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Category: Italy

CONKERS AND CHESTNUTS

Milan, 26 September 2017

A few days ago, my wife and I decided that for our usual afternoon walk we would take the subway up towards the northwest of Milan and then walk back home. This strategy had us walk through a small park that was once part of the grounds of the royal palace. As we walked down one of the park’s shady avenues, conkers started raining down on us. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say that two or three seed balls came cannoning down from above our heads and landed with a thump on the gravel, releasing their conkers which rolled around our feet. I picked one up and rubbed it gently with my fingers. Fresh conkers are really lovely, with their brown, lustrous skin and their smooth velvety feel.

Their seed casing is also very pretty, bright green with soft spikes all over it.

More than anything, though, conkers bring back happy memories from my childhood. I still distinctly remember during the breaks in the schoolyard fishing out my conker from my pocket and squaring off for conker duels with my friends. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this playground game, let me quickly explain how it works.
– Find a conker.
– Drill a hole through it with a nail.
– Thread a shoelace or other such string through the hole, and make a strong knot at the end.
– Face your opponent.
– One of you lets his conker dangle, let’s say your opponent.
– You swing your conker at his conker in a rather special way – see the photo below, which looks to have been taken during my boyhood years.

– If your opponent’s conker breaks, you win. If not, you dangle your conker and your opponent takes a swing at it.
And so on, until either one of the conkers breaks or the bell rings and it’s time to go back to those boring classes.

Conkers was, of course, a game of Autumn, played in the first month or so of the school term until the conkers stopped dropping off the trees and the conker supply dried up. Other games then took over the schoolyard until it was mid-September again and time to prepare that monster conker which would surely smash all other opponents in the schoolyard.

In case any of my readers are wondering, conkers come from the horse chestnut, that tree which gives lovely white or pink flowers in the Spring



and which in the last several decades have often looked distressingly mangy by summer time

the result of attack by the leaf miner moth. It seems that this disease was first noticed in Macedonia and has been marching across the globe ever since.

Perhaps, like I used to, some of my readers think that chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees are related. I mean, the nuts in both cases are so similar, as are their casings!

Yet they are not. They each belong to quite different families. I suppose this must be a case of convergent evolution.

One thing which very definitely distinguishes them is that conkers are not edible, but chestnuts very much are. And in fact in this Autumn season, Milan’s shops and markets are putting out piles of chestnuts to entice you.

I haven’t yet seen chestnut roasters on street corners, though.

Maybe they only appear when the weather turns cooler. I await them with anticipation, so that I can buy my paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.

________________
Conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.collinsdictionary.com/amp/english/conker
Conker seed case: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3838298/amp/The-end-conker-Playground-staple-vanish-15-years-horse-chestnut-trees-felled-pests-disease.html
Playing conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/437834394994706958/
White horse chestnut tree in flower: http://www.davekilbeyphotography.co.uk/index.php/plants-landscapes/species-trees/horse-chestnut-05/
Pink horse chestnut in flower: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/ppdl/Pages/POTW_old/6-10-13.html
Horse chestnut attacked by leaf miner: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-common-horse-chestnut-tree-damaged-by-the-leaf-miner-moth-cameraria-39467824.html
Chestnut and casing: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.it/2012/09/permaculture-plants-chestnuts.html?m=1
Chestnuts in an Italian market: http://mercatidiroma.com/mercato-trionfale/trionfale
Chestnut roaster, Italy: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/chestnut-street.html
Cone of roast chestnuts: http://www.ricettedalmondo.it/caldarroste.html

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PHILIBERT

Milan, 25 September 2017

A few days ago, I was looking for a street on a map of Milan when my eye fell on a road called via Emanuele Filiberto. Now, readers need to know that my third (and last) given name is Philibert, the English – and French – equivalent of the Italian Filiberto. Readers also need to know that the current heir to the defunct Italian throne goes by the name of Emanuele Filiberto – he is the grandson of the last King of Italy, Umberto II, who was kicked out by the referendum of 1946. For the umpteenth time, I wondered why I shared a name with this twerp. Because he is a twerp. He’s the kind of guy who ends up on the cover of magazines you flip through while waiting for your appointment with the dentist.


(will you look at that stupid grin!) He has no obvious source of income. He has a vague career as a TV presenter, and has launched a food truck in LA selling pasta, all of this trading on his royal pretensions.

Finally, I decided to try and find an answer to my question: why do I share the same name with this twerp?

This quest took me up the family tree of the Kings of Italy, which quite quickly turns into the family tree of the Dukes of Savoy; it was the Dukes of Savoy who through the twists and turns of history eventually became the Kings of Italy. I thought perhaps that Filiberto was a family name and that I would find traces of it through the generations. But no. There hasn’t been a Filiberto in the family since Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy 1553-1580.

But that explains why my twerp carries the name that he does. This first Emanuele Filiberto – or more likely Emmanuel Philibert, for the family was more French than Italian at the time – towers above many of the Dukes of Savoy who came before and after him.

It was he who rescued the family from oblivion. His father Charles had lost all the Savoy lands both south and north of the Alps to the French king Francis I (with the Spanish helping themselves to a few pickings along the way). Refusing to accept the loss of his inheritance, Emmanuel Philibert went to work in the armies of Francis I’s enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He was a brilliant general, winning some key battles for Charles against the French, and earning for himself the sobriquet of Testa di Ferro, Ironhead. In gratitude, Charles V ensured that in the Peace of Cateau Cambrésis which was signed in 1559 Emmanuel Philibert got most of his lands back. It was a new lease of life for the Dukes of Savoy, although it only put off the inevitable loss of Savoy to the French, which finally occurred in 1860 during the reign of Napoleon III. Perhaps it was because he sensed that this would be the long-term outcome that Emmanuel Philibert moved the ducal capital from Chambéry in Savoy to Turin in Piedmont. This is the Royal Palace in Turin.

