Flashback: Lake Garda and Opera in Verona

September 2nd

When the California Redwood Chorale came to visit Italy in April, we stayed at Lake Garda and participated in a chorale festival in Verona. Whilst in Verona, we went inside the Roman Amphitheater and watched the workers preparing for the summer opera season. I hoped that George and I might be able to go see an opera under the stars during our time in Italy. We managed to get there for closing night, and it was an experience I will never forget.

We stayed one night at a B&B at Lake Garda that boasted stunning views out over the lake. Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. One guide book says that it is the most visited lake in Italy and one of the most touristed areas in all of Italy. I found this surprising since most people I know who visit Italy have never heard of Lake Garda. Though it does have a pretty developed touristy feel to it, I find the little lakeside villages to be charming. Most have lovely promenades out around the lake. The upper part of the lake has some spectacular mountains around it.

In the evening, we drove in to Verona for dinner and the opera. The town was packed and buzzing with the excitement of closing night of the opera season. After long adventures in finding a place to park, we made our way into town, snapped a couple photos in front of the arena and set off to find dinner.

We couldn’t find a restaurant with any seats available, so we ate at a little snack bar with a very colorful owner. He was very cleverly providing patrons with a bottle of wine in a plastic bottle that they could take into the arena. As we ate, we watched one beautiful, young couple after another order a bottle of wine. The owner would then take a 1 liter bottle of water, dump the water down the sink, open a bottle of wine and pour it into the empty plastic bottle. Somehow it looked so much less romantic in its plastic container. He entertained the rest of us with witty banter in a smattering of languages.

We then made our way over to the arena with about 10,000 other people. We were up in the upper section with the rest of the jean-clad riff-raff. We watched the swanky people down in the expensive seats make their way in, all sequins and stilletos. We bought a libretto and read up a little on the story while waiting for the spectacle to begin.

The set before the performance began.

The opera didn’t begin until 9:00. After all the announcements were made, the lights came down and Egyptian clad soldiers carrying torches started pouring out of the area up behind the stage. They marched up to the very top, lighting up the arena with fire. Then the orchestra began and the singers appeared and the first notes of Aida sailed into the night sky just as a full moon rose over the arena. (I did try to take a picture of the full moon over the arena, but it came out looking like a streetlamp.)

This was our second full-scale opera production, and by far the most beautiful. (The first was at the Opera House in Vienna, several years back.) The costumes and stage sets for Aida were amazing. There was a ballerina and a dance troupe. A dozen harps and the biggest trumpets I’ve ever seen made appearances on stage (and were expertly played.) In the fourth act there were prancing horses that came to the front of the stage and took a bow. No live elephants, though. I hear sometimes there are real elephants in Aida.

This gives a nice sense of the costumes and the set. I think you can even see a horse and his rider in the back.

And then there were the voices… exquisite voices. The young woman who played Aida was a stellar soprano that sang with great passion and mind-blowing control. I was completely amazed at the loveliness of her high notes when she sang very quietly. All the principals were fantastic. I hadn’t expected them to break character at the end of each scene and take bows, though. We didn’t know if they always do that, or if it was a closing night thing. There was one guy on the opposite side of the arena from us that had an amazing knack for finding the split second at the end of each scene between when the music ended and the applause began and was able to project all the way across the stadium an enthusiastic, “Bravissima!” or “Stupendo.” I also learned that the only thing that can drown out the voice of a soprano singing forte is a piccolo. Wow, that thing is powerful.

We didn’t get very good photos because it was nighttime, but I hope that the few we did get will help me remember the magic of the evening.

Arena at night

Not a great photo, but it gives the feel. See all those little dots of light up on the top of the arena? Those are Egyptian soldiers holding torches. You can kind of see the orchestra toward the bottom left.

If ever you find yourself in Verona on a summer evening, be sure to get tickets for the opera. It is an experience not to be missed.

Note to CRC people: As it turns out, the stage set we saw back in April wasn’t for Aida after all. It must have been for some equally fabulous production, though.

Stage set being worked on in the Verona arena back in April.

