LUCCA & CAMOGLI, May 2000 , crab, in a sand pail, and I took their pictures. They played chess the next day with their dog and I snapped them again. The Man-With-Yellow-Boots had worked on cruise lines and once lived in Florida. He came to watch us paint often, and offered suggestions. A few hardy painters hiked up the steps for nearly an hour to Monasterio San Prospero, high on a cliff overlooking town. The Benedictine White Fathers are there, and the view is
I went to Italy several times during our four expat years. Soon after we moved, my 6 AM flight landed at Malpensa Airport in Milano. I spotted the “Flying Colors” sign as I exited Arrivals and introduced myself, pulling two bags. The grinning lady under the sign hooted and shouted, “and I’m Joanie Covell!” I shrieked as we hugged. We'd once been young Navy wives in Charleston SC, thin, raising little kids, with husbands endlessly under the sea. I especially remember modeling in elegant fashion shows when we earned manicures and coiffures; we hadn't met since! Joan contacted everyone but me prior to the trip, saving the surprise. We’ve morphed into happy grannies, with wider hips and a few wrinkles. She's an excellent painter, and time living on base in Sardinia earned Italian skills that we all prized on the trip. Fortunately, two important words in Italian are easy to learn: Gelato! Cappuccino! My favorite flavors are pistache and nicciola. Chocolate is a close third. Una cona a day keeps the blues away!
We met students and teachers, set up easels on shady sides of Lucca’s ancient squares, climbed rugged stone stairways for terra cotta roof views under brilliant sunny skies, and painted, painted, painted, learning to look harder and see more and translate feeling into a brushstroke. (Dammit, it's harder than it looks!) Oh, how I love it.
Our bus drove past Carrara and Michelangelo’s rugged marble mountains before we spent a week in ancient walled Lucca. Our hotel was near Puccini’s home and San Michele church and piazza. The white church façade is adorned with numerous thin marble columns, each carved and striated differently, some rising above the church’s roof in a false front, like an old western saloon decorated in white sugar frosting. The hotel wasn’t air conditioned and had no lift, but proved convenient and very comfortable, with large windows and ceiling fans. Barbara from Arkansas was my roommate. We had breakfast each morning around the corner at an outdoor café, where the owner and his wife squeezed fresh oranges for delicious sweet juice, served with cappuccino and dolce-- a sweet roll.
You’d think we would hear lots of Puccini, but that wasn’t so. Yet Joe Cocker had a local gig, and we showed up for the last strains before walking on the wide town wall with many others, particularly the young. Other performers scheduled after we left were Natalie Cole, Buena Vista Social Club, and Lionel Richie. Jazz and organ music were scheduled too, and the 46th Puccini Festival with three operas. Those old stone squares reverberate with music new and old.
When we arrived, Italy had lost the Euro Cup 2000 in the finals, amid hoopla and TV. Crowds were gathered around every set in homes, bars, and storefronts, and shouted hurrahs and groans rang from everywhere.
Lucca is a city of a hundred churches, and we explored quite a few. There is also an old aqueduct and moat. Our group took a city bus to medieval Barga on the fourth of July, passing the picturesque Devil’s Bridge en route, its arches perfectly reflected into a circle below it strikingly. I think we climbed leventy-leven million stairs to the top of that steep hilltop town. Our reward was an incredible view of faraway blue-violet mountains under sunny skies. (This while carrying water, easels, paper, cameras and brush cases. Bitch, bitch.) We painted on the plaza in front of the cathedral, Chiesa San Christoforo, there for about a thousand years, and had lunch in a charming shaded hilltop restaurant dripping with wisteria and mixed colors of red, pink, and orange geraniums. That afternoon again at the base of the hill, I stopped at a hardware store where a man fixed my easel, missing a screw, for only a smile in payment.
After a gelato fix, our teacher Carl Dalio photographed each of the wrinkled old men sitting in front of the small grocery store. “Permisso?” They smiled and seemed quite pleased at this interruption to their discussions. Their cool dark cave of a store held tall open burlap sacks of nuts and dried beans lined up by the meat counter, over which swung enormous smoked hams, each about four feet long. Butchers expertly slice from these with long sharp knives. Cheeses and prepared foods combine with meat smells to create rich olfactory orgasms that tantalized us repeatedly throughout the trip. Barga also has its opera festival, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and is near an extraordinarily photogenic old bridge arching over the river. Permisso is what you say, instead of scusi, to pass through a crowd. I’ve gotta learn Italian subito. Now! My Italian is limited and riddled with mistakes. On the Barga bus ride home, a man across the aisle earnestly pointed out towns to me in halting English, and then I spoke with a young man behind me who had lived in England before returning to this area he loved. (He pooh-poohed the lumber company we were passing since it made only toilet paper and paper towels.) Meeting Italians was wonderful.
