Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rome 2009 - Part 3

The final countdown of my Top 10 Favorite Things about Rome 2009

4. Andersen Museum. If you go just north-northwest of the Piazza del Popolo (that's the piazza in the picture above) and look for Via P.S. Mancini, you’ll find a lovely pink palazzo that houses the Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum. Affiliated with Italy’s National Gallery of Modern Art, this museum is one of the hidden gems of Rome, and it was the first time that even Luca had been there when we visited. Andersen (1872-1940) was born in Norway. He emigrated with his family to America, but eventually made his way to Rome to study sculpture and lived there the rest of his life. Andersen is little known today but for those who are fans of the novelist Henry James, who met Andersen in Rome in the late 1890s when James was in his 50s and Andersen in his 20s. The two became lovers of a sort, as evidenced by their exchange of letters. The museum was once Andersen’s studio and it now houses many of his full-size models and finished works. The work you see here, for instance, is a picture I took of his model for Evening, a sculptural group from around 1907 for the planned Fountain of Life that was never completed. These erotic figures are larger-than-life, and their idealized nudity reveals Andersen’s affinity for classicism, but on a superhuman level. This isn’t the delicate sensuality of Canova, but the sublime forms of Michelangelo. Yet, their delicately harmonic bodies show his knowledge of Carpeaux and Rodin, and thus betray his true interest: abstracting the motion of the body, like music being performed for you. The museum is filled with these enormous bodies, to the point that it almost overwhelms you. But a visit here is worth the extra few minutes of walking, if for no other reason than you’ll be the only one in the museum, and it’s in a beautiful upscale neighborhood without a tourist in sight.

3. Caravaggio. If GianLorenzo Bernini is one of the leading artists of Baroque Rome (see #8 on my list), the other is undoubtedly Caravaggio (ca. 1571-1610). This artist’s reputation precedes him. He was bisexual, an alcoholic, and a murderer, and yet Caravaggio also was one of the most prized artists of cardinals and churches, despite the frequent controversy of his subjects. Using stark realism and a heightened tenebrism (the effect of light and shadow), Caravaggio helped define artistic drama. His Bacchus at the Uffizi is one of my all-time favorite paintings, and previously I had seen works like David and Goliath at the Villa Borghese. On this trip, however, I finally had an opportunity to see other famous Caravaggio works. At the Palazzo Barberini, paintings like the psychological Narcissus are paired near the serene St. Francis in Meditation, one of the most simplistically spiritual paintings ever. I was unable to see his paintings in the churches near Piazza del Popolo, but the 3 paintings on the life of St. Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi were worth fighting the crowds to see. Sant’Agostino, however, has another of my favorite Caravaggio paintings, the Madonna of Loreto (left, image courtesy of Web Gallery of Art). This painting was considered controversial in its day because the Madonna and Christ child are unidealized and pushed to the side, literally standing in a doorway with Mary struggling to hold the baby as most young mothers would. Instead of wealthy patrons, there are farmers who worship them (note their filthy feet), adding to the startling realism of the work. Rome is where Caravaggio lived for most of his career. If it wasn’t for him, the spirit of the Baroque never may have happened at all.

2. Local Guides. There’s nothing like having friends and colleagues in other cities. They make site-seeing a new experience. While in Rome on this trip, I met up with Christina, whom I had met at Yale back in April. We had drinks at a fantastic little wine bar not far from the Campo dei Fiori called Coco e Mimi (by the name alone, I’m convinced two drag queens own it). Luca, whom I met at another conference last year at Yale, took me all over Rome, from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with paintings by Edward Burne-Jones to dinner at a fantastic ristorante called Tre Scalini run by friends of his. Luca’s friend Marcello met up with us one afternoon, and he was the one responsible for giving us the Jesuit tour, not to mention convincing us to visit churches like Sant’Agostino. The best part about having local guides is that you get to see and do things off the beaten path, but their companionship alone also made the week an even more enjoyable experience. Saluti e grazie a Christina, Luca, e Marcello!

1. Cremolato. Just about everyone has heard of gelato, the Italian version of ice cream. Luca took me to San Crispino for some delicious gelato, but then Christina told me I absolutely had to go to Giolitti and I have to admit theirs was better. On my last night, Luca took me outside the city center southeast of Santa Maria Maggiore, into Rome’s Chinatown, for one of the great gelato experiences at Palazzo di Freddo. It’s their equivalent of an ice cream parlor, but they’ve become quite famous and have a few branch gelati parlors around the world. But with all the gelato, Luca outdid himself by introducing me to cremolato. Like gelato, cremolato is cold and delicious, but it’s even more creamy and available in fruit flavors. It tastes like a combination of frozen yogurt and sorbet, but it’s even better than that. Top it with panna (whipped cream), and you’ll think you’re in dessert heaven. We had it at a road-side bar and coffee shop just near the Protestant Cemetery. I had fragoli (strawberry) topped with panna. I swear it was one of the best desserts ever, perfect for a hot afternoon. It was so good, in fact, that it is officially #1 on my list of great things to do in Rome! So next time you’re there, check it out. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rome 2009 - Part 2

Continuing the countdown of my Top 10 Favorite Things about Rome 2009...

