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.

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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.

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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.

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

Origins

1. Getting there

My friends and I have been sharing images of our first walks. Another dear friend I made through Rick Steves Europe, sent a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Somehow that image kept resurfacing in my mind for a few days as something that had drifted very far from me, as if finding it again would require a different kind of journey I have been avoiding.

I stopped giving tours of the Vatican years ago.  I became convinced I lacked the filters, the adaptability, and the fortitude even, to deal with the crowds, and gave up. That picture of the Pietà took me back to where everything began, where I found the key and my voice as a guide. I started in my twenties, it took me a long time to wrap my mind around the ancient ruins and understand how I wanted to narrate them; the Borghese was closed for restoration back then so that came later. My story as a guide started with the Pietà, and if this crisis can also lead to personal growth or a rebirth of some kind, I needed to go back to it, and I did.

Empty piazza

I arrive in Piazza San Pietro at 4:30 pm. The light is changing from the exhausting brightness of the middle of the day to the soothing golden glow of the afternoon when the whole city seems to exhale, one of the many things worth living for in Rome. The square is eerily deserted; the metal detectors under Bernini’s colonnade are all hidden by thin plastic covers that rustle in the breeze. I follow the new signs on the cobblestones that tell me how to proceed safely. A guard tells me where to stand and takes my temperature, we share a quick joke and laugh almost out of necessity, to affirm that these new rules and procedures don’t have to alienate us from each other, and we will make sure they don’t.

 

I go through security and enter. The basilica is empty, there seem to be less than thirty people wandering around, looking slightly stunned and hesitant. The first thing I notice is the quality of the silence and stillness; I don’t think I have ever experienced it before. The word I want is the Italian for “hushed” because it is so exact. We say silenzio ovattato from ovatta – cotton wool, the silence that feels wadded, dense. It somehow fills the immensity of the church interior, almost cramming it, making what is normally daunting and majestic, close and intimate. I allow myself to become porous and available to the silence, the space, the light. It is more than the oppressiveness of the past months lifting, for the first time I feel peace.

St Peters interiorDome

Pieta

I am ready; I turn right and walk to the Pietà, alone.

2. I am here

Pieta closeup

I take my time, I allow my eyes to wander, as if looking at it afresh while rediscovering my deep familiarity with the details I love. I remember vaguely coming here with my Sicilian grandmother as a little kid, the small reproduction of it my father kept on his desk and have to smile at the web of connections Art creates in our lives.

I go back to my earlier days of guiding and tell myself a bit of the story I told travelers for years…

This is Michelangelo’s Pietà, the work that permanently established his reputation here in Rome, the only work he every signed (he added his name on the sash across Mary’s chest when he overheard bystanders attribute it to someone else), and he was only 24 when he made it. Pietà doesn’t translate exactly as pity because it expresses nuances of sorrow and mercy as well. In art it is the title we give to this composition: Mary holding the body of her dead Son in her arms. It had been a more common theme in Northern European art – it was commissioned from Michelangelo by a French cardinal – and was typically represented with the body of Christ flat as a board, as in rigor mortis, on Mary’s lap, an allusion to the shape of the Cross. Observe how Michelangelo chooses a different approach and almost wraps the body of Christ around Mary.

You may remember how Michelangelo carved his statues out of a single block of marble, claiming that the statue was already in there, contained within the block, and that his task as an artist was to set it free. The technical implications of this approach have always fascinated me and a long tradition has consigned to us the idea of Michelangelo’s prodigious ability to “see” the three dimensional figure in the stone and attacking it mostly from the front. It may not be possible to reconstruct his artistic process exactly but part of me longs to indulge in that tradition and its powerfully evocative image. I love to imagine his statues as we see them now but lying in a tub full of water, picturing the plug being pulled from the drain and watching the water slowly recede to reveal them, bringing them to life. What matters in the end is that through the work of Michelangelo’s hands, the roughing out, carving and endless polishing, a rough block of marble from the Tuscan mountains becomes what we are looking at here. And he was 24 years old.

As we continue observing, something else draws our attention: Mary looks rather young and she seems quite large compared to her Son. If we could imagine them standing, she would be much taller than him. When asked about Mary’s youth Michelangelo replied that as the Virgin mother of Christ, Mary remained eternally young and beautiful. Separating Michelangelo from his faith can limit our understanding, and I don’t think we need to be religious ourselves to access this dimension. The proportions certainly make the embrace appear more natural and believable.

