Paolo Orsi’s Potsherd Mysterium

A major hazard of travelling, especially travelling where you barely understand the language, is feeling confused a lot of the time. Admittedly, mystery has its appeal; it’s a pleasure to mull over possible answers, stalking meaning as it shies away from you through the shady thicket of doubt. You live for that exhilarating moment of victory, the sense of pride when you finally figure out that a tissue is a ‘fazzoletto’, or that what the man said was ‘the second street on the left’. There is, conversely, some irritation, not to mention rage, when you fail to understand something that should (you feel) be simple.

Sicily seems more confusing than other places. I’m not sure if that’s because I expected it to act more like mainland Italy, or because I have a cold or because the place is just fatally incomprehensible. Navigating this environment takes me back to my bewilderment as a tone-deaf student of music theory; there are nuances that I am simply unable, even after extensive effort, to get.

Take the bus system, for example. Our first week here in Sicily, we spent several hours (this is not an exaggeration) waiting for the bus. When you stand by the side of a road in a strange town waiting for a bus that never comes, it does something to you. You shrivel up inside. You wilt. You start looking cock-eyed at the world.

In the first place, it’s physically hard. There’s nowhere to sit, hardly even any room to stand. Backyards are defended by high concrete walls bolstered by spiny plants, so you can’t lean. Between the wall and the edge of the road there is a mere half-metre gap. The sun blazes down. A dog across the street stares at you through a fancy gate, intermittently barking. Cars zoom by.




You notice annoyingly insignificant details; a bougainvillea has managed to grow all the way up a lamppost and is now waving in the breeze; a ridiculous cat is padding stealthily towards a hedge as if it’s a panther; ants bustle about carrying off the dismembered parts of some winged insect. To escape these depressing trifles, your thoughts turn inwards. There are things you could have done differently—renewed your driver’s license, for example. Done a little more research about the location. Figured out how to use a phone. Things that take up so much time and mental effort.

It’s a relief when a couple joins you. They’re tall and have ironed clothes and a breezy holiday attitude. Maybe some of it will rub off on you. Twenty minutes pass, an expression of doubt flickers across their faces, the cheery breeze deflates.

“Excuse me, do you have a copy of the bus schedule?” the woman asks. You show it to her, and you can tell by her frown that it’s the same as hers, taken from the official website. And your collective schedule is not right because the bus was due twenty minutes ago.

Another ten minutes pass and shoulders droop. Anxiety builds. The couple starts to get testy with each other. You’ve seen it all before.

“Go and ask the shopkeeper,” she hisses to him.

“Why me? I did it last time!”

But the man goes into the shop, asks the shopkeeper. She will say, as I know from experience, that the bus arrives every hour at quarter past, a lie.

After an hour, the couple leaves, defeated, muttering sharp words. You’re still there, stoic, determined to stick it out all day, all week, until the end of time if necessary. You will stay until cockroaches go extinct and the sun shrivels to a red pinprick just for the satisfaction of telling the bus driver he’s a lousy bastard. Five minutes later, the bus arrives, screeches to a halt and barely stops long enough to let you on before speeding away again. And you’re so relieved that the bus really does exist and that you are now on it, that you are filled with elation and gratitude; the agonizing minutes of waiting vanish. The driver’s a good man, really, it’s not his fault if the company neglects its responsibilities. Besides, there was an article in the newspaper yesterday about how there are frequent assaults on bus drivers. In the latest case, in Catania, a bus driver honked at a guy parked at a bus stop. The guy ignored him, the bus called a towing company. The driver of the car got out of his car with a large stick and started whacking the bus and the driver too.


Artist's impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri
Waiting for the bus in Sicily, Year 9878 (actually artist’s impression of Proxima b )


I have since learned that the bus company changed the schedule without updating any of its posted timetables except one: the sheet of A4 printer paper stuck to a pole on Via Onorevole Dottor Giuseppe Rubino.

A similar thing happened with the trains last week. I wanted to go to a mall in the northern part of town. The internet said a train went there. The ticket vending machine said it was a valid destination. I bought a ticket, got on the right train…and ended up in a town 30 kilometres away. The train never stopped at my station. Perhaps that station doesn’t even exist. Who knows?

Anyway, now that we are privy to the top-secret real bus schedule, we decided to go to Siracusa and visit the Archeological Museum. This building, containing a huge collection of artefacts, is named after the archeologist Paolo Orsi (1859-1935), who studied pre-Hellenic peoples of Sicily and discovered several important temples, necropolises, walls, tombs, coins and remains. Here he is, with his perfect moustaches:


Struggling to remember which ones were the Sicels and which ones were the Sicani…


The archeological museum was a twenty-minute walk from the bus station past the Syracusan forum, along to Euripides Plaza and up a hill to the lovely gardens of Villa Landolina. The Landolinas were (are?) one of Sicily’s oldest aristocratic families, arriving with King Roger and the Normans. That’s one of the disorienting things about Sicily—in one twenty-minute walk you have allusions to and remnants of all the disparate peoples who have lived and breathed on this soil. Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Arab…Everyone has left their fragments, but you can’t quite tell how all the pieces fit together.

The garden was a park of trees of numerous varieties (all carefully identified on a sign near the entrance). Ancient artefacts such as massive millstones and huge amphorae were arranged along the path like garden statuary. The leafy setting reminded me of a beautiful lonely place John and I visited in Albania called Butrint—the ancient city of Bouthroton, where the ruins are overgrown with ivy and grass, nestled in a leafy wood of laurels and pine. Seeing a ruined city in a natural setting, up close, under the blue sky, is a wonderful experience, and echoes of that visit rang in my memory now.

We were both enthused and strode towards the museum entrance full of hope, barely glancing at the headless statues called, so the sign said, ‘togati’ or ‘the toga-wearing men’.

