Monday, September 18, 2017

I get a "message" from The Striped Don...

It's been a while since I heard from Don Astrisce. Oh, I'd seen his boys around.  Lolling about on corners.  Sometimes brazenly making off with loot in broad daylight.  But I am an honest man, a property owner who stands up for what is his.  I thought that the Don and I had an understanding.

I was wrong.

The timing was hardly an accident.  The hoods know, oh yes, they know, when my wife is out of town and the watchful eyes are fewer.  They know as well that anything that happens on my exclusive watch reflects badly on me.  Costs me respect where it matters.

So pretty much the first thing she saw when she got home was that Don Astrice had sent a couple of his goons to mess up our fully enclosed back porch.  Plants dug up. Stuff tipped over.  Casual yet directed mayhem.



Oh, it was a message all right.  Just to make sure I understood it a single acorn was left out for me.  "We go where we want to.  We do what we please."


Needless to say I do not take kindly to this sort of thuggery.  I immediately went to the corner of the garage that they usually use to chew their way in.  Sure enough, daylight showing.  I went over to get the chicken wire and tools to seal this off.  And one of the little striped thugs streaked past me.  I don't know which one it was.  "Chip", "Dale" or "Alvin".  


Friday, September 15, 2017

Grandpa's Radio

When I was a young lad I spent a lot of time with my Grandpa.  He was a good guy. He'd been a department store manager and a grocer earlier in life.  By the time I was hanging out at their home for lazy summer weeks on end he was a Lutheran Brotherhood insurance agent.

His hours were flexible, it appears that his main task was just having pleasant conversations with people. There was plenty of time to spend with his little side kick.

Grandpa taught me how to fish, a skill I passed on to my own boys. He was never very strict in the matter of ice cream and other treats, a policy that I have also embraced now that I too am a grandfather.

He was a great fan of the Minnesota Twins.  We'd listen to games on a radio that was already an antique.  The static would snarl and crackle when thunderstorms were brewing somewhere over the long horizon that stretched out into the flat infinity of North Dakota.

Now I have the radio.  And a side kick.  Here we are tuning in the Twins game as I get ready to do a bit of painting and he gets ready for a nap.


- Necessary pronouncements.  

 It's Diet Pepsi, not beer.  We do have Grand Parenting Policies.

The game was very hard to hear.  Lots of static on a day with no thunderstorms. Probably old radio tubes don't last as long as old memories.

I did not finish the painting job that day.  We also have Grand Parenting Priorities.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Orvieto Underground

Orvieto.  It's a place I had wanted to visit on our last Italian trip.  It's up in Tuscany.  It has lots of underground things to see.

Well we included it in our trip this spring.  And I give it mixed reviews.

It is a spectacular location, an old town perched atop a big rock that rises up out of the Tuscan plains.  It looks to be, and was, nearly impossible to capture other than by prolonged siege.

But when we were there it was indeed besieged.  With tourists.


Look Marvin!  It's a CATHEDRAL!
I try to avoid being a "travel snob".  I know that absent visitors and their money many important parts of our cultural heritage would vanish. But still, seeing fancy shops selling high end crap to people strolling around speaking English loudly grated more than a little.

But the Underground stuff was cool.

There is an official tour in which you visit several complexes of caves that have been connected.  That's kind of key here...this is not a network of caves so much as a whole bunch of separate caves.  Chronologically it is a jumble.  This particular chamber was Etruscan - pre Roman - but was later expanded and in continuous use until the 19th century.  Center of the picture is an olive oil press.  Donkeys walked in circles all day to power it.


Here a later chamber has a very early Etruscan well going down into it.  That is illuminated, not daylight.  


And it goes down a very long way.  Drinking water was key to surviving a siege. When the Romans besieged the city it took them two years to capture it. They destroyed everything and nobody lived there again until the Middle Ages.


Another columbarium.  This one is not of the burial type but was for keeping pigeons. These were a pretty good protein supply for upper class households.  Every day they flew out and ate the crops of the local peasantry, then flew back home ready for the dinner table.


We also checked out a little place called "Pozzo della Cava", the Well of the Cave. This is a privately run establishment attached to a little wine shop.  A gnomish older fellow smiled and waved us through, no guide needed.


I actually found this place to be quite interesting.  It had assorted uses including as a medieval pottery.  Of course it has its own really deep Etruscan era well.  


On our way out the friendly little gnome waved my wife over.  He smiled, took her by both hands and backed up a step or two.  This put them onto a glass pane in the floor that looked down a long, long ways.  Grinning he hopped up and down a few times. He clearly did this with every visitor, or at least every female one.  A man enjoying his work.......

