Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: September, 2017

Roman ruins and imaginary prisons: Piranesi at Palazzo Braschi

While frantically trying to find a plumber – the toilet flush panel on the wall had turned into an unstoppable waterfall – I reflected that I’d been spending a lot of time hanging around at home, being domestic and unsuccessfully attempting to fix various problems, and relatively little time out and about in Rome.

So, after a visit from Alessandro the idraulico and a bill for 140 I decided that I would treat myself in the afternoon. Instead of hanging around at home doing laundry and half-heartedly tidying my room, I’d get the bus into the centre and go to a museum instead. The fact that it’s now cool enough to consider venturing outside at 2pm is a cause for celebration in itself, and I felt I should make the most of it.

I visited the Piranesi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi (Museo di Roma), which was my second time at the museum this year. When I went to the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at Palazzo Braschi back in February I had to queue for an hour to get in, whereas I was practically the only person looking at the Piranesis. Is this the difference between a Saturday afternoon vs a Wednesday afternoon, or does this reveal something about the popularity of the artists? When I mentioned Piranesi to a couple of people, they’d never heard of him.

I didn’t know a great deal about Piranesi – I just knew enough to know that I liked him. His evocative prints of Roman ruins and labyrinthine prisons had captured my imagination when I was a teenager, drawn to anything old or remotely Gormenghastian. I have a particular soft spot for his spectacularly over the top Appia Antica, which is like something from a dream:

piranesi appia

The Piranesi exhibition is very comprehensive, with hundreds of prints on display. I’d had no idea that he was that prolific, as I was only really familiar with a handful of his most famous works. During his life he was best-known for his images of Rome – a mixture of conventional pictures of sites such as St Peter’s and the Pantheon and some more obscure ruins.

piranesi forum

The Roman Forum

piranesi pyramid

The Pyramid of Cestius

piranesi minerva

In Piranesi’s time it was known as the Temple of Minerva Medica, but it’s actually a 4th century nymphaeum. It’s visible from Via Giolitti, and a familiar sight for anyone arriving at Termini.

Piranesi was a Venetian obsessed with Ancient Rome and its architecture. In fact, although he’s known as an artist, his way of seeing the world was more architectural than artistic. When confronted with hundreds of images of Roman buildings, pictures dissecting the details of Castel Sant’Angelo’s buttresses, and a whole series of etchings of columns created to refute a claim that Greek architecture was superior to Roman architecture, you begin to understand just how dedicated Piranesi was. A little fanatical.

And fantastical, too. I share Piranesi’s adoration (and idealisation) of Rome, and his tendency to see the more magical side of the city. His images evoke the feeling that I often experienced as a tourist in Rome – feeling completely dwarfed and overwhelmed by the size, grandeur and antiquity of the buildings. Looking at a church or a ruin once is not enough, but you feel like even if you kept staring, trying to take in all the details, you could never see it all.

Although Piranesi’s art shows a meticulous attention to detail, in some cases he plays with dimensions and perspectives to make buildings seem even more awe-inspiring. An article on the Paradoxes of Piranesi explains how the artist creates “an impossible panorama” of the Colosseum: “the section of ranked arcades nearest the viewer swells like something in a convex mirror, while on both sides the arches run off in vertiginous perspective”.

piranesi colosseum

Even more mind-bending is the series known as the Carceri (“Prisons”), apparently completed while Piranesi was in a malarial daze. Stare into the background of never-ending bridges and stairs and you begin to feel dizzy. Before Escher there was Piranesi:

piranesi carceri 1

piranesi carceri 2

The one area of the exhibition that fell flat for me was the 3D video of the Carceri. Unlike the 3D experience at the Domus Aurea (a brilliant use of technology that completely changes your perspective), the 3D re-imagining of the Carceri doesn’t really work. Piranesi’s hallucinatory prisons are stripped down to the bare bones of their architecture using rather beige computer graphics. All the magic disappears. Even the soundtrack – some relaxing plinky-plonky piano music – is all wrong. The unnerving industrial sounds of the Eraserhead soundtrack would be better suited.

Despite considering himself an architect, Piranesi was only responsible for one building in Rome – a building that the average tourist is probably completely unaware of. Behind a wall on the Aventine Hill is the church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which Piranesi rebuilt for the Knights of Malta. It’s difficult to find good quality images online, but the Piranesi exhibition has a whole room dedicated to photos of the church. The monochrome interior is all the more beautiful for its relative simplicity. “Simple” when you compare it to other churches in Rome, at least:

piranesi church

When Piranesi died in 1778 at the age of 58 he was buried inside the church. Belonging to the Knights of Malta, the church remains something of a secret, and almost impossible to visit. If you’re not friends with a Knight of Malta, you’ll have to settle for a stroll around the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, the walls of which were designed by Piranesi, and a peek through the not-so-secret keyhole.

