Archive for May, 2011


San Gimignano

San Gimignano is something of medieval time capsule in Tuscany. Walking through the town gates and into the narrow streets really does feel like walking back in time. 7 tall towers (of the original 70) still stand over the city, and the breathtaking Tuscan landscape viewed on any side of the town is straight out of a fairytale. San Gimignano has had a rough history. The town was situated on a major travel route through Italy in the middle ages, and was a popular stop for crusaders heading too/from battle in the holy land and other road weary travelers. When the black death swept Europe in 1348, the disease struck San Gimignano hard. With nearly its entire population wiped out, the town fell into disrepair and became something of a ghost town. For that, much of its original charm remains, even if it’s been reconstructed and reinforced in the last few decades.
Today, the town is filled with tourists and the buildings on the main drag are filled with souvenir shops. The good news is that most of the hoards come for the day and stay elsewhere, so if you can stay in San Gimignano you can have the place virtually to yourself late in the evening and early in the morning. On top of that, the main church in town is decorated with impressive 14th century frescos that are in great condition. Here’s our pal Rick Steves to give us a glimpse of San Gimignano. Enjoy-
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In the first century, the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in southern Italy were the Roman equivalent of Malibu or Beverly Hills. They were established towns filled with the huge vacation houses of Rome’s wealthy elite. Of course, they also had sizable populations of regular people too. Those towns, along with the modern mega-city of Naples, rest on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, among the most famous volcanos in the world. In 79 AD, a huge eruption sent avalanches of molten rock and poisonous gas that killed everyone who remained in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It also buried those towns in 70+ feet of ash, effectively wiping them off the face of the earth.

15 centuries later Pompeii was rediscovered. The tightly packed ash and pumice had preserved an entire roman town. It preserved the beautifully painted walls in the  houses of the rich, the streets and the buildings that remained standing after the volcano, countless Roman statues, artifacts and everyday objects- even graffiti. It also preserved the body shapes of people who died and were buried in the eruption. These were filled with plaster to create the famous body casts we see today. Pompeii has been under constant excavation for hundreds of years now and is arguably the worlds most famous archeological site. It could also be argued that Pompeii was discovered a few hundred years too early. Today, archeologists are much more meticulous and careful, and the ruins are suffering some neglect. It costs millions to maintain them, and just this last year an ancient villa collapsed in a rainstorm. It remains a hot topic of discussion in the Italian media.

I’ll post a few more articles on Pompeii in the next few weeks. For now, check out the BBC film “Pompeii: The Last Day”, which combines a very realistic reenactment of the tragic day in 79 with lots of great narrated information. Enjoy-

When you consider the fierce fighting throughout Italy during WWII between the allied forces and the retreating German army, it’s a minor miracle that so much of Italy survives intact to this day. Mortar rounds and aerial bombs could have leveled everything and so much would have been lost forever. If you haven’t done so, try to see the documentary film “The Rape of Europa” on the nazis and European art. It’s an amazing film that tells the true story of art theft in WWII by the Nazis, and the allied attempt to rescue and restore the greatest works of art.

Amazingly, the retreating german army didn’t put up a fight in Rome, and the city was spared war destruction. They retreated to Florence and Pisa in the north and prepared for battle. The allies knew that those cities were delicate time capsules of art and architecture, and they faced a difficult problem. They knew that many soldiers would lose their lives in street to street combat with the enemy hidden in the maze of medieval buildings. They also knew that they couldn’t just wipe the town away with bombs. In Florence, they made the decision to take out the train station, which was a newer structure and a critical supply line for the Nazis. This was long before laser guided precision bombs. There was no guarantee that the bombs would land where they were supposed to, but amazingly, they did. In one of the most successful bombing raids of the war, the train station was gone, and the nazis had no way to receive critical supplies.

After a year of occupation, the nazis left Florence. Before they did, they set about destroying all of the cities historic bridges over the Arno river in an attempt to slow the Allied advance. They destroyed a famous tri-arched bridge designed by Michelangelo. One bridge, called the Ponte Vecchio, survived destruction, supposedly because it was so beautiful. Today, it’s one of the most famous bridges in the world.

