Communion Of Dreams

Italy, 2012: Rome Alone.

We left the villa early on Monday morning, since it was a drive of some hours back to Rome and we needed to get there about noon to allow some members of the group to make travel connections.

There had been rain overnight. When we left, this was the view of the sea from the villa:



Taking the inland interstate-style highway, we got to see part of the country we hadn’t before.



And I discovered that the rest stops in Italy are much like rest stops anywhere, complete with baffling toys…


No idea . . .

…and various products to help you stay awake:

Actually, I bought some of the “pocket espresso” things – and they weren’t bad. About an ounce of high-density caffeine with a lot of chocolate, in liquid form like an extra-small juice box.

* * * * * * *

We got to Rome, dropped off several people at the main train station. Most of the rest of us were back in the hotel we had stayed in the first few days of the program. We got checked in, dropped off bags and then made plans for the afternoon.

Most of the remaining group were leaving the next morning, just a few staying on to Wednesday. The bulk of the group made plans for dinner together that evening. But Steve & Amy needed to get a number of things done to wrap up the trip (and plan for the next one), so they were inclined to not join in on another big dinner.

In all honesty, I think they were also tired of being “in charge” and just wanted a little down-time. I know that when I have been in such a role for a week or two, I feel wiped out, and no offense to the people in the group but I am usually ready for a break.

So we spent the afternoon hitting a couple of different sights, mostly giving Steve and Amy time to do something of a post-mortem on the workshop – discussing what worked, what didn’t go so smoothly, how to perhaps change the schedule. I mostly kept my mouth shut, though occasionally I was able to offer some perspective as a tag-along. We had coffee & conversation on the Piazza Navona, then eventually Amy went off to take care of some errands and Steve and I went to see the Carravagio paintings (The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) at the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi. Naturally, I had seen reproductions of these pieces, but seeing them actually in the space they were intended for was breath-taking.

Following this, we wandered back to the hotel room. We both wanted a chance to rest and shower before getting back together with Amy for drinks and dinner that evening.

Dinner that night was worth mentioning: a place which specializes in dishes with porcini mushrooms. We ate heartily, washed the food down with some local artisanal beer. According to Amy & Steve, such beer is a relatively new thing in Rome – but it was quite good, though it was odd to have it served in what was basically a champagne bottle.

* * * * * * *

The next morning we mostly went our separate ways. Steve & Amy needed to check out a couple different museums for the next program. I was tired of “Roman Stuff” and opted to do a bit of exploring on my own.

Starting with a completely delightful exhibit I had noted on previous wanderings: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Big Machines”. I had seen that there was a traveling version of this show which made it to the US, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it for myself. Here are a few images of the fun items in the exhibit:













OK, this *was* shown to be a fake entry – but it’s still fun to see it produced in da Vinci’s style.

This was mostly geared towards kids, but it was still fun to see actual mock-ups of a number of da Vinci’s drawings. And one thing which was completely new to me was the octagonal closet which was completely lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You stepped into this closet, closed the door, and were able to see an infinite regression of images – like being in a room with two facing mirrors. Except that in this case, because of the placement of all 8 mirrors, you were able to see yourself from every angle – and it is a very odd thing to see your own back full size, in real time. What’s most impressive about this is, of course, that during da Vinci’s time it was impossible to make mirrors of sufficient size or quality to demonstrate this effect – he had done it all through basic knowledge of optics, applied as a thought-experiment. Very cool.

* * * * * * *

I got some lunch from a street vendor, then decided to go see this:



Yeah, the Trevi fountain. I’d promised a friend I would toss a coin in for her, and fulfilled that promise.

Two things I want to note about seeing the Trevi fountain: one, it was crazy with crowds. Seriously, just a block away there were few tourists. But in the square with the fountain it was packed. Nuts. Worst crowds I had seen anywhere in Rome.

And two, I had gotten to know my way around Rome well enough that it was pretty easy for me to dead-reckon with minimal reference to a street map. This got me to and from the Trevi fountain with minimal problems. This made me inordinately happy.

