Last night, my boyfriend Tom and I took our friend Mark who’s in town from Chicago for the week to see “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.” We thoroughly enjoyed it, being lapsed Catholics to varying degrees, and Mark and Tom had never seen a Durang play before. Bill Irwin was in the audience. John Glover, Victoria Clark and Julie Haggerty were particularly funny.
But the treat of my evening was when I came by at 7 to pick up the tickets. This man in his 70s held the door to the lobby for me. I went to one window to get my tickets. He went to the other. For a moment I thought, “You know, if he’d had a haircut lately I’d think it was Steve Sondheim.” And the man says to the box office person: “Name is Sondheim, first name Steve.”
Check out the July 28th issue of The New Yorker. There’s an article by Jonah Lehrer about how the brain arrives at eureka moments. He interviews Mark Jung-Beeman who’s a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. Two of their finding really resonated with me. That there is indeed a reason you get ideas in the shower- relaxation is key. And that your brain half-awake, first thing in the morning, is “open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.” I’ve always felt like I write better earlier in the day. The above link is unfortunately only to an abstract.
Our big LaMama Umbria field trip was to Assisi. We started at the hermitage where St. Francis would go to be alone to reflect, pray and interact with the forest animals, whom he called his brothers. We then went further down the mountain to the town itself, to a huge piazza in front of the Church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare, St. Francis’ contemporary and the founder of the Order of Poor Clares). There is a huge church dedicated to St. Francis with beautiful frescoes by Giotto. They were damaged in an earthquake some years ago, but you sure can’t tell.
Finally there is this lovely little church that looks like a Greek temple. It is Santa Maria supra Minerva.
I went to Spoleto three times. The first was to take a tour that David Diamond led. The basilica, to San Salvatore, has beautiful frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi of the life of the Virgin. The coronation of the Virgin over the high altar is particularly striking. One night we went in to see a dance presentation- high school students who competed to be included in this evening called Speranze & Realta: Gala di Danza. It was held in a second century Roman amphitheatre.
We also had visitors at LaMama. Bong San Mask Dance Drama came- they performed on the stage in the field and stayed for dinner. There was also a very nice puppy who visited that night, and nearly came home with me!
My only disappointment was that Ellen Stewart was not present- she was teaching in the townships in South Africa. You can’t really argue with that, can you? But she bought this villa and the land around it with her MacArthur Genius grant. And she created this haven for theatre people. There are individual artist residencies, and a directors’ symposium.
Here are some more photos: the room I shared with another playwright; the view out our window; the view out the refectory window where we ate breakfast; and a fine-looking shaving stand, looking as if it's ready for the first chapter of "Ulysses."
How did I wind up in Italy in the first place this month? With outrageous airfares and the lousy euro-dollar exchange rate? Did I win the lottery? Well, kind of. My very generous brother and his wife offered to send me to the Playwrights Retreat at LaMama Umbria in Spoleto. It’s ten days of workshops and writing time with a master playwright- this year’s was Naomi Iisuka, whose “36 Views” I like a lot. She also runs the master’s program at U.C. San Diego. Good group of writers at various levels of experience. Gorgeous setting. Wonderful people run it: David Diamond (who I replaced in a job at USITT many years ago) and Mia Yoo. Fantastic food. Great vibe about the whole place. Can’t say enough good things about it. I got unstuck from a play that hadn’t been going well since last fall, and finished the first draft of the second act. These photos are the courtyard, where we ate lunch and dinner; the field, which has a platform stage where you can make out the rigging; the olive trees are basically the front yard; and the path up to the field where the laundry hangs.
Remember Galileo? That innovative thinker who the Vatican got around to pardoning about a decade ago? This building, that now houses the French Academy, was once the Villa Medici, and this is where the pope kept Galileo in prison. It is on the edge of the Borghese Gardens, near the Spanish Steps. Here are two views of the villa, and a view from its front.
This is the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, not the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Asissi. Though it seems to me like some was going around building churches on top of Temples to Minerva. In front of the basilica, which is about twenty steps away from the Parthenon, is a beautiful Bernini sculpture of an elephant with an obelisk on his back. Inside the church are some of the remains of St. Catherine of Siena. If you’ve ever been to Siena, you’ll remember her head in a reliquary in the duomo. Recently I’ve learned that some hagiographers now think St. Catherine was definitely anorexic, and possibly crazy. Still, she convinced the pope to end the Babylonia Captivity and surely your average woman in that time couldn’t have done that.
Finding the entrance to this museum is not easy. Its street address is on Barbarini, but there’s no ingress there- the entrance is a block and a half away. It was built by a cardinal who became Pope Urban VII. It is part of the National Gallery. It includes paintings from the 12th to 18th centuries. There is Caravaggio’s Judith holding Holofernes’ head; a copy of Holbein’s Thomas More, and one of Holbein’s Henry VIII. The museum is undergoing renovation so only one floor is open. The lion below greets you just as you get to the gift shop.
I saw several famous houses in Rome. The first photo is the view out the window of the Keats-Shelley house, from the room where Keats died from tuberculosis. It’s a quaint little museum. They have Penguin editions of Keats, Shelley, Byron and Mary Shelley, which you can sit and read as you soak up the atmosphere of the place.
