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!

 

 

 

A Weekend in Umbria

We spent a weekend in Umbria, right on the other side of the mountains, visiting the lovely towns of Spoleto and Umbria.

Spoleto, founded as a Latin colony in the 3rd C BC, flourished in Roman times, and became part of the Papal States in the medieval era.

The Duomo of Santa Maria Assunta was begun in the 12th C and was significantly modified in the 17th C.  It is still possible to see the original stone floors and fragments of the original 13th C frescoes.

The cathedral is best known, however, for the magnificent 15th C frescoes by Filippo Lippi depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

Filippo Lippi, although dedicated to the church while still a child, quickly decided he would rather be a painter than a priest.  The monks allowed him to learn to paint, and eventually young Lippi made an independent career as a painter, with the support of the Medici family.  He led a somewhat disreputable life, eventually running off with a nun, the beautiful Lucrezia Buti.  The couple had a son, Filippino, who also grew up to be a painter.  Had Filippo lived a century earlier, or a century later, his story might have ended badly.  But he flourished in the relevantly tolerant atmosphere of Renaissance Florence, where much was forgiven because he painted so well.

The frescoes in Spoleto were Lippi’s last major works – he died when the work was nearly finished, and is buried in the cathedral.  Lippi used Lucrezia’s features for the face of the Virgin, as he often did, and painted himself in the crowd attending Mary at her death – that’s him in the black hat and white cape standing at her feet.  The young boy in white standing in front of Lippi may be Filippino.

The cathedral also includes a rare letter written by St. Francis of Assisi to a fellow monk.

Letter from St. Francis

Following the afternoon in Spoleto, we spent a day and a half in Orvieto, an ancient city which has been populated since Etruscan times.  Orvieto has one of the most famous cathedrals in Italy, with a distinctive white facade and exterior sculptures of great beauty.

The church is most famous today for the San Brizio chapel, which contains frescoes of the Last Judgment.  The work was begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli.

Fra Angelico is responsible for the depictions of the heavenly hosts, painted in typical masterly style.

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I have always been more taken, though, with Signorelli’s imaginative contributions, depicting the Last Days as detailed in the Biblical book of Revelation

In one section, he shows us a preaching Antichrist that looks an awful lot like the real one.  Signorelli painted himself and Fra Angelico as two well-dressed gentlemen on the far left of the crowd listening to the false preacher.

One of the most fantastical sections depicts the Resurrection of the Dead, which under the Catholic doctrine of the day was interpreted as literal bodily resurrection.  We see the dead scrambling out of their coffins, some already with bodies, some just skeletons waiting for their bodies to be restored. It’s hard not to think of those skeletons, standing around and chatting while waiting for their tickets to paradise, as the genuinely Grateful Dead.

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No Last Judgment cycle would be complete without a depiction of the torments of the damned, and Signorelli does not disappoint.  One poor woman, shown on the back of a demon going straight to hell, seems strangely familiar.  Indeed, her face often appeared in other works by Signorelli as the face of Mary Magdalen (an example of which is included in the museum next door).  This woman was Signorelli’s long-time girlfriend, who apparently got tired of waiting around in Orvieto for the artist to finish his masterwork, and left him.  Signorelli got his revenge, as only a painter for the ages could, by using her features to create a memorable portrait of a damned soul being carried off by a winged demon.

Many visitors to Orvieto come only to see the Cathedral, which is a shame, since Orvieto has many other interesting churches.

The church of San Domenico has a funerary monument by Arnolfo di Cambio, a gifted 13th C Florentine sculptor.  I was particularly taken by the little attendant on the side, carefully closing the drapes on the deceased, conveying a sense of vibrancy and motion unusual in this era.

Like many Dominican churches, this one features a dog carrying a torch.  In theory, this is because St. Dominic, a noted preacher, was sometimes known as “God’s torch.” But this is really a medieval play on words (God’s dogs, in Latin, is “Domini canes”).

We also visited the church of San Giovenale.  Begun in the 11th C, it is one of the oldest churches in Orvieto,  It contains frescoes from the 12th through 15th centuries, allowing you to view four centuries of Italian art history in a single space.

