Thursday, January 10, 2013

An evening in Rome, an anniversary, fascist architecture, Simon Boccanegra, and a discount

"This place has been around for a few generations, and the marble-lined walls and tiled floors haven’t changed a bit. And the homey old-fashioned setting is one of the things I love best.  Settimio used to be in the back, but is no longer. His wife is though, working in the tiny kitchen, made of Cararra marble, making fresh pasta every day.

"When you go by Settimio it will look closed. They keep the doors shut, and often locked. They’ll let you in, maybe, if they like the look of you."


And closed it looked that wet and cold evening in Rome, a week or so before Christmas – we'd walked from the hotel near the Piazza del Popolo, through the Christmas market in the Piazza Navona, thronged with merrymakers – all seemingly clad alike in lustrous black padded coats – on over greasy cobbles, avoiding umbrellas and restaurant touts, weaving in out of parked cars and scooters – when we arrived at the trattoria recommended by Elizabeth Minchilli.

Determined as we were (when in Rome, etc) to avoid the tourist traps, we set out to have an authentic Roman experience. I know the word authentic is fraught with deceptions, but, notwithstanding, authentic was what we set out to find – and authentic is quite likely what we got.

The door was opened for us by a smiling woman who, surely knowing we were neither regulars nor, judging by our accents, Italians, called for the owner who thrust his head out of the door and let us in – I guess he liked the look of us – explaining as he did so that there was but one set menu. We settled in our chairs in a golden glow of Roman authenticity, marveling to each other that when we spoke Italian he appeared to understand us! So, was the food anything to write home about? Of course, especially if one were writing to nonna assuring her that her tesoro was eating well. Each course, simple both in nature and in presentation, was downright tasty, and much appreciated by two stranieri americani who, by the time they got up to leave, felt they'd had a genuine Roman experience – even to the politely expressed puzzlement from the owner when I asked for cheese after we'd finished our coffee. When it arrived it was not the hideously expensive, preciously presented gobbets dabbed about in quince paste or balsamic treacle of what is known as a "artisanal cheese plate" hereabouts – just a large wedge of excellent cheese on a plain white plate.


In Rome for a week–long, immersion Italian course (no English spoken, with each of us at different levels) after a trying half-year, we played at being locals – each morning setting out in overcoats with umbrellas, bags and books in hand, skirting the Piazza del Popolo; walking alongside the Ara Pacis in its Richard Meier-designed travertine envelope matching the stone of the nearby Fascist-era buildings bracketing the Mausoleum of Augustus; diverging from the Apple-Map-recommended route to walk across Piazza Navona where, one evening, we listened to Baroque music in Borromini's Sant'Agnese in Agone; stopping each morning to look at Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and then wending our way through the narrow streets – one teeming with young priests rushing towards us like a murder of crows; on towards Piazza dell'Orologio and past what became our favorite lunch place after school (Casa Bottega, a bar where we were given a discount because we were "cute" and where, later in the day, the best Manhattans were served) and up the five flights of stairs to class.



One morning, as we crossed Piazza Augusto Imperatore, looking again at the carved inscriptions from Mussolini's time, the Celt remarked that he quite liked the Fascist architecture we were seeing every day. I agreed, but pointed out that it is hard to disassociate architecture from those who commission it – something we discussed all the way to school – not that we came to any satisfactory conclusions.

The visual connection between Mussolini's early Modernism, the massive stripped remnants of ancient Rome, and Meier's Ara Pacis, is obvious. Eighty-plus years has softened the glaring newness of Fascist architecture in Rome, and perhaps its associations with Mussolini have also been softened – for who cares any longer? A few more years will erode the suspicion that the Museo Ara Pacis, as it now looks, is nothing but a chunk of the Getty Center translocated to Rome. Associations, positive and negative, all erode.

Finishing at two, as we did each afternoon, gave us time for a late pranzo, some exploring, a nap, homework, or an exhibition – one such a wonderful show, at the Scuderie del Quirinale, of Vermeer and his Golden Age contemporaries.


Vermeer's "The Allegory of the Catholic Faith" – unexpectedly Baroque – made me think that Rome with its multiplicity of saints and their miracles, for a pagan such as myself, is nothing more than an allegory for the survival of the old gods and goddesses.  Not my favorite of Vermeer's, this painting of a simpering rich gal who, hand on heart, heel firmly pressed on a terrestrial globe, gazes upwards like a silent-movie strumpet masquerading as a Baroque virgin. There is another interpretation, obviously, but one not necessarily less prejudiced.


Verdi's Simon Boccanegra opened the new season at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, with Riccardo di Muti on the podium and with wonderful sets – variations on a theme of Genoese walls and arch – by the husband and wife team Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo. One of the most moving operas I've ever seen. In fact, I almost shed a tear at the finale... almost.

