Refugee Boats

Angels Unawares, Timothy Schmalz

For several months last year, there was a space in Piazza San Pietro surrounded by boards. When I returned to Rome, the boards had been removed to reveal a large bronze sculpture depicting people on a boat. The people are of various races wearing clothes of different historical time periods as you can see above. The name of the sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, is not obvious and I didn’t even see it the first time I saw the sculpture. When I did see it, I came home and Googled the name and to my surprise, I found out that he is a Canadian from St. Jacob’s in Ontario.

He has devoted his career to creating sacred sculptures, a famous one being ‘Homeless Jesus’ which shows a man sleeping on a park bench. The one above ‘Angels Unawares’ was inspired by a verse from the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. Angel wings are depicted above the huddled mass of 140 migrants and refugees. Some look apprehensive, some are crying and some are joyful.

Later during the week, I went to a modern art museum the MAXXI where there was a participation installation by Yoko Ono entitled ‘Add Colour, Refugee Boat’. There were three boats in a small room all painted over with different shades of blue. I believe the room and boats started out white with the blue paint representing the sea. People coming to view the exhibit were given paint and could paint over anything in the room including the floor and walls in whatever way they wanted. We were given dark blue the day I was there but the painting was done in dark blue, pale blue and white so people must have gotten different colours on different days. The write-up said that it was part of a series of works conceived in 1960 shortly after Yoko Ono arrived in the US. The initial effect was quite serene but of course, one immediately thought (or at least I did) of the number of people who have perished crossing the seas.

Add Colour: Refugee Boat, Yoko Ono

Seeing the two pieces in the same week reminded me that the refugee situation hasn’t gotten any better. Thousands of people flee their homelands to escape war, famine, drought and persecution. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, numbers forcibly displaced people worldwide at 70.8 million with 25.9 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. There are few countries that willingly welcome them and increasingly more countries that don’t want them to enter regardless of the circumstances. Hopefully works of art like these will give more people pause for thought or better yet, some action however small.

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The Start of 2020 in Rome

I’ve been back in Rome for just under two weeks now. The weather has been beautiful since I got back with sunshine and blue skies except for an odd day of rain. As in previous years, I can’t resist posting a photo of the mimosa tree in my neighbourhood which is bursting with bright yellow flowers, earlier than usual. Cyclamens are in full bloom and it feels like spring.

This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to re-use as much as possible, to repair whatever I can, and to avoid using plastic. Last week, my resolutions were put to the test. I had a hole in my sock and was about to throw out the pair when I decided to darn the hole instead. The tap in my bathroom was leaking so I looked up a You Tube video and changed the rubber gasket. Unfortunately, this was not the solution and it’s still dripping but at least I learned how to unscrew the tap.

My local vegetable vendors in the market are getting to know me and don’t put my produce in plastic bags anymore. I’ve even started re-using paper bags and I’m sure they think I’m eccentric!

All of this is completely futile of course as the supermarkets use multiple layers of packaging and me re-using my bags isn’t going to make any difference. I recently complained to the manager in the supermarket that I didn’t buy cheese there anymore as it was wrapped in 4 layers of packaging. Her response was “Senora, we can remove the packaging and give it to you in paper”. She then went on to say that it was a regulation in their chain of supermarkets and there was nothing she could do. The government has tried to bring in a law restricting the use of packaging but the producers of packaging complained that it would lead to loss of jobs and so on, thus affecting the economy so the law didn’t go into effect. Clearly, I’m fighting a losing battle but perhaps I can urge you my readers to follow suit and reduce your use.

Via del Babuino

Chinese New Year is in a few days time. Surprisingly, Via del Babuino which leads up to Piazza del Popolo was decorated with red bunting overhead. A very pretty sight. Perhaps, there will be a Chinese celebration in the Piazza on Saturday. In any case, I hope 2020 is kind to all of you and that the world becomes a better place for all.

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Merry Christmas 2019

As I walked past St. Peter’s Basilica a couple of weeks ago, the Christmas tree lights were turned on, it was a magical moment. There are two giant Christmas trees in Rome, one at St. Peter’s and the other at Piazza Venezia. After a shamefully, spindly tree that the City put up in Piazza Venezia a couple of years ago, Netflix now donates it and they continued this tradition again this year. A fine one it is too. Thankfully, this year, they’ve replaced the digital screen in front of it with a figure of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) which is much more quaint.

