We landed in Rome on a warm, sunny day. I took off my coat and scarf within five minutes: I was sweating even in my light jumper. My mother told me the weather forecast gave a warm Christmas, which felt strange. This meant my thick winter jumpers were out of the question. I couldn’t show them off, but had good reason to buy something new.
I was staying at my parents’ house this time, with my daughters, while my husband was at his parents’ with the boys. Of course we often met but we also had more space and more freedom.
I was happy to be with my parents, to spend more time with my mother, help her and plan things together. My parents are slower with everything they do now (they are in their eighties) and need a bit of support, though my father still drives. They also easily forget what you have just said but remember very well what happened in the past, which caused some funny situations during our stay.
As soon as we arrived I went with them to the supermarket and helped them with the shopping, suggesting what we could have for dinner day by day and what Valentina, my autistic daughter, is used to eating. I took the opportunity to buy some Italian products, such as torrone, which I can’t find in English supermarkets.
My parents accommodated us in a large room with an en suite bathroom.I felt very relaxed and at ease and started to decide our holiday programme. Christmas Day and Boxing Day, dedicated to St. Stephen in Italy, were totally booked with relatives. We were free from the 27th. Seeing friends, shopping and some art exhibitions were my priorities.
My sister lives in a village near Rome where there is a big market every Friday. Besides the colourful and joyfully messy atmosphere typical of markets, you can find good bargains as well. I bought some jewellery, a soft pink angora pullover and some presents for friends at very good prices. We had a good day with my sister and her family, whom I see only once a year.
In Rome it happened more than ever that I looked at everything with the eyes of a stranger, or even a foreigner. The buildings seemed to be placed at random, especially in the suburbs, one house on top of the other, with not enough space between them. The overall impression was confusion and overcrowding. Smells were stronger than in England, maybe because it was so warm and the rubbish bins in Italy are kept in the streets.
I had problems with the food in the first three or four days. I liked it very much of course, but unfortunately I had trouble with digestion and had to be more careful about what, and how much, I was eating.
The other problem was breathing. When it doesn’t rain pollution lingers in the air and, as I suffer from asthma, I felt a bit tight chested. But I was having a good rest, my mum and my mother in law were cooking the big meals and I had a lot of time to read and relax.
We could meet our friends at night, go to the pizzeria, walk about and have an ice cream in the centre. The pizzeria was a very famous one in the centre of Rome, near Campo de’ Fiori, called Montecarlo. There are always long queues outside because it is very cheap and the pizzas are excellent. The waiters are rough and ready, typical of Rome, but this is part of the fun. For example, when we finally reached our table and sat down, the waiters handed in paper, cutlery and glasses and we laid our own table. They also shout the orders from one end of the room to the other. The service is very quick and as soon as you finish you have to go, as there are so many people waiting outside.
We also made our way to my favourite places, Piazza Navona and Pantheon, and had heavenly home-produced ice cream in a Sicilian parlour on Via del Governo Vecchio. I had mint chocolate and Florentine cream with a layer of solid dark chocolate on top.
Near Piazza Navona we discovered an intriguing bookshop. On the shop window there were two notices, one in Italian: ‘Siamo molto aperti’ (the shop is very open), and one in English: ‘We speak Italian very well and we know where Piazza Navona is: various reasons to come in’ (all the tourists ask for Piazza Navona in that area). The comments made us laugh and we couldn’t help but pop in. We discovered a lot of interesting things. I bought a book of poems by J.L. Borges, my daughter found a book with the title What Men know about Women, totally blank inside, and my husband found a comic poster whose title was I have a Dream, with the map of Rome Andergraund (Underground). Notoriously Rome Underground has only two lines (A and B) while the map showed as many lines as London has.
Our last treat was a bit of shopping in the shopping centres and, for my daughter, at Brandy’s, an American shop where she finds what she loves. I had some problems in driving in Rome this time, because it was different compared to England and because I couldn’t remember the routes. I had a map (not the SatNav, alas) but it didn’t say if the streets were one way or closed to traffic. I spent a lot of time meandering about...but finally (about one hour late on the schedule) I always reached my goal.
The current news in Italy was rather depressing, especially from a political perspective. Elections were near (due in February) and political parties and coalitions were lining up: Silvio Berlusconi still a presence, alive and well in spite of the sentences and allegations against him, Mario Monti trying to form a coalition in the centre and the left hoping its time had finally come.
The newspapers and magazines I read were mainly left wing: (L’Espresso, Corriere Della Sera, La Repubblica), the best you can find in Italy. Before Christmas Monti ended his nominal government so that all the parties could get ready for the elections. The Catholic Church supported him unreservedly, because his government, conveniently, hadn’t touched the Church’s benefits or gifts from the Italian state, and better still, when the Italian people were taxed with IMU (an expensive property tax), the Church was exempted. It is estimated that in Rome alone the Vatican owns one fourth of the real estate and across Italy 20-22% of it. Quite a discount!
No wonder that, as soon as Monti decided to enter the political arena, the Vatican supported him throughout in its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. My forecast? I bet he’ll win. Some journalists wondered if Italy will ever have a lay government and ironically concluded that it is possible that when the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano ends his mandate in spring they might have the Pope as President.
