(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: Catholicism

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

The feast of St. Francis is almost over here in Italy, but here are three reasons to post about it anyway: In the first place, I attend a Franciscan church and I have a soft spot for the friars’ gentle ways and their love for the poor. In the second place, St. Francis is the patron saint of Italy (and animals). And in the third place, I recently found this lovely post card painted by Pauline Baynes, who is probably best known as the original illustrator of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. As you can see, the post card emphasizes St. Francis’s relationship with animals and also that he was the first to popularize nativity scenes. He was a man who sought to imitate Christ in all he did.

And…it’s also my sister’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Leah!

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                                     St. Francis, by Pauline Baynes

On pilgrimage to Northumberland

Main house at Hethpool (photo by Fern Smith)

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing for our summer trip to the US when I got an email from an old NYC friend saying, “I’m writing to invite you to spend a few days with me in the north of England this summer.”

How could I pass up an invitation like that? So I soon I found myself in Northumberland, immersed in the successive waves of early medieval history amidst the bleating of sheep.

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Top: The Scottish border is a sheep fence overlooked on either side by prehistoric hill forts. Bottom: Atop another hill fort, Yeavering Bell, looking down on the site of one of the seats of the Saxon kings of Northumbria, Ad Gevrin (lighter field in foreground).

My friend Amy had been to Northumberland before, so it was she to introduced me to such personages as the Saxon king Edwin, his queen Aethelburga, the Roman missionary Paulinus, St. Aidan, and St. Cuthbert. We hiked along St. Cuthbert’s way to the Scottish border one day, and the next we climbed Yeavering Bell, one of the myriad Cheviot Hills topped by ancient hill forts. Down below Yeavering Bell one can see the field where Ad Gefrin, the local residence of King Edwin, once stood. There Paulinus baptized the local residents in the adjacent River Glen. These stories come to us from The Venerable Bede, who lived at the nearby Jarrow monastery.

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Lindisfarne: (Top) The Norman priory’s only remaining cross rib vault. (Middle) A relatively modern grave marker modeled after a traditional Celtic market cross. (Bottom) The ruins of the Norman priory as seen from above at the Heugh.

On another day we walked at low tide to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where the Celtic St. Aidan, on land granted by the Saxon king Oswald, founded a monastery. Riding on the popularity of Aidan’s successor St. Cuthbert, the monks (or their bishop, Eadfirth) produced the splendid Lindisfarne Gospels, now housed in the British Library in London. Not long after the manuscript was finished, however, the Saxon monastery was attacked by Vikings (several times), causing the surviving monks to move St. Cuthbert’s relics to Durham.

The next centuries brought more invasions, and a successive Norman priory based on the new gothic Cathedral at Durham, on the site of the original Saxon church. This monastery, too, flourished for a time until the Scottish border wars reduced its viability. Eventually Henry VIII suppressed it and it fell into ruin. Its most recent pilgrims have been the Romantics, such as the painter William Turner, and modern tourists.

Lindisfarne flats with Amy

As Amy and I hiked stretches of St. Cuthbert’s Way and walked across the mud flats from Lindisfarne, we were each making a sort of personal pilgrimage. For one thing, we were renewing a friendship that had been interrupted by distance and difficulties in both our cases. We shared our spiritual journeys, at least partly by attending each other’s Sunday services, which turned out to be remarkably similar.

And lastly, we shared our (for me newfound) delight in the country life of the English/Scottish borderlands–a life of bare windswept hills and spritzing rains, in which stone houses face away from tiny lanes and towards wild-ish gardens; a sporting culture of walkers, riders, dogs and sheep (and more sheep); and naturally, huge breakfasts and an occasional summer fire with evening tea.

And finally, despite being almost 100% British in ancestry and having forebears from Northumberland, this was my first ever trip to the UK. As I surveyed the parishioners with their raincoats, wooly hair and apple-rose cheeks during the local Anglican service at St. Gregory’s, I decided that they were taller and blonder than myself. But as I admired their needlepoint kneelers with Saxon-inspired designs, and chatted with them over coffee afterwards (instant, but their hospitality earned them a likewise instant indulgence), and listened to them recount the long history of their church, I decided we were kindred spirits nonetheless.

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(Top) The exterior of St. Gregory’s church: with its traditional churchyard. (Middle) The long presbytery at St. Gregory’s, which I discovered was typical of English churches in the late 13th C. (Bottom) A bas relief of the Three Magi, in kilts!

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.”

