Yesterday some of Rome’s banks opened their doors and let the public in to see their exquisite offices, some of which are in stunning baroque palaces. This once-a-year event – called Invito a Palazzo – is organised by Italy’s banking association, ABI, and is a chance to have a nosey around buildings that are usually closely guarded by menacing-looking men with guns (I’m sure they’re lovely really).
The open day seemed to be well organised, with teams of officials directing people to form an orderly queue (quite an unusual phenomenon in the context of an Italian bank) and letting small groups of 30 or so people in at a time for guided tours.
The glitzy chapel – a fitting tribute to Italy’s anti-usury charity
I didn’t start my day too early and got to my first port of call, a small chapel inside UniCredit Banca di Roma’s offices near Campo de’ Fiori, at around four in the afternoon. For a chapel it sure was showy, with more gold than P Diddy’s jewellery box.
The chapel was built in the 17th century as an addition to the Rome residence of Italy’s Monte di Pietà, a pawnbroker run as a charity formed in Italy in the 15th century. It was built as a monument to the anti-usury ideals of the institution and the marble freezes over the altar depict mercy, charity, alms, faith and hope.
A Roman baroque masterpiece, the chapel isn’t all that big and is typical of the smaller spaces decorated with much grandiosity and pomp – not to mention bling – by the city’s baroque artists. Domenico Guidi was one of these artists – responsible for the marble freeze of ‘la Pietà’, which echoes the beauty of Michaelangelo’s definitive masterpiece (the Pietà to end all Pietàs, in Saint Peter’s). Marble was shipped in from Carrara for the sculptures – including a depiction of charity by Giuseppe Mazzuoli (a moving 3D portrait of a woman breast feeding a child while holding another child in her right arm). Bernardino Cametti (responsible for the freeze depicting alms – L’Elemosina), Francesco Moderati (Faith) and Agostino Cornachini (Hope) all sculpted other scenes of virtue, while Biblical scenes were contributed by Pierre Le Gros il Giovane and Jean Baptiste Théodon.
Perhaps the domed ceiling is the most eye-catching aspect of the chapel though, with its gilded stucco, the white stucco scenes guarded by putti and an eagle at the centre representing the Holy Spirit.
Palazzo Rondinini – so that’s where half the Roman Forum went
Next on my list of free baroque palaces to visit yesterday was the home of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, at the piazza del Popolo end of via del Corso (opposite Casa di Goethe, the house where Goethe stayed in Rome). After queueing for about 20 minutes I was in, looking around a marble-clad courtyard (that’s the original 1762 façade) in calming pale green and creamy-grey marble. The house, once home to the painter Cavalier D’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari) in the 17th century, was bought by the Rondinini (also Rondanini) family in 1744 and was restructured and furbished in the 1760s as a living museum to show off the wealthy Lombard family’s collection of art and antiquities.
The cool courtyard was once home to another version of the Pietà by Michelangelo (known as the Rondanini Pietà, he worked on it during the 1550s until his death in 1564 and it is now in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco). The space is also notable for the marble chunks – inscriptions from Roman tombs, bas reliefs from sarcophagi, busts, fragments and pieces of altars – that are set into the courtyard’s walls like nuts set in toffee nougat.
Our guide, an MPS employee, told us how there were a great many pieces from ancient Rome in Palazzo Rondinini. They were taken for use in the building during the 17th and 18th centuries and were then conserved there. Many of them are incorporated into the building’s fabric, as freezes surrounding by golden baroque frames, set into walls, ceilings or displayed alongside 17th century busts. However, after the Rondinini family sold the house in 1801 (there were no heirs) it was owned by a string officials and dignitaries for the next century. Many of its antiquities were taken abroad during that period. In 1904 there were some updates to the building and in 1946 it fell into financial hands when the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura bought it. One of the antiquities to be taken away was the Rondanini Medusa, a Roman-era copy of an original Greek Gorgon’s face (with snakes) that adorned the shield of the colossal statue of Athene that once stood in the Parthenon. Our guide told us that John Paul Getty was involved in the Medusa’s departure.
Some of the notable pieces include the courtyard’s six-hour clock, the only traditional Roman six-hour clock to survive Pius IX’s introduction of the French 12-hour time keeping in 1846. Other pieces include La Toilette di Venere by Tuscan sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini and a nice touch are the swallows – emblem of the Rondinini family – in the frescoes, inlaid marble floors and stucco decorations of each room.
Palazzo Altieri – sumptuous meeting rooms for Italian bankers
On an even grander scale and even more sumptuous than Palazzo Rondinini is Palazzo Altieri. Built during the reign of Pope Clement X (Emilio Bonaventura Altieri – 1590-1676), Palazzo Altieri is one of the outstanding examples of Roman baroque residence. Impressive frescoes on a majestic scale adorn its courtly rooms (many of them now used as meeting rooms for ABI members), as do masterpieces that once belonged to the Altieri family.
Two canvases by 17th century master Pietro da Cortona were on display at the palace yesterday, showing Biblical scenes of John the Baptist preaching (Predica del Battista) and Jesus speaking on the mountain (Discorso della Montagna).
This was probably the most visually stunning baroque interior I saw yesterday – each room was exceptional, from the beautifully painted fresco ‘Apotheosis of Romulus’, the grand chandeliers, frescoes and oil canvases of the large meeting rooms, to the Pompeian room with its red walls and grotesque motifs.
However, it was probably Palazzo Rondinini that caught my imagination more, with its marble chunks looted from the Roman Forum, its associations with the mysterious figures of Goethe and Getty, and the swallows fluttering around its frescoed ceilings.
There were plenty of beautiful buildings I didn’t manage to see yesterday – I should have got up earlier. Well I guess there’s always next year. I don’t know if any of these places will have any more open days – if I hear anything I’ll post it here.
Here’s a full list of the bank-owned palaces in Rome that were open to the public yesterday:
Cappella del Palazzo del Monte di Pietà, Piazza Monte di Pietà, 33 (UniCredit Banca di Roma)
Direzione Generale, Via Vittorio Veneto, 119 (BNL – Gruppo BNP Paribas)
Palazzo Altieri, Piazza del Gesù, 49 (Associazione Bancaria Italiana)
Palazzo de Carolis, Via Lata, 3 (UniCredit Banca di Roma)
Palazzo Dexia Crediop, Via Venti Settembre, 30 (Dexia Crediop)
Palazzo Rondinini, Via del Corso, 518 (Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena)
Villino Casati, Via Piemonte, 51 (UniCredit MedioCredito Centrale)