Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Dogs of Rome

I generally only read police procedural mysteries if they are set in another country (i.e. not in the US). Fortunately, there are a number of good police mystery series set in Italy: Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series [set mostly in central Italy], Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series [Sicily], Magdalen Nabb's Marshal Guarnaccia series [Florence], David Hewson's Nic Costa series [Rome], and, of course, Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice and my personal favorites.

A British author living in Rome, Conor Fitzgerald, has a new series set in his adopted city: the first, "The Dogs of Rome," is available in paperback in the US and the second, "The Fatal Touch," will be published in hardcover here in June. I started reading "The Dogs of Rome" less than a week ago and, particularly in the last two days as the action in the book has heated up, have devoured it. (Fortunately, the semester has just ended, and I have time for such reading shenanigans.) Our hero is an American who has lived in Italy since he was a teenager and is now a commissioner in the Roman police. The case: an animal rights activist -- who has a high-level politician wife but a mistress with connections to the Roman underworld -- is brutally slain in his apartment. Commissario Alec Blume and his team of Roman detectives must find the killer.

The book begins well, slows down a little over-much after the opening action, but then finds a good pace. Quite purposefully, the author takes his time letting us get to know Commissario Blume. Blume's a hard nut to crack, and about halfway through the book, we find out why. Around page 275, the author pulls a fast one with point-of-view that if done badly, could have ground the story to a halt, but instead, catapults it forward. (That's about the time I realized I Could Not Stop Reading!) If you're looking for the Rome of the Colosseum and art historical masterpieces, you won't find it here; Fitzgerald sets us squarely in the grittier neighborhoods of Rome and amongst its sketchier inhabitants. Earlier in the book, I was missing the types of descriptive setting details that Leon does so well in her Venice novels, but these pick up as "Dogs of Rome" moves along.

An aspect of the book that I appreciate: Alec Blume *is* a hard nut to crack and we don't get to know him quickly. I'm weary of books by male authors whose heroes are thinly disguised fantasies of what they themselves would like to be: where we learn in a matter of pages how gorgeous, smart, and irresistible to women the hero is, and we keep hearing it allllll the waaaay through the book. (Et tu, Robert Langdon?) Fitzgerald does not do this. We are not sure what we think of Blume at first. We do not know him, and nobody tells us what we are supposed to think of him. We don't even learn how old he is or what he looks like until the book is well underway, and as the story rolls along, small details tell us the most about him.

This one's a winner. I read it in the comfort of my air-conditioned home, but I wish now I'd saved it for the airplane trip to Italy. It would have kept me happily engrossed all the way to Rome.

Government-required disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own hard-earned money; it was not a freebie sent for review. The Raving Italophile does not accept freebies sent for review on this blog.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Perfection on a Plate

Rome's history is filled with twosomes. Romulus and Remus. Saints Peter and Paul [the city's patron saints]. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. And...cacio e pepe.

Tagliarini cacio e pepe. Spaghetti cacio e pepe. Linguine cacio e pepe. Some shape of pasta 'cacio e pepe' is guaranteed to appear on the menu in any self-respecting Roman ristorante or trattoria--good luck finding it somewhere else, because it is truly a Roman dish. You can translate the name as pasta with cheese and pepper, but calling it 'pasta with cheese and pepper' is like saying the Sistine Chapel has Bible pictures. Cacio e pepe, my dear amici, is so much more. In Rome, the cheese in question is likely to be "Cacio di Roma," a sheep's-milk cheese reminiscent of its cousin Pecorino Romano but softer and not quite as salty. Perhaps your local trattoria mixes in some Pecorino Romano for good measure. Your local trattoria may have a little butter in the pasta, or it may rely solely on reserved pasta water as the binder for the sauce. It certainly has plenty of fresh spicy black pepper (hence the 'pepe'). For some mysterious reason, it took three trips to Rome for me to discover this scrumptious dish, and I credit a server at the incredibly unpretentious hole-in-the-wall Trattoria Gino e Pietro on the Via del Governo Vecchio for this revelation.

