Riceandpasta Discover the Land of Risotto and Pasta: Michael and Dan Go To Italy
Daniel Emberley, June 2001
Michael and I just returned from three weeks in Italy. It was truly a dream-trip. As usual with an Emberley-Seto trip report, feel free to skim, read, file, or trash what follows (it’s much too long). The main points are that we had a blast, are home safe, and happy to be able to share our experiences with our family and friends.
Gelato: A frozen dessert that is absolutely incredible. More intense than ice cream or sorbet, it’s available on every downtown street corner, and in a flavor variety that tempted us to try them all. Our top picks are melon, green apple, lemon, pineapple, and coconut.
Sepie: A squid resembling Chinese cuttlefish. We found it only in Venice. It is fantastic grilled or cooked in its own ink.
Wine: Not the quality per se, which is excellent, or the cost, which is minimal, but the way it is integrated into daily life as the default beverage.
Acqua Minerale con Gas: Sparkling mineral water, available by the bottle to supplement the wine. Still available in local varieties in different cities. No, not a necessary thing, the aqueduct/water supply system is safe and excellent. Rather, a cool way to become integrated with the space you’re in.
Transport: The trains, vaporetti, buses, and subway systems are excellent, extensive, frequent, inexpensive, and enjoyable. After you’ve seen Italians drive, you’re all the more grateful for the option <smile>.
Walkability: One can walk almost anywhere in the cities we were in, and are happy to do so. The Roslyn-like aspect of American cities, where pedestrians have to put up with blocks of blank walls and garage entrances, is nowhere to be found.
Prosciutto: It’s everywhere, and inexpensive. The default lunch/snack, as ubiquitous as a Big Mac in the states, available at every bar on every corner, is a prosciutto and cheese sandwich on fresh bread, grilled.
Food, in general: We were constantly walking away from multi-course meals served in attractive places with great service reveling in the quality of the cuisine and the low cost.
Autostrade: Who knew you could have an efficient, high-speed interstate system with four lanes and still support a variety of other transportation options?
Overview: The Worst Things About Italy
Schedules: One doesn’t appreciate the flexibility of the American system until deprived of it. I expect to be able to shop, eat, work, and sleep pretty much when I want and as I can negotiate. Italy preserves a system of stricter expectations, where a lot of real estate is closed much of the time. One shops in the morning or early evening. Dinner is not expected to be available until 7:30, and food options before that are restricted. Siesta is expected, but maybe not respected. So, it is difficult to know what will be available and when, and you really have to know an individual city’s or neighborhood’s rhythms to live efficiently. On the flip side, restaurants don’t expect to turn tables over: they do one seating for dinner, and once you have a table, it’s yours until the place closes.
Plumbing: How come Europe didn’t unify around American Standard when they rebuilt after WWII? We’ve never seen such a variety of ways to flush a toilet, turn on water in a sink, or make a shower available. Water pressure is low, and temperature unstable. Shower stalls are often a two-foot square, which makes turning around in mid-bath an interesting endeavor. Don’t even think about dropping the soap. Public toilets often lack seats, although toilet paper now seems to be expected. Thanks, National Association of Home Builders, for the standards we take for granted around water and porcelain.
Diet Coke, aka “Coke Light”: is relatively expensive, often $2/can. For $2, one can get a decent bottle of Chianti or Merlot.
Ice. Europe: The great divide, another imponderable, given that plumbing and electricity seem to be universally available.
Superstrade: The next level below an Autostrada, so one would expect it to be like, oh, Route 50 in Arlington. Instead, it is Route 1 north of Boston, or maybe Route 1A: one lane each direction, no dividers, winding through local towns on Main Street and around hillsides with frequent hairpin turns. Don’t let the maps fool you, that double yellow line of a Superstrada can take three times as long as the double red of an Autostrada.
But enough whining – on to the trip!
We flew out of Dulles on Air France just after dinner. The food was excellent, the uniforms stylish but uninspiring, and our sleep as horrible as expected. Air France’s trans-Atlantic fleet gives passengers individual computer consoles, so one can watch a variety of cinema and TV options, shop, play video games, and track the progress of the flight. Cool. Lovely views of Boston, but clouds from Newfoundland on.
Changed planes in Paris at Charles DeGaulle. We were met by Air France staff who took us by shuttle bus across the tarmac to the gate of our connecting flight to Rome. Charles DeGaulle is a symphony of concrete and steel, lovely. Great views of the Alps, an easy arrival at Fiumicino, bags showed up on the carousel as expected. Leonardo da Vinci is not much of an airport; it looks like Newark in 1967. Oh well. Caught the train to Termini, which was a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel. Despite the baggage, we had to stop at a gelato stand on Via Cavour to introduce Michael to the treats to come.
The Hotel Romano is conveniently located across the street from the Roman Forum. We had a fifth (top) floor walkup room with a view of the Basilica of Maxentius, just above the Volkswagen-sponsored Forum visitors’ center. We didn’t know it, but this was to be the worst of our accommodations, and it was fine. The air conditioning did not work, and neither did the ceiling fan suspiciously dangling by its cords above the bed. There were no window screens, although we saw them rarely anywhere in Italy. Fortunately the weather was not too hot during our stay, and insects were a minor annoyance. We stopped at a local electrical store and replaced the 25-watt bulbs supplied with ones bright enough to read by, as recommended by our Cheap Sleeps book. Breakfast was served in a lovely garden space adjacent to the Forum.
We took an orientation-walk through the main Forum, around the Palatine Hill (start counting, we think we hit all seven, but somewhere missed Caelian), past the entrance to Nero’s Domus Aurea, around the Colosseum, and over to the Quirinale Hill (home of the Italian Senate and presidential palace). We figured out how to use a Roman ATM machine, bar, and alimentari (sorry about the italics, MS Word insists that word should be alimentary, like the digestive tract). A Roman bar is where you buy bus tickets, cigarettes, ice cream on a stick, snacks, and candy, as well as a drink. An alimentari is a small grocery store with a decent deli for prepared foods, cold cuts, and bread, and packaged goods like Corn Flakes, shampoo, and Laughing Cow cheese. Found the Trevi fountain, and a cool house wares store that introduced us to all the products Alessi sells that it doesn’t market in the States. For instance, an orange juicer in the shape of a Chinese stereotype, that of course we had to have. Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, fancy clothing on the Via Condotti, and up the Corso to Piazza Venezia, headed by Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini once harangued the Roman populace from the balcony, and the King Victor Emanuel II monument, a white Beaux Arts memorial in marble with arts and crafts mosaic and Victorian sculpture. A bit of a pastiche, that. Piazza Venezia is actually a few blocks from our hotel and a convenient landmark/bus terminal, but we kept wandering past Trajan’s Column, Forum, and Market, up to Piazza Colonna and the Column of Marcus Aurelius. At which point we decided we’d kept ourselves up late enough to almost get into sync with Italian clocks and could afford to head back to the hotel and sleep.
