Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

The decline of Rome: putting things in perspective

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(The scene of the crime)

I was waiting for the metro at Termini the other day (see my post here on why Termini is allucinante) when I had a disturbing encounter. I noticed an agitated woman shuffling along the platform in flip-flops. As a general rule, if you see someone wearing flip-flops in central Rome they’re either a) a tourist or b) homeless and/or mentally ill. This woman belonged to the second category, and was shouting.

I moved away from the edge of the platform (too many horror stories about people being pushed) and watched her approach a rubbish bin and start rummaging around. She pulled out a few things, including a stick of corn on the cob, and then turned to glare at me. I don’t know if she’d noticed me watching her, or if I just happened to be the nearest person. “Fatti cazzi tuoi!” she shouted at me, waving the corn as if it were a knife. And then, still thrusting the corn in my direction, she said something so vulgar it doesn’t bear repeating. I quickly sidled away, and was relieved when a friend arrived out of nowhere – coincidentally she had been at the other end of the platform, and watched the bizarre scene unfold.

I know there’s nothing particularly significant about what happened. These things happen. (Especially at Termini). But I’ve been feeling increasingly cynical about Rome recently, for various reasons, and this incident is one of many that seems to represent the absurdity and degradation of Rome. There are many others. Valeriano having to call the police in order to make the security guy let him into the INPS office. The group of citizens who “illegally” fix some of Rome’s 10,000 potholes. The inexplicable, long-term closure of three of the most central metro stations.

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I don’t want to become one of those bitter, moaning expats, but when nothing works, it can be difficult. Usually, when an Italian asks me why I chose to leave London for Rome, I launch into the story about how I fell in love with the Eternal City as a student – the weather, the food, the art, the history, Keats and Shelley and Testaccio…But most recently, when a teenage student asked me why I’d moved to Rome, I replied, “Oh, you know. Pizza, pasta, mandolino.” (Italians joke about these stereotypes. It’s like someone saying they moved to the UK for tea, Big Ben and the Royal Family).

I needed something to put things in perspective, to stop this slide into cynicism, and it came in an unexpected form.

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I finally got round to reading one of my Christmas presents – Matthew Kneale’s alternative history of Rome. This book has seven chapters, each focusing on a moment that Rome was attacked, from the Gauls in the 4th century BC to the Nazis. As well as explaining the context and main players of the battle, Kneale gives a fascinating insight into the lives of Romans at the time. What did they eat? How often did they wash? What were the streets like at night? So many books focus on Ancient Rome and Renaissance Rome, on emperors, popes and artists. It was refreshing to read about living conditions for ordinary Romans in the Middle Ages for a change.

Kneale is also a novelist, which might be why he’s so successful at bringing the past to life. The most moving section was on the Nazi occupation, probably because it’s so recent, and feels so real – the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, or the Jews being rounded up in the Ghetto – but the whole book is filled with vivid anecdotes, humour and tragedy. One fact that really stuck with me is that in Renaissance Rome, with the ancient aqueducts no longer in use, Romans were forced to drink the filthy water of the Tiber. Drinking the water of the modern day river doesn’t particularly appeal, but it was even more foul then – the Tiber was essentially an open sewer, filled with corpses. Visitors were disgusted, but Romans were proud of their water. Pope Clement even brought a barrel of Tiber water with him when he left the city, claiming he couldn’t drink anything else.

I was shocked by the descriptions of the Sack of Rome in 1527, which Kneale describes as “Rome’s 9/11”. People were thrown alive into the river. Ordinary people – women and children – were slaughtered in the street. There are reports that men were tortured, castrated, made to eat parts of their own body. As if the violence were not enough, the plague arrived. Food was scarce. And then the Tiber burst its banks, and more died in the flood. Literally the only person who was having a good time was Benvenuto Cellini: “My drawing, my wonderful studies and my lovely music were all forgotten in the music of the guns, and if I told all the great things I did in that cruel inferno, I would astonish the world.”

1527 is obviously an extreme example – Rome at its most miserable. But as I turned the pages, I was forced to reflect on the fact that the average Roman, over the course of history, has had a pretty grim existence. Even if you were lucky enough to avoid war, your chances of being a slave, being raped/tortured/murdered, dying of the plague, dying in childbirth, dying of starvation, or just suffering the general pains of existence, were very high indeed.

So, what’s my point? Not that we should stop criticising modern Rome’s shortcomings, or that we should shrug off our problems, constantly telling ourselves that it could be worse. (“Sigh! Another sciopero! But least I’m not an orphan in 1527, hoping to die of the plague before the marauding troops arrive.”)

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything was better in the past.* To hark back to the good old days, when Rome wasn’t covered in rubbish, when the trains ran on time, when the city was shiny and beautiful, one of the wonders of the world. But what do we mean when we talk about the decline of Rome? Was everything so much better before? Perhaps for a brief period – from the end of the Second World War to the 1990s – things were to some extent “better”, compared to today. It’s debatable. And even if it is true, that period covers just a few decades, a mere blip in Rome’s 3,000 year history.

Rome has a multitude of problems that need fixing, from the decrepit public transport system to the rubbish crisis, but let’s try to keep things in perspective. Focus on the positives. I recently watched a video about how it’s human nature to fixate on the negatives while ignoring the positives. (Caveman brains in the 21st century). When you compare Rome in 2019 to almost any other year in the past, it’s actually pretty wonderful. No war, plague, flooding, slavery or starvation. For the minority that are suffering, help is available, whether from charity, the church, or just ordinary human kindness. And I’m one of the lucky ones. My equivalent in Rome of the past – a foreign, unmarried woman – would not have felt as safe walking the streets, and would not have had my rights. I have a job and a roof over my head, and I don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. I enjoy modern luxuries like a washing machine, air conditioning, and a bathroom. (In 1931, only 1 in 10 Roman apartments had their own bathroom).

Rome is far from perfect, but I would argue that there’s really no such thing as a perfect city, in any time, in any place. It’s all relative.

So, my advice? Go and read a history book, and then enjoy a gelato in the sunshine. It could be better, but really, it could be so much worse.

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I originally wrote “better in the pasta” before I realised my mistake. See what living in Italy has done to me?

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Claudio Leporati – a goodbye

In November 2017 I went to my first Italian wedding. My friend Claudio married Konstanze.

Last week I went to my first Italian funeral. It was Claudio’s.

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Claudio was one of the first people I met, when I moved to Rome in 2013. We met at an expat event at Rec 23 in Testaccio. He wasn’t an expat – he was an Italian from Genova – but expat events in Rome tend to be frequented by Italians who are (a) trying to hit on foreign women or (b) genuinely looking for new friends. Claudio was incredibly friendly and sociable, always looking to meet new people, and he belonged firmly in the latter category.

