■ Jun 13, 07:53 AM by James Martin
When I first came to Italy I was loath to go into churches. Yes, there was art inside. It was murky art, dissolving into the shadows. There were the odd smells. Then there was the fact that every tour book told me to go to churches (push-back, you know).
Grazie, you see, is not only a thing you say when someone sets a plate of pasta in front of you at a restaurant or does you a favor. It’s a town just a few kilometers from Mantua. It’s so small they have to call it Grazie di Curtatone. Grazie is a frazione of Curtatone, meaning a “fraction” or a little slice of suburb administrated by the larger place, Curtatone.
But you want to know what the heck a crocodile is doing hanging from the rafters, don’t you? Well, I’ve heard several theories. Yes, there is water behind the Santuario and perhaps some poor fisherman pulled out a crock, wrestled it, had it stuffed, and convinced the priest to hang it overhead.
It could have been put there as a warning. The cheery Book of Revelations mentions dragons being a sort of devil in disguise, and perhaps the crocodile is there to remind you just how close the devil is, even when you’re in a Sanctuary. Here’s a more serious treatment of the issue: The crocodile of Santuario of Saint Mary of Grazie
But it’s the kind of curiosity that you like to see, no? Well, you should.
But that’s not all! It’s not just about the crocodile!
You see, another thing is going on in the church. People over the years have owed God for miracles received. The nave is lined with life-size mannequins “representing episodes of danger averted by divine intercession.” Every available space between the niches they occupy is taken up by ex-votos: hearts, hands, eyes, breasts, and pestilential buboes recalled from the age of the plague. Francesco Gonzaga, you see, built the first temple here dedicated to the Virgin Mary after the end to an epidemic of The Plague and it was completed in August of 1406, hence the plague connection.
Today the Sanctuary brings tens of tourists because it’s one of the most interesting churches you’ll see. Ok, maybe there are more, but really, this is off the beaten track deluxe. Go, just go. It’s quite amazing, see:
But even that is not all!
Central to the history and life of the Sanctuary is the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15th. From the early morning the streets of the village are invaded by a multitude of pilgrims, and later by the visitors of a traditional trade fair, which has reached an international fame for over thirty years thanks to the presence of the “madonnari” who with their coloured crayons change the asphalt into a phantasmagorical carpet, reproducting famous paintings of sacred subject. ~ Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria delle Grazie
Yes, there is a huge area in front of the church dedicated entirely to these sacred chalk drawings. International artists arrive with their chalks (each stick costs around $10, and many, many sticks of chalk are used in a drawing, especially if the surface isn’t smooth—and this asphalt isn’t, I can tell you).
American Jenny McCracken has “competed” in this competition (there’s no prize money) and it’s interesting to read: Chalk artist Jenny McCracken competes in Italy’s Grazie di Curtatone Madonnari
And finally, behind the church is a wildlife sanctuary where you can romp and play on the waterfront and even catch a boat along the Mincio river, which is connected to Mantua’s Lago Superiore. See Navi Andes
Getting to Grazie di Curtatone
Grazie di Curtatone is a ten minute bus ride or car trip down the SP10, Via Cremona, from Mantua. Or, take the boat from Mantova.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ Jun 12, 01:39 AM by James Martin
I like Mantua quite a lot. I want you to go there, since then you will be indebted to me forever for my fine advice. Since Mantua, or Mantova, is not popular with American tourists, I could try to lure you in. I could say things that seem to ring bells for you, for example, “Mantua is the best small city in which to view art in Italy!” or simply and concisely “Best city in Italy! Mantova!”
But that’s been done—so I shall take the easy way out.
Sex, of course.
Really, the period we’re in, web-wise, is like the transition from Late Renaissance art to Mannerism. The Renaissance exploded. It was a popular movement like Florence is a city popular with tourists. But… dopo un po’ everything had been done already. Artists were a dime a dozen. So the paradigm changes. Mannerism bursts on the scene. Muscular, well-endowed men and women of exaggerated beauty and curvaceousness are suddenly seen flitting about lasciviously in ravishing two-dimensional hyper-reality over the walls of the palaces of the few who are monetarily unchallenged in the 16th century.
