When I left Lancaster for my Christmas holidays in Rome, I felt I had accomplished all my tasks: the house was clean (even the fridge and the oven), clothes ironed, plants watered, and the application for UK citizenship done.
In the chill of the early morning, at Manchester Airport, I felt no pressure. I deserved my break.
From the plane I could see dawn tinting the sky pink with snow on the Alps and a view of the sea as we turned for Rome.
When I landed it was strangely sunny, or so it appeared to me coming from the north. I longed to see my sister and my parents, to spend some time at home with them just chatting about friends and relatives, laughing, preparing Christmas treats, watching trashy TV programs and treating myself to some extra shopping (mainly leather things this year). I needed to ease off, do something different from what I usually did, be less committed and more relaxed. After a week I had achieved all my goals, but then I started to yearn for England. Luckily it was soon time to return.
I met friends, attended some exhibitions, read voraciously, took photos, drew sketches and dug into old photo albums.
Interesting people crossed my way, one of my cousins with a spectacular apartment and the poet Valerio Magrelli, who lives in Rome and is now spending a month in London as poet in residence at the Italian Cultural Institute. All in my next blog entries, until Easter.
In the photo attached, light decorations in via del Corso, a fashionable street in the centre of Rome. This year they chose the colours of the rainbow flag which in Italy is usually linked to peace and peace movements, not to Gay Pride.
I found my parents fairly well and they welcomed me as best as they could. They gave me presents as soon as I arrived and took me to a supermarket to buy the food I liked best. My mum showed me her knitting, things she is making with the help of a neighbour, a ninety-one year old lady very skilled and full of ideas. She wore a beautiful hand knitted purple jumper with a complex pattern of cable work. She is so precise in her knitting that the jumper looked flawless, as if made by a machine.
My dad made me listen to some opera pieces he had selected for me and watch scraps of TV programs he had recorded so we could discuss them together. He stays at home most of the time now as he gets easily tired and suffers from asthma. Besides, he can be quite stubborn from time to time especially with my mum, mainly due to his secluded life and the old-fashioned kind of relationship they have. On the contrary my mum is much more energetic than him, though she is two years older, and would like to go out and meet people. She is attending some evening art history classes in a school once a week and goes on guided tours around Rome. This helps her carry on and accept the hardships of old age.
During the Christmas holidays I was free from Valentina, my autistic daughter, once in a while. My husband had volunteered to take care of her: he was at my parents in law’s with my third son, while I was at my parents’ with my older daughter. This made a huge difference. I was finally completely rested, and free to go wherever I liked.
Firstly my daughter, my mother and I indulged in shopping. We had several outings at shoe shops, bag shops, and glove shops, we strolled round a big shopping centre and spent about an hour in a four storey building dedicated to clothes. Sales were everywhere so I decided to buy a pair of all-leather shoes, real leather which you can find in only a few shops now, even in Italy. Of course they are more expensive than ordinary shoes sold in most of the shoe shops today. The leather shoes and boots looked so stylish and were so comfortable that I had to restrain myself from buying more than one pair. Other shops had good offers, e.g. buy one and take another for half price. So my daughter bought two pairs of shoes...and I opted for another pair of cheaper non-leather high-heels, and a bag that looked really practical: large, full of pockets and elegant as well. We were spoiling ourselves.
Another day we walked through the centre of Rome where the expensive shops are, around Piazza San Silvestro. Near the piazza there is a famous glove shop (only leather gloves) where we could choose from hundreds of styles in colours from bright pink to lavender or apple green. Next step, a walk in via Frattina and via del Babuino, where we stopped for a hot chocolate with cream at the Canova Tadolini bar, surrounded by reproductions of classical sculptures.
I received lots of presents from friends and relatives. My favourites were a silk scarf from my husband with black and golden patterns reminding of Klimt pictures, a hand knitted lilac jumper from my mum, and some books ( a beautiful edition of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, and Viaggio in Sardegna by Michela Murgia).
We met some friends and went together to see an art exhibition (well, actually some of us as Valentina refused to enter), had a pizza and looked for an ice cream parlour for the traditional final ice cream in Rome. We decided to try GROM (named after one of the founders), a new chain of ice cream parlours which started in Turin and opened in Rome last year. Their flavours are meant to be traditionally made and from genuine products. (‘gelato come una volta’, ice cream as it used to be made http://www.grom.it/ita/index.php ), It was good, but the range of flavours was not as extensive, nor the taste as complex and zesty, as the home-produced Sicilian ice cream we were used to in Rome. At the entrance there was a poster with some suggestions about how to match flavours:
LUI (HE) LEI (SHE) L’ALTRA (THE OTHER WOMAN)
pear and extract of chocolate or apple
torrone (nougat) and hazel nut or bacio (kiss, a chocolate with nuts)
and so on...at the end of the list: ‘Lemon is single’: weird! Maybe because of the sour taste.
