Monday 27 February 2012

What I learned in school today

Wouldn't it be fun if this were my class photo? Alas, it's just a random shot from the Vatican Museums.

I'm now in week nine of my Italian classes, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 12:15, and it's time to talk a little about the experience.

I'm enjoying the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci, and I'm learning a lot. There are many positives: most of the teachers are very good; class sizes are reasonable (usually, about 8 students) and the curriculum is clear and carefully followed.

The negatives are the same ones I've found in other language schools: few resources other than a lot of photocopied handouts and the school paperback textbook. The building in Rome's historic centre looks beautiful from the outside, but the classrooms are a bit rough. Either no heat or too much; rickety desks; and windows that don't close properly.

In short, it reminds me of every language school I've ever attended! And I really would recommend it.

Although it's possible to take classes during the afternoon as well, I decided to take classes mornings only. This was partly because of my budget, and partly to leave me time to look for work. And do my homework. We have a lot of homework, which I think is really valuable. I see the morning class as just the beginning of learning -- giving me information that I take away and absorb and practise.

The regular morning class is divided into two segments: grammar from 9 a.m. to 10:30; a short break, then conversation until 12:15. Anyone who has ever taken a language class would recognize the conversation gambits. Write a horoscope or directions to the train station (to practice the imperative verb tense used in giving orders); talk about your favourite vacation or a childhood routine (to practice past tenses of verbs.) And so on.

The other students are pretty interesting. I've seen many come and go already -- often, adults taking vacation time to come to Rome for a few weeks to improve their language skills or at least maintain the hard-earned Italian language skills they already have.

There seem to be a few nuns sprinkled through every class: I've studied with a pair of nuns from Ghana, sisters from the United States, and currently, a lovely young nun from southern India is taking Italian in preparation for studying nursing here in Rome.

Many of the students here for longer terms are young Americans and Brits taking a break from university, or getting college credit for a semester in Italy. I've met several Swedes; a few Germans and Swiss; a rare French or Belgian citizen. And the very rare Canadian.

I've been especially impressed with two very, very brave Asian students I've met who arrived here speaking neither Italian nor English. Deyoung from Korea and Myko from Japan each came to Rome completely alone, without any grounding in a Latin-based language. Talk about starting from scratch! Aside from school, just finding an apartment, shopping or finding your away around Rome without at least a smattering of English or Italian would be terribly hard.

I really would recommend the experience of a daily language class; it focuses the mind and gives a student the opportunity to learn the grammar and practice Italian in the safety of the classroom. There are always students more advanced or less advanced than the rest of the class, so there is rarely any judgement and a lot of laughs.

But it's hard, hard work and my pride has taken a terrible beating as I learn to speak all over again!

Saturday 18 February 2012

Just another day at the Vatican

Friday morning, I cut Italian classes and headed to the Vatican. On legitimate business, I might add. I had finally -- after more than a month of nagging, wheedling, and cajoling -- snagged an interview with a senior official in the Vatican Secret Archives, as well as a tour.

This was all done in the cause of writing a feature story for the Italian news agency in advance of a fascinating exhibition coming up at the end of February. In this exhibition, the Vatican will unveil 100 documents representing a broad cross-section of subject matter, regions, and time periods.

Although the Vatican has kept records from its earliest days, it only organized these into a formal archive 400 years ago. To mark the occasion, it has organized the exhibition "Lux in Arcana" which begins Feb. 29 at Rome's Capitoline Museums.(The name of the exhibition roughly translates as shining light on arcane or unknown matters.)

I wasn't allowed to take photos in the archives, which were packed with fascinating information but looked very ordinary. Roughly 80 kilometers of shelving running under the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Nothing glamorous or high-tech about it, I'm afraid.

I did have the opportunity to admire a 1,000-year-old document that is being carefully restored -- and it was gorgeous! Perfect gold script on a royal red background. I couldn't understand a word, of course, and I was told the subject of the document was terribly mundane -- but it was still stunning.

And since I was out at the Vatican anyway, I decided to spend a few hours in the museum which was curiously busy. Still, I enjoyed myself. As always. And, took a few photos, including the dour river god above; and one of the Vatican tennis courts, which seem to be on the roof of a building adjacent to the Museums.