7. Palazzi. Everywhere in Italy there are palaces–palazzi–in a classical, Renaissance-style design. You see small signs on one building after another, identifying it as the "Palazzo Ugolino" (or some other such name) with the centuries of its construction. Occasionally you get to see through the main doors of some of these places to discover their inner courtyards with ancient fountains, sculpture, and gardens. Many of these palazzi are now apartments. Others, however, are museums, and I enjoyed going into some of these on this trip. They make for some of the best things to do in Rome, because they are practically empty. Only true art lovers find these places. The picture you see above is one I took of the Palazzo Barberini, constructed by various architects over time from the 1600s. Inside, the historic collection of paintings owned by the Galleria Nazionale dell’Arte Antica includes important works by Raphael, Caravaggio, and others. My interest in this place was that in the 19th-century the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvalden lived and worked in the theater (later demolished in the 20th-century), and the American sculptor William Wetmore Story lived and worked here as well. I also visited the Palazzo Corsini, which houses another part of the collection of paintings owned by the Galleria Nazionale. The two most superb palazzi I visited on this trip were the Villa Farnesina and the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. The former is not very large, so a visitor can see it in about 30 minutes. The most beautiful parts of this villa are the frescoes, all of which have been cleaned and conserved to reveal their original brilliance. Two rooms have frescoes by Raphael, including his famous water nymph Galatea. Upstairs the main bedroom has a series of frescoes from the life of Alexander the Great by the Sienese artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as Sodoma, who proudly wore this sobriquet as an acknowledged homosexual. The one fresco of the Marriage of Alexander and Roxana is breathtaking with its bright colors and larger-than-life figures, in particular the ephebic, nearly-nude Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover, who reaches out as if to stop him from marrying Roxana (click here to see a picture). The Palazzo Doria Pamphilj is still owned by the same family after hundreds of years. They live in private quarters, but have available for tours many of the public and historic rooms, some dating back to the 1600s. I’m not a huge fan of audio tours, but the one for this palazzo narrated by the family is worth listening to, as they recount personal feelings on their home, art, and the historic events that have taken place in the palazzo. Their painting collection is enormous, although there aren’t too many major works. Most significant is Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), seen here courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art. It is a portrait so stunning in its psychological naturalism that when the Pope saw it, he hated it because it was too realistic. It’s no wonder this picture has influenced artists over the century, including most notably Francis Bacon, about whom I’ve written before on this blog, and on whom there is currently a fantastic exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

