New Thinking About Old Places

Tour of the Villa Aurelia

Cristina Puglisi leads fellows and fellow travelers on a tour of the Villa Aurelia in Rome.

Last week, Cristina Puglisi, Deputy Director for Administration at the American Academy in Rome, took a group of architects, preservationists, and landscape architects at the academy on a tour of Villa Aurelia. Cristina – the key staff liaison for the restoration of this villa – had an audience that wanted to delve deeply into the thinking behind the work and decision-making around the building’s preservation, and we all enjoyed the give-and-take during the 90 minute tour.

Cristina is an American-trained preservationist who has worked for years in her native Italy.  Her insights into the different approaches to preservation in the two countries was especially enlightening to me as I think about new paths for preservation in the U.S. in the 21st century. She mentioned many of these in her tour, which led me to a follow-up conversation over lunch earlier this week in which she fleshed out several of her comments.

For some background, here’s the history of the villa, from the AAR website:

The Villa Aurelia, originally built for Cardinal Girolamo Farnese around 1650, is the setting for conferences, public receptions, concerts, and other programs. It also includes apartments for the Academy’s Residents and is surrounded by 3.8 acres of magnificent gardens.

In the early 19th century, the property was purchased by Count Alessandro Savorelli, who began extensive restoration and new construction projects. Much of the decorative work from that period is still visible today. In 1849, Giuseppe Garibaldi selected the Villa Aurelia as his headquarters for the defense of the Roman Republic against the French Army, and, after only one month, French artillery had caused extensive damage. Count Savorelli was able to restore the Villa before his death, and it was then sold to the Monte di Pieta from which it was bought in 1881 by Mrs. Clara Jessup Heyland, an American heiress from Philadelphia. In 1909, Mrs. Heyland died, bequeathing the Villa to the American Academy in Rome.

Villa Aurelia Entrance

Entrance to Villa Aurelia

The restoration of the villa began in 2000, and was completed in 2002.  As we headed up the drive towards the mansion, Cristina mentioned that one of the differences between Italian and U.S. preservation law was that in Italy all buildings over 50-years of age owned by organizations, institutions, and businesses were – by law – considered landmarks unless the owners received approval to de-designate these buildings.  This falls in line with some recent thinking of my colleague, Tom Mayes, that the burden of proof for demolition should fall on the owner.

Tom, in an upcoming essay prepared for a book on 50 ideas for the next 50 years of preservation, makes the compelling case that we grant too much freedom of demolition to property owners.  In his essay, Tom proposes that in the U.S. we should instead enact local ordinances that begin with the premise that in the service of energy conservation and fighting climate change we must no longer allow demolition by right of ownership to virtually all buildings.  Instead – as happens in Rome – institutional owners have to justify why they cannot adapt an older building.

Villa Aurelia Facade

Villa Aurelia Facade

The flip side is that the landmarks commission in Italy is much more flexible about changes to historic buildings that reflect current use.  Time and again, as we moved through the house, Cristina provided examples of how the flexibility of the landmarks commission in Rome permitted changes which responded to current needs, use, and relevance.

Detail of spiral staircase

Detail of spiral staircase


Spiral staircase

Spiral staircase


Second floor

Second floor rooms at Villa Aurelia


Contemporary tile

Contemporary tile in a historic setting

So decisions are made – as in the tile shown above – to use terra-cotta in a size that was appropriate for the era but which did not “match” the existing pattern (which was unknown).  Other more extensive changes took place with walls and doorways, to help facilitate current needs and use in the building.

View of Rome from Villa Aurelia

View of Rome from Villa Aurelia

We ended our tour on the side terraces, looking over the Eternal City.  This is a view that many guests who use the villa see at the end of day.  It reminds those visitors – as well as those of us who only come here on rare occasions – of the power of both the villa and the city to shape our understanding of our past, present, and future world.

More to come…


Observations from the Road: Scenes from Holy Week in Rome

Palm Sunday

The priest leads the Palm Sunday procession through the streets of Monteverde to the Basilica di San Pancrazio

Sorry.  No pope sightings (or even attempts at pope sightings).

We have had a relatively low-key Holy Week while in Rome, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its memorable moments.

