(More than…) Two Years in Torino

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

New ideas

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One of today’s exercises, on old fashioned pencil and paper. What is going on with this fox’s other leg, anyway? And why can’t I get this photo to load at full resolution? If I thought too hard about these things, I’d never post it, so I won’t!

As perfectionism is a killjoy, I thought I’d post a half-baked update before I figure out how much I don’t know.

I have been looking for a new professional focus for about two years now, but the process is slow, and as usual, it is complicated by the fact that I live outside the only country where I understand how things work. But last year I decided that if I were ever to do art professionally again, it would be smarter to do it digitally. Italian shipping, insurance, bureaucracy and customs are all part of the short answer as to why.

And then last year someone approached me with the idea of illustrating a book. That didn’t work out, but the idea stuck. I had entered college with the idea of illustrating children’s books. I quickly switched to drawing and painting, but that was useful too and by now most of the techniques I would have learned in graphic design have changed anyway.

Finding a local course to learn the new techniques, however, proved difficult. I love the idea of going out daily and interacting with people, but in this case it just didn’t turn out to be practical. First, the Accademia discontinued all individual courses, so I got kicked out of the one I had been attending for the past two years and couldn’t sign up for the Photoshop course I was eyeing. The only other local digital art course I could find was expensive, with inconvenient class hours, and it wasn’t really geared to book illustration anyway.  So I found a course–nay several–online. I found an inexpensive Photoshop subscription. And now I’m studying furiously. I just have to remember to schedule exercise, listening to Italian, and going out with friends!

I know that this is a long shot. The publishing industry has completely turned on its head since I went to art school. Also, it can take ten years to learn all the skills needed, and I’m closer to grandma age than college age. It’s quite hard to break into the market, and for all but a few people, it doesn’t pay that well.

But I couldn’t be happier.  I wake up every morning looking forward to working. I’m not particularly concerned with comparing myself with the thousands of extremely skilled illustrators out there, but more with whether I can accomplish something I can be pleased with. And I can teach English when I have to have money.

One more thing: I’m starting to realize how similar children’s book illustration skills are to film direction skills. You have to know a little bit of everything, and I love that. I used to be quite the Luddite where movies were concerned (I think I watched a bit too much film noir in my 20s), and I still love old-fashioned illustration techniques and paper books, but I have come to appreciate the new overlap with animation, graphic novels, and interactive stories as well.

So, hopefully the learning curve will continue, the work will get better, and I’ll find opportunities to share what I’m doing. But for the moment, back to the drawing board. Have a good week!

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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!

Sarie and Alberto in Grado

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I thought I’d make an easy re-entry into blogging by sharing some photos from Sarie and Alberto’s medieval group’s re-enactment in Grado last weekend. Their group pays a lot of attention to accuracy, which means handcrafted everything. No fantasy halloween costumes!

But they do allow cameras, so Sarie took hers. She has way outpaced me as a photographer by now, so I’m always glad when she lets me use a few of her photos (the photo of her at the bottom playing the saz was obviously taken by someone else). If you want to see more of her work, you can go here.

A particularly lovely part about this particular re-enactment was that it was so far eastward in Italy that it was almost in Slovenia, and it was a block from the Adriatic Sea. Sarie and Alberto usually go to these re-enactments as musicians, but this time Alberto discovered that he liked weaving, and he and Sarie also spoke English to tourists. And when they weren’t on duty they went to the beach. Not a bad weekend!

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Viaggetto a Verona–churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1696A Romanesque capital at the entrance to the crypt

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

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

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

Viaggetto a Verona

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This is an “old people selfie” that Carlana and I took at the Castelvecchio museum in Verona. Neither of us really knows how to get rid of the fishbowl effect in the selfie-cam. But we didn’t let that stop us from having a good time!

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When an old New York friend, Carlana, said she and her husband would be coming to Italy but not to Torino, I took that as an excuse to drive to the closest meeting point, Verona, and see a new town. Verona is 3 1/2 hours from Torino by car and is part of the Veneto region. The people there are notably blond, even compared to the northern Torinese, and their “o”s tend to become “u”s, as in nui for noi.

You can also see Venetian influence in the local architecture–particularly the pinks and reds in the stucco, the slender columns, the conical brick bell towers, and the occasionally pointed windows (see below). The whole town started out on a Roman grid, with the original amphitheater still dominating the main piazza (above) and the Roman city gates still extant. But the main part of the Roman city center has long been overlaid with serendipitous medieval twists and turns.