Back in Toronto, the temperature has gone from – 15C to +5C within two days and all the snow is melting. I’m not complaining as living in Rome has made me more sensitive to the cold and I have to wear layers of clothing to stay warm. Yesterday, people were enjoying a Christmas market in front of City Hall which was nice to see.

As we approach Christmas day and the groaning tables of food, I wish all of you my readers a Merry Christmas with your loved ones or if you are alone, I hope there are rituals that bring you pleasure.

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Urbino: Birthplace of Raphael


This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, the celebrated painter and architect of the Renaissance. He was born in Urbino in the Marche region which is not easily reached from Rome so when I got the opportunity to join an art tour of Urbino, I jumped at the chance. The tour was led by a Professor of Art History, Roberto Mulotto who I happen to know.

We set off by coach early last Saturday morning to the Marche which is a region of mountains and rolling fields stopping on the way for a long lunch and a tour of the Franciscan convent of Montefeltrino. Urbino is a walled, medieval city on a high sloping hillside and when we got there, our bus stopped outside the walls at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the rest of the way.

Le Marche Region

It was dark by the time we got to Urbino but the city was beautifully decorated for Christmas and looked very festive. An image of the young Raphael was projected onto the cathedral.

Urbino is dominated by the Palazzo Ducale which was owned by Federico III, the Duke of Montefeltro, in the mid 1400’s. He ruled Urbino for nearly 40 years and being a patron of the arts and a renowned intellectual, he assembled an eclectic court in the Palazzo. The picture below does not do the Palazzo justice as it looms so large over narrow streets that it is impossible to photograph in its entirety. There was a special exhibition on when we visited featuring the artists who had been an influence on Raphael as well as a few pieces by Raphael himself.

The Duke of Montefeltro’s court painter, Giovanni Santi, was Raphaels father and a significant painter in his own right. It was he who taught Raphael to paint at an early age. Since Giovanni Santi was part of the court, he was well off and had a large house with an interior courtyard and several rooms. There was a fresco of the Madonna in the room where Raphael was born reputed to have been among the first of Raphael’s paintings. It is an unusual depiction showing the Virgin reading. In the courtyard, there was the actual grinding stone where the paints were ground and mixed.

Virgin reading with sleeping child

Giovanni Santi who studied under Piero della Francesca has several magnificent paintings in the Palazzo as well as in churches nearby. In fact, the reason we had stopped at the Franciscan monastery in Montefeltrino was to see one of his major works in the Capella di Conti Oliva. Painted in 1489 and surrounded by a frame which is a work of art in itself, it features the Madonna with saints on either side and the Count of Montefeltro in armour kneeling at the bottom right. The Madonna is said to resemble the Count’s wife who died at an early age.

Another magnificent fresco was in the Cappella Tiranni in the Church of San Domenico in a small town called Cagli. This was Santi’s last work before he died. The church has been kept open for extended hours to celebrate the anniversary of Raphael’s death so we were lucky to see it as was in the early evening and we were on our way back to Rome at this point.

Giovanni Santi, Tiranni Chapel

Giovanni Santi died in 1494, preceded by his wife, Raphael’s mother who died in 1491. Thus Raphael was left an orphan at the age of 11. He continued his training in the workshop of another Umbrian master Pietro Perugino and the new court painter in Urbino, Timoteo Viti, also took him under his wing. Surprisingly, despite his youth, he took charge of his fathers workshop and managed it until news of his talent spread and he became in demand as a painter. In 1508, he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Papal rooms at the Vatican at the same time as Michaelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.. His work in Rome is another whole story, too long to go into here. He remained in Rome until he died at the age of 37 and his remains are in the Pantheon at his request. I’m visiting a friend who lives near the Pantheon tomorrow so maybe I will drop by and see his tombstone again.

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American Thanksgiving in Bologna

Torre degli Asinelli, Bologna

I didn’t grow up celebrating Thanksgiving so it doesn’t mean too much to me. However, I do enjoy Canadian Thanksgiving as it is in early October when all the vegetables grown over the summer are harvested for the winter so it seems right to be giving thanks for nature’s bounty. This year, I was invited to an American Thanksgiving dinner in Bologna by my friends Lorenza and Gianni who have many American friends. They hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last year and it was a great success so they decided to do it again. This time I was invited as well.

