Sunday, May 31, 2015

Day 11 - Pompeian Circumstance

A new record for me today, with over 835 photos taken at Pompeii and environs! Got out of my plain little room on the noisy boulevard around 8:30 am, stashed my bag at the train station, and went in to the Scavi (Ruins) of the town of Pompeii on a beautiful morning with clear skies and moderate temps, although I did shed my jacket before too long, unlike the day before at Stabia, where I kept it on all day. As I walked in I could hear the chants of the politically inclined out in the street, as they last minute campaigned for their champion down to the wire.

Juice stall with Sorrento lemons just outside the Pompeii gates

When I first came here with my family in 2007, there were very few things that were closed- essentially the Casa Vettii was the only one, and certainly no streets. The next time i was here was two years ago, and I felt extremely frustrated and hindered by the number of closures around town.  It was the same thing this time, with numerous streets and buildings inaccessible, but at least I knew what was coming. They have actually opened up a few more of them since the last time I was here, and everything looks like they're doing some good work. There's still a LOT of areas that are inaccessible, but at least they're doing something to preserve what's there. 

"Menu" of erotic options at the Suburban Baths. 

I decided to beeline for the Villa of the Mysteries before the big tour groups could get there, though I did stop off first at the Suburban Baths, which is right next to the entry ramp. They call them "suburban" because they were below the town walls, not out in the 'burbs. They feature some rather notorious sexual position murals that are thought to be a menu of possibilities for customers. "I'd like a number 7 please, with a little #4 for dessert." There's also a large cascading fountain and bath in the back that must have been quite something. After that I hiked over to the Villa, which is also outside the walls on the northwest side of town, and I was pleased to see that the crowd there was slim- just some French school kids in a bunch, and a few other people. I immediately went to the oecus- a big ocean-view social room- that has the famous mural of the mysterious rite for which the villa is named. I had plenty of time and space to attempt to get some good shots of it in the low light they keep it in for protection. Took twenty-five, only to then realize that my camera dial was set to "soft focus" accidentally! Urrrrghh! Why do they even include a setting like that? I was having a bit of camera envy for the big SLR rigs that some people had brought, since they let in so much more light than my pocket Nikon, but I love how portable mine is, and it actually takes pretty good photos and has a vey long zoom lens, so I'll stick with it.

Border detail from the Villa of the Mysteries. Precision work!

Slowly wandered through the rest of the house after that, marveling at the incredibly fine work in several of the rooms. Impossibly delicate decorations in so many different styles; the variety of pattern and structure has really struck me on this trip. Even simple patterns have variations in them that keep the eye coming back, and structural elements are subtly changed from one panel to another, so that what looks like a regular repeat is actually a whole compendium of forms placed in serial format, meaning that eye has more to see over time. The effect might sometimes look like stencil, but it is a very different feeling with much more satisfying visual pleasure. They must have had scores of painters for places like this, because no matter how good you are, and how long you've been doing it, work like that takes a lot of time! Some things about the painting are becoming apparent to me on this trip- technical details about fresco that I won't bore you with, though they're very interesting to me. After the house I became an informal tour guide to a couple of Americans I met there, guiding them to the Forum baths and a couple other painted spots with commentary. They both said I should hire out as a guide, which I've heard more than once here, but I need to save it for blogging. 

Picture of Narcissus from the House of the Ara Maxima, one of the ones that was closed last time. He is depicted in a pinake- an antique type of folding frame- sort of a picture in picture

Broke away from them by going at my usual snail-like photography pace and found a few of the spots that were closed last time I was here - that was fun - but I was pretty shocked at how many large chunks of the town are still totally inaccessible. Snacked on some peanuts ("arachidi" in Italian -we call them "arachnids") and the cherries I bought from the farm stand in Stabia, then made my way towards the exit, pausing to contemplate that I don't know when I'll be back, maybe not until I know they've reopened significant areas. 

The Stabian Baths are amazing. The tourists, not so much!

