Friday, 12 June 2009

Caldarola's cardinals

La Stanza del Paradiso (the Paradise Room) is aptly named – it’s an exquisite jewel of ornate, animated frescoes that supplant reality with an atmosphere of rich colour and fabled history. Giovanni Evangelista Pallotta used to meditate here in the palazzo he built in the 1500s. Such surrounds cannot have been anything less than inspirational, and it must have been hard to drag himself away.

But drag himself away he did, to the prelate courts of Rome, where he became a cardinal in 1587 under Pope Sixtus V. And thus started a family legacy, with first his nephew and then two subsequent descendants reaching the rank of cardinal over a period lasting until 1834. Between them, the Pallotta cardinals participated in the election of 12 popes, held sway over prominent symbols of the Catholic faith including St. Peter’s and Loreto, and rubbed shoulders with royalty, intellectuals, and the artistic talents of their day. Today their legacy prevails through the grand edifices that dominate Caldarola – il Castello Pallotta (Pallotta Castle) and il Palazzo dei Cardinali Pallotta (Palace of the Pallotta Cardinals).

It’s in the latter that one of Le Marche’s most prominent 2009 art exhibitions is being held – Le Stanze del Cardinale (The Rooms of the Cardinal), a study in Baroque magnificence featuringCaravaggio, Guido Reni, Guercino, and Mattia Preti. The collection was the property of the second Pallotta prelate, Giovanni Battista Maria (nephew of Giovanni Evangelista), who was appointed cardinal in 1631 under Pope Urban VIII.

Having studied the arts and humanities in Perugia, Giovanni Battista entered the Pontifical Roman Seminary where he studied philosophy and law. As Pope Urban VIII’s representative, he travelled to Portugal and Austria, and was made legate of the newly-acquired papal state of Ferrara in 1631. Being in such an elevated position in the church afforded him the opportunity of
commissioning and acquiring an impressive collection from the leading artists of the time, which he proudly displayed to luminaries who stopped over in Caldarola on their pilgrimages between Rome and Loreto. Among them were Queen Christina of Sweden and Prince Casimir of Poland.

However, his pastime had its costs, particularly in a 17th-century Italy that was experiencing severe economic struggles and general decline – when he died in 1668, the paintings had to be sold to settle his debts. As a result of the dispersion of his collection, the exhibition was compiled by studying the cardinal’s inventories, tracking down each painting, and securing loans from a variety of public institutions and private collections, including the Rome’s Borghese Gallery, the National Gallery of Ancient Art, and the Doria Pamphilj Gallery; Florence’s Palazzo Pitti; the National Art Gallery of Bologna; the National Gallery of Capodimonte in Naples; and Genoa’s Palazzo Rosso. Where the original work could not be traced, another by the same artist of a similar subject has replaced it.

Amongst the more than 60 works on display is Guercino’s (so named because he was crosseyed) grand Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple – which was restored specially for this exhibit, along with several other works; several paintings inspired by Jerusalem Delivered, Torquato Tasso’s 16th century epic – Giovanni Evangelista was his official “protector”; and several that reveal Giovanni Battista’s appreciation of the female form – it seems that 17th century Italy did not frown on prelates admiring feminine nudity.

This is truly one of the pre-eminent events on the Italian art calendar, and should not be missed. Not only can you appreciate some of the finest Baroque art around, you can travel through Giovanni Evangelista’s paradise as you do so …

Le Stanze del Cardinale

Palazzo dei Cardinali Pallotta, Caldarola

May 23 – Nov 12, 2009

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Stepping back into the middle ages

Even in shorts and a T-shirt, I was still sweltering, regularly looking for a break from the sun under one of the piazza's arched arcades. So how it was for the procession participants in their heavy medieval costumes, I can't imagine. To their credit, none of them showed any discomfort, and indeed few of them appeared to be perspiring.

Last weekend Camerino opened the medieval pageant season in our neck of the woods with their Corsa alla Spada e Palio, a 10-day journey back to the days of pomp and ceremony when the powerful Da Varano family ruled their papal dukedom for over 200 years. The festival dates back to the early 13th century, when it was decided to introduce pageantry and friendly but prestigious community competition into the normally solemn remembrance of the town’s patron saint, Venanzio.

The medieval festival was resurrected in 1982, keeping the centuries-old traditions largely intact. At the heart of the festivities is a sumptuous procession involving the three divisions (terzieri) of the town – Muralto, Sossanta, and Mezzo – dressed in full medieval regalia, who on May 17 converge from their various quarters on to the San Venanzio basilica for an evocative candle ceremony. The saint was persecuted for his faith and subjected to a succession of tortures, including whipping, being hanged from his feet, having his jaw broken, and being thrown to the lions. According to historical legend, he miraculously emerged from each of them unharmed, giving his faith credence and prompting the conversion of many pagans to Christianity. He was finally martyred during the reign of Emperor Decio, when in May 251 AD he was beheaded with 10 other Christians, and buried outside the town walls.

During the 10 days of festivities, the town’s three divisions take part in a series of competitions, with the main event being the Corsa alla Spada (a foot race for the esteemed sword). There is also archery, flag waving, drumming, and a variety of other musical and entertainment events.

Food naturally also plays a major role, and a number of taverne are set up by each of the terzieri, serving medieval fare in an authentic atmosphere with hosts dressed in period costume.

Here's a selection of photos from the day's culminating procession, along with the Corsa itself. (Click on the pictures to launch full-size versions of them.)