Sunday, July 20, 2014

These Stones Are Alive

May 11

Saturday was Galleria Borghese day. Every two hours the museum lets 200 people enter to view an intensely packed exhibition of art for two hours. Then they throw you out and let another 200 in.

Needless to say, you have to book in advance. I reserved our tickets online early in April. Ticket sales at the counter were for next Saturday at the soonest. You have to show up at least a half hour before your time or you may lose your reservation.

 Sounds a lot like work, doesn’t it? But it’s worth it.

We got there a little past ten for the 11 a.m. admission. We got to taste a couple of interesting drinks while we were waiting. 

One was an orange liquid in a small, almost conical bottle. I think the brand name was Amperol, or something like it. Sounds like medicine and tasted a lot like Campari, only without the alcohol. Many people think Campari tastes like medicine, but I love the stuff mixed with soda.

The other drink was a dark brown Pellegrino sparkling water that I hadn’t seen before.  The flavor was called Chino or Chinoto, and it had a bitter herbal taste. Very refreshing.

Then we hustled in, because there was too much to see and too little time.

You enter from the basement and go up to the ground floor. This floor has a series of  rooms, most of them dominated by a central sculpture—Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and others, many by Bernini, the mastermind of Baroque.

The walls are painted and so are the ceiling vaults. Many of the illusions in the painting are damned near perfect. There was a ribbon running around one ceiling and Joanna was debating with herself whether the ribbon was really hanging from up there or was painted. The ceiling could have been 15 feet over our heads, so you didn’t get to see it up close. It was only from certain angles that you could see it was two-dimensional.

The same thing happened in another room where several statues came out of the ceiling. You had to stand under them to believe that they really were flat.

Of all the things in the museum that I wanted to see, top of the list was Pluto carrying off Proserpina. It’s a mythological fantasy. He has kidnapped the daughter of the goddess Ceres to live with him in hell. She doesn’t like the idea. 

The lifelike detail that Bernini remembers to include is astonishing. The figures together are a violent spiral, a whirlwind. Proserpina is pushing against Pluto, shoving a hand into his face, but he is holding on. His grip indents the soft muscle of her thigh.

That detail alone is worth the price of admission. It raises so many questions. How did Bernini imagine that? How did he remember to include it? How did he carve it?

Proserpina even has marble tears. 

One description I read of Apollo and Daphne said that the god’s back leg defies gravity. It does stick out there all by itself. 

It’s another Bernini whirlwind, twining figures in conflict. But to me it looks like Apollo has finally caught up with her and is launching to tackle her to the ground.

She has already asked her father, a river god, for help. So of course, he does the natural thing and turns her into a tree.

Each in its own way, these works are as erotic as Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy.

So is Pauline Borghese as Venus. It has delightful voyeuristic elements. Maybe because the model is a real person. Napoleon’s sister, in fact. She is naked, save for a sheet, and sitting up on a couch. You can see how her weight presses into the upholstery. She has a serene, conquering smile. 

This is by an artist named Canova.  I may have heard his name before, but am not sure. 

Pauline’s sitting for a nude created a mild scandal. Supposedly, somebody asked her, “How could you do that?” and she answered, “The room wasn’t cold.”

When we first walked into its room, I thought the Dancing Faun was Hercules admiring himself in a hand mirror. There was what appeared to be a lion skin behind the figure, and like keys for St. Peter, that usually means Hercules. But hey, Hercules doesn’t usually have a tail sticking out his back.

I checked the museum brochure and sure enough it was the Dancing Faun. That wasn’t a hand mirror, but one half of a pair of hand cymbals. I hadn’t seen the one on his other hand.

I believe the Faun dates back to Classical Rome. 

Bernini’s David, concentrating with his grimly pinched lips, is another central piece of the collection. I have a small copy of this one that Nancy picked up years ago. It is made of a marble-mimicking material called parian. At a foot and a half high, it is not as impressive as the original. Nor does it take up as much room.

The painting galleries are also amazing. But one painting in particular just stopped me. It is a wall-size deposition scene. The faces are bright and detailed, and each one is a human portrait. In sharp contrast, the body of Christ is gray and very much dead. I can’t even remember now who the painter was. There was so much to absorb and no time.

