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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Spot the Saint: John the Baptist and Lorenzo (Begins Spot the Saint Series)

It’s a bunch of people standing around; thrilling, right?

In galleries, museums, and even on the art-spotted streets of Florence, friends and I love to play “Spot the Saint” – trying to identify the saints in art without looking at the blurb.  I know it sounds flippant to make a game of it, and perhaps it is flippant, but it is also in an important way authentic.  Renaissance art, religious art especially, is aesthetic, but it is also narrative.  Sculptures, paintings and other artifacts were created to retell and comment on stories and people whom the audience was expected to already know.  Being able to identify different subjects, especially saints, by their vocabulary of recurring attributes is a kind of cultural literacy which all Renaissance people had, but most modern viewers lack.  We are the illiterate ones, from the Renaissance perspective, when we come to an altarpiece unable to tell Paul from Peter or Augustine from Jerome.  If you understand who these figures are and what they mean, a whole world of details, subtleties and comments present in the paintings come to light which are completely obscure if you don’t understand the subject.  Time after time I’ve taken friends, who didn’t have much interest in Renaissance or religious art before, and after a few rounds of “Spot the Saint” in the Uffizi had them declare that it suddenly made a lot more sense, and carried a lot more meaning.

What a sweet Venetian street (and canal) corner.

Renaissance art often focuses on details that are absent from the main versions of stories, showing the emotional expressions and making you think about the experiences of secondary characters present at scenes (almost like fanfic, in fact).

There is a wonderful example which (curses!) the internet cannot supply me with a photo of, an altarpiece by Alessandro Gherardini housed in the elusive and rarely open Santo Spirito church, across the river.  It shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary (a very common scene) accompanied by St. Monica and St. Augustine.

(On Augustine see my post on the Doctors of the Church).

Wait a minute – what’s that?

This is not in any way exciting until you think about the fact that Monica is Augustine’s mother, who watched patiently throughout his wild and chaotic youth (wild by any standards – he joined the Manichean cult, and ditched her in Italy while hitching a boat to Africa with no warning), but she kept on, patient and loving, until he finally—through his own independent studies—explored and eventually embraced the Christianity she loved so much, and became one of its great Doctors.  The altarpiece makes you think about the touching parallel between the two mothers’ love for their sons, and how proud Monica would be in Heaven watching Augustine’s growing greatness, and eventually getting to present her beloved son to Mary and her beloved Son.

Why, it’s San Lorenzo!  With his grill!

But if you can’t spot the saints, it’s all a bunch of random figures.

Recognizing saints is also valuable for figuring out who made a piece of art, and why.  Even an expert in a lifetime can’t memorize every single Florentine art treasure and its history, but a layman in a few days can learn enough to tell from the contents and context of a painting how to read a lot about its past and goals.  Some saints are specific to cities; see something with a prominent St. Mark and you can smell Venice, while St. Zenobius is never seen outside Florence.  Some are specific to types of patrons: is your altarpiece full of Dominicans?  Probably the church that commissioned it was too.  Full of female saints flanking Mary Magdalene?  It’s time to suspect it may have been commissioned for nuns, or by a female patron.  Renaissance masterworks didn’t come down to the modern age with convenient explanatory tags already attached: we wrote them, and the historians who did so used these same clues to figure out their origins.

Thus, this will be the first of many “Spot the Saint” posts, by which I hope to introduce the characters and thus open up the story of the art I see every day.  Each entry will introduce a couple of new saints and how to recognize them, so we can all play, and understand.  Since I am in Florence, I will concentrate first on the saints I see every day:

Addendum:

One friend, through more rigorous online hunting than my own, has very kindly provided this low-quality and slightly blurry photo of the altarpiece of Augustine and Monica at the coronation of the Virgin which I discussed above.

Santo Spirito, the church where it is housed, strives to fulfill its mission to protect the church from dangerous activities, like people going to it, looking at its art, or taking decent pictures of its treasures.  I love to visit it, both for the gorgeous contents and architecture, and to spite its over-zealous guardians.  It’s easier to go in these days, but a few years ago you practically had to have a Florentine accent to be admitted.

