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Monday, February 25, 2008

Sarah and Steve See the City

Days 1+

I realize it's been awhile since I've posted anything.

Let me blame part of it on a visit from Sarah and Steve, touristas straordinario! I was swept up by their enthusiasm, ideas, and energy! They arrived from New Jersey via Florence on the 20th, beginning a whirlwind tour of Rome. They had three and a half days to spend here and didn't waste a minute. They dropped their stuff in the apartment and off we went for Italian (late) lunch at the little cafe in the piazza near the Santa Maria dei Monte.

Then, straight to the Forum. Sarah read to us from the guide book, although her memory from studying here in her twenties was remarkably good, while Steve worked on figuring out where we were, or would have been in Imperial times. It is especially fun to be here in Rome with scholars. I think they both enjoyed themselves, too.

On the way home we dropped in on our neighbor 'Moses'. This is Bill's and my favorite of Michelangelo's sculptures next to the "Slaves" in Florence. Finally at home we cleaned up a bit and headed out to the Janiculum where Steve and Sarah had booked a reservation for the three of us at an upscale restaurant called Arco Antico. The food was very good, a real treat! Turns out Steve is as much a photo bug as I am. I got ready to shoot the dessert before he did. I may have eaten it before he did too!

Afterwards we took a walk in the dark in the park along edge of the hill. From here we had beautiful views of Rome in lights across the Tiber and could even see the Vatican through the trees in the other direction.

(Sarah and Steve are perfect house guests and were even very polite about sleeping on the sofa bed which they claim was reasonably comfortable!)

Beginning of Day 2
A couple of mokas (like espresso but made with the stove top maker) and yogurts in the morning, then it was off to our appointment at the Galleria Borghese. This is one of the most incredible art museums, and one of the first, in Rome. It is, however, a good idea to make a reservation in advance as they only let a small number of people in at a time and then clear everyone out after a couple of hours. But what a collection - definitely 'worth it'!

This photo is of the Borghese dragon and eagle. Real personalities and probably a good reflection of the Borgheses!

I've taken a few art history courses but never anything on the baroque. As a result, I had never appreciated two artists who I discovered for myself on this trip. Two sculptures by Bernini had me in awe, "The Rape of Proserpine" (same as Persephone?) and, my favorite, "Apollo and Daphne." Both commissioned and both assault themes; I clearly have to find out what was going on at the time.

There is lots of literature and pics of both works, so I will just relate a small story about the Daphne that I heard from the audio guide. (I always recommend the audio guides. They are very well done here.) The backstory of the "Apollo and Daphne" tells of Apollo's having fallen in love with the nymph Daphne, who was definitely not interested. He chased her and she, in fear of him, called to the river god, her father, to save her. He did so by turning her into a tree just as Apollo is about to grab her. This is the moment represented in the sculpture. Besides the beauty of the forms and the sensitivity of the carving, the thinness of the leaves growing out of Daphne's fingers is incredible, very close to nature! Now the story from the audio guide: Apparently, the sculpture was cleaned recently and the cleaners found that the leaves at the tips of Daphne's fingers rang like bells when they touched them. Wonderful! The ancient Chinese used jades to make music; I wonder if Bernini ever 'played' Daphne's fingers?

The other artist that I fell in love with is Caravaggio, but more on him later. His painting of Saint Ann, Mary and Jesus, and the serpent is on the ground floor of the Galleria and had me transfixed for quite awhile. I have a lot of reading up to do on him, too!

I could only do the first floor before being overwhelmed with images and ideas, so Steve and Sarah went on upstairs while I went outside to relax. I know I'll have to bring Bill, Max, Fannie, Andrew and Brittany here, so I'll be back more than once.

Bill got home from Jerusalem around the time we were in the Galleria so we met him for lunch afterwards.
Bill joined us for further adventures and then, after Sarah and Steve left for home on Sunday morning he even managed to relax and hang around a bit over the following week. Now he's back in the States. The first couple of days he was gone, an acquaintance from Princeton and I got together, saw an exhibit about the Ottocento at Le Scuderie ('Horse Stables') and wandered around my neighborhood. Lots of fun and great to make a friend from home.

I have some quiet time for the next week with lots of reading to do and, obviously, catching up on the blog.
I will do more on Steve and Sarah's visit in the next posts. I want to publish this one as it is, just so I can feel I've gotten something done!

Arrivederci, for now!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

On some more personal notes...

Bill is in Jerusalem at a conference and to commemorate the life of a friend who we had hoped to see on coming here. Dani Amit introduced us to this neighborhood to which we have returned, and I, selfishly, am very sad not to find him here. I hope Bill will write a few words about him when he gets back on Thursday.

By the way, it appears to be snowing in Jerusalem!

