Painter - Writer ginda simpson Dreamer of Dreams
La Notte Bianca
White Night in Rome
So what if I am barely over jet lag from a recent trip to the United States? When I discover that Rome is to celebrate its Notte Bianca again on September 17, I am ready to risk knocking my biological clock off my night table. “What fun!” I muse, contemplating a whole night in the company of possibly two million other souls, out and about, in the streets and piazzas of Rome, where the lights will be kept on: hence the name La Notte Bianca, meaning The White Night.
Created and organized by the Municipality of Rome and its Chamber of Commerce in cooperation with the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture, La Notte Bianca has great expectations for a grand turnout in spite of predictions for heavy rainfall. For the third year in a row, the city will light up and welcome its citizens and its visitors, inviting all to experience a night of festivity and magic.
I call my lifelong friend, Rita, a native of the eternal city, to ask if she is interested in accompanying me on such an outing. It does not take her long to cast practicality to the wind and agree to be my companion and guide. Giorgio, her sensible companion, bulks at invitations to join us, certain that we are slightly off our rockers. Umm… well Rita and I are both grandmothers. But, oh to be young and adventurous for one bright night, in a magical city, seems a romantic notion to us both. “I refuse to participate in such madness – you know this is one great big party put on by the ‘Leftists’ and the idea of gracing it with my presence makes me shudder. It’s my taxes that are paying for your entertainment, so go, enjoy,” Giorgio offers expansively, cautioning us to be careful. Then, thinking of his taxes, he adds teasingly, “I hope it pours on the whole bunch of you.”
With over 500 events to choose from, we plan our evening in advance. There are places we want to see that for one reason or another have eluded us over the years - some due to poor timing and some because they are rarely open to the public. And tonight, these and many others are opening their doors to us, most of them with no admissions fee – a generous gift (thank you, Giorgio) in light of how costly sightseeing can be. State and private museums, villas and gardens, theatres, libraries, churches and places of worship, shops, galleries and restaurants have switched on their lights and have turned up the music.
Rita, a Roman driver extraordinaire, gets from the outskirts of the city to the banks of the Tiber in record time. It is obvious we will not find a parking place any closer to our first destination, so we lock up the car and begin our jaunt to Rome’s synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto. We are as carefree as we can be, laughing at our own madness as we open our umbrellas to shield us from the light drizzle. The lights that bank the river cast shimmering reflections on the surface of its fast-moving waters. The wind is picking up and in an instant, the sky opens up and down comes a torrent of water, in gushing cascades, sending revelers scurrying to the shelter of trees and doorways. We quickly don our raingear, plastic ponchos that cover our clothing well, but our shoes are soaked before we even cross over la Isola Tiberina, our footsteps splashing over the worn stones of the oldest bridge over the Tiber still in use, built in 62 B.C. Already a line of people wraps around the perimeter of the synagogue, but we are not so easily discouraged. We wait en masse, our linked umbrellas forming an extended, multi-domed roof, beneath which we slither like one long, slippery snake, towards the entrance. I have come more then once to the gates of the Great Temple only to find them closed, or when open, permitting worshippers only. Disappointed by my failed attempts to see its interior, I am on a mission tonight and my obstinacy and patience are rewarded.
The Great Synagogue, known as the Tempio Maggiore, was constructed in 1904 on the ruins of the abolished Ghetto. Built on the banks of the Tiber in the heart of the city, it stands out for its unusual architecture, its aluminum dome the only square dome to be seen above the rooftops of Rome. The design of the synagogue stands out as a visible celebration of freedom for the Jewish community.
has been a Jewish community in the eternal city for a period that
spans 22 centuries, a continuity that has witnessed a rich cultural
life that included an important rabbinical academy where men of
science and culture gathered. In
1492, a large population of Jews migrated to Rome after their
expulsion from Spain. Sixty
years later, Rome’s Jewish population was forced into the Ghetto
where thousands lived side by side, the poor alongside the wealthy,
peddlers and craftsmen, bankers and businessmen.
After the unification of Italy in 1870, Victor Emmanuel II
dismantled the ghetto, granting the Jews of Rome full citizenship. In
1943, over two thousand Roman Jews were deported.
The Jewish population today numbers around 15,000 and many
Jewish families have remained in this characteristic area, where
kosher butchers and bakers are still to found.
There are several Jewish-Roman restaurants that draw many
visitors who wish to sample their unique cuisine.
From the Synagogue, Rita leads me through the ruins of the old fish market, which over time had grown up under the Portico of Ottavia. Beneath these arches, the fishmongers cried out the merits of the catch of the day. There was a curious marble plaque that was used to measure the fish from head to tail. If the head and upper part of the body up to the first fin measured longer than the plaque, this portion, considered a delicacy, had to be given up as a tribute. Tonight, I am more intrigued with the columns and fragments of this earlier Rome as seen through the arch. The view of the illuminated Theater of Marcellus framed by the larger stone arch of the Portico is a picture postcard, to be sure, and it injects a surge of pleasure through my veins. Rita knows the intricate alleyways of old Rome and leads me through a maze of cobbled streets till we exit onto the Via del Teatro di Marcello and now face the Campidoglio, its facades and piazza designed by Michelangelo now softly lit and inviting. As we round the Piazza Venezia, passing in front of the massive Victor Emmanuel monument, I am awed by its nighttime magnificence. By day, it sits, imposing and awkward, in the midst of one of the busiest thoroughfares in Rome and its elegance is lost in the raging traffic at its feet. By night, though, it is another vision altogether. It is as if I am seeing it for the first time. Stately and proud, it is a monument of white beauty, wrapped tonight in the glistening velvet mantle of a blue-black sky.
