Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Villa of Dreams

In keeping with my ebullient mood, I feel the need to show off a little.

How lucky am I  to take my regular exercise in the grounds of a glorious Renaissance villa? Complete with manicured gardens, meadows, fountains, lakes, and hundreds and hundreds of my beloved Roman pines? I write of the Villa Pamphilj, a summer haven sprawling over Gianicolo hill and into the valley behind it, created in the 17th century by the rascal Camillo Pamphilj, (son of the infamous Donna Olimpia Maidalchini--more on her later) and originally called Bel Respiro. It has been a public park since the 1960s, at which time it was sadly cut in two by a busy new street. Only in the year 2000 was a sky bridge built to connect the two sides.

At 185 hectacres (455 acres) the villa feels like bit of countryside within the steaming city, and this lush retreat, high above the bustle of Rome, offers surprising tranquility.  A few nights ago I took a twilight bike ride through my enchanted forest, bringing along a camera to capture what I knew I would fail to express in words.

The Villa's lovely lake. What are all those little dots in the water?

Oh my goodness, turtles!

Lots of turtles!!

Turtles and ducks and swans, oh my!

The one spot in the villa where you can see the very tip of Saint Peter's dome.

I've been looking for a new place to live... I think I've found it!

Acqua Paola. This aqueduct is not ancient, although it follows the path of the ancient aqueduct, the Acqua Traiana. A few underground sections of the original aqueduct are still intact, and were incorporated into this Renaissance one when it was built  in 1612 by Pope Paul V Borghese. It brings water to Rome from the volcanic lake north of the city, Lago Bracciano, and feeds many of Rome's most important fountains, such as those in Piazza Navona, Piazza Farnese, St. Peter's, Trastevere, and of course the Fontanone.

The view on my ride home. Ahhhhh......

All photos by author
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Siamo Romane... Trasteverine..."

When does buying olives and cheese nearly make you cry?

When you are buying them at the loveliest, sweetest, most delectably delicious salumeria in the most perfect and adorable neighborhood in the greatest, most beautiful city in the world... and when you know you are soon to be leaving that magical neighborhood with that wonderful shop.... (perhaps forever?)
No, I'm not leaving Rome. As much as she frustrates me, I don't think I could bear to part with her. But--at least for now--I'm leaving Trastevere.

People always ask me, "What is so great about Trastevere? It's so crowded/chaotic/loud at night/touristy/overpriced/cliché/covered in graffiti... Why do you insist on living there?"

Oh, only for a million and one reasons. But the one I'm thinking of right now is the one and only Antica Caciara. Baskets of the freshest ricotta cheese on the planet sit temptingly in the windows, along with dried meat hanging from the doorway with the worrying tag "Coglioni di Mulo" (mule's testicles). Inside the smell of the cheeses and cured meats could tempt even a vegan. Row upon row of olives, tubs of freshly made pesto and other sauces, barrels filled with bottles of local wine, narrow wedges of parmigiano lined up on the shelves. But all of this isn't the best part.

The best part are the people who work there. If you've ever lived in Rome, you know that the shopkeepers here are not always the friendliest bunch, especially if you are a dreaded foreigner. But the owner and his two charming assistants are the loveliest and most helpful people imaginable. Not even in my home town of Seattle--where customer service is an art form--have I been treated so well. Roberto, the owner, is soft-spoken and patient, carefully explaining how each cheese should be served and stored. At first I thought he was just unusually kind (which he is) but his assistants (one of which I assume to be his wife) are as courteous and friendly as he is. Samples are obligatory and leaving without a chat is unthought of.

As I bought my gaeta olives, I realized that this might be the last time (for a while) that I visit this delightful bottega, the reality of my departure from Trastevere--and all that I will miss about it--came crashing down on me. The winding streets, the cobblestones, the local shops on every corner: the fishmonger who keeps laughably short hours, the green grocer with his overpriced but glorious wild asparagus, the old man who beautifully frames my cheap prints, the two ladies at the laundrette who distinctly disapprove of me, the guy at the wine shop who's always ready with a smile and a "ciao bella!"...this is what I will miss most. Enveloped in the warmth of my adopted community, the graffiti fades into the background and all I see are ivy-covered buildings. My ears tune out the incessant car-alarms and revving of motors and I hear only churchbells. Even the stench of urine is covered by the scent of wisteria and freshly baked bread.

