Unexplored Corners of Rome

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

Palazzo Farnese

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

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

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

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The Vatican Museum – In Reverse

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

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

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

Asculum (detail)

Asculum (detail)

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

Merlozzo di Forli was noted for his angels.

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

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

Vaticano

Domus Aurea

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

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

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

Domusaurea

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

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

And the Rest

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

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

Church of San Luigi Francese

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

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

La Bocca della Verità

Bocca della Verità

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Eggplant Ravioli

Lunch at La Buca di Ripetta

Carciofi alla Giudea

With Laura and Peter at the Colisseum

Happy Holidays from Ascoli Piceno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ted and Linda

 

Wine and Truffles in Piedmont

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Museo di Violino, Cremona

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

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

Truffled tajarin at Rabaya

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

Mole rabbit at Il Centro

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

 

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

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

Montalcino city view

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

 

 

 

A Weekend in Umbria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from St. Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Giovenale

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

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

CCCP

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

 

 

 

 

A Brief Trip to the US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsie, Guy and Joan

Linda and Elsie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another Trip to the Dolomites, via Ferrara

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

Ferrara

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

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

Bolzano 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dolomites

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

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

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

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

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

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Visiting Verona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a wonderful if brief trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Loose in Andalucia

We recently visited three cities in Andalucia:  Seville, Cadiz, and Jerez de la Frontera.

Seville

Seville is famously hot in summer, which is why we visited in the spring.  Unfortunately, even in early May it was already 95 degrees.  Fortunately, it wasn’t too humid, so we stayed in the shade a lot.

The origins of Seville are murky, but it is clear that the area was occupied by the Carthaginians by the 3rd C BC.  In Roman times, it was a military base known as Hispalis.  It was conquered by the Moors in the 8th C, and retaken by Christian kings in the 13th C.  The city achieved its greatest prosperity during the 16th and 17th C, when it was the destination for the ships going back and forth from Spain’s colonial possessions in the New World.  The city went into decline in the 18th C, when naval operations moved to Cadiz.  These days, it’s hard to imagine the city as an important naval center – we saw a fairly large cruise ship docked on the river, and wondered how it was going to turn around.

The number one attraction in Seville is the Alcazar, originally a Moorish castle dramatically expanded by Christian kings beginning in the 13th C.  The building retains many of the most beautiful Moorish doorways, fountains and (especially) ceilings.  The castle was used by Ferdinand and Isabella to receive important visitors, and it was the place where Columbus received his fateful trans-Atlantic commission.  The palace is also justly famous for its magnificent gardens.  In modern times, the building has been used as a film set for Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and, most recently, Game of Thrones.

Seville Alcazar

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Seville Alcazar

I didn’t find much to like about Seville’s Cathedral.  Despite some wonderful art, the overall impression seems to have been intended to communicate power, not faith, so it left me cold.  I did like the graceful Giralda (bell tower) though – a remnant of the mosque that once stood on the site.

20190511_225015.jpgThere is a lot of artistic beauty elsewhere in Seville.  The Hospital de los Venerables, built as a rest home for older priests, boasts four masterpieces by Velazquez and Murillo.  The most famous is Velzaquez portrait of Santa Rufina, a 3rd C martyr and patron saint of the city.  According to legend, Rufina was a pottery maker, and Velazquez paints her holding a ceramic cup and saucer, whose iridescence dominates the painting.  I also liked his Immaculate Conception, depicting Mary standing on a transparent globe.  The two paintings by Murillo, of St. Peter and St. Catherine of Alexandria, are noteworthy for their intensity – they may depict saints, but the painter was clearly working with human models.  These four paintings, presented in a small room where you could view them at close range (and, at least when we were there, no crowds) were, by themselves, worth the entire trip to Seville.DSC05461

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Hospital de los Venerables, Penitent St Peter, Murillo

DSC05464We also visited several aristocratic homes, now open to the public, which featured a hodgepodge of decorative arts, from Roman mosaic floors to Moorish tiles and ceilings to 20th C flamenco and bullfighting posters. Much of the older art was “repurposed” from older buildings, often decommissioned convents and monasteries, whose works were put up for sale in the 19th C, when concepts of historic preservation were different than they are today.  However the art was acquired, though, these houses have themselves become historic buildings, and are well worth a visit.Palacio Dueñas, a former private home now open to the public

Palacio Dueñas

Casa de Salinas

Casa de SalinasWe were lucky enough to visit Seville at the time of the annual spring fair.  Normally this fair is held in April, but it was held in May this year because Easter occurred in late April.  The fair originally began as a horse market, but these days it is mostly a parade of gaily decorated horse carts and social events featuring impromptu amateur flamenco.

