Finding what you are Looking for: Grand Tour Rome Finale, Part 5 of 5

Ionic Columns at the Villa Adriana, : Image Denise Meagher

Thursday, I awake early and refreshed, and I decide to head out for a nice coffee (the hotel’s coffee was not that good, sadly) before we gather to depart to Hadrian’s Villa. Standing in the café sipping my coffee, enjoying observing the Italians chatting at the bar on route to work, U2 came on their sound system: ‘I still haven’t Found what I’m looking for’.I could not help but smile, thinking of the “grand tourists” of the 18th century and their search for antiquarian gems to take back to their countries of origin. I wondered did they always find what they were looking for, either in terms of art objects or from a social or intellectual perspective.

Tivoli, situated outside the city will be the farthest we have travelled from Rome during our stay in the city.  I discussed the Emperor Hadrian in my earlier blog that dealt with the Pantheon. In AD 118 Hadrian returned to Rome from the province of Syria . The plan he devised for his villa would cover over 120 hectares. In the Treasures of Italy and Unesco handbook I purchase in the shop on the day we visited a wonderful description of Hadrian is given : ‘a man who was an arts lover: poetry, philosophy, music, geometry and architecture  being among his favourites and it seems likely that many of the more innovative architectural /engineering solutions adopted in the Villa were due to his interest .Be that as it may his passion for sculpture and painting must be considered key to the very rich ornamentation – both sculptural and pictorial – which originally adorned the imperial estate.  (pp 9-10)

One famous feature at the villa is captured by Giovanni Battista Piranesi – The Canopus , which is a remnant of the Canopus Temple.

 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Canopus at Villa Adriana in Tivoli ca. 1769 New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

Hadrain was passionate about Greek and Egyptian culture. Just beyond the Piazza called d’Oro at the Villa is the Canopus. This long pool, measuring 119 by 18 meters, was built to remind Hadrian of the Canal built between the Nile and Alexandria, one of his favourite cities. The pool was colonnaded and each column was structurally linked to the next. Hadrain may well have read Vitruvius’s work. And centuries later this design at Hadrian’s villa would continue to intrigue other important figures in the history of art we have met on this journey. The handbook advises that ‘In the early 15th century , the fervour of the rediscovery of the ancient world which spread among scholars led to it being recognised as the Imperial Villa of Hadrian, instantly generating extraordinary interest on the part of the major artists and architects whose names constitute the empyrean of these arts: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Bramante, Piranesi as well as, in more modern times Le Corbusier ..’ (pp 13, my emphasis). I think the word ‘empyrean’ here, really says it all. Pirro Ligorio (1512 – 1583) is another who studied at Hadrian’s villa and I will discuss him shortly in relation to Villa d’ Este. He was summoned to Tivoli by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, the son of the Duke Alfonso I and Lucrezia Borgia, who was daughter of Pope Allessandro V1 , to design the Villa d’Este, a job he did brilliantly.

At the end of the Canopus is a large nymphaeum in the form of an exedrae (a room, portico, or arcade with a bench or seats where people may converse, especially in ancient Roman and Greek buildings) which is captured by Piranesi,  called the Serapeum and this, it is believed, would have been used as a dining area. Hadrian’s Villa was known for the great parties thrown at the Canopus. Again, one has to try and just go back in time and imagine partaking at one of these splendid banquets.

 Caryatids at Villa Adriana in Tivoli ,Image: Denise Meagher

There are six remaining copies of the Caryatids standing on the Southwest side of the Canopus.

One of the more impressive sights at the Villa is pictured above: the rows of Caryatid statues which recall those at the Acropolis that line the southwest side of the Canopus. A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column supporting an entablature on her head. They reminded me of the Nymphaea pictured at Villa Giulia in my previous blog. In the Greek context they were connected to the Goddess Artemis who was the Goddess of the hunt , the wilderness, wild animals , childbirth, care of children and even chastity (which is something Hadrian did not seem to value very highly if sources are correct). But seeing as his county villa was over a vast area of land in the countryside one can see why the Goddess would suit such an area. In the Roman context the Goddess Diana is the equivalent.

I am sure many who visit Rome may not take the trip out to see the ruins that remain at Villa Aadriana but I assure you, it is worth it.  And mind the scorpions!

We visited a number of Villas during our eight-day trip but the most beautiful , in my opinion, has to be the Villa d’Este, our next stop. This gem is also in Tivoli,  a 16th-century villa famous for its  hillside Italian Renaissance Garden and for the stunning fountains that feature, not just outside but also inside the building.

    Indoor Fountain at Villa d’Este: Image: Denise Meagher


The history, as with most of these buildings that go back to the Renaissance or earlier, is complex so I will summarise here a few points. The Villa was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este (1509-1572), who I mentioned above, second son of Alfonso and grandson of Pope Alexander VI – through his mother Lucrezia Borgia. Allow me to digress momentarily but the Irish film director Niall Jordan  created a brilliant historical drama The Borgias in 2011 which I happened to watch. The series follows the Borgia family in their reputed scandalous ascension to the papacy. It depicted the Borgia family as merciless in their pursuit of power, and capable of resorting to anything to achieve their ends.

Jeremy Irons, Holliday Grainger and Francois Arnauld In ‘The Borgias’ ( promotional image)

Holliday Grainger was brilliantly cast as Lucrezia. Jeremy Irons plays Pope Alexander VI  and Francois Arnauld as Cesare . It even featured Cardinal della Rovere who later became Julius II, played by Colm Feore. The series did not reach conclusion due to some dispute with Jordan over the costs of production, which is a great shame, as it really was riveting.

But back to ‘real’ history now.  The d’Este family were famous as patrons of the arts and of humanist scholars of the Renaissance. Ippolito was destined for a career in the church and after some years abroad in France at the age of thirty Pope Paul III made him a cardinal.  He was very rich and while his ambitions to become Pope were never realised (his first candidacy for the papal position, in 1549, with the support of the French King, his distant relative and friend, was blocked by the Habsburg Emperor) d’Este using his political savvy  withdrew his candidacy and endorsed the Habsburg candidate. He was rewarded by the College of Cardinals 1549, with the lifetime position as Governor of Tivoli.

Fountains in the Gardens of Villa D’este: Image Denise Meagher

A passionate collector of antiquities and lover of the arts as mentioned it gave him jurisdiction over the site of Hadrian’s villa and other sites just being excavated. d’Este commissioned a prominent classical scholar, Pirro Ligorio (1512-1583), who had studied, like some of the greats before him, at the Villa Adriana to plan a new villa and garden which would exceed anything the Romans had built.  Fountains would be a main feature.  

                  Fountain of Diana of Ephesus and Information Board: Images Denise Meagher

He obtained marble and statuary from the ruins of Hadrian’s villa for the project and the team of people employed to design the estate followed the aesthetic principles of the Renaissance, the garden being carefully divided into regular units.

Example of Fresco at Villa D’Este: Image Denise Meagher


It is hard to explain the feeling one gets walking through the rooms of this building  – the frescos on the walls and ceiling are so beautiful and the views from the windows overlooking the garden make you wish you were born in a different era and lived in a place like this.

Example of Window Overlooking the Gardens of Villa D’Este: Image Denise Meagher


The images I am selecting I hope can convey something of the magnificence of this place.  Reluctantly we return to the nearby town to catch the return train into Rome. This is our last evening and we plan to eat together at a local restaurant . Tomorrow Friday we have a few more wonderful sites to see starting with the Villa Borghese.

‘The Villa Borghese consisted in part of formal gardens ‘ write Georgina Masson  ‘ largely composed of hedged plots of trees , divided by walks and ornamented with herms and fountains laid out around the casino and other buildings. But, as in Hadrian’s villa, there was no overall symmetrical plan : this is in direct contrast to the smaller Renaissance gardens which preceded it and the great parks Le Notre was later to design for Louis X1V’ (pp 289)

The Baroque style was emerging and the Renaissance style we saw at Villa d’ Este was being replaced .

The focus on our visit is on the museum collection of works by great masters. I am very excited to see the sculptures  by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680)  whose work I discussed outside the Church of St. Agnes – The Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) Image: Denise Meagher

This seems an average work when you see his work at the museum.  Katherine Eustace in  Sculpture Journal ( vol. 20, n. 2, 2011, p. 109) writes that “What Shakespeare is to drama , Bernini may be to sculpture :  the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful …”        He was multi-talented, could write, and direct and act in plays; create set designs; paint; understood architecture, just incredibly brilliant.  Really nothing can prepare you for   The Rape of Prosperine 1622 or his Apollo and Daphne (1618-1619)

 Gian Lorenzo Bernini,The Rape of Proserpine (1622) Image: Denise Meagher


My photographs do not do justice and really this is certainly a good example of where it is totally necessary to simply walk around these majestical pieces slowly and take in the sheer genius that created them. I will not go into the mythology behind them but I hope my blog might encourage you to do so for yourself.

                                Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1618-19)  Image: Denise Meagher.

The facial expressions are so real, the bodies so lifelike, even that of the daughter of a God, the river nymph Daphne,  in the process of being turned into a tree. They remain among the art works that left me totally breathless. 

We were privileged to see some more wonderful works by Caravaggio – his Boy with a Basket of Fruit was one I  wanted to see .  Still the work by him that made the most impression on me was probably the one we saw in the Church of San Luigi  dei Francesi (1599-1600) pictured in the second blog in this series.

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit 1593 Image: DeniseMeagher

And of course  Titian’s masterpiece  Sacred and Profane Love is well known. Titian (1488-90-1576) whose work we saw at the Doge’s palace in Venice also, was considered the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice, and had a following outside Italy, unusual to the time. During his long career, he experimented with many different styles of painting, which ’embody’ the development of art during his epoch. Embody is a great word. However, it was through contact with Giorgione, (1477-1510) who was considered the genius of the High Renaissance in Venice and who died so young, that he developed his unique style. . The ‘Giorgionesque’ appearance of Titian’s early work, the pastoral scenes and atmosphere, is considered proof of their closeness. In 1508-9 they worked together on the decoration of the external walls of the ‘Fondaco dei Tedeschi’ in Venice.

Titian, Sacred and Profane Love,  1514 Image: Galleria Borghese

On route to our final stop, the Accademia di San Luca we stop to study the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is one of Rome’s greatest attractions, standing twenty-six meters tall, and forty-nine meters wide, it is famous for its intricate artwork decorated in the Baroque style.  The Baroque-style fountain depicts Oceanus, the God of water surrounded by the statues of Abundance, Salubrity, Tritons (a merman, son of Poseidon, God of my birth sign) and hippocamps , which are sea horses.

Built in 1762, Trevi Fountain has required renovation over the years, most recently in 2015.  Prior to the current reconstruction of the Trevi Fountain, another fountain dating back to Roman times existed in its place. In 1629 Pope Urban VIII concluded the fountain was insufficient so he commissioned that genius we looked at – the Italian architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to sketch some renovation ideas. However, following the Pope’s death in 1744, the plans were never bought to life, though experts can see some of Bernini’s influence and work on the fountain today. 

Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) and Giuseppe Panini (1691-1765),Trevi Fountain, Image : Denise Meagher

In 1730 work began on the fountain after Italian architect Nicola Salvi (1697-1751) won the re-design contest held by Pope Clement XII. Using local Travertine stone, the same material used in the construction of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain slowly began to take its current shape, with intricate detail carved into every section and sculpture. Unfortunately, Salvi did not live to see the finished piece either, but with the help of four sculptors and architect, Giuseppe Panini (the son of the other Panini I have mentioned a few times in these blog posts) Trevi Fountain was completed 30 years later in 1762. It is customary to throw coins in– however I did not get around to that.

The National Academy of San Luca is, as one might expect,  an academy geared towards the promotion of the arts and architecture. To quote its statute its role is to : ‘honor the merits of artists and scholars by electing them into the academic body, to work for the valorisation and promotion of Italian art and architecture.” [Article 1 of the 2005 Statute]. It was founded in 1593 and uses the image of the evangelist Luca, painter and patron saint of artists as its symbol since the 1600s.  It is here that I can reintroduce another wonderful artist as I come to concluding this series , one who played an important role at the Academy and who I mentioned in the first blog in the series: the Venetian Antonio Canova (1757-1822)

An Italian Neoclassical sculptor he was famous for his work in marble . Often regarded as the greatest of the Neoclassical artists, his sculpture was inspired by the  Baroque and the classical revival and has been characterised as having avoided ‘the melodramatics of the former’, and ‘the cold artificiality of the latter’.  A little harsh, perhaps, to both styles. Canova’s family worked as stonecutters. In 1761, his father died and in 1762, he was put into the care of his paternal grandfather Pasino Canova, who was a stonemason, owner of a quarry and was a sculptor who specialized in altars with statues and low reliefs in late Baroque style. He led his grandson into the art of sculpting. Before the age of ten, Canova began making models in clay, and carving marble. Indeed, at the age of only nine, he executed two small shrines of carrara marble, which still exist.  Like many in his trade with such skill he moved from Venice to Rome and spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo.

Antony Canova The Three Graces : Hermitage Museum, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons      


The Three Graces pictured above is one of his most celebrated Neoclassical pieces in marble, and a favorite of mine, depicting the mythological three Charities, daughters of Zeus   – identified on some engravings of the statue as, from left to right, Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia   – who were said to represent mirth (Euphrosyne), elegance (Aglaea) , and youth/beauty (Thalia). The Graces presided over banquets and gatherings, to delight the guests of the gods. The original sculpture is in the Hermitage Museum, and another is owned jointly and exhibited in turn by the V&A and the Scottish National Gallery . 

At the Academy we see an interpretation of this theme by the Danish sculpture Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).


   Bertel Thorvaldsen, Le Grazie 1842 .Image: Prof. Lynda Mulvin


The Three Graces have served as subjects for many historical artists like Thorvaldsen (pictured above , but from the back) and other big names such as Sandro Botticelli, (1445-1510) the artist reared by the famous Medici family in Florence . And just as a link is made in this powerful work , that has inspired so many others, between the three graces of youth, beauty and elegance, the Academy takes three items – a paintbrush, a ruler and a compass , as its triangular emblem , in order to express the equal dignity and unity of the three arts: painting, sculpture and architecture, under the aegis of drawing.

It is not an easy site to gain access to ( we were all very grateful to Professor Lynda Mulvin and Associate Professor Philip Cottrell for their help here) but it is one of those places you visit where you cannot help imagining the people who have walked these staircases in previous generations. The walls depict the portraits of many of the Academy ‘s glittering alumni and patrons.  

Scuola di Guido  Reni  The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne  The Stairs at Accademia di San Luca. Image: Denise Meagher

It is also notable that several women were welcomed into the academy, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun , Angelica Kauffman and  Rosalba Carriera to mention just a few I had the privilege to study in more detail this year.

Nearing to a conclusion I raise a few thoughts about this period and how it relates to today. Edmund Burke, the Irish Statesman and Philosopher was considering questions about aesthetics, the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste in the mid 1700s. In his famous work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, which was published 1757, he argued that the beautiful is formed proportionately and is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The sublime, on the other hand, he believed had the power to overpower and maybe even destroy us. Interesting this appears to me, at some level, as a debate about the past (beautiful = Classical?) and the present (sublime= Romantic/Modern). Earlier in 1753 the English artist William Hogarth was considering similar themes and he wrote a book called The Analysis of Beauty which set out to describe his theory of aesthetics in a way that a wider audience might be able to understand. Hogarth was interested in how the body is depicted in artistic form and he developed a theory of the ‘serpentine line’ as a guide to doing this. Hogarth was a keen observer (like Pietro Longhi (1702-1785) who I mentioned in the first blog in this series), and Hogarth also wanted to depict the world around him, in his art, as he saw it. This would demand presenting dress and new fashions of the day in a realistic way , while still holding fast to the values aesthetically of the ancient classical world. It is in this way that his achievements artistically reminded me, somewhat, of those by Veronese (1528-1588) who irritated the academic hierarchy in art of his day with his ‘free depictions of costume’, mentioned in the first blog in the series. They both built on the learning of the past but improvised to represent the present. The critic Ernst Gombrich in his famous work The Story of Art (1995 ed) described The Analysis of Beauty as Hogarth’s ‘grim campaign against fashionable taste’ (pp 519)

William Hogarth The Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1 ( Book engraving by Author) 1753 , New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection

You can see in the plate above how Hogarth was working out some of these ideas through his sketches and drawing and these include sketches of fashion accessories used in the 18th century. You will recognise famous art works I discussed in these blogs – the Laocoön, Apollo Belvedere, Venus and even Hadrian’s lover Antonius are all here. But we also see Hogarth thinking about how the dress and fashions that were popular in his time could be sincerely represented in art.

It might seem an odd way to end this series but I suppose what I want to say about these debates about beauty, as they came to a head when the Neoclassical era was coming to an end, and the Romantic period was emerging, is that they are not as anachronistic as they might initially appear to us today. In a world defined by information technology, excess waste, fears of climate change or even worse still nuclear war, thinking about art, what is beautiful or sublime or any other words that capture our study and thinking about it, may seem impractical, irrelevant or worse of all: indulgent. To state the obvious , I do not agree. We can still learn much, in many disciplines, from studying works from the ancient world, interpreted as they have been, again and again, by those of later centuries and on going, to this day.  

I learnt a huge amount on this field trip, and it brought to life for me an artistic history that continues to captivate, fascinate and most importantly teach us about deep observation, dedication, incredible craftsmanship and the power of ‘the beautiful’ to transform us.

And so an unforgettable eight days drew to a close and we retraced our steps back to the hotel, and from there to the airport. I am at a loss to say what memory stands out most vividly, but some I might mention are standing in the Longhi Room at Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, the museum where I gave my presentation; or staring up at the columns under the Temple of Antonius and Faustina at the Roman Forum; or looking at similar architectural astonishments at Hadrian’s Villa. Maybe looking at one of Raphael’s masterpieces. The room with fountains at Villa d’Este where I  felt the summer breezes blow in through the windows, overlooking the most beautiful garden I think I have ever seen, all come to mind…. Or maybe standing under Bernini’s sculpture Apollo and Daphne and feeling close to tears.  These memories and too many more to mention stand out.

A trip of a lifetime and I did find what I was looking for.


Acknowledgment: I wish to thank Professor Lynda Mulvin and Associate Professor Philip Cottrell from the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD who accompanied us and facilitated so much both before and during the trip. And to my wonderful fellow art historical students, from whom I learnt so much: Abe, Alice, Daniel, Ellen, Elissa, Helen, Isobel, Joelle, Kathleen, Marta, Michaela, Natalia , Nina, Ros, and Prolet , I thank you.

Finding what you are Looking for: Ostia, Palazzo Barberini & More .  Part 4 of 5

Ancient Mosaic in Baths , Ostia Antica . Image: Denise Meagher

I tossed and turned Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning but was none the less excited about our proposed site visits for Wednesday. Our day begins with a trip to Ostia Antica, a large archaeological site close to the modern town of Ostia , about 25 kilometres southwest of Rome. We had booked our train tickets for this  journey prior to leaving Ireland.

 “Ostia”  is a derivation of “os“, the Latin word for “mouth” – so in this context, the mouth of the River Tiber. As this then suggests Ostia was Ancient Rome ‘s seaport, but due to silting the site now lies three kilometres from the sea. The site is remarkable for its magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics. Some were used as a type of ‘shop front’, where ships could dock to offload products and these mosaics would identify the correct stopping point . You can see an example of this from my image below and another example – of the bath mosaics we saw, in the opening image.

‘Docking Shop Front’: Image: Denise Meagher

To refer again to an authority on Rome and its hinterlands, Amanda Claridge has several references to the importance of Ostia in her book and one relates to the housing and shop fronts. She writes that ‘Domus was the traditional town house of old Rome , occupied by a single wealthy family with their retinue of servants , containing an atrium in which the master of the household would receive clients and friends , generally at least one peristyle garden , and other courts. Insula can be broadly interpreted as a multi-storey apartment block accommodating several families or single individuals , the natural response to enormous influxes in population in the C2 BC.  Both might be built by speculators and rented out for profit and ground floor street frontage was frequently given over to shops or small workshops. Only fragments of either can be seen in the city but Ostia has many different examples, several preserved to the third floor’. (pp 58)

Ancient Kitchen Ostia town house: Image: Denise Meagher

As my readers will know I love to make breads so I was interested to look at this preserved kitchen we see in one of the town houses (above). This structure in the photograph is a thermopolium  – a hot food stall. It  interested me to note the ancient Romans used imagery relating to cooking in their kitchens as you can see from the piece hanging over the food stall.

However I discovered in our 17th Century Dutch module which we studied last term that in the Netherlands, in the 17th century at least, it was rare that one found art, connected to food, in the kitchen of Dutch homes from this period. This was most likely because rooms had a multi-functional role.

Rembrandt’s Kitchen . (Image Wikimedia)

In June I managed to go to Amsterdam for two days to see some museums and I will write about this in a later short blog, not in this series. I visited the former home of the famous artist Rembrandt (1606-1669) and the house where Anna Frank and her family lived (where they tried to hide to protect themselves from the Gestapo). In the image above , from the Rembrandt House Museum, you can see that there are no works of art that relate to food or cooking in the kitchen. There is a bed in the kitchen similar to the one made famous by his work of Saskia in bed, in the Salon of the house.

