Nell Irvin Painter


Our Trip to Italy, 5-19 April 1997

We took this trip after visits to Egypt and the Moorish Alhambra in Grenada, Spain. Given our chronology, much of what we saw on this vacation seemed to me derivative--predicated on Muslim art and architecture: the use of black and white marble, decoration on every possible surface, geometric mosaics, and columns. After centuries of copying and adopting Byzantine art and architecture and all the copies and adaptations of Muslim art and architecture, western European art and architecture, it seems to me, didn't create its own forms until Giotto, around 1300. Only then do you see perspective and backgrounds (landscapes and cityscapes), and an overwhelming, stylized supposedly realistic portrayal of the anatomy of the human figure. By the fifteenth century, (usually male) bodies appear either unclothed or wearing material so clinging that all the muscles show through with a definition that denizens of late twentieth-century health clubs would envy. These muscle-bound bodies appear in action, no, in struggle, in combat. Churches like the Vatican or the museum of the cathedral of Sienna overflow with gigantic images of war, in which all the muscles of men and horses stand out clearly. Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel's Christ is a thick blond with massive, well-developed biceps and a washboard stomach. Michaelangelo's sibyls are also bulked up--and often blond, like so many of his ceiling figures. (Botticelli also painted blondes by the score.)

But this is to get ahead of my story. Glenn and I started in France, on the hill of pretty little Vézelay in the Bourgogne, an ancient and contemporary stopping point on the pilgrimage route to Saint John of Compostella (which we came across again in Italy. Everybody in the tourist industry along the pilgrimage route anticipates the year 2000, a jubilee year for dedicated Christians that will bring their way thousands of pilgrims and their money.). In Vézelay we found our first black and white Moorish church, so to speak, the basilica of Saint Madeline, where St. Bernard preached the second crusade in 1146, a proud moment in the history of Vézelay.

Vézelay is also the town of two twentieth-century French writers, Romain Rolland and Georges Bataille. I don't know much about Rolland, but Bataille was a communist friend of Jacques Lacan's. Bataille's wife had an affair and a daughter, Judith Miller, with Lacan, before becoming his second wife. This story does not figure on the historical plaques in Vézelay.

Having heard so much about the Second World War Vichy government, I wanted to stop by there before we left France. Along the roads approaching and leaving Vichy we saw lots of stickers and graffiti for the ultra-right-wing National Front. I had known that one reason for situating the collaborationist government in Vichy in 1940 was the town's possession of buildings, such as the casino, big enough to hold governmental meetings. I realize now that because Vichy's water attracted the glamorous, which is to say rich, people, it was probably also a pretty conservative town. If current graffiti is any indication of sentiments half a century ago, Vichy welcomed Maréchal Pétain. Vichy seems never to have quite recovered its prewar glamour after 1945, and the place appeared seedy to us. True, we were there before the start of the real tourist season, but that was the case everywhere we went.

Recalling fabulous 1950s accounts of the construction of the first long tunnel between the French and Italian Alps, we took the Mount Blanc tunnel to Italy under the highest alpine peak. It is pretty impressive, about 13 km long. But the Fréjus tunnel, which we took on the way back home, is even longer. Only it occupies no wondrous place in our youthful memory. My undergraduate memory holds images from corporate Swiss calendars of crystal clear alpine vistas, but those images did not rematerialize in April 1997. The air we encountered in the Alps was most unclear. We drove through a lot of smog, in the mountains and in the plains on either side. Our air didn't clear until Florence, and then it ran out near Rome. Our Roman friend, Roberta, had remarked when she stayed with us in Princeton in 1995 that Italy was extremely polluted. This is true. And so is France.

In Italy we first visited Bellagio on Lake Como and the Rockefeller Center high on the promontory between the two legs of Lake Como . Very impressive setting, gorgeous gardens. Amazing what money will buy! We picture Nellie McKay and Mary Kelley thinking great thoughts as they stroll around the grounds of this lovely villa.

On our way to Milano from Bellagio we encountered lots of nazi and skinhead graffiti, particularly among the beautiful villas, now still shuttered. Looking for a hotel for the night, we drove off the main highway into a village called Barni. Right off, I didn't like the looks of the place, but Glenn wanted to find a hotel right away. We drove into the center of the town, a square in front of an imposing church in which young men were playing football. No welcoming smiles here, no, not at all. Trying to flee the square, I took a small street that quickly became too narrow for our Renault. We locked the doors, backed up the street into the sullen crowd in the square, turned around, and escaped. Whew!

One high point of our trip was the Cinque Terre--the five villages perched above the Ligurian rivera near La Spezia. Tourist brochures feature photos taken in the high season of beaches packed with sun bathers. We arrived early in the season, to early for bathing, and a good thing, too. Tourists like us were everywhere, belying Michelin's assertion that inaccessibility has protected the Cinque Terre from tourism and preserved a traditional way of life based on the production of wine and olive oil. Yes, we saw many vineyards and olive groves planted on steep, meticulously terraced hillsides. But there's no question that this is tourist country. We walked along a path carved into the hillside called the Via D' Amore and had in Riomaggiore the kind of delicious Italian meal of your daydreams--consumed on a sunny, but not too hot or humid terrace, accompanied by a liter of light local wine.

