Saturday 18th July Our day began with a visit to the Scrovegni Chapel to see the Giotto frescoes in the Capella Chapel and the Civico Museum. The history of Western Art seems to have begun with Giotto and I have long wanted to see this work although I note that Ruskin gives first place to the French craftsmen who created the tracery and patterns for the Gothic cathedrals culminating in Chartres and Amiens. The Capella Chapel was larger than it looks in photographs and the frescoes are well preserved except in the old sanctuary. They tell a very clear Biblical story with no additional legendary material and cover every inch of the walls and ceilings although the ceiling is a simple night sky. In addition Giotto has represented the major Christian virtues and vices as individual figures in large paintings on each side of the chapel beneath the Biblical frescoes.
No photography was permitted and we were only given 15 minutes in a group of 25 but it was a quiet and cool place and we had been well prepared by a 15 minute film with English subtitles. They even accepted a seniors half price which was a first on our tour. The Museum is an excellent collection of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek monuments and jewellery and funerary caskets and an excellent art gallery with works by Bellini, Donatello and Mantegna. Next door is the ancient church of the Eremites also with frescoes from Mantegna in the Ovetari chapel. This church and the frescoes were badly damaged by allied bombing in 1944 and the frescoes have been restored by following black and white photographs. It is interesting that “The martyrdom of St James” that so deeply impressed Proust on one of his few journeys outside France, can no longer be seen in the original although the reproductions are still very impressive, scattered as they are with “bits” of the originals and two still complete originals.
After this visit we found a cool place for lunch then retreated from the intense 38 degree heat to the hotel and had a siesta. We emerged at 5.30pm and wandered through the stately and elegant streets of Padua old town where crowds were building but nothing like Rome. We found the Duomo which was not finished on the outside and a curious mixture of stages and styles. The inside however was lavishly decorated and again clearly a worshipping congregation with clergy getting ready for a service and for the next day’s Sunday services. In the main sanctuary modern very artistic fittings had replaced the traditional architecture and the difference was refreshing after so much Renaissance architecture.
From Tuscan Arezzo to Byzantine Ravenna to the University town of Padua
Friday 17th July
My rather mythological view of Tuscany has been broadened by climbing up through the forests of Montepulciano, the mountains north of Sanselpolcro and the more developed hill top towns like Cortona. We came to love wandering through Arezzo’s hard working narrow streets, churches and shops and knew that by travelling north we would be re-entering the more hard nosed twenty first century go go world of northern Italy.
Following the eastern track north we came to two ancient Byzantine churches in Ravenna both named after C2nd missionary teacher Appolonius. The first in the quiet suburb of Classe is a C5th survivor built about the same time as the much loved San Vitale. This church has had many additions including an C8th crypt which has resulted in the sanctuary being lifted substantially and now reached by twelve broad stairs making its appearance almost like a stage. The mosaic ceiling is notable for its large collection of sheep, the single hand of God and the significant Old Testament influence represented by Moses and Elijah. The wooden roof is supported by two lines of corinthian columns and apart from a tomb of Appolonius in the centre and a series of sarcophagi the church looks quite empty compared with the intensity of Baroque Roman churches. There is still clearly a worshipping community in this church which was really encouraging.
In Ravenna itself is another probably C6th church of St Appolonius built after the city walls of Ravenna had been reduced leaving Classe out in the cold. This church, again with impressive mosaics, felt much more like a museum than a worshipping community. It was built in the period of Arian dominance in Ravenna. The style was very similar to the original church in Classe including the tower.
We had a good run into Padua and found our hotel in the heart of town easily. Finding the Avis office was far less simple and although we were close all afternoon with all the one way streets it took quite a protracted effort (would you believe 3 hours) to find the office and drop off the car. We are looking forward to exploring this ancient university town of Padua and the surrounding cities.
Thursday 16th July
It keeps getting hotter and hotter in Southern Italy and today we relaxed in Arezzo, sleeping in, lying about, having a long lunch in a delightful restaurant in old town and doing some shopping. The heat looks like staying around so we will have to adapt as well as we can.
Wednesday 15 July
Today we spent 45 minutes trying to buy a shower cap in Arezzo for Ann only to find two of them in a special pack in our hotel bathroom. After solving this problem we ventured back into old Arezzo to find Georgio Vasari’s house where he cared for his wife and extended family but unfortunately had no children of his own. The four storey house has a rooftop extended garden and all of the rooms including the ceiling were painted by Vasari himself as well as a considerable number of the paintings on the walls. The House is now a beautiful art gallery and attracts many visitors.
