PANETTONE SEASON

Hooray! It’s Panettone season around here.

Actually, it’s the holiday season. In the US this means from Thanksgiving to New Year’s day. So I have about five weeks to indulge in my favorite treat: panettone, that traditional sweet and oh-so-delicious Italian Christmas bread. About the first of November the stores, even in my corner of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, begin stacking up the colorful boxes in windows and shelves and I begin loading up the shopping cart. The bread is distinctive – tall and domed and nestled in a paper cuff. The height comes from letting the dough rise three times over a period of 20 hours. It usually weighs a kilo (just over 2 lbs.) and is sturdy enough to last for days without going stale tho’ probably not as long as my mother’s fruit cake that was tough enough to survive a dogsled trek to the North Pole.  The packaging, which gets ever-more elaborate, almost always features a ribbon handle or bow all the better to carry it home. During our time in Italy, I often crowded into a jammed car on the Metro to share what little space there was with others toting their own panetonne.
Ideal for hostess gifts, I also use it for non-traditional recipes like bread pudding and French toast (I should call it Italian toast) although there’s nothing better than a simple wedge toasted and served with orange juice and coffee on a Christmas morning in front of the fireplace.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread: The current iteration originated in Milan in the early 20thcentury but it has ancient origins, possibly back to Roman times when the aristocrats dined on a leavened bread sweetened with honey. A slightly more plausible origin is a story about a cake flavored with lime zest and raisins served at the Duke of Milan’s table in the 15th century. Attesting to its popularity, it soon began to be depicted in paintings, and in the 18thcentury a “Pane di Tono” or luxury cake was mentioned by an Italian writer, Pietro Verri. Whatever the earlier varieties contained, modern bakers can’t resist experimenting with additions beyond raisins such as chocolate, dried figs, pears, orange or citron peel, mascarpone, or sweet liqueur to tempt the shopper.

How could anyone resist?  Not me!

All photos copyrighted by Judith Works
  

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STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

The Rome airport was in chaos because of a fire. Our one-hour flight to Catania in Sicily, where Glenn and I were to begin a two-week tour, was cancelled and we were unable to rebook by computer or in person. Our only alternative was to take the train, a ten-hour journey.

After fruitless efforts to book on-line, we headed to the crowded and pickpocket-ridden Stazione Termini to get tickets from an agent who could advise on schedules. But when we saw the number 578 on the slip from the take-a-number machine, there was nothing to do but confront the row of hostile vending machines known to eat victim’s credit cards and refuse to produce tickets. Many were “guasto,” the ubiquitous word for “broken” or “out of service.” I found one that appeared to work and gingerly stuck my credit card in the slot. A whirring noise and two tickets for Catania and my card miraculously appeared.  

The next day we dragged our luggage to the station to find our carriage. It had an old-fashioned arrangement for second-class trains: three seats facing one way and three the other in a compartment with a sliding door opening onto a corridor.
 
It didn’t take long to find out who our companions for the ride would be when a huge African man dressed in a blue tunic and trousers looked through the door and then down at his ticket. He entered, hauling a folding trolley and two bulging plastic garbage bags and heaved them up on the luggage rack above the seats before sitting knee to knee opposite Glenn. Then a young man with an Adidas sports bag plopped down. My opposite number entered: another young man but with a dog in his arms. The animal was about the size of a small terrier and bald except for tufts of hair on the top of her head, end of tail and around the ankles. The bald part was pink with black polka dots. The young man was beaming with pride but his pet hid her wistful face in the man’s jacket. I wondered if it was from embarrassment at her appearance.

 As the train glided out of Rome, past the ruined Temple of  Minerva Medica and crumbling aqueducts, the compartment door slid open and our last companion arrived: a man with receding hairline, a grey ponytail, flowered shirt, and gold bracelets and necklace.

