(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Month: February, 2016

Viaggetto a Verona–churches

IMG_1690The presbytery of the Basilica di San Zeno, with its Mantegna altarpiece.

Visiting a church in Italy is three experiences, the spiritual, the artistic, and the historical. The spiritual part may depend on what your convictions are, and certainly many Americans are a bit startled when they see saints’ relics for the first time. The first time I went to Italy, there was a small church at the top of our town that housed, in a glass case, the body of a local saint–except for her hand. Someone had stolen the hand. My 20-year-old sensibilities were creeped out. While I still don’t condone stealing relics, I do understand better why they are venerated, but in this post I’ll mostly stick to what everyone can enjoy.

Verona is extremely rich in churches. For example, the entire street where I stayed was dedicated to religious buildings of one type or another: a convent, soup kitchens, schools, confraternities, all still active. In contrast to the largely Baroque churches of Torino, however, the churches of Verona are mostly Romanesque. I don’t really know what caused such a contrast, but I would guess that an 1117 earthquake in Verona and the rule of the Savoys in Torino might both play a part.

What’s for sure is that some of these churches, in both places, have origins that go back much farther. One Verona church that we entered, San Giovani in Foro, was built over the old Roman decumanus that adjoined the nearby forum and it has room off of the nave with excavations from the fifth century. The flyer for the most famous church in Verona, San Zeno, says that the original church  and convent were built over the saint’s burial place (d. 380) at a Roman-turned-Christian graveyard along the Roman Via Gallica. The complex had already undergone significant renovations by the 6th century. The present church was built in the 9th century and rebuilt during the Romanesque period (the present basilica). That’s at least four major reconstructions before the Gothic period that usually comes to mind when we imagine European cathedrals.

The Basilica of San Zeno is well-known enough to appear in my current medieval art history textbook, where it is listed as a Venetian refinement of the classic Italian Romanesque style developed in Modena. All the many other Romanesque churches in Verona are based on San Zeno in some fashion. San Zeno itself has so many interesting components that it’s hard to know where to start: the local adaptation of its Romanesque architectural elements, the façade frescoes by Nicolò and the lions holding up the columns on the portico, the inner set of bronze doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the altarpiece by Renaissance painter Mantegna, the outlines of a Last Judgment discovered under the gable after 800 years, the hidden ruins of the original church, the graffiti’ed frescoes, or the legendary marriage of Romeo and Juliet in its crypt?  Since I had to leave to return to Turin way before I had explored everything, I’m going to just have to scratch the surface.

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First of all, I did notice the lions, because my own church has them, albeit in a 19th century version. This “Lombard porch” is found all across the Po Valley, but the lions also appear on pulpits, such as the famous ones by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Do they represent law and faith? Or maybe they derived from an Assyrian motif by way of Syriac and then Carolingian manuscripts? One of the friars at my church told me that their lions were originally put there to guard against Masonic influences in Torino. I love this sort of mystery–there’s probably an answer to where these lions originated, but no one really knows! Perhaps they meant different things to the various people who used them. I like to think of them as being like Aslan.

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And I certainly love the bronze doors. The Old Testament set was probably made by Saxon craftsmen in Germany, whereas the New Testament one was an early example of Italian bronze doors. Besides the Biblical scenes there are some whose subjects are hard to pinpoint, but the life of San Zeno figures among them, and probably some local rulers. What I like about the bronze panels is their sheer invention, the way the Biblical iconography is interpreted in bas-relief with woven geometric patterns and splayed out architectural elements. It’s fun to try to figure out what scene is being depicted.

The frescoes are also fun to try to figure out, partly because they seem to have been added organically over the years, and sometimes superimposed. Just as interesting are the graffiti scratched into the frescoes in all kinds of writing (including Greek). Several reference a large earthquake (spelled teremoto, with one r) in 1095, but the earthquake that interrupted the construction of the church was in 1117, and from the handwriting, I’m guessing they were added later. Some date from the 1300s and may have been left by pilgrims. Many date from the 18th century. And there are several contributions by Austrian cadets on their way out of Italy after unification. There are even a pair of figures etched into a fresco. While I’m generally horrified by the defacing of artwork, I consider the sensibilities of the times, and am intrigued by the mystery they represent. Here’s a story (in Italian) that tells of recently discovered graffiti found behind the statue of San Zeno, on a 10th century wall. It commemorates the assassination of Emperor Berengario in 924.

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And humorously, among the items displayed in the crypt along with the body of San Zeno and a variety of Romanesque capitals, is the treble bell from the adjacent bell tower, with the comment, “It still works, but after 800 years of faithful service, it deserved a break!”

