Monday, August 29, 2011

A Room with a View, fate, and the allure of Italy

Once again I will be skipping my weekly history post, but for a very good reason. Today is the 29th of the month, that is, my third wedding month-iversary. In honor of this incredibly important occasion [insert tongue in cheek here], I am going to go slightly off-topic.

In a scene from one of the greatest films ever made, (in fact it is my all time favorite film, and has been since I was twelve years old) two English gentlemen, a vicar and a young unmarried man, are walking through a field in Surrey, talking about fate. They had previously met by chance in Florence, and their paths have once again crossed, by happenstance, it seems, in the south of England.

Vicar: Coincidence is much rarer than we suppose. For example, it's not coincidental that you're here now, when one comes to reflect on it.

Young man: I have reflected. It's fate. Everything is fate.

V: You have not reflected at all! Let me cross examine you. Where did you meet Mr. Vyse, who will marry Miss Honeychurch?

YM: The National Gallery.

V: Looking at Italian Art! You see, and you talk of coincidence and fate! You're naturally drawn to things Italian, as are we and all our friends, aren't we, Freddie? That narrows the field immeasurably!

YM: It is fate, but call it Italy if it pleases you, Vicar.

What the Vicar doesn't know is that the young man in question is passionately in love with the soon-to-be-married Miss Honeychurch, and by the end of the film...well, I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it (even though I consider that a heinous crime to be remedied immediately!)

As it turns out, both men were right! I heartily agree with young Mr. Emerson that everything is dictated by fate; that tiny, seemingly insignificant steps lead us to our destiny. (What can I say? I'm a romantic.) Yet the Vicar was correct as well, at least for me, as so much of my life's path has been steering me toward Italy, and I think it safe to say that I too am drawn to all things Italian. I must have grasped somehow at age 12 that this film would have a great impact on my life, because I became obsessed with it, and my father loves to remind me that I had the entire screenplay memorized and would recite it to anyone who would listen.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I've decided to start a new feature on the blog. Every 29th of the month I will be writing about little details of my wedding. (Don't worry! This is not and will never be a wedding blog! I promise only to recount details of an artistic, musical, historic or anecdotal nature.) What does my wedding have to do with this film? Well, more than you might guess. It is an odd story that starts with my great-great-grandmother in 1861, and follows her daughter to Florence at the turn of the century, and ends 150 years later with a wonderful friend singing a Puccini aria on a rooftop in Rome. But of course, that was really just the beginning. Stay tuned!

Now go watch A Room with a View!

StumbleUpon Pin It

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Nathaniel Hawthorne, on Rome

Rome ever get you down? You are not alone! It's not easy to live (or even be a tourist in, sometimes) this city. I hear my fellow expatriates (myself included) complain often about any number of frustrating things about this crazy city, from the bureaucracy nightmares to the dishonest cab drivers and everything in between. But for so many of us, something connects us with this city, often something we can't describe. Many long-time expats will leave the city, exasperated beyond remedy and--not all--but many cannot help returning eventually. Apparently this love/hate relationship so many of us have with Rome is nothing new. In fact, Nathaniel Hawthorne (a distant relation on my father's side) wrote what I consider possibly the greatest quotation on Rome ever written. Make sure you read to the end! (It's only one sentence, after all.)

"When we have once known Rome, and left her where she lies, like a long-decaying corpse, retaining a trace of the noble shape it was, but with accumulated dust and a fungous growth overspreading all its more admirable features--left her, in utter weariness, no doubt, of her narrow, crooked, intricate streets, so uncomfortably paved with little squares of lava that to tread over them is a penitential pilgrimage; so indescribably ugly, moreover so cold, so alley-like, into which the sun never falls, and where a chill wind forces its deadly breath into our lungs--left her, tired of the sight of those immense seven-storied, yellow-washed hovels, or call them palaces, where all that is dreary in domestic life seems magnified and multiplied, and weary of climbing those staircases, which ascend from a ground floor of cook-shops, cobblers' stalls, stables and regiments of cavalry, to a middle region of princes, cardinals, and ambassadors, and an upper tier of artists, just beneath the unattainable sky--left her, worn out with shivering at the cheerless and smoky fireside by day, and feasting with our own substance the ravenous population of a Roman bed at night--left her, sick at heart of Italian trickery, which has uprooted whatever faith in man's integrity had endured till now, and sick at stomach of sour bread, sour wine, rancid butter and bad cookery, needlessly bestowed on evil meats--left her, disgusted with the pretense of holiness and the reality of nastiness, each equally omnipresent--left her, half lifeless from the languid atmosphere, the vital principle of which has been used up long ago or corrupted by myriads of slaughters--left her, crushed down in spirit by the desolation of her ruin, and the hopelessness of her future--left herein short, hating her with all our might, and adding our individual curse to the infinite anathema which her old crimes have unmistakably brought down--when we have left Rome in such a mood as this we are astonished by the discovery, by and by, that our heartstrings have mysteriously attached themselves to the Eternal City, and are drawing us thitherward again, as if it were more familiar, more intimately our home, than even the spot where we were born."
Excerpt from The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1860.
StumbleUpon Pin It

