Thursday, 14 November 2013

When in Rome

In early September on the dock in Marmaris, we had a passing encounter with a couple of Venetians, Mirko and Consuelo, fellow HR owners. We talked boats, naturally, but from them we also learned that this year's Venice Biennale had been extended until November 24. That got us thinking.  We'll be IN by then. We could do that. The Venice Biennale. Why not?

So here we are in Venice where the evening sky is like every sky you've ever seen in a Venetian painting, luminous blue streaked with peachy pink tints. In Venice, more so than anywhere I've ever been, there's a lot of visual interference. So many previously-described images. Henry James thought that nothing new could be said about Venice. It's tempting to agree. Venice is so examined, more so now than ever. But he's wrong, of course. He has to be. If not, we should give up travelling right now. And that's not going to happen.

The Egyptian obelisk in Piazza di St Giovanni in Laterano,  made in 15th c. BC

The Boxer - pre-dates Simon and Garfunkel by 2500 years
You start thinking about the power of original vision a lot when you're in Italy, but especially when you're in Rome, AND you've spent the previous few months in Greece looking at ancient statues and temples and the like. In Rome, everything is so obviously built on top of something else, or adapted to another purpose. Columns and walls, gods and heroes, philosophical and political systems, and drainage. Especially drainage. I speak of Rome now because that's where went on the way to Venice. Venice, where everything is built inside something else, must wait her turn.

Sunset on Via Nazionale

Visiting nuns at S. Gregorio Magno

Trajan's forum - an ancient Westfield

Actually, I'm still digesting Rome - and we have another course to come (we're going back to Rome for another four days after we're done here in Venice). It's a huge meal, the Roman one. I should have felt overwhelmed. Plenty of people do. But we took it in small bites, and because the perfect autumn weather was holding on, there was unbelievable joy in each one. Our B & B was in Trastevere, Rome's version of every big city's gentrified working class quarter. It's on the "other" side of the Tiber, so set apart from the heavy tourist zones like the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon, and all the better for it.

Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere

S. Maria in Trastevere is the oldest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Bridge over the river Tiber,  joining Trastevere to Tiberina Is.

View from our room
We walked and walked. Is there any better way to tackle an old city like Rome (or Paris, or Istanbul...) where it's what you don't know about that so often offers up the most pleasure? The facades, the columns, the squares, the convent walls,  the courtyard gardens, the domes...names forgotten, churches which never made it into the guidebook, but there they are, beautiful, Roman, enduring.

We still have to see the Sistine chapel. We didn't go inside the Forum or the Colosseum. The Borghese gallery is also deferred until the next instalment, tickets booked in advance.  Of course you can't see everything, but do you really want to?

The column of Trajan in glorious sculptural detail

Organic figs for sale at the farmer's market near Circo Massimo

Roman marble floors are exquisite (and below)

S. Giorgio in Velabro - old and simple

A rich man's fantasy - Raphael supervised the painting of this ceiling in Villa Farnesina in Trastevere

Our B & B was run by a family, Alessandra and her husband Carlo with help from their two 20-something children. Each morning while she fussed around us at the communal breakfast table, Alessandra would listen keenly to where we'd been the previous day. How did we find the Archimedes exhibition at the Capitolene museum? Which of the churches that she'd recommended (she's writing a book on church art) did we get into before closing time at midday ("yes, you have to run, I know..."). A couple of Dutch women had been to the vespers service at St Peters on Sunday evening. "I've heard it's beautiful. I've never been. I want to go one evening," Alessandra told them. But when? She has a day job as an architect as well as running the B & B. So does Carlo. He's an engineer (who is crazy about  sailing, as it turns out). You need your wits about you to survive in Rome, says Alessandra. You need to be thinking ahead all the time.

Late afternoon in the gardens of Santa Sabina, on Aventine hill

Ossobuco with peas and mushrooms
We told her we'd walked up the Aventine hill, found a man roasting chestnuts near a fountain  and wandered inside the gates which seemed to promise some kind of pleasant garden stroll. We had no idea that the balustraded garden belonging to Santa Sabina was so romantic. Along with the lovers and the grandparents babysitting their children and the people like us who had time to stroll, we sat and watched the sun drop low over the city's domes and monuments and sprays of little birds give swooping aerobatic displays. Alessandra was thrilled with our discovery. "Bellissimo!" She knew the place, of course. Its view is famous. I wondered how long it was since she'd walked up from the river to enjoy it. It seems you're either a walker or a worker in Rome, but not both.
Step on him  - a Roman floor mosaic

The hands of The Boxer, a Greek bronze 

I'd been to Rome only once before, many years ago. At that time I knew nothing about the ancient world. Now I know a little, but Rome confronted me with so much more history than I could possibly absorb. I was back at square one pretty much, though our encounters with ancient cities on Turkish soil meant I had a few pieces of the huge Roman puzzle to get started with. Predictably, I reached for a book - Robert Graves' classic novel I, Claudius. Thank goodness for books.

More floor tiles

Wall paintings from an ancient Roman villa in Trastevere, found intact and displayed in the Palazzo Massimo 

There are so many museums in Rome, but the one which most astounded us - and we are still readily astounded - was the state archeological collection which is split between two palaces, one near the railway station  (Palazzo Massimo) and the other near Piazza Navone (Palazzo Altemps). Very few people visit either, at least compared to the numbers who throng the Forum and the Pantheon. These vast spaces contain treasures that set your mind racing and stretch your notions of what it means to live a life which comes after so many other lives and is roughly the same shape, but yours alone to live.

So says Seneca

Trenitalia speedsters waiting to depart at Rome's Termini station
We came to Venice a couple of days ago by train. That seemed to us an obvious way to travel north yet other guests we met around Alessandra's breakfast table  - Europeans for the most part - were surprised, as if train travel between Italian cities wouldn't have occurred to them. Fast European trains are efficient and comfortable, and you can bring your own whisky for the journey (we didn't, but the Japanese couple across the aisle were mixing up mid-afternoon drinks between Florence and Padua). Plus a sleek train is a sexy beast, which is not something often said about air shuttles.

In Venice, of course, you arrive by train but must quickly find a boat. That's the next part of the story.

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