This popped up on Twitter this morning:
Dinesh D’Souza is of course the right-wing commentator (also convicted felon) who gets his ass handed to him regularly on Twitter by People Who Actually Know Things, but this tweet of his just kind of jumped out at me. (Ocasio-Cortez is the far left congressional candidate in New York, and she’s awfully good at smacking down idiots.)
Ocasio-Cortez’s second comment kind of sums up my reaction to D’Souza, but there’s more to it, I think. His entire attitude — and not just in this tweet — is Ayn Randian to the max: there are weak and there are strong, and the strong are good, vital, and important. The weak are there only to serve the strong.
Look at his language: ‘colony,’ ‘provide resources,’ ‘rule.’ Holy crap, people, it’s unvarnished colonialism, and he means it as a good thing. Remember the TV series V? D’Souza would have sided with the aliens.
That is not a strained metaphor. He is stating pointblank that if our “colony” has nothing more to provide us — and that is clearly his rhetorical presumption — we should abandon them to their fate now that we’ve stripped them of what we needed. They are of no benefit to us; therefore let them die and decrease the surplus population.
This is a worldview that I cannot understand. This is a worldview that I cannot “reach out to” or “have a meaningful discussion with.”
This is a worldview that I want to see exterminated.
— — — — —
 They are not our colony and never were. They were Spain’s colony; they are our territory, and that quasi-legal status is a whole other issue.
Finally, we have my Pro Tips that I learned about traveling in Italy, especially on a guided bus tour.
You will read that Italians are snappy dressers, very fashion conscious, and this is true. Resist the urge to match them — they are merely strolling to lunch; you are on a forced march. Comfy shoes are a must; you will be on cobblestones most of the trip. Still, do better than most tourists I saw; there’s no point in being a slob.
Short shorts and bare shoulders are frowned upon — and in many cases forbidden — in the churches. Climate change has forced a moderation of that dress code as far as regular shorts go, but ladies should still expect to cover up. Most churches will sell paper shawls for one or two euros. Buy one and keep it for next time.
There is a structure to Italian meals, and menus are arranged around it:
- Antipasti: literally “before the meal”; appetizers. Do not fill up on them.
- Primi piatti: “first dishes”; pasta. Do not fill up on it, although we realized at some level that this is the point — fill up your tummy with inexpensive pasta so that you don’t have to spend that much on meat to feed your family
- Secondi piatti: meats, all kinds
- Desserts: yum, but if you want my advice, skip it and hit the gelato shop down the street
Do not be afraid to skip one or more courses. Order as you would back home. Also, if you’re on a tour and are being served all the courses, do not be afraid to leave pasta on your plate. It’s not rude, and there’s no point in gorging yourself.
Ask for cacio e pepe, pasta with cheese and black pepper. You won’t regret it.
Order the house wine.
We have first floor, second floor, etc., and basement — they start with 0 floor, then 1st floor, 2nd floor, etc., and basement is -1.
Write down your hotel room number in your Waste Book. That way you will avoid swiping your card over and over and wondering why the door isn’t opening when in fact you are on the wrong floor — 2nd floor was in Venice; Florence is 1st floor.
Learn the basics. Almost every person you run into speaks English very well, which will make you feel stupid, but you can at least learn to say “Good morning,” “Good evening,” and “Thank you.”
You will hear your tour guide say the word “allor” a lot; it’s a filler word, meaning variously “well then,” “so, OK,” “moving on,” that kind of thing.
Ask about timed tickets for museums you are interested in. You get to go to the happy line and to avoid the sad line.
Italians will not make change. They have an irrational aversion to it. If all you have to pay for a €6 item is a five and a fifty, they will take the five rather than break a €50 bill.
Also, the concept of taking your €50 bill and trading you smaller bills for it is utterly alien to them. They will not do it, not at the hotel, not at a shop, probably not even at a bank, although we didn’t get the chance to test that one.
They are also skittish about tipping. They will never ask for it and will even refuse it. One reason is that they are paid a living wage; another is that a small service charge is usually built into the bill at restaurants. You can round up the bill and that’s fine, but otherwise they are really uncomfortable with the practice. I gave a €5 bill as a tip to a taxi driver (I was so tired I wasn’t thinking straight) and he just held it and stared at me incredulously until I took it back, apologized, and left him a €2 coin instead, which he accepted with a shake of his head. A waiter in Vico Equense ran all the way from the restaurant to the place where we were meeting the hotel shuttle to return an item one of us had left behind and point blank refused a tip for doing so.
Keep a list of your purchases in your Waste Book. That way you can fill out the customs form upon reentering the U.S. without being afraid of being caught out trying to sneak in items you completely forgot you had purchased. (Both last year and this year, Customs at Hartsfield-Jackson were willing to take our word for it that we were not bringing more than $800 worth of stuff, but it’s better if you’re prepared to be honest if necessary.)
If you’re lucky enough to have good weather, you will need something to keep the sun out of your eyes. I bought an umbrella in Venice because it looked like rain, but I used it the rest of the trip as a parasol.
I purposely didn’t take a straw hat because I didn’t want to deal with it on the plane or to crush it in packing. However, hats are for sale everywhere — consider buying one.
