Day 0 — Sunday, May 26

Across the Atlantic: Omaha-Atlanta-Frankfurt 

I am not sure going across the ocean will ever feel routine, but it is my umpteenth trip and (we counted) our fifth trip to Europe together, and the first time without Kai or Kati. It seems ridiculously privileged to „upgrade“ from going every other year to going every year, but there is a dual justification: I feel like we need to start going to see my mom more often, now that she is past 75, and this year, the middle of our trip, two weeks in Italy, is actually a research trip for my art history MA. So the brief preview is: a week in Germany, with my mom and stop-overs in Dresden and Berlin for some art I need to see, then 2 weeks in Italy (8 days in Florence bookended by 3 day’s in Rome on each end), and then another 8 days in Germany to be with family and friends in the Up North part of Germany. 
I am looking forward to all of it, although I have moments when a) I am worried that all the art I need and want to see will bore Mark and b) I feel twinges if insecurity because I don’t know whether I will do the research trip “right.” I have never done archival art history research and have only just started going to art museums with a “research” rather than “look at all the cool stuff!” agenda. But then I remind myself that between taking good notes and having Mark take his professional-grade photos, I will probably prevent his boredom and also maximize record keeping and remembering (if not as yet analyzing or idea genesis). That will, however, make this blog both very “meta” (because I will have to reflect on traveling and on the places we see as places as well as just record things we do & see).

Post-Trip Postscript: Initially, I thought that, in order to make it easier for myself and any potential other readers (few as they may be) to separate the classic travel blog from the more academic art history reflections, I would try to divide the entries on relevant days into the regular journal and a segment I will call AH-TLDR (Art History: Too Long Don’t Read). But I gave up on that because the blog basically became a mish-mash of the two as art history took over our trip completely, about 4 days in. So the initial AH-TLDR separation will disappear after a few days from the blog.  

AH-TLDR
To gather my thoughts and at the same time give those of you who might be curious about my academic goals an introduction, here is the first AH-TLDR section, as a story of my discovery, over the past year, of what I want to find out more a put to prepare for writing my MA thesis next year” (as well as some conference papers). 
When I applied for the MA program in art history in the fall of 2017 to start in 2018, I frankly had no idea what I wanted to do apart from learn more about a field that i have always loved in a layperson/amateur kind of way, and perceived as adjacent to literary studies, my first love, academically speaking. And it was honestly partly an attempt to find a bridge to get me from leaving behind a tenured position teaching English to whatever work I was going to be doing next, an enticing alternative to adjuncting as an instructor or part-time work in administration. So despite the qualms I had about not making a living, but just “consolidating” as I moved to Lincoln (which frankly has saved us more than a part-time position would pay), I took the plunge, applied, and THEN started to think about what I might want to study in depth. I had never taken a formal art history course, until I decided to prep for grad school by starting on a standard 2-semester on-line survey in the spring of 2018. I started with the second half, Renaissance to Contemporary Art, and frankly (and unsurprisingly) felt like a kid in a candy store. Even the art I hadn’t ever thought of as interesting before (rococo would be the prime example), I learned to appreciate at least conceptually. 
That meant, of course, that the course in itself didn’t generate a specific area or era that peaked my interest—there was so much fun stuff there! But I was still teaching English that spring, and also giving a faculty lecture on campus that I decided had to be about the author I had spent the last 10 years researching off and on—the 19th-century British novelist George Eliot. And as I was writing the lecture summing up my past work about her, I started to think about how to build her into my future work—since I already knew about (but had never looked into) her interest in art and the ways in which she built works of art into her novels. In my talk (in March of 2018) I briefly mentioned how interesting it would be to look into this, giving a famous example: Eliot’s use of a Roman sculpture called the Sleeping Ariadne in her novel Middlemarch. 
I didn’t do much with this idea except hold it in my brain (I was pretty busy wrapping up 18 years of full time teaching at Hastings College, and moving) but over the summer, I read the one novel by Eliot which I hadn’t read before and in which art played a special role: Romola, a historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance, specifically in 1490s Florence, which featured a lot of Renaissance art and architecture and even Eliot’s portrayal of a minor Renaissance painter, a guy I had never heard about named Piero di Cosimo. 
This meant that by the time I started grad school in the fall, I knew that I wanted to do “something” with George Eliot and her interest in art history, and very likely with her interest in the Renaissance. In order to get more direction, I picked a grad class in methods of art history and one in contemporary art, as well as an undergrad survey of the Italian Renaissance. So questions piled up really quickly: what did other writers in the 19th-century think about the Renaissance? Why was the Italian Renaissance such a big deal for the Victorians? I had always been interested in what was called “reader reception” and “reception history” in my field: how do readers in different time periods read the same book differently, and what does that tell me about the book’s meaning? Now these questions were morphing as I applied them to works of art, and especially to the question of how Victorian writers (that is, Eliot and her compatriots) saw the Renaissance. 
At the same time as I discovered that there was still much work to be done in art history when I comes to the way women looked at and wrote about art. Women artists were few and far between until (and even far into) the 20th century, but women have been looking at art for a long time, and starting in the 18th century, they also began to comment on that experience in published writing. Could I think of these writers as art historians? Did they look at art differently from men? Did they look at different kinds of art? 
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out more about the Renaissance itself, to be able to compare how modern art history sees it differently from the way the Victorians would have, and I used Piero di Cosimo, the real painter that Eliot “recycled” as a character in her novel as my first case study, trying to get a good sense of how he’s been interpreted over time. That gave me even more of a sense of how the idea of the “Renaissance artist” has changed (and also not changed) from admirably eccentric genius to trained professional in a complicated relationship to a variety of patrons with different tastes and demands. 
And then another thing can to play a role: as I was taking my first class in the Digital Humanities, I got a preliminary glimpse of things people did in history, art history, museum studies, and archaeology with digital means, and I landed on the idea of maps and cartography. Couldn’t I look at and keep track of all of these questions by way of mapping spaces? I was thinking that I could track Eliot’s (and maybe other women writers’) art travel on maps ranging from all of Europe to individual cities with what are called digital heritage tools—interactive maps and timelines created based on data that I could gather in databases with geographic coordinates and other information. Wouldn’t that be interesting, especially with view to the idea that women were certainly scripted to maneuver space in a different way from men? Would that result in different spots being visited, both at the large and the small scale? Or just different levels of interest in certain places? 
So at the end of my first semester, I had a ton of  ideas, still mostly swirling around George Eliot, but thanks to my advisor’s patient reminders that this on its own wouldn’t make a good art history thesis, expanded them a bit—to two fairly well-known writers who wrote more specifically about art, Anna Jameson and Lady Eastlake, née Elizabeth Rigby. And I was pretty sure that I was in fact going to zero in on Renaissance Italy.  But while the focus was narrowing, I still didn’t feel I was quite there. 
So I used the opportunity of a grant proposal to narrow my ideas further. I applied for a research grant to go to Rome and Florence, with an emphasis on Florence, as the city that was a more coherent and compact “Renaissance experience” for 19th-century are travelers, in contrast to Rome, where tourists were basically overloaded with trying to experience 2000 years of history from Republican Rome to their own time all jumbled together in across a large terrain. The idea was to see the works I was reading about on site (in many cases, exactly in the same spot as in the 19th century, and of course in the case of architecture, frescoes, and some sculptures, in the same spot where they were created or erected in the Renaissance), and to record spatial information to put this all on a map and figure out what impact the actual space might have had on the art experience of female travelers (especially female travelers). Much of that would still need to be based on written accounts, including guide books and travel writing, but I knew that comparing those descriptions to the actual spatial conditions would be as important as following in the women writers’ footsteps by studying the works they wrote about from up close.
Bu the time I had written the grant proposal, I was determined to go either with or without university support (I did get $ 1500, which covers transportation), and I prepared for that with practically all my coursework that semester on some way or another. First off, I was super lucky because I got to take an art history course on the Renaissance city that took Florence as its example case. That was perfect to get a sense of the art, the social history, and the urban development of the city, and it also gave me a shot at trying out my ideas with a sample location: the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where many of the most famous art works were off limits to women until 1869, when the monastery became a museum. I looked in detail at how George Eliot and Anna Jameson wrote about the art that they could and couldn’t see there. 
 At the same time, I took two Digital Humanities classes, one on geographical information systems and one on digital editing, where I was able to try out some ideas pertaining to mapping out art locations that George Eliot wrote about in Romola and in a “travel blog” that she wrote on her first trip to Florence. 
And on the edges of all of that, even my seemingly unrelated course on Greek sculpture became a way for me to explore something George Eliot had made me curious about a year earlier: what WAS the story of the Sleeping Ariadne, which was considered “Greek” even though only the Roman copy in the Vatican museums (and several other Roman versions, as it turned out) survive? 
So by the end of this first year, I felt like I had thought of nothing but things relating to my thesis, but all at enough distance from the center of it that the projects where more like satellites on orbit around the big central idea I’d been slowly approaching, always reshaping and reformulating it in my mind and I was hopping from one satellite idea to another. I think this oblique approach worked well with how I tend to think about something that is new to me, exploring the unknown periphery and working my way to the center only once I have a sense of possible facets of the big picture that might never get full attention later. 
The reason that I think this worked well for me (although it is cumbersome and circumlocutious to the max, and can cause tears of frustration) is that by the end of the spring semester, I had a big conceptual breakthrough. For one thing, I realized that I was biting off much more than I could chew, and that the natural focus for my thesis would be Florence. Secondly, I found out that I needed to restrict not just the space but also the time I was writing about—a lot of ground shifts happen after the 1860s in the way women access and write about art in Italy, and many people have written about the last 2 decades of the 19th century already.  So my focus will be the 1850s and 1860s. Thirdly and most importantly, I had always thought of the project as an exploration and comparison of the three women authors that were going to be my focus, and it took the space-oriented work of the spring semester for me to realize that the project needed to be about locations! In hindsight, that seems a duh realization, but I had to get there! 
So as it stands now, I am looking at women’s writing about art in three very different location types, namely churches (or sacred space), open plazas (or public space), and museums (a sort of hybrid between private and public spaces, considered more appropriate for women spectators than piazzas and public buildings, and yet also full of art objects considered improper to see or at least to publicly comment on for women.  Florence has three super interesting and super famous locations that fit my bill (namely, the Monastery of San Marco, the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi museum), but I will write about these later, or I will never get to the end of the entry.
How this will shape my actual on-site exploration is still a little fuzzy. We’ll experience the spaces and take plenty of photos while I write about everything. But I still think I need to experience and study both the center and the periphery: On the one hand, I feel the need to go to every museum, church and piazza in Florence (and to a bunch in Rome that are primarily about Renaissance-art) that 19t century tourists went to, especially if I already know that my women writers wrote about them—but one the other hand, I want to focus on my three sample locations (and visit the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican museum and its twin in the Uffizi in Florence, just for kicks). So I will try to strike a balance! And en route, I will check out some Italian Renaissance art that ended up in Dresden and Berlin, where George Eliot and her compatriots who visited Germany admired them. 
I am very excited. And, as I realize, too full of information to ever make the AH-TLDR portions have a reasonable length for any reader! 

