Mozz Mamma meets Italian Teenage Summer

Brazilian Bikini Bottom

Brazilian Bikini Bottom

Ok, ok, I know I am a total wimp.  After 20 years of living in Rome,  I have lost my Yankee backbone. My tough New England spirit and American true-grit have morphed into something far squishier, the mushy mozzarella method.

The other day my cell phone rang on my desk as I was busily editing a report on migrants arriving in Italy.  I rushed over expecting it to be my son Nico who was supposed to stop by my office before leaving with a group of friends on a camping trip in Croatia.  I picked up and heard his voice amid a general cacophony of young people laughing and talking:

“Hey Mom, I took the 50 euros that you left on the kitchen counter to buy a tent because we didn’t have any camping gear.”  SIGH

“Nico, that money was for the plumber!!” I burst out before he continued, “And we’re on the bus now headed for Ciampino (the airport), sorry I didn’t have time to stop by your office to say goodbye.”  AAARRRGGH.

My son aggravates the heck out of me.  But being a Mozzarella Mamma, I couldn’t think of any effective response.  I sent him a text message saying “Bad Son” with all the nasty emoticons I could find: angry yellow faces,  red devil faces, thumbs down.  He sent me back a winking smiley face.  How Italian Male can you get.

My son started university this year and my plans for him to have a brilliant, challenging summer internship that would launch him into a future career quickly shrank to demanding that he get a summer job.  There I came up against the European mentality that kids need to relax and enjoy the family holiday in the summer.  My husband did not see any reason his son should be waiting tables or being a camp counselor, and my son thought it was only right that he should spend his summer with his girlfriend and his high school buddies.   I must have told him one hundred times that when I was his age I spent several summers interning at WBZ TV in Boston during the day and working at “The Magic Pan Restaurant” at Faneuil Hall in Boston at night to make money.  “Yeah, you would Mom,” was the impressed teenage reply.

As usual, me being the Mozzarella, Nico won this one.  No waiting tables, or washing dishes or teaching bratty campers how to clean latrines for my more-Italian-than-American Son.  He’s already been to Athens with his girlfriend and now is in Croatia camping with his buddies.

Before he left for Athens he asked me if I would accompany him to get a birthday present for his girlfriend Serena (that’s a fake name, I wouldn’t write about her with her real name because she is a lovely girl and I like her a lot and would not want to offend her.) So Nico and I headed off to a store Serena’s sister had recommended. Nico said that Serena’s sister suggested buying a Bikini and he wanted my help choosing one.  I told him that I have never worn, bikinis.  I don’t tan (too pale) and I prefer to swim, jump, dive, and  play in the water without pieces falling off.  We stepped out of the steaming Roman heat into a very chic store chock-a-block with bikinis (no one wears anything else in Italy), funky jewellery and cool sandals.  I saw a young clerk and passed Nico off to her saying, “My son needs to buy a bikini for his girlfriend, I am sure you can help him better than I can.” I slipped over to the sandal section and was examining some pairs of pretty bejewelled sandals when Nico and the clerk reappeared with two bikinis.

The clerk held up one and said, “how about this?” I did not want to be involved but since Nico was looking perplexed I said, “I don’t think a THONG bottom is really going to work.”  Nico started sinking into the floor.  The clerk, in a rather huffy voice responded, “Signora, this is not a THONG bottom, it is not a ‘BRAZILIAN’.”   Nico had a frozen look on his face as I answered, “Well I am not sure what a BRAZILIAN is, but I don’t see any place for an Italian derriere in that thing, and on top of that the bra part is so small, I don’t think her boobs would fit into it.  Serena’s got bigger boobs than I do, she wouldn’t fit into such a tiny thing would she?” And I turned towards Nico who was steadily backing up into a rack of bikinis about to impale himself on a hanger.  “I don’t know MOM,” he managed to mutter, and the two of them turned and went back to look for others.  Eventually, they found something else and didn’t bother asking for my opinion.

I always say the thing about being a mother is that you never learn to get it right.  I have worked for years and years at being a journalist and a tv producer and I have gotten more experienced and better at what I do.  I am a better interviewer, a better editor, and a better researcher than I was when I started out in my career.  Being a parent, though, you can’t get better because with each year the game changes, the challenges are different.  Dealing with the terrible twos is totally different from dealing with the terrible teens.  Although it is all about bottoms, changing your two-year-old’s dirty diaper is totally different from choosing a bikini bottom for your son’s girlfriend.

That’s just my son, I also have two teenage daughters I am dealing with.  Caterina managed to harangue me one Saturday until I finally agreed to take her to Rome’s water park  Hydromania on that Sunday.  I would not recommend Hydromania to any middle-aged Mamma. Actually, scratch that, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  It’s a cheap water park on the outskirts of Rome with no rides but lots of water slides.  We got there at 9:25 sharp so we could be there precisely at the 9:30 opening, my goal being to be out of there as soon as possible.  The place was packed with a massive crowd pushing and shoving in front of the several ticket windows.  Cate and I took our place in line amidst a group of “coatti” — I sound so terribly stuck up and snobby using such a term in Italian that I hesitate to translate it but basically it means sleaze balls (My on-line dictionary says it means a “lout, a cad, or a low-life”).  Most of them were teenagers with several tattoos and an incredible amount of body piercing.  Their language was atrocious with the word “cazzo” popping out about every 30 seconds.

Their conversation went more or less like in this:

Coatto 1: Ma quanto cazzo ci mette questa cazzo di fila?

Coatto 2: Ma che cazzo ne so io?

Coatto 3: Cazzo ho scordato l’asciugamano.

Coatto 4: Cazzo!

Here is a rough translation for those of you who don’t know Italian.  Let’s just say the word “cazzo” is similar to the F word in English.

So translating the conversation it went like this:

Sleaze ball 1: How the F Long is this F-ing line going to take?

Sleaze ball 2: How the F do I know?

Sleaze ball 3: F! I forgot my towel.

Sleaze ball 4: F!

At this point the cashiers opened the windows and the crowd shoved forward.  Two of the “coatti” sleazeballs figured that it was a good time to start making out passionately in line.  My 16-year-old Caterina stood staring at them in shock.   I was rather shocked myself.  Then one turned to the other and said, “Ma che cazzo sta guardando lei?” (“What the F is she looking at?” ) At that point I sent off my sweet, innocent, still un-tattoo-ed or pierced Caterina to wait at the side while I continued the ticket torture line.

I won’t even go into the description of Mozzarella Mamma in her one piece bathing suit on all the water-slides (at least it wasn’t falling off) with all the coatti.  Let’s just leave it to say, I nearly lost my lunch in a long, completely dark tube that turned and flipped Caterina and me around in a rubber raft before spitting us out into a swimming pool far below, and when I flew into the swimming pool and all the water went straight up my nose, I was almost tempted to say that C word myself. (Cazzo!) But I didn’t.

So Mozzarella Mamma is doing her best to keep her daughters tattoo and piercing-free and hoping they never use the big C word.   I got some helpful advise on surviving the teenage girl summer from my sister across the Atlantic (who still has her Yankee backbone).  Ten pm is “check-in time” for all electronic devices; all cell phones, iphones, samsungs, ipads etc, get handed over to Mom at that time.   My sister diplomatically uses the word check-in instead of “confiscate” or “sequester” and if she gets a complaint she suggests “try reading a book or chatting with someone in the same room with you.” Brava!!  I am going to try to enforce that one.

I have two beautiful daughters and several gorgeous nieces and I made a mozzarella mamma attempt to tell them today before a mid-morning trip to Cambridge that they are all so pretty and there is really no need for mascara or other makeup, they just do not need it.   Chiara let out a pained, “Mommmmm, stop it.  Mommmm, it is none of your business. Can you just CHILLLL,” from the backseat of the car. Chill.  Short for Chill Out.  I hate that expression, and Chiara says it to me all the time these days.  I tried to abolish it but failed, so I am concentrating on making sure the other C word remains out of her vocabulary.

Chiara is now with me on vacation near Boston.  This morning we were contemplating a swim at Walden Pond.  Chiara said, “I can’t go swimming Mom because my new orange bikini is not cool for Walden Pond and I hate my one piece.  I asked her if I could take a look at the orange bikini that I had given her the money to buy in Rome before she left. SHOCK AND HORROR!! It was an itsy, bitsy, teeny-weeny BRAZILIAN!!  HELP!, “The Life Guards’ eyeballs will be popping out of their heads and the American Moms at Walden Pond will have me arrested!” I thought to myself, “Brazilian bikinis are not a New England thing.”

“Yeah, you’re definitely NOT wearing that to Walden Pond,” I said.

“CHILL MOM,” she replied and went back to her cell phone.

So that is where things stand so far in my Italian-American-Brazilian Teenage summer, and it is only July.  I think I will go make myself an ice tea (American style, filled with ICE) and CHILL. Or maybe I should make that a Gin and Tonic.

(Postscript: I took the photo off the internet, it does not belong to anyone I know, not my daughters or my son’s girlfriend!!)

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July 12, 2014

Excommunicating Mobsters Is Not That Simple

Pope Francis at Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria.  June 21, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis at Cassano allo Jonio in Calabria. June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

In June Pope Francis travelled to Calabria in the toe of the boot of Italy.  Calabria is home to the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia (see blog posts: “The Catholic Church and the Mafia” and “Mafia Claws Sinking into Weak Flesh“).  There, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people, the Pope said, “The ‘Ndrangheta and this adoration of evil, and disrespect for the common good, this evil should be fought, should be pushed away, we must say NO….those who in their lives have taken this path of evil, as the mobsters have, they are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated.”

No Pope has ever said something that strong before against the Mafia.  The only one who got close was Pope John Paul II.  In 1993, Pope John Paul II delivered an impassioned call for members of the Mafia to convert on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily.  From the pulpit he intoned:  “I say this to those responsible- Convert!!  One day the judgment of God will arrive.”

