Spot the Saint: Reparata and Zenobius

Since I talked recently about the Heavenly Court, comparing the office of Patron Saint to nobility holding landed titles, I would like to pause a moment to discuss Florence’s two former patron saints.  Just as cities and counties move from noble house to noble house and dynasties replace each other over the course of meandering politics and war, so cities can change hands from saint to saint.  John the baptist is not, in fact, Florence’s first patron saint, but its third (fourth, if you count the very early patronage of San Lorenzo).

Saint Reparata (Santa Reparata)

  • Common attributes: Crown, martyr’s palm frond
  • Patron saint of: nothing specific, really
  • Patron of places: Florence, Nice
  • Feast days: October 8th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints
  • Relics: Nice Cathedral

Santa Reparata falls into that palette of early martyr saints which historians constantly point out may be mythical.  If she existed, she did so in Caesaria in Palestine, and was martyred under Decius.  She was saved from being burned alive by miraculous rain, was then forced to drink boiling pitch, but still refused to recant, so was beheaded. Thus she falls into the same general late Roman virgin martyr category as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, but was never nearly so popular.  Her relics were (much later) brought to Nice.

Santa Reparata doesn’t have much distinctive iconography becuase she is a very obscure saint, and never depicted, really, except in her own territories of Florence and Nice.  Much as you don’t find portraits of a low-ranking baron in faraway cities, you don’t find Santa Reparata in Rome and Paris, she’s just not high up enough in the heavenly court.  She often has a crown–as martyrs frequently do–and a palm frond–ditto–but other than that she’s just a girl in late Roman clothes.

How then can you spot her?  She’s one of the saints you have to sort by taxonomy, i.e. looking for generic attributes then using common sense.  “There’s a woman here with a palm frond and no other attributes–wait, I’m in Florence, so it’s probably Reparata!”

Florence was Santa Reparata’s major cult site throughout the Middle Ages.  Her church stood in the center of the city opposite the baptistery.  When the growing power of Florence demanded a correspondingly large and impressive cathedral, and inclined them toward higher ranking patron saints, the city had to secure special permission to consecrate the replacement church to the Virgin.  The Duomo stands on the former site of Santa Reparata, and parts of the original church are visible if you go down into the crypt.   The Duomo which replaced it is Santa Maria del Fiore, St. Mary of Flowers, the flowers referring to the Florentine Lilly and the papal rose, since it was personally dedicated (and permitted) by Pope Eugene IV who was in town in 1436 doing, you know, pope things.

Saint Zenobius

  • Common attributes: Bishop
  • Occasional attributes: Florentine red fleur de lis, flowering tree
  • Patron saint of: Florence
  • Patron of places: Florence
  • Feast days: May 25
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, resurrecting somebody
  • Close relationships: St. Ambrose, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius
  • Relics: Florence, Santa Reparata crypt

Saint Zenobius was the first bishop of Florence.  He supported St. Ambrose in battling the Arian heresy.  He brought several people back from the dead, and his relics resurrected a dead elm tree.  He used to be buried in San Lorenzo in Florence, but was later moved to Santa Reparata/the Duomo.

Saint Zenobius is one of these cases of an early Christian who did a good job and was pious and therefore got to be a saint just for that, without getting martyred or founding a giant order or anything.  I support this, but it means his primary role was in Christianizing Florence and putting it on the map, so he is not and never will be particularly beloved outside his native town.

Zenobius is particularly valuable for Florence since he’s a saint who’s actually from Florence.  The more one studies hagiography, the more one realizes that Florence had a rather embarassing paucity of saints.  Milan had Ambrose, Padua had Antony, Verona had Peter Martyr, Sienna had Bernardino and Catherine, Assisi had Francis and Claire, Dominic died in Bologna, even Pisa had Rainerius, while Florence… Florence…

Peter Martyr defeats a possessed horse, a minor miracle but it totally happened in Florence!

There was that one time Peter Martyr dropped by and defeated a possessed horse, and Francis and Dominic visited, and Bernardino of Sienna, but with such illustrious saintly neighbors, many from less powerful cities, Florence really needed a local saint, not just a patron but an actual Florentine, or it frankly looked bad.  Florence was one of the five largest cities on Earth during the Renaissance–shouldn’t it produce at least one local saint?  And the fact that the Medici had arranged for the city to bury the infamous antipope John XXIII in the Baptistery didn’t help matters.