What would be open on a Roman Sunday, our intrepid adventurers asked ourselves? Walked up Capitoline Hill to the Campidoglio, completed to Michelangelo’s designs by Mussolini. It is still the seat of Rome’s city hall, flanked by the Capitoline Museums, fronted by a lovely piazza that descends to city streets via a staircase guarded by the Diascori, sculptures of Castor and Pollux. The collection in the Capitoline is outstanding, probably the world’s best sculpture from ancient Rome: Dying Gaul, imperial portraits. The underground passage, excavated by Mussolini, has been re-opened, so there is a drop-dead view of the Forum from beneath City Hall, in a corridor of what was the ancient city’s archives. Walked over to the medieval church of the Ara Coeli, since we were on the hill anyway, and taught tourist kids how to use the fountains - a pipe comes out of the wall with water running, and a little hole on top. You put your mouth over the little hole, plug the main pipe mouth, and drink. Or, don’t put your mouth on top, and spray a few passersby. We’d like to think we inspired a few misdemeanors. Walked through the Forum, which was much improved for Dan by Michael’s knowledge of Roman history. Back to the modern city’s streets for the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, in the Renaissance palace of the Doria Pamphilj family. Astounding, both the venue and the art. The family still lives in the palace, although we didn’t get a sighting. Michael insists that on our next visit we’re staying in the pensione in another wing of the building. For art, there is a blonde Saint Sebastian by Garafolo that is just this side of soft porn, and a Velasquez of Pope Innocent X that shows the sitter as a man who did not let too many pleasures escape him.
Time for a gelato break, then back to church: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, with Bernini’s elephant and obelisk out front, and the Pantheon, the greatest Roman building to survive, or maybe ever. Paid our respects to Hadrian (who rebuilt it) and Raphael and Victor Emanuel, who are buried here.
We headed back to the hotel for a siesta, then out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. There are tons of these now, many more than when Dan was in Rome in 1982. Michael chatted up the proprietor: the new Chinese population tends to be from Shanghai and points north, rather than his native Guangdong. Interesting the replacements that were made: almonds for peanuts, menus set up by Italian courses rather than American proteins (beef, pork, chicken, fish), and no fortune cookies, of course, since those were invented by a Japanese baker in San Francisco. Our after dinner walk took us down through the Circus Maximus, which is now very D.C. Mall-esque, being a big embankment (the former seats) around a flat area (the race course) all covered with grass, and lots of locals hanging out and playing soccer. A great place to see the sun set. Over to the Tiber to see the Temple of Hercules, whose Corinthian columns served as the basis for most Corinthians columns in Western architecture, then across a bridge to Tiber Island. This is mainly a hospital and a few aged apartment blocks, but is surrounded by a lovely walk almost at river level. A great natural retreat in the city. Through the old Jewish Ghetto, which is still a cool Jewish neighborhood. In the Largo Argentina checked out the four ancient Roman temples discovered and excavated under the Duce, and surrounded by cool retail, including fabric stores that we earmarked for a return visit.
St. Peter’s Basilica, from head to toe. Saw Swiss guards, Michelangelo’s Pieta, walked around the basilica proper, down into the crypt to see Pete and the tombs of popes no one has ever heard of, up into the Dome. Dome is probably the best thing, don’t miss it: being inside Michelangelo’s claustrophobic double vault, then the astounding views from the cupola. After lunch (one of our few disappointing meals) went back for the Vatican Museums. We seemed to have timed it well, in reverse of the crowds, who did the museums first and church second. Collection, of course, a blockbuster, but so much stuff that it’s hard to appreciate any individual set of art, much less an individual piece. The modern Catholic art a yawn, the Raphael Rooms so crowded that we had flashbacks to the herd mentality of Versailles. The map gallery the best we saw anywhere in Italy, and the Library galleries a delight. Strolled through Bernini’s entry colonnade and headed back to the hotel.
Picked up dinner of bread, sausage, cheese, and salad at an alimentari, which we shared sitting on and amongst ancient column capitals from Nero’s Golden House in the Parco Traiano. Walked across the hill the park is on and through the Monte Oppio neighborhood. This is a blue collar/immigrant area, with many nationalities, but especially Chinese, Pakistani, Russian, and Indian, all surrounding Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. How to explain “Liberty” Italy? Most Italian cities, Rome included, didn’t change a lot between 1700, went the Popes lost most political authority, and 1850, when Italy began to be unified under the House of Savoy in the Risorgimento. Think Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi. Now think Victorian architecture, and the bravura Beaux Arts stuff we built in America in this period. Finally, think about the London store Liberty, selling art nouveau design to the affluent Brits who toured Italy and the Italians who returned the favor. Wrap that all together into big apartment blocks on trolley car lined “new suburbs” from 1880. That’s “Liberty” style. In some areas it is being rediscovered and renovated, and in some, like Monte Oppio, it has yet to be prettied up.
We discovered that the streets behind our hotel were the old Roman Suburra, an ancient neighborhood of ill repute now turned hotels and apartments. We then had a Baroque morning. We started at the Palazzo Barberini, built by Carlo Maderno, Bernini, and Borromini, and one of the homes of the National Art Collection. Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentilleschi, Holbein’s Henry VIII and Raphael’s Fornarina. We were able to get the “by guard escort only” tour of the Barberini family’s private quarters and Bernini’s oval staircase. On to the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, for Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel, a stage set pretending to be a chapel, focused on the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Down the road a bit to San Carlo al Quattro Fontane (“Chuck at the Four Fountains”), one of Dan’s favorite Baroque churches, where Borromini crammed more curves, domes, and ovals into a tight urban spot than you would ever think possible.
We lunched at McDonald’s, since it is the only place in town where you can get a large Diet Coke with ice, and because the “McPink”, McDonald’s all-pork answer to Mad Cow Disease, intrigued us. Not bad, in a McDonald’s way. The chain is also the only eatery in Italy to give out sufficient napkins. What, there’s a shortage of tissue paper? Michael started carrying around purse-size Kleenex packets, so we’d be able to wipe our fingers after a sandwich or pizza. He also began carrying “the urn”: a plastic Coke bottle that we would fill at convenient fountains, for water on the go. A great idea, and when we filled up at a Vatican fountain, we got the extra benefit of being able to drink papal-certified holy water <smile>. It’s the little things that make travel pleasant.
We walked around Piazza della Repubblica, near the Baths of Diocletian, and then ducked into the Metropolitana for a ride south. Rome’s subway is a miracle. It has only two lines, the Black Line/Linnea B, built by Mussolini, running north-south, and the Red Line/Linnea A, built by the Communists in the 1970’s, running east-west. Of course, every time you dig ten feet in Rome you find an important relic of something. A lot of the important ancient somethings turned up in subway and road construction have ended up in the Capitoline, which ran out of space to show the bounty before Italy was re-unified. In response, the Museum has opened a branch called ACEA/Montemartini, in the former main electrical power plant of the city. It’s in a still-blue-collar neighborhood between the Tiber and the main produce market south of the old city walls. The renovation has been spectacular. Roman sculpture, which in America would get pride-of-place but in Rome is sloppy seconds, is installed on, in, and around the gigantic turbines and machinery of the old plant. Sensational, giving a new dimension to both ancient Rome and industrial Rome, and making one think about antiquity and obsolescence.
ACEA is not far from the papal seat of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, which has a fabulous Victorian gold mosaic facade and the biggest collection of reliquaries we were to see. One suspects you could reconstruct an entire holy skeleton out of the ensemble, although St. Lucy’s eyes might not be comfortable in St. Catherine’s skull. The basilica also has a very cool and restful cloister.