Olive Trees and Palm Sunday:  Our week began last Sunday with a Palm Sunday processional at the neighborhood Basilica di San Pancrazio in Monteverde.  A 6th century basilica that was extensively renovated following Garibaldi’s 1849 attack on Rome, San Pancrazio was a lively place last Sunday.

We met about a block away from the basilica and followed priests and musicians through the streets, waving olive branches in place of the palms we see in the United States.  During the service, conducted (of course) entirely in Italian, we only understood the occasional word. But we knew the shape of the liturgy and could follow along without getting lost.  The nave was filled with worshipers, while the aisles were used by parents and nuns to walk or stroll young children throughout the service.  The music was similar to Catholic folk masses in the U.S. these days – hymns sung with varying stages of enthusiasm to the accompaniment of guitars.

This service – with its local feel and universal outreach – was a heart-felt beginning to our Holy Week in Rome.

Chapel of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori

Chapel of the Convent of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori by Francesco Borromini

Finding the Special in the Ordinary – On Holy Monday, Candice and I headed down to the center of Rome, but stopped at the foot of the hill in Trastevere to visit a small baroque chapel designed by Francesco Borromini for the Convent of St. Maria dei Sette Dolori.  This is a very unassuming building from the outside and much of the original nunnery is now a hotel.  However, Karl Daubman – one of the fellows at the academy – is studying Borromini’s work and suggested we stop in to see the space.  The small chapel is simple (for Rome) yet beautiful, and we both took time to reflect in this quiet and holy space.

Architect Daniel Solomon – whose writings and commentary I admire – has noted that Borromini is a master of designing “masterworks that one can call buildings of the third kind.”  In his book Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities) – which I strongly recommend – Solomon says,

In these works, architects give expression and honor to special places while simultaneously reinforcing the weave of city fabric that defines its streets and public places.  Rome with its thousands of churches, palazzos, and institutions woven through the city has scores of buildings of the third kind, none more masterful than those of Francesco Borromini.  Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites.  His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument.  Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon:  San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Sant ‘Ivo, Collegio Pamphili.

While the convent is not of the scale, complexity or beauty of San Carlo (which Solomon says “leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power”), it is nonetheless a work of beauty on a small, unassuming city lot tucked away in the corner of Trastevere.  And we can attest that it is a place where mindful reflection is not only possible but nurtured and rewarded.

I Sepolchori

“I Sepolchri” at Santa Maria dell’Orto (photo credit: Jeff Cody)

Traditions – On Maundy Thursday, after the evening Mass that recalls Christ’s Last Supper with the Apostles, many churches in Rome open their doors. The academy staff told us that this is a tradition called “I Sepolchri” where churches decorate their main altars either to recall the Passion of Christ or the Eucharist. While we were unable to make it, several fellows from the academy went to Trastevere where the tradition is very much alive.  From all accounts the church not to be missed is Santa Maria dell’Orto near San Francesco a Ripa.  It is the only time they light their “Macchina delle Quarantore,” one of the few still existing in Italy that has 213 candles that are lit over the main altar.  The lights in the Church are turned off and the only source of lighting is the candles.  Our friend from the academy and the Getty, Jeff Cody, went and testified that it was truly spectacular and magical.

Basilica di Santa Maria

Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastervere

Good Friday found us eating some of the freshest asparagus and peas imaginable at the vegetarian lunch at the American Academy, before heading out into the city.  While touring, we stopped in at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere for a short time to witness the Good Friday service. The basilica is a beautiful space that – on this day – was overflowing with worshipers.  We took in the scene and then headed for quieter and less crowded places.  That evening, the academy’s kitchen (which is the flagship of the Rome Sustainable Food Project) served a traditional zuppa de pesce – a thick fish soup over bread – along with a wonderful white wine that brought out the largest dinner crowd of our three weeks in Rome.

Holy Saturday light at the Pantheon

The light of a beautiful Holy Saturday shines through the Pantheon

Not all Who Wander Are Lost – Saturday was as beautiful a spring day in Rome as one could imagine.  After lunch, Candice and I started a long and meandering trek through the city, often finding ourselves heading down streets we hadn’t intended but always pointing toward an Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s Within the Walls.  We first stopped by the Pantheon, where the light was dazzling and the altars were decorated for the season.

