By Geoffrey Dean
Having decided to spend the first week of 2013 in Italy, we left for Rome on an almost-empty late-afternoon flight from Sofia on December 31st. A bus from Fiumicino Airport and the A subway from the Termini train station got us painlessly to Via Ottaviano, where we had chosen a hostel within walking distance of the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo and the piazzas on the other side of the Tevere (Tiber) River. Our New Year’s Eve walking tour first took us by St. Peter’s Square, where a modest line was starting to form for the overnight prayer gathering, down Via della Conciliazione and onto the Vittorio bridge for our first view of the round Sant’Angelo castle as we crossed to the other side of the river. The castle was so enticing that we crossed back over on the crowded Sant’Angelo bridge to walk toward it head-on before continuing to the next bridge.
As we left the crowd behind us, a guy walking 20 meters ahead of us started lighting and dropping firecrackers on the pavement without breaking his stride. They were loud, and we quickly decided that walking by them as they went off was not what we wanted to do, so we cut across a nearby garden instead, passing the Palace of Justice to reach the Cavour bridge. Then we followed the wave of people to what turned out to be Piazza di Spagna. The “Spanish steps” leading up to the Trinità dei Monti church sported a giant Christmas tree and were filled with people.
After hanging out at the Spagna fountain for a while we followed another wave to the packed Piazza del Popolo, where the booms of firecrackers cut through the conversations and became so frequent and so loud that by 11:30 p.m. we felt we had to get out of there. By then we were hearing fireworks coming from various directions, but we didn’t see anything until we reached the Cavour bridge, where people had stopped to watch and wished us “Buon anno” as we crossed over to the Vatican side. Our progress across the Cavour piazza was constantly halted as people set off fireworks along the walking paths, and we soon got used to cutting across Via Crescenzio as needed to avoid the line of fire. Not being able to predict where the next boom or pop would come from heightened our aural sensation of being in a kind of simulated war zone. The occasional spurts of fireworks lighting up the sky beyond nearby buildings seemed much less threatening, perhaps due to their “friendly” colors. We celebrated our safe return to via Ottaviano by toasting the start of 2013 in Italian style, with a glass of sparkling prosecco.
When we walked out into Via Ottaviano around 11 the next morning (New Year’s Day 2013), we joined what seemed like the whole of humanity as it flowed toward St. Peter’s Square. We sensed an approaching papal address, and soon realized the futility of spending hours in line to enter the cathedral. Identified by their signs and banners, church groups from various countries paraded into the square from Via della Conciliazione. Some groups sang, and we saw at least one actual marching band before we determined to leave the square before the Pope’s blessing, broadcast on huge video screens at either side of the front façade of St. Peter’s, began at 12 noon.
We crossed the now-familiar Vittorio bridge, pausing for a photo-op with Sant’Angelo castle and Tiber River, and made our way to Piazza Navona. Lined with stands selling gifts, souvenirs, and gigantic Roman donuts, the piazza’s Christmas bazaar was in full swing. A kneeling Asian man wove intricate natural designs using only long thin leaves from—I’m guessing—banana or coconut trees. I was too spellbound to think of photographing him. I did try without success to get a picture of a seagull that had stolen a pigeon’s spot atop a fountain statue—this could have occupied me all afternoon.
Winding through side streets wide enough only for a well-handled Piaggio scooter, and guided only by our sense of which part of the crowd shared our destinations—and some well-placed signs and an occasional casual glance at our tourist map—we found ourselves as planned at Largo Argentina (lunch), Trevi fountain (gelato), and Pantheon (souvenirs), before heading back to Navona to see the Brueghel exhibition at the Chiostro del Bramante.
We would have gone to this one even if more than a mere handful of the 30+ current Rome exhibitions had been open on New Year’s Day. The Brueghel exhibition gave us a useful basis for comparison of the late Renaissance-early Baroque Flemish style with the concurrent Italian style that the Uffizi museum in Florence would offer us in a few days. Peter Brueghel the Younger’s bawdy village scenes were whimsical and suggestive. Jan van Kessel the Younger’s insects and flowers painted on white marble and Ambrosius Brueghel’s flower arrangements painted on copper were especially brilliant in their detail and execution. As musicians, we took special delight in Jan Breughel the Younger’s depiction of the allegory of hearing, approaching musical virtuosity with at least four different musical performances going on in its paintings-within-the-painting.
Next: catch the morning express train to Naples!
Copyright © 2013 by Geoffrey Dean