My Mother, un’Americana a Roma

Things are not improving at the rate we were hoping, and I feel a deep need to connect with my “affetti”, my affections, as we say “loved ones” in Italian, so I came to visit my mother in Sicily. We started talking about our family stories, about the combination of Italian and American that makes us who we are. My friend Betsy, an American who, like my mom, came to Italy as a young woman for love, had asked me to interview her about her first years in Italy, and so my mom and I wrote our conversations down and would like to share them with you. Grazie dear Betsy, it was a wonderful experience for us, and it allowed us and my brother Giorgio, who participated from New York, to feel closer in these hard times.

My mother Margaret is a New Yorker of German descent. She met my Italian father Giuseppe in college and they were married in 1957. She studied English in college like me and worked at the New York Times. My parents moved to Rome in 1961. When my father retired in the late 1990s, my parents moved to Sicily, Giorgio moved to New York, and I started working as a tour guide. My dad passed away two years ago and now the three of us do our best to stay close. When I think of what it must have meant for my mother to move to Rome 60 years ago, I have to remind myself that in those days there was no internet, no cheap phone plans, no reasonable flight fares, no large communities of foreign students. Moving to the other side of the world back then seems infinitely harder than it would be today, even if living away from one’s affetti is always difficult.

If our personal experiences strike a chord in you, please write to me with your comments and your own stories and perhaps we can discuss it in a future post: francescainroma@gmail.com

Una Conversazione con mia Mamma – A Conversation with my Mom

Francesca: Mom, as we all know, there is a persistent mythological aura around moving to Italy. I like to think that there is some substance to that, but I also imagine it must have been quite difficult in reality. What obstacles did you encounter on first arriving?

Margaret: My first problem in coming to live in Italy was my total ignorance of the language. Never loquacious, I was inhibited by fear of appearing ridiculous. Unwittingly, I had fallen into the “Bella Figura” syndrome, an Italian obsession with making a good impression. I needn’t have worried because Italians are kind and indulgent with those who make an effort to tackle the language. However, to this day, I am constantly reminded of my accent. Sometimes I think that even if I were to express myself in “terza rima” verse like Dante, I still would never hear the end of it: “Signora, ma lei non e’ italiana, da dove viene?”- “Ms, you are not Italian, are you? Where are you from?”

I spent the first month at Rome’s only English bookshop, The Lion Bookshop, run by two Englishwomen, where I acquired an enormous number of detective novels in an attempt to evade the issue. I finally broke down and made an effort to read and translate the captions of photographs in illustrated Italian magazines and gradually newspaper and magazine articles. Being visually minded, I couldn’t learn much by listening, although television was a help. Living in Italy was not as easy as I had hoped. Clearly, I needed a mediator.

Fortunately, I came across the American Women’s Club in Rome, an association beyond praise. As a New Yorker with a snooty attitude towards those from west of the Hudson River, I met women from all over the U.S. and other countries whom I learned to appreciate for their outgoing friendliness, desire to learn and to contribute to their host country with community service projects. At our monthly luncheons I made friends with these delightful women and I hope I became a better American as a result.

It wasn’t always easy to participate in Italian charities, but there were other possibilities, other foreign residents. For example, we contacted a refugee home where women from Eastern Europe who had lost everything through war and revolution were marooned, and, although well-cared for, they craved social contact. Through visits, strangers in a strange land were able to reach out to one another with words of comfort and encouragement.

Through the Club, Italian women gave cooking lessons in their kitchens. In the early 1960s, supermarkets were far on the horizon in Italy, and American staples hard to come by, so it was urgent to learn to deal with unrecognizable cuts of meat at the local butcher’s and cook in the Italian way. We did try to celebrate Thanksgiving in Rome but it required advanced planning and creativity. We were eventually able to get turkeys, but cranberry sauce proved an insoluble problem for many years. Excessively sweet currant jelly was no substitute for the tart cranberry sauce I made from scratch with my grandmother in New York.

Francesca: I still remember our first taste of the real thing and smile every time I see jars of cranberry sauce in specialty grocery stores here today!

What was it like to raise children in a foreign country and what did it mean to transmit your cultural identity to them?

Margaret: My ups and downs in adjusting to life in Rome were relatively unimportant because as an adult I could muddle through somehow. But was this a way to bring up children? When Giorgio came along in 1968 and you, Francesca, two years later, I had to do some serious thinking. One problem was language: should I try to speak to you in Italian so that you would be like other children or give you a head start in English? An American friend told me that my level of Italian was not going to be of much use to you and, more fundamentally, it is vital for a mother to create a strong bond with her children through speaking her native language to them. She convinced me and we started our wonderful English language adventure which is still under way. The next step was nursery school. When I heard of an international school conducted in English, I jumped at the chance and continued with a similar elementary school where Italian was also taught. Those were halcyon days, free of academic stress.

The stress was in the outside world. The 1970s were a time of troubles for Italy as domestic terrorism dominated the scene with a long series of attacks, culminating with the abduction and murder of Aldo Moro, secretary of the Christian Democrat Party and leading political figure. The discovery of a terrorist base in a building only a few doors away from the school, brought home to us the realization that there was no safe haven and that all of us were vulnerable. My Giorgio lived through those days with an extraordinarily intense feeling of participation which has never left him. A heavy burden for a ten-year old.

After elementary school, we had to decide whether to continue in the Anglo-Saxon system or opt for an Italian school. This was the occasion for anguished soul-searching which was resolved for me with the advice of another friend, an Italian this time, who urged me not to raise my children to be foreigners in their own country. She said that it was essential for Italian children living in Italy to have the experience of Italian schooling and Italian classmates, important in later life. It should be noted here that many Italians prefer living in the same place all their lives and working in a “posto fisso”, a permanent job that enables them to remain close to their families and friends of a lifetime. This aspiration has been largely jeopardized by the precarious condition of contemporary life.

The transition from the easy-going Anglo-Saxon system to the rigid Italian one was tough and caused my children considerable suffering. They came from a school that stressed the development of a child’s intellectual faculties and capacity to respond to environmental stimuli and entered one that emphasized mastery of the academic program and memorization. Both systems have much to recommend them and I hope that my children have benefited from a combination of both.  What do you think, Francesca?

Francesca: I completely agree and think it was worth all the trauma. Giorgio and I are both grateful to you.

Margaret: The importance of knowing English really well was not so evident at that time but the fact that my kids had a solid foundation in a language that cannot be learned from textbooks alone but must be lived with, has opened up a whole world of experience and even a livelihood. I feel you have capitalized on your proficiency in English, Franz, whereas Giorgio, who lives in New York, has stressed his Italian side.

Francesca: That is true, grazie mamma! I also love that you taught us colloquialisms from your time in the States. I will never give up expressions such as nincompoop, mad as a hornet, slow as molasses, lounge lizard, the cat’s pyjamas, etc.! You used to wake us up by whistling Reveille and singing Zippity Doo Dah to cheer us up (we hated it but that did not deter you from trying to start our day with enthusiasm!), April Showers with a comic voice when we waited for the school bus in the rain, and also read Italian children’s classics to us at bedtime with your delightful American accent we still love to imitate when we joke with you.  

I don’t feel this interview would be complete without mentioning Italian food, what did you think when you first came here?

Margaret: Your dad and I greatly enjoyed eating in restaurants where genuine, fresh ingredients could be taken for granted.  The friendly atmosphere with the servers and owners coming to chat at the end of a meal, made dining out seem like an invitation to a private home. True, there was a certain monotony since foreign cuisine had not yet arrived, but the variety of regional cooking somewhat made up for it. A landmark in those days, was Cesarina’s Bolognese restaurant that no longer exists. Cesarina herself ran it like a barracks, with single-minded dedication and served indescribably delicious meals of an unusual standard and uniform quality. There were no off-days at Cesarina’s!

Francesca: We continued this tradition as a family on weekends and special occasions. We are often asked if we are related to Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. Alas, we are not but my dad, Giuseppe, known to one and all as Pippo, never entirely let go of his dreams of becoming an opera singer. Giorgio and I have very vivid memories of Sunday dinners at favorite restaurants where we were doted on as bambini – little kids. We were especially fond of the guitar players who came by the table. In those days they were marvelous elderly Romans and Neapolitans with an incredible command of classic Italian melodies. My dad would stand up, one arm outstretched in front of him and the other with his hand over his heart and burst into song. Giorgio and I wanted to slide undetected under the table when he held the last note of O Sole Mio until his face turned crimson, but then the whole restaurant would cheer and applaud, and we felt a little burst of love and pride.

Margaret: Today, chefs festooned with stars turn out often improbable concoctions with an almost religious solemnity. Somehow the pleasure of enjoying good food in more spontaneous, informal conviviality seems harder to come by.

Francesca: That may be true, mom, but you often told me about how formal the Italians could be at the dinner table and how a few things were entirely new to you and seemed slightly absurd.

