Back to Rome, 8/1999
Quiet, empty Rome
Stautary at the Villa Borghese
The eclipse in Rome
La Madonna del Divino Amore
Countryside inside Rome
Casina delle Civette
Everyman, the morality play
Music under the stars
New discoveries at the Forum
Modica Bassa has two small museums in the same building. One contains archeological finds dating to about 2000 B.C.E. The older objects include many stone flints and hammer heads. The other museum contains objects from about 100 years ago: stone carving tools, blacksmith equipment, ceramics, shoes, clothing, and religious objects. The sewing implements were of the sort that my grandmother probably used. She was a seamstress in Palermo. I pictured her sitting before the foot operated Singer, heating the irons in the fire to press the dresses. Her son and both of her daughters followed this career. An employee took us around and we understood nearly everything she said. Afterwards we took the bus to Catania airport for the flight on Alitalia (L99,000, only about $60 for the one hour flight). Finding where the bus stop took two visits to the travel agency, as I did not understand anything she said the first time.
From the jet we got a great view of the coast of Sicily as the path took us over Messina on Sicily and Villa San Giovane on the mainland. We saw the islands just off the coast of Sicily. The view of the dead volcano Stromboli, whose cone was completely blown off, was absolutely magnificent. The remains of the volcano occupy the entire island. The other islands are dead volcanoes also, except maybe two of them farther west. We also flew over the Isle of Capri near Naples and then got another great view, this of the historical center of Rome and the Vatican. In the latter, the Coliseum stood out, its large bowl unmistakable from above.
Rome is on vacation. The traffic is light, the streets quieter. Many shops are closed. They post their vacation times on their doors. Most places use the official form. Each form has a letter ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or both. ‘A’ means that they will be gone August 1-15, ‘B’ means August 16-31. These forms are issued by the city government. Many shops and restaurants must apply to the city before leaving for vacation; another line to stand in for shop owners, I bet.
We took long walks in the mornings. The afternoons are too warm, registering 30-32 (86-89 F), and very humid at around 85%, but overall more comfortable than the past ten summers. On the sixth we walked to see a section of the Roman aqueduct. The roof of the channel for the water, on top of the aqueduct, is still intact in many places. Along the wall people have built single family residences. Many have gardens. There are sections of Roman walls, some reaching thirty feet in height, in these gardens. To me it seems quite a privilege to have an ancient wall in one’s back yard. Maybe it’s old hat to these folks.
That evening we went to see Everyman, a morality play in English but we arrived just as they were finishing. “Near the coliseum,” said the big, beautiful poster, but the play was staged 1/4 mile away. It took us forty five minutes to find it. The lack of clear or accurate directions is a frequent problem here even on posters that have been elaborately and not at all cheaply designed.
We took the bus up to the Alban Hills yesterday to visit another of the 13 quaint, medieval towns on the south side of Rome. This one features a Baroque Square, a beautiful viaduct built in 1854 that is 200 feet high and almost half a mile long, an immense palace built by the Chigi family [Pope Alexander VII, Bernini’s patron and the pope who finished St. Peter’s, was a Chigi] and the famous roast suckling pig. For lunch, we had a roast suckling pig sandwich, with olives.
And the views of the coast and coastal plain were beautiful. They would be more beautiful if the coast was not always shrouded in mist, even in this bright sun. It is generally cooler and breezier here than in Rome.
In the evening we attended a concert at San Ignacio, this time a chorus from Tampa. They sang complex pieces, too muddy for this enormous place.
Cardinal Scipione Borghese built this magnificent palace, now a museum, around 1600. It was designed by the Dutchman Jan van Santen. During the Napoleonic era (1801-09), the French enriched the Louvre with more than 200 statues from the Villa. The striking opulence of the building and the collection shows how great it could be in the church hierarchy in Scipione’s time.
The Villa contains magnificent ancient sculpture, originals and copies, reliefs, third century floor mosaics and paintings from the middle ages through about the 18th century. Most of the best pieces are on the top (main) floor.
Painters on display include Raphael (including the Deposition), Bernini, Lorenzo di Credi, Fra Bartolomeo, Durer, Domenichino’s Diana the Huntress, Carravaggio’s Madonna Dei Palafrenieri. This last painting was commissioned for the Vatican but the figures were too realistic for that holy place. Caravaggio also shows us David Showing Goliath’s Head, St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome. Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love hangs here.
