Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Monstrous tourists and sacred cellphones: A busy day at Il Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo

The town of Bomarzo sits high above Il Parco dei Mostri.
For some time now, I’d been wanting to visit Il Parco dei Mostri (The Park of the Monsters), a quirky tourist attraction adjacent to the town of Bomarzo, near Viterbo. Since Easter Monday is a festa (legal holiday) in Italy, Paolo promised that he would not work on the house, his new aquarium (don’t even get me started) or any other projects, and we would spend the day doing “whatever (I) wanted.” Bomarzo is only about 40 minutes from us via the autostrada exit at Attigliano, so I announced that was our plan.
Besides, I thought, on Easter Monday, it won’t be very crowded. Those of you who know Italians and their festa behavior better than I, please stifle your laughter.

G-rated turtle.

The Park of the Monsters is a Renaissance sculpture garden, if the Renaissance had LSD, that is. Set amidst the so-called Sacro Bosco (Sacred Woods), the park is filled with fantastic stone carvings of well, as the name suggests, monsters, but also mythological figures, animals both real and imagined, formal courtyards and small-scale buildings. All of the stone carvings were done in situ, meaning they were cleaved from the boulders that were already there.
The garden was the vision of nobleman Pier Francesco Orsini, a member of the wealthy and venerable Orsini clan, whose long and sprawling pedigree in Italy includes three popes, 34 cardinals, and assorted generals, princes and thieves (none of these titles were mutually exclusive). Piety never kept a good man down, and numerous Orsinis were the bastard children of popes and cardinals.

This unfortunate wretch is the giant Cacus
in his death throes, killed by that bully Hercules.

Whether he was conceived in the pope’s chambers or in a whore house (those Orsinis did get around), our Pier Francesco was apparently a romantic guy with a healthy sense of the bizarre. Though the historical record is not clear, the popular tale is that he commissioned the gardens after the death of his beloved wife, Giulia Farnese, who is not to be confused with the Giulia Farnese, who was mistress and baby-mama to Pope Alexander VI, all the while she was married to – you guessed it! – an Orsini, this one the cleverly-named Orsino Orsini (which I think may loosely translate to Little Beary Bear). 
Little Bear was apparently quite content to turn the other cheek while Giulia got busy with the papa of all Papa Bears, Alexander VI. Born Rodrigo Borgia, Alex was quite the man of the cloth himself, if those cloths include bed sheets. Father to four illegitimate children while a still cardinal (including those dastardly siblings and maybe lovers Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia), and later the baby-daddy to his daughter with Giulia Farnese, Alexander took nepotism to new heights by installing his sons as cardinals and dukes, and arranging and then breaking several marriage pacts for Lucrezia, with whom he, too, might have been sleeping. He died at the age of 72, quite possibly by accidental poisoning at the hand of Cesare. That his successor adopted the name Pius is no coincidence.

Pope Alexander VI, who never set
foot at Bomarzo.
For an ugly guy, he got laid a lot.
Oh, but I digress. But only because the lusty Borgias and the dastardly Orsinis are so much more fun than boring, heartsick Pier Francesco, who no-doubt would have hung out in comic book stores and played Dungeons and Dragons were he alive in the 1980s.
Anyway, Pier Francesco conceived of the park on his estate at Bomarzo, either as a physical monument to the non-slutty Giulia Farnese or simply as a place of whimsy for himself and his guests. In either case, the park fell into disuse after his death in 1585. Though artists like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau were familiar with the overgrown tangle of fantastic sculptures, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Bettini family, who still own the park today, grabbed rakes and lawnmowers and restored the park.  

Fast forward to 2012, and to an unwitting American expat (that would be me) who thought Il Parco dei Mostri was a little-known tourist attraction that drew only those with a taste for the quirky and arcane, like the people who make a special trip to visit the Corn Palace in South Dakota or the World’s Largest Twine Ball, which depending on whom you ask, is located either in Darwin, Minnesota or Cawker City, Kansas. (For clarification purposes, the good people of Darwin renamed their ball of twine the World’s Largest Twine Ball Rolled By One Man, to distinguish it from Cawker City’s World’s Largest Twine Ball, which is a still-growing community effort. Everyone knows Kansans are notorious cheaters, anyway.)
The "hanging house."
I think they held raves here.

