During the Virus: Remembering “The David” and Some Really Off-Beat (?) Musical Instruments at the Galleria Dell’Accademia
May 24, 2019
I am writing this post in March of 2020 — ten months after our trip to Italy — and at this moment Italians are experiencing the horrors of the peak days of the coronavirus: the most lethal and widespread catastrophe to have hit their country in decades. Thousands have died and the health-care system is overwhelmed. Italy has become a worst-case scenario for the rest of the world: a warning of what will happen if we don’t stay physically apart and “flatten the curve.”
Although Florence is not in one of the hardest-hit regions, Twitter posts show deserted streets and closed stores and bars. Clearly, the impact of this event on the economy will be immeasurable. At the moment, it all looks so desolate and yet so familiar. I’m so glad we have been there, and my thoughts are with all of the wonderful Italian people we met during our visit to their beautiful country.
On our second day in Florence, we visited two galleries — the Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Uffuzi Gallery. That was a lot of art for one day, and as we neared the final rooms of the Uffuzi we were hurrying past some astonishing works of art simply because we were physically worn out and (dare I admit it?) tired of looking at art. I’ll talk about the Uffuzi in a separate post, in the hope that my readers do not experience art-gallery fatigue as well.
The Galleria dell’Accademia was established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1873, Michelangelo’s David was moved into the Galleria from an outdoor piazza in Florence, and the facility features several other sculptures by the world-famous artist – who was born in the Florence region. It also includes pieces by Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, plus the original full-size plaster model for the Rape of the Sabine Women by the sculptor Giambologna, who was Flemish, but based his career in Italy.
The Accademia also houses a number of Florentine Gothic paintings, and a collection of Russian icons. All told, the collection represents an overwhelming representation of primarily Renaissance art.
The Museum of Musical Instruments, housed in the same building, opened in 2001. It includes a red spruce and maple viola made by Antonio Stradivarius, a cello by Niccolò Amati, and several instruments designed by Bartolomeo Cristofori — including the first-ever pianoforte, which Cristofori created for the Medicis in 1699.
The Galleria Dell’Accademia was a very satisfying museum to visit because, despite the size and glory of the pieces on display, the relatively cohesive parameters of the collection (compared to the Vatican and Borghese, for example, or the Uffuzi which we saw later that day) meant that my mind could (almost) accommodate it.
Aside from the “David” – which we have all seen so often in photographs that there is no point in trying to describe it – I was most drawn to the four “Prisoner” or “Slave” sculptures by Michelangelo: which he may or may not have left deliberately unfinished. To some they suggest the struggle of humans to break away from the earthly desires and material objects that hold their spirits down. To others, they represent the challenges of a human “becoming,” in all senses of that word.
In “The Prisoners,” I saw the struggle of an artistic work to become what it is intended to be – intended by the artist in some cases, more often (in my experience) by the work itself. But above all, they are testaments to the shining talents of the man who created them, his genius for bringing blocks of stone to life.
I think of Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” tonight, struggling their ways out of their stone integuments in the vast, silent, darkened halls – rooms now empty of visitors. Outside the Galleria is a world that evokes the Middle Ages, where humans fall sick and die for a lack of scientific knowledge, medical equipment and supplies – awaiting our own Renaissance.
Our first tourist destination in Florence was the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on this building began more than 700 years ago, in 1296, and was completed 141 years later, in 1436. The original designer of this Gothic-style building was Arnolfio di Cambio, and its crowning glory, il duomo, was the creation of Filippo Brunelleschi.
Wikipedia is quite helpful (and also quite interesting) in explaining what Gothic architecture is: “[The] most prominent features included the use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by buttresses outside the building, giving greater height and more space for windows. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior. Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners. Some key architectural features, such as the pointed arch and a decorative kind of rib vault, existed earlier outside Europe, and may have been derived from Islamic architecture.These features had both existed in Romanesque architecture, but they were used more extensively and in more innovative ways to make Gothic cathedrals higher, stronger, and filled with light.”
Having purchased a ticket to climb to the top of the dome, we entered the cathedral through a side door (the baptistery and cathedral were a separate tour) and once all of us with tickets for the appointed time had gathered, we immediately started climbing. We climbed and climbed and climbed, with an occasional break to have a look around at pre-designated stages on our way up (you can see the walkways around the inside of the dome in a couple of the photos above). As we climbed higher and higher we were able to get a closer view of the frescoes of the Last Judgement inside the cupola, designed by Georgio Vasari but “mostly painted by his less talented student, Frederico Zuccari” (what a way to go down in history!) They were completed in 1579, and cleaned relatively recently (1996) — apparently to the consternation of many of Florence’s residents who felt that the money could have been better spent.