The ‘Ndrangheta is now considered Italy’s most power Mafia organization, outpacing the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Naples area Camorra syndicates. The ‘Ndrangheta is involved in worldwide drug-trafficking, money-laundering and extortion. But despite its global reach, the group sticks to its Calabrian roots and rituals that are closely linked to Catholic traditions. It didn’t take long for there to be a reaction to Pope Francis’ excommunication comment.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace in Oppido Mamartina in Calabria. July 2, 2014 Photo Credit: Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace in Oppido Mamartina in Calabria. July 2, 2014 Photo Credit: Toni Condello

On July 2nd, in the small town of Oppido Mamertina in Calabria, hundreds of residents took part in the procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace.  Twenty-five young and old men in white t-shirts shouldered the ornate statue with its crowned Madonna and Child and winged cherubs as they made their way through the town. Women and children surrounded the statue and a marching band followed along behind.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

The mayor, with his tri-color sash and dark shades, and the local priest and altar boys and girls led the procession. Then, to the surprise of the carabinieri military police,  the procession took an unexpected turn and headed towards the home of the Peppe Mazzagatti a known ‘Ndrangheta boss sentenced to life in prison for murders and Mafia activities and leading a ferocious blood feud between local families.  The 82-year-old boss is now in a coma and spending his final days at home.

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

Procession of the Holy Madonna of Grace through the town of Oppido Mamartine July 2, 2014. Photo by Toni Condello

The procession turned the statue towards the boss’ home and made a brief  bow (“inchino” in Italian) that reportedly lasted 30 seconds before returning to the designated route of the procession.  The three Carabinieri police officers pulled out of the procession in protest. Mayor Domenico Giannetta was at the head of the procession and before leaving the Carabinieri police informed him of their decision.

In an interview with the Italian daily “La Repubblica” he said their decision shocked him, he denied that there was any “inchino” saying that the “the statue was turned by the bearers towards a side street where dozens of families live.  I don’t think it was an homage to anyone in particular.” While that was the political reaction at the local level, at the national level, Italy’s Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano called the bow a “deplorable and revolting ritual.”

Anti-Mafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri told my AP wire colleague Fran D’Emilio that the detour appeared to be a “challenge to the diktat” of Pope Francis.

The following Sunday, the local priest Don Benedetto Rustico, who happens to be the first cousin of the boss Mazzagatti,  was presiding over Mass at Oppido Mamartine when he noticed a journalist at the back of the church.  Don Rustico reportedly invited the congregation to get rid of the journalist encouraging them to “prendere a schiaffi e allontanare” him (rough translation: slap him around and get him out of here).

The second reaction to the Pope’s words came from the prison in the town of Larino north of Calabria in the Molise region where a couple hundred prisoners boycotted mass saying that since they have been “excommunicated” what was the point of attending Mass.

All this has led to a lot of people trying to figure what the pope meant by excommunication.  There has been hemming and hawing by Vatican correspondents, Catholic bloggers, priests, and canon law experts and no clear answer has emerged. The press office at the Vatican has preferred to stay out of the debate letting the Pope’s words stand alone and refusing to comment on either the “inchino” at the procession or the boycott in the prison.

I turned to Father John Wauck a professor of communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome for clarification.  I wanted to know whether we should consider the mob boss to whom the procession did the bow “excommunicated” and whether the lower level mafiosi in the Larino prison would be considered excommunicated.  The simple answer was it is not clear if anyone them would be excommunicated.

Father Wauck explained to me that indeed there are entire categories of people who can be excommunicated.  For example the Schismatic group, the Lefebvrians, or anyone involved in an abortion: the woman who gets it, the doctor who carries it out or the boyfriend who pays for it.  Other general causes for excommunication can be ordaining a woman, or desecrating the Eucharist. Father Wauck explained that excommunication is given for something considered above and beyond the seriousness of the sin, it must be a crime against the society of the church.   Father Wauck said there are all sorts of heinous crimes that do not result in excommunication, infanticide,  rape, and murder etc.  For example, murder is a mortal sin, but not cause for excommunication.  If a sinner repents and confesses, he can be cleared of his sins.  Excommunication can also be lifted.

So if it is not clear who is being excommunicated, why were the lower level Mobsters boycotting mass?  According to author Roberto Saviano, now living under police protection after publishing a book called “Gomorrah, Italy’s Other Mafia,” “When you are dealing with organized Mafia every action, every word, every gesture cannot be interpreted by its most obvious and elementary significance. It has to be inserted in the complex symbolic grammar of the communications of the clan.” So for Saviano the boycott was something else, it was “a declaration of obedience to the ‘Ndrangheta, a confirmation of the oath of fidelity…This boycott was a gesture to send a message to their very same organization. ”

The incidents have raised the question about the common use in parts of Italy of Mafia bosses participating as godfathers at baptisms and communions and participating in other church sacraments.   The Secretary General of the Italian Bishops conference Monsignor Nunzio Galantino speaking to an Italian newspaper explained it this way, “The excommunication is public and who has publicly committed evil acts as a part of their lives, often making it a point of honor, must publicly declare their repentance and carry out concrete acts of reparation.”

Pope Francis getting into popemobile in Cassano allo Jonio, in Calabria. Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis getting into popemobile in Cassano allo Jonio, in Calabria. Saturday, June 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

I tried to get a comment from the Vatican about all of this going through Father Thomas Rosica, who helps English language reporters covering the Vatican.  This was his response, “The Pope condemned evil perpetrated by the Mafia.  He has every right to say what he did…. evil is evil and the Pope is the Pope and he can say what he may wish.

 The Vatican has no comment about the public acts of defiance and insult on the part of Mafia leaders toward the Pope’s words.  Such acts and insult speak for themselves.”

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July 5, 2014

Anna’s Tears

Detail of Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene." Credit: www.doriapamphilj.it

Detail of Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene.” Credit: www.doriapamphilj.it

Yesterday I went on a mission to find a teardrop.  The teardrop of Anna Bianchini.  I didn’t have to go very far, I have been working in the same building — Rome’s Palazzo Doria Pamphilj — with that teardrop for the past 20 years and only recently learned of it.  So yesterday I was determined to find it.  I slipped out of the Associated Press Rome office at Piazza Grazioli 5 scurried down the sidewalk in the blistering heat and popped into the door of the Caffe’ Doria (See Elizabeth Minchilli’s Post – Caffe’ Doria).  My friends, the waiters there, allowed me to slip through the back passageway that took me around the courtyard with orange trees and into the famous Doria Pamphilj Gallery.

My ticket and photo pass for Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

My ticket and photo pass for Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

After buying my ticket and a convenient photo pass for taking pictures (I needed to take a picture of the teardrop), I briskly walked down the elaborate corridors with gilded frames holding paintings by such greats as Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Brueghel, Bernini, Domenichino and Guercino, past marble statues, elaborate chandeliers and large mirrors, until I found the room I was looking for, the Sala Aldrobrandini — with its line-up of three Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”, “Rest on the  Flight to Egypt” and “Saint John the Baptist.”

A corridor in the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

A corridor in the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas. July 4, 2014

Now where was that tear drop and why was it interesting to me?  Since I have started this blog I have often written about the mix of art, history and women figures in Rome (see Blog Posts: Artemisia Gentileschi- An Italian HeroineSpooked and Inspired by BeatriceLove and Passion in Rome, Caravaggio’s Women)

Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene", "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" and "Saint John the Baptist" together in the Sala Aldobrandini at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. July 4, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” and “Saint John the Baptist” together in the Sala Aldobrandini at the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome. July 4, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Recently, while taking the “Courtesans of Rome” tour, (see blog post: Rome- Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries) I learned from our guide Massimo De Fillippis of the story of Anna Bianchini and wanted to know more.

Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene"

Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”

Reading through articles by art historians (In particular art historian Rossella Vodret, an Italian expert on Caravaggio) and art blogs, I learned that Anna Bianchini was the daughter of a prostitute from Tuscany who became a prostitute herself in Rome at age 12.  She had long, wavy red hair and porcelain skin. Her delicate exterior was apparently in contrast with her rough lifestyle and lively character.  She was not among the city’s high-class courtesans who lead lives of luxury through romantic attachments to noblemen and Cardinals. Instead Annuccia (little Anna) as she was called, and some of her prostitute friends mixed in a rough crowd of gamblers, gypsies, street urchins and artists.  Their hangout was the Osteria Turchetto, in the center of Rome, where Annuccia was apparently picked up by police a couple of times for bar-fights and scuffles with other prostitutes and male pretenders.  One police report quoted by Rossella Vodret  referred to her as the “one with the long, red hair.” Part of that group included the artist Caravaggio. Caravaggio apparently used Anna Bianchini in four of his paintings.  The one that interested me most was “The Penitent Magdalene.”  In this painting, done by Caravaggio in 1597, the Penitent Mary Magdalene is sitting on a low chair in a dark room.  She is dressed in Renaissance period clothing.  There is a glass with some sort of liquid ointment in it, a broken string of pearls, an earring and some coins on the floor.  The room is dark with just a shaft of light on her and in the upper right hand corner.  Yesterday, pacing in front of the the painting, moving around the busts below it,  and trying to see around the reflection, I finally saw what I had come for– the small pearl-like teardrop on the side of her nose.

A close up of the teardrop on the nose of Anna Bianchini -- in Caravaggio's "The Penitent Magdalene"

A close up of the teardrop on the nose of Anna Bianchini — in Caravaggio’s “The Penitent Magdalene”

Why is Anna Bianchini crying?  Apparently in that period Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) had violent methods for imposing morality on Rome.  Courtesans were acceptable, but prostitutes were not, and in order to teach a lesson to the people of Rome, he would have prostitutes stripped to the waist, whipped, thrown with their back exposed over the back of a donkey and paraded around the city.  This is apparently what happened to Anna Bianchini before she sat down to be painted by Caravaggio as his model for “The Penitent Magdalene”, hence the sadness, the weary expression and the tear. This is typical of the rebellious Caravaggio, a trouble-maker and rabble-rouser, who poured his passion for life into his depictions of biblical stories, using realistic scenes and characters straight off the streets of  Rome.  Anna’s hands are swollen, she is crying, and she is bent over.  Could the liquid beside her be a balm for her bleeding back, art historians have asked?  How did the string of pearls break?  What is the significance? How was Caravaggio comparing the life of Anna Bianchini to Mary Magdalene? Pope Clement VIII was the same Pope who had the Dominican Friar Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in Campo Dei Fiori (now site of Rome’s famous flower market–a grim statue of Bruno’s hooded figure is in the middle of it) because his theories about the universe were deemed heresy.  Pope Clement VIII is also the man behind the beheading of Beatrice Cenci (see blog post on Beatrice Cenci: Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice).

