Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

Italy in Mind

We haven’t posted here in some time.  This does not mean Italy is out of mind — in fact, as we plan for a next trip I wanted to share some recent thoughts and a reading tip. Pompeii, with its “window to the ancient Roman world” quality, is high on my list for a return visit in 2010.  There’s a grand new book for the general but serious reader,  The Fires of Vesuvius:  Pompeii Lost and Found by Mary Beard, a Don at Cambridge University (Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press, 2008, 360 pp).  A review in the New York Times (15 March 2009) captures the book’s tone thusly:  “Beard…takes cheeky, undisguised delight in puncturing the many fantasies and misconceptions that have grown up around Pompeii.”

Adding this book to “must read” prior to a visit, I’d now recommend reading this book (which itself has a great, concise set of tips for a visit on pp. 314-16), then Robert Harris’ novel Pompeii, then visiting Pompeii, and finally, going to see the amazing Pompeii materials in the Archaeological Museum in nearby Naples.   See my entry on Pompeii for a bit more in the way of tips.    Buon Viaggio!

P.S.  Mary Beard (the Cambridge Don) has many publications, but another readable and recent item I’m now enjoying is her The Roman Triumph (Harvard, 2007, 434 pp).  This broad exploration of Roman society and its influence takes as its focus the ceremonial spectacle, the “triumph”  (a central part of which was a grand march through Rome with the spoils of war, captives, etc).  She manages, as in Fires of Vesuvius, to draw together an amazingly interesting trove of information and connections, all ramifying from or to the concept of Triumph.


January 30, 2010 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 1 Comment


May 26, 2007

Pompeii, a place Anne and I had visited separately many decades before, felt as if it might disappoint us. Coming back is always uncertain – will the good memories prove to have been inflated? Especially so when you were just twenty years old the last visit, or in Anne’s case, a young teenager. However, there need be no fears with Pompeii, we discovered, as it is one of those places that is better than one remembers.

I think one reason this is so is the sheer drama of its demise. Over two mornings in August, 79 A.D., the thriving resort town of Pompeii just near the stunning bay of Naples was first showered by light ash and pumice from conical Mt. Vesuvius some five miles away. Then came successively heavier rock, and then searing flows of hot, poisonous gas. When it was over, the city was dead, buried under some 12-15 feet of volcanic debris which had collapsed roofs and crushed every living thing. When the smoke and haze finally cleared, Vesuvius was found to have literally blown its top. The top of the cone was gone, the summit now more gently sloped, not unlike Mt. St. Helens in Washington state’s southern Cascades.

For reasons I’ve not understood, Pompeii lay largely unplundered and eventually forgotten for some 1700 years. A chance discovery of pieces of inscribed marble led to some probing and the town was gradually excavated beginning in the 1800’s. It is still partially un-excavated and work is ongoing. The hollow pockets found in the ash layers were mysteries until about 1880, when the chief archaeologist realized these were imprints left by human bodies. He ingeniously poured plaster into the cavities, then carefully chipped away the ash and rock to reveal grisly statues of people as they lay trapped in the eruption. These famous plaster casts of humans and animals caught in their last agony are a moving part of this horrific, unforgettable drama: huddled against the hot rain and gasses suffocating them one sees a mother and child lying together, hands stretched toward each other; a man sitting upright hugging his knees to his chest; a pregnant woman lying face down, arms extended.

More positively, Pompeii, despite its sudden death, lives hauntingly to tell its story to us today. We empathize with the people of Pompeii. We imagine their dilemma as the mountain threatened them – flee and leave everything behind, or huddle at home and hope for the best? The best did not come, unfortunately. Today, their recovered household goods in Naples’ Archaeological Museum show that they lived amazingly like we do – they cooked in frying pans that look as if they’d come from a kitchen store in Ashland, drained food in colanders that are like ours, had small painted pictures of loved ones sitting (as do our photos) on dressers, enjoyed nice necklaces and earrings, drank wine from hand blown glasses not unlike ours in shape, and (like us too) frequented some 90 restaurants and fast food places fitted out with marble countertops.

