One Year in Italy: 12 Months of Memories

Time Flies!
“Time Flies! Stop lying around and write something, will ya?” (Photo of a detail from the facade of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte on the Via Giulia, Rome)

Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.

The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!

Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.

Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.

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Cool Italian Street Art from The Drawing Bike


Rachele del Nevo parks her bike every day on the corner of Piazza Della Rotonda within view of the Pantheon. It is here, right outside of Tazza D’Oro (one of the city’s best known coffee shops) that she sells her one-of-a-kind souvenir drawings of some of the city’s gorgeous landmarks.

When I chatted with her one morning, I thumbed through the artwork stuffed into the basket of her Drawing Bike. There were large illustrations of obelisks and small drawings of details from churches. So many of the drawings were of familiar Roman scenes but they all felt different because of her colorful, pop art style. Rachele’s medium? Marker on cardboard panels, most from the sides of boxes that once held everyday Italian products like laundry soap or pasta.

I was particularly smitten with an illustration of Bernini’s obelisk-topped elephant, a sculpture that sits in a square less than a block from her station. But I would have been happy to take home any one of her panels, some of which integrate brands and logos into common Roman and Italian scenes. She also does made-to-order illustrations. But I doubt you could come up with better ideas than she has already created.

People always talk about Rome being a blend of old and new. But this is really a way to bring the Roman street home with you in a way that is fresh, lightweight—and possibly worth something some day.

Photo of the Day: A Ray of Light in San Giovanni in Laterano

While hundreds wait in lines in the harsh sun to get into Saint Peter’s, the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, also known as the Cathedral of Rome, is practically empty. San Giovanni is the oldest and largest papal basilica in Rome, although it has gone through many reconstructions over the years due to earthquakes, fires, and vandalism (by the actual Vandals, in the 5th century).

Admission to San Giovanni in Laterano is free. But you can purchase a ticket to visit the 13th century cloister, located through a door to the left of the altar, and the Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum (the Holy Stairs and Holy Sanctum, located across the street), one of the most important sites of pilgrimage outside of Vatican City.

The Pantheon On Pentecost Sunday

Pantheon at Pentecost: Rose Petals

Easter may have come and gone but the ceremonies and spectacles surrounding this holy time continue long after Easter Sunday mass at Saint Peter’s.

Fifty days after Easter Sunday, Christians celebrate Pentecost Sunday, a day when the Holy Spirit is said to come down to earth. Rome celebrates this day by raining rose petals down into the Pantheon through its oculus.

The ancient Pantheon, known since the 7th century as St. Mary and the Martyrs or Santa Maria Rotonda, hosts the event called Pioggia dele Rose (The Rain of Roses) or Pioggia di Petali (The Rain of Petals)  in the afternoon following Pentecost mass. The event is free.

In Rome, Hoteliers In Revolt Over State of the City

On Tuesday, coincidentally Rome’s 2,768th birthday, more than 200 city hoteliers wrote an open letter to Mayor Ignazio Marino about the “embarrassing situation” that the capital is facing.

As reported in La Repubblica, the members of ADA Lazio, headed by Roberto Necci, said that the city is in a state of “filth and degradation” and is not ready for the Holy Jubilee of Mercy, which Pope Francis announced would begin on December 8, 2015. There should also be an influx of tourists traveling south after visiting the Milan Expo, which begins on May 1.

A rough translation from La Repubblica:

“Italians and foreigners who come to town hoping to experience a stay in the style of La Dolce Vita do not find Rome of Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” but a capital invaded by illegal stalls of street vendors, mountains of waste in front of the bins and touts offering scams of all kinds. ‘We are very concerned,’ explains Roberto Necci, president and director Ada Lazio Savoy hotel (4 stars), just a few steps from Via Veneto. ‘The image of Rome in international newspapers and websites continues to be associated with degradation and facts such as the chaos of the transport strike in recent days.'”

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Natale di Roma: Rome Celebrates Its Birthday

She Wolf in the Capitoline Museums

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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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!)

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.

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