Tag Archives: Art

The Eyes Have It

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was feeling kind of guilty about the nun bashing in my last post until I started writing this one about the El Greco Museum.

Lynn and I had seen paintings by El Greco in the Prado Museum, but in Toledo there was an entire museum devoted to The Greek.

The collection was in an old house composed of additions from different centuries cobbled together and connected by ramps or hallways; in some instances you had to go outside to get from Point A to Point B.  Our first stop was a video about El Greco.  It went on at great length about how he was distinguished from his contemporaries by his elongated figures made of long brush strokes.  He was nearsighted, the video said by way of explanation.

In addition, many of his subjects were painted looking heavenward with crazy eyes, and this was thought to be because he used patients from an insane asylum as models.

The nun would have made a great model for El Greco—I’m not saying she was insane, just that her eyes had this same look.

So those are the things that make El Greco a star.  He was so in demand that he had apprentices help him churn out paintings and it’s now difficult to tell who painted what.  I am at a loss as to why El Greco is considered a master while Margaret Keane is not (images removed due to copyright).

But as I’ve fully disclosed before, I’m not a New York Times art critic.

After shuffling along in the museum for a couple hours, we thought a brisk walk would do us good.  On the trolley tour we had spied what looked like giant escalators cut into the hillside, and the narration had said there was a nature walk.  The sun had come out, so now was the moment.

We attempted to find our way out of the city—ha!  Here is a map of Toledo set in the pavement, lest we needed reminding of what a labyrinth it was:

Eventually we found ourselves, quite by accident, outside one of the city gates where we could see the River Tajo.  I grew up near the Mississippi, so my inner Tom Sawyer kicked in and I joyfully crashed through the undergrowth toward the water.

“Where are you taking us!?” Lynn cried.

I ignored her until I stopped short at an orange plastic tape printed with “¡Cuidado!” every few inches.

“This must have been used to section off a path for a marathon,” I guessed.

“A murder, more likely,” Lynn responded.

When most people see things like this, they turn back.  I hopped over the tape and kept heading for the river bank.

“Where the hell are we going!?” Lynn asked, picking her way through the bushes behind me.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I just want to see the river.”  We reached the bank and stood looking at the muddy water.

“Well, just as you suspected—it’s a river,” Lynn said.

“Yep,” I replied, and we turned back toward the city.

There was time for one more museum, the intriguing-sounding Museum of the Visigoth Councils and Culture.  It was housed in the Church of San Romain, which had a small entry door set inside the giant-sized door that many churches have.

I’ve stopped mentioning how much entry tickets cost unless they vary substantially from the typical 4-5 euros.

There was a tiny glass booth just inside the door where an old man collected our €1 entry fee.  He gave us a piece of paper and we made for the exhibit but were commanded by him to stop at another booth three feet from the first one, where another old personage collected the piece of paper, stamped it, and gave us another piece of paper. Whew!  We were legal now.

The museum was worth the entry fee. There was this one display of something beautiful.

The rest was mainly Spanish signage. I have a hard time following historical narratives in English, much less in Spanish, so I am none the wiser about the Visigoths.

Art and The Avocado

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As I exited the Borghese Gallery at exactly 2:00 pm I wondered, Why Caravaggio?  Why Bernini? Why did they become famous, while hundreds of other artists who had created most of the art in the gallery remained nameless nobodies?  How do some artists “break out” from the pack? Is it talent, connections, luck, or what?

I could appreciate how difficult it must have been to carve fingers out of marble.  Were no other sculptors able to do that—is that why Bernini stands out?  I could see how Caravaggio’s paintings were darker than his peers.  Is that why he’s considered so much greater than other painters?  Was “darker” a breakthrough in the 16th Century, like cubism would be in the 20th?  Even the worst artist in the gallery—if there was one—was infinitely better than I could ever be.  I felt like a philistine and resolved, as usual, to read up on what I had seen when I returned home.

I sat on a bench outside the gallery next to an elderly couple and pulled out my map so I could think about where to go next.  The man leaned over to me and asked where I was from.  He had never heard of Minnesota and his English was so-so, but that didn’t stop him from talking without interruption for 20 minutes straight.

He commandeered my map so I couldn’t walk away.  He was very nice but he made enough suggestions to keep me busy in Rome for a month.  “You must walk over to the other side of the river and see the Church of St. Celestine of the Bloody Hand,” he said enthusiastically.  “It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen!  It will only take you about a half hour to get there by taxi.”  I made up that church name, of course.

He paused, then sighed, “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

His wife leaned forward to peer around him at me with a look that said, “He always does this.”  She must have been 80 but she didn’t have a hair out of place and she was wearing a skirt and high heels.  He was wearing a black trench coat, open so I could see his tweed suit and silk tie.  They were both wearing boxy, trendy eyeglasses.

