My everyday 10 and counting

One of the blogs I follow is Mocadeaux, another empty-nester who loves food, wine, travel and grandchildren (pretty much a kindred soul, I’d say). She recently wrote a post on her “Everyday 20,” which listed 20 things she buys and uses every day. The idea comes from an American Express ad encouraging card holders to use their Amex card for these everyday things. We traded comments on that particular post and although it turns out that neither one of us uses that credit card, she encouraged me to try the same topic.

Alas, Mo, I only came up with 10 right now, though there will be a part 2 in the near future. Some of these are one-time or occasional purchases, but they are things I appreciate every day. In the meantime I’m hoping everyone will read on to learn — in no particular order — my “Everyday 10.”

1. My iPad. Like Mo, I am an Apple fan. And though I’d be lost without my iPhone and I love my Mac, what I pick up most often is my iPad. I use it to read and write emails, for Instagram, to view photos, read the news. I even download books to it. It’s all about the bigger screen.

2. Instagram. I came late to the party on this, after my daughter encouraged me to try it. But honestly, I just love it. It’s like a new design magazine every time I scroll down. Who do I follow? Other bloggers, foodies, designers, some magazines, travelers, my daughter (she’s a great photographer). I do not follow celebrities, politics, fashion, music, or movies. I do not follow FaceBook friends. IG is simply my daily dose of the pretty that interests me most. (You can follow me here.)

3 & 4. Rimmed baking sheets and pre-cut parchment papers to fit. I use these daily, sometimes more than one for a meal, for roasted vegetables, meat and poultry browned on the stove and finished in the oven, appetizers, cookies, and more. Although I snapped a photo of them here as my husband was preparing meatballs, I also use a half-size pan that’s perfect for roasting vegetables, etc., for just the two of us.

 

 

5. While we’re in the kitchen, the vertical storage in this cabinet. I keep baking sheets, frequently used trays, cutting boards, cooling racks, and a few shallow pans in this cabinet above my oven and microwave. This is one of the custom touches I insisted on when we remodeled our kitchen and I’m so glad I did. I can see and reach everything here. (High cabinets and shelves are lost on short people like me.) In fact I wish now there was space for more of this storage in the kitchen.

 

6. Grocery store flowers. I am happiest when I can snip flowers or greenery from my own yard and  garden, but the growing season in Chicago is so short and the winter is soooo looong. Frankly the blooms and greenery in the store see me coming and call my name. If you choose well, for $10 you can bring home an armful of sunshine.

 

7. This paint color. Designers describe Sherwin Williams Popular Gray as a “warm gray,” which I thought of as an oxymoron until I tried it on a wall. I love it! Last year I used it in the upstairs/downstairs hall, the powder room and guest bath. Ditto this year in the spare bedrooms and my husband’s office. It’s a soft, neutral background that works well with assorted furniture finishes, artwork and accessories. In the past our rooms have sported a variety of paint colors (not to mention my wallpaper period) and I’m loving the uniform background. And, see #8 below.

8. White woodwork. The Popular Gray walls are awesome against the Benjamin Moore Simply White woodwork and doors. When this painting mission began, we decided to paint our dark, stained woodwork. And, yes, it’s a lot of work: sanding, priming, then painting two coats. (Full disclosure: pros did a lot of it.) But, what a difference! It totally transformed the house, taking it from subdivision 70’s to now. Paint really is a miracle worker.

9. My sewing machine. Like a lot of women my age, I started sewing in my early teens, cranking out A-line skirts and dresses. As time went on I began to sew more sophisticated garments. I like doing things with my hands, and, of course, I like clothes. Fast forward to my first apartment and then our first houses. I made curtains, so many curtains for about a decade, but sewing with active children underfoot was challenging. I finally pretty much gave it up. I made a few Halloween costumes and even sewed for my daughter’s American Girl doll, but I was rusty and not always pleased with the results. Fast forward once more to my retired self. Not only do I have time to sew, but I can take my time with a sewing project. And, I really wanted lined, white linen curtains in the living room. Not gauzy; something substantial that would hang in graceful folds. So, off to the fabric-lover/decorator’s nirvana otherwise known as Calico Corners and fifteen yards of fabric and lining plus a few afternoons at the machine and I have exactly the look I had in mind. My machine and I will be spending more time together.

10. My new soup/pasta/salad bowls from Williams Sonoma. I’m a bit of a dish junkie, not just in terms of transferware and ironstone collections, but also about what I put on the table daily. I’ve had a set of pasta bowls for years, but they were really big (and encouraging really big servings!). I wanted something that would be more multi-purpose, serving pasta, but also hearty soups, chili, even one-dish dinners like beef bourguignon. These stylish and sturdy white bowls from Williams Sonoma are perfect for all the uses I noted here, as well as an entree-sized salad. Win, win, win!

