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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Otranto and its Marvelous Mosaics

A man on branch of Tree of Life, Otranto (Janet Strayer photo)
Otranto is a another exceptional place well worth a visit on this narrow heel of southern  Italy. We went there primarily to see its noted midieval mosaics, one of the largest pieces of inventive design to survive intact to our day. These mosaics also contribute one of the most important pieces of artwork from the Middle Ages.  
exterior entrance, Otranto Cathedral (Janet Strayer photo)
The mosaics are the highlight of Otranto's ancient cathedral, built of monolithic granite and marble by the Normans at the beginning of the 11th century and incorporating Romanesque, Byzantine and early Christian styles. Despite the flourishes added later, the simplicity of its architecture and its stone rose-window may seem like a relief after all the very ornate and elaborate Baroque one sees in later and larger cathedrals. But just wait until you step inside! It is fantastic.

photo credit
One artist, a monk named Pantaleone (with his co-workers), was responsible for all this mosaic magic. He must have been sure enough of its legacy to leave his name in stone, along with all the other Latin inscriptions.

nave mosaics, Otranto, photo credits
Elephants holding up the Tree of Life (sideways at entrance to Otranto Cathedral, Janet Strayer photo)
These wonderful 12th century mosaics are very different from the justly famous gorgeous floors and walls seen at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. First of all, here you are actually walking on all the depictions (for better or worse, in terms of their conservation). The mosaic floor is part of a still  active church, with pews set atop them. Wonderful for the parishioners, I'd think, but a bit disappointing for viewers from afar who have read about this marvellous floor and wish to see it uninterrupted. For photos taken with the floor cleared of pews, click on this recommended link. Otherwise, here are my own photos, taken under the present conditions.

Elephants holding up the Tree of Life (sideways view, Janet Strayer photo)
In the center as you enter the cathedral, you see the Tree of Life balanced on the backs of two elephants. The tree branches out into the aisles and apses and beyond. Other original depictions range from genesis to redemption, all created  with what seems to me a joyously inventive spirit and accomplished within a fine overall sense of decorative design.

The floor is so compelling, you might forget to look up at the elaborate carved and decorated ceiling, a contrast to the more simple architectural pillars and layout.
interior, and ceiling Otranto cathedral, Janet Strayer photos

But look to the floor! It's like walking through a huge, illuminated manuscript of the time. You even see some aspects of life (clothing, agriculture) in the Middle ages. Everything links to     everything else in this marvellous depiction of the ever-branching Tree of Life!

Not just Old (Cain and Abel, Jonah and whale, Sampson and lion , etc.) and New Testament theological narratives are depicted, but also the zodiac, pagan references (satyrs, etc.), fanciful beasts and mythological figures and symbols, as well medieval romances.

depictions of the Zodiac, and other fantastic creatures (above) photos by Janet Strayer

The inclusiveness expressed within Otranto Cathedral  is said to mirror the interests of a once international city (of Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews and Muslims) in which "the culture of inclusion" thrived. Otranto was a hub of maritime trade connecting cultures of East and West. One hopes this focus on inclusiveness instead of insularity still lives on. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Living in Lecce, Part 2

This southern region of Puglia is a very Catholic part of Catholic Italy. Visiting the many churches in Lecce (and in other nearby excursions), the daily masses are well attended, in contrast to other parts of Italy we've explored.  Cathedrals and churches abound in all directions, and all seem to have some special treasure to gaze at, some historical feature to note, and many, many confessionals, should you need them. 

In Lecce you can find an impressive church at literally each turn you take, with more than 20 elaborate stone churches in the historic centre alone! Given all these structures, no wonder Lecce's is famous for its own style of elaborated Baroque. Santa Croce is often heralded as the most ornate of these (under renovation as I write), but none are negligible.  I've looked at and into each one, and the photos taken would fill an album.

