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Skeletons of Rome

A guide to the macabre sculptures of the Baroque

 

Do you like the macabre? If so, Rome is full of sights for you. There are the mummified monks of the Capuchin convent on Via Veneto. There's the head of John the Baptist in San Silvestro in Capite – though its authenticity is disputed by other relics in Amiens, France, and Damascus, Syria. There are any number of well preserved nineteenth century saints.

But for art fans, Rome presents something else just a little different – beautiful baroque skeletons.

The image of the skeleton in Roman art goes back a while – in fact the earliest one I'm going to mention here is no longer in Rome but in the British Museum. It has a little skeleton carved at the bottom, lying in its grave, and above is a little verse which (I paraphrase) asks: “Hot or not? Can you still tell?” In fact it's a grave slab which covered a loculus, one of the pigeon-holes where dead bodies were stowed in the cemeteries of the Roman Empire.

But it was the baroque which really fell in love with the skeleton in art. Baroque artists in Rome were looking for ever more dramatic statements of the Catholic faith – for instance Caravaggio shows the crucifixion of St Peter and the conversion of St Paul with immense drama in Santa Maria del Popolo – and the figure of Death becomes a major player in the baroque drama of funerary monuments in the city.

This partly picks up the medieval use of the skull as a 'memento mori' – a reminder to the passer-by that they too will die. But it also forms part of the theatre of life – Death appears dramatically, just as Christ appears in glory within a nimbus of light, or Mary appears to the pilgrims of Loreto in Caravaggio's painting in Sant'Agostino. The dramatic epiphany, the supernatural bursting into the world, is a key focus of the baroque, and baroque artists use the figure of Death to show mortality bursting into our lives.

For instance, let's look at two of Bernini's works in St Peter's. In fact, the whole of the basilica owes its current majesty to Gianlorenzo Bernini – he decorated the nave and aisles, created the four huge statues that dominate the space under the dome, and made the wonderful baldacchino and 'cathedra Petri'. But he shows a different side of his character in the fine monuments he created for Urban VIII and Alexander VII.

Urban's tomb dates from 1644. As elsewhere in the church, Bernini uses mixed materials to create a sense of wealth and richness; there is bronze, marble, gilt. But there is also intense drama; the figure of Death is tearing apart the scroll that bears Urban's name. And Bernini also shows his cleverness as a theatrical designer – he produced entertainments as well as buildings and sculptures; in the morning, the sun lights up the figure of Death, just for an hour or so, and then as the afternoon comes, Death retreats again into the shadows.

Bernini has obviously seen Michelangelo's Medici tombs in Florence; instead of Night and Day, he shows Charity and Justice flanking the sarcophagus, and it's a Pope instead of a warrior duke who sits on top, but the format is similar. But the figure of death is Bernini's own addition.

Bernini tomb of Alexander VII in St Peters Rome

Across the basilica is the tomb of Alexander VII. And here, Bernini ups the theatricality stakes considerably. The tomb is considerably later than Urban's, dating from 1678, and more colourful, with bright red and pink variegated marble, and gilded bronze. Across the tomb hangs a floating drapery – and death bursts out from under this drapery, half hidden by it, to brandish an hourglass and announce the pope's imminent departure. And under the skeleton is what at first sight you might take to be a false door, a reference to the classical Roman sarcophagus which showed the doors to the underworld; but in fact, it's a real door that provides an exit from the basilica. (I know, as I've seen one of the dark-suited security guys using it.)

If you enjoyed the lively skeletons of St Peter's you need to make a trip to Santa Maria del Popolo, which has the best collection of skeletons and skulls in the whole of Rome. Right in the middle of the nave floor, for instance, is a tombstone with a marvellous skull and crossbones relief in fine, polished brass.

In the Chigi chapel – created by Raphael and finished by Bernini, an object lesson in the difference between Renaissance and Baroque – you'll find a delightful skeleton by Bernini. He used marble inlays to create this fine fellow in the pavement, holding the Chigi coat of arms. But there's more to this skeleton than meets the eye. He sits directly under the dome, and below him is the crypt where the bodies of the Chigi lie. Look at the dome, and you will see it shows the heavens, the planets, and below these the creation of the world; the life everlasting, and the beginnings of life. And here, at your feet, is death, the end of it. Raphael made the heavens; Bernini made the figure of Death, and by doing so, created what's in effect a shaman's axis between heaven and the underworld. The whole chapel becomes a compressed schema of the Christian universe.

Skeleton in the Chigi chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

At the back of the church, you'll find the skeleton in the cupboard – literally; the tomb of Giovanni Battista Gisleni, an Italian architect and artist who worked in Poland for much of his life. He designed his own tomb, a couple of years before he died in 1672. As with the Bernini tomb, though, don't just look at the skeleton – there's much more to this tomb than that. Look at the little medallions each side of the niche that contains the skeleton, and you'll see on the left, a cocoon, and on the right, a butterfly. The image shows how what appears dead, is in fact coming alive; and obviously we are meant to apply that lesson to the skeleton, which appears to be Gisleni dead, while in fact, the decomposition of his body has freed his soul to eternal life.