I even forgot to look for the scar on Daphne’s nose, the result of a flaw in the marble.

Speaking of faces, one of the ground floor rooms is dominated by Caravaggio and his followers. The treatment of faces is photographically real, sweat, wrinkles, and all. In a representation of David, Goliath’s head looks like it was cut from a real person. Often the faces are highlighted and the rest of the composition recedes into darkness. The result is almost surreal, the kinds of things you see in dreams. Sometimes in disturbing dreams, which are often the most interesting.

When they pitched us out of the museum, we walked down a lane in the Villa Borghese, which is the park built on the grounds. This all belonged to a cardinal, Scipione Borghese. There are paintings and busts of him in the museum. There was also a Pope Paul V Borghese. I think the pope and the cardinal were two different people, but I’m not sure.

We passed back through the city wall. We must have been addled by the art, because we tried to do one of those Renaissance-like profiles with architecture in the background. If you blow up the picture and look close, there is another profile, in stone, sticking out of the wall in the distance.

Very clever, Joanna.

What we were headed for was the Via Veneto, which is stressed on the first syllable here. Vee-ah VEN-eh-toe. We knew roughly where to find it because the cab had taken us home that way from Ambasciata d’Abbruzzo on Friday night.

Joanna knew we had found the Veneto when she saw the awning for Harry’s Bar. As I have mentioned before, because of my unwavering support of the alcoholic beverage industry, they name bars for me all over the world. It was still early, so I had Campari and soda here. Maybe I was craving it after the Amperol.

We came to a Pandora store and bought a charm for Joanna’s bracelet, the wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the symbol of the city.

When we got to the foot of Via Veneto, we came out on familiar place, the plaza where the Fountain of the Triton stands. Try as I might, I couldn’t get us lost. We knew the way home from here.

We sat in the cafe where I had wine the other day and watched the crowds and traffic roll by. A little vino, some gelato and fruit. 

We went back to the hotel from there. I even took some odd turns. We stopped to buy a couple of bottles of wine and an opener. I’ve been traveling for days with no way to open a beer or wine bottle, and that had to stop.

OK. Now I don’t know where I am. I’m in the general neighborhood of Santa Maria Maggiore. Does this constitute lost? Am I traveling hard enough? I want to vote yes, but I am biased. Each of you must decide for yourself.

Joanna collects door photos.

Somewhere during our travels we were able to get this one. It isn’t often that Joanna gets to stand on a sill and touch the lintel.

We hit a small bar called Druid’s Rock to use the facilities. It looks like an Irish bar in New York and the background music station had a British announcer. I had a pint of something that was supposed to be Belgian, but was a lager not an ale.

A block from there we saw the church and that is two short blocks from the Contilia.

After brief rest, we took dinner right across the street at Trattoria Cecio.

The carbonara came with a creamy sauce instead of the tomato based sauce at La Stampa. It was all right, but I prefer the tomato, but then, I almost always do.

The rigatoni with oxtail ragu had a nice sharp and tangy edge. I don’t know if that was directly from the oxtail or due to something else in the mix. Very tasty. 

I probably overdid with a bottle of Nero d’Avola. There was a short walk after the meal and then it was time for me to pack it in. Joanna, of course, was doing just fine.

Be well all, and eat your tomatoes. They’re good for you.

May 11

This is just delightful—and informative.

And yes you know the “ Canova” name. It’s in Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma.”


May 12

No, I don't read many nineteenth century novels, Beatrice.

I tried reading "The Red and the Black," but gave up on page five or so.


May 14

I had the same experience, but put it away with the intention of trying again. That was 20 years ago, when we moved to our current home. It's still in the box...


Saturday, July 12, 2014

St. Peter’s—Well, Sort of

May 9

Today we took our passports, just in case, and left Italy for Vatican City. We didn’t need passports, but it’s a lucky thing that I left my jack knife in my other vest, because they are not permitted. Neither are scissors or box cutters.

It was kind of funny because I didn’t see a sign or anything else to mark the change in jurisdiction. The cab pulled up inside Bernini’s colonnade and we got out. I’m not sure where the border is.