Easter decorations at the Pantheon

Easter decorations at the Pantheon


Opera at the Piazza della Rotonda

A little impromptu opera in the Piazza della Rotonda

Tourists have filled the city this week, and we stopped to listen to an opera singer entertain the crowds.  Then we continued our walk and lingered over our evening dinner, finally arriving at St. Paul’s Within the Walls around 7:30 p.m.

St. Paul's tower

St. Paul’s Within the Walls ready to receive visitors for the Easter Vigil

The Great Vigil of Easter – The city of Rome ceased to be governed by the Vatican in 1870 and Italy’s new constitution allowed freedom of worship and the building of non-Roman Catholic churches within the walls of the city. Less than two weeks after this announcement, the Vestry of Grace Chapel in Rome – an Episcopal Church located “outside the walls” – resolved to ask the congregation and friends of Grace Chapel in the United States for funds to build a church “within the walls.”  The name of Grace Chapel was changed to “St. Paul’s Within the Walls” and ground was broken in November of 1872.  The building was designed by British architect G.E. Street, and with the laying of the cornerstone on the Feast of St. Paul on January 25, 1873, it became the first non-Catholic church building inside the walls of the City of Rome.

Mosaics at St. Paul's

Detail of Edward Burne Jones mosaic at St. Paul’s Within the Walls (photo credit: The Victorian Web)


Nave and Apse at St. Paul's

Nave and Apse of St. Paul’s set up for Easter Vigil

Because the Edward Burne-Jones mosaics are covered in scaffolding for restoration, I have included one small detail from the web – but do yourself a favor and just Google the images.  They are beautiful.

Rear Mosaic at St. Paul's

Rear Mosic at St. Paul’s designed by George Breck

The mosaic on the rear wall was designed by George Breck in 1913, when he was director of the American Academy in Rome.  They feature the nativity with the adoration of the shepherds and kings, among other scenes.

The Great Vigil of Easter is one of the oldest in Christendom, and – truth be told – is our favorite service of the church year.  Very few churches have large crowds for this Saturday evening service, as most worshipers wait for Sunday morning’s festival Eucharist.  But that doesn’t keep many churches from going all out for the dozens of people who do show up.  St. Paul’s – to our delight – was that type of church.

New fire

The lighting of the new fire

The vigil begins as the “new fire” is kindled and the Paschal Candle is lit outside the church.  Then the priest leads the procession into a darkened church, stopping along the way to intone “The Light of Christ” to which the people respond “Thanks be to God.”

The salvation story of the Christian church is then read in the candle-lit sanctuary, beginning with the great flood and Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, followed by readings and songs from the prophets. Following a homily and renewal of vows, the Easter “Alleluias” begin and the lights come up throughout the church.  What follows is the Easter liturgy and afterwards a reception to begin the season.  St. Paul’s friendly and thoughtful rector, The Rev. Austin K. Rios, welcomed us (and two friends who had joined us from the academy), we spoke with congregants and visitors alike, and then headed home in a cab for a long and satisfying sleep.

An Easter Meal to Remember – Everyone had advised us to get reservations for Easter lunch, as Romans tend to fill up the restaurants following Sunday morning’s services.  We searched Katie Parla’s recommendations and were thrilled to find that one of her top choices – Antico Arco – was mere steps from the academy.  As Katie describes it,

Situated on the Janiculum Hill near Porta San Pancrazio, Antico Arco serves carefully prepared dishes that blend creativity with seasonal Italian ingredients.

If our experience today is any indication, that’s an understatement!

Easter Breakfast

“Easter Breakfast” appetizer at Antico Arco


Negroamaro wine

Negroamaro wine

We were greeted warmly by the staff when we arrived in mid-afternoon.  The dining room was filled with multi-generational families who arrived following Easter services.  Having scoped out the menu online, we quickly ordered a tasting menu to share and I asked for a full-bodied red that would go with the food.  Candice also ordered the snapper as a second main course.