An overall impression that remains is, of course, the baroque stone elaborations outside and inside the churches, something for which Lecce is known. Particularly, however, I've been delighted by how all of the churches seem to love cherubs: chubby little angels appear again and again, entwined with flowers, plants, and ornaments or with each other. And what's not to love? They seem spirited, hopeful, and add a touch of gaiety to otherwise somber matters.

inside one of Lecce's grand churches, (Janet Strayer photo)
Given the many notable chuches in Lecce, I'll  highlight just one of the lesser known, dedicated to Saints Nicolo and Cataldo.Walking to it takes you away from the hub of the city and near a cemetary and park. Once we thought we were in its vicinity, but still couldn't locate it, we asked for directions from a young local couple walking with their child. They had no idea it even existed. So we walked together to find the place, and it was a pleasure sharing our delight with them at this discovery.

Contrasting architecture of domed church,  cloister and pergola
tree near S. Nicolo (J.Strayer photos)
A lovely guide welcomed us and provided a wealth of information, easily converted into English for our ease. She led us into the cloisters so that we could see both the otherwise unseen campanile and the original Latin inscription, testifying to its medieval architect and patron,Tancred, the Norman ruler from Sicily (a rarity to have both inscribed). 

I inquired about a fresco I thought was by a medievalist who seemed herald Giotto in style. No, she informed me. The artist had already been impressed by Giotto's work in the north and had tried to apply it here. The result was what I mistook for pre-Giotto (because of its more naive style). So much for artistic appropriation! Still, to my eye, it retained a naive and very authentic quality, a "presence" of its own, even in fragmented form.

Having feasted richly on the Leccese Baroque style, coming to Saint Nicolo cleansed the palatte. It is set in an open surround with trees and a cemetery nearby, and with no other buildings to compete. The church is notable in its Norman arches and architecture, as well as its Norman-Byzantine interior, with parts of frescoes remaining from the middle ages (as noted in my "Giottoesque" example). 

Along with its churches, this is a city that also loves its obelisks, many of which you can see while trying to negotiate the traffic roundabouts. Though I've snapped one of its major ones while walking near the Porta Napoli, my favorite one is more whimsical, with  birds flying out of  and atop it. It's inconvenient to stop and photograph it, and I'd never hazard this while driving around its roundabout. But here's a photo of it, too (cannot find its name or information about it). I like its composite structure and birds flying off from it.

Norman arches, Roman elements, Byzantine and Medieval frescoes (photos Janet Strayer)

Lecce's architectural flourishes reside not only in its churches. You can see them everywhere: looking up at balconies of private homes, at cornices of buildings, and almost everywhere you look. Even the pavements are interesting in their patterns!

Some of Lecce's fabulous balconies (Janet Strayer photos)


 This small city has a weatlth of architectural and archaeological treasures, including its Greek, Norman, Roman, Byzantine and Baroque influences. Just imagine having a house in the old city and needing to make some basement excavations because of sewage problems. This led one family to the chance discovery of multiple strata of archaeological wonders. This home stands in the historic town and has now been turned into the easily accessed Faggiano museum. As you travel downward, its deepest finds take you back to the Messapii culture of the 5th century BC; then up through Roman crypts, medieval ramparts, Jewish insigna and Knights Templar symbols.

Nothing missing so far except a castle. Oh, wait, there's an unmistakably grand one here. The emperor Charles V thought Lecce was key to his defenses, so he built a mighty castle-fortress here. It guards the city now at less than casual attention, open to any and all who wish to walk through it.  It's fun taking a short-cut through the castle to get from the main square where you've been drinking a cappucino at Alvino's café and looking over to the ancient Roman amphitheatre (not yet excavated in Charles V's time). The castle can be and is treated as a short-cut  from this main piazza to the streets behind that house theaters, beauty shops, wineries, boutiques and other shops catering to a lively modern city. How many cities offer such impressive short-cuts for daily use?


I especially like walking into and out of the old walled city from its different portals. The central one is Porta Napoli, to and from which you see university students streaming. We live nearest the Porta Rudiae, right inside which is the art academy, the Accademia Belle Arti, with its stately old entranceway (photo at right).

