It was turning into a rainy evening in Rome. The downpour was steady: persistent enough to slowly seep through my raincoat, but not aggressive enough to convince me to stop meandering through the drizzly streets, past intriguing old churches and lazily flowing fountains.
Eventually, I made my way to the Palazzo Barberini, a seventeenth century palace that is now home to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. This museum hosts one of Italy’s most important painting collections, but it can be easy to overlook as a visitor to artwork-saturated Rome.
Evening darkness was already starting its slow descent as I entered the quiet museum. There were only a handful of other visitors in the impressive palazzo, so I felt like I was alone. (Well, if one can be alone when surrounded by a parade of characters depicted by Raphael, Caravaggio, Bernini, and Lippi.) Big windows scattered throughout the galleries provided glimpses out to the rainy scenes below.
The dreary, stormy evening set the mood for my visit. I couldn’t escape the rain. To get to the museum’s upper floors, I had to climb a square staircase (designed by Bernini) that spiraled around an open-air courtyard. While I remained dry, I was practically immersed in the rainstorm; I could see it, hear it, smell it.
Evocative ambience aside, the weather’s major impact on my visit experience was at its conclusion. I had my nose in an intricate painting of a Venetian bridge by Canaletto, when all of a sudden, darkness. The museum lost its power! I stood still in the gallery, enjoying the strangeness of being in a museum lit only by the diffused light coming in through the covered windows.
A guard eventually made his way through each gallery, heading towards the museum’s exit, collecting visitors in the beam of his flashlight.
But during my visit before this abrupt exit, as I was wandering from painting to painting, I found myself pulled to the representations of dramatic skies. Sculptural cloud formations and dazzling colors played a supporting role in these paintings’ narratives. At first, the different skyscapes were easy to miss behind the gripping stories taking place before them; but, once I had started noticing them, I couldn’t stop searching them out in each new painting. Not unlike my experience in an exhibition dedicated to frames, I felt like I was seeing something very familiar in a new way.
I decided to go on a photo safari, a trick in my museum toolbox that helps me look at objects more closely. You simply pick a theme and focus on details found in artworks around that theme, with the aim of looking at everything differently. This visit’s theme became spotting the striking skies depicted in the paintings.
And so I present Dramatic Skies, as found in the Palazzo Barberini:
Address: via delle Quattro Fontane, 13 – 00184, Rome, Italy ∣ Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 8:30am to 7pm
A feline visitor approaching the museum’s ticket desk.
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