We headed back into town for dinner at a tavola calda. If it hasn’t become obvious by now, it’s not just the food that is different in Italy, it is the availability and venues in which food is obtained and enjoyed. A tavola calda is part cafeteria, part deli, and ideal for those of us who point and gesture better than we speak Italian. Amazingly good affordable dishes can be had in these places: pizza, pastas, grilled vegetables, insalata di mare (fish salad, Michael’s favorite and not far down Dan’s list of fav’s, either). We then caught the big (BIG) show of work by Caravaggio and the Baroque artists he influenced at Palazzo Venezia. It was great to see the Caravaggio’s in one place, so you could compare them. Michael was just glad it meant he wouldn’t be dragged to quite so many churches to see just one altarpiece, since Caravaggio is one of Dan’s favorites. His Abraham and Isaac is superb, likewise both John the Baptist’s. The Palazzo was built for Venetian ambassadors to Rome. Mussolini used it as his office, and spoke to “the people” from the balcony.
Enough art. We walked up the Corso to the Trevi Fountain for a gelato and to people-watch before turning in.
Have I mentioned Mussolini yet? It’s amazing how much influence he had on transforming Rome into a modern city, one that works with electricity, automobiles, apartment buildings, etc. Then again, maybe not: think about how much influence FDR had on American cities, and with a lot less formal authority. One of Il Duce’s big projects was the Olympic Grounds built on the northern edge of Rome for an Olympic games that was cancelled due to World War II. The centerpiece is the Foro Olimpico, a track-and-field stadium surrounded by triple-life-size marble statues of naked men representing the regions of Italy. Each also represents a sport, so you have this towering god in marble holding a tennis racket with just a warm up towel around the neck to accentuate his virility. A gay fantasy writ large. We used up a bit of film there. Amusingly, some of the same sculptors went to Providence after WWII, where their sculptures representing industries grace the Rhode Island State Capitol, with only slightly more clothing to protect New England morals.
Getting out to Foro Olimpico introduced us to the J buses. These are city buses, but they make only limited stops, so act almost like a subway without tunnels. They could whip us from our hotel on the Vialle dei Fori Imperiale out to the Vatican and points north, and south to St. Paul Outside the Walls and beyond. A great resource, which we used often on our subsequent stay in the city.
So, we nabbed a J bus down to Trastevere. Unlike downtown Rome, which has been sacked, buried, excavated, and recreated many times, Trastevere has always been a residential neighborhood just across the Tiber. So, it retains a medieval character, even as coffee shops fill the retail spaces. We checked out a series of palaces-turned-art-museums around the grounds of the Accademie dei Lincei (the National Academy of Sciences of Italy). The Farnesina, with its Raphael frescoes, was one of our favorite palace-museums. The Palazzo Corsini has part of the national art collection: the art is not as good as in the headliner museums of Rome, but the palace itself is fantastic. We got to watch conservators restoring frescoes in a loggia, and were enlisted to help some workmen carry stained glass into the restoration shop. These palace-museums are usually covered, at least in the main rooms, with ceiling frescoes of allegorical figures. We got pretty adept at recognizing the four continents, four seasons, apotheoses of Roman gods, etc. Lovely.
Above Trastevere is the Janiculum Hill. We climbed the hill to the Spanish government’s art school in Rome, which houses Bramante’s tempietto (little temple) of San Pietro in Montorio. The structure is a classic, and can be recognized in the cupola of the U.S. Capitol, among other citings. We wandered past Garibaldi’s tomb, a marble monument in a pretty park overlooking the city, and the Acqua Paola, a grand fountain cascade terminating one aqueduct’s entry into Rome, on our way back downtown. Had a picnic lunch on the bank of the Tiber.
Saw the Brazilian Embassy’s renovation of their palace in Bernini’s Piazza Navona. The Palazzo Altemps was not on our agenda, but we stumbled upon it to enjoy their great collection of Roman sculpture. The ceiling in the loggia was painted as a trellised garden, with ivy and wild birds. The same motif was one of Dan’s favorite discoveries on his previous trip to Rome, at the Villa Giulia, which spared Michael a trek to that museum.
Leaving the Altemps we got lost, wandering around downtown. We finally got oriented by discovering ourselves at Piazza di Spagna, miles away from where we thought we were. How did that happen? Hopped onto the Metropolitana, and got off at Colosseo, near the hotel. Saw the big Magritte retrospective at the Museo delle Risorgimento, under the Victor Emanuele monument, and had dinner with a view of the Colosseum at a fancier restaurant on Via dei Serpenti.
Michael had been having tooth pain for a while, and we decided it was time to have it looked at. He had a reference to an “American dental clinic”, at a subway station called “Policlinico”. George Eastman, of Kodak fame, founded the clinic probably 100 years ago after suffering a sore tooth on the Grand Tour. Unfortunately, it has been swallowed up by a major (the major?) Roman hospital complex. Think Boston City Hospital/DC General/Harvard Med School all wrapped up into one publicly funded bureaucratic campus. Everything for about 15 acres had one address, “267 Viale Regina Margherita di Savoia”. After some frustrating sleuthing, we found the Eastman Clinic, found the right door (note: “Emergency Room” in Italian is “Pronto Soccorso”), and found an English-speaking dentist. He was great. It turned out Michael’s root canal, done just before we left the States, had become infected. The only nightmarish aspect was that instead of having an x-ray machine right in the office, we had to go to the general x-ray facility for the entire hospital. We were greeted by “the stamper”, who refused to look up, and spent ten minutes stamping documents, hand-writing client cards, transferring that info to envelopes, and alphabetizing it all. Hmmm, Dan thinks there is tremendous opportunity for him in information management in the Italian public health system. What a zoo: the bureaucracy, waiting, and lack of information were driving the Italian patients into fits of drama. Fortunately, Michael was assigned a number we knew how to hear, “nove (9)”, and an hour later had his x-rays for the dentist. They opened, drained, cleaned, and sent us on our way with prescriptions for an antibiotic and painkillers. We stopped by a pharmacist’s near the hotel, expecting to have to come back later to pick up. They were amazing: filled the prescription in 5 minutes, explained how to use the drugs, and we had a great discussion on pharmacy systems in our two countries (we had a hard time explaining “prescription drug benefit”), all in our limited knowledge of each others’ languages. The Italians were champs, this episode is just the most noteworthy of several where folks went out of their ways to help us in our ignorance - we could have been fleeced, instead we were helped. Fortunately, the painkillers proved unnecessary after the first day, and, with the annoyance of having to pack the tooth-gap with cotton until our return to Michael’s dentist in the States, we were home free. The whole episode cost us maybe $20 for drugs. All the hospital services were free. Give me national health care, please!
We rewarded ourselves with a walk through the old Farnese gardens on the Palatine Hill, behind the Forum. This had been the exclusive residential neighborhood under the ancient Republic, and became the imperial palace complex under the Flavians (Diocletian, et al). The Farnese’s had selectively excavated ruins to accent their gardens, an effort which has been respected by subsequent generations of archaeologists. The garden-ruins are a wonderful contrast to the barren-sun-baked ruins of the main Forum below. Had lunch at an Argentine restaurant, Baires, on the Via Cavour, which gets two thumbs up for anyone going to Rome. Delicious.
