Celebrating a birthday, Galleria Borghese, and two visits to Santa Maria del Popolo

Apparently, the Serie A soccer team, Roma, was playing this day but since it was my birthday, I insisted no soccer (calcio) game was part of the itinerary.

We started the day by walking more or less north along the top of the hill where the hotel is located. The height meant we had good views of the area and little terraces (terrazi) gave even better views, some of which included across the river to St. Peters. The sky is a bit cloudy, but that soon burns off and we’re back to warm temperatures and sunshine.

We were headed to Santa Maria del Popolo [Piazza del Popolo 12, open Mon-Sun 8-1:30pm, 4:30-7pm], where I wanted to look at 2 Caravaggio paintings in a chapel near the head altar. This was on Palm Sunday, so I did not want to be one of those unbelievably disrespectful tourists who sightsee during mass. I could not find the mass times, so the only solution seemed to go there. Of course, when we got there, we saw mass was every hour until 2:00 p.m. However, assuming there would be a bit of time between each mass, we went to a nearby exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s machines and then went back into the church when mass was ending, about 15 minutes before the next one begins.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the interior has a number of interesting works, including a Raphael and Bernini in the Chigi Chapel, which we stopped to look at, so by the time we were approaching the Cerasi Chapel, where the Caravaggios are, we were barred from going near the high altar.

On to our alternate plan, which was to stroll around the huge park surrounding the Villa Borghese and also find some lunch. There is a restaurant somewhere there also but we did not encounter it on our perambulations so had panini (and glasses of wine) in the bar and restaurant on the lowest level of the Villa. We wanted a light lunch because dinner was likely to be significantly more substantial.

Like the art gallery at Palazzo Barberini, the Galleria Borghese [Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5] is also in a home (palace) of a rich and powerful family with popes and art collectors in their history. Tickets for the Galleria Borghese have to be reserved for a specific 2 hour time slot. We had done this before we left Calgary, which was lucky since they had a sign indicating no more tickets were available until Tuesday. They make you check all bags and coats in a locked box. This was the only place that made me turn over my purse, usually a woman’s borsa was fine but backpacks were not. Again, no photos allowed.

Highlights in the collection were Caravaggio’s Young Sick Bacchus, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Portrait of Pope Paul V, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, Madonna and Child with St. Anne (M. de Palafrenieri), David with the Head of Goliath, John the Baptist; Bernini’s amazing statues Aeneas and Anchises, Rape of Proserpine, Apollo and Daphne, David, Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese; Raphael’s Deposition, Lady with Unicorn, Portrait of a Man, Julius II; and Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love. If you aren’t familiar with these works, especially the Berninis, find an art history book. Simon Schama’s book, the Power of Art has some good illustrations of these works.

After, we toured around the gardens surrounding the palazzo. So many flowers were already in bloom. Robin grabbed an orange from one of the trees, peeled it and handed out segments. I thought I was eating lemon. Scott still thinks it was unripe orange. In any event, it was tart!

After the Borghese, we returned to Santa Maria del Popolo so I could take a closer look at Caravaggio’s paintings in Cerasi Chapel, The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Calling of St. Paul. The works are intended to be viewed from a specific spot to get the best dramatic effects. The photos we took don’t do them justice. They have to be seen in situ.

On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped again at Enoteca Antica for some wine including a bottle of Veuve Cliquot so we can have a birthday cheers before dinner. Naturally, we have the Veuve, as well as gifts, hugs and get ready for dinner.

My birthday dinner was at Ristorante Mirabelle,on the 7th floor of Hotel Splendide Royal, [Via di Porta Pinciana, 14, Phone: 39 06 42168838]. This is a Michelin starred restaurant which describes its cuisine as Italian Mediterranean, but is has a very French feel to it. Roccoco old fashioned style decor and very formal service like North American restaurants, rather than the more casual Italian style. They bring a three tiered tray of amuse bouches and a basket of crispy cold crudites to nibble as we peruse the menu. For antipasti we have eggplant and zucchini stuffed with ricotta and basil; onion soup and tuna tartare. Secondi: lamb two ways — loin and lamb leg stuffed with sweetbreads and peas, spinach, onion, potato and artichoke; pigeon with spinach and carrot wrapped in pastry; rack of lamb. We have a bottle of Brunello, 2001 Podere “Il Poggiolo”. Dolci: Seventh heaven which is a slice of alcohol soaked chocolate cake topped with chocolate mousse and covered with chocolate, gold leaf and chocolate wafers; apple crumble with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate wafers; chocolate ice cream with berries. Each of us had a different grappa as recommended by the sommelier.

We really liked our food here, much more formal ambiance than most places, but very friendly staff. Expensive, as you would expect. Oh, and the view, we sit and watch the sunset over the dome of St. Peter’s and the expanse of Rome in between. A good birthday spot all around.

We return to the hotel to call home. The girls tell us it is snowing. Hard to know whether to be happy about being where the weather is so nice or to worry about what is going on with Calgary weather. Robin then challenges us to three handed bridge which we play while drinking more wine and soon, I’m winning because the other two can’t remember what’s trump.

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