Friday, August 30, 2013

[UPDATED] Amazing Ancient Sculptures And Frescoes

Went to another museum that is off the beaten path on Wednesday.  The Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo alle Terme is not geographically far afield.  It's just that it's in a relatively unappealing part of Roma -- right near the Termini train station.  Because of that, almost nobody goes there.  But that's a mistake; if you like sculptures and frescoes from the ancient Roman period, this museum is excellent.

My favorite part of the museum is definitely the sculptures on the first and second floors.  There are tons of them.

There were a handful that were most impressive and that are considered the most artistically significant.  Because the museum was pretty empty, because they allow you to take pictures, and because there are no barriers whatsoever between you and the works, you can get close up and personal for photos of these ancient masterpieces.  My faves:

The Boxer, from the 1st century BC

An incredibly detailed and dramatic sarcophagus 

The Discus Thrower.  Graceful perfection.  

A crouching Aphrodite.  This came from Hadrian's Villa.  I'm sure you recall that Yonkel and I went there in late May.  

This is the famed Sleeping Hermaphrodite, from the 2nd century BC.  When I initially saw the statue from this angle, I wondered how they knew the person was a hermaphrodite.  But then I viewed the statue from the other side.  

From this angle, there is little doubt.  
Many people consider the third floor -- which is all frescoes and mosaics -- to be the show-stopping highlight of the museum.  I'm not in that camp.  Frescoes and mosaics (at least from this period) don't do it for me: too bland.  But I include here the roomful of perfectly-recovered frescoes that are perhaps the museum's top gem.  These are from the Villa Livia (one of the homes of Augustus' wife Livia Drusilla) and they date from around 30 BC to 20 BC.



You have to be responsive to your readership, si?  OK, well, in response to a commenter -- who is a big fan of mosaics and frescoes -- I'm adding here a couple more photos from the third floor of the Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo alle Terme.  These are some of the mosaics I liked most.  

I want to point out, once again, that these are from the ancient Roman period.  I've been seeing lots of mosaics during this anno sabatico.  They are all over the place in the churches and museums of Italia and there were lots too in Istanbul and Paris.  But, most of what I've been seeing is from much later on -- from the Middle Ages or from the latter half of the first millennium A.D.  The ones in this museum are from 2,000+ years ago!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Vitriolic Vino: And You Thought Miley Cyrus Was Outrageous?

OK, a lot our US readership has probably been all caught up in the aftermath of Miley Cyrus' VMA performance.  (I only discovered the Robin Thicke song late last week, so Sunday's hub-bub was well-timed from my perspective.)  Well, let me tell you....there are controversies here too.

You might think that the world of Italian vino is all about peace, love, and understanding.  I mean, we're talking about wine and we're talking about doing wine in Italy.  It couldn't get much better, si?  Au contraire!  The Italian wine world has been embroiled in controversies.

First, there is the story of Fulvio Bressan.  Bressan is from the Friuli region in northern Italy, and he is a very celebrated wine-maker.  He is also, apparently, quite outspoken.  Bressan recently unleashed some  highly racist commentary about Cecile Kyenge -- Italy's current Minister for Integration and the first African-Italian government minister in the country's history.  (Kyenge has been the subject of lots of vile attacks.)  Bressan came under fire for his comments in social media from the Italian wine world and, instead of apologizing, he actually doubled down.  You can read about the controversy here:

The second story might be even more shocking.  Bressan's disgusting statements are at least not directly attached to his wine -- or its packaging.  The NYT had a story the other day about an Italian winery that puts pictures of Hitler and other Nazis (e.g., Himmler, Goring, Eva Braun) on its labels.  Vini Lunardelli has supposedly been doing this for 20 years!  Here's the NYT article:

Thanks for checking in.  You can now return to the news on Syria, Miley Cyrus, and Matt Harvey's injury.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


At this point in the journey, when I'm in Roma, I am doing my best to take you to places where tourists do not typically go.  I believe I succeeded yesterday when I wandered around the EUR district for a couple of hours.  The quarter is located south of the city center, just about at the point where the Metro B line ends.  Although I don't think anybody goes here, it is easy to get to.

