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My First Blog Post

Terry, my partner, and I met several years ago, both having lost our spouses to cancer . By the time of that auspicious meeting, we had survived grief and recognized the possibility of a new, albeit late life, opportunity to love again. Our first conversation, held over plates of appetizers at a party, told us how much we had in common. He was a retired doctor who had lived in Italy while pursuing his medical degree at University of Bologna. He began drawing and painting during his scant spare time and continued his hobby through the years.

Though somewhat less dedicated than he, I also had spent many hours drawing and painting, a hobby since childhood. My interest in the arts led to a degree in History of Art and later in Archaeology. In both disciplines my emphasis was on Roman art and the Roman frontier, which together led to a season in Italy working on an archaeological dig at the Palatine Hill in Rome.

Terry and I lived on Amelia Island, Florida–a beautiful barrier island where we had many friends who shared our interest in the game of petanque. We had moved into an historic home in Fernandina’s well-known historic district. Why on earth would we want to leave such an idyllic place?

The answer to that is multifaceted. First, traveling was in our blood; we both loved to visit places we had never seen or wanted to see again. And Terry and I had both lived abroad so were undaunted by that prospect. But in addition, we were both concerned about conditions in the United States. The political rancor, the continued gun violence and, on our own little island, the rampant development that was changing all that we loved about the place. Finally, and perhaps most important, we looked at the next five years of our life and decided that the time for one last, great adventure was upon us.

I

Our First Italian Christmas

We had been coming to Anghiari since 2019 but never spent the holiday season here. As non-residents we had been obligated to leave periodically and our times away always coincided with Christmas. Finally in 2021 we were residents and looked forward to experiencing our first Christmas in Anghiari. Although we had a balcony well suited for displaying Christmas baubles I had no plans to take advantage of it, having abandoned our Christmas decorations during the several moves of recent years.

Anghiari, though, was festooned with lights strung across streets and along balconies and ultimately I felt inspired to join the fun with an inexpensive artificial swag and a few homemade yarn tassels.

Anghiari Lights Up

Christmas Greetings from our Balcony

Christmas season in Italy officially begins on December 8, marking The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, not only a holy day in the Christian calendar but an official holiday throughout the country.1 As on all Italian national holidays businesses were closed including, to our surprise, the Wednesday market in our piazza. The day was rainy and cold but ringing church bells broke through the gloom to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season.

Two days after the official beginning of the holiday season there was to be the “Holy Representation of Living Pictures,” in the alleys and squares of the village. Photos of the event from past years showed citizens posed in biblical scenes and a torch lit procession through the streets. This year the day was rainy, foggy, windy and cold and we thought the event might be postponed. But having seen no announcement to that effect, off we went at 7:00 to the town centre, dressed warmly and carrying an umbrella. It was raining and snowing intermittently and as we reached Piazza Baldaccio we saw only a few other stray souls likewise sheltering under umbrellas and no signs of a gathering crowd. We wandered about the town for a short time wondering if we had missed a hidden corner of activity but later learned that the event had indeed been cancelled. We were disappointed, of course, but returning to the warmth of our home was, in the moment, reward in itself.

From the beginning of the season large installations began to appear along the streets and alleys of the town. Most of them depicted the story of Christ’s birth, but the one below catered to the kids–complete with Santa’s workshop, a mailbox for letters and holiday songs playing continuously. Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), like Santa Claus in the U S, wears a fur-trimmed red suit and drives a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Clement Moore’s poem, “Twas The Night Before Christmas” popularised the image of Santa Claus in the late 19th century and his appearance is today pretty much universal.

“Merry Christmas” in English rather than the Italian”Buon Natale.”

But the religious meaning of Christmas dominates and Presepi, depictions of the nativity, appeared throughout Anghiari. The scene below was tucked into a room within the tunnel that runs along a portion of our ancient town wall.

Nativity in Wood

A short uphill walk from there was perhaps my favourite tableau created by students at Anghiari’s Arts Academy. These large, ca 3 ‘ tall, figures were built in several tiers to make firing the terracotta feasible.

And the Baby Jesus enhanced with colour

Near one of our favourite restaurants another large Presepi stood in an alcove normally occupied by large secular sculptures or paintings.

Larger than life Nativity Scene

Most merchants also display Presepi in their windows. This year Anghiari’s Presepi featured nativity scenes from around the world.

On the the left a German Presepi and on the right Presepi from Portugal and Russia

In the U S a Christmas Yule log often refers to the log shaped chocolate confection; in Italy it retains its original meaning though the dessert is not unknown. In the fireplaces of many Italian homes, the Ceppo or Yule log is lit on Christmas Eve and allowed to continue burning into the following day. But Ceppo also refers to a pyramidal structure with a nativity scene on the bottom level and toys and treats stacked in tiers above. In some Italian homes the Ceppo replaces the more familiar Christmas tree.

A Ceppo Decorated for Christmas

One of the most interesting of Italian traditions is that of La Bafana or Christmas witch. Her role in the Christmas story derives from the legend that she was busy sweeping her home as the Three Wise Men passed by on their way to Bethlehem. They invited her to join them but she chose to continue cleaning. Later, when she learned of the birth of Christ she regretted her decision and repented by giving gifts to children on January 6, Day of the Epiphany and officially the last day of the Christmas season. In some interpretations La Bafana’s sweeping also signifies getting rid of the debris of the past to start anew in the coming year.

La Bafana

Christmas caroling is traditional in Italy, as it is in the U S, and we were treated to an orchestral version on the Saturday night before Christmas. Terry was taking an after dinner snooze and I was getting ready to climb into bed to read when we began to hear music coming from the piazza next door. Terry ran out to see what was going on and found this group of musicians playing carols on the balcony of the theater.

Christmas Serenade on the Theater Balcony

Of course much of the joy of Christmas lies in the pleasure it brings to children. Near Santa’s house on the Sunday before Christmas “Elves” helped children mail their letters to Santa and Meryl the Magician entertained them with bubbles and magic tricks.

Kids enjoying Meryl the Magician and Elves

While Anghiari maintained a more or less constant state of festivity Terry and I planned a quiet Christmas day at home with the exchange of a few gifts. Early on I decided to give Terry a set of bongo drums, inspired by hearing him beat out rhythms as he listened to favourite CDs on our upper floor. Terry was briefly a drummer with a band during Freshman and Sophomore years at college and later played bongos–maybe it was time for him to have at it again.

Terry, his hands a blur, playing bongos in his younger years

The bongos came promptly and in plenty of time for Christmas but Terry, thinking it was a lamp we had ordered, opened the package when it arrived. He seemed pleased to have the bongos but as a Christmas gift they were now only old news. So I went back to the internet to search for a replacement, this time looking for a drinks trolley since his collection of liquors crowded the tiny table we were using. Instead of a traditional trolley I found a vintage medical cart, larger than a typical drinks trolley and with drawers and a lower shelf for storage. I submitted the order, happy to have found such a good solution and with free shipping to boot. But a day later, disappointment replaced satisfaction when the shop owner discovered he could not ship it free to Italy and cancelled the purchase.

As I looked for a substitute I soon realised that the best alternatives were at least as expensive as the medical trolley with shipping added on–and I still really wanted this trolley. So I showed Terry pictures, explaining what had happened and he was as taken with the trolley as I was. I contacted the dealer to re-order and the sale and shipment was arranged but now no longer a surprise, nor would it arrive until after the holiday. With two compromised attempts behind me, I ordered a couple of small items, a little La Bafana doll and a wallet (nearly as dull as a pair of socks); the doll arrived quickly, but the wallet did not and was languishing in a post office in Arezzo. Now my Christmas for Terry was down to the little Christmas witch. Likewise, something he had ordered for me had not yet been delivered. Clearly gift giving would not be a focus of our holiday this year.

Even with our own gift exchange minimal, the spirit of Christmas giving enlivened the holiday. Merchants in Anghiari handed out small presents to their customers–a bag of candy or cookies and for us even a loaf of Christmas panettone from Terry’s favourite sandwich shop.

Christmas Panettone made with pears and chocolate-delicious!

Terry was inspired to buy bottles of Prosecco for those who had been especially helpful to us and on Christmas Eve we distributed them to our friends in the neighbourhood. Django went along dressed in his Christmas garb, looking charming enough to gain a treat along the way.

Django getting his Christmas on

If my focus has been on the ups and downs of finding a gift for Terry, it isn’t because gift giving is a one way street in our household. On the contrary, Terry’s generous nature leads him to surprise me occasionally with an impromptu gift. And he, too now waited for a package he had ordered to arrive in time for Christmas, frustrated by its non-appearance. Terry’s local purchases, though, meant that on Christmas morning I opened a soft saffron yellow sweater from him along with a box of beautiful candies shown below. The gift that hadn’t yet arrived appeared on the Monday after Christmas – a sweater jacket of many colours- Terry will make me a fashionista.

Too beautiful to eat (as yet)

And finally the medical cart arrived the day before New Years Eve. After dismantling the substantial crate it came in, the trolley finally made its way into our kitchen and its future as a drinks trolley.

Trolley in place, fitting perfectly just as we had imagined it

Following its retirement from a medical office, the trolley had been used as a prop in theatre and television productions. A couple of layers of paint – see the blue where a final coat has chipped away- perhaps attest to its career in theatre. We have decided for now that we will leave it in its slightly rugged state, letting its history show.

Our first Italian Christmas did not include getting together with family or friends for a festive dinner but then that became an inevitability once we made the decision to move to Italy. Instead phone calls sufficed along with wishes across social media. We don’t know how many more holidays we will spend in Italy, but our first will always be a benchmark. Italy does Christmas with great enthusiasm and it was our gain to share the experience.

Addendum

From beginning to end, the colours of Christmas in Italy carried us through the holiday starting with the photo below. When the Anghiari Commune announced that the clock tower would be lit in red for the holiday I presumed it would continue through the entire season. However it happened only on a single occasion and that in late November. I was fortunate enough to see it on that one early morning and to capture the sight on my mobile phone. Yes, the sky was really that blue and the tower really that red–no filters. It is my favourite of all our Christmas pictures and I hope you enjoy it as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL OF YOU

Endnotes

1 Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s lack of original sin not to a preternatural form of creating human life

Apologies to followers

Having just published my latest post, I see that once it is emailed, the same flaws that appeared in my last post still exist. That is, the title is not centered and captions are not placed under photos but instead appear as the first line of the following text.

I worked with a WordPress representative to correct these problems but obviously it has not worked. I am going to try to rework this latest post to see if I can accomodate the problem of captions, however the misplaced title will no doubt remain. I will be sending my revised post so don’t be surprised to have received a second bopy

Thanks for your patience

Margaret B

Remodeling, Italian Style

When we were first looking at what would become our home in Italy, I was surprised to see that there was a bathroom just off the entryway–common enough in the U S but not necessarily to be expected in an ancient Italian house. It was, in fact, a three-quarters bath, that is it had a shower. That was something of a puzzle as I could not imagine someone running from an upstairs bedroom with a change of clothes in hand, or perhaps merely a bathrobe flapping around bare limbs and body. But I soon found the shower was useful for giving dog baths and it was relegated to that purpose exclusively.

It was by no means an attractive room but was a handy one until the day an electrical short in the pump rendered the toilet useless. Replacing the pump meant removing tiles and opening the wall, leaving damage unsightly enough for us to consider remodeling. Pretty quickly consideration became intent and we only wanted a motif to move forward. That presented itself one day in the form of a small round plate decorated with an image from a Gustav Klimt painting. It had been given to me as a hospitality gift by a good friend and now became the inspiration for a new, improved half bath.


Above: Tiny Plate with Klimt Detail – plate is about 3″ diameter..The Start of it All

Although Klimt didn’t paint entirely in yellow, he did use it a lot and since both Terry and I particularly like the color, it would feature largely in the decor. Although it would be some time before work actually began, we were anxious to start realizing the vision, and turned to Etsy.com for ideas and sources. The first purchase was a sink, a deep yellow rectangular basin made by the artisan, Roberto Tarantino, in Greece. Not only was it attractive, but careful measurements of Django’s body determined that it was large enough to accommodate him for a bath.

Each of Tarantino’s sinks is made to order from cement and has to be cured before applying the finish. The curing time and process meant that a number of weeks passed before we received it but when we did, Terry could not take his eyes off it nor resist touching it. I, of course, loved it as well, but since it had been in my mind’s eye since ordering, was not surprised at its beauty. Along with elements of Klimt, the sink would serve as a guide for the color and style of the bathroom.

Below see the before shots of our less than lovely bath and the results of changing the pump along with the ugly stains caused by moisture seeping through stone walls.

So this is what we began with, all set in a space of about 4 x 7 feet. Homely, yes, and small but until it didn’t work, it was easy enough to ignore its imperfections when just making a quick stop before leaving or after arriving home.

Through a friend who managed properties and had previously recommended workers to us, we found Emanuele, a local builder who, like us, lived in an ancient property and so understood well the challenges he would encounter. His work began with chiseling away the deep set tiles then drilling off all the cement that formed the walls. Emanuele filled twenty to thirty paint buckets with debris from the walls and carried each one down the steps to his truck to dump them.

Above: Terry estimates each of these buckets weighed 30-40 pounds

The room looked increasingly like a war zone as Emanuele drilled tunnels in the walls to accommodate plumbing and electrical lines.

As you can see, this is no “Property Brothers” project from Home & Garden TV where removing walls made of flimsy drywall and wooden studs can be done in hours not days.

Once the old walls had been removed, and the electrical and plumbing lines put in place. Emanuele began building the new walls. First he applied a rough coat of cement then added a top coat, sanded to a smooth finish. Later two coats of paint and sealer would finish the walls and hopefully make it impervious to future stains. At last, with the rugged task of dismantling finished and rebuilding begun, we could start to imagine the room that was to be.

Above: New Walls are going up

With the walls in place, Emanuele began flooring the room.

Above: Flooring begun

Above: In the threshold Terry etched the joined hearts of T and M

Above: Emanuele at work and the finished floor of light gray tiles

Soon after Emanuele finished the floor he was laid low with a non-Covid but significant case of the flu. Nursing a sore throat and unable to sleep, he spent most of the following week in bed. That meant, of course, that our project stalled while Emanuel recovered.

As soon as he was able, he was back on the job and eager to make up time lost to his illness. With the floor laid, it was time to install the counter top, which would sit in the space once occupied by the shower. Because there is not a straight wall in the house, fitting a counter top into an existing space meant careful measuring and, to make sure it would all work, the marmista, or stone cutter, made a mock up in cardboard. Once he had assured the fit he installed the actual countertop of quartz, ready to receive the sink that would sit on top of it.

