Act 2, Scene 2
Hadrian's Villa, on to Cortona

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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Over 2000 years ago, Virgil said, “So massive was the effort to found the Roman nation.”
Massive were my blisters in an attempt to see it all in a few days. Up hideously early for the bus to Cortona, we said goodbye to Roma. I hoped to get back someday in the not-too-distant future.

We stopped on the way to see Hadrian's Villa at Tripoli. Pretty pools and impressive piles of brick, but generally it's just another Roman ruin of which we’d had our share. The 8,000 lire admission fee would have been too much, but the program picked up the tab because we'd been stuck in traffic and ended up with only 45 minutes to see the place, which was fine with us as our feet couldn't take any more. We were content to pick wildflowers and sit in the cafe.

Hadrian's Villa

Hadrian's Villa

In Tripoli we skipped out on the tour of some ruined Renaissance villa and watch the other slackers stage massive squirtgun battles around the famed fountains of Tripoli. The remainder of the bus ride was long and dull. Massive blooming sunflower fields impressed me for a while but even those grew tiring after 2 hours. We passed Orvieto, a hill top town that houses a famous Cathedral and some other art. We hoped to get there for a weekend as soon as Heather's feet could take it. She mailed a note to her mother asking for her hiking boots to be sent from home.

I must pause here and discuss footwear.
Driving in Roma is like being tossed into the Colosseo during one of its big blowouts – chaos, combat, the roar of the crowds, the blood – something that’s incredible to watch but you’re always glad it’s not you down in the pit.
Everyone has a complete disregard for all traffic “laws” – stop signs, red lights, lanes, everything is viewed as a mere suggestion. Pedestrians hardly look as they walk out from between parked cars. Add to that the Vespa vermin that swarm past you on both sides, even when traffic is stopped, and you have to be an extremely attentive driver. No eating a cheeseburger while talking on the phone while arguing with the kids in the back seat in Italy! In fact, they’ve outlawed cell phones while driving.
But of course that’s a traffic law and is completely disregarded.
To make matters worse, the road signs are tiny engraved marble plaques mounted in the sides of the buildings some twenty feet up where they are all but impossible to see.
There’s just no reason to try driving. (I know, I've tried.) Between the marvelous metro and knowledgeable cabbies you shouldn’t get behind the wheel in Roma, or in most of Italy. You can save yourself a lot of potentially fatal aggravation, and see a lot more of the details you’d miss in a car, if you just walk. I know it’s a foreign concept to most Americans but you’ll just have to trust me.
But this means you’re going to spend a lot of time on your feet. Probably more time than you’ve spent on your feet in your life.
Leave the fashionable footwear at home.
You can’t hope to blend in with the Italians as a visitor anyway. Even if you bought all your clothes in Italia, your mannerisms, even the look on your face, is going to give you away. There’s just no use in trying. So dress comfortably. Most importantly, wear good shoes, something with lots of padding, and preferably with ankle support like a good pair of hiking boots. If you have to buy a new pair make sure to wear them often for a couple of weeks leading up to the trip. If you don’t mind the extra weight, also pack a comfortable pair of light shoes, just to give your feet a change of pace.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, stay tuned. Heather won’t be the last example.

Cortona is a small town perched on a hill overlooking a picturesque valley in Tuscana (Tuscany). The hill is one in a range of low, rolling hills near Mount St. Egidius that border wide, flat valleys full of sunflowers. From the top of the hill you can sometimes catch a glimpse of Lake Trasimeno off in the distance.

Cortona
Cortona, as seen from the train. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures when I arrived so you get this one from a trip in winter that doesn't quite show it the way I saw it first.

The town is bordered by a protective wall, a mere two miles in circumference, originally built by the Etruscans. Bits and pieces of Etruscan architecture and art stick out of the walls and trinket shops in town, but otherwise there is scant evidence of their civilization.


 

Etruscan remnants

The Romans ousted the Etruscans eons ago. Portions of the old Roman road can be found on the outskirts of town. Cortona overlooks a valley where some 25,000 Roman soldiers battled Hannibal and his army in 217 BC. Some 15,000 of these soldiers were killed, some running into Lake Trasimeno in an effort to escape. Apparently the Etruscans were either already assimilated or too weak to stage the rebellion Hannibal was trying to inspire and the Romans eventually bounced back.