 

San Giovanni Baptista (St. John the Baptist )

  • Common attributes: Hairshirt, robes, tall stick with a cross on it, wild medium-length hair
  • Occasional attributes: Beard, scroll saying “Ecce agnus dei”, pointing at things, sheep or lamb, rarely a book or something with a lamb on it
  • Patron saint of: baptism, lambs, horse hoof care, printers, tailors, invoked to combat epilepsy and hailstorms (some of these are shared with several others, as is often the case).
  • Patron of places: Florence, Turin, Genoa, Cesena, Umbria, a zillion other Italian towns,Jordan, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, French Canada
  • Feast days: June 24, August 29, January 7
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, baptizing Christ, pointing at Christ, pointing at viewer, pointing at heaven, visiting young Christ when they’re both kids, standing at the left hand of Christ during the apocalypse and overseeing the sorting of those damned to Hell, being imprisoned by King Herod, being beheaded, having his severed head delivered to Salome on a silver platter.
  • Here he’s pointing at the baby Jesus, lest the viewer, like Mary, be distracted by ever-distracting Saint Sebastian.

    Close relationships: Christ’s second cousin, son of Mary’s much older cousin Elisabeth and of Zachariah (both descended from Aaron); birth prophesied by Gabriel.

  • Relics: Scattered around.  His tomb is in Egypt, but his head is in Rome and Munich and Damascus and Bavaria and many other places.  Florence has his right index finger and part of a forearm.

John the Baptist is an intimidatingly-important saint.

Not only is he a blood relative of Christ, and the pioneer of baptism, his grim task at the resurrection is vividly depicted in the numerous Last Judgment images which traditionally decorate the rear walls of churches.

And if Mary is so important partly because of her role as the kind protector sitting at the right hand of Christ to mitigate the wrath and protecting her faithful during the second coming, John the Baptist does the opposite.  I certainly wouldn’t want to tick off a city under his personal protection.

Florence’s baptistery ceiling makes it clear

As Florence’s patron saint and protector, John the Baptist appears all over the place in Florentine art, and they never tire of painting him pointing at things, both to remind the viewer of his importance as the one who “points the way” to Christ, but also because they have that finger.  You can still see it, in fact, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo, but it used to be housed in the Baptistery, which is the historic heart and symbol of the city.

And a place that made a strong impression on a certain Dante when he was a little boy.

 

You don’t want to tick off the guy in that chair!

The main thing for spotting John the Baptist, though, is the hairshirt, depicted as some kind of fuzzy fur.  Sometimes it’s under a robe, sometimes it’s all he’s wearing.  Even in bronze or stone, it’s always clear:

Ghiberti’s statue on Orsanmichele – I wish this were my photo, but I don’t have a ladder.

San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence)

  • Common attributes: carries an enormous iron grill, dressed as a deacon (wearing a dalmatic tunic), short, tonsured hair
  • Occasional attributes: palm frond (any martyr can carry a palm frond), often dressed in red or pink
  • Patron saint of: cooking, chefs, barbeque, librarians, libraries, notaries, administrators, tanners, paupers, comedians, some other things
  • Patron of places: Rome, Canada, Rotterdam, Sri Lanka, Canada
  • Patron of people: Medici Family
  • Feast Day: August 10th
  • Most often depicted: Standing around with other saints, being roasted alive, being sentenced to death by the Emperor Vespasian, distributing alms to the poor
  • Close Relationships: He’s one of the Deacons of the Church who oversaw its finances in early days, so is associated with other early deacons, and early martyrs, like St. Stephen
  • Relics: They burned him so there are only bits.  Florence has some.  The grill is in Rome.

I already discussed San Lorenzo and his most excellent patronage of the poor in my post about the celebrations of his feast day.  As a prominent early martyr he is very commonly depicted with other martyrs.

“Flip me over, Caesar,” from the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, fresco in the Santuario della Madonna del Colle

He’s a favorite in Florence because he was a keeper of money, and the many moneylenders of the Italian banking circuit (not least the Medici) were eager for examples of virtuous people who dealt with money, so they could justify their financial obsessions and deflect accusations of usury.  That a man who was grilled alive is patron saint of cooking and specifically roasting and barbeque proves there is a sense of humor to these things, as does the fact that his witty last words, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side,” earned him eternal fame as Patron Saint of Comedians.  True grace under (over?) fire.  Also: patron of cooking AND libraries?  There’s a saint dear to my heart.

Jump to the next Spot the Saint entry.

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Guess the Price – Guess the Purse

The Gucci store window
The Prada store window

There is a district, just west of the center of Florence, which I refer to as the “Thousand Dollar Purse” district.

Here the truly extravagant end of European fashion displays itself for the delectation of the envious masses.

