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Entries in Italy (19)


Chaos in Rome

Like five million other people, we have been stranded due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Our flight was due to leave Saturday morning, but the airports were in chaos and Belgian airspace closed down. We decided not to risk a repeat performance, so rather than rebook a flight we tried for the train station - more chaos and then some!

Despite record demand and a line taking up the entire hall, Train Italia didn't put on any extra staff, and of course they would not allow internet booking. Despite getting in line at opening, we waited three hours for the five staff members to slowly sell tickets to thousands of patient passengers. There was no sign at all that Train Italia considered the circumstances to be exceptional - they didn't even modify the line divider lay-out to allow an ordered line, having people sprawl out over the entire hall. After an hour of waiting they sent out someone to shout that there were no trains going north for two days. After another hour the same lady came out with a megaphone saying that Train Italia would put on an extra train to Milan, leaving in a few hours, no need to wait in line - just cram onto the train if you can and buy a ticket on the train. Idiots! I'm surprised there was not a riot on the platform and that no-one died after being pushed in front of a train. What made them decide to get rid of an orderly ticket system and start a free-for-all? We finally got to the front of the line and asked for the next tickets back to Belgium. The guy simply said "there are none". "Ever?" I replied skeptically. "Not today", he said with a shrug, "and not tomorrow". "Well how about the next day, or the day after that? We just want the next available tickets to Brussels". He finally started to click the screen half-heartedly for five minutes, then discussed his lunch choice with a coworker, before finally selling us overpriced train tickets for two days time to Milan, connecting the next day to Zurich and finally arriving just three days late in Brussels.

Obviously Eyjafjallajökull erupting can't be blamed on anyone. I'm glad the governments involved took proactive steps to shut down flights that could have been in danger, far better to have a central decision rather than let every airline decide for itself based on a profit calculation. But the disgrace has been the response of airports, airlines and governments to that decision. RyanAir would not let us rebook our flights online, since we had already checked in, and just sent a text message telling us to go to the airport to book. Rome Airport barely bothered to update its website, with the front page still praising the reductions in waiting times in 2009 and shopping specials. After a dozen clicks there was a message asking people not to come to the airport and a list of which flights were cancelled that didn't match the list produced by the airlines. We were lucky in being stranded in Rome, compared to 200 Bangladeshis who were stuck in Brussels airport as their plane was diverted and they didn't have a Belgian visa to leave the airport. Airlines, airports and governments could all have recognised that their actions would cause chaos and each could have stepped up with small measures that would have made things bearable, instead each acted as if it was business as normal.



Ancient Rome

Ostia Antica was a pleasant surprise. Having just visited Pompeii, the pinnacle of Roman preservation, I half expected Ostia Antica to be nothing more than broken blocks and mounds of earth. The city, however, is remarkably intact - oh there was no over-baked bread left in the ovens like in Pompeii, but this micro-preservation of Pompeii has largely been removed to the museum in Naples anyway, and the macro-preservation of Ostia Antica was as stunning as Pompeii.

Ostica Antica was probably the first colony of ancient Rome, a natural first step to empire as it was situated at the mouth of the River Tiber, making it the perfect site for Rome's seaport. After thriving for maybe 1000 years, Ostia fell into decay with the end of the Roman Empire, with silting of the Tiber taking away its capacity to act as a port and the death of the Roman trading network. Despite a far slower death than Pompeii, the city is well preserved, especially the magnificent series of mosaics of the Baths of Nepture and around the Square of the Guilds.


The Villas of Tivoli

Villa d'EsteTivoli has been the playground of the rich for more than 2000 years. Powerful Romans built their holiday villas up on the mountain, overlooking the plain. After the fall of the Roman empire Tivoli became an independent rival, but was reconquored and controlled by the Papacy in 1001 CE, and a new generation of rich and powerful built decadent villas. We visited the two villas which have been world heritage listed, the Villa d'Este and Villa Adriana.

