Monday, November 30, 2009

Roma: Don’t Try to Choose – It’s the Churches

If the attractions of Rome are too many and too splendid, there appears to be only one solution: don’t try to choose. Don’t try to do everything and run yourself ragged attempting to connect to ancient Rome, musical Rome, artistic Rome, historical Rome, or even shopping Rome. Indeed, perhaps it is the latter that might be considered the eternal of “eternal Rome,” since this is a city that has apparently been designed to lure every visitor into purchasing the best of the best, Italian design being what it is and Rome being its design center (with a dutiful nod of course to any of Italy’s other fabulous design “centers,” each of which could probably claim the title with some accuracy). No, shopping is obviously what is going to draw many people to Rome, and they are smart to make the journey. There are few pleasures that delight the senses like those enjoyed in the shops of Rome, regardless of what one is shopping for.

Yet there is a single “theme,” one might say, that would seem to connect all of the many elements of this splendid place and that turns out to be – accidentally enough – the many churches (far too many to count!) that are all over the city. So far we have limited ourselves to the Centro Storico, not yet having ventured into the other neighborhoods. Before we came to Rome, we decided that we would choose a hotel in the historical quarter and it was a wise choice, enabling my first intimations of Rome’s famous past to link easily and almost seamlessly (except for the shopping of course) to the city’s amazing and rewarding history of nearly three millennia.

And yes, that reference to “first” is correct. Despite all my travels, I have never before had an opportunity to visit Rome, and it made sense to come to this wonderful place at long last. I am not sorry I came.

The churches-of-Rome association or theme might not be ideal for some, but for me – arriving midday on a Sunday and having our first stroll through the city on a Sunday afternoon and early evening, when so many of the churches are open – was a splendid introduction. I had hardly gone outside the hotel before I was confronted with the simple façade (well, when “simple” can be used to describe a Baroque front, however modest) and stepped into a riot of Baroque angels, paintings, overcolorings, and all the other trappings of the style. And all wrapped up in the sweet experience of a student of the organ – working with his or her master – playing hymn tunes in a collection of charming improvisations. This was Chiesa S. Maria Maddalena, and it provided us with a lovely place to start.

I won’t try to list all the churches we visited, but several stand out: Yes, I was a little disappointed to find the splendid beauty of piazza Navona somewhat cheapened by the holiday market, with all the bright lights of the stands and the not-so-attractive items on offer. But the fair did not at all affect the impression made by the glorious sculptures in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, with its accompanying Fontana di Nettuno and Fontana del Moro). Even so, I was still unprepared to be as overwhelmed as I was with the beauty of the Chiesa di Sant’ Agnese in Agone. What a splendid place! And the beauty of the artwork is only enhanced by the subtle trompe l’oeil of the painted niches, which made everything around them appear to be so perfectly framed.

In the Pantheon, despite the wandering in-and-out of many of Rome’s citizens (reminding one of visits to a place like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey or any of the other great cathedrals), there was a service in progress. It was very special to stand in this enormous space, surrounded by all that it is – the architecture, the tombs of Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, and, quite frankly, the design – and not be impressed with the not overly pompous organ music and lovely sound of the soprano soloist, singing so sweetly a very pretty piece of music, with the echoes sounding throughout the space adding an unusual flavor to the experience. A very splendid visit indeed.

At the piazza della Minerva, just steps from the Pantheon, stands the mighty Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. To keep the mood light, the walk from the Pantheon to the Basilica includes – in the center of the piazza – Bernini’s delightful elephant. Charming, handsome, and obviously designed to make anyone passing smile at his happy expression. It worked.

As for the church itself, one is surprised as one enters through an appropriately simple façade to be confronted with an interior is simply overwhelming (a word probably destined for overuse in these dispatches from Rome). Built on the site of an ancient temple to Minerva (hence the “sopra” of the name), the interior is simply ablaze with magnificent things to look at including, for me, a Michelangelo sculpture simply called “The Redeemer.” At the base of the Main Altar is the Sepulcher of Saint Catherine of Siena and, yes, my first question was “Why is the tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena in Rome?”

As it turns out, Saint Catherine (this Saint Catherine) is the patron saint of Italy and of all Europe, so of course it makes sense to have her in Rome, at the seat of the Church. The body in the tomb is not altogether together, since – not to disappoint the citizens of Siena – the head was removed and sent to Siena in 1385. Fast forward to the Holy Year of 2000: on this important occasion, the tomb was restored to its original look, with the colors that had been added later and plaster decoration, added in the mid-19th century, removed.

Even more impressive to me – since I’m not very well versed in the mysteries of the saints – is the splendid Carafa Chapel off to the right of the Main Altar. With its famous frescoes by Filippino Lippi and including an altar piece, The Annunciation with Saint Thomas of Aquinas presenting Cardinal Carafa to the Virgin, this – for me – is a very special work of sacred art. It is one of the most beautiful of the many depictions of the annunciation I’ve ever seen (and I’m somewhat partial, since the annunciation to the virgin is perhaps my favorite of all the Bible stories), stunning in its detail and colors and showing an almost translucent lily in the hand of the angel. What a joy to see this lovely picture!

As for the other churches, there were too many visited during our one afternoon and evening to be described here (and many were quite spectacular in the darkness of a Sunday night). And there was one disappointment: San Andrea della Valle was closed for renovation, and we were mighty let down. We had planned to enter quietly, take our seats, sure if we waited long enough we would hear Floria Tosca come to summon her lover. Ah, to hear the sound of “Mario, Mario,” ringing out in that splendid space. What a joy it would have been! But it was not to be.

Perhaps instead when we visit the Farnese Palace we’ll run into the spirit of Scarpia.

No. Don’t want that. It wouldn’t be quite the same.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

La Fine di Sicilia

Only for Mr. Guy.

Not the end of Sicily but just the end of Mr. Guy's week in this very interesting region of Italy (and if the attempt at an Italian title is not perfect, I beg the reader's indulgence).

And since this visit began with impressions, let's end with some as well.

