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Jac’s Frozen Fountains

January 22, 2012 1 comment

Dave the WriterJac was a clever guy.

It’d been below freezing in this part of Italy for almost two weeks. Farmers with orchards or vinyards were tearing their hair and wailing in despair, but the crystal-clear air and magnificent views of the snow-capped Apennines in the distance went a long way toward consoling my bride and me.

We’d booked a few weeks’ stay in a romantic room at the recently refurbished 14th century Palazzo Catalani about sixty miles north of Rome. From there, we took day trips all around to explore the countryside.

This day, we were in the small town of Bagnaia to see its major attraction, the gardens and fountains of the Villa Lante (not to be confused with several others of the same name elsewhere in Italy). That’s where Jac comes in.

In the late 15oo’s, a rich* Cardinal asked Jacopo Barozzi of Vignola to create a water wonderland using a small spring that bubbled up on the churchman’s hillside hunting preserve. Jac did fine work.

In our travels, we’ve seen a lot of beautiful fountains, but this one was unique. It was frozen in motion. No pumps or electric-powered mechanisms made the lovely water art there function—just gravity and Jac’s masterful skill. The modern management didn’t have anything to shut down and preserve from cold-weather harm, so they just let it flow.

How perfect for us! Lovely arcs and cascades of ice were everywhere. As the weeks of cold weather had continued, the fountain heads froze last. So, they had the chance to make rare and beautiful paintings in the air before they too stopped working. The beautiful result grabbed us then and has held on in our memories to this day.

Given the skills Jac showed in every other aspect of his work there, we believe that these frozen fountains were no happy accident, but the result of a superb architect’s design intention. And a lucky Cardinal’s bottomless treasury, of course. 

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 By the way, doesn’t it seem that all the Cardinals were seriously rich back then? That’s probably for the same reasons that modern politicians mysteriously and regularly join ‘the one percent’ on nothing but 30 years of honest Public Service and government salaries. Or, maybe, it’s Divine Intervention helping the Future Saints among us, just like it was 500 years ago. Yeah. Sure. That’s it.

King Tarquin’s Town

January 13, 2012 4 comments

Dave the Writeror How a Day-Trip Paid for a Year of Italian Classes!

First, though…

Quick! Who was the 5th king of ancient Rome? You remember, back in 616 BC, before the Republic or the Empire. Any guesses?

That’s right, old Lucius Priscus Tarquinius. He was an Etruscan who’d moved to Rome seeking his fortune. Then, he’d made himself useful, becoming right-hand man to the old king.

Given Rome’s eventual conquest of Greece almost four hundred years later, it’s interesting that Tarquinius’ father was from Corinth. He’d left that city to make his own fortune at a time when it was perhaps the most prosperous in the Greek World, plunking down colonies left and right.

But, this post isn’t about the Corinthian or his son, the King. It’s about Tarquinius’ home town and how my bride and I got the chance to explore it.

Working out the plan for a long trip is fun. But this one, many years ago, had a glitch. My bride and I had agreed that a day in Tarquinia was a must. Since our stint among the downtrodden ranks of graduate student slave labor up around Siena, we’d become Etruscan Groupies. So, Tarquinia, it’s museum and it’s tomb-filled archaeological park was centered in the crosshairs of our Slavering Groupie travel sights.

Here was our problem: given the rest of our travels on that trip, the closest we’d get to Tarquinia was Rome’s port of Civitavecchia (literally Old Town, though it’s much newer than ancient Rome’s original port of Ostia).

The planning glitch was cost and time. Isn’t it always? Except for Vasari’s Corridor, but that’s another story.

I didn’t want to hassle with renting a car. Unlike most Americans, I enjoy driving in Italy; it’s the parking that makes me crazy. And, my map showed that parking near Tarquinia’s old town center would be more sanity-stressing than most places in Italy. So, driving was out. But, the other touristy alternative, a taxi, would be €450! Grrrr.

It was time to pull out the new weapon in our arsenal. We had to jump into Italian travel with both linguistic feet, taking the train and then Tarquinia’s town bus. We could do this!