Margaret: Yes, sometimes there were pitfalls for the unwary foreigner; restaurants often served bowls of fresh fruit for dessert. Something told me to avoid the banana, and a good thing I did because the person who chose it proceeded to cut off both ends with a knife and fork and, with surgical precision, remove the peel. There was also a special ritual for cooked prunes. The prune was anchored onto the fruit plate with a fork and the stone deftly extracted with a dessert spoon. I side-stepped the whole fruit issue by ordering a sweet. I was not so lucky when I ordered spaghetti with highly prized vongole veraci, delicious clams with two projections, like antennae, which I thought were inedible and cut off with a knife and fork while the incredulous servers were doubled over with laughter.

Francesca: I feel for the sake of fairness that I should also mention that dad walked into the first McDonald’s to open in Rome in the 1980s with his wonderful memories of diners in New York, and asked for “a cheese burger, medium rare”, so it works both ways! The banana and clam episodes are among our favorite family stories and helped Giorgio and me imagine you as a young American in Rome before we came along. You have also helped me understand and empathize with foreign travelers as they experience Italian art in person for the first time, and this has been fundamental in my guide work.

Margaret: One of the great joys of those first times in Rome was seeing in reality the monuments and works of art I had seen previously in slide-lectures at college. The American Women’s Club’s tour guide was an elderly Roman lady whose earlier life had been shattered under Fascism, but who still stood firm in her pride in her heritage and conviction that through attentive viewing and contemplation, the works of Italian civilization could belong to us as well and give us strength. 

Francesca: I find this so moving and a wonderful example of the vibrancy with which Italians experience life.

Margaret: In the 1950s, the sociologist David Riesman, co-author of The Lonely Crowd, commented on the fact that Europeans have a more intense and vivid response to life. I have witnessed this in the Italians. The present moment, the intersection of time and eternity, with its potential for the whole range of experience, not only joy but also sorrow and grief, are not denied, and accepted as part of the human condition with natural spontaneity. This attitude seems to me to be the product of an ancient civilization which oscillated from the unmatched splendor of ancient times to subsequent decline, brilliant rebirth during the Renaissance, swept away by foreign armies, centuries-long occupation and impoverishment, to hard-won independence in the 19th century.  Throughout their varied history the Italians have had to develop a capacity to find ingenious solutions in adverse circumstances; this has equipped them to deal with the present crisis as well. Furthermore, their strong sense of community and care for its more fragile members, has become an interesting part of the story of my life in Italy. I now look forward to yet another Renaissance for Italy and the rest of the world.

Francesca: I agree with you! I realize how fortunate I am to be able to experience my mixed heritage from the inside and the outside and how important that is in my life and my work. Grazie mamma for being such an invaluable influence, for taking me to museums as a child, encouraging me to read good books, and for giving Giorgio and me the gift of your cultural identity, your language and your fascination with the world around us, past and  present.  

Next time, a bit of Escapism with Roman Art!

Sunday Afternoon in Rome

October is my favorite month in Rome. It brings the gift of ideal temperatures, intense azure skies, light so perfect it seems staged, and the city just glows. The weather has been a bit unstable all week, but this Sunday is the epitome of what we call an Ottobrata Romana. The word comes from the name of the festival that marked the end of the grape harvest, when the Romans of all social classes rode in carts and carriages to the countryside just outside the city to feast, dance and be merry. A walk to see Rome basking in the afternoon sun seems the perfect way to keep melancholy thoughts at bay and, as always, I invite you to come with me.

I start my walk in St. Peter’s Square to find the familiar way the sunlight hits the clean travertine of Bernini’s colonnade against the backdrop of the deep blue sky. The columns, designed to feel like arms embracing pilgrims arriving after exhausting journeys from all over, appear molded by the light, and the blue behind them looks so dense, I could stir it with a stick like undiluted paint. Blue and white, beautifully uncomplicated as so little is in Rome.

I wander down to the Tiber River and the Castel Sant’Angelo, an imperial mausoleum, papal fortress, prison, museum, in which every layer grows organically like a plant from what existed before. At the top is the statue that gave the building its name. During the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory the Great came by here in a procession of prayer. Looking up to top  of the monument, he had a vision of the Archangel Michael putting his sword back in his scabbard to announce the end of the epidemic. Fifteen centuries have gone by, yet part of me would love to receive a sign of some sort today.

The statues of the angels carrying symbols of the Passion of Christ on the bridge, were carved by Bernini’s assistants and ideally accompanied pilgrims crossing the river here on their way to the Vatican. I like the idea of the art of a city that doesn’t just embellish it, but has an active role, such as accompanying and embracing those who come here.

I compare angel wings and pick these: long, soft, slightly curved plumes like the quills of a writer from long ago. Art also has the power to turn heavy, static stone into its opposite, and allows it to become, almost literally, light as a feather.

I walk in the direction of Via dei Coronari and indulge in the happiness of sifting through everything I see for details that speak of Rome in a gentler, more intimate manner: an outdoor table waiting for good food and good company, the window of a favorite gelato shop – Il Teatro – with ingredients on display (what could be paired with prickly pear?), and an exhortation I make my own as I wander through here.

I start thinking of the walks I took here last year at this time with travelers and friends, and wonder where I would take a guest today, this afternoon, if I really wanted to impress them. Among the million things I love about this city is that it is full of surprises. Many people walk by this church, for instance, and never think of entering. It is the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (built 1626-50).

I recommend walking into every open doorway you come by, you never know what it can reveal…

This is a very Roman experience that offers a striking contrast between an imposing, stern exterior, and a burst of artistic imagination inside. The ceiling of the nave is a creation of Father Andrea Pozzo, painter, architect and master of Baroque illusions. The architectural elements of the church almost magically turn into their painted version, and the ceiling itself seems to burst open to let in the sky and a vision of Heaven, where Ignatius is received by Christ amidst puffy clouds, angels and other saints.

As I walk towards the altar, I imagine you are here with me, and I mentally point out the dome at the end of the nave, a bit dark and unimpressive. As we get closer, I invite you to realize the dome was never actually built, that what we see in its place is a flat canvas: the dome is “merely” painted. To prove it, I ask you to look up at it when standing directly beneath it: see how off-center it is? The illusion works perfectly, and the gasps and chuckles of visitors are a delight every time I witness them.

Ilaria and I like to sum up Baroque art, invented in Rome in the 17th century and then exported everywhere with spectacular variations, in three key features: Action (everything moves), Emotion (both in what is represented and in our reaction to it), Illusion (it conjures spatial dimensions and textures that are not real).

I love Baroque for these reasons and for the creative imagination that seems to stop at nothing to impress us and fill us with wonder. This allows me to enjoy even the dizzying excess of the funerary chapel of Pope Gregory XV and his nephew, the cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. Sometimes think I need dark sunglasses and a headache pill to look at it! It is pure theater: a stone curtain opens suddenly, angels hold up one of its corners or blow trumpets, cherubs mourn the deceased, in a splendid combination of sculpture and architecture that includes even the color element of painting.

The technical ability that allows carefully placed alabaster tiles to suggest the folds of heavy fabric sends my mind back to the marble wings of the angel on the Sant’Angelo bridge. I marvel at the work of human hands (no power tools here!), and the attention to detail in every corner of Rome’s churches, even in the symmetrical, open-book effect of the marble on this pilaster that looks like a Technicolor Rorschach test…

It is time to be outside again and head home, just a couple more things to capture  before I put my phone back in my pocket.

Another October favorite is Trajan’s Column (2nd century AD) for the same reason I started this walk with the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square.

The white marble glows against the blue sky, highlighting the shallow ancient relief, 2500 once colorful figures that tell the story of the Emperor Trajan’s campaigns in Eastern Europe. I enjoy the fabric-like texture of Rome in which a great monument celebrating the deeds of a pagan emperor shares the afternoon sunshine with Christian churches, apartment buildings, and even seagulls, everything coexisting peacefully side by side. 

I decide my last picture will be of a Roman pine tree projecting its shadow on a truncated medieval tower

but then my eyes are drawn to a souvenir shop display.

Roman calendars for 2021. A sweet reminder that this moment, this hard year, will pass, that a brighter future awaits us. We WILL plan trips again and maybe even meet in Rome, to enjoy intense azure skies, perfect light and temperature, in person, to celebrate an Ottobrata Romana, create new, luminous memories, and heal.

I put my phone and that thought in my pocket and walk home.

.

Roma Amor

Rome is Love Spelled Backwards

Last night

The quarantine is ending, it is finally time to get back out there and go greet her, Rome. I try to unravel and name my feelings. The trepidation of meeting a loved one at the arrivals area of an airport after a long time apart, an absurd desire to run and leap into her embrace. Anticipation for the instant I will first set eyes on the Pantheon, the desire to wrap myself in the fabric of her lines and shapes as in a worn, soft blanket that survived from childhood. What will it be like?

Today!

It’s over, I can go out! I had imagined a very visual post but it’s raining pretty hard, not ideal for pictures. I decide to leave grand vistas for a sunny day, and focus on Roman details I love. Andiamo – Let’s go!

The outer section of the Colosseum seems very abruptly interrupted. In the early 19th century it was shored up with the brick buttress you see on the left. I love how the original blocks were deliberately placed within it as if they were collapsing – notice the cracks and unevenness in the arches – to tell the story of plundering and destruction endured by the Colosseum, turning it into the ruin we see today. A “romantic” take on restoration, right up my alley!

