Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art

Giordano_Bruno_Campo_dei_Fiori

Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

The first time I realized that my obscure knowledge of Rome had really sunk in was in the early to mid-aughts. Friends of mine had returned from a family wedding in the Italian capital. Specifically, the ceremony had been held at San Silvestro in Capite.

“That’s where they keep the reliquary of the head of John the Baptist,” I said, gleefully. I had most certainly been drinking but I was still impressed with my recall. My friends and I had a chuckle over my delight as we talked more about Rome and its macabre monuments.

For as long as I’ve been attracted to Rome and Italy, I’ve been interested in some of the more gruesome aspects of its history: its slaughter of animals during Colosseum spectacles, the chapels that contain body parts and whole bodies of saints. When you walk into Rome’s churches, you are literally walking on graves. And when you stroll through any part of this ancient city, you are stepping on top of sites where many people, from gladiators to Christians to non-believers, met their ends. Images and reminders of death are everywhere here, which is probably one of the reasons Rome’s citizens have developed a coping mechanism – a zest for life – over the years.

These are heavy things to think about. But Rome’s past is especially fresh in my mind these days when it is hard to turn on the television or open the paper (or browser tab) without learning about the latest horrible way that a human has died at the hands of another human or group of humans. There is no need for me to provide a link to any of these news stories; everyone knows what I’m talking about. But still it has been hard to square my interest in the minutiae of Rome’s destructive past with the horrors of today.

Just a visit to some of well-known tourist stops in Rome remind me of current events. San Silvestro in Capite has the head of John the Baptist in a silver filigreed reliquary. Santa Maria del Popolo has an exquisite and well-known Caravaggio that depicts Saint Peter being crucified upside down. Saint Agnese in Agone, the large church fronting Piazza Navona, has a side chapel with the head of Saint Agnes. She was 12 when a Roman prefect sent her to a brothel (for refusing to marry his son); she was eventually burned at the stake then beheaded. In the upper church of San Clemente one finds the chapel of St. Catherine, which contains beautiful Masolino frescoes of the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the life of St. Ambrose. Catherine’s beheading is depicted on the left side, a calm, colorful, 2-D rendering of a heinous act.

I could go on and on with the lovely art that depicts Christian martyrs and their horrible deaths. The crucifixions. The beheadings. The eventual saints who were drawn and quartered or buried alive or stoned to death. Of course we don’t have as many works of art showing the torture that the Christians, once they came into power, inflicted on the non-Christians. But there are a few. The solemn statue of Giordano Bruno in the center of Campo de’ Fiori is a powerful reminder that there were men (and women and children) killed for putting forward ideas that were not in line with the church doctrine. Bruno was burned alive for suggesting that the universe is infinite, that stars are distant suns.

Likewise, the Stolpersteiner, those tiny bronze pavements embedded in the ground outside homes of those Jewish citizens who were deported by the Nazis on October 16, 1943, memorialize those who were rounded up, tortured, and killed for being Other, for being powerless in the face of those whose power made them forget their own humanity.

I believe art and memorials are important. But the more that I see them around Rome – a city that has thousands of years of history painting on its church walls, engraved in its ancient buildings, and chiseled into statues – the more I am reminded of how torture and death are lost in translation from the stories we tell and the images we create of those stories.

Many of us up until this past year have been able to live with a sense of detachment from death. This is not to say that we have all had it easy and that we have not experienced the wrenching sadness of knowing death on a personal level. But death of the nature that is often depicted in art and enshrined in memorials around Italy has always felt like something that only happened long ago.

I still look at religious relics – the arms and doubting fingers and disembodied heads – with a sort of fascination. But while my thoughts used to be, “Look how barbaric humans once were,” I now think about how much further we – as a society, as humans – need to go.

A final note: as a quasi-agnostic, non-practicing, non-denominational Christian, I wish it were as simple as eliminating all religions. Humans get too exercised over beliefs that other humans have codified, no matter how absurd they may be. But I didn’t want to write this piece as an assault on religion. I’ve lived in majority Christian, Hindu, and Muslim countries and have known most people to be smart and kind and loving, in spite of or because of their religions.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

Please read these other posts on “Lost in Translation” from the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Note that we have a new lady, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso. Welcome!

