Sojourning in Sicily

We had been planning to go to Sicily last May, when of course fate took a turn. We were happy to be able to take the trip in late September, when the weather was still good but after the summer crowds had departed.

Palermo

Palermo, originally settled by Phoenicians in the 8th C BC, was successively inhabited by Greeks, Romans and Arabs until the Normans arrived in the 11th C. Under little over a century of Norman rule, the Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest and most advanced cities in southern Europe.

The Norman Kingdom was multicultural and religiously tolerant, most unusual for medieval Christian Kingdoms. The Palatine Chapel, built by King Roger II around 1140, is decorated with marble inlays and a series of mosaics representing the lives of Christ, St. Peter and St. Paul; the tiles in the mosaics are interspersed with gold to stunning effect. The mosaics are executed in the Byzantine style, in which saints as well as Christ are presented as heavenly figures floating in space, not human beings walking the earth. Nevertheless, you can see attempts at realism in some of the scenes, e.g., Christ entering Jerusalem or St. Paul being baptized.

There are both Latin and Greek inscriptions, reflecting the fact that both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox services were held here.

The coffered ceilings were done by Muslim artisans, and are similar to work done at around the same time in Moorish Spain. Beautiful as it seems, the level of detailed work in this ceiling is quite amazing and can’t be properly admired from the ground. Undoubtedly, it is meant to be observed by a higher authority.

The four-meter high candelabra, with outstanding sculptures by an unknown artist, is almost lost in the magnificence

The nearby church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, known as the Martorana, which was built at around the same time as the Capella Palatina, has several interesting mosaics. One depicts a Greek admiral presenting the church to Mary, and another, executed somewhat later, shows Christ crowning King Roger – the first, a symbol of piety, while the second, the divine right of kings personified.

Other Norman-era churches in Palermo included the church of San Cataldo, built as a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to honor returning Crusaders, and the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a monastery built on the site of a former mosque.

After the fall of the Norman dynasty, in the 13th C, Sicily came under French and then Spanish domination. It went into a long economic and cultural decline during what was, in most of the rest of Europe, called the Renaissance.

Sicily’s only Renaissance artist of note was Antonello da Messina, who was one of the first Italian painters to use the new technique of oil painting developed in Flanders. Unfortunately, most of Antonello’s work was lost during the great Messina earthquake of 1908, and only a few of his great works survive today in Sicily.

The first, Mary “Annunciate”, is in a small, not much visited museum in Palermo. I like this version because it eliminates all the standard iconography of Annunciation paintings – angels, birds, lilies – and focuses only on Mary’s face as, disturbed from her reading she is now forced to focus on barely credible heavenly message. (And don’t I love depictions of Mary as an intelligent woman in an era when most women were illiterate).

The second, in an even smaller museum in nearby Cefalù, was long known as the “Anonymous Seaman.” Recent scholarship has pointed out that the sitter’s clothes, while simple, represented the court fashions of the day, and were probably very expensive. We still don’t know who we has, though. So the painting of the man with the enigmatic smile might better be known as “Anonymous Rich Guy.”

Sicily enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the Baroque era, and there are many churches decorated in Sicilian Baroque style, perhaps best described as “let no space remain undecorated.” The artistry – inlaid marble, painting and sculpture – is outstanding, but the total effect can a bit overwhelming.

Pictured below: The Chiese del Gesù, a depiction of Jonah and the Whale in the church of Santa Caterina, and a statue of St. Joseph in the church of San Giuseppe Teatini.

Somewhat more restrained (and to the modern eye, more pleasing) is the work of sculptor Giacomo Serpotta, who worked in the latter half of the 17th and beginning of the 18th C. Serpotta worked in stucco, normally a very perishable medium. He developed a method of polishing his statues with marble dust, which gave them not only the look of marble but also some of its durability. His real genius, though, was in the fine details of his work, whether in the bravura depiction of the Battle of Lepanto, the faces of children, or a woman’s costly drapery. Note the little lizard on the base of the female statue – a play on the sculptor’s name, which means “little serpent” in Italian. Photos are from the Oratorio di Santa Cita and the nearby Oratorio di San Domenico.

Monreale

King William II of Sicily, Roger’s grandson, wanted an artistic monument that would rival his grandfather’s in magnificence. So he endowed a cathedral in the small town of Monreale, about 12 km uphill from Palermo. Construction was begun in 1174 and not completed until nearly a century later.

The walls of the cathedral are completely covered in mosaics, representing scenes from the Old and New Testament as well as depicting Christ and various saints.

Christ and the saints are depicted expressionless and floating in space, in traditional Byzantine style. One of the saints depicted is St. Thomas Becket (called Thomas of Canterbury here) – particularly interesting because William II’s wife, Joanna of England, was the daughter of King Henry II, who most likely ordered Thomas’ murder.

There is also the obligatory artistic reference to William’s divine right to rule.

The Biblical scenes have a vibrancy and sense of life not often found in works of this era. More energetic than the Byzantine, but not as realistic as the later work of the Renaissance, the Monreale mosaics are a style all of their own.

The floors are made of inlaid marble with intricate designs, including these whimsical rabbits.

The pavement in the Baroque era chapel, added later, reminded me of Chinese dragons.

We were also able to climb one of the towers for a view of Palermo and the Mediterranean beyond.

Next door to the cathedral is a Benedictine monastery. The cloister has a fountain clearly derived from Arab models.

A particular feature of this cloister are the capitals topping the columns surrounding the central enclosure. Each one is richly carved and completely different from its fellows – it’s almost as if the artists were told they could do whatever they wanted.

Here are some of my favorites: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, telamons (supporters) executed in typical wacky medieval style, and an early Starbucks.

Taormina

After leaving Palermo, we travelled across the island to Taormina on the eastern coast of the island. Taormina has a Greek theater, built originally in the 4th C BC. The theater was built on a spit of land extending into the water, in order to take advantage of sea breezes during the hot Sicilian summer (think Candlestick Park without the fog). And as with most Greek theaters, it was built into a natural amphitheater, whose acoustic properties allow patrons sitting in the upper decks to hear the actors on stage.

The theater hosts performances of ancient Greek plays (in modern Italian) for two months every summer. These days, they use modern lighting and sound amplification.

The town has a lovely public park which commemorates, among other things, the successful exploits of Italian minisubs early in World War II. Calling them submarines is rather too generous – they are basically torpedoes with a seating platform, guided by two mariners in scuba gear who would aim the torpedo and then jump out of the way. They managed to sink a British battleship off the coast of Egypt early in the war, but they had limited impact because the Allies got pretty good at bombing them out of the water and the Italians couldn’t make many more of them.

Other than that, Taormina offers little but views, but what views they were, both day and night.

Cefalù

We made our way back across the island along the north coast, and stopped at Cefalù, site of another famous 12th C Norman Cathedral with spectacular mosaics.

We had hoped to spend some time on the beach in Cefalù, but it was a bit too cold and windy for a swim. The anchoring rocks on some of the roof tiles suggested that the wind was not an uncommon occurrence here.

We visited the local art museum, where we saw the Antonello portrait of an unknown man noted above. And in the cases of Greek vases was this remarkable find – instead of the mythical themes usually seen on these vases, there was this depiction of ancient tuna seller.

The next day was much nicer, but the surf was still pretty rough.

Segesta/Erice

We spent the last few days in San Vito lo Capo, west of Palermo, and used it as a base for exploring the northwestern part of the island.

