The Most Interesting Person I’ve Met While Traveling: An Ode to Giacomo

It was at the weekly school dinner at the Trattoria di Benvenuto in Florence that I first met James.

He was 22, from the UK, and beyond British. I was delighted – he spoke of “glorious serendipity” and “travelling Hesperia,” and already seemed to know everything there was about the city.

Duomo - Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy - YourLocalKatAs luck would have it, James was a Roman Historian by education, and a teacher, tour guide, and travel writer by trade. I was intrigued, but also wary – he spewed knowledge while I hated museums – how was I to hang out with someone that insisted I go to the Palazzo Pitti ‘if it’s the one thing I do’?  I smiled politely when he asserted I would have a “renaissance of the mind,” but told him: it just wasn’t me.

I was wrong.

I stepped into the Palazzo Pitti and hung onto his every word. For the first time in my life, history, culture, politics, architecturethey were things that I actually cared about, things that made sense. It was all right there in front of me, and for the remainder of the week, from museums to galleries, I inhaled it all.

James taught me about Greek mythology, Florentine history, Christian theology, and Italian art. He turned me into a museum geek, an art snob, and a history buff on the microuniverse of the renaissance.

And the inherent teacher that he was, he was always supportive, patient, and willing to correct me when I needed it:

Me: Was that the same Austrian dude on the ceiling?

Him: Austrian duke.

Me: …That’s what I meant…

Piazza della Repubblica, Florence, Italy - YourLocalKatI hold James in my highest regard. Not only because he articulates with eloquence and potency that rivals French romanticism, or because my unexpected transformation in Florence is attributed directly to him. No.

James, because of who he is and who he strives to be, is simply a great person, in the grandest meaning of the word – moral, just, and seemingly unafflicted by the daily woes of mortals, like weather, exhaustion, or uncomfortable shoes.

I’m not sure what he actually meant by “renaissance of the mind” but in the end, that’s what I know happened. By teaching me in context, about Italy in Florence, James woke something in me that reveled in learning and in understanding, and by doing so, he effectively changed the way I travel forever.

This post is an entry in the “Win a Trip to TBEX Contest” sponsored by WeHostelsWebjet, and TBEX.

Canova, by chance: The Gypsoteca [possagno]

It was only by chance that I visited Canova’s Temple. Stuck in the environs of Treviso, surrounded by gently rolling farmlands, sloping vineyards and rows upon rows of the Colli Asolani, I wanted to be excited, wanted to learn, but Rome had spoiled me with its grandiosity, Venice with its romance and Florence with its art.

But the temple seemed to loom over as I approached it. Its majesty was so undeniable and it was so unlike anything else in the region that though it was not the highest structure on the highest hill, it may as well have been the only thing in sight.

canova's templeDesigned by Antonio Canova between 1804 and 1818 to hold his works and eventual ashes, the Temple combined the elements of an apsidal chapel, the round body of the Pantheon, and the colonnade of the Parthenon in order to represent what Canova considered to be the main phases of culture: Greek, Roman and Christian. With its double rowed Doric columns, Attic architrave, round atrium and perfect hemispheric domed roof, it stood imposingly on an ascending cobblestoned base and made chins lift for a better look and jaws drop at its relative enormity. Inside, a self-portrait of Canova in marble, his tomb, and Latin inscriptions I could no longer understand quoting his name – I knew this Canova, I was sure of it, but I wasn’t sure from where.

It wasn’t until we passed the Gypsoteca down the street entitled Canova e Danze that I reached for my excessively used guidebook and found what I was looking for: it was in the Galleria Borghese in Rome that I had learned of him – his was the famed Venus Victrix! Yes! I had something to hook onto and off I went to the gallery of his works.

It felt calming to be in a grand hall of nothing but statues again. There were white walls, white sculptures and silence. Many of the statues were plaster casts and not Canova’s originals as those were sold off in order to raise money for the Temple, but they were still remarkable. Perseus with Medusa’s head, Venus and Mars, the Three Graces, Hercules – all bringing back the history, the myths, and the memories to me. And then, there she was, reclined on a heavily pillowed chaise, the Venus Victrix. Of course, this was the less detailed cast – the original was showcased amidst Bernini statues in Rome – but she was beautiful. Though that was her official title in the Galleria Borghese, the subject of the sculpture was actually claimed to be Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, and Prince Camillo Borghese’s wife, Paolina. And sure enough, her plaster cast plaque read “Paolina Borghese” – it was her after all.

The rest of the Gypstoteca consisted of a studio explaining how Canova worked using his plaster casts, and rooms and hallways of his terracotta models, sketches, and paintings. In the center of the last room, with the lights dimmed, a Danzetrice seemed to move to the soft harp music playing from above.

I seemed to have found it then, the treasure of this place, a little bit of Rome hidden amidst the villas and the olive groves. The Danzetrice, yes, but also the renewed desire, the restlessness for knowledge – that is what I was looking for.  And here she was, the star attraction, right in front of me.