The passageways containing the stairs are very narrow with low ceilings, and the steps are steep: they were used by the workers during construction, and no one back then ever envisioned that the public would use them – especially not in the great numbers that now visit the cathedral every day (except Sundays). The higher up we went, the farther below us was the floor of the cathedral: from the “lantern” (the walkway inside the cupola), the drop is 40 metres, according to the “Visit Florence” website. The site encourages those with a fear of heights and small spaces to think twice before they sign on to this tour.
In all, we climbed 463 stairs.
As I had already learned in Siena, in addition to the view that awaited us at the top, climbing hundreds of stairs is a great way to meet people from all over the world who are climbing along with you. Misery loves company.
The climb, of course, was worth it. Once we got out onto the terrace no one regretted having made the trek — at least not until we remembered that going down such narrow steps was going to be even more disconcerting than climbing up had been.
A story I loved reading during my research for this post involved a balcony that Baccio d’Agnolo started to build at the base of the dome in 1507. It took him eight years to complete one balcony on one of the eight sides. At that point, “someone asked Michelangelo – whose artistic opinion was by this time taken as cardinal law – what he thought of it. The master reportedly scoffed, ‘It looks like a cricket cage.’ Work was immediately halted, and to this day the other seven sides remain rough brick!”
Late on the afternoon of May 22, we arrived in Firenze (Florence) after a long drive through central Italy from Salerno. The Hotel Villa Belvedere, our accommodation for our visit, was so lovely that if we had been advised that every tourist site in the city had been unexpectedly closed for repairs and we were going to have to stay at the hotel for the entire three days we were in Florence, I would not have complained too much. This is the kind of hotel that makes you want to sit outside and read a book, or sit near a window inside and write one. Since we had a lot to see and do, I felt as though we did not have time to properly enjoy our accommodations – although we gave it our best effort.
The Villa Belvedere is a family-owned hotel, and the members of the family seem to have been born for the hospitality business. Everyone, including the hired staff, was helpful, accommodating, and eager to help us resolve any issues we had, whether they related to the villa, the city, or our next destination. Several suites have balconies: ours did not, which is a good thing or I would have wanted to spend even more time lounging about, but our room was large and comfortable. The gardens are magnificent, obviously cared for like the house itself with loving care, and the main floor common areas are comfortable and decorated with of all kinds of unusual objets d’art.
The dining room is a bright, well-appointed room with large windows that look out onto the pool and the gardens. The food was outstanding and the service impeccable. The chef is one of the owners, and when we complimented her cooking and especially her baking one morning, she asked if we would let her mother-in-law know we’d enjoyed it. (I did as she’d asked, of course, amused at this glimpse into the family dynamics.)
The city was not far away: as we wandered in the garden in the evening, we could hear the enthusiastic sounds of fans cheering on their favourite local football (soccer) game at a nearby stadium. After a spectacular dinner at the hotel and a sound night’s sleep, windows open to the Italian night, we did – of course – bestir ourselves to check out the other sights and sounds and tastes of Florence: from the Duomo to the Accademia Dell’Arte to the Uffuzi Gallery, from the Arno River to “the David” (more on those in subsequent posts). And of course we were glad we did. But it was lovely to have this place to return to each day after our wanderings had worn our feet out once again.
Unlike most of the other cities we visited in Italy, no one had recommended Naples as a “must see” destination. In fact, the people we knew who had been there told us to keep our valuables close to us and our wits about us. Naples is, after all, a port city and major port cities offer anonymity and cover for those with less than the most selfless of agendas. Naples regularly appears at or near the top of Italian cities where crime (specifically robbery) is common.
Such statistics and personal cautions only reinforced the darker expectations I’d had of Naples before we went there. My primary sources were two powerful fiction writers whose works I’ve devoured within the past few years: Curzio Malaparte, by turns a Nazi and a communist and author of The Skin, which depicts war-crushed Naples during the American “invasion” (1943-45) with what is probably the cruelest and most derisive humour I have ever read, and Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels concerning two girls who grew up after the second war in what she describes as a violent and restrictive city.
The Neapolitan municipal region is home to more than three million people, which makes it (with Rome and Milan) one of three highest-ranking cities in Italy both in terms of population and economically, and it is the most densely populated. The port is home to Allied Joint Force Command Naples, an important NATO presence. Probably due to its strategic location, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe (since 9th century B.C.!)