We could perhaps stop here but I want to share what I was taught about this statue in high school and that has been marinating in my brain for what now feels like a lifetime.  It has allowed me to understand how Art is above all communication and how ideas expressed visually 500 years ago can accompany and sustain us on our life path today, creating empathetic connections across space and time. I offer it as a possibility for your consideration, nothing more.

The age and scale factors become effective and especially poignant if we imagine that in the Pietà Mary is holding her baby son in her arms, and is experiencing a moment of foreshadowing; she sees that when he becomes an adult, her Son must die to save humanity. How does Mary react? Let’s allow the overall mood of the statue to reach us, and then let us look at Mary’s hands. With her right hand she is holding onto her Son, as if she didn’t want to let go of him: this is the grief of every mother for every lost child and, and at this point in my life, I think it can be the grief of all of us when we lose someone we love. People come to see this statue from all over the world, with different backgrounds and beliefs, and I sense that everyone feels it has something to say to them personally. Art unites and connects us in the fundamentals of the human experience, one of the many reasons we should always have it in our lives.

We move to Mary’s left hand: it is open, a gesture of acceptance and offering, as if she knows that what she envisions will happen on Friday but Sunday will come, and Life will return. Mary looks at peace; Christ looks more asleep than dead, the wounds from the nails of the cross are hardly visible. Under his lifted foot is a little plant, just starting to grow. Life is never destroyed, Life changes.

Never again will Michelangelo make something quite so polished, so finished. I have looked at the Pietà my whole life and still marvel at his technique in rendering the wrinkled fabric of Mary’s blouse around the sash, the perfect sheen of the skin, the empty space under Christ’s hip, the almost unbearable tenderness of it all.

Today the glass that protects the Pietà and separates us from it seems ironically timely, and yet the statue glows unperturbed. Life continues in this dimension too, we survive and move on.

I walk away reconnected with my own story, grateful and consoled.

Empty St Peters

Next time, a late afternoon passeggiata through the centro storico.

A Park and a Fountain

Lockdown is a time of wishes and longings that naturally arrange themselves in mental lists, offering unexpected self-portraits and new, often tender insights into people we know well. Here in Italy, but it must be happening everywhere, we have all been compiling and comparing lists of the first things we will do when it is safe again. Some things I know I must wait longer for: half-hour hugs with all my loved ones and Southern Italian-style kisses: at least five or six, loud, enthusiastic pecks on the cheek in rapid succession, my family’s favorite greeting. Others are coming up sooner, cappuccino “al banco”, at the cafe’ counter (Deliverance is at hand!),and thin crust Roman pizza sitting down in a pizzeria with a friend or two, served with the inevitably blunt knife to saw at it ineffectively while anxiously watching the mozzarella congeal into little gummy patches – never thought I would miss that!

Yet the first thing I wanted do is already possible: walking. I spent hours and hours pacing on my terrace listening to podcasts and lectures on the ancient Romans while aching for the city streets, parks and people. I especially missed the Villa Borghese and I finally went there with my childhood friend and colleague, Lara. One of Rome’s many urban polmoni verdi – ‘green lungs’, it expands over 148 acres, which make it larger than Vatican City, and maps clearly reveal that it is shaped like a heart. In the 17th century the Villa was the private countryside property of the aristocratic Borghese family but is now in the city center, public, and much loved by Romans of all generations.

ParkFountainFlowers 2Flowers

It contains the trees that inspired the first movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for our summers in the city where the Bard’s plays are performed in italiano and, among many others, my favorite museum in the world: the Galleria Borghese.

PinesBorghese 2

As I walk and chat with Lara, we both find ourselves pausing every few steps, going quiet, as if we need to listen more carefully for something, and I experience another, more poignant reunion. I know why I am here, why these elegant avenues, the delightful small fountains, the reassuring sameness of the evergreens have been calling to me. The Villa Borghese contains my entire Roman life. It’s all here: the weekend afternoons of my childhood, riding bikes with my brother Giorgio, the need to ride past our mother at regular intervals, I see her so clearly reading on a bench, looking up and smiling at us each time. Giorgio is in New York now, my mother is in Sicily but they are here, the park is holding them close for me.