I have been on my own for a few days now, but by midday tomorrow two of our friends will be visiting for a few days, Sarah and Steve. They are both by way of being librarians (well, rather glorious ones at that) and I am greatly looking forward to trying to see Rome through their eyes. We already have a date to visit the Gallerie Borghese, and I'm hoping we will be able to catch the Mercato delle Stampe, which is a "veritable haven for lovers of old prints, books (both genuine antiquarian and less-exalted secondhand), magazines, and other printed ephemera." (Thank you, DK Eyewitness Travel ROME, 2007.) The later will depend on whether or not Steve is willing to take a bit of a busman's holiday. (Maybe I'll find a gorgeous Piranese print there!)

On Thursday Bill returns, we will take Sarah and Steve to our current favorite restaurant, Trattoria Monti, if we can get a reservation. Otherwise we will try one of the many recommendations for good eateries sent to us by another good friend. Thank you, Leonard! Bill and I are very excited to try every place on your list!

I have just finished a terrific book called "The Courtier and the Heretic" by Matthew Stewart. Someday soon, I know I will be a full fledged Spinoza groupie, but I think I have to read "The Ethics" before I can call myself that. Bill and I saw a new play by David Ives, New Jerusalem, in New York shortly before we left. This play is about the excommunication trial of Spinoza. I found the character of Spinoza as played by Jeremy Strong very compelling. It even lead me to read a little bit about philosophy. Maybe someday soon I'll read some actual philosophy.

For now it is time to finish the laundary and head off to the Baths of Caracalla. Should be a great day.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Day at the Flavian Amphitheater

Even in February, 2008, there is a long line to get into the Flavian Amphitheater, which is known these days as the Colosseo or Colosseum. Thanks to my 6 Giorni/Days, 9 Siti/Sites card and a little bit of chutzpah* I was able to skip the line and get right in.

You've heard this before, but this place really is enormous!

On the ground level, I wandered down long corridors around the entire inner perimeter taking frequent peeks through archways into the center and at
stairwells and corridors radiating out from both sides of me. As with most of the ancient ruins here in Rome, reconstruction has been going on for a long time and so it is sometimes hard to tell what is old and what is new.
However, it is easy to imagine that when this stadium was fully functioning and more than 50,000 people were finding their seats, it must have been vibrating with excitement, noise, and activity. I bet it didn't smell very good either. I, as a Roman woman in 80 CE, attending the 100 days of inaugural festivities Titus put on, would have had to find my way to the very top of the stadium, over 50 meters up, along with the poorest of the plebians. Lots of steep stairs to climb; I wonder how many of the women went?

Luckily, now in the 21st C, the number of stairs isn't so great - the very top is either missing or inaccessible - and no one, I hope, is going to die here today.

On the second level there is an exhibit of ancient art works related to the theater. Among these was a terrific set of stone carvings of tragic masks. Here are a couple:

There were also some gorgeous ceramics featuring scenes from popular plays, bits of wall showing scratched in figures of gladiators, and mosaics such as this one.

Leaving the exhibits, which are in the outer corridor, I went towards the center of the Colosseo to get a look at the exposed area that was originally under the arena floor. Here gladiators, trainers, performers, prisoners, and wild animals waited until they became part of the show. A woman I was standing next to kept looking for the spaces where the hippos must have been kept. She was very worried about the hippos, even suggesting that perhaps the Romans had breeding programs for them.

This is a view down the main corridor of the underworld of the stadium. The arched doorway at the end, just above the line of the facsimile stadium floor, is the door through which the wounded and dead were taken.

Sometimes the decision as to whether or not a fighter dies was up to the emperor who sat in the center of the long side of the stadium. Nowadays there is a large cross and a hole in the emperor's place:
Looking out from the center were some phenomenal views of the Palatine Hill, the Arch of Constantine and other popular tourist things.

*Regarding chutzpah - absolutely necessary to have in Rome.
You need it to cross the street, to look at something in a small shop, and, sometimes, even to get into tourist sites. Crossing the street is the supreme act of chutzpah here. The trick is to realize that most Roman drivers are paying careful attention to what is going on on the street, but they need you to be predictable. So, you check to see that you aren't going to get in the way of anyone who can't have known you were coming, then you step out and keep going. This takes chutzpah as you walk while cars, motorcycles, and buses rush around you, sometimes missing you by a hair. Don't do anything suddenly, don't fling up your arms or run. The drivers expect you to walk smoothly and will do what they can to avoid you. I hope.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day at the local mall

Ahh, Valentine's Day.

Bill took the day off from work, we slept late, had a lovely breakfast made with Italian eggs which feature yolks of a much darker orange than those we have at home. Then we headed to the local mall, the Markets of Trajan. (Well, I didn't say shopping!)

