A Little Trip to Liguria

Although we’ve made many trips to Italy over the years, for whatever reason, we’d never spent much time in Liguria.  We decided to rectify that by spending a week there late last month.

Since Liguria is a long drive from here, we made a few stops along the way.

First was Gradara castle in the northern Marche.  In the 13th C, Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the lord of Rimini.  Francesca found herself attracted to her husband’s younger, and much better looking, brother Paolo.  As Dante imagined the scene, Paolo and Francesca were innocently reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, when suddenly, passion seized them; no more reading was done that day.  Her husband discovered the affair and killed both of them.  The tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini has inspired artists ever since — it is the subject of numerous paintings and several operas, and draws tourists like us to the castle to this day.

Next stop was the Abbey of Nonantola, outside Modena.  Originally founded in the 8th C, the current church dates to the 12th C.  It is one of the last and largest buildings in Romanesque style, and its brick barrel vaults are quite a contrast to the pointed stone arches of Notre Dame, which was built at around the same time.  The museum next door has the original charter for the abbey, dated 752 — a document which carries the sigil of Charlemagne.

For our base in Liguria, we stayed in Imperia, about one hour west of Genoa on the coast (practically all of Liguria is on the coast).  We had a spacious AirBnB apartment with wonderful views of the harbor, both from the rooms and from the outside dining table.  We were blessed with spectacular weather — in late September, most of the summer tourists are gone, but the days were still sunny and warm.  Despite its popularity with tourists, Imperia and nearby Porto Maurizio are real towns (Imperia is the county seat) which still has plenty of activity even in the off season.  We had fun just exploring the towns, although since the mountains come almost down to the sea here most of the walking isup and down.  There are several nice walks along the beach, as well as a stunning yacht harbor.

The food is quite good in Liguria, but also very simple.  Here is the real home of the traditional “Mediterranean” diet, based on fish, vegetables, and olive oil — enriched, at this time of year, by some white truffles from nearby Piedmont.

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We did a couple of touristy things when we could tear ourselves away from the town.  In Albissola Marina, we visited the Villa Faraggiana, an 18th C country estate which, unusually, still retains much of the original 18th C and early 19th C furnishings — paintings, statues, flying body art, even the wallpaper.  The ballroom had a 17th C mirror which predated the house, magnificent floors made of local tiles, and large wooden statues whose survival is especially miraculous given that they were originally used as candleholders.

We also visited the Hanbury Gardens, in Mortola, close to the French border.  In the late 19th C, a couple of English gentlemen created a garden full of “exotic” plants.  Although it was probably not the optimal time to visit — we were too late for the roses and too early for the citrus — but we enjoyed the vast collection of agave, aloe and cactus — very California-like.

On the way back, we visited Siena and spent several hours in its magnificent cathedral.  The cathedral floors are decorated with an unusual series of about 60 “paintings”in  inlaid marble, by various artists. Usually the floor paintings are hidden by brown paper covers, but for about 2 months a year the floors are uncovered.  Visitors are able to walk through the paintings on special paths which avoid wearing down the most delicate designs.

We then took a roof tour which allowed you to go up in the rafters and see the floors from above, which was pretty cool.

We also visited the “crypt,” which is not a cemetery but actually the remains of an older church.  The current church, built in the 13th C, was built right on top of the old one.  Some of the frescoes of the earlier cathedral were buried and not rediscovered until renovation work in the 1990s fortuitously uncovered them.  After years of seeing the faded colors of frescoes that have been open to the elements for hundreds of years, it was quite startling to see the bright original colors of these long-buried frescoes.

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Reflections on One Year in Italy

We came to Italy one year ago this week.   A few things have not gone as planned — I broke my wrist less than a week after I arrived, and spent the first two months with my arm in a cast.  For the most part, though, things here have been even better than we imagined.

Our apartment is spacious and comfortable.  Our landlady, whose home this was for 35 years, has been especially gracious in helping us deal with the inevitable issues of living in a new country.

We have had an easier time than we expected making friends here.  There is a small English-speaking community — most are American, but there are some Canadian and Irish folks too.  But we have also found it possible to socialize with the people who have lived here most of their lives.   At first, people expressed surprise that we left California to move here — we were kind of a curiosity.  Now they seem to have gotten used to us.

Acquiring facility with the language has also been easier than we imagined.  I had a basic knowledge of Italian grammar based on studying it in high school many years ago.  And I could understand people who spoke to me slowly and clearly.  But I was terrified of speaking, particularly on the telephone, for fear I might make a mistake.  I had to get over that pretty quickly, though, because most people here don’t speak English.  If you want to get things done, particularly with the bureaucracy, you have to learn to communicate in Italian.  Fortunately, people are very accommodating with my fumbling attempts — I’m sure I sound like a second grader, but no one seems to mind.

Ted has made even more progress.  He knew only a few words of Italian when we arrived, but with the aid of private lessons he’s made enough progress that he recently passed the written test for a driver’s license in Italian — not an easy thing here, even for Italians.