After this peaceful place we rejoined the tourist throng first tackling the Arezzo -Florence- Lucca freeways which the Mercedes-Benz loved and was only defeated by the odd Audi and Maserati!
I was determined not to be impressed by the “miraculous tower” as it is called especially as the parking was horrendous and we would have given it away except for the excellent assistance of two Senegalese souvenir salesmen who gave us fantastic support to find and then park our very small car. Right hand drive parallel parking into a very tight space was not something I learned in driving school! We were happy to reward them for their efforts. So when in the 37 degree heat we walked the narrow pathway towards the “Miracle Piazza” I was, as ever, overcome by the sight of the towering white and grey marble Duomo towering above the skyline. To then come into the piazza and see the gleaming marble leaning tower was indeed breathtaking. I had always wanted to see the Renaissance front of the Duomo and was not disappointed.
We then drove the beautiful 17kms through the hills to Lucca which is a stunning and elegant walled town unlike any we have seen in Tuscany. The streets are relatively wide and the houses are uniformly well maintained and stylish surrounding vast squares celebrating Garibaldi, Puccini and many others. We were expecting another burnt orange hill top town. We found an elegant italian city closer to Bath than Arezzo. An ancient Gothic cathedral with an extraordinary painted ceiling was a plus as was the equally fine Renaissance basilica with very simple internal decoration.
The freeway run home to Arezzo was just 80 minutes and a tribute to Italy’s ability to move many cars and even more trucks! over long distances in quick time
Tuesday 14 July We had a lazy start this morning following an amazing Tuscan buffet dinner at our Hotel (Hotel Etrusco) in Arezzo. The Tuscan style food was seriously seductive and as always Tuscan rosso is a nice drop. Once we finally took off in the Mercedes Benz we were much more confident and the satNav is now also making much more sense for us. We continued the hunt for Piero della Francesca paintings heading first to the tiny village of Monterchi where the quite famous “Madonna del Porto” (a pregnant and very serious Mary supported by two identical angels ) used to sit in the tiny parish church. The church is now closed and the painting has its own impressive dedicated museum and presentation on the art of fresco painting in general together with an excellent movie in English which turned out to be a helpful picture of C15th Italy politically as well as artistically.
Monterchi is my vision of the true Tuscany…golden and green and productive fields, a farmer working alone with traditional machinery making hay, rivers, mountains, hilltop homes, quiet apart from cicadas, sun beating down…we had to come back once more…it weaves a spell that makes a permanent impact. (on me anyway!)
From there we journeyed to Sansepolcro, della Francesca’s birthplace (nearby in mediaeval Borgo). Here in the Museo Civico they have several Francesca paintings including a triptych altarpiece the centre piece of which (Jesus’ baptism by John) is in the National Gallery London. The major work here is the resurrection of Christ of which we could only view half! because of a restoration process going on. We arrived in the middle of a very lively private discussion (though we could hear it all in Italian) between the artists involved in the restoration as to how far to proceed. As with the other Mary painting in the Museo Civica della Francesca painted in his own portrait into the Resurrection scene (in this case one of the sleeping disciples.) Sansepolcro has at least two very impressive basilicas. A massive early Romanesque cathedral with typically huge pillars and a very simple basilica in honour of St Francis.
Here our Piero della Francesca pilgrimage finishes until London! After a shared and very delicious pizza in Sansepolcro we travelled south again to the hilltop town of Cortona made very famous by the books of Frances May starting with “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Cortona is a very well to do place with many upmarket homes and a huge tourist community no doubt much influenced by May’s books. We drove up to the gate of the old town but did not venture in although I am sure there would be much to see.
I was keen to move on to Montepulciano to revisit the amazing Renaissance church of San Biago which sits outside the old town walls high on its own patch overlooking a vast countryside which seems to last forever. We were last in Montepulciano with the Andrzejewskis and the Sheumacks some years ago and we had driven over from San Gimignano and had not enough time to have a close look at this church which is the cover plate for many books on Tuscan landscape. It is a majestic, beautifully formed building. It is a perfect example of Ruskin’s view that five things only matter in architecture ( form, proportion, beauty, curvature and colour). (in his preface to “The Two Paths”) Our photo does not do this brilliant Renaissance architecture justice. It is place of immense peace, beauty and faith. I was very glad to spend time in the church and Ann will be pleased not to hear about it again!
We began early this morning with the wonderful news that Dave, Nina, Jemilla and Bede were safely back home thanks to many prayers, East Asia airlines and persistence at the Denpasar airport plus some fantastic help with Dave’s car from Chris and Martin Woolley. Thanks guys and welcome back to Oz (and work/kinda/school!) to Dave and Nina, Jemilla and Bede.
Our next fight was with our Garmin SatNav which I, by error, had persuaded to talk to us in Italian! A phone call to Garmin UK steered us back to “British English” which strangely is much easier for us to understand. The SatNav still seems to prefer hotels and other genres to real addresses but so far has actually managed to get us places and home again although the first time we were so intent on looking at the machine and me trying to learn how to drive a Mercedes Benz (very small) car on the wrong side of the road that we went straight past our hotel and had to drive around the block.
The Mercedes Benz is actually fun to drive and is so quiet idling I think it has actually stopped which is not the case; the hardest part I find with all European driving is not the right hand side of the road but having the indicator lever on the left which is so counter-intuitive for me.
We spent the afternoon after a bex and a lie down following the Piero della Francesca trail around Arezzo. Piero was born in San Sepolcro just north of Arezzo and as well as an artist was a serious mathematician. He painted at Urbino, Ferrara and for the Pope in Rome but there his paintings were later painted over by Raphael by order of a later pope. After Rome he returned to his local area here in East Tuscany and painted an exceptional Mary Magdalene in the Duomo of Arezzo, a beautiful Gothic cathedral with some wonderful modern ecclesiastical furniture in the sanctuary. His major work was a remarkable series of frescoes for the high altar for the Church of St Francesco in Arezzo which combine Biblical events with some doubtful historical and ecclesiastical historical guesses. These centre on the Empress Helena’s supposed discovery of Christ’s true cross while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The cross she finds has many adventures and some of the scenes are quite comical.
Piero della Francesca paints with a joyful humour and happiness which shows on the faces of his subjects. Vasari, the Renaissance painter and historian of art, who was also born in Arezzo and whose house is a tourist attraction here, is rather sparing in his praise of Piero concluding “he has justifiably acquired the reputation of being the leading geometrician of his day”. (i.e. as a painter he makes a good mathematician!) This was in 1568. I think it is fair to say that in the C20th and C21st centuries, Piero della Francesca is the main reason many Art students and tourists come to Arezzo! (and only then, like me, find out that Vasari was born here!)
I am sounding as if the Basilica di San Francesco is just a fee attracting gallery but it is also a serious place of worship and religious discussion. Currently the display also holds a presentation of Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr, born 1961, and he works out of Alexandria. He has presented a collection of mixed glass “towers” with various quasi – religious symbols which ring a bell with folk from many faiths. He states that his goal in presenting these symbols in the midst of a significant place of Christian devotion, is to give people of every faith and none, freedom to explore. They certainly made an impact on me! The whole basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo raises the question of religious history and “Christian mythology”. At first sight, it might seem that the faithful by looking at some of these frescoes
could confuse the two but looking at the totality of the chapels in the church (some of which bare witness to deep Christian maturity, courage and martydom as well as the direct faithful presentation of Christian orthodoxy I think we can give Renaissance viewers the benefit of the doubt and the ability to distinguish between “the things that matter about Christian faith” and the stories which have accrued but which don’t carry the same authority. I can hear some of my critics saying “Richard has lost the plot” but anyone who has read Chaucer or Langland carefully will be aware that Christians in the late Middle Ages could well see the difference between the pardoner and the summoner vs the faithful and dutiful parson.
Sunday 12th July
Today we travelled by not so fast train from Rome via Orvieto and Castiglione to Arezzo where we are ensconced for five days and looking for some quieter days. Arezzo’s major piazza was very quiet in the late afternoon heat but no doubt will be busier tomorrow.
Today was meant to be a lay day as another 34 degrees was forecast but Ann was dragged once more into the tourist maelstrom of summer in Rome to see yet another church or two and a gallery. It was Saturday so the morning trains were far less crowded but the evening trains…let’s just say we had to let one go through to the keeper and get on the following one!
