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The Swiffer, The Devil, and Bernini: The Mosaic Masterpieces Tour 2011 Pt 2

On 24, Oct 2011 | 5 Comments | In Et cetera | By man-admin

Allora!  In our last post we began a recap of the Mosaic Masterpieces Tour 2011, an incredible immersion into all things Italian led by Julie Richey.  Today we will spend a little more time in Rome and close environs before training it to Ravenna and Venice.

More of What We Loved in Rome (and Close Environs)

Mimmo Paladino at the Ara Pacis

Before we begin to rhapsodize on this masterpiece of a contemporary mosaic designed by Mimmo Paladino and fabricated by Constantino Buccoleri in 2000, we want to say a little something about a major positive factor in the Mosaic Masterpieces Tour — the company we kept.

In the back row we have:  Steve Greer and Lea Holland (Memphis), Ana Foncerrada (Mexico), Marian Shapiro (Australia), Jo Braun (Seattle), Sandra Foncerrada (mother of Ana, Mexico), and Tom Braun (husband of Jo, Seattle).  In the front row you will find:  Michael Welch (Boston), Lesley Miller (Australia), Allan Punton (UK) and our guide Julie Richey.  Bronwyn Fife of Australia missed this photo opp, but was a contributing member of our Merry Mosaic Band.

No matter how wonderful the sites or how fabulous the food, a grand tour can derail quickly if there are unhappy campers on the journey with you.  These folks were great.  Individually, they brought a wealth of knowledge and curiosity; collectively, their bonhomieand sense of adventure made every day a joy.

Ara Pacis "Altar of Majestic Peace" photo via

The Ara Pacis Museum is a spectacular building designed by Richard Meier that houses the reconstructed pieces of the Ara Pacis, an altar raised to honor the return of the Emperor Augustus from the Hispanic and Gaul wars.  The date is “January 9 BC.”  There is a gallery below ground, but the only other permanent work of art in the museum is the mosaic by Mimmo Paladino.

A dream realized.

Going to see this mosaic felt like a pilgrimage as we have loved it since we first discovered it online.  The work is an extraordinary compilation of symbols applied to convex and concave surfaces that, according to Paladino, “reflect the zenithal light.”

After spending so much time immersed in the symbolism of early Christianity earlier in the week, there was much discussion about Paladino’s use of symbols here.  While some are easy to discern (the dove, the raven, the cup, the fish, etc) others are less easy to decipher.  Even more challenging were the questions of why these images were included here.  Unfortunately, the only good text explaining Palladino’s design are in a 100 Euro book for sale in the museum’s book shop.  A staffer explained that the artist is very particular about how his work is represented.

What, we wondered, will viewers 500 years from now make of these symbols?  How will they be interpreted within the context of what those in the future believe is life is like for us today?

But, wait!  What’s wrong with this picture?  Dust bunnies!  Yes, there were genuine dust bunnies clinging to many of the surfaces of the mosaic.  Unacceptable.  We suggested a Swiffer to the museum staffer on the way out.

A Walk in the Park to Fall In Love With Bernini

One of our most pleasant memories was the walk from the Piazza del Popolo through the Pincio Gardens on our way to the Galleria Borghese.  The park was filled with fountains and follies and the only other people there were Romans strolling in the warm October air.

Well, maybe the air was a little more than “warm.”  This cane had the right idea.

Villa Borghese via

At the Galleria Borghese we fell in love.  With Bernini.

Apollo and Daphne 1625 via

Apollo and Daphne took our breath away.  There were more extraordinary sculptures by Bernini, but this one was captivating.  We learned that Bernini had planned it to be placed in a particular room at ground level so that the viewer, upon entering the room, would see the gods as human-sized.  The initial view was of the rear of the statue, so one would only see the backs of the two figures.  It was only as one began to walk around the work that the struggle between Apollo and Daphne became evident.  Unbelievable.  Like Michelangelo’s Pieta, sublime.  If you are in Rome, plan two hours at the Galleria Borghese.  It is simply a must.

St. Paul Outside the Walls – San Paolo Fuori le Mura

Founded by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, this basilica is the burial site for the Apostle Paul.  We adored it for the sense of airiness and peace that pervaded the place.

