Walking the walls at the Porta Appia

I have been awake for 18 hours, 15 of them spent walking. Jet lag and a determination to get some walls under my belt as soon as possible make a beautiful and terrible partnership. I’m going to keep this short, therefore, as I am barely capable of seeing the screen.

Three words: Museo delle Mura. It’s one of those marvelous gems hidden in plain sight inside the gigantic ancient, medieval and Renaissance gate/fortress of the Porta Appia. You walk up to the massive archway and just to the right is a door into a museum. Entrance fee: zero. Just buzz to be let in and up you go.

The contents are limited — a few plaster casts of brick crosses from surviving sections of the walls and gates, plastic models of the phases of construction, a topographical map illustrating the perimeter of the Servian Wall (ca. 4th century B.C.) and the far larger expansion of the city’s defenses built by Aurelian (271-275 A.D.).

The real treasure here is the museum itself. It’s really misnamed. It should be the Museo nelle Mura, the Museum in the Walls, instead of the Museum of the Walls. The modest displays are eclipsed by a truly fantastic wall walk that takes you through four of the surviving towers in the stretch of the Aurelian Wall, later given a second story by Honorius with more arrow slits and a roof.

Wee spiral staircase to the right flanking tower.The interior spaces, particularly in the two massive gate towers, are magnificent, but you will never get a view of Rome and environs like you do from the very top of the right tower. That’s if you dare to take the tiniest, tightest of spiral staircases to get up there, which of course I did because I am a most generous blogger.

Here’s the wall walk seen from above:

Here’s the Appia Antica heading south from the gate:

There’s much more, but that will have to tide you over for now as my moribund state demands sleep.

Greetings from the cats of Largo Argentina

It is fitting that my first post from Rome should be about the cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina. Last year I never managed to visit the sanctuary itself because I kept missing the open hours. Still, the remains of Pompey’s Theater and four other Republican-era sacred sites are liberally peppered with their most famous denizens, one of whom stared at you with supreme disinterest from yesterday’s post.

In 2012, the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary was threatened with eviction by the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome. Officials had grandiose plans to improve the site for tourism because it had made some (largely spurious) press about the supposed discovery of the exact spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated there. The sanctuary was deemed “a health hazard” even though it is kept scrupulously clean to prevent the spread of communicable diseases and the authorities indulged in a fancy that the space it occupies, basically a moist cave underneath the tram tracks, should be excavated and opened to visitors hungry for more of those sweet vaguely Caesar-associated remains.

At the time, the sanctuary reached out to supporters to write letters and donate funds to keep the doors open. Nobody else is doing anything about the feral and stray pet population, while they have spayed and neutered more than 30,000 cats on a shoestring budget. The hope was they could stave off the eviction and become officially recognized by the city instead of having to effectively squat at the site where the cats already live.

I wasn’t able to get a follow-up on the story. I saw last year that they had not been evicted and thought they might even have gotten that longed-for official recognition because of the signs warning tourists not to feed the cats which are cared for by the sanctuary. Now that I’ve been there and spoken to the volunteers, I can reveal the outcome of the 2012 brouhaha: not a damn thing. As so often happens, the big plans fell through because the Superintendency is always strapped for cash and can barely manage to maintain the archaeological patrimony that is already a big draw for tourist money. They have not received official recognition. The current mayor of Rome has no interest whatsoever in the sanctuary, and that’s just how they like it. Being ignored by the authorities works just fine for them because the status quo is way better than threatened crackdowns or failed build-ups. Meanwhile, they tell me, firemen, municipal police, Carabinieri, etc. bring cats to them all the time so they’re official in practice if not in theory.

The volunteers are dedicated, warm, welcoming and so enthusiastic about their charges. They made a point of taking us into the back room where the disabled cats live in safety and comfort without having to cope with the dangers of the Roman city center. Blindness is very common in the stray cat population here because most of them are born to stray mothers and quickly get eye infections when they’re too young to recover from them.

The sanctuary is always in need of funds to support the tireless work they do. I promised I would promote their Distance Adoption program which gives you all the warm fuzzy feelings of saving a cat that is probably a little too wonky to be adopted plus the bragging rights of having rescued a cat who whiles away the hours sprawled over the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed.

I will leave you with a view of the entrance to the sanctuary adorned by Quinoa, their cat of the month. He enjoys sleeping, being petted while sleeping and taking occasional breaks from sleeping to snack.

Under the table is a three-legged furry blur named Pioppo who is available for distance adoption, just fyi.

Programming Note of Awesomeness

Guess who speaks fluent French and is flying to Rome today? THIS MOI! Yes, I am heading back to the motherland for the second year in a row. My aim for this trip is to walk the ancient city. I mean, like, all of it. I have exactly two site visits booked, but otherwise the week will be dedicated to exploring the greatest open-air museum in the world without schedule or expectation. I will walk the pomerium, tracking every extant snippet of the ancient walls and gates I can find. I will criss-cross the center. I will go back and forth over the Tiber whenever the spirit moves me.

If all goes well, there will be some posts that refer back to earlier stories I’ve written. If not, then you’ll receive the full benefit of my dubious pictorial skills documenting my adventures in the Capital of the World. Rest assured, I will relay all your best wishes to the cats.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch to be restored in public view

Like it’s not enough that to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 2019 the Rijksmuseum will be putting on an epic exhibition displaying every one of his paintings, drawings and prints in its permanent collection, the museum will also undertake its most ambitious conservation project ever: the full restoration of The Night Watch in public view.

