A walk in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood, at the foot of the Aventine hill in the opposite direction from the Centro, presents yet another vision of the city. It’s named after a small hill, Monte Testaccio, made in Roman times out of piled up amphorae. This area, certainly not pretty but still authentic, was for a long time the home to the main slaughterhouse, now closed and repurposed as a branch of the Macro modern art museum. With cobblestones underfoot, surrounded by old animal stalls and meat hooks, one views avant guard art installations. The neighborhood was traditionally working class and today, of course, attracts its share of hipsters, artists, intellectuals, politicians and expats. At night what seem to be holes in the wall turn out to be trendy clubs heaving with people. Testaccio is also a food destination (especially for carnivores…), full of restaurants both long-standing and newer – many built into the Monte’s grottos. Those who are looking for gourmet delicacies or special ingredients head to the crammed Volpetti alimentari on Via Marmorata. And, of course, the Testaccio market, once held in a local piazza and now in a covered area near the slaughterhouse, is considered one of the best in Rome.
The Academy Awards are coming up and Paolo Sorrentino’s film La grande bellezza is in the running for the best foreign film award. Italian reviews were lukewarm while foreign ones were mostly positive. (Beppe Severgnini recently wrote an article about this that appeared in the International New York Times.) It’s a lush, visually beautiful film, appropriately, as one of the themes is that Rome (and Italy by extension) is the great beauty and not much else. There are references to Italian cinema of the past, the most obvious of which, between the actors’ faces and the scenes of decadent lifestyles, is to Fellini’s La dolce vita. Many of the performances are wonderful – notably Toni Servillo as the protagonist Jep Gambardella. I didn’t love this movie: it’s perhaps too realistic a vision of Italy’s stasis and pretension to be anything other than profoundly depressing. However, since seeing it, I have found myself often referring to various of its scenes and themes, so, it’s obviously a film that makes one reflect and leaves a marked impression.
Piero della Francesca (ca. 1416 – 1492) has long been one of my favorite artists, one whose works I’ve gone out of my way to view. (Finding the Madonna del Parto – a pregnant madonna – in the Tuscan village of Monterchi is not simple.) Piero was from San Sepolcro, on the Umbrian border of Tuscany. While he spent some time in Florence and worked in many cities in central Italy, San Sepolcro was always his home. He is probably best known for his frescoes in the Franciscan church in Arezzo but he also painted portraits and altarpieces. His works span a good part of the fifteenth century and his backgrounds evolve from flat gold to detailed scenery and clever use of foreshortening for perspective. There is a luminous quality to his art, a particular stillness that seems to highlight emotions and even, paradoxically, action. Last year the Frick, which includes four Piero works in its collection, had an exhibition with paintings Piero made in San Sepolcro, mostly panels from the San’Agostino altarpiece. Now, at the Met Museum, there is a small exhibit (four paintings) called Piero della Francesca Personal Encounters. Two paintings are devoted to Saint Jerome and two are Madonna and child. You can get very close to the paintings and it’s fascinating to see the detail in background landscape (reflections in water, shadows) and Piero’s use of light. There is a calm and apparent simplicity in these works that, for me, confirms Piero as one of the more moving painters of the early Renaissance.
Maurizio De Giovanni, an author from Naples, has written many well-received gialli (mystery novels). He is known for a series set in the 1930s featuring Commissario Ricciardi, a diligent investigator cursed with the supernatural ability to see the last moments of the dead. This strange, loner detective and his faithful sidekick Maione are brilliantly depicted as is the fascist era in its menace and limitations. Also playing a vivid role is the city of Naples itself. Fans of noir fiction should like this bleak series – which has been translated into English. De Giovanni has also started a new Neapolitan series, this time, set in the present. The “prequel” Il metodo del coccodrillo (available in English) introduces Ispettore Lojacono, a Sicilian detective transferred to Naples. The following two novels feature Lojacono and his colleagues at the precinct of Pizzofalcone – a precinct which has a last chance to validate itself to the authorities and is staffed by people with “issues.” I like this series better: it’s an Italian police procedural, there are no paranormal phenomena, while grim the plot lines are slightly less dire – there’s even (a little) comedy – and the characters are developing and becoming more three-dimensional. As always, it’s great to be immersed in the wonderful chaos that is Naples.