* * * * * * *

I made my way back to where the hotel was, stopping by once again to just stand inside the Pantheon. It was the sort of place I could probably visit a hundred times.

Along the way back to the hotel, I noted this interior courtyard:



No idea what that was. But it was cool.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag at the hotel, I popped over to the Campo de’ Fiori – the little market square I mentioned previously. I got a beer and some snacks, sat down to write some notes and just observe what was going on in the square.

And what was going on was the take-down of the market stalls and subsequent clean-up:




One thing in particular I want to point out:


That’s one of those little motor-cycle carts as seen in “Roman Holiday”. I was a bit surprised to see that they’re still very much in use in Rome, since that movie is even older than I am. But quite a number of the different merchants had them, and they seem quite practical for such use given the narrow winding streets in the heart of the city.

* * * * * * *
Dinner that evening was again just the three of us: myself, Steve, Amy. We ate at a place not far off the Campo, which is to say not that far from the hotel. This was by design, since we had to be up early to catch a private van to the airport.

Which we did the next morning, leaving about 6:30. My flight was later than the other’s, but it made the most sense for me to just get to the airport a bit early.

Of course, as it turned out, things all ran late at the Rome airport for me, and I could have gone over much later in the day. And the delays meant missed connections and the usual travel-foo. But I got in to St. Louis eventually, and in time to catch the shuttle home.

Yes indeed, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”  I almost don’t believe it, myself.

Jim Downey

Italy, 2012: Atheist with an eye on God.

Friday (July 13th) morning for me was much as Thursday had been: get up, shower, breakfast in the hotel basement.

As I sat there, I contemplated the history of the place. Somewhere in the complex of the Pompei Theatre Julius Caesar was murdered. I looked around.

Maybe over there by the table with the juices…

* * * * * * *

Again I went walking around the area of the hotel. Noted that there was a nearby museum with a show up featuring the “big machines” of Leonardo da Vinci. Picked up a couple dozen postcards at various little stands and shops. None of which had stamps for them.

See, in Italy, contrary to most logic, the only place you can get postal stamps is from the little places called “tobacchi” you can find on occasional street corners. They feature cigarettes, candy, drinks. And usually a lotto machine or two, frequently with some elderly Italian compulsively feeding the thing money.

I tried three of these places, asking about postcard stamps for mailing the things back to the U.S. None of them had stamps. None of them could tell me what it cost to mail a postcard to the U.S., though they mostly agreed on how much it cost to mail one to another country in Europe (about $2.00).

Well, what about going to a real Post Office someplace?

Silly person – that’s where pensioners go to collect their pension and conduct other such business, not buy stamps. More like a credit union. And, of course, I could never find one open.

I gave up, took my postcards back to the Campo. I grabbed a seat at one of the small restaurants, ordered coffee, and sat and wrote the cards while I watched the merchants get the day’s business going. Worse came to worse, I figured I’d bring the cards home and mail them from here.

* * * * * * *

I met the group late morning and we all trundled off to have lunch. Today’s site visits focused on the Campus Martius, or at least what was still left of it. Which turned out to be quite a lot.

We started over by the Roman Forum, which is actually when I took this image:

The Roman Forum.

Then we made our way NW, coming to the Pantheon from the back, pausing so the group could discuss one of their Latin sources.

Reading from the Book of Tuck/Leonard.

When we emerged onto the Piazzo della Rotonda the Pantheon was off to our left side. It wasn’t until I came around to the north face that I recognized the iconic structure.

There’s a lot to say about the Pantheon. There’s a lot more that has been said about the Pantheon. Why, while I was in Italy, an item about it ran in the Wall Street Journal: A Portal to the Heavens.

A 2,000 year old building. Which has been in continuous use for all that time. Which still, to this day, has the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever made. The next time you hear of a modern concrete structure which is crumbling, think about that.

