Monday, 23 March 2015

A delicious taste of Italy

It seems that I have never had the time or the confidence to become a very good cook. But I have a few excellent go-to recipes, and I have learned a few important things about Italian cooking - particularly, the value of simplicity and finding a few, extremely good ingredients.

Most of what I know about food I have learned from my dear friend Letizia and from many of her marvellous cooking classes at her home, which is also a wonderful bed and breakfast tucked into the side of a mountain among olive groves and fruit tress and overlooking beautiful Assisi.

And now, she has finally published a cookbook, although I think that simple categorization does not do justice to everything that Letizia has included in this volume.

Recipes, of course; and very very good recipes, extremely well-explained, well-tested and deliciously illustrated. Also important information about judging ingredients such as good quality olive oil versus scary commercial crap.

But it is also something of a diary, of the seasons in Umbria and the value of living and eating according to the seasons; the recipes and ingredients that go naturally with the blustery winters or the hot, humid summers.

Her book will soon be available on Amazon, but in the meantime, she is taking orders (maybe even for autographed copies!) at the following email address (I am writing the address out to confound spammers):

madonnadp [at] gmail dot com

Letizia is a born teacher and story teller, and I find that this book, like her blog and like her cooking classes, are seasoned with anecdotes - from things she learned from her mother, to Letizia's tried-and-true recipes for making gluten-free pasta and bread, to interesting Italian women she knows and admires.

And of course, the incredible backdrop to her life in the Umbrian mountains provide images that are as beautiful as the meals she teaches us to prepare.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Avoiding the sunny Sunday crowds in central Rome

Life in Rome is very hectic and when I have some free time, I often like to stroll over the Capitoline Hill and head to the peaceful Aventine. There are still visitors strolling about in that part of Rome, especially around Circus Maximus, but in general it is far more tranquil than on my side of the hill in Monti.

There are always some lovely views around the Aventine Hill. I headed out Sunday, thinking that while it was too early yet to see the rose gardens being planted there, it would at least be very green.

I tend to follow the same route, down Via Fori Imperiali, over the Capitoline Hill walking behind the Dioscuri, the twins Castor and Pollux (one twin born mortal, the other a god)….

with its views across the Roman Forum towards the Colosseo…….

...and down the other side towards Circus Maximus where I cross its base then climb up along the side of the Aventine facing the Palatine Hill and the remains of the once-splendid aristocrat homes that were there 2,000 years ago……

…..up the Aventine to the medieval Basilica of Santa Sabina and the garden where there are always so many oranges hanging just tantalizingly out of reach……

….and  the stunning view across the Tiber River towards the Vatican, with the great dome of the Basilica of St. Peter's appearing to be relatively close…….

….. Even when standing further down the path near the entrance to the gardens of Santa Sabina,  it seems that St. Peter's is deceptively close…..

….a drink at a gruesome, ferocious fountain……

….back down a different side of the Aventine to emerge near the church Santa Maria in Cosmedin and the lines of tourists waiting to insert their hands in the Bocca della Verita

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Temple of Peace to be unveiled for Rome's birthday in April


    I pulled this story together at work today, thanks to copy from my Italian colleagues, and thought it was extremely interesting.
    We don't hear often enough but "discoveries" or maybe "recoveries" of ancient sites although I am sure they are happening all the time here in Rome.
     I hope to see this light show on Rome's birth April 21, when the city - born by some estimates in 753 BC - will turn 2768, give or take a few years….
    The Temple of Peace, one of the lesser known structures of Rome's Imperial Fora, is set to rise again in time for the city's birthday commemoration, a cultural heritage official said Thursday.
    With reconstruction work set to begin in early March, five columns missing from what remains of the temple built by Emperor Vespasian in about 75 AD will be reconstructed by April 21, Rome's birthday, said the municipal Superintendent of Cultural Heritage Claudio Parisi Presicce. "The goal is to replace the five marble columns of the Egyptian portico that surrounded the temple, where they were at the time of Vespasian," he said.
    What remains of the Temple of Peace, sometimes known as the Forum of Peace, now rests in the present Roman Forum near Largo Corrado Ricci.

    One of its original walls has been incorporated into the Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in the Roman Forum, where holes can stil be seen that were once used to affix a marble map of ancient Rome that dated from the third century AD.
    The restoration work will help to shed light on another element of Rome's history for visitors.
    "Of the five Imperial is the least known because unfortunately, most of the remains are underground but...we plan to expand the excavations of the visible surface," said Parisi Presicce.
    "The goal is to resurrect this forum which is currently not known by citizens, reassembling the five Egyptian marble columns of the quadrangle surrounding the temple, where they were at the time of Vespasian," he added.
    The plan is to include the restored Temple of Peace in large-scale illuminations of the Imperial Fora on the night of April 21.
    According to tradition, that is the date when Rome was founded in 753 BC by some accounts.

