On Circles: A Bildungsroman

Laurence Ross travels to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome on a circuitous yet fruitful journey.

Gallery of Mirrors inside the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Laurence Ross for his Instagram feed.

The great gifts are not got by analysis. Everything good is on the highway.

There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”

My decision to go to Rome was somewhat haphazard and spontaneous. Only after my arrival did the trip take on the air of pilgrimage, my 16 years of Catholic education conjured up—willingly or not—as my feet bore me to theatrical naves, beneath dramatic vaulted frescos, through the crowded, narrow passages of the Vatican. The supersaturated visual stimuli of the moment butted up against the visceral tug of childhood reverence. If the aim of pilgrimage is enlightenment, then the source of this light seems fickle. In my life, the sphere of religion was quickly overtaken by the sphere of spirituality, and spirituality, in turn, superseded by aesthetics. Similarly, the renaissance was swiftly subsumed by the baroque, and the rococo quick on the heels of that new step. It seems a pilgrim must walk with a brisk stride just to keep the horizon in sight.

Though I first arrived at the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj near sunset, these were not the serene hours in which I would actually enter the family’s private apartments. Situated on Via del Corso in Rome, a street that is perhaps the most straight and direct in the ancient city, this palazzo had evaded me for hours. The way should have been clear; corso, in Italian: course, path. Still, I found myself wandering in circles, attempting to locate an entrance among a walkway of entrances. I may have been in the heart of Rome, but I was nevertheless lost.

As Emerson says, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” Walking through Rome, one’s line of sight roves. These centuries-old Italian interiors do not align with the more contemporary philosophy of displaying art—that the art should be fixed at eye level. Instead, the interiors of Rome spur the eye onward, deprived of a focal point, and send the pilgrim into a dizzying eddy—corso: stream, tide—of inlaid floors, stucco medallions, gilded moldings, frescos, grotesques, silk wallpaper, velvet curtains, Murano glass chandeliers, and mirrors to send the eye round again.

I made this distinction the morning of my first day in Rome, after taking my initial steps into another palazzo—the Palazzo Colonna. I was plunged, like baptism, into the Great Hall of the Gallery, my own person diminutive in the midst of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Giuseppe Chiari, Bronzino, and Annibale Carracci. I blinked to keep the vision lubricated and the focus fresh. I became fascinated with a cannon ball inexplicably lodged in a marble step, an almost certain breach of physics, an inscrutable artifact spun round with familial myth. Yet, to ponder the cannon ball meant to turn my back to the Battle of Lepanto painted overhead. To examine just a single horizon is to make the self vulnerable, blind to the dawn of countless others. To turn my vision from the floor to the ceiling was to take in new fathoms. I recalled Emerson’s own self-questioning: “Is this too sudden a rushing from the centre to the verge of our orbit?”

Days later, back to the Doria Pamphilj, I watched the entrance to private apartments shut before my eyes, the click of the lock still audible in echo. The doors sealed, the tour proceeding, I was left on the outside. Deterred but determined, I slowly paced the main galleries, resigned to a different sort of taking in: muted landscapes, painted like pieces of one large puzzle, commissioned to fill every corner of wall; the Gallery of Mirrors, the long corridor flanked by rows of windows and marble figures staring with renewed purpose; the polished terracotta floors, which the still-living prince delivering my recorded audio tour confesses he would, as a child, ruin with roller-skates much to the dismay of the staff.

Maintaining such an estate—and such an extensive and impressive private art collection—is no small task. In Florence, it seems all such palazzos have fallen into the hands of the city, and, along with that descent, a dimming of the personality and human touch that lends a handful of palazzos in Rome the air of intimacy—a series of rooms in which generations of a Roman family have lived and still live. Imagine an iPhone charger stationed on the eighteenth-century nightstand of a Victorian-era bed, the newest generations adding and adapting, expanding to eclipse the old.

Inside the private apartments of the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, the dressing room is where I found myself lingering. Named after Venus, with the goddess rendered in repose on the ceiling, this room effervesces her qualities, noxious as sweet perfume. A dressing room, after all, encourages one to look around. The architecture of the room possesses no right angles, an unusual—and therefore costly—construction. Each corner is not a corner but another small wall, guiding my vision on toward the next. The pilgrim stands between two octagons, the gilt and stucco filigrees of the ceiling mirroring the marble inlays patterned on the floor. A world-straddler, attention is in a state of constant infidelity, from armchair to end table, from sofa to vanity, from mirror to mirror to mirror. The mind, though set on illumination, tends toward frenzy. “But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a cast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.” Corso: drift, race.

