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Natale di Roma: Rome Celebrates Its Birthday

She Wolf in the Capitoline Museums

She Wolf in the Capitoline Museums © Melanie Renzulli

Most city foundation stories are pretty straightforward. But the origin story of the city of Rome is more akin to something you would read in a comic book about superheroes.

Today April 21, marks the birthday of Rome (locally called the Natale di Roma). According to city legend, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C. by Romulus. But the entire story is quite complicated.

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A Show of Hands

The hand of Michelangelo's David, © Accademia

The hand of Michelangelo’s David, © Accademia

It all started with David.

Michelangelo’s statue of David was one of the first pieces of sculpture that I knew I had to see in person. Recognized worldwide as a symbol of Florence, David is marble come to life especially when you look at his hands. My European Art History professor many years ago urged us to study David’s hands — tense, veiny, and with visible knuckles and creases.

Ever since falling in love with David, I have developed a mini-obsession with men’s hands (of the marble and human variety). Are you a male sitting across from me on the tram idly glancing at your phone or reading a book? I’ve probably admired your hands (or found fault with them — sorry, but your cuticles are a wreck!).

Luckily, Rome has given me other opportunities to observe men’s hands without feeling like a creep. The Vatican Museums and the Capitoline Museums both house countless classical statues from Ancient Rome and Greece. It’s in fact likely that the artists who taught Michelangelo how to sculpt were familiar with and inspired by some of the ancient statuary now housed in these museums. Continue Reading →

The Colosseum, On High and Down Low

"Are you not entertained?" - I couldn't help but ham it up for this once-in-a-lifetime shot! (Note to self: get your roots done!)

“Are you not entertained?” – I couldn’t help but ham it up for this once-in-a-lifetime shot!

One of the things you need to know about touring Rome (and many other places in Italy) is that if you want to see something really special, then you’ll have to pay extra for it by going on a guided tour. While tours can certainly eat into your travel budget, they can also transform a trip into something extraordinary.

I had always wanted to see the dungeons of the Colosseum, those underground niches where once were housed thousands of roaring, barking, gnashing, lumbering wild animals primed for gladiatorial showcases and death matches. The Colosseum dungeons are a gruesome, if not key, part of the Flavian Amphitheater’s history. And the only way anyone can see them today — meaning, walk down into and around them — is by booking a tour with a private guide. This limits the number of visitors into the bowels of stadium, thereby keeping wear and tear on the nearly 2,000-year-old monument to a minimum.

There are a number of reputable tour companies that can take you down into the dungeons (in groups of 12 or fewer). Last month, I was lucky enough to join The Roman Guy, a small but growing tour guide company, as a guest on its Colosseum-Dungeon tour.

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Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

A very crowded Sistine Chapel ( (c) The Economist)

Last week, I finally had a chance to revisit the Vatican Museums. It had been more than a decade since I had gone and I hadn’t jumped at the chance to go once I arrived in Rome because the crowds, which wrapped around the block, were daunting. But my mother was in town, so I had a good excuse to go.

Getting in was easy enough, as we had reserved tickets through the Vatican Museums online ticketing system. Rain poured down on us as we got off the tram and walked uphill to the entrance. Most everyone there at 9:30 a.m. were part of a group or had reserved online so we were all kind of in the same line (scrum) to get in. Getting through the main doors, queueing up at the ticket window to get our “real” tickets (our printed reservations were just that), and walking through security took about 10-15 minutes.  No big deal.

But honestly, the Vatican Museums left me wanting this time. Or rather they left me with the feeling that I never want to visit again.

Although it was early March, not exactly peak tourist season, we were getting jostled from all sides, particularly from large tour groups who were muscling in to take photos of every main attraction they saw. “I swear it didn’t used to be like this,” I assured my mother. And it turns out I wasn’t imagining things.

According to the latest report from The Economist “four times as many people visit the Sistine Chapel as did in 1980; on the busiest days more than 25,000 visitors a day pass through.” The crowds were noticeable in every room and corridor, save for the contemporary art wing (and I think most people who end up there do so because they are lost).

One section that I was most excited to revisit was the Niccoline Chapel, which I once listed on this site as being one of my favorite places in the museums. I followed the recommended course through the Museums, all the while mentioning to my mother how much I loved the chapel but I just couldn’t find it. Finally, I asked a guard where it was.

“Chiuso,” he said. Closed.

“Temporarily or forever,” I asked in Italian.

“Probably for forever. The chapel was too small for so many people.”

I was bummed. I was also disappointed that the Hall of Maps felt more like a long queue instead of a room where one could step back and observe the early maps of Italian regions and cities. People were everywhere. My mother and I were also part of the problem, of course. But the whole experience was too much like a cattle drive.

The Economist again:

The Vatican is starting to grapple with the problem. Last October Mr Paolucci, a former Italian culture minister, unveiled a €3m upgrade of the chapel’s climate-control and lighting systems, which was paid for by the manufacturers. A virtual Sistine Chapel pavilion is now being planned so that visitors spend less time inside the real one. Whether this will be a full-sized replica or a digital simulation is still to be decided. Mr Paolucci has also been talking about handing out intelligent eyewear (Google Glass-type accessories) that would allow visitors to explore the chapel in 3D.

