Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Photo day: Mailing a letter to Caravaggio

I gasped and stopped in my tracks when I saw this during my Sunday walk. It's not the first time I've seen Caravaggio-inspired street art in Trastevere. The Medusa electrical box was one thing, but this made my easily excitable heart pound with unexpected delight.

It's not just because it's inspired by my favorite painter Caravaggio, or because it comes from one of my favorite of his paintings (see below), but because it features the face of a very young Mario Minniti, one of Caravaggio’s favorite models. And as much as he hates it when I say it, that handsome face, with its half-moon eyebrows, heavily lidded eyes, prominent nose and rosebud mouth, is strikingly similar to my own Maritino’s face (minus Mario's baby fat, naturally). The similarity is much more noticeable in more mature portraits of Minniti, such as the Bacchus. I would do a side-by-side comparison, but that would put me in some seriously hot water, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Keep your eye out for a post featuring the many portraits of Mario Minniti, coming soon…
The Calling of St. Matthew, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, 1599-1600

Did anyone else notice the keyhole right over little Mario's heart?

Photo sources: 1 by author; 2
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Monday, November 26, 2012

Numa Pompilius and the nymph Egeria

Numa Pompilius conversing with Egeria in her grotto, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagan, 1792.

Oh, sweet bloglings,
I'm guessing you gave up hoping long ago that I would ever get back to my ancient Roman story telling. When we left off I was just about to wrap up the story of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s–ahem–secondking. That was 10 months ago.

With an initial plan to add one step each week to our stroll through Roman history, I see that after roughly 135 weeks, I have written a history post a grand total of 8 times. Or, to put it another way, roughly once every four months.

Pathetic, I agree.

One can only push ahead, and try to do better in the future.

Today I will officially finish the story of Numa Pompilius, and I promise, you will never hear his name from me again. (For the first time in history, the name Tullus Hostilius will bring unbridled excitement– at least for me. I’m easily stimulated.) In previous posts I described how Numa was Rome’s most pious king, instituting the cult of theVestal Virgins, reforming religious laws and reorganizing the Roman calendar. He was wise and pacific, creating several codes and laws by which the Romans lived for many centuries to come. But where did he get all this wisdom?

Egeria gives the laws of Rome to Numa Pompilius, Anna Ottani Cavina, Spanish Embassy to the Holy See, Rome, 1806.

A nymph, obviously. I’m not sure exactly how this unlikely pair met, but legend goes that the widowed king was in the habit of taking long walks in the woods (in a part of Rome now known as the Villa Caffarella) with the beautiful nymph, during which she instructed him on how to run the country and its religious institutions. They would hole up in her nymphaeum for hours on end, as the works of so many celebrated artists have illustrated. All this religious and political talk was just too romantic for the young nymph and she fell head-over-heels for the aging monarch and, supposedly, the two married.

Egeria handing Numa Pompilius his shield, Angelica Kauffmann, 1794.

As history has proved time and time again, it is the woman (or in this case the nymph) who makes the man, and in fact, the long prosperity and peace during Numa’s 42-year reign, can be credited to Egeria. The Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum, which was opened in times of war and closed in times of peace, remained resolutely shut during the entire length of his reign. According to Livy, Numa Pompilius died of natural causes at 81, much to the regret of his subjects. He was buried, along with his books, on the Gianicolo Hill.

Numa Pompilius and the Nymph Egeria, Felice Giani, Palazzo Milzetti, Faenza, 1802-1805.

If you want to visit Numa and Egeria’s hangout, take a walk in the wild and sprawling Villa Caffarella near the Via Appia Antica. Egeria’s nymphaeum is in ruins but it’s still there, and its verdant and rustic setting might just inspire you with some religious epiphanies of your own.
The Nymphaeum of Egeria, Villa Caffarella, Rome.
What have we covered so far?

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving in Italy and a new vocabulary word

Learning a new Italian word is always fun, but learning one that even the Maritino himself does not know is exciting indeed. The fact that this occurred just in time for Thanksgiving made me particularly grateful.

So, without further ado, I give you...

La batata.

And before you think I just have a bad cold and can't pronounce my Ps at the moment, I am not talking about a patata (potato) but something much, much yummier.