Caravaggio's "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" at the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome.

Caravaggio’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” at the Gallery Doria Pamphilj in Rome.

At the Doria Pamphilj gallery, “The Penitent Magdalene” is placed next to another of Caravaggio’s masterpieces “Rest on the Flight to Egypt.”  In this painting we see Anna Bianchini portrayed as the Virgin, her beautiful face resting gently on the head of the baby Jesus.  Her face is smooth and she appears serene, unlike in the “Penitent Magdalene” whose forehead has worry lines.

A detail of "Rest on the Flight to Egypt" by Caravaggio showing the Madonna and Child with the Madonna appearing to be a Roman prostitute named Anna Bianchini.

A detail of “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” by Caravaggio showing the Madonna and Child with the Madonna appearing to be a Roman prostitute named Anna Bianchini.

In “Rest of the Flight to Egypt” Anna’s red hair is pulled back from her face, knotted on top and braided.  A light falls on her and on an angel who is playing a song on a violin.  On the left side of the painting a tired, old-looking Joseph is in the dark.  He is holding up a sheet of music for a young boy angel (oddly exposing himself to Joseph–another Caravaggio provocation of the Church?)  A donkey with kind, dark eyes peers over Joseph’s shoulder. The donkey understands. The musical notes that Joseph is holding up, apparently is a Renaissance form of music called a Motet and is by a Flemish composer called Noel Bauldwijn. The music is from the “Song of Songs” which referring to the Madonna declares, “how beautiful art thou, and how comely, my dearest, in delights.”  Was Caravaggio making a reference to his friend Anna Bianchini?

Caravaggio's "Martha and Mary Magdalene" painted in 1598 and now at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene” painted in 1598 and now at the Detroit Institute of Arts

There is another Caravaggio painting where Anna Bianchini appears which I will mention quickly before I get to the tragic conclusion.  In 1598 Caravaggio painted “Martha and Mary Magdalene”, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  In this painting we see Anna and her friend and fellow prostitute Fillide Melandroni who is also in Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” — (See my blog post “Caravaggio’s Women“).  Anna is Martha on the left side of the painting and Fillide is Mary Magdalene on the right. I have not seen this painting in person, but I love its sensual representation of these two women discussing the sacred and profane.

Caravaggio's "Death of the Virgin" - a prostitute named Anna Bianchini is assumed to be the model for the virgin.

Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin” – a prostitute named Anna Bianchini is assumed to be the model for the virgin.

But on to my conclusion.  In 1605, Caravaggio painted the “Death of the Virgin”  (now in the Louvre) for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.  The painting was removed shortly after it was put up?  Why?  Because the image was too shocking. The Virgin is splayed out on a table, her bare feet hanging off the end. She has a swollen belly, her dress is open, her face does not look saintly and her arm flops over in an indelicate manner. The only indication of her holiness is the lightly drawn halo over her head.  The woman was clearly recognizable as the 24-year-old Anna Bianchini, whose dead body had been dragged out of the Tiber River.  Officials said it was suicide, her friends thought she had been murdered.

Detail of Caravaggio's "Death of the Virgin."

Detail of Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin.”

Caravaggio’s contemporary; doctor, writer, art-lover and author Giulio Mancini wrote that Caravaggio had used as his model for the Virgin “qualche meretrice sozza degli Ortacci, qualche sua bagascia, una cortigiana a lui amata.” I will do my best to translate, “Some filthy harlot from the Ortacci, one of his whores, a courtesan that he loved.” (Note: the Ortacci was a neighborhood Rome along the Tiber, near the Mausoleum of the Emperor Augustus, where the prostitutes lived.) That is why I wanted to see Anna’s teardrop.  This beautiful woman who suffered, was abused from an early age and yet was also lively and vigorous, this woman who met her death in the most tragic manner, has been summed up for me in the genius of Caravaggio with that  simple pearl-drop tear. As I left the Gallery and headed out into the July heat, I walked through the streets of the historic center of Rome, the same streets walked by Anna Bianchini and Caravaggio, and I shed a tear myself for the cruelty of life and the misfortunes of  Anna Bianchini.

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June 15, 2014

Sparkling Italians

Chiara Rizzo on the cover of a magazine called "Il Foglio Italiano"

Chiara Rizzo on the cover of a magazine called “Il Foglio Italiano”

It is has been a torrid week in Italy with temperatures in Rome hitting 34 degrees Celsius (mid-nineties Fahrenheit).  Many Italians — my husband Gustavo and my colleague Paolo included– hate air conditioning, so I sweat and suffer at home and at work.  My computer was not happy with all the hot air either, getting so steadily overheated that it wasn’t functioning properly.  As a result my WordPress went wacko on me and many of you blog readers have received old posts and a post in Italian that should not have been there.  Sorry about that. As I write, I have a packet of frozen hamburger meat under my Macbook to make sure it does not overheat again.  (Once it defrosts, I will prepare meatloaf for tonight’s dinner).

Far better than Mom’s meatloaf at home on these steamy days, is to go out to a late dinner at an outdoor restaurant in a Roman piazza when it is a bit cooler and no AC is needed.  A waiter will arrive and ask you whether you would like water that is “liscia, gassata, o leggermente frizzante” — that would be “flat, with bubbles or slightly sparkling”.  Italians usually prefer “leggermente frizzante” — slightly sparkling, and for me that has become a metaphor of how Italians like to be– Slightly Sparkling.   They want to be beautiful, and fascinating enough to excite you, but not so bubbly as to make you burp.  It is all part of the “Bella Figura”. (See my Blog Post : “Espresso, Corruption, Murder…and The Bella Figura.”

Yesterday in Manaus, Brazil, the Italian National Football (Soccer) Team, was “slightly sparkling”, beating England 2-1 in the opening match with stunning goals from left wing Claudio Marchisio who gave a powerful kick that cut through a phalanx of players to reach the goal, and a fabulous header from my favourite attacker Mario Balotelli, (see Blog Posts:  “Balotelli’s Mamma” and “Mario Balotelli Forever“)

Italy definitely needed the morale boost because for the past few months the country has been sinking in scandals.  Glug. Glug. Glug. Everyday there is a new one — Ministers arrested, gazillions of euros pocketed by politicians, public works projects derailed by massive corruption, it never ends.

My favourite bubbly scandal is the story of Chiara Rizzo, a gorgeous 44-year-old woman now sitting in a prison in Reggio Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy.

Chiara Rizzo — also known as “Madame Champagne” — was half of the “frizzante” (sparkling) couple of Montecarlo, together with husband Amedeo Matacena, a ship owner from Southern Italy and a former member of the Italian parliament.  They were part of Montecarlo’s high-society jet-setters.  Rizzo was even chosen as one of the 11 most beautiful women of Monaco and her glamorous photos were put into a glossy coffee-table book titled, “Women of Monaco.”

The "sparkling" couple Chiara Rizzo and Amedeo Matacena

The “sparkling” couple Chiara Rizzo and Amedeo Matacena

The couple has lost some of its sparkle following the conviction of Amedeo Matacena for Mafia association for his relations with the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia that has its base in the Calabria region of Italy.   Matacena has been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and is now a fugitive from justice living in Dubai.  Police in Dubai have apparently taken his passport.

At the beginning of May, anti-Mafia police arrested Claudio Scajola, the former Italian Minister of Interior from 2001-2002 and threw him in the Regina Coeli prison in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.  He was accused of aiding a fugitive from justice (Matacena), and trying to help him get from Dubai to Lebanon.

Former Italian Interior Minister Claudio Scajola after he was arrested by anti-mafia police. May 2014

Former Italian Interior Minister Claudio Scajola after he was arrested by anti-mafia police. Scajola is the grey-haired man at the back. May 2014

To make this deliciously long, sordid story short, Scajola’s defense has been that he acted to save the woman he was madly in love with, Matacena’s wife Chiara Rizzo.

Chiara Rizzo — who at that point was in Dubai with her fugitive husband– decided to head back to Europe to face the charges against her.  She flew to France in May, was held briefly before being handed over to Italian police who popped her into a prison in Calabria. She is charged with assisting a fugitive, for trying to organize her husband’s escape to Lebanon, but even worse, she is also accused of false registration of property and of having hidden the ownership of various companies linked to her husband.

Chiara Rizzo in handcuffs as she is handed from French police to Italian police. May, 2014

Chiara Rizzo in handcuffs as she is handed from French police to Italian police. May, 2014

The Italian press has had a field day with the details of this story and the photos of Rizzo and I have gobbled it all up. So as I sweated it out in my air-condition-less, second-hand Fiat Punto this week feeling my perspiring back stick to the seat as I carted my kids around the city– I got a certain sick pleasure in gnawing over the details of the downfall of the “sparkling” Chiara Rizzo who once had her photo taking sprawled on the engine of a red Ferrari.  I may not be able to afford a Ferrari, or even have an air-conditioned car, but at least I am not sweating it out in a prison in Reggio Calabria.

Chiara Rizzo poses on a Red Ferrari

Chiara Rizzo poses on a Red Ferrari

Of course Minister Scajola is not the only politician feeling the heat these days.  Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell’Utri was extradited from Beirut, Lebanon this week and taken from Rome’s Fiumicino airport directly to prison.  He is convicted of association with the Sicilian Mafia and has been sentenced to seven years in prison.  He was one of the founder of Silvio Berlusconi’s “Forza Italia” party.

Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, convicted of Mafia association and sentence to seven years in prison.

