An excellent night’s sleep and bountiful in-room “Continental” breakfast found us ruminating about the day stretching out before us. All of the artistic and architectural treasures from ancient Rome on display for our entertainment and enlightenment. Which past master would we begin with: Donatello? Raphael? Maybe artifacts from the reign of Augustus? A stroll amongst the ruins of the Palatine Hill?
No, the answer was clear to us as we nibbled our breakfast and planned our day. Now that we were in Rome, there was no choice but to begin with the retrospective exhibition at the Palazzo Bonaparte reviewing the life’s work of… Vincent Van Gogh? Hang on, let’s check our notes…. no, that’s not a typo. We’re starting with noted Roman Vincent Van Gogh.
As a bit of a digression, our first visit to Rome nearly a decade ago coincided with an excellent retrospective of the work and life of Frida Kahlo. It was a high point of our visit, all the more so because we had no idea it was happening when we were planning the trip. We’d take a taxi through the streets of Rome and there was Frida’s iconic face on posters all over town. When we finally figured out what was being advertised, we carved time out of our schedule and went; ever since, we make a point of checking for such exhibitions when we travel. Sure enough, beginning on the eve of the 170th anniversary of his birth (8 October 2022) the Palazzo Bonaparte is hosting an exhibition of nearly 50 works from the Kröller Müller Museum di Otterlo (that’s in the Netherlands, don’t pretend you knew that already) dedicated to the genius of Van Gogh. The exhibition ends July 5, 2023. Spanning his lifetime, the exhibition was fantastic.
Augmented by letters to his brother and some paintings from his contemporaries, the viewer is firmly oriented to the artistic and social times. Van Gogh’s father threw him out of the home and he ended up basically teaching himself to draw well enough that could get accepted into a school was new (his troubles started young and he rarely had any mental support). The loss of the ear was clearly framed within the context of a violent, life-shattering argument with the painter Paul Gaughin, who accused Van Gogh of holding him back. The violent quarrel unhinged Van Gogh and resulted in his admission to the asylum.
Did you know he painted nearly 80 works in the last seventy days of his life? Or that he was only 37 years old when he committed suicide? The exhibition does a great job of showing how his style and vision evolved over the time he worked. His skill is evident in the early pieces, but they are only the smallest glimpse of his final expressive glory. If you’ve only seen his “Sunflowers”, for example, you cannot understand how his early works were so dark and dreary.
In his lifetime he sold only one painting. His first exhibition, ghoulishly, was the one hung on the walls of the inn where he died and was given a wake before burial. Known to all of the important artists of his time, he himself failed to see his genius.
To this day, no one knows why, after months of daily painting and a steady routine he chose instead to kill himself. Most shatteringly, he did so at the manure pile, reflecting his deep self-loathing and pain. All of this, you may have gathered, was described in the exhibition we saw and provided context to dozens of his works. Some from his early canon would be hard to guess were Van Gogh’s at all, if you didn’t have hints (like, say, his face projected 20 feet high on the side of the building), whereas the last half of the show, which spanned two floors of the Palazzo, just hit you, bang!, one after another with his signature intensity.
We spent the balance of the afternoon strolling circuitously back to our hotel, which means we poked around in the Forum as we traveled. For dinner this night we think we found the first place we ate on our first trip to Rome; the name “Ristorante al 34” didn’t completely ring a bell, but between that vague recollection and the sense memory of sitting down in the place, we think we nailed it. (And by “we”, we definitely mean “Lisa”. John doesn’t always remember yesterday’s dinner, asking him to go back 10+ years is really pushing it.) The meal itself was… fine. Like, seriously, it was ok. B-/C+, it just provided more evidence that we shouldn’t try to catch lightning in the same bottle twice. On our first visit, what always stood out to us was the experience of feeling defeated that we were eating in what we thought was a tourist-trap caliber restaurant but then having a cozy time in a joint full of locals. We especially remember that we ordered fish, then had the entire fish displayed to us (a new phenomenon for us back then) before the server expertly, and I mean expertly, reduced that fish to two perfect, boneless, fillets. We’ve only seen it done so well once since then, and that was in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. This was just grampa helping out from the kitchen. Amazing. Anyway, we had a nice young man provide service and the food, particularly the artichoke served 3 ways, was tasty, but also not particularly memorable. Well, they can’t all be winners, right?
From there it was back to our hotel and then into bed on the early side – we can feel travel colds trying to get their talons into us so we’re trying to stave them off with beaucoup de sleepies. Allons-zzzzzzzz.