I was 22, he was 48. When I describe how we met, and mention our ages, I know how it sounds. But from the beginning, and for the duration of our friendship, we were only ever platonic friends. Claudio had been single for a long time, and clearly wanted to meet someone, but our relationship revolved around cinema and culture.

Claudio became my “cinema friend”. That was how I referred to him, because 90% of the times we met up, we went to the cinema together. At the Nuovo Olimpia, Quattro Fontane, film societies, or the tiny cinema in the Villa Borghese. Claudio was a rare example of an Italian who insisted on watching films in their original language, rather than the dubbed versions.

I saw so many films with Claudio. A lot of quite terrible films, actually. Well, I don’t want to insult a classic like The Passion of Joan of Arc, but watching a silent film when the captions are only available in Danish is not the most enjoyable film-going experience. Then there was the Ukrainian film in sign language, which was also one of the most brutal, harrowing films I’ve ever seen…I would have walked out if I hadn’t been there with Claudio.

But there were some good films too. Like Under the Skin at a tiny cinema in Trastevere, where we were the only people there. (Most people I know hated Under the Skin, but Claudio and I both loved it). Barry Lyndon at the Cinema Aquila in Pigneto…And sometimes it didn’t even matter what the film was, because the real pleasure was going with him, and listening to his analysis.

Claudio was a voracious consumer of culture – film, music, literature, art, opera. He had eclectic tastes and was willing to give everything a go. There was never any snobbery or pretentiousness, just a real pleasure in absorbing everything he could and then discussing it at length.

He was outspoken, opinionated, and could be a little overwhelming when you met him for the first time. A bit full on. But if you “got” Claudio, he was a wonderful friend. As well as being entertaining and just good company all round, he was such a good person. He was always generous and considerate, and he genuinely cared about you and what was going on in your life. I know that in theory, all friends should be like that, but in my experience people who truly care can be hard to come by. He was always really interested in my writing, always supportive.

Obviously I appreciated his friendship at the time, but looking back, I can see how important he was. He was one of my very first friends in Rome, a consistent presence in my life in the first few years, and as well as introducing me to so many films, he also introduced me to countless people and places. I was lucky to have him in my life.

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One of the first things I learned about Claudio when I met him, apart from the fact that he was from Genova and went to the cinema several times a week, was that he had cancer. He was quite open about his illness, but also had no desire to talk about it. I got the impression that it bored him. Why talk about chemotherapy when you could discuss Kubrick? Although he was often tired, it didn’t seem to stop him from going out and living his life to the full. Even when he left his job (he was an engineer), which should have been a sign, I thought he would be all right. I still don’t know if it was optimism or denial.

I was delighted for him when he met, fell in love with and married Konstanze, in a period of what felt like six months. I guess they thought, “What’s the point in waiting?” She moved from Germany to Rome to be with him, and they seemed very happy together. They had a beautiful, low-key civil wedding at Santa Maria in Tempulo, near the Terme di Caracalla, followed by dinner at a restaurant in their neighbourhood, Pietralata.

After the wedding, I only saw Claudio a couple of times. Both times at Indian Fast Food near Piazza Vittorio, I think. He suddenly seemed busy, or unavailable, or not up to going out. I tried not to overanalyse what it meant. When people get into a relationship or get married, they often disappear for a while, and on top of that, he was going through another round of treatment. I would send him messages every now and then asking how he was, suggesting we meet up. Sometimes it would nearly happen, and then for some reason or another our plans fell through. He went from being very active on social media to disappearing completely. Every now and then I would find myself neurotically checking his status on Whatsapp, and being reassured when I saw that he’d been active in the last 24 hours. At least he was still alive. Of course he was still alive.

Until I got the Whatsapp message from Konstanze on a Saturday morning, while I was teaching.

volevo dirti che purtroppo Claudio e’ venuto a mancare questa notte

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In Italy funerals take place only a couple of days after the death. Is it better that way? To get it over and done with? I don’t know. All I know is that I hadn’t come to terms with it, and I was still reeling when I arrived on my own at the church in Pietralata, standing awkwardly apart from the group of Claudio’s friends or colleagues who I’d never met. Talking in Italian to a stranger suddenly seemed like an impossible task. I just stood there silently, trying not to break down when I saw the coffin for the first time, or when I greeted Konstanze. It was a relief to be able to talk naturally, spontaneously in English, instead of having to fumble for the words in Italian: “I’m so, so sorry.”

Valeriano arrived (from Milan) when the service had already begun, suddenly appearing beside me. I can’t remember anything of what the priest said, because church services really do feel like another language to me, regardless of whether it’s in English or Italian. I kept tuning out, and only tuning in again when the priest said “Claudio”. The rest of it seemed to have nothing to do with the person I knew, so I just stood there waiting for it to be over.

Then we were outside, watching the hearse drive away, saying goodbye to Konstanze, disappearing in little groups to continue the day – back home, or in my case, to work. And that was it.

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I wrote this for the catharsis of writing, and for the memories. But as silly as it may sound, I also wrote this because it bothers me that when you search his name on Google, almost all the results are for an entirely different Claudio Leporati who works in the prosciutto industry in Parma, and I feel like there needs to be some kind of digital trace of this Claudio Leporati. Yes, you could make the perfectly valid point that it’s just the internet, that it doesn’t matter what Google thinks of Claudio’s existence, but I would like him to be remembered in at least one small corner of the internet.

Claudio, you were a great friend and a truly original and wonderful person. I’m sorry I never got to say goodbye in person, and that this will have to do instead.

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza

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It’s not just tourists who get caught out by opening hours in Italy. I’ve lived here for more than five years, and it still happens to me on a regular basis. An especially irritating recent example is Tarquinia – a lovely town an hour from Rome, famed for its Etruscan tombs. I’d been there before, and decided to take my parents there on a day trip. We got to Termini, paid for three return tickets (around €30), and got on the train. About 5 minutes into the journey I thought, “Hmm, today’s Monday. Things are often closed on a Monday. Let me check….” 30 seconds on Google confirmed my suspicions. Etruscan tombs in Tarquinia: closed. Museum in Tarquinia: closed.

While there’s more to Tarquinia than the tombs and the museum, there’s not that much more. Going to Tarquinia on a Monday is like visiting Pisa when the Leaning Tower is completely covered in scaffolding. So five minutes after getting on the train, we got off at Trastevere. We had a perfectly pleasant day in Rome, but I still felt like kicking myself. Trying to visit a museum or cultural site in Italy on a Monday is such an amateur mistake. Why do I keep making it?

I’ve also been thwarted by the opening hours at the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza on a couple of occasions, arriving to find it arbitrarily closed in the middle of the afternoon. On my first attempt to visit I wasn’t even able to find the entrance, so just finding the locked door and the opening hours felt like a small victory.

