Italy was like Mexico, only better maintained. You could drink the water. But so much of itthe palette of blue sky and sea, red terra cotta roofs, yellow walls; the cactus gardens and palm trees; the earnestness of people trying to sell you things at the bus station; the iambic, Latinate language; the cessation of commerce at the seething center of the day; the rampant Catholicismreminded me of Sonora and (at a slightly greater remove) the American Southwest. It was a little like a homecoming, but a weird sort of homecoming where your mom has forgotten how to speak English and cooks nothing but pasta.
Because we sure did eat a lot of pasta. Vegetarian options in Italy are limitedthe only place where I actually saw the word vegetariano was a pot T-shirt in Florence. They would bring us gnocchi and spaghetti, and occasionally some grilled vegetables that were not half bad, but we lost our enthusiasm for them as the trip progressed. These were ten days without protein. We had been looking forward to Italian food after a few days' worth of weird British breakfasts in London, but nowe actually ate better in England than in Italy. Of course this is not Italy's fault. The problem was that we couldn't order a la carte at the restaurants. We were on a guided tour.
My father, who fetishizes order, had signed us up for one of these bus tours around Italy. On balance it was probably the right thing to do, since there would not have been any other way to see so much of the country in so short a time, but in the beginning I was uneasy about paying people to mediate my experience. (Though at least we didn't have to wear matching hats, like some groups.) Music was promised with our first hotel dinner, and I was assuming that we'd get some Verdi arias or something. Not that Verdi is completely my cup of teaI tend to prefer the sort of opera where Valhalla burns down at the endbut it seemed pleasant nonetheless. Maybe there would be a Vivaldi trio during the meal or something: I didn't know.
No, no. At this dinner, and at most dinners thereafter, we got the Italian equivalent of mariachis. We got a couple of people moving between the tables, playing instruments in various combinations (guitar/accordion, guitar/voice, accordion/voice, Casio keyboard/voice) through a repertoire of about four songs, always including "That's Amore." I cannot tell you how many times I heard "That's Amore." It got to the point where the cursed ditty curled itself around my midbrain, like those alien worms in Star Trek II, and I was hearing it in the descending scales of cathedral bells. Of course it was an immensely edifying cultural experience to be standing in, say, the Duomo Cathedral in Siena, looking at the week's fiftieth fresco or mosaic of Jesus, while the bells tolled and in the back of my head a little Italian voice was shouting:
When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie,
The problem was that people in our tour would actually request "That's Amore" at the restaurants. The main guilty party was a large family of Polish extraction from Indianapolis (women, middle-aged) who from the beginning of the tour had an incredibly difficult time understanding instructionsand we are talking complicated instructions here, such as "Be in the lobby at 7:30." On our first night in Rome, after consuming an inordinate amount of wine at the restaurant, they decided to have a toga party, which involved putting on their bedsheets and going down to the hotel lobby to play "Chopsticks" on the piano. At this point I was starting to fear that I had not come Italy at all, but rather to some weird Tourist Italy that had been created in a virtual reality lab specifically to cater to aging Americans, and I had fears for the upcoming tour.
But no. Actually, it was wonderful.
Rome may well be computer-generated. Even from the air it looks picturesque to a suspicious degree, and once you get to ground level the juxtaposition of beauty and sprawl is unbelievable. Most cities make some effort to set their monuments apart from the urban melée, preferably behind a screen of signs and plaques and interpretive centers, but not Rome. There's just too much of it. Every time you turn a corner on one of the signature narrow streets you come across some Renaissance castle or fountain or the Pantheon, looking for all the world like the people at Industrial Light & Magic just dropped it in there. History is a given here. Most cities commit acts of gross pretension when they name streets after people like Augustus Caesar or my primary source Giambattista Vico, but to Rome they were just a couple of residents.