Sunscreen is important: you will be out in the sun much of most days.
Google “how to use a bidet in Italy.” The rest is on you.
Monday, September 10, Sorrento
Here’s the thing: a Viking River Cruise is one thing, a forced march across Italy is quite another. When we were planning this trip a couple of months ago, there were only a couple of optional side trips, but one of them was a full-day excursion to the Isle of Capri on day 9.
Ah, Capri! That epitome of Mediterranean islandness! Blue Grotto! Boat ride! Chair lift!
However, a wise traveler knows himself. The Lovely First Wife is one who, when she travels, wants to DO ALL THE THINGS, KENNETH; me, not so much. I know my limits, and I knew that by day 9 of the trip I was going to need a personal day, particularly if where we were staying was a resort with spa. So way back in June or whenever it was, I (and Mary Frances) opted out of the optional excursion to Capri. Marc and LFW were going to forge ahead, and more power to them.
On these tours, once you arrive at your starting point your tour manager will continue to give you the option to sign up (if the excursions are not full). Poor Ignazio did his best to convince us to go to Capri all the way up to the last possible minute, but we stubbornly declined.
So when I woke up on Monday morning, the LFW was gone, and I had a day to breathe in the sea air. I had breakfast, I had lunch, I caught up on the blogging (a little bit):
I had a massage. I napped. I had cocktails.
Anyway, the day passed in blissful sunshine and non-trudging; finally our spouses returned from what they claimed was a lovely excursion, although we did notice that they were hot, exhausted, and annoyed with the huge crowds and tacky tourist zones. (“Panama City of Italy,” they called it, so that would make it the “Redneck Riviera Riviera”?) We all won.
Tuesday, September 11
About a third of the tour group had signed up for the short version of the tour, so they went home on Tuesday morning. The rest of us loaded into the bus to drive down the Amalfi Coast to Amalfi.
Everyone will tell you that the Amalfi Coast is stunning, and they are correct. What they probably don’t mention is that it’s a two-lane road that hugs the sides of mountains/fjords, so it is 18 kilometers of switchbacks hundreds of feet in the air:
Whee! Can you say “vertiginous”?
Whenever one travels, one does wonder what it would be like to move to the area. Amalfi is lovely, but OMG the traffic on that two-lane road! Bumper to bumper, and a lot of it tour buses easing past each other while scooters zip between them. It took us over an hour to go 18 km. People parked along the sides, buses parked along the sides. I would have to move in with Sophia Loren and use her yacht to go get groceries.
See how they’ve left enough room for passing? (You think I am joking.) Notice also the car parked on the sidewalk. What are pedestrians to do? They could cross over and use that sidewalk on the other side IT IS TOO A SIDEWALK, or they could just step out into the street and go around the car.
Let’s talk about Italian traffic. It seems to be an international joke that Italians are crazy drivers, but that’s not at all what I saw. The Italians are phenomenal drivers in ways that Americans simply cannot wrap their heads around. Here, watch this video:
Everyone takes turns, everyone watches out for each other, nobody gets hurt. You just inch your nose out into the stream, and the next guy lets you in. You see a pedestrian getting ready to cross the street — at a crosswalk, even! — and so you stop to let them cross. We took a taxi in Rome late one night when the Italians are just starting their passeggiata, and at one point I thought the driver was on a pedestrian mall: the street was full of people, just strolling and chatting and shopping. But it was a major street, and the driver just eased his way down it. Pedestrians moved out of the way, he swerved left or right, and on we went. (Italian drivers are OK; it’s the pedestrians who are crazy.)
I could watch Italian traffic all day, especially intersections. Places where we would have traffic lights and turn lanes were miracles of smooth cooperation. It was like watching a video of what driverless cars would be like: each vehicle sensing when it was its turn to go. Somehow they make it work. I’d love to see data on traffic accidents per 1000 population for the U.S. and Italy (with accidents caused by non-Italians broken out). I suspect we’d see far fewer fender benders in Italy.
Anyway, the views along the way are spectacular:
Along the way — of this narrow, cliff-hugging two-lane road — there was this:
This is a miniaturization of the village we just passed through, and on the right-hand side, out of frame, is a little cliffside nativity. We’ve seen this before, right?
Historically, Amalfi was a maritime merchant stronghold, very wealthy and very secure. They built into the cliffs for protection, and like Venice, they never seemed to feel the need to abandon their preposterous location once they were safe. They are still building into the cliffs.
Lunch was good; we saved a table for Sophia Loren, but she didn’t show. Some nice shopping areas, along with the usual touristy stuff.
The Cathedral of St. Andrew:
ADA compliance? Che cos’è quello?
Originally built in the 9th century, it was redone and expanded and consolidated over the centuries into the current structure.
The original style was “Arab-Norman,” which I was unaware was a thing. Both the front arcade and the “Cloister of Paradise” feature these ornate arches:
The front doors are bronze, made in Constantinople, and are the earliest post-Roman examples of the craft.
The path through the cathedral starts with a chapel (the original church, modernized) which serves as a museum:
From there, you descend into the crypt of St. Andrew, and the bare Romanesque chapel does not prepare you:
Altar on the left there, and around back you can peer into the crypt where they have the relics of St. Andrew.
