ITALY for first-time visitors
ITALY IS AN AESTHETIC CULTURE, not an efficiency culture as ours is. What difference does that make, you will ask?
1) DRESS and COLOR: It means Italians are not interested in whether something works fast and well, as we are; they are interested in whether something is beautiful. The reason for living for an Italian is to make life beautiful. Consequently, Italians value the way people are dressed in public much more highly than we do; their expression “fare la bella figura” (to make the beautiful figure) is used to describe the way one presents oneself on the street, and sloppiness or casual dress is frowned upon. Americans should be aware that they can even offend Italians if they wear bright colors and tennis shoes in town or at tourist spots (darker colors are thought to be more serious, as life is, and tennis shoes are considered appropriate only on the tennis court.) Decorum is especially important in churches: you can be kept out of Italian churches if you wear sleeveless blouses or short skirts; shoulders and knees must be covered.
What seems to us a superficial concern, appearance, is how they make their living. It is also why people flock to Italy to be nourished by the beauty created there. Italian design imbues all aspects of life: the way shop windows are set up, the way meats and deli foods are displayed, the way people dress up to go out in public, the way the coffee bar man swirls the milk of the cappuccino. It can manifest itself even in the color clothing people wear: usually one color is “in” for the year and Italians usually know which it is and make sure that they conform to the wearing of that color; foreigners who are unaware of that will be easily spotted as foreigners. (*You can figure out the color by noting which color appears most often in the window displays; one year I remember it was black and every woman wore a black dress on the street; one year it was purple, another beige.)
WORKING HOURS and the– PASSEGGIATA – An aesthetic culture means that shops are not always open during the hours posted; it’s more important for the shop owner to be out making the “bella figura” than to honor the hours on the sign. It also means that if you expect to look quickly through a shop for ten minutes, the shop owner will want to show you the best wares and those should be appreciated for their aesthetic value, which takes time, not possible in an efficiency browse.
You should expect that if you ask for a gift to be wrapped in a shop, even just to take out into the street, that time and attention will be required to admire the aesthetic way in which the gift is tidily packaged by the salesperson. Even if you buy wrapping paper, it will be wrapped for carrying in public! The shop owner will not understand if you are anxious to get away; s/he is not concerned with efficiency but with whether his/her or your own sense of the aesthetic life has been satisfied; that’s why Italians are always late to appointments; it’s more important to be seen in full dress for as long as it takes to be appreciated than it is to be on time somewhere. If you want to see Italians displaying their aesthetics, take a walk around 4 in the afternoon when they are out for their “passeggiata.” (the family stroll through town.) You will see people dressed up, laughing and talking as they walk slowly just enjoying the relaxing time between the siesta(2-3) and when they go back to work (4-7), (Italian time 5-8) . So the period 4-6 each day regarded as wasted in American Puritanical eyes is essential for the beauty of life for an Italian.
Even going to the post office or the bank can take hours because the point is not to get through quickly with stamps and packages mailed; the point is to watch the aesthetic way in which the teller counts out the money or the pleasing way in which the post office man pounds his dating stamp or lays out the beautiful stamps on the counter. If you go in expecting efficiency, you will only be frustrated. (Hours of operation are usually 8-12 and 4-7, but some museums and offices are only open 8-12.)
2) PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE LIFE - You should never carry anything, groceries, shoes for repair, cleaning, anything, in the street without putting it/them into a bag. Things need covering in public because an Italian never wants to offend the eyes of the other people in the street, or to be offended himself. So you will rarely see an Italian eating as they are walking out in public; even gelato usually gets eaten indoors. The chance that someone might be publicly offended by unwrapped shoes, unwrapped food, or even unwrapped gift-wrap is a sensitivity developed over many years in their aesthetic culture. They regard life as an aesthetic endeavor and if they err in the carrying out of that premise, they think it almost as immoral as we might a social crime. Many of our students used to get vicious looks for eating hamburgers on the run, an act of betrayal.