I've tried to replicate pasta cacio e pepe back in the U.S. but without much success. True, I don't have access to Cacio di Roma and have to make do solely with Pecorino Romano. But something else is the problem, and I believe it's the water. The water in Rome is, quite simply, the best water of any city in the world. Always has been: think of the ancient Romans and all their aqueducts bringing water from the mountains down to the city. Romans then and Romans now are justly proud of their water supply (which easily deserves its own blogpost). The water here in Florida, meanwhile, is vile. Ten years living here, and I still can't get used to it. It's an over-chlorinated, over-who-knows-what-else mess. It leaves rings and spots anywhere it can, and even filtered, even in its reserved-pasta-water form, it sure can't do what it is supposed to for pasta cacio e pepe: melt the cheese into an even creamy tapestry. Instead, you end up with odd little specks and too many naked noodles.

Unfulfilled at home, I load my tummy when I go to Rome, as if to stockpile my tastebuds until the next trip. Last year, I was in Rome for seven nights. And I ate cacio e pepe at three different restaurants for three of them. Buon appetito!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Pieta's New Neighbor

According to news reports this morning, the newly beatified Blessed John Paul II will no longer have his tomb in the crypt of the church, where most of the popes buried in St Peter's can be found, but instead will be reinterred in the Chapel of the Pieta (aka the first chapel on the right as you enter the basilica). In being 'promoted' to the upper church, he joins a small number of other popes upstairs -- all Italian, as far as I can tell from the plan in my trusty Blue Guide -- including Blessed John XXIII (beatified by John Paul II in 2000, the pope who called the Second Vatican Council); Leo XI, one of the Medici popes; and flanking the Cathedra Petri at the east end of the church, Paul III Farnese (who called the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and supervised the completion of Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel) and Urban VIII Barberini (who supervised the completion of the basilica and commissioned many works inside the church, including the grand Baldacchino by Gianlorenzo Bernini that covers the high altar).

Selfishly, I hope that the new tomb means the Chapel of the Pieta will become more accessible to visitors. Ever since Michelangelo's glorious statue was attacked and badly damaged by a crazed Hungarian in 1972 -- fortunately and amazingly, it could be repaired -- the Pieta has been kept safe behind thick bulletproof glass. One of the great disappointments of going to the Vatican, however, is realizing you have to see the Pieta not only from behind this glass, but from a fair distance. It is impossible to appreciate Michelangelo's extraordinary talent (all the more extraordinary when you realize he was only 24 at the time!) the way the statue is presently displayed. There must be a way to preserve the statue's safety while still making it accessible to viewers, and I hope the Vatican has found it. Michelangelo, I have to believe, would want it that way.

In case you're wondering, not all of the popes are buried in St Peter's basilica. Two of the most famous are to be found elsewhere in Rome: Julius II (aka Cardinal della Rovere from "The Borgias"--oops! is that a spoiler?!), the warrior pope who tussled with Michelangelo over the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is buried at the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, St Peter in Chains, in a tomb fashioned by Signore Buonarroti himself. And the hated Alexander VI Borgia? He's in the Spanish national church in Rome, as is his pope uncle Calixtus III, the church of Santa Maria di Monserrato on the Via Giulia.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Pope's Beatification

Rome must be filled with excitement this weekend: Pope John Paul II will be beatified on Sunday, May 1st, the 'last step' toward full canonization or sainthood. This move on the part of the Catholic Church has led to some controversy with regards to the speed of the process (for the record, it's not the first time--St. Francis of Assisi was canonized only a few years after his death), and some eyebrows have been raised over the display of a vial of the Pope's blood in the manner of a holy relic at the Vatican. (Blood that was taken before a surgery for a possible transfusion but was never used.) But this weekend offers the chance to reflect on the good things John Paul II accomplished. I for one always admired his openness to dialogue regarding other spiritual traditions: his visits to the Jewish synagogue in Rome and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; his visit to Greece, the first made by a pope since the Catholic and Orthodox churches formally split in the eleventh century, to dialogue with Orthodox leaders; his meetings with spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and the creation of the World Day of Prayer for Peace under his authority, just to name a few examples.

