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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Taranto: a Dance, A City, and a Living Past

You've heard of the dance, the Tarantella? Its origins are an oddity, and it's an odd distinction to have this particular dance named after you, but such is the fate and fame of Taranto, a city on Puglia's Ionian coast. In fact, we visited two cities in Puglia because of their links to the tarantella: Taranto and Galatina (to come in the next post).
Title still-shot of documentary, credits and link
 The peculiarity of the tarantella is that its origins are associated with a psychic disorder, or a form of hysteria, known as tarantism that was recognized in Italy as early as the 15th C. But Tarantism has lingered on in isolated rural areas through the 20th C., as noted in a documentary clip from nearby Galatina the 1950's and aired on TV by another off-beat traveller, Anthony BourdinYou can click here to see the original Italian documentary, La Taranta, which filmed incidents of tarantism occurring in the nearby countryside. Filmed in the 1950's, it looks much earlier in time and is quite different in its rawness from the holiday tarantellas celebrated in festivals now

Said to be caused by the bite of a tarantula spider (a form of wolf-spider or black-widow), its victims  (mostly women) display distressed and feverish symptoms that include vomiting and sweating, fear and delirium, depression and paranoia. They are seemingly cured by a rite that involves feverish 'dancing' that can last for days. It's not so much dancing as it is impulsive, pulsing movement: jumping, hopping, gyrating upright or on the floor. The frenetic movements are accompanied by music played fast, in 6/8 time, with the pace of both music and movements reciprocally urging each other onward, all in  the company of  family and neighbors who attend the seized woman. The often delirious victim, with attendant crowd, eventually is guided to the local church where, still trance-like and tired-out, she is finally 'danced-out 'of her throes with religious help. 
Dancing Maenad on Vase by Python, 330 B.C. credits

The tarantella has a fascinating history. It is thought that Taranto, in particular, gave its name to the dance because a particular variety of wolf-spider popularly believed to be venomous was common to this region, and thus was named the tarantula. The origins of the dance, however, may lie much deeper in history and cult, speculated to be a surviving remnant from ancient rites of Diana or of Dionysius. We know that all of Puglia was originally more Greek than Latin/Roman. By early Roman times, Bacchanalian rites were suppressed, which may have driven them underground ... where they lingered and were transformed into another collective ritual in the cult of TarantismWhat is known for certain is that Tarantism dates back centuries in this region, appearing in early manuscripts. 

The music, originally played on whatever local  instruments were available (tambourine, drums, fiddle, accordion, guitar)  developed into folk dance forms, popular in several regions of southern Italy. In the Salento region, the dance is  also known as the pizzica. The tarantella also made its way to the more formal dance-floor... for nimble-footed. partners. And the marvellous choreographer, George Balanchine, adapted it to ballet. Remarkable in its journey from dirt floors to concert halls, the tarantella also appears in the work of such dignified composers as Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. But the original  forms of the dance, very obscurely caused by a spider's bite, were inspired by each individual's almost hypnotically frenzied, trance-like movements in response to the dancer's delirium set to music's beat.

We visited Taranto, the city etymologically linked to this curious dance,. crossing from east to west on the narrow heel of Italy's boot, travelling from the Adriatic to the Ionian Sea. We were unlikely to see this the tarentalla today. Our motivation for visiting was to see Taranta's well-recommended archaeological museum. 

MARTA describes this as a navigation scene with myth figure, carved on cup, 2,000 BC
We were not disappointed. The MARTA museum (Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Taranto) is  easy to navigate and fun to explore, with excellent staff to help, if needed.The access and lighting are modern, and the items just enough to give a sense of the particularity of each item  and the context. The displays are very well presented (many in English and Italian), with computer-screens that let you look further into particular items and context. This is a museum you can appreciate, one that takes both its informative function and "audience" satisfaction into consideration. We left, feeling both intellectually and aesthetically satisfied. And maybe we even learned a thing or two. Especially notable is how much a part of ancient magna-Graecia influences (language, artifacts, art, customs) is this southern region that is now Italy.

One of the reasons I love museums, like MARTA, that focus upon what we call "prehistory" and "protohistory" is that they show as well as inspire a special blend of skillfully investigative research+imagination (an Einsteinian combination) in order to unearth (literally) what the displayed objects likely meant when they were fully alive. 

The museum is arranged chronologically as you walk through its levels. Here are some of the many intriguing and beautiful objects in the museum -- a random and nonchronological sampling from photos I took. They include 20,000 year-old figurines of a female/goddess, a polychromed head with its colors intact, anthropomorphic pots from the 6th century B.C., one of the most intricate gold earrings I've seen (4th century B.C., used as an iconic poster for the museum), a nutcracker in the shape of black hands, representations of African faces (at this 3rd-4th century B.C. cross-roads of many cultures), wonderfully designed functional pots from different epochs, and Medusa as she looked across ancient time.


