Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Going to the Library

Roberto and I are both big readers so we were pleased that we could make use of the Bologna city library, Biblioteca Sala Borsa, during our stay. It’s housed in a portion of the Palazzo d’Accursio, a huge building that takes up the entire west side of Piazza Maggiore.  The oldest part of the Palazzo  dates from 1287, though archeological excavations under the building show various civic and religious uses that date as far back as 700 BC.  The portion of the building that today houses the library was originally a covered courtyard with a garden used by the residents of the Palazzo, but in the tradition of creative re-use, at various points in time it has also been a stable, the post office, a sports arena, and the city Stock Exchange, or Sala Borsa. The library moved into the building in 2001.

Palazzo d'Accursio with just a bit of the library at the far right side.

Biblioteca Sala Borsa

The entrance to the library is right near the Fontana di Nettuno, and the steps leading into the building are often filled with people who are waiting to meet friends or just hanging out.

Ecco mi

Fontana di Nettuno

As you walk into the library proper you enter the Piazza Coperta, a grand atrium surrounded on all sides by two levels of galleries.  It’s a light-filled space that manages to be impressive but not overwhelming, and the galleries around the perimeter evoke the feeling of the porticos that are so typically Bolognese.  This is where you check out and return books, plus this being Italy, there’s an adjacent caffè where you can get coffee, sandwiches and pastry. Transparent panels in the floor let you look down into the ancient ruins under the building.

Piazza Coperta

Piazza Coperta when the building was a true sala borsa (stock exchange).
The always-busy check-out and return line.

Caffè?  Ma certo.
The archeological excavations (scavi) below the floor.

The breadth of the collections is pretty remarkable. There are 250,000 print volumes (50,000 of them for children and teens); over 12,000 DVDs, including films, television shows and documentaries; dozens of newspapers and hundreds of magazines in a wide array of languages; and 22,000 music CDs, from Italian pop to jazz to American folk to what seems like every piece of classical music ever recorded. Books are available in English, French, Spanish, German and Hebrew with special sections in Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Polish and Albanian.

Hundreds of magazines (riviste) and newspapers (giornali).
Love these chairs. 

Graphics in the music CD section 
One of several walls of music CDs.
And if that’s not enough to choose from, the online catalog includes not just the Sala Borsa library but all the University of Bologna libraries (many of which are open to the public) and all the other public libraries in the region of Emilia-Romagna.  Roberto has been doing some research and work for a friend who is giving a presentation at Humanities West this fall, and he wanted to include a map from an atlas published in Germany 40 years ago. We checked the catalog here not really expecting to find it, but it turned out to be available in not just one but three of the university libraries. So one morning Roberto took a walk to the biblioteca for the Dipartimento di Storia Antica (Department of Ancient History) where the accommodating staff helped him locate the book.

I tend to panic when I don’t have something to read, and that generally means a novel or a good mystery. At Sala Borsa they divide novels into Letteratura (published before 1945) and Narrativa contemporanea (more recent works) and they’re filed separately. In the Narrativa contemporanea section the books are filed by author, as you would expect, but they’re also filed with the books in Italian and English all together. That’s fine if I’m looking for a specific book, but it makes browsing a bit of a challenge. I have found a couple of Italian authors that I like, and reading their books helps me expand my language skills, especially my vocabulary. 
Dickens anyone?
How about Una storia tra due città.
We’ve had good luck finding books in the Letteratura section, which is divided by language, so there are sections for Italian, German, French, English and American authors, and then within each section you’ll find both the original works and translations into Italian. If you want any classic from English or American literature, it’s probably on the shelves. I’m thinking of this as an opportunity to catch up on classics that I never read, like Brideshead Revisited, which I really enjoyed and which of course brought back fond memories of the old Masterpiece Theatre production. We’ve also been working our way through Agatha Christie, who is well represented in both English and Italian. In Italy mysteries are called gialli, which means yellow, because the first mysteries printed here had yellow covers. The covers for modern mysteries are no longer always yellow but you can see the traditional giallo covers in the photo of the Agatha Christie books.  