Returning to Italy and jumping to the 18th century – various ‘agents’ had licences from The Vatican to excavate sites such as this one in Ostia in search of ancient statues or other artifacts which were big in demand in Europe and could be sold by the agents to the young people travelling on their educational grand tours who wanted to bring items of antiquity back home on their return.  

Despite all the looting of antiquities, though obviously this was not how those procuring or buying of them interpreted their endeavours at the time, some sights in Ostia still have statues like at the Temple of Mitra . We were very  fortunate to gain access the Temple as usually this is not allowed. I won’t go into the details as to how this came about,  but suffice to say that sometimes ground maintenance and strimming can have very fortuitous reverberations for the art historical student!

‘Mithraeum of the Terme del Mitra’ Image: Denise Meagher

This is the Mithraeum di terme del Mitra which means it is the Mithraeum associated with ancient baths. It is an underground site with the skylight above the sculpture which you can see in my photograph. A central lane and benches on either side is the standard layout where the worshipers  of the Mithras could sit and /or eat a ceremonial meal.

 So, what is Mithraism I hear you ask?. It is of course the worship of Mithras, a religion that existed around the same time as Christianity and they both have quite a lot in common.  Mithraism, like Christianity, was an Eastern religion, probably originating in mid First Century AD.  Mithras had a miraculous birth. The God sprung to life from solid rock on the 25th of December.

In my photograph above and on the information board pictured below, you can see Mithras killing a bull – something that was common in Persian mythology and obviously represents some type of sacrificial ritual though this is much debated and as I am no expert on the subject, I would prefer to let those interested read more for themselves. The original of the statue is preserved in a museum for the same reasons Marcus Aurelius’ statue was taken from its original site for preservation purposes.


  Information Board: Image: Denise Meagher


Unlike Christianity however,  Mithraism was practiced by men, exclusively.  But then again most religious rituals would feature men in the main role which might say little about the reality of women and others equally involved on the periphery.

Below we see the theatre at Ostia , used for concerts, theatre and sometimes political use.

Theatre at Ostia Antica  . Image:  Denise Meagher


Coincidentally , on June 17th , I was at O’Connell House in Dublin for the  Madden- Rooney public Lecture in memory of the late Seamus Deane, delivered by Professor David Lloyd and the launch of Deane’s book Small World: Ireland  1798-2018 . Before this a former Professor of mine from NUIM Christopher Morash gave a lecture entitled ‘The Paradox of National Theatre’ and in his talk he made reference to an amphitheatre that reminded me immediately of the one pictured above we saw in Ostia – but this one was constructed in a place one might not expect: on Achill island.  The architect Noel Moffett (1912-1994) designed this outdoor theatre for a man called  Major Dermot Johnston Freyer (1883-1970) in 1941. Freyer had a house in Achill and was an Irish language and music enthusiast. Moffett was educated in Cork and Dublin and completed his BA Arch degree in the University of Liverpool . He returned to Ireland during the First world war and the two met through mutual artistic connections. Hence he got the contract.

Made from all natural materials from the bog and mountain area in Achill, it truly made for an amazing sight as you can see in this image below – modern landscape architecture at its best.

Noel Moffett Architect Open Air Theatre, Achill, Co. Mayo 1941 Image Irish Architectural Archive

Of course Moffett’s brilliant idea drew inspiration from similar Greek and Roman style amphitheatres like the one we sat in , at Ostia (pictured again, below) which too was styled on a Greek model . Though Ostia was built at a sea port rather than in a mountain, it struck me both theatres were deeply connected to the seascapes of their respective countries and were most probably conceived of, in these locations, to send a message to the broader world. In the Roman context, perhaps, as a symbol of its emerging Imperial ambitions in trade and politics (though they would have been a more common theatre design in Italy, obviously) and in the Irish case of the importance of our own ancient language and history, not to mention our recently acquired Independence.

Sitting in the Theatre listening to a colleague’s presentation: Image:  Dr. Philip Cottrell

Chris Morash quotes Seamus Deane in an essay from the book Chris edited with Nicholas Grene, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Theatre ( 2016). In a chapter called “Places of Performance” he writes, ‘If, as Seamus Deane writes, ‘soil is what land becomes when it is ideologically constructed as a natal source’ this was a theatre of the soil’. Although owing more than a little debt to a classical Greek amphitheatre in its shape and later described as ‘one of the most eccentric architectural schemes ever undertaken in Ireland’ Moffett’s Achill theatre can still claim to be the purest attempt to produce an indigenous Irish place of performance in the first half of the twentieth century. It was however predictable doomed by West of Irish weather and demographics (the nearest town Keel, even today, has a population that would barely fill the seats); there are no records of performances in the space, and Moffett’s visionary performance space is now an indistinguishable hollow in the surrounding  heather completely reabsorbed by the materials from which it was built’ . (pp  434,  my emphasis).

Once again ,I am fascinated by the connections across time and space noted here – much to think on as we take the return train back into the city.

Trees that reach Ostia: Image: Denise Meagher.

In the early 20th century, under Mussolini, massive excavations were undertaken from 1939 to 1942 but these were interrupted when Italy became a major battlefield of  World War II. The trees they planted, (see image above) the umbrella pine trees,   form a type of corridor and come all the way out from the city to Ostia.

Our next stop, after a refreshing cappuccino is the Villa Giuila.  We visited many villas on the trip and I have yet to write about my favourite one – Villa d’Este, which I will in my final blog in the series.

Example of wall Fresco over door: Villa Giulia. Image: Denise Meagher

The Villa Giulia was built by that amazingly supportive patron of the arts I discussed in earlier blogs – Pope Julius II in 1551– 1553 on what was then, the edge of the city .

Nymphaeum at Villa Giulia: Image Denise Meagher

I am particularly struck by the nymphaeum and other garden structures. A nymphaeum in ancient Greece and Rome was a monument consecrated to the nymphs especially those of Springs. The nymphaea of the Roman period was not used in a sacral way but had only a purely recreational purpose.  The inspiration for them was borrowed from similar Hellenistic constructions and the majority of them were rotundas like this one , adorned with statues, paintings or mosaics. Note also the mosaics are quite similar to those we saw, in the baths, in Ostia.  

They  also had the practical use of being a relatively cool place to siesta on a  stifling summers day, something that Renaissance architects and in this case the patron Pope Julius 11 would have appreciated.

This villa was designed under the supervision of the Pope but also Giorgio Vasari, another name I mentioned before and it is understood Michelangelo worked here. Villa Giulia is considered a fine example of  Mannerist architecture.

Today  Villa Gulia  is publicly owned and houses a collection of  beautiful Etruscan art and artifacts .

Etruscan Vases at Villa Giulia: Image: Denise Meagher

The Etruscan’s territory (sometimes known as Etruria) , centred on the area  bounded on the north by the Arno River, on the south by the Tiber and on  the west by the Appennine mountain chain.  Their  urban civilization reached its height in the 6th century BC, i.e. before the rise of  the Romans. Many features of Etruscan culture were adopted by the Romans, their successors to power in the peninsula.

We move on to another famous landmark in Rome: The Spanish Steps.

The Spanish steps  (pictured below) were designed by Francesco De Sanctis (1679 – 1731) a late Baroque Italian architect, with  Architect and Engraver, Alessandro Specchi (1668 – 1729).  Some suggest they were intended to represent, figuratively and metaphorically, the close relationship between the Sacred and the Eternal city, shown through the elevation and vastness of the monument. I do not know the veracity of this. The longest and widest steps in Europe are also an important landmark in Rome as they host events and are home to Italian traditions.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta di Piazza di Spagna , from Veduti di Roma ,1750 Yale University Art Gallery

Piranesi , an example of whose work we saw in my last blog, was captivated by the antiquity of Rome from a very young age  – the temples, palaces, bridges, and other ancient monuments. The lavish spending  of the grand tourists of the 18th  Century stimulated the economy and offered opportunities for Piranesi.  He started his career in Rome with the traditional local trade of vedutismo. He incorporated the painterly techniques he had used to portray the Venetian landscape where he grew up with an approach he developed combining the anatomically correct view of a monument with the dramatic impact and emotional experience of the view the spectator might experience .We will see this again in the final blog when I discuss Hadrian’s Villa. Piranesi purposely misrepresented scale and proportion in order to replicate the intense emotional experience of what it would be like to view a place ,like the Spanish steps, in person. 


The Spanish Steps: Image : Denise Meagher

My humble photograph shows the lovely flowers that were in bloom when we were there in late April. We climb those steps now on route to our final stop of this day.

The Palazzo  Barberini, pictured below – an impressive sight to walk towards . A fine example of Baroque architecture , I loved the highly decorative and almost theatrical gates at the entrance, suggestive of what we will see inside the gates.

Palazzo Barberini  Entrance. Image: Denise Meagher


I am excited to see the famous ceiling by Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power from 1639  that enhances the main ballroom of the building.  

Pietro da Cortona Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Powerfresco ceiling, Palazzo Barberini  Image : Wikimedia Commons

I am also eager to see some of the wonderful artwork the museum boasts such as paintings by Pompeo Batoni, Francesco Guardi , Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) among many others. As the baroque style would suggest the Palazzo Barberini  dates back to the 17th-century and faces the Piazza Barberini and today  it houses  the main national collection of older paintings in Rome. The main block of the palazzo presents three tiers of great arch-headed windows, like glazed arcades, a formula that was apparently more Venetian than Roman.  

Palazzo Barberini Facade (detail). Image: Denise Meagher

You can see more famous works by Caravaggio and Raphael , all names that have featured many times now in this blog series. Raphael’s La Fornarina is particularly beautiful, and many believe the woman portrayed was the one he deeply loved, though he was engaged to a Cardinal’s niece at the time.

 Rafael Sanzio de Urbino,  La Fornarina , 1518/1519.

It is also suggested that the positioning of the hands of La Fornarina are similar to those of the Capitoline Venus, a 2nd century AD statue which, as the name suggests, is at the Capitoline  Museum. This Roman statuette is inspired by the famous Greek statue from 350 BC, carved by Praxiteles whose work created a cult  in honor of this beautiful female nude , the Goddess Aphrodite, the Goddess of love. In the Hellenistic and Roman period many copies were made and the Romans renamed their version of the  Greek Goddess,  ‘Venus Genetrix’.

Capitoline Venus, Image: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting, and to relate this back to Ireland, there was a Venus from this period at Russborough House which the First  Earl of Milltown, an avid collector of antiquity pieces, Joseph Leeson bought back from one of his tours. It is no longer in Ireland but it is believed something quite similar resides in a museum in California. We have a long story of lost treasures in Ireland that space and speculation does not permit me to explore here.

Copy of Similar Venus now in Russborough
Image : Russborough Website

I am interested to reach the rooms showing some wonderful works by Venetian artists and on route this painting catches my eye, reminding me of our first day in Rome when we saw the statue of Marcus Aurelius. This is a capriccio by Panini , whose work we have seen before in this series.  

