My Christmas holidays in Rome were relaxing, on the whole, but icy-cold. Apart from Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, Siberian weather hit Italy (and the rest of Europe, I suppose) and lasted till the end of my stay. A ghastly, freezing north wind, called Tramontana, and temperatures below zero gripped the capital for more than a week. To make matters worse, it was especially cold in my parents’ house though they swore the central heating was on the whole day. I must confess I felt warm again only when I entered Ciampino airport on 1st January to fly back to Manchester. And when we landed in Manchester in the afternoon, the temperature was higher (12°C) than when we’d left Rome at lunchtime, though it was pouring.
In spite of the chilly weather I had time to taste excellent food, try new recipes, meet friends and relatives and go shopping and sightseeing. All in my next blog pieces.
When I arrived in Rome, a few days before Christmas Day, it was strangely sunny, almost spring like (14°-17° C). We took off all our coats and sweaters and kept on only t-shirts or light tops. The gorgeous weather lasted only until Boxing Day, when the temperature dropped dramatically to below zero. Frost gripped the capital and the north wind blew incessantly for days. It was a culture shock: Italy colder than England? I fell ill immediately. It had its positive side: I was forced to rest at home, which I much needed considering my present hectic life style.
I found my parents cheerful and extremely happy to see me and to have me for ten whole days. My father was slower than last summer as he had developed inflammation of the leg tendons and arthritis of the hips. It gave him terrible pains which caused sleeplessness at night and prevented him from walking for weeks. My mother and my sister assisted him and took him to hospital and other doctor’s appointments when necessary. I found him in a good mood, slimmer, recovering on the whole. On the other hand my mother and my sister were rather worn out. Luckily I came in time to give them a bit of break.
What was different in my parents from my last visit was the fact that now they stick to their routines more than ever and have all sorts of problems with orientation skills. For example they keep some of their clothes outside the wardrobe because they struggle to find them inside it. During the Christmas dinner my father revealed rather apocalyptical thoughts. He thinks the world is going to end in a few decades because of overpopulation and consequent lack of food and fuel for all. An understandable point of view (probably shared by millions of people) but an unlikely to happen.
We watched old comedies together: Natale in casa Cupiello (a cult in Italy, especially at Christmas) and Napoli milionaria (set during and just after WWII), both plays by Eduardo de Filippo, a famous Neapolitan actor and playwright of my parents' time. His works reminded me of the deeply rooted southern Italian mentality still present in my family (though we have always lived in Rome), especially regarding relationships.
My parents in law were all right (they are ten years younger than my parents) but my mother in law has problems with her knee. Sometimes she uses a stick to walk (especially outside) and can’t climb stairs. It’s just ageing I suppose, but we can see that from one year to the next (sometimes from season to season) our parents’ health slowly deteriorates.
I also met my sister and my nephews before they left (they travelled abroad for most of the Christmas holidays); we had a good chat and exchanged presents. She is doing a lot of extra work at her school, which is improving her career prospects and giving her a wider perspective. My sister has always been a down-to-earth person, ready to learn from experience and hard work.
This year we were all together to celebrate Christmas: I mean all my children were with us. We had the usual eating galore: all kinds of pasta, fettuccine, lasagne, ravioli, tortellini, and plenty of cakes and other kinds of sweets, like torrone, panforte and ricciarelli. We had traditional Sicilian ice-cream in Via del Governo Vecchio in the centre of Rome. Best flavours this year: tiramisu and pistachio. We also had an unexpected encounter with a new ice-cream shop dedicated to Magnum (Magnum Pleasure Store). It’s very hands on: you choose your Magnum (e.g. vanilla, chocolate, etc) then add the coat (usually chocolate) and whatever topping you like: chopped almonds or nuts, pralines, sugar stars or hundreds and thousands... they have all kinds on display. They put the whole thing on a small golden tray and you can eat it with a little spoon. Ingenious! But we preferred to stick to our Sicilian gelato artigianale.
