A Visit to the Val Padana

We recently took a short trip to several small cities in the North of Italy, along the valley of the River Po (in Italian, the Val Padana), with our old friends Mike and Trine. These cities are not often part of American tourist visits to Italy, but they should be – they are rich in culture, and each has its unique history.

Parma: Art and Food

Parma was originally settled by the Etruscans. There was a Roman settlement there already in the 2nd Century BC. During the medieval period, it enjoyed relative autonomy as a self-governing comune. It eventually became a duchy under the Farnese family, and after the Napoleonic Wars came under the sway of the Austrian Habsburgs, which lasted until the reunification of Italy in the 1860s.

The city’s Cathedral was started during the 12th C. Of Romanesque design, it features a remarkable bas-relief of the Crucifixion by sculptor Benedetto Antelami. The feet of a couple of the figures are hanging off the bottom – someone was anticipating the revolution in perspective that was to be the hallmark of the Italian Renaissance.

Parma Cattedrale – Antelami, Crucifixion, 1178

Parma sits in the middle of a rich agricultural area. Fittingly, the facade of the church has depictions of the work of the community through the agricultural year – including one of a farmer slaughtering a pig. The making of prosciutto in the Parma region has been going on for a long time.

Parma Cattedrale – Antelami’s months – November is the month of the pig

The cupola of the cathedral, added later, features a magnificent 16th C fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Antonio da Correggio. I love the image of Mary floating up to heaven with her feet dangling in the air, and the apostles looking on in wonder from below.

Parma Cattedrale – Correggio

The Baptistery next door to the Cathedral also dates to the 12th C, and is filled with unusually exuberant frescoes in the late Gothic style. It includes a series of larger statues, also by Antelami, which continue the theme of agricultural work through the seasons. Since our last visit, the statues have been restored and moved down to ground level, where you can see them better. I hope it’s a permanent change.

Parma, Battistero

The city’s main art museum is the Palazzo Pilotta. The museum has only one major work by local artist Parmigianino – it’s titled “The Turkish Slave,” but it was probably a local noblewoman dressed in an exotic costume. Other works I liked in this museum included The Coronation of the Virgin, by Correggio; an unusual group of angels by the Carracci brothers; and an evocative, mysterious portrait of a young woman by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Dukes of Parma were major art collectors, so the museum also has paintings from later periods. Here are two by women: a portrait by French artist Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun (1755-1842) of her daughter, and a self-portrait by Milanese artist Maria Callani (1778-1803).

I also liked this family portrait by Francesco da Cotignola (1475-1532):

In addition to the art museum, the Palazzo includes the magnificent Teatro Farnese, built in 1618 by Giovanni Batista Aleotti. Unusually for Italy, where marble is the most common building material, this theater is built almost entirely of wood. Even the “marble” columns are wood painted to look like marble. The theater is of an immense scale, as you can see from the picture, and is one of only three Renaissance era theaters in Italy still standing. It is still used occasionally for opera performances.

La Pilotta, Teatro Farnesina

Correggio’s work also appears in the Camera di San Paolo, which was once a convent – now only a few rooms remain, including the wonderfully frescoed ceilings of what were once the private apartments of the Abbess.

There was more art at the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca, about a 20 minute drive outside the city. This museum had, in one room, Madonnas by Durer and Lippi, a depiction of St. Peter Martyr by Ghirlandaio, and a depiction of the dead Christ by Carpaccio – any one of which would have had its own room in many other museums.

But the magnificent Madonna by Titian really blew me away – it was worth a trip to the museum all by itself.

Fondazione Magnani-Rocca: Tiziano Vecellio – Sacra conversazione Madonna col Bambino e i Santi Caterina e Domenico coi donatore – 1513

About half the museum space was devoted to a special exhibit of work by Miro, which we were not allowed to take photos of. Apparently, this museum frequently hosts high quality art exhibits – we’ll be back.

And oh yes – there were peacocks.

But Parma is more than just art. As noted above, Parma sits at the center of a rich agricultural region (it’s sometimes referred to as the Food Valley). One of the highlights of our visit was a half-day guided tour of facilities making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and the famous prosciutto de Parma.

Neither of these facilities were open to the general public, but you could visit them as part of a small group guided tour with a certified guide When we entered the caseificio (cheese making facility) we were issued a special kit, including a smock, booties, a hair net and a mask that looked pitifully small next to the heavy duty Covid masks we were already wearing. Making cheese, we learned, was a tricky business of managing the “good” bacteria (which gives the cheese its special flavor) and keeping out the “bad” bacteria (i.e., us) as much as possible.

We arrived in mid-morning, when the milk (a combination of that morning’s and the last evening’s milk from designated local farms) had already started on its mysterious transformation from liquid to semi-solid. We watched as the workers “caught” the wheels of cheese from specially designed vats into a sort of cheesecloth hammock – a process likely harder than it looked, because each of those wheels weighed roughly 20 kilos (about 45 pounds). The cheese is drained for a while, then put in the special “shells” which form the distinctive rind, then soaked in brine and drained some more.

The whey left behind when the cheese rounds are lifted out is not wasted. Some is used to make the local ricotta cheese. Some is used to feed the pigs being raised for prosciutto. Sustainable agriculture is not a new concept in Italy.

