The Italian word for “fun” is divertente. I don’t think it translates very well to English. To me, something that is diverting isn’t exactly “fun.” It’s more like a brief amusement, something to hold your attention for a short period of time.
This week has been the first week of crummy weather we have had all semester, and Thursday’s drizzly gloom felt like perfect museum weather. Everyone else had class, so I struck out on my own to visit a few museums in between Piazza Navona and Campo dei Fiori. My original plan was to visit the Museo di Roma, but on my way there, I got sidetracked by a Leonardo DaVinci exhibition.
Le grande machine interattive of Leonardo DaVinci might be Rome’s version of a children’s museum. It doesn’t have giant bubble wands to demonstrate shapes or a Blue Man Group-style pipe drum exhibit about sound, but the DaVinci exhibition does have working models of most of DaVinci’s inventions. I managed to amuse myself cranking gears, spinning ball-bearings, and tugging pulleys for over an hour. It may have been a children’s museum, but it involved a lot more physics than I understood when I was in the prime children’s museum demographic. It also involved a lot more physics than I understand now.
It was impressive to see the breadth of DaVinci’s work. The museum was divided into sections devoted to his inventions in the following categories: air, water, construction on land, weapons, and machine-elements. The exhibition focuses on his engineering skill and inventions, but briefly mentions some of DaVinci’s other interests like painting (Mona Lisa, anyone? How about The Last Supper?) and sketching. He was truly un uomo rinascimentale.
Since I had the place to myself, I spent some time amusing myself with DaVinci’s Mirror Room. The octagonal room is mirrored on every wall, giving someone inside a hypothetically infinite view of themselves from each angle. As soon as I was inside, I realized that I hadn’t completely closed the door, thus creating the weird illusion that the mannequin outside the room was peeking in at me.
After my stop at the DaVinci exhibition, I continued to my original destination – the Museo di Roma. Again, I had the entire museum (another palazzo) to myself. The guards didn’t even look up from their computers when I accidentally knocked over a huge display sign. The museum was a good stop – not great, but wholly adequate. The collection was largely composed of works from 1600-1860 or so, a much later time period than many of the other museums I have visited this semester.
A painting of a jousting match in Piazza Navona in the 1680s confirmed to me that Rome has looked about the same for a very long time, as did a 1720s sketch of fireworks at Castel Sant’Angelo. A series of architectural drawings in a glass case showed the construction plans for the Egyptian wing of the Vatican Museums. Before I read the plaque next to the case, I looked at the drawings and realized that I recognized the archway from my visit to the Vatican Museums the previous week.
My favorite series of paintings in the gallery was a set of six portraits of a little boy, Pope Clement IX’s great-nephew. The boy’s family “had a love of costumes and illusion,” according to the English-language guide, so the boy is wearing a different set of clothing in each portrait. In one, he is dressed up as a tiny Swiss Guard. Cute, right? In the next painting, he’s dressed in a “Mandarin costume.” Then, he’s some sort of businessman. In the next painting, he’s Cupid, complete with wings and arrows. Finally, the boy is dressed as una donna, a lady. Hmmm.
Yesterday, my friends didn’t have class, so we decided to visit the big pilgrim churches in South Rome, namely San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore. We started at San Giovanni and stopped at the Holy Stairs across the street. I pulled out my Rick Steves’ Rome book to look at the map, and one of my roommates pointed out a tiny museum marked on the road to Santa Maria Maggiore. The book said it was free, so we decided it was worth a ten minute side-trip.
The Museo Storico della Liberazione di Roma is located inside an unassuming building, a former Nazi jail, down a side street behind the Holy Stairs. Pilgrims and visitors to this high-traffic area of Rome probably overlook this free museum, but it was definitely worth the trip. A shuffling, smiling old man greeted us and began telling us about the history of the building as he leaned on a desk. “Capisci in italiano?” he asked. “Uhh si,” we responded, half-truthfully. Abruptly, he ushered us into a classroom space, where we squeezed into rickety desks wedged along the walls, crammed between frames posters, preserved uniforms, and grubby flags. For about ten minutes, the man spoke about the history of the museum and the liberation of Rome and Italy in 1944. When I was really focusing, I could get the gist of his explanation, but if my mind wandered even slightly, I was lost.
The building we were in had been the headquarters of the Gestapo in Rome. The second and third floors, where the museum was located, used to be Nazi jails. The rooms upstairs were filled with propaganda, both Nazi-produced and resistance-generated. One of the display rooms was dedicated to the Jews who were taken from Rome to any number of concentration camps. Glass cases held identity cards, lists of items that Jews were allowed to bring with them when the Nazis came to arrest them, and cartoons depicting occupations and activities forbidden to Jews. A small map indicated the locations of four concentration camps in Northern Italy.
Perhaps the most moving rooms were the isolation chambers. On the third floor, the isolation chamber had held British prisoners. One man had carved a large Union Jack into the wall beside his tally count of days. The second floor chamber had held Italian prisoners. The small room’s walls were covered with scratched-in notes to loved ones, dates and signatures, poems, and verses from Dante’s Divine Comedy. One of the Italian prisoners had carved the first two lines of the national anthem into the green paint: Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia si desta (Brothers of Italy, Italy has awakened). Another wrote a note to a fellow prisoner that (translated) read, “Maurizio, your wife is fine. The situation is not desperate.”
Museo Storico della Liberazione wasn’t exactly a hooting-and-hollering good time, but it was a really interesting way to spend an hour on a rainy afternoon. My time there was diverting in the sense that it was a departure from what I would have otherwise been doing, diverting in the sense that it really made me think. It was divertente, but I don’t know if I’d call it fun.