Roman Mosaic

We took a short trip to Rome last week, our first extended trip to the capital since we moved to Italy last year.  Although Italy has an extensive train networks, from Ascoli Piceno the quickest way to get to Rome is by intercity bus, through the Appenines via the route of the ancient via Salaria.

Since we had been to Rome before, we decided to concentrate on less-frequently visited sites during this visit.  I have a particular interest in mosaics, an art which flourished in late antiquity and during the medieval period.  Rome has comparatively few monuments during this period — the city’s population declined from 1 million during the imperial period to perhaps 50,000 at the beginning of the 15th C, and didn’t recover until a series of Popes, beginning in the latter half of the 15th C, decided to restore the city to something approaching its former magnificence.  But medieval monuments are there if you know where to look.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the 4 basilicas in Rome administered by the Vatican, has wonderful mosaics dating from both the 5th and 12th Centuries.  Just down the street, the church of Santa Prassede has some fascinating mosaics dating from the 9th C.  The mosaics in both of these churches follow what is known as the “Byzantine” style — no perspective, no individualized faces — but I found them quite lovely.

In the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, there is a wonderful 12th C mosaic of Jesus and Mary in heaven.  Jesus has his arm around Mary (a traditional Byzantine pose) but there was a certain affection in his gaze (unfortunately difficult to see in the photograph).

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Santa Maria in Trastevere

At the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, we saw some frescoes done by the same artist, Pietro Cavallini.  The frescoes are not in the main church — they are in an upstairs room and you have to pay a small admission charge.  I have just enough Italian now to follow the guide’s explanations — good thing, because there were no written captions.  The guide was eager to point out the individualized expressions in the faces of the Apostles — something supposedly invented by Giotto, who worked about 50 years later, and an early harbinger of the Renaissance.

Despite what to us appears as forward-looking artistry, the frescoes were plastered over by a Renaissance-era cardinal, who found them old-fashioned, and only rediscovered during building renovation work in the 1930s.  Portions of the original frescoes have been irretrievably lost — St. Michael, for instance, was identifiable only by his sword and metal breastplate.  But as the fortuitous consequence of not being exposed to the air for several hundred years, the colors are still almost as vibrant as originally intended, without restoration.  No photos were allowed in this room — the picture you see here is scanned from postcards.

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Pietro Cavallini: Apostoli from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (1291)

We took a special tour of the Vatican which began with breakfast in the museum courtyard.  The 2 hours allotted to the Vatican Museum allowed for only the highlights — you could easily spend a whole day there — but it was nice to skip the line and get an early start.  The Sistine Chapel seems to be crowded no matter when you go, and is patrolled by guards who strictly enforce the no-photo rule (photos are allowed elsewhere in the Vatican).  The guards’ other function seems to be to keep people moving, otherwise the number of people too awed to move would quickly create traffic jams in the rest of the museum.  The guards reminded me of the demons in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, prodding along the reluctant souls of the damned with their pitchforks — too bad I can’t post a photo!  You’ll have to settle for a photo of one of the nearby “Raphael rooms”.

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Raphael: The School of Athens

I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time in 1970, before the major cleaning project begun in the 1980s, and remember being somewhat disappointed — 400 years of candle smoke had rendered much of the work too dark to see.  The restoration is controversial in some quarters — some people think they took off some of Michelangelo’s paint along with the candle soot.  But you’ll never convince me that these strong, vibrant colors aren’t what Michelangelo intended.

We also saw St. Peter’s on the tour, and I was as underwhelmed by the church as I have been in the past.  I know it’s a minority view, but something about the church’s sheer size (they have marks on the floor showing the limits of “lesser” cathedrals like St. Paul and Notre Dame) seems to me inconsistent with the Church’s spiritual message.  They’ve got some great art in there, though, including Michelangelo’s Pieta.

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Michelangelo: Pietà

Interestingly, virtually all of the “paintings” in the church are actually mosaics, although you have to get really close to see that.

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A painting-like mosaic in St. Peter’s.

Having seen at least one of Rome’s major sights, we returned to smaller sights for the last couple of days of our trip.

The Palazzo Colonna has been the home of the Colonna family for eight centuries.  These days, part of the Palazzo has been turned into a museum, open only on Saturday mornings, which displays the family’s art collection (Bronzino, Perugino, Carracci….)

