Saturday, July 31, 2010

On my own again, and a recap of Charlie's last day

I walked Charlie to the train station this morning and watched him get on his train to the airport, so I'm alone again. Here's an account of what we did yesterday.

For Charlie's last day, we decided we wanted to spend the day walking around the city, seeing a few more sights, and making sure that Charlie would be heading home with lots of great memories of Italy. In the morning, we started out by taking the train from our B&B in Trastevere to the Piramide station, and then walking up to the Circus Maximus. We'd watched the chariot race from Ben-Hur the night before to psych ourselves up. There's not much left there - just the space, and no masonry or anything, but you could still really get an idea of what the ancient space might have been like. There's some sort of developing going on nearby, and we hope they're not planning to build on the Circus Maximus itself. Overall, though, this stop was an interesting exercise in thinking about urban renewal in old cities - the old circus is now one of the city's largest open spaces, and the lanes once used for chariots are now primarily runs for dogs playing fetch. There's also a great view of the Palatine Hill, so I felt like this was a good visit.

Here we are in the Circus Maximus:

Notice the gorgeous azure sky - Charlie brought excellent weather to Rome, and I'm hoping he plans on leaving it here. The mornings have been fresh and cool, and the afternoons haven't been too unbearably hot. I'm hoping this holds, because I'm getting a much better view of Italy without sweat stinging my eyes.

Next, we went to Santa Maria in Cosmedin, because I wasn't going to let Charlie leave Rome without putting his hand in the Bocca de Verite (Mouth of Truth), an ancient Roman drain cover that became a tourist attraction starting in the seventeenth century. Supposedly, if you put your hand in the mouth while telling a lie, it will bite your hand off, but I didn't see it biting anyone. This sort of thing fascinates me - Rome is just as interesting for what it might say about the history of tourism as anything else. This also might be one for my "people and public sculpture" file. I'd really like to know more about how this legend came about.

I went for the timid face pose:

And Charlie went for the Baroque action moment (when does he not?):

Inside, Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a gorgeous and evocative early Christian church, and the atmosphere was enhanced by the chant they were piping through the church's speakers during our visit.

The church was dark, so this shot is brought to you with the help of knee tripod and 10-second timer (the timer is good for slow exposures because then you don't shake the camera by pressing the button):

I really loved the altar:

That's an ancient Roman porphyry bathtub, and we all know how much I love porphyry bathtubs. I definitely appreciate the creative reuse.

From Santa Maria in Cosmedin, we took a quick rest across the street in a pleasant grassy area with two small Roman temples, and then went off in search of the Tarpeian Rock, from which the ancient Romans used to toss traitors. I wanted to visit it because it was an important stop for Grand Tour travelers looking for a view of the Forum and the Palatine, and because it was the site of the murder in The Marble Faun. We had some disagreement about the best way to look for it, but finally we realized that the entire area is currently closed off due to construction.

Here I am pointing up to where the rock probably is, and registering my disappointment:

But we had a pretty good view of the Forum anyway, and I thought we needed a picture of Charlie with ancient Rome below him:

We decided to make one more stop before lunch, the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, a giant marble monstrosity built at the end of the nineteenth century in honor of the unification of Italy that hulks on the side of the Capitoline Hill. Here's Charlie looking skeptical in front of it:

I know that this monument was built well before Mussolini, but the fascist overtones have been giving me the creeps every time I've seen it for the past two weeks. The entire monument is patrolled by carabinieri, the Italian military police, many of them carrying automatic weapons, and they yell at you if you sit down anywhere. Oh well. At least there was a great view of the Corso and the Piazza del Popolo from the top of the stairs.

We stopped for lunch (Charlie had gnocchi for the first time), and then Charlie took a quick nap by the Column of Trajan while I figured out what to do next. We decided to head to S. Pietro in Vincoli so that Charlie could see Michelangelo's Moses, and on the way Charlie took a picture of me in front of one of my favorite monuments:

We arrived at S. Pietro about a half hour before the 3pm opening time (most of the churches close for long lunches), and settled down to wait in the shaded arcade in front of the church. While we were waiting, some crazy lady showed up and started serenading us all with off-key hymns and snatches of Italian opera, while vaguely waving her arms and dancing around. It was clear that this lady had been a good singer at one point in her life, but no longer - it was hard to decide whether the spectacle was comedy or tragedy. She passed a hat at the end of her performance, and I gave her some money because I felt bad for her.

