Monthly Archives: September 2011

Great Expectations: Bernini and Michelangelo

I am going to nerd out on your ass so. Hard. Right. Now.

I should have been an art history major. Of course, I didn’t realize I liked art until halfway through my junior year of college, studying in London just around the corner from the National Gallery.  I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and I was hooked. (How’s this for irony: I have a distinct memory of seeing Van Gogh’s painting of shoes in high school and thinking, “This is art? Art is stupid.” Already articulate and sophisticated at fifteen.)

I took a survey art history class my senior year at Notre Dame and really loved it, broad overview and 8:30am time slot notwithstanding. In the Baroque chapter there was a picture of a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, depicting an angel holding an arrow that pierces the heart of Teresa, giving her the most exquisite pain imaginable. The sculpture seems to move, flow, radiate. The expression on Teresa’s face is unearthly and glorious.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

I’ve carried the memory of that little textbook photo for a decade, always wondering what it would be like to stand in front of it.  When I got this contract, I looked up the exact location of Bernini’s masterpiece, and upon discovering it was in Rome, I knew this whole experience would be worth it.

After careful map studying, I wended my way to Santa Maria della Vittoria.  There, in a small, ornately (almost gaudily) decorated church, I came face to face with Teresa.

It was…a little underwhelming.

Leave it to the Catholic Church to set the sculpture high and far back into a wall, under extremely poor lighting. It looks small and removed, cold and aloof. I suppose the Catholics were afraid to let their parishoners see it too closely. Might give the ladies some ideas about pleasure. Teresa does look a bit orgasmic.  God forbid anyone enjoy their faith.

I looked at it. My heart didn’t quite flutter the way I was expecting.

In contrast, when I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica and looked at Michelangelo’s Pieta, I started to cry. I wasn’t expecting that at all. It quietly encapsulates exactly what despair feels like.

But I knew it wasn’t Bernini or Teresa’s fault I felt alienated.  When I bought postcards at Santa Maria from an ancient priest who recited rosaries between sales, I was again stunned by the sculpture. In the four by six postcards, with bright, clear lighting and the camera focusing on the angel’s serene smile and Teresa’s upturned face (really, you’re gonna make everyone crane their necks to look at something that is also facing upward?) – that’s when my heart lurched.

Semiotics: the postcard is a representation of a sculpture therefore is the sculpture. Can the reality of the postcard be better than the reality of the sculpture?

Next I went to the Galleria Borghese, a private collection of the most phenomenal Renaissance art collected by a rich and ruthless cardinal in the seventeenth century.

Borghese’s collection is full of Bernini’s work, including Apollo and Daphne, The Rape of Proserpina, and a David about to slingshot Goliath. These sculptures rest on pedestals at ground level, in the center of brightly lit rooms.   I walked into these rooms where I could reach out and touch Bernini’s handiwork (well, if I wanted to get kicked out) and literally stopped breathing.

Some things just can’t be described in words. I’m a writer, and it’s a sore spot that words can fail. But they do, far too often.

It’s astounding to me that Bernini could take an act like rape and make it beautiful. It’s deeply disturbing to look at a statue of a man gripping a woman against her will, to see the look of terror in her eyes and say, “My God. How gorgeous!”

What kind of mindfuck is that?

In Florence I visited the Museo Bargello and the Medici Chapel, both of which house a much of Michelangelo’s sculptural output. People go wild for him, particularly the David. Before my art history class I hadn’t heard of Bernini, though of course Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles introduced me to Michelangelo in grade school.

Beyond the Pieta, none of Michelangelo’s work has moved me even a fraction as much as Bernini’s does. It’s static. Lovely, but in a less  thought-provoking way. I haven’t yet gotten to the David, but I wonder if it will seem more like a Disney attraction than a piece of art, like the Trevi Fountain or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

I love Bernini’s work for the craftsmanship that makes marble look as soft as flesh. But also because he chose to capture the moments – in Teresa, Apollo and Daphne, The Rape – where pleasure and pain touch. He takes torture and makes it beautiful.

That’s where I live. That’s what fascinates me, the intersection of joy and sorrow. How can they live so close together without creating numbness?  How can two extremes exist in the same moment? Bittersweet is the most interesting emotion, and Bernini seemed to get that.

I will continue to scavenger hunt Bernini’s work around Rome and I will make a point of seeing the David and any other Michelangelo sculpture I can find, to discover what others love about him. We’ll see if either of them overturns my expectations.


Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | 1 Comment

I Heart NY

It started with Ghostbusters.

We have a movie night here on the ship, where we’ll gather in the theatre to watch some random classic. As I sat in the dark watching Ghostbusters, my heart ached seeing New York City.

I missed it.

I’ve always wanted to live in New York. Really, I can’t think of anyplace else I’ve ever consciously thought I would grow up to live. Staying in the Jersey suburbs was never an option. When I moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Notre Dame, I knew it was temporary. I knew I’d end up in New York.

