Italy July 1-10, 1999
On 6/23/99, I went to Ostia Antica with our friends from Georia, Debbie and Teri. Getting there is a cinch. Take the train to the Piramide metro stop on Line B. The train for Ostia Antica is next door.
Ostia Antica is a well preserved set of ruins of the old port town. It approaches Pompeii in quality and importance, although having seen both, I think that Pompeii is the better preserved and more interesting: houses that are more complete, more art, better theaters and commercial buildings, mummified bodies with their visible clothing. However, Ostia was more important historically as it was Rome’s port, ‘ostia’ meaning mouth, in this case referring to the mouth of the Tiber. The town goes back to the third century BCE. The Roman writer Levy says that Ancus Martius, the fourth king of Rome after Romulus (circa 750 BCE), extended Rome’s dominion to the sea. However, archeologists say that the city was founded sometime in the third century BCE.
Ostia was important to Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean. In 278 B.C. the port served the fleet fighting the Carthaginians, whose city was located in what we call today Tunisia. Perhaps General Patton in a prior life (in which he believed) docked here after the battle for dominion of the Mediterranean, an act he was to repeat nearly 2000 years later. Scipio’s army left from here for Spain in 217 BCE. This was to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Carthaginian General Hannibal, who by this time had already crossed the Alps.
The river no longer reaches Ostia Antica. The sea is now about six kilometers away as the Tiber’s silt has extended the land. The port was outside town, as Emperor Claudius, one of the better rulers of Rome, decided that this site was better protected than the original area. He wanted to deflect winds from the southwest (called Libeccio)and southeast (Scirocco). He locatged the port about where the Leonardo da Vinci airport is now. Later, another harbor was created to allow for expanded activity.
Mud covered the site after Rome’s decline with the arrival of the Visigoths, in the 5th century. Malaria plagued the population, and eventually the city was abandoned. Much of its beauty was pillaged for building materials. Excavations began around the turn of this century.
When you enter, you pass by old tombs that lined the road leading into the city. It was the policy in ancient Rome to bury the dead outside the city limits, as we saw in the Catacombs (see 5/5/99). Then you pass the ruined main gate of the city, whose arch must have been a splendor. Through it passed many of the town’s 100,000 residents (peak). Just the suggestion of a curved line remains.
Many dwellings you see are apartments, called ‘insula.’ These multi-story dwellings were inhabited by the lower classes. The wealthier lived in detached houses (villas). The building material is tufa, volcanic rock. There are no roofs in the ruins. I guess that the roof joists were wooden with terracotta (literally ‘cooked soil) roof tiles. Workers formed these tiles on one of their legs, making them wider at the top and narrower at the bottom so they fit inside one another readily.
Farther up on the left are huge warehouses that stored large shipments of grain and other items sent on to Rome and other destinations inland. Behind the amphitheater, which has been restored unremarkably, the Piazzalle delle Corporazioni has beautiful mosaics in front of each stall. These depicted the merchant’s occupation and his country of origin. Temple ruins sit in the center of the large square. Farther along, near Casa di Diana, we found facilities for food preparation. This may have been the Thermopolium, a bar. We did not go into the museum, but it sounds worthwhile, for many objects found on the site are housed here.
The Forum contains the largest temple. You walk up a wide, steep staircase and find yourself inside a large building sans roof. Another temple sits at the far end of the plaza. Archeologists have assembled various decorative elements on a low wall so you can see them easily.
By the time we got here we were tired and decided to skip the last portion. Setting back toward the entrance on another route, we wandered into what were large and beautiful baths. We climbed to the second story of the philosophers’ house for a panoramic view, and studied wall drawings. There was plenty left to see before we just had to stop.
The admission is L8000.
Many recent immigrants have come to Italy, famous for its hospitality. Among them are Albanians, some from Kosovo, of course, and many Africans. As always there are the mysterious gypsies, also called Rom here, I guess because some came from Romania. We see a few most days.
There are 1400 or so living in a tract called Casilino (see Int Time Her. June 19?20 Italy Daily section). The government of the city of Rome is destroying some of their housing, dumpy, crappy, no water, no sewage. The government is to find new housing for them by the end of the summer.
I think I finally saw some Gypsy men selling what appeared to be Gypsy jewelry. We always we see the women, who stand out in their bright and flowing dresses. Their skin tone and general facial characteristics also distinguish them, and they are often talking loudly together. They seem to travel in groups of at least three. However, I think that if they wore ordinary clothing they would blend in. But the men blend in always, I guess, for this is the first time I recognized them as gypsies. They looked like Indians but something about their appearance said they weren’t, but the distinction was not in their dress.
