Caravaggio: The Artist, the Man and his Times

Programs in Italy

October 5, 2014

 -  October 13, 2014

Following the Path of Caravaggio

Our very special October 5-13, 2014 program followed the life of Caravaggio from Rome, to Florence, then back to Rome, Naples, and Sicily. Our historians were William Wallace and Bill Cook.

Below is a travelogue shared by program participant Beth Fagan:
Chasing Caravaggio … with Friends of Florence

Just imagine … 37 Caravaggio paintings, 31 friends, six cities, 15 amazing multi-course dining extravaganzas, three principesse, two counts and one baron, plus two intrepid professors named “Bill.” It was another special Friends of Florence trip.

When the group checked into the 5-star St. Regis hotel in Rome, probably half were wondering why they had signed-up to spend such a week “chasing Caravaggio.” By the end, all agreed it was a special opportunity to delve in-depth into the artist and his work … and enjoy the unique visits and superb accommodations all arranged by Friends of Florence President, Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda and her staff.

Professors Bill Wallace (Distinguished professor of art history from Washington University and this year a visiting professor at Harvard’s Center for Renaissance Studies) and Bill Cook (professor emeritus and distinguished teaching professor of history at SUNY-Geneseo), wasted no time, delivering preliminary lectures.

Then, it was off to dinner. The buses dropped us, in our cocktail attire, at the Piazza Farnese, and we walked up the stone-paved Via Monserato to Trattoria Pierluigi, famous for its fish, where we ate outside in the Piazza, with the warm Roman breezes. Dinner was fish antipasto, pasta with tomato, fish and capers, and a piece of grilled sea bass for the main course –absolutely delicious.

Monday morning we caught the fast train to Florence for a private visit to the Uffizi. After seeing its 3 Caravaggio paintings and listening to Prof. Wallace describe the sensuality of Caravaggio’s homo-erotic models, we walked through the Vasari secret corridor across the top of the Ponte Vecchio, to Palazzo Pitti. Like the Pope’s escape route between the Vatican and Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome, the Medici princes had this passageway built from their residence, the Pitti Palace, to their offices (the Uffizi) so they wouldn’t need to mix with citizens of Florence. Today, the Corridor is lined with more than 1,000 self-portraits of artists from the 15th to the 21st century. At the Pitti, we saw 2 Caravaggio paintings (a sleeping Cupid and a portrait of a Knight of Malta).

After lunch, hosted by Count Brandolini d’Adda, we were welcomed into the grand 15th century Corsini Palace on the Arno River. There, the Principessa Corsini took us on a tour of her palace and showed us their Caravaggio portrait, dating from 1600. The Principessa, who has been restoring the palace, inspired us as she described her avocation to be the caretaker of this important family treasure.

Tuesday, we started with the Caravaggio chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, where the Professor Bills dueled in their fabulous descriptions of these large Caravaggio paintings (Conversion of Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter), then to San Agostino to see the Madonna di Loreto and then to San Luigi dei Francesi to see the Calling, Writing and Martyrdom of the Apostle Matthew.

After a true Roman lunch, it was off to the Galleria Borghese to see its 4 of its half-dozen Caravaggio paintings.

Then we were dropped at the bottom of a long drive lined with palm trees, off the Via Veneto. It led to a Villa with a large garden, where we were greeted by “her serene highness,” the Texas-born Principessa Rita Ludovisi-Boncompagni, who recently married her prince and has been working diligently at restoring the family’s Villa. The principessa confided that her next project was to find an American bride for the Prince’s grandson.
That night, we enjoyed a private dinner at the rooftop Palazzo Colonna dining pavilion. A quartet played music as they passed the Prosecco and we walked on the balcony … then into the candle-lit glass pavilion for a four course dinner, each with a different wine, served by elegantly dressed waiters.

Wednesday morning brought a private tour of the Vatican’s painting conservation labs and a visit to see Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ. Then lunch at the American Academy, with a tour of their gardens. After lunch, we visited three other venues (Palazzo dei Conservatori; Palazzo Doria Pamphili and Palazzo Barberini) to see an additional 11 Caravaggio paintings. Now 30 seen; the magic number was 7.

And, that night, we gathered at the Hotel Hassler’s rooftop restaurant for a culinary feat. Exquisite fish samples for antipasto, followed by a risotto caccio pepe to die for! With medallions of lamb as a main course, all served with carefully selected wines. It was midnight by the time we finished dinner.

Tired, we caught the early train to Naples on Thursday to see the three Caravaggio paintings there. Again the Professor Bills helped us see, understand and appreciate these paintings. Actually, by the time the group reached the awe-inspiring Caravaggio Flagellation of Christ in Naples’ Capodimonte Museum, we were Caravaggio converts.

Then Friday, we flew to Sicily. One certainly enters a different world when descending the airplane’s steps onto Sicilian soil. It smells of orange and lemon blossoms. The air is soft and warm.

We drove to Siracusa (Syracuse) and, since the church was closed, had a 3-hour lunch at a small, elegant restaurant (Don Camillo) in the old Ortigia center of town. Then, we headed to the Oratorio of Santa Lucia, for a private viewing at 4 p.m. of the St. Lucia altarpiece painted by Caravaggio. Dinner that night was in the private Palace of the Barone Beneventano. Going from the streets of Siracusa, through the 15-foot high doors and ascending the staircase to his palace was like walking into a different world. A family of big-game hunters, animal heads lined the walls of this 13th century faded palace. Tiger and zebra skins covered the floors. Lions, tigers and bears … oh my!! The Barone had staged his palace, to show us his books of his ancestors’ accounts and letters from illustrious friends like Lord Nelson.

