Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Streets of Rome: Vicolo del Leonetto

Some things never change. 

Some people never lose it for their first love, some people (many Italian people, actually) can never be satisfied by anything but their mother's cooking, and I, faithful readers, will never get over the thrill of learning the meaning behind Rome's street names.

It's been a long while since I've written a post about a street name, but that doesn't mean I have lost my fascination with them. As those of you who've been following this blog for a while may remember (that is, if there's anyone out there who actually reads my street name posts; I could realistically be the only person in the world who cares), in the past I've covered, Via del Mascherone,  Via del Piè di Marmo, (a personal favorite of Mozzarella Mamma), Via del Babuino, Vicolo della Spada d'Orlando, Piazza della Pigna, Via dei Giubbonari, Via dell'Arco della Ciambella, and one of the coziest, most hidden-away streets in Trastevere, Vicolo dell'Atleta. If you've ever wandered down one of these streets and wondered why it had such a funny name, Big Mask Street, Marble Foot Street, Baboon Street, Orlando's Sword Alley, and so on, well, read these posts and then you'll know.

The street I want to talk about today is another little known one, tucked away in the warren of alleys directly north of Piazza Navona: Vicolo del Leonetto. You don't have to be fluent in Italian to figure out that this street name has something to do with a lion. 

I came upon this street by chance about a month ago, as I was on my way to pick up some clients at their hotel. In all likelihood I had never walked down this street before, probably because it curves in a way that makes it seem at first like a dead end. As I tramped my way from Rione Ponte into Rione Campo Marzio, and headed down this hitherto unknown street, I noticed a strange, clearly ancient piece of statuary protruding from the corner of a building, just at the point at which the alley makes its little bend.

These physical remnants of the past can be found all over this neighborhood, and as much as I delight in them, I had no time to stop and muse of this particular one. I hastened to collect my clients, and as we walked back down the street in the opposite direction, I glanced at the protruding fragment once again, but this time I noticed something that hadn't been visible from the other angle, something that looked distinctly like a mane. 

And it smacked me in the face: Vicolo del Leonetto: Little Lion Alley. A surge of excitement raced through me, as always happens when I serendipitously discover the name of a Roman street, and only my innate professionalism kept me from whooping. I mean, can you stand it? For all its wars and corruption and gladiators and sacks and plagues and brawls and murder, at its heart, Rome is just too cute for words.

Is it just me, or does this little lion look a bit more like a very smiley shark from this angle?

My clients patiently waited as I snapped a few photos of my newest find, at which point I giddily explained to them my passion for Roman toponymy. I gushed and they pretended to be interested; it was a very special moment.

I will leave you with this incredibly inviting doorway, about four paces beyond the lion himself. It leads no doubt to an equally adorable apartment in which I'm sure I would be happy to spend the rest of my days. I am a Leo, after all.

All photos by author
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Friday, May 3, 2013

Are you on Vine? The Pines of Rome is!

OK, my friends and bloglings, your humble correspondent, the one who extols the virtues of writing by hand and sending letters by post, is at risk of becoming a social media junkie. It probably all began around the time I succumbed to the irresistible allure of the iPhone (after swearing I would never own one, and deriding all my friends who were constantly glued to theirs--they're making fun of me right now, by the way).

But it got much, much worse when Vine happened.

What is Vine, you ask? Well, if you're not in the know (like moi), Vine is an iPhone app owned by Twitter, similar to Instagram, but instead of posting photos, you post videos. Teensy videos. Six seconds, max. But the twist is, with just the touch of your thumb--while you record--you can cut the video so that the result is a collage of several even teensier clips.

The thing about Vine is that once you starting using it, everywhere you look (especially if you live in a visually gorgeous place like Rome, what can I say), you see an opportunity to make a Vine. Strolling through a particularly picturesque piazza at twilight? Vine it. In St. Peter's Square while white smoke is pouring out of the Sistine Chapel chimney? Vine it. Waiting for the number 23 bus while wearing fabulous tights? Vine it. Cooking up a scrumptious meal? You get the idea.

They are tiny peeks into a friend or a stranger's world, and I am afraid that I'm addicted, both to making my own and to watching others'.

Just about anything, with a little practice, can be turned into an aesthetically pleasing Vine. Except maybe excessive use of pets and babies, and trust me, there are a lot of Vines like that out there. Not that I have anything against pets or babies; they're just not that interesting in videos unless they are yours. That is, of course, unless the pet is a cat who barks or the baby is shrieking with laughter at someone ripping paper. That would be OK.

