Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Possibilities "Up" Has to Offer

Detail of fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli
Italian cities of the middle ages bristled with privately-owned defensive towers, and Dante's Florence was no exception.  These formidable structures were used in urban warfare, a state in which  Italian cities found themselves all too often.

Today, the small town of San Gimignano is known to tourists as "the medieval Manhattan," because it retains several of its towers.  In Dante's time, every city's skyline looked like this.

San Gimignano
Towers secured blocks of urban space for the families and tower consortia who owned them, and they provided physical testament to the pride, aggression, and ambition of the powerful men who ran the cities.

It was because of this that in the year 1250 Florence's short-lived popular government, in an effort to control the arrogance of the magnates, decreed that all private towers be reduced to a height of no more than 29 meters.

As you can see from this depiction of Florence in the 15th century, towers, even shortened, were still very much in evidence.  Many of them are there still.  Survivors of the 1250 decree, of time and of medieval battles, of modernization and refurbishing, and even of the onslaughts of World War II, it's amazing how many remain.

Florence, September 1944
Their great walls were built of cobbles and lime, sandwiched between rows of bricks.  They were built to withstand all manner of assault, even those their builders could not have conceived of.

Tower in Tarquinia
I could say a lot more about towers, how they were owned, how they factored into a family's wealth, the military advantages they offered, how they were valued, the risks associated with both building and dismantling them, and how they gradually came to be used as dwellings.  And perhaps one day I will, but for now, I want to trace the steps that went into solving a research problem concerning a tower.

I've written a book set in Florence in 1216.  That was well before the enforced truncation of the towers.  I have a scene where my protagonist and another main character are on a balcony high up one of the towers, watching an altercation taking place below.

That tower still stands - it contains a jewelry store today - but it's an awful lot shorter than it used to be.

The Amidei tower, now a jewelry store
So, what I needed to know was this:  what, exactly, could my characters have seen from up there?  What did it all look like to them?

I'm not good with picturing distances.  Spatial relationships are not my forte.  But I had to get some idea of what my characters' experience would have been, and this is how I went about it.

First, I travelled to the setting of my story, to see what I could learn.  My tower is very short these days; others are also shorter than they used to be.  So, on to other Italian towns nearby, where the governments may not have been quite so diligent.

I've climbed up quite a lot of rather tall towers in various towns in Italy (on the inside, I mean, nothing daredevilish).  It's quite safe - these days, they don't let you go up unless there's a modern staircase - but it can be a real workout, and it's not something to get yourself into if you're claustrophobic.  Hundreds of steps, steep ones, winding around in a tight spiral.

Also not ideal if you happen to be afraid of heights, which I am (and which my protagonist also is).  I keep doggedly climbing the things anyway, though, because they're there, and because I need to understand them, and also because my husband takes amazing pictures from way up there. 

But the height does get to me.  I've been known to circle the perimeter of the top of a tower in a crouch, sort of a crab-walk, too afraid to stand up (fortunately there was no one else up there at the time).  And once I somehow took it into my head that the sinister-looking fellow climber standing near us had a thing about university professors and was going to push my unsuspecting husband over the edge, so I spent that visit keeping myself solidly between Il Signore Sinistro and my oblivious spouse, who was flitting around happily taking pictures.  Heights make me a little crazy.

(One very real hazard, by the way, occurs when you're up a bell tower, and you happen to be standing next to the bell, and it comes time to strike the hour.  You do not want to experience this.  Trust me.)

I think my acrophobia may be the main reason why, even after all those jaunts, I still felt a little unsure about what things would have looked like to my characters, from their perch on high.  I never could make myself spend much time actually looking down.

I needed to understand exactly what one could have seen, from the relevant height.  I had all those pictures my husband had taken, but he keeps changing lenses, and so things get closer and then farther away again, and it's all very confusing.  Also, some of the towers we had been in had been truncated, and others had been rebuilt, and in most cases I wasn't sure exactly how high up we had been.

So I decided I needed a point of comparison.

My first step was to ascertain just how high up my characters would have been.  It didn't take long to find out that according to chronicler Giovanni Villani, Florentine towers in their heyday soared to heights of 100 braccia and more.

Great.  So (shades of Bill Cosby, for those of you who remember that comedy routine), what's a braccia?  The word is the Italian word for "arm," so it's roughly an arm's length.  However, it varied from place to place.  Apparently a Florentine arm wasn't exactly the same length as a Pistoian arm, for example.

