Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: February, 2017

Testaccio blackout

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I’m walking home after work at around 9.30pm when I bump into my flatmate, Tom, on Via Marmorata. He’s standing in the street, looking slightly confused.

“What are you doing?

“I’m looking for a shop that sells candles. But nothing’s open at this time…”

It turns out that there’s been a power cut. Not just our flat, or our building, but the whole block. Part of me is excited – I’ve never experienced a proper power cut before – but I’m also disappointed that my cooking plans have been thwarted.

As we climb four flights of stairs in the dark, we pass our neighbour, the Actor (his motorino was the only one to survive the Motorino Inferno of 2016), and exchange greetings. I ask Tom if he’s talked to any of our other neighbours about the blackout. He hasn’t. But there’s nothing to say, really – we just have to wait it out.

Stumbling around in the flat, guided by the light of our phones, we find a few candles – a couple of scented candles from my room, and some dusty tealight candles in a kitchen drawer. I think of that episode from Friends where there’s a power cut, and their improbably spacious flat is filled with an improbable quantity of candles. Who has that many candles? It’s another example of their unrealistic luck and privilege – gigantic apartments, successful careers, a coffee shop sofa that’s always reserved for them, and 50 candles in storage.

Determined to cook, I light the scented candles in the kitchen and begin preparing something simple – spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chili). I step out on the balcony and see all the darkened windows of the neighbouring buildings – it’s slightly eerie, how it’s all pitch black. Then I hear the familiar miaow of the neighbours’ cat, Gedeone. This chubby Siamese is a regular visitor to our flat. In fact, I don’t think he understands that he doesn’t live here, as he seems to view it as an extension of his own home. Whenever he sees one of us on the balcony he wails, demanding to be let in.

I open the front door and Gedeone runs in, rubbing himself against my legs. He has a habit of walking between your legs as you try to walk, which is particularly perilous when you’re cooking in a candlelit kitchen. An accident waiting to happen. I shoo him away from the candles and the frying pan and get back to cooking. By this point the mixed smells of the candles (red berry and cinnamon, spiced apple) is overpowering, and slightly off-putting. When you’re eating pasta, you want to smell the pasta, not choke on the aroma of scented candles.

After dinner I go to my room and wonder how to pass the time. No electricity means no internet, no light to read, no hot water for a shower. My laptop is fully charged, my phone at around 50%. As sources of light, they’re not much good, but in this moment they seem like the last, fading remnants of civilisation.

From my bedroom window I can see the street lights, the windows of the enoteca illuminated. The blackout is only affecting my small corner of Testaccio – a dark island surrounded by street lights and bright windows. It’s dark here, but it’s only temporary, and elsewhere there’s still plenty of light.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like in Ancient Rome. Back when night really meant darkness, when there were only candles and torches. Instead of brightly illuminated rooms, the occasional patch of flickering light.

21st century Rome may be much brighter than Ancient Rome, but there’s at least one place that would have been brighter in the past. After dark, the monumental ruins on the Palatine Hill practically disappear. Unlike the illuminated columns and archways of the Roman Forum, there are no lights here – just a vast, shadowy outline against the night sky. What would it have been like 2,000 years ago, when it was home to the emperors? I imagine rows of torches, banquet halls blazing, candles burning late into the night in the frescoed study of Augustus.

There are no lights now. Go to Via dei Cerchi – the street that divides Circo Massimo from the Palatine¬† – late at night. The street is lined by lamps, but on either side you’re surrounded by the dark remains of Ancient Rome. It’s like walking down a brightly lit pier, in the middle of a black sea.

Back in Testaccio, peering at the dim screen of my computer, I become aware of the hall light miraculously turning on. The blackout is over. While I’m relieved to have electricity again, in a strange way, I enjoyed the blackout. A few hours of darkness puts things in perspective.

Time to stock up on candles…

Canzone #6: “Albachiara” by Vasco Rossi (1979)

I have no idea how to explain Vasco Rossi.

I think he’s one of those phenomenons that can only really be understood if you’re Italian. Perhaps. He’s the Italian equivalent of certain kinds of British humour (Withnail & I, for example, or The League of Gentlemen). If you’re not British, you probably won’t get it, so you probably won’t like it. All right, Vasco Rossi is a singer-songwriter, not comedy, and music is supposed to more universal than comedy, but that’s the best analogy I can think of. To an outsider, he looks a bit like a wild-eyed, middle-aged mechanic having a go at karaoke. In other words, if you don’t understand Italian, you may not understand his appeal. It took me a while to properly appreciate him – his talent as a songwriter, his importance as the “rebel” of Italian popular music.

I like Vasco Rossi, but I don’t like Vasco Rossi like the Italians like Vasco Rossi. Italians love Vasco Rossi. Especially Italian men of a certain age. But he has plenty of female fans too. Valeriano once gave me a mix CD of Vasco Rossi songs – all of them were about women. Songs like “Silvia” and “Jenny e’ pazza”. Some of them are love songs, while others are more like portraits – scenes in the life of a teenage girl, or reflections on a woman’s nervous breakdown.

