Rome: Tromp l'oeil and Beer Distillates

Before I left for Rome, three or four people asked if I was going to see the Pope. At least one was in jest, at least one was serious. I had no intention of going to see his irregular Sunday address at St. Peters, and didn't exactly expect to bump into him in the street.

The morning's first stop was San Pietro in Vincoli, the church of Saint Peter in Chains. The official draw is the chains that held St. Peter when he was imprisoned, the real draw is Michelangelo's Moses. Moses is part of a large facade for the tomb of Pope Julius II: Michelangelo designed the whole thing, but only sculpted Moses with the rest completed by his students. I waxed enthusiastic about Moses before my departure: a decade ago you could stand within a metre of him, you're now unable to go closer than four metres and it really changes the experience. It's a superb sculpture without a doubt, but I was not so impressed as last time.

The next stop was Basilica di Santa Prasede - and the one after was Santa Pudenziana ... which I've already conflated in my head. Both are lovely old churches, and both are best known for their mosaics. Their very gold-laden Byzantine mosaics that make the ceiling and wall glitter ...

Up next was Santa Maria Maggiore, which Rough Guide calls "one of the city's four patriarchal basilicas." This turned out to be far more important than I realized, as when I finally wondered about the build-up of people near a blocked off area, I wandered over ... exactly when the Pope was passing. No kidding - people had been piling up for fifteen or twenty minutes, and I'd just been ignoring it and enjoying the church. I walked over, the buzz started, the pope and a couple officials walked by (it helps to be really tall, I could mostly see him). I have one spectacularly fuzzy image that only sort of proves it happened.

After that I went to Galleria Doria Pamphilj. I went there last time, but had two strong reasons to return: the first is the spectacular Bernini bust of Pope Innocent X, and the second was the voice of the head of the Pamphilj family on the English audio guide. I remembered him from last time (well, I wrote it down - but it came back very quickly when I re-read my notes). He's an intelligent guy who speaks flawless English and loves the art works in his family home (which just happens to be an immense palace dead in the centre of Rome, but don't envy him too much yet). He's charming and wonderful to listen to, and one of the first things you learn is that the family cannot break up the art collection or sell any of it: they're legally bound by a will and laws that go back more than three hundred years. I read a lot into this last time, and I still suspect it's true: maintaining that heap in the heart of Rome must be expensive (it takes up a large city block!), and I suspect they had little choice but to turn it into a museum simply to pay taxes and maintenance on the place. If they could sell the art ... what's a Caravaggio go for these days? They've got several ... I went for the Bernini, but they're at least as well known for their spectacular collection of Renaissance paintings - which I invested more time in on this visit. And I also noticed that as founding father of the family and probably their most famous member, Innocent X has approximately five busts around the place and three or four portraits. Two of the busts are by Bernini: they're nearly identical, as the first cracked straight through. Bernini claimed he would replace it in a week - and the story is that he did. I looked at both quite closely, and they're very similar - but if anything, I like the second one better.

photo: Doria Pamphilj Gallery

gold-leafed, windowed, and mirrored corridor lined with sculptures (and a frescoed ceiling)

The draw of this bust is its apparent accuracy (hard to know - the source is long gone). His goatee is just not doing what he meant it to, he's got wrinkles around the corners of his eyes, and he's got a bump under the skin just below one eye. His gown has fold lines because it hasn't been ironed (and the folds don't match from one side to the other). One of the buttons isn't quite through the hole. I don't know if it would strike others as it did me, but it cries out with personality and life and I love it.

The better (uncracked) copy is in a room that houses only it and a Velázquez portrait of the same man: Innocent X apparently protested that the painting was "too real," and it's definitely another very good portrait. It's a great gallery.

Next was the Church of the Gesu. I remembered that there's a lot of tromp l'oeil ceilings in the churches in Italy, and particularly Rome. What I hadn't directly associated with this church is that it's one of my favourites. So much so that I found there was too much to take in in one sitting: I'll be returning. The ceiling has the requisite ornate gold leaf filigree, arches and windows ... and between the gold leaf dividers there are paintings of angels and (I assume ... not well versed here) scenes from the bible(?). But they overflow their frames: literally, the painted surface extends outside the frames in irregular shapes in multiple places (and glorious colour). I adore it.

photo: Church of the Gesù ceiling

paintings of heaven that overflow their gold frames

Around the corner is the Rooms of St. Ignatius. Not of themselves terribly interesting to me, but the corridor right outside his room was painted by Andrea Pozzo. When you first step through the door to the corridor, you wonder what the big deal is, it's a pretty painted corridor ... but as you walk along the corridor, everything on the walls distorts around you because he's managed to make the perspective correct from the viewpoint at the door and made the corridor look two or three metres longer than it is by playing wicked tricks with that perspective. It's weird and rather delightful.

And to go hand in hand with that, I moved on to Palazzo Spada. Rough Guide's assessment isn't terribly kind: "the gallery's four rooms aren't spectacularly interesting unless you're a connoisseur of seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian painting ..." but they do recommend the Borromini corridor out back. The term "tromp l'oeil" implies that the piece of art exists in two dimensions but causes you to see something in three dimensions (although the Pozzo mentioned above was rendered on three walls and a ceiling ...). But Borromini's corridor is a rather bizarre exercise in forced perspective executed centuries before its use became common(ish) in movies. He tapers a corridor, inserting dwindling columns and an undersized sculpture at the "distant" end. I didn't feel I was deceived (although I did know in advance what I was going to see), but it was a very interesting effect.

The last stop of the day was Open Baladin. They're an Italian beer brewer: they don't brew on premises, but they have about 25 beers on tap - perhaps ten of their own, and other local company's products filling out the line-up. I had a "Veggie Burger" there for dinner: the burger was made of eggplant, which was okay, but what made it was the buffalo mozzarella on top. Hard to go wrong with that. I had a "Must Kuld," a very nice Porter. And then I tried the "Esprit de Nöel 2016." This is ... an interesting story. The menu was, unsurprisingly, in Italian. So I had to guess: the two products listed in the "Distillati: Ebbeni Sì, Distillati de Birra" section were both "40%," and my guess was correct. As Brandy is distilled from wine, so this stuff is distilled from beer. It seemed perfectly obvious once I figured it out. My next thought of course was to wonder why no one in Canada has done this. And I think I figured that out too: laws. In Italy, craft brewing is very new (or so one of the staff explained), all the laws are under ten years old. The distinction that's so clear in Canada between "beer" and "spirits" and being licensed to make one or the other probably doesn't exist here - whereas in Canada I think a beer maker who distilled his product would go straight to jail ...

They told me it was "like grappa." And they're not wrong - but I'd take this any day over grappa. I didn't find much beer-like in the flavour, but it was a very slightly sweet spirit with an interesting character and flavour to it. They even sell it bottled: I'm definitely considering bringing some back.

And what is it about gelato? What do the Italians know that we don't? I swear you can pack up a gelato recipe on Italian soil, recreate it exactly in Canada, and it won't taste as good. I've had gelato at two or three of the best places in Toronto, and it's good but it doesn't compare to what you get here. I did choose my place here carefully, but it's always better here. <sigh>