The Florentines made a decent sainthood case for Dante (which I heartily support), and the optimistic Dominicans at San Marco have carefully preserved the relics of Savonarola just in case, but getting someone made a saint requires approval from the pope, and both Dante and Savonarola were… how to put this delicately… well, Dante made a special place in Hell for popes and wanted the papacy’s earthly power to be overthrown by the Empire, while Savonarola declared that the pope was the Antichrist (which, given that the pope in question was Alexander VI, aka. Roderigo Borgia, may not have been far off, but  it didn’t exactly endear Savonarola to said Antichrist’s successors, nor did the fact that Savonarola’s writings were so popular with Reformation leaders).  So both Florence’s leading candidates for sainthood were flatly on the wrong side of the official approval process.  Plus Dante was banished from Florence, so his relics are in Ravenna (not helpful), and the Florentines killed Savonarola, and he was from Ferrara originally anyway.  Not the best show, oh magnificant republic, and not the best P.R. situation for a city which already had a reputation as a bizarre and wicked sin-pit, whose economy was based on usury, whose greatest poet and saint-candidate declared that Florence’s name was famous throughout Hell, and whose name in verb form (“Fiorentinare” i.e. make like a Florentine) genuinely was a medieval euphemism for sodomy across Europe.  So, Saint Zenobius it is!

Zenobius, in partnership with Reparata and, to a lesser extent, Lorenzo, were the city’s patrons for many centuries.  Eventually Florence increased in importance (and relic possession) and the city became one of the territories possessed by that most favored of courtiers (and cousin to the King!) John the Baptist.  But, like any good fiefdom, Florence still honors its lower local patrons too.

Zenobius is impossible to recognize in art most of the time, since he has no unique attributes.  Even the facade of the Duomo had to label him so people would be sure.  He was a bishop, so he dresses like a bishop, but so do at least fifty other saints.  Sometimes he has a flowering branch, representing his resurrected elm tree, which helps, but usually all you can do is say, “I’m in Florence and there’s an unidentified bishop saint; maybe Zenobius?”  Occasionally a Florentine red fleur de lis is put on his clothing somewhere as a clue, but not always, and the fleur de lis wasn’t a Florentine symbol until many centuries after Zenobius’ death.

Saint Zenobius had two deacons who worked for him, Eugene and Crescentius.  They also get to be saints, because they worked hard and did a good job (reason enough for me).  They dress like deacons (i.e. like San Lorenzo does) and are easily recognizable because if St. Zenobius is standing around with two guys dressed like deacons then they’re Eugene and Crescentius; they are never depicted in any other contexts.

We now have our set of Florentine saints.  If you see a painting or mosaic that has Lorenzo and John the Baptist and a random bishop and a woman with a crown and martyr’s palm and nothing else, it’s a pretty certain guarantee that it was made in Florence.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SAINTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

You know everyone in this picture except the woman on the right hand side; but with her, you should at least be able to tell one important thing about her.

Skip to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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Arbitrary Pricing

Drum roll please… time for the results of my Guess the Purse – Guess the Price challenge:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse
Purse #2: The inconveniently small reptile purse (giant clutch)
Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

 

I often stroll through what I call the “thousand dollar purse” district, but even I stopped short the first time I spotted Purse #2 in the window.  Did they put in an accidental extra digit?  I was used to trying to guess from a distance whether any given purse cost 200 or 400 or 600, but nothing had quite prepared me for quintuple digits.

This thousand-euro dress is made of hand painted art nouveau velvet lace and is beautiful and obviously very labor-intensive and I am totally comfortable with it costing a thousand euros.

I had known fashion items in the ten grand range existed, so it wasn’t that which shocked me as much as my complete inability to tell why that particular purse cost ten times what its neighbor did.  Not only did I not know, but I couldn’t even begin to understand how I might know, yet at the same time I’m very aware that for people connected with the world of fashion, all it would take is a glance to tell.  It was a language barrier.  Like how an architect fluently interprets the vocabulary of a facade, a mechanic the sounds of an engine, or a medieval person can recognize saints at a glance.  A moment of feeling what illiteracy must be like.

If these purses came with the chicken feet, and if they would run around and follow you and fetch your bag whenever you wanted... no, it still wouldn't be worth 2000 euros!

Except at the same time, Reason rebels:  10,900 euros!  It’s a purse!  It’s a glorified sack!  I could make one in 20 minutes out of fabric or duct-tape, and the materials can’t possibly cost more than a few hundred.  Nice ones are nice, and I have some bags I’m very fond of, but… is it from the Moon?  Made of the hide of the last surviving wyvern?  Does it cure disease and repel undead?  Is it electronically synched with a satellite which will shoot pickpockets with lazers from space?  Was the leather bathed in the healing liquor which drips from the tomb of Saint Catherine of Alexandria ?  Is it perhaps like George Jetson’s suitcase, and folds out into a car?  I’d pay fifteen grand to never have to park again, but anything less…

Apparently crabby thirteen-year-olds shop at Prada

Now, I don’t dislike fashion.  I quite enjoy looking at interesting clothes, studying costume history, making costumes, looking at shop windows, get excited over a particularly rich fabric or elegant coat tail, and I do pay serious attention to how I myself dress.  Fashion is a form of communication.  That’s how I primarily think of it: a social tool whose vocabulary of gender, class, situational, ethnic, geographic and subcultural cues let people communicate to others a kind of instant introduction and self-presentation.