I am sure anyone who was fortunate to encounter the Pope in person is thinking about it this weekend. In one of those wonderfully serendiptious moments of travel, I received a ticket to one of the Wednesday papal audiences during my 2004 trip to Rome. I was staying in a convent hotel, and at breakfast one of the Sisters was distributing free invitations to guests. I had been planning a visit to the Roman Forum that morning...but the Pope! Who could refuse! I arrived at Saint Peter's Square filled with anticipation, clutching my bright yellow card, only to learn that bright yellow cards led to seats on the platform closest to the Pope. "Keep going," one of the ushers said, waving me forward. "Up there." I stared at him in surprise: "Really?!" I would not say my seat was super close, but it was close enough to have a good look at the pontiff without binoculars. Then, when the Popemobile entered the Square, a huge rush of cheers, excitement, and happiness flowed among the thousands of people waiting for JP II to arrive. The Pope was quite frail by then and could barely speak, but his spirit felt strong, and the joy he derived from the crowds -- especially from the many young people gathered there -- was plain to see on his face. It was a great day.

US Cable subscribers will be able to watch the ceremonies on EWTN network: the vigil for the beatification at the Circus Maximus this afternoon live, then replayed tonight, and the beatification ceremony at the Vatican live in the wee hours of the morning, replayed Sunday evening.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bella Siena

Siena. It's difficult to even say it without smiling. Seee-nnnn-aaahhh...the name's as smooth as a creamy gelato on a spring afternoon. When I turned the discussion in my Medieval Art class this week toward Siena, the faces of the two students who have been there lit up like candles, and they nodded vigorously when I said, "It's a neat place, isn't it?"

Isn't it ever. I went to Siena for the first time in October 1999, and to be honest with you, I remember little about that day except that it was a mad rush from sight to sight. I kept a busy pace in my second and most recent visit last May, but somehow everything clicked a bit more. I recommend the "My Name is Duccio" combo-ticket, which saves time waiting in lines at various places (although I was lucky to visit on a slow day) and which might inspire you to go someplace you otherwise wouldn't. I wasn't planning to see the Archaeological Museum, for instance, but it's included in the combo-ticket so I went at the end of the day. Wow! The artifacts (mostly Etruscan, of course) aren't the best quality (hence why I was originally going to abstain), but the evocative display -- underground, with winding 'paths' through the collection and atmospheric lighting -- is worth a stop. Don't-miss the cathedral (stripes! fabulous stripes!) and certainly not the adjacent Duomo museum, home to Duccio's exquisite Maesta altarpiece...or at least big parts of it.

The fresco pictured as my blog-banner is in the Palazzo Pubblico or city hall (aka the Museo Civico, not included in the combo-ticket but a must). It's one-half a wall in the Sala della Pace or Room of Peace--also known as the Sala dei Nove, or Room of the Nine--where in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries the (rotating, elected) Council of the Nine who governed Siena at that time gathered to discuss policies or meet with citizens. Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoed the room with allegories of Good and Bad Government and depictions of the effects of each on city and country. My blog-banner shows the Effects of Good Government on the City: notice the busy shops, farmers arriving with goods to sell, construction going on, nine dancers (plus a musician) in the street, in general a happy, thriving Tuscan town. My favorite detail is the schoolroom, where the students listen attentively to their teacher. (As I tell my own students, I bet those Sienese did their reading and came to class on time!) The idea behind this and the other frescoes in the room is to provide inspiration to the Nine to make just decisions and avoid policies that would hurt Siena and its people. Hmmm...a lesson to all politicians, isn't it?

