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Death of a Grand Master; Divine Love Story

Bidding Farewell to Fra’ Andrew Bertie

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 21, 2008 ( Fra’ Andrew Bertie, grand master of the Order of Malta, died in Rome on Feb. 7 at the age of 79. Dozens of eulogies have lauded Bertie’s many important acts.

For 20 years Bertie led the 12,000 knights and the tens of thousands of volunteers in their apostolate to assist the sick and poor throughout the world.

Fra’ Andrew Bertie was a great man of a great and ancient order, and hundreds of people climbed the Aventine Hill last week to the Priory of Malta to pay their respects and offer their prayers over the coffin of the grand master.

The Aventine Hill is almost always peaceful, dotted with religious houses and lush gardens, but on the day I went, a particularly meditative silence seemed to surround the Priory of Malta.

The priory is known to many tourists for its famous keyhole, through which one can see the dome of St. Peter’s, over a mile away, perfectly framed by deep green hedges. The actual grounds are almost always closed to the public, so visiting the priory chapel was a rare event.

On the other side of the high concrete wall enclosing the headquarters, nature itself seemed to have been arranged to pay homage to Fra’ Andrew.

Stately cypresses line the path to the chapel, and stood tall and dark against the brilliant blue of the Rome sky. Their solemn, erect silhouettes mirrored the honor guard standing silently by the door.

The shadowy pathway opens into a luminous piazza, and the midday light reflected off the white stone. A breathtaking view of the city culminates in the lofty dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. From across the city, St. Peter’s itself seemed to be watching over the Knights in their hour of bereavement.

A spray of palm trees topped with a florid crown of long green leaves faces the small chapel. These ancient symbols of victory over death struck a buoyant note amid the still solemnity.

The sobering nature of death and mortality were countered by the exuberance of the Maltese chapel. The only architectural work by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, engraver extraordinaire of the 18th century, the small, barrel-vaulted room seemed like a festive canopy thrown over the simple wooden coffin lying humbly on the floor draped in the red flag with the white cross of Malta.

Also known as St. Mary of the Aventine, the chapel was rebuilt in 1760s by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rezzonico, grand master of Malta and nephew of Pope Clement XIII. He entrusted the work to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who was accorded the honor of being buried in the church alongside with many of the former grand masters of the Order.

The walls, in a light mossy green, seem to reflect the verdant garden. White pilasters articulate the space, but maintain the same lightness of spirit of the walls. Stucco garlands festoon the clerestory windows as light streams into the chapel.

Over the apse, a dramatic stucco altarpiece represents St. Basil (to whom the chapel is also dedicated) as he rises toward heaven. This wondrous surrounding, joyous with the hope of eternal life, fueled the prayers for the soul of Fra’ Andrew.

Death is no fearful enemy to the Knights of Malta. In the near-millennium of their existence, thousands of Knights and volunteers have fallen under the blows of enemies while protecting pilgrims, been victims to natural disasters while assisting the wounded, and suffered the ravages of illness while tending the sick.

Leaving the chapel, I noticed a grove of orange trees nestled by the wall. Since their introduction in Rome during the Renaissance era, these golden balls flecked against the deep green leaves have been a symbol of paradise.

This idyllic haven, opened to honor a beloved grand master, offered a special perspective on death; respect for a life well-lived, a job well-done and a reward well-deserved.

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Dante With a Modern Twist

On St. Valentine’s Day, I went to see a performance of my favorite love story, “The Divine Comedy.”

This was not a dramatized reading complete with Tuscan accents of Dante’s great poem, but the latest musical effort by Father Marco Frisina, a contemporary composer of sacred music.

Father Frisina, musical director of the Lateran Basilica, has been writing liturgical music for years. He wrote several pieces for Pope John Paul II during the Jubilee 2000 and many of his works have entered into choral repertoires all over Italy.

He describes the show as an opera, although truth-be-told, it plays more like a forcefully sung musical.

For hardcore fans, Dante’s poem, while an epic saga, might not lend itself to operatic retelling. The nuances of his rhythms from strong and strident to quiet murmurs were certainly lost in translation. The story lacked his engaging sympathy with certain sins and his violent repulsion of others that make him an ideal narrator, and therefore Father Frisina’s Dante never quite earned the empathy of the audience.

On the other hand, the set, housed in a special theater built for the event, was spectacular. A giant ring, like that of a merry-go-round, turned in the middle of the stage. Some times it rose high in the air as Dante climbed the mount of purgatory or dropped low as he descended into hell.

Acrobats and dancers writhed as Dante plumbed the depths of the inferno, the complex choreography well-suited to the different sufferings of the damned souls. Father Frisina’s music defined the three stages of Dante’s journey. The screeching electric guitar prevalent in the “Inferno” confirmed my belief that hell is heavy metal.