The food is also better than we expected.  We seem to have stumbled into something of a food paradise here.   Although much of the terrain in the Marche and nearby Abruzzo is mountainous, a lot of fruits and vegetables are raised in the local valleys.  Green vegetables are available all winter — some winter vegetables, like spinach and chard, are well known to us, while others, like cicoria and agretti, are new.  Food is hyper-local here — you can buy locally raised chicken and lamb in the supermarket, as well as locally made bread, cheese and salumi (the generalized name for cold cuts). The porchetta truck (whole roast pig) rolls in once a week, and they sell roast chickens as well.  You can buy fresh pasta from several local stores.  The local fish market sells a wide variety of Adriatic seafood; San Benedetto del Tronto, about half an hour from here, is a major fish distribution center.  And all of the food, particularly the vegetables, costs much less here than we were paying in California.  The wine is very reasonably priced too although, as with the food, most of it is locally produced.

Ascoli is a city of about 50,000 — about the same size as Palo Alto.  But unlike Palo Alto or many other American suburbs, which are parts of major metropolitan areas, Ascoli is one of the largest towns in what is still a region of small villages and rural farms.  Most of the people who live here, work here, and vice versa.  That means you might run into your real estate agent outside the gommista (tire shop), your pharmacist in the square,  your fish vendor at the bank. And when you see them, you smile and nod and, if there’s time (as there often is) you strike up a small conversation.  That’s been one of the biggest and most unexpected differences between living here and living in the US.  In the US, no one has time to talk to you.  Here, almost every encounter is the opportunity for a small social interaction.  It’s nice.

The Wonderful Variety of Italy

One of the great things about living in Italy is that, within only a few hours’ drive, you can arrive at a place with its own, quite distinct history.  It’s like a whole continent in one country.  Here are some brief notes on four recent destinations.

Ravenna

In June, we spent a few days in Ravenna, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire during much of the 5th Century and the capital of the Byzantine Empire during much of the 6th.  The Romans once based their fleet in the nearby town of Classe; the port is now completely destroyed.

Ravenna is best known today for its remarkable mosaics which are in remarkably good condition despite their great age.  The iconography of the mosaics is quite different from those of medieval cathedrals.  The secular and the religious are mixed together — you can see a depiction of the ancient port of Classe right next to a parade of saints, or the emperor Justinian hard by Cain and Abel.  Jesus, often beardless, is depicted as the Good Shepherd, rather than the crucified savior.

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San Vitale, Ravenna

There are more depictions of animals — not just sheep, but ducks, birds, even deer.  And the dominant color is a wonderful marine green, rather than the blue that became more popular later.

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San Vitale, Ravenna

There is also a significant difference in style between the earlier and later mosaics.  The late Roman mosaics, like late Roman fresco painting, had figures with vibrant faces and a sense of motion, while the Byzantine mosaics were more stiff and formal.  Sometimes you can see the difference in style in the same church.  In the Basilica of Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, the excited and happy Three Kings (in late Roman style) bring their gifts to a stone-faced Mary (completed 50 years later).

After the Byzantine capital was moved to Constantinople, Ravenna became the peaceful country town it remains today.  It became the last refuge and final resting place of the great poet Dante, whose exile from his home city of Florence was never rescinded during his lifetime.  After his death, the city of Florence, recognizing its mistake, tried to get Dante’s bones back, and even built an elegant tomb for them in the church of Santa Croce.  Nothing doing, said Ravenna, and Dante’s real tomb remains in Ravenna till this day.

Urbino

In July, we visited the city of Urbino, which had its greatest prominence during the 15th C, under the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro.  Montefeltro was the archetype of the Renaissance prince — a famous condottiere (military leader) as well as a great patron of the arts.  During his 40-year rule, he surrounded himself with a brilliant court, and built many beautiful buildings, including the Ducal Palace, which is today a major art museum.

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Urbino

The great painter Raphael was born in Urbino, and is represented by a couple of paintings in the museum — most of his major work, though is elsewhere.  The museum also includes several works by the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, one of the first to reintroduce perspective to European art.  I particularly love the Madonna here, with the angel whose carefully drawn pearl anticipates Vermeer, and with the baby Jesus and his incongruously pagan (but contemporaneously accurate) coral necklace — even today Italian babies are given coral necklaces to ward off the “evil eye.”

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

But the real glory of the Ducal Palace are the works of intarsio, or wood inlay.  Intarsio can be found all over Italy, but the examples here are like paintings, almost three-dimensional.  There are depictions of musical instruments, knights’ helmets and architectural tools.  But my favorite is the little squirrel — probably a “red Calabrian,” now almost completely replaced by North American varieties.

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Duke’s studiolo – Urbino

Bolzano (Bozen)

The city of Bolzano is in Alto Adige, a region which used to be part of Austria known as Sudtirol.  It was awarded to Italy after World War I.  Nobody ever asked the residents which country they wanted to belong to, and Mussolini’s policy of “Italianization” (encouraging ethnic Italians to move to the region) wasn’t too popular either.  These days, the region operates under a special regional autonomy agreement, and is officially bilingual, with everybody learning both German and Italian.  A lot of the local residents also speak excellent English, which I understand is widely taught in the public schools beginning at a young age.

For the tourist, the region represents a fascinating mix of Austrian and Italian culture — you can get cakes or biscotti, pizza or dumplings.  The photo of a local kiosk indicates the wide variety of food on offer.  It’s also one of Italy’s most interesting wine regions, featuring local grape varietals such as like Lagrein, new grape varietals like Kerner developed for the Alpine region, international varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The town of Termano (Tramin in German) is also reputed to be the origin of the Gewurtztraminer grape.  So if you like wine at all, you’re likely to find something you like here.

