Thursday, May 24, 2007

Chasing Lorenzo around Rome

Palazzo Venezia, Julian Schanbel, and the effects of karma

The Northwest Airlines employee at the gate assured me, yet again, in a syrup voice that our 4:15pm flight would leave on time. This despite the fact that (a) Frances had just told me the web site was showing a 20-minute delay and, (b) it was already 4:05pm and there was, as yet, no actual plane at the gate.

I don't know about you, but I've never seen a flight land, taxi, offload, get cleaned, switch out crews, load up again, taxi, and take off in ten minutes.

Right after the woman lied to me about my flight, I noticed a man hurrying down the terminal drop a plastic toploader folder out of his bag without noticing. I picked it up, caught him up, and returned his folder. This will become significant, in some small way, later on in the story of my day spent chasing Lorenzo de' Medici around Rome.

Dead Ends

I'm assuming it was the small act of kindness in the wake of someone being mean right to my face that charged up my karma just enough that my bags managed to keep up with my twice-rescheduled, delay-bedeviled, tight-connecting, terminal-dashing, ping-ponging series of flights from New York to Detroit to Amsterdam to Rome. I dropped my bags at the hotel, spalshed water on my face, and set out to do my research before I gave into the jetlagged urge to crash on the bed.

Today I began an exercise in traveling, and researching, differently. On this trip I was not interested in practical facts, or in visiting all the sights, or in the hotels and restaurants that have been part of my regular Rome beat for a dozen years. I needed to focus all my energies and attention on finding and getting into a few select places where Lorenzo de' Medici would have spent time—in other words, remnants of the Rome of the late 1400s.

My first stop was a strikeout. Wiping crumbs off my jacket from the sheet of foccacia that had stood in for lunch, I ducked into the big Feltrinelli bookstore on Largo Argentina to hunt for Italian history books that might help me pinpoint some more locales. No such luck. The store's history section was paltry at best and, idiotically, arranged by publisher. My consolation prizes were a new CD by Nek and copies of some of my own DK Top 10 guidebooks in Italian and French (though the Hachette French-language guide to Rome mispelled my name: Ramblett).

A few blocks away lay a promising prospect I had just read out about on the flight over. Turns out Pope Paul II, whom Lorenzo visited in Rome on one of his most important early diplomatic missions, didn't live at the Vatican but rather at the palace he had built when he was merely the Venetian Cardinal Pietro Barbo. This palace was later amplified and eventually became known as Palazzo Venezia—the same palace at the heart of the city from the balconies of which Mussolini once pontificated to the masses (in between making the trains run on time and becoming allies with Hitler).

The good news is that the original wing in which Paul II lived has actually the centuries survived intact, right down to its decorations. The bad news: though a small museum installed on several wings of the Palazzo Venezia, the rest is normally closed to the public—including the cardinal's appartments.
Which is why I am now a fan of Julian Schnabel.

Pope Paul II, meet Julian Schnabel

The day I arrived, the famous American artist Julian Schnabel was upstairs in the very rooms I was desperate to see, installing on a show of his paintings.

Actually, what Mr. Schanbel was doing was yelling at a succession of people through his cellphone about the "small army of jewelry store display cases" that had just been brought in to infest one of the big rooms in which three of his enormous works were propped. He had a point, but boy did he whine a lot in order to get someone to promise to take care of it, threatening to cancel the Milan show and everything. He really was acting the primadonna in a purple tracksuit.

Whatever. I was happy just to be in the rooms—on the premise that they already had one crazy American wandering around up there, the front desk guard agreed to let me up as well. As a bonus, I was allowed to film and take as many photographs as I wanted (unlike in the museum part of the palazzo).

I snapped away, and zoomed and panned, then sat down to jot copious notes on every detail I could find under the theory that taking far too many, unnecessary notes is preferable to, six months down the line, not having the telling detail I didn't realize I'd need. I wandered to the next room doing the same, then the next.

By coincidence I was pretty much keeping pace with Mr. Schanbel and his two companions, a young women with a chestnut complexion and a proper-looking Italian man in a suit named Mario (as in "Here, talk to Mario about it," which Mr. Schnabel would say as he periodically handed off the cellphone to help wrangle his way with the offending display cases).

Back in the first room, the artist happened to walk past me when I was actually taking a few minutes to look at the art installation rather than the architectural details of the space. Mr. Schanbel stopped to ask what I thought of the paintings. I replied they were pretty good.

As I was taking a picture of the third room—wedged into one corner so as to get as much into the frame as possible—I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a few people had stopped just inside the doorway to wait for me to finish. Then I realized that one of those people was purple. "Please, go on through," I said to the artistic retinue.

By the fifth room—Mario now dealing with the cellphone full time—Mr. Schnabel's curiosity apparently got the best of him. "What are you writing down?" He asked.

I grinned and said "Just my impressions of the rooms." He stared at me, wanting more clarification.

"Well, I'm a journalist," I continued. "But don't worry—I'm not an art critic or anything. The show's lovely. I like the portraits especially. But truthfully I'm here for the palazzo itself." He just stared.