How about some thoughts about Catania? Syracuse? Taormina? Beautiful cities, each different and each offering the visitor experiences not available elsewhere.

In Catania, the focus is on lava and the baroque. [Yes, you read that right!] 1669 was - some assert - the year of Mount Etna's most violent eruption, and the lava flows reached Catania, causing massive destruction. Then in 1693 - adding insult to injury for any survivors I suppose - the city was leveled by a devastating earthquake. Not to be undone by such awful circumstances, the city fathers decided to rebuild, and the Sicilian Baroque architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini - having been born in 1702 and grown up amongst the ruins - went to work building one of Europe's most Baroque cities (or at least one of Italy's). If you like Baroque architecture, Catania is the place to come to. From the flowing lines of the Duomo and its lavish Fontana dell'Elefante (the elephant connecting to the city's coat of arms and, like St. Agatha - for which see below) to the highest of Baroque private palazzi, the style is seen all over the city. Lava is used, too, with lava stone incorporated into the Baroque architecture and providing the material for most of the paving blocks of the city. The result is a slightly different "take" on the Baroque, with the two-tone coloring of the buildings pretty much the norm, with one of them matching the pavement of the streets.

Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, and the city honors her in many ways. The story has it that she rebuffed the advances of a Roman senator, with the result that she was tortured for being a Christian by having her breasts sliced off and being rolled over hot coals. While Agatha was in prison awaiting death, Mount Etna rumbled so terribly that Agatha's tormentors were scared out of their wits, and she was set free. Since then, the city is reputed to have been saved many times from further destruction from the volcano (except in 1669) because her relics are carried through the streets whenever Mount Etna rumbles. Her feast is in February, and from what I hear, the city goes slightly crazy in venerating Saint Agatha. And as a special treat, the bakeries all serve up pastries in the shape of a lady's breast (I'm not making this up).

Catania is a very poor city, and it shows. First of all, much of the ornate Baroque city was leveled in the bombings of WWII and while there is not much in the way of bombed-out buildings (as in Palermo), you still get the sense that it is a city that desperately needs some financial restructuring and some sort of plan for serious revenue growth. Syracuse is another story altogether.We don't hear much about the economy in Syracuse, but there seems to be building going on all over the place. It is an ancient city (over 3,000 years old), and at one time was one of the three greatest Greek cities, led only by Athens and Sparta. Despite the fun Shakespeare and Rodgers and Hart had with the story of the twins, there is a serious side to Syracuse's history, best experienced from a visit to the great Syracuse Neapolis Archaeological Park, where visitors can get a vision of what life was like in ancient times, where there is both a Roman amphitheatre nearly 2,000 years old and a Greek theatre dating back to the 5th century BC.

Syracuse is truly a beautiful city, too, with its two harbors and it freshwater spring (right next to the sea) contributing to its being one of the loveliest cities in this part of the world. The harbors bring the Ionian Sea right to the heart of the city, where one of my favorite places is the area around the Duomo. All the buildings around Piazza Duomo  (including one from the Mussolini period which - despite a pretty ugly architectural framework - shows off very handsome sculptures of the "working-man-and-woman" style) are attractively laid out. The Duomo itself, with its subtle little trick (its Baroque porch and facade are merely tacked on to the structure of a massive 2500-year-old Temple of Athena from ancient times, rebuilt to incorporate a church) is one of the most interesting buildings in Sicily. Indeed, for some architecture critics, it is their favorite building, and it is easy to see why. Great fun, and beautiful to behold, both from the outside - where you can see the temple's columns as they have been incorporated into the later structure - and particularly from the inside where the specifics of each architectural period are clearly on display.

And Taormina. It's all about the views. The views. The views. No matter where you go in the city, there is so much to look at, and despite the hoards of tourists in other parts of the year, a visit in November is blessedly quiet. You're looking at the sea, at Mount Etna, at other mountains, and even at the city rising up even higher behind you. There's no question but that looking out to see the views is a primary occupation in Taormina.

The main shopping street is a pedestrian mall and the shops are still full of things to buy, depending of course on the level of taste with respect to what you want to buy. Clothing is very high-end and exceptionally stylish. Collectibles, objets d'art, and the like run the gamut and you have to decide if it is worth the price being asked to take some of this stuff home and put it out for someone else to see. Not surprisingly, the hotels are pretty spectacular, particularly the hotels catering to the wealthy and the celebrities, and you sometimes get the feeling that you're in one of those early 20th-century "grand" hotels designed for simply sitting in the  great lounging rooms and looking beautiful and stylish. And, yes, the Wunderbar - hangout for such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor and innumerable others - is still in business but pretty slow this time of year (I guess the celebrities have other things to do).

The churches and the cathedral of Taormina are lovely, and one cannot help but be moved by the sincerity of the people you see praying in the churches when you visit (but the number of actual services seems to be pretty limited, judging from the postings on the signboards). The ancient Teatro Greco is fun to visit, and being the venue for continuing programs during the high season, one can get a real feel for how performances took place in the days when the Greeks were in charge. As for the famous (infamous?) association of Teormina with Wilhelm von Gloeden's photographs, there's little about it on offer for the casual visitor, although if one wanted to seek out more information, it is probably available. Postcards of course are on offer in all the card shops, and collections of photographs (at very expensive prices) can be purchased in book or exhibition catalogue format, but it is interesting to note that there is apparently not a large-scale focus on this part of Taormina's history.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Feeding the Soul in Palermo (2): Lampedusa

For many of us, the emotional connection to Sicily is not necessarily musical. Mine began as a lad, when I for some reason was offered Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s totally beautiful Il Gattopardo to read. I wish I could remember who suggested I read it, for I’ve been indebted to that person for many years. Of course I read The Leopard in translation but the impact was nevertheless very powerful and I remember spending much time thinking about this beautiful story and this splendid, haunting place. Then Luchino Visconti’s lavish film appeared and for many years this was unquestionably my favorite film. Even recently – perhaps five years ago – a director’s cut was released, and we were able to see it. What a magnificent, stunning experience!