Mercati di Traiano
Very recently the city of Rome opened the Museo dei Fori Imperiali, Mercati di Traiano here. There has been considerable excavation, reconstruction and improvements in accessibility. In addition, there is a very sensitively sited exhibit of the marble and bronze sculpture of Kan Yasuda that will be here until March 30th. No photos are allowed in the museum building itself, but I shot a couple of hundred over the rest of the site. Luckily for you, my Dear Viewers, I edit (the photos!) ferociously.

This is an area that I imagine was originally a very active, commercial and civic site with shops of all kinds, offices, and spaces both indoors and out for public activities. Structurally, the Markets are said to help hold up the Quirinal Hill. Unfortunately, while the Romans were and still are brilliant engineers, they didn't entirely solve Rome's problems with flooding and fire. Over the centuries this area became more and more buried under mud and debris, then built over, particularly in medieval times and in more recent years. Dominating the whole site is a medieval tower, and of course, modern streets and buildings preclude seeing any complete picture of the place.

As a sculptor, I particularly appreciated some of the bits and pieces inside the small museum building. There are literally bits and pieces, nothing complete. But what pieces! There is the front half of a foot encased in a slipper with very sensitive indications of the toes pressing through the leather. A pegasus that forms a small part of a huge capital, the part of a column that is high up just under the roof, has finely modeled veins showing on his head and neck. These must have been included for pleasure of the sculptor because from its siting, almost no one would have been able to see these details except perhaps the poor slaves that had to get up there for the periodic dusting. You can check these out at

Kan Yasuda
Outside the museum building are the remains of the Mercati punctuated, accented, populated, and explicated by the sculptures of Kan Yasuda. He is a sculptor from Japan who worked in Italy for many years. His marble and bronze works can be seen all over the world, but I can't help wondering if these are some of the best sited. If you'd like to learn more about him, his website is:

After exiting the upper levels of the museum, this delightful work
greets the visitor. It is appropriately called, "Porta del ritorno" which is "Gate of Return" for you and me. And for me, it clearly was prophetic because I went back the very next day for more photos, different light, and to check on the names of the various works. Up here on the high levels of the Mercati, the views of the remains of the Fori of Trajan, Augustus, and Ceasar are all easy to see, as are the ever present monument to the unification of Italy and the many domes of churches.
Via Biberatica

Climbing down somewhat steep and dark, stairs, which make me appreciate some of our US building codes, we found ourselves on the Via Biberatica. (I like the sound of this name alot!) This is the ancient road that fronted the second of the 3 major levels of the markets. Given its name, it is thought that the shops along here sold drinks. I can hardly imagine having a good slug of wine, unless well watered, and then walking on without tripping over the edges of some of these massive paving stones.

It is really difficult to tell what is original to which period and what is part of the many reconstructions, at least if you are not an expert, as neither of us are. We kept puzzling over this. Most of the doorways to the shops have big marble lintels; most of these are marked: MCMXXXII, having been put there during Mussolini's time. We were told that a few of the stones are original to the ancient Romans but weren't able to find them.
Here along the Via Biberatica there were many of Kan Yasuda's sculptures. I will include photos of several:
  • Ascoltare (Listening)

  • Uomo e terra (Man and Earth) and Bill on the Via Biberatica

Ishinki (Pebble)

  • Uno 'e due (One is Two)
  • Contenitore del tempo (Time Container)

I hope these photos also help you get a sense of this incredible place and that you can imagine, a little bit, coming through here in ancient times, picking up some veges and bread, stopping for a drink, paying a cart parking ticket, hanging out with friends...

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the walls were complete and faced with marble or stucco. Many were brightly painted with beautifully decorative frescoes, remains of which can still be seen. These often showed the products sold inside.

There is ancient graffiti, too! Some in Greek no less but again, we couldn't be sure that we found any. I have photos of a couple of possibilities but little confidence that the scratches are ancient. Here's one - maybe you can make it out:
All of these details are best seen on the ground level. We had to peek into every space, of course, and check out the bits and pieces left outside. Some of these gave us a chance to see close up the detailing of the ancient Roman architecture. Not affordable now, of course - not affordable then either except at the cost of horrendous slavery and human suffering. And so, here in the virtual worlds of the blog and my mind, I extend my heartfelt appreciation to the unsung artisans and engineers of the Roman Republic and Empire.

Some of Kan Yasuda's works on this lower level are:

  • Goccia del tempo (Drop of Time) - actually two drops, I think. We were allowed to touch and sit on the sculptures. The Drop(s) were cool, extremely smooth and soft, and remarkably comfortable. We don't always get a chance to touch sculpture and yet, for the sculptor, touch is a critical sense associated with the work.
  • Nascita (Risveglio) (Born (Awakening)) - 2 pieces

  • Nascita (Born) - many of his Yasuda's works have the same or similar names

  • and, finally, looking back up at Porta del ritorno
More later; I'm off to have some cafe' and see the Colosseo. Ciao!