The ticket price was quite reasonable—six euros each. The lady at the cash register explained in English that there was a certain order to follow. First we must go downstairs to see the coins. Then we should come upstairs and see galleries A, B and C. OK, that all seemed clear.

We walked down the stairs, following a sign that said ‘medaglie’.

‘Is that coins or not? Are we in the right place? The door’s locked,’ I tried the handle.

‘Um, I think it’s closed,’ said John.

‘But she said it was down here!’ I insisted, and then saw a switch with a bell on it. RING BELL. I couldn’t help thinking of the instructions in Alice in Wonderland  to DRINK ME EAT ME.

‘What are you doing?’ John cried as I rang the bell.

‘It says there to ring the bell,’ I pointed out.

‘But…someone’s coming!’

A staff member with long blonde hair, the kind of woman who sells high-end cosmetics in a department store opened the door, ushered us in and explained that here was the coin collection showing coins, weapons and jewelry from ancient and medieval times. The door closed behind us and we noticed that behind the glass door an armored door about a foot thick stood ready to slide shut and lock into place.

John had not really come here to look at mere coins, so he found a comfy armchair in which to muse as I pored over the shiny things. Admittedly, I usually skip coin exhibits, but this was more than usually engaging. Maybe it was the locked door, giving it an exclusive feel? Or maybe the lighting helped me see the things better.

The coins were surprisingly fat and three-dimensional. Starting from when city of Siracusa minted its own coins up to the tyranny of Dionysius I (405 BCE), the biggest kind of coin kept the same distinctive design elements. On one side was the ‘quadrigia’ (four-horsed chariot), which referred to the city’s aristocracy; on the other was the head of the nymph Arethusa, the nymph associated with the city’s freshwater spring, surrounded by dolphin’s to indicate the city’s location on the sea.




When the coins ceased to delight me, I moved to the jewelry, some of it ancient, some of it not. Here are some of the most striking pieces:


Earring from the second half of the second century BCE


Snakey ringsesss


signet ring sant angelo muxaro
Signet ring found at Sant’Angelo Muxaro


Other eye-catching bits were Roman carnelian rings with intricate intaglio portraits that resembled holograms when backlit; a golden ring in the shape of a frog, a beautiful ivory bracelet featuring a stag where the material had been into a network of tree branches; thin golden leaves that had been part of a wreath; a cameo of Diana in some luminous milk-white stone. John, meanwhile, was drawn to a collection of very thick, very sharp iron ax heads and spear points.

Aware of how much more of the museum we still had left to see (galleries A,B and C), we decided to leave the coin room.  We didn’t know we had to wait for the polished blonde woman to let us out. She was busy chatting to another couple of museum viewers and as we started pounding on the door, not a little claustrophobic, she rushed to let us out.

We climbed upstairs and entered gallery ‘A’. This took us all the way back to the island’s geological formation, through the sad march to extinction of amazing island fauna, to the first hominid scratchings. We jogged past all of it  way, past the Neolithic, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, the late Bronze Age…One of the few things that made John stop and stare was this strange item from Thapsos 1500-1200 BCE




And that was mainly to point and mutter something about that sneak-thief Picasso.

‘When do things get Hellenistic?’ he added, with a hint of desperation.

‘It must be here somewhere,’ I said. ‘Let’s keep going.’

We kept going, and going, and going led on by arrows along many more dark corridors. We passed so many glass cabinets containing inscrutable terracotta figurines, bronze tools and bone ornaments that everything started to look the same. Finally, we came to a dead end. Everything was roped off.

‘Where’s Section B?’ John said, looking around in confusion.

‘Oh my god,’ I said, ‘We have to go back the way we came! The sections don’t link up with each other!’

So, we hurriedly retraced our steps. Now and then we’d end up in a little cul-de-sac and had to rescue each other by finding the right way. By the time we realized we were near the door, we nearly cried from happiness.

Back in the main connecting corridor outside, I scanned the vast building and in the distance, to the left, saw Section B.

‘OK, there it is!’ I called to John, who’d gone to look in the other direction.

We went in and immediately realized we were into the Greek colonization period. But, just as I let my guard down, the same old Confusion started clouding around me again. I tried reading the English translations of the signs provided but, between the technical jargon and the unnatural phrasing, none of the information stuck. While brain fog is a normal condition for me, even John was puzzled.

‘It’s not chronological. They’ve organized everything by town,’ he said. ‘Naxos, Messina, Syracuse…as if they’re completely unconnected. And they don’t even seem to mention the war with the Athenians. I mean, it was probably the most important battle of the Peloponnesian War!’

‘Oh, here’s a passing reference to it,’ I pointed out contrarily.

‘Three words. Three words, for that battle!’ he threw up his hands in exasperation.

Let down, we decided just to saunter through the rest of gallery B with lowered expectations, stopping where we felt like it. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of potsherds, statue fragments  labelled with numbers that were often difficult to match the signs, because there were two sets of the same numbers next to each other. So many tantalizing ancient mysteries were staring out from behind the glass, like the urn containing the charred bones of a man and a woman, but they were crowded out by a modern mystery: why should a museum be so hard to visit? We’d actually felt enthusiastic when we went in, but by the time we left gallery B we were tired, defeated and confused.


Snub-nosed Sicilian kore laughing at me


Sighing, we listlessly browsed the books on display near the ticket counter. One book on the Pelopponesian War, but it was only in Italian. There was a whole set of Montelbano mysteries—the beloved detective series by Andrea Camilleri that showcases the Sicilian way of life. There was also an English translation of Il Giorno Della Civetta, The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia. I was struck by the coincidence because I’d just watched the film version starring Claudia Cardinale and Franco Nero the previous night.  I promptly bought it and we set off homewards, with a short stop at the supermarket near the station.