Agatha Christie, with some traditional giallo editions.

The DVD selection seems to include every mainstream Italian film ever made, a broad selection of new and classic movies from the US and other countries, and television shows from both Italy and the US. It’s hard to imagine what an Italian would make of something like the Marx brothers or Borat or Six Feet Under, but they’re available. They are of course all dubbed into Italian, as Italians hate subtitles. Most Italian movies have subtitles in Italian for the hearing-impaired which we generally turn on and find very helpful, as the dialog goes by very quickly. We have noticed that the DVDs for American movies often offer multiple language options. For example, after watching several Italian movies that were somewhat bleak and depressing, we decided to watch The Italian Job just for fun. It was the remake with Mark Wahlberg,  Charlize Theron and the BMW minis, not the original with Michael Caine and the old Mini Coopers. It had audio in Italian, English and Spanish and subtitles in English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Hebrew, Croatian, and Slovenian.

The movies are filed by director rather than by title, which surprised us at first, but it makes sense if you think about the challenge of titles in different languages. Sometimes a movie keeps its original title—The Italian Job stayed The Italian Job— and sometimes the title is translated into Italian—The King’s Speech became Il discorso del re —which would make finding a movie by title difficult. It also seems like people here pay more attention to who the director of a film is, and not just for big name directors.  And at least in theory you can look in the library catalog to find out the name of the director for any specific film.  Of course, for a good part of August you couldn’t access the library catalog from the computers in the library. The catalog was fine, and we could get to it from home computers, just not from the library itself. There were hand-written signs on all the terminals that said there was a problem with the network. Then last week, access was restored. We suspect that the one person who had the password that they needed to fix the problem was on vacation for Ferragosto. 

One other thing that we have noticed is that the library is very serious about returns.  Items have to be handed to a library staffer who leafs though every book to be sure it hasn’t been damaged—none of this off-hours book drop nonsense.  The rules also state that if you return an item late, you lose your library privileges for a month!  I don’t know whether they really enforce that rule but it certainly got our attention.  


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Republic of San Marino

Ever since I learned about them in 7th grade geography class, I’ve been drawn to the little countries like Monaco, Liechtenstein and the Republic of San Marino.  Some of the allure is doubtless from association with silly romantic visions of such places in movies like The Mouse That Roared, The Prisoner of Zenda or Pottsdorf in The Great Race.  But the Republic of San Marino is a real country, and it’s not far from Bologna, so last week we spent a night there.

Antique views of San Marino from the west (top) and east

San Marino is the oldest surviving sovereign country (from 301 AD) and constitutional republic (from 1600) in the world.   It is completely surrounded by Italy—24 square miles of territory a few miles inland from the coastal resort town of Rimini, centered on a craggy outcrop that rises about 2400 feet above sea level.  The aerial view below shows about all of San Marino that I’d ever seen pictured—the top of Mount Titano with its three towers, and the capital city.  But as we discovered during the bus trip up from Rimini, most of the country is on the lower slopes, and much of it looks no more appealing than other modern urban developments.  We were glad when the bus continued right on up.

As you can probably tell from the photo above (borrowed from a publicity brochure), there isn’t any natural level ground in the capital city, so the streets and lanes make a series of intersecting switchbacks up the side of the mountain.  As we made our way on foot up and up to reach our hotel we discovered another unsuspected aspect of San Marino:  nearly every shop in town is aimed at the tourist trade, whether in the form of cheap and gaudy souvenirs or leather handbags or jewelry or reproduction weapons or food.  The most alarming things for sale were perfect plastic air-gun-version reproductions of handguns and automatic weapons—the kind of thing that would get you arrested on suspicion or worse in most big cities.  The town was loaded with tourists of all ages, many of whom arrived for the day in the typical luxury motor-coaches found throughout Europe.  Many buses carried I.D. cards in the windshield written in cyrillic script (many stores had signs to match), and hearing lots of Russian (or something like it) spoken on the street it seems that a surprising percentage of visitors come from Croatia or further to the east and north. 

Salita alla Rocca in San Marino

Typical shops.  Dozens of handbag stores...
...and dozens more jewelry and trinket shops.
More shops, but nice landscaping.
Nice toy soldiers representing San Marino's traditional uniforms.
Realistic weapon replicas.
Very popular purchases...

While the shops and their patrons were not without entertainment value, we spent much of our time visiting the historical sites and edifices, including the government building and the basilica.  But most engaging were the three towers that appear (with feathers on top) on the coat of arms.  

Two of these are parts of 13th-century fortresses that have been maintained and rebuilt as necessary over the centuries, and they are open to explore, sometimes with more freedom than one would expect.  Aside from the castles themselves, the views from the ramparts and towers are magnificent, out over the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Apennine mountain range inland. To behold the other towers along the precipice fulfills all the romantic notions one might have of such things.  A shop selling the swords of Robin Hood and Merlin (spada di merlino) along the forested path between the two castles was clearly tuned to that esthetic.  (He also had complete sets of elfi del bosco, forest elves.)

The hall of the Great and General Council of San Marino

The First Tower, Guaita

Battlements and yard of first tower, with second tower in the distance.

Looking east toward Rimini from tower one.
Foreground includes the lower slopes of San Marino.

The Second Tower, Cesta, from Tower One with the wooded path between them.

Danger of Falling—but we won't stop you...

The Second Tower, taken from a battlement walkway 15' off the ground and without railings.
Pericolo di caduta, verimente.
A few of the hundreds of ancient weapons in the museum in Tower Two.
These are 16th c. German.  The center sword has a slide-out handle to
convert from one-hand (on horse) to two-handed use.

We had timed our visit to coincide with special summer Tuesday evening programs which included free nighttime admission to one of the castles, where medieval-period re-enactments were set up.  The lighting was dramatic—if rather more than anything the 13th century ever dreamed of—and the costumed performers were simpatico.  The 21st c. panorama of lights far below was dazzling.  This was all very fine, especially since it happened to be our 25th anniversary as well.

The First Tower by night.

Medieval entertainments in the castle yard.
Looking toward the Adriatic from the Torre Guaita.

One advantage of spending the night in a place that attracts mostly day-trip visitors is that as evening draws near, the tourist population dwindles.  So we had no problem getting a table for dinner with a dramatic sunset view.  And in the morning, with the town nearly deserted, we had the trail to ourselves for an hour or so before breakfast when we followed the stone-paved path through woods to the third torre, this one privately owned.  The only entrance is a door about thirty feet up one side.

Early morning quiet.
Note the battlement walkway at upper right. 
The Third Tower, Montale.

The only door is 30 feet up the wall of Montale.
Yes, that's a tree growing out of the wall.

We didn’t buy a replica AK-47 or even La Spada di Robin Hood or elfi del bosco.  But since we generally do tourism by food, we had to try dolci tipici della repubblica di San Marino (desserts typical of RSM).  So we bought these two hand-made little cakes.  The Torta Titano has a layer of chocolate infused with almond-flavored alcohol sandwiched between two layers of cakey meringue.  Long gone and buonissimo.  Soon to be on the menu is the Torta Tre Monti, described as “five fragrant wafer layers filled with chocolate and hazelnut cream” sealed with rich dark chocolate.  Can’t be bad.  Read more here if you like.

We enjoyed our visit to San Marino.  I doubt that we’d want to live there although there are some definite enticements:  the republic has one of the highest per capita GDPs in Europe, among the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, and a budget surplus with no national debt.  Can’t be bad.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ravenna, part 2

In the first part, we glimpsed the mosaic wonders of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna.  Now here's more, if you can stand it.

There are two baptistries in Ravenna, remarkably similar in size, shape and decoration, but differentiated by subtleties of doctrine.  The older building is the Neonian Baptistry, finished by Bishop Neon as part of a great basilica somewhere around 430 AD.  The basilica was destroyed in the 18th c., but though sunk 3 meters into the earth, the baptistry remains.
The Neonian Baptistry

Ceiling of the Neonian Baptistry.  The 12 apostles surround the
scene of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Neonian Baptistry detail.
 Jesus is standing in the River Jordan, which is personified at the right by a figure holding reeds and a garment.

