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The weather has been brutally cold in Toronto over the last week. At the weekend, we had the first snowstorm of the year which was earlier than usual. The temperature plummeted down to minus 20C and the lake froze all the way to the Toronto Islands.
Undaunted by these freezing conditions, Torontonians are out skiing, skating and sledding. I have become soft after spending so much time in Rome and go out wearing several layers of clothing and only walking to where I need to get to as opposed to strolling around feeling exhilarated by the snow.
Luckily, there are Christmas indoor events to go to like candlelight carol singing services which I enjoy, especially when there are little children singing. Without doubt, it will be a white Christmas which is very picturesque especially when one is sitting indoors looking at it through a window while enjoying food and drink! The warmth of being with family and friends makes up for the freezing conditions.
Last Sunday, December 1st, marked the opening of the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. A rather tacky market I must say but the shops around start putting up their lights and Christmas decorations so there’s definitely signs of Christmas approaching. The official start of the festive season in Rome is December 8th, Feast of the Imacculate Conception when the Pope replaces the wreath on the statue of the Virgin at the top of a tall column near the Spanish Steps (see Christmas Preparations).
Unfortunately, I will not be there to see this event as I returned to Toronto a couple of days ago. Its nice to be back and its such a change to see new and avant garde architecture instead of buildings steeped in antiquity.
I’m enjoying wandering about the streets of Toronto and I find the store displays here interesting and colourful. Yesterday, we walked along Queen St which has lots of funky stores with enticing displays and little art galleries featuring contemporary art which makes walking around a visual feast. The highlight of my day was seeing this headless bronze by Louise Bourgeois at a show at the Modern Art Gallery (MOCCA) curated by David Cronenberg. A beautiful piece if a little disturbing but then again, the whole show was somewhat disturbing. One of the quotes on the wall said “The silence in the room makes you think that something terrible is about to happen”. Luckily for us, our next stop was at a micro-brewery so we were able to regain the festive spirit.
Winter has suddenly descended upon us and snow is visible on the peaks of the Appenines. Temperatures have dropped to about 6C during the day and just above freezing at night. A good time to visit museums and galleries.
We went to the Palazzo Barberini a magnificent residence now housing a fine art collection. One of the paintings which amused me was one by Domenichino showing Mary Magdalene ascending into heaven surrounded by a host of chubby little angels sometimes referred to as putti (singular ‘putto’ meaning boy or child). These putti are always male, always chubby and usually winged. A few days later, at another exhibition, I came across a funerary urn made in the 1st cent BC which also featured putti. I was surprised as I thought that angels had originated with Christian iconography. Wrong! Its actually the other way around. Putti originally represented Aphrodite’s son Cupid, who mischievously shot arrows of love at unwitting mortals.
During the Renaissance, there was a revival of Greek and Roman art and putti came to represent cherubs who are angels. So if you see these winged babies in Christian art, they’re cherubs but if you see them in ancient Greek or Roman art, they’re putti. Rome’s Renaissance churches are filled with cherubs and I have to say that they really are cute with chubby, dimpled hands and knees.
In the course of reading about putti and cherubs, I found out that angels who are supposed to be spiritual beings closest to God, are not all equal. Who would have thought that there are nine hierarchies of angels each with a further set of orders? The highest order are the seraphim who fly above God’s throne and have six wings, two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet (more likely their genitals!) and two to fly with. Then there are the cherubim (not to be confused with cherubs), often with four wings who guard Gods throne and the gates of Eden. The orders below, too many to describe, include archangels, guardian angels and cherubs. So far, all these classes of angels are male so what about the female angels? I couldn’t find any specific mention of female angels among the orders of angels but felt that I had seen them in sculptures and paintings. Fully dressed, I should add so who knows? All I can say is that all the angels are beautiful and many are rather feminine looking but one can’t say for sure that they are female. What gender do you think this one is?
The weather is starting to cool down with daytime temperatures around 15C dropping to around 10C at night. The Swiss Guards have donned their capes and the Romans are wearing coats and boots! There are more days that are cloudy and wet but other than this there are still days of brilliant sunshine, blue skies and temperatures closer to 20C.
Last Sunday was one of these and we went to Parco degli Aquedotti for a walk. This is a large protected green area which is about 8km from the centre of Rome and is part of the Appian Way. It’s like being in the countryside as one can see sheep grazing in parts of it. The park is so named because the roman aqueducts Aqua Felice and Aqua Claudia traverse a good length of it. Those of you who have seen the movie La Dolce Vita might remember the opening scene in which a statue of Christ suspended from a helicopter is flying along an aqueduct. This was the Aqua Claudia which was started by the Emperor Caligula in 38 AD and finished by the Emperor Claudius some 20 years later.