After Boxing Day my eldest son went with his friends in Abruzzo in the Appennini mountains to spend New Year’s Eve. The problem was that they forecast Siberian temperatures for that area, between -8° and -16° C. He said he would be fine with two t-shirts on at once (maybe three if it was really cold) and his coat. Being an Italian mum I was extra-anxious. Considering the fact that he had his uni exams in mid January, it wasn’t the right time to get bronchitis or worse. Before he left I bought him a fleece saying it was for me and I would make an exception and lend it to him just in case it was really cold. It worked, and later on he confessed he had it on the whole time.
Of course I made cakes with my mum and my daughter from a new recipe book my mum had bought for the occasion. I am not giving away the results of our culinary experiments now, as I am posting the recipes in the next blog entries, but it’s enough to say that we dealt with challenging shortcrust pastry and exotic tart fillings.
And now for the presents I received. All useful and beautiful. My husband bought me a new blue chrome Acer notebook, extremely efficient and above all easy to handle and light. It was an early present (I actually received it in October as I desperately needed it to replace my old, heavy laptop, not ideal to carry up and down England) and very welcome indeed. My boys and their girlfriends gave me an elegant, warm, black poncho with golden leaf patterns which I wore at Christmas (photo attached). My older daughter gave me a book of pictures by the photographer Lee Jeffries, Homeless, the catalogue of an exhibition we saw last year together in Rome. My mum gave me a waterproof jacket and a sleeveless blue top (she thinks I need to wear serious clothes now that I work almost full time). My sister gave me a pretty top with light brown- and cream- coloured check patterns. I received books as well and bought more (all in the section ‘Books I read’. I’ll post later).
A wonderful, busy Christmas with my much loved family.
Before leaving for Rome I had browsed the Internet looking for exhibitions and museums to see. I selected quite a few though I was aware I’d never have enough time to see all of them, alas. One of the places I’d really have liked to go was Museo Casa Moravia (the house museum of the famous Italian writer Alberto Moravia on Lungotevere della Vittoria); I was already reading the guide book I’d bought last summer. But it is open only once a month, the first Saturday, so I think I need to plan a journey just to see it and book in advance.
Other interesting exhibitions were: Flemish Renaissance, Tiepolo, Henri Cartier Bresson, Escher (but we had seen everything by him at the Hague a few years ago), Guercino and Caravaggio and Mat Collishaw. Finally I had time to go to only two places: Bellissima, a fashion exhibition at MAXXI (on till 3rd May), and Praz House Museum, open daily.
I was at MAXXI with my daughter of course, who is studying fashion and design in Edinburgh. The name of the exhibition, Bellissima, refers to a 1951 film by Luchino Visconti where the popular (and great) actress Anna Magnani played the role of a working class mother who wants her little daughter to play in a film in Cinecittà to give her a better future. The word bellissima (extremely beautiful) is naturally given to the little girl (ah, Italian mothers). In the exhibition it described female beauty and, inevitably, Italian High Fashion (from 1945 till 1968, in this case). Haute couture clothes designed by Fontana sisters, Fernanda Gattinoni, Valentino, Fendi, Capucci, Mila Schön, and amazing jewels by Bulgari. It was fantastic, such a variety of garments, such elegance and supreme beauty. I was enchanted.
But the most appealing part of the exhibition was not just the dresses and accessories but also how the designers were inspired by famous modern painters of the time like Lucio Fontana, Alberto Biasi, Capogrossi, Paolo Scheggi. It was impressive to see how much the garments resembled the pictures. Capogrossi abstract repeated patterns (similar to four-tooth combs) were hand-painted onto a silk cocktail dress; totemic geometric figures were over a sequined strapless one; Fontana’s cuts were visible in the back of a stylish white coat; optical motifs by Biasi were printed on a plisse skirt, and so on. A stunning display, aiming to show how artists influence (or copy J) each other, in turn creating masterpieces that never end to inspire. The famous Valentino gown, with hand-painted coral branches reaching round sides and back, couldn’t be missed. While I was there I wondered why there weren’t many visitors around: it was such a wonderful, new exhibition. Maybe it was because people prefer to stay at home with their family during Christmas time.
