Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Gelato Disaster!

The title says it all. These are the kinds of things that happen when you don't pay attention.

Caravaggios speak for themselves CW#8

Judith Beheading Holofernes

A spotlight from the upper-left-hand corner sheds light onto a grisly scene. A young, smooth-faced woman is cutting off a muscular man’s head. Her brow is furrowed, but not from disgust. She instead looks confused, as if she isn’t sure whether or not she’s correctly decapitating him. Her posture sends a similar message of confusion. Her powerful arms are intentional, deliberate in their actions. She grabs a chunk of the man’s hair with her left hand, exposing his neck, while using her right to force down the blade. While some of her actions are purposeful and determined, she is also recoiling, her shoulders thrown back, trying to get as far away from the scene while still performing her task. The decapitation seems dutiful; something that must be done even though she does not want to do it. To the women’s left, an old attendant clutches a dirty brown rag, ready to clean up the mess once the deed has been done. His face is only half visible, which indicates he is probably not a major figure in this story. The attendant’s posture shows that he is waiting eagerly, ready to help when he is needed. The dying man, who I believe is Holofernes, has a look of surprise on his face. He is lying on his stomach, apparently unclothed, clutching his bed sheets with one hand and propping himself up with the other. His vulnerable position on the bed, surprised facial expression and muscular build suggest that the girl (who is probably Judith) and her attendant probably waited until he was sleeping before attacking him. They couldn’t have taken him any other way. Another possible explanation is that Judith seduced Holofernes to get close to him. Either way, Holofernes was unprepared for the attack.

In the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, Judith got Holofernes drunk before she was able to behead him. She knew her people, the Jews, were badly outnumbered by the armies of Holofernes and she could only defeat them through her cunning. According to the story, the sight of their commander’s bloodstained head caused the armies of Holofernes to flee.

From the story, I know that Judith had a job to do. In order to save her people, she had to defeat the armies of Holofernes and the only way she knew how was to take advantage of him while he was disarmed and vulnerable. Judith found no pleasure in the act, but wasn’t entirely repulsed either. The sense of duty which motivated her actions are seen within Caravaggio’s work. Judith is slightly recoiled, but her actions remained deliberate and purposeful. We also know from the story that she first got him drunk before attacking him. In my interpretation, I thought she may have seduced him first. (Caravaggio thought similarly, since the original painting showed Judith’s bare chest, which was later covered up). In any case, Caravaggio was able to convey the essential points of the story through the posturing and facial expressions of his figures. His paintings speak for themselves.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Pantheon in Changing Light CW#10

Morning – The piazza out front is nearly empty this early in the morning. A small group of tourists wait expectantly in front of the big black doors. First the left one begins to move, then the right one opens. These tourists don’t rush in like those during the other times of the day. They’re in no big hurry. They just want to enjoy the empty space. There are 10 people here with me and 2 of them are janitors, sweeping up after last night. Whenever anyone speaks their voices echo so loud it sounds like someone is giving a sermon. The low murmur heard at other times of the day is nonexistent. Everyone’s sounds are distinct. There is only natural light in the mornings, but it’s early and there’s heavy cloud cover, which darkens the room. A small break in the clouds and instantly the room is bathed in light. A woman standing next to me gazes down at my writing. I don’t mind. The Pantheon in the morning is slow. I empathize because I went through a similar struggle to get here this morning. But the atmosphere is more personal and intimate. Even though people are spread out, we’re all here for the same reason: To avoid the mad herds of midday tourists and just enjoy some ancient Roman architecture.

Afternoon – The bright sun shining through the oculus puts a spotlight on the niche just above the huge doorway. With no artificial lighting, the circular room dims under passing clouds. Like most places in Rome at this time, the Pantheon is crawling with tourists, their cameras ready to capture any picture. A low murmur hums throughout the building, an array of random languages echoing in my ears. Listen harder and hear footsteps against the marble floor. People are constantly flowing into the building; it’s like swimming upstream trying to get out. Weary people rest against giant columns, their legs sprawling. Everyone is so hurried in the middle of the day. It seems like they just want their photo opportunity and then to get out of there as soon as possible. No one takes the time to slow down and enjoy what the Pantheon has to offer.

Evening – Only a trickling stream of tourists come into and out of the Pantheon. By this time in the day, there’s not enough natural light to keep the place lit, so artificial ones are placed throughout the room, casting long shadows. The whole room is darker than it had been during the day. Everything has an odd orange glow. The lighting makes the dome seem smaller but at the same time, the illusion of floating seems more believable. The darkness makes it feel more like the Catholic churches we have been visiting. There’s a lot more space to move around now without pushing other people out of the way to get a good view at anything. There are no tourist groups here this late, just random locals and couples. The occasional camera will flash, lighting the entire room. The lighting is very specific, focused on certain paintings and sculptures. A lady tells us all to get out by intercom and come back in the morning. I exit and before I can turn my head back for one last glance inside, they’re already closed. It feels rude and brusque to be kicked out like that, after spending the entire day here. But I understand, another long day in Rome has tired me out as well.