I can’t resist pausing a moment at the view of the Roman Forum (il mio posto del cuore, the place of my heart) from Capitoline Hill, and thinking of how many times I experienced the passing of the seasons and every possible variation on weather, walking through those beloved ruins.

I walk across the Piazza del Campidoglio to find the statue of the River Nile — in ancient Roman art, rivers are represented as reclining bearded men, a brilliant image for their antiquity and slow progression to the sea. I especially like this representation of the River Nile for the marble it is made of, which the Romans imported from Greece. It is known as marmo cipollino (onion marble) because its texture recalls the layers of an onion, and today its greenish/grayish tones are beautiful with the sheen of the rain. I read somewhere that this variety of marble might have been chosen because its layers suggested flowing, rippling water. That stone can evoke something fluid, in motion, enchants me. I really hope it’s true.

I walk down the Capitoline Hill and continue through familiar alleys and squares looking for favorite details. It is pouring and yet these sites fill me with cheer and warmth, like standing by a fireplace after coming in from the cold.

This is the main piazza of the Jewish Ghetto and these are my favorite benches. They are not fastened to the ground and people who come here move them around all day, according to the sun and the shade, and whatever arrangement different conversations require. The piazza is a public living room, where people pull up benches instead of chairs to visit with each other.

Everything I love about Rome in one picture. The worn, gritty look of a city that wears its centuries nonchalantly, a 2000 year old Roman relief removed from a family tomb outside the city, and pasted on this building by the admirer of antiquities who lived here long ago; electric cables draped across it, a drainpipe, the wooden door of a cafe’. Past and Present, Art and Daily Life.

I smile at the surly expression of the man at the center (what a perfect frown!), and recognize my familiar tenderness for the little boy holding his pet dog in his arms; maybe his mother to the left, and the hand of her husband, resting gently on her shoulder, a sign of marriage. The relief was cut right there so we can’t see her husband. I try to imagine him and hope he was a little less stern than the other fellow! Here they are, an ancient Roman family looking out as if from a window, onto the modern families that enjoy the piazza today, and all of us as we come through.

I look into a great shop and eatery, Beppe e i suoi Formaggi – Joe and his Cheeses (if I played in a band, I would pick that as a name), and wish I could spend a week there sampling everything. A few blocks down, I roll my eyes at the extremes of Italian “fashion” that has men wearing clothes that look like they shrank five sizes in the dryer (the line between a proper fit and sausage casings is really not that fine…).

I reach Campo de’ Fiori and walk around the market stalls. I take a moment to mentally celebrate the fact that no matter how fast the pace of our world can be, how absurd this time in history is, Rome still offers moments of simple, timeless perfection, real substance, and dignity of hard work done with care, like this.

This lady is trimming coral green beans (we like them in a simple tomato sauce). and has prepared the vegetables for the minestrone, mixed salad and the puntarelle, a type of chicory shoot that is very popular in Rome as a salad dressed with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar.

The bright colors of the flowers stands offer a nice break from the grey and the rain. I stop at the Forno, the bakery, for a striscetta di pizza bianca – literally a “little stripe of white pizza”, with nothing on it except olive oil and a bit of coarse salt, another Roman favorite. Although I like its basic simplicity, it is really good with prosciutto and figs, or what a friend of mines defines “just an idea, a veil” of Nutella.

It starts raining even harder so I decide on one last stop, the Pantheon. I stand in line, have my temperature taken, enter, and follow the one way route, as I did before I left. In normal circumstances, when it rains, the center of the floor is roped off so visitors don’t walk on the slippery wet marble. For as long as I can remember, I always stood just outside that area and never actually felt it rain on me, on my head, inside the Pantheon. Today, for the first time in my life, because of the obligatory path we have to follow, I do. I stop to ponder this very tiny yet powerful sign of how everything has changed this year. A guard comes and tells us all to move on, to keep going. He is quite young and undoubtedly wants to remind those of us who just stand there gaping, that the Pantheon is a church, a religious space that requires respect, but what he says is: “Non è  uno spettacolo!” – “This is not a spectacle!”. An Italian tourist behind me exclaims: “Ma lo è,  è davvero spettacolare!” But it is; it is really spectacular!”. I smile in agreement, and move on.

I return home happy but also saddened to see so many businesses shut down or empty. A year ago these same streets were brimming with vitality and activity, Romans and visitors would have been bumping umbrellas on the streets. I hold onto all the beautiful moments I experienced this morning and dig deeper for necessary hope, patience and resolve.

Tomorrow the weather forecast predicts sunshine and I say arrivederci to you with that and a rainbow over the Colosseum. I was afraid it wouldn’t last so I rushed to take a picture while my glasses were both fogged up and splattered with rain, balancing my umbrella and my bag. It’s a little bit faint, but it is definitely there.

Arcobaleno sul Colosseo.

Quarantine and the Fourth Dimension

My quarantine ends on Monday and I want to have something to show for these days of isolation and quiet, something good to oppose to the unsettling sense of time both dragging sluggishly and disappearing in huge chunks without a trace.

As I have often shared, this year has given me an opportunity to reflect more deeply on my guide work and to exchange ideas with my colleagues as opposed to fretting over reservations, strikes, crowds and less than ideal weather conditions. We fantasize about what it will be like to be back out there, what we can bring with us from the experience we are living through; we focus on and try to better define our aspirations and the ultimate purpose of what we do.

I have understood more clearly than ever before that everything I do as a guide is about inclusion. My ambition is to eliminate obstacles, erase distances, and cross every threshold it takes to experience Rome’s treasures with the same ease and confidence we have when we connect with people we know well and are dear to us.

Witnessing that connection, empathizing with travelers’ impressions and reactions, weaving  them into my own over the years, has created what today feels like a substantial wealth of human experience that I want to continue to cultivate and nurture, even now that I cannot show you Rome in person. Yet.

I was talking about this with Ilaria on the phone and we agreed that this is why we get slightly impatient with people who ask us how it is possible for us not to get bored doing the same thing over and over again. No, it isn’t the same, it’s never the same. We talked about the values we share, our fixation with inclusion and how interesting it has been for us to put our thoughts in writing here since neither of us had done it before.

A few hours later Ila sent me a text message saying that what we discussed reminded her of an episode from her schooldays and that she had felt the need to write about it, and she had emailed it to me. I immediately thought it contained the core of what motivates and inspires each day and we want to share it with you. In Ila’s words, here it is.

La Quarta Dimensione – The Fourth Dimension

Long ago, when I was still a high school student, I had the great fortune to meet a young teacher.

It happened often that one of our teachers got sick and somebody had to come to substitute them.

That day, it was the art teacher who was sick, and we were happy and excited because we thought we would have a very relaxing day with 2 whole hours to spend just doing nothing.

While we were all busy chatting, a young man entered the classroom, so young in fact that we thought he couldn’t possibly be our teacher but yes, he was.

He smiled at us and sat at his desk.

We were a bit confused, and even more so when instead of introducing himself he asked: “Do you know how many dimensions there are in a painting?”

It sounded easy to answer, so somebody said “Two”.

The young man continued “Are you sure?”

“It must be a trap…” somebody whispered.

“Which dimensions are you thinking of?” the teacher looked at us, he really wanted an answer.

“Width and height” we said, almost all together.

“Anything else?”

“Well, depth maybe, considering the canvas” said one classmate; “The depth of the painting” said another.

“…and what more?” asked the teacher.

The young man started to look a bit older; he got up, pretended he was thinking of something highly important, and after a couple of minutes, he went back to sit at his desk.

What a strange man, I was curious about him, and started to feel he could hear my thoughts.

He said: “Maybe you think I’m a bit strange, but I’m not, no more than you are. Have you ever heard of the fourth dimension?”

“Only in science fiction movies, hahaha!” we joked. It all sounded really funny to us, but the teacher continued, “The fourth dimension in art is you, me; whoever is in front of a work of art is its fourth dimension.

If you want to learn how to read art, you should never forget that even a universal masterpiece like the Mona Lisa would not exist in space and time without at least one person there to look at it.

When we are in front of a work of art, in a museum, in a public space like a square, admiring a magnificent fountain, wherever we are in the presence of art, we bring with us a very special camera, a camera full of emotions, sadness, happiness, hunger, boredom, desperation.  Each emotion is a filter that will transform this work of art into something different. That art will never be the same, you can stand in front of it millions of times and it will always look a little different…”

At that point, the young teacher asked our class: “Now, can you tell me how many dimensions there are in a painting?”

“Endless” a classmate said, and we all thought that he was right.