The best part about Vine is its length. Six seconds. I mean, it's brilliant! You can watch anything for six seconds. And in that sense it's the video version of Twitter: six seconds instead of 140 characters, perfect for our generation's unprecedentedly short attention span.

I just learned how to embed my Vines on my blog [pats self on back], although for some reason I can't seem to get the audio to work. I'm still a complete beginner, so bear with me!

 Here are a few of my favorites. The star of these mini-videos? Rome, of course. Not that six seconds could ever do her justice.

Piazza Farnese by night

Piazza Navona at twilight

A walk from Trastevere to the Ghetto

If you too are on Vine, you can follow me at @ThePinesOfRome

Because Vine only works (for now) on the iPhone Vine app, this link will only work from an iPhone that has Vine installed on it. Hopefully that won't always be the case! In the meantime, you know I won't be able to resist posting my favorite Vines here, so stay tuned!
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Thursday, May 2, 2013

May Day in Rome, or Calendimaggio

Happy May Day, bloglings!

For those of you from the other side of the pond, the first day of May is European Labor Day and just about everyone has the day off. Like every holiday in Italy, May Day has its own traditions and customs, and in Rome it is most widely celebrated by heading out of town for a scampagnata, a country outing. This generally involves either an actual picnic on some lush hillside, preferably with a vineyard in view, or an interminable lunch in some large country osteria where every table is reserved for the entire lunch shift because table turn-over doesn't exist for these kinds of meals.

If it's not possible to make it all the way out to the country, or for those who dread the traffic, a picnic in one of Rome's many sprawling public parks is an acceptable substitute. And of course, no Italian holiday would be complete without the tradition of some specific, local, in-season ingredients. And May Day in the vicinity of Rome dictates pecorino cheese, raw fava beans, and for the non-vegetarians, some prosciutto. (And a bottle of Frascati wine, it goes without saying.)


Another May Day tradition in the city is the free mega-concert in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Every year, between 800,000 and a million people fill the square to hear dozens of different performers, some very well known and most Italian. I cannot tell you what it's like as my agoraphobia would never permit me to attend, not even if I was paid to do so. To be honest, just the thought of being in that crowd makes me almost hyperventilate. But hopefully you don't share my crowd-anxiety, and if you'd like to attend, the music kicks off at 3pm and lasts until midnight.

Concertone di Primo maggio, 2011, Pza San Giovanni in Laterano

I know you're all wondering, with baited breath no doubt, how your faithful correspondent chose to celebrate this made up important holiday. I'm sorry to disappoint those of you who may imagine that I have some kind of glamorous life, what with living in Rome and all, but I cannot lie to you, dear readers. My May Day has been pretty boring, although productive. I realized this morning that I have literally practically no clothes. And most importantly, I do not own a pair of jeans. Or I didn't until this morning.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I hate shopping. I mean, I really really hate it. It makes me want to throw up just thinking about it. And I especially hate it when there is something specific that I need to buy, because I will almost surely not find it. I should, perhaps, clarify this a little: I hate shopping in Italy. Shopping in the United States, if overwhelming and over-stimulating, is a wonderful, marvelous thing. But shopping in Italy--at least in 2013--is hell on Earth. Why, you ask, darling readers? Because mid-level Italian designers have decided that it's not 2013, but actually 1991. So the shops are full of baggy T-shirts, off-the-shoulder, shapeless, sweater-dresses, M C Hammer pants, and jeans that are intended to be rolled up tightly at the ankle, like we did in 8th grade. All in the attractive colors of brown, beige, and camel. Every shop looks the same and it isn't pretty. It's a wonder I found any decent jeans at all.

My second exciting May Day event was the dreaded cambio di stagione (change of season). This is when you swap out all your winter clothes for your summer clothes and hope there isn't a late spring cold-spell. (This isn't necessary where I come from, by the way. In Seattle, the temperature is more or less the same all year round.) But it is a must in Rome, where not only does the weather jump from 45 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit sometimes in the space of a few weeks, but also where almost no one has more than a puny little wardrobe (roomy, built in closets are unknown in these parts). Thank God for the soppalco (crawl space).

Jealous, right? I'll bet. But just think, if I hadn't opted for a boring May Day, I wouldn't have had the time to write this post, and that's what really matters, amirite? Um, hello? Anyone still reading?

I do want to mention my absolute best May Day ever. It was in 2010, coincidentally just after I began this blog. Here is the post I wrote about that day: Perfezione e Vergogna (before I realized using Italian titles for my posts was not the best idea if I actually wanted people to read them--silly me). It was a wonderful day that included a bike ride in Villa Pamphilj and the requisite endless lunch in the countryside with a big group of friends.