The Mausoleum of Santa Costanza is a 4th century church located on the Via Nomentana. Although it’s not far from the centre, it’s off the edge of the tourist map – a short walk from Sant’Agnese metro station on the B line, or the Aprile XXI stop on the 90 bus line.

Enter the Sant’Agnese complex through the main entrance on Via Nomentana, cross the courtyard, turn left down the hill at the statue, and then continue along the path until you reach the mausoleum entrance on the left. Assuming you haven’t made the mistake of trying to visit between 12pm and 3pm, the mausoleum is open. Go through the door and marvel at the…gloom?

You don’t have to pay to enter the mausoleum, but you do have to pay to turn the lights on. Don’t be stingy, wandering around in the dark and hoping that someone else will put 50 cents in the box. I noticed the other visitors slowing their pace or changing direction as they walked around, hoping that someone else would be the first to reach the box, and thus feel obliged to pay. If you’ve made the trek all the way to the inner suburbs of Rome, you might as well fork out a couple of euros so you can actually see the place you’ve come to visit.

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(photo credit Tesori di Roma)

With the lights on, Santa Costanza is beautiful. I got neck-ache from staring up at the ceiling, which is decorated with 4th century mosaics. Vines, flowers, fruit, birds, cherubs harvesting – not the kind of imagery you associate with churches, but in the early days of Christianity in Rome pagan symbolism was much more common. The frescoes of the Case Romane on the Caelian Hill are another example. I find this blend of pagan/Christian fascinating, and of course the Dionysian element is especially appealing. As I walked around in circles, gazing at the ceiling and following the foliage, I thought of In Exile…the perfect (inappropriate) setting for one of their bacchanals…

Santa Costanza is technically a church, but was believed to have been constructed under Constantine I, as a mausoleum for his daughter Constantina (hence Costanza). However, it’s now believed that the mausoleum was built slightly later, under the orders of Emperor Julian, as a burial place for his wife Helena. Helena was also the daughter of Constantine. Confused? Then don’t think too much about the fact that the nearby ruins are the remains of the 4th century basilica of St Agnes, or that the church next to the mausoleum is the new basilica of St Agnes. Both St Agnes’s were built over the catacombs where the saint was buried. Essentially, what you can see at the site today are (a) a church that was originally a mausoleum (“Santa Costanza”), (b) the ruins of the 4th century basilica of St Agnes and (c) the current basilica of St Agnes (“Basilica di Sant’Agnese fuori le mura”), which dates back to the 7th century but is Baroque in style.

There’s a replica of an ancient sarcophagus at the back of the mausoleum, which will be familiar to anyone who’s visited the Vatican Museums. Or maybe not? I can imagine dazed, art-saturated tourists stumbling past the sarcophagus without giving it a second glance, which is a pity.

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By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The sarcophagus in the picture is known as the Sarcophagus of Constantina (though it may have actually been Helena’s) and is located in the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican Museums. It used to stand, along with another, less impressive sarcophagus (that was either Constantina’s or Helena’s) inside the mausoleum. It’s made of porphyry – an honour reserved for members of the imperial family. Purple was the royal colour, and porphyry was quarried only in Egypt. The imagery on the sarcophagus is similar to the ceiling mosaics – vines and harvest scenes. It could be related to the wine of the Eucharist, but I’d prefer to think of the images as being Dionysian. The last of the pagan imagery, before Christianity took over once and for all…

After you’ve seen the mausoleum, it’s worth popping into the Basilica of Sant’Agnese and visiting St Agnes (buried under the altar), and the catacombs. For a place that’s ignored by the majority of guidebooks and tourists, there’s a lot to see.

Some other recommendations for “off the beaten path” attractions in Rome, which are all easy to get to despite not being central:

  • Basilica di San Paolo fuori le mura (San Paolo neighbourhood) – the most modern and least visited of the four papal basilicas, but it’s pretty spectacular. It’s decorated with a series of mosaic papal portraits; apparently, when the last spaces are filled, the world will end. We’re just a few popes away from the apocalypse!
  • Villa Giulia (north of Villa Borghese) – the national Etruscan museum is so underrated. Even if you think you’re not particularly interested in the Etruscans, you will be after a visit to the museum. The collection is great, the building is beautiful, and you’ll probably have the place to yourself.
  • Centrale Montemartini (near Garbatella) – part of the Capitoline Museum’s statuary collection is housed in this former power plant. Greek gods and fragmented torsos are displayed among the machinery.
  • Parco degli Acquedotti (close to metro station Giulio Agricola on the A line) – if this park were more central, it would be swarmed with tourists. But thankfully it’s located in a residential neighbourhood, a 15 minute metro ride from the station, which mean that the aqueducts can be enjoyed in peace.

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(scene from La Grande Bellezza)

Do you have any other suggestions for underrated sites located in less touristy neighbourhoods? Let me know in the comments.

BOOK LAUNCH

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I haven’t updated in a while because I’ve been too busy with life – teaching, adjusting to a temporary long-distance phase of my relationship (Rome-Milan), and….-drum roll-…publishing my debut novel!

In Exile was published as an e-book and paperback by Unbound on 24 January. On 24 February, I’m celebrating with a book launch at Altroquando bookshop in Rome. As part of Otherwise’s “Women Under the Influence” series, I’ll be talking to Tiffany Parks, author of Midnight in the Piazza, about our novels, influences, and Rome. Please come!

In Exile book launch/Women Under the Influence
Altroquando
Via del Governo Vecchio 82
Sunday 24 February 5pm
Drinks at Ex-Circus afterwards

Rome: a reading list

Are you interested in Rome? Do you like to read? Presumably the answer is “yes” to both questions, given that you’re reading my Rome blog…

This is not a definitive list, just a personal selection of some of the books I’ve read (or want to read) that are set in Rome, or about Rome.

 

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The Aeneid – Virgil (29-19 BC)

Where it all began. I remember hating the Aeneid when I first started studying it at school (in translation, for A-level Classical Civilisation), but it grew on me. Feeling sorry for Dido was the way in. Anyone with an interest in Rome really has to read it, at least for an appreciation of the epic story behind the city’s foundation. It may be fiction, but knowing the Aeneid helps you to understand Rome and the Romans – their sense of importance and belief in ancestry.

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La romana – Alberto Moravia (1947)

A dark, somewhat depressing novel about a prostitute in fascist Rome. I read it several years ago and don’t remember it very well, apart from the fact that the characterisation was good, and it was an interesting depiction of working class life in Rome.

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The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – Tennessee Williams (1950)

The story of a American actress who lives a lonely, aimless life in Rome, coming to terms with the end of her career and her aging, as she drifts into an affair with a younger man. The film with Vivien Leigh is better known than the novella, but it’s well worth a read, and interesting to compare with Williams’ plays.

