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Son Tanto Brava

Posted on 05. Mar, 2015 by in Literature

Sunday the 8th of March will be La Festa della Donna (International Women’s Day), and I thought it would be nice to find a special poem for the occasion. Searching through my poetry books and the internet for something appropriate I came across a short poem written by Sibilla Aleramo between 1912 and 1920, and I immediately realised that it was perfect, not only for what it describes but also because Sibilla’s personal life stands as a perfect symbol for La Festa della Donna. The poem is called Son Tanto Brava (I’m very good).

A brief biography of Sibilla Aleramo (1876- 1960)

Sibilla Aleramo’s real name was Rina Faccio. Aged 15, Sibilla started working in the factory directed by her father in the small town of Civitanova Marche. At the age of only 16 she was forced by her family to marry a man who had raped her.

Sibilla found an escape from her unhappy life through writing reviews and social columns in feminist magazines. Between 1899 and 1901 she lived in Milano where her husband had moved for work, and whilst there she was offered directorship of a female magazine. However, forced by her husband to move back to Civitanova Marche, Sibilla fell into depression and eventually, after an attempted suicide, made the decision to abandon her violent husband and her adored son in order to save herself.

Sibilla Aleramo. Photo: Public Domain

In 1902 she moved to Roma where she came into contact with many of the famous writers and intellectuals of the day. She was strongly involved in the feminist struggle and in 1906 she published her first book Una Donna (A Woman), an autobiographic novel. Sibilla Aleramo lived a full life and continued writing novels, poems and diaries until her death in 1960. Here is her poem ‘Son Tanto Brava':

Son tanto brava lungo il giorno.
Comprendo, accetto, non piango.
Quasi imparo ad aver orgoglio
quasi fossi un uomo.
Ma, al primo brivido di viola in cielo
ogni diurno sostegno dispare.
Tu mi sospiri lontano:
“Sera, sera dolce e mia!”
Sembrami d’aver fra le dita
la stanchezza di tutta la terra.
Non son più che sguardo,
sguardo sperduto, e vene.

I’m very good during the day.
I understand, I accept, I don’t cry.
I almost learn to have pride
as if I were almost a man.
But, at the first shiver of purple in the sky
every daily support disappears.
You whisper to me from far away:
“Evening, evening sweet and mine!”
between my fingers I seem to have
the tiredness of the whole Earth.
I’m nothing else but gaze,
lost gaze, and veins.

Michelangelo’s Secret Room

Posted on 04. Mar, 2015 by in Art, Travel

Last week I recounted an anecdote about my visit to the Vatican Museums and how I ended up running away from the Sistine Chapel. However, as I said at the end of it, “l’anno dopo ebbi la mia rivincita con Michelangelo!” (the following year I got my payback on Michelangelo!) Here’s how:

The summer following my agoraphobic experience at the Sistine Chapel, freshly graduated in Egyptology, I was offered a part time job as a cataloguer at the Archaeological Museum in Florence. I would finish work at two o’clock in the afternoon and after a brief lunch on the beautiful steps of the nearby Spedale degli Innocenti I would spend a couple of hours wandering around Firenze visiting museums before catching the train back home. I always carried with me a letter from the director of the Archaeological Museum saying that I worked for them, and with that I had free access to all the museums and churches of the city.

One afternoon I decided to go and visit le Cappelle Medicee, famous for the monumental tombs of Lorenzo il Magnifico and Giuliano dei Medici designed by Michelangelo. I had my faithful old guide book  with me which told me: “… dalla porta di fronte all’entrata si accede (a richiesta) ad una stanza sulle cui pareti, di recente, sono stati scoperti e restaurati 56 disegni di figure umane di notevoli dimensioni, quasi tutti attribuiti a Michelangelo” (from the door opposite the entrance you can access (on request) a room, on the walls of which have recently been discovered and restored 56 large drawings of human figures. Almost all of them have been attributed to Michelangelo).


I entered the Cappelle Medicee and began to look around for Michelangelo’s room, but couldn’t locate it. Then I noticed a couple of foreign tourists talking to a hesitant custodian, pointing at the wall of the chapel and then to something in their guide book. I joined them and, with my sweetest smile, swiftly unfurled my ‘magic letter’ from the Archaeological Museum. At this point the custodian capitulated and, looking around furtively, said: “Wait a couple of minutes until all the other visitors have gone and I’ll let you in”.

And so it was that, when the coast was clear, he opened a secret door cut into the wall, and led the three of us into a small vaulted corridor just 7 meters by 2. My jaw dropped … the walls were covered in the most wonderful drawings sketched out in charcoal. I was completely overwhelmed by this incredible experience: there I was, almost on my own, just an arm’s length away from Michelangelo’s drawings! I clenched my hands together in an effort not to reach out and caress the sketches.