As one wanders the streets of the town the audio guide comments on some of the finer houses. Only some of these can be entered (the rest have chained metal grills blocking entry, although the atriums and gardens are sometimes visible from the street) and I found myself pleased to get to see the “backstage” places the wealthier residents enjoyed. As in most of the Mediterranean, walls out front secluded the living areas and open gardens and fountains, making these houses real places of reguge and comfort. Not unlike our own lives, where the well-off have larger houses, gates, swimming pools, and privacy. Anyway, two other thoughts on this: the owners of these places and even their names, are mostly unknown today. Houses instead are called after some feature found there, as in the bronze dancing Faun found in one house, an utterly magical sculpture now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Another precious sculpture in marble that lent its name to a house is Bikini’d Venus! See the photo of this small marble statue with a costume painted in gold leaf — sure enough, a bikini in 79 A.D. Imagine that in 2000 years your house is unearthed, your names and your lives are unknown, but your house is named by future archaeologists after some item in it — house of the big pink sofa! I doubt the Pompeiians are happy about this!

Anyway, this was a magnificent day, one in which we feel we made a start at understanding this intriguing town and its past. There were lots of other visitors there, but it’s a huge place and it is quite easy to escape the crowds and find quiet places to sit and ponder, eat one’s sack lunch, read, or listen to the audio guide.

Tips for visiting Pompeii:
a) Allow a full day, early morning til closing time (they open about 8am, close at 7:30pm in summer). There are frequent busses from the port of Napoli (30 minutes, about 2.30 Euros one way), as well as the Circumvesuviano train from Garibaldi station.

b) Rent the audio guide (E10 for two of them), one for each person – extremely well done, this not only describes individual buildings, villas, etc but has general sections on history, the eruption, extracts from plays performed in the Pompeii theater, etc. Superb.

c) Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, wear shorts and very comfortable shoes (we both wore comfortable jogging shoes with good soles). Take lots of water (at least a liter a person). We brought a sack lunch too, and snacks and fruit. There is a single modern snack bar with public restrooms, but it is the only one in the large area of Pompeii. It sells sandwiches and snack foods, coffee and other drinks, and has a hot food cafeteria. Except for the coffee, it has fairly high prices.

d) DO go all the way over to the Amphitheater and work your way back. Its grassy interior is a good resting place too.

e) Although most tourists congregate closer to the snack bar area, the main street heading east toward the Amphitheater has some of the best preserved parts of town, including many painted political slogans and some parts of two storey buildings. Just north of this street is a large as-yet unexcavated area, so the building fronts you walk past are cleared but the buildings themselves are still filled with 15 feet deep volcanic rubble. A great contrast to the more fully excavated parts of the town.

f) Enjoy one of the icy fruit drinks available at the Marina gate upon exiting

Finally, to get the most out of this incredible town and its history, you might wish to think of your visit as having three parts, best savored in this order:

* A day-long visit to Pompeii itself
* A 3-hour visit to the Archaeological Museum in Naples the next day (all the “stuff” found at Pompeii is there and is very impressive)
* Reading Pompeii, the novel by Robert Harris (2003), soon afterward. Having just been there, you’ll find that this “good read” captures the last few days of the city, taking you to familiar places you’ve just walked in, but as it was 2000 years ago just before life and the city was snuffed out.

The story, and it is a good one, not just history, is told through the eyes of the aqueduct chief engineer, who discovers sulfur in the water supplies of Naples and has to go to Pompeii to try to figure out and fix the problem.  Its a bit of a mystery and page-turner, definitely to be enjoyed.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 2 Comments

The Bay of Naples

The Bay of Naples

25-27 May, 2007

The map of Italy shows Naples on its crescent shaped bay far below Rome – the mystified “south” of Italy, home of the Mafia and other gangs, origin of immigrant hoards pouring into New York city last century and before. A poorer part of elegant Italy, and perhaps more dangerous. But this other world is easily accessible, and we did not find it threatening. It was surprising to discover that the fast Eurostar train from Florence can reach Naples in under three hours, and even the regional lines from Siena don’t take much longer.

Our three-day excursion to Naples and to explore Pompeii was planned for this weekend free of program activities. The students had scattered to their own travels and we walked early Friday morning to Siena’s train station, caught the bus to Chiusi station, then the train to Rome and, after a short wait, the one to Naples. The trip from Siena to Chiusi cuts diagonally SE across Tuscany, giving good views of the rolling wheat-sown countryside and some of the hill towns: Rappolano Terme and Asciano among them. Chiusi itself, with a hill-top ancient center and modern suburbs around, was once the Etruscan capital of central Italy and many elaborate tombs can be visited. We were just changing trains, so we spent our 45 minutes wandering around the station area and ate lunch in a park.

On to Rome by train (pretty views of the mountains to the west), taking under two hours. After a change at Rome’s amazingly bustling Termini station (felt like the train hub of the world), the Naples leg of the trip was in compartmented cars, the old fashioned style seen in the movies. We shared our compartment with a young woman from Sardinia and a man and his 9 year old son from south of Naples. Though we did not talk much with either, it was interesting to hear the woman speaking the Sardinian language on her cell phone.

