Cesare Cunaccia, March 30 2019
The balcony of Maria Grazia Chiuri, amongst various rooftops and domes, looks out on the garden of cloistered nuns, dotted with orange trees and vines out back. Maria Grazia and her aesthetic sensibilities, from a rooted sense of belonging and intermittent passions. A modern-day grand tour begins from her house, recalling memories of Mimì Pecci-Blunt and the Surrealists, who arrived in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century, only to discover the ways of Mannerism and lose themselves in the stone monsters of Bomarzo. Doyenne of an experimental cultural universe, Countess Pecci-Blunt dominated the Roman stage for forty years during the nineteenth century, ceding supremacy to Marguerite Caetani, Duchess of Sermoneta, and the fashion journalist and writer Irene Brin, whom, along with her husband, Gaspero del Corso, comprised the heart and soul of the Galleria dell’Obelisco.
In 1935, Anna-Laetitia Pecci-Blunt gave birth to the Galleria della Cometa, with the help of Libero De Libero, who later withdrew because of the Italian racial laws. It was the crossroads of Roman Tonalism, which gave way to Expressionism. On the wall, next to the entrance, is an antique column that becomes the showcase of Cagli and Fazzini, Mirko and Carlo Levi. Because of Pecci-Blunt, important artists and musicians came to Rome, including playwright Jean Anohuil, composers Milhaud and Poulenc, Dalì, painter Eugène Berman, pianist Rubinstein and composer Stravinsky. The vanguard belonged to them. They were trendy and passionate, with elegant distance and playful irony. The noble woman appeared in black and red Balenciaga, covered in veil, with a cigarette always in hand. Edgy, she pronounced her S’s like a prophet. With her heavily made-up eyes, Kajal-style, she looked upon Rome from a home of shagreen and parchment, created by Jean-Michel Frank. As the niece of a Jewish New York banking couple, Cecil Blumenthal was already a figure who went beyond clichés. She moved in the world without butting heads with reactionaries like the black aristocracy. Her residencies, il palazzo dell’Araceli, acquired in 1929, and the Villa of Marlia in Lucchesia, previously belonging to Elisa Baciocchi, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and sister of Napoleon, become poles of intellectual, musical and worldly attraction. The Countess protected Moravia, Pirandello, Mastroianni, Savinio and Mafai, Severini and Capogrossi, among others. In 1958, the Teatro della Cometa was inaugurated. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s distinctly Roman voice runs counter to that of Marie-Laure de Noailles in Paris; but both live along the same Rome-Paris axis. The Surrealists were the guardian angels for Christian Dior.
The Small Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
The establishment dates back to the fifth century AD. The building emerges above a maze of classical and medieval ruins, interwoven with elements of the Renaissance and Baroque. Saint Cecilia, the protector of musicians, was martyrized in 220 AD. The marble statue of her is a Baroque work by Stefano Maderno, framed with lapis, gilded and Porphyrian bronze, beneath the Gothic ciborium of Arnolfo di Cambio from 1293. The tales of Cecilia’s life have elements of contemporary fiction. You could lose yourself in legends and chronicles of torture in this place, which according to tradition, would have been her patrician home. In the middle of the inner courtyard was a basin with a white marble urn, reminiscent of a peristyle.
The abbey of the church is a concave curtain of gilded mosaics. In the side chapels, deep like darkened tunnels, is where the church cardinals slept. Among them, Cardinal Rampolla rested within an anachronistic and lavish scene from the early Nineteenth century, a stone monument of Cardinal Sfondrati on the portico. On the ceiling is a painting by Sebastian Conca from the eighteenth century of a deep blue sky with silver clouds, filled with saints.
The surprise, upon entering the monastery, is the painting by Pietro Cavallini. In the second half of the thirteenth century, in the counter-façade, he painted a masterpiece fresco. This is the Giudizio Universale, of which there is only one remaining visible strip—and to see it, one must go to the women’s gallery of the Benedictine monks (which is closed to the public), built by Ferdinando Fuga on request of Cardinal Francesco Acquaviva d’Aragona at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The fresco was covered with white limestone. Angels drawn at geometrical lines appear with feathered wings in the fluorescent colors of Vernon Panton.
