Dominic Sands should have come along yesterday, up to the Palazzo Barberini. His novel Ice employs the family as a backdrop to a Renaissance love story and thriller. The family were of Tuscan origin and of course Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII, one of the most nepotistic Popes on record, and one who’s ‘reign’ saw an explosion of artistic patronage in Rome, in the 17th Century. By the end of it, after the wars of Castro, when the Barberini had been driven from Italy, and into exile in France, by the Farnese and the Pamphili alliance, Urban had tripled the Papal Debt. Maffeo Barberini had appointed two nephews as cardinals, and another as Gonfalonier of Rome and head of the Papal armies. One cardinal was notorious for his mistresses, revealed in an anonymous pamphlet circulating in Rome, that listed papal and priestly scandals, another was head of the Inquisition, that put Galileo on trial and then kept him under house arrest for daring to look through a telescope properly and assert the earth travels around the sun.
The palace and art collection inside are wonderful. Not too crowded, easy to navigate and containing gems like El Greco’s elongated paintings of Christ, he had an eye problem, Holbein’s famous portrait of a gross looking Henry VIII, and an array of beautiful ceilings, crowned with the three bees that adorned the Barberini crest. A gem for me though is the statue of a veiled woman that is so brilliantly done the fabric and her body beneath seem to come alive. Then, when the gifts on show at only 5 Euro seem to be over, you walk into a room that explodes above you. The ceiling there contains the full power, splendour and beauty of the time. Religious figures wrestle with classical gods, nymphs sport with gryphons and lions, colours burst from the plaster. It is so gorgeous you could lie for hours on the little bench looking up into the imagined skies and wonder if Galileo had not got it wrong, though of course he hadn’t. For all the cliche’s one carries though of what Popes or Priests or Artists might represent it is good to know then that although the Papacy put Galileo on trial for heresy, he was not condemned to death as he might have been. One of the only three cardinals to abstain in the vote against him was a future incumbent of that palace, none other than Francesco Barberini, the Head of the Roman Inquisition. But then they were friends at university!