So naturally I was anxious to learn what I could about Lampedusa and his island when I came to Sicily. I was surprised to discover from Guisi that few people ask about the author of this magnificent book. He is naturally greatly revered by the Sicilians, indeed by all of Italy, but visitors to Sicily don’t seem to care very much about Lampedusa and there is little about him to learn in situ. Lampedusa itself – the island – I was advised is not worth a visit except for the beaches, and this is the wrong season for that. Only 113 km from the African coast, It has become now a destination for thousands of desperate immigrants, often attempting the journey in boats that aren’t designed to handle the crowds of people crammed aboard (with the awful result that according to the U.N.’s refugee agency – UNHCR – more than 2,000 people die each year attempting the crossing).

So there continues to be interest in Lampedusa the author. I was interested to discover, hanging in the office of Filippo Guttuse, Direttore, Biblioteca Comunale Palermo, a poster of a splendid portrait of Lampedusa. Painted by Nicolo D’Alessandro, the portrait is in the collection of the Biblioteca Comunale (sadly, his papers are not, for they continue to be part of Lampedusa’s publisher’s archives) and it is a handsome depiction of what this great writer must have looked like.

An even more delightful surprise (and one taking us back to the musical) came at the Biblioteca del Teatro Massimo, where Signora Modico – showing us some of the scenic designs for previous productions – presented the sketches of the opera “Il Gattopardo,” an opera of which I had no knowledge whatsoever (I had not even heard that it is an opera!). How I would love to have seen it! Perhaps someday a patron will sponsor a production in New York. I imagine it would be well worth the wait (well, for Lampedusa fans like myself).

And still, in Palermo, there is some further interest in Lampedusa. Or at least to the Sicilian connection with the film, for the palazzo where the great ball was filmed can be visited. And, yes, the idea of a visit seemed attractive, with the ballroom’s apparently breath-taking ceiling (a double ceiling designed so those below can look up and see the decorations on the “first” ceiling and through openings see equally executed decorations on the “inside” ceiling) something to see. However, it was not to be, not this trip: the palazzo is private. Like many palazzi in Italy, though, it can be hired out for a visit. Sadly, whether the number of guests would be just the two of us or a party of 90, the fee is the same - €600.00. Perhaps not this time. I’ll stick with my happy memories of what I saw in the film!

Feeding the Soul in Palermo: “Rigoletto”

Tuesday 24 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

Is Mr. Guy ever any happier than when he is at the opera?

Probably not, and opera in Italy seems to push all the right buttons. The enthusiasm of the musicians, and of the audience, the almost embedded respect for the art form, and the attention to detail and care of execution of the designs of the productions – even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with the concept – all combine to make the experience a truly appropriate musical experience.

So perhaps there might be a slight reworking of Goethe’s comment. Perhaps instead of “…if you don’t see Sicily” the thought should be more along the lines of “If you come to Italy and don’t hear opera, you can’t know Italy.” Here in Palermo, a stone’s throw from the Teatro Bellini (and, yes, seeing “pasta alla Norma” on every menu makes me wonder what on earth the menus will say when I get to Catania, where Bellini was born!), I’m impressed with the offerings for Teatro Massimo’s opera season, both what is on for the remainder of this year and what’s on its way for an equally impressive stagione 2010.

The musical experience at Teatro Massimo is very special, even for people like us who hear so much opera. The performance we saw of “Rigoletto” was very well handled, and the new production – co-produced with Teatro Regio di Parma – was beautiful to look at, very traditional with lovely costumes and very handsome sets, full of rich golds and reds, especially in the scenes where there were many people on stage. Quite spectacular, indeed.

We had already been given a sense of the strength of the commitment when we visited the library of the Teatro Massimo. There we met with Biblioteca Giovanna Modico who had – when in another position with the Fondazione Teatro Massimo (the company’s proper name, using the “foundation” concept differently than we do, not to describe a philanthropic organization but to designate an organization structured for a particular purpose) –led the move to establish a research library to support the production and performance of opera. Coming into proper existence some 20 years ago, the library now not only serves those purposes (and includes company archives) but is open to scholars and – particularly – to students of design, theatre, musicology, and related subjects and has become a primary resource for scholars in these fields. Truly a specialized library in every imaginable concept of the term and truly a situation in which strategic knowledge is developed, captured, and shared for the benefit of the organization’s purpose, to bring music to the people of Sicily for their own pleasure and enjoyment.

Over in the opera house, the main attraction of the performance for me – aside from Mr. Verdi’s magnificent contribution which is always, with any of his operas, a listening experience to be savored – was the presence of the beloved Leo Nucci in the title role. Always a great fan, I was delighted to learn that he is still singing. He is getting on now (well, for an opera singer – in fact he’s only about 67 years old), and we don’t have him in America any more, but years ago – 20? 25? – I became a fan and so enjoyed his Figaro, a couple of other roles, and especially his Rigoletto (which I surely heard several times). And I was doubly blessed, for circumstances for one performance of Rigoletto found me with an invitation to visit him backstage after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. I found him to be charming, interesting, and totally committed to his art and, not surprisingly, the performance in Palermo did not disappoint. He sang so beautifully throughout the entire opera, and in the second act, “Pieta, signori, pieta” was so moving and so touchingly performed, he had the audience cheering with enthusiasm for this obviously well loved singer. The applause went on and on, and he had to step out of character to move to the front of the stage to acknowledge the continuing ovation.

Our Gilda, Duke, and Sparafucile were unknown to me (Norah Amsellem, Francesco Meli, and Arutjun Kotchinian respectively), and our conductor was Keri-Lynn Wilson, also new to me. They were all so very good, with Amsellem in particular displaying a beautiful, wonderfully controlled instrument. She had the ability to do the old start-strong-stretch-out-with-a-delicate-diminuendo-then-bring-it-back-up-again technique that brought back memories of Montearrat Caballe in her glory days.

