Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Oh, Paris!

This past summer, as part of my birthday trip, I visited Paris for the first time.  I wasn't sure what to expect. I've read a lot about the city, heard friends' stories, seen many movies.  Some people love it - they say it is their favorite city in the world.  Others have been less enchanted, complaining about the rudeness and lack of friendliness. My goal was to keep an open mind and see what I would experience for myself.

Maggie and I had each been sick on our trip so our energies were low.  We knew we would have to skip some of the common attractions, that we would have to choose carefully how to spend our time there.  That may have given us a taste of the city that we would otherwise have missed.  We spent a lot of time walking, with a few bus and subway rides to supplement our travels. We found ourselves ambling through neighborhoods, stopping in little shops for fruit or medicine, watching people doing ordinary things. We found most people to be very friendly and helpful - patient with our poor attempts to ask for things in French.

On  a Sunday morning we went to the Luxembourg Gardens which were within an easy walk of our apartment.  We pulled up chairs close to the pond,  and settled to watch older men sailing elaborate remote controlled boats.  Then a vendor arrived pushing a cart piled high with brightly painted wooden boats - and suddenly children began running up, handing over money to rent one, and heading eagerly to the water.  The men pulled their boats out to make room for the kids - and probably to save their own more fragile vessels from damage.

Another morning we were on our way to Notre Dame Cathedral and passed the Pantheon.  I would not have thought to visit this landmark, but it turned out to be very impressive.  I liked the spacious beauty of the architecture, the lack of fussiness.  It had been built originally as a church to honor St. Genevieve. There are murals on the walls that depict the story of her interventions on behalf of the poor.  One of the scenes showed people kneeling in petition. It was touching to see that the soles of their feet were dirty. Eventually the church was turned over to become a secular institution where important intellectuals were honored and many of them buried in the crypt - Victor Hugo, Rousseau, Emile Zola, Madame Curie, Voltaire, Alexander Dumas. In keeping with the tradition of honoring those who have dedicated their lives to upholding the values of the republic, there was an exhibit of four French citizens - two men and two women who had played important parts in the resistance during WWII.

The day before we left, July 13th, we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower.  Preparations were under way for the Bastille Day celebrations so the area was crowded.  I had not had a great appreciation for the tower in the past - it looked like a giant erector set to me.  But it is really very beautiful, with  intricate iron work - and so huge. I had read Edward Rutherford's Paris, a novel that describes the building of it, and that enhanced my appreciation. It was thrilling to be there!

As I think about my brief visit this summer, it is the experience of the neighborhoods and people that makes my heart ache for this city.  It is the recollection of the Pantheon, being flooded by  memories  of those who gave so selflessly for liberty and justice that stirs my admiration for the spirit of this city. May we be faithful to those values and that spirit as we move into the troubled days ahead.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Moving on to Siena

My friend Anne came today to look at pictures from the Italy/France trip.  As I shared some of those experiences with her, I was motivated to continue my reflections on this blog.
View on Road from Rome to Siena
We'd been in Rome for five days.  On June 28, Maggie and I took a 3 hour bus ride from Rome to Siena, a great way to see the country we were passing through.  There were fields of sunflowers, mountains in the distance; vineyards, gardens, olive trees - all the things you expect and find in such abundance.  As we travelled north we caught our first glimpses of some of the hill towns which just feel magical. I was so excited that we'd actually be staying in such a place for a few days. 

Basilica of San Domenico
We arrived mid afternoon and were able to walk from the bus stop to our hotel, the Alma Domus, a sweet retreat, somewhat reminiscent of being in a convent, though with more amenities.   One wall adjoined the building that used to be the home where Catherine of Siena lived, and her church, the Basilica of San Domenico, towered over us. In the late afternoon we could hear visitors singing vespers in the little chapel that was built on the grounds of her home.
Siena is small enough that you can easily orient yourself to find the main sites: the Campo, which is the town square, the Duomo - which is a huge, gloriously ornate church, the Pinacoteca - a wonderful gallery of paintings, as well as the main shopping areas.