We were barely settled in when our waiter brought out a special treat – the “Easter breakfast” appetizer.  That was soon paired with a bottle of Negroamaro, a red wine grape variety native to southern Italy. It is grown almost exclusively in Apulia and particularly in Salento, the peninsula which can be visualised as the “heel” of Italy. The grape can produce wines very deep in color and this bottle was full and flavorful.

When I remembered, I took a picture of each dish as it arrived.  (There were one or two that were in my mouth before I thought to pull out my camera.)  So for Claire and all the other foodie readers, here’s the exceptional tasting menu for Easter at Antico Arco:

Roasted sea scallops, mint and stewed artichokes pickled in oil

Pigeon breast

Pigeon breast

Pigeon breast in a crust of pistachio crumbs, filled with caramelized figs and sprout salad

Lentil soup

Lentil soup

Lentil soup, seared squid and dried tomatoes



Spaghetti Verrigni with carbonara sauce and black truffle (this is one that I accidentally dug into and then had to rearrange for the picture, so their original presentation was better…but the carbonara and black truffles were amazing!)

Crispy Duck Leg

Crispy Duck Leg



Snapper with semi-dried tomatoes, caper and anchovy mayonnaise

Crispy duck leg with artichoke hearts and passion fruit (and I’ve included the snapper with the semi-dried tomatoes here, since this was the course where we shared both)

Puff pastry of burrata and tomotoes



For dessert, we chose the Cremoso – Walnut sponge cake and gelato, mascarpone cream, crystalized white chocolate and tangerine coulis

Two and one-half hours later, we both agreed that this was a memorable experience on multiple levels and we left singing the praises of the chef and staff.

Monday is a national holiday called “Il lunedì dell’Angelo” but colloquially referred to as “Pasquetta” (little Easter).  I think we’ll use it to walk off some of Easter meal before we join our friends Michael and Dorothy from the academy for a dinner in their apartment on Monday evening.

Easter blessings to you all.

More to come…


Cars, Shared Streets, and Lovable Cities

Cars in the Coppede Quarter

Cars in the Coppede Quarter

I know I’m in Rome to think (and learn) about architecture and preservation (past and future), but recently my thoughts turned to cars.

There’s a connection here.  Trust me.

If you need a car in Rome, you can find one.  We’ve taken taxis on several occasions, and from those rides I can attest that there are no shortages of cars on the street.  But the interesting thing – from my perspective – is how the cars and their drivers interact with others who share the street: pedestrians (of which there are many), cyclists, motorcycle riders, street vendors, buskers, and patrons at outdoor cafe tables.

Rome’s transportation patterns are somewhere between the very rational (and orderly) Copenhagen model, and the free-for-all that is New Delhi. Probably a little closer to Delhi, truth be told. Traveling in Rome is a dance, and cars are not privileged in the way they are in the United States.  (We have changed our cities and planned our suburbs in a way that deifies cars, instead of supports people.) While there are major thoroughfares in Rome where speeds can reach – or exceed – American norms, the neighborhoods we have explored – Trestavere, Centro Storico, Vatican City, Monteverde (“our” neighborhood), Testaccio – are made up of small, often winding, streets.  Of course, these neighborhoods include some of the world’s most famous landmarks and plenty of everyday (for Rome) buildings stretching over several centuries to the present day. Frommers notes that “Rome has the most compact and walkable city center in Europe.”

I began thinking about the walkability of Rome and the dance between all the players on these shared streets as I reviewed notes from Jeff Speck’s Walkable City and read two recent blog posts on the subject of cars, parking, and walkability in the U.S.

The first was Why I Love Trader Joe’s Parking Lots.  (There’s a title to get your attention!)  I’ll let the writer – Rachel Quednau – take it from here:

“These shoppers (who complain about the parking lot sizes) are frustrated because when they arrive at Trader Joe’s they can’t find parking within 5 seconds, like they can at most other grocery stores. They blame Trader Joe’s for not providing them with “sufficient” parking. But, as we have shown year after year in our #BlackFridayParking campaign, the opposite is actually true. What we are used to is massively excessive parking. What Trader Joe’s provides is actually “sufficient” parking–sufficient for a quick turnover between spots and for maximum use of limited space….