Valentina didn't like her chocolate and spit it out, then licked all our cones to find her favourite.
Walking about the centre we reached one of our usual haunts, a bookshop in via del Governo Vecchio, Altroquando. On the window was a new poster of a board game called Rosiko, instead of Risiko (Risk), with the map showing different districts of Rome (rosicare means gnawing but it has a figurative meaning, i.e. being jealous) and a new sign, Do you speak tandem? written in a pidgin language mixing English and Italian (photo attached).
When we parked the car not far from Capitol Hill, where we met our friends, the sign said we had to pay and display from 8.30 till 19.00. I was puzzled because it was a Sunday and I thought we shouldn’t have to pay. I asked two other people who were also parking their cars but they had no idea. Finally one of them explained to me that the two crossed hammers on the sign meant the weekend was free, you had to pay only on working days. Well, I didn’t know. Isn't Saturday also a working day in Italy? Yes, it is, but coming from abroad I wouldn’t think so.
On 31st December we were at my parents’. We watched the President’s speech on TV, had the usual big dinner and played cards. At about 10.30 my husband had to leave as Valentina was becoming unsettled. I spent the rest of the night watching the Aristocats with my parents and daughter, comparing the songs in the Italian version with the original in English. I must say I prefer Thomas O’Malley’s song in Italian. Here the cat is called Romeo (er mejo der Colosseo, the best of the Colosseum which is notoriously full of stray cats), dubbed by Gigi Proietti, a comedian and actor from Rome who speaks with a strong accent. The other famous song (Ev’rybody wants to be a cat) sounds much better in English, though. Lovely film. Marie, Berlioz and Toulouse reminded me of my three children when they were little, before we adopted Valentina.
Giorgio Napolitano’s speech was great as usual. I admired his confidence and strong belief in democratic values, in spite of what is happening in Italy, in its political and economic crisis. He shows care and attention for Italian people, firmly calls for justice, honesty and participation. He claims Italy needs reforms and refuses to surrender to the slandering campaign some political figures launched against him. He is the only strong point in today’s Italian government.
During my Christmas holidays in Italy I read L’Espresso, La Repubblica and Il Venerdì di Repubblica, and conversed about the present social and political situation. I found that the economical crisis begun in 2008 has brought a deep and increasing political crisis. There was an apparent recovery with Mario Monti’s government of technicians, culminating in Berlusconi’s ban from parliament when he was declared guilty of fraud. However, the consequences of the political crisis are much wider and are still affecting Italian people both economically and socially.
More and more companies have been declared bankrupt or have moved to Eastern Europe or India. Numbers of unemployed are rising and there is no hope of re-employment, even in the north of Italy where central and southern Italians would traditionally have come for work. At the same time, Italian politicians seem unable to tackle the crisis. They don’t pass bills or reforms because they dither about the voting system, but they retain privileges: benefits, high wages and pensions. Ordinary people pay with high taxation, unemployment, reduction of pensions and a deep sense of impotence and frustration.
I heard some talk of revolution, while others irrationally blame the Euro and the economic supremacy of Germany, without realizing that the main source of the Italian economical crisis is in the chronic inability of Italian politicians to work together for the sake of the country and its people. This always results in a lack of commitment, in corruption and collusion with criminal organizations, like Mafia and Camorra. Undoubtedly it’s hard to resolve. Maybe it's impossible.
Curzio Maltese (Il Venerdì, 26-12-13) points out the main issues:
The illegal public funding of political parties (abolished by a referendum in 1987) will finish, but only by 2017.
Italian MP's wages are the highest in Europe. Pensions are still operable after only one term in parliament.
Expenses are claimed from different authorities: councils, provinces, regions or counties: hard to check yet paid by the government.
Taxation is often evaded by the cunning.
40% of young people are unemployed and at least a third of the country is in the power of criminal organizations. Everybody knows about it; everybody talks about it but nobody does anything to change it.
M5S (Movimento 5 Stelle), led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, harvested the protest votes of the exasperated, reducing votes for the PD, a left party with high voter turnout. The M5S's largely pointless protest, and Grillo’s anarchic declarations and attacks are dangerously similar to Berlusconi's pronouncements, such as his attack on Giorgio Napolitano, the one stable member of present government.
