My Wish

A new year is meant to invoke a sense of wonder, a hopeful new beginning.  It marks the time when we open a new journal, crack the binding, and begin the next chapter of our life, with countless new ways to make our mark in this world.

Several times this past week I sat at the keyboard with the intent of writing a heartfelt post on closing the door on 2016 and stepping into a brand new year.  When that didn’t work, I picked up pen and paper.  Cursive writing, the process of creating curves and lines that dance across the page, often allows my creative juices to flow. Although it did help to move the process forward, it didn’t dispel the apprehension I feel at crossing into a year with so many unknowns.  But I know that times like these demand that we reach inside and find that kernel of hope that resides in each of us.  As Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”.  So, with a hopeful heart, here are my three wishes for the upcoming year for each of you:

1)  Be the healthiest version of yourself, both in mind and body.  

Get outside in nature, which is transformative for both mind and body.  Meditate; reduce the stress in your life where possible; release your mind of negative thoughts and your personal space of unimportant “stuff”.  Plan some exciting adventures that will create instant, incredible memories.

2)  Use your voice.

Stay true to your convictions.  During troubling times it is easier to conform, to echo someone else’s words, not rock the boat.  My wish is that you find your true voice and use it respectfully to stand up for your beliefs and remain steadfast about causes that speak to you.  Shine your light brightly, lighting the path for others.

“I raise up my voice, not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.” ~ Malala

3)  Hold a space of gratitude.

As I take the time to reflect back on the year, I am most grateful for the love of family and friends.  As we move into a new year, I hope to extend that gratitude to those around me with whom I don’t agree, as I know they will challenge me to look inside and analyze my own beliefs.  I’m still working on this one.

Let’s all move into this new year being true to ourselves, not living someone else’s version of the life we should live.

May you all have the gift of abundance, excellent health, and much love in 2017!

Rome ~ The Final Chapter

By now those who have read my earlier posts on Rome know that I was smitten.  The history, ancient ruins and towering monuments called to me at every turn.  I could have easily spent a month here, diving deeper into all she offered.  Our week slipped by quickly and we left the city on a rainy pre-dawn with the news that a couple of earthquakes had hit nearby Umbria and Marched, areas that had been hit two months earlier, resulting in the loss of 300 lives.  This was a solid reminder that, although we spent our week walking streets littered with evocative ruins that have stood the test of time, Mother Nature can wreak havoc in the blink of an eye.

As we walk away from our time in Italy, I leave you with a few more sights to consider should you find yourself in romantic Roma.

Rome’s first Christian church, built in A.D. 318 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano.  It was the most important church during medieval times and today is the home church of the Bishop of Rome, the pope.  This church was the model for all those to follow, even St. Peter’s Basilica.  Her tall green bronze doors once greeted those entering Rome’s Senate House in the Forum.

Directly across the street from the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano are the Holy Stairs, sacred steps taken from the home of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, believed to be those that Jesus climbed on the day he was sentenced to death.  Today it is the place where those seeking atonement climb on their knees, reciting prayers.  These steps lead to the “Holy of Holies”, the private chapel of the popes in the Middle Ages, still used today.  For those who want to save themselves from aching knees, a separate set of stairs can be walked.

Down the street from the Colosseum sits a large multiplex of ruins, thought to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.  Trajan’s Market, built in A.D. 100 was part mall, warehouse, and a series of government offices.

The first monument we saw as our driver carried us across the city to our apartment was the Victor Emmanuel Monument, hard to miss as it rises skyward 230 feet and spans 443 feet.  If its size didn’t capture your attention, its stark-white marble in a sea of surrounding earth-tone ruins certainly will. This massive shrine celebrates Italy’s unification and honor’s her first king.  The 43-foot statue of Victor Emmanuel sitting proudly on his horse is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world.  At the base is the museum of Italian Unification and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the eternal flame.  A lift was added in 2007, allowing all who visit to breathe in sweeping views of Rome.  For all of its grandeur, many locals consider it to be ostentatious.

We awoke to rain our last day in Rome, and although the Borghese Gallery is best seen on a sunny day, as this villa turned museum is set amid lovely gardens, we had no choice but to brave the weather.  The opulence-loving Borghese family commissioned all the artwork, which still stands in the rooms for which they were originally intended.  Beautiful frescoes and marble add to the grandeur.

The cardinal who commissioned the artwork was controversial as he wasn’t religious.  But nepotism was alive and thriving in the 17th-century so being a nephew of the pope put him on the fast track to being a cardinal.  It’s hard to believe that this family of religious figures introduced so much artwork laced with erotic themes but they felt that all forms of human expression celebrated God.