San Quattro Coronati TW#18

I stood three feet away from the edge of the sidewalk, hiding behind a short metal barrier, but even with all these extra precautions, I still remained wary of the vehicles speeding by. Vespas weaved in between traffic, whirring like gigantic mosquitoes, while aggressive Italian drivers accelerated quickly, trying to zip through the crowded intersection. Slowing down meant they would have to wait for the massive hoards of tourists – who seemed to magically appear whenever an intersection was nearby – to cross. Understanding of the angry Italian drivers’ plight, I waited patiently until the walking green man gave me permission to pass, so as to not irritate the locals even more. After I had checked both directions, I scurried across quickly, a real-life game of Frogger.

I stood staring at a simple building; four barred windows and an uninviting door were positioned on its crumbling fa├žade. Before now, whenever I had passed open doors in Rome, I would peek inside, hoping to discover a secret courtyard, like a hidden gem. Standing before this open door, I knew I wouldn’t have even given this building a second glance and wasn’t sure why Shawn had even stopped us here. Only the little plaque beside the door, which read “San Quattro Coronati,” differentiated this holy place of worship from a prison. As I entered, I saw the remnants of a few old and dirty frescoes on the walls lining the courtyard, too damaged to decipher. The main chapel had also fallen into a state of disrepair, the cracked marble floor jutting sharp fragments into the air like the uneven cobblestone pavement around the city. I lifted my feet high, as if walking up stairs.

We stopped in front of a weather-worn wooden door, ringing the bell until a little nun, dressed in black and white habit hurried forward to let us in. When I first entered the cloister, the silence immediately swept over me. I walked lightly on the cold white marble, knowing that unnecessary noise would violate the peace preserved in this space. Seated on the marble ledge surrounding the inner part of the cloister, I closed my eyes, listening intently. I could differentiate two main sounds: the slow trickle of water, falling from a simple fountain into a pool of water and the shuffling of other students’ feet behind me. A wailing ambulance siren pierced through the walls’ defenses followed soon after by the low rumbling of a passing jet. I only noticed these distractions in the periphery of my senses, as if nothing could disturb the inner peace I was able to achieve here. In sharp contrast to the chaos of that busy intersection, the cloister in San Quattro Coronati provided refuge for my overloaded senses.

I re-opened my eyes and looked closely at the simple decorations surrounding me. To my immediate left and right were two columns, which supported the rounded arch above me. As I traced the perimeter of the cloister with my eyes, I noticed that these rounded arches repeated, following the length of the marble. Countless seats to sit and meditate in, I thought. I looked up and my gaze was met with a simple pattern of black and white alternating triangles underneath the arches. My gaze drifted back downwards, to the middle of the courtyard, where the sounds of the simple trickling fountain originated, dominating the cloister. I got up and ventured towards the fountain. Small white rocks crunched beneath my feet. Aimlessly, I wandered on the small path, circling the fountain and the small islands of grass surrounding it. All of the simple architecture was a clear contrast to the boisterous luster of St. Peters, where I felt bombarded with distractions. This church was different, giving me the ability to clear my mind and meditate.

I let my mind wander beyond the confines of that small space, questioning the intention behind the cloister. Was this place built to free our minds from the world or maybe our souls? Was this built so that people could clear their minds and use them to find God? Did the open roof provide a freer path for our prayers? Maybe this was a place where the divine comes down to meet with the mundane, a place where people can connect with God. There was no more dramatic place than this, where you feel so free from the constraints of the world that you could connect with God.

I sat there for an hour, barely noticing how quickly the time had passed. The sun was now embracing me with its warmth. Shawn said it was time to go. The peaceful state my mind was able to obtain was lost as I walked through the door, treading carefully on the broken marble floor. I could have spent the whole day in there, just thinking. For an instant, the real world seemed too much and too difficult to deal with, like the moment just before you turn the lights on, afraid of overwhelming your eyes.

