Today we travelled by not so fast train from Rome via Orvieto and Castiglione to Arezzo where we are ensconced for five days and looking for some quieter days. Arezzo’s major piazza was very quiet in the late afternoon heat but no doubt will be busier tomorrow.
Today was meant to be a lay day as another 34 degrees was forecast but Ann was dragged once more into the tourist maelstrom of summer in Rome to see yet another church or two and a gallery. It was Saturday so the morning trains were far less crowded but the evening trains…let’s just say we had to let one go through to the keeper and get on the following one!
I quote here from Luigi Barzani’s book “The Italians” published in 1964 but even more true in 2015: “There are sultry days in July and August when the cities, emptied by the natives, are almost completely taken over by the swarms of dusty and perspiring foreigners. During the siesta hour, when even the carriage horses sleep under their straw hats, the restless tourists finally slow down. They bivouac everywhere. They recline on park benches, kerbstones, the stone brims of fountains or ancient ruins. They place their heads over their crossed arms on cafe tables for a siesta among the empty bottles, the dirty napkins and the recently purchased souvenirs. They then really look like a tired and bedraggled army after a fatiguing battle, who have occupied a city abandoned by their fleeing enemy. They have conquered. The place is theirs.” He goes on for five pages about us tourists but it is unfortunately all true in mid-summer in Rome when the temperature climbs over the 35.
Today we had three goals…The Church of St Maria del Popolo..a mature and dignified Renaissance lady church at the edge of the bustling Piazza del Popolo. It is finely endowed church which includes the “Chigi” chapel for which Raphael had some direction of the mosaics and, most popularly a tiny Paul chapel which includes Caravaggio’s amazing “Conversion of St Paul” which has entranced me ever since I went to St Paul’s in Warragul and always wanted a statue of Paul fallen from his horse in front of the School! We never quite made it but I have been moved to see a picture in the flesh that has spoken to me so much from Art history. Even the horse in the painting appears to be quite moved with what was happening. I think personally that Caravaggio is the painter for the C21st! I did not take a photo but the picture is easy to find.
We then strolled down the Via del Corso which is a long straight shopping drag looking a mile down the road to the Piazza Venezia and veered off to see the Pantheon, an extraordinary Roman survivor with the most massive columns now also a place of worship. The vast dome which Michelangelo used as a model for St Peter’s is open at the top and there are holes in the marble floor for water to escape when it rains!
We enjoyed a long lunch just outside the tourist trap around the Trevi Fountain (closed for repairs) and finally located the Barberini Palace and garden, well hidden, which now houses Italy’s national art collection. Many outstanding paintings and works are here and especially again Raphael’s “The Fornarina”, apparently the woman who was his muse and had his heart throughout his life, one Marghereta Luti, daughter of a fornari, a bread maker. Also of course, Caravaggio, “Narcissus” and a painting which yearns, by Vouet of the Penitent Magdalene. The Palace itself was the magnificent residence of the family of C17th Pope Urban V111 who did so much to beautify and encourage artistic excellence throughout Rome and its churches, encouraging the architects Maderno, Bernini and Borromini to great deeds of derring-do!
We leave Rome tomorrow regretful not of leaving the heat but of leaving a city which has never been far from the heart of Western civilization, art and architecture.
Friday 10th July Dave, Nina, Jemilla and Bede are holed up in Bali unable to fly out because of the volcanic ash from an eruption on a nearby island. I think there could be worse places to be marooned but it is an uncertain time for them. We spent the day in Naples looking at the terror of Mt Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii. Today we took the fast train (296kms/hour) from Rome to Naples, exactly 1 hour through beautiful mountain backed countryside green with many crops in the middle of summer. We spent most of the day in the National Museum of Archaeology which is a stunning classical building in its own right with a stunning 2 storey double marble interior stairway. The museum has two major holdings. In the C19th the discovery of Pompeii lead archaeologists to remove vast quantities of excavated mosaics, frescoes, bronzes, pottery, sculpture and materials of all sorts to fill eight large rooms of the most exquisite second century lifestyle caught in a moment of time. This was a good thing to do to preserve these precious artefacts but they are now of course out of context and some were damaged in the process. Copies of the mosaics and frescoes have been returned to Pompeii where walking on them can cause minimal damage. There is a current display of “Pompeii and Europe” which demonstrates the impact of the C19th discovery and excavation of Pompeii mainly through the eyes of Goethe, Stendahl and Lytton. In a curious way it resembles the passion many today have for the entombed lives of the Titanic disaster in the C20th.
The second major holding in Naples is the Farnese collection of Roman sculpture accumulated by one of the Papal families and now on display to the public. The Farnese Palace in Rome is now the French Embassy and not easily accessible but the impressive collection of huge sculptures is beautifully displayed in Naples. It includes busts of all the Suetonian emperors and massively huge sculptures of gods and important folk in early Rome. In addition the frescoes and mosaics from Hadrian’s villa, the ruin of which we walked in yesterday, are also displayed in the Naples museum. In the afternoon we wandered the streets of Naples not venturing too far in the heat and enjoying an April 18 English newspaper, the only paper in English we could buy although the Italian bookshops have many books in English. I found the Neapolitans to be very friendly and helpful. The city has a bad rep in Melbourne and I am sure there are parts
one should not venture into and I would not be driving there but it is an exciting and interesting city.