Tiramisu

I am back in Rome and in quarantine for two weeks. I look at the city from my window and long to get back out there and embrace it. To cheer myself up as I wait, I resort to a tradition that my friends John, Julia and I created during lockdown. We sent images or a sentence to “pick each other up” and called them Tiramisu. I asked my friends Ilaria and Alessandra and my brother Giorgio to share memories and favorite moments with me and with you. I am delighted by the many facets of love for Rome and would really like to know what you would add…

ILARIA

Traditions and Humour

Il Rito del Cocomero  – The Watermelon Ritual

At the beginning of each summer, which for us Romans does not necessarily correspond to June 21 but to the first day to hit 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) and 70% humidity, the much-awaited Operazione CocomeroOperation Watermelon strikes at my house. Phase One consists of cooking and eating everything in the fridge to create space, and then we (my husband Giulio and our kids Francesco and Livia) go on our expedition to buy the first watermelon of the year at Pasquale’s fruit stand. In the summer, watermelon stands appear all over Rome, but Pasquale has earned our trust on this most serious matter and we would never betray him.  In Italian, his sign rhymes enticingly: Solo da Pasquale il Cocomero Speciale; there are always lots of people at every hour of the day and night eating big slices on the spot, and he even provides proper knives and buckets/spittoons for the seeds. Our standards are set in stone: very large on the outside and very red on the inside. As soon as we get home, cradling our watermelon lovingly in our arms like a bambinello – a new-born baby, we obviously realize it will never fit in our fridge. Every year we make the same desperate attempts, everyone suggests a different strategy, “try this angle”; “push a little harder that way”. In the end we resign to the inevitable and someone always says, with the grave tone of wisdom and fatalism acquired over many years, “oh well, who cares, it’s gonna be good anyway”!

Ornithological Encounters in the Eternal City

The passing of the seasons in Rome is marked by many delightful things we always look out for: the wisteria and the poppies in the Forum, the scent of jasmine in the alleys in the evening, storms of starlings creating incredible patterns in the Autumn sky. In recent years, the Roman seagull population has increased exponentially, and many show a specific interest in archaeology by nesting in the Roman Forum. We always greet the arrival of the chicks with enthusiasm and find them incredibly cute but then – ahimè – alas – they grow up, all the cuteness vanishes, and we find ourselves in a Hitchcock scene! One of the worst mishaps that a guide can incur is to be pooped on by a bird while waxing poetic over an ancient Roman temple in the Forum. If the bird happens to be a seagull, it is fair to define it a catastrophe! Yes, it happened to me and I remember it for the great embarrassment but  especially for the kindness of the travelers who were with me and came to my rescue with wet wipes and comforting words, the second more effective than the first…

Unconscious Roman Humor

The Romans are mostly very willing to help, especially foreign travelers they assume to be lost and in need of precise directions. Many years ago, a very dear friend of mine, known for his very scarce command of English and ignoranza proverbiale, proverbial ignorance of his city’s cultural heritage, met a foreigner who was looking for the Circo Massimo  – the Circus Maximus – the site of ancient Rome’s chariot races. Maybe because this happened in a suburb way outside the city center or because of the man’s uncertain pronunciation, my friend understood “cErco Massimo”. That one vowel difference changes the meaning to “I am looking for Massimo”, a very common first name here. In Italian nome is the first name and cognome is the last name. My friend was rather perplexed but sincerely wanted to help locate this Massimo person. Trusting that the substantial difference between English and Italian is that Italian words end with vowels, he decided that dropping the vowel would automatically produce English, and proceeded to ask, “Do you know the cognom?” I like to imagine the two of them, my friend and the hapless traveler he wanted to rescue, wandering around to this day in search of Massimo…

GIORGIO

Coming Home

I was born and raised in Roma and lived there half of my life. I try to go back to what I will always call home at least once if not twice a year. Unfortunately, in this difficult 2020 this cannot be, so favorite memories have an even bigger value for me than ever.

The Pine Trees

Every time I return home, as the plane descends towards Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport, after an overnight flight from New York, still coming out of sleep, I always rejoice the exact moment my eyes first catch sight of the Roman pine trees. Some line the roads, others form pinete, dense pine woods, and are an absolutely identifying trait of the Roman area. I often shed a tear or two of emotion at this so familiar view since it brings me closer to my loved ones, my family, my friends, my Roma. As a background of an ancient aqueduct or other marvels of the city’s glorious past, the sight of the tall pines always feel like a warm Roman welcome, especially at dusk when they form dark silhouettes against the sky, after the beautiful colors of sunset are gone. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. As little kids, my sister Francesca and I used to pick the pine-nuts (pinoli) that popped out of the pine-cones when they smashed to the ground. We used to fill a dedicated toy bucket and eat them one by one; I can still hear the sound of the hammer as we cracked them and offered the best ones to each other, a cherished memory from my childhood.

My First Roman Meal  

One of the moments I enjoy the most even if I am alone.  It is always at lunch, when my sister and all my friends are usually working and plans to meet them have been already made for later in the day.

After having settled, showered and changed, with huge excitement and a smile across my face I head towards one of my favorite restaurants in the Prati neighborhood, close to the Vatican. It’s called l’Isola della Pizza but they make everything. I go there also to see my favorite waiter, Lello, an incredibly kind and hardworking man. After the usual hugs and kisses and sincere joy of seeing each other again, I sit at my table. I love this moment; it is the best because my whole vacation is ahead of me and all the stress has been left behind.

I love lunch in Rome, it is always relaxed and a great transition to the evening meals with friends and family that always get chaotic and loud. I have my antipasto, usually a huge buffalo mozzarella with either cantaloupe or Prosciutto di Parma. With my lightly fizzy acqua minerale and a chilled white house wine, I finally look around in total happiness.  Lello brings me some complimentary specialties from the owner’s farm, and the laughing and joking between us and people at the other tables he serves has a true Roman vibe for me, and always feels easy and genuine.

Then comes…The Gricia, my favorite Roman pasta: a hearty and deceptively simple dish made with pork cheek, cheese and black pepper. I end with an espresso and a couple of biscotti that send me off to my two-hour nap so that I will be ready for the late afternoon and evening’s intense social schedule of fun with family and friends.

La Roma

My soccer team since I was born is A.S. Roma. I grew up walking distance from the Stadio Olimpico and I could hear the crowd cheering and roaring even before going there with my first flag at age 5 with my dad. If you are a true Romano you can only be a Romanista. The team has the name of the city and its identifying colors , purple and gold/ yellow and red. I remember arguing with other children in elementary school who were born in Rome yet went for the second team- Lazio – a non-worthy team with pale, discolored blue and white jerseys, or for the team of another city. It was unacceptable for me even at age 6, it just made no sense! I try to go to the stadium with my friends every time I am in Rome if the season is on, in the Curva Sud where the warmest fans are.

In New York I have the great fortune to follow games with appropriate participation thanks to my friend Sue who founded the ” “Lupi di New York“, the Wolves of New York

In Rome, we sing our anthem Roma Roma, along with the entire stadium before the match, and Grazie Roma at the end, no matter the result, and, again, I get goosebumps every single time. We chant and yell as homemade panini and surprisingly elaborate food is passed around and shared -Francesca remembers going with me as a child and envying the lasagna people a few rows down had brought. This experience is intense because, as devoted sports fans know, when the players come onto the pitch, they are not just a team, they are Roma, the spirit of the place, challenging the contender.

Rome has always been so much more than a city for me. It is soul and it is heart, it instills incredible, deep energy and emotions in me. It is like a second mother that opens her arms to me every single time it sees me, just like those pine trees that greet me and tell me…sei a casa – you are home!

ALESSANDRA

A Bike Rider’s Whimsical Impressions

Villa dei Quintili


On a very silent afternoon as I was riding my bike on the ancient Appian Way, I stopped by the gate of the Quintili Villa. It was closed so I looked through the bars of the gate and was hypnotized by the sight of this window open onto the Roman countryside, and by a twig which kept on swaying in the soft breeze. That window was not only open on the countryside but on the past that never ceases to amaze us in a city like Rome.

Palatine Hill and Circus Maximus


I love the light of Rome: soft and with a shade of amber. It emphasizes Rome’s breathtaking beauty.

Parco degli Acquedotti


A bike ride in company of the ancestors: ancient and new technology live together.
It’s mind boggling…
As I stood there I was under the impression that I could meet somebody from 2000 years ago. What would they say, looking at me on a modern “iron horse” with a helmet and pants? I wonder if my familiarity with them, after so many years of studying and guiding, would allow me to be less surprised then they would be if I appeared to them suddenly from the future. I daydream about that as I ride along the arches of the ancient aqueduct, wishing such an encounter could really happen…

Random thoughts on Travel, Nature and Art

 

After consulting with a Ranger, my partner and I found a remote hike we could do safely on Mt. Rainier as a weekend day trip. We hoped the uncertain weather forecast would make it even less crowded, and although the clouds never lifted enough to reveal the top of the mountain itself, it was a truly memorable experience that will stay with me for a very long time. Then the beginning of the week brought me back to my studies and conversations with Roman friends and travelers I met over the years or that I was supposed to meet in Rome this year for a tour. Also, my time in the States is slowly coming to an end. As a result, thoughts and impressions on travel, nature and art have been swirling in my mind in search of a thread or a discernible pattern. Hopefully, writing them down helps me find that. As everything I share in this blog, my thoughts are intended as my half of an open conversation that you are ideally part of, whether you feel like sharing or not.

So many travel plans have been impacted by this pandemic, so much work is lost. Yet, what struck me and my local guide colleagues right from the start was that every cancellation we received was accompanied by an expression of such deep regret that it actually forced us to rethink our own sense of the importance of travel. I know it should be settled and obvious because I work in the travel industry, but, as so often happens, the absence or inaccessibility of something or being forced out of one’s routine, has the power to truly shake us and reconnect us with the deepest core of what inspires and motivates us.