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Ruins with the Statue of Marcus Aurelius 1750~. Image: Denise Meagher

Another gem – an example of the work by the famous portrait artist Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) is the huge and very impressive portrait below and this brings us back to some of the characters I discussed in the first blog in the series.

Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of Senator Abbondio Rezzonico , 1766

This huge portrait depicts the newly appointed Senator of Rome, Abbondio Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII – brother to the Rezzonico who restored the building where I did my presentation in Venice. The portrait is beautifully detailed.  Abbondio ‘s position was a very important one in Rome – the highest civil magistracy, an appointment made directly by the Pope. His clothing is rich and luxurious in color and the fabric is golden brocade and red silk. He is holding a small regal ivory sceptre. The putto below, not something that often features in Batoni’s portraits,  holds a pair of scales adorned with an olive branch. This is a symbol of justice and the assurance of peace. The Gallery’s website states that: ‘  A lictor’s fasces lies on the floor, the emblem of authority in ancient Roman tradition. The artist has devised the setting in a stenographic and symbolic way, which is far from realistic’. The statue of the goddess Roma, with a spear and helmet behind Rezzonico actually stands at the entrance to the Palazzo Senatorio, whose façade can be glimpsed closing Piazza Campidoglio. But such improvisation was customary in portraiture of this time. It is a fine example of Batoni’s incredible skill , not just in capturing his sitters and their dress but his use of symbols from Rome in his work to really enhance the work. We can see Marcus Aurelius again here in the background.

All these hugely influential people in the history of art, I have mentioned so often ….start to seem familiar to me now, as though I walked these streets and sat in these magnificent palaces, with them. My mind wanders back to the Rezzonico family’s activities in Venice. Their influence may have waned there , when the Republic fell, but the Rezzonico family had wielded such power outside Venice for many decades.

Our day almost over I have decided to-night I reluctantly must return to the hotel and rest, and hard as it is , to leave the wonderful company of our group, and the art historical chat over our dinner, which I miss since the academic year ended, tonight I have to take time to think through many things. But as two of our colleagues from the Netherlands were celebrating their King’s birthday on this day ( a celebration that is customary in Netherlands) I manage to stay for a short while to clink a glass of wine with them, before departing.

Nina and Jöelle, celebrating the Birthday of Netherland’s King. Image: Denise Meagher  


We have one full day of site visits left and then on Friday, before going to the airport, we intend to see Villa Borghese and the Accademia di San Luca.

Finding What You Are Looking For:  My Grand Tour – Rome Day Five. Part 3 of 5

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of St.Peter’s and the Piazza ,(1775) Princeton University Art Museum

Day Five is going to be the busiest day of all  – also one of the most memorable and monumental. Some of the group want to take time out in the morning, so only five of us decide to walk to the Vatican Museum and take in a view of St. Peter’s Basilica on the way. We anticipate crowds and though it is early morning already the day is very warm.

There are a few things I want specifically to see and they are , not surprisingly, The Sistine Chapel; The Laocoön, The Apollo Belvedere, works by Leonardo da Vinci, the Raphael Rooms (School of Athens) … I could go on.

But first as we walk we come to the Vatican. In my mind the image I have of the building is the opening one by the famous Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1770-1778). The other image I had in my mind is this one below by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765), both of whom I mentioned in my  my earlier blogs in this series and both we studied in class.

Giovanni Paolo Panini , St Peter’s Basilica, (interior)  1730s . Ca’ Rezzonico , Venice

As most of you will already know Vatican City, officially the Vatican City State is an independent city – state and enclave surrounded by Rome.. The Vatican City State, also known simply as the Vatican, became independent from Italy with the Lateran Treaty (1929), and it is a distinct territory under “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” of the Holy See. What is the Holy See ? It is the Jurisdiction of the Pope in his role as Bishop of Rome. The etymology of the word ‘See’ comes from the Latin ‘sedes’, meaning ‘a seat’ , as in a Bishop’s throne. So the Vatican state is a sovereign state which maintains the city’s  temporal , diplomatic, and spiritual independence . It is the smallest state in the world with an area of forty nine hectares (121 acres) and a population of about 825 people.  The Holy See dates back to Early Christianity  and is the principal authority of the Catholic Church which has approximately 1.329 billion baptised Catholic Christians in the world ( from the 2018 statistics) in the Latin Church and 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. 

Approaching St. Peter’s for the First time . Image: Denise Meagher


Our Professor is eager to get us to the Vatican museum before the crowds become unmanageable and fortunately, because of her skill in dealing with the bureaucracy of these places and because we are students of art history , we are able to navigate our way through the queues relatively quickly and pay , in my opinion, the reasonable sum of €17 each , to gain access.

The Apollo Belvedere is important to mention. I did not get a chance to stop and study it, only glanced, as I was anxious not to lose track of where my colleagues were, as the museum was crowded.

Apollo Belvedere (120-140 AD). Image : Helen Bannon


The Apollo is considered to be an original Roman re-creation from Hadrain’s period as Emperor and  the distinctively Roman footwear is one reason scholars believe it is not a copy of an original Greek statue. It was rediscovered in central Italy in the late 15th century during the Italian Renaissance and was placed on semi-public display in the Vatican Palace in 1511, where it remains. It is now in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Pio-Clementine Museum of the Vatican Museums complex. From the mid-18th century, it was considered the greatest ancient sculpture by neoclassical scholars, and for centuries it epitomized the ideals of aesthetic perfection for Europeans and westernized parts of the world. Neo classical is, to describe it very briefly, a movement in the decorative and visual arts, theatre , music and architecture that drew its inspiration from classical antiquity. The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum were important factors in its gaining momentum, and of course the writings of key people interested in the Arts, history and philosophy at the time. It coincided with the emergence of the Enlightenment. Its popularity also spread because of the Grand Tour, which, as explained in my first blog in this series, was when young aristocrats travelled in Europe, in particular in Italy, to discover more about the ancient world.

The Greek god Apollo is depicted as a standing archer having just shot an arrow. Although there is no agreement as to the precise narrative detail being depicted, the conventional view has been that he has just slain the serpent Python  , the chthonic serpent guarding Delphi—making the sculpture a ‘Pythian Apollo’. Alternatively, it may be the slaying of the giant Tityos, who threatened Apollo’s mother Leto. And there are more possible interpretations. The lower part of the right arm and the left hand were missing when discovered and were restored by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (1507–1563), a sculptor and pupil of Michelangelo.

I mentioned  Neoclassical scholars who studied this work. One of them is very important and his writings have shaped art historical approaches to this day and that is the German art historian Johan Winkelmann (1717-1768). He helped make the Apollo become one of the world’s most celebrated art works when in 1755 he championed it as the best example of the perfection of the Greek aesthetic ideal. He was fascinated by its ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. These would have been considered important attributes in the Neoclassical period when Enlightenment values were beginning to emerge. Several other important writers and philosophers also endorsed it such as Goethe and Byron. Amanda Claridge writes that ‘Napoleon ordered the removal of many works of art and in 1798 famous pieces such as Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön were paraded through the streets of Paris in triumph ‘ (pp, 470). It was another Pope, Pope Pius V11 (1800s – 23) who appointed Antonio Canova (whom I mentioned in my first blog in this series and will again in blog 5) as the Inspector General of Fine Art in 1802 and after 1815 these pieces were returned to the Vatican where they have remained ever since.

Raphael Sanzio da Urbino , Pope Julius II (1511–12). London National Gallery

Of course, we have another key person to mention in the context of the Vatican Museum and that is Pope Julius II (1443 – 1513), also mentioned before . He was head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States from 1503 to his death in 1513. Nicknamed the Warrior Pope or the Fearsome Pope, he chose his papal name not in honour of Pope Julius 1 but in honour of Julius Caesar. One of the most powerful and influential popes, Julius II was a central figure of the ‘High Renaissance’  and left a significant cultural and political legacy. As a result of his policies the Papal States remained independent and centralized, and the office of the papacy continued to be crucial, diplomatically and politically during the entirety of the 16th century in Italy and Europe.

In 1506, Julius II established the Vatican Museums and initiated the rebuilding of the St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1508, he commissioned the Raphael Rooms and the Michelangelo painting  of the Sistine Chapel. Julius II was described by Machiavelli in his works as an ‘ideal prince’. Nicholas Machiavel (1469-1527) was an Italian diplomat, philosopher and historian best known perhaps for his political treatise The Prince (1513, published 1532).

I stop quickly to look at a painting that jumps out at me , for some reason. Maybe it is because it is unfinished and therefore caught my eye .

 Leonardo da Vinci  , St.  Jerome in the Wilderness (1480). Image: Denise Meagher

It is the image above by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) of St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Jerome was a brilliant Christian scholar and translated the Old and New Testaments of the Bible into quality Latin from their original languages, Hebrew and Greek. He was also a teacher of Christianity. Interestingly he was particularly concerned for women’s Christian education and taught them how to lead their lives, in a way that could help them in the society of the time, by being devotees of Christ. It sounds very condescending, but in the context of the time, it was incredibly supportive. In this painting he is in the Syrian desert having withdrawn from society. I have looked at the quick image I took (above) very often, of the painting in the museum since I came home and it still captivates me.

Leonardo da Vinci needs no introduction – a genius of the High Renaissance he was a draughtsman, painter, engineer, scientist , sculptor, architect whose works and notebooks epitomise many things including the Renaissance ‘Humanist’ ideal. To explain this very simply it involved , like Neoclassicism , a deep study of the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome. It was not necessarily a Godless philosophy in the way people use the word ‘humanism’ today. He had an enormous influence on many artists who came after him, but was matched perhaps by no one other than  Michelangelo (1475-1564).

I will discuss Michelangelo shortly but first , another piece I really wanted to see.

Laocoön Group , Image : Denise Meagher

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons, also called the Laocoön Group  has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican  Museums, where it remains. It is very likely the same statue that was praised in the highest terms by the main Roman writer on art of the time , Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79). He was a Roman author, naturalist, and Natural philosopher. He also had friends in high places such as Emperor Vespasian  who reigned from AD 69 to 79. Vespasian, also a Senior general in the Roman army  founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Roman Empire for 27 years. His reforms and consolidation of the empire generated political stability and a vast Roman building program. More on this when we reach the Colosseum .

With regards The Laocoön Group , Pliny attributes the work, then in the palace of  Emperor Titus , Vesperian’s eldest son (the other son being Domitian, later Emperor ) to three Greek sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoras and Poludorus , but does not give a date or patron. In style it is considered “one of the finest examples of the Hellenistic  Baroque’. Greek Baroque as opposed to Roman? Much to think on there. While this would therefore be in the Greek tradition it is not definitely known whether it is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture, probably in bronze, or made for a Greek or Roman commission. But it was most likely commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly an earlier Emperor.

