On the Isola Bella, a small island in north Italy’s Lago Maggiore, is the Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens. In the gardens live a small colony of white peacocks. Today, the boys were trying to impress the girls, who were completely uninterested. But the fellows never gave up, tracking the hens with their outstretched fans, like a big radar dish trying to send a signal. At least the many tourists trying to take their pictures must have bolstered their egos.
In the Palazzo Borromeo, on the Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore, near Stresa, Italy (see post below), there is a marvelous circular table with the top done in mosaic. There are around 9000 glass mosaic pieces–called tesserae–that compose a basket brimming with fresh spring flowers. Apparently it took 8 years to complete, by the early 19th century Roman micro-mosaicist Domenico Molgia.
I just came from sunny and relatively warm southern Italy yesterday. It was a bit of a shock to find temperatures in the low 40s Fahrenheit in Stresa. The morning, though cold, was beautiful. This is a view from the roof of the Hotel Palma, with the new snow on the mountains beyond and the Isola Bella floating in Lago Maggiore.
The Apulian town of Lecce is a wonderful place. It’s sometimes called ‘the Florence of the south’, but it really has its own character, incomparable to any other place. At night, when the city’s cathedral square is lit, as here, it seems otherworldly, like an enormous and ambitious stage set. You almost think opera singers will appear. Instead, kids are learning to ride their bicycles and everyone is out for their evening walk. Such a lovely sight.
One of Italy’s enduring icons has to be the bicycle. There was never invented a more elegant and efficient mode of locomotion. Even a crappy old junker, leaning against a wall in Lecce, seems proud of its classic design. I’m almost always on the move, traveling virtually all the year, and one of the main things I miss about a more sedentary life is the pleasure of riding my bike.
When the Spanish came upon the ‘New World’–new to them anyway–the processing of cocoa and chocolate was one of the things they learned from the native peoples. The Maya made chocolate where the cocoa was not heated, and thus sugars stayed crystalline and crunchy. The Spaniards brought the original recipe from the New World to Europe, but in later centuries attempts to smooth the texture led to heating and eventually the introduction of milk. These later European processes of heating the cocoa also changed the complex aromas and tastes of the cocoa. The Spanish had introduced the original process to many of its colonies, including Sicily, and while everywhere else they lost the original method, in the little southeastern Sicilian town of Modica they continue to this day making chocolate in the original Mayan cold process way. There’s a wonderful chocolate store in Lecce, Italy, that has these wonderful ‘Chocolate of Modica’ bars. I got a plain dark chocolate one, one with sea salt, and one with almonds. Oh boy.
This mosaic panel is in the early 6th century CE church of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna (see post below). In the upper parts of the walls, above the clerestory, are panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Here is the story of the Raising of Lazarus, told in spare efficiency: Christ on the right just raises his hand and Lazarus, in his sepulcher and still in his burial winding cloth, opens his eyes, alive once again.
This procession of female saints can be found in the church of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna (early 6th century CE). On the opposite wall, a complementary parade of male saints also bears gifts for Christ. For saints there are superbly dressed, with crowns and elegant clothing. Behind them are palm trees, the palm branch being symbolic of the martyrdom that they suffered. Their names float above them in black lettering. At the procession’s end they are joined by the Three Magi, also bearing gifts to the infant Christ.
These three apostles, rendered in mosaic, are from the dome of the Baptistery of the Neonians in Ravenna, and date from the late 5th century CE (see also post below). Stalks that look like fancy agave sprout between them. Their drapery flows and furrows in complex folds. Each carries a crown, presumably the crown of heaven; the promise to the believers who enter the faith by being baptized in the font just below. Baptisms themselves, and the ceremonies, were processional, and so the apostles would have seemed to be participants in the rites.
This detail is of a mosaic in the Baptistery of the Neonians in Ravenna, dating from the late 400s CE. In the dome of the baptistery is a procession of apostles, of which Peter is one. He has already his standard look: a full head of white hair and beard. You can see his name written out in gold: PETRVS. This 1500 year-old depiction of the important saint is one of my favorite. His face, despite the limitations of mosaic, has a real specificity to it and a personality as well. Indeed, each of the apostles in these mosaics seem almost preternaturally individualized, as if the artists had particular friends in mind as models.
Galla Placidia was a Byzantine princess and imperial consort, the daughter of the Emperor Theodosius. She lived between 388-450 CE. She spent the end of her life in Ravenna, a Byzantine regional capital of the western holdings of the empire. Her mausoleum in Ravenna looks plain from the outside, and modest in scale, but the interior is glorious. In the vaults abstract stars twinkle in a night sky of deep blue, indicating the heaven that her soul aspired to.
One of the most remarkable depictions of paradise can be found in the apse of the church of Sant’Apollinaire en Class, just outside of Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna has probably the best collection of early Byzantine mosaics anywhere, mostly from the 6th century CE, and I have to say this one is my favorite. The saint stands in the center of a verdant glade filled with trees, birds, and blooming flowers. Above floats a cross and Moses and Elijah drift among clouds above. The myriad shades of green evoke an eternal spring, ever lush, overseen by the golden glow of a sacred sun (see post below).
This is a detail of the image above, from the apse mosaic from the church of St Apollinaire in Classe, just on the outskirts of Ravenna. The saint is in an orant pose, a pose of worship, but he seems also to beckon the viewer to his paradise, as if saying, “this could all be yours if you believe”. The sheep are the believers, too, the flock of Christians for whom he is a shepherd. Above him floats a giant golden cross levitating in a giant circle with the blue of the sky and golden stars.
The 6th century CE mosaics of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, are masterpieces of Byzantine art. In the chancel of this remarkable church, two imperial processions face each other. In one, the Emperor Justinian leads a cortege of courtiers and ecclesiasts in bringing a gift to a church, presumably a gift to San Vitale. Though Justinian never went there the mosaic serves as a record of his donation. Thus, while never present, he’s been there in mosaic for 1500 years. On the opposite wall, pictured here, the Empress Theodora leads a similar procession of women, dressed in impressive Byzantine finery. She, too, bears a gift for the church, the entrance to which is visible, beyond the parted veil, to the left. A phiale, a sacred water font, appears just inside. As if to remark on the precedent for giving gifts to god, the three magi are depicted in golden thread on the lower hem of her dress.
Yesterday I took the Ferrovia Circumetnea, the clunky old narrow gauge railway that goes around the base of Mount Etna, the famous Sicilian volcano, from Catania to the sleepy town of Randazzo. The views of the mountain were magnificent, with lots of snow still on the western and northern slopes. One of the calderas was really steaming and I got this picture near Randazzo (see post below). It was a clear day and I’d never seen Etna so active, even though it’s almost always doing something.