1400 years later it’s the Middle Ages and Renaissance that generated what you’ll see in Cortona today. The town wall, rebuilt with help from Siena, was once topped with battlements and towers. The wall has been modified over the centuries and now its gray stones are covered in moss and crumbling, but it only adds to the charm.
Inside the walls the town is packed with charming two-story stone buildings, sometimes covered in crumbling stucco. The roofs are all tile, red and mossy, with huge rocks piled along the edges. I theorize that the rocks are to prevent the tiles from flying off during hurricanes (they became deadly missiles in Miami during the last big one) but we're two hours from the Mediterranean and no one seems to have an actual answer. Perhaps they've been doing it so long that no one knows why anymore. Regardless, everything has a rustic style I immediately like.

Cortona

Above the buildings rises the occasional bell tower, ringing out at least hourly with the monastery mating calls we’d become familiar with in Vico Equense.
St. Francis opened a monastery on a hill just outside of town, and Luca Signorelli was born in Cortona.
I make note of this history because you can feel it as soon as you walk into town. The walls practically bleed history. And despite the modern storefront windows full of shoes and souvenirs, the walls around them and roofs above them convince you you’re in a different time much more effectively than any Disney theme park or bullshit zoned-fake-Colonial neighborhood.

Walking around the place is a joy, as long as you can take the heavy duty hill climbing. And you have to walk - the place was obviously not built with vehicular traffic in mind. The narrow cobblestone streets that wind between the buildings and up the steep hill are barely wide enough for a single tiny car, yet they’re two-way streets without sidewalks and the Vespa Vermin fly up and down them like Kamikaze pilots.

Streets of Cortona

Fortunately many of the streets are too steep, cut back too sharply, or are just too narrow for any vehicle so traffic is restricted to a few terrifying stretches of road around town.

The people are much friendlier than their big city counterparts, much like anywhere else on the earth.
There’s a Romanesque town hall, complete with clock tower overlooking the small main piazza.

Cortona clock tower

War... (huh!) Yeah!
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Uh huh uh hu-uh.
War... (huh!) Yeah!
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Say it again y'all.
War... (huh!) Good golly!
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Listen to me.
Ahhh war...
I despise, 'cause it means destruction of innocent life.
War means tears to thousands of mothers' eyes,
when their sons go off to fight and lose their lives.
I said, war... (huh!) Good God y'all.
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Say it again.
War... (huh!) Whoa whoa whoa Lord.
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Listen to me.
War...
It ain't nothin' but a heart breaker.
War...
Friend only, to the undertaker.
Ahhh war...
is an enemy to all mankind.
The thought of war blows my mind.
War has caused unrest within the younger generation.
Induction, then destruction. Who wants to die?
Ahhh war... (huh!) Good God y'all.
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Say it, say it, say it.
War... (huh!) Uh huh yeah, huh!
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Listen to me.
War...
It ain't nothin' but a heart breaker.
War...
Its got one friend, that's the undertaker.
Ahhh war...
has shattered, many a young man's dreams.
Made him disabled, bitter and mean.
Life is but too short and precious,
to be fighting wars each day.
War can't give life, it can only take it away.
Ahhh war... (huh!) Good God y'all.
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Say it again.
War... (huh!) Whoa whoa whoa Lord.
What is it good for?
Absolutely... (nothin'!) Listen to me.
War...
It ain't nothin' but a heart breaker.
War...
Friend only, to the undertaker.
wooo
Peace, love and understanding, tell me
Is there no place for them today?
They say we must fight, to keep our freedom,
but Lord knows there's got to be a better way.
Ahhh war... (huh!) Good God y'all.
What is it good for?
You tell 'em. (nothin'!) Say it, say it, say it, say it.
War... (huh!) Good God now, huh!
What is it good for?
Stand up and shout it. (nothin'!)
War, by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and performed by Edwin Starr

We were dragged through the square, luggage in tow, to a porch where the townsfolk welcomed us with a small marching band, very off-key for most of the tunes, particularly their opener, a painful version of The Star Spangled Banner that varied in pitch and speed like an old, warped phonograph. It gave us motion sickness just to listen. It was one of those things I would've laughed at heartily had I not spent all day on a bus and just wanted a shower and some food.

Most of us were put in a refurbished monastery that masquerades as a hotel called Albergo Athens but 90% of the time it's 99% students so I quickly stopped calling it "the hotel" or "the monastery" and just call it "the dorm." And very dorm-like it is. Though it is picturesque, it is also small, loud and never has hot water in the bathroom I share with 20 other males and anyone else that happens to wander through. In addition, my room is right next to the entrance and many of the group are early, and loud, risers. Those who are not early risers are late-nighters so the only quiet hours are from 3 to 6 AM. I was tempted to make a large poster on my door reading "If it's before 9 AM, SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!" I often awaken wondering in what hotel lobby at what convention I'd fallen asleep.