For most of its Christian history Ravenna was held by so-called Orthodox or Latin doctrine rulers.  But from 493 until he died in 526, Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths (and no relation to upcoming Empress Theodora), ruled in Ravenna.  He was an Arian Christian as were most Goths  (See this article for an explanation of Arianism).  However, he was tolerant of other religions—to the point of forcing the city to rebuild synagogues burned down by rioters.  He established an Arian section for the Goths with its own baptistry and left the orthodox buildings alone.  The Arian Baptistry is remarkably like the Neonian one, and the mosaic work might well have been done by orthodox Christian artisans, since that’s where the expertise lay.  The Neonian Jesus is bearded while the Arian Jesus looks young, a subtle feature which supports Arian doctrine, as does the empty throne awaiting His future.
Arian Baptistry ceiling—and bare walls.
Arian Baptistry detail: John the Baptist with a beardless Jesus,
 a dove anointing with holy water, and a large figure of the River Jordan at left.

A throne awaiting Jesus 
There was once a large religious complex attached to the Arian Baptistry.  Though it is lost, another of Theodoric’s churches remains, the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, a true basilica  in form and another astonishing repository of Byzantine mosaics.  Here there are scenes showing parables and miracles of Jesus; saints, prophets and evangelists; Theodoric’s palace and the port city of Classe; and an abundance of other decorative features.  In the lowest band above the colonnades are two processions of nearly identical figures, 26 saintly martyrs on the right approaching Jesus enthroned; and on the left, 22 virgin martyrs led by the Magi toward the nativity of Jesus.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
Upper bands showing miracles and saints.
Originally, Theodoric's palace with Ravenna behind.

Boats in the nearby harbor of Classe
Jesus and two of his four angels

St. Martin, for whom the church was once named, leads the
procession of 26 martyr saints.

Some of the 22 virgin martyrs, led by...

The Magi following the star to...

Mary and Jesus

Although the upper registers of mosaics in S. Apollinare Nuovo are likely much as they were first made in 504 AD, the processions of martyrs were probably added 50 years later, and other changes were made when Emperor Justinian, a fervent Orthodox and anti-Arian Christian came to power.  Some overly-Arian representations were removed or altered, and members of Theodoric’s court were expunged from the view of his palace, replaced with draperies.  But a few disembodied hands and arms remain on of the columns.
Theodoric's palace reworked but with leftover disembodied hands.
In our one-day trip we didn’t visit all the ancient sites in Ravenna.  Five kilometers away is Sant’Apollinare in Classe, contemporary with San Vitale (549).  Here again are exquisite mosaics, though as the guide books say, the vast areas of lower walls, now bare, were probably stripped of their mosaics by conquering Venetians in about 1450.  We did stop by Dante’s mausoleum, but not Theodoric’s from 520, which is capped with a mystifying single 30-ton stone, the mystery being how they got it up there.  Despite these misses I rate Ravenna as an excellent day-trip candidate.  It is compact enough that it is perfectly feasible to visit all the UNESCO sites and more in one day, even if, like us, you pause often and use binoculars to study the delicacy, grace, and engaging mosaic details of style and color.   

Dante's mausoleum
A coloration study made for restoration work at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
I couldn’t help but envision the 6th-century artisans, working from scaffolding laced together with reeds, selecting, cutting with an iron blade and placing just the right color and size tessera time and again.  This vision was made more remarkable when contrasted to an excellent presentation in the National Museum showing the technology and study involved in the latest mosaic conservation and repair efforts at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo.  Because the walls behind the mosaic had to be repaired and reinforced, the mosaics were removed.  But first tiny cameras were inserted into cracks to analyze the layers of masonry behind.  Each small group of  tesserae was photographed and recorded for color, size, material and condition before sections of mosaic were temporarily glued to an overlayment and cut free of the wall behind.  The modern artists had the luxury of cleaning and repairing these sections under good light on a laboratory tabletop using modern tooling rather than perched precariously on pole scaffolds carefully choosing and placing stone pixels.