Florence, Venice, Siena Fall 2005

Words on a Page

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

Fossils in rock
Footprints in sand
Paths in a chamber of cloud.

To mark the beginning of early retirement, I’ve spent the summer clearing out shelves and file cabinets at home and in my office at the university. On a table in the hallway I left dozens of books bequeathed to me by my retiring predecessor in 1989–hardcover volumes of Shakespeare criticism he longed to have someone take off his hands, only one of which I ever read. This morning I said goodbye to a multivolume German gothic print history of European art packed into their lift van by my parents when they fled Berlin in 1937 and a 75 pound 1955 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that I asked for as a Bar Mitzvah present. Our second hand bookstore proprietor had no use for them and told me that unlike junkmail, you cant recycle books, they have to go to the landfill.

I’ve written three books. When the first one–Youth against Age–went out of print, the publisher sold me the last 40 copies for five dollars each. Thirty five are still in the closet. Yesterday I went to the local Borders to try to get them to carry the two books that are still in print. The young store manager looked at me mockingly and told me to get in touch with his assistant, who would need to see hard copies before making the decision whether or not to order one of each.

A friend died of lung cancer a few years ago. He was my digital mentor. I was delegated to clean out his office to make room for a replacement. I filled a dumpster with stuff, and saved what I could on a website called Legacies When another friend was stricken with mesothelioma and given about a year to live, I said in his situation I would spend part of the time assembling an electronic archive of my life. Six months after he died, the college secretary gave me a CD which contained his memoir, easily uploaded. I expect to maintain this site until I become part of it.

Though disposing of the past has become a preoccupation since I turned 60, passing into a new stage of the life cycle excites me about the future and prods me to produce more. I take alot of pictures, especially of my grandsons. Not having a captive audience of students for six months of the year makes me look for other listeners. Prosperity and health send me on new adventures. And the end is always nearer.

In four days my wife and I will embark on a trip we have planned for a year–our Italienreise to Florence, Venice and Siena. At first I thought I’d leave my laptop home, save photos in a portable hard drive, and write in a journal. But instead I’m trying something different.


Sunday, October 16th, 2005

Saturday September 24. Sitting on the floor in LAX international terminal next to the only electric outlet on a mile of concourse. Many wall receptacles have been removed and the holes spackled over. There’s no wireless internet connection here, so I will try to simulate the Blogger interface in Microsoft Word.

Here’s Jan in a chair across the carpet as this area fills with passengers waiting for a JAL jumbojet. I took her picture, downloaded it to the laptop, put it in here. With a camera phone I could have snapped and sent it directly to the blogger server. Once again I’m technically behind. A good consumer of technology, I find the new tools inspire creative play. How does this mesh with a primitivist preference of the simple and natural”in gardening, eating, economic exchange, and child rearing? How can I teach Ecoliterature as a web based class in which we exchange journal entries and photos about wilderness experience online?

Last night was insomniac again”I got up at 1:20 and at 4:00 and wrote emails. There was plenty of time to load up and lock down the house this morning before we left, but once we got to the airport I realized I’d forgotten the computer power supply chord. Between flights, we took a short cab ride to Fry’s, a huge L.A. electronics supply house near the airport where we found a replacement that would work with my Mac. Without it I’d have been unable to keep this journal.

Il Fiorentino

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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After 24 hours in transit we arrived at the Hotel Fiorentino Sunday afternoon. It was the lowest price place I could find on the internet. The guidebook said it was in a high crime neighborhood, the entrance looked seedy, the hotel clerk at first said he couldn’t find our reservation. But after we climbed three narrow flights of stairs and mastered the old lock and key, we gasped. The ceiling was fifteen feet and two corner windows gave out on the vast complex of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella and the railroad station. The stone balustraded balcony could have been where Mussolini harangued the crowds. It felt like standing on a rock in the middle of a fast flowing river of buses, cars, and pedestrians.

Despite jetlag and fatigue we were driven by hunger and curiosity to go out. We bought some bad sandwiches for a picnic in the adjoining square in front of the 14th century cathedral façade where a small band played in the warm and surprisingly quiet late afternoon, and then we started wandering toward the center. The city was full of people”mostly goodlooking and stylish Italians”but didn’t feel overcrowded. Some divine gelato made up for the sandwiches, and soon we were in front of the Duomo. We sauntered from piazza to piazza”each of which could be the center of a great city– admired the clothing on sale in shops and stalls, bought a new guide book, and came back to our little palazzo to shower and rest. Then we set out for dinner at the square near the central mercado, mixing with pedestrians, bicyclists, scooters, and people pushing their market stalls through the winding streets. We came out on a large square between the market and the dome of San Lorenzo full of lights, music and buzzing outdoor restaurants on platforms roofed with tents. It was 8:00 p.m.”time to celebrate dinner! The salad of urugula, fresh corn tomatos cucumbers and carrots and mozzarella, with bottles of vinegar and oil on the table was a fine overture. During the two hour meal, we drank a liter of wine, joked with the amiable waiter, and had an animated conversation with two young people from London at the adjoining table. We seemed to have the city in our pocket.

6:00 A.M. Monday September 26.