The supermarket was closed.

‘Is it closed for lunch?’ John asked hopefully, and I understood. He wanted a reasonable explanation, something solid to hold onto.

‘No. The sign says here it’s open right through every day except Sunday,’ I said in a faint voice. There was no explanation. Not even a piece of paper scrawled with ‘closed for family reasons’ or ‘back in an hour’. Nothing.

Luckily, the bus was on time. I started reading my book; I wanted answers. Riffling through, I stopped on a conversation between Captain Bellodi and a woman talking about Sicily:


‘What’s it like?’

‘An old town with plaster-walled houses, steep streets and flights of steps, and at the top of every street and flight of steps, an ugly church.’

‘And the men; are they very jealous?’

‘After their own fashion.’

‘And the mafia, what’s this mafia the papers are always going on about?’

‘Yes, what is the mafia?’ urged Brescianelli.

‘It’s very complicated to explain,’ said Bellodi, ‘it’s just incredible.’


Pretty good excuse to include a picture of Franco Nero

September in Sicily

Exploring new landscapes on foot is one of my favorite activities so, since we’re lucky enough to be in the countryside of Southern Sicily at the autumnal equinox, it seemed like a good time to go for a jog.




It was already ten o’clock when I set out, and the late-summer sun was blazing; good news for the laundry but not for me. No sooner had I stepped outside than my whole body was prickly with sweat. This was despite being covered with a foreign-legionnaire hat, sunglasses, sunblock, long-sleeved top, long running pants and even white gloves. It may be important to ‘celebrate the aging process’ but that doesn’t mean I want to invite it in and serve it hors d’oeuvres!




The first thing I noticed is that there is no shortage of vegetation. In the village itself, the smallest yards seem full of fruiting trees and vines—grapes turning to raisins in bunches, almonds still in their husks, gross quinces, lemons dropping from the branch and degrading prettily on ceramic tiles. Showy flowers burst from unpruned shrubs that explode over high walls—oleanders, hibiscus, jasmine and bougainvillea. Beyond town, in the countryside proper, is the productive rural area. The roadside is are overgrown with sprawling natural hedges: blackberry, prickly pear (rather romantically called ‘Indian figs’ in Italy—fichi d’India), firethorn and some other shrub with nasty two-inch thorns. Luckily, there also more austere, not to say rustic, fences. Beyond these are the fields, some newly ploughed, their soil red-brown, soft moist and full of pebbles and clods for good drainage. Others are well along in the growing process, with neat rows of some unidentifiable crop—rabbage or rape or foreseed or something. There are also fields where the hay had been neatly collected and rolled into bales, reminding me that tonight is the Harvest Moon.




Sicily has been synonymous with fertility for centuries. That was one of the reasons Greeks moved here in droves starting from the eighth century BCE. During the Roman Republic the island was the great city’s main source of grain. And throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance a huge amount of Sicilian cereal was exported all over the Mediterranean, adding to the fabulous wealth of certain shrewd merchants. It’s easy to understand the ancient belief that Demeter and Persephone–the mother-daughter pair associated with agriculture and fertility—were especially fond of the island. Writing in the first century CE, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus confidently gave the exact place where Hades kidnapped Persephone, condemning the world to three sterile months per year. This place (though some say otherwise) was Enna in central Sicily:


“… the Rape of Kore, the myth relates, took place in the meadows of the territory of Enna. The spot lies near the city, a place of striking beauty for its violets and every other kind of flower and worthy of the goddess. And the story is told that, because of the sweet odour of the flowers growing there, trained hunting dogs are unable to hold the trail, because their natural sense of smell is balked. And the meadow we have mentioned is level in the centre and well watered throughout, but on its periphery it rises high and falls off with precipitous cliffs on every side. And it is conceived of as lying in the very centre of the island, which is the reason why certain writers call it the navel of Sikelia. Near to it also are sacred groves, surrounded by marshy flats, and a huge grotto which contains a chasm which leads down into the earth and opens to the north, and through it, the myth relates, Plouton [Hades], coming out with his chariot, effected the Rape of Kore. And the violets, we are told, and the rest of the flowers which supply the sweet odour continue to bloom, to one’s amazement, throughout the entire year, and so the whole aspect of the place is one of flowers and delight . . .”  Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5. 2. 3 – 5. 5. 1 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) 




Agriculture is still very important for the local economy: Sicilian grain is the backbone of Italian staples such as pasta, biscotti and bread. Not only that, but some of the local multi-grain bread I’ve tried is unbelievably delicious, and a few enthusiasts like Filippo Drago are bringing ancient varieties out of plant libraries and back to tables. Apart from grains, the island is proud of its vines, olives, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and honey, and it produces a lot of garden vegetables too. Not only that, but Sicily is Italy’s largest producer of citrus fruits.


prickly pear


After a kilometer or so I turned down a road into a little town where I had a chance to see Sicily’s other great beautiful, myth-making and food-yielding feature—the sea.




Last week, as soon as our train boarded the ferry from Italy to Sicily, we were entering mythic territory, the narrow body of water famously inhabited by Scylla and Charybdis. Messina Strait, whose opposing shores are hardly more than an ‘arrow shot’ apart, is the most likely real location for the spot mentioned in The Odyssey. On one side we have Scylla, originally a lovely sea nymph and Poseidon’s girlfriend. In a fit of jealousy his wife Amphitrite poisoned the water where she bathed and…Scylla changed:


Her voice is indeed but as the voice of a new-born whelp, but she herself is an evil monster, nor would anyone be glad at sight of her, no, not though it were a god that met her. Verily she has twelve feet, all misshapen, and six necks, exceeding long, and on each one an awful head, and therein three rows of teeth, thick and close, and full of black death. Up to her middle she is hidden in the hollow cave, but she holds her head out beyond the dread chasm, and fishes there, eagerly searching around the rock for dolphins and sea-dogs and whatever greater beast she may haply catch, such creatures as deep-moaning Amphitrite rears in multitudes past counting. By her no sailors yet may boast that they have fled unscathed in their ship, for with each head she carries off a man, snatching him from the dark-prowed ship.

A.T. Murray (Book XII 73-101)


On the opposite side was Charybdis–Poseidon’s daughter who took her dad’s side in a spat with Zeus, who objected. She was turned into a giant bladder-monster with flippers and an insatiable thirst for seawater, sucking it all up three times a day, then spewing it out, creating whirlpools. Fortunately for our crossing, both these ladies were in a serene mood, the crossing was quick and the island looked calm and mysterious but monster-free.


The approach to Sicily across the Messina Strait


Today, during my run, I saw another aspect of the sea—rocky pools of clear aquamarine, a sparkling blue horizon, the mesmerizing motion of gentle waves (nothing like the more energetic Southern Pacific of my hometown). It was so pretty and relaxed it was easy to believe that sea nymphs would like to paddle about in it. The nearby town of Ortygia has its very own Nereid—Arethusa, whose backstory provides a kind of magic underground link with the old home country.




The story goes that Arethusa was originally from Arcadia (in the Peloponnese) and was having a bath in the river one day when Alpheus the river god was passing by and…you can guess what happened next. Arethusa prayed to Artemis, who hid her in a cloud but Arethusa had the fear sweats, which gave her away. Artemis opened up an underground tunnel leading from Arcadia all the way to the island of Ortygia (near Siracusa), where Arethusa emerged in liquid form. Unfortunately, the persistent Alpheus flowed through the sea to reach her and ‘mingle with her waters’. There is a statue in Ortygia by Giulio Moschetti that illustrates this story. I must admit, though, I’ve walked past it about four times and never realized it was anything but Diana with a few deformed Roman ‘dolphins’ cavorting around her.


Fountain dramatizing the myth, photo from this site: http://www.italianways.com/the-fountain-of-diana-in-syracuse-and-arethusas-metamorphosis/


I plodded along the coastline a bit and took in the sights. A group of cycling tourists stopped at a parked van for refreshments and listened carefully to their guide’s instructions on getting to their new destination. Near the marina a group of construction workers let out a loud cry, possibly related to the fact that a Polizia Penitenziaria van cruised into view a few moments later. A little car drove about 15 km per hour giving a shaggy dog some exercise. In the hazy distance was a single cone-shaped mountain– Mount Etna.




With a glimpse of this I’d seen enough of Sicily to keep me going for a while, and my new shoes were giving me blisters. Besides, there was a bottle of Nero d’Avola waiting for me. I flew home as if my shoes had wings.




Last Night at the Etruscan Museum

The Etruscans are a tantalizing mystery. No one knows where they came from (“or what they were doing” to quote Spinal Tap). They were the superpower of Italy when Rome was just a village. Thanks to their appetite for luxury goods, some of the most beautiful artwork we have from the ancient world was found in their graves. Appropriately, considering how much of their culture is hidden from us, our word ‘person’ comes from the Etruscan word phersu, meaning ‘masked man’.


Vanth, an Etruscan angel of Death


On our last day in Rome, despite a week of frantic walking, there was so much that hadn’t been personally seen by me. I was almost fine with that but this particular mystery gnawed at my innards. It got to be four o’clock in the afternoon and it became clear I could not in good conscience leave the city without seeing the Etruscan museum.

According to the website, the museum was open until eight o’clock. I jogged over to the Roma Termini Metro station, trotted through its intestinal corridors echoing with the sound of a leonine Central African youth singing Reggae and hopped on Line A train to Flaminia station, jostling with sun-dressed tourists and sleek commuters. From there I took a tram to Ministero Marina and then, in the golden sunset, walked a few blocks to the northern tip of the giant park known as Villa Borghese, to a beautiful palace called Villa Giulia. This was built between 1551 and 1553 by Pope Julius III when this spot was right on the edge of Rome, between the city and the countryside.


Villa Giulia at dusk


The museum staff were very relaxed—the ticket seller told me I could take my backpack in (unusual for Roman galleries) and the ticket collector had her feet up on the counter as she browsed her cellphone. It was odd to see people so at home in such a luxurious setting—the floor was covered with beautiful tiles, the foyer door looked out on a formal garden, high walls, a lawn glowing bright green in the evening light. Even the birdsong seemed aristocratic—polished and discreet. Slipping through the door and entering a curved arcade open to a grassy courtyard, I saw beautiful faded frescos on a warm orange background. It was strange to think that it was now was just a setting for the museum, which I entered through a glass door.




According to the wordy introductory signs, despite our ignorance of most things Etruscan, there are some facts that can be asserted with confidence. Evidence of their culture dates from between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE, after which they started to be absorbed into the Roman Republic. Etruria occupied modern Tuscany as well as parts of Latium and Umbria, not as a nation but a collection of loosely affiliated towns. The area they occupied was rich in natural resources that included forests and ore deposits yielding copper, iron and tin. The people were skilled at metallurgy, agriculture and ship-building and dominated the seas on the western Italian coast, even making a name for themselves as pirates. Incidentally, the Greek word for Etruscans ‘Tyrrhenoi’, from which we get the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Just to drive home the seaward view and appealing oddity of Etruscan culture, one of the first objects on display was a man riding into the Afterlife on a giant seahorse.






