August traditionally was referred to in the newspaper business as "The Silly Season". It was a time when people were assumed to have more important things to do with their life than to think deep thoughts. Soak up some rays. Enjoy a cold beer. In our new and enlightened era of course we have 24 hour news seemingly consumed by people who live in basements and thrive on conspiracy nonsense. The New Silly Season is year round. I certainly don't claim to know everything that is afoot in the august halls of power. Some bits of sinister truth may well be mixed into the big stew pot of implausible fiction. And speaking of implausible fiction, several of the names involved are so appropriate that if you made them up in a bit of straight writing they would be dismissed as utter nonsense. Consider: 1. Donald Trump. I have it on the good authority of my UK pals that "Trump" is a euphemism for flatulence. It is a logical bit of onomatopoeia - a word deriving from its actual sound. And in a crowded room The Donald would probably not be the kind of guy who would deny it. Instead of blaming a hapless aide he would likely pronounce the results to be "Huge! Best Ever!"
2. John Podesta For those who have lost track of how this all started, it was when Mr. Podesta, former Obama Chief of Staff, then Hillary Clinton Campaign Chair, embarrassingly had his emails published. Who did this, how, and why remains unclear. But you would think a Podesta would be more careful. The term Podesta goes back to the Italian Middle Ages. It indicated a high official..sometimes an administrator or a magistrate. The term comes from the Latin potestas meaning "power". The term was revived in more recent and troubling times. In fascist Italy civic government bodies were eliminated and both executive and legislative power was put in the hands of a Podesta'. Maybe its just me but the notion of a guy who should have been more or less Don Corleone handing over his email password to what looks like a blatant scam strikes me as highly implausible. And therefore likely true.
3. Debbie Wasserman Schultz One casualty of the Podesta email revelations was Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then Democratic Party Chair. It sure looked as if she had both thumbs on the scale in favor of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Since then she has been embroiled in a new controversy, one that gets little attention. It involves a shady bunch of IT staffers from Pakistan who appear to have had access to not only her computers but those of numerous other Congressional leaders. Its unclear if they are opportunistic grifters, actual agents of a foreign power and/or are blackmailing DWS and others. And Congresswoman W-Schultz "..Knows nussinsg...NUSSING!" Oh, you can play this game all day, and with equal attention to either political party. I mean, who would have ever imagined a White House communications director named Scaramouch....a name so very close to Scarmucci, a boastful comic figure from Italian opera!
Tivoli is a nice day trip out from Rome. Most people go there for one of two things: Garden d'Este or Hadrian's villa a short distance out of town. You may have noticed that we did not opt for Hadrian's villa on this trip. It is under continuous repairs and when we visited many of the good parts were not open. If you have a notion to visit you should investigate this first. I'd checkHERE. Note that the villa is a ways out of town. You'll end up needing a taxi I think, as the bus system appeared sluggish. Another place I would have liked to visit was this.
Tempio della Tosse. It is a Roman structure quite near the Villa d'Este. Nobody really knows what it was originally, perhaps a tomb or a nymphaeum. In the Middle Ages it of course became a church. For reasons that are also obscure, it is a church associated with the relief of any disease that causes you to cough! Allergies to the plane trees in Italy this time of year would have made me an enthusiastic visitor. Alas, it is on private property. And the most recent owners do not appear to have done any more with it than any of the others since the day when our old pal Piranesi sketched it in the mid 1700s.
