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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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Rape of the Sabine Women

After spending Saturday in the Sabine Hills, I cannot continue with this blog without a nod to those famous women, without whom Rome would never have survived. Especially since our table wine was called--ever so aptly--Il Ratto delle Sabine.

To pick up where I left off on last Monday's "history" post, Romulus, descendant of the Alban King Numitor, was the founder and first king of Rome. Initially a tiny settlement on the banks of the Tiber, Rome grew and prospered under Romulus' leadership. Most of the tribe was made up of men fleeing from other tribes: refugees, escaped slaves or prisoners, or anyone looking for a better life. These men were often powerful warriors, thus Rome's strength was least for that generation.

But what Rome lacked was women. Without females to reproduce with, the tribe would quickly die out. Simple enough--they thought--just propose intermarriage with the neighboring tribes. Problem was, no one wanted to give their daughters to a group of rough bandits. Romulus and his tribe were rejected out of hand.

Far from being deterred, Romulus decided to add kidnapping to fratricide on his resume of how he built Rome. The Romans cleverly hid their resentment at being rejected and proposed a festival with solemn games, honoring Consualia. All neighboring tribes were invited to take part, including the prosperous mountain tribe, the Sabines.

The tribes were amazed at the vastness and prosperity of the new city. And when the attention of all was distracted by the performances, the Romans attacked. They forcibly carried off the youngest of the Sabine women (reserving the most beautiful for Senators and patricians) while their families fled in terror. The women, who were at first outraged at this violence, were eventually persuaded by Romulus that their situation was really not so bad. They were not to be captives, but legally wedded wives, enjoying citizenship and the same rights of their husbands. As Livy puts it, they were asked to "moderate their anger, and give their hearts to those whom fortune had given their persons."

In time they grew to live peaceably, even happily, with their new husbands. But eventually their offended families came for revenge. After failed attempts by other tribes whose daughters had also been stolen, the Sabines succeeded in entering the city. When a young Roman maiden, daughter of the commander Spurius Tarpeius, went outside the city to fetch water, she encountered Sabine soldiers, who bribed her to let them into the city. She easily agreed, asking for their large gold bracelets in return. Instead, they crushed her to death with their shields for her treachery, and attacked the city.

First the Sabines dominated, but soon the virile Romans overcame them. In the midst of the bloody battle, just as the Romans were on the point of annihilating their opponents, the Sabine women rushed onto the battle field. They literally placed their bodies between the opponents, and begged them--as brothers and fathers on one side, and husbands on the other--to cease fighting in honor of the bond of marriage that united the two tribes.

"Silence fell. Not a man moved. A moment later Romulus and the Sabine commander stepped forward to make peace. Indeed they went further: the two peoples were united under a single government, with Rome as the seat of power." (Livy, The Early History of Rome, Book I of the Ab Urbe Condita.)

(Above, Il Ratto delle Sabine, Pietro da Cortona, Below, Il Ratto delle Sabine, Jean Louis David)

Photo sources: 1, 2
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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Perfezione e Vergogna

After a glorious May Day--a national holiday here--in which my passion and love for this country were at an all time high, Italy has once again caused my naive admiration to come crashing down to a new low. This morning I was enchanted. At five minutes to midnight, I am disillusioned.

My day started with a sunrise walk to San Pietro in Montorio. Gazing at my favorite view of Rome from Gianicolo Hill always makes my heart beat a little faster. Even the hundreth time.But seeing it at six am for the first time nearly took my breath away. Misty, with a soft purple glow, indistinct shapes and unexpected shadows. I kicked myself for not bringing a camera, but my simple one could never have captured it.

A few hours later, a bike ride in Villa Pamphilj with Theresa was enough to send me into raptures. The clean morning air, the umbrella pines, the apricot-colored garden roses which weren't there three days ago, the undeniable feeling of spring in the air. I'm sure I'm often taken for a tourist as I gape around me in delight, at things I see everyday. I just can't help it; I never seem to get enough. As we sped down the hill back to Trastevere and my favorite view came into sight, I breathed, "I love this city!" like the silly, enthusiastic girl that I unashamedly am.

If possible, the day got even better from there: a massive, exquisite lunch in the country with a bunch of friends. The kind of lunch that lasts for hours, with plate after plate of hearty, delicious food, bottle after bottle of wine that was made on the other side of the hill. The kind of lunch that cannot exist where I come from, because there, tables must be turned, and quickly--lazy Saturday or no. Here instead, the happy, sated diners relax in their chairs long after they have finished dessert and coffee and grappa, not just because they can't manage to stand, but because no one will be taking the table after them.

This was all followed, naturally, by a long walk in the countryside, with much feeding of donkeys, snapping of photos and general praising of this grand country we are all lucky enough to call home. This is how people are meant to live, we agreed. It was the quintessential, perfect Italian day.

About an hour ago, however, my delight with this perfect place was more than a little tarnished.

I live on a lovely, tree-lined street in the heart of Trastevere, that happens to be a rather busy thoroughfare, despite being relatively narrow. The street is also home to one of Rome's most important and prestigious restaurants. I used to love that I lived two doors down from such a famous institution, knowing that Jennifer Lopez, Robert Deniro or Leonardo di Caprio might be walking past my door. Now I am ashamed of it.

There is almost never anywhere to park in this neighborhood, so the patrons of this eatery are instructed to double park up and down the street. These cars are never ticketed or towed of course, who knows why? This often causes much frustration and parolacce to be uttered by the residents, but tonight it could have cost someone their life.

Around eleven pm, an ambulance became completely blocked as it tried to pass, sirens blaring. It seemed that the entire neighborhood, not just the big, bad, rich restaurant, was conspiring to make sure whoever was inside didn't make it to the hospital alive. Thanks to the line of double parked cars, there was only one usable lane, which was of course backed up with cars going the other direction. But no one wanted to pull over. In this country, only suckers pull over for ambulances. Clever drivers wait for others to pull over and then race ahead of the emergency vehicle.

Some traffic cops who happened to be nearby stood around stupidly, not able to grasp that in order to make the line of cars back up, they had to ask the one in back to move first. Ten long minutes ticked by (very long for whoever was inside) while no one thought to look for the drivers of the double-parked cars, and no space for the modestly-sized ambulance could be made. Only the scooters had room to pass, and they did so dexterously, weaving around the ambulance as it futilely tried to extricate itself. In the end, the driver was forced to turn around (with the help of a civilian guiding him) and drive back up the hill from whence he came.
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