Villa d'Este is a beautiful 16th centry villa built for Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este. The house itself is stunning, with perfectly preserved mannerist frescoes covering the walls and ceiling. The highlight of the villa is, however, certainly the gardens - the fountains and terraces of Pirro Ligorio and Tommaso Chiruchi.

Villa AdrianaThe combination of leading artist (Ligorio was previously painter for the Pope, until he was fired for criticising Michelangelo's work in St Peters) and skilled hydrolic engineer diverted the flow of water from the mountains into five hundred delightful cascades and fountains, falling through three levels of terraces.

Villa Adriana is now barely more than broken columns and walls, but was once the centre of world power. The Roman Emperor Hadrian disliked his palace on Palatine Hill and so commissioned an enormous Villa in Tivoli, a complex covering more than a square kilometre and more than 30 buildings. The most widely travelled of Roman Emperors, Hadrian took an active role in the architecture, pulling in design elements from around his Empire, creating a villa that so pleased him that he moved his court from Rome to Tivoli. While few original buildings are intact, partial reconstructions show that Hadrian, like the latter architects, used the flow of water from the hills to create a garden of waters.


Politicians and Prostitutes

The ruins of old Pompeii give us a snapshot of life in a Roman city in 79 CE. The empty houses and plaster casts of bodies frozen in terror give the impression of a normal city perfectly preserved after an instantaneous apocalypse - bread still in the oven and the dying person holding a cloth over their mouth as they gasp a few last desperate gasps while buried under the ash. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE did not, however, capture a normal Roman city. It caught Pompeii (and how close Pompeii was to a "normal" Roman city is debatable) after 17 years of turmoil and social change, starting with an enormous earthquake in 62 CE and probably a series of minor earthquakes in the leadup to the eruption. Far from being an instantaneous apocalypse, the volcano probably killed only 10% of the population, with 90% leaving the city during the lead-up or fleeing on the first day of the eruption. Some of these probably came back after the eruption to rescue hidden treasures or loot abandoned houses. Seen through this lens the enormous archaeological trove of Pompeii becomes every more complex - interpretations made from particular finds could reflect the normal life of an ancient Roman, or they could be a chance oddity of circumstance.

After walking around the ruins of Pompeii I took enormous pleasure from reading Mary Beard's "Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town". She makes an excellent case for both the richness of archaeological evidence from Pompeii, and the unstable edifices of theory which are presented as fact. Graffiti scrawled onto the walls claims that Pompeii women were highly attracted to gladiators. But should this claim be taken at face value? Or should the location of this graffiti (almost exclusively written in the barracks of gladiators) indicate that this was more boastful claim than cultural norm? I especially enjoying learning about the politicians and prostitutes of Pompeii.

Many political posters are preserved in Pompeii, with support listed for one candidate or another on the equivalent of the city council. While this may represent a vibrant political process, the messages are more proclamations of support rather than a political discourse, and so may represent instead the tribal nature of the electoral process. What I found really interesting is the dirtiness of the politics in ancient Pompeii. As well as signs of (presumably) honest support by individual citizens or coalitions, other signs appear to be faked support to make a candidate disreputable, with signs painted on houses claiming support of a candidate by "the pickpockets", "the idlers", "the runaway slaves". We can be fairly sure that these were negative campaigning as in some cases the supporter name was covered over while leaving up the candidate name - indicating that the repainter was happy with the message of support, but not with the group that was purported to be the source of that support. Not a hair of difference between ancient Pompeii and Australia in 2007.

Prostitution is assumed to be big business in ancient Pompeii, with claims to over 35 brothels in a city with only 30,000 free men. The vast majority of these "brothels" are labelled as such based on graffiti which either pictures a phallus or makes claims about the price of particular young ladies - a criteria which, if used today, would label every bus shelter and bar bathroom as a brothel. While casual prostitution may have been common, there is likely only one brothel in Pompeii, where the combination of graffiti and paintwork are unmistakable. Even here, however, many interpretations can be made - are the explicit pictures pornography to set the mood? Or a menu?