Contact with Greece began when the first Greek colony in Italy was founded in the Bay of Naples (c. 775-750 BCE). From that time, many Greek and Middle Eastern objects were imported to Etruria. Etruscans especially valued Greek pottery from workshops in Sparta, Corinth, Eastern Greece and Attica.


Design on a kylix (490-480 BCE) by the Brygos Painter depicting a raging Maenad swinging a panther through the air. The kylix was found in Capua, which derives from the Etruscan ‘Capeva’–city of marshes


Other objects discovered in Etruscan graves indicate they traded with many other peoples including those from Sardinia, Central Europe, the Balkans and the Cyclades. From the eighth century, they had trade ties with cultures in Phoenicia, Egypt, Ionia and the Near East. Foreign artisans even migrated to work at coastal trading posts called emporia, where they were free to set up their own sanctuaries and to practice their own religions.  Examples of these trading posts include a port of Cerveteri, Vulci and Tarquinia.


not a locally sourced ostrich egg
These gold sheets from the 6th century BCE contain inscriptions dedicating a temple to the Phoenician goddess Astarte (associated with the Etruscan goddess Uni)




Religion was of primary importance in everyday Etruscan life. Livy described them as “a nation devoted beyond all others to religious rites”. Towns were planned as grids encircled by a protective ‘sacred belt’ of temples and other religious areas. Priests consulted the Etrusca Disciplina, a collection of religious texts (now lost) that dictated when certain ceremonies should be performed, and that revealed the meaning of signs and omens. Haruspices perfected the art of reading entrails, and of augury, interpreting monstrous births or lightning. Religious rites might involve animal sacrifice, pouring of blood on the ground, playing music and dancing. Ordinary people placed offerings such as food or ceramic items in temples—for example in thousands of ceramic wombs have been unearthed in a temple consecrated to gods tied to fecundity.


wombs galore




The Etruscan pantheon was rather crowded, seeming to include a god for every possible contingency. The head god seems to have been Tin, who didn’t bother much with human affairs. The more approachable gods included Thanur (goddess of birth), Aita (god of the Underworld), Usil (the sun god) and Veltha (the national Etruscan god connected to vegetation). The Etrusca Disciplina were based on knowledge given to the Etruscans by two gods: the wise infant Tages, grandson of Tin, who miraculously appeared from a field in Tarquinia while it was being ploughed, and the nymph Vegoia (Vecui). Among lesser deities were the Vanth (winged girls acting as messengers of death) and Thesan, White Goddess of the Sea.





An indication of how seriously the Etruscans believed in the Afterlife was their insistence in surrounding the deceased with provisions needed for the journey, just as the Egyptians did. Men needed man-stuff such as an urn in the shape of a hut, weapons and things for hunting. Women needed spindles, whorls, distaffs and pretty jewels.


not sure why snakes


Wall paintings inside tombs show pleasant pastimes, anticipating the joy of the Afterlife —banquets, dancing, games and music. One of these games was kottabos, of Greek origin, in which the player (reclining on his couch after a banquet) used his right hand to flick his cup in such a way that a coherent gob of his leftover wine flew towards with a tiny statuette on top of a bronze stand. This little statuette held a small disc called a plastinix and the successful player managed to knock it off so it fell directly into a larger disc below called the manes. The resulting clang was proof of victory.


Kottabos as depicted in a fresco from The Tomb of the Diver in southern Italy, possibly influenced by Etruscan tomb paintings



The Etruscans have not left behind any literature—no poems, plays or epics. Their language (Oscan) is mainly known through the 10,000 or so known inscriptions, mainly funerary inscriptions or on objects found in sanctuaries. Incidentally, the longest existing Etruscan text was found on the linen used to wrap the Zagreb mummy. A length of 1,300 words written in black ink on linen, it contains a calendar and instructions for sacrifice.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish my tour of the ‘language’ section of the museum because the three ladies downstairs had turned the lights off hoping for an early night. I was the only one in the museum and clearly had not been making enough noise.

“Uh, mi scusa!” I shrieked. “Hello! Sono qui ancora!” I clattered down the stairs in a hurry. As fascinated as I was by this culture, and as friendly as they seemed, I did not want to spend the night locked up with them.



The ladies looked at me aghast and apologized profusely. Secure in the knowledge that I would be able to exit after all, I assured them it was no problem and zoomed out of the palace as quickly as I could.





A Roman Ramble

Wednesday was overcast and rainy. Perfectly in tune with the elements, the touts of Rome had swapped sunhats for umbrellas and stood on corners thrusting them at passersby. In spite of hurrying out of the hotel without a jacket, I ignored all offers since it was warm. Besides, the rain was more of a dew than a downpour.

Still seized by enthusiasm for Rome, I was out to see as much as possible and to burn off excess energy. Although I had a vague notion of seeing the Ghetto and Trastevere, my real plan was just to keep walking until something interesting cropped up, and then to start walking again. I mainly wanted to breathe the air and pound the streets of a city that, a week ago, had seemed a mere abstraction. With only two days to go, I had to enjoy the brevis lux and carpe the diem!

Turning down Via Nazionale towards the Trajan Market, I became just one more drop in a great human river. Joining a huge tourist flow is part of the pleasure and interest of Rome. There are obvious annoyances in crowds, but having seen my share of deserted back-waters, visiting a popular tourist attraction has its appeal. Everyone was dressed up and in a good mood for the occasion (at least this early in the day), and there was a feeling of community–we were all here to see the great beauty and intricate systems and huge monuments created by outstanding examples of our species. It was a kind of festival.




The bottom of Via Nazionale is particularly dense with attractions: Trajan’s Market; Trajan’s Column; the Palazzo Veneto (currently showcasing works by Donatello); the huge white monument to Vittorio Emanuele II topped by racing charioteers; and, up on its private hill, Campodoglio. Looking at all this made me feel weak at the knees.  Keep walking…I told myself, determined not to get involved in any one site so early in the expedition. But just one block along, in Via di Botteghe Oscure, I saw a sign: Museo di Crypto Balbi.

It is a romantic word– Romeo and Juliet ends in a crypt, after all. I fantasized that this unassuming museum was like a gate to the Underworld, that all the great corpses of the past would be neatly laid out for inspection, perhaps occasionally sitting up to dispense wisdom or gossip like the shades of Dante’s Inferno or in The Aeneid. One of the first things I gleaned, though, after paying the entrance fee of 8 euros, was that ‘crypt’ did not mean tomb. It meant, rather, something like ‘theatrical storeroom’. One block away from me, crowds of smiling customers were photographing Donatello masterpieces and I was in the ‘Old-Theater-Cupboard Museum’. Never mind.




The Italian-language signs were a too technical for me to understand. What I can tell you is that there was an ambitious man of the name Balbus who had a theater built. Over time, other things were built on top of that theater and then it all got dug up. In short, this museum is an archeological cross-section of a tiny part of the city of Rome. You can go underground and see the original Roman brickwork, a packed road of the Middle Ages and other later architectural additions. Admittedly, to the untrained eye one era looks very similar to the other and the whole seems a big old basement or sewer. Upstairs, more interestingly for boors like me, you can see some of the debris from the site, which has been conveniently sorted into historical epochs. I particularly liked the Medieval stuff, especially these metal objects so suggestive of daily life: spurs, a dagger, buckles, a copper ring, small rectangular plaques, a brass cockleshell (symbol of a pilgrim), a thimble and brooches.




Leaving the so-called crypt, I strolled along in Via Arenula towards Ponte Garibaldi, noticing that the tourist hordes had already petered out. There was a cute little park with some old fountains and, glancing through a gate, I saw a nice statue of Venus–the kind of thing that happens every five steps in this city.




On the Garibaldi Bridge I paused to get a shot of Tibertine Island. In her recent book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard includes a paragraph about how the Romans thought it originated:


“Many Romans knew, as well as modern geologists do, that the island in the middle of the Tiber where it flows through Rome was in geological terms a relatively recent formation. But how, and when, did it emerge? Even now there is no definitive answer to that; but one Roman idea dated its origin to the very beginning of Republican rule, when the grain that had been growing on the private land of the Tarquins was thrown into the river. Because the water level was low, this piled up on the riverbed and gradually, as it collected silt and other refuse, formed an island. It is as if the shape of the city was born only with the removal of the monarchy.”


Tibertine Island


Over the bridge and past Largo Gotevere Anguillara, I came to a large medieval-looking building labelled Casa di Dante. Funny they should commemorate his house in this city, since Rome is where he learned of his exile from Florence and was home to several of his least favorite people including Pope Boniface VII, whom he placed in the eighth circle of Hell, stuck face-first in a rock.

Continuing along the main street of Via Trastevere, I caught a glimpse of a big church complex and went to have a look. This turned out to be Piazza di San Francesco di Assissi. As there was no mass going on in the church just then, I slipped inside. There was only one other person there, a man in a beige coat looking reflectively down at the saint’s effigy in its glass tomb. I padded up to the altar, glaned to my left and caught my breath. There was a marble sculpture of a woman bathed in sunlight, conveying softness, folds of fabric, but also pain, vulnerability and tenderness. It was an pleasing experience, and I thought how very lucky I was to be there and see it. Later on I found out that it is called The Ecstacy of Saint Ludovica Albertoni by Bernini. Saint Ludovica was a Roman woman who joined the order of Saint Francis and worked for the poor in the Trastevere neighborhood.




The day before, John and I had gone to the Villa Borghese Gallery, a palace whose ground floor was designed to entertain dignitaries and important guests. The sculpture that impressed us most there was Apollo and Daphne by Bernini, showing the very moment that Daphne is changed into a laurel tree whilst being chased by the lustful god. Here is a translation of Ovid’s version of events:


In flight, in fear, wind flowing through her dress

And her wild hair — she grew more beautiful

The more he followed her and saw wind tear

Her dress and the short tunic that she wore,

The girl a naked wraith in wilderness.

And as they ran young Phoebus saved his breath

For greater speed to close the race, to circle

The spent girl in an open field, to harry

The chase as greyhound races hare,

His teeth, his black jaws glancing at her heels.

The god by grace of hope, the girl, despair,

Still kept their increasing pace until his lips

Breathed at her shoulder; and almost spent,

The girl saw waves of a familiar river,

Her father’s home, and in a trembling voice

Called, “Father, if your waters still hold charms

To save your daughter, cover with green earth

This body I wear too well,”  and as she spoke

A soaring drowsiness possessed her; growing

In earth she stood, white thighs embraced by climbing

Bark, her white arms branches, her fair head swaying

In a cloud of leaves; all that was Daphne bowed

In the stirring of the wind, the glittering green

Leaf twined within her hair and she was laurel.

Even so Phoebus embraced the lovely tree

Whose heart he felt still beating in its side;

He stroked its branches, kissed the sprouting bark,

And as the tree still seemed to sway, to shudder

At his touch, Apollo whispered, “Daphne,

Who cannot be my wife must be the seal,

The sign of all I own, immortal leaf

Twined in my hair as hers, and by this sign

My constant love, my honour shall be shown

It was hard to imagine how anyone could have created this statue from a chunk of rock—Bernini changed dead earth into something moving and living. Although I’d seen the statue in photographs, there were details whose power was increased when you could see it from all different angles. The leaves are the thin-ness of real leaves; Daphne’s torso where it is changing into a tree is rough bark, contrasting with the luminous, supple skin of her nymph body; woody vein-like roots sprout from her toes; the ground is a matte texture, highlighted by a little polished square pebble; Apollo’s tunic whirls in a vortex behind him; Daphne’s mouth is open in a scream you can almost hear.




