Close to the Tiber and only a few doors away from the Napoleonic Museum was the address Google had given me for Museum Praz, Via Zanardelli Giuseppe, 1. Open Thurs 2:30-7:30, Fri 2:30-7:30, Sat 9-1:30.
I recognized the marble entry with three doors as soon as I stepped inside. I’d been here before when I was searching for the entrance to the Napoleon Museum and was sent away by a man at a table in a dark room lined with bookshelves. Which door to choose, the lady or the tiger? I picked the middle door. Same guard, same dim room filled with books. “Dove Museum Praz?” I asked. The man held up a finger for me to wait and called someone, then led me through two rooms he had to unlock, put me in a personal sized elevator and tapped the third-floor button. Once again, there were three doors. The far right door opened, a man beckoned and I entered a small vestibule with a view of a long narrow room crammed floor to ceiling with ornate furniture, mirrors, books, sculpture, and paintings.
A bevy of teenagers whispered and watched me. Hmmm. An adult man explained briskly that I must be escorted by a guide, I could take photos without flash, and there will be no time to sketch. A boy stepped up, and the tour commenced.
I’ll pause here for a quick bio. Professore Mario Praz was an Italian-born writer, Anglicist, and collector. Along with two books on interior design, an autobiographical book The House of Life** and An Illustrated history in Interior Design, he also penned The Romantic Agony, a survey of erotic and morbid themes in European literature. Praz theorized that furnishings were tangible artifacts of social history and that the interior of a home was a representational evocation of the individual that resides in the home, reflecting the character or the personality of the occupant. He called his apartment his archive of experiences and the museum of his soul.
What impression did these rooms give me of his soul? An interestingly eccentric man, straddling the thin line between hoarder and collector. It’s crammed with oddities, from bas-relief miniature portraits made of painted wax and ornate fans, to musical instruments so peculiar you’re not sure which end the sound comes out of.
He combined Napoleonana and squicky sentimental paintings, like a girl weeping over her dead lapdog. He had a motif of hot air balloons in his dining room décor. He hung a portrait of a pope over his teenage daughter’s bed. What adolescent girl wouldn’t love that staring down at her at night?
He needle-pointed the upholstery for a sofa with his wife, a pair of swans on a field of butter yellow. Swans mate for life and his marriage ended in divorce after eight years, yet swan iconography is everywhere. Ironic, bitter, or oblivious?
Along with the weirdness there were elegant pieces; large mirrors, chandeliers, inlaid cabinets, English furniture, French bronzes, Russian malachite, Bohemian crystals, German china, landscapes of Italian and European cities, and the portraits of reigning monarchs, from the Bourbons to the Bonaparte family, plus a canopy bed from the Castle of Fontainebleau. It was a quirky assemblage, but that was its chief appeal.
“It had its spring in the France of Louis XV, its summer in the Empire and its languid autumn in the delicious awkwardness of the Biedermeier,“ Praz said. Awkward yes. Delicious, I’m not so sure. Fun to gawk at, most definitely.
The young man walked me around the first room, and pointed out the most impressively weird acquisitions, like this bust of a woman whose hairstyle dates to when recently imported giraffes were all the rage. Seriously.
Three girls followed us and prompted him sotto voce, correcting his English and nudging him to talk about specific items. By the second room, I’d learned they were college students and this was a project for their English language class. There were maybe 15 of them, and they handed me off to each other, like a fire brigade passing a bucket hand to hand. The Mamma in me came out. They were working so diligently. I asked encouraging questions. Sometimes I helped with a word. I pulled out GoogleTranslate when they got stuck. I inquired about their areas of study. I cheered them on.
The student tour guides are what made this morning shine for me. It reminded me of the time I visited the Louvre on a Wednesday night and art students were stationed in the Denon wing to explain the significance of various works of art. I left thoroughly charmed. I asked the man in charge if they did this every Saturday. “Oh no,” he said, “this was a one-time project, a once in a lifetime experience.” He winked. I left thoroughly charmed.
Long walk back to the hotel, stopping at various stores I’d earmarked via Google to find souvenirs for my family. Not much shopping luck. Cheesy and cheap or just okay stuff that cost a whack. After dinner, I walked down via Urbana to get some of the Fatamorgana gelato and heard a deep-throated bark overhead. I looked up and saw Cerebus.
Tomorrow, the infamous flea market, Porta Portese.
**Cyril Connolly and Edmund Wilson had opinions about his autobiographical book, The House of Life. Wilson praised Praz’s work as a “masterpiece,” Connolly called it “one of the most boring books I have ever read…it’s unbelievably exhausting…it has a bravura of boredom, an audacity of ennui that makes one hardly believe one’s eyes.” Jeez, Connolly, tell us how you really feel.