We’d booked a room at the Bella Capri, right at the port of Naples near where ferries depart for Capri and cruise ships berth. While it took a bit of effort to find this nearly hidden hotel which occupies the 7th and 8th floor of an office building on a gritty street, inside we were in a pleasant, modest haven. Our double room had a small balcony and a view (looking to the side) of the port. The better rooms, already taken, face straight out with splendid port views – something we will try for next time. Breakfasts, of croissants, cereal, fruit and coffee or tea, were served in a sunny, colorful common room on the floor above, which housed a hostel. We met one couple from Ireland and it was clear that younger people from all over the world were staying here, a pleasant space with dorm style rooms, couches and three computers with flat panel screens for using the internet, and information about hostels all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

Of course we spent little time in the hotel, since we’d come to explore Napoli and to have a full day at Pompeii. Our hotel was near the university and ancient city area, and Friday afternoon we enjoyed walking its crooked, narrow streets hung with laundry. Though grimy and gritty, Napoli in this area (near the church of Santa Chiara and Piazzeta Nilo) felt safe for walking and we gradually relaxed and enjoyed this lively and truly ancient place. Our destination was the famed Archaeological Museum, which houses most of the movable items excavated from Pompeii – household items, sculptures, and even wall frescoes and floor mosaics. There is a “secret room” (appointment only) displaying the best of the erotic art and artifacts from Pompeii – well worth a visit. Our two hours here were a key element in enjoying Pompeii tomorrow.

We also managed to walk along the port and waterfront north and west, climbing the hill behind the “Castle of the Egg” for grand views of the bay, and discovering the pleasantly upscale Via Chiaia area. Napoli, a city with ancient Greek and pre-Greek roots, is a place whose past lies below, its ambiance seeping out all over, but whose exuberant present is lived out and about in its streets and piazzas.

Having studied Italian for some time now, we were interested to hear how different is the Napolitano version of the language. So much so that as we sat at a street side restaurant our first night we could overhear the conversation of the four people at the table next to us, we had to ask ourselves if it was really Italian. It was Neapolitan, the language of Naples – a version of Italian, but distant enough that we could not understand more than a word here or there. Our Italian colleagues here in Siena tell us they cannot understand it either.

What is interesting is to reflect on the fact that ALL of Italy is this way. Standard Italian is spoken on television and is the language of politics and academia. But at home, in restaurants and at work, people speak their own strongly marked dialects with each other: Siena and Florence, just 40 miles apart, have different dialects; that of the Venice area, Sicilian, and so forth. These dialects are more than merely accents, involving intonation, vocabulary, localized terms not used in other places – all amounting to a local language. Italians often switch to standard Italian when speaking to foreigners or to those from other parts of Italy.

This was the case for the Sardinian woman in our train compartment – she made one phone call to someone apparently not from Sardinia – I could understand most of what she was saying in Italian. The next call was probably to her home: I heard a staccato set of sounds, intonation different from Italian, the words not comprehensible. I’d not have known it was Sardinian if she’d not told us where she was from, but it was pleasantly different from standard Italian and none of it was comprehensible to us.

June 11, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | 2 Comments

Rome and its Ancient Port, Ostia Antica

Program Excursion May 31-June 3, 2007 – kc

This past weekend we made a four-day trip to Rome, an excursion by bus for the entire program group (43 students plus one of their sisters, one of their mothers, Anne and me, Claudia and Pergiacomo).

Of note on this trip:

  • Rome’s crazy, noisy, grubby, hectic multi-lingual “in-your-face” presence
  • The impressive ruins of Ostia Antica, the capitol’s ancient port city
  • Walking by a small store and noticing it had a Roman temple on its side
  • Hare Krishna dancers, pan-demonium and pan-deoism
  • A “Punch and Judy” puppet show for kids show going on in a park
  • Discovering several quiet refuges from Rome’s otherwise intense crowds

Urban Throb
Rome is an intense place in late spring and summer. The traffic noise is famous, the hubbub of life exuberant. As we crossed the city on foot several times, Pergiacomo, our art historian, told me with a slight cynical tone, “I think I am the only Italian in this city…” — we were hearing many different languages passing us by, but not much Italian. The Trevi fountain is being loved to death, thronged to overflowing at most hours, a standing room only place. Thousands of digital photos taken, coins thrown, and roses (thrust into hands by clever vendors) refused. A few still come here to take wedding photos, though how they can avoid having strangers in their pictures is not clear. For Anne and me Trevi fountain was endurable for only five minutes, though our students report it is beautiful and deserted at 2 A.M! Piazza Navona was not much different, nor the Pantheon; the line to go through the metal detector and then enter Saint Peter’s stretches for a quarter mile, for the Vatican Museums even longer. Somehow it is still enthralling, but to be savored in small doses, not in large groups, and surely with enough quiet time to discover the smaller surprises.