Bologna is a beautiful city with medieval towers in the historic centre, and buildings characterized by porticoes so one is protected from the weather. My friends live in an old palazzo so it’s like stepping back in time when you walk through the gate into the courtyard.

They got a huge turkey, 8 kilos and there were 18 of us in total. Everybody brought a dish or two so we had a lots of food and several desserts including the traditional pumpkin pie , pecan pie, as well as an apple and chocolate pie which was delicious, a combination I’ve never had before.

The next day, Friday, the streets were packed with shoppers. Black Friday has spread to Italy and even the high end shops were advertising sales. The streets were jammed with people rushing about.

Since Black Friday also only came to Canada a few years ago, I didn’t know how the term had come about so I looked it up. The American Thanksgiving holiday was originally on November 26th but in in 1941, Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. In the 1950s, people began calling in sick the Friday after Thanksgiving to give themselves a 4-day weekend and many businesses started adding that day as another paid holiday. People began to use the day to get a start on their Christmas shopping. In the city of Philadelphia, the police used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the Army-Navy football game held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year. That’s what I came across when I Googled it anyway though there might be other explanations.

I’m glad to say that I didn’t do any shopping but went to visit other points of interest in Bologna. Thank you Lorenza and Gianni for my first celebration of American Thanksgiving and for all the other delicious meals.

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Visit to Vesuvius

Bay of Naples from Mt. Vesuvius

Following our stay in Capri, our plan was to spend 3 days in Sorrento using it as a base to visit Amalfi and Positano. My sister likes gardens and I wanted to take her to Ravello where there are two villas with wonderful gardens, the Villa Rufolo and the Villa Cimbrone. Since this was supposed to be a walking trip we had also planned to do an 8km hike on the edge of the cliff from Agerola near Ravello to Positano. Called the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), the views are said to be spectacular.

We stayed in Sorrento as planned, but between the rain and the random bus schedules our plans for walking along the cliff went downhill so to speak. We did manage to get to Amalfi, Positano and the gardens in Ravello but in the rain, they were far from a pleasure unlike my previous visit there in the spring 2 years ago. We spent most of the time waiting for the bus, or for the rain to stop but when it did stop the views were breathtaking.

Having had enough of the rain, we decided to return to Rome stopping at Herculaneum (Ercolano) for a couple of hours to see the excavation of the roman ruins that had been buried together with Pompeii when Mt Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. It was quite a nice day for a change and the train stops fairly close to the ruins so we were going to walk down to them when we saw people selling tickets for a bus to Mt. Vesuvius. We decided on the spur of the moment to take it and climb up to the crater. Ercolano being a small town, the person selling the tickets had a brother who rented out an apt for summer guests. He phoned his brother, arranged for us to have the apt for the night and assured us that we could safely leave our bags in his office until we returned. We were both wearing our hiking clothes as they were too bulky to pack and also had sandwiches to eat on the train to Rome so we were all set for our walk to the top.

The bus wound its way inland and stopped at the base of the mountain which is around 1,300 metres (~4,000 ft) high. There was a muddy and fairly steep path to get to the crater.

On the way up, we could see lava rock and lava mud which had flowed down the mountain after the eruption.

When we got to the top, we could see all the way down to the bottom of the crater. There were parts where there was smoke and vapour pouring out. The eruption in AD 79 was the most violent but there have been about 30 eruptions since, the last serious one in 1944.

We walked as far as we could go but couldn’t get to the side closest to Pompeii as it was closed off. It would have been interesting to see the ruins of Pompeii from this perspective. The earthquake in AD 69 covered Pompeii with ash and it was abandoned until serious and systematic excavations were started in 1738.

Back down in Ercolano, the brother of the man in the ticket office drove us to his rental apartment which was just a convenient 10′ walk from the station and overlooked the ruins of Ercolano which is on the edge of the sea. The eruption in AD 79 did not kill the inhabitants by being buried under ash but by asphyxiation from the heat and sulphur fumes. The town as it was then is well preserved, and we visited it the next day.