On my way to Herculaneum, my next stop, I was accompanied on the train by a boisterous bunch of high school age kids who yelling, slapping, grabbing, fighting, and generally creating mayhem in a way that only Italian kids can do, especially the ones from Naples area. Absolute chaos, but harmless. Got off in Herculaneum and casually strolled down the main drag towards the hotel, glad to have visited here once before to get the general layout. I made the one turn on the route, and noticed how much funkier the neighborhood gets as soon as you get away from the center. Not scary, but definitely rougher looking. Found the rather anonymous looking place, rang the bell, and waited several minutes before a woman answered and told me to come in and up to the first floor, which is what we call the second floor. She greeted me warmly and brought me in, but after a few minutes it appeared that they hadn't received any kind of notice from the online reservation company, She told me they were totally sold out, it being the big national holiday time, but her husband came down and said they had a rental apartment across the street that I could stay in. He walked me over and I looked at it, then we went back to the hotel part because there isn't any wi-fi at the apartment and I wanted to check emails and Facebook. They said I could hang out on the terrace there as long as I wanted, and it was very nice, with a great view of Capri and the Bay. I sat there quite a while, met an young English couple that had just arrived and were visiting the area for the first time, drank my soda water and watched the sun go down. I was going to go out and get something at a market, but it got late so I just skipped it. Maybe I'll lose a few pounds on the trip, which I could use.
View of the coast near Sorrento, from the terrace of the hotel I was supposed to have a room in.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Day 9- 10 Getting into the garbage with a lurker

Warning, this is a long one, so pull up a chair and  I hope you have your reading glasses on!

Day 9 of the trip was mostly spent taking the train from Lecce to Castellammare di Stabia, a sleepy little seaside town at the southern end of the Bay of Naples, just before the Sorrentine Peninsula begins. I skipped over the Amalfi coast because Marianne wasn't with me to take in a romantic sunset, and because it's not a good area to save money, being mostly geared to higher end tourism, which leaves me out! Honestly, as much as I do love good cooking, I am just as easily satisfied with picking up the local stuff at the market and eating simply: tomatoes, some arugula, a smoked cheese or some fresh mozzarella, maybe a little marinated vegetables, and a bit of chocolate or a gelato. Done! For the equivalent price of an appetizer in a low end restaurant.

Wandering in the streets of Castellammare di Stabia made me feel like I was in an old Fellini movie. Very normal people, and no tourists at all.

Because we were mostly eating as a group for the conference in Lecce, I hadn't really stocked up on anything when I left town on the train at 7 am, and all the connections (I took 5 different trains to get to Stabia!) didn't have much layover time, so by the time I got there I was pretty hungry. I found my little B&B with a bit of luck and a friendly local who knew where it was exactly, and as soon as I was settled I took off to see the town, which I had visited two years ago with Marianne. The first thing that struck me was the piles of garbage everywhere! They must be having a strike there ( I never did learn the true story) because last time it was not at all like that. I made my way down to the seafront and was somewhat surprised to see that the entire beach area was cordoned off with construction barriers that hid everything! I say somewhat because the last time we came it seemed in serious need of a makeover, with a weedy trolley track that seemed unused, and a dirty beach devoid of all people (on a very hot day!) I walked along it for a bit until I saw some kids slipping through a chink in the fences, and I followed them down to the beach, where a few kids were playing soccer at the far end, but which was generally deserted.

Most of the places along the beach north of Stabia (going towards Pompeii) seem to completely ignore the waterfront. Imagine if they built like this in Hermosa Beach! As always, Vesuvius lurks in the background!

The beach there has a very odd character, with much of the architecture ignoring it completely, unlike anything you'd find in the US. At the water's edge, I found bits of lapilli, the little balls of pumice that rained down unmercifully on Pompeii, and I tossed a handful into the water to see they'd float. Yup, they did. Even a chunk as big as a baseball sat on top of the waves! Vesuvius' shadow seems to lurk behind every corner, casting it's warning glare over the whole area, as if to say "enjoy it now, suckers,  because it won't last forever!" It's truly frightening to think of another eruption on that scale at the present time, with buildings that go right up the flank of the volcano, and it's not a question of if, only of when. Vesuvius is in fact deemed to be close to another eruption in the next 100 years or so, though that's probably about as accurate as weather prediction.

Kids playing soccer on the edge of the forlorn beach. They'll have great memories of this after it all gets fixed up and nobody can use it.

I got down to the other end of the beach, where you can clearly see two things- the 9th century castle from which the town takes its name, and the now defunct gondola, which closed some time ago, but left the structure going all the way up to the top of the hills south of town. Looks like it must have been an amazing view of the Bay from up top of the mountain. Speaking of mountains, I was pleasantly surprised by the journey from Lecce, which was far greener and hillier than I had expected to see. From Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast, the train had crossed the peninsula to Taranto, a busy port on the Ionian, then skirted the coast for a while through large stands of pine trees that reminded me of New Jersey's forests. Then it became hilly, green farmland that looked like Northern California…with castles. Slowly it became a mountainous area that was quite green and covered with dense forests like the Adirondacks, while we descended alongside a river for a long time before finally reaching the plain that led to Salerno, the city on the southern side of the Sorrento peninsula, where I changed trains again, finally crossing the last bit of hills and into the bay of Naples, where I found my last connection to take me back southward to Stabia.