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But the real glory of the area is its scenery.  Bolzano has a spectacular location at the foot of the Brenner Pass, at the western edge of the Dolomites.  One of the local mountains is called the Rosengarten (Rose Garden) because of the magnificent rose-pink hue it takes on at sunset.

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Der Rosengarten / Il Catanaccio

The area is filled with hiking trails at all levels — during the course of a day’s hike, you will enthusiastic young hikers, old people with stout staffs, and families with their children and dogs.  You will also encounter pastured animals — cows, sheep, goats, even the occasional horse, which meant that once in a while, you had to navigate around a cow gate.  And, this being the Alps, at the top of the trail, there’s always a little cafe selling food.

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Pork ribs, fries, and beer on top of a mountain. What could be better?

We stayed mostly on the easier trails, helpfully marked with baby prams to indicate they were flat enough for strollers.  Even so, I found that good hiking boots (which I bought here in Ascoli) and walking sticks (thoughtfully provided by our hotel) made a huge difference in navigating the sometimes uneven surfaces.

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The scenery was breathtaking — I kept expecting Julie Andrews to come running over the next hillside filling the air with the sound of music.  We heard no yodelers (although we did encounter a couple of tuba players in one restaurant) and no little goatherds (although there was an old guy chivvying the cows along).  All in all, quite a marvelous experience.

Lago di Garda

Garda is Italy’s largest lake, despite the existence of another lake called “Maggiore” (the “biggest”) some distance west.  It is very long, with Alpine terrain in the north and palm trees along the southern edge.

The southeastern part of the lake was part of the territory of Verona in the 14th C, and the towns are dotted with castles built by the Scaligeri, the ruling family.  Sirmione, at the south of the lake, has one of the best-preserved examples of a Scaliger castle.  It also has the ruins of a 1st C Roman estate poetically known as Le Grotte de Catullo.  The Roman poet Catullus did indeed grow near Sirmione, but he was nowhere nears rich enough to live here.  The name of the enormously wealthy family that actually owned the estate has been lost to history.  The estate is a ruin today, of course, but a small museum has preserved some of the floor tiles and frescoes.  Its most remarkable feature, though, is its spectacular site, which has enchanted tourists for centuries.

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Sirmione

We also visited Gardone Riviera, on the western shore, which has a wonderful botanical garden (Heller Gardens), full of exotic plants and quirky statuary.

Our Italian friends were nonplussed that we didn’t take the opportunity to visit the house of Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, also in Gardone.  Got to leave something for next time, I guess.  🙂

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Sunset over Lago di Garda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roman Mosaic

We took a short trip to Rome last week, our first extended trip to the capital since we moved to Italy last year.  Although Italy has an extensive train networks, from Ascoli Piceno the quickest way to get to Rome is by intercity bus, through the Appenines via the route of the ancient via Salaria.

Since we had been to Rome before, we decided to concentrate on less-frequently visited sites during this visit.  I have a particular interest in mosaics, an art which flourished in late antiquity and during the medieval period.  Rome has comparatively few monuments during this period — the city’s population declined from 1 million during the imperial period to perhaps 50,000 at the beginning of the 15th C, and didn’t recover until a series of Popes, beginning in the latter half of the 15th C, decided to restore the city to something approaching its former magnificence.  But medieval monuments are there if you know where to look.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the 4 basilicas in Rome administered by the Vatican, has wonderful mosaics dating from both the 5th and 12th Centuries.  Just down the street, the church of Santa Prassede has some fascinating mosaics dating from the 9th C.  The mosaics in both of these churches follow what is known as the “Byzantine” style — no perspective, no individualized faces — but I found them quite lovely.

In the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, there is a wonderful 12th C mosaic of Jesus and Mary in heaven.  Jesus has his arm around Mary (a traditional Byzantine pose) but there was a certain affection in his gaze (unfortunately difficult to see in the photograph).

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Santa Maria in Trastevere

At the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, we saw some frescoes done by the same artist, Pietro Cavallini.  The frescoes are not in the main church — they are in an upstairs room and you have to pay a small admission charge.  I have just enough Italian now to follow the guide’s explanations — good thing, because there were no written captions.  The guide was eager to point out the individualized expressions in the faces of the Apostles — something supposedly invented by Giotto, who worked about 50 years later, and an early harbinger of the Renaissance.

Despite what to us appears as forward-looking artistry, the frescoes were plastered over by a Renaissance-era cardinal, who found them old-fashioned, and only rediscovered during building renovation work in the 1930s.  Portions of the original frescoes have been irretrievably lost — St. Michael, for instance, was identifiable only by his sword and metal breastplate.  But as the fortuitous consequence of not being exposed to the air for several hundred years, the colors are still almost as vibrant as originally intended, without restoration.  No photos were allowed in this room — the picture you see here is scanned from postcards.

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Pietro Cavallini: Apostoli from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (1291)

We took a special tour of the Vatican which began with breakfast in the museum courtyard.  The 2 hours allotted to the Vatican Museum allowed for only the highlights — you could easily spend a whole day there — but it was nice to skip the line and get an early start.  The Sistine Chapel seems to be crowded no matter when you go, and is patrolled by guards who strictly enforce the no-photo rule (photos are allowed elsewhere in the Vatican).  The guards’ other function seems to be to keep people moving, otherwise the number of people too awed to move would quickly create traffic jams in the rest of the museum.  The guards reminded me of the demons in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, prodding along the reluctant souls of the damned with their pitchforks — too bad I can’t post a photo!  You’ll have to settle for a photo of one of the nearby “Raphael rooms”.