It recounts an episode in the epic story of Virgil’s Aeneid, of the priest of Apollo , Laocoön, who offends the Goddess Minerva , a Greek partisan, when he warns the Trojans against a giant wooden horse which she has consecrated , when it sets sails, filled when Greek warriors. It is also a story Sophocles wrote about that has a less patriotic interpretation. Laocoön throws a large spear at the belly of the wooden horse and those inside groan either from injury or fright. Minerva, enraged, sends serpents to punish Laocoön and his sons. The story still fascinates to this day. Camille Paglia , the American feminist and art critic , has an interesting chapter in her publication’’ Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to ‘Star Wars‘ (2012) about it, which I read last year. She sees this story as ultimately one of theodicy, divine provenance in the face of ‘evil’ – a word I hate because of how loaded it can be with religious fundamentalist thought. However Paglia writes that ‘Laocoön blank , tormented face seems to ask whether an ethical standard exists in the universe or whether the Gods too are subject to impulse and caprice. It prefigures the agonised expression of the crucified Christ, in Medieval art, when he askes why God had forsaken him’. (pp 30) Fascinating similar themes that link huge periods of history and very different religious ideologies, one consisting of numerous Gods, the other of one.

But just as we moved on quickly through the museum in Rome, so we could see the various sites on our schedule for the day , I move on quickly now – even if my mind still lingers on these connections.

We walk through rooms filled with the most amazing art, trying desperately not to stop and stare, in an effort to reach the Sistine Chapel, as we then have a journey and metro trip to get back to our next stop of the day: The Colosseum.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Fresco Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508 to 1512)

I do not intend to go into great detail here about the significance of this chapel nor indeed  explain the meaning of this incredible piece of work by Michelangelo  (1475-1564). The complex and unusual iconography of the Sistine ceiling has been explained by some art historians as a ‘Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible’, representing the essential phases of the spiritual development of humankind seen through a very dramatic relationship between humans and God. One would need to stand alone underneath it, possibly with a small telescope, to study and form an opinion of one’s own. Sadly, that luxury is not available for the majority. What I can say is that it was not what I expected, neither in terms of scale, color, atmosphere or design. I like how Georgina Masson puts it, so I will leave it to an expert on Roman art and architecture to summarise. She writes that originally ‘the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was simply painted blue and covered with gold stars. The story of its transformation into one of the most artistic creations of all time is largely that of the personal relationship between two titanic figures of the Renaissance – Michelangelo and Julius II, whom two great historians Gregorovius and Burckhardt , described as ‘the greatest pope since Innocent III’ and the ’saviour of the papacy’. (pp 608). She continues:  ‘For months Michelangelo lay on his back on the scaffolding, with paint dripping onto his face and into his eyes. The strain on his physique was such that for long he could not read a letter unless he held it above him, tilting his head backwards. Still this extraordinary man could laugh, somewhat bitterly, at his hardships, writing satirical verses describing the effects of the appalling discomfort upon himself and his art’.  (pp, 610)

I mentioned we visited numerous churches during our trip so just to mention here in the context of Michelangelo  that we also saw his statue of Moses in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli part of Pope Julius 11 tomb. This gives some idea of the man’s versatility and sheer genius in different mediums, despite his hardships. This Basilica was consecrated in 439 by Sixtus 111. Cardinal Della Rovere, when he became Pope Julius 11 was central to some of the rebuilding between 1471 and 1503. This famous statue is pictured below. Moses is the bearded figure, below, centre.

Michelangelo , Moses  (detail) San Pietro in Vincoli. Image: Denise Meagher

Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Michelangelo captures this well : ‘Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tablets, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush’. I do not think I could put it better than that.

Returning to our itinerary , we leave the Vatican Museum, as we approach lunch time and I try to take in all we just saw, a little overwhelmed, perhaps, by it all.

As we sit on the metro my mind wanders to a painting that upset me deeply when I first saw it.


Jean-Léon Gérôme , The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (Between1863 and 1883). The Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Maryland USA


Gérôme identified the setting as ancient Rome’s racecourse, the Circus Maximus . However the seating, it has been argued, more closely resembles that of the Colosseum. It is also said about the work that the hill in the background surmounted by a colossal statue and a temple is nearer in appearance to the Athenian Acropolis than it is to Rome’s Palatine Hill.  The Artist had the right to improvise, I guess. But I think there is no doubt it captures what happened in many places including the  Colosseum. I imagine the sheer terror the victims who were about to suffer martyrdom either by being devoured by the wild beasts or by being smeared with pitch and set ablaze must be feeling. It still upsets me to think about such barbarity.   

If the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel  had overwhelmed me, I can only say that  the sight of the Colosseum  was equally monumental.

The Colosseum 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


An oval amphitheatre  in the centre of Rome, it can be found just east of the Roman Forum discussed in my earlier blog. It is the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built, and is still the largest standing amphitheatre in the world today. Construction began under the Emperor  Vespasian ( 69–79 AD) mentioned earlier in 72 and was completed in 80 AD under his successor and heir, Titus ( 79–81), his son. Further modifications were made during the reign of  his other son Domitian ( 81–96). These three Emperors who were patrons of the work and are known as the  Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheatre was named the ‘ Flavin  Amphitheatre’, by later Classicists and archaeologists, because of its association with their family name .

The Colosseum is built of travertine limestone, tuffa which is a volcanic rock, and brick-faced concrete. It could hold an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 spectators at various points in its history. Think about this.  It was used for gladiator contests and public spectacles including animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Roman mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval  era.

The Colosseum from Inside 2022 . Image: Denise Meagher

Later the theatre was used for other purposes like  a quarry and a Christian shrine. Despite earthquakes and being used as a quarry the Colosseum is still an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome.

As it nears 4pm Italian time we stop for a quick expresso at a café bar as we head towards our last two site visits of the day :-  Basilica di Santa Sabina all’Aventino and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio was built in the 5th century, possibly (although this cannot be proved) on the site of the original Titulus Sabinae, an original Parish of Rome. This makes it the oldest extant ecclesiastical basilica in Rome that preserves its original format , something I now understand is a colonnaded rectangular plan with the apse. The etymology of the word apse is from Latin absis ‘arch, vault’ from Ancient Greek ἀψίς apsis ‘arch’.

The tituli were the first parish churches in Rome, and most of them were originally private residences or commercial meeting-halls in which Christian congregations met (the so-called house-churches). We were not the only culture who improvised with such things as mass rocks during times of persecution.  St Sabina is now considered as the original founder of the church. Think of her courage. She was beheaded by Emperor Hadrain (who could be ruthless) because she had converted to Christianity. She was later declared a saint.

Interior , Basilica di Santa Sabina all’ Aventio. Image: Denise Meagher

Santa Sabina was later built by Peter of Illyria , a Dalmatian priest, ( Croatia) between 422 and 432, dates mentioned above, and near a  Temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill. Hence the longer name of the Basilica. The interior follows a basilical form, with a central nave divided from the side aisle by two rows of columns, on which rests an arcade. My picture shows this and the beautiful simplicity of the interior.  Above the arcade you can see a row of large clerestory windows i.e. above the arches. The twenty four columns of marble from Turkey with perfectly matched Corinthian capitals and bases, were, archaeologists have argued, reused from the Temple of Juno. Remnants from this Temple have been found on the site so some think  that the Temple may have been demolished in order to erect the Basilica.

Another very important aspect to this Basilica relates to Christian iconography. The doors on the exterior of Santa Sabina are made of cypress wood, and originally had a layout of twenty-eight panels. Out of these panels, ten of the original have been lost. Seventeen out of the original remaining eighteen panels depict a scene from the Old Testament and New Testament leaving one panel that does not directly relates to a Biblical story . One of the smaller top panels depicts the crucifixion of Jesus . This panel is the first known publicly displayed image of the crucifixion of Christ. I was fascinated by that.                                 

Information Board showing one of the first known depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ. Image: Denise Meagher

The door is huge and the panel depicting this scene is at the top, hence I am using the image from the information board above to illustrate. I found the simplicity of Santa Sabina very beautiful and peaceful and very much in contrast to the next basilica we visit, our final stop on this day – Santa Maria Maggiore.   

I refer back to Georgina Masson here and her book The Companion Guide to Rome I mentioned in a previous blog. Her comments will remind readers of my earlier blog  about Venice when I wrote about  the significance of Classical columns in Il Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. She writes that ‘the famous Roman scholar Silvio Negro once put it ‘ St Mari Maggiore confuses the ordinary traveller ‘by the contrast between what they see outside and what they find within. As a matter of fact this could be applied to many other Italian churches, but in the reverse order: very often their exteriors  may be medieval or Renaissance while inside they are baroque . S. Maria Maggiore is almost completely eightieth century outside (it was encased in a shell , as it were by Ferdinando Fuga in 1746- 50) while the interior is the only example of a basilica built in the classical style to have survived in its integrity among the great patriarchal ones of Rome…..On entering S. Maria Maggiore we are struck at once by this fact: the superb Renaissance ceiling (said to have been gilded with the first gold brought from the New World) and the beautiful cosmatesque pavement appear as mere incidents in the dominating classical harmony of the whole building.’ (pp , 404)

Santa Maria Maggiore Renaissance Ceiling and Classical Columns. Image : Denise Meagher

Masson continues: ‘The impression is chiefly due to the rows of magnificent classical columns lining the nave : their proportion and spacing accord exactly with  the canons of Vitruvius , as do the proportions of the nave itself’ ( pp 404-405) . My image , taking on entering the basilica, gives, I hope, some idea of what she is referring to.

The image of the High Altar (below) is another example of the astonishing beauty of this Basilica. My photograph is a mosaic from a later period , 1295, by Jacopo Torriti of the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. However most of the mosaic as mentioned are from the 5th century and feature some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in the world.

Jacopo Torriti ,    The Coronation of the Virgin Mary , mosaic (detail) 1295, Apse of Santa Maria Maggiore Image: Denise Meagher

Inevitably these iconographic depictions of Mary would have had the function of supporting a new type of understanding of how different religious cultures could co exist – the Hebrew bible and that which came after it: Christianity are closer connected than most think. The early mosaics from Late Antiquity would have been influenced by similar  ones from villas in Syria,  Sicily and Africa during the 5th century. We tend to forget the cultural and historical connections that appear to come together so seamlessly in the magnificent designs of these buildings.

In all some of us have walked over 16 km on this day so by the time I sit down to eat I am feeling very tired and trying to process site visits and my first viewing of some incredible pieces of art, that have, for decades, just been images I have seen in art books or on television, or , even more recently, on social media sites.  By the end of Day Five of my Grand Tour I was feeling somewhat, understandably ,overwhelmed.