But instead of only the few, the geeky and the curious, on this sunny Easter Monday, Paolo, Naomi, me, and every family of eight or more from Rome and vicinity decided to descend on the Sacred Woods. It’s a good thing there are no sacred nymphs or unicorns (other than the stone kind) flitting about those sacred woods, as the baby strollers, ringing cellphones and picnicking Italians would  frighten them all away. One woman blocked one of the few stroller/wheelchair friendly ramps by arguing loudly on the phone, presumably with her soon-to-be-ex-mother-in-law (“He’s your son; now he’s your problem!”). Another couple, no doubt the incestuous descendants of some lascivious pope, stood making out in front of a giant stone turtle as a friend waited to snap their photo free of the madding crowd, which was also hoping to snap a more G-rated photo of the turtle. Parents thumbed through photos on their iPhones as their children wiggled under a fence and climbed all over a sculpture of dragon, until a security guard chased them off and scolded the decidedly nonplussed parents. Soccer balls bounced off the ionic columns of model stone temples and the noses of lions. 

Paolo and Naomi, at the Temple.
 So, my take away from the Parco dei Mostri is this. It’s a beautiful, fanciful sight, and worth a visit, on a weekday, and not on a weekend or holiday, when Italians clog every bottleneck in the sidewalk and pack the picnic grounds towel-to-towel like they do a Mediterranean beach in August. As we paused on a rare available bench, it was possible to imagine, in between the screaming kids, the ringing cellphones and the wafting smell of grilled meat, that on a less crowded day the park is a lovely spot to spend a few leisurely hours.

And to Renaissance visitors, who saw the park free of the noise pollution of tour buses, passing airplanes and the distant train, it’s ivy-shaded paths, perhaps a bit more fecund and overgrown nearly 500 years ago, I imagine the park and its woods did seem just a little bit sacred. As long as it wasn't a festa.

A corner of the sacred woods, probably not
much different than how it looked 500 years ago.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cleaning house in Italy: It's a family affair

Last week I wrote about the Babysitting Brigade and now, it’s time to tell you about the Cleaning Crew. This is another of those things that makes me marvel about life in our small town – that family members voluntarily offer to clean other family members’ homes, just because they like to help.
At least once a week, I see Paolo’s cousin, Antonella, at her daughter’s house, hanging laundry out to dry. Franca goes to her daughter’s house every morning and makes beds, even though everyone in the house is perfectly capable of making their own. When Paolo and I used to talk on Skype before I moved in Italy, I would often see Franca in the background, mopping the floor or ironing.
Now, I admit that I am no housekeeper. There are a thousand things I’d rather do than mop the floor or iron bed sheets. If I can write my name in the dust on the dining room table, that’s where I make my shopping list. It’s not that I never clean house. It’s just that my standard of a clean house does not meet the standard of the ladies in Paolo’s family.
My mother-in-law, Franca, first tried a subtle approach, advising me to keep a tidy home in case the doctor had to make a house call. I figure if I am too sick to go to the doctor and he has to come to me, clean curtains and wrinkle-free sheets are the least of my worries. So I would nod along, do some token dusting while she was around, and go right back to my regularly scheduled programming, which usually involved working at my computer, talking to friends on Skype, or walking the dog.
So when we moved from Paolo’s old apartment down to our temporary home in Franca’s garage, she realized she needed to take covert action. She became a stealth cleaner. She’d step out on her balcony and if my car wasn’t there, she’d pounce on the opportunity to clean the apartment.  I’d come home to a clean-smelling, freshly mopped and dusted apartment, and a stack of clean laundry neatly folded and yes, ironed.
When we went out of town, she’d call in the reserve troops. Paolo’s aunt and cousin would aide in the effort, pulling out furniture, sweeping and mopping underneath, and even organizing socks and underwear in our dresser drawers. I had hoped that after one of them discovered my vibrator and tucked it in neatly amongst folded panties (yes, they even folded the g-strings–have you ever seen a folded g-string? It’s about the size of a matchbook), they might be dissuaded the next time, but no such luck. So I kept hiding the vibrator in a better spot, only to return from a weekend away to find that spot, too, had been cleaned.
As a new-baby and housewarming gift, friends of mine, aware that I am missing the housekeeping gene, paid for six months of cleaning service. (Now that’s what I call a gift!) So now that we’ve moved (and Franca doesn’t have a key to our house—yet), when the ladies come to visit, it’s mostly just to see the baby. But when Franca’s not holding Naomi, she always asks if there’s something she can do. If I say “no, thank you,” she’s downright disappointed. So I usually try to find some laundry for her to fold, or an undershirt to iron.