Still dark out but the noise of streetcleaners is deafening. I got up at 5:00 after an uncomfortable night of sore throat and insomnia. Once I rose from horizontal, took some vitamin C and started processing pictures, I felt better, but still apprehensive about the coming day: will I get sicker? Will we connect with our old friend Brenda who’s invited us to stay at her place outside the city for the next two nights or will we be forced to find a different hotel here in town? Will my digestion return? Such perils provide spice to the pleasures of travel.

The Plague in Florence

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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Monday morning brought relief from the sore throat. Jan negotiated with the concierge to give us two more nights in Florence, to delay our arrival in Venice and to postpone our visit with Brenda. We found some lovely coffee and brioche and panini in the square and stood in line to pay admission to Santa Maria Novella, the cathedral 20 feet from our window.

Those who come to pray can enter a special chapel free of charge, said the sign, and photography is forbidden. The side entrance, only recently reopened after having been closed off for several centuries, led us into an immense, light airy space, illuminated by stained glass and circular clear windows, the walls painted white, ornamented with widely spaced paintings and sculptures.

Opposite the door, a Massaccio fresco seemed to make the space grow deeper with its pronounced perspectival rendering of God presenting the crucified Jesus to his wealthy patrons in front of a hugely receding nave. To the right was a twenty foot crucifixion in bright yellows oranges, reds and blacks, hanging from a rod 25 feet above the floor and 150 from the ceiling. I averted my eyes in order to save the full impact of what I recognized as Giotto’s work, dazzlingly restored, for later, and looked down the nave to the rainbow colors of the floor-to-ceiling frescoes surrounding the central altar. Like the city itself, this church offered more than we could absorb. With help of our Green guide, we focused first on a raised chapel with early frescoes of the Divine Comedy–one wall Inferno, the other Paradiso, gaining orientation by identifying places and people we recognized from our memory of the poem. Then we descended to the Sacristy whose doorway was a combination of classical architectural stability, melted into an organic flower-like entry. Inside were huge wooden cabinets with dozens of large drawers to hold vestments, more paintings and a della Robia relief, all in late Renaissance style.

After two hours we decided to take a break from the church and walk to the central market for lunch, and return in the late afternoon. The mercado is a two story temple of food, just closing as we got there. We bought beautiful muscat grapes, olives, bread and “gorgonzola dolce,” (a soft luscious cheese), and ate on the steps of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, bothered by pigeons who wanted our food and blew ash into when we sushed them off. Instead of going inside we decided to come back for the free concert advertised to start at 9: 00 that night, and took an adjoining doorway into the courtyard of the Laurentian library, whose arcade we circled entranced.

Then we walked back to Santa Maria Novella and spent another two hours feasting on the art. First a chapel decorated by Duccio, which was, Jan noted in the guidebook just for this church that we had bought, the location of the start of Boccaccio’s Decameron where a group of young aristocrats meet to plan their escape from the plague in Florence. What sort of portent?

Then Fillipino Lippi, and Ghirlandaio frescos, a Brunelleschi Crucifix and the Giotto Christ. The wealth of beauty and of history in this randomly adopted church of ours is unbelievable. It in itself merits a trip to Europe.

Back in our room at 5:00, I started feeling bad again and Jan offered me the Z pack antibiotic she had gotten from the doctor in case she got sick. It was clear we wouldn’t attend the nine oclock concert. We went for a quick pizza meal in the square, and I tried to get to sleep.

Tuesday morning, I awoke and realized I was really sick. My cough felt like a rattle in the lungs, and I had sweaty fever. Jan met Brenda and her friend Kiki and went to the Pharmacia and many other places while I slept most of the day.She brought the two visitors back to the room and I made pleasantries for a few minutes, but I was so sick I asked them to leave. I took the second Z pack pill, along with vitamin C and the herbal remedy Jan bought at the Pharmacia, slept all afternoon, and went out with her to the square for dinner and a short walk. I couldnt get to sleep because of the cough so have stayed up till 3:00 A.M. writing this entry.


Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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After another night of coughing, insomnia and work at the computer, I woke Jan at 6:30 and insisted on leaving the hotel room where I was feeling imprisoned. She agreed and we walked slowly hand in hand down down to the Arno through quiet streets freshly washed by street sweepers, the only noise that of garbage trucks. The city is active and loud until 3 AM but then remains quiet till 7:30. We went to the middle of the Ponte Vecchio, usually a furious hubbub, with only the company of a man with a broom and a walkie talkie, and watched the light come up over the river. Seeing streets by now familiar, we appreciated more of the architectural details evident at every turn and took delicious cappucino and apple pastries at the brightly lit “New York Café,” served by a tall elegant man in a black vest, white shirt and yellow silk tie.

Back in the room around 8, we rested and showered and then set out again in pursuit of the neoplatonic beauty which the city offers to its lovers. But this time I wanted to see it pagan form, feeling a bit satiated with crucifixions and madonnas. We walked to the Uffizi to see if there was a chance of getting in, but the line was endless at 9:30 a.m. so we went around a couple of corners to the Bargello, which the green guide and Ricksteves said was underrated. The turreted palace, police station and jail was another civic museum, and provided just what I wanted: tits, asses, penises attached to beautiful bodies in three dimensions. There were marbles and bronzes and ceramics, many of them images of the God Bacchus, including Michaelangelo’s famous early work, and there were splendid sculptures of birds of many feathers produced by an artist I never heard of named Giovanni di Bologna. The building was uncrowded for the first hour we were there, and in most galleries one could take pictures, though not with flash and not in the ones containing the Donatellos and Michaelangelo.