The Feria also an opportunity for the women of the city to get dressed up in fancy flamenco dresses, whether or not they can dance.  We saw stores selling flamenco dresses all over town, although some are clearly hand-made.  The little girls get dressed up, too.  We even saw one toddler, clearly too young for ruffles,  with a Feria flower decorating her stroller.

Speaking of flamenco, we caught a fabulous performance at the Casa de Flamenco, a small venue run by a hotel operator who is passionate about the dance form. Nobody is really sure where flamenco came from.  The women of Andalucia were famous for their dancing in Roman times, but we don’t know what their dances looked like.  The Roma people (gypsies) didn’t invent it, but many aspects of the dance (especially the stylized hand movements and the non-Western musical scales) seem to be related to the probably Indian origins of the Roma.  About the only thing we know for sure is that the dance form has little to do with northern Europe, even though “flamenco” literally means Flemish.

Casa de Flamenco

We enjoyed the food in Seville a lot.  There is quite a bit of seafood here, which is interesting because it’s not that close to the water.  There are conventional restaurants in Seville, but many people prefer to take their meals at tapas bars, which range from simple places offering slices of jamon iberico to more upscale places featuring foie gras, white asparagus, and seafood with clearly Japanese-inspired presentations.

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Jerez de la Frontera

Jerez is the center of the “sherry triangle” where all of the country’s sherry is produced – in fact, the word sherry seems to be an English mispronunciation of the Spanish Jerez.

In Seville, we had eaten at a restaurant that featured a wide selection of sherries.  They suggested we visit a small sherry producer in Jerez, Fernandez-Gao.  We called them while we were on the train, and luckily enough they had an English-speaking guide who was happy to give us a tour.

We learned that there are 5 types of sherry, only one of which, Pedro Ximenez, is naturally sweet.  (The “cream sherry” known internationally is a product created primarily for export.)  All the other sherry types are made from the Palomino Fino grape, and range from bone dry to medium sweet, and they can be done throughout the meal.

At the end of the tour, our guide recommended a nearby restaurant, La Carbonara, which offered dozens of sherries by the glass and where they prided themselves on matching different sherries to individual dishes.  It was one of the best meals of our trip.

Manolo @ Fernandez Gao, Jerez

Lunch at La Carbona

We also visited the Fiera of Jerez, which is always held in May and this year overlapped the one in Seville.  This fair was more horse-focused and featured a cavalcade of riders in traditional costume, including women riding side-saddle, which always fascinates me.  (How do they do that?)  There were also dressage exhibitions which we might have had time for if we hadn’t spent so much time drinking sherry.

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Cadiz

Cadiz was founded by the Phoenicians nearly 2500 years ago, and is one of the oldest if not the oldest city in Europe.  Although you can see the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and some Phoenician sarcophagi in the city museum, these days there are few reminders of the ancient city.

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The city was burned nearly to the ground by an attack by English and Dutch forces in 1596, so most buildings date from 1600 or later.  Interestingly, though, the old part of city hasn’t changed much since the 18th C – a late 18th C scale model of the city, beautifully executed in mahogany and ivory, is still remarkably accurate.

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The cathedral in Cadiz has a wonderful exterior, but the best art is found elsewhere.  Several smaller sites featured works by Murillo, Goya and El Greco.  Surprisingly, these sites were not listed in standard guidebooks – we found out about them from a guide leading our walking tour.