Many students took the train to Florence for a day, with time at the Uffizi, the Boboli Gardens across the Ponte Vecchio, or St. Michele, the old grain storage with niche statues of patron saints of the guilds, and of course, the wonderful cathedral topped with Brunelleschi’s red tile dome under the crowning lantern. Ghiberti’s bronze baptistery doors, which Michelangelo labeled “Gates of Paradise,” were matched by the splendor of the mosaic domed ceiling inside. The striped green and white marble building was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, patron of the city, and boasts earlier bronze side doors by Pisano. That red dome is visible for miles!
Fellow painter Tom mapped out the entire ceiling of the church dome in his sketchbook, which took hours. His past as a UT architecture professor and his strong work ethic brought forth amazing sketchbook results, in quality and quantity. Carl had never been to Italy, so it was fun seeing his reactions. We had lunch while chatting with a Dutch couple, enthusiastic campers who love Italy.
The Medici symbol of white balls on a shield was everywhere in evidence in the region, as was the fleur de lis. It announced Florence’s power in wool and money, the gold florin, used in commerce throughout Europe. Lulu indulged her passion for jewelry, and Madelaine, a California docent, appeared in a wonderful new beige linen outfit. We usually painted in town squares near churches, such as San Christoforo, with lions’ heads high on either side of the entry and, I later learned, rods imbedded in the wall to measure ancient embroidery threads. A lively old man came out and gave us postcards of his building, explaining haltingly that he lived on the second piano, floor. One day we climbed to the top of the ancient red brick Guinigi family tower, for a lesson in perspective. The wind whipped past as we viewed the world far below and watched Carl’s diagrams and dotted lines. There once were several towers like this, with trees growing from the top, but others have been demolished. The family palazzo was attached, next door, and long ago these towers were connected by wooden ramps.
Supposedly in the Middle Ages over 130 towers filled the town, even more numerous than churches! Streets must have been filled with priests and monks, and all of these side altars kept busy. I noted in The Rise and Fall of the Medici that it was common to atone for sin by erecting a huge chapel while there was still time. Bigger chapels for bigger sinners?
We visited the town’s art store near the old Roman amphitheater, where Joanie negotiated us a ticket discuenta, and painted from atop the ancient walls as chatty hikers and bikers stopped to examine our work. On market day, we visited merchants bustling under big shady umbrellas, and I bought a belt, which the vendor fitted on the spot. I watched a gnarled old knife sharpener bent over his wheel under a shade tree. His contraption dripped water onto his whetting stone, a drop at a time, as he whirled the handle to turn the stone. He had a very large nose slightly dripping sweat, a graying pageboy haircut, and an old brown felt hat pulled over his face and ears; he was a painting in itself. Nearby, other stall workers burst into a line or two of an aria. It is impressive how much pure physicality everything takes here, whether walking up flights of steps, baking - with heavy sacks of flour - or lifting goods to sell under the awnings. Hundreds of shoe boxes or piles of tablecloths or Pokeman shirts must be moved daily. (Camille spotted a lady shaking a swank Mephisto shoe box for alms!) Streets are often swept with twig brooms by little old ladies in black dresses; they must have the constitution of an ox.
For our second week of the workshop, we took a charter coach to the seaside town of Camogli, perched above the beach near an old medieval harbor. Not all our rooms offered brilliant blue and aqua seaside views, but Barbara and I were lucky to have one, which made the climb up 3 flights worth the effort. We stopped at Pisa en route, and even crowded, it was exciting to revisit that elaborate cathedral. Th, crab, in a sand pail, and I took their pictures. They played chess the next day with their dog and I snapped them again. The Man-With-Yellow-Boots had worked on cruise lines and once lived in Florida. He came to watch us paint often, and offered suggestions. A few hardy painters hiked up the steps for nearly an hour to Monasterio San Prospero, high on a cliff overlooking town. The Benedictine White Fathers are there, and the view is re a tipsy bell tower? Pisa got rich from making ships for the Crusades, and warriors brought loot from the wars to their hometowns. Now the cathedral makes the town rich. From Camogli, we visited Porto Fino at the next train stop and picnicked, a delightful and tasty feast of nut breads, cheese, meats and ripe fruit, washed down with fine vino rosso. I dabbled my feet in the water from the stone harbor step, trying to ease a blistered toe I’d acquired the day before on the hike we made along the five towns of Cinque Terre. In front of me bobbed little fishing boats amid yachts fit for Ari and Jackie. If life gets better, I don’t want to know! Instead of riding back by train, we hired laughing white-haired Captain Johnny and his craft to whisk eight of us past tall rocky cliffs, some festooned with swirling sea birds or ancient remote monasteries. Johnny never stopped smiling, we never stopped taking photos, and the sun never stopped shining on the brilliant blue sea and ochre cliffs.
