Saturday, 31 August 2013

Siena - body parts and all

Siena, like other Tuscan towns, was first settled in the time of the Etruscans (c. 900–400 BC), The Etruscans were an advanced people who changed the face of central Italy through their use of irrigation and their custom of building their settlements in well-defended hill forts. A Roman town called Saena Julia was founded at the site in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Siena has stories to tell.

The Piazza del Campo (a UNESCO World Heritage site)  is the main square, full of tourists and cafes and monument facades. it's also the site for the palio which is often briefly televised or shown on French News. It can be brutal as there are almost no rules and in the recent past there were issues of unfairness to the horses. The idea is to win at all costs and you can do what you like to push off your competition. The winner represents one of the 17 sections (contrades) of the city and gets a lot of money from that sector. The contrade has the right to display it's flag in all its streets (not the rest of the city). The other sectors do not display flags. There is no official prize for the winner, just the glory, but as I said their sector rewards a win generously; half a million euros was mentioned by our tour guide.
The Palio di Siena is a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August. The event is attended by large crowds, and is widely televised. Seventeen Contrades (which are city neighbourhoods originally formed as battalions for the city's defence) vie for the trophy: a painted banner, or Palio bearing an image of the virgin or even a goose.

For each race a new Palio is commissioned by well-known artists and Palios won over many years can often be seen in the local Contrade museum. During each Palio period, the city is decked out in lamps and flags bearing the Contrade colours.

And then we get to the inevitable churches and this is where things get a bit bizarre.
Let's start with the basilica. The current church of San Domenico dates from 1226. From this church you have a good view of the Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena. About a block below the church is the "Santuario" which is a convent located on the sight of St. Catherine's home.

Forever linked to the veneration of Saint Catherine of Siena is the great Basilica of San Domenico. The head of the Saint, is kept on the altar in the Chapel of Saint Catherine, inside the Basilica of San Dominico. I guess it's in a casket because I didn't notice anything 'interesting'. I did see her finger which is on display in a glass jar. For goodness sake - I wasn't even convinced it was real - looked like a really bad mockup, low light levels, and so what if it is a finger.  Her body is buried in Rome. Back in those days, body parts were chopped up and distributed around churches to raise money from pilgrims/tourists. Some of these relics were not at all genuine. These days you are not allowed to sell viewings of body parts. All this sort of thing just irritates me. There are millions of good people in this world who have suffered and helped others every bit as much, probably more, than all these 'saints' but hey, it's all good publicity and revenue, right?

The Cathedral of Siena is a splendid example of its type and in good condition.I enjoyed the artworks in all dimensions, even the floor was a canvas. There are many references to Romulus and Reamus.

Adjoining the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library, housing precious illuminated choir books and frescoes painted by the Umbrian Bernardino di Betto, called Pinturicchio, probably based on designs by Raphael.

The visual impact of these very colourful frescoes is stunning. The frescoes tell the story of the life of Siena's favourite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II. He was the uncle of cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (then archbishop of Siena and the future pope Pius III), who commissioned this library in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle. Not many words per page though. The ceiling is covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. They were executed between 1502 and 1503 by Pinturicchio. 

In the centre of the library is a statue of the Three Graces, a Roman copy of a Greek statue.
So Siena is worth a visit. No photos inside the Basilica though. In the last photo on this page you can see the bulky basilica of St Catherine in the distance. it's completely different to the elegant Cathedral with its dome. Both are worth seeing for their artistic merit though the basilica is rather plain inside.

Next stop Florence.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Perugia - chocolates and history

 Perugia is the capital city of the region of Umbria in central Italy, crossed by the river Tiber. The city is also the capital of the province of Perugia. Perugia is located about 164 kilometres from Rome in the south, and 148 kilometres  from Florence in the north so it was a natural place to stayover between those two cities. It covers a high hilltop and part of the valleys around the area. I found it a very

atmospheric town, not always clean or well-maintained but with an ancient soul. It's mostly peaceful to walk around here.

The lengthy history of Perugia goes back to the Etruscan period. Perugia was one of the main Etruscan cities. The city is also known as a university town, with the University of Perugia founded in 1308 (about 34,000 students), the University for Foreigners (5,000 students), and some smaller colleges such the Academy of Fine Arts "Pietro Vannucci" public athenaeum founded on 1573, the Perugia University Institute of Linguistic Mediation for translators and interpreters, the Music Conservatory of Perugia, founded on 1788, and others Institutes.