6. The Jesuit Experience. It sounds like a ride at an amusement park or a diorama display at a Christian institution, but in fact I’m referring to the experience of the Church of Il Gesú (the Holy Name of Jesus). The Society of Jesus, or Jesuit Order, was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). He received his divine calling to teach and spread the word of God throughout the world. As a result, there are numerous Jesuit schools throughout the world (e.g. Georgetown University), many of which have a reputation for being among the most academically challenging institutions. From early on, the Jesuits also were the first missionaries who traveled to places as far-flung as China and the Americas, sending back to Europe some of the first detailed recordings of what these mysterious lands were like. This particular church, Il Gesú, was Ignatius’s church when he settled in Rome. Under his guidance, it was reconstructed, but not consecrated until 1584. It continued to be decorated in the ever-burgeoning Baroque fashion of the day, ultimately becoming not only the model for all Jesuit churches but also for many Counter-Reformation Catholic churches as well. When I was in Rome, I did not anticipate even going into this church. My friend Luca and I met up with his friend Marcello, and he brought us here. As it turns out, it was one of the best "churchy" afternoons of my trip. Marcello led us into the back rooms where we visited the austere chambers of St. Ignatius. It is the interior of the church, however, that is mind-boggling. The frescoed ceiling by Baciccia, painted 1672-85, incorporates incredible effects of perspective, displaying the apotheosis of the name of Jesus. (I had forgotten my camera that day, so the picture you see here of the ceiling and apse is by earthmagnified on Flickr.) Segments of the ceiling literally poke out as wooden panels, so that painted figures float, extending from the ceiling. Incorporated into this are sculptures of angels in the sinewy curvaceous forms that Bernini made famous. These angels become architectural components, reaching out and holding up what looks like segments of the ceiling, that is heaven itself. Even the architecture fools you with actual three-dimensional columns blend into painted columns and vice-versa. You cannot figure out where illusion begins or ends. And as if that weren’t enough, the entire church is gilded, dazzling you everywhere you walk. The best part, however, was that at 5:30pm on the day of our visit, we were able to watch the visual spectacle of the unveiling of the statue of St. Ignatius. This takes place in an elaborate side chapel where a panel painting about Ignatius and the Jesuits measuring at least 18 feet long is surrounded by sculpted angels, saints, and allegorical figures in marble, lapis lazuli, gold, and silver. A sculpted representation of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is at the very top of the display. Recorded music and choral singing begin, suggesting an angelic chorus. Suddenly, a voice resounds and tells the story of St. Ignatius in florid Italian. As each segment of the story is told, spotlights flash on one part of the altar after another. The choir continues to sing between each segment. All of this builds up to the climax, the grand finale, when suddenly in a boisterous exclamation of singing voices, the panel painting rolls downward and shining out from behind is a larger-than-life statue made out of silver and gold of St. Ignatius floating toward heaven. It was nothing less than a total theatrical experience. Mind you, it’s also the gaudiest, most ostentatious form of religious entertainment I’ve ever seen in my life. But you cannot help but get caught up in its theatricality. The combination of music, singing, lights, the dazzling display of art and gilding, and the climactic reveal at the is true Baroque theater at its very best. If you’re fortunate to partake in the Jesuit experience, don’t forget also to visit the even-larger Basilica of St. Ignatius nearby, decorated with Andrea Pozzo’s enormous frescoed ceiling.

5. Hot Italian Men. You knew this was coming! What can I say? Rome has lots of HIMs (Hot Italian Men). You just have to be there and look around. In fact, you’ll get whiplash. And they know you’re looking at them, and they look back at you, longer than Americans usually feel comfortable, to the point that you’re not sure if they’re cruising or testing you, knowing you’re admiring them with their cocky grins and tanned complexions, smelling of some fragrance we haven’t even marketed yet in the States. Their dark hair is perfectly coiffed, their seemingly form-fitted bodies are decked out in Armani jeans, black Dolce & Gabbana belts, and white linen shirts. They saunter down Via del Corso and Via Veneto just waiting to be looked at by silly Americans, who desperately wish they had the guts to dress so confidently. (Note however that this look only works in Italy; dressing like that in America, and you’re a guido named Tony or Frankie who’s trying way too hard.) I could go on talking about HIMs, but let’s face it, if you’ve been there, you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then go there. Now.

The countdown will continue...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rome 2009 - Part 1

Ever since I returned from my trip, I've been thinking about what I should blog. After all, how does one describe Italia? Perhaps one just needs to experience it visually. (You can see my photos by clicking here.) But trying to write about Italy is always a challenge. In some ways, it's been done so many times by so many people, that it's almost impossible to say anything new. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860) while I was there, and although the story is tedious with an overwrought Romantic plot, Hawthorne's descriptions about Italian culture in the mid-19th century are engaging, and with a city as old as Rome it's not surprising to discover that some of the sites he describes, from the Piazza Spagna to Via del Corso, actually haven't changed that much. And ever since the wealthy began taking Grand Tours to Italy in the 1700s, and the middle classes embarked on their Baedeker trips--I'm now thinking of E.M. Forster's superb book A Room with a View (1908)--it seems difficult to try to describe the country, its people, its food, its art, and its culture, with a freshness and vivacity to enthrall others. In truth, you simply have to experience it first-hand. The fact that I've been to Italy a few times also seems to have stripped away my objectivity to some extent. But I don't want to convey that there's nothing new to say. On the contrary, rather than go through a day-by-day recounting of my trip, I thought it might be more fun to give you a descriptive list of things I encountered, noticed, and took part in on this trip, keeping in mind that I've done many of the main touristy things like the Colosseum in the past, so I'm not counting those things on this list. There is still so much to see and enjoy in Rome, and there were things that I never got around to doing this time. All that means, of course, that I cannot wait to go back! For now, though, I present to you Part 1 of my Top 10 Favorite Things about Rome 2009, counting down from number 10.

