Saturday 29 September 2012

Rome's Monti neighbourhood:hip and historical

I've finally found a new apartment, but I'm going to hate moving out of Rome's Monti district. Here's an article I recently wrote for ANSA about some of the things I love about Monti.

Rome's popular Monti neighbourhood lies at the intersection of hip and historical.

One of the city's oldest quarters, tucked in between the hectic Via Cavour and Via Nazionale and lying alongside the Forum, Monti today is one of the city's most vibrant areas.

Artists, fashion designers, and jewelry-makers have all been drawn to the Monti scene, where their shops nestle in beside wood-workers, picture-frame makers, and  motorcycle repair shops.

There are vintage clothing stores, galleries, book stops, organic food markets and the popular gourmet gelato bar, Fatamorgana in the tiny Piazza degli Zingari.

Adding to the buzz in the neighbourhood is a range of cafes, casual and higher-end restaurants, bars, bakeries - everything a visitor or a resident could want.

It all makes Monti a fascinating neighbourhood for pavement-pounding explorers, says food historian Katie Parla, who has lived in the area for several years.

'Monti isn't super monument-heavy, so it's more interesting to walk around and absorb some of the atmosphere', says Parla, who frequently writes for the New York  Times.

And when it's time to put your feet up, she suggests La Barrique, a wine bar with a full kitchen on Via del Boschetto 41, near Via Nazionale.

'Monti has an incredible density of great wine bars...but La Barrique is certainly at the top of that list. It's extremely unpretentious and moderately priced'.

For people-watching, you can't beat the cozy, paved Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, where people lounge around the large, two-tiered Renaissance fountain or  sip espresso at one of the cafes in the square.

Once a working-class neighbourhood, the area is becoming more posh and hipster - and more interesting to visitors looking for an authentic Roman experience.

'Monti appeals to seasoned travellers....definitely it has nightlife and is busy at times, but it still has a neighbourhood feel,' says Parla.

'You get that characteristic street life that is fantastic.'

Around the corner from the square is the lovely and popular Madonna dei Monti church, designed by the 16th-century architect and sculptor Giacomo della Porta.

Indeed, although Monti doesn't boast as many beautiful fountains or great monuments as other parts of  Rome, it still has a few gems tucked inside its bustling borders.

Consider some of its other notable neighbourhood churches. Santa Maria Maggiore, for example, is one of the city’s four great papal basilicas and looms over the district’s east side.

San Pietro in Vincoli, home to Michelangelo’s massive 'Moses' sculptural group sits high on Monti's southern edge, near the Colosseum.

The western edge of Monti, known in ancient times as Subura, is formed by a high stone wall along Via Tor de’ Conti, which follows the contours of the forums of Augustus, Vespasian, Trajan, and Nerva.

The wall was built to protect Imperial Rome from the ancient slum, where Julius Caesar is said to have grown up.

Indeed, Monti remained a rather rough, unpopular neighbourhood until Rome became the capital of a united Italy in 1871.

After that, such wide traffic-friendly boulevards as Via Nazionale and Via Cavour were developed, and in the 1930s a whole section of the district - as well as parts of the Imperial forums -  were bulldozed to make way for Mussolini’s grandiose Via dei Fori Imperiali.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Finding the Mona Lisa

The story of the Mona Lisa is endlessly fascinating.

So much so that archaelogists are continuing to hunt for the remains of the woman who posed for the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

In an earlier post, I blogged about the exploration that's continuing in central Florence, where the real Mona Lisa - Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo - is believed to have lived, died, and was buried in the 16th century.

Here's an article that I recently produced for the ANSA news service about the ongoing search.

The latest remains uncovered at a former convent in central Florence don't belong to the Mona Lisa - but she might be just underneath, a researcher says.

The fourth skeleton found below the former Ursuline convent appears to belong to another noblewoman who may have sat as a model for Leonardo da Vinci when he was painting his famous work.

And that suggests the real Mona Lisa might be buried right below, says Silvano Vinceti, who heads the investigating team looking for the remains of the Mona Lisa.

"The ledgers kept by the nuns of this convent tell us that, presumably, the remains exhumed today are those of Maria Del Riccio, a wealthy woman who (died) in 1609," Vinceti told a news conference.

The method of burial used by nuns during this period - stacking graves one above the other - suggests that the Mona Lisa herself "could be right here" underneath the gave that contained Del Riccio, he said.

For months, Vinceti has led a team working near the altar in the basement of the former convent of St. Ursula, where it's believed Mona Lisa, a Florentine noblewoman, was buried in 1542.

La Gioconda - as the Italians call the Mona Lisa because of the surname of her husband, del Giocondo - is believed to have joined the Ursuline nuns in old age.

It has frequently been suggested that del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint his Mona Lisa (monna is the standard Italian contraction for madonna, or "my lady,") to mark his wife's pregnancy or the recent birth of their second child in December 1502.

More digging in the site is required, said Vinceti.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Papal plots, a sexy priest, and Perugia!

I have published my novel.

The Virgin and the Griffin is now available on as an e-book for the low, low price of $3.99US, plus tax.

It's a work of historical fiction set in the small Italian city of Perugia, and filled with intrigue, Papal plots, and a sexy priest.

I'm urging all my friends and blog readers to buy it - not only because they're friends and I would like their support. But also, because I think it's a good book.

So, bring it to book club! I'll be happy to answer questions; Skype with book clubs about it, if they would like.

And, I would greatly appreciate feedback and constructive criticism. Drop me a note!