"EUR" stands for Esposizione Universale Roma.  The area was chosen in the 1930s as the site that Mussolini would use for the 1942 world's fair, where Mussolini planned to celebrate 20 years of Fascist rule in Italy.  War intervened and the fair never took place -- but the name stuck.  EUR was also intended to direct the growth of Rome towards the south-west and the sea, and to be a new city center.  That did not happen either.  But EUR is nevertheless interesting.

The EUR area has been called "Orwellian" due to its wide boulevards and white linear buildings.  While that itself does not sound so appealing, some of the buildings are considered classics of 20th century rationalist architecture.  Indeed, Mussolini chose several world-class rationalist architects to work on the project, and he wanted his magnificent suburb to be a symbol of the new times and of their historical continuity with imperial Rome.

The most stunning building -- which is considered a rationalist masterpiece -- is the Palazzo della Civita del Lavoro (Palace of Workers).  This massive monument has become known as the Colosseo Quadrato, or Square Colosseum.  You'll see why in the pictures.  I gotta tell you: this was awesome.  It's absolutely gleaming and it seems darn near perfect in its construction.

Just so you have a sense of scale, the "Square Colosseum" is over 160 feet tall.  

There are some other pretty cool buildings in the EUR area too.

The Santi Pietro e Paolo church (St. Peter and St. Paul), as framed by the giappanesi (Japanese) gardens of the pond in EUR. 

I also loved this huge relief that is supposed to evoke the reliefs on Trajan's Column, and that traces 2000 years of Roman history.  You can see Mussolini down at the bottom, as well as Romulus & Remus (up top), St. Peter's, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Vittoriano ("wedding cake"), and even the menorah representing the sacking of Jerusalem.

Publio Morbiducci made this in 1939.  
Here is more of a close-up.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Failed Quest: My Search For "Casu Marzu"

Maybe it really is sometimes better not to get what you want.  The past few days in Sardegna reminded me of that.

A couple of friends who have spent lots of time in Sardegna told us about a special dish that locals in Sardegna have eaten for thousands of years.  Despite its long pedigree, this delicacy is now very hard to come by.  The reason is that it is now illegal - the EU has banned it.

The dish which became my obsession for 72 hours is called casu marzu.  I asked dozens of shop owners, restaurant staff, and hotel front-desk personnel if they knew where we could get some.  My inquiries were invariably met with laughter, surprise, and/or detailed explanations about how Sardegnans prepare this gastronomic link to their cultural past.  The respondents all confirmed that casu marzu is available on the black market or behind closed doors.  But you really have to know insiders or old-timers to procure some.

Casu marzu is a type of cheese.  It is a cheese that is teeming with thousands of live worms.  And, yes, you eat the cheese with the worms still crawling inside it.  In one wine and cheese shop, the helpful owner was so excited to get asked about casu marzu that he waxed on and on about it.  He said that the cheese maker carves a hole into the top of the cheese, waits for moths to land on and burrow into the cheese, and then allows the moths to deposit thousands of eggs into it.  When the eggs hatch, voila - the cheese is infested with larvae, and you have your casu marzu!  Here's how wikipedia explains the process:  "The acid from the maggots' digestive system breaks down the cheese's fats, making the texture of the cheese very soft; by the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu will contain thousands of these maggots."

A whole bunch of websites that I found provide all the explanation you'd ever want about casu marzu. Some of them say that you should wear eye-gear that blocks your sight when you eat it.  The rationale is not so much that you won't want to see what you're eating - although that is probably true.  The real reason is that the worms are apparently frolicking about and some will inevitably jump out of the cheese.  You need to protect your eyes from them.

There were a few moments of optimism. The staff at our hotel front desk on a couple of occasions said they had leads and that they'd make some calls for us.  But, in the end, they were unable to come through.  I should probably consider myself lucky.  If they actually got some casu marzu for us - and after all the talk and my incessant questions - I would have had no choice but to eat it.

