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!


A catechism in frescoes, along with chaconnes


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.


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!


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!


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.


(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.

Palazzo Saluzzo Paesano

IMG_0910 - Version 2IMG_0952 My friend Marianna and I went to a modern art show last Friday. As sometimes happens in Torino, the palazzo housing the exhibit eclipsed the event, at least in my mind. Actually, these palazzi are everywhere; They look like ordinary Torinese buildings from the outside, so until you have the opportunity to go inside one, you really never know what riches they might contain.

The Palazzo Saluzzo Paesano was the Baroque city residence of the Marquis of Saluzzo, which is another Piedmontese town to the west of Torino. I’ve been to Saluzzo and it’s pretty picturesque, too.

I was most fascinated with the loggia and stairway leading to the apartments. The last photo is of the windows lining the inner courtyard. This square-building-with-an-interior-courtyard arrangement is very typically Torinese. In fact, our own building has an interior courtyard, though it’s not nearly so elegant! IMG_0951IMG_0948IMG_0947IMG_0949

In Georgia

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We made it to Georgia!  This trip to the US is different from most because we have one of Sarie’s Italian friends here with us.  Her presence is helpful for us, because we have a good reason to converse in Italian.  But it’s good for our friend, because she gets to hear a lot of English.  We tease her that she’s going to go home with a drawl.  Thankfully, she’s a very good sport.

Yesterday the girls and I spent the afternoon in downtown Athens with my sister.  Among other things, we visited a friend’s jewelry store.  But it wasn’t the jewelry that was the main attraction; it was the my sister’s friend’s sugar gliders.  Sugar gliders are tiny marsupials that look a little like  a cross between lemurs and flying squirrels.  The “sugar” part of the name is because they like sweets. As we found out yesterday, that includes coffee.

We’ll be in the US for six weeks.  More to come!

Pilgrimage, sacred and profane

Sunday was a fine day, what our family used to call a “boaty day”: Clear deep blue skies, with a light breeze, temperatures warm but not hot, and that extra sparkle that makes even ordinary buildings and trees look magical.  The main ingredient in a boaty day, though, is wonder.

Unfortunately Sarie and Bob were busy, but I went out by myself. My main thought was to get a good view of the mountains. I have a hobby of finding ways home that take me from east to west, facing the Alps. But to come home west, I had to first go east. So I headed to one of the busiest, most eastern spots in town: Piazza Castello.

On the way, I ran into a bike parade.  Families and singles were gathering near Piazza Solferino to bike together through town, no doubt to publicize alternative transportation.  New people were heading from every direction, and every few seconds a couple more riders would ring their bells as they joined the parade.  I saw a friend of mine, in a chartreuse hat and riding a yellow folding bike, join the parade.  She was too far away to hear me call, though, so I walked on.

When I got to Piazza Castello, there was a children’s festival going on. Dozens of white tents with activities crowded the piazza, and young volunteers dressed in white coats with clown motifs–a striped sleeve here, brightly-colored shoes or hose there–wove through the crowd.  Once I got past the mass of tents, I headed towards La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo.  I’d noticed a while back that although this church has no facade to call attention to it, people are always going in and out.

Inside, there was a long vestibule with a pietà at one end and a door at the other.  It was not your typical Italian church entrance.  But immediately the splendid sanctuary drew me inward. Enormous, ornate, and octagonal, it immediately drew the eye straight up to a cupola far above.  I took a seat towards the back and slowly accustomed myself to the regal atmosphere of a Baroque interior.

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La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo has a plain facade outside and a startlingly spacious inside, topped with a dramatic cupola

Images from Wikipedia Commons

My intention had simply been to have a look around, to see where the interior took my thoughts, perhaps to pray.  I find the interior of an Italian church to be an easy place to concentrate on prayer, even if I can’t participate in the mass.  But after I had been sitting in the church for a few minutes, I noticed that there was a woman giving a tour.  My interest was piqued even though I couldn’t hear clearly what she was saying, so when she finished and she started another tour for a Frenchman, speaking slowly in Italian, I asked if I could join them.

She started the tour with the history of the church and why it was named for San Lorenzo.  A former Savoy ruler had won a battle on S. Lorenzo’s feast day and promised to build a church in his honor.  After the war, however, he didn’t have enough money for major projects, so he consecrated an existing church (now the long vestibule) to the saint. It wasn’t until the next generation the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini built the present-day church. The resulting style was so distinct that it’s now called Guarini Baroque.

