Beheld and beholding: Eco e Narcisco

“Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it

– Ovid in Metamorphosis

In these lines, the poet is speaking of Narcissus, yet he expresses the universal idea that we often intently seek that which is elusive, and grasp at perceptions thinking they are real. Perhaps artists, especially, are guilty of this in our insatiable yearning for beauty, expressed and experienced. My latest artist date at the Eco e Narcisco show at the Palazzo Barberini inspired me to reread Ovid’s description, and the show itself offered a contemplation on the idea of the artistic gaze – both that of the creator, that of the viewer, and what happens when the artist is the subject.

Alongside two of my dearest friends, one an artist, the other a videographer, I was excited to take in Eco e Narcisco. Playing on the myth, Narcissus and Echo, one self-reflexive and the other constrained to repeat, a dialogue of portraits and self-portraits through the ages was on display. From large salon-styled rooms filled with portraiture of a certain theme, to rooms of clever pairings of seemingly disparate works, the show wove through the former palace of the Barberini family in unexpected and clever turns.

Two views of the penitent Mary Magdalene: by Guido Reni and  Simon Vouet
Still from Illusions and Mirrors by Shirin Neshat
Posing near the fascinating sculptures of Large Dessert, by Kiki Smith. Photo by Paola Gallorini

During the show, my artist dates and I played with capturing the paintings and ambience, sculpting scenes of ourselves and creating our own portraiture amidst the surrounding artistry expressing the same. Just as every portrait reflected the unique traits of one another, we did this with our own.

The show culminated in a darkly-lit room where, almost hidden from sight, Raffaello’s Fornarina seemed to lurk like a secret – an exquisite punctuation, whose beauty stirred this unrequited longing for more. Its rich depths – from the sitter’s shining eyes, to the leafy background, her twisted head scarf with its dangling gem, to her transparent sheath cascading over her skin – transfix the viewer.

After leaving the exhibit, we could not miss just one more sight – a look at the Borromini staircase built on one side of the Palazzo. As we gazed up at this elegant architectural wonder, my friend noticed the shimmering natural light that fell on one of its curves and quickly moved to position us for a group self-portrait. Two women passed by and gazed at our project – and then were pulled into our setup giggling as they agreed to be photographed. Encouraging us each to showcase our reality (including the red tape garishly placed to heal my shoulder), the artist captured more than a spectacular, unplanned grouping. The result was a reflection of five powerful women, each in her own distinctness, placed as if standing for a Baroque painting: the perfect “echo.”

Photo by Francesca de Rubeis