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We had a great time walking around all the old streets, ducking into the characteristic Romanesque churches, sipping vin brulé from the market, and of course, eating and catching up! Carlana likes history too, so I had a happy and energetic touring companion.

Some things to note below: Renaissance frescoes on the sides of buildings in Piazza delle Erbe (which was the original Roman forum, used for chariot races), a plaque marking where a city captain was killed during a coup in 1277, and the conical bell towers.

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There was so much going on in architecturally in Verona that I plan to do another post. But before I end for today, what would a trip to Verona be without Juliet’s balcony? Actually, the only thing they know for sure about this house is that it did belong to the Cappello (Hat) family, from which the name Capulet derives. But that doesn’t keep the entire courtyard entrance from being covered with graffiti, the tourists from flocking to the balcony, or the shops nearby from bearing Romeo and Juliet themes. In fact, since we were there just before Valentine’s Day, the entire town was festooned with hearts.

Back soon with some more of Verona!

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Juliet’s balcony, or at least a house belonging to the Cappello family.

The attack of the furbi, Part 2

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Call it car shaming: This car I photographed in my lot today is not the one in the story, but his manner of parking is furbo nonetheless.

I said I’d tell this story once I knew the end of it, so here it is:

One morning back in early July, I went down to get in my car and found a large dent in the back.

I park it in a semi-private lot between my building and the neighboring one, fenced off from the street by an iron gate. Since it is a stone-paved area with no stripes, people frequently park askew (see above), but it’s best if everyone parks at a 45% angle, facing out, otherwise you may be obliged to make a 25-point-turn to exit. But in order to park facing out, there has be another space across the lot to nose into in order to back up into your space. So the last time I had parked, a week earlier, I had been forced to face in.

When I found my car with a basketball-sized dent in it, my first thought was, “However did anyone even have room to make such a huge dent? You’d have to be going pretty fast to achieve an impact like that!” Almost every car in the lot, including mine, has scratches on all the corners. But this was almost ballistically impossible! I made a flyer with a photo asking for information and put it on the door of each building that faces the lot, but then I had to leave, because I was trying to replace the contents of my stolen purse before I left for the US. The dent was so bad I could hear it scraping against the rear tire as I turned onto the street.

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My car on the day it was hit

When I got back from the DMV, one of my neighbors, who was leaving, said, “That was your car that got hit, right? The car that hit it was a blue one, either a Fox or an Audi. The driver was an old man who works for the accounting firm in the building next door, Mr. X. It’s the same guy who keeps knocking down the gate bar. He was hitting your car over and over again, but clearly he wasn’t all there in the head. I told him to stop, but he just ignored me. This was in the late morning or early afternoon, a week ago. I think [the car wash attendant for the garage in the alleyway] saw it too.”

I thanked him and went to take a look at the name plates on the building next door. Sure enough, there was the name he had mentioned. Later in the day, when the big building doors were open, I confirmed that it went with an office and buzzed at the entrance.

There was one problem with my comprehension of my neighbor’s story. I thought he had said,  “old woman.” The only difference was the vowel at the end. Also, unbeknownst to me, he had used a slightly disparaging term.

I told my story to the women behind the counter (all youngish and pretty) and they sort of looked at me and laughed. “Oh, there’s no old woman here,” they said. There’s the owner’s father, but he has been in the mountains since last week and he left straight from home.”

At that moment, the owner came out, and all the women gave each other a funny look. The man had an unctuous, condescending smile and a very natty suit. “There’s no old woman here,” he reassured me.

“Does your father drive a blue Fox?”

“Yes, but he left early in the morning on that day. It couldn’t have possibly been him.” And the women all closed ranks around him.

I had a familiar, infuriating feeling that I remembered from being a young woman in the Southern US. It was the feeling of working for a sexist boss or having to take your car to a repairman you didn’t trust. I could tell I was being lied to, but I didn’t quite have the mastery of Italian to catch him out and confront him. Nor, I suspected, would it do any good. It might even put him on guard. Better to approach this from another angle, I thought, and I left.

I went to my neighbor for more details. When he heard that the accountant had denied the story, he suddenly developed a very imperfect memory. And my other neighbors said, “Of course they lied. They also lied when the old man kept breaking down the gate.” One person even told me about an old woman (they used a different word this time!) in the other building who stood on her balcony watching the accountant’s father swipe cars as he tried to exit the lot. “Hey! You missed one!” she yelled after him.

The blue Fox, meanwhile, remained conspicuously absent.