10. Pantheon Oculus. Buildings are always covered with scaffolding in Italy because restoration work is ongoing, so the last two times I was in Rome, it was difficult to fully appreciate the Pantheon because of said scaffolding. This time, however, I was able to see the entire interior of the Pantheon gleaning in all its marble brilliance. The Pantheon was reconstructed in the 2nd century by Emperor Hadrian as a temple to all the gods, and later became a church. It is an architectural marvel in many ways, but specifically because of the stone dome that crowns the building. Most impressive about it, however, is the oculus, or eye, that is open to the sky in the middle of the roof. (The image you see here is by IceNineJon on Flickr.) For nearly 2,000 years, this oculus has allowed the elements to enter the temple, and at times it was a practical way of capturing rainwater in a reservoir. But what impressed me most this time about the oculus was the way the sun poured through the oculus. It shines down with a golden-white glow that gleans off the marble floor and walls. In the days before electricity, this was the only source of lighting in the Pantheon (aside from oil lamps), and as the sun shifted in the sky over the course of the day and seasons, it would have helped light one altar after another. Today, it's fascinating to watch people huddle in the glow of the sunshine as the oculus forms a large space on the floor that could hold about 100 people. I returned two other times, just to see the sun in a different location in the space. But the best part isn't the oculus itself, or the sunshine on the floor. It's the incredible light itself that pours down through the space in a spectacle that illuminates the marble and glistens off of natural dust particles filtering through the air. It is nature penetrating the marble mass of human construction, superimposing its power, reminding us of its control over us and our space. It is brilliant, architecturally, spatially, and naturally speaking.

9. Religious Fervor. Okay, so no surprise, Vatican City and the Pope are nestled in the heart of the capital of Italy. Naturally, Catholicism is going to dictate much about the way Italians live and what they believe. There must be over 200 Catholic churches in the center of Rome itself, and there are always people in them. I actually visited on this trip at least 15 churches (I lost count), from the awesomeness of St. Peter's Basilica to the charming simplicity of the early Christian Basilica of Santa Sabina. In many of these churches, there are confessionals with priests hidden in their recesses and signs representing different languages spoken, giving people from around the world opportunities to confess their sins and receive absolution. (Does receiving penance in Rome has a greater significance than doing it in Secaucus, New Jersey, I wonder?) And then there are all the chapels, most set up during the Renaissance and Baroque periods by wealthy families who hired the greatest artists to decorate them. There are more named saints in Rome than I ever encountered in my entire Catholic upbringing in elementary school. And, lest we forget, there are relics--body parts and whole corpses--enshrined in gold chests and glass caskets, and for a mere Euro you can illuminate the electric lighting and say a prayer to the dead saint's body. There are icons as well, like the statue of St. Peter in the Vatican that people have kissed and rubbed for centuries to the point that his bronze foot has morphed into a fin-like appendage. Now, if I seem cynical with all this, I don't mean to be. I was actually fascinated watching all of this. It intrigues me that people are still spiritually enthralled by all of this. You would think the Western world stopped needing relics of saints as symbols of God's power ages ago. And confession? Really...what can the old Italian woman in the confessional really be confessing...that she cheated the fishmonger by stealing an extra octopus for her calamari? But I should point out that this isn't just about Italians. The Americans are perhaps even more zealous. There were numerous groups of Catholic tour buses, and the people who come into these churches collectively pray aloud. I heard prayers spoken aloud in American English by groups of people at least four times during the week. The religious fervor in Rome is amazing. Go into any church and watch the rituals, and mantras, in action. It's worth it.

8. GianLorenzo Bernini. If Florence is a city of the Renaissance, then Rome is a city of the Baroque, and the artist who made it so was GianLorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Everywhere you look, you will find sculptural and architectural monuments designed by this genius. In true Baroque form, they undulate and sway, they are dramatic, they show action, they draw you into their world and make you feel like they are alive, a frightening concept since so much of his work is larger than life. In the past I had visited the Villa Borghese, where some of his exquisite works are on display. David flings a rock at Goliath, and Apollo chases Daphne as she turns into a tree. Outside St. Peter's, the all-embracing colonnades that surround the piazza are by Bernini. They draw you into the fold of the Church. Inside the Vatican, he also designed the bronze baldacchino over the altar and the Cathedra Petri as a sculptural stage for the throne of St. Peter. He even designed the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona. Even things Bernini did not design show his influence, like the Trevi Fountain. But on this trip I made a point of spending time looking at what is one of the best Bernini experiences: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel at Santa Maria della Vittoria, a church which just happened to be around the corner from my apartment. The angel prepares to pierce St. Teresa, just as her autobiography described it, the burning sensation of the angel's arrows entering her with a spiritual ecstasy transcending human sensibility. She floats on a cloud and her face glows in orgiastic delight. (The image you see here is by Nick in exsilio on Flickr.) But to see the sculpture in true Baroque form, one has to understand that it is framed by its own stage, and you realize you are watching a theatrical performance. You are not alone either. On each side, Bernini also carved balconies, and in these balconies are the patrons who commissioned the chapel. They too watch the performance, and once again you are drawn into their world. You are part of the spiritual spectacle. You are made to ache along with St. Teresa. You are invited to participate in her ecstasy. That is Baroque art. That is Bernini. That is Rome.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Passing of Florence Letterese

