(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: surrounding towns

Signs of life in Italy

In keeping with my accountability posts, I’m checking in today to do a brief report.

I’m happily busy, motivated, and working on my art. I’m involved with family, housekeeping and volunteering as usual, but I’m also learning to paint in Photoshop, which is like opening up an entire bag of caramels and chewing furiously. The learning curve is straight up. So I don’t have much to show for it yet.

So, in the meantime, I offer these small (and one not so small) signs of life in Italy:

Top: The world’s largest elliptical dome, canvas for an extraordinarily Baroque fresco complete with wooden extensions of figures into the cupola, at Vicoforte. Bottom left: The sanctuary at Vicoforte as seen from above amidst the Alban hills (home of the white truffle and Barolo). Both of these photos are from a volunteer day trip with 85 soup kitchen guests–always entertaining!. Bottom center: Chancellery cursive using a medieval reed pen, from Thursday’s calligraphy lesson. Bottom right: today’s lunch, ribollita. Yes, I know, it’s Tuscan and not Piedmontese, but I like to make it whenever I find black kale (I actually forgot what you call this kind of kale in English).

And then there was Wednesday, in which I turned a year older and we had a dramatic election.

Stay tuned! More news soon.

 

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.

Finale Ligure

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(Above: A beach club in Finale Ligure. I’m drinking a rare Italian iced coffee. The waiter asked if I wanted it shakerizzato. That means what it sounds like, shaken with ice, but I was amused that the concept was so foreign they had to appropriate an American word to describe it.)

Since I mentioned going to the sea with my friend Stella in my last post, I thought I would do a short post on the town we visited, Finale Ligure, as well.

Finale Ligure is near Savona, which is to say it’s roughly halfway between Genova and Nice. It’s one of the shore cities closest to Torino. This area of the coast is called the Italian Riviera, and it’s easy to see why: The water is blue, the towns are elegant, the the beach is lined with palms and beautiful rock outcroppings edged by narrow sand beaches.

The beaches are almost entirely taken up by permanent beach chairs with umbrellas, which you rent by the month. There are clubs all along the shore that rent them out. And the clubs have restaurants and bars open to the beach where people spend the afternoon in various states of dress ranging from elegant shifts with jewelry to not much at all. Life is more casual than in the interior cities, but it’s still a far cry from the Jimmy Buffet culture of northern Florida.

Stella and I went down just for the day, but many people rent a place for a week, own a place, or even go to Sardegna for a month.

One day at the shore by no means makes me an expert on Italian beach culture, but I know the sea is a big deal here. Italy is a peninsula, after all, and has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

But I still prefer the mountains. And Italy has a lot of those too.

(Below: the façade of one church and the ceiling of another, plus the main shoreline piazza in Finale Ligure)

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A bit of hiking serendipity*

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Lately I’ve had some things I wanted to write about, but little time to post them. So I’m just going to have to post out of order, sometimes considerably after the fact. Better to post a bit willy nilly than not at all!

Recently, some of our friends from New York, the ones who went with us to Garfagnana a few years ago, came to visit. But this time they came separately: first Lydia, and then her brother Matt with his girlfriend, Heidi. As with good friends, it seemed like we picked up where we left off, except we got to add Alberto and Heidi into the mix. The more the merrier!

Anyway, Sarie and I drove Matt and Heidi up into the mountains on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to show them something outside Torino. We already had one destination in mind, but the other we chose rather randomly. We had an idea, plugged it into the GPS, and set off.

Two hours later, we lost our GPS signal and arrived at our destination simultaneously. Which made sense, because we were trying to leave civilisation behind. But more probably it was because we were now in a deep valley between two mountains. We got out of the car, had a coffee (because we weren’t trying to leave civilisation that  far behind), asked where the nearest hiking trail was, and started off. We aimed to go 45 minutes out and the same distance back, so we could get to our other destination for the day and then meet Alberto for pizza. On the other side of the valley, we could see green fields and craggy peaks far above the tree line. We spoke briefly of wanting to be “up there.”