I think “Albachiara” was the first song I heard by Vasco Rossi, and it’s still my favourite. An anthemic tribute to a girl chiara come l’alba, fresca come l’aria (“clear like the dawn, fresh like the air”). Self-conscious, shy, studious. Day-dreamer. Masturbator. “Albachiara”was apparently inspired by a teenage girl Vasco often used to see in the street. When the song became a success and she found out that she was “Albachiara”, she was more embarrassed than pleased…

E quando guardi con quegli occhi grandi
forse un po’ troppo sinceri, sinceri
si vede quello che pensi,
quello che sogni….

Qualche volta fai pensieri strani
con una mano, una mano, ti sfiori,
tu sola dentro la stanza
e tutto il mondo fuori

Artemisia Gentileschi at Palazzo Braschi

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(self-portrait of Gentileschi as a lute player)

When I was a child, I had a Dorling Kindersley book about great artists and paintings. The painting took up most of the two-page spread, and was surrounded by little annotations, pointing out details and symbols, and providing historical context or biographical information. That book was my introduction to art – the book that made me fall in love with Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and sparked my interest in Artemisia Gentileschi.

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One of the paintings was Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, painted when Gentileschi was only 17 yeas old. Susanna sits by the water, naked, turning away in disgust from the two clothed men who ogle her, whispering to each other. Although I was too young to understand exactly what was going on – the lechery, the threat of sexual violence – something about the painting grabbed my attention. I’d already realised that nudity was everywhere in old paintings – nudity for nudity’s sake – but here it had a point. It made sense, given that Susanna had just been bathing, and it added to the sense of discomfort and vulnerability. And then there was her expression – the look of anguish on her face. It was a painting that told a story, a painting with emotions. At the age of 9 or 10, that was all I really wanted from art.

When I grew older, I read more about Artemisia Gentileschi, and became fascinated by her life as well as her art. There weren’t many successful female artists in the early 16th century – she was a respected painter, and the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia delle Arti in Florence.

She was also a rape victim. At the age of 19 she was raped by a friend of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. Over the course of a seven month trial, Gentileschi was subjected to humiliating medical examinations and tortured with thumbscrews. It emerged that Tassi was not only guilty of the rape, but had also been planning to murder his wife, and was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Although he was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, he never served the time. Tassi was also a painter, but history has remembered him as a rapist first, artist second.

The rape has, in a way, also defined Gentileschi and her career ever since. It’s impossible to look at the gory Judith Slaying Holofernes (painted just a year afterwards) without seeing it as a kind of revenge fantasy.

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(For more about this painting and Gentileschi’s life, read my blog post here).

For the last few months, this image has been plastered all over the walls and bus stops of Rome. I’d seen Judith Slaying Holofernes up close at the Uffizi, but I’d never seen any other works by Gentileschi in real life before, so I was excited by the prospect of an exhibition dedicated to her.

Valeriano and I went together one Saturday afternoon, queuing for 45 minutes. Although we grumbled about the queue, I suppose it’s a good sign that so many people are interested in her…

The exhibition at Palazzo Braschi was larger than I’d expected, taking up several rooms. The name of the exhibition is actually Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo (“Artemisia Gentileschi and her time“), and I’d say the exhibition is roughly a 50/50 split between works by Gentileschi, and works by contemporary artists who painted similar themes, with a similar style. The result is that it can feel a little repetitive at times – a succession of penitent Mary Magdalanes, pensive Cleopatras and bloody heads.

It’s definitely not for the squeamish. In addition to all the versions of Judith and Holofernes, there’s also Gentileschi’s painting of Jael and Sisera. Sisera was an army commander mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, who was killed by Jael. She hammered a tent peg into his head with such force that the peg went through the other side, pinning his head to the ground.

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Thank god she decided to paint the “before”, and not the “after”.

There are also a couple of extremely gory paintings (not by Gentileschi) portraying the myth of Apollo and Marsyas. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music contest, lost, and was skinned alive as punishment. I’ve never understood why it’s such a popular topic in art – in sculpture as well as painting. Who wants to look at a work of art depicting someone being flayed? It suggests something of a sadomasochistic streak in the artistic tastes of our ancestors. The 17th century equivalent of the Saw films, perhaps.

If you’re in the mood for some caravaggesque drama, I recommend a visit to Palazzo Braschi. It’s a unique opportunity to see several paintings by Gentileschi displayed together, and to explore the darker side of Baroque art.

By the time we walked out into Piazza Navona, we were quite happy to have a break from all the weeping, flaying and decapitating, but we both came out with a renewed interest and appreciation of Gentileschi – a prodigal talent who created a career for herself against the odds.

The Gentileschi exhibition runs until 7 May 2017 at Palazzo Braschi, Piazza Navona.

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