An American Art Critic’s 70-Year Love Affair With Rome

The New York–born critic and photographer Milton Gendel (1918–2018) lived in Rome for the last 70 years of his life, a quiet man observing the international swirl of artists, writers, aristocrats, and socialites of which he was himself a part—not to mention the ordinary hubbub of Roman life. Gendel died in 2018, not long before his 100th birthday. He would always say, of his seven decades in Rome, that he was “just passing through,” but his various homes in the city became a hub for figures including Antonia Fraser and Iris Origo to Princess Margaret and the collector Mimi Pecci Blunt. While personally unobtrusive, he was a shrewd listener, seemed to know everyone, and found his way everywhere. Gendel left behind tens of thousands of photographs and 10 million words of diary entries chronicling the cultural and social scene at the intersection of the American Century and la dolce vita. A collection of Gendel’s words and pictures, excerpted below, will be published tomorrow.

A portrait of a priest leans against a bookshelf
Pope Pius V, Isola Tiberina, Rome (1974) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Monday, November 13, 1967

Lunch at Piazza Campitelli. Walk to St. Peter’s. After two or three years of having the nave encumbered with seats—for the Council—the church looks as it used to do. What balls was taught about the interior. [The art historian Everard M.] Upjohn at Columbia used to say with conviction that the space had been falsified by the decorations. The mosaics and sculptures and the architectural details were out of scale, and thus one had no real idea of the vast proportions of the building. This is not true. The visitors give the scale themselves immediately. The space is measurable, in terms of the familiar classical orders—it is clearly one of the largest such spaces in existence. Comparable—as a question of scale—is the Pantheon. The Upjohns were thinking of another kind of space and comparing it to that of St. Peter’s, to the disadvantage of the latter: the kinds of space developed from the end of the Imperial Roman times to the Gothic period. In other words, spaces created with unmeasurable elements, which give an illusion of incommensurable continuity.

It was a beautiful day, and at 4:00 the basilica was still very light. Beams striking down from the window over the front doors. Small figures of visitors moving along the great concourse that is the nave. I was reminded of Pennsylvania Station. It was wrong to destroy it. In a Communist country, it would not have happened for the same reason that so much was preserved in Italy: poverty.

A young girl holding a mobile
Anna Gendel, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice (1967) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Wednesday, December 6, 1967

At 8:00 to Carla Panicali’s. Dinner for the Calders. Very lively. Louisa Calder tangled with me at once on Vietnam, not realizing we were more or less on the same side. But that was partly because she has become so rabidly anti-government that she speaks well of de Gaulle. [Alexander] Calder a great, fumbling, white-haired thing in red shirt and red tie. Almost incomprehensible because he slurs his words since he had a heart attack. Slurred them before, too. But he is swift and piercing in his glances and seems to hear everything from all sides of the table. Horseplay with a datepick in the shape of a woman. Calder making a kind of mobile out of a fork and the pick and a date.

Iris Origo lies in a bed
Iris Origo, Palazzo Orsini, Rome (1979) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Wednesday, May 30, 1973

I had a long conversation with [the diarist and biographer] Iris Origo, whom I haven’t seen in a very long time … She spoke about her shyness, how she always felt out of things when she was a girl, especially as she had to change among three different cultures, American, Italian, and English. Bernard Berenson dismayed her once, when she was seventeen, and he hurled a challenging question at her across his salotto, which was full of people. She mustered her courage and answered—something about what she wanted out of life. That’s what I mean, he said with disdain, addressing the others—that is conventional thinking. She spoke about his diaries and his self-dissatisfaction. I said that it was a pity he had been born too soon; he was a generation or two out of line. Nowadays there would be very little conflict over his commercial operations and his scholarship. He didn’t have enough balance to see that he had gotten out of life the most that he was capable of. He was a worldling with dreams of monastic cloistered scholarship.

A sculpture, partially shrouded
Padre Martini sculpture, Isola Tiberina, Rome (1991) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Thursday, August 23, 1973

To Carla Panicali’s to give her the transparency from Tom [Hess] for his article on Ad Reinhardt and to hear the story of the pope’s museum of modern art. Monsignor Pasquale Macchi, a polished little fellow, was the man behind the effort. He is a promoter and saw it as a good thing for the Vatican image. He succeeded in getting presents from artists and patrons. For instance, Gianni Agnelli has given a Francis Bacon, worth 150 million lire, and a Marino Marini worth 50. Carla had no plausible explanation as to why Gianni should have been so munificent. In secret, she told me that Macchi had bought some things from her directly—about 50 million lire worth—and she expected him to buy much more. This was not to be known publicly, as the Vatican preferred to play poor-mouth. In fact, at the opening the pope had referred to the generosity of friends of the Vatican who had made the museum possible “senza intaccare le finanze traballanti del Vaticano” [without affecting the shaky finances of the Vatican]. There was a suspicion of general suppressed laughter, said Carla.