All in all, an excellent exhibition. Someone complained in the visitors’ book that there were “too many prints, not enough statues”, which is rather like going to the Sistine Chapel and complaining about the excessive quantity of frescoes, but you can’t please everyone.

The Piranesi exhibition ends 15 October. More information here.

Becoming Italian: un colpo d’aria


After four years of living in Italy, I’m starting to become a bit less English, un po’ piu’ italiana. Here are some examples:

a) August turned me into an Italian housewife. I wasn’t working and had nothing else to do, so while Valeriano worked I did most of the cooking, food shopping, laundry and “gardening” (ie: trying to keep our pot plants alive). One evening I prepared a Sicilian pasta dish (sardines, raisins, herbs, pine nuts) and peaches with wine and we had dinner on the terrace with our flatmate Tom, and then ended up having a conversation about parenting techniques with our neighbour Florinda. I felt as though I’d aged twenty years and changed nationality.

b) I made a deliberate choice not to buy a train ticket. I was coming back from the beach at Santa Marinella, and I got to the station 10 minutes in advance. With only one ticket machine, a long queue and the prospect of waiting an hour if I missed the train back to Rome, I decided to chance it and get on the train without a ticket. If I got caught by an inspector, I would try to negotiate with him. The inspector didn’t come, and I got away with it. A risk I never would have taken in England…

c) I got angry with a bank and threatened to report them to the Carabinieri. CheBanca! (CheBancadimerda!) deserves an entry of its own, but long story short, their cash machine stole 250 euros from me three months ago and I’m still trying to get the money back. The Italian way to get things done is to be persistent, make a fuss, and if all else fails call the Carabineri. Sto imparando.

d) I understand the point of bidets and have even used them on occasion.

e) I experienced a colpo d’aria.

What is a colpo d’aria? Literally, it’s a hit of air. If you’re not Italian, I imagine you’ve never experienced this before, and are puzzled by the idea of air being dangerous. But once you know what a colpo d’aria is, a lot of Italian behaviour makes sense. Closed windows on hot buses? Refusal to sleep near a fan? A scarf in summer? All ways to prevent the dreaded colpo d’aria…

Until recently, I never took it seriously. I thought of it as an example of Italian hypochondria, as imaginary as la cervicale (neck pain only suffered by Italians) or male al fegato (liver pain only suffered by Italians). While there are hypochondriacs of every nationality, it seems to be particularly pervasive in Italy. An extreme example is a woman I once heard of – a friend of a student – who thinks that sweating is dangerous. Before her son and husband go to bed, she blasts them with a hair-dryer to make sure they’re sweat-free. She’s also been known to creep into people’s rooms while they’re sleeping and hold a mirror under their nose to check that they’ve haven’t died during the night, so she’s obviously fulminata and not representative of the average Italian, but still.

While the dangers of sweating are still up for debate, there’s no doubt about air. Drafts are dangerous. Changes of temperature can practically paralyse you. Sceptical? So was I, until I woke up one morning and couldn’t move.

I was staying at Valeriano’s family home in Cassino. When I woke up and tried to get out of bed I felt an excruciating back pain, centered around my shoulders and upper back. More disturbing than the pain was the lack of obvious cause. I’d never had backache in my life, so why should I have it now? It wasn’t as though I’d been lifting heavy things or straining my back in any way.

Valeriano, of course, had the answer. “Colpo d’aria,” he said. “All the changes of temperature. Yesterday was really hot, but the windows were open in the taxi on the way to Termini and there was some wind, and then there was the air-conditioning in the station, then the heat as we walked down the platform, then the air-conditioning on the train, then heat again as we arrived in Cassino…”

Valeriano’s father was similarly unsurprised by my condition. “You slept with the windows open,” he said, as if that explained everything. It was August. Of course I was sleeping with the windows open and spending as much time as possible in air-conditioned spaces.

I wanted to find something else to blame – the mattress, perhaps – but could think of no logical explanation for the pain. I shuffled around the flat in agony, and when I was offered a shawl to protect me from the air-conditioning, I accepted instead of scoffing. I had no choice but to believe. Colpo d’aria is real.

This month marks the four year anniversary of my move to Rome. While I’ll always be a straniera, I’m starting to feel more integrated, speaking the language more fluently and gaining a deeper understanding of the culture. If that means experiencing Italian illnesses too, so be it.