Ercolano was smaller than Pompeii in AD 79 but the inhabitants were wealthy and there are many fine houses to be seen. Many are large, double storied with windows at the top, and with marble cladding. Others have ornamental gardens. There are frescoes and mosaics in situ and one can see that many of the houses were homes of the rich.

Unfortunately, it was raining again when we visited the ruins but they were fascinating despite the rain. The Amalfi coast is so much more beautiful in the spring and summer but flooded with tourists. Despite the rain, we were able to stroll about peacefully without having to fight our way through a throng of people so that was an advantage. I still would like to walk on the Sentiero degli Dei but perhaps the way to do it is to check the weather forecast at the end of the tourist season and race over when the weather is still fine and the tourists have left.

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Capri in November

View of the Bay of Naples and the Sorrento Peninsula from Anacapri

We had summer weather in Rome all through October at which point my sister in Toronto decided to join me for a walking holiday on Capri and the Amalfi coast. As soon as she booked her flights, the weather forecast changed and she arrived at the beginning of November to buckets of rain. By this point, we had booked our trains and hotels so we decided to carry on and hope for the best.

Church of San Michele on Anacapri

We took the train to Naples and a ferry from there to Capri. I had booked a B and B in Anacapri called the Antico Monastero. It was attached to the church of San Michele and was originally a convent. Our host took great pride in pointing out a door in our room with just a wall behind it. Apparently, it used to be the entry into the church organ loft such that the cloistered nuns could go and sing in church without being seen by the congregation. Unfortuntely, we couldn’t go into the church to see the balcony from the church side, as well as its impressive majolica floor depicting the garden of Eden, as it was closed for renovations.

Villa Michele

We got one sunny day on Capri which we tried to take advantage of. We walked down the Scala Fenicia, the Phoenician Steps (all 920 of them), from Anacapri down to Marina Grande. The steps start at the Villa Michele which belonged to the Swedish doctor Axel Munthe and which is now preserved as sort of museum. He filled his villa with a collection of sculptures and photographs and also created a beautiful garden with an amazing view of the Bay of Naples which you can see in the main picture above.

At Marina Grande, we hopped on a boat and took a trip around the island. The scenery was spectacular and we saw villas dating back to Roman times (including that of the Emperor Tiberius) perched on rocky cliffs as well as more recent villas of the rich and famous. The iconic Blue Grotto, Grotta Azzura, was closed because the water level was too high for even a small boat to enter it. However, the boat went through an opening in one of two rock structures called the Faraglioni which was exciting and we also saw other grottos and caves in the rock faces.

Determined to make the best of the day, we raced back to Anacapri and took the chairlift up to the top of Mount Solara, the highest mountain on the island with stunning 360 degree views. We walked down the mountain back to Anacapri through forests with wild flowers and mushrooms, passing Compton MacKenzie’s house on the way down. In addition to celebrities, many writers and artists spent time on the Island. It must be spectacular in the spring when the flowers are in bloom on the hillsides.

Back in the monastero, we had a living area off our bedroom with a ladder leading to a terrace. Given that it was the first day when it wasn’t raining, we climbed the ladder onto the terrace balancing glasses and wine to have an aperitivo. Lo and behold, we found ourselves in a little enclosed section on the roof of the church. I’ve drunk wine in many places but this was a first even for me!

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No Tourists in This Roman Neighbourhood

I’ve been back in Rome for a couple of weeks and it’s still more or less summer here with temperatures in the mid-20s. The first Sunday I was back, I was invited to join a tour to a less well known neighbourhood of Rome called Quadraro. Organized by a small publishing company, Ponte Sisto, the same one that did the ‘Bridges of Rome‘ tour, it was to promote a new book called ‘Mamma Roma a Colori’ by Fernando Acitelli. The editor is the sister-in-law of a friend of mine and she invited me to join her.

The book is a bit in the style of James Joyce’s Ulysses in that it is stream of consciousness writing and I will say right now that I have no intention of reading it in Italian! It is set in a neighbourhood of Rome called Quadraro which is in the more peripheral part of the city in the south, near Cinecitta. The tour was led by Fernando Acitelli himself who was very entertaining and obviously knew the neighbourhood inside out since he grew up close by. (He’s the one standing in the middle in the picture below with a paperbag in his hand.)