The longing for Italy in foreign travelers moves me more these days than it ever has, I am paying more attention to it and understand that it is giving me the courage to wait this crisis out. When people here (but not just here of course) mention Italy, even their tone of voice changes and acquires an unmistakably dreamy quality (I can feel it in emails too!). I wanted to explore this more and asked my brother Giorgio, who left Italy 25 years ago, and a few colleagues to tell me what they love about Rome, and I will share that here. It is true that I am constantly searching for comfort and hope, but it is clear that travel produces a shared love of place that truly unites us and that is very uplifting in this particular moment.

It works both ways. The American natural landscape, for instance, has a very comparable, almost mirror-like appeal for the Italians, like the appeal that Italian culture seems to have for people I meet here. If I had to name the greatest, most life-altering travel experience for me, it has to be the Grand Canyon. It was years ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

I love how travel furnishes our minds with jewel-like memories that put us back in faraway places with unbelievable exactness, even years later. Our recollections often preserve the impression new experiences had on us and on our senses (that are so much sharper when we are away from home, I am convinced even my taste buds and my eyesight improve when I travel!) and keep them fresh and intact.

It was winter, a light snow had just stopped, and there were very few people. I experienced the inconceivable immensity of the Grand Canyon the way I assume everyone must, as a shock, a clear dividing point in my life, with a before and an after. I think of what I brought to that instant, my Italian life story, the ancient city where my journey had started, the landscape of my lovely country that humans have built and worked on for so long that it is impossible to think of one without the other. That was all gone. Here, the vastness, the rock and the sky were so pure, absolute, and elemental, that my consciousness and self-awareness simply dissolved, and I have never felt so free, light, and at the same time so connected with the world as I did then. The sense of humility, of being tiny in the presence of that immensity, was joyful, noble, and gave me a sense of ideal balance I have never quite felt again, but it is with me and its power is unchanged.

My hike on Mt. Rainier last weekend brought it all back, the happiness of being in American Nature. This time I got splendidly lost in the details: the clouds like wispy veils moving ever so slowly across the valleys, the bright colors of the wildflowers, the mist condensing in the grass and leaves like diamonds, a marmot munching on buttercups, the unique smell of moisture that revealed a waterfall before we even heard or saw it.

And the trees, I cannot get over the trees here. When they surround me and I look up into them, a corner of my mind always ends up evoking the high cathedral ceilings of Europe, great classical music and again and again, I feel lifted and comforted and at peace.

alberi sotto in su

And so my rambling thoughts and memories come full circle and I am back, in my own story and sensitivity, but so much richer.

I think of the response to Rome and its art that I have witnessed in travelers in 25 years of guiding, and the consolations of Nature and Art, why they both matter and why we should have both, now more than ever.

I remember reading an Italian crime novel in which deputy police chief Rocco Schiavone, a tough Roman with a checkered past,  is stationed in a town in the Alps, in the region of Valle d’Aosta. The case he had just solved had left him with a sense of bitterness and hopelessness regarding humans and their conduct. He looks to the splendid alpine landscape around him and sadly realizes it cannot comfort him. Man cannot take responsibility for creating the beauty of Nature, it is not our work and at best it can remind us of our shortcomings in taking care of it. I agree but know we can still strive to be deserving of it.  Schiavone goes on to say that human hands did not create the mountains and the trees but they did create the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, the wonderful baroque churches of Rome’s center and all the paintings and statutes they contain.

(details of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona)

(Santa Maria della Pace and the dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane)

Human creativity as expressed through Art redeems us.

When I was just out of university, studying to take my local guide exam, I was completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the Sistine Chapel; I never thought I could say anything about Michelangelo and his art. I went to my mother and asked her for advice. “Mom, what am I going to say? How can I communicate why it matters so much that people come to see these places?”. Her answer has accompanied me every day. “Sometimes the world feels like a frightening place, the news shows us war, violence and struggles. As humans, we are capable of absolute horrors. We should go to the Sistine Chapel, look at art, and listen to Mozart and Beethoven to be reminded that we are also capable of extraordinary beauty and harmony, that we have it in us, and allow our spirit to be lifted”. When, many years later, I heard the director of the Vatican Museums say that the Sistine is the place where we can feel proud to be human, I smiled to myself and thought of my mom who has said that to me when I most needed to hear it, influencing my entire path until this moment.

So as we continue on this difficult journey, let us turn to Art and Nature, rejoice in memories of trips past and plan more for the future.

“Beauty stands there […] and it penetrates to one’s soul and lodges there, and keeps saying that man was made not to suffer but to enjoy”.

(Spoken in Rome by a character in Henry James’ 1875 novel, Roderick Hudson)

 

 

The Soul of a Museum

Here we are for part #3 of this Capitoline story. We have climbed up the Hill, moving through space and time; we pondered museum space and how to navigate it for meaning and pleasure. Now we can look at some ancient Roman Art. I invite you to bring along what we have considered previously if you like, so we can build a “three-dimensional” sense of place and imagine we are truly there together. Ilaria and I have picked just a few pieces we would like to show you, as an invitation to see more in person when the global situations permits. Ilaria went to the Museums a few mornings ago with her family to take some pictures for this post, grazie Ila!

I have lost my battle for the ideal succinct length of a blog post. Ilaria says that for the Italians 500 words are barely enough to introduce themselves! I still hope it can be read in installments.

The former director of the Uffizi in Florence and the Vatican Museums said that what matters the most about a museum, beyond what it contains, is its soul, its overall message, its reason to exist. The Uffizi might hold the ultimate compendium of Western figurative art, he argues, but its distinctive feature is that it is the Museum of the City of Florence, so intimately present and close through the windows of its galleries. The beauty of the city reflects the beauty of the art in the museum, beauty mirrors beauty.

I love this idea of discovering the identity of museums, almost as if they were people we can get to know, and feel that a parallel can be drawn between the Capitoline Museums and the Uffizi, summing up what we have explored so far. High up on the ancient hill that represented its grandeur, Rome surrounds the museum on each side. Windows and lookouts allow our eyes to roam across its achingly beautiful skyline, all the way to the Vatican and as far as the Colosseum. Unlike other museums elsewhere, even extraordinary ones like the Metropolitan and the Louvre, the ancient art it contains doesn’t come from far away; it comes from out there, from Rome itself. The magnificent sculpture we see in here once graced the ancient city and was then pulled out of its depths during excavations. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was actually visible, outside, for 1800 years and then moved inside like someone seeking shelter from inclement weather. Even here, the city mirrors the museum and the museum mirrors the city.

We can use this to set the mood for our explorations of the art. We will bring with us the summer sky, the church domes and terracotta roof tiles, the plane trees that accompany the gentle bends of Tiber River nearby, the sound of church bells and motor scooters in the distance.

 Let’s enter, the Emperor Constantine awaits us.

cap cortile

Or, more precisely, parts of him await us.

Ilaria’s kids, Francesco and Livia are our guides!

Constantine is the emperor who made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire after centuries of on and off persecutions, and moved the capital to Constantinople, Istanbul today. He ruled from 306 to 337 AD. He is always recognizable in his portraits: clean shaven, strong chin, “important” nose (naso importante, as we say in Italian), large eyes and helmet-like hair.

Think how common it is for us to see world leaders and celebrities in the newspaper or on TV, and, on the contrary, how rare it must have been for people living in the far reaches of the empire to ever catch a glimpse of their rulers. Art and coins evoked them and informed about them, creating interesting messages and “editing” possibilities. Historical differences aside, the Romans were as obsessed with images as we are today.

Let’s start by just wording what we see (always a good idea): very large fragments of a human figure against the wall of a courtyard.

A closer look reveals that the fragments represent only “extremities” of the body: head, hands, feet. To have an actual experience, we must do two things that require our imagination: reassemble the pieces that are lying in this courtyard, integrate what is gone so as to visualize it intact, and “set it free” by picturing the statue in its original location, where the Romans, whose ruler Constantine was, saw it. This statue represented the emperor in a sitting position and it was about 30 feet tall. No other pieces were found so it might not have all been made of marble but of other, more perishable materials that did not survive. It stood (or sat!) in the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (now included in the area of the Roman Forum), a great, marble-clad- hall that measured 265x 83 feet and was 115 feet high. According to recent scholarship, it was used mostly by the prefect of Rome for administrative purposes.

We understand that one thing is seeing Constantine today, broken up here in this lovely courtyard as modern museumgoers, to see his face rather close up, including the deep carving of his eyes that gives a definite direction to his stare. Another thing would be to see him intact, in his original location, from much further below. His haughty gaze would have appeared to connect with a dimension inaccessible to ordinary citizens who must have felt rather small and with very limited agency in his presence.

Basilica-di-Massenzio

Absolute power expressed through Art. It must have been obvious and instantaneous back then, but it can still affect us today if we look with informed eyes and imaginations. Context is everything (I would like this printed on another t-shirt!).