"Actually, I wanted to thank you," I continued. "These rooms are normally off-limits, but your show has thrown open the doors to the public, so I appreciate that."

"Yes," he agreed. "It's a really nice space."

"You know," I continued. "I was wondering who the cardinal was in your portrait in the second room." He told me that a model had posed for it, but it was actually based on a prelate he knows from Venice.

"Huh," I said. "How appropriate, seeing as how it's hung in the receiving room of a famous Venetian cardinal who was later made Pope Paul II." The artist said nothing, so I continued. "Uh, his crest is frescoed on the wall."

"Yes," said Mr. Schnabel. "Well, enjoy the show." And he left with a wave.

I went back to my notes, but a few seconds later, the artist popped back into the room. "Excuse me," he said. "Do you know W.H. Auden, the poet?"

"Of course," I replied, which sounds pompous, but hey, who doesn't know who Auden is?

"Do you know Auden's 'The Musée des Beaux Arts'?" I did not. "You should read it. The portraits in the other room are actually my three sons, and that poem is all about that."

We chatted for a few more minutes about poetry, symbolism, and the Icharus myth until he excused himself again. I went back to my notes, thinking: how odd I had to go all the way to Rome to bump into Julian Schnabel when his studio is literally located just a few blocks from my house in Brooklyn. Also, I bet Dad doesn't have this much trouble with the hanging his show on Long Island in two weeks.

A Musical Interlude

Before I left the Palazzo Venezia I managed to get an unexpected lecture on the history of grotesques in a room frescoed by Vasari (including a most excellent free catalog), followed by a short guitar concert of works by Bach and some atonal Italian composer from the 1980s. How lovely to get a free concert in the same palazzo where a young Mozart played in 1770, and Rossini premiered his Stabat Mater in 1842.

Feeling rather chuffed with my luck, I left and walked the perimeter of the whole, sprawling Palazzo Venezia, taking pictures of it and popping into the San Marco church (again, using my Touring Club Italiano book to concentrate only on pre-1480 elements).

As I was snapping a few images of the time-bitten local "talking statue" tucked forgotten into a corner of the palazzo, I noticed a seagull attack a pigeon, kill it, and begin feeding. I'd never seen this kind of rivalry before, and since it was just there, mere meters away, I raised my camera to document the violent act.

That's when I overheard two heavyset, bottle-blonde women who were giving the little life-and-death battle a wide girth, say, in American-accented English "...and that a**hole's taking a picture of it."

I lowered my camera, taken aback. I wasn't glorying in the gore before me. It was merely facinating, the way a nature documentary can be, and my automatic reaction to fascinating things is to take a picture of them. I mean, who know seagulls had it in for pigeons that way? Feeling a bit hurt and unexpctedly ashamed, I watched the disapproving women waddle away. Not five seconds later I saw a man—walking away from his motorino and engrossed in a cell phone call—drop his brown leather glove. I picked it up, got his atention, and handed it back to him.

This is not the part of the story where the kindness/karma thread comes into play again. It's just an odd repeat of the same phenomenon (me getting mildly maltreated followed immediately by an opportunity to do something absolutely effortless yet terribly useful for a stranger).

However, I find it encouraging that my immediate instinct in these situations is to lend a hand. Like most people, I assume, I live in constant fear of discovering that I am, in fact, a huge jerk.

It also helped me feel like the better man—inside if not out—when I tried to have dinner.

No Room at the Inn of the Bear

The Albergo dell'Orso was one of the top hotels in Rome from the 15th to the 19th centuries. For half a millennia, this modest palazzo hard by the Tiber River hosted princes, potentates, presidents, and armies of everyday travelers.

It's one of only a handful of Rome buildings that have survived from the late 1400s without being baroqued to death, and one of only a couple that served as hotels in that era. That makes it possibile some of the people I was researching might have stayed there, or at least some place similar enough that I could reasonably use this as a model. I resolved to have dinner in the upscale restaurant that now occupies part of this über-historic inn.

I had made an earlier pass of the place around 7pm, to take photographs of the exterior while the light was still good, peruse the menu and its prices (yikes! Good thing this qualified as research), and grab a business card. I had noted that dinner didn't start until 8pm, so I walked a few blocks south to sit by the fountains of Piazza Navona and try mightily not to give in to jetlag and fall asleep while I waited.

Luckily (for me, if no one else), Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers had just been wrapped up for major repairs, with Plexiglas windows thoughtfully installed at intervals around the wood screen so disappointed tourists could still glimpse bits of it. I was able to amuse myself finding camera angles that made the statues look like they were scared of the scaffolding.

As I approached the restaurant again at a suitable 8:20 or so, two of the three besuited men guarding the entrance moved to block my way, and the eldest asked (in Italian), "May I help you?"

I put on my friendly smile and said what I always say at restaurants (again, in Italian), "Yes. Is there room for one more?"

Since the restaurant's interior was empty except for a few loitering waiters, and the population of the outdoor tables consisted entirely of a single, thin Asian woman in a green dress, I said it merely as a courtesy. 

"No, no. We are full," said the Head Water with deferentially downcast eyes and a rueful smile, clearly neither of which he meant. 