Marcantonio Colonna played a big part in the victory of the “Holy League” (Venice, Spain and the Papacy) over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  Colonna lost no time celebrating his victory with a series of magnificent ceiling murals depicting the battle — it’s awesome, but a bit over the top.  The palazzo had another moment of dubious fame in 1849 when some republicans (of the Roman variety) were holed up there, but were later driven out by French (pro-Papal) forces.  A cannon ball which arrived in the gallery at that time has been preserved where it landed.

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On our last day, we visited what we thought was a standalone stained glass museum just outside the center.  The museum is actually at the Villa Torlonia, which has the unfortunate distinction of having been Mussolini’s official residence.  The house and grounds fell into disrepair after the war, and in the 1990s the Italian government decided to restore the place into the 19th C aristocratic villa it had originally been.  These days, the main house and several associated buildings feature exhibits of Italian art during the early 20th C.  We were particularly interested in the exhibit devoted to modern theatrical productions at Italy’s ancient Greek theaters, since we had enjoyed a performance at the ancient  theater in Siracusa (Sicily) a few years ago.

The stained glass museum is located in one of the buildings on the grounds, the Casina delle Civette, or Owl House.  This was the home of the last scion of the Torlonia family, who was apparently an unsocial fellow who preferred the company of owls, bats and other birds of the night.  He was, however, also a stained-glass enthusiast, and much of the work here was done by the best Italian stained glass artists of the early 20th C, and it has a particular style, quite different from that of the more familiar French and American stained glass artists working at the same time.  The whole place is worth a visit, if you have the time.

One more note — during an evening tour of Trastevere, our guide pointed out a 19th C building with the Latin inscription — PIUS IX P M OFFICINAM NICOTIANIS FOLIIS ELABORANDIS A SOLO EXTRUXIT ANNO MDCCCLXIII.  The building was Pope Pius IX’s official cigarette rolling factory, built in 1863. In many parts of Europe, even today, the government has a monopoly on tobacco sales, and it has been an important revenue source. These days, though, the Vatican bans the sale of tobacco in its tiny state.

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Papal cigarette factory

 

 

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Shakespeare at the Globe

I mentioned our visit to the Globe Theater in London in my last post, but I thought the performance and the total experience was worth a write-up of its own.

The Globe theater, opened in 1997, is a reconstruction of the Globe Theater that existed in Shakespeare’s day.  It is reasonably faithful to the original design, with certain adjustments for modern fire code regulations.  In keeping with the conditions of Shakespeare’s day, sets are minimal and, at least during the afternoon performances, no artificial lighting is used.  Although some of the seats have backs, we bought bench seats, and rented cushions.  You can also buy “groundling” tickets, which entitle you to stand in front of the stage for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes (you can sit during the intermission).

The acting company is not associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, although many performers are RSC alumni.  All the performers we saw were excellent — theater in England has a really deep bench.

The play we saw was As You Like It which, as Shakespeare fans will know, involves an extended sequence where the main female character, Rosalind, pretends to be a man.  Shakespeare did this a lot, in large part because in his day, all the actors were male — I think he enjoyed having a male actor playing a woman playing a man.  In this performance, the company cast a tall man as Rosalind, and a short woman as Orlando.  Some lines in the play work surprisingly well for a male Rosalind — the part where Rosalind says “I am more than uncommon tall,” for example, or the epilogue, where Rosalind addresses the audience with, “If I were a woman.”  Obviously there were no such lines for the gender-bending Orlando.

The gender-switching continued with other members of the cast — both Dukes were played by a woman, and the silly shepherdess Audrey was played by man.  Interestingly, while the man playing Audrey was in full Dame Edna drag — big hair, heavy makeup, big fake boobs — the actor playing Rosalind was very understated.  When appearing as Rosalind, he wore a dress and, in certain scenes, a veil.  But he wore no special makeup or hair, and there was no cleavage.   It seemed to me that they were intentionally emphasizing the androgynous nature of the Rosalind character.  Indeed, since in the play Orlando spends more time with the “male” Rosalind than the “female” one, it’s not clear which one he’s actually in love with.

I thought the artistic choices were well considered, and the whole performance was very successful.  Best of all, the ensemble comedy scenes were very well done, a lot more like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions I enjoy every year than some of the starchy British productions I have been subjected to in the past.