Overall I would give Orvieto a pass.  It has things of interest.  The Underground tour as above, a nice walk around the magnificent city walls, some Etruscan tombs. But the tourist hordes spoiled it for me.  Italy is full of marvels that can be enjoyed with less of this nonsense.

And so concludes the chronicle of Italy in Spring of 2017.  A revealing trip if stressful at points.

Monday, September 11, 2017

An impressive marketing effort

It's that time again.  Back to school means an abundance of Thrift Sales, or whatever you call them in your locale.  Garage Sales, Jumble Sales, Trunk Sales, etc.

I saw this sign the other day.  It will make sense to my local readers.  Everyone else can just wonder what might be for sale that would prompt me to saddle up for a two or three day drive to....hmmmm...somewhere near Yuma Arizona.



Friday, September 8, 2017

Santa Cecelia in Trastevere

In many ways Santa Cecelia in Trastevere is a similar site to San Cristogono which we visited on Monday.  For one thing both are "titular" churches of Rome.  This designation is a little slippery.  The term of course means "title" and strictly speaking just means that the church is assigned to one of the Cardinal Priests of Rome. Practically speaking most, but by no means all, of the titular churches were early Christian sites, usually originating in a private home during the years of persecution. They appear on various early lists of parish churches of Rome, most notably one collected in 499 AD.

Trastevere was once the most populous district of Imperial Rome.  Being across the Tiber River (hence the name Trastevere) it went into quite a decline in the Dark Ages. The churches however persisted, and it is the ecclesiastical records that shed much of the Light into that era.  In modern times Trastevere is abuzz with a milling herd of tourists, at least in the area north of Viale Trastevere.  Go a ways south, down where Santa Cecelia lies, and you will leave them behind.



It's a pretty spot.  Unlike San Christogono it still has its own garden like Piazza out front.  The columns are of course ancient, borrowed from an unknown site.  They are a matched set, two from quarries in Aswan Egypt, and two from Turkey.



The entrance to the archaeological excavations was easy to find, and an efficient looking nun was stationed there to accept our small entry fee.

Down below is the usual jumble of features and eras.  Here is a monochrome mosaic floor of Severan vintage.


Pretty much every Italian archaeological site has something like this.  A little barred off room for random things they found on their dig.  I figure all the official museums in Italy are already full up.  These remind me of Old West jail cells.


Here we see several odd holes in the floor.  At one point they were considered to be evidence of a tannery on site but the stonework does not show the corrosion associated with harsh chemicals.  So probably food storage silos.


They don't even look a little like baptismal fonts but people still toss down votive offerings in the form of coins.


Right in the middle of the dim ancient walls you walk into this brilliantly lit room.  It holds the relics of Saint Cecelia.  Maybe.


Sigh.  OK, lets talk about Saint Cecelia.  The Catholic church admits that her story is probably fiction.  You be the judge.

Supposedly she was a noble woman who secretly converted to Christianity and simultaneously took a vow of chastity.  That did not stop her parents from marrying her off to a pagan chap named Valerian.  With some (much needed?) help from her guardian angel the situation was squared with her new husband who agreed to also convert.  Valerian, his brother, and a soldier who converted while guarding them...all got put to death.  As did Cecelia.  Eventually.


First she was locked in the hot room of her own bath house for a few days.  That did not work.  Then they tried to cut off her head but somehow botched the job albeit while injuring her somewhat such that she died three days later.


After initial internment in one of the catacombs her remains - found of course to be incorruptible - were returned to the church that had been built at the site of her house.



Behind the screen are sarcophagi holding the remains of Cecelia and the other players in this bit of saintly drama.  Including her extremely understanding husband Valerian who in my book earned his sainthood at least as much as Cecelia.




Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Oldest Sewer in the World

Recently I signed on to give a few talks on subjects near and dear to me for a local "Learning in Retirement" organization.  I do like to tell stories.

One program I am working up for a future date will be "Archeology of Rome - Skip the darned Coliseum!"  I figure I have enough seldom visited odds and ends to natter on for quite a while.  For instance.....lets visit the Oldest Sewer in the World.

The Cloaca Maxima is usually given this title, although to be frank who knows if some over grown ditch in the middle east somewhere actually deserves it.  It is certainly the most famous ancient sewer.

More properly it should be called a storm drain, although the dumping of human wastes into it was probably constant.  It was originally a creek, down in the valley below the Seven Hills.  Said valley would become the site of the Roman Forum, the absolute heart of the Empire but not until one of the Kings of Rome - supposedly Tarquinius Priscus - channeled the creek circa 616 BC.  In early days it was an open channel but by the age of Augustus it had been covered over.  It was big enough that officials inspecting it could travel by boat.  Standing up.

