Friday, June 23, 2017

A Tax Free Lunch?

One of the difficulties Italy has in collecting taxes is that a lot of the economy is still on a cash basis.  When you for instance pay for several nights lodging with a big roll of Euros you do wonder if this income ever gets reported.  Oh, credit cards are accepted some places.  Restaurants for instance will usually take them.

On our last day in Rome I snapped a quick picture of this place on the Via Trastevere. I wonder if the credit card machine ( called a Point of Service) was really broken or not.  And I do like the inadvertant pun!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Finance Police on the Case!

I guess its not exactly a secret that Italians are, shall we say, less than diligent in paying their taxes.  People who actually understand the intricacies of the VAT tax estimate that in 2014 Italians "evaded" 27.5% of what they should have paid. That makes for a not insignificant 36.9 billion Euros.  And that is just for VAT, one of the many taxes that Italy has on the books. The actual, total scope of tax evasion?  Who knows. Lots is a fair statement.  And it takes a toll, our trips to Italy have been made a bit less enjoyable by trash in the streets and archaeological sites closed because the government is chronically underfunded.

I was a bit taken aback to find out that the Tax Police actually have squad cars!

But I was really surprised to find out that they in addition have an "air force" of 100 planes and helicopters and a "navy" of 600 vessels.

If that seems a bit over the top for the purpose of persuading people to take paying taxes seriously I suppose it is only fair to mention that this branch of what are called "militarized police" also have responsibility for many other functions including preventing drug trafficking.

Wikipedia of course has so  Much More.  The Guardia works to track down illegal art sales.  They fight credit card fraud.  They run mountain rescue stations.  They even have nominal duties to prevent illegal immigration.  I wonder if their ships and that of the Italian Navy ever fire shots across the bow as the latter is currently tasked with rounding up ramshackle refugee vessels off the coast of Libya and towing them back to Italy.

Here's the current commander of the Guardia Finanza.  Although the Italians are not notably proficient at either military or police matters they do have the best damn uniforms.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bernie and Donald have a Thrift Sale

In small town America there are certain things that are just givens.  You want to have a yard/garage sale?  Go ahead and put up some signs.  So there was considerable consternation last year when the city "decided" to enforce an ordinance regardings signs. No more putting them out on the curb where they would be seen.  They had to be in your yard and set back a ways.  And you could just forget about putting them up on one of the high traffic public corners that were known for being "the place" for yard sale signs.

The long standing ordinance no doubt was originally intended to prevent ugly commercial clutter, but for signs that were dutifully put up on Thursday night and taken down on Saturday afternoon this was overkill.  Signs were even confiscated by city workers!

This was before the election and some speculate that the Civic Powers that Be did not want to see too many political signs out there.

Well the election is over.  The signs are back in their traditional places.  Any lasting effects?  Well, just maybe.

A very odd juxtapositon of elements here.  A Trumpian phrase.  Bernie Sanders' unkempt hair and oversized glasses.  And...the twitter bird?

I suppose the basic message is one of bipartisanship.  Come to the Yuge Sale. Your money is good no matter your politics.  

Of course Bernie would probably charge you a higher sales tax!

Hmmm, I had not set out to do so but it seems this week will be about taxes.  Only reasonable as recently on the Appian Way we had a full week of the other Immutable - Death.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Baths of Caracalla - A Negative Review

Sigh.  Lets get this one over with.

As you can tell I love Roman sites.  It takes a lot for me to dislike one.  But the Baths of Caracalla worked hard to get this negative review.

As you go here and there in Rome you can see the Baths from afar.  They are huge. The location is near the beginning of the Appian Way, but on this "History in a Place" stroll we visited it on a walk that started out near the Circus Maximus.

Here's the complex up close:

You need to think of Roman Baths as being a sort of full service public entertainment complex.  You had your swimming pools, hot and cold baths but also libraries, gardens, an exercise area.  All built by the Emperor for the pleasure of his people.

Many of the best mosaics - and some really first rate statues - have been removed to various museums.  But of the plainer mosaics there are plenty. Below a team is stabilizing one of them.  Note also the wall decoration...few people realize that mosaics could be vertical as well as horizontal.

