■ Dec 10, 06:38 PM by James Martin
I was hot on the trail of the news that Matera, one of my favorite cities in Italy, especially during the time of the Festa della Madonna Bruna, is on the short list of candidates for City of Culture in 2019. They’ve already started bulking up with culturally intriguing ideas in the city of the Sassi.
One of those ideas made my brain work overtime (it usually lopes along, exciting its synapses at random intervals, like firecrackers set off in a dark cave). I listened to Ben Vickers describe the UnMonastery in a provocative video.
One of those firecrackers went off in my cave/head when Mr. Vickers said they should have called their project the ReMonastery. I liked that idea quite a bit. When the unfettered financial overlords of doom compete their rape of Democracy there will be yet another of those dark ages. People with passion, people with a sense of the social contract, people with faith will gather in spiritually charged spaces abandoned by people who’ve gone to grovel for work in cities. They will represent a collective knowledge of what has gone before. They will be charged with codifying and saving it, and will return value to the community with what Monasteries have always done, making beer, providing health care for all with natural medicine, and feeding the poor, among other things.
The great migration from the rural to the cities has already occurred, leaving a mass of empty houses and unused land. It is time for such monasteries to be born from this financial scorched earth, a beam of light in the rural emptiness of the new Dark Age.
In any case, a skeleton crew has gathered to become the brain-unit of the UnMonastery, the think tank that is not like the think tanks who try to make you hate swarthy people by convoluted logic, or who try to convince you that you have not yet given all you can to the rich.
Here’s what they’re working on (a list stolen from the website linked above):
- Cristiano Siri: perfecting the interface between the city and its unMonastery.
- Marco mstn Stenico: a web-based system to display information about Basilicata’s public transport in real time.
- Francesco immaginoteca Cingolani: “a social database of unused spaces”.
- elf Pavlik: crafting together a community managed and owned wireless mesh network.
- Marc Schneider: an open-source system to drive solar panels.
- Rita Orlando: designing the objects needed for unMonastic life.
- Kathleen: The Living Well – Bringing generations together to learn, share, play, take action and be present.
- Francesco Pellegrino: re-engineering Matera’s water cycle for urban farming.
I’m excited about this project. It’s like religion used to be before it was decided that a short, selective misreading of the book of Leviticus was essence of Christianity.
Anyway, I sign off in giddiness. Check them out. Heck, go live there if you’re committed to such a project.
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
■ Oct 20, 01:08 AM by James Martin
It was a foggy day in October. As the Peugeot chugged up hills and around sharp bends, we wondered if our little excursion to the notable hill town of San Leo in Reggio Emilia would end up a bust.
Then, as we crested the final rise: sun.
By the time we slowed for our arrival it was the late morning. The crag upon which the fortress was built was just peeking out from the valley fog. I hollered for Martha to stop and scrambled up the hill and into the muddy furrows of a plowed field to catch a snap of it while Martha waited in the car snuggled into the verge, watching the mirror apprehensively.
Sun, of course, is seldom a good thing to the serious photographer. But a medieval castle rising from the mist was a decent morning surprise.
San Leo offered countless surprises. The old Romanesque church in the town’s main piazza, Santa Maria Assunta, was a gem as they repeat endlessly in the travel biz, and it would close its doors to host a wedding that morning—but the kind priest let us in for a look anyway.
On a little rise next to the parish church sat the Cathedral. Liturgical music wafted down the hill. We took a look around inside, then approached the modern organ in the front, expecting it to be played by a monkish-looking old coot. But no, the keys were professional caressed by a young man in a tee shirt printed with one of those odd renderings Italians recklessly print on shirts: “Dreaming Aloha Beach Club Surfing 1953”.
Then, feeling a little peckish, we walked the town’s main street, reading menus and looking into stores with compelling little displays in front. You could sense a little play for the tourists, but then when you entered you discovered locals quietly shopping. A bit of paper with cubes of cheese tempted me, and I couldn’t resist trying a bit of the local “fossa” cave-aged cheese. The flavor was astounding, with none of the funkiness of other versions I had tasted elsewhere. The restaurants were affordable, filled with local specialties, and each of them enticing.
More wandering the little village would be needed before we could decide on a place to eat. We were just in time to see stone carver Georgio Moretti step from the shadows of his little shop, the outside walls festooned with his carvings which remained unsold on a Saturday, even the nudes.
By the time we chose to chow down at the Ristorante Osteria Belvedere, at the edge of town on Via Pietro Toselli, 19 (promising a fine view of the castello) the fog had begun to rise, and the Cathedral’s bell tower was turned into a ghostly vision. Snap snap, then on to lunch.
We chose the Belvedere because they offered the first white truffles of the season generously shaved over potato ravioli. My kind of place: waiter with a nervous tick, rotund owner, pair of local characters discussing cheese and archaeology over heaping plates of pasta, roasts and prepared vegetables stacked up by the pizza oven waiting to be baked the old fashioned way (the gallo —a tasty rooster—cooked in the wood oven was fabulous!) The three course meal with a very tasty local wine and coffee set us back a bit over 50 euros, a bargain in my book. Don’t miss the ravioli with fossa.
After lunch the town was quiet. The fog had won; puffs of it wandered the empty streets. It was time to go.