We had a kind of quiche in a café and decided to head for more Michaelangelo in the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo, passing along the back of the Duomo on the way and appreciating its immense size through the web of scaffolding that covers most of it. Passing building after building branded with the ubiquitous Medici coat of arms, we paid a hefty fee to enter the Chapel of the Princes, which was also largely covered by scaffolding inside and out. Entering the tomb felt like entering a pyramid of the Pharaohs”overwhelming in grandeur but more in arrogance and morbidity. The chamber is not wide but hundreds of feet tall, lined in black marble inlaid with multicolored stone panels and illuminated only from the dome on top. Eight huge sarcophagi upon which stand 30 foot figures of their inhabitants are set into the octagonal walls. The whole things smacks of Darth Vader or the Lord of Mordor, and I found it more disturbing than tacky”an expression of dynastic wealth not humbled by but appropriating the power of Death. Ironic to have this all in a church where you worship a God of humility and compassion whose central mission was to cleanse the church in his time of materialism. Now I sound like the Florentine Savonarola, who left no monuments.

The adjoining New Sacristy is the three star attraction designed by Michaelangelo and containing several of his sculptures. After the hugeness of the Chapel of the Princes”all this remember inside a church”its more modest scale and muted gray and white colors were less impressive, and for me disappointing. I had studied this room in art history and been told how great were the sculptures by many authorities, but by this time I was less than sympathetic to the Medici family, and it looked to me that Giulio’s neck was too long, the figure of Dusk’s head was placed at the wrong place on his shoulders, Night’s feminine body looked like a male with breasts, and Day was unfinished. Compared with the many other Renaissance interiors I ‘d been admiring in Florence, the architecture of this chamber was overcluttered with familiar ornamental devices.

We had a nice lunch of pasta and a sliced beef urugula salad and then returned to the Fiorentino room for another rest. But despite the lack of sleep the night before and my continuing occasional cough, I was restless and Jan decided we should go to the Brancacci chapel on the other side of the river. We arrived at 4:30 and allowed to remain 15 minutes by a beautiful young woman with a Maria Callas look. I hadnt been eager to go”I seemed to remember seeing it when we had visited Florence in 1969”but the restoration and new lighting made the small chapel radiant with color and lively portraiture. The most famous image of Adam and Eve’s despairing departure from Paradise is a small unobtrusive panel, and the bright pink of the punishing angel’s cloak brightens up even this tragic episode with what seems to have been the young artist’s favorite color.

Since it was nearby, neither of us were flagging, and they were open later than any museums, we decided to head over to the Boboli gardens to get a view of the city and spend some time in a more natural setting. Fortified by gelato we passed through the gargantuan fortress of the Pitti Palace and climbed the terraced mountainside as the light got richer and more angled. The gardens are not as well maintained as they would have been under their owners, with unmowed lawns and untrimmed trees in many areas. The Neptune fountain with splashing water, artificial grotto and genuine mallards and carp, caught the changing late afternoon light and as we climbed higher grand prospects of the city of Florence came into view. Just as we were about to head back down, I noticed a terrace at the end of the path, and at the top of the stairs a splendid new prospect opened before us”the hills to the south of the city, including the Church of San Mineato, a crenellated tower on the horizon and a green expanse of olive groves and conical cypresses that looked like the typical Tuscan landscape we look forward to entering after returning from Venice.

We walked back through narrow streets filled with small opulent storefronts displaying original renaissance and ancient treasures for sale, and watched the sunset on the Ponte, where Jan arranged for us to exchange picture taking with a romantic young Asian couple. By the time we got back to the room there was just time to shower before Brenda showed up for our evening dinner engagement. I was tired and ravishingly hungry. It took quite a while to figure out dinner plans and Brenda wanted to show us a café that’s a famous poet’s hangout, but by the time we reached there at 8:15, I almost passed out, so she got me some leftover bits of bruschetta, and then we hiked on to our rendezvous point with her partner Don in ZaZa café in the Mercado square. Over a meal with mixed reviews, we enjoyed conversation covering 35 years of our pasts.

Voyage a Cythere

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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Jan awakened Thursday morning around 8, just as I finished writing, and we packed our suitcases, paid the bill and shmoozed with Sandro, who it turns out is not the concierge but since last week the new owner of the Fiorentino. Looking like a sad, ethereal and beautiful figure in a Botticelli painting, he told us he’d been an accountant in Venice, but during a two-week vacation had discovered that his life was boring and decided to buy this hotel from the former fisherman and his family who had owned it. Nevertheless he was lonely, he said, and he was looking for someone to share his life.

In a light intermittent rain we found our way back to Villa Antenori, an unusually fine looking example of an urban palazzo we’d passed several times in our wanderings. I wanted to see what they looked like inside, behind their forbidding facades. It seemed to be open to the public and housed a wine merchant of the family that built it in the fifteenth century. I found its interior more harmonious than any I had seen, including the Michaelangelo tomb, especially in its combination of traditional furnishings and modern amenities. We roamed in the courtyard, sneaked upstairs to the first floor and higher to see what a top floor loggia was, and walked away with some wine brochures.