The custodian informed us that, apparently, during la Congiura de’ Pazzi (an attempted coup against the Medici in 1530) Michelangelo hid in this room for three months, and with nothing else to do, the Maestro kept himself busy by filling the blank walls with sketches. These lovely creations were later covered over with a white stucco, probably by Michelangelo himself in the attempt to erase any traces of his hideout. And there they remain, hidden and forgotten until they were rediscovered only in 1975.


I never realised how privileged I had been to be able to see these sketches in person until a few days ago. Out of curiosity, I was surfing the net trying to find out more about Michelangelo’s secret room. Initially, it was so difficult to find any information that Geoff began to kid me that I’d dreamt it all, and that the ‘secret room’ was just a fantasy. Eventually I discovered the reason for the room’s apparent disappearance: at present it is sealed off to the public due to its fragility, and it can only be experienced as a virtual tour. How boring is that!

Am I and the two unknown tourists the only people to have ever visited Michelangelo’s secret room? Perhaps you, dear reader, have seen it … or perhaps you have been lucky enough to have discovered some other secret jewel in Italy? Please share.

Ai Musei Vaticani

Posted on 26. Feb, 2015 by in Italian Language, Travel

In today’s post, I recount a visit to the Vatican Museums that I made when I was a student of archaeology many years ago. Apart from two brief notes, I’ve left the text entirely in Italian. If you have any difficulty translating it, please leave a comment below.

L’altro giorno la mia amica Annalisa mi ha detto tutta eccitata che al fine settimana sarebbe andata a Roma per un paio di giorni e che le sarebbe piaciuto visitare i Musei Vaticani. Il che mi ha fatto tornare in mente la mia esperienza personale.

Tanti tanti anni fa ero a Roma a fare ricerche per la mia tesi di laurea in Egittologia, e così una mattina mi presentai ai Musei Vaticani con la lettera d’introduzione scritta dalla mia Prof. Fui ricevuta dal direttore della sezione egizia, un francese di cui non ricordo il nome e che sembrava D’Artagnan, uno dei Tre Moschettieri: era un omone alto alto, coi capelli neri lunghi sulle spalle e due grandi baffoni che finivano a punta. Mi portò a vedere l’archivio e i magazzini della sezione egizia, e quando poi ci salutammo mi disse: “Quando ha finito le sue ricerche, già che è qui ai Musei Vaticani, ne approfitti per visitare la Cappella Sistina”.

Rimasi ancora una mezz’oretta nel piccolo Museo Egizio a ricopiare nel mio quaderno un oggetto che mi interessava particolarmente per la mia tesi di laurea. Il custode, un giovane romano, mi si avvicinò immediatamente e cominciò ad attaccare bottone: “Cosa sta facendo, Signorina?” … “Ma com’è brava a disegnare!” e poi: “Cosa fa oggi pomeriggio? Io finisco di lavorare alle due. Se mi aspetta la porto in giro per Roma”. A quel punto decisi che era il momento di mettere via il mio quaderno e di andare a visitare la Cappella Sistina.


C’erano persone dappertutto: vere per terra e dipinte sul soffitto. Photo: Public Domain

Mi misi in fila e dopo un po’ si aprirono le porte della famosa Cappella e ci fecero entrare in una stanza enorme e affollatissima. C’erano persone dappertutto: vere per terra e dipinte sul soffitto. Bisognava camminare a testa in su, pigiati gli uni contro gli altri. Fra i colori catarifrangenti dei turisti malvestiti, e quelli degli affreschi, mi sentii girare la testa. Non ce la facevo proprio! Chiamai il custode che stava in piedi vicino alla porta e gli chiesi di farmi uscire. Senza mostrare alcuna sorpresa, il custode sollevò il cordone che delimitava il percorso e mi disse: “Se vuole visitare un posto tranquillo, vada alla sezione etnologica”. Segui il suo consiglio.

The Creation of Adam, 1511. Photo Public Domain

The Creation of Adam, 1511. Photo: Public Domain

Camminando controcorrente mi lasciai dietro tutte le orde di turisti e arrivai alla sezione etnologica dei Musei Vaticani, molto interessante e senza visitatori. Il giovane custode era così felicemente sorpreso di avere finalmente qualcuno lì, che cominciò subito a chiacchierare. Mi raccontò che veniva dalle Isole di Capo Verde e poi, dopo pochi minuti, come il custode romano della sezione egizia, disse: “Cosa fa oggi pomeriggio? Io finisco di lavorare alle due. Se mi aspetta la porto in giro per Roma”. Ovviamente tirai il bidone a tutti e due i custodi dei Musei Vaticani!

sistine 2

The Creation of Adam 2015. Author Unknown

Così non riuscii a vedere la Cappella Sistina, ma l’anno dopo ebbi la mia rivincita con Michelangelo! Ve la racconterò la settimana prossima.

attaccare bottone = to chat up
tirai il bidone a tutti e due i custodi  = I stood up both the custodians