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La Storia – Elsa Morante (1974)

A family saga set in San Lorenzo during and after the Second World War, regarded as a modern classic. Elsa Morante was from Rome (there’s a plaque for her in Testaccio) and she was married to Alberto Moravia. I’ve wanted to read this for ages, but it remains on my TBR pile because my Italian is not quite there yet. I’ve read books in Italian, but 500+ pages is a challenge. I’ll get there one day.

Artemisia – Alexandra Lapierre (2001)

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A Christmas present in my TBR pile. Apparently this is one of at least two novels about Artemisia Gentileschi (the other is The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more, as Gentileschi is the ideal subject for a book – a talented artist who overcame trauma and scandal to forge a remarkable career across Europe. She grew up in Rome – the scene of the infamous rape and subsequent trial – and returned to the city later in her career, after a period in Florence.

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Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006)

I think I discovered this gem of a novel entirely by chance, picking it off the shelves in a bookshop. A day in the life of a young, pregnant German woman who walks through Rome in 1943, contemplating the return of her husband. It’s the perfect book for someone who knows Rome well, as you can visualise her exact route, through the streets of Prati, over the Tiber to Piazza del Popolo. The novel takes the form of a single sentence, which sounds daunting, but it works surprisingly well.

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Five Quarters – Rachel Roddy (2015)

It’s more than a cookbook – it’s the story of a Roman neighbourhood. Rachel has lived in Testaccio for years and writes beautifully about daily life in the neighbourhood, in the market, piazzas, restaurants and courtyards. The recipes – for Roman dishes from pasta to polpette – often come with a glimpse of local life, just like her Guardian column. The photos are gorgeous too, and make me homesick for Testaccio.

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Midnight in the Piazza – Tiffany Parks (2018)

Another one from the TBR pile – an art history mystery by local author Tiffany Parks, one half of The Bittersweet Life podcast. In children’s book Midnight in the Piazza, 13 year old Beatrice witnesses the theft of one of the turtles of the Fontana delle Tartarughe from her bedroom window, and gets drawn into the mysteries of the aristocratic Mattei family. A book for art lovers and anyone who is fascinated by the Jewish Ghetto, in particular the atmospheric Piazza Mattei and Palazzo Mattei di Giove.

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Agrippina – Emma Southon (2018)

I’m reading this unusual biography right now and thoroughly enjoying it. Agrippina was the sister of Caligula, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero. She was, and continues to be, defined by her relationships with powerful men, but she was also a fascinating character in her own right. Emma Southon puts together the pieces of the puzzle to assemble a portrait of the Roman empress, from her birth in Cologne to her death (by execution) in southern Italy. As you would expect, Rome is where lots of the action takes place. Memorable scenes so far include the 13 year old Agrippina’s wedding day on the Via Sacra and New Year’s Day in the year 38 AD, when a slave entered the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill carrying a puppy and a knife, made some terrible predictions, then killed the puppy, then himself. I’m expecting many more memorable scenes before Agrippina meets her violent end…

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In Exile – Alexandra Turney (2019)

My book! This is what a NetGalley reviewer said: “Turney deals with the absolutely riveting question “What would happen if Dionysus were re-born in a 20th century Rome where no one believed in him?” in a Tartt-esque novel that is well-written, fast-paced and engrossing; a read ideal to start the new year off.” You can request the e-book from NetGalley, pre-order from various places, or buy it when it comes out on 24 January. Read it now so you can be smug about discovering me early on. (Please, someone – discover me. I want readers!)

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I’m aware that this list is lacking in pre-20th century literature, Italian authors and non-fiction. The Culture Trip and An American in Rome have good alternative lists. If you have any recommendations, please comment – I’m always looking for new books to read.

Moments from the Metamorphoses – Ovid at the Scuderie del Quirinale

I was a teenager the last time I read (and adored) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the characters and stories still so feel so familiar. Walking around the Scuderie del Quirinale, at the exhibition of artworks inspired by Ovid (Ovidio. Amori, miti e altre storie), it was like bumping into old friends. “Ah, it’s Icarus again …Marsyas challenging Apollo to a competition on the lyre, we all know how that ends….a distressed woman and a cow, must be Zeus and Europa.”

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(‘The Abduction of Europa’, Antonio Caracci)

I know Ovid because I’ve read Ovid, but I know him best through art. If you start looking, the myths of the Metamorphoses are everywhere – countless paintings, frescoes and sculptures in churches, museums and galleries, returning obsessively to certain moments.

Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo:

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(‘Apollo and Daphne’, Bernini)

Zeus turns into an eagle to abduct Ganymede:

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(‘The Rape of Ganymede’, Damiano Mazza)

The massacre of Niobe’s children by Apollo (and in some versions, Artemis):

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(‘The Punishment of Niobe’ by Tobias Verhaect)

Most art inspired by mythology seems to be focused on a moment of suffering – death, mourning, rape, abduction. The crucial, dramatic moment of the story is almost always a terrible one, and yet generations of artists (and gallery-goers) delight in them.

There’s just something morbidly fascinating about these moments – often a fateful encounter between god and mortal. They’re turning points – the lives of Daphne, Ganymede, Niobe and Europa will never be the same again.

I like the amorality of these stories. There are a few exceptions, such as the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, or the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, which have a clear moral message – a warning against arrogance or hubris. But for the most part there’s no message, no lesson. What I love about mythology, and the Metamorphoses in particular, is the acceptance of things as they are, without judgement. Beautiful things happen. Terrible things happen. Life is random. People live and then transform. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (‘Everything changes. Nothing perishes.’)

One of my favourite myths is the story of Ariadne. After helping Theseus to defeat the Minotaur, she’s abandoned on the island of Naxos. There are lots of paintings and sculptures depicting either the sleeping Ariadne (unaware that she’s been abandoned), or showing the moment that she wakes up alone on the beach and weeps for Theseus.

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(Head of sleeping Ariadne)

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(‘Ariadne in Naxos’, Evelyn de Morgan)

I understand why these moments are popular artistic subjects – beautiful sleeping woman, beautiful sad woman.

