Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
A morning spent in a cemetery doesn't sound like much fun but that's what we opted for on Saturday. At least, it's what we did. We had missed getting into the cemetery for Non Catholics by ten minutes on Thursday so we thought we'd spend a quarter of an hour visiting it, now that we knew how to get there. In fact we found it such a beautiful place that we spent a couple of hours there after seeing Keats' and Shelley's graves. Donall was in his element, roaming the monuments with his camera. They were so varied, some so imaginatively designed. I particularly liked the architect's grave marked with a large marble cube balanced on one corner, defying gravity. I don't have a note of his name until we can use our photos.
Keats' grave is very pretty and the poem inscribed on it is apt too:
K . eats, if thy cherished name be 'writ in water'
E . each drop has fallen from some mourner's cheek
A . sacred tribute: such as herft in vain:
T . hough oft in vain - for dazzling deeds of slaughter
S . leep on! Not honoured less for Epitaph so meek!
Also touching, next to Keats' grave, is the identical grave of his friend, John Severn, who nursed the poet through his last illness. Severn died aged 83 in 1879 and his infant daughter's grave is also nearby. (Keats died 50 or so years before that, aged 25)
The cemetery is next to the Pyramid that names the nearby Metro station, and the Museum of Ostia. I made a couple of sketches of the contrasting structures.
We went to see the archaeological site of ancient Ostia the same afternoon, in fine sunny weather.
That evening we went to the church of St Paul within the Walls, down the
road from our hotel, to a performance of "La Traviata" which we thoroughly enjoyed. Opera is not so expensive in Italy as in London, so it was an oportunity not to be missed. We went to the Theatre Salone Margharita the next night, to hear a selection of arias by another company.
The weather has taken a turn for the better - we spent Sunday afternoon in the Borghese gardens, with the families and lovers who had also come out to play there. A children's funfare, bikes and pedal-powered carts, and strange little upright scooters (battery driven I think), ballooons, football games and groups of boys and girls out having fun - a great holiday atmosphere. We rested our feet for a few hours, getting over the sightseeing.
We looked into Santa Maria del Populo - a lovely church with two dramatic Caravaggios and a beautiful organ high up on the wall near the altar; the Genius of Leonardo exhibition in the same huge elegant piazza had modern reconstrructions in wood of some of Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions, including a very modern-looking bicycle.
The chapel of the Capuccins in the via Veneto off the Piazza dei Tritone was almost closed for lunch when we got there on Sunday morning, so there was no queue and we went in, paying our one - euro entrance fee. Here the bones of 4,000 monks have been cunningly assembled in the crypt of a church, into patterns, mouldings, candlabra, sculpures, some mummified whole are in tableaux - this is not as macabre in reality as it sounds here, but very beautiful. Vertebrae, in particular, make very pleasing ornamental forms when they are assembled like this!
Our last full day today - a warm sunny one - we have visited so many sights in eight days, we'll relax again today, just visit the Pantheon, and then more of the Villa Borghese's park in the sun
Today we decided to try to see "Daphne and Apollo" by Bernini, in the Villa Borghese. Donall had fallen in love with this a couple of days ago when we bought a postcard of the sculpture at the Palazzo Barberini. Now we tried to book tickets online because we were told that this was the only way to get into the collection, but after half an hour of frustrated attempts we gave up and caught a 910 bus from Termini Station to the gates of the villa.
There we understood the problem. This is Culture Week and many museums offer free entry. So 10,000 people have booked to go into the Villa Borghese instead of the normal 2,000 (so the staff on the ticket desk told us) and no tickets can be booked for another seven days.
Disappointed but not despairing, we photographed the statuary outside in the villa gardens - the great caryatids in Assyrian style, the grotesques around the water-features, and the pigeons paddling in them - and set off across the park towards the Museum of Modern Art. We met with many diversions, including a huge equestrian statue of Umberto I flanked by a sad cloaked lady, panels depicting cavalry battles and two enormous scowling gorgon-like female heads at the base. Then we found the Fontana dei Cavalli Marini - spirited mer-horses leaping out from under an overflowing bowl of torrential water.
A little further on we saw the Museum di Pietro Canonica, the villa which this sculptor was given in 1927 to work in until his death aged 90, in 1959. It first attracted us by its lovely little courtyard garden, full of orange trees and wisteria. Inside, the work was very good, especially the busts of women and children and the large panels in relief, where parts of the compositions emerged into full three dimensions, in the manner of renaissance sculptors like Donatello. Canonica's studio was on view, with some of his paintings. Many pieces on show are plaster models of commissions in bronze or marble. It was a beautiful exhibition. The occasion was further improved when we began talking to two ladies from Canada who were waiting for a guided tour (in Italian) - Chantal, who is herself an artist, and her friend Lina.
On we went, meeting as travelling companions a Russian couple who were also aiming to find the Gallery of Modern Art. We had to leave the park and cross the road, opposite an unexpected exhibit of railway trains - a modern streamlined engine and a classic steam engine.