One last presepe

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In the US, all traces of Christmas have been put away, and the nativity scenes are wrapped in boxes awaiting the end of the year. Many have been stored away in Italy as well. But I overheard someone say that the official end of presepe (nativity scene) season isn’t until February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when a friend and I stumbled upon this lovingly built presepe in a church in Avigliana yesterday.

This is not the only elaborate model-of-an-entire-town presepe I have ever seen, of course. Almost every church in Italy seems to have some sort of presepe with surrounding village, as do many homes. And in the US, I used to make a point of going every year to see the Angel Tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which features an enormous 18th-century Neapolitan presepe. But that one is, well, literally a museum piece.

One thing I like about these local presepe is that they show the typically Italian talent for local craftsmanship. In the US, people decorate their yards with store-bought lights and inflatable Santas. Sometimes these displays approach work-of-art level in their own way. But in Italy, I am forever surprised at the almost-professional level of artisanship that ordinary people display. I suspect that one reason for this is that many people here treat their jobs as sustenance. Then they go home and do what they like, perhaps maintaining traditions that they inherited from their grandparents or other people in the town. I don’t know everything about how they manage their lives, of course, but I do notice the consistent ability to craft, even, and perhaps especially, among the men.

Things I liked about this particular presepe:

First of all, my friend and I had just come from the Santuario della Madonna dei Laghi, which is the yellow church in the first photo below. It’s just outside of the town, but here the view is compressed and representative, so you see it squashed up against the other buildings.

There’s a bit of everything going on around this building. The don is greeting visitors are the entrance to the church. On one side is an old man (not pictured) of the type you see in every town square. On the other is a group of musicians. The back of the church flows into a local scene with a woodworking shop, a chicken coop, neighbors visiting, a miller, women doing laundry in a field complete with one of the local persimmon, or caki, trees (note the fallen persimmon), and children playing on a playground (not pictured).

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Moving on to the next group of buildings, which are very typical of the area if not exact copies of some block in Avigliana, we see a panetteria, or bread bakery (as opposed to pastry shop or pasticceria). It’s very typical for medieval buildings to have been stucco’ed over at some point, but frequently during subsequent renovations someone will excavate a bit of the original brickwork and leave it showing, as in the arched windows below.

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Next to the panetteria block is the block of private houses which includes the medieval Torre dell’Orologio. We had just passed the (misnamed) clock tower on our way up the hill. It never included a clock, and in fact was entirely gutted by fire during some (no doubt French) invasion or other, but the tower and houses forming a courtyard still stand pretty much like you see them here, complete with traces of a fresco. The open holes at the top of the yellow building are very typical in the small towns around Turin. They allow air to circulate in the summer, and I think they may have been used for hay storage, if not animal storage, as well.

I was charmed both by the alleyway with lanterns in the following photo, as well as by the use of a bendable straw, sprayed with copper-colored paint, to make a drain pipe in the photo after that.

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On the far side of the townscape is the Romanesque Chiesa di S. Pietro. The church which houses this presepe, S. Giovanni, was not included this year (we did see a photo of it from a past year). Surrounding the church are an artist, a shepherd, a friar standing at a side door, and most charming of all, the entire altar, complete with frescoes, visible from the front door of the church.

My friend and I had been marveling over this scene for quite some time before we discovered that you could push a button which animated it. The shepherds next to the Holy Family bowed, Mary rocked Baby Jesus, the streetlights came on all over town, smoked wafted from a chimney, Silent Night played to a chorus of lowing cattle and a crowing rooster, and best of all, gentle snow fell from above.

People here are always telling me that it used to snow a lot here, but now it doesn’t. Which is their way of, like the Narnians, saying that it’s always winter but never Christmas. Now I feel like it has finally been Christmas. Happy 2016!

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A catechism in frescoes, along with chaconnes

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Yesterday Sarie and I drove to Bastia Mondovì, about an hour away in the Langhe region south of Torino, so that she could play in a concert entitled L’Età delle ciaconne (Age of the Chaconne, which is the 17th century). The ensemble included two Baroque violins, a Baroque cello, a theorbo, and a harpsichord.

First a word about the music: The chaconne derives from a Spanish dance and has a distinctive basso continuo line that encourages improvisation. You can hear an example of one such line (which varies somewhat depending on the piece) in one of my favorite Monteverdi madrigals, Zefiro torna. La Folia is another common chaconne and may be one of the oldest European musical themes on record. If you know the Suzuki violin books, you’ve probably heard a basic version by Corelli.