When you are stuck together with other travelers for ten hours on a train with no restaurant or bar car the only thing to do is talk. Everyone introduced themselves. The man with bundles was a Senegalese street vendor who spoke Italian and French as he talked about his family left behind as he sold knock-off handbags on the streets and beaches. The dog man told us about his timid Chinese Crested dog; the man sitting next to Glenn was a lawyer from Catania, also stuck on the train because of the airport fire and subsequent cancellations. One of his conversational offerings was his name, Gaio. Although the female equivalent, Gaia, Earth goddess, is common, the masculine equivalent is nearly unknown. (I thought his mama must have known how good-looking he would be because he did indeed look like a god.) The man with the ponytail was originally from Uruguay now living in Parma and on his way south to visit his Italian mother. He entertained us with stories of his recent heart surgery after we admired his scar. We volunteered some about our past years living in Rome before asking why there was no bridge to Sicily. The two Italians responded with shrugs and mumblings about corruption.

And so the time passed in conversation conducted in three languages as the train chugged through economically depressed southern Italy, a land where much of “what might have been” is evident with every crumbling and empty factory, fallow field, and one-story house with the rusting re-bar for a never-built second story protruding vainly into the sky. So much beauty in the landscape, so difficult to earn a living. 
Eventually the Senegalese gathered up his goods and got off. Instead of making the expected remarks about street vendors, who are widely seen as a nuisance, the other three began to discuss the tragedy of economic conditions in Africa that forced men to emigrate to support their families with menial work in a foreign country.
The train finally reached the Straits of Messina where it was loaded section by section into the bowels of a ferry.

After a half hour in the dark, we emerged in the city of Messina with a small sense of bonding with our fellow travelers, who we would never meet again, and a large appreciation for the empathy of Italians who recognize the struggles of so many desperate migrants washing up on Italy’s southern shores.

All photos from Wikipedia Commons   

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ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST – Syracuse

Surely it is a breakfast suitable for the Greek gods who formerly inhabited this lovely part of Sicily: gelato in a fresh and soft brioche accompanied by ice coffee – cold, creamy, sweet and strong enough to keep me awake for at least 18 hours.

We sat outside a café on the waterfront near the Fountain of Arethusa along with the locals who were analyzing the latest political and soccer news. I was analyzing a guide to the part of Syracuse known as Ortigia. The Greeks founded their city here in 733 B.C. and it gradually grew to rival Athens before the Romans took over in 211 B.C. 
The freshwater spring, which flows into a pond full of ducks and feathery papyrus, is named for a young woman named Arethusa. When a Greek river god fell in love and pursued her she plunged into the sea to escape. She reappeared in Ortigia where the goddess Artemis transformed her into the lovely spring – not a bad fate I thought.

Needing to walk off our breakfast, we strolled toward the bridge linking the island to the main city to contemplate the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, built not long after the city’s founding, The architect’s name, Kleomenes, is still visible chiseled into the ancient stone. Could he ever have dreamed that he would be still remembered 3000 years later?

Daily life goes on no matter how many ruins surround the inhabitants, and there is no better way to see it than in the mouthwatering market. Oh the tomatoes, the tomatoes!

Of course we were hungry afterward. I ordered a salad with the tomatoes mixed with oranges. green and black olives, red onions and topped with a sprig of basil. Divine.

Then a stroll along the seaside to the Castle Maniace built in 1212 by Frederick II to protect the harbor.

Fortunately we had two more days to explore the area so we finally subsided at a sidewalk café across from our hotel, the Antico Roma, to watch the evening passeggiata with lovers embracing, tourists with guidebooks, exuberant children, and elderly couples walking arm in arm to enjoy the warm evening. And a future Formula One driver!

The marvelous Duomo was our first goal the following day. The Baroque façade faces the Piazza Duomo which is ringed with golden- colored Baroque buildings including the Town Hall and the Archbishop’s Palace.

At the far end of the piazza is the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia now housing a Caravaggio painting titled The Burial of St. Lucy. Unfortunately the painting is very dark and set so far back from the viewer that it was difficult to see.

The Duomo’s foundation was begun in 480 B.C. when a tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, was victorious in a war with another Greek city. In celebration he decided to build a temple to Athena which was filled with ivory, gold, white Parian marble from the island of Paros and considered the best in the ancient world. The Doric temple was famous throughout the Mediterranean world and sailors were guided by the sun reflecting on Athena’s shield above the entrance. The riches were looted by the Romans and have long-since disappeared but 24 of the original 36 columns are still standing.