After another trip to the central market for groceries to eat on the train, we hauled our bags to the station to catch the 1:30 to Venice. We both got upset upon discovering that Jan had read the tickets wrong and our train had just left, but it turned out another one left 40 minutes later.

The approach to Venice is a fantasy voyage. The train traverses a long causeway in the Adriatic before reaching terminus at the island commonwealth. Exiting the station you face the Grand Canal lined by oriental filigree and heavy baroque palaces and are engulfed by a furious hubbub of tourists. At a row of ticket windows you buy three day passes for the Vaporetti, the boats providing public transportation, and as you advance to the dock it feels like entering Disneyland. Only this Disneyland is mildewed and rotting and covered with advertising banners and graffiti, and its air is thick with humidity, pollution and sewage.

Debarking from the Vaporetto at Rialto bridge, the sense of crowding, commercialism and delapidation intensified, We bought gelati to fortify us in climbing the steps and penetrating the crowds with our awkward baggage, and followed the smell of the fishmarket to guide us to our hotel. We found the discreet bronze sign of Al Mercanti on a quiet and uncommercial alley. The inside of the building reminded me of Villa Antenori–ancient ceiling beams, brick walls and stone stairs integrated with new plaster, and rich carpets, fabrics, furniture and fixtures. Our first floor room up four flights of stairs was designed by a professional decorator with a large budget. Marble floors, silk brocade pillows, curtains and spreads and collector prints on the walls. Jan led me to the balcony in the vestibule from which one could look down the alley and see a marble statue of a naked pagan god standing in a lit alcove of a wall, its broken white reflection shimmering in the black water of the Grand Canal.

I was again feeling shaky at this late dinner hour, so we found a quiet restaurant around the corner -Antica Trattoria ai Tosi–and were fortified by a fine modest dinner of spaghetti, lasagna and salad.

Friday 5 AM

Yet another night without sleep. I spent it working on this journal or sitting in the steam bath I made of our bathroom to loosen the thickening mucous in my lungs. How can body and mind can take all this punishment and keep coming back for more? Good news: the laxative I bought yesterday worked and the exercises from chiropracter and physical therapist have just about eliminated back pain.


Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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After another sleepless night, my cough subsided enough for us to perform the long postponed rites for which Venice is named and famed. Euphoric to begin with, we walked out the door of the hotel and found a different city.

The sunshine dazzled, the sky shone lapis blue, the buildings sparkled. We strolled down the shadowed “Calle” back toward the Rialto and found the gothic arched open-air fishmarket that had been an empty stone platform the previous afternoon packed with excited fishmongers and customers and with trays of squid, octopus, shrimp, and prawns. We made our way through the adjoining open air vegetable market and climbed the Rialto bridge and looked down the Grand Canal at a scene of unreal richness and beauty. This was what we came for–we and the millions of pilgrims who arrived here for the last thousand years: an ancient work of art that you can walk and ride around in.

We boarded Vaporetto 1 and found seats near the bow. Each second of the trip presented a new spectacular view: a gorgeous palace, a hanging garden, a luxurious gondola, the opening of a side canal down which one could see a world of bridges and towers, a church with a façade in classical, baroque or uniquely Venetian style. And within minutes, the whole overwhelming prospect transformed as the boat moved from one bank to the other and followed the waterway’s serpentine curves.

Around one, the banks widened and the road ahead changed from a narrow river to a wide expanse of sea scattered with distant islands of towers and domes outlined against a vast sky. The right bank ended in a peninsula on which stood the cathedral of Salute–health. The left bank revealed the climbing tower of the familiar St. Mark’s Square, the anticipated climax of the voyage. I was grateful to be looking at much of this display through the tiny frame of the camera’s viewfinder, both to preserve the memory of it, and to contain my present impressions.

The vaporetto emptied at the San Marco quay, and the wonderland sensation gave way to claustrophobia that reminded me of the crowding we had seen in the many frescoes of both heaven and hell. Jostelled along by a mob of fellow gawkers, past stand after stand of souvenir hawkers, I noticed a monstrous apparition growing on the horizon, blocking my view of the sea and the islands:
it was a cruise ship taller than any of the towers of Venice and as long as St. Marks plaza itself, heading straight for us, with mobs of tiny people crowding its decks–a barbaric invasion of the grossest modernity laying claim to this ancient sanctuary. I stood on line to use the public bathroom, and the dour woman at the turnstile told me the three day pass I flashed her would not work here and it would cost a euro to urinate. As we approached the famous square, along with endless lines of people waiting to enter tower, cathedral and palace, we saw the two huge facades under renovation covered with billboards advertising corporate sponsorship by Mazda and a hotel chain. My fatigue returned, so we wound our way back to the hotel through the shadowed labyrinth of tiny streets, tunnels and bridges between St. Marks and Rialto.

