30 November 2013

TESSERAE - 9 - Viterbo

Viva Viterbo!   City of the Popes!

A vast hand stretches out from the ground below the Papal Palace of Viterbo.  A bearded head gapes nearby.  Feet emerge, or are they disappearing?  Is this the risen Christ?  Or is He being buried? 

The city of Viterbo is not well known to tourists.  It straddles the Via Cassia, some eighty kilometres north of Rome, clinging to the foothills of the volcanic Monti Cimini.  Traces of Etruscans walls can be seen, though the medieval walls are almost entirely intact, pierced by seven gates, and the San Pellegrino Quarter is virtually unchanged since the thirteenth century, the best preserved such contrada in Lazio..


Today, Viterbo is a busy place, seat of the Università Statale degli Studi della Tuscia, with approximately 9,000 students, which grew out of the Libera Universita della Tuscia in 1979.  It is also home to the Italian Air Force, which has a school there, with an airport, founded in 1936, which was until recently going to be developed as Rome's third commercial hub.


Apart from that, this is a busy city, with metal and stone industries and plenty of agricultural activity.   

In the past it was great and glorious.  It became a free commune in the eleventh century and in 1164 Emperor Frederick I (aka Barbarossa) gave it the title of City.  Having a powerful position on the Via Cassia, the main road north from Rome, gave it influence, and before long it was noticed by the papacy.  In 1261, Pope Alexander IV died there, having taken refuge in the Prior's Palace, and it became the place for papal elections, with Urban IV being the first of several to make it his home.

The Cathedral, dedicated to San Lorenzo, is a plain but elegant building just next to the great Papal Palace.  It was erected in the 12th century, with Romanesque columns and a fine cosmatesque floor and the Palace, in Gothic style, was constructed a century later.  It was here in 1271, prior to the election of Pope Gregory X, that, due to long and inconsequential deliberations, the townspeople locked the cardinals in and deprived them of food, to force them to come to a decision.  Thus started the tradition of the papal conclave (which comes from the Italian, con chiave - with the keys).

The cobbled streets and squares of Viterbo bustle with life, but are stained with blood.  It was here, on March 13th, 1271, after mass in the Church of San Silvestro, that two sons of Simon de Montfort, Simon the Younger and Guy, discovered and murdered Henry Almain, or Henry of Cornwall, crowned King of the Romans.  This was an act of revenge for the death of their father, recorded by Dante Alighieri in Canto VII of his Inferno.  


Nowadays, though, under the watchful eyes of the local police, Viterbo is tranquil.  Old men take the shade in the courtyard of the Palazzo Communale

And  citizens meet or relax in the Gran Caffè Schenardi. This wonderful building started life as one of the Chigi family's banks, in the fifteenth century.  It then became a private residence until being transformed into the Albergo Reale (Royal Hotel) for travellers on the Grand Tour.  Then, in 1818, Raffaele Schenardi had the bright idea of creating a Café, right here, on the ground floor of the Hotel.  It was an idea that caught on.

With its elegant décor, and refined menus, this has been a favourite place of Popes (especially Gregory XVI) and Kings (Vittorio Emanuele III dined here), adventurers (Giuseppe Garibaldi) and Film Stars (Orson Welles was here to make his film of Othello), not to mention the grand and the great of Italy (such as Fellini, who filmed I VItelloni with Alberto Sordi in Viterbo).  It is such an iconic part of Italy, that in 1980 the Ministero dei Beni Culturali e Ambientali declared it a place of especial cultural and historic interest.  And it is still a great place for an ice cream.

And not many doors away, a famous jeweller and goldsmith's shop sold wedding rings, or so it did in 1984!

Viterbo is a fascinating place.  With the exception of Rome, Lazio, unlike Tuscany and Umbria, is not so well known for its medieval towns, nor for its spas, nor for its religious festivals.  But Viterbo has it all.  You can stroll in the shade of the thirteenth century here, or swim in sulphurous hot water here all year round, or, on September 3rd every year you can join in the celebrations of Santa Rosa, a local girl who died at the age of 18 in 1251.  She is venerated for her stoicism and for her mystical gifts, and on the eve of her Feast Day, La Macchina di Santa Rosaa vast tower, illuminated with 3,000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and with a statue of her on the top, is carried by a hundred men for almost a mile round the medieval streets of the city.