I liked this inlaid marble panel:
It was unlike any pattern I’d ever seen in these churches, and it’s only just now looking at it that I see the saltire/St. Andrew’s crosses in it. Ground/figure, go figure.
The cathedral itself:
Back to the bus, and thank Caesar we took a non-coastal route back to the hotel. Shower, prosecco on the terrace, and a shuttle into Vico Equense, where we ate our last meal in Italy at another restaurant named Tito’s.
As we strolled, there was a shop, Agenzia Cioffi — the sign said they were an “automotive consulting firm,” whatever that is. The display on the front of the building had car tags from all over:
Lest Hall County start getting the big head, there was another, older one from Franklin County.
Finally we caught the shuttle back to the hotel, repacked, went to sleep, woke up at 2:00 am, Kenneth, placed our bags in the hall, and boarded the bus at 3:00.
I will spare you the experience of getting back to Atlanta, only to say that watching the Business Class people get checked in first at the Naples airport, only to walk out the door to find a shuttle bus that would take all of us out to the tarmac, was a lot of fun. Also, Charles de Gaulle in Paris: you’re lovely, but you’re no Hartsfield-Jackson.
FINALLY: PRO TIPS, next up.
Sunday, September 9: We hit the bus and head down to Pompeii.
We only had about an hour and a half in the ruins, and our tour guide was not very good, so this is a pitiful overview of the place. We all knew the basic story, and Maria (I think was her name) never checked our level of knowledge before telling us what we already knew. Bad teaching, and equally bad docenting, if that’s a word.
Here’s the entrance:
Someone in the group said they saw Sam Waterston leaving as we were coming in. Might have been fun to say hi to him and remind him that for a season or two of I’ll Fly Away, we were practically neighbors.
It was quite hot that day — it was warm most of the trip — so watching our step and avoiding the other tourists became very wearing.
Here are the remains of a private home:
You can tell it was a private home because it had a pool and marble columns, Maria said. She offered no other details, such as how the family occupied the space. Oh well.
Here’s a bronze that I thought was a bit avant garde for 79 AD:
Especially when you look closely:
I asked about it — Maria apparently planned to ignore it — and was told that it was not in fact Roman but part of an exhibition from 2014 of works by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, who died shortly before the exhibit opened; the powers that be decided to keep two of his sculptures in his honor. This is one; the other we saw on our trek up to the entrance — I’ll come back to it.
More ruined homes, with mosaic floors:
Roman colony though it was, Pompeii’s streets were more like open sewers, so stepping stones every 30 feet or so were necessary for pedestrian traffic:
Maria did fill us in on something I had not known: like Rome, Pompeii was a “lasagna,” and archaeologists are unearthing the Greek colony that came before the Romans took over. Here’s the Greek amphitheatre:
It’s been restored and is used for concerts and performances. (The white marble seats are original; the rest are new construction.) Maria took care to explain that this facility was for “cultural” performances, not gladiator movies.
Ah, the baths!
This was the gym portion, with a swimming pool to the left. Ladies were on the far side, men to the right. We went to the men’s facilities.
Lockers, no lie:
Three rooms, cold, tepid, and hot water, which was heated by hot air from ovens outside, pumped into the space beneath the elevated floor:
On the way out, Maria made sure we saw this on the street. The more delicate among you should avert your eyes. The rest of you, well, I would say get your mind out of the gutter, but…
She didn’t really explain why this was here. It might have indicated a brothel, or it might just be a sign of protection: Priapus was highly honored in Pompeii. (You can buy winged phallus amulets and even winged phallus bottle openers out in the tourist zone.)
On our way out, more ruins, a temple I think:
I think it would take at least a day to see the major points of interest in Pompeii, not to mention Herculaneum, the city on the other side of Vesuvius that was destroyed by lava. (Pompeii was covered in ash.) So those of you who came here looking for pornographic Roman frescoes — sorry. Google is your friend.
So on the way out we got a rear view of another Mitoraj:
Maria told us it was called Achilles; she was mistaken — it is Daedalus. When we arrived, this was the view we got:
I remember thinking when we came in that it didn’t look like a Greek or Roman bronze, for several reasons, but mostly this one.
We trudged back to the bus and headed towards Sorrento. Mostly we traveled through rather slummy looking areas of metropolitan Naples, so Ignazio alerted us to get our cameras ready for the view when we came out of a tunnel:
Almost anything can look picturesque if you’re far enough away.
The view from our hotel, the Towers Hotel:
Yes, that’s Mt. Vesuvius across the bay. No, that’s not smoke — it’s a nearly omnipresent cloud.
After we checked in — and showered — we headed into Sorrento for yet another shopping opportunity, although this time it was at a really good marquetry establishment, family owned since 1852 and now in its sixth generation. Our purchase should be delivered today.
Dinner was at a small cafe. At least that’s what it looked like until you entered it and found yourself climbing into a Hello, Dolly fantasy world:
Terrace after terrace of tables and plants, ending in our private dining area:
Ignazio was kind enough to take a photo of us:
Great meal, and total exhaustion. Back to the hotel and bed.