For reasons that are not clear to me, many of the religious statues in this part of Spain are dressed in sumptuous clothing.  In Cadiz, some of the Madonnas also had real hair.  More traditional baroque sculptures are executed with a special vibrancy here, including one Madonna who seemed almost like she was dancing.

Despite its geographical location, Cadiz is a city that has long gone its own way.  Unlike other cities in Andalucia, it does not have a Feria, and you will see few stores offering flamenco dresses.  They do, however, have an active flamenco culture, here often in small bars rather than designated flamenco venues.  And, unusually for Spain, they celebrate Carnival in the old Roman manner, using it as an opportunity for political satire.  Sounds like Ascoli!  They also have a song contest during Carnival, featuring performances at the theater named for the composer Manuel de Falla, a native of the city.

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The city was most prosperous during the 18th C, after it became the main port for Spanish trade with the Americas.  The same museum that housed the 18th C scale model also featured portraits of notable citizens of the town in the 18th and 19th C, including gentlemen with names like O’Reilly and O’Crowley.  Apparently many Irish Catholics, prevented from owning land in 18th C Ireland, came to the thriving port city to make their fortune (with some success).

During the Napoleonic wars, the area around Cadiz held out against the French blockade.  After the Napoleonic era, however, the city went into decline, as the British became the major naval power in the Atlantic.

These days, the main industry is tourism, although Cadiz remains a fishing port.  The food is amazingly good here, and surprisingly creative.  We enjoyed a number of things that are hard to get in Ascoli – oysters, deepwater tuna, and guacamole.  We even had a deer salad with a pumpkin-based dressing (fortunately not too orange). All this for prices that were low even by Ascoli standards.  We’ll be back!

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Rome in the Spring

We have been to Rome a number of times before, but for some reason we have never been in the city in the spring.  Big mistake – April in Rome is glorious.

We spent a few days in Rome last week, partly with some friends from Boston who were here for the first time.  We visited some places we had seen before, and some that were completely new to us.

We booked a full-morning tour to the Coliseum and Roman Forum, which was a big win — lines are very long, especially for the Coliseum, and with a hired guide you not only skip most of the lines but you are able to navigate more efficiently.

It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the Forum — the last time we went, it was free.  These days, you pay to get in, but they’ve improved the signage a lot — even without a guide, you can get some sense of what you’re looking at.  I’m always impressed by the size of the place – in the 1st C, this was the civic center of a city of 1,000,000 people.   After the fall of Rome, no other European city would reach that size again until the 18th C.

View of forum from the Palatine

A major “renovation” of the Coliseum was done about 10 years ago.  The word is in quotes because obviously it’s still an ancient structure.  But they’ve improved the access a lot, reconstructed some of the ancient arena floor, and provided a lot more information about how the animals and gladiators got on and off the stage.  It’s a fascinating place.

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We visited the Capitoline Museum, a place with amazing collection of ancient Roman statuary that somehow we’ve never gotten around to visiting before.  We tend to think of naturalism in art as something invented in the Renaissance, but some of these works, including a boy picking a thorn out of his toe and some of the portrait busts, convincingly demonstrate that the Romans knew how to do this too.

Capitoline Museum:  Boy with Thorn - Greco-Roman bronze (1C BC)

Most of the art in Rome is either ancient or Baroque, but there’s some medieval art too if you know where to look.  I was particularly impressed by the 6th and 7th C mosaics in the church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, a church in the Roman Forum built on the ruins of some imperial-era Roman buildings.  The mosaics were quite a bit more colorful and lifelike than the 9th C mosaics in the church of Santa Prassede, which are also masterful but are done in the more formal Byzantine style.

I was blown away by the church of San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane, which was designed by Francesco Borromini, a 17th C architect whose work is often overshadowed by his more famous contemporary Bernini.  That’s unfortunate, because Borromini was a genius in his own right.  This church, with its undulating convex-concave facade, is strikingly original.  Borromini was a master of trompe l’oeil (tricking the eye), which is hard to convey accurately in photographs, although this remarkable oval dome may give you some sense of it.

Santa Carlo delle Quatro Fontane - Borromini

We took advantage of the gorgeous weather to make our way up the Gianicolo hill, which offers some spectacular vistas.