And when volume was called for, Amsellem had it. Indeed, she truly held her own in the duet with Nucci at the end of Act II. It was so well done, with her final notes sailing out over the orchestra and the full house – and Nucci right there with her all the way! The reaction was so great that – even though the scrim was brought down – the two of them stepped to the apron of the stage, and did it all over again! Of course it is all pre-arranged, but how does the conductor know the audience will like it this much? What a joy to hear and watch singers who so obviously love what they are doing! And who take so much pleasure in sharing their art with their public. Nucci and Amsellem were obviously loving every minute of their music-making. And what pleasure for the rest of us! Magnificent!

As for the building itself, the spectacular Teatro Massimo, begun by Giovanni Battista Basile in 1875 and completed by his son Ernesto in 1897 is well worth the visit, even if there isn’t a performance on. Much is said about the splendid l’art nouveau interior and I had been anticipating the visit, mainly (aside from the music) to satisfy my longing to learn more about the Sicilian version of my adored l’art nouveau. Here is referred to as stile-Liberty (yes, as in “Liberty of London”), and once again, I learned new things about l’art nouveau. There is no question but that the interior of the Teatro Massimo is as wonderful as its exterior, and the décor is beautiful to behold.

Yet I was surprised to see subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences, and just as Charles Rennie Macintosh with his straight lines and Louis Comfort Tiffany with his shimmering colors had created their own versions of l’art nouveau, so too does stile-Liberty have its own arrangement of detail. There is not, it would seem, that great devotion to the sinuous botanicals so often found in other versions of l’art nouveau (especially in Brussels, Antwerp, and Paris) and that disappoints a little, since that particular element of the design is so pleasing to me. Nor, in the Teatro Massimo, are there the molded curves in wood, so much a part of the rooms in the Musee d’Orsay or the recently installed room at the Metropolitan Museum. In Ernesto Basile’s version, there is a much closer connection with the neo-classical and while some of the iron balustrades and lamp supports display the graceful curves associated with l’art nouveau there isn’t much in the way of botanical references.

But such observations come dangerously close to the pedantic. Ernesto Basile has created a beautiful interior in the Teatro Massimo and it makes for much pleasure for the eye when one visits this splendid space.

Mosaics and Manuscripts (Rev.)

Monday 23 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

If, as is purported to be the case, Ibn Jubry in the 12th century said of Palermo, “it dazzles the eyes with its perfection,” he might have been right. Indeed, one of my colleagues continued the idea as we approached the entrance to the Cattedrale di Monreale: “Prepare to be dazzled.”


Well, the phraseology could not have been more appropriate. Sunday’s visit to the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cappella Palatino provided a splendid introduction to the Arab-Byzantine influence in religious architecture and its glittering mosaics.

And “glittering” is a perfect descriptor in this case, since the Cappella Palatino has just re-opened after a two-year closure for the restoration of the mosaics. Funded by a German businessman, the result is probably the most sparkling – almost new-looking – mosaics in Christendom!.

At the Cattedrale di Monreale, the story is the same – even the panels depicting Noah and the flood seem to be telling the story in the same way, so there must have been some tradition to following a particular storyline. But there the resemblance ends.

First of all, there’s the difference in scale. The Cappella Palatino is beautiful to behold and, as I say, positively brilliant in light and shiny-ness. At the Cattedrale di Monreale, the panels containing the mosaics are much bigger, and while probably as brillant (allowing for some darkening after so many centuries), they are much higher up toward the high ceiling of the space (the Cappella Palatino is not nearly so high, although it is high enough to be awe-inspiring).

Then there are other differences, perhaps because of the difference in size. At Monreale, for example, there is any number of depictions of angels, some even with one of their wings folded under to fit into the space set aside for the particular image. At the Cappella Palatino, the mosaics seem to be subtler, and the folds of the drapery of the fabrics (especially the garments of some of the saints) are beautifully arranged and show the light in various shades as it catches against the fabric. Transparency, too, is beautifully depicted. In one panel at the Cappella Palatino we see one of the saints standing aside in a beautiful white garment, of which the top or over-garment is so shear as to show the undergarments clearly. In the large basin in which Saint Paul sits, being baptized, the translucency of the water ranges from slightly darker to almost transparent, and the outlines of Paul’s body and his skin is clearly depicted.

All mosaics are not religiously oriented, of course, and at the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the villa is one of the most important surviving Roman sites, in large part because of the splendid and amazingly preserved mosaics.

At first glance, the site seems to be a great construction site, with cranes and power tools and construction teams all over the place. On coming closer, of course, it can be seen that the Villa Romana is a “working” archaeological site, and we were fortunate to be shown around by a mosaic specialist and the landscape architect supervising the site. It's all quite spectacular, and the 3,500 square meters of mosaics are awesome.

Quite spectacular, not only in their numbers but the quality of the preservation (the mosaics probably date from about AD 286-305), the subjects are an amazing collection of scenes. Most spectacular is the Corridor of the Great Hunt, a room depicting the capture and delivery of wild beasts for the bloody spectacles held in the Colosseum in Rome. According to some theories, the villa was the home of an important and apparently very successful merchant in these wild animals (which would explain the numerous other depictions of wild animals in other mosaics throughout the villa), and the corridor demonstrates, in vivid detail, just how successful the business was for the master of the house. Another room - and the most famous - shows young women in athletic pursuits in what must be the earliest depiction of women in bikinis. The other many rooms are dedicated to telling the stories of the gods and, delightedly, one of the scenes from the Odyssey. Quite a splendid experience, viewing these mosaics.

Continuing our admiration of religious depictions and returning briefly to Palermo, the manuscripts to be seen in and about the city are numerous and for the most part well cared for. In the private collection of Baronessa e Barone Chiaramonte Bordonaro there is an unusually elaborate antiphonary, a large choir book from the Middle Ages designed to be installed on a large lecturn so all the monks could see the words and the notes. This particular antiphonary has brilliant red initials on some pages and, surprisingly, it also has highly gilded initialing, so the manuscript is very special to see.