Sound good? Go to Mantova. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage city. See the art. Spread the new joy.
Go specifically to the pleasure palace of Federico II Gonzaga called the Pallazo Te. He built his magnificent palace up from the family stables, away from the prying eyes of Mantova proper. It was a place where he could take his lover for a bit of dalliance. His mother didn’t like the affair or the women he was having it with, but the idea was brilliant. If you’re gonna horse around, what better place than the stables?
Federico got Giulio Romano and his boys to work on his pleasure palace. Romano is a genius. You’ll get that when you poke around a bit. Everywhere there is pleasure for the eye. Everywhere there are surprises; surprises in the architecture and the Mannerist art.
Take the picture to the right. It’s painted on a ceiling. You get a perspective you don’t get in much of the boring wall-art we see today. Yes, you’re looking up—right up the tunic of the chariot driver. Whoops! He’s not wearing underwear! Surprise!
And thus you are prepared for things to come.
In the picture at the upper right, you see the naked yumminess of the Olympian banquet in a room called the Sala di Psiche. You can click it to make it bigger. The picture I mean.
And then, in the same room, just over a glass door spewing toxic light into the room, there’s the graphically-depicted Jupiter Seducing Olympia. It looks like the seduction is just about over. If you look carefully, you’ll see the main act is about to take place.
Ah, the gods! Nasty but very attractive.
And then there’s the Sala dei Giganti. I mean, you have to see it. It’s not erotic, but your head will spin anyway. I will talk about this incredible room covered in fantastic art another time. Perhaps soon. Some of the most interesting art you’ll ever see. Trust me.
Because I have to tell you, as you leave these fine paintings, you are thrust into another reality. War takes up Federico’s thought process. The war room isn’t all that pretty. It’s the last thing you see. I forgot to take a picture.
And that’s the way the world goes, not with a bang but a whimper. You don’t even know it when the fat lady stops singing.
Really, go see Mantua before its treasures are lost.
■ Jun 4, 08:56 AM by James Martin
If you’re a beach person, this might not be a good year for you. Expect an infestation of Jellyfish. They seek warm water. And they sting. They like the warm, fishless seas we’ve been preparing for them for quite a few years. We deny our preparations, of course.
Scientists across the Mediterranean say a surge in the number of jellyfish this year threatens not just the biodiversity of one of the world’s most overfished seas but also the health of tens of thousands of summer tourists. ~ Jellyfish threaten Mediterranean beach tourism this summer
I’m going to give it to you straight. There is an answer—besides seeing jellyfish turning up in your brodetto — and it’s ugly.
The predator you’ve been waiting for to quell this surge of stinging sliminess is (may I have the envelope, please?): The ocean sunfish!
If you are like me, you think of those sunfish you caught on a bent pin tied to a piece of thread stolen from Grandma’s sewing basket just before Grampa took you for your first fishing lesson down to the lake. The pretty thing you caught on that cobbled-together gear sparkled in the sun, its little mouth gasping cutely. It glistened with color. It harmlessly struggled in your little palm, tickling just a bit.
Well, an Ocean Sunfish isn’t that fish. It’s big and ugly. It’s also stubby. It’s really called a Mola Mola, because it resembles an old grinding stone in color and texture. It gets huge. the average weight it reaches at adulthood is over 2000 pounds. It eats jellyfish. Jelly fish are low calorie, so it has to eat a lot of jellyfish. Imagine being tracked by the big eyes of a humongous fish like that. I shiver as I type.
I’m not going to sugar coat this description any more than I have already, so I’ll just put a picture up here, not the usual little thumbnail, because how’s that going to scare the bejezus outta you?