Of course there were tourists everywhere, and major spots like the Piazza Navona were full of street performers impressing the tourists, as well as unfortunate old chestnuts like "Your name on a grain of rice!" My father lacked any self-consciousness about his tourist status; in fact, he was so gung-ho about the tour group that they gave him the guide's flag to hold in the Vatican, and again in Siena. My sister preferred to stand near the back of the group and look like a secret agent in the wireless headsets they gave us. I tried at least to be a literary sort of tourist, agitating for visits to places like the Keats-Shelley Memorial, which is set up in the small apartment where Keats spent the last months of his life in the hope that the Rome air would cure his tuberculosis. We saw the tiny room where he died and the larger library area where flash photography is not allowed, so I couldn't get clear pictures of things like locks of the poets' hair. Afterward I further burnished my literary credentials by having an espresso at Café Greco, where Keats and Shelley and Byron and Goethe and Wagner and Berlioz and Liszt used to hang out. (Presumably not all at the same time, though you can imagine the arguments.) But then I wasn't above taking a picture of the hotel bidet, so I don't know what to tell you.
The actual Roman ruins are in varying states of disrepair. The wolf suckling Romulus is all over the country, though I think that most of those date more recently than the empire. In some places, such as Verona, they'll expose the Roman road beneath. The interior of the Pantheon is well preserved, though it's had a makeover with Christian iconography. Many of the actual statues have been removed to the Vatican museum and such places, sometimes with their eerily lifelike glass eyes still intact. The Forum is rife with wildflowers, a condition whose mortality/transcendence metaphors are so obvious that I won't even get started. The same species of flower is all over Ostia, an ancient port at the mouth of the Tiber where we spent a long morning. Its maze of broken walls is lined with grass and umbrella pines, whose knotty roots are slowly forcing apart the stones. The statues remaining are mostly partial, since the archeologists don't want to leave whole pieces to the mercy of vandals; in places like the Temple of the Unknown Godso named because the missing head and hands would be necessary to identify himthe effect is downright creepy. The columns are broken, the inscriptions barely legible. Like most Roman ruins, it is home to cats who slink between the ruined stages and storefronts.
Once upon a time you were supposed to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain for luck; these days, presumably because of inflation, it's three coins. The first is for love, the second for business, and the third for a return to Rome. I didn't have much change on me, so I hope 0.20 euros are enough to buy me love. The other two seem more likely to take care of themselves. Shortly after tossing the coin I did have a successful conversation with an attractive Italian woman, but unfortunately its substance was "Hello. I would like to buy those batteries." In my case, speaking Italian means speaking Spanish with an Italian accent, but it was surprising how often that seemed to work.
Rural Italy was mostly experienced from the bus window. We hugged the western coast for a while and got good views of mountainous Elba island, where Napoleon was exiled for a time; we also crossed everyone's favorite crossword rivers, the Arno and the Po, and saw the Tiber's humble origins as a mountain stream in the Appennines. The Tuscan countryside was so scenic that it verged on the irresponsible, dotted with vineyards and olive groves and forests still populated by packs of wild boar. This was chianti country, and we stopped at a winery long enough to get thoroughly plastered on a very good reserve wine (plus shots of grappa, which most couldn't handle) before moving on to a parade of Tuscan towns.
I hadn't realized that Pisa's leaning tower was not a stand-alone deal, but rather part of a complex of ecclesiastical buildings. The tower sticks out behind the basilica like an afterthought. Probably the most interesting building was the baptistry, which had stairs leading to a high catwalk where engravings depicted various nasty parts of the Old Testament, like God's airstrike on Sodom. I really wish I'd had a tape recorder with me, as the acoustics were designed to maximize echo and the whispered conversations of tourists reverberated over and over until they became a solid mass of sound with pulsing interference patterns, barely recognizable as human voices. It sounded like a Brian Eno record. Just before we left, a policeman stepped up to the baptismal font at the building's center and sang a descending arpeggio for the benefit of the tourists; the echo caught it, and the sound hovered beneath the ceiling for an incredibly long time. So far as I could tell, all Italians know how to sing. Unfortunately, the same did not hold for the tourists who decided to imitate the policeman's melody; the guards started shouting "Silencio!" and the ambiance turned ugly, so we left and stepped back into the street, where Senegalese immigrants in flowing robes were busily trying to sell umbrellas and African handicrafts and expensive-looking watches of suspicious origin.