Large collections of manuscripts are also preserved at the Abbazia de San Martino (which also has a thriving conservation studio, used both for taking care of its own collection and offering restoration services as a business to other collectors) and at the library at Monreale, connected to the Cattedrale but housed in the former archbishop’s palace, now the gallery for the Monreale Modern Art collection. It is a special treat to walk about in this huge – and gloriously restored – space and be led into the large rare books and manuscripts library, full of well-cared for and beautifully organized treasures that bear witness to the Monreale authorities’ commitment to their care.

Back in Palermo proper, we are amazed to see not only the rare book collections of the Biblioteca Comunale de Palermo and the Biblioteca Centrale della Regione Siciliana, but two manuscript collections that leave the visitor just a little breathless (OK: Dazzled!). Obviously all of them cannot be described here, but among the treasures of the former was a parchment scroll from the 14th century. Perhaps 10 feet long, the manuscript describes the genealogy of the kings, and it is a magnificent piece to look at, especially when the rare books and manuscript staff of the library unroll it so carefully.

A final treasure we saw at the Bibliotheca Comunale – all right, perhaps not a manuscript per se – and in fact which we were given as a present is an amazing book, the catalogue of a huge exhibition sponsored by the library. The book is enormous, and it describes a collection of drawings – the so-called Codex Resta, a collection of drawings named for the friar who put the collection together about 1689. The book, I digegni del Codice Resta de Palermo, describes the collection (actually in more detail than I can deal with, since I don’t read Italian all that well) of padre Sebastiano Resta and the special beauty of this volume has to be the careful care that went into assembling and then so delicately reproducing the many drawings. An awesome souvenir to take away from this splendid day.

At the Centrale della Regione Siciliana, we learned about an equally – and equally unique – treasure, including an almost unbelievable story. One of the very special items in the collection is a 16th-century Portuguese map which, although known to exist, had been lost for several centuries, only to be discovered being used as the binding for a collection of manuscripts. Now restored, the map naturally enough is considered by some to be the jewel of the library’s collection, with the tale of its re-discovery and its splendid restoration told in a book published by the Centrale della Regione Siciliana (administratively similar to our state libraries in America, perhaps) Il Portolano dell’Ammiraglio Corsaro: Una carta nautical portoghese del xvi secolo ritrovata nella Biblioteca centrale della Regione Siciliana in 2008.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rome & Sicily: Impressions of a Different Kind

Sunday 22 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than my experiences in Nairobi and the visit I’ve embarked upon in Italy. The transfer out of Nairobi was easy, the process very simple (in fact, I was thinking I wouldn’t mind a little tighter security focus). There were very few people in the terminal and the lounge was comfortable with interesting food; as usual in Kenya, the airline personnel and other people with whom I interacted were just wonderfully friendly and pleasant to deal with.

A fellow could learn to like this.

The trip to Zurich? No big deal. The flight was comfortable, the food good (this was Swiss Air, so why not?), and travelling so late at night, it was easy just to fall asleep and wake for breakfast before we landed in Zurich.

And if I had wanted more security in Nairobi, the Zurich airport more than makes up for it. My transfer was on a tight schedule, and I made it to the gate with only five minutes to spare, but I’m not complaining, even about three full-scale security checkpoints, and these following a passport and identity check as we left the aircraft, even before the passengers had reached the gate to enter the terminal. It’s what travel is all about these days.

Rome – as a place to experience – was somewhat neglected upon my arrival, since I was sleeping only overnight and transferring the next day to Palermo. I did manage to have a lovely dinner with friends at a sweet bistro-type place. It was Ristorante ‘34 on the Via Mario dè Fiori near the P.zza di Spagna. Very pleasant, and the meal provided a very comfortable transition between Nairobi and Palermo, giving me much to anticipate when I come back to Rome next week. Good food, good conversation, and a very casual and unpretentious ambiante, as one of my friends would say.

Palermo. Sicily. How does one begin? By quoting others, I suppose. Apparently Goethe pointed out that if you come to Italy and don’t visit Sicily you can’t know Italy. Another early visitor spoke about how Palermo “dazzles the eyes with its perfection.”


Modern Palermo is an amazing combination of so many things. And amazing contradictions. There is beautiful scenery and you see lush plantings everywhere, including gorgeous date palm trees. The central metropolitan area is dominated by ancient noble palaces – the ones that survived WWII bombings – and even more ancient public buildings. Everywhere you come across stunning varieties of art and architecture. And excuse my ignorance, please: I had never heard of “Arab-Norman” architecture – since in architecture my exposure has been primarily to the Western “classical” tradition. Arab-Norman architecture is fabulous, a complicated amalgamation of looks and engineering that makes for buildings such as I would never have expected to see. And the many eras and epochs that make up Sicily’s history seem to give new meaning to our ideas (and ideals) about the integration of peoples and cultures – despite the horrors of the Inquisition that decimated the Jewish and Arab populations.

Of course Palermo has – shall we say? – its particularly distinctive characteristics. For one, I’m still surprised (although I had been warned about this) that from more than 60 years ago there are still many war-damaged buildings. Not that they are everywhere, but there are plenty of them, and while much money was poured into the city from various sources it somehow didn’t get put to the use for which it was intended. It isn’t at all unusual to look next to a restored building or palazzo and see a view of what would have been other houses, now roofless and with grass and moss and wildflowers growing atop the jagged walls. And to be fair, there is now a considerable amount of effort being put into using bomb-blasted ruins – if they are at all usable – for galleries and concert venues and the like.

Still, these old ruins make a distressing sight but one often relieved by the laundry flapping in the breeze. If citizens of New York and Berlin are delicate about laundry hanging out where it can be seen, the good folk of Palermo have no such compunctions. Every flat has a balcony of some sort – often tiny – and some sort of drying rack or pulley-line rigged up for drying laundry. And it is everywhere! Every day people wash and hang their clothes out to dry, and no street, alley, or other passageway lacks its display of drying family clothes catching the warm breeze.

There’s more. At the moment there’s a strike of the streetcleaners (now into its third week) but the situation isn’t awful yet.

