Tag Archives: history

Thanksgiving Day at Château d’Écouen

November 25, 2021

How many times can I promise myself that I will find the time for a museum before I simply drop everything and go? When a chunk of time opened for me on Thanksgiving Day, I decided the moment had arrived. I would trek to Écouen to see the Museum of the Renaissance for myself!

There’s no denying that it’s a bit of a journey to get up to Écouen; it’s just as far north as Charles de Gaulle Airport, so one cannot simply take the subway a few stops. My journey up there required me to reach Gare du Nord (notable in our household for being across the street from the best masala dosa in town). From there I could take the RER H line north, much as I used the RER A to reach Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the west side of the city. The fare is currently under five Euros each way

The Forest of Écouen is a pleasant place to wander, even under cloudy skies.

I was less sure about the next part. Google directed me to take a bus around to the museum, but walking routes in the Forest of Écouen seemed to lead a more direct route to the museum. The sky was grey and a bit sprinkly, but I decided I would try the adventure on foot anyway. I am glad I did. The trees had dropped enough leaf litter that the path was sometimes buried, but I don’t think I could possibly have gotten lost in daylight. I like the old-school wood signs pointing the way to the museum at each junction. In a few places, the trees to either side of the path formed an arched roof, giving the place a “fairy tunnel” look.

The boundary wall is just the right type to separate grounds from forest.

After twenty minutes or so had passed, I reached a gate in the type of finished stone wall that one might expect of a lordly manor. I couldn’t help but notice that much of my traversal of the forest had been uphill most of the distance away from the train station. When I reached the main route heading directly west from the castle, I realized that the hill I had slowly been climbing reached its apex at the castle itself. It’s a nice piece of natural drama to make the place stand out all the more. I suspected the entrance of the castle was on the eastern side, but I found that the platform of the castle wouldn’t allow access via the southern side, so I had to circle the castle to reach the entrance. It was still worth it to see the town shrouded in mist on the slope below the castle. The view extends for miles to the north; the castle was sited on the most likely invasion route from that direction!

The front of the chateau points away from the path from the forest. The chapel is on the left side of this image.

I can think of quite a few highlights that made Écouen special to me, and I can name one aspect that was a disappointment. I will stick with that ordering, I think! Let’s start with Château d’Écouen itself. The building is the prime exhibit. Having been constructed in the mid-sixteenth century, the Château d’Écouen fits neatly in the latter half of the French Renaissance. Although it is not a royal palace per se, the Grand Constable who built it designed spaces explicitly to host the King of France (first Francois I and later Henri II). All these chambers are exquisite, with painted fireplaces and sometimes ceilings, and the museum has arranged period furniture in these rooms.

The chapel ceiling shows the coats-of-arms of Montmorency and Savoy.

One of the first chambers a visitor will see is the chateau Chapel. I am sure that most tourists will fix their attention on the early sixteenth century Italian copy of The Last Supper on the wall. The glorious painted vaults of the ceiling caught mine, though!

As the French counterpart to England’s Henry VIII, Francois I presided over a France begining its Renaissance transformation.

People who read my blog frequently will know that I’m a sucker for stained glass, and Château d’Écouen has some special treats in place. I particularly liked the Francois I memorial window that was originally housed at the Sainte Chapelle at Vincennes Castle; it seems much more reflective and meditative than the callow youth who appears in the painting housed at the Louvre. I was also glad to see some of the original Renaissance glass from the Cathedral of Rouen. These panes have definitely logged some miles over the years!

The bedroom of King Henry II

It may not be a royal castle, but Écouen frequently offered a place for the king to rest his head on his travels around France. The bedroom of Henry II has been preserved beautifully, with a painted ceiling (albeit faded), painted fireplace, majestic tapestries, and a canopy bed. It is a rich environment.

This 16th century Rouen Faience was original ceramic flooring in Écouen Castle, manufactured by Masseot Abaquesne.

Before coming to France, I didn’t know the word “faience” (but Natasha certainly did)! It’s a special type of pottery with tin oxide glazing. The technique was first invented in Iran during the ninth century C.E., but it became very popular in France during the sixteenth century. Ceramic flooring was crafted for Écouen in the city of Rouen, and I loved its palette of blues, greens, and yellows. The museum also houses some other examples of Renaissance ceramics, with floor tiles from other locations and an array of other objects besides. It’s hard to imagine walking on such art!

The Galleon of Charles V is a stunning clockwork!

I do not think of the Renaissance as a golden age of engineering, but one of the clockwork mechanisms on display at Écouen is really special. It is a three-masted galleon, with a figure of Emperor Charles V surrounded by eight elector princes on deck. The clockwork plays a little music, the ship sails forward, the musicians play, and the emperor salutes a circulating ring of electors. The piece is thought to have been created by a German clockwork artist, probably no later than 1626 C.E. There’s a perfectly charming video of the mechanism in operation on the page linked in the photo caption above (albeit with some music added to put on in the proper state of mind).

Wooden panelling from the Chateau de Gaillon

The Museum of the Renaissance also offers plenty of gorgeous woodwork and furniture. I was glad that I entered the ground floor galleries at the back of the courtyard; it wasn’t apparent how to enter those spaces from elsewhere in the museum.

If you cannot read French, you might find the museum a bit challenging. Frequently the English descriptions are rather brief, or the information may be offered only in French. The museum had even posted a few QR codes in some rooms rather than providing printed descriptions. I haven’t even installed a QR reader on my phone, so I didn’t generally pay much attention to those.

Statuette of Daphne by Wenzel Jamnitzer, 1570-1575 C.E.

I was very confused by some of the items on display, feeling sure that they must be modern rather than Renaissance. The silver, gold, and coral statuette of Daphne above is an example. It is intended as an interpretation of the myth of Daphne, who fled before Apollo’s advances. She cried out to the gods, and Gaia transformed her into a laurel tree. This piece was crafted in the late 16th century, around the time that Saint Augustine (the earliest city in what is now the USA) was founded!

A last glimpse of the chateau as I returned to the forest

I said I would mention one negative of the museum, and it has to do with the remodeling closure of the Cluny Museum of the Medieval World. We had read online that some of the exhibits had been moved to the Museum of the Renaissance during the construction work. Unfortunately, it appears that none of it is on display there. I had hoped to get a proper taste of the Medieval to accompany the savor of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, that’s a “No.”

That said, Chateau d’Écouen is a beautiful museum, and it doesn’t require that one read every caption. It’s a perfectly lovely place to stroll around and absorb the whiff of new life that the Renaissance represented. If someone has grown weary of every day Paris, taking the train a few stops north will offer considerable respite.

My Birthday inside Saint Louis’ Royal Chapel

November 20, 2021

Natasha knows how much I love visiting old churches, and she saved a special one for my birthday. The Sainte-Chapelle was crafted by Saint Louis to be the royal chapel inside the Palais de la Cité, constructed between 1239 and 1248. King Louis IX purchased the Crown of Thorns, pieces of the Cross, and other sacred relics from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople (these claimed artifacts had been gathered in 326 C.E. by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine). Louis IX was making a clear statement by raising a special chapel to hold these relics in his royal palace on the Île de la Cité: Paris was stating its claim to be the center of Christendom.

On some of our walks in early days through the area, it had seemed that tourism was at a standstill due to the pandemic, but by November 20th, plenty of people were touring Paris. We had some difficulty determining which of the two lines was intended for people who already had tickets in hand, since they both seemed to be moving at a glacial pace. We spent thirty minutes in line before we could pass through the metal detectors and body scanners (much like boarding a plane!).

Your first unimpeded view of the Sainte-Chapelle is at close quarters, and we are reminded that it was the tallest structure in the palace.

When you make it through the perimeter into the courtyard, you’re standing quite close to the chapel, with its spire seemingly ascending to the heavens (in reality, the roof is 42.5 meters above ground level, almost the same as the building’s length). The photo above was composited from three photographs on a prime lens; I don’t know that a wide-angle lens would be enough to get it all in one shot. In the 14th century, the church would have been inside the Cour de Mai, and a small treasury building in similar Gothic style was next door. Today the Sainte-Chapelle sits in a parking lot; the accompanying treasury was torn down during 19th century renovation. The soaring spire of the Sainte-Chapelle has evolved considerably over time, with four different models during the royal period for France. The Revolution, naturally, tore away the spire altogether in 1793, and it remained uncrowned until Viollet Le-Duc‘s restoration (perhaps one should say reimagination) of the chapel in 1844.

Inside the Sainte-Chapelle

The lower chapel receives less light, but modern LEDs have made its colors bounce. The gift shop appears at the left.

Because of its height, the Sainte-Chapelle is able to accommodate sacred spaces on two different levels. The lower level depends heavily on artificial lighting, but the gorgeously painted ceiling vaults add a lot of drama since it is not so high above the visitor. I couldn’t get over the rich colors all around. It is clear that the facility needs to control how many people can be inside at once, since there’s still a respiratory virus on the loose. I am sure that the gift shop was happy to have plenty of visitors on our day.

I believe this is the Saint Louis found at the Château de Mainneville, a statue dating from ~1305 C.E., approximately 35 years after the king’s death

Meredith Cohen made this chapel come to life in her 2015 book. In section 4.3, “Setting the Stage: the Lower and Upper Chapels,” she explains that at first, the lower chapel contained just one altar to the Virgin Mary. By the 14th century, however, the lower altars and chaplains had grown substantially, and the upper chapel became more and more exclusive in who could attend services there. A sculpture of “Saint” Louis the IX now stands at the southeast end of the lower chapel; I had expected to see him at Basilica Saint-Denis. His statue still shows faded colors of painted fleurs-des-lis on his tunic, but I don’t know how much of the pigment is original and how much comes from efforts to restore the original appearance. Natasha pointed to an odd smirk on his face. If this statue is the one from Mainneville, it belonged to the main minister of Saint Louis’ grandson, King Philippe IV le Bel. The Sainte-Chapelle is definitely a place where his image belongs.

The metal structure of the Tribune is the focus of attention down the length of the chapel.

Even after the sumptuousness of the lower chapel, the upper chapel will certainly knock the tourist back on her or his heels. All that light! All that color! It’s like a sudden immersion in royal splendor as you exit the spiral staircase. This chapel is Rayonnant Gothic at its finest.

These windows are each 15.5 meters in height. They tell the story of the relics that were housed here in the thirteenth century.

