Monthly Archives: July 2014

Rome in a Day

Rome in a Dayimage image image image

The shaded stone steps of the Basilica S. Agostino still radiate heat from the day and a pigeon pecks at the crumbs from my gelato cone. My legs ache from walking miles over cobblestones in winding zigs and zags and sometimes circles. From the river at the Trastevere shopping district I made an almost complete circle of the center city. I meandered to the Pantheon, the Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, then over to the Piazza del Popolo, then a quick subway ride to the Coliseum. I walked around the Forum, over through the park of the Domus Aurea, then back to the Trevi fountain, finally resting here in Piazza di S. Agostino not far from the Pantheon.

I notice a tourist with a guide book heading behind me into the Basilica. With curiosity, I poke my head through the doors. I am enticed into the sanctuary by breathtaking beauty and the relief of cool air. The interior is made entirely of rose, blue, cream and black marble, with bright blue vaulted ceiling, white sculpted figures of angels, gold decorations and magnificently painted frescos in soft pastel hues. It’s easy to imagine in the time, before air conditioning and modern living, especially in the heat of the Italian summer, that I might fall to my knees in religious ardor in such a luxurious and soothing architectural embrace. The structure naturally sends me forward to the alter, a point of focus at the intersection of the cross that makes up the floor plan. I muse at the display of wealth, and the blessing of the Church in supporting centuries of great artists and art work, as well as the preservation of numerous ancient structures. But I also think of what was repressed and replaced with the growth of the patriarchal religion.
Even so, in this city that is the seat of the Roman Catholic church, an unconquered architectural homage to pre-Christian religion has rested at the center of the city for over 2,000 years.

The Pantheon is the gem of Rome, with an immense dome that is the largest such structure made of brick, without supports. Modern architects admit they’d be hard pressed to recreate such a thing. The dome suggests the top of a perfect globe which could rest inside the vast expanse of the building, and at the very top of the dome a large oculus, or opening, bathes the large interior with soft light. This opening must have served a practical, as well as symbolic, purpose. Around the parameter of the space, the same width, 142 feet, as the height to the oculus, are alters in numerous directions.

I’ve read about the superimposing of Christian myths and rituals over the old religions as a way to convert, but never have I seen it demonstrated so poignantly as in the Pantheon, renamed the church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs by the Roman Catholic Church. I notice the name didn’t stick. Perhaps I am reading something into this here, but the metaphor of the feminine seems pretty blatantly illustrated by the vast womb like space with a opening. Only, this womb births us into the heaven, out of our earthly womb. In the context of this architectural metaphor, the 2,000 years of superimposed dedication to Christian martyrs, statues, an alter, relics, seem completely superfluous. The feminine principle overpowers, an unwavering truth beneath the surface attempts to mask or reattribute the spiritual symbols. A plaque suggest the structure was a temple dedicated to Venus and Mars, and the emperor, created using Pythagorean principles.

Strangely, superfluous or not, the mixed in Christianity somehow doesn’t clash, the through line of feminine spirituality finds expression in the abundance of paintings and sculptures throughout Italy, dedicated to the biblical Mary. Paintings of her often pictured alone, as well as with the Christ child in her arms. Sometimes she is pictured standing, in blue and red with the glow around her. It’s not difficult to imagine the funneling of the sacred feminine, the goddess devotion, into the image of Mary, and then also, Mary as mother, virgin and mother of the divine, or perhaps goddess religions also, in a way, as mother to Christianity itself.

I wouldn’t mind however, seeing this structure as it originally was, without bleeding statues of Jesus, the creepy relics and images of martyrs. There are thousands of Churches, why not one temple without martyrdom and masculine superiority? We could raise our eyes to the blazing and beautiful light above and imagine the soul of the sun and blue sky radiating into our hearts. We could clasp hands with flanking community members, connecting around a circle of hundreds, maybe thousands. From within the safety of this round, spacious, sunbathed temple, we could stand in a balanced devotion to the principles of inclusivity, enlightenment and community, the balance of separate and together, masculine and feminine. Interestingly, while standing in this way the posture of each body takes the shape of a cross. But I digress.

I’m back on the streets of Rome looking for a stylish present for my husband. Its a good place to be stylish. Romans are beautiful, they dress impeccably and do urbanism with much more artistry than Americans. Even the middle aged man on the park sleeping on the bench is stylish, as he nods off, he cools his sweaty foot by resting it on top of his leather shoe. But it’s gritty here too. At the corner of Dior and Gucci a dark skinned man roasts chestnuts, a line of street vendors with purses race down the street hotly pursued by caribinieri, while tourists lick multi colored cones of gelato with disinterest. The oppressive heat makes us indifferent and sends us flocking into Gelaterias and to cool alleyways with misting, umbrella covered tables. I find myself wandering, half delirious, among the crowds, caught in a wave of walking humanity, looking for a cool place to rest. Gelateria di Roma boasts 150 flavors, and I brave the multilingual crowds, catching snippets of German, French and English, to march proudly out with two scoops, coffee and lemon. It’s not very good Gelato, not silky and smooth, but it is cool and sweet. The open doors of air conditioned shops cool me in intervals as I wander to Piazza Novano, where a large shaded fountain draws admirers.