And there is definitely an upside to some of these unique characteristics in Palermo. Our first day – a Sunday – was also the first day of a new rule forbidding traffic on the streets of the city center, turning the whole area into a very nice promenade for strolling and shopping. Very pleasant for walking about in the sunshine.

And the food! I suppose that’s why many people come to Sicily and I can see why. Just on my first day one of the local specialties – al dente spaghetti with sea urchins – caught my fancy and it was a memorable meal. So tomorrow I’ll tackle spaghetti with sardines, another famous local dish that appeals to me.

And since that first day was a Sunday, it seemed appropriate to spend some time poking about in the many (there’s no way to describe how many – perhaps I should just say MANY) churches and historical religious sites that contribute so much to the city’s architectural character (and religious as well, I suppose, but I didn’t give that much thought).

With Guisi Nicoletti, our enthusiastic and very well-informed guide, we started with the famous Fontana delle Vergogne (Fountain of the Shame) on Piazza Pretoria, just across from the hotel. And there is a religious connection, as you might guess, based on how you feel about looking at the beautifully sculpted nude statues. The many beautiful nude statues surrounding the fountain are especially fetching, and there are many idealized human shapes to be seen, in almost all their glory.

I say "almost." The fountain is located within close sighting of a religious order, and when the fountain was installed back in the 16th century, apparently the good sisters of the cloister were deeply offended (hence the fountain’s name). So offended, so the story goes, that they took hammers to the suggestive statuary and struck off the male appendages. And after they had done their damage, what did they do with what they chopped off, I wonder? Take them back to the cloister?

The remainder of the Sunday was spent visiting churches and finding myself just a little overwhelmed by the variety of interior styles, the exteriors – as I’ve noted – so often built over the centuries in the elegant and stark Arab-Norman style of the type mentioned earlier. Inside the churches, you find the beautiful mosaics of the Byzantine craftsman, or the outlandishly theatrical Baroque, or even – to my surprise – the neo-classic, this latter replacing what must have originally been a much different look in one of the biggest churches I’ve ever been in. All are impressive.

Other Sunday impressions include the fantastic markets located throughout the city (surprisingly, to this American accustomed to different shopping hours, the Palermo markets are open every day and until about 2:30 or so on Sundays). We happened to pass through one of the biggest. In the midst of a huge array of produce, fish, every kind of meat (prepared or raw) under the sun, breads not to be believed, and just about anything else you might be looking for, we got to sample panella, the wonderful chick-pea fritters the natives eat like we eat potato chips. So good. Then we walked along, continuing to be amazed by what we saw. Would you believe zucchini four feet long? Normal in Palermo. What about swordfish being sliced into thick slabs, with the rest – continually diminishing with each customer – resting in the ice just waiting to be bought? No subtlety, no phoniness. Just the freshest food available since – by common agreement – it is the freshness of the ingredients that makes Sicilian food so special.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kenya Interruptus

Some First Impressions

Leaving Kenya for a couple of weeks, as I have an assignment in Sicily and Rome to deal with - a very pleasant assignment, obviously. But as the commitment was made before I came to Nairobi, I must be away from Kenya and interrupt my work and the very nice lifestyle that seems to be falling into place for me in Nairobi.

Not a bad thing, really, because now I have time to record a few first impressions and then, when I return for my longer say, I'll see if my impressions are the same.

So far, this is some of what I have noticed:

Clothes. Professional people dress really well. Suits and ties are de riguer for men, and where these women shop I don't know, but the look in the workplace is very professional. And extremely fashionable. Of course there are some open-neck shirts on the guys, but no one is really sloppy. In the outdoor eating areas in town, lots of casual clothes, but you can always spot the professional classes by the way they are dressed.

Spectacles. No one wants to wear glasses. Sunglasses are hardly ever seen except on non-locals. The local people just don't bother. As for prescription glasses, you occasionally see an over-40 pull out a pair of reading glasses but most people don't wear glasses all the time, especially men. I asked about this, and one guy said it's just not what Kenyan men do. They don't want to wear glasses.

Walking. People are walking all over the place, which is interesting considering how few sidewalks there are, especially away from the downtown areas. I asked if this is because people are too poor to walk, or have cars, or if there is some other reason. Everyone I've asked just says it's because walking is the way to get around. On the other hand....

Taxis. Absolutely essential. Not at all expensive, and for folks like me who don't want to deal with driving - or who really would be afraid to drive on Kenyon roads - taxicabs are the lifeblood of moving about. I walk a lot, too (as I have noted here) but if I have any distance to go (or if it is after dark, since you don't walk in some areas after dark) I take a taxi. They are all over the place.

Food. Nothing exotic yet. Lots of chicken, both in the restaurants at the client office and in public places. Had the opportunity for some fried goat meat with Saffron rice the other day but decided to pass it up. Will get into that later. My driver is anxious to have me eat some of the fried ground nuts that are hawked all over the place, but I may wait a bit for that.

Words - English and Otherwise. Lots of fun sometimes with what happens to the language. First of all, many of us speaking English do it in different ways, using the same words and expressing the same concepts differently. And then things just get mixed up. There's lots of stuff being sold on the streets, especially by vendors walking among the cars (many of which are moving very slowly, or at all, because of the driving conditions). So while the cars are stalled, vendors walk along selling just about everything you can think of, fruit, papers, pots and pans, all sorts of edible stuff, and those ground nuts I just mentioned. I was surprised in a car yesterday to have my driver refer to the vendors as "hookers." No, not that kind. It's just as example of what happens with the language. They are people who are "hawking" their goods as they walk among the cars, and somehow over the years "hawkers" transitioned to "hookers." Quite reasonable, when you think about it, but try explaining what the term "hookers" might mean if you use the term as you are driving along the road in, say, downtown Los Angeles, for example. Or just about anywhere else.