A few days ago I wrote about the contribution Florence made to modern society. Not to be outdone, Naples invented the pizza. The concept of flavoured flatbread has been around for thousands of years and the word pizza itself since at least 997 CE, however the pinnacle of cuisine, the modern pizza, was only invented in the 16th century, after tomatoes were introduced to Naples from America. The original pizza was the simple tomato base pizza, called the marinara as it was prepared by “la marinara”, the fisherman’s wife, for when her husband returned home. It was so popular that it became a tourist attraction for the poor neighbourhoods - King Ferdinand I (1751-1825) had to disguise himself as a commoner and visit the poor neighbourhoods of Naples in order to eat pizza, since the Queen had unreasonably banned pizza from the court. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, the world’s first pizzeria, dates from this era, producing pizzas since 1738 and still running in Naples.

Naples was also the home for the next great innovation in the development of pizza, the addition of cheese. To be precise it was the chef Raffaele Esposito who first added mozzarella to a pizza in 1889. The red, white and green of the pizza (tomato, mozzarella and basil) so pleased the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, that Raffaele Esposito immediately named the Margherita Pizza in her honour. Today purists only recognise the Marinara and Margherita as authentic Neapolitan pizzas, and follow the rules of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Pizzerias such as Da Michele will only use Italian wheat flour type 0 or 00, natural Neapolitan yeast, San Marzano tomatoes (added to the pizza in a clockwise direction) and mozzarella made from the milk of semi-wild water buffalo raised in the marshlands of Campaia. The pizza then needs to be kneaded and rolled out by hand to no thicker than 3mm and baked in a 485C oak-wood fired stone oven for only 60-90 seconds.


The mysterious tower of Pisa

The Tower of Pisa is the legacy of Berta di Bernardo, who left a legacy in 1172 to build a bell tower for the Cathedral of Pisa. While it is quite a beautiful Romanesque structure, its fame mostly stems from the dramatic 4 degree lean. When the foundations were laid in 1173 they were poorly designed, only three metres deep on a thick layer of sand and loose rock. Within five years the original builders had to abandon the project due to the lean which had already developed. Optimistically, new builders restarted the project in 1272, trying to compensate for the lean by building the tower shorter on one side (giving either 296 or 294 stairs depending on which side you climb). The project stopped again in 1284 as the lean grew even more pronounced. Never one to let a bad project die, in 1319 a third set of builders took a stab at the project, finishing off the belltower in 1372, since when it has tipped ever more precariously forward. The most mysterious aspect of the leaning tower of Pisa, however, is the force it exerts on viewers, exhorting them to take amusing photos where they are holding up or pushing down that long-suffering architectural icon.


The towers of San Gimignano

The bus to San Gimignano wound through beautiful Tuscan countryside before reaching the small walled town renowned for its towers. The town was founded in the third century BCE by the Etruscans and reached its zenith in the 14th century, when it was hit by the plague and never recovered its former vitality.

Despite its miniscule size, with an old town barely 0.1km2,  San Gimignano was the ultimate in medieval high density living, with 72 towers up to 10 stories tall crowded together.  Other Tuscan towns of the period also had tall towers, such as Florence, but all except San Gimignano have lost them due to war or redevelopment. I climbed up one of the fourteen surviving towers to look down over the city. From that height you can really appreciate just how dense the people were living. San Gimignana is almost a single block of stone with one street running through it, houses are built stone to stone with each other and the thick wall. Looking down I could only imagine the fear that people must have once had of all outsiders, a fear that seems somewhat justified at the time, as the name San Gimignana comes from the bishop Saint Geminianus, who is said to have defended the town from Attila the Hun.