He said something that sounded like “I am an avocado.”  What?  “A lawyer—retired,” he said in English.  Ah, an avvocato—as in legal advocate— I nodded.

“You must see the Caravaggios in the Church of the Holy Martyrs of the Flagellation,” came next.  “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

“You are by yourself?” he asked.  “Alone?”  When I nodded he looked back at his wife and I couldn’t see their faces but I imagined they exchanged pitying glances.

Finally, I maintained eye contact and smiled while gently extracting my map from his hands, then walked off down the tree-lined lane.  They were such a sweet couple.  Why wasn’t I part of a sweet couple?  Why?  What had I done wrong?  Would I ever meet Mr. Right?  Why was I the Only One in the World who was alone?  Blah, blah, blah went my thoughts.  A few tears escaped, and I thought this would be a good time to sit on a bench, rest a bit, and gather my thoughts.  But counterintuitively, it’s often when I’m over tired that I have the urge to Press On No Matter What.  I was determined to find one of the things the old man had recommended—a church in the Piazza del Popolo which had two Caravaggios.

Despite it being close by, I got lost.  I consulted the map, then got lost again.   It was hot, I was hungry and tired.  The thoughts started again: What’s wrong with you?  You’re such an idiot.  No one else gets lost this much.  Finally I stumbled into the church and gazed at the Caravaggios.  Meh.  I think I had OD’d on art.  After three days of nonstop touring, I told myself I had nothing to prove.  I walked back to my hotel, polished off my complimentary prosecco, and slept for 12 hours.

A Holy Look-See

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had never given much thought to the Vatican.  Did I want to visit it?  Not really.  I’m not Catholic, but maybe standing in St. Peter’s Square with tens of thousands of nuns and other Pope fans could be a scene to be experienced.  I could earn some points with my Catholic friends and family, maybe.  Sure, I would step inside St. Peter’s Basilica and it would probably be amazing, like the other 50 cathedrals and basilicas and churches I would see on my trip. The Sistine Chapel was in there, right?

It all began to come clear when I started reading the “Top 10 Things to Do in Rome” lists.  I learned there was something called the Vatican Museum, which is the fifth largest museum in the world.  Oh no, I groaned, imagining room after room filled with paintings of the Virgin Mary and crucifixion scenes.  But this was where the Sistine Chapel was.  The Vatican Museum also held collections of Egyptian and Etruscan art, and tapestries, and something called a map room.  I love maps.  I went online and booked my advance ticket, as all the guides advised.  I love how it has the fancy shield with keys in one corner and a QR code in the other.


I stopped at the hotel front desk to drop off my key, and the Indian desk clerk asked, “You are going to the Vatican today?”

The stereotypical Indian accent is sing-song, right?  The stereotypical Italian accent is lilting, right?  Now imagine an Indian speaking Italian, and you’ve almost got a one-man Broadway show.

When I confirmed that I was going to the Vatican he said, “We are getting a lot of Argentinian tourists here as a result of the Pope being Argentine.”

That explained why I had heard so much Spanish on the streets, even in the short time I had been there.  Spanish is the only language besides Hebrew I can identify with any certainty, although I can’t tell an Argentine accent from a Mexican or Spanish one.

I managed to not get lost in the two blocks between my hotel and the Metro.  There was a 10-foot-tall “M” above the entrance, too, so even I couldn’t miss it.  As metros go, Rome’s was unremarkable.  It wasn’t gleaming like the one in Washington, DC, or quirky like London’s Underground.  There were some clever ads, the cars were covered with graffiti, the signage was clear.  It was all in Italian, so my Spanish helped but even English would have helped.  For instance “Teatro”—anyone would know that means “Theater,” right?

metro-2 metro

It seems like a lot of people’s worst fears about travel involve getting on the wrong train/bus/boat and ending up in the wrong place.  That’s the beauty of subway systems.  Once you’re inside the paid fare zone, if you go in the wrong direction or get off at the wrong stop, you just get back on and keep at it until you get it right.

I zipped right along and found myself at the Vatican stop in 10 minutes.  There was about a 10-minute walk along shop-lined streets to get to the actual Vatican complex, and I enjoyed ogling the beautiful leather goods and clothes (all black, of course—this was Italy) in the window displays.

I followed the signs to the museum and was very glad I had bought my ticket ahead of time, because there must have been 500 people in line for same-day tickets.  I felt very smug and smart striding past them in the ticketholders’ line, although I was a little worried I would get to the entrance and they would tell me my ticket was a fake.  Didn’t I know about all those online ticket scams?  Get to the back of the line!

But the ticket was good; a guard scanned it and then I stood in line to exchange it for the fancy one below.  Then I got into another line to pick up a map and audio guide; then I was in.


I emerged five hours later and will write tomorrow about what I saw.