I recently came back from ten days in Italy. I will put down some highlights here in chronological order. Pictures are, as ever, here.
Jod joined me to Rome for a long weekend. It was my second time there and Jod’s first. We stayed in a wonderful hotel and good times were had in it and outside it. We walked, we shopped, we did the museums and sights. It was pleasantly cold, too. I now realise that I can hardly put together a narrative, the three days there resurface in the form of all sorts of sensations, sights, sounds. The coffee is spectacular as ever, the food was okay. The Vatican Museums were deservingly crowded. The collection of religious art between Raphael’s rooms and Cappella Sistina were worth a look at. The Cappella Sistina frescoes I have pored over so much in my life, I felt nothing when I actually made it there. However, I was surprised by how high the ceiling is. And yes, the Delphic Sibyl looks quite impressive when you are there, even though quite high above us.
My moment of stendhalismo had come earlier, in the Stanza della Segnatura. Again, one gets too familiar with the School of Athens after a while, but only when in its presence and in full view of it does one realise why Raphael is considered a Master. However, the other three walls of the Stanza are what completes the effect. Hence, opposite the School of Athens is a fresco of the Church Triumphant: a rather formulaic and linearly arranged composition (angels, apostles and Christ on the top layer, bishops and the like flanking an altar on the bottom layer); however it is beautiful, it is amazingly beautiful — and I had not seen any reproductions of it before, which made the impact and the rapture much more potent. On the wall facing the window you have a Parnassus of poetry and music and on the wall around the window a rather pedestrian fresco on Lawmaking, where the robes of the pope seem to sparkle and shine and glitter in the light coming through the actual window — although this is just an illusion. So, you are standing in the middle of that room surrounded by (particular but enchanting and powerful) visions of Beauty, Truth, Wisdom and Virtue — what the Western World has been about for the last 25 centuries, in all its criminal contradiction, in all its hypocritical idealism, in all its tragic devotion and sublimated strife. I was struck speechless.
I went to Siena alone on business, Jod returned to the Outpost. Business went very well. Siena is the darling of middle-class Brits, who identify it with ‘authentic Tuscany’. To me, it looked like a pathetic relic, an unkempt medieval Disneyland: an oversized quaint village that has frozen in the 13th century, that is when the Florentines conquered it. If medieval flavour is what you are after, go to wonderful Urbino instead. Anyway, the big thing in Siena nowadays — besides the tourism — is the rivarlies among its ten neighbourhoods, the contrade, and their Palio. That’s it. The place is oppressive and depressing, an oversize museum empty of excitement. Surprisingly, despite its large student population, it was really quiet at night. However, in the decent osteria Pappei I had an amazing torta della nonna for dessert: yum.
Just one word: wow. The number two city of the Serenissima has everything: a modern quarter, shopping, chocolate and nutella as the local specialties, a University dating back to 1222 (and scores of students to liven up the place), quaint neighbourhoods, bars, bridges, buildings dating from the 12th the 21st century, buzz, its own local Saint, an atmosphere of a Dutch town coupled with Italian cuteness. Less morbid than Venice, lively but, still, with some really pretty urban landscapes. It also includes the Giotto chapel (Capella degli Scrovegni) and a decent art collection (look out for the angels!). I will go back there again. Definitely.
The obvious things first: gazillions of tourists, gazi-bazillions of them; Uffizi is the best art collection in the world (with only a maximum of 5% of non-masterpieces), although the space badly needs a grand Louvre-style restoration; it is horrendously expensive.
However, what really stayed with me besides these is discovering Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel and the food. Yes. In Florence I had the best food in my life. Full descriptions of meals follow:
First: Dinner, in Cibrèo:
Tuscan crostini (ok, no big deal)
Three cheese sformato with minced beef (un-believable, un-believable: I almost wept)
Chicken and ricotta polpette (good thing I did not go blind — how do they make them?)
Second: Dinner, in Acquacotta:
Vegetable terrine, made with really thinly sliced vegetables (almost bland)
Ravioli in meat sauce (okay)
Pepper beef tagliata (my own madeleine / Ratatouille moment, bringing back memories of me being a preschooler and trying a steak: I also suddenly realised why people still eat meat)
Gianduia chocolate torte (to die for)
Third: Lunch, in Pizzaiuolo
Frutti di mare (are you sure this is just cooked seafood? juicy tasty prawns, delicious squid, fragrant mussels — and I hate the smell of sea)
Linguini with octopus and prawns. I am a Compatrido. We eat octopus and pasta. A lot. In the equivalent Compatrido dish, the octopus smells like seafood (yuk) and has the consistency of tender rubber. Not in this case. I could not believe I was not eating fresh lobster.
Ok, I’m off to dinner now…