Porta Napoli  photo Janet Strayer
Accademia Belle Arti photo credit

Given the contrast it offered, I couldn't resist a picture of this old bicycle parked outside the ornate entrance to the Accademia. This bicycle frame is a sculpture in itself. It seems like a Dada-esque sculpture left always outside the ancient entrance to the Accademia -- symbolic of all that is old and young in this vibrant city. Bicycles seem to be an icon this city -- easy to ride on the level (even if cobbletoned) paths, and many are ridden in traffic as well. On the first day of exploring old Lecce by foot, I even  spotted a wooden bicycle outside a shop.


wooden bicyle in Lecce (Janet Stryaer photo)

Entering the Accademia for a quick peek, I loved the young faces seen in this ancient place, toiling away at their creative studies. I snapped some photos as I peered inside the Accademia halls showing well-used printing presses, a class at work, and samples of contemporary sculpture and painting found inside its walls (I wish I could credit the artists but could not find this information). As well as the Accademia, Lecce also hosts a more generic universityi One sees an assortment of international faces here among the students and residents.

photos inside Accademia Belle Arti by Janet Strayer

class inside Accademia Belle Arti (Janet Strayer photo)
artwork inside Accademia Belle Arti Lecce (Janet Strayer photos)

art store in Lecce, photo Janet Strayer
A meandering distance away, from the Accademia I found a wonderful old and crammed art supplies store: Belle Arti Caiulo. I love such tucked-in shops with their wooden shelves and counters, somewhat dark in places, with the aroma of years. Lovely Fabriano papers of all types are in stock and really everything one could need, plus a knowledgeable and helpful staff, understandably proud of their shop.

The pleasure of Lecce lies not only in the historic old city but spills out into its surrounding streets. On the streets outside the historic center, the traffic is brisk. I much prefer walking to driving, when possible. Especially because some of the houses lining "ordinary" streets  make you stop and marvel at them. On one of the main avenues leading to our own side-street is lined with privately-owned mansions in styes ranging from Renaissance balance to high Baroque with a Moorish twist. We fantasize about which of these remarkable houses we would live in. Of course, we'd have to restore most of these structures properly (as seems to be happening to some, properly or not). And then we'd need to decorate their interiors appropriately ...  in our dreams! But what fantastic fun to imagine.
Moorish-inspired mansion on Gallipoli, Lecce (Janet Strayer photo)
We're quite happy where we are, though. It's wonderful to sit in outdoor cafés (even in winter jackets, if needed). The wintertime sunshine is ample (compared to Vancouver!), and we can enjoy the local treats as we people-watch. The treats include puccia, a local bread that is somewhat like a fuller and richer pita, its dough sometimes flavored with spices and olives. There's also  rustico, a delicious puff pastry filled with various savories and cheese. And then there's pasticciotto, an egg-custard pastry with a rich and buttery baked crust. 

So I'll leave you with this taste of Lecce as we rest up for more of Puglia.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Living in Lecce, Part 1

photo credits
Arrival in Lecce, a city of modest size at the center of Italy's Salento Peninsula, occurred at night after a long and uninteresting drive southeast from the Rome airport. We came to this special city, touted by guidebooks as one of the most beautiful in Italy.   Located on the stiletto heel of Italy, it's a fine place from which to explore Puglia one the economically poorer regions of Italy. But not poorer in historical or, as I've come to see, in scenic and  cultural interests.

It is very different here from mid and northern Italy, which we've lived in previously, and will again. Here we are at the heel's tip of Italy,  set narrowly between  the Ionian and the Adriatic Seas. This is a land marked by its flatness in all directions. It might be compared  to the prairies back home, but it is so different in its vegetation, colors, and scenic outlook that you know you are living elsewhere.

And living elsewhere is exactly the point of these travels: changing perspectives, experiencing life a bit differently, eyes open to the familiar because it has become unfamiliar. Even the sky here is different, spreading itself closer to the ground and sea. This region is a haven for sea-lovers. It's too cold now to swim at its beaches, and the winds can be strong ones, as the rainstorms have been this winter season.