First up was Segesta, a site founded in the middle of nowhere in the 9th C BC by the Elmi people, traditionally identified as refugees from the fall of Troy. They built a temple in the Greek style in the 5th C BC, but it was abandoned, unfinished, in 409 BC when the Elmi left the site to fight a war.

Greek colonists built a town up the hill a few centuries later, but they ignored the temple and situated the town facing the other way, towards the sea, and built the inevitable theater. That town was eventually abandoned too, and given the remoteness of the location no one else came to live here.

As a result, you can see the Temple much as it was left, nearly 2500 years ago. You can even see the stone tabs which were used to move the stones into position (typically, they weren’t removed until the building was almost finished).

You can walk up to the ruins of the Greek town and see the remains of the theater too.

Not far from Segesta is Erice, also built by the Elmi people but these days known for its medieval buildings (including a surprisingly ornate cathedral) and spectacular views.

Mozia/Marsala

Mozia is a small island by the west coast of Sicily that was founded as a Phoenician colony in the 8th C BC. It was a prosperous city for several hundred years and was famous for the production of sea salt (just as nearby Trapani is today). It was used as a friendly military base by the Carthaginians (another Phoenician colony) when they invaded in 409 BC (the same war that led to the abandonment of Segesta). Mozia was defeated by the Greeks a couple of decades later, after a long siege, and the conquering Greeks put the entire population of the town to the sword. The town was not rebuilt. By the time of the Punic Wars, several centuries later, the Phoenician/Carthaginian settlement was in Lilybaeum, modern Marsala.

These days the island is basically an archeological site, where you can still see the remains of the once-impressive fort and the floor mosaics of an ancient villa. There is also a small museum where you can see examples of Phoenician pottery, and a marvelous statue of a Greek charioteer, discovered on the island in 1979.

On the short ferry ride to the island, you can see some of the salt flats for which Trapani is famous.

In nearby Marsala, you can see the “Nava Punica,” an imaginative recreation of a Carthaginian naval vessel sunk during the Punic Wars.

San Vito lo Capo

We finally got a beach day on the last day of our trip.

Sicilian Food

One of the glories of traveling in Sicily is the fantastic food. We don’t have as many photos of food as you might think, since the food was so good we were usually finished eating it before we could snap a photo.

A favorite local specialty was Couscous Trapanese, a kind of stew made with couscous, fish and vegetables, served with a tomato fish broth that you poured over the couscous to your taste. It has something in common with the Spanish paella, the French bouillabaisse, and the Moroccan tagine, but is a dish all its own. Each restaurant made a slightly different version. One variation which we particularly enjoyed included chopped up almonds, which gave the couscous a crunchy, toasty flavor.

The wines are pretty interesting here too. They are largely made from grape varieties particular to Sicily. The whites are made from Cattarato, Grillo, or Zibbibo grapes, while perhaps the most prestigious white appellation, Etna Bianco, uses a Cattarato/Carricante blend. All of these are crisp, low in a alcohol, and work well with fish. Reds are usually made from Nerello Mascalese (very much like Pinot Nero) and Nero d’Avola (which makes a very strong wine). But you can also find a very nice intermediate-body wine called Cerasuola di Vittoria which is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato. Look for it.

We didn’t forget the cannoli.

Although we ate mostly fish on this trip, one of the best meals we had was in a meat oriented restaurant near Segesta. On leaving the temple, it wasn’t immediately obvious where we were going to eat, since as noted it’s in the middle of nowhere. So we decided to try the place suggested in a flyer someone had left in our windshield. This place was really off the beaten track – 5 km on unpaved roads – but we’ve lived in Italy long enough to know that if a restaurant can survive in the middle of nowhere, it was probably pretty good. We were not disappointed, and Ted finally got the rabbit he had been searching for.

We didn’t get photos of the food, but here’s a shot from the front of the restaurant, indicating just how remote this place was.

And here we are after a wonderful 10 days in Sicily.

Before he was El Greco

Last week we were invited to join a group visiting a small museum in Castignano, a wine and olive growing town in the hills above Ascoli.

In the old part of the town, high up on a hill, sits a little museum that holds the collection of the retired clergyman, Don Vincenzo. Although it is small, the collection the Don has put together over the course of his life is brilliant. The Don is a voluble and energetic man, and his passion for the maintenance of this collection is quite visible. The first floor features a large collection of very old books, both printed and hand-written.

The treasure of the town is probably this 14C procession piece in worked silver, which encases a 12C crucifix.

But when we was told there was also a work newly attributed to El Greco, we reserved judgment – a lot of small museums in Italy claim to have pieces done by famous artists.  This one, though, might be the real thing.
The piece is a “tabernacle,” a repository placed on the altar to hold articles needed for the Mass.  In big churches these were often of inlaid marble or other precious material.  Smaller churches, though, usually made do with wooden boxes, often painted on the sides by local artists.

This tabernacle is unusual in that it came from Rome, and church records indicate when and where it was made (16th C) and when it was bought.  The paintings on it were of unusually high quality, and even before anyone thought it was done by someone famous it occupied a prominent place.

Recently a visitor from Venice said he thought the bright colors used were those of the Venetian Renaissance.  When he showed it to an art historian in Venice, he thought it might be the work of a young El Greco. Long story short, three El Greco experts have now inspected the work; two think it is definitely an El Greco, the third thought it probably was.  That’s a pretty high level of agreement.

El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopolous in Crete, then a colony of Venice, and went to Venice to study art.  After a few years, he spent a few years in Rome, before departing for Spain, where he became known as “the Greek” and spent the rest of his life.  The years he spent in Rome correspond to when the tabernacle was done.  We don’t know for sure that he did this kind of painting, but many young artists did, because it was an easy way to make some quick money.

Why do they think it was by El Greco?  The art specialists concentrated on the quality of the work – the figures, especially the faces, are very good, especially since the work was was done free-hand (no first drafts or preliminary sketches).  The figures have elongated bodies, unique to El Greco’s art.  Most interestingly of all, St. Luke the Evangelist (on the right) was shown with a (very small) pen in his left hand, unusual in an era when being left-handed was still thought to be the work of the devil.

This work may not be a masterpiece, but the depictions of the saints are creative and interesting.  In depiction of Jesus being taken down from the cross, for example, an angel with white wings is fighting with a black winged devil for Jesus’ soul.  We know how that turned out.  

The tabernacle sits in a room of 19th an 20th Century Russian icons. The standard style hasn’t changed much over the centuries, and as such must represent the style that Theotokopoulous learned in youth. I think you can see the elongated bodies in the newer icon below, the style of which might have carried forward into El Greco’s work.

19C icon, note the elongated figures

Artists in this era usually didn’t sign their work, but they often found ways to represent themselves in their paintings.  And El Greco was known to be left-handed.  So maybe the depiction of a saint as left-handed was his way of saying “a left hander painted this”?

There has been some national press about this, and the town is hoping to make some money from art tourists when travel becomes possible again.  It’s a big step.  The museum is currently open only by advance appointment, and doesn’t charge admission – there is only a collection box for voluntary contributions.  While they figure out what to do, the town installed a jury-rigged armored door, which the museum director hadn’t figured out how to open yet (we had to enlist the help of the locksmith who was on hand preparing to install a more elaborate system).

Another Quiet Corner of Italy

While travel outside of Italy remains a fraught enterprise, we continue to enjoy travel to lesser known parts of Italy. Last week we visited northern Lazio, a region on Italy’s west coast, about 3 hours drive from our home in Ascoli Piceno. This region is sometimes called Tuscia after its ancient inhabitants, the Etruscans.