Here's a surreptitious picture (shot by Charlie):

After a quick tour of the church, we decided to walk over to the Piazza Navona, to have a portrait draw by the street artists there. On the way, we stopped at Bernini's elephant to take a photo in honor of our coming nuptials:

And then we were at the Piazza Navona, and selecting our artist. He drew me first, and sitting for a portrait was an interesting (and uncomfortable!) experience - I felt like I couldn't move, and it was interesting to watch the reactions of passersby, and wonder whether they liked the portrait or not. I also thought a lot about Grand Tour travelers who would have oil versions of the same thing.

Then it was Charlie's turn, and I snapped a few pictures while he sat for his portrait:

The big reveal of the finished work is below, along with another piece that we bought from a different vendor. On the way back, we stopped at the Torre Argentina, a Roman ruin that has now become a sanctuary for many of Rome's feral cats. Here's Charlie with some gatti di Roma:

We counted somewhere between 15 and 20 cats while we stood there, and I'm sure there were more. Apparently, they give free tours of the site during their operating hours, but we were too late. I'm sorry I didn't know this, because I know Charlie would have loved to tour a ruin full of cats, but I'll definitely be going back on my own this week.

We had our last dinner together in Rome at a Chinese restaurant, and it was actually pretty awesome. I never thought I'd be saying this, but if you're a budget traveler in Rome, Chinese restaurants are your friend. There's only so much pizza you can eat, and eating in a real Italian restaurant is extremely expensive. For the same price you would pay for a crummy "tourist" (read: sucker) menu at a restaurant, you can get a wonderful and flavorful meal at a Chinese restaurant.

And now, here's the result of sitting for a portrait for an hour in the Piazza Navona:

You know that scene in Napoleon Dynamite when Trish looks at the portrait that Napoleon drew of her for the first time? .......Yeah. This doesn't look like us at all, and the people it does look like are terrifying.

Much better was this little piece:

We bought this from two artists who were working quickly with spray paint in a sort of performance. They produced this in less than five minutes, using stencils and a variety of spray techniques. Since we both love stencils and street art in general, we knew we wanted this, and I kind of love how cheesy-romantic it is. Can't wait to hang it in our apartment when I get back to the States!

And finally, our last picture this morning at the train station in Rome:

Good thing I'm going back to hostel life today, because I'm feeling pretty lonely. I hope I meet some cool people today.

A guide to pedestrian traffic lights in Rome

Certain death:

Imminent death:

Proceed with caution:

That's all for tonight, folks. This is Charlie's last night in Rome, so I'll post my long post about our day today after I walk him to the train station tomorrow morning.

Friday, July 30, 2010

I looked up, and then I looked down

Today was Charlie's day to visit the smallest independent state in the world, Vatican City! We got a little bit of a late start after our long walk last night (we're both pretty tired), but sometimes one just needs to sleep a little bit extra. We started out in St. Peter's Basilica, and Charlie listened politely while I followed him around chattering about the art. We stood at various points in the church and talked about what other buildings could fit inside; at one point, we found a spot for Charlie's house in Morristown, and in another we found a chapel bigger than the entirety of the parish church in Highland Park where I grew up. I think I figured out why St. Peter's doesn't seem overwhelming - it's because the side chapels are huge on their own, and the nave is only divided up into three "chapels" on each side, rather than the dozens of normal size that it could hold. The relatively small number of chapels and piers really humanizes the space.

I found myself getting more annoyed than usual with tourists in the church today. I don't know why people persist in wearing short skirts or shorts and bare shoulders to the Vatican when pretty much everyone who's been to Italy will tell you that you will get turned away if you dress that way. And I'm sick of the tour groups, and the rude photographers, and a lot of things. Usually I can handle it, but today I was extra claustrophobic about it all.

After we left the basilica, Charlie made use of the papal post office:

And here we are in a quick picture in front of the facade to commemorate our visit:

After the basilica, we headed over to the Vatican Museums. As you may remember, I was already at the Vatican Museums last week, where I waited on line for two hours and then had the memorable experience of walking through the Sistine Chapel without looking up, since I had promised Charlie I would visit it for the first time with him. This time, I decided to book tickets online with an extra fee to avoid the line, but when we arrived, we found no line at all, and we could have easily gotten into the museum without waiting. So for future reference - apparently it's not so hard to get into the Vatican Museums in the early afternoon on Fridays in July.

Since I had been through the museums once before, I didn't have to wear my Serious Art Historian hat, and we spent some time visiting old favorites and taking pictures of each other.