Day 1 — Monday, May 27: Arrival in Frankfurt

Train station in Osnabrück

We got to Frankfurt from Omaha via Atlanta without a hitch, but with the usual not-enough-sleep during the short 8-hour night. We did watch a couple of interesting documentaries (the one about free solo-climbing of El Capitan in Yosemite, since we watched climbers WITH ROPES there in 2012 in awe, and one about the origins of the Meow Wolf art collective, since we went to their House of Eternal Return exhibit in 2017) and I watched the Ruth Bader Ginsberg  fiction film, which was meh but at least made the time pass.  Since we were so punctual, we had a lot of time to hang out at the Frankfurt train station at the airport (from 9 to almost 1 pm) and then the long but beautiful train ride from Frankfurt to Osnabrück, which took another 4.5 hours, with some beautiful views of the Rhine and all kinds of little castles and terraced vineyards and fortified walls. We chatted with an adorable elderly couple on their way to Bremen. The husband had forgotten all his English (he was at least in his 80s) but he really wanted to tell Mark all about his career in engine repair with the German distributor of Caterpillar, so I had to do a lot of translating. 

By the time we arrived in Osnabrück, we were very tired and I was really sore and glad not to be sitting anymore. We stood in the bus to my mom‘s and that was a great relief to my back. Long stretches of sitting make my sciatica kick in and no amount of shifting positions makes it better. But since I‘ve been reading about traveling in 18th and 19th century Italy by carriage and train, I keep thinking of how much of a 21st-century first-world problem that is. Especially since I don‘t have to wear the constricting women‘s clothes of the day, either. The only thing that turned out to be truly and unexpectedly 19th century is that we couldn‘t take showers last night after 24+ hours of travel—the 4-condo apartment building where my mother lives had a major plumbing issue that needed to be resolved first. I would think that food access has greatly improved, but of course the big highlight was to to have a traditional evening meal with fresh rolls, cheese and cold cuts plus a lovely salad at my mom‘s to wrap up the day. It was wonderful to see her, although it didn’t seem possible that a year had gone by since the last time we saw her. So we just went for a quick walk to the nearest ALDI, which sells super cheap no-contract data packages for our phones (traveling with an engineer means that 24/7 internet access is a must, and of course far cheaper here than in the US—4 weeks and 6 gig with phone/texting access costs 19.99 euro, without 14.99, and the relevant SIM card only 3 euros extra). Then we really started drooping and went to bed around 9 pm. 

Day 2: Tuesday, May 28 — Osnabrück

European Robin

Today was spent getting over our jet lag, eating delicious things (there always seems to be a lot of that when we are in Germany!) and getting reacquainted with Osnabrück, where my mom lives, and where I lived with the kids for a year in 2009-2010. I always love it here—a very unassuming mid-size city with many beautiful nooks and crannies and a downtown area that I love for its architecture and its quiet vivacity, so in that respect, it feels like the German version of Lincoln. My mom lives close to downtown, so we walk almost everywhere when we are here. 

We slept in after lying awake for quite a while in the wee hours of the morning (which is almost always what happens to me on the first couple of days after the transatlantic flight), and had breakfast while the plumbers dealt with a major clog in the sewer line that affected the whole house via my mom’s bathroom. But that gave Mark, ever-curious about any construction logistics, a chance to see how German plumbing works—they actually unhooked the toilet from the wall and were able to use that to get access to the line all the way to the street with their fancy drain-cleaning machine. And it was all done by about 11 am, so that we could finally take our post-arrival showers. 

Then, Imke took us to “Friedrich,” a little restaurant down the street that basically has a daily special and four other dishes, and we had a very nice meal—although I have to say that Imke did the right thing by ordering the daily special, an outstanding sweet potato casserole, whereas my soup was a bit bland and Mark’s pastrami sandwich with French fried pretty much what you’d expect. But it was fun to go to an eatery that we’d never been to. And as always, it is very nice to be back in the country of reusable dishes—the only thing we had to throw out at the end were the paper napkins. 