But I was able to learn that a Florentine braccia was 58.36 cm.  Just as I was reaching for a calculator, I stumbled across a very useful bit of information:  Florentine towers could reach 120 braccia, which equals about 70 meters, which equals about 230 feet.

That was exactly what I needed to know.  My characters were in one of the city's taller towers, but not all the way up to the top.  They were on a balcony, maybe three-quarters of the way up.

But as I said, I am no good at visualizing distances.  What exactly did it mean to be somewhat less than 120 braccia, or 70 meters, or 230 feet off the ground?

Next:  to the internet.  I went looking for buildings of a comparable height, and I found a few.

Pyramid of Djoser
The Pyramid of Djoser is shorter, only 203 feet (62 meters), but many of Florence's towers were in that range.  However, I don't know how tall (or how close) the camel is, so it doesn't really help much.

Palazzo Vecchio
Florence's Palazzo Vecchio has a tower that stands 310 feet (94 meters), but it was always a public building, not a privately owned tower, so it was never shortened.  It was built around a pre-existing tower around the turn of the 14th century.

Campanile and Duomo
Florence's cathedral provides a point of comparison, too.  Brunelleschi's dome reaches a height of 300 feet (90 meters), and Giotto's campanile (the bell tower on the left) stands 280 feet high (85 meters).

With all this, I was getting an idea of what my target height looked like from the outside, but I still needed to know what the world looked like from that height.  I cast back among my memories for something that would serve.

I do remember one high place, and I remember it well.  My grandparents lived in Chicago, on the 16th floor of a wonderful old building.  As a child I spent many hours looking out of their windows, watching the life of the city go by.  I wasn't afraid to look down then - I was very small, and the world seemed a safe place.  I watched the waves on the lake, the traffic on the Outer Drive, the people walking on the sidewalks far below.  I saw the city's lights reflected on wet streets when it rained.  I know - I actually can remember - what I observed.  I know what I could see (colors, shapes, movement) and what I couldn't (clothing details, facial expressions).  I know what I could hear, though since it was mostly vehicular noise, this wasn't particularly useful.  But the visual part was.

That is exactly what I needed to know.  Could it possibly be the case that my memories coincide with the view my characters would have had?

Riverside Plaza
So I checked some buildings in Chicago.  This one, the Riverside Plaza, is 302 feet (92 meters) tall, which comes pretty close to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo, and the Campanile.  I see somewhere around 20 floors here, at least, but how does that compare with my grandparents' 16th floor apartment?  (Actually it was the 15th - the building was constructed in a period where they simply ignored the number 13, since nobody wanted to live on a floor with an unlucky number.)

I found a floor/height calculator online, but it was incredibly complicated, factoring in interstitial spaces, residential vs. commercial use, lobbies, varying ceiling heights, and more.  I didn't have all that information.  And then I thought, well, is there any chance that I can find my grandparents' building online?  Crossing my fingers, I gave it a try.  After all, it's called "The Renaissance," which has got to be a good sign, right?

"The Renaissance"
Yes.  It's there.  It's on a register of historic buildings, so in addition to all the real estate listings for individual apartments in the building, I finally found a site that gave me the specs:  the building is 183 feet tall.  There was only one floor above my grandparents, so we were very near the top - say, roughly 160-170 feet.

If the tower my characters were in was 120 braccia (70 meters, 230 feet) and their balcony was, say, three-quarters of the way up, then they'd be at - oh, about 170 feet.


I didn't need to do any formidable calculations.  I just needed to go back to my earliest memories.  Who knew that when I was watching the cars go by from my vantage point, I was about 90 braccia above ground?

Don't you just love it when that sort of thing happens?

Images in this post:  Gozzoli fresco, view of 15th c. Florence, and photo of postwar Florence are in the public domain.  Photos of San Gimignano and the Pyramid of Djoser are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Photos of Riverside Plaza and The Renaissance are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.  Other photos are our own.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eyewitness to the Turn of the 14th Century

Dino Compagni anima i fiorentini alla concordia (Antonio Pucinelli, 1856)

Dino Compagni was a Florentine, a contemporary of Dante, and he provided an invaluable service to all future historians of Florence by writing a lucid and colorful chronicle of his city in the turbulent decades bridging the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  As we shall see, he was in a remarkably good position to do so, for his was not the account of an observant outsider, but that of a man who was passionately involved in the politics and the great events of his time.  In fact, we can pretty much forget about "fair and balanced" here - Dino was a member of a particular political party, of several specific councils and governing bodies, and was an articulate proponent of governance by the popolo instead of the old nobility (at a time when popolo meant prosperous merchants and guildsmen, not the day laborers and woolcarders and other unskilled and low-paid workers who made up the bulk of Florence's population). 