Cesare Borgia spent his formative educational years studying here before going to Pisa University to study theology.

At left is a detail above the door of San Bernadino.

There are annual festivals and events: the Eurochocolate Festival (October), the Umbria Jazz Festival (July), and the International Journalism Festival (in April).
Perugia has become famous for chocolate, mostly because of a single firm, Perugina, whose Baci (kisses) are widely exported. Perugian chocolate is very popular in Italy. The company's plant located in San Sisto (Perugia) is the largest of Nestlé's nine sites in Italy. According to the Nestlé Usa official website today Baci is the most famous chocolate brand in Italy. We saw examples of this but did not buy - too ephemeral and not cheap.

Fontana Maggiore, is a medieval fountain designed by Fra Bevignate and sculpted by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. It's interesting though not spectacular. It is very, very old.

On one of the main streets was a musician entertaining passersby. We stopped briefly to listen to him. You can listen too by visiting this YouTube video I made.

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo is worth a visit but you can't take photos inside. Oh well, it was only yet another church. After 4 you get a bit churched-out and by this stage we'd seen closer to 10 and counting.

There's a shady piazza near the top of the hill and along from a main street. Many locals were there reading newspapers, taking time out with the baby strollers. It gives you a lovely view over the town. Buy a Gelato, sit down and just soak in the atmosphere.

I enjoyed this town, marvelling at the ancient doors and windows still being used 600+ years after they were built.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Assisi and Saint Francis

 Saint Francis of Assisi. Most of us have heard of him but just what is Assisi? Assisi is a small Umbrian town in central Italy, located 19 km east of Perugia at an elevation of 1,300 feet (400 metres). Assisi is best known as the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi — patron saint of Italy, founder of the Franciscan order, and one of the most popular Catholic saints in history.

There are two parts to this town. The older Roman and medieval town on the hill and the newer but with old monuments beneath the hill. The Basilica of St Francis (San Francesco) is in the town on the bottom, the Basilica of St Clare is up the hill. Transport is best between the two. A very nice lunch is available at a restaurant surrounded by green space in the lower part of the town. In fact, it was the only one worth eating at in the entire trip.

The most important event in the history of medieval Assisi was undoubtedly the life and work of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who initiated the Franciscan Order and who was canonised in 1228. His companion, Clare, also later canonised, founded the sister order to the Franciscans. After the canonisation of St Francis, it was decided to build a monumental church in his honour. This construction was followed by the Basilica of Santa Chiara to honour St Clare.

The construction of the Basilica of San Francesco was started in 1228. The lower basilica is entered through an exquisite Gothic portal; the interior is completely covered with frescoes. The earliest of these date from 1253 and are by an unknown artist, the Maestro di San Francesco.

Furthermore, the paintings include allegories attributed to Giotto and his school in the presbytery, the Virgin with a Child on the Throne by Cimabue, and the Crucifixion by Giotto, the paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti and his assistants, and the Chapel of St-Martin by Simone Martini.

The upper basilica has a magnificent east front in white limestone, with a large rose window in the centre. In the interior, the walls are decorated with series of paintings relating to the faith and life of the saint.

The Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (St. Francis), a Franciscan monastery,and the lower and upper church (Italian: Basilica inferiore and Basilica superiore) of St Francis were begun immediately after his canonisation in 1228, and completed in 1253. The lower church has frescoes by the late-medieval artists Cimabue and Giotto; the upper church houses frescoes of scenes in the life of St. Francis previously ascribed to Giotto, but now thought to be by artists of the circle of Pietro Cavallini from Rome. The Basilica was badly damaged by an earthquake on 26 September 1997, during which part of the vault collapsed, killing four people inside the church and carrying with it a fresco by Cimabue. The edifice was closed for two years for restoration

The Santa Chiara Basilica (St. Clare) with its massive lateral buttresses, rose window, and simple gothic interior, begun in 1257, contains the tomb of St Clare (clearly on display with a manequin on top to look like her) and 13th‑century frescoes and paintings.

If you want a souvenir you'll find lots of cheap religious stuff, including little statues of St Francis for sale in the stalls in both the upper and lower town.