Former Italian Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, convicted of Mafia association and sentence to seven years in prison.

But in case anyone thinks it is just the Berlusconi boys who are corrupt, think again.

Corrado Clini, Minister of Environment under the Mario Monti government is now under house arrest, accused of pocketing one million euro that was intended for an environmental project in Iraq.   Turns out the money was going into a bank account in Switzerland with the name “Pesce” (Fish in English).  I feel a distinct water theme emerging in this post — and there is lot more water to come, so much it could sink the city of Venice.

At the beginning of June a new scandal exploded — the massive multi-billion euro Moses project to save the Lagoon city of Venice from sinking under water is drowning the city in corruption. Police arrested 30 people including the Mayor of the city, Giorgio Orsoni.  Police said in a three year investigation they discovered a 25 million euro (34 million dollars) slush fund  that was being used to bribe politicians.  Mayor Orsoni resigned on Friday after declaring he was guilty and reaching a plea bargain.  Orsoni is from Prime Minister’s Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party.

Former Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, who resigned in May amidst a corruption scandal involving the Moses Project.

Former Mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, who resigned in May amidst a corruption scandal involving the Moses Project.

The five billion euro (6.8 million dollar)  Moses project was launched by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and is expected to be finished in 2016. It foresees placing 78 massive underwater mobile gates in the sea around Venice, as the tide rises the gates rise up blocking the water from flooding the city.

Then there is the corruption surrounding preparations for the EXPO 2015 in Milan.  Italy has been eagerly pouring cash into that city preparing for this international event which is expected to give a boost to the Italian economy.  But again, in May police arrested seven people involved kickbacks on building contracts.  In this case it was a mere 180 million euros (250 million dollars) that investigators said were skimmed off.

Last April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi plucked famed anti-mafia prosecutor Raffaele Cantone to become is anti-corruption Czar.  Cantone was the prosecutor in Naples who is credited with destroying the Casalesi clan of the Camorra Mafia in the famous Spartacus trials.

Raffaele Cantone, the President of Italy's Anti-Corruption Agency

Raffaele Cantone, the President of Italy’s Anti-Corruption Agency

Cantone spoke earlier this week at a conference on corruption at Rome’s Foreign Ministry.  He glumly noted that he only had a staff of 26 people to monitor corruption in all of Italy’s public offices from the city halls and public health offices, to the public works projects.  Then, he noted, when they find corruption he has no power to sanction.  He explained that these problems makes his work “monco” — translated I guess that would be truncated, amputated, or mutilated. In other words, ineffective.

As I edited the video of these comments I noted that Cantone seems anything but “sparkling”.  A bit of a gloomy Gus, but given the way things are going in Italy, I don’t blame him.  Actually he reminded me of Eliot Ness, the “prohibition  agent” played by Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables” and the man behind the capture of Mafia boss Al Capone.

Friday night in a desperate attempt to stanch the flow of money to the corrupt, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced he was giving new powers to Cantone, more staff, the possibility to put fines on corrupt companies, and takeover public works projects that have been sullied with corruption.

Let’s see how it goes for Cantone the non-sparkler.  I definitely think it is time for some Italian “acqua liscia,” (water without bubbles).

By the way, my own Gus (my husband Gustavo, a Professor of Economics and expert on corruption) says I’ve got it all wrong.  He says this is all good news because what is rotten in the country is now being exposed.

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June 7, 2014

Singing Nun Crushes the Competition

The Singing Nun, Sister Cristina Scuccia shows her cross following her victory in "The Voice of Italy" singing competition. June 5, 2014

The Singing Nun, Sister Cristina Scuccia shows her cross following her victory in “The Voice of Italy” singing competition. June 5, 2014

Dear Blog Readers –

Mozzarella Mamma is not moving fast enough and I missed the 24 hour news cycle on this one….so you have already probably heard about Italy’s now famous singing nun on the BBC, NPR or in The New York Times– the nun has even gone viral.  Nevertheless, this little piece of cheerful news deserves a blog post.

On Thursday night,  Sister Cristina Scuccia (pronounced Scoo-Chah) of Sicily blew out all the competition on Italy’s national TV singing competition show and won “The Voice of Italy” earning over 62 -percent of the phone vote.

The spunky 25-year-old nun, dressed in a black habit with black shoes, danced about the stage singing “What a Feeling” from the movie “Flashdance.”  I have to admit I was busy poo-poohing the whole story until I pulled up the video of her on YouTube and pretty soon I was dancing around the office myself.  That nun’s enthusiasm is contagious!  She gives real meaning to the singing nun played by Julia Andrews in “The Sound of Music” and Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act.”  Just click on the video below and listen to her!

It all started on March 9th when the TV show judges, their chairs turned so they could hear but not see the competitors, were treated to Sister Cristina belting out Alicia Key’s “No One”.   At first she moved a bit stodgily, and it was hard not to notice the plain black shoes, thick grey tights, wire-rim glasses and grey cross bouncing on her chest.  But as she became steadily more impassioned,  her voice booming out the words, the crowd jumped to their feet cheering wildly and the tv camera panned to a group of nuns clapping and moving to the music, huge smiles of pride on their faces.  When the judges swirled their chairs around, their mouths fell open in astonishment.

Sister Cristina grew up in Sicily and now lives in a convent in Milan with a group of Orsoline nuns.  At a press conference in Milan before the final, Sister Cristina said even if she won she would “never renounce the biggest love of my life, the calling that I have had.”

She gave a sense of her faith to the television audience by leading the crowd in “The Lord’s Prayer” following her victory and pointing upwards to the heavens to indicate who had helped her, and when the photographers asked her to hold up her trophy, she lifted her grey cross instead.

So what will be in Sister Cristina’s future — that will be decided by her superior, Sister Agata. Sister Agata was quoted in today’s Italian daily “La Repubblica” saying, “We are still shaken, we are scared of what is happening.  Sister Cristina has a talent that she wished to give to others.  But the rest, all the extras, that is something that does not belong to her or to us.”

We shall see.

Sister Cristina grew up in Sicily and now lives in a convent in Milan with a group of Orsoline nuns.  At a press conference in Milan before the final, Sister Cristina said even if she won she would "never renounce the biggest love of my life, the calling that I have had." She gave a sense of her faith to the television audience by leading the crowd in "The Lord's Prayer" following her victory and pointing upwards to the heavens to indicate who had helped her, and when the photographers asked her to hold up her trophy, she lifted her grey cross instead.  So what will be in Sister Cristina's future -- that will beside by her superior, Sister Agata. Sister Agata was quoted in todays Italian daily La Repubblica as saying, "We are still shaken, we are scared of what is happening.  Sister Cristina has a talent that she wished to give to others.  But the rest, all the extras, that is something that does not belong to to her or to us." We shall see.

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May 27, 2014

Touching the Walls – Pope Francis in the Mideast

Pope Francis praying at the barrier wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. May 25, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis praying at the barrier wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. May 25, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Dear Blog Readers,

I am back from a gruelling, stimulating, and thrilling three day trip to the Middle-East covering Pope Francis.  I still have the adrenalin pumping through my system and I hope it lasts long enough to get me through this post.

I am not sure whether you are all more interested in the behind-the-scenes details or the news headlines.  I could tell you about the stray cat who wanted to get in the way of the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew until a Franciscan Friar removed the sweet, meowing kitty– tossing him behind a wall to the boos and cheers of journalists.  Or the Orthodox priest frantically trying to telephone the kids at the top of the bell-tower to stop ringing the bells (the Pope was an hour late and the bells were making our heads pound).

Orthodox Priest desperately tries to contact enthusiastic bell ringers at top of bell tower with little luck. May 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Orthodox Priest desperately tries to contact enthusiastic bell ringers at top of bell tower with little luck. May 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Or how about the battle among the English language journalists about what questions to ask the Pope on the plane on the return trip (we were allowed two), or my escape into the sumptuous bathroom at the Royal Palace in Jordan, or stumbling through Old Jerusalem holding my computer open and frantically trying to file my video edit of the Pope in Bethlehem as we raced to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the next appointment (I ended up having to slip into a tiny, rather suspicious looking internet cafe’ and use their wifi to get my story in, I then had to run a half hour late to catch up to my pool and convince the Israeli security that I really was with the Vatican traveling press and not an imposter–no easy feat).

A soldier stands guard waiting for the Pope to arrive at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan to visit the site of the baptism of Jesus. May 24, 2014. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

A soldier stands guard waiting for the Pope to arrive at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan to visit the site of the baptism of Jesus. May 24, 2014. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

Then there was the crazed bus driver in Jordan who I thought was going to run over any car that got in the way enroute from Amman to Bethany-Beyond-the Jordan, the site of the Jesus’ baptism.   In the intense moment when the Pope was standing staring into the River Jordan (a rather swampy looking stream), I was tweeting, sweating, and  swatting away flies.  I had lots of interest in my tweet on the stunningly beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan, joining the Pope for the visit to the baptism site.  A little Mamma note here — she is 43, has 4 children and is involved in a lot of important humanitarian causes — and she looks like a movie star.  What is her trick? By the way, her husband King Abdallah Hussein gave a beautiful speech talking about peace in the Middle East when he addressed the Pope that unfortunately got little media attention.  Or how about the grown-up Palestinians waiting outside the Desheshah refugee camp where the Pope was meeting a group of children, getting into a ferocious, very Mediterranean-style debate, with shouting and gesticulating, people storming away in anger and returning– all over who would stand in the front near the door as the Pope passed and have a chance to greet him.   Or how about the nuns at the gorgeous Church of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives who waited with eager, adoring faces for the arrival of the Pope and broke into wild cheers of “Long Live the Pope” when he came through the door.  Then there was my frantic technology trip trying to manage to get all the video of the Pope’s hour long press conference downloaded into my computer, audio adjusted and turned around and put out live to go as soon as the embargo was lifted an hour and a half after we got off the plane.  Let’s just say we drove fast from the Ciampino airport in Rome to the AP Rome bureau (almost like the Jordanian bus driver).