Finding what you are Looking for: My Grand Tour – From Venice to Rome. Part 2 of 5


Temple of Antonius and Faustina. Image: Denise Meagher


We are scheduled to catch the 9.26am train from Venenzia S Lucia to Roma Termini, with an arrival time of 13.25pm in Rome. While every night on the trip I was careful to get to bed relatively early, on our last night in Venice we all stayed up in the hotel outdoor lounge area chatting about the day. I am usually a poor sleeper and awake early so I do not bother setting an alarm. You can imagine my horror when I awake Sunday morning and on checking my phone realise that it is 8.05am and our departure time from the hotel is set for 8am.!  To say I flung my clothes into the suitcase is probably an understatement! I arrive downstairs by about 8.12 , happy to realise I was not the only one late but looking decidedly worse from wear.

On the Vaporetto my mind starts to relax as I soak up the beauty of the canal for one last time before we depart. We get our seats on the train without difficulty and head south. The journey is interesting as cloudy skies in Northern Italy start to give way to blue ones and sunshine towards the South.  One of my colleagues who knows Italy well advises me not to take the coffee from the trolley but to go down to the cafeteria on the train instead. How right she was. Styled like a café bar, you can stand at the counter and enjoy a freshly brewed expresso and watch the fields go by. We arrive on time in Rome and after a quick trip to our hotel to deposit bags, our third day begins.

People were surprised when I said I had never been to Rome before. I had visited Italy , but for some reason I just had not made it to Rome. So this was going to be a real treat. Our first site visit is Forum Romano . The Forum’s beginnings are connected with the alliance between Romulus  the first king of Rome (which then consisted only of the Palatine Hill) and his rival, Titus Tatius , who occupied the Capitoline Hill around 750 BC. According to tradition the pair formed an alliance after combat had been halted by the prayers and cries of Sabine women.

Roman Forum April 2022. Image: Denise Meagher


For centuries the Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of elections and triumphal processions, public speeches, gladiatorial matches, and criminal trials. In fact, the day after we arrive in Rome there are some re-enactments of the gladiator matches happening in public spaces, which were interesting to observe. So this rectangular area, the Roman Forum, originally marsh land, gradually became the nucleus of commercial affairs in ancient Rome.

There are so many important monuments and statues in this historic space it is hard to select one – but for me the memory I will always have of standing there, for the first time, was seeing the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, pictured at the opening. We stop just under this monument, and I stare at it , transfixed by the sheer enormity of the columns. I have a similar experience, the following day, when we reach the Pantheon and again at Hadrian’s Villa. Georgina Masson describes the Temple in her wonderful book The Companion Guide to Rome (1965)  and she is worth quoting. She writes that ‘passing in front of the altar and temple of Caesar, we turn right and are immediately confronted with the great podium crowned with ten monolithic columns in cipollino marble of one of the forum’s most prominent and best-preserved monuments , the temple of Antonius, Hadrian’s adopted son and successor and Faustina, his beloved wife. On her death in AD 141 she was deified, and the temple was built and dedicated to her and on her husband’s death twenty years later the dedication was changed to the pair of them’’. (pp, 56) My image I hope captures the enduring grandeur and majesty of this  building.

We explore the Forum and gradually move toward the Capitoline Hill to visit the Capitoline Museum.  We climb the steps that lead us to the ‘Campidoglio’ and there we are greeted with the statue of a mounted rider right in the centre of the piazza: Emperor Marcus Aurelius , who , for those of you who are interested in this city’s complex history, married the daughter of Faustina whom I spoke about earlier. Confusingly, Faustina’s daughter was her Mother’s namesake. Linkages and connections are forming for me as I piece together so many stories from this ancient city.  

Marcus Aurelius. Image: Museum Website

The statue of Marcus Aurelius in the square is a copy of the original which is safely exhibited in the museum to protect it from the elements (above). The history of the museum dates back to 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome and located them on the Capitoline Hill. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to include many ancient Roman statues, inscriptions, and other artifacts, a collection of medieval and Renaissance art and collections of coins and jewels.

     The Capitoline Wolf. Image: Denise Meagher

I stop to study and take a quick photograph of the bronze sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf. A symbol of Rome since ancient times that we will all be familiar with , the she-wolf (pictured above) is suckling the mythical twin founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus (before the alliance with Titus Tatius of the Sabines was formed ,as discussed above ) and is a symbol of Rome since ancient times. The sculpture has been housed at the museum since 1471.  It is believed the work is Etruscan in origin dating back to the 5th century BC though this is controversial. According to legend the twins were cast into the Tiber river by Amulius when he overthrew his brother King Numitor, grandfather to the twins. The misfortunate pair were rescued by the she-wolf who cared for them until a herdsman found them.

The evening has descended and once again we retire as a group to one of the many wonderful Italian restaurants before returning to our beds after another busy day.  Tomorrow we plan several site visits before we go to the Embassy of Ireland to conclude the evening.

Monday morning we start our day at The Villa Farnese ,  a Renaissance suburban villa in the district of Trastevere, built between 1506 and 1510 . The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a rich  Sienese (Tuscany)  banker who was also the treasurer of Pope Julius II . We will meet Pope Julius II again in this blog series and his importance cannot be overemphasised.

Villa Farnese. Image : Denise Meagher


The novelty of this suburban villa design is primarily because of it’s differences from that of a ‘typical’ urban palazzo (palace). Renaissance palaces usually faced onto a street and were decorated versions of defensive castles: rectangular blocks with rusticated ground floors and enclosing a courtyard. This villa, however, was intended to be an airy summer pavilion, and presented a side towards the street.

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea (detail). Image: Denise Meagher


Chigi also commissioned the fresco decoration of the villa by artists such as Raphael (1483-1520). Best known are Raphael’s frescoes on the ground floor depicting the classical and secular myths of Cupid and Psyche and the Triumph of Galatea.  . The latter, one of his few purely secular paintings, shows the near-naked nymph on a shell-shaped chariot amid ‘frolicking attendants’, and is reminiscent of the famous work by Botticelli –  The Birth of Venus. The themes were inspired by key members Lorenzo de Medici’s circle, including the work of the poet Angelo Poliziano. Interestingly Raphael did not paint any of the main events of the story as depicted by the poet. Instead, he chose the scene of the nymph’s apotheosis (glorification/ascent into heaven) where Galatea appears surrounded by other sea creatures. The bright colours and decoration, it is argued, are inspired by ancient Roman painting. At the left we see a Triton (partly man, partly fish) abducting a sea nymph; behind them another Triton uses a shell as a trumpet. Galatea rides a shell-chariot drawn by two dolphins. While some have seen in the model for Galatea the face of Chigi’s lover, the art historian and Raphael’s near-contemporary, Giorgio Vasari ( acknowledged as one of the first great art-historians from this period), disagreed. He argued that Raphael did not mean for Galatea to resemble any one human person, but to represent ‘ideal’ beauty. When asked where he had found a model of such beauty, Raphael reportedly said that he had used “a certain idea” he had formed in his mind . I thought to myself the ‘idea’ most likely was the woman he loved rather than the one Chigi did , especially when you think about his portrait La Fornarina at the Palace Barberini (which I will discuss in blog 4) . The villa became the property of the Farnese family in 1577.  

I was particularly struck by some of the ceiling frescoes which reminded me of the designs we saw in the main room at Castletown House in Celbridge on an earlier field trip.


Wall Fresco , Castletown (left) Ceiling Fresco, Villa Farnese (right)

Both Images: Denise Meagher

Next stop is the Basilica of Santa Maria , also in Trastevere, one of the oldest Churches in Rome. The basic floor plan and wall structure of the church dates back to the 340s but the first sanctuary was built in 221 – 227 by Pope Callixtus I. The church has large areas of important mosaics  from the 12th and late 13th century by the late Medieval artist, Pietro Cavallini (1259- 1330)

Santa Maria in Trastevere, interior. Image: Wikimedia Commons

These are reminiscent of the mosaics we saw in Venice on the outside of the St. Mark’s Basilica but again time did not allow us to study them in great detail though one of the people in our group is writing a Ph.D. thesis in this area so it was interesting to hear her talk about the importance of some of these beautiful mosaics during the trip.

Moving on we reach the church of Saint Agnes in Piazza Navona next, a 17th-century Baroque church. Piazza Navona is one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city and the site where the Saint Agnese , the early Christian saint,  was martyred. Construction of the Church began in 1652. I am struck by the altar piece: The Two Holy Families  (1676) by Domenico Guidi .

                   Domenico Guidi, The Two Holy Families (detail), (1676). Image: Denise Meagher

Outside the Church I stand in front of the first sculpture of one of the artists we studied on the trip that made a lasting impression : Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) whom I will discuss again in a later blog. This work, his Fountain of the Four Rivers is situated in the Piazza Navona.

   Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail) Both Images: Denise Meagher

It was designed in 1651 for Pope Innocent X , whose family palace faced onto the piazza, as did the church of Saint Agnes mentioned above. The base of the fountain is a basin style, from the centre of which beautiful limestone rocks rise to support four river gods and above them, a copy of an obelisk of Egyptian origin surmounted with the Pamphili family emblem of a dove with an olive twig. Collectively the gods represent four major rivers  of the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe) ,  the Ganges (Asia) and Rio de la Plata (South America).

And still we move on.

Before I discuss the Pantheon, our next stop,  I must introduce another very important character from the first century AD – Hadrian (76–138), mentioned earlier. He was a Roman Emperor from 117 to 138. He was also a seriously bright man,  gifted in many areas, a person I would have loved to meet! His father was of senatorial rank and was a first cousin of Emperor Trajan . Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece Sabina  early in his career, before Trajan became Emperor and possibly at the behest of Trajan’s wife, Plotina, who was well disposed towards Hadrian. When Trajan died, his widow claimed that he had nominated Hadrian as Emperor immediately before his death. Some Senators opposed his nomination and he had them put to death when he came to power, something the Senate did not forget easily.

Very much ‘ his own man’  he often had clashes with the Roman elite , especially because of his policies. He built walls to protect the then Empire and despite opposition he pursued his own Imperial ideals and visited almost every province of the Empire, accompanied by his Imperial ‘team’. In Rome he is remembered for rebuilding the Pantheon  and constructing the vast Temple of Venus and Roma  . He was deeply inspired by ancient Greece and even thought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire at one point.  His intense relationship with a Greek youth called Antinous is also well documented, and I will return to that later when I discuss his Villa in the Roman suburbs. Antinous’s tragic death by drowning  led Hadrian to establish a widespread cult in his lover’s honour later in his reign.  

My first encounter with Hadrian then is when I see the building he was involved in rebuilding and this is, of course, The Pantheon.

