Sunday 22 December 2013

Christmas in Rome

This will be my third Christmas living in Rome, and I am developing a few favourites, especially the lovely Christmas lights, and the massive holiday tree in Piazza San Pietro at the Vatican.

For a chance of pace, a Christmas tree in the piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina seems to be decorated with movie film and is sitting on a giant film reel - perhaps in honour of the former Etoile cinema in the square that is now a very large and beautiful Louis Vuitton store (which runs old movies in the store in honour of its origins as a cinema.)

I really love Christmas lights!

On Rome's central Via del Corso, the lights this year are decorated in the colours of the Gay Pride flag (which caused some controversy on city council!) 

Meanwhile, as I was walking around the Vatican today, to see how Christmas preparations were going, I took a few photos from outside the rear walls of Vatican City.

Buon Natale!

Tuesday 3 December 2013

A December evening in Rome

When I heard this week that the cleaning of Bernini's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini had been completed, I strolled over there after work to see it for myself. It really looks lovely!

Triton was a minor sea god and here he is shown as a kind of merman, head thrown back as he drinks from a conch shell.

I especially enjoy the depictions of dolphins in Renaissance and Baroque-era sculpture, as some kind of vicious sea creature with sharp teeth and menacing expressions.

Interestingly, there was also a very large, metal Menorah in the Piazza celebrating Hanukkah.

And, as I walked home I noticed that more and more businesses on my street are putting up pretty little Christmas decorations and pine boughs around their doors.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Marking my second anniversary of life in Rome

The other day I was riding an escalator and became so engrossed in conversation with my friend Stefania, who was one step below me, that I forgot where I was and when the moving stairs reached the top, I pitched backwards, arms windmilling frantically before I fell flat on my back. My biggest concern was that my pant leg would get caught in the machinery and rip the fabric right off my backside - THAT would be mortifying.

So, I jumped right up and then I had to laugh at how clumsy I am.

Today as I mark the two-year anniversary of the day I moved from Canada to Rome, I really think that this has been the most important thing that I have learned, and re-learned, and re-learned again: how crucial it is to maintain a good sense of humour; and how crucial it is to be able to laugh at myself.

Life in Rome is full of complications and challenges - like life anywhere, I suppose. But living in a new culture and a new language adds a few extra layers in complexity and I devote a fair amount of effort to learning to navigate these. Happily, I have mostly done better in life than I did on that escalator.

I continue struggling to find a place to settle and perhaps it was fitting that today, on my anniversary, I marked the occasion by finding a new apartment - my 5th since arriving here! I am excited to be returning to the Monti area where my first two apartments were located and which is my favourite quartiere in Rome.

The apartment itself is extraordinarily small (above is the view if I lean way out the window) but since one of my goals in moving to Italy was to find a more simple, pared down life while enlarging my emotional and intellectual self, I suppose it fits. Plus, it has a full-sized fridge, no mean thing.

I have made some wonderful new friends in Rome, including Michele who owns a fantastic art gallery, RvB Affordable Art near Piazza Farnese. I popped in to snag her for a quick lunch at Zoc's which is charming. I had ravioli stuffed with pumpkin.

Then, time to run errands which I seem to do a lot in Rome. However, it is certainly more beautiful to do so here, when I can take shortcuts such as today's through the courtyard of the Museo di Roma in Palazzo Braschi where there was an interesting outdoor display of sculpture:

I emerged in Piazza Navona where booths are being set up for the Christmas mercato. This will be my third Christmas in Rome and unfortunately, I have seen that the market has become dominated by cheap imported trinkets that push out more authentic Italian goods and spoil the effect. Alas.

Still, no matter how tawdry some elements of life here can be, these cannot undermine the great and sometimes surprising magnificence of Rome!

Monday 25 November 2013

Autumn in Umbria

Living in Rome is often an adventure and always interesting, but sometimes it is a great relief to get out of town to visit the region of Umbria, which I consider to be my sanctuary.

My dear friend Mary took me on some lovely roads recently to enjoy the fall colours and an incredible lunch in a fantastic, rustic restaurant called Serpillo in the tiny bongo of Torre del Colle.

It sits atop a hill looking down on the delightful town of Bevagna.

Mary explained that the red vines blanketing some fields so beautifully are the remains of the noble Sagrantino, source of such great Umbrian wines.

Most of the olives have now been picked and pressed into wonderful oil - I especially love Umbrian olive oil. I am excited to try Mary's Genius Loci oil this year, only a few days old!

Saturday 16 November 2013

There is more than one way to visit the Vatican…...

… or at least, to visit Vatican property in Rome outside of Vatican City itself. The Renaissance Palazzo Cancelleria, which lies between Piazza Navona and the Campo de'Fiori neighbourhood, is Vatican property, something the tour guide was quite clear on when I visited the palazzo recently.

It is one of those great buildings that one passes by all the time in Rome but rarely has the chance to enter and Cancelleria is especially interesting and just a bit off-beat. That is in part because of its crowded location along the centuries-old Via del Pellegrino meant that its architecture was actually adjusted to accommodate the street, once an important pilgrim (pellegrino) route to the Vatican itself.

