Monday, May 31, 2010
I could understand someone throwing up their hands and saying "it's impossible; you can't even begin to start to get to know Rome in that period of time". I know, I know. If you leave one major thing out then you will see the pikes and torches heaving up and down with the accompanying chants of one faction; if you, well, you get the idea.
It is hard. You kind of feel like someone taking Solomon too literally, "hmmm, maybe if I split the baby right there... But a little is better than none in my book.
One of the things the students first noticed about Rome is that there is even more graffiti here than in Florence. Then they noticed the traffic and the fact that there are very few traffic signals and the resulting realization that you are taking your life in your hands when you cross the street. But these fade away once it starts to sink in that you are in Rome. We stayed at a small family-run hotel straight down the street from the Colosseum. Walking the other way to the main drag you have the Roman Forum in front of you, and the Forum of Trajan to your right. Did I mention the remains of the churches of Saints Cosmas and Damian to your left over there? The sense of time is so unmissable in Rome, that even if you didn't get it, the Gods would prove it to you by shoving you thirty feet into an archaeological site below.
That is one thing I love about Rome- no, not falling into an archaeological site, but the sheer sensory overload of the place. You can look to your left and see the broken columns of an ancient temple from the time of the Republic, look in another direction and it is a purely Baroque facade. Look another direction and you see something from the ancient world that was set up in a new context by people long afterward, and then turn and see a woman with reaaally cool sunglasses wearing, uh Renaissance, a square that was redone during the Renaissance. And all this with cars flying by, a few people chatting loudly and gesticulating wildly, the clinking of glasses and the murmur of large groups walking by.
We immediately headed to the Vatican Museums to once again try out the tested method of entering without any wait. The Method can be reduced to this dictum- "Have lunch first just outside the area". We went to a little place across from where we peeked out from the Ottaviano metro stop that served everything from Spaghetti all'Amatriciana to Hamburgers. Then, right about 1 pm, we headed over. No wait... at all. The Vatican Museum involves the same decision-making that one makes for the city as a whole; you can not see it all, so you have to make choices. The antique statuary are a blur to me as I follow the signs to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Nothing against those tapestries; I'm sure they are wonderful (if I ever stop to see them someday). Same with those paintings over there, and there... But it takes enough work and concentration to try to keep everyone together and moooove past the crowds, around the group tours, where they are listening to someone talk about said tapestries, and on to the rooms I really want to see.
Then, on arrival, I shift gears. The crowds can go by, those who keep as evenly a paced gaze to the area devoted to contemporary religious art, as it does to the Stanza della Segnatura can keep going. Even within the Raphael rooms, I will spend much more time in front of the School of Athens than with the Sala di Costantino. So sue me. Then on to the Sistine Chapel. I just can't spend enough time here. Even if I got a spot to sit and snacked on Power Bars and did everything to sustain my energy, I wouldn't be able to. It takes a lot of energy to look at Michelangelo's work with a high level of intensity while battling the feeling of being saturated and keeping your eyes going out of focus. And you'd better give it the attention it deserves, even if for a relatively short time; otherwise, you-know-who may put his skin back on and beat the crap out of you. I can only get to know this amazing work bit by bit, over time. But, still there is so much there that you could focus on one corner and it would sustain you for an hour, easy. And that's without shifting your head to the scene of the Last Judgement. Sensory Overload.
I used to live in New York; in my humble opinion, New York doesn't come close to Rome for sensory overload. A lot of it is because New York largely presents one type and time-period of information for the brain to assimilate; Rome goes way beyond that. But, at the same time, one other thing I love about Rome is that I can go down a narrow, cool, shady lane and it - is - quiet. Just the place to have a bottle of aqua minerale, and four tylenol.
Friday, May 28, 2010
For the first time in three tries, it was not raining when I visited Siena. The last two times I brought students here, the stones were slick and the breaks in the rain were spotty. But, now that I remember, it just wasn't that bad. Siena is a charmer, and in my book, not only is that a good thing, but a bit of rain here or there is not going to diminish the experience much. It was here, five years ago, that I stood under the boards laid out on a high, rambling structure of scaffolding clinging to an ancient structure, and read Invisible Cities while waiting for the rain to stop. It's all part of the experience.