We will stay with context but leave the public display of imperial power behind, and transition to a much more private dimension. Let’s time travel and imagine walking across the ancient city to dine with the fabulously wealthy Maecenas, counselor and friend of the emperor Augustus, such a great protector of culture that his very name has come to be mean patron of the arts in Italian, mecenate. We walk through the gardens of his residence on Esquiline Hill (one of the most impressive of the Horti we mentioned last time) to admire his collection of sculpture. The sound of music and fountains accompanies us. We stop by the statue of Marsyas, now soberly displayed in this room of the Capitoline Museums according to the scientific criterion,  which means surrounded by works from the same location.

cap marsia 1

We need the story our host Maecenas and our fellow guests from 2000 years ago all knew the way we know movie plots today. Marsyas was a satyr, a nature spirit in Greek and Roman mythology, represented as a male figure with goat or horse ears, tail and sometimes hooves. He excelled at playing the double flute and dared to challenge Apollo, the god of music himself, to a contest. Apollo won of course – not altogether honestly! – and punished Marsyas with horrific cruelty by having him tied to a tree and flayed, skinned alive.

Now that we have the context and the story, we can actually look at the statue, a Roman copy of a Greek original. In its original location it may have been part of a group that included the figure of the “executioner” kneeling and sharpening his knife and a seated Apollo presiding over the scene.

What do we notice about Marsyas ?

1) The very dramatic expression of agony on his face; 2) a strange combination of purplish marble (quarried from Turkey, called pavonazzetto from the Italian word for peacock) and a lighter, matte material. The statue was found in fragments: the purple parts are original; the cement parts are modern integrations. In modern Italy, restored sections must be clearly distinguishable from the original ones, so tend to be made of materials that differ in color or texture. Here the contrast works very well and gives us interesting information we can use elsewhere.

But why are the original parts purple? Sculpture in the ancient Greek and Roman world was mostly colored.  We see white marble statues; back then, people saw them painted and vividly realistic and expressive. An alternative to applying paint (we don’t see it anymore because the natural pigments faded over time) was using varieties of colored marble. Marsyas was skinned so the purplish marble was chosen to hyper-realistically represent his flayed flesh. So, so different from what we imagined ancient art was all about!

One question still requires an answer: why would someone want a representation of such atrocious suffering in their home? Let’s go back to Maecenas’ garden, to that stroll with our host and fellow guests. We would stop to look at Marsyas and use it as a conversation piece. The Romans integrated art in their homes with fascinating cultural and social purposes. Busts of philosophers adorned libraries, and statues of Venus, who came out of the sea at her birth, were placed in bathing areas. Marsyas placed in the garden offered the occasion for philosophical conversations on hubris and the dangers of challenging Fate and the gods.

The statue and the conversations it generated showed off the wealth and social status but also the culture and sophistication of the host. Today, celebrities acquire cars and watches to show off, in the past they acquired Art and had lofty conversations…..

We take leave of Maecenas and his guests, and continue walking through the rooms of the Capitoline Museums.

After considering an intimidating emperor and the punishment of a talented, if arrogant, musician by an equally arrogant god, it is time to conclude. I would like to do so with a gallery of ancient Roman faces and my favorite Roman theme.

Portraits were everywhere in ancient Rome, thousands of them, in different materials, in public and private spaces: squares, temples, theaters, baths, homes and tombs, even in military camps. Public spaces became so full of statues that every now and then some were removed to make space for new ones, which always makes me think of green areas being pruned and weeded to continue growing.  Disproportionately male and adult as a reflection of gender roles in their society (and not just theirs), why so many?

Of all the things I have learned about the ancient Romans over the years, the one that means the most to me, that I can admire and love without reservations or careful intellectual constructs, is the importance they assigned to MEMORY as their only conceivable form of Eternity. Honor and glory were sought after to gain power of course, but also to be remembered.  The great families kept wax masks of their ancestors and relatives in a special cupboard in their homes that would be taken out and worn by actors during funerary processions so every generation could be present at the reading of the eulogy. They had their life stories inscribed on their tombs, they built monuments in stone confiding in its resilience to carry their name into the future after they were gone – the very word comes from the Latin monumentum– memory.

I remember talking about this with a friend who was helping her daughter with her Latin homework and she quoted this marvelous sentence to me:

Terra tenet corpus nomen lapis atque animam aer 

The earth holds the body, stone (holds) the name, and the air the soul.

I look at these faces but don’t feel like dwelling on technical aspects, on the origin and meaning of the realism of some of them, the smooth, timeless idealism of others. I just think of the people who lived 2000 years ago and renew my commitment to remember them and the loved ones I myself have lost, to think of them alive and not dead, present alongside me in the city that was theirs and is now ours.

As I walked home after my morning with Ilaria and as I finish writing this post in Seattle, at a time in history when the present feels so oppressive and the future uncertain, I think we can look at Art to feel less locked down to the now and more securely, tightly connected to a very long story of falls and renaissances, and do our part to emerge stronger and wiser.

 

Museum Musings – A Local Guide Manifesto

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled; it is fire to be kindled”.

 Plutarch, Greek historian (I would like this printed on a t-shirt)

[This is part #2 of my “Visit to the Capitoline Museums in 3 Glimpses” that started in my previous post. I realize this section is even longer than usual. It contains some of the guiding ideas I am most passionate about. This is the first time I put them in writing and I realize how much I needed this. I hope it can be read in installments!]

Until last year I went to the Capitoline Museums quite often as the Rick Steves South of Italy Tour includes them and individual travelers fortunately request them for private tours. I had a chance to think about them and observe the response of visitors who were with me. Using this year to pause and write down what I experienced and understood is a possible way of staying connected to what I love and miss, and explore where all of this can go.

As my friend Ilaria and I walk through the entrance, say hello and enquire about the health and mood of the staff we have come to know so well, we realize that the idea of coming here to check new safety procedures and itineraries is an excuse. We miss guiding and specifically the infinite combinations of Place – Story of the Place –Travelers – Us that create a different energy every day and is ultimately why we still enjoy it so much after all these years . We console ourselves by looking at the art, sharing memories of magic moments, and defining common, foundational beliefs.

Getting started: The Facts

CAPITOLINE MUSEUMS

http://www.museicapitolini.org/

What:  Ancient Roman art, ancient inscriptions and a Pinacoteca (painting gallery).

When: The initial core of the collection was a gift of iconic ancient (bronze) statues made by Pope Sixtus IV (after whom the Sistine Chapel is named) to the Roman people in 1471. Private collections were acquired later, along with items unearthed during modern excavations when Rome became capital of newly unified Italy in 1871, and the city started expanding again. Digs for the foundations of new neighborhoods in areas that had been abandoned for centuries revealed incredible treasures. I always like to think of what might still be under my feet as I walk around Rome today.

Where: The museum is located in Piazza del Campidoglio, in the historical buildings on the sides of the square and underneath City Hall.

E Adesso? Now What?

We all recognize the importance of museums to preserve art, make it accessible to the general public and allow scholars to continue studying it so the conversation with the past never ends (hooray for the Humanities!).

We are attracted to them for the promise of higher understanding through the direct experience of Art, a form of communication that has been produced in every era of human history, and because we know beauty can lift the spirit and elicit the powerful emotions we crave and that seem harder to access in our everyday lives.

Sometimes this happens easily, immediately. I remember standing in front of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and feeling overcome as if I had been pushed hard in the chest, my lungs constricting, the texture of the yellow wheat almost pressing into my fingertips and the blue of the sky sticking to the inside of my pupils and brain. It was close to unbearable, but I felt so alive and engaged, I never forgot it and can still go back there in my memory. Stendhal Syndrome perhaps. I would be curious to know what work of art did that to you? Turning the corner at the Accademia in Florence and laying eyes on Michelangelo’s David for the very first time makes me happy to be alive just thinking about it.

Yet somehow, sometimes, in Italian art galleries and museums crammed with row after row of seemingly empty-eyed white marble statues, walls covered with dozens of paintings that our eyes struggle to sort and select, we feel lost and overwhelmed. The art stays silent and we tend to think the responsibility is ours (“museum guilt”) or, even worse, that it just isn’t for us. Admitting this in tranquility is important. I have learned that if we ask basic questions and find the right tools, the art will speak to us and museum visits will be rewarding and exciting.

I have an American friend to thank for this. In my very first years as a guide we went to the Sistine Chapel together and I recited the facts I had memorized with great effort. He turned to me and asked: “But why does it matter to me, now? How do I know it’s important?” I admit I got rather ruffled and indignant in the moment, but it gave me pause and forced me to rethink everything. “It’s important because it’s important, and there are thousands of people here to prove it” is not nearly enough. Let’s try a different angle.

The Heart of the Matter

As we climb up the travertine staircase of the Capitoline Museums, Ilaria and I remind ourselves that the crux of the matter is context. Nothing of what we see here was intended to be here. The people who commissioned and made this art in ancient times could never have imagined us today, 2000 years later, with our smartphones, the airplanes and cars that got us here. They were having a conversation with contemporaries who were fluent in the language they were using. The definition that keeps it fresh in my mind is that a pottery maker in ancient Athens never thought of me.

So if the art wasn’t meant to be displayed here and the artists and patrons were not addressing us directly, learning something about their world can help us connect. After all, we see only what we know so the more we know the more we see.