Our final week in Rome was spent in a beautifully appointed apartment in the bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere, a delightful place to wander.  Our favorite restaurant became Cajo & Gajo, which we frequented three times, for its food, atmosphere, the yummy homemade biscuits and limoncello served after a meal, and the lovely young waitstaff.

Our time in Italy may have ended but so many wonderful memories remain.

Addio Italia!

Smallest Country in the World ~ Vatican ~ Rome Series, Part 4

Measuring just 0.2 square miles (100 acres), the Vatican is the world’s smallest country according to land mass. Completely walled, it is tucked neatly within the city of Rome, with nary a single street address.  Vatican City may be the tiniest of nations but don’t mistake that for lack of power.

Here are some interesting tidbits about this mini empire:

  • It is the center of the Catholic Church, the religious capital for 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
  • Its income is derived from the generosity of world-wide Catholics, along with tourism revenue and postage stamps, which are quite famous.
  • Two of the most important sights housed within its walls are St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, and the Vatican Museums, which house some of the most symbolic art works of the Renaissance.
  • It has its own armed guards (Swiss Guards), train station, post office, radio station, and helipad.
  • The Pope is both religious and secular leader of Vatican City.

A visit to Rome is incomplete without a trip to the Vatican, especially if you came into this world as a Catholic, as I did.  We chose to pay for the “Pristine Sistine Tour” through Walks of Italy, allowing us to get into the Sistine Chapel one hour before the crowds (highly recommended).  This tour is a 3.5 hour guided walk through the Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Our tour guide, Francesca, a gifted archeologist, generously gave us five full hours since our small group of 12 was so fascinated with the sights and history lesson being given.

Sistine Chapel

As magnificent as the Sistine Chapel is on the inside, the exterior leans to the nondescript, a small brownish building with a pitched roof topped by an antenna.  A tiny chimney along the roofline is where the white puffs of smoke announce the election of a new pope.

The tiny, nondescript Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica

You are required to practice silence when you enter the Sistine Chapel.  I don’t believe I could have uttered a word had I wanted to.  The moment I gazed upward and looked upon Michelangelo’s ceiling, I fell into a reverent state of awe.  I was looking at the crown jewel of the Renaissance, with only a couple of dozen others in the entire chapel!

When Pope Julius II first asked Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling, he respectfully declined, seeing himself as a sculptor and not a painter.  With much cajoling and a few threats, Michelangelo finally agreed, but only on his terms.  To say that his vision was much grander than that of the pope is an understatement.

Michelangelo laid out the history of the world before the birth of Jesus and spent the next four years (1508-1512) working on scaffolding six stories high, covering the chapel ceiling with frescoes of biblical scenes.  Imagine how physically demanding this must have been, how paint constantly dripping in your eyes could sap your creative juices, how the demands of a pushy pope could drain you.  But the public was blown away when it was revealed.

The centerpiece of Michelangelo’s work, the reaching of God’s and Adam’s hands. Note that Adam’s reach is passive, God’s is strong – the moment of creation.

The subject was universal, although deeply personal for Michelangelo.  It is evocative, at times shocking, and very emotional, perhaps the greatest work of art ever.

Michelangelo returned 23 years later to paint The Last Judgement on the altar wall, a time during which  religious wars had sprung up across Europe and the Catholic Church had stifled free thought.  Michelangelo’s views on the inherent goodness of mankind had changed and his work reflected those thoughts.

In The Last Judgement Christ is not depicted as loving but rather as judgmental, come back to see “who’s been naughty and nice”.  This time when his work was revealed to the public, it caused a shock wave, especially with Church authorities.  Michelangelo rebelled by painting his worst critic into the scene, shown in hell.  He also painted his own face into the painting, giving voice to the belief that he too questioned how he would be judged on his final day.

St Bartholomew sits at Christ’s left foot, holding his flayed skin with the face of Michelangelo, a self-portrait of a self-questioning man.

Note:  Both photos of the Sistine Chapel were obtained online – Wikipedia and pbs.org respectively.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Named to memorialize the first pope and Jesus’ closest disciple, St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world and the main altar is built on the site where St. Peter’s remains are buried.  The original church stood for 1,200 years and the one we see today was begun in 1506, taking 120 years to complete and another 200 to decorate.  Everything here is larger than life, including the statues, and 60,000 Catholic devotees can gather here at one time.