At first the road seemed too broad and freshly cut, but we soon found a traditional hiking trail that branched off and climbed gently up the side of the mountain. Then we started seeing small outbuildings made of stone; often these were in ruins, but some were perhaps in use anyway. We walked along at a relaxed pace, Sarie taking photos (the ones in this post are hers) and all of us falling into our established habit of banter and repetition jokes.

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We continued to climb until we crossed over a stream which plunged steeply into a larger stream along the cut road below. As we waved our hands around in the cold water we noticed a picturesque steeple on the next outcropping, at an elevation even with ours.  We thought it was probably beyond our range for the day, but we decided to see whether we could at least get closer enough to see it better.

We went along, noting interestingly jutting rocks, unfamiliar plants, and the usual numerous lizards until we suddenly found ourselves approaching a charming little farm in the classic Italian mountain style, with white stucco walls, dark wooden beam trim, a slate roof, lace curtains, and red geraniums all around to add a splash of color. Except that as we got closer, we saw that it wasn’t just a farm, but more of a hamlet. There were several homes joined together (a few abandoned, but others in good repair) and, as we followed the trail into the midst of them, there was the church we had seen from a distance! It hadn’t been so far as we’d thought.

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1) The steeple we saw from the creek, 2) the hamlet with the church in the background (the photo only includes Heidi and Matt, as this was the better exposed photo, but I framed it awkwardly and so had to cut Sarie out), and 3) the façade of the church.

We stopped for a few minutes to admire the facade of the church, which had faux bricks and other decor painted red into the stucco, its own lace curtains, benches and geraniums, and even a rustic basin for holy water by the door. Some of the house doors had shoes lined up outside, but we never saw another person. We moved on after a few minutes, out of respect for the residents’ privacy. Not terribly long after that, we passed three more outbuildings and a then final one that had been built on top of a large boulder, complete with a cellar door underneath the boulder. We climbed up, Sarie took the photo of me at the beginning of this post, and we started back. Along the way, I told Matt and Heidi that next time they came, I would be living in the hamlet. It was just a matter of working out how to get groceries without a road.

As we once again neared the end of the cut road, we noticed something painted into one of the outcroppings–a swath of stucco, now partially crumbled, with a red cross painted on it. “Oh, I thought I saw something like that on the way in!” Sarie remarked, and sure enough, when we looked on the other side of the boulder, there was a thinner, more crumbled sign or the same sort. Given that there had been another small chapel near the beginning of the path, we decided that they must be some sort of markers for pilgrims. But we didn’t know for sure. This sort of thing always piques my curiosity.

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Just before we got back into town, we saw a man clearing brush. He greeted us and asked us how we had liked our hike. We told him about the church and asked him how old it was. “Oh, I don’t really know!” And he made a gesture that in Italy means ages ago, or depending on how many times you make it, even more ages ago. He made it about four times. And then he added, “Yeah, I think about four cats still live up there.”

When I got home, like any city person I tried to Google the situation to see what I could sleuth out. But I found very little, not even the name of the little hamlet. In fact, the town below, like many Italian mountain towns, had suffered a decimation of its population since the 19th century, from about 1500 inhabitants to 150. I know that many of these mountain towns practically close in the winter, as there is no road access and even the water supply freezes up.

Italy is full of things like this, little mysteries that you have to solve by word of mouth. Perhaps one day I’ll know the story of the little church and its surroundings. But for now they are a bit like the green fields above the treeline–still inaccessible, and probably better off for it.

*I just found out what happens when you forget to title a post: It gets a number! In general, I’m a bit sorry for those of you who get the instant email version, because inevitably there are typos and editing mistakes that I simply don’t see until I reread the post the next day. My eye simply gets stale. Thank you for your patience!

