Monday, November 28, 2011

Looking Down

We spend a lot of time in Rome walking around looking up—at beautiful and unusual buildings and monuments, at vistas across the Tiber or the piazzas, at traffic lights and bus route signs.  But we also must look down for several reasons.  First, unfortunately, is dog poop.  Sad, but what can you do.  Secondly, the streets and marciapiede (sidewalks) are a twisted ankle waiting to happen due to uneven cobbles and lumps and holes of many kinds, so watching where you put your feet is critical.  And thirdly, I like to look for interesting varieties of paving and the odd bit of infrastructure underfoot.

Although for practical reasons many streets and sidewalks have been paved with asphalt or concrete, there are still many areas of pavimenti that are done in cobblestones (ciottoli), and because travertine stone is so readily available, many curbs, borders and stair steps are made from it.  Here are some examples from our Trastevere neighborhood and up the hill on the Gianicolo.  The surfaces are uneven enough that feet get a serious flexing, but the patterns can be beautiful.

Travertine slabs define a tree well.

Travertine stairway that comes down from the overlook atop the Gianicolo to...
a public restroom.

One practical reason for retaining cobble paving is that it doesn’t require heavy equipment to remove sections for access to pipes below.  A couple of guys will pry out the stones, dig out and work on the buried infrastructure, then repack the soil, set the cobbles back in formation and vibrate it all relatively level.   Because it’s almost impossible to get a street cleared of parked vehicles and because the surfaces are so uneven, many times the parking area lines are painted by hand, including the ones in the picture below.  The guys had two big buckets of vivid blue and alarming yellow paint and very long-handled brushes about 3” wide, and they just worked their way down the street leaving motorini and macchine (motorbikes and cars) where they happened to be.  Sometimes a pile of stones will be reused elsewhere, and bits of old road striping will show up as random pixels in the array.

Traffic striping done with a big brush.
Reused cobblestones add random bits of color.

Although Rome’s streets and buildings are not generally very friendly to the disabled (for example, our apartment building has an elevator, but it’s entrance requires a step up then a step down), newer construction does try to meet accessibility standards.   One interesting system to aid the blind is shown in this photo.  There are bands of shallow channels cut across sidewalks and piazzas that lead to crosswalks.  Some crosswalks are also set with special paving as a further guide.  The edges of tram and bus loading platforms have bands of raised dots, but some are made of porcelain tiles and are slick as can be when it rains.  Not to mention loose or missing.

Incised patterns lead to an accessible crosswalk.

With all the utilities underground, there are lots of access plates, manhole covers and drains made from cast iron or stone.  I first started looking at the iron plates because I noticed that they came from foundries (fonderie) all over Italy and because I thought it was interesting that they all say S.P.Q.R., which is the abbreviation for the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus—The Senate and People of Rome.   The abbreviation dates from the Roman Republic (100s of years BC) and appears on ancient documents and structures on into Imperial Roman times (a few 100 years AD).  So why is it on manhole covers now?  It was revived in a big way in Italy by Mussolini starting in the 1920s as part of the effort to brand his dictatorship as the new Roman empire, and it has held on to become an official emblem of Rome, being cast, incised, painted or printed on nearly everything from municipal documents to trash cans—and utility access plates. 

Utility vault plates cast at foundries in Vitterbo,
Rome and Salerno.  

Then I came across some older iron castings actually made during the Mussolini Fascist regime.  The first I found has the SPQR in a sort of art deco/moderne script from the 1930s, and there is also a cross symbol from the same period very much like the Teutonic knight’s cross used for the German military Iron Cross medal.  Later I found a water service (servizio idraulico) valve cover with a fasces as part of the design.  The fasces (Italian: fasci) are an ancient Roman symbol of power consisting of a bundle of sticks bound by red leather straps and with an axe head sticking out.  In old Rome they were carried by attendants of various officials as they moved through the city as a display of their authority.  (Dictators had 24 lictors carrying fasces, consuls had 12, praetors had 2 in the city but 6 in the provinces.) Fasces were adopted by 20th century Italian Fascists as their emblem and became the root of the modern term fascist—which is why Italian cast iron plates from that period may include them.  (Lots of American insignia and emblems also include fasces, including those of various Army units and the National Guard, and it appears on the back of the old Mercury dime.)

