Beauty in Roman Villas; Art and Faith a Happy Pair

Book Unveils Meeting Place for Scholarly, Sacred and Spectacular

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 18, 2010 ( It was like attending one of the 16th-century “Noctes Vaticanae,” the evenings organized by then-Cardinal Charles Borromeo in the Vatican Gardens to present literary works.

On Tuesday, princes of the Church, scholars and some of the most venerable family names of Rome gathered in the Casina Pio IV for the presentation of a new volume on this wondrous building, written after the extensive restoration from 2000 to 2003.

The book, “La Casina Pio IV in Vaticano” contains a series of essays interspersed with stunning photographs, all masterfully orchestrated by Daria Borghese, herself a member of an ancient noble family of Rome that included several popes. The scholars, such as Marcello Faggiolo, Italy’s foremost expert in Baroque decoration, and Christopher Frommel, renowned architectural historian, unveiled the marvels of this magical space where the scholarly, sacred and spectacular meet.

The Casina Pio IV was built by Pirro Ligorio, best known for his work at the Villa D’Este. Pope Pius IV Medici had commissioned the work, and inaugurated it in 1562. The Belvedere villa, the old papal retreat for prayer and contemplation, had been overrun with art and artists, and undoubtedly the Pope was looking for a new spot for some peace and quiet. Tucked away in the heart of the papal gardens, the Villa Pia, as it was then called, would become the literary salon of the late 16th century. St. Charles Borromeo gave sermons there and Torquato Tasso recited verses from his epic poem, “Jerusalem Delivered,” nurturing the waning spark of Christian humanism in the midst of the Reformation.

The villa elegantly combines covered interior rooms for meetings in the cool evenings with open loggias and enclosed courtyards for the warmer summer nights. Pirro Ligorio had studied ancient Roman architecture extensively and employed water and sunken spaces much like that of the builders of Imperial Rome. Ligorio’s ordering of the space brought man in close contact with the elements but also underscored his dominion over nature.

The book brought out the wonder that the villa evokes: hidden in the heart of the garden, one stumbles across this pristine white building, luminous against the deep green forest that surrounds it. But crossing the threshold, another surprise awaits. Every surface of the villa is encrusted with color, from the glazed terra cotta floors to the variegated mosaics to the glorious frescos by Barocci and Federico Zuccari, two of the finest colorists of their age.

The book presentation brought together the scientific and the sacred, lauding the meticulous research on the villa but also looking for its spiritual context, as it is situated just a few yards from the tomb of St. Peter.

Presenting the book was a trio as remarkable as anything from the “Noctes Vaticanae”: Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the Governatorate of Vatican City State, soon-to-be Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Professor Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums. Each cast a particular light on the villa and its meaning.

Archbishop Ravasi, Milanese like Charles Borromeo and his uncle Pope Pius IV, spoke of the immense contribution of this family to Church reform, particularly during the last meeting of the Council of Trent, which was opened and closed by Pius IV. The Villa Pia presents the happy collaboration of art and faith exactly as the use of art was being called into question by the Protestant Reformation, and iconoclasm was rampaging in many Northern Protestant countries.

Art doesn’t necessarily have to be liturgical to highlight faith, explained Archbishop Ravasi. “While science reassures us, beauty creates tension. … It awakens us from sleep, draws us away from the vulgar and the banal.” Reprising Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous 2002 speech in Rimini when he described beauty as a wound that “summons man to his final destiny,” Archbishop Ravasi called beauty an “opening toward mystery, a tension toward the eternal.”

Professor Paolucci continued this train of thought as he explored how the building and its decoration might at first seem pagan. Derived from ancient architecture and decorated with the mythological themes, at first glance it would appear to many a paganizing playhouse. But running through the building is an electrical current of Christianity, with stories of salvation leading from the Old Testament to the New where all things are renewed and sanctified by the advent of Christ.

The theme of the building is the Temple of Virtue and the Mirror of Wisdom. These qualities were sought after and admired in the ancient world and then perfected through Christianity. Every flash of color, every play of light is the call of beauty summoning both faith and reason to this space.

Today Pius’ villa serves much the same purpose but in more global terms. The Casina Pio IV is the home of three Pontifical Academies: the Sciences, the Social Sciences and St. Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies, contributed two essays for the book, describing the history and the present-day function of the academies and recalling that in this marvelous space, popes and scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Jerome Lejeune and Rita Levi-Montalcini have discussed everything from prevention of nuclear war to bioethical issues.

At the Casina Pio IV, science and nature encounter faith and beauty in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, the site where the uneducated fisherman bore the ultimate witness to the greatest and most beautiful Truth of all.