In Naples a gypsy town was burned (IHT 6/21/99 Italy Daily Section) by angry residents who seemed well organized. They were apparently acting in retaliation for a Rom having struck two pedestrians with his car. One women is in a coma. Father Aniello Magnaciello blamed organized crime for the burning. He said the squalid camps have been ignored by the city for years. He described gypsy lifestyle as exasperating to many people, a lifestyle he described as ‘drinking, stealing and driving at a crazy speed.’ The gypsy said to have struck the women is in hiding.
Five were arrested the next day for looting. Looting? I can’t imagine that they have much to loot. To me it seems if the Rom were successful I think they’d live in better conditions; some do, and drive some very fancy camper units. The article did not say who was arrested, Gypsy or non.
Last night it was another free concert, this one at a Methodist Church. They brought in a gospel group. Of course, the protestant churches don’t offer the magnificent settings that the Roman Catholic ones do. However, the singers were very good. After the first song, Peg leaned over and said they were singing in English. I hadn’t noticed. Peg’s ears work better than mine and besides she grew up hearing gospel music. I could pick up some words in each of the next songs. You could tell they weren’t English speakers, though.
It was over at 10. As usual, it took us an hour to get home. The buses dry up at around 9. Metro line A closes at 9:30 for repairs and improvements. I hope that one improvement is the ventilation. It’s hotter in the metro than it is in the sun on the street!
Speaking of which, the cool weather we had in June is now behind us. It was 34 degrees yesterday at 1:30. But our apartment is cool, as it faces north and is thus in the shade until late in the afternoon. The sun starts to hit our walls around 4:30, but the angle is sharp so little sunlight enters the windows. Shortly after 6:00 the sun weakens quickly and by around 8 p.m. it is setting over St. Peter’s.
We ate dinner at Ana and Vada’s down the street from us. A couple sitting next to us had their dog with them. This led to conversation, at first in Italian. However, the man spoke English. Peg asked if he had been to America. He laughed and said he spent four months in Indianapolis. He had a job supervising the building and opening of an Italian restaurant. This job was to last six months. Indianapolis was so boring he did it in four. He told us that there are seldom visited ruins nearby. We tried to visit the ruins the next day. We found the park but nothing we could identify as of archeological interest.
This restaurant is even more of a local place than Pietro’s and the Hostaria. It looks quite upscale from the outside, with its outdoor dining. But all that changes as you observe a bit more. There is a menu typed up and posted near the door to the inside seating. But finding one for you at your table is another matter. They fly through the menu verbally for you. We understood it all, a sign of improved language skills. They serve mussels and clams, with or without pasta, and lots of pasta dishes, but really the same as most places. Many patrons were also having steaks. The place is packed and when you get the bill, you see why. It cost L40,000 ($23) for sizable portions of mussels, an ample portion of sword fish, assorted veggies and the usual local white.
Every week for the past month sidewalk dining has sprouted in our neighborhood. Umbrellas and small tables appear everywhere. In March we ate at Pietro’s, a restaurant around the corner from us. We returned last Saturday night with Lori and Debi, our two guests just returned from Venice and Florence. We did not know that the restaurant had a beautiful garden in the back. Trees, flowers, grape vines, and more room than in most restaurants.
Gloria and Gaston just left after being here for three months. They flew to London, with plans to rent a car and go to Scotland. From there they will take a ferry over to Norway. Then they plan to travel through Eastern Europe and on to Turkey.
I finished The New Italians by Charles Richard, Penguin Group 1994. He has written excellent chapters on corruption in the political parties that led to downfall of many in the early 90’s. It was an ex- wife, whose alimony was unpaid who triggered the revelations that the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, even the Communists were on the take. Mario Chiesa was behind on his maintenance payments and Lara Sala complained. She told the authorities that he made a lot more than he was paid officially by the old people’s home he worked for and whatever the Socialists were officially paying him. His life style was a dead give away, as was the 12 billion lire in his bank accounts.
He and many, many others were demanding and receiving kick-backs from contractors for construction and other government contracts. These payments added anywhere from 1% in high cost jobs to 25% for small concerts or the like. One third of the take went to the individual, one third to the party, but I forget who got the rest.
There are good chapters on the north/south tension and organized crime. He also talks about the industriousness of the Italians (given short shrift all too often) making this the 5th largest economy in the world. Organized crime is another topic he treats in detail, focusing on the apparently effective crackdowns in the 90’s. I am not sure how weakened they were by the confessions of men of ‘honor’ and the investigations earlier this decade. Investigations and trials continue.
Pope Julius II (1550-55) built this villa as a summer palace. It’s not in the mountains, so I can’t imagine why he would think of this as a summer palace. It is not far north of the Piazza del Popolo, a short climb from the Tiber. Now the Villa is the home of the Etruscan Museum. Pope Julius II is infamous in part for having elevated a 17 year-old to the rank of Cardinal, also in part for his princely life-style.