ONLY ONE MORE BLOG POST TO GO, and then the Pro Tips. Woot!
It’s still Wednesday, and I’m somewhere over the North Atlantic. Evidence of Hurricane Florence is not yet apparent. Here’s the view from the plane’s camera:
[update: as we approached Hartsfield-Jackson, we flew over the property where Alchemy will be held — I got to see my domain from above!]
Pretty spiffy, but there is no wifi on this 777, and the USB port doesn’t seem actually to charge anything—it’s just for you to “work with your USB files,” whatever that means.
So, Saturday in Rome. First up, the Forum. Actually, there are two Fora: the Imperial Forum…
…and the Roman Forum:
Like you, I had always presumed that after Rome fell, the Forum just kind of hung around being ravaged for spare parts (“a Lego set,” as Susanna put it). But no. Sure, some of it got taken apart and used for churches and other buildings, but mostly it was completely buried until the 17th century.
Then it was excavated, ravaged for spare parts, and hung around. Mussolini had it further excavated and protected, and the excavation continues today. (The Imperial Forum is under excavation as we speak.)
Here’s a temple with a church inside it.
The Christians tried to tear the temple down, with all its bad pagan juju and all; you can see the scars on the upper parts of the columns where they tried pulling them down with ropes—to no avail. So they built the church inside the temple.
Original Roman road:
The Christians left this triumphal arch up…
… because it memorialized Titus’s sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD and was thus tangentially connected with Jesus. You can see the parade featuring the menorah and other spoils of war from the Temple.
From the Forum, we hit the Colosseum:
It wasn’t called the Colosseum by the Romans. It was just the Stadium. But it is colossal.
The original floor was dirt, but it was soon excavated and covered with a removable wooden floor. At first the floor could be removed and the pit flooded for reenactments of famous naval battles (or at least the ones the Romans won)…
…but that was expensive and wasn’t as big a draw as the violent entertainments, so an entire underground complex of dressing rooms, cages, and trapdoors with elevators was built. Susanna’s narration made the deliberate cruelty of the culture too painful to listen to.
The gladiators had a training arena and dormitories across the street, connected by a tunnel to the stadium (the triangular opening). They were cosseted, since they were critical investments, and they made extra cash by leaving their bedroom doors unlocked for anyone who wanted to spend the night there “discussing philosophy,” as Susanna put it.
Here we all are, outside the Colosseum, where one of our party tripped and fell. It was serious, a broken radius and ulna, and while we paused for triage, a bride in full regalia came quickly across the street, followed by an attendant and a photographer. Suddenly we were in a Fellini movie. (You can barely see her white-veiled head to the upper left of our crowd.)
Up we went to the church of St. Peter in Chains, because Susanna is something of a Michelangelo freak and she wanted us to see the work he considered his best: Moses.
Remember the unfinished “slaves” from Julius II’s tomb? This where Julius finally ended up, after bickering between his successor and his family over his final resting place. It’s not quite as grand as his original commission of a grand pyramid with 44 sculptures by Michelangelo.
And here you see the great Julius in his final repose.
Well, hello, sailor. It is otherwise a pretty restrained church…
…except for some of the chapel decorations, like this one:
Well, hello, sailor.
After that we were left to our own devices, so we moseyed around until we found a café with a great name:
We thought it meant “Don’t Trip Over the Cat,” but it actually translates as “No Tripe for Cats!” Food was good, too. But even better was a place our tour manager Ignazio told us about, Grezzo/Raw Chocolate. They do not cook their chocolate, only dry it and grind it. The result is a gelato to die for. I had a double scoop of chocolate and raspberry:
Ignazio had advised us all to head back up around the Colosseum to get a front view of the Victor Immanuel Monument, but we decided to head in the opposite direction to St. Maria della Vittoria. On the way, I was ordered take this photo, because it just seemed impolite to the memory of Chirico not to:
On the way, we found one of the disappointing stationery stores — although I did buy some brown inks — and a fountain, seen here from a distance:
It featured four copies of our old friend, the kitty from the Vatican…
… and a somewhat less than imposing Moses.
He looks more like a Peter Max version of Odin or something. (The horns thing comes from an early mistranslation of the original Hebrew text describing Moses returning from Mt. Ararat with the Commandments: his head was said to radiate beams of light. St. Jerome mistook the word for “animal horns.” Mistakes were made.)
Here’s the exterior of Maria della Vittoria:
I thought at the time, and Wikipedia confirms, that it looks an awfully lot like (“inspired by”) the church of St. Susanna across the street, guys.
I don’t know that I would have built my shamelessly stolen design right across the street, but maybe mores were different back then?
And here’s the inside:
It has a cool architectural trick: little domes over the chapels that allow sunlight to streak in.
And the reason we trekked all the way up there:
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Bernini. We see the moment of Teresa’s description of being pierced by a flaming dart at the hands of an angel, and she knew God. Here’s what she said in her autobiography:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
Teresa’s robes float and writhe with her, and Rome was so stunned and enthralled that Bernini’s style was immediately copied all over Europe.
After Teresa, my LFW and I then went on a private mission to find what the guidebook said was the mother of all stationery stores in Rome. On the way, we came across the Spanish Steps again, this time from the top:
It’s pretty high up. Thank Caesar we were going down.