I was particularly intrigued by the late 13th C fresco depicting the conversion of St. Paul.  Many representations of this event focus on St. Paul falling from his horse, as though getting hit on the head is what made Paul see the light.   Here, we see only the heads of Jesus and the Saint, as though they were having a conversation – a conversion by reason, not by a show of force.

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San Giovenale’s main altarpiece featured one of those wide-eyed supporters I always refer to as “wacky medievals.” I recently learned that the formal name for these guys is “telamon.” I like my name better.

St. Giovenale

Speaking of wacky, I have no idea what this guy is doing (found in the Duomo museum).

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On Sunday afternoon, we had a group lunch organized by a gentleman in Ascoli who runs the Circolo Culinario Cuochi Pasticcioni.  The acronym, CCCP, recalls the name of the USSR in Cyrillic letters.  The group’s symbol is also strangely familiar, although the hammer and sickle have been replaced by a fist holding a fork.  The organizer studied in Russia as a young man and enjoys multilingual puns as much as his wacky medieval ancestors.  These days, he organizes group trips to restaurants, food festivals and other cultural events in central Italy.

CCCP

This particular group lunch was held at Casa Vissani, a Michelin 2-star restaurant located on a country road between Orvieto and Todi.  The food was presented in a somewhat fanciful manner – check out those miniature veal chops – but still tasted like real food.  The room was spectacularly beautiful, and the wines were outstanding. There were only three English speakers in our group of 22, but as it well known and recently documented by scientific research (cites on request) your ability to speak a foreign language improves with your wine consumption – particularly if your listeners have been drinking too.  A good time was had by all.

 

 

 

 

A Brief Trip to the US

We took a brief trip to the East Coast of the US in early October for the celebration of my aunt’s 100th birthday.  For a variety of reasons, we took a flight out of Milan rather than Rome.  It takes about 5 hours to get to Milan from here, so we decided to stay overnight in Milan on both the outgoing and return legs of the journey.

During our brief stop in Milan, we were able to see two interesting art exhibits.  The first was a retrospective of the work of Giorgio Di Chirico, a 20th C Italian painter.  Di Chirico is known for his unusual style, sometimes called “metaphysical,” which depicted human forms in oddly distorted shapes and perspectives.  Over the course of his long life, though, he also did a lot of work in a more traditional style, even a few self portraits.

The second exhibit dealt with the impact of the opening of Japan in the 19th C on Western art.  Many European painters, especially Van Gogh, were fascinated by the flat perspective of Japanese woodblock paintings. Other painters just used the new fascination with “Japanism” as an excuse to dress up their girlfriends in kimono – sometimes with a very un-Japanese cigarette.  Japanese artists as well were influenced by their exposure to European art.

We were particularly interested in this late painting by Berthe Morisot, one of our favorite artists.  This work, which was done in 1894 just a few months before her death, seems to prefigure the abstract water lilies done by Monet some 20 years later.  Who knows where Morisot’s art might have gone had she lived a bit longer.

Sous-bois à l'automne, 1894 - Berthe Morisot

There was an unexpected surprise at the beginning of the exhibit – a chronicle of a several earlier Japanese embassies to Europe, during the last decades of the 16th C.  The first embassy, which included young Japanese converts to Christianity escorted by Jesuit missionaries, were received by the King of Spain, the Pope and the Doge of Venice, where one of the young Japanese was painted by Jacopo Robusto “Tintoretto,” son of the more famous Domenico.  This portrait is particularly interesting in that it doesn’t exaggerate the young man’s Asian features or skin tones – it’s a realistic portrait, not a caricature.  The exhibit also includes some very rare artifacts of Japan’s early experience with Christiainity, including a host carrier with the Latin letters for Jesus imprinted on a lacquer box, a crucifix with a Buddha figure placed where a crucified Christ would generally be, and a Madonna with strikingly Asian features.

These early embassies came to naught.  In the early 17th C, the Tokugawa shoguns prohibited Christianity, expelled the missionaries,  and closed the country to European visitors.  It would be another 250 years before regular communication between Japan and the West was re-established.

