Venice II: Mask Culture

 Posted by on March 15, 2012  Italy  8 Responses »
Mar 152012
 

Often in class I’m lecturing on some aspect of the Renaissance, of Rome, of Florence, and find myself needing to end a sentence with, “…well, except Venice, but Venice was weird.”

Venice is weird.  Very weird.  More weird than you think it is, and hopefully a taste of Venetian mask culture will make my point.  This is far from a comprehensive treatment, just a little review of tidbits I’ve picked up from the odd lecture here and there, and from visiting many, many mask shops.

Three types of masks roam wild in the shops (and, during Carnival on the streets) in Venice: Festival Masks, everyday masks, and Commedia dell’Arte masks.

Everyday Masks:

Two wise Carnival goers in decorated Bauta, the most comfortable full-face concealing mask.

Yes, there are such things, or rather there were.  Venice was an island capital, ruling a small land empire centered around its lagoon, plus a vast and far-flung naval empire stretching into the distant East.  It ruled numerous coastal cities and fortresses in Greece and the Middle East, and had constant dealings with exotic peoples that gave it great wealth, valuable trade secrets, and made it an object of envy and suspicion from the rest of Christendom.  Its status at the great central port of the Mediterranean made it a center of everything that had a center: trade, commerce, printing, philosophy, literature, fashion, languages, slavery, silk, paper, heresy, plague, prostitution, perfumes, theater, crime, and especially of exiles, as those who made the rest of the world too hot to hold them ran to the impregnable cosmopolitan island where so many strange peoples mixed refugee statesmen and poets and heretics and deposed kings and fallen tyrants could all hide safe from powerful but landlocked enemies.  Even the Medici traditionally picked Venice for their home-in-exile.

Venice was thus a nest of wealth, sin, crime, disease (so much disease!) and, above all, secrets.  Trade secrets were the most substantial, Venice’s glass trade in particular.  On the island of Murano, carefully segregated so the fires, an inevitability in pre-modern glass works, which periodically consumed the little island could not touch the city’s heart, the Venetians developed numerous new techniques which allowed them alone to produce very expensive marvels.  A famous example was their ability to create clear glass, using special quartz pebbles and imported soda ash, in an era when all rivals produced something yellow, brown or green.  They also kept innovating, so that every few generations, when outsiders did manage to smuggle out a secret, they gave up the old trade for a new miracle that only Venice could perform.  At many far-flung palaces in Sicily, in Spain, in the East, potentates prided themselves on local art, local produce, showcasing their nations’ glory, but still ordered the glass from Venice.

How does this relate to masks?  Venice was protective of its secrets, and passed severe laws to prevent their leakage.  Glass workers were strictly banned from communication with just about any outsider, and the Venetian nobility as well were for a long time legally forbidden to ever speak to a foreigner.  This is a sensible precaution, except when one has to, say, run a government, or participate in trade, or anything nobles actually do.  So, the custom developed that nobles would wear masks, and interact with foreigners in an official incognito, even though everyone knew they were nobles.  In fact, so codified was this rule, that I went to a talk on a 17th century case of a man who was very severely punished (imprisoned underground, i.e. in a watery pit!) for using a mask to dupe others into thinking he was a noble while cheating at gambling.  Venice was not amused.

Nobles did not have a monopoly on masks, they merely used them in a signature way.  Others used them in many aspects of Venetian life, for example prostitution.  For example, at one point the Patriarch (i.e. Cardinal) of Venice was concerned for Venice’s morals because the male prostitutes were pulling more business than the female.  An ordinance was passed permitting female prostitutes to display themselves nude in the windows of their establishments, to entice customers and encourage general heterosexuality.  The male prostitutes retaliated by appearing nude in the windows of their establishments wearing masks.  Anything one does while wearing a mask is legally “play” so unless it’s a severe crime (like defacing a Madonna) it isn’t prosecuted.

The everyday masks consist of the Bauta and the Muta (Moretta).

The Bauta is an incredibly comfortable and practical full-face mask, of which the upper part fits tight against the forehead, while the lower part is a triangular beak extending several inches forward.  This shape makes it easy to breath and speak, and not too difficult to eat and drink, without removing the mask.  The top is not rounded to go up to the hairline, but cut off horizontally in the middle of the forehead, to enable it to be worn with a hat.  The tricorn is the traditional companion, and combined with a black hood and long cloak, it makes the wearer into an amorphous, beaked cone.

If one wears any other kind of mask for a while (other than a simple half-mask or domino) one rapidly discovers why the Bauta is the shape it is, and that it really is a mask designed to be practical, concealing the face with minimal inconvenience. Originally the Bauta was leather, but later paper took over.  It was usually white, and often worn with a long black cloak, black hat, and a black hood, making for a very dramatic starkness.  It is the men’s mask.

The lady’s mask (brace yourselves, feminists) is the Moretta, or Muta, or “mute.”  It is a small oval-shaped mask which covers only the center of the face, leaving about an inch of skin visible all the way around.  It has round eye holes but no nostril holes and no mouth hole, and fits tightly to the face.

The curve of the mask largely conceals the shape of the nose, leaving a sense of complete blankness.  The effect of the completely formless, inhuman hole in the middle of the face, with nothing but the staring eyes, is distinctly eerie to behold.

I have no photos of women in muta because no one wears them. I do own one but haven’t photographed myself in it – too creepy.

A true Muta also has no straps.  Instead, a small button is sewn on the inside of the mask just where the lips are, and the wearer holds the mask on by gripping the button between her teeth.  This renders the wearer unable to speak, which, of course, a lady does not need to do.  (Grrrrr)  So prevalent was the Muta that, in parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, if a lady dressed in the finery of the upper classes went out without one, it was considered a declaration that she was a courtesan.  (Because our society still has issues, if you google image search “muta moretta” the first three hits at present are a woman in a muta doing dishes in a modern kitchen in her underwear.)

If shopping for masks in Venice, the Bauta is one of the most practical, usable masks one can choose, and is also easy to find in its authentic white or in a variety of fabulous decorated forms.  The Muta is also not hard to find, though most of the modern ones do have straps.  A well-made, well-sized Muta is guaranteed to creep people out, though if you are petite you may have trouble finding one that’s small enough, becuase it really needs to leave that inch of visible skin all around it or it doesn’t give off the same feeling of utter negation and inhumanity.