IMG_1696A Romanesque capital at the entrance to the crypt

Carlana and I also ducked in and out of several other churches as we were walking along the streets of Verona. One, San Lorenzo, was recommended by a museum guard at the Castelvecchio as “a little jewel.” Like many of the smaller churches, it was hidden within a courtyard and preceded by a portico. Inside were the typical Romanesque striped stonework and a soaring vault that one would never have suspected from the outside, plus remnants of frescoes and other more modern signs of devotion. Other churches included San Giovanni in Foro, the Romanesque Santa Maria Antica and also St. Anastasia, which is slightly newer (Gothic) but no less beautiful!

I’m having to leave out a lot here, but this does give you an idea of the hidden treasures of ecclesiastical Verona. I have a few more photos of interesting things in Verona, but I’ll save them for one last post.

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For the time being I will leave you with one spiritual observation: You can’t go to Italy and not become aware of almost 2000 years of continued Christian worship. As with any institutionalized worship, yes, some of it is superstitious and some hypocritical, but some of it is very real and vibrant and continues to this day. The first time I came to Italy this idea was literally foreign to me, but now I see from the inside that “old” does not always mean “dead.”

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Viaggetto a Verona

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This is an “old people selfie” that Carlana and I took at the Castelvecchio museum in Verona. Neither of us really knows how to get rid of the fishbowl effect in the selfie-cam. But we didn’t let that stop us from having a good time!

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When an old New York friend, Carlana, said she and her husband would be coming to Italy but not to Torino, I took that as an excuse to drive to the closest meeting point, Verona, and see a new town. Verona is 3 1/2 hours from Torino by car and is part of the Veneto region. The people there are notably blond, even compared to the northern Torinese, and their “o”s tend to become “u”s, as in nui for noi.

You can also see Venetian influence in the local architecture–particularly the pinks and reds in the stucco, the slender columns, the conical brick bell towers, and the occasionally pointed windows (see below). The whole town started out on a Roman grid, with the original amphitheater still dominating the main piazza (above) and the Roman city gates still extant. But the main part of the Roman city center has long been overlaid with serendipitous medieval twists and turns.

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We had a great time walking around all the old streets, ducking into the characteristic Romanesque churches, sipping vin brulé from the market, and of course, eating and catching up! Carlana likes history too, so I had a happy and energetic touring companion.

Some things to note below: Renaissance frescoes on the sides of buildings in Piazza delle Erbe (which was the original Roman forum, used for chariot races), a plaque marking where a city captain was killed during a coup in 1277, and the conical bell towers.

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There was so much going on in architecturally in Verona that I plan to do another post. But before I end for today, what would a trip to Verona be without Juliet’s balcony? Actually, the only thing they know for sure about this house is that it did belong to the Cappello (Hat) family, from which the name Capulet derives. But that doesn’t keep the entire courtyard entrance from being covered with graffiti, the tourists from flocking to the balcony, or the shops nearby from bearing Romeo and Juliet themes. In fact, since we were there just before Valentine’s Day, the entire town was festooned with hearts.

Back soon with some more of Verona!

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Juliet’s balcony, or at least a house belonging to the Cappello family.

The attack of the furbi, Part 2

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Call it car shaming: This car I photographed in my lot today is not the one in the story, but his manner of parking is furbo nonetheless.

I said I’d tell this story once I knew the end of it, so here it is:

One morning back in early July, I went down to get in my car and found a large dent in the back.

I park it in a semi-private lot between my building and the neighboring one, fenced off from the street by an iron gate. Since it is a stone-paved area with no stripes, people frequently park askew (see above), but it’s best if everyone parks at a 45% angle, facing out, otherwise you may be obliged to make a 25-point-turn to exit. But in order to park facing out, there has be another space across the lot to nose into in order to back up into your space. So the last time I had parked, a week earlier, I had been forced to face in.

When I found my car with a basketball-sized dent in it, my first thought was, “However did anyone even have room to make such a huge dent? You’d have to be going pretty fast to achieve an impact like that!” Almost every car in the lot, including mine, has scratches on all the corners. But this was almost ballistically impossible! I made a flyer with a photo asking for information and put it on the door of each building that faces the lot, but then I had to leave, because I was trying to replace the contents of my stolen purse before I left for the US. The dent was so bad I could hear it scraping against the rear tire as I turned onto the street.

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My car on the day it was hit

When I got back from the DMV, one of my neighbors, who was leaving, said, “That was your car that got hit, right? The car that hit it was a blue one, either a Fox or an Audi. The driver was an old man who works for the accounting firm in the building next door, Mr. X. It’s the same guy who keeps knocking down the gate bar. He was hitting your car over and over again, but clearly he wasn’t all there in the head. I told him to stop, but he just ignored me. This was in the late morning or early afternoon, a week ago. I think [the car wash attendant for the garage in the alleyway] saw it too.”

I thanked him and went to take a look at the name plates on the building next door. Sure enough, there was the name he had mentioned. Later in the day, when the big building doors were open, I confirmed that it went with an office and buzzed at the entrance.

