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.

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

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.

Life in the Time of Corona

2020-03-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Italian National Health System

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

Basic System Features 

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

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

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

Co-Pays and Other Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

System Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private System as Supplement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality of Medical Care

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

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

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

Issues

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

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

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

Major Benefits 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexplored Corners of Rome

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

Palazzo Farnese

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

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

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

Annibale_Carracci,_Farnese_Ceiling_(South_Side)

The Vatican Museum – In Reverse

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

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

1200px-Chapelle_sixtine2

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

Asculum (detail)

Asculum (detail)

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

Merlozzo di Forli was noted for his angels.

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

DSC06282

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

Vaticano

Domus Aurea

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

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

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

Domusaurea

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

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

And the Rest

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

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

Church of San Luigi Francese

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

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

La Bocca della Verità

Bocca della Verità

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Eggplant Ravioli

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Carciofi alla Giudea

With Laura and Peter at the Colisseum

Happy Holidays from Ascoli Piceno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ted and Linda