 

Sullen vampire faeries shop at Cavalli

When a dolphin meets another dolphin the first thing they do is urinate at each other, because by tasting each other’s urine in the water they can tell a lot about each other: age, gender, health, “Hello, I’m a juvenile female who just pigged out after a long journey without enough food.”  “Well, hello, I’m a middle-aged female local to this area and in heat; get stuffed.”  Clothing accomplishes the same, in balance with function, comfort and expense, of course.  On a bus or subway one doesn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know a lot about what class and type of professional or hobbyist most people are trying to seem.  I have a great respect for people who manage to use clothing to present themselves in ways which make them seem exciting and also give a good sense of who they are, and I strive to do so myself, and, in my case, maintain several different wardrobes (nerd, professional, historical, otaku) for presenting myself when I hop from hat to hat among my many spheres.

This fashion succeeds in communicating: if you want to present as an Icy Big Boss Lady and bully action heroes, shop here.

Like language, clothing as communication requires one to work within a set vocabulary.  As an astute economics textbook I read on the matter once pointed out, it might be that to some person encasing herself in a two-foot-diameter aluminum tube perfectly summarized her thoughts about herself, but if she walked to a room like that no one would be able to interpret it, so it would fail as communication.  Tweed jacket with leather elbow pads = professor, black with spikes = punk with all its countercultural associations; you can’t reverse or change that until the whole culture does, or no one will know what you mean.

This outfit succeeds in communicating: wealthy, fashionable

But the fashion industry is something different: it changes constantly, every season, and it’s in its very changeability that it somehow communicates.  Bowtie = quirky/geeky/old-fashioned; wearing the latest fancy thing that’s currently in shop windows, whatever that may be = fashionista.  Thousand dollar purses do have a function, which is to communicate that this is a person of sufficient wealth and education and with the proper tastes to want one.

Returning to the familiar ground of the Renaissance, a blue garment or a lady with pearls woven through her hair is a declaration to passers-by of social class, and important for enabling the correct interaction between classes, and for making political and economic contacts and alliances.  When Alessandra Strozzi writes in her letters of having a daughter married wearing hundreds of florins worth of pearls sewn to her garment, the wedding procession was an invaluable advertisement of the family’s wealth and status and its connection to its neighbors, which played a significant role in the political interplay between Strozzi, Medici and other rival powerful families in the city.  This has a function, and even a wedding dress that cost as much as a house did have a function, and I respect that.

Here a wedding procession through downtown Florence is depicted on the Adimari Cassone (c. 1450). A cassone is a wooden chest, usually used to hold clothing, and they were often decorated with wedding images and carried in the wedding procession; another way to display the wealth of clothing involved in the alliance of great houses. You can see the Baptistery and Florentine trumpeters on the left.
I can respect these shoes. They make their owner seem like an interesting person.
I understand these shoes; they tell me a wealthy woman is going to an important, formal event.

The problem comes in contemporary fashion from the fact that now one often has to be such a fashion-conscious person in order to interpret correctly, because to the untrained eye this year’s black Gucci purse looks exactly like last year’s black Gucci purse.  It’s a private dialect spoken only among a specific type of wealthy, trend-minded elite.

 

This season’s trends prove precisely why the private dialect of high fashion baffles me where other regions of fashion seem reasonable and, indeed, fun.  This season’s “look”, as one can’t help but notice on a stroll past Florence’s boutique windows, focuses on huge, rough, bulky, shaggy knitwear, mostly in brown, beige, gray or black, with accents in orange and teal.

Huge, shaggy knitwear of precisely the style that knitting hobbyists–a slice of society associated with old-fashioned handicrafts, tradition, nerd culture, and the shy prim crafts-doing girl type–produces.  There is no way that I can perceive to tell the difference between these 300 euro Ralph Lauren shawls and scarves and something one might request from a grandmother, or see growing longer panel by panel at a con.