We stayed in Milan’s Navigli district.  During the era when most travel went by water the city was supplied by a series of canals.  These days, the Navigli district is a neighborhood of smaller hotels, restaurants, wine bars, and boutique shops, popular with tourists and locals alike.  This picturesque district is only a few minutes from the Duomo using the city’s excellent public transportation system.

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Hopping over “the pond”, we stayed in Manhattan a few days, meeting up with some old college friends as well as recently relocated Californians.  We mostly ate Asian food which we don’t get much opportunity to sample here in Ascoli Piceno – dim sum, Korean barbecue, creative Thai.

Although we both grew up in New York City, neither of us has spent much time there in recent years, so we used the opportunity to play tourist and do things the people who live in the city rarely do.  We visited the observation deck of the Empire State Building, which offered spectacular views of New York’s ever-changing skyline.

We traveled to my cousin’s home in Redding, Connecticut, to celebrate the 100th birthday of my aunt Elsie, my late father’s younger sister.  VIrtually all the family members living on the Eastern seaboard were in attendance, including aunt Elsie’s one surviving brother, all 8 of her nieces and nephews, most of her grandnephews and nieces, and even a few great grands. All of us cousins spent a lot of time together when we were younger, but it has been years before so many of us were together in one place.  It was great to see everyone again.

Unusually for a single woman of her era, my aunt traveled a lot when she was younger, including a trip to Italy that might have indirectly inspired my own first journey there as a teenager.  Although my aunt uses a walker to get around these days, her mind is still sharp, and she is still in the “independent living” section of the combined independent/assisted living facility she moved into 3 years ago.  We can only hope our own old age will be as rewarding.

Elsie, Guy and Joan

Linda and Elsie

After the party, we spent a few days in western Massachusetts who old friends from California, who now live in Amherst.

We took the opportunity to visit the Clark Museum in Williamstown, which is known for its collection of American art.

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Italian art is not neglected – the collection included wonderful paintings by Piero della Francesca and Domenico Ghirlandaio.

It also has a couple of more traditional paintings by Berthe Morisot, although you can see that even her still life is a little subversive.

This is a beautiful museum in a spectacular setting, particularly at the beginning of a New England fall, and I recommend a visit o anyone who happens to be in the area,

We ended the trip by visiting Ted’s family in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.  Although I had hoped to spend time walking on the beach, our three days coincided with a “noreaster,” a storm with winds so strong it was difficult to open the car door, let alone casually stroll along the water.  I felt like the one of those poor guys the Weather Channel sends out for first hand reports whenever there’s a big storm.  We had a good time catching up with folks nevertheless.  And we made sure to enjoy some delicious lobster!

Some of you may be wondering what it was like to be in the US after having been away for the better part of two years.  Too much ice, too much sugar, too many big cars.  We really appreciated the cheap gas, though.

 

Another Trip to the Dolomites, via Ferrara

We loved our visit to Bolzano in the Dolomites last year, and we decided to spend even more time there this year.

Ferrara

On the way up, we decided to stop at Ferrara, which had been an important city in the Renaissance era.  Several of the city’s main sights remain closed due to the effects of a significant earthquake in 2012.  Ferrara’s city center was largely rebuilt in brick after a devastating earthquake in the 1570’s.   Bringing these old brick buildings up to modern earthquake codes while maintaining their historic character means that reconstruction proceeds slowly.  Fortunately, the old Ducal Palace is open – it is one of the few in Italy completely surrounded by a moat.  

Ferrara was a significant center for the Jewish community during the Renaissance era, and the ruling Este family invited Jews expelled from other parts of the peninsula to come settle here.  The city recently opened a museum dedicated to the history of Jewish life in Italy.  The museum has a strong collection of artifacts from the period of the Roman Empire – the Jewish community was well established in Rome at the time of Christ.  The curators have done a particularly good job of not only translating the inscriptions and symbols, but explaining what the inscription might tell us about a person’s life — free or slave, rich or poor, held in high esteem or buried as quickly as possible.  Some of the Jewish headstones featured Greek symbols, since Greek was the language used by most 1st Century Jews in Italy – Hebrew did not come into common use until several centuries later.  Some surviving tiles, probably from a synagogue, featured a design called a “Solomon’s Knot.” I have seen this design many times in medieval churches all over Europe, but had no idea it was of Jewish origin.