The past year, we’d taken all three 100-level Italian courses at our local community college. It was just too lame going back as often as we did but still speaking only English or our meager and awful mash-up of Pidgin Italian. Now was the time and Tarquinia was the place to use what we’d learned —Verbs on the Ground, so to speak.

So, I jumped online to find schedules and prices. Back then, Trenitalia didn’t have an ‘English’ option on its website. So, I got my real Final Exam right away. I knew the cost would be pretty reasonable, but I was shocked. The price for a roundtrip for two was €9.60. Even adding in our tuition costs for a year of Italian, the total would be far less than a tourist taxi would have been!

I’ll have more to say in other posts about the Etruscans. Here, I want to attest to Tarquinia’s delightful Medieval-with-a-dash-of-Renaissance look and feel. We spent happy hours wandering around the oldest part of town, with its tall, square towers (think Montagues and Capulets) and old stonework. Beyond that, the town’s excellent Etruscan museum is in an old palace that’s almost as fascinating as its ancient contents.

Take a day, treat yourself to a place most visitors never see. Visit King Tarquin’s Town when you get the chance. It’s only sixty miles from Rome (or Civitavecchia).

A Pisa This a Pisa That

January 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Dave the Writer“A toast,” I said, raising my glass of Chianti toward my bride sitting across the small table at a sidewalk cafe. She raised hers for a satisfying, gentle ‘ting’ and we both took a relaxing, well-earned sip.

We sat in the pleasant late-afternoon sunshine just outside the north entrance to Pisa’s magnificent Campo di Miracoli, site of the famous Leaning Tower, and the lovely Duomo with its beautiful acoustical wonder of a Baptistery. The sun was sending its clear, golden rays low across the Campo, making a show of that marvelous, incomparable Italian light. We could both truly say it had been a fantastic first visit to Pisa.

Tired in the second best possible way, we had just begun to relive our day via relaxed conversation when that Nigerian Prince who’d sent us so many emails a few years before came over to see how we were.

(Click here for a larger image)

He was just as we’d pictured him: tall, slender and handsome with broad shoulders and jet-black skin. But, it seemed that he was still down on his luck. His parka, sweater and jeans looked quite worn, though clean and neatly mended. Before we could react, he began his patter in the best Pisan tradition.

You may know that in the Middle Ages, Pisa gave Venice and Genoa quite a run for their money at creating a trading empire along the coasts of Byzantium and the Muslim east. The relentless, smiling, hard-sell was one of their specialties. So, the young Prince fit right in to a centuries-long pattern of Pisan merchantry.

In similar situations, when my bride and I are focused on our explorations, we most often make a polite wave away, saying, “No, grazie,” to street vendors who put themselves in our path. But, for some reason, we were both intrigued and pleasantly amused. We had nowhere to be for a while, so we let him proceed. I think it was a combination of our happy fatigue after 10 hours on our feet and the unique air of earnest sincerity that seemed to underlie his pitch. Our talk went something like this:

“No, we aren’t interested in a large, carved elephant, but where are you from?

“I don’t think a small wicker shield with a jagged red and yellow painted pattern would really go with our décor, but how long have you been in Italy?

“The little drum is nice, but our grandchildren make their presence known quite well already, thank you. Do you have any family here in Italy?”

And so on. Still giving no buying indication, we asked him to sit with us and have a glass of wine. At that, he looked around a bit nervously—apparently for his ‘supervisor’—and began to gather his wares back into the two large, black plastic sacks that he’d set down at the start of his spiel. His whole demeanor had shifted a bit.

(Click here for a larger image)

Most young guys of his ilk who we’ve met in Europe communicate strong negatives through their body language, regardless of their words or apparent smiles. This guy was different. He’d done his best, and now he might get in trouble for us taking too much of his time. So, as he reached for his re-filled bags, I passed him a folded five euro note in my palm as I took his hand and shook it to say farewell.

His eyes widened in surprise for just a second, and then the smile we’d first seen returned. He nodded and walked off to entreat a Canadian couple (maple leaf ball cap and a hockey t-shirt) with his irresistible offerings.

