Journey Through Southern Italy

The Pulpit Rock
Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath. 1606-1607. Oil on canvas. Rome, Museo e Galleria Borghese.

Marko Sijan spent the month of September 2013 exploring the southern Italian cities of Rome, Naples, Palermo, Agrigento, Syracuse, Taormina, Reggio di Calabria and Lecce. He recorded his experiences in a daily journal. The following is an excerpt:

Rome, Day 3

We spent the morning at Central Station trying to buy train tickets for Naples from a row of machines and a row of live agents.

First Marilou tried a machine, but she couldn’t figure out how to use it. Scruffy dark-haired men, one after another, kept coming up to us and offering to help but, certain they were hustlers, we declined. The agents sat behind a wall of glass with an entrance in the middle where a crowd had swarmed around a mysterious black panel with rows of spinning letters and numbers in constant flux. I saw a free agent and pushed my way through to him and he asked for my ‘ticket’. I said I hadn’t bought one yet. “No, no,” he said with scorn and pity and explained that each customer gets a ticket from a machine below the panel, showing his place in an order. A905. I waited for our number to come up while Marilou tried another machine. Fearing our number would appear as fast as it would disappear, I stood halfway between the machines and the agents. When our number arrived I wanted her to run to an agent because I didn’t want to deal with him myself. Unlike Marilou I don’t speak Italian and by day 3 had grown tired of being treated as the contemptible anglo tourist. A905 spun up in a row and I yelled to her and just before she reached an agent our number vanished. Eventually she figured out how to use a machine and bought Naples tickets.

We stepped outside into bright humid heat and I wandered carelessly among cars and vespas tearing around pell-mell in front of the station. Marilou asked me to be careful lest one of them run me over. “Well,” I said, ”then I guess I’ll get killed.” Or something like that. I was being an ass again and that made her sad. She knew I was hungry and asked at several points if I wanted to stop at this or that caffè, but I kept saying no.

Later we stopped in a caffè and experienced what by now had become a familiar motif in Rome: sighs of exasperation from clerks when they didn’t get exact change. Was this an entrenched Roman habit or a sign of desperate economic times? I had read that Romans believe life hasn’t changed much for them since the time of the Caesars. Apparently they see themselves as the same plebeian majority exploited by corrupt patricians, which may help explain why it pains them so to part with change. Marilou and I sat at a sidewalk table with cornets and cappuccinos and she asked what was wrong. It took me a while to spit it out but I said my foolish behaviour in the station had brought on a bout of self-loathing. I apologised and she hugged me and I cried and all was well.

We made our way into the neighbourhood of Tridente, passing posh boutiques and patricians and it was here I first noticed that in southern Italy men of wealth and style tend to sculpt their eyebrows and facial hair in thin lines and wear foundation and eyeliner. They zap off their body hair with lasers and wear surgically-implanted shirts and slacks. They look like effete androids. I thought, To be rich one has to look and think like a machine.

We met Marilou’s parents in front of the Keats-Shelley House. Keats’s bedroom overlooks the Piazza di Spagna and Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia, named for its shape of a wrecked ship with overflowing bows. I had read that the sound of the fountain soothed Keats on his deathbed and inspired his epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Beside his tiny bed hangs an ink portrait by his friend Severn, made hours before his death, of his pale face on a pillow as he slept, behind him his shadow blotting the wall. Hours later he awoke and with tubercular lungs worn to paper, gasped, “Severn – I – lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – thank god it has come.” Severn held him until he died and later wrote: “the phlegm seemed boiling in his throat.” It must have been an excruciating death. Through the window I watched the bubbling fountain and thought about Keats’s boiling phlegm. Like a fool I wept. I don’t know why. I’m not especially drawn to his poetry, though his letters contain some great statements about art. He wrote that “momentous depth of speculation” is its essential ingredient: “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.” There needs to be no discussion as to what truth and beauty mean. Today they can mean anything, even nothing. Perhaps I wept over Keats because I had blundered into thinking he lived in a time when one could use a word like transcendence and mean it.

We left the Keats-Shelley House and climbed up to Villa Borghese, part of a sprawling cloistered garden-park once owned by one of Italy’s oldest and richest families. Inside the villa brimmed with tourists sparing no effort not to make eye contact with one another. In such a confined space, it seemed we were performing one of those grant-funded dance installations exploring the theme of atomisation, bodies bobbing and weaving with blank faces almost touching but not seeing each other.

Our ticket gave us two hours with the villa’s collection of hundreds of paintings and sculptures spread over three floors and dozens of rooms. In Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath,” blood drips from veins and sinews dangling from Goliath’s neck; in fact his head is a self-portrait of the artist with dead eyes and gaping mouth. It was one of the last paintings Caravaggio did, not long after he had finished “Judith and Holofernes.” Both paintings depict men beheaded by their own swords. They may reveal the artist’s conviction that he would soon be murdered by his own wickedness. He had a lot of enemies. Years earlier authorities had banished him from Rome for stabbing and killing his friend during an argument over the result of a tennis match they were playing. I wondered how such a representative specimen of common humanity could make art of such beauty and truth? I spent a long time staring at Caravaggio’s rotting head, at the row of grey teeth like tombstones behind his bloated lower lip.

Later, my patience kept thinning as I tried to observe various other paintings and sculptures while tourists’ heads slid in and out of my line of sight, spending only the few moments on each work the audio guides pressed to their ears would allow, snapping an iPhone pic of one and dashing off to the next.

Our two hours being up, an attendant whistled and herded us into the stairwell and then we waited a half hour in line to get our bags back. Outside I lit a cigarette. The bag check clerk approached me and said something in Italian, lifting his fingers to his mouth as if to smoke. Ashamed I said, “‘Scusa!” and put out my cigarette on the ground. He looked puzzled and went away. Marilou’s father informed me that actually the clerk had been asking for a cigarette. I caught up to him and said, “Sorry! I thought you were telling me to put out my cigarette.” I offered him one, which he took without stopping or looking me in the eye or saying thank you. I wanted to punch in his teeth. I rejoined Marilou and her parents as I shrugged and waved my arms about and told myself, ‘Simmer down!’ Marilou gave me a queer look and asked what I was thinking about. “Nothing.”