This is my first novel, and it took 3 years to write and publish. Hopefully, my next novel, which I'm currently working on, won't take quite so long.

BTW, I should also mention this novel contains a sex scene with a priest - I hope that won't dissuade readers! Really; it's not at all gratuitous!

As I've mentioned before, the novel was in many ways, inspired by a gorgeous textile that I bought several years ago from Marta Cucchia, a very talented weaver in Perugia who is trying to keep the Umbrian weaving tradition alive at her family's Giuditta Brozzetti laboratorio.

The Virgin and the Griffin tells of a young woman's struggle to find a measure of joy and beauty in a violent, fear-filled society in a Renaissance Italian city fractured by politics and war, yet a place where great beauty and love are still possible.

In 1504 Perugia, an ancient city in central Italy, is a place of great art, great violence – and a great many secrets. Isabella Bevilacqua, a young weaver in her family's small workshop, understands this very well. Her dreams of creating a work of great beauty must, like her burgeoning relationship with the enigmatic Father Michele Gialletti, remain carefully hidden from her family and from Perugia's powerful weavers' guild.

Keeping secrets is essential to survival in this city, where wealthy and jealous noble families clash viciously on the streets, in the piazzas – even within the Cathedral of San Lorenzo....

Much of the background to my novel is based on facts: Pope Julius, known so well for commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling, did in fact march an army on Perugia to control the warring families. Great painters discussed in the novel, such as Raphael, really did live and work in Perugia.

Sunday 9 September 2012

A Mausoleum by Moonlight

Imagine my surprise on discovering that the Castel  Sant'Angelo, originally built as a mausoleum for the great emperor Hadrian, hides some wonderful art within its fortress walls.

A moonlight visit to the mausoleum revealed that, as well as the famous passetto which connects the Vatican with the Castel so that popes under siege could flee to safety within the fortress.

During the summer, Castel Sant'Angelo offers late-night tours that open areas usually closed, such as the passetto, so I was able to pretend that I was Pope Clement VII  who, with 1,000 friends, fled along the elevated, fortified walkway to safety during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

(The passetto more recently gained infamy in the  Dan Brown novel and subsequent movie Angels and Demons, as the link between the Vatican and the assassin's lair.)

In truth, much of the great art secreted in the Castel is open to the public; I just hadn't realized that Clement VII's beautifully frescoed bathroom was there, or that Pope Paul III's bedroom and receiving chambers were so gorgeous.

Pope Paul III, born as Alessandro Farnese, was pope from 1534 to 1549 and created a set of beautiful apartments decorated by such names as Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, Pierin del Vaga, Marco da Siena, and Pellegrino Tibaldi.  I also found a Luca Signorelli there.

Most of this was explained to me by my Roman-born friend Laura, an art scholar who is polishing her English to become a specialized tour guide.

Built by emperor Hadrian on the right bank of the Tiber between 135 AD and 139 AD, the mausoleum contained urns with the ashes of Hadrian's family. However, the tomb (and many of its contents) were lost after it was converted into a  military fortress in 401 and when it was later built into Rome's Aurelian Walls by Flavius Augustus Honorius.

Beginning in the 1300s, a series of popes converted the structure into a castle. Pope Nicholas III connected the castle to the Vatican with the passetto, which proved very useful as the fortress was the refuge of Pope Clement VII from the siege of Charles V's Landsknechte during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

It's no longer possible to take photos inside the papal apartments, but these old shots show the chapel built by Leo X with a Madonna by Raffaello da Montelupo. Musical concerts are now held here.

Sunday 2 September 2012

A discovery at Palazzo Altemps

One of the most beautiful aspects of Rome's Palazzo Altemps isn't the ancient statuary, or even the lovely courtyard with its mosaic fountain.

It's the church.

I was surprised to find a really lovely church - not just a home chapel, but a proper church - inside this 15th-century palazzo located just at the top of Piazza Navona.

After months of living in Rome, and much time spent here as a visitor, I hadn't before gotten around to visiting the Altemps, one of Rome's lesser-known museums.

Besides being so  very centrally located, it displays some of the very best of the important collection of classical sculpture amassed by the Museo Nazionale Romano (Rome's municipal system of museums.)

Many of the pieces come from the celebrated Ludovisi collection, put together by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in the 17th century.

Yet it's overlooked by most visitors (me included, until very recently.) In fact, while I was there on Saturday, I saw only a few people rushing through the rooms of the palazzo, snapping a few photos, and rushing back out.

I liked the palazzo. I like the peace, the statues were interesting (although not really my thing.) I marvelled at the gorgeous, painted loggia on the first floor (or, what we'd call second floor in North America. One up from ground level.)

But what I really appreciated was the Church of Sant'Aniceto of Palazzo Altemps.

Beautifully decorated, I particularly loved the series of baby angels and cherubs frescoed across the high walls and ceiling. One little fellow seems to have fallen out and is shown climbing up over a railing to join his chums, his little bare bottom waving at the congregation.

(Apologies; I forgot my camera so these are wikipedia photos.)

Initially, this was simply a chapel as was the tradition for the great patrician families. Until this family somehow got hold of the remains of Sant'Aniceto, one of the first popes, managing the Catholic Church from 155 to 166 AD.

To honor these relics, the family chapel was transformed into a legitimate church, complete with dome and sacristy between 1603 and 1617.

The presbytery is decorated with a Marian cycle (including, of course, an Annunciation) and an enormous reliquary that presumably contains the remains of Sant'Aniceto and which serves as the high altar.