Highlights and Flashbacks

Looking back over our posts, I realize that we have been pretty good thematic writers (especially George) but not as good at the travelog “hey, here we are” style posts. One of the reasons for this is that we like to include photos and the process (for us with old-school cameras, uploading to our laptop, fixing and cropping photos, uploading to the blog site with really spotty internet connections) often takes several hours to accomplish.

I’ve decided that I want to do more of the kind of thing I was doing back in March. Rather than having a word of the day, I’m just going to give quick highlights of days and events. On days when the most exciting thing we’re up to is laundry, I’d like to do some “flashbacks” to some of the photos, stories, and events we haven’t had a chance to write about yet. I’ll label these either Highlight or Flashback, so you know what to expect.  George will continue to do his wonderfully researched, thoughtfully written posts. (I will try, too, but no promises.)

We absolutely treasure your comments and emails, so keep them coming. We do try to write back, so if you think you haven’t gotten a response, check the post again to see if anything is there waiting for you.

Speaking of checking posts, have you seen the Beds 2012 page recently? Guess how many we’re up to now…

A Difficult Week

Do you remember my post a few weeks back entitled “Dangerously Happy”? I knew when I wrote that post that there are moments in life that are soaringly high, and they seem to always be accompanied (sooner or later) by moments that are very low. I try to always pay attention to the moments of happiness, knowing that sorrow is somewhere around the bend.

The sadness of the last week or so comes from events back home. My uncle and George’s brother-in-law both passed away this week, suddenly and unexpectedly. I would love to be there with my family right now. I also got a message from a friend who has split with her long time partner. I tried to call and talk with her, but we keep missing each other. I so want to be there for her right now.

A couple weeks ago we got the absolutely fantastic news that my son and his girlfriend got engaged! They are such a beautiful couple and I’m just thrilled at this turn of events. They are also making a big life change. They are moving to South Korea to teach English for a year. They had a big going-away/engagement party and I tried to content myself with photos and descriptions of the event, but I still felt so sad to miss it.

All this is compounded by a style of travel we don’t usually engage in. Normally, we like to stay in one place for awhile and really get to know it well. Since we’ve been traveling in the south of Italy, we’ve been moving around quite a bit and making long drives to see places. While those places have been stunning and I’m so glad I got to see them, I’m starting to feel exhausted.

I know it seems that we are on a permanent vacation, but life is still life, wherever you go. There are moments of bliss and discovery, and then there are moments of heartache. In the midst of all this I count myself unbelievably blessed to be with a partner whose love, care, tenderness and support are unparalleled. He is simply the most amazing person I have ever known. Traveling together, through the world and through the ups and downs of life, is an experience I treasure – even when the going gets a little rough.

Hill Towns

A hill town is generally a town that covers the crest of a hill much like snow might cover the top of a mountain in the winter.  Often the cathedral or the cathedral bell-tower is the highest point in the town.  For obvious geological reasons, Italian hill towns tend to be smaller than valley towns like Florence and Milan, but their homes, shops and churches are generally clustered very closely together and surrounded by an old city wall.  The centers of these towns are often now restricted largely to pedestrians, making them mostly traffic free and helping to create a strong sense of community.  In America even smaller towns tend to be built in valleys, where water is more plentiful and transportation more convenient, and the houses in the hills tend to be scattered and not clustered.  Towns in Italy were built long before American towns, during times when security was much more important than convenience.  The two dozen or so hill towns I’ll mention here are mainly those that we’ve visited on this trip.  This is a very small sample of what can be found all over Italy.

The part of Italy that is most famous for its hill towns is Tuscany.  One of the most famous is San Gimignano, a town that did not destroy or renovate its old buildings and towers because its powerful neighbor Florence had worked very hard to undermine its economic base, causing San Gimignano to decline into a state of arrested development (which makes it so historically charming in the present day).  Florence’s neighbors in Tuscany still have not forgotten the way Florence has thrown its weight around historically, and folks from towns like Siena, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano do not seem especially fond of their larger Tuscan neighbor.

 

Then there is the small hill town that overlooks Florence – Fiesole, which is much older than Florence.