But allow me to pause, to address/undress our patron goddess. Stefano Pozzi, the painter of this Venus in recline, suggests the proper posture for this place, the pose a body might assume upon a settee. Though surrounded by cloud and cloth, the right side of her body lays largely exposed, and a mass of white fabric looms above her head and over her left shoulder. The object of Venus’s attention? Her own image, reflected in a looking glass, framed by gold, supported by an angel whose gaze the mirror has also captured. Cupid leans against her knee, himself stripped of quiver and bow—his identity and his power cast aside. Since Pozzi paints him without wings, he is rendered all the more human, all the more vulnerable. (Cupid, too, must traverse this plane by foot.) And he, like we, are fixed, staring with Venus toward the glass.

If it seems our vision is trapped within this small oval frame, take comfort (and flight) in the notion that a mirror is merely an illusion, not an end. What we see and will see is not what we’ve seen or where we’ve been, but an inversion/alteration/perversion of what came before. In the dressing room, as in Rome itself, our images—and our thoughts—are perpetually susceptible to such corruption. The goddess’ reflection appears a distortion, a dim face that has traded its complexion for a different form. For Pozzi, divinity does not exempt one from change—and is there a higher truth we could expect a dressing room to reveal? As an essayist conscious of his own power of reason, Emerson confesses the same, undressing as writers tend to: “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” Though to maintain a hierarchy of forms may miss the point. Against all intuition, for all its furniture and filigree, moldings and bass reliefs, paintings and ceramics, flatness is what the baroque is really all about—a flattening of the hierarchy where no one object (or subject) is more important than the next. The significant piece of art is the room itself: how the limits of that space may be filled, and how far those limits may be pushed. (The answers, I hope, eternal.) The baroque is simultaneously aesthetic, utilitarian, and banal. Even the frame of a mirror can yield fruitful meditation. Here, for instance, Venus’s image may have lost some of its rosy-cheeked clarity, but her next set of eyes, however vague, stare in a definitively different direction, spurring us once again.

To avoid a crick in the neck, the pilgrim must lower his gaze and move on.

That tilted mirror of Venus, that slash/slant/solidus/vigule, is an object germane to the dressing room/vanity that both inspires rest and readies us to leave that very space, to move outward. As essayist, I am drawn toward the marks of punctuation most mimetic of my mind. As pilgrim, I am eager to linger. This is, perhaps, why I am most attracted to the slash. The slash allows one word to lean/lead into the next, magnifying the meaning of each with pregnant pause, allowing the circle/sphere/cipher to expand once again. The slash permits the multiplicity of sight/selves that is the essayist’s most vital vehicle, the motivation for movement, the essence of pilgrimage. “Each new step we take in thought reconciles twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law,” says Emerson.

Stefano Pozzi, Allegoria della Terra, ca. 1766. Oil on canvas. Courtesy La Fondazione Federico Zeri, Rome.

Though Venus’ face appears smaller in the mirror, by moving outward we can see a larger motif developed on Pozzi’s ceiling. Surrounding that central image is a set of four allegories corresponding to the four elements: fire, earth, water, wind. Moving outward, the world decomposes to its more elemental nature: a volcano erupts lava; the soil bursts forth a harvest, a jar spills into the sea. Only in the image of the wind does the force remain unseen. Here, the protagonist, with her hair and clothing caught in the updraft, casts her eyes outside the frame, beyond our horizon, and we are left at this limit to do what we will. And what will we do, when we reach what appears to be the end? To echo Emerson’s sentiment, “I cast away in this new moment all my once hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain.” Below the allegory of wind is a window, its curtain sheer. The dressing room may be a carefully constructed artifice, but it is built with an exit to the outside world, a portal through which the pilgrim may pass. Corso: progress.

But I have one more room to explore before I make my exit. Adjacent to the dressing room is a perfectly circular bath, Bagno di Diana. In a room named after Diana, goddess of the hunt who quests through sacred oaken woodland, this bath emerges as an oasis—stunning as any mirage would be. I could have descended into the tub by one of two staircases, each step a pilgrimage on a pilgrimage. The entire structure is made of marble imported from Carrara—the same marble from which Michelangelo carved David, Bernini carved Apollo and Daphne, and out of which the ancient Romans created the Pantheon (arguably the circle of all circles). It was early in the morning when I stood in that room. Again, there was a window, this one open, its sheer curtain billowing in the breeze. I saw a sculpture of a cherub resting happily by the bath’s edge, oblivious that time has taken from him a hand and a foot. This room was shocking in its intimacy, a bottle of face scrub on the floor that no one had bothered to clear away. Had the pilgrim become a trespasser? When did I make that turn? But no, I was invited to be let in on this secret. Emerson protests: “The only sin is limitation.” After all, though otherwise alone, I had a guide. Yet how I wish my next step was to lean, to leer/peer into the depths of that water, to shed my photography pass, my notebook, my pen, and to sink in that blissful surface, that ever-rippling reflection.

Note: All in-text quotations taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles."

Bagno di Diana inside the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Laurence Ross for his Instagram feed.