Of course, between late summer and mid-October, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington took place, changing our feelings about flying but not dampening our desire to be in Italy.
I left Newark airport on the 15th of October, which would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. Fond memories of her interest in my travels and delight in listening to the tales accompanied by postcards and photos. My father’s second wife, Ethel, is also fond of traveling so I look forward to describing the trip to her. Meanwhile, here’s a written version of what we did and saw, and we saw some really fine art and architecture. I looked at my atlas and guides as I flew across the Atlantic and was amazed how many important sites were in the area and we found some we didn’t know about before we really investigated the route from one place to another.
Christie and I met at Heathrow after our flights from Detroit and NYC respectively. Our assigned seats from London to Bologna were in the same row! We had not been able to find a room in Bologna ahead of time so we picked up the rental car upon arriving in Bologna and drove to Modena. We discovered a pattern that worked pretty well for finding accommodations: we drove toward the center of town and stopped as close as feasible; Christie stayed with the car and I went to find a hotel. We had done some research ahead so I knew where the tourist office and/or a couple possible hotels were located. My Cadogan guide for Bologna and Emilia-Romagna had good city center maps. I found a hotel around the corner from Modena cathedral and they gave us a permit for street parking near the hotel. While a car does provide good transportation between places and ease in visiting remote sites between the bigger cities, it can be a pain in the city. Again, this trip Christie did most of the driving while I navigated.
Car parked, room inhabited, we meandered the streets for a while. The Modena cathedral is a beautiful Romanesque structure (11th century) with a fine pointed tower and great relief decoration, including panels of the creation. There are also wonderful porches with knotted columns and lion supports. After getting our bearings and having a drink, we went back to the Hotel La Torre and asked for a restaurant recommendation for supper. The clerk recommended some and we went around and looked at them. We ended up at a restaurant across a small plaza from one of them. It was only 7:30 p.m. so no one was eating in the restaurant which meant the genial hostess was able to describe each of the dishes on the hand-printed menu. Clearly, though a bit more expensive than we might have picked in our jetlag stupor, this was the place to eat. Before we sat down, she asked where we were from. When I said New York, she embraced me and kissed each cheek, and even called me “Principe” (prince) the rest of the evening.
Our meal started out with bresaola (something like dried beef but way better), arugula and fine aged cheese. The hostess brought out some aged Modenese vinegar and put it on the meat, and then offered us a small spoonful. Incredible flavor and texture. We ordered the dishes and the hostess divided each course “50-50.” These conversations were held in pidgin English/Italian; both Christie and I have a few Italian words and phrases under control, the hostess had some English.
A bit later, a couple guys were seated at the table next to us and we started conversing (mostly English but some pidgin). We had a marvelous time, with three glasses of grappa after eating. We closed down that place, the Hostaria Frasca, and went on to a coffee bar for an espresso nightcap. We crawled into bed at about 1 a.m., perhaps 35 or 40 hours after arising the day before in the U.S. and perhaps sleeping 3 hours of that on a plane. Nonetheless, we agreed that an Italian vacation could not start more gloriously.
We did not get started at the crack of dawn on Tuesday. We did go to the museum and wander the streets, visit the cathedral and some other churches, the ducal palace, etc. until checking out of the hotel. We drove from Modena to Sassuolo where there was a show at that ducal palace with six Italian and American painters. One of the Americans is Tim Litzmann who is married to Greta Earnest (an art librarian and member of my bookclub). The show was not open on Tuesday except for groups (two is not a group and we didn’t have an appointment anyway). So, alas, we didn’t see Tim’s show (but I did see his show at Mary Boone Gallery in September).
From Sassuolo, we drove into the Appennine foothills, stopping at a rocca (fortress) or two, enjoying the hillside climbs and sighing at the beauty of the Italian landscape. On to Parma.
We found a place to park the car and went together to find a hotel. It was not as easy here as in Modena but we did find a decent hotel near the train station, nothing to write home about especially but adequate and not too expensive. It was dark by this time so we meandered a bit and then went to supper and read our guidebooks. The cathedral here is also Romanesque -- not as fine as the Modena cathedral but accompanied by an independent, polygonal baptistery with fine frescoes. We were also delighted by Santa Maria della Steccata which had great baroque window frames. One of the painting delights in Parma is the Camera di San Paolo with frescoes by Correggio; one of the great disappointments of the trip was that we misplaced the postcards from the Camera. We have no idea where they went: left on the curb where we had the slices of pizza, on the counter in the pizza shop?
At about this point, we saw a postcard of the Rocca Sanvitale in Fontanellato which was a picturesque moated fortress in the middle of a small town. When we investigated it in the guidebook, we learned it had a room by Parmigianino, another mannerist painter. Aha, guidance for tomorrow’s drive to Mantova.
My favorite building in Parma was the Palazzo di Pilotta, a Farnese palace with a wooden, renaissance theater of great beauty. The palace was never finished and was badly damaged in World War II, so it has rather the feel of a Roman remain. The theater was rebuilt after the war so the smell of wood is rich. The Galleria nazionale is also in the palace and they have built interesting structures and pathways in the old structure for the museum displays.
