May 25, 2012 Florence

View from the Convent

A decent convent breakfast after half a night’s sleep in a single bed out of five in our Spartan room above the noisy piazza! I felt strangely refreshed and headed out with two of the group for some Florentine sightseeing. Crossed the Arno, took photographs of the historic Ponte Vecchio, poked our noses into fashionable leather shops along the Arno and wound our way down medieval cobblestoned streets full of Italian life. There were shopkeepers lingering in oversize doorways, scooters missing throngs of pedestrians by a breeze, no sidewalks, and lots of smokers. The stones of Florence amaze- the houses have stood for centuries having been well crafted by skilled stone masons hundreds of years before my eyes had seen them. The stoic buildings tower over the winding streets guarding the heritage of life which has passed before in very similar fashion to this day. Florence: the capital city of Tuscany, a city founded by the Romans (sister to Rome) and the birthplace of the Renaissance, a city which built wealth, a city where artisans and trades people have sold their wares in family-run shops directly facing the streets since Roman times. We headed for the Basilica di Santa Croce to see the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Galileo and frescoes, stained glass and altar pieces by Donatello, Giotto, Canova, Cimabue. The cloister of the Basilica also holds a monument to Florence Nightingale. Many of the crypts inside the Basilica are adorned with fantastic but macabre artistry of death: skull and cross bones, skeletons-all in surrealistic design on the marble floors. In contrast, the very feminine marble La Liberta della Poesia created by Pio Fedi stands majestically at the far end of the Basilica; as Federic Auguste Bartholdi (son of an Italian immigrant to America) was living in Florence at the time Pio Fedi first cast The Liberty of Poetry in plaster, this statue was the inspiration for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. She holds a lyre and crown of laurel in her left hand and a broken chain in her right. The title of this statue made a fitting title for our journey and her image, a metaphor for my personal quest. Like Dante’s Vita Nuova, was I searching for my own poetic voice in my travels?

The market was our next destination. Again, an abundance of life! The stalls displayed dry pastas of all varieties, olive oil choices not seen in Canada, truffles, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and always in Italy, the great variety of cured meats and cheeses. I bought a Tuscan melon sold to me by an overly zealous vendor, sampled the thinnest slice of truffle,and stopped for my daily cappuccino and croissant. After the market, I found myself alone in the historic center near the Duomo as others in my entourage had already been to Florence and were not interested in some of the major sights, so I marvelled at the magnificence of the structure and design on my own. The Duomo is breathtaking; standing beneath it, it is difficult to know what to look at and for how long to get the full power of its architectural genius. With a small map of the city, alone, feeling a little lost and overwhelmed, I headed for a bridge across the Arno to find the convent for another night’s restless dreams above the small Florentine courtyard.

Stones of Florence

Florence

May 24, 2012 Leave Pensione Stella for Ravenna

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

 

Last morning breakfast buffet at the Stella- packed up and loaded bags into 3 vans. We took the car ferry off the Lido to the mainland. The drive to Ravenna was harrowing with a driver who seemed almost homicidal, passing incessantly on a 2 lane highway and driving well above the speed limit. The Autostrada seemed a bit safer, so I tried to relax a bit and enjoy the Eastern Tuscan landscape – fields of corn and grape vines punctuated everywhere by stately cypress trees. When we arrived at Ravenna after a 2 hour van ride, we were quite hungry, and were told by our driver that we had only 1.5 hours for a quick tour of Ravenna, so we had to make some quick choices-we chose seeing the sites over a sit -down lunch. Dante’s tomb was a must see and lo- and -behold Lord Byron’s apartment was located in the same square, even kitty-corner, to the tomb- a very large and well treed square. The Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna’s churches and mausoleums are the best preserved outside of Constantinople, so we headed to the Basilica of San Vitale, a church begun in 527 AD; it has an octagonal plan with the architectural mix of Roman and Byzantine elements. I sat in the central section of the church mesmerized by the intricacy and dazzling colours of the mosaics-fruits, flowers, birds and The Lamb of God in the center with radiating depictions of the Old Testament, Emperor Justinian and the astonishing Empress Theodora. The mosaics on the floor were of equal intricacy in beauty and design and the marble inlays on the pillars also dazzlingly rich in texture and colour. This is Italy, I thought, the richness of art is unsurpassed!  And Ravenna, so rich in historical significance! I could have dreamed longer, but we had to head back to the van and on our way we made a feeble attempt at eating, the re-hydrating chocolate gelato had to suffice!! As we drove towards Florence, our next destination, the landscape looked more typically Tuscan with villas atop hills, many marble quarries, cypress trees and the scent (even from the van) of orange blossoms. The road began to get very busy as we neared Florence and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves winding our way through the city gates in search of our Convent which was to be our accommodation for the next 2 nights. Perhaps we would get a sense of how Allegra may have felt living in the Capuchin convent at Bagnacavallo near Ravenna as a young child having been placed there by her father, Lord Byron.