The line to get into the basilica stretched around the colonnade, but we didn’t join it right away. There was a trailer some distance from the end of the line, a mobile post office, where we bought Vatican stamps and mailed some cards.

When we came out, the line was shorter by almost a quarter of a colonnade.

It took maybe 45 minutes in line to get through the security check. Then the rest was fast.

 We weren’t sure how to go in at first, but we followed other lost souls until we came to a door that was open and not full of people coming out. That took us into the porch and then there was a sign for “entrata, entrada, entrance, eingang.” Or something like it. Actually, all I remember now is “eingang.”


 I’ve seen this place on television so many times. I’d have my Christmas buzz on and watch the old pope say Christmas Eve mass almost every year. So now I was here. It’s big. There are marks on the floor to show how far other cathedrals would extend, if they were set inside St. Peter’s.

Bizarre idea. Why would you want to put St. Paul’s London, for instance, inside St. Peter’s? St. Paul’s is so much more beautiful. And the statuary in London is more interesting. 

The walls of St. Peter’s are lined with niches containing monumental statues that must be 15 or 20 feet high. That grotesque canopy over the altar is about three conventional stories high.

One of the exceptions is a primitive bronze of St. Peter that came from the old basilica. By the 4th century the old classical skills were already fading. The piece is beautiful, but may be a hybrid. I read that this may have been a classical original adapted to represent St. Peter.

The Pieta is indeed beautiful, the graceful pyramid of shining flesh made out of marble. The area around it, the entire church, is so densely packed with confused and pushy people that it is hard to get in touch with the art work.

Most of it shows bishops and other authority figures because this was a product of the Counter Reformation. Guys in miters can be imposing, but they are just not interesting.

A large portion of the nave was blocked off. Not having been here before, I had no idea that it wasn’t standard operating procedure. Joanna said it had changed since she visited the church several years ago.

But besides getting to see the Pieta and just being in the place, we did get to do something that was at the top of my list. 

The current church is built on the site of an earlier basilica dedicated to St. Peter that dated back to the first years of Constantine’s reign, in the 320s. Near the entrance is a circle of maroon marble, and according to my guide book, it marks the spot where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800. 

The reason the King of the Franks was in Rome in the first place is that the pope at the time had appealed to him for protection. There had been a plot not to kill the pope, but to put out his eyes, stab his ears, and cut out his tongue so he couldn’t perform his priestly duties. It was an alternative to assassination. We’ve all seen “The Borgias,” so we know how this works.

When I learned there was a spot in St. Peter’s that traditionally marked the exact spot where Charlemagne became emperor, it became my main reason for visiting the Vatican. Wow, Charlemagne, my favorite mass murderer. This is more exciting than tracing all the places in Virginia named for Stonewall Jackson.

I found the spot and Joanna was kind enough to phtotograph me saying hello to the restorer of order to the West. 

We couldn’t get near the altar or the glimpse of St. Peter’s tomb because that entire area of the cathedral was closed. We asked about the crypt. Closed. We asked about the 5 p.m. daily mass in Latin. Probably not today. Why? Because of the celebration.

We didn’t learn what celebration, but something was going on. Wrong day to go to St. Peter’s so we left and got some lunch. We went to a Vatican bar (no, really), but all they had were hot dogs and hamburgers. Places across the street were like fast food stands on a boardwalk.

Then we saw the sign for De’ Penitenzieri, a wine bar 50 meters up Via de’ Penitenzieri. What’s this? Go to the penitentiary and leave after lunch. That’s too good to pass up.

The enoteca is named for the street, of course, but I don’t know what the street is named for. There was a big church. Maybe people went there to be penitent. There was a large wall at the upper end of the street. Maybe a prison.

The spinach ravioli had enough spinach in it to show green through the pasta shell. We had that with a mixed salad and I had a glass of decent red.

After a nap, we took a cab outside the ancient walls to a residential neighborhood not far from the Villa Borghese. It took us to Ristorante Ambasciata d’Abruzzo on Via Pietro Tacchini.

I was reading Larry’s blog from several years ago for hints about where to have dinner and came across this one.

