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American Art

The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Tuesday, July 1st

Such confusion getting started for Rome this morning! We thought the landlady had called a taxi for us, but as usual we must have misunderstood her, for the time of departure drew near and we were still waiting at the door of Pension Bernini with our luggage beside us. Finally we managed to hail some boys in the street and they carried the bags for us to the plaza facing the Duomo, where the bus was just ready to start.

The ride through the Tuscan hills was magnificent. The hills were the color of sand dunes, and like dunes, they looked as if they had been blown by the wind and molded into many undulating shapes. There were vast stretches of these sculptured slopes, in all shades of gold, from lightest tan to deep bronze. Some were covered with fields of wheat and other grain. Even when the country became more and more rugged and unsuitable for cultivation, we saw little farms here and there, often perched up on the very top of the hills — evidently wherever the settlers in ancient years were able to find a water supply. We passed white oxen pulling carts, and flocks of sheep grazing in the fields, and peasant women washing clothes in communal washing troughs, or trudging up the hills balancing jugs on their head. At one spot we stopped for a drink of cold water from a mountain spring. The country became increasingly mountainous and our bus climbed up as high as three thousand feet. Here little of the land could be cultivated, it was volcanic country. We passed old craters and the ground was strewn with lava.

Our driver was marvelous, and under his skillful touch the bus climbed the steep slopes swiftly and dipped down, roller-coaster fashion. At Acquapente we stopped at a little inn with an enormous dining roam, where we had tea and delicious pastry. Our bus hostess told us this is a very popular resort because of the fine air. The walls were covered with autographed photographs of singers and other celebrities.

On past little walled towns and mountainsides dotted with caves from the old Etruscan times. And then finally Rome, a glimpse of imposing gates and majestic monuments — the statue of Moses — the Via Veneto with its luxurious hotels and side-walk cafes.

Thursday evening, July 3rd

It is almost ten o'clock, and Ary and I have just returned to our room after dining in the restaurant on the roof of our pension, Casa Blanca. We lingered some time after the meal was finished — it was so heavenly cool after the blistering heat of the day, and the green of the neighboring park and the circular outline of the Castelo St. Angelo in the distance were so delightful.

It was because of its nearness to the park with its big shade trees that we chose the Casa Blanca. Otherwise it is hardly to our liking. It is quite a pretentious little place, with a pseudo-sophisticated atmosphere.

The guests are practically all Americans. There is a blond Embassy secretary who is being "dated" by a five-star general, and a rather pretty, dark-haired girl from Long Island, who is in a terrible state of tension, having over-stayed her leave of absence from her designer's job in the hope that definite declaration will be forthcoming soon from the Italian engineer who has been wooing her with such ardor. She says she has seen little of Rome; she is so afraid of missing a telephone call. One guest, a heavy-set dowager from south of the Mason-Dixon line, who evidently has lived here many years, considers it beneath her dignity to talk to her neighbors until she is satisfied with regard to their pedigree. As a result she sits by herself on the balcony most of the time, sipping one drink after another in lonely dignity. Ary and I, being the latest arrivals, have been under her close scrutiny and her verdict on us doesn't seem to be favorable. "It is the foreigners who are spoiling Rome," she declared at lunch this noon, looking at us and addressing a friend.

It seems to me that entire Rome has been coated with this veneer of present-day sophistication and commercialism, obscuring somewhat the under-layers of civilization and culture which make up the Eternal City. Everything is geared for the tourist who has only a few days and wants to cram them full of sight-seeing; everything is mapped out for his easy assimilation. But it is a fabulous place, this city of emperors and popes, of pagans and Christian martyrs, and it is a fascinating experience to be able to scratch even lightly at the patina which has developed over the ages, to catch even a glimpse of the various layers which have been the preoccupation of so many historians and archaeologists and scholars of every kind.

Thus far in our wanderings about the city it is the layer of Roman civilization which seems to project itself most strongly through all the ages which followed it. There is such grandeur of conception in everything that remains from those days. The Colosseum, which we visited yesterday -incredibly colossal it is. This is the vision and the handiwork or giants, not of men. And how equally impressive the Pantheon is in its own way. It is circular, compact, rising majestically high, with a superb dome from which a single shaft or light falls with dramatic effect. There is no describing its beauty of line, its perfection of form, the harmony of its proportions. Raphael is buried here and Victor Emmanuel II and other notables, and it contains many statues and shrines. But I was oblivious to everything but the beauty of the building itself. It stands so simply, with such nobility; it seems to sing out like music.