The Roman aqueducts are truly a marvel of engineering. They are fed by underground wells and springs (some, hundreds of miles from Rome) and were designed such that the water flowed constantly and ensured a constant supply of spring water through the city. They work on a system of gradients and gravity such that the water is always flowing down an incline. There are often two water channels so that one could be closed off for repairs. The major part of them are underground and the overhead aqueducts which we see only form a small part.
The Romans built 11 aqueducts but almost all were destroyed by invading Germanic tribes, who wanted to cut off Rome’s water supply. Many were rebuilt by various Popes during the Renaissance to restore the water supply to the city and also to supply their ornamental fountains like the Trevi which is why you will often see a Pope’s name inscribed over a large fountain. Now there are 6 to 8 functioning aqueducts in Rome feeding all its many fountains (see Rome’s fountains).
Although Rome is full of fountains, one rarely knows exactly which aqueduct is feeding which fountain. Aqua Virgo, one of the oldest, was completed in 19 BC during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and is one of the few which remained utterly intact by virtue of being underground for all of its 22 or so miles. Re-named the Aqua Vergine by Pope Nicholas V in 1453, it feeds the Trevi, the fountains of Piazza Navona and most of the fountains in the Campus Martius including a little one which you see if take the path going from the Tiber towards the Spanish Steps. It may be sunny in Rome but its not that warm so it was quite surprising to see this young man, obviously not a homeless person, stripped to the waist washing himself in virgin water. Perhaps he was hoping to meet a few!
Remembrance day, Monday November 11th, went by with not a poppy to be seen in Rome. This was not very surprising as the day for paying tribute to soldiers who have died in battle is November 4th which marks the end of the 1st World War in Italy in 1918. However, thinking about the number of young soldiers who have died in war made me remember the Canadian cemetery in Abruzzo. On our recent trip to Puglia, we were driving back to Rome through Abruzzo when we realized that we wouldn’t get back until midnight. Since we were driving along the coast we decided to stop and stay in one of the small towns along the way for the night. We randomly picked San Vito Chietino and as we turned off the highway towards the town, we saw signs for a Canadian Cemetery. I was fascinated and the next day we went to visit it.
It was a very moving sight as 1,375 Canadian soldiers are buried there out of a total of 1,600 or so Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in that area during the 2nd World War. After an Armstice was made with Italy in September 1943, the Allied forces were moving northwards towards German lines. The 1st Canadian division went on to cross the Moro river on December 6th and to take Ortona after 8 days of bitter fighting losing many of their men. The site of the cemetery was chosen by the Canadian Corps in January 1944 to hold the remains of those who died in the Ortona battle and in the weeks following it. Around 500 soldiers died in the Ortona battle alone, some of them just 18 years old. It was sad to see these graves of young men who had no opportunity to live their lives and buried so far from home. At least the cemetery is in a peaceful spot and is well kept. Its a good thing to remember and honour those who gave up their lives so that we now have the freedom to enjoy ours.
Venice is home to the Biennale which was founded in 1895 to promote new artistic trends in the contemporary arts and in architecture. We decided to go there this past week to see the 2013 Arts Exhibition (The Encyclopedic Palace) before it closes in two weeks time. Its a 3.5h journey from Rome on the train which got us there just in time for lunch. The Vaporetto (water bus) leaves from just outside the train station and took us the length of the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. Venice is a magical city and this journey alone is worth the trip to Venice as one gets to see the facades of all the Palazzi which face directly onto the water. The boat goes under the Rialto bridge and suddenly the vista opens up and you see the tower in the Piazza San Marco and the dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon. I could have just stayed on the boat and gone up and down the Grand Canal all afternoon. My pleasure was most definitely enhanced by the fact that its low season in Venice at the moment so there are less tourists and less activity on the Grand Canal which is the city’s main thoroughfare for boats carrying not only passengers but supplies and commercial goods. We stayed in a beautiful converted Palazzo right on a small canal and less than 5 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco.
The Biennale is held in two locations, the Arsenale and the Giardino. The Giardino houses pavilions representing different countries each of which houses a show. Canada’s pavilion built in 1958 has a sort of spiral shape and is built of wood and glass. To me, it had aspects of an igloo or a tepee. Shary Boyle (Music for Silence) was chosen to represent Canada and since the entire show was mounted in darkness and silence, it did have a feel of entering into an igloo. The Arsenale which was originally the city’s shipyards and armories is a vast complex. It would take me pages to describe what we saw as the exhibition is immense and quite overwhelming. This year, there were 150 artists from 38 countries represented.
