Go Thou To Rome

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

Month: September, 2018

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.

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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

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