And life, Italian life, goes on in its inimitable way, with its celebrations of the sausage,  


And its feasts of longhorn beef,

And its celebration of Football,

And, at the end of the road, its celebration of life, in death..... As paper death notices advertise the passing of a generation, colour coded as the rosettes that announce the birth of a baby.  

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 


24 November 2013


Winchester - Ancient and Glorious

According to my Touring Club Italiano guide to London (which I recommend if only for its maps) Winchester is Una delle piu antiche e gloriose citta dell'Inghilterra..... rich in gothic monuments around the splendid cathedral.

There was an iron age settlement here and subsequently the Romans colonised it as Venta Belgarum (because the local tribe was known as the Belgae).  In about 828 Winchester became the capital of England and Alfred the Great developed the city.  He was buried in the Old Minster in 899, where Saint Swithun had been Bishop from 852 to his death in 862.

By the turn of the first millennium the priory church was the burial place of the West Saxon kings, an important cathedral and a place of pilgrimage and healing, cared for by a community of Benedictine monks.

But with the advent of the Normans great changes came about, and the old Minster was demolished and a new one, the foundation of the present cathedral, was consecrated in 1093. 
In 1100 it became the burial place of William Rufus, William the Conqueror's son, killed by an unknown bowman when hunting in the New Forest.  His sarcophagus lies in the centre of the gothic choir.

For several hundred years the monastery flourished, and in the twelfth century the magnificent Winchester Bible, decorated in gold and lapis lazuli, was created.  This, and two thousand other precious books, can be seen in the Morley Library in the South Transept. 
In 1382, Bishop William of Wykeham founded Winchester College, and he was also partly responsible for the transformation of the nave from Romanesque to perpendicular gothic. 
With its soaring columns and intricate vaulting, this is one of the glories of all architecture, and it is also, at 167 metres in length, the longest medieval cathedral in Europe.

With the dissolution of the monasteries (1536 - 39) under Henry VIII many of the monastic buildings were destroyed, though the Priory Church, as a Cathedral, was spared. 

In 1642, however, the Cathedral was not so fortunate, as Cromwellian troops deliberately smashed the stained glass in the West Window.  It was so damaged that no attempt to reassemble the whole was made.  Instead, using fragments that had been saved, a mosaic of the original glass was put together in 1660, which created both a wonderful light effect and a fitting memorial to earlier times.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Cathedral was again threatened with disaster, this time from the natural world.  Winchester lies on peaty ground in the valley of the river Itchen, which was once used as a defensive moat for Wolvesey Castle, the old Palace of the Bishops.  The Norman crypt still floods when the water table rises and the well overflows, bathing the feet of Anthony Gormley's statue.  But in 1900 cracks large enough for owls to nest in were appearing in the walls, and chunks of masonry had begun to fall.  Architects and engineers struggled with the problem, finding that excavations rapidly filled with water.  In 1906 however project engineer Francis Fox had the innovative idea to bring in a naval diver.  And so, for six years, William Walker worked under the cathedral, in up to six metres of dark muddy water, excavating and underpinning the medieval walls, until the danger was passed.  By 1911, a team of 150 workmen had packed the foundations with some 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks. 

The Cathedral commemorates many, including Lancelot Andrewes, who was Bishop here from 1618 - 1626, though he is better known as a writer of sermons and as the general editor of the King James' Bible.  Among others are Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, and Jane Austen who died within sight of the Cathedral on July 18th, 1817.

There are also memorials to the men, and women, who have through the centuries cared for the cathedral and the many pilgrims and visitors who come here (currently there are about 300,000 visitors a year). 

The building is a testament to the faith of those who created it, but also an expression of great hope.  Whatever one's private thoughts, nothing can deny the glory of the leaping vaults that both lead us to the heavens and protect us from the elements.

Outside the river Itchen flows on, under the City Bridge, said to have been first built by St Swithun.

And several of the medieval gateways still survive.  This one is Kingsgate, which has a tiny church dedicated to St Swithun above it.