Festival Masks

Feathers and gold are just for special occasions.

Festival masks include all the spectacular, elaborate, idiosyncratic constructions of gold and feathers and flowers and animal faces and decoupage that fill the shops and stalls of Venice, and leak out into other tourist centers like Florence and Rome.  Such masks are art objects, eye-candy with little-to-no historicity to them.  Elaborate showpiece masks were indeed created for the pageants at carnivals, and worn at masked balls, but they were never more than costume pieces, and the truly elaborate ones made today of metallic lacework or covered with sparkling crystals are pure invention.  The charming animal masks, I’m sad to say, also have few historical precedents, except that the carnival floats did involve allegorical creatures of every sort you can imagine.

These masks are, when made the traditional way, papier-mâché, made from a special, very strong blue-gray paper which is layered in a plaster mold and held together with a mixture of water and a clear-drying white glue identical to Elmer’s.  (No flour is involved, unlike with elementary-school newspaper papier-mâché).  An original form for the mask is first made in re-usable oil-based modeling clay.  The clay form is covered with plaster to create the mold.  Then thousands of paper masks can be made from the mold.

Blue-gray paper drying inside a plastic mold. In a few hours it will be ready to have the rough edges trimmed off, then to be painted white and decorated.

Because the mold is the negative form, and the paper goes inside it, the first layer of paper you put down is the outer surface of the mask, and finer paper is used to make it smooth.  This technique means that every subtle texture and wrinkle that was on the clay transfers via the plaster to the paper, so you can create masks with very elaborate three-dimensional modeling, for example fine creases in the forehead and cheeks, quite easily, and reproduce the details with perfection every time.  Once complete, the masks are decorated with paint, decoupage and other items, and (when done properly) glazed with the same clear-drying white glue that formed them.  The result is reasonably sturdy so long as no strong pressures are put on it, and the plastic coating generated by the dried glue keeps it safe from small amounts of water, ink, food etc., making for a fairly sturdy product.

Blank masks, ready to become anything. The grotesque ones in the lower part are Commedia dell’Arte character masks.

A large portion of the masks currently for sale are made, not from paper, but from less sturdy mass-produced plastic.  These tend to be cheaper, but also break more easily, and when they do break they break completely, where the paper ones just get a bit bent and develop a fissure in the paint instead of cracking entirely.  The plastic ones also tend to be mass-decorated and less creative, but many of them are still beautiful.  It is also possible to buy blank masks, in both plastic and paper, to take home and decorate – I rarely manage to leave with fewer than 10 blank masks.

As for the cost of masks, on my last visit I observed the following prices:

  • Small, blank paint-it-yourself plastic mask, €2-€7
  • Small real paper paint-it-yourself blank mask (including Bauta) €8-20
  • Small, cheaply-decorated plastic mask (including Bauta) €12-25
  • More substantial and exciting paint-it-yourself blank mask (like a dragon or a lion) €25-35
  • Small, nicely hand decorated real paper mask €20-35
  • Large, more elaborate nicely decorated paper mask (including Bauta) €35-40
  • Wearable half-mask with feathers or fabric or veils or some such €45-60+
  • Large, very elaborate masks: €60 right up into the €200 range
  • Cheap quality real leather masks €30+
  • Authentic top quality real leather masks including stage-quality Commedia masks €150+

Commedia dell’Arte

The finest, most difficult to find, often the most expensive, and always the ugliest masks, are those of the Italian Comedy, or Commedia dell’Arte.  Most famous and popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, it is a great grandchild of Roman comedy, but because so much of the Middle Ages was illiterate, and so little low culture was recorded, we have little knowledge of the two generations in between.

The plays of the Commedia dell’Arte involve a set of stock characters who appear over and over in different scenarios.  Each character has a characteristic costume and signature mask, though individual mask designs can vary within set parameters (one wart or three, curly mustache or bushy mustache) etc.  They are all silly, distorted and exaggerated, and, from an artistic sense, ugly.  This is because the figures are caricature parodies, intended to exaggerate character types the Renaissance and Enlightenment found funny.

A real Harlequin mask.

Many of the characters of the Commedia are famous and familiar, especially Harlequin, but most people familiar with Harlequin still don’t recognize a Harlequin mask if they see one, because the famous diamond pattern we associate with Harlequin is on the clothing, not the mask.  A Harlequin mask is black and pug-nosed with at least one large wart and sometimes a goofy mustache.

Paper Commedia masks abound in Venice and are by far the most economical choice when one wants to collect them all, but the masks that were (and are) used on stage are leather, not paper, and it is still possible to find leather masks in Venice, and elsewhere.  These masks are flexible and much more durable and comfortable.  They are also much more difficult to make, and consequently expensive.  Not only is leather a more expensive material than paper, but the process is more labor-intensive and requires more skill.

Leather mask molds, made of carved wood.

This is largely because the mold is backwards.  In making a paper mask, the mold is negative, and the soft paper goes inside.  In a leather mask the wooden mold is positive, and the leather is stretched over the outside.  This means that for the paper, fine details can be sculpted into the original and included in the mold, so every crease and wrinkle comes across perfectly in every paper copy.  With the leather masks, the outer surface of the leather is smooth, so fine details like wrinkles have to be tooled in by hand on every individual mask, making each product more unique, but also requiring a much more practiced hand.

For this reason there is an enormous difference between low- and high-quality  leather masks, in price and in detail.  Low quality leather masks, which are generally still quite awesome, usually lack any three-dimensional surface details, since they were made by simply stretching the leather over a mold without further tooling.  They also tend to have a rougher, more organic texture.  It is possible to find nice leather masks of this type for as little as thirty or forty euros.  On the other hand, the stage-quality, fully tooled ones are extremely smooth and shiny, and tend to start at 150 euros and go up and up and up.

A lower quality molded leather Pantalone mask (Pantalone = old Venetian merchant character)  Its roughness has a fun, crude feel that reminds me of orcs.

Top quality tooled leather Pantalone, with sheepskin eyebrows and a nice wart. To be worn with pointed white fake beard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just set side-by-side a leather stage-quality Commedia mask is generally much less beautiful than  carnival masks which cost less than half as much, but to me it’s worth it. The big difference comes when you put one on.

These beauties don’t need a human face behind them to look fantastic.