An unexpected Lenten trip

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Our group descending from our hostel in Claviere, Italy, about an hour west of Torino

Last weekend I finally made it to those mountains I keep looking at from a distance on clear Torino days. I went with a group of friends, other volunteers from the afternoon program I work with at Sant’Antonio da Padova. And I decided to go only at the last minute.

Claviere is a ski resort, so that was the ostensible purpose of our trip. I thought about skiing, but when I saw how steep the slopes were, I had visions of being stranded on some black trail and thought it might be better to first make sure that I could find a way down. And unlike the small mountain where I learned to ski in Pennsylvania, there were clearly other things to do, with hiking trails intersecting (and sometimes coinciding with) the ski slopes. In fact, among our group of about 15, only three people skied. So I went hiking.

We stayed in a traditional hostel-type house that was halfway up the first slope, accessible only by walking or (for baggage) by snowmobile. Lunch, at a communal table with a red-checked tablecloth where everyone talked loudly at once, was of the typical leisurely Italian type with a pasta, a meat and vegetable, fruit, and red wine throughout. Then we’d go across the path to the other building for coffee and grappa (for those who take a caffè corretto for digestion). After all this lunch, you were either going to burn off energy or sleep. Some threatened sleep, but usually we walked to France instead.

Montegenèvre, France is the next resort over, about 30 minutes’ walk from Claviere–no border patrol to be seen. People in our group went to buy things from the pharmacy, because they said the same brands cost half as much there as they did in Italy. One fellow, whose part in our group’s play includes trying to hide his wedding announcement by swiping and balling up every copy of Le Figaro he sees, said he was going to stockpile French newspapers. What we all ended up doing was buying pastries.

While in Montegenèvre, we discovered that we were walking along the traditional pilgrimage road to Sant’Iago di Compostela in Spain (named for St. James the Lesser). The estimated remaining distance of 2000 km brought nods of appreciation.

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Tiny sugar animals at a French patîsserie and a roadside chapel along the route to Sant’Iago de Compostela, Spain.

On Sunday morning, about seven of us decided to hike about an hour up the mountain to a coffee bar. Two people wore snowshoes, but the rest of us just wore snow boots and ski pants. The weather was warm and the day fine. We had to slow down a bit when the trail became narrow and slippery, and a couple of people had trouble keeping up, but I’m so used to hiking with people who are faster than me that it was delightful to finally have time to take photos, admire whipped-cream snowdrifts, and find a lovely, almost fluorescent-green lichen.

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 Hiking up to the coffee bar, a pretty lichen, and the lawn chairs we commandeered upon arrival

When we got to the coffee bar, we took several commemorative group pictures, and then most of us ordered apple cider and sat outside to drink it. After cider, with some jokes about how Italians know how to enjoy life better than anyone else, we commandeered the row of deck chairs in front of the bar and soaked up the sun for about 30 minutes while the Germans, English and French exerted themselves on the slopes. We were back to the hostel in time for lunch.

I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a particularly Lenten trip, but for me, it was a reprieve from the usual routine, and a chance to appreciate other people for who they were. As we women went to sleep in one room on Saturday night, we could hear two of the men in the other room laughing so hard that they couldn’t take full breaths. At four a.m., I was awakened by more stifled laughter from the other room. But in many ways, it was quiet, and far from my usual concerns. Very early, I got up, read my Bible, and took a walk outside where I watched the rising sun shine golden on top of the facing mountain and listened to tiny flocks of birds feeding in the firs above. In the walks, in the meals, in nature, in the generous hospitality of the group, in the perspective that comes from being away, there I found a gift from the Lord.

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New film project

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 (Above: Film stills from Imago Cristi)

As promised, here is a bit more news about Alberto and Sarie’s creative projects. Last year I posted about Sarie acting in Alberto’s film 1245 AD, a movie based of local medieval history. He eventually had to put it on the back burner, because it became impossible to schedule the local re-enactment group for the crowd scenes. Alberto had been working on that film since he was seventeen–all through the end of high school and conservatory, so naturally he was very reluctant to let go of it. But not long afterwards, he had come up with about three other ideas for films, all of which were less difficult to arrange logistically.