We figured we had taken our salad and pasta course around two in the afternoon, so we decided to share a meal for two called arrosto misto—mixed roast meats. This selection consisted of portions of pork, lamb, veal, and chicken, all roasted perfectly and served with potatoes in a brown sauce. A little broccoli rabe on the side, and a half bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

It has been a long time since either of us has eaten so much food in a single sitting, but we finished it.

We needed to do some walking to burn some of the dinner off. Of course, we had no idea of where we were at the restaurant. So we took a cab to the Trevi Fountain. It was pushing 10 p.m., and if anything, the plaza was packed with more people than it was during the day. 

We strolled home from there, stopping for one more glass of red at the bar on the corner. 

Saturday is Galleria Borghese day, so it was lights out early.

Be well, all.

May 10

How great is that restaurant? Beyond the food — the service? Good idea ordering the house private label wine. The place has some kind of connection with Abruzzo (hence the name).

Might I suggest returning before/after your time at the Villa Borghese and trying the antipasto? You won't be disappointed.


May 10

Distinguished photo, Harry. But what were the lumpen proletariat doing in your picture?


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chain Reactions

 May 9

We got a late start on Thursday. Our internal clocks are way off, so it was about noon when we set off to the Apple store.

I always forget something, and this time it was the adaptor plug for Euro sockets. I had the damned thing in my hand, and have no idea where I put it. It’s probably lying on the bed, right next to where the suitcase was. That is, if the cat hasn’t run off with it by now.

Anyway, we passed Sta. Maria Maggiore and proceeded down Via Merulana, a name that sounds very close to one of my favorite substances, to the Apple store. We walk through the open double door and they tell us the store is closed. They will reopen at 3:30. They close a store for a full three hours in the middle of the day for lunch. 

It’s not a problem, of course, because there’s plenty to see everywhere.

 High on our wanna-see list is the church of St. Peter in Chains. The central relics are chains said to be those that held Peter when he was arrested in Rome. Later, the chains mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, when the angel came and sprung Peter from jail in Jerusalem, were brought to Rome and united with the Roman chains. According to my guide book, Rick Steves’s Rome 2014, when the chain lengths were brought together, they miraculously linked.

After a long hot walk down Via della Sette Sale, a walled lane with no sidewalks,   you come to the Piazza San Pietro in Vincolo.

 If you arrive around two, the church is also closed for lunch. 

So we take the hint. It’s time to eat. We walk to a small street where there’s a sign pointing the way to somebody’s bar, but we didn’t to go there. Right at the corner is the Caffe San Pietro in Vincolo. They were out of the squid salad, so we settled on the caprese—tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Also pizza Margherita. I had a glass of the local red, acidy but not too harsh, and it got better when the food came. 

This all was pretty good, just like being in New Jersey.

We were sitting at a table outside. Across the street there was a palm tree looming over a stuccoed apartment house. Just confirming—Yes, I’m somewhere else. Cactus also grows outside here. It’s almost a full degree of latitude north of New York City.

There were three bikes lined up, and I often take notice of information of this level of importance. The large letters on each of the plates were the same as the postal abbreviation for places in North America: from left, ON, AK, DE. Wow, Ontario, Arkansas? No, Alaska. And Delaware. While we were eating, a fourth bike joined the line. The letters on the plate were BC, so now we had two Canadian provinces and two states.

The site of St. Peter in Chains, if not the current church building, dates back to the 440s.

 Besides the chains of St. Peter, the church has another distinction. One wall, to the right as you face the altar, has statuary created by Michelangelo for the tomb of Pope Julius II. He never finished the tomb, and Julius is somewhere else. Maybe somewhere near a palm tree.

The monumental Moses with horns is the focal point of this group. He looks kind of pissed, as if he sees people cavorting around a golden calf. The group also includes a reclining pope, who may represent Julius.

We found the Apple store open. I bought the world travel adaptor kit (I now own two of them) and we went back to the Contilia for a rest.

We decided to take up Rick Steves’s Heart of Rome walk, which he says is particularly charming at night. It was. We started at a city square called Campo de’ Fiori. It is ringed with restaurants. 

But the first thing we saw when we got out of the cab was a fakir levitating next to a short pole. I don’t know how he did it, but the illusion was wonderful.