We took a nap after lunch and then Mark and I walked to the train station, where our friend Dorothee was supposed to arrive shortly before 4 pm, who was coming from Hanover, 2 hours east of here, just to see us for a day. We caught her at the train station and then took the bus back to my mom’s, where we hung out and then later went to dinner at another little restaurant across the street from my mom’s—a place called “Kleinkost” (“little food,” the German word for a deli, but here used literally for a menu of small, tapas-style bites, which we had with fresh-baked bread and yummy herbed butter. After dinner, Imke and Dorothee went home and Mark and I went for an hour’s walk through downtown and through Imke’s neighborhood, where we got to enjoy a robin singing his little heart out on a fence post. He was really just 2 feet from us, so we caught part of the concert on video. After we got back home around 9:30 (it was still light outside then!), I sat with Imke and Dorothee for a little while longer (poor Mark has had to put up with a lot of conversations entirely conducted in German, and I often only translate 10-20% of the content, so he finally just withdrew to work on the code he’s currently tinkering with). But I could tell I was fading in and out of the conversation, so I decided to call it a day. 

AH-TLDR

For me, Dorothee and art belong together like pigment and binder. She is a family friend, about my mom’s age, who used to be an elementary teacher (I’ve known her since first grade and remember “helping” her grade her students’ homework) but later got a fine arts degree, and has always been one of my best guides to modern and contemporary art. But she is not only an artist and an avid visitor of museums, galleries, and shows, but also knows her art history and has traveled widely. So she immediately wanted to know about my art history degree, my thesis, and my travel plans, and we had a great conversation about things I plan to see and things she’s already seen. My mom was all ears too as I tried to explain (in German for the first time) what I am trying to research, in the context of the big-picture questions of how women see / experience art and how the experience of art in various spaces changes over time. It was both challenging and really fun to explain to two very knowledgeable—and what’s more, curious—museum goers and travelers what I am trying to get at in terms of the spatial experience of art, be it in museums or out in public places or on religious sites. I was trying not to completely inundate my captive audience with my ideas, but it was great to have them ask questions and pull together their own ideas and observations about everything from the interchangeability of various Madonna paintings and the weird “adult” representation of babies, especially of the infant Jesus to the fact that Dorothee had already been to the special exhibit in Berlin on brothers-in-law Mantegna and Bellini that we are going to see on Sunday, while my mom is headed there next week! While I’ve always known that I owe Dorothee a lot in terms of the introduction to 20th century art (from Nikki de Saint-Phalle to James Tyrell) and have wonderful memories of looking at the Dadaist collection  in Hanover’s Sprengelmuseum with her and with another art friend, Andrea, I am getting an extra appreciation for the way in which so many friends I am seeing again this time have shaped my love for the visual arts and broadened my horizons. Dorothee is definitely one of them, and to realize that she also knows as much as she does about older art (including the Renaissance) was a wonderful bonus. 

Day 3: Wednesday, May 29: More Osnabrück Rambles

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We still didn’t sleep that well, so I was up for about 3 hours from 2 to 5 am, and then slept some more until about 9 am. But we decided not to nap at all today in order to get ourselves turned around. We’ll see how that goes. 

We had a lavish and late German breakfast: fresh rolls, soft-boiled eggs, assorted cheeses, ham, honey, jam and also yogurt and fruit, and we sat for quite a long time—Mark withdrew from our German chatter, but then Imke’s yoga teacher stopped by to tell her personally that an event this afternoon was cancelled, and sat down with us for a cup of tea. We talked about (surprise!) yoga and mindful living/moving but also about moving house, since he and his significant other are about to move into a new apartment—like most Germans living in city, renting rather than buying is the norm, but they are moving from what he called a “Harry Potter apartment” to a “flat for grown-ups”—the difference being that their current places has more random steps, levels, and staircases than Hogwarts, including an attic bedroom and a roof terrace, and the new place is a newly renovated ground-floor apartment with a large garden. It was really interesting to get his perspective on living spaces, since he is closer to my age, and his situation reminded me that Imke and Dorothee, both single women in their 70s who own their apartments, are more of an exception than a rule. Since people renting their apartments are very well protected by law from being kicked out or getting their rent raised suddenly, renting in Germany is a very different thing from renting a place in the US. I never lived in a home my family owned while growing up, and my mom is the first person in my immediate family to own a home rather than renting it—she inherited a house from my stepdad when he died, and then “swapped” it for the condo she owns now about three years ago. But my dad never owned a house, and my sister and my two aunts all rent their places. 

After we had finally cleared away the dishes from breakfast, Dorothee, Imke and the two of use went for a walk that led us through the botanical garden (which I love) and a neighborhood where a few new houses have sprung up since we were last here—both Mark and I remember the construction site being all cordoned off. The route Imke picked was lovely—through older neighborhoods with early 20th-century townhomes, beautiful mature trees, and roses blooming everywhere. We picked up some cake at a bakery while Imke was making coffee, and then, after the classic “Kaffeeklatsch,” we dropped Dorothee off at the bus station, since she was headed back home to Hanover that afternoon. Mark and I went on another little walk (the weather was gorgeous, and we know Northern Germany well enough to know that we have to take advantage of every bit of blue sky), and picked up some produce and some German vanilla sugar at the ALDI—our favorite German discount grocery store chain, and even cheaper here than in Lincoln, where there are two of them. 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon just hanging out and doing some on-line things, and then I made a salad while Imke set the table for the classic evening bread and cheese. Yummy as usual. We decided to all go for another walk, including the park near the university’s main campus (a former residential palace from the 18th century, bright yellow and surrounded by flower beds) and the downtown. We finished up by having our first gelato (just two scoops each, not a big festive concoction; we’ll save that for later!) and returned home at about 8:30. The walking today added up to 5.8 miles or 14,000+ steps according to my Apple Health, so that wasn’t bad at all. And hopefully I’ll sleep a little better. Mark has had better luck but we both still need to catch up a little. 

Day 4: Thursday, May 30: Yet More Osnabrück Rambles

Bee exploring a wild rose
Double decker cafe (untranslatable German pun: Doppellecker)
Live music during the Meeting of the Brass and Wind Bands
Heger Tor at night

The jet lag hex is fairly serious this year—I still woke up in the middle of the night and was not able to go back to sleep until early morning. Hope springs eternal that I can beat this soon. We did still get up about 8:30 and had a light breakfast of yogurt, fruit and tea before a couple of friends of my mom’s, Wolfgang and Maya, came by to say hi and go for another walk with us. As always, I’m loving it that even people in their late 60s and 70s take it for granted that hanging out involves talking-while-moving, which is probably while I get so restless when it only involves talking-while-sitting-around! We walked through the botanical gardens again 9with more bees in blooming flowers; a favorite motif for Mark), and then across the “Westerberg,” a rural-seeming hill with fields (wheat, corn) and a farm right in the middle of town. We were trying to stop at a cafe on the way back to my mom’s, but because today is a holiday (religious/Christian: Feast of the Ascension, but in Germany it doubles as Father’s Day and is an excuse for young men to abscond from their families, go on a little outdoor trip, and drink a lot of beer). So eventually we decided to just return and have coffee at home. Mark, who again had to be on the periphery of the conversation today since everyone was speaking mostly German, got to show some of his photos, specifically of Kati and Kai but also of our place in Lincoln.  