Looking down on Florence from Fiesole

Fiesole

In the Divine Comedy Dante makes it clear how proud he is to be from a city that traces its origins to the glory of Rome.  Fiesole goes back much farther — at least to Etruscan times

We’ve also visited the beautiful Tuscan hill town of Volterra, made famous in America because it is the alleged setting of the film “New Moon,” a sequel to “Twilight.”   I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s part of the current cinematic fascination with good-looking and young, yet highly sympathetic blood-sucking fiends.  Apparently, the ‘Volterra’ scenes in “New Moon” were not actually filmed in Volterra…..which looks like this from the fields below.

The scenes were filmed in Montepulciano, a town that produces a very reasonably priced red wine that Lois and I have grown very fond of.  Apparently the wine is not the only red in this town.

Vampires notwithstanding, it’s a lovely hill-town.

This resident of Montepulciano does nibble on my neck sometimes.

And then there is Volterra’s tiny southern neighbor, Montecerboli, where an Italian friend very generously let us stay in her hilltop castle apartment.

Montecerboli

I hesitate to say this – for risk of reprisals from the Tuscan Tourist Board, but Tuscany has no monopoly on hill towns.  Nonetheless, tourists are mostly unaware that there are equally charming, and (dare I say it) far more spectacular hill towns that lie outside of Tuscany.  We spoke with someone from Umbria (a region in Italy that lies just southeast of Tuscany) who said that the hill towns in Umbria are at least as scenic as Tuscany’s except greener and less inhabited by tourists.  He added that with a bit of expert marketing, Umbria could easily be the new Tuscany.  I’m hoping the marketing doesn’t happen.

Assisi is one of the most charming hill towns I’ve seen.  It’s a gorgeous medieval Umbrian town whose homes, stores, cave-like stone restaurants and spectacular churches and cathedral are cobbled together with pink-hued stones.

Castle in Assisi

Assisi stairway

Assisi Restaurant

Orvieto is an Umbrian town perched on a cliff and topped by one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all of Italy (including Florence).

Orvieto Cathedral

Then there is the neighboring hill-hamlet of Civita di Bagnoreggio, where currently less than ten people reside.  No one in the U.S. would ever think to build a town here.

The Appenines is a mountain range that runs down the spine of Italy from near Parma (quite a ways northwest of Florence), curving southeast through Le Marche and Umbria, extending all the way down to Basilicata in extreme southern Italy.  It consists of spectacular mountains that reach nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, yet are unpublicized due to competition from their higher northern Italian neighbors – the Alps.  Lois and I skied in the Appenines this past winter.  Toward the extreme eastern border of Umbria lies a tiny town in the midst of the Appenines – Castelluccio, at the head of the Piano Grande (the great plain).  It is a spectacular setting for a hill town.

Castelluccio

Farther north in the region of Lombardy there is Bergamo Alto (I suppose “Bergamo Heights” is the best translation).  We recently spent a rainy day there in early September and were captivated by the place despite the weather.

All of this notwithstanding, it’s been in extreme southern Italy that we have encountered our favorite hill towns.  This part of Italy is often neglected by the guide books, Lonely Planet being one of the few exceptions.  Rick Steves says nothing about this part of Italy.  It may be because things are a bit more raw down here…. not so clean, not so accommodating to foreign tourists.  Very little English is spoken here, even by shop clerks and apartment managers.  Tourists worry that in this part of Italy they will be set upon by Mafiosi– a bit like when traveling through New Jersey.  Consequently, tourists here are either from elsewhere in Italy or from Germany (Germans travel everywhere).  Our Italian has gotten quite a bit better in southern Italy.  The way Lois words it is that we now speak bad Italian more fluently.

The region of Puglia lies in the heel of the ‘boot’ of Italy.  Rising from the Murgian Plateau between the coastal towns of Taranto on the Ionian Sea and Monopoli on the Adriatic is a cluster of gorgeous hill towns.  The largest and most elegant is old-town Martini Franca, which is graced by white homes and stylish Baroque palazzos and churches with elaborate wrought-iron balconies.

Ducal Palace – Martina Franca

Restaurant – Martina Franca

Not far down the road from Martina Franca lies Locorotondo, a small, gleaming town rising from the Murgian Plateau.  Whitewashed buildings with unique, steep-pitched roofs rise from white, stone-paved piazzas and streets in old-town Locorotondo, giving the town an almost Greek feel, which is no coincidence given that so much of this region of Italy was part of Magna Grecia (greater Greece) in ancient times.  If my comprehension of Italian can be trusted, the Tourist Information office explained that, for hundreds of years Locorotondo has required its residents and businesses to paint their buildings white.  (Imagine the outrage this would cause in an American city.)  The effect, however, is stunning, particularly with bright red geraniums cascading down the walls from windows and balconies.

Locorotondo

 

If the town of Locorotondo has a Greek feel to it, the town of Alberobello feels downright extra-terrestrial.  We encountered cute, stone-roofed dwellings throughout the countryside as we traveled between the Murgian hill towns.  (Fortunately we’d read about them; otherwise we would have been suspicious about the “shrooms” they’d served us in Martina Franca).  The dwellings are called “trulli.”  They are a bit like the stone ‘beehive’ huts we encountered in Ireland, although more elaborate.

Trullo

The authentic trulli houses actually have dry stone roofs (no mortar is used for the stones), although contemporary trulli houses often add mortar and even add brick to the interiors of the ceilings.  The old town of Alberobello is a sort of “trulli” hill-town cascade, creating an effect of such utter cuteness that Disney would envy it.  Lonely Planet describes Alberobello as a sort of delightful habitat for gnomes.  Lois remarked that if you simply painted the Alberobello trulli village blue, the result would be “Smurfsville.”   As a natural consequence, Alberobello has been the only place in our travels in southern Italy where we encountered throngs of Asian and American tourists, although thankfully we were able to find a smaller, more authentic part of town where the trulli hadn’t been converted into souvenir/trinket shops.  We are now considering spending a night or two in one of the trulli later this month.  It’s one of those places you’ve just got to see.  It makes you smile.

Martina Franca

Trullo Smurfette

Lois and I recently spent four days in Pollino National Park in the region of southern Italy called Basilicata (in the arch of the “boot” of Italy).  This park includes the southernmost reach of the Appenines.  It’s the largest national park in all of Italy (one of only two habitats on earth for the magnificent loricate pine, AKA the Bosnian pine).

Loricate Pines on ridge in Pollino National Park

Lois and I had been amazed and delighted by the northern Appenines on our trip to Italy in 2009 and were just as surprised to find the Appenines here in extreme southern Italy this time around.  Beautiful hill towns are scattered throughout the foothills of the southern Appenines, towns like Mormanno, Rotondo, and Morano Calabro.

Morano Calabra

Residents of these towns are so unaccustomed to tourists that when they enter a restaurant, they greet each diner individually, as though each has lived there since birth.  The presence of strangers is not simply unusual; it sometimes seems baffling to them.

A drive through these towns generally involves vehicular navigation through piazzas that are populated almost entirely by street gangs consisting of several dozen shiftless octogenarian homey males milling about and refusing to yield to cars that have the audacity to trespass upon their turf, eyeing the drivers and passengers with suspicion and, in Lois’ case, apparent lust.  Italy is, unfortunately with some justification, reputed to be a country in which males consider it their God-given right to leer lasciviously at nice looking women.   Accordingly, I’ve developed the habit of being prepared to stare down those men who seem to be looking at Lois in inappropriate ways, but I have to admit that I was astonished to hear Lois’ report that as I was taking this photo of her standing next to Pasquale, the octogenarian church employee who had given us a personal tour of the sacred mysteries of the Church of Mary Magdelene, he was groping her behind.

Basilicata spans a region bordering on the Ionian Sea in the east (in the arch of the Italian boot) to the Tyrrhenian Sea on the west coast of Italy south of the Amalfi coast.  The most dramatic Basilicata town on the Tyrrhenian is Maratea.   It is a lovely coastal town with breathtaking views of the coastal mountains as they plunge into the sea.  What most people know as Maratea would not really qualify as a hill town, but there are several Marateas.  What is called Maratea Superiore is certainly a hill town….an amazing one.  It is nestled just below Jesus on the crest of this mountain.  (This particular statue of Jesus is 72 feet tall, the tallest in Europe, and one of the two tallest in the world, second only to Corcovado in Brazil.)