Behind him was the statue of Giordano Bruno, a heretic who was burned on this spot. 

We decided to try a restaurant called Baccanale, because it served tripe. 

Tripe was recommended (by Larry of course) as a must-try in Rome. This was trippa alla Romana, made with tomato and doused with pecorino. We also had buccatini with mussels and pecorino. Gotta love that pecorino.

They had Barolo by the glass, and that was sharp but good, especially with the food, and we followed that with a Brunello, which was milder. Joanna had Nero d’Avola, a smooth Sicilian wine.

The clown showed up during dinner. He had a Harpo Marx Klaxon to make his way through the crowd. I was sitting with my back to the square so I didn’t see everything. He chased a few girls. Later he came to our table and dusted me with a feather duster. 

From Campo de’ Fiori, the next stop on the walk is Piazza Navona, about half a kilometer away.

This is an even bigger square. It has two fountains. One represents the principal rivers of the four continents known in the 17th century. The Nile represents Africa; the Rio la Plata, represents the Americas; the Ganges stands for Asia, and the Danube for Europe. The Nile has his head covered because the source of the river was unknown at the time.

The clown had moved to Piazza Navona. In a suit and leaning on a cane, I must have looked pretty stuffy, because he came up next to Joanna and marched very ceremoniously with us.

It was getting late. Time for another drink. We stopped at one of the cafes for some chocolate mousse, a glass of local wine, plus some espresso with Sambuca.

The walk continues to the Trevi Fountain, but we had been there the day before, and we were starting to wear out. Well, at least, I was starting to wear out.

There is a cab stand right outside the plaza. When we got back to the hotel, I wasn’t quite ready to call it quits, but everybody else was. Everything in sight was shutting down. And it wasn’t even midnight yet. 

All the bars were closed. Harry too.

Good night.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Savoring the Roma

May 8

A quick consultation with the guidebook told me something I didn’t mention yesterday. There has been a church on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore since about 420 A.D. But since this is the Old World, it was easy to do that one better. 

We went back out to see the Bernini sculpture, St. Teresa in Ecstasy, which is in a church not far from the hotel. But on the way we came to Piazza de Repubblica and Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs.

This one was really old school. The building was once the baths of Diocletian, built around the year 310. Diocletian was the last big-time persecutor of the Christians, so I guess they figured it was fair enough after they were put in charge to take over Diocletian’s legacy.

The idea was first put forward by a priest and floated for a while. Apparently, access to the site was difficult, or at least inconvenient, maybe sort of like Kennedy airport. But eventually a road or two came through and everbody got behind the idea. They hired Michelangelo, who was in his 80s at the time, to repurpose the building.

It is baroque today, but the facade is stunning. It looks like a castle that has been hit by artillery. Fragments remain of great arches, no longer needed. They may have been dismantled. Or maybe they had collapsed by the time the church was put in.

The facade is curved because that is where the steam room was.

You enter the church to stand in what was the cooling off room. The nave of the church is the old central hall. Its soaring arches are appropriately majestic.


A very curious feature of the nave is a timepiece laid into the floor. We were there in the afternoon, so I have no idea how it works. It’s a long metal line laid into the marble floor. It is a scale marked with numbers. there are astrological signs next to it. (This is all blocked off by velvet ropes so no tourists or errant children will walk on it.)

According to a sign, it was installed sometime in the early 1700s and was used for a century or two to set the timepieces in Rome.

According to Wikipedia, it is a meridian line and one of its uses was to check the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar.

One corner of the nave had a small exhibit of Renaissance-age technology as an appreciation of Galileo. There was a pendulum, weighted by a globe attached to the finger of a bronze hand, swaying ever so slightly. A poster gave us a brief discussion of the pendulum's importance in keeping track of time, and Galileo's contribution to that discovery. I'm not sure, but he may have been the first to experiment and write about pendulum movement. 

If I remember right, you can set the ratio of the weight to the length so that each swing will take exactly one second, so there you have the foundation for a clock. the weight always swings in the same plane, but because the Earth rotates under it, the pendulum appears to be turning its swing. There may be other information you can infer from that, but truth to tell, this part is so abstract it makes my head hurt.