When Wolfgang and Maya left around noon, I got some more travel logistic sorted out, and Imke fixed us a lovely vegetable dish with rice; afterwards, we took a much-needed nap. When we got up, we had tea and a sweet bite with Imke and then went downtown to check out a major current event in town that I’d never heard of before: The German brass and wind ensembles (both symphonic and marching bands of all sorts) have a major national convention every year, with huge marching and soloist competitions, and hundreds of bands playing and competing, and this year, it’s happening right here, from today until the grand finale on Sunday. So there are currently 14,500 musicians in town, plus about 150,000 visitors are expected. This would normally not be my cup of tea (although Kai would love it all to pieces; this is HIS kind of music, apart from musical theater), but the fun part is that there are stages set up all over downtown with bands playing for free outdoors, and ticketed events in some of the concert halls. We just wandered in between the various stages and listened here or there as we got curious. A there were lots of food vendors, including a double-decker bus converted into a cafe that was kind of fun. A big ensemble played a Queen medley on the plaza in front of the cathedral, and a charming Dutch symphonic band played Quincey Jones’s “Austin Powers” theme, which was highly entertaining and made us all shout for encores. Eventually, we made our way back home and I fixed us a salad to go with our bread and cheese for dinner. After some postprandial computing, all three of us actually decided to go out to a nearby bar/concert venue where there were a couple of blues bands playing. Mark had his first German beer, or rather three sampler-size craft beers (a flight? Here it’s called a beer board, but they all tasted and looked the same to me), and I had a ginger-lemon lemonade that tasted like Pellegrino with a hint of ginger ale. Walking home, Mark noticed the nice nighttime lighting of the former city gate that is part of almost all the walks we take, the so-called Heger Tor. 

AH-TLDR 

My friend Andrea called this afternoon, and we immediately started talking art. She is probably the single-most important person when it comes to my interest in art and my understanding of contemporary art until I started to take art history classes last year. I had her tagged as a visual arts genius the day we met on the first day of first grade, and I wasn’t wrong. She has a graphic design degree but really ended up doing much more conceptual avant-garde art for her M.F.A. project 25 years ago, and has been working on cool art and photography ever since. We didn’t have much time to talk today, but enough to speculate about why people keep coming back to the same style of art, and what role nostalgia plays in one’s taste and how it develops or not. We were into fairly abstract and “grownup” art earlier than most (late teenage, casting aside our childish taste in Impressionism and surrealism a la Dali and Magritte for Dadaism, expressionism, and contemporary art) and agreed that attending the big German art show, the Documenta, in high school was a formative experience. Then we had to talk logistics and postpone our conversation about art until we visit her and her husband after Italy. But I can’t wait to run some of my ideas by her, especially since I know that she will challenge some of them and make sure I keep the big picture in mind. 

Day 5: Friday, May 31 — From Osnabrück to Dresden

Our hotel for a couple of nights
Art Deco town home on the way to our hotel

This was mostly a travel day, to get us from Osnabrück to Dresden for the first leg of our art exploration (by car it would be about 500 km / 315 miles, but we were taking circuitous train routes, of which you can read below). But it started in a glorious way: with us having slept through the night, finally, and then still until 9 am, which NEVER happens to us. When we crawled out of bed, Imke had already gotten fresh rolls and croissants, and after starting some laundry, we had a lovely breakfast—nothing is quite as glorious as those fresh rolls that you get from a baker 2 minutes away right before you eat them. And as she had promised, the croissants were excellent. We made ourselves a picnic to take along as well, and I packed that up as I also packed our suitcase, condensing from 2 to 1 (plus our backpacks). Meanwhile, Mark and Imke dealt with a minor water issue in the basement that she’d not noticed on the day of the plumbing disaster—a box of things my stepfather had collected and that she’d never unpacked had gotten damp, so they unwrapped coins and pottery from who knows where to let them dry out. We’ll look through the stuff when we get back! 

We were not slotted to leave town for Dresden until 2 pm, but thanks to the German train system’s delay alerts, we knew by about 11:30 that something was off with the route and we might expect delays. So we left a bit early, just after noon, and I lined up for advice and possible ticket exchange. There was apparently a big accident on the tracks somewhere on the way to Hanover, where we were supposed to change trains, and basically all trains going our routes were canceled for hours to come. So the nice train people gave us a “go on whatever train you choose” stamp on our ticket and directed us to go to Hanover via Bremen and said we’d still catch our train in Hanover. That worked perfectly, with some time to have a quick Asian lunch in Osnabrück and then a cup of coffee outside of the train station in Bremen. But it was still a long trip: to Hanover it only took us a couple of hours, but the trip from Hanover to Dresden is nearly 6 hours long. Hence the sandwiches and granola bars we packed for dinner. 

Once we had arrived, we used the directions for public transport that the hotel provided us—I am very glad I asked for those, because the public transport website gave us completely different directions and was apparently not taking into account its own huge construction mess, which required changing from the tram to a bus. The last leg was a short walk in what looked like a totally lovely old residential neighborhood (called Strahlen) that didn’t look like it could possibly HAVE hotels. But once we had found the hotel / guest house, the Hotel Villa Seraphinum, we were thrilled—it’s an adorable old villa  that a countess/lady of the court built about 200 years ago, and I assume from the the fact that we have room # 10 that it doesn’t have much more than 10 rooms. We were guided into the house by a little printed note by the front door, since they do not have a reception, and had to go across this fabulous “bridge” from one side of the house to the other. If it were a ditch in the ground, I would have known to call it a ha-ha, but for that to be a second-story walkway is apparently as unusual here as elsewhere (the hotel info claimed it was unique in Dresden). We dumped our things and took advantage of the last light of the day to take a quick walk around. It is a beautiful area of town which clearly survived the firestorm in 1945, with many 18th-and 19th-century townhomes and an early-20th-century church called Christuskirche, about which we learned that it was one of the churches that offered sanctuary to protesters in the fall of 1989, when the Monday demonstrations in East Germany began that eventually led to the “fall” of East Germany and to German reunification. The church is rather ugly blackened sandstone, and it was apparently damaged somewhat during the firestorm and then repaired, but the hill it sits on is beautiful, as is this neighborhood. But it was getting dark and we were getting tired, so we walked home and got ourselves ready for bed and for our big Dresden day tomorrow. 

Day 6: Saturday, June 1: Dresden

This rather hideous 19th-century neoclassical building, now the academy of the arts, amused us as the biggest Western Art cheat sheet, with the “Great Masters” inscribed in gold on the lintels of the upstairs windows.
The rebuilt Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Only the blackened blocks of sandstone are part of the original church, destroyed during the Dresden Firestorm toward the end of WWII
Dresden’s Zwinger, formerly administrative building & palace, now the home of the gallery of pre-1800 paintings, the collection of scientific instruments, and porcelain collection (which we skipped)
The view along the promenade / walkway on top of the Zwinger.
A tondo (round religious painting) of the holy family by Piero di Cosimo.
The famous Sistine Madonna by Raphael.
The especially famous and often-copied bored angels of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.
The mini exhibit on the (uniform) frames and framers of the Gallery of Paintings in Dresden
A mechanical calculator designed by mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal.
The Dresden Pride Parade. We marched for a little bit, but were mostly onlookers and cheerers-on.
The flag part of the march made the multi-cultural facet of the Pride Parade beautifully obvious.

Today was our Dresden day—unfortunately for me, it started just before 5 am, because I woke up to early and couldn’t go back to sleep. But at least I stayed in bed and rested some more until it was time for a shower and a LOVELY hotel breakfast with all the German accoutrements and (of course) real dishes and real silverware. Afterwards, we set out for our Dresden adventure under glorious blue skies, on the warmest day we’ve had so far (in the 80s by the afternoon). We took the tram from near here to the historic city center of Dresden, and then just started walking around and looking at the mix of old, new, and lovingly restored buildings. I have to admit that the style of most buildings (restored baroque and restored 19th-century neoclassical) doesn’t really rock my socks off, but given that most of the city center of Dresden was destroyed in the famous February 1945 bombing, it is stunning how much they have been able to restore, much of it not right after the war, but over many decades, including the parts that were not even attempted until after reunification. Photos do not do it justice because they don’t show what is old and what is new—typically, very blackened sandstone is old and light beige is old, but some of it has also been sandblasted rather than restored. There is also still quite a bit of construction going on all the time, including major work on the tram tracks. 

