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Fire, Butterflies and Vanitas at Villa Medici, Rome

In 1700, a fire which allegedly planned by Cosimo III de’ Medici destroyed the frescos and panels -painted by Jacopo Zucchi– of the Chamber of Jupiter’s Loves in Villa Medici. Cosimo III denounced the embodiment of amoral and promiscuous features in the room’s décor. It was something too vexatious for him to look at following the continuous hostile behaviour from his wife Marguerite Louise d’Orléans- perhaps as an act of retaliation against this dreadful marriage. The Medici dynasty terminated when the son of Cosimo III, Gian Gastone died without producing an heir in 1737. The Chamber of Jupiter’s Loves was left deprived of art, which was unusual for art-filled Medici villas. The fire, not only wrecked the ceilings but also indicated the end of the Medici dynasty. The French Academy in Rome became the owner of Villa Medici ever since Napoleon Bonaparte made the move in 1803 and prided itself with its impressive list of directors -consisting of acclaimed artists like Thévenin, Ingres and Balthus- who presided over the Medici tradition of supporting art and artists alike.

The Chamber of Jupiter’s Loves opened to the public in 2015 with a new art commission. The Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani adorned the previously-vacant ceiling frescos with butterflies. It was a poetic allegory to the Cosimo fire, family drama and the villa’s past. Parmiggiani’s signature ‘Delocazione’ technique often used fire, soot and smoke to create ghostly images that immortalised a shared memory. Parmiggiani’s ceiling installation formed a cosmos of butterflies consisting of seven panels, with one deserted panel, showing the vanishing moment of the butterfly flock, as if a fire was chasing them out of the panels, the room and the villa. The panic, desperation and anger of the Cosimo fire that ravaged the chamber were playing vividly in front of me as if I was also emotionally involved in the Medici drama. Parmiggiani’s butterflies offered an experience which was devoid of time by allowing me to revisit the history of the chamber, the family and the villa.

Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas- vanity of vanities, all is vanity; a Latin phrase which has echoed in my head whilst I roam around Villa Medici and my 5-day trip in Rome. The correlation of wealth and power tends to go hand-in-hand, and it is omnipresent in every society, but Rome, or perhaps Italy is the only place where art has always been in the equation- wherever there are wealth and power, there is art. It may be that they understand the true value of art which is something beyond any monetary and status gains. It can transcend time just like Parmiggiani’s butterflies. #villamedici #rome #medici #claudioparmiggiani #vanitas #butterflies #fire

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© 2020 By Henrietta Y. Mansfeld