NOTE TO READERS: The Rome 2014 trip begins with post #30. Posts #10—29 were Rome 2013. Posts 1–9 were Florence 2011. If you'd like to be notified of new postings by email, let me know at

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

44.3—Scoprendo L'Eroe Tra Due Mondi (Part 3 of 3)

I entered the Etruscan exhibit expecting to be charmed by the artifacts of a sweet ancient people. So I was surprised but intrigued to be greeted by a large poster entitled Un eroe tra due monde—A Hero Between Two Worlds. 

The exhibit, the mission statement said, was part of a larger project dedicated to Hercules who is “the hero of indomitable strength, but with a fragile humanity and extraordinary courage, fiercely challenged by the hardness of living.” In facing his trials, the statement added, Hercules won immortality. And it was for this reason that he has become a symbol of heroic humanity throughout both ancient and modern art.


The Etruscans were a small people—not tall or concerned with matters of empire. Not heroic by the standards of popular American culture. Or by the standards of ancient Rome where virtue was defined by manliness exhibited in war and therefore not an attribute of women who were praised for their modesty. 

Near the beginning of the exhibit was the content of a tomb transferred intact. The artifacts reveal modest living, and the figure in the corner is of person who made me look imposing—as my shadow in the class shows.

Now, I know my one visit to an Etruscan museum and the perusal of several books does not make me an expert. Also, my interest in the Etruscans was part of a personal, not an archeological quest. What that personal observation revealed throughout the exhibit of artifacts from 800 to 200 B.C. was a supremely happy, creative, and peaceful people, particularly in the earliest days of the culture. The
Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion
only weapons I saw were in pottery paintings depicting the labors of Hercules.  

The Etruscans were primarily artisans, builders, and traders in what was then the global marketplace. They were competitive. But not ruthlessly so. Trade was more what the name implies—exchange, not only of goods but of cultural influences, especially with Greece and Carthage, their chief competitors. 

But the small sweet traders were not pushovers. They had warships and used them against Greek and Carthaginian pirates. They also teamed up with Carthage against Rome during the Punic wars. Not for land and or power. Rather they wanted autonomy from Rome that was beginning its power sweep across the world. The small sweet people, of course, lost to the empire. Or did they? More specifically, why were they part of the hero project, exemplars of Hercules and heroic humanity…?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

44.2—Scoprendo La Pergola di Uva (Part 2 of 3)

Finding the Grape Arbor

A month before I left for Rome, I felt a mounting apprehension. 
I’d reached an impasse in my life. I called it age. But it was something bigger—the feeling that every dollar, every minute, every gesture had to count. Hard as I tried to hold on, life was slipping too fast through my hands. In one of those great ironies of mind, the terror of this was so profound, I couldn’t do anything. 
Looking back, I think the mold had already started to take hold.

A week before departure, my sister reminded me I didn’t have to go. 
“But I do,” I told her. And then added—surprised to hear myself say it—“I’m going in search of my grape arbor.”

The grape arbor in the yard next to my grandmother’s house was where I went the day I played hooky in second grade. While I hated the world of school that turned everything into to right and wrong answers, going to the grape arbor was not an act of defiance. I simply went there in an act of free will, drawn by the quiet mystery of leaves and the sweetness of grapes. After a peaceful morning, I went home for lunch and found myself facing my father and the system that both came down on me so hard that the only way I could survive was to conform to the world of linear expectations. “That day at the grape arbor,” I told my sister, “was the last day I was truly myself.” 

I’d thought I might rediscover my grape arbor in the ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins—those women chosen at seven or eight to serve for thirty years, denying their own lives to keep the sacred fire of Rome going. But all I felt was the grief of young women who for daring to exercise their free will by expressing their love were buried alive.

Several days later, as I was awaiting for confirmation that I could escape the mold by moving to an apartment with windows, I set out for the Villa Giulia—the Renaissance palazzo that now housed Rome’s collection of Etruscan art. It was a long walk, so I’d waited for a day when it wasn’t raining. The map led me to the edge of a wooded park where, off the beaten track, the map suddenly proved useless so that I suddenly found myself lost in a damp dark place with nothing but the belief that it couldn’t possibly go on forever. A November chill and the smell of decaying leaves filled the air. Was it the mold, the antihistamine, or the place that made me think if it was all just a dream? 

At last, light at the end of the trees. I stepped out—and there he sat in his white marble chair like thunder in the off-white morning: 

Poeta Azerbaigiano Nizami Ganjavi  1141 - 1209  

holding quill and ppwer in his bronze hands so large and powerful they appeared alive with god-like energy, his gaze so fierce that I turned to see what he was gazing at. 
But what he was seeing was not the museum of modern art across the street that lay at the foot of a wide long flight of steps. 

