma Termini, with an arrival time of 13.25pm in Rome. While every night on the trip I was careful to get to bed relatively early, on our last night in Venice we all stayed up in the hotel outdoor lounge area chatting about the day. I am usually a poor sleeper and awake early so I do not bother setting an alarm. You can imagine my horror when I awake Sunday morning and on checking my phone realise that it is 8.05am and our departure time from the hotel is set for 8am.!  To say I flung my clothes into the suitcase is probably an understatement! I arrive downstairs by about 8.12 , happy to realise I was not the only one late but looking decidedly worse from wear.

On the Vaporetto my mind starts to relax as I soak up the beauty of the canal for one last time before we depart. We get our seats on the train without difficulty and head south. The journey is interesting as cloudy skies in Northern Italy start to give way to blue ones and sunshine towards the South.  One of my colleagues who knows Italy well advises me not to take the coffee from the trolley but to go down to the cafeteria on the train instead. How right she was. Styled like a café bar, you can stand at the counter and enjoy a freshly brewed expresso and watch the fields go by. We arrive on time in Rome and after a quick trip to our hotel to deposit bags, our third day begins.

People were surprised when I said I had never been to Rome before. I had visited Italy , but for some reason I just had not made it to Rome. So this was going to be a real treat. Our first site visit is Forum Romano . The Forum’s beginnings are connected with the alliance between Romulus  the first king of Rome (which then consisted only of the Palatine Hill) and his rival, Titus Tatius , who occupied the Capitoline Hill around 750 BC. According to tradition the pair formed an alliance after combat had been halted by the prayers and cries of Sabine women.

Roman Forum April 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


For centuries the Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of elections and triumphal processions, public speeches, gladiatorial matches, and criminal trials. In fact, the day after we arrive in Rome there are some re-enactments of the gladiator matches happening in public spaces, which were interesting to observe. So this rectangular area, the Roman Forum, originally marsh land, gradually became the nucleus of commercial affairs in ancient Rome.

There are so many important monuments and statues in this historic space it is hard to select one – but for me the memory I will always have of standing there, for the first time, was seeing the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, pictured at the opening. We stop just under this monument, and I stare at it , transfixed by the sheer enormity of the columns. I have a similar experience, the following day, when we reach the Pantheon and again at Hadrian’s Villa. Georgina Masson describes the Temple in her wonderful book The Companion Guide to Rome (1965)  and she is worth quoting. She writes that ‘passing in front of the altar and temple of Caesar, we turn right and are immediately confronted with the great podium crowned with ten monolithic columns in cipollino marble of one of the forum’s most prominent and best-preserved monuments , the temple of Antonius, Hadrian’s adopted son and successor and Faustina, his beloved wife. On her death in AD 141 she was deified, and the temple was built and dedicated to her and on her husband’s death twenty years later the dedication was changed to the pair of them’’. (pp, 56) My image I hope captures the enduring grandeur and majesty of this  building.

We explore the Forum and gradually move toward the Capitoline Hill to visit the Capitoline Museum.  We climb the steps that lead us to the ‘Campidoglio’ and there we are greeted with the statue of a mounted rider right in the centre of the piazza: Emperor Marcus Aurelius , who , for those of you who are interested in this city’s complex history, married the daughter of Faustina whom I spoke about earlier. Confusingly, Faustina’s daughter was her Mother’s namesake. Linkages and connections are forming for me as I piece together so many stories from this ancient city.  

Marcus Aurelius. Image: Museum Website

The statue of Marcus Aurelius in the square is a copy of the original which is safely exhibited in the museum to protect it from the elements (above). The history of the museum dates back to 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome and located them on the Capitoline Hill. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to include many ancient Roman statues, inscriptions, and other artifacts, a collection of medieval and Renaissance art and collections of coins and jewels.

     The Capitoline Wolf. Image: Denise Meagher

I stop to study and take a quick photograph of the bronze sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf. A symbol of Rome since ancient times that we will all be familiar with , the she-wolf (pictured above) is suckling the mythical twin founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus (before the alliance with Titus Tatius of the Sabines was formed ,as discussed above ) and is a symbol of Rome since ancient times. The sculpture has been housed at the museum since 1471.  It is believed the work is Etruscan in origin dating back to the 5th century BC though this is controversial. According to legend the twins were cast into the Tiber river by Amulius when he overthrew his brother King Numitor, grandfather to the twins. The misfortunate pair were rescued by the she-wolf who cared for them until a herdsman found them.

The evening has descended and once again we retire as a group to one of the many wonderful Italian restaurants before returning to our beds after another busy day.  Tomorrow we plan several site visits before we go to the Embassy of Ireland to conclude the evening.

Monday morning we start our day at The Villa Farnese ,  a Renaissance suburban villa in the district of Trastevere, built between 1506 and 1510 . The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich  Sienese (Tuscany)  banker who was also the treasurer of Pope Julius II . We will meet Pope Julius II again in this blog series and his importance cannot be overemphasised.