I quote here from Luigi Barzani’s book “The Italians” published in 1964 but even more true in 2015: “There are sultry days in July and August when the cities, emptied by the natives, are almost completely taken over by the swarms of dusty and perspiring foreigners. During the siesta hour, when even the carriage horses sleep under their straw hats, the restless tourists finally slow down. They bivouac everywhere. They recline on park benches, kerbstones, the stone brims of fountains or ancient ruins. They place their heads over their crossed arms on cafe tables for a siesta among the empty bottles, the dirty napkins and the recently purchased souvenirs. They then really look like a tired and bedraggled army after a fatiguing battle, who have occupied a city abandoned by their fleeing enemy. They have conquered. The place is theirs.” He goes on for five pages about us tourists but it is unfortunately all true in mid-summer in Rome when the temperature climbs over the 35.
Today we had three goals…The Church of St Maria del Popolo..a mature and dignified Renaissance lady church at the edge of the bustling Piazza del Popolo. It is finely endowed church which includes the “Chigi” chapel for which Raphael had some direction of the mosaics and, most popularly a tiny Paul chapel which includes Caravaggio’s amazing “Conversion of St Paul” which has entranced me ever since I went to St Paul’s in Warragul and always wanted a statue of Paul fallen from his horse in front of the School! We never quite made it but I have been moved to see a picture in the flesh that has spoken to me so much from Art history. Even the horse in the painting appears to be quite moved with what was happening. I think personally that Caravaggio is the painter for the C21st! I did not take a photo but the picture is easy to find.
We then strolled down the Via del Corso which is a long straight shopping drag looking a mile down the road to the Piazza Venezia and veered off to see the Pantheon, an extraordinary Roman survivor with the most massive columns now also a place of worship. The vast dome which Michelangelo used as a model for St Peter’s is open at the top and there are holes in the marble floor for water to escape when it rains!
We enjoyed a long lunch just outside the tourist trap around the Trevi Fountain (closed for repairs) and finally located the Barberini Palace and garden, well hidden, which now houses Italy’s national art collection. Many outstanding paintings and works are here and especially again Raphael’s “The Fornarina”, apparently the woman who was his muse and had his heart throughout his life, one Marghereta Luti, daughter of a fornari, a bread maker. Also of course, Caravaggio, “Narcissus” and a painting which yearns, by Vouet of the Penitent Magdalene. The Palace itself was the magnificent residence of the family of C17th Pope Urban V111 who did so much to beautify and encourage artistic excellence throughout Rome and its churches, encouraging the architects Maderno, Bernini and Borromini to great deeds of derring-do!
We leave Rome tomorrow regretful not of leaving the heat but of leaving a city which has never been far from the heart of Western civilization, art and architecture.
Friday 10th July Dave, Nina, Jemilla and Bede are holed up in Bali unable to fly out because of the volcanic ash from an eruption on a nearby island. I think there could be worse places to be marooned but it is an uncertain time for them. We spent the day in Naples looking at the terror of Mt Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii. Today we took the fast train (296kms/hour) from Rome to Naples, exactly 1 hour through beautiful mountain backed countryside green with many crops in the middle of summer. We spent most of the day in the National Museum of Archaeology which is a stunning classical building in its own right with a stunning 2 storey double marble interior stairway. The museum has two major holdings. In the C19th the discovery of Pompeii lead archaeologists to remove vast quantities of excavated mosaics, frescoes, bronzes, pottery, sculpture and materials of all sorts to fill eight large rooms of the most exquisite second century lifestyle caught in a moment of time. This was a good thing to do to preserve these precious artefacts but they are now of course out of context and some were damaged in the process. Copies of the mosaics and frescoes have been returned to Pompeii where walking on them can cause minimal damage. There is a current display of “Pompeii and Europe” which demonstrates the impact of the C19th discovery and excavation of Pompeii mainly through the eyes of Goethe, Stendahl and Lytton. In a curious way it resembles the passion many today have for the entombed lives of the Titanic disaster in the C20th.
The second major holding in Naples is the Farnese collection of Roman sculpture accumulated by one of the Papal families and now on display to the public. The Farnese Palace in Rome is now the French Embassy and not easily accessible but the impressive collection of huge sculptures is beautifully displayed in Naples. It includes busts of all the Suetonian emperors and massively huge sculptures of gods and important folk in early Rome. In addition the frescoes and mosaics from Hadrian’s villa, the ruin of which we walked in yesterday, are also displayed in the Naples museum. In the afternoon we wandered the streets of Naples not venturing too far in the heat and enjoying an April 18 English newspaper, the only paper in English we could buy although the Italian bookshops have many books in English. I found the Neapolitans to be very friendly and helpful. The city has a bad rep in Melbourne and I am sure there are parts
one should not venture into and I would not be driving there but it is an exciting and interesting city.