a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

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A tale of two transportation systems and several whales

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th August 2008

Well, I’m back.

And for the third straight time in the past year and a half, the airline leg of my travel has taken at least six hours longer than scheduled. This time, at least, I got to the hub airport (JFK) from Portland just before things went south, instead of being stranded in some motel overnight. So I became a citizen of JFK Gate 23 and a hostage of Delta Airlines and the air travel industry, which conspired to assure me for the next 6 hours that my plane was “At Gate” and a scheduled departure time was always just a half hour away. (Hey — an “Annie” song! “Departure! Departure! I love you! Departure! You’re always half an hour awa-a-a-y!”)

To be fair, there were thunderstorms across the eastern seaboard yesterday afternoon. To continue being fair, this has happened before in our great country’s air travel history, without automatically triggering dozens of flight cancellations and half-day or overnight delays. I literally would have got home faster from New York by car than I did by air travel. In fact, thinking about it, we did door to door Maryland to Maine’s mid coast by car in about the same time it took me from Portland back by air. I am definitely, definitely looking at train or express bus transportation next time for anything in that mileage range.

When I finally got out to ground transportation at Dulles, however, my luck changed. That’s because lowly Metro has bus service from the airport to several Metro stops along the way (Falls Church, Rosslyn, L’Enfant Plaza). Walked on, swiped my card … and hung on, those buses can do some pretty impressive speeds on the highway. At L’Enfant, I happened to walk right on to the yellow line to Gallery Place, waited maybe 5 minutes for the red line home. It took me about an hour to get from Dulles to Takoma Park; whatever it was, I’m sure it was just about as fast as humanly possible unless you’re riding Chopper One.

Finback whale closeup
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

In better news, we all had a great time in Maine, which even my air travel experience — and frequent rainstorms during the week, and being unable to find the dang cabin the first night — did little to tarnish. Blueberries outside our cabin door on “George’s Pond” near Franklin, Maine; kayaks and a beautiful pond ten yards further; roadside lobster pounds, Acadia National Park, and whalewatching excursions down the pike. (Photos here.)

One highpoint of the trip: Maddie and I saw at least four or five finback whales (and heard them too, their blows are audible even at a distance). Sometimes you can see where they are even underwater; I learned (and saw) that the upstrokes of their tails leave huge circular “footprints” of momentarily smooth water on the choppy sea. It was really quite satisfying to see them going about their business — up, blow, slip back down without much fuss — without any visible concern about the boatful of humans a hundred yards away. The people up there care about them, so I have hopes there will still be some around for our grandchildren to see some day.

Posted in Post, Travel | 8 Comments »

She’s growing up

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th July 2008

“Fourmis” (Ants) cabin
The carving is of a very fierce looking ant.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

We took Maddie to a summer camp in Maine over a long weekend — returning in a single 12 and a half hour marathon drive ending Wednesday morning at 2 a.m.

She’ll be there for the next two weeks. It’s not Maddie’s first time away from home by herself, but the prior times have been with family, and it’s been easier to call at night when we miss her or vice versa. But I know she’ll have fun and learn a lot — for one thing, she’ll have to use her French, since “Camp Tekakwitha” is run by French Canadians, and most of the campers are from there.

And mainly there’ll be swimming and sailing and hiking and camping and probably bizarre contests and crafts and whatnot. I have the feeling she’ll be too tired out to spend too much time missing us. Don’t know how we’ll manage, though. It’s pretty quiet around here.

Incidentally, we stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast on Monday night, “The Captain’s Watch” in Cundy’s Harbor, a little fishing town in a beautiful setting near Brunswick, Maine. If you’re in the area, it’s a great place, with very nice proprietors Ken and Donna. The house is a big handsome rambling structure built in 1862; it has a little cupola at the top, from where you can see the harbor and neighboring islands and peninsulas.

Another thing about Maine: it seemed to me like everyone was nice there — the waitress, the ice cream guys, the CVS counter person, the sandwich shop people, everyone we talked to. And I don’t mean nice in a “smile for the tourist” way; I mean just plain nice. What the heck is going on up there? Spooky. 🙂

Posted in Travel | 9 Comments »

Italy postings: halfway done

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th April 2006

I’m “back-posting” entries about our recent trip to Italy, and am now halfway through: Rome, Rome, continued, Florence. Have a look, leave a comment, correct mistakes, enjoy, etcetera.

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments »

Italy travelogue

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th April 2006

ColosseumWhat a trip! True, we’ll be paying for it for a while, but: what a trip. As I did with our Germany trip a couple of years ago, I’ll be adding back-dated posts (posts dated to the time of the trip, rather than the actual date of the post) over the next weeks, along with some of the pictures we took along the way. The outline will be

The posts will be a bit of a memory aid for me, as well as a chance for me to learn more about what I saw. If you prefer, here’s a link to some of the better pictures from this trip individually or as a slideshow: more pictures, fewer words.

Right now there are only three photos there of the twenty or so I have available. On the other hand, at that rate I’m liable to post another 20 or 25 photos on my site. However, I’m not a paying Flickr member, so I’ll be adding pictures slowly, as my monthly upload limit allows. Subscribing to this feed (RSS) or this one (Atom) provides an easy way to check for new ones. By the way, you can also subscribe to a “Feedblitz” e-mail notification of new “newsrack” posts here; that might make it a bit easier to know when backdated posts have been posted. It’s easy to unsubscribe.

I’m trying to catch up on the news as well, but I’ve been a bit out of the loop for a while; meanwhile, this blog might serve as an occasional welcome Italian vacation from the news. I’ll say that I was expecting to still be reading about Libby’s revelation about Bush authorizing leaks. But the growing Iran drumbeat and the immigration demonstrations were going to push that out of the limelight a little — the prospect of yet more war and the concerns of millions of immigrants trump Beltway skulduggery.