Another plan is to limit the number of visitors. Once they reach 6m—probably some time next year—only those with reserved tickets will be allowed in. Walk-in travellers, even pilgrims coming from afar, can now queue for €16 tickets. In future, they will be turned away. That would further undermine the chapel’s identity as a place of worship, which the Vatican Museums are already struggling to preserve by constantly urging visitors to be silent.

The Sistine Chapel as a place of worship has already been compromised as far as I was concerned. Nothing about the current set up, where the Sistine Chapel is highlighted as the ultimate destination on the slow or fast route through the museums, gives the space its due. The crowd flows into this room through only one door, with the exit door depositing you into a no man’s land of blank stairwells back down to the entrance hall. I understand the security reasons for controlling the crowds in this way, but the Sistine Chapel was probably the least hospitable, most crowded place I have been since returning to Rome. And I’ve been in Termini Station at rush hour.

Pope Francis Soccer Display

Pope Francis Soccer Display

This is going to be a tough call for the Vatican. Francis is a very popular pope. (The photo above is of a display case with Pope Francis addressing visiting soccer stars and various “Francisco” jerseys that were given to him.) He has certainly helped to increase the number of South American visitors to Rome and Vatican City. Plus, Chinese/Asian and African visitors who are now starting to set out on their own grand tours, has made the wonders of the Vatican Museums (and especially the world famous Sistine Chapel) more popular — shouldn’t they, too, have the freedom to see this magnificent art?

But something should be done. I haven’t even touched on how the Vatican Museums left me with a strong distaste for the church as a whole. All of that concentrated wealth in one place, all the spoils of worldwide campaigns and whims of wayward popes (cough cough Borgia), did not fill me with awe but rather disgust. Certainly being prodded and processed through an assembly line didn’t help.

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word “Katholikos” which means universal. There’s a big difference in feeling like you are part of something bigger than you and feeling like you are just one of the unwashed, paying masses. I hope to visit the Vatican Museums again during my time here. In the meantime, there are plenty of other places to go and so much more to see.

Read more: Vatican Museums: Full to bursting | The Economist.

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.

A Tour of Rome’s Jewish Quarter

Marble tiles in the Jewish Quarter of Rome

 

“It’s impossible to do this tour or any other tour chronologically.”

This was one of the first things Lauren, a guide for the walking tour company Context Travel, told us as we stood in Largo Arenula, our starting point for a historic walk of Rome’s Jewish Quarter and Trastevere. In addition to Lauren, a British scholar who has studied the art, history, and culture of Rome for the better part of two decades, my group consisted of a quiet, young couple and a young, single woman. Context had invited me to be a guest on one of their tours and I chose to take this one as it was an area I knew the least about. I liked the idea of going on the tour as more or less a blank slate. I wanted to learn something.

At this point, I should back up and say that I have studied Rome, its landmarks, art, history, and neighborhoods for more than 15 years. Before that, I worked at an institute for German Studies and interned at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Even with this specialized knowledge, I’ve always found it difficult to find information about Rome’s Jewish heritage. Most guidebooks give it short shrift, which isn’t surprising; there are too many layers here to cover any one topic in detail. But I would venture to say that the story of the Jewish people in Rome is one of the few threads that weaves together the story of this city in a way that is both historically comprehensive and personal.

Following are just a few of the sites I learned about on the three-hour tour. Continue Reading →

Rome’s Fountains, Brought to You By…

La Barcaccia - After

The restored “La Barcaccia” fountain a few days after it was re-opened to the public.

Recently, city officials in Rome unveiled the Barcaccia fountain, which had been under wraps for the past year so it could be cleaned. The Barcaccia is now gleaming, as you can see in the photo above, and provides a pleasing visual for all those tired souls taking a breather on the Spanish Steps. Continue Reading →

Ancients Doing Modern Things

I posted this silly tweet on my personal account one week ago and people are still retweeting it. Some replied with suggestions that it was Marcus Aurelius attempting a selfie. While quite a few suggested photos like this could become a trend. Is this a meme in search of a hashtag?

Either way, I hope to be doing more of these while I’m in Rome. Stay tuned for photos and musings posted on my personal and italofile twitter accounts. I’ll also be posting more Italy stories, how-tos, and travel news as I get settled.

From Veronese to Futurism: Italian Art in the NYRB

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese

I recently re-subscribed to the New York Review of Books and I’m glad I did. Besides providing some of the world’s most comprehensive and engaging book reviews, the NYRB often reviews art exhibits. In the latest Art Issue of the magazine, Andrew Butterfield reviews Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, an exhibition running in London’s National Gallery through June 15, 2014; Julian Bell looks at two new books about Piero della Francesca in The Mystery of the Great Piero (subscription required); and Jonathan Galassi writes Speed in Life and Death (subscription), a piece that deals with Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, an exhibition on view at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum through September 1, 2014.

There is also a poem by Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s note To Giovanni da Pistoia has appeared in many publications over the years, I’m not sure why it is being reprinted here. But the poem is always an illuminating read about the difficulties Michelangelo had in creating his most famous work.