It was a relief to be back in our neighborhood, where the bright sunshine made every square meter of brickwork or pavement or façade or alley prospect into a visual and intellectual feast. After lunch in a quiet nearby square, our table at the edge of a tiny canal wharf, we penned a route that would end on the quay facing the island of Iudecca through the maze on our map. The souk-like layout of the city makes this a challenge, since almost no streets are longer than 100 yards, and many are dead ended at cul-de-sacs, wharves, and gates. Each of the twists and turns presents new delights–fountains, entryways, rooftop gardens and clotheslines, contrasts of texture, color, form that have evolved and ripened over the ages, walls and tunnels darkly framing the sundrenched images ahead.

Every few minutes, the slot canyons of streets and canals open to a small piazza–a space by a church or civic building graced with cafes and occasionally a few trees. A third of the way through our itinerary, we stopped at one and I sat in the sun on the steps of a little bridge and nodded off into a luscious slumber. Jan awakened me after a few minutes and urged we go back to the hotel, where I tried to continue my nap as she started trying to locate a doctor. The Blue Cross contact phone numbers she had brought yielded only discussions with people in India and no medical referral, while I regained strength, encouraged by an ability to sleep without coughing. We went out again, for a short sortie, and found ourselves at a flea market in the piazza of San Silvestre. This was a strictly local event, where kids played and residents sold stuff they collected. Jan needed a hat to replace the crummy one she had purchased from a stall in San Marco. On one of the tables we found a finely crafted Tyrolean chapeau and managed in pidgin Italian to bargain the seller to an acceptable price. The first full night sleep in over a week came early.

Saturday morning is again brilliant weather. We decide to spend two more nights in Venice and abandon the idea of going to Padua or Verona before meeting our Elderhostel group in Siena. There’s no room at the Mercanti but after a short search we find another place nearby, The Vecie Poste: the room a little less money, a lot less plush, bordering a small canal and graced with the occasional fragrance of sewage. In contrast to the robotic filipino gentlemen who ran the Mercanti, this place has a manager who’s a real concierge–the brother of the owner of a fine restaurant with the same name next door.

Roaming the immediate neighborhood we find an internet access place, located at the back of a blue jeans store, reached through a pigeon-shit caked alley strongly smelling of sewage to catch up on email. I tire and we return to our room with picnic lunch for a rest. Jan has found announcement of free concert at 4:00 in the Church of Salute. We leave early and now expertly find San Silvestre Vaporetto stop. We sit on the steps of this cathedral, looking out at the islands in the lagoon and San Marco in the afternoon sun and then walk around it through back streets which reveal some of the infrastructure repairs that appear all over the city. Part of a small canal has been sealed off to replace ancient leaking lead sew49er pipes and stone and wood foundations of houses and to raise the pathway a foot to protect it from flood tides and provide space underneath for the electrical lines and other infrastructure that are now attached to the outside of buildings. The old stones of the original walkway are stored in piles to be put back in place and create the illusion of antiquity. This reminds me of the restoration of Walden Pond I saw a couple of years ago in Massachusetts. Human impacts had created so much erosion that the banks were all bulldozed and new rock and sand and vegetation were installed and stabilized with heavy steel netting that was only visible if pointed out. Restoration like this is observable everywhere in the city. The effort, skill and cost required must be astronomical, and as it proceeds, the old decaying Venice will indeed turn into a new theme-park version.

We returned to Salute in time to get good seats for the concert of Bach solo cello suites played by a passionate young artist sitting by himself in a chair in front of the altar. For the last section of the program–a concerto duet with organ–he disappeared into the loft and then appeared again up high to take bows with the young woman accompanying him. The cavernous cathedral made the music reverberate, but watching the performers hands and facial expressions helped to articulate the sound. The longer I sat the more I could appreciate the wealth of detail in the baroque interior, the hanging lamps of varied and coordinated design, the huge torsioned sculptures of the four evangelists leaning on the high pediments, the dozens of additional figures nestled in alcoves, and the light coming through the windows reflected off the water outside getting more brilliant as the afternoon deepened. The full baroque experience converged on the sculptural complex atop the high altar: a triumphant woman holding an infant in her arms, an old man to the right kneeling at her feet with arms outstretched in gratitude and to the left an ugly figure in flight covering his face. The guidebook explanation hit home–this church was a tribute to the Virgin Mary erected by the Venetians in gratitude for the cessation of the plague in the late seventeenth century. Its name, Salute, means health.

After the concert we took a walk along the great promenade facing the island of Giudecca across the lagoon. The wide walkway and the broad expanse of water was a welcome contrast to the exquisite but confining vistas of the calles and rivos where we’d spent the earlier part of the day and most of yesterday. Before taking the Vaporetto back home, we had a drink in a café on pilings over the water. The setting sun painted Jan gold in her new Venetian hat.

The Church and the Synagogue

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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Sunday morning the glorious weather gave way to a familiar Italian drizzle. We packed and moved our bags to our new lodgings al Poste Vecchio and Jan picked our destination as San Giacomo dell Orio, a thirteenth century Church our map indicated contained a mixture of styles from thirteenth to seventeenth century. It was like a treasure hunt to find this new neighborhood, probably less than a quarter of a mile away, but a half hour of map reading and staring. The whole city is only 3 by 5 kilometres in extent but it contains 354 bridges, 177 small canals, 153 churches (each an architectural beauty), and 127 small squares.