An Example

If we use our imagination and remove a Renaissance painting of Mary and the Child from a museum wall where it hangs among many others, and put it back in the church chapel it was painted for, with an altar and candles below it, and evoke a person of faith praying for something or someone dear to them while looking at it, we can access an experiential dimension that will make us more receptive to details on style and technique.

Knowing the art we see in museums was not originally meant to be there also allows us to explore the often splendid ideas behind the way they are displayed in their present locations and leads to even greater appreciation.

Museum Space

As we walk through the many sections of the Capitoline Museums, Ilaria and I count four different ways the art is displayed. We hope you will visit this fantastic place when the world is safe again, and see what you think, and even recognize these ideas elsewhere.

  1. “SCIENTIFIC” 

horti ila

In this section, Ancient Roman sculpture is displayed according to the site where it was excavated. These minimalist yet elegant rooms contain the art discovered in the late 19th century and that used to decorate the Horti, the luxurious residential complexes of the wealthiest people in ancient Rome. These homes remind me conceptually of the Hearst Castle in California and the idea of “conspicuous consumption”. If we know this, we can enjoy how the art is highlighted here in a modern display, but also imagine it where it was, shown off and admired by the original owners and their guests.

 

2) CONTEXTUAL

esedra marco aurelio

The original bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was made to be outside, in (we can assume) an open space. When the statue was brought inside the museum to protect it, this room was designed in the 1990s specifically to evoke the experience of the original setting. The glass ceiling lets in the ever-changing natural light (oh, the passing of the hours and of clouds over the sun in here!) giving us the illusion of being outside. The room is vast but with very few other pieces. There are stairs we can sit on. It’s like a piazza inside a museum, brilliant!

3)AESTHETIC” 

This is the oldest type of display and it took me years to appreciate it. Corridors full of statues lined against the walls, no labels, and no indication of what to focus on (the galleries of the Vatican Museums are another superb example).

I have often felt “museum fatigue” and “visual overload” in places like these. Yet, if we look more closely, we will see that there is a criterion, a rhythm to this display. For example, we see a tall statue with two smaller ones at its sides and shelves with portrait busts on the sides of those. Repeat. Repeat. It’s about symmetry, the overall effect; we are not supposed to look at each and every piece with the same degree of attention. Ilaria stresses that we inherited this display from the past, when works of art were considered above all as beautiful objects. Collectors determined their value exclusively in aesthetic terms and displayed them to show exactly that by arranging other beautiful objects around them. These displays invite modern museum visitors, just like guests in aristocratic homes in the past, to find excellence amidst this abundance of beauty. We can let our eyes wander and enjoy the cumulative effect, selecting what draws our attention the way we would in an antique store, without pressure.

This display is often combined with another feature of museums located in historical buildings: the rooms of the museum (the “container”) are art in themselves: they are covered in frescoes, have magnificent marble or mosaic floors.

Borghese container(The glorious Borghese Gallery!)

I have learned to allow myself to enjoy them as a whole, being completely surrounded by beauty, without fear of missing anything. When I do this and combine it with careful focus on a few really important pieces, I leave with a sense of accomplishment and great pleasure.

4) “EMOTIONAL”.

lapidaria giusta

Underneath City Hall lies an ancient Roman structure, the Tabularium, maybe a public archive-temple with a road and residential buildings close by. It contains the Capitoline collection of ancient inscriptions which are lined against the walls. They are grouped thematically and many are funerary epitaphs. The Romans buried their dead along roads, outside the city. Their idea was to keep a clear separation between the two, but also for people to greet the dead before entering the city of the living (so many epitaphs start with the invitation “Stop for a moment stranger and read this brief message…”). There is no natural light here, and the ceiling is painted dark blue like a night sky with constellations of letters instead of stars, alluding to the inscriptions below. The idea of the present display (which is very recent as it dates to 2005) is to invite us modern visitors to imagine walking along an ancient road outside the city, pausing by the tombs of the Romans, reading about their lives in their epitaphs, and answering their call to be remembered. It is an invitation to feel an emotional bond with people who walked the Earth two thousand years ago, to connect with the human element that art so powerfully carries through the centuries, all the way down to us, here, now.

As I write this here in Seattle, I think of my friend Ilaria and our favorite moment of that morning. We discreetly took a picture; here it is.

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The empty gallery had the unique silence of library reading rooms that always feels so rich and elevated to me. This gentleman had brought a folding stool and contemplated a single Latin inscription the entire time we were there. He never looked up, was never aware of our presence. He was in another world, we could feel the nourishment and fulfillment he was receiving and imagined the museum itself content to have him there. We walked away quietly, beaming at each other, back into the Roman sunshine and our day.

Next time we will look at a few pieces together.

 

 

Genius Loci – Spirit of Place

In spite of everything that is happening so close to me here and that I am trying hard to comprehend, I am relieved to be closer to my American loved ones. The intense greens and primordial quality of Seattle’s great trees and the summer sky reflecting off the lakes captivate me every day. As a city guide, I am accustomed to searching for the life of inanimate, man-made objects. It is magical to be exposed to the vital energy of Nature on such a grand scale here. I like the idea of being inhabited by both American
Nature and Roman Art, of “containing multitudes” (grazie Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan!).

And Rome is always there; my mind wanders back there constantly.

Giovanna sent me a message to share she was about to take an Italian couple on a tour of the Capitoline Museums (first museum in history, extraordinary Ancient Roman art in an extraordinary setting), and that brought to mind my first walk through there after the lockdown. I would like to take you on a “visit in three glimpses and three posts”: the Capitoline Hill (context), the Museum space (the container) and the Art (content).
I went with my wonderful friend Ilaria Ceccarelli with whom I share my Rick Steves Europe work and guiding principles.
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Here we are having our first “caffè al tavolo”, coffee sitting down at the cafe. No more take away cappuccino for us!

We cross the Circus Maximus and the little neighborhood at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. We start climbing up the most important of the Seven Hills of Rome that gave us the word capitol and offers some of the most beautiful views of the archaeological area (Forum, Palatine hill, Colosseum).

vista foro

It was from here that traitors were hurled off to their deaths in ancient times, and where the honking of the geese of legend warned the besieged Romans who had sought refuge on its heights that the enemy was approaching, saving them – just to mention a couple of stories we were told over and over again in school.

We mentally nod in acknowledgement to the Genius Loci – the Spirit of the Place. This was a guardian deity for the Romans, assigned to protect a place, its inhabitants, and people just passing through; for noi moderni – us moderns, it defines the distinctive character of a location. As I always invite you to do, we practice Roman time-lapse, and envision the centuries swirling around us as we try to catch even the faintest and most distant echoes of the past.
Religious heart of ancient Rome 2000 years ago, when it was a city of over a million and the center of an empire of 50-60 million people, il Campidoglio was covered with temples and a multitude of shrines and altars. We picture Roman generals and emperors reaching its summit on their ceremonial chariots at end of the triumphal parades that displayed and proved their conquests to cheering crowds of citizens,  alighting and offering their laurel crown at the most important temple in the city, dedicated to Jupiter
Optimus Maximus, to give thanks for divine protection in war.

Then came the fall of the Empire and as the population dwindled to 20-30.000, Capitoline Hill eventually became known as “Goat Hill”. The urban fabric of Rome included within the perimeter of its 3rd century walls disintegrated into a patchwork of small, densely inhabited areas and vast stretches of open fields and pastureland speckled with the skeletal remains of abandoned ancient structures.
We evoke the all too common practice of tearing down ancient buildings to re-utilize them as construction material for new residences and churches, turning the splendor of Roma Caput Mundi (Rome head of the world) into desolate ruins, as people carted off marble blocks and columns, and fed marble statues into kilns to burn them and reduce them to lime, then used to make cement. This went on for centuries and is the main reason so much is gone.

Nostalgia for things that seem lost to us now has become quite prevalent in this crisis; Ilaria and I amplify it to include nostalgia for something we never saw: our city at its ancient peak, a place, we learned with absolute wonder, where there might have been as many as one statue for every two people! We pause to imagine a veritable forest of statues, of marble people alongside living people, sharing the same urban space. We dream of a time-machine that would enable us to see if for just one moment and ache for all that was lost by becoming materiale di spoglio – spoliation material for new buildings. I find spoliation to be an appropriately dramatic word as it defines the reckless destruction that went with re-purposing.

Yet for me Rome offers spectacular evidence of that wonderful line spoken by a Japanese Daruma doll in a play I came across in my university years. I completely forgot what the play was about or what it even was, but I copied the line in the notebook of quotes I collected in my search for guidance and meaning as I tried to figure out my path (I still do that): “Life is falling down seven times and getting up eight times”.

So we see the Capitoline Hill rise to prominence again as the seat of civic government was established here in 12th century, a proud though ineffective secular alternative to the rising power of the popes who ruled Rome as monarchs until the unification of Italy in the 1800s. City Hall still stands there, a thousand years later. We all love the sudden bursts of cheering and applause when newlyweds emerge from the wedding office to be hugged and kissed by their family and friends in all their finery, and then pose for pictures. We love to see bridal veils fluttering in the wind against the spectacular backdrop of the Capitoline’s last metamorphosis.

sposi ale

sposi ale 2

[These pictures and the last one on this post were taken by our friend and RSE local guide colleague Alessandra Mazzocoli. She has a wonderful eye for photography and for Rome. See her work on her facebook page A Zonzo: rambles in Rome].