As we had seen at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the emphasis in royal chapels built during Louis IX’s reign was on a single open, unencumbered space (for example, there’s no metal screen separating the metal reliquary structure from the rest of the chapel). The walls of the upper chapel average 0.86 meters, frequently using iron to reinforce the stone, while the walls of the lower chapel average 1.31 meters; this reflects the fact that all the weight of the upper chapel must be borne by the lower. The “tribune” or baldachin is a metal frame at the eastern end of the chapel. Originally, the reliquaries holding the relics would have been here. The Crown of Thorns was moved around the time of the French Revolution to Notre Dame Cathedral, but it has recently been moved to the Louvre instead.

This is called a “quatrefoil” or “medaillion.” They were originally decorated with glass, enamel, paint, and gilding.

THE WINDOWS! The royal space of Saint Chapelle is a essentially a stone and iron skeleton to maximize the space for stained glass. As you might expect, the windows feature key moments from the life of Christ, particularly the Passion. I appreciated that a window features the story of how St. Helene rediscovered the relics. It’s worth noting that the artistry below those windows is also worth examination. Almost all the four-lobed paintings have been scratched to oblivion, but I liked the example I show above.

Adam and Eve are about to have a bad day.

I took a moment on the entry porch of the upper chapel, and I am glad I did. The post standing between the double doors was sculpted with a charming rendition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Sainte-Chapelle was definitely worth the wait. We descended to the lower chapel and found the exit.

The Conciergerie

Rather than exit to the street, Natasha and I sought the entrance to the Conciergerie, the museum part of the former Palais de la Cite (the contemporary Palais du Justice). Our ticket for the Sainte Chapelle also gave us entry to that museum. We walked across the former Court du Mai to the side of what was once the Grand’Chambre. A policeman with a carbine was guarding an entrance, but he began talking with another tourist seeking information. I turned around to spot a really lovely view of the skyline of the Chapelle. Natasha and I exited to head north on the street and then enter the Conciergerie; for this entrance there was no line at all!

The Salle des Gens d’Armes

I had to pause on the stairs leading down from that entrance. The Salle des Gens d’Armes is a vast subterannean forest of columns and vaults. Artificial lights keep it brightly lit today, but I imagine it must have been quite smokey with torches in medieval times! We showed our tickets and COVID-19 vaccination status and were allowed to walk freely through the museum.

the Salle des Guards is not well lit, but this may reflect Revolutionary changes to make this a prison!

I would subdivide the public space of the Conciergerie in two parts, one dating from the Ancien Regime (royal France) and another relating to the Revolution. The Ancien Regime shows us the Salle des Gens d’Armes, the Salle des Guards, and the kitchens. I would have loved to see the Grand’Chambre, which was crafted to be an even grander royal hall than Westminster (though I believe its space has been divvied up to different purposes). I would also have loved to see the meeting room of the Parlement, the legislature of nobility that supported the king’s efforts. These spaces were upstairs of the Salle des Gens d’Armes and adjoining Salle des Guards, respectively; you can see some photos on a history page from the French Justice ministry. Both of them, however, have been extensively remodeled in the years of Republican France to serve the judicial management of the nation. Today we get to see the basements.

As one walks down La Rue de Paris (today essentially a gift shop extneding south from the Salle des Guards), one approaches the Revolutionary part of the Conciergerie. The name “Rue de Paris,” in fact, is a reference to “Monsieur Paris,” the customary title of the head executioner of France!

If you were to be executed, this is likely the last church interior you would see.

The Revolutionary space of the Conciergerie reveals the dramatic change that came to the Palais de la Cite as the Revolution transformed France. The site became known as a final prison for people condemned to death. The most famous inmate to be housed there spent just 76 days in the cells, having been transferred from the tower of the Temple, where she had been housed with her family. Marie Antoinette was given a special cell adjoining the prison chapel, and today an altar funded by her brother fills that space. The chapel itself is worth a look, too; the balcony is enclosed by bars to secure inmates hearing what might be their last appeal from the church!

The little courtyard outside the condemned cells was quite hospitable!

When I was a high schooler, I thought the name “Robespierre” was synonymous with “if you make a mess, prepared to be caught up in it yourself.” It was a little surprising, then, to see exhibits extolling his virtues, including a statue from the 1790s. Fouquier-Tinville, who prosecuted many defendants during this period, was also extolled in his own exhibits. Because this room had many people in it, Natasha and I scuttled away quickly, but I wonder if I might benefit from a reappraisal of these two hated and loved persons.

Birthday lunch and cake!

To be treated to a view like this as we left the Palais de Justice area was really lovely.

Natasha and I don’t often visit the city center, and this visit gave us he opportunity to visit some restaurants that practice good allergen controls. We walked down Rue St. Jacques to reach Blvd. Saint-Germain. Very close to the intersection we found Loulou, our lunch spot, just across from the Hotel de Cluny (the temporarily closed Museum of the Medieval). It was already 2 o’clock, and we were hungry! I really enjoyed my fish and chips (their locally-made fries were particularly tasty). Natasha was very grateful that Loulou gets their gluten-free bread from Chambelland Bakery, a place we have visited on a couple of occasions. She enjoyed a club sandwich in perfect saftey.

It seems a bit odd for a such a massive Art Deco piece facing the oldest church in Paris, but there you are!

After lunch, we strolled west on Blvd. Saint-Germain. We paused in the little park next to the abbey, and Natasha appreciated the Art Deco memorial to the Sevres company. We walked to the park on the opposite side of the abbey, where I spent a few moments with the fragments remaining of the Lady Chapel, destroyed in the Revolution. The Lady Chapel might have been considered a close contemporary of the Sainte Chapelle we had visited early; perhaps the two even shared a master builder! I wish we could visit both as they were in their primes.

We continued west on the boulevard to reach its merger with Rue Raspail. We headed just a bit south to Rue de Grenelle for a quick visit to NoGlu, a patisserie that makes gluten-free products. I acquired a couple frosted cinnamon rolls, and Natasha found some mini pecan pies.

The 1631 Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas gets less attention than other Parisian churches, but it’s still an impressive sight from Boulevard Saint-Germain.

By that time we were feeling a bit worn from our day, and I returned us to the Rue du Bac Metro station back at the merger of Saint-Germain and Raspail. We boarded the first train south, and something I hadn’t experienced before happened. The subway train stalled, and the lights went out, before we had reached even the first station! Natasha and I surreptitiously took a seat and waited. Within five minutes, we were back on our way south.

Bayeux: it’s not just about tapestries!

October 17, 2021

Our alarm erupted at 6:30, and in moments Natasha and I were in motion for our day-trip to Bayeux. At long last we would see the fabled “Bayeux Tapestry!” I had purchased the return train tickets for Bayeux immediately after we returned to Paris from Denmark, but Natasha and I both suffered from colds for much of the intervening time. It was not a sure thing that we would both take the trip.

Reaching Gare Saint-Lazare is not too bad from southwestern Paris; we’re about six km, from door to door. As usual, our trip started on line 8, and we switched to line 13 for the last couple kilometers. We allotted ourselves an hour for all of it, but we even had enough time to print our tickets from the machine (yeah, I’m old-fashioned). We used a long-range train on the Nomad network, so we had assigned seats rather than the first-come-first-served of local trains.

Bayeux wouldn’t want you to get lost on your walk to the Tapestry!

Our 2h20m run to Bayeux was pretty pleasant. The fall sun was rising above the horizon, but Natasha still managed some shut-eye. I read a book through sleepy eyes for the first two hours until we reached Caen, the city William the Conqueror made his first capital. After that I tried to pay better attention since Bayeux is only twenty minutes further. Natasha and I hurried off the train, since it was continuing to Cherbourg.

It is a restaurant today, but I’d like to think this mill actually functioned in the past.

The tourism folks for Bayeux have really applied themselves to make the city’s sites accessible to tourists. Frequent, visible signs pointed the path to the tapestry museum, the cathedral (next door to the arts and history museum), and the battle of Normandy museum. Even better, a little walking path guided our wandering feet directly to the tapestry museum, the closest of those sites to the train station. The traffic circle even featured a couple mounted knights to get us in the medieval mood! As we crossed the last few meters through Parc Michel Ornano, Natasha pointed out the specially-shaped trees that formed a square around a little courtyard, and a waterwheel turned happily nearby in the Aure River.

The courtyard for the museum reminds us of the private squares that were walled off from the public during the Ancien Regime of France.

The three museums of Bayeux have developed a strategy to ease purchase of tickets for two or three of the sites at any of the locations. Natasha and I were only in town for the day, so we opted for a single ticket to both the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. I think we would have enjoyed the Baron Gérard Museum of Art and History, too, but we wanted to reduce the pressure on the schedule since it was already lunchtime!

Bayeux Tapestry Museum

While the Bayeux Tapestry Museum is about the artifact itself, it is more than just a room with the tapestry in it. The museum occupies the former Grande Séminaire de Bayeux, a training center for priests from the late 17th century to the late 20th. While the tapestry has occasionally been exhibited at Paris during its long life, its home was Bayeux Cathedral for the longest time, and its display at the current museum only started in 1983.

Harold takes the throne of England, despite being portrayed as sworn otherwise.

Every visitor comes to see the tapestry, and that’s where we were guided. The 70-meter strip of fabric is a bit like a long comic strip telling the story of William the Conqueror‘s 1066 CE invasion of England after extracting a promise from Harold Godwinson of England that William would succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England. The free audioguide is smart enough to know when you have entered The Room, and it starts its long spiel to guide you through the full 70m length of the work. The audio seemed to guide all the visitors at a more or less uniform rate through the tapestry (though different translations would probably vary a bit). The lighting is such that while one can barely see the other guests to either side, the tapestry itself is very clear. Photographs are not allowed, and yet people were snapping away with cell phones and cameras. If I’d seen a camera flash, I would have assisted others to frog-march that person from the room. The tapestry is nearly a thousand years of age! In any case, the full tapestry can be viewed online.

William’s forces establish a beachhead in England.

The floor above is much more like a typical museum, explaining the nature of the work and explaining its history, including some rather large holes in our knowledge of it! Let’s start with the elephant in the room; the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry. It’s embroidered, with wool thread on a linen sheet. Who sponsored its creation and who composed its images? I believe the contemporary consensus is that Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, sponsored the creation of this masterpiece. Odo was not an artist, but he was pretty serious about using his new-found wealth as an Earl in England to enrich his new cathedral in Bayeux, consecrated in 1077 CE. Who drew the design for the embroidery, and who implemented the stitches? Well, several names have been put forward, but I get the sense we’re uncertain whether it was embroidered in Normandy or in England. This work of art was created in the 11th century and was part of the Bayeux Cathedral treasury, displayed probably less than one week of each year and otherwise packaged into a box.