Another spot that might be worth a visit is the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor. I was not able to find out much about this place other than that is was buried under a factory site until fairly recently. Pictures I have seen look to be a mix of old and of new reconstruction. Tivoli in May did not have a "touristy" feel to it. There were some restaurants in swell locations - we ate at one that overlooked the temples - but it was mostly a local clientele. And there is a seldom visited "down town" Tivoli that had a lot of smaller dining establishments that looked appealing. If you opt for the Parco Villa Gregoriana hike you will naturally want to do it in decent weather. We had a train to catch and dashed through in something like 90 minutes. It was too quick a pace. We did not have time for any of the side paths that lead to some spectacular waterfalls. Villa d'Este is an hour or so in the gardens, spend a bit of time in the villa building also. It has been battered about and looted a few times, so there are very few furnishings, but the wall paintings are swell and have been nicely restored. I almost never give lodging advice but our B and B host in Tivoli went above and beyond the call of duty. He figured we would have trouble finding the rather out of the way location and met us on the way there. Breakfast was great, up on the rooftop. The price was reasonable. If you plan to stay over night in Tivoli I therefore suggest: La Mensa Ponderaria Tivoli turned out to be one of the favorite stops on our Italian trip. I recommend it either as a day trip or if you prefer, to stay over night. The train service is cheap and frequent. And with a bit of route planning you can skip Termini Station and make your trip via the Roma Tibertina station. It is new, clean, efficient and seems to be free of larcenous pick pockets.
The practice of re-using older stonework for later structures is called spolia from the Latin word for "spoils". In this context it means spoils in the sense of a spoil heap...left over stuff. But given how badly Tivoli got bashed about in assorted Gothic and internecine combat it is likely that some of the choicer bits of ancient architectural salvage might have also been "spoils of war". One of my Romanist pals tipped me off to Instagram and Twitter groups dedicated to "Wall Porn". No, nothing unsavory, just interesting photos of walls, doorways, windows etc. You could look it up. In any case Tivoli was Spolia Central. Just wandering about you saw old Roman stuff incorporated into buildings everywhere. One wonders what the basements look like!
A typical example. An ancient column. Built into a wall so rugged and chaotic that it could have been from any era. A modern pipe keeps it company.
Some re-used columns were clearly set into place to define later doorways.
When I encounter a scene like this I have to stop and spin some theories. Was there some convenient site nearby, making for easy looting? Or was there some organized trade in ancient columns. At Ostia we did see a former temple that in late antiquity appears to have been used to store stacks of columns, so who knows. Perhaps this builder opted for the bulk discount.
Another ancient fragment juxtaposed with modern pipes.
This struck me as rather whimsical. I can't see any practical reason to haul a column up to second story height and mortar it in.
As I said, sometimes I just stop and stare at something until a theory comes to me. If I had done so in this case I believe I would still be there. How do you manage to have a very modern looking brick doorway filled in with ancient looking stone? And what is that limestone slab at the bottom, some kind of pet door? Number 5 keeps its secrets well.
For your consideration today, one of of those little finds that has the potential to entirely revise our view of history. As mentioned, Villa d'Este is a marvelous Renaissance palace with breath taking gardens. It also has some very nice interior decorations and in one painted wall I noticed something. To appreciate this you must be at least a moderate Star Trek fan. If so you would certainly know about the Ferengi, an alien race of short, greedy, big eared grifters. In the Star Trek universe we don't encounter them until the 24th century*.
Well OK then. How do you explain this!
* Star Trek fans of an obsessive nature of course know that contact with the Ferengi actually happened near Roswell New Mexico in 1947 (See Deep Space Nine, season four) but was covered up.
Tivoli has two gardens worth visiting. Two very different gardens. One you have perhaps heard of. Here is Villa d'Este. Built in 1550 for Cardinal Ippolito d'Este. He was interestingly, the son of Lucrezia Borgia and was appointed archbishop of Milan at age 10. The house is a huge luxurious thing, which naturally sits on top of an earlier Roman villa. But it is the gardens that people come to see. They are a UNESCO world heritage site, and are pretty darn impressive. Formal and whimsical gardens, grottoes, water features.
With ancient sites you have to guess about such things, but in more modern places I think we can be forgiven for assuming a sense of humor is on display. Here's a rather....maternal looking statue of the goddess Diana.
On a different fountain is this grumpy fellow. Is he thinking "Why on earth does she turn up in public looking like that?"
Here's a short clip of one of the fountains in action. There is also a fountain that plays music through a sort of "water organ". I understand that this was the first such device ever constructed.