Ostia Antica
Rome depended on control of the seas for its dominance, and its economic survival. Grain, oil, timber, and the stone that built the capital traveled by barge up the Tiber (Tevere) river from Ostia, Rome’s bustling commercial port city on the Mediterranean. Ostia flourished from about 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. It was in decline for the last several hundred years, as the Tiber changed course away from it, as silting put the sea further away, and as malaria made it an unhealthy place. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia was not overtaken by a sudden calamity – it faded away. And then it was plundered, its marble recycled to be used elsewhere, leaving the brickwork tracing the structure of the city, as it still is today after the detritus of 1500 years was excavated away. While it lacks the drama of Pompeii, with its tragic sudden destruction, Ostia makes a feasible and far more tranquil alternative, especially as it has grass and trees and perhaps a thousandth of the visitors who go to Pompeii.

The photos capture some of the flavor of this city which flourished for over a thousand years (click at top right below our photo, where it says PHOTO SETS).

Temple in the side of a store
Dozens of examples of new-upon-old exist in Rome and throughout the Mediterranean rim. But one wonderful and unnoticed example struck me. On the route from the ancient pedestrian bridge over the Tiber, Ponte Sisto, to the piazza called Campo de’ Fiori, Anne and I skirted down a narrow lane with a small storefront on the corner, grimy with Rome’s urban polish. As we walked down the lane I noticed with surprise that the side of this nondescript structure was in fact an old Roman temple, complete with carved marble columns set on bases about 18” above the cobbled road, and with capitals at the top. The intervening spaces were filled in with masonry made of brick and rubble, and the building served a simple commercial purpose today. But embedded in it is a temple that no doubt served one of the ancient “pagan” gods of Rome. Which god or goddess? Perhaps Baedeker knows.

Punch and Judy on the Janiculum Hill
After the crowds at St. Peter’s, Anne and I found an escape, walking to the Janiculum hill near the Trastevere area of Rome. We discovered a place where ordinary Romans go on a Sunday afternoon. Young lovers cuddling against the wall with an extraordinary view out over the city, people walking dogs, and a quiet café with an outdoor terrace and view over the city. We sat here, enjoying the view while we sipped Campari and soda and savored the snacks that accompany aperitifs in Italy. At the top near the equestrian monument to Italy’s famed 19th C. freedom-fighter, Garibaldi, we encountered a Punch and Judy puppet show in full swing. Fascinated kids sat in tiny chairs reserved for them in front, protective parents behind. For photos, click link at top right of this page.

For more info on Punch and Judy and this tradition’s ancient Italian roots (as Pulcinella), see: “Punch and Judy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 6 Jun 2007, 07:52 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007


Hare Krishna at the Pantheon
The Pantheon, the domed temple designed by Marcus Agrippa and built about 30 BC (later destroyed, but rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian using Agrippa’s design in about 125 BC) is Rome’s best preserved ancient building. Agrippa, consul for a third time in 27 BC, designed this temple to commemorate Rome’s victory at the battle of Actium four years before. The temple honoring all of Rome’s gods, goddesses and cults originally had bronze and marble statues of them in its many interior niches, as well as an ornate bronze ceiling lining. Virtually all of the bronze except the massive doors, the largest ancient doors remaining in Rome, has been removed, most recently by the architect of St. Peters, Gian Lorenzo Bernini working under orders from Pope Urban IV — the bronze was melted to make Bernini’s huge altar canopy for St. Peters and some cannons. Despite this incalculable loss, the building is impressive, sitting today beside a small piazza with an Egyptian obelisk and fountain at its center. To its left side, the original street level can be seen, some 20 feet lower than today’s streets.