Maratea Superiore is an ancient town, now a ruin, built in the 8th Century BC as an ancient Greek colony.

Maratea Superiore ruins

Normally one doesn’t find many hill towns on the high-mountain peaks in the Alps, the Dolomites or the Appenines in Italy because the mountains there are simply too craggy and inaccessible.  Inaccessibility doesn’t seem to be a deterrent in southern Italy, however.  Outside of Italy few folks are aware that there are high alpine mountains called the Lucanian Dolomites in northern Basilicata.

Lucanian Dolomites

Chiseled into two of these jagged mountaintops are the towns of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano.  Looking up from the base of these mountains, the towns simply seem to defy all laws of physics and common sense, but the construction of the city dates back to the Saracens in the 9th Century.

Pietrapertosa 

The views from the towns (including the views of approaching enemies) are incredible.  The highest peak in the town of Pietrapertosa is both a mountain pinnacle and a Norman fortress; the two cannot really be distinguished from one another.

Inside the fortress

View of Castelmezzano from Pietrapertosa

As we were admiring the views on a roadside turnout below one of the peaks of Pietrapertosa, Lois and I heard a strange whirring sound above us.  Apparently some enterprising soul had conceived the idea of stringing a cable from the top of one of the peaks in Pietrapertosa to the top of the peak at Castelmezzano, attaching a sling to the cable and offering thrill seekers the opportunity to zing across the valley on a zipline in a harness suspended nearly 2000 feet above the floor of the valley below.  It’s the longest zipline in Europe.  It’s called ‘Volo d’Angelo’ (flight of the angel) – which, God willing, is what one would become after dying of fright on this contraption.  Lois and I were both tempted…she more than I, but we had a very busy day ahead of us, and agreed to resist the temptation (translation: we chickened out).

From there we drove south through a gorgeous forested valley in the Parco Nazionale dell’Appenino Lucano to the eerily beautiful hill town of Aliano, made famous by Carlo Levi in his book entitled “Christ Stopped at Eboli.”  Levi’s fictional name for the town was Gagliano.  He was exiled to Aliano (Gagliano) by the fascists in WWII, and his book described the harsh living conditions and the spirituality in this region that, even as late as the late 1930’s, Catholicism had showed little interest in.  Levi describes a town of poverty and desperation.  It has been revived to some extent, but there are still remnants of the town Levi describes in such grim detail.

The geology changes dramatically in the region of Aliano.  The valleys that surround the town are starkly spectacular, looking much more like something one would find in the American canyon country of northern Arizona or southern Utah than anywhere else in Italy.

Basilicata landscape near Aliano

Countryside near Aliano

The slopes below the current town of Aliano, where the built environment gives way to the hill that supports the town, are dotted with caves that have been bored into the barren hillside.  These caves were reminiscent of what we had encountered a few days earlier in Matera –  the town in eastern Basilicata that Lois and I consider the most fascinating of all Italian hill towns.

Matera is a haunting town, perhaps the most ancient on the very ancient Italian peninsula.  Its settlements were established so long ago in pre-history that Matera makes the early days of Rome and Pompeii seem recent.   It is a town embedded into stone hillsides.

Matera

Many of its dwellings and churches are called sassi (the Italian term for stones) because at least parts of them were literally carved into rock.  Many are no more than caves.

Matera Sassi

For at least 5,000 years (through the 1950’s) people lived in these sassi in conditions which, until exposed by Carlo Levi and others, were so difficult that the infant mortality rate was still close to 50% in the 1950’s.  After a government-mandated evacuation and rehabilitation of the sassi, the community has been made habitable and healthy, and many of the sassi businesses, churches and dwellings are in use once again.  For me, Matera is the place on earth where the sense of continuity between the earliest and most recent civilizations is strongest, but there is still something unsettling about being there.  When I walk along the streets of Matera and step into the sassi, it feels as though there are ghosts all around me.

Sassi Church – Matera

A Renaissance Man

** Note — the following post was begun on Sept. 4.

We’re on the night train from Milan to Bari, an all-night ride from northern Italy to the extreme south, in the heel of the boot of Italy.  We left Lake Como this morning, albeit reluctantly, and spent the day in Milan, visiting two churches, Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan.  The Duomo of Milan is the most spectacular example of northern Gothic architecture in all of Italy.

Duomo of Milan

Santa Maria delle Grazie is, by Italian standards, not especially impressive but for the fact that the wall of the refectory is decorated with Leonardo da Vinci’s Cenacolo (Last Supper).

Santa Maria delle Grazie

There are Last Supper frescoes all over Italy, eight in Florence alone, three of which would be extremely famous if not for Leonardo.  Here is a gorgeous “Last Supper” by Ghirlandaio in the convent of Ognissanti in Florence, a one minute walk from our Florence apartment last semester.

Last Supper, by Ghirlandaio

Generally these “Cenacolo” frescoes are not in churches; they are in monasteries and convents, and they fill an entire wall.  This is true of Leonardo’s as well.  It’s in a room in the monastery adjacent to the church, a room which fittingly became the refectory where the monks would have ….supper, naturally.  Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man, an artist and scientist.  His painting style is both exquisite and realistic, incorporating his extensive knowledge of anatomy and nature, combined with a sense of beauty and harmony that was grounded to a great extent in mathematical proportion.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is not in good condition.  A true fresco is painted on wet plaster, and the painting literally dries embedded in the wall.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” was painted using tempera on a dry wall, and given the conditions inside the building, it began to deteriorate badly within a few years.  The painting was completed in the late 15th century, and in the last half millennium the room that it decorates has been used as an armory by French troops who abused the painting; it’s been used as a prison; and it’s been hit in WWII bombing raids.  It’s also been subject to a parade of attempted restorations, some of which did not go well.  The most recent restoration was finished in 1999, and this is what  Leonardo’s Last Supper looks like today (most think this is a great improvement).

 

Last Supper – Leonardo

Leonardo’s Last Supper is celebrated mainly because of the sense of proportion, harmony, beauty and emotionality portrayed in the painting, combined with a use of perspective that integrates the painting into the entire room.  Unlike his younger contemporary Michelangelo, Leonardo was not a prolific painter or sculptor.  It often took him many years to complete a work, and he is famous, actually infamous, for leaving works uncompleted.  He had a tendency to get distracted by new projects.  Although Leonardo spent much of his childhood in Florence with his father who worked in a building on the Piazza della Signoria very near to what is now the most famous museum in Florence (the Uffizi), there is only one completed work by Leonardo in the Uffizi, an exquisite Annunciation.

Although the Uffizi Museum has an entire room called the “Leonardo Room” there is very little of Leonardo there.  The Louvre has a much more impressive and extensive collection of Leonardo’s works.

Currently a team of art historians is working to discover the remains of a Leonardo fresco that may be hidden beneath a gigantic Giorgio Vasari work that covers a wall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  In fact, using scientific equipment they have found evidence of some sort of painting underneath with paints that chemically resemble those used in the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo and Michelangelo were commissioned to fresco opposite walls of the Hall of the 500 in the Palazzo in 1504 with scenes of a historic battle.   As the art historians at the Palazzo explain it, Leonardo was working in cool weather, and again he chose to apply paint (in this case oil) directly to the dry wall.  In the cool temperatures the paint he had applied was particularly slow to dry, and began to drip.  So he decided to speed up the drying process by heating the wall with charcoal braziers, which may have actually exacerbated the oozing of the paint, creating a rather ghoulish effect.  He gave up on the painting.  The art historians I encountered at the Palazzo didn’t seem too keen on the project to locate the Leonardo underneath the Vasari, because they expect that the best that will be found is something that looks more like parody of a Salvador Dali than a Leonardo.

Here is a Rubens painting that is supposed to have been based upon a copy of the drawing (cartoon) Leonardo had made in preparation for his “fresco” in the Palazzo Vecchio.

 

Scholars are now paying a good deal of attention to Leonardo’s more scientific work.  It wasn’t that Leonardo considered himself to be pursuing the distinct disciplines of art, science and mathematics; to him they were essential aspects of the same pursuit.  The artist needed to be a careful and systematic observer of the human body and of nature in order to pursue painting and sculpture.  Leonardo famously dissected corpses in order to learn more about muscular and skeletal aspects of the human body.  His notebooks are filled with very accurate drawings of birds in flight, of water currents, of powerful horses and of plants.

