Friday, November 30, 2018

Behold: Tintorettos Above the Altars

Pope refused to go in the cathedrals in Venice. I admit that I, too, have limits. Byzantine or Baroque, marble or stone, mosaic or fresco--they start to blend together after while. On my first trip to Europe, in 1982, I found myself tiring of yet another golden altar or statue of Catholics torturing Protestants. Over the years, I favored small country chapels and limited my standing-in-line time to the truly exquisites: Chartres, Ravenna, Sagrada Familia.

So Pope was shocked when, in Venice, I decided to take the Tintoretto walking tour.

Who is Tintoretto, some of you might ask. Well, I'm pleased to inform you that you can see for yourself: his religious paintings will be featured at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in March 2019.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to provide a tiny glimpse of Renaissance culture and the heyday of Jacopo Tintoretto. Very tiny, because even with a good map the paintings weren't easy to find. But that's okay; it's a good excuse to show you photographs of my trip.

First, I practiced Renaissance-cathedral-hopping in Florence, starting with the Duomo--which is by Brunelleschi, an architect, not Tintoretto, the painter; but that's ok, all those Italian artists run together for the average American sightseer like me.
The Cathedral of Florence, or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, was begun in the Gothic style in the late 1200s, but became a hallmark of Renaissance architecture by the time its imposing dome was completed in the mid-1400s

What really impressed me in Florence was not its most famous church but the discovery of a sunset viewing platform high above the city--and an exquisite little church at the top of several stupendous staircases, with an even more magnificent overlook.
Crowds gather to view the sunset every evening at Michelangelo Plaza, across the river and a steep climb high above the city; it's not old, though, it was built in the late 1800s
A series of staircases carry you up, up, up above Michelangelo Plaza to another level of history
Santa Miniato al Monte features the usual marble embellishments, but also a gold mosaic; the church is not Renaissance, however, it's Romanesque, which is an earlier period; the church was begun in 1018 and predates Michelangelo Plaza by 800+ years

These were pleasant diversions. But this blog post is supposed to be about Tintoretto and the Renaissance.

I got to Venice a day earlier than Pope and strolled over to see the marble columns of Annunciaton Church, around the corner from our AirBnB in the Cannaregio district. It is Baroque, not Renaissance. Still pretty, though. I couldn't get inside to look for Tintorettos.
Annunciation Church, or Chiesa dei Gesuiti

The primary Venice attraction, St. Mark's Cathedral, is also Byzantine; the current structure was started around 1063--long before the Italian Renaissance. In my view (and Pope's), however, it is not pretty but a somewhat grotesque abomination of architecture. And the crowds were shoulder-to-shoulder. After a brief obligatory look-see, we fled for quieter neighborhoods, me in pursuit of Tintoretto and Pope in pursuit of good wine.
Piazza San Marcos and the basilica in mid-October draws thousands of cruise ship passengers and large Asian tour groups

What did intrigue me at St. Mark's were the mysterious wooden boardwalks that wind around the plaza, a couple of feet above ground. At the time, there was no obvious explanation. I discovered what they were only a week later, back home, when photos of a flooded Venice flooded the news media. (Reuters Photo)
Aha! That's what those raised platforms are for... This photo is from Reuters, Oct 29, 2018--a week after we left

Having disposed of the most important tourist attraction in Venice, Pope retired to an afternoon siesta while I strolled the city with my Tintoretto walking tour map, in search of illustrious paintings and glorious Renaissance architecture.

After a while, I came upon another famous Venetian church: Friari. This cathedral is Gothic, not Renaissance, and its famous altar painting is not a Tintoretto but a light-splashed Titian's Assumption. Balancing--or spoiling--the subtle red-and-blue beauty of Titian's masterpiece is a gaudy gilt monstrosity built to house religious relics, and some ostentatious and uncomfortable-looking wooden choir pews. 
 Santa Maria Glorioso del Friari, from the 1400s-1500s: gilded altar for relics, and choir loft

What intrigued me most at Friari were four massive statues of African slaves--probably the source of labor for construction of the cathedrals and a closely-kept secret of Venetian history. Symbolically depicted in black marble under the weight of white marble, frowning fiercely, you won't find these slaves mentioned in tour books or tourist websites. However, I found some interesting speculation about the possible intent here.
The giant statues may have represented the defeat of the Ottoman Empire; or was the depiction of their angry visages an early anti-slavery statement?

Altogether, I made it to a dozen cathedrals and palaces, of which six or seven actually did feature Renaissance architecture and Tintoretto paintings--some interesting and some not-so-interesting, but none that convinced me to drop everything and study Italian Renaissance art. Or even to bore you with pictures. Pope stayed away, frequenting cafes and bars while I pounded the pedestrian lanes.