In the meantime, Emanuele built and tiled the box that would surround the toilet, its plumbing, and the mechanism for flushing.

Now our new bathroom was really taking shape, still a very small half bath, but an enormous improvement over the one it replaced. We were more than happy to see the quicker pace of the work. We had lived with building materials, tools and supplies stacked in our entry way for nearly two months, and were only marginally able to control the heavy dust coating every surface.

Above: Our less than inviting entry way

Finally it was time for the plumber to install the final components; all had been sitting in the entryway for weeks–the toilet itself and the tank as well as the faucet for the sink. And, as you may have noticed in the previous photos, the sink sitting on top of a chest while waiting to be installed.

Once the plumber was scheduled to arrive we knew the project was near its end and so when he appeared a day earlier than he had suggested we excitedly looked forward to not only the completion of the new bath, but a return to normalcy. Excited, that is, until Emanuele summoned us to view the plumber’s work and we saw this:

Above: Non Bellissimo!

” E bellissimo, no? (it’s beautiful, isn’t it?) he said but I was appalled by the appearance of this outsize faucet–so large that the mirror to be be set behind it would be half obscured. “No, non bellissimo,” I said, shaking my head. Terry and I asked if it could be lowered and Emanuele agreeably adjusted the height but to no great effect; it was still obtrusive and in our view unacceptable. Though Terry and I both felt badly about throwing a kink into the process at this late stage, we knew that were this faucet to remain, we would always be dissatisfied with the bath.

Though certainly disappointed, Emanuele set off on a search for a smaller faucet, this time, unlike before, checking back to show us photos of our options. Now we chose what seemed to be something more compatible in size and style than the monstrosity currently in place and Emanuele asked “are you sure?” Well, as far as we could be without actually seeing the item. So undoubtedly crossing his fingers for a good result, off he went to purchase the replacement. And, thank all the gods in heaven and stars in the sky he returned with something much better.

Above: The much better replacement faucet

Cautioned not to use the faucet or toilet for a day or two we waited for a couple of days before giving Django his inaugural bath in the new sink. He actually was more comfortable than in the kitchen sink, which I had sometimes used, because the bottom was flat and non-slippery. And it was easier for me since I didn’t have to kneel on the floor as I did when I bathed him in the shower. This first attempt splashed a fair amount of water on the counter, floor and wall as well as on myself, so my dog washing technique in the new sink needs some refining.

Above: Django “enjoying” his new bath tub

And finally we were able to hang the posters and the mirror to complete the look of the bathroom that we had so long envisioned.

Finished!

So what is a more attractive bathroom worth? Like all remodeling projects, it seems, the former room fades quickly in our memories and soon enough we will be looking for another upgrade to make in another needy corner of the house. With each one, though, our house moves closer to eliminating those spaces that provoke a quiet “arrrgh” or are simply ignored. Does one ever achieve perfection in a house? Unlikely, however I can hope that at the least we don’t begin to remodel the remodels.

Ferie in Muggia Part I

It would be fair to ask why a couple living in one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, and in fact living in Italy at all, would think a vacation was in order. We had, after all, already spent several months in Balkan countries, returned to the U S for seven months, and then happily flown back to our home in Anghiari. But Terry and I had always planned to see as much of Italy as we could while we lived here. Covid-19 threw a roadblock into our plans, though, and two years had passed since we first arrived in Anghiari without having once traveled around our new home country. So within the first months after we returned last winter, I began planning a trip to the area around Trieste and settled on the seaside town of Muggia, which lies along the Adriatic just a few short kilometers from the Slovenian border. The destination, in fact, was chosen so that we could easily cross for a day trip to the small Slovenian town from which Terry’s grandfather had emigrated.

In a last minute impulse, we decided to stop in Bologna for a night on the way to Muggia. Terry had spent years of his life attending the university there in pursuit of his medical degree and was curious to see how it had changed since he was a student. I remembered it from art history classes as a unique and beautiful city and looked forward to experiencing it as a visitor. And, Emilia-Romagna, the province in which Bologna is located, is often cited as offering the best of Italian food and Terry wanted to treat us to a special dinner in “Bologna La Grassa,” (Bologna the fat) to enjoy its exceptional cuisine.

Getting into Bologna, though, was a nightmare. The streets of the city follow those built in Medieval times, creating a maze of one way streets twisting and turning around the pedestrian zone of the city center.

Bologna in 1640

Ultimately we simply found a parking garage and walked to our hotel. After quickly checking in we were back on the streets bustling with students from the university, far exceeding in numbers what Terry remembered from his days there. With no such memories myself I simply enjoyed gazing at Bologna’s beautiful, earthy and unique architecture. Tones of deep rusty reds and ochre dominate and stout columned collonades stretch along many of the streets. The series of beautiful passages serve a practical function in providing shade from the sun or protection from rain but also give Bologna much of its character.

Collanade in Bologna

All of this I had seen in slides during art history classes but now I found myself especially noticing the corbels, those crucial architectural elements used to support balconies, roofs and other weighty components of a building. Usually they are sculpted along curved lines and often highly decorative, but in Bologna I saw a number of simple stepped corbels, a restrained version I had only seen before on the villa of our neighbor in Anghiari. I was intriguied by this detail as perhaps only a former student of art history might be. I searched online for the source and history of these corbels, which I thought might be Moorish or deriving from other eastern sources, but was unable to establish any certain links.

Stepped corbel in Bologna

Dinner that night was indeed the treat Terry had promised. The tortellini in broth far surpassed any I had ever eaten and the main course, veal in a creamy porcini sauce, was also delicious, though the veal of Serbia still ranks as the ultimate in taste and tenderness in our view. The Lambrusco we drank to accompany dinner was nothing like the product known in the U S but was full, rich and slightly effervescent, a perfect wine for a delightful meal.

With the special night behind us we left in the morning for Muggia where we would spend the next ten days. We arrived soon after noon just in time to witness a wedding celebration in Muggia’s main piazza situated just steps from our apartment. And what a perfect location we had; every restaurant a short walk away, near constant activity in the piazza, and the view below out of our window.

Muggia harbor from our apartment window

The apartment itself was very open and bright-a pleasure except for the minimal kitchen, which discouraged any plans to cook meals there. Nevertheless, take out and full service restaurants insured we would not go hungry in Muggia. We returned a number of times to an outdoor cafe in the nearby piazza where the food was good and people watching an inevitable pastime. We witnessed several more weddings during our stay and the piazza was always busy with dog walkers, locals, tour groups and young children who took advantage of the ample space to ride trikes, skateboards and scooters while their parents enjoyed a drink at a nearby cafe.

I was struck from our first moments there by the variety of physical types in the crowds of people. In Anghiari there is a real Italianate look: slim, at least for the young, tending toward dark hair and wearing fashionable clothing, usually successfully. In Muggia, faces and bodies reflected the diverse characteristics of Northern Europe or Balkan populations–in general more fair and often more bulky or taller than the people we see in Tuscany. Lanuages varied too; we heard Slavic and German along with the Muggia dialect, which is quite different from the Italian we had grown accustomed to. Since Muggia is a tourist destination, some of that variety can be attrituted to people visiting from other countries but with Muggia snuggled up to the Balkans and other European countries it has been and continues to be a crossroads between east and west.

Tourist town though it may be, visitors sometimes report that Muggia offers little to do except enjoy the fine fish restaurants. However, for those not daunted by a long uphill hike there is an archaeological site in Muggia Vecchia, the original hilltop site of the town. There you can also visit the church of Santa Maria Assunto where fragments of medieval frescoes remain. One other reward for the effort of a challenging walk is a castle from the Medieval period (built 1374) which was eventually abandoned. In 1991 it was purchased by the sculptor Villi Bossi who renovated it and now occupies it as his home. It is opened on occasion for special events, but generally not available for public viewing. We saw none of these as our walk three-quarters of the way up the hill had already proved to be a challenge so we opted to turn back downward and simply enjoy walking through the colorful neighborhoods leading into the harbor area.

And there were things to do in downtown Muggia. We enjoyed the archaeological museum with its collection of artifacts from Muggia Vecchio and the small but impressive Modern Art museum. The latter featured sculptor Ugo Cara, whose smaller works in metal were treated with an acid wash creating a beautiful vari-colored patina.

Ugo Cara sculptures in the Museum of Modern Art Muggia Italy

For those who like to shop, there are a few clothing and personal accessory stores but options for leaving lots of Euros in Muggia are limited.

With the high season of summer over, music and other entertainments in the piazza had come to an end. But on the last day of our visit we joined the crowd along Muggia’s main street to watch bikers passing through on the intermediate (and briefly Italian) leg of the “I Feel Slovenia” IronMan competition. The very fit and dedicated athletes, male and female, old and young, had already completed the first phase, a 1 1/2 mile swim in the Bay of Koper at the end of the Istrian Penninsula. Once out of the water they jumped onto their bikes to cycle a loop passing through Muggia, where they were greeted with applause, cheers and the announcer shouting, “Welcome to Muggia.” When the 90 km ride (56 miles) was finished, they would begin the final phase, a half marathon through the old town of Koper and surroundings. The event was a shortened version of the ultimate IronMan with each stage one half the distance of a full course but no less thrilling to those of us who watched.

A rainy week discouraged us from fulfilling plans to take a ferry ride across the bay to Trieste. We had looked forward to walking the city and spending an afternoon in the modern art museum there, but the prospect of a wet boat ride and walking in pouring rain convinced us to abandon the idea. Fortunately one of the highlights we had planned for the week was a one day trip to the tiny village of Hudi Vhr in Slovenia where Terry’s ancestors had lived. Not only was the weather fair that day but it was in every way a delight to be described in Part II.

Lurching Towards Italy

Act Two: Lurching About in Italy

Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog has followed the story of our adventures in relocating to Italy. It was not always an easy path, but ultimately we were able to celebrate the sunrise of our new life as we literally watched the sun come up on July 11, 2021. Now we are residents of not only Anghiari, but Italy and the European Union.

Both Terry and I had lived abroad in the past and knew that life in a new place doesn’t promise a continuous fairy tale, even in a country as beautiful and artistically rich as Italy. Deciding to own a home there guarantees a certain number of problems–broken toilets, rehabilitating long neglected or never quite right areas combined with the challenge of when to pay what taxes and to what entity. What we didn’t expect was plant thievery.

Along the front facade of our house lies an embankment built of stone, its original purpose unknown. In the present, though, it has been utilized as a platform for pots of plants, a number of which the previous owner had generously left for us. The centerpiece is a pair of beautiful plumbagos full of blue flowers that bloom through the summer months. Because there was plenty of space between the big pots to add smaller, colorful plants we made repeated trips to the local garden center, bringing home a variety of additional flowers. Some fared well in the bright sun that lit this spot, others were ultimately transferred to my plant hospital where half days of shade saved delicate flowers inclined to wilt during hot afternoons.

One day while watering, I noticed that one of our new plants was missing–easy to spot since we had bought two of the same. A few days later, I saw that another small pot of flowers was gone and before long one of our three lavender plants had also disappeared. Clearly, someone was taking plants, whether to beautify their own premises or simply for the delight of creating mischief wasn’t clear.

The alley on which we live, Vicolo di Monteloro, is a public walk, though it only leads to our house and a few apartments behind it. Tourists frequently stop here to take pictures of themselves and nearly daily high school students buzz up on their scooters and settle on the steps to socialize. Other than a propensity to leave litter behind or on occasion become a bit raucous, the kids are welcome and cause no problems. However, with plants going astray, we had to wonder if a dare or spirit of deviltry might have prompted one, or several, of them to lift our plants.

After our third plant disappeared, Terry talked with neighbors about the problem. To a person, they believed that the high school kids were the culprits. One woman, though, mentioned that plant thievery in the town center and even the cemetery was not unusual but did not attribute it to young people, leaving open the question of who might be responsible. Later that same day, a lady going to the house next door stopped to chat and when we mentioned our missing plants she told us of her own experience. She had gone outside one morning to water plants and discovered a vacant space where the day before a magnificent rose bush in a large pot had stood. Some apparently brawny thief or thieves had slipped in during the night to grab the prize plant, its size so large, she said, that a truck would have been necessary to transport it.

Terry and I felt that, based on her story and the apparently repeated incidences of downtown plant theft, the finger of guilt could not inevitably be pointed at young people. The effort and planning required to haul a large pot filled with a plant seems an unlikely strategy of mischief seeking teenagers and where, after all, would kids take it? To Mom and Dad’s house? To a friend’s house? Moreover, teenagers tend to gather in or near piazzas not in the narrow, winding streets of the historic center where flowers stand invitingly outside doorways. Still, one cannot completely rule out the possibility that the thieves are youthful pranksters.

But we had another suspicion. A little lady who works for our neighbors on occasion, stopped one day to ask me whether a plant on our balcony would flower. When I answered, “no” she apparently thought I didn’t understand her Italian, and went to our entryway where she plucked a blossom from a plant, holding it up to indicate that her word, fiore meant flower. When Terry stepped onto the balcony, she repeated the question to him and he replied, just as I had, the plant does not flower. A few days later, Terry spotted her poking among the potted plants atop our platform. She had, it seemed, an especial interest in our flowers.

The neighbors Terry talked with about the problem advised him to make an official complaint (Denuncia) to local authorities, the municipal police, the carabinieri and the commune office. One of them spoke himself to the Vigili Civile (Civil Guardian) about the problem and let us know he would help in any way possible. Being good neighbors and good people, they were nearly as offended as we were that someone was stealing flowers from us.

We were reluctant to complain to local police or other authorities about the problem and assumed that there is little they could actually do. Our immediate solution, instead, was to relocate smaller pots to our balcony and then head once more to the garden center to buy larger and heavier pots to hold plants we wanted to leave on the platform–too big and too heavy to be carried off easily on a motor scooter or by any but the most determined plant thief.

Anghiari is considered one of the most beautiful hilltop towns in Italy, and pots of flowers juxtaposed with ancient stone walls can take some credit for that. It has always been a pleasure to walk through the streets admiring residents’ contributions to the beauty of our town. Learning that there are those who lack a moral compass and steal that beauty to take it for their own is as offensive to us as our own experience.