King Harold dies in the Battle of Hastings.

It is hard to believe, but for the first 650 years of its existence, this fabric masterwork was hardly known outside of Bayeux. In 1724 CE, however, Antoine Lancelot displayed drawings of the first 10 meters to the Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Antoine Benoit was sent to draw the entirety of the work in 1729. In 1804, the work itself was displayed at the Louvre, and popular appreciation for it grew on both sides of the English Channel. Today, of course, you can simply view every inch of its artistry in high-resolution! I came away from seeing it in person with two different realizations. The first is that the thing is just charming as heck. The artist(s?) infused tremendous personality into the drawings, and besides being genuine art, the characters they crafted are a lot of fun. The second is that the stitches are easily discerned by eye, and the layering of the threads (as in the “Bayeux Stitch”) creates a really sumptuous surface. Of course the artists did not have an unlimited palette from which to choose, and the museum enumerates ten different colors that were created by combinations of three vegetable dyes (madder, weld, and woad) in different intensities.

Of course you take a picture with the mannequin!

If I can pitch in one more comment about this amazing embroidery, I would say that it surprised me to learn that we aren’t actually sure which character represents King Harold in the famous scene where he is killed in battle (panel 57). Is it the guy taking an arrow in the face, or is it the fellow getting struck down by a sword-wielding horseman? At Natasha’s prompting, I spent a little time looking at the strips of images at top and bottom of the emrboidery. They’re mostly decoration, but occasionally they prop up the story, such as the ghostly images of ships on panel 33, when Harold has accepted the throne of England and learns a comet is burning in the sky. Certainly the lower border tells a grisly story by the time of panel 57, when dead and dismembered men are being stripped of their armor by looters. Natasha had a good giggle at the number of times nude humans appeared in the lower margin, and we need not ask whether eleventh century artists noticed that stallions have their genitals prominently on display. Natasha’s count is 93 visible protuberances for the tapestry as a whole!

Marching on our stomachs

A wander around the center of Bayeux reveals some truly beautiful structures.

We exited the museum around 13:30, and we realized we had only a limited amount of time to eat before most restaurants closed at 14:00 on this Sunday afternoon. We saw some indications that Le Moulin de la Galette could cater to people with food allergies, but sadly we needed a reservation. We passed northward on Rue Larcher in hopes of finding a sushi or Indian restaurant, but all were closed. We wandered on Rue Saint-Jean to the east in hopes of finding a grocery and then to the west, but we saw only places with a lot of wheat products. We despaired. Our howling bellies demanded a sacrifice.

We give two thumbs up to Coccimarket Bayeux for staying open on a Sunday afternoon!

Finally we resolved to return to the east side of town to seek out the Coccimarket, a little grocery that Google proclaimed was open. By the time we climbed the gentle hill of Avenue Georges Clemenceau, Natasha was dizzy, and I had the shakes from low blood sugar. To our delight, the market was open, and Natasha was able to buy gluten-free crackers and ham/sausage slices to accompany emmental cheese slices, a couple of Cokes, and some local red grapes. It tasted like heaven for two people as weary as we! Do not get yourself stranded in a small town on a Sunday afternoon if you have food allergies.

The Aure River enters its viaduct under the Office of Tourism. The Cathedral stands in the far distance.

Convinced that we would survive our ordeal, Natasha and I returned to the old city center by way of Rue des Teinturiers. Having eaten, we were much more able to appreciate the beautiful sunlight and in many cases historical storefronts along the way. We passed down Rue des Cuisiniers and walked right by the Art and History Museum (we hadn’t bought the ticket!) to reach the Cathedral of Bayeux. I was really grateful that Natasha seemed interested in stepping inside. The cathedral is an old one, a Romanesque cathedral at this site having been consecrated in 1077 with William the Conquerer in attendance. The current structure, though, reflects alternating periods of construction in the new Gothic style (1110-1130 CE, 1165-1205 CE, and 1230-1280 CE) and fires (1077 CE, 1105 CE, 1160 CE).

This column capital was probably crafted in the lifetime of William the Conqueror, nearly a thousand years ago.

Natasha noticed that the pretty flowers on the columns probably remained from a recent wedding. I loved the stained glass, of course, even though it represented quite a range of periods and styles. My favorite part of the visit, though, came when we descended into the crypt of the church. This is the part that truly dates back to the eleventh century. One of the column capitals there shows the resurrected Jesus revealing himself to Thomas the Incredulous and Peter. It was wild to be standing next to these carvings from so long ago.

St. Michel gets to kill the dragon for once, not St. George.

We continued on our way to the area southwest from the city center. It would be a shame if we were to come all the way to Bayeux and not see the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. The town is just 20 km from “Omaha” Beach and home to the largest of the memorial gardens for World War II in all of Normandy. We knew we had reached our destination when we saw tanks parked next to the road.

The Cathedral facade from Rue des Chanoines

Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy

While my generation heard more about World War II than we might have wanted through old movies on TV and history classes, I realize that this might be different today. Normandy was chosen as the spot for the “D-Day” invasion because the Allies knew that a head-on assault on a major port city would be met with concentrated defenses. They chose Normandy because the area offered several accessible beaches without major port cities guarding them. Once their forces made landfall at Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah Beaches, the Allies hoped that they would be able to move inland rapidly rather than being pushed back into the sea. They innovated to produce portable harbors that could be emplaced at these beaches in time to begin shipping necessities like food, fuel, and ammunition in high volumes.

The British and Canadians under Montgomery had the hardest assignments in the “Battle of Normandy.” The city of Caen was one of the largest in the area, and it was backed by several divisions of German armor. The Allies made several pushes on the area but paid dearly in taking Caen. The pounding they took made it much easier for Americans pushing across the Cotentin Peninsula to isolate Cherbourg and then take it over land rather than by amphibious assault. Because so many German tanks were fighting off Montgomery at Caen, the Americans were eventually able to break through in the west to shove into the French interior. In the end, the Allies lost 200,000 dead, wounded, or prisoners to the 400,000 lost for the Germans. This awful struggle is one that deserves to be remembered.

This Caterpillar D7 bulldozer was landed in July of 1944 to clear away rubble in Caen. It remained in service at a local quarry until 1984, when it was traded in for a new model. We don’t make ’em like we used to!

My biggest impressions from the museum? I was surprised at learning General Von Choltitz was instructed to destroy Paris by Hitler but ignored the directive. Would we still have Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower except for that decision? As a kid, I enjoyed assembling plastic models of military equipment, and I certainly enjoyed the video game “Battlefield: 1942” as a graduate student. Well, the museum is loaded with vehicles and weapons from the conflict. I was wowed to see a “Sexton,” a 25-pounder field gun atop a Sherman tank hull. I looked at the intricate sighting equipment (“Aiming Circle M1”) for a 105mm howitzer and wondered if today’s computer-dependent population would be able to adjust back to such a technology. Natasha and I watched the museum’s documentary on the Battle of Normandy, and I would just observe that the music director chose to use Beethoven’s 5th symphony, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and two movements from Mozart’s requiem mass. I believe that propriety requires that only one of those four is allowable in any short film.

Don’t let the museum be abstract. Remember the real people whose lives ended here.

It was when we stepped outside again and returned to the road that we reached the most moving part of the museum. Just to the west, we entered the British Military Cemetery of Bayeux. Almost 5000 dead from the Battle of Normandy are interred there. It seems that America repatriated essentially all the remains of fallen soldiers and marines from this area, but the Commonwealth soldiers and marines remain. It is a beautiful setting. The autumn sun was angled close to the earth, so the boundary between light and dark was very sharp. We looked through the memorial log of the burials at the site. Yes, the United Kingdom accounts for the great majority of graves, but Germany also has soldiers buried here (almost 500). For Natasha and me, the story of the single South African who died among other Commonwealth troops was a poignant one. We could only stroll through the quiet space imagining such a dark time in history.

Why do war memorials often feature these arcaded structures? Natasha promises to tell me the story some time.

When I originally booked our tickets home from Bayeux, I sought the best deal I could get, and that meant we were on a late train (boarding around 9:30 PM, if memory serves). We hoped we could scoot that forward, given the difficult food situation (though restaurants would open for dinners around 19:00). We walked along the D5 highway toward the train station, then came up the D572. To our great surprise, we were walking alongside a cow pasture, with the lovely cathedral towers visible beyond. We had to stop for a picture. We turned at the traffic circle to return to the train station. Happily, we could return on a 7:30 train rather than waiting for 9:30, but changing would increase the cost of our rail fare by 65€ ($75 USD). Well, I was teaching the next day, and Natasha was not feeling particularly well, so we went ahead with the upgrade.

I was milking the late-afternoon sun for all it was worth!

While we waited for our train at the extreme west end of the station (we were in car 16 of the train), a shorter train headed west toward Cherbourg. On a silly impulse, I waved at the conductor as the train accelerated by us. Natasha and I were both nearly flattened when the conductor responded by blasting the train’s air horn. It was a delightfully silly moment to end our special time in Bayeux.

The Basilica of Saint-Denis at last

October 16, 2021

Is it possible for a church to loom in your imagination? Ever since I started learning about French Gothic churches, Saint-Denis has been right there, at the corner of my eye. It was slightly too far for me to “accidentally” take the metro there, and it wasn’t a place that I prioritized for a weekend run with Natasha. *Something* tweaked my awareness last night, though, and I impulsively bought a ticket for my visit today.

The contemporary facade of the church lacks the second tower that was removed in 1847.

Getting to the Basilica was really easy, even if it took 45 minutes rather than 15. Our metro line 8 intersected with line 13 at Invalides, and I rode 13 to the penultimate stop. Since I was chasing a 10AM Saturday reserved time at the cathedral, the metro was not horribly busy. I was under the impression that I would emerge from the underground almost in front of the church, but I first needed to follow the brown tourist signs a couple of blocks until the church came into view. It soon became apparent why almost every modern photograph of the church looks squarely at its facade; the city hall is at right angles with the facade and far enough away that putting the two together would be quite a stretch. I didn’t see any way to get a photograph of the flank of the church, either.

This rose window of Saint-Denis is dedicated to the kings of France.