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Pines of Bangkok? I don't think so.

Recently, Travel & Leisure Magazine came up with this year's World's Best Awards. Their readers rank everything from cities to hotels, spas and airlines, by region and worldwide. This was released back in July, but as usual, I'm a little out of the loop. It's hard to keep your finger on the pulse of the world when you live in eternally laid-back Rome.

Here are the top 10 cities:
New York
Cape Town
Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Cities were judged based on sights, culture/arts, restaurants/food, people, shopping and value.

All I can say is:

(long pause)

I mean... really? I've been to Bangkok and its definitely a cool city. It has lots of brightly colored temples, giant reclining buddhas, really good cheap massage, and incredible hotels at unbelievably low prices. The people are, for the most part, very friendly. If you like Thai food, then the food is amazing. There's a floating market and lots of gritty little back alleys with street food that costs pennies, and you can zip around in rickshaws, or if you're a little more daring, on motorcycle taxis. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and would happily go back.

But to win Best City? And this is the second year in a row? I don't get it. As Asian cities go I infinitely preferred Mumbai, Singapore and Penang. And Thailand, as a country, offers many more spectacular sights than their capital city: the jungles, the beaches, the breath-taking rocky islands jutting out of the sea. If I only had a week in Thailand, I wouldn't spend more than a day in Bangkok. It makes me wonder if people didn't vote for Bangkok just to try to be edgy. Nope, I just don't buy it.

And Rome is third? Third behind Florence and Bangkok. Florence I can understand. It's the cradle of the Renaissance for goodness sake, and for art lovers it doesn't get much better. (I was obsessed with Florence when I was an adolescent but that is a story for another post.) But still (and I may be slightly biased here) it doesn't hold a candle to Rome. No city does, in my opinion. I mean this is a city where you can see SIX Caravaggio paintings for free! Where churches that, in almost any other city would be the number one tourist attraction, are not even touched on by the average tourist because there are too many other things to see. There are ancient ruins just lying about on the street because there's no room for them in any of the city's dozens of museums.

If Rome had come in 10th behind, let's say, New York, London, Sydney, San Francisco, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Stockholm and Buenos Aires, I would have been more okay with that, than with it coming in behind Bangkok.

But, hey, I could be wrong. Maybe I didn't see enough of Bangkok when I was there. If you know the city well, please comment and let me know what I missed.

All photos by author
StumbleUpon Pin It

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Streets of Rome - Piazza della Pigna

Turns out not only did Rome's streets get their names for very particular reasons, but their piazzas do too. Today something made me think of the tiny piazza hidden somewhere between the Pantheon and Largo Argentina:

Piazza della Pigna, or Pinecone Square, named for a very famous pinecone found there. The pinecone in question is a massive first century orginal Roman bronze (created by one Publius Cinsius Salvius), dating back to the 1st century AD. It was a fountain at the baths of Agrippa, which were, not surprisingly, located in the exact same area. Imagine the odds!

Once water gushed out of the top of the pinecone, as well as from little spouts all around the base. A few of these spouts still exist. Since the Pigna was discovered in the 8th century, the darkest of the dark ages, it would have been at risk of being melted down and used for weaponry, a fate that most ancient Roman bronzes suffered. But the pinecone, being a very spiritual symbol in Christianity, was revered, and so the sculpture was preserved.

In fact, the pinecone is a revered symbol in many religions. For Christians it represents eternal life, but it can also be seen in Egyptian, Mithraic, and other pagan art. Some scholars have suggested that because of this shared significance, the pinecone also represented the temporary peace reached between pagans and Christians in Rome when the latter changed their holy day from Saturday (Sabbath) to Sunday, to coincide with the Pagans' holy day in 321 AD. But now I'm getting way off topic...