UPDATE, 4/26: A couple of posts are up now, click on the “Rome” and “Rome, continued” links or scroll down if you’re on the home page. Also, Feedblitz doesn’t register backdated posts as new, so that won’t work.
UPDATE, 5/5: There are about 30 Italy photos on my site now; many are displayed below, some aren’t. Have a look!

Posted in Travel | 8 Comments »

Italy trip: miscellaneous travel notes

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th April 2006

This is a catch-all post with various notes about what worked and what didn’t in Italy.

Thumbs up

  • For last-minute passport needs in the Rosslyn area of Arlington, Virginia, I recommend PVS International Visa Service, they took good care of my application.
  • The very kind Air Canada gate person at Toronto who rearranged seats for us so I could sit next to Maddie. This was unfortunately pretty much our only positive experience in Toronto (see below), but it was a good one to have.
  • Trenitalia 2d class train travel in Italy was very comfortable and a bargain, and puts you in the middle of town when you’ve arrived, at least in Rome and Florence. If you’re traveling the main cities of Italy, this seems like the way to go.
  • DK Eyewitness Travel: Florence & Tuscany: invaluable, with those Dorling Kindersley grade drawings and photographs that really help understand where you’re at and what you’re seeing. It’s well organized, informative, useful, and fun to read both during the trip and now that I’ve been reliving it at home.
  • Pensione Panda and Pensione Paradise in Rome, Hotel Bellettini in Florence. The rooms were clean, comfortable, and quiet, and everyone was very nice and helpful to us.
  • Ristorante Fiammetta in Rome, Trattoria Sostanza in Florence.

Thumbs down
Certainly nothing that “ruined” our trip, and not generally thumbs way down. Just thumbs down.

  • Canada, Toronto Airport and/or Air Canada operations are generally a mess I intend to avoid in the future when traveling abroad. Things are nice enough once you’re on the planes, no complaints there. It’s much of what went on before and afterwards that hovered right around the “infuriating” level.First, you have to go through customs in Canada. Maybe I’m just not remembering having to do this in the past when transiting other countries to a European destination or back, in which case Canada merely stands out for its remarkably insufferable minor customs officials (both directions, in my experience). The one on the return trip seemed to suspect I was kidnapping my own daughter because her mom wasn’t along. To top it off, we had to claim our checked luggage and recheck them onto the “connecting” flight back to the U.S. (In fairness, this may be some stupid 9/11-related thing my own great country has insisted on.) At any rate, I soon found myself wishing I was unloading the baggage from the plane as well — I couldn’t have been any slower than the Toronto folks were.

    It all seemed like U.S. tourists transiting Canada to Europe and back were a somewhat unwelcome surprise to everyone north of the border – terminal transit buses without drivers, seemingly endless Long Marches through empty terminal architecture, water fountains not working once my jet-lagged little girl had finally schlepped her poor seven year old self to our gate. I half expected to find bleached cattle skulls and the scattered skeletal remains of previous unfortunates by the time we got there. Not “aboot” to happen again with us.

    On the other hand, I hear they’ve got a great health care system up there.

  • Italian car rental agencies, including branches of outfits like Avis and Hertz, were unable to give us correct information in Rome about the availability of cars in Florence. The one we eventually used, AutoEurope, was OK, but it would be a good idea to provide a detailed map to help locate the airport dropoff location in advance.

Various and sundry

  • Electronic funds can be used in Italy, but are not always as easily accessible as in the U.S. ATM machines that accept Star/Plus type ATM cards are rare in Italy, at least compared to France. I also guess I failed the intelligence test of using my credit card for diesel; the machine read it, but then started asking about kilometers and some kind of additional information (in English, but very cryptic English); it wasn’t the PIN because I’d already given that. I had no idea what to type in and wound up using my last 10 euro note instead — good for about 2 cups of diesel, I’m guessing.
  • It’s probably in the travel guide somewhere, but it gradually dawned on us that you often pay more for the same food or drink if you sit down with it at a table than if you walk off with it. While that makes a certain hard-nosed sense — sometimes we footsore tourists really are mainly after that chair, and plan to sit a spell — it’s not always clear.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 5/4]

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments »

Italy trip: Siena, and arrivederci

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th April 2006

Civitella Maritima, south of Siena
Civitella Maritima, south of Siena.

We got off to a later start than we’d hoped the next day, despite warnings that our goal, the town of Siena, pretty much shuts down in the afternoon, especially perhaps during Easter week.

The day was sunny and the drive was beautiful, especially as we turned inland from Grossetto and headed north. For a shot out the open window of a moving car, the one on the right isn’t half bad, I think; if only I knew which town it was …Pari? Leccio? Campagnatico?

We arrived around noon, but lucky for us, things were not as shut down as we feared. Parking in one of the garages on the edge of the old town inside the walls — like Florence, no nonresident traffic is allowed within the old town — we set out to see what we could of the city and its treasures.

Siena rooftops
Siena rooftops from Opera della Metropolitana,
Duomo di Siena.

Siena has been under development restrictions for some time — for centuries, in fact. At one time it was a wealthy Ghibelline (imperial) rival to Guelph (papal) Florence, and even administered a crushing defeat to that city’s armed forces in 1260. But then came the Black Death, which apparently hit Siena harder than it did Florence. Another battle with the Florentines ended in Sienese defeat — and terms that no further building would occur.

The potted history is intended only to explain why Siena is both a exceptionally well-preserved medieval/Renaissance Italian city, and one that was once powerful enough to command the talents of the greatest master builders and artists and develop a distinctive style of its own.

Duccio’s Maesta
Our first goal was a painting that Cricket has always wanted to see: Duccio’s Maesta (Virgin in Majesty), in the Opera della Metropolitana, a museum housing art works of the Siena Duomo. The museum is actually housed in what would have been the nave of an even vaster Sienese cathedral than the present-day Duomo, which was originally intended to be only the sanctuary and transepts (the “head and hands”) of the larger planned structure.