The Piazza del Campidoglio as it appears today is one of the most elegant squares in Europe. It was designed by Michelangelo (1530s) although it was completed in later times. He devised its brilliant trapezoidal shape that brought symmetry where the preexisting structures had none, and the starburst design on the pavement. The copy of the bronze equestrian statue of the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) stands at the center – the original is inside the museum, safe from pollution and pigeons. Marcus turns his back on the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the imperial palace, the core of the ancient Rome behind City Hall, and faces the Rome of the popes that gradually took its place, the Rome of St. Peter’s and the Vatican, in the distance in a straight line from here.

Campidoglio

marco aurelio

The City shifts, changes and follows Power; it weaves the threads of a story we can discover and read in the stones so they can cease to be foreign and intimidating. Edward Gibbon famously wrote about part of that story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and found inspiration here. In his Autobiography he claimed:

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Next time I would like to share the ideas on navigating museums Ilaria and I discussed  while at the Capitoline.

I say goodbye to you with a quote that conjures wonderful mental images of this Roman hill for me.

In all cities there are certain places, a church or a garden, where one may go as to a sanctuary in moments of happiness or sorrow; and in spite of its grand and stormy memories, this piazza on the Capitol is such a place to me. The centuries lap at its feet and roll away in stormy vistas all around it, and the rock of the Capitol, where the philosopher rides his golden horse, is lifted like some ark above the flood of time.

H.V. MORTON, A Traveller in Rome, 1957

tramonto ale

I would like to thank Ilaria Ceccarelli and Alessandra Mazzoccoli for their pictures and Ben Cameron for helping me start this blog and persevere.

Arrivederci Roma

As for many other people, my work has been cancelled for the foreseeable future and it is really time to reunite with my family so  I visited my mother in Sicily and then I flew to Seattle where I will be spending the rest of the summer.  I will return as soon as the situation improves and will continue writing in the meantime.

Before leaving I said arrivederci to my beloved Rome.

I have always been an enthusiast of rituals and traditions with family and friends: endlessly repeated gestures and expressions to which I entrust the deep pleasure of having known and loved them for so long. I think of my mom who prepares Sicilian caponata for me every time I visit and reassures me I will find it, on the plate I know, with the exact flavor that only hers has (the picture on the right shows the initial source my New Yorker mom used but then she created her own version with eggplant, celery, olives, capers, tomatoes, onion, and balsamic vinegar instead of sugar and regular wine vinegar, basil and oregano);

my brother and I share exhausted jokes that maybe weren’t even funny the first time but have had us in stitches for decades; my partner and I take the same picture every time we see each other after months apart. I am anchored to Life by these things, by their reliable sameness and I value this more now, when very little seems recognizable and certain. The Ancient Romans lived to the rhythm of rituals that were crystalized to the point of obsession. A priest who sneezed or skipped a word during an invocation to the gods had to start all over again, and maybe for the first time, in this crisis, I understand that need for something stable and familiar to hold onto.

Every time I leave Rome for a long time I take a walk to say goodbye as if I were leaving a family member. With my loved ones far away and a profession that mostly implies spending half a day of very meaningful, warm human connections with travelers I seldom see again, greetings and farewells are a big part of my life, and I have come to experience them as rituals too, and feel they frame experiences with a lovely solemnity and definition I long for.

I invite my friend Giovanna to come with me on my Arrivederci Roma walk, and we decide for the early morning to avoid the heat but also to catch it as it wakes up, calm and a little slow but bearing the hope and possibility of a new day.

We walk without a specific plan, we simply go where our Roman instincts take us, and whisper to each other “che città!– what a city! – as we let ourselves go to what author Eleanor Clark so perfectly defined the “toomuchness of everything” of Rome, that cumulative beauty that seems so overwhelming at first but just requires an intellectual surrender to it, a willingness to indulge in the basic pleasure of being alive and able to see and observe. It’s the way everything and its opposite coexist, the way the magnificence and glory of the distant past are softened by the wear and tear of time, how the ever-present shadow of grit and decline only make it more real, believable and poignant. We catch endless elements that are only apparently incongruous and too humble: a pot of basil and a tiny cactus on the windowsill of a splendid Renaissance palazzo with traces of fresco paintings that ignite the imagination as to what the city may have looked like 500 years ago, but that also has a bicycle parked against it.

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Giovanna and I know this is exactly what makes this so endearingly Roman: the faded frescoes and the bicycle combined, the basil that will be used to flavor a tomato sauce or a caprese salad and the elegant white stone window frame: past and present, the splendid and the delightfully mundane.

The Italian art historian Tomaso Montanari rightly says that art in Italy is like “mele vive” – living apples –  still attached to the tree they were born on, as opposed to being in meravigliosi surgelatori – marvelous freezers, museums. The key word for me, and I know I repeat this constantly, is LIVING, the idea that art needs to be part of our daily landscape and experience of the world.

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I say goodbye to the sunlight reflecting brightly off the worn gray cobblestones, to the balconies, doorways and windows covered in miniature jungles, to delightful shop window displays, the gurgling of fountains, the swallows darting through the summer sky above us.

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But then I know where I must head to, and ask Giovanna “Andiamo al Pantheon?”- Shall we go to the Pantheon? Sì.

Pantheon

The Pantheon is where I can finally take leave, where I feel the poignancy of Roman farewells most acutely. I prepare for the familiar melancholia of separation, for the tribute of respect and wonder I feel it always deserves. It has to be here, and I know I am not alone in my special connection to this architectural marvel. As with the Colosseum, I love how it is woven in the fabric of the city. It sits in the very heart of the area of Rome that was never abandoned and so I can say to my friends “meet me at the Pantheon” as people have said to their friends for the past 1900 years.

A pagan temple to all the gods turned into a church dedicated to Mary and all the Martyrs, the Pantheon doesn’t present the challenge of the Colosseum’s ambiguity, and its incredible state of conservation doesn’t require leaps and somersaults of the imagination to see what is no longer there. I make an exception for the ground level I stand on and allow my mind to reverse it to see it as it was in the past. The Ancient Romans would have come upon the Pantheon all of sudden, when entering a piazza (quite different from today’s but offering a comparable “surprise” effect), yet the ground level was lower and the building stood on a podium with steps leading to it at the front. Centuries of silt and debris from floods of the river Tiber caused the ground level to rise around it, swallowing the elevation and giving it its present “sunken” appearance that leads us down to it and not up.

I look at the granite columns in the majesty of their 40 feet height and weight of 60 tons. I create a film in my mind that follows them from when they were still stone mass in the quarry in Egypt, being roughed out and transported over 60 miles to the river Nile, down to the coast, across the Mediterranean, up the river Tiber, and finally dragged and set up on this site, all achieved without machinery. I think of all the people involved and go back to how the poet T.S. Eliot said that having a historical sense means that we can perceive the presence of the past.

I say goodbye to Rome here as a way of saying goodbye not only to the beauty of its space, its art and buildings, but to the people who walked through it before me. I cross the worn marble threshold, its lovely swirls of greenish grey and pink, and feel their company. I see Michelangelo, dismounting his horse on one of his many visits of contemplation, walking next to me as I enter. I imagine the almost regal funerary procession for the young Raphael in April 1520 when the whole city mourned him and one hundred painters bearing torches accompanied him here, to the resting place he had requested as a testament to his passion for Ancient Rome. I imagine being here in the early 1900s, when Italian emigrants to Argentina donated splendid wooden planks to pave the square outside the building and kept them well-greased so the Italian kings buried inside could rest peacefully without the noise of carriages passing by. A marble plaque above one of the cafes recalls this touching tribute although -alas! – the grease on the sloping surface caused  several people to slip and fall, and on their request the wood paving was removed.

The interior is quiet and empty; there is the now customary roped-off path.

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Giovanna and I look up from the magnificent colored marble of the floor and walls to the naked concrete of the dome, a feat of engineering and sheer brilliance we never tire of marveling at. We find the spotlight of sunshine that makes the Pantheon a sundial, and imagine how many times it has revolved around this space, how many generations have come through here and stood where we are standing now, and were captivated  as we are now. We feel we can reach out to them and hold their hand across time and space, yet again, as Rome invites us to do at every step, at every instant.

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The goodbye gift I receive as I take leave this time is a heightened sense of community through place. My lockdown in Rome has made me more aware of my attachment to my country and my fellow Italians through the heartbreak of loss caused by this pandemic. We grieved for people we did not know personally but with whom we shared a history and an identity, and hoped collective grief could provide comfort to their families and strengthen our resolve to get through this together, as a community. That in turn led me to empathize with the rest of the world, and to feel a sense of common destiny and profound human connection. Rome is a crossroads and a bridge for humans of every era and place. I listen more closely to the Latin poet Horace who 2000 years ago wrote:  Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am a human being and nothing human is alien to me.

I will take that with me this time. Arrivederci Roma.

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ALL WILL BE WELL

My intention is to continue writing about my Roman wanderings and thoughts from Seattle. If you have any requests please write to me at francescainroma@gmail.com

A presto!