Somewhere between Taranto and Salerno. Just like Central California....with castles!

After checking out the beach I finally got a gelato. I have a weird thing when I get hungry- I kind of go into overdrive, and I'm not yearning for food, but I know that if I don't eat I'll conk out eventually. The gelato was holding me though, so I walked back towards the hotel and shopped for a belt and a jacket, which I needed because it has been surprisingly cool here. I had it on all day today, which is amazing considering last time we were here it was around 100 degrees a lot of the time! Makes it soooo much easier when it's not boiling! I grabbed a few things at a corner store, had an in room meal, and hit the bed by 10:30 for the first time in two weeks!

This beautiful little alley on the way to the ruins was completely lined with garbage, but it couldn't ruin the wonderful morning for me!

The next day I got up and had the breakfast they offered, then headed out to see the two Roman villas that sit up on a bluff above the town. There are actually around eleven villas that were explored and mapped here in the 18th century, but most of them were reburied and the rest are not generally viewable. I knew the route from our former trip here, and the weather this morning was extraordinary- clear and refreshing- just about perfect weather for exploring. As I got to the entrance of the first villa, called the Villa Arianna, there was a small tour group just ahead of me with a mixed bunch of mostly Brits and Americans, and I sort of tagged along because I thought the guide was pretty good, and had very little accent (or attitude) to overcome. Me being me, I sort of opined on a couple of things about the paintings, and the very friendly guide invited me to join with them to walk around the place.

One of the advantages of being with this tour group is that they opened a couple of rooms I hadn't gone in last time here, including this gigantic atrium of the second complex villa at Arianna

 Both of these villas were seaside getaways for very wealthy families. They had large rooms that were very well decorated, private bath areas, large exercise fields, and one had an exquisite swimming pool down the middle of it. They sat on a bluff that was once directly over the waves, though they sit about a quarter mile inland now due to the fill left by the volcanic detritus. Nowadays they look out over a large sea of rooftops before you see the ocean.

I think the rebuilt upper walls and roof of this atrium at Villa San Marco give you a better sense of the space- plus the protect the walls from moisture.

They are also generally in better shape than the houses at Pompeii due to the fact that they have been extensively rebuilt with protective upper walls and roofs, which I personally like, as I think it gives a better impression of what the spaces were like then, especially the atria, where you first entered the house, and where much of its business centered. Of course these were pleasure places, so there wasn't a lot of business going on there, other than running the household, which must have been quite an undertaking, considering their size and all the features they had.

The crazy faux marble room at the entry of the Villa Arianna second complex was closed last time too!

The servants and slaves must have been an army, and I often think they were seen more or less the way we see our appliances today, which explains why it wouldn't have been strange to be naked around them or that they would be constantly at hand to offer any convenience needed. Of course some were educated and even rose to take a place in high society, either by promotion by their owners, or by saving enough money to buy themselves out of bondage. Others, like those who stoked the fires of the baths, did not have an easy life and probably had little hope to advance.

One more detail of the trompe l'oeil work in that small vestibule

The tour guide offered to give me a lift on their bus to the other villa, which I accepted and did not regret, as it was a tad longer than I had remembered. The little plateau the villas sit on is amazing farmland due to the volcanic soil, and the gardens up there are dense with all kinds of stuff; I saw citrus trees, stone fruit trees, olives, grapes, tomatoes, onions, lettuces, broccoli, zucchini, all looking absolutely perfect and much denser planting than anything you'd see in the States. I wish we could grow something like that at home! 

A woman picking up cuttings on her farm next to the Villa San Marco. Everything was just about to start ripening now.

We toured the second villa (San Marco) again with the guide, who was born in the US, but grew up in Italy and lives in Vicenza, up in the north. They offered me lunch with them, but I declined in order to spend a bit more time shooting photos and doing a recreation of the design of the walls of the peristyle there. I had brought some snacks with me and repeated the repast that Marianne and I had done here two years ago, sitting under the sycamore trees by the swimming pool, imagining the splashing and squealing of bathers that must have sounded a lot like today. I walked back into town past the farms and got some fresh picked cherries from a farm stand (I really wanted to climb the trees I saw there and pick them myself!)

View from the peristyle of San Marco. Guess who's peeking!

Grabbed my things from the B&B, got the train and took the short ride up to Pompeii, where I'm sitting in the hotel tapping this out as the sun goes down, looking forward to a third visit to the site, and hoping that it isn't as limited as the last time I came, when I was very frustrated by closures. I took about 325 pics today, which feels more like my norm for these trips, having been slacking in Lecce and while in transit. 