Shortly after its discovery in the 8th century, the Pigna was given a place of honor in the center of the courtyard of Constantine's Basilica of St. Peter. There it stayed until the basilica was demolished to make way for the new St. Peter's, 500 years ago, and since then it has resided in an enormous niche in the monumental Belvedere Courtyard at the Vatican, now called the Pinecone Courtyard.

This sculpture has indeed had many things named for it. The courtyard, the piazza, the piazza's modest church San Giovanni della Pigna, the nearby Via della Pigna, and in fact, the whole neighborhood. Pigna is one of the Rome's 22 Rioni (neighborhoods). Rione Pigna is medium-sized, and streches from the Pantheon to Via del Corso, from Piazza Venezia to Largo Argentina, and its symbol is, you guessed it, a pinecone.

Photo sources: 1, 2
StumbleUpon Pin It

Monday, August 22, 2011

Are Italian women really unhappy?

An article in last Thursday’s Telegraph bearing this provocatively titled article has created a bit of a buzz among my expatriate friends here in Rome. So I'm here to ask the question: Are Italian women really the unhappiest in all of Europe?

Taking a closer look at the article reveals that the title is completely misleading. 4,000 women from 5 countries in Europe were surveyed. 5 countries: Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. There are almost 50 countries in Europe (if you count the baby ones like San Marino and Liechtenstein) so a measly ten percent of those countries can hardly pretend to represent an entire continent. With less than 1,000 women in each country being surveyed, the study is far from representative. Then look at a keyword in the first paragraph: “housewives.” So the article should have been titled: “Based on a small study, Italian housewives are the unhappiest out of five western European countries.” But surely that would not have lured many readers.

Now I am not trying to downplay how difficult life can be for women in Italian society. There’s a long list of things Italian women have to complain about, from lack of benefits for working mothers, to lower salaries than their male colleagues, to sexual harassment and the explicit sexualization of women in the media. But this article makes it sound like the major cause of unhappiness for Italian women is all the fault of the unequal division of household chores.

Here are the statistics that baffled me the most: “Research has found that 70 percent of Italian men have never used an oven, while 95 percent have never emptied a washing machine.” What? Who were they surveying? 60 year-old men who live with their housewives and 25 year-olds still living at home with mamma? The Italian husbands I know, and I will start with my own, do more than their share of housework. The Maritino (as I am only too proud to boast) cooks at least as much as I do, washes the dishes, cleans, does laundry, and even irons my shirts! And he is not, as some have suggested, an exception. I have numerous girlfriends who are married to or living with Italian men, and they also seem eager to do their share of the housework. In fact, in most cases, it is the hubby doing all the cooking! (Let this not reflect poorly on the cooking skills of my fellow Anglo-Saxons.)

Then something dawned on me. My girlfriends and I have one thing in common: we are not Italian. Maybe that is where the change comes in. Then that got me to wondering: Did our Italian men pick us because they were already more open-minded and modern (and therefore more likely to pick a foreign woman), and thus naturally more inclined to shirk traditional gender roles? Or did we pick them in part because we as American/British/Canadian/Australian, etc. women would never put up with a man who was so blatantly sexist? Or is it even simpler? Do American (et al) women simply refuse to wait on a man hand and foot while our Italian counterparts are only too willing to take on the role of slave/supermom/martyr that they watched their own mothers fulfill?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Italian women, but at the risk of sounding like a victim-blamer, it does seem that they often bring this life of drudgery on themselves. In my own experience, I've seen Italian women regularly insist that no one give them a hand, and that goes doubly for males. They enable the stereotype of the Italian male who is coddled and slaved over, first by his mamma, then by his wife.

A few cases in point? I once met an ancient Italian lady walking to the bus stop in Trastevere. She was lugging a heavy duffle bag, so I offered to carry it for her. In the not-so-brief walk, (I was sweating under the massive burden) she revealed to me that she lived in Naples, and that she took the train up to Rome once a month to do her son’s laundry. Yes, she was taking the massive bag of soiled laundry of her 40 year-old son down to Naples to wash and bring back up to him, neatly pressed and folded. And he didn’t even give her a ride to the station! She had to take the bus, an 80 year-old feeble little signora! When I asked her why she did it, she beamed and said, she wanted to do it, it was an excuse to see her son more often. Now who is the crazy person in this story? The son who let his mother do this? Or the mother who more than willingly offered to do it? I ask you.