Her arms in the air, cymbals in her hands, posed mid-step on her slowly turning base, she floated to the melody as a ballerina might upon a jewelry box. And I was mesmerized.

the appeal of the café

“Vuoi un café?” You’re asked as your empty piatto secondo is taken from the table. It is the next logical step in the sequence of servings; the question is never of content, the answer is always a given, and within minutes a small tazzini is placed in front you, espresso within.

So is espresso a brewing method? Or the drink? Technically, it’s both.  Espresso is made by forcing steam through finely ground and compacted coffee beans, thereby “expressing” its flavour. [1][2] But it is also the default setting for the Italian coffee – the technical term rather than the everyday one [3] for the frequently consumed and culturally essential “café.” Continue reading the appeal of the café

The controversy of St. Teresa

I read about the controversy surrounding the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture before I saw it. The arguments, referring to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s depiction of Teresa of Avila in a state of pure ecstasy upon being struck in the heart by a cherub, were based on the artist’s depiction of said ecstasy: her facial expression was perceivable as inappropriate – was Bernini guilty of being lascivious and portraying an innocent virgin as a prostitute, or did society only perceive it as such because it will throw in immorality wherever it can?

If this is the controversy, then we’re arguing about Bernini’s work and whether he himself meant for the saint to be viewed as sexual or enlightened. But assuming, like any artist, he was simply depicting his interpretation of her account, couldn’t we also argue his interpretation as artistic license like any other work he had sculpted? We would then turn to her actual account, to see how he could have possibly interpreted (or misinterpreted) her words into what he designed.

Before detailing the moment of ecstasy, St. Teresa gives the context of it, describing the angel that appears before her. She then goes on to say:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet, which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

I beg to argue that the controversy should have nothing to do with Bernini at all.  If Bernini was working from her account, it shouldn’t matter whether he meant it to look divine or whether he meant it to look sexual – his work of art is in his ability to correctly attribute her facial expression to her written account of how she felt – and that he does impeccably. Whether she really envisioned an angel, or whether she imagined the whole thing while instead experiencing an orgasm can be a topic of debate, but the controversy against Bernini is moot.


Santa Maria della Vittoria, Repubblica. Free. Various opening times

reading the inscription: septimus severus arch

In hindsight, as it usually seemed to be, the highlight, the most memorable moment of my Rome, was the inscription.

We were just passing through and hadn’t realized the triumph arch was going to be right there. RIGHT there. But there it was. Massive. Like everything in Rome, grandiose beyond comprehension.

in front of the massive severus triumph arch

“I want you to try to read what it says.” Giacomo said.

I looked up at the arch. That was a lot of Latin. I sighed.

“You might be expecting too much from me.” I said, and turned away for the moment, readying to take photos.

“I’ve come to expect no less.” he replied.

Maybe it was the inherent belief and confidence he had placed in me at that moment, but my desire for more (MORE, MORE!) pushed me right back towards the arch when I was finished taking photos.

James was waiting patiently. He knew I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

The inscription towered over me.

I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t get all of it (though I blame part of this on the giant hole that took out some words on three lines) but I got most of the words. And Giacomo would chime in with the story every few words I read to give me context. Latin inscriptions are really a whole bunch of kerfuffle words distracting from the verb and the point usually hanging out at the end of the sentence. But I got it. And when I finished, I had only one thing to say:

“Ok, so…what does it say?”

In hindsight, maybe I got less than I thought I did, but that feeling of accomplishment, the exhaustia of using all my mental power to attempt to comprehend a nearly 2,000 year old inscription written in a language I only looked at for a few hours a few weeks ago – one of the best moments of my life.


Oh, and basically what it said was :

To the Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, Son of Marcus, Pius, Pertinacious, Augustus, Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland – Head of State), Victor in Arabia and
Victor in Adiabenico (Persia), Pontifex Maximus (Chief of Religion), having held the tribunician power 11 times, emperor 11 times, Consul 3 times, Proconsul,
and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Caracalla), Son of Lucius, Antoninus, Augustus Pius, Felix (lucky), having held the tribunician power 6 times, Consul, Proconsul, Pater Patriae,
Highest and Strongest Prince,
for having restored the Empire of the people of Rome,
by their visible strengths at home and abroad, the Senate and People of Rome [made this]

Geekyy fun fact: Originally it mentioned both the emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons Caracalla and Geta. The name of Geta was removed in 213AD, when he was killed by Caracalla after the death of Septimius Severus. A condanatio memoriae was issued, and all images or mentions of Geta were to be removed from all public buildings and monuments.

The holes used to attach the bronze letters allow a reconstruction of the original inscription, which had the fifth line changed. Originally it read: “P. Septimio L. fil Getae nobilissi(mo)”; translated: “to the most noble son of Lucius Septimius, Publius Septimius Geta.”