Saturday 11 February 2012

Louis Vuitton, an historic Roman cinema, and me.

The redesign of an historic movie theater in central Rome for Louis Vuitton gave me an interesting opportunity to interview the architect on the project for the Italian news agency ANSA. I don't normally spend a great deal of time around designers and their shops, but this project was too interesting to miss.

Architect Peter Marino images 1960s film icon Marcello Mastroianni browsing through elegantly tailored mens' shirts in Rome's new Louis Vuitton Etoile Maison. The late Mastroianni, once the epitome of Italian elegant-cool, might feel right at home in the former Etoile cinema, which Marino has re-imagined and restructured into the latest outlet for the fashion house Louis Vuitton.

And the glamorous world of Rome's Cinecitta film studio -- home of Italian cinema that enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s -- is precisely the atmosphere Marino has tried capture in the Etoile Maison boutique, which opened a few weeks in Rome's oldest cinema. (Photo below from Vuitton)

“This project was so fun,” the architect enthused in a recent interview from New York. “I loved the fact this was an old movie theater; so, I proposed that we show movies....and keep with the whole movie theme from Rome at that time.

“We drew on the karma of the space...and that was the cinema.”

Constructed in 1907 in the historic Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina in central Rome, the Etoile was the city's first cinema and opened under the name the Lux and Umbra. The structure was replaced in 1917 by the Corso cinema, with a design inspired by the Art Nouveau movement. However, the facade created such controversy that the architect, Marcello Piacentini, was forced to replace it at his own cost with a neo-classical design.

The cinema premiered such classics as the 1949 neo-realism film “Bitter Rice” by Giuseppe De Santis; later, ceremonies and cultural events also took place there. In 1970, it became the Etoile which continued until the cinema was finally closed in 1991. (Photo below of Marino from the architect himself.)

Marino, who founded his architectural practice in 1978 with such early clients as Andy Warhol and Yves St Laurent, drew inspiration for the Etoile project from the cinema's Roman history, Italian movie icons such as Mastroianni, and the Cinecitta film studio.

But he also drew from the Baroque art movement, giving it a modern twist. The Baroque style, which found its home in Rome in about 1600 and was made famous by such masters as Bernini, featured an exaggerated style and motion that produced a great sense of drama and grandeur. That has been reproduced in the Etoile Maison.

“I created an incredibly complex, elliptical staircase,” inspired by the Baroque designs, explained Marino, whose personal collection of bronze statues from the period was exhibited by London's Wallace Collection in 2010. “I mean, here we are in Rome! Where else can an modern architect get to Baroque?

“This really was an opportunity to try something different.”

Marino and a team of architects worked for more than two years on the design of the Etoile Maison, blending wardrobes, whimsy, and a bit of witchcraft to create an atmosphere they hoped would be pleasing to shoppers -- while at the same time, avoiding problems with Rome's municipal authorities.

Strict regulations govern what alterations can -- and mostly, cannot -- be made to the exteriors of Rome's historic structures.

“We weren't allowed to make any changes to the facade, so it is what it was,” said Marino. This means that what today's visitor sees is the simple, clean exterior of an historic cinema, he added.

Saturday 4 February 2012

I wasn't expecting THIS much snow!!!!

No wonder these poor river gods in Piazza del Popolo look disgruntled -- snow in Rome! And a lot of it (especially for Rome.)

It began to fall mid-day Friday and continued through the night. I was really shocked when I rose at 7 a.m. Saturday to see how much snow had fallen. Parts of Rome saw up to 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) of snow, the most seen here since the mid-1980s. The City of Roma ordered cars without chains off the streets, and many buses just couldn't make it up Rome's hills.

I had an appointment early Saturday morning for a chest X-ray, due to my raging cough, and the clinic was near Piazza del Popolo, allowing me to get these photos. The clinic was understandably flooded with real emergencies, so I'll return next week.

Meanwhile, I'll stay home and wait for the snow to pass -- unlike many Romans who are running about taking photos of this rare phenomena.