Part II: Churches – Caravaggio and Raphael
While Roman cafes are busy serving delicious coffee its churches are just as assiduously serving Caravaggios and Raphaels (also Rafael). Late one afternoon on one of our marathon church spins, we entered Sant’ Agostino. A renaissance church built between 1479 and 1483 and then extravagantly remodeled in 1750, it sits in a small piazza not far from Piazza Navona. We had come here to see Raphael’s Prophet Isiah and Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto. Antun had especially prepped me to check out the scandalous-in-their-day bare-footed Madonna, kneeling peasant’s imposing dirty feet and heavy-set Christ child in the Caravaggio. But, having been on artistic pilgrimage for several hours, I became light-headed as I entered the dark space.
At that moment, I couldn’t take any of it in. I could only focus inward imagining how these works of art had fit into the lives of Romans so many centuries ago. I could see the dramatic rivalry among Rome’s churches and their wealthy benefactors, each one trying to out do the others by capturing the finest Caravaggio and the most exquisite Rafael. In my version, time was compacted, not only did church congregations and benefactors compete, but so, too, did the artists: The cherub-faced Raphael against the sword wielding and terrible Caravaggio.
Then Antun tapped my shoulder. “Let’s go,” he said. I stood up from the bench where I was sitting. I smiled to myself at the thought of this face-to-face rivalry between artists, After all, it could never have been. Raphael had died 50 years before Caravaggio had even been born. The competition between them came later, among the millions of viewers who have walked from one church to another to see their paintings on wood, canvas, and plaster.
Of the two, Raphael, with his exquisite plasticity, gives me the most pleasure. Like Michelangelo, his figures are alive with bone and muscle. My favorite work by Raphael is not in a church. It is in the Villa Farnasina (also Farnesina).
The Villa Farnasina was home to Agostino Chigi, banker extraordinaire to Pope Julius II. So imposing was his financial empire that Siena, his birthplace, bestowed on him the title of Il Magnifico. He was also quite a mover and shaker and the Villa was the center of a lively social scene. Chigi hired Raphael to decorate the loggia of the Villa. With the help of his assistants, Raphael painted Galatea and twelve frescos of Cupid and Psyche. They are exquisite. I could look at them all day, if only they were at eye level and not far above me, making me have to crane my head back to see them.
Not only are the frescoes of Cupid and Psyche powerful, but so is their story: The beauty and frailty of Psyche, the jealousy of Venus and Psyche’s sisters, and the incongruity between Cupid’s trickery and his faithfulness in love. One morning we went to the Villa with Antun’s sister, Haydee, our traveling companion and friend. The three of us spent a long time there in the loggia remembering all the events of the story and matching these to the scenes painted so pleasingly above us between garlands of flowers and fruits.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum