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Monday, September 8, 2014

There and back again: A week in Italy and Provence

I spent three years in Italy as a child, in the late-Seventies (the "years of lead", so-called because of all the political violence) and had studied there for a Summer back in 1990, so I was excited to be heading back for the first time as a family.  My wife went to Naples and Sicily, where she has roots, two years ago, but the kids and I stayed home for that one and felt jealous.

Our destination was Apricale, named one of Italy's most beautiful villages, which is saying something.  And it was indeed a beautiful old town, perched upon a small mountain, built for defense, a reminder of the time when "Italy" didn't exist, but a collection of small feuding states, some of them merely cities.  It's still a hard place to govern, which is partly by design; as a re-constituted republic (1946) recovering from Fascism, the constitution created a weak executive.  Governing Italy requires creating and then leading coalitions.  In a parliament with many small parties, this leads to political instability.  If one small party leaves a coalition, the government can fall and a new one needs to be put together.  Which has happened around 60 times since 1946.  But for the most part, the country "works".

Italy is an ancient place, rich in traditions which lend a continuity to daily life one might not expect if only the number of governments is considered.  And for all the differences between the north and south, as soon as you cross the border you know you're in Italy.  Nice was until relatively recently part of Italy.  I've never spent time there, but I can imagine that like Toulouse is France's "Spanish city", Nice's is France's "Italian city".  Which is to say that although you can feel the Spanish vibe in Toulouse, it is first and foremost French.  Likewise, I'm sure, with Nice.  Borders may be the result of history's vagaries, maybe somewhat arbitrary, but they do generally conform to natural boundaries more ancient than human:  the Pyrenées in the Southwest and the southernmost peaks of the Alps in the Southeast.  Despite very strong regional attachments, Italy does have a strong national identity and in Apricale, a few kilometers across the border, you feel its heart beating just as strongly as if you were in Florence, Naples or Rome.

Our route led us due east to Narbonne, then along the coast past Sète, Montpellier, Nîmes, Arles, Marseille, Cannes, Nice, Monaco and then in Italy, Ventimiglia.  A short jog north and you're in the canyon over which Apricale and a handful of other small towns are perched.  The older parts of these towns are small warrens of alleys that are not only formed by two buildings, but are often cut right through one of them.  It's as if you are both inside and outside at the same time.  You'd be hard-pressed to get an army far enough into the town to get to the top; possible, of course, but a hard slog.  I'm sure in some of these towns the streets ran with blood on at least one occasion.

It's kind of hard to imagine though, because these towns are very friendly places.  Each of them has a lower part built along the river and if you kept to the main road and didn't stop, park and venture across the necessary bridge, you'd see a town built choc-a-bloc upon the hillside, but unless you already knew the local architecture, you wouldn't expect such a labyrinthine series of alleys, some leading into pitch blackness, other upwards towards the light, others covered by white-washed groin vaults with doors leading into houses, shoppes and bars.  There are fountains and piazze, of course, usually before the church and city hall, which are, as in France, often on the same plaza and more often than not, include a café.  This area was rather touristy, not in a tacky way at all, so maybe that explains why there seem to be far more cafés in an Italian village than in a French village of approximately the same size.  Aucamville has about 1000 residents and there is only one café.   Isolabona, where our campground is to be found, has 716 residents and at least two cafés, in addition to a restaurant.  The people seemed much more sociable than in our village; on our last night we strolled through town and the cafés were bustling with old men playing cards, teenagers looking on, some small families.  On the stoops and benches sat groups of women, young and old, chatting, peaceful and animated, in the deepening dusk, a fountain echoing softly off the walls, a small electric candle glowing in an iron mesh-covered niche with flowers, ex-votos and a statue of the virgin.  But in these towns, it didn't seem likely that people had yards and who wants to stay inside all the time?

This is an interesting theory, come to think of it; the characteristics of the people, the everyday sociability, the nightly ritual of coming together to gossip and joke, to talk, etc. is in these towns determined by the urban design.  I'd hesitate to use the word planning, the towns feel more organic than planned, but no one's the worse off for it.  In Dolceacqua, a larger village but more or less the same urban pattern, I'd marveled that the buildings and balconies are connected and reinforced (recall that we're on a rather steep small mountain) with numerous small "bridges".  Perhaps they are flying buttresses in this case, I'm not sure if the term here is accurate, but the effect is the same, each building is connected at several point to the one above it, so that what would in a flat city be an alley, open to the sky, is here part alley, part tunnel.  The effect is a kind of perpetual dusk, gloomy but without the negative sense of the word; they're rather lively places, but not prone to echoes and an abrasive hurdy-gurdy of sound.  Thus, pleasant places to chat, where you can raise your voice and not pollute the atmosphere.  The women chatting were grouped around the piazza and the roads/alleys leading up to it, relatively open spaces, where you get out of the gloom and as the sun sets, see some stars.  Farther from the church, the stoops were empty and the only sounds we heard were tin-can sounds of someone's radio playing some kind of mellow soccer game, the sound of cutlery and dishes being shifted, a mewling cat.


In these parts of town, one can often catch a whiff of the old sewers.  Nothing overpowering or rancid, but not exactly pleasant either.  Centuries of humidity and cloaca leave their traces, impregnate the cut stones.  There’s no disguising it.  This is what leads a lot of Americans to call these old towns “dirty” but they’re actually pretty clean.  We’re talking about places whose origins lie in the Bronze Age, if not earlier.  Give Sacramento a few more years, especially after their water is in such short-supply they’ll have to flush it all away with grey water.  Then it’ll really merit the moniker “Excremento”.