Bernini shows David slinging the stone at Goliath, a reminder to me of how long the Jews have been fighting to survive; perhaps Hitler was Goliath’s revenge. Also in the collection are The Rape of Prosperina, Aeneas Carrying Anchises, and Truth. The last sculpture he did before he died, a Jesus, is uncanny, so alive, so expressive, it just about made a believer out of me. The Queen of Sweden wanted to buy it, but she could not afford it, and turned it down. Bernini willed it to her upon his death.
Everywhere you turn in thei building Beauty invades your being, saturating you with its mighty but subtle rays.
The eclipse in Rome is on the order of 95%. The sunlight is noticeable reduced but the effect is not as dramatic, of course, as you would find in the path of total coverage. We watched television coverage (televisione or tee voo, as ‘t.v.’ is pronounced in Italian) with Speranza and her friend Elizabeth, also from Colombia. Elizabeth is on her lunch break. The Italian stations have sent cameras to English and Germany, and provide an excellent view of the sun’s eclipse which we watch on Speranza’s ‘tee voo’. In the persistent lingering of mythopeic thinking, Muslims pray, because Mohammed did so during eclipses. This was a good run up for those millions who believe that the year 2000 has an apocalyptic significance. Jews, Muslims and others have entirely different years, of course, but this does not factor in the accounting for those enamored of the Christian calendar.
To get to the sanctuary La Madonna del Divino Amore (Or Lady of Divine Love) is a local bus ride but you feel like you are far away from Rome. The countryside is peaceful. The sanctuary is perched on top of a hill with simple, but pretty views of the surroundings. The small complex makes a delightful retreat center for the faithful. In one of the halls there is an exhibition of images of Mary. There must be 200 of them from all over Italy and the world. Black Marys, oriental Mary’s, Mary in many poses, most of them the meek woman averting her eyes, submitting to God’s will.
Bracciano is a medieval town although it dates back much farther. About forty miles north of Rome, it boasts an incredible castle owned privately by the Odescalschi family. All tours are guided. The castle was built between 1100-1500 or so. The oldest part is still standing. In the 1400’s the additions by the Orsini family transformed it into a comfortable palace. Now it has five towers. One of the towers is from the 12th century castle, which still stands but incorporated into the later additions. The fine views of Lake Bracciano and the surrounds alone make the visit worthwhile . The Odescalschi family bought the property in 1695, and still pays taxes on it. Two members of the family live on one of the lower levels. The castle is in marvelous condition. Kenneth Branagh’s Othello was filmed there. The guide spoke in Italian, but later answered our questions in good English.
After the tour we walked down to the lake, about a mile and a half, on a steep dirt path. We passed villas and gardens stuffed with tomatoes, figs and other fruits and vegetables. To get to the lake, we entered the grounds of a summer club. The club has a small beach, a cafe and a boat yard. The boats include small sailing vessels, canoes and other small craft. The vacationers lie on the beach, splash in the cool waters, chat with summer friends, and purchase meals and drinks which they consume on the terrace a few meters above the lake. Sailboats and wind surfers here and there spot the lake.
The two mile walk through the Cafarelle Parks is a walk in the countryside. However, we are in Rome, less than a mile from our apartment, entering the park off a side street extending from the ancient Via Latina. This area contains uncultivated and cultivated fields, family gardens, tall reeds, and trash burned by the few families who live here. Some live in beautiful villas surrounded by high walls, and the road there is paved. These are nearer the main road, Appia Antica. The houses farther in are more modest. Some of the residents in the interior part have chickens. We passed a man herding goats.
It’s less surprising to find yourself in the middle of an entirely rural area when you realize that Rome is surrounded by farms that supply the city with fresh fruits, vegetables, and grain, corn at least, since we have seen it growing in the nearby fields. This is the only city of this size that I know of that makes you feel like you are eating fresh off the farm. Suburban areas are mainly limited to the Alban hills to the south and similar small villages to the north. On the west, coastal villages, largely vacant except in the summer months. To the east many small towns dot the landscape, and on the east coast you face the sea. From this coast you can get to Greece on ferries.