Cattedrale di Siena

On a wet and miserable day we travelled out from Florence to its former rival, Siena. Until the black plague of the 14th century, Florence and Siena competed in every arena, both being enormously wealthy and spending that wealth through the creation of art. Unlike Florence, however, Siena never fully recovered from the plague, locking the city in the mould of Gothic art and architecture. We picked a good day to spend in Siena, as the Duomo of Florence, while beautiful on the outside, is surprisingly drab inside. The inside of the Duomo of Siena (built 1215), by contrast, was a feast for the senses. The floor of the cathedral is a series of 56 intricate marble panels but the most spectacular part for me was the Libreria Piccolomini. This library was built to house the books of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (latet Pope Pius II). The large volumes are laid out, each a metre high with perfect gold-embossed calligraphy on each calf-skin page, and the walls and ceiling of the room is covered in the most beautiful frescos by Bernardino Pinturicchio (painted 1502-1507, probably on designs by Raphael), which look as fresh and vibrant as if they were painted today.


Before the Romans

Up in tiny Fiesole, in the hills surrounding Florence, are the best known relics of Etruria, the civilisation that spanned the Italian peninsular before the Roman conquest. The archaeological area of Fiesole is set on a beautiful Tuscan hillside, allowing me and Lina to wander through the ruins of an Etruscan temple in the glorious afternoon sun. The temple is the best preserved in Etruria, and dedicated to Minerva, the Goddess of Health. Remains in the area date back to 2000 BCE, but the main Etruscan structures (the temple and sandstone wall) date back to around the 6th century BCE. The temple was largely destroyed in the first century before the current era, when Fiesole was conquered by Rome and the Roman baths and theatre, which now lie on the hillside next to the ruined temple, were built. Now this once great trading centre is primarily visited for the beautiful views out over Florence.


Michelangelo’s David

Michelangelo’s David was not created in a vacuum, it was a sculpture of an age and a place. Born any other time or place than 15th century Florence and Michelangelo could not have created David. After a thousand years of medieval art, heavy on symbolism and light on artistic flair, the Renaissance blossomed in the 15th century in the relatively democratic and secular society of Florence, fueled by the wealth and artistic inclination of the Medici family, the bankers of the Pope.

Some scholars date the Renaissance precisely to 1401, when Lorenzo Ghiberti won a commission to sculpt the doors to the baptistery of the Florence Duomo. These doors where the first to try to incorporate realism, through mathematical perspective, rather than simple single-dimension story-telling of medieval art. The gilded eastern doors sculpted in 1425 took this a step further, adding depth to art for the first time since ancient Rome - such that Michelangelo named these the “Gates of Paradise”, calling their art perfect. This initiated an explosion of Florentine art incorporating mathematics and realism - especially the dome of the Duomo by Filippo Bruelleschi and the statues of Donatello.

Donatello’s statues were of particular importance in influencing Michelangelo’s sculpture. Since the fall of ancient Rome, the art of sculpting the human body had regressed. Unable to sculpt a body, for a thousand years statues were always heavily dressed in elaborate robes, allowing sculptors to concentrate on the fall of fabric and ignore the human image underneath. This first changed in 1417 when Donatello was commissioned to create a sculpture of St George for the Orsanmichele church, a granary converted to a church after the city was devastated by the 14th century black plague pandemic (the old function is still clearly visible, with bricked up arches and grain chutes).. The church was owned by the guilds, with each guild competing for the most beautiful and novel icon sculpture. Donatello’s St George broke through by imaging St George in light armour, showing just a little skin on the arms and legs - but in doing so demonstrating a greater understanding of human anatomy than any sculptor since ancient Rome. Inside Orsanmichele the statue of St Mark by Donatello also influenced Michelangelo - initially rejected for its misshapen dimensions, the statue looks perfect when placed up high in a niche, rediscovering the art of modifying a statue’s dimensions with consideration of the perspective of the audience. In the painted form, Leonardo da Vinci, also working in Florence, took both perspective and the reality of human form a step further, going so far as to break Church law and dissect human corpses in order to accurately portray the human form.