It was Saturday evening and we sat on a low wall enjoying the evening hubbub as dinners selected awning covered sidewalk cafes and younger folks sat on the fountain steps. Rome at its crazy best I suppose. Suddenly we heard drumming echoing from a narrow side street. A familiar rhythm turned out to be the chanting and singing of some 30 Hare Krishna devotees, ecstatically making their way into the square. As they drummed, danced and sang their way into a frenzy, Anne and I remarked on the juxtaposition of religious history being acted out here. On one side, the Egyptian Obelisk, 4000 years old and no doubt inscribed with an invocation to Ra or another of Egypt’s main gods. On the other side the Pantheon, dedicated with exemplary liberality to ALL of Rome’s gods and goddesses, including Mithraism and the cult of Isis among others, and with one niche left empty for the “unknown god” (that is, one still to come). Thus the name, Pan (all) – Theon (gods). And, this evening right in the middle of this scene, modern Hare Krishna dancers spreading their version of religiosity. As there should be, there is room for all, nicely presaged by the inclusive message the original Pantheon provided — leaving space for the unknown god always needs to be part of our thinking.

More on the Pantheon and Agrippa:

“Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 Jun 2007, 10:44 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Jun 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marcus_Vipsanius_Agrippa&oldid=136570436>.

June 8, 2007 Posted by | Art and the Arts, Exploring Italy, Language and Culture | Leave a comment

St. Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena

May 6, 2007

The bells of San Domenico church just sounded for their 9am ringing. This is one of Siena’s landmark churches, just a bit more than a football field’s length from our apartment, with its massive orange-red brick presence standing 6 or 7 stories tall, and the bell tower higher than that. This church dominates one entrance to the city and its bells punctuate the mornings: at 7am, 7:30 and 9:00, again at 12:00 – cheery, raucous, though no doubt there is pattern in this ringing (a “tune”) that means something, even if we cannot decipher it, except as a call to mass.

This is a church of the Domenican order (following rule of St. Benedict, 5th C and the first “order” of monks recognized by the Catholic church). Built in the 1100’s, it was probably on a site where a smaller church stood, and before that it was likely a Roman temple – this is a common pattern. In fact, Siena’s main cathedral is known to have been built over the Roman temple of Minerva which stood there – sadly, no trace remains of that temple.

In San Domenico, cavernous and immensely tall inside, is a side chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in the late 1200’s. She was born just a block or two from here, and thus San Domenico was her family’s church. Caterina Benincasa was from a middle class Sienese family, practical-minded business people in the cloth trade. But from early childhood Caterina was unusual and drawn to religious observance and visions. After much protest, her family consented and allowed her to follow a religious life. She became a Domenican “tertiary” (not a nun, a sort of lay associate of the Domenicans).

In her short life (she was not yet forty when she died, essentially starving herself to death) she visited and discussed theology with numerous popes, and worked hard to end the schism that divided the papacy between Avignon and Rome. She wrote hundreds of letters, about 370 of which survive – testament to her political action and strong and somewhat odd religious beliefs (blood was a particular fixation). Today, Catherine is patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis) and of the entire European Union. She was reportedly the most important and powerful woman of the entire middle ages.

Some of the many miracles attributed Catherine happened in San Domenico, including her receiving the stigmata (scars and marks similar to those Jesus suffered on the cross). Her chapel at San Domenico houses relics including her head and one finger (this is Italy!), plus items such as a small whip she used on herself.

The Benincasa family house eventually had a shrine and small church built over it – but some of it is preserved, including part of the kitchen and, most moving, Catherine’s bedroom. After her religious visions began she was allowed to live in a small stone room, sleep on the floor with a rock for a pillow, and to pray day in and out. The room, decorated with a few of her things, sits screened off from the rest of the house, which has been painted with frescoes depicting main points of Catherine’s life.

This past April 29th, Catherine’s feast day was celebrated in Siena with costumed processions through town to her chapel in San Domenico. That evening we went to a gala ceremony in Siena’s main square, Piazza del Campo where throngs of onlookers watched the 17 Contrade (district guilds) march in with elaborately costumed flag and drum corps, past formations representing every branch of the military standing at attention. On the podium in front of Siena’s renowned 13th century town hall, the Cardinal and Bishop were holding up the reliquary with Catherine’s finger to bless them.

Our photos show San Domenico as viewed from our front window. Also here is the procession along the street below our bedroom window with Siena’s Bishop and Cardinal, Anne standing at the window watching things while grading papers from one of our classes here, and in no. 245, our 2nd floor apartment, which is on the corner, the window is open (just behind the flagpole) — odd to be so bound into a brick and stone urban setting, but quite in the midst of it all too, interesting new exp. for us. And several of the flags and ceremonies for Catherine in the piazza on the 29th.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Art and the Arts | 1 Comment