Obviously, the modern Emanuele Filiberto was so named by his equally twerpish father Vittorio Emanuele to bask in the reflected glory of their ancestor, and perhaps to signal that they would one day emulate his great feat and regain the crown of Italy. Fat chance of that.

But of course this discovery simply reframed my original question: why do I then share a name with Emmanuel Philibert 10th Duke of Savoy? Here, I was helped by a book from 1778 helpfully scanned by Google and available on the internet: “Histoire Généalogique de la Royale Maison de Savoie”.

It’s essentially a hagiography of the House of Savoy, but it was very useful for my purposes. Under the entry on Emmanuel Philibert it has this to say about his two names: “Emmanuel Philibert was born in Chambéry on 8 July 1528. He was given the name Emmanuel in memory of Emmanuel King of Portugal, his maternal ancestor, and that of Philibert because of a vow made by Duke Charles his father to Saint Philibert in Tournus”.

Ah! Now that was exceedingly interesting to read! To explain my excitement, I must now tell readers why I was given the name Philibert. Tournus is a small town – a very small town – in Burgundy on the river Saône, some 35 kilometers north of the somewhat larger town of Mâcon which my mother hailed from. It is famous – and indeed has been famous since the early Middle Ages – for its sanctuary to Saint Philibert. It is a glorious construction from the 11th Century and I would highly recommend my readers to visit it should they ever be in the area.


For reasons that are not clear to me, Saint Philibert is (or at least was) the saint to whom you prayed if you wanted a son. When my mother was pregnant with me, she already had three girls but only one boy. She therefore made a vow to her more-or-less local saint that if her next child was a boy she would give him the saint’s name. I was born and she honored her vow. It may just be a fancy but I suspect that Duke Charles made the same vow some time in the 1520s, especially since Tournus lay just across the river from his westernmost lands.

So there is indeed a link, however tenuous, between me and that twerp Emanuele Filiberto. Which is a pity, but there you are.

Readers might assume, since I have expended so much time on the matter, that I am proud to carry the name Philibert. I have to admit that this is not quite the case. It is, let’s face it, a bit of a silly name. When I was young, I kept it well hidden, only admitting to it when I really had to. Often, when I pronounced it it would elicit a snicker from my listeners. I silently thank the Good Lord that my mother honored her vow but only by giving it to me as my third name. I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I had had to spend my boyhood years in the playground being called Philibert. I would probably have taken to alcohol or drugs or worse.

But let me finish on a more positive note. Saint Philibert’s feast day is 20th August, which happens to be peak harvest time for hazelnuts in England. So people began to call them filbert nuts, or filberts. I rather like the idea of having a connection with hazelnuts, an excellent nut which I enjoy in my morning muesli and from time time in pieces of chocolate. Better a connection with a nut than with a twerp.
___________________

Cover of Gente: http://olgopinions.blog.kataweb.it/tag/emanuele-filiberto-di-savoia/page/3/
Cover of Telesette: http://m.famousfix.com/post/valeria-marini-telesette-magazine-cover-italy-24-february-2015-51840502/p51840501?view=large
Emanuele Filiberto and his food truck: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3690125/amp/The-prince-Italy-sells-pasta-food-truck-California-truffle-linguine-16-bowl.html
Emmanuel Philibert, Duc de Savoie: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/lordozner.tumblr.com/post/89144934533/frans-pourbus-the-elder-emmanuel-philibert-duke/amp
Royal Palace, Turin: http://www.turismotorino.org/mobile/
Histoire Généalogique etc. cover page: https://books.google.it/books/about/Histoire_généalogique_de_la_royale_mai.html?id=GPrH8yauF94C&redir_esc=y
Abbey church of Tournus, aerial view: http://www.tournus.fr/le-site-abbatial-de-saint-philibert
Abbey church of Tournus, interior: http://www.hotel-greuze.fr/test-a-vister
Hazelnuts: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/nut-trees/hazelnut/when-to-harvest-hazelnuts.htm

STORM CLOUDS OVER VENICE

Milan, 5 September 2017

We had come to Venice to celebrate the 65th birthday of two dear friends. They had invited a number of us from their past to share in this celebration. So there we were, some twenty in all, all slightly geriatric, stepping off the bus-boat onto the island of la Giudecca and gathering at a restaurant by the edge of the wide canal which separates this island from the rest of Venice.

As we sipped our aperitifs and later seated ourselves around two tables ranged along the edge of the canal, vast cumulo-nimbus clouds hovered to the north of us.

By the time we had finished the entrées (tris of raw fish, chopped fine, with sauces) and were tucking into the risotto cooked in a shellfish sauce, the sky had turned dark and menacing and the restaurant owner was worried that gusts of wind would carry his shade umbrellas away.


By the time we finished the main course (tuna seared briefly in the pan), the epicenter of the rain clouds sat above the campanile in St. Mark’s Square.

Once coffee was served, after a pannacotta for dessert, the clouds were dissipating and sunshine was breaking out again over Venice.

We said our goodbyes, promising, as has been the custom with these birthday parties, to meet again in five years’ time (and ignoring the little voice inside us emitting the hope that we would all still be of this world then), and went our separate ways. Ours took us through St. Mark’s Square, where the rain clouds to the west still looked menacing

but no rain fell on us as we threaded our way through the alleys back to our hotel.
__________________
Photos: all ours

WIENER SCHNITZEL vs COTOLETTA ALLA MILANESE

Vienna, 14 July 2017

As readers of my posts may know, since I retired last year my wife and I have pretty much divided our time between Vienna and Milan, having roots in both places. I therefore think it is time for me to wade into the Battle of the Wiener Schnitzel and the Cotoletta alla Milanese. As their names indicate, these delicious dishes are at home in Vienna and Milan, respectively. To get everyone’s juices flowing, I throw in here a photo of each: wiener schnitzel first

cotoletta alla milanese next.