You will always find something interesting around the Campo when the sun is low in the sky, the wave of visitors begins to head home and the vendors have their last chance to sell a piece of Pisa.

Arrivederci, Prince. May things go well for you.

Sienese Tidbits

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Dave the WriterIt’s our fa-vorite Italian town at any time of year.

We’ve been there on gorgeous summer days. And, we’ve sipped hot chocolate in our winter duds on the Campo looking out at college kids frolic in the snow as a blizzard rolled in. For us, it’s always perfect any day.

One of our favorite things to do there is find the small, visual treasures in addition to refreshing our appreciation of Siena’s beautiful larger views. Here are a few examples.

The Duomo cathedral is a masterpiece. Back when it was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, they put amazing detail and beauty up where God could appreciate it, far from the easy view of mortals. So, one of my regular amusements during visits is to find a new angle that reveals some of this amazing offering. Hopefully, the image above gets close.

Below is a sturdy iron ring on which to tie your horse’s reins.

There are lots of these in the oldest part of town. But, this one, it seems to me, must be just about the oldest. See how the stone behind is so eroded from rain and a little ice over many hundreds of years. Maybe it was there long before Columbus sailed. That could easily be true.

Then, there’s this ceiling.

I’d passed under it on several visits but it was in shadow and I must have had other things on my mind. One rainy day, I stopped to fiddle with my umbrella or something and chanced to glance up for more than a split-second. Then, I looked closer and saw how lovely it was. A time-exposure or two later, this is what I came away with.

Siena appears to have an almost endless supply of these delightful ‘tidbits’ to be found and appreciated. When you visit, don’t forget to stop on the Campo for some of the best hot chocolate and people-watching ever!

Categories: 2011 Posts Tags: , , , ,

Attention to Detail

December 12, 2011 4 comments

The only way into Monterosso al Mare used to be a low tunnel through the twenty-foot thick stone sea wall. When trouble approached, as it often did for about five hundred years beginning with the fall of Rome in the West, local fishermen would step their masts and carefully slide their low boats through the passage to safety. Then, they’d roll a great stone into place, and the bad guys would have a problem.

Monterosso is the northernmost of five small towns in Italy’s ruggedly beautiful Cinque Terre region, just south of Genoa. It sits astride a small stream and backs up against low, but very steep and rocky, mountains that rise straight from the sea.

When defenders were determined, sea raiders stood little chance. Their attempt to rape, plunder and take slaves (if they were Muslim), would cost more than it was worth. Sooner or later, they went elsewhere for their fun. Mostly, it was sooner: a surprise westerly wind could smash their ships on jagged rocks just north and south, or the defender’s grim, resolute attentions would kill them on the narrow strip of sandy beach in front of the wall.

So, when all of Italy’s west coast except the Amalfi Republic—blessed with similar natural defenses—was truly in a Dark Age of death and chaos after about 400 AD and the rise of Islam. Monterosso was secure enough to prosper a little. Not a lot, but much more than most exposed to the same troubles.

(Click here for a larger image)

Strolling through the oldest part of town, with its narrow, medieval, pedestrian-only streets and seeing the architectural evidence of its 1,500 year perseverance was a pleasure for my bride and I. Like Venice, no one would have built a town here if they didn’t have to—perhaps a few scattered homes, but surely no more.

But, it’s here now, and has been for a much longer time than most small towns. Despite an easy modern commute to Genoa by train, it’s likely to remain, at least as a destination for folks like us, eager to explore this beautiful, historic corner of Italy.

Wandering through town, I was enthralled by a particular piece of marble work. It was a circular stone grill above the entrance to the Old Church. Though the carved spokes and lovely curves that connect them form a regular radial pattern when viewed from a distance, each lovingly crafted detail is unique and a work of art in itself. As a whole, it’s very nearly a wonder.

To me, this window facing may be the most lovely of its kind anywhere. It surely is so among the hundreds of churches, temples, synagogues and mosques—great and small—that I’ve personally visited. I hope you agree.

