Palazzo Farnese


So, I’m sitting on the stone benches that surround the Palazzo in the early evening. I’m looking across the cobbled square as families gather, tourists perspire and Romans sit to watch the world. I have just eaten a fine piccolo coppa di pistachio with some even finer tortellini in my bag for later, and I’m thinking about melancholy. Why has the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud that fosters the droop headed flowers all?


Twice today it has struck me that this is the underlying condition of the city. The first time, fittingly, in Keats’ house.


Outside the window, on the Spanish Steps there are many, many people dressed in Austrian costume for some reason; they are having a noisy jolly time. Others are trying to sell them things, mostly wilting red roses and those strange plastic lumps with faces that you throw at the pavement. Inside it is dark and still the early 19th century. In the narrow room in which Keats died, parallel to the steps and jolly Teutons, the sense of place, of loss, of mortality is almost painful.

Nothing physical is here from that specific time, not even the wallpaper; all was burnt after his death. His death mask, by Canova’s mask maker no less, is on the wall beside the bed. It was a thin face (unsurprising in one who died from tuberculosis) and a long thin nose. A clever face, certainly not soft or self-indulgent, or indulged. Many copies of letters in frames on the walls, and in cabinets next door.

What makes the pain greater, is the description that, aware of his tubercular death sentence from the moment he first coughed up blood, Keats could not bear to even open the letters he was sent. Particularly those from Fanny Brawne, the women to whom he had been engaged and could not marry because of his lack of health or money.

Even an astoundingly pretty girl with unfeasibly blue eyes in a short flowery dress, telling someone loudly on her mobile that there was “No probs, we’ll be right down” cannot break the spell of the past in this small, quiet space. I sit in an old leather chair in the corner of this room, at the end of the bed, cheerfulness outside comes through the window, and I am close to tears.

The Second occasion for the melancholy fit fallen sudden from heaven came from a visit to St Lorenzo in Damaso.

It is a gloomy, half lit basilica of a church, rectangular with a narthex, side aisles, apse and a coffered ceiling, huge and dusty and empty. Bells start to ring, an elderly woman in a housecoat walks in from the left, a priest from the right. She goes to a pew somewhere in the middle, he fiddles with things on the altar, tests a microphone and goes to sit with her. They go through the responses, the place is so big the echoes repeat constantly; his higher pitch, her constant low monotone. A pair of women are now kneeling before candles at a distant chapel, they look like mother and daughter. There is no one else, at no point will he use the microphone, there is no one to broadcast to. This church must be easily the length of a cricket pitch and half as high and wide. The responses go on, the echoes repeat, as they must at mass every day. The priest and his celebrant, alone together until one of them moves to another place.

Next to me on the stone bench at the Palazzo is an American, he is ordering about his two young children who are playing with a green plastic toy. After a while an Italian man introduces his equally young daughter who has been playing with an orange balloon. The Italian suggests that the three children could play together. Solemnly the children swap toys and continue to play separately. The two men watch the children playing in the Piazza, they do not speak.

Roma is the opposite of Amor as Carlo Levi points out:

“The roaring of the lions in the night

Of the depths of time to memory

Owls, Madonna symbols interrupted

Events timeless outside of history”

From: ‘Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita’, By Carlo Levi

The two soldiers in the army Jeep guarding the French Embassy are bored. Sunday afternoon, the last day of June before the Ferie d’Augusto and the piazza is empty. No pretty female tourists for the soldiers to impress, the boys are stamping their feet and banging the side of their vehicle.

The small church to Santa Birgittae, open briefly on a Sunday afternoon, due to stay open until 5.30 has just been closed by a nun in complex headgear and long grey and white robes, ten minutes early. Seconds later a herd of nuns leave from a door further down the piazza, they are in a hurry, a further nun rushes to join them. They dash away, chatting, mostly African and Asian from what I can see of their faces. No children are playing in the piazza; do Italian children not play on Sundays? The fancy wine bar on the corner is empty, there is a sense here of a city being given over to tourists as its all gets too hot.