We arrived at San Giacomo just as mass was starting at 11:00 and had little choice but to sit down and join the local congregation of many ages, including young children, which filled all the seats. The service started with a folksong “Hallelujah” hymn accompanied by guitar, the same rendition they use in Jan’s mom’s Presbyterian church. After a few short readings from the Bible by members of the congregation, the priest took the pulpit. He was dressed in full regalia, green robe, white stole and more, and he looked the traditional part, with a bald crown and long, thick wavy white hair on the sides. His voice was fluent and cultivated but he read his sermon, and though I couldn’t understand any of it, I got the impression it was provided by a higher authority. It was a good time to meditate and to admire the inside of the church, which included a 14th century wooden ceiling, a sixth century column, a stone lombard pulpit, and many paintings that we couldn’t get close to. At the end of the sermon when the congregation rose, we made a discreet getaway out the door of the nave and admired the tower and some bits of celtic looking frieze embedded in the wall in another little square out back where restaurant waiters were setting up chairs and tables under tents.

After another rest and picnic back in our room–we try to limit restaurant meals to one per day–we headed for the railroad station to reserve our seats to Siena. The same district of Canareggio contains the ghetto, home of Shylock and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. To get there we needed to thread through crowds in a tourist district, but once we crossed the Cannareggio canal, the neighborhood was quiet. The buildings on either side of the narrow streets were taller than we’d seen elsewhere, one of them eight stories. On one wall was a stone plaque with names of people who had between 1915 and 1920 “fallen in the war, for the fatherland and the community recorded with love and pride.” It included my mother’s maiden name, Gruenwald. We crossed a bridge and came out on a large walled square with several shops selling Judaica. On one side was a holocaust memorial and a Jewish nursing home.

At the Ghetto museum we paid for a tour of the old synagogues. Our guide was a tall elegant woman with huge eyes and a mane of wild kinky hair. She wore a diamond studded star of David around her neck. She led us upstairs and unlocked a door to the German synagogue, a windowless room, tiny by comparison to any of the churches we’ve seen, with an elaborate gilt ark at one end and bima or pulpit at the other. She went through her spiel in highly accented but good English, with a strange mixture of boredom, suppressed anger and imploring eyes. She told the history of the ghetto. Jews had lived all over the city in its early days, performing essential functions of money lending, today known as finance, that were forbidden to Christians. In the late fourteenth century, an edict was issued requiring the Jews to live in this small section of the city, which was gated and locked at night. Whenever they left this section they had to wear yellow armbands. Rather than one community, there were four, distinguished by their countries of origin–two northern European Ashkenazi and two Spanish and African Sephardic–each with its own synagogue. The synagogues themselves all have upper gallieries, where women could watch but not participate in the services, separated from the men below by latticework screens. The communities thrived and the population increased to over 8000 people packed into a tiny space, requiring the construction of more and more stories on the buildings.

In the next synagogue, the Polish Ashkenazi, she continued the narrative. The ghetto was opened by Napoleon and the Jews were allowed to move out, but then closed again after his defeat, and then opened again with the establishment of the Republic in the later 19th century. The fascists under Mussolini required all Jews to register and move back to the ghetto. As the war proceeded, they turned the lists over to the Nazis, who came in and deported all the inhabitants to concentration camps. Only a few families returned, but now about 400 Jews are left in Venice.

The third Synagogue, a Sephardic one, was elaborate Baroque, designed by Longhi, the architect of Salute Cathedral. Jews were forbidden from practising trades or owning land, so the construction of the synagogues was performed by hired craftsmen. Our guide attends this synagogue but doesn’t live in the ghetto. She told us she would prefer to since it is now one of the more desireable neighborhoods in Venice because of its lack of crowds and proximity to the railroad station and parking garage. In response to our questions, she went on to describe the difficulty of being a resident of this dream city. The desire for preservation means that you cannot do any renovations or repairs on the ancient buildings without official permission. When a pipe broke under her living room floor, she wasn’t allowed to tear up the antique terrazo, but had to put in a whole new plumbing system. People have to carry their groceries through the narrow streets and over bridges. There is nowhere for children to play. And the taxes, rents and property values keep going up as rich Americans and Japanese buy residences in the city which they usually leave uninhabited. So the indigenous population of Venice has decreased by 25% in the last five years.

A Shakespearean experience of Venice–what appears as good is not so good. Jews are victims of Christians, loyal to one another but also their own worst enemies. The city of love and glamor has an underside of greed and disfunction.

The rain got heavier. The canal smelled stronger. We came back to our hotel and dressed for dinner at the classy restaurant affiliated with our hotel, the Poste Vecchi. We took the tourist menu. The pasta with funghi (mushrooms), the sea bass and the crème caramel were all extraordinary. Next to us sat two parents and a college age daughter from Australia. He was a lawyer and she was a professor. Our conversation lasted late.

At 2:00 A.M. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I worked on the journal until 5:30 A.M.

