It’s hard to escape pop culture in Italy.
We trooped through the Colosseum and I recalled scenes from the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator. We climbed up the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum and I remembered the opening scene in Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome when the patrician Caesar met the brilliant general Marius. I thought of Roman Holiday and The Talented Mr. Ripley at the Spanish Steps and of La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain at the Trevi Fountain.
One can combine high and low culture and remember: E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus in Florence; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in Venice.
I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Michelangelo’s life and art, a long time ago. And presented with Michelangelo’s genius at every turn—on the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica; in the Pieta; in the sculpture, the replica, and the parodies of the David in Florence—I vowed to myself to use the words “agony” and “ecstasy” only when referring to Michelangelo’s art.
In the Sistine Chapel, amidst the milling crowd and the museum guards who intermittently shouted out the need for silence and the no video/photography policy, I craned my neck to view the famous masterpiece. It’s hard to focus on anything else but the iconic center—god the father and Adam, their fingers almost touching, in the artist’s thunderous representation of the creation of humanity.
But my vision also kept gravitating towards the right corner where the Delphic Sibyl was painted. It’s a beautiful cameo—the sibyl’s figure muscular, her face expressive, the colors of her robes richly glowing. It was strangely familiar and, just like that, I was back in pop culture territory. I remembered: it was on the cover of my younger daughter’s coloring book entitled Color Your Own Italian Renaissance Paintings.
We went to St. Peter’s Basilica and, in its vastness and silence, it felt like a reprieve from the crowds. Many things in and about it are magnificent: marble cherubs bigger than grown humans, their dimpled limbs larger than my thighs; Bernini’s baldacchino, the ornate and massive bronze structure hovering over the altar; the delicate Pieta, looking tiny amidst the immense scale of the building, but affecting nevertheless, even when viewed through its bulletproof glass protection.
We went out to a crisp and sunny Roman afternoon in St. Peter’s Square. Looking around at Bernini’s columns, I kept imagining the countless footage set in the place, packed with nuns and priests and other visiting faithful, that I have seen on TV when one pope died and another one was elected, when one pope retired and yet another one was elected, when one or another pope held one or another papal mass. And again: Wasn’t there a scene in the Tom Hanks movie Angels and Demons set exactly here?
When in Rome, one eats pizza. So we did. We ate pizza with prosciutto, pizza with artichokes, pizza with four cheeses. Pizzas in Rome come in different fashions—thick squares from cheap bars sold by weight; rustic oblongs with tomato sauce and olives in grocery stores; and small thin ones in restaurants. The best pizzas were small and delicate, tender, chewy, and aromatic and we ate them with the flavorful low-alcohol wines that Europe seems to refuse to export to America. I remembered a show where Mario Batali sang the praises of puntarelle, a bitter green vegetable in season in the Roman province of Lazio in winter. We hunted for it and found a restaurant where it was served raw and drizzled with olive oil and anchovy sauce. We walked a lot, so we felt justified in eating gelato every day, sometimes twice a day. I tried the sweet milk flavor because I couldn’t resist the name, fior di latte, in Italian. Other memorable gelato flavors were hazelnut, rice (rice!), strawberry, pear, and single-malt whiskey. Every morning we had cappuccino in a neighborhood bar, standing up at the counter like the locals. The Italians invented the drink and they are so good at making it, the espresso intense, the milk creamy and frothy, and the price, at one euro and thirty cents in most bars, wonderfully affordable. Of the many cool things about Italy, this has to be one of the coolest: The price of their delicious coffee is regulated by the Italian government.
December is supposed to be a good time to go because it’s not as crowded with tourists as it is in the spring or summer. But it was still crowded. The Trevi Fountain, in particular, was always packed with people taking selfies and tossing coins. I realized, looking over the balcony on the side and watching the melee right in front of the fountain, that one has to enjoy these places as if they were theater or spectacle. Forget having a meditative silence to appreciate the art or to reflect on the march of history. The boisterous crowd is an intrinsic part of the experience. In that spirit, I took my young daughter by the hand and joined the crowd in front of the fountain. We held our coins in our right hands and tossed our fifty euro cents over our left shoulders and wished to visit Rome again. I took her picture, then we fought our way back out.
Back in New York, I think of Italy and remember more pop culture: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second and third movies of The Godfather. There are more. Even Shakespeare, after all, set a few of his plays in the country.
And I’ve come up with a reason for all these pop cultural references, for the crowds, for my wanting to go back.
The reason is this: Even when we’ve never been there (I know I was even before this trip), we’re all in love with Italy.