Homage to St. Cecilia; Borghese Batting 1000

Patron of Music Honored With Mass in Latin

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 29, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Rome loves music, from the whistling deliveryman to the street musicians serenading at the local trattorie, to the concerts in the glamorous new Auditorium Hall.

Little wonder then that the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, is always lavishly commemorated. Last week, however, the third-century virgin martyr was particularly honored with the first pontifical Mass celebrated in Rome in the Tridentine rite since the apostolic letter of Benedict XVI liberalized the use of the extraordinary rite of the Mass last July.

A "Pontifical Mass," by the way, is a Mass celebrated by a bishop who is accompanied throughout the service by an assistant priest in addition to a deacon and subdeacon.

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos celebrated the Mass in the exquisite Church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, nestled in the courtyard of the former University of Rome. This beautiful structure, shaped like a Star of David -- the symbol of wisdom -- was designed by Francesco Borromini, one of the greatest architects of the post-Tridentine era.

The undulating white walls of Borromini's masterpiece echoed with the soft chant of the Schola Gregoriana, while the polyphony of Festina Lente soared to the high vaults of the dome.

Festina Lente, a Roman musical company dedicated to reproducing Italian Renaissance and Baroque music, sang the Missa "Regina Coeli," written by G.P. da Palestrina in the late 16th century.

Palestrina was choirmaster at Santa Maria Maggiore and his compositions proved that polyphonic music could transport listeners with its sublime sounds while remaining intelligible and focused on the prayers of the Mass.

Cardinal Castrillón summed up the experience of the Mass in his homily, "When words fail to express what is in our hearts, we sing to praise the marvelous presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

The dignity of the celebration, with the major ministers lined up before the altar, clad in scarlet vestments to honor Cecilia's martyrdom and framed by the kneeling altar servers, testified to the majesty of Christ's real presence at the altar.

It was a delightful surprise to see that the participants in the Mass ranged from 25 to 70, and hailed from all over the world from the Americas to Australia. What gathered them all under the same stunning dome that evening was the love of this beautiful form of the Mass.

This diversity was also reflected in the tightly packed church. Old women with their shopping bags, young businessmen with briefcases and motorcycle helmets, seminarians and college students from all over the world, Roman nobles and Italian politicians crowded side by side, reciting in unison the Latin prayers.

Cardinal Castrillón reinforced the importance of this ancient language during his sermon, with the reminder that "Latin was the language of the magisterium, of the stories of the saints and even the language of Cecilia herself."

Standing at the altar, under the plaque quoting Psalm 110 (111) -- "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" -- the cardinal preached about the love of God and man's search for divine wisdom through prayer. The old, young, great and humble all can participate in God's wisdom that embraces everyone.

In the shared moment of the liturgy, the universal languages of Latin music and prayer gathered this diverse people together to praise God and honor his glorious martyr Cecilia.

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Canova's Masterpieces

The Borghese Gallery made an extravagant promise last year: 10 years, 10 top shows. The first, dedicated to Raphael in the summer of 2006 was a hit, and as 2007 drew to a close, Romans wondered, had the Borghese already run out of steam?

The Canova show opened in late October and proved that the Borghese is batting 1000. Dozens of statues, plaster casts, drawings and paintings crowded into the limited space, already heavily laden with the stunning works accumulated by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the early 17th century.

Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, built the villa in 1610 to house a growing collection of works from the old masters such as Raphael to the up-and-coming artists such as Bernini, whom Borghese discovered when the artist was 15.

Borghese's interest in Caravaggio, and Bernini's 10 years of employment at the villa sparked the beginning of the Baroque era which left such a lasting and beautiful effect on Rome.

This constellation of artistic gems remained in the family until for 300 years until in 1902, when the family, for financial reasons, was forced to sell the villa, grounds and collection to the Italian state.

But during the three centuries of Borghese collecting, the villa became a training ground for many great artists, particularly Antonio Canova, born in 1757 in the rural town of Possagno, north of Venice.
After some preliminary training in Venice, he came to Rome in 1779, where direct contact with ancient sculpture, together with the study of Bernini's works in the Borghese, honed his style.

His talent was noticed immediately and by 1792, Canova had completed two papal funerary monuments, one to Clement XIV in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles and the other in St. Peter's for Clement XIII.