Consequently, the experience of Italy can be enhanced if you go into the society without American expectations and just enjoy the aesthetic experiences as they roll by you: the shoes and belts of the passersby, the display windows of shops (especially in Florence), the proper way a waiter serves the “fish soup”, “zuppa di pesce” or pasta, the way people have planted window boxes whose flowers cascade down the walls, the various greens in the scenery: silver-green of olive tree leaves, the dark green of the cypresses, the yellow-green of the vineyard leaves, the beautifully made leather and silver and mosaic inlays, not to mention all the artwork in the shops and museums and the food presented at table.
In Rome have a granita di caffe near the Pantheon at the Tazza d’Oro; in Florence have a pastry and caffe macchiato at the bar Gilli in piazza della Repubblica, a hot chocolate at Rivoire’s in Piazza Signoria, in Venice have a “zuppa di pesce” at the Taverna di San Trovaso near the Accademia Museum; have a Bellini drink at the Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco. Take in the art of beauty that Italians know how to create. “Beauty is nourishment,” I always told my students. No better place to get nourished than Italy.
ROME: Walking in Rome, except around the Pantheon, is like trying to walk in L.A.-excruciating because the place is huge; take an American Express tour bus ride for major sights; otherwise take a cab. Public buses and the metro are rife with gypsies and pickpockets.
ART: Must-sees: – SISTINE CEILING and St. Peter’s
FORUM and COLOSSEUM
From Pantheon walk to the nearby church of San Luigi dei Francesi (for Caravaggio’s paintings of the life of St. Matthew) and then on to Piazza Navona; or at night, walk from the Pantheon to the Trevi Fountain or Spanish Steps. If you want ancient art, walk from Pantheon to Capitoline museums housing bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and Boy Pulling Thorn out of his foot (Spinario). Otherwise take a bus tour.
If you have time: Galleria Borghese(tickets ahead) for Bernini’s statues of 1)David and 2) Apollo and Daphne (check out Daphne’s feet turning into tree roots).
For Baroque architecture a must-see is San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane by Borromini. Take a cab- Borghese and San Carlo both too far to walk. Or see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, also by cab.
Good pizza on Via Arenula (no sign, two blocks or so from river on left)
Good restaurants in the Campo dei Fiori
Good restaurant for the Roman specialty of Carciofi alla Giudea (Judean artichokes) – OTTAVIA
Good restaurant in the Trastevere area: DA MEO PATACCA (singing waiters and shows and outdoor tables)
Good outdoor restaurant called VECCHIA ROMA in Piazza Campitelli (between the Capitoline Hill and the river)
Good restaurant near Piazza Navona: DA EUSTACHIO
3 Scalini in Piazza Navona has great chocolate truffle ice cream
Tazza d’oro near Pantheon for granita di caffe
ART: 4 must-sees: MICHELANGELO’S REAL DAVID in the Accademia Museum
(book tickets online ahead of time)
BOTTICELLI’S PRIMAVERA and BIRTH OF VENUS (both in the same room in the Uffizi Galleria (Uffizi museum), also best visited with tickets ordered ahead)
View from PIAZZALE MICHELANGELO-10-minute cab-best view of city and river.
If you have time: Baptistery interior, Duomo (interior – see the wood inlay sacristy behind altar on left or climb to top of dome for the view – c.463 steps)
Opera del Duomo (museum behind Duomo that holds one of Michelangelo’s Pietas (he did 4) and the bronze doors of the Baptistery by Ghiberti)
Medici Chapel (behind San Lorenzo) for Michelangelo’s statues of Night and Day
Medici Palace Chapel for Gozzoli’s fresco of the Procession of the Magi
Museum of San Marco for Fra Angelico’s cell paintings
Museum of Chiesa del Carmine for Masaccio's frescoes
FOOD: Breakfast – Caffe Patrizio Cosi, Borgo degli Albizi– 7 a.m. onward
Lunch – 1:00 – (more like a dinner – can be 3 courses) – BORDINO’s over the river and up the hill left one block beyond Ponte Vecchio
Dinner – 7 or 8 – AQUA AL DUE – Tastes of 5 different pastas for first course – you might not want a second course; Il LATINI, Via dei Palchetti, 6r(red)-Tuscan food and lots of it.