Camogli is a comfortable town, with a small stony beach, a medieval church and harbor, plus shops and restaurants, some on the water. The Gucci and Hermes shops are all in Porto Fino, which is immaterial for painters, since there is little time to shop anyway. In a children’s play area, kiddies can be swallowed by a huge moving plastic whale. Several lively boys proudly showed me their captured granchio, crab, in a sand pail, and I took their pictures. They played chess the next day with their dog and I snapped them again. The Man-With-Yellow-Boots had worked on cruise lines and once lived in Florida. He came to watch us paint often, and offered suggestions. A few hardy painters hiked up the steps for nearly an hour to Monasterio San Prospero, high on a cliff overlooking town. The Benedictine White Fathers are there, and the view is bellissimo, said an Italian enthusiast who watched us paint and urged us to go there.
Each new day for me meant a run to the window for the view, and one day at 6, I spied Karen walking on the quiet street below me. I joined her on a park bench and drew silently in my new sketchbook, a gift from son Patrick. In the Cinque Terre, we hiked rough paths and stairs between three of the pink and ochre towns before we took the train to yet another. A church in Vernazza dates from 1318, and the tower in Corniglia was built in the sixteenth century by the Republic of Genoa. The sea was incredibly rough that day, with 30 foot waves leaping across the huge breakwalls and tossing boats around even inside the protected harbor. All the townspeople came to watch, since no one could fish. I have new respect for Poseidon. However, a day later, Carl and I swam for a long time in gorgeous blue and aqua calm water. It’s so salty that you’re buoyed up the instant you get in. The only problem is getting out! The little gray beach stones tear into tender feet, while strong waves buffeting your calves before sucking you backward into the sea. I now know the value of rubber sea shoes!
On our last day our class all painted at Santa Margherita, the train stop where the day before we’d picked up the Porto Fino bus. Again, we viewed the beautiful harbor and the mountains beyond. A chill wind drove us inside for lunch to a cozy restaurant Janice had found. She journals and researches as her husband paints: he illustrates her books in Austin. He is designing a church addition, and, if I’m lucky, will design a workspace for me when we move back. Our professore Carl sometimes paints with us. Children and tourists from many countries gather to watch, or tell us which of their relatives paints too, and in what medium. But the children are invariably bug-eyed, whispering, “Oooh, bella! Bella!” Carl has taken to inquiring, “Nome?” and they all reply quickly and softly, “Violetta,” or “Eduardo,” often with a sibling or parent nearby. (Grandparents are Nana and Nono.) Carl discusses colors with them, asking names, or asks something else, and when they go on, he slaps his forehead and loudly cries “Non capisco!!” which invariably results in paroxysms of laughter and delighted squeals, and leads to more happy misunderstandings. Sometimes he takes out postcard watercolor paper and paints for them, including their name and his signature. He is a terrific draughtsman and colorist. This invariably earns rounds of applause from the spellbound crowd and quick kisses from dark-eyed kids.
Back in Maryland, our Ellen was due July 4 with a little firecracker boy but on that day, nothing happened. The following Sunday, July 9, when our next youngest grandson Riley turned one, John Patrick was born after a short labor and is perfect and blonde, with long fingers. Maybe he’ll be a musician like his godfather, Uncle Patrick. Ellen called me at 2:30 AM her time, still not tired, and we had a joyous and loving talk, grateful for a fine baby and our own bonding. She got my room number from Mike in their conversation a few minutes earlier. That’s grandchild number ten for us, all within seven years!
Have you heard of limoncello? It’s a light Italian lemon-flavored liquor, usually served in a small chilled glass. It became the object of several evening pilgrimages before our trip ended, in both fancy hotels and tiny bars. In some towns, the same drink is called limoncino. That all depends, I learned, on local geography. Often late at night, perhaps after a stroll to the lighthouse, our groups would run into each other near the harbor stone wall and join up for a nightcap as the boats rolled nearby on dark waters. One night, courtesy of "Leonardo and Camille," we enjoyed both gelato and limoncello after dinner during our walk. Cin cin! We had only one afternoon of real rain, and we were fortunate to wait it out in a bar with cappucini. There some Dartmouth B School grads knew my pal Colin, their teacher and former dean. The bar has bound blue leather volumes of autographs and drawings, and offered them for our notations, then presented us each with a delicious chocolate before we left. Tom drew an entire big page, but we didn’t stay long enough for him to map out the entire town. He could do it!
Our last night in Italy was a show of everyone’s work and dinner at our hotel. Joan and her twin, Joyce, sang a clever song, and dessert was tiramisu. There was time for one more walk past the big church and around the harbor, this night under a full moon that poured a million shimmering golden stars onto the sea. We rose at 5 to return to reality. Even with the government crazies, I think I could live in Bella Italia. It makes my heart happy. I love it.
