Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. From these opening lines of the Ecclesiastes book of the Old Testament came the theme of the “Vanitas” exhibition at The Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Set inside the former residence of one of Rome’s primary papal families of the Baroque period, the exhibition was laid out over five rooms on the palace’s piano nobile in a progression that corresponded to the theme.
Curator Francesca Sinagra’s goal was to present an exhibition that highlighted different aspects of the same certainty: the inevitable transience of earthly things. Finding a common thread to connect still-life to portraiture to penitent saints and funerary masks, she focused on the symbolism portrayed by the vanitas theme popular among still-life painters of Northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
As a concept in art, vanitas evolved from the Humanist philosophy prevalent during the Renaissance. As theorists and theologians alike sought a balance between blind faith and scientific reason, contemporary thought looked to the Classical tradition for answers, where they found a model in Neoplatonism. One of the primary expressions of this revived philosophy was evidenced in art, where masters like Titian, exemplified in his famous work Sacred and Profane Love, created beautiful scenes depicting the sumptuousness of life on earth to inspire the onlooker to think of divine love in heaven. Thus, art of this period became a tool used to encourage greater reflection and meditation on the meaning of life and death, on the difference between heaven and earth.
If one approaches the Vanitas exhibition with this in mind, they can enjoy several diverse painting styles and appreciate their one common aspect: they all in some way remind us that life on earth is fleeting. As you enter the first room of the exhibit, ‘Vanitas in Still-Life,’ you are greeted by the soothing sound of opera music and delectable depictions of fruit, flowers and wild game. Immediately, the most common interpretation of the word ‘vanity’ comes to mind, that corresponding to excessive pride in one’s physical possessions. As the still-life genre was meant for private enjoyment, you can imagine the Pamphilj family’s life of luxury, framed by these delicate works.
The second room of the show holds the most famous pieces in the group, where Saints Mary Magdalene and Jerome are the archetypes for ‘Vanitas in Representations of Saints.’ These two figures, famous for their rejection of worldly goods, were used in art as representatives of the definition of vanity most relevant to this exhibit: the worthlessness and hollowness of earthly possessions. Often portrayed with a skull, the principal object used in vanitas paintings to contrast the temporality of beings with the eternity of the soul, the hermetic Saint Jerome is shown in many lights; a particular gem is Lorenzo Lotto’s eponymous depiction from 1544.
Probably the most famous work in the entire exhibition can be found in this room, Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene (1596-97). Originally a portrait of an ordinary girl, the notorious Caravaggio later added discarded jewelry at her feet to make it a representation of the saint, who notably rejected her affluence to live a deprived yet rich lifestyle following Christ. In Caravaggio’s depiction, Mary Magdalene is deep in contemplation: the juxtaposition of the jewels she has ripped off and her fine damask dress shows that she has not yet decided which path she will follow. As was the aim of most artists of the Baroque period, Caravaggio reveals to us the pivotal moment of the story and captures the viewer’s interest by presenting the climax without telling the result. Part of the Galleria Doria Pamphilj’s permanent collection, this painting is a beautiful example of the artist’s early period, where his training as a still-life painter can be seen in the detail of the jewelry and his use of light is deliberate without fully entering his tenebroso or ‘shadowy’ phase.
Moving on to room three, human figures are still present in the theme of ‘Vanitas of Portraits.’ A curious Portrait of a Thirty Seven Year Old, again by Lotto, shows an anonymous man who can be identified as a widower by the rings on his pinky finger. Traditionally, widowers would wear the rings of their dead wives to preserve the memory of their loved ones (the selection of the little finger was more a matter of fit than of choice). The man in the portrait indicates the rings, reminding the viewer of the fleetingness of life on earth and of worldly possessions, which deliver the same message as the skulls of the previous room. An interesting comparison can be made between this painting and Michelangelo’s sculpture of Christ the Redeemer in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, also in Rome. In Michelangelo’s statue, a reflective Christ points to his tools of martyrdom, as if to remind the faithful that pleasure as well as pain is trivial once the body has perished.
In this room, we also see envoys of the Pamphilj’s collection of Classical busts. In ancient Roman times, busts were seldom representative of their subjects’ true likeness, but rather a conglomerate of their best and most distinguishable features and attributes borrowed from the ‘ideal human form.’ Emperors and, later, Princes of the Holy Roman Empire commissioned these marble portraits to preserve their legacy while succumbing to the inevitable passing of power upon their deaths. By this point in the exhibition, the mood has become progressively dimmer, with lower lighting and the distant echoes of the opera music in the first room setting an eerie tone of contemplation. Above the portraits hangs a sign with a foreboding quote by Plato, “In the end, mustn’t all things be swallowed by death?”
With the mood successfully accomplished, the visitor arrives at the most personal room of the exhibition, ‘Cardinal Benedetto and the Theme of Vanity.’ The Pamphilj cardinal, who lived 1653-1730, was a great patron of the arts. A music-lover and poet, he continued the family tradition started by his predecessor, Pope Innocent X, and commissioned a great number of works, both pictorial and operatic, from contemporary artists. Two of his favorite subjects borrowed from Classical mythology were the stories of Daedalus and Icarus and Apollo and Phaeton, and both tragedies are rendered several times in this room. These stories relay a cautionary tale for the vain mortal who ventures to test the boundaries of heaven and earth, as personified by the hubris figures of Icarus and Phaeton.
From here, visitors are invited to peer into a roped-off room where double-busts in marble and lead represent members of the modern Pamphilj legacy to demonstrate ‘Vanity Today.’ To create these totem-like “death masks”, sculptors Massimiliano Floridi and Jacopo Cardillo used three-dimensional live scan technology to create a perfect rendering of the Pamphilj women’s faces, which were then blown up to a larger size. The stark contrast of the soft white of the marble sculptures by Cardillo above the glossy metallic of the twin lead busts by Floridi below alludes to the dichotomy of life and death. Sculpted in the death mask tradition (an example of a traditional wax death mask can be seen in room four), these contemporary artists leave us feeling haunted by the constant presence of the dead and the brevity of our time on earth.
The exhibit now finished, the art-enthusiast might want to take advantage of the entry ticket to visit the gallery’s permanent collection, where masters like Raphael, Lippi and Vasari, the man credited as the first art historian, deck the elaborate palace halls. Pieces of particular interest are Valasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, a rendering so precise that the great Pamphilj patriarch famously remarked, “You have portrayed me too truly!” The two remaining pieces of the Caravaggio trilogy purchased by the Pamphilj together with The Penitent Magdalene, Rest on Flight to Egypt and Saint John the Baptist (Youth with Ram), are also stunning examples of the artist’s genius for composition. Visitors should take advantage of the free audio guide, which includes witty narration of the collection by the current Pamphilj prince.
Vanity of vanities
May 21-September 25, 2011 (opening extended through January 8, 2012)
Palazzo Doria Pamphilj
Via del Corso 305
Admission: 10.50€ full price tickets; 7.50€ reduced price for students under 30 and seniors over 65; audio guide included
- Palazzo Pamphilj Website: http://www.mostravanitas.com/home.html
- Web Gallery of Art: http://www.wga.hu/index1.html
- Renaissance Humanism: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/humanism.html
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/neoplato/
- Villa Borghese Website: http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/eamor.htm
- Lorenzo Lotto: http://hoocher.com/Lorenzo_Lotto/Lorenzo_Lotto.htm