View from Alma Domus to the Duomo
The guide book said that you could pretty much see what is to see in half a day.  Perhaps that is true if you're just wanting to glance at each attraction.  But if medieval art and architecture are of any interest, then you need at least two full days. And if you want to spend any time browsing through the weekly open air market, people watching as you enjoy a gelato, sketching, photographing, writing - you could easily fill a few more days and still want more.
We happened to be there during Palio week.  This is a horse race held in the town square once in July, once in August. It attracts people from all over - the town is packed with tourists. We hadn't planned this, would not have chosen to be there then - and yet, I wouldn't have missed it. I'll write another post about it.
At the end of the afternoon of our initial explorations, we bought a bottle of wine, some good crackers and cheese, and found a bench out of the way to sit and relax, to soak up the late sunshine, and to pinch ourselves - we felt so lucky to be there.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Rome - And Then There's Saint Peter's

evening in Saint Peter's Square
On our first night in Rome as Maggie and I walked around after supper, catching a glimpse of Saint Peter's Dome under a gibbous moon was magical.  Busses, cars, motorcycles zipped past us as we stopped to take photos under the streetlight.  We weren't close enough to see more than just this small portion of it, but it was enough to give me goosebumps.

The next evening we walked over to see the square - it was fairly quiet at dusk.  The plaza was  huge.  There were  people walking around - some in clerical collars or habits, some tourists with cameras strapped across their chests, some young travellers.  We wondered who the various statues represented, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

I thought I might come back another day and pop in to see Michaelangelo's Pieta.  Maggie had been inside before and wasn't particularly invested in going back.  The next day as we walked to Trastevere and passed through the square around 10 am, there was probably almost a half mile long line snaking around to the entrance to the basilica. People stood with umbrellas in the hot sun.  I decided that it wasn't THAT important to get inside.

On Sunday morning while Maggie was sleeping, I decided to run out for an espresso.  But something made me veer off instead toward the square.  As I got there, I noticed a very small line to get into the basilica - and decided to go on in.  What a special visit!  I loved being in this place that had seen so many pilgrims over the years - noble, sacred, humble, plotting, lusting for power; every stripe has walked through those doors, bowed before those altars, stepped over those floors.

Early Morning, No Lines
Sunday Morning Uniform of Swiss Guard
The Pieta is kept roped off at such a distance that I wished I had my binoculars to see it.  That was a disappointment.  But just being in that space, seeing the mosaics and frescoes, having a sense of the spirits that inhabit these rooms was enough.  So much humanity is represented here.

There was a woman who was camped out on the steps along the porticoes outside that I had noticed the first evening we went there.  She had a brown plaid blanket, bags with clothes? food? - At first I thought she was someone who was homeless.  Then I saw a nun speaking with her that evening.  I had the sense that the nun might have been from Africa.  I saw her there for the next couple of days and decided that she might be there as a pilgrim or petitioner.  She seemed to have a purpose.  I wanted to speak with her but thought that I probably couldn't because of language differences.  On the morning of my visit I had made up my mind to approach her and see if we could communicate.  But she was gone.  May she go in peace, wherever she is.

Poster on Wall at Saint Peter's
I think the most wonderful part for me was recognizing that Pope Francis is setting a most needed tone and  challenge for the world - and that I might be walking on the same stones and steps he has used.  I have great respect for him as a spiritual leader.  There was something hanging over some iron gates that I thought was a sagging swag, looking a little sad.  Then I realized that it was the world, fashioned from laurel leaves - I imagine a remnant from his Laudate Si speech - a most welcome declaration!

I was very moved to have been there, to experience this atmosphere, to see these remnants.  That kind of inspiration carries you to different levels in your life.

One of two fountains in square

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mosaics and Trastevere

Apse of Santa Maria di Trastevere
When we were planning our trip we realized there were places that we'd have to skip - popular places, cities that held treasures that we'd love to see. Limited to three weeks we had to make some choices.  One of the towns I was sorry to miss was Ravenna because of the reputation of their mosaics.