Why does Saint-Denis matter? Saint-Denis was the abbey church at the tomb of France’s patron saint. In a critical era, the abbot of Saint-Denis joined forces with the King of France to enhance the prestige of the kingdom, helping to forge a national vision of France from a million competing baronies and duchies. As a result, the status of Saint-Denis was elevated above being an ordinary abbey, and it became the royal church of France. Yes, kingly coronations traditionally took place at Reims Cathedral. Saint-Denis, however, would become the final resting place for all but three of the kings. Saint-Denis was also the genesis of the Gothic architectural movement that became the prototype for building a cathedral in medieval France. Amazingly, the abbot of Saint-Denis who was responsible for linking its fate to the kingdom of France was the same person who took the bold step of rebuilding the church in Gothic style. Abbot Suger seems to have been the right person in the right place.

Look how much light that choir allows into the church!

Today, few signs of Abbot Suger remain in the church. He appears as a small kneeling figure to the left of Jesus’ feet in the tympanum over the central portal. He appears at the feet of Mary in a 12th century stained-glass window themed on the infancy of Jesus (currently undergoing restoration). He was also added to a window during restoration by Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century; he appears as a figure in green in the much older “Tree of Jesse” stained-glass window. In architecture, we step inside the church Abbot Suger envisioned and imagine how astonished the visitors must have been at its dedication by King Louis VII in 1144 CE. The new Gothic style caught on like wildfire, and soon the Cathedral of Sens (begun 1143), Senlis (begun 1153), and Paris (“Notre Dame,” begun 1163) cemented this design as the future of French churches.

Yes, you can still see a battle flag for France at the church, but I don’t know how many centuries back this one goes.

Pope Eugene III visited the new church in 1147 CE to see the king of France accept the Oriflamme from Abbot Suger. This battle standard was used to show the endorsement of the church for going to war. The Second Crusade accomplished little of military value other than the recapture of Lisbon, but the ceremony was an excellent launch to Abbot Suger’s standing as co-regent of France during the king’s absence.

The ambulatory lets a visitor view the reliquaries for bits of saints.

It is a mistake to think that Saint-Denis sprang fully-formed from the mind of Abbot Suger, though. The 13th century saw the culmination of the Abbey church under “Saint” Louis IX. By 1281 CE, a new Gothic nave with a fully-formed transept was constructed, likely to a design by Pierre de Montreuil. The new nave was flanked by flying buttresses, and a new spire crowned the north tower of the church. Saint Louis commissioned a number of reclining statues of former kings of France to showcase the growing royal necropolis. He himself was entombed in Saint-Denis at his death in 1270 CE, his grave marked by a simple stone slab. By 1282 CE, however, his tomb’s reputation for miracles had led to it being protected by an iron grate and later replaced by an artistic tomb of precious metal. At the start of the fifteenth century, however, Saint Louis’ tomb was gone. The cost of the Hundred Years’ War had seen the tomb of the only royal French saint as a disposable asset. Today, you can see just two markers of Saint Louis in the basilica: a bone from his corpse stands in a gold reliquary in the Chapel of the Virgin, and a nineteenth-century painting of his death appears in the northern transept (it’s not very related to the history of his death– the Saint died of dysentery in North Africa).

The apse behind the altar is separated into seven bays.

To walk into the church to attend a service or just look at the colored light streaming through the windows is free of charge. Quite a lot of the church, however, is given over to the royal necropolis (particularly the double ambulatory, the transepts, and the sizeable crypt). For admission to those areas, one must buy a ticket. I could hardly describe it all, so I’ll emphasize the things that struck me the most forcefully.

The archaeological crypt would be a treasure trove for any scientist seeking to understand the historical origins of this church. Its walls and vaults are a pastiche of the early churches that occupied this area since 313 CE. I wasn’t prepared to see so many sarcophagi scattered higgledy-piggledy in this space, though. Particularly the French Revolution was unkind to the dead interred in this church; almost all the tombs are empty, with recovered royal and noble and sacred bones lumped together in the ossuary (also in the crypt).

Louis XIV was entombed here, but the Revolution had other plans for his bones.

The allure of the “Sun King” for me didn’t wear off during my sun-stroke at Versailles. Louis XIV, his wife, and his brother, all have monuments down in the Bourbon chapel of the crypt. Louis’ tomb is essentially the wall of that chapel, surmounted by an angel.

Charles V’s tomb features a statue intended to reflect his appearance in life. This was unusual.

I have come to admire Charles V of France (“The Wise”) for his management of the country during the early stages of the Hundred Years War (r. 1364-1380 CE). He was a builder, with a hand in the Bastille, Chateau de Vincennes, the Louvre, and St.-Germain-en-Laye. When he died, sculptor André Beauneveu produced a masterful effigy of the king for his tomb, rendering Charles V as the sculptor had known him in life. I was intrigued by the right hand of the king, seemingly passing a note to someone.

Francois I gets a multi-story tomb. If you walk by at floor level, the bottoms of his feet and his wife’s feet are prominent.

Francois I (r. 1515-1547 CE) may be popularly known as the handsome French counterpart to King Henry VIII in “The Tudors” TV series. Unsurprisingly, he had a pretty big impact on France, too! It is his Renaissance revision of the St. Germain-en-Laye palace that the heritage folks in France have decided was the right target for its restoration. Arguably, his remarkable tomb is the grandest in Saint-Denis. Up close, most visitors will get a good view of the bottom of his naked feet. If you look back at it from the higher ground of the ambulatory, though, you will see the figures of the family in prayer atop the tall structure.

As I began making my way to the exit of the church, the organist broke into a lovely fugue to prepare for a noon church service. I paused to record some of the music and pan across the lovely stained glass windows at the back of the nave. I am so grateful for my time there!

Strolling Contemporary Saint-Denis

I turned left as I exited the church and began sauntering down the Rue de la Legion d’Honneur. These schools were established by Napoleon I for the daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters of decorated soldiers. On this Saturday lunchtime, though, the street bogged down rather badly after I crossed Rue Pinel. A line of cars several blocks long was at a stand-still, and the occasional motorist tried to improve his lot by hooting and yellings. It took quite a while for the logjam to clear.

My Wooper was tasty.

I turned aside to visit the “Little Burger” chain restaurant. On a whim, I decided to try their flame-grilled “Wooper” meal. I am pleased to report it resembled a similar-sounding burger from an entirely different restaurant. On the other hand, the French Fries were dusted with paprika. I tried them, and I cannot say I disliked the change.

Stade de France

Today many Parisiens probably think of Saint-Denis most in connection with the massive Stade de France. It can hold 80,700 people, and it is principally used for soccer (“le foot”) and rugby matches. I decided to walk down to the side of the canal for a photo. I was a little put-off by the huge number of pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooters that whizzed by me, but I got my photo. What I didn’t include is that the entirety of the concrete pier to my right (holding up a highway viaduct) was covered in a giant mass of graffiti. I only had the camera out long enough to snap my one photograph, and then I moved back into the stream of people behind me.

Saint-Denis Art and History Museum

It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon, and I wasn’t sure when else I would have the chance, so I wandered to the City Art and History Museum. The facility is housed in a former Carmelite monastery that dates back to 1628; its cornerstone was laid by Marie de Medici. The city only purchased the complex for this museum in 1972; previously it had operated in the city hall or library. I think the complex is a rather special place for this museum on several counts:

  • I have seen only a few history museums incorporate gardens into the tour, and the grounds of the monastery are lovely.
  • Who can deny the charm of a cloister? Not me.
  • The ground-level galleries retain moral guidance printed in six-inch tall letters at the top of the walls!
  • The high dome of the chapel gives a real sense of occasion to the displays there.
The gardens at the St. Denis museum entrance

The archaeology museum is notable for its displays on early stages of the Basilica, including a couple charming statues of Saint Denis holding his head in his hands (after being beheaded). I appreciated the museum’s explanations of some column capitals dating back to 1125 CE (before the Gothic basilica had begun construction). Some of the bone carvings in the area were quite cool, too, such as a bone flute from the 12th century.

In the third century, Saint Denis was said to have walked for six kilometers holding his own decapitated head. This was carved from stone in the 16th century .

The religious art in the convent did not inspire me, but I really liked some of the paintings of Saint-Denis from earlier centuries. I prefered Giuseppe Canella’s 1831 earthy painting of the basilica (see top of post) to the larger one from 1817 by Bouhot, but that may only reflect that I liked imagining livestock in the street! A cool Art Nouveau mosaic piece titled “Esperance” (Hope) was a cool complement, too.

This 1872 painting by Chaillou has a lot of character for a nasty job. Image via POP.

The gallery on the Communards in the aftermath of the disasters of 1870 was hard to take in, perhaps because I entered at the end rather than the beginning. A 2006 painting by American Kevin Larmee titled “the Paris Commune 1871” commemorated the many enraged Parisians who lost their lives with their backs to a wall in the bloody aftermath when the Commune was crushed. On the other hand, Narcisse Chaillou created a charming little piece showing a young man advertising his rat-killing prowess in “le depeceur de rats” at the end of the 19th century.

My train ran off its rails as I encountered a gallery revisiting and commenting on the awful images displayed at the Colonial Exposition at Paris. I think living in Africa has made me more sensitive to the casual racism that was so common in Europe and North America a century ago. That is not to say that it has vanished in recent years. My discomfort with even a quick pass through that gallery did not leave me in a good headspace for the temporary program exhibited in several rooms of the museum: “Saison Africa2020: Un.e Air.e de famille.” The program has a very good notion at its heart: reveal the anti-colonial commitment of surrealists and other artists whose works enter into dialogue with the contemporary artistic practices of thirteen female artists from Africa and its diaspora.

This facade hides a very high dome behind it; once law courts, it is now a special gallery for the museum.

My brain was slowing from five solid hours of tourism. I was determined, though, to see the interior of the high-domed chapel, standing behind a facade that one would associate with a law court instead (it even reads “Justice de Paix” on its lintel). The space was quite dark inside to make a suitable suite for large video screens, but I still collected photos of the chamber. I tried reassembling in my mind what it would have looked like for a church service, but I couldn’t really envision it. Yesterday’s church had become today’s art gallery.

I was satisfied. I marched back to the metro station and headed down the stairs. It was time to head back home!

Jelling: markers of change for medieval Denmark

September 26, 2021

The other posts from this series appear in the index.

This is my “happy driver” look.

I don’t believe that certain places are sacred or imbued with magical power. There was something about our misty sunrise drive to Jelling, though, that made me feel that we were about to experience a world other than our own. We had decided to visit Jelling because of its interesting description on the UNESCO World Heritage site. The monuments there represent key turning points for Denmark, in many respects marking the beginning of its national history.

This Fairy Tunnel came near the end of our drive to Jelling.

Our hour-long route north from Haderslev followed the E45 followed by highway 176. Once we moved to the spur roads leading to Jelling, though, it seemed that the skies became leaden, and the roads contracted. We had a magical moment as we passed through a tunnel of greenery, with tree branches meeting above us. I have taken to calling these “Fairy Tunnels,” because Natasha and I love them. Within minutes, we had arrived at Jelling.

It’s not really possible to become lost in Jelling, a town of fewer than 4000 people. We parked on Mølvangvej and walked about a block to the Jelling Mounds site itself. You can be sure we would have loved to see the Kongernes Jelling Museum (“Jelling of the Kings”), but it only opened at 10AM, and we had a wedding to attend in the afternoon!

The pagan monument (mid-10th century C.E.)

A “ship setting” 360 meters in length was set out in large stones, centered on the north mound (the first erected at Jelling).

The monument at Jelling began as a royal burial. King Gorm and Queen Thyre are the first royal family for Denmark for which we have really strong historical sources. The northern mound at Jelling is believed to have been created at the time of Queen Thyre’s death. When it was excavated in the early 20th century, the mound contained a beautifully crafted silver cup that has come to define the “Jelling Style.” [The cup image at the top of this post came from the National Museum of Denmark.] The body of Queen Thyre was not there, though. It appears she was moved to a different burial chamber during the Viking Age, perhaps at the time of King Gorm’s death.

King Gorm’s Stone bears his love for his queen. The glass cases were added in 2010 to prevent further weathering.

The ship and the mound are not the only parts of Queen Thyre’s memorial, though. King Gorm recorded this testament in runes upon a large stone at the site (though it was probably moved from its original location): “King Gorm made this monument in memory of Thyre, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” It’s a beautiful inscription, but it has historical significance, too. This is the first time the name “Denmark” appears in a written document from that country! I want to take a moment, by the way, to recommend the excellent chapter on Jelling by Steen Hvass in The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments.

The burials in the northern mound at Jelling were probably moved to a chamber in the Christian church in its shadow a generation later.

The Christian monument (late 10th century, C.E.)

The pagan ship and burial mound gave way to paired mounds, a church, and a palisade as Denmark became Christian. (These are Figures 3.3 and 3.4 by Niels Christian Clemmensen from Hvass.)

When Gorm and Thyre’s son Harald came to the throne, Denmark was to experience profound changes. King Gorm had done quite a lot to unify Denmark under himself, but his hostility to Christianity had caused him to demolish churches in his wars, and that caused him to run afoul of the German King Henry the Fowler (no, I could not resist that pun). As king, Harald continued his father’s mission of unifying Denmark (and Norway), but he also spread his mother’s appreciation of Christianity.

Harald’s stone: mystic creatures in battle

King Harald Bluetooth contributed a second magnificent carved stone to the Jelling Monument, with writing on one face and lovely images on the other two. Originally, it was painted with bright colors (definitely take a look at this recent replica). This side shows a large animal locked in battle with a snake.

Harald’s stone: the crucifix

The second image side is remarkable for being the first image of a crucifix known from the part of the world (see the color version for better contrast). Where Gorm’s stone arranges its runic text in vertical columns, Harald changed his text to represent the left-to-right ordering of Latin text. It reads, “King Harald commanded these monuments to be made in memory of Gorm, his Father, and in memory of Thyre, his mother— that Harald who won the whole of Denmark for himself, and Norway, and made the Danes Christian” [this and the previous translation come from Steen Hvass].

A rhombus-shaped palisade was constructed around this site in the late 10th century C.E. Today’s Jelling (including the museum) lie within the bounds on the West edge, but the others are still clear.

Just as Ozymandias makes a proud but vacant boast in Shelley’s poem, Harald Bluetooth makes a boast at Jelling that lasted less long than he might have liked. The king was greatly distracted by a rebellion led by his son, Sven Forkbeard. His son was so successful in his revolt that Harald was driven from Denmark and died in exile.

I climbed the southern mound to take this picture of the church at Jelling.

The church at the Jelling Mounds lies directly between the two mounds. While the church site has been preserved since the late 10th century, the current limestone structure probably dates from around 1100 C.E., though with significant changes after a 17th century fire. A burial chamber beneath the church might have been the final resting place of Gorm and / or Thyre.

King Frerederick’s stairs

Sadly, Natasha and I didn’t get the chance to see the mural work within the church, just as we missed seeing the museum. We did enjoy a stroll around the site, though; the Mounds site has a nice walking trail that allows one to beat the bounds. I really appreciated that they’ve added a nice little stairway for tourists to reach the top of the southern mound. There’s another stairway off to the side that King Frederick VII used to ascend to its halfway point during the mid 19th century. Tourists don’t use that one.

Natasha and I enjoyed the atmosphere of Jelling, but we needed to get back to Haderslev to get dressed for the wedding. We walked into the Super Brugsen grocery in hopes of finding something gluten-safe to eat. Surprisingly, we found some of the best options we’d seen since leaving Copenhagen (Natasha recommends the broccoli salad)! Jelling receives two thumbs up from these tourists.

Odense: the All-Father’s Footsteps

Sept. 24, 2021

The other posts from this series appear in the index.

The greatest honour that the bride and groom can bestow on friends during their wedding week is the gift of time. Natasha and I were overjoyed that our dear friends were willing to take us on a three hour walking tour of Odense on the day before their wedding! To see their adopted home through their eyes was delightful.

Our walking path arced the southern edge of Odense city center.

The name “Odense” is very old, being a derivative of “Othæns-væ” in Old Danish. If it sounds like the name of the Scandinavian All-father, that’s because the city name originally meant “the cult site dedicated to Óðinn.” The city celebrated a millennium of history in my lifetime, counting from a 988 C.E. promise to the Bishop of Odense that the area would be exempted from taxes to the (German) Holy Roman Empire.

Walkable Søndergade street, just west of city center

Our walk into the city began near the Vesterbro, to the west of the town center. The city is considerably calmer and less built-up than Copenhagen. Our afternoon there was very peaceful. We turned down Søndergade, which seemed filled with practical businesses like barbershops. Red brick was the dominant language of architecture there.

The Munke Mose was a beautiful stroll in the middle of our progression. It is a public park that dates to the first part of the 20th century. Before this time it was apparently something of a marsh, but the river has been regularized considerably, including a fish ladder with a lovely seating area (appearing at left in the photo above). I like the idea that in the past this area sometimes had ice thick enough for skating!

Figure 4 from Mads Runge illustrates the area southeast of Munke Mose where a massive Trelleborg ring fortress was constructed, likely in the tenth century C.E.

Our turn to the south on Hunderupvej took us near Carlsens Kvarter, one of the storied pubs of the city. We also visited Rise’s Bread in search of gluten-free breads to tide us through the next couple of days. What I wish I had observed more closely, though, was the Nonnebakken. Harald Bluetooth was the first king of Denmark to be baptised a Christian, and he is largely credited with unifying Denmark under one crown (uniting Zealand, Fyn, and upper Jutland). The Nonnebakken fortress seems to have been connected to a pre-existing settlement at Odense; it may even mark the site of the eponymous sanctuary of Odin! As is apparent in the overhead view, the hill is covered with modern development, so it can be difficult to imagine it in its Viking Age glory.

Hans Christian Andersen appears before Saint Canute’s Cathedral

Venturing northeastward from the Nonnebakken, we entered a part of town that seems entirely devoted to the memory of author Hans Christian Andersen, who spent his first fourteen years in Odense. You might know him for his tales “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” (Fun Fact: did you realize that John, Hans, and Ivan are all the same name?) You can visit not one but two different childhood homes for him, and a lovely new museum is being opened soon there.

The new HC Andersen museum appears at the upper-right of the route map above. Odense has been extensively remodeling this part of town as a pedestrian district with a streetcar system.

From this point, our group wandered through the pedestrian center of town. Odense is a pleasant place for a stroll. I could easily imagine being a college student at the University of Southern Denmark (but Odense seems more “central” than “south” to me!). We stopped for a late lunch at a cafe. They said they could prepare food safely for folks with celiac disease, but sadly we learned that was untrue.

Odense City Hall

I had read the name “Odense” countless times in graduate school and in the course of my career. The reason relates to one of the most prolific researchers in the field of proteomics, Matthias Mann. A freshly-minted Dr. Mann started his post-doctoral career at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in 1989, and he continued there until 2007 (apart from six years in Heidelberg). Even after Mann’s departure to Germany, Odense has continued to build its reputation in proteomics, with a variety of companies and research teams developing new technologies in this space. I am sure I will return to Odense some day!

Pedestrians may safely roam the central shopping district!

Roman Miscellany and Missed Opportunities

The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.

Natasha and I were in Rome for only one week, so we made a good-faith effort to see something noteworthy every day (my mind substitutes “blog-worthy”). I wanted to finish this series with a catch-all post giving just a little bit of attention to other marvels we saw or might have seen!

The Pantheon and Surroundings

Coarelli’s Figure 73 visualizes the ancient Pantheon and illustrates that the height of the dome over the floor is the same as the diameter of the dome itself.

Hadrian’s Pantheon, constructed on the site of an earlier temple in 118-125 C.E., has lived in my dreams since I first saw it in 1994. By right it should be the subject of a blog post all on its own, but here we are. Coarelli characterizes it as “the best preserved… of all the buildings in ancient Rome,” and he notes that “The dome was cast in one piece in a huge wooden mold that resulted in the creation of a perfectly hemispherical form. Its diameter is 43.30 meters, the widest solid-construction dome ever raised.” MacDonald gives the Pantheon a chapter of its own, noting that “the result, like Hagia Sophia, was a structurally unique building,” proclaiming it “the temple of the whole world!”

The interior of the Pantheon is beautifully lit by the massive oculus above. (Composite of four photographs)

It seems remarkable, then, that one can enter the Pantheon without a ticket, often with no more than a half-hour wait in the line outside. Due to the ongoing plague, I was asked to show my vaccination status before entering. The reason why the Pantheon has been preserved so well is that it was transformed into the Basilica of Santa Maria and Martyrs in 609 C.E.

Yes, church services take place in this most extraordinary of locations.