Trastevere means, "across the Tiber" and it is a neighborhood distinctly separate from the rest of the center of Rome. When you are there you feel it: time slows down a touch, the buildings get shorter and the streets get narrower. Sidewalks don't exist. A knife sharpener pushes a file attached to a bicycle through the streets, shouting up to the windows so the casalinghe can run down with their knives. They say some of the oldest Trasteverini pride themselves on never venturing to the other side of the river. And sometimes I think, well, why would they?
When I told Roberto and his wife that I was leaving Trastevere, they were sad, because they could see I was sad. "Trastevere è un piccolo villaggio dentro una città," said she, my thoughts exactly. "Trastevere brilla..." said he, and it does. On a sunny afternoon, approaching the Ponte Sisto, the bridge's sanpietrini shine as if lit on fire, like a golden brick road leading to the neighborhood I love best in all the world. From the battered fountain to the crooked rooftops, the medieval towers, the umbrella pines, and at last the Fontanone.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Roma in Bianco: Snow in Rome!

It's finally June, and despite the 4 minutes of heavy rain earlier this afternoon, it feels as if spring is here at last. It may have taken longer than usual to arrive here in Rome this year, but now that it is well and truly here, it makes it all that much more enjoyable. And it is delicious to have a truly pleasant spring, instead of jumping straight into scorching summer as we usually do here.

In spite of the season, today I have decided to share some photos I took this past February, when it snowed (in Rome!!). It was an extremely rare storm, the likes of which hadn't been seen in the eternal city for nearly a quarter of a century. I had always promised myself that if it ever snowed in Rome I would head straight to the Pantheon to see the snow come down through the occulus. And that is precisely what I did. Here are a few of my favorite photos from that day, February 12th 2010.

All photos by author
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Monday, May 31, 2010

Divino Amore

Thursday I took a little pilgrimage of sorts to a sacred site just outside of Rome. The church of Divino Amore was built on the site where a miracle occurred in 1740.

On the site once stood the medieval Castel di Leva. 1n 1740, a man passing by the gatehouse of the castle was set upon by a pack of wild ferocious dogs. Seeing no one around him to come to his aid, he looked up to the gate and saw a fresco of the Madonna. He called out to her to save him, and miraculously the dogs calmed and did him no harm.

Since then it has become a site of pilgrimage for Catholics who built a Sanctuary to the Madonna of Divine Love on the spot in 1745. The fresco was removed from the gatehouse and placed above the altar of the church, but a replacement in mosaic now adorns the former.

The most moving thing, for me, about this site are the notes and plaques of gratitude that thousands of faithful have left on the walls in and around the sactuary, thanking the Madonna for her diving intercession on their behalf in the wake of illnesses, horrific accidents, childlessness and other miraculous situations.

Here are two of the most moving notices that I read:

"To you, Holy Lady, who interceded for us so that we would be able to take part in the miracle that is our baby daughter, Giulia.
To you, Holy Lady, because only you were able to understand how much we needed your love.
To you, Holy Lady, who has allowed us to go on living, and to enjoy this life in three.
Valeria, Antonio and Giulia."

"Thank you, Madonna of Divine Love, for helping me to escape alive from this accident, and for this I will pray to you and I will thank you for the rest of my life. I pray that you will always stay near me and give me the strength to go forward and surpass all the obstacles that life will put in my path. Above all, protect these two angels, Andrea and Chiara. You are their heavenly mother. Stay near them, and help them grow in the love of God. Always keep a protective hand over them and all of my family."

All photos by author
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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rome is in the Details

Apologies for the week-long silence. Finding a new apartment in the eternal city is a full-time job. I will try to get back on track even though the apartment-hunt is far from over. Woe is me.

Yesterday, as I was biking through town running various errands in the sun, I was struck yet again by the sheer beauty and uniqueness of this city. I'm working on a project for a friend that involves photographing building numbers, so as I whizzed up and down narrow cobbled back streets, I scanned the sides of the buildings. It's amazing the details that you notice when doing this that otherwise perhaps would be missed.

Someone once said, "Rome is in the details" and although Rome is certainly also in the monuments, "Um, Pantheon, anyone?" the former is also overwhelmingly true.

Here are a few of my humble photos from a walk around my favorite piazza.