Astonishing alabaster windows.

Unique at St. Paul’s were the beautiful Venetian mosaics on the exterior of the building and in the apse.  Installed in the 13th century, the design of these mosaics reflect the aesthetics of Venetian Renaissance artists.  People and objects are softer.  The light is richer.  The landscapes more idealized.  Think Tintoretto or Titian.  We were also reminded of Maxfield Parish.

Just when we thought we knew St. Paul’s, we entered the Cloisters.
Here was a totally different world.  A quiet, intimate space no less transporting and sacred than the grand Basilica.  People wandered, quietly taking photos and just grinning at one another.  Very special.

Back row: Sandra Foncerrada, Allan Punton, Jo & Tom Braun, Micheal Welch, Lesley Miller, Steve Greer, Marian Shapiro, Ana Foncerrada, Lea Holland. Front row: Nancie Mills Pipgras, Julie Richey, Bronwyn Fife.

We Meet the Devil In The Tarot Garden – Il Giardino dei Tarrochi

Thursday was “Private Bus Day” so, after St. Paul’s, we began the two-hour drive (with custom sound track provided by Richey) to the picture-perfect Italian hill town of Capalbio.  Niki de Saint Phalle’s famous Tarot Garden is nearby.  But first, an extravagant lunch of papadarelle al cinghiale – pasta with boar sauce – at a delightful restaurant Richey had arranged to have open just for us.  We ate like kings.  Outside the restaurant was one of de Saint. Phalle’s famous Nanas.  After several bottles of local wine, we were inspired.

Marian Shapiro and moi inspired by St. Phalle (and perhaps a little vino)

Soon, it was everybody back in the bus and 10 minutes later we were in another world . . .

Inside The Empress

Allan Punton and The Devil.  Or visa versa?

Much has been written about the celebrated artist Niki de Saint. Phalle.  And nothing can quite prepare one for the experienced of being truly immersedin her world.  Every pathway takes one to a new vision – surreal, unique and passionate.  We’ll provide links to more information below, but one of the facts that surprised us the most is that it took 20 years to build out the site to the point where it was opened to the public in 1996.

Richey introduced us to the Giardino’s mirror master and superintendent, Ugo Celletti.  Celletti was the postman when de St. Phalle and her husband, the artist Jeanne Tinguely, began work on the garden. de Saint Phalle wrote:

Ugo, the postman, started by helping make the stone pathways, and then he worked on the metal mesh. Later he asked if he could try putting on the mirror mosaics onto the sculptures. He became a poet of mirrors. He’s always afraid that there will be no more work for him here. I promised him that there will always be something new for him to do and if needed I’d build the great wall of China around the whole garden and whole generations would be required to finish it.

Niki’s Tarot Garden is beginning to suffer from the “ravages of time.”  After 20 – 40 years, the bonds between tesserae and substrate are beginning to weaken.  After years of input from industrial chemists and trying a number of products and methods, there appears to be no good way to repair the damage. Celletti told us that his main concern now is simply maintaining the status quo.

Next Up:  Ravenna and Venice.  We hope you are enjoying the trip!

Enjoy – Nancie


Ara Pacis 
Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Tarot Garden

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  1. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    George, you WERE there – at least for the next leg of the journey. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    Maureen, you would adore the Ara Pacis. There is something inherently sacred about the place. And you have to love those Nanas wherever they are!

  3. George

    So much like being there, I now feel I can lie and say I've been everywhere you have! What a treat.

  4. Maureen

    Thank you for all the wonderful photos. I'd love to see Ara Pacis.

    I visited the Borghese just after it opened following its 14-year renovation. It's an eye-opener in more ways than one.

    The de Saint Phalle Tarot Garden visit is to be envied, though I will note we have three of her pieces here in D.C., outside the National Museum of Women in the Art. Full of exuberance, they make me happy just looking at them.

    As much as I love Italy, I do wish the care of its treasures were enhanced. The disrepair at Pompeii and elsewhere I've visited leaves me sad. Dust or failure to pay attention to the environmental ravages: dealing with both requires a somewhat different mindset.

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