The movie idea that finally took off was an adventure film, Imago Cristi, based on a historical account of a 16th Century pilgrimage.  Alberto’s character, Leonardo, is a mercenary and prodigal with a mysterious past. At the time when he’s hired as part of a convoy to transport valuable cargo over the Alps to Cardinal Borromeo, he is cynical and without hope. But something happens along the route that will change his perspective permanently.

Sarie has a small part in this movie as well. But mostly, it’s a film about swords and derring do. I know this because we’ve been ordering enough historically accurate weapons to stock a small armory.

I’ve also been working on some story boards for the film. I never heard of film storyboards before Alberto asked me to do some. I’ve had a hard time accepting the fact that you can’t get too wrapped up in how each drawing looks, artistically-speaking. The point instead is to do a schematic diagram of every single shot in the film and show how the camera moves.

Incidentally, about a week before the filming, the film crew lost access to the space they were going to use for the tavern. At first there was wailing and gnashing of teeth as they tried unsuccessfully to juggle the actors’ schedules for a different day. But then they got permission to use an even better location! (The one you see in these photos.) After that, Alberto had to quickly redraw all the storyboards to work for the new space. So ha! That’s what I get for being too finicky about my drawing!

The filming finally took place in Lanzo, about an hour outside Torino, Friday before last. Below I’ve posted a few behind-the scenes photos of the filming. All of these movie projects, needless to say, are filmed on a shoestring, using volunteers. But Alberto sets extremely high standards for historical accuracy and cinematography. And he’s very determined to finish this one. Stay tuned or join their Facebook page for more news!

(Behind the scenes, below: 1) Alberto looks worried as Sarie gives his wig a haircut. As you can see in the next photo, it turned out fine! 2-4) Merrymakers improvising for the tavern scene. They aren’t really drinking wine. When they are drinking anything, it’s vinegar, which they then have to spit out! 5) One of the original story boards, from about the third page into the tavern scene.

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(All photos except story board were taken by a member of the film crew.)

Cavoretto

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There is an particular couple in my building who have been very friendly to me. Both speak fluent German–the wife is a translator and the husband is a professor of German literature–but neither speaks a lot of English. So this is one situation in which I get a lot of Italian practice! We’ve had coffee and dinner together, taken walks, and recently we’ve started a language exchange.* They’ve even been to one of Sarie’s concerts.  Given that my neighborhood is a bit reserved, I appreciate all the efforts they’ve made to be hospitable, especially towards someone who can’t always come up with the right words in Italian.

Twice now they’ve taken me on a walk in the park above the tiny town of Cavoretto, on the Collina (hill) just across the Po. Though it’s not a mountain like one of the Alps, it’s high enough to have a good view of the Alps.  My Benvenuto! photo at the top of the page was taken from the Collina.

So far as I can tell, Cavoretto consists of a couple of small piazzas, a few streets with a school and a couple of churches, and the park, which is almost as big as the town.  Its streets are so narrow and steep that it’s hard to get a good idea of the layout of the whole town, but that’s part of its charm. There are unusual details at every angle.

Since I was with my friends, I didn’t stop to take that many photos, nor do the ones I took quite capture the serendipitous quality of an Italian hill town in all three dimensions, but hopefully these photos at least get something of the idea across. I always think these towns would be a great place to play hide-and-seek, and in fact Sarie has done just that, in Barga, with some friends!

And lastly, please pardon my recent obsession with the Instagram bokeh button.  I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually.

Below: 1) The town parish church, which sits with its adjacent buildings in its own piazza 2) One of many household gates along the city streets 3) Capers. Yes, capers come from a tiny bush that grows wild on city walls–who knew? 4) Street approaching the parish church in 1. above. 5) Another tiny church, dedicated to S. Rocco. 5) An old wall which has had a modern gate added to it–tastefully, I might add.