But the best, most dramatic moment of the story is this:

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(‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, Titian)

This is the moment when Ariadne meets Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine, and his entourage. The moment when she meets her future husband, and realises her life is about to be transformed:

Here’s an extract from one of my novels, where two characters look at a painting of the Annunciation during a visit to the Accademia in Venice and then discuss Bacchus and Ariadne:

“Look at this,” she said.
The angel Gabriel had swept into a palace of marble, an elegant building of columns and archways. To the right, the Virgin Mary regarded her visitor with an expression of mild curiosity.
“Mary always looks so serene, doesn’t she?” said Hyacinth. “But it must have been a frightful shock.”
“That’s what I always thought. When I was younger I was so enthralled by these Annunciation paintings, staring at them for ages in the Gallery. My sisters had to drag me away.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the most dramatic, life-changing moment, and there’s always this space between the angel and Mary, as though there has to be this divine distance and he can’t come too close. I find it fascinating. I dreamt of the same thing happening to me.”
“You never struck me as the type that craved divine visitations.”
“Of course. It seems like the most strange and beautiful thing in the world, especially when you’re twelve years old and you think your life is going to stay the same forever. I wanted to be someone special, to have my life changed in an instant by an angel coming into my bedroom in a blaze of glory. I know it sounds absurd, so you can laugh if you like.”
“No, I think I understand what you mean.”
“I’ve always loved the paintings which show the second when someone’s life changes. Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ is another one – the moment when she’s rescued, and she sees her new life coming towards her, Bacchus leaping from his chariot beneath that perfect sky.”

The character’s feelings about Bacchus and Ariadne are my own. The painting, which I first discovered through an art book I had as a child, and then through repeated visits to the National Gallery in London, is also one of the sources of my fascination with Dionysus/Bacchus.

So many paintings focus on a divine encounter. Not just mythological art, but also all the scenes from the Bible. The moment when a mortal captures the attention of a god, for better or worse, or when an ordinary person finds themselves in the presence of Christ or a saint or an angel.

Which scene from my novel, In Exile, would I choose to be represented in a painting? The first moment that the teenage girl meets the melancholy, exiled god of wine in a backstreet of the Jewish Ghetto, and mistakes him for a homeless man? Dionysus’s unsettling appearance at a sleepover, and the first taste of divine wine? A scene from one of the later bacchanals near the Appian Way, when they realise there’s no going back? It’s a pity it’s too late to commission Titian…

As much as I love these freeze frames – the scenes that make me think of the beauty and frustration of stillness in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – I always want to know what comes next. What about the rest of the story? I suppose that’s why I write novels instead of creating art (well, there’s also the fact that I can’t even draw a decent stick figure…). Maybe that’s also the reason why of all the mythological paintings, it’s Bacchus and Ariadne that captivates me the most. Somehow it feels like more than a moment, hinting at the rest of the story – leaving Naxos to begin a new life as a goddess, wife of Dionysus. In myth it’s considered the end of the story, but it’s actually a beginning. A life on the verge of transformation, and a glimpse of a new world.

*

I originally intended to write a proper review of the exhibition, but I got sidetracked…I do recommend Ovidio, which is at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January. I liked the way it was organised, beginning with an introduction to Ovid and his life and times (the age of Augustus), and then guiding you through the myths. Even if you choose not to use the audioguide, the myths are explained (in well-translated English, for once!) for each section, which has several artworks depicting a character or scene from the story. Some of the artworks are not the best or most famous interpretations of the myth, but there’s still a good selection of paintings and sculptures, including some beautiful frescoes from Pompeii and a striking, lesser-known Venus by Botticelli.

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As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.

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Italian weddings: a beginner’s guide

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“There are going to be more than 250 guests at the wedding,” I told my student. “250!”

“In Calabria,” he said, “you sometimes get 600 guests. At one there were 1,200. They had to book multiple restaurants.”

Italian weddings are a big deal. The day might last for more than 12 hours, the guest count reach hundreds, the total cost tens of thousands euros.

I recently had my introduction to the Big Italian Wedding. Lorenzo (Valeriano’s friend) and Celia recently got married in Puglia, and Valentina (Valeriano’s sister) and Alessio in Cassino. A quick summary of of the days:

Lorenzo and Celia – 3pm – traditional Catholic ceremony (with some parts translated into English for the benefit of the bride’s guests) at a church near Monopoli, a quick aperitivo outside the church, then a drive to Castello Marchione for the reception. Another, fancier aperitivo, then buffet style antipasti, then a multiple course formal dinner. After dinner there was the wedding cake, then drinks, dancing, and ice cream and a chocolate fountain for anyone who wasn’t stuffed. The night was over by about 3am.

Valentina and Alessio – 9am – a kind of breakfast aperitivo at the flat (Valentina’s father’s home), then on to the church at 11am for a traditional ceremony. We then drove to the restaurant Il Vernacolo, located just outside of Cassino, where lunch began with buffet style antipasti outside, then continued inside for about 7 hours, with a live band and dancing. Then outside for the wedding cake, fruit and more dessert, fireworks, drinks and cigars. As family of the bride, we were some of the last to leave at around midnight.

Both the weddings were a lot of fun for the guests, but the brides and grooms clearly enjoyed themselves too, and the length of the events meant that we got to see a lot of each other, compared to shorter weddings where the couple spend so much time being photographed that they hardly get to talk to their guests. It was wonderful to be a part of their big day, and to see them looking so happy (and the brides looking so beautiful).

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(Valentina and her father leaving home on the morning of the wedding)

I have limited experience of weddings in general, so it’s hard for me to make big proclamations about differences between British weddings and Italian weddings. Every wedding is different, after all. But a few things worth noting…

Gifts

Italian weddings pay for themselves. These days, guests are generally expected to bring a busta (envelope) with cash or a cheque to the wedding, or make the transfer beforehand, rather than giving a present. My understanding is that the minimum you can give is about 100 euros (any less and you’re not even covering the cost of your presence), and that the fancier the wedding, the more you should give. I heard of a wedding where a relative of the groom gave a burnt 50 note (don’t ask me why), which obviously didn’t go down well.

The benefit of this system is that the bride and groom can actually stand to make a profit. Even if you have to fork out 30,000 beforehand, depending on the generosity of your guests, you can expect to have several thousands of euros leftover at the end.

Food

The food isn’t that important at British weddings. It’s on the list, but probably somewhere below alcohol and the floral arrangements. At Italian weddings, however, the food is everything.

I’m not going to lie. As much as I love the food here, the prospect of a meal lasting 6-7 hours filled me with dread. I can’t eat that much! Who can eat that much? But is it rude not to eat everything? Am I going to collapse in a carbohydrate-induced coma a few hours into the meal?

The quantity (and quality) of food didn’t disappoint. Both weddings had an incredible array of antipasti, including fancy canapès, oysters, mussels, insalata di mare, mozzarella, meat, fritti…I had to remind myself not to keep going back for more, as this was just the beginning.

This was the menu at Valentina and Alessio’s wedding:

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Believe it or not, it is possible to eat everything – to have some of all the dishes, at least, even if you don’t finish your plate. The food is spread out over such a long period that you never feel unpleasantly stuffed.

Then there’s this tip from a source who shall remain anonymous. If you want to make the most of the wedding meal and eat everything (it’s all delicious, after all), don’t go to the toilet the morning of the wedding. Then, halfway through the meal, head to the bathroom and, er, make room. That way you can go back to the table and enjoy your secondo secondo with gusto.