Eventually, the dry cheese rounds are aged in vast warehouses filled with tall shelves – you wouldn’t want to be in this room during an earthquake! As they age (a minimum of 12 months, sometimes 36 months or more), the cheese rounds must be periodically rotated, and the mold that forms on the outside carefully dusted off. This operation used to be done by hand – these days, it is performed by specially designed robots.

Parma, at the caseificio – cheese mold-scraping robot

As you might imagine, the quality control challenges of the cheese making operation are immense. The process of making the cheese must start within hours of delivery – the milk is not refrigerated. Since cows must be milked every day, and don’t take holidays, neither does the cheese-making. The cheese master lives on site with his family, although I imagine the other workers get to rotate. Truly a labor of love.

Before it can be sold, the cheese must be checked by local inspectors, who use small hammers to make sure the cheese does not have a hollow center. Every single cheese is inspected. Now you know why it costs so much.

After the visit, we had a small cheese tasting, I actually prefer the younger cheese (i.e., aged only 12 months) although the older cheeses have a deeper flavor and are better for grating.

Parma, at the caseificio – testing the final product

Then it was on to the Prosciutto farm.

Here the work is more seasonal. There’s a lot of activity when the pork legs arrive, making sure they are propertly salted. The “salt master” is the most important part of the operation. After the legs are prepared, they are left to dry in specially designed warehouses, with windows that can be opened to catch the Mediterranean breezes, which are believed to to impart to the ham a special flavor. Don’t argue with success.

The hams are also subject to right quality control inspections, although in this case they pull random samples rather than test every ham. Special testers made of bone are used – very carefully, so as to not break the skin that seals in all the juicy goodness.

Of course, our visit was followed by a small prosciutto tasting. And that was all before lunch!

At the Salumificio

Cremona – City of Stradivarius

I have a special attachment to Cremona because it was the first city I saw in Italy, during my first visit in 1970. Of course, 50 years is not much in the life of a city that has been around at least since the Roman colony was established there in the 2nd Century BC.

The facade of the Cathedral was completed in the 14th C, but most of the interior decoration comes from the 15th and 16th Centuries. The nearby Baptistery is even older – it was started in the 12th C – and features a dome made entirely of brick.

Cremona was the home of many of the world’s most famous stringed instrument makers – Amati, Guarneri and of course Stradivarius. The city has a wonderful museum devoted to this history. Unfortunately, some of the more interesting features of the museum (including a special sound dome which allows you to hear the difference in timber between a Stradivarius and a modern instrument) was closed due to Covid restrictions.

Cremona was hard hit by the first wave of the Corona virus, in the spring of 2020, and unlike the other cities we visited in this region it has not yet recovered its pre-pandemic vitality. It was also the only city which had an explicit Covid memorial, very close to the town center. We’ll have to return another day.

Cremona – COVID memorial

Mantova – Fooling the Eye

Mantova (known as Mantua in English) has more art than you might expect from a city of barely 50,000. Perhaps fittingly, the city has a wealth of the art known as “trompe l’oeil” – something that fools the eye into seeing something that it is not.

The Ducal Palace was begun in the 13th C and added to, higgledy-piggledy, over the centuries. The later Dukes sold much of their art, and today what remains is what was painted directly on walls or ceilings, and couldn’t be easily removed.

The most famous room in the Ducal Palace is the Camera degli Sposi, the presence chamber of the Duke and Duchess. The frescoed walls, painted by Mantegna between 1465 and 1474, depict members of the ruling Gonzaga family in scenes that are meant to suggest a courtyard, with curtains swaying in the imaginary breeze, or an outdoor meeting, with dogs and horses waiting impatiently.

The ceiling features an imaginary skylight, with local citizens gazing down and angels playfully dangling from the parapets. Mantegna seems to be unable to resist demonstrating his mastery of perspective- one angel even is shown from the point of view of the soles of his feet. We’re a long way here from the foot carefully set outside the edge of the frame in the Parma Cathedral.

Mantegna even included a portrait of himself among the decorations.

In another room, the Hall of Troy, both ancient statuary and contemporary painting were used to depict various scenes from the Trojan War.

Mantegna spent most of his working life in or near Mantova (although there are other important works of his in Verona and Padova). He is buried in the church of Sant’Andrea, not far from the Ducal Palace.

Sant’Andrea, Mantova – Mantegna

The Palazzo del Te was the summer palace of the Gonzaga built in what was then a small wooded area near the end of town, called Tejeto. The interior decoration is the acknowledge masterwork of Giulio Romano, a 16th C artist who was a student of Raphael.

Palazzo Te, Mantova – Giulio Romano

The fresco of the Banquet of Olympus, with Cupid and Psyche, clearly is indebted to the similar work by Raphael and his school at the Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Romano was also a master of trompe l’oeil. In the most famous room, depicting the Fall of the Giants, the destruction by Zeus of the ancient Titans stretches from the floor to the ceiling in one interrupted work. Romano uses perspective to suggest the corners of the perpendicular room are curved, and the ceiling is a dome.

Verona – Just a Peek

We spent our last day in Verona, less than 25 miles from Mantova and nearly five times as large. The city sits on the Adige River, some years the source of devastating floods but this year, just picturesque.

We visited the church of San Zeno. a 4th Century bishop who is the city’s patron saint. Construction of the cathedral began in the 10th C in the Romanesque style and was completed in the 14th C, an earthquake later, in the Gothic style.

