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

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.

No expert in Italian, I wondered if Shakespearean English might lack the passion of the Italian translation. I suspect, though, that the translation may lack the poetry of the original, which is made up for by the natural poetry in the movements of the Italian body.

Way less was made of Riccardo’s humped back than Shakespeare intended. 
Riccardo, despite the chip of a hump below his shoulder, was a thoroughly Italian man.
His seduction of the widowed queen was, well, like nothing I've ever seen in British or American Shakespeare.

Which reminds me, few in the audience were wearing scarves.
In fact, it was raining, and the audience looked quite like a Portland crowd.

The forty-five minute walk back to my apartment took me past the Domus Aurea, Nero's former palace. It's being newly excavated. The only way in is by guided tour. My only regret of the trip had been that I didn't grab a spot on the last English-speaking tour available for this newly opened ruin. But as I passed, I realized I'm tired of looking at the ruins of the ambitions and depraved that are still taking up space in this world.

I wondered where the resting place of the Vestal Virgins buried alive might be. Now that's a place I would wish to honor in the name of all those who for one reason or another were never allowed to choose.

I bought an orange and a banana at a fruit stand by the old forum, cost 2,80 euros or $3.50, but worth it not to have to stand in line at the supermercato. The Arab vendor gave me two extra bananas, "un regalo," he said. A gift. I have finally stopped confusing a gift, un regalo, with una regola, a regulation. Anyhow, I started to refuse the extra bananas as I'm leaving but then saw his earnest desire to give me something extra for the outrageous price.

The River God of Piazza Navona at night
I paused at the cat sanctuary. All the furry ones appeared tucked away in the ruins for the evening. Turning left, I ambled down the usually busy Corso Vittorio Emanuel, nearly empty on this Saturday evening, then through the piazza, and left to my door where I climbed the stairs and poured myself a glass from the last of my Montepulciano called Illuminati.

I opened up iTunes to Pachelbel's Canon, because in the end, my tenderest memory of this trip will always be the sounds of my gypsy Pachelbels. Street performers move around in Rome, and I kept running into them. They never failed to recognize me and always tipped their heads and violins.
My Pachelbel Gypsies
How is it possible to say three street performers changed your life?

I have never been as lonely as on this trip. I cannot overstate the creepiness of my first apartment where the only windows opened onto that terrible dark space permeated with dank and mold. Before I understood why I was feeling so sick and alone, I took a walk, trying to revive my spirit, and turning a corner felt their rendition of Pachelbel reach out and pull me back from the precipice of despair. And so always will the memory of them.

I paused today on my way to the play in front of the statue of Julius Caesar. He was good looking. Taller than most people of his time and seriously buffed up and confident in demeanor. Powerful. Invulnerable. To the extent a statue can be sexy, his is. And he probably was too—strange as all this may seem in that he is standing there in a kind of weird toga thing.
But then there were all those knives and blood, and Caesar was gone.

On my way home, I glanced again at Julius. It's sad that history is for the most tragedy.

Even sadder: the efforts of those who resist their tragic flaws by refusing to grab for power not natural to the soul are often lost to history. But perhaps in the end, it's probably these steadfast people who make humanity compassionate and wise enough to survive.

And speaking of surviving:
One final site begging to be mentioned:

There's a museum dedicated to the gladiators beneath Piazza Navona. In fact, the piazza was once a stadium built by the Emperor Domitian. It wasn't for gladiators or chariots, but for activities like foot races and poetry recitals. Yes, you heard that right. The chariots raced at the Circus Maximus; the gladiators fought at the Colosseum. Domitian's stadium, however, had sport for the mind and body. When it was discovered that beneath Piazza Navona, there was this stadium, excavation commenced, followed by the installation of a museum of gladiatorial outfits. Poets neglected once again! But to the points at hand:

First off, these outfits were pretty darned fancy. And there were lots of different weapons because who wants to see people get killed in the same old way with the same tiresome odds against them?

Second, Russell Crow and Caesar notwithstanding, the gladiators like others of their time were not all that tall.


The third and essential point, my friends, is here for you to take to your next city council meeting or town hall with your representative:
The excavation of the stadium beneath Piazza Navona takes us underground to the roughly 2,000 year old road that existed at the time. This road had been trod upon for years, served as the site for many a sport, was buried for centuries, and subjected to the pressures of excavation, underground water, and the weather of changing seasons, to say nothing of having a whole new piazza built over it. Yet, having walked upon this road, people, I swear to you that it is in far better condition than the road in front of my house, and perhaps your house or the potholed atrocities upon which you drive.

What's more, there are some sewer systems here that with some basic upkeep have been operating for two millennia.

Thinking about Rome and its lust for weaponry in sport and war, I wonder what America would have seem to the world if two thousand years hence, excavations revealed a culture without the weapons of war and artifacts of violent sports?

I came upon the remains of such a culture and will be telling you about these people in my final blog.
It's funny. I had joked to a couple people that I was sure that on this trip to Rome I was going to meet the love of my life. Turns out I did—among those small sweet people who made art, not war.
It's nice to be going home to cats, not lions.
Like the rest of the trip, even love turned out to be nothing like what I expected.

Finally, I don't want to leave Rome without thanking all my readers. The response, according to Blogger stats, has been surprising and overwhelming. In truth, these blogs were letters to my lost self, for this trip started out as a spiritual quest but ended up as a dark night of the soul in a moldy 15th century dwelling. And while the trip provided opportunity for the many fabulous experiences I have shared with you, it was also the first time in my life that I was unable to go on alone.
I can tell you, people, this was alarming.

The online I Ching told me the cause was that I had become a "husk of my former self" and "could not return to the homeland" without undergoing "complete transformation."
Like how freaky is it to be alone in a foreign land and told that?
Except you were there, so I was never really alone.
Thank you.

I believe that when I get home I will discover that got what I came for.
And that will be the story of the next and final installment in this series.

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