Monday, April 28, 2014

Even if you aren't Catholic...

Monday morning, our last full day in Rome, was given over to the Vatican City.  At the Vatican, which from the street looks like a huge fortress with very tall walls, there was the usual parking of the bus, some way away -- you can never park close to any of these places -- the walk up the street, past all the poor souls who had to wait in the very long line to get tickets, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing that as part of a tour group you won’t have to wait long at all.

You enter the Vatican museums through a very LARGE stone gate that interrupts those high, blank walls.  It’s topped by sculptures of Michelangelo and Raphael.  Inside, you’re surprised to find yourself in a very modern setting: a tall escalator ahead of you, above, a multipaned skylight; at the top of the escalator a wide expanse of empty grey floor, surrounded by bare, charcoal grey walls, modern lighting, and a decidedly functional-looking gift shop, or rather, collection of gift counters.  You pass through security turn-stiles, walk across more floor, though glass doors -- it’s all rather like being in a big, modern train station.  But then, at last, with thousands of other people, you move up the ramp that takes you into the museums proper.

And the gorgeousness begins.  It isn’t just that there are all these exquisitely beautiful works of art everywhere you look, but that every inch of space -- walls, floors, great arched ceilings, staircases, archways, windows, nooks, crannies -- are also exquisitely beautiful, covered with inlaid marble, colored tiles, mosaics, paintings, gilt, etc., etc.  And it isn’t like you’re in museum at all, but rather a very sumptuous palace, that belongs to, maybe, the Sun King.

One of my favorite galleries -- and these are often like wide hallways, rather than rooms --was the tapestry gallery.  Huge things, gorgeous, essentially gold with some color thrown in, and full of story-telling.  This was one of so many times on our tour when I longed to be accompanied by a private guide, who would be able to answer my questions, and give me time to look.  I was also frustrated by not being able to see the tapestries as clearly as I wanted, due, if fear, to a glasses prescription that could stand updating.  But also, the gallery -- like so many of them -- is not brightly lit, no doubt to preserve the tapestries.  And because of the crowds it is difficult to get close enough to take in the details.  So there I was, dazzled, but frustrated. 

The giant pigna (pine cone) in its niche
At one point we were led out into the large Pigna Courtyard, which is named for the giant bronze pine cone that stands at one end, and dates from the Middle Ages.  Why a giant pine cone?  Our guide may have told us (my guidebook doesn’t), but I was busy investigating the much more interesting sculpture in the center of the courtyard.  At first I thought it was a globe of the earth, but it’s actually a gold-and-black sphere within a gold sphere,  Parts of the outer globe are cut away, revealing the dark interior with the second sphere, which put me in mind of a very large ball bearing.  It’s so intriguing that most people take a picture of it, usually with a family member standing in front of it.  But it isn’t old like most of what you see at the Vatican: it was done in 1990 by Arnaldo Pomodoro.

The Golden Sphere, relatively new (1822) gallery in background
We spent far too much time out there in that open, windy courtyard.  Some of us walked briskly off looking for a bathroom.  This exodus was led by Theresa, who was one of the three women traveling alone.  She was chunky, very fair-skinned with short dark hair, and looked to be somewhere in her late 20s.  Everyone was astounded when it became common knowledge that she was all of 42.  Theresa was the most consistently disgruntled member of the group.  I thought it was so unfortunate that she was unable to appreciate and enjoy what we encountered, without complaining about this lack or that inconvenience.

Even when we returned, we still had to wait to go in for our next stop, which was -- ta-dah! -- the Sistine Chapel.  Later I realized that we were “held prisoner” outside for so long because the powers that be will let only a certain number of people into the Chapel at a time, and we had to wait until a group our size could be accommodated (or, perhaps, was scheduled).  However, I also wondered later why they didn't take us to see more galleries while we were waiting!

So at last we’re there, in what is surely the most famous “chapel” in the world.  And I find myself tearing up, simply because I am actually there, looking up at all those paintings I’ve seen in so many art books.  I feel a kind of speechless awe to be looking at “the real thing,” even though I can’t see the real thing very well.  I don’t know how much of this can be blamed on the out-of-date prescription, but there is no question that this was the most dimly-lit of all the dimly-lit sites we visited.  I strained and strained to see things clearly.  It was very crowded, and the only places to sit down -- benches along the two long walls -- were usually full; if you saw someone get up, you grabbed his or her place.  For it was much easier to look up from a sitting, rather than a standing, position.

Because the place is a “holy chapel” you aren’t supposed to talk.  Our guide had given us his little talk before we entered, because of this rule, but some guides would try to stage-whisper their explanations to their groups, only to be shushed by the guards.  For once I did not feel rushed, because once I was able to nab a seat, I had plenty of time to peer all around.  Everything is either high up on the walls, or on the ceiling, so there is not the usual trial of trying to get close enough to see.  Interestingly, the famous picture of God reaching out to give the touch of life to Adam is almost lost in a ceiling of dozens of pictures.  Besides those running down the middle of the ceiling (the God/Adam picture is in the center of those), there are painted columns topped by nude figures separating these pictures, as well as pictures inside triangles just below the curve of the ceiling, with paintings of individuals in the space between each triangle.  The intricacy of it all is stupefying. 