So I was thrilled when my friend Christina told us that her favorite church in Rome was the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere.  She said they had gorgeous mosaics.  We set out for a nice walk from our apartment, ambling along the Tiber River for much of the time.

The church is one of the oldest in Rome, some of it dating back to the third century.  The spectacular thirteenth century mosaics in the apse were done by Pietro Cavallini - they are really breathtaking. Maggie and I spent over an hour there sketching, taking pictures, walking around and looking at all the beautiful details.

Mosaic Studio
Afterward we looked for and found a small mosaic studio where classes are taught.  I have a friend who did some mosaic work for her church and saw how difficult it was to cut the small tiles into the right sized pieces.  I liked the logs on end with a wedge of metal to cut them - don't know if that is easier than a pair of cutters, but they look impressive!

During our walk to Santa Maria we had passed the Villa Farnesina and promised ourselves to stop in on our way back. The villa was built for Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker, who was said to be the richest man in Europe at the time, which was the early 1500's.  He chose the best painters he could find to decorate this home.  There are magnificent paintings and frescoes by Raphael and his pupils and Il Sodoma.

Ceiling Frescoes by Raphael and Students, especially Giulio Romano

And that was what we did before lunch!  Around four we headed over to the old Jewish Quarter  to see an interesting exhibit that one of Maggie's professors had of the work he'd been doing during his summer residency. That area is now filled with fascinating little galleries and artist's studios.  That evening was when we revisited the Vatican Museum to look at the contemporary art.  Such a full day.  We collapsed at the end of it!  Maggie's step calculator said we'd walked about 9 miles.  Enough to easily earn a gelato!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Rome Treasures - Borghese Gallery

Borghese Gallery
As I post these short pieces, my intention is to recollect for you your own delights , if you've already been there; to highlight a few of the things that stood out for me (editing down from such rich collections is nearly impossible to do fairly); or to introduce readers to some of these venues.  Maybe you will look up something in more detail and become intrigued enough to consider your own trip!

Places like the Vatican Museums have so much to see that it would be like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and trying to cover it in a day.  You'd be dizzy and exhausted.  The Borghese Gallery, by contrast, is much more manageable.

To begin with, the grounds are lovely - the house is accessed via broad tree lined walkways or carriage roads.  There are plenty of benches where you can sit and have a cool drink, watch people, listen to musicians, and soak up the atmosphere.

You have to have advance tickets, at least this time of year, and you are given a time to enter; there is a two hour limit and then you have to exit and another group comes in.  It means that the rooms are not crowded.  You can see things, walk up to them easily and look closely.

David by Bernini
The art was collected by Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.  Apparently the collections were  larger at one time, but Napoleon induced Borghese to 'sell' some of the works and they are now in the Louvre.  Look up more information on the history here or google the gallery and look at the professional images of the rooms and art!

I've always been more interested in paintings than sculptures or mosaics, but that was before experiencing some of the things I saw on this trip.  The Bernini sculptures are particularly wonderful.  I loved the set of David's jaw, the dynamic posture as he prepared to deliver the fatal blow with his sling. 

Apollo and Daphne
Even more, I loved this one of Apollo and Daphne.  Do look for other images of this so you can see some of the details.  Apollo has fallen in love with her and gives chase; she tries to escape and when she can't, she transforms herself into a laurel tree.  You see her hair and hands sprouting leaves, bark covers much of her body, her feet begin to root into the ground.  It is the most beautiful sculpture!  And you wonder how anyone can get such fine detail out of marble.

There are other outstanding sculptures, many fine paintings, including artists like Raphael and Caravaggio; and then there were these mosaics by Marcello Provenzale that caught my attention.  The pieces were not that big - maybe something like 18" by 24".  I've seen gorgeous mosaic that are very detailed so that from a distance you see the shadings as though they were paintings.  But these were so much smaller - the individual pieces didn't seem to be much bigger than plump pieces of rice.