So even though the individual buildings actually often struck me as ugly, the overall effect of the “ensemble” was impressive, and there is enough green between the sandstone buildings, not to mention the river Elbe with its many bridges bordering downtown, that the “new old town” was actually really fun to walk around in. But I had to laugh about the pompous celebration of Western art along the front of the Academy of the Arts, with the name of famous Western artists, antique and “modern,” inscribed like the whole thing was a gigantic crib note for my art history exam (Praxiteles! Raphael! And then some negligible 19th-century dude named Erwin von Steinbach that they must have thought was the future of German art in 1893–well, he wasn’t). 

The famous Frauenkirche is always touted as the most impressive of the restoration—it had been left as rubble, with two large portions standing in the ruins, by the East German government, to be a memorial, but after 1990, a lot of money was raised to identify useable fragments and rebuild the church, supplementing the rest. We didn’t go inside, but the outside is certainly impressive as a recreation. I have vague memories of the two black pillars  from my visit in the 1980s, although I don’t remember the rubble. Again, photos don’t do the old or new church justice. 

After we had walked around for a bit, just getting our bearings and enjoying the views and the early birds among the tourists, we went to the Zwinger, the former residence of the rulers of Dresden and the surrounding country of Saxony (at some point, they were counts or dukes, later they were kings—I can never keep this quite straight, but as of the 17th century, they ruled from this enormous palace with a large courtyard and ridiculous ornamentation all over the parapets. There is a walk all around the parapets, as well as multiple museums, the earliest of which were instituted in the 1800s, while other buildings began to be used for government purposes. The rulers of Saxony were avid collectors of various things, including paintings and sculpture, and also (because of one early ruler’s avid interest) mathematical and scientific instruments. So we got to go into two different museums in the same building: the Alte Gemäldegalerie, with art from ca. 1500-1800, and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, the collection of scientific instruments begun all the way back in the 1580s. Both were a lot of fun, although I think Mark had a better time with the science. More below about the art, but be it noted that I also found the old science intriguing, including various time pieces (pocket sun dials, astrological clocks, you name it), vacuum tubes, models of the solar system, and a calculator designed by Blaise Pascal. 

Between our two museum tours, we actually left to find ourselves some food in an outdoor cafe (we had Flammkuchen, which is a super-thin-crust flat bread with a little cheese, ham, and onion on it, and a Caesar salad with some very un-Caesary ingredients), and we watched as a big special event got launched—the annual gay pride parade (in the European tradition, named Christopher Street Day parade, after the June 28 parades in New York and LA that celebrated the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots and then many more). We walked with the parade of many hundreds of people in a festive but also clearly politicized mood as they got their start around 12:30, and later, after our second half of the museum visit, we caught back up with them as they were walking along the Elbe river—they had been marching for 3 hours in the heat already, and many were clearly wilting, but still going strong after some time in the shade. Pretty amazing. 

We opted for a gelato and a big bottle of water to cool us off at that point, and then walked across the river on one bridge and took the tram back across another one. We still felt we needed a bit more green space and made our way by tram to the huge city park (Grosser Schlosspark), which is in fact really big (the fairly large zoo comprises perhaps a sixth or eight of it). We basically walked its length on its southern edge, enjoying the shade and the many people who were out and about, and then found ourselves a little hole-in-the-wall Indian place with a couple of outdoor tables near our hotel. We had perfectly decent Chicken Tikka and Tandoori chicken with a huge pile of naan, plus a bottle of water, for 12 Euro. By comparison, our gelato plus a large bottle of mineral water had been 20 Euro! 

Then we picked up some snacks in a nearby supermarket and headed back to the hotel. It would have been nice to have more time in the day, and add something like the history museum or the art after 1800 (there’s a whole second museum for that) but that was really all we could handle in a day! 

AH-TLDR

The reason that I opted for the Alte Gemäldegalerie was not just that it had Renaissance paintings of some interest, but that it was the museum George Eliot went to see in 1858, when she stayed in Dresden for six weeks, working on her novel Adam Bede in the mornings and visiting the gallery later in the day, returning again and again to a painting she adored and that I quite dislike—Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (her partner, George Henry Lewes, actually called her „Madonna“ some of the time and had her fascination with this painting in mind when he did that).  I really just don’t get it, but she apparently liked really sweet, soft sfumato painting styles in bright colors (although she later distanced herself at least from Guido Reni, who to me is even more cloying than Raphael’s Madonna. But she also mentioned some other paintings as “memorable,” so I tried to pay special attention to the Correggios and the Holbeins that she saw. And I totally get her fascinating with Titian’s Tribute Money (that intense stare of the Pharisee! Wow.) and her praise of the Titian-may-be-Giorgione Venus.  

But I also had my own interests and curiosities: I was excited to see my very first Piero di Cosimo painting in person, a Tondo (a round devotional painting for a private setting) of the holy family with John the Baptist and a couple of angels. Not my favorite, but at least it was my first Piero! I had written an art history paper about him last fall and never seen any of his work in a museum. There was also a small part of a chopped-up predella by Fra Angelico that I wasn‘t sure what to make of. I also got to see a newly restored Vermeer (the one of the girl reading a letter), and a second, much cruder and less well-painted one, In the House of the Procuress.

There were also some unexpected surprises: I didn‘t know that the plaster-cast collection of the painter Adolph Mengs, close friend of Winckelmann’s, was at this museum, and those are of some historical interest for me, because plaster casts of ancient statues were so important in the 18th and 19th century and then so many were just ditched. George Eliot saw many antique statues as casts long before she saw the Roman marbles (and basically no Greek originals), and that was the norm for many viewers. There were also a lot of bronze copies of ancient and Renaissance works, but usually not to scale, but much smaller, and I don‘t really know enough to understand what that was about. Why would you want a table-top copy of a large marble or bronze statue in your collection? Why was that prestigious? I‘ll have to find out a bit more about that. 

Lastly, there was actually a room dedicated to the uniform frames that many of the paintings used to have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how this tradition came about, and that is, to me, an important part of museum history. The museum displays do, for the most part, look pretty different from the way they did in the 19th century, when the paintings were hung in three rows and became basically prestigious wall paper. But in some rooms (and in the trompe l’oeuil „curtain“ in front of an empty wall at the end of the second-floor display) you can still see what that would have looked like at the Gemäldegalerie. No wonder Eliot always points out that she can only recall a few of the pieces she’s seen. Without the ability to tell Mark to take a picture of this or that piece, and then writing about them, they’d never stick even now, when there are typically just a few in each room or “cabinet.” 