I’m guessing most of the complainers didn’t turn around and leave the store when they found the parking lot full. Rather, they waited a minute or two, saw an open spot and took it. What’s a better use of time and money? A lot big enough that it could hypothetically fit the most people that would ever want to come there? Or a lot that is full more often than not, where space is maximized and customers might have to wait a couple minutes for their turn? What benefits the business and the community more?”

Cars in Rome

A typical shared street in Trastevere

Exactly.  Cars in Rome (which are much smaller than our behemoths in the U.S.) find parking options we couldn’t imagine. Cars park sideways here! But it all works as part of the dance.

This point was made even more directly with the second post I read, which also has a provocative title:  Mothers Against Drunk Driving Should Also Be Against ZoningOriginally posted on the Urban3 blog (and reposted on the Strong Towns blog), writer Joshua McCarthy begins by noting that Americans may have more of a driving problem than a drinking problem. He continues:

I have never understood how a zoning code could, in good faith, permit a drinking establishment that could only possibly be reached by car. In doing so, are we not creating a scenario in which people have no option but to drive to a place where they then become unable to safely drive home?

McCarthy shows the two ends of the spectrum:  a neighborhood bar located in a community near homes and businesses where you have options to walk, get a drink, and walk or bus home (or back to the office) as opposed to a Buffalo Wild Wings establishment surrounded by a few acres of parking on a major thoroughfare.

Rome has more than a few drinking establishments.  People come to Italy for the food and wine.  But both the tourists and locals who fill those establishments often walk or take buses, trains, or taxis. You have options!  What our mid-20th century planning mindset has created in the U.S. is the lack of options and – I would add – the lack of community.  (But that’s another post.)

Tonight, on a glorious spring day here in Rome, Candice and I will walk through several neighborhoods – sharing the street all along the way – to find a restaurant (where at least I will have a glass of wine) before heading to the Easter Vigil service at St. Paul’s Within the Walls.  Because it ends late, we’ll catch a taxi home, but we could walk or take the bus. We’ll celebrate the everyday and the eternal all along the way in a “continuous” city that reminds us that life didn’t begin – and doesn’t end – with our lives and our generation.

Those types of experiences are not as frequent in the United States, as we’ve spent 70+ years creating places that are hard to live in, much less love. G.K. Chesterton once noted that, “The city of Rome did not become loved because it was great but, rather, it became great because it was loved.”

And to think that all of this began as I was looking at cars.

More to come…


Observations from the Road: (The “We Learn So Much Every Day” Edition)

Capella Nova Frescoes

Frescoes in the Capella Nuova at the Duomo in Orvieto

A couple of quick thoughts about recent days in Italy.

Orvieto update – To no one’s surprise, Orvieto (which I wrote about yesterday) is the favorite town of several of our friends and colleagues.  We can see why.  A long-time and dear friend from our days in Staunton, Sally James, wrote to say that Orvieto is her “home away from home!”  In my original post, I didn’t mention the chapel by Fra Angeloco and Luca Signorelli, which is the topic of Sally’s first book, Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry and a Vision of the End Time.

The decoration of the Cappella Nuova, commenced by Fra Angelico in 1447 and magnificently completed by Luca Signorelli in 1499 and 1504, displays an awe-inspiring Last Judgement and Apocalypse and, below it, scenes from Dante and classical literature.

This was yet another magnificent space in an incredible building full of wonderful art and architecture.  Sally encourages us to look for the next issue of Gesta, probably in April, to see her article on the frescoes of the Life of the Virgin in the area around the altar.

Altar in the Capella Nuova

The altar in the Capella Nuova

It is great to know such wonderfully talented and smart people!  Thanks for the update, Sally.

Now THIS is Italian food – Following a wonderful presentation at MAXXI (the Museum of Contemporary Art) on Wednesday evening by graphic designer Michael Beirut of Pentagram, a small group of fellows and fellow travelers from the academy made our way to Al Moro, a traditional Italian trattoria just steps away from the Trevi fountain.  We went because one of the fellows had read Katie Parla’s review of the restaurant in Saveur magazine.  (Katie Parla’s food recommendations, blog, and app for Rome have become required reading as we look for options around the city.)