The “Opera” houses many other great works as well. One I liked was Tondo of the Virgin and Child by Donatello (1457), a kind of large stone medallion (maybe a yard wide). At first the otherwise beautiful Mary seems to have really overly large hands — until you realized the piece was designed to be seen from nearby and below.

But the Maesta was by itself in a specially climate-controlled room, and it really is spectacular — a 7 by 14 foot or so wooden panel, painted in a style that seems to have just begun a breakout from medieval conventions (distinct, recognizable faces, the artist’s signature) with lavish use of golds, scarlet red, and dark blue. The painting was unveiled on what was declared a public holiday in 1311. From a contemporary account:


…and on the day that (it) was carried to the Cathedral, the shops were closed and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Comune, and all the people, and in order all the most distinguished were close behind the picture with lighted candles in their hands; and the women and children were following with great devotion: and they all accompanied the picture as far as the Cathedral, going round the Campo in procession, and according to custom, the bells rang in glory and in veneration of such a noble picture as this, . . . and all that day was spent in worship and alms-giving to the poor, praying to the Mother of God, our protectress, to defend us by her infinite mercy from all adversity, and to guard us against the hand of traitors and enemies of Siena.

Quite a difference from the hushed room the Maesta is in now! Commissioning the painting was quite expensive for its time — lots of gold, an artist paid a substantial daily wage for 3 years; together with the rapturous reception, I think it illustrates a “conspicuous pious consumption” principle that seemed to inspire and subsidize most art in those days. But whatever pleasure the Mother of God took from the painting, prayers, and alms-giving, Siena’s protection was at best short-lived — the Black Death (1347-1351) lay only a few years ahead.

A reverse panel was visible to the clergy as the image above was to worshipers. It now hangs across the room from the Virgin in Majesty, and shows Stories of the Passion in a series of 12 panels. I tried to identify what was going on for Maddie, who demanded to be told what exactly was going on in every panel. Family of heathens that we are, this was her first detailed exposure to the story. Subsequent reading confirmed my befuddled guess that Duccio was an early blogger — in that the all the earlier Passion stories are in the 6 panels of the bottom row, with later stories left to right along the top row.

Almost unbelievably, Duccio’s masterpiece was sawn apart in the late 1700s; two of the resulting fragments are now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. One, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, is Cricket’s favorite NGA piece. That connection was what prompted our visit to the Maesta — and a palpable step back in time.

Duomo, Piazza del Campo
We climbed to a gangway atop the Opera, above what would have been the entrance to the larger Duomo, and looked across to the Duomo in one direction, towards the Palazzo Publico and its tower, the immense Torre del Mangia in another. After exploring the museum a little more, we headed over to the Duomo for a look inside. In the war of all against all that was also the Renaissance, I’m guessing that impressing rubes and visiting dignitaries was cheap compared to fighting them — so up and coming cities like Siena spent a lot on impressive buildings.

Like Florence, the Sienese Duomo seems designed to show city pride nearly as much as veneration for the Holy Trinity and its church. Siena’s colors are black and white, and the cathedral walls and columns are built with evenly alternating black and white marble layers. The effect is both attractive and showy, and clearly says “spare no expense.” Something I also don’t recall seeing before, at least to the level of the Duomo di Siena, was very advanced marble-inlay flooring; artisans were able to use to compose quite intricate and naturalistic “marble jigsaw” (more accurately intarsia) pictures. The technique was apparently first developed by Sienese woodcarvers.

Torre del Mangia, Siena
Torre del Mangia.

Leaving the Duomo, we headed for the centerpiece of Siena, the Piazza del Campo and its huge bell and watch tower, the Torre del Mangia. As you walk through Siena, you notice that different neighborhoods have their own insignia underneath the street signs. The symbols of each neighborhood, or contrada, are often whimsical or exotic; there were Rhinoceros, Unicorn, Caterpillar, and Snail contrade, among the 17 comprising Siena.

Coming up on the Piazza and seeing up close how big the ancient Torre is (330 feet, finished in 1348 just as the bubonic plague hit) was unforgettable. The Piazza del Campo is justly renowned as well. The plaza is a huge semicircle, that slope down towards the Palazzo Publico and the Torre in 9 distinct “pizza slices”brepresenting the nine elders (signori, see above) who ruled the city. Off limits to traffic, it has the feel of a kind of medieval urban beach, surrounded by cafes, storefronts, and of course the imposing Palazzo and Torre.

In addition to its layout, the Piazza is famous for being the site of biannual horse race, the Palio di Siena, a three-circuit race around the edge of the Piazza, pitting horses and riders sponsored by each of the Sienese contrade against eachother. My brother-in-law once actually saw one of these races, and achieved a measure of newspaper photograph fame for trying to help pull a fallen rider out of the way of an equally terrified horse careening towards them.

Leaving Siena
Leaving Siena, we drove north and then west to San Gimignano, famous for its medieval skyline of family towers, ranging around 150 feet high. We walked towards the center of town and back, just taking in the sights and not really even checking our guide book for information; we were all a little tired. After a quick supper, we headed back to the car parking lot outside the city wall.

It was getting dark, and our not-so-early start now took its revenge in an occasionally hair-raising drive back “home” to Baratti. The road west from San Gimignano towards Volterra is long, winding, and mountainous, most other drivers wanted to go faster than we did, and turnouts were generally on the “precipice” side of the road rather than the hill side. This resulted in our car leading several long processions through the nighttime hills of Italy, more than a few exasperated Italian drivers, but nothing worse.

Easter weekend and leaving Italy, April 15-17
On Saturday and Sunday we undertook no major excursions, preferring to relax in Baratti with our relatives and new friends. We helped a bit with a sweet Easter egg hunt (no colored eggs, just the good stuff: candy and chocolate), which some of the host’s Italian friends’ children participated in.