What’s your everyday 10 or 20 these days? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time!

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In awe!

I’m temporarily interrupting the looks, books, cooks and occasional travels you normally read about here, for a topic I just can’t overlook.

I’m in awe of the brave, feisty, and very smart students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for fearlessly taking on the NRA, the United States Congress, the President, and the rest of the establishment that has repeatedly turned a deaf ear (at the least) and otherwise stood in the way of sensible gun control. The determination and straightforward message from the Parkland, Florida students has moved students and teachers, parents and grandparents, and so many more across the country to join them.

It would have been much easier to stage a vigil, comfort each other and privately manage their grief. What they experienced should happen to no one. But they chose to dig in and fight back. Hard.

They are focused. They aren’t giving up. And they are moving the needle.

A blog is a unique medium. It’s fun to share books and recipes and travel, but it’s also personal. And some days the elephant in the room is just too big to ignore. How can I talk about a trip to Italy or a book I just read when yet another gunman walked into a school, killing seventeen people and injuring more than a dozen others. I’m angry that it’s happened, and I’m even angrier that it’s happened so often we just pause to light candles, shake our heads and move on.

To those of us who don’t like guns, who view them as war tools and instruments designed for killing (because what else is an automatic weapon for?), time to step up and support them. Have their backs, vote, agree that this is the time. And to gun owners, who are hunters or who have a personal weapon for protection, it’s also time to think about weapons we need and those we don’t need and why registration and licensing may be advantageous. (This is a big concession for me. I’ve always lived in a gun-free home.)

There’s nothing normal about gunmen shooting up a school, or concert-goers, or nightclub patrons or any of the other hundreds of gunfire victims. Is it me or is there a real disconnect when one dog dies on an airplane in inexplicably awful conditions and Congress immediately proposes appropriate legislation, but hundreds die in schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts and the same Congress says “the time is not right”? More to the point, do we care more about guns than our children?

There are no easy answers here. This is a complicated stew of second amendment rights, lobbyists, money, mental health support (more money!), and a polarized public unable to move. I think we all have a part to play.

Whew! I had to share my thoughts. I hope you’ll tell me what you’re thinking.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Groceries, the books we read, and where we shelve them

The bag may be recycled, but this grocery delivery vehicle is not all that new. Everything old is new again.

Everything old is new again. I was talking back to the television earlier this week and my husband suggested I blog about that particular angst, so here goes…

The Today show featured a story about the growing competition among online grocery shopping and delivery services. First, I think this is awesome and I would have loved this when I had two small children. But, this isn’t new! Ordering online is new, but not delivery.

Long before the chain groceries (and I know I’m dating myself here), Chicago neighborhood grocers delivered. My grandparents lived in a modest city neighborhood. No one owned cars. They walked to the butcher, the bakery, the bank. I remember doing all these errands on foot. (Which city-dwellers like my daughter still do.)

We carried lots of stuff home with us (Grandma took her special cloth shopping bags along for this purpose; that reusable Whole Foods bag isn’t a totally innovative idea either.) But if we bought many things in the grocery, or heavy stuff like flour and sugar, the groceries were delivered later, in a cut-off carton, usually by a schoolboy who worked for tips. I’m not even sure there was a “delivery fee” involved, but I do remember Grandma making sure she had tip money. And her delivery boy knew to come down the gangway to the back door, let himself into what was really the basement, and leave the box there. (A pre-requisite, I’m sure, for getting a good tip.) In fact, my uncle’s first job was an after-school gig delivering groceries.

Instagram on my mind.

Last month while I was languishing on the couch recovering from the flu (and before I started talking back to the television), I spent way too much time on Instagram, Pinterest, and cruising various blogs. Perhaps because I was still trying to put things back in order here after the painters had freshened up the living room and bedrooms or maybe just because I’m always rearranging shelf space to accommodate books and “stuff,” I started saving photos of shelves. I grew up in a house with book-laden shelves and have always had the same in my own home, so I am always amazed at book-less shelves. I think they’re pretty, but they just aren’t me.

Here are a few of the images I’ve saved to inspire my own shelves.

From James T. Farmer, I love the way this includes plates, pictures and books stacked this way and that. Not too busy but not boring either.
Here, more books on the shelves, but still interesting accents. I love the shelf over the door AND the hats on it. Image from India Hicks posted by Blue and White Home.
I really like this book-lined background for a chair and table. From Nell Hills.