All photos by author
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pasquino and the Talking Statues

On Wednesday I introduced the topic of Talking Statues, some of my favorite curiosities of Rome.

Six in all, these ancient marble social commentators gave average citizens the opportunity to criticize the government and the pope in a time when freedom of press was a distant dream.

Legend has it that a tailor named Pasquino was the first to post a witty comment on the pedestal of an ancient marble statue near Piazza Navona. The battered remnants of the sculpture of Menelaus with the body of Patroclus--or so it is believed to be--was moved to its present position from the site of Domitian's Stadium (now Piazza Navona) in 1501. Shortly thereafter, it became a magnet for any well-worded jab at the powers that be, and whether or not this tailor was indeed the one to start the trend, the statue eventually took the name Pasquino, as did the triangular piazza where it still sits today. Five other talking statues are dotted around the city, including my favorite, Il Babuino.


In addition, Abate Luigi, a late Roman statue of a man in a toga, was discovered near the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey, and now resides in Piazza Vidoni. Besides serving as a posting board for political satires, the unfortunate senator has had his head removed several times by pranksters.

Madama Lucrezia, in actuality a fragmant from an ancient colossal statue of Isis that can be found today in Piazza San Marco, not only "talked" but went so far as to converse with fellow talking statue, the hunky Marforio. Given her options, I don't blame her for chosing him. Easily recognizable as a river god by his position, he was found in the Forum of Augustus, also called the Forum of Mars, hence the name Marforio. Today he can be found in the courtyard of the Capitoline museums.

The final talking statue, Il Facchino, is not an ancient sculpture, but rather part of a 16th century fountain representing a water porter. It is hidden away on the little Via Lata, and very easy to miss.

Only Pasquino has maintained his purpose as a bulletin board for social and political criticism. Posts come and go frequently, and the names Berlusconi and Ratzinger are among the most commonly seen, although it is difficult for me, as a foreigner, to grasp the meaning of many of the satires as they are often written in dialect. Some do seem senseless however, for example several years ago I saw the lyrics to Micheal Jackson's Billy Jean posted in block letters for no apparent reason. The most famous of all pasquinades was written in Latin on the occation of Pope Urban VIII Barberini's decision to remove and melt down the bronze of the Pantheon in order to complete his Baldacchino for St. Peter's:

Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini!

What the barbarians didn't do, the Barberini did!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Le Vie di Roma - Via del Babuino

Baboon Street? Can it possibly be?

One of the most prestigious streets in Rome, stretching from Piazza di Spagna to Piazza del Popolo, home to Tiffany & Co., named after a large monkey?

Well, not exactly.

About halfway down Via del Babuino, on the left as you walk to Piazza del Popolo, you will find a simple fountain boasting an odd mossy statue, Il Babuino.

The body of Il Babuino is an ancient sculpture of a Silenus, a Roman mythological creature half man, half goat. The head has clearly been replaced, but from where I have yet to discover. The statue was moved here by Patrizio Grandi to be incorporated into the fountain outside his home on what was formerly Via Paolina. The statue became referred to as "the baboon" because of its unpleasant appearance, and the name stuck. So much so that eventually the street was officially renamed for it.

Eventually, Il Babuino became one of the six Talking Statues of Rome, called as such because, beginning in the 16th century, they were used by the people to post complaints and commentary, generally about the church or the state. Often written in Roman dialect or rhyme, or both, the "Pasquinades" as they were called (named after the most famous talking statue, Pasquino) were (and still are) clever and entertaining ways for people to voice their opinions anonymously.

Il Babuino's most famous Pasquinade was posted as Napoleon's troops plundered Rome, carrying off countless artistic treasures, many of which have yet to be returned. It read: "I francesi sono tutti ladri? No, non tutti... ma BuonaParte!"

("Are all Frenchmen thieves? No, not all... but most of them!")

More on the Talking Statues tomorrow...

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Seen in Rome: Directing Traffic with Style

In Rome, even the traffic cops are elegant (if at times ineffective)...

You see why I love it here?

                                          Is he posing for me?