The celebrated stationery store was a complete failure, little more than place for Moleskines and Rhodias. Sure, it had more notebooks than that first store, but there was nothing there that I couldn’t buy in Newnan. Ugh. We took a cab back to the hotel, showered, and joined the tour for a dinner followed by a bus ride around Rome at night, and we did get to see the Victor Immanuel Monument:
Only a couple more days to go, and three hours more in the air—we can do this!
It’s Wednesday, and I’m on an Air France 777 somewhere over Caen, heading back to ATL.
On Friday we were in Rome.
As you know, Vatican City is an independent state. It used to be its own kingdom, but when Italy was united in 1870 the Holy See lost all its temporal property; Pope Pius IX pitched a hissy and refused to talk to anyone.
In 1929, the government of Italy signed a treaty with Pope Pius XI, agreeing to his sovereignty over his 110 acres, plus a ton of tax goodies and privileges.
While our hotel is in sight, indeed, of walking distance, of St. Peter’s, it was necessary for us to board the bus, get dropped off, walk around the walls, and enter through the Vatican Museum.
Here’s our first view of the Vatican:
It didn’t get better:
Out into the gardens…
The brass sculpture back there is a modern piece depicting the church. Despite the polished perfection of most of its surface, there are some gnarly bits that represent the ongoing construction of the faith.
It rotated majestically, and here’s my favorite bit:
He stood there, rotating majestically with the globe, allowing the crowds to admire him. So unlike our dear Pope Francis, no?
Here’s a kitty:
It’s stone, from Egypt, from the time of Cleopatra, I think. Remember him.
We enter the museum itself:
First up, Greek/Roman sculptures:
An athlete of some kind; I think he originally held a spear.
The Apollo Belvedere:
I have a bronze copy of this statue in the labyrinth.
The original Laocöon:
I do not have an actual Dionysus/Bacchus in the labyrinth (playing off the dichotomy between the cool, cerebral Apollo and the ecstatic Dionysus). I have a bronze Dancing Faun (from Pompeii) who stands in for him, though, because he’s much more ecstatic. This Bacchus seems closer to being a member of 3 Old Men than his usual portrayal as a joyful, androgynous youngling.
In this hall…
… was this Greek torso. It was one of the early discoveries, and let’s talk about that a moment.
Before the Renaissance, no one remembered the Greco-Roman world; it was all buried literally under their feet. Our tour guide Susanna—the best we had on the trip—called the city a “lasagna”: layer upon layer of city after city built on top of each other. Once people started stumbling across the remains of the former civilizations, it was like a light switch going on.
This torso in particular helped spark the Renaissance, the rebirth of Roman perfection. No one had seen a sculpture with such accurate anatomy in centuries, and they got to work copying it.
This torso, in fact, is the very torso in the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark center where procreation flared. Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
This is kind of cool:
This is an enormous bowl made from a single piece of porphyry. There are several large objects like this scattered around. I regret to say I cannot remember what this one’s original purpose was, but the Vatican turned it into a fountain.
Here’s the Emperor Claudius, for those who remember him and who have the eerie sense that we’re seeing a rerun of I, Claudius from PBS. (No, the real Claudius was not ripped like a soccer player; his head was “photoshopped” onto the body, as was the custom of the time. Y’all remember this when it comes time to build my memorial.)
In case you have forgotten:
Here’s a fun one:
This is Diana, from the temple at Ephesus, which you will perhaps remember from St. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. As Susanna said, “Those are not mangoes.” The odd thing is that there is some conjecture that those are not breasts, but testicles. Make of that what you will.
I just liked this bowl with the ugly, naked dwarfs holding it up.
Here’s Dionysus as we know and love him:
The scenery, of course, was stunning:
Down some stairs…
… along a couple more passages…
…and here we are coming out of the Sistine Chapel.
What, no photos of Michelangelo’s masterpieces? Nope. The official excuse is that too many people were taking flash photos — STOP TAKING FLASH PHOTOS IN MUSEUMS, PEOPLE; IT’S NOT HARD TO TURN YOUR FLASH OFF — but I seem to recall that the Japanese company that funded the restoration got some kind of copyright on the ceiling. Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, though, there were no restrictions on photography.
The place is huge.
Bernini’s baldequin over the altar is, for example, 90 feet tall. The letters you see around the top of the columns are six feet tall.
Here is Michelangelo’s Piéta:
It’s always hard, looking at Michelangelo’s sculpture, to remember that it’s marble and not flesh and fabric.
The dome above the altar:
And back outside into the square:
The front of the Basilica:
They were setting up for some special event with the Pope addressing lots of people. No details beyond that.
We lunched at Piazza Navona, which has not one…
…but two fountains:
This is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, depicting the four longest rivers of the four continents (at least the ones known at the time).
For “America” we had the Rio de Plata in Argentina/Uruguay, with that fiercest of river life…
…the armadillo. Yeah, they got it wrong. In all kinds of ways.
After lunch we had some free time, and there was a “stationery” shop there that had the most phenomenal hand-made blank books. The LFW’s guidebook, though, listed other such shops, so I walked out without buying anything. This was a mistake, because the other shops were pathetic, and we never returned to that first shop.