Walls at Al Moro

A slice of Al Moro

To Candice, who grew up in New Jersey, it brought back memories of old-style Italian restaurants. The waiters were a bit gruff, but incredibly professional and helpful. The food was thick, rich, and delicious. The house wine flowed easily.  The walls – where it wasn’t wood paneling – were filled with art, cartoons, and wild newspaper headlines.  Here’s Katie Parla’s take:

A ten-minute walk from the Pantheon—and about 300 feet from the Trevi Fountain—a window-paned door admits visitors to the time capsule that is Trattoria al Moro. Helmed by four successive generations of Romagnolis since the 1920s, the place began humbly, slowly building a reputation among actors at the nearby Teatro Quirino. In time, it became the haunt of local artists, performers, and filmmakers, including Federico Fellini, who cast Mario Romagnoli in his 1969 film Satyricon. It remains a destination for well-heeled, decades-long regulars who, in typical Roman style, receive special pampering from the notoriously aloof owners. Third-generation Franco Romagnoli and his children Elisabetta and Andrea are unwavering in their commitment to tradition, and they serve a huge array of forgotten classics in their three wood-paneled, overcrowded dining rooms.

Her description is picture perfect – and we loved it!  Candice and I split an order of the spaghetti al Moro (carbonara to die for) and a stuffed zucchini.  Both were like flavor bombs in  your mouth.  We wrapped up with a sinful chestnut pavlova cake for dessert.  Oh my.

Trevi Fountain looks better in the daytime – As we finished our meal, we waddled the 30 steps or so down to the fountain for a nighttime view.  We had seen it during the daytime with Claire, and marveled at the beauty of this landmark.  Illuminated at night, I have to say the effect is more “Disney.”  In speaking with new friends at the academy last evening, we began discussing the light in Rome, and how these sculptures were designed to be displayed in the city’s amazing light.  So I guess I’m not surprised to find that this space works better in the daylight.

Trevi Fountain at Night

Trevi Fountain at Night

However, the moon over Rome is pretty magical – The past two nights we’ve been treated to big, bright moons in relatively clear skies over Rome.  Last evening we were enjoying dinner with new friends in their academy studio when someone stopped by to encourage us to walk out on the terrace and look at the moon.

Moon over Rome

Moon – peaking out from behind a cloud – over Rome

One horizontal layer of clouds was keeping the full moon at bay, but the light around the clouds, as well as the twinkling light of the city below, was beautiful and captivating.  It may be our imagination, but we’ve noticed that these moments happen frequently here in Rome.

More to come…


Orvieto: A Jewel in Umbria

Umbrian landscape

View of the Umbrian landscape from the edge of Orvieto

Candice and I decided early in our stay to take a day trip outside of Rome once each week during my sabbatical. A colleague had sent along a blog post on the 10 best day trips from Rome, which whetted our appetite, and with the prospect of seeing one of Italy’s best cathedrals, we jumped on a train last Tuesday to visit the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto.

What a marvelous decision!

75 minutes after leaving Rome, we pulled into the Orvieto train station on a beautiful, sunny spring day.  My first thought was about how we would navigate getting up the 984′ rock plateau that serves as the base for the town.  But immediately across from the station was a funicular station, and my spirits soared.

Let me pause for a second to say how much I love funiculars (or incline railways).  When we were young, my father (the TVA engineer) use to take us to see old and new engineering projects, and one of my earliest recollections was taking a small funicular to the power house at Great Falls (downstream from the Great Falls Dam on the Caney Fork River). We also took the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway on several occasions, and I now always take the opportunity when I find one.  (It turns out that the father of the engineer of Great Falls dam designed the Lookout Mountain Incline, but I cannot find any mention of the builder of the one at Great Falls.)  Angels Flight in Los Angeles is a special one I remember riding several times on a day of exploration in the city back in 2000 (alas, it is closed at the moment), and Pittsburgh still has two operational funiculars.

But back to Orvieto.  The funicular provided spectacular views of the landscape we had ridden through on the train, and about 90 seconds later it deposited us in the city itself.  We immediately set out on foot to find the cathedral.  When guidebooks call something “the best” or “one of the best,” I find my tastes and interests often differ.  This wasn’t the case with the Duomo di Orvieto.  As soon as the facade came into view, we could tell this Italian Gothic gem was going to be worth the trip.

