February/March 2015
More photos here

Wednesday 25th February
Having visited Rome just the once in 1994 this revisit has been a mighty long time coming. It's an art-historian guided tour courtesy of Art Pursuits, lead by Joachim Strupp, who runs the company and, as I'd discovered mere weeks ago, gives tempting and trip-encouraging lectures on the Roman Baroque, amongst many other tasty topics, at the V&A and elsewhere.

An untroublesome journey to Heathrow, which is very much not my favourite airport for getting to at the crack of dawn. I did learn, however, not to trust the train indicators on Piccadilly Line platforms - it's the trains themselves that tell the truth if there's disagreement. I met the tour people at the airport, went through security pretty swiftly, had an Americano and a berry muffin, the flight was on know the drill...when it goes well you barely lose concentration on your book reading.

Arriving at Rome Fiumicino there was quite a queue at passport control, but I skipped through as there was no-one going through the EU automated gates, which was a weird reversal of the usual experience coming into UK airports. Two buses and a car took us all to San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculan Hill for some pre-hotel culture. Some good sweeping views, an unusually impressive Sebastiano del Piombo altarpiece of The Flagellation and Bramante's famous Tempietto. All very refreshing for the soul, and then we walked down the hill through Trastevere, getting the flavour, and over the river to our hotel, the Ponte Sisto. There is a gelateria just opposite, my bathroom is well marbly, the desk in the room has enough drawers for gadgets and leads, and outside my window is a pedestrianised street, so you can open the window and get chat and a distant (instrumental) busker but no loud traffic, which is just what you want for background atmosphere whilst typing this stuff.

What you don't need is to learn that because your memory card was not properly pushed home none of the photos you took this afternoon have come out. And the camera didn't warn me. Bastard! Hence the white space over on the right, until my evening stroll.

The group evening meal, at a restaurant called Ditrambo in Piazza della Cancelleria was good for erudite chats (about art, cakes and cats, of course) but the food was special too. The best veggie food I've had in Italy that wasn't a pizza or a bowl of pasta with sauce but was, well, different and flavoursome in surprising ways. And then there was the chocolate cake. All of which nicely makes up for the fact that I've not been able to post this up on my website yet, due to technical difficulties.  Maybe tomorrow. (This problem never was resolved, so this all went up when I got home.)

Thursday 26th February
Before the day begins I have to report on the Hotel Ponte Sisto's breakfast. You know how I judge so: orange juice - not bad but not truly freshly-squeezed; cereal - muesli and cornflakes OK; croissants: only the pre-filled sugary sort; pastries - small but fresh, and often still warm. So, acceptable, but not special.

Our first stop was the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi, built for the
Knights of Rhodes but now housing their successors, The Knights of Malta. It's not the easiest place to get into, but the excitement that that phrase encourages was somewhat quelled by the first room we went into - a boxy and functional plain space. But the loggia up the stairs was truly a treat, with some spectacular views (see right) and fascinating  frescoes on the internal walls. These latter were very pale and weather-worn, but the fragments were tantalising for being almost totally decorative and depicting landscape.

On our walk to the Colosseum we passed a pack of film crews, one of which insisted on accosting our leader, Joachim, and interviewing him about Beppe Grillo - the Italian comedian and activist who makes our Boris Johnson look like a serious  politician. They were waiting outside the hotel where he was staying.

The Colosseum we appreciated from the outside circling around it and then we went into and around the Forum. Joachim did a mighty good job of telling us good stuff we didn't know, and Nicola brought us cans of Lemon Soda and chocolate biscuits half way through. All hail them both!

Lunch in a fine wood-paneled joint called the Abbruzzo was, for me anyway, some lovely fresh gnocchi in a tomato sauce. Good bread too, and an espresso to provide stamina for the afternoon visit to the Pantheon, which is always impressive. It's lack of any good art was made up for by a visit to Santa Maria sopra Minerva. On the way we made a stop for essential gelato, which I'm pleased to report that most of our party took advantage of. Me I went for scoops of cinnamon and pear, and it was fine. S.M sopra Minerva was the artistic antidote to the Pantheon because it has the very special Carafa Chapel frescoed by Filippino Lippi (see below) and a lesser-known Michelangelo statue of The Risen Christ. The latter is oddly muscular and nude, with a plasterwork cloth over his
private parts, which has not, like most such additions, been removed, presumably because it's still in a church. This church is also the burial place of Fra Angelico, with a large tomb slab, so a bit of an art pilgrimage destination.

