14. SUFFERING THROUGH ROME
On the way back to Rome I had left our passports in a hotel in Perugia and the owner of our next hotel talked me out of driving all the way back. She’d telephone her colleague to send the passports extra special registered delivery to our apartment.
A couple of days later a postman showed up and asked me for a Miss Hazel Brown. I was about to send him away when Nancy said, "I’m Hazel Brown." She signed the form and seized the slim envelope. Inside were our passports. The hotelier in Perugia had picked out my name from the line closest to the Italian document where the color of hair and eyes was displayed.
"What if it had been ’scar on forehead’," my wife chortled.
Once back in Rome, I suffered through the grind. For three hours in the morning at either the American Academy library or the German Institute (when winter arrived the Academy refused to turn on the heat) I began to read the entire history of art from the Paleolithic caves onward, preparing for the dreaded eight-day written general exam leading to my Master of Fine Arts degree, which Nancy called the "Master of Fox Hounds." I devoted several hours a day to learning Italian and German, which was considered the professional language of art history. Every day we would race off to see a few of Rome’s great works of art.
Except for one heat wave in August when the temperature rose above a hundred degrees for five straight days accompanied by a searing wind that forced us to wear glasses to prevent our eyes from turning into marbles and the few times when we fell ill, we chugged away at the grind from 6:45 in the morning until midnight, unless we were playing.
On the side, I was writing short stories, a novella and drawing a huge panorama of Rome as seen from our marvelous terrace. Also on the side, we met with friends including visitors from home, joined Enzo and Claudia on the beach or at one splendid but never fancy restaurant after another. Nancy’s agenda included visits to the special markets near the Trevi Fountain and the via Nazionale guided by Signora Beltrami, an ace chef. Nancy was preparing meals with exotic spaghetti sauces, perfect veal dishes and even a thoroughly boned large goose that rivaled the fare in the better restaurants.
We careened from monument to monument as if we were in some treasure hunt at a demolition derby. I’d think nothing of getting the idea around five in the afternoon of going to the Vatican Museum to look at one painting or to race to a church across the Tiber to gaze fondly at some sculpture. We’d drive madly for ten minutes, dump the car on some sidewalk, see the work and drive home all in less than a half hour.
In all the time we got one ticket, not for speeding or reckless driving, which we deserved, but for parking. The polite printed ticket said something like, "We regret to even have to sully your admirable automobile with this reminder, but there are places it is awkward to park in and sorry to have to say you’re in one now, not that we’re going to do anything about it, of course, so please have a great visit in Rome." They had spotted our New Jersey license plate.
My study of monuments was manic. I would examine perhaps six a day, armed with the most detailed guidebooks and notes I’d borrowed from the library. In Saint Peter’s, for instance, I looked at almost every one of the thousand works in the cathedral. Often I would stand in front of one work of art for an hour, mapping it entirely with my eyes, taking short-hand notes about its condition and, most important, how it stacked up in comparison with another similar work. I was obsessed with what made a work of art good, better or the very best of an artist, a period or a century.
I bought a pair of German binoculars from one of Enzo’s black market contacts to help me with my obsession to look closer, ever closer. One day I sat in a front row pew in Saints Cosmas and Damian near the Forum for three hours slowly casting my eyes over every centimeter of the sixth-century apse mosaic, which measured something like thirty by fifteen feet. I spotted all of the repairs, amusing myself by dating the reconstructions. I chuckled when I found what must have been an unauthorized restoration of a head of a female saint with the features of a young beauty in an Art Deco style. It was, I presumed, a portrait of that particular restorer’s girlfriend or wife.
It was from these crazed examinations that I freed myself forever from art historical theory. "Screw theory," I told Nancy. "I have come to worship the clear, gorgeous, physical object. I let it tell me its story." The process turned out to be vital for my forthcoming life in art.
In the late afternoon, armed with frosty martinis, we’d retire to our terrace where I’d painstakingly make another sketch of another few feet of the panorama I was working on. What I was after was a giant charcoal drawing three feet high by twenty feet long. I slaved for weeks but at length, seeing that my artistic talent was stiff and uninspired, suddenly gave it up. I had no regrets. Instead, I photographed the view in segments.
After dinner we’d go to operas or concerts. Once a week we hit the movies, especially American films dubbed into Italian, an easy way to perfect our Italian. From one Italian comedy I picked up the expression, "See you around on the fresh grass," "Ci vediamo alle fresche frasche," and Enzo would go into paroxysms of laughter when I’d say it.
We crafted a number of art tours for ourselves and for visiting Americans. One was purely chronological starting with two 8th-century Etruscan granulated gold bracelets in the Villa Giulia decorated in a virtual snowstorm of gold dust with infinitesimally small images of cats, chimeras, and sphinxes in the smallest imaginable dots and ending with Mussolini’s bizarre 1930s Foro Romano and its stadium with nude statues of various sports. We cherished the naked athlete holding skis and poles. Other tours would be one artist, especially Caravaggio or the architect Gianlorenzo Bernini, who virtually designed 17th-century Rome.
At length I winnowed down my list of hundreds of must-sees to ten.
1. In Santa Francesca Romana, the 7th-century eerie, other-worldly eggshell face of the Madonna found underneath a 12th-century painting.