San Leo is worth at least a day of your time. It offers the perfect combination of tourist services without completely breaking down into a fake Disneyland experience. The locals are friendly, the food is good and if you choose right, local. Go in late October into November for truffles and an almost tourist-free environment. It’s a very nice place off the beaten tourist track; not a single word of English was heard all day.
Click any picture to see it larger.
■ Jun 21, 04:37 PM by James Martin
Hardly anybody goes to Imola any more. It’s a shame, I suppose. It’s not like I’ve explored the city in any depth. I’ve seen the racetrack, the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. There’s a lot of history there.
But I liked the castle. Rocca Sforzesca they call it. Here is how you get in, just take the bridge over the moat, now dry:
If you stare at this picture long enough your eyes will focus on the lower right, where there is a little sign on the short wall. See it? How can you not? It’s the thing that doesn’t fit in this picture because it’s got that modern edge to it.
Anyway, it’s a sign telling you that (presumably if you don’t pay attention) you will fall on your head, busting it up and probably on your shoulder too, making it a certainty that your hard-won pitching contract with the San Francisco Giants will probably go up in smoke.
Ok, I’ll show it bigger. Curious, isn’t it? It’s almost like it’s telling you, “for the maximum score, the force of your body when falling should be directed toward the intersection of your left shoulder and your head.” See the arrow? That’s the direction of the force, which is with you, presumably.
I’m thinking that’s not what they meant. But then again, who is going to look at that sign and say, “Geez, I was going to take a running leap into the dry moat down there with oh, something like 27.2 meters of acceleration potential or so, but this sign seems to be warning me that I will end up the wrong side down with a great force to be born by my neck and cranium. I better rethink my strategy at the ol’ rocca today.”
How many people have been saved by this sign do you think?
Here’s a tip: Have a coffee at the exceedingly pleasant Cafe Della Rocca, right on the grounds with shaded parking and all, and contemplate the latest craze in moat jumping. Perhaps you’ll need a caffè corretto. Booze and coffee. Don’t worry, I’ve never been one to judge.
Popular These Days
■ 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.
(Information gathered for this article came via the Rediscover Italy project, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)
■ 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.
(Information gathered for this article came via the Rediscover Italy project, which is promoting the regions that make up the UNESCO Quadrilateral of Northern Italy – Emilia Romagna, Lombardy and Veneto.)
■ 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.
■ Jun 2, 07:42 AM by James Martin
Dammit, now I want a drone of my own.
Sure, drones are getting a lot of bad press these days. Mostly it’s because the government uses them to kill people—or to spy on people to be killed later.
But put a camera on a little drone with helicopter wings designed for seeing things from a new angle and you have something great. I mean, if you’re sunbathing nude in your backyard with the maid you might not want to see a drone with a camera overhead. I understand that. But if you were a castle and borgo you would be proud to be seen from overhead, I should think.
We have something like 160 castles and castle ruins in our little corner of Tuscany, called La Lunigiana. That’s a lot, a high density we would say. It would be perfect for someone with a drone and a lot of time to fly it.
Here’s what makes me giddy with desire for a drone of my own:
This is just one of our little mountain hill towns with castle. Purty, ain’t she? Wouldn’t you want someone to document each little town like this?
■ May 31, 05:24 AM by James Martin
Blogging trips are suddenly hot. Food flows. Bloggers gather at the trough. They photograph. They take notes. Sometimes they use the pen and paper. More often these days their loose-jointed thumbs fly in terse little wavelets over the glowing outline of virtual keyboards on tiny devices. Clark Kent could not survive journalism in the zeros; Kryptonite can do nothing to make thumbs skim the glass quickly.
Never before in history has food been attacked so analytically. This is what I am trying to say.
And we photograph too much. Italian food is not often pretty. Italians are not ashamed of showing the muscular calf of a lamb sitting in a pool of wine-laced pan juices made shiny with—let’s face it—fat. Americans find this sort of thing nauseating. Really, people have commented on some of my pictures thusly.
Bloggers are really good at finding an angle for the many things they won’t eat, “oh, the sauce on the trippa smelled heavenly, but I didn’t actually have to taste the tripe, you know, because I like the taste, really, it’s the texture, you know, the texture is what churns my stomach.”
And yet we protest the lack of “real” food in our diet. Sure, we desire real food, but do not desire it to look like what it is. It is ok to whittle that lamb shank into indistinguishable parts and paste it together with a clingy sauce that has absorbed the fat and then stack the whole assemblage on a “bed” of something like a timbale of rice so that it can be difficult to eat but oh so recognizable as art and not as body bits of a lamb shank shiny with fat.
It seems to me that our virtual visual philosophy is inconsistent with our inner desire to eat well. We fail the test of meeting our food eye to eye, losing the chance to thank the animal or head of cabbage for giving up its life for us. We risk forever being tied to corporations and specialists trained to mask our food, trained to slip undesired compounds into it. (Not to mention specialists trained to make lambs that don’t have to be born and thus be unworthy of our thanks as opposed to, you know, real animals.)
But anyway, thanks for letting us write about it. Really. We promise not to tell you how we wretch and gag over foods like tripe, unless it’s tucked discretely inside the plastic-like tubes of our Memorial Day, six for a dollar hot dogs. God Bless America. We know how to hide the things we teach ourselves not to stomach.