First converted to a church by the Byzantines, changed to a mosque during the Arab times, the Normans made alterations and the Spanish added a ceiling of chestnut wood. It was rebuilt in its current form after 1693 when it began to crumble due to earthquakes. 
We lingered in two chapels in the Duomo. One is dedicated to St Lucy who was martyred in 304 and supposedly had her eyes gouged out. The very odd Baroque marble plaque shows her eyes on a stand with a sword symbolizing the manner of her death. No surprise to find out she is the patron saint of the blind, those with eye infections, and aptly, us long-suffering writers. (And I thought the sword looked like a pen.)

The Cappella del Crocifisso with a splendid painting of the founder of the church, St. Zosimus, attributed to Antonello da Messina.

Below is a reliquary with many of the saint’s bones. I always wonder how the bones so frequently displayed in churches were obtained, and if they really belong to the person venerated.

In the evening it was time for a change from the sacred to the profane – a traditional puppet show with knights, Moors, and our heroine, Angelica. The theater had a small museum and a workshop where disembodied heads and other body parts hung from the ceiling.

Rather disconcerting until we saw the amusing puppet of a horse pulling a traditional Sicilian cart – the horse has both right legs off the ground, quite a balancing trick.

When the performance was over and all ended happily it was time for an evening prosecco and a discussion of which bar we should try for our morning coffee and gelato. More chocolate or something more daring like pistachio?

All photos except The Burial of St. Lucy and the gelato copyright Judith Works. Photo of Burial of St Lucy is from Wikipedia Commons. Photo of gelato is courtesy Margaret Jessop.  

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IN THE HEART OF ETRUSCAN COUNTRY

One of my favorite day trips from Rome is heading north into the dreamy scenery of Etruscan country, that area of northern Lazio and bits of Tuscany and Umbria where the Etruscans once roamed.
Our first stop one summer day was Vitorchiano a tiny town, set on a cliff between two ravines. It was originally a Roman fort and the inhabitants haven’t forgotten their history – they still regard themselves as Roman. We paused at a local market set up near a fountain to browse the irresistible selection of fruit. 
But our pleasure was tempered by an angel casting its shadow on the names of the dead from World War I, a typical melancholy reminder of Italy’s troubled past found in every town.
After passing through the ancient city walls we poked around in churches and shops, enjoying a gelato before heading down the steep and winding road toward Vetralla, our destination.
An odd sight confronted us by the side of the road as we zipped by: a statue in the style of those from Easter Island. If anyone can explain this mystery please let me know.
My friend in Vetralla, Mary Jane Cryan, is a long-time resident of the small city, and writer of the popular blog, Fifty Years in Italy (50yearsinitaly.blogspot.com). Vetralla has a curious history. Part of the Etruscan triangle of Tarquinia and Tuscania, some inhabitants still have Etruscan DNA, but it is also the only place in the world outside the UK that was under the “protection” of the English crown as proclaimed by Henry VIII in 1512, followed by a long association with the exiled Stuart monarchy in the 1770s. It is interesting to contemplate what would happen if Italy and the UK went to war. Would Margaret Thatcher have sent in the troops?
Ms. Cryan lives in an enormous apartment in one of the Renaissance palazzi fronting the ancient Roman road, the Via Cassia that runs down the middle of town. Vetralla is also set high on a cliff like Vitorchiano and most other towns in the area, and as typical, the back sides of most of the buildings loom over the rich farmland below. Her splendid apartment is filled with books and memorabilia, but it is the terrace, with its sweeping views, that makes the home a place of enchantment. 
While we sat in the sun the talk naturally turned to food. (Is there any conversation in Italy that doesn’t include food?) Mary Jane mentioned that a friend, Fulvio Ferri, had recently published a cookbook filled with family recipes. Unable to resist an addition to my Italian collection we came home with Olio e Ricordi in Cucina – loosely translated as Grandmother’s Recipes, along with a copy of Mary Jane’s latest book, Etruria, Travel, History and Itineraries in Central Italy. If you are interested in either book you can go to www.elegantetruria.com.
Although we don’t have olive oil from Vetralla in Seattle we tried out some of the recipes. We particularly liked the one for roast potatoes, Patate al Forno con Rosmarino o Finocchio, often found on Italian menus but not so often in cookbooks:
Here’s our take on the recipe which serves 4 – 6:
10 medium-size thin-skinned boiling potatoes
Sprigs of fresh rosemary (we didn’t use fennel)
2-3 cloves of garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil
Pre-heat oven to 360 F or 180 C.
Peel potatoes and put in cold water so they don’t darken.
Place the mixture of oil, salt, pepper, finely-chopped rosemary and garlic in a bowl large enough to toss the potatoes.
Dry potatoes, cut into wedges one inch thick, coat with the mixture, and arrange in a single layer on non-stick baking pan.
Bake until just tender (varies from 30 minutes to an hour).
Crisp the potatoes for a few minutes by turning on the oven fan.