 The land outside the cities can be fairly bleak, though the nearness of both its seas makes for some lush watering holes and interesting old ports. As you travel, the land is filled with acres of olive groves, many close enough to the highways to see the characteristic silvery-green of the leaves and the gnarled, thick trunks of the ancient trees, pruned since before Roman times. In fact, the culturally influential origins of this region are Greek, with pre-historic settlers coming across the Ionian Sea, and the early artifacts found across this area typical of ancient Greece. I'm looking forward to visiting some museum sites to see and learn more.
We live in a large and comfortable apartment, conveniently located a walk away from the historical walled city of Lecce, with its famously Baroque architecture and beautifully gold-yellow stone that is characteristic of this location. Winter it is ...and it does feels like it, but still there are cacti and some flowers in bloom on the terrace. Ah, the eternal hope this gives! 
Our apartment has a genteel, retro feel to it, a feeling of having been well lived-in .... as witnessed by this old radio console and accoutrements atop it.

original artwork by T.F., photo by J.Strayer

There is also some charming art on its walls, some of it done by the original owner, a physician who also painted.
Along with the paintings is this interesting ceramic piece from Calabria. Altogether a very pleasant place to reside, with pleasant memories still alive.
photo by Janet Strayer

From the terrace of our apartment, you can see the campanile of the Duomo in the center of the old walled city. It's just a brief walk from here.
photo by Janet Strayer
photo credits --a blog I recommend

I've tried to do a bit of sketching and painting here myself. I put plastic on a table and cardboard on the floor, to keep all clean and tidy. But I feel constrained in the space and limited to small studies and experiments. Maybe that's all I'll do while here. But it's all worth just being here and absorbing what I can. It's always been the case that travels and living in different parts of the world have influenced what and how I paint, though it's not always obvious (to me or to others) at the time. We'll see, I guess.

The main piazza of historic Lecce is a surprise to come upon as you walk through the old walled part of the city's diverging streets and  pathways. The 12th century Duomo was restored in mid 18th century by the architect G. Zimbalo, regarded as the master of what has become known as the Leccese Baroque style so typical of this area.The Duomo has an impressive facade facing the piazza and a very tall campanile beside it. It's the campanile I notice most, its structure so compact yet directed so high you can barely see the bell as you look up from the groundstones. But it is  the combined impact of all that constitutes this piazza that impresses most -- especially as you surprisingly come upon it, tucked away, as it were, amidst the angling streets.
top of Campanile of Lecce, photo credits

The Piazza del Duomo strangely has always been sunlit, even on cloudy days. It's a calm and pleasing rectangular space with interestingly  proportioned buildings and decorated stonework. The yellowish Leccese stonework and decorative architectural touches are typical of much the old city, giving it all a harmonious feeling.  
Lecce is not particularly known for its painters: none in Italy's south rival those nurtured from the pre-Renaissance, with its prosperous patrons living further north. But a tradition of rather fanciful Baroque architecture did develop, and the area is rich in historic Roman, medieval and Renaissance structures and monuments.

Notably, at the beginning of the 20th century, a Roman amphitheatre of the Augustan age was unearthed beneath Lecce's streets. It remains the main feature of Piazza Sant'Oronzo, a large central piazza in the heart of the old city, surrounded by outdoor cafés and shops, in some of which Lecce's skilled artisans still practice the ancient craft of papier-maché, notable in this locale.
Roman amphitheater in Lecce (Janet Strayer photo)
For me, the main artistic interests in Lecce are architectural ones, in contrast to the splendid paintings and frescoes seen further north in Italy. But there ismuch to delight in, especially while walking upon ancient pavements, some filled with amazing mosaics, or looking up at finely decorated wooden ceilings and Norman arches, or at cathedral columns festooned with an incredible number of angel-cupids and other fabulously plentiful creations. Even in the less palatial houses in Lecce's historic center, you can often look up to balconies supported by caryatids and to cornices filled with faces created centuries ago. 

As for the people-watching, there aren't many tourists this time of year, and we try to blend in as much as possible.. as you can see:
photo by Janet Strayer

This is definitely not tourist season here, and foreigners are easy to spot. But the folk here are very friendly (except when driving!). There is an off-season sense of reality in contrast to the showiness that seems to accompany any city at tourism's heights. But there's also still a good sense of show here. Take, for example, this distinguished and appropriately well  attired busker with his dulcimer. He played beautifully in Lecce's old streets, and was most gracious to his admirers.
Well-attired busker with dulcimer in Lecce (Janet Strayer photos


There's still very much to explore and learn in Lecce. But we also want to see other remarkable places in Puglia. Thankfully,  we have some time to do it.  And hopefully, I'll find the  time to keep you posted. 

Happy trails to you as well!