Falling in love with the sky

Rome holds a particular fascination for me because I’ve never been there. I haven’t stepped down its historic streets or heard its people or seen its antiquities jumbled together with modernity.

It seems, from reading Robert Hughes and Anthony Doerr, that this is a city that wants a relationship. Something personal. They both write of the light and the color and the smell of Rome. I am ready to build something with an old city that is new to me.

When Hughes first arrived his senses went into glorious overdrive. “The enveloping light can 20160226_Sunrise from carbe of an incomparable clarity, throwing into gentle vividness every detail presented to the eye. First, the color, which was not like the color of other cities I had been in. Not concrete color, not cold glass color, not the color of overburned brick or harshly pigmented paint. Rather, the worn organic colors of the ancient earth and stone of which the city is composed.” He writes of the color of the ages.

Doerr falls in love with the sky. “I never tire of the clouds here, the light bleeding through their shoulders.”

On the terrace one night he watches as “the sky passes through a sequence of darkening blues.” “Is this Rome? Or a dream?” He is afraid of waking bereft of the color and air of Rome.

Early morning after a storm, “the air seems shinier and purer than I’ve seen it. Dawn stretches across the gardens … the old walls look washed, almost new; a thousand speckled tints of bronze, trailing lacework of ivy, glossy tangles of capers.”2016-08-27 sunset from top floor-Vert

As he prepares to take his family home to Idaho, he says goodbye to “the amber and purple and green of the distances, the blues of dusk…” Then he wonders if enough Roman light “enters our eyes … maybe we incorporate it. Maybe it becomes part of us. Maybe it flashes around inside us, endlessly reflecting, saturating everything.”


There is no city more beautiful than Rome

As Anthony Doerr and his wife Shauna explore their new neighborhood in Rome, he wraps their discoveries in words of color and light as they “glide through sun and shadow,” and see “hundreds of balconies crammed with geraniums, pygmy palms, tomatoes.”

Living in Rome on a one-year writing fellowship, Doerr is astounded by Italian pines, 2015-08-22 flowersonbluewall“trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.” He never expected them or for Rome “a city of 3  million people to be a living garden, moss in the sidewalk cracks, streamers of ivy sashaying in archways, ancient walls wearing a haze of capers, thyme sprouting from church steeples.”

In the studio where he is trying to write a novel he has a lot of moments as he orients himself to the massive history of the city. “When the night sky above the Janiculum was as awash with stars as any sky anywhere, Galileo Galilei assembled his new telescope at a banquet in this very garden, just beneath my window, and showed guests the heavens.” Of nearby Trastevere he realizes, “Julius Caesar lived in this neighborhood. So did Cleopatra.” I am thrilled that our study abroad group will be there too.

On the terrace of their apartment one night, the city shows its dusky side. “The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance, little strands of glitter climb the hills.”

More exploring. They find a glorious fountain and then a view of the entire city.

“Beneath us, for as far as we can see, drifts a bluish haze – it is as if the city were submerged beneath a lake, and a wind were ruffling its surface.” A few pages later another view and, “everything is radiant.”

They begin to grasp their taxi driver’s words the day they arrived: “There is no city more beautiful than Rome.” From the book Four Seasons in Rome.

Constantine was no saint

Reading about Emperor Constantine in the book Rome was an eye-opener. He is well known in history as being a Christian and for holding the Council of Nicaea. However, author Robert Hughes says he was not a convert until he was dying. Reflecting back over the millennia, who really knows what was in the man’s heart? One could ponder his actions and perhaps get a glimpse. After Constantine won the battle for Rome Hughes says, “state persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – torture, murder, confiscation of goods and property – effectively ceased.” Assets confiscated from Christians were returned. Then the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. allowed followers of Jesus to restore or build places of worship. Constantine also began financially underwriting churches in a big way and – this was new to me – began the practice of exempting churches from taxes.

England 2012 Whatlington church window and crossConstantine funded the construction of “the mother and head of all churches of the city and of the world,” known as San Giovanni in Laternano, which Hughes says remains the cathedral of Rome. It was big and splashy and the apse was decorated in sheet gold, which was later looted. Given this photo of the apse today, it must have been resplendently amazing back in its golden days.

