I had a perfect hot day in Rome last week. (On a hot day in Rome, perfection includes getting back to an air conditioned room by 3:00 and spending the hottest part of the day resting one’s feet.)
Loyal readers (that’s you, Mom and Paul) already know of my fondness for Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect whose work decorates Rome and — please don’t think me shallow for mentioning this — starred in the Dan Brown book and Tom Hanks movie “Angels and Demons.” Visiting Bernini’s masterpieces is a perfect way for people like me who aren’t naturally drawn to museums to appreciate art. It also turns out to be a fine way to spend a day in Rome — see “My Roman Holiday” for one such day earlier this year.
On my walk through Rome last week, I branched out beyond Bernini … and liked it very much.
I started the day with a good look at the magnificent facade of a Borromini church near my hotel. Sant’ Ivo is inside the walls of the old Rome University, and it’s only open to the public a few hours a week. This morning, drinking in the beauty of the facade was enough for me.
Poor Francesco Borromini — he was so overshadowded by Bernini, his contemporary and eventual rival. It sounds like he was a tortured guy. The guidebook I was using interpreted his use of convex and concave curves as an expression of his internal conflict. Whatever. All I know is they sure are cool.
Trying to beat the heat, I hustled across the river and up the Janiculum Hill to see Il Tempietto, a glorious little dome-on-the-ground, the Renaissance masterpiece of Donato Bramante, a predecessor of Bernini and Borromini. Il Tempietto was closed the last time I tried to visit it, so my enjoyment was laced with the self-satisfaction of having conquered the sometimes-bewildering schedule for visiting churches in Rome.
Bernini and Borromini in the same block!
My next stop was a two-fer: a small and incredibly rich Bernini church (Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale) a few steps away from a small and striking Borromini church (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, aka San Carlino). It was amazing to see one right after the other and compare the different ways these contemporaries created majestic places in such small places. Both are oval … but that’s about where the similarities end.
I was especially eager to spend some time in Sant’ Andrea, and not just because my last visit was cut short by the bare-shoulder police. (My friend Carol and I had forgotten to take something to wear over our sleeveless tops and the caretaker or usher scowled at us until we left.) I read that Bernini himself was particularly fond of this church and that in his later years he would spend time inside, just admiring it. If it’s good enough for Bernini, it’s good enough for me. I would have relished my time there under any circumstances, but the idea that I was doing what he had done himself was particularly moving.
Borromini’s comparable masterpiece is on the corner no more than a block away from the Sant’ Andrea, and I’m glad I had my Michelin’s guide with me. It calls this church, his first full-scale work, the one that “probably shows his genius at its best.” More important, though, the guide pointed out the ingenuity, beauty and importance of the facade, which is hard to appreciate because it is so close to the street. Without that prompt, I would have missed one of the best parts of this gem simply by failing to cross the street and look back.
So while I still love Bernini, Borromini is #1 on my list of “Socially challenged Swiss Italian architects of the Roman Baroque that I would most like to have with me if I were stranded on a desert island.” (Um, I’m not the only one that keeps that list, am I?)
I misplaced my camera the day before Mom and Paige (dear family friend and Mom’s traveling companion) arrived. As it happens, Paige is, on top of all her other admirable qualities, a very fine photographer. I didn’t lose my camera on purpose. Really. But you may notice an improvement in the photos taken during my camera’s hiatus and a corresponding decline following its reappearance.
On their first full day in Italy, we took off for Pienza, a southern Tuscan town that’s an easy and beautiful hour’s drive away.
We stopped at a roadside bar for caffè, and Mom loved her latte macchiato (steamed milk with a shot of espresso). During her week in Italy, she ordered one whenever we stopped for coffee. It never came the same way twice!
We spent our time in Pienza wandering around with delicious leisure. We found the Duomo and Palazzo Piccolomini, then a good restaurant for lunch. We did a little shopping and Mom bought some Pecorino, the cheese that would have put Pienza on the map if the Pope Pius II, who designed and bankrolled the town in the mid-1400’s, hadn’t done it first.
On our way back, we stopped in Proceno, a gem of a little hill town about 15 miles from Benano. It’s just on the other side of Acquapendente and is built around a castle. Acquapendente is a historic center of trade along the Cassia, the Roman road running roughly between Rome and Genoa. These days, we think of the Cassia as the road to Tuscany and Acquapendente as a very pleasant and useful mid-sized town.
We walked Proceno’s picturesque but nearly empty streets. We were there in the afternoon, which is a sleepy time for these small towns that take their lunch breaks very seriously. Shops and other businesses usually reopen around 3:30 or 4 and stay open until 7:30 or 8:00. It takes some getting used to – I always seem to get somewhere in the middle of the down time.
For anyone keeping track of such things, ordering coffee in Italy is an art. Here is a primer on Italian coffee drinks.
There are two beautiful and poignant WWII cemeteries near Benano.
The Orvieto war cemetery is primarily a battlefield cemetery. The dates of death are almost all about the same — and all of them are way too close to the dates of birth. They were so young.
The British men buried here died within weeks of June 5, 1944, the day that Rome fell to the Allies. So in early June, these Brits were fighting against the Italians. They died in late June, fighting with Italians to chase the Germans out of the country.