Here's one great article:

Here's another (which classifies casu marzu as one of the 6 most terrifying foods in the world):

And just one more:

Here's also wikipedia:

Friday, August 23, 2013

Some More Sardegna Sights

This was the view from our last dinner on the port in swank Porto Rotondo.  The dinner was made even more special because one of my friend's father and his girlfriend -- who have spent every summer on Sardegna for over 10 years -- joined us.  We spent the evening discussing the joys of all the various cuisines of Italia.     

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Some Sardegna Sights

Mirto: the after-dinner liqueur (digestif) that is everywhere, and that is awesome.
A mirto-flavored gelato: I haven't seen this on the mainland.  Wish I had.  
From the roof-top at our hotel

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Palatino: Roman Ruins

The Palatine Hill is sandwiched in between the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Circo Massimo. In ancient times, it was the most central of Rome's 7 hills. The Palatino was therefore one of the poshest areas in town and home to hotshots like Augustus and Antony. It is also, according to legend, where history's 2nd most famous act of fratricide took place - Romulus allegedly killed Remus on the Palatine Hill.

The ruins are pretty cool here. The views are superb too. All things being equal, I might choose a day when it is not 95 degrees. But I'm maybe just picky. One other tip: your ticket will get you entry to the Colosseum and the Forum and the Palatino. But my recommendation would be not to do all 3 sites on the same day. I think that could lead to ruins overkill. Better to stretch your visit out to 6 or 7 months, and to visit these ruins in small doses. Trust me.

St. Peter's in the center; Synagogue to the left

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Reviews: One To Read And One To Skip

Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier.

Have you ever wanted to read 460 dense pages - pages with microscopic font and with no discernible space between lines - about a single year in American history? Have you ever wanted to learn, on a state-by-state basis, about every single surviving recorded statement on whether the young United States should scrap the Articles of Confederation and adopt the Constitution? Well, if so, then this is your book.

They're all here. James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson (from France), the Adams Family, Patrick Henry, and scores and scores of lesser-known contemporaries. Ms. Maier leaves no comment unturned as she lays out the minutiae of the debate in each state between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.

I found it all a great bore and I suspect you will too. Yes, it was interesting to read the one paragraph in this tome regarding the patent clause in the Constitution. Sure, I was surprised to learn that - in the heat of the battle in New York over whether to adopt the Constitution - the Federalists delayed their July 1788 parade by a day so that it would not interfere with some obscure Jewish holiday. (Who knew the Jewish lobby had so much influence in 1788?) But such nuggets were few and far in between.

Stay away from this book. When you see last week's obit in the NYT about Ms. Maier ( ) do not be fooled or swayed by sympathy. This book is deadly.  Plus, as my mom said when she saw me reading "Ratification" when I was back home in June, "you know how it ends!!!!" Well, here's a newsflash: Publius won -- "We The People" scrapped the Articles of Confederation and adopted the Constitution! Bryna Pernick was able to tell me in 5 words what it took Pauline Maier eons to explain. 

The Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

This one was great. Mr. Greenblatt takes what might seem like boring subject matter and turns it into a gripping story of literary detective work.

Mr. Greenblatt explains how much of the world's great literature and science from Greek and Roman times had been lost through the centuries. A handful of epic works survived, but humanity was only aware of most of antiquity's greatest authors and their scholarship because of references to them. The actual texts were long gone and the world's most powerful institution, the Catholic Church, wanted to keep it that way. But a small group of humanists in the 15th and 16th centuries had a passion for pagan thought, and they strived to keep the flame alive - and, more importantly, to fan the flame.

Mr. Greenblatt's particular focus is on Poggio, a Florentine humanist who - although not a priest or cardinal - rose within the ranks at the Vatican, and eventually became the Pope's secretary. (That is a very powerful position.) In his spare time, Poggio was a "book hunter." Humanist book hunters like Poggio would go on treks to remote hill-town monasteries in France and Germany to pore through libraries looking for vestiges of the pagan classics.