What was an  eight-hundred-year-old Azergbaijani poet doing in the middle of Rome? Had I like some Italian Alice wandered down the coniglio hole?

But then, up the steps came a woman who knew where I was headed. 
And very soon, I was paying my admission at il Museo Etrusco and asking how to find the ladies room. Through the courtyard to the left directed the woman in the book store. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

44.1—Scoprendo Gli Etruschi (Part One of 3)

Discovering The Etruscans: 

People, I tell you, if it’s possible to have a love affair with an ancient civilization, I did:

It happened quite unexpectedly but splendidly. I remember studying the Etruscans in junior high: They were ancient and wrote funny. From their name—Etruscans—I pictured them as people who dressed in furry outfits and adorned themselves with tusks. They lived somewhere, you know, over there.

When I was studying in Florence in 2011, the school offered a field trip to the Tuscan hill town of Cortona (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame). Walking along a grassy ridge, we came upon a rock slab slightly larger than a grave stone. On the slab were strange markings. “Gli Etruschi,” our guide remarked, over his shoulder. We all took pictures and walked on—oblivious to the connection between the names Etruscan and Tuscany.

As I delved into various histories of Rome, I found they all began with a brief description of the Etruscans—invariably called “mysterious." Scant evidence suggested that earliest kings of Rome were Etruscan. Archeological evidence, however, showed unequivocally that these mysterious folks were a smart and enterprising people who settled central Italy. lived there from about 700 to 200 B.C., and developed a prosperous Mediterranean trade. They were also probably the ones who drained the swamps of what was to become Rome. 

Last year, my friend Kathy gave me a map with a pictorial history of Italy. And there were the Etruscans—the first civilization in Italy. Beneath the drawing of a sculpture of a woman found in the Museo Etrusco in Rome, a caption revealed that “Etruscan women…enjoyed a social status far above that of women in Greece or Rome.” Cool. The synopsis of Etruscan accomplishments revealed that the people were so wary of their Greek trading partners that they remained oblivious to the rise of the Romans so that one by one their city-states fell to their conquerors. Had to be a sad story there.

Intrigued, I logged onto Amazon, typed in Etruscans, and among the scholarly works found one by D. H. Lawrence called Etruscan Places: Travels Through Forgotten Italy. “An uninhibited, elemental people,” said the book description, “the Etruscans enthralled D. H. Lawrence, who craved their ‘old wisdom,’ the secret of their vivacity….” Wow! What could possibly enthrall the creator of Lady Chatterly and her lover?
I bought a used copy with a single click. 

The small slim book immediately opened a world to me that I’d yearned for, without realizing it. Perhaps because I had never believed such a world was possible. This was surprising because in the book, Lawrence is describing his exploration of Etruscan tombs throughout Tuscany
Images of the people in those "easy centuries"

“The tombs,” he wrote (p. 28), “seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.”

Longing to know these people and life in those "easy centuries," I planned to visit il Museo Etrusco in Rome and then take the train to old Etruria. As it turned out, the mold worked in mysterious way to open my mind and soul.

Monday, November 17, 2014

43—On Seeing Shakespeare Performed in Italiano and Other Crossings of Culture

Well, dear Readers, there are only two more postings to wind up this avventura. One will have to wait for processing until I get home on Wednesday. Thanks for following along.

My first full day in Rome, before the mold took hold, was All Saints Day. My explorations began when I happened on the Mexican Catholics of Rome inviting passersby to their Altar De Muertos. The Day of the Dead was originally celebrated in August but rethought to coincide here with All Saints Day. I joined them.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in every household with an altar reverently built to commemorate those who have departed this world.  The altar is filled with symbolic items chosen to facilitate the journey of the spirit—incense to purify, sugar skulls for children to eat, flowers, candles, food and drink that the departed preferred. The ceremonies and tributes at the altar form a link of communication with the dead.

That evening, I went to a big Escher exhibit.

The day set the stage for the strangeness of the unexpected dimensions to my trip and my communication with spirits rising up from the ruins.

The trip ended for the most part yesterday at Teatro Brancaccio for a production of Riccardo III, known to English-speaking fans of Shakespeare as Richard III. And as my current quest has been full of questions, we might end with this one: Would you trade your kingdom, whatever it might be, for a horse? Riccardo would have.

But as you Shakespeare lovers know—spoiler alert—it was too late. Historical tragedy aside, if you ever have an opportunity to see The Bard performed in Italiano, do it! And pay the big bucks for a good seat. I didn't and would have been disappointed. Luckily, the audience at the early Sunday performance was scant, so some guy in a nice black suit invited all us plebeians to move up. I was in the seventh row, just left of center. Has anything like this happened in an American theater?