Jessica – False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria – Senza parole…
Rebecca – Lost in Translation
Alexandra – The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Kate – Things my Sicilian Boyfriend and I fight about
Michelle – Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

Rome Revisited: What Has and Hasn’t Changed

Rome in one photo

Rome in one photo © Melanie Renzulli / Instagram

Rome is changing. Rome has changed.

You hear those phrases around Rome all the time these days. Crime, corruption, unemployment, immigration, unreliable public transit, trash collection, the euro – Italy is in crisis and the prevailing mood among its citizens is one of resignation and exhaustion. This was most recently expressed cinematically with La Grande Belleza, which plays like a more mature sequel to La Dolce Vita. Romans are no doubt still enamoured with what Rome represents. Today, however, when Romans hold up a mirror to the city, they are more likely to see Jep Gambardella’s malaise than Marcello Rubini’s confident swagger.

As part of the renewed writing initiative of the Italy Roundtable, I wanted to write about the mood of Rome and Italy and how it has changed since I last lived here. But I realized as I waded into my commentary that I was not qualified to talk on such complex socioeconomic issues. This month’s unifying topic is “change” and, well, I changed my mind.

While I am neither an economist nor a historian, I am a travel writer who has been lucky enough both to visit Italy on numerous occasions and to live in Rome – twice, during two very different life stages. So I want to discuss some things that have changed in Rome but also how my approach to seeing Rome has changed.

I’ve seen Rome change, for the better and for the worse, in numerous ways since I first began writing about it more than 15 years ago. In those first years, it was free to wander inside the Forum and up onto the Palatine Hill. The site has charged admission since 2008. The Ara Pacis, the ancient Augustan altar to peace, was once exposed to the air and practically abandoned; I remember a friend and I walking right up and into it in 1999. Work on the swanky, controversial Richard Meier building that now surrounds the altar had yet to begin.

Rome has become even more popular and crowds seem more numerous than ever. I have been inside St. Peter’s only once since I arrived six months ago as the line to get inside, even on wintry days, extends from the entrance and curves around to at least the top of St. Peter’s Square. In some ways this is heartening, as I lamented many years ago that the security process to get inside such an important landmark was too lax. But still, I groan when I think of travelers who only have a few days in Rome wasting time standing in that line, especially when the rain is heavy or the sun is strong.

Two other sites, the Pantheon and the Bocca della Verità, are more popular with travelers today than they were 15 years ago. Going inside the Pantheon, one of the few remaining ancient sites in Rome that doesn’t charge an admission, can be stifling because of all the touristic milling about and the loud speaker repeating on loop in several different languages that visitors be quiet. Nevertheless, I still recommend a visit if you’re never been inside of it; such ancient architectural mastery, particulary a glimpse at the coffered ceiling and oculus, is astonishing up close.

I am not sure why the Mouth of Truth has surged in popularity, as it has been there, free of charge, for years. Has there been a renewed interest in the film Roman Holiday? Oh, I know what it is – camera phones and selfies. At any rate, the recent line for a photo op with the Bocca drove me inside the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which I had never fully explored.

It is not lost on me that my job as a travel writer has contributed to this mess. I am sorry.

Meanwhile, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, two of Rome’s most popular attractions, are undergoing needed changes. Both are under scaffolding and are both undergoing privately-funded restorations. The Colosseum renovation has meant little to zero inconvenience for those who want to tour it. And its cleaning has also led to new discoveries at the ancient site. On the other hand, the Trevi Fountain area is going to be unappealing for the next few years, as it has been drained of its water (and grandeur) and scaffolding obscures most of it. There is a walkway that allows visitors to get near the marble statues in the fountain – who knows when you’ll get to do that again? – but there is also a designated spot to toss in your coins like a good tourist is supposed to do.

My approach to seeing Rome has also changed over the years. When I first started writing about the city, I saw it as no challenge to walk from Trastevere to the Spanish Steps, for example, or to see site after site with no time for rest or reflection. I was in my mid–20s and knew little about what it meant to travel as a parent or as a person with finite stores of energy or low thresholds for noise or crowds. Sitting in Piazza Navona recently, it occurred to me that my favorite places in Rome had changed, either because I have learned more about their history (see the Turtle Fountain) or have grown weary of the hordes.

Rome has changed. But so have I.

Luigi Barzini noted in his 1964 book The Italians: “The Italian way of life cannot be considered a success except by temporary visitors.” Rome puts on a beautiful show for its guests. And the longer one lives here, the more one learns about the façade and how it’s held up with equal parts of pride and necessity – as well as a few dashes of contempt.