VERONA, March 2001 Mike and have skied since our twenties, so we packed up our gear and were ready to fly to Italy until BA cancelled our Friday flight. The next day, after an hour’s taxi ride to Gatwick, we hopped a plane to Verona, tucked in near the Alps between Milan and Venice. Next, a bus from the airport to the train station, then a train north to the town of Bolzano, just south of the Brenner Pass and Innsbruck, and another bus to Santa Christina. Yes, we love carrying skis and boots up and down steps and in and out of narrow aisles! But we were primed with our Italian phrase book, and our love of pasta, limoncello, cappuccino, vino and gelato, the five main Italian food groups. We were booked at an apartment called Cësa Metz, in the jagged Dolomites, which we’d exchanged for our ski time share in Park City Utah.
Our place had an Austrian Tyrol flavor, as did all the village, with sturdy chalets amid painted wooden shutters and roadside shrines. All the wall decorations were of framed pressed dried flowers. There was a bidet, but no microwave. We soon learned that this area, until after the 1918 Treaty of Paris ending WWI, had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are a few Italians, a few Germans, and everyone routinely speaks those languages and also a kind of old Latin called Ladinish. About 25,000 people have Ladinish newspapers and TV, and it is taught in schools. Virtually everything is written in German and Italian: menus, instructions, traffic signs. In German, ski instructors are Skilehrer, but in Italian, they are Maestri di sci. Some waitstaff wore white lace blouses under heavy embroidered pinafores, or white embroidered shirts. We heard English a total of four times all week, but lots of German. I saw no American or British newspapers, but many people speak some English.
Food? We sat on carved wooden chairs with little heart cut outs in the backs. Of course there was spaghetti and grappa, but more strudels, sausage, sauerkraut, schnapps, speck, and also good brown bread and fervent Teutonic Avoidance of the Green Vegetable. The beer was wonderful. Funghi, mushrooms, are very prominent in the area and are picked by all, with a permit from the post office available on alternate days. An order of mixed salad appears devoid of a single leaf of lettuce—it’s shredded carrots and cabbage, pickled beets and the like-- and the full English breakfast was nowhere to be found.
Under brilliant clear blue skies, we skied mostly in sun. There is no such thing as a ski patrol, and trails are not always clearly marked, but the scenery was stunning. There were miles and miles of trails, since one deep valley opens to the next, and you can go forever using trams, gondolas, t-bars, and high speed quads. There are nearly any bathrooms on the mountains, and those that exist are downstairs from restaurants, with an equal number of stalls for men and women. Thus, girls wait a half hour in line queuing up narrow staircases. (Couldn’t men just use the trees?) There are no lockers to check boots, so everyone dresses in bedroom or car, and clunks around in ski boots, no matter how long the walk to the lifts--which may be on a very long steep incline covered in sheer blue ice! Oh, for a sedan chair! Skiing is inherently dangerous, and I did suffer injury: the week’s lift ticket is attached to an elastic string around the neck. When leaning over to stick it into the machine at the lift, I let go suddenly and it flew back hard into my right eye. A couple of visits to the local pharmacy and about $70 worth of drugs and patches, plus a new pair of shades, solved my problem in 2 or 3 days.
We took Wednesday off and visited Ortesei (St. Ulrich, in German; every name is given in both languages) on the bus, and bought wooden hand carved figures as gifts. They look like plastic dime-store toys, but cost seventy times as much! This area is Mecca for carved figurines, made locally for over 400 years, and you can buy a hand painted Christmas crèche for about two or three hundred dollars and up, depending on size. Many have added roosters, ducks, swans, dogs, reclining shepherds, fancy camels, and other imaginative figures. And if you want costumed clowns, crucifixes, bishops-with-mitres, saints with their millstones (Christina) or keys (Peter) or dancing harlequins, this is the place. Woodcarvers’ fragrant shops are literally groaning with tens of thousands of figures, big and small, painted and plain, and ready for shipping. We bought a little valentine angel souvenir, since it was February 14. We tried to visit the local museum, touted to us, (300 years of carved figures, among other things) but it’s open only Tuesdays and Fridays.
We also visited the St. Christina local church, whose bells we heard tolling mornings and evenings, and whose steeple dominated the small town. The small interior is covered with paintings and carvings, and the pews are so ornately carved and painted with gold leaf at the ends that they could serve on a carousel. Outside in the graveyard are rows of elaborate black metal crosses, softened with decorative swirls and flower carvings. On each is a framed black and white photo of the deceased. Nearly every grave was marked with flowers or pine wreaths.
The snow was excellent, temperatures were moderate, and most ski lunches were eaten at packed busy picnic tables outdoors, all with sunscreen and music. We heard Johnny Cash, the Village People, and Chubby Checkers blaring out of the loudspeakers. We also caught up on some newer lyrics…You ‘n’ me baby, we’re just mammals, let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel!” From the same song, we heard rapper “romance” rhymed with “Put your hands down my pants.” To think the nuns worried about Elvis’ pelvis when we were in school! If there was night life in town, it eluded us. On Friday night, although the restaurants were busy, the streets were nearly empty and shops closed, even though this is the peak ski season, but we saw ads for a disco evening someplace. It’s not Aspen!