The outside, beyond being so recognizable from the front, isn’t that impressive, to be perfectly honest. In fact, the portico is a bit of a mess. As the Wikipedia article says:

The Pantheon’s porch was originally designed for monolithic granite columns with shafts 50 Roman feet tall (weighing about 100 tons) and capitals 10 Roman feet tall in the Corinthian style.[26] The taller porch would have hidden the second pediment visible on the intermediate block. Instead, the builders made many awkward adjustments in order to use shafts 40 Roman feet tall and capitals eight Roman feet tall.[27]

“Awkward adjustments.” Yeah. That’s putting it kindly.

But when you pass through that front porch and enter the rotunda, all that is instantly forgotten. Because even when you are expecting it – even when you’ve already seen it several times (I know, I did) – entry into the rotunda wipes other matters from your mind. It demands your full, undivided attention. It is an architectural space which is the equivalent of a flow state. It simultaneously overwhelms and enhances you, focuses your entire being on the experience of that space.

Beam me up.

The WSJ article puts it well:

The Pantheon is the greatest interior in Western architecture, one where space is nearly as palpable as the forms that contain it—what isn’t there is as important as what is. This effect derives in part from the perfection of its proportions. As William L. MacDonald writes in his 1976 book on the building (still the indispensable guide to the subject), the Pantheon is a sphere within a cube. Continue the curvature of the dome downward, and you get an orb whose bottommost surface kisses the floor. Then raise four vertical planes at the cardinal points of the rotunda, capping them with a horizontal one brushing the oculus, and, with the floor, they’ll give you a container cube for the sphere.

* * *

Because of the vertical alignment of these elements, the eye is naturally drawn upward, and as it moves, we notice that the forms become simpler, more elemental. We trace a passage that gradually removes us from the specific, worldly realm below to the most abstract, universal shape of all. The oculus is many things. It is the Pantheon’s basic design module. It is an act of consummate architectural audacity. Most of all, however, it is a portal to the heavens.

The round disc of sunlight it admits draws our thoughts out and away from our immediate surroundings to the motion of the planets, and invites us to think of ourselves not as members of a particular faith, city or country, but as part of the whole cosmos.

I am a modern person, one who has traveled extensively, and seen many incredible structures. That comes with being married to an architect who enjoys travel as much as I do. And still, I found the experience of walking into the Pantheon to be almost spiritual.

Consider the effect it must have had on those who had never seen a room much larger than your average apartment. On people who had little or no understanding of the way a built space could be manipulated to achieve specific effect.

Yeah, it’d be easy to think that the people who built such a thing were like unto Gods.

* * * * * * *

After that, we cut over to the Piazza Montecitorio to see the Solare – the Obelisk of Montecitorio. This was brought from Egypt by the Emperor Augustus.

The Solare.

It’s impressive. No, really.

But still, I was happy to continue on down the alleyway to what is touted to be the best gelato in Rome. So was the rest of the group. Poor Steve almost got run over when he suggested that we leave the Piazza Montecitorio and go a block down the street.

(A note on *real* Italian gelato: I’m glad I finally had a chance to try it. A bit lighter than other forms of ice cream I’ve had around the world, yet still with a smooth quality and rich mouth-feel. I did try it another time or two, but I didn’t feel the compulsion to eat it whenever I could.)

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was the Palazzo Altemps, a 15th century home which is now part of the National Museum of Rome. In addition to seeing a couple of excellent marble artifacts (particularly the Suicide of a Gaul).

Looks like a party.

it was interesting to see some of the support structures put into place to help maintain the building itself.

Architecture retrofit.

* * * * * * *

The last site location of the day was the Ara Pacis now housed in a new (and somewhat controversial) museum built for it.

Ara Pacis.

Damned impressive.

Side panel of the Ara Pacis.

Even more impressive was the fact that the building actually had some climate control. Seriously, this was a huge surprise to me – to discover that any number of museum buildings in Italy have little or no climate control, at least in the summer. It is common to find windows completely open to the outside, no screens, no attempt to control humidity or temperature variations.

With some artifacts, this isn’t *that* big a deal. A nice marble sculpture is pretty damned stable, so long as it isn’t being subject to a freeze-thaw cycle and acid rain. But it was common to see other much more fragile items – books, documents, paintings, textiles – in conditions which made my professional side cringe.

