Loving Rome

On our way home we spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of Heathrow.  In the cattle call breakfast room the next morning I looked around and knew for sure that I was not in Rome.  These folks were not Italian and the breakfast certainly was not!  Eggs–hadn’t seen them for two months!  Coffee–undrinkable.  Where was my chocolate cornetti? I missed my baristo at Barnum’s and his delicious cappuccino?  The freshly squeezed orange juice. The brilliant Raphael-blue sky. This was not Rome.

Rome is a mystery. One day you hate it and the next day you love it. It is annoying and then delightful. You are repulsed by the crowds, and then, in the process of avoiding the crowds, you stumble on a new street and an unseen treasure appears. This is exactly how our two weeks in Rome went. Sometimes my feelings about Rome changed from hour to hour, but finally, in the end, I succumbed to the beauty of the place and the charm of the people, and yes, the food!

We spent two warm and sunny weeks visiting one splendid, wrecked site after another. We spent whole days strolling through marvelous, decrepid old palaces full of spectacular treasures.  We walked endlessly on dirty cobble-stoned streets carpeted with cigarette butts and garbage only to arrive at a restaurant with such delicious food I salivate at the memory.

Then there were the annoying aspects of Rome. Arriving at the post office laden with packages, waiting an hour and a half, finally reaching the head of the line, smiling and trying to please a surly mandarin at the desk and at the end, being told all the forms must be completed in Italian and the charges must be paid in cash–lot’s of cash. We definitely felt we were being held hostage but didn’t really know what our crime was. I think it was wanting to mail three boxes out of the country. Lot’s of extra work for the clerk.

Yes, it’s very annoying when the stores all close from 1-4. Very annoying! Yes, it’s a capitol city and it should adopt the efficiencies of modern business practices such as ours. But Italy hasn’t and probably won’t.

Yes, you should be able to eat dinner at 6 p.m. But you can’t. You can have a sandwich or a pizza anytime, but you can’t have dinner until 7:30 or even later.

more lunch in Rome more lunch in Rome

Yes, I know children need 8 hours of sleep but Italian children eat dinner with their families and stay up late and somehow get to school the next day. They may nap all afternoon–perhaps they even nap at their schools, I don’t know, but no one seems to go to bed at 7 p.m., that’s when they eat dinner.

High flyer at Barnum's High flyer at Barnum’s

At Barnum’s, our favorite coffee bar, we are greeted warmly by the baristo.  We sit and savor our cornetti and cappucino.  “Bonjour!”  It’s our friend, Alain, the antique store owner we like so much.  He introduces us to his daughter; calling us his  “amichi,” his friends.

Barnum's coffee bar on via Peligrino Barnum’s coffee bar on via Peligrino

Heart warming.  You cannot imagine how good it feels to be recognized and warmly greeted after being gone from home for three months.  Alain is French. He married a Roman; they are raising two daughters in the center of Roma.   He and Ken developed a friendship of shared interests and sensibilities.  We hope to see Alain again.  A man who speaks English, French and Italian.  (His daughter speaks only Italian!)  He is a talented man and an interesting person who is eager to share his thoughts and feelings. It is unusual when a native shares his observations and concerns with “tourists.”

I realize that the a secret to enjoying a place is to stay there long enough to know your way around and be comfortable moving about without a map in your hand.  The other is to make some friends–even if you never see those friends again. It is important to reach out, warm up, do your best to speak their language, enjoy their way of doing things.

I read a few lines about Romans in one of Rick Steves’ books.  He says there is no word for privacy in Italian. He was commenting on the close, overly emeshed lives Italian families lead. Each morning as we walked to Barnum’s we passed a very elegant antique store and each morning a well groomed, very petite, and neatly dressed woman in her 80’s walked slowly down the street, leaning on a cane and the arm of a handsome man in his 40’s. Her thick gray hair was coifed in a perfect bob. It was so perfect it might have been a wig! Her pants suit was well cut for her tiny frame. She and her escort did not speak. They made their way to the store nearly every morning just as we were on our way to Barnum’s. There she was at the end of the day standing in the doorway waiting for her escort to walk her home!

