Phew. Back from a two week holiday in Italy, last night, absolutely knackered. Probably the hardest I’ve worked all year. We were in Rome for a week, then in rural Tuscany for a week (beautiful country). I think we slightly miscalculated the difference between taking a 6 month old on holiday (sits in a buggy smiling at tourists while not asleep) and a 2 year old (runs madly around cathedrals screaming with laughter/rage, refuses to sit still for more than four seconds at a time, demands to be constantly entertained etc.) Plus Rome was crushingly hot, 38 degrees at the most, rarely less than 33 in the day. Brutal heat when you’re pounding the streets on foot, which we mostly were.
Anyway, partly because of the heat, which made it impossible to really laze around the flat we’d hired, and partly because Rome doesn’t really seem to have a lot of public space, we ended up doing a lot of the touristy cultural stuff. So apologies for my hi-brow-ed-ness. Some of the high, and not so highlights:
Raphael rooms, check, Sistine Chapel, check, Unmatched collection of ancient sculpture, check. Washed over me a little bit, I must admit. Very hard to separate the art from the experience of seeing it. You tend to walk through kind of thinking “when do we get to the Sistine Chapel, when do we get to the Sistine Chapel, are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet,” as the endless corridors and magnificently frescoed salons slide interminably by. A kind of Sistine fever descends, partly induced by all the tour parties rushing through to get there before the rush starts, and becoming the rush themselves. The Sistine Chapel itself is, yeah, amazing, but rammed, and the police endlessly hissing “silencio”, kicking people off the steps and haranguing Japanese tourists for taking photos is a bit distracting, so you feel somewhat uncomfortable and forced through. It also suffers from that inevitable mild disappointment of seeing something incredibly famous that you already knew loads about. Seems that eternal problem of hype applies to the world’s greatest artworks as well as fantasy books. The highlight for me, actually, was a gallery of maps. This is, I’m guessing, about 300 feet long, about twenty feet high, the entire space literally covered in the most fantastically beautiful painted maps of 16th century Italy. Seriously, for map lovers amongst us (and yes, I am one of them, whatever you may think), this might make a trip to Rome worthwhile on its own. It is the Mecca of maps. Also intriguing was the Pope’s collection of twentieth century interpretations of devotional themes – futurist crucifictions, cubist madonnas and so forth, featuring in particular, wait for it … one of Francis Bacon’s screaming pope studies. I guess irony can be pretty ironic, sometimes…
A heavyweight art collection in an old palace in Rome, it was kind of the opposite experience to the Vatican, in that it wasn’t that big, was mostly free of crowds, and you could just sit and contemplate. I actually enjoyed a magnificent ceiling by Pietro da Cortona(who I’d never come close to hearing of beforehand – the picture does it no justice, by the way) a lot more than the Sistine chapel just because I could lie down and take it in (they’d even provided rather comfortable leatherette benches for the purpose) without being trampled by tour parties. Also notable, Caravaggio (everyone loves a self-destructive nutcase, don’t they?) and my own favourite of the era, El Greco, plus loads more. I recommend a visit.
Man. Man, oh man, St. Peters really is something else. The outside is a bit of a let down, in a way, partly due to compromises and alterations in the design, which took over a century to realise (the story’s quite fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am). But the inside. Holy shit. Really holy. As you walk up the frontage seems to grow (which apparently was the intention of the way the square in front was designed), and by the time you step through the doors, tardis-like, the place has become the definition of immensity. I’m in no way a religious man, but I think I came about as close on walking into St. Peter’s to a religious experience as I’m ever going to. The simple scale. The towering, awe-inspiring, breath-taking space that it encloses. The incredible quality of decoration, mosaic and statuary that covers every surface. It’s no surprise that it can supposedly contain 60,000 people, it makes even epic fantasy conceptions of vastness and opulence seem … all a little bit silly and understated. Perspective goes all weird in there. You see a statue on a monument to a pope and think, how funny, he’s really small. You walk over. Ten minutes later, you’re standing in front and he’s twelve feet tall. You see writing round the edge of the dome, a long way up, sure, and you think, that’s impressive, some nice bold capitals. You climb to the gallery up in the dome (not for the vertiginous, it’s the highest in the world) and realise the writing is seven feet high. It’s amazing, I kid you not.
The definition of a Tuscan hill-town, and a really strange contradiction. A medieval settlement in which rival families vied with each other to produce really, really tall towers, the highest is 180 feet tall, in fact, and given that it’s on a massive hill in the first place the views from the top are pretty frickin’ amazing. The black death crippled the place, as a result of which it became kind of frozen in time, and offers an amazingly complete sense of a medieval city. Except for the thronging tourists, incredibly cheesy souvenir shops and rubbish restaurants offering “touristic menus” that occupy pretty much every inch of street frontage.
Only a day to sample the cradle of the renaissance, which meant a visit to the cathedral in the morning (I fear after St. Peter’s I’ll never be impressed by a church again) including climbing the campanile. Really high. I was scared. Then the Uffizi gallery in the afternoon, the greatest collection of renaissance art anywhere. An onslaught of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, roomfuls of Titian and Raphael plus much, much more. So great a collection, in fact, that it was all a bit hard to take in. Pretty strange seeing pictures in the flesh – like Boticelli’s Birth of Venus – that are so well known they’re pretty much part of popular culture, but ubiquitous tour groups inevitably bum-rush the really well-known pieces, meaning that you tend to spend more time in front of the lesser-known stuff, and odd things jump out at you. At random, then, Titian’s Venus of Urbino – is she covering up, there, or, you know … And another El Greco. Like seeing a painter from the 20th century sat in amongst a load of old masters only, he is an old master.
An expressionist 300 years before his time. They all thought he was a loony back then. “What’s with the stretched out figures, stark compositions and crazy sky, El Greco?” I wonder if he might have been a time lord. Or perhaps a Goa’uld.
You have to imagine me singing Ultravox’s Vienna, really loud, only after the oooooooooooooh bit, I’d sing Siena, instead of Vienna. How my wife laughed. The first time. By the fifth, she was no longer amused. By the fiftieth, she was ready to kill me. I still have it going round and round in my head. Anyway, Siena is well beautiful. A real flavour of a medieval brick city, the famous piazza del campo is stunning but also nicely inviting and friendly, a really pleasant public space. There’s a really high tower there. Really high. We climbed that as well. I was really scared. The frontage of the cathedral is pretty damn impressive, as is the inside although, you know, it ain’t St. Peter’s. There are some great medieval frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico. Again, in a way I found that more enjoyable than the Uffizi because there was less to see, and in a more relaxed environment.
Other stuff? Ancient Roman remains are very impressive, especially the colloseum, but I don’t know, I just found it a bit underwhelming. I guess if you’ve been to Egypt, nothing else is anywhere near so old, so big, or so intact. Italians have really strange, hard bread, which didn’t work for me. But undeniably they have great coffee. In fact food there in general cannot be knocked. Casole d’Elsa, the hill town near where we stayed is really nice if you fancy going off the beaten track, no real things to see apart from the feel of the place itself, but they’ve got a damn good restaurant there.
Oh, and, when in Rome, visit St. Peter’s.