Thursday, May 15, 2008

On the road again -- only with great art

Before heading to the hills outside Lucca, we've detoured to Siena, where we've never been. If you want the tourist lowdown on Siena read Rick Steven. The public television and guide-book maven has covered Europe with the relaxed efficiency of a well-equipped invading army. To the casual traveler, it almost seems as if all of Italy is a giant tourist destination, a national theme park of historical attractions, artistic treasures and Roman Catholic iconography. Others have written about all this, so much that you half wonder whether every piece of art in Italy hasn't had its own book -- or, failing that, at least its own postcard.

Movies? I've seen posters for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," but so far, the only contact I've had with film is via the marquee of a theater outside the train station in Pisa, an Italian town in which the tower definitely leans and in which it's not easy to find an Internet cafe. Now playing in Pisa: Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega in "10 Items or Less," a movie I hated. Maybe it would be better after being dubbed into Italian. I'm not tempted to find out.

I read that "Kung Fu Panda" has played at Cannes and received a less-than-enthusiastic reception in Variety. Ditto for "Sex and the City: The Movie." As always, I'm eager to read about the less glamorous, more artistic side of Cannes -- the festival's meat and potatoes -- but I'm relieved that I don't have to cover Cannes, where I'd no doubt fall prey to the compulsion to see five movies per day. These days -- in my semi-retirement -- I take three movies per day as a civilized limit. Not that I'd be at Cannes even if I were still working. Never got to go, and I wasn't about to travel on my own dime. The problem: Attending Cannes cost more than a dime.

People watching in the Piazza del Campo -- Siena's main place to hang -- my wife and I play "guess their nationality" with the hundreds of passersby, most of them madly clicking away with their digital cameras. We argue over a couple. I say American. I'm adamant. She says German. She's equally convinced. We're both surprised because is not our typical kind of disagreement. We're usually inclined to more subtle distinctions -- French or Belgian, say.

We, too, snap digital pictures, drawn irresistibly into the fray. Snap. Look. Snap. Look. We wander through the Palazzo Publico, once the seat of Siena's mighty governance. The big deal here are frescoes, which follow a rule of Italian painting of a certain kind; i.e., If there's a wall space available, cover it with something: scenes of epic battles, allegories about good and bad government, etc. These vast and glutted works were, I suppose, the movies of their day, lavishly depicted spectacles in which the public could endlessly indulge.

Still a bit jet-lagged we dutifully take in more of the sights, finishing the day outside the city walls where we eat a thinly crusted and not especially wonderful calzone. A television blares away, a comedy involving a bulky man in drag. Next up: a comic report from Cannes that features a nice looking man in a tuxedo stalking celebrities.

Of course, a joke looms. After a suitably brief interval, the man turns around to reveal a protruding, naked artificial buttocks. Pretensions instantly are shattered by this daringly unimaginative mix of elegance and buffoonery. I particularly like it when the guy shows up outside a balcony where an apparently oblivious Sean Penn talks on a cell phone. The guy in the tux prattles on in a tone I take for mock seriousness. I'm the only one in the pizzeria laughing at what looks like an Italian version of an Ali G moment.

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