A Towering Meeting; Master of Color

Pope Receives Bush in Vatican Gardens

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Like the spring rainstorms that have been sporadically sweeping Rome the past month, a train of high-profile visitors has been making every day an adventure in the Eternal City.

Forty-three heads of state for the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization summit, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard filming "Angels and Demons," and protests regarding the presence of the president of Iran have invaded piazzas, displaced traffic and given each day a little touch of Roman theater.

This week the catwalk of illustrious visitors reached its climax when U.S. President George Bush flew into town Wednesday. The visit is part of a five-country tour of Europe, almost like a farewell appearance after his eight years in office.

The president is in Rome to visit old friends such as the newly re-elected prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, but he's also making time for a new friend, Benedict XVI. Counting President Bush’s last trip to Rome in June 2007, this meeting will be the third encounter between the two men.

In response to President Bush’s warm reception of the Pope at the White House last April, Benedict XVI made an interesting overture toward forging a more personal bond by selecting a significant venue for their meeting.

In Rome, place is everything. Palaces with myriads of rooms designed for every rung on the protocol ladder, and important historical narratives splashed across every wall bespeak of a city with a strong sense of hierarchy.

From the Renaissance era, Popes developed more informal settings for meetings, looking for places where they could converse in a more relaxed environment surrounded by the beauty of nature.

Benedict XVI chose to host the president not in his office at the end of endless corridors and dramatic spaces, but in the Tower of St. John in the Vatican Gardens, a site traditionally associated with the more intimate moments and friends of the papacy.

The Tower of St. John grows out of the ancient Leonine walls built by Pope Leo IV to protect the precious relics of St. Peter against Saracen attacks in 852. Pope Nicholas V expanded the walls adding towers, including the one known today as the Tower of St. John.

The name probably was given to the structure after Pope John XXIII restored the space, intending to use it a private place of retreat. Little bronze statues of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist flank the coat-of-arms of John XXIII above the simple and austere entrance arch.

The tower has since been used briefly by both Pope John Paul II in 1978, shortly after his election, and Cardinal Bertone when he was appointed secretary of state. It is best known as a guest residence for special friends of the Pope.

The tower is perched at the highest part of the gardens in one of the most tranquil spots of the Vatican City State. The replica of the grotto of Lourdes is just a few meters away, and it is surrounded by a stunning botanical garden.

The natural setting of the tower is one of the most touching messages of the site. Sheltered by the Leonine wall, dozens of species of plants from all over the world thrive side by side. Exotic and delicate Japanese trees contrast with florid American Magnolias, while a young olive tree sinks its roots into Vatican soil to commemorate the beginning of Vatican-Israeli relations in 1994.

After the meeting, the two men will leave the formal garden and walk toward the English garden where they will stop at the Shrine of the Madonna of the Guardia. This elegant brick aedicule rendered precious by mosaic inlay was a gift to Pope Benedict XV, from his native home of Genoa.

On Aug. 29, 1490, outside a tiny impoverished village near Genoa, the Blessed Virgin appeared before a local farmer named Benedetto (Benedict) Pareto, asking him to build a Church to her on the rough and mountainous site.

Benedict XVI recalled this apparition when he paid homage to Virgin at the start of his apostolic pilgrimage to Genoa last month. He observed that when the farmer worried about all his difficulties, Mary replied, “Trust in me! You will not lack the means. With my help everything will be easy. Only be firm in your will.”

Benedict XVI told the faithful of Genoa: “Mary repeats this again to us today. An ancient prayer, very dear to popular tradition, has us address these words to her, that today we make our own: 'Remember, O, most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided.'”

These words contain some sound advice for our troubled age.

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Bringing Down a Little Heaven

Sixteenth-century art critic Giorgio Vasari said it best when describing the work of Antonio Allegri, otherwise known as Correggio, “No one ever handled colors better than Correggio, or produced paintings of greater delicacy.”

A new exhibition at the Galleria Borghese presents 25 paintings by this master from Emilia Romagna who lived at the height of the Italian High Renaissance. This is the first large-scale presentation of “moveable” works by an artist whose greatest claim to fame are his frescos in his home city of Parma.

The Borghese Villa was an inspired choice for the show as the permanent collection contains masterpieces by the best of High Renaissance artists such as Raphael and Titian. With Correggio’s works placed side-by-side with their more famous counterparts, visitors can see the unique contributions that the Emilian painter brought to this fertile artistic age.

Comparing the strong but elegant line of Raphael’s "Entombment" to Correggio’s "Lamentation Over Dead Christ," one can see that Correggio’s warm colors do much to soften the scene.

Raphael’s figures all fit perfectly into the frame and the composition, whereas Correggio’s image cuts back diagonally toward the cross, and one figure is partially cut out of the scene, giving it a greater sense of immediacy.

Both artists try to appeal to the heart of the viewer. Raphael gives us the poignant contrast of Mary Magdalene’s warm, pink palm cradling the green, lifeless hand of Christ, while the Virgin Mary swoons on the other side of the panel, mirroring the dead Christ’s expression.

Correggio’s Mary also echoes her son’s expression, but with Jesus sprawled across her lap as she sits on ground, the bond between the mother and Son is intensified.

Even compared with the Venetian Titian, world famous for his brilliant use of color, Correggio stands apart. Titian’s masterpiece of "Sacred and Profane Love" is the pride and joy of the Borghese gallery, and for this occasion, the curators brought together Correggio’s four great paintings of the "Loves of Jupiter" from different collections to show the two great painters of female beauty side-by-side.

Titian’s creamy white flesh emerging from chocolate brown shadow and enlivened by streaks of bright fuchsia, provides seemingly tangible effects in his works, Correggio, on the other hand is more subtle; he paints smoke, light or fog, adding a heady atmospheric quality to his works.

The Galleria emphasizes Correggio’s success as a painter of mythological love stories, noting that Scipione Borghese also commissioned a series of mythological sculptures from Bernini.

It is this very quality which made him an excellent religious artist. The same sensuality with which he paints golden hair or soft skin helps viewers imagine the tenderness of baby Jesus with his shining curls and glowing cheeks. It seems at times that one could almost smell the sweet baby scent of the infant Christ.

This appeal to the senses and emotions made Correggio the precursor to the Baroque era. Several of Annibale Carracci’s works, for example, were deeply influenced by Correggio’s "Noli Me Tangere" featured in the exhibition as well as the abovementioned "Lamentation."

Even Caravaggio found inspiration in Correggio’s works. The great gap in the show is the "Nativity at Night" from 1522, which unfortunately was not loaned to the gallery. In this work, the Baby Jesus becomes the source of illumination for the panel -- literally the light that came into the world.

The exhibit does have the Uffizi "Adoration of the Child" however, which renders the same idea.

Even Bernini drew upon the ideas of Correggio. His famous "Truth Unveiled by Time," sculpted in 1650, drew on the sketch for “The Allegory of Virtue” in Borghese’s collection.

Correggio’s greatest works were the frescos of the Parma Cathedral where he shows the Virgin Mary assumed bodily into heaven in a spiral of clouds and angels in golden light. These, of course, cannot be moved, but several drawings reveal the extraordinary draftsmanship that would later inspire the Carracci family.

The accuracy of line allowed viewers to feel as if they were glimpsing angels soaring overhead, while the brilliant coloring made one feel bathed in warm, heavenly light.

The joyful love that permeated all his works allowed the brush of Correggio to bring heaven a little closer to earth.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.