Padua

With the return of more moderate temperatures, I’ve started to revive after a summer I considered horribly hot. Couple that with autumn being one of my favorite times to travel, and I started looking about me for a destination for an overnight trip and came up with Padua (Padova). What an interesting choice that turned out to be!

After arrival, dropping off my bag at the hotel, and a quick lunch, I started a geocaching Wherigo* called Padova Zoo. A Wherigo cache can be a good way to tour a city and this one proved no exception. My first stop was at an equestrian statue outside the Basilica of St. Anthony. The Basilica is not the city’s cathedral but it is especially revered as the location of the tomb of St. Anthony, the city’s patron saint. The interior is magnificent in scale and beautifully crafted, but not as overpoweringly grandiose as some churches I’ve visited. I was disappointed that no photos were allowed or even good-quality postcards of the interior available to buy.

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After walking my way through the Wherigo, there was time for a restorative cup of tea before an evening visit to the Scrovegni Chapel, which houses an important fresco cycle by Giotto. On arriving, the first stop was a room in which we sat while the ‘microclimate’ was stabilized, a conservation measure put in place in 2000. While we waited, we watched an excellent video that explained the history and significance of the frescoes and gave us a close-up look at the details of the panels. Then it was time to enter.

To be honest, it’s easy to get jaded about frescoes here in Italy—there are so many and so many are beautiful and/or significant. This, though, was different. Perhaps it was because it was a chapel and the smaller scale made the effect more powerful, perhaps it was that there were only four other people there, perhaps it was the video giving me context and what to look for, but this was one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. I could have stayed much longer, neck craned and mouth agape.

The next day, I took a tour of Palazzo Bo, part of the University of Padua. What a great tour! I love when a tour guide obviously loves the place they are talking about, as our guide did. We started in the Old Court, surrounded by heraldic crests and watching graduates in their laurel wreaths get their pictures taken. Our guide explained something I’d been curious about, having seen graduates at all times of year in Florence. In Italy, students can graduate at several times during the calendar year. Someone in the group asked about the song they had heard sung to graduates on the street the previous night, which starts ‘Dottore, dottore.’ Our guide said somewhat evasively that she couldn’t translate it, but when I looked it up online later, I realized that she didn’t want to say the words as they are rather crude!

The history of the university is fascinating. It came into being when a group of teachers and students moved from Bologna University seeking greater academic freedom. The university was organized by the students, who elected the rectors and chose and paid the teachers. In the Old Court, we saw the heraldic crests of different rectors, so many that eventually the mounting of crests was forbidden, partly due to their weight and the consequent stress on the walls.

The Great Hall is where classes were held originally, but now its use is restricted to special occasions. It was so wonderful to look at that I would gladly attend a seminar in order to examine it more closely. Outside the Great Hall is the Sala dei Quaranta, so-called for the forty portraits on the wall of illustrious foreigners who studied at the university. There I met an old friend from my theatre classes, Oliver Goldsmith. There was also in this room a crudely-built structure of steps leading to a lectern. Our guide explained that it originally stood in the Great Hall. It was constructed for Galileo Galilei, who spent 18 years at the university. His lectures were the most popular at the university and students made the lectern so he could be seen above the crowds of attendees.

We visited the anatomy theatre, which was constructed in 1594. Due to the intellectual freedom that was the result of being under the protection of the Venetian Republic, five dissections a year were allowed, using the bodies of executed criminals. The rake of the theatre is quite steep, with six rings looking down onto the table. Over their time at the university, as students progressed through their course of study, they moved closer and closer to the table. Given that the lighting was by candle, I imagine it wasn’t until they ‘graduated’ to the lower tiers that they could see much of anything.

The tour ended at the Heroes Entrance, where there is a stele marking the award of the Gold Medal for Military Valor to the university for its contribution to the Resistance in WWII. The wall of the nearby staircase is frescoed with a depiction of a young student’s progress through learning. Although we couldn’t see the final section (the staircase is roped off because it leads to the rector’s office), the visual narrative ends with the student as an old man, saying ‘anchora imparo’—’still learning’. I love that!

One of the Mantegna frescoes. You can see fragments attached to the lighter background.

After lunch at a quiet restaurant on a quiet street with a charming staff and spectacular food, I picked up my bag at the hotel and headed for the train station, making a stop at Chiesa degli Eremitani. A chapel in this church was almost destroyed by the Allies in WWII because it was next to the German headquarters. The chapel’s frescoes, by Andrea Mantegna, were left, according to an information board, in over 80,000 pieces. The fragments were preserved in Rome and in the early 1990s, cleaned and photographed. Some years later, software was developed to try to virtually reconstruct the frescoes. Get this—they are trying to reconstruct the frescoes using black and white photographs taken between 1900 and 1920. It amazes me the expertise and creativity that goes into art conservation.

All in all, I recommend a visit to Padua if you’re ever in the neighborhood!

* Briefly, a Wherigo uses a cartridge to guide the player from point to point, using GPS technology. You must arrive at a point before the next point is ‘opened’ to you.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

My day in Bologna

As a child, one of my favorite poems was “Jill Came from the Fair” by Eleanor Farjeon, which was in my copy of The Big Golden Book of Poetry: 85 Childhood Favorites. I loved the rhythm of the poem and the two-page-spread illustration that accompanied it.

Walking into Bologna center via Porta delle Lame.