We did not spend much time in Naples. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived from Rome and we still wanted to get to Pompeii before the entrance to the park closed at 6. However, we did drive through the city rather than taking one of the bypass routes, and that allow me to take enough photos to reinforce my pre-judgement of what Naples was going to look like. I really did feel like we were driving through the setting of a Ferrante novel rather than a Dean Martin song.
But then, as we left the city and began the drive past Mount Vesuvius up to Pompeii, I looked back and saw a spectacle I could not have imagined. What a beautiful city!
Pompeii (Archeological Park of)
There are advantages to travelling in the off season and of arriving at world heritage sites at close-to-closing time. This juxtaposition of photos illustrates one of them (We were there in May of 2019. The New York Times article says that 450,000 visitors toured the site in July of 2019.):
There are also disadvantages to such timing. In the case of Pompeii (which in Italian is “Pompei” with one “i”; “Pompei” is also the name of the nearby town), the lack of time to explore the site was the primary disadvantage of arriving at the hour that we did. A full day would have offered adequate opportunity to properly explore the park, and would also have allowed a visit to the Antiquarium Visitor Centre. I recommend no less to friends and relatives (!) who may be visiting there in future.
But there was no way to prepare myself for the feeling that came over me when I stepped into the Santuario di Apollo, where I was almost physically jarred by the realization that real people had lived and died (and had eaten, and prayed, and bathed) in this very spot, and that some areas of the site had probably looked very much the same way in 79 AD as they do today.
We had seen the 2015 Royal Ontario Museum exhibition In the Shadow of the Volcano, and almost every school kid has heard the story of what happened to the citizens of Pompeii 2000 years ago and about the city’s subsequent excavation (which began in 1748). So it’s not as though I didn’t know where we were going and what we were likely to see.
The full awareness of this truth prompted tears and added a few new screw-turns of conviction to my evolving awareness of my world: the domination of Earth by Sapiens is just a phase, and a brief one at that. Our individual lifespans are of no more importance than is the arc described by a speck of lint we have removed from our skirt or trousers and flicked off a fingernail in irritation. I don’t find this awareness sad or depressing. It’s just a poignancy-inducing reality.
For a sense of the atmosphere, the awareness of lives lived, that is evoked by a visit to Pompeii, along with an eloquent description of the problems that have plagued and continue to plague the site (which have included looting, defacement, flooding, scandal, earthquakes, overuse, and even a bombing by the Allies), I recommend theNew York Times article pictured above. The author, Paige McClanahan, weaves together historic and climatic details to imagine how it must have been to live in one of the restored homes: “The warm sea breeze would have blended the dry scent of cypress and bay leaves with the stench of rubbish and excrement from the street, and the gurgle of water in the baths would have been occasionally drowned out by cries from the crowd in the 20,000-seat amphitheater nearby.”
On top of being a fascinating place to visit, and one of great historic importance, Pompeii is also a situated in a magnificent location. No wonder its residents were reluctant to leave the day the mountain erupted.
We Finally See the Borghese Gallery and an Actual Physician (and Identify, in Retrospect, Rome’s Multitudes of Green Birds)
May 19-20, 2019
The first works of art selected for the collection that is housed in the Borghese Gallery were chosen by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), the nephew of Pope Paul V. He hired the architect Flaminio Ponzio to design a villa on what was then the outskirts of Rome where he could spend time with his sculptures, paintings and ancient artifacts when time permitted. Not a bad “country home.”
Among the notable artists the Cardinal included in the Galleria – which is now owned by the Italian government – were Bernini, Caravaggio, Bimini, Titian, Raphael, and Peter Paul Reubens. He was clearly a man of outstanding taste. Subsequent generations of Borgheses added to and modified both the villa and the collection, most of them enhancing it – although in 1808, Prince Camilio Borghese had to sell some of the most ancient (pre-BCE) and precious pieces to his wife’s brother, the Emperor Napoleon. Those pieces are now in the Louvre. Coincidentally, or maybe not, in the same year Prince Camilio’s wife, Paulina Bonaparte, served as the model for the lovely Venus Victrix, by Antonio Canova.
I learned most of the information you have just read from the Wikipedia entry “Galleria Borghese” (or re-learned it, to be more precise, as I am sure I also read the details six months ago when I was actually in Rome, and possibly even a few months before that when I booked the tickets). You can find lots of other information about the Gallery from that Wiki if you are so inclined.
There are two floors in the Galleria Borghese and one really ought to spend an entire day there, rather than attempting to see it all at the end of an afternoon. But something is better than nothing and I was delighted with it all (for by now my swollen eye had settled down enough that I could see out of it a little, and the other one continued to work perfectly).
