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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s