Berlusconi and Grillo aren’t currently in parliament, but their influence on public opinion is still strong. L’Espresso (26-12-13) personifies them as reflections in a mirror. Anchorman in troubled waters, Matteo Renzi, the new leader of PD, is young, apparently resourceful and often compared to Tony Blair.
The man of the year for L’Espresso is Costantino Baratta, fifty-six, a builder from Lampedusa. Last October he took his boat to the shipwrecked immigrants, saving twelve people. Three hundred and sixty-six people died in the accident. Only a hundred and fifty three survived. Constantino represents an ideal beyond laws and nationalities, profoundly human. He is a family man, a Sicilian from Trani who married a woman from Lampedusa, moved there and built his own house.
Time Magazine's person of the year, Pope Francis (second place Edward Snowden and third place Edith Windsor). He is not promoting radical reforms (and probably won’t, though some Catholics say they will be patient), he is nearer to the people, less clerical and more popular. He reformed the Ior, the Vatican bank, and the Roman Curia, which monitor spending and privileges. Pope Bergoglio is Argentinean, of Italian origins (both his father’s and his mother’s families came from Piedmont). He is a Jesuit, an order well known for its bright, open-minded and astute priests. Certainly his tone has changed: compared to his immediate predecessors, he stresses forgiveness and acceptance rather than adherence to rules and dogma. Having two Popes (Benedict XVI resigned about a year ago for ‘lack of strength of mind and body’) is not so common in the history of the Catholic Church. It happened only once in the past, during the Avignon Papacy in the fourteenth century.
Other interesting news: Cortina D’Ampezzo, the VIP ski resort in the Dolomites, had a blackout at Christmas leaving its rich and spoiled celebrities without heating or electricity.
Research at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) reveals that Italian people are biologically very different. Their genetic differences are even greater than people with national disparity, like Portugal/ Hungary or Romania/ Spain (Il Venerdì, 27-12-13). Researchers compared fifty-seven kinds of population living in Italy and proved that the variety in DNA was due to the fact that the Mediterranean has always been a migration area.
The film Philomena is finally on, in July, in Italy,. I saw it in England before Christmas. Judy Dench is superb. She interprets the part perfectly and realistically. I think the most thought-provoking and disturbing part is not just when the nuns sell her child but when we finally find out that they lied: both to old Philomena and to her dying son.
A final gem: Checco Zalone, whose film Sole a catinelle cashed more than fifty million Euros (about forty-one million pounds), was crowned Berlusconi hero. He replied: ‘Thank you, but I am not at his level. I make people laugh only in Italy’ (L’Espresso, 02-01-14).
There were a few interesting exhibitions in Rome last December, which I was eager to attend. We often meet some of our friends before New Year and go to an exhibition. We were wavering between Cézanne and the Italian Impressionists at the Vittoriano, and Modigliani and Soutine in Via del Corso (Palazzo Cipolla). Finally we opted for Modigliani as my daughter and I had seen enough of Cézanne in Paris last summer.
The exhibition displayed ten or so works by Amedeo Modigliani (ten wonderful, heart-stopping pieces) and a hundred or so works from the Netter collection by Chaïm Soutine, Suzanne Valadon, Utrillo, Kisling, all of them so called maudit (accursed) artist who lived in Montparnasse at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their biographies were pretty similar. They were poor and dedicated themselves to painting, debauchery and above all boozing. Nowadays it would be drug addiction.
Apart from Modigliani, I wasn’t impressed by the other painters’ works. I found them repetitive, unskilled, one-dimensional and lacking intensity in both colour and accuracy. Modigliani’s work stood out: his smooth use of colours, his catching the expression of the sitters not only in their faces (with typical, stylized oval shape) but also in pose, clothes and background. A deep melancholy surrounds his pictures, a suggestion of nostalgia, even emptiness, but never irremediably tragic. His painting technique is definitely superior to that of the other artists in the exhibition. There were also some photos of painters. Modigliani was the most handsome, reminding of an actor such as Marcello Mastroianni.
My daughter and I also visited a photo exhibition at the museum of Rome in Trastevere. It is in a restored building, once a convent in piazza Sant’Egidio, not far from Piazza Santa Maria. Here they host temporary exhibitions, especially of photography.