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Raphael: The School of Athens

I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time in 1970, before the major cleaning project begun in the 1980s, and remember being somewhat disappointed — 400 years of candle smoke had rendered much of the work too dark to see.  The restoration is controversial in some quarters — some people think they took off some of Michelangelo’s paint along with the candle soot.  But you’ll never convince me that these strong, vibrant colors aren’t what Michelangelo intended.

We also saw St. Peter’s on the tour, and I was as underwhelmed by the church as I have been in the past.  I know it’s a minority view, but something about the church’s sheer size (they have marks on the floor showing the limits of “lesser” cathedrals like St. Paul and Notre Dame) seems to me inconsistent with the Church’s spiritual message.  They’ve got some great art in there, though, including Michelangelo’s Pieta.

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Michelangelo: Pietà

Interestingly, virtually all of the “paintings” in the church are actually mosaics, although you have to get really close to see that.

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A painting-like mosaic in St. Peter’s.

Having seen at least one of Rome’s major sights, we returned to smaller sights for the last couple of days of our trip.

The Palazzo Colonna has been the home of the Colonna family for eight centuries.  These days, part of the Palazzo has been turned into a museum, open only on Saturday mornings, which displays the family’s art collection (Bronzino, Perugino, Carracci….)

Marcantonio Colonna played a big part in the victory of the “Holy League” (Venice, Spain and the Papacy) over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  Colonna lost no time celebrating his victory with a series of magnificent ceiling murals depicting the battle — it’s awesome, but a bit over the top.  The palazzo had another moment of dubious fame in 1849 when some republicans (of the Roman variety) were holed up there, but were later driven out by French (pro-Papal) forces.  A cannon ball which arrived in the gallery at that time has been preserved where it landed.

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On our last day, we visited what we thought was a standalone stained glass museum just outside the center.  The museum is actually at the Villa Torlonia, which has the unfortunate distinction of having been Mussolini’s official residence.  The house and grounds fell into disrepair after the war, and in the 1990s the Italian government decided to restore the place into the 19th C aristocratic villa it had originally been.  These days, the main house and several associated buildings feature exhibits of Italian art during the early 20th C.  We were particularly interested in the exhibit devoted to modern theatrical productions at Italy’s ancient Greek theaters, since we had enjoyed a performance at the ancient  theater in Siracusa (Sicily) a few years ago.

The stained glass museum is located in one of the buildings on the grounds, the Casina delle Civette, or Owl House.  This was the home of the last scion of the Torlonia family, who was apparently an unsocial fellow who preferred the company of owls, bats and other birds of the night.  He was, however, also a stained-glass enthusiast, and much of the work here was done by the best Italian stained glass artists of the early 20th C, and it has a particular style, quite different from that of the more familiar French and American stained glass artists working at the same time.  The whole place is worth a visit, if you have the time.

One more note — during an evening tour of Trastevere, our guide pointed out a 19th C building with the Latin inscription — PIUS IX P M OFFICINAM NICOTIANIS FOLIIS ELABORANDIS A SOLO EXTRUXIT ANNO MDCCCLXIII.  The building was Pope Pius IX’s official cigarette rolling factory, built in 1863. In many parts of Europe, even today, the government has a monopoly on tobacco sales, and it has been an important revenue source. These days, though, the Vatican bans the sale of tobacco in its tiny state.

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Papal cigarette factory

 

 

Shakespeare at the Globe

I mentioned our visit to the Globe Theater in London in my last post, but I thought the performance and the total experience was worth a write-up of its own.

The Globe theater, opened in 1997, is a reconstruction of the Globe Theater that existed in Shakespeare’s day.  It is reasonably faithful to the original design, with certain adjustments for modern fire code regulations.  In keeping with the conditions of Shakespeare’s day, sets are minimal and, at least during the afternoon performances, no artificial lighting is used.  Although some of the seats have backs, we bought bench seats, and rented cushions.  You can also buy “groundling” tickets, which entitle you to stand in front of the stage for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes (you can sit during the intermission).

The acting company is not associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, although many performers are RSC alumni.  All the performers we saw were excellent — theater in England has a really deep bench.

The play we saw was As You Like It which, as Shakespeare fans will know, involves an extended sequence where the main female character, Rosalind, pretends to be a man.  Shakespeare did this a lot, in large part because in his day, all the actors were male — I think he enjoyed having a male actor playing a woman playing a man.  In this performance, the company cast a tall man as Rosalind, and a short woman as Orlando.  Some lines in the play work surprisingly well for a male Rosalind — the part where Rosalind says “I am more than uncommon tall,” for example, or the epilogue, where Rosalind addresses the audience with, “If I were a woman.”  Obviously there were no such lines for the gender-bending Orlando.

The gender-switching continued with other members of the cast — both Dukes were played by a woman, and the silly shepherdess Audrey was played by man.  Interestingly, while the man playing Audrey was in full Dame Edna drag — big hair, heavy makeup, big fake boobs — the actor playing Rosalind was very understated.  When appearing as Rosalind, he wore a dress and, in certain scenes, a veil.  But he wore no special makeup or hair, and there was no cleavage.   It seemed to me that they were intentionally emphasizing the androgynous nature of the Rosalind character.  Indeed, since in the play Orlando spends more time with the “male” Rosalind than the “female” one, it’s not clear which one he’s actually in love with.