Anyway, the rehearsal started early in the afternoon, and the church wasn’t within walking distance of the town, but I didn’t mind hanging around, because there were frescoes. Shortly after I had taken a preliminary look around, a docent arrived with a group and started a guided tour, and soon I found myself listening in. What I discovered was that the walls were a veritable catechism, with surprisingly empathetic lessons for the people of 15th century Bastia.

To begin with, the church of San Fiorenzo* is named after a Roman soldier from the Theban legion who survived an imperial massacre of Christian troops in the third century, came to Piemonte, preached to the people in the Roman crossroads settlement which once occupied the vicinity, and was eventually martyred and buried on the spot where the original church stood. An archeological excavation in the 18th century uncovered an early grave upon which the original church was built.

The tomb of San Fiorenzo became associated with miracles and attracted pilgrims, especially the lame (maybe they had some help?). In fact, when the saint’s tomb was discovered, it was said that the locals had to cart away three loads of no-longer-needed crutches!

The history of the site is complex and shrouded in the mists of time, but we know that a small Romanesque church on the site was expanded and renovated beyond the point of recognition, and was eventually placed into the care of the noble Della Torre family, who commissioned the main fresco cycles. They were not only rich, but genuinely pious, which may be one reason for the particularly free expression in some of the frescoes.

During the 18th century excavations, a Baroque side chapel (painted pastel blue and pink, glimpses below) and a pink bell tower were added, but since they aren’t very visible from the nave, they don’t intrude much into the rustic warmth of the main part of the church.

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Some of the frescoes from the original Romanesque church (part of which has now been demolished) are still visible on the walls just outside the presbytery of the present church. In the foreground you can plainly recognize an image of St. Christopher, patron saint of pilgrims, by the Christ’s child’s foot draped over his shoulder. There are also traces of older frescoes inside, along the back wall of the presbytery.

These outdoor frescoes are just outside the right hand wall in the photos of the rehearsal below. Now let’s start our tour of the inside. But first, let’s note that intricately decorated period instruments are a nice addition to the already warm ambience of the church, especially when they are playing!

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All the later frescoes are in what is now called the Gothic Alpine style, and they have iconographic and aesthetic cousins in many other area churches. The artists’ identities are uncertain, but there seem to have been more than one.

In the photos above you can see the presbytery, which has the most elegant and best preserved of the frescoes. One reason for the superior preservation is that the artists used lapis lazuli instead of vegetable dye for the deep blue of the late medieval heavens. The black skies you see in the photos below were once a similar shade of blue, but they have since oxidized. Another reason for superior preservation may be that the presbytery has windows to allow in light and warmth. In fact, all the frescoes on that (southwestern) side of the church are generally in much better shape than those on the other side. The other side is facing uphill and would have accumulated more snow as well.

The middle fresco along the back of the presbytery shows San Fiorenzo and San Martino (the patron saint of Bastia) with the Virgin and Child. The Virgin in the Crucifixion scene above is being held up in the shape of a cross because she is sharing in her Son’s sufferings, as prophesied by Simeon in the temple. There are several other themes on these walls, including a large panel of St. George and the dragon. Underneath the back wall you can also see remnants of an earlier fresco cycle.

Surrounding the groin vault above the presbytery are the Four Evangelists. Two are sitting together because the fourth panel has an image of Christ Pantocrator (ruler) blessing their work. If you look closely, you will notice that one of the two young evangelists sitting together (Luke) is left-handed. This is pretty unusual when you consider that, according to the superstition of the time, left-handedness was from the devil. I quickly formed my own theory that the fresco looked more balanced with each evangelist’s outer arm resting on the table, but still, someone must have noticed that Luke was a mancino and allowed it. A quick Google search brought up some tantalizing hints that showing Luke as left-handed was an iconographic tradition.

Above the arch just outside the presbytery is the Annunciation, and below it, Saints Dominic and Francis (shown in the brown habit on the right), who as founders of the two main mendicant orders of the day and opponents of a heresy common in the area, were “pillars” of the church. I particularly liked the free and beautiful brushwork on the cloth below St. Francis’ feet.

On the inside of the archway are Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, who are patrons of childbirth and lactation. So women, as well as the left-handed, had sympathetic intercessors near the altar. But even these woman saints are dressed as nobles, because that’s what the people would have expected.