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Yesterday I bought a ticket online for the Vatican Museums during my upcoming trip. I have to say, the Vatican's system is easy-peasy: go on their site, submit your information, and you're sent an email with a pdf voucher to print and bring. There's a 4 Euro reservation fee, but who cares? You breeze through the door rather than wait in that interminable line snaking along Viale Vaticano.

I'm of two minds about the formidable Musei Vaticani. On the one hand, you have some of the most wonderful treasures of world art. On the other hand, it's crowded to the point of claustrophobia, and especially if you're a shortie like myself, it's difficult to have any sublime one-on-one encounters with the artworks. Except perhaps in the Museum of Modern Religious Art, a dour collection of rather depressing pieces that folks sprint through on their way to the Sistine Chapel. That section you can have to yourself, or at least until fans of Showtime's "The Borgias" realize that those were the Borgia Apartments back in the day and decide it's worth a stop after all. (For the record, I'm lovin' "The Borgias." I may have to stop and admire the Borgia-era frescoes myself since I too always sprinted right past 'em.)

It's true, there have been improvements. Despite the persistent crowds, the Vatican Museums are far more user-friendly than they used to be (the cafeteria alone...). The museum administration ditched those terrible one-way itineraries that visitors used to have to follow whether they liked it or not. (I remember leaving a jacket in a restroom once and having to persuade guards to let me go backwards in the itinerary to retrieve it.) But issues remain, a big one being the closure of this or that rooms without any apparent pattern. If the Holy Father ever deemed to put a Comment Box at the exit, I'd propose the Vatican take a lesson from the Louvre and arrange a predictable schedule of openings and closings of various galleries, then put it on the website for everyone to see. I have *yet* to find the Museum of Early Christian Art (aka Museo Pio Cristiano) open in any of my visits. ("What Museum of Early Christian Art," you say? Precisely.) And I consider myself the luckiest girl on earth if I arrive to find the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, one of the world's finest collections of Etruscan art, even partially open. The rumor is, the Greek Vase rooms in the Etruscan section are open to the public on a regular basis now...I've waited years for this...I'll report back!

The most valuable visiting tip for the Vatican Museums I actually learned from Rick Steves (aka, my guru) and tried last year. There are two exits from the Sistine Chapel: one that visitors are supposed to take, which takes you a looooong way back to where you started at the museums' entrance. But there is another, allegedly exclusively for tour groups, that leads from the chapel directly to the entrance portico of St Peter's Basilica. If you wait around for a group to leave that way, you can slip through yourself and save a lot of walking. (I hitched a ride with a large group of Germans. Luckily, I look German.) Can't do it if you have an audioguide, but if you don't, it works like a charm. Grazie, Rick!

Friday, April 22, 2011

La Prima Volta...

Welcome to my new blog! Here I will be chatting about my favorite place to visit in all the world: Italy. Even without a drop of Italian blood in me, I'm still a raving, raging Italophile.

My first trip to Italy was in fall 1996. I didn't go as a tourist, but as a graduate student on a dissertation grant, and I didn't begin in Rome, Florence, or Venice. No, I began in Bologna, a great city which happily remains largely untouristed. I took a (long) train trip from Munich -- where I'd spent a week under gray, drizzly skies -- and after the usual careening Italian sort of taxi ride, found myself at a friendly, little one-star pensione, the Albergo Panorama, whose name I'd plucked from Let's Go Italy. It was dark, it was late, so I unpacked, trooped down the hall for a shower, and collapsed into bed.

When morning came, I dashed to the window to see the view promised by the pensione's Signora. Look, the hills beyond the city! Listen, are those Vespas? Is that a church bell? that coffee from the cafe across the street? Look, listen, smell...just like that, I knew. The way you know you're going to love a book from only ten pages, the way you know someone is going to be a real friend after just five minutes. Like many before me and many after, I would be transfigured by Italy.

As Miss Eleanor Lavish in "A Room With a View" would say, "And why should she not be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!"