Mare Nostrum II: Roma–In the Shadow of Centuries

Capitoline wolf statue
Capitoline Wolf, Museo Capitolini in Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

There are very few places left which can live up to their own hype. Rome does. Use whatever words you like–ostentatious, city of grandeur, over the top–Rome wears them like a toga. You want 2000-year-old ruins? Here’s a Temple of the Vestal Virgins. Over there’s a Colosseum, where one three-day festival weekend, they slaughtered 9000 people in it. You like statues? Here’s a six-foot head of Constantine that used to tower in a piazza or… how about a Michelangelo so close to you that you can breathe on it. Want coffee? Best cappucino in the world at this hole in the wall, mind the scooters aiming at you as you cross the alley. Museums? More than in Washington D.C. Pastries? Sfogliatelle. Religious backdrops? Oh, here’s a church (imagine me waving vaguely at St. Peter’s, the way Edith Head used to wave at all her Oscars).

We’ve seen painted ceilings, beautiful sculptures, and well-turned out meals in many places. Rome just seems to have more. Of everything.

gran•deur /’grandjər, ‘grandyoor/
splendor and impressiveness, especially of appearance or style

Statues, Ostia Antics.
Statues at an altar, Ostia Antica, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

Cittá Antica

Although Roots was the popular TV epic when I was in high school, the one that made the strongest impression on me was I Claudius. It’s still the gold standard, in my opinion, for riveting drama that blended history (or close enough) with superb acting and lively dialogue. It also is the best example of how to show wretched excess–like those murders, orgies, beheadings from the early Roman emperors– without showing anything on camera. In 1977, it was considered pretty racy but would probably earn only a PG13 now. For me, walking around now in Rome at last was like having the other shoe drop, decades later. I was even re-watching Episode 10 a few days ago (it’s great to watch on the tablet on an overseas flight) and, in it, Claudius walks into a building flanked by the statue of the Capitoline Wolf that I just posted from the Museo Capitolini.

We went out to Ostia Antica for our day trip, an entire town preserved from the time of the emperors, a 30 minute metro ride south of Rome proper. Claudius mentions it in Episode 11; it’s where he was visiting when his wife Messalina married another senator, in public. Another head rolls.

The ruins were in amazing shape. Acres of what once was a theater, office park, public market–with mosaics that showed what each merchant sold–taverns, apartment buildings, temples, latrines, baths, and a large necropolis. I had a blast watching a group of kids play hide ‘n’ seek in the shopkeeper stalls, next to the streets where Claudius walked.

Rome Colosseum.

Colosseum, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

Do you know I Claudius? The scene where Livia gives a rousing pep talk to the gladiators? Where psychopathic Emperor Caligula performs a midnight dance dressed as Venus, while Claudius and several senators try to decide if they are supposed to swoon or laugh, with their lives hanging on their choice? Where Empress Messalina competes with a prostitute to see who could handle the most…? Every grassy forum that I walked through in the Palatine, every set of columns I looked up at, every fading fresco of nymphs and naiads, echoed back to all the things I had read about and seen of Rome. All of it felt very true.

And don’t think you can fool me either because I know every trick in the book, including the pig’s blood in the bladder, to make it look as if one of you is dead. There’s been too much of that lately. These games are being degraded by the increasing use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it.

–Livia, I Claudius, Waiting in the Wings

Roof terrace at Castel Sant'Angelo.
Archangel, roof terrace at Castel Sant’Angelo. Photo by kajmeister.

Do half-broken columns that used to be 60-feet tall fail to impress? How about standing on the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo, watching little girls run around, doing cartwheels? The Castel contains Hadrian’s tomb, famous prisons, and chambers for popes who at times fled Rome while their city was besieged by the Huns, the Hapsburgs, and the French. Above the castle stands the Archangel Michael ready to strike. It also happens to be the scene used in the finale of Tosca, where the soprano, stricken with grief at the death of her love, throws herself off the roof…ehich I just saw the NY Met opera do, in theaters, not two months ago.

From our window seat in Sant’Angelo, sipping a coffee and eating our elevenses*, you could see the pope’s walkway. That was the passageway that allowed pope’s and papal entourages clear access from the Castle all the way to the Vatican, nearly a mile away.


Elevenses at Castel Sant’Angelo. Photo by kajmeister.

Frolla di Ricotta e Visciola is My New Best Friend

My very first clue that this city would feel different was during the food tour we took on arrival. We picked our way across the broken black cobblestones in the rain, tasting truffle oils and 15-year-old basalmic vinaigrettes, then went into a bakery in the Jewish Quarter. We crossed the threshhold of the tiny shop to sample a sour cherry pastry that was a melange of American pie, German streudel, and Italian frolla all rolled into one. Guide Francesca said, “Oh, and this bakery has been here for over 300 years. ” Three. Hundred. That’s older than America.

That’s exactly what my wife leaned over and told me as we stepped out, licking our fingers. After some oh-my-god pasta in a carton, and some divine charcuterie on a box and some crates, we also had a slice of what Francesca called the best pizza in town, at Antio Forna Roscioli, a legendary pasticceria near Camp di Fiori. We went back for more pizza the next day, and I cleverly asked one of the servers which is their favorite. She said she couldn’t decide between this jewel pie that infused a buttery sugary crust with sour cherries in Grand Marnier, and that swirl of crisp filo-like dough surrounding a sweet almond paste. We got both. After I posted a photo, a half dozen people said that Sfogliatelle was their grandmother/nanny/aunt’s favorite, however you pronounced the word. I liked the frolla just that much more, but I would bark like a dog for a chance at another bit of either.

