Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Some of my fondest memories of the Hotel Hosianum Palace are of having breakfast on the rooftop terrace, high among the church spires and the winged chariots that perch on top of the Vittorio Emanuele monument. That was on my first trip to Italy in 2008. When I returned two years later, the terrace was closed and when I inquired as to the reason, the man at the reception desk said bluntly: “Madame, it is too cold.”

In point of fact, the weather was perfect.

Alas, this morning, there is a sign yet again directing guests to the breakfast room in the basement. Surely, with temperatures soaring into the 90s, it is no longer too frigid to sit outdoors—even by sensitive Italian standards—so I ask the manager for an explanation, pointing to the envelope that holds my key card. It reads: “From May 15 till September (weather permitting), the morning American breakfast will be served on the Roof Garden of the fifth floor from 7:30 a.m. till 10:30 a.m. where besides tasting a rich breakfast, you can enjoy an incomparable view of the roofs of Rome.”

Why, exactly, is the terrace closed in the middle of June, I ask? “Madame,” I am told, “It has been too wet.”

Now, things are getting perfectly ridiculous. It’s hasn’t rained here in weeks. The last measureable precipitation Rome had was on June 4, the day I flew to Venice, and even that was just a tenth of an inch. Personally, I think the staff don’t want to be bothered hauling food up to the roof, even though there is an elevator.

I’m still annoyed later, as I walk up Via del Corso in search of a Vodaphone store. I need to top up the minutes on my SIM card. When I see a Uomo Nuovo demonstration spilling out of Piazza Colonna, it inspires me to protest an injustice of my own. Perhaps I should rally the guests back at the hotel to storm the barricades tomorrow morning, to fight for our right to dine al fresco.

I cut over toward Piazza Navona to wander about the square, with its lively mix of street performers and artists’ stalls, and I visit the Baroque church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. From there, though, I grab a taxi to the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, near the train station. It’s another blistering day and it’s much too far to walk.

The National Museum is one I’ve long overlooked, as do many tourists, it would seem, because the halls are nearly empty. There is a fine collection of Roman sculptures, including a marble copy of the original bronze discus thrower, his torso twisted and his muscles flexed. There’s also a large numismatic section, with more than 5,000 coins demonstrating the evolution of the Roman monetary system.

For me, though, the most impressive artifacts by far are the frescoes and mosaics. There’s a large floor mosaic with muses and mythological scenes from a villa along the Via Cassia, dating from the 3rd century A.D., and another depicting the struggle between Dionysus and the Indians from the Villa Ruffinella during the first half of the 4th century A.D.

It’s hard to imagine the time involved in creating such an intricate, and ultimately utilitarian, surface. There are thousands of individually cut pieces of stone—called tesserae—most no larger than a centimeter across. And they’re carefully placed in gradations of color, as if pulled from an artist’s palate, which creates a realistic sense of shape and dimension.

There are also a number of stunning room frescoes, including one from an underground triclinium at the Villa of Livia. Discovered in 1863, but dating back to the 1st century B.C., the room has been reinstalled here and it shows a lush garden with ornamental plants and birds drawn to such an exacting level of detail that most species are identifiable today. There are quince and pomegranate and boxwood trees, as well as poppies, ferns, violets, and irises.

As I walk toward Piazza della Reppublica afterwards, the oppressive heat that has descended on the city makes me wish I had lingered longer in the painted garden inside. But there are a number of sites I am determined to see, and my map looks like a game of connect the dots, with a long zig-zag line that stops at the Spanish Steps.

Across the street, I can see the crumbling brick wall that is the entrance to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It’s a Baroque church inside, designed in part by Michelangelo, but it was built within of the ancient frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian, which makes the space refreshingly cool. If I can find a pleasant oasis like this every hour or so, I just might be able to get through the day.

I continue on along Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, hoping to see Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” at Santa Maria della Vittoria, but by the time I arrive, the church is closed for the afternoon. It’s scheduled to reopen soon, but I don’t want to stand in the sun and wait, so I turn down Via Barberini instead and stop for a late lunch in an air conditioned cafeteria. Then, I veer off and climb the stairs to the Capuchin Crypt on Via Venato.

On my first trip to Italy in 2008, I visited the Catacombs of San Callisto along the old Appian Way, but nothing has prepared me for this, not even the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. There are alcoves of human bones, sectioned into parts—skulls in one, thigh bones in another, pelvises in a third, and so on—like a grandiose Halloween display. These are the remains of nearly 4,000 Capuchin monks, collected over the centuries and moved here in the early 18th century, to make room for new bodies in the friary’s small cemetery.

But the bones are not merely in neat stacks, as they are in Paris, with an occasional decorative flourish. They are woven into elaborate designs, including a skeletal grim reaper, holding scales and a scythe made of vertebrae. In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had called it “a spectacle for sensitive nerves,” and so it is. He had wondered then how it might feel to be a Capuchin, to know that one day you would be “taken apart like an engine or a clock or like a house whose owner is gone, and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes.” I find myself pondering the same morbid question. I leave grateful, though, because at least it was cool inside.

By the time I reach the Trevi Fountain, it’s after four o’clock and the heat of the day suddenly feels worse because of the congested crowd. Would anyone mind if I waded in, like Sylvia in the movie La Dolce Vita? Yes, I suppose they would.

There’s a souvenir stand directly in front of the fountain today, and the vendor is selling magnets and ashtrays alongside of bobblehead dolls, snow globes, and plastic Pietàs. It’s horribly tacky stuff. In his infinite wisdom, the mayor of Rome has banned tourists from eating and drinking near public monuments, but not this monstrosity, even though it’s an assault on good taste that’s every bit as bad, if not worse.

My final stop for the day is a social one. A colleague of mine from work is in Rome for a few days attending a conference. We’ve agreed to meet at the fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps. We order drinks at Babington’s Tea Room, a cozy and very English place, and then take the elevator to the top of the hill to reach his hotel, the Intercontinental de la Ville. It has a stunning terrace overlooking the city, and he wants me to see it.

Unlike the rooftop terrace at my hotel, this one actually is open.

Yes, I’m still bitter, but a least for an hour or so, I can pretend that it’s mine.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

When I wake up this morning and open the green shutters on my window overlooking Via dei Polacchi, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s my last day in Rome. With all of the delays and distractions that brought me to Italy nearly a week later than planned, my internal clock is off and I’m not ready to leave just yet.

After breakfast, I ramble around Campo de’ Fiori. The name means “field of flowers” and when the market is here, it really is. Clustered around the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk who was burned at the stake here in 1600, there are scores of umbrellas shading vendors from the sun. There are fruit and vegetable stands and dried pastas for sale, as well as bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And of course, there are flowers—big bunches of roses and chrysanthemums and daisies that burst with the vibrant colors of summer.

From here, I continue on to Piazza Navona, where there’s a jazz quartet playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” My levitating friends are back with their bright orange turbans and prayer beads, and there’s a street performer dressed like a headless man in a suit jacket and purple tie, waving to tourists as they stroll by, craning their heads in amusement.

I’m going to miss these walks. More than ever before this year, I’ve put schedules and itineraries aside. It was by necessity at first, but then—ever so gradually—by choice. It’s been nice to wake in the morning with little to do but wander as far as my feet will take me, and to embrace whatever the day, or the mood, or the moment, invites.

Originally, I had hoped to see a Brueghel exhibit titled “The Fascinating World of Flemish Art” at the Chiostro del Bramante, but it was set to close on June 2. I had scratched it from my list when the trip got postponed, so I’m surprised to see a poster this morning that’s been altered with a yellow banner reading PROROGATA, extended. Excited, I glance at my map and see that it’s just around the corner, to the west of Piazza Navona.

The Chiostro del Bramante is impressive in its own right, with graceful marble columns and porticos and arches, and the exhibition has been touted as the largest “devoted to the famous artistic dynasty ever to be held in Rome.” I buy a €12 ticket at the door and rove happily through the galleries, which include works by several members of the Brueghel family, including Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “The Bird Trap” (1605), a sober winter scene with skaters gliding on a frozen river, and “Wedding Dance in the Open Air,” which overflows with carousing, ruddy-nosed peasants. There is also a series of intricate still lifes of butterflies, insects, and shells by Jan van Kessel, another descendent in a complex and talented family tree.

It’s one o’clock by the time I work my way back towards Piazza Venezia. Remembering the inspired view of the Roman Forum from the restaurant at the Capitoline Museum, I decide to go there for lunch, and wind up staying for much of the afternoon, exploring rooms I had somehow missed on my first visit back in 2008, including the Pinocoteca, where Caravaggio’s “The Fortune Teller” hangs, and the entirety of the Palazzo Nuovo and the Tabularium.

The sculptures I see are extraordinary. There is a naturalistic statue of a “Dying Galatian” that throbs with pain and human emotion, and another of Cupid and Psyche locked in a tender embrace. Then there are the rows of heads in the Sala degli Imperatori, or Hall of the Emperors, including the famous Fonseca Bust, with her mound of intricately carved curls piled high upon her head. There is such artistic wealth here that it’s hard to know where to look, or when to stop.

Outside on the Piazza del Campidoglio, it’s another blistering late afternoon, without a cloud in the sky to screen the sun. There are two people unloading cases of bottled water, though, and they’re handing them out for free. Whether the uniform they wear is from the city of Rome or from a corporate sponsor, I don’t know, but I’m exceedingly grateful for the refreshment.

