Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Here and Eternity

Here are some interesting statistics derived from the Bologna Pagine Gialle, the Yellow Pages. Within the city, population just under 400,000(not including outlying areas), there are:

184 Catholic Churches
76 Gelaterie (Serving Gelato and sometimes other desserts)
484 Caffes (Serving Coffee, snacks, sandwiches)

It looks like I’m trying to make some sort of point about the worldly outweighing the spiritual, but I was just trying to make sure that there really were a ton of these institutions. I had a scary moment there thinking I was just walking in circles, seeing the same one or two every hour.

But no, there really is a caffe on almost every block if not two (and not one of them a Starbucks.) It is truly a mystery how they all manage to stay in business, but there are very few empty storefronts, or empty caffes for that matter. Somebody is always drinking an espresso somewhere and if the caffes offer identical beverages at identical prices, the clientele differs from one to the next. Clearly some are student hangouts while others are for retirees or office workers.

The gelaterie are (quite understandably) very popular spots. Gelato is practically the only snack food you’ll see being eaten on the street. You just don’t see the Italians carrying bags of chips or BIG Gulps. Even at the amusement park Gardaland virtually nobody was in possession of portable food. I’ll leave others to make the link between the dearth of snacks and the lower obesity rate in Italy.

Of course, Bologna, being a major city, has churches of all sizes, several which are as grandiose (if not always as visually compelling) as any you would see in Rome. Basilica San Petronio, for example, is the fifth largest church in Italy. Especially interesting to me are the smaller churches hidden away in the secluded areas of the city. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye open for the ex -churches, those that are now being reused for other purposes. For reasons never fully explained they have, for lack of a better term, gone out of business. I don’t know if these were shut in an abrupt way during a war or if it was a long, drawn-out affair. Perhaps there were weeks on end in which signs were posted: Closing Our Doors Forever ! or to adhere to a more biblical tone: Closing Our Doors For All Eternity !

On Via d’Azeglio, a street full of boutiques just south of the Basilica you can find the former church Santa Marie Rotonda dei Galuzzi. It is now a profumeria—a store selling perfume and makeup. It is not difficult to imagine its former life as a place of worship. The interior is painted white with large fluted columns that frame the space that used to be the nave. The ornate capitals and ceiling moulding date it as Baroque (like virtually every church interior in Bologna). The space behind a now-absent altar has an empty framed area where a painting must have hung. In this luminous setting shoppers purchase Lancome, Chanel and Estee Lauder products. What an odd juxtaposition it is! As if it were a church dedicated to the Transcendence of Appearances.

Continuing on through the Piazza Maggiore, past the statue of Neptune by Giambologna we cross over to Via dell’Independenza. It isn’t quite Fifth Avenue—not so fancy—maybe more like Lexington Avenue. In the window of one of the trendy boutiques lining the wide, noisy street is a tee-shirt featuring a photograph of a younger (50 let’s say) Angela Lansbury above which are the words “Murder She Wrote.” I don’t know about you, but when I want to get out of my deepening, widening middle-age rut the first thing I do to “let myself go” is to don my Angela-gear. Thank goodness I can find replacements in Bologna should the need arise !

Tomorrow night is one of the language schools “social evenings.” We’re meeting at the school and then going out for pizza. If it’s like the “gnocchi night” it will be a multi-national all-ages affair. There will be wine and animated if grammatically -flawed conversation. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be the one in the “Angela Rules !” hoodie

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