Two vendors sitting by their wares
Flea market, Porta Portese, Rome (1979) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Saturday, February 9, 1974

Josephine [Powell] drove out with me to some junkyards she knew about. The best was a large area off the Via Appia Nuova, on the Raccordo Anulare, to the left. A monumental woman … dominated the yard from a snug furnished hut. Outside was a colossal wrought iron lantern with colored glass—something from a turn-of-the-century theater or department store. I priced a spiral staircase (180,000 lire), a straight iron ladder (50,000), some marble—white—about 25,000 for enough to make a fireplace. Josephine priced a four-wheeled cart of silvery old wood—70,000 lire.

But the prize of the junkyard was a group of toilet fixtures—a vast porcelain bath—oval—and another smaller one, a sink on a pedestal and a neoclassic toilet bowl. The woman owner made an impressed face when I asked the price. Quella è roba buona … la vasca più grande era del Duce [That’s good stuff … the bigger tub was Mussolini’s] …

On the way back to Rome, we stopped at a stone yard to price slate and peperino. A man with a mustache gave me the various prices—a beautiful dark pietra serena came to 9,000 lire a square meter; green marble, 16,000 … He also had rosa di Francia, a pretty pink marble, and many kinds of travertine. He asked me whether I was an artist, [and] when he heard that I was a giornalista, he said that he hoped I did not pay attention to the clothes a person wore—che non bada ai panni—and got me into his field house, where he showed me a book with a reproduction of a confused surrealist painting he had done. His name is Pasqua Pierini, and he was eager to have a conversation about art. I was not and tried to show that I was really an undereducated American and wasn’t up to a metaphysical conversation.

He became more animated, though, and pronounced in a D’Annuzian way on the burning fires of creativity.

A photograph of Tortoise Fountain
Tortoise Fountain restoration, Piazza Mattei, Rome (1979) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. [Undated] 1980

Alex and Tatiana Liberman expansive at the Rally Room of the Grand Hotel. The fashion shows were over, and you could breathe again, said Alex. Why, yesterday this room was packed with fashion people, and now they’ve all gone. I ate gamberetti and spigola and raspberries. Delicious food. Alex sailed into Balthus. He was a phony painter, just as he was a phony aristocrat and phony everything. Tatiana liked his work but found it limited. Why was it so “frozen”? I cited Chardin, Poussin, Piero, Vermeer, putting Balthus in company that’s really a bit too good for him. Alex declared that he couldn’t stand the “literary” character of the work. He liked only abstract art. He sounded like an old manual of the old avant garde …

And what explained the grandiosity of Roman buildings? They had been to see the Palazzo Spada, at my suggestion. It was power, wasn’t it? Imperial power. But that collection of paintings was pathetic, said Alex. All second-rate. Rome was second-rate in its art, wasn’t it? There wasn’t a Louvre. I composed them a Louvre by imagining the Barberini and Corsini collections thrown together with the addition of the Galleria Borghese and the Doria Pamphilj and the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Stanze.

They didn’t seem to get the point, and I felt that they would go away repeating that art in Rome was mediocre. Despite my citation of the Masolino and Pinturicchio wall paintings and the Rubenses and other notable works in the churches. Caravaggio.

Princess Margaret and Fabrizio Mancinelli at the Sistine Chapel
Princess Margaret and Fabrizio Mancinelli of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel (1993) (Photograph by Milton Gendel. Courtesy of Fondazione Primoli, Rome.)
Rome. Thursday, March 17, 1983

The cleaned Michelangelo frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are spectacular. What a transformation. The sixteenth-century palette becoming visible again. Basis for all the later Mannerist color. And the high relief of the figures and of the architectural elements when they are not flattened by accumulated grime.

Leo [Steinberg, an art critic,] spotted [Fabrizio] Mancinelli, the curator of Renaissance art, who was standing with [the art historians] John Shearman and Kathleen Weil-Garris observing the display of Raphael tapestries. Shearman had figured out the sequence of the tapestries that were made for Leo X and were full of Medici iconography and found where they were meant to go. He said, humorously triumphant, They fit!

A guard with a fierce manner but a twinkling expression was routing well-groomed elderly American ladies who were flashing away at the walls. Using flashes is not allowed in the chapel. Leo was very interesting on The Last Judgment. Michelangelo had rebuilt the wall so that it sloped in 30 cm. from the top to the bottom. Vasari, ridiculously pragmatic, according to Leo, said that this was done so that the dust wouldn’t gather on the surface of the wall. But it was to emphasize the invasion of the chapel’s space by The Last Judgment. The Church Triumphant replaces the Church Militant, and Christ himself takes the place of the popes. Hence there was no coat of arms of Paul III to replace the one of Sixtus IV corresponding to the one on the opposite wall that had been there. Michelangelo had progressively stepped up the scale of his figures toward the end wall. And the great moldings, for instance defining the corner lunettes, had been narrowed to the maximum.

And look at the cross that the stocky figure is planting—where is he setting it? On the cornice itself. That is Simon of Cyrene, according to Leo, and the painting is the first example in art history of the painted invading the real space.

This article was adapted from the book Just Passing Through—A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday: The Diaries and Photographs of Milton Gendel, edited by Cullen Murphy.

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