I had the opportunity to see an old amphitheater, the top of which must have made for a structure of considerable height.  Not these days, as the top now sits a few meters below street level.  When one digs a new basement or parking garage in a city like Ventimiglia, the shovel isn’t removing gravel, but cut stones and brick.  One doesn’t dig into the earth, but through the stratified remains of millennia.  In Cortona, Tuscany, my last (three-month) home in Italy, the city walls were layered like a cake:  topped by Renaissance construction, built upon medieval brick, in turn Roman and finally, when the earth was low enough to permit it, Etruscan foundations.  I swear, one day I came across a stone so ancient it would destroy a medium’s mind like the Russian villainess in the Crystal Skull film and there, in faded Enochian letters were the words “Adam + Eve 4ever” scratched crudely within a rough-hewn heart.  (Full disclosure:  I’m lying).

I also made an impulsive stop in Dolceacqua to visit the municipal cemetery which was much like the French style, with a mix of small above-ground tombs and quite grand mausoleums.  Two or three especially caught my eye because they showed that in this small and rather obscure town the Egyptian revival had made an impact on local funerary architecture.  One had a pyramid, another featured obelisks and a third had ornaments on the corners of the roof inspired by Egyptian models, such as those previously discussed on LoS with regard to Toulouse’s Terre Cabade Cemetery and the parish church at Ondes.  You can see these on the pyramid-roofed mausoleum as well.  I still don't know what this element is called, so if anyone out there has an idea....Also, being a fool, I neglected to note the dates.   If we compare with the examples in Ondes, Terre Cabade and Lisbon, I'd wager they date to the first half of the 19th century, probably sometime between 1830 and 1850.  The Egyptian revival was especially strong in Italy, or at least early.  In France it was kicked off in earnest after Napoleon's colonialist adventures in Egypt, whereas the Italians had been erecting obelisks since the days of the Roman Empire.  An obelisk was transferred to Rome by Caligula in 37 CE and placed in its current location in 1586; Bernini later designed St. Peter's Square so that the obelisk stood at it's center.  Bernini also put an obelisk at the center of his design for the Piazza Navona; it sits atop the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (1651).  Both obelisks evoke the axis mundi; Eden was said to lie at the center of four great rivers, at the very center of the world, hence the quattro fiumi, or "four rivers".

I came across another LoSian topic in Isolabona inside a church dedicated to Nostra Signora delle Grazie, in the form of a statue of Santa Lucia, the Sicilian saint whose eyes were plucked out.  She is depicted gore-free with closed eyes, holding the orbs on a plate in front her.  Seeing her there, so serene, made me think of how I grimace and groan at the slightest of aches.  Of course, no one who's had their eyes plucked out could be so calm, but it was rather humbling nonetheless.  The Gid and I have discussed Lucia in connection with Saint Agatha, another Sicilian saint, a virgin martyr, who, having dedicated herself to Christ, was brutally murdered for refusing the advances of a pagan suitor.  Agatha, however, had her breasts shorn off.  Gid first started an investigation into the link between the imagery of breasts and eyes in this little post, coming across a section of a book entitled Before the Milk of the Word: Eye Nipples by N. Hilton.  This is a fascinating essay and instead of summarizing it here, I encourage you to read it.  I was also intrigued to see a boat hanging from the ceiling of the nave;  I can only imagine that the name of this sanctuary, "Our Lady of Thanks" refers (in part) to the answered prayers of those who had husbands, sons or fathers set out to sea; Isolabona, is, after all, only minutes from the Mediterranean.  I've seen this in Spain (Tossa del Mar) and in such land-locked places as Rocamadour (with several model boats suspended from the ceiling) and Montaigut, in the form of a votive painting.


Tossa, Rocamadour and Montaigut all have what can be called Black Virgins and I'd hoped to see two more exemplars on our return trip.  I missed the one at St. Paul because I'd been expecting to stay nearby in Tourettes-sur-Loup, making it possible to pop out during our stay and have a look.  but alas!  Our real destinations was Tourettes, an hour away.  We didn't turn back.  Another watches over the cemetery at the town of St. Jean-Cap- Ferrat (I Googled it and it's about four humans tall!) but somehow, concentrating on a map perhaps, we blew right past it.  This town is between Nice and Monaco, you could almost smell the money in the air.  The French Riviera may be fabled and storied but you know, it is damn beautiful.  The town of Menton, between Monaco and the Italian border is, coming at it from the east, particularly impressive.  The Virgin at St. Jean also has an association with Cocteau, who wrote "There is a mysterious youth in the oldest stones of St. Jean."  So, if you're ever out that way....

Dolceacqua also featured a shrine to Mary where she was placed in a grotto.  This may be a reference to Lourdes, or could be a native tradition.  Mary associated with a cave also appears in Spain, at Covadonga (from Cueva Doña, I believe), which is also, like Lourdes noted for its healing waters.

Our two nights in Provence were spent drinking and chatting and really......a lot of drinking.  In the daytime, it was hours by the pool.  No mysteries, history, culture or anything worth reporting from an LoS standpoint.  But have no fear.  I'm off to Morocco in a month and I can already feel something Burroughsian and Gysinian in the wind....

Coming soon:  Photo-essay of my collection of Argentine folks saints (all four of 'em!) and an interview with original Discordian Hope Springs.

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