Saturday, 18 January 2020

Christmas in Rome with my mum and her friends

Before Christmas Day, my mum and I were very busy visiting her friends and neighbours. They are elderly people like my mum in good health overall and very lively. We made Canadian biscuits for them, peanut butter biscuits with chocolate chips, shortbread and gingerbread, which were very much appreciated. We spent hours chatting with them about their families and hobbies, their memories and various aches and pains. I admired their incredible joie de vivre. During winter time, they usually meet at the barretto (little bar), Caffé Cielo, where they have a hot drink and chat for hours. They also gather once a week at the parish church, San Fedele, with Gruppo Argento (silver group) and at Mass on Sunday. We had dinner with them on a Sunday, a long table with more than thirty people. food was delicious as each one brought their special dish: lasagne, polenta, quiche, different kinds of meat and side dishes.

One of my mum’s friends, Gigliola Ferroni, is a sculptor. She makes ceramic and clay sculptures and lately drawings using crayons, coloured pencils and ink. I have some of her works at home which I bought years ago at some of her exhibitions. I have a sculpture, ‘Incontro felice’ (happy encounter),
and a drawing of the Pisces zodiac sign. When we met, she gave me one of her last drawings as well, green abstract shapes she called ‘Armonia’ (harmony). I love her work, especially her drawings, so simple and effective. You can find out more on her work is here:

I met another artist while I was shopping with my mum, Bruna Coppi ( who has a little shop in via Ignazio Giorgi packed with her artwork, mainly intriguing collages made with recycled materials, boxes decorated with decoupage, pieces of furniture she renovated, and original jewellery made with fabrics and paper. I was flabbergasted by her creativity and sense of humour.

I saw my sister as well. We spent two days together helping my mum with bills, her post office account, supermarket shopping and other bits and pieces she must deal with. Christmas Day and Boxing Day were dedicated to family. My mother in law made her special ravioli and lasagne, abbacchio (lamb) and Coniglio alla cacciatora (hunter’s rabbit). One of my boys was with us and my eldest son joined us just after Christmas. We skyped with my daughter who lives in Tokyo exchanging hugs and kisses from the screen. Unfortunately, my husband’s grandmother, nonna Paola, is rapidly declining. She is ninety-seven now and struggles to recognise people except from her own children. I also attended a funeral on 31st December at San Giuseppe’s church in via Nomentana. It was the funeral of the professor Maria Grazia Mara who guided me in the final thesis of my second degree in Italian language and literature together with father Giancarlo Pani. She was a professor at the University La Sapienza in Rome and joined Istituzione Teresiana after her retirement. Pope Francis was present. It is sad to see people declining and dying but the cycle of life cannot be stopped though we are lucky that today, thanks to cures and medicines, we can enjoy life almost until the end.

In the evening my mum and I enjoyed relaxing in front of the TV or listening to music, knitting and reading. I completed a bag and a jumper I had started at home in the UK with the help of my mum who gave me good tips on how to knit the sleeves and the neckline. Old films were our favourite programs. We watched The Patriot, Casablanca and The Undefeated, a film with John Wayne on the aftermath of the American Civil War. They were great stories with clear messages and outstanding actors showing the American way of seeing things, which sometimes seems too easy and straight.

Watching Italian TV, we could not avoid politics. Apart from disagreements inside the coalition 5 Stars and PD (now split in two parties, PD and Renzi’s Italia Viva) on concessioni autostradali (motorway’s franchise) and legge sulla prescrizione, that is, a law that establishes a deadline after which a person who committed a crime cannot be persecuted, there was a lot of talking about the Sardine movement. They are people who gather in squares stretti stretti (close together) like sardines to manifest and defend themselves against the sharks of politics. They are very well behaved, tidy up the public spaces after their gatherings and are non-violent. They consider themselves anti-fascist and sing both the Italian National Anthem and ‘Bella Ciao’, a Partisan song of the Second World War.

The movement started last November in Bologna in the name of solidarity, respect of human rights, non-violence and inclusion. They are willing to help the immigrants and refugees, of course, against the restricted views of the parties of the right, such as Salvini’s Lega. The Sardine are not organised in a party and do not seem interested in political power at this point in time. Nevertheless, they express a malaise, especially in young people, who do not seem to find believable values and stability in the present Italian political situation. People need something to believe in that makes sense to them or offers a more ethical and stable future to the country. There seems to be an emptiness that needs to be filled with a program that is not only about economy but that also invests in people and in their dreams or beliefs. The movement of Sardine is similar to what Greta Thunberg is doing but without a leader and it is more fragmented. They gathered in more than a hundred squares from northern to southern Italy expressing their silent anger in a dialogue that asks for specific answers. The main concerns in the Italian agenda are jobs and economic growth, though social justice and immigration follow. Some journalists commented that the Sardine movement should be better organised in order to influence political decisions. Others believe that, though interesting, their influence is minimal, they only represent a small number of people compared to the great majority of the Italian voters who are indifferent to the Sardine’s commitment and beliefs.