It always filled me with a sense of possibility and joy, driving up the Garden State Parkway, and seeing the city skyline when the landscape opened up somewhere in the milemarkers of the early 100’s. Still forty-five minutes away from Manhattan, it was like a little giddy preview to see the Twin Towers gleaming and tall, waiting to welcome all my hopes and dreams.

Part of that decision to head west after college was that it was less than a year after September 11th. It was all still too raw. I was scared of a location so volatile. I wasn’t ready to go home yet.

Then, too, once I finally moved to the City (it’s always “the City” to Jersey kids) three years ago, I found it wasn’t quite as welcoming as my childhood fantasies and the movies made it seem. I’ve written before about my struggle to feel at home in New York, my fear that I just didn’t quite fit.

So now here I am, far, far away in the Mediterranean for six months, and Ghostbusters makes me homesick.   Then I found myself watching bad movies just to catch a glimpse of the city: Death to Smoochie (yikes), P.S. I Love You (double yikes).

I knew I was really homesick when scenes of Times Square made me feel a twinge.  Times Square is the cesspooly bowels of NYC as far as I’m concerned, to be avoided at all costs. And yet seeing it on the big screen made my heart ache.

I also read three books in a row that take place mainly in New York, all beautifully written: Half-Empty by David Rakoff, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteynhart, and Just Kids by Patti Smith. (You should read them all, they are tremendous.)

Reading them, I could visualize exactly where  the characters were. For the first time I realized how well I know the city. Oh, I still have a lot of streets to walk, and a lot of restaurants to try, a  lot of people-watching to do. But I’m amazed to discover New York is no longer just a fantasy, the romantic Upper East Side dream of When Harry Met Sally (another movie recently screened on the ship that I watched with envy.) New York isn’t a movie. New York is a grid, and I get it. It’s where I live. It’s home.

Home. That funny word.

I haven’t been sure before now that New York was home. Like I said, the City isn’t kind to the new, the friendless, the not-full-time employeed.  I have floundered just to stay afloat in New York, and I have taken it personally every time the city has slapped me down.

But now that I’m far away, seeing some really tremendously beautiful places, exploring foreign cultures…I don’t know. I love Italy. It’s actually the first place I’ve traveled in a long long time that feels exciting in a way I recognize, that I feel some connection with.

But I couldn’t live here. It’s not home. I gotta go back to New York. And the best part about going home will be taking my explorer’s heart and experiencing New York with the same thrill and sense of wonder that I’m seeing Italy with.

New York is difficult. Rent and groceries are mind-crushingly expensive. The people can be loud, obnoxious, rude, 8th Street between Broadway and Lafayette can smell like shit, the subways can make you claustrophobic. New York won’t care about your needs, it won’t respond to your pleas for mercy.

But it can give you the most unexpected gifts: quiet moments on new streets, sunlit days stumbling upon a park with frolicking concrete seals, exuberant nights with friends (too countless to recount), new discoveries that could literally be just around the next corner. You never know where you should turn, and sometimes you might miss the block,  but keep walking. You will most assuredly find another adventure – or at least a comforting cupcake (or dive bar, burger, Chinese food: whatever comforts you, 24/7) – if you keep moving.

So for better or worse, I’m a New Yorker now. It’s good to know it definitively, to let go of the gnawing sense that I don’t know where I belong. And I look forward to going home in a few months, with a stronger sense of who I am from having been absent, and a better sense of how to get what I want from that city I love that will never quite love me back.

The thing about New York is, it shows no judgement toward misfits. It’s impossible NOT to fit in there. I might feel like an outsider still, but I’m getting there. New York only reflects back to you what you feel about yourself, but it doesn’t look down on you for being awkward, freaky, abrasive. It celebrates weirdness. I should too.

Anyway, I still get giddy when I see the skyline.

Even on the streets of Rome, they heart NY.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | 5 Comments

Un piccolo caffè (How Italian Coffee Just Doesn’t Measure Up)

I pretty much love everything about Italy. A carb, cheese, and wine-based diet? Done. A balcony on every window? Yes, please. Narrow, twisty cobble-stone lanes? Adorable. (Okay, I do appreciate New York’s grid system when trying to, you know, actually find a specific location. But there is nothing adorable about a grid.) Beautiful scenic vistas and all the greatest art the Renaissance produced? Sign me up. I could live here.

Except for one thing.

The size of a cup of coffee.

In typical American fashion, mug size seems to have outgrown Mr. Coffee’s definition of a cup of coffee.  We want everything BIG. Your average novelty mug may not look supersized but have you noticed that pouring yourself a cup of coffee generally depletes your pot’s value by two? So if you need two mugfuls of coffee to feel alive in the morning, you’re probably drinking four.  We are beautifully addicted to caffeine in America.

I’m not talking quality here. There’s no question your average Italian expresso is more natural and delicious than Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  And probably has triple the caffeinated jolt. It’s just…there’s so little of it.

I don’t want to do a shot of coffee.  I came to coffee late in life, and I have years of coffee-drinking to make up for. Luxuriating over a giant steaming mug has become my morning ritual. You can’t meander over a cup of coffee that is three sips long. Just when you’re really ready to savor it, it’s gone.