The 15th century palazzo is also attached to the smaller church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, which has an entry only steps from the main door of the palazzo itself.

It was built, like so many Roman structures, over existing buildings and their foundations are still obvious - beneath waterways which are part of Rome's ancient springs and acqueduct system.

The building was constructed by Cardinal Raffaele Riario who held the post of Cardinal Camerlengo to his powerful uncle, Pope Sixtus IV and was reportedly financed by the cardinal's massive winnings in a single night of gambling. 

Inside the palazzo are two large, public halls with some interesting murals - especially a series that was completed by Giorgio Vasari in only 100 days, a feat that gave the room its name: the Sala dei Cento Giorni.

Legend has it that Vasari boasted of this accomplishment to the Renaissance master Michelangelo who tartly responded "Si vede" ("It shows").

Saturday 9 November 2013

A New View of Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore

The great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was founded in the fourth century, is one of Rome's most stately churches and one of the four highest-ranking basilicas in the Catholic Church in Rome. It is packed with great art - truly fabulous Byzantine mosaics line the walls and apse - and has such a long history that it is worth many visits.

And I have made many visits - but recently, I had my first official tours that allowed me to climb up on to the loggia that looks down over the piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore (SMM) as well as down below into its museum and scavi, or archaeological excavation site.

Like so many churches in Rome, a city of multiple layers, SMM was originally founded over a temple to the goddess Cybele. It later became a "house" church and in the early 400s the first formal structure was completed under Pope Sixtus III, who held the papacy from 432 to 440.

The early church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which was a very popular theme at the time, likely because in 431 she was officially accepted as the "Theotokos" (Mother of God) at the Catholic Church's Council of Ephesus.

And this, my scholarly friend Laura tells me, likely came as a response to a heretical movement that had been attacking the idea that Mary was in fact the Mother of God.

That's all fine information, but as usual I like a healthy dose of legend with my facts, so I'll turn to the 13th legend that says the church was built in the 300s by Pope Liberius after he had a dream where Mary appeared to him, telling him to build a church in her honour on the Esquiline Hill (near today's Termini railway station).

On that very same night, legend holds,  a wealthy Roman had precisely the same dream.

That amazing coincidence was sealed with a rare snowfall on August 5 (during the hottest period in Rome's summer) which fell in an outline of the floor plan for this new church. Because of that miracle, SMM is sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Snows and a huge Mass is held each year on August 5 to mark the event, with white rose petals sprinkled to commemorate the snowfall.

All of this legend is celebrated in the loggia with mosaics that are beautifully lit in the evening so they can be seen from the piazza below – but at such a distance, it is harder to make out the details of the legend. Up close, the detail is lovely.

The loggia also contains several beautiful statues from the school of Bernini, which were carved for the high altar of the basilica. However, the bronze and marble creations were found to be too heavy for the foundations at that spot in the basilica and were moved upstairs to the loggia!

The tour guide assured me that the loggia over the main entrance to the basilica has a more sturdy foundation to support the weight of these statues....but I don't think I'll linger in the entryway below the next time I visit SMM.

On an unrelated note: I have been a very lazy blogger of late. I began a full-time (but not permanent) six-month contract with Italy's largest news agency one month ago, which is helpful as I am coming up on my two-year anniversary of living in Rome and desperately needed the work in order to live here longer.

However, the new gig (plus the intensive Italian language training I need) has meant less time and energy for other types of writing such as blogging. Still, I am beginning to find my footing at ANSA, so I hope I can get back into a blogging routine again!

Sunday 15 September 2013

The birthplace of Rome

I love the mythology wrapped around the history of Rome - a heady mix of the gods directing Aeneas after the fall of Troy to found a new nation, of kings rising and falling, of royal babies left in a basket to be later rescued and suckled by a she-wolf....

It's not always clear what is fact and what is myth, and I'm not actually all that fussy about finding the boundary between the two. In any event, the archaeology makes it pretty clear that a community of huts was established on one of Rome's seven great hills, the Palatine, at the point in time when Remus and Romulus reportedly fought over the foundations of one of the greatest of all cities.

As my friend Laura, the classics scholar, explains, the earliest Romans built their settlement on the Palatine - in fact, settlements there may date as far back as almost 1,000 BC.

Building upon, and borrowing from, the founding of Rome in 754 BC by Romulus, the wealthiest  Republican-era families as well as great emperors built their homes on the Palatine (from about 500 BC to 44 BC.) Beside being prime real estate, putting down roots here helped to reinforce everyone's claim that they were descended from Romulus (and therefore, were blue-bloods, perhaps pure-bloods, surely royalty and  perhaps even descended from gods!)

In fact, our English word "palace" has its roots in the term palazzo, which in turn comes from the word Palatine.

Along with ruins that still give a wonderful sense of what luxurious palazzos were once built here, there remain some remarkably intact frescos with that rich, royal red that I now associate with ancient Rome.

And modern Romans who enjoy reconstructing those ancient days.