The bronze doors date from the 12th C, and include 48 small sculptures depicting Old and New Testament events, as well as some other scenes, including an exorcism (on the left) and Jesus’ post-Crucifixion descent into Limbo (on the right).

The interior of the church retains the original two-level interior. Most of the interior art dates from the 12th and 13th C, including the usual assortment of wacky medievals (telamons) holding up the pedestals. There is an unusual statue of San Zeno, who reportedly loved fishing and is shown, laughing, with his latest catch.

Behind the altar is a magnificent altarpiece by Mantegna. It is still in its original position, and the light source inferred by the painting comes from the actual position of the church windows.

The church of Sant’Anastasia dates from the 15th C, and its interior is decorated in exuberant late Gothic style. The frescoes include a wonderful depiction of St. George killing a dragon and rescuing a beautiful Princess, by Pisanello.

Wacky medievals hadn’t completely gone out of style, though. The hunchback holding up the baptismal font was reputed to bring good luck.

Sant’Anastasia, Verona – laboring telamon

And so we bid farewell to fair Verona.

The Adoration of Ghent – and a Few Other Places

We recently returned from a week in Germany and Belgium – our first trip outside of Italy since October 2019.

We had planned a trip to Ghent, Belgium, on April 2020 to attend a major Van Eyck exhibit, centered around the recent restoration of his famous altarpiece. Obviously, that trip didn’t happen. The exhibit is gone now, but the restored altarpiece is still there. And since we had to get on a plane anyway, we decided to add a few other places to our itinerary.



We flew from Rome to Frankfurt, and on our first night stayed in the Schlosshotel Kronberg, built in 1889 by the dowager German Empress Victoria, the eldest daughter of England’s Queen Victoria and widow of the German Emperor Frederick. Despite its imposing appearance, this was actually a friendly, welcoming place, set in the middle of what is now a public park, with some fantastic art from the Empress’ collection in its public rooms.

The US military used the palace during the post-war American occupation – Eisenhower liked it so much he had a golf course put in. The golf course is still there.

Schlosshotel Kronberg – built for Princess Victoria

Burg Eltz

The next day, we traveled to Burg Eltz, a castle whose oldest sections date from the 13th C. It’s notable for the fact that it’s been in the same family for nearly 800 years. At one point, three branches of the family co-owned the castle, and each branch developed its own residential areas – one reason for the sprawling architecture.

Of particular interest was a council chamber, where members of the various branches of the family could meet together to resolve disputes. Jester’s heads placed around the wall (somewhat difficult to see in the photo) symbolized that people could speak freely, since traditionally court fools were allowed to say anything. Above the door, a “Rose of Silence” reminded people that, just as in Las Vegas, anything said in that room stayed in that room, and was not to be repeated elsewhere – an early version of “free speech” that I had been totally unaware of previously.


We spent a couple of days in Trier, which was an important city in the later Roman Empire and was used as a base for a while by the Emperor Constantine. In the late Roman period, the city had a population of 40,000, making it one of the largest cities in the northwestern Roman Empire.

The city is filled with Roman ruins, the most famous of which is the Porta Nigra, one of the gates to the Roman city. The walls were originally built from local gray sandstone. The color darkened for unknown reasons (the local tourist guide says, unhelpfully, that it was due to “microorganisms”) – hence the name, which means “black gate.” After the fall of the western Roman Empire, local inhabitants used most of the stones for building their own structures – an early example of recycling. This gate survived because it was used as a refuge by an early saint, and later became part of a church. When Napoleon conquered the area, he ordered the destruction of the church, but also ordered that the original Roman gate be converted back to its original form.

Another Roman-era building is known as “Constantine’s basilica.” In Roman times, “basilica” was used to denote a large public space, not a church – although these days the building is, in fact, a Protestant church.

Trier – Basilica of Augustus (now a protestant church)

There is also a small museum featuring some outstanding 4th C frescoes. (Although they look like mosaics, they are actually frescoes painstakingly pieced together.)

Trier’s strategic location on the Moselle River meant that it remained an important market town throughout the medieval and early modern period. Its shopping areas are still active and lively.

Trier was ruled for many centuries by an Archbishop, and perhaps for that reason the city has a lot of churches.

The Cathedral, begun in the 4th C, is the oldest Christian church in Germany. Destroyed by the Franks and again by te Vikings, the present structure was finally completed in the 11th C. Despite the austere Romanesque lines of the exterior, most of the interior decoration of the cathedral is in the ornate Baroque deign of later centuries.

The cathedral is home to the Robe of Christ, a garment said to be the one that Jesus was wearing when he died, and that the Roman soldiers gambled for at the foot of the Cross. How the Robe got to Germany is not stated – presumably some of those Roman soldiers were posted later to the German frontier? As with most relics, you have to take it on faith.

The Robe is kept in a large chest and only exhibited on special occasions. The rest of the time, you can only view the chest through a grate, inside its own special room.

Trier Cathedral

Somewhat unusually, the interior of the Cathedral is filled with monuments to Trier’s various bishops rather than the traditional saints. Each bishop seems to have tried to surpass his predecessor in the elaborateness of his design, although one guy did remember to include a version of the Grim Reaper in his funeral monument.

Next door to the cathedral is the church of Our Lady, begun in the 13th C, and one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals in Germany. The church suffered heavy damage during World War II, and while the frescoes of Christ and the Apostles were carefully restored, the stained glass in the windows were replaced with more modern designs.