This is probably an extreme case, but certainly not unusual. I have noticed with my own beloved Suocerina (mother-in-law), that when someone is so consistently willing to bend over backward to please you, never letting you lift a finger to help, it’s quite easy to get used to. You often become complacent and forget even to offer to help, especially when you know your half-hearted attempt will be met by shouts of “Lascia! Faccio io!” (Leave it! I’ll do it!). Life just becomes too easy when Mammina (or Mogliettina, when the time comes) makes life so convenient. Why should a man offer to help when the women around him have always made it clear that to do so would be ridiculous?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this, but it is certainly not as cut and dried as this article would have you believe. I'd love to hear your take, so please comment!

Update: This post caught the attention of a journalist for Italy's Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, who mentioned me (quite harshly) on the paper's blog. In this post I respond to her attack of me!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
StumbleUpon Pin It

Friday, August 19, 2011

Real Rome: The Ara Pacis in Technocolor

When you think of ancient Roman architecture and sculpture, when you imagine yourself traveling back to the time of the Caesars (please don’t tell me I’m the only one who fantasizes about time travel) what do you see? Immaculate white marble statues and gleaming, bright white temples and palaces?
Well, think again.

Ancient Rome was very colorful. Statues would have been painted with flesh tones, as well as bright colors for the garments, and would have sported uncannily realistic glass eyes. Temples would have radiated in red, blue, green, purple and gold. This is no recent discovery, but something that has been common knowledge among archaeologists and art historians since the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum were first uncovered in the mid-1700s. Nevertheless, the Renaissance misconception of an all-white Rome has persisted even into our times, and most people have a hard time visualizing garish multi-colored temples and palaces that seem vulgar in comparison with the pure and monochromatic ones of our imagination. This is in part due to the wealth of neoclassical architecture that swept Europe in the mid-18th century (and slightly later the United States, particularly in Washington, D.C.) ironically the same time those very discoveries were being made to prove this vision erroneous.

So it seems this is the dirty little secret of archaeology. We all know these sculptures and temples were tarted up in every color in the rainbow, but nobody wants to admit it. Some truths are better left unseen.

At least that is what you might think until you’ve seen the Ara Pacis on a Saturday night in summer. This stunning 1st century BC monument, which deserves a post of its own at a later date, is viewable on Saturday nights until the end of summer (only 3 left!) as it once may have looked. With the use of lasers, art historians collaborating with graphic artists and technicians, have made it possible to see the Ara Pacis in its full, brazen glory, like it or not. I, for one, like it. The bas-reliefs speak to you and the floral patterns burst to life. I find that all-white look rather boring, actually. My number one question: did they use fuchsia?

Head to the Ara Pacis on August 20th or 27th or September 3rd, from 9pm to midnight to see for yourself!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
StumbleUpon Pin It

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Stuck in the city on Ferragosto?

Then lucky you! Because while nearly everyone you know is getting sunburnt and dehydrated under the hot August sun, or steaming in traffic, or fighting a crowd of rowdy sea-crazed Romans, or perhaps even getting stung by a jellyfish, you can immerse yourself in the air-conditioned and inspiring culture you can't find anywhere but Rome.

Ferragosto, roughly the equivalent of the UK's August bank holiday, falls every year on August 15th and is more than just a national holiday. It is the day in which the city (already half deserted) empties of all but its most stubborn inhabitants (and a few ill-advised tourists who should probably be in the south of Spain by now). The city is eerily quiet and a walk down any normally bustling street will provide nothing but closed and shuttered shops, one after the other. If you are one of the few sorry people whose great-aunt didn't leave you a beach house in her will, or whose best friend doesn't have an apartment in Sardegna, you might feel pretty sorry for yourself.

Until now.

That's because this year nearly all the civic museums in Rome will be open (despite the fact that it's a holiday and a Monday), and consequently nearly empty, so you can have all the art you want, all to yourself.

Here's a list of museums open this Ferragosto:

Museo di Roma al Palazzo Braschi, Via di San Pantaleo, 10. 9am-7pm. €9
Current exhibits: Poetry in Nature: Watercolors of Onorato Carlandi, plus a special exposition of about 70 works that have until now been kept in the museum's archives.

Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco, Corso V. Emanuele II, 116. 9am-7pm. €5.50
Current exhibit: Along the rivers of Babylon, an istallation on the external balcony.

Museo dell'Ara Pacis, Lungotevere in Augusta. 9am-7pm. €9
Current exhibit: The Farnesina Palace and its collections, displaying works on loan from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Musei Capitolini, Piazza del Campidoglio, 1. 9am-8pm. €12
Current exhibits: Portraits: the many faces of power, featuring portraits of Roman leaders, and At the altar of God, an exhibit on the life of Pope John Paul II.

Museo dei Mercati Traiani, Via IV Novembre, 94, 9am-7pm. €11
Current exhibit: The photographic dream of Franco Angeli 1967-1975.

Museo Carlo Bilotti (in Villa Borghese) Viale Fiorello La Guardia. 9am-7pm. €7
Current Exhibit: Forattini. Viva l'itaglia.

Museo Pietro Canonica (in Villa Borghese), Piazza Siena. 9am-7pm. €5.50
Current exhibit: Ercole Drei: Sculptor in Rome

Musei di Villa Torlonia, Via Nomentana, 70. 9am-7pm. €5.50
Current exhibits: The unpredictable lightness of material: The art of cast iron between the 1800s and 1900s, and 100 years of Machu Picchu's revelation to the world: 1911-2011.

MACRO, Via Reggio Emilia, 54. 11am-10pm. €11
MACRO Testaccio, Via Orazio Giustiniani, 4. 4pm-12am. €5
Numerous installations and exhibits

Museo di Roma in Trastevere, Piazza Sant'Egidio 1b. 10am-8pm. €4
Current exhibits: Cuba: also an Italian story, and Che Guevara photographer

Enjoy Ferragosto!
StumbleUpon Pin It

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A new find: L'Antico Moro

Living in Trastevere as I have for nearly 7 years, I have gotten used to charming, semi-touristy restaurants with pretty good food at slightly exaggerated prices. Nothing terrible, just nothing all that special either. I have my favorite exceptions where I know I'll always get a good meal without being hassled by an accordian player, but I can list those special spots on one hand with a few fingers to spare, so sometimes they can get repetitive. Discovering new restaurants is always exciting!

Having said that, I am very reluctant to try anywhere new, unless it has been specifically recommended by someone I trust. There are just too many traps out there, especially in Trastevere, that even seasoned residents sometimes fall into. So it was quite out of character that I suggested to the Maritino that we try a place on Via del Moro that I've passed a thousand times. It's one of those non-descript places with checkered table clothes and Roman Holiday prints on the walls. I would never have dreamed of walking in were it not for the fact that the front door was firmly closed, with a curtain blocking the view inside.

Tip #1 when looking for a restaurant in Rome: Closed doors generally signal where the locals go.

This combined with surprisingly low prices, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try it (especially as in mid-August, nearly every other place is closed). My first impression of this place is that they haven't quite figured out what an amazing location they've got. Less than a block from Piazza Trilussa, most of the other restaurants in this area have got themselves all decked out with outdoor seating, menus in four languages and waiters luring you inside (possibly to dine on preprepared, frozen food). Now I'm not going to pretend this place is a big secret, I was not the only non-Italian in the place, it is where it is, but they are clearly not marketing themselves toward your average Rick Steve's reader.

I am (very) far from being a food blogger, or even a foodie, so my descriptions will leave a lot to be imagined, but the home-style cooking was divine. An absolute must are the Pizzelle del Moro. Hard to describe, they are sort of like small balls of pizza dough that have been puffed up, fried and drenched with warm tomato sauce. Delectable! And at 2 euros a pop, they cost the same as the undesired bread basket that so often seems to show up unbidden.

Being a semi-veggie, I have a hard time finding an enticing pasta option at osterie offering traditional Roman fare, and usually have nothing more to chose between than your basic cacio e pepe and arrabbiata (neither of them my favorites). But Antico Moro offers a dish called Casarecci del Moro that combines some of my very favorite things: cherry tomatoes, eggplant, smoked mozzarella and basil! It's heavenly! They also offer a plate of grilled veggies and other antipasti that will make you drool, if you have room for all that!