Vesuvius can be seen everywhere, even from Paris (aka Kiddie Park in Pompeii town) 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Day 8 - Post Post-Salon Post

Seeing as I have about eight hours of train travel ahead of me, I might as well try to get caught up to today. Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost a day somehow (my photos say it's day 9), but well, that's Italy! 
Time flies, as they say, and you can see the symbols for it on the sides of the entry to the monumental cemetery in Lecce

I'm leaving Lecce for Castellammare di Stabia (Roman ruins!) but I also feel like I'm leaving a new family behind, having met and really "Grokked" (a sci-fi term from Robert Heinlein meaning to understand thoroughly) these fellow travelers on the path of pattern, ornament, and art. It's so nice to be in a group where the word "acanthus"  doesn't send them scrambling for a dictionary. It was also nice to be in such a multinational group; we had travelers from the US, Japan, Spain, Norway, England and Ireland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Latvia, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Ukraine, and of course, Italy. It feels as though I have just expanded my (art) family by about tenfold. 
Part of our multilingual mass milling around before a group photo

Back to travelogue- after a decent night's sleep (though I don't seem to be able to get more than about five hours on any night!) I had  breakfast and said goodbye to some of the participants who were dispersing for various parts, did a bit of writing and travel planning for today, then got one of the free bikes from the hotel and set out. Lecce is a perfect town for a bike- flat as a pancake and generally smooth streets, though you do have to watch out for cars and buses and people walking along buried in their phones.
There are dozens of "streets" like this in the cemetery in Lecce.  Absolutely incredible!

My first stop was the cemetery very close to the hotel, which we had seen before but not managed to find open. I was glad I had the bike, since the entrance allee of Italian cypress trees was long. There was a large piazza in front of one of the baroque churches that cover all of Lecce, and then the cemeteries branched off on both sides. They were immense, with large family monuments all made of the butter colored Lecce stone, planted liberally with cypress, pines, and oleanders. It was enchanting- I was the only one there save for a few cats, and the architecture and stone work were both excellent. It didn't seem extremely old- mostly 19th century in the parts I explored, but the contrast to the newer sections was stark. The modern monuments had no warmth at all- they generally didn't even use the local stone, opting instead for gray and white marbles, with tinted windows and metal accents, looking more like miniature office buildings than monuments to a family's history. 

About as much charm as a refrigerator!
I wandered around in there for quite a while, did a drawing of one of them, unsuccessfully tried to lure a kitten out for a picture, got some water, and then headed back over to town on the bike, where i just meandered through the old streets without a map, stopping to take a few pictures outside some churches and trying not to hit anything due to the crummy brakes on the bike. 

Took a lot of accidental selfies on the bike as I was cruising

Eventually I found myself down in the opposite corner from the hotel, where there is an art and archeology museum that was again completely empty except for me. I went in (free!) and a guard ushered me up to the third floor, where they had a very good display of ancient history of the area, with ceramics going back over 5,000 years! I was left alone in there with a collection that would make the Getty quite happy, with multiple examples of many classic styles displayed with good information, unostentatiously. In another corner of the museum I found the Pinacoteca (picture gallery), where again I was alone- the guard turned the lights on just for me! They had one gallery of art from the Renaissance to the 18th century, and another with 19th and 20th. Not many names I recognized, other than a piece by Giuseppe de Ribera, but there were some very nice pieces, including an awesome cabinet covered with little dwarf genre paintings, some very nice majolica, and a curious statue of a putto covered with netting. Not sure what that was about, but it looked cool! 

19th c. ceramic sculpture. Ummmm?

Hit the road again to find some food, stopping briefly by a couple of grand old houses that were for sale along one of the busy streets. I pictured how pleasant it must have been when the only traffic there was clip-clopping horses, and how now you would need to put in triple insulated glass to really make it hospitable. Too bad, because I bet you could get them for a good price, and some of them had very nice sgraffito and decorations. I would have loved to at least had a chance to see what the interiors look like. Found some food, returned to the hotel and did some scribbling and more trip planning, and finished the day in the hotel restaurant with the rapidly dwindling crew from the exhibition. Packed up my gear late and went to bed for a few hours. 

Sold! Can you wrap it up to go?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Day 7 Olives, Liberty, and Fish for all!

Ok, I need to get a bit caught up before I head out on my own tomorrow for the Bay of Naples.

Day two of the Post Salon event set up by our hosts saw Marianne leaving early, on the first train for Brindisi, where she has a series of flights and connections planned to get her back to LA to finish up the school year, after which she heads back over to London, where I will meet her in a week and a half. I do NOT envy her day!

Baroque interior of the church at Galatone, where Caterina Manisco grew up.