Among my favourite sculptures — as is, I am sure, the case for most visitors — were the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and – of course — David. All by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was 23 (!) when he executed the Proserpina. These sculptures are stunning — the detail as you walk around them simply defies any belief that a human could have carved them out of stone — even if the stone was Italian marble. The sculptors (not just Bernini, several of the others displayed in the Galleria as well) managed to bring the marble to life as well as the subjects. As I looked at Daphne turning into a laurel tree as Apollo tries to catch her – her fear and loathing absolutely relatable, as is her story even in the Me, Too era – it seemed as plausible that this was a scene from history as one derived from myth.
The paintings I admired are far too numerous to mention, and the dozen of photographs we took in the Gallery now form a wonderful slideshow of memories. I am truly grateful to my friend Virginia Sharek for suggesting that we go there.
We left the gallery when it closed and made our way by taxi to the international medical clinic (“with English-speaking doctors,” the website said) that we had tracked down on the internet that morning. Unfortunately, the clinic was not too keen on being found. The address was on a narrow street not far from the Spanish Steps, but there was no sign of the street number we’d written down. A pull-down security grill suggested that even if the clinic was there, it must be closed. But Arnie was undeterred by such observations. While I waited in the cab in case we decided to simply go back to the hotel, he walked back up the street and knocked on a door in the vicinity of the address we had. To his surprise, a nurse (I assume a nurse: she was dressed in white) aged about 50 opened a door, stuck her head out and told him to come in.
I let the cab go, and joined Arnie as he entered the clinic. There we found a doctor as well as the nurse; she was his translator as well as his medical assistant, which was a good thing as the doctor spoke no English. He attended to me carefully and kindly — joking that we must be related, as his first name was Walter. He examined my eye and forehead, and said he thought that I should get an x ray. He gave us the address of a hospital where we could go to get that done. He also gave me a prescription for an antibiotic ointment. Again, there was no fee.
A Missed Opportunity
Little did I know how close we’d come that day (twice) to the house where John Keats spent his last weeks of life: unfortunately for the world, there were no antibiotics in the vicinity, or anywhere else for that matter, when he was dying there. I’d seen his house in Hampstead when I was in London twenty years ago, and it would have been satisfying to see this final dwelling place – which has, like his home in London, been turned into a museum. Close by apparently, there are the one-time residences of Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M.W. Turner, Lord Byron and others.
As I read about Keats’s last months in this most interesting blog post by Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, it made me realize that in the western world, we have really forgotten the horrors of tuberculosis (or in my case have never known them, although before I was born, my aunt– an artist — contracted it and was in a sanitarium for two years). It seems kind of sad that ultimately, Keats was buried near Joseph Severn, an artist he’d travelled with to Rome from England, with whom – according to Albano, “he had maintained a cordial (but not intimate) relationship.” If you’re going to be buried next to someone (and I’d rather just be hoisted to the top of some tree and left for the turkey vultures to take care of), I think it should be someone with whom you feel more intimate than cordial.
As we left the hotel the following morning I noticed with curiosity, not for the first time, the flocks of green birds that are very common in Rome. I made a note to myself to find out about them when I got home. And I did. So I have now learned that the ones we saw are some of the thousands of parakeets that are descended from a few that escaped their cages or were released by their owners into the city’s parks forty or fifty years ago. Originally from South America, they have adapted so well to the climate of Rome that their numbers have increased dramatically. Large flocks also occur in Madrid, which is now looking for ways to get rid of some of them.
We went to the hospital that had been recommended to us as a place to have the x ray done, but they couldn’t give us an appointment until the following day. We had a hotel reservation that night in Sorrento, with a planned stop at Pompeii en route, so we gave up on that idea and headed for Naples.
The bruising and my appearance got worse and worse for several days as gravity took part in moving the swelling down to my jawline, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable and the discolouration had pretty much faded by the time I got back to Canada. After a few weeks of continuing pressure headaches after I got home, however, I did go to see my own physician, and she sent me for an x ray. The diagnosis: a non-displaced fracture of the zygoma. This basically means that although there was a crack in my cheekbone/orbital area, the pieces had not shifted away from their original locations so no surgical intervention was necessary. Put another way, I was very lucky. The headaches are now gone.
The staff at Ospidale san Carlo di Nancy took my information, gave us a number, and asked Arnie to roll my wheelchair out of the way and park me against a wall to wait.
