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.

Germany

Kronberg

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.

Trier

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.

Bernkastel-Kues

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.

Aachen

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.

Belgium

Ghent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monreale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taormina

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

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

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

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

Cefalù

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

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

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

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

Segesta/Erice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mozia/Marsala

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

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

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

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

San Vito lo Capo

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

Sicilian Food

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

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

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

We didn’t forget the cannoli.

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

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

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

Before he was El Greco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19C icon, note the elongated figures

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

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

Another Quiet Corner of Italy

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

Viterbo

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

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

Papal palace

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

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

Chiesa di San Silvestro

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

Piazza S. Pellegrino, Viterbo

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

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

Montefiascone

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

Lago Bolsena from Montefiascone

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

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

Frescoes, S. Flaviano, Montefiascone

Civita di Bagnoregio

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

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

Civita di Bagnoregio and its bridge.

Bomarzo

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

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

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

A Short Trip to the Italian Lakes

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

Parma

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

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

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

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

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

Lago Maggiore

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

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

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

Isola Madre gardens

Isola Madre gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda, Karen, and Barley

Linda, Karen, and Barley overlooking Domodossola

Lago D’Orta

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Road Again

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

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

Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casa Bortoli interior

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Casa Bortoli: Fantastic chandelier

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The Salute Church from Casa Bortoli

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

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

Cinque Terre

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

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

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Lucca

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

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

Travel in the post Covid era

How has travel changed in the post Covid era?

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

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

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

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

The Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is currently operating an an advance reservation basis – you go to the website and select a date and an entry time.  I think this is a great idea for small museums, which can sometimes be unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  The Galeria 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.