Siena is an experience. It's one of those places that transport you back to the 14th century, especially when you get out in the lesser traveled areas of town. Especially, especially if you stay after dark. This time the weather was beautiful, with blue skies and warm temperatures each day. We went to the Duomo, looked at the designs on the floor and the Museo del Opera del Duomo to see the original sculptures that were on the outside and Duccio's Maesta. Each time I see it I think of the the day when the painting was brought to the cathedral, when all the shops closed down, the populace lined the streets and followed the procession, alms were given out and the city solemnly installed the painting on the high altar. There is a diagram showing the original position of all the panels, front and back, and it is sad to think of it being taken down in the 1700s and sawn into pieces, with some pieces damaged, others sold off, and others lost.
It's fun to look around the city for the contrada symbols as you walk from one division of the city to another. This time I poked my hand on the metal tusks of an elephant's head- one of the supports of the stair-rail going up the steps to the fountain next to the contrada hall of the Contrada della Torre. There above you on the walls, are emblems of a caterpillar, or a panther, or a tortoise.
The next day we went to the museum at the Palazzo Pubblico, especially to see the fresco paintings The Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the room where the city's leaders, the Nove, met. We drew for a while from the overlook in the back of the palace. There is a big staircase in the middle of the rooms, and if you go up to the top, you can go through the doors and look out on the marketplace below and out to the countryside beyond. The countryside doesn't look all that different from that depicted in the painting- thankfully, on the side of good government.
By seven at night, most of the crowds are gone and the Campo, where the Palio is held, is much emptier. Sometimes, on warm days, as the night comes on, a cool breeze comes up the hill and through the gates and over the walls. The streets become lit here and there with lights above and coming through doorways and windows. The few cars and small shuttle buses you encounter during the day have been reduced down to none at all. And, if you squint, the neon lights from the gelaterie fade, the bright electric lights inside the bar almost becomes torchlight, and you are transported.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In preparation, they made me discontinue the link I made from their ancient, not able to attach anything more than ten words in a Word document, email program, to Entourage.
Not that Entourage is all that fantastic, but it is compared to the regular email program that the university provides.
The whole system ended up crashing for over two days.
When I'm in Italy.
And I really need it.
So I had a great idea- I'll use my Gmail to send my friend a video from Italy. Yea!
The Gmail said, (if Gmail could talk) "Gee, Brian has never used me, and now he is suddenly using me and attaching a video, from a foreign country, no less. This can't be Brian!"
So immediately after sending the email, Gmail closed me out.
And gave people a notice here that the blog has been removed.
I was told I would have to give a cellphone number for a message to regain access.
I started to think if I gave them an Italian number, Gmail would be convinced- "This really can't be Brian, this isn't the phone number he gave us when he set up the account!" (Remember, this is Gmail talking, here)
So I followed the instructions for those poor, backward sods like me who would prefer to email a message. What I'd actually like would be interaction with a carbon-based life-form. Any ferret, or iguana would do.
So I gave them the Italian phone number.
And now, for some I reason I had nothing to do with, I am a follower of my own blog.
Yea for techonlogy!
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The students worked outside under the protection of the walkways from the rain, which continued off and on for a while.
My weekend was a blur of errands, laundry, catching up with the bookkeeping, doing some shopping and trying to catch up on some rest. After all the travel and running off fumes and caffe', I finally crashed and got some extra sleep. This was rest sorely needed with getting up early on Monday for a two-day trip to Siena.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
This was Orientation Day. There are a lot of things to introduce, show and explain when you are bringing people into a country they've never been to before. One of my students just arrived after experiencing the first time she ever flew in an airplane. When you live in apartments there are a lot more issues that need to be covered.
