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Report 236: Our Italian Sabbatical

By Trishmael from Louisiana, Fall 2003

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Page 10 of 10: Rome and Goethe Syndrome

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Apollo Fresco Fragment

Our cab deposited us in the tiny Piazza San Giovanni della Malva before what I think of as "Dean's apartment" since his review on ST led us to rent the place for our week in Rome. It was a bit of a splurge for us, but I'm very glad we rented it for many reasons: it was a great flat in the perfect location for our tastes and excursions, it had a by-then-sorely-needed washing machine, and if you keep in view the hotel rates in Rome, we couldn't actually have done much better without considerable discomfort. Also, it's a little like how I run my classes: you need to be strict up front, then later in the semester once you have everyone working hard, you let the students know what a softie you are in reality. But you cannot invert that--it just does not work the other way around. With rentals, I think, save the cushiest for last. It's far easier to move up than down in the world.

Up we went, and into the lovely flat, where Maria's rapid-fire Italian was much easier to understand augmented by mime. We placed a call on her cell phone to the rental agent to reassure her all was well, and out into the rain we went for pizza. We were pretty tired, so we went to the first place we came to, just off our piazza, and grabbed a bottle of wine from a nearby shop and ate in our ritzy apartment. The pizza was fabulous. We stayed in and deciphered the directions for the washing machine, washed all our stinky clothes, and read passages from "Rome: City Secrets" and "Rome in Detail" to each other, planning for the week ahead.

Next morning, the sun was shining as it would for the rest of our week in Rome, and during coffee and rolls in a bar just off our piazza I'm beginning to think we could exist in a 2-block radius and never want for anything. We stroll through Trastevere and I fall in love with the neighborhood, which reminds me of the vieux carre in New Orleans, only older and twistier and less touristed and touristy.

Late morning we head out to meet our Scala Reale guide for our orientation stroll. She turns out to be a charming American grad student, studying art and architectural history. She reminds me of my students back home, and we hit it off so well I have to stop myself from monopolizing her--I want to know about her studies, her life in Rome, etc. She studies Caravaggio, and shows us a few of his paintings in Santa Maria del Popolo. Our orientation stroll stays around Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps.

When our docent finds out I have an interest in experimental performance she takes us by an installation in the excavations next to the Augustus Mausoleum and near the Ara Pacis (half-encased weirdly in its aborted new protective building) by an artist named Fausto delle Chiai, understated and very funny satire of touristic monument labeling. I haven't found much on him on the web, but I've provided a link to a page with photos from someone's trip and a more official site (in Italian).

One of the most useful things our guide teaches us is that we can drink the water gushing from all the public fountains. She claims they've tested it and found it to be better quality and less contaminated than bottled water. It has gotten blissfully warm, and for the rest of the week in Rome I'll refill my water bottle from the drinking fountains regularly.

The next day we have another longer Scala Reale lesson. Today we are told by our wonderful guide, Flavia Marcello, not to call it a tour--it's a class. This has something to do with the licensing of tours in Rome. If anyone asks (and they do, amazingly) we are attending a class. Ancient Rome with Flavia starts at the barracks outside of the Colosseum, proceeds to the Palatine Hill and museum, then goes down along the via Sacra into the Roman and Republican forums and then back to the Colosseum, this time going inside. Many splendors, and Flavia tells stories that make sense of much of what we see, but I am overwhelmed at several points by "Goethe syndrome"--In Italian Journey, he says,

"As I rush about Rome looking at the major monuments, the intensity of the place has a quietening effect. In other places one has to search for the important points of interest; here they crowd in on one in profusion. Wherever you turn your eyes, every kind of vista, near and distant, confronts you -- palaces, ruins, gardens, wildernesses, small houses, stables, triumphal arches, columns -- all of them often so close together that they could be sketched on a single sheet of paper. One would need a thousand styluses to write with. What can one do here with a single pen? And then, in the evening, one feels exhausted after so much looking and admiring."

Indeed. And in a week, we didn't but scratch the surface, although we looked and admired all day, every day. I lost track of it all. I stopped taking pictures so that I could look, and to spare myself some of that terrible sense of getting home with a ton of photos and not remembering what half of them are. After awhile, I even stopped looking up so many things in books, and used the map more sparingly. The advantage of how crammed Rome is with sights is that you can stumble upon them accidentally, as we did with the Trevi Fountain and with Largo Argentina.