Day 7: Sunday, June 2: Berlin

Bridge Across the Spree in Berlin
The always-visible Victory column with its golden angel at the center of Tiergarten (the Central Park of Berlin)
Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian.
Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian, Detail of “seeing things in the clouds” (a sign of the painter’s imagination as well as his learnedness)
Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid
Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, Detail of the fly on Mars’ pillow
Portrait of a Lady by Botticelli
Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of one of her mother, Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola, 1557
Correggio’s Leda with a rather obviously amorous Swan
Caravaggio’s Amor Victorious
Self-Portrait (with special visual apparatus)
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Woman (Hendrickje Stoffels?), ca. 1656
Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Holbein, Portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze, 1532

This morning, we had a quick breakfast at our lovely Villa Seraphinum, settled our bills, and took a taxi to the train station to avoid the hassle of getting connecting buses and trams on a Sunday morning. We were booked on a pretty full train to Berlin, so I am really glad that I had gotten extra reservations after initially thinking when I booked our ticket that I wouldn‘t need any. We were actually in a compartment for six, pretty much like sardines, given that everyone had luggage, but we had a really good conversation about traveling, art, and music going, with a woman who lives in Dresden and loved talking about traveling, an older couple from the countryside who were on their way to Norway to take a cruise, and a young man, probably not 20, a classic choir boy (from a youth choir from Fulda, where my dad went to school) who was about to start his training to become a bass-baritone operatic singer, and was excited to tell us about next year’s trip to Florence for a European choir festival. In the spirit of 6 degrees of separation, it turned out that a) he was on his way to Osnabrück to help a former teacher out with a musical program there, and b) that he spent his entire schooling as a kid at the Waldorf school in Loheland, where my aunt Karin got her first job as a weaver in the early 50s, and where she lived until she got married and emigrated to the US in the mid-60s. Crazy. Poor Mark was again mostly excluded from the conversation, because I couldn‘t translate as fast as we were changing topics! 

The two hours went really quickly that way, and once we got to Berlin, we found the bus to our hotel right away, and were actually able to do an early check-in and leave our bags in our room.  Then we set out, in glorious, sunny weather, to walk to the museum. We took the slightly longer route—our Meininger chain hotel (in the part of Berlin called Moabit) is north of the huge „Central Park“ of Berlin, Tiergarten (the former hunting grounds of the kings of Prussia), and north of the river Spree that runs through Berlin. So we crossed the river into the park and walked through the park with its lovely shade to get to the Gemäldegalerie Berlin, where the state collection’s 1300-1800 paintings are. We took a slight detour, because something was going on on the main road through the park, which turned out to be a huge fair relating to environmental products, from rental e-bikes and the German version of ZIP cars to farm products and reusable coffee cups. The political parties and environmental organizations had stands, and the anti-nuclear-energy people were right across from the nuclear energy booth. We strolled around for a little bit and then finally did make it to the museum. We hadn‘t had lunch yet, so we took advantage of the cafeteria and had quiches and salad before going on our extensive walk through the museum. I feel bad for Mark, because this was already four very intense hours and I told him Florence would be way worse! 

But until I got tired myself about 3 hours in, I had a really good time, and I had set it up so we started with the temporary exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, and then focused on the Italian Renaissance and Baroque artists, to be followed by the Dutch and German baroque, working backwards. So it wasn‘t so terrible that we were out of steam by the time we got to the Dutch and German artists of the late Middle Ages, which I do not care about that much.  More below in the AH-TLDR section on the art I saw, but I was really pleased to find a painting by a female Renaissance painter, Sofonisba Anguissola, and discover a self-portrait by another female painter, an 18th century German woman named Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721–1782), who had done an interesting self-portrait while wearing an interesting monocular contraption (presumably to see her subject matter better). But the highlight of the museum visit were the Mantegna-Bellini exhibit and seeing Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars, and Cupid, which I had written about, up close.

By the time we left about 4:30, Mark was so worn out that he didn‘t take any additional pictures until we got home, although we went all over the Tiergarten park, even taking a little nap on the grass in the shade. It was beautiful outside, although definitely hot, and so we did spend a lot of time trying to find shade. The park is full of mature trees and windy paths, so that was the perfect environment for the day. But eventually we got hungry and walked back into the Moabit neighborhood and found ourselves some Döner—the Turkish variant of gyros that became the # 1 German fast food many years ago in Berlin. We had them „in style“ at a little rickety outdoor table at a little shop with about three such tables right on the sidewalk, and wrapped up with a surprisingly boring gelato. We headed home to the hotel about 7 pm, full of impressions but out of steam. We hung out in the large lobby/bar area for a while, hoping for it to cool down a little, and to look at our photos. As with Dresden, one day is not enough in Berlin—but we know we‘ll be back. 

AH-TLDR

Too much to talk about! Here are some highlights. 

  1. The exhibit on Mantegna and Bellini, who were brothers-in-law and at times rivals, and had pretty similar but not identical styles, especially as Mantegna left for Mantua while Bellini stayed in Padua and then left for Venice, was really impressive because it compared certain works of theirs where they clearly influenced each other or where Bellini copied from Mantegna. Many of the pieces in the exhibit were „art history textbook“ examples, like their two versions of the Agony in the Garden and their two Saint Sebastians (I also saw the Saint Sebastian of the Modern Underwear yesterday in Dresden, and a Rubens variant today). But another pair, the dual version of Presentation of Christ at the Temple, I hadn‘t seen before, and since the two paintings are not normally in the same museum, it was pretty special, and there were a lot of sketches and a few etchings, which are always hard to come by in the original. Not to mention an exhibit on restoration which showed how damaged some of these paintings really are, and how often they have been retouched  and painted over. Crazy. But the highlight of the Mantegna portion was really the St. Sebastian, since I had read a long essay by my professor Andrea Bolland about this piece, and she‘d also covered it in lecture, so I really saw things I would otherwise not have seen. She talked about the way a horse pops up in the clouds on the top left, for example, and that was very clearly visible. And I was also amazed at how small the painting is. I had imagined it much bigger, but it was only about 2 feet tall. 
  2. Another Piero di Cosimo! Venus, Mars, and Cupid. This one was much more meaningful to me, because I had looked at it in more detail, and it didn‘t have a Christian theme. I am also wondering whether Eliot did in fact see this one on her museum visits in Berlin (she doesn‘t mention it then, and in the Romola, the reference to the big bunny in it could come directly from Vasari; but it is possible, if the painting was already in Berlin in 1856. I have to do a little digging). But I know this painting quite well, and seeing the details close up was very cool. There is a butterfly on Mars‘s leg and a teeny fly (fly size) on his pillow, and I also saw a detail I‘d never noticed before—a piece of Mars‘s discarded armor that is just flying through the air, presumably flung by the little cupids/putti that are playing with the armor. It‘s always hard for me to look at minute details of paintings, but knowing this one so well really made that a possibility. 
  3. The women painters and some portraits of women, including one with a crazy complex hairdo by Botticelli, are just always interesting to me. Some look so generic and boilerplate (including ALL the Italian Marys) while others (for example the Rembrandt portrait of the Young Woman at an Open Door) seem so individualizedAlso the representations of women that are clearly meant to be erotic, like the Botticelli Venus and another Venus by Titian, and also a pretty racy Leda with the Swan with the Zeus-Swan right between her legs, not to mention the Cranach women who “wear” diaphanous veils. But to be fair, there was also a pretty sexy Victorious Amor by Caravaggio, even as other male nudes were clearly not meant to be erotic—at least I hope the St. Sebastians with the many arrows is not turning anyone on! And with all of these, I keep trying to figure out how the traveling, museum-going women in the 19th century, with their “proper” upbringing, would have reacted to those. So hard to tell without many comments in guidebooks and even journals. 
  4. The vast number of Italian paintings in the collection is really quite impressive. All the greats from Giotto and Gentile to Raphael, and the mannerists including Caravaggio, were well represented, and a bunch of not-so-greats as well (only a handful of baroque and rococo artists and barely anyone from the 18th century except Joshua Reynolds). I had Mark take a bunch of pictures, especially of course of the painters Eliot admired—Ghirlandaio, and above all Raphael. There is no Michelangelo here, but then there are not that many paintings by him, anyway; same with Leonardo. But the Raphael Madonnas (3 more here) are all over the place, and there was a Fra Angelico Last Judgment with a lot of bits of angelic gold. 
  5. More interesting, in some respects, was to see some of the Dutch pieces that were like the ones that got the Italians to shift from tempera to oil—there were several Hugh van der Goes pieces and a couple of possible Jan van Eycks, and you can really see the difference between oil and tempera strikingly. So I have a new appreciation for some of the things I already knew “on paper” but couldn’t quite imagine in reality. The same was also true about seeing the two Donatello relief sculptures that they had put in the Mantegna/Bellini exhibit to show how he uses “atmospheric perspective” to produce depth—that was very eye-opening.
  6. I cannot believe how many Rembrandts they had—basically two rooms full. I knew about the massive churning out that happened in Rubens’s shop, but I didn’t think there were that many Rembrandts. I don’t know nearly as much about the Dutch painters as I do about the Italians, so I guess I should find out more, because I do like the way Rembrandt uses light and dark. Although my favorite Dutch painter is still Vermeer, and I am now probably already at the 15% mark of all the extant Vermeers, having seen 3 here in Berlin and Dresden and 3 in Holland. There are so few of them—35, maybe?  
  7. Although I was already quite tired, I did look very carefully at the Holbein portraits that were exhibited, thinking of my friend Ashley and all she taught me about Holbein and his portraits. There is one of a merchant with all his tools of the trade that was really interesting, and I had Mark take a picture of that in honor of Ashley’s teachings. 🙂 