Michelangelo had a hand in designing the magnificent dome, which rises 448 feet from the floor to the top.  Terry and I decided a climb to the top was a must, all 554 steps.  Had I known beforehand that the staircase winds between the outer and inner shells of the dome I may have reconsidered.  It was a bit disconcerting to have the walls angling inward as I climbed the narrow, winding stone steps.  But the views at the top…wow!  This is the only way to catch a glimpse of the beautifully manicured gardens without a guided tour, booked several days in advance.

Vatican's manicured gardens
Vatican’s manicured gardens

The stoic mercenary Swiss Guards guard the Vatican City border crossing and are responsible for the personal safety of the pope.

Vatican Museums

A composite of several museums, the Vatican Museums contain some of the greatest artwork to be found anywhere.  Many of the statues and paintings found in the museums had the private parts of the anatomy draped in cloth or fig leaves when the church decided around 1550 that nudity was obscene.

The tapestry and map room was one of our favorites.  Workmanship dating back to the 1500’s was stunning.  And the Raphael rooms, named for the artist, with beautifully painted ceilings and walls, depict impressive scenes from ancient Rome into the Renaissance.

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Next Up:  One final Rome post (maybe) – a little of this, a little of that

The Better Pompeii? ~ Ostia Antica, Rome Series, Part 3

A short metro and train ride from Rome takes you to the 4th-century B.C. ruins of Rome’s first colony, Ostia Antica.  Once a port city sitting at the mouth of the Tiber River, she served as a protector of Rome against any water invasion.  The main industry in Ostia was salt, taken from nearby salt flats, whose use was important in preserving meat in ancient times.

By the year 150 B.C., Ostia shifted from military watchdog to commercial port, becoming a key warehousing center for most of what was consumed in Rome.  As this transition occurred, Rome built a larger port where the city’s airport now stands, further changing the face of Ostia.

Women sat in the higher seats, typical of the gender division in Rome. 4,000 could gather in the theater. Used for religious, business, and entertainment events This was an elegant building in its day.
Ostia’s theater, used for religious, business, and entertainment events. Women sat in the higher seats, which spoke to the gender division in Rome.

At the beginning of the Dark Ages (around 500 A.D.) when Rome fell, the Tiber River changed course and Ostia Antica was abandoned.  This once thriving port of 60,000 became a malaria-infested swamp, buried by mud over time.  The silt that moved into the port most likely protected Ostia from scavengers and the ravages of time.  It also moved the port from the mouth of the river and today Ostia sits two miles from the sea.

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A study of Ostia Antica shows a grittier side of Roman life (dating from 1st and 2nd century A.D.), although that is not evident in the magnificent frescoes and mosaics mostly intact still today.  The Square of the Guilds (Piazzale delle Corporazioni) has some of the most well-preserved mosaics throughout this 73 acre property.  It is a huge square lined with 60+ ship owner and traders’ offices, which was once the bustling center of Rome’s import-export business.

Ostia Antica did not enjoy the wealth seen in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, but rather represented a working-class community, with several multi-storied tenements (insulta) where the lower class lived.  These apartment complexes were usually cramped with no kitchens.  Heating and plumbing were non-existent and garbage was typically tossed out the windows.

Casa di Diana - typical multi-tiered tenement building
Casa di Diana – typical multi-tiered tenement building

The public baths were government-subsidized and functioned as both a business meeting place and a place to gather socially.  Roman engineers were radiant heat experts.  Water and air flowed through pipes under the floors and in the walls, heated by a huge furnace.  Just like a high-end spa, staffers attended to a bather’s every need, including the skimming of the water, as olive oil was used instead of soap for cleansing.  Three pools, a sweat room (laconicum) and rubdowns by a masseuse (tepidariae) were also available to the clientele.

Baths of Neptune showing a mosaic of Neptune and his wife Amphitrite.
Baths of Neptune showing a mosaic of Neptune and his wife Amphitrite.

Across the street from the baths were the public latrines (forica), where modesty was not an option.  Perhaps this was the time when friends had the chance to reconnect while literally rubbing elbows with each other.  A washable sponge on a stick was used instead of tissue and aqueducts brought in rushing water below each seat to do the flushing.  Thank goodness times have changed.

Ostia’s small museum, sitting on the back of the property, offers a look at some of the city’s finest statues, almost all 2nd and 3rd-century AD Roman pieces.

