(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

Category: travel

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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Thrifting and memory

Some of the items Nancy and I remembered. A couple, like the coat (which my grandmother would have worn) and the little stove, were not exact matches, but they were so close that they stirred memory nonetheless. The roaster (middle), however, I just threw in for fun! 

For the whole past month I’ve been visiting family in the US, but during the last week of our trip my mom and I visited a cousin and her family in Louisiana, which is an entirely new state for me.

My cousin Nancy used to live across the street from me and for a while we went to the same school. So she and her friends were the first teenagers I knew. I admired them to the extent that, as we were looking at her old high school cheerleading photos, my mom said, “Who is this on the end?” and I answered immediately with the girl’s first and last name.  My mom, rightly startled because I can’t remember people she told me about five minutes ago, said, “How do you know that?!”

“I memorized the yearbook in first grade,” I replied

Nancy now has a grandson, whom we all love to dote on, but when he left to go back home with Nancy’s daughter, she and I decided to go on some adventures.

First we went to a catfish and crawdad shop in a converted gas station. The only thing converted about it, though, was that the gas pumps didn’t work anymore. It wasn’t gentrified. Deer corn was piled up in the corner next to the camouflage hats. The bubble gum machine sold gun and brass knuckle-shaped plastic trinkets. Workmen were lined up in their blue coveralls to order lunch. I was wearing a sleeveless housedress and pearls. I had thought we were going to a tearoom! I decided to ignore myself and hope everyone else would too.

After our lunch, Nancy and I drove to a nearby town to look at antique shops we had read about in a tourist article. After walking up and down the only downtown street, we decided that the chamber of commerce had written the article in an attempt to create a destination by psyching out local residents, but just as we were leaving, we walked into a shop with a vintage 50s Westinghouse roaster out front. This is where the fun began.

The downtown being half vacant, the antique/junk shop occupied the entire building: three floors worth of small back offices. The displays ranged from the bizarre (gaudily re-decorated objects and paintings) to the delightful (which is what this post is about).

Nancy and I had just started walking through the rooms when we started recognizing things. “Who does this hat remind you of?” Nancy asked, as she tried on a pillbox hat with a short net veil.

“Grandmother!” My grandmother sewed, so we were always dressed well.

Then came the treadle sewing machine, the 60s dress patterns, the Tupperware cake caddy and grocery store dish sets, the wooden purses decoupaged with mushrooms, the maxi dress with blous-y sleeves–the memories went on and on.  “Who had this, your mom or mine?” and one of us or the other would remember. Most startling were the items which I had utterly forgotten until I saw them lying on a table, for example a set of plastic thermal bowls I used to eat Cream of Wheat out of at my grandmother’s house before I was old enough to go to preschool. I may have been as young as two. Sometimes Grandmother would put ice cream in the Cream of Wheat to cool it down.

Nothing that we looked at in the store was valuable. Most of it probably came from other people’s grandmothers’ houses. But running across totally forgotten items which formed a part of one’s earliest childhood memories was disconcertingly intimate. Each time one of us confirmed the other’s hunch, it was as if we had opened a hidden door in the attic of memory, with its stories attached. This game held the same kind of intrigue as the first mystery novel I ever read, in second grade. Which, by the way, I inherited from Nancy.

Once Nancy was almost like the older sister I never had. Until our children grew up, we still saw one another at least every Christmas, but now that we have spread out into the next generation it’s very hard to visit. I only wish my younger sister had been there was well. Nancy was very kind to drive me all over her city and show me where she and her family live their lives, for context. I got to see my 89-year-old aunt, Nancy’s mom. For a little while, past and present felt as if they were finally together in the same room.

On pilgrimage to Northumberland

Main house at Hethpool (photo by Fern Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindisfarne flats with Amy

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

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

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

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

Viaggetto a Verona–churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1696A Romanesque capital at the entrance to the crypt

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

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

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

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.

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 very small country and some art tourism

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The apse mosaic at the basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, near Ravenna

I finally got my driver’s license in early December, and I’m very much enjoying the ability to drive. I love my little manual transmission Fiat Punto and have already been on a few road trips in it. But most of them didn’t lend themselves to blog posts.

Last weekend Sarie needed to travel to San Marino to take a course for her job (she teaches English to children). If you’ve ever played geography games, you may know that San Marino is one of those tiny European countries like Luxembourg, Monaco and Vatican City (which is really another thing altogether). At the last minute (I had been in the US until late Thursday), I decided to go along too. I was curious about seeing a new country, and besides San Marino was close to Ravenna, which I have wanted to revisit since 1984.