So what's my gripe with the Baths of Caracalla?  The above photos have just shown you all there is to see.  Its fine, but if you are into this sort of thing there are other, if smaller, baths that show you more.  The main reason we wanted to visit this one was to see the extensive network of underground service tunnels, drains, cisterns etc. Heck there is even Rome's largest Mithraeum down there.  So lets get out of that hot sun and see neat things!

A locked gate.  No notice that this part of the site was not open.  For that matter the officious guy at the ticket office who refused to honor the 3 site pass I had acquired (I had not been able to specify the exact time of our visit) rubbed me the wrong way too.

So my advice is take a look at the marvelous Baths of Caracalla from some nice vantage point.  The Palatine Hill or the Aurelian Wall gate of San Sebastiano give you a nice view.  
Wrapping up this week's "History in one place" visits:

1. Case Romane del Celio was very much worth the visit.  Strolling up that more or less original Roman Imperial street coming up from the Colosseum area was a nice lead in.  Opening hours are listed as 10 - 1 and 3 - 6.  Closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

2. From Case Romane its just a short stroll past the Basilica and into the park where you can visit the obelisk.  We had the place to ourselves other than a shabby looking guy snoozing on a bench.  If you need a bathroom there is actually a decent looking public facility in the park.  It costs one euro but heck, in Rome the alternative is usually going to a cafe or bar and buying something.

3. We exited the Celimontana park next to the "little ship" on Via Navicella.  We should have stopped in at Basilica di Santo Stefano Rodondo which was right in front of us.  Its a fifth century church with some extremely over the top frescoes depicting every form of martyrdom you can imagine.  And a few you probably didn't.

4.As I said, skip the Baths of Caracalla.  But as we were strolling towards our next destination we did find something interesting and useful on Via Aventino.  At number 32 you will find....a buffet.  In Italy, where meals are supposed to take forever and you only get one course at a time!  It was a revelation and when you have places to get to having things go at your pace is welcome.  Food was quite good too.
I actually have at least four more weeks of "History in one place" features, but lets take a break next week.  Pot luck.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Celimontana Obelisk

With a dozen obelisks scattered around Rome - not counting a few modern examples - it can happen that you just stumble across one.  That's how I found the Celimontana Obelisk.

We had been visiting the delightful Casa Romane del Celio site and decided to walk over to the Baths of Caracalla.  When the gates of a pleasant garden appeared along my proposed route it was easy enough to nip on in.  The gate we entered was off of the Via di S. Paolo della Croce, and brought us into the gardens associated with the Villa Celimontana.  This is on the Caelian Hill, perhaps the least known of The Seven Hills.

The villa is much renovated and now serves as the headquarters of the Italian Geographic Society.  The associated gardens are a public space, and are a delicious quiet retreat from the nearby Tourist Chaos of central Rome.  And the best part was that we rounded a corner and saw this:

If you think this obelisk looks to be a bit of a hodge podge, you are correct.

The history of the obelisk follows some familiar routes.  It  erected by Ramses II, and was one of a pair that stood in front of the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis near modern day Cairo.  They were transported to Rome in Imperial times and were part of the Iseum, the Temple of Isis, that stood near the Pantheon.  This site was the source of numerous extant obelisks. 

At some point this one was moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.  It was in any event there in the 14th Century.  It appears to have fallen down and/or been moved elsewhere.

Fast forward to circa 1582 when the Senators of Rome gave the Obelisk as a present to Duke Mattei to help decorate the grounds of his new villa on the Caelian Hill.  As a present it was a bit of a Dog's Breakfast, composing parts of several other unidentified obelisks mated to the upper section from Heliopolis.

The villa and grounds were not kept up all that well, and the obelisk again fell over. It's not all that surprising, the patched up bits of several structures must have been rather unstable.

A Spanish stateman named Manuel de Godoy lived in the manor in the early 19th century and undertook to restore the obelisk and to have it moved to a better location. In the process of reseating the obelisk a workman had his arm accidently pinned under the base and amputated.  Because they were not about to lift the obelisk up again it is still in there.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Case Romane del Celio

OK, this is a rather clunky name.  Perhaps that's why the "Roman Houses on the Caelian Hill" are a little known site.  You have to be actively looking for it.

