Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ibsen and the Beauty of Rome. Understanding Greek Tragedy and Art.

Detail of Tragic Muse Statute at Vatican Museum

Ibsen like many other Scandinavian and European artists from the 19th century, found in Rome the inspiration for their art and their idea of beauty and depth in art. Reading Michael Meyer’s Biography of Henrik Ibsen I discovered a letter to his friend (and sometimes enemy) the writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, describing his favorites pieces of art in the eternal city and his reaction after observing them.

Ibsen lived in Rome during his 30s in a kind of auto-imposed exile, and wrote several of his most famous plays during those years in Italy. Being known that he wasn’t used to read books (any kind of, he only read newspapers) this stay was for him more than a general view of the classical art world, it was the visual reading of all the classics in literature and theatre through sculpture and architecture. Yes, as odd as it sounds.

Ibsen sent this letter to Bjørnson (dated January 28, 1864) confirming Bjørnson’s predictions that the playwright's stay in Rome would gradually become attuned to classical art and sculpture.

I’m posting the whole extract of the letter from Meyer’s book and also some photographs (from different sources on internet) that’ll help visualize those works Ibsen is talking about.

"Its beauty (…) grows more and more on me, as you said it would. It comes in flashes, but a single flash throws light over whole vistas. Do you remember the "Tragic Muse" which stands outside the hall in the Rotunda in the Vatican? No sculpture here has yet been such a revelation to me. I may even say that it is through this that I have understood what Greek tragedy was. The indescribably calm, noble and exalted joy in the expression of the face, the richly laurel led head containing within it something supernaturally luxuriant and bacchantic, the eyes that look both inwards and at the same time through and far beyond the object of their gaze--such was Greek tragedy."

Tragic Muse (Vatican Museum)

The statue of Demosthenes in the Lateran, the Faun in the Villa Borghese, and the Faun (of Praxiteles) in the Vatican (brachia nuovo), have also opened great windows for me into Greek character, and have enabled me to understand what imperishability in beauty really is. Pray heaven I may be able to use this understanding for my own work."

Demosthenes Statue (Vatican Museum)

Praxiteles' Faun (Vatican)

Faun (Villa Borghese)

"Michelangelo's Moses in S. Pietro in Vincoli I had not seen when I last wrote to you; but I had read about it and built up expectation which has not quite been fulfilled--however. I have only seen it once.

How glorious the landscape is down here; in both forms and colours there is and indescribable harmony. I often spend half the day lying out among the graves on the Via Latina or the old Via Appia, and think it an idleness but no waste of time. Caracalla's Baths are another place which holds some especial attraction for me (…)"

Graves at Via Appia

Caracalla's Baths

Maybe is only a curious information but maybe it could help to understand in a better way the work of this playwright and poet, and to better understand the man behind that work.

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