MAXXI is always a surprising museum. This time, outside the main entrance, there was a sound sculpture by Bill Fontana called Sonic Mapping (2014). The art piece consisted of recorded sounds of the flowing and dripping of water in underground tunnels, pipes and fountains. The description said it recalled ancient Roman aqueducts and aimed to immerse the listener in the rhythm of water that changes places and vessels on its journey.
Besides the Bellissima exhibition, there was a challenging collection of video clips by Korean artists: The Future is Now. Some were stark, (e.g. the artist kissing a cracked piece of glass), others generated, like the projection of water drops onto a stone basin (the stone basin was real, the water pool and the drops were a video clip). An artificial world where demolition, dissection and apparently meaningless, repetitive actions are central.
The other museum I visited was Mario Praz House Museum at Palazzo Primoli, near Piazza Navona. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday and is free. A lady guides you through the ancient house, commenting on the eminent art critic and his immense collection. Mario Praz (KBE) lived in the house from 1969 till his death in 1982. He was a scholar of English literature and taught both in Manchester and at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, where I studied (his books were in my curriculum). He was also a collector obsessed with neoclassicism: commodes, beds, glass cabinets, even cradles fill the house, little objects crowd on surfaces; large and small pictures cover the walls. He accumulated more than one thousand two hundred items in sixty years. He started when he lived in England and neoclassical pieces were cheap. When he moved to Italy he couldn’t stop. He kept collecting, filling his house with objects beautiful or not, living in a sort of museum where the aesthetic vision was more important than everyday life. Everything was left where he placed it, giving a sense of chaotic order. Some things are definitely interesting, like two portraits made using collage technique and mixed media (lace, paper, metal flakes), the pictures and pieces of furniture; others are strange, sometimes vaguely spooky, like the wax pictures dating back to the 17th century. The floor plan is circular. You start and end in the same living room.
I couldn’t see much of Rome except from Via del Corso, packed with people as usual and decorated with luminaries of the world flags this time. I managed to do some shopping, though, with my mum and my daughter. I bought a pair of dark brown, leather boots I had wanted since last year, a dark green dress (I mostly wear dark green this winter), another pair of leather gloves, black with stripes of colour between the fingers (we couldn’t help going to the leather glove shop near Piazza San Silvestro for our annual visit), some books and a special present for my daughter. It was an early birthday present: an elegant pair of Italian earrings, Japanese in style (she is deeply into Japanese language and culture at the moment). I bought, also, some wool to crochet a top for my daughter. I’d seen it in a fashion magazine she had bought for the flight to Rome and I managed to finish it during the holiday so she could take it back to Edinburgh. The brand I copied it from is Miu Miu and it was very easy to make. I started with two big granny squares on the front and back and carried on for the straps and the finishing parts. My daughter chose the colours. The photo is attached if you wish to copy it.
I had an exciting time as usual.
What I always indulge in when I am in Italy, apart from food, is reading newspapers and magazines to catch up with what's going on. It’s worrying, but sometimes funny, to see how differently social and political problems are faced in Italy compared to the UK.
This time there was an end-of -year assessment where government, Church and intellectuals drew conclusions on the present Italian social and economic situation.
La Notizia, a free newspaper my parents get from their local pharmacy, nominated David Cameron First Person of the Year worldwide, with second place going to Pope Francis and third to Malala Yousafzai. According to La Notizia, Cameron is ruling a country whose economics are on the up. He cut bureaucracy, investing in innovation and last but not least he opposed Angela Merkel. The journalists were probably unaware of other cuts in education, health and welfare funding.
In Italy, number one is Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister, who gave some confidence and stability to the government.
