A Garden Stroll in the Green Heart of Rome

 

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The 18th century Fontana dei Cavalli Marini stands in the middle of a round plaza surrounded by trees and walkways at the Via Pinciana main entrance of the Borghese Gardens.

 

I woke up this morning inside my little mountain cabin in NW Oregon to a world as pristine, fresh and beautiful as can be imagined. With a steaming mug of coffee in hand, I stood in front of the window to observe the new day. The broad expanse of blue sky draped the valley below like a canopy, backed by the long silhouette of distant hills. Evergreen trees dusted with snow ran like rivulets down the hillside before me, skirting open meadows here and there.

My snow-covered deck dimpled in the sunlight. Chill air filled my lungs as I read the thermometer on the front porch. Only 24 degrees. Yet I felt beckoned to go for a long walk in the sunlight. To let the sun’s golden rays brush my face on this cold winter day.

I thought of another place and another time not so long ago. While in Rome on a much warmer day, my wandering feet took me from Piazza del Popolo and up to the Borghese Gardens. It was here that I found my heart-shaped green oasis away from the maddening crowds. Long roads of shade trees kept me cool as I explored the gardens. It quickly became my favorite place to walk in Rome. There is so much to see along the way, from playful, splashing fountains, gelato and refreshment stands, benches to rest, the zoo, and the Borghese Gallery. Several spots along the edge of the park offer gorgeous viewpoints to survey the expanse of the Eternal City.

For a moment I found myself suspended between two different worlds, each as beautiful as the other. Today I will enjoy my brisk walk in this winter wonderland while I dream of returning to that garden stroll in the green heart of Rome.

 

 

Photo of the Day ~ The Old Olive Mill

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View of the Lepini mountains from an old olive mill on the farm

Memories…inspired by a photo from a distant moment in time. It was here that I had the good pleasure of a visit to the Orsini olive farm located in Priverno, 70 miles south of Rome in the Lepini mountain region some years ago. The old olive mill stands timeless against the mountain range and gives no hint of past or present. Weathered wood and peeling stucco front the mill, betraying the youth of a former age. Although the olive harvest happens every autumn around the old building, the ancient stone and timber seem to be content to watch over the gathering yet once more. Who knows how many decades the old mill will continue to stand as the rhythm of the seasons continue year after year. What I wouldn’t give to hear the whispered secrets of the hoary old walls and windows from a centuries-old lifetime.

Reflecting on Cimabue and the Mud Angels of 1966 Florence

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
St. Francis of Assisi

Cimabue's damaged Crucifix
Cimabue’s damaged Crucifix

The flood of 1966 in Florence devastated millions of art masterpieces and rare books. The Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce was one of many buildings left in terrible conditions. Swirling river bottom mud settled inside the church, causing heavy damage to valuable works of art. It took a long time and a lot of effort to remove all of the debris. Because of its geographical location, Florence often flooded, always leaving behind a muddy mess.

Volunteers from around the globe came to clean the city of refuse, mud, and oil. They removed works of art, books and other valuables from flooded rooms. Conservators worked tirelessly to restore these pieces to as close to their original condition as possible. These volunteers became known as Angeli del fango–angels of the mud.

On my first visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce, I passed Cimabue’s Crucifix, painted in 1272. It was heart wrenching to see the degree of water damage that had altered the painting. 60% of its paint was missing. Housed in the refectory of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, the flood waters had risen to twenty feet, taking most of the paint off of the over 700-year-old Christ figure.

The wooden crucifix absorbed so much water that it expanded by three inches and doubled its weight. It took years for the cross to shrink back down to its original size. I could see spots with sections missing. The wood had cracked, it grew mold, and paint began to flake off even after it was removed from the refectory. Later on, the cracks were filled in with prepared Poplar from the Casentino Forest, where Cimabue obtained the original Poplar. Little restoration which can be seen with the eye has been applied to the Crucifix, and it still bears the effects of  water damage.

 

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Cimabue’s Crucifix before the flood (photo credit Wikipedia)

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Santa Croce after the flood above, and an exasperated volunteer with Cimabue’s Crucifix (photo credit Wikipedia)

 

 

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Mud Angels at work (photo credit Wikipedia)

 

“What we were doing was dictated by the desire to give back the traces of the history of the past to future generations, so that it could be used for the spiritual growth of people who perhaps had yet to be born….it was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world.”

Mario Primicerio, Speciale Alluvione

 

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Majestic Basilica of Santa Croce -photo credit Wikipedia

 

As I continued my walk through the church, I felt a deep respect and appreciation for the many old works of art. They were all beautiful and rich with color, painted by famous art masters of the late medieval and early renaissance. I was touched by how an international community of caring people pitched in together to help in a time of crisis, to save a heritage that is precious to everyone. It can be said that Cimabue’s Crucifix is a part of us all.