Viterbo

Viterbo, a city dating back to the 8th C, is located about 50 miles north of Rome, and its history has long been tied up with that of the Roman Catholic Pope. In the 12th and 13th C, when the city of Rome was at a low ebb, Viterbo was the actual seat of the Papacy for a few decades.

In 1270, Viterbo became the inadvertent site of the first Papal conclave. The enraged citizens, angry that the assembled cardinals who were being fed and housed at the town’s expense had failed to elect a new Pope after two years of not very energetic negotiations, locked the cardinals into their meeting room and fed them on bread and water until a new Pope was chosen. The custom of keeping the cardinals under lock and key while they are electing a new Pope continues to this day (the word “conclave” comes from the Latin “clavus,” or “key”), although these days the cardinals aren’t fed on bread and water.

Papal palace

Viterbo’s other more dubious claim to fame is as the site of a murder: in 1271, two sons of the English knight Simon de Montfort, Guy and Simon the Younger, killed their cousin, Henry of Cornwall, in the church of San Silvestro (today the church of San Gesù) in revenge for the execution of their father. This murder became infamous all over Europe because it occurred not just in church, but during the celebration of the Mass, and the perpetrators were quickly excommunicated. One young murderer died in Tuscany of illness later that year, while the other died some years later in a Sicilian prison. Dante banished the two of them to the river of boiling blood in the 7th circle of Hell, perhaps a more lasting punishment.

I knew about this event from my study of English history. But I had forgotten it had occurred in Viterbo, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find the church next door to my B&B. The church seems rather small for the heinousness of the crime.

Chiesa di San Silvestro

After the papacy left Viterbo, in the latter half of the 13th C, the city became part of the Papal states and faded from historical importance. Today, Viterbo is a charming small city whose design and principal buildings are more medieval than Renaissance.

Piazza S. Pellegrino, Viterbo

Like other cities in the Roman orbit, Viterbo flourished again in the Baroque era, when artists were particularly interested in creating optical effects. We saw a particularly interesting example of this the church of San Giovanni Batista. The artist, working with a mathematician, painted columns as part of a ceiling fresco that looked straight when observed from the center aisle, but seemed to move to the left or right when observed from the side aisles.

This fresco and its optical illusion was not listed in any of our guidebooks. When we entered the church, a caretaker greeted us an offered to show us points of interest. This kind of impromptu guided tour is a dying tradition in Italy, these days found only in smaller, less-visited churches. If you’re visiting Italy and happen to find one of these volunteer guides, be sure to take advantage of their knowledge.

Montefiascone

The town of Montefiascone, not far from Viterbo, is known today primarily for its beautiful views, particularly those of nearby Lake Bolsena.

Lago Bolsena from Montefiascone

But during the Papal period, it was one of the places where those traveling to and from the Papal court would often stop for refreshment or lodging. One papal legate, something of a wine connoisseur, sent his steward on ahead to scout out the local offerings, asking him to note the Latin word Est (essentially, “here it is”) indicating the place with the best wine. The steward decided the white wine of Montefiascone was so good he had to emphasize it, and the name he used to indicate the wine: Est! Est! Est! – is used to this day, complete with exclamation points!

Unfortunately, the Papal legate died only two years later. Apparently, he was a bit too fond of the wine. He is buried in the oldest church in town beneath beautiful frescoes ranging from the 12th to 16th centuries.

Frescoes, S. Flaviano, Montefiascone

Civita di Bagnoregio

The town of Civita di Bagnoregio was founded by Etruscans more than 2500 years ago, and was prosperous through the medieval period. It was the birthplace of St. Bonaventure, a noted early Franciscan.

The town’s site, on a steep hill surrounded by ravines, had always been hard to access. But by the 17th century, landslides and erosion had caused many of the town’s buildings (including the birthplace of St. Bonaventure) to fall off the edge of the cliff, and most of the town moved to more stable ground in its former suburb of Bagnoregio. Today, Civita is like a land island marooned in a sea of canyons. No vehicles are allowed, and it can be reached by tourists today only by a modern pedestrian bridge connecting it to the “mainland”.

Civita di Bagnoregio and its bridge.

Bomarzo

The last stop on our little tour was the town of Bomarzo, where in the 17th century a Roman nobleman with perhaps more money than sense built a sculpture garden. And what sculptures they were! Here were no classical depictions of gods, water nymphs and forest sprites, but giant heads with ferocious teeth, giant turtles, homicidal dragons, and a tuskless elephant trampling an already decapitated Roman soldier. And while there was a fountain guarded by mermaids, the creatures were so large as to be almost feral. The official name of the sculpture park is the Sacro Bosco, the Sacred Wood. But it is much more commonly known as the Parco dei Mostri – Monster Park.

The creator of the garden left no documents explaining his intentions for the park. But he did leave an inscription near the entrance, whose meaning, freely translated, is: “Is this art or a giant joke? You decide.”

The guy was a 16th C troll. Some things never change.

A Short Trip to the Italian Lakes

Continuing our efforts to bolster the Italian economy, we spent a few days in the Italian lakes region.

Parma

Since it is about a 6 hour drive from our house to Lago Maggiore, we stopped off for a night in Parma.

Parma is a wonderful old town which was founded by the Etruscans, with the Roman settlement dating back to the 2nd C BC.  We didn’t have time for a complete tour – we limited our sightseeing to the Cathedral and the nearby Baptistery.

Construction of the Cathedral began in 1059, and the church was consecrated in 1106 – amazingly fast in an era where cathedral construction often took decades if not centuries.  In the 1170s, a northern artist named Benedetto Antelami executed a marble bas-relief of the Deposition (removal of Christ from the Cross).  The work is in the traditional Byzantine-influenced style popular at the time, with static figures executed in profile. But off on the right the artist goes rogue by depicting a few Roman soldiers eagerly betting for the robe of Christ.  And if you look closely, the feet of some of the figures drop below the frame of the work – someone was experimenting with perspective a few centuries before the Renaissance was invented.

The Baptistery, built in pink Verona marble, is the traditional octagonal shape (the 8th day represents paradise).  Construction of the building began in 1196, but the ceiling and wall frescoes continued on a start-and-stop basis into the 14th C.  In addition to the traditional religious subjects,  there are representations of the Zodiac, local arts and crafts, and even St. George killing a dragon.

Parma is also, of course, famous for its food.  You don’t have to eat at a particularly fancy restaurant to eat well in Parma. And somehow, the prosciutto and Parmigiano cheese taste better here than they do anywhere else.

Lago Maggiore

Lago Maggiore is a large lake located northwest of Milan and on the south side of the Alps – its northern shoreline is in Switzerland. We spent a few days with some American friends in Verbania, on the western (Piedmont) side of the lake.

The lake offers some spectacular scenery, and we took advantage of it from various perspectives, with a hike on one day and a ride up a funicular on another (although “funicular” is rather a grand name for what were really open air buckets).

This part of the lake, despite its location at 45 degrees north has a temperate microclimate, allowing gardeners to grow things like bougainvillea, hibiscus and palm trees, which are not usually seen at these latitudes.

Isola Madre gardens

Isola Madre gardens

The Villa Taranto, a botanical garden in Verbania, has floating lotus plants so large they look like you could stand on them.  (We didn’t try, though.)