From the Piazza Navona, we headed to the Pantheon.
People, if I had to pick only one thing to see in Rome, it would be the Pantheon.
It is so beautiful, so stunningly proportioned and so perfectly executed, that you will be overawed when you enter, if not brought to tears by its perfection. The dome is a perfect hemisphere; the base is a perfect cube which would hold the bottom of the sphere.
It was built by the Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD to house All The Gods. Whoever you worshiped, you were welcome to worship him/her/them/it at the Pantheon.
The Pantheon is the only fully extant Roman building, and for centuries it was the largest dome in the world. It’s still huge.
The coffers in the ceiling are structural, helping sustain the weight, and the oculus at the top is open to the sky and always has been. Usually rain is blown back out of the oculus by air currents, but if it does make it to the floor, it is quickly drained away to the sewers:
The oculus has another secret: the sun at noon traverses the architrave throughout the year, and originally the architrave held the signs of the zodiac, signaling the turning of the seasons and times of the major festivals. (The Christians removed all the pagan symbology, and the Pantheon itself was saved from destruction only because Pope Boniface IV proclaimed it a church; there is an altar now across from the front door. Otherwise, it is as Hadrian built it.)
Speaking of Hadrian, here’s Hadrian’s Temple, built in honor of his mother Domitia Paulina, who was apparently a kick-ass politician and wise, supportive woman.
It now is the front of the Chamber of Commerce. Across the plaza was a bar which was touted on the intertubes as being “one of the best bars in the world,” but we never made it back to double-check that claim.
No visit to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Trevi Fountain, I suppose.
We made wishes: 1 coin for true love or an impossible wish; 2 coins for marriage; and 3 coins for an immediate divorce, such things being difficult in Roman Catholic Italy. I would have thought that qualified as an impossible wish, myself. My wish? To become a best-selling author.
A hike to the Spanish Steps, then back to the hotel for a refreshing shower before heading back out. We roamed about a bit before snagging cocktails at a gin bar and supper at a cool little trattoria that apparently introduced the idea of dinner salads to the Eternal City.
SIDEBAR ABOUT THE BAR: It was called The Gin Corner, and it was listed as one of the top bars in Rome. We stumbled across it and dived inside to sample the wares. I tried to play the “Smoky Topaz” game with the owner/bartender, but either I didn’t make myself clear or he’s just obtuse; he just made the Smoky Topaz. Without measuring.
Back to the hotel and our view of St. Peter’s.
 AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, TURN OFF THE SHUTTER CLICK NOISE, TOO.
 Buy my book.
A reminder that it is 5:00 pm on Monday, September 10, and this is my view as I sip my Negroni:
That is Mt. Vesuvius. My Lovely First Wife [LFW] is still on the Isle of Capri. Onward!
Thursday, September 6: Assisi
There’s actually not a lot to say about Assisi — it’s a miniscule village of 900 people. Basilica on one end, main street, convent on the other end. Here’s a photo of our approach. Assisi is the fortification bit at the very top of the hill.
Driving into the parking lot. This was one of the few places on our tour that had actually consulted with DisneyWorld on how to do it, albeit on a cramped hillside. (Note: they did not actually consult with DisneyWorld, but they did have an underground parking garage for cars and a large lot for the buses.) This is surely because Assisi is an actual pilgrimage site for actual pilgrims. St. Francis is still a majorly revered figure, and you will recall that the current Pope named himself after the saint — a deliberate choice.
You have to walk up that hill. You will throughout your trip knock out your 10,000 steps by midafternoon.
The view from the top:
The gate to the city:
The cat guarding the gate:
Narrow streets, lined with shops:
The wide plaza leading to the basilica:
And finally, the basilica:
Okay, here we are. The Basilica of St. Francis is a papal basilica, meaning that it belongs to the Pope, not to Assisi. It’s worth talking about that.
Francis was a ne’er-do-well, a spoiled son of a very rich family in Assisi. He couldn’t figure out what to do with his life until one night he had a spiritual crisis. God gave him instructions, and he went out and did it: live a life of poverty, service, and obedience. There’s a great fresco in the church of the moment when he’s told his family: his father has pulled back to take a swing at his son, who is standing there naked in the square, clothed only by the bishop who has wrapped his cloak around the boy. His mother has grabbed Dad’s hand to keep him from following through.
Anyway, Francis walks down to the then-marshes below, where only the poorest of the poor and the lepers lived and started his life of service. Eventually he went to Rome and asked the Holy Father permission to start an order of monks, which the Pope craftily did, claiming he had had a dream from God to do so.
There must have been something in the water, because by the time he died Francis had more than 15,000 followers who took the same vows of poverty. A female friend, Clare, went right out and founded a parallel order, the Poor Clares, whose convent is on the other side of town.
And so within two years of his death, he had been canonized as a saint and a papal basilica was designed and constructed in his home town, thus allowing the Pope to assimilate the entire Franciscan order and all the believers who idolized him. Neat trick.