Even more maddening, the rules about when you could or could not use camera flashes were almost totally random. And when they were invoked, it was just as likely to be when a flash wouldn’t be that much of a concern – again, when taking pictures of stone statues – while no one seemed to give a rat’s ass about extremely friable paintings.


* * * * * * *

We hiked back towards the hotel. Somehow, we got waylayed by beers at Mad Jack’s again. But this time we were joined with several other members of the tour group. Gave me a chance to get to know some of the others I hadn’t spent much time with yet. As I vaguely recall, some “Jim Downey” stories were told.

But I might be mistaken about that.

* * * * * * *

Then showers, and a bit of fun before dinner: going to see a street performance by The Miracle Players . This summer they’re performing Cleopatra with their own personal twist on the story.

Definitely fun, and geared so that kids will love the hell out of it. Warning – unlike the locals, they actually start on time. Don’t be late, or you won’t find a seat on the church steps to sit and watch the performance.

Jim Downey

And thanks to my friend ML for sending me the WSJ story about the Pantheon. Good timing.

Italy, 2012: Rome on three showers a day.

We walked back to the hotel. Amy left us to see to some other arrangements. We made tentative plans to meet for dinner later.

Yeah, a lot later. In Rome, you don’t eat dinner until 9 or 10 PM. Seriously. Restaurants don’t even open until about 8:30, and most of them won’t make reservations before 9. In this it reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires. In other ways, too. More on that in a future travelog.

Anyway, we went back to the hotel, dropped off bags. Steve needed to pop out to make dinner reservations for the group at one of the places we had checked out that afternoon. I decided to walk through a short private path from our hotel over to the Campo de’ Fiori – a nice little square about a block away which has a daily market of mostly food items. Here it is:

Market day in the Campo.


Market day in the Campo.

I sat at one of the outdoor tables of one of the half dozen little restaurants around the square, ordered a beer. I just wanted to sit and rest my feet a while, watch the last of the merchants clear up their stuff from the day’s market, try and take everything in. I had only been in the country about 8 hours, but I felt surprisingly comfortable there. “Surprisingly” because with just a couple weeks notice before going I had no time to learn more than a few survival phrases of Italian and very little background information beyond what I already knew.

But even so, I felt much more at home than I expected. Italy is different than any place I’ve been previously, but it is still a fundamentally European culture, one which resonates with other places. Even the language is fairly easy to understand, at least in the written form. Oh, I couldn’t read the newspaper, let alone a book, in Italian, but scanning signs and menus wasn’t difficult. And at least in Rome almost everyone had some English language. It was easy to get along.

Happily, Steve was able to make the reservations quickly, and joined me on the Campo before I finished my first beer. We ordered another round and enjoyed the late afternoon as it turned into early evening.

* * * * * * *

After showers and relaxing in the room, we met Amy to head out to dinner. This would be the pattern for most of the rest of the trip: shower in the morning when you got up. If you were really stomping around in the morning, grab another quick shower before the afternoon adventures. Then back to relax a bit before dinner, getting another shower before heading out.

Why so much? Well, Rome was sweltering. It was mid-July. Temps in the low-mid 90s, humidity somewhere around 80%, and not much in the way of air exchange in the city. All those buildings with narrow streets, dark grey cobblestones, throngs of people and vehicles built and held the heat of the day. It wasn’t until well into the evening before things even started cooling off. I think this is part of the reason why the Italians eat so late – before then, it’s just too damned hot. And remember, AC is fairly uncommon.

Anyway. We hiked over to the river (the Tiber), I think to the SW of our hotel, though I hadn’t gotten my bearings in Rome yet. Crossed over, and in a few more blocks to a little place Steve knew.

Interesting place. We were able to get a corner table inside. It had an almost ‘country kitsch’ decor – light blue & white wallpaper, red checked tablecloths – and they specialized in a particular pasta dish which we all ordered: a kind of ‘mac & cheese’ made using spaghetti noodles and incredible fresh Parmesan cheese. It’s made such that there’s a bowl of crispy Parmesan which is free standing, and the cheese and noodles are contained within it. Paired with a nice wine – heaven.