Day 8: Monday, June 3: Berlin to Rome

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After a night with not as much sleep as I would have liked, we left an already quite-warm Berlin for a sunny but cooler Rome. The trip itself was uneventful—we had coffee and rolls at a little sidewalk cafe, then took the bus to the airport, which only takes 15 minutes, but we got pretty crowded on the way, and Tegel airport is crowded and full of long lines. There was a hold-up at the security check because the people in front of us had bought a dangerous-looking souvenir that alerted the x-ray machines: a long brass bullet casing with a small decorative knife in it. But we had come extra early and we made it to our gate on time. Rome’s airport was better organized and we found our shuttle bus without a problem. It was about an hour’s ride to the station near our guest house (and this time, “near” really meant 2 minutes), which is this completely charming set-up of many small rooms on the ground floor of a late-19th century apartment building in the residential area just north of the Vatican, which was built in the late 19th-/early 20th century and looks lovely to me with its yellows and beiges and its many roof gardens and balconies. 

We have everything we need in our room, including a teeny efficiency kitchen built into the closet. Juan, the “receptionist” who was there to meet us (the whole thing about these guest houses is that they do not have someone on staff all the time, and you have to make arrangements for getting keys etc.) was very nice and gave us a good introduction to how to get place from here, including many warnings about how to not get ripped off and where to not eat because prices double for tourists. He recommended the neighborhood itself for small bites to eat etc., and so we set out to find a sidewalk place, but it was very early (5 pm) and most of the traffic was still just at the cafes. We settled on a place that served pasta but was really just a glorified fast-food stand. So the pasta was marginal, and we need to find a better way to combine eating cheap with making sure we still eat delicious and occasionally even healthy things. We then found a small supermarket (the equivalent of the little SPARs in France and England, here called PAM) and got some yogurt for the morning and some picnic food for later, took it back to our mini fridge, and went for an evening walk through some of the closest touristy parts of Rome. 

All we had to do for that was to walk around the Castel Sant’Angelo, the huge pentagonal “fortress of the popes” which actually started out as a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and is now a small park with a museum in the middle, and cross the Sant’Angelo bridge (with the all-imposing view of St. Peter’s Basicila) into the downtown area. Rather than trying to find anything in particular, I just wanted Mark to get the feel of the many windy streets and little plazas that I had so much fun rambling through before, without trying to keep track of which church was where, what building was built when etc. Just to take things in. That was fun, and we ended up (with a little bit of in-between checking of the google map on our phone) on the Piazza Navona, which is really fun, touristy or not—spacious in the middle of all the narrow streets and teeny plazas, and with the seagulls not really caring that the fountain of the four rivers is a Bernini (I’m not sure the tourists really care either, certainly not by 7 pm when they are tired). There was street music and gelato and there were benches to sit on and people to watch, so we were happy. We took more windy streets to get back home and came out by the Palace of Justice, where the Italian Supreme Court meets, which I tagged (correctly) as a late 19th century attempt to build another neoclassical monster in the style of the Renaissance palaces. But obviously, given that most people don’t have immediate suspicions of fakery (or care), lots of people were milling around looking at the statues and medallions. I was intrigued to learn that its nickname is “the bad palace,” palazzacio, because of initial corruption and foundation issues when it was built. 

We took another little detour through the Castel Sant’Angelo to St. Peter’s (taking a perfect linear perspective picture with me in it on the way there), where I gave Mark a mini lecture on the history of St. Peter’s and the colonnade “pincers” that surround the plaza and make it look so imposing. Then we walked back to our apartment, less than 10 minutes from Eastern Vatican walls, and called it a night. Great start to our time in Rome. 

Day 9: Tuesday, June 4: Rome!

View of the Tiber and St. Peter from “the next bridge up” near our lodgings.
The famous view of the even more famous cupola of the Pantheon, nearly 2000 years old.
A leftover column from the former marble exterior of the Pantheon (on top of brick in concrete)
Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer in S. Maria sopra Minerva, across from the Pantheon
The Courtyard of Borromini’s S. Ivo (we couldn’t get in)
The crazy spiral tower of Borromini’s S. Ivo.
Baroque cupola at S. Agnese in Agone at the Piazza Navona
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Maybe Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore?
Duquesnoy’s fleshy baby angels in S. Maria dell’Anima
Fresco by Raphael in S. Maria della Pace’s Chigi chapel
Santa Maria della Pace
Santa Maria della Pace
S Maria della Page with Nun on her Cell Phone
Cat near the Torre de Argentina excavation site & cat sanctuary
Part of the excavation area near the Capitoline hill, where Roman structures were recycled by medieval and renaissance buildings, now removed.
Antje (and many others) on the way up to the top of the Capitoline Hill
Looking down from the Capitoline Hill onto the area of the Roman forum
Water Refill Station!
S. Maria in Aracoeli (the Heavenly Altar)
S. Maria in Aracoeli (the Heavenly Altar), Casket Ceiling
S. Maria in Aracoeli (the Heavenly Altar), gravestones (stepped on many times)
S. Maria in Aracoeli (the Heavenly Altar), nave
Excavations underneath the Capitoline Hill
Gold Mosaic in S. Maria in Trastevere, on the other side of the Tiber
Baroqued-up Ceiling in S. Maria in Trastevere
Crazy Baroque “through view” of a side chapel at S. Maria in Trastevere
Signs of the old (pre-Renaissance) design of the S. Maria in Trastevere. The granite columns were recycled from a Roman ruin, probably the Baths of Caracalla
Loggia in front of S. Maria in Trastevere
Mix of styles at S. Maria in Trastevere: Renaissance loggia, but older Romanesque pediment and campanile.
An instrument maker and his cat in Trastevere
View of Rome from the Piazza Garibaldi in Gianicolo Park.

This was a VERY full day in Rome. We had a breakfast of yogurt and tea in our room, thanks to the little fridge & electric kettle, and then we set out about 8 am for an extensive walk through downtown, crossing the river by the piazza del Rovere and then heading toward the Pantheon, which actually wasn’t too crowded at before 10 am. I had gotten the tip that churches are much more reliably open before noon, and we did really get into almost every church we wanted to see. I opted to include them all here, so the descriptions here will be long and a little list-y. Even as an art history student, I had the blurring problem and still need to sort quite a bit—everything became one church, especially as so many of them, even the ones that were Renaissance churches, typically got a heavy-duty baroque upgrade, so that everything has sort of an encrustation of ornamental twirlers even on top of originally straight lines. 

