Rome: More Palazzos and art, and a whole heap of bones

photo: Palazzo Barberini

a curving metal-framed balcony casts a shadow on a cream yellow wall

I think it was at the Galleria Colonna that the guide got into the origins of the word "nepotism." Like most of the rich families in Rome, the Colonna were tied to the popes. And popes, who are generally celibate (thus having no sons to favour), had a nasty tendency to grant nephews positions of power. And apparently "nephew" in Latin gives us our source word to form "nepotism." Wikipedia points out that the problem, if not the word, is mentioned going back 2400 years in Indian texts on ethics.

As mentioned, I made an early night of it last night - which made it easy to get up quite early this morning so I could go to the Porta Portese flea market in Trastevere (Sunday mornings only). But I awoke to find it was raining. The market runs even when it rains (with everyone huddled under tarps), but between having read some negative reviews about the prominence of knock-off clothing at the market and pick-pockets loving the rain because it packed everyone together, I decided I could pass. The rain ended around 0930, but my window for Porta Portese had closed.

The first stop of the day was Palazzo Montecitorio, home of the Italian legislature (or something like that: anything I say is written in haste, and not terribly well researched or reliable). But on the way there I ran into what I have to assume was the Rome Marathon: it was clearly a long distance, and it looked like the first group of runners I encountered were probably, if not world-class, at the very least quite good. As I headed to the Palazzo I crossed paths with the marathon multiple times. So I got to see the pace bunnies: for those not familiar with marathon running (I'm not, but I got this bit of lore from a couple friends who do marathons), "pace bunnies" (what a name) are people who have volunteered to run at a set pace: "if you want to finish the marathon in three hours and ten minutes, run with me." It's unclear to me if the name or the accessory came first: but in North America they apparently sometimes run with bunny ears on. Here it would seem they run in sets of approximately four people - and they run with three largish coloured balloons tied to their backs, trailing above their heads. They don't lack for visibility, but I can't imagine that's a great accessory when you're running. It appears the balloon colour changes according to the pace.

Palazzo Montecitorio is only open on the first Sunday of the month: entrance is free, but you have to pick up a ticket around the corner. I was let in at 1050 - no photos, and a semi-mandatory bag check (I say "semi-mandatory" as it appeared that some people managed to retain their bags). The tour is in Italian, and the crowd seemed to consist almost entirely of Italians (unusual in this tourist-heavy city). We were walked to a room, then lectured at in Italian, then walked to another room, rinse and repeat. It's a big palace, with busts, paintings, and tapestries (that needed cleaning), but was positively austere after my week of visiting palazzos. And I was pretty damn bored. But then we got to the set piece. The grand hall outside the main legislature hall is a lovely piece of work, and the legislature hall itself is magnificent. Sloping, slightly stadium-like, with visitor galleries, acres of dark wood and red leather - you can probably imagine the basics from familiarity with the equivalent space in your home country. But the upper levels of decoration are pure Art Nouveau (love it, and so different from the Renaissance and Baroque I've seen so much of in the last week). That included the massive skylight letting in natural light, mostly white with curls of pale greenery. And the huge band of painting all around the room below the skylight, with classic Renaissance (or is it Baroque? I don't even know) writhing naked bodies, but in an Art Nouveau style. I was fairly non-plussed with the rest of the tour, but that room made it worthwhile.

I went on to the nearby Palazzo Barberini: it's highly recommended by Rough Guide, and I'd already effectively paid for it as it's tied to the same ticket as Galleria Corsini.

Mattia Preti's "Flight from Troy" is a painting of the same scene as Bernini's "Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius" - but now there's a wife. I should mention the significance of this image: Aeneas is a demi-god, and after he left Troy he went on to found Rome - thus his popularity and importance.

Palazzo Barberini's most famous image(?) is Raffaello's "La Fornarina" ( ) ... it's good, but I'm not sure I understand the adoration. I continued on through the gallery and suddenly I was facing Hans Holbein's incredibly famous portrait of Henry VIII ... wait, what? You know, THE image everyone associates with Henry the Eighth. Sure, the painter is German, but is there a more quintessentially British painting? What the hell is it doing in Palazzo Barberini in Rome? Ah, the art world ...

