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Category Archives: Italy
Last week the movie Angels and Demons, based on Dan Brown’s novel of the same name was on television. At one point in the movie its hero Robert Langdon is chasing a murderer in the catacombs and it reminded me our visit to the catacombs in Rome. Here’s what I wrote about it in my journal.
It’s just a myth. Movies and novels have popularized the idea that underground catacombs were used as hiding places for Christians escaping persecution. I learned on my visit to Rome this is a myth. My husband and I toured the San Sebastian catacombs, one of sixty catacomb complexes just outside of Rome. Nearly 7 million people were buried in these subterranean chambers between the second and fifth century.
In ancient Rome burial was not allowed within the city walls so most Romans were cremated. However Christians preferred burial because they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Christian estate owners outside of the city provided land that could be used for burial. In order to make maximum use of the property the catacombs were dug very deep. The San Sebastian catacombs had five levels and stretched 17 kilometers.
The first thing our guide did was turn off the lights so we could experience how pitch-black it would have been in a catacomb. That combined with the 95% humidity and the overwhelming stench of all those rotting bodies would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to hide in a catacomb for long. While the catacombs were being constructed skylights provided ventilation and light but when the building was complete these were closed. Our guide also told us there were detailed blueprints showing the layout of the catacombs. The Romans knew where all the entrances were. If Christians had tried to hide there they would have easily been discovered.
The catacombs were big business. People paid lots of money to be buried in them especially in a coveted spot close to a martyr. Constantine spoiled that economic opportunity when he endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus ending martyrdom. If families wanted a painting or a special symbol like a cross, a dove or a fish on the rock face near the burial spot they had to pay quite a bit extra.
We toured different kinds of burial sites. Families could purchase an entire room and be buried together. We saw longer shelves in the walls for adults, although not that long, because in the third century the tallest Roman was only five feet. There were larger arched nooks where seven or eight people could be buried together. The kind of burial opening that seemed most prevalent was the small one for children. The infant mortality rate at the time was very high.
The catacombs continued to be used till around 540 when barbarian Goths and Vandals began attacking Rome making it too dangerous to leave the city for burials. It became more common for people to be buried in or near the churches and basilicas inside Rome. These invaders looted the catacombs and many were flooded over time. By the 8th century most of the saintly relics from the catacombs had been moved to churches in Rome and the catacombs were abandoned. They were rediscovered by accident in 1578 but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Italian archeologists began excavating them. This was dangerous work. Our guide told us one archeologist got lost in a catacomb maze for five days and nearly died
Five Roman catacomb complexes have been partially opened and fortified to make them safe for visitors. Mussolini gave control of the catacombs to the Catholic Church in 1929 so they are in charge of maintaining the sites now. Having only seen the catacombs vicariously in movies like Angels and Demons I appreciated the opportunity to tour them in person and learn both the myths and facts about them.
You might want to read some other posts about our visits to Italy…….
Was it right to take a picture? Did I want to confess my sins? What is ‘good taste’ when it comes to art? Should I visit the pope? Those are just a few of the many questions I considered when I visited The Vatican in Rome.
Jeanette, our Vatican tour guide gave us quite a lecture before we entered the Sistine Chapel. She emphasized the importance of not taking photos. She said camera flashes did irreparable damage to the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Yet in the chapel there were people galore snapping pictures and making video recordings. Exasperated security guards moved agitatedly among them trying to get them to stop. Should I take a photo too? I wanted to, but my husband was the voice of reason. He said there were a million photos of the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the internet. Why did I need another one? Did I want my grandchildren to be able to see the masterpieces on the ceiling someday or did I want to play a part in destroying them? I decided not to take a picture. I think I did the right thing.
There were confessional booths in St. Peter’s Basilica with multi-lingual priests inside ready to listen to you. I was tempted to enter one to see what it would be like to formally confess. My husband Dave agreed to pose outside one of the handsome oak confessional booths so I could take his picture, but he told me he felt no need to go inside. He wasn’t about to confess to anyone, least of all a complete stranger. I decided to follow his lead.
We saw plenty of naked statues in the Vatican, many of Biblical characters. Some had strategically placed leaves or seashells covering sexual organs. Apparently when Martin Luther was busy criticizing the Catholic Church the pope became more circumspect and ordered the shells and leaves added to the statues. There is a story that Pope Pius IX in a conservative streak once ran through the Vatican at night with a hammer and chisel cutting penises off of statues. Whole boxes of the severed male organs have been found in the Vatican storage rooms. Was that pope being a prude or is the naked human body an artistic thing of beauty? What is ‘good taste’ in art, especially in religious art?
You can make arrangements to have an audience with the pope at the Vatican. I figured seeing him in person would make for a great newspaper or magazine story. However I gave it some thought and decided it wasn’t worth all the paperwork and waiting time. Turns out it was a moot question anyway because the day I was at the Vatican the Pope wasn’t receiving visitors. He was busy meeting with a group of Irish bishops about a scandal. The Irish police had issued a lengthy report accusing Dublin church officials of decades of covering up child sexual abuse by their clergy. It was probably more important for the Pope to deal with that issue than to see me.
