Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Agony and Ecstasy

We board the flight to Milano. People are talking, the stewardesses are nowhere to be seen, while a voice says in Italian “to click the seat belt as it is shown”. It makes me laugh out loud, causing some heads to turn around like, “What’s so funny?” By the time they repeat the message in English (with a heavy Italian accent), the stewardesses are there to do their duty. After we take off, I think we have five minutes at the cruising height and then we start the descent, with a searing pain in my ears and hysterical cries from small children (why do they have to go down so quickly, not giving us time to equalize?)

And then, buon giorno Ee-tahl-eeah! Good day, Italy!

We have three weeks in Italy, and the plan is to visit Milano (only because the airplane takes us there), then we go to Turin, to see our pen pals Federica and Maria Rosa. From there to Florence for four nights, Venice one night, Napoli and surrounding area for six nights, finishing in Rome with five nights.

This is a touring marathon, a masochistic demonstration of how much one can absorb without getting sick of it.

The Boxer

There is no other way, because in Italy we can find not only part of the Romanian roots, but one of the greatest empires, through which Christianity spread and the place where the Renaissance appeared.

The Romans were good soldiers. They fought with the neighboring territories, conquered them, learned everything that they knew and took it one step further. The invention of the arch enabled them to build higher, creating cities with large populations. Through terra cotta aqueducts they brought water from the mountains, feeding numerous fountains in piazzas. People would fill their amphoras and carry them home. Whatever jobs they had, they were away from home, so they would serve lunch at one of the tavernas close by. The rich people would serve dinner in the family, the others would eat at the taverna again. Changing the government form from republic to empire meant distracting simple people’s mind from politics through entertainment. To pay for it meant raising taxes or conquering new territories. And because they were good soldiers, and they were organized and had everything standardized, it usually meant fighting with the new neighbors.

The Dacians were on the North side of the Danube river and kept pestering the Roman authorities on the South side. Maybe they wanted to create their own empire, maybe there is another reason that was not written down. Traianus decided to give them a lesson. It took him two wars in six years, a bridge over Danube built by Apollodorus of Damascus, a wonder of technology of that time, and many dead soldiers to finally extend the border. With the loot, he ordered a celebration one hundred and twenty-three day-long (that’s almost eighteen weeks or four months) in which the Roman population received free bread and circus in the recently built Colosseum. He also ordered a new forum (office center) and a column, by the same Apollodorus, in which the tale of the two Dacian wars is told in an ascending two hundred-meter spiral. The Dacian nobles that were taken captive impressed the Romans so much with their dignity and nobleness that they built statues to them and we had the opportunity to view some of them. The impression was so strong that even a hundred years later the newly conquered barbarians (people who were not “civilized”) were represented with the Dacian way of dressing.

A noble Dacian (we know because he is wearing a hat)
In Dacia, the Romans built roads, for easy access to every corner of their newly enlarged territory, baths and temples for the comfort of the colonists, and Latin became the official language. In time it became the Romanian language.

We saw the Column from a distance, golden in the sunset light. We came as close as we could, tried to make out the different figures and tried to impersonate our ancestors, wearing the hats in their special ways. I even sang two Romanian songs, making my children wonder if they really know me (“Căciula/ The Hat” and “Pui de lei/ Lion Cubs”). After that we told them the story of Gheorghe Cârțan, a Romanian guy who in 1896 walked all the distance from our native country to see the column. Not knowing anybody in Rome, he slept next to it, covered in his sheepskin overcoat, causing the Italians to say that a Dacian descended from the column. I feel proud of my heritage.

Doesn't he look Dacian?
We visit the Roman Forum, sunken by the rising floor of modern life, where temples mix with triumphant arches and churches. They are more or less ruined, depending on how much their material was used for a new construction. In a building that used to be a temple, transformed into a church, icons (painted al fresco) are restored.

