Fountain Art

On the walk between my hotel and my meetings in Houston this week, there is one of these timed fountains. Maybe it’s because I live in fountain-deprived Columbus, but I find it to be fascinating and beautiful. Not in an overpowering, Las Vegas fountain performance to the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller kind of way, but rather for the simplicity of the arcs traced in the air by the controlled bursts of the water.

It makes me wish that Columbus were more like Rome, and that there were more fountains in the world. I’ll take a fountain over a rusting piece of generic abstract art on a corporate plaza any day.

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Lost City Beneath The Sea

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Once, Baiae was a resort city on the Italian coast for the wealthy patricians of Rome.  Then, volcanic activity caused the city to vanish beneath the waves, as the coastline moved inland.

Divers have now located the town, and discovered that much of the artwork — including statues, tile designs, and mosaics — has been preserved beneath the water.  Pretty cool!  It would be a great place to go for a dive — if my ear drums had not been blown out by prior, ill-fated scuba activity.

Who knows?  Maybe there is something to that Atlantis myth.

Time To Book That Trip To Europe

If you’ve got a trip to Europe on your “bucket list,” you might want to go for it now.  For Americans, travel in France, Germany, Italy, and the other members of the Eurozone will be as cheap as it has been in years — for the next few months, at least.

IMG_0114The value of the Euro — the collective currency of the Eurozone — has been in free fall against the American dollar over the past few months.  On Friday, the Euro fell to $1.12, which is its lowest level in 11 years.  That’s a very sharp decline from earlier in the year, when the Euro was trading at around $1.40.

European economies are weak, and the European Central Bank has announced that it will be engaged in a “quantitative easing” program that will seek to expand the money supply — and, inevitably, have an inflationary impact — in an effort to spur economic growth.  And because the ECB has just announced its program, and it will take some time for all of the details to be absorbed by the financial markets, we can expect the value of the Euro to continue to fall against the dollar in the near future.

All of this is good news for Americans who are interested in visiting Europe.  Because the  Federal Reserve Board has already completed the quantitative easing program in the U.S. and has announced that it will be raising interest rates in the near future, the dollar should remain very strong against the Euro.  That means American tourist dollars will get better exchange rates at currency stores and will have more buying power on the streets of Paris and Rome — which will bring down the real cost of lodging, meals and museum fees.

Couple that with the ever-present European interest in encouraging tourism, and it’s not hard to forecast that bargain-hunting U.S. travelers will have a field day in 2015.

Last Visit To The Louvre

Today Richard, Russell and I visited the Louvre. I think it will probably be my last visit. If you’ve been to the Louvre, you may understand what I mean. If you’ve never been there, you won’t. You’ll read the guidebooks, and they will tell you that you absolutely must visit the Louvre, and you will go — because you absolutely must visit the Louvre if you come to Paris. I’m betting, though, that you probably won’t enjoy it.

Today we bypassed the long line for tickets because we had a museum pass, which is crucial — otherwise, you could wait for an hour or more just to get a chance to buy a ticket. Once inside, we headed to the wing of the museum that houses the Mona Lisa and thousands of other paintings from the Renaissance. When you get to the room that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, prepare for a scrum. The room is a wild melee of people elbowing to get close to the painting and taking “selfies.” It’s not a positive reflection of humanity, and it’s simply impossible to enjoy the painting in anything approaching quiet contemplation. The experiences in front of the other famous items at the Louvre, like Venus de Milo, are similarly unpleasant mob scenes.

It’s hard to get away from the crowds, and it’s hard to appreciate the artwork when any movement is likely to insert you into a picture taken by another tourist. And there really is too much to see — room after room after room of Egyptian antiquities, or Roman statues, or Greek busts. I found myself thinking that, if I were an Egyptian visitor, I’d be upset that my cultural heritage has been taken and warehoused in faraway Paris, in a place where countless riches from other countries are on display.

005If you want to focus on one area, such as Flemish and Dutch paintings, you could fill an entire day. And be prepared to walk through room after room of hundreds of Madonna and child and Biblical paintings, still life paintings of gutted animal carcasses, landscapes and sea paintings, arranged in rooms where dozens of pieces are on display cheek by jowl and even the ceilings are painted masterpieces. It’s just too much. At the end of our visit I searched for a room that was quiet and suited for enjoying art, and found a room of beautiful medieval tapestries that would have been worth a separate visit if they had been located in virtually any other museum in the world. In the Louvre, however, they are an afterthought — as the picture included with this post indicates.

After a few hours we departed, having walked for miles on marble floors until our feet ached and our necks were tied in knots, and I swore that I had had enough of clustering, clamoring tourists, and walls crammed with paintings, and bustling guides. I think this will be my last visit to the Louvre.

Saving The Trevi Fountain

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain.  It is a magnificent attraction, with its depiction of Neptune and sea horses and other sea creatures atop craggy rocks.  When we visited Rome during a very hot summer some years ago, the Trevi Fountain was a delightful place to sit, enjoy the spray of the cool water, and appreciate the beauty while taking a break from sightseeing.

Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain is badly in need of repair.  Earlier this year, some pieces of the 250-year-old fountain — commissioned by one of those civic-minded Popes, Clement XII — broke off.  Fortunately, an Italian mineral water company, Acqua Claudia, has agreed to foot the $250,000 cost of the immediately needed restorations.  Whether funding will be located for the more long-term repair work on the fountain that is desperately needed is another question.

The condition of the Trevi Fountain is  symptomatic of a larger problem in countries with significant cultural sites.  Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name just a few, are terribly cash-strapped.  It’s hard to believe that such countries, which reap huge economic benefits from tourism, would neglect the sites that attract those tourists in the first place, but paying to maintain crumbling monuments, old buildings, fountains, and churches, is pushing budgets to the limit.

I hope that other companies step up, as Acqua Claudia has, to help the Italian government maintain Italy’s many irreplaceable architectural and artistic landmarks.  Generations to come should have the chance to see the Trevi Fountain in all its glory, rather than a heap of dust and rubble.

Roman Medicine

Medical texts from the days of ancient Greece and Rome were consulted by physicians in the western world for hundreds of years, well into the Middle Ages.  Now examination of medicine chests found on a long-lost shipwreck is giving us a more tangible glimpse of how the ancients actually practiced medicine.

The wooden boxes were found on a ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany around 130 B.C.  They contain pills made of vegetables, herbs, plants, nuts, and clay, as well as a mortar and pestle and other devices that suggest that a doctor was on board.  The pills were kept in vials that were so well sealed they have been preserved for more than 2,000 years and can now be tested using DNA sequencing technology.  Experts believe the pills were used to treat sailors for dysentery and diarrhea.

The technology of ancient civilizations — which were able to seal containers against the intrusion of sea water for two millennia — continues to amaze, and one wonders what other discoveries may be lurking under the ocean waters, waiting to be discovered.  And, the modern world being what it is, don’t be surprised to see the “all-natural Roman cure” for diarrhea coming soon to an herbal medicine store and a late-night TV screen near you.

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.

I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.

When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.

The inside of the Coliseum.

Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.

One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.

The forum, with the Roman senate building in the center.

The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.

The inside of the Pantheon.

After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.

St. Paul's Outside the Walls

On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt  from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.

An ancient apartment building in Ostia.

An ancient restaurant with a visual menu.

The ancient theater in Ostia.

By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.

I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.

I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome Pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul