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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

It’s another glorious morning in Rome and this one begins with a sumptuous breakfast on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, included in my room rate. With the dollar as weak as it is, I feast long and well on eggs and bacon, cornetto and cappuccino.

It’s 9:30 AM by the time I reach the Roman Forum, a site I deferred on Thursday due to rain. Rick Steves is my companion again as I enter from Via dei Fori Imperiali with my Roma Pass and iPod in hand. At this hour, the air is cool and breezy and my walk through the ruins of ancient Rome, from the Arch of Titus to the Temple of Saturn, up the Palantine Hill and back, is as pleasant as pleasant can be. As I stand staring at the spot on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated following his assassination, something deep in the corner of my brain stirs. “Friends, Roman, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Eleventh grade English, ingrained after all these years. The bard and Mr. Yerger would be proud.

I have to navigate through a pressing crowd and a persistent band of Gladiators next to reach the Colosseum. Do I want a bella foto with them, they ask? No, not really. Not for what they charge.

The line for pass holders is comparatively short and within ten minutes time I’m standing on the upper level of the arena looking down. It’s mammoth in size, but familiar in shape and structure. It’s like any modern sports complex, but without the product placement. When I see Ann and Mel there, too, we’re surprised yet again by the chance encounter and use the occasion to snap pictures for one another.

From here, I take a long, slow walk north through the historic center of Rome. I have a 3:00 PM reservation at the Borghese Gallery, but figure I have plenty of time to get there. I stop to wonder at the Pantheon and its giant oculus, break for gelato in Piazza Colonna, then move on to the Spanish Steps, where I’m disappointed to see that scaffolding still surrounds the obelisk at the top. It’s a stark column of gray steel, like a miniature skyscraper, obscuring the façade of the church of Trinità dei Monti.

It’s from the top of the Spanish Steps that I first notice a problem. On many levels, the free paper map in my hand is a poor substitute for the laminated, tri-fold, beauty I lost at Castel Sant’Angelo. In particular, I see now that it fails to mark the location of the Borghese Gallery. Either the museum is beyond the northern border of the map, or it’s hidden behind an ill-placed advertisement for the Castel Romano designer outlet mall!  I don’t know which. Remembering that the gallery is located in the Villa Borghese, I follow the first sign for that I see, which leads me left. As it turns out, this is a mistake. A big, honking mistake.

Once in the lush surroundings of the park, I ask a couple sitting on a park bench for directions. They point me down a long gravel path, past a playground and a carousel. From there, I spot a sign pointing towards the Galleria Borghese, which I follow in premature elation. I spy another sign that takes me in another direction, then another, and another. By the time I reach my destination at last, I’m cranky, exhausted, and very nearly late. By brain tells me that I’ve walked about three miles from the Colosseum, but to my aching body it feels more like twenty.

Walk there. What a dumb idea.

The staff at the Borghese Gallery understand human nature well. They must be determined to avoid the scene at the Sistine Chapel, because they make visitors check their bags and cameras at the door. What’s left of my belongings—my wallet and the storage card from my Nikon D40 for safe keeping—are placed in a clear plastic bag for all to see. They also insist on a reserved time slot that lasts no more than two hours. No crushing crowds here.

I rent an audioguide and join the queue outside, along with a boisterous group of young nuns. As we filter through the rooms, I have a hard time shaking them and their behavior is becoming more and more distracting. I’m trying to appreciate Canova’s neoclassical masterpiece of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix, but one of the nuns decides to jump up on an empty pedestal, sit there, and swing her feet. When our eyes make contact, she quickly hops down and looks away, but laughs just the same. A few minutes later, I see a baseball cap hanging from the outstretched hand of another sculpture. And, of course, there are the nuns, giggling harder than ever. I’m tempted to report them to security, but when I enter the room with Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne,” I’m struck dumb. It’s stunning, more delicate and expressive than anything I saw at the Louvre last year. It looks like it was molded out of wax instead of marble, as if it would be soft and hot to the touch. I wouldn’t dare, of course, but I bet I could get one of the nuns to do it for me!

About halfway through the Correggio exhibit, my energy gives out at last and I decide to call it a day. I’m relieved to find a taxi nearby and ride it all the way back to my hotel, where I take a nice, long nap in my air conditioned room.

By dinner time, I feel somewhat revived. Determined to stay close to home, I turn right out of the hotel lobby instead of left. Left is the direction that brings me within yards of Piazza Venezia; right takes me to a whole other world. These are the charming streets and alleyways that border and then sink slowly into the heart of the Jewish Ghetto. There, just around the corner from my hotel, I stop to eat at “La Taverna degli Amici.” I order a house specialty, fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta), followed by bombolotti with cheese and bacon. I feel a long way away from that tourist trap near the Ponte Sant’Angelo. This is how I imagine Roman food should taste, with fresh, seasonal ingredients, simply prepared.

Afterwards, still enjoying the night, I follow a steady stream of people towards the Trevi Fountain, which in reality is a massive wall of marble fronted by a pool of aqua blue. I stand with my back to the water, facing the masses, and toss a coin over my shoulder, then several more. Whether it be the stuff of legend or Hollywood movies, I’m not taking any chances. I want to ensure a return visit to Rome someday. Soon.

As I head back to the hotel, I take a slow and circuitous route that allows me to pause in front of the Pantheon one last time. There is a young man performing in front of an appreciative crowd. He trades off between violin and voice, moving from what sounds like the “Flight of the Bumblebee” to a stirring rendition of “O Sole Mio,” and finally “Che Sera.” With deliberate disregard for the exchange rate, I reward him gladly and well.

This is magic, after all.