The exhibition may have been the church’s way of making up a little for bullying the guy when he was alive.

The old church has some modern pieces, including a carved head of John the Baptist.

We went from there to a small Carmelite church, Santa Maria Della Vittoria, a few blocks away. There, high above a side altar, is St. Teresa being stuck by a rather amused angel as she reels back in orgasm. 

This is possibly one of the wildest pieces of religious art ever. I never met Bernini, so I haven’t had the chance to ask him about this installation, but one question I don’t need to ask is “What were you thinking?”  It’s written all over her face. 

On the opposite side of the church is an altar that houses the body of St. Victoria, a virgin martyr. A life-size effigy, which may actually contain a body, is displayed behind glass inside the altar. The throat has been cut.

We headed toward the Trevi Fountain and stopped for a glass of wine (Montepulciano de Abruzzo) at a restaurant across from the Triton Fountain. This, we discovered from reading signs, is the neighborhood of the Barberini family, heavy hitters from the baroque era.

The Trevi Fountain is maybe half a mile from there. It is apparently always packed with people. It was fun. The water is loud, the statuary is indeed monumental. I even made a 360 degree video. Who knows? Maybe they can cut that in as file film if they remake “Three Coins in a Fountain.”


The photo of the day may be Oceanus, the principal figure of the fountain. The inscription over its head mentions Clement VIII, Pontifex Maximus (i.e. Pope).  I kind of like the idea of the pope out skinny dipping.

The area for a block or two in every direction is lined with souvenir stalls and small restaurants. They were packed with people eating pizza and pasta. The food looked and smelled pretty good. But for my first meal in Rome, I was going to be a food snob and look for something that might be a little more authentic.

We had passed a place called Trattoria la Stampa on Via de Maroniti, a small alley a short walk away from the Trevi plaza. So we went there for spaghetti carbonara and tripe. Larry had told me they were outstanding dishes in Rome. 

They were out of tripe, so we had rabbit cacciatora instead.

The carbonara was good enough to be called exciting: pasta al dente and covered in (I believe) pecorino Romana. The pancetta bits had been fried crisp. The result was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

The rabbit was in a slightly sweet clear sauce, and while it was good, was not nearly as much fun as the spaghetti.

We splitactually, Joanna sampled and I dranka half liter of the house red. It was OK, and lost some of its acidity when we had it with the food.

It was also good when I dipped the coarse bread into it.

We went back to the fountain to see it lighted in the dark, and there were still crowds of people there. 

We walked back to the neighborhood of the hotel without getting lost. I don’t get lost as often these days as I used to. I sort of miss that. Maybe I’m not traveling hard enough.

We stopped at the bar on the cornerwhere we had gone for coffee earlierand I ordered two glasses of red. I asked Joanna if she wanted me to order wine for her too, but she said no. She sipped a little of mine, but she had polished off a glass with dinner and that was it for her.

It must have been midnightabout 6 p.m. back homewhen we shut down for the night. I woke this morning to a siren in the street. it was 9:30.

I’ve pretty much made up for a restless night on a plane.

So far, so good. And it doesn’t get better than that.

This is a fascinating essay—as your travelogues always are.
Two words of caution. Be careful of your use of “Roma,” which in addition to referring to a great city, is the PC synonym for Gypsies, who constitute a real problem in some areas.

More importantly: beware if raw Mediterranean shellfish. Or, if you indulge and are stricken, take the medicine prescribed—all of it. (My continuing grief could have been avoided even after I’d become violently ill had I taken all the medicine—but the pills were so big they scratched my throat so I stopped. The medicine can’t be had in the US. It was a case of a parasite, unknown here.)

Diocletian is fascinating. Everybody knows about his constitution but doesn’t know it no longer exists—all copies destroyed by Justinian so as to avoid confusion with his constitution. Spent weeks trying to find Diocletian’s and even my professor didn’t know about its non-existence.

Alan is now reading your article and making observations about history—and Diocletian, whom he rather admires.

Best to Joanna.


May 8

It's nice to know that you're having a good time in Rome. That was one of the stops on my honeymoon many years ago. One never has enough time there.


May 8

Just wanted to say we are all enjoying the history and art from Rome.    Keep them coming!