An Ancient Roman Light Show

I stood under the oculus and felt the light shining down on me. Like a crew member on the Starship Enterprise or a saint chosen by God, I felt I could be beamed up at any moment and transported to another time and place even into heaven.



My first experience standing in the Pantheon, Rome’s ” temple of the gods” looking up at the vault of a “perfect heaven” was one of the most awe-inspiring moments I’ve had traveling in Italy.  Commissioned in various forms by a series of Roman Emperors, the Pantheon as we know it is associated with the power and divine authority of the Emperor Hadrian who claimed it to be a perfect sphere resting in a perfect cylinder like a “shield of gold where rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below and prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods”.

The impression created by the concentrated light of the oculus or opening at the top of the dome that illuminates the inner rotunda created such an effect that when Michelangelo first saw the Pantheon acclaimed it as “angelic and not of human design”. No CGI program or special effects department could duplicate the intensity and brilliance of this  moving disc of light against the stark concrete dome.

Historians have found that the beaming light of the Pantheon is very particular at certain times of the year. Every Summer Solstice at Midsummer on June 21 the sun reaches closest to the center of the Pantheon. The oculus or Great Eye in the ceiling of the Pantheon concentrates the light of the sun’s solstice rays so that they shine from the oculus through the front door . The drama and spectacle of this blinded by the light phenomenon entering through the massive domed roof is a wonder.

Of all the great buildings constructed during the peak of the Roman Empire, only this one still stands. Described as Hadrian’s giant sun-dial, a monument from classical antiquity, a tomb (the painter Raphael, the first two kings and first queen of Italy are buried here), and a church dedicated to the Christian martyrs, the Pantheon is all of these. One of the most recognizable works of architecture on the planet, a statement that Rome remains eternal and a model for monumental construction projects (the Pantheon inspired Brunelleschi’s dome for the Cathedral in Florence, Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica and the US Capitol building) from Michelangelo to Thomas Jefferson  it remains an inspiration to always strive towards the Light.





Florence’s Once Abandoned Orphan

DavidYou do know that the 17 foot statue in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria is an imposter, a body double of Michelangelo’s David. The original “Davida” is safely housed under a doomed rotunda in Florence’s Accademia Gallery safe from the elements and the city’s roosting pigeons. After all, he’s been through a lot and the somewhat insulated environment of a museum seems a safe and sound place for David to call home.

For almost 400 years he stood in front of the town hall subject to the vagaries of Florentine politics which were not for the faint of heart. In 1527 he lost his left arm and hand in a civil disturbance when opponents of the government hurled stones at the statue. Before that he was an abandoned orphan, an unfinished block of marble for almost 20 years. He was thought to be too massive in size, too difficult to work with and of poor quality. It wasn’t until Michelangelo took an interest in this partially chiseled block of marble that he came to life. First as a proud symbol of the Florentine Republic, then as an expression of classic antiquity and sculptural greatness and now one of the most copied and recognizable figures in the world.

Today David’s celebrity goes way beyond the original intent when it was set in the piazza in 1504. Florence’s one abandoned orphan can be found on everything from refrigerator magnets to men’s cologne. Viewing David is an obligatory part of a “show and tell ” tour of Florence making David one of the most sought after celebrities in the world. Having a body double is certainly understandable.

Monochromatic Medici –the Church and Chapels of San Lorenzo

san_lorenzoThe Medici were living large from the 13th to the 17th century. This powerful Florentine family produced three popes (Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI), numerous rulers of Florence (notably Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of some of the most famous works of Renaissance art) and later members of the French and English royalty. They ate, drank and made merry and some would say led Italy into the Renaissance. Through banking and commerce they achieved great wealth and political influence throughout Europe.

So I was very surprised when I first saw the unassuming Church of San Lorenzo ,the official church of the Medici where six of the Medici dukes are buried as well as other family members. Michelangelo was commissioned to create a chapel of tombs for the Medici family. His famous
sculptures of Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day are to be found here. The other part of the Medici Chapels is a domed octagonal room where the grand dukes themselves are buried. I like the gray and white interior and austere facade of San Lorenzo and I’m glad that Michelangelo left Florence without completing the exterior of the basilica. Work was abruptly cancelled by his financially-strapped patrons before any real progress had been made and the basilica lacks a facade to this day.

Signore Pig

The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).

Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.

Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.

So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie.  He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.

*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)