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
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
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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