Donning a beautiful mask makes you look awesome and somewhat mysterious and exotic, but the masks themselves are independent art, and often look just as fantastic on the shelf or wall as on a person.  A Commedia mask, though, comes to life when it’s on a human face, and suddenly a strange, lively new creature is standing in the room.  I’ve never seen anything quite like the burst of delight that hits a friend’s face when she watches another friend pop on a Pulcinella or a Pantalone, or the absolute transformation of body language of the wearer as he sees himself in the mirror and feels like someone else.  It isn’t putting on a mask, it’s putting on a person, and the exaggerated eyebrows and ridiculous noses have been perfected over centuries to create a delightful, entertaining new life-form, the creature of the Comedy.  At home, where my many, many, too many Venetian masks range across the shelves, it’s the Carnival masks that always make first-time visitors ooh and aah, but when the moment comes to try one on I always reach first for the Commedia.

As for the characters themselves, I’ll review them in another post.

Meanwhile a quick survey:

I’m taking a jaunt to the US this month, and want to bring back some fun goodies for my Italian friends.  What non-perishable, portable, only-available-in-America food can you think of which would be a good present to bring back?  Just don’t say Twinkies – they’re so (in)famous I’ve already had a request!

Mar 022012
 

What is Venice’s carnival actually like?

Venice’s modern carnival is not a traditional folk and fertility festival.  It does not have mummers and green men and pitchforks and man-women and ceremonial uses of straw and swords and alcohol (for that see a friend’s excellent post on a Basque Carnival).  It is also not what it was in the Renaissance, an elaborate civic celebration-reversal, at which the rules of propriety were (witin limits) reversed, as the city displayed its wealth with gilded ships and gem-covered costumes, and paid vast sums to prominent artists to produce elaborate parade floats covered with mechanical universes and moving golden lions and actors dressed as confusing allegories.

What it is now is a very grand tourist attraction at which an already overwhelmingly beautiful and alien city is suddenly populated by fantastical creatures and time travelers in elegant finery and three-cornered hats.

A Fountain by the Doge’s Palace flows with wine. Really.

In Saint Mark’s square a not-very-well-engineered stage hosts mediocre entertainments, from ad hoc costume contests to poorly-microphoned musical acts.  Behind the closed doors of expensive palaces-turned-hotel-restaurant-theater, people pay $200+ a head to attend grand pseudo-period fantasy banquets and masked balls. Venice’s year-round delights also remain: the gold mosaic Basilica of San Marco, the Doge’s palace, unique and world-class museums and galleries.  All this is wonderful but unnecessary.  As I promised the friends who joined me for Carnival this year (and as they can now cheerfully confirm) one does not need any activities or entertainments of any kind to have a blast at Carnival.  One simply has to do one thing: get lost.

Even without its Carnival-only costumed population, Venice is eerily beautiful, and distant-feeling even when you’re there.  If reaching Florence feels like stepping into a cross-section of the past, our ancestors’ world, not ours, Venice feels like a cross-section of the past of a different species.  Everything is too delicate, ornamented with too many curves, too-elaborate windows, too colorful stonework, every surface a faerie facade.  Many of the palaces (there are no non-palaces in Venice) are pink, even the blown glass street lamps pink, but you don’t even notice that it’s pink because the color itself doesn’t register as much as the fact that everything is just a hair more beautiful, calculated for ornament rather than defense or practicality.  Where are the battlements?  Where the ditches?  Where the triangles of struggling grass between ill-laid streets?  This is not a real city, it’s some kind of theater set, all ornament with all the practical parts left out.


A main street in Venice.

Venice is also a maze of twisty passages all unique, and the most difficult city to navigate that I have ever found.  It isn’t just that it lacks a grid system, but that it lacks any main streets whatsoever and consists entirely of meandering alleys.  After all, the main streets are canals, so you can’t walk on them – imagine navigating any other town without being allowed to ever go on any large street.  In addition, no angle is 90°, no street is straight, no two points are connected by any kind of line, and a quarter of the streets are tunnels leading under palaces which have grown to cover them like a forest canopy uniting over an abandoned campsite.  The streets are also incredibly narrow, so one can’t look up at an angle and see that a particular tower or landmark is That Way therefore That Way is East.  The lack of 90° angles makes it very easy to get gradually turned around, and even people very good at navigating frequently end up thinking North is East and East South as a series of turns which seem to be heading consistently in one direction meander in another.  Hence my summary: in Venice one is either (A) in Saint Mark’s Square, (B) on the Rialto bridge, or (C) lost.

Standing on Rialto bridge, therefore not lost.

 

It is, in fact, possible to navigate in Venice, but it requires a huge amount of concentration and constant map checking, so unless one has an appointment, why bother?  Everything is equally beautiful.  It’s an island; it’s not as if you can accidentally fall off the edge and wind up in Padua.  Wherever you go there will be amazing palaces, intriguing mask shops, overpriced pizza, zillions and zillions of winged lions (Saint Mark, the symbol of the city) and you may as well turn left as right at any given point.  It’s like the genius of Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland, where joyful parents can sit down while kids run wild and wear themselves out on the self-contained plastic island which it is impossible for an unaccompanied child to escape.  While on this island, everything is fine.  The city is filled, furthermore, with signs pointing to either San Marco or the Rialto, so, wherever you are, you can find one of these two points and, from it, take the water shuttle to where you need to be.  In fact, I highly recommend finding a hotel as close as possible to Saint Mark’s square (here is my preferred), since then magically Venice is filled with signs directing you home.  Often, of course, a square will have two signs pointing to San Marco in completely different directions; both are correct, because there is no straight line, not in Venice.

Time flies incredibly when one is wandering from alley to alley through an alien wonderland, and no further planned activity is necessary.  Venice cycles through many repeated shops, selling the same mass-produced tourist items which are still worth getting, for the most part, since they’re really nice mass-produced tourist items: velvet pouches and purses, masks, lace, beautiful glass work, masks, silk and satin draperies, masks, art prints, masks, beads, masks, and also masks.  During Carnival masks appear even in the shops that don’t sell masks, and every restaurant and hotel hangs up a few of these mandatory proofs that one is not a stick-in-the-mud.  Between these and the costumes, the days vanish, an afternoon seeming an hour, as one wanders and wanders and simply wanders.  When footsore, one hops on the water bus and rides around the city circumference or along the grand canal, where the most elaborate palace facades face, since, after all, water, not land, is the intended approach to these grand houses.

