Italy belongs to a select list of countries to which I’ve traveled without singing karaoke within their borders. Here’s the story of how that happened — and how I occupied myself in the absence of singing opportunities.
In one of the excavated villas in the volcanically-buried city of Pompeii, a floor mosaic bears the words “Cave canem” — Latin for “Beware of dog.” During my 2004 visit to Italy (a tour that did include a stop in Pompeii), I had my own “Cave Canem” experience. The scene for that encounter was the island of Murano, near Venice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rome: Veni, vidi, vici? Not quite . . .
My Italian hijinks commenced in Rome. I’d been to the Eternal City once before, in 1993. I was excited to return because in the ensuing 11 years I’d read extensively on Roman history; and so I looked forward to appreciating the relics of the Roman empire in their historical context as I gazed upon them in the 21st century.
And the Roman landmarks that I toured did not disappoint: the Colosseum (also known as the Flavian amphitheater); the Forum; the Pantheon; St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel); Trevi Fountain; and the Spanish steps. One of the less clichéd attractions that I was privileged to behold was the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), which was the subject of a famous scene in the Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday. This image of a river god has hung in its present location in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin since 1632 (see photo at right). A legend holds that if you insert your arm in its maw and tell a lie, the Mouth of Truth will swallow your arm. I did not put that legend to the test. 🙂
The history buff in me enjoyed taking in so many iconic sights during my sojourn in the Italian capital. But I was in town for another reason as well. Having just added Greece to my World Karaoke Tour a few days earlier, I wanted Italy to join its Mediterranean neighbor on my list of karaoke conquests. Unfortunately, that mission was not fated to be accomplished in Rome. Nick, an Italian-American karaoke buddy in New York, had suggested that I would be likely to find a karaoke venue in the Trastevere, a bohemian quarter on the west bank of the River Tiber. Pubs and restaurants abound along the cobbled medieval streets of the Trastevere; and as I meandered through its narrow pathways, I hoped that at least one of those establishments would offer me the chance to sing.
My search was doomed to failure by an aspect of Italian culture of which I’d previously been unaware. I actually did come across one bar in the Trastevere region in which karaoke nights were held — only to learn that the karaoke was suspended for the month of August (the month during which I’d walked into that watering hole). The reason: during each and every August, many Italians (including, apparently, the karaoke host at this particular pub) go on vacation for the entire month. So I was out of luck.
That was as close as I would come to adding the nation of Italy to my World Karaoke Tour. My Italian itinerary also included Pompeii and Venice, but I was not fated to find karaoke in either of those locations. However, I did see some cool stuff in those cities.
Pompeii and Vesuvius: H-Bomb versus the volcano
The prosperous Roman city of Pompeii was interred under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 — perhaps the most celebrated volcanic outburst in world history. Pompeii’s ruins (unearthed by archaeologists in the 18th century) make for poignant viewing when one contemplates the tragic and sudden end that befell its residents. You can walk into well-preserved buildings that were constructed over two thousand years ago, and thereby gain a unique insight into the way people lived in antiquity. The surviving structures that line the Pompeiian streets include not only residential villas, but a bakery and even a house of ill repute (tangible proof that the trade that was practiced inside its walls is truly the world’s oldest profession).
And you can even see (sort of) some of the people who lived and worked in those buildings; one of the most unusual series of items on display in Pompeii is the plaster casts of some of the Vesuvian victims (see photo at right). When Pompeii was excavated, found in the volcanic ash were indentations in the shape of some of the human casualties. Those impressions preserved for centuries the poses that the victims had been in when nature’s wrath overtook them. The archaeologists made plaster casts from the indentations. However, the presentation of many of the casts leaves something to be desired. For example, the one seen here is just lying on a wooden table in a storage room.
During my Pompeiian visit, I also took a day-trip to the ruins at Herculaneum (see photo at left), another outpost of the Roman empire that was destroyed in the same Vesuvian eruption that wiped out Pompeii.
And I made an excursion into the bustling metropolis of nearby Naples, where I visited the National Archaeological Museum. Among the highlights of that museum are a wealth of artworks found among the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Its most famous gallery is the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet), a chamber that features erotically themed art from those ancient cities (Additional examples of the treasures of the Gabinetto Segreto can be glimpsed here and here. But be warned: the images from the Gabinetto Segreto to which I’ve linked here are NSFW). Until relatively recently, the contents of the Gabinetto Segreto were deemed too explicit for public display, and could only be viewed by “persons of mature age, known to be possessed of a strong morality.” My guidebook had indicated that even today, upon entry into the museum, you need to sign up for a timed appointment if you wish to gain access to the Gabinetto Segreto (although the museum staff no longer evaluates your morality when you do that); but even though I forgot to register for an appointment, there were no guards stationed at the door and I had no trouble accessing the forbidden chamber.
Perhaps the highlight of my visit to Pompeii was my ascent of the volcano that was responsible for all the carnage. Continue reading →