 

Rome’s Fascinating Basilica of San Clemente Reveals 2,000 Years of History

I descended 60 feet below Rome’s surface into a mysterious past I knew little about…

Standing outside of the ancient Basilica of San Clemente, named after Rome’s third pope, hardly drew my attention. I had approached it from the side by mistake and missed the grander entrance fronted by a small courtyard with palm trees.

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photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Located just a short distance from the Colosseum, I knew it embodied three levels of ancient church history.  Harboring this thought, I stepped inside the 12th century Basilica.

High above me was a vaulted ceiling with a dazzling mosaic in the apse depicting Christ on the Cross surrounded by doves. I walked across the uneven tile floor as it dipped and swayed through the centuries of visiting pilgrims and worshipers. A faint smell of incense, mingled with the cool and earthy surroundings, grew stronger as I began my journey into the depths of San Clemente

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photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I soon found the stairs to the lower church built in the 4th century when Christianity became legalized under Emporer Constantine. I discovered an almost identical floor plan as the Basilica above. Rows of stout columns stood to support it. Faded frescoes lined the old stone walls. One of the better preserved depicted The Legend of St. Alexis, a 3rd century Syrian who denied his wealth to live and care for the poor.

The Legend of St. Alexis, San Clemente, Rome
The Legend of St. Alexis

The smell of earthiness increased, creating a growing sense of another time. I descended an even older set of steps to the bottom level. Here I found a first-century pagan temple of Mithras inside a cave-like room. The altar depicted a carving of the god Mithras slaying a bull. Long low stone benches for seating ran along two sides of the room. During the first centuries, the Persian cult of Mithras grew in popularity among the Roman soldiers. It was eventually stamped out by the Roman Christians.

Across from the temple were some ancient columns and an open area believed to have been the home of a wealthy nobleman. It is thought he may have been a believer of “The Way,” a term Christians called themselves at the time and used his house as a meeting place for the small surrounding Christian community.

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photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I could hear the sound of rushing water close by. Following the remains of a first-century Roman street, I passed a room once used as a Mithras school. At the end of the road, I found a small room with a spring in the corner under the floor. Looking down I could see water bubbling out of it.

As I retraced my steps, I began to pull together all that my senses had collected. Images started to form of another time long ago. Before Christianity was legal. While paganism flourished. Beginning with the reign of unstable emporers. A time when there was no middle class, only slaves, and freedmen. Dangerous times…..

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Basilica of San Clemente Apse

Fried Artichokes, Legacy of the Roman Jewish Ghetto

Jewish Fried Artichoke, Rome
Jewish Fried Artichoke

Jewish artichokes are a delicacy I was eager to try while in Rome. I’ve heard them described as delicate chrysanthemum-shaped with a crispy, salt-kissed taste. I knew I just had to try one given the opportunity.  They are a big attraction in the restaurants of the old Jewish Ghetto. Also known as cardiofi alla giudia,  artichokes were once a mainstay of the Roman Jews during times of scarcity and extreme hardship.

How could exquisite culinary delicacies evolve out of such extreme poverty and oppression?

Women of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, established in 1555 by Pope Paul IV to sequester the Jews into one area, used what little they had to provide tasty meals for their families while also keeping them kosher. Artichokes, cheese, salt cod, and aubergines were cheap and used to create dishes that are considered gourmet cuisine today and served in fine dining restaurants throughout Rome.

Jewish Ghetto in Trastevere
Jewish Ghetto in Trastevere

The Jewish community began in Rome as early as 63 BC after the Romans invaded Judea and brought many of them back as slaves. Settling predominately on the east bank of the Tiber River, the walls (built in 1555) surrounding the ghetto kept them isolated for almost 300 years. The ghetto in Rome was one of the poorest in Italy. Desperately cramped, the Jews were forbidden to own property. They “were excluded from most professions except money-lending, dealing in old cloth and bric-a-brac, and selling food in the street. Many of them became friggitori-street vendors of deep-frying morsels, mainly of fish and vegetables for which they became famous,” describes Claudia Roden in her article “The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey.”

 

The Great Fountain of the Ghetto that once provided the only fresh water in the ghetto.
The Great Fountain of the Ghetto that once provided the only fresh water available.

The Roman Jewish Ghetto today is a maze of narrow winding streets, interesting shops, and several cute Kosher restaurants emitting delicious smells.  Locals and tourists alike still flock to the old ghetto for carciofi alla guidia, Jewish style artichokes.

The Synagogue of Rome stands in the midst of the Jewish Ghetto where the original synagogue stood at one time. The ghetto is described as one of Rome’s most charming and eclectic neighborhoods, with restaurants serving up some of the best food in the city. The same little pieces of fried vegetables (artichokes, zucchini flowers and salt cod), and fried fish chunks that are now served as fritto misto in the finest restaurants of Rome were sold centuries ago by the friggitori  for only a few coins.

Ironically, today’s Jewish Ghetto property, which during the ghetto oppression was considered very undesirable, is now some of the most expensive in Rome.

Have you visited the Jewish Ghetto in Rome and tasted a Jewish artichoke? What were your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you so please feel free to leave a comment.