Salome with the head of John the Baptist is not to be confused with Judith with the head of Holofernes ... I did confuse them, apparently you're supposed to be able to tell the difference because Judith usually has a servant (and no platter, and she's okay with what she did, whereas Salome is usually horrified or at the very least ill-at-ease). They have two: one with her holding the head, and in the other she's rather graphically beheading him (Jan Metsys and Caravaggio respectively). They have at least a couple more large Caravaggios, including one of Narcissus that I rather liked.

photo: Metsys's version of Judith and Holofernes

Judith, topless, holds out the severed head of Holofernes as her young servant woman looks on

photo: Caravaggio's bloody version (sorry about the reflections)

Judith is hacking off Holofernes' head (blood spurts) as her old servant woman looks on

I had lunch at "Prosciutteria Trevi Cantina dei Papi," where they pack four(?) employees into about three square metres behind a meat and cheese counter, and then they pack about 20 patrons into perhaps five square metres: but they do serve good sandwiches (and you can have wine with that, or a tray of meat and cheese). I had a "bacon and artichoke" panini with the "bacon" being one of the many cured pork versions, I think panchetta, and artichokes were preserved (pickled, in oil, not sure) artichoke hearts. It was a tight fit to sit down, but I had a place to put my sandwich and coke, and sitting was all I really needed.

Next up was Galleria d'Arte Moderna, which was spread across four very inconsistently shaped floors - I guess you fit into the space you get here. And apparently "Moderna" means 1900-1950, including at least a few Art Nouveau pieces (you may have gathered I'm a fan). I was amused to see a Giuseppe Carosi having produced a picture that I immediately identified as being by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (if you don't understand, don't worry about it - not important). I enjoyed the gallery - but there were no real stand-outs.

My last stop of the day was Il Convento dei Cappuccini (Monastery of the Friars Minor Capuchin, approximately): you're there for the ossuary. Rome has crypts, some you can tour - those crypts don't have bones. This has BONES. As you're buying your ticket there's a big sign: "This is a holy place: please no photos or video!" That sign is directly under a 32" TV showing a video of the ossuary. How do you spell "hypocrisy" in Italian? The museum acts as a preface to the ossuary, offering an introduction to the order - including its oath of poverty, for which there's presumably a Papal dispensation for collecting an entrance fee. Of course you can work around that by having non-order members collect those fees ... Sorry, I was a pissed off - it's always a bad plan to tell me not to take photos.

And then the five or six rooms of bones. Description cannot prepare you, but allow me to try. You know how children arrange sticks in geometric patterns? Imagine someone had the bones of 2000 Capuchin monks, and a couple years to arrange them all by size and shape, and then make patterns, flowers, crosses, hanging lamps ... it's more than a little creepy, but also quite fascinating. Even the order doesn't know who the artist was. And the Marquis de Sade was impressed, I think that should tell you something ...

On the way back to the B&B, I stopped in at a McDonalds - they claimed to have seating for 363 people, and it was indeed huge (and again, hiding behind one small entrance that didn't look like anything in particular). For those that haven't heard my rant about McDonalds before ... I don't go there to eat, I go there to see what they do to try to fit in to a different country. I realized as I arrived I haven't been to a McDonalds in North America in so long I'd no longer even know what's different. Oops. At a guess, though, their coffee selection leans more espresso-heavy here. And I did get to see a nun eating with friends in McDonalds - it was worth it for that.

After a quick stop at the B&B to pick up the computer, I headed out to "Il Covino," a wine bar nearby. I asked for a local wine, and what he gave me was from Lazio (very local) and tasted somewhat akin to mixing rocks and soil into an ordinary wine. "Minerally" doesn't begin to cover it. Keep in mind, I don't have a sensitive palate: you have to hit me over the head with a flavour for me to notice it, so this was not subtle. The second wine he tried me on was Sicilian, and not so minerally - he said it was somewhat, but no way I would have noticed after the previous one. Interestingly, I liked this one better initially, but by the end probably would have gone back to the rock wine (I kind of liked it, oddly enough).

Picked up a Tiramisu in a small bottle from Lemongrass Gelato on the way back to the B&B: not a great idea, but a very delicious one.

photo: Palazzo Barberini

a woman in a vivid blue skirt faces away from us