Friday, April 29, 2011

Stalking Puccini

Our next day trip was on Easter Sunday. We drove north from our home base of Lajatico (birthplace of the tenor Andrea Bocelli) into even the more operatic territory of Lucca and Torre del Lago.

Lucca is a small city ringed by medieval walls and a moat. The center of the city is a vehicle-free (mostly) pedestrian zone, perfect for the Sunday afternoon ritual of the passegggieta -- a relaxed stroll with friends, usually including good food and drink. We found the birthplace of the composer Giacomo Puccini (La Boheme, Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Turnadot) and had a delcious meal inside the formjer Roman amphitheater, now a colorful flower market.

Then we drove west to the coast to visit Torre del Lago, a lakeshore where Puccini lived in a small villa. The tour of the villa includes the entire ground floor where we saw, among other things, beautiful (but not lavish) art nouveau tile and furnishings in the living areas, the desk and piano where Puccini composed his operas, his gun room, and a small chapel where he and his family are buried.


Monteriggioni (pop. 8000) is a typical Tuscan hilltop village, remarkable for its extensive city walls. It is the best preserved walled city in Italy. The walls were built from 1213-1219 and form a rough circle around the town. They run for about 600 meters and have no fewer than fourteen impressive square towers. The daunting fortress-like appearance of the town inspired Dante to use it as a model for the ring of giants circling the abyss in Canto XXXI of the Inferno.

In addition to enjoying the history and beauty of the place, we also got a special surprise. A falconer brought five of his trained birds up onto the walls and gave a demonstration of how they fly, hunt, and return to the lure. These huge birds swooped to within 2 or 3 feet of our heads before attacking the falconer's lure and coming to rest. It was a fantastic event!

Volterra: Guarnacci Museum

Here we go again: another museum. Volterra is the home of the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum. We saw many Etruscan artifacts at the Villa Giulia in Rome (see the blog entry for April 21), but we were eager to see much more. (If you are not so keen on 2500 year-old funerary urns and bronze grave goods, you might be well advised to skip ahead to the next entry.)

Our guidebook says that many of the faces on Etruscan monuments are simply generic types, but we tend to disagree. The stone or terra cotta busts we saw on the sarcophagi seem to be portraits of distinctive individuals, not mere types.

Here are the pictures:


Our first day trip was to the nearby town of Volterra (pop. about 10,000). Like many historic towns in Tuscany, it is perched on a steep hilltop high above the valley floor. There were settlements here during the Stone Age. The town reached its peak of prosperity and influence in the 12th century, after which it got gobbled up by the rulers of Florence. Today, it is best known for the fact that it was an important Etruscan community from the 5th-3rd century B.C., when it was incorporated into the ancient Roman Republic.

Today, it is famous for the many craftsmen who work in alabaster, a soft, easily sculpted stone that is found in the area. It also has a famous museum of Etruscan art, the subject of a future blog entry.

Outside of town, there is an Etruscan necropolis, a "city of the dead." It took a bit of fancy driving and some trial-and-error navigation, but we finally found a pathway to some of the tombs. Jan and I went down underground to explore. The burial chambers were at the foot of a steep stairway. There was a circular central room from which four smaller side chambers radiated. These smaller rooms had stone "beds" for the deceased. The whole complex had been cut out of solid "tufa," a soft stone formed from the compression of volcanic ash. It's the same kind of stone from which the Indians carved their cave dwellings back in Bandelier Canyon, New Mexico.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Return to Tuscany: Lajatico

Jan Stone, our dear friend from TCU days and now our neighbor in Jemez Springs, came to Rome to visit us for a week. We spent most of the week (April 21-26) on the road in Tuscany. Our base of operations was a beautiful newly renovated flat in the tiny village of Lajatico, population ca. 1300. The tiny, compact village sits on a high hilltop and is about 25 miles southwest of Florence. We took a drive through the countryside every day with Susie at the wheel, Steve navigating with a huge folding map, and Jan keeping a sharp lookout for roadsigns (which are very few and far between).

On Good Friday, we went to evening services at the village church, hoping to participate in a candlelight procession through the town. For reasons that were unclear to us -- perhaps because of a light rain -- the procession didn't take place, but we did listen to the readings for the Fourteen Stations of the Cross performed by villagers in front of a large effigy of the dead Christ and his sorrowing mother.

Lajatico's favorite son is Andrea Bocelli, an operatic tenor who was born here. He is the moving force behind the creation of the Theater of Silence, an outdoor amphitheater that hosts only a single performance every year. We can't imagine where the 10,000 spectators park their cars, lodge, or eat in this tiny village.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Official Art: Naples

The Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples is one of the world's great collections of ancient art. In addition to the most precious artifacts excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum, it houses important collections of artworks from imperial Rome that were brought here in the 18th century during the reign of the House of Bourbon.

Street Art: Naples

Naples is full of graffiti scratched, painted, marked, sprayed, pasted, and stenciled onto any available vertical surface. Most of it is just inane scrawling that disfigures buildings and assaults the senses (although nothing that we saw in Naples was as brutally insulting to one's civilized instincts as the many names we saw inked onto the ivory panels of a beautiful Renaissance bapistry in the nave of the cathedral at Arezzo).

Still, despite all the visual clutter left by gangs of urban vandals, there are many images that strike me as being interesting, provocative, amusing, inventive, and even beautiful. The line between vulgarity and art in public spaces can be a very fine and indistinct line indeed. All of these pictures were taken in a stroll through the city center lasting less than an hour. Crimes or artworks? What do you think?

Streets of Naples

Naples is an ancient port city that was founded by the Greeks and later ruled by the Romans, Norman French, Hohenstaufen Germans, Napoleonic French, and Spanish. With a population of 1.3 million and a bustling harbor, it is the unofficial capital of southern Italy. It is the birthplace of St Gennaro, the camorra (Neapolitan mafia), and pizza.

In many ways, Naples reminds us of Dalian (China): crowded, noisy, dirty, rude, chaotic, energetic, criminal, materialistic, and full of a spirit of anarchic fun and vitality. Tall apartments tower over the narrow Roman streets that still crisscross the compact city center. During our two brief visits to the city, we visited churches, an art museum, subterranean Roman ruins, a 19th-century luxury shopping mall, crowded narrow shopping streets, and the harbor.