If you’re in London during the summer and enjoy Shakespeare, the Globe is well worth a visit.

Adapting to Italy

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It hardly seems possible, but we’ve been here nearly 5 months now.  During that time, we’ve managed to:

  • Convert our extended-stay visa into a renewable “permesso di soggiorno”
  • Register as residents of the community, and get a “carta d’identita” (photo ID)
  • Establish a local bank account
  • Buy a (used) car
  • Enroll in the national health care system

Most of these tasks had to be done in a particular order — you needed a permesso before you could register as a resident, and you needed a residency card before you could buy a car or enroll in the national health care system.  They required interacting with the much-maligned Italian bureaucracy (typically referred to as “purgatory on earth,” even by Italians).  We had some frustrations, but for the most part things went much better than we had anticipate.  It helped immeasurably that we were often accompanied by a local resident to do many of these things, which gave us a certain credibility.  Personal relationships count for a lot in Italy.

I was amazed, though, at the amount of paperwork required for even the simplest transactions.  If you want to buy a car in the US, you go to the dealer, pick out your car, haggle a bit, plop down your credit card and drive off the lot.  In Italy, buying a car required three trips.  On the first trip, we identified the car we wanted to buy, which as it turned out was at a different location and had to be delivered. On the second trip, we inspected and test drove the car, and signed a purchase contract.  After the second visit, we paid for the car by wire transfer (they don’t take credit cards, and checks aren’t used here), and purchased insurance.  (Wire transfers have to be done physically at the bank if they’re over €5000, and only in the morning.)  Only then, on the third visit, were we able to take possession of the car.

Getting into the medical care system, on the other hand, was a lot easier than in the US.  Italy allows immigrants with long-term residency permits to buy into the national health system.  Once you’ve paid your money, you go to the appropriate office, select a primary care doctor from a list, and you are enrolled.  We were able to see our primary care doctor within a couple of days.  Arranging specialist consultations takes a bit longer (1-3 months); but we’ve been told that urgent needs can be addressed more quickly.  So far, it’s a success story.

Overall, we’ve been pleased with how easy it has been to adapt here.  As I’ve noted before, people in Ascoli are remarkably welcoming, and are very forgiving of our rudimentary Italian.  In addition to socializing with the tiny expat community here, we’ve made some local friends, who have been very helpful in suggesting things to do.  We consider ourselves very fortunate.

 

In search of Lorenzo

(guest post by Ted)

Yesterday, we saddled up our tiny Clio and drove 70 km north to Recanati, in the province of Macerata.   Recanati is an old and tidy little town of red brick sitting on top of a ridge-line.  When we emerged from the underground car-park into the market square, the political partisans were in full display glad-handing, this being election season.  However, unlike Ascoli where Lega Nord, Forza Italia, CasaPound, and Fratelli d’Italia hold sway, here the partisans carry the red banners of the left.  I suspect that nothing like the Saturnalia-like festival of misrule that was Carnevale in Ascoli takes place here (see Linda’s previous post).

However, we were in Recanati to see the works of Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557), a lesser-known renaissance master who was active in the Marche during the first half of the 16th Century.  Tucked off into a palazzo at one end of town was a very small but marvelous exhibit of Lotto’s painting.

We first saw this portrait of a young man who is ill:

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It’s remarkable to think that this work was completed in 1527; there is such deep psychological insight present as the young man ponders the impermanence of life or perhaps a lost love (note the fallen rose petals).  The painting contains further symbology in that the young man has turned his back on worldly pleasures (hunting horn, lute) in favor of a virtuous, but perhaps passion-less, life (e..g, book, lizard in the light).

Turning the corner, there was something completely different:

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This is not your father’s polittico.  It’s in the late medieval style, but the characterizations and settings are fully Renaissance. Check out the saints in the bottom left.  They’re straight out of central casting for Goodfellows.

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And the painter manages to convey more life and power through the dead body of Jesus than in any other of the images:

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Finally, there was this surprising Annunciazione:

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I don’t know about you, but it looks to me like Mary wants no part of this undertaking.  The presence of the cat is also quite mysterious, and some of the other objects in the painting are interesting.  For example, note the hour-glass and the a prayer shawl (a tallit?) hanging in the background.  In Lotto’s Annunciazione, the angel — a spiritual being — casts a shadow.

That was pretty much it.  Only a few works, but well worth it.