I jotted down dozens of questions in my notebook right after I visited the Vatican. It was a thought provoking place.
You might want to read some other posts about our visits to Italy…….
It’s huge! I think I first learned about Pompeii in elementary school. I knew it was a Roman city enveloped by volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. I also knew that in the mid 1800’s the excavation of Pompeii had begun.
Since then many visitors just like us have come from around the world to see Pompeii and get a first hand view of what life was like in ancient times. What I didn’t know was how huge an excavation project it had been and continues to be, and how much of the city had been unearthed. We took a day trip to Pompeii during our stay in Rome. We had signed on with a tour company that provided a bus and a guide. Mr. Franko, our elderly trip leader was a little absent minded and somewhat bossy, but I was still grateful to have him there to lead us around Pompeii.
The city streets are really a kind of maze but as you navigate them you see all kinds of businesses and houses……the villas of the wealthy, the homes of the poorer citizens, the bakeries, water fountains, marketplaces, inns and restaurants.
Pompeii was home to some 12,000 people. Although only about a third of it has been excavated so far, the scope of the project is far more massive than I had ever imagined. Much of what we know about life in ancient Rome we’ve learned from the city of Pompeii which lay well preserved under layers of soil and volcanic ash for one thousand seven hundred years. The people were obviously cultured.
We saw the semi- circular theatre where poetry, music and plays were performed. But the Romans were also entertained by less refined things like the performances of gladiators in the city’s amphitheatre.
We saw the playing field where the gladiators trained. The bodies of some sixty gladiators were found in the barracks of the amphitheatre during the excavations. Beautiful young women in the brothels provided another form of entertainment.
I have to admit I was somewhat shocked at the explicit nature of the frescoes in the brothels showing exactly what kind of sexual services they provided. Mr. Franko informed us however that the paintings we were seeing were quite tame. The really erotic ones had been removed and stored at a university in Naples.
Mr. Franko took us to the forum where we saw temples to Isis and Jupiter. The people of Pompeii were obviously religious. The forum was also the place where business was conducted. I was surprised to see all kinds of dogs wandering around in the forum. Ancient Pompeii had many dogs. We even saw the frozen contorted form of one that died in the volcanic eruption.
The dogs that are in Pompeii today have been abandoned and left there by people who no longer want to look after them. The tourists feed the stray dogs and sometimes the guides who visit the site regularly with tour groups, pool their money to buy dog food.
More than 2 million people a year visit Pompeii. My tour group included people from Brazil, Japan, Russia, Jordan, the United States, Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. We’d all heard about Pompeii and wanted to see it for ourselves.
“Ooooooooooooo!” I heard a chorus of horrified exclamations as a group of Italian school children entered the Zoological Museum in Florence. It housed one of the most interesting and bizarre assortments of artifacts I’ve ever seen.
Of the museum’s three collections the most fascinating and eerie was one of anatomic waxes created by artists in the 1600’s to help medical students study the human body and learn anatomy without having to actually touch a cadaver. There are ten rooms lined with case after case that display wax bodies and body parts. The bodies have been split open and all the veins, blood vessels and fat are detailed.
Perhaps most intriguing are 38 models showing how a baby develops in a mother’s uterus during each stage of pregnancy. Modern day medical experts are amazed at the accuracy and detail of these models that were made over four hundred years ago.
The nearly two thousand wax pieces painted in bright reds, greens and yellows have a sort of macabre beauty about them. Whether you are walking by a bony hand, its skin torn back so you can see the tendons, muscles and blood vessels; or a model showing in minute detail what a fallopian pregnancy looks like; you can’t help but admire the skillful artist who created these wax works.
It is clear Clemente Susini; the sculptor who molded and painted all the figures is still admired by artists today. On our visit to the Zoological Museum in 2009 we saw numerous art students sitting in front of the various displays of human body parts and trying to do sketches of what they saw. One young artist sat perfectly still staring at a human head. It had been titled sideways and the skin pulled off the skull so all the brain matter spilled out on the table for examination. There were moments in the Zoological Museum when I felt like I was in the middle of a Frankenstein movie set.
The second collection of the museum contains thousands of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, fish and amphibians. The Medicis, Florence’s ruling family in the period between 1360 and 1737 sent explorers all over the world to collect items for this nature museum. Some specimens are stored in formaldehyde but many have been stuffed using what are obviously very old-fashioned and primitive methods of taxidermy. You can see literally every animal species here from the smallest butterfly to a huge sharp toothed grinning hippopotamus.
The last collection in the museum houses display boxes of fairly gruesome scenes created in the late 1600’s by a wax artist named Gaetano Zumbo. One is entitled The Effects of Syphilis and another The Plague. Each features a multitude of decaying and dismembered corpses. Little babies lie dead beside their mothers whose bodies rest on piles of human skulls. Toothless, white-haired, naked elderly are splayed on the rocks outside a cave. It’s a graphic reminder of the devastation brought about by disease in the time before modern medical technology.