The church of Saint Paulinus, built in the 18th C, is almost the definition of over-the-top Baroque.

The Archbishop of Trier was one of the historic Electors who selected the Holy Roman Emperor. Although the Electors selected candidates based solely on their merit, of course, the beauty and opulence of the Bishop’s Palace suggests that successful candidates made valuable “donations” to their supporters.

The private gardens of the palace are now a public park, though.

Trier was the birthplace of Sant’Emidio, who according to legend converted our city of Ascoli Piceno to Christianity and is now the patron saint of Ascoli. There are many references here in Ascoli to Emidio’s German origins (he is always depicted with blond hair). Sadly, we could find no references to Sant’Emidio in the modern German city.

There was, however, a small museum to the city’s other famous son, Karl Marx, located in the house where he spent most of his childhood. Wisely, the museum focuses on the continuing influence of Marx’s economic theories, rather than the failed 20th C political systems created in his name.

Trier – Karl Marx museum

Moselle Valley

We have always enjoyed the wines of the Moselle Valley, which are hard to get in Italy, so as part of our tour, we scheduled a visit to the Selbach-Oster winery, whose wines we had enjoyed while we were living in the US.

We stopped at Bernkastel, which was pretty but a bit too touristy for our taste. The town of Kues on the other side of the river was the birthplace of Nicholas of Cusa (the Latinized name of his birthplace), a 15th C Catholic cardinal, Papal legate and philosopher, who first suggested that the earth was not a fixed object at the center of the universe, but a moving body.


We continued to the town of Zeltinger, which was convenient to the Selbach-Oster winery. Barbara and Johannes Selbach had graciously scheduled two tastings during what was normally their vacation – one in English for us and and another American couple, and another in Germany for a German-speaking group. They even added a few extra wines to the scheduled tasting. (Fortunately, the wines of the Moselle, in addition to being delicious, are relatively low in alcohol.) We ate dinner that evening at the restaurant associated with our hotel, where to our surprise the Selbachs provided not only much of the wine, but also some of the food (although whether it was the venison or the wild mushrooms we weren’t completely sure.)

One of the vineyards from which their wine is produced is called Sonnenuhr, after the sundial that before the invention of portable watches used to let vineyard workers know what time it was.


Our final stop in Germany was Aachen. We added Aachen to our itinerary as a convenient spot to drop off our rented car before entering Belgium. But it was quite a bit more interesting that we expected.

The Cathedral of Aachen was started by Charlemagne in 796, and its design was based on the church of San Vitale in Ravenna and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Charlemagne himself was buried there in 814.

The cathedral, which has always attracted a lot of visitors and was the site of the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperior until the 16th C, has been dramatically remodeled and expanded over the centuries. The oldest part of the interior, called the Palatine Chapel, features 19th C mosaics which were based on some of the older medieval designs. For those wondering why a pelican was used in a religious context, during the Middle Ages the pelican was often used as a symbol of Christ’s passion because it was believed that a mother pelican would feed their young with blood from her own breast when no other food was available.

There is also a Gothic-era chapel featuring magnificent stained glass windows.

Next door to the Cathedral was the Treasure House, which included hundreds of religious art works, many of which were originally created to house relics of various saints, which were highly prized in the Middle Ages. These days the reliquaries are of broader interest than the relics they were designed to house. Many were worked in silver, gold, or ivory, and decorated with precious gems, and represent an astonishing level of craftsmanship.

The existence of these highly sophisticated works of art, some dating back to the 10th and 11th Centuries, suggest that the social and economic system that created a demand for skilled artisans, as well as the trade networks that sourced the raw materials, wasn’t quite as primitive as the Dark Ages of popular imagination.

We also attended a special exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the journey of Albrecht Durer from Aachen to various cities in Holland and Belgium, including the cities of Ghent and Bruges, which we were about to visit. When we planned this itinerary, we had no idea that we were following in the footsteps of this illustrious German painter.

Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed inside the exhibition, but you can get a sense of what the exhibit was like here. Click on the link to see Durer’s remarkable etching of a walrus.



Ghent, today a charming small city, was one of the centers of the Flemish wool trade in the 15th C, and very prosperous. Like nearby Bruges, it is full of charming old houses and criss-crossed by canals. It has a large student population, which makes it a bit grittier than Bruges, and more of a real place than one created as a tourist illusion. We liked it.

The original impetus for this trip, planned for spring of 2020, was to visit a special exhibition of Van Eyck paintings, in connection with the restoration of Van Eyck’s magnificent altarpiece. The special exhibit is gone now, but Van Eyck’s masterpiece is still in the church of St. Bavo, where it has spent most of the past 600 years. Napoleon brought it to the Louvre, but after Waterloo it was returned to its original location. It was looted again by the Nazis, but rescued by the Monuments Men.

The altarpiece, completed in 1432, is an early oil painting which exhibits many of the features associated with the Italian Renaissance, which notionally began a few decades later. This is not really surprising. Ghent and the nearby Flemish cities of Bruges and Antwerp were centers for the wool trade in the 15th C, and Italian bankers resident in these cities provided much of the financing for this trade. Both the Italians and the Flemish were very interested in the pictorial arts, and many paintings traveled back and forth between the regions. (An early oil painting by Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes caused a sensation when it arrived in Florence later in the century, at a time when Italian painters were still using egg-based tempera paints rather than oils.)