Another interesting program was Atlantide hosted by Andrea Purgatori who retraced John Lennon’s life from his Childhood in Liverpool to his death in New York on 9th December 1980. He was an incredibly talented musician, like all the Beatles. His songs are masterpieces and his fame was well deserved. His commitment to the peace movement during the Vietnam and Korea wars is admirable. In his work he was poetical as well as disruptive and innovative, both in his music and lyrics and in his protest. His connections with the Black Panthers’ movement and his support of activism and revolution, brought to deportation from the US once his visa expired in 1972. However, the expulsion was revoked several times and after four years he obtained the Green Card that granted permanent residence. Two years later he was shot by Mark David Chapman. A sad ending for a modern hero who died fighting like all heroes. His message is still alive, his wife Yoko Ono commented at the end. Certainly, his songs are very popular all over the world forty years after his death. During Christmas time, ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’ is still one of the most popular carols.

Another story intrigued me, this time in the heart of Camorra, the criminal organization that rules in Naples. Non è l’Arena, hosted by Massimo Giletti, explained how social media and RAI (Italian national broadcasting company) gave too much space to the wedding of Tina Rispoli (widow of the Camorra boss Gaetano Marino) and Tony Colombo, two people linked to Camorra.  Their ceremony was widely broadcasted by the Italian TV. They arrived at the Maschio Angioino (Naples’ medieval castle), where the wedding took place, in a white carriage trained by six white horses with jugglers and cheerleaders following and trumpets playing Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. It was a showing off of power in a stereotypical tacky folkloristic way (called ‘nozze trash’, trash wedding, by journalists) but it also revealed an attention seeking syndrome typical of today’s celebrity mentality. Tina is a fashion blogger and Tony is a singer with a melodic voice. They both make their money with advertisement and social media like celebrities do rather than dealing cocaine. They are well connected with Camorra (who can deny it) but their presence on social media is linked to today’s social networks’ mentality and not to criminality. However, as the intellectuals and journalists present at Non è l’Arena commented, RAI should not have given so much space to them despite their popularity which brought in an audience. In this way they set them as examples and became complicit with whom they are and with whom they are connected with, that is, with Camorra. Are we surprised? Can we stop this mediatic process? We all know how social networks work, there is some good but also a lot of trash around. We need to choose, pick up what we prefer and shape our personal opinions. I feel sorry for Tina and Tony, maybe they did not choose to be who they are.
At the cinema there were two interesting new films but I didn’t have time to see them, Pinocchio by Matteo Garrone with Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, and La Dea Fortuna by Ferzan Özpetek. Taking my time, not rushing and spending time with people were my objectives this Christmas. I enjoyed my time in Rome and eventually had also time to write some reviews, visit an exhibition and go to Naples with my husband to see Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the National Archaeological Museum. All in my next blog post.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Christmas time, busy time

Before Christmas, time was tight and hectic. The student I support at UCA in Farnham had some work to hand in and I had my own deadlines for my PhD. Besides, I also completed an article for the magazine Exchanges, University of Warwick, on The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, which will be published in January 2020. I feel it is a big achievement, and I hope the results of my research will spread more and more as I think Atwood’s work and message are outstanding and innovative. The more I read of her and on her, the more I become passionate of my research and of Canadian culture in general. My Canadian experience last summer was riveting. I am planning to go back next summer to visit Toronto and British Columbia and see my Canadian friends as well.

Christmas shopping was great fun. I started in middle November picking up things here and there and ordering some things online. I bought loads of biscuit boxes in elegant packages from Museum collection and the V&A as well as last minute mince pies from Sainsbury’s and Tesco for friends and family. I found some lucky picks at charity shops, mainly china stuff, Christmas decorations, hats, gloves and a black velvet skirt for me I matched with a golden turtleneck and a red jumper. My mum wanted turtleneck jumpers from Primark and I also found a teapot with strawberry patterns I thought she would love. For my mother in law I bought some nutcracker Christmas decorations and for my husband and the boys Christmas socks and t-shirts with a phrase by Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘Once you eliminate the
impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’, which I thought would agree with their point of view. For my daughter and daughter in law I matched bags plus gloves and for Valentina, my autistic daughter, we prepared special treats. We spent a day with her before leaving for Italy and brought her chocolate, sweets, decorations to paint and hang, teddy bear and party clothes. She loved everything, painted the new decorations, drew one of her favourite cartoon characters, sergeant Roderick, with Father Christmas hat and when we went to the restaurant she dressed up in her black and gold party outfit. She ate all her food at the restaurant and enjoyed pulling the crackers and collecting all the little presents from everybody.

Before leaving for Italy, we had a day in London to see the Christmas lights in the centre and visit the exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum, which is on until 8th March. The first part of the exhibition retraces the war of Troy as it is told in Iliad and Odyssey by Homer.  I remember most of the episodes as in Italy we study the war of Troy since elementary school. The captions were engaging and the artefacts on display astoundingly beautiful.