San Gimignano is one of these little medieval Tuscan towns built messily on a hill so that the laws of perspective get all fucked up. The view from the old city walls and the flag-lined street are pleasantly antiquated, though the town is by no means isolated from the modern era. Its central monument is an enormous bell tower which affords a dizzying view of the central square. Siena is a larger town, but just as medieval and skewed; it also features the strangest of many strange churches we saw on the tour. This is the Basilica of San Domenico, which holds the preserved remains of St. Catherine's head in a glass-cased shrine set back from the church floor. The face is displayed on a complicated, gilded-over mounting, and it appears still to have preserved flesh and so on, though the distance made it hard to tell. Nobody was around to prevent taking pictures but I couldn't bring myself to get a shot; it was just too creepy. They also had a jar with a preserved finger and the whip she used to flagellate herself. The main hall was lined with flags (bearing mysterious designs such as the royal goose of our Lord) and dominated by some absolutely hallucinatory stained glass. I don't know what to make of Jesus's expression there, but he isn't benevolent.
Churches littered the tour; every town had one or more as its central attraction, and I never quite knew what to do with them, despite having once been a regular Mass attendee and having gone through First Communion and all the rest. I did kneel in the chapel in St. Peter's, but only because I didn't want to be the only jackass with a camera among people who had obviously spent their life savings to come from Poland or Brazil or wherever for the sole purpose of praying here. I certainly didn't feel Catholic doing it. Everything was so paganthe deliberate aura of mystery, the barely concealed violence, the gilt and pomp, the illuminated corpses. The conversion of Constantine is usually interpreted as the Christianizing of Europe, but you could just as well say that it turned Christianity into an avatar of the Roman empire. The churches certainly made me wish that my Latin was better; when you come across an inscription that appears to read "Blood of the martyrs, semen of the faithful," it would be nice to know what it actually says.
St. Peter's was all about size, and there wasn't much you could do in the face of it; particularly with the dark wood carving around the altar, it reminded me of the crashed Giger spaceship they find at the start of Alien. The affairs of the church are conducted as tourists pass; the confession booths were open for business, we saw a bride on her way to be married (surely from an aristocratic family, our guide told us, likely a family that had produced a former Pope), the Swiss guards went marching by in uniforms that Michelangelo presumably designed under the influence of wheat ergot, and the Vatican stores were doing a brisk trade in Pope-blessed itemsyou pay for the cross or amulet you want and later that day they deliver it to your hotel room with a little picture of John Paul II, who (you are told) has waved his trembling hand over it and a thousand other items in the intervening period. Outside, everywhere you look there are statues of the Madonna.
Florence is a beautiful city where I took few pictures, because it is all about art and taking pictures of the art just seemed redundant. (I did get Perseus with Medusa's head, because it's a hell of a sculptureaccording to legend, just as the sculptor was pouring the bronze into the mold he realized he didn't have enough metal and had to melt down all of his dinner plates. Also, in the background you can see those great Florentine balcony doors.) I had developed a horrible head cold by this point and sniffled my way through the Academy of Art to stare at Michelangelo's David, who according to the tour guide was meant to be calm and fearless, but I don't knowfrom my vantage point he seemed slightly afraid of what he was about to do. Very human. Outside they were selling boxer shorts printed with photos of his crotch. Later that day we went to the Uffizi Gallery, which contains paintings by all four of the ninja turtles, and I was just lucid enough to stand at the window and snap a couple of postcard shots of the bridges on the Arno. (Also a cute dog.) I left Florence feeling sicker than ever, with the phrase "Florentine quarantine" running through my head, and then we went over the Appennines and my ear pressure got all fucked up and for the next 24 hours I experienced Italy at half volume, i.e., at about the same volume as an American city.
The two best instances of graffiti I encountered were at a subterranean bathroom in Bologna and Giuletta Capulet's balcony in fair Verona, where we laid our scene just long enough to check out the balcony and the Roman amphitheater where they put on operas these days. We also passed, in the bus, this eerily named building that I couldn't bring myself to joke about. Aside from the government posters urging citizens to fight terrorism, there was plenty of isolated graffiti around Italy relating to the International Question, and much of it expressed the opinion that Marxism would solve everything. "AFGHANISTAN LIBERO FUORI AFGHANISTAN SOVIETICI." "PALESTINA LIBERA PALESTINA ROSSA." The red-spraypaint hammer and sickle was well represented, especially on the walls of government labor offices and the like. One graffitist in Rome opted to express disgust with the whole business: "NÉ USA NÉ ISLAM." And many people just seemed pissed off at the cities where they happened to be: "ROMA MERDA," "FIRENZE MERDA," "VERONA MERDA."