There are four other Bernini statues in the gallery, including Aeneas carrying his father and son (and the household gods) away from Troy, and Hades carrying Persephone to the underworld. In the first statue, Bernini helps indicate the three ages of man with the texture of the skin of each figure—Anchises has the dry, coarse skin of an elderly man; Aeneas’ is softer and more supple; Astynax the baby has the smoothest of all. In The Rape of Persephone, Hades’ powerful fingers press into Persephone’s thigh emphasising her softness and his force.




Incidentally, The Rape of Persephone includes a figure of Cerberus that is, frankly, disappointing. Not one of its three heads looks anything like a real dog. The canine form seems to have been beyond even the most masterful artists of the past millennium. Look, for example, at this execrable wolf on one of the ceilings of the same gallery:




Then there is the dog next to Circe in the ‘metamorphoses’ hall near Daphne and Apollo. Granted, it probably used to be human but that’s no reason to make it look even more like Ron Perlman than that cat.




Perhaps the worst of all is this eighteenth-century rendition of Anubis as a body builder with pigeon wings and the head of a Cocker Spaniel.




But I digress.

Leaving the church of Saint Francis all aglow at the vision of Ludovica, I decided to make for Gianicolo Park. Climbing steps and steep, narrow streets, I glimpsed lofty mansions through veils of greenery and over the tops of high walls and eventually came to Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, an unusual looking structure with a big round pool at the bottom.




Just to the side of it was a path, surprisingly overgrown, muddy and jungly. It eventually led to Terrazza del Gianicolo, presided over by Garibaldi on a horse. It was clearly a good spot for panorama views, but because of the drizzly weather it was practically deserted. I made a bee-line for a forlorn Indian vendor at a covered drinks cart and got some water and a walnut brownie before going on.

A little way down the road was a lighthouse. I didn’t know what a lighthouse was doing here since the sea is lebbenty kilometers away. Then I saw a plaque commemorating the Argentine coup. It was all a bit confusing. Anyhow, I finally got a decent shot of the city.




Still further down the road was a little park in front of a children’s hospital. Nurses gathered smoking on their break, parents rushed down sandwiches, a man chatted earnestly on his cellphone using what a friend calls ‘the question mark’ gesture, with the fingers of one hand joined together to make a beak as the hand moves up and down.




Suddenly I felt guilty about my touristy ebullience and scuttled down a leafy little staircase. This was called ‘the Ramp of the Oak’ and near the bottom I saw why: there was a plaque to which a burnt log was attached. Another mystery.

Back at the bottom of the hill, I crossed the Principe Amadeo Savoia Aosta Bridge, drifted towards a main street and found myself back in the tourist river heading to Navona Square, a long piazza containing three impressive fountains with Neptune cavorting with nymphs. I’m not sure why, but these fountains, even the massive Trevi fountain, don’t do much for me. La Barcaccia, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, looks little more than a bathtub—quite disappointing since my favourite Italian radio show dedicated to opera is called La Barcaccia.

Striding through, I passed into Parliament Square, a vast space where people stood in military dress uniforms and business suits. Hidden in the shade, several soldiers in camo gear quietly surveyed the area with loaded weapons. The atmosphere was rather ceremonial and chilly—I had somehow left the tourist zone and felt like a reef wrasse that has unwittingly strayed into deep open water. I bustled past the parliament gates and escaped into a nearby church.



This particular church featured large paintings of the life of Mary. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the artist’s name except it reminded me of cannelloni. The large, dim church interior was restful, and helped check my frenetic enthusiasm. I could see how it might be beneficial to have a space dedicated to contemplation and calm, to focus on a figure who represented a common ideal. It then occurred to me that ‘Mother Mary’ had an ancient precedent in the ‘Great Mother’ goddess Cybele. Describing the sudden expansion of Roman power, Mary Beard describes an ancient example of culture clash, a moment when Rome is suddenly confronted with the strangeness of its own origins:


“Livy…tells of how the Great Mother Goddess was brought into Rome with tremendous fanfare from Asia Minor in 204 BCE, towards the end of the Second Punic War. This was a very Roman occasion. A book of Roman oracles that was supposed to go back to the reign of the Tarquins recommended that the goddess Cybele, as she was also known, be incorporated into the Roman pantheon. The range of deities worshipped in Rome was proudly elastic, and the Great Mother was the patron deity of the Romans’ ancestral home—Aeneas’ Troy—and so, in a sense, belonged in Italy. They sent a senior deputation to collect the image of the goddess and transport her back, and they chose, as the oracle had insisted, ‘the best man in the state’ to receive her in Rome…He was accompanied in the welcoming party by a noble Roman woman, in some accounts a Vestal Virgin, and the image was taken from the ship and passed from the coast to the city, hand to hand, by a long line of other women. The goddess was temporarily lodged in the shrine of Victory until her own temple was built. It would be the first building in Rome, so far as we know, constructed using that most Roman of materials, and the one on which so many of the Romans’ later architectural masterpieces relied: concrete.

Nothing could have pleased Cato more—except that not everything was quite as it seemed. The image of the goddess was not what the Romans could possibly have been expecting. It was a large black meteorite, not a conventional statue in human form. And the meteorite came accompanied by a retinue of priests. These were self-castrated eunuchs, with long hair, tambourines and a passion for self-flagellation. This was all about as un-Roman as you could imagine. And forever after it raised uncomfortable questions about ‘the Roman’ and ‘the foreign’, and where the boundary between them lay.”