Another Rome lesson for me was that even though we walked nearly everywhere, and we found Rome quite walkable, except when having to cross Victor Emmanuel, cabs were reasonable when you were just too plain worn out to make it back to Trastevere from, say, Santa Susanna, where we'd gone to get our passes for the pope's general audience the evening prior to it. Our apartment was easy to cab to, because all we did was ask for rides to the Ponte Sisto. We were only 2 short blocks off the Trastevere side of the bridge, and being dropped on the other side of the bridge saved time and money as well as spared us explaining how to get back to the piazza through the twisty one-way streets.

We had a big, full kitchen in the apartment but we used it mainly to make coffee--a waste, but we were generally too tired to cook, suffering Goethe syndrome, and there were so many nice, small, relatively inexpensive restaurants close by. Our favorite was Taverna della Scala in Piazza della Scala. We ate every single dinner in Trastevere, and no matter what we got to eat, it seemed, the bill was 40 euros. We'd usually get a cheapish but okay bottle of wine or just go with the house table wine, water, 2 courses each, either a primo or a vegetable and a main course, and dessert--although sometimes we went without to save room for gelato. Lunch was pannini or pizza standing up. We'd often pick up another, better bottle of wine on our way back to the flat for after dinner.

Our favorite places in Trastevere included Drogheria Innocenti, just off Piazza San Cosimato, a funky grocery that's been there forever, where we loaded up on goodies to bring back home (Tuscan faro, which people will tell you is spelt but it's different; the amazing coffee they roasted in the store; pine nuts, etc.). For pizza our favorite was Forno La Renella on Via del Moro; I read that they fire their ovens with hazelnut shells. I have no idea if that's what accounts for how wonderful their pizza was. We liked the little shops on Via del Moro including an English language book store (the Corner Store, I think?) and Polvere di Tempo, where they make tiny little time-and-space devices, like sextants so small you can wear on a keychain (Gary actually knows how to do celestial navigation, so he was drawn to this although they're too small to get a sighting). Santa Maria in Trastevere was one of my favorite churches of the whole trip. I made a special pilgrimage to Santa Cecilia, where a little nun took me by the arm and led me up to see a fresco by Pietro Cavallini, whose mosaics we had seen in Santa Maria.

For the Wednesday morning general audience with the Pope, we hiked up to the Vatican early and had great seats. We took books for the long wait. I tuned out while reading and kept being amazed at how large the crowd was getting when I looked up. I've condensed the audience on the video in my gallery. The Pope's voice, well-amplified, was surprisingly strong for how frail he looked. He spoke on a psalm on the theme of prayer in a time of danger, and I wondered how politically that was meant. There isn't much nuance--he does his speech in so many different languages, it has to be short. We purchased a rosary to hold up at the blessing for our friend Paul. This spring, when he passed away, he was holding it.

After the general audience, we grabbed lunch, waited too long in an unusually chaotic line to check our belongings, then met our guide for the Scavi tour we had booked ahead. The tour was fascinating. The ancient city of the dead is remarkably well-preserved beneath St. Peter's--some of the tombs look like you could live in them. Our guide also fascinated me. She was wearing stiletto heels to climb around in the excavations, and as she narrated the journey, which culminates in what may or may not be St. Peter's Tomb, she nearly spat out the word "pagan" with disdain whenever she said it. It seemed to me the more interesting story might have been to connect the "pagan" iconography with the Christian, but she stressed the disconnects.

The rest of our days were spent scurrying here and there, deeply in Goethe syndrome, collapsing nightly in our comfortable rented apartment. Some of my favorite places were: The bizarre Capuchin crypt with its bones arranged in elaborate configurations ("the Crypt of the Pelvises" and the "Crypt of the Leg Bones")--I kept having the feeling I was looking at very macabre pasta art; Campo dei Fiori in the morning, with all the lovely produce and flowers; and a bakery on Via Dei Baullari where we loaded up on sweets to bring back to our friends in Switzerland and the "Biscotti di Novembre" to which I became addicted.

We took a cab to the train station on our last morning, then on to Milan to change trains, and back through the Alps to Zurich for one more night with our friends before the long flight home. As our train went through the mountains, thick, fluffy snow was falling.

The plane seemed to take forever, Atlanta customs was a nightmare of long snaky lines, but at long last we made it home. Home... with cartons of mail, real and "e" to sort through, catching up with the rest of the world to do, work to return to ... and two dogs, at least, to cheer us up. I assembled the videos to dispel some of the melancholy that kept threatening to take over upon our return.

And now, I am planning our next trip....reading Goethe on Sicily and Naples.....


Barb & Art Live in Italy (blog)

Diva's Oltrarno eats list

Fausto delle Chiai

San Frediano District by Maureen

Scala Reale

Vasari corridor description

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