Take a walk on the creepy side in Verano Cemetery

What could be better on a crisp spring day in Rome than to take a walk on the creepy side, in Verano Cemetery? But don’t go alone; I really wouldn’t recommend it. At first it seems pleasant like an ornamental garden, you’ll even see a few people stooping at distant graves or carrying flowers – blooms are big business here, if the thriving row of stalls outside are anything to go by.

Giovanni? Yeah, he'll be filed under G, next to Giuseppe. The Italian way of keeping tabs on the dead

The unseeing marble faces – young and old, angels and hags, pensive moustachioed men, all fossilised – passively allow you to stare and point, but as soon as you walk on, you feel their eyes on your back, accusing and resentful as your lively tread crunches on the gravel path.

Things can get a little boring in the Eternal City

Take a left-hand lane and you find yourself making your way up some steps or a winding pathway to the hill top, the part of the cemetery visible from via Tiburtina. Parts are dilapidated, stones crumbling. Perky cherubs sit cheekily with legs crossed atop grave stones, painted portraits of wealthy Victorian couples gaze happily from family shrines, as if they belonged above a mantelpiece in a grand 19th century house.

Don't be spooked if you hear cackling behind the tombs, it's probably just the ravens having a laugh

You can walk for ages, taking in all those names and dates: the legions of the dead – ancestors, aunts, still-borns and infants, mothers, the forgotten and people you never knew from centuries past.

Entering the Verano without a bunch is like turning up to a party with no bottle: you'll feel unwelcome stares from all quarters

Behind me a twig cracks, I turn and no one is there. It’s then that I realise I haven’t seen a living soul for some time now, maybe an hour. Again a noise – there is someone else up here after all – a child laughing, or is it cackling? I turn quickly again, expecting to catch a glimpse of a toddler running up the path in the long rays of the sleepy afternoon sun. No one is there. It may be the cawing of crows or ravens, perching on the telegraph wires and in the wizened but shady pine trees.

An angel's-eye view of the cemetery

Around the next corner the mosaics on a small doorway inspire me: two life-size angels depicted in pre-Raphaelite style with vivid mosaic pieces. I stood admiring the colour and beauty of the mosaic, but soon had the sensation of again not being alone.

Keep one eye on the elaborate mosaics, and the other on the tomb cats

Sure enough, a smoke-grey cat sits behind me, watching inquisitively and expecting something, which I didn’t give. I left the cat looking perplexed and affronted by my lack of generosity and made my way to the exit before the light began to fade.

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Taking a peek inside Rome’s baroque banking palaces

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

The gilded stucco domed ceiling at Monte di Pieta'

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

The only six-hour clock in Rome, in the courtyard of Palazzo Rondinini

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.

A swallow in the marble in-laid floor at Palazzo Rondinini

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:

One of the frescoed ceilings and chandelier inside Palazzo Altieri

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)

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Rome in the Grip of Caravaggio Fever

At the last count, two exhibitions in Rome are currently show-casing works by the enigmatic 17th century painter who’s known as much for his troubled life in Rome’s baroque art circles (he was forced into exile in Naples, Malta and Sicily after a man was murdered in a pub brawl). The Scuderie del Quirinale is putting 24 original canvases on display in its dramatically dark exhibition space, but tickets are selling like hot cakes. More than 60,000 reservations had been made before the exhibition even opened on 24 February. So you’ll definitely need to book in advance, especially if you want to visit at the weekend. You have until 13 June 2010 to book that ticket.

Another exhibition (closing 25 March) has the more ambitious aim of putting Caravaggio’s entire ouevre – albeit copies – on show at Trajan’s Markets. This exhibition boasts 63 life-sized copies – which is the number of authentic works known by the artist. Film clips add a didactic element. With the title ‘The impossible exhibition’, it does what it says on the tin by bringing together under one roof Caravaggio’s entire works (albeit copies) – the real McCoys are in galleries across Europe and America, so to bring them together would be a mission impossible.

Marking 400 years since the artist’s death, these exhibitions have a high-profile precedent. The Caravaggio-Bacon exhibition at Galleria Borghese was one of the most popular ever staged at the fine arts gallery with tickets fully booked throughout. By the time it closed on 24 January 2010, it had reeled in 195,600 visitors, more than 13,000 of those in the final week.

But there are chances to see a bit of Caravaggio even if you don’t make it to any of the big exhibitions. The following galleries and museums permanently house some of his works:

  • Galleria Borghese is home to several Caravaggio paintings including David with the head of Goliath, Young sick Bacchus, Boy with a basket of fruit, a portrait of Pope Paul V, Saint Jerome Writing and Madonna of the Palafrenieri. (Entrance EUR8.50, tickets can be booked here – in fact it’s advisable to book ahead online, as the ticket allocations are often sold-out.)
  • Palazzo Barberini has Judith Beheading Holofernes and Narcissus. (Entrance EUR5, book tickets here).
  • Galleria Doria Pamphilj on via del Corso displays Rest from the flight into Egypt and Repentant Magdalen. (Entry EUR9, book here).
  • Galleria Corsini on via della Lungara has St John the Baptist. (Entrance EUR4).
  • The Vatican Museums‘ Pinacoteca houses Caravaggio’s Deposition from the cross/Entombment. (Full-price entry is EUR15).
  • Capitoline Museums John the Baptist (Youth with Ram).

These churches also house some Caravaggios – and more importantly, there’s no entrance fee for churches in Rome (although some appreciate donations, and remember churches often close to tourists for mass):

  • The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Piazza del Popolo, in the Cerasi Chapel, holds the The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus.
  • Sant’Agostino on via della Scrofa near piazza Navona has a Caravaggio painting of Madonna of Loreto.
  • In the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi‘s Contarelli Chapel there are three works by Caravaggio: Calling of St. Matthew, Matthew and the Angel, and Inspiration of St Matthew.
  • The Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi holds a work known as Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto.
  • , on via Veneto, has the painting Saint Frances in Meditation, which is thought to be a copy if an original.
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