I know some of you are waiting for highlights from my recent trip to Italia, which are coming, but I wanted to post first about the passing of someone very special to me, my Aunt Florence. I received the news while I was overseas. Despite the fact that my aunt was 82, the news came as a shock to all of us because she was our family matriarch. She took care of everyone and had a genuine interest in everyone's well-being. Although she had been ill in the past year with heart problems, she was back to her usual self for many months now, running all over taking care of family as usual. She was even still working at the local theater as recently as two years ago. As the eldest daughter in a family living through the Depression in the Bronx, from her early days she was always taking care of everyone, including my mother, who was 16 years younger than her sister and who passed away almost 3 years ago from early onset Alzheimer's disease. The St. Petersburg Times published the following brief obituary for my aunt:

LETTERESE, Florence 82, of St. Petersburg, passed away May 31, at her home. She moved here in 1970 from her native Bronx, NY. She was the lead usher for 15 years at the Mahaffey Theater, delivered Meals on Wheels and belonged to the Italian American Society of St. Petersburg. Survivors include her husband of 37 years, Peter; son, Robert Tully (Susan) of Lincroft, NJ; brother, Edward Pape; sister Jeanne Pepe; granddaughter, Melissa Bennett; great-grandchildren Aidan and Emily Bennett, all of St. Petersburg.

There is a temporary Guest Book as part of the online obituary, and there are some wonderful comments from people who knew her. Here are some of their remarks: "Florence was a very special lady. ... It was always such a pleasure working with her." (Marie R., Tierra Verde); "Florence was always cheerful, caring and kind to everyone. She put other people's needs before her own. She was a strong and intelligent woman. We will miss her very much and are thankful for having known her." (Joe & Nancy B., Oldsmar); "Florence was such a gracious and likable person, a very sweet woman." (Kate Z., Tarpon Springs); "Her willingness to help everyone she knew will always be remembered." (Elizabeth H., St. Petersburg).

Because of traveling back from Italy and oral surgery I had to undergo upon my return (I currently bear a striking resemblance to a chipmunk with swollen cheeks), I was unable to attend the memorial service. My cousins Robert, Melissa, Denise, and Uncle Ed, all spoke, and I now really do regret that I was not there to be with all of them. However, I did email them my own thoughts and Denise read what I wrote, so I'd like to think I was there in spirit. I am going to Florida next week to be with the family. What follows is what I wrote. At the bottom is a photo from last Halloween of Aunt Florence with her granddaughter and great-grandchildren, who also happen to be my godson and goddaughter.

We are all still in shock. Receiving news that someone you love has passed away is never easy to process. In the case of Aunt Florence, it seems even more startling, because she has always been there for all of us in more ways than we can count. The last time I spoke to her was two weeks ago, just before I left for Italy. She called to wish me a safe trip and to enjoy myself. She also told me to make sure I cleaned my apartment before I left, which of course I didn’t do.

Aunt Florence impacted all of our lives. As a baby, she made me a sailor’s suit that I still have hanging in my closet. She even made clothes for our Cabbage Patch dolls! She would send birthday cards and underline phrases to show you how much she felt the sentiment. She baked incredible shortbread and was a wonderful cook. Her tortellini-and-spinach in tomato-and-cream sauce has become legendary in the family. I admired her dedication for doing Meals on Wheels with cousin Alice, and I watched in admiration as she personally held out a hand to each and every member of our family. She made you feel respected, because she listened to everything you had to say. She was so proud of our family and loved every one of us, despite all our quirks. She was a rock of solace. She was the strong one that we all turned to. Her strength of character gave her an incredible ability to offer the unquestioning emotional support we needed in difficult times.

But if there is one thing that I will remember and cherish forever about Aunt Florence, it was four simple words she often said: This too shall pass. No matter how troubled or angry or sad or confused we were, we could go to Aunt Florence and talk to her. She would listen, give you a big hug, and remind you that this too shall pass. Every problem has a solution, and every dark cloud a silver lining. That was Aunt Florence. And so I say to my family, we are all grieving right now, and the pain may be so great at times that it feels like it will never go away, but know that this too shall pass. There will come a time when we will remember Aunt Florence, and we will laugh and we will cry, but time will heal the pain. She never would have wanted us to suffer, so in her honor and memory, let us remember that this too shall pass.