This tells me that the wearer is cold and slobby, not trendy and rich!
Spot the Saint! The John the Baptist Hairshirt Look is in this season.
It really is the John the Baptist Hairshirt Look!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The John the Baptist winterwear ensemble
The John the Baptist Hairshirt Purse, available in camel, avocado and hypercosmic cherry
Hairshirt Shoes complete the ensemble.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Communication has failed.  Generally speaking,the presumed goal of a fashionable trendy dresser is to communicate to the layman that they’re generically nicely dressed and upper class or upper middle class, while to communicate to the expert that they’re savvy enough to know that boutique X rather than boutique Y is the correct space to spend a few hundred on sunglasses in 2011.  This season’s fashion accomplishes B but fails at A, since passing such an outfit in the street, my first thought would be “oh, that person knits or knows someone who does,” not, “ah, that person is a fashionable dresser.”  The vocabulary of fashion has left communication behind.  The dialect is now incomprehensible to the bulk of the country.

As for the extreme edges of fashion, and fashion advertising, which too often leaves you uncertain even what they’re selling, there one can only revel as in surrealist art.  Here are two choice specimens from the Milan train station billboards.  What am I supposed to want to buy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Heavenly Court

The ceiling of the baptistery in Padua, with the court of Heaven centered around Christ

Following up on a comment (an as I sit here in my high medieval tower hearing the winds howl through the stone) I want to discuss the institution of Patron Saints.

To me, the key to how Patron Saints were understood in the Middle Ages and Renaissance is the concept of the Heavenly Court.  Heaven was often imagined (especially by the less educated classes) as a direct parallel to feudal Earth, that is as a court, with God in the role of ruler, i.e. Emperor, King, Duke, whatever sort of Signore (lord) people are used to.  Heaven in this model is the capital city, and the saints are the courtiers who enjoy the favor of the Lord and are invited to His court.  Mary is the Queen of Heaven, and literally the Lady presiding over the heavenly court.

In normal feudal life when someone needs a favor from a lord, i.e. a tax break, help repairing a bridge, an office, permission to marry in odd circumstances, the settlement of a dispute, one doesn’t go directly from peasant life to the king, one goes through intermediaries, petitioning a local lord, who petitions a higher-ranking noble, who then sends the petition on to the sovereign, or, if nervous that the sovereign might be harsh, to the Lady of the court, who is supposed to be more likely to be sympathetic.  The most powerful saints, Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, are the inner circle of favored councilors, and newcomers like St. Francis of Assisi sometimes join the ranks of inmost courtiers.

Mary, the queen, is the best positioned to secure favors, and, being the societally idealized mother archetype, is expected to be kind, generous, forgiving and nurturing.  And remember that the Latin word “gratias”, often translated as grace, can also be translated as political influence or political favoritism.  Thus “Hail Mary, full of political influence…”

 

The courtiers of Heaven assemble to watch the coronation of the Queen. You should be able to spot Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and Lorenzo among their ranks.

 

 

Beatrice presents the newcomer Dante to some of the heavenly court.

Thus, in Dante’s Commedia, when Beatrice (a virtuous, deceased citizen of Heaven) wants permission to have Dante escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, she does not go directly to God to ask permission.  She goes first to Saint Lucy, patroness of eyesight and some aspects of scholarship and one of Dante’s personal preferred patrons.  Saint Lucy then presents Beatrice’s petition to the Virgin Mary, and Mary, then, presents it to her Lord/Son who gives final permission.

Focusing on the model of God as Emperor, the pope then is his vicar on Earth, which is to say the Emperor is resident in his distant capital but rules a foreign city through a vassal, as the Holy Roman Emperor might be resident in Germany but nominally rule Ferrara from a distance through the Duke of Ferrara, his vassal.  Priests, then, are the bureaucratic agents of that vassal, who are trusted by the distant Emperor and can send messages to him and expect answers, and the hierarchy of the clergy is thus the hierarchy of a subsidiary Lord ruling under a distant overlord.  This, in 1400, makes perfect sense.

The mass of intermediaries seems irrational given our modern individualist model of a world (and therefore universe) of dignified equals (liberty, equality, brotherhood here and in Heaven), and the Protestant model which focuses on a direct relationship between individual and god reduces the value of saints as intermediaries, but in the feudal world feudalism is normal, and the absence of this structure would be rather terrifying.  Your average peasant doesn’t want to imagine himself directly in front of the King without the kind protection of his local patron.

Now, the Patron Saint bit makes sense when you realize that the nobility generally correspond to places: the Duke of Ferrara, the Marquess of Provence, the lord of this or that.  Many nobles rule different scattered territories in different places, as the King of Spain might also be Duke of Athens, for example.  But there are also Crown territories that belong directly to the monarch, rather than belonging to a vassal.  The king may grant these crown territories to a vassal at any time, as a reward for good service, or a show of his love, and different vassals may also acquire territories through marriage, or conquest, or election, etc.

John the Baptist, there on the left, is well-positioned to request favors for his territories, like Florence.