There is an image of the drowned and the saved, a jumble of dancing demons in hell: stylized feathers in the form of the letter U turned on its head could pass for modern-day designs, the stuff of Dior haute couture. A smiling nun in the distance knits something white. Maria Grazia takes a few steps back, observes, then says carefully: “Maybe all of this,” she whispers, “the heritage of this city helped me unconsciously take on Dior and his cultural legend.” On the wall next to the door is a representation of the gold-leaf loricated armor of a warrior saint. Pietro Cavallini had the grandeur of classical Rome at his feet. This legacy endured throughout the Middle Ages, when the city was little more than a village.
Santa Maria del Priorato
The Church’s genesis goes back to the tenth century—silhouetted against a patch of extraterritorial urban land belonging to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Knights Hospitaller international organization founded in Jerusalem a thousand years ago on a legendary heroic episode. The Order of Malta has recently gone through a controversial period—resignations from the highest leadership, the removal of the Grand Master by the Pope, a series of murky innuendos. It underwent legal proceedings led by the Vatican, resulting in the breach of centuries of managerial independence.
The building bears the signature of Giovanni Battista Piranesi – the Venetian engraver, antique dealer and theoretician who established himself in eighteenth-century Rome as an epic visionary of reinterpreting classical antiquities, his work largely seen as a bridge, or, as Gabriel Zuchtriegel writes: “an underground and musical passage between the Baroque and Romantic periods.”
The Santa Maria del Priorato Church (Saint Mary of Priory) is Piranesi’s only architectural work. It was built between 1764 and 1765 at the request of the Cardinal of Venice Giovan Battista Rezzonico, nephew of Pope Clement XIII. Its façade recalls the sumptuous fireplace designs of Piranesi, with a couple of pillars emblazoned with the motto FERT, a triangular gable, garlands, panoplies, and allegories. Inside the building are altars, tombs and stucco ornamentation. Everything is white: a luminous and dazzling milk white. Piranesi enjoyed blending time periods: Roman sepulchers, Paleo-Christian grids, Early Middle Age reliefs. The main altar was made by Tommaso Righi. It’s decorated with stucco concretions that could be nut shells—the white is in contrast with the colorful flags of the various languages of the Jerusalem Order, and the purple robe of the Great Master’s throne. The Baroque imprint deflagrates in a breath of classicism, translated into a figure that hints at romanticism and seems Foscoli-like. The white becomes absolute, nearly an abstraction. It contains both expressive liberty and mathematical radiation. Here, Piranesi is buried beneath a sculpture by Angelini in which he’s robed, like a patrician roman from antiquity.
Cerere Pasta Factory
This has been transformed into an artists’ laboratory and residence, which also houses research on communication and publicity, fashion, as well as the Institute of Photography and Integrated Communication. A destination that came to be thanks to its owner, Flavio Misciattelli, as well as the initiative of the Cerere Pasta Factory Foundation that runs it. One immediately senses the creative energy upon entering. It’s a little village of creativity that hosts courses and presentations, but the crux remains the work, research and language of the artists who are present. Everything begins between the Seventies and the Eighties, when certain artists, all born around the middle of the Twentieth Century, but diverse amongst themselves—decide to leave the center of Rome and go and live and work in this abandoned industrial factory from the Sixties, in the working class neighborhood of San Lorenzo. These artists include Bruno Ceccobelli, Gianni Dessì, Nunzio, Piero Pizzi Cannella, Giuseppe Gallo e Marco Tirelli. They give life to an association that will last for a decade, celebrated by Achille Bonito Oliva in the exhibit Ateliers in 1984. The Group of San Lorenzo leads the way.
We are here at the pasta factory, in the studio of Pietro Ruffo. “Pietro was born in 1978 and for me, is a reference point for the generation that must define Rome today,” Chiuri says. In front of our eyes, the world of this young artists is revealed: various plans and intertwined models are super-imposed, the Zodiac signs of Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola become textures. The sense of time unites harmony and disruption. The fine, curved oriental handwriting marks the polished surface of plastic material. Pietro Ruffo is a storyteller with an unbridled imagination. Botany, insects (dragonflies especially), daily life, philosophical thought. Mozarabic and Cosmateque mosaic flooring that stand out like flying carpets, chimeras and geopolitics. He uses scissors and pens, he lines up paper, colors, powders, wooden inserts. Maria Grazia concludes, “Rome is not just memory and ancestral inheritance.”
Translated from the original Italian by Kristine Crane