We caught a J bus to St. Peter’s to use the Vatican post office and gift shops, then toured Castel Sant’ Angelo. Great views from the roof, and amazing Baroque palace rooms inserted into the Roman structure that had been Hadrian’s Tomb, then a medieval fortress. Paid our regards to Tosca on the balcony. Crossed the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, lined with Bernini angels, and walked along the Tiber to the Ara Pacis. This is an altar dedicated by the Emperor Augustus to the peace of the Empire. It had been in a glass cube, sort of a Borg-cube spaceship, vis the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It is now a work site under tarpaulin as the city replaces the glass with a new enclosure (designed by some cool modern architect, we think Michael Graves).
Walked up the Corso to Piazza del Popolo and the church of Santa Maria del Popolo for two amazing Caravaggio canvases and a Raphael chapel. Caught the Metropolitana to the main rail station, Termini, to pick up schedules for Tivoli and Sienna. Instead of paper schedules, they have electronic kiosks that give schedule and connection info for all trains in Italy. A great application of technology, just a shame the same database is not available on the Web.
Then, we got stuck. We had planned to catch a bus from Termini to our hotel, but there was a major protest parade of South Asians that filled Via Cavour. They marched against discrimination and the newly elected conservative Berlusconi government. Cavour is the only main street connection, so busses were useless. We ducked into the Metropolitana, but there were half hour delays on the subway. So, we hoofed it past/through the protest. Was interesting, actually, and did not seem unsafe. Since no cars could pass the protestors, Via Cavour was lovely. Had dinner at a Fellini-themed restaurant, and walked around the Colosseum by night. Saw evidence that not all of the protest had been peaceful: there were police cars and ambulances picking up injured protestors and passersby, and there was still some verbal sparring going on between sides, all looked on obliviously by the German/English/French tourists. Not us, of course, we are urban dwellers who know a political/race riot when we see one: we’d never venture into unsafe territory. Translation, Dan dragged Michael away from the action to our hotel. By morning, all danger apparently had blown over, but the problems Italy faces, of course, have not.
We caught the train out to the suburb of Tivoli. We never made it to the ruins of Hadrian’s villa - it was hard to figure out how to get there from the town, and we’d seen enough Roman ruins. Instead we saw the Villa d’Este, the Renaissance palace of the d’Este family. The palace was filled with local kids on a school trip to practice their English, all primed with a spiel on one aspect of the villa: “Can I give you informations on theese peek-chur?” They were really cute, actually, and it was fun coaching them and fumbling through some conversation. The glory of the place, though, is the gardens, which are a fantasyland of fountains. Dan, of course, was ecstatic. We wandered the town afterwards, checking out the tourist stands, the ceramics shops, and the druggies shooting up heroin in a back street. Don’t think the last is on the Michelin tour, but you know how we like to see the “real” place we’re traveling in.
Caught the train back to the city, and headed down to Largo Argentina to buy fabric for the bedroom. This was the first of many textile purchases, all aimed at creating drapery for our bed. It should be a thing of beauty (or of questionable taste), with brocades, prints, tassels, and trims from every city we visited. Discovered the feral cat sanctuary in a corner of the ruins in Largo Argentina, advertised as having been there “since the time of Julius Caesar”. Hmmm. After a pizza dinner, we took an evening stroll through Trastevere to see the lights on the churches and check out the nightlife. Seems more Adams-Morgan than Times Square, but fun. Michael’s insight for the day: “The Romans must live on caffeine and nicotine!”
We had a commitment to bring back a Sicilian flag for a neighbor, so headed down the Red Line to Colli Albani in search of the major flag store in Rome. The neighborhood is emblematic of boring Roman residential neighborhoods put up after the war, this one probably in the 1970’s, all concrete high-rises with gas stations and shops at ground level. Plus, the flag store was closed.
Fled back up the Metropolitana to the Borghese Gardens. The villa/museum itself was so jammed that we gave up on seeing the Canova sculptures, but the grounds are a beautiful urban park. Strolled down the Veneto to see the last dregs of la dolce vita transformed into luxury hotels and tourist attractions. Turned west to the 18th-century Villa Torlonia. This one is abandoned and closed off, but beautiful in its decay, still showing remnants of its neo-classical beauty. Mussolini used this as a residence, probably explaining the city’s delay in repair and re-opening to the public. The draw here, though, is an out-building, the Museo delle Civetti, or Swiss Cottage of the Owls. This house had been built by a Torlonia prince in the late 1890’s, and is a showcase of what we call Arts and Crafts design, but the Italians lump under “Liberty”. Amazing glass windows in the style of Tiffany, walls vis William Morris, and floors with wooden inlay we’ve never seen outside Italy.
Hopped back on the subway (we were mopping up outlier sites on our last days in Rome, if that’s not obvious) out to EUR. This neighborhood was begun by Mussolini as site of a world’s fair that never happened, and an urban planning experiment that did. It really came into its own in the 1950’s and 1960’s as one of the few places in Rome where corporate headquarters could be built. It was the only Roman neighborhood, maybe only neighborhood in all of Italy, where cars really seemed to feel at home. There are several museums scattered about, a legacy of il Duce’s programs to link ancient Roman and modern Italian civilizations. We went to the headliner, the Museum of Roman Civilization. What a post-apocalyptic nightmare! Major marble and concrete, totally non-human scale, being reclaimed by weeds and trash in an area that gets few tourists. Similar to Northeastern University’s (ugly) campus, with twice the scale and half the maintenance. The museum itself was almost empty of visitors, and went on for acres. It is mainly casts of Roman sculpture found in museums around the city and the world. The plus is that here they are displayed in historical order, so you get a good sense for the development of civilization in the Empire and how individual pieces we’d seen fit into an historical continuity. The big draw is a model of ancient Rome done in the 1930’s that is still the best way to envision the ancient city as a whole rather than a series of disconnected tourist attractions. The model fills a building; it must be measured in hundreds of feet square, and is seen from a viewing balcony a floor above. Very cool. In the McDonald’s on the way to the subway (not a lot of eating options open), Michael got to try an “American salad bar”. “American” seems to equal “mayonnaise”, although some of the selections were pretty good. Like all “self-service” in Italy, someone behind the counter actually serves the food; the “self” part means that no one delivers it to your table.
Caught the Metropolitana back into town, and after dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, did a moonlight walk around the Forum and Colosseum.
“Civilization has arrived: Coke Light!” No, that isn’t an ad slogan yet, just Michael expounding on the glory of Diet Coke in a Roman world. Hit the Palazzo Spada, four rooms of great oil paintings in a Baroque palace with an incredible and famous perspective trick by Borromini. The Spada family had obtained an authentic ancient sculpture, but it was only four feet high. They had Borromini design a corridor that makes the statue appear to be over-life-size, at the end of what appears to be a long gallery that is only about ten feet deep. More coolness! Quick interior views of San Luigi dei Francesi and the Pantheon: didn’t stay, since Mass was happening and we have this thing about disrespecting the Mass. Two Jesuit Counter-Reformation wonders were next, Sant’ Ignazio di Loyola and the Church of Il Gesu. Both are spectacles of illusion, color, and drama, with sculptured angels on columns leading to painted saints up to glorifications of the word of God on the center of a dome, blending seamlessly between real architecture and illusion. Walked over to Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest and biggest churches in Rome. Great stone inlay work and mosaics. The baptistery houses a massive and spectacular basin lit by a window covered with a translucent sheet of stone. The major relic here is the crib that Jesus lay in at the Nativity. Uh huh.
