Friday, January 24, 2020

Rome Journal: Pyramid Schemes

Pyramid of Cestius (photo:Livioandronico2013)
The Pyramid which served as the tomb for Caius Cestius was completed in 12 B.C. The Romans were naturally knocking on Egypt’s door and the Obelisk built at the Circus Maximus by Augustus is another example of Rome's infatuation with Egyptian culture. It's a preoccupation that continues on in many other venues today. I.M. Pei completed the Pyramid at the Louvre in 1989; despite the chaos of the Middle East there’s never any shortage of tourists travelling to Giza. Actually, the tomb of Caius Cestius was built on more of an angle, apparently modeled on Nubian style structures. However, it, along with the obelisk, demonstrates an eclecticism  and a willingness to deviate from the standard geometric form of the rectangle and the circle which both inform monuments like, for instance, Hadrian’s Tomb. Appropriation is the name of the game. Rome not only set out to conquer the world but to acquire all its inventions and innovations. Sound familiar? Imperial conquest is a two way street. In Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which proposes an alternate universe, little bits of Americana become collectors items to the victorious Japanese, but by Constantine's time the Roman Empire was already in thrall to the Christianity it had previously attempted to suppress.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Rome Journal: Three Mayors

There were the famed Three Tenors, Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Now there are the three mayors. Femke Halsema is the major of Amsterdam and her honors in Paris and Rome,  Anne Hidalgo and Virginia Raggi. Raggi has been a controversial mayor, recusing Rome from the bidding for the 2024 Olympics on the basis of expense (when in fact Rome had hosted the Olympiad XVII in 1960 and could have taken advantage of a pre-existing infrastructure). Her management of waste and bus services (over 30 buses have gone on fire during her tenure) has also been contested. Lastly she provoked pushback when she proposed giving the coins thrown into the Trevi Fountain (amounting to approximately 3000 euros a day) to the city, rather than charity. She will not be running for a new term in 2021. All that being said, her tenure can be said to be characterized by an overarching drive towards fiscal responsibility. Three Coins in a Fountain, the famous 1954 Hollywood romance starring Italian heartthrob Rossano Brazzi, might easily have been her campaign slogan. Who would have dreamt back in the 50’s when the blockbuster movie was made that three major European cities would all have female mayors—especially Rome, a major city in a country known for its male bravado, which only recently had a famed womanizer, Silvio Berlusconi, as prime minister? Plus ca change, plus ce n'est pas la meme chose!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Rome Journal: Il gatto...e il capello matto

Il gatto… e il capello matto is the Italian translation of The Cat in the Hat. If you remember the Dr. Seuss’s fable begins on a note of childhood boredom. “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we stayed in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.” After a spate of unusually beautiful weather, characterized by clear and sunny skies, uncharacteristic for the post Epiphany season, cold rain greeted Romans on a recent Saturday. The fact is that Rome is famous for its cats. They’re ubiquitous and begging for employment. Dr. Seuss’s cat is a lord of misrule, but unusual due to the fact that it cleans up the mess it makes and returns everything back to normal. 150 cats occupy the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina. The are attended to by Le Gattare, a group of women who are devote to the care and protection of cats and if you visit any of Rome’s monuments you will find lots of cats. The first Italian language tour of the musical Cats was in 2009, with a new version subsequently having a run in 2016. Indeed there are estimated to be approximately 300,000 feral cats in Rome. In no other city in the world, is a pleasant intruder like Dr. Seuss’s creation more likely to provide such an imaginary salvo and flight of fancy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Rome Journal: The Sirens

Odysseus and Sirens (photograph: Jastrow 2006)
If you remember Odysseus has himself tied to the mast of his boat and tells his men to fill their ears with bees wax so he can hear what the Sirens are saying while avoiding their lure. In Rome there are always sirens of another kind whose pitch descends as the vehicles from which they emanate disappear into the distance. Is the Doppler Effect enhanced by antiquity? Then there's tintinnabulation. The classic ringing of bells at lunch time is like a vine of grapes that becomes more fulsome in Rome’s fertile archeological crescent. Sounds reverberate in Rome in a way that’s a function of the striations of civilization. Part of Fellini’s Roma (1972) was shot during a pause in the excavation of the Metro's A line to deal with a vein of archeological discoveries. Imagine the same terrain two millennium earlier when the sounds of ambulances, fire engines and police car were replaced with the roar of spectators watching gladiators locked in combat at the Colosseum. Bells from church spires would also be absent in the pre-Christian era. There have been many soundtracks accompanying the spectacle of the Eternal City depending on the era, but there's always a particular brand of silence only interrupted by the timeless honking of gulls that derives from the imminence of the past.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Rome Journal: Bending Like the Palm