    Parisi Presicce said that large fragments of the Egyptian marble colonnade have been studied and recomposed for the restoration project using "very sophisticated technical work" that takes account of seismic issues.
    The danger of earthquake is ever present up and down the Italian peninsula.
    Two sections of the original quadrangle that surrounded the Temple of Peace are still in place, he said.
    Parisi Presicce said that excavation of the area dates back to the 1930s.
    That's when the Fascist administration of Mussolini constructed the modern Via Fori Imperiali that cut through the Imperial Fora, leaving the fora of Augustus, Nerva and Trajan on one side, with the Forum of Caesar and the Roman Forum on the other.

    It is believed the Vespasian began work on the Temple of Peace after the capture of Jerusalem in AD 71.
    It may have included treasures looted from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Digging deeper into underground Rome

The Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere doesn't catch many eyes. Perhaps that's because it is so close to the Teatro di Marcello which really is very eye-catching and so not everyone pays much attention to the small church beside it on the bustling curve of Via del Teatro di Marcello.

But Saturday, during my afternoon walk, I saw the doors were open and a poster promoting underground visits, so I decided to pop inside for a look.

It's an interesting, small basilica but I was especially curious to explore the excavations underneath - and for only 3 euros with no other visitors in sight, how could I lose?

It is significant that the basilica was built over three temples from the Republican-era - thus, some of Rome's oldest - with some foundations intact as well as several massive pillars that over 1,000 years later were incorporated on the south wall of today's basilica (as you can see in the top photo).

The complex was part of the Forum Holitorium, or vegetable-sellers' market, near the banks of the Tiber. To the left, facing the basilica entrance, is the temple to the two-faced god Janus and dates from 260 BC according to the literature distributed by the church.

And when I say two-faced Janus, it is not a slur. The two faces were a symbol of transition, departure and return, and this temple was especially significant because its doors were opened in times of war, and sealed in times of peace.

Very symbolic. My friend Laura, the classics scholar, tells me that Augustus put great emphasis on this temple, closing the doors after hunting down Mark Antony and before that, conspirators against Julius Caesar, to signify an end to at least those wars.

The centre temple is that of Juno as Sospita (the saviour) to differentiate this temple to the important Roman goddess from other temples to Juno around town.

And the third, small temple is the Temple of Spes, for the goddess of Hope, and dates from the First Punic War. Curiously, given the name, this is where prison cells are thought to have been constructed - giving today's basilica the name "carcere" or prison - as well as some small shops including perhaps a moneychanger.

Later, in the seventh century, a Byzantine chapel was built and above it, today's basilica.

I knew a little about San Nicola, or St. Nicholas, since he is crucial to the underground church at San Clemente, near the Colosseum, where the sotterraneo is particularly well-organized and popular with tour groups.

The saint was a fourth-century bishop from what we know today to be Turkey but at that time, had Greek roots. This,  the church suggests, was likely why Rome's Greek community chose St. Nicholas for the name of the present basilica.

I felt mildly shocked - being too literal-minded - to learn that St. Nicolas was not, in fact, held in prison here, despite the name including "carcere." Culpa mia, for misinterpreting what the name of church really means.

Perhaps  in keeping with the prison, or carcere, theme,  I saw lots of bones in the underground area, presumably human although not very robust so I am a bit skeptical as to their origins.

Back upstairs in the basilica, one of the bits I found especially interesting is a pillar in the right nave with extensive carving, more like medieval graffiti, really, from the ninth century. It was inscribed by the rector Anastasius, who apparently gave some animals, a vineyard, and other property to the Catholic Church as penance to save his soul. This is presumably his receipt, and I can't blame him for wanting credit.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Sunday stroll around Ancient Rome

I must apologize for being such a lazy blogger but in my defence, working full time these days as a news editor and rewriter saps my writing energy. 

However, I marked my third anniversary living in Rome several weeks ago, a milestone that made me even more reflective than usual, reminding me how much I enjoyed blogging.

So, today I remembered to carry my cellphone (with camera) as I took a Sunday walk on my usual route: over the Capitoline Hill, past the medieval San Giorgio in Velabro below the Palatine Hill, alongside Circus Maximus, over the Celio, and around the Colosseo.

I don't always swing by San Giorgio although it is very interesting. Built in the 7th century, the small medieval sits on very low ground not too far from the Tiber and the frantic church Santa Maria in Cosmedin which hosts the Mouth of Truth. I say frantic because there is not only a major traffic intersection there, but also loads of tourists queue up to jam their hands into the old manhole cover that Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck made so famous in the film " Roman Holiday".