At one end is the Colosseum, with panels explaining part of its history, of its working parts, the elevators that could bring wild beast in different parts of the arena, against gladiators or martyrs. There are no cheers or jeers now, but a din of languages and the clicks of cameras. It is difficult to imagine the violence and fear, the flowing adrenaline or disgust in this dilapidated and partial reconstructed place.

Pope John Paul the Second blessed the cross that's in the middle of the picture.
The Arch of Constantine, a mix of new construction with statues and reliefs from other monuments, commemorates his victory over Maxentius in 312 AD. And because “In hoc signo vinces” (in this sign, you shall conquer), namely the cross, Christianity became an official religion spreading far and wide. Constantine ordered a huge church and a statue of him that would salute the crowds to be built.

These were the chapels, above them would have been a huge dome.
Its remains are decorating a wall in the Capitoline Museum, at the other end of the Roman Forum. In the same museum survives an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, thought to be Constantine blessing the people, and a statue of the Capitoline Wolf, the embodiment of the legend of Romulus and Remus, twins cast away in the Tiber river who were rescued by a she-wolf and founded the city Rome when they grew.

I used to feel frustrated because we can’t see anymore the way the ancient Romans lived, but then I realize, they didn’t change. Yes, they have modern ways of building, but their houses follow the same plan, with a high domed ceiling, elongated arched doorways and windows with wooden shutters, tiles on the floor and walls, an interior courtyard with balconies adorned with geranium terra cotta pots and drying laundry. They still eat out, they still talk with their hands, they still dress up (especially men).

The surviving part of the Ancient Rome is spread out in the territory and concentrated in museums. Only walls remain on their original site. Forgotten, destroyed or treasured by the Christians, they were rediscovered, collected and became a source of inspiration for the Renaissance.

Wikipedia says that it started in Florence, because of the civic and social particularities of the city, of the patronage of the Medici family, and of classical knowledge scooped up by the Ottomans after conquering the Byzantine Empire. It brought, beside linear perspective and a more natural way of rendering movement, an educational reform.

Firenze (fee-WREN-zeh, as the Italians say), has a maze of streets, with narrow sidewalks, cars parked a hair’s width from the curb, on which miniature buses with eight seats shuttle people around the major attractions. And every time I find my way blocked, it is just to lose myself in different times between artists’ works of art.

Interior courtyard at Bargello Palace.

Vincenzo Gemito —The fisher boy
I think that even if we lived for a month in the city, we wouldn’t finish everything it has to offer, so we had to choose. Palazzo Pitti (Pitti palace) with Rafael (just one masterpiece less than the Vatican, which has the largest collection), Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, and so many others presented in the beautiful rooms that used to be lived in by the Medici family. Bargello Palace with Donatello, Benvenuto Cellini, Della Robia, Michelangelo (it is my personal quest to see everything that he did.) Some of them I know, his Dionysos has the same happy-drunken face. It is Brutus that stops me in my tracks, the despise and hate, all on his prideful face.

courtesy of web gallery of art
David had the honor of having the Academia built for him. People move around, admiring him, discussing his perfection and his defects (his right hand too big, his arm too long), trying to capture a photo on the sly (only to ignite a chorus of “No photo please”). His expression is different from different angles: eager, concerned, sure, concentrated.

courtesy of web gallery of art
Around the world’s museums there are works of art belonging to wonderful artists. Not all of them are extraordinary. The National Gallery in London has some clumsy Botticelli. But looking at Primavera in the Ufizzi Gallery I just want to stop and look. People chatter around, cross my gaze, still, I am alone with the painting: the flowing robe, the dainty sandal...

detail of the sandal
And things don’t stop here. Here is Bruneleschi’s dome, the first and largest dome built since Hagia Sofia (532 AD by Justinian in Constantinopole).

The Dome in the background
He brought food and drink to the workers, in order to keep their energy for building and not for climbing stairs. He invented different machineries for lifting and transporting stones along the river.