Ladispoli is a coastal town on the Tyrrenian Sea. In this area the Etruscans built their empire, formed their pottery and fine jewelry, imported Greek pottery, built temples to the gods and provided the Romans with guides to the keeping the gods happy. The town is a narrow strip. The beach is black sand. It is lined with bodies soaking up the sun. Small boats are sitting on the sand, waiting for their owners to launch them onto the waters. There are not many takers today, as the surf is rough.
The Casina delle Civette is in the Liberty style. ‘Liberty’ here means ‘art nouveau.’ The house-as-museum is most famous for its stained glass made 1908-1930, added 60 years after the house was built. There are innumerable windows and doors with these Rene Mackintosh-like decorative glass (see the Scotland journal, July 1997 for more on Mackintosh). Decorative owls appear throughout the building. The house has many roof peaks and arches.
An exhibition of Bernini’s works fills many rooms of the Palazio di Venizia. There are sculptures, paintings, furniture, designs and models for many of Rome’s most famous and fabulous public places. The building spree represented here was done under Pope Sixtus V.
A prolific and multi-talented man, Bernini began his career as a child under his father’s guidance. His father Pietro (1562-1629) was also famous in his time, and worked in Rome for the Church.
I wish I could say more something more impressive about Bernini’s work. It’s way beyond me to do so.
The morning was turned over to another Michelin Guide walk, this one labelled “Montecitorio.” This takes us near the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona and again to the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River). This section once housed enormous tombs and the funeral pyres of the Roman Imperial families. There were theaters, amphitheaters, and sports facilities. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) renewed the district to impress pilgrims on the way to the Vatican.
The Piazza di Montecitorio has an Egyptian obelisk from the 6th century BCE. Augustus had it brought to Rome around the time of Christ, while Pius VI is responsible for its current resurrection (1792). It once served as the pointer for a gigantic solar clock.
The Palazzo di Montecitorio (1650-97) is yet another Bernini project. It is home to the Chamber of Deputies of the national government, which convened here starting in 1870. Some windows have roughly hewn ledges, giving a cave-like appearance to the opening. The building is slightly convex, making it look bigger than it is, though it’s big enough. Since everyone is on vacation, the plaza is empty, the guards relaxed looking, and the nearby cafes either closed or nearly empty. A major newspaper is housed nearby, allowing convenient coverage of daily events.
The Piazza Colonna, near the Palazzo di Montecitorio, would normally be crowded. It is being renovated and the workers are busy today. The Piazza sports a carved column conveying, like the Trajan column, the exploits of an Emperor, in this case, Marcus Aurellius (161-80). He warred on the Danube, and died there of the plague. You can see the scenes better than on Trajan’s column, as they are bigger and in higher relief. Sixtus V replaced the statue of the emperor with Paul in 1589.
The Torre della Scimmia (Monkey Tower) was named as a result of the exploits of a devious monkey. Said monkey took the family’s young baby to the roof. The father prayed to Mary, and then called the monkey to him. I imagine Mary said, “Hey! You over there. Try calling the monkey, you idiot.” Ok, maybe not the idiot part, but you must admit, it is an idiotic story, but such were the times and the beliefs of men, to which we are all still subject. The monkey came down with the baby intact. A lamp still burns on the roof commemorating the event, and an image of the Virgin who looks out for all babies carried to rooftops by monkeys.
Full of gold and marble, and stuffed with paintings, Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi (St. Anthony of the Portuguese) is yet another of an astounding number of stunning churches of museum-like quality. The facade is Rococo, the complex baroque decorative style. Down the road and round the bend a bit is the Bear Inn. Buildings in this area were mostly inns from about 1400-1600. Bear Inn is still open for business, just a few yards from the walls of the Tevere (Tiber), whose sluggish waters pass far below.
Sant’Agosto, the famous Saint Augustine who dwelled in North African, has a church dedicated to him in this area. It was built in late 1400’s. It has a rose window, not common in Rome, though they are everywhere in France. The interior was redone in 1760 and additions made in the 19th century. The “Madonna del Parto,” sculpted by Sansovino in 1521, graces the entrance, despite being surrounded by burning candles. A fresco by Raphael is also here, this one of the Prophet Isaiah. A Caravaggio, the Madonna of the Pilgrims (1605), is marvelously executed, although Mary does not have the usual humble look. She is looking at a worshiper on his knees, and seems to be saying, “Ok, enough of that. Just call the monkey down. Geez.”