There was one problem with my comprehension of my neighbor’s story. I thought he had said,  “old woman.” The only difference was the vowel at the end. Also, unbeknownst to me, he had used a slightly disparaging term.

I told my story to the women behind the counter (all youngish and pretty) and they sort of looked at me and laughed. “Oh, there’s no old woman here,” they said. There’s the owner’s father, but he has been in the mountains since last week and he left straight from home.”

At that moment, the owner came out, and all the women gave each other a funny look. The man had an unctuous, condescending smile and a very natty suit. “There’s no old woman here,” he reassured me.

“Does your father drive a blue Fox?”

“Yes, but he left early in the morning on that day. It couldn’t have possibly been him.” And the women all closed ranks around him.

I had a familiar, infuriating feeling that I remembered from being a young woman in the Southern US. It was the feeling of working for a sexist boss or having to take your car to a repairman you didn’t trust. I could tell I was being lied to, but I didn’t quite have the mastery of Italian to catch him out and confront him. Nor, I suspected, would it do any good. It might even put him on guard. Better to approach this from another angle, I thought, and I left.

I went to my neighbor for more details. When he heard that the accountant had denied the story, he suddenly developed a very imperfect memory. And my other neighbors said, “Of course they lied. They also lied when the old man kept breaking down the gate.” One person even told me about an old woman (they used a different word this time!) in the other building who stood on her balcony watching the accountant’s father swipe cars as he tried to exit the lot. “Hey! You missed one!” she yelled after him.

The blue Fox, meanwhile, remained conspicuously absent.

So I went to the car wash attendant. He didn’t seem to know anything either, but explained my mistake about the “old woman” and pointed me to someone who actually had seen the whole thing. Someone who was willing to sign a statement. I took the statement to my insurance agent, spent my last day in Italy waiting for four hours at the immigration office for my last replacement document, the permesso (green card) I needed to re-enter legally, and then left to see my family in the US while the entire country of Italy closed down for Ferragosto.

Then, in late September, there was the Fox, with a rather interesting circular formation on its front fender. But by this time I had been assured that the insurance company had the situation under control.

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I finally received my insurance check in October, but by that time I needed to use the car daily because I was helping Sarie to move. So I got it repaired in November, four months after the hit-and-run. The repairman put a nice new bumper on it and my car was shiny and clean.

The next week, someone scratched the back bumper again. But at least it wasn’t a dent the size of a basketball. And I’m well on my way to having four matching corners again.

Etching

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It’s exam time in Italy, and though I’m not taking any, two of my classes are finishing so today I spent the entire morning printing.

The Accademia gave us continuing ed students a rather raw deal this year. Our two classes (model-drawing and etching) were scheduled for the same time, making it impossible to attend both. And etching only lasts until next week. In addition, I have been taking a medieval art history class on Wednesday afternoons, making that time slot triple-booked. Then again, this is Italy and no one seemed particularly surprised. Also the etching teacher pretended not to know things were such a mess, but that’s also pretty typical.

The fact is, when I signed up for the continuing ed course last year, I didn’t even know about the etching part of it, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. This year, not only was the time slot double-booked but the room was impossibly crowded whenever I tried to attend, so I mostly worked at home. Working at home, naturally, meant that everything else came first, so as February approached, I realized that if I didn’t finish at least one plate, I really would have wasted the whole opportunity. And so I finished it. Here’s how it looked when I took it in this morning:

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I had covered the zinc plate with a waxy coating, smoked it to give it a smooth finish, and etched it with an engraving needle. When you draw, you have to think light for dark, and mirror image. Hatching is typical for this particular process, but there are many other processes. The drawing is based on a series of cropped medieval images, of which you can see others here.

Once the drawing is ready, the plate is bathed in acid to etch it, the wax washed off with turpentine, and it’s ready to ink. I didn’t take any photos of the inking process, because it’s very messy, and it’s also crucial in determining how your final print looks. Last year, I’d spend practically an entire session inking each plate, partly because everyone had a slightly different way of doing it and I was learning from the other students at the inking table. There are spatula stages, newsprint stages, gauze stages, tissue paper stages, and Q-Tip stages. But now the inking process is one of my favorite stages, partly because it’s so social! Here was my plate this morning when I finished inking it:

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The next two photos show some students carefully placing wet printing paper over a woman’s plate, and my own plate emerging from the hand-cranked press. We have one press for forty or more students. This is part of what I meant about the room being crowded. It’s also why I arrived as the doors were opening this morning.

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I made four prints from my plate this morning between 8:30-1:00, including time spent waiting and talking to other students. Below is a detail of one of the finished prints. It wasn’t easy fitting in printmaking with everything else I’m doing right now, but I was glad I did! Now my living room wall has one more image and I can catch up on some other things. Mission accomplished.

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