The Modern Art collection improved as we climbed to the higher levels. The special exhibition was of Burne Jones and Rossetti and we skipped that, having seen most of the exhibits before, in London. The most interesting work was on the upper floors - the Futurists are well represented by Balla and Boccioni, and there are excellent works by de Chirico and a lot of Guttusi (whose work I didn't know before). A Klimt caught our attention, too, for we have seen little original work by him in Britain. The more modern Italian artists - Burro, for exmple - are also well represented
We caught another bus back, a number 3 which took us a very long way round to the Colosseum, so we saw a lot of Rome outside the city wall that runs round the historic centre. Donall had used up all his digital memory card before we got home - Rome is a very visual city.
We've been visiting the sights that are compulsory for tourists in Rome, for the last three days: the Colosseum; the Sistine Chapel; the Catacombs and the Circus Maximus, and today we went to the Spanish Steps, which are a short walk from where we are staying. We'd walked to the nearby Trevi Fountain the other evening, guided to it by the joyous sounds of young people hanging out near water - it sounded very like a municipal swimming bath from the nearby streets, though nobody was actually in the water. It's an exuberant riot of stone and water, surrounded by tourists and pedlars of all kinds. (I am becoming a little allergic to the red roses thrust under my nose by insistent pedlars and my firm "No" is becoming more convincing all the time, I believe.)
Walking back towards the tunnel home to via Nazionale that night, we found a lovely restaurant, called That's Amore, where the proprietor and Donall established a running joke which promises to run and run. We've enjoyed our times there so much, we've been back twice. The food is excellent and the atmosphere is great.
We also found a play to amuse us on Tuesday evening, just a short walk from our base. At the Teatro Eloise, the play's title translates as "Any Questions". We understood enough through context and body language of the actors to enjoy the evening thoroughly.
Today we visited the Spanish Steps and went into the house where John Keats spent the last few months of his life before dying of TB. His death mask and a life mask are there and I tried to draw both. It was a moving experience to be there, looking at his face, while outside the windows the young people and families of Europe disported themselves on the Steps, most probably ignorant of the history of the house that overlooked them.
Then we went to try to see Keats' grave, in the cemetery for non-Catholics, just outside the city walls at the Pyramide. Unfortunately we arrived just too late - the cemetery shuts at 5pm. Tomorrow morning we'll go again, then go on to visit the archaeological site at Ostia, which is nearby and is free to visit this week.
A quick post from Rome, where we have been depending on an Internet cafe. The Vatican yesterday afternoon - what can I say? Opulent, splendid, elaborate, grandiose, intimidating, overwhelming, packed, hostile, all these words spring to mind. The guards in particular inspire the epithets "hostile" and "intimidating", to which I would add "authoritarian" - even more than in most other museums. We couldn't miss going to the papacy's private hoard but the atmosphere of mistrust and hostility did not make me want to return there.
Having said all that, we did see very beautiful sculpture in the long ornate corridors leading up to the Sistine Chapel. The Greek statuary, in particular, with delicate marble drapery in fine pleats and folds over the marble limbs, is unbelievably skilled and graceful. There's a whole room of animal sculptures, guarded by two enormous marble dogs. The riches went on and on until we could take no more - even Donall closed his camera lens, sated!
The Sistine Chapel was almost an anticlimax after about half a mile, I believe, of wall-to-wall masterpieces in all traditional media and from 500BC up to the eighteenth century AD. We entered the chapel in company with the swirling crowd of tourists, students, school children and teachers of all nationalities, who had accompanied us thus far. Our guide, Jill, a charming American girl from Philadelphia, was not allowed to give us her talk about the frescos actually in the chapel and had delivered her account of the history and iconography of Michelangelo's masterwork in the Piazza of the Pineapple, half a mile earlier.
Now we were expected to view the famous frescos in silence, what seemed like a thousand or more of us standing shoulder to shoulder craning our heads up to look at this iconic sight. Of course it wasn't happening and there was a subdued murmur. The guardians, uniformed in black with dark glasses and walkie-talkies, were shouting, "Silence" and clapping their hands loudly at intervals. It didn't make for either a respectful, a religious or an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere.
We were relieved to leave the Vatican, after a rather perfunctory viewing of St Peter's Basilica. We limped back to reality suffering from a bad case of museum foot and and a severe overdose of evidence of the conspicuous consumption of world culture by the Papacy.
Visiting Rome for the first time since the 1970's is a wonderful experience, especially in a week when most of the museums are free (it's Cultural week in Rome) and the mid-April sun is shining bright and warm.
The highlight after our first two days is the Palazzo Barberini which houses the National Gallery. The upper galleries, in particular, took our breath away. Carravaggio's "Narziso", so dark and brooding, more than made up for the absurd horror-movie blood spouting from the clean cut rendered through Holofernes' neck by Judith in the large composition nearby. But the ambiguous expressions of the female figures in the picture are very moving.
Two small El Grecos stand out from the rest of the mannerist paintings, with the flame-like quality of their execution, almost reminiscent of the work of Munch more than two centuries later.
The portrait by Holbein of Henry VIII was a surprise - so often seen in books and media but I'd forgotten it was here in Rome Next to it, the portrait of Erasmus hangs, formidably learned and intelligent.
The Coliseum didn't compare in interest to the Barberini collection, especially when our guide gave us the slip and we were all left hanging about in the midday sun for half an hour until a guide from a rival company picked up the pieces and allowed us to accompany her group round the Palatine, free. Of course, today we are joining her group for the Vatican tour.