Serve hot. And plan another trip to Italy!
Copyrite Judith Works. All photos by author except for view of Vetralla by Mary Jane Cryan
  

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THE CYCLE OF TIME – Tuscania

My friend and I drove to Tuscania through the countryside full of empty carved rock tombs, some so eroded that the steps leading to them now only reach empty sky – the heavens where perhaps Etruscan souls reside. But as we neared the town we could see that some of the tombs alongside the road were still in use, the hollowed area blocked off with doors hiding small cars or vats of wine.

The small city, in business since about the 8th century BC was founded by the Etruscans is interesting with its medieval and Renaissance buildings, although our visit would be focused on two churches now located about a mile from the walled old city. In the Etruscan era an earlier version of these walls enclosed a much larger city extending to include the site where the most distant church now stands. Over the centuries sieges and the Black Death so reduced the population that the city shrunk to a shadow of its former importance.

In present times, instead of defending against marauders, portions of the “new” city wall support stone sarcophagi, their lids carved with the likeness of the deceased. Some visages are still so crisp they appear as though they were chiseled the previous day. Others look melted as if time unhurriedly softened them. There are so many sarcophagi that the city may once have been a center for the coffin industry, all ready to go except for the heads which you or your descendants could have made in your likeness.

Santa Maria Maggiore, the church at the bottom of the former Etruscan acropolis, was constructed over a Roman temple, a typical practice. Academics argue dates because it’s such a disorderly and asymmetrical composite of styles, materials and décor. Here a Pisan or Luccan touch, there Umbrian, or an idea borrowed from churches in the mountains of the Abruzzi. Some see elements from the Auvergne in France or those that could be Norman-Sicilian in derivation. The Romanesque style leads experts to guess that the church and its bell tower were created between 1000 and 1200 with pieces taken from other churches and temples, perhaps after earthquakes destroyed them.

I can never resist stopping to study the façade, especially the extraordinary Madonna and Child hung over the main doorway. The poor things are a perfect example of the decline in craftsmanship during the Dark Ages. The Madonna’s huge hands don’t have much of a hold on the child, who has no baby attributes except for size. Her peculiar face could have been carved by Picasso when he was influenced by African masks – elongated, expressionless, uncaring and unseeing.

How the ancient Roman sculptors would have laughed at her and the rest of the façade with such a jumble that along with Christian symbols there is an eroded marble panel below St. Peter suggesting a very pagan Green Man, emblematic of the earth’s renewal in spring long before the concept of Easter, along with another one on a side door.

           

The solemn interior has another selection of marble reminders of the past – from a primitive bishop’s throne and a pulpit assembled from carvings made in many eras, to a beautiful Renaissance-era baptismal font.  Taken together, the ensemble shows evidence of labor interrupted and taken up anew. The work continues: a technician, intent on restoring the octagonal font, didn’t look up as we watched his painstaking work to reverse the destructive passage of time and neglect, and scaffolding-lined walls. A few faded frescoes are still visible including an enormous Last Judgment with graphic depictions of tortures so loved by Church fathers for those they consigned to Hell. Too depressing to contemplate on a sunny day when it was nearly lunch time.

Moving our gaze to the figures on the right side of God who were on their way to Heaven improved our outlook and moved us to return to our time and find a suitable trattoria like they probably did after being released from Purgatory. We found one in the shadow of the town’s walls, Il Peperoncino. Ravioli made by the owner’s granny and roast chicken with rosemary were on the menu along with local wine. We stepped in to rest our feet and brains and please our stomachs. Heavenly indeed.