I thought the artistic choices were well considered, and the whole performance was very successful.  Best of all, the ensemble comedy scenes were very well done, a lot more like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions I enjoy every year than some of the starchy British productions I have been subjected to in the past.

If you’re in London during the summer and enjoy Shakespeare, the Globe is well worth a visit.

Cathedral Tour

We recently completed a 12-day tour of England, our first trip outside Italy since we moved here last fall.  We have a particular interest in “Gothic” cathedrals, of which there are many more in England than there are in Italy.  So we combined visits to old friends in Oxford and London with visits to come notable cathedrals.

But First — Ostia Antica

Since it takes about three hours to drive from Ascoli to Rome, we decided to head down the night before our flight to London and spend an afternoon at Ostia Antica, which is close to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

Ostia was ancient Rome’s Mediterranean port.  Since the Tiber basin silted up over the centuries, the ancient site is now several kilomaters from the coast.  However, it is still possible to see the streets of the old city today much as they appeared in the late Imperial era.  Ostia was a working class town, largely populated by mariners, longshoremen and itinerant sailors, which probably explains the large number of taverns.  The town also had an unusual number of public bathing facilities (few of the inhabitants had villas with their own water supply).  You can still see the mosaic floors of many of these bath houses, many with whimsical designs.

There is also a small museum, with high-quality Roman sculptures.

Lincoln

In the Middle Ages, Lincoln was the seat of the largest diocese in England, and was the site of the country’s first French-style Gothic cathedral (probably inspired by its bishop, who was a Frenchman). An older cathedral, in Romanesque style, had been built on the site shortly after the Norman Conquest, but it was heavily damaged by an earthquake in the next century.  The current cathedral was started in 1190, around the same time as Chartres, although the spire was not completed until about 1350.  For about 200 years after that, the cathedral was the tallest building in Europe (and maybe the world) until the spire blew off in a hurricane in the 16th C.  The spire was not replaced.

Like many cathedrals in England, Lincoln Cathedral suffered significant damage during the Cromwell era.  Most of the stained glass windows were destroyed.  There are bits and pieces of the original glass in the rose windows, although the original design has been lost.  Most of the windows seen today are 19th C reproductions.  Fortunately, most of the magnificent stonework, the true glory of this cathedral, was not damaged.  The master mason is believed to have depicted himself in one of the sculptures, noted by his mason’s cap and (hard to see in the photo) tiny representations of his masons’ tools behind his ear.

We forget, sometimes, what technological marvels these cathedrals were, given the tools of the day.  Everything, even the nails, had to be made by hand.  Modern visitors can take a “roof tour,” where you can go up in the rafters and see some of the original beams (which today are reinforced, but which are still doing most of the load bearing work).  From the rafters, you can also get a good look at where the “newer” church, started from the altar at the east end, joined the older church portal at the western side.  The two sides don’t quite meet up, and from the upper level you can see the little “jog” they made to make the two parts join.

We also visited Lincoln Castle, just across the courtyard from the Cathedral.  This courtyard was the site of the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, which some historians have called the most important battle on English soil after Hastings.

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A few months after King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, he convinced the Pope to annul the agreement, on the grounds that he had signed it under duress.  A few months after that, he was dead, succeeded by his 9-year old son, Henry III.  A number of English barons, who at that time owned property on both sides of the Channel, threatened to switch their allegiance to the king of France.  The regent, William Marshall, had the brilliant idea of offering restoring the Magna Carta, which gave the barons a number of rights vis-a-vis the sovereign, as an inducement to stay with England.

A group of barons nevertheless wanted to switch over their allegiance, and under the command of Prince Louis (later Louis VIII of France) they laid siege to Lincoln Castle.  The attackers held the high ground — the narrow space between the castle and the cathedral, on top of a steep hill (today called, oddly enough, Steep Hill) which they thought no one could fight their way up. Under cover of nightfall, William Marshall and a small armed force sneaked in the back side of the castle on foot.  When the English forces streamed out of the castle the next morning, the surprised besiegers found their “high ground” was a trap.  Forced into close combat at the cathedral door, they eventually retreated down Steep Hill, got back in their boats, and hightailed it back to France, never to return.

Sometimes great moments in history hang by a thread.

Cambridge

King’s College, started by Henry VI in the 15th C, was designed to provide higher education for young men with more promise than money.  The associated Chapel, begun by Henry VI, was  finished a century later by Henry VIII.  The design work — the sculpted coats of arms, the stained-glass windows and, especially, the magnificent fan-vaulting of the ceiling — is stunning.  Even Cromwell couldn’t bring himself to destroy the stained glass here (perhaps because there are more kings depicted here than martyrs and saints.)  The large central wooden screen celebrates the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (see the inscriptions “HR” and “HA”).

King’s College is famous for its “evensong,” a choral service held almost every evening which highlights the church’s awesome acoustics.  The service was in English, but the choral works, quite surprisingly to me, were sung in Latin.

And was that wild flower up in the King’s College tower: Scotch broom; known in medieval times as “plantagenet” (e.g., sprig of broom)?  I couldn’t find anyone to confirm, but I suspect an (unofficial?) horticultural tribute to Henry VI.

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Ely

Ely, only a short train trip from Cambridge, has a stunning cathedral known more for its size than its ethereal beauty.  Oliver Cromwell grew up in Ely, so he made rather a point of stripping it of its decoration, even decapitating the statues of saints.