Thus, London is a city which, in the heavenly hierarchy, has been granted to Saint Paul.  Philip the Apostle received the nation of Uruguay much as Spanish and English nobles received hunks of the New World once they became relevant to European courts.  Thomas More was granted the city of Arlington, Virginia once it came into existence, but like any noble who hasn’t yet gotten a particular territory, he was still in the heavenly court before this and enjoyed the favor of the heavenly King, he just didn’t yet have the noble title Patron of Arlington, VA.  Sometimes a town goes from having one patron saint to a different one, or gains a second, just as feudal holdings change hands.  Meanwhile, before these places acquire patron saints, they are Crown Territories, governed directly by their Lord.

Patron saints of particular occupations and types of people also roughly correspond to medieval institutions.  A Wool Guild has its earthly patron in the nobles or wealthy leaders who run it, and children do in the nobles or city lords who pay for orphanages; and they have heavenly patrons too, so if Florence’s gild of locksmiths looks to St. Peter and armorers and weapon makers to St. George, that too makes nice feudal sense.

This is, of course, one of the clearest ways of seeing how extremely medieval a lot of the accumulation of Catholic doctrine is, and why the modern progress of individualism and democracy has made some of that accumulation awkward in the modern world.  Things which were obvious to medieval minds now have to be explained and justified to modern ones not used to the same assumptions about the Heirarchy of Nature etc.  Rituals, allegories and similes which were developed by Medieval people to explain doctrine to Medieval people are being adapted and reframed by moderns for moderns.  Attempting to explain a patron saint to someone who doesn’t have the medieval concept of “patron” is no simple task.  I struggle in my teaching all the time to help students wrap their minds around temporally alien concepts like this, and there’s nothing harder.  The fact that contemporary Catholic theologians have succeeded so well in re-framing and reexplaining so many of Medieval Christianity’s concepts in modern terms is, from a teaching standpoint, very impressive.

This mismatch is also another indicator of how strange Renaissance Florence was, with its Republican government.  Feudalism, monarchy and hierarchy, was the norm, not just in political realities but in the way people thought, their general assumptions.  Even the republican Florentines didn’t imagine Heaven as a republic, they imagined it as a feudal monarchy.  The guilds would rebel violently against any single master on Earth, but were happy to look to their patron saints, and to John the Baptist as the city’s heavenly governor.  The inscription over the Palazzo Vecchio makes it clear: republic-loving Florence still happily submitted to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but not to anyone else.  In the medieval world, then, hierarchy and monarchy were not just the norm but literally worked into the fabric of Heaven and Earth; to have something so different required a truly extraordinary mental leap–though it is certainly debatable whether we should read the leap as forward to modernity, backwards to Athens, or sideways to the unique moment that was Republican Florence.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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The Joust of the Star (la Giostra della Stella)

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.

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Spot the Saint: Peter and Paul

When one has an altarpiece, and wants to flank the central Christ or Virgin with a pair of solid, unobjectionable companions, ones which make no particularly strong statement about one’s patron or native city, one can always fall back on Peter and Paul.

Saint Peter (San Pietro)

  • Common attributes: Keys, one gold one silver or both gold
  • Occasional attributes: With/on a boat sometimes, generally old, fluffy white beard, wearing Roman-type robes.  Sometimes he’s dressed like a pope or has pope accoutrement, which he has every right to.
  • Patron saint of: Popes, fishermen, shipwrights, other types of workmen like cobblers, carpenters, bakers, masons &c.  A working class saint.
  • Patron of places: Rome (Vatican), Cologne, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, others
  • Feast days: Jan 18, June 29, August 1
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, receiving keys from Christ, in chains in prison, escaping with the help of an angel, being crucified up-side-down, scared and in a boat
  • Close relationships: Paul, popes
  • Relics: Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica

Peter, of course, one sees everywhere in Rome, since popes never tire of reminding the public who they work for, and there is no better political endorsement.  There is an interesting rank split in Peter’s associations, since, on the one hand, as a humble fisherman he’s a the poor tradesman class, someone whom a simple Renaissance laborer might identify with and expect to understand and sympathize with his travails, while on the other hand as founder and patron of the papacy he is the master of popes, who are in turn masters of kings and (depending on whose propaganda you believe) successors to the Caesars.  Prince and peasant in one figure makes for a lot of interesting decision-making come portrait time.  Occasionally one sees Peter dressed as a pope, to accentuate this status, but most often he’s in the usual Apostolic uniform of a loose tunic/robe with a loose toga/wrap around it, usually in two different bright colors and generally not pink (that’s for John the Evangelist).