We rested at the hotel and packed, then launched a St. Peter pilgrimage. The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli preserves the chains that bound Peter in the Mamertine prison before his crucifixion. It also houses Michelangelo’s Moses and other sculpture done for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Caught the subway to the Vatican for a final post office run and a once-around of St. Peter’s basilica and the crypt of the saint. Wandered back across the Tiber and through Largo Argentina, Piazza Mattei (fun fountain of boys with turtles), and the Ghetto. Found the Church of Santa Maria in Portico in Campitelli, which is not in any of our guidebooks, but has a drop-dead Baroque altar. Took Michelangelo’s steps up to the Campidoglio for a farewell view of the Forum, and discovered we were next to the Carcere Mamertine, the Mamertine Prison itself, where our mini-tour had begun. All in all, an appropriate capstone to a fabulous Roman holiday.
Caught the train from Termini to Chiusi, where we had a lightning transfer to the local to Sienna. We ran off our train with the luggage from hell, Michael asked the engineer of the train on the next platform if his was the train to Siena, and with “si” we jumped on board. Ended up sharing a compartment with the rudest people we encountered in Italy, two students who had not bathed recently, took up as much space as their luggage could take, and smoked in the non-smoking car. The tour de force was when the male sprawled across the two seats facing us, being sure to stick his butt in our faces. Nasty, but for an hour trip, endurable. We are glad Phillip Morris is profiting at his expense. On the flip side, Italian train travel was a breeze and a pleasure. Trains were clean, on time, and easy to understand. There were poppies and honeysuckle and mustard (?) blooming wild across the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside. The views of the vineyards and olive groves were a treat. We strongly recommend train travel to anyone going to Italy. And a seat in first class, if it’s available <grin>.
Our friend Gail Pritchard met us at the train station in Siena. She was the impetus for our Italian trip in the first place, having reserved an entire villa in Tuscany for her family and friends. It was great to connect with Americans with whom we could have intelligent conversation, and with whom we could share Italian survival tips. We checked out the villa, met the other guests, who were great, and shared lunch at a bar near Siena. We introduced them to the wonders of gelato, and they showed us those of bottled water. We made a convert out of our friend Jeannie, who seemed dubious of gelato at first, but soon joined us in our quest to sample every flavor. We figured out how to park in Siena, which like many Tuscan hill towns has limited auto access. We saw the Duomo (great stone work in the floors, and a famous striped marble interior and exterior), the Campo where the annual Palio horse race is run, and the Campidoglio (city hall). The surprise was the great shopping on the Via della Citta, which ran In a semi-circle one building behind the fan-shaped Campo. We picked up ingredients for a Tuscan feast, which we returned to the villa to prepare and share with Gail’s parents and their friends. The conversation went into the evening, as we shared experiences so far and what we hope to see and do. Most fun.
Awoke to a view of the sunrise over Tuscany. We had thought maybe we would relax for a day or two at the villa, but were quickly dissuaded. Gail drove us kids through the Chianti country. This is a little like a scenic drive in Napa or to see leaves change in New England: wineries, pottery stands, little towns, hairpin turns doubling back around hills providing drop-dead vistas. Lunch at a trattoria in Greve in Chianti, a lovely town with good shopping and a great gelato venue. Greve is the birthplace of Andrea Verrazano, whose statue graces the square. Poggio is a town with many signs advertising “product”, which we finally determined was terra cotta. We were able to peruse some at a local factory. Giant jars, like Ali Baba’s forty thieves hid in, and which would look great in our back yard. Ah, the limits of carry-on luggage.
We hit the autostrada for Lucca, which really needs a day, or a week, all its own. What a lovely town. We arrived around the end of siesta, as the city was rolling up its metal shutters to resume business. The walls of the town are late, Napoleonic, and have been transformed into a beautiful park/walk around the historic district. Saw the cathedral and shopped our way north to the site of the old Roman amphitheater. Over time the stands of the amphitheater were built on and in, but the oval space in front preserved. Had dinner in that piazza. Unfortunately, I had the brilliant idea of looking at a map. Although the autostrada required us to go north and then west to Lucca, there was a superstrada directly between Lucca/Pisa and Siena. So, instead of taking Interstate 95 back, which would have been about 1.5 hours, we took Route 1A, which took three, in the dark, with many serious doubts about being on the proper road. Our friends are truly gracious, and I was not left on the side of the road for suggesting it.
Hung out at the pool, packed our now clean laundry, and caught the train up to Florence. Thank you, Gail, for the stay and the chauffeuring! Went through many of the same towns as the previous day’s Chianti drive, but they were less beautiful by train: Poggibonsi, Castellina in Chianti, Castelfiorentino, Empoli. No, Empoli is not Dan’s family seat, more’s the pity. Found our pensione in Florence, the Hotel Globus. It was conveniently located in the historic district, but not right next to the train station or so close to the major attractions that things were overpriced. We had a lovely view from our room of San Lorenzo, the church that houses the Medici chapels, and our own flock of pigeons to coo us to sleep at night. Despite not having our own bath, we found the accommodations much nicer than those in Rome, with a complete breakfast served by the owner and her mother. This one gets our recommendation.
Indeed, we recommend Florence overall. They have a booming Internet industry, large English-speaking population, great connections to the rest of Italy, and big neighborhoods of Liberty apartments and homes outside the historic district. I could see myself renovating a home overlooking Piazzale Donatello, giving English tours under the table, and being the American rep to a high-tech design firm, while Michael offers tax advice to ex-pats. Something to consider. The food quality went up several notches from what was already an excellent standard in Rome, and the timing easier, with restaurants opening at 6:30 or even 6.
We took an “orientation walk” to figure out where we were and the scale of Florence. It really does not need transport, unless one lives in one of the outer suburbs. Our hotel was in the midst of the Central Market, so we had a ready supply of leather goods, tripe sandwiches, wine, and fabric (!!) at our convenience. Walked south to the Baptistery, where we admired Brunelleschi’s Gates of Paradise and the tour de force of medieval mosaic in the dome, telling the stories of Old and New Testaments in ascending rings. Checked out the facade of the Duomo, the Piazza Signoria, the architecture of Vasari’s Uffizi and the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio. We were back to the hotel in fifteen minutes, the center is that compact. Had an excellent dinner of grilled pork, chicken cacciatore, and chianti, and put ourselves to bed in a new city.
Checked in at a flag store. It was actually a military supply house; the army has a major installation (educational?) in former convents near the train station. They told us to stop the search, there was no way we were going to get a Sicilian flag that far north, alas. Toured the inside of the Duomo, including the crypt of Santa Reparata below. The crypt is actually a previous church that stood on this location and which the Florentines built right over, replacing S. Rep as their patron saint with the Virgin Mary. Talk about an upgrade! The Duomo is surprisingly simple inside, a stripped Renaissance interior in a polychrome Medieval exterior package. The Museum of the Works of the Duomo is sensational, both in terms of collection and structure. The original space housed the cathedral’s workshops, in which much of the city’s art was created, including Michelangelo’s David. Over time, as the church’s sculptures were replaced and restored, the originals were housed here, and by English-Grand-Tour times it had become an attraction in itself. Within the last five years they have completed a major redesign of the space, adding a striking steel, glass, and stone addition that allows the space to act like a museum and highlights the collection rather than itself. The collection was a revelation, especially choir carvings by Baccio Bandinelli, saints by Donatello, and a major Michelangelo Pieta.