The only visible difference between this emergency care unit and those at home was that in Rome, several of the patients who’d been pushed up against walls to wait were on stretchers. One had even already been hooked up to an IV. In Canada in my experience, they store people on stretchers behind doors in the halls of the emergency care unit – where they aren’t visible (or audible) from the waiting area – until they have time to treat them. I am guessing that the halls in Rome are narrower than ours, which would make concealed-hall parking impossible.
We waited and we waited. Many other ill and injured people arrived at emergency and were triaged. Those who were in worse condition than the ones in the waiting room were taken away for treatment, and those who were in equal or better condition took a seat or were parked among us. After a few hours, by which time it was dark, I was feeling less wobbly and light-headed, and we were tired, hungry, and grumpy (and, to quote one of my own novels, “several other adverbs that might equally well have served as the names of Snow White’s dwarfs”). Arnie asked how much longer the wait might be. We were told that at that point we were fourth in line, which meant about an hour, although anyone in more acute need of care would, of course, be treated first. We calculated that at the rate we were going, it might be several more hours before we saw a doctor, so we called a cab and went back to the hotel.
When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom of our hotel room, I was almost as taken aback at my appearance as the cab driver and then the front-desk staff had seemed to be when we’d returned from the hospital. I was pretty sure that the ambulance attendant had not got all the dirt out of the scrapes on my face, so I set to work to scrub them as clean as I could before I lost my final bits of courage. In the meantime, Arnie set off to find ice that I could apply to my abrasions, and came back with a hotel employee bearing some rubbing alcohol and two ice packs of the kind you freeze and then put in coolers or chests to keep your beer and sandwiches cold – except that these ones weren’t frozen. Apparently there was no ice in the hotel at all, and no way of obtaining anything colder than what they’d given us. So after we’d eaten a meal from room service, I took a couple of Tylenol and wrapped one of the coolish-packs in a towel and applied it to my face (a wholly inefficient treatment). Then both Arnie and I sank into our own respective exhausted but somewhat fitful sleeps.
I looked even worse in the morning, of course, and had a monumental headache, but since I was not nauseous (a symptom of concussion), I assumed that the diagnosis of “no concussion” was correct. We had tickets to see the Colosseum at noon and after tracking down the address of an international health clinic near the centre of the city that we could go to later, off we went.
We took the bus through a serious downpour that rapidly turned sections of the streets of Rome into lakes, headed for the metro train that would take us to the Colosseum stop. Thanks to my black eye, I was quickly given a seat on the crowded bus. There followed a conversation involving a lot of hand signals with an Italian woman of about my own age who was sitting across from me; I finally managed to explain to her what had happened to my face. (It was a few days before I stopped noticing every time someone looked at me with concern and curiosity, but I did continue to feel sorry for Arnie. I wished I could have worn a sign pinned to my chest with an arrow pointing in his direction that said, “He didn’t do it.”)
The woman on the bus (who used her hands as much to actually speak Italian as I did trying to speak it) was delighted to learn that we were from Canada. She took out her phone so she could show us the photos from her trip to Niagara Falls. But she couldn’t get the photos to come up on her camera, and her frustration with the bus’s lack of wireless reception drew others into the conversation until five or six of us were involved in an extended discussion involving hand signals, words in English and Italian, and some Spanish that I thought was Italian.
After getting off the bus we found an ATM and then the metro station, and with only one or two wrong turns we arrived soon enough after the start time of our tour that we were able to catch up to our group.
I love that the Colosseum is so old that there are paintings from four centuries ago (such as the one to the left, by one of my most recent favourite artists) in which it looks almost the same as it does now. But even more I love how being in the Colosseum makes you think in earnest about the fact that soon after 80 AD, when construction was completed, great crowds of people were drawn to attend events on that very spot in the same way (and in the same numbers) as we are to professional sports events in cities around the world today.
(I did not love learning that the structure was probably paid for “by the opulent spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE led to the Siege of Jerusalem” (Wikipedia). The article continues, “It is often assumed that Jewish prisoners of war were brought back to Rome and contributed to the massive workforce needed for the construction of the amphitheater, but there is no ancient evidence for that; it would, nonetheless, be commensurate with Roman practice to add humiliation to the defeated population.”)
Tales about the Romans throwing the Jews (or Christians) to the lions at the Colosseum are — according to our guide –”fake news”: the games were intended as entertainment, he said, not carnage.
Gladiators were housed in barracks just outside the Colosseum. Most died young (by about 25 years of age), not from the battles themselves but from infections caused by cuts from the iron blades they used as weapons.”Deaths did occur in the arena,” our guide told us, “but they were accidental.” Those who managed to live long enough to retire (around 45) became managers (Sound familiar?).