One of Tintoretto's paintings is worth a mention. It's a Last Supper. Every Italian painter worth his oils had to paint one, right? Tintoretto alone has six or seven in Venice, including a glowing light-and-angel-filled one at the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, which is on many tourist agendas. I didn't make it there; it's a dramatic painting but obnoxiously religious, and it requires a boat ride to a separate island.

This Last Supper is different. It's at the Church of San Polo, and the gloomy interior of the church makes it difficult to see. At first glance it appeared to be a raucous, chaotic party of drunkenness and delusion, with Christ pushing hotheads apart and with other revelers rolling on the floor. Up close and after careful study, though, one can discern that it's actually an open-air feast at which a haloed Christ is holding out bread to disciples at far ends of the table, and others are offering bread to a man and boy on the ground. (This photo is significantly brightened from my original shot.)
This version of the Last Supper, by Tintoretto, dates to the late 1500s and is housed at the Chiesa di San Paolo Apostolo in the San Polo neighborhood

I had to chuckle. So many serious religious paintings in one city can be oppressive. At least one of those on my Tintoretto walking tour offered some light entertainment.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Pasta Made Perfectly in the Italian Countryside

I last left you with an initial taste of my vacation in a medieval hilltop town in Umbria, and our plan to meander over to a pasta-making class outside of town.

Luxuriating on our balcony, and at the cafe in the town square, Becky and I could barely drag ourselves away. But mouth-watering recipes awaited, so we persevered. Let's face it, even on the most relaxing vacation, there is likely to be a day or two of hard labor. One must succumb.
It was only 3 kilometers from Panicale to the farm, on the outskirts of Paciano. The directions provided by email, while colorful, were not very enlightening. The "road that descends through the olive groves" and "shrine at the junction" could have meant any one of a half-dozen choices. After wandering around the scenic countryside, with assistance from GPS, we arrived at Il Fontanaro, ready to cook.
We needn't have hurried. The guests arrived slowly, and leisurely launched the morning with a discussion of olive oil, over a bottle of red wine. Olive oil is a key ingredient of any Umbrian feast, and wine is essential to negotiating the intricacies of the three types of Italian flour and various kneading techniques required to make pasta.
After a suitable period of chatting--and imbibing--on the shady veranda, we got down to the serious business of mixing, kneading, rolling, and shaping tagliatelle, farfalle, ravioli, and gnudi. 
It was hard work trying to fit in all of that manual labor between sips of the villa's house-produced vino. What I really wanted to do was luxuriate on the veranda enjoying the view. But I took another swallow and persevered.

After rolling and cutting the pasta, we turned to sauces. Briefly abandoning our libations while we repaired to the kitchen garden, we gathered plump tomatoes and fresh herbs.
Then we chopped, sauteed, drank some more, and slaved over the stove. Pasta in boiling water. Zucchini, garlic, and lemon in one frying pan. Tomatoes and garlic in another. Cook, drink, repeat.
Does it look like our hostess, Alina, did more than her share of the cooking? Don't let the photos fool you; we worked hard. One must, in order to appreciate the rewards. However, it may be true that she was slightly more able to tolerate large quantities of the house wine than we novices.

Finally, the food came to the table. At this point we gave in, sat down, opened another bottle, and allowed the hired help to serve.
After feasting and offering congratulations all around, we enjoyed aperitifs: limoncello and amaro, an Umbrian specialty.

After a couple more hours, we got around to the afternoon's final business: how to return to our vacation rentals. We all came by car. We all drank. Oh well, it was Italy, after all. We had eaten well, and surely pasta absorbs significant quantities of alcohol.

Fortunately, Becky and I only had 3 kilometers to go, and the GPS was still working. And all we had to do upon our return was more luxuriating.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Take the Left Fork at the Olive Tree

The directions here are classic. Or should I say, medieval.

In Umbria, you can't "turn right at the light and look for the fourth house on the left." The towns are 13th-14th-15th century castles on hilltops, dominating cultivated hillsides and vast open plains.
These former fortresses encircle the "town" houses. For centuries past, peasant huts were below. Fields of hard labor are now replaced with prosperous estates overseeing olive groves and vineyards.
Inside the town walls, the narrow lanes wind and climb through centuries of recollections, renovations, and pigeon roosts.

Walls are stone or crumbling brick, the roofs red tile, and
doors are shorter than house plants.
When you ask for directions, prepare for an enlightening explanation of the twisted medieval-era geography.
Below are the directions I received for my pasta-making class, in the next hilltop village.

The Umbria map is in my day pack, and my taste buds are tingling with anticipation.

At the end of the long city stone wall on the left where the road divides, take the right turn into Via Madonna della Stella. Continue on this road until it divides, about 100 m further. Keep right following the sign saying Fontanaro or Tartagli or Residence l ľOlivo and continue downhill 100 m further on where you reach a small church on the right.