There were many exhibits which engaged my attention for various reasons but being taken by colour and smell, I was drawn to one by Sonia Falcone from Bolivia who filled a whole bunch of large clay pots with herbs, natural pigments and powdered spices of different colours. The idea was to represent the role that spices have played in the history of the world’s commerce and also to comment on the ephemeral nature of sensory perception and ultimately the fleeting nature of life (or so the description said!). The fragrance, even after being on display for 3 months, and the rich colours were intoxicating.
After spending the whole day tramping around, all we wanted to do was sit down and have ‘un bel bicchiere di vino’. Not a problem as prosecco and other excellent wines are produced in the Veneto region. Needless to say, fish is a major part of the cuisine and I particularly enjoyed the baccala (salt cod) which is made into a creamy paste and is quite delicious. The best thing we had though was an inexpensive seafood lasagne which we got in a small family-run restaurant in a small street where we randomly stopped to have a quick lunch (12 Eur for the lasagna followed by a plate of fried seafood with vegetables and roast potatoes). The lasagne was filled with moist shrimp, baby octopus and small squid in a bechamel sauce. I’m determined to try and make it one of these days though I think it may take a few tries to reproduce what we had.
We really enjoyed walking around and losing ourselves in the narrow streets of Venice and seeing how people live. The art and architecture are breathtaking and there is a slightly oriental feel to it as some of the textiles and jewellery still have echoes of its Byzantine past. However, its not an easy city to live in I don’t think. When we were there, rain and high winds were forecast and ramps were already being piled up on the larger streets in case of flooding which is not uncommon at certain times of the year. The shops which don’t cater specifically for tourists feature wellingtons and waders which cover one’s thighs.
Doors have flood panels at the bottom to prevent water seeping in though I think it gets in anyway.
I couldn’t help thinking of how different (and less pleasant) it must be during the tourist season. The population of Venice is just under 60,000 and the number of tourists are an estimated 80,000 per day, 30 million per year! Massive cruise ships disgorge hundreds of day trippers. There is a move underway to stop the cruise ships which create environmental problems. Tourism has displaced other economic sectors like banking and one reads articles about the city dying as a place where people live. It is a terrible problem and I don’t know what the answer is. It is so beautiful that one wants to go there again and again but yet should we be going to places that can’t sustain visitors in these numbers? The estimated ideal number of visitors is about 7 – 8 million per year. Maybe there should be lottery tickets for who can go at any given time!
Sorry to disappoint you folks but there is no Halloween in Rome. One or two clubs advertized Halloween fancy dress events but this was about it. The only sign of carved pumpkins was at a Sunday market stall in Neri just outside Rome but I think this was a tourist attraction. However, the day after on November 1st was All Saints Day or Tutti i Santi which is a national holiday in Italy. Dedicated to honouring early Christian matyrs, it used to be celebrated on May 13 until Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1st to coincide with the foundation of an oratory at St. Peter’s Basilica to house the relics of saints and martyrs.
We did not know that on this day, it is traditional for families to go to the cemetery to lay flowers and light candles at the gravesides of their loved ones. We took it into our heads to visit Rome’s Campo Verano cemetery which we had heard was beautiful. We got there to find a crowd outside. Apparently the Pope was due to arrive, the first time in over 20 pope years since a Pope has set foot in the cemetery. Meanwhile, people were visiting graves and laying flowers.
The cemetery contains a number of large mausoleums some with photographs of the deceased. I found it quite fascinating seeing these snapshots of history with the remains several generations in the same tomb. The cemetery dates back to the Napoleonic invasion between 1804 and 1814 when a law was passed that Rome’s dead had to be buried outside the walls except for popes, cardinals and royalty. There is a Catholic section and a Jewish section. Non-Catholics are buried in another cemetery next to the Piramide (In Memoriam). We did not wait for the Pope but seeing he lives a stone’s throw from us, we saw his motorcade on the way home!
Although we are into November now, the weather is still gorgeous. In the low to mid 20s with sunshine and cloudless skies. Last weekend, we were in the hills just outside Rome. There were sheep and a few lambs grazing in the fields as well as horses and foals. The leaves were beginning to turn but the landscape still looked green and more like spring. It surprised me to see lambs at this time of year as I thought they were born in the spring but apparently this can vary with the breed and can also depend on whether or not the rams are left with the flock. Something new to learn everyday!