And there is no question that Michelangelo was glorifying the male body.

Friday, April 11, 2014

An unburied treasure

As we approached Mt. Vesuvius, what really got me were all the houses and hamlets climbing its sides.  Living on the flank of a live volcano -- is this ignorance, indifference, a death wish, or what?  I felt the same way about the people living on the island of Santorini, when I visited there.  There’s no question that Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but its inhabitants are living on the rim of a live (if presently dormant) volcano’s caldera.  Its last eruption was 1950, and the sleeping dragon could awaken at any time.

Ah well, we all have to live someplace.  And is anyplace really safe?

There is a small, modern town of Pompeii; what we saw of it was the street that lies at the foot of the ruins, along one side of which runs a line of cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and kiosks.  We were provided with a fairly pedestrian lunch at a fairly pedestrian restaurant (and according to Rick Steves, there is nothing but, along this tourist-trap of a street), but at least we were fortified for our two-hour exploration of the ruins.

When we came out of the restaurant, I realized that with the hot sun blazing down, I really should have a hat.  There was a fellow across the street selling exactly that, along with a lot of other stuff.  I walked over, and immediately saw just the thing, a cut little straw hat, with a few flowers in the front.  But I couldn’t see how I looked in it.  “No mirror.”  I said to the young vendor.  “Ah!” he looked around, then with a triumphant expression, led me to a nearby motorcycle.  We all laughed, I peered into the mirror, and a sale was made.  (And I was very glad I'd gotten that hat)

As usual, we had a local guide, taking the place of our regular tour guide.  He was a very old man, very knowledgeable, who nonetheless kept moving us along at a quick pace because (as he mentioned more than once) we had a lot more to see, and not much time.  At the end of the tour, I admitted to myself that the fellow had impressed me with how much ground and information he had managed to cover, without flagging, under a hot sun, and with a lot of straggling tourists in tow (eventually he stopped trying to make sure we were all with him, and just kept going, leaving us to catch up as we could).

So first of all, Pompeii is huge.  Much larger than I expected it to be.  But after all, it was a thriving city of 20,000 when Vesuvius buried it in 79 A.D.  Everywhere it is a matter of grey roofless walls, the grey of rock and stone used to build the shops and houses -- the finer houses and public buildings would have been faced with marble.  In a few cases, parts of homes have been restored to give you an idea of how the building looked in its prime.  But even so, you can't really get a good idea, because some of those houses had many rooms -- 10,12, one even had 40! -- but you're seeing only a very small part.

There were a number of things that really caught my attention.  The way you could stop in the middle of a street, look to the right and left, and see ruins stretching away from you on either side.  The high stepping stones that enabled people to cross the streets when they were being flooded with gushing water, to clean them.  (Carts that went down the streets straddled the stones.)  One stone in the street indicates it was a one-way street, two stones means there was two-way traffic, three stones, a major thoroughfare.

    City of Stone       

Lupanar -- Wealthy clients upstairs
The fact that the brothel area is now (as it probably was then) one of the most popular areas among visitors.  People crowding into the doorways of the small, dark rooms to let their imaginations take over.  One building, Lupanar, -- which is the latin word used for brothel, but literally means “wolf den” -- has been restored, and we passed through its dim interior, to gaze at small bits of barely discernible, but very explicit, erotic mosaics on the walls. 

And the way almost everywhere you are, there is a view of the deadly mountain, seemingly not that close, but obviously close enough (it’s five miles away).

We went through one of the public baths, seeing several rooms, very cool and dim, whose names suggest what they were used for: the frigidarim -- no doubt especially appreciated on a hot summer’s day -- the tepidarium, the calidarium.  There had been colorful friezes on the walls; in some places you can just make out some faded color.  We were seeing just a small part of this bath -- it would have contained many more rooms -- changing rooms, the female side of the bath,  even rooms for gymnastics (a little exercise, before washing off the sweat with a bath).

Eventually we reached the forum, once the political, commercial and religious center of the city, now a large open grassy area -- which would have served as the marketplace -- surrounded by suggestions of the temples and public buildings that once stood there.  In one of these is to be seen a glass case containing the plaster cast of one of the carbonized victims of the disaster.  It is disturbing to look at the figure lying on its side, its face screwed up in agony, its hand reaching out.  It would be far worse if one were looking at the actual body.

Two hours is really not enough time to see all the places mentioned in ones guidebook -- as with so many other sites we visited I longed for more time -- but even this taste, this glimpse, made me happy.  I had seen one of the most unusual, fascinating places in the world.
The Forum, with Vesuvius, clouds like smoke, in background

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Heading south

All right, I’d seen one ruin that I had been eager to see, but there was still that ruin of all ruins, Pompeii.  Sunday was our free day, and while most folks had someplace around town they wanted to visit – most planning to go see the Pope when he made his weekly appearance in the square in front of St. Peter’s – the one Jewish couple in the group (who were Pat’s and my ages, were blond, fit, and looked at least 10 years younger than we, which we thought very unfair) were off to see the Jewish Quarter – some opting to just rest and relax at the hotel.