A similar beauty of form impresses one in the Colonna (from Marcus Aurelius) which is not far from the Pantheon. It is a tall column decorated with hundreds of carved figures representing Roman battle scenes. Hew surprising to see the cross at the top of this pagan column! But this is a city of incongruities, and in addition to the layers of its own culture it has amassed art treasures from Egypt and the Near-East which add to the richness and the complexity of the whole.

Friday, July 4th

More of the Roman layer this morning — the ruins of the Roman forum. The heat was too intense to permit more than a hasty inspection. I wanted particularly to see the "Aurea Domus", the Golden House of Nero. We wandered about interminably in the scorching sun until we found it. And after taking a look at the guide who was assigned to us I would gladly have foregone the whole project. He was the most grotesque looking human being I have ever seen, a ghoul-like creature, with hideously scarred face and an expression of terrifying malignancy. I told Ary later that no doubt they found him when they excavated — he must have crawled out of a crevice somewhere, and they just brushed him off and put him to work showing visitors all the nooks and crannies he knows so well.

We finally ventured in and followed this fantastic figure through the excavated rooms, with their lofty arched ceilings. The ornaments and decorations have been destroyed by time or carried off for display in museums. But the structure itself was most impressive, built as it was on a colossal scale. Another symbol of the Roman’s quest to eternalize themselves.

Saturday, July 5th

To the Cathedral San Pedro ad Vincula this morning, to see the Michelangelo “Moses" statue. I have seen many Photographs of it, but the original is far more impressive than the photographs ever indicate. Very realistic*, of course, even to the veins on the hand, but this gives the figure great strength. Also the feet give the same impression of power, of indominatable will and determination. The horns, which Ary says aren't horns at all, but rays of light (the Bible says there were always rays of light about Moses) help give majesty and strength to the figure. I thought it was majestic and profound enough to be a representation of God, if one conceives a personal God.

I am more than ever eager to see the Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. We plan to go there on Monday.

*I read Ary what I had written about "Moses" and he said I was wrong to call it realism. Realism, he says, creates a shell and then tries to fill it, but Michelangelo had a vision of David or Moses or whatever character he wanted to depict, and he sought to find an outward expression of his vision, to express visually his personal conception of what that character stood for what it meant. He built outward from within; he didn't start with the surface and try to give it a meaning.

Monday, July 7th

The Michelangelo frescoes which adorn the Sistine Chapel have an even more dynamic impact than I had anticipated. You feel that here is a phenomenon of nature, a store-house of creative energy that burst forth with explosive force. To me, Michelangelo in his bigness is closely related to the Titanic force which conceived and created the Colosseum. Only theirs was a collective force, and in Michelangelo it was the individual who had the hand and the soul of a giant. One can never forget the powerful Christ figure in the famous Judgment Day. I found no compassion there, only titanic strength and an avenging sternness.

Of course the Sistine Chapel is the climactic point of the Vatican Museum. But there is much else of interest — countless rooms filled with paintings and sculpture; religious and historical pieces of gold and silver, jewels and carved wood; priceless manuscripts, exquisitely embroidered robes and altar pieces. It is a treasure-trove for those whose interest lies in the religious and historical aspect, to whom the robes and medals and books, the religious statues, the arts and vases and sacred chalices connected with the church throughout the centuries are meaningful. Even Ary and I, whose interest is in the aesthetic aspect, could spend many hours there, roaming through the rooms of paintings, especially our Beloved Sienese and some fine Florentine examples, and through the remarkable collection of sculpture — Roman, Greek, Egyptian. And there is the Raphael Room, hung with paintings and with tapestries woven after Raphael sketches.

I must admit, however, that St. Peter's was disappointing to me. True, the entrance is magnificent — the immense elliptical-shaped piazza, bordered by a covered colonnade composed of massive, towering pillars, four rows deep; the obelisk and fountains and the triple flight of stairs leading up to the Cathedral. The guide-book calls St. Peter's "the most majestic and the most vastest of all the basilicas of Christendom." But to me it was too ornate in conception and too elaborate in decoration, and it left me quite unmoved. Most disturbing was the feeling that it lacks unity. The first designs were made, they say, by Michelangelo, and it was continued by other architects, and each one left a layer of his own taste and his own ideas. As a result it lacks the unity of style and hence the dignity which is so strong in the Gothic and the early Renaissance.