The trails were nearly all groomed, with no skiing in bowls like Vail or Alta, and although there had been a big snow dump about a week earlier, we had no new snow, so the loose stuff had stiffened. There were no nice mogul fields, and not many areas to ski off piste. Some trails wound past small wooden unpainted cabins covered with snow, all privately owned in the Nature Park. It’s easy to imagine them covered with greenery and flowers in summer, when the animals are brought back the high mountains to graze. I expected a glimpse of Heidi.
The trails forced everyone into several steep and narrow gulches, which resembled Grand Central more than skiing, and imperiled life and limb. To make up for that, especially on our last ski homeward, there were places with no one else visible, and in silence you heard only the soft swoosh of your skis. Enveloped in trees and hills, you were a tiny creature alone with a mountain so gigantic, so immense, that a whole fleet of 747’s from Heathrow couldn’t equal its size. It felt like being in the hand of God. The sun played off high crags during the day, sometimes golden, gently becoming pink or violet, illuminating first one jagged edge and then another, creating an overpowering natural cathedral. These moments can create overwhelming emotion, when being alive is sheer joy.
When we left Sta. Christina on the bus, we followed a beautiful rocky mountain river, and passed mile after mile of well-tended grapevines and fruit trees nestled in valley floors. High behind them loomed incredible mountains, one thrusting higher than the next, with tiny villages nestled like dollhouse towns into the slopes. Tall steeples, firs, and poplar trees punctuated the rooflines, but were totally overwhelmed by the huge mountains into which they fit. I felt like I was in Switzerland, not Italy.
We managed to tour Verona for a couple of hours before our plane. Now, that’s Italian! E una bellissima cittá! The thrusting towers, thick flaking walls, worn bricks, ancient bridges and churches, statuary, tiled roofs, carved doorways, seductive painted passages, and enclosed piazzas powerfully told me I would return. Many buildings date from the 1300’s, and Roman gateways here once framed the main passage to the Eternal City for chariots, not Fiats. Nearby are modern Gucci and Armani stores near historic Renaissance or Gothic statuary. Diners in the Plaza del Herbe (an ancient market that once sold green veg) lounged outside at small tables alongside graceful fountains, and waiters scurried with trays past square canvas umbrellas. From rooftops above them peered lifesize statues of Roman gods.
We passed Romeo’s house and Juliet’s stone balcony and noted signs in the small courtyard saying “Please don’t write on the walls” amid thousands of scrawled signatures and messages adorning those walls. (Capulet would be Cappello, chapel.) But the city is not filled with graffiti, nor was any of the area we saw this trip: this part of the world looked well-tended and wealthy. We’ll miss our trips to Utah, but while we’re in England, it seems appropriate to explore mountain life closer to this part of the world. We had a wonderful time, and for the rest of the month, Mike will be in the US. I will happily poke around London, willing the new buds on the trees to hurry Spring along, and checking the daffodils daily.
VERONA, August 2001 After more London visitors left us, we packed for Verona, a city that dazzled me in February on our ski trip. I loved it then and adore it now in summer sun, packed with tourists, bicyclists, umbrellas, colorful flowers, and surrounded by vineyard-covered mountains. Thousands of tall black-green cypresses pierce the skyline, forming giant exclamation points. The Adige River runs through town to the Adriatic, and old bridges, steeples, and campaniles mark its eastward progression. A painted stone wall, mura, can fascinate me. The colors are rose, yellow, deep gold, sienna, and light pink, some blurred into one another, some faded and some fresh, punctuated with old brick or stones, woven over and under each other in a rich ever-changing tapestry. The laundry hangs from windows and balconies, and cascades of brilliant petunias and geraniums fill every street.
The city holds UNESCO World Heritage status. We had tried for a midtown hotel, with no success, even from the town’s web site. I think summer vacancy signs are as scarce as cheap opera tickets. The Victoria Hotel recommended Paolo Saletti’s Villa Giona, a wonderful restored villa restored about a quarter hour away. The name comes from its wealthy Jewish banker owners in the 16th century, who Paolo, a son and desk clerk, think may have been the only Jews allowed in town. The walls were light dusky brown, with bits of ancient brickwork showing through. We had breakfast beside the striped awnings in the upstairs open loggia overlooking the lawn. Our tables were set with linens and silver. I imagined being a Roman in my summer triclinium, except that we sat instead of reclining on couches for meals.
We had our own two-story apartment, with a kitchen, three bedrooms, and two baths, since the othermuch grander rooms in the main lodge were taken by German weekenders. The villa holds about 22. Our dark wooden shutters opened onto a green lawn. Its gravel walk was bordered by lifesized gray statues of Roman gods, and at the end of the walk a large pond shimmered beneath willow trees. A lone white goose patrols it, the wily survivor of more than twenty unlucky companions who became fox food. We were completely surrounded by green fields of nearly ripe grapes, and in the wine room we sampled an Allegrini Veronese La Grola and an Amarone, a strong red made from dried grapes. From a hilltop nearby, the baroque village steeple from Castle Rotto crowned the tranquil beauty.