Plant thievery when compared with serious crime is minor, but more prevalent than one might expect. An article in The Laidback Gardner titled “Keeping Plant Thieves at Bay,” (March 12, 2018; Source Victor Kerlow) claims that one in seven British households experience plant theft in the course of a year. Decades ago and across the ocean in Lansing, Michigan I remember my mother showing me two holes in the ground where she had planted azaeleas, now simply two empty holes left by the thief who absconded with her azaeleas. More often than not though, thieves do not dig up plants, but run off with potted ones as can be seen in the video below.

https://eu.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2018/06/02surveillance-video-flowers-porch-michigan/666086002/

Surveillance cameras and other high tech solutions are quite expensive so my first thought on discovering the missing plants was to post a warning sign. Our neighbors cautioned us against doing that since it might actually provoke further mischief, particularly if, as they believed, local kids were involved. However, the article in The Laidback Garnder does suggest a sign could be a deterrant.

The Laidback Garner; “keeping Plant Thieves at Bay.” 03/12/2018; Source Victor Karlow

Since we had some suspicion that the thief might be the oh-so-interested-in-our-plants lady, Terry resolved to bring the issue up to her, not as an accusation but to assess her response. When he found the moment to mention our stolen plants she came to a full stop and gasped a dramatic, wide-eyed “No!” Terry then asked, “What kind of person would do that?” to which she did not respond. We detected no sign of embarassment or guilt, but were not entirely convinced of her innocence. In any case, prevention rather than retribution is our goal so the matter of who was responsible sinks to the bottom of our concerns.

Though surprised and annoyed over the theft of some of our plants, we do not see it as cause for disaffection with Anghiari. Crime in this small town is almost unknown; people leave homes unlocked, store bicycles outside, and walk the streets at night without fear. Plant theft is a petty crime and we are happy that more serious threats are not a concern here.

Plumbago

Azure floats among the leaves

Beside ancient stairs

Who among those passing by

Ponders transcendence?

T & M

July 11

We left Fernandina Beach on July 11, 2019, our rental car loaded with luggage, dogs, and our weary selves. We had spent the morning chasing down the envelopes from the Miami Italian Consulate containing our passports, unfortunately lacking the wished for Elective Residency visas. Still, we were on our way to Italy at last with a flight from Miami booked for the next day.

Now, two years later, we not only have the long stay visas, but have received our Permesso di Soggiorno‘s and become official residents of Anghiari. In spite of continuing concerns about Covid-19, restrictions are loosening in Italy and our little village is showing signs of life again. Although large events such as the Scampanata and Palio della Vittoria, the annual foot race marking the anniversay of the Battle of Anghiari, had been cancelled, commune officials made sure residents were not entirely without entertainments: An artisan sale, a Jack Kerouac tribute and a “Night of Romance” when candles lit the winding streets of our town and restaurants stayed open late to accomodate those sharing a romantic meal. Terry and I attended and enjoyed all of these small events as well as continuing to frequent the weekly farmers market and the monthly antiques sale.

In normal years the foot race mentioned above is run along one of Anghiari’s most distinguishing features– the long, straight road running east to west between Anghiari and Sansepolcro. Competitors gather in the field below, site of the famous battle, and then race uphill to reach the finish line at Piazza Baldaccio.

Corso Matteotti or Street of the Cross

The piazza, though, is only about halfway up the hill. The long avenue, now named Matteotti, begins at the Church of the Cross on the apex of the hill before descending past Piazza Baldaccio and then into the low lands running between fields of sunflowers and tobacco before coming to an end on the outskirts of Sansepolcro. The road, locally often referred to as the Corso della Croce (Street of the Cross), is considered unique in all of Europe.

It is fitting that such a singular road leads from the Church of the Cross, which has special significance in Anghiari. It was there in the early thirteenth century that St. Francis planted a simple cross made of branches, marking the point where two streets crossed forming the T shaped tau, the cross form embraced by St. Francis and later associated with the Franciscan order. Inevitably the spot was venerated as holy ground and a church built upon it.

The upper part of Matteotti with the Church of the Cross at the crest of the hill

Twice a year, in May and July, the sun itself pays homage to the Corso as it rises over mountain tops to the east, bringing its light to the ancient road. Normally the street is a busy one requiring a watchful approach and unhesitant commitment when crossing or turning into it. But on those days that the sun rises over it, the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes the gathering place for those taking part in the eons old ritual of greeting the sun at dawn on a particular date or in a particular place.

When the commune announced the “Way of the Sun” celebrating the sunrise of July 11, I was intrigued but a bit dubious. Although I am usually awake at that time of day, Terry has not seen a sunrise in all the time I have known him. But he surprised me by saying he would like to go regardless of the terrific blow to his normal routine. I woke at 3:00 a.m. that day, allowing time to dawdle over a cup of coffee, and at 4:30 jostled Terry to let him know that he could either roll over and go back to sleep or rise and start his very early day. He chose the latter, and soon we were on our way to Matteotti, unsure whether we would find a good number of early birds or only a few stalwart individuals. As we walked along the alley leading to the main street, though, we began to hear sounds of activity and when we arrived were amazed to see a substantial crowd already in place.

The street was filling with people, sitting on cushions provided by event supporters and we soon had a couple of them ourselves and chose a spot among the crowd. It was still dark but we could see attendees of all ages, happy lovers, dogs on leashes and, eventually, members of the brass band who would play “Canor Lucis”, Song of Light as the sun rose.

Once the band was in place, the conductor made an announcement that at precisely 41 minutes past 5:00 a.m. the musicians would sound the first notes of “Canor Lucis” at the moment sunrise began. In a few minutes the sky began to lighten as the sun made its way up the back of the mountains, then as moments passed, the horizon glowed a soft orange while the sun edged over the mountain tops. Finally the orb itself rose into the sky — the day had begun.

Once the sun was fully into the sky, the road to Sansepolcro looked like a river of molten silver linking our two towns. Terry and I drive along this road, sometimes several times a week, on our way to buy groceries or carry out other mundane tasks. never imagining it could take on the appearance of a ribbon of precious metal. A surprising and stunning finale to the “Way of the Sun.”

Way of the Sun photo by Andrea Mambrini posted on Commune di Anghiari FaceBook page July 11 2021

But the day was only beginning. We still looked forward to two major sporting events of the day, the tennis finals at Wimbledon and the soccer match between England and Italy for the European championship. We had watched the two weeks of the Wimbledon tournament and followed the progress of Italian player Matteo Berrettini toward a showdown against World Number One, Novak Djokovic. Berrettini is one of several young Italian players making their mark on professional tennis, but Berrettini is the most proficient on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

Coin toss before the match determines who will serve first

We had little hope that Berretini could win against the invincible Djokovic, but surprisingly he did win the first set in a tie breaker. However, true to form Novak found his pace and won the next three sets and the championship.

then end of the match

Tennis players are groomed to be gracious whether in victory or loss and after receiving their trophies from British royalty, both players held their prizes high and praised the other’s efforts and skills. However difficult it is to be the loser in an important match, Berretini found the right note in saying, “this is not an ending, but a beginning.”

The tennis final was barely over when pre-game coverage of the soccer match began. Since the match itself wouldn’t begin until 9:00 p.m., I didn’t plan to watch, but Terry wouldn’t miss it. I retired to read for a while before turning out the light and falling asleep. I was dreaming of a very complex, and entirely whimsical method of keeping score in soccer when I was suddenly wakened by shouts, horns honking, and firecrackers exploding in the piazza next to us. Not knowing whether Italy had just scored or whether the jubilation was for the championship victory, I shot out of bed to find out what was happening. Yes! Terry told me excitedly, Italy had won in a kick off.

The Italians are far more interested in soccer than tennis so the celebration was loud, happy, colorful and ongoing. Cars with Italian flags fluttering out the windows drove up our street and through the piazza, people from the neighborhood poured from their houses to join the celebration and even the carabinieri drove through with all lights flashing. Terry and I, still in my nightgown, leaned over our balcony to shout “bravo” to neighbors as they walked by.

Two years ago as we began this marvelous journey, we looked forward to a new life in Italy. In spite of the restrictions caused by Covid, we have taken pleasure in the small details of daily life here, the people we have met and the special character of this very special town. We haven’t gone every place we had planned nor seen all we had thought we would see. But we will.

Viva Italia

Pigeon Tales

In the small town in which I grew up, there may have been pigeons but I was unaware of them. We certainly lacked the kind of presence seen in larger cities where flocks, or ‘kits’ gather in parks, public squares or on the ledges of buildings to either charm or dismay the population. Now though, having settled in Anghiari, I see pigeons throughout the town, cooing, strutting along the building tops and yes, pooping everywhere. Occasionally I hear gunshots as crews attempt to eliminate some of them and later see the clusters of feathers that are all that remain of the birds.

I had no particular prejudice against pigeons and, in fact, recall being quite intrigued by their behavior as I sat once in a park in Arezzo. It was courting time and the males were doing there best to attract a mate. Eager to impress the females, male pigeons fluffed up their feathers and spread their tails to exaggerate their size, and then walked in circles before the intended love mate. Utterly unimpressed, the females usually walked away, soon to be approached by another suiter repeating the courting ritual. I saw, as I watched, that colors and patterns do vary among pigeons, though the majority seem to be gray and black, often with an irridescent band around their neck.

And such was the pigeon who wanted to claim a spot in the facade of our house. There is high on our front wall a small window placed oddly about five feet above the level of my head. Because the wall is two feet or so thick, the window sits in a recess, leaving a nice cozy area in which a pigeon couple could set up housekeeping, protected from rain and wind. Since pigeons mate for life, and usually produce four clutches of eggs in a year’s time, we understood that the space was likely to become long term housing.

Had the pigeons not left the recess and window filthy we might not have been so inhospitable but for a number of reasons we decided they could not stay. Fortunately the window, a modern replacement for the original, actually opens so we were able to clean it and remove debris left by the pigeons. But it was clear that unless we took further steps they would be back, so Terry laid some aluminum foil and bubble wrap in the opening, hoping that the birds would find the changes offputting. When they didn’t, he added a motion light and that did frighten the pigeons away for a while but the batteries died before long and soon after the pigeons were back in their cozy nook.

For my part, whenever I saw one of the pigeons in their “penthouse,” I threw a light weight missle at the window, shooing the birds away for the moment. But I could not be on watch at all times, so they became quite comfortable in their chosen space. When we saw that they were building a nest, it was clear that we needed to find better pigeon-proofing solutions. Pigeon spikes, a series of thin aluminum rods, are the favored deterrant here and most buildings have a number of them set around the perimeter of their roofs and along window sills. The spikes do not injure birds, but make it difficult to access an area. So Terry went off to buy several sets of spikes along with a spray solution said to be obnoxious to pigeons. When I looked up one morning to see that one of the persistant pigeons had managed to get through the spikes , Terry added another set and since then, thankfully, the pigeons haven’t returned.

There was good reason to eliminate nesting spaces around our home. Virtually all birds are likely to be infested with mites, which can get into the house creating a significant problem for its occupants. When you see a pigeon grooming a mate, he/she is probably removing these biting pests, which live on the blood of its host. Moreover, the feces of pigeons carry a number of diseases, including salmonella and psittacosis. Beyond the health factor, guano is corrosive to surfaces and can damage building exteriors. Interesting though pigeons may be, living in close proximity is a problem for most people.

Pigeons do have their fans, however. There are numerous clubs of devotees throughout the world who race their homing pigeons. In order to compete, the pigeons must be transported to a destination far from their home and the distance carefully measured. A calculation of distance and time determine the speed of the pigeon’s flight, with the bird flying at the greatest speed the victor. The ability to navigate back to their homes, sometimes spanning distances of over a thousand miles, is not well understood, but is reliable–homing pigeons are unfailing in their ability to return to their base, barring any unfortunate mishaps. When needs dictate or it suits the purpose of the trainer, pigeons can be taught to have two homes, thus eliminating the need to transport the birds. Not surprisingly, food is the key; pigeons are enticed by food in both places to consider each their ‘home.’

In the Spanish provinces of Valencia and Murcia some pigeon aficionadoes have developed the most unusual, and to my mind somewhat callous pigeon hobby. Enthusiasts of the sport paint their prize pigeons in bright colors, preparing them for a competition in which a bevy of males are released to pursue a single female pigeon. The male who succeeds in spending the greatest amount of time wooing the beleagured and probably very weary female is deemed the winner. 1

Though pigeons’ special skills attract hobbyists, they have also been put to much more serious and useful work. Before the advent of a regular postal service pigeons were a means of sending messages across the miles. The pigeon was outfitted with a small harness and the message inserted into a tube fastened under the pigeon’s wing. This method was also used to deliver medicines and other important items when more usual means were either unavailable or difficult.

Most impressive, though, was the wartime role of pigeons, utilized as recently as World War II. Sending informational and often critical messages via homing pigeons was more secure than other methods which could be subject to enemy interference or attack. Pigeons were also used for surveillance during World War I when they were outfitted with cameras set on a timer to photograph enemy positions and installations.

Pigeons have been credited with numerous incidences of saving soldiers’ lives in both WWI and WWII and have been honored by the British Dickens medal and Croix de Guerre in France for their heroism. Perhaps the most famous of these tiny heroes is the American pigeon, Cher Ami, who saved the “Lost Battalion” during WWI.

Having suffered heavy losses, the battalion had retreated to a defensive position in a ravine, which ultimately became a trap when they were surrounded by German forces. Throughout the day of October 3, 1918 they were assaulted by enemy firepower, losing still more men and depleting precious ammunition. The following morning the Commander wrote a message to home base advising them of the situation and asking for help but due to inaccurate co-ordinates, friendly troops began to assault the battalion. Commander Whittlesley prepared another message fitted into a tube attached to Cher Ami’s leg, signaling the authorities that his battalion was being bombarded by their own military.

Message from Commander to Headquarters. “Our own military is droppng a barrage directly on us. For Heaven’s sake stop it.”

When Cher Ami was released to deliver the message she seemed reluctant to take flight and hovered in the nearby foliage. After a number of anxious prompts forced her to leave her safe perch she was immediately fired upon by the German troops, who no doubt surmised she was carrying a message. Cher Ami fell to the ground injured, but astonishingly rose back into the air and began to fly toward headquarters. When she arrived a half hour later the leg holding the messsage was dangling by a tendon, she had lost one eye, and there was a bullet hole in her body. Medics performed surgery on her, repairing the wounds and she was later outfitted with an artificial leg to replace her own severely damaged one.2

Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and today her stuffed and mounted, one legged form is held in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C.