Then I am a little older and my mom takes me to the Galleria Borghese. I see us standing in front of Bernini’s marble statue of Pluto and Persephone, the shock of the god’s hand pressing into the impossibly pliable flesh of the terrified girl’s thigh, that moment like a seed planted without me knowing what was to come, when I was studying to become an English teacher. Lara and I walk over there, just to see it, to be reassured by its presence. It is closed now but will be open when you read this, one of the best signs of hope I can think of right now. I stand here quietly: 25 years of guiding, of sharing Rome and its enchantments become alive and present and there is only one word to define it all – love. I look at this familiar white building, sealed off and silent, and it almost starts to pulse. All the moments I have spent here wording my wonder to travelers, inviting them, maybe even forcing them to connect with the here and the now, everything is alive in my mind. I see them too, all the people I met here: their faces, the sudden change in their expressions, the special brightness in their eyes I always wait for, the smiles that mark the transition from education to experience, from duty to pure joy. Once again, I find hope: Bernini, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian are just behind those walls waiting for us, with us. We will be back.

We leave the park after sighing contentedly at the view of the city from the Pincian Hill, wander by the Spanish Steps, still and empty like a dreamscape, and our mood starts changing. As we walk to Trevi Fountain the well-being and comfort the park gave us recede, that all too familiar sense of disconnect, of life thrown off the rails, surfaces again. The first thing we notice is the sound. I always tell travelers Trevi is a celebration of beauty and an experience of the senses, you hear the water before you see the fountain, but normally we have to strain, the crowds make it hard to catch. Now it’s distinct, loud, it has the force and rush of a waterfall, and there are only three people here. It’s in full sun, completely on display, the border of the basin finally visible, an elegant uninterrupted white line, the pleasing proportions of the steps leading down to it, the strange swimming pool-like pale green of the water against the clear bottom. Normally it appears like this, unmarked by the glinting metallic dots of the coins and the thousands of wishes to return, just for a few very brief moments when it gets cleaned and the coins are collected once a week. I thought this is what I wanted, after all these years of crowds, to recover something that felt lost. I don’t, or I don’t anymore. I know the crowds had become excessive, I was as upset as everyone else. The vision of the perfect, bare beauty of Trevi Fountain is powerful but ultimately dissatisfying. I didn’t feel this when I looked at the Borghese Gallery from the outside, this is different. Rome’s beauty is distinct because a lot of its art is not behind ropes and glass partitions in museums, but outside. Its fountains, piazzas, the facades of its palazzi are meant to be seen, to be part of our everyday lives, they include us, imply us even: we are part of Trevi, as much as the carved stone and the water. I understand more deeply that it is not just us who await Rome’s embrace, she awaits our embrace as well, but she has the patience and the wisdom of all of her centuries on her side. She is telling us this moment will pass and we will reunite, and I trust her, she knows.

Spainish StepsTrevi 2

Next time I write, the lockdown will have lifted and we will be cautiously, responsibly trying out a new normal with many new behaviors that must be learned and respected. I still won’t be giving tours for some time but we can explore different things and make plans for the future while we wait.

A presto!

 

 

 

Adjustments and Silver Linings

The initial shock of venturing out is starting to fade but not the sense of wonder and excitement. Every walk feels like a compact version of a journey – how fitting that the word comes from the old French for day – journée, the distance travelers in the past covered within that timeframe, when it took so much longer to reach a destination.

As I get ready to leave the house, I recognize that very specific pleasure anyone who has ever been on a trip knows so well. It’s another one of those quick, peripheral things that barely register and are wonderful for that very reason. Perhaps it’s the very essence of anticipation: when we feel our inner world adjust and make space for the new impressions and experiences we know for certain the outer world will bring us. I often picture it in a very simple way, a box that gets filled as we progress through the day. Some of its contents we can consider and process in the moment while others sink to the bottom without us even knowing and pop up years later, woven into a fabric of connections and meanings that have become part of us, that make us who we are. It’s the interaction between the outer and inner world that make travel transformative, and that can happen also during a lockdown walk.

I am quickly adjusting to the new landscape of social distancing, caution and, especially, masks. I am getting over the initial dismay of not being able to share smiles or convey two-second social commentary by means of a chuckle with people I meet on the street, acquaintances and strangers alike. The need to communicate with facial expressions at all times with almost everybody is one of the Italian traits that delights me the most and it comforts me to realize we don’t have to give it up. I am noticing we are shifting to a shorthand version and it’s all in the eyes now. I have already exchanged a rather satisfying range of sentiments from sympathy to annoyance with people in line for takeout cappuccino (alas, the tragedy continues!), at streetlights and strolling in the park, just through subtle eyebrow movements and glances. The Italian need to communicate and connect simply cannot be contained!

