Age of Christina; Rome's 18th Hole

Festival Recalls Sweden’s Queen Convert

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 17, 2005 ( Last week Rome paid homage to the woman who chose to be a Catholic rather than queen.

The conversion of Queen Christina of Sweden, daughter of Lutheran King Gustavus Adolfus II, to Roman Catholicism astounded Europe in 1654 as did her declaration that she «couldn’t live another day if she didn’t live it in Rome.»

November marked the 350th anniversary of Queen Christina’s arrival in Rome, and the Eternal City celebrated a weeklong series of concerts in honor of the great patroness of music, art and literature, whose dedication to culture earned her the title of the «Minerva of the North.»

An illustrious committee of patrons organized the event, from the Holy See to the Italian government to the embassies of France, Spain and Sweden. Their involvement allowed the «Roma Festival Barocco» to unite some of the city’s most prestigious venues with performances of several unpublished scores from the Baroque era, the Age of Christina.

The seven-day festival opened Nov. 6 with Mass at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere as a moving reminder of the courageous conversion that brought Christina to Rome. Tremendous efforts of both liturgical scholars and music scholars made the special Mass a truly extraordinary experience.

A hitherto unknown manuscript by Boniface Graziani, an Italian composer born in 1604, was rediscovered in the archives of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The manuscript contains the composition for a Mass for four voices and for the first time in the modern era, the work was sung during the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, the president of the Pontifical Commission of the Cultural Goods of the Church.

Every day of the festival Rome offered splendid concerts. In the exquisite church of San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, so tiny it could fit inside one of the piers of St. Peter’s, musician Rosario Cicero played the intimate chamber music that so entertained the nobility of Rome during the 17th century.

These pieces, several composed by A.M. Bortolotti who worked at Christina’s court, were written for guitar and lute. Performed on faithful replicas of Baroque instruments, the music called to mind the many Caravaggio paintings representing youthful musicians.

Numerous types of compositions were presented during the week demonstrating the wide variety of music produced in Christina’s times. Organ recitals, Masses, semi-operatic dramas as well as oratorios provided a dazzling display of musical virtuosity.

Although originated by St. Philip Neri in the 16th century, the «oratorio» fully developed under the patronage of Roman nobility during the following century. The papal families of the Pamphilj and the Rospigliosi, as well as Queen Christina herself, commissioned these works to be performed in their own domestic settings. The oratorio consists of sacred, but not liturgical, texts put to music. They were usually divided into two acts, often with a sermon between the two.

Two oratorios were on the program this week, both taken from stories of saints. The first was titled «Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi» by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier. It was written at the request of Cardinal Francesco de’ Medici in 1688 to celebrate the Florentine saint who had been canonized in 1666. It was performed in the magnificent Palazzo Farnese, the most beautiful residence in Rome, and home to Queen Christina for several years.

The second oratorio, recounting the story of the conversion and penitence of St. Pelagia, was written for Queen Christina’s court in 1677 by Alessandro Stradella. This story of a young woman, who while intelligent, was tempted by the devil to dedicate herself to worldly pleasures, must have had special meaning for Christina.

This week, as in the days of old, Rome proved itself capable of arranging a celebration worthy of queen. Amid beautiful settings, surrounded by beguiling strains of music, the senses were delighted in order to draw the spirit to higher purpose.

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When the City Turned Inward

An exhibit opened in Rome this week to little or no fanfare. Although the city had dozens of signs and advertisements for this rich and varied show, crowds did not flock to the door as they would for a Bernini, Manet or Raphael show.

The lackluster title, «The Eighteenth Century in Rome,» may be part of the problem. While most people know the Renaissance city of Michelangelo, the Caput Mundi of the Caesars or the Eternal City of the Baroque, the 18th century seems like a no man’s land in Rome’s long history.

Indeed, during these years, the centrality of Rome to the rest of the world began to be eclipsed by cities such as Paris and Vienna, but Rome didn’t just bow out quietly. The exhibit showed just how much the Enlightenment would eventually learn and borrow from the cosmopolitan, intellectual climate of this century.