Verona was hosting its 79th Opera Festival, an all-summer event. In the heart of the city a large clover-shaped garden with fountain, Piazza Bra’, offers leafy respite from cobblestones. On one side are rows of colorful old buildings with shutters, awnings, and creamy cotton umbrellas, where strollers stop for a drink or meal. They look out at a huge stone Roman amphitheater, Anfiteatro Romano, which nightly holds 20,000 people paying over $100 an opera ticket (nearly $200 for the Poultronissime). Local excellent wines are Valpolicella, Soave, or Bardolino; before dinner try a flute of prosecco, like a light summer champagne. Salut! (Health!) One of the local food favorites is cavallo, which Mike, Mr. Adventurous Eater, tried twice. This meat is served dried and shredded, on a salad or on pasta, and he pronounced it quite good, but I refused a bite of Black Beauty. (Thank heavens Trigger is safely stuffed!)
Since the web site and my computer weren’t speaking too well, we managed to get tickets the day of the performance for Nabucco, Verdi’s story of Nebucanezzar and the Babylonians. (Mike calls it Nabisco.) The cast of about 400 needs no microphones: acoustics are excellent. There are seats with backs on the stadium floor and all along the arena steps, and lighting is done from booths at the tops of the stadium. As the opera starts, the darkened stands begin to glimmer. Patrons were given a candle at the door, and soon thousands of flames flicker in the night with the opening overture. It’s magical and wonderful. Near the end of Nabucco, with Israelites seeking freedom from Babylon, Verdi wrote a song that many Italians think should have been the national anthem. At the time, Austria was trying to hang on to its areas of power, and Italy was trying to unite as a nation, which didn’t occur until 1870. Va pensiero (Go, thought, on golden wings...) was sung softly by the enormous chorus of Israelite slaves, and after the last loooonnng note died out, the wild applause, bravi and foot stamping, and cries of da capo, from the top, brought back a repeat. Apparently, that is normal.
We saw Aida two nights later, with not a palm tree or elephant in sight, but it was well done in a stylized version with a royal-blue large clad cast and golden obelisks in the packed arena once reserved for killing animals or lethal gladiator bouts. After midnight, we walked to the car with quietly chatting crowds, some heading to banks of busses, and others to late night dinners. Clothing ranged from diamonds to denim and we saw no problems either evening. I never learned the names of soloists, who vary. I believe Italians celebrate each moment of life more than most!
Our little gray Fiat Punto got great mileage as Mario Andretti and I zipped from our villa into town or visited Lake Garda or Padua, each about an hour away. Venice is a bit farther, but we didn’t even try to go. Next time. Roads are good, well-marked, but it definitely was good to have four eyes perusing the road signs. Many hotel names and tourist attractions are listed: read fast! Italians like fast driving on the autostrada, but we did see some Carbinieri doing their thing.
We went to Sunday mass at nearby Castel Rotto, but Verona is a city of churches. We visited the Duomo, consecrated in 1187, with a Titian painting of the Assumption. It has an unusual double deck front porch and is built on ruins of a church from 813. We saw huge Romanesque San Zeno Maggiore, which holds a bit of everything in its enormous dark recesses, including some of ol’ Zeno hisself, the city’s bishop and patron! From 1117, it has a cloister, beautiful bronze doors and a Mantegna altarpiece, and many visitors walked around the split level interior peering upwards at the wonderful ceilings and art. Next door is a tall campanile. Mike climbed to the top of the Lamberti tower. Even to me, eventually, those churches begin to blend into some sort of liturgical soup, with an occasional memorable painting or architectural morsel to feed my appetite. Anybody who was anybody back when built a chapel. It served as a way to stack the chips for the next life.
The Fiume Adiage flows in a wide loop through the town and Roman walls leave gaps for the Porta Nuova, Porto Palio, Porta Scaligiere, and other impressive city entries. (I love saying their names! Ch always sounds like k as in chianti, not church.) The vast stone Castelvecchio, once a river fortress, is now a huge museum filled with paintings, mostly small tempera works at the start, huge oils at the end, and statuary. I particularly liked all the St. Lucys with her tray holding her eyes, and the St. Agathas, with the tray holding her breasts. A nearly nude St. Christina, pierced with an arrow, gave some relief to the richly dressed St. Catherines, clutching her wheel of torture and palm of salvation victory. (We have some of the same period pieces in UT’s rich Suida-Manning collection.) Eventually, interest in landscape and still life also became more evident, and there are a few examples of non-Italian work as well. The building, like most in Verona, was well maintained and comfortable. There is a small city collection of other work, including armor, Roman glass, medals, and African work. Another part of town has an archeological museum. We skipped the homes of Montagues and Capulets since we’d visited Juliet’s balcony last February.