Fascist-era manhole cover with Moderne font SPQR,
highlighted below.

Fascist-era water valve access plate, with the fasces symbol
cast into it.  There's also a drawing of an idealized fasces.


There are lots of unlabeled covers and drains as well.  I love the square stone plug below, which looks as if it could have been in the middle of the street for hundreds of years.  The plain round one is about a meter across (you can see it beyond the travertine bench in the third photo).  It gives access to the voluminous drainage from the Fontanone—Pope Paul V’s self-aggrandizing celebration of his aqueduct restoration project in 1612.

Travertine bench across the street from the Fontanone,
with a large round stone plugging entry to a subsurface waterway. 

The Fontanone (really big fountain).

The drainage grates range from simple to beautifully elaborate, in both iron and stone.  The famous Bocca della Verità is said to have originally been a manhole cover, although I am convinced it was actually the rainwater collection inlet in the floor of a temple.  With an opening to the sky like a compluvium or the oculus in the Pantheon, rainwater could be guided to a cistern or holy well.

A straight-forward iron grille above, and a sinuous design below.
Note the various sizes and types of stone paving.

Simple stone drainage in the curb and set into the pavement.

Elaborate drain cover at the base of stairs to the crypt of
Bramante's tempietto, part of the Spanish enclave on the Gianicolo.

The Bocca della Verità

Finally we come to a feature that is underfoot but not generally visible, the ancient Roman cloaca maxima, or Great Sewer, which was built hundreds of years BC to drain the Forum area and the hills that surround it and which still functions as a storm drain today.  The outlet into the Tiber can sometimes be nearly under water, but the place is marked by the large arch shown here (built in the 19th c.), near the modern Ponte Palatino.  The actual outlet is the much older stone construction within, currently rather choked with vegetation and debris.  But if you look down, there it is.

Looking across the Tiber from Trastevere at the outfall of the cloaca maxima

The actual drain opening for the cloaca maxima.

And a final reminder of why I look down when I walk.

"Keep the city clean!"


Monday, November 21, 2011

Hearing Things in Rome

An important part of living in a city is what we hear.  Several times a day in Bologna we were treated to the sound of the big bells in the campanile of the church next door.  In Rome it seems that the churches don’t go in quite so much for long peals and carillon hymns, though most have clocks with bells.  Our nearest clock bells come from the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and if it’s reasonably quiet we can hear those bells, even with the insulated windows closed.  (Oddly, sometimes at noon the bell rings three times, pauses, rings four times, pauses, rings five times, pauses, then rings a final single note.  I can’t explain it, unless it’s 3+4+5=12, plus one to seal the deal.)  If we’re outside at noon we can hear the boom of the cannon from the Gianicolo.
Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere

We found lots of classical music concerts in Bologna, many gratuito (free).  In Rome there are even more music events, but it’s often harder to get to them because the city is large and public transit can be problematic when trying to arrive at a specific time.  We’ve managed to arrive way way early sometimes but also have completely missed when that darn bus never came.  One concert that we arrived at in the nick of time (il momento critico) was in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.  (We didn’t count on threading our way through dozens of tour groups waiting to board their dozens of buses along the broad avenue leading to St. Peter’s, nor on the delays going through the metal detectors and personal screening that all Vatican visitors must now undergo.)  It was a mass and concert to bless and open a festival of sacred music.  The cardinals and other church dignitaries were just starting to process in as we convinced the ushers that we weren’t just tourists and would be willing to sit through an hour’s program.  We had worried that the whole sanctuary might be packed, but the orchestra, choir, church celebrants and audience were all easily swallowed up in just the far end beyond the baldacchino.  The music was good, but the building is so large that reverberations get quite muddled, and the hemidemisemiquavers soon got lost.
Late afternoon sun lights up the incense drifting above the
chancel in St. Peter's Basilica.  One of the Solomonic columns of the
baldacchino above the papal altar rises at the far left.

Saint Peter's immense chair looms above the chancel altar as a
cardinal prepares to open the festival of sacred music.

The tour buses were still picking up their burdens along
Via della Conciliazione well into the evening.