True, it may all still be relief or the need for something redeeming and hopeful that give greater resonance to things that would be negligible in normal circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a gift and that it cannot serve us beyond this moment. Taking the time to look and reflect more deeply on what surrounds us today will provide us with a finer skill set we can use when real travel becomes safe and possible again, and it will be amazing. As the lockdown becomes less restrictive, I am going to walk around Rome to prepare for that day and would like to invite you to come with me.

One last thing! I wonder if any of you who have been on a tour with me remember the past and present pictures I use to help imagine what the sites may have looked like in their heyday. Here is an updated version to illustrate The Take Out Tragedy….

Next time, a walk through Villa Borghese and finally making it to Trevi Fountain.

A presto!

BorgheseTrevi

 

Reunion

My dear friend, and RSE colleague, Nina Bernardo and I had promised each other we would meet at the Colosseum as soon as the lockdown lifted to walk in the city center together and reunite with our favorite monuments. For now we can only walk in parks for physical exercise so we decided to stretch that concept a bit, met at the Circus Maximus and headed to the banks of the river Tiber.

I love it when the next season drops a hint to let us know it’s coming. Sudden alterations in the air and the light we always seem to catch passively, at the periphery of our awareness, even if they leave traces of both excitement and regret.

It’s another beautiful Roman day; I walk along the center of the Circus Maximus, on the ridge of earth around which ancient Roman chariots raced at breakneck speed. The echo is still there, the energy of the space is almost physical, thrumming, electric (you should come here and let your imagination go next time you visit).

I catch sight of Nina in the distance, I feel my heart literally swell and there it is: a sudden blast of summer. A different kind of heat I can almost smell and a white glare that seems to erase the very possibility of shadows. It’s there when Nina and I finally meet and look at each other, the first live face of someone we love and who loves us in over 50 days, another milestone in this surreal journey. Looking at her feels more like recognizing her but I recognize myself as well. We start crying, I understand why we say, both in English and Italian, that we “burst” into tears. I immediately say these are happy tears, she says it’s a relief, and again, like in my walk in the park, something tight and constricted in me eases, lets go of its hold. My friend Nina is here but so are all the other friends and loved ones we cannot see yet, our years of conversations, adventures, tenderness and laughter are here, around us, like a cheering audience.And the first hint of summer is here too, it makes this moment shine and we know we will never forget it.

We start walking (a safe distance apart to abide by the rules), down to the banks of the Tiber by the Isola Tiberina, along the river. We comment on how it seems a lot cleaner and how beautiful its almost sage green color is when the full sunlight hits it. Plants and grasses are unkempt and jungle-like, daisies and capers are growing out of the cracks in the embankments, sparrows  flitter about and even a couple of herons fly by.

By chance we meet a friend of Nina’s who describes his serious concerns about the future but shows that no fuss resilience that is at the core of the typically Roman fatalism I always marvel at. We go back to the Isola Tiberina and find Rita, a woman we had never met before, in line at a favorite cafe at the center of the island.  She offers us “takeout cappuccino” (I never thought I would pronounce these words on Italian soil!) and delights us with her wit and wisdom. How we missed sharing a good laugh with a stranger!

Nina brought delicious homemade scones to snack on and we munch on them as we continue our walk, wondering what will happen next. We find poppies along a road; as we take pictures of them my nostalgia for their arrival in the Roman Forum each year becomes less poignant and I find I can let it go. We are stopped by the police who check our documents and offer us hand sanitizer, stop at a nasone fountain for a sip of cold water while receiving a rather lengthy lecture on the Destiny of the World by the man in front of us. We smell the overblown roses (Italian has a fantastic word for this, rose spampanate) wrapped around the iron gates of the closed City Rose Garden  – another place you must visit next time you come – and we  are back at the Circus Maximus to say goodbye.

Nina says our Roman morning brought us a wealth of the external input that we missed at home on our own, and how oddly effortless and exhilarating it was to reconnect with our city and our community. We know our lives have changed profoundly, that a lot of uncertainty and anxiety await us. Our normality, our security and our plans are lost to us now but not irretrievably; recovery is possible and we want to be ready for it. We look at each other, blow kisses and wave, and walk away in the sunshine, smiling. Until next time.

Circus Max

JasmineTiberNinaPoppies

RosesNina and Fra