Unpacking Rome with Andrew Graham-Dixon

February 3, 2020

Richard Dawson joins Andrew Graham-Dixon at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil for a frenetic, lucid journey through Italian art history

Art is a fight and it’s a right bloody punch up most of the time”, says art critic, journalist and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon.

It’s not surprising that the leading authority on Caravaggio – the famous Italian Baroque painter who was notorious for brawling and even believed to have murdered someone – would describe the subject he has devoted his life to in such a way.

Andrew Graham-Dixon sees art very much in these antagonistic terms, a struggle between different artists for what role art should play, who it should speak to and what message it should send.

Giving a talk at The Lit and Phil – Newcastle’s historic library – for the last of its cultural series, Andrew takes spectators on a journey through Roman art, highlighting various paintings and sculptures and explaining their influence on contemporaries throughout the ages.

The talk comes off the back of a television program with the BBC called Rome Unpacked, where Andrew is joined by chef Giorgio Locatelli as they explore the Italian capital in search of hidden cultural and gastronomic treasures.

The programme takes viewers off the beaten path to discover places that are steeped in history but not widely visited by tourists. “We wanted to go to the best known of all Italian cities [Rome] but also take you to places you wouldn’t typically consider going to”, Andrew explains.

One such place is Basilica di San Clemente, just next to the Colosseum, one of Andrew’s favourite places in the eternal city. The church today has predominantly Baroque features, but its roots go far deeper.

Andrew explains: “It’s a Baroque church but if you look to the far end, there’s a 10th century mosaic, an astonishing mosaic of the tree of life. That’s 600 years before the Baroque church. And then, in front of that is a choir, but the choir is 5th century.”

The marble choir, dated 483 AD, was apparently a gift from the Emperor of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) to one of the very first Roman Popes, Pope Clement I. The question that naturally arises from these ancient artefacts is how did they get there?

Well, apparently the Basilica di San Clemente as we know it today is actually built on top of a series of older churches, the earliest of which dates back to the 5th century. Andrew posits that when the new churches were built, the most precious items were probably taken from below and repurposed.

The rich archaeological history of Basilica di San Clemente is true throughout all of Rome, which has been a centre of people, power and commerce for thousands of years. Andrew tells me that part of the reason new infrastructure projects are so difficult to deliver there is because you have to navigate planning permission around the countless ancient archaeological sites. It’s a good job the Romans were pioneers of groundwork.

Dig down about 200 yards below ground in almost any part of the city centre today and you will find networks of streets, houses and churches that date back millennia. Beneath Basilica di San Clemente, for example, are streets going back to just after the Great Fire of Rome, when emperor Nero burnt the city to the ground in 64 AD.

But Roman archaeology is not just a story of history, it’s also about diversity, as Andrew explains: “I think what’s interesting about Rome is that because it’s such a multi-layered place archeologically, you can be in one place and yet you can be touching eight different pieces of social history.

“You can be in a place that was once Jewish, that was once Roman, that was once Catholic, that was once Byzantine and so on.”

In many ways, the goal of Rome Unpacked was to use this diversity to give people a more open view of history. Too often, we define a place based only on one set of characteristics or another. But the reality is more complex.

Andrew adds: “The founding error of all nationalism is the idea that places equal cultures, whereas no place equals a culture.

“What nationalism or sectarianism always wants to do is to hijack a place and say this is Jewish or this is Muslim, whereas nearly all places have been different things at different points.”

Rome Unpacked calls on viewers to recognise that nearly every culture has been neighbour to nearly every other culture.

Andrew speaks with real authority about ancient Roman artefacts and during his talk explains the iconography of things like the 175 AD equestrian statue of the great philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. He also draws extensively on Italian art of the early modern period, particularly Caravaggio, who he is considered the leading expert on.

He describes Caravaggio’s paintings as left wing and at odds with the “bourgeois” Italian religious and political establishment of the day. For Andrew, Caravaggio was saying that art should speak to the people, rather than reinforce existing social hierarchies and keep people in their place.

The erratic Italian’s artwork did not use much colour, which was considered a luxury at the time. The subjects in many of his paintings were also commoners being chosen by god over the rich.

Looking at something like The Calling of Saint Matthew (1600), you would not immediately identify these things, but that is what makes Andrew’s talk so engaging. He is able to speak about high art in a way that everybody can understand.

I’m sure Caravaggio – a complicated figure but a ‘man of the people’ – would have approved.

Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s bestselling book – Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane – is available to buy on his website and you can hear him speak at a number of events across the UK this year.

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