Mr. Greenblatt's thesis is that Poggio changed the course of intellectual history when he uncovered a previously lost classic: "On The Nature of Things" by the Roman poet Lucretius. The Swerve examines why Lucretius' poem was groundbreaking, why the Church tried with all its might to suppress it, and why Western thought owes a huge debt to Poggio. Read this book.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Anchors Away: Setting Sail For Sardegna

I'm off today for the island of Sardegna. Sardegna is Italy's second largest island (Sicily is first), and is a very popular spot for summer get-aways. It is known for (according to my guidebook) its dazzling and kaleidoscopic blue waters, shimmering bays, alpine forests, granite peaks, cathedral-like grottoes, rolling vineyards, and one-time bandit towns.

I'll be spending 4 nights on the island, and exploring it with some friends. We've agreed, however, that we will enforce strict limits on the extent to which we explore. Although there are certainly sights to see on Sardegna, the top priority is going to be lazing out in the sun. I certainly deserve the R&R: these last few months have been bruising.

I loved this statue at the port in the town of Civitavecchia (which is about an hour outside of Roma). The title of this iconic American scene is "Unconditional Surrender." We embark from here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Appia Antica (The Appian Way)

One of the best things about Sam's visit was witnessing the reluctant ease with which he can speak basic Italian.  You see, Sam has now taken one year of middle-school Italian.  According to my sources, he nailed it; he got high 90s all year.  I was therefore psyched about the prospect that he'd help me navigate around town while he was here.  But not so fast.

Because of some shyness -- and because I think he is just too young to understand why it might be respectful to use Italian when conversing with others in Rome -- Sam was not that keen on showing off his facility with the language.  I pushed him a little from time-to-time, but it was with only intermittent success.  On occasion, he'd give in.  And when he did, sheeeeesh!  The guy has got skillz.

The funniest moments were during our couple of cab rides with Dario, the best taxi driver ever.  Dario was the friendliest, most outgoing, and pro-American cabbie I've ever seen in Italy.  He spoke great English and he loved Sam.  Sam, in return, felt more comfortable and therefore was willing to use his Italian.  Wow.  The two of them conversed for several minutes, and Sam was downright fluid.  The Italian rolled off of his tongue and he didn't miss a beat -- Dario was totally impressed!

Anyway, I was thinking about this yesterday when I went to meet Valentina for my first Italian lesson in over 2 weeks.  Let's just say that I struggled.  After 5.5 months, I still spent a good chunk of the lesson trying to recall the various forms of "essere," which is Italian for "to be!"  Sam is gesticulating and talking with Dario in full and grammatically proper sentences about the NYC mayoral race and the intricacies of the NSA spy program, while I'm stammering and stuttering over the following:

       "I am" = io sono
       "You are" = tu sei
       "He is" = lui e
       "She is" = lei e
       "They are" = loro sono
       "We are" = noi siamo

As I look around, however, I don't feel so bad.  Valentina had picked me up at the Testaccio metro stop (Piramide), and she drove us to Via Appia Antica.  This is the most famous of all the roads that led to ancient Rome.  It stretched from Rome all the way down to the port city of Brindisi in Puglia.  That is 350 miles!  The first things you hit when you exit Roma and start walking down the Appian Way are the catacombs -- and that's as far as I'd gone in the past.  But Valentina had better ideas.

She drove us well past the catacombs and only then did we park.  We started walking and chatting about her trip to Svizzera (Switzerland) and my past couple of weeks in Italia.  We were headed to a cafe she knew a little further down this ancient road.  It was at this point that I started struggling with "essere."  (I was still pretty good with nouns.)

But who cares?  I now know that, once you get past the catacombs, the Via Appia Antica is incredible. There are hills and green and ruins everywhere.  The road is literally ancient.  There were barely any cars.  It was 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. and the Roman sky and light are absolutely perfect at that time of day.  The cafe had a terrific coffee granite (a sorbet of sorts) with panna (cream).  I learned the words for "uncle" and "aunt" and "niece" and "nephew."  And even though I won't be able to speak with Dario with nearly the proficiency that Sam can, I might give Dario a call one day soon, offer him 50 euros, and -- just like George Clooney at the end of "Michael Clayton" -- see how far he will drive me down the Via Appia Antica.