The Theatine order specialized in math and science, so Guarini filled his creation with 17th-century architectural wonders and symbolism.  Suffice it to say that nothing in this riot of trompe d’oeuil architecture is random. The cupola draws the eyes heavenward, geometrical shapes symbolize Biblical numbers, a chapel of the Nativity faces one of the Crucifixion, and even the colors of the materials are significant. But there are two effects in particular that I like. One is a skylight above the altar, surrounded by sculpted white clouds and golden putti interspersed with golden rays. The other is a series of curved paintings hidden in dark niches above the four chapels.  On two days each year, from 9:00-9:30 and then again from 12:00-12:30 , the sun hits portholes above these chapels and illuminates the paintings inside (on the left side first, and then on the right).  The next such day will be September 21.  If at all possible, I plan to go!

It was evident to me after a while that the docent wasn’t merely going through the motions, but really found the church inspiring and spiritually significant.  I sat down for a long while after the talk, looking at the entire space with new eyes.  I was glad I had taken the time for the tour.

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The Palazzo Madama is a Baroque palace in the front and a medieval castle in the rear.  The first photo shows the view from La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Leaving the church, I walked across the piazza to the Palazzo Madama, a.k.a., the Queen Mother’s Palace.  The Palazzo Madama is a fascinating hodgepodge of a building styles at the very center of the city.  In fact, at its core is one of the original Roman city gates. There are at least two other stages of architecture built into the palace, including an medieval castle (in the back) and a Baroque façade (by another famous Torinese architect, Filippo Juvarra) added so that the Queen Mother could make a proper ceremonial appearance. Apparently medieval spiral staircases did not provide adequate drama for the later Savoys. Originally Juvarra’s design was to have replaced the old castle entirely, but since the new palace was never quite finished, today the palace looks like some kind of archeological exposition, with all its successive renovations exposed. In the interior courtyard, you can stand on a glass floor and survey the castle’s foundations and crypts. In one interior stairwell, you can see remnants of four or five phases of building, including the original Roman wall, on a color-coded map.

Knowing that the main staircase is open all day, I walked up to the second floor of the façade and stood by the front window, the one where the Queen Mother would have made her appearances. There were only a couple of people standing around, so I had one of the best views in town pretty much to myself. Directly in front of me was Via Garibaldi, the original Roman decumanus, or main east/west road. Now the main pedestrian thoroughfare in town, it runs straight from Piazza Castello towards the Alps like a textbook study in two-point perspective.  The street is lined on either side with elegant four-story buildings similar in style to those in Piazza Castello, each with stores on the ground floor.

Down below, the festivities were still going strong.  A rock band was playing a children’s song (in Italian) in which each verse was punctuated by a squeaky toy.  Via Garibaldi was crowded with shoppers making their passaggi.  I really didn’t see how anyone could even move down there.  Above the crowds, a flock of pigeons would senselessly startle and fly from one side of the street to the other, and above the whole scene an escaped pink mylar balloon jerked ever higher to the right. “Squeak-squeak!  Squeak-squeak!” I looked towards the Alps and towards the setting sun, and felt satisfied.

This was my Torino, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane.  This was what I had come to see.

This afternoon

It’s a sunny afternoon.  I’m sitting in the green armchair studying Italian, with three workbooks spread out on ottomans and chairs all around.  I’m looking once again for those charts with the direct and indirect object pronouns, because they continue to elude me. And those prepositions! Sono di New York, ma vengo da New York. This morning a girl from Brazil brought a birthday cake to share with our Italian class.  We all conversed in awkward Italian, because it’s our only common language. Sometimes the other American and I cheat a little.

The tall living room balcony doors are slightly parted to keep the sun from heating up the room. Down below I hear a little girl and her mom talking to Angelo. The girl is talking in a melodic voice; no, she’s actually singing, in the way of all three-year-olds, slightly out of tune.  I look at Sarie, who is sprawled on the sofa doing math homework, and she grins.  Could it be Nina, now a year older?  I take a peek. The girl I see has brown hair to her shoulders, a bright pink coat and orange hat, and she’s riding a scooter. We think she’s probably too old to be Nina, but we decide to reserve judgment until we see our little neighbor emerge on her nonna’s balcony.