So I went to the car wash attendant. He didn’t seem to know anything either, but explained my mistake about the “old woman” and pointed me to someone who actually had seen the whole thing. Someone who was willing to sign a statement. I took the statement to my insurance agent, spent my last day in Italy waiting for four hours at the immigration office for my last replacement document, the permesso (green card) I needed to re-enter legally, and then left to see my family in the US while the entire country of Italy closed down for Ferragosto.

Then, in late September, there was the Fox, with a rather interesting circular formation on its front fender. But by this time I had been assured that the insurance company had the situation under control.

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I finally received my insurance check in October, but by that time I needed to use the car daily because I was helping Sarie to move. So I got it repaired in November, four months after the hit-and-run. The repairman put a nice new bumper on it and my car was shiny and clean.

The next week, someone scratched the back bumper again. But at least it wasn’t a dent the size of a basketball. And I’m well on my way to having four matching corners again.

Etching

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It’s exam time in Italy, and though I’m not taking any, two of my classes are finishing so today I spent the entire morning printing.

The Accademia gave us continuing ed students a rather raw deal this year. Our two classes (model-drawing and etching) were scheduled for the same time, making it impossible to attend both. And etching only lasts until next week. In addition, I have been taking a medieval art history class on Wednesday afternoons, making that time slot triple-booked. Then again, this is Italy and no one seemed particularly surprised. Also the etching teacher pretended not to know things were such a mess, but that’s also pretty typical.

The fact is, when I signed up for the continuing ed course last year, I didn’t even know about the etching part of it, but I ended up enjoying it a lot. This year, not only was the time slot double-booked but the room was impossibly crowded whenever I tried to attend, so I mostly worked at home. Working at home, naturally, meant that everything else came first, so as February approached, I realized that if I didn’t finish at least one plate, I really would have wasted the whole opportunity. And so I finished it. Here’s how it looked when I took it in this morning:

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I had covered the zinc plate with a waxy coating, smoked it to give it a smooth finish, and etched it with an engraving needle. When you draw, you have to think light for dark, and mirror image. Hatching is typical for this particular process, but there are many other processes. The drawing is based on a series of cropped medieval images, of which you can see others here.

Once the drawing is ready, the plate is bathed in acid to etch it, the wax washed off with turpentine, and it’s ready to ink. I didn’t take any photos of the inking process, because it’s very messy, and it’s also crucial in determining how your final print looks. Last year, I’d spend practically an entire session inking each plate, partly because everyone had a slightly different way of doing it and I was learning from the other students at the inking table. There are spatula stages, newsprint stages, gauze stages, tissue paper stages, and Q-Tip stages. But now the inking process is one of my favorite stages, partly because it’s so social! Here was my plate this morning when I finished inking it:

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The next two photos show some students carefully placing wet printing paper over a woman’s plate, and my own plate emerging from the hand-cranked press. We have one press for forty or more students. This is part of what I meant about the room being crowded. It’s also why I arrived as the doors were opening this morning.

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I made four prints from my plate this morning between 8:30-1:00, including time spent waiting and talking to other students. Below is a detail of one of the finished prints. It wasn’t easy fitting in printmaking with everything else I’m doing right now, but I was glad I did! Now my living room wall has one more image and I can catch up on some other things. Mission accomplished.

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One last presepe

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

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

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

Things I liked about this particular presepe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here goes…

Why did I stop writing? It’s more a question, in my mind, of how I kept writing. I don’t share everything publicly, and I went through a long period (about three years) during which almost everything fell into the un-bloggable category. Eventually, however, I realized that the blog wasn’t going to make much sense if I didn’t explain at least a few things, so here I go:

I’m living alone for now. Same place. I’m attending the Accademia delle Belle Arte, teaching children English, volunteering at the merenda, and trying to figure out what’s next.

Sarie is living on her own nearby, teaching children English (at a school), still playing concerts, doing photography, and she’s still with Alberto. Alberto is still very active as well with his concerts, music composition and movies.

Bob is working, a lot. I hope it won’t always be this way.

I am Catholic. My conversion was a long process, during which I did a lot of reading and talking to people. This isn’t an apologetics blog, so I won’t be defending my decision. But if I hadn’t found the same closeness to Jesus in the Catholic Church that I had as the Protestant, rest assured that I would not have converted. And if you were my friend before, you are my friend still.

As I get my energy back a bit, I realize that I still have bloggable things to say, though I’m not sure how often I will post. Also, I have realized that blogging was more fun when I visited other people’s blogs too. I couldn’t do that for a while, but I hope to get back to it. See you soon!