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.

gentleman

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.
fra e ila

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 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, 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.

IMG_1953

IMG_1954

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.

IMG_1458

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.

IMG_1960

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!

 

 

 

Leggerezza – Lightness

I wrote this post almost a month ago and decided to set it aside. It feels like a postcard from a different time now, as things seem to progress positively here. I imagine sending it to you as an invitation and a wish for better times for all of us, everywhere.

In the middle of the lockdown, when time felt like a huge lump that dilated and contracted in ways I couldn’t make any sense of, my friend John sent me a text message reminding  me that every day that goes by is a day closer to the end of this crisis. I found myself clinging to this sentence and almost turned it into a physical object, like a smooth pebble I could keep in my pocket and reach for when I needed to quiet the loops and vortexes in my brain and re-sync with a less distorted progression of time.

And then, on one of my recent walks, I found that I didn’t need to make a conscious effort to find positive signs, to interpret and color my surroundings, because Rome was telling me a new story and pulling me into it, mid-sentence, without fuss or fanfare, the way she always does things.  As I walked through the centro storico with my lovely friend and colleague Giovanna Terzulli and her teenage son Antonio, we simply saw our fellow-Romans take their city back, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. After the ghostly beauty of emptiness and absence, there it was again: Life Life Life! Undefeated, almost absurdly unruffled, and bearing the greatest gift in a time like this: leggerezza-lightness.

We decide our theme will be the piazza but rather than dwell on its form -history, architecture- we will indulge in its basic function: a stage, a setting for human interactions.  I imagine us beading a necklace, as we wander through streets and alleys connecting every possible open space. We rejoice at how downtown Rome doesn’t have a main square, recognized by all as its identifying center: it has a multitude, another sign of the complexity of its urban fabric that resists all classifications and must be simply enjoyed as it is.

Kiddos

We compare the before and after. The new normal of face masks, and the obvious struggle with social distancing are there, as people constantly catch themselves getting too close and take a reluctant step back. I remember reading back in March that the Italian closeness between generations, the kisses and hugs between grandparents and grandchildren was one of the causes of the violence of the contagion. How painful that one of our identifying traits as people put us at risk. Hugs outside of one’s immediate family are still in the future and I realize I even miss seeing men in dark suits and ties walking very slowly while chatting during lunch or coffee breaks, and stopping every few meters to grab each other by the arm when emphasizing a point (how many times did I see my dad and my brother do that!). But somehow all of this stays in the background this afternoon, it isn’t what matters now: kids are riding their bikes in circles and zigzags and kicking soccer balls by ancient temples, women in impossibly high heels and floral dresses greet each other with obvious affection; there are strollers, friends laughing, the occasional car honking and scooter whizzing by.

Piazza people

Piazza bikes

We decide it is time for a gelato at Ciampini in Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, a local institution. We debate on flavors while waiting for the signal to get closer to the counter: a medium cone, sour cherry and vanilla for Giovanna and me, Nutella and vanilla for Anto. We give the only possible answer to the classic question “panna?” (whipped cream?) “!”.  Gelato has never tasted so good and brought such welcome, uncomplicated happiness. It is rich and creamy but inevitably starts dribbling down the sides of the cone, once again revealing the utter uselessness of the tiny square of tissue paper, a sorry excuse for a napkin, provided by every Italian gelateria since the beginning of time. I understand everything must be sacrificed to aesthetics out here, but I daydream of being offered a square of heavy duty paper towel on a hot day with my gelato. We realize we must get serious and so I quote our friend Lara’s great injunction at these critical moments: Il gelato va domato! – gelato must be tamed! – and we stop talking to better savor and conquer.

We continue weaving in and out of piazzas, stop to look at doorways and shop windows, an improvised aperitivo among well distanced friends with a cheese and prosciutto platter and a bottle of prosecco in an ice bucket elegantly arranged on a bench.  We comment on everything as if we had been lost to these beloved squares for 20 years like Ulysses from Ithaca, and not half an hour away for a couple of months.

We make a list of Italian idiomatic expressions that include piazza:

Fare una piazzata (lit. make a piazza) – make a scene.

Mettere in piazza (lit. put in the piazza) – reveal something that should be kept discreet and private.

Scendere in piazza (lit. go down in the piazza) – express an opinion publicly.

Letto ad una piazza (one piazza = single bed), una piazza e mezza (a piazza and a half = double bed ), a due piazze (two piazzas = queen/king bed).  

Fare piazza pulita (lit. to make a clean square), to get rid of everything, to make a clean sweep.

And even the verb piazzare – to place, to plant.

As the day fades into the violets and pinks of dusk, we decide we need a pizza to make a great outing perfect. One of our favorite places, La Montecarlo, is tucked away in a narrow alley and normally has a few coveted outside tables squished between parked cars and scooters, but we discover they only do take out. Can we really do this? A nice couple, who had placed their cardboard box on a windowsill tells us to forget appearances and go for it, these are special times after all.

Montecarlo

So we end our evening breaking decorum rules and overcoming inner resistance, and have a delicious pizza margherita on the steps of a majestic Baroque church and hope the saints and the vigili (local police) will forgive us just this once. Leggerezza, lightness.

 

 

A Different Reunion: The Colosseum

I had written a post on a late afternoon passeggiata in the center of Rome to share a moment of light-heartedness. I have decided to set it aside because I did not want it to read as insensitive with regards to what I hear on the news, and so instead, I would like to take you with me on my first visit to the Colosseum since it reopened.