On Sunday, we attended a Easter service at the house of one of our host’s sisters. It was nontraditional for not being in a church, and featuring folk songs, but a Catholic priest who was a friend of the family presided over the event, preaching in Italian. (I wasn’t sure whether Catholic services in Italy are held in Italian or Latin, and I suppose I still don’t know what happens generally.)

Our trip drew to a close on Monday, with a morning dash down the Italian coast back to Rome and the Fiumicino Airport. Stopping at a small gas station along the autostrada to top off the tank and get a bite to eat, we found a full service cafe, with espresso, freshly made prosciutto and mozzarella and artichoke sandwiches, and all the other paraphernalia and offerings of a good Italian sidewalk cafe. I can’t say I was really surprised by then — I’d say one part of the Italian lifestyle is “life’s too short to eat bad food,” and we were just seeing the same principle at work along an Italian highway.

I’ll add a few miscellaneous notes separately, but that’s pretty much it for this travelogue. It’s mainly for my own use and that of my family, but I hope it proves interesting and useful to others as well.

Yours truly, Piazza del Campo, Siena.
Yours truly, Piazza del Campo, Siena.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 5/4]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Duomo di Siena: Official museum site Opera della Metropolitana.
Palazzo Publico, Torre del Mangia: official Palazzo Publico e Museo Civico site.
Piazza del Campo, Palio di Siena: The Piazza is listed on the Great Buildings site. There are both official and unofficial English language sites devoted to recording the history and organization of the Palio di Siena races and explaining them to outsiders. The unofficial one — La Voce della Piazza — is clearly by fans, for fans. From “75 seconds to victory“: “…Finally a silence filled with anxiousness comes over the Piazza. Sunto has stopped ringing; the Sienese hold their collective breaths and the last formalities seem an eternity. And suddenly horses and jockeys in the stupendous colors of their Contrade exit from the Cortile of the Podestà. The Campo is a palette, a caleidoscope; everyone looks in the same direction while the race horses go slowly to the ropes…”

Duccio: A profusely illustrated book — Duccio: The Maesta — by Sienese art historian Luciano Bellosi looks to be a painstaking effort. The Web Gallery of Art offers a “guided tour” of Duccio’s work, as well as of Sienese painters in general. See also this SUNY Oneonta student web site. As mentioned above, The National Gallery has two fragments of the original Maesta. A 2005 New Yorker article, “The missing Madonna,” tells the story behind the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s most expensive acquisition, Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” — “Finally, the Met has its ‘Mona Lisa.”
Donatello: This Opera della Metropolitana document confirmed that Donatello intended a “foreshortening” effect for the Tondo.

Siena: Official web site for tourists.
San Gimignano: Official web site. In an economics- and mathematics-laden analysis titled Household Saving, Competitive Conspicuous Consumption and Income Inequality, Herbert Walther calls the San Gimignano towers a “nice example of wasteful competition between various families of the upper class in a medieval society” but asks whether they made a certain kind of sense after all: “Or was it rather a conscious signal of prosperity and wealth (like many other monuments), offering prospective coalition partners a clear hint, whom they should trust and associate with in the future? Such signals may have been particularly important at a time, when property rights were insecure and coalition partners were needed for support…”

* From the Web Gallery of Art history of the painting.

EDIT, 2007: Gloria of Casina di Rosa has identified the town in the picture as her town of Civitella Maritima; thanks very much! We seem to have been heading south for some reason, I’d forgotten that part — maybe it was to take this picture.

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Italy trip: Baratti and the Tuscan countryside

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th April 2006

Hilltop, Baratti
Hilltop, Baratti.

The Baratti countryside proved a welcome respite from the crush of city streets and must-see tourist attractions.

We were very lucky (and very grateful) to get to stay at the estate of a very nice family who were friends of my wife’s cousin and her husband. Maddie was especially glad to find five other kids around her age to play with.

The estate is home to olive orchards, vineyards, and rambling fields and woods leading right down to a rocky Mediterranean coast; Napoleon’s first exile island of Elba lies not too far off.

There are important Etruscan archeological sites — Populonia was where the main important Etruscan port was in the era before the Romans. But to our discredit, I suppose, we never got around to really having a look at that, though we visited a medieval fortress, the “Rocca“, perched atop the hill commanding the bay.

Wild cyclamen
Wild cyclamen.

Instead, we went for a long, meandering drive through the Tuscan countryside, briefly visiting places like Bolgheri or Campiglia Maritima, stopping for gelato, and just drinking in the scenery, which presented itself in shades of terracotta, olive and springtime green below and sunny light blue above, with occasional flashes of magenta cyclamen, pink redbud, or the dark brown of a recently stripped cork tree for contrast.

I can’t really tell you much about the places. Bolgheri, I’m told, is home to some top-rated vineyards, and indeed the sky was the limit at one wine store we visited. But the more economically priced wines of the area turned out to be quite drinkable, too.

Once back at home, we’d join in snacks of fresh artichokes, or broadbeans and cheese chunks drenched in olive oil, or helping prepare (well, in my case, just eat) fresh bought rabbit or, on one occasion, recently hunted boar, generally with a little local wine to wash it down. I enjoyed playing a little soccer with the kids and yelling “goooooooooool!” when I scored. Your typical five-to-seven year old opponents will bite on most fakes — heh heh — and then insist on a rematch. Gooooooooooooooool! Repeat until exhausted; they scored some, too; a good time was had by all.

Hilltop estate near Campiglia Maritima
Hilltop estate near Campiglia Maritima.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 4/29]

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Italy trip: Florence

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th April 2006

Lion, Loggia dei Lanzi
Lion, Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria.

