Travel whirlwind

The answers to yesterday’s pictures are: Budapest, Hungary; Venice, Florence,  Siena, and Rome, Italy; and the Baltic Coast of Germany. Now I’m going to spend days and days and thousands of words regaling you with our impressions of these adventures.

I’m still spinning from our mad dash tour of Italy, followed less than a week later by a Budapest foray.  Let’s start with Italy. We visited Rome, Siena, Florence, and Venice, dodging train strikes and skirting bad weather like luck professionals. This was a Type-A, obsessively planned vacation. On the train zipping away from Rome at 8 a.m. on a Friday, Aaron admitted that measured on an events-per-hour criterion, it was the best trip he had ever taken.

In Rome, I had booked us a cheap B&B which turned out to be a room in the flat of a darling old Italian man who spoke no English. We shared a bathroom with his other guests, where notably the toilet was in the shower. Our host gave us breakfast coupons for the café across the street where each morning we collected a chocolate croissant and a glass of blood orange juice. On our bedraggled return each night, the host would pop out of his living room to beam at us sympathetically and let loose a stream of bumpy, vowel-heavy syllables tantalizingly close to Spanish but incomprehensible to me. “Si, si!” we replied. And finally, “Buona sera!” Our Italian efforts met with great approval.

At the Vatican Museums, our first stop in Rome, we soaked in the Catholic Church’s incredible art collection, and sought out a few pieces in particular. This sculpture of Laocoon, a Roman copy of the Greek original, features in the philosophy of aesthetics that Aaron studies. You can be part of the debate too. The sculpture depicts the cruel death by snake of Laocoon and his two sons, a crucial episode in the Trojan War between the Greeks and the Trojans.

Laocoon’s bent arm, lost for centuries, turned up in a Rome antique shop in the 1900s.

The crafty Greeks stowed away in the hollow belly of a huge wooden horse which they presented to the Trojans as a peace offering. When the Trojans brought the horse inside their gates, the hidden Greeks popped out and won the war. Laocoon begged his countrymen not to admit the suspicious gift, arguing that it was a trap. But Athena (who used to be one of my favorite goddesses) wanted the Greeks to win, so she sent snakes to kill Laocoon and his sons. The Trojans fell for Athena’s trick and interpreted Laocoon’s demise as a sign that he was lying. Now, look carefully at Laocoon’s expression in this sculpture.

The face that launched a thousand essays

Aestheticians Lessing and Winckelmann agreed that Laoccon looks anguished but rational, not crazy and terrified. The question is: Why does the sculptor retain Laocoon’s dignity? Is it (a) because sculpture is meant to inspire noble simplicity in its viewers which utter panic and horror would preclude or (b) because sculpture should give viewers pleasure and a true depiction of this scene would just overwhelm us with pain and desolation? Perhaps Aaron should give up on this Mendelssohn dissertation project and start over with the Laocoon, necessitating a year of research in Rome.

Aaron’s face portrays the satisfaction of a philosopher interacting with concrete (or marble?) ideas.

While Aaron was communing with aestheticians of ages past, I moved on to the animal room.

They sculpted their camel! (not pictured are their sculpted house pets and crustaceans.)

After many more masterpieces, the Vatican Museum ends with the Sistine Chapel, the Pope’s own sanctuary and also the room where the cardinals sit around to decide on the next pope. The Sistine Chapel was jammed with tourists, all of us standing with our heads wrenched back, jaws agape, awestruck by Michelangelo’s ceiling. I thought I knew what the Sistine Chapel ceiling looked like. I just assumed I’d seen pictures of it in books. I had a very distinct impression of that ceiling. Until I saw it. Then I had to start over and devour every inch of it afresh. I don’t know where I got my preconception, but it was totally wrong. In conclusion, you should all go look at the Sistine Chapel because what if you are also imagining something totally different than what is there? You definitely want to see the real thing.

We spent ages staring at that ceiling and the altar mural of the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo years later. Michelangelo hadn’t wanted to do these paintings. The Pope said, “Michelangelo, paint my ceiling.” And MA replied that he was not a painter but rather a sculptor, and the Pope said, “That was not a request.” So MA managed to come up with something. Standing in the Sistine Chapel, where neither photography nor talking are allowed, Aaron whispered to me something I have never heard him say about anything else in the world ever. “This is underrated.”

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