It's a gift to us that a focus of the MARTA is to illuminate the earliest forms communication within this region of multiple cultures. This goal also helps to communicate to us  the intents and meanings behind the many quotidian, functional, ceremonial, religious and just plain beautiful objects displayed. 

Given that there are no extant traces of language itself that is as old as many of the objects we're shown, we're left with marvellous clues to decipher: technological artifacts of the time, items relating to food production/consumption, houses and settlements, burial remains, ritual or ceremonial objects, human adornments, decorative motifs and representations (animal, human, gods), aesthetic styles, art. Almost any human act can have both functional and symbolic or ideological meaning, and these can change across generations and different communities.  All this remains a living story precisely because it remains open to be deciphered, by us  now... as it was then. 

Quite a time-travel adventure when we visited Taranto.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ever Want to Hug a House?

Really. Have you ever seen a house you wanted to hug? That was exactly what I wanted to do upon first seeing a trullo:  I wanted to hug it!
Trulli in Alberobello (photo Janet Strayer)
Trulli are conical stone houses so distinct, diminutive and charming as to be a category unto themselves. I'd even say they are adorable, easily skipping into the world of fantasy hobbits and elves, except for the fact that they are quite real. Their name derives from the Greek word for dome. In contast to flights of fancy, they are, and have been for centuries, functional houses serving the needs of their inhabitants ...  and bringing joy to visitors. They merit a whole area of Puglia devoted to them.

Travelling just a bit more than hour from our home-base in Lecce (Puglia) is Alborobello, a UNESCO world heritage cite and a city put on the map by its trulli. All around this area, you can find trulli scattered throughout the countryside, although it is in Alborobello that one finds the densest concentration of them.
a congregation of trulli  (photo by Janet Strayer)
The route to Alborobello from Lecce is interesting, presenting a change from flat to hilly to steeper and greener terrain, with winding mountain passes that get snow (I saw road signs warning of its eventuality). The area is a distinct change of scenery from further south, and  it is home to many nature walks in the woods. It was taking this drive that I realised how much I missed large masses of green and trees. Seems the ancient Romans de-natured the once-forested south of Italy (and Sicily), uprooting the trees to build ships. Ah yes, the lessons of history...

streets of trulli, Arborobello (Janet Strayer photos)
It makes one smile to see a cluster of trulli from a distance. I imagined a whole village of small persons with pointed hats. Not so, of course. The trullo is a unique example of ancient architecture that survives and functions in today's world. Nowadays, several trulli can be seen joined into quite fantastic, castle-like residences with charmingly curved courtyards. There are trulli hotels, though you can also stay in a small trulli B&B. Their conical roofs are are made of horizonatal slabs of limestone, positioned in a series of diminishing concentric circles, and often mounted by a decorative feature.

trullo roof stones (Janet Strayer photo)
 I wanted to get a feeling for the more modest trullo, as it might have been in the past. One was open for vistors, allowing us to see  how remarkable it was inside as well as out. I was amazed by how compact and comfortable it was. The structure's interior is distributed around its central space without any additional elements of support -- like the modern concept of open-space interior, but with arched ceilings separating modular units in this space. The "rooms"  (without doors) are identified by changing curves in the wall, each one mounted by a high coned ceiling. Standing was comfortable and, though each room was tiny, each was sufficient to its purpose, explained to me as the central living area,  kitchen-dining-area, adult bedroom, children's bedroom. The walls' thickness and the scarcity of windows functions to promote thermal regulation: warm in winter, cool in summer.
Trulli have been recorded in archaeological finds as preshistoric burial sites, among other things, and their construction is not complex--- but building them to endure stably is a skill (link to read more). Made of limestone rocks built up concentrically into ever smaller circles, their bases are now grafted with limestone masonry.

But why should they have remained distinctly prominent in this region? Their historical origins as a settlement of houses in Alborobello date back to the 14th century. The story is that this form of construction, known from earliest times, was used because it is free-standing dry wall  (no mortar) that can be readily constructed (and dismantled). Those qualities, plus the abundance of white limestone in the area, could serve the needs of hasty settlers, eager to take advantage of land grants while evading building taxes. 

Leaving Alborobello, we made a brief stop in nearly Locorotondo ("round place"), heralded as one of the most beautiful small cities in Italy... and one of the whitest. Some of Italy's fine wines can be found in this area.

Although trulli can also been seen here, my lasting impression of this city is of well cared-for,  simple white houses, calmly positioned in a circular city plan. We stopped for a machiatto at an fine little coffee bar facing the little park atop the city, taking a look down at the scenic valley before continuing "home" to Lecce.

I'm eager to see what comes next. Until then...

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Winter Beach at San Cataldo

You know that Vancouver (and Saturna Island, of course) have wonderful beaches. I've always loved living near the sea. Now, living in Lecce, it's a very different sea: the Adriatic, and its quite near here. The experience of being beside the sea is both similar to and different from being home.

It was a sunny afternoon after many cloudy days. No reason to stay indoors. Even my artwork experiments had all been going poorly So, upon the inspiration of my bright partner, we took a short drive to San Cataldo, the oceanside town near Lecce.
San Cataldo near the lungomare (Janet Strayer photo)

We wanted to walk the lungomare, its long seawall promenade. It's fine beaches make it a very crowded place in summertime, with local cabanas land bistros in attendance. But now it was a lonely place. Everything was shut for the winter, with the exception of a small café.
lungomare, San Cataldo (JS photo)
We passed a handful of people, and their dogs, strolling on the seawall or the sand, but it was otherwise isolated. Of course, this was a working day for most, so perhaps that accounted for the isolation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Vancouver always has people on its seawall, eating their lunches there on breaks from work, or skateboarding, or bicycling. Not that I minded this sense of open beach all to ourselves!  There's nothing quite like walking along the waves as they come onto shore.

grafitti at San Cataldo beach area (JStrayer photos)
Notably enough, this spot was the only place in this area that I've seen dedicated grafitti painted on public walls. In Lecce, there are only a few scribblings and no grafitti art I could see. Perhaps everyone has too much respect for the beauty already here to add their tags to it. But here, at one stretch of wall near the beach at San Cataldo was some interesting grafitti.

After about two miles of walking the sands and the lungomare, it felt like one of those simple, good things we take for granted: just us, our thoughts, and walking beside the sea.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sights from Gallipoli and Leuca in Puglia, Italy

Janet Strayer photo, from Gallipoli
Another brief drive from our home base in Lecce takes us to two different spots on Italy's Adriatric coast. First to Gallipoli. Then, just a brief drive to the southern-most tip of Italy's heel, we are in Santa Maria Leuca.

It was a beautifully clear, cold day when we arrived. You can see the kind of day it was in this photo, taken upon our arrival in Gallipoli. Yes, flowers in the cold but clear sun of February!

Janet Strayer photo
Gallipoli's name translates from the original Greek as "beautiful city".  We've now seen a number of these  beautiful cities in the Salentino Peninsula of Italy. Like most of them, Gallipoli has both its old, historic city and a more modern surrounds. The old is the best, secondo me.

Right at its pier is Gallipoli's castle-fortress, built when it was a rich cross-route for sea-faring merchants...  and also a prime spot for invasions. Gallipoli now, in this winter and non-tourist season, is a very quiet fishing village. It's quite lovely, all in white and tucked into its harbor, with its looming 13th C. castle at the shoreline.

castle-fortress at Gallipoli, Puglia/Italy (Janet Strayer photos)

Gallipoli, Janet Strayer photo

We walked up the castle steps from the pier to the old city. A pretty white maze of winding, narrow streets that we followed up a bit, then back down to the walkway just above the sea. 

Without all the buzz of the tourist industry, it's easy to see how much of a simple fishing village Gallipoli remains. Although it shares in the monumental churches and castle-fortresses of many historic, coastal towns in southern Italy, what I noticed most was the activity of fishers on its pier. They were straightening out their differently colored nets. You can see many piles of nets along the jetties.

Gallipoli, photos Janet Strayer
The sea air , sun, and winter breeze  make everything feel so fresh; yet you know you are walking on stone paths trod by sandals worn millenia ago.

Sandal sculpture (MARTA museum, Taranta; Janet Strayer photo)

And lastly today, a visit to Leuca, (Santa Maria Leuca), at the very bottom of Italy's southern heel. I've drawn the large black dot at the red tip of Italy's boot-heel to show the approximate location of Leuca.
Leuca shown as black dot on southern tip of Italy's heel (Janet Strayer)
It feels special just knowing that here, with a turn of your head sideways in either direction, you look into either the Adriatic or the the Ionian seas. Standing in the middle of the waters at this spot, I suppose, is where their waters meet. Odd, isn't it, how we nations of the world divide up geographies of land, water, and even air?
photo credits
Leuca (Sta. Maria de Leuca) is a quiet and wind-swept place at this visit. It has a lovely park, high atop the city's shoreline, with fine views of the city and sea below. The sanctuary/basilica De Finibus Terrae ("End of the Land", 1720-1755) crowns  this city, along with one of Italy's most famous lighthouses, second only to Genoa's in its prominence.