The Van Eyck altarpiece is a symbolic representation of the sacrifice of Jesus, with the sacrificial Lamb of God surrounded by contemporary notables and clerics in 15th C garb. Other panel of the altarpiece depict God the Father, Mary the mother of Jesus, St. John the Baptist, heavenly angels playing musical instruments, and Adam and Eve, whose original sin is being atoned for under Christian doctrine.

Before seeing the work, we took advantage of an “augmented reality” introduction (basically an audioguide with holographs) which explained the work and pointed out its key features. This provided a way of navigating the work, which is very large and can be a bit overwhelming.

Jan van Eyck – The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – St. Bavo, Ghent

One aspect of the recent restoration which generated some controversy was the face of the Lamb, which was disturbingly lifelike. The restorers, using modern X-ray and infrared technology, determined that this lifelike face was intentional. It is disturbing, but in some sense it was meant to be. The Lamb is a symbol of sacrifice, but it also represents a real, suffering human being.

Despite its relatively small size in relation to some of the other figures in the painting, the face of the Lamb is the real focal point of the work. Your eyes are drawn to it, and the intensity of the emotion is probably more apparent to your human eye than to the camera.

I love the way the city decided to feature the face of the Lamb in its poster advertisement.

Modern technology has also revealed that, in the jewel on the cape of one of the angelic musicians, is an accurate reflection of the window in the chapel where the altarpiece was originally placed. (Although the work is still in the same church for which is was made, it has been moved to another chapel to allow you to walk all the way around.) Clearly Van Eyck did this intentionally, but it’s not something that could be noticed with the naked eye, or even a camera phone.

It was a spectacular work, and viewing it was worth a trip to Belgium all on its own.

Other than the Altarpiece, the only other work by Van Eyck still left in Ghent is this drawing of St. Barbara, who according to legend was imprisoned by her father in a tower for converting to Christianity and later cruelly martyred (a macabre legend that I suspect is unknown to many of the residents of the pleasant California town that bears her name).

Jan van Eyck – Saint Barbara – 1437 (at MSK Ghent)

The local art museum also had several portraits and still life paintings by 17th C Dutch artist, and an early depiction of a smoker. There was also a delightful painting by Brueghel of creative anarchy in a lawyer’s office – not much has changed.


Bruges is a city whose focus on tourism dates back to the 19th C, when city government decided that houses in the historic center could no longer be torn down, and had to be restored as much as possible to their initial state. Despite an economy that relies heavily on tourism, Bruges has retained its charm – no easy feat.

The city is also known for its spectacular works of art.

The Michelangelo Madonna, completed around 1504, is the only work by Michelangelo to have left Italy during his lifetime. Like the Ghent Altarpiece, it was looted by the Nazis during the war, and rescued by the Monuments Men. (In fact, if you saw the recent George Clooney movie of the same name, it was one of the featured works.)

Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, Church of Our Lady, Bruges

Bruges has several works by Van Eyck, including this Madonna (again with spectacular detailing on the clothing) and a portrait of his wife.

Bruges also has a museum based in what was once a public hospital, featuring many works by local artist Hans Memling. In the 15th C, public hospitals were a form of charity. The state of medicine being what it was, there wasnàt much they could do for most of their indigent patients except to keep them as comfortable as possible until they passed away. They were, however, surrounded by magnificent art.

I particularly liked this Memling triptych dedicated to the hospital’s two patron saints, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, especially the Evangelist’s acid-trip Revelation on the right.

The Groeningemuseum features works by later artists, including this delightfully wacky Last Judgment by Hieronmyus Bosch, and a depiction John the Baptist preaching to a surprisingly international group of pilgrims, with some folks wearing what looks to be like Peruvian garb.

The Gruuthuismusem, once the home of a prosperous local citizen, displays many objects related to daily life in the city from the 15th to the 18th Centuries.

Bruges is a wonderful city just to walk around. This evening landscape, where you can’t quite tell whether it’s day or night, reminded us of some of the surrealists paintings by Magritte – perhaps not a coincidence, since the artist was born in Belgium and spent most of his life there.

On our last day, we climbed the belfry, partly to prove to ourselves that we could still do it. In addition to the wonderful view, we saw the inner workings of the carillon system. In addition to chiming the hours, the bells play tunes – 4 different ones throughout the day – which are programmed by what appears to be one of the world’s largest piano rolls.

As to the food? Let’s just say, lots of shellfish was eaten.

On the Road Again (Part II): Milan

Women Painters

We went to Milan to see a special exhibit of Italian women painters in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

The exhibit was especially well put together, including not only a wide selection of artists but also interesting biographical information about their lives.

Women of that era did not have a wide range of occupations available to them. Women who became typically were either daughters of noblemen or daughters of practicing artists who supported their decision. Some entered religious orders (often at convents endowed by their noble fathers), some married other artists, and some (very few) remained defiantly single.

Even as practicing artists, women were restricted in their choice of subjects. They could not use unrelated male models, so most of their paintings were of women or children. In addition to formal portraits or religious commissions, these women also did paintings of women in more casual situations, like this wonderful painting of three young girls playing chess by Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625).

Sofonisba Anguissola – The Chess Game – 1555

Women were permitted to paint female figures from the Bible. Judith was popular, as was the penitent Magdalen.

