from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Roma Dispatch

We spent twelve days in Rome in a stylish airBnb in Trastevere (Trahs-TEH-vare-eh). This neighborhood "across the Tevere (Tiber River)" was a favorite from a previous visit, and did not disappoint in any way.

Two bridges nearby over the Tiber were convenient for walking everywhere, except the one tram/bus trip required to get to the Vatican.

When Newton worked during some days, I explored museums and neighborhoods. He got me to repeat a couple of tourist standards that I hadn't planned on, but relished in the end, plus an interesting new one.

Mostly we walked and ate and observed the Romans and took in the feel of this muscular, voluptuous, pleasure-seeking city, which has retained many of its ancient, grandiose traits.

We actually thought it looked like this colossus was holding a cell phone!

We repeated Gianicolo Park on a Sunday morning. If you've seen the film "La Grande Bellezza" (The Great Beauty), you'll recognize this Il Fontanone where a women's choir sings from inside the structure, sounding like a choir of angels! The film is "La Dolce Vita" for the twenty-first century, completely dedicated to capturing the essence of Rome's decadence and beauty in a circumspect way.

Next to Gianicolo's Botanical Garden is the Palazzo Corsini, where I spent a quiet afternoon examining the extraordinary paintings in the Galleria.

It is one of many palaces full of art collections that wealthy families have donated to the city over the centuries. If they are not at the top galleries on tourists' lists, they can be practically empty, so it's mostly you, beautiful rooms and the art!

Caravaggio's St. John the Baptist

Guido Reni's Salome with the head of John the Baptist

Mattia Preti's Christ and the Moneychangers, clearly heavily influenced by Caravaggio

One important center of our neighborhood life was the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. The church dates from the fourth century. It structurally remains in its Romanesque incarnation, with gilt mosaics in the Byzantine style.

The Piazza at night is active with the general passeggiatta (basically: the people out walking because there are places to make that happen), music and mime performances, and special delights for children.

Sara Jane, a fabulous rock singer at Ombre Rosse, where we had two rockin' dinners. Very cool place.

We sought out a couple of restaurant recommendations in the neighborhood from our food guru for Italy, Fred Plotkin, who wrote Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. The recommendation near the Testaccio food market is now something else (impossible to keep up with transitions, clearly). We had a great lunch by the river instead at his Trattoria Lo Scopettaro. 

But our favorite place in Trastevere from Fred, already from a previous visit, is the family-run Trattoria da Lucia; Vicolo del Mattonato. Still and always divine. We went three times this trip and always had the pasta alla gricia (cubes of bacon, pecorino cheese, reeling in actual Parmesan) and rabbit. I know: Thumper, but rabbit is unbelievably delectable. We could live next door to this place. 

Seen on the streets of the city:

Butterfly wall on our stroll

Elaborate facade
Ruins at night
Isola Tiberina in the middle of the Tiber, with its signature pines
This just feels Roman to me
A museum with two very American exhibits

A classical facade
A Baroque curved facade
A curved neoclassical facade
French Baroque in the Basilica dei SS Ambrogio and Carlo

Newton and I by the river

I also continued to appreciate iron work:

...and this unusual woodwork:

Neptune's Fountain

Another afternoon took me to another palazzo museum, with the tremendous Piazza Navona en route. This site was a first century stadium. The two fountains are from the seventeenth century.

Fountain of the Four Rivers
The great Bernini was the sculptor of this fountain, heavily influenced by Michelangelo from the previous century, with extra twists and musculature.

The Palazzo Altemps has a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, many pieced together by restorers with parts from various eras over the centuries, and newer sculptures based on classical clues. There are attached heads, torsos, arms, hands, even Baroque gender-blending.

This Greek head of Aphrodite is from 470 B.C.

This Roman copy of the head of Hera, or Juno, was part of a colossal statue. Scholars believe the features were modeled after Antonia Minor, mother of poor Emperor Claudius (with the limp and the stutter...I'm assuming you've seen the original great TV series "I, Claudius"). Others theorize that the features are based on Livia, the wife of Augustus (she poisoned everyone). Most of the cast of "I, Claudius" is represented in this museum.

Tiberius, not very nice.

This sculpture of Cupid and Psyche has been completely assembled with parts of ancient sculptures by a seventeenth century restorer. Note that Psyche has the torso of a male, and Cupid's hair could give one pause. Emphasizing ambiguity and the reversal of the masculine and feminine was a Baroque mannerism.

At the end of the collection was a very interesting film about a partial head of Antinous owned by the Altemps and another partial head of Antinous owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. A professor at the University of Chicago noticed how the parts might possibly fit, and an assembled team compared notes, using the current technology. In the end, it was a fit with some fillers for missing areas along the left cheek and jawline. Antinous was a young Greek lover of the Emperor Hadrian, deified after his untimely death; hence, there are a number of known busts and statues of him. Pretty amazing story!