Last and best on the day’s agenda was the Basilica of San Pietro, set on top of the ancient Etruscan acropolis, its foundations resting on the remains of a temple that preceded it by a thousand years. Specialists in the last century believed it was from the 700s but now the consensus has moved the date forward some three hundred years, still not exactly new by my standards. Whatever the date it remains monumental, solitary and enduring as it dominates the surrounding countryside graced with Etruscan tombs, vines and groves.

Screaming jackdaws circled fortification towers as we crossed the grassy piazza to enter.

The disused bishop’s palace was the place to pay the small entry fee. A crone in black nodded and smiled as she took our euros. She was so ancient that she might have been resting on a sarcophagus just a few minutes earlier, only coming to life when we showed up. Like most other churches, it was empty of worshipers but in this case full of interest. Franco Zeffirelli found it so evocative that he used it to film a number of scenes in Romeo and Juliet. Sarcophagi line one side wall to complement those resting on the grounds and the city wall.

Stone benches fitted between the squat pillars face each other across the nave. They were used for meetings, no doubt frequently concerned with how to ward off invaders. Faded but still lovely Cosmati floors curl along the center of the nave. A few faint frescoes remaining after disastrous earthquakes lacerated the walls over the centuries – the latest in 1971 – are illuminated by dusty light as the sun gently moves from scene to scene.

Worn steps led us down to the frescoed crypt. The space is supported by a forest of pillars, none matching another in height, shape or style. The layout reminded me of the rows of columns found in the great mosque in Cordoba.

Here too are frescoes, one still brilliantly depicting local patron saints, Secondianus, Marcellianus and Veranius. Whoever they might have been, they are still stylish with red caps rimmed with white and white earmuffs with a red ball hanging below their ears. It was damp and cold in the crypt, then and now.


The exterior displays a conglomerate of styles more harmonious to me than that of Santa Maria Maggiore although it also includes pre-Christian carvings. Along with a typical large rose window and the four Evangelists, a plaque showing either an Atlas holding up the world or an Etruscan priest in a worship posture complements the décor.  Surrounding one of the two pillared windows sculpted lush vines spring from the mouth of another Green Man.

Gazing at the deserted church, I found it was easy to imagine the industrious builders scouring the countryside for whatever bits and pieces from a long forgotten pagan past that they could drag to the hilltop to embellish their homage to a Medieval God. Perhaps at some point it will become a center of worship again to continue the endless cycle of time.

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CHRISTMAS IN ROME

The Christmas season in Rome begins on December 1. We had the pleasure of participating in the start of the festivities in Piazza Navona and  the neighborhoods. The first event on our list was the annual United National Women’s Guild bazaar with shopping opportunities from the world over to fund projects in developing countries.

 

We paused at this shop on the way to Piazza Navona to inspect their treats:


Next stop was wonderful Piazza Navona where the traditional Christmas market was being set up.

 

One of the most important traditions is that of a Nativity Scene, first popularized by St. Francis in the 1200s. Many stands feature enormous selections of figures to make your own: the Holy Family, peasants and now some Nelson Mandelas, food, animals and cork-bark shelters for angels to hover over.

  
And of course there are loads of stalls filled with toys.

 

And a carrousel:

And, the most important, the wizened old grannies called befane who fly through the air astride
broomsticks. La Befana is the witch who brings Christmas treats to children if they are good and coal if they have been bad. She arrives on the night of January 5th to ensure gifts are ready on Epiphany morning in remembrance of the Gifts of the Magi. But no real worries – the “coal” is really black candy, so bambini are never very worried.

In case you want to know more here’s a delightful clip: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=meR3gMhtfPE

 

 

When it was time for a snack we stopped by the chestnut vendor:


Finally, ready for a return to our hotel we paused at the Pasticceria Barberini on the Via Marmorata for a coffee and a look in their window:  

A perfect start to the season which we would soon be celebrating in our home in the Pacific Northwest. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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COUNTRY PLEASURES

 
What better than a few days in the Italian countryside? Especially if they involve a castle, a swimming pool and time to visit small hill towns nearby in the warm sunshine.

 

A writer friend in Italy recommended the Castello di Santa Maria, located near the tiny village of San Michele in Teverina, at the north end of Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. The castle is part of the Charme & Relax network of (mostly) country homes and castles.