We also visited the Borromean islands, named for the aristocratic Borromeo family which lived there for many years.

The villa on Isola Madre has a phenomenal collection of 18th C puppet theaters, including not only the puppets but the stages and much of the scenery.  As a theater fan, I found it fascinating to see so many special effects reproduced in miniature for a private audience.  The stage sets were quite varied, from the magical to the horrible – it was clear that these performances were not designed solely for children.

Nearby Isola Bella is justly famous for its formal gardens, with climbing roses, white peacocks and spectacular views of the lake.  The accompanying villa, while beautiful, was a bit over the top in terms of decoration.  Many of the rooms featured the family motto, Humilitas, with no apparent irony, since there certainly wasn’t much humility on display.

We also visited the Sacro Monte (sacred mountain),  a series of 15 chapels depicting the Crucifixion and Resurrection, on a hill overlooking Domodossola, a town near the Swiss border.

Most of the chapels were closed due to Covid (they are too small to permit social distancing) but you could peer in and admire the high-quality sculptures.  The limited light didn’t allow us to take good pictures, but these public domain photo will give you a good idea of the expressive power of the work

Linda, Karen, and Barley

Linda, Karen, and Barley overlooking Domodossola

Lago D’Orta

Lago d’Orta, less than an hour west of Lago Maggiore, is smaller and quieter, but in my estimation just as beautiful.

Isola San Giulio - Lago d'Orta twilight after a thunderstorm

Isola San Giulio – Lago d’Orta twilight after a thunderstorm

We took a hike up to another Sacro Monte above the town, this one dedicated to the life of St. Francis of Assisi.  It was beautiful and serene, like most places dedicated to St. Francis are, and offered good views of the Lake.

The Isola di San Giulio is very small, but its church is notable for the quality and variety of its internal decoration.  Somehow the locals resisted the urge to paint over all the old stuff when they wanted something new, so it’s possible to see medieval frescoes and baroque statues in close proximity.

I was particularly interested in this unusually early depiction of a handshake (sometimes you see saints embracing each other, but handshakes are rare).  And I liked the depiction of the Virgin energetically stomping on the Satanic serpent, instead of the more common pose of her standing demurely.

On the Road Again

Italy began lifting its lockdown restrictions in mid-May, and in early June the ban on traveling between Italian regions was removed.  That didn’t mean you could immediately go anywhere – flights to Sicily, where we had originally planned to go, won’t resume until the end of the month.  But the uneven end of the lockdown provided a golden opportunity to visit popular sites at a time when not not many foreign tourists would be around.

So as soon as we could, we were on the road again.

Venice

When we arrived in Venice, on a Wednesday evening, the city was so empty as to be almost desolate. We have been to Venice in low season before, trading off the shorter days and sometimes bad weather of late winter to avoid the huge high season crowds.  But this was different.  Smaller hotels were open, but many of the larger ones were not.  Many shops and restaurants were open, but a surprising number remained closed.  The Basilica of San Marco was closed to tourist visits, although you could still attend mass or visit the loggia upstairs.  And the Piazza San Marco, normally teeming with tourists, shoppers and vendors, was practically empty.  The Cafe Florian, the iconic coffee bar in the middle of the Piazza, was closed when we arrived.  Even the pigeons seemed to have temporarily deserted the place.

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Fortunately, things improved over the course of our 4-day visit.  By Friday, the Cafe Florian had reopened (although their coffee was still too expensive to actually consider buying).  By Saturday, a few souvenir vendors had returned to the Piazza, but they were the licensed kiosks, not the guys selling “irregular” merchandise spread out on the street.  Even a few pigeons had ventured back.  And more shops and restaurants opened their doors.

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The number of tourists increased each day, too, and by Saturday there was a line to get in to the Doge’s Palace (although it didn’t look very long).  Most of the tourists were Italian, including many families, taking the opportunity, like we were, to rediscover their own cities as they were in a quieter era.

Venice, like most parts of Italy, does not require people to wear masks outdoors, and the social distancing requirement is only 1 meter (about 3 feet).  You are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces – hotel lobbies, churches, museums, stores.  They are required in bars and restaurants, but you can take them off as soon as you are seated and, given the fine weather, we took most of our meals outside.  You are also required to wear them on public transportation, although on the 40-minute trip to Burano, those of us sitting outside took our masks off.

Aside from that tiny act of civil disobedience on the boat, compliance with the masking rules was quite high. We saw one guy take his mask off inside a church, admiring a Tintoretto, when the custodian, a young woman, came over and politely asked him to put it back on. “Later,” he said.  When she asked a second time, still politely, the guy looked around at the other visitors giving him the stinkeye, and realized he was at risk of making a “brutta figura,” which literally means “cutting a bad figure,” but actually means “embarrassing yourself by acting like a jerk.”  And no Italian wants to do that.  He put the mask back on.

I do wonder, though, how Venice and other big cities are going to enforce the social distancing requirements on public transportation, which means leaving every other seat vacant, when there are more visitors.

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Carpaccio: Panel from Legend of St. Ursula (restoration finally complete!)

We visited the Accademia, Venice’s largest art museum where we were able to spend time with the works of Bellini, Veronese and Carpaccio in uncrowded rooms.  We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum.  We don’t always like museums devoted to modern art, but Guggenheim selected her pieces according to her personal taste, and makes a convincing case for her selections.   Even Jackson Pollock’s strange abstractions look more organized when paired with Peggy’s wrought-iron windows.  And Peggy’s placement of modern abstract pieces next to contemporary African art is also very interesting – she knows exactly where the inspiration for the European works is coming from, and she wants you to know it too.

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Magritte: La voce dell’aria (at the Guggenheim)

We took a guided tour of the Casa Bartoli, a 16th C structure which, much renovated, was a private residence until the owners died a few years ago.  The house was elegant, but comfortable, and had killer views of the Grand Canal and the church of Santa Maria della Salute across the way.  (The church, whose name means Our Lady of Good Health, was built by the city in gratitude for surviving the second coming of the Black Death in the 17th C – a story that had unexpected resonance in these pandemic times.)

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Casa Bortoli interior

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Casa Bortoli: Fantastic chandelier

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The Salute Church from Casa Bortoli

We even took a gondola ride, for the first time in many years.  Without the big cruise ships in the lagoon, you could venture out into the canal in a gondola without fear of being swamped.

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Mostly, though, we enjoyed just walking the streets of Venice, being able to travel side by side instead of single file for once.  Most of the restaurants we have enjoyed in the past were open, and doing good business, but they had time to talk to us.  So did our gondolier, the folks running our hotel, and shopkeepers.  They all wanted tourists back – just maybe not so many of them.

Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre are five spectacularly sited villages along the Ligurian coast.  Although there are some roads, the towns are connected mainly by hiking trails and a rail line.  We had never been to this part of Italy before, since we had heard that it was often crowded during high season and the hiking season is short (it’s not really a place you can visit during the winter).

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The villages are as beautiful as advertised. From our base in Monterosso, we enjoyed hiking to Vernazza and then Corniglia, and we visited a fourth town (Manarola) by train.  We even got in a little beach time.  All in all, though, I’m not sure we would have enjoyed it so much had it been more crowded.

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Lucca

We have been to Lucca before, some years ago, but again, it seemed like a good time to revisit this popular city.  Lucca has a very old cathedral (started in the 11th C) and very fine city walls, which you can walk around. But the highlight of this trip was our visit to Villa Reale di Marlia, a few miles outside the city.