I relax for a while in my air conditioned room at the Hotel Hosianum Palace, where my bags are already packed and stowed in the corner. Earlier in the day, I had liked the quiet streets near the Chiostro del Bramante, so later I head back to Piazza Navona and veer off onto Via di Tor Millina, to a little osteria and wine bar called Cybo for dinner. Loving as ever the languorous sound of Italian, I order the Brasato di vitella con carote glassate e purea di patate, or braised veal with glazed carrots and mashed potatoes, and while I wait for the entrée to arrive, I feel a cool vapor on my skin. I’ve seen fans on the patios of some restaurants in Rome, but here they have a complex system of hoses that work much like a mister in the vegetable aisle of a supermarket, and it feels absolutely wonderful! The veal is good, too, but it’s the gift of outdoor air conditioning on a hot summer’s night that I’ll remember best.

I walk back through the Jewish Ghetto one last time, following Via Giulia and a maze of smaller streets until I reach the Teatro Marcello, where there’s a choir singing in front of the ruins tonight. I stop to listen, and then continue on, back up the long stairs that lead to the Capitoline Hill, the lone statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and the piazza designed by Michelangelo. I’ve come to watch darkness fall over the Roman Forum, and when it does it feels like a soft shroud.

It will lift in the morning, and the Gladiators will be back posing for pictures with tourists holding water bottles and paper parasols to shield their faces from the sun, but I won’t be here when it does.

It’s time to move on, and I’m excited by what comes next.

When I first came to Italy in 2008, the impulse was to pose in front of the Coliseum and the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza San Marco, and say I WAS HERE. What does it mean to have returned time and again, through sheer will and force of habit, to the same cities, the same hotels, and many of the same museums and streets? I’ve been thinking a lot about that this time around.

Nelson Mandela once said “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” Perhaps he’s right, but nothing about a place truly remains unchanged, even in Italy where it often seems as though inertia reigns. There is always more to discover, and new faces to meet.

In standing here, looking out across the vast remnants of Roman history, it occurs to me that time is more like layers of debris. Some memories we bury, but there are those we excavate purely for the joy of seeing them again, all the while building new walls and windows at the surface through which to see the world anew.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I blink at my wristwatch and can’t quite believe it. Against all odds, my flight is going to arrive into Fiumicino on time at 8:45 AM. This is a surprise given (in my experience) the general and combined incompetence of Philadelphia International Airport and U.S. Airways.

Gratified, but tired nevertheless, I stumble with the rest of the passengers through passport control and then baggage claim before meeting a driver from Rome Cabs, which I pre-booked online some weeks ago. He’s holding a sign with my surname, but it’s preceded by the title “Mr.” instead of “Ms.” My brain is still wakening, so that’s close enough for me. The driver, however, seems genuinely pleased by the slight misunderstanding. He introduces himself as Maurizio and he is a credit to the reputation of Italian men everywhere, charming and flirtatious.

Our immediate departure is complicated by my desire to do two things before I leave the airport: buy a Roma Pass and extract Euros from an ATM machine. The first is a matter of convenience, the second of necessity. After all, Maurizio has to be paid. He is, however, remarkably unconcerned about this as he carries my suitcase happily through the international arrivals hall in Terminal C.

We discover that the kiosk that sells the Roma Pass is not yet open for the day, and that the Bancomat across the aisle is likewise out of service. So far, we’re batting zero for two, but Maurizio assures me that I’ll be able to buy a Roma Pass along the Via del Corso easily enough and that there are plenty of cash machines in the city. Not to worry.

He talks and tells me stories all the way from the airport to my hotel near Piazza Venezia. The journey takes longer than I expected and, in fact, becomes something of a private guided tour. I have never been to Rome before and he tells me that she is two different cities—one by day, the other by night. I ask him to explain, and when he does, I see his eyes brighten, framed in the rear view mirror. “Rome by night,” he says, “is magic.”

Somewhere between our stops at cash machines two and three (two simply spit my card out without explanation), Maurizio and a swerving Vespa nearly collide. The guy on the Vespa has some anger management issues and pounds on the hood of the car. Heated words are exchanged, as are gestures that transcend any language barrier. Maurizio assures me that everything is fine and continues to talk pleasantly to me in English as if this kind of thing happens all the time.

When at last he carries my bag into the lobby of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on Via dei Polacchi, he slips me his card. He wonders if I might meet him for dinner the following night. I am flattered, perhaps because I know how frightful I look after an overnight flight, or maybe it’s because I am going to mark a milestone birthday later this summer and Maurizio thinks I look young. Nevertheless, I decline and hope afterwards that I have done it gracefully. My time in Rome will be short and there is so much to see.