 

We drove north from Rome, through Viterbo and on to a rural secondary road towards Orvieto, turning off at the sign to the village and our destination. Then up a cypress-lined drive to reach the castle – an 15th Century monastery founded by the Camaldolesi monks, and enlarged by the friars Servants of Mary in the 17thCentury. Now restored and converted to a hotel with several rooms in the main building, and cottages set in an olive grove or near the swimming pool. A slice of heaven, Italian style.

 

Our cottage had two bedrooms and baths separated by a living room, perfect for two couples, giving us both privacy and community. We overlooked the pool, olive trees and in the distance the isolated hill town of Cività di Bagnoregio perched on a outcrop in the middle of barren land.

 

We used our hotel as a springboard to visit surrounding towns. The first goal was to drive to Bagnoregio where the steps and bridge to the town begin. Cività is a medieval town precariously clinging to eroding rock, population 12 plus cats in winter but more in summer when tourists make the trek up and down steps and over a bridge to look around. The town was founded by the Etruscans like everyplace else in the area. Its claim to fame beside the spectacular location is that it was the boyhood home to Saint Bonaventure. Unfortunately, his home has long since fallen off the cliff into the abyss. One wonders when the rest will follow.

 













Civitella d’Agliano, where there is little to see, spills down a hill with narrow twisting streets and ancient dwellings. The street is so narrow it took fifteen minutes of to-and-fro to get out of a dead end. When the car was finally positioned to leave the town we were pointed steeply downhill on a road taking us to a fallow field with no way to make a turn back up to the main road. Down we went hoping for some way to return. At the bottom there was a treat: a medieval washhouse, the clear waters pouring out of a spout to bathe the ferns. No washer-women in sight – they were all standing on their tiny balconies or front steps above us watching with amusement as we tried to maneuver.

 

Orvieto, an actual city with medieval towers, is set high on a rock outcropping. The black and white striped Duomo with its marvelous mosaic and carved marble facade is the main attraction.




The treasure filled interior hosts the Chapel of San Brizio decorated by Renaissance masters. The frescoes by Luca Signorelli depicting the Preaching of the Antichrist, End of the World, Resurrection of the Flesh, and the Damned Taken to Hell are enough to scare viewers out of their wits (and to stop sinning). Most alarming was the Devil shooting death rays on an ill-fated town. The rays looked too much like missiles so common in our own age.

 
 
The Resurrection scene is almost three dimensional with bodies crawling out of holes. Signorelli seemed to have especially enjoyed painting the nicely-rounded posteriors of naked men in this remarkable scene where everyone, but a few skeletons, flaunts a perfectly toned body as if their time in Purgatory was merely a spa cure.

 

 






The Damned Taken to Hell has the famous winged devil carrying a naked woman to her fate. All that death and misery was soon too much to contemplate on a lovely day – it was lunch time. Sitting with other diners on a restaurant terrace we soon forgot about Signorelli’s world and our own in favor of concentrating on the local Orvieto white wine and pasta at Vinosus Wine Bar near the Duomo. 

But we had one more sight involving death to see before we left – the small Etruscan cemetery, located beneath the towering hill. Granted, there are many other Etruscan necropoli, but this is the only one I know of where the families of the deceased have their names chiseled into the stone. Could they ever have imagined tourists would be tramping around trying to decipher names and looking into the dank and empty mausoleums long emptied of their contents by looters or archeologists?

 

When it was time for us to end the day’s exploration we returned the “long” way on quiet winding roads snaking through the countryside where vineyards soaked up the lowering sun. Below the hills, the valley of the Tiber with train tracks and the autostrada reminded us of the busy life of modern day Italy awaiting us when we returned to Rome. 

 

 

When I arose at dawn the following morning a full moon was setting over the olive groves. Ah – Italy!
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LAGO DI ORTA & OTHERWORLDLY HANDS

 

Mellow sunshine made the trees dressed in fall finery glow in the warmth of the day. We were off on a day trip from Milan through rolling forested hills to Orta San Giulio. The small town rests on the shore of Lago di Orta, one of the smallest of the lakes that decorate the northern part of Italy between the plain of the Po River and the Alps. This area has long been our romantic destination, both in actuality and in my mind.

