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One of Rome's most splendid 17th-century palaces, the recently renovated Palazzo Barberini is a landmark of the Roman Baroque style. Pope Urban VIII had acquired the property and given it to a nephew, who was determined to build an edifice worthy of his generous uncle and the ever-more-powerful Barberini clan. The result was, architecturally, a precedent-shattering affair: a "villa suburbana" set right in the heart of the urban city and designed to be strikingly open to the outdoors. Note how Carlo Maderno's grand facade seems almost entirely composed of window tiers rising up in proto-20th-century fashion.
Ascend Bernini's staircase to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, hung with famed paintings including Raphael's La Fornarina, a luminous portrait of the artist's lover (a resident of Trastevere, she was reputedly a baker's daughter)—study the bracelet on her upper arm bearing Raphael's name. Also noteworthy are Guido Reni's portrait of the doomed Beatrice Cenci
(beheaded in Rome for patricide in 1599)—Hawthorne called it "the saddest picture ever painted" in his Rome-based novel, The Marble Faun—and Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes.
But the showstopper here is the palace's Gran Salone, a vast ballroom with a ceiling painted in 1630 by the third (and too-often neglected) master of the Roman Baroque, Pietro da Cortona. It depicts the Glorification of Urban VIII's Reign and has the spectacular conceit of glorifying Urban VIII as the agent of Divine Providence and escorted by a "bomber squadron" (to quote art historian Sir Michael Levey) of some huge, mutantlike Barberini bees, the heraldic symbol of the family.
Part of the family of museums that includes the Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Spada, Palazzo Venezia, and Palazzo Corsini, the Palazzo Barberini has gone into marketing in a big way—visit the shop here for some distinctive gifts for Aunt Ethel back home, including tote bags bearing the beloved visage of Raphael's La Fornarina, bookmarks with Caravaggio's Judith slicing off Holofernes's head, and coffee mugs bearing the famous Barberini heraldic bees.
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