On the way out of Parma, we passed a bunch of tractors going into town, presumably to some sort of exposition or trade show ... not ready to protest the McDonald’s.
Fontanellato is not far from Parma and the Rocca Sanvitale dominates the central space of the town. We checked in at the ticket office and were first led to the periscope in the corner tower -- it’s more a folly than for security but you can see who is outside the tower via a series of mirrors. Our guide was a structural engineer who had once been to Rome for a week; he had studied art and was an enthusiastic conversationalist. Our favorite term was “putt” for putto, pronounced poot. I don’t know if the British say putt but most American art aficionados use the Italian word putto (or plural putti). The Parmigianino room has many putts and Diana and Acteon and lots of other wonderful sights. Really breathtaking and our guide’s enthusiasm was palpable (we were the only people on that tour though his supervisor came to fetch him when we had clearly overstayed our time).
Our next stop between Parma and Mantova was in San Secondo which also has a rocca -- much different from the one in Fontanellato. This one is in a park, now houses some city offices, and is partly demolished but with a fine portico with finely-painted vine decorations. We had seen advertisements for a show at the ducal palace in Colorno so that was our next stop.
The palace in Colorno is painted yellow and the complex includes a church which is not painted. The contrast of yellow and gray was lovely. The gardens were fine with fountains and flowers. The staircase on the garden front is a wonderful double staircase over a portico into the courtyard.
From Colorno, we proceeded to Sabbioneta which is a 16th-century planned and fortified city. Here, there is a fine theater by Scamozzi, a disciple of Palladio, as well as another ducal palace with good painted decoration and a church which has a small tempietto. A small carnival was taking place in the piazza d’armi, bumper cars and all.
On to Mantova which was also having a convention so we had some trouble finding a hotel and had to move hotels for our second night. Christie had been to Mantova but all of this is new territory for me. Alberti’s great renaissance church, Sant’Andrea, is a miracle of classical architecture, finely detailed with a grand interior including a later crossing dome. We also saw the Camera degli sposi, painted by Mantegna in the ducal palace. Again, we were lucky and between tour groups so we were able to stay in the Camera degli sposi for longer than usual. Traveling in the fall is usually lighter traffic than summer and there were few Americans.
After visiting the ducal palace, we wandered past the wonderful art nouveau chamber of commerce building (Adreani, architect) on our way to the Palazzo Te. Just before the Palazzo Te, we happened upon another Alberti church with an exhibition of models of Alberti’s great buildings and looked into Mantegna’s house (a wonderful cylindrical atrium in a cubic structure).
The Palazzo Te is probably the greatest building by Giulio Romano. It has mannerist detailing (e.g. dropped keystones, heavy rustication) that are a mainstay of art history 101. We were there in the late afternoon and the sunlight on the palace walls was extraordinary.
Supper on Saturday was eaten at a newish restaurant near the canal and an arcaded bridge by Giulio Romano. We checked out of the hotel on Sunday morning and drove through the countryside toward the Adriatic. We stopped for coffee in Ceneselli and felt like we were the only tourists in the world. A gypsy family was also getting snacks there however. Our route took us along the River Po which is lined with dikes. There was a small road along the top of the dike so we drove up for a while. The river was broad but didn’t look threatening.
We stopped next at the Villa Badoer in Fratta Polesine. This is the southernmost of Palladio’s villas, and we were just barely in the Veneto. The house was not open but it is beautiful and we were thrilled to be able to see a Palladio villa. We continued toward the Adriatic and saw some wonderful marsh country with many water birds.
We tried to find the Etruscan cities at Spina but somehow missed the route and moved on to Pomposa Abbey. The abbey stands tall in the countryside, with fine brickwork and a tower with two-three-four arches as the eye ascends.
We finally got to Ravenna just about sundown. Here, we found a hotel pretty easily, with two rooms even at a price a bit less than our one room elsewhere (and parking!). Ravenna is comfortably sized and from our hotel near the station it was a short walk to the central square. Since it was suppertime, none of the churches were open. We meandered a bit and then went to a pizzeria near Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the castle of Theodoric.
The Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna are also famous from art history 101 but they are even more glorious than you could imagine. San Vitale, with the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora, is now mostly surrounded by the baroque city palace. The mosaics are unbelievably beautiful and the contrast of the Byzantine apse with the baroque painted central rotunda is exquisite. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia is on the grounds of San Vitale and also has exquisite mosaics including a great bookcase with the gospels. We also visited the other churches and baptisteries in town before going to see the mausoleum of Theodoric and then South to Sant’Apollinare in Classe (now a suburb but originally the port for Ravenna) where the mosaics are a bit earlier than San Vitale. Truly incredible, one of the greatest art sights of my life.
From Ravenna, we got onto the autostrada back to the Bologna airport to turn in the rental car. We booked a hotel via the reservation service at the airport and took the bus into town. There are several radial streets from the central square and our hotel was a nice walk down one of the radia.