Lavinia Fontana – Giuditta e Ofoferne – 1595
Elisabetta Sirani – Maddelena penitente – 1663

Women painters also chose more secular female heroines, sometimes relatively obscure ones. In one painting, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) depicts a woman raped by one of Alexander’s generals, getting her revenge by pushing him into a well. In another, she paints Cleopatra about to win a bet with Marc Antony by dissolving her enormously expensive pearl earring in a glass of wine (thereby showing off the artist’s skill in painting transparent objects).

Women often excelled at details of clothing and jewelry, as in this painting by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614).

Women also painted still lives, which didn’t require the use of models. I was taken by this still life with a small puppy, by Giovanna Garzoni, a painter born in Ascoli Piceno (1600-1670).

Giovanna Garzoni – Canina con biscotti e una tazza cinese – 1648

Of course, some of the paintings didn’t fit any of the categories. I thought this drawing of the head of a young man, by Lavinia Fontana, was really good. This painting is normally in the Galleria Borghese, in Rome, a museum I have visited several times. How is it that I have never noticed this artist before?

Lavinia Fontana – Testa di giovane – 1606

Artemisia Gentileschi, the best known woman painter of the period, was represented by only two paintings – perhaps because she has been the subject of several recent exhibits and the curators of this exhibit wanted to highlight less familiar names. Gentileschi is well known for her depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes. But she was also able to paint quite tender Madonnas. The second painting, of a penitent Magdalen, was heavily damaged by an explosion at the port of Beirut – it will be restored in Italy.

After this exhibit, we saw a second, smaller exhibit billed as images of Russian women. This exhibit wasn’t as interesting – most were depictions of Russian women, not works by women artists. But I did enjoy this painting of a mother and child and a self-portrait, both by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967).

Churches and Cathedrals

We’ve been to the Milan Duomo before, and we didn’t do a roof tour this time. But the general absence of crowds allowed us to spend more time viewing the magnificent stained glass windows.

I also enjoyed this sculpture of the young Virgin Mary being presented to the temple, looking decidedly unsaintly.

Milano Duomo

Here’s a view of the Piazza Duomo from the Museo del Novecento next door.

Duomo and Galleria from Museo di Novocento

The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, one of the oldest churches in Milan, has fine mosaics executed from the 4th to 8th centuries.

The builders of Sant’Ambrogio also found this wacky medieval* to hold up the pulpit. He’s doing a good job.

Sant’Ambrogio: Telamon on pulpit

(*I understand the official name for these supporters is “telamon”. But I started calling them wacky medievals years before I learned this. I like my name better.)

The chapel of Sant’Aquilino, in the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, features this very unusual 4th C mosaic of a beardless Christ.

Capella di Sant’Aqulino – Basilica di San Lorenzo

The church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro, built in the 15th C., features a “finta absida” or false apse. The space had to be truncated because of a road behind the church. The young architect Donato Bramante created a solution – a painted perspective which looks like a real apse from the church entryway but is revealed to be an illusion when you arrive at the front of the church. This is one of the first examples in European art of the use of painted perspective to fool the eye in this way – an optical illusion usually known by the French term “trompe l’oeil.”

The church was built in honor of Saint Satiro, the brother of Saint Ambrose, but I acknowledge that the opportunity for punning may be irresistible for some folks.

Contemporary Art

For a change of pace, we visited two museums with more contemporary art: The Museo del Novecento (art of the 1900s) and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (GAM), which included art of the 1800s as well.

We’re still learning about this era of Italian art, but we found a lot to like in these museums.

These are from the Museo del Novecento: on the left, Il Bevitore (The Drinker) by Umberto Bocconi (1914), and on the right, Constellazioni del Genio by Giacomo Balla (1918).

This work, by Italian Impressionist Giuseppe de Nittis, in the GAM, depicts a summer afternoon meal in southern Italy. With the pink light, the placid sea and the seaside table, you can see dinner scenes much like this all over Italy today – although a modern restaurant would probably have piped in music rather than live guitarists.

Giuseppe de Nittis – Pranzo a Posilippo – 1879

Readers of a certain age may find this painting of not-quite-flying nuns posed next to seagulls astonishingly prescient.

Vincenzo Cabianca – Monachine in riva al mare – 1869

As I mentioned in my last post, during the lockdown, we attended a series of online lectures on various artists put on by the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. One of the artists features was Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899), who as a result of his short life and limited geographical range is relatively unknown today. To me, his paintings are appealing because they evoke a lost world of country life in these rugged locations. The painting “Two Mothers”, featuring a mother nursing her baby in a barn with a nursing cow, is perhaps his most famous work. But I liked the woman returning to her cabin in the snow.

Did Somebody Say Food?

Milan has a large Asian population, so there are a lot of restaurants serving East Asian food.

Not far from our hotel in the Navigli district, we found a small place serving Chinese dim sum. The selection was somewhat smaller than you might see in a Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we used to live. But the food that was presented was quite good, and hand-made on-site.

Dim sum at Fratelli Ravioli (Porta Genova)

One night we ate a restaurant billed as “Chinese-Italian fusion.” I was skeptical – “fusion” food can be all over the map, in my experience. But this turned out to be a place run by two guys, both born in Milan but one of Singaporean heritage, who presented both Chinese and Italian food influenced by both food traditions of the other.concepts and execution were both excellent.

