I recently bought Irving Stone’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” now more than 50 years in print. A month ago, had you told me I would be reading this biographical novel of Michelangelo Buonarroti, I would have considered you pazzo—crazy! My reads tend to be contemporary in content, very few printed before my birth—and definitely not ones set centuries ago. But something wonderful happened since then: I vacationed in Italy.
I know many people who have experienced Italy, so it’s unlikely I can offer anything unique to the standard Italian travelogue, much like my amateur photos of the Colosseum, Vatican, Duomo, Uffizi, Pantheon, etc., will do nothing to enrich the field of photography.
Still, how can I not at least share some moments of ecstasy with you, along with some moments of not exactly full-fledged agony, but near agony?
Michelangelo’s most famous masterpiece, David. The buck-naked marble man inspired awe as we paused many times during our 360-degree journey around the sculpture to contemplate and be moved by angles and lifelike anatomical details not captured in the full-frontal photos we grew up seeing in text books. Michelangelo’s famous frescoed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel held us in an hour-long trance, and had it not been for Mary resourcefully bringing a small mirror to aim at the ceiling, the rest of our vacation might have been hindered by a duo of stiff, sore necks. Michelangelo rocks!
Five stories’ worth of steep stairs lugging five loaded bags of luggage between us to reach the studio apartment on the roof of the historic Studio San Giovanni. It was a heart attack in the heart of Rome waiting to happen as I tried to keep up with the impatient Italian proprietress who chastised us the whole way in her faltered English about our late arrival. “Slow down,” I wanted to shout, but lacked enough breath. “We’re Americans.” The tiny apartment was barely big enough for the futon it housed. Across our private terrace were the toilet and shower. Hot water was but a wish. Mary’s flat iron went on the fritz at first try. (I must pause here to testify about the durable strength and spirit of Mary. Undaunted by her failed hairstyling device, she embraced and conquered Italy in unfaltering, beautiful fashion; whereas, I can’t help but believe that most women, without the morning fix of their trusty flat irons, would refuse to leave the rooftop.) As far as the apartment goes, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The food. All of it. The pizza in particular, cooked via high-temperature, wood-fired ovens, the freshness of the cheese, sauce and toppings (hail to thee, prosciutto, eggplant, artichoke . . .). The pasta dishes discovered in deep Italian neighborhoods where English is seldom shared, and where my own tongue tried not trip itself as it spoke, “Complimenti allo chef,” stretching out the syllables in a ridiculous southern Indiana drawl much to the amusement of our waiter who had likely never heard such butchery applied to that compliment before. Even the simplicity of sliced tomatoes and chunks of fresh mozzarella on a salad plate could make a monk avowed to silence belt out Bocelli. And don’t get me started on the gelato. The palate is truly pampered in Italy.
Deep frustration at the crowded Roma Termini in our struggle to find the right Florence train departure. Nowhere in Italy were we more lost and our minds and patience more taxed. We barely stepped aboard when the whistle blew. During our last night in Rome, at the same station, an Italian preyed on tourists at a malfunctioning self-service ticket machine, trying to scam us with tickets conveniently pulled from his pocket. Gullible and tired, I fell for the man’s “kindness.” Mary, though, was not fooled. She took the counterfeit tickets from me and pushed them at the shyster before I could pay. The grifter shrugged, smirked and returned to his perch near the broken ticket machine, waiting for his next victim. Outside the Colosseum (an ecstasy in its own right), I aimed my camera at an accordionist and violinist as they played an Italian tune, a tip can at their toes. They stopped in mid-song, the accordionist rushing at me, shouting, “You took our picture. Five Euros.” Not wanting to create an international incident, I slipped five Euros into his upturned palm. As I walked away with a lighter wallet, the accordion and violin resumed their siren song for the next gullible camera-toting tourist searching for the quintessential Italian street performer scene.
The tranquility of Monterosso, where we napped on the sand while the tidal tune of the Mediterranean Sea serenaded us, the salted sound replaced later by birdsong coming from the orange and lemon trees while we held hands and ascended to the Hotel Villa Adriana, Florence and Rome behind us, our legs tired, our bellies full, our trip of a lifetime nearing its end. Perhaps, ultimately, it is who you are with in Italy that makes Italy “Italy,” who it is with which you walk and with which you eat amid the ancient art and architecture.
I could share more, but it’s time to retreat to my paperback copy of “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” the Irving Stone oldie mentioned above that I bought upon my return home just so I could extend—mentally, at least—my Italian vacation. Michelangelo calls. Italy will not let me go. Ciao.
(This essay appears in Scott Saalman’s book, Nose Hairs Gone Wild. The ebook version is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can contact him at email@example.com for a soft cover copy.)