Villa Reale was the country residence of Elisa Baciocchi, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was named Princess of Lucca after her brother conquered much of northern Italy.  Elisa restored the 17th C manor house, and completely redesigned the gardens in the style of English country houses (including very large lawns, unusual in Italy).  After Napoleon was deposed, the house was sold to a succession of new owners, who maintained the magnificent gardens but allowed the manor house to fall into disrepair.  The house has recently been restored by an anonymous Swiss couple who fell in love with the place and clearly spared no expense to restore the house to its original Napoleonic splendor.  It is spectacular, and we highly recommend a visit here to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of Lucca.

Travel in the post Covid era

How has travel changed in the post Covid era?

The first and most obvious difference is that we took our car instead of the train.  Neither of us minds wearing a mask during a visit to a church or museum, or on a short trip on a bus or train.  But wearing one continuously for 5 or 6 hours seems a bit much.  I can’t even imagine a transAtlantic flight under those conditions.

Going to a restaurant where all the waiters are masked is a little weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

One less obvious casualty of the pandemic is the hotel buffet breakfast. The hotel we stayed at in Venice used to offer breakfast, but their breakfast room was so tiny they could not comply with the new social distancing requirements.  So they no longer offer breakfast, and have adjusted their room rates accordingly.  Given that the hotel was situated within 5 minutes walk of at least half a dozen cafes, including an excellent pastry shop literally outside the door, this was no hardship.

The other two hotels we stayed at continued to offer a buffet style breakfast.  You could see everything on offer, but you had to ask a hotel staff member to get it for you and put it on your plate.   In some ways, that’s a good thing – you will probably be too embarrassed to ask for that second piece of pastry you didn’t need anyway.  But some might be less willing to try an unfamiliar local specialty – deviled eggs in Turkey, or spinach with pine nuts in Spain, which would be too bad.

The Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is currently operating an an advance reservation basis – you go to the website and select a date and an entry time.  I think this is a great idea for small museums, which can sometimes be unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  The Villa Borghese in Rome has been doing this for several years now.  It requires a bit of advance planning, but it makes your visit to these smaller museums much more enjoyable.  I hope it’s a permanent change.

 

 

 

 

 

Life in the Time of Corona

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For the past week and a half, we have been under lockdown here in Italy because of the CoronaVirus.

The outbreak started in northern Italy, quite a ways from where we are living.  Cases are still concentrated in the northern provinces of Lombardy, the Veneto and Emilia Romagna.  The hospitals in Lombardy in particular are some of the best in Italy, with top flight doctors and high quality medical care.   This virus is survivable, for most people, with proper medical treatment.  But when a hospital is running at 200% capacity, with 10-20% of the medical staff either infected or under self-isolation for possible infection, not everyone will have access to proper medical treatment. Overwhelmed hospitals will have to make battlefield-style decisions about who to treat.  So now the whole country is under lockdown, to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed.

Everyone over 75, anyone with compromised immune systems, or anyone with symptoms, is being asked to stay home.  Others may go out for matters of “necessity”- shopping, medical appointments, walking the dog, looking in on an elderly relative.  Food stores, pharmacies, and stores selling cleaning supplies and household items (not sold in pharmacies here) are open, as are banks and post offices.  Medical facilities are open, but most doctors offices (doctors tend to practice solo here) are closed except by appointment for urgent matters. Dentists are likewise available only for emergencies.  Garbage pickup continues (although the recycling center is closed) and police and fire departments are fully operational. All other businesses – bars and restaurants, coffee bars, clothes stores, movie theaters and concert halls, barbers and hair salons – are closed for the duration.  There is no equivalent of DoorDash here – although a few restaurants have organized delivery services, it has been strictly on a one-off basis, and I get the sense that most people are cooking at home.

We have a number to call if we get sick, and someone will assess our symptoms.  I understand that people are being advised to stay home unless they are having breathing difficulties.

Italy has a national health care system, but the system is administered locally.  There are three public hospitals in our two-county administrative area.  For the moment, they are trying to restrict patients infected with the virus to two of those hospitals, with the third being used for other medical services.

It helps a lot that Italy has a single-payer health care system.  There are no payment or insurance coverage issues, and the system can allocate patients among hospitals to maximize their resources without worrying about which hospital has contracts with which insurers.

Pharmacies remain open, and as far as I can tell there are no shortages of the kinds of medicines many people take on a routine basis.  I think that’s because not only brand-name but also generic drugs are made in this country.  Pharmacies seem to be willing to refill long-term prescriptions even if they are technically expired.

We’re fortunate that just about everything we need for daily life is within a 15 minute walk of our apartment.  The only destination we might need to access by car is the hospital, and we’re not planning to go there if we can help it.

Ascoli is a town of about 50,000 surrounded by agricultural land.   A lot of the food we eat on a regular basis – fruits and vegetables, chicken and lamb, pasta and grains, sausage and cheese – are produced within 2 hours of here.  We have 6 local bakeries, some of whom grow their own wheat, and a local coffee roaster.  San Benedetto, about 1/2 hour from here, has one of the largest commercial fishing ports in Italy, with wild and farmed seafood from the Adriatic.  “Local and sustainable” isn’t just a slogan here – it means short food supply chains, which is particularly important in a time when long distance transportation may be perturbed.

We haven’t seen the kind of panic buying that has been reported in the United States.  The shelves are fully stocked.  Even if a particular item (bleach, gelato) is not available on a given day, it will generally be available on your next visit.  Stores have implemented a limited entry system to keep people from congregating inside.  Our local supermarket moved the ticket machine from the deli counter to the front door, so you take a number and wait outside until it’s your turn. It’s the most organized line I’ve ever seen in Italy.

Italy is a democratic country, so at least up until now the government has tried to rely on voluntary compliance rather than a heavy-handed police force.  If you go out, you are supposed to carry a self-certification form stating your errand, but I’ve never been asked for one.  I’ve read that the police have issued thousands of citations in various parts of Italy, but voluntary compliance here seems really high.  The demographics here are kind of unusual – a lot of families with children and a lot of older people, but relatively few single people in their 20’s, who have to go elsewhere to finish their education or find jobs.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the latter days of World War II and its immediate aftermath, which were a time of great privation for Italy, are within the living memory of many of the older people here.  Some of the older folks have been through hard times before – and at least this time nobody is bombing them.

It’s kind of remarkable how quickly you can get used to a dramatically different way of life.  At breakfast, we discuss what we are going to do that day, as always.  But the number of options is severely limited.  Instead of “Let’s go to the beach today,” or “Let’s pop up to Venice for a few days,” it’s “Who gets to go to the store today?” Some days neither of us goes out at all, which is weird.  We’ve been reluctant to take walks, since the legal status of doing so is uncertain and errands generally have to be done solo.  But today I went down to the creek behind our house for about 20 minutes and didn’t see another soul, except for a guy walking his dog.  So I figured that was alright.

I’ve long been a student of medieval history, and accounts of plague outbreaks in medieval and early modern Europe, and how communities dealt with them, have always fascinated me.  I never dreamed, though, that I’d be living in them.

Italy took too long to enact these drastic measures, and as a result we will probably have to stay on lockdown longer than originally anticipated until we can flatten the curve of new cases.   For our region, though, which wasn’t as strongly hit as the north, the restrictions may have come in time.  We’ve seen more cases, but nothing like the horrible numbers being reported up north.  We’re not out of the woods yet by a long shot.