Then all back to the hotel for some resting. After which a meal with a select bunch of us at a restaurant called La Quercia - 
mixed starters for first course (for me the veggie options were fagioli in tomato sauce, a little bruschetta, mozzarella balls, and a vegetable flan) then mixed veg and tagliatelle topped with parmesan for main course. Very flavoursome. And as we were not the whole party, and our leader Joachim was not there, we were able to have a good gossip about the party members not present, especially Joachim!

Friday 27th February
Today was looking like, pardon my prejudice, the centrepiece of the trip, it including an evening just-our-group visit to Raphael's stanze and the Sistine Chapel. To add to it's exhaustion quotient I spent some time in the morning, just after breakfast, talking with the hotel's techy guy trying to sort out why I've not been able to upload this stuff to my website. With no success. And today I got a new room as my previous, street-facing, room has been ultra noisy. (I've spared you the details.)
So I'm now in a very quiet room overlooking the cute courtyard which even has a balcony.

Anyway, the day. After some time in Piazza Navona and a look at the outside of the unfortunately closed-for-restoration Santa Maria della Pace (see above left) we began with a visit to Sant'Agostino, a church with a Raphael fresco of the Prophet Isaiah on a tomb over a Madonna and Child with Saint Anne sculpture by Andrea Sansovino (see right), a new chap with that surname on me. And there's a Caravaggio called the Madonna di Loreto, which is an unusual scene of a somewhat slutty-looking dark haired Mary bringing her baby to her front door to be adored by a pair of peasants with dirty feet. A stout walk to Santa Maria del Popolo was broken with a stop for coffee. And a small pastry. This church has a pair of impressive tombs by the aforementioned Andrea Sansovino, behind the altar screen. The ceiling is decorated too, by Pinturicchio (see above right) and has some uncommon-in-Italy painted glass windows. There were Caravaggio paintings and the Chigi Chapel on our itinerary too, but we were prematurely chucked out because a loud protest (against Matteo Salvini and his Northern League's calls to close Italy's borders to African immigrants on boats) started up, inside the church for some reason. The banners said "We Reject Salvini" as he was to be attending a rally in the piazza outside tomorrow. And so edgy policemen had decided to clear the place. When we got out we saw them arresting a protester off of the church roof too. (This protest made the local and national TV news as the church was later cleared of protesters by the police using more force than was strictly necessary.) A morning protest by taxi drivers about unlicensed cabs taking their business meant that our minibuses were not available until this afternoon, so we were cabbed back to the hotel.

After lunch we met Joachim and Nicola in the considerable queue to go through the metal detectors to get into St Peter's. (A new security measure guaranteed to make the St Peter's experience even more exhausting.)  They had queued for around two-thirds of the time necessary so that we all didn't have to, and so we discreetly joined them in batches, luckily without too much trouble from the people just behind us in the queue. When we finally got inside the crowds in front of the bullet-proof glass in front of Michelangelo's majestic Pieta were not too bad, so we had a good cluster. Then we soaked up the hugeness and the architecture with the help of Joachim's sage commentary. In the museum we had a good session admiring the tomb of Sixtus IV by the Pollaiolo brothers and the early Christian Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus - a truly old and lovely thing.

Our evening visit to the Sistine Chapel was booked for 6 o'clock and we made for the coffee bar/gelateria opposite for a well-needed rest beforehand. To say that the staff there saw us coming is an understatement - canolli or single ice creams were ordered, for which we got served double gelati or a canolli with a gelato.  The resulting bills were what you'd expect to pay for a good meal.  Oh well, you don't get to be ripped off by a gelateria opposite the Vatican every day of the week.