Of course you should visit the Pantheon when you go to Rome. It’s magical, it’s accessible, and it’s memorable. Don’t forget to pay your respects to the Elephant and Obelisk (1667 C.E.), standing in front of the Dominican church Santa Maria sopra Minerva just a few steps away. I like that its caption reads that “it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.”

I would highlight two different areas near the Pantheon. If you walk to the west a couple of blocks, you should find Piazza Navona. It’s a large area for hanging out in with the rest of the world, and it features the cool Fountain of the Four Rivers and is surrounded by nice cafes and ice cream shops. Natasha and I enjoyed the Melotti Risoterria, a restaurant featuring a delicious variety of risottos (gluten-free). We also found a cool shop selling mosaics nearby called “La Grotta Dipinta.” We both adored a square mosaic of a fish in the front window, and we bought it for our home!

The Area Sacra di Largo Argentina is where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.E.

The other site I’d highlight is the Largo di Torre Argentina, south of the Pantheon by a few blocks. Since the ancient level of the ground was much lower than today, its level is about twenty feet beneath the surrounding modern streets. It’s home to many colonies of feral cats, which will be a draw for some. For history buffs, though, this area featured a curia of note (area for public meetings). Julius Caesar met his end here on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.E.

Jewish Museum and Surrounds

A neighborhood near our lodgings that doesn’t seem to draw huge numbers of tourists nonetheless has quite a lot to see! I would encourage anyone to visit the Jewish Museum. One of its exhibits proclaims that “Rome is the only city in all of Europe that has never expelled the Jews!” That said, the museum tells a story of a rather different tone in which the Nazis extorted 50 kilograms of gold from the Jewish community of Rome under the threat that otherwise 200 Jews would be deported from the city. The Nazis then claimed that the 50 kg of gold brought to them was too little and deported 1000 Jews from the city. It’s another reminder that fascists victimize small groups from their populations to manipulate larger groups into obedience.

The interior of the synagogue’s box dome is thoroughly lovely!

The tour continues to the neighboring synagogue, built in 1904 to replace the set of five scolas that served the former Jewish ghetto. It’s an amazing space, particularly because it is so different than the other monumental buildings of the city. Natasha and I also walked over to the Piazza delle Cinque Scole, which previously served those earlier Jewish schools. Unsurprisingly, we found a lot of kosher food shops and other businesses serving the Jewish community nearby.

The theatre of Marcellus has been heavily rebuilt over time. The Great Synagogue of Rome appears to the right.

Our visits to the Theatre of Marcellus and the Porticus of Octavia left fewer distinct memories for me. The Theatre began construction after the murder of Julius Caesar and was inaugurated by Augustus in 12 B.C.E. During the Middle Ages, the Faffi family and then the Savelli family fortified the structure against assaults. The Porticus of Octavia enclosed a variety of temples over time since its construction in 146 B.C.E., but most of the structure remaining to be seen dates from Septimus Severus in 203 C.E. Natasha and I were surprised that the public walkways were being blocked off for young models to be photographed in haute couture. The women looked really unhappy to be there.

On the other hand, a few blocks northwest of this area, one can find the Fatamorgana Chiavari, a gelato shop that served safe ice cream cones for folks who need a gluten-free diet. We regret that we only visited twice.

Trevi Fountain

On our last night in Rome, Natasha and I lingered at the Trevi Fountain one more.

The Trevi Fountain is a place I can think about from anywhere in the world and be transported back to the world of 1994, feeling the cool spray on my face as the breezes blow across those waters. Returning to it in 2021 was entirely worthwhile, and Natasha and I both visited the site at least a couple of times. We even shot a brief video to capture the climate. I was very grateful for the attentive police watching the fountain, ensuring people don’t go for a swim or even sit on the low wall around it. They have some powerful voices!

Natasha and I might have gone a little bit north from there (or a few blocks east of the Mausoleum of Augustus) to see the Spanish Steps, but it never really became a priority for us. It’s a nice place to watch the world go by, as well.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius was constructed by 193 C.E.

The Column of Marcus Aurelius is just a couple blocks west of the Trevi Fountain, but Natasha and I saw almost no tourists peering at it. Marcus Aurelius is sometimes perceived as the philosopher emperor, but his column celebrates his accomplishments in war on the far side of the Danube River. Since the column dates from the late second century, it might be surprising that in medieval times, people could still purchase tickets to climb the spiral staircase within. I should note that the statue of the emperor atop the column was replaced by one of the Apostle Paul instead.

Missed Opportunities of Capitoline Hill

The Victor Emmanuel II Monument in Piazza Venezia

I can be mercurial and capricious, sometimes, and my fuzzy memories from 1994 had turned me away from Capitoline Hill. It’s right in the center of everything, so walking from point A to point B in Rome is likely to bring this site in view. And there at the crest of the hill is the “Altar of the Fatherland” and the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument. I would generally have no problem with a monument celebrating the first leader of a unified nation (such as the Washington Monument), and I don’t have a problem with tombs of the Unknown Soldier. I do have a problem that this site was appropriated by the early 20th-century fascists, with military parades surrounding its base. The mass of marble atop Capitoline has been nicknamed “the Typewriter” by some unkind people, but I think the name fits! I didn’t want to go close to it.

As a result, Natasha and I missed seeing the Capitoline Museums, often called the oldest museum on Earth. It’s been a public facility since 1471 C.E. The buildings themselves are part of the display, courtesy of Michelangelo’s touch. Their subject is art and archaeology (spanning from ancient times to the Medieval and Renaissance eras), so I think Natasha and I would both have been enthralled by it. The piece I most regret missing is probably the Capitoline Wolf. Ironically I saw a cast of this work months later in Tuebingen, Germany! Interestingly, the museums frequently named the second-oldest on earth are the Vatican Museums!

Missed chances at the Imperial Fora

Trajan’s Markets, constructed between 107 C.E. and 113 C.E. are part of the Imperial Fora. They have been crafted to have different levels corresponding to the terrace of the hill behind them.

Natasha and I invested a lot of time in the main Forum site. Like most tourists, however, we essentially bypassed the Imperial Fora on the other side of the road from there. The sites are pretty extensive with impressive monumentality, but I saw essentially no tourists examining them up close. I did pause for some photographs after our busy morning at the Colosseum. I had approximately zero energy to work my way through the signposts and statues. I am glad to see that Coarelli walks through the various sites, because I didn’t see much documentation at the place itself.

Trajan’s Column, completed in 113 C.E., remembers the struggle against the Dacians.

Trajan’s Column is a monument that has very widespread name recognition, but in Rome itself, you might be hard-pressed to find it. It is also part of the Imperial Fora area, almost directly east of the “Typewriter.” Trajan’s Column served as a model of sorts for that of Marcus Aurelius, given that Trajan’s Column had stood for eighty years by the time the other was completed. I knew what to look for because I had seen a partial replica of Trajan’s at St. Germain-en-Laye. The photo above shows my closest approach, with the Church of the Most Holy Name of Mary appearing just to its right.

It’s plain that Rome is a city that has incredible richness for tourists. It has, after all, been at the center of Western Civilization for millenia! A week can give you a sampling of the Eternal City, but I think many visitors will be filled with the urge to return for another touch.

The National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia

September 3, 2021

The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.

For our last full day in Rome, Natasha and I decided on a museum that lay to the north of the typical tourist area of the city. In fact, the mansion that houses the National Etruscan Museum was integrated with the 16th century city walls of Rome. We wanted to learn more about the earliest days of Republican Rome through the eyes of the Etruscans, their sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.

Does this facade seem 16th century to you? Good taste never really goes out of style, I think.

Reaching the museum at Villa Giulia was a bit of a stretch. Rather than walking for 40 minutes just to reach its entrance, we opted for a bus running north along the Tiber to the Ministero della Marina. After a few brisk blocks north and east, we reached Villa Giulia. It is an impressive mansion, one that dates to the middle of the 16th century C.E., and was built on lands originally purchased by the man who would later become Pope Julius III (no relation to Pope Julius II, who commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes from Michelangelo). The villa has been documented in multiple books, so the site of the museum has importance beyond the artifacts it houses.

Covered arcades like this one would have been fantastic places to enjoy a summer breeze before air conditioning!

If you only associate Rome with the Empire it headed, you are skipping past centuries during which Rome emerged as a kingdom and then as a republic. I would definitely recommend Anthony Everitt’s book on the subject. You may be familiar with the concept of “city-state” from classical Greece, and the same applies to the culturally linked city-states that comprised the Etruscan Civilization. The similarities go further, too, because it is plain that the Etruscans could hardly get enough of Greek culture, a fascination that they passed on to Rome. There are indications that the initial leaders of the city of Rome had arrived by way of Etruria, though Rome’s revolt against its king to favor a republic instead forever marked Rome as different from the cities to its northwest.

This map from Wikimedia Commons illustrates the allied Etruscan city-states.

As the map shows, Rome was surrounded by different Italic kingdoms that would pose significant challenges as the growing republic sought to extend its influence. It had to win over its neighbors through diplomacy and battle before it would be ready to contend with the Carthaginians for dominance of the Mediterranean. Let’s put some dates on this development:

  • 509 B.C.E. Rome overthrows its king to become a republic
  • 493 B.C.E. Alliance forms between Roman Republic and Latin League
  • 396 B.C.E. Fall of Veii, the Etruscan city closest to Rome
  • 310 B.C.E. First Battle of Lake Vadimo ends Etruscan dominance over Rome
  • 280 B.C.E. Fall of Vulci / Velch, an Etruscan city noted for its arts
  • 275 B.C.E. Defeat of Pyrrhus, one of Rome’s fiercest opponents to the South
  • 264 B.C.E. Fall of Volsinii / Velzna, assimilating the last Etruscan city-states into Rome
  • 201 B.C.E. Defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War, making Rome dominant in the Mediterranean

Museum Highlights

This square tomb, dating to 470-460 B.C.E., was decorated with a scene of athletic games celebrating Castor and Pollux

A great many of the artifacts on display are grave goods. We passed any number of glass cases filled with relics from more than 2500 years ago. I liked a little bronze hut-shaped urn for the ashes of a high society figure (8th century B.C.E.). The chariot trimmings, pots, vases, craters, and more from these graves show us that this was a rich culture with considerable skill in the ancient arts. By the end of the 6th century B.C.E., we see a distinct shift towards Hellenistic art forms; items stop seeming so distinctively Etruscan and more “Classical” in appearance. I was very impressed by the tombs displayed in nearly intact form, with just enough light showing that the scenes were visible.