Snapshots of the City TW#23

Piazza Navona:

Cafes crowd the small alleyway and we barely squeeze through. Unexpectedly, we emerge into a wide, windswept square. Too bad the central fountain has been boarded up, the soaring obelisk looks most impressive. The wind carries music. We head that direction. We squint to protect our eyes. A man behind a small fold-up table gestures wildly with his hands, a magician, possibly? Of course I’m wrong; you know how blind I can be without my glasses. A hand puppeteer, in fact. His hands move to the music, the little finger men and women dancing. The music fades and the people on his hands transform, but who are they now? A familiar song starts and instantly I know: Michael Jackson would be performing soon. Watching the hand puppeteer is a multimedia event. The intro to “Smooth Criminal” is accompanied by artificial smoke, sweet like vanilla and powered by a foot-pump on the ground. Even the finger version of MJ is a showman.

Wind blowing white smoke
I am mesmerized by hands

Campo Dei Fiori:

I’m meeting friends by Bruno, whose somber expression is a sharp contrast to the lively and raucous square. Little boys with accordions are standing in front of the outdoor dinner tables, entertaining tourists in hopes of earning a few euros. They must compete with the construction in the buildings above, the short pops of hammers hitting metal like playing with your first cap gun. A renegade dog escapes its owner and attacks some leftover spaghetti in the street. The owner yells at the dog as if it is a naughty child, until finally leashing it and yanking it away. A large herd of tourists pass, the alpha female easily noticeable because of her prestigious ornamentation (a Burberry umbrella) and loud voice, barking to her followers. Couples walk by slowly, whispering in each others’ ears as if a sound-proof bubble surrounds them, blocking out the madness around us all. Time to go Bruno, friends are here.

Overwhelming noise
Brings the piazza to life
Attacks the senses.

Trevi Fountain:

Cold gelato on an even colder night. Why do we torture ourselves so? We pace around the edge of the pool, eating our midnight snack. The clear blue water cascades down the marble, crashing into the waters below like a mini waterfall. Ripples flow to the edge of the fountain, adding texture to the glowing water. Look how ridiculous these tourists are, right hands above their heads, posing for pictures like ancient Roman statues.

Man-made waterfalls
Try to imitate nature
Not nearly as nice.


It’s an early morning for me, as it is for the rest of Rome, I suppose. The square is nearly empty. I wait expectantly, standing before the huge black doors before me. It’s 8:29 and 55, 56, 57, 58, 59 seconds… I lose count as movement breaks my concentration. The doors open slowly, as if the Pantheon can also feel my early morning pains. It feels like the sun had gone down only a few hours ago. It was probably more obvious to the Pantheon, as its eye is much larger. I step inside the round space, cloud cover dimming the room. And as I sit and wait, I see the room brighten as more light filters in. The cloud cover is breaking and the Pantheon is slowly lumbering awake. Soon, more tourists fill this space, adding even more life to the building.

Early morning Rome
Who says buildings aren't alive?
Wake the Pantheon

The Evolution of My Journal CW#1

When I started the trip, I was highly skeptical of the whole concept of journaling. I had some preconceived stereotypes about it; most prominent among them was that journals (a synonym for ‘diaries’) were used by girls to write down their feelings. My upbringing in an Asian-American family, where expressing emotions openly is generally discouraged, possibly played a key role in promoting this stereotype. I just wasn’t comfortable sharing my thoughts publicly; even though journals are really meant to be seen by the writer only, it still felt like I was airing out my dirty laundry for everyone to read. Because I thought so little of journaling, I initially didn’t want to put very much effort or money into it. So when we were all asked to go out and purchase a notebook, the first thought that came to mind was, “Why should I get one of those expensive journals? It’s just a stack of bound paper anyways… I probably won’t even use this when I get home.”

This same sort of attitude continued into some of my first entries of my journal, which were simply short, meaningless observations. Reading over them now, I realize that they really add nothing to my experience here; I simply wrote for the sake of writing:

“Italian class was difficult to understand.”

“First time on a train, doesn’t seem much different than a plane.”

These statements couldn’t even be called observations, because they offered no detail or imagery. After reading them, I didn't have any better sense of where I had been and the experiences I had there. I could have written these things down in Seattle; there was nothing uniquely Roman about them.

As I took the time to muddle through the first few pages, however, the evolution of my entries became clear. Slowly and naturally, as I wrote more, the better it became. While Shawn gave us a few things to keep in mind, the transformation that occurred in my journal took little effort on my part; it was a byproduct of continuous writing. Over time, my entries began to include more adjectives, beyond the generic, ‘beautiful,’ and ‘amazing.’ My writing gradually became more descriptive as I began making connections to other things, and started drawing heavily on the use of senses other than sight to bring the reader into my experiences.

“I shot up this morning as the perfect storm of noises congregated beneath my open window. Glass beer bottles shattered upon impact as, what sounded like 20 garbage-men stood outside shouting in their deep voices. Meanwhile, a Vespa, whirring like a giant mosquito, flew past at the exact same time as a low-rumbling Mack truck drove by.”