First a walk around the city to see the famous landmarks and get bearings. Meet at Piazza della Repubblica; around the Duomo; south by the Yellow Bar and the Bargello toward the Piazza della Signoria; diverted to public WC off of Borgo de' Greci; then to the Piazza della Signoria; a quick lecture about the history of the Palazzo Vecchio? No, that's later. Now it is about paying attention to me, not gypsies, when I'm telling them about the history of a place; Baaaack into the crowds as we head for the Ponte Vecchio (can't imagine this place on a Saturday); wait for my student with the digital SLR to catch up; walking in the shade of Borgo San Jacopo; back across the Ponte Santa Trinita to Via Tornabuoni; then past the street where their apartments are- Via della Vigna Nuova and back to our meeting place, the carousel at the Piazza della Repubblica.
That was Giro Numero Uno.
The next one definitely has a food theme- north to the Mercato Centrale where we walk around and experience the smells, sights and sounds of merchants talking back and forth. For the students this was the first time they saw a man hold up a huge piece of tripe; here is the place with the great fresh pasta, there's Nerbone- try this place for lunch sometime, there's Mario's outside the market, I definitely need to go there; around the corner to the Centro supermarket to show them how to pick up and weigh the produce- put your hand inside the bag and then pick it up, look for the number for the corresponding button on the scale; across the street to the One Euro store (yes, you can actually buy wine for one euro- I won't); then up to Via Guelfa and the really inexpensive internet shop run by the Sri Lankan family; then into my favorite Kebab place for lunch. This was their first opportunity to really try to order on their own in a place where the people don't speak any English. A bit to get used to, but you will, and look, you got your food!; from here some went to email family and friends, others went with me to use the ATM and one brought a load of U.S. dollars in cash that needed to be changed (No, not at those cash change places, we're going to the bank).
So ended Giro Numero Due.
They had a break (I say 'they' because I was off to my apartment to get the forms that were needed at the Rental Agency and then deliver them) and then met later that afternoon to walk across the river and up to San Miniato al Monte. Did I tell you the alternative name for the class is "Drawing and Fitness in Florence"? There was a certain amount of huffing and puffing up the hill, but we did take a break to see the little houses built for the cats in the sanctuary just off the walkway. We had a look over the city and went in to hear the monks perform Vespers.
Sitting there inside, listening to the chant, watching the light through the doors reflect off the hem of the garment in the mosaic of Christ in the apse of San Miniato al Monte, I think I took my first deep, deep breath back in Florence.
This should give you an idea:
Wednesday was the day the students were arriving. Because of the ash cloud, most of their flights were delayed and diverted. Yes, flights is written plural. I have eight students and, originally, five different times they were coming into Peretola. With the changes in flights this was reduced to four (yea!), but I was at the airport from 4:00 until 7:30 pm gathering up the first three groups. Many had to wait with me for a while because the flight delays were timed so they were not long enough to allow me to shuttle one group in and be back in time to meet the next without them waiting and wondering where I was. I did get that first group in , went to the apartments, showed them around the neighborhood a bit so they could get something to eat and off I went to meet the later students. Their flight was seriously delayed; it came in at 11:30. That's just about the same time that the last shuttle bus pulls out. OK, no choice but to take a taxi.
I think I got to sleep around 1:30.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
The trip to Florence was relatively smooth and landed with the usual heavy smack on the tarmac at Peretola with its short runway. The whole trip was above, or in, the clouds. But, I arrived safely with no volcanic ash to wipe from my clothing. Back on familiar ground again.
Monday, May 10, 2010
The packing, the lists of things to do, the last-minute tasks for work that should not have been left for you to do, I mean he is still around and not doing, oh, sorry about that. You get the idea.
Anyway, I'm just about to leave for the airport. Everything is pretty much done. Not bad for five and a half hours of sleep, an empty stomach and I'm going to have my first cup of caffeine now. I'll have to take the chance of jitters over being a zombie.
But first, I have to check again to make sure I have my passport, and then take care of the clogged sink in the bathroom.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
I keep thinking of those paintings in that one room- Room 10 in the Accademia. The room with the Feast, the Miracles of St. Mark, and the Pietà. The sense of mystery that envelops them, the depicted world of pageantry and enjoyment that still shares its existence with flying figures, ghostly buildings and apparitions of living and dead together. This depicted world that culminates with the sense of loss and decay, as unseen people are warded off from a sacred vision and sacred space while the flame is carried away. These aspects of the paintings run parallel to my remembered world of Venice that contains these things, and so much more.