It is worth mentioning that on the last weekend there is usually something quite spectacular in Saint Mark’s Square (a fire show when I went, with dancers with flaming spears, and a huge dragon puppet that they set on fire) but apart from that, none of the public entertainments are generally as exciting as the city itself.

A flaming cyclops at the Carnival finale.

 

There are four categories of costumes seen on the streets at Venice’s contemporary carnival.

The first are extremely elaborate, colorful fantasy pieces with full-face masks in bold, overwhelming colors and luxurious fabrics, many period but some modern, designed to create the most visually striking thing a human being can still arguably stand up in.  Some are home-made, many rented.  Most commonly one sees couples, pairs, one male one female, intended to be worn together, but sometimes solos and sometimes larger groups.  Such costumes completely restrict one’s ability to do anything, including eat, talk, see more than a tunnel in front of you, and also doom you to the mercy of temperature, and walking too becomes a challenge.  For this reason, these costumes cluster around San Marco square, where they stand to be seen and photographed, and one can spend happy hours in the square going from group to group and enjoying the ingenious whimsy of the tailor’s art.

 

Not all the costumes are designed to look or feel period.  Modern fabrics, contemporary neon colors, and modern themes are worked in.  Some of the more ambitious modern designs move farther and farther from the notion of “Garment”:

The average alley in Venice is about 4 feet wide.  This person will be here all day.

The second category are period pieces, inspired not by the wholly fantastic costumes of those who rode the parade floats in the Renaissance, but by the spectators:

The Eighteenth Century: when pink was still a manly color.

These costumes tend to imitate the period of the peak of the carnival’s opulence and fame, which was not, in fact, in the Renaissance proper, but in the Eighteenth Century, so the costumes one sees are mainly Eighteenth Century.  This means for gentlemen long waistcoats, lacy cuffs and cravats or jabots, tricorne hats, coats with vast pleated tails, richly worked brocades, white powdered wigs, heavy walking sticks, and the kind of leather shoes with buckles or bows that one associates in US culture with the founding fathers.  For ladies, the brocades are even more richly worked, the sleeves usually elbow-length with lace dripping to the wrists, the bodices taut and square with the lacing hidden, the skirts wide, not with circular hoops but with panniers which extend the skirts far out to each side (trivia of the moment, the word derives from baskets hung on either side of a donkey), and the wigs tall with clusters of bizarre objects like feathers and scarves and gems and seashells and toy boats woven into them in what should look like birds’ nests but do manage to register to the mind as hats.  Such costumes are worn sometimes with beautiful but practical half-masks, and sometimes without.

 

Venice: where ladies in hoop skirts go to take pictures of ladies in hoop skirts.

 

Third come irregular historical and whimsical pieces.  Someone always dresses as the Doge.  Other historical figures like Dante or Galileo may crop up.  Some adopt characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, so Pulcinella, Harlequin, others generic 13th or 14th or 15th or 16th or 17th or 19th Century dress.  Into this category then creep more marginal costumes: women in leather bodices and not much else, girls in Renn Fest gear, the odd Naruto or other anime creature, and young people with pink hair and neon green tail coats with sparkly skulls embroidered on them and platform shoes that light up.  Why not?

Only the Doge can have the Doge Hat. It’s the Best Hat.

Tolkein’s Elves put in an appearance.

 

Dramatically posing gothic silver crystal scale bird plague thing?

And last, there are little kids in the kind of cheap costumes as clowns or faeries or witches or batman that one buys mass-produced, just like at Halloween.

By my estimate 15% of the Carnival attendees are in costume.  Another 20% are just in masks, which they buy mostly on arrival to get into the spirit of the thing, and a further 15% succumb to the desire for costume enough to buy a cloak and/or hat to wear over coat and jeans.  Of those in fancy costume almost all are foreigners, mainly anglophone.  Of those just in masks, 50% may be Italian.  Keep in mind that Venice’s tourist population outnumbers its native population at least 3:1 at all times, moreso at Carnival, and that its separate population of resident foreign college students, also substantially anglophone, also outnumbers the native population not quite 2:1, making Venetians less than 20% of the people on the streets.  In fact, there are only 20,000 Venetians and something well over 100,000 outsiders at any given time, and most of the Venetians, for real estate price reasons, have retreated to living on the shore anyway.  A hotel or shop simply makes so much money that it is very difficult to turn that down in favor of a residence.  It is for this reason that it’s not rare to find someone who both identifies as Venetian and grew up in Padua.

Venice at Carnival is also incredibly crowded.  This year I went in the middle of a deadly cold snap, and it was simply very crowded.  In good weather it is so crowded that one can barely walk through the streets.  At one point I literally encountered deadlocked foot traffic, an intersection at which so many people were shoving in from all 4 directions that it became physically jammed with bodies and was impossible to move, and the poor people in the center were literally trapped and unable to escape – after fully 30 minutes of shoving I gave up and went back the way I came.

The question of whether one wants to go to Venice for Carnival thus comes down to how fun one thinks it is to see the city populated with fantastic creatures in among the masses.  Venice is always beautiful, the canals always serene, the sunsets always stunning, the mask shops always open, a simple ride around and around on the water bus always perfect.  During Carnival prices go up, hotels fill, restaurants run out of tables, streets are crammed with people, attendants outside monuments get more fed-up and rude, but in the streets one catches little dream-like glimpses Doges, and Counts and dramatic cloaked figures, and mysterious masked ladies, and fantastic creatures from the historic other-race that instinct tells you built this miracle city.  For me, it’s a fair trade.

Read more about Venice’s Mask Culture.

Dec 242011
 

‘Tis the season for a review of the vague saintly origins of the modern Hallmark Christmas:

Saint Nicholas of Bari (or of Myra; San Nicola, 270-343 AD)

  • Common attributes: Bishop (with robes, hat, miter), holding 3 golden balls, or 3 coins, or 3 bags of gold
  • Occasional attributes: Accompanied by ship, accompanied by barrel containing three kids
  • Patron saint of: Sailors, ships, merchants, fishermen, children, also pharmacists & a few other things
  • Patron of places: Myra (Turkey), Bari (Italy)
  • Feast days: May 9th, December 6th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, on the coast near ships, sneaking in a window
  • Relics: Bari (Italy), Basilica di San Nicola

Saint Nicholas was a 3rd to 4th century bishop saint, Greek by birth and active in the Middle East.  He was of a wealthy family but orphaned and raised by an uncle.  He came to the priesthood comfortably (no towers or evil parents or prostitutes or lightning) and progressed to bishop status in good time.  Nicholas is remarkable for the large number of miracles he is supposed to have worked during his lifetime, and for that reason is a very popular saint to pray to, since he is obviously willing to use the powers all saints have.  He saved ships from storms, multiplied grain to save towns from famine, and resurrected three kids.