I could go on and on– but I suppose some of you also might want to hear the news highlights.  For me, the key moments of this trip were when the Pope touched walls.  The first wall was the separation barrier between Israeli and Palestine.  As thousands of Palestinians and the press corps waited for Pope Francis in Manger Square, the Pope made a surprise stop at the massive separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  He stepped out of the Pope-mobile, walked up to the wall and right near some graffiti saying “Free Palestine” he rested his head, touched the wall with his hand and said a prayer.

It was a stunning and unexpected gesture.  The Palestinians in the press room were ecstatic.  The Israelis less so.  The next day on the front page of the Israeli daily “The Jerusalem Post”, Israel’s former Ambassador to the Vatican Oded Ben-Hur was quoted saying, “We’re not very happy that they used the pope as a political vehicle or tool to obtain a public relations victory.”

There is no doubt that image of the Pope, the photo and the video, over-shadowed the entire trip.  Shortly after his visit to the wall, at the end of his Mass in Manger Square, the Pope announced that he was inviting the Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit him in his “home” at the Vatican and join him in prayers next month.  Both Presidents accepted within the hour.  By his second day in the Holy Land, the Pope (or White Elephant as I said in an earlier post.  See blog post: A White Elephant in a China Shop) who had promised a “strictly religious” visit seemed to be neck deep in the politics of the place and loving it.

At dawn the next morning we were taken to the Western Wall in Jerusalem — the last remaining part of the biblical Second Temple and the holiest place where Jews can pray.  As AP television cameraman Gianfranco Stara and I waited, we snapped photos of people at the wall.  I took a picture of a young Hasidic journalist in sidelocks, Gianfranco got a close-up of the prayer notes inserted in the wall and orthodox Jews praying at the wall.

Prayer notes in Jerusalem's Western Wall. Photo by Gianfranco Stara. May 26, 2014

Prayer notes in Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Photo by Gianfranco Stara. May 26, 2014

Finally the Pope arrived and in a solemn ceremony was led by the Chief Rabbi for the site towards the wall.  The last few steps he proceeded alone, pausing in front of the wall, holding a small paper in his hand (it was the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish), he stopped, prayed, touched the wall and then slipped his prayer inside.  He then turned and quickly walked to his two friends accompanying him on the trip — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud of Buenos Aires.  The three men held each other in big inter-religious bear hug.

Pope Francis holds a slip of paper with the Lord's Prayer in his hand and he leans on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. May 26, 2014 Credit: Vatican Pool

Pope Francis holds a slip of paper with the Lord’s Prayer in his hand and he leans on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. May 26, 2014. This photo was taken by my colleague AP Rome Bureau Photographer Andrew Medichini for the International Agencies Pool

There was still another wall to go.  The Pope was whisked off to his next stop, the Yad Vashem Memorial for Holocaust victims, but then in another unexpected detour from his schedule, he visited a memorial for victims of terrorism, again he solemnly touched the wall with the bronze plaques with the names of victims of terrorist attacks.  Inside the Holocaust memorial, the Pope kissed the hands of holocaust survivors in a gesture of humility.

It would be impossible to go through all Pope Francis’ important comments and gestures throughout the trip, so I will just skip ahead to the Press conference on the return trip.  On the way to Amman (see my picture with the Pope below) the Pope told us he would answer all our questions on the way back. The Pope’s spokesman said we had to divide into language groups: Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.  Each group would get two or three questions and had to choose someone to ask them.  The only Asian on the plane was a Japanese journalist so she was also given the opportunity to ask a question.  From the moment we got on the plane each language group huddled up and got into serious wrangling about what questions to ask and who would ask them.   In the end, the Pope came and took questions for an hour.   Without hesitating or trying to evade any questions, he responded on the following issues: sexual abuse of children, the possibility of resigning, celibacy, communion for divorced Catholics, Middle East peace, scandals in the Vatican and the reform of the Vatican bank, a trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines and religious oppression in Asia, and populism in Europe, unemployment and the global economy.  It was a stunning, wide-ranging, exhausting press conference.  I won’t get into all his answers here. After an hour the Pope’s spokesman said he thought we should wrap it up because the crew really needed to serve the dinner.  The Pope said that we could go on if we wanted, but then agreed to stop.  We all applauded his willingness to go on and his openness in addressing our questions.  Before leaving he asked us all to pray for him, “because I need it.”  Then with a wave and a smile the Pope turned and made his way back up to the front of the plane leaving the dazed press corps momentarily speechless.

Trisha Thomas greeting Pope Francis on the Papal Plane going from Rome to Amman. May 24, 2014. Photo by Simone Risoluti

Trisha Thomas greeting Pope Francis on the Papal Plane going from Rome to Amman. May 24, 2014. Photo by Simone Risoluti

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May 23, 2014

A White Elephant in a China Shop

A fan holds up a giant poster of Pope Francis during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square.  May 21, 2014.  Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

A fan holds up a giant poster of Pope Francis during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. May 21, 2014. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Dear Blog Readers — Tomorrow I am leaving on the Papal Plane (Volo Papale) for the Middle East and I can hardly wait.  It is not as though I am going to be rubbing elbows with Pope Francis — he will sit up at the front with the Cardinals, Swiss Guards and some invited guests and I will be in the back with the press corps.  It is the Pope’s second trip outside of Italy (his first was Brazil last July) and it is my first time traveling with him.  The trip is from Saturday through Monday and the schedule is chock-o-block so I am sure I will have no time to blog until I get back. That is why I want to give you a little preview of what are some of the key things to expect and then I will fill you in on all the behind-the-scenes stuff when I get back.  First, you may be wondering why I have decided to call this post “The White Elephant in a China Shop.”  Well, the Pope is the man in White and he is a big shot.  (By calling him a White Elephant, I certainly do not intend to imply that he is a burdensome possession). Take the big shot in white and put him in the Middle-East, the center of the three mono-theistic religions, the source of conflict and controversy for thousands of years.  Then you give him a packed schedule running between Mufti’s, Rabbi’s, and places of such profound significance as the Wailing Wall and Manger Square, add on top of that a visit to refugee camp, a mass at the sight of the last supper, speeches and homilies and there seems like the elephant might risk breaking some china.  That said, Pope Francis has surprised us all from day one and for all we know that White Elephant may be dancing in the China shop without breaking anything.  We shall see.

Pope Francis greets the faithful during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. May 21, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis greets the faithful during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. May 21, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

The original purpose of the visit was ecumenical, a meeting in Jerusalem with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic trip by Pope Paul VI to Jerusalem to meet with Patriarch Athenagoras. That meeting in 1964 brought the end to a 900 year break between the Eastern and Western Christian churches called the great schism.

A second big theme of the trip will be dialogue.  The Pope is bringing with him on the Papal Plane two friends from Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of Argentina in a symbolic gesture to have representatives of the three monotheistic religions traveling together presumably in harmony. (If I hear otherwise, bickering aboard the Papal plane or tripping each other up, I will let you know)

Pope Francis specifically said this week that his trip is “strictly religious” clearly trying to avoid getting into any political quicksand.  But we are talking about the Middle East where religion and politics are intertwined and it is unavoidable that the man in white will not makes some waves or offend somebody.  There are already several points of tension.

In an interview with Vatican TV this week, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin laid out the Vatican’s positions on some key issues in the Mideast.  He noted that the Vatican is in favor of the two-state solution explaining that the Vatican recognizes “the right of Israel to exist and to enjoy peace and security within internationally recognized borders; the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign and independent homeland, the right to move freely, the right to live in dignity.”

On this particular issue, the Vatican has already ruffled some feathers in Israel with the Pope’s decision to fly directly from his first stop Amman, Jordan to Bethlehem.  The Pope will meet Sunday morning with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before holding a mass in Manger Square.  He will then eat lunch with Palestinian families, including several from the Gaza Strip, and in the afternoon he will visit the Dheisheh refugee camp.  In the afternoon he will be taken from Bethlehem aboard a Jordanian military helicopter to Tel Aviv where he will get the Israeli welcoming ceremony.

But if Israeli feathers are being ruffled (or china being broken, to stick with my original metaphor) by the choice to visit the Palestinians first, the Palestinian feathers are being ruffled by the Pope’s decision to place a wreath of flowers on the tomb of Theodor Herzl — the founder of Zionism.

Another position of the Vatican, explained by Cardinal Parolin is that Jerusalem should be an international city.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but many foreign states do not recognize it, maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv.  Earlier this week Cardinal Peter Turkson explained to me that the Vatican Nunciature is in Tel Aviv and Parolin explained that the Vatican recognizes “the sacred and universal character of the city of Jerusalem,” and would like it to be “a place of pilgrimage for the followers of the three monotheistic religions.

There has been some tension over the Pope saying Mass Monday in his last event of the trip on Mount Zion in the Upper Room or the Cencale — the site of The Last Supper.  On the lower floor is the Tomb of David, an important site for Jews.  Israel has control over the site but will allow the Mass on this occasion.  Jewish extremist groups are planning protests against this event.

In his briefing with the press the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, downplayed reports of Jewish extremists spray-painting anti-christian graffiti on Christian sites prior to the Pope’s visit.  “Death to Arabs, Christians and all those who Hate Israel” was one spray-painted graffiti that appeared on the walls of a church office in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.  Lombardi expressed his full confidence in the Israeli security to deal with any protests.

The Pope’s spokesman also told a briefing of journalists at the Vatican that Pope Francis would like to go around as much as possible in an open Pope-mobile — not a bullet-proof vehicle– so that he can be closer to the people.  Perhaps he has someone upstairs protecting him, but I honestly think the Pope doesn’t have to worry in Israel.  As National Catholic Reporter Melanie Lidman wrote yesterday, there will be 8,000 Israeli police on duty in and around Jerusalem.  I do not have a figure on the security in place in the Palestinian territories.

