(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: Italy

At the top of the Roman world, monks to the rescue!

It’s that time of year when Italians flee en masse to the shore. Cities are hot ghost towns with few stores or restaurants open. Since I took my summer trip to the US early, my intention upon my return was to settle down and get some work done. Yet this week it was so quiet (and hot) that it was hard to concentrate.

So when a friend called and offered a day trip to the mountains near Aosta, I jumped at the chance. I admit that just escaping the heat would have been motivation enough, but my friend Ben has a particular talent for getting to know strangers, often with interesting results. Besides, he wanted to visit a monastery high up on an Alpine mountain pass where he had done an archeology dig 20 years ago. Everything about the trip called me to join in.

Our group (Ben, his wife and baby son, and a common friend) ate lunch on the way up to the pass at a rustic stone restaurant perched on the side of a steep incline, its balconies lined with bright red geraniums. Naturally Ben knew the restaurant owner, an extroverted man with white curls and sparkly blue eyes who was aptly named Felice. We sat down on the terrace to a perfect Aostan lunch–mushrooms in cream, chestnuts in honey with lard, soft toma cheese with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, melon, and mocetta (a lean cured meat), among other things. And that was just the appetizer course! Then came gnocchi wrapped in strings of melted fontina, and polenta accompanied by sausage, veal, and rabbit, the last of which was cooked in a mustard sauce. After lunch we split a homemade tiramisù, then drank the obligatory coffee required to be able get up from the table, and complementary homemade genepì as a digestivo. I really would have been perfectly happy with the day just as it was.

Our view from the terrace at lunch

But then we drove up and just across the Swiss border to the Col, or pass, du Grand-Saint-Bernard, named for the founder of a monastery that has ministered to pilgrims there since 1050. This monastery replaced an even an older one nearby which had been destroyed during the Saracen invasions. And before that, the Romans ran a hotel of their own on the site. The pass is so high up that it’s closed for much of the year, with the snow sometimes reaching the second story of the monastery so that the monks have to ski out the windows. Modern travelers usually cross the Alps in winter by tunnel.

But August is high tourist season. Most people come to hike and to see the place that gave the world the St. Bernard rescue dog (some dogs remain there in summer, but now rescues are made by helicopter). Helping stranded travelers is still part of the monks’ vows. And they still risk, and at times even lose, their lives when people hike precariously along the crumbly schist rock or get trapped in the deep snow. We met one of these monks, a friend of Ben’s from his archeology days.

The Roman road (top) and the adjacent foundations of the temple to Jupiter (bottom)

On the Italian side of the monastery, Ben pointed out the old Roman road through the pass, dug out of the rock, and the remains of a temple to Jupiter (the high altitude made the site a sort of Mt. Olympus of the Roman Empire). Most of the temple’s stone had long since been re-appropriated, leaving only traces of foundation and steps carved into the side of the mountain, as well as a human skeleton of unknown origin. On the far side of the monastery and around the peak towards Switzerland, a vast valley opened up with nothing in it but a winding road, some hiking trails, and a sort of ventilation tower for the long mountain tunnel underneath. Here Ben led us to the other site his team had excavated, the Roman hotel. There was still lots of Roman terra cotta scattered about, and the team had discovered Celtic beads there as well.

The Col de Grand-St. Bernard may not be the pass that Hannibal came through with his elephants, but it was certainly used by Napoleon, and was described by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Above, Ben shows me a piece of Roman terra cotta at the site of the archeological dig.

Once the monastery ran a hospice for pilgrims stopping along the Via Francigena, a medieval road from Canterbury to Rome. Now it’s more of a starting point for local hikers. But some of the the hikers we saw that day were also modern day pilgrims, attending the French-speaking evening mass in the basement chapel, its low, vaulted ceiling lit by constellations of tiny halogen lights. My French was so rusty that I could only follow along because I knew what was coming next.

One of the texts from the monastery’s library

We had hoped to eat dinner there, but the refectory was full of hikers and we were out of daylight, so we went home. Even though summer tourists at peak season had overwhelmed the dining room, Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard still felt like an outpost. It’s so inaccessible in winter that the monks have to rely on stored provisions and anyone of their order who dies has to be kept in a nearby outbuilding until the ground thaws enough to bury them. I can only imagine what it must have looked like centuries, even millennia, before, when it was the only place of welcome anywhere around.

Here’s a video (from the hospice’s website linked above) with a nice overview of the monastery, in French with English subtitles. You even see Ben’s monk friend Frederic sitting at the refectory table!

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In which I buckle down and get to work

I’ve been sort of a hermit lately. Well, I did go to the Langhe wine region with friends last Sunday, and I’ve been chatting with people on the phone, and I’ve been to mass, and I’ve gone to various appointments. But in general I’ve been leading a very simple existence and using the time and headspace created to get some art done.

Scenes from the hermitage: Watching illustration tutorials while eating leftovers. The flowers are my overgrown chives. I also made pesto from my balcony basil. 