The palm trees which abound are a reminder that Rome is a tropical climate, but in early January soon after Epiphany, the Eternal City boasts a feeling that’s almost close to fall in New England minus the color. Tropical plants like palms are made of sterner stuff. Climbing up the ancient steps from Trastevere one arrives at the Gianicolo, the second highest hill in Rome. On the ascent you stop at the church of San Pietro in Montorio to admire the famed Tempietto, the commemorative tomb built by Donato Bramante before proceeding past the auspicious gated Renaissance style McKim, Mead and White structure which houses the American Academy and then on to Porta San Pancrazio, which marks the southern gate of the Aurelian walls—whose arched structure now houses the Garibaldi museum. Passing by the archway you’ll make your way to the Villa Doria Pamphili which abuts the biggest landscaped park in Rome. The absence of bare branches amidst the chill is the distinguishing feature of this oasis of urban greenery. The branches are never bare despite the chill in the air. In Rome, you get your cake and eat it too and down the road is Monteverde where Pasolini once lived. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Rome Journal: La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola

La Fontana dell'Acqua Paola
It’s easy to understand why Paolo Sorrentino chose the Fontana dell’acqua Paola or Il Fontanone near the Church of San Pietro in Montorio which houses Bramante’s famed Tempietto for the opening shot of La grand beliezza. The fountain which is actually a monument to Pope Paul V was built to mark the completion of the restoration of an important aqueduct in 1612. The structure itself set on the Gianicolo overlooks a majestic vista of Rome on the Via Garibaldi. It’s an antique yet post-modern take on the iconic image of Anita Ekberg immersing herself in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita—the film to which Sorrentino’s work begs comparison. Actually, the Baroque fountain designed by Giovanni Fontana (whose name unlikely derived from his metier) became an influence on the later Trevi fountain which was started by Nicola Salva and completed by Guiseppe Pannini in 1762. But the earlier fountain actually offers both a more expansive view and pool. Esther Williams could have swam laps in it. La grand beliezza was made in 2013, 53 years after La Dolce Vita and if the light of the Eternal City had begun to shimmer or at least change its hue then the Fontana dell’acqua Paola provided a more 21st Century view.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Rome Journal: Rocco Siffredi

The Via Nazionale runs into the Piazza Repubblica and nearby is the Quirinale where a long line of government ministries are watched over by blank-faced machine gun-toting guards. Il Palazzo del Quirinale is fronted by a special phalanx that are like the mission which tends to Buckingham Palace. One wonders about the stuff of soldiers who're capable of standing at silent attention for such long periods of time. As you walk from Via Nazionale to Rome’s Termini which is one of the main train stations, the atmosphere become seedy with shifty-eyed merchants manning a line of green bookstalls selling pornographic DVD’s. It's the kind of place that Graham Greene's Pinky might have retired to after his criminal career on the streets of Brighton Rock. These relics, in the age of the internet, exude an almost archeological quality. There’s a whole collection devoted to Rocco Seffredi, the Johnny Holmes of Italian porn who’s now 55. It’s a little like Pompei (whose phalluses are still a must on any sex tourism itinerary) a dead civilization preserved for posterity just as it once was, in this case not in volcanic ash, but plastic-wrapped digital discs. The number 75 bus departing from the main train station running past the ancient tourist sites of Rome as it makes its way up the Janiculum Hill, carries a romantic young couple on a recent Saturday afternoon. She boasts a streak of purple hair and he's wearing white-framed sunglasses. As the bus turns into the Via Cavour, they begin to kiss and hug, unable to keep their hands off each other for the whole ride to the top. Once there, they stride towards the arch at the Porta San Pancrazio and its monument to Garibaldi, the great liberator of the Italian people.