Now, here's the "garden" that is less well known. When you walk from the train station to the center of town you go over a bridge. Notice the round temple we visited yesterday. Today we will be going into the ravine below.
This is a park called Villa Gregoriana. What you see here looks like, and is, a deep canyon but was in ancient times an equally deep lake. No less an authority than Pliny the Younger described a flood in 105 AD that eroded the area enough that the lake drained out through new outlets to the plain below. On the higher ground there are remains of a Roman villa. This would be the service levels below the main villa. It seems to have contained a fish pond and a vivarium where food animals were kept.
Re-using ancient stone work appears to be a well accepted practice in Tivoli. Outside the villa was this nice picnic table and chairs.
Down and up again. It was a marvelous zig zaggy tour of caves, waterfalls, bits of archaeology. If you have perhaps enjoyed plenty of pasta on your Italian travels it is prudent to seek out a few calorie burning yet enjoyable activities.
Despite its small size Tivoli has more than a days worth of things to do. I'll be summing up the "History in one Place" on Friday with practical tips on how to fit the pieces together.
After the heat, noise and troublesome citizens we encountered near Termini station, we did go someplace nice. Tivoli. And people have been making this same trip and for much the same reasons for a very long time. Tivoli is a delightful little town in the hills above Rome. It was cool and pleasant when Rome was not, and many prominent Romans had villas out that way. The most famous of course being the Emperor Hadrian. Tivoli was a sort of resort community. The name has a familiar ring to non Romanists as it was adopted for a famous amusement park in Copenhagen that opened in 1843. Tivoli is a very old town. It goes back to the 13th century BC and may have been founded by Greeks. The name perhaps references the Tibur river. At first an ally of Rome the people of Tivoli made common cause with the invading Gauls in 361 BC. This hardly endeared themselves to their neighbors and the defensive wall still visible today dates from that era. The city was eventually conquered by Rome and after only a couple of centuries was forgiven to the extent of getting citizenship rights in 90 BC. A long list of Roman worthies including Augustus and the poet Horace had villas there. In the tumultuous 6th Century AD Tivoli was at various times held by the Byzantines and by the later but no more pleasant version of the Goths. Procopius says that a group of traitorous Isaurian soldiers (again? really?) let the Goths in, at which point pretty much the entire population was exterminated. The Middle Ages were the usual confusing Italian anarchy. Oh, it had its ups and downs but overall the regrowth of Tivoli was sporadic and it remains a small town. So lets have a look around. What remains of Roman Tivoli after the Goths and the Anarchy? Our B and B was right across from the Cathedral. And literally under our window sill was this bit of excavated Tivoli. It is said to be a mensa ponderaria which was the office where official standards for weights and measures were kept. This has suggested that the Roman Forum is nearby, probably under the Cathedral. One of the local businesses had a doorstop that might or might not be part of the Roman remains!
Here's the city wall. Not needed during the glory days of the Republic and Empire. But when things started to go south the old walls were put into service again. They did not, alas, keep Totila and his Goths out.
On my early morning walk I ran across this nice remnant of the city gate that faced Rome. The Porta Romana of course.
I got pretty excited over this spot. The sign says "Vicolo deli Rovini" The Alley of the Ruins! Ah, but when you go down the alley it just leads to some dumpsters. The Ruins mentioned are these nifty Roman columns. They look almost in situ but I understand that they are an example of re-use. Specifically these decorated a palace in the modern day Palazza Palatina. This was said to be a place where one could claim sanctuary from the authorities.
Tivoli has its own little "Acropolis". Two very early temples on the edge of a scenic gorge. One is round. The other rectangular.
The attribution of the round temple to the worship of Vesta, the Roman god of family; and the rectangular one to the Tiburtine Sybil are both uncertain. By late Antiquity legend a Sybil, or prophetess, was said to have here foretold the birth of Christ to Augustus.
After our little tour of Roman bath tubs you should be rightly skeptical when running across something like this on the back side of the Cathedral. It is a Roman era sarcophagus, re purposed as a medieval sarcophagus and then later as a water fountain! Tivoli is chock full of interesting re-use. We shall see a few more examples presently.