The main exhibition was a series of portraits of homeless people by the British photographer Lee Jeffries. They were black and white photos with striking contrasts: dark and light, very detailed and amplified. You could count the hairs of each beard and the lines in each forehead. The effect accentuated the desperate reality of these people, utterly deprived of any comfort or warmth. Their faces were deeply marked: some gaunt, their mouths opened, shouting, eyes evasive or blank, fingers misshapen and filthy. The misery of their situation intensified the beauty of the portraits. They were meaningful, shouting their right to live, to be part of society. In some way it reminded me of Caravaggio’s work. It was profoundly thought-provoking and enriching.
On the second floor, there was an exhibition of photos of Rome in the 1950s and 1960s by Mario Carbone. I liked ‘Le Gattare’ (women who take care of stray cats) and ‘L’Occhialaro’ (a street-trader optician), now part of another world.
That same day we went to see Villa Farnesina with the famous fresco of the Triumph of Galatea by Raphael. The edifice is one of the few Renaissance buildings in Rome, designed by the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi in the early sixteenth century. Besides Raphael’s Galatea, there are also other beautiful frescoes by Sebastiano del Piombo, Sodoma and Peruzzi. Renaissance-style chairs are all over the place. You can sit comfortably and admire the artwork, ceilings and the walls.
We also planned a guided tour of the Vatican Necropolis, which is under St. Peter’s, with my parents and parents in law.
Book the visit: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/uffscavi/documents/rc_ic_uffscavi_doc_gen-information_20090216_en.html).
It was massively interesting and our guide was very good. Archaeologists found the necropolis during excavations in 1940-1949, looking for St. Peter’s grave. It was originally a Roman open air cemetery. The burial ground had to be outside the city, on the Vatican hill near Caligula’s Circus The obelisk which was in the circus is now central to St. Peter’s Square. A good way to recycle art. According to tradition, St. Peter was martyred in the circus of Nero in 64 or 67 AD (Christians were accused of setting fire to Rome and horribly tortured and slaughtered) and buried in the Vatican cemetery. As it became a place of worship, a shrine with two slender columns (called the Trophy of Gaius) was built on it. Of course, the area was full of tombs and mausolea belonging to both Pagan and converted Christian families.
Romans used to build tombs near main roads because they believed that dead people could stay alive only if visited by live persons. As many people passed along main roads, they stopped and read the inscriptions at the entrance of the tombs and mausolea and remembered the people buried there. For the same reason, relatives used to gather and celebrate near the graves to remember the dead. In the mausolea slaves and servants were also buried, some of them interred, others cremated, and the graves are decorated with beautiful mosaics, statues and marble sarcophagi.
When the convert Emperor Constantine declared freedom of worship in 313 AD, he decided to build a church where the grave of the Apostle Peter was supposed to be. In order to do this he had to level the Vatican hill, so he ordered burial of the Roman Necropolis without destroying it. Nevertheless Roman people could no longer visit their dead. The altar of Constantinia Basilica was built on the shrine dedicated to Saint Peter. During the twentieth century, excavations found the mausolea perfectly preserved and Apostle Peter’s tomb venerated. The tomb was empty but they also found some human bones in a burial niche inside a wall engraved with worshippers' prayers. According to the archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, during the construction of the Costantinian Basilica the Apostle’s bones were removed from the grave and placed in the burial niche. Some of these bones are in the Pope’s palace, with an inscription in Latin saying: We think these are St. Peter’s bones.
My daughter and my husband also searched Rome looking for Francesco Borromini’s work (e.g. the churches of San Carlino and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza). She wants to include it in a new college project. On my part, I was especially attracted this year by the shapes of the maritime pine trees growing near Roman ruins and along avenues. There are pictures and sketches attached.
One of the new things I did last Christmas was visiting my cousin Gianluca. He is one of the two sons of one my father’s siblings, his oldest brother who died about seventeen years ago. His wife, my aunt, died two years ago. Gianluca keeps a photo of my aunt and uncle on their wedding day on the piano my aunt used to play, she was a contralto and sang in the RAI (the Italian BBC) choir.
I hadn’t seen my cousin since a long time, as it often happens among relatives living in a big city like Rome, besides I live abroad now so we have less occasions to meet. He invited us to his new apartment, where his parents used to live. I couldn’t recognize it, he did it up completely with the help of an architect, David Micacchi who works at RAI. In origin it was an old traditional apartment with a small entrance hall, a living room and a dining room, corridor, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. He completely revolutionized its structure. The entrance opens in a big hall with a round open wall in the centre where the kitchen is (cool!), on the right you have the doors leading to two rooms and two bathrooms (one is en suite). The impression is of a very spacious ambience, efficient and exquisitely tasteful at the same time.