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*Note to my family, who may be confused: This is the second family with whom I’ve been doing language exchange. The other one lives across the alleyway and we got to know one another because their enthusiastic 11-year-old daughter kept waving to us from the kitchen window.

Roma

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I’ve been wanting to go to Rome ever since we moved to Italy, and finally made there it last week. Most Italians we talk to say it’s their favorite city. Certainly it has deep roots, and points of interest from almost every era. It has a similar serendipitous energy to New York, the organic beauty of an old European city, and the warmth and unpredictability that I’ve come to associate with Italy.

The ostensible reason for my trip was to meet with a tax attorney who knows both the Italian and American systems. (I’ll say as little about that as possible.) Sarie and Alberto went with me, Sarie to try out a Baroque violin, and Alberto because he had never been.  (And no doubt, they wanted to see Rome together.)

The unpredictability follies began on Wednesday, before we’d even arrived. The proprietor of the AirBnB we’d rented called and said there was a problem with the plumbing in the apartment, and could he upgrade us to a better one? In some ways the new apartment wasn’t as suitable as the original, but what else could we do? We agreed. Then on Friday, as we came home from a full day of walking around the city, the woman who managed the second apartment met us saying that the other guy had booked ours with someone else–a group of five who were arriving that night!  She did a spectacular sales job on another apartment upstairs, and they moved us up immediately. By the time we were settled it was 9 p.m. and I still had to cook dinner, using utensils I’d counted on having from the other apartment. So I “borrowed” a few from downstairs!  They even allowed us to bring the DVD player with us so we could watch Don Camillo.

We were amused that the new apartment had tiny LED lights on the bathroom ceiling inside the shower. They changed color. Other than that, our accommodation follies were thankfully ended.

What follows are some photos from our time in Rome, with a few explanations.  Enjoy!

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Above, top: The street where we stayed. Middle: A street of steps around the corner.  Rome is the City of Seven Hills, after all. We were on the Esquiline, in the Monti neighborhood. Bottom: Someone across the street was airing sausage in the window on Saturday morning. We were intrigued.

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From the Colosseum and the Forum. 1) A view of the Forum from the Colosseum 2) Nice tourist photo of Alberto and Sarie in the Colosseum. 3) A frieze of the Sack of Jerusalem from the Arch of Titus, as you enter the Forum 4) The Nympheum, a grotto under the Palatine Hill 5) Some excavations of houses on top of the Palatine Hill, beyond which is a line of typically Roman trees.

Sarie took the last three photos above.

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On Friday we met a cousin of mine for lunch near Piazza Navona and then went on to the Vatican Museum.  I particularly wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, since I’d tried to go three times on my last visit to Rome (in 1984), but never succeeded. This time I was not disappointed, but no photos are allowed. This was just as well, because I would have taken way too many.

But I enjoyed all the other Vatican frescoes too,such as Raphael’s The School of Athens, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (above center), and a corridor of frescoed 16th C. Italian maps, including one of Torino and its surrounding towns. Some of the names were a bit different, but we recognized most all of them, including Alberto’s home town.

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And finally, what trip to Rome is complete without St. Peter’s? It is enormous in scale, richly appointed, and of course, it’s the center of the Catholic Church. We had the idea of going to mass there on Saturday night, but unfortunately we never made it.

Near our apartment was another papal basilica, Sta. Maria Maggiore. It’s smaller than St. Peter’s, but still grand. I went there by myself on Saturday to see its famous mosaics, but my photos didn’t turn out so well, so instead I’ll post a link to a virtual tour. It’s well worth even a virtual visit!

In sum, we all enjoyed our visit, and I’d go back at the slightest provocation! But as the train rolled out from the tunnels near Genova and I saw the Po Valley spread out bright green on both sides of the train windows, I felt at home again. Shortly afterwards, the clouds parted in the north to reveal one glowing Alpine mountain, covered with new snow. Funny how one  can get attached so quickly to a place. I still can’t speak the language half the time. And yet it’s home.

Local history in film

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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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