My amazing friend Rachel’s latest…so tasty!
Now the leaves are falling, if I lean precariously from my balcony I can just about make out the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull through the branches of the trees that line Via Galvani. God and bull sit above the entrance of the Ex-mattatoio, Rome’s sprawling ex-slaughterhouse that closed for business in 1975 .
I stood looking up at the bull and the god, then down at the collage of cobblestones and cigarette butts, with my friend Joanna nearly nine years ago. The Ex-mattatoio was the one of the stops on Joanna’s self-styled architectural tour of Testaccio. A tour for which Joanna wore red and yellow high heels, with style it has to said, not a stumble, which is quite an achievement if you consider the cobblestones and libel worthy pavements. A tour that steered us from imperial ruins, domes and sepia-stained piazze down river to a
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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.
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.?
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.
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.)
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.
Day 4, Tuesday, and we were off to Roma. We met Linda’s awesome friend Laura, an American married to an Italian academic. (It’s amazing the number of American women here who are married to uomini Italiani—that’s one guaranteed way to live in Italia!) It was fascinating to listen to Laura and another friend talk about the school system in Italy. Her son is in a public school that was “occupato,” or occupied, by the students. Apparently it’s a regular occurrence: The students get so fed up with the school system’s problems that they take over the school in protest. And yet nothing ever changes. Linda, too, is not a fan of the Italian schools, and yet I looked through her daughter Giulia’s notebook for art history and found sections on cathedrals, sculpture, painting, even the Orvieto Duomo, which the students can walk by on their way to school—all facets of art history that I never studied in my public American school at age 12, that’s for sure.
Making up for my lack of education, I spent the next two days exploring Roman art and archaeology at four museums (I’m not a masochist, but a 10€ ticket gets you into all four). They are all a part of the National Roman Museum and so interesting.
At the Palazzo Massimo, near Termini station, I learned that in ancient Rome, the hairstyle made the woman. For an in-depth tour of Roman hairstyles from my visit to the museums, click here (it’s really fun, I swear!).
The museum also has an incredible collection of ancient Roman coins through the ages.
For lunch, I indulged my inner tourist at the Piazza di Spagna, crowded as usual.
I also learned of a performance of La Traviata happening that night at a little tourist theater near the piazza. So I decided to extend my Roman holiday and check it out. Yes, it was touristy, with horrible wigs on the singers and the women’s costumes looked like bad bridesmaid dresses, but the voices weren’t bad and the theater is adorable—and you can bring a glass of prosecco to your seat.
I spent the night in my friends’ little hotel, the Beehive, Via Marghera 8, near Termini. They’re worth a blog entry all on their own but it’s probably better for you to check out their website and hear Linda and Steve’s story directly from them. We’ve been friends for nearly 20 years, and I’m so proud of them for building up their business, which I’ve been privileged to see at various stages: When they were a hostel with a few bunk beds, after they bought some property and were beginning to expand (and offer yoga classes and massage), and now…
They have 20 rooms, a vegetarian cafe, and a booking service they call, Cross-Pollinate, so that if they’re full, they can book you into any number of other rooms or hotels, or book you a place in any of eight other cities including, Florence, Venice, Paris, Barcelona, London, Lisbon and Istanbul.
I stayed in their latest renovated rooms.
The next morning, after having breakfast with a Beehive guest from Kathmandu, Nepal—now I’ve added that to my list of future destinations to hit—I explored the other three museums my ticket was good for.
The Crypta Balbi is located right on an archeological site so you can see how the building has been excavated. And there’s a large exhibit of how Rome developed on top of its own ancient remains over the years. There were a lot of pots to look at, and near as I could tell the most durable item was an oil lamp—the museum has hundreds of them. The Terme di Diocleziano’s most intriguing offering is a large cloister designed by Michelangelo. It’s gorgeous.
Lunch at the Piazza Navona (doesn’t get more touristy than that!)
Finally, I made it to the Palazzo Altemps, which houses the amazing Ludovisi collection of sculpture, among others. It’s easier to just show you some of the highlights:
This one’s an odd one: During restoration in the 17th century, the restorer used various parts from other excavated statues to essentially fashion his own creation of the pair. So, Psyche, on the left, got a new head, perhaps from an Apollo statue. And her bust also once belonged to a male statue, they just added a breast. (And check out her guns!). The lower part of Psyche was made new in the 17th century. Cupid got a new head also, a female from ancient Rome, known as a “Sappho type” because of the hair drawn back into a chignon. Apparently the goal was to inspire admiration through the ambiguity of the use of both male and female parts. Those crazy Baroque kids!
One of my very favorites is a satyr carved (they think) by a young Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He often used himself as an inspiration for his statues (no ego there!), and he seemed to have good material to work with. Ciao, Gian, I’ll revisit you at the Galleria Borghese!
At that point, i miei piedi erano distrutti! (My feet were dead) And I had to catch a train back to Orvieto. But it was due giorni fantastici a Roma!
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)…
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.
Every quarter-hour the tower’s bells chime, ringing out over the town.
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!
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.
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 iron doors, with their carefully sculptured handles were also a sight to behold.
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!
A domani, amici!
I don’t know why I thought the international terminal at JFK would have better food. But after a fruitless search down two corridors I ended up at the Medalist Bar having a Caesar salad. I have a feeling the real Caesar salads I’m about to eat for the next three weeks would laugh.
Now it turns out they’re out of the Caesars! And the southwest chicken salad. And Miller Light!
No wonder I first read the sign here as Mentalist Bar!