Alright. Maybe everyone books here at 9pm, or they had a tour group or private party coming or something.

"OK," I said brightly. "May I book a table for tomorrow evening then?"

"I'm afraid not. We're full." This time, his smile looked gleeful. 

I looked him straight in the eyes and asked, in a tone that definitely conveyed disbelief and not surprise: "Really?"

"Yes," he lied. "Really."

OK, I thought. Time to change tactics. Come right down to it, I didn't actually want to spend €25 on a plate of pasta. I just wanted to eyeball the environment to take some notes.

"Va bene," I said, shrugging. "Don't worry about it. But would you mind if I just gave a quick look around inside? I'm really interested in seeing the interior of such an historic building." Surely these guys recognized me as the man with the camera from an hour ago. 

"That will not be possible," Head Waiter said. "We do not want to disturb the other guests." I made a point of peering around the empty restaurant. He swept his hand imperiously in the general direction of the Asian woman. 

OK, this guy had definitely downshifted from merely condescending to downright rude. I also noticed he had not once used the words "I'm sorry," or "sir," which, given his role and his patterns of speech, would normally have been buffering every single one of his statements. Their absence said a lot more than they ever could when deployed in the normal manner.

I admit I was being a mild nuisance to them—but not an unreasonable one. Just enough of one to make it seem easiest to appease me if only to get rid of me.

And that's when Head Waiter decided to go full-blown a**hole on me.

"Besides," he said, gesturing to my clothes. "You look very...sportivo." 

I guess "sporty" in Head Waterspeak means "scum." I mean, sure, I was a bit worse for wear. I'd just spent the day wandering Rome after a long overnight flight, and hadn't showered, shaved, or changed clothes in 30 hours. However, I didn't look like I was about to go compete in the Tour de France, either.

Sporty? I had on a button-down black shirt tucked into dark grey travel pants with (rather discreet) cargo pockets. I'm guessing he didn't go for the green daypack with a camera bag clipped to one of the shoulder straps.

I felt like I'd been sucker-punched. My stomach fell, my molars tingled, my shoulders slumped, and my mouth actually gaped. I couldn't help it. It just flabbergasted me that I could find this kind of treatment in Rome, the friendliest and easy-goingest capital city in Europe.

My unexpected lost-puppy ability to get so winded by his callousness must have affected the tiny, human portion that still remained deep in Head Waiter's shriveled little raisin of a heart, because as I wheeled (yes, wheeled, on one heel and everything) silently away to stalk up the street, I finally did hear: "I'm sorry"

I paused in my stride and, without turning my head, snapped my left arm up in the universal cutting-off-the-conversation gesture (a.k.a. the right-hand turn signal), and said in a strangled boom of finality, "No, you're not!" Then I continued down the street.

I thought of all the things I could have said, about pleading jetlag, or explaining I was working and this happened to be my uniform of sorts. I even briefly considered trying to impress them by piling up the names of Important Publications I've worked for and how their restaurant would now be dead to the American travel press forever—the jerky journalist version of "you'll never work in this town again" (which, as with all other variations, is an entirely hollow threat that the maker cannot even remotely begin to back up).

I had walked about two blocks, and tried calling Frances so I could whine about how unfair life was (got her machine), before it hit me. And when I say "it," I mean a sheaf of papers that had just fallen out of the shoulder satchel of the man in front of me. He had clearly recently arrived from the Horn of Africa. (Thanks to Mussolini's short-lived imperial ambitions, and the noted phenomenon of immigrants from former colonies tending to gravitate to the countries of their old colonial masters, Rome has a sizeable population of Ethiopians, Etririans, and Somalis.)

I scooped up the papers, hurried after the man, and tapped him on the shoulder. "You dropped these," I said, and his face lit up. For some reason, he began thanking me profusely. I told him it was nothing. He looked like he was about to cry, clutching those papers to his chest.

I smiled and wished him and his companion, who was carrying a small child on his shoulders, a good evening. The child pretended to shoot me with his fingers pointing like six-shooters, providing sharp "Pschew! Pschew!" sound effects. I pretended to get shot, staggering back and pleading "No! Mercy!" They all laughed, and I continued up the street. 

And that's when the other thing hit me: I didn't have to get my petty, empty revenge on Head Waiter in person. I could get my petty, empty revenge on paper.

When I finally get around to writing about Lorenzo's trip to Rome, I can have one of the people stay at the Albergo dell'Orso, get treated the way I was, and vow never to return. (This might even set a temporal record for retroactive revenge, as it's being exerting on hapless, fictional inn employees 530 years in the past.)

On subsequent trips, I can have that character can stay at the Locanda della Campana, another inn of the era where I know some of these people really did stay. The Campana also has the enormous benefit of no longer existing and having left no specific record of anything other than its name, so I can pretty much invent it out of whole cloth.

I decided to have dinner instead in a place where I knew couldn't go wrong: my favorite Trastevere osteria, a place where I've been returning for 14 years, they treat me like family and fill me up on Roman homecooking, and the bill never, ever tops €25, total.

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