Archive for the 'Italy' Category

The Siena Duomo

February 12th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel


There are so many things to show about Siena’s main duomo that it deserves a post of its own. Note that the city has a number of fantastic duomos, but we had time only for this one. The building dominates the skyline.

The facade is as complex as a coral reef. How do they keep it clean?

A while ago (1339) the builders started a major expansion; but the plague hit, Florence invaded, and the city fell on hard times. Like that weedy old car on blocks in the front yard, it never got done.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the completed portion remains, and commands excellent views of the Tuscan countryside rolling away into the distance.

Upon entering the duomo, the visitor is presented with an overwhelming sensory experience, the kind of thing that creates interference patterns on TV cameras.  Every surface crawls with designs.

Off to one side is this modest-looking doorway.  What could be inside?  It’s the Piccolomini library, an understated little project commemorating a Sienese pope. Note the dog in the painting overhead; there were quite a few dogs portrayed in the duomo.

Like I said, just a modest room dedicated to the memory of a humble servant of God. Did I mention that some of the stauary around the doorway was done by Michelangelo and his people?

The books in this library are illuminated manuscripts, lined up underneath of the gigantic panels representing scenes from the life of Pope Pius II.

Another dog. Oh yeah, there’s a pope in the painting too.  Well, actually, he’s not a pope yet in this picture, being a young man seeking his fortune. A very cocky lad with startling fashion tastes.

In the next picture, doesn’t it look the guy in the green robe is about to pin a “kick me” sign on blue robe’s back, and the audience is laughing about it?  The look on green robe’s face is priceless.  On the right, big beard is too disgusted to keep looking and averts his gaze.  Two seats away from big beard, on the other side of big beard’s red-hatted companion, sits blue hat, who looks a bit verklempt.  Someone’s been overdoing it with the Tuscan white beans, maybe?  At Blue hat’s right sits a man with a right arm attached to the wrong side of his body – or maybe that’s just an extra arm he keeps around, like a spare tire.  Something ain’t right there. Its owner seems to realize this too, and gazes at it in fascination.

The next picture answers the question: “What’s under those cardinal hats, anyway?”  Answer: a really bad haircut. Pink robe at lower left looks surprised; but maybe it’s his reaction not to the haircut, but the beehive on the pope’s head.

Your average illuminated manuscript.  Sorry about the reflections; I didn’t have a polarizer.

I can’t read Latin, so I can’t be certain, but I eventually concluded that this figure is looking up in horror at the garish ceiling.

Beautiful decorative  illuminations.

This manuscript specialized in less commonly known nativity stories.  Below: The Christ child pupates in a teepee.  The animals are furious. The angels, like embarrassed teenagers, stand stiffly with their arms crossed, like wallflower nerds at a prom. Joseph looks like a Hari Krishna, except for the haircut, which looks exactly like the pageboy haircut seen on the king of any deck of cards. Mary is stunned; this is not how things were supposed to work out!

And then, there’s this illustration, depicting the lesser-known encephalitic Christ child (also paradoxically and simultaneously suffering from micropenis and gigantism, the poor boy), and some kind of foot-fetishizing dirty old pedophile.  The Christ child sez: “Peace out, man.”

It’s interesting to note, in the next image, that bad toupees existed in the past.  Also, Mary is stoned out of her gourd.

“What did you put in your mouth?  Don’t lie to me, I saw you eat something!  You know you can’t eat your sweets until you’ve eaten your meat.”  The resentmentnon the kid’s face is one of the most perfectly executed things I saw in Italy.

Continuing the trend shown in human figures, and obviously painted by someone who had never actually seen a dolphin, is this excellent rendition of the rare, encephalitic, duck-billed, eared dolphin-snake. What I like about this is that despite the fact that the artist was really stretching here – painting things he’d only heard about – his skill is evident; the result is at least as compelling as if it were anatomically accurate (if for no other reason than freakishness).


Siena 2011

February 02nd, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel



Opening the shutters in our room  at the Hotel Porto Romana in Siena,this unremarkable sunrise was revealed:

Nothing to see here; go back to bed.

Later, the fog lifted, unveiling a glorious dei.

After a short walk, we entered the old city via the Hotel’s namesake, the gate named “Porto Romana.”

