Rome: Already classic, yet still shocking

I said so much about the cars last time, it's important not to forget the scooters - you certainly can't while you're here. There are a few motorcycles and the occasional bicycle (this is not a bicycle-friendly city), but if it's a vehicle and it has two wheels, we can safely say it's a scooter and anything else is just an extremely small margin of error. Roman drivers are crazy - but Roman scooter drivers are road terrorists. They swarm around trucks, buses, pedestrians, and cars, splitting lanes and getting past everything at risk of life and limb. And they park in herds, blocking entire cul de sacs ...

My first stop of the day was the library of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei: closed, despite the hours in Google Maps, and the hours at the door in both English and Italian (it was 1130 and they said they closed at 1300). Oh well. But I had accidentally found the Galleria Corsini - which I'd seen ads for because they're doing a Mapplethorpe display, and I was more than happy to attend that. It's another lovely set of rooms (four or five) in another grand palace. The pictures are very tightly packed on the walls, up to the rather high ceilings. They were proud to point out "this is the first time [his work has] ever been exhibited in the context of a collection of paintings from the eighteenth century." They used a phrase I thought was exactly right for Mapplethorpe: "already classic, yet still shocking." Ah, you've seen his work. I know I've already over-used words like this, but ... the man was a genius. They had perhaps 20 of his pieces on display, a mixed bag, some erotica, some portraits, some flowers (which are erotica as far as Mapplethorpe is concerned) ... so good! I really wished they'd had more. But it felt a bit like the gallery were trying to gain some relevance traction in a city where their very good gallery looks mediocre because so many other galleries here are off-the-charts spectacular ... There were three other visitors in the half-hour I was there. And the paintings - you know, Rubens, Van Dyck ... and another one of those what's-her-name with the head of John the Baptist on a platter. I swear, that's the fourth one I've seen this week! Don't get me wrong: it's a biblical story, and a good one to illustrate. It's just hilarious that I've seen so many interpretations of it in such a short time. (Yes, it's "Salome," and this one is by Guido Reni and apparently one of the better known renditions.)

photo: Guido Reni's version of Salome with the head of St. John the Baptist

a rather unhappy girl holding a head on a platter

Directly across the street is Villa Farnesina, best known for a massive fresco by Raphael, and a large wall painting of Galatea by the same artist. But almost every room is a work of art in its own right. My favourite was - of course - the one on the second floor (their "first floor" - zero-based numbering, how sensible), a room with tromp l'oeil walls. The floors extend out through the wall, as does the ceiling, which is now supported by marble columns that break up your view of what I took to be a much older version of Rome. Stranger still, they did much the same thing around the windows - so the wall presents a markedly different view from the window it surrounds. There are also marble boxes painted into the corners of the room containing cherubs, or a woman with a harp ... Even the window shutters have paintings of half-nude frolicking women - they painted everything.

I was only a couple blocks away from a Trastavere location that was on my list of restaurant-bars to try, namely "Bir & Fud." They were closed, but I had also listed their two-doors-down competitor "Ma che siete venuti a fà," who were open ... but didn't serve food (except chips and jerky) and I was in dire need of lunch. The bar man directed me down the street and said "you can bring the pizza back here," which is exactly what I did. I believe the term is "al taglio," the English equivalent being "by the slice," they chop up and sell rectangular pizza by weight, the size you want. The pizza place he recommended had multiple awards from the Retour guide book - it's amusing how one restaurant is popular with Swiss tourists because their guidebook says it's good, this other restaurant is popular with Americans because Rick Steves says it's good, and a third goes out of business because Rough Guide says they're good ... (I love Rough Guide, but they're failing. I guess I'm switching to Lonely Planet.) I had a "Gallagher's Stout" - slightly mild but rather nice, local but very English name, and enjoyed my pizza - which was really good.

I should add that Ma che siete venuti a fà's door is a fine example of why North Americans have so much trouble finding places here: while they've written the name over the door, they've covered every square inch of the frame with stickers in an apparent attempt (successful) to make it look disreputable ... and that's it, a door. No window, no nothing else. There's a mid-sized place behind that, but no more attempt to tell you what's there.