Venice to Siena

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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Sunday night in Venice the rain picked up and the water level on the steps to the Rivo outside our room kept rising. I was tired after working on pictures and words from 2 to 5:30 A.M. After breakfast in the Poste Vecchi we put on as much raingear as we could muster and negotiated the by now familiar maze to the Vaporetto stop. We got off at the Academia, Venice’s premier Art Museum, shoes, stockings and pants soaked. It was built by Napoleon after his conquest of the city also known as Serenessima in the early nineteenth century. Napoleon loved the place, had one of its Church’s demolished to improve his view of the Grand Canal, voided the laws which restricted Jews to living in the ghetto, and built this museum to house many masterworks that he removed from cathedrals and churches. Among the ones we most enjoyed were some medieval altarpieces, portraits and landscapes by Bellini and Gorgione, and immense architectural canvasses by Veronese and Titian. I was disappointed by the dim lighting on this dark day outside, and also by the lack of any vibrant colors in works that clearly were intended to dazzle, but appeared dimmer than many of the restored frescoes we had seen in Florence.

After two tiring hours we left the museum in a downpour braved by a long line of people wating to get in. We got out of the rain for lunch at the familiar Antica Trattoria and dried out and had a siesta back in our room. It was great to be warm, dry, sleepy, and to take a small break from our steady diet of overstimulation. In the late afternoon we started out to take a vaporetto to a place we hadnt been before, but it got dark earlier than expected and we headed back to our home neighborhood, stopping on the way to pick up some peccorino–sheep’s milk cheese–and prosciutto from our favorite deli. We also stopped at Cantina DaMori, one of the many wine bars that locals congregate in to escape Venice’s rain, the claustrophobia, the sewer smell and the crowds of tourists, and drank a glass each of the housewine drawn from barrels by the barman who told us that this was his private stock from a small vineyard that had been in the family for many generations. It did the trick.

Tuesday was departure date. Had the weather been clear, it would have been difficult to leave, since we had not yet penetrated most of the city, nor any of its outlying islands. But passing the now familiar palazzos on the crowded vaporetto, I was glad to be heading for the railroad station and not sure that I’d want to return.

On the Eurostar train to Florence we chatted with three couples travelling together from Curritiba Brazil. We had read about this city as a successful utopian experiment in Amory Lovins’ Natural Capitalism and seen a film about its remarkable successes in city planning, social services and especially transportation. These natives of the place had little positive to say about it. They complained that there was no subway.

We switched trains to Siena in the familiar hub of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station, known to locals as S.M.N. and arrived at our new destination in time to shower and meet the Elder Hostel group we had signed up for more than a year ago. The “Hotel Garden” was more luxurious than I had expected, a not unwelcome surprise. An old manor house, built in the seventeenth century, it was located on a large property twenty minutes walk from the old city on a hilltop with views in several directions, and surrounded by well kept formal gardens. There were frescoes on the ceiling and smiling concierges saying buona sera at every turn–the kind of place I remember wanting to stay at when we drove through Brittany eight years ago, but couldn’t dream of affording. Now it was all part of the prepaid package deal.

An opening reception introduced us to our conscientious shepherds for the days ahead, Agnese and Giuseppi. Their welcoming remarks and disarming self-introductions were delivered in excellent but heavily accented English requiring such close listening that it almost seemed we were understanding a foreign language.

Our fellow hostellers hailed from all over the U.S., many of them ex-teachers, all animated, excited to be here and talk about themselves, seasoned travellers, and with a few exceptions, ten to twenty years older than us. I felt a little intimidated to be in this group, both because they seemed like a foreign breed and because it reinforced my sense that I was being transformed into one of them. The talk was all about hometowns–Anchorage, Lincoln, Asheville, New York–and former professions–architect, accountant, nursery school teacher. Nobody talked politics, but there was an air of hesitant curiousity. How many of these folks were Bush and War supporters? The ice was broken several days later, when it turned out that many loathed him, including quite a few life-long Republicans. We surmised that despite their red-state backgrounds, people who travelled and were interested in art were likely to be on our side.

Having arrived in a world of comfort and security, I went to sleep on time and didn’t wake up until morning. My disease and insomnia disappeared, and I stopped writing in this journal. I remembered Thomas Mann’s insistence that creativity was a byproduct of illness.

The Allegory of Good Government

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

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The group met our guide Donatella in the courtyard of the Bank of Siena. A vibrant, stylish and witty woman, she’s an art historian who works as a freelance tour guide and lives in the middle of the city in a tiny apartment.

My first impression of Siena was of another living museum, not like the impossible and decomposing artifact of Venice, overwhelmed by tourism and outside investment, but a treasured relic framed and preserved by wealthy benefactors. This was confirmed by Donatella’s canny introduction to the aesthetics of the city in the setting of its economic underpinnings. The Bank of Siena’s corporate headquarters in Salimbeni square embody examples of the city’s three perfectly preserved styles of architecture: gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, thirteenth through seventeenth centuries. The bank was instrumental in the rise of the city in the early Renaissance, and then as now a substantial proportion of its yearly profits are invested in city infrastructure and social services. The Bank’s logo is the same black and white shield as Siena’s, with the added motif of three cylinders signifying the three steep ridges upon which the city is built.