The keys to Heaven make Peter one of the easiest saints to recognize.  Often if they are depicted as one gold, one silver, the silver leaf sometimes used on the silver one will tarnish over time and turn black, which can be visually confusing.  Peter’s keys by themselves are the symbol of the papacy, and if combined with a papal triple tiara and put over a coat of arms indicate the arms of a pope.  Seeing Peter on something should always make one wonder whether it was paid for by a pope, or made in Rome, but the man who mans the gates of Heaven is all-important enough that everyone everywhere is inclined to invoke, and depict, him as often as possible.

Saint Paul (San Paulo)

  • Common attributes: Sword (standard two-edged broadsword usually)
  • Occasional attributes: Book, long beard, wearing Roman-type robes, sometimes younger in Roman armor
  • Patron saint of: P.R.
  • Patron of places: Rome, London, Umbria, many other places
  • Feast days: Jan 25, Feb 10, June 29, Nov 18
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, having his blindness cured, being arrested, being beheaded
  • Close relationships: Peter, Ananias of Damascus
  • Relics: Rome, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori Le Mura)

Remembering that Paul was a Roman citizen and originally charged with persecuting Christians before his vision, blindness, cure and conversion, a few artists like to depict him in his younger days.  His beheading is reported only in incomplete and unclear documents, but he carries the headsman’s sword, which must always be two-edged because, as it’s told, the sword which struck Paul made him an even more powerful agent of Christianity, thus metaphorically cutting back at its wielders.  The vast majority of images of St. Paul that I find here in Florence show him standing symmetrically opposite, or sometimes next to, Peter, as the two major and universally-respected Roman saints.  Often Paul’s beard is longer, and sometimes more on the gray side, compared to Peter’s.

Peter and Paul were also good friends, and one sometimes sees the scene of their friendly embrace.

When I say Paul is the patron saint of P.R., that’s my best summary of his extensive list.  Apart from the usual hailstorms and snake bites that all major saints wind up being associated with, the motif of Paul’s patronage is of publicity.  Because he himself was such an ardent and vocal proselytizer, and left so many writings responsible for aiding the spread of early Christianity, he is invoked as patron of people who convert, people who try to convert other people, but also of authors, and publicists, and journalists, and editors, and people who write hospital newsletters, and generally all people who are responsible for informing people of things.  Blogs too, I suppose, though G.K. Chesterton has also been nominated.

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SANTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

Who do we have here?

A flanking section from Fra Angelico’s Perugia Polyptych. Can you tell which side of the image Christ is on?

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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Bologna for a Day

I made a day trip to Bologna, our neighbor to the north, home of one of the greatest old universities, world-renowned in the Renaissance for its medical school.  A friend who studied professors’ families and households had invited me to join her on a boat tour of the medieval underground canals which were constructed to allow for easy transportation of goods throughout the city.  The tour, alas, was canceled due to insufficient water for the boats to move, but being stranded in Bologna for an afternoon with an expert on its history is no large hardship.

The pulpit of one of the medieval sections

We visited a complex of seven small medieval churches, built successively at different times and gradually connected together into a chimerical complex in which one steps out of a long Gothic nave only to step into an octagonal Byzantine one, then on into a colorful brick cloister that might have been built in Venice, and so on, style by style room by room.  The cathedral is entirely baroque, and since Bologna was never quite so affluent as Florence, especially in the Baroque period, a masterpiece in painted fake marble, painted fake architecture, even painted fake porphyry, but with a few remnants of its displaced Medieval predecessor lurking in corners here and there.

Hundreds of whimsical faces adorn this  facade

We also visited some exceptionally expressive wooden and terracotta sculptures – both media underrepresented in Florence’s great galleries of stone and bronze, and took a meandering walking tour of the city’s long medieval streets and Renaissance facades (much to the chagrin of my friend’s daughter whose panino we were commissioned to deliver at 1 and didn’t place in her hands until around 4).  Many of the raised porches survive on massive dark medieval wooden beams, something almost absent in Florence which neoclassicized everything it could touch.  Again terracotta is a great component of these old facades, which families constructed to impress on passers-by their wealth and distinction, and not only saints but grotesques and even character portraits are common accents between arches and columns.  Again the touch of the great northern neighbor Venice is conspicuous in the rich pinks and peaches of these narrow roads, and in the window trimmings, elaborate and white like wedding cakes, as well as in the occasional winged lion.

Outside Dominic’s basilica stands this tomb of an old professor from the university, with a sarcophagus showing him lecturing to students at their desks

I was delighted to be reminded that Saint Dominic is buried in Bologna, the founder of the Dominican order with its great tradition of scholarship and pursuing truth, for which I have particular affection.  Bad timing relative to evening mass kept my pilgrimage brief this time, but I must return, both to examine the great saint’s tomb, which dozens of famous hands contributed to making a true masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, and to enjoy leisurely contemplation of the life of monastic scholarship he pioneered.  Also gelato.  Knowing I answer to “gelato snob” my guide took me to two exceptional establishments, one tucked inconspicuously in a portico which offered extraordinary seasonal real fruit flavors including Pear with Cinnamon and Spiced Apple, both of which were stunning, and a second, large and clearly famous place (delightfully close to Dominic’s resting place) which offered Ricotta with Sicilian Lemon, pear, and a Granita di Pompelmo Rosa (pink grapefruit granita) which packed the full, intensified ferocity of the most aggressive natural citrus.