Nicholas’ most famous story involves, not a miracle, but generosity.  It has several variants, but all revolve around a poor man in the town who had three daughters but did not have enough money to give them dowries so they could marry.  Nicholas stealthily provided the money, which is most commonly said to have been three bags of gold coins, but it varies.  He did it on three successive visits (either three days or three years), each time tossing the money secretly into the house so the father never knew his benefactor.  On the last visit (predictable due to the regularity of the first two), the father lay in wait, hoping to spot and thank his mysterious benefactor.  The ending varies, but in one popular version Nicholas, realizing the man was watching the window, climbed across the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney.  Some versions add the detail that one of the daughters had left her stockings hung up to dry by the hearth, and the money fell into one.  He is also supposed to have given other charitable gifts, including leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

Saint Nicholas multiplies grain, so sailors can give some to end a famine and still have enough to deliver.

In 1071, when the area where Nicholas was buried fell into non-Christian hands, the relics were removed to the Italian town of Bari, sparking his large Italian cult.  Some Venetians claimed to have a big chunk, spawning another major church to him in Venice (where a patron of sailors was very popular) but scientists and their x-rays have confirmed that the remains at Bari are mostly intact.  Nicholas’ relics excrete a rose-scented liquid substance, referred to as myrrh, which has healing properties, much like the substance produced by the remains of Catherine of Alexandria.

Bishop saints are tricky to identify in art.  They’re easy to tell from other saints, with their curved shephard’s-crook-shaped miters, their pointy, triangular bishop hats (not to be confused with the cone-shaped pope hats with three crowns on them), and their fancy robes, with a cloak with elaborate trim closed by a broach at the breast, and, frequently, gloves with gems on the back of the hand.  Yet they can be very difficult to tell one from another, because their attributes are often unclear, or omitted.

How can we be expected to tell them apart if they have no identifying attributes?  Often the original context of the painting would make it clear, since it would be commissioned by or for devotees of a particular bishop saint, or in a city where a specific one was most popular.  But since pieces are so often in museums now, sometimes all one can do is guess.  Nicholas was one of the most popular bishop saints, along with Augustine and, in Florence, Zenobius, so in general Nicholas is a safe guess.  When in doubt, the artist sometimes provides separate scenes as hints.  Sometimes these are painted on separate panels below or above the main painting, showing a recognizable scene from the saint’s life.  With bishop saints, sometimes scenes from their lives are embroidered on their robes, though this can be deceptive, since I’ve seen Saint Augustine with scenes from the life of Saint Stephen on his robe.

As for Nicholas specifically in art, three golden balls or golden coins or bags of gold are the clearest sign, or a bishop accompanied by ships or standing near the sea.  Beyond that, though, Nicholas is a decent generic guess if you don’t have a better clue for your unidentified bishop.

La Befana, the Epiphany Witch (not a saint, but…)

  • Common attributes: Pointy hat, dark shawl, rough dress, old, long nose with warts, scraggly gray hair, spectacles
  • Most often depicted: Flying through the air on a broomstick with a sack of toys

Since Saint Nicholas is not, in fact, a jolly, red-clad toymaker equipped with flying reindeer, someone else has to bring presents to the kids in Italy.  This office falls to La Befana the Christmas Witch, or more accurately the Epiphany Witch, who flies on her broomstick with her sack of toys bringing presents to all the children on Epiphany Eve (Jan 5th).  She looks like a witch in every classic sense, so Christmas fairs in Italy are packed with witches and Christmas decorations often look more like Halloween than Christmas to American eyes.

If you ask Wikipedia about La Befana it will tell you various origin myths.  She was hostess to the Three Wise Men on their way to the Nativity; she regretted not following them and is still looking for the Christ Child so visits all children; she had a child which died so Christ let her be Mom to every kid in Italy; she’s the Sabine goddess Strina.

La Befana ornaments crowd for space at a stall in Piazza Navona, Rome.

If you ask an Italian, in my experience you don’t get any of that.  La Befana is a part of the holiday tradition, unquestioned as Santa in areas where he’s the gift giver, so just as most of those in the Santa region can’t tell you much about Nicholas of Bari, Italians are content with the witch they’ve known since childhood and don’t seem to wonder much.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have to say, though, Italian kids have more excuse to freak out at shopping malls when parents set them in the lap of someone costumed as the Christmas gift-giver.  A witch!  Why are my parents handing me to a witch?

La Befana is also subject to the same bizarre cultural distortions as Santa:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this year, if you’re the tree-trimming type, get out your broomsticks and pointy hats and have a nice witch-filled Italian Holiday!

 

 

And now, Spot the Saint Quiz Time:

(Click for more detail.  If your eyes are sharp, you should be able to identify a few of the tiny figures on the sides as well as the main ones.  Scroll down for a detailed view of the left-hand main figures.)

A little more detail on the left-hand side:

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

Oct 162011
 

I am comforted by the fact that the official website doesn't have good photos either.

I mentioned a few weeks ago a busy week including a Joust.  The Joust in question was the Giostra della Stella (Joust of the Star), is held in Bagno a Ripoli, formerly its own town, now legally a Florentine suburb.  When it was annexed (20th century) in order to maintain civic identity it started having a reconstructed joust every autumn.  This is not a tourist event–indeed it is hard to reach by any means, and nearly 100% of the audience were locals–but a civic pride event, and competition.

The town of Bagno a Ripoli is divided into four historic quarters, the quarters of the Mill, the Horse, the Tower and the Standard-Bearer, each with its own crest and coat of arms, and horseman.  The four competitors, professionals brought in from out of town, joust for the honor of the four quarters, to loud and enthusiasm from the spectators.  Shields and pennants bearing the quarters’ arms decorate the field and street, and the townsfolk dress in t-shirts and colors to designate their sides.