For those of my readers who may not be conversant with one or both of these dishes, I should explain that both take a veal cutlet, dunk the veal in a beaten egg (sometimes preceded by a dunk in flour), cover it with a generous portion of breadcrumbs, and fry the result in butter (Milan) or lard (Vienna). They are for all intents and purposes the same dish, although the cognoscenti will insist on the differences: I have just mentioned the different frying medium, to which can be added: boned vs. deboned, Milan’s version still having the rib bone attached, while in Vienna’s version the bone has been detached; and as a consequence of this, different thicknesses, the Viennese version being pounded thin while the Milanese version, being still attached to the bone, is a few centimeters thick.

As I said, they are for all intents and purposes the same dish, and naturally enough the question has been raised if the chefs of one city did not at some point copy the chefs of the other. Well, let me tell you, much ink, and perhaps a little blood, has been spilled over this vital question: who copied who? Is the wiener schnitzel the son of the cotoletta alla milanese, or on the contrary did the cotoletta alla milanese sire the wiener schnitzel? Readers who think that this is an interesting academic question but surely hardly one over which to draw the kitchen knives don’t know the history of this little corner of the world. Allow me to give them a thumbnail sketch.

From 1525 to 1860, with the exception of some decades during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire that followed, Milan, along with much of northern Italy, was ruled by the Hapsburgs, first the Spanish branch of the family and then, from 1706 onwards, the Austrian branch. And so, by an accident of history, the Austrian was the Enemy when the Milanese, along with many other northern Italians, rallied behind the cause of Italian unification in the first decades of the 19th Century. Things first boiled over in 1848. Every Milanese, my wife included, will tell you of Le Cinque Giornate, the glorious five days in March of that year when the Milanese rose up and drove the Austrian Governor, Field Marshal Radetzky (he of Johan Strauss’s Radetzky March), and his troops out of Milan.

Alas! A few months later, Radetsky defeated the troops of the Piedmontese King of Sardinia, who had eagerly stepped forward to help his Lombard brothers (with the idea, of course, of incorporating Lombardy into his kingdom), and regained control of Milan and Austria’s other northern Italian territories. Not surprisingly, Radetzky is not seen with a terribly favourable eye in Milan.

Northern Italy was forced to remain under the yolk of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for another 11 years. In the meantime, Count Cavour, Prime Minister of the Piedmontese kingdom, had cut a deal with Napoleon III, which led to a Franco-Piedmontese war against the Austrians in 1859. The Austrians were beaten at the extremely bloody Battle of Solferino (it was his witnessing of the battle that caused the Swiss Henry Dunant to found the Red Cross).

After the battle, Lombardy was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, soon to be renamed the Kingdom of Italy.

I will skip the rest of the struggle against Austria, which only really concluded at the end of World War I with the cession of Trento and Alto Adige to the kingdom of Italy after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

I think my potted history of Italian unification – at least its northern ramifications – will suffice to explain the sensitivities (especially in Milan, I have to say) about the relationship between the wiener schnitzel and the cotoletta alla milanese. I mean, just imagine how the Indians would feel if, for instance, someone claimed that chicken masala was actually a copy of a British dish: a dish of the ex-colonialist! The sensitivities are such that in the late 1960s a Sicilian who had emigrated to Milan and had become more Milanese than the natives published a completely fabricated story about how Radetzky, in the middle of a report to the Imperial Court about the military situation in northern Italy, had started rhapsodizing about a wonderful veal dish he had been introduced to in Milan. This piqued the Emperor’s attention, and when Radetzky next came back to Vienna to report, the Emperor packed him off to the Imperial kitchens to give the chef the recipe. Thus was born the wiener schnitzel, our Sicilian claimed, sired by the cotoletta alla milanese.

For many years, the story that Radetzky brought the cotoletta alla milanese to Vienna was widely believed, on both sides of the debate, but it has now been debunked. I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that our Sicilian’s story was a tissue of lies from one end to the other. But then this has meant that the question of which of the two dishes came first reared its ugly head again and sent food historians scrambling to do more research.

A face-saving solution seemed to have been found when it was pointed out that a French cookery book from 1749, “La Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier”,

contained a recipe where a veal cutlet was dipped in a beaten egg, covered in bread crumbs, and fried. Surely this meant that the French had invented the dish? That was alright, after all French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines and to be descended from a French dish is an honour. After which, various theories were put forward to explain how this French dish arrived both in Milan and in Vienna.

However, other – Italian – food historians have pointed out that the technique of breading and frying meat was already in use in Italy in the 16th-17th Centuries, as evidenced in the cookery book published in 1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi,

who was a noted chef to Cardinals and Popes, as well as in that published by the Bolognese Vincenzo Tanara in 1653.

Both cookery books give this technique as a way of using up various cuts of meat.

These food historians have gone one step further. Tanara lived all his life in Bologna and Scappi spent many years there as a cook to a Bolognese cardinal. They therefore suggest that the ancestor of the cotoletta alla milanese (and maybe by some tortuous path the wiener schnitzel) is none other than … the cotoletta alla bolognese! For those readers who, like me, had never heard of this dish before today, I can quickly report that it is a veal cutlet prepared just like a cotoletta alla milanese or a wiener schnitzel but on which slices of raw cured ham have been placed, followed by flakes of Parmesan cheese, the whole then being placed in the oven and heated until the Parmesan has melted (aficionados pop a shaving of truffle on the top at the end). This is what it looks like.

Well! Here, we will plunge into an even earlier period of the Italian peninsula’s history, when the city-states were all quarreling and fighting with each other,

a competitiveness which lingers on in Italy’s football championship; here we have Inter Milan against Bologna last year (Inter Milan won 2-1).

