Saturday, May 7, 2011

Spanish Steps / Santa Maria del Popolo

I took a walk through the Piazza del Popolo and down some shady side streets parallel to the Via Babuino to the Piazza di Spagna. The Spanish Steps are famous mostly for being famous, like many American celebrities. The azaleas planted there are in bloom but you can barely see them because of the masses of tourists congregating on the steps. The fountain in the Piazza has a comic twist. Because the water pressure at this particular site is so low, the artist couldn't make a huge fountain spraying gallons of water. Instead, he designed it as a shallow pool with a sinking ship in the middle!

The church of Santa Maria del Popolo has two absolutely beautiful Caravaggio paintings in one of its chapels, but you can't take pictures of them. I took some interior snapshots of other things where I was allowed to do so, just so I could remember the church itself and those fantastic paintings. Here are online wiki links to The Conversion of St Paul on the Way to Damascus (1601) and The Crucifixion of St Peter (1600), both in the Cerasi Chapel.

Here are a half dozen pictures from my walk:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Drive through the Mountains

Here are some rough video clips of our drive through the mountain range known as the Gran Sasso d'Italia. At an elevation of around 7000 feet, there was new snow on the peaks even as late as May 5.

Ascoli Piceno and the Mountains

The final day trip on our beach vacation in the province of Le Marche took us to the town of Ascoli Piceno. The town was originally settled by the Piceni people and then conquered by the Romans in the first century BC. The main square is the Piazza del Popolo, lined on three sides by wide porticoes that shelter the entrances to shops and restaurants. The square is also bounded by the Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo (13th century) and the church of San Francesco (13th-16th century). We enjoyed a relaxed stroll through the town's narrow pedestrian-friendly streets and checked out the open-air markets. For lunch, we sampled the local delicacy: large olives stuffed with ground meat, battered like a kind of teriyaki, and fried.

The drive home took us back over the mountains of central Italy. We were surprised to see how rugged and sparsely populated this region is. The peaks range up to about 7000 feet (roughly the elevation of Jemez Springs) and there was a considerable amount of snow still to be seen.


Urbino is a small, friendly hilltop town (ca. 16,000) that lies about 20 miles inland from the coast. It has now moved up to near the top of our list of favorite places in Italy. It is a completely charming small town: narrow medieval streets, generous open piazzas, interesting medieval and Renaissance architecture, a great collection of early Italian art, and a lively university atmosphere to boot. Plus the requisite yummy gelato. . . .

Urbino's most famous son is the artist Raphael (1483-1520). We saw two of his paintings in Urbino and visited the house where he was born. The interior, kitchen, and courtyard all have period furnishings, but the highlight might have been the modest little mortar and pestle where Raphael's father (also a successful artist) ground his own pigments.

The Ducal Palace is sometimes said to be the most beautiful Renaissance palace in Italy. The Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, had this palace built for himself between 1444 and 1482. In addition to being a successful general and ruler, Duke Federico was also a true "Renaissance man," devoted to architecture, literature, art, music, and fine living. Today, the palace holds a splendid art collection. The building complex is beautifully designed and richly decorated, a work of art in its own right. The "studiolo" (the Duke's private study) is a marvel of inlaid wood in fascinating three-dimensional perspective. There are numerous pieces of late medieval and Renaissance art, sculpture, and tapestry, including two paintings by none other than Rafael himself.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Procession In Jesi

The previous blog entry described the procession for the celebration of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Jesi. I also tried to make two rough-and-ready videos. Soon, I will learn how to edit them. Here's the first one: the band playing outside the church just before the procession began.

Vacation in Le Marche

The semester for the CUA Rome Program ended on Friday, April 29. Along with 3 billion others, we watched the Royal Wedding live on TV. The next morning, we drove across Italy to the Adriatic coast where Susie had booked us a lovely self-catering flat in the tiny seashore village of Numana. Our balcony gave us a fine view of the sea, the sandy beach, and the picturesque Conero Peninsula rising almost 1900 feet above the sea.

Our flat served as the perfect base of operations for day trips. Our first trip took us through Loreto to the town of Jesi. Legend has it that in 1294, angels carried the House of the Virgin Mary from the Holy Land to Loreto. About 3 million visitors a year now come to Loreto to venerate the Sacred House.

Jesi is a medieval hill town a few miles inland from the coast. We were lucky enough to run into another local festival: the celebration of Santa Maria delle Grazie at the local parish church. After a brief worship service, there was a procession through the streets of the town. Members of various religious societies, priests and friars, town officials, pious laypeople, and the town band accompanied an effigy of the Virgin through the streets.

Exploring Ancient Etruscan Tombs

One of the highlights of this trip to Tuscany came on the last day. On our way back to Rome, we stopped at the small coastal town of Tarquinia. Two and a half millennia ago, this was a large and prosperous Etruscan settlement. From the 5th to the 2nd century BCE, the residents built a huge necropolis -- a "city of the dead" -- on a high, windy ridge with a view of the sea just outside their city. We had seen many Etruscan artifacts that had been removed from these tombs when we toured the museums at Villa Giulia (see blog entry of April 12) and at Volterra (see blog entry of April 29), so we were really looking forward to a chance to explore the tombs themselves.

Archeologists say that there are about 6000 tombs in this one burial ground. Many of them (but by no means all) have been excavated, but visitors can only go down into about fifteen of them at any one time. The tombs we explored here were very different from the one we saw just outside Volterra. That one consisted of a large undecorated circular room with four smaller burial chambers, each outfitted with stone "beds" for the deceased. The tombs at Tarquinia were for the most part a single rectangular room. The sloped ceilings and walls were decorated with paintings depicting the pleasures of the afterlife: banquets, hunting, music, dance, sex. The burial chambers are now about 20-30 feet underground. Here are some pictures of what we saw:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Signa Video

I don't have much experience using the video feature on The Little Camera That Could, but I did try to experiment by making a couple of brief videos of the procession at Signa for the Feast of the Translation of the Blessed Giovanna. (See previous blog entry.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Procession in Signa

On Monday, we drove to the town of Signa, which is located on the Arno River a few miles west of Florence. April 25 was a trifecta of annual celebrations for the residents: Pasquetta (the Monday after Easter is a holiday here), Liberation Day (celebrating the end of World War II), and the Feast of Beata Giovanna (Blessed Joan), a holy woman from Signa who died in the early fourteenth century. The latter event is celebrated with a procession of townspeople in colorful, handmade period costumes, accompanied by trumpets, drummers, banners, archers, flag-swingers, and groups representing the various major and minor guilds of the medieval town. We were lucky to get a spot right on the route to experience all the morning's pageantry.

San Gimignano

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the hilltop town of San Gimignano was an important and prosperous stopping place on the pilgrimage route to Rome. The Black Death (bubonic plague) that swept Europe in 1348-49 decimated this town as well. Today, it is a pleasant tourist destination with a population of about 7000 residents and umpteen million visitors. The town's claim to fame is that it has retained so much of its medieval appearance: narrow winding lanes, a wide piazza with a cistern and well, and many picturesque shops and restaurants. The Collegiata church is a beautiful 12th-century Romanesque building the walls of which are totally covered with well-preserved medieval frescoes. (No pictures permitted, but I can show you the book I bought.) During its heyday, noble families built fortress-like palaces inside the city walls, each of which was crowned by a massive watchtower. Thirteen of the towers survive, giving San Gimignano its distinctive skyline.