Duomo di Orvieto facade

Duomo di Orvieto facade as seen from the street approaching the cathedral


Cathedral facade

Cathedral facade

After eating our take away lunches from the academy on the steps of the cathedral, we began to explore this magnificent facade.  13th and 14th century bas-relief panels frame the contemporary bronze doors, designed by Emilio Greco.

Main doorway

Main door, bas-relief panels, and mosaics at the Orvieto Duomo


Greco doors

Bronze doors to the cathedral by Emilio Greco


Rich facade detailing

Rich facade detailing

The mosaics from the 14th and 19th centuries are remarkable features of the facade, and I was only disappointed that I had left my longer lens at the apartment to lighten the load in my backpack.

While the facade is often cited most frequently in references to the Duomo, I found the interior to be equally captivating.  The scale and volume of space first catch your attention upon entering.

Oriento Duomo Interior

Orvieto Duomo Interior

Because we were visiting on a Tuesday, the groups of tourists were rather light (especially after one school group quickly worked its way through the high spots and then exited).  We spent over an hour exploring this wonderful space, from the fragments of the frescoes, to the highly decorated Chapel of the Corporal, to the altar and monumental organ, designed by the principal sculptor and architect of the cathedral work-yard in the 16th century.

Fresco fragments

Fresco fragments from the 14th and 15th centuries, below an alabaster window


Chapel of the Corporal

The Chapel of the Corporal


Main Altar

The main altar at the Orvieto Duomo, with reproductions of the 14th century choir stalls and a crucifix from the same period



The 16th century organ case, as seen from the Cappella Nova


We ended our tour of the cathedral at the 1579 Pietà by Ippolito Scalza.


Pieta by Scalza

Pieta by Ippolito Scalza

For the remainder of the day, we wandered the streets of Orvieto, going down the countless small streets to find other churches, winding staircases, and piazzas.  We walked to the edge of the town to marvel at the view of the countryside.  And – of course – we shopped and ate in the many small stores and cafes along the way.


A typical street in Orvieto

A typical street in Orvieto


Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica



Sant’Andrea with a 12-sided campanile from the original 12th-century building


Umbrian countryside

The countryside of Umbria, as seen from San Giovenale at Orvieto’s western edge

Late in the afternoon we stopped in a cafe for some local wine and bruschetta, while striking up a conversation with three college-age young ladies from Boston’s Gordon College who were studying in Orvieto for the semester. They talked about their experiences in this wonderful small city, and we thought of our twins’ time abroad.  Candice and I could picture them in similar cafes in other cities, catching wi-fi and nursing coffees and tea to try and extend their experiences of travel.  As the night – and temperatures – fell, we were happy to board our train back to Rome yet were somewhat saddened to end a lovely day in Orvieto.

More to come…


Happy Anniversary!

34th anniversary

Celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary at Ditirambo in Rome

Today Candice and I celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary! I have to admit that Rome is a pretty wonderful place to celebrate anything, but it seems especially appropriate for an anniversary.

At Prospect Hill in 1982

The newlyweds at Prospect Hill

When Candice and I were married in 1982, I was a poor graduate student in Atlanta who found time during my spring break to get married and take a honeymoon trip to Prospect Hill – a 1732 farmhouse bed & breakfast outside Charlottesville. Our first anniversary was actually celebrated back at Prospect Hill, as we were there while finding housing before our 1983 move to Staunton in the nearby Shenandoah Valley. For the first decade of our life together, we would return to the inn for “major” anniversaries – such as the 5th and 10th.

20th Anniversary Dinner

20th Anniversary Dinner at Prospect Hill

Anniversaries changed as the twins arrived, and when they were five we moved to Washington.  During those years we were lucky to be able to find a baby sitter and go out for a dinner.  We did return to Prospect Hill for our 20th, thanks to our good friends Margaret and Oakley Pearson, who watched Claire and Andrew for the weekend.  For our 25th, we found an inn outside Washington for a dinner.  We laugh at the picture from that time (which I haven’t included here!), as it is clear we had teenage twins!  (No other explanation required, but you can use your imagination.)