But I and about four other people were going to Pompeii.  Indeed, that had always been one of my primary objectives in visiting Italy.  Those of you who know me know that the older something is, the more I’m interested in it.  That’s why I so loved visiting Greece, because so much of what one sees there is so old, it’s nothing but a bunch of stones.  But stones that let your imagination take over, and fill in the blanks.

But initially it looked like we weren’t going to be able to go, because Perillo Tours’ tour did not “make;” not enough people signed up.  The people at the front desk did have a brochure put out by Green Line Tours, which offered a day trip to Pompeii (and which, I later learned, got mainly scathing reviews on TripAdvisor).  The problem with it was that it lasted 12 hours! 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., an excruciatingly long day for someone who tires easily.  Mainly the trip was so long because it included a stop in Naples, which I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing (who has ever heard anything good about Naples?), as well as at the inevitable gift shop, officially a “factory” where cameos are made.  Now cameos I do like, but as I knew I wouldn’t be buying any, I felt impatient at this addition. (Note that when it came down to it, the stop actually proved enjoyable, if too long.  We were given a little explana-tion/demonstration of how cameos are made, and then allowed to wander through two rooms full of beautiful jewelry and other objets d’art, which delighted the eye, even if one could not afford to purchase any.)  

Well, there was no way I was going to come all this way and not see Pompeii, so I signed up.  Gloria and Diana, two ladies I have previously mentioned, also signed up, as did the assertive Bonnie and her silent husband, Bud.  Patricia decided not to go, and ended up having a very pleasant day doing essentially nothing with her friends, the IRS couple.

When we left Rome we passed a huge ghetto of high-rise apartment buildings that made me think of the low-income “projects” that mar the southern tip of the Bronx.  But once we got past this dismaying bow to modern city planning, the bus ride south was as pleasant as the ride from Florence to Rome had been.  There is no question that Italy is a beautiful country – at least those parts we saw!  Leaving Florence the highway had curved its way down out of the hills that surround that city (which is in a kind of bowl); the landscape that rolled by was thickly forested, with occasional glimpses through the trees of farms down in the small valleys.  It was much like what we had seen between Bologna and Florence.

Then the land opened out, green farmland stretching toward that backbone of Italy, the Appenine Mountains, on our left.

Traveling south from Rome the Appenines appeared as blue hills on the horizon; separating us from them were green valleys with their tree-dotted slopes, the now-familiar ochre-colored farmhouses with their red terra cotta roofs, the plowed fields, and inevitable vineyards.  By the time we stopped for breakfast (which no one had had time for, since we had to leave the hotel at 6:30, in order to get to the Green Line office to catch our tour bus by 7) the hills had moved in, and were suddenly serious mountains, with fat clouds resting all along the tops.   It occurred to me that visiting those mountains might immerse one in a more rugged landscape than the lovely but very domesticated one we were seeing. 

As we continued our journey, I noticed that the precise cone shape of some of those mountains made their volcanic origins apparent.  And I thought, but of course, we’re moving toward one of the most famous volcanoes in the world; there would certainly have been other volcanos in the neighborhood, once upon a time.

Naples itself surprised me.  Coming into it you are driving past acres and acres of unprepossessing apartment buildings that look like stacks of ice trays.  I realized that look was produced by all the dark brown balconies jutting out; they make it seem like the story above is set on a “tray” below.  Everywhere there are clothes drying on those balcony railings, or on small lines stretched across a family’s section of the balcony. 

However, parts of the city are quite impressive.  We drove down to the bay, for a photo op.  Beautiful view, though the bright sun was in the wrong place to get a good shot of Vesuvius, across the bay.  But the slumbering volcano was big, looming, a dark blue.  Knowing what it was capable of made it seem sinister.

Behind us, across the road from the bay, was a long, narrow park full of people and palm trees.  When I faced that way I saw buildings piled upon buildings, climbing the crescent of hills that curve around the bay.  They say Rome is built on seven hills, but you’re not always aware of them.  The hills of Naples are very evident indeed.

Farther along the curve of that road were the huge cruise ships, parked at docks that lay at the foot of a genuine medieval castle.  Castel Nuovo was built 1279-1281 by Charles of Anjou (i.e., a Frenchman), when he became king of the kingdom of Naples.  It’s had a vigorous and interesting history, and there it stood, in 2013, surrounded on three sides by thick, handsome, Victorian era apartment and office buildings, and building cranes.

The bus drove in a circle around the fountain of Neptune (we saw lots of fountains), and then it was time to move on.  I decided our short visit to this ancient city (first settled by the Greeks in 600 B.C.) had not been such a waste after all.  But now it was on to Pompeii, 17 miles down the road.
Castel Nuovo (Professional photo)