A barge with wind- and water-mills
Going in spirals, wondering when I will reach a platform, squeezing between grubby stones and fellow beauty-seekers, almost crawling in places, I reach the inside cupola and Vasari and Zucarri’s work. It is the Apocalypse scene and a very busy one. In a geometrical pattern there are black holes, some with candelabras, some without (I presume they are the holes left by scaffolding when the painting was done). We continue upwards, more stairs, between the two cupolas, to a sea of red tiled roofs.

And if this is not enough a short walk from the dome, is the Baptiserie with the Ghiberti’s gilded bronze doors. More than six hundred years ago he rendered scenes in linear perspective with a finesse possible only through his reinvention of the lost-wax technique. The originals are in the Dome museum, literally steps away, because the humidity and temperature differences produce bronze salts that makes the gold fleck away.

And there, in an alcove, is the Michelangelo’s “Pieta Rondini”. He never finished it, because the marble shattered and destroyed the Madonna’s elbow. It was a personal work, he intended it for his tomb, he gave his features to Nicodemus.

But it was not to be, his tomb in the Santa Croce Church is decorated with an allegory of arts. Death has a way of bringing people together; close to his tomb there are Dante, the father of modern Italian language, Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science, and Niccolo Machiavelli, founder of political ethics.

Michelangelo's portrait, above his tomb.
Why do people bother themselves to visit these places instead of looking at pictures in a book or on the internet? Because it is not the same thing. The light that enters through the windows, the walls that separate the world in outside and inside, the fact that we seem small and lost, cranking our necks to take in the details, the smell of frankincense, the sound of bells, all these converge. Visiting is committing ourselves, body and soul.

Vatican Museum has miles of galleries with art from antiquity to the modern times. All the nude male statues have become pudic, covered with stylized fig leaves. Many great works seem lost between others. “Madonna with child” is a frequent subject, and depending on the author, his times, his artistic abilities, I would pass quickly or stop to find out what entices me. There is a gallery with topographical maps of different regions of Italy, another with tapestries, and rooms after rooms painted al fresco.

The Athen's School by Rafael

"The Room of Miracles"  by Pinturicchio
The Sistine Chapel: the afternoon light makes the ceiling’s paintings look 3D, the surface separating our world from the ones in the paintings. There is a low hum as people sit on the wall-side benches and show each other St. Bartholomew’s skin, which has Michelangelo’s features, or the blackened spots, left as they were before the restoration. Unchecked, the hum becomes a clamor, determining the guards to utter “Silenzio, silence please!”

From here we enter St. Peter’s church and we are very careful not to lose ourselves (it is that big). The evening service already started, part of the church is closed for visiting, but it is illuminated, warming it up, transforming it from a touristic monument into expressed faith. An Indian woman, dressed in sari, kneels down to say her prayers. Two steps in front, her husband, hands gathered in prayer, follows the service. There is a different feeling here from the one close to the entrance, where Michelangelo’s Pieta is.

Our journey through Italy takes us to some other places.

Lost to nature, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered in the 18th century, under several feet of ash and pyroclastic material. This event triggered a search for ancient works and the Paestum ruins, left undisturbed thanks to malaria-bearing mosquitos, were put on the map.


It is eerie to be alone between those walls, in those gardens with pomegranates and rosemary bushes or with green pastures and sheep flavored breezes. In Herculaneum we see how the style of painting changed from frescoes that attracted you into their world, to walls painted in a geometrical style. The everyday objects, decorated domed ceilings, partitions for amphoras, mosaics, they all tell us about the normal people of that time, the ones that history has a habit of not mentioning.

Extra ripe pomegranate


Ceiling in the public bath, Herculaneum
We have to thank Vesuvius for erupting and preserving tracks of wheels in the streets, prices for poultry, people’s shape and bones (the Romans cremated their dead), even papyri works.