Immediately, the ancient streets captured our hearts. Buildings grow around the remains of previous structures the way old trees grow around a fencepost.  Over millenia, as the city grew, it overtook old fortifications and crept beyond them, incorporating them into houses and buildings. Cultures came and went; languages peaked like waves and then receded. Yet some things remained; a couple of words from a forgotten tongue; food invented by ancestors hundreds of years gone; religious celebrations warped beyond recognition and although now unquestioned, oddly out of line with current practices. As with the culture, generations of repairs and impromptu modifications shaped the city in an organic way; you can never tell what lies around a corner; regularity is not the norm.  This quality fills the traveler with curiosity and rewards the idle wanderer.

Passing an unremarkable open door, I glanced inside to see an aged library.  Alas, I am illiterate in Italy; yet the books and their specialized chamber attract me.  At one time, men wearing silk stockings and wigs must have had servants hold candles for them as they read the precious volumes.  I have no idea what is going on here, except that it seems to be featuring Garibaldi and the revolution.

What is this thing? The patron saint of the block?  A symbol of the section of the city (the city is split into nine distinct  regions)?

Midaevil ironwork abounds; torch holders and horse tethers are all over.  I’m guessing that this well-adorned spot was the equivalent of the CEO’s reserved parking space.

Stuff like this doesn’t last forever; it has to be preserved.  Kudos to the Sienese for valuing and preserving this for the rest of us to enjoy!

The narrow winding streets make cars difficult, although I did see the occasional huge SUV lumbering around.  Scooters are more practical; Italians love their scooters.

They really like them.

The city’s main plaza, the Piazza del Campo.  It isn’t just pretty to look at; it’s the central focus of public life.

Once of the major museums in the city is the old hospital – the Santa Maria della Scala.  You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I snuck a few anyway (and was scolded). Here is the chapel – despite its spectacular decoration, not a major attraction in town; just one of many such things.  The old hospital museum also holds a particularly magnificent slaughter of the innocents – the subject of an earlier post.

On market day we went to the open-air bazaar that is held near the enormous fortezza (fortress) at the outskirts of town.  From here you can look back and see Siena from afar.  You can buy almost anything there, although food, clothing, and flowers were the bulk of it.

Late that evening we went to one of the nicer restaurants in Siena, Antica Osteria da Divo.  The restaurant is built in a structure occupied since Etruscan times; as you dine, you are surrounded by walls that predate the Romans.  It’s impossible not to wonder what those walls have seen.  And yes, the food and service was great, a suitable accompaniment to a day of taking in great visual art and architecture.

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Mountain towns in the Chianti region

January 31st, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel

Instead of using a tour operator, we’d decided to rent a car and go where we pleased – a great idea.  We did do a lot of driving though – and It’s true what they say about Italian drivers.  For the most part they seemed in control of their vehicles – not necessarily talking on the phone like Americans; but they drove with abandon.  I imagine that a typical Italian driver thinks something fatalistic like “If I’m going to die, I’ll die; but if my number hasn’t come up, I’ll be fine.”  This is true of drivers and pedestrians.  And somehow, because everyone is in tiny little cars, zooming around feels almost cute, like we were all driving clown cars.

Anyway, although we did use trains to get to Florence, we drove everywhere else.  This was great not only because we made our own schedule, but because we got to see the true face of Tuscany – not just the tourist places, but the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I liked it.

Leaving our base at Monticatini Terme, we drove northeast and spent a day exploring the northern mountains a little.  Then we drove south, passed through San Miniato, stayed in Siena, and continued to points south and east: San Gimignano, Volterra, Montalcino, and some other places we passed through but I can’t remember.  The place is lousy with mountaintop walled towns that look like something out of “Lord of the Rings.”  In between is beautiful agricultural land, small chunks of forest, and occasionally, an unremarkable ordinary town that for one reason or the other, has modernized completely.

Here’s Rachel at Montalcino, where we did some great wine tasting.  I promise that’s not just a backdrop!

It’s hard to believe that the US fought the Nazis here.  In San Miniato, where we went to find truffle-laden food, we learned that the Germans had blown up the large old tower of the town because of its usefulness as an artillery direction position.  The people of San Miniato have rebuilt it and it looks perfect.