For those of you living in the US, please take my advice. This is not “just another flu.” These restrictions are not a hysterical over-reaction.

The world will be different when we emerge from this.  But we don’t know yet what kind of world that will be.

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian National Health System

Since it looks like the issue of “socialized medicine” is going to play a major role in the upcoming Presidential campaign, I thought I’d share my experiences of how an actual socialized medical system works.

Basic System Features 

Italy has a national health system, similar but not identical to the one used in the UK, France and Spain.  Other European countries, including Germany and Switzerland (and the ACA, for that matter) use a government-regulated insurance approach.

In Italy, all citizens are automatically enrolled in the national health system.  Legal Italian residents who are citizens of another EU country are also entitled to use the health care system under EU reciprocal agreements. Legal residents from other countries are allowed to buy into the system.  Premiums are income-based, and range from 400 to 2700 euro per person per year.

Coverage is comprehensive, and includes things like rehabilitation services which are often treated as supplemental services in the US.  There are no deductibles, and for new registrants, there are no exclusions for pre-existing conditions.  Public system doctors do not make house calls, but the system does provide transportation for the elderly or others in frail health who are unable to get themselves to a treatment facility.

Co-Pays and Other Costs

Coverage includes an unlimited number of visits to your primary care physician, without co-pays.

There are co-pays for certain items like annual blood tests. Co-pays are subject to a statutory maximum, currently 46 euro (about $50),  but depending on the test can sometimes be less.   Co-pays are waived for those on limited incomes, or for those in certain medical categories like cancer survivors.

Co-pays also apply to consultations with specialists.  If you get a referral from your primary physician, and are willing to take the next available specialist, you pay 46  euro. If you make the appointment on your own, or you want to see a specific doctor, you pay 100 euro (about $110).

There are no co-pays for emergency room or hospital services.

Mammograms are free every two years.  If you (or your doctor) want them more frequently, you can schedule them, subject to the standard co-pay.

Drugs prescribed for active conditions (e.g., antibiotics for current infections) are free.  You generally need to pay for drugs that are prescribed for long-term conditions, although prices seem to be heavily subsidized.  My statin costs 6 euro a month, for a local-manufactured generic product.  Ted’s blood pressure medication is similarly reasonably priced.

Painkillers are less widely used here, whether by prescription or OTC.  When I broke my wrist a couple of years ago, I was sent home with a 2-week supply of prescription strength Tylenol (500 mg).  I understand that in the US many people in my situation are given opiates.

My sense is that doctors here use painkillers for pain reduction, not pain obliteration — increased pain is a symptom they don’t want to mask. There are drug abuse problems in Italy, but there doesn’t seem to be an epidemic of opiate abuse, which often starts in the US with a prescription – maybe there’s a connection.

System Administration

When you are enrolled in the system, you select a primary care doctor who is generally your point of entry.  If you don’t like your doctor, you can change without cost or penalty (although you will have to wait in line at the administrative office).

The system is administered locally.  Within each region, there are smaller administrative areas which ensure that most of your medical care will be provided for by practitioners close to where you live.  In our case, our primary care physician is a 10-minute walk from our house.  Our primary hospital and emergency room is a 10-minute drive from our house, or 20 minutes by bus (served by three bus lines).  Within walking distance from where we live, there is a satellite center for blood tests and immunizations, so you don’t have to go all the way to the hospital.  There is also a small private hospital within walking distance where you can get some services at additional cost.

Although your primary care physician is located in your area, you can actually go to a public system doctor anywhere in the country.   If you want to see a knee specialist in Perugia or a heart specialist in Rome, you are covered, subject to co-pays and availability.  If you have a rare condition and the only available specialist is in another city, the system will cover your train ticket.

The system is set up for efficiency, which is not necessarily the same as convenience for the patient.  If you are very sick, or have a medical emergency, you will be seen quickly, for example only a few days between cancer diagnosis and treatment.  On the other hand, if you go to your doctor with an important but not urgent medical problem, you will probably sit for 2 hours in your doctor’s waiting room.  Most primary care doctors here practice individually, with at most a nurse assisting.

(As a point of reference, I understand that in the UK you can make appointments with your primary care physician, but you might have to wait a week or more if your matter is non-urgent.  I’ve also been told that in the UK appointment no-shows are a big problem, which may be why the Italian system operates this way.)

Waiting times for non-urgent specialist consultations, or non-urgent medical procedures, like “extra” mammograms or colonoscopies, can sometimes be months long. If the appointment is truly non-urgent (e.g., you want a second medical opinion to confirm a prior medical conclusion) you may not mind the wait.  And you can sometimes get an appointment quicker if you are willing to go to another doctor in the region, which can be an hour or two away.  Or you can go to a private doctor.

Private System as Supplement

One of the most interesting features of the Italian medical system is the way you can go to a private doctor or a private hospital on a one-off basis, even though you are covered by the national health care system.  This is not the case in the UK (or the US for that matter), where you are either in the public system or the private system, but you generally can’t utilize both systems at the same time.

So, for example, if you want a colonoscopy, and don’t want to wait months for a hospital appointment, you can make an appointment for the same procedure at a private hospital, generally with a much shorter waiting time.  Similarly, if you want a specialist consultation in weeks instead of months, you can pay for a private doctor.

Private facilities also provide services for the public system on a contract basis.  A friend of ours had minor surgery at the local private hospital, which was fully covered by the public system.  Private facilities also provide diagnostic services for the national health system on a space available basis.  (I’m not sure how the economics of this works, but I think this system acts both as a safety valve for the public system and as a mechanism that allows the private facility to be fully utilized).

There are also some doctors who have both public and private patients, with shorter wait times (and higher fees) for the private patients.

The reason why this back-and-forth between the public and private systems works is that the costs, even at most private facilities, are very reasonable  The cost of a mammogram from a private doctor, for example, is 80 euro.  A consultation with a private surgeon is 150 euro.  And the cost of a colonoscopy at the private hospital was 130 euro.  (When they quoted me that price, I actually thought I had missed a zero, since the cost of the procedure in the US can be $3,000 or more.) These costs are not only reasonable for us as Americans, used to paying staggeringly high prices, but they are also within the means of middle-class Italians.

My sense is that most people in our area use the public health system for most of their medical needs.  People in certain situations might use private doctors for primary care.  People with chronic medical conditions, women expecting a baby, or working parents with small children, for example, often prefer the convenience of being able to make an appointment.

With respect to major medical services, though – surgery, broken bones, treatment for cancer or other serious illnesses –  it seems that most people, rich or poor, use the public system.

Private insurance is available, and is generally not costly, but in my region, at least, it seems that few people use it.

Quality of Medical Care

The quality of the medical care is difficult for me to judge, given that I am not a doctor.  But the doctors seem attentive and well-informed to me.  In cases where I have had the same procedure done both in the US and here, my experience here was better.  (I had a colonoscopy in the US where they overdosed me on the sedative, and I was out for several hours after the procedure was over.  Here, I was given the correct dose and was only out for 20 minutes).

I have also noted that many procedures done by physician assistants or nurses in the US are done by doctors here.  In the US, when a test is done by a medical tech, the technician is often prohibited by law from discussing the results of the test with the patient.  In Italy, when tests are done by doctors, they write up and discuss their results with you in real time.  When I had a mammogram at a private facility, the doctor personally reviewed the results of my scan with me while we viewed it together – this has never been the case in the US.