Another big theme of the trip is the overall threats to Christians across the Middle-East.  Christians have been persecuted in Egypt, Iraq and Syria and many are fleeing the Middle East.  The Vatican has repeatedly expressed its concern.  In his interview the Cardinal Secretary of State said the Pope “wants to underline, in his direct encounter with them (Christians living in the Middle-East) two things: that these Christians are living stones, and that without their presence, the Holy Land and the Holy Places themselves are likely to be transformed into museums.”  He suggested that their presence “assures us that there is a living Christian community and a living presence of the Risen Lord.”

In all this discussion of Israel and the Palestinian territories, I am skipping the first-leg of the trip to Jordan.  Tomorrow the Pope will land in Amman, Jordan and rush off to the Royal Palace to meet with King Abdullah Hussein, his wife Queen Rania and their children.   He will say Mass at the stadium in Amman and then will go down to the Jordan River to visit the site of the Baptism of Jesus at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan.  There he will meet with refugees from Syria and Iraq and with disabled young people.  According to some press information provided by the Jordanian government, 600,000 Syrian war refugees have come to Jordan in the past 4 years, joining the 700,000 Syrians already living there.  They now make up about 20-percent of the Jordanian population. Of the total number of Syrian refugees, 20,000 are Christians.

Pope Francis greets a group of indigenous people in traditional dress at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. May 21, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis greets a group of indigenous people in traditional dress at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. May 21, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

I did a similar trip with Pope Benedict XVI in May, 2009 and I loved the trip down to Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan.  The site of Jesus’ baptism is more or less a mud-puddle and the river a trickle, but the stark, rugged mountainous desert landscape is beautiful.

Now you might be wondering what are the advantages for journalists on the Papal Plane.  Well, the biggest advantage is that it is usually the one chance where journalists can actually ask the Pope questions.  If the Pope chooses, he can come back to the part of the plane where the journalists are and talk to us.  Pope Benedict XVI used to do this in a very formal way.  We all had to submit questions ahead of the trip and the Pope’s spokesman would choose five.  On the plane the spokesman would read the questions and the Pope would answer.  It was not very spontaneous.

On Pope Francis’ first trip aboard to Brazil last August, he blew away the press corps by talking for nearly two hours and taking all sorts of questions on the 13 hour flight home.

So, I’ve been wondering what some of the questions journalists might ask if we are given a chance on this flight.  In addition to all the questions about this particular trip — Middle East Peace, Syria, Christians in the Middle East etc., I’ve been thinking there are some other issues that might be raised.  Will anyone ask him if he is going to respond by the letter sent to him by a group of 26 women who said they had long term relationships with priests but had to suffer in silence and would he consider lifting priestly celibacy? What does he think about the UN Committee Against Torture’s latest report on clergy sexual violence and cover ups in the Catholic Church?  How is the Vatican bank clean-up coming along and how does he respond to reports that the former Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone mis-used 15 million euros transferring them from the Vatican bank to a media company run by a friend?  What does he have to say about the report on Vatican radio yesterday that Martha Heizer, founder of the progressive We Are The Church movement was excommunicated on Wednesday together with her husband for celebrating Mass together?  What are his expectations for the Synod on the family in October and would be personally like to see church policy on communion for divorced Catholics.  And I have one more with a bit of personal interest in it.  Since becoming Pope you have given one-on-one interviews to three Italian male journalists.  Would you be willing to give an interview to a woman who covers the Vatican?

So, dear blog readers, that is what I am thinking off the top of my head.  If any of you had a chance to ask a question to the Pope, what would you ask?

Below is a photo of me sitting outside the Dome of the Rock Mosque during Pope Benedict’s XVI visit in 2009.  The photo was taken by AP cameraman Gianfranco Stara as I was filing a report to AP Radio. I remember I was saying how Benedict had taken off his red shoes and entered the mosque in white socks.

 

Trisha Thomas on the Dome of the Rock reporting of the visit of Benedict XVI May 2009. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

Trisha Thomas on the Dome of the Rock reporting of the visit of Benedict XVI May 2009. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

 

 

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May 21, 2014

A Morlacchi View of Rome

A detail fro Marcella Morlacchi's "Rome from the Victor Emmanuel Monument -- From the Colosseum to City Hall to the Tiber."

A detail fro Marcella Morlacchi’s “Rome from the Victor Emmanuel Monument — From the Colosseum to City Hall to the Tiber.”

I have a love-hate relationship with Rome.  Moments of sheer joy and exhilaration can slide into moments of excruciating frustration. The other day I was I blocked in traffic at rush hour on Rome’s nightmare Muro Torto — the curving road that runs along the winding, ancient city wall.  Motorinos (mopeds) were buzzing around me everywhere, in and out between cars, a blond thirty-something in a Smart car was beeping her horn uselessly behind me, as an annoying man in a Range Rover gesticulated aggressively at the driver of a beat-up truck who slid over a lane cutting him off.  I was late to pick up my daughter Chiara at chorus, I hadn’t had time to to walk our dog Settimo first, so he was happily sitting on the seat next to me, panting his bad doggy breath into the tiny Fiat and acting like a King sitting on a throne observing all the chaos around him.

I was neurotically checking email on my iPhone (yes, I do that in traffic.  I know, I know. I shouldn’t).  The traffic inched forward up the hill and around a bend. It was 7:40pm, I was late, my daughter would be waiting, hungry and grouchy and I still had to walk the dog and cook dinner.  My husband was away.  I felt aggravation levels rising.  Why do kids’ activities runs so late in Italy?  Why is there so much traffic in Rome?  Why do we eat dinner so late in this country?  Then I looked up and saw a group of Roman pines towering over the Villa Borghese park– their rounded green tops perched on their long spindly, sinuous trunks.  The sky was changing to a creamy pink and purple and suddenly I was filled with a sense of serenity and tranquillity.  I slipped into a day-dream about building myself a tree-house  in one and living above the chaotic Roman traffic (preferably without my iPhone).

I patted Settimo on the head and said, “Look at those Roman pines Settimo, aren’t they gorgeous?”  He panted appreciatively just as the thirty-something blond, who had been applying mascara moments earlier, let loose an annoying series of Smart car beeps and I had to move forward.  I can’t stand rich, young, long-haired blonds who put mascara on in their Smarts while in traffic, and I am sure rich, young, long-haired blonds can’t stand haggard, mascara-less, middle-aged working Moms who read their emails or stare longingly at Roman pines while patting panting dogs in Roman traffic.

But on to the point of this post, this week I had the opportunity to meet a woman who has re-ignited my passion for Rome.  A woman who often stays above the traffic, the smog, the litter and dirt, who steps back and enjoys the view and then recreates it in stunningly precise detail. Her name is Marcella Morlacchi and she is an architect, a professor and an artist.  I went to visit her studio because I wanted to buy one of her paintings but I was so enthralled with her work, her incredible talent and determined character that I ended up sitting down and asking her to tell me her whole life story.

Marcella draws and paints views of Rome — drawings coming from the hand of an experienced architect with every line precisely drawn, then she adds on top of that her talent as an artist — details and colors that bring the technical aspects to life.

Marcella Morlacchi working on a water-color painting of the Vatican. May 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

Marcella Morlacchi working on a water-color painting of the Vatican. May 2014, Photo by Trisha Thomas

I could have sat in her studio all day between the paint brushes, plastic glasses full of water, paintings laid out on tables, and photographs of buildings and books.

Marcella was raised in the elegant Parioli neighborhood of Rome where she still has her home and studio.  Her father was a prominent police detective who she told me solved at least 20 murder mysteries, earning himself the name “The Italian Maigret.”

Marcella told me a fascinating story about one mystery that took her father seven years to resolve. It involved young woman named Vilma Montessi whose drowned body was washed ashore near Rome.  She had no socks on and her purse was gone, but otherwise she had not been physically harmed.  The investigation into her death became very complicated because there were some key political figures who ended up being incriminated.  To get to the truth her father and to push past political lobbying and screens. Her father also was famous for all the cheats, crooks and con-men that he caught.

Despite his prominence, Marcella’s father refused to bow to the Italian habit of using “raccomandazione” (recommendation) to help his four children get ahead professionally.  A “raccomandazione” is not a simply recommendation.  It is using your power to find another person with the power to do something for you–like get your child a job.  Italy has a long tradition of “raccomandazione” combined with nepotism, particularly in the field of academics.

Marcella Morlacchi wanted to become a professor of architecture but she could not get a paid position.  The University of Rome recognized her talent and allowed her to work for free (yes, unpaid!!) for 12 years  from 1972 to 1984.  She taught students in the prestigious school of Architecture all that time without having an official title or being paid.  In order to make money she did a myriad of other jobs.  She worked with a construction company going onto constructions sites consulting on archictectual aspects.  She said she loved the work and although she was surrounded by men, she never felt anything but respect and esteem.  She worked as a technical consultant for banks advising on architectural and construction projects where loans were requested.

A drawing of Piazza Navona by Marcella Morlacchi. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

A drawing of Piazza Navona by Marcella Morlacchi. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

She did many jobs to earn money, but her true love was always drawing and teaching.  Eventually she did get a job at the University.  Her advice to me, “never, ever give up.”  She said she never got married (although apparently had plenty of offers) and never had children noting, “for me, my students were my children.”

It is hard to put a complete resume of Marcella Morlacchi in one blog post.  Her talents have been widely recognized.  She has written a wide variety of books, including a textbook for architecture students and various others both with sketches of Rome and commentary on the colors of Rome.

A drawing of Villa Pamphili in Rome by Marcella Morlacchi hanging on the wall of her studio. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

A drawing of Villa Pamphili in Rome by Marcella Morlacchi hanging on the wall of her studio. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 2014

The colors of Rome is probably the most important aspect of Marcella Morlacchi’s long career.  As she explained it to me, “I invented the use of watercolors in architecture as a discipline– I was the first to do it in the world.”

Because of her use of watercolors in her architectural drawings, Morlacchi gained a reputation as being an expert on the colors of Rome.   As she explained it to me with the unification of Italy in 1870, Rome became the capital and suddenly lots of construction began to accommodate all the government ministries and their employees moving to Rome, mostly from Turin.  The result was that the buildings in Rome are either historic (Renaissance or Baroque) or eclectic but there was one common factor, the buildings were originally colored so that the original rock or stone (tavertine marble in Rome) remained its natural color.  So the stones on the columns, windows, cornice were a natural color, and the remaining parts were a variation of brick colors from yellow to pinks to orange and brick red.  Anything else was wrong.