I had always imagined San Marino as some sort of elegant enclave. It’s supposed to be the oldest sovereign state and republic in the world, with its origins in a Pre-Constantinian monastery. What I found, when we got there, was a very clean, walled city with lots of jewellery and weapons shops, perched on a steep cliff and surrounded by hilly, modern suburbs. The San Marinese have a sense of pride at not being Italian (even though they speak Italian and are culturally similar), a lot of police checkpoints, and the ability to navigate steep hairpin turns at great speed. They are supposedly free of a lot of the problems that plague the surrounding Italian state, such as national debt and unemployment. In all the grocery stores and gas stations, I noticed signs accepting a clever credit/discount card that allows citizens to pay less than tourists.

Unfortunately a badly-timed 24 hour bug ate Sarie’s course and a most of my sightseeing time. But we did make it up the mountain to see the fortress capital of San Marino, and we saw two of the famous mosaic churches of Ravenna on the way home.

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 Street scenes and a view of the countryside,  from the fortress capital of the country of San Marino 

The mosaics of Ravenna have been favourite artworks of mine since I noticed the portrait of the Byzantine Empress Theodora in an art book as a teen. I was delighted when my first ever trip to Italy in 1984 included a short stop in Ravenna and I found myself in front of this very mosaic in the church of San Vitale. More recently, I’ve taken an interest in the mosaic floors that seem to lie somewhere beneath every early Christian church in Italy. And Ravenna has no less than eight UNESCO world heritage sites, all but one of which feature fabulous early Christian mosaics. This was why I offered to drive Sarie to San Marino!

As we started our drive home through Ravenna on Sunday morning, with very little time and a still-weak Sarie, we chose just two of those sites, Sant’Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale. Sarie sat and I wandered.

First we drove to Sant’Apollinare in Classe, just outside the city. I had recently done a presentation that included the apse mosaic there. It features the first archbishop of Ravenna (Classe is a suburb of Ravenna) standing in a field of green, surrounded by stylised trees and sheep. Three of the sheep are Peter, James and John. Floating above them is a jewelled cross with the face of Christ at its intersection and encircled by in a blue orb, a hand coming out of the gold clouds above, and other figures in the sky who are labelled as Moses and Elijah. Recognise the scene? It’s the Transfiguration. The Christians of Ravenna were preaching through artwork against the then-common heresy of Arianism, which denied the divine nature of Christ. Depicting Jesus in a symbolic cross form in a gold sky emphasised his divinity.

The whole scene lends itself perfectly to mosaic tile. The mosaics seem to be freshly restored, and the gold glittered from various angles as I walked around the basilica. Sant’Apollinare is an active church, so there was a mass going on in one of the side chapels. And we were there on none other than the feast of the Transfiguration.

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The apse mosaics of San Vitale with one of the hemispheric side chapels, a floor mosaic composed of earlier pieces, and the exterior of the octagonal church

It was a little harder to remain calm at San Vitale. Once I entered the city, I realised that I was completely surrounded by splendid mosaics in a great walking city, which I had come back to see in detail after 30 years and now couldn’t (also, you have to buy a ticket to four sites at once). But I could also relate to how weak Sarie must feel after a stomach virus, and was also thinking it might be hard to get home if I came down with the virus during the remaining four-hour drive. So I controlled my sightseeing ambitions and enjoyed what was right in front of me.

Even the octagonal form of San Vitale is exquisite. It’s not a basilica form. The apse (where the mosaics are) is encircled by seven hemispherical domes with galleries behind. Joining all the side chapels is a large dome with what looks like a Baroque ceiling painting. Some of the chapel fresco decorations have been restored, seemingly to give an idea of what it must have looked like in the past. Otherwise only traces of paint are visible.

Despite the stomach virus, missing the course, and limited opportunities for sightseeing, Sarie and I enjoyed the drive. She’s increasingly independent, which is right at her age, and being in the car together gave us time to talk about a variety of things, not least of which was the insanity of Italian driving. We saw a lot of regional landscape as we crossed the country, and gaped at a train station that looked like a pleated paper IKEA lampshade, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We never saw the Adriatic, and never got to eat in any of the cozy restaurants along the way, but we were happy to see what we did.

Disclaimer: It has been a long time since I took art history, so I’m not 100% sure I have all my architectural terms right. Also, in order to travel light, I took these photos with my old iPhone, so they’re not the greatest. And finally, yes, I know my spellcheck is stuck on British English!

Cremona

Sarie and I have been to Cremona twice during the past month.  If you know stringed instruments, you may easily guess why we went: Cremona is the epicenter of violin-making.  The Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati families were legendary Cremonese luthiers whose best surviving instruments are now held in trust for the world’s top soloists. But there are still plenty of good well-preserved, reconstructed and newly-crafted stringed instruments available for anyone who wants a good violin. I recently counted 64 luthiers in a the city.