Graziella & Franca. I told them to look stern for
the photo, and this was all they could manage.

Recently, we finished the second floor of our house, but it was still full of construction dirt and dust, little flecks of paint on the tile floors, and remnants of masking tape on all the new windows. I put the word out that I once again needed the services of the Cleaning Crew. Graziella, Paolo’s aunt, was out of town for several weeks (no doubt cleaning her son’s apartment in Rome), and she kept telling us to wait until she got back before we cleaned. And I had absolutely no problem with that.
So the other day, while I worked (“You work and make money, Liz, we’ll take care of the cleaning.”), Franca and Graziella attacked the second floor and within a matter of hours, had that tile clean enough to eat off and the windows clear enough to walk right into.
Still, we have different standards for what matters. Outside our second floor bathroom, a small bird of prey (a female lesser kestrel, I believe), likes to perch on the balcony at night and hunt mice in the abandoned vineyard below us. I’ve only seen her once, but she leaves plenty of droppings to let us know she’s a regular. Graziella and Franca were appalled at the pile of white crunchy bird droppings outside the window.
The conversation went something like this:
A female lesser kestrel,
though not the one
upsetting Graziella.
Graziella: A bird is shitting on the balcony.
Me: Yes, I know. She stays there at night.
Graziella: Put something bright-colored in the window and she won’t come back.
Me: But I like her. I want her to come back.
Graziella: Leave the dog out there and the bird won’t come back.
Me. But I like the bird.
Graziella: The bird is shitting on the balcony.

The kestrel let her displeasure be known.

So despite my protests to let perching birds perch, and that she hunts mice that might otherwise come and leave their poop in the house, the balcony got scrubbed clean. I haven’t seen the bird since, nor has she replenished the pile of droppings. But I did notice a new white splotch on the bathroom window. Her parting gift, perhaps. Mountain of poop or not, I’m still hoping she’ll come back. The poop is really no bother, since the balcony won’t get used until a teenaged Naomi uses it to sneak in and out of the house – she is her mother’s daughter, after all.
Despite thier disdain for lesser kestrels, it is still remarkable to me that the women here—and it’s not just my family—are so willing to help their sons and daughters and daughter-in-laws with work that I (and many of my American sisters, I suspect) consider drudgery. But one of the reasons Graziella was so insistent on us waiting for her to clean is that she was actually looking forward to it. And hearing her and Franca chatter and gossip and laugh together while they worked, I guess I can understand why. These women devoted their lives to taking care of husbands, now dead, and raising children who are now grown up and (mostly) out on their own. Helping, which is what they've done all their lives, makes them feel valued and needed.
So in full-on rationalization mode, I offer that I’m actually doing them a favor by letting them clean my house, spend time together, and feel needed by us. And they are needed, for reasons that far, far eclipse their ironing and bird poop cleaning abilities.
Now only if they’d stay out of my underwear drawer.

Gino just supervises. At 99 years old, he's entitled.