Will the Milanese ever be able to accept that they received anything good from Bologna? I’ve asked my wife about the cotoletta alla bolognese and she says she’s never heard of it, even though she lived a year in Bologna during her student days and the dish is reported as being a very important, very ancient Bolognese dish.

This does not bode well for how this theory will be greeted as it percolates down from the small clique of food historians to the general Milanese public. Already other food historians claim to have found evidence that a predecessor of the cotoletta alla milanese already existed in Milan in the 12th Century. There is a Milanese document which lists in macaronic Latin the dishes eaten by the cannons of the Basilica of St. Ambrose in 1148. One of these dishes is “lombolos cum panitio”. No-one seems to have a problem with the word lombolos, which all agree is a cut of meat. The problem is with “cum panitio”. The more optimistic interpreters think it means breaded, and on the basis of this interpretation Milan’s city fathers passed a city decree a few years ago giving the cotoletta alla milanese a denomination of local origin. The more skeptical interpreters shrug their shoulders and say “cum panitio” could mean any one of a series of bread-based foodstuffs which were simply accompanying the lombolos.

The arguments will no doubt rage on. My personal take, for what it’s worth, is that the technique of breading a piece of meat could well have been invented in many places independently. Why couldn’t cooks in different places and at different times have figured out that bread crumbs will attach to a piece of meat when it’s been dipped in beaten egg and that the breaded meat can then be fried? I mean, we’re not talking rocket science here. But hey, who am I? Just a guy who enjoys eating wiener schnitzel and cotoletta alla milanese from time time. What do I know about anything?

_________________
Wiener Schnitzel: http://www.gayinvienna.com/en/blog/wiener-schnitzel
Cotoletta alla Milanese: http://mangiarebuono.it/la-cotoletta-o-costoletta-alla-milanese/
Cinque Giornate: http://www.milanofree.it/milano/storia/le_cinque_giornate_di_milano.amp.html
Battle of Solferino: http://www.experiences-plus.it/extra/extra_risorgimento_3.htm
Science du Maître d’Hôtel Cuisinier: https://nouveauservice.wordpress.com/category/recherche/
Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi: http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.co.at/2009/03/renaissance-kitchen.html?m=1
Vincenzo Tanara, L’economia del Cittadino I Villa: https://www.maremagnum.com/libri-antichi/l-economia-del-cittadino-in-villa-del-signor-vincenzo-tanara/105032152
Cotoletta bolognese: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/ricette.donnamoderna.com/cotolette-alla-bolognese%3Famp%3Dtrue
Battle between Italian city states: http://www.medievalists.net/2008/11/the-rise-and-decline-of-italian-city-states/
Inter Milan-Bologna, 2016: http://www.ilrestodelcarlino.it/bologna/sport/calcio/inter-bologna-2016-diretta-1.1970445

FOSSILS IN THE STAIRS

Vienna, 29 June 2017

A few days ago, just as my wife and I were setting out from the apartment, it started to rain. It was my wife who had decreed that it wouldn’t rain, but it was I who went back to get the umbrellas. As readers can imagine, I was a little grumpy as I ascended the stairs, glaring at the individual steps. Perhaps it was my acute attention of the steps, perhaps it was the light; whatever it was, I suddenly noticed in the sixth step from last, which had been worn smooth by countless feet treading on it, something which I had never noticed before on my walks up and down those stairs: a fossil.

At first sight it looked like a leaf, but I now think it could be a coral of some sort. I walked up and down all six flights of stairs in our building looking intently at each step,

and I now see what I had never really noticed before, that the limestone used for them is made up of a mass of shells and other marine remains, fallen randomly on top of each other and then squeezed tight by the monstrous weight of later rocks above them.

As we discovered when we bought the apartment and picked through the Land Register, our building was constructed at the turn of the century. It was, and has remained, a modest building – no Belvedere Palace for us

just a modest lower middle-class building, one of many outside Vienna’s swank 1st District.

Consequently, even at a time when long-distance travel had been made a thousand times easier by the booming rail system and nascent road system, I would imagine that the stone for our steps came from a local quarry. Which is more than possible, there being quite a number of old limestone quarries around Vienna, a number of which – I have been breathlessly informed by an Austrian fossil-hunter website – are good sources of marine fossils.

An Austrian map of the country’s geology

informs me – if my rudimentary German is correct – that the rock formations in question are Late Tertiary. Specifically, according to a mind-numbing report prepared for the 26th International Geological Congress which I leafed through electronically, they belong to the Neogene beds in the Vienna basin; these were laid down some some 10-15 million years ago, between the Upper Eggenburgian and Lower Badenian stages of the Middle Miocene epoch, as a result of at least two marine incursions into the Vienna basin.

Setting aside all the arcane – and, frankly, incomprehensible – scientific mumbo-jumbo with which this report is filled, we can happily conclude that the jumbled marine fossils locked forever more into the steps of our building’s stairway are the result of the area around Vienna twice being a sea. It must have been a nice warm sea too, since corals flourished in its waters. In fact, this map of mid-Miocene Europe shows that much of Central Europe was under water during this Epoch, this being the far western end of the wonderfully-named Tethys Sea.

In cases like these, I am always taken by a sense of wonder. Here I am, living on the edges of a rich agricultural plain 350 kilometers from the nearest sea.

Yet once upon a time there was sea all around me, probably quite like the sea which my wife and I snorkeled over a year ago in Thailand, with coral outcrops, starfish and sea urchins clinging to their rocks, crabs scuttling along the sea floor, fish flashing in and out of the coral, and from time to time the passing shadow of a shark.

That same sense of wonder came over me many years ago, when we visited Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. The park sits in the middle of a harsh, dry, desert region.