Here one can spend $500 on sunglasses, $1,000 on boots, and ooh and aah over purses whose merits elude my understanding.  Yet I know to that, to the stylish, the differences are as obvious as when I glance at an altarpiece and tell a Saint Sebastian from a Saint Jerome.  It is a language, and I do respect the effort it takes to achieve fluency.

In preparation for a more substantial post on the subject of thousand dollar purses, I present a simple guessing game. I challenge you to guess the prices of the three black purses shown below. I will not pull any cheap tricks and include a purse from the sensible end of town: all three of these purses cost over a thousand dollars.  My challenge: Guess the price of each!  To whoever gets closest I’ll give the prize of suggesting my next topic.  Or if you’re not confident enough in your knowledge of high fashion to guess the prices, simply guess which of the three purses do you think costs the most.

By the way, the Prada jacket shown above on the left left costs 3,950 euros, and the purse she’s holding costs 2,700 euros.  The Gucci dress at the above right is 2,700 in green, 3,500 in pink.  Oh, also, the green dress should be worn with a 500 euro belt and 585 euro shoes, and the little purse is a mere 1,350.

Now, the challenge!  Guess the price – guess the purse:

 

Purse #1: the unnecessarily quilted reptile purse

(up close, it’s not reptile leather, it’s smooth leather quilted to look like reptile leather)

 

Purse #2: the inconveniently-small reptile purse

(No, there’s no shoulder strap, just the wrist loop, so it constantly occupies a hand.)

 

Purse #3: the crumpled trashbag look purse

(yes, that’s a Prada label)

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Bathroom Suspense

American friends who have traveled extensively in Italy, or some other regions of the Earth, smile with an instant, knowing understanding when I say “bathroom suspense.”  I grew up to expect going to the bathroom to be simple, relaxing, an almost unthinking break in which simple repetition and the brief suspension of work and interaction allows for a defragmenting mental breather.  In Italy, instead of relaxation, suspense: “How will this bathroom not work?”

The cause is simple: the buildings predate modern plumbing, so the bathrooms are tucked and tweaked in by force in often inconvenient and inhospitable architectural circumstances, but remembering the last time I had to replace a toilet in my own house, and browsed at Home Depot through the endless row of nearly-identical, “American Standard” toilets, I can’t help but think that the equivalent should be named, “Italian Chaos.”

Bathroom Suspense has two primary forms.

This seatless restaurant toilet presents only a brief challenge with its wall button

The first, and briefest, is hunting for the flush.  Many times a week when traveling one enters an unfamiliar bathroom, in a restaurant, hotel, train station, and there is very often an unsettling, sometimes extended hunt for the operating mechanism that commands the exodus.  Will it be a pull chain dangling from the ceiling?  A foot pedal?  A button on an extended wire somewhere random in the room?  A ceramic mechanism that looks like wall art, or alternately an enormous metal button that looks more like an emergency trigger than a flush, and won’t budge unless you lever your full bodyweight against it?  Even simple-seeming mechanisms, such as the common large plastic button on top of the tank, present complexities: which of two buttons is the right one?  Or, worse, sometimes there is only one button but it turns out to be a hinged panel which does different things when you push the left side or the right.  It generally only takes a few seconds’ experimentation to solve the mystery, but it is enough to turn calm into stress, much as if one were immersed in a novel only to discover that the last ten pages are glued together and need to be separated with a letter opener: annoyance destroys the moment.

This cartoon squirrel attempts to demonstrate a particularly intimidating automatic sink

I have also often had friends return from a public restroom with rather uncomfortable faces to confess that they gave up and couldn’t find the flush, or, more often, the sink controls: “Oh, that sink is controlled by a pair of color-coded foot petals behind the trash can.”  And it doesn’t help anglophones that caldo = hot and freddo = cold, therefore the hot tap is labeled “C”.

A large number of Italian toilets are also bizarre in other ways, with no seat, or a seat that pushes itself up automatically so you have to hold it down while trying to sit, or a seat that squirts itself with disinfectant at unpredictable moments.  Most infamous is the rare squat toilet subspecies, lurking patiently in the innocent-seeming stalls at museums and coffee bars.  Many are unaware that squat toilets exist in a civilization that had proper toilets more than two thousand years ago.  Even if one is aware, they are always still startling and awkward, as if one checked into a hotel room and went to throw one’s coat and backpack on the bed only to discover a hammock in its place: doable but weird, and not the kind of surprise you want mid-travel.