Another thing I like about the Italian medical system is that your results, whether in a public or private facility, are typically immediately available and are your property.  When I had the mammogram, for example, the doctor wrote up the results and handed them to me, along with a CD.  (The concept of electronic medical records doesn’t seem to have caught on here yet, except within hospitals).  This puts the responsibility on you for maintaining your personal medical records – you often see people in doctor’s offices carrying around thick folders with their medical history.  But it also means that if you change doctors or move to another region, you don’t have to struggle to get copies of your medical records.

Issues

As with many of the public services in Italy, quality varies by region.  Even though the quality of care is theoretically the same in every region, the quality of the administration, the number of facilities and available doctors, varies a lot.  Tuscany and Umbria are generally regarded as having the best systems, but all of the northern and central regions, including the Marche, where I live, are pretty good.  Rome has some of the best doctors and hospitals, but administration can be chaotic. In the South, though, the quality of service in the public facilities is not as good, and it seems that those who can afford it purchase private insurance.

Doctors are not well paid here, and many younger doctors have decided to practice elsewhere.  This is a problem, as many older doctors are now approaching mandatory retirement.

The possibility of practicing privately also draws some of the doctors away from the system.  As the price points I noted above indicate, the profit potential for practicing privately is not huge.  And many doctors prefer not to have to deal with money.  But this brain drain has had an effect and over time an insufficient number of doctors may start to affect the overall performance of the public system. This has already happened with respect to eye doctors and dentists – these services are theoretically provided by the public system, but so many doctors in these areas have gone into private practice that in effect these services have been privatized.

Major Benefits 

As noted above, once you are enrolled in the national health care system, there are no additional costs or deductibles beyond co-pays for certain non-urgent services.

In particular, there are no co-pays for visits to your primary care doctor.  And primary care doctors here typically don’t have advice nurses or receptionists who act as gatekeepers deciding whether you are sick enough to warrant the doctor’s time.  As a practical matter, then, you decide when you want to see your doctor.  You may have to sit in the doctor’s waiting room for a couple of hours, but generally speaking, if you want to see your doctor on a particular day, you can.

And although there can be long waits for non-urgent conditions, those waits tend to disappear when you  are really sick.  In the US, the quality and the timeliness of the care you get is often based on how much money you have, or the quality of your insurance.  Here, it is based on how sick you are.

Another benefit to having a national system is that care is coordinated.

Last year, a local friend was stricken by a serious auto-immune disease that causes temporary paralysis in the extremities.  He had a particularly difficult case, where his lungs were paralyzed for several weeks and he had to be put on a ventilator.  After 45 days in the intensive care unit of the local public hospital, his condition had improved enough to start rehab, and he spent several months in a specially designed residential rehab facility.  Now he is home again, and a physical therapist visits several times a week.   All of this care, from hospital ICU to special rehab to at-home physical therapy, was coordinated by his doctors, who decided when to move him to the private facility and when he could go home.  And all of it was covered by the national health system.

In the US, the health care delivery system is often fragmented.  Hospital services might be covered under one part of your policy, while rehab services come under another, with different deductibles and policy limits for each.  The costs of a serious auto-immune disease in the US can be staggering, and rehab services in particular are often not fully covered.  It’s the kind of medical condition that can lead to bankruptcy in the US.  That doesn’t happen here.

The Italian medical system has its faults.  Primary care doctors can be overburdened  Waiting times for non-urgent procedures can be long.  But the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a serious medical condition won’t take all the resources you have is priceless.

Unexplored Corners of Rome

When we visited Rome last week with some old friends from the US, we wanted to both revisit old favorites and see some new things.  Here is what we did.

Palazzo Farnese

The Palazzo Farnese, in the center of Rome not far from the Campo de Fiori, was designed by Michelangelo in the 16th C for the Farnese family.  Today, the building houses the French Embassy and can only be seen by prearrangement.  Fortunately, these days it’s easy to reserve online, and tours are offered in English as well as French and Italian.

Palazzo FarneseBecause the building is a showcase for the French government, all the interiors are in tip-top shape, and some of the larger rooms are even heated.   The standout, for me, were the ceiling frescoes by Annibale Carracci and his brother Agostino, Bolognese painters who did most of their work in Rome.  The brothers were inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, but the theme of these frescoes were drawn from ancient Roman mythology.

The ceiling frescoes, started in 1597, are noted for their brilliant use of spatial effects, which make the two-dimensional painting appear three-dimensional.  For security reasons, no visitor photos are allowed inside, but fortunately professional photos are available online.  In this detail from one of the ceiling frescoes, look how the two young men in the foreground are posed in front of what appears to be a painting.  Their knees are shown covering the picture frame, and they are sitting on the base of what looks like an intricately carved statue.  It’s hard to believe this is really just done in two dimensions.

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The Vatican Museum – In Reverse

We booked an early morning entry time, and instead of going through the museum in the normal way, we decided to go to the Sistine Chapel first.  Since all the suggested itineraries, and all the guided tours, visit the Sistine Chapel at the end, our hope was that we would arrive at the Chapel before the crowds.  So we raced to the other side of the museum, not stopping to look at anything, which in a museum as amazing as the Vatican takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude.

It worked!  When we arrived at the Sistine Chapel, there were only about 25 people there – practically empty.  The guards, who during peak times enforce a 10-minute rule and encourage everyone to keep moving with metaphorical pitchforks , were much more relaxed, and we spent nearly half an hour there.  There was even room to sit down on the benches along the side to better enjoy the views.  (Photos are still not allowed; here’s a stock photo.)

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It was a bit of a trick finding our way back to the regular tourist route, since all the signs essentially go the other way.  Fortunately, the museum guides are friendly, especially in the less crowded parts of the museum, and showed us a small elevator which took us back to the Map Room, where we were able to locate our current home town (“Asculum” in Latin) on one of the maps – you can see it at the confluence of two rivers.

Asculum (detail)

Asculum (detail)

The Vatican is probably the only museum in the world where a Van Gogh is in an unheralded gallery – it’s a Pietà, an unusual subject for the Dutch painter.  And, while the Raphael Rooms get a lot of justified attention, there are more Raphaels in the Pinacoteca, including a painting of the Transfiguration which was probably his last work.

Merlozzo di Forli was noted for his angels.

This painting by local artist Carlo Crivelli was once in the church of San Gregorio Magno in Ascoli Piceno, which is about 5 minutes from our apartment.  I think it’s been in the Vatican for some time, though.

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I can’t promise this “reverse” method of seeing the Vatican Museum would work as well in midsummer as it did on a weekday morning in January.  And it wouldn’t have worked even in January had we not done it the first thing in the morning.   We transited the Chapel again, about two hours later, on the way out (all exits go that way), and all the bench seats were full.

Vaticano

Domus Aurea

At the suggestion of some friends, we visited the Domus Aurea, which was envisioned as a vast landscaped palace by the Emperor Nero, who was forced to commit suicide long before the project was finished.  Rome subjected Nero to the “damnatio memoriae,” by which they intended to expunge the name and his very existence from the official history of Rome. His statues were taken down, the colossal statue that framed his artificial lake was replaced with an amphitheater, and his golden house was buried by future building projects.

As a marketing strategy, the  erasure of Nero from Rome’s institutional memory was a total failure. If there’s one Roman emperor whose name everyone knows, it’s Nero.  And the Flavian Amphitheater is now known as the Colosseum, for the giant statue that Nero had once placed there.