Few of us have had any experience with heroic pigeons, but many of us have eaten the now inglorious bird –I have and found it delicious. It is not uncommon in Europe but by the twentieth century, pigeon was not normally found on most dining tables in the United States. Prior to that, though, it was enjoyed by many and often served at Christmas dinner. The beautiful Passenger Pigeon is now extinct due to its popularity both for food and sport. Still, in a quick search of the internet, I found many recipes for pigeon, usually identified as Wood pigeon, though these are essentially the same birds as those roosting in cities.

If describing pigeon as coming from the woods is intended to distinguish it from the too familiar city bird, the word ‘squab’ is similarly selective. But, if you have enjoyed a dinner of squab, you have eaten pigeon. These are nothing more than very young pigeons, often little more than four weeks old, and very small. For those who like the tender, dark meat of squab a recipe follows:

Roasted Squab

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 Cup chopped onion
  • 3 T butter
  • 1-1/2 Cup cooked rice
  • 1-1/2 Cup chopped mushrooms
  • 1/3-1/2 Cup raisins
  • 6 T orange juice concentrate, divided
  • 1 T fresh minced parsley
  • 1-1/2 tsp salt, divided
  • 3/4 tsp marjoram
  • 6 dressed squab, ca 1 lb each
  • 3/4 cup of oil

Saute celery and onion in butter; add rice, mushrooms, raisins, 3T of the orange juice, parsley, 3/4 tsp of salt & marjoram. Stuff the squab and bake at 375 degrees for about an hour. Internal temperature should be 165 degrees

+++++

During Anghiari’s recent Artisan sale, Terry passed by a restaurant advertising, “pigeon pasta, one day only,” and though he didn’t take advantage of the special, the following recipe may be similar. It was posted on the website of The Shooting Club of England and its rather casual language invites you to substitute ingredients if you like.

Pigeon and Wild Mushroom Pasta

Ingredients

  • 4-6 pigeon breasts
  • butter, flour
  • grilled dark mushrooms
  • pack of dried ceps (porcini mushrooms) soaked in water
  • mug of chicken, game or beef stock
  • slug of red wine
  • seasoning
  • bunch of parsley, chopped
  • pasta, such as tagliatelle

Coat pigeon breasts in flour then pan fry in butter. Chop and fry mushrooms in the same butter then add the reconsituted dried mushrooms. Pour in the stock and red wine, or whatever is at hand and let cook until it is reduced to increase flavor. Here a tablespoon of rich cream can be added if desired. Add the sliced pigeon and leave to “bubble softly” while pasta cooks. When the pasta is ready, throw in the chopped parsley and a dash of lemon juice.

+++++

The pigeons’ special qualities and versatility can counter their less positive characteristics and there is one more useful contribution to consider: Guano. Many who have access to pigeon feces swear by its use as fertilizer, though skeptics caution against the prospect of disease if not carefully handled. The effort of gathering and spreading guano for individual use is, however, a minuscule effort in comparison to harvesting guano as a business.

Peru probably counts as the world’s leader in utilizing the product as an economic source. The Incas used guano to fertilize their land so it was a product long familiar in the country. But in the mid-19th century when Peru was suffering economic collapse following its release from colonial rule, guano saved the day. Piles of it stood in great mounds on the Chinca Islands off the coast. Between 1840 and 1870 the country sold at least twelve million tons of it to North America and Britain earning some five hundred million dollars for the product. Unfortunately, supplies decreased over time and the guano boom came to an end, leaving Peru in economic shambles again.3

I have found the investigation into pigeons both fascinating and entertaining and for that I credit the pigeon pair who led me into the subject. They have relocated to a drain pipe attached to the house across the street, forced to exchange their penthouse for cramped housing without a view. I see them walking in and out of the small opening and suppose that soon chicks will hatch who will be fed and cared for by both parents. It seems like a relatively harmless place to settle, so I have avoided alerting our neighbors to their new tenants. The pigeon couple occupy an unobtrusive space not open to the interior of the house so I presume are no threat to health or well being. For the time being, they can be left in peace to live quietly in place and raise their squabs.

End Notes

1Paloma al Aire (Dove Into the Air) Ricardo Cases 1911; now included in Martin Paar & Gerry Bager’s The Photobook, Vol 3

2The men of the “Lost Battalion” eventually did receive help though the cost of lives lost in battle was significant

3 “The Great Peruvian Guano Bonanza: Rise, Fall and Legacy” Council on Hemispheric Affairs July 13, 2011.

Anghiari Through the Ages

Part II–World War II

A neighbor stopped by one day to chat with Terry and mentioned that when the municipality of Anghiari rebuilt after the damages of World War II, it was decided that the upper floor(s) of our house would not be replaced. What? In the first place, what brought that war to tiny and seemingly strategically unimportant Anghiari? Second, what happened to our house? It is clear, as you can see from the photo below, that damage had been done, but the scars and repairs do not tell the story of when or how. The casual comment of our neighbor sparked considerable curiosity, though, and motivated me to look into the small slice of World War II history that took place in Anghiari, research unlike any I had done in the past.

As I explored the course of World War II in Italy, it became clear that the war’s impact on Anghiari echoed the two distinct phases of Italy’s role in that war–the first during Mussolini’s reign across the early war years when Italy aligned with Fascist Germany (1940-43), and later when Italy signed an armistace (September, 1943) joining the Allies for the remainder of the war. Mussolini’s government and his alliance with Germany in WWII had been controversial from the beginning, with fascist influence predominant in northern Italy, while loyalty to Vittorio Emanuele’s monarchy remained strong in the south. As Italian forces suffered loss after loss the sentiment against fascism grew, leading to Mussolini’s downfall and a change of course for Italy.

While Italy was a member of the Axis forces, the fascist regime established Rinicci concentration camp in the commune of Anghiari. The earliest prisoners were Slovenian, joined later by Croatians and other enemies of Italy’s fascist regime including, eventually, Partisans, members of Italy’s Resistance movement. Though relatively short lived (October 1942-September 1943) and with no program of extermination, there were nevertheless 157 deaths among the approximately 10,000 prisoners held in Rinicci. Food shortages were a particular problem with rations limited to thin soup accompanied by a small piece of bread, leaving the prisoners to stave off starvation by eating nuts that fell from chestnut trees. But the cold, suffered without appropriate clothing or blankets in unheated housing, caused illness and death as well. Moreover, the mere experience of being held in such a camp was itself psychologically painful, exacerbated by such practices as mock executions. A local priest, Don Giuliano Giglioni, called Rinicci conditions “bestial.”

Rinicci Concentration Camp

As the declining fortunes of the Axis war effort became evident by September of 1943, camp guards abandoned Rinicci, opening the opportunity for prisoners to leave freely, which they soon did. Many began the long walk toward their homes in Yugoslavia, some unfortunate souls recaptured during their journey to be taken to other camps. A number of other former inmates joined Partisan forces to fight against their common enemy.

By late 1943, Allied forces were advancing in southern Italy but German troops still held a commanding position further north even as they began to retreat toward more secure holdings in the Appennine Mountains. Their passage through central and northern Italy was a delaying tactic allowing time to reinforce positions near Italy’s border and beyond. It would be conducted in stages demarcated by a series of defensive lines, including the Arezzo Line, and culminating at the Gothic Line in northern Italy. The Arezzo Line cut across central Italy from the port cities of Livorno on the western coast of Italy to Ancona on the Adriatic. Between them lay Arezzo, capital of the province of Arezzo where Anghiari is located. Because Arezzo was an important center of communication and government, Partisan troops had converged in the area to challenge German control of the city. Eventually they were joined by British and British Commonwealth troops who arrived in early July 1944. By the sixteenth of July Allied forces could claim control of Arezzo, liberating the city from German occupation.

Map showing Anghiari with Arezzo to the south-west

As German troops moved steadily northward toward the Gothic Line their activities were often not so much strategic maneuvers as they were a mission to impose terror and destruction across the land. It is not hard to imagine that troops loyal to the Axis saw non-fascist Italians as traitors for their rejection of Mussolini’s war, justifying, maybe even demanding, retaliation. Further, breaking the will of citizens had become a tactic of war in modern times and any means of achieving that end can be supported by an aggressive enemy.3 As the German troops marched northward, that war, those methods, reached the communes of Anghiari and nearby Sansepolcro.

On the twenty-fifth of June, 1944 there was a skirmish between Fascist soldiers and Partisans in the vicinity of Anghiari. The following morning, a young Partisan volunteer was sent back to the area to determine whether the Nazis were still there. They were, and the unfortunate youth was captured to be taken to a nearby villa where he was placed against a wall, hands and feet tied, while the Germans continued to beat him. Before long, several other prisoners were brought to the villa and the Germans decided to execute all of them. Using available materials, the soldiers built a gallows from a tree trunk supported by two columns. Wire attached to the trunk was slipped over the heads of the young men and, assuming the standard Nazi method for hanging, a platform below the victims was removed to initiate the grisly death by strangulation. Perhaps mercifully, the soldiers became impatient with the slow process and shot the young men to end their struggles, leaving the bodies in place with a sign attached warning, “Partisans Punished.” Not until British troops arrived twenty days later were the bodies taken down and interred.

Memorial to the victims

Less horrific but still difficult, Anghiari residents lived with the conditions of war: extended power outages, and the sounds of war “day and night” repeatedly cited by the priest Don Giuliano Giglioni in his war time diary. On July 12, 1944, one of the attacks destroyed the Buitoni pasta factory on the edge of Sansepolcro, a short distance from Anghiari. Giglioni remarked on the “systematic destruction of the zone on every industry and economic resource” with explosions that led to fires lasting through the day and into the night.

Buitoni pasta factory in flames

Giglioni also writes of Nazi soldiers commandeering farm animals, food, and furniture, even taking a watch from the priest’s pocket, demands to which people had no choice but to accede. When one farmer dared to call out to the priest as his pigs were loaded into a Nazi vehicle, the soldier shot his pistol at the farmer to silence him.

The degradation of war time conditions and an oppressive enemy led many to join the Resistance fighting a guerilla war against the Germans. It can be said that Partisans were by default leftist with members from the Italian Communist Party, Christian Democrats and other left-leaning organizations. Partisan groups banded together to form the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (National Liberation Committee or CLR). Anghiari based CLR members, Beppone Livi and his wife, Angiola Crociani, were critical figures who had earlier connections to, and support of, Riccini prisoners as well as to local Partisan groups. Undaunted by the risk to which they exposed themselves, they bicycled through the hills with baskets of food to distribute. Below: photos of Beppone and Angiola followed by a group photo of Partisans.

Partisans did not operate within a state military system and although there were former soldiers among them, members also included farmers, shoesmiths, storekeepers and other ordinary citizens. Untrained and sometimes undisciplined, they joined forces to fight against the threat to their well-being and even their existance. The makeup of these forces, and sometimes their actions, have triggered debates as to whether Partisan activities actually endangered those they sought to protect. An argument can be made that when Partisans attacked their enemy, the German reprisal was likely to be devatasting for the public at large and perhaps for Allied military as well.

A case in point is the crisis of June 26-28, 1944 centered in Anghari when the Russian (Russo) Gang captured German Colonel Maximillian von Gablenz and his aide. In response, the German command ordered the capture of Italian citizens, 209 of whom were held in the church at Chiassa Superiore, located between Anghiari and Arezzo. An additional ten Anghiari men were also taken hostage and threatened with death if the colonel was not released. The crisis grew even more terrifying when German officials appeared in Anghiari with posters announcing that Anghiari and several nearby hamlets would be destroyed. The posters warned, “if they (the colonel and his aide) do not return within 48 hours, the entire male population of four countries (sic) will be shot. The countries themselves will be burned.”

Soon talk circulated of mines being placed throughout Anghiari and one report describes the sound of “vigorous chiseling” at the base of the town hall, arousing suspicion of intended damage to the government building. Panicked citizens were “…leaving in a hurry with handcarts loaded with everything they could remove from their home, fleeing towards the countryside…..” According to one observer, “There was no one (left), everyone was afraid.”

While fear and chaos overwhelmed Anghiari, members of other Partisan groups tried to persuade the Russo leader, Vassili, to release his prisoners. The recalcitrant Vassili resisted, saying, “…even if I burn all of Itlay I will not leave (sic) [the German colonel].” As time passed in negotiation, the forty-eight hour deadline, 2:00 on June 28, approached. Partisan Gianni Mineo was able to convince the Germans to extend the deadline for another 24 hours while discussions with the Russo Gang continued. And, finally, the Gang relented, freeing the Colonel and his aide who would be taken to Chiassa church where the 209 hostages were held.

As the Colonel and his aide, accompanied by several Partisan members, made their way to the church, it became clear that Colonel Von Gablenz, debilitated by a lung injury, could not move quickly enough to arrive at the church by the deadline. Himself aware of the horrible consequences of a late arrival, the Colonel wrote a letter to the Germans verifying that he was no longer being held and ordering the release of hostages. Mineo then ran with the letter to the church where already some of the hostages had been lined up against a wall before a firing squad. Mineo’s shouting as he approached alerted the Germans to his arrival and the firing squad put down their guns. But, as time passed and the Colonel had yet not arrived, suspicions grew that the letter was a ruse. The hostages were once again taken to the church yard and the firing square readied when finally, unimaginably, the Colonel appeared, a deus ex machina in real life.

Chiassa church interior, where hostages were held

If sometimes Partisan action led to disastrous outcomes, their resistance to German occupation did keep the enemy in check and provided support and relief to their fellow citizens. Their bravery, committent and, often enough positive results, cannot be dismissed.

In the meantime, as the battle of the Arezzo Line edged northward. British and British Commonwealth soldiers from New Zealand, Australia and India arrived in Anghiari Commune almost simultaneously with the hostage crisis. With opposing forces now fighting for control of Anghiari, the priest, Don Giolianni Gioglioni described the battles between the British and Germans as “the worst I have seen up to this point.” Action continued on a daily basis causing further casualties of both citizens and military. Gioglioni reported three deaths from hand grenades and the slideshow below shows a British soldier shot on an Anghiari street corner. Although there were doubtless some non-combatant citizens left in Anghiari, many had departed or were hiding in their homes, leaving the streets to combatants.