Yet all around us lay the petrified remains of a once mighty forest.


Artists imagine that these 200 million year-old forests looked something like this.

All that teaming life in this now almost dead environment …

It was more with a sense of fascinated horror than awe that I first gazed on the “fossils” (mummies is perhaps the better term) of people and animals dug up at Pompeii.



They were overtaken, submerged, in the 1000C-hot pyroclastic flow that swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius and howled through the city at 700 km/hr.

What a terrible, terrible death! But perhaps it was a mercifully quick death, with them being flash-cooked, basically.

Hmm, I didn’t want to finish on this rather depressing note. But hey, that’s life! In the meantime, I need to escogitate a plan to persuade my wife join me on a visit to Vienna’s Natural Science Museum (sheathed in a very nice stone, I should add)

so that I can study the area’s geology better.

_______________
Our building’s steps: our photos
Belvedere Palace: http://www.austriawanderer.com/the-belvedere-palace-in-vienna/
Our apartment building: our photo
Geological map of Europe: http://www.gifex.com/detail-en/2011-06-29-13972/Geological-map-of-Austria.html
Miocene Europe: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-klima4.htm
Vienna plain: http://www.donau.com/de/roemerland-carnuntum-marchfeld/detail/marktgemeinde-goetzendorf-an-der-leitha/c53b2a6b0c75fed4d809b78b888830d9/
Tropical sea: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/coral-reef-in-thailand-louise-murray-and-photo-researchers.html
Petrified Forest NP: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/nature/petrifiedforest/#petrified-forest-hills.jpg
Petrified tree-1: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/petrified-forest-national-park-arizona.html
Petrified tree-2: http://www.van-tramp.com/wp/petrified-forest-national-park-revisit/
Forest 100 million years ago: https://jerry-coleby-williams.net/2015/02/15/bunya-prehistoric-plant-ancient-australian-food-tradition/araucaroid-forest-ca-100-million-years-ago/
Pompeii mummies-1: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/535224736949021987/
Pompeii mummies-2: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/za.pinterest.com/amp/pin/308144799474273688/
Pompeii mummies-3: https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/general-discussion-gc5/fossils-paleontology-old-bones-gc30/25828-reposting-pam-s-odd-rock-fossil-2nd-opinion
Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius: https://it.pinterest.com/agcinnamongirl/pompeii-italy/
Natural History Museum, Vienna: https://ictca2017.conf.tuwien.ac.at/index.php/natural-history-museum-vienna

IN THE MOUNTAINS

Sori, 24 April 2017

The north wind had blown hard all night, and by morning the air over the sea, the village, and the hills behind it was crystal clear. After our morning coffee, we decided to take the path along the sea cliffs which brings one to the village graveyard. Along the way, we stopped for a moment at the memorial to those who have died at sea.

But with the air so clear, I soon forgot the dead and let my gaze be drawn by the snow-capped mountains hovering far away on the horizon: Mounts Gelàs and Argentera, along with their acolyte peaks, in the the Maritime Alps, today enveloped in the National Park of the Alpi Marittime.

Oh, that I could skim across that lapis lazuli sea!

Soar over Spotorno on the opposite shore of the Gulf, waiting patiently for its summer bathers, up over the hills behind it.

Over Mondovì, racing for the mountains beckoning to me behind it.

To finally alight, high up in the park, there to enjoy all its delights.






One day we’ll go there, I tell my wife, one day – although no doubt by a more normal mode of transportation.

_____________
Pics of the memorial and the mountains behind it: ours
Flying over the sea: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/northern-beaches/superman-surfer-gets-birdseye-view-to-sea/news-story/90862b1d51f14ff9887116c7a5768088
Spotorno: http://www.comune.spotorno.gov.it/1822/galleriafotografica/24-06-2007-la-spiaggia-di-spotorno/
Mondovì: http://www.italythisway.com/places/mondovi.php
Parco alpi marittime-1: http://thetourismcompany.com/casestudy.asp?serviceid=2&projectid=921
Parco alpi marittime-2: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=17863
Parco alpi marittime-3: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=14489
Parco alpi marittime-4: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=7856
Parco alpi marittime-5: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=13402
Parco alpi marittime-6: http://www.parks.it/parco.alpi.marittime/gallery_dettaglio.php?id=9385

FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some thirty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio


either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). At the end of the ceremony, we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like Health & Safety services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll, we walked through the courtyard where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense and keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh … the gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, in the background but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh … so desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees

and we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

 

WATT’S TOWERS

Los Angeles, 8 April 2017

There is a town on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius that goes by the name of Nola. Although very ancient, nothing much of great historical significance has ever happened there. It did play host to three battles between Hannibal and the Romans, there was another battle of some regional significance in the Middle Ages, and that’s about it. Naples, which like all big cities has been growing outwards over the last 100 years, has finally engulfed it so that Nola is now really no more than a suburb of Naples. Sadly, Nola’s main claim to fame nowadays is that of being a hotspot of Camorra activity. On the brighter side, it is also the host to the Festa dei Gigli, the Festival of the Lilies, which, together with several similar festivals in other parts of Italy, has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage.

The roots of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies are very ancient, going back all the way to the 800s AD. It celebrates an even earlier moment in the city’s history, back in the 400s AD. Pope Gregory the Great, no less, relates the story. A poor widow begged the bishop of the city, Paulinus, to help her get back her only son, who had been carried off by the Vandals to North Africa after one of their frequent raids of Campania. But Paulinus had already used up his considerable fortune ransoming other Nolans enslaved by the Vandals. So the saintly bishop sailed off to North Africa and offered to take the place of the widow’s son, an offer the Vandals accepted. Some time later, the king of the Vandals discovered that this slave was the great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the other captive Nolans which the Vandals still held. When Paulinus sailed back to Campania, the joyful citizens of Nola escorted him to his residence holding lilies.