Santa Maria Maddalena, the 12,000th church I would have seen here in Rome, was on this walk, but we did not get to it.
“Everyman” is a medieval morality play. He is visited by the Grim Reaper, then sets about getting his life in order. Fellowship, Strength, Knowledge, Riches and everything else abandon him and he is left only with Good Deeds to stand with him as he meets his fate. This thirty minute play is performed predominantly in medieval English with the Roman Forum as a backdrop. The actors are local native English speakers, except the Iranian. Peg talks to Everyman afterwards and gets the name of the woman who heads the production of local English language theater. Another of the actors is Australian and participated in a three year theater cruise of the Mediterranean. The troupe outfitted a rust encrusted boat to carry them to many ports, where they performed mime and other language free acts.
Guitars and mandolins skillfully perform in the piazza in front of the Basilica Santa Maria di Trastevere, dating from the year 217. The campanile strikes every 15 minutes as it has since the 12th century. The crowd murmurs as crowds have since crowds began to form. All this passes below the holy family mosaics, whose figures gaze down as they have for the past 1000 years, like one would from a height overlooking a river. To the holy family, We are like tiny boats passing never to be seen again onto the vast seas. But no matter. More boats shall come along, and they too shall be the object of the mosaics’ passing scrutiny.
The streets of Rome are busier as the Romans begin returning from vacation. More cars. The buses are filling as not only tourists ply the bi-ways. Parking is no longer easily obtained. More shops and restaurants are opening. Pietro’s Trattoria and Pizzeria, near our apartment, opened when they said they would, but were not ready for business until the next day. Romans are not quite ready to be back.
We saw two accidents today, one involving a motorino (scooter) which probably had been crazily careening between cars and buses. The motorino was on the ground, its plastic windshield fractured, the driver already on his way to the hospital, the police collecting witness reports. On the major highways leading to Rome, the carnage will peak as speeding drivers ignore the substandard signs that the highway department places to control the bedlam. Everyone here seems to envisage himself or herself, especially the himselves, as A race car driver; authorities say that excessive speed is the major cause of accidents. They not only travel well above the speed limits, they tailgate and weave like Mario Andretti.
Workers are making notable progress on the streets, buildings and monuments. Scaffolding is coming down at a frenzied pace. Streets are paved with macadam or laid with black stones day and night. Rome will be gleaming as it has not for many years. The fifth largest economy in the world is cranking away.
At the imperial forums, archeologists continue to unearth new finds. These most recent discoveries were last exposed 1200 years ago but lost to history. This summer they found: 1) a courtyard they never expected; 2)a paleo-Christian church; 3) the base of the famous equestrian statue of Trajan, but the statue has not been found. Also they found: 4) an entire medieval quarter; 5) an oblong hall with three vestibules, not yet understood.
Trajan’s Forum was intact until the 8th century. Removal of its materials began to be were removed for use elsewhere. From the 9th through the 11th century a new quarter was built. Within it are traces of the vanished church, San Urbano.
In the works is a plan to restrict traffic on Via dei Fori Imperiali, built under Mussolini, running right through the forums and past the Coliseo. It will be narrowed, and much of it will be a pedestrian zone. They will allow only public transport on the boulevard. The forums will be linked by an underground passage, which in the 17th century served as a drain for water. This is due for completion in early autumn, whose coming time we can feel in the now sometimes chilly, breezy mornings. There are new, large boards briefly explaining the sites to visitors. The translations are excellent, much better and more detailed than those there previously.
Around 8 a.m. we entered Caferelli Park from Appia Antica, near the Porta Latina. This port and the connecting walls will later become a favorite spot for me to draw.
We came across a house in a valley set against a hill. It looks quite old. An old woman was burning trash in the front yard. Peg, in her best Italian, asked her how old the house was. The woman said it was older than Rome. Another woman, whom Peg said was apparently a gypsy, said ‘500.’ They often leave off the 1000’s so this meant that the house was built in the 1500’s. That’s seems entirely possible. It looks run down and it seems that these people are living as if they were in the 1500’s.