Apparently, very few experts in Rome at the time were aware of this and across the city people were lathering paint onto buildings with no respect for their history.  So, Marcella Morlacchi took the matter into her own hands.  She launched a major project for her own Municipality, Municipality A, including five neighborhoods of Rome and with her students worked out 21 diagrams color-coding very single building.  Their work ended up being the basis for a new regulation that was eventually established for the entire city of Rome.  Marcella Morlacchi explained to me that her biggest accomplishment in life has been saving the original colors of Rome.

Over the years, Morlacchi’s drawings became much more than archictectual sketches, they have become precious sought-after paintings of Rome.  Morlacchi has moved around the city, with pencils and her stool, perching on street corners and climbing up to roof-tops to draw and paint Rome with exact detail.  Morlacchi loves the truth of her drawings and never misses a detail– whether it is the weeds growing out of rock walls, yellow flowers growing between roof tiles, traffic signs, cars, and satellite dishes, they are all in her paintings.  As I was interviewing her, she was working on a drawing/painting of the Vatican.  She was perturbed that she had drawn a part of the Apostolic Palace as though it were in the light when she said it was actually shaded by another building.

Marcella Morlacchi working on the shading of the Apostolic Palace on her painting of the Vatican. May, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Marcella Morlacchi working on the shading of the Apostolic Palace on her painting of the Vatican. May, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

In 2007, the Ministry of Culture asked Morlacchi to paint water-color views of the city of Rome from on top of the Vittoriano (The Victor Emmanuel Monument).  Her paintings began with the carved female figures on the edge of the building and stretched out past the Coliseum, the Tiber, to the hills of the Castelli Romani.  The paintings are now printed on giant plaques on the roof of the monument and anyone can take the elevator up to the top and see them there today.

Or, if you want, you can come to my home and see the copy she gave to me on the wall.

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May 16, 2014

Rome – Simmering with Sensuality for Centuries

The "Triumph of Galatea", a fresco painted on the ceiling of Villa Farnesina in Rome by Raphael.  At the center is a figure based on the Roman Courtesan Imperia.

The “Triumph of Galatea”, a fresco painted on the wall of Villa Farnesina in Rome by Raphael. At the center is a figure based on the Roman Courtesan Imperia.

Rome is a city that simmers with sensuality. It comes to a boil in the torrid summer months, when the intense Roman heat encourages its citizens to dress scantily and breath heavily.

Moving to Rome from Puritan Boston, all this over-heating was new to me. In Boston, winters are long and cold, houses are big and expensive to heat, so we cover up from our heads to our toes — hats, scarves, mittens, turtle-necks, tights, under-shirts — not easy to whip off for a quick tryst, and not particularly seductive either. But it is not just the temperature, it is the Mediterranean character– everyone. whether it is the barista, taxi-driver, florist or postman, is ready to flirt with a woman of any age. (Hear about flirtatious butchers in the Blog Post “The Fine Art of the Christmas Broth” and my husband’s techniques in “Italian Men: Masters in Seduction“)

Roman women dress to seduce — no slouching around in sweatpants (see blog post “Sweatpants at the Supermarket” and “Linguini and Luscious Legs.”) American author Alan Epstein had me rolling with laughter with his descriptions of being seduced just looking at women in cars while standing on a curb in Rome in his best-selling book, “As the Romans Do.” Here is a bit of it:

“As I was waiting for the light to turn, various motorists were driving past and turning left almost directly beside me onto the bridge I had just crossed. The last car was about to go into the turn, and the window was wide open. I could plainly see the driver, a woman, mostly likely in her thirties. She was well attired, nothing out of the ordinary, but, of course, in Rome that means “decked out.” Her thick hair was done in a modified flip, hennaed a startlingly compelling shade of red. She had spangled earrings that glittered in the sunlight, and a light, open, green linen jacket over a scooped-necked, cream-colored silk blouse that revealed a lot more of her curvaceous bosom than the average woman in America would ever contemplate. For Rome, however, especially in warmer weather, a show of cleavage is standard operating procedure. ….So here I was, slowly moving my head from right to left as her sunglassed visage was darting past. She was cutting the corner even more sharply than usual to make sure she made the yellow. As she did so, her tiny Fiat Panda, passing over a series of small bumps, shook for a few moments, jostling the driver as well. The effect was to provide me with a nanosecond’s worth of exceedingly soft-core eroticism, as the tops of her well-developed breasts jiggled ever so slightly above the soft demi-bra she must have been wearing underneath, a seductive act she might have wittingly performed for her husband or lover in the sanctity of a bedroom but that she unwittingly performed for me as she whipped the Fiat around the curve and disappeared into Trastevere.”

I think ever since Alan Epstein wrote that book there has been an unusually large number of American men hanging around Roman street corners peering into cars.

All this chat about simmering sexuality has distracted me from the point of this post.

Massimo De Filippis shows photos of two paintings by Raphael where he used the famous Roman courtesan Imperia as a model. "The Triumph of Galatea" and "Sibyl". Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 16, 2014

Massimo De Filippis shows photos of two paintings by Raphael where he used the famous Roman courtesan Imperia as a model. “The Triumph of Galatea” and “Sibyl”. Photo by Trisha Thomas, May 16, 2014

This post is about a fantastic tour I took this week called “Courtesans of Rome.” It is a three hour tour given by Massimo De Filippis that delves into some of the most famous Roman love stories, visiting the villas of some of the city’s prominent courtesans, and learning about the women who seduced Cardinals and artists and whose faces can be found on the walls of the Louvre and the Vatican Museums.

The tour focused on seven prominent Roman women among them courtesans, prostitutes and the mistress of a Pope. I will just mention a few so as not to steal the show.

First some fascinating background I learned on the tour, based on courtesans in Rome in the Renaissance period. What is a courtesan? She was a woman of the court –beautiful, voluptuous, often educated and talented. According to Massimo De Filippis, in the late 1400s, Rome had 7,000 registered Courtesans, out of 50,000 citizens, nearly one-fifth of the population. Why so many Courtesans in Renaissance Rome? Because there was a surplus of men. The Vatican was the center of Catholicism, the Vatican army allowed only bachelors, there were priests, Cardinals, Bishops, merchants and a constant flow of pilgrims. Courtesans were registered in the Vatican State and they paid taxes to the Holy See. According to Massimo De Filippis “the dome of St. Peter’s was built with money earned from “the world’s oldest profession.”

Back in the Renaissance, there were a lot of advantages to being a courtesan — in that time a married woman was not supposed to be educated, and was not supposed to feel any sexual pleasure. A married woman was to obey her husband and have children, she was forbidden to learn to read and write, and she was not allowed to dance or participate in any form or art. In contrast, a courtesan could read, write and dance, and she could live on her own and handle her own finances. I find it hard to believe, but Massimo said that a top courtesan could earn the equivalent of 25,000 euro (roughly 34,000 dollars) in one night.

Many beautiful women came from Sicily and Tuscany to Rome eager to work as courtesans, their goal to become the mistress of a powerful, wealthy Cardinal. Some made it, some did not. The life of a courtesan was in sharp contrast with a lower class prostitute. Prostitution in Rome was illegal. According to Massimo De Filippis the majority of the street-walkers were actually married women, desperate to earn a little extra money for their family. These poor women announced their availability by wearing clogs. A woman walking the streets in clogs, “zoccole” in Italian, was recognized as a prostitute. To this day, the word “zoccola” is one of the worst insults you can give to a woman in Italian.

Because prostitution was illegal there were various forms of harsh punishment. Apparently Pope Clement VIII had a sadistic streak and was particularly enthusiastic about seeing prostitutes get publicly flogged. After a flogging, came the public humiliation. The women were left half naked, their backs exposed and their wrists tied behind them. They were then thrown over the back of a donkey to be trotted around Rome, for all to see.

The majority of the courtesans lived between the Spanish steps and Trastevere. Some of them had splendid houses (we visited several on the tour), preferably as near as possible to the Vatican. They would stand on their balconies in sumptuous, low-cut dresses while reading books to show they were courtesans. The competition was so intense that they adopted stage names to build up a reputation– to name a few “Luparella” (litle wolf), Bocca di Leone (Lion Mouth), La Fornarina (Baker’s Daughter — see blog post “Love and Passion in Rome“)

It would be impossible for me to go into the details of the lives of all the courtesans mentioned on the tour, so I will just mention a few. One of the most successful was Imperia, a courtesan who was romantically linked to one of the wealthiest men in the world at that time, a banker names Agostino Chigi. (Just to give you an idea of this man’s longstanding power– the Italian Prime Minister’s office in the center of Rome is in Palazzo Chigi.) Agostino Chigi showered Imperia with money– she had homes in Rome, and villas in the countryside. Chigi had artist Raphael use Imperia as the model for the painting “The Triumph of Galatea” on the wall of his Villa Farnesina on Via della Lungara in Trastevere. She is also the model for Raphael’s “Sibyl” in the church Santa Maria Della Pace. Sadly, Imperia fell in love with one of her suitors and when he left her for a younger woman, she committed suicide by poisoning herself.

 

Piazza Fiammetta Rome.  The piazza in Rome where a famous Roman Courtesan, Fiammetta, had her home. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

Piazza Fiammetta Rome. The piazza in Rome where a famous Roman Courtesan, Fiammetta, had her home. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

The tour stopped in Piazza Fiammetta where there is the gorgeous villa of a rich and powerful courtesan named Fiammetta. She was born in Tuscany and began an affair at age 13 with a 58-year-old Cardinal Piccolomini. When he died, she was his only heir, inheriting the beautiful home on Via Dei Coronari in the center of Rome, villas and vineyards in the countryside. Apparently he left her so much that Pope Sixtus IV intervened to reduce the inheritance. Nevertheless, Fiammetta had gone from rags to riches in a short time. She later became the lover of Cesare Borgia, the man about whom Machiavelli wrote the book “The Prince.”