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As you travel down the right side of the nave from Saint Francis, along the southwestern wall, there is a series of frescoes representing the life and miracles of San Fiorenzo. The scene above depicts an episode in which the people of Bastia prayed for intercession from San Fiorenzo against a plague of serpents and wild boars (both real threats). The saint is shown above the white Alban hills announcing to the people that God wants to save them. A particular type of eagle native to the region, recognizable by its protected lidded eyes, came and killed the serpents. (I love the arrow-straight pinwheel formation of eagle feathers!) In additional to a literal interpretation of the episode, the local literature allows for a couple of different metaphorical interpretations, one involving a local invasion of Saracens and another involving an outbreak of the plague. This story may even be superimposing a later San Fiorenzo onto the earlier one. But the tradition is so old by now that it’s hard to tell.

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The next cycle is the depiction of Heaven and Hell, complete with the works of mercy based on the Gospel of Matthew (the detail above shows feeding the sick and burying the dead) and the seven deadly sins. You can see the orderly nature of The New Jerusalem in the first photo, which I included to give some idea of the context. The central scene is the Coronation of the Virgin, in which the placement of each saint along the sides has its significance. If you click to enlarge the image, you can see that music in Heaven is also played on period instruments! I’m sure Sarie and her friends would approve. In fact, the church once hosted a concert played on the kinds of instruments shown in the frescoes.

Heavenly order would have appealed greatly to the people of the 15th century, but many contemporary visitors are fascinated with the chaotic depiction of Hell, which includes a monstrous Satan devouring some local magistrates and lawyers, the French and Milanese butting heads, and even some errant clergy. Some of these representations are derived from literature, but they may have also served as a reassuring message directed toward the common folk of Bastia–Don’t fret when corrupt rulers prosper! Our guide, who grew up in the area and occasionally attended this church as a child, said none of the kids she knew wanted to sit near the Hell cycle. They all sat up front! I don’t blame them.

I chose this depiction of Envy to represent the Hell cycle. She is wearing green, of course, and she has no face of her own, because she always wants to be someone else. The animal she is riding on is labeled as a leopard, but it looks more like a monkey, no doubt because the painter was simply told that a leopard is an exotic African animal. What amused me was that the leopard/monkey’s face looked so much like Gollum’s!

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The next cycle, which I didn’t take photos of because of the dark, depicts the life of St. Anthony the Hermit. He is often depicted in churches of the period because outbreaks of St. Anthony’s fire** (ergot poisoning), a hideous toxicity caused by grain fungus, were at their height. The monks of his order were particularly successful in treating it.

Along the back wall are Biblical and traditional scenes from the birth and infancy of Christ. In the nativity scene, St. Joseph seems to be outside the stable enjoying a bowl of soup while the Blessed Virgin is on her knees adoring the Christ Child, to whom she has just given birth. The guide had a more sympathetic explanation: He is fixing her some chicken broth, a natural antibiotic, and the particular cheese hanging from the stable is also known for its antibiotic properties. A nearby scene, a legend involving the Flight into Egypt, shows the Christ Child picking his mother some dates off of a palm tree (once again, the artist wasn’t so knowledgeable about his exotics), as a worried looking St. Joseph, carrying an empty food pot, looks on. I really like these tender and sympathetic depictions of Jesus’ earthly father.

And finally, below, I’ve included one panel from the Passion of Christ (from the damaged northeastern wall). It depicts Christ’s appearance before the high priest, who is tearing his robe according to the gospel account. In the tradition of the time, the face of a saint (and especially the Son of God) would often be painted in a very refined, almost feminine manner, while the face of a villain would be exaggeratedly ugly. A quick glance at the faces of Christ and the soldiers confirms this. In the Crowning with Thorns scene a couple of panels down, a man with a goiter appears in the doorway, about to join the mockers. He is a local piemontese, malnourished from eating mostly polenta.

If you want to see more frescoes, click here and here.

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(This last photo of the rehearsal was taken by the harpsichordist’s father, whom I only know by his last name, Stefanelli.)

At the end of the tour, I went back to my seat at the front pew and watched the rehearsal, refreshed by a breeze that came into the side door near the San Fiorenzo frescoes. The little church soon filled with some very literate present day locals, and the historical concert, presenting music from two-hundred years after the fresco cycle, began. The music, the warm evening colors, and the stories behind the frescoes, all combined to create a serendipitous evening. And then the musicians and their parents went out for salumi, fresh tomini,  purée di tonnoinsalata russa, gnocchi alla bava, and good company.

*In most of this post, I’ve translated the names of the saints into English. But since I don’t know of an English translation for Fiorenzo (Florentius, maybe? Florence?), I just left it! And then it just seemed silly to write St. Martin next to San Fiorenzo, so I left that too…

**Confusingly, another well-known St. Anthony, the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, also died of ergotism.