After lunch we discovered the price of Florence’s popularity. Roman sights are big enough that they can swallow the crowds who come to see them. Florence’s sights are more intimate, and don’t easily accommodate the crowds. To prevent a Disney-fication of the city into endless lines, reservations are required at the most-visited venues. We could not get into the Accademia or San Marco due to our lack of reservations. Fortunately, these were easily obtained with a phone call the next day, and we could have booked them in advance from the States via Web for a nominal fee.
As it was intended to do, the reservation policy forced us into less visited, but no less deserving, sights for the afternoon. We crossed the Arno and discovered the neighborhood of Oltrarno: funky shops, repair places that do work for the Uffizi, and craftsmen making authentic Renaissance antiques <smile>. The church of Santa Maria del Carmine houses the Brancacci Chapel, where Masaccio, Masolino, and Filippo Lippi combined Giotto’s technique with Brunelleschi’s perspective to create Renaissance painting. Gorgeous and, since a single concentrated work, digestible. The Church of Santo Spirito has a great market out front, Brunelleschi architecture, and a decent collection of Renaissance canvas in its chapels. We walked along the Arno to the Museo Bardini, home of a 19th-century antiquarian, which unfortunately is closed for renovation. Had a great Florentine dinner of rotisserie chicken, artichoke salad, potato croquettes, and wine, bought from a window on the street.
Florence is so dense with visual events that I can’t reconstruct when we did what, but the montage of the day includes other Brunelleschi churches and the Ospedale Innocenti (orphanage), the Arno, palaces, shops, sidewalk chapels stuck into the sides of buildings, gelato stands, pastry shops, and views of frescoed ceilings glimpsed from the sidewalk. The Via Tornabuoni, with the greatest names in fashion: Ferragamo, Gucci, Versace, Buccelatti. The Church of San Michele, with its knock-out interior. Banks in palaces. Hotels in palaces. Garages in palaces. Bookstores, art stores, Alessi housewares.
We ended the day with a gelato at Gilli’s on the Piazza della Repubblica. The Piazza was once the forum at the heart of the ancient Roman castrum that became Florence. Gilli’s has been serving sweets to tourists since 1733. We ordered an “ice cream soda” that turned out to be a dish of four gelato flavors with a bottle of soda water on the side. Sounds bizarre, but adding the soda to the gelato brought an even deeper resonance to the splendor that is gelato.
Started the day at the Uffizi Gallery, where we had 9:00AM reservations. Actually got in a bit before, and well ahead of the densest crowds, who were not admitted until an hour later. Not sure how we worked that, but we suddenly really appreciated the reservation system. Saw the collection twice - it spreads out across one floor of a former office building, and is very easy on the eyes. It is shaped like a long “U”, with a corridor system similar to the Hirshhorn: heavily restored Roman sculpture on the inner corridor, and painting on the outer. “Painting” is an injustice: the collection may be the best in the world. Titians better than any in Venice. Caravaggios as good as any in Rome. Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus facing each other, with other Botticellis hung between. It is impossible to study Renaissance painting without seeing these galleries, and one could do all one’s study in this single building. Terrific views, too, of the Piazza della Signoria and across the Arno. We had a snack on the Belvedere, overlooking the city, and lunch at a trattoria, where we supplemented our panini knowledge with frittata sandwiches: ummm-ummm.
Saw the collection at the Accademia. The big draw is Michelangelo’s David, the original, a copy of which is now in the Piazza outside city hall. Also Michelangelo “prisoners”, freeing themselves from the marble. Dan suspected that not one person in ten in the crowd could explain the significance of what they were seeing, but Michael was more optimistic, seeing people learning about art for maybe the first time. The Accademia is the oldest art school in the world. The rest of the collection is of second-rate Medieval and Renaissance works hung for the education of the students.
Walked back south to the Palazzo Vecchio, on the Piazza Signoria. Interior was surprisingly grand; had been redone by Vasari for Cosimo de Medici, and is full of his work on walls, ceilings, and in the architecture himself. As Michael noted, when did he have time to accomplish all this, plus build the Uffizi, plus write his books? He must never have slept! The Hall of the 500, the main council chamber, is a triumph of Renaissance architecture and painting. It also houses a sensational Michelangelo statue of “Victory”, or perhaps “Florence Subduing Siena”, or even “Florence Ripping Off Michelangelo”. The map gallery competes with the Vatican’s. Florence has inserted their Children’s Museum into the Palazzo, an intervention accomplished by handouts, tours, and activities that takes kids into secret staircases, back rooms, and other non-public spaces. Very National Building Museum, they get high marks for creativity.
The church of Santa Croce is sort of the Tuscan Hall of Fame: tombs or memorials to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, Rossini, Alberti, and Galileo. There are Giottos in the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels, and a totally separate structure, Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, which is a lesson in Renaissance architecture all by itself. A cool crypt underlies the cloisters and church.
The Palazzo Pitti was our agenda for the day. This massive Medici palace is divided into five separate museums, plus the Boboli Gardens. It is a major tourist destination. We got there just as it opened, and were able to stay a step ahead of crowds for our entire visit. Originally designed by Brunelleschi but much modified, the Palazzo sits above Oltrarno on a large chunk of Florentine real estate. The Dukes of Lorraine, who assumed the rule of Tuscany after the Medicis, redecorated it in French Empire style. We started in the Museum of Modern Art, which despite its name covers art from 1700-1900. It was a great break from the Renaissance/Baroque paintings we’d been immersed in, and has a superb collection of the Macchiaioli, a school of Italian painting contemporaneous with the Impressionists. The Museum of Costume covers 1810 (drab early Victorian) to about 1950 (fabulous Chanel), with a good display of Italian fashion during the 1930’s. The Palatina has painting from Medieval to 1700, including some amazing Titians and an unusual Caravaggio putto. The State Apartments reminded us of Versailles without the crowds: Rococo ceremonial rooms where one can take the time to understand what the decorators were trying to do with the space. We took a snack break in the courtyard, and proceeded to the Boboli Gardens. Unlike any other great gardens we have been in, this is an unusual combination of French and English garden styles and raw woodland. Also unusual was the way it climbed and dipped around hills, very differently from the way we would use the same topography in an American estate or country club. The grand allee through the garden terminates in an artificial island. Benches set into a hedge of box, which is sculpted to provide an overhang, very practical and unusual, surround the island.
Whew! That was long, we retreated to Oltrarno for a bakery sack of fresh cookies, and did a little fabric and gift shopping back at the Central Market. The Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo was right around the corner, but turned out to be a disappointment. There is not much else of note in San Lorenzo. Although Michelangelo’s sculpture is as exquisite as shown in every reproduction, there was construction going on that required a tower of scaffolding right in the center of the chapel, ruining the effect. In compensation, we got a lovely surprise at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The city uses this for temporary exhibits, and we had gone for one on the engineering behind theater display and design in Florence during the Renaissance. There were many models, most of them of rooms we had been in, showing how they were turned into theaters and stages by the Medici’s architects and designers. Neat. As we were leaving, a guard asked if we wanted to see “the chapel”. We figured yeah, sure, what the heck, we see chapels. Up two floors of the palace, passed rooms used by the bureaucracy of Florence, we followed signs to the chapel. It turned out to be the Nativity Chapel by Benzotto Gozzoli, one of the greatest works of the Renaissance. You’ve seen it but probably won’t remember the visuals from my description: the Three Kings dressed up like Renaissance princes on parade to see the baby Jesus. I’d only seen one major image before, it is only one of three walls Gozzoli frescoed, focusing on an altarpiece that shows the Nativity itself. Too cool. From there we had access to a suite of ceremonial rooms painted by Filippo Lippi: who knew this would be in a municipal building?
