A Journey Into European Puppetry

Elephant

Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more.

St Peter's at Night

My first visit to St. Peter’s at night.

My road did indeed lead me to Rome on a 13 hour train ride from Palermo, which also included driving the train onto a ferry to get it across the Strait of Messina. I arrived, late of course, at night in the Eternal City at my hotel a few blocks from the Vatican, where a woman, whose accent I guessed, much to her surprise, as Ukrainian, was waiting for me and late for her dinner. And soon I was back on the streets of Roma where I discovered that everything near a tourist site is expensive and nearly everything seems to be a tourist site. But I strolled over to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the dark and reflected on the fact that I was truly in Rome for the first time in my life.

Swiss Guard

Swiss guard at The Vatican

Now the reason I had never come to Italy before was mostly out of (a perhaps not misplaced) humility. There’s just too much history here. And I love history. Researching this trip I discovered that state of Tuscany alone has more cultural and historic treasures than any other single country on earth. And while you are rereading that line let me then add that Italy in total has more historic and artistic treasures than the rest of the world combined. That’s why I’ve never been here before. It is impossible for me to consider Italy as a quick vacation stop. And for that reason I didn’t even consider going to Florence or Venice. There’s just too much to see. There’s even a Florentine Syndrome that relates to people trying to squeeze in too much of Florence in too few days. The eyes just get clogged and one is unable to take anymore visual splendor. So Palermo Sicily was my specific introduction to the Italian world. And this would be an introduction to Rome. And if I was fortunate I’d be able to see a puppet show while I was here.

VAtican Museum Crowds

Not a crowded day at the Vatican Museum.

First things first. I wanted to go to the Vatican museum. I needed to see the Sistine Chapel. I almost bought a ticket the night before online. But I decided against it for practical and budgetary reasons. I decided to take my chances and stand in line. Curiously the line was less than 15 minutes long, I guess that’s what you get on December 1st. That isn’t to say it wasn’t crowded inside. It was 11:00 and pretty much like a cattle car. I learned long ago how to visit museums from a lecture by Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, you don’t mosey and look at everything. Especially in crowds like this. You save your eyes, avoiding Florentine Syndrome, and go straight to what you want to see. And so I passed up as many gawkers as I could, dodging in and out of the human traffic, using mi scusi and permesso often to push my way passed the bovine hordes. And at last I arrived at the place. And even with the relatively crowded room, the museum guards regularly saying ‘No Photo!’ to the selfie addicts I was able to find enough space to pause and explore the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for ten minutes and the ceiling for another twenty. I was completely impressed by the life sized figures being sent off to judgment. Having seen them largely in coffee table books. Even the grandest off them does no justice to the size and intensity of the work. I was also caught off guard by Michelangelo’s various uses of trompe l’oeil, which did literally deceive my eyes.

Baroque Christ

The Baroque vision of Christ at the Church of San Francesco a Ripa.

I spent another couple of hours in the museum, basking in the statues and Raphael’s The School of Athens among many others. And I ended up walking through the Sistine Chapel once again. And I was glad I had gotten there early. Now it was so overcrowded that the assemblage were standing shoulder to shoulder. But at least I had had my time for reflection earlier.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis as seen from afar

The next morning was Sunday and so I walked the few blocks to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see Pope Francis give a short message at noon. While there I decided to walk through great church. It was indeed more than suitably impressive. Massive. Yet light as though floating somehow. I came up to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great Baldacchino. Far grander than the photos had given me any notion of. And I continued making a loop along with many others, though it felt much less crammed with tourists than the museum had been. I almost left St. Peter’s when I noticed a group of people gathered around something. I was looking for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. And then I realized I was standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This depiction of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, with young face and aging body is easily one of the greatest works of art ever made. Carved in marble, or should I say revealed in marble, for the carver’s art is not like the painter. The carver removes pieces very carefully to find this image. And as I was standing in front of the Pieta I was suddenly moved so deeply by it that I almost burst into tears. There was something in the face. That Michelangelo had found somehow the perfect face of tenderness and sorrow in the beauty of his Mary. And also knowing what it meant to my mother, one of the few artistic visions to haunt her, maybe because I was her only child, her son. But also the consolation in the face of Mary and that stark need we often crave when confronted by some of life’s darker tidings. I had to control myself so as not to be reduced to tears in public.

Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta. The light is coming from a reflection on the bullet proof glass in front of the statue. Insanely the statue was once attacked and mutilated.

A little later it seemed anticlimactic to be out in the piazza with thousands of others as the Pope, the size of a postage stamp, gave his message. But it was good to know that on some level this journey had received the Pope’s blessing. And as I passed among people from so many countries again I choked up a little at the sight of Germans who were singing and dancing.

My task for the rest of that Sunday, perhaps a bit too ambitious, was to find two more Bernini sculptures hidden in obscure churches and find the burattini (Italian for both puppets in general and also hand or glove puppets) featuring commedia dell’arte characters. So I hopped on bus from near the Vatican and ended up somewhere further up the Tiber River. I was looking for the Church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere with the funerary statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. I arrived to find the church locked for lunch. (!) And since this was Rome lunch would take over two hours. So I decided, sensibly, to find my own lunch. I wanted something authentic. And I found it. A little pizza place called Don, which served Napoli style fried pizza. (?) And that was a bit like a small round calzone that was fried on both sides in hot oil. Absolutely sensational. Biting into it released steam, everything completely fresh. Overwhelming satisfaction. (Not a pineapple to be seen anywhere on the premises.) Eventually I went back to sit on the church steps. A mother and daughter from Connecticut and New York City respectively came to wait, another half hour, with me. The daughter worked at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. And she was here exactly for the same reason that I was. Bernini!

Blessed Ludovica

The Blessed Ludovica in the Shadows

When at last, late in traditional Italian fashion, we were let into to see the Bernini it was indeed as awe inspiring as imaginable. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni reclined in a nook of the church. A euro turned on a lamp to illumine her. A fence kept us a few yards/meters away. But I also appreciated the statue without the light. Cloaked in shadows. Exquisite. Profound. Bernini’s work has the ability to say many things at once. And this mysterious statue is a prime example of that.

Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

As is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I was also on my way to see in another church in another zone. A steady rain began to wash the streets, making it all the more meaningful to step into the dry Baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria. This Saint Teresa is a little more well known than the Blessed Ludovica. Simon Schama spent an hour discussing it on his British documentary, The Power of Art. And there were a few more visitors. And indeed the image of the angel plunging the arrow into Teresa is potent and sensual. Beautiful beyond a mere description. My photos hardly doing it justice. The whole church was indeed a dark Baroque masterpiece on ornate emotion.

But sadly I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead and I had left my spare at the hotel. Thus I had to forego the puppets I had come to see. And they weren’t performing the next day. Alas…

Colosseum

The Colosseum

On my last full day in Rome I walked among the ruins of the Colosseum, but didn’t go in. The tourism seemed too thick, too much like a theme park. I eventually walked by a far too bustling Trevi Fountain, where my coin dutifully disappeared and made haste to leave the area. But not before seeing the Pantheon. And this proved to be the highlight of my tourism day. This really was the greatest Roman building from ancient Rome. After being converted into a church it had remained in use since its construction. It was the largest structure made of unreinforced concrete in the world. And completely majestic. And because it was free the crowds weren’t too oppressive. And just as I left the area I found one last great Bernini sculpture, a great Baroque elephant in a small piazza. And my esteem for his work grew with my discoveries. (Not too forgot his contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica itself!)

Over all while I was made many crucial discoveries in Rome, Palermo really was the highlight of my time in Italy. Yet I can fully imagine coming back here and making another round of aesthetic searches. My understanding of sculpture took on a new depth, having stood before Michelangelo’ and Bernini’s works in the ‘flesh’. I saw that sculpture in many ways was the noble cousin to puppetry. But for now I was tired. I had picked up a little sniffle from the Metro while I was there. I would be happy to return on an overnight train to Paris.

Byrne Power

Paris, France

17 / 12 / 2017

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