Colloseagull

I walked past it numerous times after the lockdown ended but without ever looking too long or getting too close, perhaps almost avoiding it. I have always adored the way its spectacular ancient bulk sits amidst the chaos and fast pace of modernity: school kids and commuters rushing out of the metro station to catch a bus, trams and scooters, the ear-splitting drilling of never ending construction. I loved the contrast between the fleeting present and the permanence of its stone arches, a constant reminder that there is always more weight and significance to any given moment.

I have spent so much time looking at it, thinking and talking about it, worrying about crowds, lines at the bathroom, looking for shade in the sweltering summer heat and shelter in rainstorms, my eye on my watch thinking of the next site on the tour, the next chapter in the story I wanted to share. Most of all, the Colosseum provoked amazing breakthroughs with the travelers I met there.

It has been said that there is no other building in the world that sums up a civilization as precisely as the Colosseum sums up the ancient Romans. It is so iconic; everyone carries a mental picture of it with them along with an expectation of what it will be like to see the real thing in the real place. Yet on arriving, the first impression tends to be that nothing can possibly prepare for its true presence and scale. The realization that architecture is art we walk through, that we can comprehend the scale of a building only by measuring it on ourselves, is one of most magical thresholds we cross when we travel, the exhilarating leap from looking at pictures and reading books to the personal experience: the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual connection to a place that we will never again think of as foreign but as our own. That is exactly where I like to start my story about the Colosseum as a guide, by saying “You are here!”.

Because so much of my life is tied up in these ancient stones, I was a bit wary of seeing it closed and empty, without its mad orbit of motion and sound, imposing as always but somehow naked and hollow. Then it finally reopened to the public and I felt compelled to go, to understand how visits will be organized with new safety standards, but also because it was just time to return.

I meet my group of colleagues at the base of the Colossus, the bronze statue that gave the Flavian Amphitheater its common name, gone as so much else is today, and still feel a bit uneasy. It is lovely to see staff members with whom we normally exchange exhausted smiles or concerned looks while standing in line to get in. Our face masks hide our smiles today, but we see them regardless and reinforce them with words of encouragement and optimism. Temperature, metal detectors, ticket check, we are in. Only groups of fifteen people, one every 10 minutes, on an established (but smart) route, and yet we do not see anyone else during our time here.

Is it getting old, me describing the emptiness of these places; why is it still hitting me so hard; why do I seem incapable of appreciating the supposed luxury of having all of this to myself? I try to be honest and admit part of it has to do with the fact that this is where I make a living and I am not working now, but I peel that obvious layer off and find more. The emptiness of Rome these days, although it is receding, has a million nuances; each one of the iconic places I visit seems to have its own. The Colosseum without visitors feels painfully desolate to me. Without the eyes of visitors marveling and igniting them with their imagination, the stones feel heavy and dull. It is a ruin in an obvious, literal sense that – I acknowledge the absurdity of this – had never found space in my experience of it.

People often ask me why I don’t get bored coming here day after day, year after year, and are surprised when I say that, along with the Roman Forum, this is my favorite place to show visitors, more than any off the beaten track, little known place. The Colosseum sums ups my core beliefs as a guide about how travel can change us. It is a unique place to confront our ideas on history and how we can relate to it, on violence and power, the value of thinking in context;  a place that challenges us to consider that understanding is harder but more interesting than judging .

“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” ― Baruch Spinoza (17th century Dutch philosopher).

In more recent years, these stones have helped me accept complexity and ambiguity as essential components of our experience of the world, to resist the need for simple, easy answers. The Colosseum is undeniably one of the worst killing fields in history, and yet it is also one of the most extraordinary buildings of all times, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. The ancient Romans are both terrifying and fascinating.  A great Italian scholar, Andrea Giardina, concluded a lecture by reminding us that the animal that appears in the legend of their origins is a she-wolf, traditionally wild and ferocious, but she is tender with the abandoned baby twins: the origin story is the story of an adoption, there is kindness there too, even if it will end in violence with one twin killing the other. More and more I see the potential enrichment of learning to consider contrasting angles on things and I learned this at the Colosseum.

Also, ruins need to be brought to life with the imagination. I love the idea of “informing” the imagination of visitors so they can evoke what was, along with seeing what is. Imagining becomes a means of interacting with what we are looking at, it is never passive, and for me that justifies crossing the world on an airplane to see this place in person. We must walk through these arches in and look onto the arena from the upper level to “see” the crowds from 2000 years ago, to hear the cheering, the music, the roaring of the wild animals. Creating a connection with a place in time so distant from the present can be immensely powerful and dwells in the mind longer than the dates and the bare facts (although they matter a great deal, of course).

Colo empty inside

Colo cat
Colo inside

As I walk through and experience the emptiness, I realize how much the Colosseum has to say. If there are no visitors to listen, its stones are bound to stay eerily silent and inert.

I diligently take note of how future visits will work, compare ideas on architectural details and interpretations with my colleagues, but then look for a redeeming thought before I leave, and I find it. In its long, long life, the Colosseum has been a structure for ancient spectacles and the display of imperial power, a quarry of building material, a fortress and dwelling place with artisanal activities, storage and stables, a place of Christian pilgrimage, a garden, haunted and unsafe at night, a romantic ruin, a destination for travelers of every era. I decide its emptiness during the pandemic of 2020 will be just another chapter in its story, one of many, and other, more exciting ones, are certainly ahead of us.

A new Travel with Rick Steves podcast

Ciao a tutti, I hope everyone is well and staying safe as we wait for better days ahead.

If a bit more Rome might offer a pleasant distraction, please listen to the latest radio show Rick Steves dedicated to this incredible city. It was a joy for me to participate and I hope it sounds like an invitation to visit and to always feel part of it regardless. Buon ascolto – Happy listening!

https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/radio/programs/program-601