The Bolsena War Cemetery is also a short drive from Benano. The sentiment of gratitude from the Italians is reflected by the meticulous maintenance bestowed on these cemeteries. There are flowers planted at the base of all the headstones that bloom every year.
And the guest books! The guest book comments from family members from England who have come to pay tribute to uncles and great-uncles they never met are heart-rending.
One of my Italian teachers was surprised to hear me refer to the beauty of the War Cemeteries, and she insisted that I visit the Italian Cemetery on a hill just across a very small valley from Orvieto.
We found the cemetery on the road toward Bolsena. As soon as we entered, I understand her point. It is everything the war cemeteries are not – lush, elaborate, and exuberant expressions of grief. Very Italian, and also beautiful.
A Bit of WWII Perspective from Benano
The war came very close to home. A neighbor explained to us over coffee one morning that she lost her hand in 1947 when she picked up an unexploded ordnance in the field just outside Benano. From her description, I realized it happened in this field, which sits just below our dining room windows
Paul is here! This will be way too long if I describe how happy I am to be with him again. Longer still if I describe my race to the airport to be there on time. Daylight Savings Time arriving in Italy this weekend … who knew? Everything worked out, and it was a wonderful reunion.
We took a very slightly longer but much more scenic drive home. Rather taking the freeway, we drove up the coast, then through olive country, and finally around the rim of Lake Bolsena. The difference in time is a little under two hours by freeway and about 2-1/4 hours by the coast. I will never recommend the freeway route again.
The coastal route was easy to access from the airport, and the first half was very standard highway driving along the Mediterranean coast. It’s no California Highway 1, though — one hardly ever sees the water. A bit past Cittavecchia (a port that may be familiar because cruise ships dock there for their Rome stops), the road changed to 2 lanes and got much more interesting. It also headed inland, so the beautiful scenery was countryside rather than coast. And unlike the freeway route, we had our choice of several inviting stops along the way.
Our first stop was the Vulci Archeological Park, which features the ruins of an Etruscan metropolis dating from, oh, 1,000 – 900 B.C. No, really. It was very interesting, the day was beautiful, and the countryside serene. And Paul was exhausted. He pulled an all-nighter the night before his departure, so it wasn’t just the jet lag. We strolled through the ruins of the clever defensive structures and aristocrat’s residence then walked out to the riverbank. Paul was fading fast (I think the term “death march” came up), so we took a shortcut back. Oops. We didn’t stop for the photo until there was a fence separating us from these fellas.
Our next stop was much more delicious. The area around Canino is known for its olives, and that was obvious from the scenery. A frantoio is an olive oil production facility, and our friends told us that Frantoio Arturo Archibusacci is the best in the region. They also said there’s a good restaurant. We found only a minor point of disagreement: it’s a great restaurant!
Paul forgot his reading glasses in the car, then it became obvious that he didn’t have to retrieve them because there was no menu to read. After a brief discussion with the waiter, we selected bruschetta (one with good olive oil and salt, the other with a sublime olive tapenade) and an unbelievable antipasto feast. We each had a primo — I had an asparagus lasagne and Paul had the pappardelle cinghiale. We never made it to the “main course” (secondo piatto), and Paul was asleep in the front seat before we left the parking lot.
He has only my word for it, but the rest of the drive home was beautiful. The back road route took us up in the hills above Lake Bolsena and provided breathtaking views and easy driving.
For anyone keeping track of such things, the restaurant is called Ristorante La Bruschetteria di Arturo and the address is Via di Corneto, snc – 01011, Canino (VT). Phone: 0761 437202. I had the feeling we were lucky to get in on a weekend without a reservation, so I will definitely call ahead next time. It’s closed on Mondays. “Reservation” is prenotazione, “lunch” is pranzo, and “dinner” is cena. And, this being Italy, there are plenty of words for “delicious.”
And Daylight Savings Time always begins in Italy on the last weekend of March and ends the last weekend of October. Good to know.
We had heard that our little village of Benano is featured in a fresco in Orvieto, but all we knew was that it was supposed to be in a building across the piazza from the Duomo. So I went on a fresco hunt this morning.
The Etruscan Museum is directly across from the church, so that was my first stop. I was deflated when I saw its stark white walls. Museum staff confirmed that I wouldn’t find any frescos there. They didn’t know where to suggest I look, so I poked my head into a few shops opposite the church. Then I came to this locked door.
This looked as promising as it was imposing, and I suspected I had found it. I had also found a fellow student in the piazza, so she was with me when I rang the bell. The lock buzzed and the door popped open and we found ourselves in an empty marble stairwell. Seeing neither people nor a fresco, we took the only route possible, which was up the stairs. We came into another empty anteroom. But this one had frescos near its very high ceiling. We had found it! We took some pictures, congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity, and when no one ever came to see whom they had buzzed in, we left the building.
So I don’t know anything else about the fresco. I’m clearly no Nancy Drew when it comes to sleuthing.
And that’s OK. I’m getting used to not understanding a lot of what’s happening around me. It’s a humbling and kind of liberating feeling.