The papal triple tiara and crossed keys tell you these balls belonged to a Medici pope, so Leo or Clement; Clement in this case.

“Medici balls!” I cried as we reached the university, and there they were, bulbous and grandiose over a gateway.  My companion, mainly a social historian, had apparently taken little notice of pope Clement’s marble signature, and correctly observed that the building must have been renovated during his papacy, but to me it was a more striking moment.  The Medici crest, with its collection of five or six balls, representing medicinal pills (Medici <= Medico <= doctor) is on virtually every decoratable surface in Florence, a universal reminder of the great patrons, their many projects, and their eventual victory, so when I leave Medici country I always enjoy the telling contrast of their absence, and the presence of some other local symbol, the Venetian Lion of St. Mark, or the…

Oh good grief.. excuse me, I hear trumpets …

(half an hour later)  Right.  Not a big thing, just a parade and concert by the brass band of the Florentine civic militia corps of something something that have amazing hats.

Where were we?  Medici balls in Bologna.  It hit me just as it was intended to, a shocking, unexpectedly long reach by the neighbors who were certainly never lords in Bologna, but still had their fingers in the university which was Bologna’s pride and fame.  I was impressed; centuries later I was still impressed.

There was also a Roman legionary cohort camped in the main square.  But since the trumpeters have slowed me, the Legio I Italica Novae Moesia (67-425 DC) must wait for another day.

 

A pope gazes down over (his?) Roman troops camped in the square
More whimsical faces in stone ornament this monastic cloister

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Medieval wooden porch
Another decorated palazzo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hopefully next time the canals will have enough water for me to tour the underbelly.

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My front door – Florence at dawn

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
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Spot the Saint: Sebastian and Catherine of Alexandria

Say hello to the easiest-to-recognize saintThe newest installment of our attempt to become literate in the medieval sense of being able to “read” what’s going on in religious art.

Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano)

  • Common attributes: Naked except for a loincloth, young, handsome, arrows sticking out of him, wrists bound
  • Occasional attributes: Well, his hands aren’t free so he can’t hold a martyr’s palm frond, or anything else really
  • Patron saint of: Soldiers, protection against arrows, protection against plague, athletics/athletes, a few other things
  • Patron of places: Milan, Rome, many other scattered towns
  • Feast days: January 20 (Dec. 18)
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, tied to a tree, tied to a column
  • Close relationships: Converted a few other early Romans who became obscure saints
  • Relics: Rome, Basilica Apostolorum, aka. San Sebastiano fuori le mura,
Sebastian visits Mary and the Christ Child, bringing the column he’s tied to.

Saint Sebastian was a third-century Roman saint, martyred by Diocletian.  He is supposed to have been a captain of the Praetorian guard, but consoled and encouraged Christian prisoners and converted many, including through the miracle of curing a mute woman.  St. Ambrose says Sebastian was from Milan, so his cult there is substantial (as is the cult of Ambrose who was bishop of Milan).  According to the hagiographies (hangman word of the day), which were all written at least 100 years after his death, Sebastian was shot with arrows at Diocletian’s orders, but miraculously survived and was rescued and healed by the early Roman saint Irene (wife of Saint Castulus, the secretly Christian Chamberlain of Emperor Diocletian).  After recovering from the arrows, Sebastian yelled at Diocletian in the street about theology, and was thereafter clubbed to death, and his corpse thrown in a privy, whence it was rescued and buried by the same Irene, who was also martyred later, as was Castulus.  Between the arrows and clubbing, Sebastian is sometimes awarded the distinction of people saying he was martyred twice.

Sebastian was sometimes one of the “Fourteen holy helpers“, an official list of anti-plague saints, including the virgin martyrs Margaret, Barbara and Catherine (of Alexandria), plus an inconsistent list of others often including Christopher and Elmo.

Some have a sense of humor about these things.

In art, Saint Sebastian is what you do in the Renaissance when you want to have a picture of a sexy naked man without getting in trouble.  This is also half of why the arrows rather than the clubbing are the favorite subject.  The other half is that the resistance against arrows is a big source of his role as a protector against the plague, especially the bubonic plague, which, as you can imagine, made him extremely popular from 1348 on.  The fact that a saint associated with archery is also the warden against the plague is, of course, no relation to the association between plague and arrows in Norse culture (see uses of the Hagalaz and Nauthiz runes), and has even less to do with the extremely handsome and usually nearly-naked Apollo, god of plague and archery.