San Miniato is the site of an annual truffle festival.  We were a week early, but figured that there had to be some truffles there anyway.  We arrived late, maybe 9, but dinner was just getting started.  It is a tiny place and there were only two restaurants.  We looked at the menu; some have English but this did not.  For some reason I thought I’d know the word for truffle when I saw it, but that was not the case.  Instead, the thing was full of Tartufo dishes.  Tartufo this, tartufo that.  No truffles though.  We walked away.  Then it occurred to me… Rachel looked it up in her book: of course, tartufo = truffle (duh!).  We went back and had a memorable meal.  I had tartufo brasceola di cavallo (horse salami with truffles, new olive oil, and really nasty parmesian).  It was fantastic in a pungent way.  Truffles impart a fungal overtone, but they make up for it with a wonderful buttery, subtle base of flavor that cannot be described; it is partially nasal in experience. Rachel had something sublime, but I cannot recall what it was.  The house wine was excellent (that was always the case in Tuscany).

So – back to Montalcino, famous for its Brunello and Rosso wine varieties.  We went to two places and tried probably 25 wines.  In one high-tech place, the bottles were held in machines which dispensed a couple of tablespoons after receiving your credit card.  You simply carried a glass around with you from machine to machine while chatting with one of the wine shop workers.  The one we spoke with was in his early 20s but had lived there all his life, and had a sophistication (about wines) like that of the most seasoned sommelier in Manhattan, yet because he had grown into it, there wasn’t an air of snobbery; it was just the way he was.  In most cases, he knew the people who made the wine, and what made one year’s crop different from another’s, in an intimate and detailed way.  Here is the view from that place:

Here’s what I learned about Brunello and Rosso wine: I don’t like it.  But I did like finding that out in this way!

Montalcino is another one of those places with a castle (well, really a fortezza, to be technical) at the end of the street.

We ate at this restaurant, lie most, tucked away in an unassuming alley.  The food and house wine was fantastic; I had boar in risotto and Rachel had, I believe, some sort of gnocchi.  When the waiter came to pour our wine, he used a beautiful glass aerator, which looks like a piece of laboratory glassware, perhaps a condenser of some sort.  A cluster of 20 Japanese women sitting nearby exclaied “ooooooooh!” in unison, and began taking pictures; we were immortalized.

Here I am looking spiffy in the leather jacket mentioned in an earlier post.

Ah, Tuscany in the fall… most of the gold and red colors in those fields is due to grape vines turning.

Volterra was one of the most beautiful and interesting towns; not too touristy, and it hads a little but of everything.  It has the same kind of medieval feel that Siena does, and it also has a truly ancient Estruscan archway that pre-dates the Romans.  There are 3 heads on this arch but they have been completely eroded away (I wonder if that happened recently, because of acid rain, or if it was vandalized in the last 2000 years).

This spectacular castle is now a prison – a modern prison.  No boring cinder block camp for Tuscans; it’s “into the dungeon with him!”  You can really be locked up in a tower here.  It seems like there was a certain utilitarian lack of imagination involved in taking this beautiful castle and making it into a prison, but what do I know?  There’s something to be said for continuity of purpose.  Like everything else here, even the prison is beautiful.  You could hold weddings here!

The gate on the other end of the street with the Etruscan arch.  I think this one is merely from 1200.

Roman ruins just outside that gate – an amphitheater and bath complex.

Here’s San Gimignano from a couple of miles away.  In bewteen the farm fire and the town is… a prison.  The density of prisons seems pretty high here!

As you enter the gate you see the famous towers.  During the middle ages, towers were prestigious and every family wanted to have the largest.  The contest is comical, like the barber chair scene in Chaplain’s “The great dictator.”

From these tower’s tops, the 360-degree view is astonishing.  The architecture frames the countryside, glowing with fall colors on the vines and trees.



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A modest grave is all I need

January 28th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel

When I die, please inter me in something like this:

OK, OK, I understand, money might be tight, and perhaps we’d need to lose the virgins of truth and justice, or whatever they are, flanking the idealized figure of what was probably in reality a debauched old man. How about one like this?

Can’t you just picture me there with my family crest, totally absorbed in a book…

…archly staring down anyone who would dare to interrupt my Olympian greatness?  Regardless, I’m going to set to work immediately, building myself a platform like that to read on, complete with Greek arch in the background.

Yeah, I’m sure the guy looked just like that.

OK, that one’s still kind of pricey, and you might not happen to have a good photograph of me lying around in a toga reading a book to give to the sculptor.  How about this one?  It looks a lot cheaper.  I think the least I deserve is a weeping virgin burning a torch for me.   ‘Cause when the G-man shuffles off this mortal coil, you know that virgins everywhere are gonna be devastated.