(Needless to say, no one touches the bread)

Music

Both the weddings I went to had a live band, and one had an X Factor star, Santino Cardamone. There were a few English language songs, but mostly Italian classics like Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano and Un Emozione da Poco. There was also one of my favourites, Gianna Nannini’s America, which got all the relatives dancing and singing along, despite the inappropriate lyrics.

The week before Valentina and Alessio’s wedding there was the serenata; traditionally this involves the groom serenading the bride outside her home, but this serenata was a huge garden party at Alessio’s family’s house in the country, and the focus was definitely more on the food than the music. But there was some music and dancing, and karaoke to the usual Italian repertoire, including Franco Califano’s Tutto il resto e’ noia, which seems even more inappropriate than “America”, yet is inexplicably popular as a wedding song. I mean, it’s a great song, but it’s literally about love being boring and disappointing:

La prima sera devi dimostrare
che al mondo solo tu sai far l’amore
si, d’accordo ma poi.
Tutto il resto è noia

(The first evening you have to show
that in the world only you know how to make love
yes, okay, but then
all the rest is boredom)

Is its wedding popularity ironic? Italians don’t really do irony. Not like the British, anyway. The British are definitely better at both irony and drinking to excess. Which brings us on to…

Alcohol

I drank a lot at both weddings, but somehow I didn’t really get drunk. Very few guests got truly drunk. Why? The length of the day, I suppose – it’s hard to get drunk when the drinking is staggered over 12 hours, and you’re eating pretty much every hour. Also, getting off-your-face drunk in British style is frowned upon in Italy. It’s not that people don’t get drunk – they do – but it’s less acceptable to be visibly, embarrassingly drunk. Especially for women – I’ve never seen an Italian woman drunk in the way that British women get drunk.

At the Cassino wedding some of the younger male guests were drinking heavily, but they managed to keep it together. Some of them were about to throw up when they caught sight of Valeriano (brother of the bride) and restrained themselves.

People also got drunk at the serenata but behaved themselves, with the exception of one guy, who apparently poured a bowl of spaghetti over his head. I don’t know if that was alcohol related though, or if that’s just what he does at parties.

Clothes

Everyone I saw was wearing typical formal clothes –  nothing different from what you would see at weddings in other countries. The British (and American?) rule that you can’t wear black at weddings certainly isn’t the case here, as I saw quite a few women in black dresses, including the groom’s mother. That’s about the only difference. Oh, and no hats/fascinators.

Confetti

Confetti is not what you think it is. In English, “confetti” is the bits of paper you throw at weddings, or blast from cannons at concerts. In Italian, “confetti” are sweets you give to your guests at weddings or christenings, usually made with almonds. The English “confetti” is the Italian “coriandoli”. The Italian “confetti” has no exact translation in English, because they don’t exist.

It’s a bit like the whole chip confusion (British chips are American French fries, American chips are British crisps).

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Etiquette

It’s fine to leave the table during the meal, and go off for a wander/phone call/nap. It’s fine to pop out of the church during the service if you’re bored or need some air or a cigarette, apparently. It’s not fine to be on Whatsapp while the bride and groom are exchanging rings (what’s wrong with you?)

I may have made a few blunders. On the morning of Valentina and Alessio’s wedding people kept saying auguri to me, and I was unsure whether this was just because I was sort of family (no one said auguri at the other wedding), and if I was supposed to say it back. I was also awkward during conversations with elderly relatives because I knew I should be using the formal lei instead of tu and I’m just not used to it.

My worst faux pas, however, was with a nun. It didn’t happen at the wedding, but when we met at Fiumicino while awaiting the arrival of some other family members, who were flying in for the wedding. I was introduced to the nun, who’s related to Valeriano somehow, and she seemed enchanted with me, stroking my arm and calling me a capolavoro. Later she was complaining about how much work she had to do at the convent, and I asked innocently, “Ah, che tipo di lavoro?” She looked flustered and then made some more vague references to the amount of work, and the fact she was in charge of the convent, so, you know…

Apparently I wasn’t supposed to ask what work she did, but merely express sympathy when she complained. The exact nature of the work of senior nuns in Rome remains a mystery…

To conclude, my advice for stranieri who find themselves invited to a Big Italian Wedding:

  • Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
  • Be prepared for lots of small talk in Italian
  • Also lots of cheek kissing. I lost count of the cheeks I kissed
  • Wear comfortable shoes, or at least bring a change of shoes
  • Eat everything and start your diet tomorrow
  • Drink but don’t embarrass yourself
  • Be generous with your gift
  • You can eat the confetti
  • Don’t ask nuns what they do

Canzone #9 “A nuje ce piace magna'” by Renzo Arbore (1998)

 

Italians will dispute some stereotypes – “We don’t gesticulate all the time”; “We don’t all live with our parents”, “There’s more to Italy than pizza, pasta, mandolino, Mafia…”

But this song confirms the food stereotype. “A nuje ce piace magna'” (“We like to eat” in Neapolitan dialect) is basically a menu, and it’s not even a parody or a joke song. It’s a dedication to the diverse cuisine of Italy, which needs no translation:

l’orecchiette alla barese
tortellini alla bolognese
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’
saltimbocca alla romana
melanzane alla parmigiana
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna
cotoletta alla milanesa
e porceddu alla nuorese
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’
con il fegato alla veneziana
i cannoli alla siciliana
a nuie ce piace ‘e magna’

If you were ever in doubt that Italians like to eat, just take a listen. The fact that it doesn’t sound completely ridiculous (at least to Italian ears) says something about the value of food in Italian culture.

An equivalent for England would be something like this:

Yorkshire pudding
Chicken korma
We like to eat
PG Tips
Fish and chips
We like to eat
Marmite on toast
Sunday roast
We like to eat

Not very convincing, is it? The British don’t really like to eat. Not like the Italians. When Renzo Arbore sings “bucatini alla matriciana“, I imagine Italians abroad shedding a tear.

Until you’ve lived in Italy, I don’t think you can really understand just how integral food is to daily life. Italians don’t just eat, they talk about eating all the time. Eavesdrop on a random conversation in the street, and I promise you, most of the time it’ll be food related. Sharing recipe tips, discussing what they had for lunch or dinner, debating the merits of different types of tomato. It’s completely normal and, at times, a little bit boring if I’m honest. Can we talk about something else for a change?

But then, I’m guilty of talking about food too. I remember a conversation with my parents, after I’d been living in Rome for about a year. I started telling them about a wonderful dinner I’d had the night before, describing the dishes in detail. “Why are you telling us this?” they asked, confused. Though they’re too polite to say it, what they meant was, “We don’t care.”