All photos by author
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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Tower of Winds and the Gregorian Calendar

While strolling down the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums, a seemingly interminable corridor displaying frescoed maps of the Italian landscape, it is easy to feel disoriented. Dizzy, even. The gallery is 395 feet long, over the length of a US football field, and contains forty brightly painted topographical maps of the regions of Italy, each one embellished with intricate details such as compasses, sea creatures and ships. The ceiling is no less spectacular, a barrel vault decorated with stucco, gold leaf, grotesques, and frescoes depicting stories from the lives of the saints. Windows to the right afford breathtaking views of the Vatican Gardens. It is almost too much for the eye to take in.

Little wonder, then, that visitors rarely are aware of the marvel that is right above their heads. At the north side of the gallery rises the little-known Tower of the Winds, one of the highest points in Vatican City. It was erected between 1578 and 1580 by Ottaviano Mascherino, the Bolognese architect who also designed the Gallery of Maps, built at the same time. The Tower of the Winds takes its name from the anemoscope it possesses, an instrument that gauges the direction of the wind, designed by Ignazio Danti, the papal cosmographer. However, despite its name, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the tower for the sole purpose of determining the extent of the inaccuracy of the Julian Calendar that had first come to light during the Council of Trent in 1563.

Since the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (that is, March 21st, when day and night are exactly the same length). At the height of the Counter Reformation, one of many reaffirmations made during the Council of Trent was the necessity of celebrating Easter on the correct date, at risk of ex-communication. This was primarily done to further separate the Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church, which had a different process of determining the date of Easter. But when it became clear that the calendar was incorrect, the Pope himself became essentially guilty of a crime punishable by ex-communication.
In order to address this issue, the Tower of Winds was built, complete with a floor meridian, also the work of Danti, to correctly identify the spring equinox. The interior of the two storey tower is lavishly frescoed by landscape painters Paul and Matthijs Bril, brothers from Antwerp, and Nicolò Circignani, also known as “Pomarancio”. On the lower of the two levels, the windowless Meridian Room, a small hole in the south wall allows a ray of sunlight to project onto the marble meridian on the floor. At noon on the spring equinox, the ray should fall in a specific line. When it was tested for the first time, in 1582, it occurred on March 11th instead of March 21st. The calendar was ten days off.

The cause of this inaccuracy was a tiny miscalculation. According to the Julian calendar, which was in use from the time of Julius Caesar until 1582, leap year was observed every year divisible by four, except for centurial years (1300, 1400, etc.) Under this system, each year was, on average, roughly two hours too long. After nearly sixteen hundred years, these extra hours added up to ten days. Pope Gregory adjusted the calendar to observe leap year also in any centurial year divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc). To make the change complete, of course, those excess ten days had to be eliminated. This was done in October of 1582, when October 4th was followed by October 15th.

A century later, the Tower of Winds became the temporary residence of Queen Christina of Sweden, who gave up her throne to convert to Catholicism and was welcomed to live in the Vatican by Pope Alexander VII. Another two hundred years later, it became the first seat of the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) under Pope Leo XIII, at which time the roof was turned into a terrace to facilitate astronomical observations.

Although today the Tower of Winds is no longer in use, nor open to the public, I was fortunate enough to visit it in 2008, thanks to the kindness of a Vatican guard who is very dear to my heart. It was an incredible experience, especially knowing that so few people have ever had a chance to see it. No less thrilling was a completely new view of the Cortile della Pigna.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
Photo 4 by Claudio Ianniello
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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Le Vie di Roma - Via del Piè di Marmo

As promised, Wednesdays will be devoted to Roman streets with interesting names, and this week's street is a foot fetishist's dream.

Via del Piè di Marmo, or Marble Foot Street, is little more than a alley, an tiny back street that is often not even marked on maps. But there is a rather large and ancient artifact that lives there.

The marble foot in question, about the size of a Fiat 500, once belonged to to a colossal statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis. On the site of the nearby Collegio Romano, an ancient temple built by Emperor Domition and dedicated to the gods Isis and Serapis, once stood. The only known remnant of this temple is the goddess' foot, which was moved to its present location because it was holding up funeral processions that passed through Piazza del Collegio Romano.

Photo sources: 1, 2
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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Seen in Rome: Hungry?

Called by Romans "L'obitorio" (The Morgue) for its marble tables, Pizzeria ai Marmi, in Trastevere, is probably the most authentic Roman pizzeria in the city. The pizza is good, but the supplì are magnificent.

Photo by author
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