Thursday, October 24, 2013

How Not to See Rome and Florence, or There and Back Again

Okay, so 1,742 marble cherub butts later, jet lag is beginning to abate. It's taking damned long enough, too, with part of me still eight times zones away, as though my body got caught in some kind of temporal Dr. Who Doppler Effect and stopped halfway. Something's just not synching. Last night, while reading a novel with the World Series turned on I didn't just doze, but was inhaled by the intense R.E.M.'s reserved for past-midnight, for about twenty minutes.

Reubens knew his cherubs for sure.
But back to the marble cherub butts. I'm pretty sure that's most peoples' takeaway from their journeys to Rome and Florence, because there are a lot of them. Hordes, in fact. It's not that I have anything against cherub butts, mind you. I don't have anything against, say, potato bugs, either, but I don't want them crawling all over the back of my head and neck.

I got the travel bug when I was five or so and ran away from home. It wasn't so much displeasure over where I was as much as it was curiosity about what it was like someplace else. In the seventh and eight grades, the junior high schools in Reno, Nevada, where I lived, experimented with foreign language instruction--six weeks each of French, Spanish and Latin. While in those classes, I'd try to imagine what it was like to be in a different country and respond to signifiers differently than people in America.

To say "it's cold" in Spanish, for example, you'd say "hace fria," which, literally translated, means "it makes cold." What makes cold, and why does it make it instead of be it? What was in the Spanish psyche to have created that expression, that unique way of expressing the weather? For that matter, what, in English, are we talking about when we say "it's cold?" What is "it?" I would later learn about idioms and all that, but what struck me then, and does to this day, are the myriad ways people in other countries encounter life, prioritize it, express it.

To stay with Spanish, the verb "hacer" means both "to do" and "to make." How cool is that? What's in the essence of being Spanish that says "make" and "do" are the same thing? To find out, you have to go to Spain and walk Spanish streets, eat Spanish food and kind of hang out with a lot of Spaniards.

On a roll, here, but Germans have a word, "zeitgeist," that doesn't quite translate into English, but is variously rendered as "spirit of the times" or "spirit of the age." Fascinating, isn't it, that a linguistic priority has one word for all that? To figure it out, do you take a 300-level course in Goethe or hang out in a Munich biersteube?

Which brings us back to the marble cherub butts. When you travel to Rome, of course you have to see the sights you've heard and read about, sights that are icons of Western Civilization. The Forum. The Coliseum. Palatine Hill. Trevi Fountains. And, of course, The Vatican. And the Sistine Chapel.

No problem there, at least in the abstract. But let's take the concrete instead. In Rome,  on our recent vacation, we didn't do like the Romans. We did like the Americans. And Spanish and Japanese and Chinese and whatever-ese and went to the Sistine Chapel (we did the other stuff, too, but I'm using the SC as a foil).

Way to go God!
The Sistine Chapel is not, as you might suspect, a cool little Renaissance building in some Borgia wildwood. It's the last in a labyrinth of museums, noted as "Vatican Museums" in guidebooks and an with arrow on the street sign. Everybody wants to see that iconic ceiling fresco Michelangelo painted of God giving life to Adam, and therefore, the universe.

To go there is an exercise in physical and mental endurance. Wo be unto you if you didn't buy advance tickets! Your hair will be as gray as God's by the time you get in.

We did buy advance tickets and thought things wouldn't be so bad, given the time of year. October is the off season, right? Believe me, thousands of people missed that particular memo. As I recall, there are four different museums, with Museo Pio Clementino housing *The One*, the Sistine Chapel. Except you have to go through fifty-four other galleries, or salons, or whatever they're called, before you get there and get to see God giving the Eternal Finger.

It's not that these galleries are bad. I mean, what can be wrong with the Botticelli Salon, or the Raphael, or the one which had a da Vinci painting in it (which, like Satchel Paige, I totally disremember), or the fifty-odd other ones that flow and merge like flotsam in a flood ? Nothing, if you're a history or arts or humanities buff, I guess. But if you're an interested lay person, it's a different story.

Nascent masterpieces
You're never more than a few inches away from hordes of fellow visitors. They're always in chaotic, but forward, motion, except when some yahoo just. has. to. stop. and. take. a picture of some naked cherub butt. Simon Schmidt from Schenectady suddenly sees himself as Henri Bresson on assignment for National Geographic and stands there holding up his smart phone camera for what seems like an eternity, getting the subject into perfect focus so that this personal masterpiece is complete and ready to show the folks back home. And forward progress stops for everyone else.

About the time you find a moment to really look at some artwork, a guided tour group shoulders its way between you and the masterpiece, the tour guide rendering in detail what the slack-jawed, glazed-eyed members are supposed to be looking at in a language that sounds like Sanskrit. When they finally zombie-walk away to the next feature, they're replaced by another group speaking a different language that sounds like Sanskrit.

But at last! You've made it! You finally get into the Sistine Chapel, and it's so full of people gaping at the ceiling that you cannot move. Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes are really stunning, and the famous one with The Big Guy is hard to find because there are so many covering the huge ceiling. They're kind of small and high up, so you really have to look. And look. And look.

If you fix on something you like, concentrate like hell, because it will be about six seconds before someone shoulders you away. Stand too long in one spot, and museum guards bark at you to not stand there. Want to leave? Plan on taking guided turns.

This took us all of the morning and part of the afternoon, essentially blowing off the better part of the day. For the entire time, we were immersed in the world's most famous Renaissance art, an avalanche, an ocean of marble naked cherub butts.

I'm not ashamed to say I barely remember ninety-five percent of it. And if you go the the popular forums--Trip Advisor and others--hardly anyone else did, either. Scholars might study Renaissance art for years, but tourists cram it all in a few hours, catalogued with Iphone pictures of stuff they can't remember, let alone identify, to show their friends. You get far better photos from Google Images, believe me.

And you've just spent the better part of the day in Rome not hanging out with Romans, who, I have to say, are absolutely wonderful people--kind, funny, engaging, helpful, welcoming. I loved them. You will not have learned why they say "in bocca al lupo--" literally, in the mouth of a wolf--to mean "good luck." Go figure that one out.

We did not see every site one is *supposed to* see, and I'm glad of that. But we had some great food, joked with the cafe guys and the Campo di Fiori vendors and had the mom of the brothers who ran a restaurant flutter around and tell us to not wake my daughter's little boy when he fell asleep. And the family having a birthday celebration for their three-year-old at the next table gave us some birthday cake.

How cool is that? The little girl was the cutest cherub of all.

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