One of the reasons I wanted to shift gears on the direction of this piece is because I rediscovered this Barzini quote and realized that even though as a current resident I can understand the modern challenges that Romans are facing, I still have the mindset of a temporary visitor. Having the opportunity to see Rome evolve – ever so slightly – over multiple visits and stays is a privilege I am grateful for every day. However, I often feel I need to conceal my naive optimism about the city for I know that I am experiencing a far different Rome than most Romans.

But maybe Rome thrives on the wide-eyed optimism of its tourists? I often hear complaints that Rome neglects the needs of its citizenry in favor of maintaining the parts of the city that only travelers see. Tourists are disruptive, sure, and a burden on infrastructure. But what would Rome be without its visitors? Beyond the monetary reasons and the impetus for maintaining its ancient structures, tourism helps Romans remember what is beautiful and special about their city. As a writer specializing in Rome and Italy, I want to continue to hold up that mirror and hope the city (and my readers) see what I see. It is all I can do.

So, yes. Rome is changing. Rome has changed. But it has always been in flux. Rome will weather this storm as it has countless others. Change is eternal and so is Rome.


 

Italy Blogging Roundtable

Read More from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

  1. Jessica – The Beautiful Mess
  2. Gloria – Changing climate, changing tourism in Tuscany
  3. Rebecca – The Hardest Thing 
  4. Alexandra – Florence is changing
  5. Kate – Getting residency in Catania – a story

Smoking in Italy

Smoke break, Milan (Flickr/vanz

Smoke break, Milan (Flickr/vanz

A lot of Italians still smoke.

This is hardly a newsflash for many. I have always known that Italians are more relaxed (than Americans, for example) about smoking. But it is still a surprise coming from a culture where smoking is stigmatized to where it is not necessarily expected but accepted across many generations.

Italy imposed a national smoking ban in public places in 2005–the fourth country in the world to do so–but that still hasn’t done much to curb tobacco consumption. While the insides of buildings, restaurants, and workplaces are smoke-free, Italy’s outdoor public spaces are rarely without a whiff of smoke. Bus stops, flea markets, parking lots, courtyards, balconies, and sidewalk cafes are all prime spots for sneaking a smoke.

Italy also makes it easy to smoke and keep smoking. The Tabacchi shops are still necessary for everyday errands, e.g., paying utility bills and buying bus tickets and passes. Paying your phone bill? Why not buy some cigarettes while you’re at it? No one will bat an eye.

When I walk around Rome, I still think it’s weird to see well-to-do couples sitting at an outdoor cafe, each with a pack of cigarettes on the table. Also odd (and unfortunate) is seeing several generations of one family sitting around an outdoor table smoking together. I cringe when I see parents smoking around their young children and babies.

Even though the air is smokier here, there is something refreshing about Italy’s nonchalance towards adults who smoke. There is very little social shame associated with smoking.

I was thinking about all of this the other day when I happened upon an appropriate passage from an Umberto Eco short story. In the 1991 story “How to Travel on American Trains,” one of many essays in How to Travel with a Salmon, Eco describes how, in America, those who smoke are social outcasts. And yet, when Italians smoke in America, they (and their habit) are treated differently.

Among the poor, too, there are those who cannot manage to abandon the ultimate symbol of marginalization: they smoke. If you try to climb into the one smoking car, you suddenly find yourself in the Dreigroschenoper. I was the only one wearing a tie. For the rest, catatonic freaks, sleeping tramps snoring with their mouths open, comatose zombies. As the smoker was the last car of the train, on arrival, this collection of outcasts had to walk a hundred yards or so, slouching along the platform like Jerry Lewis.

Having escaped from this railway hell and changed into uncontaminated clothes, I found myself having supper in the private dining room of a faculty club, among well dressed professors with educated accents. At the end, I asked if there was somewhere I could go and smoke. A moment of silence and embarrassed smiles followed, then someone closed the doors, a lady extracted a pack of cigarettes from her purse, others looked at my own pack. Furtive glances of complicity, stifled laughter, as in a striptease theater. There followed ten minutes of delightful, thrilling transgression. I was Lucifer, arrived from the world of shadows, and I illuminated everyone with the blazing torch of sin.

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