We arranged what turned out to be a pleasant, comfortable 2d-class train trip from Rome to Florence the previous evening, and arrived around noon. With what seemed like roughly two tons of luggage, we decided to take a taxi to Hotel Belletini, one of the more reasonably priced places to stay in town, and located pretty centrally; in truth, we could have just about walked there, although schlepping that suitcase full of books would not have been much fun. We were very happy with the friendly reception and good service we got at the hotel (just as we were in Rome).

We left our luggage and commenced exploring Florence. Our first goal was to get a first look at the “Duomo”, the magnificent central cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. Traffic has been routed away from it (and only city residents can drive inside the city anyway), but that means some of the nearby streets are correspondingly congested; together with every other tourist in Florence wanting to see the Duomo as well, it’s a somewhat crowded experience to get where you want to go. Still, once you’re between the baptistry — a beautiful second building, with magnificent doors by Ghiberti — and the Duomo, things open up a little, and you’re glad to be in one of the great places of all Europe and the world.

Copy of Michelangelo's David, Piazza della Signoria
Copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David,’
Piazza della Signoria.

After taking care of renting a car for the next leg of our journey, we returned to the hotel to take our room and rest up a bit. Then it was off for more exploration. This time we headed for the the spectacular Piazza della Signoria, flanked by the Palazzo Vecchio (“the old palace”) and the Loggia dei Lanzi, a kind of Renaissance era open-air museum featuring great sculptures by Cellini, Giambologna, and others. (The “Lanzi” turn out to refer to “lanzicenecchi” — the Italian version of “Landsknechte”, or German mercenaries, who were originally housed in the building by Grand Duke Cosimo I.) Walking on, we crossed the jewelry store-encrusted Ponte Vecchio, a bridge-plus-stores structure crossing the Arno River. Beautiful stuff, gold, silver, coral.

Based on a glowing review in a Saveur magazine, we went to the Trattoria Sostanza for dinner that evening. By showing up at opening time (7:30pm, if I recall correctly) we wangled some seats on condition that we were prepared to leave at 9:00. Whatever, fair enough. The restaurant is actually pretty small, seating maybe 30 people in a single narrow room. It turns out to be the oldest trattoria in Florence, and is a favorite of locals and “foodie” tourists alike. (The Saveur article is for subscribers only, but it’s also reviewed in this Guardian article.) I had a wonderful minestrone soup (pureed, I hadn’t seen that before) and a great bistecca alla Fiorentina — steak Florentine style — and some good house red wine; we struck up a nice conversation with our Italian table partners, and generally had a great time.

April 12

Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore
Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore.
A.k.a. “the stripey church” by Maddie.

The first thing we did the next day — after a nice breakfast in the hotel, something Maddie really appreciated and tucked into — was to revisit the Duomo in order to go up to the top and see the ceiling frescoes by Vasari along the way.

The ascent to the base of the dome goes along two or three narrow spiral staircases. Once you’re there, you can walk around a vertiginous gangway (it’s over 55 meters down to the bottom, but there’s a pretty solid marble balustrade and plexiglass barrier) allowing a view of Vasari’s “Last Judgment.” I was briefly sorry for bringing Maddie; parts of the painting are pretty horrific (that’s the point, of course), with one prominent demon’s flaming pike aimed squarely at the rear end of a victim. I could only hope these things weren’t ever actually done to anyone, but I have a bad feeling about that, too.

Resuming the ascent, we got a first hand look at one of the remarkable features of the dome. It’s double-shelled, with the brickwork involved slanted inward and apparently cleverly interlocked, although that’s hard to see from the side. As I understand it, this was all part of the builder Brunelleschi’s strategy for making the overall structure lighter, avoiding expensive wood scaffolding, and allowing an octagonal-based dome rather than the usual circular kind. The (fairly huge) wooden model he built to illustrate how he would do it was once on display here in Washington, D.C.

View of Palazzo Vecchio from Duomo
View of Palazzo Vecchio from Duomo.

The view from the top is spectacular, of course. Maddie was very proud to have made the climb, and can still tell you it took 463 steps to do it. And of course 463 steps back down as well.

After a gelato break, we decided to visit the Basilica di Santa Croce. Like many churches in Florence and in Italy, this one leads a dual existence as church and art museum. An audio guide we rented and its accompanying brochure identified about fifty or sixty distinct things to see — tombs of Michelangelo and Macchiavelli among them — but Giotto frescoes in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels were our main destination in the main cathedral.

Giotto was a shepherd’s son, and so talented an artist that a lost lamb was said to have been attracted to an image of its mother the boy painted on a rock. I happen to know that story from often reading a rather nice children’s book — A Boy Named Giotto — to my little girl when she was younger; the connection was why we were so interested in the artist. In the children’s book, the drawings seem more medieval and two-dimensional (although also quite nice); Giotto’s own work was a great deal more expressive and modern in appearance, especially the Death of St. Francis,* in which the various monks at the saint’s deathbed are distinctive individuals. The relatively flat coloring and clean line drawing reminded me of good quality cartoons (which I don’t at all mean negatively).

Giotto was an apprentice to Cimabue, who created the Crucifix of Santa Croce, a huge crucifix that was notable in its time for a slightly surprising reason — it depicted Jesus after his death, still on the cross, having suffered obvious pain. The style had been to either depict Jesus risen and triumphant, or at least still alive; Cimabue’s more forthright crucifix was a harbinger of breaking other artistic conventions and restraints — and may also reflect credit on his patrons, the Franciscan order, who seemed to push the ecclesiastic envelope in other ways, such as burying Galileo on church grounds against papal wishes.

Sadly, the River Arno flooded in 1966, and Santa Croce lies close to its banks. The flood rose 7 meters high in the Franciscan “refectory” room in which Cimabue’s masterpiece was hung, damaging it badly. Having seen it in its present state, however painstakingly restored, it’s a little sad to see how beautiful it once was.