We were to Cremona to try out Baroque violins. By definition, any modern violin from the 18th C. was once a Baroque violin, but almost all of them have had modifications to enhance their range and sound output, including a longer fingerboard, more slender neck and bridge, and metal strings.  The violin we bought this week had been updated, but the luthier restored it back to Baroque fittings in everything but the neck, which didn’t affect the sound. As a historically-accurate performer of Renaissance through Classical music, this violin will be Sarie’s primary professional instrument.  It will also require two bows, a Baroque and a Classical one, to play music from this wide a period. Sarie and Alberto (who plays Baroque oboe and other wind instruments) are now performing in professional historically accurate ensembles, so she badly needed the instrument.

Meanwhile, I simply enjoy hearing the music and visiting the various Italian towns.  Sarie and I joke that “Cream-ona,” with its frequent use of pastel yellow stucco, lives up to its name. I also associate this city on a plain near the Po with bicycles, ice cream, and in the winter, fog. Here are a few photos, happily all from sunny days.

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Stedelijk Museum

I’m just adding a few more photos from the Amsterdam trip, now that I’ve had some time to do some other things. These are from the Stedelijk Museum. I find that modern art museums make fun places to goof off with a camera, even if I do have problems with focusing in low light. But I’m too lazy to look up all the names of the artists, so I’m only going to list the ones I know (see bottom):

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1. Textile by unknown (to me) artist. 2. Mondrian paintings 3. Malevich (I can still hear one of my old painting teachers, Richard Olsen, rapturously exclaiming in his Milwaukee smoker’s rasp, “Ah, Malevich! His use of negative space is perfect!” 4-7. Karel Appel 8. Frank Stella, no doubt 9-11. Examples from the product design galleries 12. Sam Francis 13. Unknown (to me) painter 14-15. Examples of graphic design 16. Chairs. Uh, oh.  I really should know this.  I think the one on the left is by the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto?

Haarlem

I visited the picturesque town of Haarlem (for which Harlem in New York City is named) twice; once by myself and once with Sarie and Alberto. Unfortunately Sarie didn’t feel well when she went, but she and Alberto did get to visit my favorite thing about Haarlem, the Corrie Ten Boom house. The tour group was crowded that day and I had already been, so I decided to stay outside and allow others to go in. I went to an archeology museum instead.

On the previous trip, when I took the Corrie Ten Boom tour, the docent was a lively and trim woman who was a good bit shorter than the average Dutch person. She had been a little girl during the war and remembered the last, hard winter in which the townspeople ate sugar beets and tulip bulbs because there were no rations left. People starved in the streets. And of course, those were the people who hadn’t been rounded up and shipped off to prison or concentration camps.

She told Corrie’s story with conviction and faith. She was clearly a believer. When she told about Corrie’s analogy of our lives being the back of a tapestry, the front of which is only known to God, I teared up.

And yes, I got to step into the Hiding Place!

It wasn’t just a museum tour. It was really a pilgrimage. Now I can now imagine really well how things must have looked as the story unfolded at the little house on Baarteljestraat. In the museum, they only allowed photos in Corrie’s bedroom, and mine didn’t come out so well, so I’m going to link to the museum’s website instead.

On my first visit to Haarlem, I also went to the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals is the 17th C. Dutch Old Master famous for his quick knife-like paint strokes and his ability to catch a spontaneous smile or gesture in oils (quite a feat before photography, and truly, still a feat).

Below I’ve posted some photos of the characteristic brick buildings of Haarlem (starting with the Corrie Ten Boom house), the Frans Hals Museum, and finally St. Bavo’s, the town church.  I can’t find our copy of Meindert DeJong’s Shadrach at the moment (though it was one of Sarie’s favorite books and the first chapter book she ever read), but I seem to recall that the young protagonist, Davy, talked about St. Bavo’s, and I’m wondering if the book is set near Haarlem.  If anyone remembers or can check, I’d love to know!

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Above: Typical brick side streets of houses and other buildings with stained glass, lace curtains, transoms above the windows, and usually a bit of decorative white trim.  The streets are graced with flowers, and entire families go out for errands on their bicycles. In the second photo down, you can see the exterior of St. Bavo’s Church on the left.

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Above: Scenes from the Frans Hals Museum.  The leather wall covering in the second photo is typical of 17th C. Holland.  The three photos at the bottom are a mock up of the meal painted in Hals’s Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard.  All wax, I suppose! Or at least, the food isn’t real!

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Above: St. Bavo’s and its famous organ, on which Mendelssohn, and Handel, and the ten-year-old Mozart played.  Like many Dutch churches, it started out as a Catholic church and then was converted during the Reformation. The white interior with columns is very typical, too. (I think Sarie took these photos.)

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And finally–oh, why not!  Medieval shoes from the archeology museum.  How did they find all these, I wonder?