 

The books on the shelves, or a few recent reads.

If you have been reading my blog, you know it’s hard for me to mention “book” without commenting on specific titles. You also may have noticed that my reading tastes are all over the place: biography, history, historic fiction, current fiction. Do I lack focus or do I just like to read? I have no idea.

My new favorite book recommendation is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. Walker is a widely known and respected African American writer and scholar who used her own family’s oral history and decades of research to tell the story of Vyry, daughter of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. The book spans the lavish antebellum years in rural Georgia, the ruin of the Civil War, and the empty promises of reconstruction. If you liked The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I think you might like this too.

After Jubilee, I needed something lighter, so I read Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Milhone mystery, A is for Alibi. I love Sue Grafton and I mourned her passing here. I discovered this series a little later on in the alphabet, and I wanted to see if this first mystery was as well-crafted as number 25. I was not disappointed. These are all great reads.

Right now I’m reading The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante. It’s the second book in her Neapolitan series. My book club read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, and many just moved right on. I’m enjoying this book more, but it remains a tough read. This is translated from its original Italian. The language often seems clumsy and wordy, characteristics that I think better editing and translation may have improved. However, I love the story of two smart young women in an impoverished neighborhood making dramatically different choices while trying to hold on to their friendship.

Also on my list: The Other Einstein, Marie Benedict’s story of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric; George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because I’ve never read it (and I was an English major!); and Origin by Dan Brown, because I’m a bit of a sucker for his historic/travelogue romps.

What are you up to as we wait for spring? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time.

Hanging-out in Lucca

Looking through one of Lucca’s city gates. Can you see why we were charmed?

Have you missed me? We’ve had the flu!

Despite our best intentions, including excessive hand washing and flu shots, I picked up this year’s nasty bug and graciously passed it on to my husband. Fortunately we were both able to take the anti-viral medicine and that, along with our flu shots, seemed to lessen the worst of our symptoms. But the lethargy that follows is daunting. I hope you’ll hang in here with me!

Before the influenza assault, I was planning on sharing a side trip we made to Lucca during last fall’s trip to Italy. One of the benefits of traveling independently is the freedom to tinker a bit with the itinerary along the way. And the more we have traveled, the more comfortable we are tinkering.

We had planned to take a train from Florence to Lucca, spend a day, attend that evening’s Puccini concert, and then take three more trains the next morning to spend a day at the Cinque Terra (and then three more trains back to Lucca) to spend another night before moving on to Rome. Was this overly ambitious? Absolutely.

(In fact, seeing this plan in black and white, I have to ask what we were thinking.)

We arrived in Lucca by train, walked from the station and over Lucca’s legendary ramparts to our hotel and promptly fell in love with yet another Tuscan town. Lucca was blessedly quiet after the tourist bustle of Florence, and despite a light rain, the city is made for walking and wandering. We knew right away that this was the ideal place to catch our breath before going on to Rome. The Cinque Terra would have to wait for another trip.

A bit of background. Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC.  One of its claims to historical fame is as the host to a secret conference in 56 BC, at which Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance. Although it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805, it had been the second largest independent city state (after Venice) for centuries.

Today it offers stunning churches, cafes and piazzas perfect for people watching, and one winding street after another to explore.

 

Unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Lucca’s defensive ramparts have survived intact and today are a 2½-mile walking/running/cycling ribbon than encircles the city. We walked a significant portion of it the second morning we were there.

 

Locals clearly savor this space, including this group playing cards at one of the picnic areas along the former rampart. Several women were walking or running the path with strollers.  Can you imagine how wonderful living here would be?

 

San Giovanni Church hosts nightly concerts featuring the music of hometown opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Steve and I know absolutely nothing about opera, but thoroughly enjoyed a concert. Two opera singers, a man and a woman, alternately sang short selections from Puccini as well as a few other works.  Their pianist also played two wonderful solos. They also performed together, including a beautiful finale and encore. San Giovanni is a wonderfully intimate venue (below) and they were clearly having as much fun as the audience. I’m sure their energy and joy in the music, as well as our seats in the second row (!) added to our enjoyment. As it ended my husband said, “This is one of the highlights of our trip!”

 

 

We had lunch at one of the many cafes that circle the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. In the second century, this was a Roman amphitheater. While we were there, a bride and groom arrived to take wedding photos. They were enthusiastically greeted and cheered by everyone and then serenaded by one group. How happy, I thought. This is Italy!

San Michele in Foro, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is built over the ancient Roman Forum. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful detail on this church.

