Rome was transformed after it became the capital of the new Italy in 1870. A burgeoning middle class wanted houses, theatres, cafs and shops. Prince Maffeo Sciarra, owner of prime property near the Trevi fountain, obligingly and enthusiastically launched into development. In the late 1880s, he commissioned the architect Giulio De Angelis to design the glass-domed Galleria Sciarra, between Via M. Minghetti and Piazza dellOratorio, as a fashionable shopping centre. Today there is only one rather antiquated shop left in this small arcade, but the frescoes still make it worth a visit.
In the early 20th century some women might have gone to Via Minghetti from Via del Corso not only to shop but also to view themselves (or their friends) as depicted on the walls of the small courtyard by the painter Giuseppe Cellini. Once past the decorated pilasters, displaying the coat of arms of Prince Sciarra and his initials M S, they could look up and see on two walls of the richly and eclectically decorated second floor, portraits of 12 lovely ladies with luxuriant coiffures and wasp-like waists. Cellini, known for his talent in idealising the real, used as his models some of his well-born women friends. However, the overall decoration of the gallery was planned not so much to exhibit the charms of individual women as to glorify Woman, and remind her, as she shopped, of her role in the family and within society.
A Latin word identifies each of her (desired) virtues while an attitude, a gesture, an attribute helps to characterise them. Benigna spreads her skirt generously wide; Domina, mistress of the household, points a furled fan downwards with a commanding gesture; Amabilis gracefully extends her arms in welcome; Fidelis points her left forefinger to her faithful heart, an emblematic dog at her feet; Misericors is cutting her tresses and so, in compassion, is making a sacrifice of her crowning glory; Lusta brings her hands judiciously together; Pudica looks modest and Sobria has a high-buttoned neckline; Patiens gazes down resignedly at the two naked babies sprawled on her lap; Fortis, arms akimbo, bears up valiantly; Humilis in an apron holds out her arms in submissive surrender; Prudens fortifies herself against temptation by reading a book.
On the wall below, there are scenes from the life of Ideal Woman. There is the young girl, fan modestly raised to her face as she is being courted by a handsome, dark-haired man who has been identified as Prince Sciarras friend, the dashing, many-talented Gabriele DAnnunzio. The toilette is followed by a bride in a swirl of white furbelows, the wedding scene spread on either side of a window. As a new mother, the woman looks down tenderly at her baby while the next scene shows two children, a girl and a boy, at play. The opposite wall features Woman as happy in her settled, domestic life: watering flowers in a particularly charming pose; sympathetically sitting at the feet of an elderly male relative; presiding over the dinner table (this scene, like the wedding, spread on either side of a window); playing the piano for her husband; encouraging her daughter to give alms to an old man who, since his beard is so scrupulously clean, must be one of the deserving poor.
Below these scenes are four Latin quotations. A woman shopper educated in the classics would have recognised them. They are from Horace and Virgil, the two best-known poets of Augustan Rome a time when the city, fragmented by civil war, was being transformed under the emperor Augustus, just as once again Rome was being transformed as the capital of the new Italy. Who better to quote from than these poets? And then, each quotation has a specific bearing on a scene above. Beneath the lavish wedding scene we have Horace, in unusually austere, proto-Rousseau mode, praising the noble savage Scythian woman:
The generous dowry she receives from her parents is virtue: she remains true to her vows and shuns men not her husband; adultery is a foul offence, its penalty death. (Odes III. 24. 21-24)
Any bride with Madame Bovary tendencies, be warned.
Under the mother and baby is Virgils encouragement to the child who is to bring back the Golden Age:
Begin, little boy, to recognise your mother with a smile. (Eclogue 4. 60)
A stanza from Horace underpins the scene at the dinner table:
A man lives well on little if the family salt cellar gleams, carefully polished, on his frugal table, and if fear and sordid avarice do not disturb his easy slumbers. (Odes 2. 16. 13-16)
Our classically-educated shopper might have smiled at comparing the above with the opulent dinner table served by a butler.
Virgil is invoked to comment on the almsgiving scene:
Not ignorant of suffering, I am learning to succour the wretched. (Aeneid 1. 630)
Here our shopper might have laughed out loud. What could a comfortable 19th-century bourgeoise, however kindly, have in common with epic Dido who, her husband murdered by her brother, fled her country to establish a kingdom on another continent?
Having made their purchases and admired their idealised selves, these shoppers, whether classically educated or not, would very possibly have made their way to a nearby bookstore, Bemporad or Bocca, to pick up a copy of one of DAnnunzios highly popular and sultry novels with their deliciously naughty heroines.