Positano is one of the jewels of the Amalfi coast, nestled somewhat perilously along the slopes of a cleft formed by a small river. In fact, the night before this picture was taken, heavy rains had brought flooding streams into shops and restaurants in the lower part of the town. The beach was strewn with garbage and detritus. But from afar, the beauty of the location is obvious. Dark storm clouds were sneaking over the hills from the north, threatening another deluge.
In the year 1204 an alliance of western European crusaders, led by the Venetians, was en route to liberate the Holy Land from the grip of the Muslims. Having stopped in Constantinople the crusading armies, encouraged by Doge Enrico Dandolo of Venice, decided that the capital of the Byzantine Empire offered a more profitable target. They proceeded to loot the city. Galley’s full of stolen icons, metal, sculptures, and innumerable other objects, were taken to Venice. Such material is called spolia, as in the spoils of war. Many reliefs were cemented into the facades of the church of San Marco. This is a detail of one of the fine sculptures on San Marco’s north facade, where most of the reliefs were placed. It once decorated a church in Constantinople.
This is the spiral staircase of the Casa Contarini del Bovolo. The real name of the family was Contarini, but the ‘del Bovolo’, ‘of the snail’ was added when this famous staircase was built, thus distinguishing their family from others with the surname Contarini. The dramatic staircase was used as a setting in Orson Welles’ film Othello of 1951.
This picture was taken in Venice, showing posters plastered up on a construction site’s fencing. I loved the colours, the typography. The Jazz was both advertised and embodied in the posters.
It’s not hard to see, when in Venice, why so many painters were drawn to its incomparable atmosphere, light, and architectural forms. At any time of year, in any weather, the storied city offers up innumerable enchantments, indescribable mysteries.
The Massacre of the Innocents, the description of which is found in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16-18), recounts a terrible story, which may or may not be true: that Herod ordered the killing of all the infants of Bethlehem. In art, it provided painters and sculptors with a chillingly dramatic subject. One of the most graphic I’ve ever seen can be found it Verona, Italy, on one of the faces of a baptismal font sculpted by Brioloto de Baleno around 1300. Low down, a child has been eviscerated by a soldier, beside him two younger children take futile refuge in their mother’s skirt. The Biblical account goes as follows: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.”
The Ponte Vecchio, the famous medieval bridge over the Arno River in Florence, survives because a German general, retreating from advancing Allied troops in World War II, decided not to blow it up. All the other bridges had been mined. Instead, he demolished a palazzo beside the bridge, successfully blocking the road. It’s rumoured that Hitler didn’t want it destroyed, as he’d once had a nice vacation in Florence and appreciated the historic span. This picture was taken from the height of the Piazza Michelangelo, on the same slopes where the Allies planned their liberating of Florence.
The Sylvestri Crater, on the south slopes of Mount Etna on Sicily, is the most accessible of the craters, so it’s often ringed by a phalanx of tourists strolling around its rim. Just to the right there’s a comfortable cafe. The crater, and the one next to it, was formed in 1892. The crater was named after the vulcanologist Orazio Silverstri.
The village of Zafferana, in Sicily, lies on the slopes of the famous volcano, Mount Etna. Known for its delicious honey, flavoured by the chestnut trees of Etna’s slopes, the citizens love the mountain and refer to it with maternal vocabularies. Here, I caught the steeples of Zafferana’s cathedral with the Mother Mountain smouldering in the background. The citizens hope that another mother, Mary, will protect them from the volcano’s occasional wrath.
No culture knows how to turn a bicycle into a work of art better than the Italian culture. That’s probably because Italians already see a bicycle as a work of art to begin with. This mobile planter can be moved into the sun if the plants need it, or from under a shelter to get watered when it rains. A movable garden beautiful from any angle. Taken in Alberobello, Italy (see posts below).
I’ve posted on the trulli houses with their conical, corbel domed roofs before, last year some time, but whenever I visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Alberobello’s historical area I’m impressed with the beauty and ingenuity of these structures (see post below). Here is a view of the section of the town with the densest collection of domes. But the town risks losing its UNESCO designation. Long ago they were supposed to get rid of those telephone poles and power lines. You can see why UNESCO asks for them to be put underground. They really spoil what is otherwise an amazing skyline.
Here’s a detail from one of the roofs of the trulli houses of Alberobello (see above). It’s a real art to stack the un-mortared slabs of stone to make a solid and long lasting roof. Even though the techniques are similar, because no two houses are the same no two roofs are the same. Each is a form of architectural sculpture. Here, in a notch created by the confluence of three domed sections of a complex trulli group, the masons have created a lovely valley for the rainwater to sluice into.
The Portonaccio Sarcophagus, which gets its name from the quarter in Rome in which it was discovered (near Tibertina, in 1931) was made around 180 CE and would have contained the body of a general, most likely Aulus Iulius Pompillius, who fought for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius against the Germanic tribe of the Marcomanni in the early 170s. Many similar sarcophagi were produced in the second half of the second century, with deeply cut figures densely arrayed in complex poses.
This is the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus, dating from around 335 CE, very shortly after the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine. It’s iconography is difficult for us to decipher today because it differs so much from how we usually see events in Christian art depicted. For example, just to the left of center you see a figure pointing a stick at some pots on the ground. That’s the Miracle at Cana, Christ’s turning water into wine. To the right of that you see Christ again, here pointing to baskets; the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Moses appears at the far left, striking the rock with his staff and making the fountain of water come. On the far right is the Raising of Lazarus. On the lid, on the left, you might recognize the Nativity of Christ, with the Annunciation to the Shepherds to the right of that. It very strongly resembles a sarcophagus in Syracusa, Sicily, which has very similar depictions.
In the 12th century the Astalli family used the sub-structure of a giant ancient Roman tomb as a base for a huge tower, today known as the Torre Selce or ‘Selce Tower’. It’s around mile marker 7 of the Via Appia Antica south of Rome. The middle ages were tough on the ancient monuments of Rome as they were used as quarries and provided people with convenient supplies of brick and stone. Later centuries, particularly the 18th and 19th, saw foreign travelers come and take away the sculptures and artifacts, leaving mostly sad detritus behind. The hundreds of Romans who built their tombs along the Via Appia had their sepulchers looted and dismembered. Still, today, it’s a very worthwhile walk, the best stretch being the 3 or so kilometers between the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella and the Torre Selce.