Many towns in Italy hold historic competitions of different types that recall past times. Perhaps best-known is Siena’s Palio, a no-holds barred horse race in the town’s oval-shaped Campo. Also famous is Venice’s “regatta” of the feast of the Redemptor. Or Gubbio’s Palio in which teams compete with crossbows. Possibly one of the most amazing competitions is the violent sport known as “calcio storico” which is played in Florence and which was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times. It is a mix of rugby, wrestling, soccer and brutality and broken bones. As the title of the article goes: a most dangerous game, but one that still has an impassioned following given the numbers of cheering spectators.
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.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is presenting a special Valentine’s Day tour, available by reservation, that will also be repeated on February 16th. A brief article in Corriere della Sera explains that the tour presents art works dedicated to the theme of love. Included are Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” various portraits of Medicis and the sculpture of Eros and Psyche. Strangely, so is Artemisia Gentileschi’s extremely gruesome depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes: while hardly romantic, this is supposed to highlight the possible violent side of love. Hmm…