On to the North

Tuesday, September 17

We’ve come to the end of our time in Rome! Cicagna, the town where we’re staying tonight, is up in the hills of the north. The driving at that end would be challenging, and more difficult if we arrived in the dark. In addition, we intended to drive through Florence on our way. All of those considerations called for a fast getaway this morning, so bright and early we were up and packed for breakfast. A quick goodbye to the sisters (and paying the bills), and we were off in cabs for the EuropAuto office.
We had some delay at EuropAuto. We were to pick up three cars, and only two were ready at 9:30; one hadn’t been delivered yet. It soon arrived, but by the time we were on the road it was nearly 10:30.
We reached Florence about 1:30, and our three drivers dropped off the rest of us in the city center. For the next two hours, we were able to enjoy one of the world’s most beautiful cities. A number of great statues, including Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune and a copy of Michelangelo’s David, take up much of the Piazza. From there it was a short walk to the Duomo, or cathedral. The cathedral is shocking: you turn a corner and suddenly a gorgeous 200-foot church is standing a few feet in front of you. Very beautiful, very surprising.
We met up with our drivers near the Ponte Vecchio, and we began the rest of the ride to Cicagna. This is when we start to talk about the crazy cities of the north.
Evidently, a couple of centuries ago the nearby town of Soglio was awash with the Lavezzo clan. Our great-great-great-grandfather, GB (probably Giovanni Baptista) Lavezzo, and his wife Caterina Lavezzo, were both from Soglio. That’s right, they both had the last surname. Personally, I think that the idea of calling their children the “Lavezzi” (which would be a plural for “Lavezzo”) probably started as a linguistic joke; it’s certainly the sort of thing I would have done.
GB and Caterina settled in Bettola, today a harrowing ninety-minute drive from Soglio over the mountains bordering the Buonafontana Valley. One of their sons, our great-great-grandfather Costantino, came back to Romaggi, in the Cicagna area, to marry our great-great-grandmother, Rosa Raggio. After Costantino’s death, Rosa and their children, including my great-grandfather Giovanni, emigrated to Chicago in the late 1860s and early 1870s–just before the Great Chicago Fire.
For today, however, the main business was settling us into our accommodations for the night, in a bed-and-breakfast in Cicagna called La Novellina. Once unpacked, it was time to look for dinner. We headed into the town of Piano Dei Ratti to try the Pizzeria da Robertone. Robertone was a bit mystified by the unheralded arrival of eleven Americans, but he and his staff entertained us with great hospitality. We didn’t even attempt to order. Once he made it clear that he would personally see to our dinner, he began serving pairs of plates, one for each end of the table. We lost count, but I think there were a dozen pairs of plates, most of them some sorts of pizza or similar flatbread. They started with sautéed polenta and ended with Nutella calzones. That’s a little more than one pizza per person, along with several bottles of wine and water. We felt pretty happy to pay the bill, which amounted to €160.

The place was pretty raucous, with a fiftieth birthday party and a family dinner also going on, and each of us joining in the other celebrations. Before we left, Robertone invited us to join him for a “digestive,” which turned out to be, basically, shots. Except for our drivers, we obliged.

We headed back to La Novellina ready to fall into our beds before the adventures planned for tomorrow.