My day-trip excursions sometimes remind me of that poem; although I don’t usually fit in quite as much as Jill does, I fit it in as much as I can, as I did on a recent day trip to Bologna.

My first moments in Bologna reinforced my sympathy for the tourists who complain about the lack of public bathrooms in Florence. One advantage to arriving anywhere by train is the availability of bathrooms in the station, but the same-day train ticket price was prohibitive, so I drove. There was no bathroom in the tourist information center, which I thought odd, but a staff member suggested getting a coffee in the bar next door (a technique often used to access a bathroom) or paying to use the bathroom in the library nearby. I don’t mind paying—it’s worth 50 cents or a euro for a clean bathroom—but it wasn’t clear that only one bathroom in the building was accessible to non-library-card holders. However, after finally finding the bathroom, I was more in the frame of mind to appreciate the main hall of the library.

Biblioteca Salaborsa.

My primary objective for visiting Bologna was to see the meridian line in the Basilica di San Petronio and witness the sun crossing the line around noon (due to summer time, it’s actually a few minutes after 1:00 p.m.) or, to put it more accurately, the earth turning so that the sun falls on the meridian line. The line was constructed by Gian Domenico Cassini in 1655 and is 67 meters long. In combination with the hole through which the sun’s light passes, it’s a very large sundial! It was fascinating to see another example of church as solar observatory (Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is another).

The disk of the sun on the meridian line.

After exploring the rest of the church, it was time for lunch. I chose a restaurant at random and had a specialty of Bologna, tagliatelle al ragù. It was served in a ‘bowl’ of parmesan cheese and was delicious. I followed that with one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever eaten, and followed that with a vow to make an overnight visit so I could fit in more meals. In a country know for its wonderful food, it says something that numerous articles state that Bologna is known for its cuisine.

I still had some time before the designated time on my ticket to climb the Torre degli Asinelli, so I decided to look for a nearby geocache; it was especially appealing because I could have gotten a FTF (first to find). I didn’t find the cache, but I did find an interesting story. The cache was at Le Tombe dei Glossatori: the mausoleums of the glossators. In the Middle Ages, glossators wrote commentaries on Roman law to aid in understanding it. According to the cache owner, they were named after glosses—side or margin notes in law books. (Thanks to cache owners like these, one learns a lot as a geocacher!)

After my unsuccessful search, I headed to the tower, prepared to climb 498 steps. The young woman ahead of me bounded up the steps but my pace was a little slower. I tell myself that I am carrying my camera and two lenses, so that accounts for my pace! The views at the top were worth the climb.

As I waited to start my climb down, a man was coming up the final flight of stairs. The treads were so narrow and the pitch so steep, that I went down backwards, as if I was on a ladder. He, on the other hand, was wearing flip-flops, which have got to be one of the most impractical types of footwear for walking cobblestone streets and climbing towers like this one.

Back on the ground, I took pictures of the tower I had just climbed and the Torre Garisenda; together, they marked an entry point to the city in the 12thcentury. My sister and I have a running conversation about how neither of us can shoot a straight horizontal or vertical line, but in this case, the Tower Garisenda (on the left in the photo) really is leaning!

Le due torri: Garisenda e degli Asinelli.

I finished my day by visiting a great yarn store and buying yarn for my next crochet project. And so I came back from Bologna.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

A day in Montepulciano

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Images © Melissa Corcoran.

What bad could happen here?

If you could see the village of Vallucciole as I saw it today, you would wonder—what bad could happen here? This small, isolated village is located in the hills of the Casentino, which at this time of year are awash in the bright greens and colorful flowers of spring, set off by a deep blue sky.

Vallucciole.

Vallucciole.

However, on the night of April 13, 1944, German soldiers, accompanied, according to some reports, by their Italian allies, massacred all 108 inhabitants of Vallucciole. The massacre was in retaliation for the killing, by partisans, of two German officers at a nearby mill. Men, women, and children were killed and houses looted, then burned.

Ruins of houses.

Ruins of houses.

We attended a memorial Mass in the small chapel above the village. We did not need to understand Italian to realize that at one point in the Mass, the celebrant read the names of all of the victims. Banners representing local groups were held high and the church bells rang. It was a very moving moment.

Memorial in the chapel.

Memorial in the chapel.

Afterwards, we lit a candle at the memorial at the back of the chapel and then walked down to the village. Some of the houses have been restored and are inhabited at least part of the year, but several others are still in ruins. It is hard to reconcile the beauty that is part of everyday life with the atrocities committed here. In the nearby cemetery, entire families are commemorated on headstones and it is then that you realize how young some of the victims were.

The cemetery.

I wish I knew how to end this post, but sadly, this is a story that has no end.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Henry James on Ravenna

One of the things I liked best about Ravenna were the placards along a main thoroughfare titled “La vie dei poeti. Appunti di viaggio / The street of poets. Travel notes.”  Each placard had a story about or a quote from visitors to Ravenna. This quote from Henry James was one of my favorites:

“The greyness everywhere was lighted up by the scintillation, on vault and entablature, of mosaics more or less archaic, but always brilliant and elaborate, and everywhere too by the same deep amaze of the fact that, while centuries had worn themselves away and empires risen and fallen, these little cubes of coloured glass had stuck in their allotted places and kept their freshness.”

James, Henry. Italian Hours. London: William Heineman, 1909. Print.