He served his city as a council member and a Prior, and he had, in fact, been one of the men who helped shape Florence's governing priorate, in the 1280s.  He served his guild and his confraternity as an officer, and was only the third man in Florence to hold the city's high office of Gonfaloniere, or Standard-Bearer of Justice.  He was one of the men whose duty it was to implement the anti-magnate laws that so enraged the nobles in 1293 (the Ordinances of Justice), and he was an eloquent, if not always successful, peacemaker.  The painting above shows Dino attempting to reconcile two warring factions in a dramatic meeting he had convened in the Baptistery in 1301.

His political career had its ups and downs.  He shared Dante's party affiliation (the White Guelfs), and he very nearly shared Dante's fate - exile from Florence for life - when Florentine politics surged against them both and the Black Guelfs took the ascendancy.  The only thing that protected Dino was that he was serving as one of the city's six Priors at the time (and was forced to resign early, while a priorate of the opposite political persuasion was put in place instead), and a law protected him from judicial proceedings for a year after serving in that office.  Dante too had been a Prior, but unfortunately for him he had served a little more than a year previously, and so the poet was caught up in the political rancor and vindictiveness that followed the upheavals of 1301. 

Dino's history of Florence, shown above, is probably the book I lose the most in my research.  You may think this is a typo, and that I meant use the most, but while it is certainly a book I use frequently, I did mean lose.  I don't know why, but I simply cannot keep track of this book.  I keep finding it, after long searching, buried under a pile of papers someplace.  Fortunately it is available online, both in Italian and in an earlier English translation.  But I need my copy, which is heavily annotated, and it seems determined to escape.  (By the way, any quotes from Dino in this post will be from this version of the book, which is Daniel Bornstein's excellent translation.  Assuming I can find it.)

Dino's Cronica begins (after a brief prologue detailing the events of 1216 that are the subject of my first novel) in the year 1280 and extends through 1312, ending on a note of combined exasperation and hope - Dino believed that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry of Luxembourg, who was then in Italy, would come to Florence and make peace at last, and Dante, from his exile, shared that hope.

Here's Dino's blockbuster ending:  "Such is our troubled city!  Such are our citizens, obstinate in evil-doing!  And what is done one day is condemned the next.  Wise men used to say: 'A wise man does nothing which he regrets.'  In that city and among those citizens, there is no act so praiseworthy that it is not considered to be the opposite and blamed.  There men kill one another and evil is not punished by the laws, for if the evildoer has friends and money to spend he is freed from the crime he committed."  There is something disturblingly modern about all of that.

He finishes with this:  "Oh wicked citizens, who have corrupted and spoiled the whole world with bad practices and illicit profits!  You are the ones who have brought every bad habit into the world.  Now the world is beginning to turn against you:  the emperor and his forces will seize and plunder you by sea and by land."

But Henry died near Siena in 1313, before he got as far as Florence, so it was not to be.  Dino, having little choice, retired from politics and turned his attentions back to his business activities.

But what do we know about Dino as a man?  This is a question I always find myself coming back to.  I am fascinated by the larger currents of history, but I try never to forget that men and women shaped those currents, human beings not unlike ourselves who lived in very different times.  It is not easy to find personal details about people in this time period.  Records are incomplete, and centuries of war, floods, modernization, and just plain human error have taken their toll.  And yet, some fascinating tidbits always remain.  That's one of the perks of this research of which we speak.  There's always a good story to be found, if you look hard enough.

We don't know Dino's year of birth, but the various guesses suggest that he was born between 1246 and 1255, which would make him approximately 10-19 years older than Dante.  He was a Florentine, not of a noble family (though his mother was a daughter of Manetto Scali, a family of some importance), but fairly prosperous.  He was an amateur poet who does not seem to have impressed anyone much with his efforts; he addressed a sonnet to Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's "first friend," a nobleman and a poet himself.  (In this sonnet he suggests that Guido and his class give up their pretensions to nobility [and with them the violence and turbulence of their peers] and embrace the social values of merchants and guildsmen.  It is a bit difficult to imagine the likes of Guido reading this and saying, "Oh, right!  Great idea!  I'll get right on that.")