Into the Vatican Museums, with the huge modern door opened for our group of twelve. After having our bags x-rayed again and our audio devices for hearing Joachim's commentary replaced with the Vatican's own receivers (again!) we were whisked along corridors of sculptures, maps and paintings, and the sarcophagus of Helena, mother of Constantine. We eventually made it to the Stanze, the rooms frescoed by Raphael around the same time that Michelangelo was doing the Sistine ceiling.  Three rooms, two of them special, each special one having its mesmerising highlight - The School of Athens and The Liberation of Saint Peter.

And after them treats...the Sistine Chapel, with just the fourteen of us in it, plus our guard. I don't think I'll ever be able to visit it with oppressive hoards of plebs ever again. This is the only way to see the place, the Vatican charge tour companies an arm and two legs for the privilege, it seems, but it's worth every penny. Joachim's commentary is good value too - I've been on so many courses dealing with both the walls and the ceiling, and watched more than my share of TV documentaries and read several books but I learned stuff about the ceiling nonetheless. The simplest and most eye-opening thing being how Michelangelo made things bigger as he progressed - not just the central narrative panels but even the prophets and sibyls who progressively outgrow their niches. The new LED lighting, recently installed, is a big improvement too, discretely evening up the balance between the ceiling and the wall paintings. Studying with books and on screens had distanced me from my previous visit and made me doubt my ability to appreciate the nuances of what I've learnt in such a tall space, if you see what I mean, but being under it with peace and time to linger was a truly special and (yes!) uplifting experience that I'll not soon forget. And next week is my man Michelangelo's birthday, bless him, and it's the same as mine!

Saturday 28th February
My new room is a vast improvement, and so quiet, but with one drawback -it's an accessible room with a walk-in shower and added bars and stuff, but the raised toilet means that my feet don't reach the ground, by a good two inches! You know how some women have face lifts so that their faces take on that look which doesn't exist in nature, only on the faces of women who've had too many bad face lifts? If you think that that look is unnerving in a magazine, it's even worse when you're trying to eat breakfast I can tell you. I had to angle my chair away.

After the numinous intensity of yesterday today was due to begin comfortably at 9.30 with a restful coach trip up to the Villa d'Este. It actually began with a twenty minute wait while a a passing policeman checked whether our coach company had renewed its congestion charge certificate for 2015. Eventually we gave up and were transferred to a some hastily-hired taxis.

The Villa d'Este is famous for its gardens, particularly the fountains, and it and they are spectacular. I am not a garden buff but fountains, grottoes and photogenic vistas through bowers and over lakes are fine by me. There were even some spring flowers poking through.  And later we sat out on the terrace of the Ristorante La Sibilla with coats off basking in sunshine with a fine view of the ristorante's impressive sybil's temple. Fine food too - we veggies three had mozzarella balls, ricotta pastries, artichokes and some polenta with cherry tomato slices to start. Main course was a saffrony pasta with mushrooms. The sweet was a custardy semifreddo thingy with almond slices.

More protests today, we were told, and I'm typing this up between 5.00 and 6.00 to a very constant and loud local helicopter presence. Stuffed at lunchtime and evening meal was unnecessary, but I did nibble on some locally-bought almond versions of (the more common) sesame snaps with my water.

Sunday 1st March
Up above the Spanish Steps to the Villa Medici this morning, in minibuses.
Built for Ferdinando de' Medici by the Florentine architect Ammannati
in the late 16th Century, the palazzo has painted decoration by Jacopo Zucchi and has housed the French Academy of Art in Rome for a while. This latter fact is why Ingres is spoken of in relation to the planting of the pine trees and Balthus is the man behind recent restorations. The architecture of the garden front is (cue favorite word of this trip) spectacular (see below) and Ferdinando's rooms and (especially) his studiolo in the garden (see further below) are impressively decorated.

After lunch the group met up in Piazza del Campidoglio, to admire Michelangelo's layout and buildings and to visit the Capitoline Museum to gaze at more than a few of its many statues and fragments. The famous Boy Removing a Thorn from his Foot, The Dying Gaul who looks like Burt Reynolds, the especially impressive Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius and more passed before us, with some attractive carved and lettered fragments and views over the forum thrown in (see far below).