Sebastian’s relics are in Rome at San Sebastiano fuori le mura, but he isn’t one of these saints anyone has a monopoly on (like Mark and Peter), so reliquaries with small bits of him are common, and there’s one in San Lorenzo.

 

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (San Caterina)

  • Common attributes: Crown, large spiked wooden wheel
  • Occasional attributes: Robes, bridal veil, sword, palm frond (common to all martyrs), lilies (common to all virgins)
  • Patron saint of: Maidens, unmarried girls, spinsters, spinners & wheelwrights and all craftsmen who work with wheels, theologians, librarians, nurses, knife-sharpeners, lots of things
  • Patron of places: University of Paris, Alexandria, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai
  • Feast days: November 25 (24 in Russia)
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, breaking the wheel her captors were trying to use to break her, being beheaded, being rescued by angels
  • Close relationships: Often depicted with other major virgin martyr saints, Barbara & Margaret
  • Relics: Mount Sinai

For those who keep historical collections of women who were awesome, Catherine of Alexandria definitely belongs on the list (if she existed, which is in some doubt, but what the hey, people thought she did and sometimes that’s enough.)  She was the daughter of the Roman governor of Alexandria right around 300 AD.  She was thus from one of the best and wealthiest families in one of the most important and wealthy cities in the empire, and received an exceptional education in full Greco-Roman philosophy style.  As a young woman she declared to her parents that she would only marry someone who was richer, nobler, smarter and more beautiful than she was, a hard requirement which was eventually satisfied by… wait for it… Christ!  She converted in her teens somewhere, and refused to marry, dying a virgin saint.  She is then supposed to have used her considerable influence and education to try to convince Emperor Maximian to stop persecuting the Christians.  Being unwilling to flat-out kill the daughter of a noble governor, the emperor gathered pagan philosophers from around the empire and sent them to debate with her.  She out-debated them all, and, in fact, converted them all, and converted the Empress too.  Maximian then ordered her to be broken on the wheel (not a very Roman choice, but whatever).  The wheel broke when she touched it, so instead she was beheaded.

Artists sometimes hide the wheel; here in Botticelli’s “Pala di San Barnaba” it’s barely visible sticking out from behind the left side of her dress, but even without it the crown and regal bearing (plus the fact that she’s a woman but looks ballsier than St. Augustine) make her easy to recognize.

Catherine’s medieval cult was very popular, and she especially patronized women and pilgrims, as well as disease victims.  She’s one of few saints whose hagiography claims that she, in her dying moments, specifically prayed to God to grant the prayers of those who honored her, so she serves as one of the stories justifying the whole saint cult.  Catherine’s body was discovered in 800 AD, with its hair still growing and a miraculous healing oil dripping from it, which is still gathered annually on her feast day.  In the 1960s, when the Vatican was feeling historical, they removed her saint’s day from the calendar due to lack of evidence that she really existed, but they put it back in 2002 due to everyone insisting that she is awesome.  Even the Anglicans and Lutherans still honor Catherine as a major role model.

In Florentine art at least, after the Virgin Mary, Catherine of Alexandria is one of the female saints one sees most often.  Her spiked wheel makes her easy to spot, and she also usually has a crown, which is either an allegorical representation of her sanctification or a symptom of Medieval people not really wrapping their minds around the difference between a roman governor and a king, thus between a governor’s daughter and a princess.  In art, altarpieces especially, painters usually like to have saints in pairs so they can stand symmetrically opposite each other (Peter and Paul, for example) and generally female saints are preferably paired with other female saints, but Catherine is one of the few who is considered so powerful that she gets to stand opposite men a lot of the time.

Catherine of Alexandria must not be confused with Saint Catherine of Siena, a Dominican nun saint from the late 14th century.  Since Catherine of Alexandria wears a crown, robes and has a huge spiked wheel while Catherine of Siena wears a black and white nun’s habit, they’re easy to differentiate.

 

AND NOW, QUIZ YOURSELF ON SANTS YOU KNOW SO FAR:

Who do we have here?

(Brought to us by Donatello; statue in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, done 1438)

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

athletics/athletes
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A Flowering of Festivals

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.

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Photo Album Created

Quick note to let you know that I have created a photo album, reachable through the navigation tab above.  For now I’ve added the beginnings of an album about Venice – more to come.

I would post more, but I’m exhausted from being out late at the joust last night and didn’t get much work done today because of the private tour of Michelangelo’s house, and I have to get up very early tomorrow to harvest grapes in the vineyard.  Sometimes life is unreasonably good.  If a little tiring.

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