The sense of loss is palpable in Venice. It’s there with the lapping of the waves against the stones, the fog that obstructs the view, the eroding of steps over the waters of a canal that slowly takes over the constructed world built on pylons. But the sense of loss is personal also. I have never been to any other place where leaving you feel like you are embarking from Cythera. But that is just another part of its beauty.
So, when I leave, as I take the vaporetto around the islands to go back to the train station, I find myself saying one thousand good byes. Good bye to Santa Maria della Salute, good-bye to the steps on that bridge over a small canal, good bye to the people waiting for the vaporetto to take them in the opposite direction, good bye to the fog down the canal moving away from me, good bye to the lapping of the waves, good bye, good bye, good bye.
This summer I have another chance to visit Venice. Another chance to purposely get lost; to try some food I know I can’t get anywhere else; to find a real insider’s bacaro; to see a painting I haven’t seen before (very easy); to buy a special gift; to see Venice for the first time- again.
One big difference between Venice and other stops on “The Big Three Tour” is the lack of crowds in major art venues. The first time I took students with me I made sure that I had reservations for the Uffizi, set up everything in advance for the Borghese in Rome and checked TA for loads of suggestions for the best time to avoid the lines into the Vatican Museums. When I was planning for Venice, I checked out the website for the Accademia, and started to plan out getting reservations for the museum. I remembered going there as a student, standing in the (incredible) room that has the (renamed) Feast at the House of Levi by Veronese on your right as you enter; The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark by Tintoretto; and the last painting by Titian, Pietà, finished after his death by Palma Giovane. The room was largely empty. You could sit there, by the radiator stuck in the middle of the room, as long as you wanted. I had a hard time navigating the website and hoped there would be no problem when we arrived.
There wasn’t. I apologized at the desk for not setting up reservations; the woman said there was no need to.
Every time I have been there, the museum is not crowded at all. Each time I spend a lot of time in the room that houses the St. Ursula series by Carpaccio, and each time, as I look at how a figure aligns with a mast, links through a flag to an architectural detail back to a column framing a kneeling figure, I could spread out a picnic lunch on the floor and probably not be bothered.
The same is true with viewing Tintoretto’s masterwork in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and seeing Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin and the Pesaro Altarpiece in the Frari. I don’t know why. But I’m not necessarily complaining about it.
There are seventy-nine inflatable gates being built now in the lagoon’s entrance to the sea that are designed to protect the city from flooding in the future. The problem of flooding with tourists, of which I am obviously a part, is also a difficult problem. I have no solutions and would never deter anyone from visiting. But, I must admit I do have a problem with the huge cruise liners. The Venetians must have a real love-hate relationship with us. For the person who spray painted “Shoot the Tourists” in Cannaregio on the way to the Rialto it must be a hate-hate relationship. I have met some rather short-tempered people in Venice, but, for right or wrong, I generally find it easier to be tolerant of it in Venice.
I have come across some people in Bed and Breakfasts who were very short-tempered and a waiter who gave one woman out of a group eleven grief because she didn't order anything. The other ten did. But, no matter. On the other hand, there were the two elderly brothers who owned a restaurant who doted over my group of thirteen one evening. They were very impressed with and congratulated my son, then fourteen, on his gastronomic bravery and adventurousness. When the meal was over, because they knew we were almost all paying separately, (sorry, cringe, cringe) one of them went over to each of us in turn with an old adding machine, recounting what each of us had, printing out the total on the ribbon of paper and handing each one of us the bill with jokes, flirts and smiles. The two brothers have since retired and sold the restaurant, but small things like that are never forgotten.