The grandiose and modern Via dei Fori Imperiali, built by Mussolini in the 1930’s is closed to automobile traffic this evening. We walk arm in arm towards the Colisseum, head-on. With no angry traffic biting at our heels, we are free to stroll and focus on the impressive arena with its ragged stone arches. To our right, the Roman Forum is tantalizing with its illuminated Corinthian columns of white marble. O, Roma, non fa la stupida stasera. Shamelessly, you have pulled out all the stops. Trickling fountains and lighted ruins, you use these charms to bewitch your visitors and I am under your spell yet again.
Passing by the Arch of Constantine, we hike towards the Circus Maximus. It is past midnight and we are still going strong, Giorgio. My feet are burning in my soggy shoes and my plastic poncho has become sauna-like. What a relief to enter the Old Roman Houses of the Celio and remove our wet gear. Re-opened to the public in 2002, these dwellings consisting of 20 rooms representing a complex of Roman houses from different periods, the earliest dating from the third century. It is believed that the first residence belonged to John and Paul, officers at the court of Constantine, martyred and subsequently buried on the site of their home, around 361 A.D. In the fifth century, the Basilica of Saints John and Paul was erected above the site. Discoveries made in 1887 by a priest excavating beneath the basilica brought to light a complex of richly decorated rooms that had been transformed into an elegant pagan house. Further archeological studies revealed that the original structures included an apartment block for craftsmen and a wealthy residence.
Our guide is very knowledgeable about the stratified structures of the Celio, enlightening us to the various aspects of ancient Roman daily life, a history told by the remnants left behind in these rooms finely decorated with vivid frescoes. We spend more than an hour wandering through the many layers of ancient Rome, in dwellings where daily life consisted of earning one’s bread and enjoying one’s leisure. Not much has changed in two thousand years!
I cannot imagine a more pleasing way to see the Case Romane, but by soft light in the company of a dear friend, while outside the heavens deliver a steady downpour on all who find themselves above ground in modern Rome. When we surface, it is past one in the morning; yet the crowds continue to enjoy “La Notte Bagnata.” Rita and I walk till my feet can take no more; we board a bus to take us back to her parked car, arriving home at 2 a.m. Not bad for two grandmothers! Giorgio is snoring contentedly on the couch in front of the TV. We feed our hunger with some Jewish pastries that Giorgio purchased earlier and chat until four o’clock in the morning. Before finally dropping into our beds, we set the alarm to wake us at 6:30. An hour later we slip back out of the house without disturbing Giorgio.
The Palazzo Farnese, home to the French Embassy in Rome, is opening its doors to the public, a rare occurrence indeed. We don’t want to miss this chance to see the interior of this elegant Renaissance palace, one of the most beautiful in Rome. We arrive before the crowds. It is so quiet we can hear the pigeons and the dribble of water in the fountains. Glistening filaments of water trickle from the stone Farnese lilies into great basins of Egyptian granite taken centuries ago from the ruins of the baths of Caracalla. Begun in 1534 and completed fifty-five years later, the Farnese is magnificent. Michelangelo designed the famous cornice and central loggia window above its entrance. Inside we are awed at every turn, by its vestibule, its grand staircase, its frescoed salons and the elegance of its art and furnishings and I wish my eye could photograph this splendor.
Giorgio later joins us and immediately asks how we made out last night. Do I detect a hint of sadistic pleasure as he recounts the evening news? “The weatherman reported very heavy rains last night,” he tells us with a questioning look.
“Davvero?” I reply, “That’s so strange. I guess we were just lucky because we remained dry while we waited outside the Synagogue. Strange indeed, since people told us it was raining elsewhere. Then it did drizzle ever so lightly for the next two hours while we walked around the city. And then it poured but only after we were inside visiting the Roman Houses. I suppose we were just lucky, but it was not nice of you to wish us rain,” I teased.
Giorgio doesn’t know what to make of my version of the evening’s weather but I can see he is chewing it very slowly, debating whether to swallow the tale I have dished up for his mid-morning snack. To my complete amazement, he has fallen for my words. It is only then that I ask him to look at my feet, shod in Rita’s tennis shoes three sizes too big for me. Only a man would fail to notice the comical appearance of my clown feet.
“So,” he shrugs, “what about them?”
I pull my own shoes from a plastic bag. Sturdy walking shoes of brown suede, they are now saturated, as weighty as two bricks and will take forever to dry. Giorgio laughs at my joke and I almost forgive him for wishing so much rain on the ‘Leftist’ populace of Rome.
Copyright © by Ginda Simpson - El Marsam Studio - All rights reserved -