Well today was pretty interesting – we met at Palazzo Pio before walking around the corner to SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini, one of only a handful of churches in Rome who have revived the Tridentine Rite – at least for Sunday Mass. Why is this relevant? Well we arrived at the church at 8h30, just as morning Mass was ending and the priest was nice enough to turn on the recently-installed electric lights after he had cleared the altar so that we could best view Guido Reni’s Holy Trinity altarpiece from 1624-26. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stage our discussion in front of Reni altarpiece because there was one particular woman, in her seventies or eighties, who was still praying. We wandered back to the classroom and discussed the work before hopping a series of busses to S. Gregorio Magno al Celio and particularly, the Oratorio di Sant’Andrea al Celio which features two amazing in situ frescoes: Guido Reni’s St. Andrew Led to Martyrdom and Domenichino’s Flagellation of St. Andrew. Unfortunately, while it’s amazing that the frescoes are still in situ, they have suffered over the centuries and really, really do not reproduce well. We spent an hour or so discussing the two works, both individually and in relationship to one another, before heading back to the Rome center for more time with Caravaggio.
The debate really focuses on the different conceptions of narration in early 17th century painting. Both Reni and Domenichino were trained at the Caracci Academy in Bologna, but they chose very different modes of representation for these frescoes. There was an anecdote, described in letter from the 1610s, just a few years after the frescoes were finished, which captures the essence of the issue – the story goes like this…
One morning, an old woman and her grandson enter the oratory – presumably to see the new paintings and for reasons of personal devotion. They pause in front of Reni’s Martyrdom, but the grandmother says nothing. Turning around, they pause in front of Domenichino’s Flagellation and the grandmother immediately begins narrating the story to her young grandson, explaining who the characters are and what is being represented.
This story was used as evidence for the greater success of Domenichino’s fresco because, critics wrote, the story was thus more legible than in Reni’s painting and Domenichino’s obvious mastery of affetti provide the perfect models for the viewer’s expected response. I disagree. I don’t think for a moment that Reni’s isn’t “as good” or doesn’t function as well – it just functions differently. The Reni is much more intellectual and the composition more complicated – the whole thing really requires solemn contemplation (the perfect fresco for an oratory space) rather than acting as a visual trigger for a known story. At the same time, this type of meditative image was falling out of favor in the post-Tridentine/Counter Reformation era where the main goal of sacred imagery is clear legibility, historical accuracy, and effective didacticism (even to the illiterate).
I’ll be honest, I’m rather sick of St. Matthew at this point – reading about Jews and usury and how Matthew’s status as a Levi tax-collector was the most sinful a sinner could be blah blah blah. I’m starting to hate on St. Matthew, I’ll be honest, and at this point, I don’t give a fig about which figure is which – I was joking with my professor that I plan to argue that St. Matthew isn’t even in the scene and is off using the restroom or getting a beer or Manischewitz or something. Ugh. On a positive note, I did get my grade back on my presentation – whew! – did much better than expected and I feel 1000% better about my life right now – thank goodness.