Well, there is truth to the old saying that you can’t go home again. Instead of a few holiday makers strolling through galleries and boutiques there were busloads of people jamming the central plaza for a quick pasta and beer before climbing aboard for the next stop on their itinerary. The galleries and boutiques were shuttered, victims of the poor economy in Italy. Even more depressing, our long-time favorite hotel which dominated one side of the plaza, was a ruined hulk brooding over the lakeside and the determined visitors.

Fortunately, not all was lost. The church bells from the Benedictine nunnery on the small island not far off shore from the town still reverberated over the quiet water as always and a well-dressed crowd of locals was congratulating a pair of newlyweds in the municipal gardens.








The lacy wrought iron gates to villas were as beautiful as ever as were the villas themselves.

But as much as I love the little town with its Baroque church and cobbled streets, the most enchanting locale is the Sacred Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set on a hill overlooking the town, twenty small chapels, some dating from 1590, are set in quiet woods.

 

Each is filled with life-sized but dusty terracotta figures depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis.

 

 

Demonstrating the continuity of the endeavor, the earliest chapels are in Renaissance style. As time passed, the succeeding building style changed to the theatrical Baroque, then Rocco, and finally Neo-classical in the last quarter of the 18th Century. Taken together they present a harmonious arrangement with the greensward, trees and vistas of the lake with its little island combining to encourage contemplation whether you are religious or not.
 
 But it is the fresco on the exterior of every chapel that always attracts me: who can resist a a faded disembodied hand emerging from a cloud? Are they the hand of God admonishing the worshipper?

The hands seem to point tentatively, although with gentle grace. I like to picture local citizens lining up to have their hands assessed for sufficient character to serve as models. But who painted them, and when?

I know the hands are intended to lead the visitor to the next chapel, but the otherworldly nature of the frescoes also point the way to more of Italy with all its mysteries and curiosities that can never be fully comprehended.

  

     
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YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN


The Madonna delBagno is a small church nestled inconspicuously near the main road to Deruta. It is famous for painted ceramic tiles affixed to the walls by worshippers in thanks to the Virgin for rescue from near death.

In the 17thcentury, an itinerant merchant, one Cristoforo Merciaro, or Christopher the Peddler,  found a ceramic fragment on the ground. Fourteen years earlier, a Franciscan monk had placed the little piece, painted with a primitive image of the Madonna and Child, in an oak tree for safekeeping.

The story continues: The merchant returned the fragment to its place and prayed to the image to save his dying wife, whom he did not expect to see alive again. When he returned home from his travels he found her not just alive but “out of bed in perfect health, sweeping the floors.” This housekeeping miracle gave rise to the fragment’s veneration.


The church, built to commemorate the event, became a magnet for ceramic artisans from nearby Deruta, a center for majolica-decorated terracotta tableware and decorative items made there since the Middle Ages.

The local inhabitants expressed gratitude for their own personal miracles by making ceramic ex-votos thanking the Madonna for her aid in times of danger. The original image of Madonna and Child, painted on a broken cup, still survives as shown above. Its depiction of a small Madonna holding a large fat Child who in turn holds a globe is a delight to all mothers. The colors are simple blue and yellow on a white background, the predominant colors on traditional Deruta ceramics.

Glazed terra cotta plaques made by the local artisans eventually covered the small church’s walls. These tiles had a partial miracle of their own: about 200 were stolen in 1980, but about half were recovered to grace the walls again. There are now about 600 plaques covering every aspect of human misery averted by the Madonna’s grace. Although varying in shape they all have a disaster scene, the Madonna and Child, usually in a tree, and the initials P.G.R. sometimes written out as Per Grazia Ricevuta, for grace received.


 Folk art in style, they depict scenes of people being miraculously saved from falls off roofs, tobacco drying sheds or out of trees, attack by animals or bandits, floods, fire, lightning, earthquakes, plague, or the dangers of childbirth.

 

While most plaques are from the 17th and 18thcentury, reflecting the rigors of life in those times, survival from more contemporaneous disasters are also memorialized, especially auto accidents. Grateful familis have even commissioned tiles with scenes from World War II as well as the miseries of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 All the tiles are colorful and hopeful, but also a reminder that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. I thought about ordering up one to celebrate my escape from death when I fell in the Rome subway or our avoidance of jail after the crash with the Carabinieri.