Speaking of free music, there are a lot of street musicians.  Some are dreadful, like the man with the amplified violin near the Largo Arenula tram stop.  His tone and tuning are so bad that I can only think he must have ruined his hearing with his own playing not to know how bad he sounds.  Then there are the kids and women that I call gypsies that will get on a tram and play accordion music to their trapped audience for a stop or two then ask for money.  Again, usually poor musicians and alway too loud.  But sometimes in the open piazzas there are individuals or small groups that are pretty good.  The other night there was a lively jazz combo playing near the huge bus stop (fermata) in Largo Torre Argentina, and the guys in this picture are often in Piazza S. M. in Trastevere.
Their CD says they are a trio, but even as a duo they are pretty good.

As you might expect, there is a fair amount of traffic noise in Rome—cars (le macchine), buses (gli autobus), and motorcycles (i motorini).  One difference from Bologna is that here drivers use their horns at the least delay.  It doesn’t matter whether the blockage is someone waiting for a pedestrian or a tree limb in the street, Roman drivers have no patience.  Except bus drivers.  They must all be on Valium.  The only time they use a horn is if someone is truly stupid, either pedestrian or motorist, and cuts too close in front.  So we hear a lot of horns.  The trams have fairly urgent-sounding bells to warn off vehicles or jay-walkers that don’t understand the laws of physics as they relate to multi-ton rolling vehicles.  You can hear the bell briefly at about 14 seconds and again at 1:20 into this video.  By the way, this is the tram we use all the time between Trastevere and central Rome (il centro storico).   Lots of other city traffic noises here, too.

There are also many sirens.  Most are the two-tone horns that are typical in Europe.  These may be ambulances (we have three big hospitals nearby), carabiniere (state military police), polizia municipale (city police force), polizia stradale (state police), guardia di finanza (financial crimes and smuggling), or any of the dozens of diplomatic and national government agencies in Rome—though the latter bunch usually just use a blue flashing light, sometimes with a motorcycle escort.

Noise makers.

We hear many languages, mostly Italian of course, but some of that Italian is Roman dialect that we’re not attuned to as yet—truncated words and altered vowels.  There are a zillion tourists, foreign workers and other non-natives here as well.  American English is fairly common due to students at local branches of U.S. universities, though not so many American tourists this time of year.  One place we heard English spoken at length was in a lecture presented by the American Academy in Rome in their Villa Aurelia atop the Gianicolo. The international architect Daniel Libeskind discussed his goals and imperatives in designing the replacement buildings at the New York World Trade Center site and a number of museums around the world.

Daniel Libeskind

More than English we hear German and several of the eastern European and Mediterranean tongues, and Russian.  French, too, and of course Japanese.   Most merchants are happy to speak Italian with us, though it’s pretty common for them to ask after only a sentence or two where we are from—clearly not Italy!  We also hear Italian on TV, particularly the news and some game shows that are good for building social knowledge and vocabulary. 

The nightly news (telegiornale, or TG) on the primary
national TV network, RAI.

Our quiz show addiction.
L'eredita means "Inheritance" and refers to how contestants
acquire money from others who can't answer the questions.

But the place we’ve heard the most beautifully spoken Italian was at another concert in a church, the large baroque Chiesa S. Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova.  We went because it promised violin concertos of Vivaldi and oboe concertos of Bach, and it was gratuito.  The music was wonderful, but between concertos a man and woman read excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI sermons from years past.  It seems that this was a celebration of 60 years since he was ordained.  Since I’m not Catholic and have serious disagreements with the Pope, I figured that listening to these homilies was the price to be paid for a “free” concert.  But after just a few minutes we were both engaged with the reading because it was done with such perfect diction and natural expression.  And the printed program included the full text, making the spoken words far more recognizable for us.  The Italian was simply beautiful to listen to, mellifluous, and for me, the meaning was overshadowed by the sound. 

Sometimes the sound of silence is what we want, and often it can be found mid-afternoon in the ridge-top park of the Gianicolo.  A few toots and traffic rumblings float up from the city, but there are usually some deserted spots along the overlook where a little quiet contemplation can take place.  Or a little amazement that in the third week of November there are still roses blooming.

Part of central Rome viewed from the Gianicolo.
Pantheon far left, Vittorio Emanuele monument far right.