The cathedral was restored in the 19th C, but here, instead of reconstructing the medieval decoration, they decorated the ceilings and windows with then-popular pre-Raphaelite designs.  Not everybody, then or now, is happy with this period juxtaposition, but I rather liked it.

Ely also offers a tower tour, which gives a close-up view of some of the 19th C art.  The tower was originally designed for a choir — the monks would climb the narrow staircase and sing from the windows strategically placed around the inside of the tower.  These days, if you get married in the cathedral, you can arrange to have confetti dropped from rafters — but it takes a bit of math to compute how long it will take for the confetti to reach the ground from such a height.

Canterbury

Maybe I was suffering from cathedral overload, but I found this the least architecturally interesting of the three cathedrals we visited, perhaps because its interior had suffered the most damage over the centuries. The cathedral is, of course, of great historical importance.  Totally by accident, we entered the cathedral through the “murderer’s door”- the same door by which Thomas Becket’s assassins entered.  In medieval times, Canterbury was a major pilgrimage site where travelers from distant lands came to seek healing or forgiveness of sins from Saint Thomas.  Henry VIII was having none of that in his unitary monarchy: he was both the church and state.  Thus he despoiled the magnificent shrine dedicated to Becket’s memory.  Today it is memorialized only by candles on the pavement.

 

 

 

 

Lecce and Matera

Lecce

With the arrival of spring, we decided to drive down to Lecce, about 5 hours south of here, in the little-visited (by Americans) province of Puglia.

Lecce is not located on the coast or on a navigable river, somewhat surprising for an ancient city.  It turns out that it has access to an underground water source, an important consideration in a region where the availability of sufficient water has always been an issue.

Lecce affiliated itself pretty early with the ultimately victorious Romans, and it was a thriving city during the ancient Roman empire.  After the fall of Rome, it was associated for a while with the Byzantine empire, and eventually became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

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The city is known for its many baroque churches built in the local golden-color stone.  Many of the statues are in “cartapesta” (what we would call papier-mache) a surprisingly durable and lifelike material.  The tradition of working in “cartapesta” remains vibrant today, and there are little shops all over the city featuring the work of contemporary local artists.

Lecce Duomo - Immaculate conception chapel

Some of the city’s older churches, like SS.  Nicolo e Cataldo, were remodeled during the Bourbon era but retained some of their late-Byzantine-era frescoes, a unique combination.  There is very little art of the time in between those two eras here.  It’s almost as if the Renaissance occurred in some other country — which, in some sense, it did.

We saw more Byzantine frescoes at the abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, just outside of town, which recently reopened after a major restoration.  The restored colors on the interior frescoes, so different from the more typical faded colors, challenge your conceptions about what these frescoes are “supposed” to look like.

We took a short day trip to Otranto, a pleasant seaside town near the end of the heel of Italy’s boot.  We were lured into a local restaurant by the promise of  “ricci,” fresh sea urchin.  I was introduced to ricci near Bari, on my first trip to Italy so many years ago.  Over the years, I have eaten them in Japan (where they are known as uni), California and France, but nowhere are they as fresh as they are in Puglia. Many people eat them raw, right out of their spiny shell. But eating them as we did, with pasta, is also popular.

Otranto also has an old and very historic Cathedral.  In this case, the cathedral floors are covered in mosaics from the 12th Century and mostly tell bible stories.

We visited the lighthouse just south of Otranto, which is the most easterly point in Italy.  (Not quite the most southerly, though — Italy continues for about an hour south of Otranto).  The Adriatic is at its narrowest point here, which in less orderly times made Otranto the frequent victims of raiders and pirates (hence the lookout castle on the seaside).  These days, the narrowness of the channel makes for some fabulous views — on a clear day, you can see Albania.

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Matera

After leaving Lecce, we went to Matera, in the even less-frequently-visited province of Basilicata.  If you think of Italy as a boot, Basilicata is the arch between the toe and the heel.

Matera has been inhabited since Neolithic times, largely due to its combination of natural caves and an easily defensible location (a fertile valley surrounded by steep mountains).  By the Middle Ages, Matera was a thriving small town, albeit one where the dwellings were inside instead on top of the rocks.  Whole communities developed in these grottoes, including not only churches but also monasteries and convents with several subterranean levels.  Beginning in the later Middle Ages, the more prosperous citizens started living on top of the rocks, but most of the city’s population still lived in the “Sassi” — the grottoes below.

Matera

The city went into decline during the later Bourbon period, when the provincial capital was moved.  The middle class departed, and the people of the Sassi became poorer.  By the late 19th C, the divided city featured wealthy people living in the sun in the upper city, and thousands of the less well off living essentially below ground, deprived of sunlight, fresh air, and modern sanitation, like something out of Blade Runner.

In the 1940s, Carlo Levi, a political opponent of Mussolini, was sentenced to internal exile near here.  After the war, he wrote a book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which among other things highlighted conditions in the Sassi and scandalized the nation. The inhabitants of the Sassi were moved out of their rock dwellings, some to new apartment buildings in town, and others (less successfully) to new “farming villages” a few miles away.   The old grotto buildings, including the cave churches , were allowed to sink into disrepair.