Directly opposite the church is a road with another small Fontanaro sign. Turn left onto this road which descends through olive groves. At the next junction 400 m later, and just past a pair of wooden gates with a mail box, turn right.

Keep left at the next fork and continue passing the house on the right (La poderina). Just past this house is a shrine at another junction. Keep to the right and continue for another 250m where the road ends at the gate for Fontanaro. There is an arch of Roses that bloom in May and a big cypress tree.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Pestilence on the High Seas

I donated blood today. To the dozens of biting flies that swarmed Echo II in the Choptank River and feasted on my legs, arms, toes, fingers, ears, and nose. The ones I slapped in shock and desperation were loaded with red corpuscles--mine. And I am bruised from slapping myself silly, too.

Darn wildlife. Getting more aggressive every year. Why, just the other day I was blogging about mosquitoes. I blame climate change. No, I think I'll blame Trump! Plague and pestilence are invading the planet, taking multiple forms. The list of predators and victims is growing.

These particular predators, a Chesapeake Bay variety, were just as vicious as the ones last week off the coast of New Jersey--way out in the ocean!--though not as numerous. They all ignore, or maybe even feast on, 40% DEET. 

I hope my red blood cells are contributing to a good cause, ecologically speaking, and not just fattening the bellies of greedy, bloodsucking, worthless parasites.

Monday, September 3, 2018

All in a Day's Sail

6 am Sunday, September 2, 2018--choppy Atlantic waters off the coast of New Jersey. Perfect conditions for seasickness if one were so inclined. Instead, swaying in my bunk, surrounded by beach towels in case of salt-water intrusion. Pope charting course and updating captain's log. Visiting crew member Dennis at the helm. The dinner dishes areunwashed and I can't get the tangles out of my hair.

My friends are dancing night and day at a music festival in Rhode Island. We made it to the western edge of Long Island in our trusty old boat, then declared "no farther"!

 We survived intact the East River past Manhattan in both directions. A maelstrom of swift and confused currents, waves, and wakes. A dodge-'em of freighters, ferries, barges, tugs, water taxis, and the occasional sea plane. The boat hops and jumps. We surf. "A free roller coaster!" Dennis declared.

Not exactly. The costs are in bruised legs and seared nerves. The passing panorama of architecture and history, the song of this city in stalled traffic and sunbathers in the parks, are the rewards.

Along the way we made new friends, a young couple who decided on a whim to forgo normal prospects like income and air conditioning to live on a boat the size of ours. Sealing cracks. Replacing rigging. Raising and lowering sails without the aid of roller furling or lazy jacks. Chasing fair weather and hats blown overboard. Cramped. Demanding. I admire their perseverance and ability to kick back and enjoy.

Yesterday, we caught up with old friends after chasing them uo and down the coast several years. They rescued me from a predictable future of boredom and comfort by convincing me, on Christmas Eve 2013, Browns Marina, Bimini, the Bahamas, to stay on the boat with Pope instead of jumping ship. Two hundred and seventy seven bites ago, from no-see-ums, gnats, pesky mosquitoes, and vicious Georgia and New Jersey flies. Blood spatters on the cabin ceiling, some dried long ago and others from only yesterday.

After trading rum and remarks for crackers and retorts in Pearl's spacious cockpit, we returned to Echo II to set anchor for a few hours of roly-poly, rock-the-baby sleep before entering the Atlantic.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Is It Nap Time Again?

Abort * Abort * Abort. Wait! That Was LAST time. That title's been used before. Need a new one.

I'm getting a tingling in my brain; it's a memory, yes; a sense of deja vu, having been here, done that.

It's a memory that evokes an oft-heard refrain among sailors: oh, broke down again? Well, that just leaves more time for naps.

Pope's brother Jake had visions of flying up Long Island Sound under full sail, wind in his hair, blissfully soaking up salt and sea. He looked forward to it for weeks.

Instead the three of us are soaking up shade under a makeshift bimini, flying around a mooring ball in a strong southeast breeze--a breeze that would have been perfect for the sail up the sound. An excellent opportunity for a mid-day snooze.
Jake's vision faded with the sunset shortly after departing the East River and entering Port Washington on Long Island, as one of us leaned heavily on a gearshift already worn and rusty, long overdue for an upgrade. Snap. 

Yep, I've heard that refrain before. Broke down. Flurry of trying to fix it ourselves. Defeat. 
The beer is cold, the red wine flows, the Stop 'n' Shop has bread, berries, and bananas. I've got an excellent book and a backpacker's guitar to practice my music.
The rocking boat lulls us gently into a stupor every time we settle in, waiting for a Monday morning mechanic.