The lui piccolo was back in the willow tree this morning. The workmen started renovation on that side of the building.  That is to say, they brought a pile of rusted hollow poles for scaffolding and then went to lunch. Regardless, birds are singing everywhere.

Alberto surprised Sarie outside her school at noon and they went to the park.

Meanwhile, I did a load of wash and hung it out before class.  It’s already dry.  I have to admit that the old man was right; I did finally kill the Christmas tree.  At noon I stood out on the balcony combing off the dry needles so they wouldn’t shed when I took the tree downstairs.  I had a momentary memory of our Israeli super on the Upper East Side, muttering under her breath in operatic contralto as she swept tree needles from the elevator in December.  But I didn’t mind sweeping needles in April.

Finally Sarie and I both finished our homework.  We decided to walk up to Grom for our first gelato of the year–caramello al sale and cioccolato fondente, because you always order two flavors in Italy. I grabbed my foam-green spring jacket from the closet and immediately found a tram ticket from November 19th in the pocket.  Sarie ironed a lightweight dress with a floral pattern and donned sunglasses. Coats from the morning chill lay abandoned on floors and chairs.  We started up Vinzaglio, under the portici, admiring children and dogs, and ate our ice cream in the sun near the fortress.

For the past two weeks, all the talk has been about the spring that never arrives.  Finally, it’s here.


Luì piccolo

Common Chiffchaff, or luì piccolo.  Image from Wikipedia Commons.
Common Chiffchaff, or luì piccolo. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Though the weather remains cold and cloudy, the willow trees outside our bedroom window have started to put out leaves this week.  This morning I looked out to see three of these tiny birds hovering and feeding among the new buds and leaves.  Having identified a lot of US warblers, I thought I could quickly memorize their markings, but when I went to look in my bird guide, there were a million warblers that looked like this!  But mercifully, one came back, and even sang.  The returning warbler enabled me to get a better look and make an identification.

He’s actually one of the more common European birds, but not too many of them come into the parking lot between our building and the one next door. And there will be even fewer next week when the workers start renovating the exterior of our building. So this morning’s appearance was a real treat!

May your day, wherever you are, contain a bit of serendipity, a luì piccolo of one sort or the other.

Local history in film


A few posts ago, I mentioned that Sarie had a part in a movie.  This small production,  A.D. 1245, is based on local history at the time of Pope Innocent IV and Emperor Frederick II.  From what I’ve read of the script and seen of the trailer, the plot involves political intrigue, betrayal and an invasion in the Valle di Lanzo north of Torino. It’s the stuff of Sir Walter Scott novels, or their Italian equivalent.

Since this is mostly a medieval and swashbuckling sort of movie, most of the leads are male, but the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter does play a part in the story.  That’s where Sarie comes in. But I can’t give away the plot, now can I?

You didn’t know Sarie acted?  Neither did I. (Nor did she, she adds.)  But she’s friends with the director/lead actor, Alberto, who also organizes her Baroque group.  And apparently the part comes quite naturally to her.

The crew is very resourceful in making everything look proper to its era with very limited time, manpower, and money. Much of yesterday’s shoot took place in an abandoned building, with jury-rigged props.  Alberto put Christmas tree lights in the fireplace for embers and/or color correction, and will later create a computer-generated fire to go with them.  The fireplace itself is a transformed armoire.  The bed sits on bricks. To make the non-existent fire flicker, someone waved an arm in front of the lighting. And so forth.  But in the end, it all looks fairly convincing.

Since the movie is, naturally, in Italian, the crew initially planned to dub someone else’s voice over Sarie’s. Obviously it wouldn’t do for the Duke of Lanzo’s daughter to have an American accent. But they worked on the accent, and as the time for shooting neared, they decided that the main difficulty, her e’s, sounded reasonably Piemontese, if not exactly Italian. After that, she just had to avoid too many r’s in one sentence.

Sarie, meanwhile, was quite happy about getting to wear a medieval dress. Later on she gets to wield a sword for a bit and fall off a horse.  And get a gash painted on her face. And even build some sets.

Anyway, this is how she’ll continue to spend some of her vacation time until the movie is finished (hopefully) in December.  Not bad for the joint efforts of music students and a local historical society!  Then they just have to figure out how to distribute it.  I think that, given some English subtitles, it looks like a natural choice for homeschoolers, don’t you?

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