Orfeo by Marcello Provenzale
Two hours goes by quickly in this magnificent gallery and that's certainly not enough time to focus on much.  The ceilings and floors deserve close attention as well.  But you do come away with a sense of having had a very full meal; sitting on a bench in the shade afterward to compose yourself and digest is recommended.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Rome Treasures - Vatican Museums, Contemporary Art

George Rououalt - Miserere, 1939
As we ended our first visit to the Vatican Museums we passed the area that displayed contemporary art and knew that we were too fried to enjoy viewing it.  We decided to make this area a priority when we returned on Friday evening.  Again, there was so much to see!  These pieces were arranged chronologically from the late 1800's to a 2011 piece by El Anatsui.

Some of my favorite artists had pieces in the collection - George Rouault, Vincent VanGogh, Odilon Redon, Gaugin, Chagall, Matisse, Diego Rivera; there were not many women represented, which surprised me, especially as the dates moved into the 20th century.  I saw nothing by Kathe Kollwitz.  And, of course, I saw many works by painters and sculptors who were totally new to me.

Carlo Carra  - The Daughters of Lot, 1940

This one by Carlo Carra was very moving.  The listless expression on the young women's faces, the sadness, seemed to reflect the devastating changes in their lives, the loss of their mother, the way they have been used by their father.  It is a painting that could generate a lot of discussion, anger, and empathy.

I was intrigued by Fernando Botero's Trip to Ecumenical Council.  I suspect there is critical commentary going on, but am not sure what it is.  Pope Paul VI was leading the church at that time and made it a priority to consider the conditions of those who live in poverty - perhaps the look on this plump cardinal's face is one of worried anticipation.

Fernando Botero - Trip to Ecumenical Council, 1972

      And there were several pieces by Matisse - drawings, cut outs, sculpture; we looked forward to visiting his museum in Nice and the chapel in Vence that he'd designed.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Rome Treasures - Vatican Museum

We were travelling in the busiest tourist season so advanced reservations for some key sites were necessary.  While that locks you into a schedule, it saves you from LONG lines in the hot sun.  We'd gotten tickets for the Vatican Museums for Wednesday afternoon and again Friday evening and for the Borghese Museum on Thursday.

I had no idea what to expect at the Vatican, other than the Sistine Chapel.  The museums are huge, opulent, with hall after hall of magnificent paintings and frescoes, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts, vestments, architecture. It's really a series of museums, collections of various popes.  It's crowded but there is so much to see on every surface, that it would be hard to go away feeling cheated!  Even the floors are filled with art!

We'd met my friend Christina Carlson, who suggested that the map gallery was of special interest to her - and I was glad she'd pointed that out.  It is easy to be glazed over by the time you get there, but it was fascinating - a long hall filled on both sides with maps of Italy as they were known in the late 1500's. Look it up online for more photos and the ceiling - extraordinary! The details in these panels were so interesting - you could spend much time deciphering them.
detail from map in gallery of maps

Laocoon and Sons
There are rooms and courtyards filled with ancient sculptures, including the Laocoon and Sons which had such an impact on later artists. 

I really loved the animal room in the Pio Clementino Museum; the sculptures were so lifelike, so lively.  And this was an area where the floors were particularly beautiful.

Floor Mosaic in Pio Clementine Museum
The Borgia apartments  were filled with frescoes, including gorgeous ceilings by Raphael. I couldn't get photos that would do them justice so I encourage you to look them up.  There are a number of sites, including Wikipedia.  Here's one:

Just before we got to the Sistine Chapel, which they put at the end of the tour, we noticed the contemporary galleries - and decided that we'd focus on that when we returned on Friday evening. 

The Sistine Chapel was impressive, of course.  But it is hard to appreciate it when you are packed in like sardines looking up.  Guards were frequently asking people to be quiet, and there were strict admonitions to not take photos.  I was glad to see it, and enjoyed it more on Friday evening when there were fewer people.  You could find a seat along the wall and look up more easily. If you have a chance to go there, I would recommend going off season or toward the end of the day so that you can really look more closely.