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.


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