Constantine’s mom Helena made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and he underwrote several churches there, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the early 1990s I stood inside that church, gasping through clouds of incense and marveling at its ancient presence in a strife-torn area.

The nascent Christian church flourished under all of this attention and largesse. However, England 2012 Hastings church door at nightlike most all of his predecessor emperors, Constantine was no saint. Nope. Hughes rightly describes some of his edicts as “psychotic” – edicts that pretty much put girls and women under the thumb of men, for better or worse. While he decreed that rapists were to be burned alive, the female victims lost the right to inherit property from their parents, essentially marginalizing them in society. Why? Because it must have been their fault. Of the other punishments – read at your own peril.

As Constantine influenced tax codes down through the ages, tragically he also influenced the interpretation of law for victims of sexual crimes.

My next post will be much less dark. I promise.

Do not read at bedtime

The warning “do not read at bedtime” should be posted on most of chapter 3 from Robert Hughes’ book Rome. This is where he writes about the later rulers of the Roman Empire, in particular “those two reliable crazies” Caligula and Nero. While excepting these wickedest and most wretched of rulers, Hughes asserts rather nobly that not all Roman emperors were “beastly degenerates.” However, that would altogether depend on one’s definition of the term.

These guys oppressed women; crushed entire countries when Roman invasion was resisted and then killed, tortured or enslaved its leaders, military and intellectuals; crucified or otherwise executed thousands of people on the flimsiest of accusations; and created entertainment based on the beating, mutilating and slaughtering of multitudes of men, women and animals. And those were the ones that Hughes asserts were not so bad.

From my lens, they were all pretty nasty even if they did write wonderful and visionary prose, build amazing structures and advance the glorious empire. I’m offended that Hughes writes of Claudius in admiring terms because he was “a gifted administrator” and then mentions that he “was unusually bloodthirsty, even by Roman standards,” describing exactly how. Ugh!

England 2012 Cambridge arch bridge (2)Should you ever pick up this superbly written book, far better that you go back a few pages and wander with wonder over his account of the truly remarkable Roman road system. Or bounce forward and read about the architectural innovations made possible by Roman concrete, such as the Pantheon (I can hardly wait to see it), the aqueducts and the thermae, or baths (yep, going to see those too). All of these structures sport the uniquely Roman “giant vaults” made possible by “the poured concrete arch.”

As for the rest of the chapter, well, you have been warned.

Wanted: Urban planner, good with emperors

Ancient Rome, just before the Common Era, was “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean – crowded, chaotic and filthy.” Most residents lived in “tall jerry-built tottering blocks of flats known as insulae or ‘islands,’ which rose as high as six stories and were given to sudden collapse or outbreaks of fire. Building codes did not exist.”  There was no heating and no limit on how many people landlords could cram into these rat traps. Robert Hughes, whose book Rome is quoted here, estimates a total population of about 1.4 million at that time.

OstianInsulaPeople threw pretty much everything they didn’t want into the street. Garbage, excrement, kitchen waste, even corpses. (!) There was no running water for most residents, except underneath the ubitquitous public toilets. With stellar sewers and storm water channels, the rain would eventually wash the festering, mouldering mess into that system. It all landed in the Tiber River – a source of drinking water. (!)

“The streets of Rome were unlit and unpoliced … [they] had no numbers or posted names.”  Terra cotta pots were plentiful, so they were tossed out along with the contents from any handy window – usually at dusk. Getting home at night would have been epic, especially during the time when young Nero is said to have roamed alleys looking for people to beat up … for fun. (Can anyone say psychopath?)

In “a masterpiece of bad urbanism,” Julius Caesar banned most traffic between dawn and Romanchariot4mid-afternoon. (But not the vestal virgins and champion charioteers.) Result: chaos, clutter and cacophony all night long as commercial traffic banged through the stony, rutted streets on “wooden wheels with iron tires.” Poets wrote furious prose about the din.

Rome, the enemy of repose!

I can imagine a classified ad:

Wanted: urban planner. Good with emperors and slum landlords, able to collaborate with vestal virgins and hefty chariot celebrities. Frequent night work, good vision and strong skull required. Demonstrated ability to work with the sleep deprived and angry poets. Knowledge of local business routes a definite asset. Applicants with firefighting experience will be given preference.