Here. Here is your answer:
I know about this fish because I recently visited its home in the Cesenatico Antiquarium. It’s a great museum. They have prettier stuff, of course, but I always search out the odd stuff. It’s a gift. Anyway, you should go. It’s a really good museum. (Before you go, you might want to read Notes on Cesenatico.)
After I took that picture I wondered if I would ever have a chance to weave it into a blog post without it being all gratuitous. It didn’t even take a week.
Popular These Days
■ May 29, 10:31 AM by James Martin
You’re looking at La Tribuna, the 16th century Gate to Modigliana’s Medieval fortress. Taking up the central shrine is a statue of the Madonna del Cantone, the protector of Modigliana. Sculptor Giuseppe Bologna Molli built it in 1678. There are two bell towers—one was added in the 1700s to make the thing look symmetrical.
Now the old town is safely hidden behind this formidable piece of architecture. Ain’t it a beaut? Perhaps the most beautiful gate in Italy?
In any case, if we cock the camera a little bit, another interesting part of Modigliana’s long history comes into the frame on the upper right, a crumbling tower of the Rocca, or castle, or “la Roccaccia” built in the 12th and 13th centuries and now in romantic decay so dangerous they won’t let you go near it.
Modigliana is part of the Province of Forlì-Cesena in what is now called Emilia Romagna (it’s only been part of Emilia Romagna since 1923, the town having previously been dominated by Tuscan Florence). The drive or train ride from Florence is beautiful, and in this, a very rainy year, the pass was covered in a thick blanket of wildflowers.
Pretty fascinating stuff from a place you’ve probably never heard of, eh? And it’s in an area of very interesting towns and people trying desperately to get you to visit them. And that is a very good thing for you, dear wandering tourist.
More on this later. For now enjoy and discuss on our Wandering Italy Facebook Page.
(Our visit to Modigliana came courtesy of Italian @ Heart, cultural tours of La Romagna.)
■ May 20, 01:08 AM by James Martin
I was just going through my Verona pictures the other day. That got me to remembering how much I like Verona. It certainly has one of the most beautiful historic centers in Italy.
I was thinking, “it’s a shame people are induced to come to Verona on the premise that they must see a balcony very dubiously attributed to the family that gave life to a character in a play nobody has read since high school.
Yes, our emotional attachment to deep, yet forbidden love, is strong. But c’mon, is a glance at the platform upon which lovers were alleged to have wrung out their tormented souls together worth a couple of euros? That’s what the city of Verona is thinking of charging you to have a peek at said balcony. “Euro one, euro two, where art thou?” you might be asking soon.
Go to Verona. See a real play. Revive your spiritual self. And wander the city at night, too. The beauty doesn’t cease when the sun goes down. In fact, it get’s better!
Usually, I don’t post pictures with scaffolding in them. But look, it doesn’t matter. Here, everything works. Imagine being immersed in this beautiful and historic setting, perhaps imbibing one of the Veneto’s specialties, a glass of shockingly good vino.
Everyone knows that there are some great painted houses in Verona’s famous market square, piazza delle erbe, a market since Roman times. But at night you can see them with ominous shadows and without glare, and you can see the shutters open just a bit to let the cool night air in after a warm day.
And if you are taking in a play or musical event at the Roman arena, where will you go to eat, or maybe you’re early, where will you go for a drink—or a snack? Well, park yourself right in front of the arena’s Roman arches, it’s all right here:
Forget the balcony! Plan a trip to the real Verona. Don’t tell your friends and neighbors you didn’t shell out for the balcony. They’ll be heartbroken, but that’s what the play’s really about anyway.
■ Apr 23, 12:27 AM by James Martin
Ain’t she a beaut?
This is the espresso machine at the Bar Pizzicato in Vico del Gargano. It’s a very special bar, one of those places where you marvel at the service, where you’re absolutely sure that the barista has eyes in the back of his head.