Seen outside a place that was being renovated. It had been one of those antique/junk malls that sold everything. Or in the case of these left overs, did not sell them.
I believe I showed commendable discipline in walking past this not once but twice and not grabbing a ghost or two for future unspecified projects. Nope. Left 'em there. And they'd probably be there still if I didn't have to go back a third time to score some plywood that is going to come in handy for the upcoming middle school robotics class.....
It has been a year, almost to the day, since I officially retired from medicine. I am of course asked periodically "what do you do now?". The best answer is that I have become a poorly trained but much appreciated Vaudeville performer. And street artist. And general dogsbody. Several days a week my wife and I help with our grandson. My wife does most of the real work, meal prep, diapers and so forth. I provide comic relief, distraction: basically I have become the clown you hire for birthday parties. It is interesting to compare my performances now to those of a generation ago. I'm older, sure, but I have plenty of time and no other pressing business like a career. In some ways I have "upped the game". The kid and I build stuff with Duplo blocks. We read stories. Those featuring cows and trucks seem to enjoy the most enduring popularity. We play hide and seek. He chases me around the house waving his arms and shrieking like a maniac. In quieter moments I sing him songs, some old, others new improvisations. I am particularly fond of my revision of the old "Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" ditty. New verses all around including:
"Two Little Monkeys Jumping all around.
One went Up and Never came Down.
Mama called 'You Come Back Soon!'
Monkey laughed 'I'm on the Moon!'"
My sidewalk chalk skills are pretty lame. He seems not to care. The lounging mutt is Bruce, a bit player in some of our activities.
Although it has been a quarter century or more since my last major story reading gig, some standards just remain the same. Richard Scarry's Magnum Opus "Cars, Trucks and Things that Go" was a big hit until very recently. Back in the day I hated this book. It had multiple interwoven story lines and on top of that you had to seek out, on every page, this little guy. Here he is in plain sight but on most pages he is peeking out of a window or some such.
Goldbug looks cheerful. But essentially he is a verminous little stalker. If "Officer Flossy" did not have a full time job trying to run down "Dingo Dog" I bet she'd have told Bug to "Get out of Dodge" long ago. Oh well. Since he turns up everywhere anyway I started adding Goldbug graffiti here and there. Putting it on the chicken coop eventually seems to have backfired on me....
This is "Possum", another of my assistants. We do elaborate puppet shows. Originally it was one of Bruce's toys that we have taken over. Possum has two different "squeakers" inside him. I amuse at least myself by attempting to play a few bars of various songs with them.
They say when graffiti tags start showing up in a neighborhood that things start to go down hill. I'd say this is true. The chickens used to be timid birds, hiding in their coop and only clucking for food when you came around with scraps. Now when we sit out in the yard this gang of avian punks shows up and aggressively pan handles! Beady little eyes just watching for dropped snacks.
A fun and busy "off season" week for the Robotics programs. The middle school robotics class went live for on line registration at 2:00 on Wednesday. All 24 spots filled by 2:01. And on Saturday the parade went off rather well. Marvelous weather. A good turn out of team members. There was even a little extra time left over for work space tidy up. In true robotics fashion the robot performed flawlessly on several pre-parade checks. Then when it was our turn to join the line it decided to not work. Again in true robotics fashion the team tossed it onto the trailer and continued to commune with the laptop driver's station. As we turned off of the access road and onto the actual route it came to life and drove amusingly the entire route. It seemed to be a big hit. A few pictures of the parade and a couple of short video clips. Here we are lining up at high noon on a hot asphalt parking lot.
Notice if you will, that our trailer has a gigantic welded together alligator and a huge yellow industrial robot.
My job was just to follow along, make sure the drivers did not get too crazy, and to keep the emergency repair kit close to hand. It was not needed although we did have to switch to the auxiliary battery on the competition robot. This did not stop the progress of the parade, the kids made the needed connections switches while still in motion.