The Team of the Horse gets my "biggest flag" award

The joust is held at night, in the dark, hence the lack of good photos.  One reason for the darkness is the temperature and blazing sun, but the other is that the afternoon is reserved for a different contest: an old-fashioned sports day competition between the quarters’ teams.

This I do have photos of, as the warring quarters compete at tug-of-war, sack races, a race with an egg balanced on a spoon, and, on the nearby roadside, running while pushing a wooden hoop along with a stick, and running while pushing a partner on a wooden cart.  The tug-of-war was by far the most dramatic competition, with much preparation and debate and measuring to the inch where each starting foot is placed, while each actual competition lasted only a few seconds before one side fell, grumbling, in the dust.

The Tower team, best use of cardboard

The Mill team, content after the cart race

 

Junior flag-tossers enter the field
I wish we did this in MY middle school

 

The flag tossers were also extraordinary, with an exhibition by the junior trainee flag tossing team, and a stunning performance by the adult team with double flags, one in each hand, which were tossed and spun in mesmerizing close-quarters patterns and tossed from person to person in complex, interwoven dances.

 

One participant enjoys a panino before the procession

I have no decent photos of the joust itself because this is a night joust, held by electric light in a charming field well after dinner, so crowds can enjoy the late summer outdoors without baking in the sun.  I can only describe, therefore, the stunning costume pageant which precedes it, in which at least a hundred participants in perfect sixteenth century costume parade along the street to take their seats in the reserved stands.  The thoroughness and variety of the costuming puts most Florentine pageants to shame.  Musicians in the town livery began the parade, and the town militia, and the Podesta of the town with his ministers following behind the city standard.  Monks and an abbot joined them, touch-bearers, peasants with baskets of harvest foods, and a portable maypole which skilled children circled even as they processed.  There were noble representatives of specific grand houses of Florence and its allies too, each group including lord, lady, clients, servants, even children in tiny doublets or toddlers’ bodices, all led by a standard bearer with the family crest, so a sharp eye might pick out a Strozzi and a Medici among the crowd.  The detail was exquisite, from the strings of pearls woven through the ladies’ hair to the heavy texture of the gentlemen’s trailing sleeves. Many of the lords’ and ladies’ costumes were recreations from specific portraits, and even the gems embroidered onto layered pleats were executed to perfection.  To perfect the display of civic pride, the part of the Podesta, in his long velvet, was played by the actual top official of the town, and several other leading magistrates participated as his entourage.

One of my less bad photos; here you can see the maypole, and the monks

The Joust itself was a style I had never managed to see before myself.  I am, of course, serious about watching jousts, both from attending numerous Renn Fests and from calling Maryland home, whose state sport is still jousting (though in 2004, despite the noble efforts of many, this noble remnant of grander days was perniciously adulterated by the election of lacrosse as the state “team sport”).  I may not be so elite a jousting snob as I am a gelato snob, but I am picky, and this was excellent.

The primary banners that follow the Podesta into the grand arena are those of the city of Bagno a Ripoli, of the allied City of Florence, and of the Guelph party

The “star joust” uses small, light horses, trained for speed, who race full tilt around a small looped race course while the rider attempts to capture a metal star with a hole in the center using–not a lance–but a sword.  The rider must make two loops in 30 seconds, making one attempt at a star each time, receiving points for each star captured, and in case of a tie in points, speed is the tie-breaker.  Three rounds of increasing difficulty are held, using stars with smaller and smaller center holes, and the later stars give more points.  So trained for speed are these slim horses that, unlike the heavy, docile animals used at American fairgrounds, these were spirited to the point of disobedience, balking from unfamiliar objects, bursting into short jolts of speed without instruction, and one knight needed five attempts to get the beast to take him close enough to his lady to receive her favor.

The display of athleticism, on the part of horse and rider, was gorgeous, and in the electric light the smooth backs and haunches of the horses rippled and shimmered like silk, especially on the pale gray one that looked like polished pewter.  One could see through the thin fur and taut skin the motion of the muscles, and, since the horses went one-by-one, the gallop was all startlingly quiet, not the thunder of hooves one generally hears with many horses racing, but a light percussion, barely audible except when the horse passed close.

The crowd during the athletic festival - very vocal, very local

Equally fascinating was the cheering, or rather the booing, of the crowd.  The math will tell you why.  In a town divided into four quarters with one rider representing each, three quarters of the audience are disappointed whenever one rider does well.  Thus, the booing will always be as loud if not much louder than the cheering, and however much praise may rain down from sympathetic slopes, the capture of a star always solicits a general moan.  Given the usual adrenalizing effect cheers have on an athlete, I do wonder what chill a string of gasps and curses instills.  This was ever so much more true of the rider in red and white representing the quarter of the Standard-Bearer, because, (as a kindly old local rumormonger explained) due to one of those sorts of dramatic falling out incidents that often destroys a school club or bowling team, that quarter did not have a team in the earlier day’s athletic contests, and had no team spirit.  Thus, when that rider succeeded, everyone, the whole crowd, booed, or condescended to recognize his skill with a spattering of disjointed, grudging applause.  In fact, it was this lest popular horseman who triumphed that evening, to the general satisfaction of… me?  No one else?  The rider cast in that role was, in fact, the most experienced, and this was his eighth victory at this particular joust, though a different rider was riding the horse which (with a different man on his back) won last year.

Victory in the athletic contest is also announced at the finale of the joust. This year it was the Mill team. Motto: "We grind all year, and today we'll grind you!"

A true shadow, which very nearly thwarted the joust entirely, fell across the camp mid-way through, and incited a half hour of eerily legend-like suspense.  The sword broke.  Mid-way through, it got dinged or bent or something, and the announcer in his grand robes declared a halt.  Men in colorful livery scattered across the grounds checking equipment.  They didn’t have a spare.  There was only the one sword, and without it the jousters milled aimless in the courtyard, their horses becoming increasingly touchy and obstreperous as they milled the hedged waiting box.  It was at this point that it occurred to me that we were at a joust, and somebody lost the sword, and squires were off looking for one, and while Italy seemed an unlikely place for a boy to suddenly become King of England, this was still quite the circumstance.  In the end they turned to the costumed crowd, and asked all the gentlemen, the Medici, the Strozzi, the knights and guardsmen, to all bring their swords to the front so the officiators could select the one most physically similar to the lost official version.  Thus we confirm that it is vital for half the crowd to come to any joust in costume.  The sword replaced, the joust concluded with the victory of the very excellent knight-whom-no-one-liked, and fireworks.  And a long, awkward attempt to get a taxi home at midnight.

