Absorbing Impressions

Can you smell the culture?

This weekend created a mix of the extremely rare and extremely ordinary. While no one should belittle the importance of historical ruins and masterpieces of art, I think there is also something to be said of the worth in the simplistic, current day-to-day. There is beauty in the profound and beauty in the routine.

I give you an example:

On Friday, since we do not have Friday classes in Rome (because, really, even the school seems to agree that we are not here to sit in a classroom) I suggested that we take a field trip to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Via del Corso, a mere hop-skip from the National Monument for Vittorio Emanuele II, the famed joiner of Italia. My museum curating professoressa had mentioned that the Pamphilj gallery was one of the earliest collections of art that remains curated in its original manner. This means that the paintings hang very close together, covering the walls and spanning from ceiling to floor – a modern curating nightmare, she says.

The Pamphilj family was, and remains, a very rich family in Italy. They boast the ancestor, Pope Innocent X. The Pamphilj’s still live in the Palazzo, but open the state apartments and galleries to the public during the day. These apartments include a throne room, as the family never knew when the Pope would drop in for a visit. Really everything about the place was very modest… Not at all. The collection includes several Caravaggios, a magnificent Bernini sculpture of Innocent X, and a Velasquez portrait of the same pope. There’s also a Hall of Mirrors modeled after Versailles. Modest.

On Saturday, to continue the cultural sampling, but in a slightly more archaic manner, we decided to visit Le Catacombe di Priscilla. This catacomb is on the opposite side of Rome from Trastevere, so almost more impressive than the 13 kilometer burial site was our navigating the Roman bus lines to get there. The catacomb began in the cellar of Priscilla’s first century villa. First century (repetition for emphasis). It boasts the believed first depiction of the Madonna and Child from 230 AD and another believed first depiction of the three kings. It’s pretty old down there, actually pretty inconceivably old.

These two trips made me feel like a real explorer of the city. We’d seen the Trevi Fountain and such, but now it was time for art and dead people.

To step away from the remarkably impressive and scale back a touch, I’ll explain the photo here. This is a barbershop in Trastevere. It boasts at least two little old white-haired men who give cuts and shaves. I walk past this little window front on my way to morning class. There are usually one or two patrons leaning back in the chairs with shaving cream on their chins. It’s so Italian, so old fashioned, so ordinary. Yet, I love this sight. People probably think I’m crazy because I usually pause and watch the men for a minute. I imagine they’re brothers. It’s so no-nonsense.
It’s a Hall of Mirrors, with the barber chairs lined in front of them – it’s its own Versailles. Maybe equally worthy of awe.

Another little thing came in Sunday morning mass at Santa Maria di Trastevere. Unlike Vatican mass, which strangely didn’t draw a huge crowd last week, this cathedral was packed with the local parish goers. They stopped and chatted after mass, they shook the priest’s hand. Kids cried and played while the readings were read. At the front of the church sat a group of what I can only equate to Cub Scouts. Kids all in uniform with neckerchiefs and yellow-piped ball caps, tall socks, and belts. It was all so communal. This is daily, Sunday life.

So with the mix of the historically recognized and the daily, oft-unrecognized there comes a reflection: the Pamphiljs are people, the people in the catacombs were people. And before they were famous for living, or dying, they must have gotten their hair cut and beards shaved. So watching through the window of the barbershop and looking at the cub-scout kids, isn’t it almost as important as touring, in a way? It’s almost like pre-touring, like recognizing before the curatorial process. And, for this foresight you will not have to pay eight euro for entrance and audio guide.

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