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses is even more remarkable in person. It was discovered in 1881 C.E., broken into more than 400 pieces. It dates between 530 and 520 B.C.E. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Compared to Rome or Greece, Etruscan civilization incorporated more substantial roles for women. Banquets were not segregated by sex; instead both sexes ate and drank together. Men and women were buried together, and their funeral art frequently depicts couples. For me, the standout piece of art representing this property was the Sarcophagus of the Spouses (above and at the top of this post). It wasn’t commonplace in the ancient world to celebrate tenderness between couples in this way.

The Pyrgi Tablets from the late 6th century B.C.E. helped scholars relate the Etruscan language to our understanding of Phoenician. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Etruscan language was poorly understood for a long time, but the Pyrgi Tablets, found in 1964, helped anchor renewed comprehension of their texts. Two of the sheets are inscribed in Etruscan, while the third is in the Phoenician language. They dedicated a sacred place to Astarte, a Phoenician goddess. If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you have probably encountered the name of this goddess with a particularly negative spin! I was excited to see the real plates in person, since this is the local equivalent of a Rosetta Stone.

The Ficoroni Cista was created relatively late in the Etruscan period (340-330 B.C.E.), but it is entirely captivating. Image courtesy of AncientRome.ru

As we continued to the upper floor of the museum, we found ourselves gazing at the remarkable Ficoroni Cista, an impressive artwork from a 4th century B.C.E. tomb. It stands approximately three quarters of a meter / yard in height. The art celebrates Pollux’s victory over the inhospitable King Amykos during the search for the Golden Fleece.

Guess which piece is modern!

In the galleries that followed, I appreciated a modern touch to the displays. Along with the carefully described Etruscan items in display cases, the curators had placed a single modern item alongside the others. A modern artist had created companion monster-themed items to complement the ancient ones! I think kids would really enjoy picking out the new bits alongside the old.

Some of these items are replicas, but I believe they also display some items original to the Etruscan period.

If you like fine goldsmithing, you would really enjoy the gold adornments on display upstairs in the museum. The collection spans a variety of eras, so you can make a proper comparison.

You don’t need to be Greek to celebrate Apollo! Polychrome terracotta from 510-500 B.C.E.

Some of the last items one will see on a visit to the National Etruscan Museum includes a variety of larger-than-life statues from excavated holy sites. The Apollo above came from a square temple measuring 18.5 meters to the side. Many of these statues were erected 12 meters above ground level, so they would have been profiled against the sky. They’re quite stunning up close!

The National Etruscan Museum was the last of our major itinerary items for visiting Rome, and I am delighted we got to see it. Since most artifacts of the Roman Republic are no longer intact, it was thrilling to see their competitors / allies instead!

The Vatican Museums: the sacred and the profane

September 2, 2021

The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.

Scheduling your visit to the Vatican Museums on the sixth day of seven spent in the city is probably a mistake. You will want all your energy and concentration to make it through the many galleries you will encounter. Natasha and I took a bus from Piazza Venezia to the northeastern corner of the Vatican so we would have fresh legs. Our 41€ tickets covered admission for both of us along with a single audioguide (I generally prefer reading). We were again fortunate that the crowds had been diminished by the ongoing plague, so we were through the outdoor lines and past the interior corrals in around 30 minutes.

The entrance and exit double spiral staircase, dating from 1932, was created by Giuseppe Momo.

The minute we reached the interior of the museums, we bounced into the question of “now what?” The guest information sheet shows around twenty different galleries, courts, museums, chapels, and apartments. The most famous of them all is probably the Sistine Chapel, but it appears relatively late in the series of sites. As a visitor, you’ll have to make choices about how you want to spend your time and energy!

Artifacts and Exhibits

Stele of Hatshepsut

Like most guests, Natasha and I started with Museo Gregoriano Egizio, the Egyptian Museum. Its formal name resulted from this museum having been created by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839, though the Vatican collections at its heart were initiated in the 18th century by Pope Clement XIV and Pius VI. “Egyptomania” has been a Roman characteristic since before Augustus faced off with Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.E.), and Egyptian obelisks can be found throughout Rome, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the Vatican museum for these artifacts is loaded with good stuff. Despite Natasha’s love for archaeology, Ancient Egypt generally leaves her cold. So when she is wowed by the artifacts on display, I tend to pay attention! I was very impressed with the Stele of Hatshepsut (before 1458 B.C.E.). The stone marker represents the queen’s celebration of her improvements to the western area of Thebes. It original colors are gone, but the carving will probably last another three thousand years. Getting to see a papyrus copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead was pretty wild, as was seeing a glass case full of ancient cat statues.

Your eyes do not deceive you. This female statuette from Anatolia dates from around 5600 B.C.E, so it’s approaching 8000 years of age.

I was particularly glad that other ancient civilizations of the Middle East were featured, as well. Some of the artifacts recovered from the Anatolian Peninsula (modern day Turkey) have challenged even the Fertile Crescent for ancient city development. I loved the collection of cuneiform tablets on display from ~4000 years ago. They will certainly last longer than my own writing will!

The “Apollo Belvedere,” a second century C.E. rendering of the god as an archer, was in many ways the nucleus upon which the Vatican Museums were formed. Image from Wikimedia Commons

I have less to say about the series of Greco-Roman galleries that followed the Egyptian area. Having spent time in the National Roman Museum and the Palatine Museum, the series of Roman copies of Greek masterpieces, Roman originals, and Italian copies of Roman originals became a little hard to discern. I would point to two figures that I wish I had spotted that day. The first is Apollo Belvedere (above), housed in the Museo Pio Clementino (but perhaps currently under restoration). In many respects, this Apollo represents the genesis of the Vatican Museums; he was donated to the Vatican for display by Pope Julius II (r 1503-1513 C.E.), who ordered the creation of special display niches in the Belvedere gardens next to Saint Peter’s Basilica. (You might know Pope Julius from his portrayal by Rex Harrison in “The Agony and the Ecstasy” from 1965.) In other words, Apollo Belvedere was the first exhibit of what became the Vatican Museums. The other statue I wish I had spotted was the Augustus of Prima Porta, a rendering of the first emperor from the beginning of the first century C.E. I might have seen him in the Braccio Nuovo gallery (constructed 1817, so “new”).

The Sarcophagus of St. Helena is thought to have contained the remains of Emperor Constantine’s mother in the 4th century C.E.

In that area, my attention was drawn by two notable carvings. The first was an heroic sculpture of Emperor Claudius, holding aloft his fasces. The statue was an early example of a “retcon,” where old stories (in this case a statue of Caligula) are edited retrospectively to agree with new storylines (in this case, the ascension of Claudius as emperor). The head has been remolded in this statue to change the emperor it depicts. The other item that struck me was the Sarcophagus of St. Helena. We could start with its deep red color, reflecting that it was carved from red porphyry, an igneous silicate with lots of embedded crystals. Next I would mention its size; before I cropped the photograph above, you could see a tall man standing beside it. We would need to stack another tall man on his shoulders to reach the top of the sarcophagus. And how about the martial theme of this work? I know that if my Mom wanted a sarcophagus, her first choice would not be cavalry bringing home enslaved barbarians!

The Mars of Todi was purchased by the Vatican Museums in 1835. Its acquisition led to the creation of the Museo Etrusco.

Since I hope to write my next post about the National Etruscan Museum, I will simply show you one image from the Museo Etrusco at the Vatican. The Mars of Todi makes quite an impression in person. I am sure that a large part of that impact is that you can see the “whites of his eyes!” One of the reasons he looks so different from the Roman statues is that he’s actually Etruscan, dating from the end of the fifth century B.C.E. That means he was created when Republican Rome was just getting its feet planted!

The “Fire in the Borgo” commemorates a moment when the Pope miraculously extinguished a local fire (see window in the background). This fresco by Raffaello endows every person, even the children, with abnormally developed musculature.

Naturally, we visited the Vatican Museums not just for the items on display but also for the structures that house them. As we got deeper into the tour, the building itself was on display. Until the twelfth century, the Pope resided near the Papal Basilica of Saint John Lateran, but Nicholas III started the construction of an apostolic palace in the Vatican during his reign (1277-1280 C.E.). Today, the museum tour incorporates these elements of formal papal lodgings: the Galleria di San Pio V, the Stanze di Raffaello, and the Appartamento Borgia. The wall fresco above comes from the second set of rooms.

The bright colors of the Borgia Apartments predate the Pilgrims.

Natasha and I wanted to see the Borgia Apartments for different reasons. I had a lot of fun watching “The Borgias” on television, and I wondered just what kind of pope would name a part of the palace after his birth family. Natasha felt the Renaissance paintings there would be very worth seeing (they date from the period when America was “discovered” by Europeans). The artistry did not disappoint. The Vatican Museums even published a short video to YouTube about them! Natasha found a little gameboard that had been etched into a marble bench, possibly by bored security guards.

I loved this block diagram of the Sistine Chapel from Wikimedia Commons.

Soon thereafter, we reached the culmination of the tour: the Sistine Chapel. I am grateful that you can find thousands of photographs or videos of the Sistine with very little effort, since tourists are strictly forbidden from capturing images inside. The guards are not hesitant about shushing visitors or preventing them from sitting or leaning where they must not. Did you know that the Chapel is named after its originator, Sixtus the IV, the same Pope who brought us the Spanish Inquisition? The masterwork ceiling by Michelangelo is truly stunning. Something I hadn’t expected was the degree of vibrancy in the colors due to its 1994 restoration. It is easy to feel a bit like a sheep being herded through the space since this is probably the most popular part of the Vatican Museums, but I appreciate that if you want to spend fifteen minutes with your head craned back, you will have the opportunity to do just that. Of course, the ceiling isn’t the only art to be observed there, and even the screen that one passes through in the middle is quite beautiful. It is more than a bit difficult to imagine what this space would look like in an actual service, but the Chapel is clearly a highlight for many visitors.

The long gallery leading back to the northern doors is flanked by display cases and exhibits that would be very arresting, if placed anywhere else.

After the Sistine Chapel, most visitors will probably accelerate back through the long gallery to the northern edge of the Vatican. I couldn’t help but notice that the exhibition spaces had far better documentation before the Sistine than after. I had been hoping for a stop at the Musei della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Apostolic Library), but I never saw the sign to visit it.