FANCY RESTAURANTS in FLORENCE: ENOTECA PINCHIORRI, Via Ghibellina, 87
or OTTORINO, Via della Oche, 12
ART: 2 must-sees – EXTERIOR AND INTERIOR OF SAN MARCO exterior and interior of San Marco church – Mosaics line façade and interior walls. Visit the Pala d’Oro (10th century to 1342) behind the main altar – extra payment but worth it –thousands of jewels. Climb stairs in narthex to see the Hellenistic gilded bronze HORSES that originally stood where the copies stand now on the façade; façade walk there has good views.
If there’s time: Church of San Zaccaria – way behind San Marco – second altarpiece on left of nave – by Giovanni Bellini (1505) – a contemplative masterpiece with St. Peter,with keys, St. Catherine with her wheel, the Madonna and Child with lute player, St. Lucy with a palm frond, symbol of martyrdom, and San Zaccaria (the father of John the Baptist, Saint Zaccharias, who is buried across from the painting.)
Palazzo Ducale with the Bridge of Sighs and prisons from which Casanova escaped
Accademia Galleria – paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Carpaccio (15 minute walk from San Marco-follow signs)
Church of the Frari masterpieces by Donatello, Bellini, and Titian.
Palladio's church of San Giorgio Maggiore (visible from Palazzo Ducale, must take boat ride across canal).
FOOD: DA RAFFAELE - on canal – take a gondola ride afterwards and pay for an accordion player and singer to accompany) La Madonna (for seafood risotto) Fenice (elegant -near the famous theater) And, of course, Taverna di San Trovaso, near Accademia Gallery, for the fish soup “zuppa di pesci”(might not be served in summer)
ISLAND: Murano to see glass-blowing factory; good outdoor restaurant in main piazza;
fabulous Giovanni Bellini painting in the church of San Pietro Martire there, but church rarely open
Be careful not to get Stendahl’s disease - presents as dizziness from seeing too much art – hospital cases reported every year in Italy, seriously!
QUICK ITALIAN PRONUNCIATION COURSE:
No word “to spell” in Italian because once you know the rules you can pronounce any Italian word :
All VOWELS are PRONOUNCED (no silent vowels as in English and French)
USUALLY the ACCENT is on the PENULTIMATE SYLLABLE
C or G followed by I or E is soft –
C or G followed by A,O, or U is hard –
Carciofi (artichokes) has first hard C hard as in CAR then a soft C as in CHOKE so “artichokes” is pronounced in Italian: Carciofi=CAR-CHO-FEE (Accent on the cho)
Godi (you enjoy) – Go-DEE, Giotto (Joh-toh)
CENTO DOLLARI (one hundred dollars) = CHAYNTO DOLL-AR-EE (accents on CHAYN and DOLL)
I is always pronounced EE
E is always pronounced long A as in the first letter of the alphabet, AY
A is always pronounced short A as in AH
Double consonants are always given emphasis – PIZZA - Peezzah
CHI or CHE is always a hard “K” sound,
Key or Kay respectively for these two words that mean “Who” or “What” in English., so the word for church, CHIESA, is pronounced “Key-AY-ZAH” with accent on the AY, but cathedral, CATTEDRALE, is pronounced CAH-TAY-DRAH-LAY (accent on the drah).
Phrases you will use most:
PER FAVORE (Please) ; PEAR– FA-VOR-AY (Accent on vor)
GRAZIE (Thank you): GRAH/ZEE-AY accent irregular- on GRAH
PREGO (You’re Welcome or to urge someone to go ahead of you in line)PRAY-GO (accent on PRAY)
SCUSI – (Excuse me) : Scoozee (accent on scoo)
QUANTO COSTA(how much does it cost?) – Quahnto – costah?
Every region in Italy has a different dialect; in Florence, for instance, they
aspirate every C to an H sound, so Coca Cola becomes “Hoha hola”, but leave regionalisms for your next trip. Italians are always happy if you try to say anything in their language.