Another sweltering day in Paradise in the eternal city found us on a bus tour to the beautiful village of Tivoli and investigating the ruins of the Emperor Hadrian’s Villa from early in the C2nd AD and the magnificent house and gardens of the Villa D’Este, a C16th villa handed to Ippolito Este as second prize for missing out on being elected Pope. Ippolito accepted the offer and not only created one of the world’s outstanding gardens with 28 gravity fed fountains but also had his four storey villa decorated with Mannerist frescoes of Biblical, classical and current political themes in a quite unique style. Ippolito saved Tivoli from flood by spending thousands re-creating the town’s water system and the frescoes in his house have a distinct water/Noah/Moses theme.
The Emperor Hadrian was also a far-sighted man who ruled after Trajan and between them they created a golden era of Roman peace and stability after the political entanglements of the Claudian and Flavian dynasties in the C1st. Hadrian created his villa of peace just a half day’s horse ride from Rome on a hill in Tivoli with breathtaking views. He walled the villa, provided two amazing pools which still remain, scores of olive trees, a private garden house for himself, palaces for his many guests and court and very comfortable if small apartments for all his servants and attendants. All is now in ruins with the marble and frescoes long gone and re-used elsewhere but the sense of immense power and potential beauty is everywhere in evidence.
Three days in a row of stifling heat in tourist crowds, on hugely crowded underground trains and in bustling streets has tested our energy levels and it is a joy to retreat to our hotel haven in Marconi where all is cool and quiet. Ann’s injured leg has stood up to some difficult tests (including well over 250 steps in the Villa D’Este garden today and more tramping around Hadrian’s villa. Richard has been consuming far too much Italian red wine and excellent home made pasta as can be seen by the photo attached. Tomorrow a potentially stressful day in Naples awaits!
At 7.15am we commenced our second 35 degree day in the eternal city with a five hour visit to The Vatican City, the walled and gardened tiny city with the world’s smallest train system, exceptionally well manicured and beautiful gardens, a cathedral which is twice the size and breadth of York and which for sheer classical and brute strength has no peer. Passionate people from every country on earth pour into St Peter’s Square daily and stand in formidable queues to visit the Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel and its many museums and gardens. We had the privilege of a small and quiet group to visit Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel by meeting at 7.15am. Can there be a more well known image than Michelangelo’s muscular and dynamic ancient of days creator passing life by fingertip to a wan and basically limp Adam? And is there a more sustained image of despair than that of Michelangelo’s “thinker” not yet in Hell but being pushed in that direction with a seeming sense of culpability and what might have been; and Michelangelo’s own skin being offered as a dispassionate Christ appears to deliberately ignore a Mary who seems in awe of the power of judgment; and even the saved seem uncertain of whether the decision is for them. To be there in the still of the morning without the teeming crowds later in the day was a spiritual, intellectual and poetic experience I will not forget.
The stretch and breadth of the museums with their ten ancient world globes, every culture on earth it seems represented, ancient near Eastern cylinders and manuscripts, over 30000 classical figures, a pinocoteca with many wonderful paintings and tapestries and the library with the Codex Vaticanus ( a complete Biblical mss of the C4th). The museum of Contemporary Art was equally impressive, mostly but not only of religious themes and the strength of the fresco and tiling decoration of every surface – floor, ceilings, walls including all the corridors is overwhelming. The Papal apartments with Raphael’s work and his stable of students are a study in themselves and the peaceful gardens invite reflection and prayer, something we even managed in a quieter section of the cathedral set apart for the purposeThis is a rich diet of spirit, mind, architectural and artistic skill of the highest and an extraordinary concatenation of faces and languages from all over the globe. The most amazed folk in our group were a family of Ecuadorans who had travelled to Italy to meet the Pope only to find that he was in Ecuador! Photographs from our harried iPhone cannot do any justice to this feast of the mind and spirit. We are glad to have been part of this experience.Michelangelo’s Pieta, even through bullet proof glass , combines love and despair in equal measure; in the entrance to St Peter’s Cathedral, it sets in my view, the perfect tone and overcomes the triumphalism of much that follows.
Today we entered the maelstrom of the eternal city in a period of a record breaking heatwave.
We ventured outside our safe haven hotel in suburban Marconi to the Rome underground, five stops on a very crowded train and walking out of the Colosso station to be looking straight at the Colosseum and the Constantine Arch ( in amazing condition compared with the rest of Roman ruins because of Constantine’s decision at the Milvian Bridge to see the cross of Christian faith as they way forward for the Roman Empire. Christian leaders made sure the arch was kept in good nick!)