Again those that remained got on a bus to head en masse first to the town of Galatone, about 45 minutes southwest from here, which is where Caterina Manisco, our amazing hostess, grew up. When we got there, we quickly checked out the church, with some very nice Baroque decoration, before being ushered in to a museum across the street. Inside, we saw the preserved remains of a very large olive oil production plant that goes back to around the 9th century, with large carved niches in the stone walls that once held presses for the olives, and the characteristic ocher Lecce stone vaults that are built above the space.
Room filled with machines designed by Leonardo da Vinci, all constructed by Caterina's father.  The niches in the stone walls once held olive presses for making oil. 

Then we entered the room that held the real reason we had gone there: a museum dedicated to the machines of Leonardo da Vinci, built from da Vinci's drawings by Caterina's father, who is a retired (ha!) engineer with an obvious fascination for things mechanical and an obsession (can I relate to that?) for figuring things out himself! The large space is filled with the various contraptions that da Vinci dreamed up, but rarely actually had constructed. Pulleys, screws, levers, mortars, guns, catapults, and all kinds of other bits fill the large hall, each of them hand made using tools of the period, including a lot of hand forged iron work and wood cut with hand tools. Very cool stuff, and all of it narrated by her father, who is an obvious dynamo, but friendly too!

Signore Manisco telling the story of his museum and of da Vinci's inventions. 

After a somewhat interminable speech by the local magistrate, we went outside the museum where a group of 20 or so school kids had assembled to do a little dance for us, much to Stefano's chagrin, as it was not planned and he felt it was more to give the politician some face time one week before local elections take place. But you couldn't help smiling as these 6 year old boys and girls went through their routine with gusto, lots of waving arms and dancing feet. It was very cute, and not in a bad way!

A lot of movement- not very much control, but it was totally charming to watch!

Once more on the bus we made it out to the other coast, past the olive trees that are fighting a desperate battle with a recent bacterial infection that is devastating the area, a very tough struggle for the growers of the region. We also passed by a series of very nice Stile Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) houses on the outskirts of Galatone. As Stefano explained, Liberty in the south takes a lot of influence from Moorish design, as seen in the photo below. These would be built in the early 1900s.

Stile Liberty house outside of Galatone shows the regional influence of Moroccan architecture. Love to see the interior of this!
Our final destination that day was Gallipoli, a quiet seaside town with a slow moving harbor, mostly fishing boats and a few small freighters. We went to another restaurant for lunch here, and I really should have taken pics of the food, because it was incredible! Started off with about 7 or 8 seafood appetizers- and I could easily have called that lunch! But no, that was followed by pasta (with seafood), risotto (with seafood), followed by the main course of (drum roll please!) seafood! It was definitely excessive, but definitely delicious too!
Hoping our fish did not come from the docks right here! I'd probably be glow-in-the-dark!

After several hours of eating and chatting, we walked over to see the town, and some of us went down to jump in the water in the small bay in front of town, which felt as if it were very unchanged from antique times. No signs, just a few umbrellas and an ice cream cart, and the water was clear and refreshing- about the same temperature as it is in Los Angeles. Beautiful clouds escorted us back to the hotel, and we ate dinner (eating again!?) at a local pizzeria that had a very nice garden in back where we could be silly and loud without bothering anyone. Very nice day. Again!

I found a ready made faux kit on the beach with brush, feather, and sponge. Let's marbleize something!

Day 5-6 Post Salon Post

The Salon has officially ended as of yesterday (written two days ago- I have some catching up to do!), but today we are squeezing every last drop out of our hosts Stefano and Caterina by taking advantage of their planning to do some organized sightseeing to places I guarantee we never would have made it to on our own. Today about 60 of us piled into a bus (something I rarely do!) and we went down to the Adriatic coast, close enough to Armenia to see it across the water!
A final demonstration by Stefano Luca in the courtyard. I ended up being the model for it because I have glasses (and so did his design. Improvisation in action!

But first I should wrap up the Salon. Reminds me of an old perspective drawing lesson. The student asks, "How do you draw an elephant in perspective?" To which the teacher responds, "Easy, just draw the box the elephant came in!" Thus I will attempt to give some perspective on this monumental event by describing a few of the details and organization that stand out to me. It will still only be the box the elephant came in, but at least it will be a start!

I did so much talking and visiting (and a bit of work on the collaborative mural) that I hardly did anything on my demo panel, which was supposed to be a design for a border on my exhibition panel. Oh well, I'll finish it at home, where I can concentrate.