And then there is the Prior's gate into the Cathedral Close, which opens by the medieval Cheyney Court, where bishops met to hear law suits relating to their properties.  

In the centre of the city there is the Buttercross, which has stood there since the 15th century.....

Then, not far from Westgate, defending the western approaches to the city, are the remains of Winchester Castle, with its 13th century Great Hall, which has housed a vast Arthurian round table for seven hundred years.

The Horse and Rider statue in the High Street, has not been here so long, having been made by Elizabeth Frink in 1975, but it nicely returns us to a bronze age, when this land was perhaps first occupied by man as he developed mastery of the beast.


And back on St Giles' Hill, I once again survey the lie of this land, with its great cathedral dominating the town. 

While beneath the towering walls, a solitary figure reads, and thinks, while the waters rise and fall with the seasons.  At the beginning of The Journey of the Magi T S Eliot drew inspiration from one of the Epiphany Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes.  Perhaps this is what the figure reads:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a Journey, and such a long journey:

The way deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.


Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us
That in thy light we may see light
The light of thy grace today
The light of glory hereafter
Lancelot Andrewes
1555 - 1626
Bishop of Winchester 1618 - 1626
Preacher, Pastor, Man of God


15 November 2013

TESSERAE - 8 - Cividale del Friuli

Cividale del Friuli  

Julius Caesar - Giulio Cesare to his friends - stands all night in front of the town hall, as if waiting for a bus. This statue, a copy of that which guards the Campidoglio in Rome, may occasionally be seen sitting in the bar, or slinking off to rest awhile in the Roman House just next door. But then this is a quiet town, and despite over two millennia of quite complex history, nothing much happens here, especially on a Monday night in November.


Giulio first came here in 50 BC, though of course he didn't know what year it was.....  He was impressed by the Celtic culture, and probably by the local wines, and set up a Forum here, (which I believe was an early type of Internet where people met and exchanged inanities).  Anyway, unintentionally, his Forum Iullii (which uses his name in Latin with a touch of the genitive) gave its name to the region, now known as Friuli.....  (There's one for QI?)

The town flourished, and became one of the most important centres in the area, both for commerce and for military reasons.  Which is why, a mere half millennium or so later, the Longobardi (literally Long Beards, though some would have it that the name originates in their adherence to Odin, anyway they are better known as Lombards) decided it would make an ideal place for their capital of the Primo Ducato Longobardo in Italia (their origin was in the far north, and like modern Germans, they liked to place their towels in the sun).  Indeed, Cividale was not only home to the Lombard Dukes, and Kings, but also to the Patriarchs of Aquileia, so it was a bright spot in what we tend to call the Dark Ages.


While they were there (that is, very roughly, between 568AD and 774AD) the Longobardi adopted the oratory of the Convent of Santa Maria in Valle, which hangs precariously over the river Natisone, and it is now known as the Tempietto Longobardo, even though the frescos and wooden choir stalls are from the later Middle Ages.  It is an extraordinary little chapel, with beautiful stucco figures and intricate decorations.  I am afraid that photography is not allowed here, so please imagine it in the space below......


Outside, persimmons droop above the river looking east towards the hills of Slovenia. 


Inside the convent the graceful refectory is now used for civil functions, ceremonials, and meetings.

And the cloister has a well kept, peaceful air that picks up on the civilised nature of this town.  The Monastery of Santa Maria in Valle is now a cultural centre, owned by the municipality.

The Lombards had a chronicler in Paolo Diacono (Paul the Deacon) who is commemorated in a square of the same name in Cividale, and here is found the Cafe Longobardo, where loud music and wet plastic seats remind the visitor that times change. 

However, there is a neat illustration on the wall of the Café as to how this part of Italy has a tendency towards the north and east.  The Longobardi may have been ousted by Charlemagne, who instituted a Frankish regime in 774AD, but in later times Cividale, (for some time called Civitas Austriae, which means Eastern City, giving a clue to how Austria got its name) was ruled by the Republic of Venice, the Hapsburg Empire, Napoleon, and the Italian Kingdom.   But perhaps the  gentleman holding the billiard cue, second from the right in this picture, was one of the Austrian Army who occupied the city after the battle of Caporetto in 1917.....  The distinctly Austrian looking Eagle on the wall behind him is actually the symbol of Friuli.