The Pantheon. Both Images : Denise Meagher


And it left me breathless. Originally built by Marcus Agrippa in 27-25 BC it was destroyed by fire in AD 80. Replaced by Domitian it was then struck by lightning in AD 110. Plans for rebuilding were probably put in place by the Emperor Trajan but he died before they were finished, so it was Hadrian who then took charge. ‘Hadrian ..did not dedicate the new Pantheon in his own name but in that of the original dedicant : thus the bold on the front : M. Agrippa L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, trice consul, made this)’. Amanda Claridge continues in her book Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide ‘The city of Rome (unlike the Empire at large) never took kindly to the idea of worshipping emperors as gods during their lifetime but it is possible that the Pantheon provided a setting – not a temple in the conventional sense – in which the living emperor would appear in company with the gods (including his own deified predecessors) ‘. (pp, 231)

This awe inspiring structure, famous for its Corinthian columns which I discussed in my earlier blog, (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) , situates the design in the Classical tradition. The famous Rotunda (pictured below) is linked by a  rectangular vestibule to the porch.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (1734), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The rotunda  is under a   large coffered Dome i.e – it is decorated with recessed ceiling panels . This device had been used  to bring an added dimension to the ceilings of large rooms since Etruscan times. The Dome is made even more impressive by the central opening called the ‘oculus’ through which one can see the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, (think about that for a minute!)  the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. A painter and architect who worked in Rome and is primarily known as one of the vedutisti (“view painters”) from the city – Giovanni Paolo Panini or Pannini (1691-1765) exquisitely captures views of the Pantheon, including the one pictured above. His name and that of Piranesi (1720 – 1778) feature throughout this blog series. I will discuss Piranesi’s work again in slightly more detail, when we reach the Spanish Steps in a later blog.

We visited numerous churches on our trip, not all of which I will cover nor in the order in which we visited them, but San Luigi dei Francesci is a Roman Catholic Church not far from Piazza Navona and is important to mention. It has three masterpieces by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) .   The Calling of St Matthew (1599-1600), The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600). This was , apparently, not an easy commission for Caravaggio, and it is believed that at least two of the three paintings had to be repainted to satisfy his patron, the Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. If you did not have a patron in these times, you could not fund or progress your work.

But let us turn the clock back a decade earlier when Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel left funds in his will for the decoration of this church on themes connected to his namesake – Saint Matthew. Caravaggio was fortunate to get this commission as the dome of the chapel had been decorated in frescoes, in a Mannerist style by the famous artist and contemporary of his , Giuseppe Cesari, who was also Caravaggio’s former employer. Mannerist was a sixteenth century style of art and design characterized by artificiality, elegance and sensuousness in portraying the human figure and is the name given to the style followers of Raphael and Michelangelo adopted from around 1520–1600.

Cesari, however,  was busy with other important royal and papal commissions so  Caravaggio got this job thanks to his patron’s intervention. I wished I had more time to study these works but it was hard to, given that the Church was very busy and a little noisy with many people also trying to look at them. Caravaggio was a most interesting character and in his short and tumultuous life he achieved so much –  it was an honor to see the works even briefly.   Below is one example from the three, the one I liked best.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew , (1599-1600). Church of San Luigi dei Francesi 

And still more amazing experiences were packed into this day. Our group – MA students from the Department of Art History and Social Policy in UCD , have been invited to the Irish Embassy, situated in the Villa Spada. On route we call at the Galleria Spada, a museum  located in the Piazza Capo di Ferro, famous for its façade and for the forced perspective gallery by Francesco Borromini that is in the building. There are also some wonderful pieces of art.  The Villa Spada however dominates my memory, pictured below.

Villa Spada . Image: Denise Meagher

It dates from 1639 and was originally constructed as a summer home for the Nobili family who produced several noted churchmen including Roberto Nobili, who was made a Cardinal at the age of 12 by his grand-uncle Julius III in 1553. Their own web site gives the background to the building: ‘The Nobili Family owned the property for about a hundred years and then another Italian family, the Spada Family, owned it for a further 200 years of its history.  ….It was sold several times over the subsequent years and leased to the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, whose founder died in the Villa in 1894. The Irish state purchased Villa Spada from its then owner Dr. Alberto Uzielli of Florence, in 1946. For 65 years it housed the Irish Embassy to the Holy See before its change to house the Irish Embassy to Italy in 2012.’

Venetian Door Motif, similar to those we saw at Villa Spada.


We  were welcomed by the Ambassador to Rome, Patricia O Brien  who was exceptionally warm to us all and then given a tour of the building by one of her assistants. I was struck not just by the beautiful views from the villa but by the frescoed doors that feature in some of the rooms, which, I was told, came from Venice.  

A lovely Cup of Tea, at Villa Spada. Image: Denise Meagher


We were treated to some tea and biscuits as we took in the view, one of the many incredible memories I have of my eight-day field trip of Venice and Rome.  It was time to retire for some food and refreshments but more to follow…….

Finding What You Are Looking For: My Grand Tour – Venice & Rome 2022 Part 1 of 5

Longhi Room , Ca’ Rezzonico. Image: Ros Waller

My late dear Mother often said to me that the 22nd was a date that featured regularly in our family’s long history. Some of us were born on the day, others died, weddings were celebrated, and coincidental things happened that somehow had the magic number 22 attached. No surprises then that the departure date for ‘my’ grand tour, was April 22nd 2022. I left Killough shortly after 1.30am for the airport, anxious to be leaving my three sons for eight full days.

What was a Grand Tour? In the 18th century it was a cultural tour of Europe usually undertaken by men, very occasionally by women, of the upper classes, to complete their education by introducing them to classical antiquity. Italy was central to the tour and our first destination in Italy is Venice, a place I had been to before, but my focus then was on modern art at the Biennale in 2015. This time my attention would be on things of a more classical art historical nature. I was going to visit churches designed by the great Palladio, see ceilings painted by Tiepolo, among others, and look at works of art by some of the greatest old masters of all time: Tintoretto, Bassano, Veronese to name a few.

I managed to sleep for an hour on the plane, so I arrive somewhat refreshed. As we await our bus into Venice, where we will get the ‘vaporetto’ (a boat bus) down the Grand canal to our hotel, myself and some of the other participants on the trip buy our first Italian expresso.  We had landed.  

We reach the city by early afternoon where we all purchase a three-day pass for the Vaporetto which will bring us to various stops in the city. The day is overcast and colder than one might expect for late April, but the views of the buildings are still mesmerizing as they stand majestically overlooking the canal. The duller light of our first day changed some of the visuals of a building’s exterior, so on my return home I had to be careful to identify my phone images correctly, as I had become used to looking at images of some of these places, pictured only against dazzling blue skies.

I get my first glimpse of the 18th century museum Ca’ Rezzonico while on the boat, where I will present my paper the following day. In my mind’s eye I begin to imagine the spectacular site this Palazzo must have been in the 18th century, when lit up with lamps and torches for one of the many parties that were held when the building was owned by the Rezzonico family. More on this later.   

Our first site visit of the day is the church known as il Redentore.

Il Redentore, Image :Denise Meagher


Designed by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), who I discuss in more detail below, it is believed Palladio was inspired in his design of the façade for this building  by the Pantheon in Rome. This makes me stop and think about what we will soon see when we reach that ancient city further South in Italy. The building also features fifteen steps leading up to the entrance, significant because of the connection to the Temple of Jerusalem.   As a pilgrimage church, the building was expected to have a long nave, which was something of a challenge for Palladio, given his interest and dedication to classical architecture. The nave is the body of the church between the door and the sanctuary, which gave processions more impact on the spectators. His interpretation is a typical Venetian approach, on a classical model .

The Bolognese architect Sebastiano Serlio in Book 1V of his Regole generali d’architettura , which was published in Venice in 1537, wrote that ‘ It occurred to the ancient Romans to mix the rustic order not only with the Doric order, but also with the Ionic and Corinthian. The mixture in my opinion is very attractive to look at and represents great strength’. At Il Redentore however an uninterrupted ‘Corinthian order’ makes its way around the entire interior.  These orders were, of course, originally a feature in Greek architecture and were popularised by Roman Vitruvius (80–70 BC – 15 BC) who wrote a treatise, The Ten Books of Architecture which had huge influence. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. To roughly paraphrase him: ‘Just as birds and bees built their nests, so humans construct houses from natural materials that gave them shelter against the elements’. When perfecting this art of building, the Greeks, as mentioned above , had invented the architectural orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian . It gave them a sense of proportion and Vitruvius drew from this in his designs, as did Palladio and others who came after him. John Summerson , whose book The Classical Language of Architecture (Thames and Hudson , 1963)  I am reading at the moment , sums this up well: ‘A vast amount of pretentious nonsense has been written  about proportion and I have no intention in getting involved in it. The Renaissance  concept of proportion is fairly simple. The purpose of proportion is to establish harmony throughout a structure  – a harmony which is made comprehensible either by the conspicuous use of one or more of the orders as dominant components or else simply by the use of dimensions involving the repetition of simple ratios ….The orders  provided a sort of gamut of architectural character all the way from the rough and tough to the slim and fine’. (pp 8 & 15) . I think that is a very good summation.

The Church is also famous because every year, the then Doge (the chief magistrate or leader of the Venetian Republic when it existed)   and senators , walked across a specially constructed bridge from the Zattere to Giudecca where the church is situated, to attend mass. Still today this ‘Festa del Redentore’ remains an important festival in the city celebrated the third Sunday in July . In Ireland it is called a Pattern Day – a type of celebration of a local saint. This church also has some wonderful art works, my favourite perhaps being The Baptism of Christ by the Venetian Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588). His works usually are enormous canvases, featuring many people and have allegorical, biblical, and historical themes. But he was also a good observer of the world around him. Aileen Ribeiro in her book Clothing Art : The Visual Culture of Fashion , 1600-1914 comments that ‘Veronese’s freedom in the depiction of costume .. irritated the defenders of the academic hierarchy in art’ .( pp 216) This is a theme I revisit briefly in the concluding post in this series when discussing William Hogarth’s writings from the 18th.

Paolo Veronese The Baptism of Christ (detail), Ca.1561 Il Redentore, Venice . Image , Wikimedia Commons.

Our next church is San Giorgio Maggiore, a 16th-century Benedictine church on an island of the same name.  Also designed by Andrea Palladio, the building shows again the architect’s cleverness in adapting a classical temple façade, to a form acceptable as a Christian Church.

Church San Giorgio Maggiore. Image: Wikimedia commons

As mentioned , Palladio was inspired by classical Roman architecture, but he did not imitate it completely. He chose elements and assembled them in innovative ways appropriate to the site and function of the building. This type of innovation is something, over the course of my first year studying art history, at UCD , I learnt the Venetians were good at. Palladio’s buildings were often placed on foundations raised up to make them more visible and provide a better view. His influence in architecture is well documented, not just because of his buildings,  but also because he too wrote a  treatise, The Four Books of Architecture, which influenced many architects  who came after him, just as Vitruvius’s work had done.

Castletown House, Image : Denise Meagher.

We  can see examples of his style of design in houses like Castletown House  (above) in Celbridge here in Ireland, for example.