Of course, no trip to Rome is complete without some visits to works by Bernini and Caravaggio.  I never get tired of looking at these.

I also said hello to one of my favorite paintings in the Villa Borghese, a depiction of John the Baptist by Bronzino .   The model for this portrait is believed to have been Giovanni de Medici, second son of Duke Cosimo I de Medici.  Bronzino, who also painted Giovanni as a toddler (in a portrait now in the Uffizi) here portrays him as a virile young man.  There were to be no mature portraits of Giovanni, though – he died not long after this portrait was completed, probably of malaria.  I think it is the poignancy of the unfulfilled promise of this young man that keeps drawing me back to this work.

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Rome is a remarkable place although, as one of our Ascoli neighbors (and long-time Roman resident) recently remarked, no one who understands Rome really wants to live there.  The city is poorly administered, public transportation is poor, and (especially in the summer) it’s unpleasantly hot and incredibly crowded.  With a little advance planning, though, you can see a lot in a few days, and I hope to be able to visit the city regularly as long as we’re here.

Montedinove

Italy is so rich in historic monuments that international tourists, most with limited time, have to focus on the major sites.  One of the nice things about actually living in Italy is that we now have time to visit many of the smaller towns, many with fascinating histories of their own.

One of these in Montedinove, located in the hilly region of the Marche, about 40 minutes from where we are now living.   There are traces of human habitation here from the 6th Century, but the town was not formally established until the 11th Century.  It was connected to the Abbey of Farfa, one of the most important abbeys in Italy at the time, and was the home of a garrison of Templars, who had establishments n various parts of Italy to help Crusaders crossing Italy to reach the southern Adriatic coast, and from thence to take ship to the Holy Land.  The Templars helped to resist a siege by the armies of Frederick II of Sicily in the 13th C, and perhaps for that reason you can still see vestiges of Templar symbols here, even though the order was officially suppressed for heresy in the 14th Century.  The town went into decline after the Middle Ages, and eventually became part of the Papal states, where it remained until the unification of Italy in 1861.  These days, Montedinove is a town of about 600 known mainly for its apples.

There are two interesting churches here, which unfortunately are rarely open — many small towns in rural Italy don’t have the resources to keep historic buildings open on regular basis.  Under the supervision of FAI, a private organization which raises money for the upkeep of historic buildings, a number of these smaller sites are open several weekends a year.  FAI partners with local schools to provide student guides on these weekends, which is both a great way for the students to learn local history and a real benefit for tourists.

The Church of Santa Maria de Cellis was founded in the 12th C, with a second church built on top of it several hundred years later.  The practice of building a new church on top of an older one is quite common in Italy.  Sometimes the older church is completely buried under the new one, although occasionally you can reach it through an interior staircase. In Montedinove, where the church is built on the side of a hill, you can access either the older or the newer church by separate entrances.

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The church is best known for its Gothic portal, built in 1368, which includes many late medieval symbols that are difficult to interpret today.    On one side of the portal, there are flowers (unfortunately difficult to see) which are believed to be Templar symbols.

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The upper church also has a 14th Century crucifix .  The suffering face of Jesus, and his muscular arms, anticipate the more humanistic depictions which became common in the the Renaissance a couple of centuries later.  No artistic revolution ever comes out of nowhere.

The 18th C church of San Lorenzo, whose interior is done in an unusually restrained Baroque style, is to my mind remarkably beautiful.

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The town also has, rather surprisingly, a sanctuary dedicated to the English saint Thomas Becket.  Thomas studied canon law at Bologna (neither Oxford nor Cambridge had been established in his era), and made many Italian friends, who were quite distraught to hear of his murder.  Not long after, when an individual appeared claiming to have possession of some of Becket’s bones, the local monastery built a small sanctuary for it. During the 16th Century, the establishment became a sanctuary of another sort for English Catholic priests fleeing Tudor persecution.  You can still see the bones today, although the current building dates only to the early 17th Century.

The town also offers some magnificent vistas of the surrounding Apennines, which we took full advantage of – as well as the local wineries!

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