One morning getting a later start, we glanced into the antique shop and saw the man with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He was busy re-merchandising the store. Hot and hard work. I’ve done it many times! The lady was facing him speaking to him. Suddenly he advanced swiftly toward her with his arm out in front of him, finger pointing at her. His face betrayed frustration if not barely controlled anger. We heard him say in a loud voice “Mama!” The rest was lost to us. We walked on. The stories you’ve heard about Italian men and their mothers and their lives together is real. When will her son leave home? Hard to say.

Now I’m home writing and reflecting on our remarkable journey: from Shakespeare to Hadrian; from cave men to the Etruscans; from mosaics to painted villas. We saw the treasure and history of centuries of human endeavor. For me, the single most important aspect of these three months abroad is the realization that seeing new things and learning about them is what I most enjoy. The visual stimulation, especially in Rome, is what thrills me.

Basilica San Vitale Ravenna Italy Basilica San Vitale Ravenna Italy

Two gasp-inducing places, Basilica San Vitale a 5th C church emblazoned with mosaics and marble in Ravenna, and Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere in Rome built in the 15th C where every wall and ceiling is hand painted are my touchstones. They are so visually spectacular–each in its own way–that I will never forget the moment I stepped over their thresholds and lost myself in wonder. Seeing the work of artists and crafts people who lived hundreds of years ago whose work can stop you in your tracks–bring you to your knees–will always remain with me.

The Perspective Room Villa Farnesina Trastevere Rome The Perspective Room
Villa Farnesina
Trastevere Rome


Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze
Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze

Ravenna is not easy to reach. It’s a small town in Emilia-Romagna–90 miles south of Venice and 45 miles east of Bologna. There are no direct trains to Ravenna. You have to transfer at Bologna or Florence to a regional train which will deliver you to the train station in Ravenna only a short walk to the center of town. Ravenna is about ten miles from the Adriatic. It developed much as Venice did by early settlers–perhaps Etruscans–building houses on stilts on top of many small islands in the bay. Those islands eventually filled in and were connected by solid land until a village grew up on firm but swampy land. Ravenna, Venice and Trieste were connected by trade and eventually by Byzantine culture which was seated in Trieste.

Bear with me while I relate a bit of history. In 89 B.C.E. Ravenna became a federated Roman town. Forty years later Julius Cesare, stationed in Ravenna, gathered his troops about him, made his fateful decision, and crossed the Rubicon. Twenty years later, his nephew and heir, Augustus, now emperor, built a strategic harbor at Ravenna stationing 250 warships there to protect Rome from attack by Mediterranean-based enemies, principally Marc Antony who had the might of Egypt (that would be Cleopatra) at his back.

Augustus outside St. Apollinaire in Classe

Ravenna continued to be subject to the ups and downs of political life but remained a key city. During most of the 5th century it was the capitol of the Roman Empire. It had become the surviving remnant of once mighty Rome–largely as a result of its isolated location and its valuable harbor. The papacy in Rome, and the Goths to the north fought over control of Ravenna for the next 50-75 years. Ravenna eventually became the capitol of the conquering Ostrogoths in the late 5th century.