Despite it's being my first experience of the Salon, I have been aware of it for several years, and have made friends with a number of participants through seeing their work on Facebook and elsewhere. It felt like a homecoming to meet them in person, and I felt welcomed by all, especially our hosts, who put out an insane amount of energy and effort to make this a truly stupendous event. Despite a few bumps in the road (some stolen brushes, some dirty bathrooms- none of which was their fault) the venue was fantastic, the organization was amazingly good, and I think everyone involved felt truly grateful to have been a part. My wife Marianne came with me to Lecce thinking she would probably skip out on her own to do more sightseeing and touring, but ended up staying for every minute of every day to see the progress on individual panels, the group mural, and the incredible demos.

Candlelit entry to the castle where we had the closing ceremony for the conference. Stefano and Caterina have set the bar much too high for anyone else to follow!!

The closing dinner was held in a castle- not a Disney castle, but the real thing, with a romantic candle lit rooftop garden and a vaulted hall that held all of the 100 or so people that were involved. Fabulous food and drink were a part of every day here, and I think we sampled almost every Southern Italian dish that exists, much of which was seafood, which didn't bother me at all! Today on the second day of the post- Salon event we ate more seafood than I have ever encountered in one meal, in the lovely sleepy port town of Gallipoli, on the Ionian sea. More about that tomorrow.

The Sea Cave of "Zinzulusa", or "Drying Laundry" in the local dialect. 

Back to our first day of post-salon activities; after riding in the bus for an hour or so to the south east tip of the heel of the boot, we were first treated to a boat ride into some sea caves- sort of a mini-version of the Blue Grotto at Capri, but maybe less touristy and therefore more fun. There was also a walking tour of another cave that had some pretty impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations.  In a local dialect that reflects the Greek heritage of the area, they call it the "Cave of the Dirty Laundry" because the swallows' nests built on the hanging formations at the mouth of the cave reminded the sailors of drying clothes hanging out to dry.

In the area of Santa Cesarea Terme is this amazing rockwork that is part natural, part manmade.

 Then we hopped back on the bus and drove past some really beautiful coastline areas, pausing for 5 minutes at an ancient Roman bridge that is right on the coast, near some thermal baths. At the town of Otranto we were treated to our first lunch spectacular- I don't know how on earth they kept the price of our day trips so low- $40- considering the food and drink on top of the bus ride. Had a nice post-prandial swim in the harbor there and toured a church that has one of the largest mosaic floors I've ever seen- a tree of life.

A bridal party walking through the streets of Otranto

Then it was back to the hotel and a simple dinner in town, collapsing so that Marianne could leave the next morning.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Day Four- Cafe con Lecce

In the city of Lecce, in the heel of the boot of Italy, they have a regional coffee drink called an "espressino", an expression that would get you a small (read: thimble full of) coffee anywhere else in the country, but here buys you a delicious cup of espresso with a bit of milk and a hit of chocolate, a perfect lunch ender.

Triumphal gate into Lecce was made in 1548 for the Habsburg emperor Charles V, and much of the other architecture comes from around this time.

A lot of things are different about Lecce, a town that has a very distinct character derived from its unique history as a very old town supposedly founded by Cretans from before the time of the Trojan Wars (ie- more than 1,000 years BCE!)  It was an important agricultural center from the middle ages onwards, reaching a peak in the Baroque 15-1600's, when much of the architecture of the old town was created using the local limestone (dubbed "Lecce Stone"), still an important export, along with olive oil and wine.

The newer parts of town are filled with many architectural and business failures, such as this shuttered gas station that proves that "Googie" architecture wasn't limited to just Los Angeles 

Our hotel is just outside of the historical center, and the contrast, as in many European cities with intact historical cores, is pretty shocking. The outside looks gritty, semi-abandoned, with many boarded up houses, and architecturally confused. By contrast, the center is very uniform, cooler (despite the scarcity of trees), and inviting. The uniformity is due to two things: the yellow ocher color of the stone work that makes up almost every single building in the old town, and the profuse Baroque ornament that encrusts everything there. Besides its color, the other characteristic of Lecce stone is its softness; you can actually carve it using nothing stronger than a wire brush! It corrodes fairly quickly also, creating some fascinating patterns made by water and even wind.

Lecce stone corrodes fairly quickly, but the ease of carving it means that the stone carvers here are never short of work

Lecce has been nicknamed "the Florence of the South", but it is really very different. First of all, it is dead flat, and the old town streets are very narrow and lined with shops. Bikes, cars and even trucks still wind their way through, but it looks distinctly challenging to navigate. Secondly, that uniform character almost gives it an artificial feeling, somewhat akin to Disneyland, as if one shop had made all the buildings at once for a single audience, unlike the eclectic mix of Florence, with buildings from many different periods made of different materials and colors.

