"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Florence, Week #7: Roman Holiday

When I first heard that our program would be taking a weekend trip to Rome, the first images that flashed through my head were of wearing beautiful 1950's dresses, spontaneously cutting my hair, and escaping prying journalists on a moped. Yes, I'm referring to Audrey Hepburn's character in Roman Holiday.  The film is such a big part of my consciousness that before actually being there I could hardly imagine Rome in anything other than crisp, beautiful black and white.

My own roman holiday was not quite as romantic and bittersweet as Audrey's, but we did so much that weekend that I don't know how I'm going to be able to encapsulate all in a single blog post. Here goes!

The Forum
A few hours after arriving in Rome we made our way to the roman forum, where we met our tour guide. She was very lively and knowledgable and navigated the sea of tourists like a pro. The forum is fascinating because you can really see the stratification of the buildings. In Rome everything is built on top of everything else, so any important building might have an Ancient Roman foundation, Medieval turrets, and a Renaissance facade. It was so surreal to be walking on the same ground as ancient roman citizens, and at the same time being surrounded by the modern city. One of the things I am constantly having to do on this trip is allow both past and present to exist in my mind at the same time. Though it may not seem like it, they are influencing each other all the time, and the way a modern city chooses to display its past is no less important than the way the past shapes the modern city. (I may have to write a whole other blog post on this topic, because I think it's fascinating to see how past and present interact!)

The Coliseum
After the forum, we made our way to the coliseum. The most interesting thing about it, for me, was seeing the bare bones of the structure beneath the floor of the stadium, where the gladiators would have waited, and live (and often dangerous) animals would have been kept. I still can't imagine how hot and dark it would have been underneath the floor, with only torches to see by. Another thing I learned about the coliseum is that it was occasionally filled with water in order to recreate naval battles. Crazy! As a structure it is truly impressive, and it's fascinating to see how its influence manifests itself in later architecture and painting all over italy.

The Pantheon
I thought I was ready for the Pantheon. I had seen pictures of it in art history classes. Maybe the reason I was so awestruck was that we came upon it so casually. Suddenly you round a corner and their it is. It's kind of like the Duomo in that a picture will never fully capture what it is like to stand underneath the coffered dome. You think about all of that weight, suspended over your head, with the occulous like a single eye at its center. It's humbling and incredible, and even though we spent less than fifteen minutes inside, it remains one of my favorite places in Rome.

Trevi Fountain
That night my friends and I made a trip to the Trevi Fountain. It's one of those landmarks that begs to be seen at night, what with its crystalline water reflecting on the white marble horses above.  I don't think I ever saw it with less that twenty rows of tourists around it, but it was beautiful all the same. We did the stereotypical things: tossed a coin in, made a wish. Afterwards we wandered around until we found a reasonably cheap restaurant. Even though it was cold we sat on the patio underneath a terrace of fairy lights. I distinctly remember talking about books, especially Harry Potter and To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee passed away the next day. Funny how life can be strange like that.

St. Peter's Basilica
One of the things I will always remember from this trip is coming up out of the necropolis and into the very center of St. Peter's Basilica. The first word that comes to mind when I think of it is overwhelming. It's not just the crowds. Everywhere you look there is a statue or a painting or some bright gold ornamentation. The sheer grandeur is almost too much to take in at once. The best you can do is wander around with your mouth open, wondering how on earth a place this massive and ornate could even exist. I've seen a lot of cathedrals, and while I've been awestruck several times, St. Peter's feels like another beast entirely. Maybe it's because it's the seat of the entire Catholic faith. Maybe it's that in addition to having incredibly high ceilings, its floor plan is sprawling. While Notre Dame was impressive for its towering, gothic height, St. Peter's feels more overbearing and stately. (Which I suppose makes sense seeing as the Vatican is its own state). Maybe it was the tourists, or my own lack of faith, or the dramatic baroque architecture, but there was almost something unsettling about being in that space, a little like standing at the foot of a mountain: both incredibly beautiful and mildly frightening.

The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are equally overwhelming. Around every corner is some new wonder: statues from antiquity, huge history paintings, grecian urns, egyptian mummies, mesopotamian earthenware. We took the long way to the sistine chapel (it felt as though we walked for miles - we probably did). There was so much to see that I felt guilty for choosing to spend time in one room and passing over others. As you get closer to the chapel the architecture gets progressively more ornate, until you're standing in, say, the Gallery of the Maps. You also pass through Raphael's rooms, where I got to see the famous "School of Athens." And then, after going through a convoluted set of passageways and staircases (I swear we went up and then down and then up again), you're in the Sistine Chapel. It's difficult to summarize monuments that everyone knows, because we are inundated with images of them constantly. The ceiling is amazing, of course. I marveled at the sheer amount of faces Michelangelo had to paint, which seems like a dumb thing to marvel at, but when you think about it, it truly is incredible. Afterwards we stumbled blindingly into the afternoon sun: dazed, confused, and completely in awe.

The Opera
The vatican was not the only item on our agenda that day. That evening we piled into taxis in our finest clothes and went to the opera. We saw a production of Cenerentola (Cinderella). I'm not a huge fan of opera, but I must say this was pretty enjoyable in parts (and pretty weird in others). The weird included things like this:
-Cinderella had a bunch of "clones" (that's the best way to describe them) that accompanied her in a lot of her scenes. Their jerky, mechanical dancing was supposed to be representative of their status as essentially wind-up versions of Cinderella, but their frantic movement around the stage got old pretty quickly.
-There was also a scene in which the other women at the ball do a jealousy infused dance number with guns pointed at each other (yes guns) and at the end of the number (after Cinderella captures the prince's attention) they all commit mass suicide. It was meant to be comic, but it was all so out-of-the-blue that I don't think any of us knew how to react.
The music was largely enjoyable and as far as spectacle goes, this opera had it in spades. The costumes were incredible. Overall, it was a fascinating experience, and hey, you can't go to Italy without seeing an opera! (This is actually my second!)

The Borgese Museum
On our final day in Rome, we visited the Villa Borgese with the same tour guide we had on the first day. I had been looking forward to this all trip because the Borgese houses many of Bernini's most famous sculptures. My favorite is Apollo and Daphne, which captures Daphne at the exact moment she is being transformed into a tree. Her fingers extend into leaves, and even her toes are actively transforming into roots right before your eyes. Truly incredible.

In all honestly, I liked Rome much more than I thought I would. I never really had a burning desire to visit it until this trip, and now I hope to come back someday and explore it even more. There are times when Florence feels trapped in time- as though the city is perpetually in the renaissance and hasn't quite caught up to the modern era. Rome, on the other hand, somehow balances its ancient past with its modernity in ways that are truly fascinating and occasionally confusing. Also, the traffic (or maybe the pedestrians) are crazy. People just walk out in front of cars an hope that they stop!

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on Rome! For more on Audrey and Italy, check out this photo set, and this wonderful article written by her son.


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