As British troops gained ground they began to replace German troops as occupiers of the village. Although they were friendly forces, their military presence was not without its difficulties. Not only were there the ongoing and disruptive sounds of battle, but it also rankled Anghiari residents that Allied soldiers helped themselves to equipment left in bombed out buildings. More directly, a villa on the edge of Anghiari earlier claimed by the Germans, was taken over by the British who used it as a hospital, relegating the family to one floor of their home. A son of the family who owned the villa remembers a badly wounded soldier being carried into the house and laid atop a grand piano where he was meant to undergo surgery. Instead, with his hand held by the young boy, the soldier smoked a last cigarette as his life slipped away. (Alfonso Sassolini, “Living in Relation.” Dec.8, 2019 Blog by Ann Game)

When it became clear that the situation in Anghiari now heavily favored British forces, the Germans quickly abandoned Anghiari, taking a mere 28 hours to gather equipment and men before departing on July 29, 1944. On the following morning Don Giulliani Gioglioni marked the day celebrating mass alone in his empty church. With the German occupation in Anghiari now past, the Anghiariese must have collectively breathed a sigh of relief, in spite of conditions remaining difficult. Less than three weeks later, however, whatever sense of normalcy residents were beginning to enjoy was abruptly shattered.

On August 18, 1944, at 10:30 a.m., some three weeks after the Germans departed, and two days after Anghiari had been designated liberated, a massive explosion shook Anghiari. Had we been living in our house then we would have heard the roar, felt the tremors, and seen the smoke rising from the site just below us. Now known as the Caribinieri Barracks Massacre, a bomb placed in the barracks had exploded killing fifteen people and seriously injuring others. Three of the dead were Caribinieri and twelve others civilians, some of whom were crushed as the buildings collapsed.

As the sound of the explosion echoed through the town, people rushed to the site. Family and friends of those known to be at the barracks ran in a panic to to learn the fate of loved ones. Other residents gathered to assist in removing the injured and the dead. The calamitous scene at the site of the disaster must have been shocking to people as they arrived; the main road passing behind the barracks had been reduced to a crater, a villa adjacent to the barracks destroyed and the barracks building itself simply no longer existed. Today, where the barracks once stood, two markers commemorate victims of the bombing.

I have walked by these markers many times, knowing they honored victims of World War II, but not aware that they marked the specific site of a catastrophe. Annual memorial ceremonies remember the victims and the awful circumstances of the event.

Sadly, unfortunately, some controversy revolves around the bombing.The explosion occurred twenty days after the Germans left Anghiari on June 29. I, and many others, have questioned how that could have happened. Actually there are answers to that question including the fact that there were apparently two German prisoners held in the barracks at the time of the explosion; could they or another soldier left behind have somehow detonated the bomb? Others have postulated that, though the Germans would have planted the device prior to departure, setting off the bomb must have been done by someone else, perhaps or even probably an Italian of some unknown motive. The former premise is improbable, the latter unthinkable.

More acceptable, and more plausible, is the ‘anti-revisionist’ interpretation offered by Emmanuele Calchetti (TeverePost 8/17/2020), who cites Anghiari citizen and historian, Mirco Draghi in his article. Draghi has studied manuels and historical accounts to verify that the Germans did indeed have a timer that could be set for as long as twenty-one days after the bomb was planted. Designed for use when abandoning an area to enemy forces, the device, called the J-Feder 504, is pictured below.

Not only does Draghi refer to sources documenting the use of the timer during WWII in Italy, some survivors of the Barracks Massacre have spoken of the sound of a ticking clock heard in days prior to the explosion. According to Draghi, it is the sound of the cogwheel moving towards its ultimate setting. The figure 504 refers to the number of hours during which the timer can function–504 hours–twenty-one days.

In spite of devasting events, particularly during the summer of 1944, in the end Anghiari did not experience the full disaster of many other towns and cities. But my original assumption that it was spared altogether was naive. Simply lying in the path of an enemy in retreat brought the war to this small village. And war is a monster; acts committed in the course of wars are often, perhaps inevitably, brutish. Thankfully, Anghiari’s historic center was spared and bears few scars of that period when enemy or even friendly troops occupied it. But the people living there suffered nevertheless: daily greetings, normally a friendly “Buon Giorno,” became “Have you eaten today?”; lives were lost, the economy left in ruins, and the experience of living under occupation unforgettable.

Today, though, I can walk through the village climbing its steps, passing through ancient portals or entering structures that have survived wars and other disasters across the centuries. Its authenticity pleases me and the same surely is true for visitors who appear on weekends in all seasons and anytime during the summmer to wander the streets snapping photos of the old town. Tourists and residents alike gather in the piazzas to enjoy a gelato or cup of coffee–simple pleasures in a near fairy tale town that belies the hard times it has known.

Postscript

As I looked into this subject (so far from my normal area of interest), it became clear to me that whatever damage our house incurred over time had nothing to do with war. So what about those extra stories that were never replaced? Yet to be discovered.

Endnotes

1The grounds of the Rinicci camp have been designated a Memory Park where annual Days of Remembrance are held, “lest we forget.” The bodies of many who died at the camp were interred in the Sansepolcro cemetery where the “Shrine of Slavs” is dedicated to the victims.

2On the nineteenth of September, 1943, they wrote their establishing credo:”At the moment in which Nazism tries to restore its fascist ally in Rome and Italy, the anti-fascist parties form a National Liberation Committe, to call the Italians to fight and to resist in order to regain it’s rightful place in the assembly of free nations.”

3 “After September, 1943, the German invasion army was ordered by the highest authorities not to obey the Geneva Conventions nor normal rules of war, and to show no mercy to the civilian population.” Note that ‘Geneva Conventions, eg plural, refer to two treaties of 1929 defining appropriate treatment of prisoners of war and civilians. Geneva Convention, singular, refers to the 1949 treaty that followed World War II.

The Scampanata

I wrote of the Scampanata in my last post, “Anghiari Through the Ages.” It is now May 2, 2021 and the latest Scampanta is scheduled for this month, though whether the Covid conditions will allow it is uncertain. However, this recently published article from the TeverePost describes a modern day version of the tradition and its beginnings.

Apologies for the transition to Italian text but hope you enjoy the English version as far as it goes. If Terry and I are able to witness this bit of craziness this year, I will report the experience!

Anghiari Through the Ages

Part I: 384 AD to 1920 AD

The ancient town of Anghiari sits on a spur of land elevated between two river valleys, that of the Tiber to our east, and to the west the valley of the Sovara, which runs along the boundary of the town.

Map showing the Tiber River on the east and the Sovara on the west

From our little balcony, we look east over the Valtiberina, the Tiber Valley, which today looks like nothing so much as a lake bed. And, as I have discovered, it actually was in times long past. Water, of course, is a feature essential to life and prosperity and any settlement no matter how small relies on the availability of water. Fortunately, for ease of access, Anghiari is also replete with springs which still provide water for the community.

Anghiari is located at the very top of the Pleistocne Lake. The only remaining portion lies at the southernmost tip. Human manipulation of the waters and natural forces have eradicted most of the lake

Exactly when the first people decided this piece of land between two rivers was suitable for sustaining life is uncertain, but it is well understood that the pre-Roman Etruscans occupied the area from at least 900 BC. However, the Etruscans, though known through physical evidence, produced only scanty written material and that difficult to interpret. In time, though, the Anghiarese did begin to document the goings on in their village and these records have been preserved in museums and other municipal offices.

From those records we know that Anghiari was established at least by 384 AD when its first named ruler, Barnardo di Lucio, was in power, reigning until 404 AD. Not many years later, 485 AD, Ostrogoth forces moving into Italy attacked Anghiari, gaining another victory in their quest for expanded territory. For the next five hundred years Italy was subjected to invading forces and episodic transitions of power until the Holy Roman firmed its hold on Italy after the Hungarian invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries.

But these are just the major, documented events. Skirmishes with nearby forces happened with some regularity and were destructive even if historical consequences were not as great. The buildings of wood with thatched roofs were easy to burn and destroy with weapons of the time, leaving residents to repair and rebuild after each attack. In an attempt to thwart the periodic invasions, a stone wall was built around the town by the late twelfth century, a precursor to the wall that still surrounds Anghiari.

Shoring up of its defenses was not the only indicator of Anghiari’s move toward a more stable and promising future; in the same period the feudal system was coming to an end and a closer affiliation with the leading city of the area, Arezzo, was developing. This in spite of an earlier (1175) attack by forces from Arezzo destroying the castles of Anghiari. Religious and political institutions were also set in place, imposing greater structure on the social system in which the Anghiarese lived. The village now had Counts and castles and monasteries and monks shaping the lives of the commoners.

In this more orderly environment, citizens of Anghiari and Sansepolcro undertook the challenge to change the course of the Tiber River, bringing it closer to Sansepolcro to give its residents better access to water. In the process, Anghiari gained an additional two miles of flat and no doubt fertile land. Not many years later, (1228) the waters of the Tiber were diverted to form a canal between Anghiari and a nearby hamlet, Citerna, in order to provide water for mills. These are the earliest documented, though hardly the last, efforts to change the course of the Tiber to benefit local populations. Here in the Valtiberina, not far from the Tiber’s source, these and later manipulations have caused the Tiber to behave like a creek meandering gently across the landscape before it becomes the full and swift river coursing through Rome.

Unfortunately, life does not follow a pattern of inevitable progress and 1234 brought to Anghiari and all of Europe “the great cold,” known as the Little Ice Age. The frigid weather not only directly caused the deaths of many Anghiarese but ruined the grape harvest as well, causing a serious downturn in the economy of the region. A lament that “weddings had to be celebrated by water,” is only a sidebar to the hardship suffered, but gives insight to the smaller inconveniences within the disaster. And, as such cycles go, eventually an overabundance of the grape crop caused the price to drop, inciting another economic loss owed to the fickle nature of growing grapes.

In 1385 the Anghiari Vicar, Bartolomeo di Ser Gerello, accompanied by a select committee, petitioned the leaders of Florence for help and support to preserve the often struggling town. An evaluation by Florentine experts determined that the castles of Anghiari were critical to the defense of the area and should be restored. The agreement between Florence and Anghiari included the stipulation that any building constructed after 1310 would be required to be rebuilt of stone and topped with a tile roof. The order not only ameliorated the immediate problems associated with fire and other disasters but produced a built environment that has withstood the ages–Anghiari’s ancient houses still remain centuries after being built.

Across the next half century Anghiari continued to build and to develop institutions that reflected the intellectual and economic benefit of their connection with Florence. But in 1440 the Anghiarese proved their reciprocal value to the Florentine Republic. The Battle of Anghiari, fought between Milanese forces challenging Florence for dominance and Florentine troops protecting their Republic, was waged at the foot of the long hill leading out of Anghiari. The battle remains the predominant point of historical interest for this still very small town and virtually any internet search for Anghiari will mention the Battle.

Fought on June 29, 1440, the battle, according to the writings of Machiavelli, lasted only four hours and resulted in a single casualty when a knight fell off his horse and was trampled. However, Machiavelli wrote that description some hundred years after the battle and his premise has been challenged by a consortium of British and Italian scholars who draw a picture of a much larger event. The Milanese forces arrived outside of Anghiari with 1100 troops and recruited 2000 more from Sansepolcro. In contrast, the combined forces of Florence and Venice were comprised of at least 9000 troops. With their greater power, the Florentines eventually forced the Milanese soldiers into retreat and secured not only Anghiari but the Florentine hegemony. Rather than a single soldier having died, the British historian Michael Mallett postulates 900 troops gave their lives to the fight with more injured or taken prisoner.

The battle is often regarded as only a footnote to history. However, according to Angelo Ascani in his book Anghiari (Citta di Castello 1973), it caused great excitement thoughout Italy, a plausible assertion given the political forces involved and the consequent balance of power. Today the Battle of Anghiari is mostly remembered because of a fresco painting in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to commemorate the battle but his fresco began to deteriorate almost immediately and da Vinci abandoned it to take on more promising tasks. Today his work is hidden by a wall built over the fresco. 1

Even in much beleagured Anghiari, where wars small and large, fires, plagues and earthquakes created periodic havoc, new buildings and expanded institutions led Anghiari further along its path to the future. Markets thrived, schools and a hospital were built as was a public wash house and, continually, churches were either newly built or expanded. Roads that had been dirt were laid with brick or stone and the city wall was repaired or rebuilt whenever necessary. A city council headed by a mayor, or Podesta, formed Anghiari’s government, adding a more or less secular structure to the town. In the interest of maintaining good order, it was this body that determined that the harlots of Anghiari, “who were in good numbers,” must reside in one place, and so a brothel was established in the Via Vecchio in 1466. Unsurprisingly given the religious tenor of the times and perhaps to counter the harlot activity, the Virgin Mary appeared before a twelve year old girl in the valley of the Savora River on the eleventh of July 1536 and continued to be seen for the next several days.

As Anghiari’s citizens became more worldly they enjoyed a permanant new theater built in the late sixteenth century and decorated with the works of prominent artists. Villas were built in Anghiari and its environs as prosperous citizens joined the hatters, butchers, pasta makers and other workers who made up the population of the town. Among the new citizens of this increasingly prosperous village was Benedetto Corsi who once lived in nearby Citerna. In 1797 he began to build a palazzo on Anghiari’s main street, tearing down Medieval houses to make way for the Neo-Classical structure.

Corsi palazzo facade

The palazzo extended at the rear to include a large garden, a chapel, theater and coffee house. The slideshow below shows the plan of the Corsi garden and the rear facade of the palazzo, followed by a photograph of the garden in front of the theater and finally, the piazza as it is today.

At the time Benedetto Corsi was building his palazzo, Anghiarese received their first notice that the Italian heritage was under threat. Inspired by, and indeed assisted by, the ideals of the French Revolution, Napoleon led forces to claim territories for what would become the French Empire. Although France had not yet conquered Italy in 1797, soldiers of the French army moved into Anghiari that year. Initially they took over the top floor of a palazzo owned by the Busatti family, merchants who had lived in Anghiari since 1755. In time, the soldiers extended their quarters to include the basement and ulitimately claimed the entire palazzo.2

Unless a personal diary hidden away somewhere describes reaction to the presence of enough soldiers to fill a palazzo, one can only specuate about their affect on the town’s population. In any case, Anghiarese had no choice in the matter and by New Years Eve 1807 were part of the French Empire, celebrating the coronation of Napoleon with fireworks in the main piazza. But, as we know, Napoleon’s reign was relatively short and when he was deposed in 1815 Anghiari reclaimed its Italian roots, and the palazzo was returned to the Busatti family.