Gelato

Ravenna

Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

Byron’s Apartment in Ravenna in the same square as Dante’s Tomb

Dante’s Tomb in Ravenna
Marble inlays at the Basilica of San Vitale

Byzantine Mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale

 

 

 

Floor Mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale

May 23, 2012

May 23, 2012

Today was the first full day on the main island of Venice after a short early morning trip to the small island of Murano. The Venetian glass creations in the shop windows of Murano come in every fanciful, delicate and whimsical variety-subtle colours, bold themes, chandeliers of traditional and contemporary designs, even fantastical art pieces jutted up against 6th century churches and bell towers. Vendors sell vegetables in row boats docked up against the narrow streets, and Murano residents converse across the small canal in perfect familiarity. Leaving Murano, the ferry ride along the Grand Canal took me past the foreigner’s  (non Catholic) cemetery where Ezra Pound, Diaghilev and Stravinsky are buried: on other isles, I passed busy trattorias, cafes, shops, docked cruise ships, many milling tourists, some light industry and finally across to St. Marco. I could not have been prepared for what I saw and how I felt standing beneath the Doge’s Palace!

Rare marbles

The marbles, the stones, the “spoils of nations”, the Byzantine architecture of a once powerful republic exuded permanence, dominance, authority and the weight of power. An unbelievable sight and set against finally sunny Italian skies and a sparkling Adriatic. My breath was taken away gazing at the Basilica’s rare marbles expertly embedded in its columns and wall inlays; the Venetian winged lion guarded the entrance at the top of a glorious portico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge of Sighs

First stanza of Canto IV of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage reads:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:

A thousand years their cloudy wings expand

Around me, and a dying Glory smiles

O’er the far times, when many a subject land

Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,

Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!

 

The ‘Bridge of Sighs’ was so named by Byron to evoke the romantic tragedy of  condemned individuals who may have taken one last look at Venice as they passed from the gilded tribunal halls of the Doge’s Palace across the stone bridge to the horrific prison on the other side of the canal. Even to a tourist’s gaze today, the stones of the palace and prison symbolize the weight and influence of the former Republic -East to West-the weight of judgement, the gravity of condemnation and the excesses of profit. Byron writes:

...and the exhaustless East
Pour'd in her lap all gems in sparkling showers.
In purple was she robed, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deem'd their dignity increased

This series of islands, Venice, had dominated maritime commerce for centuries. Yet its humble beginnings of a race seeking refuge in a most unfavourable location living what Goethe called ‘an instinctive existence’ can still be felt today as a tourist observes new construction, pilings, dredges, abandoned palazzo’s first stories as the waters rise, plastic debris floating in the bays, the empty echoes of once more elegant streets and everywhere- sublime art. Living on the sea, Venice is a labyrinth of canals and bridges and has made the Venetian into ‘a new kind of creature’, wrote Goethe, and as he stressed that it is important to give one’s immediate impressions as a traveller, I too, a ‘fugitive of the North’ am awed by the beautiful colours and designs I see in Venice.

Doge’s Palace

The Venetian Winged Lion

May 22, 2012

Venice

“So much has been said and written about Venice already that I do not want to describe it too minutely. I shall only give my immediate impression”. Goethe: Sept. 29, 1786.

Rainy Start to the Italian Journey in Venice

May 22, 2012

Rainy day, but felt better. I decided to take it easy after a day’s bout of the stomach flu and so after a light breakfast of strawberries, yoghurt and coffee with steamed milk, I took a short walk to an open air fruit and vegetable market on the Lido. Sicilian melons, fresh artichokes, Spanish oranges as well as stands of delectable cheeses and cured meats! A very communal affair where locals interacted with vendors at length over each purchase as I stood there, a lone tourist unable to speak Italian, but longing to buy myself a Sicilian melon and managing in my awkwardness to purchase only two bananas. I walked over to the mini Laundromat and did a small wash as a young Italian boyfriend and girlfriend waited for their wash by kissing passionately, hugging and checking their I phones. The sun shone briefly in the later afternoon adding some much needed warmth to our garden conversations at the Pensione Stella before we all headed over to the Rialto Bridge area for our first Liberal Studies dinner together as a group. This ride across from the Lido to Venice’s main island, my first, was like heading into the magic of an idea. As Goethe wrote, “Venice can only be compared to itself”. Riding the boat, I observed what Goethe termed a “fresh and animated world”- the waterways busy with locals and tourists blended into a frenzy of everyday activities; business and pleasure.

Venice

Along the Grand Canal, I was able to photograph Lord Byron’s palazzo from which he would frequently dive into the canal from his third story balcony and swim. In ‘Maddalo’s’ palazzo, one of his many in Italy- the ‘Paradise of exiles’- Shelley might sit and listen to his “…great wit and subtle talk…and make [Shelley] know [himself].”  In this Palazzo too, Lord Byron entertained Venetian beauties and earned his title  ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’.  Our ride back  through the Grand Canal at night was spectacular! Dim lit canals, alleys; theatrical palazzos, docked gondolas rocking in the dark shimmering sea, a pirate ship slipped by in the dark on a tourist cruise. Shelley wrote in ‘Julian and Maddalo’: We glided; and from that funereal bark I leaned, and saw the city, and could mark how from their many isles, in evening’s gleam, its temples and palaces did seem like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven. Our group was on a month long quest of exploring the land which inspired many of Shelley’s great poems, Byron’s Childe Harolde and Don Juan and Goethe’s Italianische Reise. Venice was our starting point.