Bolzano 

Bolzano, at the foot of the Brenner Pass, was part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Sudtirol, which was ceded to Italy after World War I and renamed Alto Adige.  After War II, the area was granted a certain amount of political autonomy, and it is officially bilingual.  Although German remains the first language of most of the people living in the area, everyone can communicate in Italian and, increasingly these days, also in English.

Because of its strategic location, Bolzano has been an important commercial center since the Middle Ages.  The region’s historic prosperity is immediately apparent from the high quality of its art.

The Castel Roncolo, built in the 13th Century, was purchased in the 14th Century by a prosperous local merchant family, who had it decorated with expensive frescoes designed to show off their wealth and taste.  Unusually for this era, the frescoes depict mostly secular subjects – hunting and hawking, jousts, and an unusual game in which young men on horseback, armed with clubs, try to dislodge other similarly armed young men from their horses (a very dangerous game, and frequently banned, but apparently very popular.)

Other frescoes feature King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the story of Tristan and Isolde.  Centuries before the invention of printing, these stories were already well known in Italy through travelling troubadours and courtly poets.

The church of Saint Mary Magdalene, located in the vineyards above Bolzano, has frescoes depicting the Magdalene in a very unusual (and strikingly modern) guise as a virtual Apostle converting pagans in southern France.  According to an extra-Biblical but popular legend, Mary Magdalene traveled by boat from the Holy Land to the Camargues, and landed at a place named Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in her honor.  How this French legend would up being the subject of a fresco cycle in the Alps is a fascinating (and unanswered) question.  The tiny church also includes a baroque-era statue of Mary Magdalen in her more traditional guise, as a penitent wandering in the desert, but festooned with vine leaves to honor the church’s location.

The frescoes at the Castel Roncolo and the church of Mary Magdalene were done at about the same time, in the latter decades of the 14th C.  They seem to have been done by different south German artists, but the limited use of perspective in some of these frescoes (note particularly the hands of noble men and ladies clasping the balustrade) has led some art historians to conclude that the work of Giotto was also known in the area.  We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a period when most people rarely traveled more than a few miles from the place they were born.  But new artistic ideas, like good stories, got around.

The Dolomites

Bolzano is an excellent location for exploring the region of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites.   Although the entire region is known for its dairy products, the town of Moena, in the Val di Fassa about an hour from Bolzano, is particularly famous for its cheeses, particularly the oddly named Puzzone di Moena.  To get to the valley, you cross over into the Trentino region, which is majority Italian speaking.  But the first language of the inhabitants of the val di Fassa is Ladin, a Latin-derived language now spoken only in a few remote valleys of the Swiss and Italian Alps.  It’s odd that in the space of an hour you can cross three linguistic barriers without leaving the political confines of Italy. The cheese, however, needs no translation.

The Dolomites are known for their ski resorts in the winter, but in the summer, particularly in the Bolzano region, there are lots of mountain hiking areas.  The hiking trails are well-marked, and in some of the areas you can do anything from a 1-hour nature walk to a 7-hour circuit.  We saw a lot of families hiking as well as older people.  You share the hiking trails with local animals pasturing here – sometimes you have to navigate a cow gate.  The best thing about hiking in the Alps, though, is that whenever you’ve been hiking for a while, there’s always a hut, offering dumplings, pasta and sweets.  The views, of course, are phenomenal.

The Alto Adige is also famous for its wine.  Much of the production is white wine – international grapes like pinot blanc and sauvignon blanc, local varietals like Kerner and Muller-Thurgau, and a particularly tasty, non-sweet Gewurtztraminer (which, the locals will tell you, originated in the town of Tramin up the road).  There is also some red wine produced, including pinot noir and a local varietal called Lagrein.  Much of the wine is grown on steep hillsides that have to be harvested by hand.