Three years ago on Christmas Eve the head waiter in the hotel restaurant befriended us – he and his wife had lived in England for a few years – and on each visit we catch up with life, love, happiness, and Italian politics. I'd forgotten that I'd happened to mention that two weeks earlier had been our anniversary – forgotten, that is, until he brought a congratulatory wedge of tiramisu to end our final breakfast at the hotel. We've never had tiramisu for breakfast before, and let me tell you, it sure ain't a bad way to begin the day!


I am back to blogging after what I can only call a convalescence: long, slow and introspective. Being mauled by a black dog took the wind out of my sails for quite a while. I appreciate those of you who were kind enough to notice, and bear with, the hiatus.

23 comments:

  1. Welcome back! And happy anniversary to you and the Celt! D

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    1. Daniel, thank you. It is good to be back. How are you doing? BTW, I hadn't realised I'd dropped your blog off my blog roll but it is now back.

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    2. Blue, it is very kind of you to include me in your blog role. You dropped it because I dropped it for awhile. However, I believe Im back for the duration. Again: good to see you back!

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    1. Barbara, thank you and flowers for you, also.

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  3. I certainly noticed your absence, even if I did not comment upon it. I am glad the black dog has gone for a walk, and I hope it will be a long one. Your Italian interlude sounds quite covetable, I must say, and facing it with your inimitable approach, (learning the lingua), not unexpected, given your rather fine approach to life in general.

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    1. Columnist, thank you. Now it is time to catch up.

      The stay in Rome followed a few days in Cambridge – I had never been to Kings College Chapel despite using photographs of it in lectures. It is stunning! After Rome it was Manchester and London but that is all for future posts.

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  4. To be fair, one still carries a slight torch for the little "architectural associations" bunny, but not so much here today, because after all we do have Rome to enjoy and it sets a comely precedent of mercy to let its history off easy. The main thing, is that the City seems to have worked its urgent wonders on the Celt, our first order of business, and allowed even Verdi a fair hearing. As for your return, what is there to say. A bleakness, really a distinct one, has been lifted. This is a happy day.

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    1. Laurent, thank you. I owe you at least – at the very least – one reply to a letter. I'm conscious of it but communication has not been my strong point these last few months.

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  5. Blue, it is so good to have you back.

    I, too, have an appreciation for the stripped interpretation of classical architecture that has unfortunately been associated with Fascism. But does an appreciation for columned plantation houses make one a racist? (I was surprised that some say yes). Can we condemn historic architecture for political associations?

    I would love to speak Italian, but feel I need to strengthen my French and Spanish first.

    Best wishes
    JJT

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    1. John, thank you. The negative association between architecture, designer or client is unavoidable given the history of the 20th century but as I ask in the post – who cares any longer? I do not agree that liking the Greek Revival architecture of the South makes one a racist. Absolutely not.

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  6. I was hoping it was another wonderful trip to Rome that caused your absence. Mauling black dogs~literal or figurative~are best avoided or at least swiftly dealt with. So glad to see you have survived both.

    Congratulations on the anniversary...from one pagan to another who loves to see the symbols of a earth-loving in the now of the old gods and goddesses to the can't get Christian enough religion we get imposed upon us today. One of my favorite paintings is Carravaggio's St. John the Baptist. Like you I ignore the religious, and just stand before it drinking in the passion. The Vermeer is hysterical!

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    1. home before dark, thank you. I survived – strengthened, I hope, and more able to understand what other people are going through.

      I sometimes wonder which is the more savage, the G-d of the modern-day fundamentalists or the devil they are always warning against.

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  7. You've been missed.
    Rome never fails to delight...longing to try Settimo. How sensible, a wedge of cheese on a white plate. I, for one, am weary of dabs of pastes and jellies and dribbles of honey and vinegar on overrated "farmstead" cheeses.

    Would you pass on the name of your hotel? Tiramisu for breakfast...mmm. Happy anniversary and many more.

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    1. Anonymous, thank you. The hotel is The Hotel de Russie – if you can enlarge the picture you can see the logo and name on the chocolate disc/label on the top of the tiramisu. We chose to stay at the de Russie after a very good experience at the Hotel Savoy in Florence which is also a Rocco Forte hotel.

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  8. Oh Blue, welcome back...I have missed you!With you I can never tell when you are being...well, you. Figuratively speaking, black dog or not I am glad you have dealt with the "reds" and are back to our little community. You know, we can always be counted on

    xxx00 to you and the Celt and bienvenuti!

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    1. lindaraxa, thank you. No, this was not me in a "I vant to be alone" mode, it was me, for months, feeling as if I was living someone else's life.

      Seriously, thank you especially for your kind words at the end there.

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    1. Michele, thank you. It's lovely to be back.

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  10. Sounds like a GOOD trip, something which is sometimes needed

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    1. Kristin, thank you. It was a very good and necessary trip and to some extent my mind is still there.

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  11. So nice to have you back, Blue! I missed you!

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    1. The Peak of Chic, thank you! It's time we go together for dinner, a cocktail, or both. See you soon.

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