Now, my experience of Italians is such that they can probably make three sips last an hour.  But as much as it pains me, I am embarrassingly American. I want more sips, more half and half, more excuse to sit still and enjoy. When the coffee is gone I actually have to face my day, go to the gym or work. At least take a shower. I want to bathe in my coffee, I want it to cocoon and protect me from the harsh reality of…reality. The reality of not sitting in my bathrobe on my couch contemplating whether having another cup would cross the line of acceptability and just leave me having to pee all day.

To add insult to injury, Italians drink their coffee STANDING UP.  Please see previous paragraph about couches and bathrobes.  Coffee shops in Italy are essentially bars, without stools, tables or chairs. Starbucks java might taste like an ash tray, but at least I can sit and read or write while I drink it at my leisure. For less than two bucks I can buy myself out of my stuffy apartment and into some good people watching and a laptop-holding table (lacking a desk at home, my laptop platform is always, in fact, my lap.) It’s rather ironic, given the long, indulgent way Italians eat meals, that they don’t even take a seat for five minutes to shoot their cappucino.

I realize that if this is the extent of my culture shock, Italy is not so bad.  Between the still milking mozzerrella cheese, neverending baskets of bread, creamier than cream gelato, and homemade pasta…like I said, you had me at carbs. Me and Italian cuisine, we are getting along just fine.

Still, I do miss the corner breakfast cart in New York where I buy my EXTRA large iced coffees, which keep me vibrating and content all day. Then again, I guess they don’t leave me anywhere to sit either.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | 3 Comments

Rules of Etiquette: The Buffet. Or, Things That Should Be Completely Self-Evident But Apparently Aren’t

It’s amazing how disgusting people are when they eat. If someone ever made a documentary about buffets no one would ever eat in them again.

And yet here I sit, week after week.

The only pleasure it affords me is watching the new guests try to figure out how to get their coffee. They put the mug under the tap. Nothing happens. They press the round glowing button with a coffee cup on it and let go, and get a squirt of coffee like milk from a cow’s udder. They stare at it perplexedly, baffled as to why their cup isn’t full of caffeine. Finally they press and hold the button, and all is right with their sad little pre-packaged world.

This happens every week without fail. Multiple times. And every week it gives me a schadenfreudistic surge of glee.

It’s the little things in life.

And I need them, given the deeply disturbing things I have seen in this restaurant that serves 5,000 people three times a day. The following are eight rules of etiquette for those less civilized amongst us, who frankly shouldn’t be allowed to eat in public places if they can’t follow these basic tenets of decency.

1. No line cutting. Do I really need to say this? Are we in kindergarten? If there are people clearly waiting in what resembles a line, one behind the other, I don’t care if there is only one piece of cantaloupe left and you really want cantaloupe. You don’t get to duck in like your desire for cantaloupe is greater than anyone else’s who is patiently waiting their turn. And there will be more cantaloupe. I promise.

2. Do not let your pre-potty trained child crawl around on the table. Oh wait. Don’t let your post-potty trained child crawl around on the table either. We’re not in your dining room. This is a public eating space, and I don’t want your kid’s E. coli infested feces anywhere near where I might put my plate.

3. Don’t walk around holding a plate filled with food, which you are eating as you meander, rather than at a table like normal people, and stop in front of different food stations and stare at what’s available. This isn’t an art museum. It’s a buffet, and there are hungry people trying to get to the food you are blocking with your observations.

4. If I can see your ass, you aren’t wearing enough clothes to be eating in a public place. And it’s not even (just) about hygiene. I’m trying to eat here, people. I don’t need to see that.

4a. This does not have an inverse statement that means it is okay     to ONLY have your ass covered. Sporting speedos and greasy hairy chests and Santa-sized beer bellies is not appropriate either. You’re   making me lose my appetite.

5. Don’t put a hot dog in a bun on a plate, then walk around trying to eat the hot dog sans bun like you are bobbing for an apple or a pig eating from a trough. (Okay, it was a seven-year-old that I saw do this, and it was kinda funny. But this kid was alone. Where were his parents? Why have they not taught him any manners? It’s OKAY to eat a hot dog with your hands, and this kid was still not content to behave normally. And with his head in this downward facing hot dog position, his weaving walk made him a traffic hazard.)

6. Do not take a bite of something while standing in front of a food station, decide you don’t like it, and put it back in its pan. (Yes, people have actually done this.)

7. Don’t scoop out food (such as potatoes, rice, or you know, ANYTHING) with your hand. (Again, based on a true story.)

Finally, this isn’t so much a rule of etiquette as a word of advice.  You’re in Italy. Napoli is where pizza was invented.  Don’t load up your plate with three or four slices of buffet pizza at every meal when you have the opportunity to eat real, homemade, fresh, delicious pizza in its birthplace. I promise you nothing you eat on the ship will compare to what you eat off of it, so take advantage. It’s better than the cantelope too.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | 3 Comments

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