NYC in Italy: Drama! Drama! Drama! A week in Roma!

Lacoon and his sons

Lacoon and his sons

Does that get your attention? It got mine, but I’m an easy target. One of my favorite things about Italy is all the drama! It’s everywhere, from the smallest gesture between Romans on the street, to the massive Baroque cathedrals where not an inch of the interior has been left bare, to the classic tragedies captured in marble.

Take Lacoon and his sons, at the Vatican museums in Rome. He seemed like a stand-up guy in the Aeneid when he warned the Trojans about Greeks bearing gifts once that big wooden horse arrived at their gates. But what did he get for his troubles? Strangled by sea serpents, along with his sons, for annoying Athena, since the horse was reportedly a gift from her. Tough crowd.

Niobe at the Villa Medici

Niobe at the Villa Medici

Poor Niobe. At the Villa Medici in Rome, these statues depict the woman (in center at the back) who had 10 (or maybe 14) kids, who were all gorgeous. She was so proud of them and their beauty that she got a little too uppity: She bragged to Leto, who had only two children—Apollo and Diana (not a bad duo, that)—about her gorgeous and abundant offspring. The gods must be crazy, because they took umbrage and proceeded to kill all of Niobe’s kids, as depicted here (the original is at the Uffizi in Florence), while they tried to flee, and turn the über-smug Niobe into a weeping rock. Kinda like this depiction. Overreaction much, Zeus and Co.?

Bernini-sculpted tomb

Bernini-sculpted tomb

I joked on Facebook that this (right) is what I used to feel like on Monday mornings. While that’s true enough, in actuality, this is a funeral monument in Rome’s Santa Maria Sopra Minerva designed by my crush, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (he left the sculpting to his minions), for the Spanish Cardinal Domenico Pimentel in 1653. Oh, the despair!


Some of the most fascinating, and dramatic, sculptures to be seen in Rome are funerary. I’m not sure who this one’s for, or who sculpted it, but isn’t in kinda weirdly romantic?

My friend Steve Brenner told me a story he heard from an art history scholar about Bernini and one of his seemingly less emotionally wrought works. The elephant and obelisk in the Piazza Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, also designed by Bernini, came with its own drama. Pope Alexander VII wanted a suitable base for the obelisk, which had been discovered in 1655. Bernini was asked to create it but one of the priests, who had also submitted a design and been rejected, haggled with the great sculptor and insisted that the elephant have a cube under its belly. Bernini ultimately complied, but got his revenge: The elephant’s rear faces the monastery in which the priest lived and the beast’s tail offers a kind of salute—one that the priest no doubt didn’t appreciate. Trust Bernini to make the priest the “butt” of his joke.

Bernini's elephant

Bernini’s elephant

elephant butt skinny

The end of the argument

Santa Cecilia Trastevere

Santa Cecilia Trastevere

Back to the funereal monuments… Here’s St. Cecilia’s tomb in Trastevere. Not too much drama.

But look more closely: St. Cecilia’s story goes that she had taken a vow of virginity. Even so, her parents married her off. On her wedding night, she convinced her husband to convert—and he didn’t force her to break her vow. Then the pair, along with her also-converted brother-in-law, started a charity giving alms to the poor. The men were martyred for refusing to worship Roman gods. Cecelia was later also killed: First the Romans locked her in her own bath, and when that failed to suffocate her, they sent a swordsman to cut off her head and it took several attempts. She didn’t die until three days later. So look closely at this funerary statue: it’s so “humanistic” that you can see where her neck was cut. See? Drama!



I don’t think much needs to be said about Michelangelo’s Pietá at St. Peter’s. Whether you’re a believer or not, not many will disagree that the story is one of the best ever told. And it’s told over and over again through the art in Rome. Much of it, like this, magnificent in capturing the most moving moments. (Tourists can create their own drama struggling to get close enough to take a picture through all the crowds.)

The Pietá

The Pietá

Finally, during my week in Rome, I learned the story of Antinous, lover of the emperor Hadrian in the first century A.D. The museum descriptions are all very coy about him being Hadrian’s “favorite,” but clearly the emperor was obsessed with his boytoy, who seems (to me, at least) to have been sculpted more than anyone else in ancient Rome. Seriously, there are about five Antinous statues or busts in every museum. You can kinda see why….



History tells that Hadrian (and his wife) took Antinous, a young Greek, with them everywhere. While Hadrian was, officially, married, in ancient Rome it wasn’t frowned upon for men to have male lovers—as long as they were the dominant partner. Sadly (or perhaps diabolically), Antinous drowned under mysterious circumstances while they were all together in Egypt.

While officially considered an accident, you have to wonder if someone had it out for Hadrian’s gorgeous “favorite.” The emperor, distraught over the loss, pretty much proclaimed Antinous a god and encouraged people to worship him in a new cult. He even built a city on the banks of the Nile called Antinoopolis. Now, that’s love. And drama.



NYC in Italy: Day 3 Orvieto

Today I explored Orvieto, the Umbrian town I’m staying in with my friends Linda and Steve. And it gave me some idea of what it might be like to live here.

First, I met a new friend, Toni DeBella, at the I Heart IT School in the Piazza della Republica, where she introduced me to her Italiano teacher, Eva. Eva and her three partners, all women, started the school about a year ago and teach all levels of Italian, along with some fun-sounding extras to help students learn Italian in ways that interest them: through cooking, film, art, opera or fashion.

