Friday, April 30, 2010

It's a Beautiful Language

For anyone who has adopted Italian as their native tongue, anyone who dreams of one day being able to speak it, or anyone who just loves the way it sounds, Dianne Hales' La Bella Lingua is a must-read. It makes you want to run to the library and check out all the Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio you can carry. She draws upon the greatest Italian writers, artists, composers and film makers to tell the story of Italian's journey from a vulgar dialect to the best-loved language in the world.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mars of Todi - Etruscan art at its best

Despite having set foot in the Vatican Museums over five hundred times in my life, I had never visited the Vatican's Etruscan Museum until very recently. The Etruscan Museum is slightly off the beaten track for the average 2 to 2 1/2 tour. But recently a private group specifically requested it, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to do some exploring there.

By far the greatest and most important work in the museum is the striking Mars of Todi, a near life-size bronze of a warrior (found without his helmet), making an offering to the gods before a battle. It is an extremely rare and well-preserved example of Etruscan statuary art, and dates to the end of the 5th century BC. It was found in the Umbrian town of Todi in 1853 buried between four slabs of travertine.

While far from being an Etruscan scholar myself, unlike my talented friend and resident Etruscologist Theresa Potenza, it is not hard to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of this work. The Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization, eventually and unfortunately wiped out by the power-hungry Romans, were strongly influenced by Greek art. They were highly skilled artisans, particularly in gold and bronze, to whom funerary rites were extremely important. Much of the recovered Etruscan art has been discovered within their large and intricately frescoed tombs in towns such as Cerverteri and Tarquinia: chariots, thrones, jewelry, hand mirrors, and many other artifacts.

Still, the Etruscans remain mysterious as their origins are not completely known. Even the Etruscan tongue, completely unrelated to any other known language and read from right to left, was not able to be translated until recently.

An interesting detail of this piece is its inscription, carved into the fringe of the warriors armour, very subtly seen to read "Ahal Trutitis dunum dede" or "Ahal Trutitis gave as a gift." Not the artist's signature but the donor's!

Photo sources: 1, 2
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Le Vie di Roma: What's in a name?

One of my favorite curiosities about Rome is its street names. While many seem silly and random, on the contrary, almost all have very specific reasons behind them. It delights me to no end learning just how a particular street got its name. (Yes, I am very easily amused.) Every Wednesday I will endeavor to discover and share with you a new one.

OK, let's start with a kind of obvious one: Via del Mascherone. Street of the Big Mask. I love how literal Italian can be. There's no dressing this up, or trying to make it sound mysterious. One glance at the fountain at the end of the short street, and the reason for its name becomes blatantly clear.

The fountain was built in 1626 and is attributed to Girolamo Rainaldi. It incorporates a couple of different ancient artifacts: a granite tub, a small shell-shaped basin, and, most noticeably, the "big mask," which, in ancient times, had led a humbler existence as a drain cover. It is one of the many showcase fountains built by the Farnese family shortly after the canalization of the Pope's newly repaired aqueduct, the Acqua Paola. According to legend (and you know how I feel about legends), during Farnese family festivities, this fountain ran not with water, but with wine. The popes really knew how to party back in those days.

This lucky street connects one of Rome's loveliest squares, Piazza Farnese, to one of its most elegant streets, Via Giulia. (It is on my preferred route home to Trastevere after a rowdy evening out in Campo de' Fiori.)

Photo sources: 1, 2
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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tuesday is Random Photo Day!

This is one of my favorite photos from my first year in Rome, over five years ago. This was back when I carried a camera around with me everywhere I went just in case I came upon characteristic moments such as this one. This restaurant is not far from the Pantheon.
Photo by author
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Monday, April 26, 2010

Il Natale di Roma

On occasion of the birth of this blog, I thought it apt to write a few lines on the birth of Rome, a date celebrated here in the eternal city just last week. April 21st, 753 BC, Rome was founded. Or at least, that's how the legend goes.

I, for one, love legends. And I tend to believe them wholeheartedly. Sure, facts are great, archaeological evidence is terrific. But there's nothing like a good old-fashioned legend to get people really interested. Or is that just the tour guide in me talking? Regardless, Roman history is packed with legends, and none is more famous than that of Romulus and Remus, a story told first by Livy, a Roman historian active during the 1st century BC. To understand Rome, you must understand this legend.

27 hundred odd years ago, there was a princess (all good legends begin with a princess, I think you'll agree) of the kingdom of Alba Longa in the Alban hills, a settlement southeast of Rome. Her name was Rhea Silvia. Her father, King Numitor, was ousted by his younger brother, who then killed Numitor's only son, and forced Rhea Silvia to become a vestal virgin, a chaste priestess to the goddess of the hearth. Any vestal virgin who lost her virginity would be buried alive. A tidy way to cut off Numitor's heirs.

But lo and behold, (and this is where it starts to sound less like history and more like a myth) our young heroine was seduced by the god of war, Mars, while taking a nap in the forest. The result of this coupling was not one, but two twin boys. Tossed into the Tiber River, the abandoned newborns eventually washed ashore on the banks of what would eventually be called the Palatine Hill. It was here that a she-wolf, having lost her own cubs, nursed the twins until they could be adopted by a shepherd and his wife.

(It is interesting to note the the latin word for she-wolf, lupa, was also slang for prostitute. Perhaps there is some basis for this legend after all...)

Upon reaching adulthood, Romulus and Remus decide the hilly region north of the Tiber Island is an ideal place for a new kingdom. Both wanting to be king, they decide to look for a sign in the flights of birds. Romulus takes up position on the Palatine Hill, Remus on the Aventine. Six vultures fly over Remus, and twelve over Romulus. I'm betting you can guess where this is going. After a fight to the death, Romulus emerges victorious. He names the city after himself, founds the Roman Legions and the Roman Senate and becomes the first of the seven legendary kings of Rome.

Happy 2763rd birthday, Roma!

PS The first photo depicts the Capitoline She-Wolf. A bronze Etruscan work from the 5th century BC, it likely had nothing to do with the legend when it was created. The famous suckling twins were added in the late 15th century, most likely by the sculptor Antonio Pollaiolo. It has become the symbol of Rome, and can be seen anywhere, from the backs of buses to the Roma team's football jerseys. The second photo is Peter-Paul Ruben's painting Romulus and Remus.

Photo Sources: 1, 2
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