Lago di Garda is about an hour’s drive west, and we visited on two days, once up the lower east coast to Bardelino and Lasize, and once to a narrow southern peninsula at Sirmione, guarded by the Scaliger (Scala) family 13th century fortress and packed with good natured tourists. North loom the Dolomites, blue in the distance. We walked through the pretty towns and shops, which close in the afternoons regardless of tourist buying habits. We tasted the restaurants, took a boat ride, sampled gelato, and bought a large biscotti jar and some smaller matching majollica jars which we hand-carried home to our kitchen. There wasn’t much wind for sailboats on the blue lake, and we saw only a few windsurfers, but in other seasons, I suppose they are out, since supposedly this is their capitol. There were very few swimmers, surprisingly, and not as many boats as I’d expect in mid August. My camera was busy most of the time, and the long walks were made easier by the aluminum hiking pole I brought to help my hip.
Padua is about an hour east of Verona, just before Venice, past Soave and Vincenza. We passed hazy industrial areas, but much of the trip was past grape vines and terra cotta villages perched atop green hills. We had gone to see the Arena Chapel, with Giotto’s frescoes for the Scrovengi family, but—horrors!--it was closed for repairs. The chapel was built for the soul of a usurer that Dante placed in hell. Instead, we visited the adjacent Musei Civici Eremitani, filled with Byzantine, Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, and mosaic works, up through mannerist and Dutch pieces. The collection began as the local Abbot’s, until Napoleanic law supressed religious bodies. We next walked through quiet streets to the basilica of Sant’ Antonio. Outside the enormous tan brick building, perched on a powerful steed and overlooking restaurant awnings on a square covered with pigeons, was Donatello’s great bronze Gattamelata (“honey cat”) from 1450, commissioned by Venice. It’s on a very tall plinth, and was the first equestrian sculpture since Roman times, honoring condottiere Erasmo di Narni, whose family tomb is in the church. That cool cat Di Narni looks every bit the ferocious frowning warrior. After ten years in Padua, where he made sculptures for inside the church, Donatello moved on to Florence. I’ve seen this statue in art history books for years; it’s a great pleasure meeting the real thing!
Behind the statue, Padua’s great basilica, Il Santo, impresses with eight domes and two bell towers, plus 2 small minaret towers and three rose windows. Perhaps it was trying to outdo Venice but it’s devoid of all the awesome mosaic and gold seen in Venice. Anthony was originally a privileged youth from Portugal who died at 36 in 1231, and the church was begun a year later. He was a preacher who left the scholarly Augustinians to become a Franciscan. I was constantly amazed indoors.
Crowds everywhere gaped slackjawed at high walls and ceilings ornately painted or decorated with marble. Visitors stuffed lire, dollars, and francs into various offering boxes, and there were hundreds of metal heart framed offerings, photos, cards, and letters from those who had received favors from the saint. A sign on the left pointed to the saint’s tomb in the Chapel of the Relics, so we traipsed along and queued, being from England. Wow! The most ornate Baroque altar I have ever seen gleamed and shone in an explosion of gold, silver, and statuary, with putti flying in every direction. It was like being in a holy wind tunnel. The coffin is there, plus a tiny inner coffin, vestments, and among all the shiny chalices and medals, Anthony’s jawbone is on display. It looks like a lower plate, with white teeth attached. His vocal cords were intact, and in 1981 all these parts were rearranged long after St. Bonaventure found the body intact in 1263. Various golden reliquaries held the tongue, jawbone, and part of the true cross. Many pilgrims held their hands on the tomb area and prayed fervently. (Mike thought the brown wooden coffin looked like Anthony’s cruise box, but I’m pretty sure Antonio was never a midshipman.) The St. Anthony Messenger, their publication, is the most widely circulated in Italy, and goes out over the world in eight languages. I remember seeing it as a child at my grandmother’s. She invariably prayed to Anthony for help in finding lost items!
In another chapel, nine carved relief panels show the saint performing miracles (attaching a foot, reviving a drowned baby, etc.) There were many other chapels, all elaborate. Elsewhere there were two cloisters, a packed gift shop with every counter doing big business, several guides lecturing in various languages, and a movie that we spurned, since we had to wait otto minuti. The patterned marble floors, candelabra, huge arches, and organ playing added to the aura of otherworld immensity. I felt quite irreverent recalling some Austin Chevrolet owners who saw Jesus or Mary’s image in a dent on the fender and hammered together instant plywood shrines and welcomed visitors! The faith we saw in Padova was fervent and obvious.
Padua has a university, the second oldest in Italy after Bologna, but school was out. We walked through pleasant shopping and city administration streets back to the car and bought an Italian dictionary on sale. Many stores have summer sales. The city is not as pretty as Verona, but there are some very nice areas, and someday I will visit Giotto’s chapel.
