Posted by: Steve Coplan | November 27, 2006

A few of my favorite things

This Guardian piece is an edited version of the chapter on Bernini from Simon Schama’s book accompanying the BBC series “The Power of Art”, and covers three topics of great fascination for me: Rome, Bernini and Schama. I didn’t actually have the opportunity to see Bernini’s St Theresa, but did make a point of seeing about every other Bernini I could when we visited Rome for the first time. That was in part because of Schama’s book Landscape and Memory, which is probably one of the best non-fiction books of the last twenty years (in my entirely subjective opinion). Schama points out how Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain in the Piazza Navona was directly linked to the Egyptian worship of the river – connecting the pope’s favorite artist to a fundamental pagan belief. Pope Innocent X inaugrated the custom of opening the fountain’s sluice gates in the August sweltering heat once they were completed. Schama describes it like this:

” At that time it was surely the greatest water spectacle in any urban space in Europe: the ultimate consummation, not merely of papal Rome’s hydraulic revival but of the entire tradition of fluvial vitality… But when Innocent bid the waters rise in the long of the Piazza Navona, he was in effect, finally baptizing the pagan Circo Agonale, creating a sacred heart in the heart of the Rome, a stone’s throw from the Tiber bend.”

Still, nothing quite prepared me for the impact of the statue of Pluto’s rape of Prosperine in the Galleria Borghese. The Greek myth accounts for the seasons — Persephone is abducted by Hades and spends six months of the year in the underworld. The Romans lightly modified the myth, but kept the general gist. The element of the statue that blew me away was how Prosperina’s flesh folded under Pluto’s perfectly formed hands – as if the moment had simply been frozen.

As Schama writes, we witness “the stupendous capacity of the sculptor to render the nanosecond with such material vividness.”

“His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation. Bernini could make marble do things it had never done before.”

I haven’t heard too much on the book or the series, which leads me to believe it has not been entirely successful. I wouldn’t trust this London Times review since Schama is generally a darling of the Guardian. Still, while his History of Britain was entertaining, it wasn’t groundbreaking. And while it covered the period of the English Revolution and Reformation in remarkable depth, details on pre-Roman Britain were remarkably skimpy.

In general, pretty much everything that has followed Landscape and Memory has been to a lesser or greater degree disappointing. I’ve yet to retrieve my signed copy of his biography of Rembrandt that immediately followed Landscape and Memory that I gave to my brother for his birthday, and that fell between the cracks after his divorce. But, I suspect it won’t reach the same heights. Of course, that disappointment is all relative. Landscape and Memory is one of my staple gifts for new friends (which is entirely unrelated to the fact that you can generally pick it up for cheap at Strand Books). It’s almost like an Orson Welles movie — you can pick it up, and it’s still as good (or maybe even better) than the first time you read it.

Rome was initially a bit of a disappointment too, which probably had something to do with the delightful Romans. I can understand having some degree of disdain for the multitudes that have poured into the city for centuries. I can also understand some degree of arrogance when you are a native of a city that changed the face of Europe and is the seat of the church with a billion adherents. But do Romans really have to be so obviously rude, and why is ripping off tourists seen as a perfectly acceptable practice? Our trip was nearly ruined when my bank card was swallowed by an ATM on the Piazza di Spagna and then cut up in front of me on our first morning for reasons that still remain unclear.

After reading the chapter on Bernini’s Four Rivers statue, I had to hold myself back on not immediately rushing to the Piazza Navona when we arrived. When we did, I’d have to say the phrase tourist trap is a kind characterization. If I wanted to wade through the ephemeral crap of herd tourism and crowds of the unwashed, I could take the subway up to Times Square. But if you hung around long enough, and the crowds started to thin, the charm of the piazza was still there.

So, despite the crowds and the Roman attitude, I couldn’t see enough of the city, and ended up dragging Mary around when she was exhausted from her pregnancy. Fortunately we had a few days of rest lined up at probably the nicest hotel we” stay for a least another twenty years thanks to our friends Gad and Michelle. Whenever I read about something I missed in Rome like Bernini’s statue in the Santa Maria della Vittoria, I kick myself, reach for a map of Rome, try to figure out whether we walked past it and mentally add it to the itinerary for our next trip.



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  2. thank you very interesting

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