Emblem of Por Santa Maria (at Orsanmichele)
Professionally, Dino was a successful merchant and a member of Por Santa Maria, the guild representing retail cloth dealers and silk merchants.  Their emblem is shown above.  He served as one of the four consuls of the guild (a six-month term) on at least six different occasions.  Por Santa Maria ranked at that time ranked just below the top three elite guilds (Calimala, or cloth finishers;  Lana, the wool guild; and Cambio, or bankers and moneychangers). 

Dino's confraternity was that of the Madonna of Orsanmichele, founded in 1291.  Orsanmichele, which had been the city's grain market for some years, had an image of the Virgin Mary on a pillar, and when that image was perceived to work miracles, beginning in the early 1290s, the confraternity was formed.  Confraternities, or lay religious brotherhoods, abounded in Florence and in other Italian cities in the 1300s, and by the late 1200s many were already in place.  Some of them involved penitential self-flagellation among the members, but Orsanmichele and others were laudesi companies, which means that the members gathered in the evening at a church or shrine and sang songs in praise of the Virgin.  Confraternities provided many benefits for their members:  help during illness, financial assistance, funeral rites and regalia, help for widows and orphans of members, and more.  Many filled a role as charitable institutions.  Dante's father-in-law, messer Manetto Donati, was an officer of Orsanmichele, as was Dino.

Dino, though a White Guelf, had family connections with the Blacks by marriage.  Filippa, his first wife, received a bequest from Andrea da Cerreto, a former Ghibelline turned Black Guelf.  Andrea was, in fact, one of the Priors who replaced Dino and his colleagues in November of 1301.  And Dino's second wife, Francesca, came from a Black Guelf family, including some who were prominent in the party.  This was not at all an unusual situation for Florentines of the time.  Many a house was divided between the parties.

Giano della Bella
Dino was an enthusiastic supporter of Giano della Bella, a prominent and idealistic Florentine nobleman who took the part of the popolo against the magnates.  Giano was instrumental in drafting anti-magnate legislation which effectively disenfranchised the hereditary nobility, decreeing that only members of guilds could take major offices in Florence.  This naturally angered the knights and their powerful clans, who said (with some truth) that they, as the military arm of the city, were charged with protecting Florence, yet were no longer allowed a role in her governance.  The knights' enmity toward Giano della Bella eventually forced him out - out of office and out of the city - in 1295, and Dino found himself politically on the outside looking in, for several years. 

Incidentally, Dino gives us something much better than that dry summary of Giano's political fortunes.  Dino's account is rich with descriptions of Giano and his wife fleeing the mob across rooftops, of the people dragging kindling up to the palace of the podesta' to burn the door, and of prominent Florentines breaking into cabinets in the public buildings and destroying legal documents pertaining to cases brought against them.  Passions ran high, and the people on the streets were manipulated by both sides.

Charles of Valois
Despite a five-year lull for Dino personally after Giano's expulsion, he did make a comeback in 1300.  He did his best to reconcile the factions, trying to persuade the Donati faction (Black Guelfs) and the Cerchi faction (White Guelfs) to come to a peaceful agreement, but things had progressed too far for that.  Dino was serving as a Prior again in 1301 when Charles of Valois, brother of the French king Philip IV and dubbed a "peacemaker" by Pope Bonifacio VIII, was on his way to Florence with 500 armed knights.  It was widely known that the Pope (and Charles) favored the Black faction, yet Dino and his fellow priors did everything they could think of to maintain peace.  They polled no fewer than 72 guilds to see if their memberships agreed to allowing Charles into the city.  The reply came back:  all but one guild said, "in speech and in writing, that he should be allowed to come and should be honored like a lord of noble blood - all except the bakers, who said that he should be neither received nor honored, for he was coming to destroy the city."  Prescient bakers.

So Charles entered the city in November of 1301, other Black partisans from nearby cities came as well, and within a few days Corso Donati, leader of the Black faction and exiled at the time, forced his way back into the city, wreaking havoc as he came.  He opened the prisons (see picture below), and his men ran roughshod over the city.  And Charles, who you will recall favored the Black party, did not stop him.  Dino and his fellow Priors rang the city's bells to summon the populace, but "the people were too dismayed to assemble.  Not a single armed man, on horse or on foot, came forth from the Cerchi household." (The Cerchi, remember, were the leaders of the White Guelfs.)

Dino on Charles of Valois:  "Oh good King Louis who was so God-fearing, where is the good faith of the royal house of France, now brought low by bad counsel, not fearing dishonor?  Oh wicked counselors, you have made the offspring of such high royalty not a soldier but an assassin, one who imprisons citizens wrongly, breaks faith, and belies the name of the royal house of France!"