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Beauty compared

In another extraordinary villa on the other side of the city, a second momentous encounter with beauty is taking place. A new exhibit, “Lucas Cranach: The Other Renaissance” is on display at the Galleria Borghese until Feb. 13. For the first time in Italy, visitors will be able to compare the Italian ideal of beauty with that of Northern Europe’s most famous Renaissance masters.

Lucas Cranach (born Maler) was born in Bavaria in 1472, three years before Michelangelo Buonarotti. His training may have come from his father, Hans Maler (“Maler” means “painter” in German), but little is known about his apprenticeship except that he appears to have gone to Vienna sometime around 1500.

Whether through prints or through contact with Venetian artists (several worked in Northern courts), Cranach learned of the great Italian artistic innovations of perspective and foreshortening as well as the erudite humanistic themes so popular in Italy. He also studied the work of Albrecht Durer, his great contemporary and rival from Nuremburg.

He was soon discovered by Duke Friedrich III, Elector of Saxony, known as Frederick the Wise, and joined his court in 1504. He became court artist to the duke and later to his successor John Frederick of Saxony. In his court position he received several diplomatic missions that gave him the opportunity to see the work of Flemish artists such as Hans Memling and Hieronymous Bosch.

Cranach married Barbara Brenghier in 1512 and had two sons who both became painters, Hans and Lucas Cranach the Younger. The latter produced the striking portrait of his father exhibited in the show. Cranach had a very successful career, owning the only pharmacy in his town and serving as mayor on more than one occasion. He died at the age of 81 in 1553.

Cranach is best known as Martin Luther’s favorite painter. He was also best man at Luther’s wedding to Katharina von Bora and his official portrait of the couple is in the exhibition. At the time, one writer claimed that Cranach’s son Hans had produced about a thousand portraits of Luther by 1537. Cranach produced several well-known works for Luther, such as “Christ and the Adulteress,” emphasizing salvation and forgiveness through Christ, and countering the
many representations of Mary Magdalene found in Catholic Italy, which emphasized repentance and turning back to God after having turned away through sin. He is also the author of the famous “antichrist series” of wood cuts, where for every image of Christ, there is a counter image of the antichrist dressed as the Pope.

Cranach also painted “The Law and the Gospel,” inspired by Luther’s sermons in which he taught that “in Christ’s realm no punishment is to be found, but only mercy and forgiveness of sins, whereas in the realm of Moses and the world there is no forgiveness of sins, but only wrath and punishment.”

None of these works are in the show, however, which seems to shy away from the confrontational Cranach and focus on Cranach the businessman. The only work that illustrates Lutheran tenets is a small crucifixion panel where a mounted Longinus, in full German armor, announces, “This really was the Son of God,” written in German, as are the words of Christ «Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The works emphasize the immediacy of the encounter of the soldier and Christ.The exhibition reveals that side by side with his commissions from Luther, Cranach angled for and received commissions from Catholics as well. He has a lovely St. Barbara on display standing next to a depiction of the Eucharist, complete with the crucified Christ painted on the Host. St. Barbara stands in the Italian fashion, partially settled on a grassy plain of this world while her head and shoulders are framed by the golden light of heaven.

This exhibit focuses on how Cranach imported the taste for humanistic themes and nudity to Germany, where he found a ready market among the wealthy bourgeoisie. Images of Hesoid and Ovid’s “Golden Age of Man,” are interspersed with depictions of Lucrezia and a number of nude Venuses.

As depicted by this German artist, the goddess of love — elongated, pale and bedecked with jeweled collars and headdresses — stands in fascinating contrast to portrayals of the goddess by Italian artists of the time.

Scipio Borghese owned a Cranach Venus as well as one by Italian painter Brescianino, both dating from the 1530s. One can imagine the learned guests of the Borghese Villa exploring the meaning of love through the German aesthetic of beauty versus the Italian vision of love and desire.

Indeed, a good number of the works hint at a certain cynicism toward women. His most frequent female expression features narrowed eyes, sidelong glances and a knowing smirk. Whereas Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa,” painted around 1504, is mysterious, Cranach’s women are devious.

With Cranach’s brush, Adam and Eve, Lot and his daughters, and Aristotle rendered ridiculous by his lover illustrate how women debase men. Even Bathsheba seems intent on seducing David from her bath. These scenes are paired with a series of ill-matched couple portraits where a young girl sells herself to an old man or an old woman buys a young man’s attentions. When one is accustomed to the complementarity of men and women in Italian art, these Northern depictions come as a surprise.

Although the dates are the same, the Italian Renaissance love of the human form disappears in the art of Cranach. He has learned clever foreshortening and forays into nudes but, unlike his great contemporaries, Michelangelo, Raphael or even the Venetian Titian, Cranach never seems to revel in the beauty of man made in the image and likeness of God.

His work may not have been a feast for the eyes, but he certainly provides food for thought.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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