After lunch, we hopped over to the next village, the shrine town of Loreto where there was another exhibit including Lotto’s works.  Sadly, they did not allow photos.  So I’ll conclude with the works of Lotto’s predecessors Luca Signorelli (1445-1523) and Melozzo da Forli (1448-1494) from the Loreto basilica.  The work of the latter is particularly surprising and forward-looking given its three dimensional effects.

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Life is a Carnevale

We’ve just enjoyed our first Carnevale season in Ascoli.  Carnevale is the same holiday that is known as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only here it is celebrated for nearly a week, beginning with a children’s carnival on the preceding Thursday.  We were told by locals that the festival has deep roots here, dating perhaps to Roman times.  It was traditionally a time when common people could vent their frustration at the powerful.

Ascoli is not really set up for parades, so during Carnevale, the town’s two main squares are venues for all the action.  The Piazza del Popolo is decorated with hanging chandeliers, installed on wires by small “cherry-picker” type vehicles.  (The town puts up different, and equally elaborate, decorations for Christmas.  They must have vast sheds where these items are kept during the off-season.)  It’s traditional during Carnevale to throw paper streamers and confetti — there was so much strewn on the marble pavement that it almost looked like snow.

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Carnevale is a time for dressing up, for adults as well as children.  Grown men walk around unselfconsciously in full-length rabbit or tiger suits.  Some of the costumes are really elaborate — one young woman wore an historically accurate 18th C outfit, complete with ruffles and hat.

DSC02952Many of the costumes were merely whimsical.  There were toddlers dressed as Musketeers, complete with tiny beards.  Fred Flintstone made an appearance in his Stone Age vehicle, as did Dorothy Gale and her friends from Oz.

In additional to individual costumes, there were moving floats and little booths set up for skits — an open-air theatrical tradition that must date back to the Middle Ages.  In keeping with the festival’s roots, many of these had a political flavor, although they mostly dealt with local issues, like the complicated new recycling system or the location of the new hospital.  There was an “American dance troupe,” wearing Stetson hats and cowboy boots, dancing to the music of the Irish Rovers.  (What could be more American?)

20180211_154156My favorite exhibit, though, was the “synchronized swimming team,” men unjustly denied their chance at Olympic glory by gender discrimination.

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A favorite butt of jokes during this Carnevale was the new recycling system, which requires that folks but out various types of differentiated rifiuiti on each night.  You can imagine that this level of regulation is a hard sell.

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There were also special pastries sold only during Carnevale.  Some of them have strange names, like chestnut ravioli, which are ravioli-shaped pastries filled with chestnut paste.  These days, you can get these pastry “ravioli” with chocolate or cream filling, too.  They were excellent, but like most of the pastries here, a small amount goes a long way.

There was live music most evenings in the Piazza during Carnevale week.  And, while lots of beer and wine was being sold, nobody was obviously drunk.  In Italy, people manage to have a good time without getting blitzed, making them fun for “children of all ages.”

But of course, everyone must have a mask:

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Christmas in Ascoli Piceno

A lot of you have asked for pictures along with my infrequent updates.  Here are a few photos from the town we are living in now, Ascoli Piceno.

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Piazza del Popolo

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… with Christmas decorations and antique market

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… with schoolkids celebrating St. Cecilia’s Day in song.

The Piazza del Popolo, the “people’s piazza” fittingly has no traffic.  The pavement is in travertine marble, and it is considered one of the prettiest squares in Europe.

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Piazza Arringo, with Cattedrale in the rear … market day

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… with the local Bersaglieri band.

The city’s second main square, the Piazza Arringo, fronts the cathedral of St. Emidio (who guards Ascoli from earthquakes).  The name Arringo either means “herring” or “harangue” depending on who you talk to.  Each of these main squares is used for all sorts of public events, from weekly markets to impromptu music concerts.

Perhaps because the city was Papal territory, it has a number of other churches, some with fascinating architectural details.

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The symbol of the city is the woodpecker (Picus in Latin).  According to legend, a group of Italic tribesman crossed the Apennines (slantwise, no doubt) to escape the Romans, following a woodpecker, and stopped where the woodpecker did.  These days, live woodpeckers are hard to spot, but the symbol appears in various spots around the city.

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As in many Italian towns, Christmas decorations pop up everywhere, sometimes in unexpected places.