The most successful dish, in my opinion, was their version of chili crab, a Singaporean specialty re-imagined as a refined soup. (I always find dealing with crab in restaurants a bit challenging). It was served with wonderful home made rolls, and we were invited to “far la scarpetta” (literally, make the shoe) to soak up the sauce.

Another excellent dish were ossobuco reimagined as Chinese / Italian ravioli.

On our last night, we ate at a seafood restaurant where I did actually try to deal with crab. No pictures of me eating, thankfully.

That’s all for now.

Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio

On the Road Again (Part I): Rome

After many months of being stuck close to home because of the corona virus, the ban on interregional travel within Italy was finally lifted in late May. We couldn’t wait to get back on the road again.

The Aventine

We decided to spend a few days in Rome, which is only 3 hours away from here. At the recommendation of several friends, we stayed at a small hotel in the Aventino district.

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Aventino neighborhood

The Aventino is an ancient part of Rome (the Aventine is one of the famous “Seven Hills”) but for a variety of reasons the building of modern Rome has passed it by. Today, it is pleasant residential district, more reminiscent of a leafy suburb than a place less than 20 minutes walk from Piazza Venezia. It’s relatively small, and most of its interesting sights are only a short walk from each other.

Santa Sabina is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Its original 5th C doors feature one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ. Early Christians more commonly featured a lamb (symbolizing Christ) carrying a blank cross, sometimes with a red and white banner signifying the Resurrection. The representation of Christ’s death on the cross has, over the centuries, become dominant, and ever more elaborate. Note that this early Crucifixion scene already features the two thieves.

Not far from Santa Sabina are the headquarters of the Knights of Malta. People are lining up to look through the “Aventine Keyhole,” cleverly designed to allow a surprisingly good view of the dome of St. Peter’s.

Knights of Malta Gate – keyhole view of Vatican

The optical effect is not easily reproduced on a cellphone camera, but you can get a better view of it here.

The Parco Savello, features an orange garden near Santa Sabina offers fine views of Piazza Venezia and the Vatican.

Vatican from Giardino degli Aranci

A short distance further on is the Roseto Comunale, a public rose garden open free of charge, which features over 1,200 varieties of roses. We were lucky to see it because it is open only a few months a year.

The garden was formerly the site of the city’s Jewish graveyard (peremptorily moved by Mussolini). Today, a small cenotaph marks the site’s former use.

Capitoline Museum – Torlonia Marbles

The Capitoline Museum was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our hotel. You never have to walk far in Rome to see ancient structures – some in ruins, some repurposed for more modern uses.

The museum had a special exhibit of the “Torlonia Marbles,” a private collection of ancient Roman statues amassed between the 15th and 19th C, and out of public view for decades.

The portrait busts were particularly amazing, featuring an intense interest in facial expressions that wouldn’t be seen again in European art until the Renaissance. The old farmer, in particular, is someone you could run into today.

A lot of the statues featured heroic themes. But I was more drawn to those featuring more down-to-earth themes: a woman visiting a butcher shop, selecting from a variety of hanging animals, the vendor is also a woman. More sobering was the depiction of two soldiers preparing for hand-to-hand combat – an encounter only one of them was likely to survive.

Most of the statues were collected during a period in which a damaged statue would be “repaired” to make it look as much as possible as the imagined original. The modern preference is to leave the statues in whatever damaged state they are found in. Sometimes the results can be quite startling. This headless goat, whose cranium was replaced by the young Gianlorenzo Bernini, may be better than the original. And the addition of two heads allows you to appreciate an unusual depiction of an affectionate married couple.

Roman Churches

We spent much of the rest of our time in Rome visiting churches, which is where most of medieval and Renaissance art it.

The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli features 15th C frescoes by Pinturicchio.

The basilica of San Clemente features 13th Byzantine-style mosaics and 15th C frescoes by Masaccio. The current church, whose structure dates from the 12th C, is actually the second Christian church on the site. You can visit the remains of the 4th C church below, and below that, the remains of an even earlier pre-Christian temple of Mithra.

The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was not open any time we tried to visit (a frequent hazard of visiting Italian churches, which often have frustratingly short hours). But the elephant said hello.

Elephant at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Santa Maria in Trastevere offers fine examples of late medieval mosaics. Although the flat perspective is in Byzantine style, some of the subjects (like the birth of Mary, complete with midwives) prefigure the focus on daily life that was to become one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. If you look carefully, you can see that Jesus has his arm draped affectionately around his mother’s shoulder – definitely not Byzantine. Something is happening here in the world of artistic expression.

The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere has an astonishing Last Judgment by Pietro Cavallini. The subject is treated in a most unusual manner – along with Mary and John the Baptist, Christ is shown flanked by the 12 Apostles. Cavallini was dismissed by Vasari as a student of Giotto, but the modern view is that the two were independent artists who may have worked together in Assisi. Certainly the humanity and the individualized faces in the Cavallini fresco suggest that the Roman painter was familiar with Giotto’s work. Photos were completely forbidden in the small room where the frescoes now reside – the frescoes were covered over when the medieval church was renovated, and have only recently been rescued. But you can read about them here.

For something completely different, the church of San Ignazio offers a spectacular ceiling fresco in the Baroque style. There’s a lot of Baroque art in Rome, much of it over the top, but the best examples demonstrate a kind of exuberance that I quite enjoy.