The citizens of Nola reenact the last part of this delightful, if rather unbelievable, story every year in their Festival of the Lilies, on Paulinus’s feast day in June. They organize a lavish procession which draws thousands of people, once pious (or perhaps credulous) locals but now mostly just curious tourists. When the festival was born 1200 years ago, each person in the procession carried an actual lily. The sixth century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna of the procession of virgins can stand in here for this event, even though the plants in the background are date palms rather than lilies.

Over the centuries, however, those many long-stemmed lilies morphed into eight thin, very tall (25-meter tall) pyramids, each carried by a team of men. These towers are rebuilt every year. The structure’s wooden skeleton is first assembled

and then elaborate decorations are applied to one side of the pyramid.

A ninth team carries an effigy of the boat which brought Paulinus back to Nola.

The teams carry their “lilies” and the boat through Nola, with them swaying and undulating as the teams navigate the city’s narrow streets.


Once the lilies and the boat have been brought into the piazza fronting the cathedral, they are ranged along the sides of the piazza.

The bishop, successor of Paulinus, then blesses the assembled crowds.

Now I must rewind my story more than a century. Some time in the early 1890s (as near as I can guess), a young boy called Sabato Rodia must have witnessed the Festival. He was born in 1879 in Ribottoli, a small village some 40 kilometers east of Nola. What he saw burnt itself into his mind and stayed with him all his life. The romantic in me wants to believe that he witnessed the Festival on his way down to the port of Naples: at the age of 15, his parents packed him off, unaccompanied, to America. He joined his elder brother, who had already emigrated and who was working in the coal mines in Pennsylvania. Tragedy struck when his brother was killed in a mining accident. Sabato, who had anglicized his name on entering the States to Sam, moved out to Seattle, entered the construction business, married and had three children. In 1905, when Sam was 26, he moved himself and his family to Oakland in California. Things were looking good for him, but unfortunately something went wrong inside him. He began drinking too much, lost his job, and I suspect beat his wife, or children, or both. Whatever the case, in 1912 his wife took the children and left him, and he never saw any of them again. Luckily, Sam managed to get off the bottle and to start working again, still in the construction industry but this time as an itinerant tile setter.

All the while, something was gnawing away at him. As he told an interviewer many years later, “I had in my mind I’m gonna do somethin’, somethin’ big”. Finally, in 1921, when he was 42, he bought a small plot of land, sandwiched between the railway tracks and the tram lines, in the working-class neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles. He lived in the plot’s small house, while in the narrow, triangular backyard he started to recreate his own very personal take on his vivid memories of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies.

For the next 34 years, until he was 76 years old, Sam dedicated all his spare time to his project, working alone since he had no money to hire help and using nothing but the most elementary tools of the construction trade. He built in reinforced concrete, a medium he was familiar with after all his years in the construction business but also because he wanted his dream to last. Like a magpie, he picked up colorful objects wherever he came across them – broken bottles of green but also blue and brown glass, broken tiles from his tiling business, sea shells which he picked up on the nearby beaches, colored stones – and he embedded them in the wet concrete for decoration. He was happy to be squeezed in between tram and rail tracks since the passengers would be able to enjoy views of his growing creation as they passed.

Recreating Nola’s cathedral piazza in his cramped backyard, Sam built the framework of three Lilies, with an airy interconnection between the tallest.


In the site’s narrow apex, he placed the boat which brought the bishop back from the Vandals.

On the other side, he built his vision of Nola’s cathedral as an airy gazebo.


Outside of it, he placed the font from which the bishop of Nola would bless the procession.

All around the site, he built a wall, decorated inside and out with his colorful finds.

Like all artists, he proudly signed his work, in his case with an SR

and, almost like a Medieval guild member, he showed off his tools of construction.

The local community must have found Sam odd, eccentric, somewhat mad, perhaps touched by God. Certainly, in a gesture of respect, the local Central American community called him Don Simon, which led to his last change of name, to Simon Rodia. In its final years, his project caught the attention of Los Angeles’s artistic community, so we finally have photos and films of Simon at work.


In 1955, Simon decided he had finished and dropped tools. Perhaps it was like the God of Genesis who on the sixth day “saw all that he had made, and it was very good”, and rested on the seventh. Or perhaps he was just tired of arguing with city officials over building permits. Whatever the reason, he deeded the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California, where years before a sister of his had come out from Pennsylvania to take up residence. He lived there for another 10 years until he died at the ripe old age of 86.

As for Simon’s creation, neglect and vandalism nearly destroyed it, but good sense prevailed and the city council listed it as a Historic-Cultural Monument two years before Simon died, in 1963. Simon himself was granted the greatest of all apotheoses, a space on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top right corner, near Bob Dylan).

What more could a person want?

________________
Procession of Virgins, Sant Apollinare: https://inpress.lib.uiowa.edu/feminae/DetailsPage.aspx?Feminae_ID=30725
“Lily” framework: https://gigli.jimdo.com/assegnazioni/
Building framework-1: http://www.cancelloedarnonenews.com/2009/09/16/da-brusciano-costruttori-e-cullatori-alla-festa-dei-gigli-di-mariglianella/
Building framework-2: http://ifg.uniurb.it/viaggio-nella-festa-dei-gigli-di-barra-tra-storia-passioni-e-maestosi-obelischi/
Covered lilies: http://www.lavocedelnolano.it/blog/2015/07/festa-dei-gigli-2015-il-nostro-pagellone/
The boat: http://www.fotovolpe.it/portfolio_page/i-gigli-di-nola-napoli/
Moving the lilies through the streets of Nola: http://mapio.net/s/58166915/
Carriers: http://www.dagospia.com/mediagallery/DEVOTI_E_DEFORMI_I_CULLATORI_DI_NOLA-118332/574414.htm
Lilies and boat in the cathedral’s piazza: http://www.rivistasitiunesco.it/domenica-26-giugno-si-rinnova-la-tradizione-dei-gigli-di-nola/
Simon Rodia’s lilies: our pictures
Simon Rodia’s boat: http://ca.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/december/09/why-the-watts-towers-were-nearly-knocked-down/
Simon Rodia’s church: http://www.terragalleria.com/california/picture.usca35355.html
Simon Rodia’s font: our pics
Simon Rodia’s walls: our pics
Simon Rodia-1: https://m.discoverlosangeles.com/blog/watts-towers-story-la-icon
Simon Rodia-2: http://www.wattstowers.us/history.htm
Sergeant Pepper’s album cover: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/genius.com/amp/The-beatles-sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band-album-artwork-annotated