Shape adds another element to the complexity of the Italian public restroom, since these are, after all, crammed into awkward corners of Renaissance if not Medieval homes.  Many bathrooms are trapezoid, rhomboid, have strange beams or blocks of stone protruding into them, or deep former windows through foot-thick stone walls covered over with something as ephemeral as waxed paper.

An example of the common set-up with no head-height shower nozzle and no curtain, just a hand-held hose, and your own dexterity to prevent a flood

Pipes trail along the corners and bunch around rare openings, like tree roots desperate to claw their way through rock.  All this makes the brief moment of bathroom going a disruptive and memorable garnish to the museum trek or hotel night; simplicity is now adventure.

Hotel rooms have the extra resource of a shower to add surrealism to the moment.  I encountered an excellent example in Milan last summer.  It is not uncommon for an Italian bathroom to have no shower-height shower head, but instead to have only a low bathtub-height faucet, or more commonly a spray nozzle on the end of a hose, so one may sit or stand while holding it, and generally shower with reasonable success so long as one is careful to aim into the tub (which is often not guarded by any shower curtain).  Here, I discovered with some satisfaction that there was, in fact, a shower-height wall nozzle—jubilation!—if positioned a little oddly.  This shower had a formal bathtub positioned with one long side against the wall of the bathroom, and the nozzle was in that wall in the precise center of the tub’s length, so one stood, not at one end, but in the middle to be in the water’s course.

Of course, the venerable metropolis of Milan has treasures enough to compensate for any small inconveniences

This would have been excellent if not for two factors.  One: the nozzle didn’t point down, it pointed out, spraying the water completely past the tub toward the unguarded center of the room with a force sufficient to knock the shower curtain aside and drench the bathroom.  Okay, sure, this was surmountable if one took great care to position one’s self between the water jet and the room at all times, using one’s body to deflect the force.  However.  There was a lower nozzle, for filling the bath, flanked as many are by two taps, one cold one hot, so one could mix the water and achieve the desired temperature: good so far.  Yet, for the upper shower-height one, there was only one tap, hot.  Very hot.  Scaldingly hot, in fact, with no possibility of dimming its force with any cold.  So, to shower, one had to stand in the middle of the bathtub and, shielding the room with one’s body, take full brunt of a powerful jet of literally burning hot water.

But this is only the lesser form of Bathroom Suspense.  The true form comes in renting an apartment, and committing, sight unseen and from across the Atlantic, to six months with a bathroom which may well turn out to be another tier of Purgatory.

The view from my bathroom window. All residents of the dense and skyward-climbing termite colony that is the center of Florence share this problem, and are generally polite about moments of awkward eye-contact.

Before I turn to the outstanding examples, let me say that I love my current bathroom.  It is wonderful, by far the best I have had in any Italian apartment.  It’s bliss.  It is a peculiarly long thin space, narrow enough that one must take care stepping around the fixtures, and one must move sideways through it at all times, as well as entering sideways, since the tiny bathroom door is four inches narrower than my shoulders.  There is a window above the toilet looking out on the beautiful skyline and Giotto’s bell tower, which for me is at eye height when I’m sitting on the toilet, has no frosting, shutter or curtain, and an excellent view of several other nearby apartment windows, often occupied.  The shower follows a common trend and has no actual shower bed or rim, it is simply a nozzle that squirts hot water into the bathroom and a drain in the slanted tile floor to which the water, after adventuring across the bathroom, returns and exits.  There is a shower curtain (wonderful!) and a fine sink.  Oh, and the toilet requires my full bodyweight to flush, and the button has to be pressed so it actually recedes into the wall, so I have to throw my full weight against my thumb, not my palm, to activate it.  The water is gas heated, rather than electric, a great energy savings, but it does mean one has to turn the gas on before (and off after) every shower, and the activation mechanism is clear on the opposite side of the apartment by the front door, requiring either foresight or a quick dash in a bathrobe if one forgets.  It only takes about a minute and a half for the water to get hot, though, which is excellent.  My landlady warned me that the water pressure was low, since we are, after all, at the top of a medieval tower, and she even installed an electric pump to increase the flow, but I don’t use it, finding the water pressure perfectly sufficient and comparable to American Low Flow (Low Flow is a concept which will, I suspect, never penetrate a country whose towns are filled with lovely free-flowing public fountains pouring gallons of drinkable water down the drain every second).  Please don’t read any sarcasm into this description.  This is the best bathroom I have had in an Italian apartment, and I am absolutely delighted.