Oct 012011
 

Florence is full of activities and events as well as sights and sounds and people, and if there are sometimes long silences between my entries, it is the silence of activity. This week I haven’t even had time to download Doctor Who.

After describing the many festivals that flood the centro with activity, I went – in all innocence – to the market Saturday morning only to find my return blocked by a vast Noah’s arc built out of Chianti bottles drawn by pure white bulls and accompanied by the guild representatives, flag tossers, and girls in peasant wear handing out autumn fruit, all squarely between my fresh salmon steak and my refrigerator.  It was the festival to celebrate the new wine, since the earlier Chianti harvests had just finished their fermentation, producing the young, extra-fruity un-aged wine one only gets in October.  Sunday another 10 AM marching band (just one this time) roused me from snoozing.  What would it be this time?  Public banquet?  Patron saint?  A groggy descent revealed a wall of emerald green cotton and numbers, since a run for Cancer had flooded the city with literally thousands of Italians of all ages in matching t-shirts, who when I arrived were flooding in a great mass north toward the cathedral.  It was quite a fight getting out the front door.

My front door is the brown one in the section that's made of rough stone. It's the base of a medieval tower.

Now, 2,000 green-clad runners or no, opening my front door is generally a… I would say suspenseful act, but since I live at the top of a medieval tower, the descent of 111 steps takes so long that one falls into a kind of distracted hypnotic zen state half-way down, so even friends who visited have said that they, like me, tend to reach the bottom having completely forgotten why they were descending at all.  It’s an experience like waiting at a bus stop or going to the bathroom, when you know there is no other activity you can or should be doing, so the mind is free to flit from path to path until you’re mulling about a friend’s Christmas present or a book you read fifteen years ago, and your mind is still on that when you open the front door and–bam!–nun in your face!  That was four days ago, a lively old nun habbited in tan and gray (four points, +5 for driving a car; in my game you score different numbers of points for spotting nuns of different colors doing different things, and tan and gray is rare), there she was three feet from my face when I swung the door back.  There’s a front step outside the door, and there is always someone sitting on it eating a gelato or consulting a map, and this morning it was an old man chatting with a nun driving a station wagon who had pulled up so close that I had to slide sideways down the length of the car to gain my liberty.  Another day it might be a clutch of arguing Russians, or a lost Japanese art historian, or football fans giddily stripping the shrink wrap from their treasures purchased at the Florence football team merchandise shop right next door.

It is a rather different drama opening the door before 8:30 AM.  The early bus to the institute rouses me often now in the hours when Florence herself wake up.  Her morning face is altogether different.  Like the ancient Romans, the Florentines have the good sense to banish commercial traffic to off-hours, so every dawn a fleet of trucks and vans, compact and white for the most part, diffuses through the city to supply the many shops and restaurants.  The Disneyland crowds don’t rise until after nine, so in the slanting dawn light, as the last street-cleaning machines Zamboni their way across the cobbles, only a scattering of groggy early-bird tourists stand by churches or statues reading from fat guidebooks or clicking away with the elaborate, heavy cameras carried by those serious enough to set an alarm, even on vacation, in hopes of catching Florence without her crowds.  My front door is often blocked by a load of soda bottles, vegetable crates, or infinite bottled water.

The guilty delivery van at its stealthy work.

And bad gelato.

There you see it, unloaded box by heavy box, seeming to smoke as ice mist wafts from the freezer vans which deliver the unforgivable black underbelly of Florence’s cuisine.  I am very serious about gelato, my friends, as one should be about one of the great achievements of our civilization, so it is with no hyperbole that I call it sin when these places serve this artificial, plasticy sugar gook produced in vast vats in the hidden countryside and smuggled in at dawn to masquerade as one of Italy’s great art forms.  O tempora; o mores!

Bad gelato: artificial colors, all monotextured and monochromatic (the fruit has no speckles or peel)

Some places, true, do serve a decent delivery gelato, and in places like Venice one can do no better, but the difference between McDonald’s and a fine flame-roasted burger dribbling salt and savor is not more radical than between this bad gelato and the real produce of fruit and milk and human energy served at the places where they make it real, fresh, each day.  Bad gelato has its charm, much as lollypops or macaroni and cheese from a box are sometimes satisfying, but just as one doesn’t choose a lollypop over fresh black raspberries dipped in Godiva chocolate, when in somewhere serious like Florence Don’t Eat Bad Gelato!  Don’t Do It!  Look at it!  Sitting there in its slimy saccharine flatness like mediocre yogurt!  True gelato is the color of the real substance it’s made of, not its color-coded artificial form, and tastes, well, not like something flavored with a substance but like the substance itself, not strawberry flavor or banana flavor but an actual strawberry, an actual banana, but amplified and intensified, distilled past its natural perfection.

Spectacular as it is, this still only qualifies as mediocre gelato, made with a mix of fresh and artificial ingredients, and not created on site but still of superior quality

Sometimes, I confess, I break down and find myself calling out to people I see walking into bad gelato places.  “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but there’s a much better and much cheaper real gelato place on that corner right there!”  I try not to do it too often, but I can’t watch!  I just can’t watch.  Sometimes I hear it from people in the US, “You know, I went to Italy and the gelato there wasn’t any better than at XYZ place here in the states!”  I shudder every time.  It’s true, and if an Italian went to America and ate MacDonald’s he might report at home with honesty, “Their burgers aren’t any better than we have here.”  That is why I sigh watching the cold vans trundle past, and why I still say, after “Dov’è il bagno” (where is the bathroom) the most important phrase to know in Italian is “Cerco una gelateria buona, con gelato vero, fatto con ingredienti fresci, non artificiali.” (I’m looking for a good gelateria, with real gelato, made with fresh ingredients, not artificial ones.)

To the left, a cup of genuine top quality gelato, from Perche No!… (Why Not!…), my favorite Florentine gelateria and certainly the best in the center, especially for the fruit flavors.  In the front you see Frutti di Bosco (fruit of the forest i.e. berry, combining raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and redcurrants.)  Note how the color is rich and dark, what you would get if you just put the fruits in the blender and let her rip.  In the back the pale, unappetizing green gelato is made of fresh figs, speckled with their seeds, and divine.  A good gelato place also only makes gelato with fruits in season, so fig is the autumnal treat.