Holidays. Have a holiday in mid-December (the 11th) but haven't been able to figure out what it is yet. Lots of different versions being told to me. We'll see. But in any case, the Christmas season is coming up, and that's what people are talking about. Decorations are already up, children are asking for Christmas trees, shopping is in full swing, and I get the impression that this is what everyone has been waiting for. Many nationals take holiday (vacations) during the Christmas period, but most international staff - including myself - are here and I get the impression we'll do quite a bit of celebrating during the Christmas and New Year's period. Already have some invitations for home visits with local colleagues, and I'm anticipating the celebrations with much enthusiasm.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


There is so much I am loving about this adventure. The work is fascinating, and I am meeting so many smart, intelligent, and committed people that it makes me very happy that I work with strategic knowledge and have the opportunity to work in a field as interesting as knowledge services. And watching people get excited about the process of developing enterprise-wide knowledge strategy is in itself particularly rewarding.

And Nairobi. What can I say? This is one beautiful city. Yes, there are pockets that aren't so pretty, and the poverty and unemployment in the city (and throughout Kenya) are painful to behold, especially when you think about how even the educated people - once they've finished their high school education or their university education - can't get jobs. We talk so much about how education is what leads to ending poverty, but what do we do in a society in which people who are educated can't get a job because the country is just too poor?

But such thoughts - painful as they are - cannot affect the pure natural beauty of this place. Just to go out of a late afternoon and walk from where I'm staying up to a very nice shopping center called Village Market is to have a lovely experience. And when the sun is shining - as it is most of time during the daylight hours - is to pass among some of the loveliest homes I've ever seen, among all the flowers and trees and shrubs, well, it's a sight to behold.

And there is a very real reason why everything is so fresh and lovely. So much rain! I've arrived at the end of what's called the "short" rainy season (I get the "long" rainy season a few months from now), and it should be wrapping up by the time I return from Rome in early December.

But we're not at the end yet. So far we've only had one very rainy day - and that was just for part of the day - but, wow, did the rains come down. But generally speaking, the days are quite beautiful, sometimes a little warm but not uncomfortably so, and the sky has to be just about as blue as blue sky can be.

Nighttime is different. We've had several big rains during the night, and I find it fascinating to wake up and listen to the rain. It really is sort of like being in a storm at sea, I suppose. The noise is terrific, and the rain comes down so hard and just hits the ground or the roofs of houses or cars with a huge banging noise (makes me grateful to be inside). Still, I love listening to the rain, and it's great for sleeping.

And last night we had a major heavy rain almost all night long, with the electricity going off several times during the night. But the hotel's generator switches on, and there's no major inconvenience. Still, I can't help but wonder what it is going to be like to be walking about say, from one building to another, or from one shop to another, when the rain is so heavy. My colleagues hear say you just keep on with what you're doing. You might do it a little more slowly, to accommodate for the rain, but you just keep on. And I've been told that many of the women walking along simply take their shoes off and walk barefoot, which should be interesting to see. Don't think that's quite my style, so I expect I'll have some soggy shoes from time to time.

There's another natural phenomenon I'm having a little fun with, too, and that's the daylight hours. But that's because  - hard as it is for this East Coast USA resident to understand - there really isn't any difference here in when the sun rises and sets each day. It comes up every morning between six and seven and it goes down every evening between six and seven. Guess that's what it's like when you're near the equator. Or so I've been told.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Back to Karen - and Karen Blixen

As a long-time admirer of the writings of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen (I had read and learned to love Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass as a teenager), one of my first goals in coming to Kenya was to visit her home and learn as much as I could about her life in Kenya. I had - not surprisingly - had a wonderful time with the beautiful film version of Out of Africa, and despite the fact that the film took some disappointing liberties with the storyline, the impact was not noticeably reduced. What is there not to like about this beautiful story?

Needless to say, the "real" Karen Blixen lived a different life than that most of us imagine, which is why I wanted to learn more. Not to be disappointed, I managed to have my driver arrange for a visit to Karen - the Nairobi suburb named for Karen Blixen - so we could visit her house. Now a museum and containing many of the original furnishings from when Blixen lived there and tried her hand - unsuccessfully - at running a coffee plantation, the house is a sweet look into the way she and, first, her husband, and, later, her lover, lived during the 1914 to 1932 years. Blixen worked hard, and while she was eventually not successful with raising coffee (the soil in the area is too acidic and the altitude too high), she accomplished much, including the introduction of free education for the children of her workers and free health care for them and their families. It is for these last two accomplishments that she is much loved and revered by the Kenyon people, and it was interesting to learn that the son of one of her workers is still alive at a very advanced age and remembers with much fondness his life with her on Blixen's farm when he was growing up.

The house appears to be typical of the houses of the era (it was built a few years before Blixen arrived in Kenya) and it is not hard to imagine her life there first with her husband, Baron Bror Blixen, and later with Denys Finch Hatton. The rooms are attractive and one can easily envision her working on her writing or her farm accounts in her study, or listening to the wind-up Victrola or reading aloud with Finch Hatton. Their relationship was obviously a greatly rewarding one, and while much about their time together is speculation it is clear that they were devoted to one another, with his tragic death the greatest loss of her life.

The grounds of the house are well maintained, and the machinery for processing the coffee beans is displayed a short stroll away from the house, a fitting wrap-up for a visit to a time and a person who was so important.

And to continue the fantasy, lunch a short distance down the road provides a lovely Sunday afternoon respite. Sitting in a delightful enclave, with a great lawn facing a beautiful old house on the site where Blixen's workers lived, the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden serves a delicious meal and it is easy - sitting under a huge umbrella at a table on the lawn, listening to the totally unobtrusive music being performed off to the side - to take one's self off to a fascinating and very different time and place.

The Elephant Orphans

The beauty and joy of this place keeps coming on for me, never better realized (so far) than the visit this morning to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see the baby elephants having their daily introduction to visitors. Each morning for an hour, at 11:00, visitors are allowed to watch these orphaned animals interact with their individual keepers and have their daily dose of milk from giant milk bottles. We also had the chance to observe them at play in their private mud-hole which provided much delight to all of us.