Roscioli Bakery.

Choices, choices at Roscioli Bakery. Photo by kajmeister.

Also, even being from California, where we do have fresh, local, organic, farm-to-table ingredients in the neighborhood grocery store … I didn’t know tomatoes could taste like that. I am sorry, tomatoes. I didn’t know.

Not everything in Rome has been fountains of joy and light. At the Jewish bakery, our guide Francesca noted, “And the one other thing here is that the ladies N-E-V-E-R smile.” I don’t know if that was a Jewish thing or an Italian thing. Most of the Italian customer service people always carried a slight frown, whether they were pouring coffee and steamed milk for you with a flourish at breakfast or retrieving the giant metal key you had to leave at the hotel front desk. Maybe they just want work to seem like work and with so many tourists coming through the city (six million go through the Vatican alone), they don’t need to sing Be Our Guest to lure anyone in.

Measuring for Popes

Suppose you’re not that impressed with crumbling old ruins, which require a lot of imagination to picture the buildings whole or with statues missing arms, noses, or heads. Fine. There are a hundred museums where you can see whole statues, one after another, masterpiece after masterpiece, more Berninis, Bellinis, and Barbierinis than you can shake a stick at.

Caravaggio, Judith.

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes, Museo Barbierini, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

My absolute favorite was this Caravaggio. We saw a number of versions of the story of Judith, who chopped off the wicked king Holofernes’ head. His Assyrian army was massacring the Jews, so she seduced him, got him drunk, and escaped with her maid and his head in the bag. Renaissance painters loved the story because every museum had some version, including Michelangelo’s on the Sistine chapel. Hanging in the Museo Barbierini, Caravaggio’s Judith seems puzzled as she saws at the head. The side lighting highlights the faces, but also the red around the neck, which looks like a scarf from across the room. Nursey, frowning like an Italian, stands ready with the bag.

Most of the art we saw was not necessarily as gruesome (though there was a lot about the crucifixion and martyrs). Walking through St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, I was more awestruck by the gold and bronze encrusted carvings, each corner and niche holding another view more impressive than the last. After circuiting the whole of St. Peter’s, I came upon the big guy himself–John-Paul II–whose popularity breathed life into the Catholic church. There was a group of maintenance workers around the tomb measuring something and having a very animated conversation–perhaps his popularity requires a grander place? A way to shove the chairs closer together so more people can fit?

John-Paul II tomb in St. Peter’s, photo by kajmeister.

As I said in my last post, I also enjoy watching children interacting with all these adulty artifacts, probably because I was dragged around museums when I was a kid. It can be annoying when you are a child, and annoying for adults when the kids–especially other people’s–act up, but I appreciate it now as an adult. Paintings become part of your childhood; seeing them again is like visiting an old friend. Also, although it seems incongruous, seeing children next to masterpieces reminds me of the potential that is held within the human species. Michelangelo was once a child. Hence, my reason for taking a photo of this little girl, as her parents snapped her picture in front of The Pieta. Bambino with Madonna con Bambino. The baby’s name was, I kid you not, Maria.

Pieta and anonymous Bambino.
Bambino with Madonna Con Bambino (Pieta), St. Peter’s, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

A Touch of Crass

The Vatican was wall-to-wall people, unfortunately, so some of my feeling about it is colored by the discomfort of shuffling from room to room, barely able to move. Karin said it felt like one of those long Disney ride lines where you go up and down stairs and around, looking at slightly interesting things, until you finally get to the Big Thing, which doesn’t last very long. The big thing was the Sistine Chapel, and I had just spent three months finishing a 1500 piece puzzle of it. I had also read a book about its inspiration, which said that the roof was dark and hard to see from years of smoke. I though a good way to get intimately acquainted with it would be looking for bits of twisted arm and shoulder and cloth. There’s a lot of bright blue, red, and green drapery in the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine chapel puzzle.

Sistine chapel puzzle, completed by kajmeister.

I hadn’t realized they had cleaned and restored it. When we arrived at last, the paintings were vibrant. Even in a room massed with people, the sheer mass of genius dwarfed all of us. Like most things in Rome, it lived up to the hype and was worth every puzzle piece and twinge in my knees.

We didn’t know if we’d be able to get into see the actual Sistine Chapel, so we also pre-booked this show down the street from St. Peter’s called Guido Nazionale, Michelangelo and the Inspiration for the Sistine Chapel. Call it Michelangelo does Cirque du Soleil. It was very Las Vegasy, touristy overdone glitz, slathered on top of the concept of the artwork. Michelangelo and the Pope flew through the air, then walked around the arena while their disembodied voices boomed out a discussion of art and theology.

I did enjoy how the show brought to life M’s visualization of the stories in Genesis and made the images large enough to see detail, but somewhere when they started playing Handel’s Messiah, Karin and I looked at each other and started giggling. God is nebulae, a laser light show, blaring music… And who expects progressive activist Susan Sarandon to be narrating the Bible? Or famous tantrum sex practitioner Sting to sing Dies Irae? I’m sure both were approached said, “No thanks, wait….how much will you pay?…”

Ultimately, like everything else in Rome, it was over the top, cheesy but enjoyable. In that sense, it fit perfectly.

Giardini Borghese
Final morning at the Giardini Borghese, Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

*The Kaj definition of Elevenses is “the cheese, butter, meat, and bread you filched from the buffet breakfast, slipped into the plastic Ziploc tub schlepped from California, and pulled it out in the museum cafe just as your feet are yelling, Not another Donatello!

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