The seating capacity of the Colosseum was 50,000 to 60,000, which is approximately the same capacity as the Blue Jays / Rogers Stadium in Toronto. The games that took place at the Colosseum were organized by members of the aristocracy, and (one big difference between then and now!) were free to the city’s citizens.
The Colosseum was built on a clay base but water drained into the area, which necessitated the construction of a complex system of underground canals. One of the reasons that there were so many stairways and exit arches – again very similar to most arenas where professional sports are played today – was to allow quick evacuation of the building in case of fire, earthquake, or other emergency.
There is a lot of reconstruction underway at the Colosseum at present, made necessary by the effects of pollution and the general deterioration of a free-standing structure that is nearly two thousand years old. Each component of the reconstruction is undertaken with great care under the auspices of historians and archaeologists – who would, I think, learn as much from the process as they contribute. What a cool job that would be.
After our tour, we walked a couple of blocks away from the Colosseum and found a restaurant where we had yet another delicious lunch. We already knew not to buy food near a heritage site, no matter how inviting the place might look, because of the inflated costs. We saved many many euros in Italy by walking away from tourist attractions before we stopped to eat.
After lunch we took the metro back to the centre of Rome, where we walked up the Spanish Steps and then down to the Trevi Fountain. The rainstorms were long gone and it was a perfect day for wandering about. It was our last full day in Rome so before we went to look for the medical clinic, I insisted that we take another stab at finding the Borghese Gallery: we had, after all, paid for those tickets in advance.
We were given a large room on the top (4th) floor with two queen-sized beds facing one another, one of which would have folded itself into a couch once upon a time but could no longer do so. All it did was take up space, so we used it as a very large luggage stand. It was impossible to direct the shower head in any way that did not splash water all over the floor, so we reluctantly deployed towel after towel just to mop up water. The back stairwell was used as a storage area for garbage and for Christmas decorations. And as icing to the cake, most of the front-desk staff were distracted, brusque or rude.
On the positive side, the large windows in our room opened onto the back of the hotel, where there was a pond stocked with turtles and goldfish that swam towards me when I approached, thinking I had food. There were a lot of cats. And there were tennis courts, but since it was raining most of the time we were there, and since I can’t play tennis, we didn’t make use of those.
After checking in on Friday afternoon (May 17), we tracked down a place to get our laundry done. This was not as straightforward as it sounds. If you want a laundromat in Italy, you need to ask for a lavanderia a gettoni (laundry with tokens) not just a lavenderia (laundry). Although we were looking for the former, we kept asking for the latter, and we kept being directed to the latter. It turned out there weren’t any of the former in our part of town anyway, so we settled for the latter. To add to the challenge, the closest lavenderia would close at noon on Saturday and not re-open until Monday. We’d need to be back before noon the next day to collect our stuff or we’d be out of luck (aka clothing). So the next morning after breakfast, we took the car to collect the laundry, returned to deposit it and the car at the hotel, and then set out on public transit to get to the Vatican Museums by noon: which was the start of the two hour time-slot printed on the admission tickets I had purchased before we’d left Toronto. We made it, but just barely.
There is no point in my trying to describe the Vatican Museums to you. If you’ve seen them, you know. If you haven’t, you can quite easily spend an hour or so reading about them online. The vast structure contains not only collections of “art, archaeology and ethno-anthropology” assembled by various popes since the beginning of papal time (26 museums in total), but entire rooms and suites that a few popes occupied during their tenures. It is impossible to absorb even a small portion of what is on display. In total there are more than 70, 000 exhibits in an area covering about 162,000 square meters, or 1,744,000 square feet. (There are also villas and gardens. We didn’t even contemplate checking those out.) The works contained within the Museums include sculptures, paintings, historical artifacts, religious art, papal thrones, sarcophagi, tablets, chapels, maps, stairways, and a lot of highly decorated ceilings.
It all culminates of course, with the most amazing ceiling of all: the one in the Sistine Chapel. There, Arnie surreptitiously took photos of Michelangelo frescoes as we stood pressed against hundreds of other people from all around the world, all looking up, most of us with our mouths open in astonishment.
After lunch in the Museums’ cafeteria, we walked over to St. Peter’s Square – mainly because I had purchased a couple of postcards that I was determined to mail from the Vatican Post Office to my kids back in Canada. My younger son had sent postcards to me from that location on two occasions in years past, and I owed him one.
The Square was not located just around the corner as a security person just outside the Museums exit had assured us that it was, and once we got there we realized that the square, like everything else in the vicinity, was massive. Having worn out our feet entirely inside the Museums, by the time we’d finished touring St. Peter’s Square and mailing my postcards, we were ready to go back to the hotel and soak our feet in the goldfish pond. Or at least in the pools of water on the bathroom floor.