Villa Farnese. Image : Denise Meagher


The novelty of this suburban villa design is primarily because of it’s differences from that of a ‘typical’ urban palazzo (palace). Renaissance palaces usually faced onto a street and were decorated versions of defensive castles: rectangular blocks with rusticated ground floors and enclosing a courtyard. This villa, however, was intended to be an airy summer pavilion, and presented a side towards the street.

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea (detail). Image: Denise Meagher


Chigi also commissioned the fresco decoration of the villa by artists such as Raphael (1483-1520). Best known are Raphael’s frescoes on the ground floor depicting the classical and secular myths of Cupid and Psyche and the Triumph of Galatea.  . The latter, one of his few purely secular paintings, shows the near-naked nymph on a shell-shaped chariot amid ‘frolicking attendants’, and is reminiscent of the famous work by Botticelli –  The Birth of Venus. The themes were inspired by key members Lorenzo de Medici’s circle, including the work of the poet Angelo Poliziano. Interestingly Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story as depicted by the poet. Instead, he chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (glorification/ascent into heaven) where Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures. The bright colours and decoration, it is argued, are inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left we see a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducting a sea nymph; behind them another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins. While some have seen in the model for Galatea the face of Chigi’s lover, the art historian and Raphael’s near-contemporary, Giorgio Vasari ( acknowledged as one of the first great art-historians from this period), disagreed. He argued that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ‘ideal’ beauty. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used “a certain idea” he had formed in his mind . I thought to myself the ‘idea’ most likely was the woman he loved rather than the one Chigi did , especially when you think about his portrait La Fornarina at the Palace Barberini (which I will discuss in blog 4) . The villa became the property of the Farnese family in 1577.  

I was particularly struck by some of the ceiling frescoes which reminded me of the designs we saw in the main room at Castletown House in Celbridge on an earlier field trip.


Wall Fresco , Castletown (left) Ceiling Fresco, Villa Farnese (right)

Both Images: Denise Meagher

Next stop is the Basilica of Santa Maria , also in Trastevere, one of the oldest Churches in Rome. The basic floor plan and wall structure of the church dates back to the 340s but the first sanctuary was built in 221 – 227 by Pope Callixtus I. The church has large areas of important mosaics  from the 12th and late 13th century by the late Medieval artist, Pietro Cavallini (1259- 1330)

Santa Maria in Trastevere, interior. Image: Wikimedia Commons

These are reminiscent of the mosaics we saw in Venice on the outside of the St. Mark’s Basilica but again time did not allow us to study them in great detail though one of the people in our group is writing a Ph.D. thesis in this area so it was interesting to hear her talk about the importance of some of these beautiful mosaics during the trip.

Moving on we reach the church of Saint Agnes in Piazza Navona next, a 17th-century Baroque church. Piazza Navona is one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city and the site where the Saint Agnese , the early Christian saint,  was martyred. Construction of the Church began in 1652. I am struck by the altar piece: The Two Holy Families  (1676) by Domenico Guidi .

                   Domenico Guidi, The Two Holy Families (detail), (1676). Image: Denise Meagher

Outside the Church I stand in front of the first sculpture of one of the artists we studied on the trip that made a lasting impression : Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) whom I will discuss again in a later blog. This work, his Fountain of the Four Rivers is situated in the Piazza Navona.

   Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) Both Images: Denise Meagher

It was designed in 1651 for Pope Innocent X , whose family palace faced onto the piazza, as did the church of Saint Agnes mentioned above. The base of the fountain is a basin style, from the centre of which beautiful limestone rocks rise to support four river gods and above them, a copy of an obelisk of Egyptian origin surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Collectively the gods represent four major rivers  of the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe) ,  the Ganges (Asia) and Rio de la Plata (South America).

And still we move on.

Before I discuss the Pantheon, our next stop,  I must introduce another very important character from the first century AD – Hadrian (76–138), mentioned earlier. He was a Roman Emperor from 117 to 138. He was also a seriously bright man,  gifted in many areas, a person I would have loved to meet! His father was of senatorial rank and was a first cousin of Emperor Trajan . Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece Sabina  early in his career, before Trajan became Emperor and possibly at the behest of Trajan’s wife, Plotina, who was well disposed towards Hadrian. When Trajan died, his widow claimed that he had nominated Hadrian as Emperor immediately before his death. Some Senators opposed his nomination and he had them put to death when he came to power, something the Senate did not forget easily.

Very much ‘ his own man’  he often had clashes with the Roman elite , especially because of his policies. He built walls to protect the then Empire and despite opposition he pursued his own Imperial ideals and visited almost every province of the Empire, accompanied by his Imperial ‘team’. In Rome he is remembered for rebuilding the Pantheon  and constructing the vast Temple of Venus and Roma  . He was deeply inspired by ancient Greece and even thought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire at one point.  His intense relationship with a Greek youth called Antinous is also well documented, and I will return to that later when I discuss his Villa in the Roman suburbs. Antinous’s tragic death by drowning  led Hadrian to establish a widespread cult in his lover’s honour later in his reign.  