I recognize two passengers from my flight, waiting to check in. They introduce themselves as Ann and Mel from Denver and we chat pleasantly for a few minutes while our rooms are assigned. Our itineraries sound much the same, so I wonder if I’ll stumble into them again somewhere in the tourist crowds.

When I open the door to my room on the third floor, what I find is small and irregularly shaped, but beautifully appointed and utterly cozy. There is a twin size bed covered in a gold damask spread, a nightstand with minibar, a desk on which rests a flat-panel TV, and a wardrobe for hanging clothes with an electronic safe below. The ceiling is high, framed by an ornate crown molding. A single shuttered window opens onto a view of the narrow street below. Bellissimo!

By now, it’s lunch time and the gray sky outside is spitting rain. I buy a Roma Pass at the tourist information booth on Via del Corso, but given the weather opt for a change of plans and head not to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but to the shelter of the Capitoline Museum instead. Getting there proves to be a battle of epic proportions. In zig zagging across the streets that merge into Piazza Venezia, I suddenly feel like I’m in a real life version of the old arcade game, “Frogger.” No one brakes for pedestrians, and the traffic signals seem little more than advisory. I stand there stupidly for a while, but when an Italian woman in business attire approaches the curb next to me and steps off without a moment’s hesitation, I leap forward to her right, using her as a shield between my own body and the steel of oncoming traffic. She is Moses parting the Red Sea. The traffic does not come to a complete standstill, but it folds itself neatly around us as we walk. It’s a brilliant move, but one that should come with a disclaimer that reads: “Warning! Tourists crossing street must be accompanied by a citizen of Rome.”

Once I am safely delivered to the steps of the Victor Emmanuel II monument, I circle around it and climb Michelangelo’s long, sloping steps to the Piazza del Campidoglio. I devour a tomato and mozzarella panini at the museum café under a canopy on the terrace, and enjoy my first sustained view of the city. Afterwards, the museum itself is an unexpected delight. I pop in the earbuds to my iPod Nano and use the audioguide I downloaded in advance from the museum’s website to navigate from one room to the next. I see Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf, the famous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and various disassembled parts from the colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine that once stood by the Colosseum—a disembodied head, a foot, and a hand with the index finger pointing up, like one of those giant foam mitts you see at football games. I can just imagine ancient spectators chanting “We will, we will, rock you…” while watching gladiators and beasts engage in mortal combat.

It’s still raining when I leave the museum, but it does nothing to dampen my mood. I am falling in love with Rome already. I walk past the Colosseum, trying to visualize where Constantine once stood in narcissistic glory, then down Via San Giovanni in Laterano to the Basilica of San Clemente. It’s a perfectly lovely 12th century church, with a beautiful apse mosaic, but the layers of history underneath are even better—a 4th century Christian church with remnants of its original frescoes, and deeper still, the remains of a 1st century Pagan temple.

From there I wander slowly uphill to San Pietro in Vincoli. Here in a reliquary under the altar are the iron chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. To the right is a monument to Julius II, the warrior pope who diverted Michelangelo from work on a more grandiose tomb to paint the Sistine Chapel. Due to declining funds and the pope’s own faltering reputation, the original plans were never fulfilled following his death in 1513, but Michelangelo’s statue of “Moses,” seated at the center, survives.

By now it’s late afternoon and the sky has cleared. On my way back to the hotel to rest up and change for dinner, I pause to watch a group of firemen rappel down the face of the Colosseum. It seems like a daring move. Someone in the crowd says that they are practicing for the big “Republic Day” parade, where they’ll unfurl a giant Italian flag. I wish I could be there to see it, but I have a reserved seat on a train to Florence first thing Monday morning.

For my first night in Rome, I settle on “La Polarolla” for dinner, near Campo de’ Fiori. It’s 8:00 PM when I arrive and with the time change and the local custom of eating late, I’m starved. But in my inaugural attempt at Italian dining I find myself drowning in food after just two courses. Antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorno, dolci, caffé. How do they do it? The cannelloni is very good, as is the pollo porchettato (chicken with bacon and herbs), but I’m left with no room for gelato, which seems like a grave miscalculation.

After strolling around Campo de’ Fiori to walk off my dinner, I linger in Piazza Navona. Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” is still under scaffolding, but in the darkness it hardly matters. With half flood lit, it’s still an impressive sight. I look around and see artists selling their wares and street vendors tossing glow stick rings high into the sky. Three tenors with guitars are singing a rousing rendition of “Funiculì, Funiculà” to the delight of diners at the “Caffé Dolce Vita.” The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being here in Rome on this night, with the pulse of human existence all around me, I understand more than its literal translation into English.

Maurizio was right. Rome by night is magic.