While Toni went back to her lesson, I wandered down the Corso Cavour, Orvieto’s main drag, to the Torre del Moro, a 13th-century clock tower in the center of town. Standing 47 meters high (that’s 237 steps up if you’re climbing, which I did)…

Inside the torre

On the way up you pass the actual clock face, and the mechanical workings, which were installed in 1875.

The top of the tower offers a 360-degree view of Orvieto and the surrounding countryside.

Top of the TorreView from the top of the Torre del Moro

top of the torre/Duomo

Every quarter-hour the tower’s bells chime, ringing out over the town.

For lunch, I met Toni at La Palomba Trattoria for a dish of homemade pasta: Umbrichelli al Tartufo, and the truffles, which are in season, were grated onto the pasta table-side. Yum!

Umbrichelli al Tartufo

OK, it kinda looks like worms but it tasted great! I’m not sure I’d ever had fresh truffles like that before.

Toni DeBella is a writer and blogger who recently moved to Orvieto from San Francisco—you can check out her story on her blog, Orvieto or Bust. Lucky for her, her family is Italian so she has citizenship and can work in the country (if she can find a job). She’s having mixed feelings about finally making the move to Italy after years of spending time here off-and-on. She sold all her stuff back home, packed her things in two suitcases and made the leap. Now she’s grappling with finding her new life in Orvieto. So we had lots to talk about since that’s exactly what I’m debating doing. Era un pranzo divertente!

Toni DeBella

Following lunch, I decided to check out the Duomo and the Museo dell Opera del Duomo. And as I wandered the cobblestone streets, the gray day began to clear.

Orvieto street

I’m not very religious, but even I could appreciate that as soon as I walked into the Piazza del Duomo, the sun burst through, glinting off the gold mosaics on the façade. It was beautiful.

The Duomo in Orvieto

The iron doors, with their carefully sculptured handles were also a sight to behold.

Doors of the Duomo

The Duomo itself is vast inside but no photos are allowed, and it’s empty and open—Linda tells me they do events and concerts inside, in addition to Sunday mass. I also passed through the museo attached to the church where there were some amazing frescoes and religious paintings by renaissance artists from Orvieto that had been restored to their full, colorful glory.

The most beautiful one, and the image the museo uses on its promo material, is a painting of Magdalene by Luca Signorelli, originally painted for the altar dedicated to the saint in the chapel of San Brizio. Again, photos were vietate, so you can see a lesser version of the image, here.

The museo is dedicated to restoring the valuable paintings and sculptures by Italian artists. Inside, I saw a woman working in one of the galleries, dabbing gold leaf carefully on a triptych she was working on. And outside, workers were moving some of the sculptures from inside the Duomo—perhaps for more restoration. It certainly isn’t a sight you see every day in New York!

Icons ready for transport

A domani, amici!

NYC in Italy: Day 2 The Dying City


My friends Linda and Steve suggested we take a drive to Civita di Bagnoregio this afternoon. Said Steve, “It’ll blow your mind.” Sarcasm. That’s what comes of living in Rome and Orvieto for 14 years: You get jaded about living 20 minutes from a 2700-year-old town perched above a green Italian valley known as “The Dying City.” But I’m una turista so it actually did blow my mind a little.

It’s called the Dying City because of all the erosion, which really kicked in after a major earthquake hit in the 17th century. Over the next 200 years, the erosion increased to such an extent that the city became almost an island to itself, accessible only by a steep wooden bridge.

Now, not many people live there—only about 20 year-round—but thanks to a gushing nod from Rick Steves, it’s a tourist destination, particularly in the summer months.

After walking across the long bridge—the old wooden bridge has been replaced by a more modern concrete one, and climbing the steep path to enter the town, we strolled though the cobblestone streets to the main piazza. Just beyond, for €1, we descended into the ancient caves where olive oil was once pressed. It didn’t look like the most hospitable accommodations but people did live—and cook—here.



But they had a pretty nice view.


And wine was plentiful.



Olio, vino e una buona vista…not a bad life.

NYC in Italy: Day 1


Sono qui! I arrived in Rome today at noon after a quick and easy flight on Alitalia. The quickest way into the city from Fiumicino aeroporto is the Leonardo Express train, for €14, which takes about 30 minutes.

My friend Linda met me at Termini, and after dropping my bags off at her family’s hotel, The Beehive (more on that in another post), we hopped a metro to the Piramide stop and had a delish lunch at Flavio al Velavevodetto (say that three times fast!). It’s an atmospheric ristorante built into Monte Testaccio, a big hill that grew over years when people in more ancient times threw out the old clay pots used for transporting oil, wine and other items.

Inside the restaurant, you can see the strata of pots of the mountain. Yes, it’s a mountain of trash! Only in Rome could a garbage dump become a tourist attraction worth photographing–and dining on!


All the pasta at Velavevodetto was homemade and scrumptious. I had Ravioli Velavevodetto, with spinach and ricotta and topped with cherry tomatoes. Yum!


After a quick stroll by the Colosseo at sunset…


…we returned to Termini for the hour ride to Orvieto, where Linda and her family live. It was late and I was a jet-lagged zombie, but not so out of it I couldn’t appreciate the Duomo at night. Ciao a tutti!