THE GOLDEN MEAN IN CHURCH FACADES

Milan, 15 March 2017

Many years ago, when I first visited Italy, one of the things that struck me was the very flat facades which Italian churches had. In the Basilica dei Fieschi, the topic of my last post, we came across a typical example of the genre.

These facades were so different from the much more vertical and more articulated church facades of Northern Europe which I was used to. I throw in here pictures of la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Cologne Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey as examples of what I mean.



Much more than these facades, I find that the facades of Italian churches, with all those acres of flatness, can be quite boring, if not downright ugly, to look at unless something is done to liven them up. Consider, for example, the facade of the Florentine Church of Santo Spirito, which my wife and I came across in our recent visit to Florence.

I mean, look at that! It’s just like staring at a blank wall from your office window. Every time we crossed the square in front of it – which, given the location of our rented apartment relative to the locations of the places we were visiting, was quite often – I would comment disapprovingly on the facade’s drabness, its flatness, its total boringness until my wife finally remarked with a touch of asperity that I was repeating myself. But I mean, look at it!

Somewhat less flat but just as drab are the facades of those Italian churches – and there are many – which for some reason never got completed, initially because of lack of money, or quarrels about proposed designs, or the start of wars, or the break-out of pestilence, and thereafter simply through inertia. The facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, also in Florence, is an excellent example of this type.


Those rough bricks are just crying out for an elegant, visually interesting facing to be added. That, of course, was the plan. A competition was held, which Michelangelo won. His facade that would have looked like this.

He had gone so far as to choose the marble for the facade. But the Medici pope who was paying was short of cash. So Michelangelo had to choose a cheaper stone. Then the Pope died. Then there was a war. Then Michelangelo was called to Rome by another pope, and that was the end of that. There have been at least three attempts since then to complete the facade, the latest no more than a few years ago, but all have come to naught.

Of course, it is not automatically the case that a finished facade will look better than the original bare brick. Personally, I think that Michelangelo’s facade would have been a definite improvement. But that’s because I’m a fan of simplicity in design, and Michelangelo’s has all the looks of a simple design. Take a look at this facade, though, built more or less at the same time that Michelangelo’s wasn’t.

This is the church of the Certosa di Pavia, which my wife and I visited a few days after our visit to the Basilica dei Fieschi. This was a Carthusian monastery whose creation had been ordered by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The church was to be his family’s mausoleum, and therefore had to be suitably magnificent. For this purpose, he gave the monks access to large amounts of funds which they could only use to embellish the church. So when the Carthusian monks started on the facade, only the best was acceptable, and the more, the better. To the fundamentally sober facade, a riot of Renaissance statuary and bas-reliefs were added, covering every square centimetre of the facade’s surface. Let me zoom in on just a few of the details.


Luckily, all this hue and cry in stone does not overcome the overall effect, which is really very pleasing on the eye.

Not so in the case of Milan’s cathedral.

Here, the statuary and other embellishments on the facade have gotten completely out of hand. The effect is not helped by the over-the-top statuary and embellishments having invaded every square centimetre of the entire outer envelope. All this gives one the feeling that the cathedral is drowning in white marble froth.

So where does this all leave us? Well, I suppose we have here yet another example of the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean: we should always seek the middle ground between the extremes of excess and of deficiency. So in our case, neither facade-less nor frothy facade.

With this in mind I invite readers to go back to facade-less Basilica of San Lorenzo. What design could we propose to Florence’s city fathers? Let me immediately say that the obvious proposal of simply finally installing Michelangelo’s design won’t fly. This was there the very recent suggestion by the-then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who, fyi, went on to briefly be Prime Minister of Italy). This proposal was shot down, on the grounds that putting up Michelangelo’s facade now would be akin to making fake Louis Vuitton handbags (that precise simile was not used, I hasten to add). So a copy of an old design is out. Which is a pity, because I think that the facade of the Florentine church of San Miniato, for instance

or of Pisa’s cathedral

would both nicely fit the golden mean principle.

Personally, I think we should take our cue from San Miniato’s use of colored lines, although maybe to avoid the criticism of simply copying the past, we could adapt a more modern approach to line-drawing: a Mondrian style, for instance.

A follower of Mondrian’s actually adapted the style to a building facade, although in this case it was a very secular subject, a café in Rotterdam.

Given the ecclesiastical nature of our subject as well as its venerable age, I think we would need to go for more muted colours than Mondrian’s signature blues, reds, and yellows. Perhaps we could adopt the more muted hues of his earlier works.

If I had access to an app which would allow me to make architectural drawings, I would come up with a design to propose to readers. Instead, I will just leave it to their imagination as to what a Mondrian-like facade on the Basilica of San Lorenzo might look like.

