The great New Horizons Pluto fly-by has occurred. We have our mottling, our iron colors, and large patches of light and dark which will keep astrogeologists like Jonathan active and excited for months and years to come. I wanted to make sure you all had a chance to see the NASA reports on the Pluto surface, and Pluto’s moon Charon, whose surface shows every sign of a very active interior.
I am also happy to announce that I have just launched a new Kickstarter campaign, to support the production of two new CDs of my music. “Stories and Stone” is a companion album to “Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok” containing variant arrangements of my Viking music, plus new recordings of my anthem for Space exploration and human progress “Somebody Will”. “Trickster and King” will be the first album recorded by myself and my singing partner Lauren Schiller as the duo “Sassafrass: Trickster and King”. The whole first album and half of the second are finished and streaming online, so please listen and enjoy. And if you enjoy, please consider supporting the Kickstarter, and spread the word about it (NOW OVER – it was a great success, THANK YOU! Hear the music here). Much of the goal of this campaign is to raise money so I can afford to hire help, including my assistant Mack who works with me here on Ex Urbe and with other projects. I am having more and more demands on my time as teaching and research at Chicago become more intense, and especially as the release of my novels approaches, and the more help I can hire the more time I can devote to Ex Urbe posts and other creative projects. So if you’ve been wondering if there’s a “tip jar” or some other way you can support Ex Urbe, this is a great way, as is spreading the word about the campaign.
The finished album, to be released in August:
And the second album still in progress:
Somebody Will with guitar:
It’s hard to pick a single favorite track, but if I had to it is probably Hearthfire in five parts, with guitar performed by my (wonderful and Space exploration-championing!) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
The first CD should ship in September, with an instant digital download when the Kickstarter finishes in August.
Meanwhile, to split the difference between Viking music and Pluto, I recently had the good luck of a daytime flight over Greenland in beautiful weather, so please enjoy this photo essay on the wild and icy geology of our own little planet, and the frosty habitat of our native Jotuns and trolls:
This is not the promised second installment of my discussion of Machiavelli. I have been too busy to do it properly. In the mean time, however, I have at last (through the good work of my assistant Athan) figured out the web technology share one of my favorite Florentine experiences – something I know Machiavelli would be delighted to have me share.
Living in the center as I did this year, I was often interrupted mid-footnote by the distant peppering of drum beats. Live music is a constant in the historic center. There is a consistent daily calendar which I soon came to memorize: the accordion player whose medley of “Canta y no llores” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (why?!) looped through the lunch hour, solos from Carmen at 3:00, the Peter, Paul & Mary cover guitarist at 5:00, the Peruvian flute and drum band at 6:00, the Bad Clown (my nemesis!) at 9 pm, 9:30 weekends. Other performances vary daily, with a different brass band or or talented youth group occupying key piazzas every weeknight and weekend.
It is impossible to attend even all the good performances, so the first step when the pop-pop-pop of drums float through the window is to listen carefully for the pattern. Is it the regular, modern beat of a marching band? Or is it the distinctive TUM [pause] ta-ta-TUM [pause] ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TA-ta-ta-TUM! That rhythm means only one thing: an historic parade! And 50/50 odds that means Sbandieratori! The fantastic medieval sport of tossing banners in the air and catching them in elaborate patterns, as the brave athletes risk the public shame that comes with letting the city’s flag touch the ground if the flag falls. Time to rush rush rush down the stairs stairs stairs, then follow the drums and trumpets until you see the distinctive white and red peeking above the crowd.
And now I can share my experience, thanks to the miracle of amateur video!
These clips are grainy, but capture a good sample of the experience. The first in the series streamed below shows the usual first experience: a glimpse of flags swirling above the assembled heads, proof that flag tossing is indeed an ideal form of public display for a world before bleachers and loudspeakers. The second video I filmed while following behind the parade en route to their finale (that one is slightly jiggly at the beginning but still in the middle). The remaining videos show various stages of the display. This performance I filmed was at night, so it’s a little dim, but takes place right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. You will see many stages of the performance, from the whole troop working in formation passing flags from hand to hand, to displays by pairs or soloists using one, two, three, four, even five flags at once.
(For some reason the video player embedded below sometimes doesn’t display the first time you load the page, but if you only see a blank white space, hit refresh and it will display.)
It’s a fabulous treat to watch, and in the middle of a strenuous weekend of editing and deadline-chasing it was often a beautiful release to rush down and enjoy a dose of historical pageantry: Oh, right! I’m in Florence!
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.
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.
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 “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 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.
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.