Sacred chickens!?


Rooster on the looseI was not expecting to encounter consecrated cluckers when reading a book about the ancient and very fearsome Roman army. It seems that the Romans adopted divination as a belief from the even more ancient Etruscans, who wanted a religious reason to do just about anything. Ever the practical empire, Romans also adapted a host of gods that very much resembled Greek gods, but with different names.

Back to birds. Robert Hughes, in his hefty book Rome, recounts how Etruscan diviners looked for signs to “read the will of the gods” from such portents as “lightning flashes” and “the flight of birds,” plus other more unsavory sorts of activities. The idea was not just to “foretell the future, but to find out whether important plans were “likely to have the approval of the gods.” In the earlier republican times and even into empire times, Hughes amusingly says “Roman religion was an absurd bureaucratic clutter of minor gods.” Covering all their bases, Romans also had a collection of principal gods who had their own priests and rituals.

Please don't bother the turkeys
…or the chickens

Enter the chickens. A cage would be carried into a field by Roman armies and the birds fed before a battle. If they ate with gusto, an “excellent omen” was seen. If they ignored their food, this was a big, bad omen. Even a halfhearted appetite had meaning. While many high-ranking officials were serious about this ritual, one Roman admiral did not like his chicken dinner reading and tossed the poor things overboard. “Alas, he lost the ensuing battle,” says Hughes.

I may never look at chickens in quite the same way again. Or artists’ renderings of big, burly Roman centurions.

Enraptured by Rome

His words are the sounds of love. That is what I jotted in my notes about Robert Hughes’ prologue in his book Rome. This is a man smitten. In just these first few pages, he presents a sensory smorgasbord as he describes his first visit to the Eternal City.

The enveloping light

The worn, organic colors of the ancient earth and stone

The very trees were springing, tender green

The vegetables were burgeoning in the markets … their sellers did not want to constrain them2015-08-22 SSI market-gloriouspeppers

Even the potato … took on a sort of tuberous grandeur in this Mediterranean light

This vegetable glory, this tide of many-colored life

He contrasts all of this life with the often-grisly history of Rome. So much talent and intellect, so much ignorance and intolerance, so much living and dying down through the flowing centuries. Hughes says that “in a sense all of Rome is a museum inside out.” I am so curious to see this city that stunned and seduced a young Australian.

“In Rome … I felt surrounded by speaking water.” What a lovely description of fountains. “It seems they are there to be breathed, not just seen.” I am thrilled to see them before I ever do. Ruskin would be pleased.

2016 MU fountain vertical-cropA nearly 2,000-year-old bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his horse sets Hughes way back on his heels. I am set way back in my easy chair, absorbing his description. “This is no rocking horse.” “Marcus Aurelius’ hair stands energetically up, a nimbus of corkscrewing locks.” I can already feel it. I want to see it.

I hope that, as Hughes says, Rome will be my guide backward as well as forward. Even perhaps my muse.


A noble tale?

Say you’re the king of England. Not just any run-of-the-mill potentate but the legendary King Arthur, livin’ the dream in ancient days. One day Roman ambassadors arrive in your court with a message from Emperor Lucius: the taxes are due. Pay up or you won’t be king of anything. Your country has been under the thumb of the Romans for, oh, a few centuries. But now you have a rockin’ round table of “marvelous knights,” both wise and brave, not to mention the loyalty of “dukes and regent kings and earls and barons.” Do you pay the tax bill?

England 2012 Kings College crownandchainNever. King Arthur claims Roman lineage and sends a message to Lucius: I’m coming for you. The good king sets off toward Rome, but not before poor Queen Guenivere swoons in sorrow at his parting. Meanwhile Emperor Lucius heads to France, pillaging and conquering along the way. Arthur kills a terrible, horrible, very bad giant of Genoa. Then Arthur does away with Lucius and rides to Rome, mowing down kings and nobles along the way and sending their corpses to the Pope. Surprise, the Pope crowns him emperor of Rome. The marvelous knights get homesick and miss their wives. (No word on whether Arthur misses Guenivere.) The splendid Arthur declares “enough is as good as a feast” and “there was trussing of harness” and they all return to England.