The Night Watch last received extensive treatment in 1975 after a deranged former teacher slashed it with a bread knife he’d stolen from the restaurant where he had lunch that day. He explained to the security guards and bystanders who pried him off the masterpiece and restrained him that he had been ordered by God to slash the painting. That was an emergency salvage operation to repair the severe cuts in the canvas, some more than two feet long and one whole chunk cut out that was a foot wide and 2.5 inches wide.

The new restoration is occasioned by the regular monitoring of its condition. Conservators have begun to see alarming changes taking place gradually but surely. The little dog in the lower right of the canvas, for example, is getting whiter and whiter. He’s basically a ghost dog at this point. The first step is a complete examination and assessment of the entirety of the painting. Several imaging techniques, high-resolution photography, microscopic analysis and computer tools will be used to create a detailed map of the artwork at every level, from stretcher to canvas through paint layers to varnish.

The timing of the project is ideal from the standpoint of conservatorial expertise as well. Rijksmuseum experts complete the thorough restoration of the portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit last year, so they have fresh experience in conserving large-scale Rembrandts. The team that will work on The Night Watch will include experts from other museums and institutions of higher education around the world.

But wait, there’s more!

The Night Watch will be encased in a state-of-the-art clear glass chamber designed by the French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte. This will ensure that the painting can remain on display for museum visitors. A digital platform will allow viewers from all over the world to follow the entire process online continuing the Rijksmuseum innovation in the digital field.

Taco Dibbits, General Director Rijksmuseum: “The Night Watch is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It belongs to us all, and that is why we have decided to conduct the restoration within the museum itself – and everyone, wherever they are, will be able to follow the process online.”

I would like to take a moment to thank The Netherlands for being awesome. Their museums’ websites consistently provide the highest resolution images possible and have been doing so since cribbing off your office T1 lines was the only hope a regular person had of downloading such pictures in less than five hours. They do world-class renovations of the historic buildings the museums inhabit, generously loan out incredibly rare masterpieces to museums around the world while the spaces are being refurbished and then make the greatest of all promotional videos to celebrate the grand reopening.

The exhibition, All the Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum, runs from February 15th to 10 June 10th, 2019. This will be the first time in history that the more than 400 artworks by Rembrandt in the Rijskmuseum’s collection will be on display at once.

Because I never need a pretext to repost it and this time I actually have one, here’s the greatest of all promotional videos:

Remains of Celtic settlement found in Lucerne

An archaeological survey at the site of a housing development in Egolzwil, Switzerland, has discovered rare remains of a Celtic settlement. Canton archaeologists excavating the site about 20 miles northwest of Lucerne unearthed evidence of a Celtic-era street and dwelling, the first traces of an actual Celtic settlement discovered in the canton. Before this discovery, the only material evidence of Celts having lived in the area were sacrificial remains found at what used to be the Wauwilersee lakeshore.

Wauwilersee, a glacier lake that was drained in the mid-19th century to reclaim the boggy land for agricultural purposes, was the site of one of the earliest human settlements in Switzerland. Remains have been found going back to the late Paleolithic (ca. 12,000 B.C.) and Neolithic pile dwelling settlements have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s this rich density of material culture dating back thousands of years that spurred the survey before construction of three semi-detaches houses on the Egolzwil-Baumgarten rail line.

The settlement remains were found on a hill overlooking the former Wauwilersee shore. The dig found a pathway about 13 feet wide made of small, compacted pebbles and the remains of a house that had burned down. It’s not known whether the path was a road linking locations within the settlement or if it was a stretch of a larger road that connected Egolzwil to the nearby town of Schötz. Most of the archaeological material unearthed consists of potsherds, small stones from the pathway, larger round stones used in construction of the dwelling and scorched fragments of the house’s clay walls. One stand-out artifact is a bronze fibula, a large pin used to secure garments together. It is of a type commonly dating to the 1st century B.C.

Very little is known about the Celtic period (ca. 800-15 B.C.) in the canton of Lucerne which is why this dig, so small in surface area, is so large in historical significance. That the house was burned down in the 1st century B.C. is particularly intriguing because of the potential connection to the events recorded by Julius Caesar in the opening of Gallic War. It all starts with Orgetorix, the richest and most powerful leader of the Helvetii (the varied, loose confederation of Celtic peoples in the Swiss Plateau) who in 61 B.C. persuades other leaders to head for larger and greener pastures by invading Gaul. Orgetorix never did his dream of war come true because his compatriots turned on him, afraid he would make himself king. He died (possibly by suicide) while on trial. That didn’t stop them from going through with the whole Gaul plan, though. In 58 B.C., they lit the match on the tinderbox that became the Gallic War.

When they thought that they were at length prepared for this undertaking, they set fire to all their towns, in number about twelve-to their villages about four hundred-and to the private dwellings that remained; they burn up all the corn, except what they intend to carry with them; that after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers. They order every one to carry forth from home for himself provisions for three months, ready ground. They persuade the Rauraci, and the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi, their neighbors, to adopt the same plan, and after burning down their towns and villages, to set out with them: and they admit to their party and unite to themselves as confederates the Boii, who had dwelt on the other side of the Rhine, and had crossed over into the Norican territory, and assaulted Noreia.

Noricum, believed to be in modern-day Austria, was a long-time Roman ally, provider of a great deal of the army’s weapons and tools. In return, Roman forces had defended it against Germanic incursions since the early 2nd century B.C. The Helvetian invasion triggered Caesar’s response, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, there is a general possibility that the Celtic house was burned down when the Helvetii arsoned themselves out of a homeland to ensure there would be no going back, but there’s no evidence of this fire having been part of the exodus. It could simply have been an accidental house fire like any other. More investigation will have to be done.

The excavation will only continue through the end of the month. With no time and no money to extend the dig, the site will be infilled for now for its own protection. Archaeologists plan to return when they have the wherewithal to excavate the site further.