Art for Smarties in Rome


When studying for my Masters in art history, I used to turn my nose up at museum acoustiguides. “Art for Dummies,” I’d sniff, my head full of art historical minutiae and youthful arrogance.

Now I wouldn’t consider going without one. And so it was in Rome this past week, where I floated through the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and Villa Borghese with fascinating narrations playing in my ear.

At Doria Pamphilj, the heir himself narrated, offering memories of his childhood in the palace, where he’d get into trouble for roller-skating on the freshly waxed terracotta floors. Naturally, there was insightful commentary on the art—Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Claude Lorrain, Bruegel the Elder, et al., plus stunning portraits of the family Pope, Innocent X, by Velazquez and Bernini. (“It’s too real,” Innocent said, displeased, when first viewing the Velazquez, taken aback by his own acute, impatient stare.) This same Pope unleashed his fury at his nephew, Camillo Pamphilj, when the young man left his powerful position in the church to wed. Once that rupture healed (aided by the bride’s ample fortune), the couple returned to Rome and built this opulent, art-filled palace—well worth a visit.

Rome during the Renaissance was a merry-go-round of feuding families who’d alternately grab the golden ring: the Papacy. Each family had its favored artists and would shun their rivals’ when it was their turn on the Papal throne.

Keeping track of this game of musical chairs is tough. That’s where the acoustiguides come in handy. They also relate juicy gossip and nefarious deeds. At Villa Borghese, we got an earful about the conniving methods used Cardinal Scipione to amass his art collection. Extortion, threats, you name it. When he couldn’t buy the Caravaggios he coveted, he raided the owner’s house, had him arrested for possession of unlawful firearms, and threatened him with death…unless he’d hand over the paintings.

Cardinal Scipione certainly knew how to pick ’em. (His collection far outshines that of the Doria Pamphilj family.) Countless Renaissance masterpieces lie cheek-by-jowl with a treasure trove of Roman art. I meant to leap over the first rooms to beat the crowd, but one famous artwork after another stopped me in my tracks: Bernini’s tour-de-force Apollo and Daphne and fierce David; Canova’s provocatively nude Paolina Borghese; Raphael’s dramatic Deposition and translucent Lady with a Unicorn; the beautiful blondes of Titian.

Even better than an acousti-guide is a real, live art historian. For that, I turn to Context Travel. A dozen years ago, I’d met the founder of this company, Paul Bennett, through a mutual friend. Back then, it was called Context Rome and its scope was limited to Rome, but it has since expanded to art cities throughout Europe.

It’s no wonder. Their tours—which they call “walking seminars”—are fantastic. I’ve done two: The Colosseum and Imperial Rome, which also covers the Forum and Trajan’s Market, and Arte Vaticana, which includes the Vatican Galleries and Sistine Chapel.

Their groups are small—no more than six people—and the tours are long, meant for smart, curious travelers who’d like to penetrate deeper than the standard Cliffs Notes. My Vatican tour last week was meant to last four hours, but went over five.

Our Context guide, Janet Cavallero, is in Rome working on her PhD on Fascist-era photography. But she knows her Roman and Renaissance stuff, both pictorial and political.

As she detailed, with Julius II (1503-1513), the Vatican had its first art-loving Pope, and he attempted to shift the center of art from Florence to Rome through his significant patronage. To walk through the Vatican collection is to hobnob with the boldface names of the Renaissance—Raphael, Bramante, Michelangelo... It’s also a Hall of Fame of the ancients, with the Laocoon, Apollo Belvedere, and other famous Roman torsos, busts, and portraits populating the galleries and serving as a cornerstone of the Renaissance.

Our guide’s commentary was peppered with stories behind the art. She detailed the prickly rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo and the inside jokes and insults found in their paintings (God’s naked butt in TheCreation of the Sun, Moon and Planets, for instance. With this, Michelangelo wasmooning Pope Julius after he’d begun pestering the artist about finishing the Sistine ceiling.)

Leave it to an art historian to know such anecdotes. Listen up, and you’ll have an infinitely richer experience. And take that road to Rome to find some of the finest art collections in the world.