But our day was far from over. Also before leaving Canada, I had bought tickets to see the Borghese Gallery and Museum at 3 p.m. that day. I knew that scheduling visits to two immense and significant exhibitions in one day was a terrible idea, but I had bought the Borghese Gallery tickets before I realized that the Vatican Museums would not be open on the Sunday we were there, and that we would therefore have to see those on Saturday as well. Booking tickets on an Italian site is challenging enough: I wasn’t about to try to change the date of the Borghese tickets after the fact.
We did not know exactly where the Galleria Borghese was, but we did have a general idea and we knew that there was a Villa Borghese exit at the Spagna metro stop. That sounded promising, so away we went.
We left the Metropolitana with a few other tourists who were also headed for the Borghese Gallery, and found ourselves walking along wide trails through a nearly deserted green area. We asked the occasional passersby for directions, but most of them had no more idea where the Borghese Gallery was than we did.
We subsequently learned that we were approaching one of the largest green spaces in Rome – Villa Borghese Gardens, “a landscape garden in the naturalistic English manner” – and within that space are several museums and other buildings. The gallery we were seeking was on the far side of that park and would have been at least a kilometre from where we were even if we’d known which way we were going. Our actual route would have taken us even farther.
After we’d walked for another ten or fifteen minutes, Arnie caught sight of a map posted on a gate and (sensibly) went with the others to have a look at it. With my FitBit indicating that we had walked 18,000 steps that day and my backpack feeling heavier by the moment, I was fearful that if I stopped moving I would never be able to start again. I therefore decided to head up a path straight ahead of me that would take me to the top of a small hill, and see what I could see from there. To my surprise and pleasure, there ahead of me through the trees as I crested the hill, I saw a building.
Certain that this must be our destination (it wasn’t) I turned, relieved and happy, to report to Arnie on my successful scouting initiative. Instead of returning down the path I’d taken up, I took a shortcut across the grounds. A moment later, my foot hit a small tree stump mostly buried in the dirt and I pitched forward, landing on the upper left quadrant of my face with a resounding “CRACK.”
I knew immediately that the “crack” I’d heard did not bode well for me. After rolling onto my side and then easing myself into a sitting position, I discovered that my glasses were broken and that my head was bleeding. However, I considered myself lucky to still be conscious and I sensed that if I wanted to stay that way, I had better not stand up. So I either yelled or waited (I don’t remember which). Before long, Arnie was at my side and I was trying to explain to him what I was doing on the ground and why I thought that medical attention was going to be required.
A nearby cab driver and the owner of what might be described as an “auto rickshaw” summoned an ambulance for us. The attendants were kind and concerned and agreed that we needed to go to a hospital. They helped me down the hill and into the ambulance, and arranged a seat for Arnie. With the help of my travel booklet and Google translate, I figured out how to ask if they thought I had a concussion and the female attendant, rubbing the dirt from my wounds as gently as she could, assured me that from what I had told her, she thought that I did not. She seemed surprised when this news caused me to start crying. (I was surprised too.)
The ambulance dropped us at the emergency department of the Ospidale San Carlo di Nancy and, to our amazement, we learned that there would be no charge for the ambulance trip. Italian or foreigner, a ride to the hospital and attendant care was free.
As I sank into the nearest unoccupied wheelchair and Arnie wheeled me into the emergency room, even the pain in my head was not enough to diminish my relief that I was finally sitting down.
The Mosaics, a Museum, a Crypt, and Siena’s “Old City”
May 15-17, 2019
The famous mosaics set into the floor of the Duomo di Siena are covered for much of the year in order to protect them, but we were fortunate to find many of them uncovered when we were there. Together, the 56 inlaid-marble panels, in various shapes from rhomboid to rectangular to hexagonal, form what was described by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
It is impossible to convey the scope and magnificence of the mosaics with a photograph, although others have been more successful than we were. You can get a better sense of the magnitude of the endeavour by taking a photo from above, where you also find yourself far enough away from the mosaics to get a sense of how cleverly the third dimension has been incorporated into some of the designs. (I hope that readers are aware that they can click the “galleries” in this blog to see a larger version of each photo.)
According to the website Travelling in Tuscany, the panels were made “mainly by two different techniques: one known as graffito (tiny holes and cutting lines created in the marble and then filled with black stucco and mineral pitch) and one called marble intarsia (black, white, green, red and blue marble employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying)”. One of the most impressive works is The Slaughter of the Innocents, created (it is thought) by Matteo di Giovanni in 1482. The photo below is from Wikipedia Creative Commons.