The Ponte Vecchio has been rebuilt many times over its history, and has been in its present state since the 1300s. It too is a tri-arched bridge, lined with shops on either side of a central corridor. In medieval times it was a center for butcher shops, and the open space of the river on either side allowed for air to control the smell. Today, the shops are all jewelry stores. Supposedly, the term “bankrupt” was originated here, based on the words “banco rotto.” When someone couldn’t pay their debts, they would physically break (rotto) his table at the Ponte Vecchio.

Thankfully, the nazis decided not to blow up the Ponte Vecchio. Instead, they leveled the historic medieval buildings on either side of it, creating a mountain of rubble blocking the bridge. While it certainly was tragic to lose large parts of the neighborhood, they have since been rebuilt and modernized. Florence certainly suffered great destruction during the war, but amazingly the greatest of buildings and historic structures made it through.

The nazis also put up a fight in nearby Pisa, which was not so lucky. Known primarily for its famous leaning tower, Pisa was a wonderfully preserved medieval city until the war, when much of it was destroyed by bombing and fire. The leaning tower and famous cathedral in the center of town survived, but not all historic structures were so lucky.

Right next to the famous leaning tower and the cathedral is a cemetery called the Camposanto. In the 12th century, knights of the fourth crusade brought back loads of soil from Golgotha, the place of Christ’s crucifixion in Jerusalem, and created a sacred burial space in Pisa. Over the centuries, the Camposanto became the cultural center of Pisa and the region. Many were buried there, and priceless Roman sarcophagi and statues, along with biblical relics, were housed there. The walls were completely decorated in immaculate frescos, and were beautiful beyond description. In short, the Camposanto was the one of the most important and priceless historical structures in all of Italy. The painting seen here shows how it looked.

On July 27, 1944, a wayward Allied bombs started a fire nearby that quickly spread to the Camposanto. The wooden rafters burst into flame and melted the lead on the roof, which dripped down and completely destroyed everything inside. It was a great loss to the entire world. Along the front lines of the allied troops, cultural/art historians rushed in to assess the damage. They were devastated to find the Camposanto ruined, and set about preserving what they could. The frescos had been melted off the walls, but in some areas a faint trace of the fresco remained. Today, work still continues at the Camposanto. Though it will never be as it was, burnt fragments of the paintings have been pieced back together and can be seen on display.

Here’s  a video on the Camposanto as it can be seen today- Enjoy

World War II was an event that forever changed the cultural landscape of the world. Even today, nearly 70 years after its end, the pieces are still being put back together. The story of European art in WWII is a fascinating one. The Nazis hated modern art, as it was a symbol of free thinking and the individual. Beyond that, Hitler was a failed artist who harbored deep resentment against the art establishment. In the same way that he tried to purge Germany of people who were considered racially degenerate, he sought to rid Germany of modern art and establish a new German museum dedicated to images that celebrated true Arian culture. Many modern artists fled Europe all together in the years leading up to war. Others bravely stayed to face ridicule and persecution. As the Nazis fanned out across Europe, taking Poland, Austria and France, and becoming an ally with fascist Italy, the made a business of confiscating art where ever they could find it, which was pretty much everywhere. It was stolen and shipped back to Germany for the private collections of Hitler and his higher-ups, or sold off to other world museums to make money for the war effort. In France and Italy, many world-famous masterpieces were quickly wrapped up, removed from museums, and hidden in rural farmhouses to escape the on-coming armies and stray bombs.  Because of such efforts, many pieces remain today. Many others have ended up scattered around the world, leading to legal custody battles. Many world-famous pieces have simply vanished forever, either destroyed in the war or collecting dust waiting to be rediscovered.

In part one on Italy and WWII, I discussed the ethical dilemma that faced allied troops in places like Italy. They were under orders to limit the damage the cultural sites and world-famous art, which is hard to do when you’re being shot at and soldiers are dying. As the allied troops gradually pushed the Nazis north back towards Germany, they had to plan their operations around limiting damage to the great cities of Europe. Their solution was to place specialists on the front line who were able to recognize what needed to be saved. These art-historian specialists were the first ones in to evaluate the damage and preserve what was found from looting and further damage. It was a remarkably delicate operation.