So goes one book of Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory. As a modern woman, I’m glad, very glad, I did not live in Mallory’s time. Many of the women in his story did not fare well. Raped, murdered or abandoned for the sake of honor, they seem to exist simply to illustrate the men’s lives.

To wrap myself in a place

Bare feet caressing summer grass in a neighborhood park. That same park in winter, sloppy with rain and mud. The chance arrival of a bright but cheesy travel brochure. Confronted with these images, skeptics become believers in the desperate days of midwinter. A “lengthy and ruinously expensive journey” is the result, and no one would blame Alain de Botton, the author of The Art of Travel, for going to Barbados.

But for de Botton, there is more to travel than escape.  He says:

“We are inundated with advice on where to travel, but we hear little of why and how we should go …”

Our journey is almost done

De Botton’s essay contemplates travel as a search for “human flourishing” and “a sense of belonging” or kinship. Untethering from the ordinary can, he says, release us from “habits of mind” so we can “encounter our true selves.”

I agree – we can be a mystery to ourselves, with so much hidden inside the routine busyness of our everyday activities, waiting to be released. Traveling well is done with inward intent.

As Lucy Honeychurch discovers in the novel A Room With a View, travel takes us out of our usual context and, if we are open to it, give us the chance to really think differently about our place in the larger world. Then there is the way we see as we tour around.

A bit of Ruskin pops up in Room With a View and here he is again in de Botton’s essay. John Ruskin “deplored the blindness and haste of modern tourists” because he believed that a man’s “glory is not at all in going, but in being.” He felt people should move at a pace that allowed them to respond to beauty. He taught drawing because he believed it “could teach us to see – to notice rather than to look.”

England 2012 dahlia closeupMakes me think of a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe – “Nobody ever sees a flower really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t the time, and to see takes time.” And that was written before smart phones!

Ah yes, I want to travel thoughtfully, to wrap myself in a place rather than rushing through on the way to somewhere else.

A life unscripted

Give me a well-written book with a collection of quirky characters and I’m happy. For example, Room With a View introduces a bunch of British tourists interacting with another bunch of English expatriates in Italy during the Victorian era. A humorous examination of colonial thinking gone culturally amuck, it is a rewarding read, after a slow start. I gave it some grace and eventually E.M. Forster’s story paid some dividends.

2015 Craigdarroch dress
Craigdarroch Castle Victorian dress, Victoria, B.C., 2015

Lucy Honeychurch, our cheerful but stifled protagonist, is in Florence, Italy, with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, who is hauling a trunk load of morose self-interest and hypochondria. They are getting to know fellow travelers – such as Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, and the Emersons – and transplanted Brits – such as the supercilious Mr. Eager. All liberally share their wisdom with Lucy, but their flawed thinking is painful and hilarious. “How the driver stares at us, dear simple soul,” cries Miss Lavish of an Italian horse cart driver. Mr. Beebe pontificates that “The Italians are a most unpleasant people…They have no conception of the intellectual life.” At the same time, in a show of stunning insensitivity, Mr. Eager and Miss Lavish both heap disdain on “hot, dusty, unintelligent tourists,” saying the “narrowness and superficiality of the Anglo-Saxon tourist is nothing less than a menace.”

Ahem. Can anyone say pretentious class snobbery?

The lovely part of the book is Lucy’s gradual awakening. She starts off parroting her peers’ cultural posturing and then gradually finds her own perspective and voice, thanks in part to being away from home and able to loosen the suffocating grip of Victorian English expectations for young women. Much of this stirring is thanks to the Emersons, whom she initially assumes are “very odd people.” Yet they acquire more dimension and humanity even as her other companions diminish to cardboard cutouts.

2015 Craigdarroch pitcher cropLucy did not know her mind and heart were asleep until she ventured out into a different world, where her habits and patterns were disrupted. She went to Italy the first time as a tourist. She goes a second time as a traveler. Someone fully alive, no longer in conflict with her inner self.

Will Lucy throw over her dashing fiancé Cecil for a life unscripted? You’ll have to read the book. I hear there is a good movie version from the 1980s with Helena Bonham Carter. It’s on my list.

Learn about Craigdarroch Castle.

Learn about heritage homes in Victoria, B.C.