145. Scenes of Italy

One of the beauty parts of travel is that it stays with you, even long after you return home. The sights, the sounds, the smells — the adventures, the triumphs, the unexpected — are all to be savored in the months and years that follow. Even the catastrophes (one hopes) are not too catastrophic, and can be fashioned into a funny story when the pain, fear, embarrassment and hassle have faded. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed:

Alleyways: I love the narrow lanes and alleys, that can reveal a treasure, if you only think to look.

The duomo in Orvieto takes you by surprise.
On the shore of Lago di Garda, after the storm.
Some alleys are wet.
Early morning in Ferrara. In a few hours, this lane will be filled with life.
In Burano, an alley so narrow that Ben could easily touch both sides. Does the sun ever hit that laundry?
Tower in Bologna reaches for the sun.

Tools of the Trade: It’s often said that some native Alaskan dialects have more that fifty words for snow, because it is so much a part of the experienced world that it is perceived and appreciated in all its minute variations. This can surely be said for the multiple forms of pasta in Italy: while the average American could probably name five or six varieties often used interchangeably, it is estimated that there are at least 350 varieties throughout Italy, each used with particular sauces in particular circumstances. I was charmed to see that this particularity extended to the pasta rolling pins — mattarelli — at the pasta factory we visited in Bologna. I wondered if a different tool was used for different pasta varieties, or whether each employee had her favorite. My cousin Joan tells me she remembers our grandmother rolling out pasta dough with hers.

Waiting to be called to action.
A pasta-maker chooses her favorite for the task at hand.

Venetian Poles: Speaking of poles, I was charmed by the brightly colored poles seen along the Grand Canal in Venice. I learned that they are distinct markers of the palaces they stand in front of. In 1562, disturbed by the competition among the aristocracy to have the most sumptuous and ornate family gondola, it was decreed that all gondolas must be black, a practice that continues to this day. The rich families took that in stride, and transferred their conspicuous consumption to the hitching posts in front of their palazzi.

All black
The place to let it all hang out.

At church: It will come as no surprise that Italy is majority Roman Catholic, what with Rome in the Church’s official name and the location of its HQ. Various demographic accountings put the percentage who are “born Catholic” between 75 and 80. Yet in keeping with the rest of Western Europe, only a third of Italians report being observant, with those more likely to be female, older and in the South.

Sunday Mass is sparsely attended.

Yet, for all its lack of daily practice, Catholicism is in the air here: streets and civic plazas are frequently named for saints and popes, and you can’t go far without running into a church. A main square in Ferrara is dominated by a statue of native son Savonarola, a 15th-century friar who campaigned again clerical and social excesses of the Renaissance. The phrase bonfire of the vanities refers to his Shrove Tuesday 1497 collection and burning of thousands of objects of beauty and pleasure, including paintings, books, cosmetics, musical instruments, playing cards, fine clothing and mirrors. He himself was burned by the Church hierarchy a year later, after being excommunicated and hung on a cross, but that doesn’t stop him from having pride of place in the town square.

Savonarola in the main piazza, looking over daily life in Ferrara with disapproval.

Nonetheless, I imagine that religious practice increases when the big life events roll around — baptism, First Communion, weddings and funerals — three of which involve elaborate white dresses, of which Savonarola would not approve.

I love Italian weddings – who needs an invitation?

2 thoughts on “145. Scenes of Italy

  1. Your writing is so beautiful, Gigi; I always feel I’m right there beside you in those alleyways, churches, piazzas — experiencing the culture and beauty of this amazing place. I’ve seen those rolling pins many times in antique shops and never knew what they were! Not sure I’m ready to make my own pasta but admire those who do 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s