Here's Charlie with what he called a Papal Whack-a-mole:

I argued that it was an Imperial Whack-a-Mole because it had been made during the Roman Empire, but Charlie maintains that it is a Papal Whack-a-Mole because it is in the Vatican's collections. I can see both sides.

This guy made me laugh:

I'm not sure of his identity, but usually if you see a male nude portrait bust, even if the head is in the Republican statesman type, the chest tends to be at least somewhat muscular and idealized. This saggy old man chest was rather surprising to see.

Here I am with an old pal:

Maybe this is my version of a Grand Tour portrait, with antiquities in the background. All I need are some mountains or something.

And here's Charlie with a statue of Hermes:

Charlie really likes that Hermes' symbol is the caduceus, but the caduceus accompanying this Hermes looks more like a snaky pretzel at this point with all the damage.

And finally, after walking through all the hallowed halls of the museum, we were outside the doors of the Sistine Chapel. We joined hands, breathed deeply, walked in, and looked up.

And looked, and looked, and looked. We talked about the restoration project that revealed the bright colors, about how Michelangelo started painting bigger figures to increase legibility from the floor, about the amount of ceiling that could be painted in fresco in a day, about the worst pair of women's breasts ever painted by a major Western artist (The Flood, lower left, mercifully not visible in their full gory detail from the floor), about self-portraits and portraits of friends and enemies, about linear perspective, and about many other things.

And Janie, we made sure to think of you as we looked at the ceiling. I also thought of many of my fellow art historians who have also passed through this space and looked up.

Pictures were not allowed, but we took out the camera, turned off the flash, pointed the lens upward and looked down at it. So here we are in the Sistine Chapel:

We stayed for about a half hour, and even managed to snag two of the coveted seats along the wall to make it easier to look up. The Sistine Chapel delivered everything we hoped it would.


That was the end of the museum, but we had one more awesome activity planned: climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter's. I had heard that this was a scary activity for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights, and I am both, so I was a little worried. There are 551 steps up to the dome (although Charlie only counted 520), and so we were also looking at a good physical workout.

I made it without incident to the first vista point, which was inside the church. We walked along a catwalk in the interior of the dome, and looked down at the tiny figures on the floor of the basilica below. Here is Charlie's picture of Bernini's Throne of St. Peter, as seen from above:

From that catwalk, we still had about 300 steps to climb. The stairs did indeed get narrower and narrower, and steeper and steeper, and the walls began to lean inward, making it impossible to stand completely upright as we walked up the most curved segment of the dome. Finally, the tilt straightened out somewhat, but then we followed a series of switchbacks culminating in an incredibly narrow spiral staircase. Here's Charlie on the spiral staircase - see how few steps are between him and me, but not that the top of his head is actually below my feet. We all know that Charlie is quite tall, so that should give you an idea of the steepness of these stairs:

But finally, we were out in the open air at the top of the dome, and the view was spectacular. In characteristic form, my fear of heights kicked in, with some shaking and whimpering and flop sweat. But I managed to enjoy the bird's-eye view of the city, and I even helped some other visitors locate particular buildings in the landscape.

Here we are at the top of the dome:

I think I detect a bit of an insane glint in my eye - that's the fear. It was pretty cool to see the city this way, though, and I'm not going to forget it. I just hope I don't have nightmares about falling from the top.

Tomorrow is Charlie's last full day, and we have a full day of sightseeing planned, so I must be off to sleep! Maybe my feet will stop hurting at some point.

A turn toward the spooky

Yesterday was another day to visit one of the sites on Charlie's list of things to do in Rome - the catacombs! From looking at guidebooks, we knew that getting to the catacombs was not going to be easy. They're off on the Via Appia Antica, the old road of the dead in the Roman period, and they're not easily reachable by subway. In addition, both of our guidebooks stressed very emphatically that the Via Appia is "not pedestrian friendly", so we knew we couldn't walk. Thus, our options consisted of several buses; the one that stopped in the most convenient location for us was labeled as "notoriously unreliable". "How unreliable could it be?" we thought. Ha.

We took our short train ride from the hotel to the bus stop, and got to the stop just in time to see a bus pulling away. We weren't too upset, though, because we both wanted lunch and there was a nearby sandwich stand. So we got our sandwiches, and ate them. And waited. And waited. And waited.

All told, we waited more than an hour for the bus, and then had one brief shining moment where we thought it had arrived, but we were wrong - it was just a guy going on break. This is how we felt:

Finally, our bus arrived, and we were off. I followed the bus route on my map, but once we got onto the Via Appia and close to the catacombs, I was a little worried about missing our stop, so I suggested we get off the bus a little while before our first destination, the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.