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When we weren’t hiking, drinking wine or eating cheese, we hung out on the terrace of our hotel, which featured a particularly nice view of the mountain called the Rosengarten, so named because towards sunset the rocks take on a pinkish hue.

This is a wonderful place.  We’ll be back.

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Visiting Verona

Some months ago, we made arrangements with old friends from California to meet in Verona at the end of June.  Since we are all opera fans, we also bought tickets to see Aida at the outdoor Arena.

The Arena, a Roman structure, has been used for outdoor theatrical productions since 1913. Aida was the first opera produced there, and it is still produced almost every year, although these days there is a whole summer season.

Aida, set in an imaginary version of ancient Egypt, premiered in a conventional opera house in Cairo 1871, and at La Scala, in Milan, the following year.  But in many ways Aida was born to be seen outdoors.  The opera is more spectacle than story, and the famous triumphal procession has the proverbial cast of thousands — soldiers, priests, musicians, dancing girls,  and even live animals (4 horses in our production).  If Verdi had been alive a few decade later, he’d have been orchestrating Cecil B DeMille.

The staging was very imaginative — some of the players carried torches up to the top of the Arena to create an arc of light above the action. No elephants, though.  Apparently elephants featured in some pre-war productions, but they are rare these days.  Everything about the production – the singing, the music, the set design – was magnificent.  In truth, it’s hard to imagine a better production.

This was apparently not the first time I have seen Aida.  Although I have no conscious memory of it, my mother took me to a live outdoor performance of the opera in New York City when I was a toddler.  Who knows, maybe that early imprinting is why I’ve been a lifelong opera fan!

The Arena produces several different operas in repertory.  The sets are huge, so they store them outside the Arena between productions, allowing you to walk around them and see them close up.

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The following evening, we saw an outdoor production of The Tempest at a different Roman-era theater.  The play had been shortened to a single act with a running time of just under two hours.  They cut a bit too much, in my opinion – I missed the reconciliation between Prospero and his nefarious brother Antonio.  But the actress who played both Ariel and Caliban was outstanding – it was the first time I had seen these two roles combined, and it worked surprisingly well.  It was also the first time I had seen Caliban played by a woman, which softened the edges of a character often portrayed as a monster.

We have seen many productions of Shakespeare’s plays but had never seen a performance in Italian.  While I could follow the action well enough, I missed the cadences of the original poetry.  Obviously my Italian still needs work!

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During the daytime, we checked out the city’s more traditional attractions.  Verona was an important city in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, and the size of its churches, and the richness of its art, attest to that.  The church of San Zeno, an early bishop and the city’s patron saint, features a Madonna by Mantegna, a late 15th C artist who was famous for creating a sense of three-dimensionality in his paintings.  In this altarpiece, the implied light source for the painting matches the placement of the upper story church window – an effect that would be lost if the painting were ever moved to a museum.

An earlier fresco in the church left black space which seemed to have been intentionally designed for official graffiti.  You can see several notations for earthquakes (terremoto in Italian) which fortunately didn’t do much damage.  I also enjoyed the statue of San Zeno with a fish dangling from his crozier.  I thought it might be an allusion to the bishop as an apostolic “fisher of men,” but apparently he really loved fishing and was often seen with a fishing pole at the nearby river.

The bronze doors on this church were also notable.  In one of the scenes, depicting an exorcism, the priest is shown literally pulling a demon out of a young woman’s mouth.

The church of San Fermo is really two churches in one — something you see fairly frequently in Italy, where when someone wanted to build a new church they often built right on top of the old one.  The lower church features some very rare 12th C Byzantine style frescoes, while the upper church features a Renaissance painting that has been mounted so as to reveal the 14th C frescoes underneath. In this one church, you can track the dramatic changes in artistic style that occurred during the 300 or so years ending with what we now call the Renaissance.

The church of Sant’Anastasia features two sculptures depicting common laborers, a rare tribute to the people who actually built these magnificent churches.  Unusually, this church also has its original flooring, which used multi-color marble in geometric designs.

It was a wonderful if brief trip.