Here’s the entrance to the lower church:
Yes, “lower church.” If you scroll back up and look at the whole thing, you will notice that there’s a church on the bottom and another church on the top. WE WERE NEVER TOLD WHY THIS WAS SO, NOT EVEN BY WIKIPEDIA AFTERWARD. I surmised that they built the lower one, and then when the cult of devotion took off they built another one to accommodate the cash-bearing pilgrims, but no: the basilica was designed like this.
The lower one is pure Romanesque; the upper one is the more modern Gothic. No photos were allowed in either one, so that’s all I got.
The saint is buried in a crypt, in an actual third chapel beneath the lower church, along with four of his original followers.
Back out into the sun:
Off the main street, homes, etc:
Then we got back on the bus and drove to Rome and that’s all I got for Thursday, except that our hotel in Rome, the Hotel Michelangelo, is right outside the Vatican and was nearly too chic for the likes of us:
And we’re back.
Known as Il Duomo (“The Dome”), the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore has become the symbol of Florence itself. Started in the 1200s, it wasn’t finished until Brunelleschi designed and constructed the dome in the 1400s. If you don’t know the story of the design/construction of the dome, go read up. It’s astounding. It was the first octagonal dome in history to be built without scaffolding to hold it up while it was being built, and it remains the largest brick dome in the world.
The campanile was designed by Giotto…
… and the doors to the Baptistery (across the plaza) were designed by Ghiberti, who competed with Brunelleschi for the design of the dome.
Made of gilded bronze, they’re known as the “Gates of Paradise” due to their beauty:
The cathedral is decorated with polychromatic marble and is striking on the outside.
We were assured that the interior is actually a little disappointing after the exterior, plus the line to get in was four hours long, so we crossed that off our list for the afternoon free time.
Onward to the Academie, where we skipped what Ignazio called the “sad line,” i.e., those who were in line to buy tickets, and got into the “happy line,” those of us on guided tours. More about that in a moment.
We were there to see the actual David. After getting through security — everywhere has security — we dawdled for a moment in the first room before being led into the next room:
Gotta say, this is a thing of beauty, incredible beauty. It’s not something you can shrug off. You gasp as you turn the corner into the hall, and there he is.
Along the way on either side are four of the “Slaves”: unfinished sculptures from the ill-fated tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo’s patron/nemesis. They all seem to be struggling to free themselves from the stone.
But that David.
He’s huge: 17 feet tall. Originally conceived as decoration for one of the churches, he was carved from a single block of marble that had been lying around Florence for 30 years; flawed, no one wanted to use it until Michelangelo selected it for this work. It took him two years to complete, and by that time the city fathers realized it was going to be impractical to hoist him to the top of the church, so they put him (after a lot of debate) in front of City Hall as a symbol of political defiance to the former Medici rulers.
So iconic has the image become that even us recovering Baptists forget that the David of the Old Testament was a shepherd boy, not a super hot 20-something.
The exhibitions of the Academie are not otherwise extensive, but there was a nice exhibit of musical instruments, from keyboards made by Cristofori (the inventor of the pianoforte) to the serpent:
After the Academie visit, we were free. Advised on the best places to lunch (and shop), we set out. The LFW inquired at the info desk and found that timed tickets to the Uffizi could be bought at a ticket office across the street. This is a definite pro tip: do not stand in line to by tickets anywhere. Go to a ticket office and buy a timed ticket, because then you get to go in the happy line.
Lunch was the Open Stove, which advertised itself as an Irish pub but which was an Italian restaurant with nachos on the side. Food was not great, but the decor was primo.
On our way to the Uffizi:
The famous Italian temerarietà about traffic rules. (Later, in Rome, our guide Susanna pointed out a car parked in what looked like mid-turn at an intersection and commented sardonically, “Eh, it’s in the shade.”)
The Uffizi is the former office building of the city, hence the name:
It’s a huge U-shaped building, and it is full of the art collected by the Medici family over the years. The last remaining heiress of the Medici donated all of it to Florence, and I can only say that if you are in Florence, this is a must. It’s like a greatest hits of your art history class.
I may have said this before, but even the best reproductions in our textbooks do not come close to the experience of the real thing. You see details, you see the individuality and even the personality of the people, you see the action and emotion in ways that a reproduction can not reproduce.
Remember, this was their city office building. Here’s the entrance hall.
With limited time, we headed straight for the Renaissance rooms:
You’re immediately immersed in all those paintings you’ve seen your whole life.
I forget what was in this small chamber, but the ceiling is a dome with embedded glass roundels:
View of the Ponte Vecchio:
And of Il Duomo:
Admidst all the Greco-Roman-Renaissance perfection, this sculpture stood out: Marsyas Flayed.
Marsyas lost a music contest to Apollo (spoiler alert: Apollo cheated), and as his punishment was flayed alive. Fans of the composer Arvo Pärt should find his Lamentate, a piece commissioned by the Tate in London to be performed in the same gargantuan room as Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan Marsyas. (I do not link to the sculpture; Kapoor is a bit of a jerk.)
Here is an interesting piece as well: DaVinci’s Adoration of the Magi.
It is completely unfinished, and you will read more about it over at Lichtenbergianism.com next week.