Prodigious Veronese

A review of Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery, London

“For much of the twentieth century Veronese was regarded more as a skilled purveyor of decorative finishes than as a profound master, and his reputation was in decline, but of late there are signs of renewed interest, which this show and its catalog will certainly do much to advance. Perhaps more than any other picture in the show, The Family of Darius before Alexander [part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection] reveals his great strengths as a painter; it also makes clear why he can seem so foreign to common modern ideals of art and of the artist.” –Andrew Butterfield

Speed in Life and Death

A review of Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

“The Futurists wanted to sweep away what the poet Guido Gozzano called “le buone cose di pessimo gusto,” good things in the worst of taste, and replace them with an insolent, steely, polluting Machine Age. “Time and space ended yesterday,” Marinetti intoned. “We already live in the absolute”—that is, in a state of perpetual youth menaced only by death. “In every young man Marinetti’s gunpowder,” Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote. Marinetti not only wanted to end the monarchy and “de-Vaticanize”; he also argued for replacing the senate with an assembly of the young.” –Jonathan Galassi

The Mystery of the Great Piero

Reviews of the books Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man and Piero’s Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion

“What more can we know about the artist, who died the day that Columbus landed in the New World and who for most of four centuries was nearly forgotten, only to reemerge as an indispensable fixture in modern schemes of art? The Met’s catalog ushers in Piero in the manner we have come to expect: he painted “magical pictures” that combine ‘intimacy and gravity,’ inspiring ‘a sacral awe.’ It points to his ‘almost primitive’ qualities and cites Aldous Huxley’s essay [PDF] of 1925 that names the Resurrection fresco in Sansepolcro as ‘the best picture in the world.’

“All this fits the occasion, but it mystifies. It makes it harder to imagine a human painter at work. Banker has been intent to reverse that process. To do so he has scoured the archives of Tuscany, Umbria, and the Marches. (Sansepolcro lies near the border of the three regions.) If, just possibly, he has been overzealous about tying up loose ends, he can nonetheless boast of personally discovering “over one hundred previously unknown documents specifically relating to Piero.” His methodology is sober and his inferences are toughly argued, and the result must surely count as a vitally important contribution to Piero studies.” –Julian Bell

Check out the New York Review of Books’s Art Issue for these and more reviews.

Venice Hosts Biggest Leonardo da Vinci Show in 30 years

Vetruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci

The exhibit “Leonardo da Vinci, The Universal Man” will be at Venice’s Accademia, which owns 30 Leonardo works. It will bring together 27 other Leonardo masterpieces from various European museums such as the Uffizi, the National Gallery of Parma, the British Museum, and the Louvre. The iconic “Vetruvian Man” will be one of many highlights. The show runs August 29 to December 1, 2013.

Read more: Venice hosts biggest da Vinci show in 30 years – ANSA English

Milan Invites Visitors to Discover the Art of Nobel Winner Dario Fo

Dario Fo "Earthquake in L'Aquila"

Dario Fo's "The Earthquake in L'Aquila"

Next month, the Italy Blogging Roundtable will celebrate our first anniversary. Jessica, Alexandra, Gloria, Rebecca, and I have enjoyed tackling a new topic each month, and we’ve especially enjoyed hearing from readers. In fact, we were so pleased with how our last invitation went for bloggers to join us at the Roundtable that we thought we’d extend another! This month, not only is the Italy Roundtable topic INVITATIONS, we’re inviting anyone who wants to participate to blog about one of the past year’s Roundtable topics. Our invitation details are at the bottom of this post. Now on to the post…

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Help Tell the Story of Jewish Italy

La Sinagoga, Florence

La Sinagoga in Florence, Italy

CulturaItalia, a website operated by the Italian Culture Ministry, is seeking your help in its efforts to document the Jewish contributions to Italian society over the past 150 years. As one of its many initiatives to mark the anniversary of 150 years of Italian Unity, CulturaItalia has teamed up with with Judaica Europeana, a Europe-wide project to gather digitized information “that documents Jewish presence and heritage in European cities and make them available on Europeana.” Europeana is the the online home of digital resources culled from Europe’s libraries, archives, and museum collections.

Star of David and the Italian FlagThe name of CulturaItalia’s project is called, “The Star of David and the Italian Flag, Jews and the Construction of a United Italy.” Institutions as well as the public have been asked to help CulturaItalia with this project by submitting “digital files with stories, texts, photographs, letters, postcards, illustrations and drawings, audio documents and short videos that tell of the Jewish culture in Italy in the last 150 years.” Suggested topics include:

  • itineraries in the city
  • arts and trades
  • fashion
  • schooling
  • private life
  • parties and ceremonies
  • public events
  • food culture
  • literature and theatre

If you or your family have stories to tell, photos or art to share, or anything else that will enhance the understanding of Jewish contributions to Italy over the past 150 years, you are invited to submit your files through this online form. No doubt, this is a fantastic way to ensure the Jewish history of Italy lives on digitally so that future generations may learn and seek inspiration from it.

Photos © harshlight, CulturaItalia

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