I also loved the Sybils, of which there are ten.
Most of the contents of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (which translates as “Museum of the Cathedral’s Work”) are artifacts that used to be in the cathedral but in order to protect them, they aren’t there any more. One of these is the stained glass “rose window.”
We spent a couple of hours in the Museum but it was not long enough. This is a scant sampling of the hundreds of artifacts and artworks we saw, many of which I would have loved to simply sit down in front of, admire and attempt to absorb. (And not just because my feet were so sore by that point.)
One of the most interesting parts of the Cathedral of Siena is its crypt, which was not even discovered until 1999, when renovations undertaken beneath the chancel revealed a whole gallery of frescoes dating from the second half of the 13th century. It took three years to uncover what was there – providing not only another historical installation for visitors to the Duomo, but information of interest to art historians everywhere.
It was magnificent. (How many times can I use that word? Stay tuned to find out….)
The Old City
At last, really foot weary by this point, we made our way back to the car through the old city. This proved a challenging task, since we’d neglected to drop breadcrumbs or other markers to remind ourselves where we had parked our vehicle. The long, long stroll was painful but photographically rewarding. And we did stop for gelato.
The day after we arrived in Siena we set out by car to see the Old City and the famous medieval cathedral – built in the Romanesque Gothic style. It has been described as one of the most beautiful buildings in Italy and – despite the proliferation of beautiful buildings in Italy – I cannot argue with that assessment.
relatively new to Italian cathedrals at this point, I thought that the word duomo,
as in Duomo di Siena, referred to the dome on top of the cathedral. In
fact, duomo means “cathedral.” The Italian word for
“dome” is cupola.
The Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta (aka the Duomo di Siena), was built on the site of a Roman temple and completed around 1250. The cathedral’s magnificent deep-green-and-white-striped marble exterior (designed by Giovanni Pisano) hints at the wonders inside, where the striped theme continues as a backdrop to an astonishing array of sculptures, frescoes and carvings by nearly fifty of the world’s finest artists – Donatello, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Beccafumi and Bernini among them. Some of the works, including Nicola Pisano’s astoundingly ornate and detailed pulpit (he did have some help with the sculpting), are considered to be among the most important works of art in Italy.
When you step inside the doors of this majestic edifice, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to lift your eyes toward the heavens – where they encounter a ceiling painted an appropriately deep blue, decorated with golden stars, rising toward a most spectacular dome. In addition to the nave and the chancel and the aisles, there are side chapels and tombs, a sacristy and a library. The place is huge, and a person with unlimited time would need at least a full day to take in the entirely overwhelming stock of riches contained within it – and another to do justice to the Duomo’s museum across the way and the crypt below. We merely skimmed the surface of all three.
Our friend Ksenija (I have mentioned her before) told us we must see the mosaics that have been set into the floor, so we were looking forward to those (more on those in the next post), but we were unprepared for all the rest of the magnificence.
I Ascend to the Heavens
“Duomo” may not mean “dome,” but in the case of the Siena cathedral, the dome itself does have a name: Porta del Cielo, or “Gate of Heaven.” Individuals can’t wander around up there on their own, so I signed up for a tour, which gives participants access to areas of the cathedral that until recently were only accessible to architects and builders.
In addition to seeing all kinds of tools and even drawings on the walls of planned sections of the building, the tour, which takes you 79 steps above the floor of the cathedral, offers amazing views into the interior of the cathedral and out across the surrounding landscape.
Not the Tower of Babel, but…
When we were in Pisa, Arnie had remarked that there were so many people speaking so many different languages that it brought to mind the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. I was reminded of his comment when I was climbing around the dome of the duomo in Siena.
I started chatting (as one does, or at least as I do) with others in the tour and discovered to my relief that the interesting young woman ahead of me and her partner were not Italian, but French-speaking Swiss. They had cycled into Italy, camping their way through the Alps, as part of a group. The reason I was relieved they did not speak Italian was that despite months of practice on Duolingo, I had found when I arrived in Italy that I was utterly unable to speak Italian. Every time I tried to think of a word I wanted to say, the French or the Spanish version of it popped into my head. This problem persisted throughout my time in Italy. (I am now working on German, and hoping that the vast differences between the Romance languages and das Deutsche will help me to avoid confusion when I get to Germany.) Anyway, I had a lovely chat in French with the woman from Switzerland and, in fact, discovered that I was more fluent in that language than I’d thought I was.
Unfortunately, when I get to France, I’ll probably be able to speak only Italian.