Tuesday, July 8th

When we last saw our shipmates, the Ms, in Paris, alongside Mona Lisa in the Louvre, we had promised that we would get in touch with them when we reached Rome. So we phoned them last evening, and they insisted that we have lunch with them at the American Academy this noon.

We looked at the map and it didn't seem very far from our pension, so we decided to walk, but before long we were sorry. It always looks so simple on the map, but the map doesn't show the hills and bridges and side streets and detours! And it doesn’t show the blistering heat! It was an interminable walk, through narrow streets and cobble-stoned alleys, and up countless flights of stone steps. But finally we reached a very beautiful part of the city, high on the hills, green and cool, with spacious villas, the type I had always expected to see in Rome.

The Academy itself is a handsome white stone building, with big bushes of exotic-looking crimson flowers at the front gate, and a beautifully arranged courtyard with fragments of ancient sculpture and friezes decorating the courtyard walls. There were tables and easychairs all around the verandah, and such a serene and unhurried atmosphere prevailed.

Lunch was served buffet style at one long table on the verandah. A mural painter and his wife sat opposite us, and Ary discovered that the painter had been in his class at the National Academy of Design in New York, and they talked about those days. Mr. B., the muralist, is doing some mosaics for a church in England and will probably spend the winter in Venice, as there are such fine mosaic workers there.

The M’s took us up to show us their room, a cool and comfortable place. They are so happy to have their material needs taken care of while they pursue their adventures in research. The ambience is surely conducive to quiet study and reflection…

Back to the Casa Blanca for a siesta, and about six o'clock, after the heat had subsided somewhat, we set off for the artists' quarters, in Via Margutta, not far from the Piazza di Spagna. Some nice courtyards and studio buildings but no cafe's or galleries of interest, as far as we could see.

The Piazza di Spagna itself has a very distinct character, with its beautifully designed fountain in the center, its simple and dignified buildings in Renaissance style, and at one end the famous Scalinata di Trinita dei Monti an imposing flight of some one hundred and forty stairs. We stopped for a cold drink at a nearby “bikerino,” a unique combination of bar and soda fountain which seems to be peculiar to Italy. They serve all sorts of wines and brandies and liqueurs, also soft drinks and ice-cream, and there are tempting displays of little open sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres and pastries. A group of young Hindus were drinking a weird-looking iced coffee concoction, and we got into a conversation with them. They have a Fulbright grant and are on their way to the United States to study in various universities under the International Institute for Education. Such keen, intelligent young people, so eager to see the world and to bring the knowledge they gain back to their people! Their host and guide, an Italian Professor of Philosophy, invited Ary to come to visit him; said that he would meet an interesting international crowd.

Wednesday, July 9th

Our last day in Rome! We decided to visit the Palazzo Venezia, the exterior of which we have admired so much. It is a striking example of early Renaissance architecture; it holds perfectly in proportion and has a simplicity of line that is a visual delight.

We found the interior equally handsome. Immense rooms with high ceilings, rich with gold and frescoes; beautiful tile floors in fine designs of red, green, and marvelous tones of blue, wonderfully softened and mellowed by age; handsome chandeliers — some of heavy dull gold, others resplendent with colored glass lights. Chairs upholstered in sumptuous velvet, exquisitely carved furniture and lavish displays of fine china and glazed porcelain. Rooms of armor and swords and guns and spears. And of course a superb collection of paintings.

The room which Mussolini used as his office is an enormous one, with floor of Roman mosaics in patterns of human figures and beasts. A big fire-place at one end, and gold chairs upholstered in blue velvet on either wall, down the length of the room. The huge chandelier is of gold, decorated with bunches of purple grapes, and with dozens of lights of green and reddish brown glass. In each of the four corners of the room stands an immense lamp in the form of a gold candlestick with tall white taper.

There are many ante-rooms before one reaches this "royal chamber". Il Ducce was well protected in the center of this vast palace. I thought of A.M.'s story of his visit to Mussolini and the ordeal of marching down the long room to the huge desk at the farther end, while the piercing eyes of Il Ducce bored through him.

We stood in front of the famous balcony, from which one views the majestic Colosseum and the elaborate, over-ornamented white monument to Victor Emmanuel II, and we recalled the multitudes who used to gather below. There was no cheering throng today; only one young Italian, with his wife, in the room beside us, who, in answer to Ary's "This must be the balcony,” nodded yes, then shook his head sadly. He kept coming back again and again to look out of the window.

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