Life in Anghiari was not always beset with difficulties; human beings have a habit of seeking entertainment to offset the daily grind and leisure time was plentiful in the past. Not only were there numerous religious holidays, but people didn’t live by the clock as we do now. Anghiarese used to gather in Piazza Baldaccio to play the “Game of the Goose,” a popular pastime with a long history in Italy. Eventually, however, the game was banned from the piazza, leading me to believe it must have been a rough and raucous physical game, possibly dangerous to players or bystanders. Instead I found it was a simple board game appealing to both children and adults, including royalty–a game was once sent as a gift from Francesco de Medici to the King of Spain. Objection to it in Anghiari’s main square may have been based on the gambling it inspired. It is still played today, though not in Piazza Baldaccio, and whether used as a betting opportunity or not it can be purchased online.

Poster reproduction of a Game of the Goose board

Other games enjoyed by residents, male residents that is, were also banned from Piazza Baldaccio and relegated to outlying areas. One of these was Ruzzola a della forme, a game still played in Italy, as is its derivation, Cacio al Fuso, played primarily in Tuscany. In Ruzzola a wheel of cheese weighing from two up to five kilos is thrown by competitors, all vying to see who can reach the greatest distance with the fewest number of throws. The game Cacio al Fusa, played with a smaller cheese wheel, is a bit like Curling with success measured by the ultimate placement of the cheese within a circle.

Another banned game called “Balls, Balls and Bullets,” sounds like a game clearly needing to be removed from the town square in the interest of public safety. A check of the internet did not yield a description or set of rules but I suspect that rather than the violent activity suggested by its name, it was simply a game played, as Bocce and Petanque are, with larger and smaller balls. In both, the larger ball is thrown at the smaller target ball and points determined by proximity to the target. Still, space is needed to play and could be disruptive in a town square. The game was allowed to continue on the road to Fusaiolo, presumably a country road with little traffic.

Not a game but an entertaining tradition, the Scampanata is an event first documented in Anghiari in 1621. Every five years during the month of May, the local Societe della Scampanata meets in Piazza Baldaccio on Thursdays and Sundays at 6:00 a.m. Anyone who doesn’t show up on time is dragged from his home by society members, loaded into a cart decorated with fish and wheeled through the town. Townspeople gather along the streets to jeer the humiliated miscreant and, in the past at least, might throw eggs and flour at him. Originally improvised noisemakers- think pots and pans- added to the din but today it is more likely that a band will follow the cart. This strange custom dates to Roman times when public embarrassment was punishment for those violating the rules or mores of a town and so was a means of maintaining social order. The next Scampanata is scheduled for May of this year (2021).

Of course not everyone is interested in playing competive games or engaging in rowdy community events. By 1830 Anghiarese choosing more sedate entertainment could take a late night stroll in safety under newly installed street lights. A short walk it would have been though for there were only two such lights in the town. And these burned only on nights when there was not a full moon to light the streets. Still, one can imagine that street lighting would have been considered a great boon and a welcome sign of modern times in the village.

With the end of the nineteenth century approaching and the twentieth about to dawn, Anghiari enjoyed a relatively quiet period of continued prosperity and improvement. A new, major street was built connecting the provincial road circling the town to the town center itself. The new road, now named Viale Gramsci, climbs a gentle hill leading to and crossing the area where the Corsi garden had been. In 1887 a gallery was added providing covered access to Anghiari’s major street, Via Garibaldi. (Now Matteotti)

As one passes through the space once occupied by the Corsi garden it would be impossible to miss seeing the former Corsi chapel, dedicated to the family’s patron saint. Purchased by the city of Anghiari in 1900, it later became a votive temple dedicated to soldiers killed while serving in war.

Chapel Tommoso di Villanova in Piazza IV Novembre Anghiari Italy

. In 1913 a marble plaque honoring Giuseppe Garibaldi, (1807-1882), Anghiari’s most famous citizen, was installed at the side of the building. Garibaldi was an accomplished and admired military leader, commanding troops not only in Italy but in France and South America. He was even offered a commission by Abraham Lincoln to serve in the Civil War, which Garibaldi turned down. Garibaldi is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Italian Unification” and he did play an essential role. His conquest of southern Italy brought these states under the jurisdiction of the Savoy monarch Victor Emmanuel III, establishing him in 1861 as the first King of Italy.3

Marble plague memorializing Giuseppi Garibaldi and those who served with him

In spite of modernization and the benefits it brought to daily life, events of the early twentieth century were about to destroy the tranquillity of the previous years. In the period between 1914 and 1919 both World War I and the great flu pandemic of 1917-1919 appeared in Italy as it did in much of the western world and beyond. In Italy alone, hundreds of thousands died during that time and families in Anghiari would not have been spared. Adding to the misery, an earthquake hit Anghiari in 1917, causing considerable damage in Piazza del Popolo where Anghiari’s government offices are located. A relatively peaceful respite followed these difficult years but war was not finished with Italy yet. And unlike World War I, much of which was fought in northern Italy, World War II came to Tuscany and to Anghiari itself.

End of Part I

***********

Endnotes

1 Leonardo’s lost “Battle of Anghiari” is primarily known through a description by the Florentine artist and historian Giorgio Vasari. There are, in addition, sketches made by da Vinci, a copy of the work painted not long after da Vinci abandoned the project, and a well known painting of the scene by Peter Paul Rubens. No one can actually see da Vinci’s famous work, however, because the ruined painting was soon covered by a second wall onto which Vasari painted his “Battle of Marciono.” In the last 40 years investigation into the possibility of recovering Leonardo’s fresco is in its own right a battle and fascinating story. For further information go to:

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/120312-leonardo-da-vinci-mural-lost-painting-florence-science-world

2The Busattis arrived in Anghiari in 1755 and set up a general store, selling everything from fabric to food. Across the following centuries the business evolved, responding to economic circumstances, and today occupies a niche market of high end fabrics and linens. Still based in Anghiari, its products are sold across five continents. Visitors to Anghiari can tour the palazzo, once occupied by Napoleon’s forces, to see the original weaving factory with its looms still in place and many visitors cannot resist buying a piece of Busatti goods to take home from their travels. An interview with some of the Busatti family members describing how their business has remained viable for so long can be seen at:

http://www.arezzo24.net/economia/20366-la-busatti-di-anghiari-finisce-sul-financial-times-video.html

I hope you enjoy the interview with these exceptionally nice people who we are lucky enough to have as neighbors.

3Unified Italy of this period was not the Italy we know today. Not only have physical boundaries changed, but its political structure as well. A new, democratic government came about in 1946 after a referendum rejected the monarchy, ultimately leading to the modern Republic of Italy. A full account of Italy’s political history is complicated and beyond the scope of this post.

A Smorgasbord of Italian Food Shows

I mentioned in an earlier post that the day following our arrival in Italy we rested our weary selves by turning on the TV and watching cooking shows for an afternoon. We have since discovered that there is a plethora of them on Italian TV. Italians love to cook and eat–no surprise as Italy is known for its hearty, good food ranging well beyond the popular spaghetti, ravioli or lasagne so familiar in the U S, though these are popular in their homeland as well.

Watching Italian TV shows is supposed to be helpful when learning the language so I see cooking shows as mini language lessons. The particular benefit of this genre is its combined oral and visual reinforcement; we hear the cook name the ingredients as we see them added to the dish of the day. Further, the pace of the commentary is slower and more deliberate than the normal breakneck speed of Italian speech. True, the vocabulary is limited to a small compartment of my life, but it is helpful when buying or preparing food to know how to say or read words such as uovo (egg), zucchero (sugar) or farina (flour).

One of the most omni-present productions is a straight out how-to-cook offering by Benedette Rossi whose show, Fatta in Casa Per Voi (made at home for you) monopolizes late afternoon television. Once a waitress, she parlayed her interest in food into a successful career as a cooking show hostess and cookbook author along with distributing a line of food products sold in grocerty stores.

Benedette Rossi

Ms Rossi is, in fact, Italy’s Martha Stewart. She not only offers step by step instruction for cooking Italian favorites, but also occasionally demonstrates how to make handicrafts or offers bits of homemaking wisdom while sitting on a bench outside her country home in the province of Le Marche.

Fatta in Casa Per Voi was only a beginning of our food show exploration, though, and Benadette lost me as a regular viewer the day she roasted and sliced a beef brisket, then smothered it with a tuna/mayonaise sauce poured over the top. In my view this taste combination was unappealing, but I saw the same dish in the prepared food section of a local supermarket and recipes for it online, so it may be popular with Italians looking for an alternative to the many pasta or soup dishes of Italian cuisine.

We next discovered 4 Ristauranti, a show hosted by the shaggy haired and ebulliant Alessandro Borghese.

Alessandro Borghese

Although born in San Francisco, he eventually embraced his father’s Italian roots, working primarily in Italy as a chef, food connoiseur and TV star. His current show, 4 Ristoranti is just one of a number Borghese has hosted. As the program opens, Alessandro loads four restauranteurs into his black, 4 Ristoranti van, transporting them to each of their restaurants in turn where their job will be to appraise and rate location, service, food and cost.

Once seated, the three visiting chefs and Alessandro order an array of appetizers, primo or first course, secondo, main course, and desserts, all to be passed around and shared so each particpant can form an opinion. Commonly, one of the group will be something of a curmudgeon, expressing dissatisfaction with a shake of his/her head or a dismissive push of the plate, sometimes accompanied by an emphatic “no!” On occasion, a plate will be returned to the kitchen and Alessandro himself may leave the table to question the kitchen staff about the source or freshness of one of the offerings. One has to wonder to what degree the competitive nature of the show plays a role in the reactions for there is a cash reward, and of course plaudits, for earning the greatest number of points.

Terry and I often judge the quality of the food by its presentation since we can only see and not taste. But we also look at some of the same criteria as the participants; are the walls burdened with tchotchkes? Is the table set with appropriate linen? Is there a view? Does the bill seem too high, or low? How was the service? As viewers, we see the scores through the course of the program, but the participants only learn how well or poorly they have done after all of the restaurants have been visited. Following the discovery of their sometimes disappointing results, they load back into the van, now with windows blackened so their route to the restaurant of the winner doesn’t give away the result. As the chosen restauranteur alights from the van he or she is greeted by happy employees throwing confetti and hugging everyone in sight. Alessandro beams and hands over a check for EU 5,000.00 and even the curmudgeons applaud.

Alessandro is also sometimes host to a program that pits cooks from Italy’s different regions against each other, Cuochi d’Italia ( Cooks of Italy). Chefs representing Italy’s various regions try to prove their culinary superiority in a series of challenges. They are sometimes required to prepare unfamiliar dishes, perhaps even work with unfamiliar foods, using a combination of ingredients chosen first by one then the other of the competitors. Each team races against time to complete a dish that will be judged by two prominent chefs, Gennaro Esposito and Christiano Tomei.

Left Gennero Esposit, Center Contestant from Sardinia, Right Christiano Tomei

Esposito is a trained chef from the Naples area who has been awarded two Michelin stars at his acclaimed restaurants. Tomei, based in Tuscany, is self-taught but highly regarded and a bit less confrontational than Esposito. After tasting the offerings of each contestant or team, the judges award points for each to determine the winner, who will then go on to the next round of competition.

Because its emphasis is on regional cooking, this show is a lesson in specialties of each of the provinces of Italy. Esposito once asserted that Tuscany alone lacked a regional specialty. Why would Tuscany be an exception? Perhaps because it is such a popular destination for expats who have brought their own culinary preferences with them. However, one can disagree that Tuscany lacks regional distinction although it may be best represented in small pockets where food traditions have been maintained.

The most obvious variation in Italian regional specialties reflects proximity to the seas that surround the country. Not surprisingly, cuisine in coastal provinces focuses on frutta di mare and above all it seems to me, a taste for squid. Squid, squid, squid and more squid. In Italy squid is not limited to the breaded and deep fried rings of calamari that we Americans like to order as an appetizer, but rather the full body of this exotic sea creature. It seems that suctioned-cupped legs sprawling across a plate look as delicious to an Italian aficianado as they appear revolting to me. The squid mantle or body, too, is a popular dish, usually stuffed and baked then presented in slices as a main course. Although most often served in coastal regions, squid is appreciated all across Italy so whether it is Fatta in Casa por Voi, 4 Ristoranti or any of another of the popular food shows, squid plays a large role in Italian cooking.

The show, L’Italia a Morsi, ( Italy in little bites) also features regional variation but particularly emphasizes cooking in the home or preparation of specialties by small, independant businesses. The hostess, Chiara Maci, a tall and beautiful former lawyer, seeks out local food producers to learn how regional specialities are made, but spends the greater part of the show in the kitchen of a local homemaker.

Chiara Maci

Chiara mostly assists with chopping, pouring or mixing but intermittantly tastes the food, nodding positively or rolling her eyes heavenward in appreciation for the tidbit, effectively sending the message of deliciousness across the ether to viewers. Ultimately, the hostess will have prepared a number of dishes comprising an entire dinner with Chiara’s help and observations. As dinner time approaches, an additional guest or two arrive to join the party and all sit down to enjoy the featured meal together.

My favorite show is one we watch in re-runs when we feel like relaxing in the mid-afternoon, Courtesie per gli Ospiti (Courtesies for Guests). This is a long running show, aired since 2005 and at one time included the inevitable Alessandro Borghese as a judge. It ranks as my favorite because it is broader in scope than most food shows with a trio of experts evaluating the notion of hospitality. Each of them bring their particular skills and talents to the show: Diego (Thomas), architect and interior designer, Csaba (dalla Zorza) a graduate of Cordon Bleu in Paris , writer and food show hostess, and Roberto (Valbuzzi), highly regarded chef of Crotto Valtellina, a restaurant in Lombady. For the show they join two pairs of contestants, who will each prepare and host a meal served not only to the experts but to the opposing team.

Left Diego, Center Csaba, and Right Roberto

As the judges arrive at the hosting home, Diego excuses himself to walk through the house or apartment, evaluating its plan and decor as viewers follow. Csaba meanwhile examines the table setting. Is the cutlery misplaced or misused (is that really a coffee spoon substituting for a dessert spoon?) Has the floral centerpiece added to or detracted from overall appearance? Are the dishes and tablecloth too obtrusive or poorly co-ordinated? The third member of the team, Roberto, evaluates the food itself as the meal proceeds. Taste is not the only criteria–texture is important too so sticky spaghetti or limp salads don’t pass muster. Nor do foods that prove in some way difficult to eat with the available utensils.

Viewers watch as each team in turn prepares four courses to be served to the competing team and the experts. Viewers “join” the hosts and experts as the dinner proceeds to watch reactions, usually subtle as dictated by good manners, but not always. For more candid views, camera cut-aways let the viewers in on the private critiques made not only by the experts but by the opposing team. After both dinners, the experts gather to debate which team was better when all categories are considered, subsequently appearing before the contestants with a veiled trophy. After a “thank you” and “good-bye,” the experts disappear, leaving the contestants to uncover the trophy and discover the winner.