I had fallen hard for the elephant when on safari in Kruger some years back, but I had not given much thought to their growth, as our connections had been mainly with adult elephants. So their childhood had not been very much on my radar. Nor had been the dangers associated with being deprived of growth if they are orphaned, since if not taken in and cared for, orphaned infant elephants will die.

One person who did spent much time thinking about the life cycle of the elephant was David Sheldrick, the Founder Warden of Kenya's giant Tsavo East National Park. Sheldrick had taken a special interest in orphan elephants and his widow Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick has spent many years perfecting methodologies for rearing infant orphaned elephants. Their difficult plight comes about for a number of reasons, as when poachers kill the mother or some accident robs the infant elephant of the parent. When the orphan is discovered and can be brought to the trust, they are given very loving and protective care by their keepers (who, in fact, become their "permanent" care givers for the entire time the babies are in care, sometimes for several years).

Since 1987, the trust has successfully hand-reared over 85 newborn and very young elephant orphans, and it was a great delight to hear the speakers speak about them, about how they were found and brought to the trust to be cared for, and how they will be looked after until they are able to be released into the wild elephant community.

Beginning with a stately procession coming down from the forest, we visitors saw three groups of orphans come processing into the visitors' area of the Rehabilitation Centre, processing along single file with their keepers - in smart green smocks - walking along with them. There were about 24 of them altogether. The youngest had blankets over them (since pneumonia is a constant threat apparently to infant elephants), the middle-group followed along behind, and the last group - some eight or nine older (up to 18 months or so) - coming in after the others had left. The babies drank their milk, played with their keepers (while some keepers told us their various histories), played in the water with sticks and their rubber ball, and they all generally had a good time until it was time to process out of the area.

Quite an experience, and a lovely way to begin a beautiful Sunday in Nairobi.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nairobi Calls and Mr. Guy Responds

Somehow "I had a job in Africa" does not have quite the ring of Karen Blixen's "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills...."

But it must do.

And today I was driven to Karen, to see the beautiful Ngong Hills. A suburb of Nairobi, Karen is named for Karen Blixen and her house - which I saved for another day so I could have an appropriately reverential visit - is there.

I also, by way of adventure and as part of this same drive got to observe a large herd of cattle wandering all over the road and some distance away to enjoy a conversation between my driver and the Maasai herdsman as they talked about the herd's (apparent very natural) wandering ways. And they don't get lost.

The cattle viewing was one of several highlights of what started out to be an ordinary first excursion for this tourist, just in Nairobi for his third day (the first two days having been occupied with rather intense professional activities and recovering from jet lag). The request to my driver had been a simple "show me around." I wanted to be taken to the City Center (some several miles away from where I am living and work) to see what "downtown" Nairobi looks like, and to see if in reality "downtown" matches the rather crisp and clean maps displayed in the guidebooks (it doesn't).

The driver, picking up on my enthusiasm and my obvious interest in exploring anything new, took great pains to do more than just show me that part of Nairobi. We went there, of course, and I was not surprised at what I found: a rather busy place, city streets filled with many people, amazing traffic jams (and this was a Saturday! - what must it be link on a week-day?), open markets all over the place, modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers cheek and jowl with buildings - some rather stately - from a century ago, and government buildings everywhere. Apparently the Kenya government employs a great many people and government offices seem to inundate one complete section of the Nairobi City Center.

Then out of the major business/government district to Upper Hill, a neighborhood of many hospitals and medical centers, private medical facilities, and, again, many government buildings, many new or just being constructed. Then a continuing drive along crowded roads ducking in and out among buses, automobiles of every shape and size (and condition - we observed several situations where cars were broken down and men were pushing them along to get them off the road and/or started again), and the infamous matatus, minivans providing low-cost, ear-screeching, and what seems to be death-defying maneuvering in and out of traffic on the crowded roads. It's no wonder taxis are so many and so popular. Highways are terribly crowded, and if everyone owned an automobile the country would be paved over with idling vehicles not able to get anywhere. And yet there are still people walking all over the place, whether there is a pavement (sidewalk) or not. So obviously those who can get to them will try to use public transportation or the matatus. Or they'll walk.

Our drive through the city (and Nairobi is very spread out) was not a dangerous one though. My driver was obviously very experienced and very confident, and to watch him ease in and out among moving vehicles left this non-driving Manhattan-ite somewhat breathless, with both admiration and possibly a little fear as well.

I was taken to visit two of the Nairobi slums, including one that is reputed to be the second largest in Africa, only after Soweto in South Africa. I had been to Soweto some years ago, and while Soweto might have more numbers these slums simply defy description. We drove along both the main roads that serve as a sort of boundary for the slums and even - in one case - into and rather far along one of the roads that meandered in and out of the slum (and we weren't harrassed or given any odd stares, even though I was pretty obvious and we were in the only automobile on the road - which was packed with people, walking all over the place). Leaving this second slum, we drove up on to one of the hills overlooking this part of the city, and I could see - actually for as far as I could see - the vast size of the slum. It was an amazing and definitely unsettling experience.

Our next stop was very nice shopping center with good restaurants and coffee shops (of course) and a lunch of "sizzling chicken." I don't think I've ever had this before, hot chunks of chicken served with vegetables all cooking up together on a hot skillet that is brought to the table, with the dish spooned out over vegetable fried rice. Very nice, but whether it is a typically Kenyan dish or not is still a mystery to me (I was told it is); the vegetable fried rice and some of the spices made it seem vaguely Asian. But who knows? Or cares?

The day wore down (and just tin time, too, as a massive monsoon-type rainstorm came along not long after I got back to my hotel, and went on all night) and I ended my first day out by being driven through Karen to see the hills and incidentally to see the many private schools there, some quite extensive and evidently very well supported. Karen in where many of the descendants of the early English settlers live and, indeed, has for many generations been known as sort of the "community" for English expats, so I suppose many of the schools got their start back in the days when posh "public" schools were the standard. Beautiful to see, and impressive in the pursuit of academic training that provides Kenya's educated young people with the qualifications they require for leading this fascinating country.