And Dino, not sparing himself or his fellow Priors:  "And so we wasted time, since we did not dare to shut the doors and stop listening to these citizens - even though we distrusted such false promises and thought that they were cloaking their malice with lying words.  We sought to make peace with them when we should have been sharpening our swords."

Corso Donati returns to Florence
Here's Dino on the events of those violent days:  "the men who feared their foes hid themselves in their friends' houses.  One enemy attacked the other:  houses were set afire, robberies were committed, and belongings fled from the homes of the powerless.  The powerful Blacks extorted money from the Whites; they married young girls by force; they killed men.  And when a house blazed, messer Charles asked:  'What is that fire?'  He was told that it was a hut, but it was a rich palace.  And this evildoing lasted six days, for that was how it had been arranged.  The countryside was in flames on every side."

And more:  "Kinship and friendship were worth nothing, new marriages were worth nothing; every friend became an enemy; brother abandoned brother; son abandoned father."

And all of this was presaged by, of all things, Halley's Comet.  Dino:  "That evening a miraculous sign appeared in the sky:  a vermilion cross over the palace of the Priors.  ...This cross remained for as long as it takes a horse to run two laps.  The people who saw this - and I saw it clearly - could understand that God was firmly set against our tormented city." 

Henry of Luxembourg
Forced from office, Dino was never again to be active politically.  He had not yet set his observations down in writing, for it would not have been safe to have his candid observations reach the ears of the people then in power.  It wasn't until 1310, when it looked as if things might turn around once more, that he dared to begin his task.  He pinned his hopes on Henry of Luxembourg (above) and was disappointed.  The Blacks  consolidated their hold on Florence, Dino hid his chronicle away, he died in 1324 as a private citizen, and his work did not attract much attention until 1726.  (Two copies had been made earlier, however - one in late fifteenth century and one in 1514.)

Medieval Florence is rich in stories, and those of us who want to tell them owe a great debt to Dino Compagni, Florentine, political man, chronicler, and reporter.  He told it the way he saw it, and we are all the richer for his efforts. 

Dino's Florence (and Dante's)
Images in this post:  Photos of the emblem of Por Santa Maria and of the painting by Antonio Pucinelli are both by Sailko, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons.  Other images in the public domain by virtue of being really old.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Immerse:  to dip, plunge into or as if into a liquid, especially so as to cover completely.

Italian immersion weekend:  what your blogger just did.  Immersion, as in covered completely, inundated, drowning, going under for the third time.  Glub.

And yet, I seem to have survived.  Nay, more than survived - I loved it!  (In my distant youth, we would have said "I had a blast!")

Brief background:   I read a fair bit of Italian in the course of doing research, but my speaking ability lags behind my reading and my oral comprehension, so a couple of years ago I started taking evening classes at the Italian Workingmen's Club here in my town, in what used to be a neighborhood of Italian immigrants.  We meet in the not-very-fancy upstairs room over a lively, noisy Italian restaurant with great pizza:  a small group of people who have in common a deep, almost irrational love for this glorious language.

There are four different levels.  My teacher is the extraordinary Antonella, a native of Lecce, whose graduate training was in Russian literature but who spends her days as an employee of the university, persuading people's computers to work.  She is brilliant, in more different ways than I could possibly explain in a blog post.  The classes are coordinated by Giovanna, who's Sicilian.  Giovanna has taught Italian and Italian literature at the university for many years. She's brilliant too.  A generation apart (Giovanna is a grandmother, and Antonella has a young son), they are both tiny dynamos who could run circles around the Energizer Bunny.

And so it came to pass that Antonella and Giovanna decided to have an Italian immersion weekend at Giovanna's lovely country house, which is about a 40-minute drive out of town.  She has gardens and vineyards and prairie and oak forests and bike trails and plenty of room for a dozen or so guests to come and chatter in Italian at each other for an entire weekend. 

I arrived early Friday evening with two friends who have just completed a semester of Italian at the beginner level.  Others soon arrived, and we began to get ourselves organized, speaking entirely in Italian (or at least trying to).  Donato (aka Doug) noticed that Giovanna had put Italian labels on various items of furniture and kitchen appliances, so he made a few more, and pretty soon everything was proudly wearing its Italian name.  The microwave was "forno microonde," the refrigerator was "frigorifero," and so on.  It felt a little bit like being in a Dick Tracy comic strip.  (For those of you who don't remember those, they tended to have lots of arrows pointing to things, with labels like "two-way wrist radio".)  The window even had a sign with arrows pointing outside, to "la natura."  We had Italian music playing in the background (and the CD that Giovanna didn't care much for got labelled "la musica che non piace a Giovanna"). 