As often occurs. the current sanctuary is built atop former structures dedicated to other beliefs. In this case, a temple of Hera/Minerva may have stood in more ancient times. Then, as now, it reportedly could be seen by distant seafarers.
view from sanctuary atop Leuca, Janet Strayer photo

And here we sit on a sunny, cold afternoon, enjoying a simple caffé after walking around this 'tap' upon the lower tip of Italy's heel. And feeling on top of the world.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A River Runs Through It

Walking within the walls of the old city of Lecce, we come to a house. From the outside it looks like the other old stone houses lining this street. Perhaps not as fancy on its exterior as some others we've seen on our walks in this gracious city, but solidly part of this ancient street. Its door is open... and we enter.

terracota artifacts, found at Faggiano house
 The house is named after the Faggiano family who own it. It is a treasture trove of archaeological finds, all coming from beneath its floors and within in its walls. And it's true: a river runs through it!
Tuffa deposits underground, Faggiano house/museum

peek trough walls, Faggiano museum (Janet Strayer photos)
The story of this house was written about in the New Yorks Times in 2015, and it's a remarkable one. Even more remarkable when it is told to you, first-hand, from one of the boys (now an adult) who did the digging... seven years of it! Andrea Faggiano told us the story that brought history to light. He had worked with his father and brothers to fix the water problem, and ended up bringing this "museum" into being. His enthusiasm and respect for the archaeology and history of his house are infectious.
Andreas Faggiano (p standing on one of the glass supports allowing you to see below (Janet Strayer photo
The story begins with those occupying the house repeatedly complaining of dampness. Some years ago, Luciano Faggiano (the father) decided to take a shovel to the situation and explore the piping and sewage system below the house. He had intended to make the house a trattoria when he started digging to repair the pipes.  He and his young sons encountered far more than wet dirt, (though there were masses of that). In fact, they discovered an underground river that runs eventually into the Adriatic. More than this: as they dug, successive layers of tunnels were found, each deeper than the next, with artifacts of different civilizations found at each levels.The finds go back at least to 2,000 B.C. The family just had to stop digging by this time!

looking down into cistern (Janet Strayer photos)
one level Faggiano museum, stone steps up
It was just Mr. Faggiano and his sons doing the work until the State archaeologists were called in. One archaeologist was sent to supervise, but the digging remained a family affair, with most of the artifacts carted off to museums to be analysed. I've included some photos that may give you a feeling for it, from my eyes, anyway.

reclining female, Faggiano Museum (Janet Strayer photo)
What is now called the Museo Archaeologico Faggiano is a wonderful tribute both to the Faggiano family's efforts and to the civilizations that lived here before them. Visit this website link and make it a unique  part of any visit to southern Italy. In this ordinary-from-the-outside house setting, you feel like an explorer, yourself. Spiral metal staircases lead down to the lowest chambers. You can walk on sturdy mirrored floor coverings to see historical excavations beneath the current floor and, in other places, walk the stone steps yourself.

jumble of terracotta remains found in Fabbiano house (Janet Strayer photo)
It is the surprise of this apparently "ordinary house" setting that makes everything unique. Within it, you walk through layers upon layers of history -- made very accessible through years of work. You are walking upon this region's earliest settlements, Greek Messapian culture, ancient Roman, Medieval to Byzantine cultures, and onward. Serving as places of worship, ancient burial rites, convents, hiding secrets within it. There is an underground system of caves clearly visible and partly open to exploration, which continues in different directions, including one ending at the ancient Roman amphitheatre in the center of Lecce.

The Knights Templar are a most active presence in the hidden tunnels and cisterns (now unearthed) that go down farther than I wished to. Templar  etchings are visible on the walls, and the tower they used to scan for trouble remains intact.The chambers unearthed and other discoveries are numbered, along with informative explanations. Climbing to the top of the tower of the house, you would once have spotted possible invaders from the east (Ottoman invasions occurred). Now the view it is surrounded by the rooftops of other houses.

Though it is now called a 'museum' (for all the museum-quality artifacts and architectural remains in it), the outstanding feature of the Faggiano is that is was, and remains, a living house. It just happens to be a house that goes down to reveal layers upon layers of human history. It is an extraordinary experience to wander within it and through time. It was a great afternoon's adventure to travel thousands of years within this one private house. The invitation remains open. Thank you for our visit!