While still very indebted to the Baroque influence of Bernini, these works show the first sign of the next great art movement to be born in Rome, Neoclassicism.

Canova's elegant mix of Christian motifs such as the upright and restrained female figure symbolizing Religion juxtaposed by the reclining figure of a paganizing "genius" holding an upside-down torch, moved decisively away from the dramatic and emotive Baroque works.

Unlike his great predecessors in sculpture, Michelangelo and Bernini, Canova never chiseled his works himself. He limited himself to making plaster casts which were given to professional carvers. Canova would then give the final surface touches. Several of Canova's "ghosts," or casts, are featured in the show.

Canova's work swiftly brought him international fame. His lovely 1792 "Penitent Magdalene" kneeling as she meditates on the cross is one of the earliest works in the show.

It is interesting that the lone tear marring the perfect finish of Mary's face can be traced to Bernini's "Pluto and Persephone" in the next room, while the mixture of white marble with bronze accents also reflects his contact with 17th-century sculpture.

Venetian cleric Monsignor Guiseppe Priuli commissioned the Magdalene, but abandoned it when forced into exile with Pope Pius VI by Napoleon. The sculpture was purchased by a French collector and exhibited in Paris where Napoleon took an interest in the Italian artist.

By 1797, Canova was busy replacing works taken by the French under the "Treaty" of Tolentino. He made the "Venus Italica" to replace the "Medici Venus" stolen from the Uffizi and the "Perseus" for the Vatican Museums after the "Apollo Belvedere" was transplanted to the Louvre.

But Canova's Roman masterpiece was "Pauline Bonaparte-Borghese as Venus," a portrait of the Napoleon's favorite sister represented as Venus, winner of the golden apple from Paris for her beauty. Painting, sketches and casts for this sculpture are dotted throughout the show, preparing visitors for this gem of the Borghese collection.

The portrait of the emperor's sister, commissioned in 1803, demonstrates Canova's particular interest in this piece through the perfect surfaces and the exquisite detail.

For this, among other reasons, many have often imagined Canova as a Napoleon sympathizer, but this was not the case. He resisted Napoleon's summons to Paris in 1810, leaving only when threatened, and bravely berated the French emperor for his depredation of Italian art as well as mistreatment of Pope Pius VII.

Canova deemed "art above politics," although he passionately argued with Napoleon and Josephine that the marriage of Roman Catholicism and art had produced most of the spectacular works that France was greedily squirreling away in its museums.

Ironically, his one great commission for Napoleon proved to be his most disastrous work. In 1810, Canova began work on a more than life-size portrait of the emperor as the god Mars.

Perhaps it was the huge sculpture of the notoriously diminutive Napoleon, or the paradox of the god of war as harbinger of peace, or the embarrassing catastrophe of the French campaign in Russia, or simply the fact that the statue was completely nude that made Napoleon back out of the commission, relegating the finished work to a dusty corner of the Louvre.

The duke of Wellington ended up with the Napoleonic colossus as a souvenir of the Battle of Waterloo, and the work remains in England today.

Although an international superstar, courted by popes and kings, Canova never lost his head with all the flattery showered on him. He refused many titles and did not allow himself to be swayed by money.

His diary reveals a man who went to Mass regularly and worried about arriving late, resolved to "hear Mass before doing anything else." He worked for Napoleon under duress, but prepared a portrait of Pius VII as a gift for his heroic resistance to Napoleon.

It was Canova who brought back the famous statues of Laocoon and the "Apollo Belvedere" taken from the Vatican Museums along with Raphael's last work, "The Transfiguration."

While the exhibit emphasizes the more secular side of Canova, particularly the works made for Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife, his ability to create pleasing sculptures for the emperor and his entourage allowed Canova to obtain much from Napoleon for his fellow artists in Rome.

The Galleria Borghese has a time limit of two hours on visits, which is too short for the principal collection, so this show is better suited for those who can indulge the time studying Canova while skipping lightly over Bernini's masterpieces. But the work of Canova opens an interesting window into religion and the arts at the time of the Enlightenment.

The Canova show will remain at the Borghese Gallery until Feb. 3. Reservations are necessary and available through www.ticketeria.it.

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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.