 

The Cathedral of Saint Martin, below, is the seat of Lucca’s Archbishop. Construction was begun here in 1063 and the apse with its columnar arcades and the companile are original.

 

 

The interior of this church is stunning, including a small octagonal temple or chapel shrine that contains the city’s most precious relic, cedar-wood crucifix and image of Christ or Sacred Countenance, reportedly carved by Nicodemis and remarkably transported to Lucca in 782. The chapel in which it rests was built in 1484 by Luccan sculptor Matteo Civitali.  (Can you tell I love relic stories?)

 

 

 

 

 

Most of all, Lucca is a series of charming, everyday scenes.

 

And a few more:

 

We learned a valuable travel lesson in Lucca: sometimes it’s more important to stop sightseeing and just enjoy the moment.

How about you? Have you come across a travel destination where you just had to sit back and savor the moment?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

Logical loose ends

“C” was for crosswords in my Instagram Alphabet, though I just as easily could have said Christmas or Charleston or cooking (for starters). Sometimes it was hard to decide!

At first I thought of this is as one of those posts that goes all over, because I had a handful of ideas to share. However, as I was writing I realized they tied together somewhat logically. Read on and you can decide for yourself.

Thanks to all of you who followed my Instagram project, #alphabet2018. (I wrote about it here.) I made it through the alphabet without skipping a day! My posts went from A is for artwork thru Z for zinnia with twenty-four posts in between.

This was fun to envision and fun to finish, and it forced me to think more creatively about my time on Instagram, rather than just scrolling thru (something I do a lot). I think I’ll be approaching at least some of my IG posts more purposefully in the future. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll come up with another challenge.

Maybe not traditional “coffee table books” but certainly something to spark a conversation.

Speaking of Instagram, a number of followers there liked my IG image of Personal History by Katherine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee. I dug out both books after seeing “The Post,” first because I wanted to re-read what they had written about the Pentagon Papers (and yes their stories mesh with the screenplay), and, second, because the movie and the concept of journalistic freedom are suddenly so very timely.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do. If you have, I hope you’ll tell me what you thought. Most of the people we know absolutely loved it. The story is worth telling and re-telling. Frankly, I remember Watergate much better than I do the Pentagon Papers (which is probably a function of where I was in my life at the time). Looking back, the Pentagon Papers was a fairly a-political event. The Nixon White House was furious and tried to stop publication, but both republicans and democrats had been signing off on the silence for decades. That’s the point.

Beyond the story, however, is how well Spielberg captured the sixties. There were so many subtle nods to the time: the women were the secretaries; the men were the reporters and editors. Katherine Graham was an anomaly, a Washington hostess who also ran what was becoming an increasingly powerful newspaper. She came before so many others. I found it hard to ignore those subtle messages.

Which is the perfect lead-in for the Women’s March

Heading down Michigan Avenue to the March. This doesn’t  show the crowd, which was much more than expected.

My daughter and I attended the Women’s March in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re so glad we did! The diverse marchers included little girls and boys as well as great grandmas and grandpas and every age in between. I think that’s one of the key messages of the march. We’re all in this together and we all benefit from the larger message.

Some signs (and marchers) were more strident than others, but I think that’s just the nature of the beast. The freedom to speak out is what makes our democracy special. What a message to participants and bystanders, including those around the world.

There is an inherent sense of camaraderie about events like this. I took the train downtown from my conservative suburb, and the crowd at the station was just a clue of what was to come. There were easily 150 to 200 marchers who boarded at my commuter stop, and the next three stops were the same story. (In fact the train, which already had extra cars, was so full that it skipped the last five stops on its way to Chicago. Another train picked up the riders at those stops.) Although I met a number of friends at my stop, we were all soon friends with everyone in our car.

We loved seeing young girls like this taking part in the March and applauded their parents for giving them a great civics lesson.

Once downtown I caught up with my daughter and another friend and we made our way, with a growing crowd, to the march’s overflowing start point. After a lot of walking and standing, and a few blocks with the march itself, Mag & I broke off for lunch. We were able to reflect on what we had seen and agreed that we loved seeing so many kids at the march, including some elementary school girls enthusiastically leading chants and cheers. They march and we march because others marched before us.

At times like this I think of the suffragettes who marched — and worked — long and hard and at great personal risk to win the vote for women. My grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was well into her twenties. But once she had that right, she never failed to “exercise her franchise” by voting at every opportunity. In fact, one of the last times she voted (in her eighties), she refused to go with my grandfather because they disagreed on the candidates. She went instead with a like-minded lady friend.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

What I learned while standing in line.