We had dinner in a wine bar, across the street from a pocket park showing excavation of the city’s original Roman walls. The floor of the wine bar was partially excavated and covered with glass, so you could see and eat above the aqueducts that fed water to Roman Florence. Excellent!
Started at the Bargello, the municipal museum of sculpture and decorative arts. This was one of Dan’s favorite places in 1982, and it did not disappoint us. Great sculpture by Donatello (St. George) and Michelangelo, ceramics, Islamic art, armor, glass. Went up to the Convent San Marco, where Fra Angelico frescoed scenes of the Crucifixion and the life of Christ in each cell for contemplation by the brothers. It is the major place to study this artist, and comes with the side benefit of special cells built for and commemorating Savonarola and Cosimo de Medici. Dan had what he thought was a religious epiphany brought on by the presence of God and art, but Michael correctly diagnosed it as just a low sugar episode, so we got gelato and de-mystified my philosophy.
Our friend Wendy Carter met us at our hotel. She had just arrived in Italy for a stay in a villa in the northwest of Tuscany, but took the train in to spend the afternoon with us. She gave us the chance to show off our knowledge of Florence as if we were insiders, which was great fun. We did a walk to Oltrarno, around the Duomo and Piazza Signoria, and up to a Liberty neighborhood near the train station around the Piazza dell’ Indipendenza. We took Wendy to a tavola calda near the university that we had found and liked, and made sure she got on her train back to her friends.
We packed, did our checkout business, and had a goodbye walk around Florence. Went to Santa Maria Annunziatta, then on a Liberty quest north and east of the historic district. Dan had seen a neighborhood on the map that had suspiciously straight avenues, all named after great Florentine artists. Could it be a bit of Victorian planning? It was, and it was remarkably well preserved. We could live there. Shopped at the market of San Ambrosio, and in the Santa Croce neighborhood. Did a farewell walk along the Arno, up to the Piazza Signoria, to the Duomo, and through the Central Market. We got our bags and caught our train at Santa Maria Novella for Venice.
This train was the fanciest we rode on. It was all reserved, first class, with air conditioning and stewardesses serving drinks and pretzels. Almost everyone was an English or American tourist doing the Italian-art junket. We went through several tunnels to cross the Apennines, and through Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua on our way to the Veneto. We caught the vaporetto (water bus) at Santa Lucia terminal in Venice down the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge. We had printed a map the day before off the Web of the location of our hotel, which was a good thing, as Venice addresses make no sense, giving you only a rough idea where within a neighborhood a building might be. Worse, what we learned the Venetians consider streets our unfamiliarized eyes took for alleys or less, and so didn’t sync up with our map. We gave up lugging our bags through the streets, Dan stood guard, and Michael went off to find the Hotel San Salvador. Thirty seconds later he was back, it was on an alley right behind us.
The San Salvador was our most expensive hotel, but perhaps our best. Air conditioning that actually worked, a small but clean room, refrigerator, own bath with real (although still petite) shower. Breakfast was served on a flowered terrace overlooking a canal. Best of all, the whole hotel was only on the second floor, so we had no major runs up and down stairs. AC was a blessing, because Venice was hot and muggy, although less buggy than the canals would lead one to expect. There was no view, but the location was excellent. Streets don’t go far or make a lot of sense in Venice, so one gets lost regularly. There are signs posted on the sides of buildings pointing you to the nearest major bridge crossing the Grand Canal. Because we were so close to the Rialto, all we had to do was follow the signs and we were soon back on familiar territory, which was a great reassurance in our wanderings.
We went on an orientation walk to get a sense of scale. It took about ten minutes to walk to Piazza San Marco, and then we walked over to the Lagoon and along the Riva degli Schiavoni, the major promenade of Venice. How to describe the wonder that is this city? Mary McCarthy, in Venice Observed, says to just give up on having an original insight. All the analogies that come to you came to someone else two hundred years before so give up your cynicism and wallow in the magic of Venice. The juxtaposition of canals, bridges, boats, garbage, great art, high craft, dead industry, and swamp create a Disney-magic that out-does the Mouse. Michael kept humming “It’s a Small World After All”. We were certainly sucked into it, and loved it. The food is excellent, heavy on the seafood, and readily available everywhere. It is probably the most expensive city in Italy, but honestly, the prices were still lower that we are used to in Washington. Sure, the city has been without a real economy since 1800, but has created its own world where you as tourist are not an interloper, but a featured player. We wouldn’t want to live here, but would love to sneak in on weekends.
First stop was the Accademia, a museum created by Napoleon by raiding the palaces, churches, and convents of their masterpieces as he dismantled the political structure of the Venetian Republic. He hung the best of Venetian painting from Gothic to his present in a building designed by Palladio as an art school. The paintings are still fabulous, and shown beautifully. Several overwhelming galleries house “stories” by Veronese, Tintoretto, and Bellini, 10-20 giant canvases each that tell the narrative of a saint’s life or section of the Bible, with the actors all transported to the canals of Venice. The museum is a little easier to grasp than the Uffizi, but just as high in quality. And still big enough to send Dan into a coffee shop to get his sugar back up <smile>.
We walked up the neighborhood of Dorsoduro to the church of Santa Maria della Salute, then to an inexpensive lunch in the Campo Santa Margherita in San Polo. We shopped our way across San Polo back to the Rialto. Since there are only three bridges across the Grand Canal, most wanderings funnel one back to the Accademia, the Rialto, or the train station (Ferrovie). Took a tour of the Palazzo Ducale in Piazza San Marco, including the Doge’s private rooms, the rooms dedicated to the city’s Byzantine structure of oligarch government, and the prisons via the famous Bridge of Sighs. The Museo Correr is situated in a wing of the offices that surround Piazza San Marco, and covers the history of Venice up to the 1700’s (additional museums that carry the history forward were unfortunately closed for conservation). The Correr has cool displays of toys and gambling games, and several rooms of Canova statues that made up for our missing the Borghese in Rome.
After dinner we walked up to the train station through Santa Croce, and took a vaporetto back along the length of the Grand Canal. This is both a Disney-ride through history and the Metro 32 bus from Friendship Heights to Eastern Market: it gets you where you want to go, and you see great stuff doing it.
The post office is located in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a warehouse built by German traders 400 years ago. Artists were installing work for the Bienale, Venice’s bi-annual show of the best in contemporary art, in the courtyard. It’s difficult to get hotel space during the Bienale, so seeing artists set up around town was the next best thing. While most exhibits are in the Jiardini, the public gardens, many public buildings also host pieces. The most striking here were hundreds of prints of eyes suspended from the ceiling on acrylic - we didn’t recognize the artist, but did see his eyes on bridges, walls, and plazas around the city.