Animal and figure carvings can be a bit goofy at times

In addition, the provincial nature of being far away from the major cultural centers, combined with the ease of carving the stone, means that a lot of the stone ornament is extremely ornate and somewhat naive, with figures and animals that are entertaining, but not totally correct. This also probably adds to the Disneyland impression, since some of those sculptures are quite funny. There are also many churches everywhere (hey, it's Italy!) though quite a few have been deconsecrated and are used as shops or even an art gallery. Inside the ones I've gone into the same ornate character continues, with more "Solomonic" columns (spiraling shafts named after their alleged history from the Temple of Solomon) than I've seen anywhere else.

Section of a Solomonic column, of which there are dozens around town.
At night the streets are very well lit, with a yellow cast light that only increases the uniformity. I'll write some more about Lecce in the next few days, but I think I'll post this one now, so I can get ready for the closing event of the Salon tonight. Ciao!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 3- What is a Salon anyways, and can I get my hair done there?

The motivator to come to Italy, to this very unusual town of Lecce in the heel of the boot, was to attend an event I've heard about for many years but never attended: The Salon. Basically, the Salon is a yearly traveling conference of painters who specialize in the traditional decorative skills of trompe l'oeil, wood graining, faux marble, gilding, ornamental design, and murals of many different kinds. It is an information and technique sharing get together of some of the best painters in the field, some of whom have studied it formally at schools like the Van der Kelen school in Brussels, which has been open since 1882, and others like me who are essentially self taught.

Entry to the Accademia where the event is being held

The Salon itself has been in existence for over twenty years now, beginning in Belgium in 1992, and has met in Paris, Tokyo, Seattle, Sweden, and elsewhere. Basically, each of the invitees (you must be invited by a member) brings a sample panel of their work, and many also create another panel while there so that others may watch their technique. It's also open to non- participants to come and observe, and there is a lot of socializing and of greeting those that one already  knows (sometimes pretty well in fact) via Facebook or other social media. This year it looks like the field is quite large, maybe around 100 plus people, augmented by various spouses, children, assistants and students.

An assortment of panels from all over the world surround the courtyard area.

As you enter the ornament encrusted Accademia di Belli Arti you come into the courtyard, where each participant's work is displayed on a board. The subjects and techniques are varied, but all of it is professional and several of the artists are pushing on the boundaries of the field. After passing through the registration hallway you can branch off into three hallways where painters are working on more panels, and watch fascinating demos that include all of the above mentioned techniques. The hardest part for me is not to be wandering around constantly watching, when I'm supposed to be working on the border for my panel. Actually, I got corralled early into helping out with the large collaborative mural at the end of the hall, and I have the feeling that is probably all I will do until we are done, and I'll do my border work at home.

Pierre Finkelstein demonstrating his incredible wood graining technique for the crowd while Stefano Luca translates into Italian for him. Stefano is one of the organizers of the event with his wife Caterina Manisco, and they are both incredible ornamental painters in their own right.

The are also more formal demos each day given in the cloister courtyard, where seasoned pros like Pierre Finkelstein, Jean Sablé, and Pascal Amblard show methods for wood graining, skies, and trees, quickly and definitively. Many of the students from the Accademia come to watch these too, and they fill the halls with questions and wonder. Really cool to see all of them get some exposure to the work we are all pursuing.

Pretty good crowd of artists, students, and curious onlookers for Jean Sablé's lecture on creating clouds with an oil based paint technique.

There are also a small selection of manufacturers present, with specialized brushes, pigments, and a few books available, and Golden paints freely provides any and all materials needed for the demo work, which meant people didn't have to lug all their paints through customs and TSA. Nice!

Brush lust runs high at this event!

Well, I'd better wrap this up now- I've been skimping on sleep because of all the great things to see, and meeting all these faces I've only ever seen on Facebook until now. It is very much a whirlwind, all of it pleasurable! A domani!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Day two 2015- I could get used to this!

Spent our first real day in Italy trying to get back what the travel demons took away- a little bit of sleep, a fair amount of exercise, and an excessive amount of good things to eat.

Started out by sleeping in after a fairly toss and turning night. Must be all the adrenaline produced by having to meet all kinds of deadlines and keeping our stuff from disappearing. We took 6 different trips yesterday via different modes of transport, each one with its own set of possible failure points. I was very glad we had negotiated the Roman buses before, because that might have been a very challenging end to a long day of travel had we not done it already.

Bus queue at Heathrow Airport. We had to transfer to Luton Airport, about an hour north, to catch our flight to Rome.