On our last day, we fed breakfast rolls to the goose and carp at our villa’s pond before a drive to the Church of Sant’ Anastasia. The bells above us tolled for the feria, feast of the Assumption. Inside the pointed Gothic portal, worshippers attended mass, and we visited the enormous church’s side aisles to view some painting and sculpture. We couldn’t get past the ushers to the well-known frescoes because of the service. The exterior is unfinished, so no polished Italian marble covers its bumpy red bricks.Then we visited a modern art show on the middle of Verona on the Piazza Bra’ in enormous Palazzo della Gran Guardia, begun in 1610. Its thirteen arches supported nobles’ military headquarters and the arena is nearby. It’s beautifully transformed, using the white high rooms for modern minimalist art: Donald Judd’s sculptures, Dan Flavin’s neon tubes, Carl Andre’s copper squares on the floor, Sol LeWitt’s pencilled wall marks. Turrell, Weiner, and Robert Morris completed the show, from New York’s Guggenheim. Mike was more impressed with the churches: that was “real art”!
One thing puzzles me about rural Italy. Summer nights in Austin resound with bug symphonies: soprano and alto crescendos chirp, croak, and peep in starlit air. Mornings are melodious, announced with bird songs at first light’s blushes. Those delicious sounds are absent. Are the Italians still eating songbirds? Are Veronese vineyards spraying away the bugs?
TUSCANY, Summer 2001
Late May and early June were spent in heaven on earth in Tuscany. I made arrangements months earlier for us painters to meet in the Pisa airport as easily as if we’d met at the corner bus stop. For week one, Hertz provided a bulky silver box on wheels, a high seated Ford Transit that held 9, or 6 with baggage and easels. I negotiated tight spaces with centimeters to spare, shifting 5 on the floor with scarcely a grind; the gasolio (diesel) delivered great mileage. (Don’t call us shiftless!)
The second week we had a sleek Nissan sedan with enough room for 5 to sightsee, or 4 to paint. (We had two cars.) On the Nissan dash was a futuristic screen that we programmed to be in Italy, but to speak English. On my last 4 AM drive to the airport, I was directed in lovely rounded vowels to “take the second left at the next roundabout.” Sunrise was fantastic, glowing pink over the purple-gray mountaintops, as in Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn, then blazing in a wild golden ball in my rearview mirror as I headed west to Pisa after a left turn near Florence. Pollution and smoke covered a Florentine valley as I passed industry, but every place else was clear.
Can you have a fantastic week on around $600, including dinners in and out, lots of Chianti, car expenses, tours, and a fabulous rental? Si, certo! We shared a few antipasti sometimes, or had coffee and lemoncello back at the house, but kept track of entry fees, groceries, and other expenses, then divvied up at the end. We shared cooking and housekeeping, swam in the gorgeous pool, harvested daily from the little garden—beets, lettuce, parsley, carrots, but no tomatoes yet ripe. We chatted with Dino and his gardeners. Gabriella showed me her way to pick parsley, cutting just above the roots, and I learned to distinguish proper greens for ministrone from beet greens and chard. We walked through fantastic flower gardens and gathered huge bouquets that we painted on rainy days. Thousands of blooms included roses from huge flashy hybrids to small country styles. We picked desserts: 3 kinds of cherries, also mulberries, tossed with a few fruits from the Coop, which, like everything else, closed afternoons for lunch and reposo. We learned who snored. One painter shared photos of her forthcoming book, and another was taken for a movie star when we ate at Matilda’s, aka La Capanna Sul Poggio, after a vigorous vertical trek near our villa; the sunset equaled the food for satisfaction and satiation. Matilda made a meal fit for the gods, served by her son Elio and his girlfriend Stephanie. Three dogs shared our tiny dining space halfway to the clouds in her piccola casa.
British neighbors had us in for drinks and showed us their homes, available for rent: Liz and Charles, and Sue and Steve. My British friend Nick said, “That’s only because you were American! A Brit would never do that for a Brit!” About 15 years ago, these places were stone barns and pigpens, roofs caving in. In bumpy “white” roads, unpaved, we saw a badger and a huge black and white porcupine. We heard cuckoos after the rains. We inhaled banks of fragrant jasmine on a terrace outside our kitchen door, and sat and stared under the pergola covered with fragrant honeysuckle and white climbing roses. Eternal vistas made us visual drunks: hazy blue mountains framed fields beneath ever changing skies.Tuscan rooftops of rounded terra cotta tiles offered red accents amid greens and golds. Olive trees waved silvery with breezes, and miles of grapes grew in undulating row patterns running over the hills, where once altars to wine gods stood. It was too early for sunflowers, but we were content with golden grasses beneath straight green-black cypress fingers or leafy pines.
We visited walled hilltop towns and Etruscan stone tombs, peered at museum labels, gasped at painted chapels and ancient architecture, smiled at old folks gathered in sunny squares, tried to ignore tourists, and compared gelato excellence. We shrieked for photo stops as we rounded one curve after another in the mountainous roads. We searched f