The Domus Aurea, though, was well and truly buried, until it was discovered by chance in the 15th C.  The spectacular paintings, including unusual designs and mythical birds and animals, caused a sensation in the artistic community, and imitations of these designs showed up all over Italian interiors for the next few hundred years.  Since it was then (wrongly) believed that the paintings were in a grotto, these designs were called “grottesca” in Italian – it’s the origin of our word “grotesque,” although they are really quite pretty.

Domusaurea

Today Italian archeologists are working to excavate the site and save the frescoes, which have suffered greatly from the humidity.  Since it’s a working site, you can visit only on weekends, and only via pre-booked tour (which you can do online).  And since it’s a working site, you have to wear hard hats.

The tour included a room where you were given VR glasses, which allowed you to visualize what the room might have looked like in the 1st C,  when it was open to the air.  I was skeptical at first, but it was well done and kind of cool.

And the Rest

Of course, we did a lot of the same stuff other tourists do in Rome – visit famous landmarks, check out the art in churches, test our honesty at the Bocca della Verita and, of course, eat.

Caravaggio imagines that St. Matthew is none too pleased to be called away from his lucrative job as a tax collector. He doesn’t seem all too pleased with his angel avatar either.

Church of San Luigi Francese

I love the way Jesus has his arm around his mother’s shoulder in this 12th C mosaic.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

La Bocca della Verità

Bocca della Verità

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Eggplant Ravioli

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Carciofi alla Giudea

With Laura and Peter at the Colisseum

Happy Holidays from Ascoli Piceno

Christmastime is an especially beautiful time of year in Ascoli.  The decorations are up.  Everyone is out in the square in the evening.  There’s something going on every evening.

The holidays give us time to a chance to reflect on what’s important.  In that spirit, we often are asked us why we moved to a relatively unknown part of Italy. Here’s part of the reason.

On a particularly fine day a few weeks ago,  we woke up late having been out until 1am at a jazz guitar concert the night before. Finishing breakfast, we prepared to go out to do the shopping as we often do. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and lots of folks were out preparing to look at this weekend’s Mercato Antiquario.

We first stopped off at the open-air vegetable market, picking up some artichokes, broccoli, romanesco, and cavolini (brussel sprouts) on the stalk (rare here).

We then ambled over to see Emidio and sons at the bar where we usually take morning coffee.

Fully caffeinated, we headed off to finish shopping at the local grocery. Soon we ran into a American friend who visits Ascoli for a month or two a year, and had a lovely conversation about the magnificent buildings along the main drag.

Not long after, we ran into two expat friends of ours who were excited about a new type of pasta they made the night before.

After picking up some dinner for tonight, we met Franco, an engaging gentleman I met working with the Angeli del Bello – a volunteer organization that cleans up graffiti and other ugliness. He was happy to point out that my picture was in the local paper this morning from our most recent project. I’m a bit taller than most other folks in our group, and so am easy to recognize.

Finally, we ran into my commercialista (accountant) who was most happy to introduce his wife, whom we had not met before.

After all this, it was almost time to go home and make lunch! A typical morning in Ascoli!

So none of this is world-shaking. But I do think it is typical of a lifestyle that didn’t exist for us in the US. A lifestyle where moving slowly and meeting and talking to all sorts of people is really the essence of living.

So we feel truly blessed in our lives here in Italy.  We hope that you find yourself in a similar situation wherever you are.

Ted and Linda

 

Wine and Truffles in Piedmont

We spent a few days in northern Italy in early November.  Our destination was Piedmont, and the white truffle festival at Alba.

Because Piedmont is a bit of a ways from here, we stopped off on the way in Rovigo, to see an exhibit of “Giapponismo”:  European responses to Japanese art, which became available in Europe in the latter half of the 19th C.  The exhibit included a few works by Van Gogh and Monet, whose work was heavily influenced by Japanese art.  They also included a number of works by Italian artists, who incorporated Japanese sensibilities into ceramics, glassware, furniture making, even posters.

 

We next stopped at Cremona — intending just to have lunch, we wound up staying the whole afternoon. Cremona was the first city I saw on my very first trip to Italy, in 1970, and I had forgotten how nice it was.  The city has a fine cathedral, a baptistery with a brick dome whose construction techniques anticipated Brunelleschi’s by 200 years, and a climbable (500 steps) bell tower which offered fine views of the countryside.

 

Cremona also has a fine museum dedicated to the great violin makers of the 17th and 18th Centuries – the Amati, Guarneri and Stradivarius families – who did their work here.  The museum has, as you might expect, a number of examples of these historic instruments.  But they also had some more interesting exhibits, including listening rooms where you could hear these instruments’ unique sounds.

No one knows why these instruments sound precisely the way they do.  One theory is that, because this period of European history was unusually cold (it is sometimes called the “Little Ice Age”), the wood produced in the local forests was especially dense.

Museo di Violino, Cremona

The white truffle fair in Alba was something of a zoo. You paid your 4 euro to enter the big tent, and got to walk by tables of huge white truffles selling for crazy prices:  350 euro per 100 grams, which is close to $2,000 a pound.  At those prices, most of the buyers were professionals.  But the aroma was available to all at no additional charge.

During truffle season, every restaurant had truffles on the menu.  One of the classic ways to eat them is with tajarin, the local egg noodles, served with a simple butter sauce and fresh white truffles shaved on top.  The truffles here aren’t much cheaper than anywhere else, but you do get more of them.  And they seem to taste and smell better here.  No one has yet figured out how to cultivate white truffles – they have to be located in the field, these days using specially trained truffle-hunting dogs.  That’s one of the reasons they are so expensive.  And no one has figured out how to preserve or dry these truffles very successfully either.  They are really best eaten fresh not far from where they are found.

Truffled tajarin at Rabaya

Ted unaccountably ate non-truffles occasionally, including a rabbit dish made with bitter chocolate and balsamic vinegar which reminded us of mole (although without the chili peppers).

Mole rabbit at Il Centro

We also visited the town of Asti, which has some interesting churches.

 

We took the opportunity to buy wines from the Barbaresco and Roero districts, which we have always enjoyed a lot.  Much of the wine here is grown by small family-owned operations.  When I mentioned to one winemaker that a particular wine I had had at a restaurant seemed unusually high in alcohol, he told me that this was a characteristic of the whole region.  While his grandfather had struggled to make wine with an alcohol content of 13%, these days winemakers struggled to keep it below 15%.  Some of this is due to higher average temperatures – generally, the hotter the growing season, the higher the alcohol content of the wine, as winemakers from California to Australia can attest.  But even in cooler years, the wines are still coming in at 14.5% alcohol, considerably higher than they used to be.  Some oenologists in Alba believe that the vines are adapting to changing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, but nobody really knows.

We returned home via Montalcino, in Tuscany, where we also stopped to buy wine.  You may be sensing a theme here.  We also stopped by Petrignano, just over the Umbrian border, to pick up this year”s supply of Guido Vestri’s wonderful olive oil.

Montalcino city view

Just after we arrived home, we learned about the devastating floods in Venice, the worst in 50 years.  We have had some rain here in Ascoli, but nothing like the deluges that have hit Venice and are now threatening Tuscany too.  The city of Venice will recover pretty quickly, I think, although the salt-water damage to some of the art will take a while to restore.  It’s a reminder that nothing is permanent.  We feel very fortunate to be able to travel as we do, and to see as much as we have seen.  For everyone else – don’t wait!