Like many preserved Roman sites it is underneath a church.  In this case the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul on Clivo di Scauro. This by the way is an actual Roman street, little changed since the day when it was a sort of short cut from the Circus Maximus to the residential districts beyond the hill. 

John and Paul were brothers, and officials in the court of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great.  When the brief pagan revival came in the form of Julian the Apostate (361-363) the brothers were martyred.  Interest in the earlier structures beneath the current basilica led to excavations beginning in the 1880s.

What was uncovered was a maze of rooms, passageways, even a little street.  The site is very nicely preserved with wall paintings and mosaics intact. After the Empire again became Christian the house was donated to the church and the existing Basilica was constructed, starting in 410 AD.  The incorporation of existing structures was extensive and accounts for the remarkable preservation. 

Some first rate wall paintings are on display.    

Some of the subject matter is Christian, some is debatable, some is flat out pagan. This is not surprising given the nature of the site.  There are at least elements of Second and Third Century structures some of which predate the Christian occupants. By the way, that window looks out onto the street.  This is a part of the site was just built into the Basilica.

A shrine traditionally associated with the original place of worship.  I understand that this is called a "Confessio" and that the assorted Saints depicted might or might not represent John and Paul.

Nearby we find a reliquary, possibly for the remains of John and Paul.  

A view of multiple levels.  Dwelling places grand and humble, a street, some shops. There are also bathing facilities, a well and a nymphaeum. Roman archeology is complex.

Of course I had to peek into a store room where extra stuff found in the excavations is just sitting around.

I mentioned that excavations were mostly done in the 1880s.  The main investigator was a Father Germano who was rector of the Basilica directly above this site.  It looks as if the original lighting fixtures he put in are still there!  I see that there are still candles in them and that they have been recently used.  I assume this is for some sort of special occasion, in general your carefully conserved wall paintings would not be happy with prolonged exposure to smoke and soot!

The crazy looking artwork on the back wall is modern, part of an exhibition. Interesting work but I did not think it enhanced the archeology much.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Circus of Maxentius - And the Appian Way rolls on

Our party stop yesterday notwithstanding, the Appian Way has a somber feel to it.  It combines a sense of fallen glories of Rome with a succession of burial places.  Perhaps none is grander or sadder than the complex known as The Circus of Maxentius.

The Roman aristocracy liked to be ostentatious in both life and in death.  Grand palaces and villas.  Grand tombs to show the prominence of the family.  And for the Emperor it was all dialed up a notch.

Maxentius reigned from 306 - 312 AD.  He came to power via The Tetrarchy, one of history's least successful experiments in governance.  Feeling that the Empire had grown too large for one man to effectively run, Diocletian decided that it would be divided into East and West halves.  One Emperor for each.  One subsidiary ruler called a Caesar in East and West.  In theory the latter was the understudy for the former. When an Emperor died or as actually happened, retired, there would always be a ready, non opposed successor.  In practice this would be like dividing the US at the Mississippi River, having a President and Vice President on each side, and no defined method for picking a new Veep.  Intrigue, death and Civil War ensued.

As mentioned the other day, Maxentius got a bad rap from historians of an earlier era. But he seems to have been an energetic ruler and a great builder.

Then as now politics makes men very rich, so Maxentius in short order acquired an earlier villa on the Appian Way and went on to build something that looked like this:

A huge "circus" as chariot racing tracks were called then.  Second only to the Circus Maximus this venue could hold 10,000 spectators. 

Today it is an open grassy field with parts of the stands here and there. 

I took this picture standing at one end of the spina the center part of the track.  The word means "spine" and in ancient times it would have been decorated with various water features, statues and right in the middle, a big ol' obelisk.  In fact, we have seen this obelisk previously.  It is a rather well traveled artifact for something this big!

The circus has a lonely feel to it.  And perhaps more than that of empty fields and ruined, empty bleachers.  Because the only time it seems to have been used was for a memorial service.

Maxentius does not get much respect from contemporary Christian writers.  But he is remembered as a loving father who grieved for the death of his son and presumptive heir, Romulus.  The inaugural games at the Circus were dedicated to his memory.

And here in the now familiar round format is the adjacent Tomb of Romulus.