There is a fantastic documentary made a few years ago that tells the story of Nazi occupation and the allied recovery of art works. It’s a film that will absolutely enhance your understanding of European art and appreciation for those who managed to save so much of it in the face of near total destruction. It’s called “The Rape of Europa” and is available for internet streaming on Netflix. I have yet to find a free version online, but I would consider it essential viewing before heading to Italy. Make a point to see it. For now, here’s a trailer-

It’s sounds cliché, but Italian culture really is like an onion with layers upon layers of history. It’s easy to forget when standing places like the perfectly preserved narrow baroque streets of Rome, or the medieval time capsules of San Gimignano or Sienna, that Italy really is unique in what has been preserved. The 20th century saw 2 horrific world wars centered in Europe,  a most hellish nightmare  for those countries involved. Today when you go to the great cities of Germany or the eastern European counties, specifically places like Berlin and Warsaw, you just don’t see centuries-old architecture. That’s because those places were leveled during WWII. They don’t exist anymore. They are gone, along with so much art and cultural heritage. WWII is a deep scar upon Europe that will be felt for a very long time. For those still around and only a few generations removed, the war remains a fresh wound.

So what was the effect on Italy during WWII? Italy escaped the destruction that came to Germany, but that doesn’t mean things weren’t bad. Italy was ruled by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who rose to power (as Adolf Hitler did in Germany) by exploiting the economic hardships that resulted from WWI. He spread a strong message of Nationalism, and while Fascist Italy never came to rival the evil giant that Nazi Germany became, Mussolini pulled Italy into the war by allying Italy with Germany. That decision would bring extreme destruction and hardship to Italy. Eventually, after many years of war, Mussolini was executed in Italy as a war criminal by his own people.

Before D-DAY and the Allied invasion of France, the allies invaded Sicily from North Africa and began a slow march northward up the boot of Italy. Eventually, they pushed the Nazis out of Italy all together, but at a horrible cost. 320,000 Allied troops died in Italy alone, and many more German/Italian troops and Italian civilians perished as well. Along the way, as the enemy retreated and the allies advanced from city to city, Italy posed a difficult problem. Everywhere you look in Italy you see history and culture, historic structures stretching back up to 3,000 years, priceless statues and art, and beautiful churches packed with artifacts. Fighting a war in the advanced age with machine guns, tanks, bombers and millions of tons of bombs really was like putting a bull in a china shop. Allied troops were instructed to preserve sites of cultural significance as much as they could, but this posed a  difficult dilemma: What is the value of a priceless work of art? Is it worth the cost of a life? To a soldier advancing through a shower of shrapnel and bullets, watching his friends die, these kinds of priorities become something very different. Even worse, the Germans were smart and often sheltered in historic sites for protection knowing they wouldn’t be bombed.

The worst battle in Italy and a tragic example of this dilemma was in Monte Cassino. Situated halfway between Rome and Naples in an area of tall rugged hills and deep valleys, Monte Cassino was a prefect fallback position for the Germans. The hills gave them many places to hide and an open view of the valley below. It was nearly impossible to take an enemy hill without near total casualties, as a few troop devisions found out. One advantage the allies had was air power, so they took to littering the hillsides with bombs in coordinated assaults with troops on the ground.

The greatest cultural landmark in Cassino, and indeed among the greatest in all of Italy, was the great Benedictine Abbey, a huge monastery atop the tallest hill overlooking the beautiful valley below. It was founded by St. Benedict in 529, the abbey was the oldest and grandest of the medieval monasteries, filled with priceless art and ancient manuscripts (a few fortunately taken to the Vatican during the war for safe-keeping.) Beyond that, the abbey was a symbol of Italian faith and devotion. It provided a perfect vantage point of the valley and allied commanders were certain that the Germans were using it as a fortress, so they made the decision to level it with bombs on Feb 15, 1944. As it turns out, there was not a single German in the abbey, only women and children. In one sad move, one of the grandest and most important Italian structures was wiped out, all for nothing. In fact, the Germans quickly took to the rubble of the abbey with their guns, and used the bombing as propaganda in Germany to show American evil.

Today, the abbey is rebuilt at Monte Cassino, but the wound remains. It’s hard to imagine that in a place so heavenly beautiful, hell was once unleashed in all its fury. In the next posts, I’ll explain more about WWII and its great effect on Italy. For now, here’s some rare color footage from Monte Cassino in 1944, including the bombing.