Gisleni tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Bernini often played with different variations of the same image, so it should be no surprise to find another pair of marble inlay skeletons in the pavement of the Cornaro chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria. They're very similar in a way to the skeleton in the Chigi chapel, but the one I like is holding an hourglass rather than a coat of arms.

Now this is the chapel that houses Bernini's famous statue of Santa Teresa of Avila, lying back in ecstasy as the angel stabs at her with the spear of love. And I always think, when I'm looking at this skeleton, that he's parodying the ecstatic vision – the twisted position of the body, the strange grin on his bony face, the way he holds both his hands together and looks upwards. That may be a very personal reading... but I wonder. Bernini was a very alert artist, and he didn't often make an effect without being completely conscious of what he was doing. And this is, after all, a chapel which is all about theatre and reaction – the Cornaro family appear in theatre boxes along the sides of the chapel, forming an audience to Teresa's ecstasy, so the skeleton might well be responding to the main drama here.

Now the two Bernini skeletons are very widely known. But the next site I'm going to take you to is a little off the beaten track - Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte, on the Via Giulia. This little church was built in 1738 by Ferdinando Fuga, replacing an earlier building; it was the headquarters of a charitable guild – of which Fuga was a member – which provided burial for unclaimed bodies, whether of executed criminals, or sailors who had drowned in the Tiber. Obviously, the image of Death was of particular importance to this confraternity – and so Fuga decorated the church profusely with little skulls on the capitals, winged hourglasses symbolising time's passing, and even a skeleton on the box for charitable contributions. This little skeleton says 'hodie mihi cras tibi' – me today, you tomorrow. (Or as the English version I know well from the tomb of Thomas Gooding in Norwich cathedral has it, 'As you are now even so was I. And as I am so that you be.') It's all done in great good humour and excellent taste.

Skull at Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della morte, Rome

While Bernini's skeletons are the most famous, other sculptors too created fine tombs featuring skulls and the figure of Death. Skulls often have feathery wings, sometimes looking like curly parsley or ostrich feather fans, rarely realistic.

At the little church of Gesu e Maria, near the Corso, the dramatic tomb of Camillo del Corno was designed by Domenico Guidi. It's immensely dramatic, with a wonderful feeling of vertical thrust – Death rises, throwing his limbs around in a mad jive, toppling the portrait of the dead man. This is a triumph of death – he's central to the tomb, taking it over by force.

In the church of San Francesco a Ripa, in Trastevere, a blackened skeleton flaunts his assets above the portrait medallions of two brothers, Stefano and Cardinal Lazzaro Pallavicino; another surmounts the portraits of the couple Maria Camilla and Giovan Battista Rospigliosi. Look carefully at these tombs, dating from 1713, and you'll see they copy Bernini's plan for the papal tombs in St Peter's, with a sarcophagus flanked by female allegorical figures; but Death has become a dancing, vivacious figure with gilt wings, and there's no element of surprise left.

skeleton at Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della morte, Rome

Bernini often used the skeleton on much smaller tombs. For instance in San Lorenzo e Damaso, near the Palazzo della Cancellaria Apostolica, a wall tomb shows a flying skeleton carrying the medallion portrait of the deceased, against a background of black drapes. And in San Giacomo alla Lungara, between the Borgo and Trastevere, the tomb of Ippolito Merenda is positioned on the wall above one of the doors; it shows a flying skeleton extending a huge inscribed banner in front of its chest, holding the centre in its teeth to prevent it from sagging. Both these tombs date from the 1640s.

One of my personal favourites is in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Everybody comes here to see as much of Michelangelo's tomb of Julius II as ever got made. It's an amazing work of art, but made unbearable by the throng of snapping tourists, and the security guards who really want to discourage you from looking at the tomb or staying in the church longer than it takes to walk up, take a photo and walk away. So never mind the Michelangelo...

But in the left aisle, there's a marvellous tomb to Cardinal Cinzio Albertini. It's not a Michelangelo, but it's fun – and no one else will be looking at it. It's by Carlo Bizzacheri, a pupil of Carlo Fontana, and commemorates cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini. A wonderful skeleton death brandishes a huge scythe over his head. Straight out of Bergman's Seventh Seal.

skeleton on tomb in san Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Strangely enough, you'll find hardly any skeletons later than 1720 in Rome. Taste moved on. The skeleton was no longer a useful symbol. Look at the monuments by Canova in St Peter's, dating from the 1790s and later, and you'll see how the symbolic language he uses has changed – there's been a move from the sublime to the sentimental, from outrageous drama to moderate sensibility. Death here is presented as a mourning youth; no skulls, no putrefaction, no drama.

If you've enjoyed this article, you may enjoy thePodtours of Baroque Rome here at podtours.co.uk – or you might want to go to romeartlover.it, where you can find a page on the memento mori.