Leonardo’s drawing of pouring water

 Those drawings result from observations of interrelationships in nature that clearly demonstrate the qualities of harmony, balance and proportion  —  qualities that surely have as much to do with aesthetics and beauty as they do with mathematics and science.  For Leonardo, to have scientific knowledge of the human body was also to appreciate its beauty; these are two aspects of coming to understand it.  Contemporary quantum physicist (and author of the Tao of Physics) Fritjof Capra, who has done an extensive study of Leonardo’s notebooks, considers Leonardo to be an early proponent of a more holistic science that was ignored in the aftermath of the more mechanistic science of Galileo, Descartes, and Francis Bacon, and has only recently resurfaced in the fields of quantum physics and ecology.

Leonardo was an inventor, an architect and an urban designer who seemed to feel that human design needed to be inspired by the design of nature – which was far superior.  Not only was Leonardo a vegetarian, but he also said this, “The virtues of grasses, stones and trees do not exist because humans know them… (they) are noble in themselves without the aid of human languages or letters.”  For him to see nature as having intrinsic value and not just value that derives from being used or even appreciated by humans was relatively unheard of during his time.  Even today these sorts of views could get someone branded as an environmental radical or worse.

One wouldn’t want to take this too far, however.  Leonardo also was consulting with Machiavelli (when Machiavelli served as Florence’s foreign affairs advisor) on a scheme to divert the flow of the Arno River so that it no longer passed through Pisa, thus depriving Florence’s rival city of its access to the sea.  Although this project was (thankfully) abandoned before completion – like so many of Leonardo’s projects, it nonetheless doesn’t qualify as a plan that respects the intrinsic value of nature.  And although Capra describes Leonardo as a peaceful man, his inventions do include a machine gun, a tank and a giant catapult to be used in attacking enemy cities.

 

Leonardo’s rendering of his proposed new invention- a machine gun

Perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of being interested in just about everything – the dark underside of being a Renaissance man.

Snow in August

August 31st

Ok. I wasn’t expecting that. It didn’t actually snow on us, but on the morning of August 31st, after a spectacular thunderstorm, we woke up to snow in the mountains around Lake Como.

Snow in the mountains around Lake Como on August 31, 2012.

I thought we were going to have summer weather from July all the way through next January when we return home. I assumed that August in Italy (even northern Italy) would be nothing but hot and sunny, and September in Puglia (in the far south of Italy) would be more of the same. For the last two weeks of August, we watched the hills across the lake change from solid green to varying shades of brown and gold. Autumn was coming to the mountains. We still had days that were warm enough to swim, but by the end of August, we had to close the windows at night and put blankets on the bed.

Golden hills across the lake from our apartment at Lake Como.

I also learned during this period that people everywhere spend a great deal of time discussing the weather. It seems so odd to me that we don’t come to expect the unexpected, especially during this time of climate change. We are surprised at snow in August, even though it may have happened that way for the last three years in a row.

For George and me, the thunderstorms were a real treat. Both of us had experienced summer thunder storms back east, and we love the drama of it all. We watched the clouds gather and grow darker.

Gathering clouds across the lake.

More gathering clouds.

Then we saw a flash across the sky and waited for the thunder. We pulled up chairs in front of the window to watch the storm, just like a couple of little kids.

You have to picture me sitting right next to George with my arms on the window sill and my chin on my arms. We spent several wonderful hours here.

We ooohed and ahhhed at the beauty of the lightning streaks and thrilled at the echoing rumble of the thunder through the canyon. The first of the three storms we watched started at nearly midnight and the lightning would light up the whole lake for a second, turning it shades of purple and blue. The wind roared up the lake and threatened to take all the summer umbrellas with it. There wasn’t much rain accompanying this light and sound show (at least in the first two storms) but the mornings after the storms brought crystal clear views across the lake and up to the Alps.

Crystal clear views across the lake on the morning after the first thunderstorm.

I now freely admit that I have no idea what kind of weather we will encounter for the rest of our travels. We could have summer, fall, winter and spring all rolled into the next four months. The changeability is fine with me. It gives me something to talk to the locals about.