To see the real mosaics, frescoes and statues, we visit Napoli and its museum, both oscillating between careful exhibition and neglect. The city is dirty while its people parade slim, tanned, dressed in the latest fashion, with sunglasses even in the night time. They escape their small apartments (the entrance door opens in their living room) in the street where they talk, smoke (the whole Italy is a second-hand smoke hazard) and eat. Taking in consideration what we know about Mafia and following Marcello’s advice where to walk and at what hour, for the first time in a very long time we watch our backs every moment.

Venice is full of stairs and bridges, as Maria discovered. The Canal Grande, an inverted S-shape, unites the train station with the San Marco Piazza and numerous canals with each other, hence the bridges. Narrow streets, not too tall buildings, everywhere touristic shops and their customers. The Venetians invade the streets after 5pm, walking their children and dogs, talking with each other from a distance, oblivious to the hordes of tired tourists. The San Marco basilica, with its golden mosaics, wavy floor, its antique horse statues, pigeons, attracts numerous visitors every day. We also visit the Doge Palace in which we find a map where it is written “Romania”, where the Byzantine Empire used to be.

The Lion, the Doge Palace and San Marco Basilica

Why this title?

It is the title of a book written by Irving Stone about the life of Michelangelo. I’ve read it at least seven times, each time finding in it the inspiration and the power to follow my own dreams. Through its words I followed a world that still survives in its original place: Moses still decorates Pope Julius’ tomb, the allegories of Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk are still in the Medici chapel, Capela Sistina still stands, the paintings on walls and ceilings in the Palazzo Vecchio gallery count four hundred and more years, the buildings and bridges still have their original parts.

Moses- detail. The horns were supposed to be rays.

Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge, over Arno River in Florence
There is no fun to walk in cold rain, but it’s worth it if at the end I’m richer. What was just a name in the book Ghirlandaio, Giotto, Pinturicchio, now has substance, I’ve seen their works of art. Reading guide books helped me find The Genius of Victory in Palazzo Vecchio or Christ the Redeemer in Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church. I didn’t know about them, I was happy until I saw them, dusty, badly illuminated, too detached or not forceful enough.

His Prisoners in the Academia are still captives of the marble, but my mind follows the lines and I can see them, even if they’re blurry. To stand in the Campidoglio and fill balanced between the buildings, statues and stairs. The agony of having so little time, so much to see, to listen to too many Rick Steve’s audio-guides, to walk in circles, to skip meals only to have the ecstasy of seeing David’s eyes or the “life-giving touch”, to find something that I didn’t know about, a new Gauguin or Matisse,

Paul Gaugain—Mathew 5-8

Henri Matisse—Crucifix
to eat the original pizza, or baba, or sfogliatelli.

Pizzeria de Michele, with at least 2 hours of waiting in line to eat inside, or immediately,  outside. We pitched in with three boxes.

Sfogliattelli in the foreground, baba in the background
And in this flurry of searching and finding, there is one calm sunny, warm day in Toh-REE-no (Turin) when we meet for the first time with Ileana’s and my pen pals, Federica and Maria Rosa, daughter and mother. We walk the streets that come alive: this is the place where they sold and bought books at the beginning of the new school year,

 at this place they used to come for a cake and a song, here is Federica’s university.

Marco Didou— Echo
We share different kind of pizzas and focaccia di recco with a cheese called crescenza, seated on the concrete stumps. We learn to cross the street in the Italian style (half cross, stop in the middle, hold your hand in a stop sign and look intently into the driver’s eyes, and when he stopped and behind him are 3 more cars, continue to cross slowly). We help a blind old man find his corner to ask for alms. We pass and admire the camouflage of a McDonald “dressed” in brown and green, with classic style of woodwork.

I try to understand what makes Italy different, beside monuments and architecture. I seem to find my answer in a TV show called North vs South. The Northern Italy representative asked the Southern corespondent “Why do we have to be like you?” The answer came passionately, with the right hand fingers gathered, tapping against the chest:

“Ci siamo VIVO!”
We are ALIVE!

Mille grazie Italia! (ME-leh GRAH-tzyeh) A thousand thanks, Italy!
Ciao! Good bye!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment form message here