The Vatican

Monday, September 16

Today was our earliest morning so far. We needed to meet Jon, our tour guide, at 7:15 near the Vatican Museum, which is perhaps a five-minute walk from Casa Santo Spirito. We’ve enjoyed 8:00 breakfasts with the sisters each morning, but no time for that today!
Our tour includes the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum, and the Basilica of St. Peter. We were in the Sistine Chapel first. Everyone’s seen pictures of the Chapel, of course, but there is something special about seeing it in person. Entry is metered, so we shared the space with perhaps another forty people; and you’re expected to be quiet. The lights are off for these tours, but your eyes gradually adjust to the natural light admitted from a few windows. I found myself contemplating the “statue” of Jonah at one end of the ceiling, and was startled to discover that what I first thought was a statue is a painting. That’s how realistic the three-dimensional painting is.
The Sistine Chapel was to be just the first example of many today in which the art can’t be properly appreciated from pictures. Jon had a great knack for explaining the differences between periods and styles of art, and startled all of us by pointing out a painting whose perspective shifts as you cross from the right to the left, creating an optical illusion. We saw so many perfectly-painted imitations of 3D that by the end of the morning we weren’t sure which windows, coffered ceilings, and cornices were real and which were painted. 
From the Sistine Chapel we moved on to the Vatican Museum and the Belvedere Palace, and from there we returned to St. Peter’s. We had been to St. Peter’s for Mass yesterday, but now the place was ready for tourists, so we could get closer to some of the works of art; and also, we now had Jon with us to explain some of the things we were seeing. There is much more to see and do at the Vatican–the tour of the vaults below, the ascent to the top of St. Peter’s dome, some time to sit and take it all in–but by this time we were on overload and ready to rest for a bit at Casa Santo Spirito.
After a short break, we regrouped for a trip into the heart of Rome again. Within the next few hours, we visited the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon. The Spanish Steps were not particularly inspiring, although for this English teacher it was fun to duck into the doorway of the Keats and Shelley Museum next door. The Trevi Fountain is very impressive; I was expecting something in the middle of a piazza, but it is actually an edifice on its own. From there a few of us went to the Pantheon, which is one of the most influential buildings in the history of western architecture. Like many internal space, this one is hard to communicate with pictures, so I was glad to have the opportunity to visit it and take it all in.
This was our last night in Rome. We travel to Cicagna tomorrow by way of Florence, so we needed some packing time. After dinner it was time to get on with that for tomorrow’s drive. 

The Roman Forum and Colosseum

Sunday, September 15

The convent where we are staying is in the Borgo Santo Spirito. A “borgo” appears to be a very small village, and this one seems to consist of two parts: a hospital and the convent of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, where we are staying. If I understand the relationship correctly, we are on Vatican property outside the actual walls of Vatican City. When we walk out the door, we are a few yards from St. Peter’s Square.
Several of us walked over to St. Peter’s for morning Mass. There must be dozens of side altars, and on the hour dozens of priests fan out to say Mass at them. Congregations vary in size from zero to a few dozen, and the languages vary as well. Several of us joined an elderly priest for the “Daily Mass for World Peace” in Italian; John’s daughter Lauren found an English-language Mass. Afterwards, we strolled around St. Peter’s, which at this time had many sections roped off. Most of the ropes would come off for tomorrow’s tours; today gave us a preview of what we would see tomorrow.
Today’s tour covered the Roman Forum on Palatine Hill and the Colosseum. For me, the Forum was too much too fast, but that’s probably unavoidable: I hadn’t done any preparation for the tour, and so from the beginning it was hard to connect the parts together. And parts there were: our tour guide Maria took us up and down more steps than we could count. I first encountered the story of Julius Caesar’s assassination as a kid, probably from Classics Illustrated comic books; and now, many years later, it was pretty neat standing in the very spot where all those events took place.
From there we went to the Colosseum. I was surprised to hear that modern scholars think that the Colosseum was used more for sports and spectacles than for the torture and killing of Christians. We took the underground tour, which offers the opportunity to walk in some of the spaces underneath the Colosseum floor. There are no “locker rooms” here for gladiators: instead, they came in from offsite training rooms through an underground passage, and were probably issued their weapons just before their contest. The whole area under the floor is honeycombed with passageways, and the current thinking is that the passageways held elevators that could deliver gladiators, animals, etc., to specific parts of the floor. As a former drama teacher, I could appreciate the technology.
This was a rainy day, and we were constantly surrounded by men trying to sell us ponchos and umbrellas. We resisted the temptation at first–most of us had hats or umbrellas–but eventually it became clear that we were going to need a bit more protection. The pictures will show several of us in (insert irony here) lovely fashion-forward plastic ponchos.

After dinner and a gelato, we found ourselves in what is sometimes called the Heart of Rome, which is about two miles from Vatican City. Some in our group walked back, but after walking all over the Capitoline hill and from the bottom to the top of the Colosseum, I was among those ready to take a bus back to the Vatican. There was the usual chat in room 201 at the convent, and then we were all ready to head to bed, because tomorrow’s tour starts at the Vatican Museum at 8:15.
Buonanotte from Roma!