The Forgotten Port

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Dave the WriterLivorno was the port town of Pisa for hundreds of years. Few travelers give the place a thought. After all, it’s just another European industrial town, right?

That’s true for the most part. But, there were two things that made my bride and I curious enough to spend a day wandering through the oldest part of town: that Medieval and Renaissance connection with Pisa—and later Florence—plus its characteristically Italian ‘Dark Pink’ politics that I wrote about in an earlier post or two. Our time on a pleasant autumn day was well-spent.

One of the impressions we got was just how dangerous it was ‘back in the day’ for Italian towns even this far north. This photo, taken over masts of the pleasure boats crowding every sheltered part of the old harbor, shows an almost-derelict stone fortress built to repel powerful attack.

Another impression was of buildings meant for working folks rather than jaded aristocrats. The interesting octagonal Church of Saint Catherine of Siena (there are many by the same name all over Italy) is a case in point. Begun in 1720 but never finished, it looks from the outside like a relic dating back to Norman times, with a hundred generations of pigeons nesting one after the other in its bricks. Even so, parishioners too poor to finish the Baroque design have loyally attended Mass there for 250 years. Its rough exterior makes the recently restored interior a bit of a shock, though a pleasant one.

It may be possible to travel in Italy and not come across interesting political graffiti, but in many years and dozens of towns we have yet to miss ‘words of the prophets’ scrawled somewhere. Given the likely impending collapse of the euro and current financial turmoil in Italy as the effects of foolish government policies come home to roost, the word below seems to be an even more profound observation than usual.        

Wiederholen Sie!

December 2, 2011 Leave a comment

On a rainy day wandering the streets of Salzburg, my bride and I chanced on one of the town’s store-tunnels that work as small cross-streets for people on foot. This one was filled with upscale jewelers and women’s accessory shops. Though the passageway was less than 70 feet long, it wasn’t until more than half an hour later that daylight shown on us again.

Whether she’s interested in buying something or not, my bride likes sparkly stuff. A running joke at parties is my story about when we got engaged. In it, she makes sure before saying “Yes” that I understand a fundamental law of nature:

“If it doesn’t sparkle, it’s not a gift.”

Of course, she never actually said that. It’s just a fun way to illustrate how much she likes jewelry. And, looking back from today’s dismal economic perspective, the ‘investments’ we’ve made in sparkly and shiny stuff have done far better this century than a stock market mugged by goons from the Moron Politicians Union.

As we emerged from the tunnel, I was treated to a happy, animated description of some especially pretty pieces she’d seen. I nodded appreciatively and thought back fondly to an occasion in Italy years before that seems to sum up her perspective on sparkleiciousness.

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It was a long drive north from Positano to Florence in our rented Alfa Romeo sedan. In addition to us, two close friends and luggage for a month filled most every space.

We were around Orvieto. Apparently, my passengers had now tired of hilltop castles, walled towns and Audi A-8s roaring past at 130 or so (mph, not kph). My bride was looking through the guide book to brush up on all things Florentine, John was checking the map and Mary was being very Mary-ish, studying a primer on Italian. She has an amazingly quick mind, but since it was already topped off with English, German, Korean and Mandarin Chinese, learning Italian in an hour or so was frustrating her a bit.

Finally, she looked up with a wistful sigh and asked no one in particular, “What Italian words do you think I’ll find most useful when we get to Florence?”

Without a second’s pause, my bride’s four years of high school German kicked in. She looked up from the page on Ponte Vecchio shops and gleefully prompted,

Wiederholen sei, Joowellreee!”

We all laughed. Well, John perhaps only grinned a little. But, it was true, in the half-dozen times my bride and I have visited Florence, we have yet to go home without another lovely, sparkly and shiny ‘investment’.

(For those of you whose German is a little rusty, ‘Wiederholen sei’ translates as ‘Repeat’, and my bride’s teachers had used it to introduce new words in that language.)

Why do I waste my time with those stupid mutual funds and bonds and pointless stock tips anyway. The results are always so depressing! I often wish that more than one of us had had the sense to pay sober attention to the many merits of sparkly stuff.

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