The sweet potato. What Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without it? Since I humbly volunteer every year to provide the sweet potatoes for my autumnal expat-family feast (i.e. I tell everyone else they'd better not even think about making them, that they are my specialty), it may seem odd that by my 8th Roman Thanksgiving meal, I still hadn't come across this term. (Apparently, like parannanza, it is not a word that gets thrown around right and left.)

I generally wander into my local fruit stand a few days before Thanksgiving mumbling something about patate dolci and il giorno del ringraziamento. Living in Trastevere has its benefits, and one is that the green grocers and specialty stores stock Thanksgiving products this time of year, as if by magic.

But this year, with an exceptionally busy week (we don't get days off for Thanksgiving over here, unfortunately), I was short on time to do my shopping and stopped by the organic store across the street from my aparment, just on the off chance they might have some last-minute sweet potatoes.

Not only did they have the most strangely shaped (and, as it turns out, delicious) sweet potatoes I have ever respectively seen and eaten, I also noted their charming little name on the sign beside them. Batate. When, just a short time later as I was roasting them up, the Maritino asked me what that heavenly smell was (or at least, that is how I choose to recall the moment), I informed him proudly:

Sto preparando le batate!!


No, batate!!

Che cosa sono le batate??!!

(I don't really think this dialogue requires a translation, do you?)

He didn't want to admit at first that I knew a word that he didn't. In fact, he playfully insisted that there was no such thing. I had to drag out the giant Devoti Italian-Italian dictionary, but eventually he gave in. I mean, you can't argue with Devoti. Since in the paragraph-long description, it states that batate are also known as patate dolci (literally sweet potatoes) or patate americane (American potatoes), somehow this has become my new nickname.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Paris in black and white: photographs of Robert Doisneau

"Some days the mere fact of seeing feels like perfect happiness... You feel so rich you long to share your jubilation with others. The memory of such moments is my most precious possession. Maybe because there've been so few of them. A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there-- even if you put them end to end they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds snatched from eternity."  Robert Doisneau

The Kiss at Hotel de Ville, 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau
For as long as I can remember, I have adored this photograph. It summed up everything that was romantic and poetic to my fanciful, adolescent soul. I don't recall where or how I came across it, only that I had a reproduction of it taped to my baby blue Laura Ashley wallpaper, somewhere between my giant A Room with a View poster and my first pair of pointe shoes. And just like Lucy Honeychurch being seized and kissed in a field near Florence, this anonymous Parisienne being kissed on a busy city sidewalk as the rest of the world shuffled around her represented all that my 14-year-old self could possibly want from the world of romance.

It shouldn't be a surprise that my very first boyfriend, whom I met on my very first day at New England Conservatory in Boston when I was barely 18, resembled this dashing smoocher not a little: rumpled jacket, artistically tousled hair, bohemian scarf and ever-present cigarette. I'm not sure I ever made the connection between that troubled but brilliant musician I spent the first three years of my adulthood with and the man in the by-then forgotten photograph I had left in my childhood bedroom, but seeing it again after so many years, hanging in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, it was almost laughably apparent.

The Ballad of Pierrette d'Orient, 1950, © atelier Robert Doisneau

Little did I know at 14 that this stolen kiss was only the tip of the iceberg in Doisneau's arsenal of Paris moments. Stumbling transfixed through the exhibition, I enthusiastically drank in the snapshots of humanity all around me: the wonder in a young girl's eyes as she looks at the Mona Lisa for the first time; a frumpy old wife's resentful glare at the show-girl whose arm is casually resting on her husband's knee; a scrubby boy's look of longing as he stares into a toy store window, the marvel in the eyes of a group of young men staring up at the Eiffel Tower.

Pont d'Iéna, 1945, © atelier Robert Doisneau

And this, for me, is what makes Doisneau one of the greatest photographers of all time: his ability to capture an indescribable moment. Because, as he so eloquently put it in the quote that opens this post, it is these perfect, sublime moments that make life worth living.

As I write these words, a few lines from Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Into the Woods ring out in my head (ironically introduced to me by that self-same first boyfriend):

"Oh, if life were made of moments!... even now and then a bad one--"

"But, if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one..."

Self-portrait with Rolleiflex, 1947, © atelier Robert Doisneau

If you live for unforgettable moments like Robert here and I do, don't miss this chance to see hundreds of his photographs, shot between 1934 and 1991 and exclusively in Paris, in this beautifully curated exhibit. For more information such as opening times and address, see my Exhibits on Now page.

All images courtesy of Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
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