Raised in Florence, cultivated by the Medici family and inspired by the burgeoning Renaissance art of Ghiberti, Bruelleschi, Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo learned to sculpt. Michelangelo was already an accomplished young sculptor by 1501, but craving fame and a challenge he leapt on the chance to carve a statue of David for the Duomo dome. The commission had been lying dormant for forty years, the inferior block of marble, porous and fragile, already hacked into and abandoned by less talented artists. Michelangelo saw this challenge as a way to make his mark, and spent the next three years sculpting David. Unlike other sculptors of the time, Michelangelo worked alone, without a workshop. He was also unique in working without a plaster model, instead preferring to develop his image in the stone, believing that the art was already inside the block and he was only releasing it. Michelangelo characteristically attacked the stone from the front, carving from the angle the statue would be viewed from and working around to the back. These idiosyncrasies are best shown in his unfinished works, with his unfinished pieta in Milan demonstrating creative changes during the sculpting process and his unfinished “prisoners” in Galleria dell’ Accademia demonstrating his “front first” approach, with the head and chest unlocked from the rock while the back is locked in solid rock.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo studied anatomy on illicit cadavers, allowing him to sculpt a nude David, with defined muscles, veins and tendons (although perhaps he should have looked at a few Jewish cadavers, as he sculpted David as uncircumcised). Like Bruelleschi, Michelangelo incorporated mathematics into the sculpture, balancing the weight of the statue down through the legs, achieving the unusual achievement of balancing a 5.17 metre tall statue weighing 5.6 tonnes through the support of David’s legs alone. Like Donatello, Michelangelo built in a distorted perspective, giving David an enlarged head and hands to ensure they looked proportional when placed up high (which is why they look peculiar at eye level).

Built for Duomo dome, when Michelangelo finished “David” in 1504 it was immediately hailed as masterpiece. A committee of artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, decided that rather than sit the sculpture on the Duomo, it should be placed in the prominent position of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, on Piazza della Signoria. While a religious man, in David Michelangelo had created a secular rather than religious masterpiece for Florence‘s cathedral. The David he sculpted was not a young Jewish boy fighting a giant with faith alone, but rather a towering muscled man, with rock and sling barely evident, reflecting the power of human ability rather than faith. While the move from Duomo to public square did not fit the perspective built into the statue, proud Michelangelo would no doubt have been delighted to have his fame  and the message of David’s humanity so obviously broadcast.

It is remarkable that David has survived for over 500 years. If David had been sculpted just a few years earlier it would have surely been destroyed by the anti-Renaissance Priest Girolamo Savonarola, who whipped Florentines up into a religious frenzy and used the Palazzo della Signoria to destroy wealth and art in his bonfires of the vanities. Savonarola finally went too far, accusing a corrupt Pope of corruption, and he himself was burnt on the Palazzo in 1498, just metres from the place David would be placed six years later. David stood at Palazzo della Signoria for 350 years, and was struck by lightning and damaged in a riot in 1527, when a bench thrown from a window broke his arm into seven pieces. Finally in 1873 David was moved from the Palazzo into Galleria dell’ Accademia, in a room dedicated to the masterpiece, but even here he was not completely safe, being attacked by a man with a hammer who fortunately only succeeded in breaking David’s little toe.

In the true sense of the term, David is a Renaissance masterpiece. It was the first large nude sculpted for a thousand years, requiring the rediscovery of anatomy, mathematics and artistic techniques lost since the Roman period. After a thousand years art had finally recaptured the skill and grace of the ancient Romans, so for the first time in an age human knowledge had to progress by looking forward rather than looking back into antiquity.  David is a symbol for the contribution Renaissance Florence made to modern society. The accomplishment of Michelangelo’s David, Bruelleschi’s Dome and other Renaissance masterpieces was in bringing humanity back to the previous heights of civilisation and inspiring people to push further forward, elevating science over literature as the mode for new discovery, driving the scientific revolution and starting the enlightenment.