L'Antico Moro
Via del Moro, 61/62

Anyone have any favorite traditional and non-touristy restaurants in Rome?
StumbleUpon Pin It

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Seven Kings of Rome: More on Romulus

On Friday evening I attended this summer’s final performance of the Miracle Players’ new show.  An annual tradition I look forward to every year, it’s a very entertaining way to kick off the weekend. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of attending one of these outdoor performances, they are produced by 5 English-speaking actors who put together a 40-minute play about Rome (ancient or not) every summer, and perform it overlooking the Roman Forum. This year’s subject was quite apropos, and has me back on the topic I left off last Monday: The Seven Kings of Rome.

I know that I will never be able to tell the story half as amusingly as the Miracle Players did. My favorite bit is when the twin brothers, sporting British boarding school drawls, first decide to found their new civilization. It goes something like this:
-Hallo, Rommy!
-Hallo, Remmy!
-What d'you say we build a city?
Stop reading now if you are expecting me to come up with anything half so witty.

So we all know how Romulus became king, as well as his brilliant (if brutal) plan for intermarriage with the ladies of the nearby Sabine Hills, but what happened next? I'm sure you are simply dying to know…

After peace was reached between the Romans and the Sabines, thanks to the intercession of the Roman-by-marriage Sabine women, Rome was co-ruled for a time by Romulus, whose seat of power was still the Palatine Hill and, Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines, who ruled from the Quirinal Hill. The Comitium, a public meeting space that later came to house the Curia, became the mutual government center of the now joint kingdom. One hundred of the Sabine’s leading citizens were invited to become members of the Roman Senate, the two cultures merged and voilà, the population (and army) doubled.

The Sabines seemingly invented the concept, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” and this philosophy served them well, but it served the Romans even more so. This was the first instance of what would come to be a common political tool for the Romans: granting citizenship (at times in limited form) to Rome’s allies or conquered peoples. A conquered people were much less likely to revolt if they felt they were part of the whole, and if Rome could offer them an improved standard of living. Romanization, this absorption of other smaller and less powerful kingdoms or city-states into the fabric of Rome over the centuries, is one of the main reasons Rome succeeded in conquering most of the known world.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3
StumbleUpon Pin It

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Apoxyomenos, Namesake of Vicolo dell'Atleta

Translation of the ancient Greek: a man wiping himself off or, more succinctly, the wiper (or in some translations, the scraper). I love these nice, literal titles. The man in question is using a stirgil (a curved spatula-like instrument) to wipe off his sweat. Looks a bit like a medieval torture device!

As I mentioned in my last post, this is the work that the charming alley in Trastevere was named for. Luckily they decided against calling it Wiper Alley. No, Vicolo dell'Atleta sounds a hundred times more appealing. Although in the act of wiping, an athlete he is. A runner, as attested to by his long, lean, muscular thighs, (makes me want to go for a run myself) and he has just completed a race.

The work is a first century AD marble copy of the Greek bronze original, cast by Lysippos of Sikyon back in 330 BC. It seems that Lysippos was a bit of a rebel, developing his own personal artistic style, elongating his figures' limbs and making their heads slightly smaller. "Other artists make men as they are; I make them as they appear," he proudly stated.  Perhaps his daring new style was what earned him the job as court sculptor to Alexander the Great. This copy, also created in Greece but at a much later date, lives in the Pio Clementine Museum at the Vatican Museums, after its long sleep in the bowels of the Trastevere synagogue.

Photo sources: 1, 2
StumbleUpon Pin It

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Streets of Rome - Vicolo dell'Atleta

One of the many things that delights me about this city is its street names. Every street, road and alleyway in this town was christened for a very specific reason.

The one on my mind today is Vicolo dell'Atleta. Athlete's Alley.

Tucked away amongst the narrow backstreets on the quiet side of Trastevere, this picturesque vine-covered alley slightly inclines, adding to its charm. But why the name?

At the beginning of the tiny street, just around the corner from Via Genovese, the façade of an extraordinary building can be found. This was the site of a tenth century synagogue in what was once the heart of Rome’s Jewish Quarter, (before it moved across the river to its current location).

Sadly, only a shell of the synagogue survives today, but the thousand-year-old facade, with its columned archways, that probably once sheltered a loggia, along with its pointed arch detailing gives us a glimmer of the medieval soul of this city. An even more significant detail is the faint but unmistakable sight of Hebrew letters etched onto the columns.