After hours of walking, I eagerly devour a bag of fresh yellow plums and apricots. As the sun descends I shower and rest my feet, looking forward to my last supper in Italy. Ciao bella.

Dolce Vita


We toast with aperitifs overlooking the piazza, my drink with Campari, a thin slice of orange and ice is surprisingly refreshing in the heat of July in Siena. The four of us span many cultures and countries and speak seven languages between us. But at the moment we are keeping an Italian tradition of afternoon rest away from the midday sun. The day is indeed blazing hot with a hazy blue sky setting off the 13th century sandy colored buildings. As I swallow a delicious antipasto I gaze at Torre del Mangia tower in front of me, named after the bell ringer whose laziness “ate the profits”. The tower and the Duomo are equal height, an intentional architectural reflection of the medieval desire for balance between civic and religious life.

The narrow winding streets and ancient buildings are a walking museum of medieval Tuscany. After our drinks we wander into shoe shops that smell of leather, stores brightly colored pottery, curious corner markets with sausages hanging in the window. The mundane and profound mix in a maze of arches and narrow streets. Earlier we found ourselves at the Duomo. The grandeur rendered me speechless. This enormous cathedral is supported by a row of zebra striped black and white marble pillars, filled with gorgeous painted frescos, one by Michelangelo, and bathed in rich blue and red light from stained glass windows. Outside, a flamboyant violinist plays on the street corner accompanied by a recording of the Swan and a street vendor sells T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs.

Surrounded by Russian musicians on the patio back at the hotel, another bottle of wine, fruit and dirty jokes are passed around for hours. I’m surrounded by four pianists who argue about the recent competition winners and the judges and who is the newest, greatest talent. My eyes glaze. The violist, who has performed with many of the greats, immediately saves the party by returning to dirty jokes. The laughter is hearty and unabashed. For once my boisterous laugh doesn’t sound above the crowd, but blends. I seem to be an honorary Russian tonight. After a successful performance of French music, Ravel and Debussy on a poor Italian/Chinese cello with a Russian pianist in a one thousand year old Italian church, we are celebrating. Russians love to laugh, and laugh and laugh. There is never enough of laughter or drinking, and we do so into the morning hours. My brief russian study in high school of Russian Folk songs and the Russian version of “who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” affords me the opportunity to add to the merriment. They are amused at my accent and knowledge. “This is why she plays so well” Yuri shouts, “Russian school!”. But mostly the humor has a darker and dirtier edge, and tragedy descents briefly as the older generations reflect on the soviet era. Then this too becomes a joke and the laughter rings again.

The Italians and Russians both have a great sense of humor. But it is very different. One is light, quick and filled with irony and amusement. The other, dark, complex and large, boisterous, filled with tragedy and comedy all in one. Powerful and resilient, and from the belly. I’ve heard more Chinese and Russian from fellow musicians in this festival than Italian. But our common ground are the Tuscan hills and three hundred years of music from a dozen cultures. I spend my days surrounded by people, at meals, at coachings, in the spa baths, at concerts.

Only once I find myself alone, but I am still surrounded by community. In the Tuscan hill town of Sante Fiore I dine on chestnut filled Tortelli (large tortellini) with local mushrooms. The family at the table next to me offer me a glass of wine. The ristorante is filled with the music of the Italian cultures. Wine bottles line shelves against the wall. Families sit for hours as plate after plate arrives. Even the children sound colorful and musical when they speak. I find beauty around every corner here, not beauty in a precious or overly intense form, but blossoming effortlessly in the full enjoyment of life, effusive and generous. Integrated into the fabric of every day. The stone buildings feel like they have grown out of the land itself, and even flowers bloom between the ancient stones in the streets in splashes of fuchsia. In one moment, briefly, I felt overwhelmed with the fullness of it all. Something in me felt I could lose myself in sensuousness. It is true, time turns in all directions here, the antique with the modern, the hours like minutes filled with the small pleasures like the foam of a cappuccino, or almond biscotti dipped in sweet wine, or the rolling hills covered with vineyards. The Bus schedule is more poetic and hypothetical than precise, they only arrive when they are in the right mood to, after asking for a bill it could be another 20 minutes, and people smoke at will wherever they please. But in a way, it doesn’t matter here. Italians have mastered the art of pleasure to the point of mysticism, and perhaps because the abundant land and history, rather than indulgence, their way seems to be a generous celebration of life in all moments. Instead of losing myself, I find I sink deeper into my body, my humanity, my heart, and the tears well up spontaneously, and oh how very, very Italian of me!