Northeastern Italy is dominated by farms and looks a lot like Iowa with better architecture. A short drive through this pastoralia brought us to the Maritime Republic of Venice, where it is actually impossible to take a photograph that is not scenic because of the water everywhere. Bridges exist for foot traffic, but there aren't any cars; Venetian taxis are little motorboats, and the canals are outfitted with speed-limit signs and traffic lights. The gondoliers still wear those striped shirts, though these days a lot of them have multiple piercings as well. I wasn't certain how I would handle the gondola ride, as I was still sick and starting to think I might suffer the fate of Gustav von Aschenbach or Milly Theale, but actually it was quite nice and over the next couple of days I recovered. It was just so pretty.
Venice is noticeably more Byzantine than other Italian cities; you get a lot of domed churches and gold-lined mosaics fronting the houses. Twin pillars at the entrance to St. Mark's Square hold up the wingéd lion which is the city's symbol and a sea-monster-slaying version of St. George, who used to be the patron saint of Venice until around the year 800, when the city decided they needed a saint with more prestige and sent an expedition to liberate St. Mark's body from Alexandria. According to our tour guide, they got the corpse out by covering it in pork, which the Muslim guards were loath to inspect. You'd think that the city would be a bit ashamed about these shady dealings, but no; the main mosaic on St. Mark's Basilica commemorates the stolen saint's arrival in the city. (He's the one lying down.) On the square below, small groups of musicians in tuxedos serenade the crowd all the livelong day.
The island of Burano, too, is obscenely pictureque and was blessedly free of tourists, but by this point I was beginning to see why the youth of Venice don't stay around the city long. There is one movie theater and no nightlife to speak of, and every time you want to go somewhere you have to find a boat. Picturesque is great for curious and/or retired Americans, but after a while you start to crave something of the twentieth century. Not being one for nightlife myself, I found a much-needed dose of modernity in a Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Museo Correr. (An article here has reproductions of four of the best canvases: Reflection of the Big Dipper, Number 23 - 1948, The Moon Woman, and Beach Figures. Note that they've transposed the titles on the last two.) My father followed me gamely enough, though it seemed to perplex him that I was much more excited about these splatter paintings than I had been about, say, the Raphael pictures in Florence. All I can say is that to see the physical canvases was incredible; in particular Reflection of the Big Dipper, which looks horribly blotchy in the reproduction, reveals the elegance and sweep of its form in the museum. It reminded me of the fourth or fifth time I ever heard Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, in that long-ago summer before college; what had seemed deliberately ugly and chaotic suddenly revealed the hidden dictates of its form. It's the sort of realization that doesn't happen often, and strange as it is, this utterly non-Italian experience was probably the best thing to happen to me in Italy. There is plenty of contemporary culture therethey sell Kundera on street cornersbut our tour wasn't the sort that allowed for too much of it. The first time we crossed St. Mark's Square I could have sworn I heard the overture to The Magic Flute, but when we returned later they were only playing string arrangements of the songs from Cats and "Y.M.C.A."
After Venice we passed through an authentic Italian traffic jam to Ravenna, where Dante died in exile and we saw more weird church shit, then passed through more authentic mountain scenery to Assisi. The Franciscans are one of the few arms of the Church that I don't mind getting behind; in front of St. Francis's Basilica they had writ "pax" across the lawn, and they had a bell in one corner fashioned by an American artist from melted-down guns seized by the San Francisco police department. The frescoes inside were nice too, dominated by pale colors and simple lines, less crowded with clouds and cherubim and all that. I still didn't know what to do with the preserved robes of Saint Francis or his momumental underground tomb lying beneath the Basilica, but I suppose that's how it is. The friars themselves seemed very nice; you saw them walking around the streets in their brown robes and sneakers, drinking bottled water, having kindly-sounding conversations with the townspeople. Occasionally you would see a haggard pilgrim coming down the street with a cross on his back.
This was in Orvieto, I think. Another town, another church. And shortly after that we were back in Rome; and then there was another welter of hotels and transatlantic flights and tight tight security, and now I am in Reno, where I will remain for a few more days before making a brief trip to Tucson, and I don't know whether I'm going to blog any more just now. I'm tired and I have a book to work on and I have to move in a month. It's perfectly nice when an institution decides to give you twenty thousand dollarsI will not complain about the twenty thousand dollarsbut if I thought I had expectations to live up to before.