Remnants of Theodoric's Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna
Remnants of Theodoric’s Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna

Theodoric, an Arian Christian and Ostrogoth, became emperor in 493. Italy was under their control and Ravenna was their capitol. Theodoric was a very interesting man; though an Arian Christian, he accepted the members of the Latin Catholic church, welcomed Jews, and when a mob burned down all the synagogues in Ravenna in the early 6C he required the citizens to rebuild the synagogues at their personal expense. Arian Christianity differed from Latin Catholicism in one important way: Arian theology proclaimed Jesus a mortal with prophetic and unusual attributes but not a god. Latin Catholicism proclaimed Jesus to be not only the son of God but one with God. Over time, the Latin Catholic version prevailed. Theodoric died mysteriously in 526 and by 535 his grandson and daughter were also dead. In 540, Justinian I conquered Italy and Ravenna became the seat of the Byzantine government in Italy and Arianism was denounced and fell into disfavor.

original church built near Theodoric's palace is depicted in the mosaics
original church built near Theodoric’s palace is depicted in the mosaics

I know that by now you’ve either moved on or fallen asleep! I apologize. I find the history of this town fascinating. Prior to arriving, I knew nothing about Ravenna except that it had world class UNESCO designated world heritage sites–eight of them. Its astonishing mosaics which date to the 5th century have miraculously survived and are as brilliant now as when they were installed. In addition to the spectacular mosaics in the basilicas, mausoleums, and churches, floor mosaics dating to Roman times have been discovered and preserved. I am in awe that a town as small as Ravenna can maintain these numerous sites, staff them, and develop new ones. I’m not sure how it is accomplished but I am grateful and impressed that it is

Placidia's mauseleumOne of the most lovely sites is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This 5C building is so stark on the outside you could easily walk by and not even consider entering. That would be a mistake. The domed ceiling is a flower and star filled wonder of lapis and gold and white. Scenes on the walls are brilliant greens, oranges and purples. Sometimes the subject matter portrayed–saints about to be roasted alive on hot grills–and so on disturbs me, but you get used to the thematic material and become consumed by the gorgeous colors, details, and brilliance of the artistic wonder you are seeing. I honestly cannot grasp how these artisans working with chisel and mallet, wooden scaffolding, inadequate lighting–sun and candle?–created this work. Not just here but in five other momuments as well as others which date to earlier times.

Galla is another powerful woman you’ve never heard a word about. She was Honorius’–Rome’s last emperor–sister. After her husband, the Visigoth king died, she became ruler of the Western world and regent for her young son Valentinian II. Although her marvelous mausoleum was built in her lifetime, she is buried in Rome where she died in 450 C.E.

The Arian Baptistry was built at the end of the 5C during Theodoric’s rule when Arianism was the official religion of the Court. The mosaic on the dome depicts St. John baptizing Christ with a white dove suspended over Christ’s head. The principal colors are gold–real gold backs the tiny clear glass pieces. We learned from a scholar that one of the properties of gold is that it does not tarnish or lose its brilliance over time.  One aspect of this scene that is very interesting to me is the portrayal of the river god as an old man.  This is not an image of “god.”   Here we see an odd blend of “pagan” and Christian iconography in the early 5C.  Jesus is a slender beardless young man.  His cousin, John is wearing an animal skin as he pours the water from the Jordan over Jesus.

Neonian Baptistry Ravenna

We stayed at Palazzo Bezzi on via Roma. You can always recognize a former Roman city because it will invariably have a road which is as straight as possible and traverses what was the Roman city. Via Roma is exactly so and Emperor Theodoric built his palace on via Roma and his personal church (now St. Apollinare Nuovo) next door. This large church has wonderful mosaics. My favorite is the terrific scene of The Three Kings scampering to deliver their gifts to the Baby. I love their clothing. The patterns are so “now” especially the leggings.

closeup of 3 kings

We spent the better part of one day visiting the Domus Dei Tappeti di Pietra “the home of the stone carpets.” Amazing mosaic floors were discovered when a large parking lot was planned and digging began. Once some of the floors were uncovered, an archeological excavation took over and the parking lot plan was abandoned. In some areas, materials older than the stone mosaic floors were discovered which are partially revealed. Another very impressive installation with excellent descriptive plaques.  (To be continued.)

St. Francesco underwater crypt and Domus dei Tappeti 2013-10-01 057

mosaic floor
mosaic floor