What I enjoyed: Lunch of two pasta courses, a meat course and a dessert; seeing the little church where St Francis started off (like a doll's house since he only had a handful of followers. It's inside the main church. The upper town itself is quaint and pleasant to walk through (steep in places though).

What I didn't like: being shown relics of St Clare reported to be her habit/clothing etc in the murky light. Oh yeah, I was so convinced they were genuine 600 year old sackcloth clothes still in excellent state with the fold marks (was that from ironing?) still very obvious. NOT. This whole scam of relics makes my blood boil. Yet another dishonest many-making venture of the church? I guess you have to make up your own mind on that.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Weekend in Rome - Part 2

No visit is complete without visiting the Vatican Museum and Saint Peter's.Visiting the Vatican to see the artworks of Raphael and da Vinci, Giotto an Titian, Caravaggio and Botticelli, it's a bit overwhelming; the tapestries and maps in the Map room, the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling, illustrating the Bible and the last judgement.

In Roman times the Vatican was the site of the Circus of Nero where St Peter was crucified (circa 64-67AD) .Pope Julius II (1447-1455) began construction of a new basilica, architecture by Bramante, which took 176 years to complete. Michelangelo, almost 70 years old, began to build the dome in 1546 and after his death in 1564 only the drum was completed so others had to finish it.

I was interested to visit these famous monuments but what I saw really irritated me. Some of you will think it sacrilege not to enjoy these two famous monuments but I didn't. They are certainly splendid and contain exceptional art works. They are a repository for things that might otherwise have been lost. We all benefit from having the collections but at what cost?

These artworks are priceless you say. Yes they are now but they were bought with blood and crime and immorality aka the papal city and the pope and cardinals. It's little more than money, money, money and power through the ages purchased on the backs of poor people's offerings, rich families' vanities. And it continues of course. Religion is politics.

As I progressed through the museum   I enjoyed seeing some of the paintings and rich ceiling decorations, illuminated books       but as I entered St Peter's I was appalled at the indulgence and obscene spending of money by a church. Heavy, monstrous, golden, overblown, enormous, certainly impressive and filled to the gunwales with art, sculpture and lots of gullible people.

There was a statue of St Peter and people were actually caressing the feet of the statue. It's a hunk of bronze for goodness sake, it was never living. Someone made it and got paid for it too. It's all commercial and still is.

I missed learning about anecdotes connected with various artworks because the guide was an Italian speaking French and the concentration required to understand even 50% of what was being said in a noisy environment was beyond me. Michelangelo's Pieta is set back behind glass so you can't approach closely.

Beware, you can easily lose the other members of your group here because the place is huge and at peak tourist season you can't distinguish one group from another.

 The canopy over the papal chair is totally OTT and I found it rather too heavy-looking.

Ah, the famous Sistine Chapel. Alas, NO PHOTOS. Here there were men employed specifically for the purposes of ensuring you didn't sneakily take a pic via your tablet or smartphone, and they said shhuussssh! silencio every few seconds. Speaking is forbidden here. You can't sit and admire the works. You are a vertical sardine. It's not well lit so take a few moments to let your eyes adjust. Frankly, all I can say is 'I was there!" It wasn't an uplifting experience but I suppose being an atheist means I'm immune to all the palaver.

The walls were painted by a variety of artists to illustrate the new and old testaments. In 1508 Julius II ordered the young Michelangelo to paint the immense ceiling which covers 800 square metres. He painted the Last Judgement on the wall behind the main altar. Between 1980 and 1994 a large-scale restoration of the frescoes on the ceiling and the Last Judgement was carried out and the colours are still quite vivid now that the dust and old animal glues have been removed.

Photos are permitted inside St Peter's proper (without flash) but there are many churches in Italy where no photos are permitted inside and you are not welcome with bare shoulders, despite the heat.

We had arrived at the Vatican early in the morning and I highly recommend that because the crowds are rather awful as lunchtime approaches. This goes for all major monuments in Italy. Do them in the mornings. travel and shop in the afternoons. Next stop Assisi.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Weekend in Rome - Part 1

A short flight of a couple of hours finds me in Rome, in a country I'd never visited but always wanted to. A country as rich in culture and history as France. SPOILER ALERT: these blogposts won't be everyone's cup of tea, I write as I think and feel which may offend sensitive types.