We thought about going into San Marco, but the line was too long, so instead went to the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The church holds Canova’s and Titian’s tombs, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, and a Bellini altarpiece. Not on the art history tour, but as striking as all of that, was the tomb of a random doge supported by herms in the shape of black porters, in black and white marble with dramatic expressions of fierce hatred fierceness in their faces.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a sort of Renaissance Moose Hall, built for lay people who were affiliated with a religious movement and housing offices and function rooms. San Rocco had Tintoretto on its membership roster, and he covered the downstairs and upstairs halls with stories of the life of Christ. Incredibly dense, vibrant, and dramatic. One of the best Annunciations we’ve ever seen, with Mary obviously experiencing sudden pregnancy, not getting a visit from a wussy angel. Also great woodwork, with an amazing tromp l’oeil bookcase.
Broke for lunch, then wandered over the Accademia bridge to take in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Miss Peggy must have been a hoot, the representation of her in the film “Pollock” was fresh in our minds, and her home only reinforced it. The Guggenheim in New York runs the museum, they’ve both tried to respect her display of modern art in the palace and make room for traveling shows. The current one was of Gino Severini and art that presented dance. Peggy’s stuff is better, but it was great to see “Classic Modern” after days of historic Italian works and the Bienale creations going up around us. Plus, you’ve got to love a woman who dedicates her front hall to a Calder mobile and a good chunk of garden to her dog cemetery.
Went shopping for masks, fabric, and lace. Picked up “gondolier of the month” calendars for 2002. In the Church of San Pantaleon saw a breathtaking Jesuit Counter-Reformation ceiling, a swirling mass of Baroque humanity, and a good mixed set of Venetian canvases in the chapels. That evening attended a performance of chamber music performed in the Scuolo di San Teodoro, by women performers in period costumes and wigs (!). The outfits and wigs got Michael hooked, as well as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Bit the bullet and waited 45 minutes to get into San Marco, only to leave after 30. Byzantine mosaics, the Pala d’Oro (an altarpiece of gold stolen from Constantinople during the Crusades), and the treasury, with a relic collection nowhere near as impressive as at San Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. Glad we went, but eh. Took the ferry to Murano, which was also an unfortunate disappointment. Were able to see several glass-making forges and walk through many more sales rooms and glass galleries. Honestly, you can see glass-making better in Corning, NY, and the glass for sale would only fit in a dowager’s home in Chevy Chase. Boring, and in bad (or no) taste. We were hoping to drop hundreds of dollars on lampshades and wine glasses, instead left with a 75-cent package of cake decorations for Dan’s Mom.
But, if Murano was a let down, the ferry out and back was not. Great views of the lagoon, the Giudecca (the neighborhood across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco) and islands not reachable by bridge. The cemetery island was beautiful and cool, and Murano itself looked good coming and going. Stopped at San Giorgio Maggiore, a Palladian church on its own island across from San Marco, and mirroring it in appearance. The interior is a pristine Renaissance space, with an elaborate floor slick from the condensation of the marsh air on the cool marble. Took the elevator up the bell tower for panoramic views of the city. Saw the last painting Tintoretto ever did, although for the life of me I can’t remember the subject. Adjacent to the church the Foundation Cini runs an exhibit space. The show we saw was of Canaletto’s work. Seeing Canaletto in Venice is redundant at best, dull at worst. I suspect we’ll enjoy the same canvases more in their home collections, when we’ll see them and reminisce about this trip. The city he painted is still strongly present in the city we saw. We took the ferry that went the long way back, all around the island, past the industrial sector and railroad station. A thunderstorm threatened, the sun was setting, and Venice never looked more perfect or exciting. Got off at Rialto with our adrenaline pumping.
Had a dinner of Venetian specialties: grilled squid, pasta with clams, polenta, and fried calamari. Walked it off via the Castello neighborhood, passing several notable churches: Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Santa Maria della Formosa. Ended at San Zaccharia, the main vaporetto stop near San Marco, and saw how the threatening storm and tide had caused the lagoon to lightly flood the Piazza and waterfront. Threatening and cool.
We had talked about taking the train out to Vicenza to overdose on the architecture of Palladio. Call us unambitious. We decided to bag it and enjoy a city we were already comfortable in rather than having to learn a new one. COIN is a department store chain, sort of the Macy’s of Italy. They have a nice building near the Rialto that, while modern, honors the architecture around it. Good sale on linens. Proceeded to the Ca D’Oro, a museum of Renaissance art and decorative arts in a prominent Venetian Gothic palace on the Grand Canal. The collection was okay. Only one piece, a Mantegna Saint Sebastian, really spoke to us. Maybe we were just jaded after the surfeit of opportunities we’d had to see art in the last three weeks. The balconies overlooking the Canal, however, were fab, as were the decorative stone patterns in the courtyard.
We had a free admission to the Museum of the Palazzo Mocenigo, so high-tailed it across the Santa Croce and San Marco neighborhoods. Found a Palazzo Mocenigo, a giant warren of apartments, but one the Mocenigo’s had moved out of in 1700. Turns out the museum is in a later family palace, almost next door to the Ca D’Oro. Dang. Raced back through the alleys of Venice. The collection, of costumes and objects of daily life of the 18th Century, were fun, and worth the walk. Better, en route we discovered a brass artisan who crafts individual parts for lamp and fixture repairs for the palaces and museums. We bought some door hardware, and he showed us his sketches and parts he had made for projects around the city. Dad, you would have loved him, he reminded me of the technical staff in your old research lab.
Walked through parts of Santa Croce and Cannaregio that we hadn’t seen before. We crossed the Grand Canal on a traghetto: since there are only three bridges, but more places where people want to cross, large gondolas wait to convey folks back and forth at special traghetto crossings. Very cool, although Dan feared he would tip the boat over until the gondolier told him to sit down. Guess his subway-surfing experience was less than relevant <smile>.
After dinner took a walk to San Marco, the Royal Gardens, and along the Riva out to the Public Gardens, where we watched Bienale set-up with the fragrance of honeysuckle in the air. Stole a ride on the #1 vaporetto back to Rialto, and returned to the hotel to pack.
Lugged the baggage from hell (but now full of great fabric, pasta, and olive oil!) out to an early vaporetto to the bus terminal. Caught the bus to Marco Polo, and due to quick connections were able to get on an earlier Air France flight to Paris. Marco Polo is under construction and has almost no facilities, while Charles DeGaulle has plenty, and is notorious for the distance between connecting gates. Shopped the Paris airport on a quest to rid ourselves of as much lira-denominated currency as possible. Michael spent the last 1500 lire (less than a dollar) on a packet of hard candy, and we were ready to go. Unfortunately, Air France wasn’t. We were delayed boarding for an hour, then sat on the tarmac for another. Why? The pilot informed us of the unfortunate but critical need for a delay, as they were missing (gasp!) cheese for the flight. Only on a French airline. The frommage graced us with its savory presence, we flew, and landed late, having spent about 20 hours in transit. Only to be told at the baggage carousel that our luggage was possibly still in Paris, wait for all of the bags to appear. Of course it didn’t, we caught a cab home in a jet-lagged stupor, and collapsed at lovely Seaton Place. After two stress-filled days when we wondered whether our travel memories were permanently gone, Air France delivered them to the house. Quelle drag. Air France has a well-deserved reputation for bad baggage handling, and doesn’t care. Make a note. We were lucky this happened at trip end, not beginning, and on the bright side, it did make getting through Customs a breeze.
The trip of a lifetime to Italy was well worth it. Do it. Who knows, if you’re in Florence in a few years, you may be able to crash in our condo above Piazzale Donatello!