It is hard to imagine Rome as an introspective town. Yet in the 18th century, Rome turned abruptly from its exuberant passions of the Baroque age to a more serene and meditative state in search of renewal.

Rome’s guiding hand from 1700 to 1721 was Pope Clement XI Albani. A brilliant scholar as well as a deeply pious man, this Pope began the transformation of Rome from grand Baroque theater to a contemplative Arcadia or Utopia. He promoted arts, literature and music, adding many new works to the Vatican collections. He took much interest in the care of his subjects, providing food during famine, and bettering the conditions of the poor.

The first paintings that greet the visitor are family portraits. Husbands and wives or numerous children arrayed around their mother. A far cry from the lofty, idealized portraits of the earlier ages, these scenes evoke warmth and intimacy.

Standing loftily among these smaller paintings, the life-size portrait of Cardinal Domenico Passionei by Domenico and Giuseppe Duprà commands attention. Cardinal Passionei, prefect of the Vatican Library, poses in his study, engulfed by his red robes and surrounded by his beloved books.

The next hall forcibly reminds the viewer of the incredible activity in church decoration during the 18th century. St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and Holy Cross, Rome’s most ancient and important basilicas, were restored and given the grand facades that pilgrims marvel at even today.

While the bustling activity of church rebuilding and renewal was taking place, another Renaissance was occurring in the rediscovery of Roman antiquities. The French Academy was founded so that promising young artists could come to Rome to study from ancient works as well as the great masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo.

Two splendid paintings on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York illustrate this dual activity in Rome. Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s «Imaginary Gallery of Modern Rome» and «Imaginary Gallery of Ancient Rome» are triumphs of perspective painting, one shows dozens of miniature paintings of modern Rome, from Michelangelo to Alessandro Gallilei while the other show ancient monuments from Republican and Imperial Rome.

In this age which saw the beginning of newspapers, many paintings take on journalistic characteristics. The first Lottery extractions are documented in Piazza Montecitorio by Pannini in 1745, while Agostino Masucci captures the signing of pacts between Portugal and Rome with photographic precision.

The allegorical «Barque of St. Peter Aided by the Theological Virtues» by Giuseppe Chiari alludes to the arrival of James III Stuart, claimant to the throne of England, in Rome under the protection of Pope Clement XI.

But a less positive undercurrent becomes perceptible as one penetrates deeper into the exhibition. Rome visitors transform from pilgrims to tourists. Eighteenth-century guidebooks extol ancient ruins with the same enthusiasm as churches, and visitors buy city views as souvenirs,
not of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s but of villas and landscapes.

An interesting series of portraits represents tourists to Rome depicted in ancient settings, eager to show their presence among the pagan ruins.

At the same time, the subject matter or academic art begins to shift, emphasizing moralizing tales from antiquity rather than the biblical stories. In many cases the treatment of a sacred subject matter and a pagan one are virtually the same. Francesco Trevisani’s painting of Mary Magdalen and his «Cleopatra» look virtually alike except for their attributes, and the style offers little indication that one of the two is a model of repentance for Christians.

In Jean Francis de Troy’s «Romulus and Remus» from 1739, the infant Romulus is painted as the luminous center of the composition, in the same fashion as Baby Jesus in Nativity scenes. In the realm of music, genres previously used to tell the lives of saints were adopted for pagan heroes.

As the papacy opened the Pio-Clementine Museums in the Vatican and enriched the Capitoline collections with hundreds of new statues, they were opening a dialogue with the budding disciplines of archaeology, art history and classical studies. In commissioning paintings of non-religious heroic subjects, they drew parallels between the cardinal virtues of pagan antiquity and the theological virtues of Christianity.

This cosmopolitan climate in Rome, so generous in sharing its wealth of history, so willing to discourse in the contemporary languages, was frozen with the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in 1797.

The last work in the show is titled «Napoleon Liberating Italy» — an ironic note, since Napoleon raided her museums, taking the works to France; suppressed the religious orders, expropriating libraries and artwork; and imprisoned and exiled Pope Pius VI Braschi. Perhaps the last work of the exhibit should be called «Brutality Suffocates Wisdom.»

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at .

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