The caption suggested that this was a 16th century chessboard, but I cannot help but think “backgammon” when I see it!

Even if the momentum was clearly forward to lunch, Natasha and I tried to keep our eyes open for items of special notice along the way. I loved the displays from the Vatican Treasury. Yes, I think they have enough gold! Natasha found a lovely, hand-inscribed game board that anyone would be proud to have in his or her collection. I might also have enjoyed seeing the Museo Gregoriano Profano; from the eighteenth century days of Clement XIV, the Vatican typically separated sacred art from worldly or mythological art. If you’re curious about the origins of the Vatican Museums, I hope you will take some time with The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art, jointly published by the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Vatican Museums (1982).

When you leave Saint Peter’s, you might want to spoil yourself with tasty snacks at Altre Farine Del Mulino!

Having passed the giftshop, bypassed the cafeteria due to gluten issues, and descended the spiral to the exit, Natasha and I emerged blinking in the sunlight of an early September morning. We walked up to Via Candia to get close to the Ottaviano metro stop, where we found “A Gogo– Gluten Free.” We had a tasty lunch far from the madding crowd, and we emerged refreshed. We had enough energy to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica after that! We went from there to a gluten-free treat shop called “Le Altre Farine Del Mulino” where we ate only things that would be very bad for our waistlines. Gosh, just writing about it makes me hungry all over again…

A tale of two tumuli: Castel Sant’Angelo and the Mausoleum of Augustus

September 1, 2021

The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.

I captured this picture of Castel Sant’Angelo as the sun headed for the horizon on August 30th.

Our fifth day in Rome dawned, and Natasha and I groaned a bit as we readied for the day; two days of touring the Colosseum and Forum had left our legs in parlous condition. Just the same, we resolved to make our 9:00 arrival time at Castel Sant’Angelo. Walking there was pretty easy since Corso Vittorio Emanuele II ran almost directly from our housing to the site. We arrived at the museum just as it opened.

The medieval fortification of Castel Sant’Angelo made it look very different from its forbear during ancient times.

Even before we entered the cylindrical structure, we were treated to a little exhibition of miniatures on the ground level, illustrating how much the look of this site had changed over the centuries. The first phase of our visit passed through ancient, gargantuan passages that would seem perfectly at home in a World War II bomb shelter. We followed the ascending spiral to reach massive chamber at heart of the complex where Hadrian and family were initially entombed, almost like a Pharaoh’s tomb at the heart of a pyramid. This area was equipped with two trap doors, though they may have been later additions as the area was fortified.

This ramp spiraling upward is characteristic of the oldest parts of Castel Sant’Angelo. We were circling the original burial chamber of Emperor Hadrian.
This Archangel Michael, carved in 1544, stands guard over a courtyard halfway to the top of the complex. It originally stood atop the structure. It was created by an apprentice of Michelangelo, Raffaello da Montelupo.

Once we reached the Angel’s Courtyard, we had reached an altogether different phase of the complex. The mausoleum had been fortified to withstand attack so that the Pope had a place to retire when the Vatican became a military target (notably during the sack of Rome in 1527), and a wall was constructed with a walkway atop it to facilitate the Pope’s movement between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo. At present, the lowest layers of these additions have been transformed into a rather interesting art gallery: an “exhibition of artifacts recovered from the Cultural Heritage Protection Command of the Carabinieri.” Rather that being framed around a period or a subject of art, it represents a sort of Italian art police success story gallery. Each of the works on display (and there are many) is accompanied with a story explaning the circumstances under which a piece of Italian cultural heritage was stolen by unscrupulous looters or look-the-other-way art dealers along with its eventual recovery by the police.

These “Braca Bombs” are early firearms, crafted in wrought iron during the fifteenth century.

I think the piece I liked the most was a painting of the Crucifixion by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. I was also pretty interested by a set of “bombardelle a Braca,” firearms from the fifteenth century (I am unsure whether they had been stolen or not). I was stunned to see some 5th century BCE painted slabs from the Etruscans, since obviously art from that period is vanishingly rare. Natasha found a cool treasure of her own, where hundreds of pennants of national socialists and of communists had been stolen from the Central State Archives during a 2020 renovation; they had been recovered very speedily indeed for us to see them.

The Passetto di Borgo enters the Castel Sant’Angelo at this bastion. Twice it is believed to have saved a Pope’s life!

We next ascended to a level with a coffee bar in one of the best locations in the city. The ring of windows looks out toward the Vatican, with an excellent view of St. Peter’s or even toward the Forum (though much of it is hidden by the Victor Emmanuel II Monument). I giggled to see a catapult atop one of the four diagonal bastions, ready to fire.

At this point, I might have thought we were done with the main tour. Our legs had weathered quite a few flights of stairs to get to the coffee level (you may see it named the “Alexander VII walkway”), but OH MY NO. We were not done with the stairs, not by a darn sight!

Did you think a Pope would choose exclusively Biblical scenes to decorate his ceilings? Guess again!

The upper few levels of the castle were used by progressively fewer people, so we saw increasing opulence as we plodded upward. Paul III commissioned quite a lot of space there, and his library shows the kind of artistry that unlimited funds can buy, with hand-painted ceilings and lovely crenellated panels in the ceiling as well as wooden furniture of exceptional craftsmanship. One of Paul III’s areas gained the name “La Cagliostra” to reflect that a prominent captive was held there while being tried as a Freemason. What a lovely view he enjoyed, though!

This room, which once may have housed Hadrian’s remains, became the Papal States’ Archives under Paul III. Sixtus V soon thereafter changed it to a treasure hoard!

The treasure room was created to hold strongboxes of archives and money to help the Pope weather a storm, but it is notable today for housing the outermost sarcophagus of Emperor Hadrian. One cannot really go inside, but the wooden wall paneling is really lovely work.

It seems a little unusual that the statue atop one of Rome’s most iconic sites was created by a Flemish Artist in 1748, but that is the truth!

With that, we emerged at the top of Castelo Sant’Angelo. Blinking in the bright sunlight, we were again wowed by the views from up there. I snapped a few close images of St. Peter’s and of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument and Pantheon. The dramatic quality of the bronze angel Michael is quite lovely; it was crafted by Peter Anton van Verschafft in the eighteenth century.

Even a castle to protect your escape should have a formal reception hall, right?

As Natasha notes, “what comes up must come down,” and down we went. We may have been tired from all those stairs, but we still managed to stop for the Paolina Room, a really grand entertainment hall for Paul III. I should note that much of his diplomacy was aimed at countering the challenge mounted by Martin Luther, so the counter-Reformation was framed in this space as well as in the Vatican. I was happy to see images of two baboons at the base of one wall, marking a present from ambassadors. In South Africa, we wince when we encounter these enormously strong and downright sneaky creatures! I thought Paul III’s bedroom was particularly notable for its beautifully painted “spinette,” a keyboard instrument from the 16th century.

The Mausoleum of Augustus

The two mausoleums are in easy walking distance of each other, though on opposite sites of the Tiber.

Natasha and I walked toward our next destination, the Mausoleum of Augustus. When we passed the Napoleonic museum, we saw a couple neighboring buildings that we really liked. One serves as a school, while the other just offers tremendous character with bulgy walls and a partially removed tile exterior, with an antique wooden street door that has some real heft to it.

We thought the 15th century “Hostaria dell’Orso” had oodles of character. It stands east of the Napoleon Museum.

It isn’t far to the Mausoleum of Augustus, but our walk was complicated by our critical need to find a coffee shop (Natasha had been operating without!) and by a considerable amount of construction in the area of the Mausoleum. A security guard helped us to find the right place when we mistakenly approached the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, and we were able to reach the east gate for the Mausoleum in just a couple more blocks.

The Mausoleum of Augustus is today presented as an archaeological site rather than as an intact monument.

I should say at this point that I was sure the website ticket-buying option for the Mausoleum of Augustus was broken, since it showed no availability for tickets during the week we would be in Rome. Sadly, the security at the gate informed us that there were no tickets remaining for purchase in September (we visited the site on the first of that month). Interest in the new museum has made it really tough to buy individual tickets to see it today.

An attempt to recreate the Mausoleum’s appearance in ancient times by Virgili-Mancini (republished in Nicoletta and Virgili).

Since everybody who visits Rome sees Castel Sant’Angelo, you might wonder why I would draw attention to the relatively less well-known Mausoleum of Augustus (completed 28 B.C.E.). I would start with Amanda Claridge‘s observation that “the Mausoleum was, and remained, the largest tomb in the Roman world, subsequently only matched– carefully not surpassed– by that of Hadrian on the other side of the Tiber.” The Mausoleum of Hadrian (completed 139 C.E.) is better known today as Castel Sant’Angelo, so the Romans had 167 years’ experience with emperors being buried in mausoleum erected by Augustus by the time Hadrian started construction on its successor. At one time the earlier mausoleum housed the remains of Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula (probably), Claudius, and Nerva (though he was unrelated to the earlier emperors).

In the 16th century, the Soderini family had crafted gardens atop the mausoleum. 1575 C.E. engraving by du Perac

To say the Mausoleum of Augustus “fell into disrepair” really misses the scale of its ruination. At least its two red granite columns were appropriated for display elsewhere (one appears in my photograph of the back of Saint Mary Maggiore). During the medieval period, the Colonna family fortified the mound of the mausoleum, but after their disgrace in 1167, their fortress was disassembled. This occasion also initiated a period when the exterior and interior blocks of stone were quarried for use in other buildings of the area. The structure today consists of the tufa and rubble core; in ancient times it would have been gleaming and smooth. As shown above, the Soderini family planted a garden atop the mound in the 16th century. In the 18th, it was used for bullfights! In the 19th century, it became a circus and theatre, and as Italy entered its fascist period, it served as the “Augusteo” concert hall. Mussolini thought people would think better of him if he linked his name with Augustus, so he surrounded the mausoleum with a square of buildings featuring fascist imagery. I applaud the city of Rome for investing in this neighborhood to emphasize its ancient glory rather than leaving it in the embarrassing state Mussolini left behind.

Ciao Checca was a lovely end to our morning ramble across the Tiber!

Naturally, Natasha and I were really hungry after visiting both sites. Helpfully, the Ciao Checca cafe was just a few blocks south of the Mausoleum of Augustus. We are always on the lookout for places that can guard against gluten content to the standard required for celiac disease. We were able to relax out of the sun, munching tasty sandwiches and salads, while relishing free wifi. I call that a solid win!