My first time in Venice I was with my friend, Nora, a fellow grad student who had experience traveling through Europe before. We were both on a very limited budget and she always looked for fruit to keep her going; that and tonno tramezzini (tuna sandwiches). We found a fruit stand that belonged to a woman; one of those elderly, short Italian ladies who appear to be made of stone that one doesn’t mess with. These are the ladies that seem to be, quite possibly, the common denominator of all areas of Italy- north and south, tiny village or center of major city. Invariably dressed in black, they are usually seen carrying something- anything- as long as it is nearly the same weight as them. This great load, whenever possible, must also be carried up a long flight of stairs. Assistance is out of the question. Nora knew better, but forgot for a moment and reached out to touch a piece of fruit. With reflexes on a par with a holder of a karate black belt, the woman reached out, over the fruit, and slapped Nora firmly on the hand. I didn’t know before, but I warn my students now- point, but do not touch.
One thing that I learned about over time was a special offering of Venice- Cicchetti and an Ombra- a selection of little snacks with a glass of wine meant to hold off hunger during the late afternoon or early evening. At first I thought this may be an inexpensive way to get a meal. Selecting from a wide range of little plates and exotic delicacies to have with a glass of wine is fun. For me, it ends up being an exercise in trying to figure just what that actually is that you’re considering eating. The first cicchetti place I went to was on a tiny little street in Cannaregio- Calle de l’Oca, right near the end of the Strada Nova. After selecting your little bites and glass of wine you could take your purchases, trying to hold on to everything at once, through another door to a small courtyard and sit down. It is when you pay that you realize this is very satisfying, but not really an inexpensive option. I think my late afternoon snack cost me something on the order of $22. It was probably the baby octopus… The last time I went there they were closed for renovations; they may have needed to expand in part because they got a write-up in the New York Times.
As I’ve mentioned before, when I take students to Venice I always play a game called “Let’s Get Lost in Venice”. It is very easy to play this, whether you intend to, or not. The last time we started in the Piazza San Marco and one volunteer led the group, turning this way and that for about five minutes, or so. Then the next leader steps forward and continues on. I don’t say anything, but I’m hoping the whole time that we really end up in some far-flung corner. Some places look familiar, some don’t- at all. My total time in Venice has been very limited, probably a total of eleven days. Each time I’m there I get turned around, go in a different direction than the one I’m SURE I’m going in, sit in a campo studying and turning a map around and around in my hand, and generally end up befuddled. I actually have an excellent reputation for finding my way around a place. Friends have said that I have a grid inside my head and, generally, I can go to a new city, take a quick look at a map and find my way around- no problem. Not Venice. She plays with me. I think I’m going the right way, start to see that I don’t recognize the area I’m walking in, and then end up where I wanted to go- from a different direction. Or I won’t recognize an area at all, then see something that I do know- “Oh, of course the Scuola Grande di San Rocco!”, or, “This is where the craftsman who builds the gondolas has his workshop!”, or “Up here is the bar where I got a good price on beer before!”, and then immediately back into the blankness of unrecognizability. She isn’t at all cruel, though. She wants to make sure that I know that she is largely unfathomable to me, and then I find myself again.
Early one morning I woke before anyone else and decided to go out for a walk. There was no one out. I made my way to the Piazza San Marco and saw it completely empty except two old men sweeping the huge expanse of the square. The fibers of their brooms were long and curved and they moved slowly, step by step. I felt as if I were witnessing something that would have looked exactly the same two or three hundred years ago. I felt as if these men had been sweeping, when no was around to see them, for two or three hundred years. A fog hung over us, and it was so silent I could hear the sounds of the brooms swooshing across the stones. At that moment the bells tolled and hundreds of pigeons took off and the air was filled with the sight of blurred wings. On the way back, as I walked by the Bridge of Sighs I heard the muffled sounds of a man screaming.
(This is not for effect- it is absolutely true)
One thing I do each time in Venice is ride the number 2 vaporetto. I start at San Zaccharia heading to San Giorgio Maggiore and, after visiting the church and its Tintoretto Last Supper, continue the route. Heading in this direction, I can get seats outside and right in front. It doesn’t make every stop on the Grand Canal, but it does do a grand circle around the city.
There is a small park around the corner from the Piazza San Marco, facing the lagoon that I went to early one morning. The Giardini ex Reali was quiet and inviting, offering me a place to sit and look around for a moment. After a few moments I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye- a bit of movement down near the ground. A few minutes later there was a quick movement of something up higher by the wall and to my right. Then more quick movements- first left then right, first high then low. Then slowly the rulers of the Royal Garden allowed me to observe them as they peeked out, then made their presence known. The garden was filled with cats.