Corriere della Sera dedicated a whole page to Pope Francis and his Christmas wishes to Cardinals and Bishops. According to him, people in the Roman Curia consider themselves untouchable, eternal and irreplaceable. On the contrary, he said, they need to practice constant self-criticism to avoid ‘spiritual dementia’ and a ‘schizophrenic double life’ consisting in hidden perversions and spiritual emptiness. Other curial faults (he counted fifteen) included accumulation of wealth, indifference to others, careerism and joining lobbies (religious groups) who practice ‘terrorism of gossiping’ to slander their opponents. And who better than the Pope to know?
Two other pieces of news linked to the Vatican are: the spectacle of a Ukrainian Femen feminist who stormed up to the St Peter's Square Nativity scene, grabbing the statue of baby Jesus and shouting slogans against sexism, the Church and social discrimination and also an entrepreneur from Trieste who bellowed a tirade against European economic laws from St Peter’s dome.
Also in the news: at quarter to midnight on Christmas Day, on an Italian military boat rescuing African immigrants in the sea near Sicily, a Nigerian woman gave birth to a baby boy. The assisting doctors and nurses christened the baby with the name Salvatore, which in Italian means both rescued and saviour.
Lately, a far right Mafia gang has emerged in Rome. They speak a colourful dialect and have rather brusque manners. Translators were needed to decipher a dialogue scattered with burps and farts. The most amusing bit was their names: Gnente (Nothing) who survived a bomb he put in his own house to sidetrack investigations, Tagliola (Leghold) who became a legend when he strangled a horse with his hands because it negated a bet, Corbello (from his surname) who managed to get a scar the shape of a swastika in a knife brawl, saving the money for a tatoo, Nazzista (Nazist) who succeeded in entering Campidoglio, the Roman Capitol, unnoticed, dressed in SS uniform and Baronetto (Baronet) who used to attend exclusive London clubs and park his Jaguar on pedestrian crossings without being fined. Other evoking names: Cacca (shit), Puzza (stink), Magnamonnezza (trash eater). Inspiring!
A Cuban artist, Erik Ravelo, created an installation called Facing of five women’s portraits on metal panels, eroding the surface with acid. The portraits were real victims of acid attacks. Working for Fabrica, the research centre for Benetton, his aim is to stand up against this horrid abuse. In March the panels will be sold to fund UnWomen, the United Nations association that works to improve women’s conditions.
There was the exceptional restoration of a chapel dedicated to Theodelinda, the Lombard Queen, in Monza cathedral. She introduced Christianity to the Lombards and was renowned up to the 16th century.
The frescoes in the chapel were painted by the Zavattari and their students in 1444-46. It’s a great International Gothic cycle with forty-five scenes narrating the life of the queen according to the Historia Langobardorum by Paolo Diacono. She had two husbands, Authari and Agilulf, whose faces in the frescoes had deteriorated over time. The team of women who restored it tried to recreate the original colours and clean off previous restorations which were actually ruining the original paint. The whole job cost about three million euro and was in part funded by the American World Monuments Fund.
The Italian artist Davide Dormino and the American journalist Charles Glass are working together on sculpture of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden standing on three chairs with an empty forth chair near them. The empty chair is for us, as Davide Dormino says, standing on a chair is not comfortable and courage can be contagious. This is a public art project meant to reach out and make people question themselves.
And finally, calendars. There are some popular Italian calendars that date back to the 18th century, but the modern Pirelli calendar displays photos of supermodels and famous actresses in sexy poses. The Lavazza calendar has pictures of African labourers, the Campari one features actress Eva Green in astounding poses, the historical Carabinieri calendar centres on the commitment of the Carabinieri army to their country and family, the Frate Indovino shows health advice and recipes and the Barbanera contains astrology and gardening.
President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, delivered his final speech this year at the age of almost ninety. Italians will miss him, but he can’t be eternal.
Honestly, I had hoped for a woman president this time. But who can possibly do this in Italy? There are no prominent women politicians and there is barely a prominent woman in any walk of life. So who cares? Let’s still hope in the US. Welcome to Sergio Mattarella, anyway.