Today Cividale is a quiet, small town.  Its history lies there to be discovered, with a display of treasures from the Lombard Necropolis (on the hill behind the great new supermarket, itself just up from the brand new railway station) in the National Museum of Archaeology, which is housed in the Palace of the Provveditori Veneti.  It is not surprising that it doesn't feel quite comfortable in the relatively young Italian State, especially given the difficulties with the modern Italian economy, and the visitor is reminded of this by bilingual signs in the streets which explain where we are in both Italian and Friulano, a language which has approximately half a million speakers.

But the town harbours quaintness and oldness and a quirky individuality.  Medieval buildings seem a normal part of the fabric:

Both in the tortuous back streets or arising above the Devil's Bridge by the River Natisone.

In the brighter main streets, shops sport their independence, with pride in their business:

And in their quirky sense of colour and appeal.

There are almost no chain stores here -unlike small town England, the majority of shops are independent.  There are banks, of course, and a couple of supermarkets, but the streets are filled with clothing boutiques, artisan butchers and bakers, cafes and wine bars.

These last predominate.  Without being showy, they appear as you pass by, tempting you to retrace a step or two, to pry in, to accept the cheer of a glass of ribolla gialla, or verduzzo friulano, a schioppetino or a picolit.  There are 2,300 hectares of vineyards in the DOC zone of the Colli Orientali del Friuli, and Cividale is the capital.  Some of these osterie are also restaurants, where you can stop at a single glass or pass the whole evening.  In the Antica Trattoria Dominissini I take a glass of merlot for €1.50 and am given a delicious piece of bread and lard to go with it; the chalk board says: Oggi Tagliolini con Funghi Porcini - very tempting.  The bar Tipico bills itself as a Vineria - Stuzzicheria  and I take a glass of refosco for €1 with a tiny cheese and rocket sandwich included.

In gustobase, which is an enoteca con cucina, Enrico tells us how business is slow, and how these days it is not enough to own property and let it out.  He was a diving instructor in the Maldives, but has returned to his home town to run this business.  Times are slow, and quite difficult, however, and on this dull Monday evening we are his only customers for a while.  He is enthusiastic, and he sings the praises of the wines of Damijan Podversic, whose Bianco Kaplja is a revelation.  This is 40% chardonnay, 30% friulano and 30% malvasia istriana.  Damijan makes it like a red wine, with the skins in the must in oak casks for two to three months.  It is then aged in barrels for two years and then allowed to stand in the bottle for six months.  A light sediment may cloud the wine a little, but it is genuinely beautiful.


Perhaps with a sense of penitence, we drift to the Cathedral, an austere fifteenth century building with a baroque bell tower.

Inside the Madonna looks after her child, her eyes half shut under the weight of the ornate headdress and crown she wears.  She is perhaps tired.  The fuss over her little one too much, though he looks well and feisty with his curly brown hair.

On the wall hangs a crucifix, again elaborately crowned, the twisted figure seeming surprisingly fragile against the enormity of the cross.  His vulnerability contrasts with his dependence in the other piece.  The story unfolds, again and again, and in this great space we are reminded.

Outside it is now dark and a cough echoes in a cobbled street.  From a bar I hear the strains of Ligabue singing Sogni di Rock and Roll, played as a tribute to Lou Reed.  Here it is as though history has accumulated and slowed down.  Almost crashed.   Paolo Diacono stands on his plinth near the Café Longobardo, with no more to do.  The stories have come full circle.  The people go about their business, appreciating life and the fruits of the seasons. 

We finish the evening, in the Ristorante al Monastero, with Cjalcions del monastero, hand made pasta parcels stuffed with ricotta and spinach, but sprinkled with pine nuts and sultanas. We take it slowly.  Oh, and we take a glass of refosco...... 


In the morning we breakfast in the bar in the Town Hall.  The lone figure of Julius Caesar stands before us, as if waiting for a bus.....  I ask the quickest way to the station, but he shakes his head.  "Don't ask me," he says sadly.  "I'm a stranger here myself....."

Waiting for the No 301