Our drivers were good, but not up the the precision driving of the Shriners in their little mini cars. Well, they have had more practice. And they are wearing fezzes which I think must help somehow.
Two short videos. In the first one our competition robot chases the "Chairbot" around a bit.
Here Chairbot just ambles about in lazy fashion....
It promises to be a very fun robotics season ahead.
Termini Station, Rome's main rail hub, has a rather poor reputation. People say that it is crowded, poorly laid out, and a magnet for petty criminals of all stripe. This general prejudice is entirely justified. But lets include it in this week's "History in a Place". Not all history is fun. The name Termini by the way does not refer to it being the terminus of assorted rail lines. It took its name from the ancient district "Termini", which in turn got its designation from the Baths (Thermae) of Diocletian which are right across the street. We went through Termini station twice on our trip to Italy. It is such a chaotic blur that I find it impossible to actually describe it as a whole. I could only take in brief glimpses. There were fancy high fashion stores in the place. It seemed to me that harried travelers already hauling over sized luggage would be a questionable clientele. There was an older woman sitting on a cart talking to the police. "I can't believe it....", she said in English. Outside on the pavement a young man in shabby clothes lay next to a half empty bottle. He was motionless. His eyes were slightly open. I suppose he was simply very drunk but I have seen enough dead people to say he was doing a fair impersonation of one. The police seemed unconcerned. The big suitcases on wheels swerved to avoid him. Four young girls were having trouble with the bus system. They were ten or eleven years old, well dressed, talkative and without any visible adult presence. As we waited for a bus I saw them hop onto one and a moment later, hop off, still chattering. Our bus arrived and we got on. I was hauling more luggage than I prefer to. The girls got on and one of them looked at me and said "Trastevere"". I said in Italian that, yes, the bus went there. Then she pointed at the floor and said, in English, "Is that yours?" There on the floor of the bus was my wallet. I bent over to pick it up. When I looked up the four girls were gone. So of course was all the cash in the wallet. It's not as if we were absolute naifs in this matter. I had my wallet in a front pocket and it was jammed in with some other items that should have made removal difficult. But these were pros. I did have a money belt that contained our passports and back up credit cards. Actually they left one card in the wallet, either because they could get in trouble by having something other than anonymous cash on them or because the few seconds they had were not sufficient to retrieve it. I rather appreciate that they did not just hop off the bus with my wallet, the bother of cancelling that card would have been significant.
Sigh. Time for a bit of practical advice. Avoid Termini station entirely if possible. If you are arriving from the airport don't take the Express train in. Either get a taxi, which is worth it, or if you are going to Trastevere just take the slower local train that goes to the station in that part of town. I have worn a money belt in various higher crime cities and felt a bit silly about it. I won't feel that way again. Just keep daily expense money handy. Unfortunately in the sort of cash oriented economy that is Italy this will still be a bit of currency. I suppose if you actually observed this scenario playing out you could yell for the police or grab one of the little Dodgers. I don't doubt that the screams of protest, appeals for help, accusations of molestation etc would be a performance worthy of High Opera. Oh, if you do end up in the Termini area there are a few other sights worth seeing. I think if you were a couple hundred yards away from the station you will have no hassle beyond the countless hucksters all trying to sell tickets to bus tours. Take a brief look at the Pre-Republic Servian Wall next to the station.
There is also a very good museum nearby, it is a branch of the Roman National Museum in the former Palazzo Messimo alle Therme. Really outstanding mosaics and sculptures. This collection outgrew the space at the Baths of Diocletian (also well worth your time) that we visited earlier.
There are other ancient sites in the area around Termini but with the usual Italian access issues and my general distaste for the neighborhood I did not explore further.
