Friday, October 30, 2009

Reading the birds

Thom has been trying to get me to go to the Quirinale hill near our house to see the birds swarming at sunset, but so far he's failed because I'm always working in the studio too late, trying to grab the last of the good light. But tonight he dragged me outside to the river, and just looking down the Tiber towards the hill was incredible. The starlings here are skywriters, and they give new meaning to the old stuff about reading the flights of birds. If birds write like this in the sky every night, what kind of moron would NOT think it meant something?

Tomorrow's mission is to get to the Quirinale hill at the right time. Thom says the birds are so dense there that they block the view to St. Peters as if they're weather.

I'm also going to some more incredible churches tomorrow. I've pretty given up on posting about all the churches I visit because a) taking pictures in churches is problematic: it's usually forbidden and when you are allowed it's often way too dark to get anything good and b) there is already plenty of information about the churches of Rome online. Also c) half the time I go to a church I think I need to go back again. Sometimes I go when there's a mass, or it's the wrong time of day or I need to get better pictures or see some part of it that's closed or something. I've tried 4 times to get in to San Franceso di Sapienza, and by gum, I will. Because this is the outside!

No big whoop, you might think. But I protest: whoop. Look closely at the tower.

This (below) is another one of the churches I need to go back to, St. Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, by Boromini. Boromini was supposed to be buried there, but he killed himself and so the plan was cancelled: in the bottom of the church there's a wonderful staircase that he designed leading down to a very sad empty crypt.

It's beeee-utiful inside, too: here's the view looking up at the dome.

I have to go back there for sure because I need more pictures: there are the apartments of a saint upstairs; you pay a euro to a woman who is clearly auditioning for the part of Dracula's housekeeper and she leads you up some stairs to one of the oddest little apartment complexes you have ever seen. Or will see, when I go back there with my camera.

This is Santa Prassede, a gorgeous church with an incredible byzantine mosaic chapel that is totally impossible to photograph, I discovered. Even the internet cannot provide me with a good enough picture of it. I did manage to take video inside the chapel, which is probably better than nothing: it was dedicated to Theodora, the mother of the pope who built the church.

Have I mentioned how much I love Rome in the last five minutes? No? Well, I love it. This graffiti was in the metro station on my way to work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I finished a piece I've been working on for ages yesterday. It's called Rumor, and it's on my website here if you want to see bigger pictures.

I'm working with magic markers and ballpoint pens, and there are many, many layers of both on this piece. This is my first large drawing in color, with these pens, and I'm still not sure about it. Sometimes I think it's really great, and other times I just keep repeating the same joke in my head: this piece puts the mental in experimental.

I love working with the magic markers, though. I've got another magic marker piece started already, and someday soon I'll finish the other black and white ballpoint piece that I worked on in August. It's another swan, and it's looking pretty good, but I've been seduced by these new pens- I just can't go back to black and white right now.

This piece took me about two months, working in the studio nearly every day. Someday I'll make a little video out of all the phases it went through- I changed all these colors about a million times before I settled on anything- the green area outside the word innocence was pink, then purplish, then blue, then green.

The large text says, "There was a rumor of innocence and guilt."

Speaking of feeling guilty, I know that I said that I was going to post about a fabulous church in Rome every day until I leave, and I didn't do that today, but I am actually not feeling the least bit guilty about it. Visiting a church a day I can do. I visited two churches today. Posting every day? No.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Do not Discuss Religion with Geese: Il Gesu Part 1

Goosey goosey gander, where do you wander?
Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man who would not say his prayers
So I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

I'm pretty sure that this nursery rhyme refers to the time when the queen of England was suspected of being a secret Catholic. The old man in question was, according to me, her priest, because at that time not saying your prayers was a punishable offense, although not by goose: for a while there one had to prove loyalty to the Church of England by saying the correct prayers. I'm hazy on the dates and names, but I'm pretty sure the goose was a Protestant. A mean Protestant.

If the goose had been a Jesuit, though, he might have liked today's church: Il Gesu. Il Gesu is the famous mothership of the Jesuits. I don't know a Jesuit from a hole in the ground, but I do know that this kind of iconography does NOT generally grace the front of your sweetness and light variety chapel.

There is a lot of that in Il Gesu. There are two priests stomping on people flanking the entranceway and at least two more groups of people being stompled inside the church. Even the cherubs don't look too friendly.

I'm going to have to go back there, though, because there was a gorgeous little chapel with a 15th century Madonna and the ceiling looked amazing, I made a big mistake by going in the early evening. I forgot that churches built in 1568 might not have the greatest light fixtures. So most of what I wanted to look at, particularly on the ceiling, was hidden in darkness. And although I was very tricky and figured out that I could lay my camera down flat on a chair to get a picture, I had technical problems.