Two men walk from the left of the piazza carrying a large bag that I assume contains a double bass, not a body surely, although the bag is big enough.

A woman in a short blue dress with very long brown hair has been standing in the centre of the piazza in front of her old black bicycle (with a wicker basket naturally). The two men stop behind this self-aware and photogenic ensemble, exchange glances with each other and walk slowly in a circle around her. She pays no attention.

There is a pair of very large fountains in the piazza, they are composed from enormous marble rings, each containing a vast Roman bath and a 16th century single fountain with a sort of Fleur de Lys shape. To the side of the left hand fountain, a family with their back to the water feature is admiring a small, new, grey Fiat.

A man in a blue shirt, an almost identical colour but different pattern to the short blue skirt, cycles up to greet its wearer. They cycle off together towards the Campo dei Fiori, his bicycle has no basket.

 A nun from Santa Birgittae comes out to water the palms. The headdress is a white affair that quarters the head to hold on the black cloth that billows down the shoulders. The white crisscross formation and encircling band (I think it is called a chaplet) looks like that protective headgear that front row forwards wear in rugby, I assume nuns don’t wear mouth guards as well.

Two elderly nuns of a different order, (all white gowns, black headdress no head protection) are chatting up the soldiers. The nuns are enjoying themselves hugely. The soldiers (all body armour, beret and machine guns) are deeply embarrassed and keep looking at their boots and blushing. The nuns walk away smiling broadly, I’m sure the one with the stick would swish it in the air if she could.

There is a vigorous football game going on by the right hand fountain. Two boys have taken the space between a lamppost and their bicycles to make a goal. The goalkeeper certainly needs the practice, his net is the very expensive wine bar. The ball keeps banging against the elegant planters that mark the entrance; this is not going down well.

It gets quieter each evening as August gets going, apart from us tourists and one or two mothers with children at the right hand side, the benches are empty.

I have been thinking further about melancholy and Borromini and the convincing use of proportion to emphasise context and therefore create meaningful spaces. At the bottom of the Palazzo Farnese, on the Via Giulia is a strange, neglected church, It is the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte set up to bury the unburied, the nameless bodies found in the streets of Rome.’Orazione_e_Morte

The exterior is cream, crowded with Corinthian columns and deaths heads, images of Old Father Time and hour glasses; grim stuff. Inside though, it is shaped like a small 18th century theatre. Centrally planned around an oval, but unlike Borromini’s San Carlo, it has none of his claustrophobia, edginess, muscularity and strain.

Here we have green Corinthian columns, gilded capitals set against pilasters forced into interstices. This is playful, ‘let’s see what this looks like’, rather than a brooding Mannerist, Laurentian Library approach. Above the deep entablature, there are what look exactly like theatre boxes, places for the better sort to peer out on the proceedings, placed best to see the altar/ stage.

This is not perhaps as obvious as a church I saw on the Corso (Santa Gesu e Maria) this morning, in which the same arrangement of theatre boxes down the nave and around the apse have been filled with over life sized sculpted portraits of the patrons. All gesticulating and reacting as you would at a good piece of theatre; Bernini’s set piece with Colonna onlookers is to blame apparently. Possibly, but this church was playing Strauss waltzes on their sound system when I visited. Santa Gesu e Maria was also a riot of hideously expensive polychrome marble, but dedicated to barefoot, hermit Augustinian monks

Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte has none of that extreme levity, despite the underlying jolliness of the architecture. It only opens for an hour each evening and every time I have been in there are two nuns, head to foot in white, silent, still; kneeling at prayer.

Out in the piazza, a large herd of priests surge up to Saint Birgittae, it as usual, locked. The priests stand around, perplexed, they ring on the door next to the church, the one the nuns pour out off. After a long wait, but they seem a very jolly and young herd happy to enjoy the evening sun, the door opens and they file in one by one.

Two men march into the centre of the square, the y stand very close to each other, they are both on their phones. One faces east, the other north. They are both wearing black jackets, one has bright yellow trousers one bright red. They finish their calls simultaneously and, without speaking, stride back towards the Campo dei Fiori.