I am deviating a bit today from my "History in a Place" format. Because some of the bath tubs I am going to show today are indeed from the vicinity of the Baths of Diocletian. But others are from here and there. When you think of Romans taking a bath, of course the first thought is of the large public bath houses. But honestly, would that really be for everyone? Aristocrats, delicate ladies...they might not be on board with soaking alongside the hoi polloi. Private bath facilities clearly existed alongside the public ones. Perhaps in the comfort of one's villa? Or in upscale executive suites at the public baths? And for those purposes smaller scale bath tubs would be needed. In fact given the same dimensions of the human body then and now, you would expect them to look a lot like today's fixtures. The problems associated with a study of Roman bath tubs are several. There were probably not all that many of them. They were often re-purposed as baptismal fonts, or as watering troughs for livestock and so forth. It can be hard to tell the simpler ones from your basic sacrophagi or from vats used for industrial purposes. Context helps. Here for instance is a "private" bath tub from Pompeii.
And to get back on topic, here are several on display at the Baths of Diocletian. I am assuming that they are from the site.
The last one of course is not a proper bath tub. More of a hand washing station but I liked it enough to include it. Now, if you want to see some impressive Roman bath tubs you need to go across town. Check this beauty out:
Welcome to the Piazza Farnese. This is the open space in front of the former Palazzo Farnese, a High Renaissance palace built by the Farnese family to show their considerable affluence and prestige. (It is now the French Embassy). Out front some swell decor was needed so a pair of over sized bath tubs were acquired. The best evidence suggests they came from the Baths of Caracalla, and were made of Egyptian granite. You could clearly fit a number of bathers into one of these, sort of the Roman Imperial version of a hot tub party. All of these examples are fine of course, but seem to lack a certain...Patrician fashion sense. Contrast them with this nice example in Egyptian red porphyry that serves as a baptismal font in the Milan cathedral!
I was not gentle in my review of the Baths of Caracalla. But I did have to admit that they were enormous. Well, if that is any measure of things the Baths of Diocletian should be better. Similar in overall size - 32 acres - they were said to have a greater capacity....3000 bathers at a time if you can believe ancient sources. Still, you could easily walk right past these baths and not notice them. Not because there is nothing left, but because what survives is well camouflaged. Here is a "floor plan" of the baths:
And here is an aerial view of the site today:
The curved area in the photo corresponds to the area marked "7" on the plan. This is the "excedra" of the baths, and is preserved in the outline of the modern day Piazza della Repubblica. On one end of same we find this structure. I think it corresponds to number "2" on the floor plan. If so, the remains of the "laconium", a "dry sweat room" have become the entrance to......
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs). The main body of the church was built into the ruins of the "frigidarium" - or cold baths - of the Diocletian complex. The architect was some guy named Michelangelo. Inside you can't really tell you are in a Roman structure but from the outside you get a better sense of it.
One of the two circular towers that flank the excedra has also survived. It is the Church of San Bernardo alle Terme:
A fair bit of the bath structures have also been preserved by incorporation into a branch of the Roman National Museum. Several large halls were used during medieval and Renaissance times as grain and oil storage warehouses. Later uses include a cinema and planetarium! The museum has a lot of great stuff in it...frankly we did not allot enough time for it. A few quick peeks: This is the cloister of the Carthusian Charterhouse, also designed by Michelangelo. Or sketched out on a scrap and handed off to one of his students. It is now a fabulous sculpture garden. No explanatory info, just lots and lots of sculptures, tombstones, broken columns. Some from this location, some from elsewhere. On the aerial view you can see this area clearly.
One of the former halls of the baths. This was later used for storage. The roof is now gone from this part. Some kind of live performance had just ended, this explains the oddly attired individual.
This complex was so huge it apparently used the entire output of the Roman brick industry for the years it was under construction. When traveling with Roman Nerds you tend to get excited about otherwise mundane things. Here is a display of bricks from the site. With stamped on maker's marks. And the stamps.
The museum had a lot of cool stuff. Can it get much cooler than a fragment of the Severan Plan? This was a large marble "map" that was located in the Roman Forum. It was the equivalent of a "You are Here" map. Incredible detail. This shows the location where the baths would later be built. Nerd Paradise.
I had originally intended to include in this post some photos of Roman bathtubs that were on display in the museum, but as I am running a bit long lets save that for next time....