Lord Byron’s Palazzo Mocenigo, Grand Canal

 

 

Lord Byron’s Palazzo

Julian and Maddalo

                

The ‘land which breaks the flow of Adria towards Venice’ on the southern side of the Lido.

 

 

Before I arrived in Venice, I had longed to see Shelley’s ‘ bare strand of ever shifting sand of uninhabited sea-side‘, but did find remnants of ‘some few stakes broken and unrepaired’ weekend sea shacks and picnic camp-outs on my walk. The winds did drive the ‘living spray’ into my face and the waves sound harmonized with solitary thoughts as I walked the sea wall contemplating the friendship of Shelley and Byron and their time together here on the Lungomare.

Goethe wrote in his Italian Journey on Oct. 6, 1786 that “the Republic is constructing huge defences against the sea called i murazzi. These are built of uncemented stone blocks and are meant to protect the Lido in times of storm”.  As Shelley wrote Julian and Maddalo in 1818 in Este after his first visit to Venice, 30 years after Goethe, Shelley’s lyrical account of the area is romanticized. Goethe was more scientific in his observations and recordings and Shelley’s poem preserves an historic meeting of minds: Count Maddalo (Byron), ‘a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and of great fortune…a redeemer of his degraded country’ and Julian (Shelley), ‘…an Englishman…passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may yet be suseptible. Without concealing the evil in the world, he is for ever speculating how good may be made superior.” Very Rousseauian!

Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

   I RODE one evening with Count Maddalo
   Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
   Of Adria towards Venice. A bare strand
   Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand,
   Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
   Such as from earth's embrace the salt ooze breeds,
   Is this; an uninhabited sea-side,
   Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
   Abandons; and no other object breaks
   The waste but one dwarf tree and some few stakes                   10
   Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes
   A narrow space of level sand thereon,
   Where 't was our wont to ride while day went down.
   This ride was my delight. I love all waste
   And solitary places; where we taste
   The pleasure of believing what we see
   Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
   And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
   More barren than its billows; and yet more
   Than all, with a remembered friend I love                          20
   To ride as then I rode;--for the winds drove
   The living spray along the sunny air
   Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
   Stripped to their depths by the awakening north;
   And from the waves sound like delight broke forth
   Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
   Into our hearts aërial merriment.

May 20, 2012

                  

Coming into Venice on the Vaporetto        

  View from my top floor room at the Pensione Stella

Sunday, May 18, 2012

Left Heathrow (no free wi-fi) and flew to Venice over the Swiss Alps. One peek at the sparsely snow-capped mountains out of the airplane window over the airplane wing-that’s all I saw of them! Arrived in Venice under cloudy skies, very quick customs check through and then greeted by Terence, our SFU team chef who gave us Vaporetto passes to transport us to the Lido. As we neared Venice across the choppy waters from the mainland, what were my first impressions? A relic on the Adriatic sea -in the distance, Venice is linked by a causeway to heavy industry-grey stacks towering into the sky juxtaposed with the medieval rose coloured architecture that was Venice. Ah, but in the immediate, very handsome and energetic young Vaporetto drivers, reminded me of my son, Jon, who used to drive the Aquabus in Vancouver. We were greeted by Steve on the Lido’s Vaporetto terminal, a casual figure in jeans and loafers, leaning on a post, our SFU professor who would lead us through our Shelley, Byron, Goethe journey. The four of us lugged our baggage ten blocks to the Villa Stella at the east end of the Lido and we checked in exhausted and hungry. My room was #12, the Orion, at the top of the pensione-my first introduction to the precipitous winding flights of stairs a European traveller can encounter when loaded down with belongings. Very well appointed: the red velvet throw coupled with the crimson and gold embroidered pillows added a touch of Venetian nostalgia to the room. The tiny bathroom boasted 4 pieces-one had to step over the bidet to access the toilet and shower.

After an espresso and a quick access to my email, I went for what I thought would be a short walk with my colleague, Pansy, and turned out to be an 8 km, 2.5 hour hike along the Lido’s seawall-probably the area once wild and bare where Byron and Shelley galloped freely, inspiring  Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo -but wild and free no more! The area is a series of breakwaters engineered to tame the Adriatic and preserve Venice. After the walk, the first of many open air dinners in the main town square consisting of a big plate of pasta and meat sauce (what else?), smokers included. Some good conversation and introduction to a few of the 20 group members with whom I would be sharing my four week Italian Journey 2012.

Goethe wrote Oct. 12, 1786 in Venice that ” There is much in this record, I know, which I could have described more accurately, amplified and improved, but I shall leave everything as it stands because first impressions even if they are not always correct, are precious and valuable to us.”

              

Steve                                              Terence