Bologna is like New York City. It bustles and is rather gritty or dirty. It’s not so much single monuments that thrill as the overall ensemble of churches, palaces, other buildings, plazas, streets, etc. Many of the major streets are lined by covered walkways -- perhaps protection from rain though our weather was pleasant. San Petronio is the large church on the main square. The original intent was for it to be bigger than Saint Peter’s in Vatican City but the facade was never finished (about one story up) and the wings are truncated. At supper our first night, our neighbors were self-described kiwis (New Zealanders) who had been doing geneaological research on her side.
By this time, we had been together about 24 hours a day for a week so we split in Bologna. I went to the Galleria nazionale on Tuesday morning and we met for lunch. Christie had been to Santo Stefano and was thrilled so I went in the afternoon. Santo Stefano is a wonderful complex of seven churches built over the centuries, with several cloisters and a big plaza. We also liked Santa Maria dei Servi with its courtyard out front, the “elephant and castle” palazzo near San Vitale, San Domenico, and just about every church. When I was sitting in the plaza behind San Domenico, a plane flew overhead and I was overwhelmed for a bit by thoughts of terrorist attacks, etc. That, and the “antrace” in the headlines of the paper were occasional reminders of home; mostly, however, we were glad to be away from the constant bombardment of war news.
Christie had been to the Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio and mentioned that it now housed the municipal library and that they were supposed to have a good manuscript collection. On Wednesday morning, I stopped in to see if any of their manuscripts were on display. None were on display but they checked me in to visit the manuscript room. After some confusion about what I wanted (here, the pidgin was less adequate), they handed me a catalog from a show a few years earlier. I noticed a nice 15th-century French astronomical treatise by Johannes de Sacrobosco (John of Holywood) and asked about it -- imagine my surprise when it was brought to me and I was able to leaf through it. No gloves were given to me so I gingerly turned the leaves, guiltily relishing the textures of the vellum and trying not to drool on the simple illuminations. As it turned out, the husband of one of the librarians had written the catalog entry for that manuscript and she introduced me to him and gave me a copy of another catalog entry on the book.
Trembling with joy, I left the library and went to the steps of San Petronio to meet Christie for lunch. I had stopped in the Anatomical Theater before departing and took Christie there before we lunched. Bologna overall was delightful. While I loved Ravenna and the other cities, Bologna would be the place I’d pick for living in. The resolution to study Italian has already faded.
We went to bed on Wednesday night relatively early so Christie could get to the airport for her morning flight. My flight was closer to midday so I got to do a bit more meandering and church-visiting before taking the bus to the airport.
And what about food and drink? Yes, we ate some wonderful meals. Pumpkin was in season and the tortelli di zucca was marvelous, especially the last time with a thick highly-seasoned pumpkin filling. The Sangiovese table wine was very nice. A pizza of mixed wild mushrooms was superb. Good cheese (parmesan, of course). Lots of GOOD coffee.
At the airport, I ran into the same woman from Boston who had come down to Bologna with us. She had been in Ferrara and spoke highly of its neatness and compactness, and she had met an Italian judge who moved there because it was “tidy.” None of this was particularly attractive to me; fortunately, there are options. Since she had less time in London than I did, she gave me the banana that she brought from Ferrara. It was strange to accept such an offering in the new environment -- she seemed trustworthy (rather an aging hippie-type, like me) but I still thought of anthrax. I did eat the banana. Christie and I had not bought an English newspaper and struggled through the Italian papers at hotels or coffee bars.
I was in Heathrow for several hours, enough time to get somewhat restless, not enough time to go into London (with uncertainty about checkin and security lines). Fortunately, I’ve been reading In search of lost time by Marcel Proust (aka Remembrance of times past) so my work was cut out for me. I was then past halfway through Swann’s way and am now a few dozen pages into volume three.
About ten days after getting back from Italy, I went to Las Vegas for a regional conference of ARLIS/NA. Part of the time I wondered why I was in such fakery, especially after being in Italy; mostly I just wallowed in the excess. The fountains of Bellagio (water dancing to Pavarotti or Copland or Lloyd Weber or John Denver) are splendid, especially from atop the half-size Eiffel Tower across Las Vegas Boulevard. We had a great session on the showgirl collection at the UNLV library, including a discussion of the trade by a showgirl. We also had some good tours of the casinos and other buildings. The Venetian has two Guggenheims designed by Rem Koolhass (one with a motorcycle show designed by Frank Gehry and the other with some paintings from the Guggenheim and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg).
It would be, or will be, fun to show you my postcards and photos from the trip but below are some of the websites that I found that show some of the treats of these places. Or you can do some googling yourself.
Villa Badoer, Fratta Polesine: http://www.cisapalladio.org/veneto/schedae.asp?Numeroscheda=5
Mantova: http://www.aptmantova.it (this is the best site I found but there are some HTML coding errors; if you replace the backward slash with a forward slash and enter the URL, voila)