The Barone gave a very moving toast, saying that our dinner was just what the house was built for — to host people from around the world and be a catalyst for cultural exchange. Four courses and three different wines later, we headed back to our hotel. One couple became separated from the group … and didn’t have the faintest idea of the hotel’s name or location. Fortunately, Sicilians are certainly among the most hospitable people in the world. This couple was aided by the friendly police who put them in the back of their police car and drove them around the old city until they recognized the hotel.

Saturday, we were up and out early to board the bus for the 2.5 hour ride to Messina, to see the two huge Caravaggio paintings (Resurrection of Lazarus and the Adoration of the Shepherds). After all this hard work, our bus pulled up to a seaside restaurant. Our tables were literally over the sea, with views of the coast looking north to mainland Italy. And the food was as delicious as it was fresh. They set a buffet table of antipastos – sardines, anchovies, grilled red peppers, fried artichokes … then they brought out the pastas (of course with fish sauces), and lemon + pistachio gelato for dessert.

Dear Reader: Are you hungry and exhausted yet?

Saturday evening brought a private visit to Palermo’s 12th century Palatine Chapel, with its breathtaking gold mosaics. Professor Cook waxed eloquently, in his element with early Christian mosaics.

Tonight’s dinner was in the private family palace of Principessa Alliata. Again, the palace appeared forlorn from the outside as it fronted the dirty streets of Palermo. Once the large doors opened, we were greeted by a quartet of flutes playing in the courtyard. They serenaded us as we ascended the inner staircase. The principessa, who looked stunning in her long, black, sleeveless gown and jewels, greeted us. Her dining room easily sat 35 at one long candle-lit table. The courses started arriving. She and Prof. Wallace discussed her art collection, and her concerns about the survival of this great patrimony.

For our final day, we walked about Palermo and stopped at the location of Palermo’s one Caravaggio — before it was stolen in 1969 — and never recovered. There is, however, a full sized photo in its place. The group was so excited about Caravaggio by then, that they looked and discussed this photo for a full 30 minutes, until the Oratory closed. Then we were whisked to a 4-hour lunch of insalata di mare, pasta with sword fish sauce, then sea bass, followed by lemon sorbet and many wines, finishing at 4:45 pm.

Panic set in when the group realized that the bus for our evening program would pick us up at 6:15.

Imagine walking into a dimly lit closed church. Quiet, until suddenly the organ starts to fill the cavernous space. Louder and louder, and the lights gradually come up to full power and we find ourselves in the awe-inspiring Cathedral of Monreale on the hillside above Palermo. Built in 1174, and entirely covered with brilliant mosaics, shimmering in the night. Another Simonetta surprise. I think we all were holding our breath. It was magical!

As we bid adieux to the Padre of the Cathedral, we boarded the bus for our final dinner – at the Villa Tasca, just on the edge of Palermo. The gates opened and we were serenaded by dancers in gypsy costumes, who guided us through the garden, up the long path to the house. Count Giuseppe Tasca was a delightful host, with 14th – 17th century paintings hanging on his walls. The Count is the largest wine producer in Sicily, and we tasted them all that night.

Morning came. The group shared hugs as we headed to our different destinations. All feeling like we knew Caravaggio, had made many new friends, and had eaten enough to last us many weeks.


October 5th – Sunday

  • 6:00pm – At the Hotel St. Regis, Rome, welcome session and overview lecture, The Dramatic Life and Times of Caravaggio, by program historians William Wallace and Bill Cook.
  • Cocktails and dinner at a historic trattoria.

October 6th – Monday

  • Early morning fast train to Florence.
  • Private visit to the Uffizi Gallery, Vasari Corridor, and Palatine Collection in the Pitti Palace to view various early works by Caravaggio.
  • Lunch in a private palace.
  • Visited the Cloister of the Vows, the current major Friends of Florence restoration project.
  • Returned to Rome late afternoon by fast train.
  • Cocktails and dinner in a venue overlooking Rome.

October 7th – Tuesday

  • Morning visit to churches throughout Rome following the trail of superb paintings by Caravaggio.
  • Lunch at Da Fortunato near the Pantheon.
  • Afternoon visit to the Doria Pamphili Collection and other private palace collections.
  • Cocktails and dinner in Trastevere.

October 8th – Wednesday

  • Morning – private visit to the restoration laboratory and viewing of the Pinacoteca Painting Gallery, Vatican Galleries.
  • Lunch – American Academy of Rome with the Rome Prize winners, scholars, and directors.
  • Afternoon visit to the Galleria Borghese, home to many extraordinary Caravaggio works.
  • Evening – cocktails and dinner in a private venue in Rome.

October 9th – Thursday

  • Morning fast train to Naples.
  • Visited the Misericordia to view Caravaggio works, to the Cathedral, and to see the unique center of Naples, which remains similar in many ways to the city during Caravaggio’s day.
  • Lunch in a typical Neapolitan restaurant.
  • Afternoon visit to the Capodimonte Museum.
  • Returned to Rome by fast train in the late afternoon.
  • Casual evening in Rome.

October 10th – Friday

  • Morning flight to Catania, Sicily.
  • Traveled to Siracusa via motor coach to view Caravaggio works.
  • After lunch, explored Siracusa.
  • Dinner in a private palace overlooking the ancient Cathedral of Siracusa.

October 11th – Saturday

  • Morning departure from Siracusa to explore the island of Sicily.
  • Visited various sites along our itinerary, with luncheon.
  • Evening check-in at hotel in Palermo, followed by dinner.

October 12th – Sunday

  • Morning and afternoon visits to Palermo and Monreale.
  • Luncheon in a typical island trattoria.
  • Dinner in a palace in Palermo.

October 13th – Monday

  • Departures by air to Rome.