The home in Rome of a prominent Roman courtesan named Fiammetta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

The home in Rome of a prominent Roman courtesan named Fiammetta. Photo by Trisha Thomas. May 15, 2014

There is a lovely lemon tree outside Fiammetta’s Roman villa. Massimo De Filippis explained that it was fundamentally important for Courtesans to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently they invented all sorts of forms of contraception but one of the most popular was using lemons as diaphragms– cutting them in half and inserting them prior to intercourse. The lemon would serve as a block, and apparently the juice worked as an effective spermicide.

The tour stops by Basilica of Sant’Agostino in Rome, known as the church of the prostitutes. Apparently during the Renaissance period it was a famous gathering place in Rome because it was the only place where the courtesans and prostitutes could go to church. The women would sit in the front pews and the back would be packed with men ogling them. The Sunday mass became a weekly event with the most beautiful courtesans in Rome parading the steps of the church wearing extravagant clothing and jewels. The priests would give sermons instructing the women to give up on their sinful ways, but there was too much business to be had from the pews at the back for their words to have much effect.

Inside the Basilica of Sant’Agostino is the Caravaggio painting “Madonna of Loreto” or “Madonna of the Pilgrims”. (see blog post Caravaggio’s Women- Check out the Toenails). Although I have written on my blog before about this painting, Massimo De Filippis was able to provide many more details about the woman in the painting. She was Magdalena (Lena) Antonietti, a prostitute who lived on Via Dei Greci near the Spanish steps. She is also in the painting “The Madonna and the Serpent” which hangs in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. These two paintings created an enormous scandal in Rome because Caravaggio used a prostitute as a model for the Virgin Mary and her son Paolo Antonietti as the model for the baby Jesus. De Filippis explained that Caravaggio fought with Antonietti’s pimp Ranuccio Tomassoni and killed him. Caravaggio fled Rome and was sentenced in absentia for the murder.

Caravaggio's "Madonna and the Serpent", a painting in the Borghese Gallery in Rome.  The model for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute named Magdalena Antoinetti and the model for the Christ child was her son Paolo Antoinetti.

Caravaggio’s “Madonna and the Serpent”, a painting in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The model for the Madonna was a Roman prostitute named Magdalena Antoinetti and the model for the Christ child was her son Paolo Antoinetti.

The final stop on the tour is in front of the beautiful Palazzo Farnese, now home to the French embassy in Rome. There Massimo De Filippis shared with us the life story of Giulia Farnese, the beautiful little girl who served as a model for Raphael and became the mistress of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, later Pope Alexander VI. My friend Tiffany Parks describes this story well in her blog post “The Borgia Pope, Pinturicchio and La Bella Farnese.”

Portrait of Young Woman with the Unicorn by Raphael at Borghese Gallery in Rome.  The model was the young beauty Giulia Farnese

Portrait of Young Woman with the Unicorn by Raphael at Borghese Gallery in Rome. The model was the young beauty Giulia Farnese

After over three hours visiting churches and houses, seeing paintings and gravestones of courtesans, my head was bursting from all the information and yet I was dying to know more about all the women I learned about on the tour. I suggested to Massimo De Filippis that perhaps he should be teaching a university course on courtesans. He told me that he is still offering his walking tour at a very low price (15 euros), because he needs to get a reputation. He explained that people hear the title “Courtesans of Rome” tour and they shun it, perhaps thinking he will be taking them to modern-day brothels. No, I can guarantee, the youngest courtesan met on the tour was at least 500 years old.

Detail from Raphael's "The Transfiguration" in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums.  Model for figure was Giulia Farnese

Detail from Raphael’s “The Transfiguration” in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums. Model for figure was Giulia Farnese

 

If you are interested, check out Massimo’s website: www.storytellingrome.com

Related posts:

April 27, 2014

The Four Pope Mega-Event

Pope Francis is driven through the crowd after presiding over a ceremony in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 27, 2014. Pope Francis has declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in an unprecedented canonization ceremony made even more historic by the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI. from AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis is driven through the crowd after presiding over a canonization ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 27, 2014. AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

In an historic ceremony Pope Francis proclaimed former Popes John Paul II and John XXIII saints today while Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sat on the side of the altar.  It was a four-pope mega event– the first time two popes presided over the canonization mass of two other popes.

Associated Press Television had crews working all night long to cover the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had descended on Rome eager to get front row seat.

Pilgrims arrived at dawn racing down the Via Della Conciliazione — the road leading from the Tiber River to Saint Peter’s Square–desperate to get a spot in the square. Most of them had spent the night awake, either at prayer vigils around Rome, or sleeping on air mattresses and in sleeping bags on the cobblestoned streets and piazzas around the Vatican.

I spoke to a few of them as they were still waiting to be let into the square:

Michelle Kassis from Beirut Lebanon was slowly moving her way forward towards Saint Peter’s Square, a small Lebanese flag in her hand.  She said she was there for John Paul II because, “In Lebanon we really love this Pope, he came to visit Lebanon, he gave us so many messages of love and he brought Lebanon to the entire world, because as you know Lebanon is an Arab country and it is very rare that they see us as dedicated Christians.”

Josephine McManus from Ireland was at the edge of the square eagerly waiting the canonization.  She recalled her memories of both the Popes to be made saints,”I was a child when John Paul XXIII was up on a picture frame at home. When John Paul II came to Ireland, I was expecting my fourth child, and I couldn’t get to see him so I am here now in person to see him canonized as Saint.”

Osvaldo Moreno from Mexico was waiting behind a barrier to see if he could get a spot in the square.  He said he had been up all night, “”We have been here since 10pm last night, we tried to sleep on the ground wherever we could but we are doing what we can, but I haven’t gotten any sleep and here we are doing are best to see him (John Paul II).”

Swiss Guard in St.Peter's Square with Mexican pilgrim in background at canonization mass for two popes. April 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

Swiss Guard in St.Peter’s Square with Mexican pilgrim in background at canonization mass for two popes. April 27, 2014. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Pietro De Cristofaro

While the pilgrims fought for a place in the piazza, the dignitaries were brought in through the basilica by the Papal Gentleman.   There were Kings and Queens, President and Prime Ministers from 90 countries among the delegation. Queen Sofia of Spain was there in an elaborate white outfit with head-dress.  Only Queens can wear white in the Pope’s presence.  There was also Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe who never misses a big event at the Vatican.

For past few days the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica has been decorated with two enormous banners with the gentle faces of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII both in bright red capes.

Just minutes before the canonization was to begin, 87-year-old Pope emeritus Benedict XVI emerged from St. Peter’s Basilica dressed all in white with a mitre on his head.  He was warmly greeted by the Cardinals who bent to kiss his ring.  When Pope Francis finally came out of the Basilica he also walked to the former Pope and hugged him.  By that time, Benedict was no longer wearing the mitre.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI talks with Sister Tobiana who helped John Paul II on his deathbed during canonization mass at Vatican. April 27, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI talks with Sister Tobiana who helped John Paul II on his deathbed during canonization mass at Vatican. April 27, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis appeared sombre and tired.  It was his decision to canonize John Paul II, a hero of Catholic conservatives, together with John XXIII, a hero to progressives.  He had apparently urged a subdued ceremony.  But the crowd was all but subdued, they sang, cheered, danced and waved banners and flags– in a massive celebration.

The Vatican press office said there were 500,000 pilgrims in and around Saint Peter’s Square and another 300,000 watching the event at the Coliseum and on mega-screens at other locations around the city.

During his homily Pope Francis described John Paul II and John XXIII saying, “They were priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them,” adding, “This is also the image of the Church which the Second Vatican Council set before us. John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church…”

Most of the pilgrims I spoke to were there for John Paul II, but there were also some members of the Roncalli family, descendants of Pope John XXIII.

I covered Pope John Paul II for the last ten years of his life and some of my memories of that are in this blog post: Covering John Paul II.

Pope Francis kisses the relic of John Paul II, during a ceremony in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 27, 2014. Pope Francis has declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in an unprecedented canonization ceremony made even more historic by the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis kisses the relic of John Paul II, during a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 27, 2014. Pope Francis has declared his two predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II saints in an unprecedented canonization ceremony made even more historic by the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

John Paul II was elected in 1978 at age 58 and became one of the longest serving Popes,  26 years until he died in April 2005.  Over that time he became the most travelled Pope in history visiting 120 countries.

John Paul II was an astute politician in addition to a religious figure. He is considered to have been key in toppling Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe beginning with his first visit to Poland in 1979.  He was treated like a rock star when he travelled to Latin America in the early years of his papacy. When it came to social doctrine, John Paul II was a staunch conservative, opposing birth control, euthanasia, women priests and homosexuality.

In sharp contrast John XXIII had a very short papacy, lasting only five years from 1958 to 1963, but during that short time he launched the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of church leaders from around the globe, that would revolutionize the church, bringing it into the modern world.  He is considered the father behind such progressive ideas as eliminating the Latin Mass and allowing priests to say mass in their local language making it more accessible to the faithful.  The council also vastly improved the Catholic church’s relationship with the Jews. John XXIII, then Angelo Roncalli, is credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust when he was the Papal envoy to Turkey in World War II.

John XXIII is probably most famous for what is known as his “speech to the moon” when he came to the window of the Apostolic apartment the October night in 1963 before the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  Speaking to a crowd of people holding candles in the square below he said, ” “Going home, you will find your children. Give them a caress and tell them ‘This is the caress of the pope,’”

It was this simplicity, the naturalness of a parish priest, rather than the stiff formality of earlier Popes that gained John XXIII such wide popularity.  This week, many people I interviewed said Pope Francis’ style remind them of the simplicity of John XXIII.

After presiding over the canonization with a stern expressive on his face, Pope Francis seemed to spring to life as he got in the Pope-mobile at the end of the event and was driven through the crowd greeting the faithful who went wild with excitement.

 

 

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