By the 1980s, Italians were taking a fresh look at the city and its unique artistic heritage.  The city was named a UNESCO heritage site in the 1990s, and has been named a European “capital of culture” for 2019 — marketing designations that have brought restoration attention and tourist dollars into the economy.  Today, about 4,000 people are living in the Sassi again (in dwellings now fitted out with modern conveniences).   About half a dozen cave churches have now been restored, with more in process.  You can even stay in a luxury hotel built right into the grottoes (although we didn’t.)

Rupestrian (cave) church in the Sassi

The city has also had some success marketing itself as a movie site.  Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and other Bible-themed movies have been filmed here, since the city’s narrow stone streets and deep ravines make it a plausible substitute for Jerusalem.

Who knows what the future holds for Matera?  Historically, attempts to base a local economy on tourism often founder when too many people want to come to a very small place.  For the time being, though, Matera is just far enough off the beaten track, and just hard enough to get to, that a visitor won’t be overwhelmed.

 

A Short Trip to Trani

Although we had planned an extended trip down the east coast of Italy last week, we postponed the journey because of unseasonably cold weather.  Instead, we took a shorter trip to the town of Trani, about 3 1/2 hours south of here, in the province of Puglia.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, has a history quite different than that of the Marche, the region where we are now living.  After the fall of Rome, Puglia came under the influence of the Byzantines.  The Normans began their conquest of southern Italy in Puglia in the 11th C, and ruled much of modern Italy south of Rome from their capital in Palermo for several centuries.  The city’s greatest prosperity came in the 13th C, under the 50-year reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who had inherited southern Italy from his mother (the last of the Sicilian Normans) and much of central Italy from his grandfather (Frederick Barbarossa) — the closest Italy came to being a united country between the fall of ancient Rome and modern times.

Trani’s cathedral, Romanesque but with unusual pointed arches, has a dramatic location right on the sea front.  During the Norman period, the town was an embarkation point for the Crusades, and you can still see ruins of churches run by the Templars and other orders of warrior monks.

DSC03231The city also had a thriving Jewish community.  The Normans, and Frederick II, were religiously tolerant, unusual for Christian leaders of this era, and in the 13th C, the city had four operating synagogues.  Today only one is operational — the Jews were expelled in the 15th C by the Spanish and have only recently returned.  But another former synagogue has been converted into a small museum documenting the history of the local Jewish community.

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After the death of Frederick II, the region was plunged into civil war, and eventually the Spanish took over, ruling the area from Naples until the reunification of Italy in the 19th Century.  Many of the Romanesque churches in Trani have small bell towers that look a lot like those on Spanish missions in California.  Perhaps there is a connection.

Frederick II built a series of fortresses to guard his domain, including one, the Castello Svevo, right next to Trani’s cathedral.   But the most famous fortress was Castel del Monte, built on a commanding hill a few miles away.  Its architecture is very distinction — it’s the shape of an octagon with eight octagonal towers.  Much has been written about the supposed mystic significance of the castle’s octagonal shape, with its interior inscribed triangles — Frederick was known to be interested in astrology.  But nobody really knows why the castle was built as an octagon, any more than future historians will be able to discern the rationale for the 5-sided shape of another famous polyhedron, outside Washington, D.C.

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The castle has recently been restored, after centuries of neglect, and you can now see those few of the magnificent marble columns in the interior that remain.  The rest were poached, over the years, for other building projects.

The day we were there, the castle had gotten a dusting of snow the night before — an event so unexpected this far south that the maintenance staff didn’t even have shovels to clear the stairs.  Fortunately, the snow had mostly melted by the time we left.  They tell me it will get warmer eventually.

We also visited the nearby site of the Battle of Cannae.  In 216 BC, during what was later called the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians under Hannibal (sans elephants) encircled and defeated a much larger Roman force, one of the greatest tactical feats in ancient military history.  For Game of Thrones fans, this battle was the inspiration for the climactic battle between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton near the end of Season 6.

A recently-opened indoor-outdoor museum on the site shows you not just the battle site, but Neolithic pottery, remains of the medieval wall, and a surprisingly large excavation of the Roman town.  Although it doesn’t look like much, Hannibal probably scouted out the Roman positions from the outcropping pictured below.  The Fascists placed a monument on the spot; it too is fading into history.

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On the day of our visit, a middle school from the nearby town of Barletta had been deputized by FAI (the local equivalent of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) to act as guides for the museum.  The kids wore badges identifying each one as a “cicerone”(the wonderful Italian word for an informed guide, after Cicero).  Each of the kids had been assigned one of the points of interest which they then explained to visitors.  One young man, who spoke pretty good English, decided to adopt us for the afternoon and translated each speech for us in turn.  We were blown away by the amount of work these kids had obviously put into this project.  I guess if you’re going to study history, you might as well start with the stuff that’s on your doorstep.

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No summary of a trip to Puglia can be complete without a discussion of the food.  Puglia is one of the provinces where the local food most closely approximates what we now call the “Mediterranean diet” — olive oil, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lots of seafood.  The local cheese, burrata, a kind of cream-enriched mozarella, is particularly delicious.

Trani is not a wealthy place, but to walk into a seafood restaurant is to be presented with an array of fish and shellfish that many far more expensive restaurants in London, Paris and Rome might be envious of.  All of the fish was local, some so particular to this area that they don’t even have English names.  One, called “occhiata,” seems to have been named after its enormous eyes.  I also got to enjoy fresh “ricci” (sea urchin) again, which I had been introduced to on my first trip to this part of Italy, nearly 50 years ago.