Oh, all right.  I get it.  It’s going to be a budget funeral for me.  Let me rot a while, then dig up my bones and put them in pretty boxes (Ossuary is the word for a bone box, in case you wanted to know).

I will even agree to share a cabinet with the others.

All of these images were collected in Pisa at the Camposanto.

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Florence 2011

January 28th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel

Arriving in Florence at night by train, we took a taxi to the B&B Il Bargello, a fantastic place tucked away in a little alley near its namesake museum.  Here is the view from its rooftop veranda.

Being yet early, and totally stimulated with the fact of being in Florence, we went out for a walk.  The B&B is only 5 minutes from the Uffizi and just about everything else that you try to see when you’re only in Florence for 48 hours, and Italians don’t even begin to eat dinner until 7 or 8 PM anyway. The Palazzo della Signoria museum was open until midnight.  Here is a view of the famous tower from the courtyard inside.

Looking for a particular restaurant, we went over the famous Ponte Vecchio.  Google had mislead us; we wandered in confusion for a long time before stumbling across the place after giving up on it.  It turned out to be a non-touristy little hole in the basement with fantastic food.

Here’s the same bridge in the daytime, from the south end of the Uffizi:

Walking around in a small alley, I’d occasionally see things like this, seemingly stuck in a wall with no introduction or explanation:

The door to our B&B. Italian doorknobs tend to be in the middle of the door, and massive, impressive doors like this are completely ordinary.  Looking at the doors and windows, it seems as if Italians are prepared to fend off not just thieves, but perhaps paramilitary groups with battering rams.  I guess this is left over from the preceding troubled centuries (including the 20th); why change now?

We were delivered by taxi from the train station, a ride I will never forget.  Our driver careened around corners, scattering pedestrians, and coming within perhaps 6 inches of crushing a woman with a baby carriage.  Neither the driver or the woman seemed to notice.  There are no real sidewalks and everyone walks where they want.  There are no stoplights either; it’s simmering chaos and everybody looks out for himself!  The crosses, beads, and deodorizers hanging from the taxi’s mirror formed an inclinometer that spent much of its time at the extreme positions.  Later, speaking to the Canadian woman who runs the B&B, I asked if the skills of Florentine drivers were commensurately greater in order to compensate for the conditions.  I was told that no, there are a lot of accidents, specially in the rain.

The alley of our B&B was so small that you could probably jump to the other side.

The tower of the Palazzo della Signoria looms over the north porch of the Uffizi.

All over Tuscany I noted the torch holders (and horse tethers?) that are still preserved on walls.

One evening we decided to walk up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, accessible from downtown via a beautiful long stairway.  The climb is worth the view, and along the way you pass through the old medieval walls of the city.  It was a great place to watch the sun set.

We enjoyed a little time in a wine bar, where we were first served lardo – which is just what it sounds like – on toasted bread with fresh olive oil.  It sounds horrifying, but it was good, as was the wine.  Wine bars, or Enoteca, are everywhere in Tuscany, and you can usually get snacks to go with the wine.  A good night consists or roaming around the city, selecting a nice enoteca and spending some time there waiting for it to get late enough to eat dinner – maybe around 8 – finding a good place to eat, and leaving your chosen restaurant after 11.

One of the market stalls in the big market, where everything imaginable is sold.

I didn’t bargain for food, but for everything else, it is expected. I bought a really nice leather jacket here after an extended bargaining session. The price tag on the jacket was almost 700 euros.

Me: “How much for the jacket?”

Arab Salesman: “Let me tell you what, my friend, business is slow – for you, only 600 euros.”

Me:”I’ve seen this same kind of jacket in other stalls for only 15o euros.”

Arab Salesman: “My friend, they look the same, but the quality is different!  You look like a man of taste, my friend, who understands quality.  Feel this skin, my friend.  You see?  It is buttery soft.  For you, today,my friend, only 500 euros.”

Me:”Well, I like your store, and because you’re such a reputable businessman, I’m willing to pay more than the other place, but not this much.  175 Euros.”

Arab Salesman:”You drive a hard bargain!  I tell you what (looking around, conspiratorially)… don’t tell my boss, I give eet to you for only 300.  My friend, you not find better bargain in all Florence.”

Me:”Look, I’ve got 200 here (I take it out and show it to him).  I’ll give this to you, I walk out with the jacket.”