Big mistake.

Because we got off the bus too early, we had to walk along the Via Appia for a bit, and "not pedestrian friendly" doesn't even begin to cover how terrifying it was. The Via Appia is barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, has no sidewalks, and is boarded by ten-foot walls on both sides, so there's nowhere to go to escape. This doesn't stop the cars from going at incredible speeds, and the motorcycles from deliberately cutting close to pedestrians while honking their horns. This was one of the tensest moments of our trip so far.

But finally, we reached our destination. To visit the catacombs, you have to join a guided tour, and I can't say that I'm sorry about that - after being inside them, I could easily see how one could get lost and never come out again. Our tour group was a large one, though, and the tour guide wasn't particularly informative, so our group's purpose was mainly as a set of living bread crumbs to keep us from getting lost. Charlie and I stayed in the back of the group, and used his flashlight to peek at darkened tombs and wall paintings as we went by.

I was thinking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and other nineteenth-century American expats the entire time, and at no point did the ghosts of the Grand Tour appear to me more fully than at the moment when we stepped into the tomb of St. Cecilia:

St. Cecilia's remains are long gone, now transferred as holy relics to a church in Trastevere, but in their place is the marble statue you can see in this photo (not my photo - no pictures allowed in the catacombs). The statue is a copy of a work by Stefano Maderno that is now in the same church in Trastevere that houses the saint's body, and represents (supposedly) the position and appearance of the saint's body when her remains were rediscovered several hundred years after her burial. But it was the inscription that interested me: "In Memory of Edith Cecilia McBride of New York U.S.A." All the tour guide could tell us was that the statue was placed in the nineteenth century by a husband in honor of his dead wife, and I was unable to find out any information after my brief search online. But what an interesting story this might be! I'm definitely filing this one away for the future.

Here's another representative photo of the tombs:

The real bummer about this tour was that I know from teaching the survey class that St. Callixtus is full of important early Christian painting, but the tour guide didn't point out any of them to us, and Charlie and I had to do our best to look at things quickly without losing sight of our human bread crumbs. I know I must have walked past the paintings of Jonah, the Good Shepherd, the loaves and fishes, and others, but I wasn't able to get a clear idea of what I was seeing. They need to run a special tour for art historians.

But hey, at least the grounds outside were beautiful:

This was seriously one of the most gorgeous places I've been in Italy. I wish I had more time to explore the countryside.

Our next tour was in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, but unfortunately I wasn't able to find any pictures online of the coolest aspects of that tour. Both Charlie and I liked this tour a lot better - we were a much smaller group, and our guide did a much better job of explaining things. Our favorite part was when he showed us the pretty well-preserved remains of an old pagan necropolis that would have originally been open to the sky (now it's underneath the floor of the church). The best way I can describe it is that it sort of looked like a stage set for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, if you've ever seen that play on stage - three tiny Roman buildings set at crazy angles. That was definitely a high point of the day.

Afterwards, we walked a little way down the road to the Circus of Maxentius, but the gates were closed, since I think it was too late in the day to get in:

But it sure was picturesque. And here's Charlie outside the closed gate:

After that, we decided to head back up to Rome, since we couldn't stand the insanity of the Via Appia anymore, and we were exhausted. I know I probably missed some cool tombs further down the way, but I don't think I'm going to be going back down there, because I value my life and all. There's a lot to be said for splurging on a taxi occasionally, and I think that may be the best way to do things if you want to see the Via Appia.

Later in the evening, we went exploring in Trastevere and then along the Tiber River near the Isola Tiburina, which has something of a carnival atmosphere with street vendors and outdoor drinking establishments at night. And I had my first taste of Duff beer:

It's not bad - kind of tastes like Heineken. But I think the main reason to drink it is the amusement factor.

Gotta go - we're going to the Sistine Chapel today, and this time I'm going to look up!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Too tired

Sorry guys, but I'm just too tired to post tonight. Charlie and I went for a very long walk along the Tiber River, and I need to attend to my throbbing feet. I'll post more in the morning, though!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And now I know where to get the best view of Rome

Today was Charlie's first full day in Rome, and so he made a lot of the decisions about what to do today - and he made very good ones. First, he wanted to visit the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucini, near the Piazza Barberini. One of his coworkers had told him about several chapels in the crypt decorated with the bones of thousands of deceased Capuchin friars, and so he wanted to check them out. I am so glad we did, because I had never heard of this church (it isn't even in my guidebook!) and I probably wouldn't have gone if Charlie hadn't suggested it. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the crypt (understandable - human life and all that), but here's one from Wikipedia to give you an idea:

The bones of the friars were arranged in complicated and rather kitschy mosaics, surrounding complete skeletons or even mummified remains of superior members of the order. I've been thinking that it would be interesting to place this church alongside the modern Body Worlds - might make a cool lecture for an undergraduate Visual Culture class.

