Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Italian Post - The Ecstasy

Can there be a more interesting beginning to a day than to combine a visit to the Trevi Fountain with a visit to Italy's postal servicet? Well, yes, there can, but a gloriously sun-lit autumn day in Rome can make any experience almost fun.

And since this is all about Mr. Guy's impressions, let's take on a couple of new ones (but the postal service is not the ecstasy part - read on):

Now about the Trevi Fountain. Despite all the all-too-superior comments of the cognoscenti, it is a very pretty fountain. All the silliness about how the fountain isn’t one of Rome’s prettiest, or how the fountain is really a cascade and not a true fountain (?), or how foolish people are for throwing coins in luck (amounting to some €500,000 annually, they say) all add up to a sort of nothing when you’re standing in front of and enjoying the sound of the gently flowing streams of water.

Yes, even the crowds get a little silly sometimes, and there are a lot of people visiting the Trevi Fountain, even in the slow tourist season. But even the memory of Anita Ekberg splashing about in “La Dolce Vita” or Susan Hayward losing her heart in front of it in “Three Coins in the Fountain” cannot alter the fact that it is beautiful to behold, and just as the Spanish Steps as a site to visit is disdained, don’t be part of it. These are sites that contribute much to making beautiful Rome what it is.

On the other hand, a short stroll away is a vast post office that is the place to go if you want to send cards and letters to people back home. Or not. Despite its much-whined-about reputation for being unreliable, most people will tell you the Italian Post does its job. And it is an efficient system, at least in the huge post office we visited. The problem wasn’t the service (we never got to the window) but the wait. When we arrived and finally figured out that we had to take a numbered ticket and wait for our ticket number to be called, the posted number was 290. Our ticket had 433 written on it. Surely the wait must be pretty quick if there are that many people about.

Yeah? You think so?

Then why are there so many places to sit? And why all these people? Waiting? And waiting? And waiting?

Being the smart Americans that we are, we decided to wait our turn and just to be convinced, we started timing the waits between the numbers as they are posted. It didn’t take us long to figure out that no matter how good and efficient the system is, there is still going to be a wait. Number 300 was posted fifteen minutes after we got our number, so we guessed that it would be about 45 minutes to an hour before we got to the window. Then we remembered that – if the cards and letters we were going to mail in Rome could be mailed in New York – which they could be – it would be cheaper and faster (and perhaps even a little more reliable) to have them mailed from New York.

So we left.

Now for a total about face: The afternoon was divided into three glorious experiences, thanks to the good advice of our luncheon companion and friend who has lived in Rome for several years and makes his living taking people about. Our first stop was the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, the Museo Nazionale Roman which has a wonderful four floors of ancient Rome. The exact antithesis of the experience at the Villa Borghese – where I complained about the combination of too much of both the collections and the venue – this museum brings together some of the most splendid relics of ancient Rome and houses them in an elegant but quietly restrained palazzo that makes the visitor comfortable from the first room.

The museum is apparently not visited very much, and that's a shame, for the collection is almost too good to be described after one visit. The jewels of the collection (that's not fair, but they come close) are two bronze Greek statues (not Roman copies, which is usually the case with these works), two of the very few that are known to have survived: “The Boxer” and “The Prince.” They are themselves worth a visit, as it the huge collection of wall paintings from the Villa Livia depicting all the various flora and fauna of a noblewoman’s luxurious garden. Splendid, and along with more wonderful mosaics (taking me back to the Villa Romana in Sicily) and the many, many remarkable sculptures in the collections in this museum provide a true “taste” of what life was like in Rome at the city’s height.

Nearby, more statuary – and an impressive space as well – in the Diocletian Baths. There’s no question about it: all those boys and girls wanting to learn about gladiators and the beginnings of much of what we refer to as “western” civilization could do much worse than come to see the remnants of so much of it here.

Not far away, at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini’s strongly erotic statue of Saint Teresa of Avila (literally titled L’Estasi di Santa Teresa) is dramatically displayed in the left transept. The basilica is now wildly popular, due to Dan Brown’s use of it in one of his books, and some folks don’t much like the crowds of obvious tourists coming along just to pursue their own limited connection with history. But to be there and watch the visitors (admittedly not that many on an autumn afternoon) is to once again be caught up in the idea of religion and its effects on the people who participate in religious devotion. So many of the people come not just to see Bernini’s magnificent – and strangely ambiguous – piece of sculpture, but to give over something of themselves to a little quiet time with their religion, matching their belief with everything else that is happening in their lives.

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