2. Constantine’s massive marble head in the courtyard of the Conservatorei on the Capitoline, with its great transfixing eyes. It was said that he could remain immobile for hours during public ceremonies.
3. Santa Teresa in her agony of experiencing the Almighty in Santa Maria della Vittoria and Bernini’s even more magnetic female saint in ecstasy, Saint Ludovica in the Altieri Chapel of San Francesco a Ripa, one of his last works showing the saint’s head thrust back as she grabs spastically at the voluminous folds of her robe. Once my nasty side exploded when a numbskull visitor made the obvious and stupid remark that Saint Teresa looked like she was having a sexual orgasm. I growled into his face, "Idiot! The angel next to her -- that’s her lover? There are genuine and heartfelt shudders of sheer spiritual bliss in the world."
4. The Pantheon for those huge bronze doors and the magical oculus.
5. The "time-machine" of San Clemente, where you descend forty feet from the 12th century church pavement into Roman houses and a slice of the giant Cloaca Maxima of the 2nd century B.C. You go down and down through Ottonian and Carolingian architecture to an almost perfectly preserved Mithreum in the shape of an oval Roman feasting room where God knows what the Mithra adherents dined on (possibly the spurting raw blood of a freshly slaughtered bull).
6. Bramante’s Renaissance "Tempietto" in the cloister of San Pietro in Montorio, high up on the Janiculum (where one could see our balcony miles away). This jewel box, only 15 feet in diameter, was created by the architect and illusionistic painter in 1502 for Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. It’s a pure circle with sedate Doric columns and seems to me to be the summation at once of antiquity and Christianity.
7. Michelangelo’s grand Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, where the angry patriarch has just returned from the desert and sees those mischievous Hebrews worshipping that golden calf. The great marble thrums of his hair are worth the visit alone.
8. The stupendous Borghese Gallery for the Caravaggios, the Berninis, the Raphaels, especially his Lady with Unicorn and Corregio’s amazing nymph Io being bedded by Jupiter in the form of a thunder cloud, the sexiest old master painting in the western world.
The Borghese, we felt, was the repository of the largest array of sensual and downright sexed-up works of art on earth -- not only Corregio’s Io but his raunchy Danae where Jupiter is shown giving it to her as a golden shower and Bernini’s Proserpina being carried off by Pluto. Have hands sinking into juicy flesh ever been rendered so effectively? Then there are Domenichino’s saucy nude Diana; Titian’s ambiguous so-called "Sacred and Profane Love," where the naked lady is "sacred"; and Antonio Canova’s pert-nippled marble Pauline Borghese on a wooden pedestal that back in 1803 was mechanized to turn slowly, allowing the viewers to pant at Pauline’s lovely naked body.
9. Marcus Aurelius’ equestrian statue on the Campidoglio.
10. And the gallery of the Palazzo Doria near the Roman College. This wondrous private museum was open on Thursdays only for three hours and we’d rush there every two weeks or so to see two Caravaggio’s of the highest quality -- Rest on the Flight into Egypt and a Repentant Magdalene. And perhaps the finest portrait ever made in the 17th century, Diego Velazquez’s majestic image of a wise, cruel, skeptic, fundamentalist Doria Pope, Innocent X. (Years later I would divert the guards, sneak over the railing and surreptitiously clean a small portion of the masterpiece to match its condition with a multi-million-dollar Velazquez I was hoping to buy at auction for the Metropolitan Museum).
We also had favorites in the surroundings of Rome. Tops on the list were Cervetri for the miles of the unexcavated Etruscan tombs, Hadrian’s Villa, all but deserted, Pirro Ligorio’s frivolous fountains at the Villa d’Este -- to be seen particularly in summer at night -- and Palestrina.
Palestrina was some twenty miles east of Rome on the via Praenestina and is the site of a vast sanctuary of the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia, the seat of an ancient oracle who dished out confusing sayings, meaning nothing or everything. In ancient times the sanctuary was a series of lofty terraces, round niches and porticos on four vertiginous levels with stairs and ramps. Over the centuries all ancient remains had been built over and had disappeared. Then a "bombing miracle" took place.
Erik Sjöqvist told me that he had witnessed this miracle when he was traveling throughout Italy during the war, assessing the damage to ancient sites. (As a neutral Swede he could move around freely, but I always wondered if he wasn’t an Allied spy). He went to Palestrina days after heavy U.S. bombing of a German observation post on the summit. As he told me, "The medieval town and the modern houses had been obliterated and there lay the Cyclopean walls and arcades, the series of ramps and gigantic stairways of the first century B.C. Roman sanctuary. It was like Atlantis rising out of the sea. I saw to my astonishment that the so-called hill was in fact a manmade mountain, a gigantic construction to seat the Tholos or sanctuary of Fortune on the summit."
After becoming overstuffed with art and exhausted by frenetic travels from monument to monument and when I needed a break, nothing was as satisfying as our own Roman "tour" at dawn from our little terrace. I’d arise early, get an espresso and a bomboloni and go out to the balcony and watch the reddening rays of the morning sun kiss the tops of the roof of the Victor Emmanuele monument and then the dome of Santa Maria di Nome di Santa Maria and the rugged bricks of the Torre dei Milizie as a new day of suffering dawned.
This is chapter 14 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.