San Ignazio

In the relatively unvisited Trastevere church of San Francesco in Ripa, you will find a stunning Bernini quite similar to the more famous Santa Teresa in Ecstasy in the church of Santa Maria di Vittoria. Although I’m sure he could profess piety, I do have to wonder about Bernini’s motivations in creating these masterpieces.

Bernini – San Francesco in Ripa

And of course, you can never get enough Caravaggio. With fewer people about, we were able to get a good shot of The Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi.

Caravaggio – The Calling of Saint Matthew

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

We did visit one museum in Rome – the museum of “modern art”, which in Rome means anything after about 1800.

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Whoever decided how to display the collection had not only a good eye but an unusual sense of humor. I love the way, for example, they arranged 19th C sculptures in the classical style next to very modern pieces.

Ceres (ancient) and (cereal?) bowl (modern)

This statue by Rodin looks with at the painting by Klimt – whether with admiration or shocked surprise, that’s for you to decide.

This painting by Italian impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis offers a familiar theme – a day at the races. But perhaps because De Nittis was a man of southern Italy living in Paris, he remembered to include a depiction of the coal burning heater. Those people were cold!

Giuseppe de Nittis – Le Corse al Bois de Boulogne – 1881

This happy gardener is one of Van Gogh’s sunnier portraits.

Van Gogh – Il giardinere – 1889

We enjoyed these works by Renato Guttoso, a 20th C Sicilian painter.

During the lockdown, we followed a series of online lectures put together by the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. One of the programs featured Giovanni Segantini, a 19th C Italian painter known for Alpine landscapes. Segantini died young and is relatively unknown today. But his depictions of natural landscapes are quite extraordinary – more on him when we get to Milan (Part II).

Segantini – Alla stagna – 1886
Segantini up close

One of the best things about the museum is its location right outside the Villa Borghese, one or Rome’s large parks. After touring the museum, we walked through the park to the Pincio overlook – usually too crowded to get a picture, but not this week.

Baths of Caracalla

Not far from our hotel were the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, a public bath facility that when fully operational served 6000 people a day. In addition to the typical rooms offering hot or cold baths, there was an Olympic size (50 meter) pool for the Roman version of swimming. Although whether they were swimming laps or, more likely, hanging out with their friends is hard to know. But you can still see remnants of an ancient Roman board game, played with marbles, along one edge of the pool

The scale of the place was huge, as you can see from the photo.

Terme di Caracalla

Very little remains of the original decoration. You can see some of the original mosaic floor, and the occasional fresco. But the statuary was carted off by “collectors” over the centuries, including the Torlonias. I include the bust of the Emperor Caracalla from the Torlonia exhibit here so he can look over what still survives of his 1800 year old monument.

Torlonia Marbles – Emperor Caracalla

Did Somebody Say Food?

Of course, we remembered to eat. Here we are at our favorite restaurant in Trastevere, eating cacio e pepe (the bowl is edible cheese, although we didn’t eat it – or at least Linda didn’t).

Until next time!

Dinner at Roma Sparita

A Quiet Christmas in Ascoli

After a summer virtually free of virus concerns, the number of people contracting Covid-19 began increasing in October, reaching scary high levels a few week later. Things started to improve after a lockdown of a few weeks, but to avoid retriggering a new wave over the holidays, the government is imposing a nationwide “red zone” starting December 24 and continuing for most days through January 7. Virtually everything other than stores selling groceries and pharmaceuticals will be closed – no bars, no stores, no restaurants will be open, although you can order food to go. No one can leave their town, except for a very limited number of reasons. Trips outside are limited to essential items. You can take walks for exercise, but not too far from home.

Local officials have made clear that Babbo Natale has been cleared for flight operations and, wearing a mask and keeping his social distance, will be delivering Christmas gifts to those who believe in him and even those who don’t. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve will start at 7:30 pm, to allow everyone to get home by curfew.

Our local fish store is assembling for us the raw ingredients for a traditional “brodetto” (fish stew) for Christmas Eve dinner, complete with his mother’s recipe. The local restaurant where we had hoped to have Christmas lunch is instead creating a holiday meal to go.

Of course, it being Christmas, one cannot forget the panettone (soon to be fully eaten).

And, while there is no Christmas market this year, and no ice skating rink in Piazza Arringo, the town put up its full complement of Christmas lights.

So while it’s a quiet Christmas, it won’t be lacking in Christmas spirit. Maybe that sense of community in sharing a common hardship really IS Christmas spirit.

We can be thankful that nobody close to us has been badly affected by the virus. No one we know has died or been hospitalized, and the small number of people who have tested positive seem to have made full recoveries. Considering the death and hardship that has visited so many this year, we are indeed fortunate.

Now all we can do is wait for the vaccine. The first (tiny) shipment of vaccines in our region is scheduled to arrive next week. The first doses will go to health care providers, people in care homes, and those over 80. After that, folks over 60 (like us) and those younger but with special risk factors will be able to get vaccinated.

The Italian government has never been known for its efficiency. But they have had good communications around vaccine delivery, and they seem to have a plan. So we are cautiously optimistic.

Can’t wait to start traveling again, although these days even a trip to the beach seems like an exotic journey.

Best wishes to you and yours, and let’s all hope for a better 2021.

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, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.