The church upstairs was also a worthwhile space to visit:

Much plainer than most of the churches I visited earlier this week, almost all of the architectural details were rendered illusionistically in paint, so Charlie got his first taste of illusionistic ceiling painting, and was duly impressed. We're going to visit some more churches over the course of the week to sample different flavors of church decoration.

Leaving the church, we wove our way through the city so that Charlie could get his first taste of gelato and of the Italian Pepsi formula, and we took the Spanish Steps as part of our route:

Here is Charlie modeling the patented Lame Tourist Gesture, which involves limply raising a hand as if to say, "Look Facebook! I stood next to a famous thing!" while wearing an expression that says, "I have soiled myself!" You stand around in Rome long enough, and you'll see lots of people doing this.

Our other stop along the way was the Pantheon, so that Charlie could get his first look at an extraordinary domed interior, and I could see the light from the oculus hitting a new part of the structure. Here's Charlie looking up at the dome:

And then it was time for the main event: the Castel Sant'Angelo. The fact that we went there today was kind of a fluke; we were sitting around the hotel this morning decided what we wanted to visit free with our Roma Passes, and while we were doing this, Charlie was looking at a book of postcards he bought. There was one of the Castel Sant'Angelo, and he said, "Ooh, can we go here?" Then I remembered that the admission fee had seemed kind of excessive to me, so it would be a great place to visit for free. I don't know why I hadn't thought of this before - for some reason, my brain didn't make the connection between "Charlie" and "totally awesome castle thing." I think my brain is broke.

Anyway, we got inside, and right away we encountered one of my favorite things in Italy, the excessively formal and oddly translated English sign:

We wound our way up a really cool set of interior ramps and staircases that were inside the original structure of Hadrian's mausoleum, before it was taken over as a Papal fortress, and found ourselves on an outdoor battlement.

Charlie keeps looking for the trapdoor to the catacombs, but we decided that this one was much too small.

Meanwhile, I peeked out at the Ponte Sant'Angelo.

We climbed all the way to the terrace at the top of the fortress, and when we got there, we were treated to a fantastic panorama of the city of Rome. I really can't imagine that there's a better view anywhere. I haven't been up in the dome of St. Peter's yet, but I almost feel like I don't need to, because from the Castel Sant'Angelo you get the view and you also get to see St. Peter's, which you wouldn't get if you were standing on it. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day, and something I'm going to recommend to anyone visiting Rome.

On the way back down, we found another hilarious sign:

But Charlie didn't listen:

I felt really snug and safe in this doorway:


Much, much, much too silly.

Anyway, after a lot of silliness, we called it a day at the Castel Sant'Angelo. Overall, I'm really glad I went, partially because it was fun to walk through the place, and partly because of the great view, but also because the building really represents the fusion between the rulership of Rome under the emperors and its later reshaping under the popes. I don't know if I would have gotten that idea just anywhere.

After we left the castle, we had a delicious lunch on the banks of the Tiber consisting of Chianti, bread, brie, salami, and watermelon. Here we are after lunch:

And then it was late enough in the day to visit San Luigi dei Francesi, a church near the Pantheon that is home to Caravaggio's three excellent paintings concerning the life of St. Matthew, including the famous Calling of St. Matthew. Here's a long view of the chapel (the Calling of St. Matthew is on the left wall):

What a terrific experience. I've seen this painting, taught this painting, and graded exams concerning this painting on so many occasions, and it was just wonderful to see it in the flesh. This was another opportunity to see a Caravaggio without too many problems with lighting, except when hooligans were taking pictures of it with their flashes. This church needs to provide better security for this painting.

And last but not least, we couldn't end a romantic day in Rome without stopping to throw some coins into the Trevi Fountain:

I had saved two American quarters for us to do this, and so now, if the Trevi Fountain has anything to say about it, we're both guaranteed a trip back to Rome! Good to know, because I'm starting to love this place.

Who knows what we'll be doing tomorrow - we're not even sure yet!