The Santa Croce church and piazza occupy a special place in Florentine and indeed apparently Italian affairs, as the basilica’s Westminster Abbey-like function as the burial site of so many of Italy’s greats attests. The piazza is one of four venues for an annual half-soccer-, half-rugby-like Calcio Storico tournament pitting teams from different parts of the city against eachother in historical costumes; the neighborhood appeared to be one middle class people actually lived in, some of the others were more completely given over to pricy stores and whatnot.

We grabbed a bite to eat at an enoteca — wine and lunch bar — and then headed back across the river to the Palazzo Pitti and its Boboli Gardens. By now we were a little beat, to tell the truth, and after climbing up to the first level of the garden, now well above most of the city, we all just sat down near an ornate, rococo-looking pool. Maddie commenced writing in her journal, while my wife and I just chilled out.

A visit this brief to Florence almost makes you as aware of what you didn’t see as what you did. I knew about the Uffizi, the Accademia, and the Brancacci chapel, and actually visited them over 25 years ago. If I ever make it back for a week I’ll make sure to visit them again. Looking around inside places like the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti would have been nice, too. But I learned about another site worth seeing once I got back from this trip — the Institute for the History of Science. The Renaissance is apparently considered by some to be a bit of a dry spell for science, but this institute (and some of my subsequent reading) makes plain that something was afoot all the same: one might say advances in metallurgy, optics, and engineering during the Renaissance laid the groundwork for the scientific revolution just ahead, as did simply the spirit of inquiry and pride that seemed so evident in the best of Renaissance work.

It was time for us go. We headed back across the river and picked up our car. I fetched our luggage by taxi, and we then fought our way out of town as rush hour began. Soon we were on the open road towards Livorno, and then points south: San Vincenzo and Baratti.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 4/28]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)

Santa Maria del Fiore (“Duomo”): In Long-Span Structures, Angus MacDonald, ArchitectureWeek) discusses engineering innovations Brunelleschi used to span the dome, such as special brickwork and the double dome plan, calling the result “an example of genuine ‘high tech.’ The overall form was determined from structural considerations and not compromised for visual effect.” Scientific American Frontiers’ Science, Italian Style: Renaissance Machine discusses other Brunelleschi innovations during work on the Duomo, like the first reversible hoist (animation by Institute for the History of Science)– speeding work by no longer unharnessing horses between loads headed up and those headed down. A lecture by McGill University’s Maria Farfan (“Dome Structures: Santa Maria Del Fiore (Florence)“) provides more details about the Duomo’s construction. Here is one photo of Vasari’s Last Judgment painting on the inner surface of the Duomo. See also Great Buildings,
Palazzo Vecchio: official site. See also
Ponte Vecchio: Great Buildings,
Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: The Franciscan order has an interesting history of its own, of course. The Santa Croce neighborhood is described by the proprietor of Le Stanze di Santa Croce, which looks to be a nice bed and breakfast.
The “About Florence” tourist information site has a good description of the “Calcio Storico” tournament; see also this everything2 account which notes, “the referee carries a sword and needs it.” See also
Palazzo Pitti: official site. See also
Boboli Gardens: official site. See also
Uffizi: the official site is partly in English, and lists basic information, and updates on exhibits, and events. See also the Virtual Uffizi, which offers advance tickets and a comprehensive image catalog. The images are all around 600*400 pixels, so you get a sense of the art or sculpture, but not a detailed one. See also

Brunelleschi: the Institute for the History of Science has several exhibits about Brunelleschi including a biography and a discussion of his work on the Dome.
Giotto: The extremely cool Web Gallery of Art (developed by Emil Kren and Daniel Marx) provides the online tour The Art of Giotto, which includes Frescoes in the Bardi Chapel and Frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel.
Cimabue: Giotto’s teacher seems to have been a similarly driven child artist, according to Vasari: “Instead of studying his letters, Cimabue spent all his time covering his paper and his books with pictures showing people, horses, houses, and various other things he dreamt up.” The Web Gallery of Art biography notes that Cimabue is mentioned as one of the foremost painters of the day in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Renaissance: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History: Florence and Central Italy is a well-constructed overview linking to images and discussions of items in its own collection. It’s the tip of an online iceberg’s worth of art historical information, images and data, a real treat. Books: I’ve already mentioned Paul Johnson’s sensible, compact The Renaissance: A Short History. J.H. Plumb’s The Italian Renaissance is another accessible classic, with chapters by people like Jacob Brownowski and Garrett Mattingly. I’ve now picked up a copy of Christopher Hibbert’s The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall as well.
Florence: ItalyGuide Virtual Travel in the City of Florence lets you pan and zoom 360 degree views of the Duomo and other sites throughout the city. They also offer iPod-downloadable audio guides to many of the same sites.

* Web Gallery of Art.

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Italy trip: Rome, continued

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th April 2006

Castel Sant’Angelo. St. Peter’s Basilica
is in the background.

We decided to extend our stay in Rome another couple of days, and moved ourselves from Pensione Panda to the equally pleasant Pensione Paradise, across the river and closer to the Vatican.

The first thing we visited, though — simply because it was closest — was the Castel Sant’Angelo, a unique behemoth of a fortress right along the Tiber River, close to St. Peter’s Basilica. Originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame in England) in A.D. 135-139 , it was eventually put to work as a sturdy medieval fortress for popes to retreat to in case of attack — there’s even a passageway (Passetto) that still links the Vatican to the Castel for quick papal getaways. Inside the fort there’s a long, cool spiral walkway that might have been handy for hauling cannons and munitions to the upper platforms.

Ristorante Fiammetta, Piazza Fiammetta #10.*
Head waiter and pizza baker in front of the
wood-fired brick oven. Photo by Maddie.

