Rome Motif

Rome Motif

1922–1923Oil on canvas73 × 71.5 cmEnn Kunila art collection

This work depicts the Gemonian Stairs, which are located in the same complex as the Altar of the Fatherland, the Victor Emmanuel II monument. On the left we see the Palazzo Nuovo, and going up the stairs, the rear entrance to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. The stairs start at the Piazza del Campidoglio. They are also known as the Stairs of Mourning, since executions began to be held there in the 1st century AD shortly after the stairs were built.

It was in Rome that Mägi began painting stairs. Besides this work, we also know of a painting of the Spanish Steps.

Steps were of interest to Mägi probably mainly as a compositional element as they helped organize the space differently than in his previous practice. Steps made it possible to depict spaces on different levels in the same painting, which are somewhat reminiscent of the medieval approach to paintings, where different spaces and times could appear simultaneously in a painting.

Ancient stairs were probably an element in which Mägi perceived the passage of time. “It is a strange feeling looking at the ancient Roman ruins, their grandiose buildings and the whole great style,” he wrote from Rome in December 1921. “The faded marble, the individual details, crumbled – it all makes one a trifle sad. It is hard to find anything lacking style here; even the new buildings are all executed in the old style.”

This kind of melancholy attraction to romantic details in which Mägi sensed temporality already characterized his Helsinki watercolours, where instead of a modern urbanist environment, his attention was drawn by old park sculptures. The Roman stairs and the surrounding space were important for Mägi not only architecturally but in terms of their meaning. He builds a new metaphysical environment from the elements he senses in space, and this environment is in turn tinged with decorativeness: imposing expanses of colour dramatize an urban environment that has been reduced to anonymity – so much so that we can again say the urban space is being theatricalized. What become significant here are tensions and conflicts, expressed above all by contrasting colour tones, and mystery and mysticism, constructed through a niche-filled composition, which Mägi arranges into sections on both the foreground and background.