My front door is often blocked by a load of bottles or soda, vegetable crates for the fruit stand or infinite bottled water for the restaurants. but

A Flowering of Festivals

 Posted by on September 19, 2011  Florence  No Responses »
Sep 192011
 

Imagine if you will the perfect snoozing morning.  September is just beginning to cool from summer to real fall.  Slices of sun stray between the shutter slats, striping the bed with warmth.  The constellations on the midnight blue comforter have long since exhausted their reserves of glow-in-the-dark, but it’s time for the gold and orange sheets to glow with the morning’s sunny fire.  The mosquitos are tucked up snug in their puddles for the morning, leaving buzz-free peace.  After a late night finishing a satisfying project, the day ahead has nothing but small tasks in store, all fun, none urgent.

My favorite street performer is the local Dante impersonator, who camps out by Dante's house a block east of mine and does dramatic recitals of bits of the Inferno.

Tum!  Ta-ta-tum!  Ta-ta-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tum!

“Marching… band…?”  Yawn, rub eyes, repeat.

It’s a marching band, all right.  It takes some time to verify, since life in Florence’s heart has a constant soundtrack: the morning accordion player with his Hollywood Hits medley; the mobile ensembles, dominated by clarinet and fiddle, that serenade the lunch and dinner hours; the mechanical brass when the evening carousel fires up; the crooning guitarist who charms tourists with nostalgia of “Let it Be” and “Yesterday”; and the Bad Clown with his grand orchestral boom box who performs at 9:10 on the dot each night and summons vast (soon-to-be-disappointed) crowds with his succession of blaring familiar classical masterpieces.  This is definitely different.  I play this game often, trying to sort new, desirable live music opportunities from the stream of regulars.

A friend puts the carousel to good use.

It helps that I’ve memorized the daily cycle by now, so it’s easy to say that at 10:10 on a Sunday morning this particular thunderous march of tubas is not normal.

I’ve learned to always run down, promptly, for live music that seems to be moving.  There’s plenty of stationary stuff—orchestras from around the world drop by to play in various piazzas several times a week, but drums and marching mean a parade, and in Florence a parade may mean historical costumes, flag tossing, trumpets, medieval standards, armor, the archbishop blessing the militia, the usual.  I used to try to continue working in my room as the trumpets triumphed by, but it’s not worth-it.  Resisting just means I miss the beginning, and they’re all worth seeing, all unique.

For example, within the last few weeks have passed by my bedroom:

 

The feast of Saint Anne, a day on which Florence was saved , so celebrated by the Merchant Guilds of Florence parading and hanging their banners on their home church of Orsanmichele:

The guild representatives parade their flags.

The statue of John the Evangelist, commissioned by the silk traders, symbolized by the gate they brought their goods through.

The statue of St. John the Evangelist, commissioned by the Silk Traders

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Codex Fiorentinus” with the laws governing the Guilds and Renaissance City (facsimile) is also solemnly carried in the parade:

 

The feast of San Lorenzo, which I already talked about, when the relics are displayed, the people blessed by the archbishop, and the guild representatives attend a special mass with the Archbishop:

 

The Festa della Rificolona, a Halloween-like festival when kids from around Florence carry paper lanterns to the piazza della Santissima Annunziata (where the old orphanage was) in honor of the birth of the Virgin:

The kids are also invited to try to rip and pierce each others’ lanterns using blow-guns made out of pieces of metal pipe that shoot little wads of clay. I experienced several glancing stings as I watched. This is something which those of my colleagues who are parents said their kids particularly enjoyed, both for the general fun and the thrill of realizing, as even 10-year-olds did, “We’d never be allowed to do this in the US!”

 

Only a couple days later came a festival in which period militia men paraded to the cathedral and were blessed by a high-ranking cleric (After a while I don’t have the energy to look up which festival is for what saint anymore…)

 

 

Followed by performances by flag-tossers (sbandieratori – an Italian invention, who demonstrate their skill tossing the banner of the city or guild, which must never touch the ground or it means great dishonor!):

 

I have pictures of the town covered with Italian and Florentine flags and I remember it must have been a festival, but I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what, or when:

 

The Gonfalone, at the blessing on the Cathedral steps

The Gonfalone, at the lantern festival

The one perennial attendee at these events is the Gonfalone, the great standard of the city of Florence.  It’s always paraded at the head or displayed at the heart of the festival.  When I get down into the street there’s no way to predict what I’ll find or where it’ll be headed (the route between Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio are most common, but parades may detour to any number of churches or landmarks), so the best bet is to look for the Gonfalone and follow it.

So the sounds of the marching band, however inconvenient on such a lovely morning, mean I must go down to see what this latest festa has to offer.  Snatch yesterday’s clothes off the floor, guzzle some orange juice (mmm… Sicilian blood orange juice, fiercer than grapefruit and almost strong enough to burn…), down.

Oh.  I was wrong.

It’s not a marching band.

It’s thirty marching bands.

10 AM on Sunday morning is the best time for Florence and its allied cities to hold a marching band convention.

Each band comes from a different comune around Florence, and proudly brings its own Gonfalone, which gather in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.  I stopped counting at thirty…

But even so, the bands would not begin their finale (30 bands playing the National Anthem together!) before the great  Gonfalone of Florence was displayed on the balcony above, accompanied by the fanfare of its attendant trumpeters.

David has seen this too many times to bother turning around.

 

It was a delightful morning, if not the one I had expected.  Only two flaws cropped up.  One was when my stomach growled:

Much crowd-dodging and baton-twirling later I obtained a tolerable panino.  The other problem came when the festival finished, and it came time for thirty marching bands to all leave the square at the same time.  The parade in had been carefully timed, but the exodus seemed to have no planning whatsoever.  Actually, all the way through crowd control had consisted of a bunch of plainclothes people randomly shouting at the infinite tourists to move, or stop, or go, and when bands began to collide there were many frantic confrontations between men in suits and squads with pompoms.  Still, ended…what the?!  It’s hailing!  Suddenly as I’m writing this, balls of ice about a half inch across are plumetting from the sky and thundering across the temptingly-climbable rooftops.  Okay, fess up!  Who forgot a saint’s day?  Sigh.  Clearly the solution is more festivals…  Now, excuse me while I go rescue my fragile basil.