____________
Facade Basilica dei Fieschi: my photo
Facade Notre-Dame cathedral: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_de_Paris
Facade Cologne cathedral: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/related/ma_cologne_cath_01.htm
Facade Westminster Abbey: https://www.colourbox.com/image/london-westminster-abbey-west-facade-image-3357405
Facade Santo Spirito church: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facciata_di_santo_spirito_01.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_lorenzo_Facciata.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – Michelangelo’s design: http://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/143-san-lorenzo-e-la-facciata-di-michelangelo.html
Facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.visual-italy.it/IT/lombardia/pavia/certosa/
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certosa_di_Pavia
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.settemuse.it/viaggi_italia_lombardia/pavia_certosa.htm
Facade Milan cathedral: https://www.pinterest.com/mayavnt/duomo-milan/
Milan cathedral from side: http://topsy.one/hashtag.php?q=DuomodiMilano
Facade San Miniato church, Florence: https://www.gonews.it/2014/09/23/i-monaci-di-san-miniato-al-monte-chiedono-aiuto-per-il-restauro/amp/
Facade Pisa cathedral: https://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/it/amp/Cattedrale-di-Santa-Maria-Assunta-a-Pisa/
Mondrian: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/piet-mondrian-1651
De Stijl café: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/264727284317842292/
Early Mondrian: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/143392523

 

BASILICA DEI FIESCHI

Sori, 6 March 2017

It was a grey day in Liguria, with the threat of rain, so my wife and I decided not to go for our usual walk in the hills. We opted instead to go to Lavagna. Non-Italian readers might well ask where on earth that is, and indeed Lavagna doesn’t make it into most guide books on Italy, or only slips in as a footnote. As for Italians, if they know it at all it’s because blackboards used to be called “lavagna” in honor of the fact that the first blackboards were made of slate and since time immemorial Lavagna has been a major source of good quality slate.

Alternatively, Italians could know it as one of the many seaside places in southern Liguria.

But we were going there neither for the slate nor for the sea and sand. We were going for a church.

A bit of background is in order here. Lavagna sits at the mouth of the Entella river, whose valley was the principal fiefdom of the Fieschi, a powerful family in Genoa in its heyday as a Maritime Republic (they lost out to another powerful Genoese family, the Doria, in a failed coup in 1547, and dropped out of History; but that is another story). As befitted any powerful Italian family in the pre-Reformation days, they maneuvered to have one of their own elevated to the papacy. Their efforts were rewarded in 1243 when Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi, younger son of Ugo de’ Fieschi count of Lavagna, became Pope Innocent IV.

(The Fieschi hit the papal jackpot again in July 1276, when a nephew of Innocent’s, Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, became Pope with the name Adrian V; alas, he died very shortly thereafter, in August – but that is another story.)

As often happened, Pope Innocent IV decided immediately to embellish the lands of his family with a great church. It was to be a Basilica, no less, and was to be constructed on a little knoll several kilometers north of Lavagna. It must have been constructed very fast, because in 1245 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II swept through the Fieschi fiefdom laying waste to all, including the Basilica.

Innocent IV promptly excommunicated Frederic II. All this had to do with the eternal squabbles between Popes and Emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, but that is definitely another story. Suffice to say that the Pope ordered the Basilica to be rebuilt, which his nephew, as Adrian V, managed to consecrate in 1276 as the Basilica di San Salvatore dei Fieschi before his untimely death.

We can leave History now, for the Basilica which my wife and I visited was essentially the one consecrated by Adrian V. By some miracle, there had been little fiddling with it in the centuries that followed its consecration. After getting off the bus and walking along some fairly nondescript suburban streets, we finally got our first full glimpse of the church, from the back, across a vineyard.


As befits a church built in a valley where slate is king, shades of grey predominated, no doubt enhanced by the greyness of the day.

We walked around the vineyard and entered a lane that led us through the small historical nucleus of houses clustered around the church

and into a delightful little pebbled piazza which sloped gently down to the entry door of the church.

It was as if a grey cloak had been flung on the ground in front of the church – no artificial leveling of the ground, just pebbles set in the earth.

The facade was a sober affair, grey slate with simple bands of white marble in the upper storeys.

There was little decoration, just a much faded fresco above the door and some simple but lovely little carvings along the edge of the roof.

The interior was equally severe and spare, with hardly any decoration.

This was more, I suspect, fruit of the latest restoration efforts which sought to rid the church of later additions than a reflection of what it actually looked like in 1276; I have to believe that the walls and columns were all frescoed back then.

The church was not entirely without decorations, however. Tucked away in a corner of the two little chapels flanking the main altar were an admirable crucifix carved from a cleft branch

and a lovely pietà made instead from a single branch

with the faces of Mary and Jesus barely breaking the wood’s surface.

Also giving onto the piazza was a smaller church.

Its creation actually predates the Basilica but its Baroque facade is the visual symbol of the original church’s complete restructuring over the ages. Beside it stands a palazzo of the Fieschi family built in 1196 and badly in need of restoration. With its white bands, its facade admirably echoes that of the church.

The piazza once had similar buildings all around it, but later constructions have taken their place.

We left the piazza by another lane. Looking back, we had one last glimpse of the Basilica.

As we turned away, we found ourselves in front of a door above which was a carved marble lintel.

It proclaimed:
HUC ADES
NON TIBI SUNT TRISTES CURAE NEC LUCTUS AMICE
SED VARII FLORES

With a lot of help from Google, we managed to translate this as:
“Come hither, friend,
Sad cares and grief are not for you,
But rather flowers of many hues.”

And indeed along the road back to the bus stop, flowers of many hues were beginning to appear, signs of the coming Spring.

______________

Photos: all ours except:
Slate mine: http://www.ardesiamangini.com/azienda.asp
Lavagna beach: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/57630010
Innocent IV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_IV
Frederick II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor
Church interior: http://artigullio.scuolaeformazioneliguria.it/3_beni%20architettonici/architetture%20religiose/Cogorno%20S.Salvatore.htm
Botticelli, Spring: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/