Both citadel and passetto saw use in 1527 during the Sack of Rome — used by some as a marker for the end of the Renaissance — when Protestant “Landsknecht” mercenaries, nominally under the command of Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of France, looted and terrorized the city because they hadn’t been paid. A Swiss Guard unit was nearly wiped out protecting Clement VII as he fled to the Castel.

We returned to the Spanish Steps area later in the day, then made our way west. I had the vague goal of seeing the Piazza Navona, but as it turned late afternoon we got more interested in finding a good place to eat. Luckily, we stopped outside Ristorante Fiammetta. While we were trying to scope out the place from the menu and through the window, several locals crowded in. Sold! The restaurant served hearty, well-prepared food and pizzas right out of a wood fired oven. Crickey had a zucchini flower and anchovy pizza that was both tasty and beautiful, I had some great soup and a pizza of my own. We figured why mess around, and went back again our last night; my calzone was excellent. We never got to the Piazza Navona, though.

April 10

St. Peter's Square, Holy Monday
St. Peter’s Square, Holy Monday.
Also near the start of a
long line to see the museum.

The next day was our last in Rome, and we went to the Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel and the museum it’s a part of. We found the long, long, long line to get in near St. Peter’s Square; Cricket and Maddie got in line while I ran to get money at a cambio (money exchange). The line moved briskly; by the time I got back they’d moved about 30 yards… and about 40 minutes later we were inside the museum. I’d been a little anxious not to miss this, so I was relieved we’d finally made it.

Etruscan ceramic head, Vatican Museum
Etruscan ceramic head,
Vatican Museum

The museum contains a great deal more than the Sistine Chapel; in particular, Cricket was looking forward to seeing the Etruscan collection. The Etruscan culture was an earlier dominant Italian culture, more or less centered north of Rome in Tuscany, that was in contact with Greece and competed with early Rome. Not being a scholar of such things, I just looked at the accomplished armor, sculpture, sarcophaguses, and ceramics, and realized here was yet another part of human history I was more or less ignorant of. The audio tour I rented was helpful and interesting.

Another memorable part of the museum was the “Gallery of Maps” or Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, a corridor stretching for about 120 meters with beautiful huge paintings of maps of ancient and contemporary 16th century Italy. Insets show views and maps of major cities of the depicted region. Painted in 1580-1583 by Ignazio Danti, the maps were an assertion of the importance of the papacy in Italian affairs — however waning that influence was in the post-Sack of Rome era.

I also lingered a while in the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), particularly at the School of Athens and The Fire in the Borgo. The former is probably familiar to many, the latter not so much, at least not to me; it’s a quite striking depiction of a disastrous fire in Rome that was supposedly ended by the miraculous intercession of Pope Leo IV. Paul Johnson, in his excellent The Renaissance: A Short History, writes that “[a] part of Raphael rejected serenity and sought transcendence. [Fire in the Borgo] presents terror and anarchy and the mob appealing for a miracle … Medieval painters could present the supernatural, and did it all the time. But they could not convey it by painterly techniques of atmospheric light and subtle suggestiveness. Raphael could.”

Finally, we came to the Sistine Chapel. I have the feeling it may have been a bit of an anticlimax for Maddie: crowded with equally tired tourists huddled in groups, occasionally reminded by loudspeaker to keep quiet and not take flash pictures, puzzling pictures you had to crane your neck to see. The muscular figures — and lack of much of any landscape — remind you that Michelangelo was a sculptor first and foremost. As countless others have no doubt observed, with works like The Creation of Adam Michelangelo was clearly and proudly asserting that Man was akin to God and in some sense co-equal — receiving, I would think, the gift of reason as much as the gift of existence, since Adam is already there. Johnson is critical — “One might [say] of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, ‘No one ever wished it bigger.’ In the end the sheer quantity of human musculature makes you want to pass on.” Not so for me, anyway; I’ll always remember what will likely be my last, twisting look at “The Creation of Adam” as we filed out of the Chapel.

[Italy travelogue: home] [prior entry] [posted on 4/26]

FURTHER READING (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Castel Sant’Angelo: Official site: Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo. See also Rome Sacked (Old News); 1527: The Sack of Rome (Salem Press)
Passetto di Borgo: Google satellite image closeup; zoom in and out to see St. Peter’s and the Castel. A “Virtual Roma” page (under the rubric “Curious and Unusual”) provides details. Explore the site for other parts of Rome as well.
St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square: Great Buildings — Basilica, Piazza
Vatican Museums: main portal (English), Etruscan Museum, Raphael’s Rooms, Sistine Chapel. When they’re fully functional, the Vatican Museum online tours are fantastic. Always providing detailed commentary, they offer virtual 360 degree tours of rooms, and closeups of art work. But I’ve had only sporadic success with the Java links embedded in each web page, meaning the images don’t always appear. The “Web Gallery of Art” offers an alternative detailed online tour of the Sistine Chapel; most images available on this site can be viewed at good magnification (800*800 pixels or better). A book about the Gallery of Maps is reviewed here.
Raphael: Web Gallery of Art biography, works (with links to high quality images of many paintings). School of Athens: Who is who?
Michelangelo: Ingrid Rowland, NYRB, “Titan of Titans.” Rowland recommends in passing Irving Stone’s classic The Agony and the Ecstasy (“careful research… professional writer”). Interestingly, Rowland says Michelangelo was influenced by Etruscan designs: “For sixteenth-century Tuscans, as for their fourteenth- and fifteenth-century predecessors, Etruscan aesthetics were as natural as eating or drinking, and we can see their effect on Michelangelo’s work. For all his heroic height, his big hands and imposing head, David has the body of a small, wiry man with long arms; these compact proportions and the springy tension that suffuses them are also what give Etruscan sculptures their crazy charm, and Michelangelo knew them well; Casa Buonarroti is full of them.” See also the Web Gallery of Art biography and works.

* First link is to a “Slow Travel Italy” review, second to a Mapquest map.

