Friday, December 30


From the Archives:The La Sapienza Wine Bar, and a Visit to Piazza Navon

Apologies for the long absence. This was originally published 09/12/03, during my year studying in Rome, and is suitably Christmassy for a day in the Octave:

I’ve spoken often about the street life of Italy, the one country in the world that seems like a twenty-four-hour open-air comic opera. However, the other day I saw a much more literal example of urban theater, or at the very least a pause between acts. In the stuccoed, bulky shadow of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza, I saw one of Italy’s cinematic auteurs plying his trade.

Okay, maybe he was just shooting a commercial, as it did not have the look of a major motion picture. Still, filming on location, even if it’s the outdoor seating secton of the La Sapienza Wine Bar, has to count for something. The cast and crew were sitting around with a mixture of dejection and mild pique waiting for a graffiti-festooned and extremely noisy dump truck to clear out of earshot.

Inside, the café patrons (or perhaps extras) were trying very hard to look cool, while a bored, tanned and perhaps slightly shopworn starlet glugged down bottled water at one of the iron sidewalk tables. I caught a glimpse of the big zebra-striped clipboard gadget that always seems to show up at movie-making sites, or at least that’s they way it is on television. And on it, the name of the auteur and his work. In this case, one Sergio Prenoli. And the rather generic title of Roma.

Well, at least I had a name. By that point I had also walked straight into a now rather indignant bald man because of my rubbernecking. I sputtered some apologies and headed back to studio and thought about ways to fill up the pleasantly blank slate of my upcoming weekend.

I swung by later with my two friends Vera and Amelia—the Maenad girls, as I call them, because of an amusing mishap that happened on a trip to Tivoli involving two litres of red wine, my puritanical teetotaler habits and an empty mineral water bottle. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sergio Prenoli hadn’t gotten much farther with his great work. The starlet was looking fashionably bored at a different table with a different drink and they’d introduced a boom mike as well as wrapping one of the reflectors in blue plastic. Roma was looking very much true to Italian life: nothing seemed to be happening.

We weren’t stargazing, anyway, we were heading over to the Piazza Navona Christmas fair. The morning was surprisingly cool and clear, the first blue sky I’d seen in days. And it was wonderfully blue, and wonderfully chill. If I’d had any doubts about Italy’s devotion to Christmas, it had vanished. Over one narrow street, someone had hung half-arcs of red crepe and pine, festooned with gilt angels. Meanwhile, Piazza Navona positively buzzed with Yuletide hustle and bustle.

The sun bounced off the pure white stucco of the Brazilian Embassy façade, pigeons wheeling lazily in the cool air. Dozens of booths ringed the long, narrow piazza, while a carrousel spun in the center in a blaze of prerecorded music, flashing mirrors and garish nude caryatids encrusted with perhaps their tenth layer of paint. Everyone seemed to be smiling.

At first glance, some of the stalls had very little to do with Christmas. The girls stopped off at the first one, diffidently hovering on the edge of the carnival, carefully looking through velvet scarves hanging on a rack. The rest of the stand seemed to be devoted to soccer memorabilia, gloves, weird Peruvian knit caps and an incongruous Che flag. A couple of freckled blonde California girls exchanged casual tourist remarks in their native accent, curious to hear after so long in Italy. And then there was the preposterous mannequin torso with molded Redneck sideburns and goatee wearing the Assitalia team colors.

We moved on, passing a serious bevy of pudgy, bespectacled little nuns and a sprinkling of young matrons with toddlers. They seemed to be the target audience, as the booths were so weighed down with great garlands of hanging merchandise it would have taken a midget to clear one of these extravaganzas without knocking down either a bundle of Christmas stockings with pictures of Japanimation characters or La Befana playing soccer or maybe a seven-foot-tall Pink Panther about the color of cotton candy.