Compare that to a conversation with Alessio (my soon-to-be-sort-of-brother-in-law). When I saw him for the first time after my trip to Ischia this summer, the very first question was “What did you eat?” And so I told him about the amazing caprese, the pasta with cozze e zucchine, the fresh figs, and he was genuinely interested in a way that very few British people would be.

For Italians, food isn’t just food. It’s one of the great pleasures of life. It’s culture. It’s love. Valeriano rarely gives me the smaller portion of pasta, even though I’m trying to lose weight, but that’s amore.

P.S.

I haven’t said much about Renzo Arbore, because I don’t know all that much about him, other than the fact that he’s Neapolitan and a fan of food. But if you enjoyed “A nuje ce piace magna'”, I recommend his better-known song Cocorito, an ode to a lost parrot.

A Caravaggio tour with a visit to an art restoration lab

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Caravaggio wasn’t Roman, but he spent many of the defining years of his life and career in the Eternal City. It was in Rome that he found patrons and painted some of his most famous works (Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Judith Beheading Holofernes, The Calling of St Matthew). It was also in Rome that he befriended prostitutes (sometimes using them as his models), was accused of sodomy, got arrested near Piazza Navona for carrying a sword without a permit, threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter, and finally killed a man during a fight. After 16 years in Rome, Caravaggio was forced to flee to Naples, and then Malta, while Pope Paul V gave him a death sentence in absentia.

As well as the biographical connection with Rome, many of Caravaggio’s works are still on display in the city – in churches (Santa Maria del Popolo, San Luigi dei Francesi, Sant’Agostino) and galleries (Galleria Borghese, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Palazzo Barberini). There’s also a Caravaggio in the Vatican Museums (The Entombment) that most people miss in their haste to get to the Sistine Chapel.

I love Caravaggio – the drama, the subversiveness – and I love Rome, so a Caravaggio tour in Rome was always going to be relevant to my interests. But, even better, this tour also involved a visit to an art restoration lab, and meeting the restorers who have helped to preserve Caravaggio’s paintings. More on that later…

I joined the Restoring Caravaggio tour with Roma Experience, starting in Piazza del Popolo with a visit to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. I’ve been fascinated by this church ever since I found out the legend of its origins, involving Nero’s tomb and a walnut tree haunted by demons, and it’s also home to two paintings by Caravaggio – The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus.

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Apparently a church official wasn’t happy that the horse took up so much of the picture, and had this conversation with Caravaggio:

“Why have you put a horse in the middle, and St Paul on the ground?”

“Because!”

“Is the horse God?”

“No, but he stands in God’s light!”

We walked through the streets of Caravaggio’s old neighbourhood, past Via di Pallacorda, scene of the murder (pallacorda was an early form of tennis), to Sant’Agostino and one of my very favourite Caravaggio paintings.

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Madonna dei Pellegrini (also known as Madonna di Loreto) caused a scandal when it first went on display. To the modern eye it might not look that extreme, but compare it with older, more traditional portrayals of the Virgin Mary and you’ll see the difference. This is a very earthly Mary in a humble, every day setting – a far cry from the ethereal Marys floating in clouds, who hardly seem to have bodies at all. But it wasn’t just the slight suggestion of cleavage that made Caravaggio’s Mary controversial. She was standing in a doorway. A doorway! But what’s so controversial about a doorway, you might ask? Well, at the time the figure of a woman standing in a doorway in the street was associated with a prostitute. A coincidence, you might think. But then there’s the yellow shawl (also associated with prostitutes), Sant’Agostino’s congregation (the Augustinians were more liberal, and prostitutes often attended services), the fact that the model for Mary was most likely a prostitute…It’s not a coincidence.

Even though I’m not remotely religious, I really enjoy religious art. Angels, saints, ugly baby Jesuses, all of that. But I especially enjoy Caravaggio’s subversive blend of religious art – how he brought God into the streets of the city, narrowing the gap between ordinary people and the divine. In the Madonna del Pellegrini the pilgrims are peasants with dirty feet, just a few feet away from a Virgin Mary who suddenly doesn’t seem quite so virginal after all. To suggest that Madonna and Whore inhabit the same world – even the same woman – was pretty radical for Catholic Rome in 1606.

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A short walk away from Sant’Agostino, in a ground floor laboratory that was once a stable, a small team of art restorers work on 17th century paintings by Caravaggio and his contemporaries. They even restored Madonna dei Pellegrini in what is known as a restauro aperto (open restoration), working on the painting in the church, in full view of the public. When they’re not on site in churches or galleries, they’re based in their laboratory, which resembles a kind of hospital for paintings – discoloured canvases wait their turn, while restorations-in-progress are marked with white lines to highlight the “before and after”.

We met Valeria and Daniela, the experienced restorers who run the laboratory, and Arianna, who gave us a tour and explained how restoration works. As you might expect, it’s highly specialised work, and the most difficult part (which only the most experienced restorers are allowed to do) is cleaning paintings. It’s painstaking process, removing old layers of yellowed varnish bit by bit. It has to be done slowly, as some mistakes can’t be undone, and finding the right mix of chemicals is crucial.

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On our tour we watched a restorer at work, and gained appreciation for just how slow, careful and precise they have to be. For someone like me – impatient with shaky hands – it would be impossible. We also learned all about different materials and chemicals, and how the approach to restoration depends on the canvas, the age of the painting, and many other factors. I was curious to know why the laboratory also had some contemporary paintings on the walls – surely a painting created in the 20th century couldn’t be in need of restoration? But it turns out that a lot of modern artwork doesn’t endure in the same way as older paintings. Modern artists are more experimental with their materials, and after just a few decades the artworks can become discoloured.

After the tour, over a couple of glasses of prosecco, we discussed the restoration work on the Sistine Chapel and the anti-restoration argument – there is a small but vocal minority that believes paintings shouldn’t be restored. The artist Richard Serrin was particularly critical: “The [so-called] Glorious Restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes has destroyed them forever. What we say now cannot bring them back to life. We can only speak out to document the accountability of the Vatican restorers so that it does not pass unrecognized.”

Part of me understands some of the anti-restoration objections. We can never completely understand the artist’s intentions, and even the most careful, experienced restorer can never return the painting to its exact original state. To some extent, it will always be a subjective interpretation.

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But if you don’t restore paintings, what’s the alternative? Let the colours fade, let the paint flake away, until the masterpiece is a yellow shadow of its former self? The anti-restoration argument also strikes me as somewhat selfish. A damaged Caravaggio painting might still be considered “OK” for now, but if we don’t restore it, what will it look like in 200 years? It’s the same for the Sistine Chapel. Shouldn’t future generations be given the opportunity to appreciate the restored frescoes – imperfect though they may be – instead of having to squint at the dirty, time-darkened figures and console themselves with the thought that “At least it’s more authentic”?

