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Disneyland For Adults

Posted January 5th, 2011 at 10:58 AM by chas
"I should remind the reader that a portrait made of someone when he was, say, eighteen or twenty, would never resemble one made fifteen or twenty years later."
--Giorgio Vasari,
Preface, Lives of the Artists, 1568

As one gets older, if one continues to study, connections between different ideas and events both in your own life and in history begin to show themselves, and realities beneath the surface appear. I am almost 60 year old now, and my limited reserve of both energy and money were starting to tell. And so it was time to visit the greatest European cultural cornucopia of all. Italy--it unites many things: ancient and modern history, culture, art, and science. It juxtaposes everything you learned in school with everything you learned since. The food and wine is delicious, the weather pleasant, the views superb, the architecture magnificent, the art immortal. I used to say that China was my favorite destination, as it held the splendor of the Unfamiliar. Being there is like visiting another planet. But Italy is now my favorite of all, for it holds the magnificence of the Familiar. Living older and slower should, if you are lucky, be about comfort, and the familiar is always the more comfortable. I say this, even having been ill part of the time and having my wallet stolen during the trip, so you know I mean it!

Our guide told us that Italians identify more with their region than with the nation as a whole. I saw three Italys in three weeks--in the South: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, in the Center: Tuscany, In the North: Venice. But we initially landed in Rome, and as we'd missed Vatican City on our first trip, we checked in, grabbed a quick nap to take the edge off our jet lag, and headed out to the part of Italy that really is a separate country.

The Pope has lots of closet space. In one large gallery, you can see dozens of carefully painted wardrobes that date back to the Renaissance. To a New Yorker who has to cram all of his belongings into an apartment, nothing else better marks the grandiose opulence of the Papacy. The Sistine Chapel is nice, too. Outside in metropolitan Rome, the Castle Saint Angelo served as a safe haven if His Holiness got caught out of his turf if the people were revolting, or he was losing a war so badly he was being invaded. Across the Tiber is the site where the Roman Emperor's were crowned. Monumental Rome is mostly ruins. Like anyplace else, the more popular heads of state tend to have their reigns more openly exhibited. They had just found the palace of Emperor Nero, which was closed down after the he died, buried over, and then forgotten. He was not one of the more beloved leaders.

Sunny Sorrento was our base for the Southern part of our trip. I felt more comfortable on the side of the Bay of Naples across from that city and Mount Vesuvius, which still dwarves the entire city, even with its top gone. When it exploded, it covered everything with ash in about 20 minutes, and everyone suffocated. As this was mentioned on our bus, along with the fact that it could blow again at any time, I enjoyed very much travelling away from it, rather than toward it. No one else on the bus reacted at all. Were they even listening? I didn't want to be an ash profile dug out of a buried bus in a hundred years.

The ride south was amazing, full of some of the most breathtaking seacoast scenery in the world. We took a ferry ride out to precipitous Goat Island, know as Capri--in which I take a proprietary interest as a Capricorn. I sang an old Allan Sherman song about the discovery of America to the tune of 'Feniculi, Fenicula,' to calm down an older woman who was nervous aboard the steep funicular aerial railway. The song was written to commemorate its opening. We looked down from the cliffs on the site of the palace of Augustus Caesar. The man knew real estate, and who was going to tell him no? In Amalfi, we rested by the shore, just north of where American troops had landed in World War II, to tackle the rugged mountains which we would later ascend to dine.

In Tuscany, Renaissance hill towns overlook flowing countryside that ripples across hills and dales. Objects from the pre-Roman Etruscans are exhibited in local museums. In a single cathedral in Florence I hung with a whole bunch of the old gang all at once--Mike Angelo, Dante Al, Nick Machiavelli, and Galileo. Nice bunch of guys. In Siena, we lounged at a slow group reassembly on the sloping stones of the sunny cental plaza. In Assisi I communed at the tomb of St. Francis, who is still a very optimistic and loving soul. His pal St. Claire, who was once seen in a vision far away from where she actually lay dying, was retroactively made the patron saint of "instantaneous communication"--in other words, radio and television. We'd all do well to pray to her every once in a while, given the state of TV these days. The legendary Chinese Bureaucracy of Heaven has nothing on the Catholic Church!

Back in the 18th Century, "tourism" began with the Grand Tour for nobility, which meant only one place--wonderful Venice. When the Floating City had been suddenly dropped from our group's itinerary just before we booked, we decided to go ourselves after the tour,a nd made our own reservations. While boarding the train back in Rome, some creeps got my wallet. Luckily, it was my old dilapidated standby, not the fine new one I'd purchased in Florence. I was pretty upset to be bested as a New Yorker--it disappeared from my front pocket, which in the USA is a pretty safe place to keep it. But when I came out of the train station and onto an open view of the Grand Canal, I was enchanted--here was Disneyland for adults! A small area packed with everything wonderful about the Old World of Europe beckoned. Everything you've heard that's good about this city is true--except we never got lost once! In The Arsenal, you can see the entire naval history of the human race, in what was a vigorous trade center of Europe from the Fifth Century until 1797 when Napoleon took over. The
Armory in the Doge's Palace has the land warfare equivalents for the Renaissance. Every year, in a huge parade of gondolas and other craft, a giant gem ring is thrown overboard as Venetians marry The Sea. Don't worry--its on a string, and they pull it back later. If you're a reader, I recommend A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich (ISBN 978-0-14-101383-1) for a window onto a city that had a history as its own influential nation for a long time. Governed as a unique Republic,
it pioneered many innovations as an independent community. Exploring by foot, every few blocks brings some revelation, whether a unique museum, cafe, or church. If you need to cross districts, you just ride the water taxi, and sightsee as you go!

One afternoon, after yet another meal at a favorite restaurant we found off a touristy major street where the locals ate (and ate well), we noticed that there had continuously been an eatery on that site since 1550. Relaxing afterward in the Corto Maltese Lounge of my hotel, I found the entire run of graphic novels chronicling the adventures of the famous fictional merchant officer of the First World War era by world traveling Jewish Venetian Hugo Pratt. Corto's blue uniform coat was hung on a peg, as if he'd just stepped out for a moment. For hours I reveled in exciting stories set in South American, Russia, the Middle East, Ireland, and elsewhere, not easily found today, although I had one volume in French at home from a trip to southern France. I wanted to spend some time there, since the desk had been so helpful when I'd arrived with no money, and had to cancel all my cards. Luckily, Cousin Jim was with me to help me out of this pickle, and soon new Euros looked out from my new wallet again. On the last day I finally found some inexpensive raw glass beads by themselves, which I had been hunting for all over. Often worked into larger words of art and jewelry at a much higher price, this was a small indulgence I was glad to obtain. A world heritage site, the United Nations is working hard to The Queen of the Adriatic, but like fabled Atlantis, it is sinking further every year. If you go nowhere else in Italy see Venice; and see it while you can.

In Italy, you can meditate on the past and the future, while enjoying a quality of fun and life that you may be missing if you have become too busy getting and spending. And the spirituality of the land, whether packaged as pagan, Jewish, or Christian, peaks out from the art of some of the greatest Masters of all time, if you are present to notice it in your own age.
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