I like this show for its range but also because it doesn’t always default to the obvious. The homes of particpants chosen for the program are by no means always showcase dwellings; one may be a small apartment belonging to young adults on a limited budget, the other a quite fabulous home occupied by a more worldly couple. And Diego’s evaluation does not always favor the more expensive home, but rather focuses on the coherency and overall impact of the decor and plan. Csaba also sometimes counters expectations because, though viewers have watched as she finds flaws, in the end she may forgive shortcomings to give a positive rating to a table that did not perfectly meet her high standards. Roberto, though, either likes the food or not, although it may be an opinion that is relative based on the situation. Both Csaba and Diego share their reactions to the food as well, but Roberto holds sway in the category of rating the food quality and presentation.

Departing from the norm, the program Camionisti in Trattoria (Truckdrivers in Trattoria) features small restaurants patronized by truckdrivers, who, it is often said, know where to find good food at reasonable prices. The host Gabriele Rubini, popularly known as Chef Rubio, is a trained chef so able to bring a professional assessment to the food, but places importance on a friendly atmosphere and reasonable bills as well.

Chef Gabriele Rubini (Chef Rubio)

Chef Rubio travels to the favorite trattorias of three truck drivers in a given area, where they sit down for a meal, a very hearty one, as befits the truck driver image. Perhaps revealing my own bias, I found the program to be rather unsavory as the truck drivers and Chef Rubio shoveled large portions of food into their mouths and often eschewed a napkin in favor of the back of a hand to wipe away residue. I considered that the tenor of the show was a sort of “shtick” but it was simply not for me, especially as the camera zoomed in for closeups. Moreover, Chef Rubio often seemed to be bored or even insolent, which was offputting, expressing a certain disregard for both participants and viewers.

But, as I prowled the internet looking for information about Chef Rubio, I discovered that he is a complex individual and fairness required a broader scope. As a youth he showed talent as a rugby player (as did his brother, an acclaimed rugby player in Italy). Rubio played on a semi-professional team in New Zealand and it is there that he discovered his culinary interests while working in a restaurant to support himself. In time he decided to become a professional chef and attained a degree from the well known Alma International institute, where students focus on Italian cuisine.

Even as he became famous as a TV food show host, Rubini not only maintained an attachment to his sport but also found time to dedicate himself to humanitarian causes. He affiliated, for example, with the non-profit organization Never Give Up, which focuses on treatment of eating disorders, a somewhat ironic cause for a chef to embrace. He also collaborated with the State Institute for the Deaf, and served as cook for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. For some time he volunteered his services to Amnesty International, but that association was suspended after Rubio publicly expressed some opinions unacceptable to the organization. Rubio has, in fact, earned a reputation for his outspoken and sometimes offensive remarks, so while he is dedicated to working for humanity at large, his regard for individuals and groups seems at times to be at odds with more laudable aspects of his nature.

Did I say he seemed bored in his role as guru of truckstop dining? It seems he was for he left the program after three seasons. By then Rubio’s negative view of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip was well known so it wasn’t surprising when he joined the group Gaza in Freestyle to help bring some normalcy to Palestinian citizens by establishing sports and cultural opportunities in their limited territory. Utililizing an interest in photography, learned during his travels, he is documenting the difficult conditions he witnesses.

So although my initial reaction to the show was negative, and perhaps justifyably so, I have to acknowledge that in spite of some rough edges chef Rubio’s humanitarian interests provide a certain balance, even amelioration of his more abrasive qualities. There are numbers of attractive, competent and amiable cooking show stars in Italy, but the world would be a much worse place without the efforts of people like Gabriele Rubini. That he comes in a mixed package makes him a bit of a challenge, but those who benefit from his good works surely care little for the side they do not see

If you are interested in learning more about this many-faceted individual you can go to his website at: http://www.chefrubio.it/chef-rubio

Lordy Me

The Hickory to Anghiari Challenge

Preparing for an international trip, while exciting, can be laden with unforeseen hitches. Double, triple or quadruple that when the trip is not simply a vacation abroad, but relocation, as in our case. Since we had no confidence that we would be granted long stay visas, our assumptions had rested on the prospect of a three month stay in Italy and return to our Hickory home sometime in the Spring of 2021. We were thrilled, of course, to learn that our Elective Residency visas had been approved, but the good news forced us to transition to a wholly different approach to our departure and the subsequent indefinite but lengthy time away from the U S. In the new scenario our townhouse could be, and was, leased long term as an unfurnished space and our recently purchased car needed to be sold rather than left to sink into entropy while sitting in a parking lot for extended periods of time.

As we spun into high level activity, Murphy’s Law of course threw a few barbs into the process meting out a leaky toilet, suddenly altered and now inconvenient appointments, and my developing case of bronchitis. Still, with only a week’s notice we were able to empty shelves of unused food and deliver it to local food banks, get covid tests, sell the car, strip our townhouse down to bare walls and floors and collapse onto beds at the local Days Inn the evening before we were to leave for Atlanta.

On the day of our flight we arrived at the airport looking forward to eating a meal to offset a couple of days of breakfast, lunch and dinner comprised of snacks. Unfortunately in our terminal nothing was open except a bar, so we staved off hunger with an exhorbitantly priced alcoholic beverage. We anticipated that our meal on the overseas flight would be a bagged lunch waiting in our seats as had been provided when we flew back to the States in the Spring. But, thankfully, Delta had resumed regular food service and we were able to enjoy a hot and actually quite tasty meal for the first time in two days.

Because our departure from Atlanta had been delayed for an hour, the layover time for our second flight was reduced to thirty minutes during which we had to go through security again. Rushing through Charles De Gaulle airport, burdened by heavy carry on luggage and an anxious dog scrabbling his way along the highly polished floors, we huffed and puffed our way to the departure gate where we were greeted with, “Are you the people from Atlanta?” Yes we were, and the other passengers, already seated, waited patiently while we found our seats and stowed our carry-ons. Minutes later, we were on the way to Florence.

Not surprisingly, our luggage did not make the connection to Florence, but otherwise our arrival was quick and smooth and we were soon in our rental car, on the way to Anghiari. As we drove into the familiar territory around Arezzo, about 45 minutes away from home, we found ourselves stalled by an horrific accident blocking the road taking us to Anghiari. Neither our navigation system nor locals could direct us to an alternative route so for an hour or so we drove around or waited in parking lots for the road to be cleared. When we eventually resumed the trip and passed the accident site, our mood was somber, thinking of the unfortunate person or persons who had suffered a devastating, possibly terminal event, and feeling very fortunate to have been merely inconvenienced.

And, at last, we drove up to our home in Anghiari. Even Django knew exactly where he was, trotting up the steps to our door as if he had just left the day before. Of course, the house was cold, very cold, with the thermostat set at an energy saving fifty degrees. And we had a toilet leak–a toilet leak! Our trip had been bookended by recalcitrant toilets on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, homecoming was all that we had waited for–Hickory already seemed like an irreality now. Later when we went to the local cantina to grab a pizza for our dinner, the owner greeted us with, “It’s about time you got back.” Yes.

Although we faced the challenge of initiating the Permesso process after the weekend, we luxuriated in the absence of pressures on our first full day back, lolling in front of the tv watching cooking shows, recuperating and simply enjoying being in Anghiari, only needing a glance out the window to remind us where we were. Monday morning, though, we trekked to the post office to pick up our “kit” with forms to fill out, starting the process of becoming residents. There were some confusing, seemingly contradictory, instructions to stumble over but we completed that phase of the process by Wednesday morning and were given an appointment at the Questura in Sansepolcro for just two weeks later.

Now, a week after we arrived, the toilet is fixed, the luggage here and having only mundane concerns feels like pleasure. There is still mail to sort, ceilings, walls and floors to clean, and supplies to be purchased but if it doesn’t happen today, it can be done tomorrow, or the day after.

Going Into Overdrive

The week before Christmas 2020, we received an email from the Italian Consulate with the good news that Elective Residency visas for Terry and me had been issued and were being mailed that very afternoon. While we had hoped for that outcome, we lived in doubt through the months of preparation that it would become a reality. Now, though, here we were with a new future promised–to live in Italy for extended periods, returning to the States occasionally, but not obligated to leave every ninety days.

“I can’t believe it!” resounded through our house the rest of that day and in the evening we celebrated with the dinner of King Crab Legs and glass of Prosecco that we had promised ourselves should we actually get the visas. For the couple of days across the weekend as the visas made their way to our front door, we simply exulted in the long hoped for turn in our lives that was about to take place. But along with that, I had an eye on the job ahead of us as we worked through the remaining step for gaining Italian residency, the Permesso di Sorggiorno.

While considered more certain to be awarded, the Permesso process generates complaints and frustration from those who have gone through it. It is in fact, a Minotarus Labyrinth of Italian bureaucracy, a system well known for its convoluted and incessant requirements, bemoaned even by Italians. The film in link below portrays a humorous but more or less accurate account of the experience:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKIE3IUkkp8

One of the first “how to” articles I read about applying for the Permesso starts with, “The paperwork in Italy is never done. No. Really. Never done. In five years, I have never written about how to get a permesso di soggiorno because just thinking about it gives me chest pains.” (How to Get a Permesso di Soggiorno in Italy; posted on Permesso di Soggiorno Elettronico; Natalie, author of the blog “An American in Rome.” )

Within eight business days of arriving in Italy, the Permesso challenge begins with a trip to the post office where one picks up a kit containing the initial form to be filled out, in Italian. The completed form then will be taken to one of the post offices identified by the sign Sportello Amico, translated as “friend door,” and one can only hope that it is. Along with the filled out form, applicants must bring a bollo, a stamp purchased at a local tobacconist shop. Why a tobacconist? Who knows, but these small businesses offer a variety of services beyond the selling of tobacco and have been considered essential during the pandemic.

For the visit to the Sportello Amico we will need not only the filled out form and bollo, but a complete copy of our passports, proof of health insurance, and all data pertaining to our reason for being in Italy. Once all papers are confirmed to be in order, an appointment date is set for the final step in the process, a visit to the chief governmental office for the region, the Questera. For us, that will be in Arezzo, a city some forty-five minutes from our home in Anghiari. At that appointment, we will present not only the paperwork generated by and for the post office visit, but all the same documentation required to obtain the Elective Residency visas, eg financial records, proof of a domicle, marriage or co-habitation agreements and so forth, along with four passport sized photos of each of us. If all goes well, we will be given a receipt verifying that an application has been filed, more or less sufficing to establish that we are a residents-in-waiting until the official document reaches us in three to six months. The Permesso must be renewed each year so by the time the residency permit arrives it is nearly time to begin the process all over again for the next year.

In addition to gathering the required documents for the Permesso, we have a plethora of tasks to be done before flying to Italy. Now knowing that we would be away for a considerable time, we decided to sell the car we had purchased only a few months before. In the past week I got quotes from CarMax and Carvanna with the actual sale and transfer to take place just a couple of days before departure, co-ordinated with picking up the rental car we will drive to the Atlanta airport.

We also adjusted plans to rent our townhouse to include the possibility of long term rentals in addition to the short term leases we had planned on. Given the longer period we would be in Italy, we revised our ideas of what to take with us and what to leave behind, weighing the exhorbitant cost of shipping to Italy with what we considered esssential to take to our Italian home. In particular we wanted to ship a few pieces of the art works that had been such a pleasure to create while in Hickory. While most can be simply bubble wrapped, boxed, and sent off, one of the Lakshmi collages challenged Terry to engineer a specially designed case to protect areas that were raised or extended beyond the edges of the canvas. It was a complicated and time consuming process and I’m sure Terry is grateful that the other two pieces of the triptych only need to be wrapped and laid on top of clothing in a suitcase.

Renting, like selling a home, means that potential tenants must take a look at the premises and even as all the sorting and packing goes on the house needs to be kept spotless and attractive in the hopes of appealing to a good and reliable renter. As you can see, our packing room does not meet that criteria so everything in it, except the furniture, will be shoved into a closet whenever we get an alert that someone has scheduled a viewing.

And then there is traveling with Django. Flying abroad with a pet requires that a health certificate be completed by our veterinarian within ten days of our departure and then sent off immediately to be signed by an official from APHIS, the ultimate governmental agency issuing permission to take a dog from the U S to Italy. The signed papers must be returned to us in time for our departing flight, requiring express mail in both directions.

A few other forms pertaining to Terry and me also have to be filled out, though thankfully without the additional verification required for Django. Most important of these is the Autocertification, describing the reasons for having arrived in and driving through Italy while pandemic restrictions are in place. For us, returning to our home in Italy and the need to apply for the Permesso within eight days of arrival satisfy the requirements.

Due to the Covid pandemic, additional certification is required to verify that we have received a negative Covid-19 non-rapid (PCR) test within 72 hours of our flight to Italy; without it new arrivals have to quarantine for ten to fourteen days. I was surprised to learn that, at least in our area, CVS pharmacies and Urgent Care centers only test people who are symptomatic or have been exposed to Covid-19 because the numbers of testing kits are limited. So we will rely on the health department, which offers tests for asymptomatic persons but does not take appointments. Instead one simply shows up for a drive through test, on one of the two days a week they are offered, to wait in line until your turn has come. And then hope that the results will be returned in time for our flight, though that is by no means guaranteed. We would also like to get a rapid test on our arrival at the airport in Florence but cannot be certain that will happen. With so much to do immediately after reaching Anghiari, quarantining is not a viable option so our fingers are crossed in hopes that we will receive timely documentation showing that we are Covid free.

In the past months Italy, like the U S, has been experiencing a surge of Covid cases. Across the holiday season the Italian government imposed a strict lockdown in an attempt to control the numbers of new cases. The lockdown, paired with predictions in the U S for a significant up-tick in victims, means we will be traveling in conditions even more dire than when we came to the U S in May. But Anghiari beckons. We long to be back within the sights and sounds of our home in Italy–the view across the Tiber Valley from our balcony, the ringing of church and clock chimes throughout the day, the weekly market in our piazza, seeing our friends again, and simply walking through our beautiful little village.

The challenge ahead is strenuous, but the reward is great.