As the exhibition well explains, the war of Troy is the archetype of all wars in which heroism alternates with ruthless violence. This is well expressed at the beginning in the contemporary artworks ‘Vengeance of Achilles’ (1962) by Cy Twombly, a triangle smeared in red at the top, and in the installation ‘Trojan War’ (1993-4) by Antony Caro, which was inspired by Bosnia conflict. Though a city corresponding to Troy was eventually found by Heinrich Schliemann at the end of 19th century in today’s Anatolia at the entrance of the Black Sea, the Trojan war’s stories come from a series of myths. They were very popular, told and retold by storytellers, painted on walls in houses and public edifices, similarly to the frescoes of the stories from the Bible in Christian churches, and even reshaped by Christianity until today. Trojan and Greek heroes were supposed to be the ancestors of Roman emperors and of the Royal Houses of Europe. Certainly, Troy was a powerful and rich city, a city of traders which was destroyed and rebuilt nine times in 3,600 years. The mythical heroes such as Achilles and Hector in Iliad, Odysseus in Odyssey and Aeneas in Aeneid by Virgil, have been taken as examples throughout centuries. Their deeds and legacy still resound in today’s storytelling. Achilles’ rage and vengeance, Hector’s heroic death and faithfulness to his destiny as well as Odysseus ambiguous cleverness, symbolise human life in its diverse experiences. Aeneas shows a different aspect linked to the Roman concept of legacy to ancestors and family.

On the other hand, the figures of women are controversial and disruptive. Helen is described as ‘destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities’ by Aeschylus. She is the cause of the war as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, promised her to Paris to win the golden apple in the contest for the most beautiful goddess against Hera and Athena. This is a constructed intriguing story as, according to archaeological discoveries, Troy was destroyed because of its competitive trades that threatened Greek power in the Mediterranean and not because of the abduction of a Greek queen. Sticking to the myth, the female characters play either the part of the devote wife, such as Hector’s wife Andromache or Odysseus’ wife Penelope, the seer Cassandra, whose prophesies were not believed, or sheer seductresses such as Helen and Briseis, who caused conflicts. Nevertheless, they seem estranged from the events they are involved in, the object of seduction rather than the subject. As Christa Wolf remarks, ‘we have no chance against a time that needs heroes’ (Cassandra, 1983). But today we can give a chance to these women who underwent a literary lynch of sorts throughout centuries. They were wrongly considered the cause of violence, mistakes and sacrifices enacted by men.

This re-evaluation of women is present in some of the modern and contemporary artworks on display in the last section of the exhibition with works that range from Blake to Paolozzi, Burne-Jones, Poussin, Fuseli, Canova, Lucas Cranach the Elder and William Morris. Eleanor Antin, for example, in ‘Judgement of Paris’ (after Rubens), 2007, attempts a different interpretation of Helen of Troy, she says that ‘Helen is always vilified as a seductress and both admired for her beauty and feared for her power—yet however she’s interpreted, her place in our historical fantasy has always been legitimized, written, or painted by men. I wanted to humanize this woman, to find her beneath the covering of stories that obscures her to us.’ The picture is a photograph depicting the judgement of Paris with the three goddesses in the centre and Helen on the left side. She wears a Hawaiian outfit of sorts and is in a clearly marginalised position. She was used, manipulated both by the goddesses and by the ‘media’, that is the myths and storytelling. The final piece of the exhibition is the reconstruction of Achilles’ shield, in which earth, skies and a city (maybe Troy) are illustrated. They symbolise human life where both war and peace are present. The conclusion seems to confirm the impossibility of avoiding conflict that, however, might be solved in peaceful ways.

In December, I also attended two music events in London. Scheherazade: a retelling for our times by Rimsky-Korsakov at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, and Othello by Giuseppe Verdi at the Royal Opera House. They were both enthralling experiences. The four sections of the concert were alternated by readings by Ruth Padel, Daljit Nagra, Hanan al-Shaykh and DBC Pierre. It was mesmerising, both the music, beautifully conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, and the readings. They highlighted the power of storytelling as well as the subtle violence underneath Scheherazade’s story at the edge of the abyss. It is like a journey that allows to discover things but also goes beyond them in a dizziness between life and death. Her stories spread news, fragments of life, examples from which we can learn who we are and how to cope with the world around us.

Othello was beautifully played and acted. I was amazed by the elegance of the Royal Opera House, the restaurants, the shop and the beautiful costumes on display. I know the libretto by heart, so I could follow every word and aria.  The opera follows almost literally Shakespeare’s play making it more condensed. The music contributes to the ambiguity of the themes of the story and of the characters. They shift from faithfulness and innocence to betrayal and ruthlessness, trapped in their roles that are reflected in Iago’s constructions and manipulations. Othello and Desdemona are doomed and precipitate towards their destiny similarly to Greek heroes but, this time, from a modern perspective. They are isolated and unrewarded. The final winner is Venice, its power that rules overall and takes advantage of human weaknesses. Othello is an outcast and a failed hero, Desdemona seems complicit of her state, Cassio is manipulated by everybody including his lover Bianca, and Iago, despite his cunning machinations, is eventually caught and punished. The music seems to soothe the tragic ending in an encompassing vision of our fallen human condition. At the end of the show I had to rush to catch the last train to Woking.
After all these stimulating happenings, I finally headed to Rome to see my mum, friends and family.