On Wednesday night I printed out over 50 pages of documents for a patronato appointment. Perhaps I can get my carta di soggiorno (long term immigration card) in time for my trip to the US in August. And unlike the permesso di soggiorno, it doesn’t have to be renewed. You have no idea how glad that makes me.

As part of the carta process, someone had to come to my apartment to make sure it was big enough for me to live in. Such an odd concept. Next I have to get a document that shows I’ve never been in jail. And then there was the three-month-long process of getting American documents officially translated and stamped by the uncommunicative Italian consulate in Miami. The carta di soggiorno has opened up new horizons in bureaucracy.

But mostly, I’m sitting at home with my new Cintiq (which I have never figured out how to get to run at 4K, by the way), lassoing my way through three iterations of Princess Carla of Spaniel. I set myself a deadline of today, which means I’ve had to let go of a good bit of perfectionism, but it does make me feel good that I have set a goal and accomplished it.

My first color comp is the scheme of the original painting. The second one was inspired by a Downton Abbey still. (I think I haven’t realized the potential of this scheme yet.) The third? Grand Budapest Hotel! I’ve discovered there’s a whole world of color study via film stills, which I’m pretty sure was part of the point of this assignment. That and learning to use the lasso and gradient tools. And I learned a third lesson as well: If you want to get something done and move on, don’t choose an iridescent Velasquez dress.

To muff or not to muff? That is the question…

There’s more to do on this project, for sure. But one thing at a time. Maybe soon I’ll even get around to posting some photos of the most famous wine region in the world outside the Loire Valley.

 

Thanksgiving Monday

I was going to post about illustration today, but my drafts kept turning into Thanksgiving posts, so here goes:

I took last week off to catch up on errands and prepare Thanksgiving dinner. I find that studying illustration, like any other work, leaves me falling behind in the rest of life. So, for my week off I had such tasks in mind as doing a shopping run at one of the big suburban grocery stores, getting my Christmas tree from IKEA, and registering for my A2 level Italian language test for immigrants, in addition to food prep.

Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the rainiest week since we moved into this apartment five years ago. The rain started out as an inconvenience, but by Thursday it had become alarming and by Friday the rivers were so high that the tour boats came unmoored and wrecked themselves against the city’s main bridge across the Po. The  city’s trains were in such a snarl that the transit authority actually called off a planned strike, whether out of mercy or because they figured no one would notice it anyway, I don’t know. Sarie missed three days of work due to the flooding.

Against this chaotic backdrop, catching up on my postponed errands took a good bit of willpower, but I plowed through them anyway. The immigration process will eventually get a new post of it own, no doubt. I’ll just say that I had hoped that going to the patronato during a flood meant that it would be less crowded. I was wrong.

Meanwhile I had planned out an elaborate staging process for cooking Thanksgiving dinner–Making broth and pie crust on Thursday afternoon after the patronato; making egg bread for dressing, pie, corn pudding, preparing the table setting, transplanting the tree, brining the chicken, teaching my English student and making dinner for Sarie and Alberto on Friday;  baking the dressing, cooking the beans, preparing fruit and cheese, setting the table, and many other last minute tasks such as chilling the wine, reheating the other dishes, and making whipped cream for the pie, and decorating the tree, all on Saturday before 1 pm. Is it any wonder I didn’t sleep well on Friday night? I think I was too tired to sleep.

By Saturday I was beginning to think that perhaps Thanksgiving was an unhealthy expat obsession of mine and that perhaps I needed to let it go. But in the end, everything came out right and the dinner had other good fruits (so to speak) as well. But I did not take photos. After everyone left at around 6:00 pm, I lay down on the sofa for a little catnap before doing dishes and…woke again at 1:00 am.

A few take-aways from last week:

Carrefour LeGru carries Ocean Spray smooth cranberry sauce in their ethnic foods section! If you’ve ever read one of my Thanksgiving posts, you know how fixated I can get on cranberry sauce. But you can’t count on it being there when you need it, so if you’re an expat with a nostalgia for Ocean Spray, buy it when you see it. I bought mine during the summer.

There is no substitute for self-rising cornmeal. I don’t know why that is, but I have decided it’s worth smuggling a bag over every year in someone’s suitcase. There is no Italian substitute. I don’t know what kind of magic pixie dust they put in that stuff, but I’m not questioning it ever again.

I have finally made myself a list of all Thanksgiving dishes, ingredients needed, time required to do each task and on what day it needs to be done, with all measures and temperatures converted to metric, to make the job easier. It has taken five years to figure out Thanksgiving in Italy, but I think I’ve finally got it. The basic problem with Thanksgiving food is that it all has to go in the oven, one item at a time.

It’s much more fun explaining pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and dressing, Abraham Lincoln and the fourth Thursday in November, and why despite the fact that the pilgrims were giving thanks to God, Thanksgiving is considered a secular holiday, to Italians, than it is explaining the election. Anything is more fun than talking about this election.

And did you know that despite the fact that Italians don’t know when Thanksgiving is, they now have Black Friday? Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone charging any stores.

And now, back to the drawing board and my plate of Thanksgiving leftovers! It’s Advent!

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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

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.”

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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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.