The last couple of weeks have been more demanding than usual. Not because I’ve had class every day (Learning Italian) but more because I came down with a touch of bronchitis which made going to school an effort. Imagine getting bronchitis in this over 20C weather! Nevertheless, despite my condition, I love the journey to school. No matter which way I go, there is something interesting to see. One of my routes involves passing the church of Sant’Eustachio which has its crucifix amidst deer antlers. Legend has it that a Roman soldier called Placidus went hunting whereupon a fine-looking deer with a cross its antlers suddenly appeared before him which made him convert to Christianity and he took the name of Eustachio.
Its hard to walk a few feet in the historic centre without coming to a church. A short distance away is the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. In the Piazza in front of the church is a sculpture of an elephant by Bernini. It always brings a smile to my face as there is a story attached to it. It was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII in 1665 to serve as a base for an Egyptian obelisk which had been found in the garden of the Domenican monastery attached to the church. The church had been built over a Greek Temple dedicated to the Goddess Minerva. Bernini originally designed a hollow space between the elephants legs such that the obelisk would only be supported by the elephant’s back but a Domenican priest Father Paglia, whose own design had been rejected, persuaded the Pope that Bernini’s design was flawed and that a hollow space would not support the obelisk. The aged Pope took this advice to heart and ordered the space to be filled in. Bernini was not pleased but had to comply with the Pope’s orders as you can see. However, he made sure to have the last laugh as he oriented the elephant such that its backside pointed towards the monastery! I often imagine how much more beautiful the monument would have looked with a hollow space beneath.
A few steps further on is the magnificient Pantheon. Each and every time I see it I’m struck by its construction and feel lucky to have the pleasure of seeing it simply in passing. A 10 minute walk and so much to see. I haven’t even mentioned the other sights. Even the street in front of the school has its magic moments. Last week there was a bridal couple having their photo taken in the middle of the street just outside the entrance to the school courtyard. I’m still wondering what made them choose this location as its just another Rome street.
Although I started learning Italian shortly after I got here (Beginner’s Italian and Fig Gelato), I have not attained a great degree of fluency. My frequent trips back to Toronto combined with the fact we speak English at home have not done much to further my skills. In an effort to improve, I signed up for a semi-intensive course at the school run by the Societa di Dante Alighieri.
The school is in a beautiful building, the Palazzo Firenze in the area between the Tiber and the Spanish Steps. There are about 10 of us in the class all from different parts of the world which is a good thing as we are forced to speak to each other in Italian during ‘la pausa’. We have two teachers who alternate classes. One is a mature woman who looks over her glasses at us and gives us long lectures on how we must do our homework diligently and not only do our homework (which there is a lot of) but write something every day. All excellent advice as many of the students in class are learning the language in preparation for going to university in Rome and need to be able to write well. However, since half the class don’t understand a word she’s saying, she may be wasting her breath! The other teacher is a young fellow who bursts into class and launches into teaching with a lot of energy. At his first lesson, he brought in a guitar and made us join him in a well-known (not to us!) folk song. He sometimes forgets to take attendance and never tells us to write anything or if he does, he leaves it to the other teacher to correct which she always complains about. However, he has a gift for explaining grammar and he’s a good teacher. In fact both of them are good in different ways.
What I really enjoy is the physical space we are in. The building dates back to 1516 and was originally built by an apostolic official to house his large family. After a series of subsequent ownerships and further building, it became the property of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Firenze which is how it got its name. The Medici family in keeping with their status, turned it into a sumptuous Palazzo. It was ceded to the Italian State in 1867 and became the Ministry of Mercy, Justice and Religion. Only in Italy could such a title for a government ministry exist! Since 1928, it has housed the Societa Dante Alighieri and its language school.
The finer rooms of the Palazzi in Rome were always on the first floor (piano nobile) so that they escaped flooding from the Tiber and allowed space for a courtyard on the ground floor that carriages could drive into. Our classrooms which are small and plain are on the second floor. Only some of the rooms survive in their original state today or I should say, I’ve only been able to gain access to two original rooms, the Auditorio and the Biblioteca. Nobody ever seems to go into the Biblioteca except for the librarian. If I’m early for class, I go in there and admire the frescoes on the ceiling done by Jacopo Zucchi, a student of Vasari’s. The auditorium is only for special events and overlooks a gorgeous garden in an internal courtyard. I wish we could do our lessons there but perhaps it is better to be in what I can only describe as an ugly classroom as I’m sure my mind would wander if we were in one of these fine rooms.