There are a few places in the Forum proper where drains go down mysteriously, presumably still into the Cloaca Maxima.  There is also an access door but they sure are not putting a sign on that!  As you go down stream towards the Tiber there are a few places where branches of the main sewer still exist as open canals.  One section can be seen near the church of S.Giorgio in Velabrio.  A photo of this and a very detailed discussion of the Cloaca Maxima can be found HERE. 

I'd like to have had a tour of the upper stretches but alas, they are almost never possible.  So I had to settle for a peek at the outlet, the spot where the Cloaca has been pouring into the river Tiber for 25 centuries and counting.

A quick internet search will give you lots of images like this, or more likely just a snap from the Ponte Palatino bridge above.  The outlet of the Cloaca Maxima is just down stream from Tiber Island.



But in my quest for archaeological knowledge I don't let the little things get in my way. Wobbly, unserious fences for instance. Hobo encampments for another.  Here we have the outlet up close.  I understand that this is pretty new....only around 100 BC.


And a peek inside.  It looks remarkably like a brewery cave but I suppose there are only so many ways to build a vaulted structure. There is still a trickle of water going through it.  But the days of the Cloaca Maxima doing serious drainage are over...it has been connected to the modern Roman sewer system.  This is probably a good idea, in ancient and even into modern times flooding of the Forum to a considerable depth happened when heavy rains flooded the Tiber and caused back flow.


"When in Rome" you spend plenty of time looking at inscriptions and trying to puzzle out what was going on.  This should properly be applied to modern graffiti as well.  I had assumed that the denizens of this little encampment were part of the wave of migrants that Italy has been seeing in recent times.  Certainly that would be the demographic of at least the visible community of street merchants, beggars and idle folks in the central city.  But with "taggers" it is hard to tell.  "Aziz" and "Abdoul" could just as easily be bored suburban teenagers.  The snazzy race cars...do they represent the epitome of Western Culture to a bunch of new arrivals scrapping to make a living?


The place certainly looks Lived In although nobody was home at mid day.  This may have been by design, there was a big international summit meeting about to begin and among other anti terrorism measures I could certainly see the Italian police rousting everyone out of places like this.  "Move it along.  No, no time to bring your shorts".


I said that visits to the main parts of the Cloaca Maxima were rare but they do happen, for film crews and such.  Here's a YouTube video for you.  Ancient Sewer diving....ah, I can still dream.




Monday, September 4, 2017

Under San Chrisogono

This week I am departing a little from my "History in a Place" format.  The three sites I will cover were indeed all on the course of one walk but are not strictly speaking particularly close to each other.
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One often overlooked place to hunt down Rome's ancient past is underneath modern day churches.  As we have seen many ancient structures were saved by being converted into churches.  And in other cases churches were intentionally built on top of pagan shrines.  A sort of architectural insult if you will.  And finally in the case of the oldest churches they may in fact have originated in Roman houses back in the days when public profession of the new faith would have been unwise.

San Chrisogono is a very ancient church right along the main street, Viale di Trastevere.  From the outside it is not very impressive. When we ducked in on a Sunday there was a service about to begin. The twin rows of columns are ancient, said to have been scavenged from a now vanished bath complex built in the area by Septiumus Severus.  The floor has ornate mosaics of 13th century date but made from bits and pieces taken from ancient structures.




Although we were prepared to simply pay our respects, perhaps drop a coin in the donation box, a sign directing us towards the archeological remains (I think they called them the Paleo Christian remains) tempted us.  Ducking through a side aisle we were smack in the middle of the altar boys and priest getting ready for show time. But a functionary sitting at a little table waved us through and for a small fee it was down the stairs to the mysterious stuff below.

The church is dedicated to the martyr Saint Chrysogonus.  The first church on the site dates to the early 300's, with frequent rebuilds since then.  It is frankly a very confusing site.  



As best I can tell, this is the apse of the original church, with the open space in the walls being where the bones of the saint were kept.



In a site of this sort any kind of basin provokes controversy.  Baptistery for full body immersion baptisms?  Or just a vat from previous industrial use?


Some stuff found during excavations is just lying around.  The brickwork to the right seems to be modern, some reinforcement of the structure was necessary to support the church above.  Note also the sturdy and very modern ceiling here.


Naturally in a church rebuilt so many times there are more recent things to catch the eye.  This painted fresco shows Saint Benedict healing a leper.  Note the leopard like spots.  Leper and leopard by the way have no common etymology.  The fresco is somewhere between 8th and 10th century AD.


Sixth century AD grave marker for somebody named Victor.  Was this another example of memorials being brought in from outlying catacomb sites?  The prohibition against burials inside the confines of the city would still have been quite strong at that point in history.



A very odd skull and cross bones with huge ears.  Another example of Ferengi First Contact?



Arches and walls, floors and pillars.  There is more of Rome under ground than above it.