When we booked a flight to Rome, I realised that we would arrive very late and the public transport connections to the city and our hotel would have closed down for the night. So I booked a pick-up service called Welcome (!) and was informed that Marco Astrologo (!) would be our driver. As it turned out our flight was a bit delayed, the baggage delivery at Fiumicino airport was very slow and Mr. Astrologo had been replaced with another guy whose name I didn’t catch. But at half past midnight we were happy to sink into the comfortable seats of a Mercedes for the 45 minute ride along the autostrada. The driver was initially quite chatty, but we were tired and I was lost in memories of the 1991 film called Night on Earth directed by Jim Jarmusch. There’s a sequence in which Roberto Benigni drives a taxi around Rome late at night with a bishop on the back seat having a heart attack. Not to be missed!
Rome is rather overwhelming and full of tourists in July (not surprisingly…). Many of the massive monuments testify to the power of both the Empire – which expanded beyond the Roman Republic and lasted from 27 BC to 1453 AD – and the Catholic Church. These are not amongst my favourite institutions: widespread slave labour and violence characterised the former and assorted forms of abuse have been common features of the latter. However, with some care it is possible to locate attractive sites in Rome and I was very happy to see the 13th Century mosaics in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (in the ‘photo above), the market at the Campo di Fiori (where there were surprisingly few flowers on sale) and the Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). We also checked out the very impressive Pantheon, a 43 meter spherical temple completed by Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century, which has a 9 meter hole in the roof to let the sunshine in and dazzle the assembled populace with the light and power of the sovereign.
We stayed on the Aventino Hill near the church and monastery of the Knights Templar (or Order of Malta) where a keyhole (“serratura”) offers an extraordinary view of St. Peter’s Basilica and where the orange gardens of Santa Sabrina overlook the River Tiber; these are pictured below, by night and by day, with the vast Basilica visible in the background. We ate meals in the Testaccio district, which is far from the main tourist zones and boasts a market with what may be the city’s best pizzeria! On our third and last evening we sat by a busy road junction at a café called the Tram Depot and watched groups of modern Romans chatting and drinking…
Four days of our trip were spent in the countryside close to Assisi in Umbria. We joined a large group of Danes celebrating a sixtieth birthday. During our stay we had an opportunity to visit the town of Saint Francis and Poor Clare, enriched with explanatory notes by Francesca a knowledgeable local guide. These two dropouts from the merchant and noble hierarchies of the early 13th Century had a big impact in terms of broadening the appeal of the church with their inclusive “pro-poor” messages. There are extraordinary frescos by the early 14th Century artist Giotto and his team showing the life of the saint in the upper church of the enormous San Francesco Basilica. Clare’s remains are kept in a crypt under the church of her name (Santa Chiara).
The simplicity of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares is largely obscured by the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church. The smell of hypocrisy is in the air around the ubiquitous collection boxes and requests for donations. As I remember, the contradictions reached a peak in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher quoted lines that have been attributed to Saint Francis – “where there is discord, let there be harmony”, etc. – in her inaugural speech as she prepared to launch the Tory onslaught on the rights and welfare of British citizens.
The history of architecture as well as political and social organisation is also on display in Siena, where we stopped for an all-too-brief visit en route to the Arno Valley. The Romans and the Tuscans knew a thing or two about building for longevity and it is fascinating to wander around the medieval city and admire the red brick buildings and the sloping Campo in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, which housed the Republic of Siena’s administration. There’s also an incredible cathedral (Duomo). But I had forgotten to check any guides before we got to the city. So we missed an opportunity to take a look at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a series of frescos in the council hall painted in the mid-14th Century just before the population was decimated by an outbreak of the Black Death (plague).
Lucca is another of the old city-states famous for its fortified and well-preserved walls. We went for a day trip in the sizzling sunshine and enjoyed strolling the stylish, narrow streets and large squares, looking at the impressive churches and particularly the Torre Guinigi, which has a hanging garden of Tuscan oaks at the top. By way of a total and refreshing contrast, the Contemporary Arts Center in Lucca was exhibiting black and white photos of America taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson during trips between the 1940s and the 1970s.
The northern Tuscan hills were also refreshing, even though the temperatures were in the lower 30s (degrees Celsius) during our stay. We drove winding roads to places with names like Buggiano and Piteglio from our base in Massa e Cozzile. Every village seems to be surrounded by thick walls and at each central piazza there are tiny churches with tall towers.
When we tired of exploring the hillside villages, we went to Montecatini Terme, a spa resort in the Arno Valley. The town is famous for thermal waters, which we tested during a swim at one of the baths. But it has an odd atmosphere, seemingly trapped in an era when such spa towns were in vogue amongst the leisured classes. Every other building is a hotel, but mostly they’re empty. The guests have moved on, seeking wellness and fitness in other surroundings, or simply heading for the Mediterranean beaches to join the summer crowds.
We ended our trip on the autostrada again, early in the morning driving to Pisa airport for the flight to Copenhagen. Fuimicino airport in Rome is also called Leonardo da Vinci and Pisa airport is named after Galileo. Modern Italians are aware of their rich history…
PS Reviewing these notes and pictures I realize that there’s a sub-theme in this record of our trip: towers. Italy is full of them! So is the city where I work, as I discovered a couple of years ago when I was a given a book by Peter Olesen called “Københavns Tårne” (the Towers of Copenhagen, Gyldendal, 2013). Builders through the centuries and all over the world have been reaching for the sky, getting closer to God…
 Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the big name of the artistic renaissance in Tuscany. He was also an engineer and a scientist, claiming in his “treatise on painting” (published after his death): “no human investigation can be termed true science if it is not capable of mathematical demonstration.” In arguing for the Copernican model of the earth moving around the sun – in a ”heliocentric” manner – the Pisan native Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) got himself into deep trouble with the Catholic Church and ended his life in house arrest in a Tuscan village. Much has been written about these giants of discovery and imagination; see, inter alia: David Wootton (2015) on the ”Invention of Science” (Allan Lane).