Arab Salesman: “We’re in business here… what  kind of man would I be if i didn’t bring home enough money to feed my children? 250.”

Me:”OK, I guess I’ll take a walk and think about it.”

Arab Salesman”My friend, my friend,  no!  wait, I get my boss.” He scampered away and returned with a scary, humorless man who was a tougher bargainer.

… and so it went.  I held out and got it for 200, which I think was a good – perhaps not a great – price, but far less than what I’d pay for Italian leather in the USA.  The theater of the bargain was worth a few euros just for the entertainment alone!

Later, more art: here’s the most famed statue in Italy.  I could write a huge blog post about the museums we saw, but that’s been done by other bloggers and authors.  Suffice it to say that the Uffizi and the Accademia are all they’re cracked up to be, and that one per day was as much as my feet and my mind could handle.  I could have spent a week at each museum, and wanted to see many others that we just couldn’t fit in – including the Bargello next door to the B&B.  Not trying to do more was a good decision; there will always be a reason to return; I’ll remember more of what I did see, and I didn’t spend all of my time in museums and cathedrals.  It is impossible to quantify the importance of walking and driving around not only the special districts, but the more prosaic ones that gave me a feel for what it’s really like in Tuscany.

Florence’s main cathedral.  On this trip, we made a decision to not go into every cathedral, no matter how enticing, because of a lack of time.  So we only saw the outside of this one.

This stone plaque memorializing an important patron of the arts in Renaissance Florence is now overshadowed by the McDonald’s in the first floor (it is just above and to the right of the McDonald’s sign).  Everything in downtown Florence is so historical and special that prosaic life goes on in the midst of it.


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Tuscan street scenes

January 26th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel

Here’s a bunch of images that give a flavor of the surroundings in Tuscan towns.  A couple of observations: These people know how to make serious doors and windows, they like bright paint, and they like masonry.  It works.

One of the things I like most about so many of these images is that you can see how many times the walls/doors/windows have been modified over the centuries.  The buildings are changing constantly through time, with new generations building on top of the works of the past.  It reminds me of a coral reef.

Another element of these places is the ubiquitous inviting, mysterious passageway, often a tunnel, sometimes just an alley, with an enticing scrap of a view of the fantastic something that lies beyond:

Here are some fantastic archways and doors.  Nothing unusual for the region; even small alleys have dozens of doors that look like stage props from an opera.




Finally, Here are some catch-all images that are the kinds of things you see about every 100 feet while walking around.  Here’s a courtyard from the 1400s.  These kinds of things are everywhere, usually uncelebrated and if there is signage at all, it is understated; they’re a dime a dozen.

Below is an Etruscan arch that’s over 2000 years old.  But it’s not important enough to have a sign or anything.  If there were signs on everything noteworthy, the place would be encrusted with signs hiding the actual objects of interest.

Many average streets have a castle at the end:

A building like this one is perfectly ordinary (I think it’s a high school):

An up-scale, but not unusual specialty grocery:

Fall-colored vines creep up medieval houses still lived in by citizens of the town.

Comparatively modern (17th century) houses with beautiful gardens:

And finally, that most ubiquitous thing, the cigarette: eveybody’s doin’ it, as if cancer doesn’t happen in Italy.  It’s the one thing I suspect most Americans won’t like when visiting, although at least they also do it only outside.




Italy 2011:Lucca

January 09th, 2012 | Category: Italy,Travel

After setting up in Montecatini, where we had a hotel, we stopped for the day in Lucca, a beautifully preserved city not far from Pisa where we had one of our most memorable meals – which is really saying something, since we were in Tuscany.  Spectacular meals were literally a daily experience.  As we were there in the harvest season,  all kinds of special foods at their ripest and most desirable state: white truffles, cheeses, sausages, vegetables, and of course, wines.  Our lunch was at Osteria Via San Giorgio, a family restaurant- as are most restaurants and businesses in Italy.

The lack of overwhelming corporate presence was something I really enjoyed throughout our stay.  According to recent statistics, 70% of Italy’s GDP comes from small businesses, which is supposed to be part of their current financial difficulty; small businesses don’t grow fast enough to fuel the kind of economic engine that turns on economists.   This makes me wonder about debate in our country, in which I continually hear about how small businesses are so important to our economy and that we need to encourage them.  Something doesn’t match up here.