After a day of exploring and visiting paintings throughout the city, a group of us hired a gondola at night off the beaten path. One of the first things one notices in Venice are the eastern influences that are evident in the city’s architecture. Venice, for so long the hub of trade between east and west, gathered so much from the eastern ports of call that can be seen throughout the city. As we floated through the dark canals we could see the lights coming from windows above us, and shadows of the ancient doorways directly from the canal into various palazzi. The gondolier was silent. A friend of mine from Turkey started singing an old Turkish song as we slowly moved along a small canal. Her voice echoed through the passageways. Everything seemed to stop. Time dissolved and it was as if the stones and buildings along with the vaporous presence of those who lived within them long ago were recognizing the song and remembering back to a long lost time.
The following blogs, meaning this one and the ones above, (strange things these blogs) are memories of Venice from that first trip to Italy and afterward. My apologies to my friends who have already read these before. Well, I've got to shuttle some things in here.
Like a lot of Americans I always thought of Italy as one place with the differences from region to region owing more to geography than anything else. That is, until I first went there. I had always seen photos of Venice and knew of canals and gondoliers, but had no idea the overall sense of mystery, history and beauty of the place. How can you possibly know before going? This city reveals itself in a different way than other places and it has its way of turning you around and back in time.
I was in graduate school (a bit older than the average student) and was primarily in Florence for six weeks. My professor took a small group of us for a weekend to La Serenissima. When we reached the lagoon beyond Mestre he motioned us to get up and look out the windows on the left side of the train and said, “You’ll always remember your first sight of Venice”. I could just make out buildings and towers off in a light mist that was being burned off by mid-day sun. It didn’t seem real. The sense of suspension of reality always hangs close to me in Venice. Now, when I bring students with me there and we are crossing the lagoon I tell them to get over to the left and look out. I say the same words he did.
One thing I always think about when remembering the experience of Venice is the traveler’s movement from very narrow passageways (nearly scraping your elbows) to wider (relatively speaking) streets and then quite suddenly into wide open spaces. It is like traveling through an organism. Then back into a small walkway, in the shade, the paths taking you where they want you to go.
A friend of mine, when she found out that I was going to Italy for the first time, suggested a book for me to read. “It’s called Invisible Cities, it’s by an Italian author named Italo Calvino.” she said. “It’s a bit hard to describe, really… but, DON’T read it until you’re there! You HAVE to wait until you are in Italy to read it!” What great advice.
My teacher knew Venice very, very well. He had, at that time, spent time there probably every summer for twenty-five years. His wife is an expert on Giambattista Tiepolo and she regularly spent time there doing research. He would be leading us around and turn to us, and say, “Oh, there’s a place over here, you’ve got to see it, it’s incraydeebilay” We would follow him through a door of some building, up some stairs and show us a fresco painting that I’ll never see again. He wasn’t completely fluent with the language (a LOT further on than me) but knew a lot of the ins and outs of the city.
Later he brought us to his favorite restaurant- I wish I could remember where- seafood was something he craved and, living in the Midwest, something he waited to have until he was in Venice. He ordered Frutti di Mare, I ordered Spaghetti alla Seppia; we all shared a bit of this and that. It seemed that my teacher gave away the bulk of what he had on the plate because he wanted us to try so much of everything. My cuttlefish ink sauce tasted like the scent of the marshes and the sea distilled down to a liquid. Very good, very different for me, but I could only eat a bit of it, not the huge plate in front of me. Sharing comes in very handy. Afterward someone suggested grappa. I’d heard of it before… why not? When I got my shot glass I threw it back. Big mistake. This is not Jack Daniels. This, at least for me, is not anything to trifle with. Something deep inside decided immediately to set the gears in reverse and I made a very loud, embarrassing and unintentional sound. People three or four tables away were laughing! It took me thirteen years before I entered into a semi-comfortable truce with grappa.
Italy is for sipping.