For those skeptical, let me now describe the worst bathroom I have endured in an Italian apartment.  The title does not go to the Roman apartment which offered precisely 1 minute 43 seconds of hot water followed by ice shock, nor to the Florentine apartment with the bathtub in the middle of the room and no curtain, requiring the most delicate aim with the hand-held nozzle.  Another Florentine place where the gas was actually inside the shower so you had to keep an eye on the fire while showering, was also more a case of character than discomfort.  No, the winner is a little place in Florence’s Oltrarno district, which used to belong to the Machiavelli family, whom I do not blame.

Wikipedia will happily educate the uninformed about the history and function of the bidet

Let me first highlight the important fact that, through all this chaos of chain-operated levers and incomprehensible knobs, and in most women’s public restrooms as well, there is always, inevitably, identically, beautifully and functionally, a bidet.  I’m certain that for those who grew up using a bidet its absence in American restrooms must be annoying if not disgusting, but coming from a bidet-free culture (and often having to explain to guests what that “little low sink thing” is next to the toilet) I can stay with confidence that a bidet is not necessary for the bathroom process.  Convenient, comfortable for those accustomed, but you can totally succeed in the whole bathroom experience without one.  (For those unfamiliar: you wash your bottom with it.)  So will someone tell me why, with so many barely-functional showers and sinks that require you to pump a priming handle, the least necessary component of the bathroom is the most reliable?

In the Machiavelli bathroom, the bidet was perfect.  The toilet was reasonable, requiring minimal massage of the mechanism to coax a flush out of it, but the shower nozzle was positioned almost directly above it, so while showering one had to either literally straddle the toilet or teeter in the narrow space between toilet and bidet.  There was again no rim around the shower area, it simply flowed freely into the bathroom, which had a drain in the middle of the floor, but while the very excellent bathroom I am currently enjoying has well-sloped tile to direct the water efficiently to the exit, in this one the water flowed merrily all around the bathroom, completely flooding it.  And this bathroom had no lintel.  So the water flowed merrily out of the bathroom to the space outside.  Did I mention this bathroom was situated on a landing half-way down a flight of solid stone steps between my bedroom and the outer door?  And that said stone stairwell was completely unheated?  Thus if the water made it out the door in winter, sheets of ice were instantly produced, coating the landing and glittering merrily down the steps from bathroom to street.  To prevent this, a squeegee on a long pole was provided, and while showering one had to periodically pause and squeegee the water away from the doorway back to the drain, an exercise rather like raking leaves, only when naked and wet.  And cold.

December in Florence offers bright lights, holiday treats, and an acute awareness that they hadn't invented insulation in 1500

Cold was the true centerpiece of this bathroom.  Italian stone architecture is brilliant in summer at using the natural cave-like coolness of stone and shade to create cool spaces without air conditioning, but the winter converse is not fun when the bathroom is just about as unheated as the stone stairwell outside.  It was freezing—sometimes literally—inside that bathroom, and rather than fog there would be lovely frost patterns on the mirror after a shower.  Returning through the sub-zero stairwell from bathroom to bedroom with wet hair required a deal of moral fiber as well.  Did I mention that this apartment was so cold that, in winter, I slept in my clothes, and my wool coat, and my super-thick camping socks, and my winter boots?  Getting out of my wintry bundle to strip off in a freezing bathroom was… character building.  Fine, good, we can deal with this, the cold should make the shower even more blissful, because the treasured immersion in streaming hot water is the one daily opportunity to be truly warm.  Right?  No, reader, I will not leave you with so predictable a punch line as to say there was no hot water, or that the water ran out after a few moments, or took forever to get warm.  Such mediocrities are unworthy of a property which might have at some point maybe belonged to Machiavelli’s uncle.

Italy, of course, still has treasures enough to make all these inconveniences more than worthwhile

The shower had a simple nozzle.  Half the holes produced completely frigid, barely-above-freezing cold water.  The other half produced blistering burn-yourself-from-touching-it you-could-make-tea-with-this hot water.  With no mixing.  Thus, the full shower experience involved stripping off cuddly warm winter wear in freezing temperatures, then straddling the toilet only to stand with my teeth chattering as freezing water cascaded over part of me, while other areas of skin are burned red by the scalding heat.  While periodically stopping to squeegee.  Comfy as covers are, never before or since has getting out of bed in the morning literally been torture.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is a true Italian bathroom, and I would not trade my current gas-activated heat and oddly-positioned window for all the treasures of the Medici.  Well, maybe for their Botticellis.

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