After a visit to the restoration lab, I know which side I’m on, and I have a new appreciation for the art/science/magic of restoration. Caravaggio is famed for his use of chiaroscuro, but you need the contrast between the light and dark to fully appreciate it. And thanks to Valeria and Daniela, the Madonna dei Pellegrini is in the light once more.

Note: I was a guest of Roma Experience, and the restoration pictures are from their website.

 

Sant’Angelo, Ischia

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I blame Instagram for my island envy. Sardinia, Sicily, Ponza, Capri, Ischia. Endless photos of sunsets, beaches, boats. The rest of the world was sipping cocktails on terraces with a seaview while I was enduring the British heatwave in sweltering classrooms and trying to convince my teenage students that Frankenstein was interesting. I was teaching on my 27th birthday, and when I asked my students to guess how old I was, they all answered “35”. I finished summer school feeling exhausted and old.

But at the end of it all, in the last days of August, I finally got my holiday – a few days in Sant’Angelo, Ischia. My friend Tara (also a writer – check out her novel Social Creature) had invited a random mix of friends to come and join her in her mother’s villa, which sits high on the hill overlooking the sea. Quite how high, I underestimated.

I took the regionale train from Rome to Naples – a leisurely three hours to save money – and spent a day wandering along the Lungomare, eating pizza, and exploring the backstreets, finally calling it a night when I got jumped on by an over-friendly pitbull called Nikita. I stayed in an Airbnb near the port – a cavernous apartment decorated entirely in 1970s style, complete with unsettling patterned wallpaper and creepy vintage toys. The vibe it gave off was part brothel, part 1970s Neapolitan vampire lair, and although the owner presumably lived there, and often seemed to be lurking in the shadows, the place had a curiously unlived-in quality. Still, it was comfortable enough, and conveniently close to the port.

The next morning I got the boat to Ischia (Forio), then a taxi to Sant’Angelo. At this point I managed to get hopelessly, deliriously lost. In my confusion I was following two sets of directions (one to the villa, one to the bar where Tara was waiting), not realising that they were nowhere near each other. It didn’t help that I had the wrong address for the villa. Conflicting instructions from Google Maps and street signs confused me even further.

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Also, Sant’Angelo is steep. Really, really steep. There are no cars, as they wouldn’t fit on the tiny paths that wind up the hill. Trying to drag a suitcase up a hill under the intense heat of midday in August, wearing sandals with no grip, not knowing where on earth I was or where I was supposed to be, was not one of my more enjoyable holiday moments.

Anyway, I made it in the end, and Sant’Angelo turned out to be lovely when experienced in the right way (in sensible shoes, in the shade, without a suitcase, with at least a vague sense of geography). The town was originally a fishing village, and it has a sleepy, laid-back feel. Everyone potters around at a relaxed pace (it’s impossible to rush uphill anyway) or travels on golf carts, and most of the tourists seem to be older couples or families. It’s all very charming and unpretentious, and once you’ve recovered from the trauma of your arrival, it’s the perfect place to unwind.

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I allowed myself a total break from work – as well as working at a summer school, I’d been busy editing my novel for the last few weeks – and enjoyed a lazy few days lying on the beach, swimming, getting painted with mud (more on that later), and getting to know the other guests over countless bottles of prosecco. The careers of Tara’s group included: writer, model, burlesque performer, and university lecturer and director of Oxford chapel. I was one of the only non-New Yorkers. There were some entertaining conversations…

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One evening we had dinner in Eugenio’s garden. You couldn’t call it a restaurant, and I doubt you’ll find Eugenio on TripAdvisor. Tara befriended him the previous summer when she accidentally trespassed on his land, and one night he cooked for us – generous vegetable antipasti, gnocchi, pasta al pomodoro, rabbit (an Ischian speciality), more vegetables, two types of dessert (rum baba’ and mimosa cake), washed down with white wine. Brian (the only Englishman) was scolded by Fabrizio (the only Italian, Eugenio aside) for using cutlery to eat his rabbit, which turned into a minor cultural war and extended metaphor, while Eugenio appeared and disappeared at random intervals, sometimes singing, and his dog and cat ran under the table. Somewhere far below was some kind of concert, blasting lounge music across the island. I heard a lot of terrible music during my stay in Sant’Angelo, including trashy party versions of Lucio Battisti.

However, the food made up for the music. Pasta with mussels, courgette and pecorino by the beach, and the amazing caprese with a twist (layers of anchovies and swordfish between the mozzarella tower):

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Another highlight was the spa day. Since Roman times, Ischia has been famous for its thermal baths, and Sant’Angelo is a short boat ride away from one of the best-known, Cavascura. One day we took the taxi boat to the beach, then walked down a path through a kind of rocky gorge to reach the baths of Cavascura. In the end, only Laura and I decided to brave the spa treatment, while the others headed back to the beach or went to drink prosecco, most likely.

For 30, this is what you get:

  • A shower
  • Approximately 15 seconds in a sauna cave, saying “oh god, it’s too hot”, shrieking when you lose your footing in the dark and fall into some kind of hole filled with hot water, and then quickly escaping
  • The spa man asks you, surprised, if you’re sure that you’ve spent enough time in the sauna, to which the answer is a very assertive “SI
  • The unique experience of standing outside and being painted in cold mud from head to toe. If you make small talk with the spa man while he sticks a paintbrush between your thighs, at least it distracts you from the awkwardness of knowing that you’re in full view of the other spa-goers
  • Once you’ve been painted you stand in the sun and wait for the mud to dry, until you resemble one of those green plastic soldiers, and you feel so at one with the Ancient Romanness of the whole situation that you could be an extra in Fellini’s Satyricon. Then the spa man says “sei un elefante“, which means it’s time for a shower
  • A cold shower to get the mud off
  • And finally an unknowable length of time soaking in an Ancient Roman thermal bath, relaxing, wondering what time it is, relaxing, wondering how you’re supposed to know when you’re done if there are no clocks, relaxing, wondering if it’s dangerous to stay in such hot water for a long time, relaxing, deciding it’s better not to risk it and getting out of the bath

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Overall, an experience as enjoyable as it is surreal. The fact that it all takes place outside, beneath rocky cliffs covered with cactuses, makes it easier to pretend that you’re an Ancient Roman, doing as the Romans did. You can round off the experience with a sublime spremuta (freshly squeezed orange juice), and then book yourself in for extra treatments like massages. But after my spa experience I was ready for lunch at a nearby restaurant – bruschetta, insalata di mare, white wine with peaches, fresh figs from the garden – before we headed back along the beach, stopping off for a swim along the way.

Plan: work more to work less next summer, and spend more time swimming in the sea/eating pasta and drinking wine on beautiful terraces/overcoming my Englishness to take part in ancient spa treatments

villa prosecco