Photo Credits: top photos of church from Creative Commons; photo of Madonna & Child by Judith Works; photos of tiles courtesy of Lars Bjorkman

This story originally appeared in Coins in the Fountain, a memoir of living in Italy
                                                                                                     

 
 
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BE READY FOR GOOD FORTUNE

A Guest Post by fellow traveler, Janette Turner:

One summer I traveled to Italy with my husband’s business school and set out on a side trip to Venice. My companion was another wife amusing herself while her spouse was in class. As I sat in the back seat of a student’s rental car next to Barb, she revealed why all the other wives had gone off without us.
 

“Slow down!” said Barb every few minutes, even though the young driver was motoring in the right lane, letting cars pass. Soon there were so many admonishments and complaints from Barb that I realized I was reflexively cringing whenever she opened her mouth. She seemed to have the same displeased opinion about everything, including the short ride on the train and the choppy water against the sides of the Vaporetto that finally arrived. Most of all, she complained about her husband. “Martin flirts with the coeds and doesn’t seem to notice me.”

I nodded in sympathy while leading us down the alley to our budget hotel. Opening the door to our room, I was shocked to see a chandelier and gilding on the bathroom fixtures. The floor at my feet was a mosaic of marble. “This room is divine.”

Barb looked around. “It’s dirty,” she said and continued her list of marital complaints. At one point she abandoned the subject to discuss dinner. “I don’t care where we eat as long as it’s cheap.”

As we wandered an alley, I read menus posted under strings of white lights outside restaurants. Over pasta and tap water, Barb continued her husband’s crimes against their marriage, from forgetting her 50th birthday to drinking too much vodka. She waved away the waiter’s platter of desserts and, still talking about Martin, marched us back to our gilded room.

The next day was a repeat of the first. Barb recounted every one of Martin’s crimes and I listened, but this time we were walking along waterways, up and over the Bridge of Sighs and past shops selling gold jewelry, Carnival masks and glass works. Every once in a while I would point out something to Barb, just to get her eyes off the dusty ground in front of her.

I finally got a break from her chatter in a glass shop. I admired the craftsmanship that went into the goblets, but my budget was tiny. My husband and I could barely afford his schooling and the trip, so I turned my attention to the “seconds” table when I heard something surprising.

“I love this,” said Barb, holding a glass pen in her hand.

I turned it over for the price tag. “It’s just ten dollars, so buy it.” I knew from listening to Barb that she had amassed a fortune for herself and her husband, although he did not appreciate her penny-pinching talent.

Barb held the clear instrument to the light off the canal. “I’ve always wanted something special to write a book with.”

While she mulled, I bought a handful of bracelets with the fewest number of deformed beads. When we left the shop I asked Barb about the pen that she surely must have bought.

“I didn’t buy it,” she said, resuming her pace and recounting of her husband’s crimes.

At dinner that night I finally broke over a glass of wine. “Just divorce him.”

She startled as if coming awake. “Divorce him?” She looked at her plate of ravioli. “Well, I guess I could. I probably should. Yes, I will divorce him.” She raised her water glass and we toasted her decision. “I’ll finally be happy. He can date coeds and we can split the property.” She took off, detailing her future divorce. Every plan she made was a thousand times happier than the misery she had sown earlier.

The next morning I awoke early and saw her eating a candy bar on her bed. “People came by all night long to buy candy out of the machine below us. It kept me awake.”

“I have to get something,” I said, quickly changing into a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Out on the street, I walked past the candy machine for the nearest glass store. This shop was in the hotel district, so the prices were triple those we had seen a day earlier. But this was a special purchase. Back in our room, I handed over the narrow package. “I had to get this for you.”

Barb undid the green ribbon. “Thank you,” she said, picking apart tissue paper to find the glass pen inside.

I opened my arms for the hug I expected. “May you write and create the life you want after your divorce.”

She put the lid back on the box, re-tied the ribbon and walked over to her luggage. “I’m not getting divorced.”

I watched her pack the pen away, knowing there would be no book written with that instrument. It would be forever locked away in its little coffin tied with green ribbon, a frozen symbol of her life, stuck and waiting for something. Something that might never happen.

 

Janette Turner is a writer, reporter, and memoir coach. You can read more of her work at www.JanetteTurner.com.

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