 But those two highly enjoyable outings are not what made that day so special, nor are they the reasons I will remember it forever. No, that is because of something that happened early, early in the morning. Let me set the scene: I was engaged to be married. We I had decided that the wedding would take place in San Pietro in Montorio, just up the street from where I lived at the time on Via Garibaldi. The church is perched on the slope of the Gianicolo Hill, is the sight of Bramante's exquisite Tempietto, and has a view of Rome that makes you me want to weep with ecstasy.

Tempietto di Bramante, 1502

The only problem is, just about everyone in Rome wants to get married there. I had talked to the priest months earlier and he had explained that you cannot book a date at that church any more than one year in advance, to avoid "abusi" as he put it. What did that mean for us me? I meant that we I would have to basically stake out the church on the first day of whichever month we hoped to get married in, one year in advance. And hope to get there in time to get a good date.

We had originally planned to get married some time in early June, but I wasn't sure how early we I would have to get to the church on the morning of the first of June to line up. How many other couples would have the same idea? June is probably the most popular month to get married... would I have to wait all night? (I had a vision of Claudio and I with our chess set sitting on the steps of the church on a balmy June night, waiting to pick our wedding date with all of Rome spread at our feet. Pretty romantic, right?)

But still, I was worried. I'd only have this one chance. What if 30 couples got there before us and grabbed all the weekend dates? I decided to do a dry run the month before. I figured I would show up at the church on the morning of the first of May around 6am (they let people in at 7) and see how many couples were waiting and ask them what time they got there. Well, I can tell you it wasn't easy dragging myself out of bed before six on a holiday, but luckily I lived very close to the church. I was rewarded with an incredible sight. I have seen the view of Rome from the Gianicolo probably hundreds of times (although I never tire of it), but never had I seen it at dawn. The city had a golden-rosy glow with just tinge of periwinkle. As beautiful as Rome is at sunset, I think it might be even more glorious at sunrise.

When I arrived at the church, the parking lot was full of cars. A few people were sitting around. Fourteen couples were already there, most had arrived the night before and slept in their cars. One couple had showed up at 2pm the day before. It did not bode well. June will be even worse, I imagined. Then I noticed that someone had a list. It was actually a calendar with the available days and times for weddings shown; as soon as a couple arrived, they blocked off their preferred date and waited until 7am to confirm it with the priest. I gave it a glance, just out of curiosity. All the 4pm weekend slots were already taken of course, except one: Sunday, 29 May. I thought quickly. Early June, late May, did it really make such a difference?

I jotted our names down, just in case, and made a quick call to a very sleepy fidanzatino (not yet maritino). "What? You booked what? When? All right... whatever...." Yes, it would have been nice if he had been as ecstatic as I was, but the important thing was he agreed on the date. I felt rather pathetic being the only lone bride there while everyone else was with their betrothed (except there was one groom whose fiancée was out of town and he had brought a male friend with him to keep him company; before he explained this I was thinking, "Did they change the rules?"). An hour-long wait and a quick meeting with the priest and that was it: we had a date for the wedding, in a church with one of the most amazing settings in the city. And that quiet, serendipitous morning is what May Day will always be for me.

I can't close this (very rambling) post without at least one nugget of history. Long before May Day was called by the pedestrian name of Primo maggio, it used to be called Calendimaggio. This term comes from the ancient Roman calendar, in which the first of the month was called the Kalends. As is the case with most Italian words in my vocabulary, the first time I ever heard the word Calendimaggio was in an opera. One of my favorites in fact, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Rinuccio and Lauretta desperately want to get married on Calendimaggio, only their families detest each other. Here's a video of the entire one-act opera, skip to 25:55 for the moment in which the thwarted couple despairs that they won't be able to marry on Calendimaggio.

I first saw this opera as a teenager I decided then and there that I too must wed on Calendimaggio. In fact, this was the original date I had hoped for, but am very happy someone talked me out of it, as John Paul II was beatified that day in 2011 and Rome was bursting to the gills with pilgrims, not to mention the traffic nightmares the Primo maggio concert inevitably causes.

In the Renaissance, Calendimaggio was not only a celebration of the arrival of spring (like May Day around the world), but it was also a day when tradition dictated that young men leave flowers at the doors of their sweethearts and maybe even serenade them. One of the few Italian cities that maintains the tradition of Calendimaggio is Assisi, where a three-day festival takes place during the first week of May every year, with processions, concerts, theater performances, competitions and lots of local townsfolk dressed in gorgeous Renaissance costumes. It starts tomorrow!

Calendimaggio di Assisi

Happy Labor Day, May Day, Primo maggio, and Calendimaggio!
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