It’s the mirrors, as I discovered when I tried to take a picture of the gleaming machine surreptitiously. (It didn’t work, as you can tell by the fine portrait taken in the process.)
The Bar Pizzicato is a very special place. It has organic fruit juices and gelato flavors, made from fruit grown in town. It has pastries to die for. The staff people are genuinely and warmly friendly.
Unlike in America, where a “bio” bar or organic juice bar would become a hangout for health nuts and smokers would be booted, here the old guys sit at the tables laid out in front of the bar and smoke while watching the world move along slowly in front of them. Cars stop, drivers talk and gesture. Nobody is bothered, neither the bar’s patrons nor the people stuck behind the yacking drivers.
I like that. I mean I’m not a smoker and don’t particularly relish the idea of sitting next to someone puffing away at breakfast time. But there’s something nice at work here that transcends filthy habits. A sort of slow “live and let live” mentality that transcends the “everyone for himself” mentality of the US. It’s something I admire. The old guys never even seem to buy anything. Ever. But they’re free to sit. Free to watch the world pass.
I’m sorry. I really am. But I like that.
■ Apr 22, 04:08 AM by James Martin
So why would you go there? Obviously for the strawberries. They’re very, very good, being grown in the volcanic soils at the border of Lake Nemi and all.
Nemi is also what you might call a “cute” town. It’s cuter then the picture, which was taken on a drizzly Saturday in April. But you still might not think to go there. You’d choose the better known Castel Gandolfo, perhaps.
But consider again Nemi. It has some underground caverns that have been made into an art gallery. Besides the strawberries, it has countless Norcherie, places you can buy salamis longer than your arm, called something like “shepherd’s sticks” in translation. Nemi has porchetta because it is near the mecca of porchetta, Ariccia.
Then there’s antiquity. Roman writer Servius began calling Lake Nemi “Speculum Dianae” or the “Mirror of Diana” and poets kept the image alive. The goddess Diana Nemorensis is seen everywhere in Nemi, including on restaurant menus.
But Nemi also has a secret. Well, it was a secret to me, even after I had visited the town. You see, that Roman you love to hate, Caligula, built some enormous boats to sit upon Lake Nemi. So large, in fact, they just about took up the whole surface of the lake.
These floating palaces were attached to the shore by chains, and bridges were built across the water to link with the ships. According to some historical accounts, Caligula’s ships were the scenes of orgies, murder, cruelty, music, and sport and he supposedly spent much of his inheritance from his Uncle Tiberius to create his Nemi Ship retreat. ~ Roman Emperior Caligula and His Legendary Lake Nemi Ships
According to the fine historical work of Kathy Warnes linked above, “the largest ship resembled one of his palaces transported to water and it featured a temple honoring Diana. Marble mosaic floors of many colors, inlaid ivory on the walls, heating and plumbing and baths were featured throughout both ships. The water flowed through pipes etched with Caligula’s name. Bronze sculptures were part of the decorations.”
But then, of course, all those orgies caught up with Caligula and the Senate decided to off the guy and burn his boats.
There were several attempts to raise the remains, which were legendary amongst the local fishermen, but only Mussolini’s draining of the lake and Guido Ucelli’s recovery of the ships actually worked. Benito put them in a concrete museum by the lake near to where the strawberries were grown and all was well—until the end of the big war, when retreating Germans were reputed to have set fire to the boats.
It’s lucky that we have pictures of them. Ucelli’s Le Navi di Nemi first was published in 1940, and shows the process he used to get the ships out of the muck.
Besides Kathy Warnes excellent article, you can read more about the Nemi Ships on the web.
■ Mar 20, 09:29 AM by James Martin
It is just days before we head back to the Lunigiana, which is right now in soggy Tuscany but may be a part of Liguria as the reformatting of a broken Italy gets going.
In any case, the moment I start getting ready to head over to the boot these lovely and quite tasty thought bubbles start appearing just over my denuded skull. This is prime time for thinking of all the good things about a life in Italy.