Ooops. Part 2 soon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Basilica of San Clemente

I've only got about seven more weeks left in Rome, and there are still hundreds of amazing things I want to do. This city is so dense with history that talking about what I've already seen seems a little nuts: I've been to the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, the Appian Way, St.Peters, the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon. I've seen Berninis at the Piazza Navona and the Villa Borghese and I've visited the amazing Villa Dora Pamphilj. Each one of these places has blown my mind. The urban legend about doing acid seven times flutters around in my brain: if each of these sights was the most head-explodingly wonderful thing I've ever seen, am I legally insane?

I've eaten countless gelatos and discovered exactly why everyone who goes to Italy comes back to the US as a coffee snob. I've also developed a passionate devotion to bread sticks, a tertiary food obsession that is going to be really hard to explain an ocean away from my favorite brand. I've met lots of strangers and had actual conversations in actual Italian. My work has taken a really insane turn that I'm almost ready to let out of the closet. Seven more weeks is not long enough- I'm totally in love with Rome- but I will be very happy to see my family and friends again. I'm ready to return.

Almost. First I have to see seven weeks worth of churches. I'm on the church-a-day plan. Here's the deal. Churches in Rome are free museums. The only price of admission is a cynical pretense of modesty: if you're a woman, you have to cover up your sinful bare arms and neck to enter. (This irritated me much more before I saw a nun chewing out a shirtless college boy. I like my idiocy gender-neutral.)

I carry around a one euro scarf for just this purpose, and every day I make a point of going in to see a new church. I am rarely disappointed or bored. I've happened upon some incredible scenes: Rome is a place where you can find accidental Caravaggios, or Poussin's coffin, or columns so twisty they seem not to make sense, much less stand upright, just by walking in to an inconspicuous door on a side street. (It's surprising how inconspicuous the doors often are, but the history of Christianity in Rome is such that for a good long time it was practical to have the outsides of the churches deflect, rather than attract attention.)

I'm not going to try to catch up by documenting the amazing places I've already been, but I'm going to do my best to document the church-a-day mission from here on out.

Today I visited the Basilica of San Clemente, which is near my house, down the street from the Coloseum. (See? Rome=crazy town.)

San Clemente's Mithraeum

I had originally planned to organize my visits to churches around the idea of hunting for Mithras. Mithraems are little cave-like spaces in which an astrologically based mystery cult of Mithras was practiced: it's very interesting. Mithras is almost always pictured with a bull, a dog, a scorpion and a snake, which are thought to be references to constellations, and Mithras is always shown letting the blood of the bull. And he has a nice hat.

San Clemente's Mithraem is three stories down, below the 12th century church and the 4th century church below that. It's an amazing place to visit because all three levels of church are relatively intact: I'm used to being told that such-and-such a church was on top of something else, but in San Clemente's case you go downstairs, and there's the older church: you can see where you would have sat. And below that, the temple of Mithras. You can read about Mithras by following either of the links on his name, but not much is known about Mithraism: it was a mystery cult- only the initiates knew what it was about. Kinda like the Masons...(insert conspiracy theory here.)

There are lots of Mithraems in Rome, but Mithras hangs out in dark basements, and the Basillica of San Clemente convinced me that what I love is mostly above ground. Like this:

These mosaics were so beautiful! The sheep were gorgeous, touching, knowing little creatures.

Those are acanthus leaves. If you tell me what the deal is with acanthus I will buy you a gelato.

And if those mosaics weren't enough, there was the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandra by Masolino.

There are no good pictures of this anywhere on the internet. The church is full of signs saying that photography is forbidden, but it's such a shame- this little chapel was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and the reproductions that were sold at the little church store stink. They show single scenes from a complex multi-perspectival tapestry of geometry that fills the chapel. This blurry one is the best I can find that gives a sense of the color and the way the place is put together. It's wonderful, and it's rotten that one can't photograph it, at least without a flash. Although to their credit, the Irish monks who run San Clemente have put the chapel up on the web in a nice VR format. Check it out!

This little scene is Saint Catherine being rescued from torture by an angel- the wheels were supposed to be tearing her apart, but they failed to do so. One thing I'm learning in my church-a-day mission is that saints were often the victim of severely inefficient murder attempts. One of my books says that St. Cecilia was sentenced to death by suffocation in the steam of her own bathroom. When that failed, someone tried to chop her head off three times. And failed. Saint Catherine of Alexandra is shown here escaping these wheels through divine intercession, but another source says that the wheel broke when she touched it.

Here she is converting the philosophers of Alexandria.

This annunciation is above the door to the chapel. It's gorgeous. You can see better pictures on the Basilica San Clemente Web Site.