Newton and I went to a very well organized Quiz Night in English at the Irish pub, Scholar's Lounge. Our group of five came in third, winning Tee-shirts from the Czech pilsner on draught. It was so much fun.

Newton wanted to revisit the Pantheon with its magnificent coffered dome. I was willing to face the crowd of tourists, so off we walked. The Pantheon was originally an ancient temple, now a church with a Renaissance interior. The massive concrete unreinforced dome is the largest such dome anywhere. 

The oculus is the main source of light.

We had a great lunch at Fred's suggested Trattoria Armando al Pantheon, just to the right, facing the structure.

Newt discovered another tourist offering that is newer, not at the top of lists, and requires reservations for very small groups. This is the excavation of an ancient Roman home under a Renaissance palazzo, Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini. The excavated home is covered with glass floors, so as you move through the rooms the ruins are visible, enhanced in many cases by digital images of what the rooms would have looked like originally. It is beside Trajan's Forum.

Marble floor

Another, very legitimate tourist destination that Newton had never seen was the Sistine Chapel. I had never seen the Vatican Museums, so it looked like a good match. In the end, I hadn't brought my cell phone and we figured the logistics of meeting afterwards could be tough, so he joined me in the museums and I joined him in the shuffling throng. We passed through corridor after corridor of gilt and lurid-colored murals, apparently the taste of one pope being worse than the next (no photos of the worst ones). The pay-off, which is brief and pretty rushed by attendant guards, is the ravishing, classical restraint and genius of the one-and-only Michelangelo. I was bowled over by the yin-yang of it, and gasped almost as audibly as when I was seventeen and the whole place seemed twice its size...being much less crowded. On that visit, we stood in the chapel at our leisure, studying panels of interest; The Last Judgment. It is now basically a cattle drive, but a soul-nourishing one, no doubt about it.

Like a real Brazilian, Newt started snapping photos as soon as the guards said "no cameras." Of course, he was not the only one.

From the Vatican Museums:

This is just a copy of Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's, now encased in glass after the mad axe-wielder. But the copy does offer up a chance to appreciate the genius. The astounding composition: triangular with the delicate Mary's substantial base of drapery over knees, allowing the slightly diagonal body of Christ to be supported and highlighted; the nanometers of cutting of marble that render a body absolutely limp; the pathos in its beauty.

Mosaic floors:

Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ

Bernini's model for marble sculptures in St. Peter's Basilica

 Franceso Mola's St. Jerome

We had another great lunch very near the Vatican, but in a direction where no more tourists were crowding the street: Fred's recommended Il Matriciano on Via del Gracchi 49.

OK, I'm done, though Rome deserves so much more. I admire the priorities in this culture: how do we live beautifully and healthily? Profit takes a backseat to life. May the US mature to this understanding (I know, we're several centuries behind). I guess when you are surrounded by beauty that nourishes your being, natural or man-made, wherever you are, consumerism loses its hold.

Here at home, summer is a-coming.

Unretouched photo
The sun is very bright and hotter than before (I wonder why??). The color of the ocean and sky are deeper and richer than I've seen in ten years, observing this view almost daily. It is a thrilling palette to wake to.

Neighbors are sending in workmen to fix-up and paint for the holidays or January...for many, the only time they use their beach houses, which are full of relatives and friends for the month.

We wake up to the hammering…and this year singing of the neighbor’s workmen out our bedroom window. 

We decided not to replace our beautiful holiday tube lights wound around the coconut trees this year, because the sand and salt blowing off the ocean ruin them so quickly and we won't be here. We bought cheaper white "icicle" lights to run along the balcony, except  they don't quite reach from end-to-end, they are a disturbing harsh white light and...while their purpose is to look like we are here when we leave, we already turned them off when our friends came for movie night, out of embarrassment.

Workmen are starting to paste up new ads over the raggedy tatters of last summer’s ads on the five horrid billboards lined up in the grassy patch where the highway U-turns to our street. They look a little better with pictures; wish they weren't there.

If you can believe it, Newton is, as I type, routing his business trip to Asia through Switzerland to join his partners - already there for a trade show - for skiing in the Alps!

I take off for Los Angeles tomorrow, where Newton will later join Elise and me, then we’ll spend Christmas and New Years in Las Vegas with Jake and Larissa.

Exciting news: Newt and I are finally going to fulfill my dream of visiting Cuba, on our way home...same trip as the ski jacket, mind you!

Wishing you as much joy as the season can muster -


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