As I made my way out of the Zoological Museum a busy, bustling crowd of middle school students entered one of the rooms filled with eviscerated wax cadavers. Oooooooooooo they screamed almost in unison horror. Even though I don’t speak Italian it wasn’t hard to guess what they were probably talking about as they walked beside the display cases.
The Zoological Museum in Florence isn’t the easiest place to find. It’s on a narrow winding street and you have to walk up four flights of stone stairs to reach the floor where the displays are housed. It’s worth the steep climb!
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Did Galileo go grocery shopping?
You bet he did ! I saw his grocery list in the Museum of Science in Florence, Italy.
On display at the museum was a page from one of the famous astronomer Galileo’s notebooks on which he listed the supplies for a scientific experiment having to do with optics. Interspersed in that list he had scribbled words like chickpeas, rice, pepper and sugar, obviously grocery items he needed. I’m not really interested in astronomy but that grocery list intrigued me. It revealed a personal side of Galileo and I wanted to know more about him.
On a cold and rainy day we visited the town of Pisa where Galileo was born. I found out his Dad was an accomplished lute player and composer and that Galileo actually played the lute very well too. He had five siblings and one of his younger brothers Michelangelo (not to be confused with the artist of the same name) often needed to borrow money from Galileo.
This was the church in Pisa that Galileo’s family attended.
I took a picture of Susterman’s portrait of Galileo in the Pitti Palace in Florence. Galileo looks old, tired and a little sad. It is no wonder. The painting was done in 1636 when Galileo was under house arrest for heresy because he had written that the sun and not the earth was at the centre of the universe. His beloved daughter Maria Celeste had died just two years before and he was still mourning her passing.
I bought the book Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel and it was here I learned about Galileo’s three illegitimate children, the product of his relationship with Marina Gamba. Since marriage wasn’t a possibility for his girls because they were born out-of-wedlock, he put them in a convent. His daughter Virginia or Sister Maria Celeste maintained a healthy correspondence with her Dad during her years as a nun and over a hundred of her letters to him have survived. She adored her father and was very interested in his scientific work.
We visited the Santa Croce Basilica where Galileo is buried.
His tomb is very ornate and elaborate, a fitting tribute to a great scientist. It is nice to know that although he was ostracized and labeled a heretic in his own time, his contributions merited him a resting place of honor and distinction. In 2000 Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for the way the church treated Galileo.
A grocery list got me interested in Galileo and because of it I learned Galileo was more than a scientist and astronomer. He was a son, a father, a brother, a lover, a musician, a student, a prisoner and worthy of a pardon from a pope.
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Two years ago in February we were in Florence Italy and I wrote this piece about seeing Michelangelo’s David.
“He’d a make a great basketball player. Look at those big hands.” That was my husband Dave’s first comment as we walked up to the statue of Michelangelo’s David in the Academia Gallery in Florence, Italy. The white marble statue is 17 feet high and shows David ready to fight Goliath, the Philistine giant. David’s hands do look big, but Michelangelo made them that way because initially David was created to stand outside a palace, rather than in an art gallery.
Michelangelo thought people would be viewing David from far away. He wanted them to be able to see all the details of his statue, including David’s hands. Although some people think the 29-year-old Michelangelo made a mistake when he carved David’s large hands, experts agree their size was deliberate. At age 24 Michelangelo began visiting morgues. He would cut up unclaimed corpses and study their anatomy. He was as well-trained as any physician in the body’s structure. He wouldn’t have made a mistake with David’s hands. He wanted them to be larger than life and powerful.
Two other artists had rejected the piece of marble Michelangelo used for David, because they claimed it lacked perfection. Michelangelo was able to create something beautiful despite the flawed material he had been given.
We visited the statue of David on a February day along with a few other hardy souls who were braving Florence at the coldest time of the year. The absence of the crowds that usually mill around David made it possible for us to spend about 40 minutes examining him from every side.
David has a determined, focused look in his eye. You can see the veins in his hands and the clear outline of his rib cage. His elbows appear calloused and rough and his feet are crusty and cracked. His cheeks are smooth and his upper lip is just a little bigger than the lower one. His nostrils are slightly flared, his brow mildly furrowed and his hair classically curly. Besides noticing David’s big hands my husband also noted that the nude David wasn’t circumcised, as all Jewish boys would have been. I did a little research and discovered the ancient Jewish method of circumcision only involved a small tip snip and not the more extensive operation common in the modern-day. If you look closely, the figure of David is indeed circumcised in the traditional way.
It is interesting that four other statues also carved by Michelangelo, have been placed along the long hallway leading up to the statue of David. Each of the four shows a prisoner trying to break free of his bonds. They are said to represent the efforts of humans to liberate themselves from whatever oppresses them. This is most fitting since Michelangelo has captured an image of David just as he is about to free his people from the oppression of the Philistines.
My husband Dave is right. Michelangelo’s David does have big hands. He also has a big heart, one filled with enough courage, confidence and youthful enthusiasm to try the impossible and succeed. Just the way his creator Michelangelo succeeded when he took an imperfect piece of marble and turned it into something that has become one of the most universally recognized pieces of art in the world.
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