Let’s just grab the proverbial elephant in the room by the (ahem!) trunk and state the glaringly obvious fact:
The lavish late 16th-century ceiling presented herewith depicts a male bum from a rather interesting perspective.
Now, I said it! A bum. B-U-M.
Laugh all you want. I know I did!
Inwardly, at least. As I was in the stunning Palladian Palazzo Chiericati in the historic heart of Vicenza and, surrounded by other members of the public, all seemingly enraptured by the splendid frescoes, I realised I couldn’t quite unleash my inner juvenile self, point a finger straight up above me and half-shout/half-laugh: ‘Look! Look! There’s Apollo’s bum! Hee-hee-hee!’
Instead, I put my most serious face on and spent a long time taking every little detail of the rather lovely painted surface in, keeping my gaze averted away from the otherwise majestic centerpiece.
It seemed to work, as I managed to proceed to the next room without spontaneously bursting into laughter.
I was a bit ashamed of my reaction, I must say. After all, this is Italy, where naked statues and naked figures in paintings are a dime a dozen. You don’t even need to be in a museum in order to be faced with sculptures showcasing the female and the male physique in all their natural glory. Such works of art are dotted all over buildings, rooftops and parks.
Yet, this ceiling was something else. The perspective chosen to depict Apollo as the setting sun was quite unique, hence one’s attention was immediately drawn to the god’s derriere rather than his face which was obscured by his muscly upper arm.
The same treatment had been reserved for the two golden chestnut horses pulling Apollo’s chariot of fire. So, in a way, a splendid trio of behinds dominated the frescoed ceiling.
I had to give it to the other visitors of the Palazzo Chiericati who looked totally nonplussed. Perhaps, on the inside they were cracking just like I was, but they were very skilled at looking respectable. Or, perhaps, they were all experienced art connoisseurs totally unaffected by popular culture which over the decades and the centuries has desperately tried to instill in us an understanding that behinds are something rather puerile, shameful even, yet has only managed to make us even more obsessed with them.
Anyway, and leaving popular culture and bum-perceptions aside, the truth is that the ceiling was absolutely stunning.
The thing is that Italian palazzi and villas have the most glorious and ornate ceilings I have had the good chance to clasp my eyes on. I have often thought that in Italy they should start providing special seats or at least neck supports so that people can sit down or hold on to in order to be able to throw their heads as far back as their necks would allow and just spend several enchanted moments taking all that ceiling beauty in.
I remember traipsing through the Doge’s Palace and the Grimani Palace in Venice and feel totally elated by the painted, stuccoed lavish affairs they have for ceilings there.
I remember holding a small mirror in my hands at the top floor of the Scuola Grande dei Carmini again in Venice trying to see in detail a fresco by Tiepolo.
And I remember standing rooted to the spot when a coin-activated light lit up the ceiling of the Venetian church of San Pantalon the ceiling of which is adorned by the immense Fumiani’s fresco depicting the martyrdom and the apotheosis of the saint.
Yet, I thought to myself, the frescoed ceiling in the Palazzo Chiericati in Vicenza was in a league of its own.
A touch irreverent and very daring with its perspective of the Graeco-Roman god Apollo and yet showing an incredibly advanced for its time astronomical knowledge. Colourful to a blur and yet each of its many panels could stand the test of time as a precious standalone painting.
The Palazzo Chiericati is one of Vicenza’s Palladian jewels. Built between 1550 and 1680, nowadays it houses the city’s Civic Art Gallery and has just undergone an extensive and expensive expansion.
It is one of the places you need to see in Vicenza in order to feel like you have properly ‘done’ this beautiful yet off-the-beaten-track Northern Italian city.
The first palazzo room which you will enter, right after you have bought your ticket, is the Hall of the Firmament.
Be ready, because here and in all of its glory is the above depicted ceiling.
The frescoes were painted between 1557 and 1558 by Domenico Riccio and the central panel is an allegory of the Sun and the Moon at twilight. Apollo as the Sun is leaving the firmament in his chariot of fire. Quick on his steps is the goddess Diana and her silver white horses.
The goddess has been spared the blushes of Apollo. She has been painted fully dressed standing on the edge of her own chariot and under a pale sickle moon.
This Sun and Moon central panel was, apparently, inspired by the ceiling in Palazzo Te in Mantua – a city which is now high on my must-see list.
The frescoes surrounding the central panel represent the constellations which were known at the time. You can clearly see the Ursa Major as a woolly bear on the left hand side, for example.
The constellation cycle represents the advance of the astrological and astronomical studies in the 16th century. The stars have been depicted in accordance with their actual positions in the night sky as a testament of the high level reached by science at the time.
It is interesting also to note that the colourful depictions on the ceiling were based on woodcuts by Durer, whereas the monochrome figures were based on ancient Roman coins, collected by the Chiericati family who built the palace.
All in all, it is a beautiful and splendid ceiling. One of the best I have ever seen and certainly the most memorable of them all. In fact, I did spend a long time in the Hall of the Firmament and the more I looked at the different frescoes and the white and gilded stucco, the more whimsical and fantastical details I could see and the more I loved it all.
Looking up at that wondrous ceiling I thought that it must have been wonderful living in a room like this where art becomes part of daily life. It left a lot to be desired of our modern homes with identikit prints on the walls and ceilings covered with wall paper (if you are in England) or cheap stucco ornaments (if you are in Bulgaria).
At the dinner table that same evening, I tried to explain to my husband all that I had felt looking up at that frescoed ceiling during my visit to the Palazzo Chiericati:
‘You know’, I started, ‘They have this amazing frescoed ceiling there… with a male bum right in its middle!’, was all I could say before I dissolved in long concealed fits of hysterical laughter.
My husband looked at me with all his British reserve and simply said:
‘Are you alright, darling?’
Have you ever been face to (ahem) face with a work of art which has made you feel a bit juvenile inside? What was your reaction on the surface? Did you manage to keep a straight face? Let me know!
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