Then as if by cosmic convergence or something, someone asked me via twitter this week, “which do you like living in, Italy or California?”
Ten years ago the answer was a toss-up. Today, more than ever, I lean toward (perhaps fall for) Italy. And I’m not even Pisan.
This morning, after my brain’s coffee-rush, the word-torrent flowed with a white water vengeance: food, people, pancetta, romantic ruins, trout with lardo, fabulous walks, cave-aged cheese, the glories of Rome—and it goes on and on, rat-a-tat like a machine gun in a public school in the land of uninhibited fracking and religious freaking.
Yes, I know, Italian politics is a mess. But, unlike the US, it’s always been that way. Nobody need give a crap. It’s people that count in Italy. Your neighbors make your world. So, I’m different among expats. I don’t do politics. It’s nasty and getting worse all over. What more need be said? Or thought?
Basta! Here’s an orderly list of things I’ve though about. An odd list to be sure.
“Huh?” I hear you say. Well, listen up. the advantage of having 220 volts coming out of every wall socket is enormous. Let’s take your vacuum cleaner. In the US, a 1000 watt vacuum cleaner needs 110 volts at around 9 amps. In Italy, for the same motor, you need 220 volts at 4.5 amps. Thus the wires in the motor in your American device take twice the current and thus need to be twice the size (and weight!) as they would have to be in Italy. So, you can have a vacuum that really, really sucks in Italy and an 89 pound grandmother can carry it around like it’s a lost kitten.
In America, if you have something you know you get all the time and need medicine for, you first make an appointment with the doctor and wait the number of weeks until the doctor can see you. The doctor takes a glance at you and writes a prescription. You take the prescription to the pharmacist and they fill it. You pay through the nose. The pharmacist is a mere pill counter in the US, despite his education.
In Italy, I can just go to the pharmacy and get medicines for little things that need all this special treatment in the US. The education a pharmacist gets can actually be used! Imagine! And one in your area is always open, required by law.
The Rural Life is the Good Life
Don’t get me wrong, I love Italian cities, but the rural life in Italy is a whole different thing. For example, if you want really good food in the US, you go to the city. There a collection of fine chefs will prod farmers to actually produce food that is safe and tasty for their restaurants, unlike the rest of the country that’s stuck with corporate farms who produce our crap food. If you shop in the hinterlands of California, you’re toast. Every supermarket carries the same poison chickens, the same other white meat fatless pork that cooks up like the sole of a very old shoe.
It’s not that way in Italy. Everyone goes to the countryside for good food because that’s where it’s produced. Gourmets aren’t limited to living in a city full of influential chefs. You can be pretty sure there’s a guy who sells the best cave-aged cheese within a short drive. Your neighbors know of him. You need to ask. In fact, if you do they’ll think quite highly of you. It’s a win-win.
In America we are forced to cook our hamburgers extra well done or risk being poisoned. In little Palerone, I can go to the little supermarket with the (real) butcher shop and get any cut of meat I want ground as I watch in a machine used only for that type of meat. Then I can go down the road to the little shack next to the enormous garden and get some onions freshly dug out of the soil to go with it. Onions not from another state, or heaven forbid from another country, but from 6 feet away.
You can have good food if you demand it. It’s a fact. But the two countries are worlds apart on the subject of food. The majority of people in the US, ill informed by political groups bent on providing profit to industrial crap food producers, think it has to be like that. Boy, are they wrong.
As a journalists, folks take me around to places they like or think I’d like. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who make hand-made goods. Violins, furniture, lace. And you know what? There are no signs on the doors. I mean, get hooked up and a whole new world opens up to you. It’s what makes Italy fascinating. Even the very best wine can come from behind an unmarked door.
Yes, Italy can be like a life-sized video game in which the adventurous can win big—in a smallish and very satisfying way of course. It’s the little things that count, but they add up.
I gotta go. There’s packing to be done.