Nearby is the fourth-century Arch of Janus, the only quadrifrons triumphal arch preserved in Rome, and apparently given that name during the Renaissance. (It dominates the landscape in the top photo of this post.)

From there, I walk below the Palatine Hill where there once stood what would have been the most beautiful palazzos of Ancient Rome.

And below, Circus Maximus as the ancient site looks today, used for rock concerts, political rallies and various other events. Also, a dog park.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Lions and Griffins and David…oh my!

One of the things I enjoy about Rome's Capitoline Museums is that they offer a very eclectic blend of different forms of art, from different ages, as well as Roman history and archaeology.

I popped in on Saturday for a few hours -- it is only a 10-minute walk from my house if I cut through Trajan's Forum.

As it happened, the Museums were hosting a small Michelangelo exhibition that included a decent copy of his famous and spectacular statue of David, generally associated with the beautiful Republic of Florence.

So, in keeping with the vivid mix of art to be found in the Capitoline Museums, here are a few shots from my visit there.

At the top is, of course, the fake David in the courtyard of the museum with the giant head of a felled statue of Constantine in the background.

I must always visit Marcus Aurelius on his bronze horse, the original statue protected indoors with a copy placed outside in the Campidoglio (a piazza designed, of course, by Michelangelo).

Nearby, a small funerary marker with some dogs that I like very much:

A random shot of the Republican Forum.

Inside the Palazzo Nuovo, I find my favourite mythical creatures including a satyr and a griffin.

And a real, marble lion!

On the second floor of the Palazzo Nuovo, I was also able to get a decent shot of the beautiful mosaics over a side door of the splendid Santa Maria in Ara Coeli church, also on the capital hill.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Sansepolcro, The Resurrection, and the Agility Dogs

Centuries ago, possibly during the lifetime of Renaissance master painter Piero della Francesco, the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro was actually a part of northern Umbria and today it is still quite easy to visit from the Umbrian capital of Perugia.

I just spent a week in Perugia, presenting the Italian version of my novel The Virgin and the Griffin at a couple of great events. And while I spent some time visiting favourite spots from the novel in the city of Perugia, I also took a day trip up to Sansepolcro for a little research and inspiration for my new novel which is well underway.

As you might guess, Piero della Francesco (let's call him PdF) and Sansepolcro feature strongly in the new novel which I have not yet named and since the first draft is more than half complete, I had better find a title soon.

Although I have visited Sansepolcro several times, it was always by car so this trip was a bit of a test of the Umbrian railway, the F.C.U. (I think that is the most hilarious and aptly named railway I have ever seen, although that may be just my adolescent sense of humor).

For a mere 5 euros, I was able to have a very leisurely tour of tiny towns through northern Umbria and into Tuscany on the slowest, smallest railway – just two carriages – that I have ever used. But it was on time and featured air conditioning, so no complaints here!

Although Sansepolcro is the cherished hometown of PdF, who returned there frequently, kept a large house and maintained the family's leather businesses as well as involvement in local government, the modern community doesn't boast many PdF sites for visitors.

You can see the palazzo that was his home and today, hosts a PdF foundation for researchers but is not open to the public. (Word of warning, his home is not located on the street that bears the name of Piero della Francesco as I learned after prowling up and down the quiet strada trying to find my hero's historic house).

Along the way, I found this beautiful little shrine on the corner of a building, with intriguing twinkly electric lights, possibly for use at Christmas or another festive occasion.

The Duomo also boasts some pretty if faded frescos by other Tuscan masters of the day, this cycle focusing on San Benedict.

The Museo Civico, which was at one time Sansepolcro's town hall, owns a large and beautiful PdF altarpiece with numerous panels, and one of the artist's greatest masterpieces, The Resurrection (the top photo on this page).

This fresco of the Risen Christ, one foot planted on the edge of his tomb as sleeping guards snore through the entire historic event, is not only my favourite but is widely viewed as a masterpiece of the Renaissance for its dramatic perfection. And, happily for Sansepolcro, as a fresco painted into a wall of the town hall, it has stayed where Piero placed it – unlike so much of his work which is spread around the world.

That includes another very beautiful altarpiece in the spectacular and under-rated National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia.

Speaking of Perugia, the presentation of my novel went extremely well, I thought, because so many of the people who inspired me to write The Virgin and the Griffin were there – and because I didn't screw up my remarks made in Italian.

I used those same remarks at a community event a few days later in a different area of Perugia. That event was enormous fun; in part, because the opening act was a fantastic dog agility demonstration. Border collies dominated, although a collie, a terrier mix, and I think German shepherd also leapt in. They were all so excited, wiggling and squirming as they waited their turn to show how they could keep a herd of sheep in order, given a chance. (Dogs not exactly as shown above!)