Clear weather accentuated dramatic effects of light and shadow in the narrow, turning and sloping streets. As in Florence and Venice, I felt intoxicated by the first exposure to this walk-through masterpiece of architecture, city planning, and sculpture, drinking in the changing sights and sounds like the first sips of a glass of Brunello wine for which this region is known. The climax arrived as we descended through a high arched opening in the walled street into the huge enclosure of the Campo, the famed square we had read about in our travel guides and in the book Natural Light in the Italian Piazza, by Sandra Lakeman, a colleague at Cal Poly.

This ancient space creates a remarkable sense of both freedom and enclosure intensified by what Donatella told us of its setting in time and space. It was one of the first secular public spaces in Europe, both complementing and competing with the square in front of the cathedral. In a time when rulers fear that such plazas would expose them to riots by the crowds it attracted, the design of the Campo expressed confidence in the support of the populace of a republican city-state. This civic spirit was further elaborated in frescoes we viewed in one of the many splendid rooms inside the Palazzo Publico known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government. They portrayed abstract Aristotelian virtues and vices and concrete views of life inside and outside of the walls of well-governed and poorly governed city-states. Later in the day, we attended a lecture about the frescoes and the civic humanism they represent delivered by Rocky Ruggiero, a dynamic young Italian-American scholar. When Siena became a republic ruled by a council of nine rich merchants in the late thirteenth century, it billed itself as the model of the new secular state. The utopian and dystopian frescoes were meant to inspire the self-selected oligarchy of “the nine” who met in that chamber to do their jobs conscientiously. They reminded me of the contrasting images on the shield of Achilles in Book 22 of the Iliad.

The Palazzo Pubblico also contains a famous Maesta by Simone Martini, one of Siena’s notable artists. The Maesta subject–the virgin Mary sitting crowned as a royal ruler surrounded by saints and heroes of the church with the baby Jesus on her lap–is common on altarpieces in Italy. Jesus is usually represented as crucified rather than as ruling, and God the Father is often absent. The great cathedrals we saw were all dedicated to her: Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria di Fiori in Venice, Salute in Florence and Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

After the morning tour and Rocky’s afternoon lecture, the group went back to town by bus to visit an Enoteca–a wine bar–for an instructional tasting session. I’d been longing to get into the City Hall Tower, the Torre del Mangia, and the late afternoon light was getting more dramatic by the minute. The line to get in magically disappeared and I raced to the top and watched an indescribable pageant of changing light and shadow on a transcendant landscape.

Taking pictures helped me absorb and hang on to what seemed like a moment akin to Dante’s ascent to Paradise. The time I was spending in churches or looking at sacred monuments was getting to me. All this art and architecture–this talent and effort that had gone into creating and preserving these monuments could almost bring me religion.

But only if I ignored that Florence and Venice and Siena were often at war with one another and each praying to the Virgin for defeat of their enemies, and that gratitude for her mercy was offered by the survivors of the plague, who, as Jan pointed out, must have been left with huge amounts of money after one third of the population died.

When the sun set I came down from the tower and found her and the rest of the group of elders also jubilant after finishing up their third glasses of homework in the Enoteca. I caught up quickly and rode home in the bus doubly intoxicated.

Next morning Rocky lectured on the Duomo in preparation for our afternoon tour. His combination of erudition, insight and wit enhanced our experience of the art. Duomo, he informed us, has nothing to do with Dome, but comes from Domus, the throne or seat of an archbishop. The churches’ political and economic roles complemented their religious functions. Siena was a way station for most pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem and experienced a constant influx of medieval tourists. The Cathedral they stopped at was on the highest point of the city. The rivalry between Florence and Siena dominated the period of Siena’s prosperity from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, though Florence won most military battles. After an upset victory in 1280 the Sienese decided to expand their cathedral to make it the largest in the world–larger than the immense Duomo being built in Florence–but the Black Plague of 1348 as well as construction problems forced them to abandon that ambition. They reverted to completing the Cathedral’s original design, and the partial façade of their Tower of Babel comemorates their hybris.

The existing building, not as large as either the Florence Duomo or St. Peters in Rome is still gargantuan. Constructed in the popular Tuscan style of alternating green and white stripes of marble, the Cathedral houses an amazing collection of art treasures accessible to long lines of tourists for the entrance fee of 5 Euros–about 6 dollars. Rocky pointed out that Catholic religious art and architecture is rarely about restraint and balance, the formula being the more the holier. In the afternoon Donatella led us through it. The floor of the vast transept is covered with marble inlay scenes by every artist that counted over a period of 250 years, including Michaelangelo and Donatello, a chapel designed by Bernini containing two of his plastic and twisted marble figures, a stone pulpit with a frieze by Giovanni Pisano that reminded me of the Ara Pacis celebrating Augustus’ reign in Rome, and the Piccolomini Library, a late fifteenth century chapel covered wall to ceiling with immense, colorful and detailed frescoes by Pinturicchio and his assistant Raphael celebrating the life of one of Siena’s own, a humanist scholar, poet and diplomat, who became Pope Pius II.

Not an inch of this vast and complex space was left undecorated over the period of eight centuries it has collected tribute, including one wall bedecked with motorcycle helmets of those who escaped death in accidents. But an hour and a half of overstimulation and dense crowding was all Jan and I could take. As a chaser we went shopping at Upim, the local department store, and found, on sale, a sportjacket, pants, two shirts and a hat for me, a teaching wardrobe for the coming year.