Anyway, on to the pictures of Lucca!  The old city is completely surrounded by unbelievably massive 17th-century fortress walls covered with large old hardwood trees and a path as broad as a large highway, really a promenade.  The fortifications are complex and fascinating.  Walking around up there, I tried to imagine how it would have felt to be completely surrounded by an enemy while everyone in your family – perhaps everyone you knew – and everything you owned, was inside and under threat.  Anyone trying to attack this place would be in serious trouble, not only from the impressive defenses but also from determined local soldiers who had the ultimate incentive.

The city itself is  charming, well-preserved antiquity teeming with people going about their lives in cobbled streets worn with the patterns of hundreds of years of traffic.

Doors like this are very common.



Slaughter of the Innocents (Or, why Red is the Christmas color?)

December 25th, 2011 | Category: Italy,Travel

As it’s Christmas, it seems only fitting that I post something Christ-related.

Jesus was a citizen of Judea, which was run by king Herod, an SOB widely castigated by writers of the time and foully remembered throughout history. He was a Saddam Hussein-like figure, and although the census of his victims has been exaggerated for propaganda purposes, accounts of his savagery are likely accurate in tone if not in fact.

A much publicized escapade of this fellow was to order the death of all children under the age of two.  This was his reaction to learning, supposedly, that the next king of the Jews (his replacement, he thought) would be born in Judea, and it couldn’t have helped that the astrologers who predicted the event refused to cough up the ID of the individual in question – knowing that the populace, not generally pleased with their murderous Roman-puppet overlord, would be subversively pleased at the news that Herod’s replacement was among them and the substitution imminent – hope for the weary,as it were.

So, as any psychopathic bloodthirsty absolute monarch would do, he figured he’d put money on all horses, and kill all newborns, and anyone up to the age of two, because he was a thorough kind of guy.  You don’t get to be king by being sloppy.

Because these unfortunate kids were the first to die for Christ-related reasons, they are seen as a stand-in for all Christian martyrs, and for unearned suffering in general.  They’re used as a kind of guilt-trip and self-aggrandizing symbol: “You see how we’re persecuted?  And see what’s required of true Christians?”

On my 2011 trip to Italy, I saw numerous representations of this incident – known generally as the slaughter (or massacre) of the innocents.  It’s been the subject of innumerable paintings, frescoes, friezes, drawings, dramas, sculptures, poems, and any other form of art you’d care to mention.  Somewhere, there’s probably a cake decorated with this motif (note to self…).

I’d like to share two of them with you, both seen in Siena.  I saw some in Florence too, but I didn’t want to get my hand slapped for taking a picture in the Uffizi, or was too exhausted to care. First, a masterwork by Matteo di Giovanni, who was doing his thing in the 1400s.  What I like about this painting, in addition to the evident skill, is the depraved look on Herod’s face, and the gruesome ugliness so typical of art from the Middle Ages.  It was hanging in a dark hallway of the old hospital of Saint Maria of the Stairs (Santa maria della Scala) in Siena, which is now a museum.

Note the voyeurs on the stairs in the background, faces filled with excitement.

Herod is absolutely getting off on this, exhorting his troops to amp up the bloodshed.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was watching his team score a touchdown seconds before the end of a game.  Herod was the kind of guy who’d really have enjoyed the pony show in Juarez.

Although I’m captivated by Giovanni’s ability to depict depravity, his ability – or more likely, his willingness – to depict horror and pain are attenuated.  For some reason, there’s a strange kind of drugged passivity to a lot of Medieval and early renaissance art, with suffering toned down or smoothed out, as if it was too controversial or unsightly.  I need to learn more about this, because it’s too universal to be an accident.  Check out this mother holding her kid:

Instead of what you’d expect of someone who’s just witnessed her baby being pithed, it looks like she’s suffering the slight discomfort of passing a little gas.  The baby’s face has a kind of grisly reality to it, and I suspect that the artist was pretty familiar with violent death.  In the 15th century, life and death were not so far apart, or sanitized like today.

Apart from any of this, I think it’s interesting that Herod’s robes have a starkly geometric pattern usually associated with modern desert camo or Navajo decorations.

An even better example of this sanitized expressionality can be seen on the floor of the main duomo (Cathedral) in Siena, where there is another slaughter of the innocents, this time carved into the stone of the floor.

But in this example, rather than looking mildly pained, they look positively delighted to be participating.