As I said, we slept in a while, and were about to slip out around 11 when our friend Erica (whose place we are staying at) texted to say she was coming home soon and would we be there. So we hung around a bit longer to chat and finally hit the streets around 1:30 to stroll up and meet their six-year-old daughter Xanthe, who goes to a school above the Spanish Steps. First stop was a delicious bakery where we picked up some nutty cookies. Almonds and hazelnuts, to be precise. So much Italian food is simple: unrefined things, sugar, eggs, but put together so as to be as complex and compelling as anything Nabisco or Keebler could ever come up with. They just won't last 3 years in the package. Thank God!
Panorama of the market at Campo di Fiori- here every day!

We then crossed the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele and entered onto the Piazza Navona in full afternoon sun, which won't be possible in a month, but wasn't too bad right now. Having been studying the table model of Antique Rome last week, I could see in my mind's eye the structure of the underlying stadium of Domitian, and the Egyptian obelisk still standing there, having been brought from the Circus of Maxentius to top Bernini's writhing  Fountain of the Four Rivers, a masterwork of Baroque sculpture. Rome is like a giant onion of historical layers, each one revealing something distinctive about the next.

Marianne in the Piazza Navona, built over the site of  the Stadium of Domitian.

As we munched our cookies and strolled the Piazza, I kept thinking of how much a space like this would work in a city like Los Angeles, if bottom line oriented developers could ever devote that much open space to a non- commercial endeavor, let alone allowing the water in the fountains to evaporate, at least this summer of drought.

Water coming and going in the Piazza Navona.

We hugged the shade as we slipped over to the Pantheon,  a favorite stop of Marianne's, though the tourist flow was so heavy we decided to postpone entry until later in the day, and instead went around the side to the ever cool and shadowy Santa Maria sopra Minerva, so-called for its construction atop a site formerly occupied by a temple to Minerva. The church has a beautiful melange of Renaissance and later decorations, including Philippino Lippi's wondrous Carafa chapel, with some of the earliest grottesca panels in Rome.  Lippi, then in his 30's, interrupted his work on the Strozzi chapel in Florence, at the behest of Pope Alexander VI, the notorious Borgia ruler, to come to Rome for this commission, completed by 1493. (How could he say no?) The church also has some really elegant trompe l'oeil work decorating various chapels.
Outrageously good trompe l'oeil work in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

We also stopped in at the the church of Sant'Ignazio di , with Andrea Pozzo's stunning quadratura ceiling that seems to break down all normal laws of space, with figures that spiral upwards off trompe l'oeil architecture, and some that actually seem to enter the real space of the church (though they'd be mighty large if they did!) 

Giant feet from Andrea Pozzo in the church of Sant'Ignazio
Then we walked up the hill to pick up our friends' daughter, Xanthe, from the French run school on top of the Spanish Steps. It was fun to tell the guard we were picking her up, making us feel like locals, and then walking down the steps with her to go find her dad at the Piazza Colonna, where he was filming a bit of a TV show. Darius is an archeologist of some renown, having appeared a number of times on shows about Roman history on the Discovery and History channels. As it turned out, we just missed his shoot, so we ambled towards their house, stopping briefly to go inside the Pantheon for a taste of the one intact Roman temple space that has never fallen into disrepair, having been adopted as a church early on in the Christian era.

Walking with Xanthe down the Spanish Steps

Made it home and reunited the family (Erica was working on the web from home) and after a bit, we left (again with Xanthe) to meet up with Eli Baird, who is coordinating the Roman program for the Beaux-Arts Academy, which recently relocated to Salt Lake City from New York. The BAA is a multidisciplinary arts program (modeled on the French Ecole des Beaux Arts) that is deepening and broadening the education of (mostly) architectural students with an emphasis on knowledge of the history of architecture and art (including ornament) and drawing, painting and sculpture. 

Marianne and Xanthe waiting for Eli, who mysteriously avoided being in any of my photos!

We met up with Eli and went to get a gelato (of course!) and then went to a park to let Xanthe run off some of her sugar induced energy. We saved a bit of it to hike up the hill and check out the Tempietto of Bramante, a touchstone classical building that sits in the courtyard of a church with a great view of Rome from the other side of the Tiber river on the Janiculum hill. 

Bramante's Tempietto, built at the beginning of the 16th century
Descending as the swallows began to emerge for their dusk exercises, we said goodbye to Eli and went back to the house, turning around quickly to get a bite of Roman style food at a homey Campo di Fiori taverna called Lucifero. Eggs with white truffles, some fondue, roasted vegetables, and some tartare for our hosts, then heading back to the house to crash in time to be up to catch the train tomorrow for Lecce.