We had conversations involving the whole group, as well as dividing into upper and lower levels for grammar work.  We went on excursions into the countryside, we had a picnic, we visited the store run by the local Amish community, we watched an Italian film, we played games, and we all took part in cooking and cleaning up. Imagine eleven people pottering around in a smallish kitchen, trying to get a meal together while speaking a language some of us had only studied for a single semester.  It's amazing that we actually got meals on the table, but we did, though admittedly Giovanna and Antonella did most of the work. 

And the food!   Si mangia bene when Giovanna and Antonella plan the menus.  We had chicken cacciatore, pasta with zucchini and pancetta, and insalata caprese, all seasoned with herbs we picked from Giovanna's lavish garden.  And we had a tiramisu to die for (and possibly from).  Antonella described that last as "una bomba calorica.")  All of this was accompanied by Campari and other before-dinner drinks, wine with meals, and plenty of good old Wisconsin beer in the frigorifero.  Biscotti and fruit and cheese were always available, so even when a meal made it to the table two hours later than planned (which did happen), no one starved.

La Bomba Calorica

Donato and Antonella, cooking

For the most part, all of us took part in the conversation, at whatever level we could manage - and we had everything from beginners to people who are quite competent, though I wouldn't call any of us completely fluent yet - but every once in a while Giovanna and Antonella would start talking about something, just the two of them, and the rest of us sat back and listened.  It was as if you had been meandering along the back roads between a couple of dusty little Italian hill towns, and all of a sudden you found yourself on the autostrada going way more kilometers per hour than you want to think about.  When those two get going, they are truly impressive.

A few of the high points:
  • Giacomo (aka Jim), put on the spot at our picnic, trying to explain nuclear physics in Italian after taking just one semester.  He did remarkably well, and should be proud.  
  • All of us crowded onto the balcony at night, watching the space station pass overhead, while Antonella leaned over the railing and waved at it, calling "Ciao!  Ciao!"  
  • A game where we paired off and told each other five things about ourselves, one of which had to be a lie, and then we tried to identify the lies.  (My favorite was Antonella's claim that she worked for the KGB while she was in Russia.) 
  • Taking turns speculating on why one of the students wasn't going to arrive until Saturday morning, including everything from "She won the lottery and bought a villa in Italy" to "She got lost" to "She had problems driving her elephant" - all, of course, said in Italian.  

  • Wandering through the aisles of the Amish furniture store, commenting on the merchandise in pidgin Italian.

  • Getting creatively lost twice on the way back to the house after our excursion - the entire caravan of us.  It was a lovely drive, actually.
Did I have a great time?  You bet.  Did I learn a lot?  I did.  Would I recommend the experience?  Absolutely - especially if Antonella and Giovanna are in charge!

I'm reminded of a second definition of "immersed":  in botany, growing under water.  We may have been under water a lot of the time, but we did indeed grow.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Medieval Orvieto

I have little time to write a blog post this week, so this one will be mostly visual.  I had no specific research interest in Orvieto other than its Etruscan heritage (see previous post), but it is such a striking medieval town that I couldn't resist posting some pictures.  The cathedral, above, is probably the city's best-known sight.  The first time we visited, some years ago, I managed to accidentally prostrate myself in front of the altar - it had to do with being jet-lagged, gawking at the ceiling, and forgetting that I had just taken two steps up.  Oops.  I managed better this time, with my dignity intact.  Or as intact as it ever gets, anyway.

Here's a view of part of the city from high enough up that you can see the curving shape of an ancient street.  Note the cathedral facade.

This painting by Turner shows Orvieto in the distance, perched on its high plateau, which explains why there are gorgeous views in every direction.

The edges of the city have some serious drop-offs.  But there are those views...

This charming automaton is called Maurizio.  He's been ringing that bell every hour for hundreds of years.

Geometrical patterns formed by rooftops, taken from a higher rooftop.  Orvieto gives you a lot of opportunities to explore all the advantages "up" has to offer.

Twelve-sided bell tower of the Church of Sant' Andrea.  It has Etruscan building bits lurking somewhere underneath it.

The town has many buildings characteristic of medieval Umbria.

Yet another gorgeous view from Orvieto, looking off into the surrounding countryside.

Orvieto had an army of friendly and charming (and opportunistic) cats.  This one did her very best to adopt us.