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The city sits between two rivers, the Tronto and the Castellano, and a number of bridges cross the town, allowing for some lovely views.  And, of course, the Apennine mountains are not far away.

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Ascoli, looking over the Tronto

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…. with snowy wintertime Apennines in the distance

The city has a jewel box of a theater, which offers musical and theatrical performances.  Here we are waiting for La Boheme.

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Teatro Ventidio Basso

We’re about 45 minutes from the Adriatic here.  Along the coast there are a number of small towns which are quite peaceful in the off-season.

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Cupra Marittima

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Grottamare

One of the nice things about being in Ascoli is the ability to take trips to other parts of Italy without getting on a plane.  Here we are in Montefalco (just over the mountains in Umbria).  The 15th C fresco of St. Jerome taming the lion is by Benozzo Gozzoli.  As you can see, Jerome’s colleagues are not particularly amused.

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Gozzoli fresco of St. Jerome

Where’s Linda?

It’s been two months now since we moved to Italy, and I haven’t written a thing.  Some of you must be wondering if I fell off the face of the earth.

Almost.

About a week after I got here, I broke my wrist falling UP a stone staircase. I missed my footing and fell forward, with my whole body weight falling on top of my right wrist.  A trip to the ER confirmed a fracture.  Unlucky.

Fortunately, medical care is good here.  ER services (broadly defined to include full treatment of my broken bone) are free here, regardless of insurance status or residency.  After nearly 8 weeks in two different casts, my arm is finally liberated.  My wrist is still stiff, which I understand is completely normal and is being addressed by follow-up physical therapy (the first medical service I am actually paying for, but not very much). I’ve never broken a bone before, and the healing process has been frustratingly slow. I may be young at heart, but my bones know how old I am.  But at least I’m typing with two hands now.

Other than that, things have been going very well here.  We have rented a nice apartment in what was once an 18th C palazzo, subsequently divided into 9 individual apartments.  Most of the other residents own their apartments, and seem to have been here for a while, which means we are living in a small community instead of an impersonal apartment building.  We feel very fortunate.

Setting up phone and Internet service was a lot easier than we thought it would be.  Cell phone services operate by short-term contract here, in amounts that sound cheap but, once you total up all the additional service charges, is not as good a deal as it looks. Internet service is very good.  We even have streaming TV, which gives us access to international Netflix and Amazon offerings.  Just as well, since Italian network TV really isn’t very good.

We even managed to get a bank account, which means we finally have a debit card that will work in European toll machines and automated gas stations.

Food is good everywhere in Italy, but we seem to have stumbled into a hidden food paradise here.  Ascoli is in the heavily agricultural Marche region, and is just across the river from the Abruzzo region, which is even more agricultural.  The local farmer’s market runs 6 days a week, with plenty of green vegetables even as winter approaches.  The vendors also bring whatever other products they happen to have available – eggs, olives and olive oil, dried beans – all at amazingly cheap prices. Most of the meat found in stores is also locally raised.  Farm-to-table never stopped being a reality here.  It’s hyper-local, though — you can get oranges and tomatoes from Sicily at the local supermarket, but if you want asparagus in November, you’re out of luck.

Ascoli itself is a charming town, with two squares, Piazza Arringo (limited vehicle traffic) and Piazza del Popolo (no vehicles) which act as virtual living rooms for the whole community.  There’s always something going on, whether it’s the monthly antiquarian market, an impromptu school concert, or a seasonal ice skating rink.  And it has a surprising amount of cultural activity for a town of 50,000 – chamber music concerts, theater, even opera – which we’re taking full advantage of.

Not that many people speak English here, but they are very accepting of my high-school Italian.  Each of us is doing some online learning, and a bilingual friend comes over once in a while to work on conversation.  The Italian government offers free language instruction for new residents, but we are waiting for Ted to catch up a bit so that we can both be in the same class.

We chose Ascoli in part because you can live here without a car.  Everything you need for daily life is accessible on foot or by public transportation (bus or train).  However, we soon discovered that if you wanted to visit wineries, explore one of the many hill towns in the area, or even cross the mountains into Tuscany or Umbria, it was very helpful to have a car.  We rented one for a month and enjoyed the experience – we will probably seek to buy a car of our own after the New Year.

That’s all for now – I hope it won’t be too long until the next update.