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Archive for March 4th, 2008

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It was either the fall of 1981 or the spring of 1982, after Ronald Reagan had been president for about a year, when, after a week in Milan, I went to Rome for a week’s work with our Italian partner Olivetti Consulting. The Olivetti people arranged for me to stay at the Jolly Hotel near the Via Veneto across the road from the Villa Borghese. I went down from Milan on Friday afternoon and was to get together with a young man from Olivetti on Monday morning, so I had a week-end to myself. 

Early the next day I went out to survey the surrounding area and went into the Villa Borghese park. The trees there were among the oddest I have seen, about seventy feet tall, very straight, with all the branches removed except for those very near the top. At first they seemed grotesque to me but after I got used to the idea it struck me as rather practical. The trees were quite close together, so they completely shaded the ground below (which probably is a boon in the hot Roman summers) but there was ample walking space between the trunks. 

It was colder than I expected at that time of year and I soon found myself looking for a way out of the shade. As I wandered about I came across a sign pointing the way to Via Zoologico – a zoo, an unexpected treat. I found the path to the zoo and after some minutes of walking found the zoo itself. Just inside the gate there was a large tent set up and across the entry a large banner saying “La più grande mostra in tutto il mondo di serpenti velenosi” (or something like that, my Italian is minimal), “The greatest exhibition in the whole world of poisonous snakes.” Who could resist that? I paid just a few thousand Lira and bought a ticket to the special exhibit as well as to the zoo itself. 

Inside the tent were several long rows of home made cases, plexiglass on the front and top and plywood on the remaining four sides, about thirty-six inches wide and twenty-four high and deep. The cases were in groups, African snakes, Asian, European, Australian and North and South American. The specimens were mostly quite small, perhaps juveniles in some instances, and some were misidentified on the hand-written cards in front of the cases. The whole arrangement had a home-made feeling.  

There was a pretty nearly solid single file of viewers. In front of me was a middle aged man who apparently had charge of two twelve year old girls who were running about in front of him. In a matter of minutes he and I were conversing (in English), asking each other where we lived, what work we did and so on, normal get-acquainted chatting. Just before the exit from the tent there was a much larger case than the others. In it was a decent sized Texas diamond back, perhaps eight feet long. My Italian companion pointed to the snake and said “Your President Reagan should be in there.” When he noticed my surprised (and confused) look (I didn’t know if he meant so that the snake could bite Reagan or what), he started apologizing, fearing he had offended me. When I assured him that I wasn’t offended and might even agree, he explained “He is more dangerous than any snake.”  

The zoo itself was in a terribly run-down state, many of the cages and enclosures contained only weeds and trash. There were signs throughout announcing that the zoo was in the process of renovation. The structure for birds was the standard old model with each indoor cage having an outdoor cage. Half the outdoor cages were overgrown with weeds. One of the few with birds in them was filled with hundreds of green conures sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a number of perches. When I saw that, I burst out laughing. I knew how they came to be there. When my son, Alex, was in the U. S. Coast Guard, he bought a conure from a ship mate and brought it home, where it proceeded to destroy our beautiful redwood house by splintering off huge pieces of the wood. Fortunately, it escaped and some local hawk had a good dinner. Obviously a number of Romans had similar experiences and disposed of their birds by giving them to the zoo. 

There were a couple of good exhibits. One was a pair of very large enclosed areas surrounded by wire fencing, the first containing an entire pack of MacKenzie’s wolves from Canada and the other a pack of Siberian wolves. The best show of all was a large well laid out natural habitat, with a full lake and several islands within it, for a colony of nutria. 

I do not see any mention of a zoo on current maps so it would seem that it was closed down rather than renovated. 

After leaving the zoo I kept walking in a general direction away from where I had started and soon found signs mentioning Belvedere and then announcements for a retrospective of de Chirico’s paintings and sculptures. I am not sure at this juncture whether the building containing the show was the Belvedere or one of the other grand houses in the area. Current maps show the area where I was as Via Belli Arti – I believe there are several museums in that part of the park now. 

One of the surprises of this show was that in the latter part of his career de Chirico would go to Switzerland for months at a time and while there create paintings in the manner everyone is familiar with, surrealist images in clear, bright colors in geometric settings. Then he would return to Italy and paint what looked to me to be almost Victorian “academic” portraits and the like employing a rather muddy palette. In the reading I have done just before this post I found that de Chirico’s style had “evolved” into the conventional realistic or naturalistic and that nobody was the least bit interested in those works. So, either to make money or to get a kind of revenge, he would create “self forgeries”, paintings in his earlier style and, I guess, backdate them. This is one of the strangest artist stories I have ever encountered. 

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 There was a brick wall around the Villa Borghese about the height of a five or six story building, with guard towers incorporated every couple of hundred yards, their turrets rising a story above the wall. What was surprising about those was that at night there were lights in the windows – they had been converted into living quarters. The Italians have an interesting attitude towards their antiquities: they keep them alive by using them. 

My Italian helper, named Carlo Grandi (really! Charles the great, Charlemagne), arrived Monday morning and I asked him about the wall. He professed to know nothing about the wall (and seemed to care even less). When I pressed him about it, he became annoyed and said, “I don’t know – it’s a wall. Rome is full of walls. It’s not very old, maybe four or five hundred years.”  

What did interest him was the side wall of a hotel on Via Veneto. About four floors up there was a blown out window, black soot all around the opening. It seems a Palestinian “ambassador” had been assassinated a week earlier. Of course it was immediately assumed to be the handiwork of Mossad but, apparently, the Italian authorities thought it was another Palestinian, a rival faction member. 

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On Monday in the late afternoon I was waiting in the Jolly’s lobby for Ken Kolence, my boss and friend, who was staying at the Villa Pamphili in Trastevere, to join me for dinner. There were three men at the desk talking to the concierge, a very tall and very handsome man done up in the hotel’s uniform. The men were evidently east Europeans, perhaps Russians (or Bulgarians or any other Communist Bloc country), identified by their atrocious suits: gray with black stripes about two inches apart, huge lapels, wide pants legs and so on. These guys really stood out among all the Italian peacocks in their expensive suits. 

Then the concierge said in a loud voice so that everyone in the lobby could hear: “What do you mean ‘the old part of town’? All of Rome is the old part of town” Then some whispered talk from the guests was followed by “Oh, you mean that ‘old part of town’. No I will not tell you where it is – you will go there and some thug will knock you on the head and take all your money. I don’t want to be responsible for that.” 

While on the subject, walking along the Via Veneto in the evening was an eye-opening experience in several ways. The local prostitutes stood in clusters on every corner marketing their wares. They were elegantly made up and coiffed and dressed in the latest Milanese high fashion and were downright stunning (and, doubtless, very expensive). 

Ken took me to a trattoria he was familiar with just a block off the Via Veneto which served a wide variety of game, from quail to venison to wild goat and boar. I didn’t realize they went for that sort of thing but I should have: the old joke has it that an Italian will eat anything that isn’t wearing a three piece suit. 

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