The furniture, pictures and ornaments are all carefully chosen. The carpets come from Turkey, some terracotta artistic pieces are from Spain or other exotic countries he’d visited, pictures are old printings in precious frames, even the radiators are special pieces (they are especially designed for architecture, www.brem.it ) matching the furnishing. A wall of the bedroom has hand painted wall paper (I think I saw such a thing only in aristocratic palaces before) and one of the chairs reminds of a Picasso sculpture. Even normal chairs are stylish black metal things.
He told me that he usually finds his pieces in markets and antiques markets in Rome or in other Italian towns. For example he bought two artistic mannequins from an English artist (Susanna Hardage, www.susannahardage.com ) who exhibits her work at Ponte Milvio market on Saturdays. My daughter and I soon booked an outing at Ponte Milvio market with my cousin for next Christmas.
One of the most beautiful things I saw in his apartment is the way he arranged the Christmas decorations. The presepe (nativity) is SIA, beautiful silver and white terracotta statuettes with a reindeer with candles instead of horn he bought in Frankfurt. The Christmas tree was a maritime pine tree (how appropriate for Rome) almost touching the ceiling with baubles and tinsels hanging and dangling from it. Amazing!
We had a delicious dinner with pasta all’amatriciana, polpettone al pesto and the classical panettone, all prepared by his partner Antonio. We spent a delightful day with them and I couldn’t help thinking that I will never attain such a tasteful, rich and tidy kind of house, with such attention to details and always the right object at the right place. I tend to accumulate, collect what I like, heap things, and finally produce such an amount of stuff that I have to store it in boxes. Needless to say my children are revealing a similar tendency. We should donate periodically large quantities of spare items to free some space in our house and tidy up a bit. And Valentina, my autistic daughter, doesn’t help either. In short, we are a messy, overstuffed kind of family. But I really enjoyed seeing my cousin’s apartment, it was like visiting an art and design exhibition, one of my favourite past times.
When I am at my parents’ house at Christmas I usually enjoy looking at old photo albums. This year my daughter had the idea of scanning some of the pictures. Besides some photos of mine when I was less than a year old (looking exactly like my daughter at the same age, in the photo attached with my own mum), I found some old photos of my parents when they were engaged and on their wedding day. My dad looks very slim and very much in love; my mum is so beautiful that she is like a star of her times: Marisa Allasio, Gianna Maria Canale or Giovanna Ralli. In one of the photos attached she sits on a swing on the terrace of her parents’ apartment in the popular district of San Lorenzo (Rome). She is about twenty and definitely stunning.
While my dad was studying at university to become a doctor, he also worked as a primary school supply teacher for a while to earn some money and pay part of his fees (in the photo he is with his class). He told me once that they gave him the lowest set, with all the worse students of the school. The previous teacher employed a stick to manage them. Instead he used a different approach. He started to play games with them, using footballers’ picture cards and after a while he could teach them a bit of maths and Italian.
I dug into a very old album belonging to my grandmother (my dad’s mother, Orsola, mentioned in a previous blog). She married a lieutenant of the Guardia di Finanza (the Italian custom duty arm force). Here is a photo where she is only sixteen and another one with my granddad after they married (about 1921), both dressed up for the occasion and with a very austere, slightly frightened attitude. Taking a photo was a serious matter at the time.
Another interesting picture of them is the one shot in Meta (Meta di Sorrento, my grandmother’s birthplace) in 1947. They are older, more relaxed. My granddad holds a white cat under his arm, is smoking and looks upwards in a dreamlike mood.
Then there are my mum’s family pictures. She came from a working class family. Her mother, Conforta, was a country woman from Cortona (Tuscany) who met my granddad (a Sicilian) in Rome. They lived in a shack at first, partly built by my granddad, on the outskirts of Rome. I found a faded photo she took before her wedding. She wears a hat, a white fur on her shoulder and looks very stylish.
Another photo shows my grandparents in front of their shack with their four children: they had seven in all. My mum is the girl sitting in the middle of the bench. My grandma is so sunburned because she used to work in a vegetable garden at the time, a job that only African and Indian immigrants do now.
The other photo of my mum’s family gives an idea where workers used to live in the thirties in Rome. It is an important moment because the women of the area have just made bread and they are showing it in the photo. My grandparents are on the left, my mum sitting, her face hidden by a loaf of bread half her size.
The last photo I want to show you is one shot in the 1960s. My parents are smartly dressed in dark clothes for some friends’ marriage, smiling and full of energy. I think I was only a fat little girl at the time.