I was standing in line at the local post office the other day. Lines there are the norm; its not unusual for them to be 10 or 12 people deep while two postal clerks methodically work their way along, often disappearing into the bowels of the post office for inexplicable periods of time. And the people waiting in line are understandably a disgruntled group, sighing and shuffling and checking their phones, trying to get what should be a simple errand behind them.

As one more customer was called to the counter and the line inched forward, the woman in front of me insisted we trade places and I step up in the line. (Yikes, I thought, was I sighing that loud?) Then she went on to say she was trying to do one good deed, one nice thing, everyday, and this would be it for that day. She said she had started her plan on the day after Christmas and so far had not missed a day.

This, of course, piqued my curiosity.

I asked what kinds of things she had done, and she said some had been really simple, like changing places with me in line. Others were easy, but took a little more time, like driving an acquaintance to a doctor’s appointment. Some had cost a few dollars. She and her husband were traveling over the holidays and when they stopped for gas and some snacks, she gave the clerk a $20 bill, wished her a happy holiday, and told her to keep the change.

Her goal is for others to just pass “one nice thing” along.

Paying it forward is not a new concept. We’ve all heard tales of Starbucks drive-thru customers paying for the coffee in the car behind them, then that driver does the same for the next car in line. And so it goes. It’s a nice story, but even nicer when it moves beyond the line for lattes.

Coincidentally, about a week before my Post Office visit, I ran into the grocery store on my way to a meeting. I grabbed two quick items and made my way to the express lane. (This is so rare for me. Even if I think I’m just getting a few things, I fill a cart and never qualify for the express line.) The woman at the front of the line was going thru her wallet for the second or third time, obviously short of cash. As she got more and more flustered, the man in line behind her passed his credit card to the clerk and said, quietly, just add those items to mine. And without missing a beat, the clerk did just that.

Problem solved.

We all moved on. And my faith in the kindness of strangers was affirmed.

I’ve been thinking about the woman in the Post Office doing one nice thing every day. She made it her goal to do that this year. And then there’s the man in the grocery store; did he do what hopefully any of us would or is he on a mission, too?

What if we all tried to do that? Then I thought maybe a movement is afoot and I’m just learning about it. (I can be pretty dense.) It doesn’t cost much to be nice or to pay it forward. I was contemplating this post (and writing it in my head because that’s often how these things start) and decided that before I went any further, I’d Google this concept. Wow! There are books, lists, posters, calendars, meditations, and, of course, the Boy Scout slogan, “Do a good turn daily.” In Chicago there is an organization, https://onegooddeedchicago.org.

Good deeds from the heart not the calendar

These are all good things, but not what I had in mind. I’m not thinking about something so organized, but something more organic. I’m thinking we all need to be just a little nicer, and hope it rubs off on others. I’m not promising to do one good thing every day and I’m certainly not going to write them on a calendar, but I am going to try to be more aware of opportunities to act more positively and then do it.

So, if a short, chubby lady from Chicago gives you her place in line, it might be me!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Uphill in Rome

The magic of Rome is that you can just round a corner and see the Coliseum or St. Peter’s or some other iconic image. I’m always amazed to fins myself in a situation like that.

Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)

Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.

We took the highspeed  train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Checking off another Papal Basilica

There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.

In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”

Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.

 

We came upon Santa Maria di Maggiore from behind and there was no signage. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Then we walked around to the front and found the entrance and the requisite security screening.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.

Michelangelo’s Moses, intended to be part of a larger  monument to Pope Julius II, remains in this basilica as part of the Pope’s tomb.

From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.

Taking a museum break

Rome is a lot more than churches.

Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.

 

Looking down on the Forum from the top of Capitoline Hill. We toured the Forum last year, but seeing it from above made me appreciate the extent and sophistication of the ancient site even more. It’s much more extensive than our tour. Perhaps a reason to go back.
These ruins across from the Capitoline Museums, including the Forum of Augustus and Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum, are currently fenced off but appear to be even more sophisticated in design.

The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop

On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.

This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.

Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.

The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.

In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.

The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta. It leaves me speechless.

One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.

Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)

We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career?  As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.

One of the mosaics as visitors leaves St. Peter’s, illustrating the work to be done beyond the basilica on behalf of the church.

We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.

Near the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a tomb for the emperor. Since no one could be buried within the city walls, Emperor Hadrian used this commanding space just outside the walls. Later it was used as a prison and as a last refuge in times of danger.

 

The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona by Bernini demonstrates the four corners of the world using four river gods gathered around an Egyptian obelisk, a symbol especially favored by the Romans. This square, really an oval that was once athletic grounds, has played a role in Roman life since ancient times.

After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!