Rather than an abattoir thick with the cries of anguished parents, this appears to be a scene of convivial bonhomie.  My imagined script for this scene: “John?  Long time no see buddy.  How’s it going?  Watch your step, don’t slip on the corpses.  Oh, no bother, I’ll just slip a quick dirk into him – mind the gore, there’s a good chap. No need for thanks – say hi to the missus for me!  Pardon me, madam – let me get that for you.  Oh yes, delightful weather, isn’t it? Oh, don’t try to clean up, just drop it on the floor with the others, I’ll have my people get it.”

The artists, and the patrons that paid them to make these things, succeeded in transmitting a message through hundreds of years.  It’s a future they couldn’t possibly have imagined.  In some ways they’ve succeeded as well as they could have hoped, creating a work of lasting value and visual beauty that brought prestige to their church, city, and selves; but I doubt they intended to send us this coded message about themselves.  Why would you depict such a scene of horror with slack or even happy faces?  Were styles of facial expression so different that what appears now as amusement seemed then like horror or surprise?  Or was it deemed not suitable to show true horror, as if it was pornographic, or too strong for the general public?


Tuscany 2011 – Pisa

December 21st, 2011 | Category: Italy,Travel

Rachel and I went to Tuscany in the winter and had a great time.  In these posts, I’m keeping notes for myself, as well as telling a story for my friends and family to see.

We flew from Phoenix, transferring in Salt Lake City and Paris, landing in Pisa.  I have been around the world and have seen a lot of airports, but had never been through Charles de Gaulle airport before.  I was amazed; it seemed like the largest airport I’ve ever seen, although statistically, I’ve been in busier airports – but gauging by appearances alone, I was impressed.  It seemed to go on and on; our enormous 767 aircraft taxied past multiple gates, each large enough to be an airport all by itself.  We were herded through EU customs, then flew the last leg to Pisa, arriving at dinnertime after an exhausting 19 or so hours of travel.  Pisa is a small airport, like Flagstaff or Panama City, FL.

We checked into the excellent Hotel Bologna (90 Euros, wifi, excellent free breakfast, evening snacks, bar, and in a charming old part of the city near restaurants – plus, they have a complementary shuttle to/from the airport or train station). Then, we had dinner and walked around a little.

The next day, we walked across the river Arno in the daylight on our way to the leaning tower.

Along the way we passed the street market.  Let the bargaining begin!  Later, we found that Florence and Siena had better markets, and this one (the daily one) was mostly tourist fare (plenty of cool stuff though).

The Piazza dei Miracoli, which is the complex housing the leaning tower, is surrounded by a crenelated wall, and also has a cathedral, a baptistry that looks like a giant chocolate truffle, and the Camposanto, which is a “monumental Cemetery” filled with medieval sculpture and frescoes.  It was badly damaged during WW II, and the restoration continues to this day.  The Camposanto was something I’d wanted to see for a long time.

We were walking around, looking for the tower, consulting the map… and then looked up and said “Oh!”

First, the tower: That thing has some serious lean to it. If you stand at the base of it and touch it with your forehead, your feet will be a foot away from it.  It really looks like it’s going to fall over; and yet, a few years ago, the Italians made the lean less radical to save the building.  I can’t imagine what it looked like before they adjusted it.

Then, back down the narrow and winding stairway, traveled by countless people since they started building it before 1200.

Having limited time – isn’t that always the case – we had to decide between the Camposanto and the other buildings.  So, we didn’t see the cathedral or baptistry.  Next time.

In the Camposanto, there is a hushed atmosphere appropriate for a cemetery, which is what it is.  Inside, you can stand around on graves from the 1200s.  Once, People with names like Gallitus and Damiana lived and worked their lives in this city; now I can tread upon their graves for my idle amusement.

The beautiful frescoes were almost completely destroyed during WWII, when the US bombed German positions in Pisa.  It’s amazing that there’s anything left at all, once you’ve seen pictures of the wreckage.

Here are the tortured souls in the lake of fire, or something like that.  Reminds me of some jobs I’ve had. Note the pitchforks poking the people on the left side; they must have been having too much fun.

Someone’s bones in an ossuary.

The cathedral, and in the foreground, the baptistry.

Rachel stands at the foot of the cathedral.  Note the writing on the granite column behind her; the builders reclaimed that handy Roman marble lying around.



A note about Gate 1 travel: I’ll use them again.  The trip was exactly as advertised, the price was excellent, was customizable, and we were very happy with it.

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