The exterior house photo is of a building just off the Piazza Venezia. Michelangelo lived and died in this house. You can also see the back of my friend Daniela’s head.
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s basilicas. I still haven’t exactly figured out the difference between a basilica and a duomo (cathedral). The Archdiocese of New York has a cathedral (St. Patrick’s), while the Diocese of Brooklyn has a basilica (big hulking building in Sunset Park). Santa Maria Maggiore is built on the spot where the Blessed Virgin caused snow to fall in Rome; they re-enact this each year by scattering white flower petals. It is also the church where Palestrina was Kapellmeister (not sure what it is in Italian, so German will have to do).
There is also a statue of the Virgin doing what Tom calls "the big arms thing." You rarely see this in art; usually, only Jesus does "the big arms thing." In its treasury, there is a lovely presipio (crèche scene) carved out of stone.
Careful readers of the New Yorker some months ago would have noticed a reference to Santa Bibiana, who is known as the patron saint of hangovers. Anyone who remembers what a hangover feels like has no reason to doubt the condition needs a patron. An “insider guide” to Rome on the web assured me that St. Bibiana’s Church at 154 Via Giovanni Giolitti was open every day all day. Tom and I had walked past it often on our last trip to Rome and never remembered seeing it open. Both the façade and a statue of the saint over the high altar were made by a 27 year old Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
I did find a reliquary which held (well, held once; I can’t tell now) Santa Bibiana’s relics in the treasury under Santa Maria Maggiore.
You may have noticed that these are all exterior shots. Tom lent me his Olympus, and while I know how to focus it, I have yet to determine how to disable the flash. I didn’t want some angry priest running after me for flashing my camera. So here are my outside favorites: masks, two sphinxes, and I believe David with Goliath’s head.
One thing I’m much more aware of now than I was on my first trip to Rome in the 1980s, is how much stuff the Church appropriated from the Romans. So I was not particularly surprised to learn that some of my favorite pieces of sculpture in the Museum were from Hadrian’s Villa: this lion, one of two; the giant pinecone; and the Bacchus-like spigot.
One of my days in Rome, I did the Vatican. I didn’t see all of it (a third if not half of the museums were closed). My boyfriend is not really into Roman Catholic anything, particularly not the nerve-center. And he comes by this honestly- he did 12 years of Catholic school, so he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. The ticket seller at St. Peter’s was not clear about the combined admission, so I wound up paying 21 Euro to see the Basilica, the Treasury and the Museums. I was exhausted by the end, which is the Sistine Chapel. People were crammed in as with a shoehorn.
The photos are of a stained glass dove behind the altar; the venerated remains of Pope John XXIII, and one of the Pope Innocents (didn’t catch his Roman numeral).
Last Friday, we drove up to Umbria to Orvieto, a charming town. It is very old, originally settled by the Etruscans thousands of years ago. We went to an Etruscan Museum on the piazza where the Duomo is. It was very interesting; I am always surprised by how contemporary many Etruscan sculptures look.
There is a massive cathedral for such a seemingly small town. The interior is as impressive as the exterior. The frescoes in one chapel were planned and begun by Fra Angelico. The photos are of the Duomo’s façade, and the ruins of a garrison, which is now a park.
The 1942 World’s Fair was never held, due to World War II. However, Mussolini planned ahead, and had at least begun some of the buildings for the Fair. Out near where my friend lives, north of Vatican City, there’s a completed stadium and natatoria (painted salmon pink, with big, muscle-ripped statues). In front of these is a large stone obelisk that reads: Mussolini Dux. It floored me.
But on Saturday, my friend and I ventured to the part of Rome that Mussolini planned to be his model city. Much of it wasn’t completed until after his death. It’s called EUR, an acronym for Esposizione Universale Roma. It is an odd amalgam of styles- a kitschy tip-of-the-hat to Caesar’s Rome, with all the soulfulness of an aging office park. We had just come from St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, so it really couldn’t compare, I suppose. EUR’s main buildings are built around Piazza Marconi.
I have been out of the country for nearly three weeks, hence my silence until last night. I’d been trying to figure out how to structure these blogs, and I think the best way is reverse chronological order. So I’ll start with Sunday.
My friend Daniela is a diplomat, stationed in Rome. I stayed with her for a week. My last day there, we went exploring in Castelli Romani- the hill towns around Rome, where rich people even in Caesar’s time had their weekend villas. Frascati is know for its wine (I don’t much like white wine, but Frascati is both dry and non-acidic); another town is know for its strawberries.
We started out in Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer house, getting there just in time for the Pope to address the public (well, the approved audience. We watched him on a wide-screen TV, two courtyards away). So we said the Angelus with him (with what liturgical Latin we’d picked up from music) and picked up smatterings of his multi-lingual sermon (some of the German and some of the Italian, not all). Benedict’s actually much more personable even as close as we were to him (not very) than he is in the media. The photo is of the Swiss guards, and you can see the edge of the TV screen. The second photo is of the volcanic lake below the castle.