My first encounter with Hadrian then is when I see the building he was involved in rebuilding and this is, of course, The Pantheon.

The Pantheon. Both Images : Denise Meagher


And it left me breathless. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 27-25 BC it was destroyed by fire in AD 80. Replaced by Domitian it was then struck by lightning in AD 110. Plans for rebuilding were probably put in place by the Emperor Trajan but he died before they were finished, so it was Hadrian who then took charge. ‘Hadrian ..did not dedicate the new Pantheon in his own name but in that of the original dedicant : thus the bold on the front : M. Agrippa L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, trice consul, made this)’. Amanda Claridge continues in her book Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide ‘The city of Rome (unlike the Empire at large) never took kindly to the idea of worshipping emperors as gods during their lifetime but it is possible that the Pantheon provided a setting – not a temple in the conventional sense – in which the living emperor would appear in company with the gods (including his own deified predecessors) ‘. (pp, 231)

This awe inspiring structure, famous for its Corinthian columns which I discussed in my earlier blog, (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) , situates the design in the Classical tradition. The famous Rotunda (pictured below) is linked by a  rectangular vestibule to the porch.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (1734), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The rotunda  is under a   large coffered Dome i.e – it is decorated with recessed ceiling panels . This device had been used  to bring an added dimension to the ceilings of large rooms since Etruscan times. The Dome is made even more impressive by the central opening called the ‘oculus’ through which one can see the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, (think about that for a minute!)  the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. A painter and architect who worked in Rome and is primarily known as one of the vedutisti (“view painters”) from the city – Giovanni Paolo Panini or Pannini (1691-1765) exquisitely captures views of the Pantheon, including the one pictured above. His name and that of Piranesi (1720 – 1778) feature throughout this blog series.

We visited numerous churches on our trip, not all of which I will cover nor in the order in which we visited them, but San Luigi dei Francesci is a Roman Catholic Church not far from Piazza Navona and is important to mention. It has three masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) .   The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600). This was , apparently, not an easy commission for Caravaggio, and it is believed that at least two of the three paintings had to be repainted to satisfy his patron, the Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. If you did not have a patron in these times, you could not fund or progress your work.

But let us turn the clock back a decade earlier when Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel left funds in his will for the decoration of this church on themes connected to his namesake – Saint Matthew. Caravaggio was fortunate to get this commission as the dome of the chapel had been decorated in frescoes, in a Mannerist style by the famous artist and contemporary of his , Giuseppe Cesari, who was also Caravaggio’s former employer. Mannerist was a sixteenth century style of art and design characterized by artificiality, elegance and sensuousness in portraying the human figure and is the name given to the style followers of Raphael and Michelangelo adopted from around 1520–1600.

Cesari, however,  was busy with other important royal and papal commissions so  Caravaggio got this job thanks to his patron’s intervention. I wished I had more time to study these works but it was hard to, given that the Church was very busy and a little noisy with many people also trying to look at them. Caravaggio was a most interesting character and in his short and tumultuous life he achieved so much –  it was an honor to see the works even briefly.   Below is one example from the three, the one I liked best.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew , (1599-1600). Church of San Luigi dei Francesi 

And still more amazing experiences were packed into this day. Our group – MA students from the Department of Art History and Social Policy in UCD , have been invited to the Irish Embassy, situated in the Villa Spada. On route we call at the Galleria Spada, a museum  located in the Piazza Capo di Ferro, famous for its façade and for the forced perspective gallery by Francesco Borromini that is in the building. There are also some wonderful pieces of art.  The Villa Spada however dominates my memory, pictured below.

Villa Spada . Image: Denise Meagher

It dates from 1639 and was originally constructed as a summer home for the Nobili family who produced several noted churchmen including Roberto Nobili, who was made a Cardinal at the age of 12 by his grand-uncle Julius III in 1553. Their own web site gives the background to the building: ‘The Nobili Family owned the property for about a hundred years and then another Italian family, the Spada Family, owned it for a further 200 years of its history.  ….It was sold several times over the subsequent years and leased to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, whose founder died in the Villa in 1894. The Irish state purchased Villa Spada from its then owner Dr. Alberto Uzielli of Florence, in 1946. For 65 years it housed the Irish Embassy to the Holy See before its change to house the Irish Embassy to Italy in 2012.’

Venetian Door Motif, similar to those we saw at Villa Spada.


We  were welcomed by the Ambassador to Rome, Patricia O Brien  who was exceptionally warm to us all and then given a tour of the building by one of her assistants. I was struck not just by the beautiful views from the villa but by the frescoed doors that feature in some of the rooms, which, I was told, came from Venice.  

A lovely Cup of Tea, at Villa Spada. Image: Denise Meagher


We were treated to some tea and biscuits as we took in the view, one of the many incredible memories I have of my eight-day field trip of Venice and Rome.  It was time to retire for some food and refreshments but more to follow…….