Just after Christmas there was news of a misogynous parish priest in the north of Italy, in Liguria. He wrote a leaflet in which he said that scantily dressed women ‘who stray from virtue and family’ arouse men’s sexual instincts, so that it was no wonder women were assaulted, raped and slaughtered. They need to acknowledge it is in part their own fault, he said. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, of the women killed in Italy from 2005 to 2012, 37.5% were murdered by their husband or partner, 16.7% by their ex-partner, 10.8% by their lover or fiancé, 8.3% were unknown, 6.7% by their son and 6.7% by a friend, colleague or neighbour. The recorded motives for the crime included conflict (21.6%), divorce (14.2%), jealousy (10%), a fit of homicidal madness (4.2%), sex (3.6%) or revenge (3.3%). These percentages reveal that the cause of the murder has nothing to do with skimpy dresses glimpsed in passing, but goes back in most cases to abusive relationships where the woman’s partner can’t cope with the relationship, or the end of it, and kills her. Of course the women of the parish rebelled and sent a letter to the bishop, who promised to move the priest somewhere else, so he can cause damage to another parish.
Silvio Berlusconi is back, Return of the Living Dead part 3. His presence on TV programmes, both on his private channels and on the national RAI channels, was more and more haunting. No wonder his percentage among Italian voters was rising. And what did the left (PD) do? Its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, aimed to be Prime Minister with promises of more jobs, equity of taxation and less austerity. The opinion polls showed it may have 30-35% of voters in Italy, a very high percentage but not enough to rule alone. Monti was in the centre ready to form a coalition, but hopefully not with Berlusconi.
Other interesting news: Veronica Lario, second wife of Silvio Berlusconi, finally divorced and got three million Euro per month, a hundred thousand Euro per day, from her ex husband. According to the newspapers, in spite of this leakage Berlusconi will still tuck massive profits into his pockets...which makes me wonder once more: do I live in the real or unreal side of the world with my modest wage?
Rita Levi Montalcini (Noble Prize in medicine in 1986 and life senator of the Italian Republic) died aged 103: the loss of a great woman and a great scientist. Her funeral was in Turin, her home town.
I also found a good idea in an article by Oliver Sacks where he recommends books with large lettering for people with sight problems who still want to feel and smell paper, an alternative to kindle and eBooks.
Christmas sales went down (by 10-20%) except for food, something Italian people still spend their money on in spite of the crisis.
A brilliant article by Natalia Aspesi on the misogynous priest suggested giving men a better upbringing, for example by teaching them to help their women with housework and thus sympathize with them. It is hard to have a full or part time job, and also cook, do the chores and the shopping and look after the children. Not all women are super women, though some of them are. Might this be the reason why birth rates are so low in Italy? You need to give up something to carry on under pressure.
A last piece of interest: professor Carlo Ossola (lecturer at Collège de France) talks about his teaching style, based on doubts and questioning to avoid dogmatism. In the interview he remembers that one of his teachers (Raul Manselli, professor of History of the Middle Ages at the University of Rome La Sapienza) once said that heresy often represents the defeated part of truth, and it is important to understand why this happened. This is very true today in our multi-cultural, multi-sexual and multi-viewed society.
My daughter and I had a few days of ‘totally art’ in Rome. I paint and have always been keen on art. She is doing A level Art (her dream is to be a fashion designer).
First of all, we went to Museo d’Arte Moderna (the Museum of Modern Art), a place I visited again and again when I was a student. I remembered most of the painters and their works, at least the nineteenth century ones, Silvestro Lega, Segantini, Fattori, Cremona, Hayez, the Impressionists and a few ‘foreigners’. I have always loved Van Gogh, Dante, Gabriel Rossetti and Klimt. There were some unique avant-garde pictures by Balla, Boccioni, Carrà and Morandi, my favourites. I stopped again in front of Capogrossi’s, Burri’s and Vedova’s works, trying to absorb the emotions and meaning the artists wanted to convey and remembering what my school teachers had said when I first visited the museum. It was like going back in time, to when I was fascinated with everything that was considered art. I feel more critical and selective now, but no less enchanted.
There were a few new pieces around which attracted my attention: a large canvas bearing thorns and spikes, suggesting a wave or a stream; some plastic fruit and bottles laid on a table that reminded me of Christmas dinner; camels and flamingos of transparent, brightly coloured plexiglass; plastic strip curtains hanging across the passageway. The strips brushed your skin.
There was also an exhibition on Paul Klee and Italy, a great choice of paintings inspired by the painter’s journeys in Italy at the beginning of 1900. His art, so linked to tradition and classicism at the beginning, developed into abstract works springing from spontaneity. They were child-like, simple structures. The results are profoundly original as he depicts landscapes and city scapes from his memory, creating a naïve, ideal world. The influence of Italy and Italian art is clearly acknowledged though difficult to pinpoint.
In the main hall there was also a space where you could listen to Klee’s poems and draw your own spontaneous picture. I had a go and the outcome was a somewhat free, brightly coloured piece I was very proud of. The experience was liberating.
We also visited the Macro museum, Rome's Museum of Contemporary Art. There was an exhibition by Pascale Marthine Tayou (an African artist who works and lives in Belgium), whose works are made of everyday objects and recycled materials. He says that in his art everything can happen as in ordinary life. There was one huge installation that looked like a balloon made of pink, yellow, blue and white plastic carrier bags. There were glass sculptures with cardboard boxes, wood and other trash tied around like a dress, and gigantic wooden sculptures representing the African people. It was amazing, fantastic and full of life.
I also liked the section dedicated to Giulio Turcato in the same museum. He was an abstract painter who worked in Rome and who was my tutor in a life drawing course at the Art Academy in Rome. His experiments with different materials and colours gave me a sense of freedom, the awareness of the power of artistic creativity.
We also went to see the MAXXI again, the national contemporary art museum of the 21st (XXI) century. There was an exhibition about the architect Le Corbusier, which wasn’t my thing, and some very cryptic works that honestly didn’t impress me. Outside, coloured bottle caps heaped in a circle looked like garden beds.
After all this touring through abstract and contemporary art I made a vow: I want my work to be freer, more spontaneous and original, open to adventure...or maybe I'll just enrich what is there already.