a family travels Italy day 3: provocative public art

IMG_3430As we headed to the colosseum we passed an “anarchist” a “rebel” and a “fascist”. The local graffiti seemed to be all political.

Near the station Quadraro,  there’s a recent mural I later discovered was painted by Gary Basemen, commemorating the raid on this neighbourhood in 1944, where the Nazis came in and rounded up over 700 men, partisans, and sent them off to concentration camps in Poland. (The raid on the Jewish ghetto in Rome saw over 1000 Jewish people taken to the extermination camp Auschwitz.) The mural leers with grotesque victory: chop one head off a partisan and three heads will grow in its place. IMG_3431













Once we got to the colosseum I was struck solemn by a huge art installation of a black dismembered horse with boat parts for legs. This also provoked me to do what public art aims to achieve: it prompted me to start asking questions. What the heck is this massive contemporary statue and why has the city of Rome allowed it, invited it even, to dominate the entrance of the colosseum? i didn’t want to google it and thus diminish it just yet. I wanted to ponder it for a few hours. Something about a mighty empire falling apart, pillaged, gutted, shipped off…?IMG_3435

While I stared at it, small soft spoken fervent men who looked and sounded like they were all from Africa waved  sticks in my face, “selfie selfie selfie” and bottles of Evian, “water water water”? I guessed they were trying to peddle the two things necessary for a tourist’s survival. After about thirty seconds, I found this extremely annoying and started to hiss “basta! basta!” waving the damn things out of my face.

I looked up at the horse again. Our haughty eyes met and I had a wee rethink about the pedlars.. This can’t be a fun job, this selling of selfie sticks in the hot sun. This can’t be terribly profitable. This is a job for the desperate. I turned, contrite, and as the next wave of pedlars accosted me on my way to catch up with the family, I made eye contact and purred, “no grazie, ciao” kindly.

The line up was for general entrance was at least an hour long. Having arrived late from a good deep sleep and a hearty breakfast, we were pressured into a tour to save time before the whole works closed at 3:30pm. Scott had two knives on him (you know, as one does) and they both got confiscated at the gate. He eyed the garbage bag for his beloved Leatherman and hoped to retrieve it upon our completion (but it was gone).

The tour guide started off by showing us ancient graffiti of a huge erect penis and joked that it was the average size for an Italian. My eleven year old daughter rolled her eyes. Then he talked about the vomitoriums and the torches made from human bodies. He said it would be the three things we remembered most and – what am i doing but proving him right?IMG_3432

Our children seemed rather unfazed by this amazing structural world wonder. But at least they were both taking pictures. How did I seem on the outside when I first saw it at their age? I remember being gobsmacked by the size. I remember being horrified, imagining lions attacking the Christians (which they now believe is a myth) I remember my parents buying a marble figurine of chariots and horses, like the ones still sold today.

The tour guide continued his routine, talking about the basics we already knew: the gladiators, the ability to flood the bottom of the arena to re-enact naval battles, the exotic beasts. He spoke about slaves being handpicked for their size and trained into being gladiators. I looked over at my massive Gaul who just had his weapons taken away by security. He would totally be picked if he was in a cage full of slaves. I imagined him wrestling a lion. I imagined him sticking a sword into the throat of his opponent. I imagined him in that short little tunic…

I lost the tour.

There was an interesting display on the second level about the colosseum post Constantine, when Christianity became more acceptable and eventually the official religion of Rome. The savage colosseum slaughter games were abhorred by believers and the structure was turned into a kind of massive artisan square. I started to get romantic again, imagining life back then. Oh yes. This is where an articulate Italian basket-weaver with long flowing dark hair might have met a reformed and freed Gaul gladiator…

Okay, now, let’s get real…a gladiator who…due to the lifestyle, was probably a raging alcoholic by now, suffering from syphilis and major muscular and skeletal injuries.

When we got out of the colosseum, an African man approached me and said something, I didn’t really listen, I just purred, “No grazie, thank you.” About five seconds later I realized he was our tour guide for the second half, Palatine hill. I hung my head, stupid, and apologized to Matthew.IMG_3433

He was originally from Nigeria and he held a degree in theology and archeology. He was the first guide so far who really seemed to love his job. He was genuinely interested and interesting. He pointed out the arch of Titus. I had forgotten the history behind it. It was created to commemorate the decimation of the Jewish nation in 70AD where the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem, stole the arc of the covenant and all the other treasures they could plunder, and slaughtered and enslaved the people. Italian history seems to suggest that Italy, generally speaking, had a compatible relationship with the Jewish people. But certainly today shed light on horrendous moments in history where that was not the case.

When I returned home I read up on the big black horse in front of the colosseum. It is one of four monumental horse structures created by Mexican artist Gustavo Aceves. They were inspired by the sculptures of Roman horses in front of St Marks basilica in Venice. These original horses were taken from Constantinople after crusaders sacked the city in 1204. The curator, Francesco Buranelli, says of the pieces (a labour of ten years to make them all) “The aim of the display is to tackle the issue of mass migration and “to throw a spotlight on the suffering of the many millions of people constantly moving in order to survive”…” They make us: “look at our own difficult history in the West and acknowledge that, in part, our wealth and cultural achievements are derived from the exploitation of others,”

We hear a great deal n the news about Syrians trying to enter Greece but there are also a great number of African migrants trying to enter Italy from Nigeria and Eritrea to escape violence. Over 85,000 applied as refugees last year in Italy but only twenty people were granted that status last year in Italy and only 4000 successfully relocated. Several thousands died at sea. What has happened to the rest? I could not find the information.

This was sobering as I headed out to dinner to the Taverna del Grano in our neighbourhood. IMG_3441

This definitely turned out to be our favourite spot so far. The atmosphere was amazing. The restaurant is in a building at least 1500 years old. It was a former cistern and blacksmith shop and tavern for horsemen from what I understand. We had a beautiful huge fresh antipasti, a sumptuous scampi risotto, mussels, broccolini, and bistecca that rivalled anything I’ve had in Firenze. We waddled home under the waning moon, past all the darkened graffiti that I couldn’t see but I could still feel. I wondered about being born into such privilege as I watched my two kids wander up ahead of me. What are they getting out of this and how will it serve the greater good? I don’t know.

I passed one final graffiti statement before I turned into our gated property. It suggested something profane and it was somehow connected to communism. I wasn’t sure if it was for or against. Either way, I whispered, “No graze, ciao.”

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