The dome of St. Peter's from atop the Gianicolo.
A lot of rose hips, but still an abundance of blooms
on November 19, 2011.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Addio Silvio

"Goodbye Silvio!  We won't miss you!"

Several of you have asked how the current political situation in Italy is affecting us.  The answer is that so far it hasn’t very much.  As the calls for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign became more strident and actions in the Italian parliament and Europe as  a whole generated uncertainty, the value of the U.S. dollar against the euro has fluctuated, and we see that at the ATM (known here as il Bancomat).  But beyond that little has changed thus far.

Last night was a climax in the drama as Berlusconi went to the Palazzo Quirinale to tender his resignation.  The Quirinale is the residence of the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, who is the lawful head of state.  (For a pretty good description of the Italian political system, see the article in Wikipedia.)    There were thousands of Italians in the piazza in front of the Quirinale celebrating the departure of a man who is seen by many as both a national embarrassment for his personal behavior and largely to blame for Italy’s precarious national finances.  Although he left his own residence to cheers of “Silvio, Silvio” from remaining supporters, his arrival at the Quirinale was met with jeers of “Buffoon” and worse, and his car was pinged by small change (monetina) being thrown at it as insult.  There was even a chorus (and orchestra!) that rendered the Hallelujah Chorus in celebration of his resignation.  I borrowed these pictures from on-line newspapers:

The jubilant crowd outside parliament Saturday night.

They were so happy by the time they climbed to the Quirinale 
that a choir and orchestra delivered the Hallelujah Chorus.
How many street demonstrations include cello and bassoon in their music-makers?

Sunday morning all was calm, and the piazza looked like this, sunny with people strolling around and lots of news media equipment scattered about.  On one corner I found a correspondent taping a broadcast in English, holding up the morning papers one by one, translating the headlines.

Mostly tourists Sunday morning in the piazza of the Palazzo Quirinale.

Lots of news crews still set up.

Reading the Italian newspaper headlines for an English-speaking audience.
This is Corriere della Sera, the most even-handed paper, which has a
respectful photo and a headline of "Addio di Berlusconi, via libera a Monti."
(Goodbye to Berlusconi, the way is clear to [Mario] Monti.)

A left-leaning paper,  la Repubblica has an unflattering photo through the car window
and says, "Berlusconi lascia, la piazza in festa." (B. leaves, the piazza has a party.)

Libero is a far right paper and Berlusconi supporter.  The scare tactics start already:
"Arriva il signor tasse. OCCHIO AI PORTAFOGLI"
(Mr. Tax is arriving. WATCH YOUR WALLETS.)

il Giornale is owned by Berlusconi.  The photo shows a serious Silvio  as he leaves parliament.
The headline is Monti, Il Precario  ([Mario] Monti, the interim—implying uncertain results.)

There is a lot of fear and skepticism being voiced over what the new government must do, will be able to do, and what will happen if it fails to reduce the national debt and the nearly 7% interest rate it currently must pay on the debt bonds.  The hope is that a so-called non-political technocrat, Mario Monti, will succeed where political deadlocks caused failure in the past.  The fear among many is that the extreme right, strong Berlusconi supporters, will manage to block necessary reform by using scary publicity and refusing to join any moderating coalition.  Not so different from American political tactics, I’m sorry to say.

There are two direct effects we might see from future actions of the government.  If the valued-added tax (VAT) is raised, prices will go up.  (The VAT is generally incorporated into the shelf prices rather than shown as a separate line item because the rate varies by product and specialty.)  The more painful effect is likely to be strikes by the big unions.  I’m sure they think they’re making a point with the politicians when they do it, but mostly the transit strikes impact the commoners (like us) who depend on the buses and trains to get to work or shops—and the tourists who are a critical part of the economy.  We’ve had our plans disrupted a couple of times so far this year by transit strikes.  If the street cleaning and garbage pick-up crews strike it will really be unfortunate, but it won’t help Italy out of its financial hole.

If you want to know more about Silvio Berlusconi or his exit or Italy’s financial situation I would recommend the London Guardian.  Here’s a link to start you out.  Meanwhile we’re going to continue ignoring as much of the political chaos as possible.  I think a glass of vino and a bit of formaggio  would be good about now.  Or maybe the bye, bye berlusconi cocktail.