But where does the Athlete come in? The doorway on the lower left is the backdoor of Spirito diVino, a fantastic restaurant whose main entrance is on Via Genovese. We've eaten here a few times, and the food and wine are superb, but the true wonder is underground. Although the restaurant itself lives on the second floor of what remains of the medieval Synagogue--you would never guess with the stark modern interior--downstairs, if you ask, you will be led into their wine cellar, an ancient room which, the owners boast, "predates the Colosseum!" The wine cellar in fact dates back to the 1st century AD, and what is even more astounding is what was found there. Why yes, an athlete.

Apoxyomenos, to be precise. But more on him another day.

Photo sources: 1, 2
StumbleUpon Pin It

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Seen in Rome: Priests like gelato too

Rome is a place brimming with photo opportunities, from nuns buying corkscrews at Ikea to gladiators in the metro, not to mention the real wonders. Now, I am extremely far from being even a decent photographer (well, maybe I'm half-way decent. If you meet me on the street and ask me to take your photo, I will make sure you are roughly in the center, and that you can see whatever is behind you that you are posing with, and not, say, the pavement. It will most likely be in focus and my finger will not be in the shot. That's about all I can promise).

Still, in Rome, even half-way decent amatuer photographers can come up with some good shots. One of my all-time favorites is the waiter at Pizzeria ai Marmi with 8 pizzas in his hands. Another personal fave is the graceful traffic cop in Piazza Venezia. Problem is, I never carry my camera around with me anymore as I did my first year here, so all the interesting photos I have date from that period. I will try, beginning next week, to carry my tiny camera at all times, and post a new photo every Tuesday. Hopefully this will have the added bonus of keeping my eyes ever open to the details all around me, sometimes beautiful, sometimes hilarious, but always picturesque.

Photo by author
StumbleUpon Pin It

Monday, August 1, 2011

An Introduction to the Seven Kings of Rome: Fact or Legend?

Once upon a time, when I started this blog -ah, my life was so much simpler then- I was ambitious enough to think that I would write six times a week, with every day of the week dedicated to a different topic. And I chose Monday as history day. I had the lofty idea that I would write out a concise history of Rome, one blog post at a time. Not a bad exercise for me, really, as no matter how much you think you know, there is always so much more to learn. Now more than ever I have reason to do so.

So, let's see, on 26 April 2010 I wrote about the Founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Right on cue, one week later, I presented the fascinating story of the Rape of the Sabine Women. And then.... nothing. Wow, two whole weeks it lasted. We can definitely do better than that! Let's try to make it at least three weeks this time...

Maybe a little perspective on Ancient Roman history would be timely. The history of ancient Rome can be catagorized into three main periods: the Roman Kingdom (or the Regal Period), the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. Having barely begun this concise (but hopefully thorough) history, we are still quite early on in the first, the time of the legendary kings of Rome, seven in number.

I say legendary because the truth is, we don't really know if any of these kings actually existed. In 390 BC, Gaul sacked Rome, plundering the city and destroying virtually all of the city's records. Since we have no official documents to give us the truth, we must rely on Titus Livy's version of events, written at the end of the first century BC and into the first century AD (as Eddie Izzard puts it, right around the BC/AD change over, when "you didn't have to wind your watch back, you had to get a new bloody watch"). Can we trust what the great historian told us (I'm referring to Livy here, but I think Eddie fits that description too), writing nearly 800 years after his story began?

Livy tells us there were seven kings, ruling Rome from 753 to 509. From a practical standpoint, it's rather hard to believe that over nearly 250 years, in such a volatile time and place, the growing power that was Rome was ruled over by just seven men? With an average reign of nearly 35 years? No usurpers? No overthrows? No assassinations? Seems unlikely.

However, the early Romans were, as always, ahead of their time. The crown was not hereditary, but rather bestowed upon the man chosen by the curiae, a group of ten elected representatives. Under those surprisingly democratic circumstances, maybe it was possible for Rome to be ruled peaceably by so few individuals. Well, we'll almost certainly never know for sure, but does it really matter? As I've written about before, I always tend to go with the legend. I mean, by all means, search for the truth if you can find it, but if the fact have been completely obliterated by vicious mobs of barbarians, then you might as well revel in the legend. As Goethe put it, if they were great enough to invent such stories, we, at least, should be great enough to believe them.

StumbleUpon Pin It
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...