Reaching my hotel I decided that I deserved a gelato from the place opposite and went for the apple and cinnamon with the pistachio. The apple and cinnamon was like cold apple strudel, but the pistachio was better, being so nutty as to be almost salty. As I'm typing thus up in the evening I can hear distant chanting and there have been several loud bangs, which I'm hoping were fireworks. Yesterday's demonstrations continue, I'm guessing. I can also distantly hear  the guitarist busker who was often under the window of my street-facing other room. Just as well I'm in my new room as I think one more rendition of Wonderful Tonight and I'd be emptying my chamber pot over him.

Our last group meal was at the Ristorante Renato e Luisa in Via dei Barbieri which again did us vegetarians (there were three of us) proud, although three courses plus a dolci was unexpected and more than I'd have usually.  The cheesy balls rolled in nuts and the courgette flowers with a cheesy filling were highlights, as was the icky chocolate pudding which seemed to be on brown plates but was actually on a white plate thickly dusted with a cocoa/choccy powder. Not quite trompe l'oeil but impressive, and messy. (I'll draw a discreet veil over the identity of the member of our party whose patch of tablecloth ended up the most besmirched.)

Monday 2nd March

We fly home this afternoon but this morning we
took in Santa Maria in Trastevere for some refreshing early-Christian action. The church has a mosaic-embellished fašade and gorgeous gold apse (see above right). Also some early Christian tomb markers on the wall of the entrance loggia and a chapel with a rare and corroded icon painted on wax.

Then on to the Villa Farnesina with its famous Raphael Triumph of Galatea and some more studio-of works that are also pretty fascinating and fresh. Also the Perspectives Hall by Baldassarre Peruzzi, a room imitating a loggia with illusionistic views of landscapes through columns, which still has the graffiti, scribbled in gothic script, done by a German soldier during the Sack of Rome in 1527 (see right).

After some independent lunching and a trot back to the hotel. (Final gelato - fior di latte with clementine sorbet.) The trip to the airport and through all the checks was pretty eventless, although being asked for my boarding pass (again) going through the security scanner was a bit odd. I bought some pan forte, drank some coffee, ate a doughnut, wandered through miles of shops with piles of Toblerones, and then the slightly delayed plane was slightly slowed by strong winds, but soon it was down the tube and up into the perishing cold streets of Tooting and home via the chip shop.


Post-trip stuff
Discussions during this trip suggested that my received downer on Martin Randall tours might be misplaced, so I'm going to try them out in November with a Venice trip taking in palazzos commonly and uncommonly visited. The tour is led by Michael Douglas-Scott, who impressed and entertained on a one-week course on the Northern Italian Courts at the Courtauld last year. It includes a private visit to the Basilica San Marco and even a gondola trip up the Grand Canal. (I ended up cancelling this trip, in fact, mostly because I realised how darn expensive it was.) Poking around their courses I noted that they too have private visits to the Sistine Chapel on a couple of there Rome tours. The difference being that they combine the two (otherwise separate) tour groups to make up a 40-person party to visit the chapel. Now I'm sure that this is still better than visiting with the hoards, but I'm also sure it's not as nice a being one of 14 or so people you've got to know.

Last night I rewatched
La Grand Belezza, a film I'd loved last year and had spent many months smitten by the soundtrack of, and following up it's leads. I watched it again so I could recognise the locations better and was not disappointed. So much so that I'm wondering if our tour above was planned with it in someone's mind. Our hero lives in a flat overlooking the back of the Colosseum and there's night walks through Piazza Navona
and the Capitoline Museum. Not too surprising, but there's also much filming in Palazzo Medici and its gardens, and the striking opening of the film happens around the Fontana dell'Acqua Paola which we passed on the first afternoon and the surprise recognition of which prompted me to watch the film again. Plastic surgery is a notable theme too, there's a giraffe, and much is made of a saint later in the film sitting on a chair where he feet don't touch the ground, but these are (stunning and cosmic) coincidences, I think. And the film just gets better with every viewing.


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