Somehow I didn’t get a single photo of the Caravaggio’s, which is a pity, because I was most struck with them. Caravaggio was a weird SOB, and the characters in his paintings look out at you with a fleshy knowingness that is more than a little disconcerting, not to say arousing.
We headed back to the hotel, showered, rejoined the group, and loaded up the bus to head out to the country for a “typical” regional meal. I keep trying to imagine these kinds of tourist offerings in Newnan-Coweta County: busloads of Germans and Chinese and Russians ferried out to Dunaway Gardens for a good meal of chicken and waffles, or shrimp and grits, or pulled pork barbecue, while being serenaded by a blue grass band. No? Maybe not. We certainly don’t have the wines.
First, the view of Florence from across the river:
Here was our musical entertainment:
Lots of Amore and O sole mio and that sort of thing. The guitarist was quite good.
Here’s the venue:
Their food was good, their wine was so-so; their sparkling wine was grotesque. On the way home Ignazio, riffing off the music portion of the evening, played disco on the bus; Carlos the bus driver obliged with disco lights, flashing the lights on and off as we careened through narrow streets. Much hilarity was had by all. (The group we are with are very funny and delightful. No cranks in the crowd, thank goodness, or if there are, they are keeping to themselves.)
Back here on Monday, it’s cocktail time as I sit out on the porch and try to finish at least the Thursday post before the LFW makes it back from Capri.
My iPad tells me it’s Monday, September 10. I am choosing to believe it.
Once again, our travel has eaten so much of my time that I simply can’t get the blog posts done. On the Danube last year, it was a matter of insufficient wifi; this year, the only time I have is on a bus, and writing on a bus is a sure way to bring on the nausea.
So today, Monday, September 10, my Lovely First Wife [LFW] has headed off to Capri, the lovely island of Capri. I, knowing my limits, chose last week not to go on this excursion. Instead, I am sitting on the dining patio of our hotel in Sorrento, finishing my third cup of caffe Americano and trying to catch up.
Wednesday we were in Florence at the San Gallo Palace Hotel. Our first stop of the day was the plaza in front of the Santa Croce cathedral, where we were treated to a couple of QVC infomercials for leather and gold jewelry, Florence’s two big products.
Pretty but really really unnecessary.
Here we see Mary Frances modeling a really nice leather coat (they pulled various types out to show off their wares):
I am not going to belabor the point, but Gate 1 Tours seems to focus a lot on shopping, and we tend to focus on art and architecture. (It would be great to focus on music as well, but there is absolutely no time for a concert. What are you, a cultured snob or something?)
So while the group was exhorted to go shopping, we chose to visit Santa Croce instead:
(By the way, our iPads and iPhones are miracles, but doing this on an iPad and not my laptop is an incredible pain. It takes me three times as long to insert a photo as it does to write a paragraph. Lesson learned; next time, it’s the laptop, no matter how cumbersome it is.)
Santa Croce is an exquisite Romanesque cathedral, and there’s a crowd of greats buried there, definitely worth the visit.
The nave, looking back towards the entrance:
Looking toward the altar:
The frescoes in the choir were stunning:
One of the transept chapels:
It was not open to tourists; it was reserved for prayer. It’s often difficult to remember that these are still places of worship, not just architectural monuments. Imagine First Baptist with its doors open and busloads of tourists strolling through, snapping photos. Of course, First Baptist does not have multiple worship services every day.
A side chapel along the apse:
We think of these great churches as works of art, complete and perfect, but of course they—like all works of art—change as they grow. Here’s where a chapel used to be, with its frescoes on the wall, but it’s been replaced by a couple of memorials, and its frescoes are now just remnants.
Who all is buried here?
That’s an impressive count of one-namers.
Leaving the cathedral, there’s a courtyard designed by Brunelleschi…
… as well as a chapel by Brunelleschi:
Finally, a third chapel, this one focused on the restoration efforts after the devastating flood of 1966. The Arno River overflowed its banks to a high of 22 feet in the Santa Croce. Millions of books and artworks were destroyed, and the city faced years of recovery.
At this time, we rejoined the tour in the plaza as we all assembled to meet Ignazio. We walked over to the Palazzo Vecchio, i.e., the town hall. Florence vacillated between being a republic and a duchy for years, the Medici family being the main contenders for leadership.
To the left of the Palazzo, a fountain with Neptune (under restoration) which the Florentines call ‘the big white thing.” (They haven’t been fans for 450 years, apparently.)
And of course, standing at the entrance, Michelangelo’s David, albeit a copy:
To the right of the square, a loggia with equally famous works:
Including a copy of Donatello’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa:
Ignazio led us over to the Ponte Vecchio. It was built as part of a private passageway leading from the Palazzo Vecchio across the river to the top of the next hill, to the Palazzo Pitti. This passageway goes from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, down the street, across the river, through private residences, and on to the new palace built by the Medici duke’s wife who decided she didn’t want to live in the Vecchio and had a new palace built across the river—but wanted to be able to get back to town without getting her feet wet.
And here we see a gentleman sunning himself on the greensward. Clearly a member of 3 Old Men, even if he doesn’t realize it.
Now we’ll take a break and come back in a moment to Il Duomo and the Uffizi.