There is something about this story that I really like. It’s as if a small-town congregation sent a mail order for a church monument and ended up with an alien egg or with the black monolith from A Space Odyssey 2001.




The Delirium of Rome

Before leaving for Rome I packed, re-packed, cleaned, re-cleaned, wrote seven alternative itineraries, stayed awake until dawn, at which point I sprang out of bed, burst into tears and asked John get me an espresso while I re-packed again.


It’s an intimidating prospect, appreciating such a loaded spectacle. How can anyone prepare to see it properly? It’s a temple containing more temples, an ancient communal brain, a twilight mirage, a smoking crater full of molten gold, a catacomb where the dead seem ready to wake any moment, an enormity crushed to its essential mass like a neutron star, a book as full of footnotes. The name ‘Rome’ reverberates like the harmonics of its church bells—Augustus, Ovid, St. Peter, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Fellini, Loren…names and images so familiar and at the same time remote in their mysterious perfection.

Our hotel is near the central train station and there is everything you’d expect to find in a tourist-heavy area: touts, expensive bad restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, beggars, police cars, dazed tourists, glamorous transvestites, large groups of students in a holiday mood. But the city is not in the least cowed by this crush. The buildings are so big, and there are so many of them that no tourist crowd can dwarf them. One block away is Santa Maria Maggiore, whose bulk and bells seem to fill the sky with reassuring serenity.


Santa Maria Maggiore


When we first arrived, I was primed to see everything as art, and the city resembled a baroque fresco—the celestial blue sky, the ornate clouds, bright-green ring-necked parrots flitting in palm trees, even the furry black mould in the metro looked like ornamentation. African girls lay sleeping like nymphs in the shade of Italian pines, young lovers stood entwined like Eros and Psyche, fruit in street-stalls shone as waxily as a Reubens still-life.




Christina, our guide at the Villa Borghese gallery, told us that in Caravaggio’s paintings, light always suggests the presence of God. The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, for example, has the saint bathed in light at the moment the angel comes calling. In The Taking of Christ, the Roman soldiers are almost enveloped in darkness—their armor is black, their faces clouded in shadow, but Christ’s face is bright, lighting Judas’ face as if by a reflection.  The idea stayed with me on an evening walk so that trivial details, in my Roman delirium, acquired significance. A small white feather fell at my feet, a young man exhaled vapour so his head became a silhouette in a halo by the evening sun, a baby gave a silent scream of delight as her grandfather placed her in a sunny spot on a palace lawn.  Even allowing for the inevitable ‘honeymoon stage’ of touring a new city, Rome seemed to possess some intangible magic. This is something about the city that is well captured in the film La Grande Bellezza .


The Taking of Christ


I keep looking for signs of the ‘real Rome’—what’s it like to actually live here? Searching in vain for a new camera battery, I ended up in a tiny electronics shop and chatted with charming woman about ninety years old. As her son went to check in the back, she handed me a fan explaining it was her ‘air conditioner’ and sympathized with my sore feet, saying “Roma is all—” she finished the sentence with her hands, motioning the sharp ascents and descents of its hills. She remembered when everyone printed out their photos—she doesn’t like to remember it now. I wondered at her composure and kindness in putting a stranger at ease in a foreign language and yet at the same time maintaining utter impersonality. There was something regal about her.

Groups of local men gather at bars and on corners grasping each other’s elbows, leaning in close—murmuring conspiracies. At dinner an elderly waiter in a black vest took notes with a shaking hand. Carabinieri on scooters whistled at traffic to make way for sleek black cars containing men only half-veiled by tinted windows–you could glimpse the tailored elegance of their cuffs, the wafer-thin cellphones, the breath of Power.

“Pietà,” Rafaella (our guide at St. Peter’s Basilica) explains, “is neither pity nor mercy but the feeling between a parent and a child, which involves mutual love and respect.” It is a quality you see not only in Michaelangelo’s masterpiece but also in the father who spontaneously kisses his son’s cheek on the escalator, the mother supervising her daughters as they bike with high seriousness through the grounds of the Borghese villa.


Detail of the Pieta from this website: http://www.travelingthruhistory.com/michelangelos-pieta-2/


The guards at St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Sistine Chapel have a Cerberus-like pride in their charge that, too, seems characteristic of those who were born here or who have chosen to make it home. The guard in the chapel—a cattle corral, standing room only—regularly boomed out ‘SILENZIO…SILENCE’ with solemn conviction, a voice that might belong to Dis as he rebukes the ranks of the damned. Curiously, though, this works on everyone but the locals. An Italian hippie next to me blithely chatted away on her cellphone. Two matrons behind me discussed what they would make for lunch. With God himself looking down!! (But rules are for tourists, not us!)


Michaelangelo portrayed himself on the flayed skin of St. Bartholemew to express his exhaustion at having completed the fresco. It also conveys how you will feel after touring the Vatican museums.


After a three-hour tour through the Vatican museums and another hour’s walk, John and I were so tired that we wanted nothing but sleep. The German teenagers inhabiting the rest of the third floor of Hotel Acropoli had other ideas, however, and emitted the strangest noises—monkey-like squawks, incessant door knocking, guffaws, shouting, choral renditions of the Star Wars theme, bursts of rap. This went on until midnight.

Aside from being a genius, John has a set of lungs worthy of Cicero (that’s one thing it pays to remember—those Roman orators were performers—breath control, projection, musicality, stamina…). In a voice that seemed to come from the bowels of the Earth, shaking the walls, massaging the organs, he boomed ‘QUIET!’ The effect was immediate. Everything ceased, all sound except for something that sounded like a brief, terrified scrambling for cover. Nothing. Beautiful, Michaelangelo-worthy silenzio.


Dove in St. Peter’s Basilica