We walked a good deal around Cinque Terre and encountered our first great doubts. We tried to stay in a hotel in Manarola, but twice hoteliers turned us away immediately, saying they were full. Full? in early April? We didn't believe it, still don't quite. But we later overheard the keeper of the hotel where we stayed in Riomaggiore tell people over the phone that he was full. As for Manarola, maybe they were full, maybe not. We were still in northern Italy, where neofascist graffiti prevailed. Picture in your mind's eye the most breathtaking vistas, of mountains, Mediterranean, and colorful villages perched on steep hillsides. Then apply neofascist posters and graffiti, and, of course, a little smog and water pollution.

On the way to Florence, Glenn and I visited the Etruscan city of Volterra, situated on a hill with a stunning 360 degree view of Tuscany. In Volterra, I was pursuing another undergraduate romance, this time with the ancient Etruscans. However the Etruscan Museum in Volterra concentrates on the late Greek period, with room after room after room of tombs in the Greek style, portraying Greek myths. Few primitive, smiling Etruscans in evidence.

As I gazed at the ancient Etruscans at Volterra, unexpected questions entered my mind: "Am I related to these people and their objects?" "Does this culture have anything to do with me?" "Are we linked by a common human history, or do differences of race and continent cut me off from them?" I still don't know the answers. But I do recall not asking myself those questions in Egypt. Maybe that's because Egypt spawned all the cultures I belong to, but the Etruscans did not.

Dennis joined us in Florence, where we did the basic tourist circuit for his benefit, though skipping the Uffizi gallery, where a line equivalent to two hours' wait stood outside the doors. We pushed on to Subiaco, where an Irish friend from Lawrence, Kansas, Mark Byrne, now lives as a monk in a monastery of Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (founded by Father Jim of Boston forty years ago) at the Santuario della Madonna. We stayed two nights at the monastery, from there visiting Rome and the earliest Benedictine monastery, high above Subiaco. Monastic life seems attractive in these times, not only for Mark, who's an Irish Catholic, but also for a friend of my parents who just now entered a Buddhist monastery. A decade ago, before I married Glenn, I'd probably be attracted by such a life myself.

In Rome, our friend Roberta's father deplored the influence of the Communist party in Italian politics. He thought CPI had scared ordinary Italians so much that they give any non-Communist government carte blanche (e.g., in dealing with the Albanian crisis), and that in general, any party to the right of CPI was so intimidated by the specter of being labeled "fascist" that no one could do anything. I thought that rather sweeping and concluded that our hosts, though extremely hospitable toward the three of us, identified with right wing politics. They were thoughtful enough to show us all sorts of Roman sights off the usual tourist itinerary, such as the arch of Janus and the mouth of Truth, and they feed us a delicious, home-made dinner.

We drove all over northwest and central Italy, from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea, baking in lowland sun and freezing in a snowstorm as we crossed the Gran' Sasso. We joined tourist crowds in Rome and Pisa but visited lesser known cities such as Perugia, Bologna, and Lucca. Bologna is truly glorious, with taller leaning towers than Pisa, beautiful galleried walkways, and a university that embodies the history of higher education. If you can visit only one place in Italy, make it Bologna. Tourist guides praise the cuisine, which is too meaty for my taste. But the architecture there, as in Milano, is amazing.

If you asked for my final conclusion from this trip, I'd answer that I now, finally, understand anti-Catholicism. First, our old friend Mark, the monk, told us several anecdotes about gossip and envy in today's Catholic communities, which seem not at all above human weakness. And, second and more conclusively, the historical record makes for great doubt about the quotidian value of blessedness, for the envy Mark reported has noteworthy historical antecedents. An example is St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, right there in Subiaco. Two of the legendary moments in Benedict's life concern treachery within the church: one is the glass that shatters after Benedict blesses it--the wine had been poisoned by monks from another brotherhood. The other explains the raven always included in representations of St. Benedict. According to legend, Benedict was at table with monks from his own abbey, when a raven swooped down and flew off with the bread. It turns out that the bread the raven carried away was poisoned. In both cases Benedict escaped--he died a natural death in his a 60s in 547 his most famous monastery, Monte Cassino. We saw that mortal threats dogged even a life as holy as his.

The historical record bristles with other reasons for skepticism. Even though the main subject of Catholic representation is the crucifixion, the great museums and monuments of the Church in Italy speak one language, that of wealth. Leaving aside all the land stripped by the Resorgimento, the Catholic Church still owns monumental buildings and furnishings (paintings, tapestries, furniture, clothing, and rich objects of all sorts) amassed during the centuries when the lives of ordinary Europeans was, as Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short. For me, the overwhelming material wealth of the Church seems astronomical: buildings, land, knowledge, labor, and clothing of such splendor that I could barely pull myself away. As someone who understands a little of weaving, knitting, tailoring, and fabric, I grasped the massive resources of skill and raw material necessary to produce such fine raiment.

In sum, Italy remains for me an site of wondrous beauty. I adore the landscape, the cities, the architecture, the design, and the language. But the so-called great historical works of art--representations of war and slaughter and sacred buildings embodying extremes of conspicuous consumption--cannot for me epitomize the sum of human greatness. Their materiality speaks of too much extravagance and waste, too much competition to build the biggest, tallest, most ornate temple to a particular God and his saints. But in an odd way, I still come away from this latest trip to Italy a more confirmed humanist. I wish I could attend architecture school and myself build in this magnificent and vulgar tradition.

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