But we followed the advice of my Renaissance professor on what churches to check out and what to look for in them (for both Renaissance and Baroque), and that was really helpful. The Pantheon was, of course, impressive (I had seen it before), and the idea that the ancient Roman concrete held up so well for almost a couple of thousand years now, is mind-boggling. Walking around the outside of it, mostly brick and a couple of small spots where the marble „veneer“ was still in place (or stuck back into place), we tried to imagine what it would have looked like in Roman days, but failed. But it was certainly fun to see Roman engineering and economy at work with the brick-and-concrete concept with just that marble outside covering to make it look „all marble.“ We also visited the Bernini elephant / obelisk on the little piazza behind the pantheon, and the church right there, S.Maria Sopra Minerva, where Fra Angelico was buried and where we saw Michelangelo‘s Christ the Redeemer. 

After that, our path and the churches become kind of a blur, but to the best of my memory, after surrounding the Pantheon, we headed in the general direction of the Piazza Navona again, and went briefly into S. Eustachio in Campo Marzio, of which I remember nothing—but we have a photo! Once I spotted the top of S. Ivo alla Sapientia, I knew that’s where we needed to head next, but sadly, we couldn‘t go in. This church has a really cool Baroque design by Borromini, and we could see some of that from the outside in the courtyard, but without going in, it was not nearly as clear how ingenious the design is. But as we walked away from it, we got another glimpse of the lantern atop the cupola from a different angle and saw that it was a fancy spiral. Quite the quirky baroque thing to do. Borromini was really the king of that kind of thing. 

Borromini also had some impact on S. Agnese in Agone, one of the two churches on the Piazza Navona, where we headed next, although his rival and enemy Bernini was also involved. That church stood out to me mostly because it was the first I saw where the altarpieces were high-relief carvings (with all the depth effects one could wish for) rather than paintings. It also has a super decorated cupola and is just completely decked out with ornamentation. Baroque is exhausting.

Across from S. Agnese is another church, Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore, which we visited but about which I knew nothing. Wikipedia tells me that it used to be the church of the Spanish community in the Renaissance, but then that changed in the 17th century, and that parts of it were removed to make room for a street. But being in it, I couldn‘t tell it was an „unimportant“ church and I still wonder how one does that. While they don‘t all look the same to me like they used to, I still have the impulse to ask, as with books, how some of the decisions on the canon—on what‘s important and what isn‘t actually get made and also how they change. 

As per Andrea Bolland‘s recommendations, we then hit another two churches: the church of the German Catholics in Rome, S. Maria dell‘Anima, a hall church,  which I usually associate with simplicity, but which again was endowed with tons of baroque ornamentation. We admired a tomb that showed the fat putti of „the Flemish master of rendering baby flesh“ (as Bolland puts it), Francois Duquesnoy, and then moved on to the actual Renaissance church kitty corner, S. Maria della Pace, with a famous facade and courtyard by not one but two Renaissance architects (Cortona‘s facade, Bramante‘s courtyard), and the Chigi chapel, which has a fresco by Raphael with a Sybil that is supposed to be his answer to Michelangelo‘s Sybils on the Sistine chapel ceiling. The neighboring altar also had these interesting-looking marble sphinxes underneath the marble figures underneath the marble tomb sculptures of a couple. The courtyard presented an interesting twist, because an art installation that covered the whole open sky of the courtyard with clear plastic was being removed by means of hydraulic posts on all four corners. So we watched for a bit while this was happening. 

At this point, we needed a break from churches and lunch, so we headed home (our way home ALWAYS includes the incredible „long view“ of St. Peter‘s from the Via della Conciliazione), bought a couple of salads at the PAM store on the way, and had salad, focaccia-style bread, and salami for a very satisfying lunch at home. Mark took a little nap while I read up on my art history of what we‘d just seen (but it doesn‘t seem to all stick), and around 2 pm we set out again. 

Our first stop was Rome’s Florentine church, S. Giovanni del Fiorentini, which again has an altar by Borromini, and from the steps of which we looked down (as per Andrea‘s recommendations) one of the very first straight streets of Rome, the via Giulia, created in the early 16th century. We walked the via Giulia (I am, after all, here to experience Renaissance Rome), which leads past several Renaissance palazzos (now often embassies or Italian government buildings, we noticed—typically with soldiers guarding the entrance. At the palazzo Farnese (which we couldn‘t access), we turned towards the Largo di Torre Argentina, because that is where one goes to see cats on Roman ruins. There is actually a cat sanctuary, clearly funded by the cat lovers of Italy, England, and America, where street cats get sterilized (nicked ear and everything) and released (the ones who would not survive in the streets, especially blind cats, get to stay), and that clearly attracts more tourists than the ruins themselves, even as a docent was happy to explain to people what they were seeing below in the ruins.  

I hadn‘t realized how very close we were at that point to the Capitoline hill until we were standing right in front of the piazza d‘Aracoeli at the bottom of the stairs that lead up the hill. I spent a half a day here when I was in Rome in 2010, so I knew what to show Mark—so we climbed up, looked down the length of the forum, glanced at the copy of the bronze Marcus Aurelius on Michelangelo‘s plaza, and also visited the church, S. Maria in Ara Coeli (which translates into „the altar of heaven“). Lots of gold and ornament, but I find this church really interesting because of the flat coffered ceiling (I remember seeing it in 2010 and being so confused—how was this even a church? I was trained on German Gothic and Romanesque style, and flat ceilings were not in my register of what a church should be. There was some very cool natural light in this church making certain golden spots glisten, and the extremely worn marble grave stones in the floor were very cool. We did, however, use the back stairs to go in and out, rather than the endless front stairs which we watched some tourists climb. 

We then walked by the Teatro Marcello (a „mini coliseum“) and other Roman ruins that show the „underneath“ of the Capitoline Hill, and then made our way onto the Isola Tiberina. I remembered some very yummy gelato there, but we couldn‘t sit down on the island across from the „broken bridge,“ the ponto Rotto (as I had done before), because the area was being set up for a concert, festival, or the like. So we went across and sat on a wall, watching the Tiber from there and then made our way into Trastevere. 

I love the even-windier little streets there as I had before, but we also went to S. Maria in Trastevere, which was very cool, because part of it is so old. The Italo-Byzantine mosaics from the 13th century are an unusual sight for Rome, and the huge granite columns were actually recycled (up-cycled?) from a Roman complex (presumably the baths of Caracalle). The campanile is also in medieval style, and even though the facade was „classicized“ later, this church does have a really different feel. We left right as some people were coming in for a 5:30 pm service, and then found ourselves a little cafe with snacks and appetizers and had a „pizza romana“ (which is really a sandwich on a slice of focaccia bread) and some breads and cold cuts. Good but not great—we really do not quite know how to choose good food here. 

The last part of our day was then to walk from Trastevere to the Gianicolo park, up the hill to the piazza Garibaldi and then back down the hill toward the Vatican, with gorgeous views of Rome all the way along. It was great to see from a distance what we had seen close up on the other side of the Tiber, and the great surprise (which shouldn‘t have been one) was how silly and undistinguished the Pantheon looks from afar, compared to all the marble and painted stucco everywhere else. Just like a giant shallow clay bowl turned upside down. I assume it was all marble clad or at least plastered (how, though??? Gotta do some research on that) and that the marble was turned into lime in the limekilns of the Middle Ages. 

We were home about 7:30 and good and tired after over 12 miles of walking! But we ducked out to buy juice, sparkling and cookies, to finish our day with a nice little dessert date at our rickety dinner table—what a long but great day!