Back in Venice, on entering the church one is immediately struck by the spaciousness of the design and the brightness of the interior. Massive columns and a long basilica nave unfold before the eye. The basilica follows a cruciform plan.

Church San Giorgio Maggiore, Interior: Image Denise Meagher


Where better to meet one of the great master ‘s work – Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (1518-1594) . The Church has two of his pieces : The Last Supper and The Jews in the desert . The latter shows the Jews collecting and eating the manna (a type of bread) in the desert, a gift of God to the Israelites,  after they escaped Egypt, and it foreshadows the concept of the Eucharist.  His works are considered Mannerist in style characterised by dramatic brushwork and his use of perspective.

Jacopo Tintoretto , The Jews in the DesertCa. 1593 San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice


We also get the opportunity to take a lift up the campanile  , an Italian bell tower where some great views of the city can be seen.  I am particularly struck by the view opposite us where we can see St. Mark’s Square where we will soon walk to.

By now it is approaching 6pm and most of us had little or no sleep the previous night, so we decide to head towards St. Mark’s Square to soak the atmosphere only this space can provide before finding a nice restaurant to eat.

As we enter the square the mosaics on the Basilica di San Marco glitter as the sun starts to emerge from behind the clouds. I buy myself a hat in case we get more rain or too much sun. Étienne , my youngest son, fell in love with it on my return, even wearing it to bed on one occasion, so it is now officially his!

Basilica di San Marco, Image: Denise Meagher

Procuratie Nuove occupies the right side of the Piazza, designed by the architect Scamozzi (1552-1616), a student of Palladio , and was later finished by Scamozzi’s student, Longhena (1598-1682). More about Longhena later.  In class this year it was explained to us that it was the architect Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino (1486-1570) who laid the foundations to rebuild a range of buildings as the Procuratie Nuove. These were ‘ a new set of administrative apartments (not completed until the 1580s under the supervision of Vincezo Scamozzi. The Piazza was widened , and the new range was set further back in the Campanile. The piazza acquired 20m in width and the Campanile became free standing. The Doge’s Palace now becomes far more visible as one enters the square. Sansovino also succeeded in clearing the square of many of its ramshackle huts and stalls’ . (Lecture notes)

Between 1805 and 1814, Napoleon, who had proclaimed himself King of Italy, lived in the Procuratie Nuove whenever he visited Venice. It was he who, it is alleged , called the square ‘the drawing room of Europe’ given that it was visited by so many young men on their Grand Tours, the trip embarked upon, as I mentioned earlier, usually by aristocrats, to finish off their education, by giving them some experience in classical culture and architecture. Some also argue it was an excuse to party!.


Procuratie Nuove. Image: Denise Meagher

On my last visit to Venice in 2015, we sat in the famous Florian café for refreshments on our first night in the city. I will never forget the orchestra playing and the lights of the square flickering around us . It is a memory I hold vividly to this day. Café Florian dates back to 1720 and was frequented by famous people like Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir  and many others. 

 Café Florian at Procuratie Nuove . Image: Café Florian website

This evening however we all desire some pasta and an early night’s sleep. Day one of my Grand tour is over and I already know it will be a trip of a lifetime.

We arise early on Saturday morning and return to St. Mark’s Square where we intend to visit the Doge’s Palace , then the Museo Correr.  The Doge’s Palace is a building that one might overlook visiting on a trip to Venice. This was the residence of various Doges over the centuries. It would be a shame not to visit the interior because it is truly a mesmerising experience to walk through – a building that is literally wall to ceiling covered in art. We probably all know the exterior of the building from vedute (city views) by Venetian artists from the 18th century like Canaletto (1697–1768).  His works were popular with the grand tourists to bring home after their tour.

Canaletto, View of the Basin of San Marco from the Punta del Dogana 1740-5, Pinoteca di Brere collection, Milan

In the painting above we can see the Doge’s palace exterior . The building we see today is the result of several phases of modification and rebuilding from about 1200s to the last Doge’s residency in 1797 . The façade is in Venetian Gothic style, which is really beautiful.

Doge’s Palace, Image : Denise Meagher


Several fires have ravished the building over the years, so there are only few traces remaining of the original palace but some Byzantine – Venetian architecture features can still be seen at the ground floor. One of our colleagues on the trip who is researching mosaics for her PhD talked to us about this aspect of the building.

Andrea Palladio had made a proposal to refurbish the building in a more Classical style but it was decided to respect the original Gothic design.  They were correct. It became a museum in 1923 and is one of the 11 museums of importance in the city. It has great works by Titian (1488/90-1576 ) , Tintoretto  (1518-1594) and Tiepolo (1696-1770) , among others  .

Giovalli “ Bombarda” Cambi (stuccadore) and Jacopo Tintoretto (painter ),  Ceiling of the  Four-door room of  the Doge’s palace. Image: Denise Meagher

Moving from here to the Museo Correr, another stunning building to visit, particularly the rooms that have a particular 18th Century atmosphere. This Museum boasts wonderful works of art , including some by Antonio Canova (1757–1822) the Venetian Neoclassical sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures. His work was inspired by the  Baroque and the classical revival and has been characterised as having avoided the ‘melodramatics of the former, and the cold artificiality of the latter’. When in Rome Canova spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo. We will meet Michelangelo through his masterpieces later.

My favourite of Canova’s pieces is The Three Graces depicting the mythological three Charities, daughters of Zeus   – identified on some engravings of the statue as  Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia  and  who were said to represent, mirth (Euphrosyne), elegance (Aglaea) and youth/beauty (Thalia). I will discuss this piece again in Part 5 of this blog series.   We see below another example of his work from the museum.

Canova Orpheus and Eurydice  1777, Museo Correr, Image: Museo Correr

My own presentation was scheduled at our next museum stop – the 18th  Century museum Ca’ Rezzonico.  This building stands on the right bank of the Grand Canal. The site was originally occupied by two houses which belonged to the Bon family, one of Venice’s patrician  clans. In 1649 the head of the family, Filippo Bon, a Procurator of the city and patron of the arts, decided to transform the two houses into a single large palazzo. He employed Baldassarre Longhena (1597-1682), the greatest proponent of Venetian Baroque, a style slowly replacing the Renaissance and Palladian architectural style. Longhena was the designer of the famous dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, a Venice baroque landmark at the entrance to the Grand Canal. He was also a student of Scamozzi and Scamozzi’s own master was Andrea Palladio as mentioned earlier – so we can see how all these brilliant architects influenced each other. Sadly, the architect died before the building was finished and the owner ran out of money.

In 1750 the Bons offered the unfinished palazzo to Giambattista Rezzonico, a banker and fabric merchant from Lombardy, whose family had bought a title of Venetian nobility in 1648, following the war with Turkey , when the Venetian state funds were depleted. Rezzonico hired the most prestigious Venetian late Baroque architect Giorgio Massari (1687-1766), who designed several important buildings. At Ca’Rezzonico he finished the works Longhena had implemented with modifications to suit his later Baroque, or ‘lighter rococo’tastes. He replaced  some double columns on the facade with slender pillars and eliminated a heavy plinth of columns, giving a more graceful appearance. He installed a row of small oval windows above the larger windows on the second floor, adding a rococo touch. The facade was finished between 1750 and 1752.

Ca’ Rezzonico, Image: Museum Website


The Rezzonico family wielded huge power, not only in Venice, but also in Rome. There were frequent banquets at the building in this time and as I walked up the staircase to the grand ball room I imagined myself in masque and gown having arrived from a gondola and ascending the stairs, listening to the chatter and music from above.

Denise in Mask, Image: Don Devine

Carlo, the younger brother of the house’s owner Giambattista , was elected Pope Clement X111 in 1758. In 1759 Aurelio Rezzonico was elected  a Procurator of San Marco, and in 1762, another family member, Ludovico Rezzonico, would be elected to the same position. This gives some sense of the power the family wielded.

Pietro Longhi , The Rezzonico Family,  1758

After the Rezzonico family’s fortune and power came to an end and the building was no longer theirs, various people rented or owned the property.  The City Council purchased the building in the 1930s to showcase the large and important collection of 18th Century artwork the city had to boast. The then Supervisor of Fine Art and the Director of Museums were key players in establishing the museum in its current format.  They gave the museum a particular character, as if the works were not being shown in an exhibition  space but simply placed where they naturally belonged in the home of an 18th Century wealthy Venetian family.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo 1727-1804 Il Mondo Novo (1791) Ca’ Rezzonico

My presentation deals with the history of the building but also discusses some of the major artists at the museum which allow us to compare different trends in the Venetian painting school of the Eighteenth century. For example, the vivid, sensual, splendour of the rococo, visible in the allegorical and mythological works of Giambattista Tiepolo. But also the everyday spirit of the Venetian 18th Century society , with all its class vagaries and sensitivities is captured in the paintings of  Pietro Longhi (1702-1785). The flamboyance and profligacy of city life can be seen in Longhi too and in the works by Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) at the museum. Guardi and Canaletto’s (1697-1768) veduta of Venice are somehow always in the background of our minds, as mentioned earlier , when we think about Venice, partly because the Grand tourists bought them and popularised them in Europe.  Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) one of the most famous female portrait artists from this time also features at the museum and captures in her portraiture some of the period’s wonderful personalities . Giandomenico  Tiepolo (1727-1804), eldest son of Gaimbattista Tiepolo  directs us off the 18th Century stage with his marvellous work, including ‘Mondo Nuovo’  (1791) (above) and others , that hang in the museum.

It would be remiss of me not to mention, however, a work of art that really struck me. Lorenzo Baldissera Tiepolo’s portrait of his Mother Cecilia Guardi Tiepolo is a masterpiece. The youngest of the family he sadly died too young to progress his obvious talent for Portraiture.

Lorenzo Baldissera Tiepolo (1736-1776) Pastel Portrait of Cecilia Guardi Tiepolo, 1757, Ca’ Rezzonica

My presentation over we have a final stop, a relatively unknown gem in Venice  – San Pantalon with a most magnificent ceiling by Giovanni Antonio Fumiani (1645–1710),  an Italian painter of the Baroque period.

Giovanni Antonio Fumiani, The Martyrdom and Apotheosis of San Pantalon (Detail) 1680-1704 Image: Denise Meagher


Between 1684 and 1704, Fumiani decorated the ceiling of  this church with what has been claimed to be the largest painting on canvas in the world. The painting depicts ‘The Martyrdom and Apotheosis of San Pantalon ‘ , an early martyr, across forty-four canvases that cover the large ceiling.  My photograph above does no justice to this magnificent ceiling. Some believe Fumiani died from a fall from a San Pantalon ceiling scaffold, although other sources date his death to six years after he stopped work in the building. In any event it is a joy to see, so one to look out for if you travel to Venice.

We retire after another wonderful day for some pasta before returning to our hotel to share some wine on our last night in the wonderful city of Venice. I look forward to returning in the not-too-distant future.