Making Art, Making Life

Part II-Terry

Terry recalls his first reaction to the beauty of form and color as he looked at the lights of the family Christmas tree when he was a toddler. He pictured himself within the decorated tree. moving through it, absorbing the colors, being transported by them. Though powerful enough to remember vividly still, he was not motivated by the experience to pursue the arts as a child. Instead, during most of his childhood and teen years he immersed himself in various sports, especially golf, which he played most days during the summer months.

Sensitivity to the world of art bloomed later while pursuing a medical degree at the University of Bologna, Italy. Then, as he explored the streets of Bologna, Florence and his chosen residence in Montebeni, he discovered the exquisite beauty of Italian art and architecture and began to photograph the scenes that surrounded him. Once opened to the possibilities of art, he began to draw as well. After a day of classes and study, he sat at his kitchen table in Montebeni, just outside of Florence, and sketched small studies of Italian vistas or human subjects. Many years later we discovered these early drawings in a box of his memorabilia and compiled them in booklets to protect and save them.

Terry’s Uncle Ed was a professional artist and no doubt an inspiration, though he worked within the boundaries of realism. But Terry’s memory of his early Christmas tree adventure still resonated, inspiring him many years later to explore the possibilities of form and color. The abstract works of Italian artist Alberto Burri further influenced Terry to focus on non-representational art. So in spite of his strenuous schedule Terry produced a significant number of paintings during his ten years in Italy, mostly non-representational but occasionally diverting to realism or quasi-realism in representations of the Italian landscape. These remained in Italy, dispersed among people he knew there, due to the stringent restrictions against shipping artworks out of the country. I was delighted to see some of them when we visited the home of his long time friend, Elga Pasquini.

Across the past several decades, while carrying on his medical practice in the U S, Terry spent leisure hours painting, often late into the night, and we now have 170 of his works either stored or hung in our house in Italy. A couple of them are shown below.

Mexicali
Nightfall

We attempted to ship a few select paintings back from Italy to Hickory but were foiled at the last minute so when we arrived it was sans a single painting to hang. The expansive, empty walls of our townhouse cried out for art and, fortunately, a lower level area was available where Terry could store his supplies and paint with abandon.

Terry’s Studio

It was not ideal as he normally attached canvases to a wall where he could stand before them to work, but here the walls were finished and not suitable for the possibility of exuberant smears of paint onto their surface. Instead, he lays a canvas on the floor and must kneel and crouch as he works. In spite of the awkwardness Terry continues to produce art work and we now enjoy his new paintings hung on our townhouse walls.

The first of his Hickory paintings hangs in our living room.

“You Might Get In But Then What?” 70″x60″

Titles Terry gives to his works are always engaging. The convuluted lines of this painting suggest a maze of sorts and, indeed, if you were to get in, then what? I was surprised to see a very similar work posted on an online site describing this year’s increased use of color in home design–it was so similar, in fact, that the painting shown could have been done by Terry or his alter ego. For a number of reasons I couldn’t post a photo of it but imagine the same all over curvilinearity and color tones, varying in the composition but little more.

Terry’s second painting replaced my attempt at abstract painting in the entry way hall and makes a much greater impact than my meager effort did.

“Opening Lines of a Poem” “60×42”

Although abstract, you can intuit the birth and development of a poem here. Terry has a propensity for imaginative titles reflecting his inspiration, but he feels that they act as a guide for a viewer as well.

For a long time Terry talked about wanting to paint his reaction to the night we met. Now we have that painting.

“The Night We Met” “60×44”

He referenced me explicity by incorporating collage, my new hobby. When I asked him what he wanted to express in this work, he answered that it depicts the rush of vibrant new color into his life. It hangs in the landing of the stairway to the second floor, where it can be appreciated from above and below.

And now he is at work on his latest painting.

Marguerita’s Orchard Under Sunlight

This painting is a work in progress, something artists usually don’t care to reveal. A pastel and rather abstracted orchard is taking shape on the canvas and, like all art works, as it develops becomes itself a platform for inspiration. In this work Terry felt a sense of Spain in the elements of light and in the form of the trees. Thus, “Margaret’s Orchard” became “Maguerita’s Orchard”. Now, for me, this lovely, pastel painting brings to mind the beautiful “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo, inspired by the gardens of Aranjuez, Spain.

And below, the final version of Margeurita’s Garden, now rolled up and put away as we anticipate our departure. We still have another month in our Hickory townhouse, but our plans to rent it while we’re away demand that the spaces where we worked on art be cleared for viewing by potential renters.

Marguerita’s Garden, completed

The cleared lower level can now suggest the possibiliity of a ping-pong table, or any other use imagined by a new occupant. My upper floor art space has reverted to an office, its original intent. We are saddened to abandon the possibility of another painting, another collage, as we begin a final month in Hickory preparing to return to Italy. The stretch of time in Hickory, and indeed the pandemic, led us to indulging in our hobbies on a regular basis. Now these works, these pieces of our life, will be left behind as we transition to our other home in Anghiari. Hickory’s motto is, “Life. Well Crafted,” and we are grateful that, yes, our time here was, overall, well crafted.

PostScriptWorking Together

Terry and I had long discussed working together on a painting or creating companion pieces; these two collages brought that idea into being.

“Where the Birds Once Flew: and “Saturday Afternoon Ruminations”

Though quite different, they were conceived to complement each other. We decided to use collage since I was now working in that medium and Terry wanted to try his hand at a form not very familiar to him.

The upper collage, mine, is inspired by the work of Spanish photographer Xavi Bou who digitally maneuvered sequential flights of birds to create patterns across the sky. While it looks like a painting, it is created entirely from paper. Terry’s collage below is paper superimposed on painted canvas. He cut each paper element freehand and simply arranged them to create a non-representational work expressing the idea of free floating ruminations.

Although we had talked before of working together, this is our first effort, a treat for us to do and, who knows, maybe there will be others. In our Italian home, Terry has a studio, which heretofore has been his alone. Now there is the prospect that I will join him there with my paper, scissors and glue.

Making Art, Making Life

Part I–Margaret – an art historical perspective

Like so many people across the world, we are in a holding pattern. Covid-19 cases are rising dramatically not only in the U S but across Europe, including Italy where we hope to go before many more months pass. Large Thanksgiving gatherings are discouraged, possibly Christmas as well with phone calls, texts, emails and Zoom meetings taking their place. It is a time to find a way to substitute or reorganize life to fit with our current condition. For Terry and me, that became delving into whatever creative impulses we have in order to give more direction to our daily lives. Although I have addressed this subject in a previous post, here I will expand on it to describe the processes and inspiration behind our works.

With Terry’s encouragement, my first project was a simple painting, veering to abstraction in contrast to past efforts. While it now hangs in the living room I regard it as simply an exercise, like an etude in the world of music and I haven’t been moved to try another. Rather, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I returned to a past interest in collage, abandoned when I wasn’t satisfied with my first results. Now, though, it seemed a good time to try again.

Fortunately, our third bedroom, originally cast as an office, gave me a workspace with good light in which to play with my newly rediscovered art form. Here, away from the main living spaces of our townhouse, I can store materials I want to have close at hand while I work. Although cluttered, the room is substantially less messy than when I am in the throes of creating a new piece when scraps litter the worktable, computer top and floor.

As I developed my first collage, I became aware that, for me, collage was “painting” with paper rather than combining collected objects to create an artwork. Many collage artists have done this skillfully and to good ends, but I never considered working that way.

First Attempt-“Opus I”

This first project was simple and quickly done. Construction paper and wrapping paper were the primary materials, with a couple of leaves added to bring interest to the lower corner. Even in this first project I was drawn to three dimensional components; while not very obvious in the photo, the narrow rectangular piece in the center projects out of the circular opening and is edged with a fringe. Below, a fold in the paper formed a pocket into which I tucked the leaves. As I was to do with subsequent collages, I first covered a pre-stretched canvas with sheets of colored paper before pasting the compositional features onto them. Glimpses of these background sheets add color to the black and tan striped wrapping paper. Although I was to give a title to subsequent collages, this one is only identified as “Opus I.”

The Lakshmi triptych was my second project, inspired by the Indian bedcover in our bedroom. I learned of Lakshmi while traveling in India and decided to depict this Hindu “goddess of love” by referencing some of her many attributes in abstract form.

Lakshmi Triptych # 1

Now considering myself a little experienced, having finished one collage, I ventured further into three dimensionality.The draped material of Lakshmi’s sari was formed by cutting slits into the flat paper then lifting the cuts away from the glued edges. Gold spirals represent coins referring to Lakshmi’s association with financial wealth. The watery blue and white section I made by dripping bleach onto blue construction paper to represent the ocean from which Lakshmi was born.

The underlying colors are comprised of tissue paper, which, though I loved it for its colors, I quickly discovered was very tricky to work with. It tears easily as soon as the moist glue touches it so I learned to be very sparing with glue to prevent further problems. Still, too much pushing and stretching of even carefully glued tissue paper will lead to a bit of a disaster so I decided to like the little creases rather than try to remove them. For quite a while this piece lacked the Hindu word ‘love’ that is in the upper right hand corner, and the composition only felt complete when I eventually added this major component of Laksmi’s character.

The second in the Lakshmi triptych featured an elephant, one of Laksmi’s major attributes and the source of one of the variations in her name, Gaja-Laksmi. That association may be a reference to her immortal husband, Vishnu, the elephant god.

Lakshmi Triptych # 2

Lakshmi is virtually always shown with a lotus and is commonly referred to as “she of the lotus.” The lotus petals in the lower left corner have a small piece of tissue paper pasted in the center and the petals are folded into a point at the tip so that they project into three dimensional space against yellow tissue paper. On the right, rain formed from narrow strips of white ribbon falls onto mountains signifying the productivity of natural forces, a form of wealth. Orange tissue paper wedged into the mountain ridges highlights the nearer range while a suggestion of distant mountains looms beyond.

The final portion of the Lakshmi triptych forcused on the lotus.

Lakshmi Triptych #3

Owls, representing wisdom, alternate with discreet lotus petals to form the upper register, leaving the main body for the depiction of a full lotus blossom. Petals extend beyond the edge of the underlying canvas and rise from the surface into three-dimensionality. To achieve that, I glued the foreground petals at their tip and base, pushing the body of the petal into a curve. Lakshmi has four arms, here forming the receptacle of the lotus, centered by a simple glob of dried gold paint, which I had retrieved from a scrap of wastepaper.

And the Triptych altogether

Following the completion of the Lakshmi triptych, I wanted to return to the notion that inspired my original attempt at collage–deconstruction of the circle. When I was a student, deconstruction, that is breakdown or alternate use of a known item, was a popular theoretical stance–popular with the public as well as seen in the re-creation of Pieter Mondrian’s paintings in clothing. It seems that these many years later I remained interested in its possibilities. This project would also be a triptych but now I wanted to turn away from vivid colors and work primarily in black, the absence of color, against a light gray background. Only an occasional red circle would be added as an accent. Below is the triptych, “Deconstruction of the circle.”

The circle is perhaps the most ancient of symbolic shapes, inspired by obvious natural objects like the moon and sun. The earliest houses were circular due to the ease of their building and the simple materials required and even today these qualities inspire some architects to return to this basic form. Given our human tendency to attribute meaning to the world around us, the circle also came to symbolize wholeness, completeness and spirituality–a shape without a beginning or end. These essential qualities, and many others, placed the circle foremost in my pursuit of creating collages based on geometric forms.

Not surprisingly, the square was the second most obvious shape to turn to as I delved into experimenting with geometric forms. Like the circle, the square has long been imbued with symbolic meaning. If the circle represents spirituality, the square with its four equal sides, represents physicality in its sense of solidity and strength. Again, human interpretation added elements from nature to underscore its integral nature–fire, earth, water and air as well as the four seasons. A building using the square as its basis incorporated all of these symbolic meanings as well as providing a solid structure meant to last for centuries.

In creating a collage built around the square, I returned to a more colorful, playful, representation. Since the square easily transforms into rectangles, triangles and cubes, all of these would play a role.

“The Square Explores its Possibilities”

While this work stood in our basement waiting for paint to be applied around the edges, we experienced a pounding rain through the night, which left water across the floor, unfotunately damaging the piece along its lower edge. In art, though, correction is almost always possible, so I returned to my little art space to remove and replace the water-stained areas. Although I liked the first version better, I was able to more or less recreate the lower portion including a series of triangles along the bottom edge of the collage.

And, inevitably, I was bound to do a collage featuring the triangle. Like the circle and the square, the triangle with its three sides is imbued with significance. Three is the number representing spirituality–think of the triple nature of our Christian deity, for instance, but also representing human experience such as birth, life, death or past, present, future. And, of course representing good luck in the form of 777 as the winning number on slot machines. There are so many manifestations of the significance of the number three that a full discussion is a monograph in itself; I had challenge enough in working through the best means of representing the triangle in collage.

I had in mind a simple composition on a white background, an easy project I assumed. But the more I considered the triangle, the more I wanted to feature two difficult triangular designs–the Valknut, made up of interlocking triangles, and the Penrose triangle, often called the impossible triangle. Both of these are difficult to draw let alone create in pieces of paper to form a collage. I spent two days simply learning how to draw the Valknut.

The Valknut Triangle

Sometimes called “Odin’s Triangle,” this image is thought to have originated in Norse mythology. Ancient runes show it in scenes depicting a slain warrior surrounded by his fellow soldiers, emphasizing the interdependance of men in battle. The interlocking triangles remain a powerful symbol of connection and apparently is a popular tattoo in the modern world where it’s expression of connectivity lends itself to a wide range personal interpretations . My own experience with it and therefore my own interpretation, is that something which appears simple may in fact be complex.

The Penrose Triangle was actually easier to draw, but a greater challenge in rendering it in paper.

The Penrose, or Impossible, Triangle

The Penrose Triangle is credited to Oscar Reutersburg, a Swedish artist who developed it in 1934 when he was only eighteen years old. It is a curiosity since, though it looks plausible, it cannot exist in reality given its different planes. Reutersbur went on to spend a lifetime drawing 3-D objects that were physically impossible, including the Penrose Triangle but equally well known for his “Impossible Stairs,” in which a series of steps would only lead one to remain on the same level. It is thought that Reutersburg may have been dyslexic, possibly contributing to his fascination with rendering the impossible.

The Triangles in our Kitchen

Entering the world of triangles inspired me to explore them beyond the equilateral triangles that form the basis for these two collages. A conception has begun to form for the next work, already given a theme: The Triangle Struts its stuff.” I have yet to begin the project and am just beginning to think of ways to best play with the images. Moreover, it’s time to turn to “Part II,” Terry’s works, which have both inspired and encouraged me.

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