Things started getting interesting with our 30th, which came about three weeks after hip replacement surgery.  Needless to say, we didn’t do anything exceptional that year (except survive).  Our first overseas anniversary was our 32nd – when we were in Copenhagen visiting Andrew during his semester abroad.  And then last year, we shifted a planned 60th birthday dinner for me at Fiola restaurant (one of DC’s best) to an anniversary dinner after my run-in with the ambulance.

Candice and David celebrate their 32nd anniversary in Copenhagen, March 20, 2014

Our 32nd anniversary – celebrated in Copenhagen in March 2014

Perhaps the Italian food at Fiola got us in the mood, or perhaps we decided Copenhagen was such a great idea, why not do Rome?!  So we find ourselves here in the Eternal City, celebrating 34 wonderful years together.

A colleague of mine, Tabitha Almquist, suggested Ditirambo as a great restaurant to try during our stay in Rome. We went this evening and had a terrific meal.  We began with a bottle of Cabernet and the appetizer: Ditiramo’s tris (zucchini flower with ricotta cheese, Piemonte’s beef tartare with black truffle and Casteimagno cheese, and smoked duck breast with melon and toasted almonds).  Oh my – what a start!  For pasta, we split a fettuccine with mushrooms and quail, followed by a pork loin that fell off the bone.  We wrapped it up with a “modern twist on the cannoli.”  It was a memorable meal.

Can’t wait to see what next year will bring (in terms of our celebration, the meal, and – oh yes – life!)

Happy anniversary, my love.

More to come…


People (and Dog) Watching in Rome

Rome overview

Rome, on a beautiful spring afternoon

Saturday was a picture perfect day in Rome.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Mid-60s temperature.  Our windows were open all day to let in the fresh air and sunshine.  It was a day that called us to go outside.

And we did just that, heading over to the largest landscaped public park in Rome, located nearby the Academy in Monteverde on the Janiculum.  While we walked, talked, and enjoyed the sunshine, we primarily engaged in the age-old past-time of people watching.  Thankfully, we were rewarded in this beehive of activity.  Children playing football. Teenagers in love. Older couples holding hands, both to show affection and to steady their partner. Picnics on the grass.

Danish architect Jan Gehl has said that – in the past 50 years – architects, landscape architects and planners…

“…have gotten confused about scale. They constantly confuse car scale with people scale. Sometimes they make a mix, but most of the time they make car scale and say, look, there’s a sidewalk, people can walk here. What’s the problem? That is not at all exciting.”

The builders who created the Villa Doria Pamphili park understood people scale.  While cars are relegated to the outsides of the park, the inside has so many wonderful spaces for people to do all the things people – as social animals – are inclined to do. Candice and I had a lovely three hours watching the interactions today, which we then capped off with a stroll over to the Garibaldi monument to take a few photos of the ancient city.

Since we’re in Rome, our people watching continued over dinner.  We took the ten minute walk from our apartment to Vineria Litro, a small wine bar recommended by both the chef at the American Academy and the New York TimesOver glasses of wine, we sampled delicious food and watched the place fill up as the hours passed.  Just before we left, two ladies walked in for an early evening glass of wine, trailed by their dogs who slipped down next to them at the bar. We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when no one batted an eye.  And they didn’t even have to use the old joke about taking a dog into a bar, which goes like this:

Two women were out walking their dogs when they saw a bar and decided to stop in for a drink.  However, there was a sign in the window that said, “No dogs.”  The first said, “Don’t worry, follow my lead.”  She then put on a pair of sunglasses and walked into the bar.  The bartender says, “Hey lady, can’t you see the sign? No dogs allowed.” She replies, “He’s my seeing eye dog,” the bartender says “okay,” and he fixes her a drink.

Her companion then puts on her sunglasses and heads into the bar.  The bartender says again, “Hey lady, you can’t bring that dog in here.” To which the woman replies, “He’s my seeing eye dog.”  The bartender says, “That Chihuahua is a seeing eye dog?!?”  And the woman replies, “They gave me a @(*%#(% Chihuahua?!”

Enjoy your day with your friends of all shapes and stripes.

More to come…