Quadraro is a fascinating neighbourhood, a mixture of rundown and restored houses and an area that is increasingly attracting contemporary artists whose milieu is wall murals. I only saw a few as we were busy following Fernando who had his own preferred points of interest.

In the years preceding the war, Quadraro was an upcoming neighbourhood with two cinemas, lots of restaurants and bars, small villas, gardens and was frequented by actors and film makers who worked at the nearby Cinecitta. There are some fine buildings that have maintained their grandeur including the school.

Some of the houses are somewhat rundown but you can see how they were repaired over the years with new bricks interspersed between the original stones while still maintaining the decorative aspects around the window frames.

We saw a house that still had its original water tank on the roof. All the houses of that era had such a tank which would be connected directly to an aqueduct for their water supply. Often, there would be a shop attached to the larger houses which the owners would either operate themselves or rent out.

During the war, the Germans referred to Quadraro as the ‘nido di vespe’ or hornets nest as it was famous for hiding antifascists and partisans. Apparently, antifascists trying to flee the occupying Germans would be told to either go to Quadraro or the Vatican. It is a charming neighbourhood and seems to have a strong sense of community. The residents were gawking at us utterly amazed that we were ‘touring’ their neighbourhood.

The author Fernando Acitelli and the Editor Emanuela Sanna

After the tour, we retired to the local hostelry for lunch. Since we were with the editor, the author came and sat at our table and regaled us with all sorts of stories so of course more wine had to be called for. My only regret was that I didn’t get a chance to check out the murals but I will, so more on that another time!

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Toronto’s Climate Change Protest March

Legislative Building, Toronto

Climate change protests called Fridays for Future have been taking place on Fridays since 15 year old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish Parliament every school day for 3 weeks in August 2018 to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. The movement has spread worldwide and last Friday, September 26th, following the UN meeting on climate change, 7 million people across the world were reported to have taken part in protests.

Thousands of people of all ages and ethnicities gathered in front of the Legislative Building in Toronto. Members of the Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and climate protest groups had spent the morning painting huge images on the ground saying ‘Protest, Restore, Fund’.

There were children of all ages, people pushing strollers, and even some people in wheelchairs. For people who work at regular jobs, TGIF signifies ‘Thank God its Friday’. Not at this march where TGIF signified ‘Thank Greta it’s Fridays for Future’

There were sad signs: ‘You will die of old age, I will die of Climate Change’ and some which shocked me ‘Just a 100 Companies Responsible for 71% of Emissions’.

A bit of fun and colour was added by musicians and people in costumes some representing symbols of indigenous culture.

As a former scientist, I liked the placard below.

This morning, I read the accounts of several whistle blowers at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency in the US who talked about how their research findings have been manipulated for political gain and how groups with special interests are allowed improper influence on policy in the interests of financial gain. The placard below says it all ‘We can’t drink oil, we can’t breathe money’. I think we have reached a point where we all have to realize that the bottom line can no longer be profit.

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A Quiet Summer in Toronto

Summer has ended and some of you might be wondering why I haven’t posted anything since June. I have been in Toronto enjoying a quiet time with occasional visits to cottages in the country, and there hasn’t been much to write about.

I enjoy gardening and help out some family members with their gardens in the summer. I live in a high rise building in the city centre, like one of the ones you see above and my apartment is on the 40th floor. I have a large balcony and this year, I decided that in addition to flowers, I would plant herbs and vegetables in pots.

Balcony View

I wasn’t expecting much as it can get windy up there but to my surprise, everything grew as you can see below. I even saw a bee one morning which seemed like a miracle. I couldn’t believe that a bee could, and would, fly up that high. It gave me the greatest pleasure picking vegetables and herbs as I needed them. Next year, I’m going to try more things.

My sister’s cottage is in southwest Ontario, with farms nearby growing corn, soyabeans, pumpkins, watermelons, ginseng, tobacco, blueberries and other crops.

There are Farmer’s Markets in various towns. My favourite is the one in Port Rowan, a small market on the edge of the lake. It is held once a week and is very relaxed with people chatting to each other and discussing how they grow their produce.

The vendors have small farms where they grow organic produce in small quantities and experiment with unusual varieties. I can’t reproduce this bounty on my balcony but I’m already thinking about what to plant next year as I will have to harvest everything in a couple of days. Autumn is on its way and the days are getting colder.

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