Every time I read over this entry, I feel like I’m there again that morning, being woken up at 6 am to the ‘perfect storm of noise.’ The transformation of my journal from a list of uninspired facts into snapshots of my time here in Rome has been truly surprising. At the beginning of the program, journaling was a chore which was required to get a good grade in Creative Writing. But as I look over the evolution of my journal, I recognize that writing down my thoughts and observations and being able to articulate them is one of the most meaningful things I’ve accomplished while in Rome. Photographs capture the same image for everyone, but being able to reconstruct my experiences with my own words has helped make this trip more memorable. When I go home next week, people will ask me, “How was Rome?” and instead of saying, “Rome was fun,” I'll be able to use stories from my journal to better illustrate the experiences I had here.

Sculpture and Movement CW#17

My Experiences with Bernini

The last time I went to the Villa Borghese, I saw Bernini’s masterpieces for the first time in my life. I did not know who he was or his reputation for sculpture, but I knew I liked his work because he had the ability to manipulate marble so that it appeared to be moving. For example, in both “Apollo and Daphne” and in “Pluto and Proserpina,” it was obvious even to my untrained eye that these two males were pursuing/capturing their unwilling lovers. I did not know the mythological origins of the statues, but I recognized them as great works of marble in action. In a way, the first time I saw these statues was probably a similar experience to the people of the Baroque period seeing the latest Bernini for the first time. The only difference between my first viewing of the Apollo and Daphne and Berninis’ contemporaries first viewing was that they would have been familiar with his previous works, holding a certain expectation about what they were about to see. I had no previous expectations for Bernini so all his works were more impressive to me, viewing them for the first time. I had never seen marble, which I had always believed was a hard, rigid substance, manipulated in that way before. Bernini’s contemporaries would have probably been in a similar state of shock by his ability to once again breathe life into stone. I took the time to observe the intricate details he had sculpted to give life to his statues: the slender fingers transforming into delicate leaves, the fingernails and toenails, and the veins in the figures’ arms and legs that were a part of a figure so real they gave the illusion of actually carrying blood. I easily spent the whole day staring at these statues, walking around them and discovering their little details until the museum finally kicked me out. I had always discounted the value of art, but when the Bernini’s at the Villa Borghese were ‘unveiled’ to me, the experience gave me a real appreciation for such fine works.

Going into the Villa Borghese for a second time, I held a certain preconceived expectation. I had told all my classmates that this was probably the best museum in Rome because it held some of the most life-like marble statues that anyone (even an art cynic like me) would appreciate. For a seasoned Bernini expert like myself, I expected to go to the statues, circle them a few times, observe some of the details, then move on, as I had done before. But after listening to Linda’s presentation, I realized that Bernini did not intend his audience to make cursory, superficial observations. To truly understand Bernini’s sculptures, I needed to interact with them. They were not designed to be viewed from a central perspective, but required me to move, just like they were moving. But I couldn’t just circle the statues in a random fashion. As a viewer, I needed to take the proper route around the statues to see the story unfold before my eyes. Environment was so important to these works of art that these statues were placed in positions within the rooms so that the audience would have viewed them from a one particular angle when they first entered and see the story unfold as they moved around the room. Take the story of Apollo and Daphne for example: Linda first showed us the back of Apollo, his robes of marble jutting out at us, his powerful calves thrusting forward, and his hands reaching out. We could tell he was in movement, pursuing something. As we moved counterclockwise, we saw his robe billowing behind him, arms grasping onto a woman, whose own arms were outstretched, fingers turning into leaves. As we continued to rotate, we saw the front of Daphne’s face, fearful, looking upwards to the god’s for help. Meanwhile we also noticed Apollo’s face, slightly bewildered. His hand on Daphne’s chest was not actually touching her skin, but a piece of bark that had extended up from her left leg. A final turn showed us Daphne’s leg transforming into the bottom of a tree, which is when we realized that Apollo’s pursuit is in vain; he was not able to get Daphne, as we thought he might at the beginning, when we saw a powerful man grabbing a woman. From this angle we instead observe that his attempt was really in vain.

Viewing the Bernini’s for a second time added a whole new level to my understanding of art. Even though I felt like I knew these Bernini’s from prior my experience, I was amazed at how radically different another person looked at the same piece of art. None of us knew what Bernini was actually thinking when he sculpted these masterpieces, so we’ll never know his true intentions. However, I think some art needs to be re-evaluated from a different perspective to see if there is more meaning and depth to the piece than simply surface observations.