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Italy trip: Rome

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th April 2006

My little girl and I arrived in Rome in the morning of April 7. We were still a bit groggy from a difficult flight — difficult mainly due to our unfortunate seating smack in front of the in-flight movie screen, although at least with eachother. My wife arrived by a separate flight about an hour later (long story short: she’s on a work-related trip to Rwanda that she attached to this one).

While we were waiting, Maddie and I made friends with a nice Italian family waiting for someone, immediately confirming the friendliness I remembered from my travels in Italy 26(!) years ago. I went to a terminal cafe and got an excellent capuccino. Without putting down the rest of a trip, arriving someplace new is often a high point for me; everything is possible, you’re feeling good and feeling like the die is cast and here you are. This arrival was like that.

Via della Croce

Crickey finally arrived and we piled into a taxi waiting to take us to Pensione Panda on the Via della Croce, which turned out to be the good choice we hoped it would be: close to the Piazza di Espagna and the Spanish Steps, nice room, comparatively decent price. Bit of a slog up a couple of flights with luggage — including a suitcase full of French books destined for some lucky Rwandan primary school — but no problem, really, that’s what I was there for.

We unwound and maybe napped a bit, and then headed out for a look around. Our first stop was the Spanish Steps; as per international karmic regulations, there were a bunch of American kids there playing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

We just wandered around the city, with no particular goal in mind; I bought some roasted chestnuts, Maddie probably tried her first gelato, soon to be one of her principal Italian food groups, along with cheese pizza. Just looking around was fun: neighborhood grocery stores with salamis hanging in the window and cheeses stacked below, tiny hardware stores (ferramenta) or cigarette/knickknack stores (tabaccheria) where it turned out you can get stamps. With the April 9-10 general election approaching, there were countless campaign posters for alliances like “Daisy” or “Olive Tree” as well as ubiquitous (and somewhat cynical) “Vota Homer!” spoof posters put up by the Italian FOX Network.

We crossed the Tiber, took some pictures, and headed back towards our neighborhood. The long flight was catching up with all of us; I don’t recall getting a supper, we must have all dropped off pretty quickly, at least for a while.

April 8

Maddie and the Colosseum

The night was rough for Maddie, who’d picked up a stomach flu that made her briefly but violently ill; the problems continued at breakfast, which she redeposited onto the venerable cobblestones of Via della Croce. We had no idea what we were up against at that point, and wound up calling the U.S. embassy for help; some nice fellow gave us some doctors to call — but it was Saturday, and no one was answering calls.

The folks at the pensione desk told us to just head over to an emergency room that was in walking distance, so we did. Didn’t cost a thing (at least so far, they got our address if I recall correctly). A brief examination showed there was nothing serious, and a second doctor translated the diagnosis by a for us: just a stomach bug, keep her hydrated. We got a prescription for something to mix with water to keep her electrolytes etc. on an even keel.

Moreover, Maddie was proving quite resilient and was even game enough to do a little shopping on her way back to the pensione; we found a very nice English language bookstore, The Lion Bookshop, on the Via del Greci, where we bought some travel books and a children’s book for Maddie, and had a nice chat with the cashier, an English fellow. We eventually got back to the pensione to give Maddie a chance to rest up and rehydrate.

By the afternoon we were ready to do some sightseeing, and decided to head for the Colosseum. While it would have been walkable on most days, under the circumstances we decided to use the Metro; there’s a stop at the Spanish Steps and another at the Colosseum. The fares were not too bad: 1 Euro for stop-to-stop transportation, some small fee for a few-hour or maybe a day pass, but we never used that.

And then there we were. The Colosseum is a huge old thing, tremendously impressive, yet also more than a bit horrible, too. I won’t pretend to know more about it than I do; I was mildly surprised to learn it was completed after Jesus’ death, I had thought it was older than that. Looking down into the maze now exposed below the arena gave a sense of the deeper purpose of the place: massive doorways, massive boltholes, designed to keep people and animals in their place until summoned. As Maddie wrote in her journal, it was “were the poor old Christian peoples waited for there doom, and were the lions and mabey bulls, waited too attack.”

We went on from the Colosseum towards the Roman Forum, a glorious grab bag of early and late Roman and early Christian ruins that was completely impossible for me to take in except as Antiquity Writ Large. An early Christian church on the site illustrated the “palimpsest” principle of Rome and Italy: much was painted over and built out of and on top of the ruins of older things. We peered inside a Roman Senate building — apparently rebuilt as a symbol of the golden olden days of the Republic, by an emperor now long gone himself.

We made our way home, stopping at a restaurant for a nice supper — and yet more gelato. The final adventure was still ahead, though: when we got to the Termini Metro station at quarter to ten to change to our line to the Piazza di Spagna (or just “Spagna” in Metro lingo), it turned out that line was closed for the night! Working out the somewhat cryptic Italian note with some equally nonplussed Germans, we headed for the bus terminal above and hoped someone would confirm which bus line to take to get home. Which they did. None of which would be such a big deal, unless you’ve got a little girl suddenly at the end of her rope again, and worried she wouldn’t get to bed.

But everything worked out fine.

[Italy travelogue: home] [posted on 4/24]

FURTHER READING: (headings link to Wikipedia entries)
Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna: Great Buildings.
Colosseum: Great Buildings. Official Italian site: Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma: Il Colosseo. Inspired enthusiast site: NOVA transcript: how awnings may have been hung over the arena.
Roman Forum: Great Buildings. There’s a wonderful “Thinkquest” prize winning site developed by some Dutch high school students, and a similar Forum Romanum Project site sponsored by the “VRoma” NEH grant; both have clickable maps of the Roman Forum. Finally, there’s an official Roman archeological authority English language site about efforts to restore Santa Maria Antiqua, the 6th century A.D. church that is the most ancient Christian monument in the Roman Forum.

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