My next stop was Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, where I was better received than the last library. It was built in 1922 in an older building, and it doesn't have a look of spectacular age, although it does have two tiers of balconies above the floors to reach the books that go to the very high ceilings. I was even given a super-short tour (all I wanted), and learned (my question) that they're using their own classification system ... It's always fun to mention this to a librarian: half of them cringe and scream "why??!!!" and the other half go "of course." And the third half tries to do both at once, because ... that's the way it is with libraries. Dewey and LC are both general systems: they aren't well suited to specialized collections. So all over the world, libraries have invented their own classification system for their specialized collection. And they're the only ones that understand it, and no one else can hope to guess how a book might be classified in their system (whereas if you ask a librarian where travel guides are in Dewey, they'll tell you 913-919 - and they if they were asleep they still answered, it's a reflex).

Apparently I went to the wrong Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte: there's another one a few blocks away that has the ancient reading room I was looking for. Another day.

I walked to the church of San Clemente, where no photos were allowed. The sparkling half dome of the apse behind the altar is in ancient gold mosaic, with curling green vines and a crucified Jesus. The church has a particularly unusual layout, with the choir(?) contained in the centre of the church by short walls. The ceiling of the left chapel was clearly wood: beautifully carved, painted, and decorated ... but definitely wood, as it was in places rotted, warped, and splitting ... I hope they've stopped the roof leaks.

Six or eight blocks away is San Giovanni in Laterno, the primary church of the Roman Catholics before the founding of the Vatican state and still a major church today. My visit was somewhat disappointing - although the church itself is not, but hear me out. First, I thought I hadn't been there before but I had. And I loved it last time. Second, the central aisle was blocked off for a service - and that reminded me: Friday evening, not a good time to visit churches. A lot of services. Saturdays (and particularly Sundays, of course) are also hit-and-miss. So I couldn't get a good look at the wonderful saints in their niches that line the centre aisle. (You can see two of them here - and click the "Next" button.) Another English visitor explained to a friend that the service they were doing was "the stations of the cross" as the faithful moved from one saint in a niche to another. After all my time admiring churches I know so little about the services that I can't even say with authority that he's wrong, but "the stations of the cross" isn't (directly) related to the saints, so I don't think this is correct. [UPDATE: I couldn't spot it at the time, but on a return visit I noticed above those very large saints, niches with detailed plastered scenes that may well correspond to stations of the cross. And ... 12 saints, 12 niches, 12 stations of the cross ...]

The Scala Santa next door is under scaffolding, and I was intrigued and appalled to realize that there's a damn enormous ad for a Volkswagen T-Cross covering half the facade. I guess even the Catholic church has to pay for renovations, but that seems like a new low. Because of the renovations, there wasn't much to see inside - and there was a service there too.

On the way back to the B&B I encountered a store selling "Canadian" goods. You can see their products online, at . It's interesting and slightly disturbing to find our entire country co-opted as a brand of rugged outdoor clothing.

I went to Zi Gaetana for dinner. Should have known better than to order the shrimp pasta: the shrimp came whole (heads on, the works), and the tomato mostly overwhelmed the pistachios. Not a huge success.

And then, the much anticipated visit to Il Gerbillo Furioso. They have their own pennant, with a white gerbil rampant on his hind legs, with his fur ruffled up, on a black background. I asked if they have t-shirts, because I would so have bought that - and I was assured they did! But instead I was offered a tissue - they have no t-shirts (just a little English-Italian misunderstanding ...). Disappointment. They also had no dark beers, so I settled for a surprisingly decent IPA. Which I then drank in complete solitude while typing this up from 2000 to 2100. Apparently business doesn't pick up until after 2200, even on Friday. And as the bar was otherwise just a normal, slightly grubby bar, I'm further disappointed to conclude I won't be returning.

photo: Caesar - I love the streaks

brass(?) sculpture of Caesar with discoloured green stripes