We plan to a longer trip to Puglia again next month, or whenever it gets warm.  Maybe we’ll even have some beach pictures!

For your amusement, here are some gargolyes.

 

 

Venice in the Snow

One of the benefits of living in Italy is that you can visit popular tourist sites off-season.  Venice is one of the most challenging destinations, because it really doesn’t have much of an off-season.  “Go during Quaresima (Lent),” we were told — after Carnevale and before Easter.  Most years, folks said, it was warm enough to sit outside in early March.

 

Not this year.  Not only was it about 20 degrees colder than normal during our visit, it even snowed the first day — a rare event in Venice.   The snow was pretty to look at, but with all the cobblestones and polished marble, walking around was like negotiating an ice-skating rink without skates.  Fortunately, the bridges had handrails.  And the city employed a small army of workers spreading salt on the sidewalks — hard on leather shoes, but better than falling.  The temperature rose a bit after Thursday, although it still wasn’t really warm, and by Sunday all vestiges of the snow were gone.

Since we had been to Venice before, we concentrated on the art in smaller churches, which typically you don’t have time to see on a short visit.  Venice was a prosperous city for several centuries, and each parish wanted to build its own magnificent church, complete with what seemed like foundries full of marble,  and decorated with paintings and sculptures from local artists.  And what artists they were — Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo….  I am particularly fond of one work by Tintoretto which imagines Mary as a young girl, climbing an impossibly steep flight of stairs to an imaginary Temple.

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My personal favorites, though, were the works of Giovanni Bellini.  His special skill was making two-dimensional paintings seem three-dimensional — an effect that’s hard to see even in photographs.  I’m sure he used some tricks to attain this effect — he often put figures in niches with stairs leading up to them, which creates a geometric illusion.  But other painters did that, too, and their paintings are still flat.  I guess that was his particular genius — and one reason why his paintings are considered nearly impossible to forge.

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Also during our trip, we experienced two “acqua alta” (high water) events.  Acqua alta is a tidal event, enhanced by certain wind patterns most prevalent in winter.  It is not primarily a function of the rain, although winter is the city’s rainiest season.

Because it is a tidal event, the high water doesn’t just lap over the embankments the way you think it might.  In Piazza San Marco, which is low-lying and frequently floods, the water seeps up from generally unobserved drainage channels in the middle of the piazza, and the far side, furthest from the Grand Canal, floods first.

The first night, we got caught out on the wrong side of Piazza San Marco coming back from dinner, and since we weren’t wearing hip waders we had to make a big detour to get back to our hotel.  The next evening, we stayed on the right side of the Piazza, but we were able to observe water all the way to the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale.  It was a strange effect, almost as though the city were sinking under the water in slow-motion — which, in a way, it is.

The poor weather did have some compensations.  You could visit popular sites like the cathedral of San Marco and the Accademia without waiting on line.  The stores were all open and uncrowded — Venice has some of the best shopping in Italy, even if like us you’re mostly window-shopping.  Hotels offer deep discounts (although some smaller ones close) and it was easy to get restaurant reservations.  Best of all, people had time to talk to you, which rarely happens in summer.  All things being equal, though, I think we’ll wait for better weather next time.

 

Adapting to Italy

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It hardly seems possible, but we’ve been here nearly 5 months now.  During that time, we’ve managed to:

  • Convert our extended-stay visa into a renewable “permesso di soggiorno”
  • Register as residents of the community, and get a “carta d’identita” (photo ID)
  • Establish a local bank account
  • Buy a (used) car
  • Enroll in the national health care system

Most of these tasks had to be done in a particular order — you needed a permesso before you could register as a resident, and you needed a residency card before you could buy a car or enroll in the national health care system.  They required interacting with the much-maligned Italian bureaucracy (typically referred to as “purgatory on earth,” even by Italians).  We had some frustrations, but for the most part things went much better than we had anticipate.  It helped immeasurably that we were often accompanied by a local resident to do many of these things, which gave us a certain credibility.  Personal relationships count for a lot in Italy.

I was amazed, though, at the amount of paperwork required for even the simplest transactions.  If you want to buy a car in the US, you go to the dealer, pick out your car, haggle a bit, plop down your credit card and drive off the lot.  In Italy, buying a car required three trips.  On the first trip, we identified the car we wanted to buy, which as it turned out was at a different location and had to be delivered. On the second trip, we inspected and test drove the car, and signed a purchase contract.  After the second visit, we paid for the car by wire transfer (they don’t take credit cards, and checks aren’t used here), and purchased insurance.  (Wire transfers have to be done physically at the bank if they’re over €5000, and only in the morning.)  Only then, on the third visit, were we able to take possession of the car.

Getting into the medical care system, on the other hand, was a lot easier than in the US.  Italy allows immigrants with long-term residency permits to buy into the national health system.  Once you’ve paid your money, you go to the appropriate office, select a primary care doctor from a list, and you are enrolled.  We were able to see our primary care doctor within a couple of days.  Arranging specialist consultations takes a bit longer (1-3 months); but we’ve been told that urgent needs can be addressed more quickly.  So far, it’s a success story.

Overall, we’ve been pleased with how easy it has been to adapt here.  As I’ve noted before, people in Ascoli are remarkably welcoming, and are very forgiving of our rudimentary Italian.  In addition to socializing with the tiny expat community here, we’ve made some local friends, who have been very helpful in suggesting things to do.  We consider ourselves very fortunate.