It was a six-year-old’s dream come to life. There were action figures of all races, creeds and TV shows, rapiers with cardboard Zorro masks, racks of miniature plastic Roman centurion cuirasses, and then a truly inexplicable guitar-shaped stuffed animal with the words “I love you” on its belly. What on earth would a kindergartener make of this monstrosity? Or the stuffed Rastafarian doll with cigar, bongos and gold teeth? Or even more puzzling, that enormous four-foot-tall gorilla with a snake shoved up his nose?

On the other hand, there were also some wonderful, and doubtlessly absurdly expensive, stuffed tigers and panthers snarling away with open mouths and quite convincing teeth. Most of them looked larger than the children who would want to play with them, set pieces designed to drive young Roman mothers nuts trying to explain to their charges that they did not need toys bigger than some compact cars.

Santa was there as well, either as a mechanical dummy doing a sort of Elvis hip-swinging dance, or available as a four-piece set of musicians, Santa variously on drums, bass violin, saxophone, or most frighteningly, accordion. A string of Christmas lights played several anthems dedicated to this curious secular saint.

La Befana, however, was clearly queen of this festival, and great bundles of Christmas Witch dolls were hanging like strings of onions from a dozen booths. Occasionally one would let loose with a diabolical pre-programmed electric cackle. A few other ones had a faint converted-kewpie look, less Macbeth than Samantha Stevens. Some others even looked faintly obscene.

I don’t really get La Befana the Christmas Witch. I don’t get the Italian witch fascination at all, though I admit to being a bit hazy on her existence up until the other day. (I still am not wholly convinced Strega Nona isn’t really just a brand of pasta, either.) A holiday mascot that looks due to scare the bejeepers out of your average toddler (or at the very least give the most redoubtable first-grader a case of, as they say, the jibblies) seems rather an unlikely giver of gifts. But Italy is Italy.

I did however, get the rest of the fair with crystal clarity. There were remarkable booths bedecked with hundreds of glassblown ornaments tempting fate (and small children) in the clear cool air. They were vast translucent rainbows, some cobalt, some gilt, some shocking pink with feathers like exotic fishing lures. Even more pleasurable were the candy stands, piled high with shiny obsidian-black dollops of licorice, green almond paste and dozens of jelly worms, or the occasional mandarin-yellow wax apples, looking good enough to eat.

And then came the nativity scene vendors. They were everywhere, selling everything and anything you could need to kick your crèche up a notch (or ten). There were plenty of quaint cork-carved stables and working miniature wall fountains and corn cribs and just about any other structure imaginable, some populated by horrible smooth-faced Fontanini knockoffs, others filled with minute figures that looked likely to get trampled underfoot like so many post-Christmas lego bricks back at home.

There were automated smithies with their brawny-armed blacksmiths striking plastic hammers against plastic anvils with balletic repetition that suggested both strength and repetitive stress motion injury, as well as all sorts of weird and wonderful accessories, like baskets of silvery sardines no bigger than grains of rice, tiny (and anachronistic) tin milk pails, frying eggs in pans and even trays of mushrooms. And you thought gold, frankincense and myrrh made for weird newborn gifts.

The girls stopped to examine more scarves at a more ordinary stand which also sold novelty boxer shorts. There was so much more here, the hoardings with the enormous Lenin-sized effigy of Gwyneth Paltrow asking for her martini, the weird hydrocephalic Tweety-bird balloons, the disreputable heraldist at his computerized booth peddling the history, shield and noble title of your last name, and the great festival of travertine that Bernini had erected in the center centuries earlier, the grand rocailled spike of the Fountain of the Four Rivers with its aquamarine water and sober river-gods around which this Roman weirdness seemed to swirl.

And then there was the empty cabin at the center for the coming attraction—a vast nativity scene. Maybe it would have sardines and mushrooms and frying pans, but it would also have something far more important, the Child that all these children squealing for La Befama were ultimately waiting for.

The girls finished up their shopping and we headed back to studio. They decided they had to ride on the carrousel at least once before they left. Not a bad idea, since Christmas at Navona only comes once a year. Which makes me wonder what they do with all those mini-sardines for the rest of the time.

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