These blogposts don't contain a lot of details on each monument because there's simply too much and too many. They are simply an introduction to what you might want to include on a visit. Generally speaking there are a lot of churches and ruins in Rome. The ruins are generally more interesting than the churches because, quite frankly, I got sick of looking at pictures of the Virgin Mary and all the religious blah blah. I had an appetite for something more secular. It went mostly unfulfilled.

Everyone talks about theTrevi Fountain. OK it is sumptuous. It was built by Nicola Salvi (1735) under Pope Clement XII. Restoration was completed in 1991 so it's looking as it did in its original condition. There was wall-to-wall tourists, the heat was 37 degrees celsius and my feet, unused to walking far, were protesting. I became adept at finding the smallest spot to park my bum for a brief respite and our guide was good at finding shade in which to stop and explain things (alas in Italian French).

The Pantheon is the city's only architecturally intact monument from Classical times. Its bronze doors are original. Light and air enters from the top of the cuppola. In the floor below are set holes through which the rain can drain. There are various tombs inside this monument, one of which contains the remains of Raphael (1483-1520). The exterior is grubby, the interior sombre but worth a look.

Piazza Navona is now occupied by print merchants. This is probably the largest choice of prints you'll find but beware- the same prints a hawked everywhere. This piazza  was once a great stadium where naval battles were staged.

We grabbed a cold drink and listened to a guy playing cover versions of guitar greats like Eric Clapton. He wasn't too bad but didn't seem to get a lot of tips. He did lend a pleasant atmosphere in this place of fountains and an obelisk.

There are several obelisks in Rome. This square is well worth visiting and is one of the largest in Rome.

On the Piazza di San Giovanni is the Lateran, residence of popes until 1309, when the papacy was transferred to Avignon, France. The building contains the Scala Santa which is thught to be the same flight of steps which Jesus ascended in the house of Pontius Pilate. It was brought back to Rome by Empress Helena. We didn't use them, just looked. Nothing of interest there.

What's left of the Colesseum was a little disappointing. It's a history of abandonment and neglect and plundering. Marble, which used to almost entirely cover it, was reused during the Renaissance. We didn't go inside and much of the structure is pasted together with bricks to stop it deteriorating further so it's not all 'authentic'. There's also a large hole in one side which was made to enable blocks of stone from the inside of the monument to be used to build St Peter's basilica. So many monuments in Rome were destroyed, defaced and recycled to build others-what a shame.

The arch of Constantine was shrouded in scaffolding when we visited and just alongside are the remains of a circular fountain existing from the time of Nero where the gladiators used to wash themselves.

We visited the Campidoglio with the monumental steps by Michelangelo which were built for the triumphal entry of Emperor Charles V in 1536. In the centre of the Piazza (Square) is an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

The statue is a rather poor copy of the original bronze now housed in a nearby museum. In fact, copies of statues and paintings are to be found everywhere. Many of the originals are now in Paris at the Louvre. Michelangelo designed this Square and the two palaces on either side, busy boy.

The Roman Forum, the most famous place in classical Rome can be viewed via a short side street from Capitol Hill. It contains the Forum of Julius Caesar, consecrated in 45 BC; lots of temples, arches (much like the Arc de Triomphe); various basilica. You can see the Palatine Hill on the right in the distance and the Colesseum in the distance too.

One monument we didn't visit but which I wanted to see was the Castel Sant'Angelo, dating from the 12th century, linked to the Vatican and used by popes as a prison, place of torture, refuge. It has 5 floors and contains a ramp and courtyard of Pope Alexander VI (aka Roderigo Borgia). I've read academic works on the lives of the famous Borgias which are nothing like the salacious and silly stories like Dumas's Lucrecia Borgia-a total fabrication.

They were a handsome and intelligent family not worse than most and better than many of the times, who had such powerful and jealous enemies that what really happened is usually overlooked or completely lied about. I could easily imagine the handsome and brilliant Cesare Borgia riding in and out the Vatican City, organising this and that, leading armies and taking refuge in Castel Sant'Angelo when necessary. His links with France were strong too and it was ultimately the betrayal and dishonesty of the King of France that lead to his death valiantly fighting a rebel army single-handedly.

The next post covers the Vatican Museum and St Peter's basilica.