Where the Etruscans came from is not known, but they came to Italy in the 8th century B.C. They resided in what is now Umbria, Tuscany, and Latinium. Their empire extended from the Adriatic to Corsica. By the 6th century BCE their empire began to disintegrate. Eventually they were conquered by the Romans, much later becoming citizens. Most of what we know about them comes from tombs containing everyday items. A reconstructed tomb is on display in a basement. Funeral urns from the Latins and the Villanovans from about 1000 BCE are also displayed.
The Etruscans were excellent potters and there are many examples from as early as 600 B.C.E., some of them in excellent condition. They imported Greek pottery and there are some examples for comparison. The Veii Sculptures, five in all, show great skill. There are a goddess and a Hercules among the five. They are from the late 6th century B.C.E.
The only sculptor known is named Vulca.
Another fine piece is the terracotta sarcophagus. Two figures lay on their sides on the cover. A beautiful plate shows an elephant being led by his handler, an Indian man.
The Etruscans also worked in bronze, and produced fine gold jewelry, some of it filigree. The threads were almost too tiny for me to see without my portable electron microscope. They worked in ivory as well. They decorated with animals and people, many with happy faces. On the eves of temples and other buildings they put ceramic decorations. The piece fit under the roof tiles and came to a right angle at the edge of the roof. On the upright portion is where the figures were, thus visible from below. I saw examples on the temple in the courtyard.
Afterwards we walked into the gardens of Villa Borghese, enjoying the cool temperatures (about 80 F), shade and freedom from the noise and exhaust fumes.
Most shops open around 9:00. The Tabachi, where you buy metro tickets, tobacco products and a wide variety of other items, open much earlier, some as early as 6:00 a.m., as do many cafes. Alimentari (food stores) open around 8:30, and take one day a week off besides Sunday. Most close from 1:30 to 4:00 and stay open until around 7:00. That’s when rush hour starts. A store that’s says it is open ‘no-stop’, (in English), is open during lunch. Restaurants open for lunch at around noon, but you’ll be the first one there if you come much before 1:30. They close at 4:00 and open again around 7:30. The first customers show up around 8:00 and the last around 11:00, so the doors close around midnight. Street markets are open every day but Saturday. Workers arrive around 7:00 and open around 8:00, closing for the day at 1:30.
Automotive repair shops spill out onto the sidewalk. We walk past one every day. Two or three mechanics working on the cars weave through the pedestrian traffic to reach the cars they are repairing. They are neat and well organized, and we are seldom impeded.
The trash containers are emptied early every morning. The large truck has one worker who employs hydraulic arms to lift and empty the special receptacles. A man comes by later to clean up what was not put in the containers, driving a three-wheeled truck. Recycling containers, one for paper and one for glass and metal, are on every block and are similarly serviced. Another man, though I have seen some women, comes by during day hours to sweep the sidewalks. Many big city Italians have no qualms about just dropping their litter on the sidewalk. Soft drink containers, cigarette wrappings and the like are scattered about. Shop keepers keep their sidewalks very clean, mostly by sweeping everything into the street, although some do scoop up the waste and dispose of it properly. The street markets are a disaster after closing. During the opening hours they are very clean, but after they close, they leave lots of trash behind. A city crew arrives and within an hour, the street is cleaned and ready for the cars that use it to travel and park until 7:00 the next morning, when they must be out of the way. The vendor’s buildings remain, their carts (mostly wooden) are stored away.
The post office closes at 2:00 for the day, after opening at 8:00. Deliveries occur during the morning. I see a man and woman delivering to our neighborhood working as a team. Some museums close for lunch. Monday is a closing day but not just for the museums, as many shops don’t open either. Everyone or nearly everyone goes on vacation in August, along with the rest of Europe. Most tourists come here during this period, when Rome is usually hot. The normal daytime high in the summer is 30 C, which is only 85 degrees, although everyone tells us that for the past ten years 35-37 (95-98) have been common.
Most small shops are not air conditioned, some are half-heartedly so, but the big stores are more likely to be adequately cooled. The buses are not air conditioned, and they get hot in the sun and when there is a crowd. The new green trams are cooled, but in the heat of the day the units just can’t keep up with the frequent door openings and the crowd.
Consider taking some spray deodorant with you. Use it on those who don’t seem to buy their own. They’re the ones (they are exceptions) who love to be squashed next to you with their arm above them as they hang onto the rails. For even more fun, go to some of the train stations where the street people are sometimes allowed to sleep. Their clothes fill the large hall with an unmistakable aroma.