Pietro is the night watchman/manager of the hotel. He's a creepy little man who wears t-shirts that would be more appropriate on someone 30 years younger (everyone's favorite is the yellow mesh shirt that shows off his sagging belly and greasy gray chest hair.) We jokingly call him The Doorman. He stays up until 2 AM watching TV in the hall at thunderous volume (right across from my door) and stumbles around in a drunken, near-catatonic state giving all the women the willies with his bloodshot bug-eyed stare.

My favorite show Pietro watches is a weird combination of Barney, Baywatch and Funniest Home Videos. No kidding, they have this big goofy red dinosaur creature hopping about with 8 bimbos in bikinis who help introduce home video clips of bike accidents and children's most embarrassing moments. They take frequent breaks so that the bimbos can dance around to music while the cameraman panders to your prurient interests in the most blatant fashion imaginable. Then more home videos. As I write this, The Doorman is watching TV at the usual thunderous volume. He has cable and frequently watches English-speaking channels so things that I was hoping I'd never hear again, much less on this trip, ooze through my paper-thin door. At this moment is the pinnacle of examples - a Mentos ad. America is taking over the world and it's not with tanks and planes, it's with music and jeans. Capitalistic corporate culture has rolled through Cortona faster than any invading barbarian horde could ever topple the walls and no Roman Legion can stem the tide. Even the Pope can do little but bitch about it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Our first morning in town they had already scheduled a field trip for the painting class with a 2 hour bus ride each way. After the orientation tour of Cortona I put my stuff on the bus, resigned to my fate. I found out where we're headed, some museum of modern painting, and jumped right back off the bus to spend a marvelous day exploring Cortona on my own.
Over dinner, the rest of the cattle in my painting class grumbled about their less than exciting field trip. I just smiled.

Rick, the nicest professor of the program staff, assumed Heather and I were an item and told us about a place you could sneak away for some privacy.
“Just follow the old Roman Road up out of town, it goes through some fields to a nice spot.”
So after dinner Heather and I followed the street Rick had described. It ended at a pasture. Past the gate, we could make out the remnants of the old Roman road, a series of big, mostly-flat stones with weeds growing between them. We hopped the gate and clambered up the hill, past the backside of a tennis complex, and into a small copse of trees where we nearly lost the road in the deepening shadows. But we followed the empty beer bottles and cigarette butts and stumbled out into a small field on the side of the hill with an incredible view of the valley and surrounding hills. By the time we found a comfy spot to spread the Delta blanket it was almost dark.
Over a bottle of cheap-yet-marvelous local wine we watched the moon rise and illuminate everything in pale blue. Fireflies came out to add the occasional mini-firework. In the dark you could see into the farmhouses on the opposite hill, and hear families at dinner singing.
"Paradise" Heather called it.
Damn close.

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed."
The Bible, from Genesis

After our literal and figurative roll in the hay she snuggled against me. We fit together like puzzle pieces, her head on my shoulder, my face in her hair, one breast resting on my chest, a thigh across my hips keeping my balls warm, still-moist pubic hair against my hip.

Definitely on again.

Over the weeks in Cortona, Heather and I found the trek to our favorite hillside to be more and more of a chore. Yes, it was magnificent once you got there, but getting there was a serious hike. Then one night we were laying there in post-coital bliss when the glare from a large light passed by just below the edge of the hill. We crept down to investigate and found a short cliff, at the bottom of which was a big road that came straight out of Cortona. So if you’re ever looking for a spot for a private picnic in Cortona, don’t follow the Roman road. Instead, head through the park, past the tennis courts and out of town. After the road makes a sharp left, look up to the left. There’s a small gravel cul-de-sac where the teenagers park to drink and screw. Next to it is a path that leads up to the field on the hill. There may still be a spot where the weeds are flattened from repeated nights of our visits. Take a bottle of vino and a friend and you might not make it back before sunrise.

On our late-night wanders, Heather and I stumbled across many a sinning Catholic. (I assumed they were Catholic, anyway. I know they were sinning.) Little dead-end dirt roads on the side of the mountain littered with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles reminded me so much of home.
In Napoli they don’t bother driving out into the country to find a private spot, they just park on the street and cover the windows of the car in newspapers.
On cold or rainy nights, or when we were just too lazy or tired to make it out to the hill, we’d hit my bed in the dorm. My roommate was almost never there so we had the small cot to ourselves. Sometimes we’d fall asleep, waking up at some ungodly hour so she could creep back to her room.

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