What with the passion of the Italian language and inherent drama in the national character, the translation and performance of Riccardo III was more opera than Shakespeare. But I believe the spirit of the thing was way more Shakespeare than what we experience in a lot of English-speaking theaters and certainly in most schools. The audience clapped, as in opera, after every great speech and scene. And there were plenty

Lorenzo Cutuli did the set.
It was stunning. And I don't just say that because he may be related to the Unruli Cutulis.
The set was a huge round charcoal cylinder—like so many of the ancient tombs here—set against black. Around the cylinder were posts, like the points of a crown.
The cylinder opened to reveal the stage, and throughout the production closed at the end of a scene, turned, and opened for the next.
Interesting lighting effects cast silvery abstract designs as Riccardo's world turned.

The actor who played Riccardo...I learned from Anna before the actually a singer.
Anna had just gotten back from visiting her nephew in New York and showed me some pics on her phone of Picasso from MOMA and the Boston historical walk.
At the end, the ambitious Riccardo, for whom no murder was too much of an obstacle on his way to the throne, emerged bleeding from the heart and lamenting the death of the horse he needed to fight on to retain his power.

He then fell bloody and dead, front and center stage. The cylinder tried to close repeatedly, but kept hitting the murderous king's lifeless body which sent it wrenching and heaving. At first the audience was stunned by the gruesome scene but then went wild.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

42—Quixano Sand

After an hour at the MAXXI, Rome’s hip modern art museum, I stood on the second level and looked through a long black doorway at the ribbed metal stairs. 

But were they really stairs? 
An escalator that was out of order?
An exhibit?

I was searching for third level. I couldn’t find it
It was there on the diagram, like the promise of Heaven or the “life that will get better when you just get over the present hurdle,” but where?

The Maxxi should be called The Mobius. It’s halls are spacious, tall, and white, all connected so that you wind around beliving you’re going somewhere only to find yourself at an exhibit you’d just seen. 

So anyway, there I was at the black doorway. I’d just come down a long white curved hallway for perhaps the third Mobius time. A narrow strip of red light down the center of the ceiling flashed intermittently. I wouldn’t have guessed it. But the red light was flashing the entire story of Cervante’s epic story of Don Quixote—in Morse Code. The artist wanted us to contemplate the first Modern Man struggling against a culture of alienation.

My first reaction muttered quietly aloud was “JSOFBC” (I politely used digital-speak here…a nice used copy of Cervantes to the first person who gets it). “Just read the book F-sake.”

The present exhibit is called Open Rome, Open City.
The lobby exposition told me I was going to explore aspects of the modern city apart from itself in order to understand the whole in more depth. I should experience, participate, and think. 

I wasn’t sure how to participate with a red light. Or the sounds. The exhibit was a barrage of sounds. All loud. The lobby was nearly drowning in the dripping and bubbling water—a recording of water movement deep inside Rome’s excavation sites. 

Exhibit 1 was massive. Black. A large open earpiece like on an old telephone that narrowed and curved then opened up into an identical earpiece. You could look through but not entirely. The exposition told me this showed that in the twists and turns of life, you can’t always see your way through to the other end.       Duh.

Also in this room was a strange pounding. Loud  Unfamiliar. A recording artisans pounding on marble the way they used to pound on marble. We live, said the artist, in a world built on changing modes of creation.      No shit, Sherlock.

Next, an enormous white space. In the middle of which was a smaller square defined by four lights beaming down from the ceiling. You walk into the square and hear all the sounds of the street—traffic, talking, ambulances, music, walkers, hucksters, cafes, whatever….

Now, I understand it’s probably not enough that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” But it doesn’t help to be told that chaos is order, order chaos.” 
Maybe I’m old and tired. Maybe I just want too much.

Ah, possibility at the exhibit that filled two spaces with a big wall between them. The idea is that looking down the hall from the empty room, you know someone, something is there. With the zeal of the quixotic, I proceed and found: a big white space with two empty straight-backed chairs, about three feet apart, facing one another. We were supposed to participate. I sat down and waited. 
The art didn’t speak to me.

Finally! An exhibit that drew me in: A wide flight of old wooden stairs, all different colors. Real stairs. There were drums and singing from a small black speaker box. It all felt young. Primal. Alive. I believed. At the top of the stairs was a big white square floor. Empty. More colored stairs beyond. I climbed them to find a platform with a tall black speaker booming out the sound of drums. Beneath the platform, a dark hallway that led me...JFSOBC...

back to the hallway flashing Don Morse-code Quixote and that big black doorway with the ribbed metal stairs, and beside it the stair exhibit. I climbed the stairs and sat at the edge of the big white square. The exposition said this square represented places where the Occupy movements occur. The drumming and singing, the rise of The Young People. 