* * * * * * *

The next morning Steve and Amy were off to meet the class for the first time, using a nearby classroom facility which was part of the University of Washington campus in Rome. I got up, had breakfast, got started with my day.

Breakfast. Not a big deal in Italy, from what I saw both in Rome and then later. The hotel had the same items out every day: various cold cereals, yogurt, a couple types of breakfast pastry, a small selection of cold cheeses and meats. There was also a couple types of juice, usually tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs. Coffee made to order. Perfectly fine, but not nearly as big a deal as all the other meals.

I decided to strike out and explore the nearby area around the hotel. It was daylight, I had a small map from the hotel, and figured that setting out almost randomly would be fun. Just a couple blocks north I found this:

Looking south in the Piazza Navona.

The Piazza Navona one of the larger public spaces in the old part of the city, built (Steve later told me) on the site of a Roman stadium. In the cool morning it was mostly empty, just a few artists starting to set up their informal booths and a couple groups of Japanese tourists.

Piazza Navona.

After the tight spaces of the streets of Rome, I enjoyed just walking around the piazza, looking at the various buildings which lined it, enjoying the massive central fountain and the two smaller ones on each end.

One curious little thing I hadn’t noticed in the Campo the day before: it was common for the artists/merchants to anchor their displays using long thick nails driven into the ground in the space between the cobblestones. A quick and effective anchor, which didn’t damage the surface at all.

* * * * * * *

From the Piazza Navona I continued north until I hit the river, then I walked along its banks for a while, just taking in the vistas of the city around me. Rome needs a bit of distance to appreciate fully, distance which you usually can’t get on the smaller streets of the city center.

After a couple of hours I made my way back to the hotel. Again the heat of the day had soaked into me, and me into my clothes. A shower and a fresh change of clothes was in order before I met the others for the afternoon activities.

* * * * * * *

We met outside the hotel. I had met a couple of the others in passing the afternoon before and that morning at breakfast (the students didn’t need to be over to the classroom quite as early as Steve and Amy did, since they had to set up tables and whatnot in advance of the first meeting). Everyone was surprisingly welcome and accepting of me – a politeness which I wondered whether would hold up in the course of two weeks travel.

It did.

The first thing we did was head over to the district of the former Ghetto for lunch and a bit of history on the place.

The Roman Ghetto.


Roman Ghetto.

All the subsequent meals we took as a group were semi-communal: at restaurants we’d order individually, but share freely back and forth so that people could enjoy a wider variety of dishes. When we ate at the villa down south, the meals were served ‘family style’. As a result, I couldn’t begin to remember all the different things I had a chance to try on the trip, and I didn’t make extensive notes. I did get a copy of the villa’s in-house cookbook, and I’ll share some recipes from it later.

After a quite enjoyable lunch we traipsed off to see Rome’s oldest forum: the Forum Boarium. We stopped along the way to enjoy views of Rome’s first bridges across the Tiber, as well as a bit of history of the Island. Here are images of the Temples of Hercules

Temple of Hercules.

and Portunus.

Temple of Portunus.

* * * * * * *

From there we went north, skirting along the base of the base of the Capitoline hill, pausing to look at excavations currently underway in the Forum Holitorium


then past the Theater of Marcellus:

Theater of Marcellus.


and then up to the Capitoline Hill. Climbing the long, sloping terrace/steps up to the top of the hill, we had a damned impressive view of the city to the west and north.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the Capitoline Museums .

Plaza on Capitoline Hill.


The Capitoline Wolf.

* * * * * * *

We made our collective way back to the hotel, where everyone showered and relaxed a bit before going out to dinner.

At dinner, as at lunch, I made a point of sitting with a new group of people. It was important to me to get to know the other members of the tour, to try and connect with them. Fortunately, this was pretty easy. In spite of my not knowing anything about Latin or teaching, they were all well skilled in working with new people. And the shared adventure we were on was a common denominator for all.

It was well past 10:00 before we left the restaurant. I, for one, was damned glad I didn’t need to attend a workshop starting at 8:30 AM.

Jim Downey