Some of the pieces were quite successful and resonated with dramatic timber such as Ulysses proudly recounting his last disastrous journey. A delightful quartet mixing sweet soprano with rumbling bass opened the first steps of climb through purgatory.

Dante’s beloved Beatrice was perhaps the most poorly written part in the show. As Beatrice berated Dante in tones only slightly less grating than those of a Roman fishmonger, heaven suddenly seemed less desirable.

Indeed, heaven, compressed with purgatory into the second act, was puzzling. A giant golden griffon marched through the aisle surrounded by some very gifted acrobats as the lights came up and the music swelled.

In the “Paradiso,” as Dante reaches the uppermost levels of heaven, he turns away from his earthly love in search of the beatific vision. In the musical version, the angels, griffons and saints are absorbed in the light, but Dante and Beatrice are still caught up in each other.

But literary quibbles and musical hairsplitting aside, Father Frisina’s “Divine Comedy” has been running for over three months, selling out 2,500 seats every night. The achievement of this composer in being able to draw in thousands of Romans to see a 14th-century poem is worthy of both note and praise.

In an age where cross-dressing comedies are the usual fodder for hit musicals, it is nice to see a mainstay of Christian culture find success while singing the praises of love and redemption.

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The Color of Venice

No spring flowers yet in this chilly Rome winter, but the new exhibition of paintings by Sebastiano del Piombo brought some much-needed warmth of Venetian color to these grey days.

Housed in the Palazzo Venezia, the former home of Pope Paul II Barbo (1464-1471), this collection of paintings aims to shed light on the career and times of one of the Renaissance’s finest colorists, Sebastiano del Piombo.

Sebastiano Luciani was born in Venice in 1485, and was well on his way to a career as a musician when he discovered a love of painting. Although he was trained in oil painting by Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini, the best of Renaissance Venice, Sebastiano would retain the reputation of being a fine musician until the end of his life.

The show opened with several works by the young Venetian, trying his hand at mythological subjects for the first time. His “Adonis and Cerere” from 1506 leave much to be desired in the draughtsmanship and narrative qualities.

Sebastiano’s “St. Louis of Toulouse” and “St. Sinibaldo” from 1508 brilliantly represent the transformation in his art from the tired pantheon of ancient gods luminous portrayal of saints. The rich colors of St. Louis’ robes and the realistic representation of the Sinibaldo’s rosary and pilgrim’s hat, make the figures seem alive in their golden niches.

Sebastiano came to Rome in the retinue of Agostino Chigi, banker to Popes, kings and sultans, as well as the richest man in Christendom. During a trip to Venice, Chigi had recognized the vision and talent in the young painter besides his charming personality and musical gifts.

Chigi put his new Venetian protégé to work side-by-side with Raphael in his suburban villa on the Via della Lungara. The contact with Raphael was mutually beneficial. Raphael was exposed to the brilliant use of color by Venice and Sebastiano learned of the power of Florentine line and draughtsmanship.

The starling array of portraits in the exhibit illustrates Sebastiano’s interest in the developments in portraiture by Raphael. A remarkable representation of Cardinal Ferry- Carondolet arranges a wealth of textures and colors around a penetrating exploration of his visage, while other portraits immortalize, warriors, philosophers and explorers, such as the 1519 Christopher Columbus.

Ironically, several of his portraits, including the stunning Artemesia preparing to drink her husband’s ashes, are believed to represent Vittoria Colonna, poetess and muse of Michelangelo.

Indeed, the enigma of Sebastiano is connected to his relationship with Michelanglo and Raphael. While both Sebastiano and Raphael had much to learn from each other, it seems clear that the young Venetian put himself under the powerful wing of Michelangelo early on.

Several drawings in the exhibit show Michelangelo’s willing assistance in helping Sebastiano plan out his compositions, especially the famous “Flagellation of Christ” from the Church of St. Peter in Montorio on the Janiculum Hill.

These works turned Sebastiano into a tremendously successful artist. Eventually he was given the title of “keeper of the papal seal,” hence his nickname del Piombo (of the seal).

Sebastiano numbered among the very few artists to stay in Rome and navigate the sack of the city in 1527. Some 28,000 people died, but Sebastiano remained. The result was a shift in his artistic style.

His later works corresponding to the era of the Counter-Reformation emphasize elements of Christ’s Passion, uniting the suffering of Christ with the state of Christendom in the 16th century. His stunning Christ carrying the cross shows Jesus seemingly penetrating from the pictorial space into ours, while the deep blues and lamenting cupids of his Pietà would become standard for most great 17th-century art.

Albeit the show is poorly arranged with florescent green, blue and red lights which cause a deadly headache, the Sebastiano show effectively narrates the story of a man, his art and his times.

* * *

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

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