Wanting to be a good participatory sport, I tried letting them speak to me.
I wanted to reach out, let them grab me and pull me in. But I was drifting out of reach:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

41—The Sacred Fires of Spin

So in ancient Rome, you might be surprised to know, the center of power was not the military but the sacred fire. For all the
Setting foot on La Via Sacra,
the main street in ancient Rome,
through the Roman Forum
glories of conquest, Romans had not yet discovered the power to be had from damming great rivers, fracking, strip mining, or just blowing the tops off mountains. Fire was, therefore, a big deal. If it went out, there you were, in the dark—no matter if you lived in a hut or mammoth palazzo. The belief was that as long as the sacred fire remained burning in the great hall of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, Rome would remain standing.

The Hall of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth
Inside the Roman Forum
So no surprise, keeping the sacred fire burning was a big deal.

What is a surprise, unless you think about it, is who was entrusted to keep the fire burning. 

The keeper of the flame wasn't some buffed up dude who trained at the 24-hour Hercules Fitness Center. 
The keepers of the sacred fire were six (the precise number is debatable) women. 

Chosen from rich families as girls when between the ages of 6 and 10, they served a thirty-year term and retired with great prestige and a healthy pension.

During their terms, they enjoyed great respect, lived in their own private quarters in the Temple of Vesta, and earned their keep by various sacred duties which included cooking up food for sacrificial occasions, as mola salsa. Recipe here included as it was used back in the day for sacrifice when not pig was handy. FYI in case you run out of pork.
Three rooms to the left, with the kitchen tucked away
to the right of the statue of Vesta by the wall.
Note, that's Caligula's pad covering the hillside.

Vestals got to ride around in their own cool carts, and traffic had to pull over to let them through. Being one of the chosen also gave them magical powers and influence. It's said they could stop a runaway slave with their thoughts. Or even intercede on the behalf of an influential person who was getting bum treatment from another influential person. 

A vestal didn’t have to take an oath as others did because her word was inviolate. So the vestals kept the wills of important people like Julius Caesar.

The catch to all this…isn’t there always one? A vestal had this job for 30 years, during which time she was not allowed to marry and had to remain chaste. To violate the rule of celibacy was treason, as they were married to the state. When the vestal was allowed to marry after her term, she was given away by the Pontifex Maximus, head of state.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

40—Walkabout Rome with Cutuli the Unruli

Welcome, groovy ones, to our Walkabout Rome.
My name is Cutuli the Unruli, and I'll be your guide.

On this Walkabout Rome, we skip the big things. So our day is especially geared for those who are travel weary and tired of paying a bunch of euros to see a lot of stuff that's falling apart.

We begin with that one and only mood setter for an unruli Walkabout: gelato. So here we are in the heart of Rome in Piazza Navona at the Tre Scalini gelato counter.

I like to start with cioccolato (rich and dark, although the one with hazelnut chips is fabuloso) and amarena (black cherry). The little cup is paper, and you get a tiny plastic spoon. Then you go out into the pizza to savor the experience. And people, do not think gelato is ice cream. Gelato is grace that is beyond amazing, remission from repentance, an invitation to believe in the glory of sensory experience beyond thought, reason, or cholesterol. Of course a cone is good. But a cup is better because the tiny spoon keeps you from behaving rashly with your tongue in public.

And do not people watch while eating gelato. Unless of course, you want to learn what those long thin poles are that hucksters are selling in every piazza. When the ideal selfie is beyond reach, do not believe it.

Do not look at the Bernini fountain and marvel at the power of the gods. You have all that the gods ever had right in your little cup. Besides, you will miss the pigeons watching the tourists from the leg of the river god.

Do look up at the far end of Piazza Navona to the rooftop of the apartment building—the setting for one part of the three-part film starring Sophia and Marcello: Ieri, Oggi, Domani...Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

So now enlivened by Spirit of Gelato, we leave the piazza, reminded by this sign outside a restaurant to be respectful of others and lower your voice. For us, it's not about lowering the voice but about walking about quietly. Looking for the unexpected moment not in the tour books.

Like this weird guy just sitting there watching the traffic go by.

And by the way selfies are good if you want to meet other people who are also walking about quietly. Foks like Shanti and Devi from Indonesia are always on hand to ask if you'd like them to take your picture. It's much more personable than a thin metal rod and is also free and fun!

And by the way, you will be happy to know that with their new president, Devi and Shanti are sure things will be looking up in Indonesia.