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The beauty in a visit to Ostia Antica is that you will leave the crowds behind, unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Next Up:  Vatican City

Artwork and Engineering Feats ~ Rome, Part 2

We continued our walk through ancient Rome, an era that lasted 1,000 years, from 500 B.C to 500 A.D.  Half of that time Rome was focused on expanding her government and the other half building a dominating empire.  In 500 A.D. Rome fell, and fell hard, due to corruption, invaders, and disease, dragging all of Europe into 1,000 years of darkness.  The city declined to a mere 20,000, leaving a crooked pope, crumbling ruins, and malaria-carrying mosquitos.  In the 1300’s even the popes said ‘enough’ and headed for France.

Beginning in the early 1500’s the popes decided it was time to rebuild Rome in order to attract new settlers.  They commissioned the best artists to decorate the churches and palaces, carve statues and build fountains.  We were fortunate to have the time to visit several of these artistic wonders.

On top of Capitoline Hill, overlooking the Forum, sits the oldest public museum in the world, with roots dating back to 1471.  The Capitoline Museums, consisting of two palaces, house some of Rome’s most famous statues and archeological finds.

The Etruscan Lupa capitolina is one of the most famous statues here.  It is the original bronze She-Wolf, a wild animal coupled with two hungry babies, Romulus and twin brother Remus.  According to Roman mythology, these two babes, children of Rhea Silvia and Mars, were credited with being the founders of Rome. They were orphaned as infants and raised by a she-wolf on top of Palatine Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills, overlooking the Forum.  It is a powerful symbol of perseverance for the city of Rome.

We decided to take one of Rick Steves’ self-guided tours, the Heart of Rome Walk, which carried us across the city to several popular sights.  Our first stop was Piazza Navona, a square which has been a center of Roman life since ancient times.

The main attraction at this piazza is the Four Rivers Fountain.  The pope, looking to clean up some of the seedier Rome neighborhoods, commissioned Bernini to build this fountain, with an obelisk rising from the center.  It represents gods of the four great rivers in four continents – the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in Asia, the Danube in Europe and the Río de la Plata, separating Uruguay and Argentina.

Our next stop was Campo de’ Fiori, where for centuries public executions were held.

This spot is where philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for blasphemy in 1600.  Today it is a much more pleasant square and a major focus of Roman life.   Mornings it is transformed into a huge open-air market, while the evenings bring out a rowdier crowd, pub-style.

We continued our tour, stopping at the Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in Rome, and one of the most famous in the world.

Built in 1762, it celebrates the reopening of several of the city’s great aqueducts. Neptune, god of the sea, is the central figure, with his trumpeter, Triton, blowing his conch shell, announcing their arrival.  It is impossible to photograph day or night without swarms of tourists surrounding it.

Our Heart of Rome Walk took us to the Spanish Steps, in Piazza di Spagna.  Named for the Spanish embassy to the Vatican, it’s been the hangout of Keats, Wagner, Goethe, and others.

English poet John Keats succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 25 in the orange house to the right of the steps.  It is now a museum dedicated to his memory.  At the base of the steps is Bernini’s Sinking Boat Fountain, powered by an aqueduct.  It is a popular hangout at night.

Rome’s best preserved monument, the Pantheon, is also one of her greatest engineering feats.  Engineers still marvel at how ancient Romans built such a mathematically precise design without the use of computers or electricity.  Although I’m not an engineer I found the statistics to be quite fascinating.  The dome is as high as it is wide – 142 feet from side to side and from floor to the top of the dome.   The base of the dome is 23 feet thick, made of concrete mixed with travertine while the top is less than 5 feet thick, made of volcanic rock mixed with concrete.

The coffered ceiling offers reduced weight without compromising strength.  At the top of the oculus sits the Pantheon’s only light source, 30 feet across.  When the rains come, the 1,800-year old floor has holes in it and is angled towards the edges to drain off the water.  This floor still has 80% of the original stones.  It is inconceivable to me that this engineering design was completed in 27 B.C.  Due to fires the Pantheon we see today was completely rebuilt in A.D 120.

This Rome temple, dedicated to the gods, may look like an ordinary building from the outside, but perhaps is one of the most important in art history.  It’s dome has inspired the Florence cathedral dome, Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.  It is the only of Rome’s ancient buildings that has seen continued use.  The building, sunken below street level, shows how Rome has been lifted up over 20 centuries of rubble.

Perhaps the most unusual stop we made in Rome was to the Capuchin Crypt, a catacomb beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.  It contains bones of 3,700 Capuchin friars, artistically displayed, not meant to be ghoulish but rather a silent reminder of our own mortality.  Click here for crypt photos as they are prohibited during your visit.

Next Up: Ostia Antica