As usual we boarded the hop on/off bus around Rome, this time in 35 degree heat and fierce Rome traffic. Again we were reminded how amazing this city is..mixing up C21st buildings and technology with archaelogical ruins well over two millennia years old.
We spent much of our time today, after a city circuit on the red bus, at the Capitoline Museums where a highlight was a special showing of a much discussed self -portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci under strict security and lighting. This frail parchment portrait, now quite faint, is disputed by the experts as a self-portrait because of the similarity with other portraits of famous philosophers and suggesting that Leonardo was deliberately setting himself up as their successor. It was nevertheless a powerful presentation.
The museums of the Capitolene Hill looking out over the forum of Roman ruins contain an amazing collection of sculptures, coins, jewellery, Renaissance paintings and ancient pottery especially early Greek pottery. The “Hall of Triumphs” contains the Spinario – a life size sculpture of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot as well as the “Capitolene Brutus” a C5th sculpture of a very fierce gentleman. So many highlights including the famous sculpure of the “Capitoline shewolf ” suckling Romulus and Remus..mythological founders of Rome; the remarkable life size statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, and exceptional paintings including the controversial quite sensuous Caraveggio painting of a young John the Baptist as well as many other Italian Renaissance artists as well as a Rubens painting of the birth of the mythological Romulus and Remus. The Museum itself is an archaeological dig and the presentation of this area was also a highlight. All of the ceilings of the Renaissance Palace have been restored with remarkable effect and the entire collection would be a week’s study not just the four hours we gave to it.
We did not visit them all on this Sunday but we did enjoy sung Communion at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral where they happened to have 40 visiting Swedish catechumen students and their priest who gave an excellent address on discipleship. In addition we were treated to choral support from the visiting choir of Pusey College Oxford. Twenty young men and women who sang with passion and faith accompanied by their own organist who played some amazing Bach before and after the service. It was a friendly and very British affair in a historic, quite plain neo-Classical church.
An extraordinary contrast is the St John’s Catholic Co-Cathedral …an ornately Baroque masterpiece with a painted barrel ceiling, amazing tiles on the floor covering the tombs of famous Knights Hospitalers, an extraordinarily ornate sanctuary area and eight chapels equally rich in ornamentation, one for each of the “langes” or areas from which the Hospitaler Knights came. In addition the oratory contains the huge Caravaggio painting of the beheading of John the Baptist ( no photography permitted) and the smaller Caravaggio painting of St Jerome writing. This is indeed one of the world’s most decorative Baroque cathedrals.
We were privileged also to participate in parts of devotional services in the Ethiopian community church (which began at 8.00am and was still raging at 10.45am! Also the much more quietly decorated Baroque Church of St Francis and the relative modern music of the Carmelite Monastery church.
The National archaeological museum contains megalithic pottery and figurine remains dating back to 2000- 5000 BC as well as considerably more pottery remains from the Phoenician period of about 1000 BC.
The Garden area overlooking the harbour contains sculpted tributes to many heroes of Malta including Churchill amongst many others. Valetta is to be the 2016 Cultural Capital of Europe and it is easy to see why with even new buildings still being built in the style of the existing architecture which is uniformly stunning. Valetta remains one of Europe’s most beautiful cities and certainly the city with the most consistently uniform style.
Monday 6th July:
Today was a travelling day flying Aegean Airlines to Rome over Sicily and the Italian coast. We found the train to the city from the airport and a cab to take us to the Pullitzer Hotel on the outskirts of Rome. We are looking forward to being in one place for a week.
We flew Aegean Airways from Athens to Malta airport and transferred to Valetta at the Hotel Osborne with the most amazing view over the city and ocean which I can’t show you because the Ozonemalta hotspot I bought for 24 hrs wifi doesn’t rate @bigpond.com so I can’t get my pictures from my phone. We look out at the vast dome of a mighty Renaissance Basilica rebuilt after war-time bombing and also St Paul’s Anglican Church with its high steeple and the massive St John’s Catholic church with its Caravaggio painting all lit up at night. Malta also has an evangelical Uniting church and 12 other churches in a quite small city. The remnants of Crusader architecture are everywhere because this was their last stand having been pushed out of Jerusalem, Palestine, Acre, Rhodes and finally ending up here.
The Maltese love saints days and celebrate with fireworks …all night intermittently from about 7.00pm until 11.30pm! They are not “lights” fireworks apart from one flash but they give out an alrighty bang fit to wake the dead and it echoes around the old fortress town. When they fire them together it feels like a wartime mortar attack! The streets are narrow, quaint and filled with interesting shops. The culture is a curious mixture of British and Maltese e.g. they drive on the left in right hand drive Skodas! There is much prehistoric history here as well and many quieter villages like Medina. We regret we did not allow more than three days to wander the streets and villages. Today (Sunday 5th) we are off to sung communion! at St Paul’s Anglican …part of the Co-Diocese of Gibraltar and Malta! Now there’s a gig for a bishop! I will keep you posted on the sermon.