Its a spooky place.  These niches were not for statuary but were intended to be the final resting places for a dynasty that Maxentius hoped to create.  But after a few short years he was killed in battle, his head shipped off to rebellious African provinces to prove he was really gone.  Romulus was the only one ever buried here.

On the day we visited we just missed a choir performance in the crypt.  That would have been something to experience.


So as promised, some practical advice for visiting the Via Appia and its many monuments.

1. Via Appia Day happens once a year in mid May.  Lots of places open that are otherwise hit and miss or "good luck".  But also lots of crowds.  It was very difficult biking. There were pluses and minuses for sure but in general I would pick another day.

2. On Sundays there is no automobile traffic allowed.  Given the overall kamikaze nature of Roman drivers this has some appeal if you decide to bike it.  But to be honest in many places there are paths along the side of the road that are where you would be biking anyway, those ancient cobble stones are murderous.  On weekdays you will probably have these impromptu bike lanes to yourself.

3. We rented bikes from Top Bike rentals.  Nice folks but the location near the Coliseum means you have to get yourself out of town.  Another option is to get the bikes at the "Punto Informativo" .  Cheaper and you would have a bit more time to explore with the closer drop off point.  The 118 and 218 bus will get you to there. This is right at the Tomb of Priscilla/Quo Vadis location.

4. You should take in a catacomb.  We did not, all of us having visited at least one before.  Good options listed below.

5. It might be a good plan to go to the far end of the Appian Way and walk back in.  It would be four or five miles if you did the whole route.  Getting there could be a little tricky.  Use Villa of the Quintilli as the farthest out point.  Taxis in Rome are actually fairly cheap.  Or, it looks as if there is a train station at Torricola out there.  I should caution that I have not read of anybody actually using this option.

The further out sections of the Appian Way are much less visited.  Ruined tombs all over the place.  It would be a very nice walk.

6. Here is a rough listing of the major sites, going from the far end in towards town, and what days they appear to be open.  Note of course that there are on and off seasons and that Italy is not the most consistent or well run place on earth.  Double check!

Villa dei Quintili this is a site I would have liked to visit.  It is/was an especially grand villa.  Open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  And maybe some other days, the website is vague.

Mausoleum of Caecelia Matella again open 9 - 4:30 except Mondays.  There also seem to be exceptions.  A single ticket can be purchased for this, the Villa Quintili and the Baths of Caracalla.

Circus of Maxentius.  Tuesday to Sunday 10 - 4.  This site might be for hard core enthusiasts only. 

Catacombs of San Sebastiano 10 - 5 Monday through Saturday.  I have not seen this catacomb but it looks to be one of the best of them.  There is a strong association with Saints Peter and Paul.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus. This one I have visited.  Its huge.  Catacombs are always nice and cool on a hot dry day.  Open daily except Wednesdays.

Tomb of Priscilla does not appear to have any scheduled opening times.  You can try and get a peek from around back of the restaurant.  It was open specially for Via Appia Day.

I should probably mention Roma Sottererrana, an organization that delves into all things underground in Rome.  Their headquarters is on the Appian Way.  If you were in Rome for a longer time check out their events and classes.

The Museo della Mura  is in the gate house of the Porto San Sebastiano.  This was in fact named for the nearby church and catacombs.  The museum appears to be free and open every day but Monday.

Tomb of the Scipios and the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas are open only to groups and by special arrangment.

There are a few things not far off the main Via Appia axis.  The Parco Aquedotti is a bit to the east.  On our previous bike jaunt we rode through it.  It has great aqueduct ruins of course but is also a very popular place for locals to picnic.

The Fosse Ardeatine memorial is near the Catacombs of St. Callixtus.  This was the site of an infamous WWII massacre.  Free.  8:15 to 5:45.

Because there is so much to see in the four or five miles of the Appian Way from Villa Quintili on in I have a hard time recommending an actual sit down meal.  Bring snacks. Several places closer in have the nice drinking water fountains that you find so frequently in Rome.  Bathrooms are hit and miss, there is one at the bike rental place near the Tomb of Priscilla.  And of course all the sites you pay admission to will have nice facilities.
Well.  This winds up an ambitious week of posting about an ambitious day of travel. Next week another "History in a place" feature but a bit less hectic.