Over the Tuscan Moon

 

Italy

October 16 to November 8, 2017

MILANO

More is more. Money and power ooze from the DNA of this city. Civic sensibilities originated as the Viscontis and Sforzas feuded their way into royalty.  They shared a goal, and that was to make their city state the richest in Italy.

The story begins as you take a look inside the duomo.  Our guide, Sara Cerri knows her art and she knows Italy.  She presents facts to the tourist – but being Chet and Connie, we want to interpret.  What is the story here? The white towers present like a gaudy wedding cake covered in fondant and icicles.  The height is staggering, especially inside where the worshipper is made insignificant by the massive columns.  Sara says, “They made the columns this high to show the greatness of God.”  We crane our necks and near the capitals are some figures.  There are no bible stories chiseled in the stone, no parables.  The effigies preside as you wonder, “are these pictures of saints, or images of people being portrayed as saints?  Are we portraying the greatness of God or the greatness of the Sforzas?

Before the Sforzas (1450-1500) arrived on the scene there were the Viscontis (1378-1447).   Milan still has a canal system that was developed by the Viscontis to join the Alpine rivers to the ocean. It provided irrigation for the dry lands.  Weavers of wool and silk flocked to the region; smiths and armorers supplied force to protect the emerging wealth. This solution to trade and transport was the key to Milan’s rise in power.

Secular humanism also reached Milan and likely influenced its industry.  Leonardo da Vinci spent many years there.  On his resume’ to the Sforzas he listed several skills – military engineer, architect, fortifications specialist, inventor, musician and “I also paint.”  More than 400 pages of his drawings exist in a Massive Codex in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, an academic library whose dark wood and worn stone casts a soft glow – or is it skylighting from a gallery or window above?  You feel wiser just because you have entered the building. Sara walked us past the gates and guards to the inner library, its panels and shelving burdened with leather volumes that extended far over our heads.  We were there to see the cases – each month the pages are turned so that nothing ever receives too much light or air. After five hundred years we are awed by the presence – one of the greatest minds to ever exist on this planet.

One interesting detail – da Vinci did not sign his paintings.  Painters were just artisans.  He loved his puzzles, and somewhere in his work there will be a knot, drawn, painted, dark or light.

His employers were an interesting band of rogues.  It is likely that my impression of the Sforzas was influenced by “Duchess of Milan” a highly salacious historical novel.  Yes, when you walk down the streets in these former city states, there will be English language signs for “Museum of Torture” usually with a photo of some really appalling piece of lawn furniture – such as a spiked iron chair.

 

The Castello Sforzesco is a massive citadel, and Leonardo finally had the opportunity to realize some of the ambitions that he had presented years before.  We sat in the courtyard to catch our breath and enjoy a piece of pizza.

We held tickets to see the Da Vinci Last Supper, a fresco that will not survive the ages.  Fresco has to be worked very quickly in wet plaster.  Da Vinci was a perfectionist who took the time to tell a story in each face.  He scrutinized the way light revealed characters, and painted and repainted the details. A one-shot permanent medium wasn’t the way to do this. This intense story was painted in tempera on dry plaster.  Tempera is a mix of dried chalk with dyes, usually blended with egg or some other medium to make a smooth paint.  It began to flake away still in Da Vinci’s lifetime, leaving just the ghosts of the figures for us to study.  This room is a refectory, a dining room so that the monks could participate in the Last Supper each night and at some point, a door was cut right through the painting to make access from the kitchen easier.  The table for the Last Supper is cut, but the knots in the end of the cloth are still visible.

Chet immediately identified which apostle was which, recognizing symbols of trades and relationships. It turns out he remembers his Catechism in great detail, even though for years, he has claimed that his main Catholic school memory was being punished for not paying attention.  I was startled by the blatantly Semetic figures on Judas, a cruel face with hooked nose and curling hair, clutching a purse.  We are well aware that Romans killed Christ, but in this image the blame falls squarely on the “Jew” – oh, right, we are in Italy.

On the opposite wall a gaudy crowd scene depicts the crucifixion, everyone dressed up in their festival best. That artist did work in the wet plaster and it will be here a thousand years after the Da Vinci is gone.

FIRENZE

The Autostrada is packed with trucks. We have a choice of the scenic road into Tuscany or express route.

After the first tunnel, a midday sun lights golden terraces of grapes, row upon row of topaz, citrine, peridot – jewel colors of the spectrum and beyond. Vines and the fields are nurtured by this sun, and the changing of its seasons. Tuscany is a world heritage site – it’s cities, it’s artworks, its vineyards, works of man and of nature.

“Despotism was a boon to Italian art.” Durant

In our vision, an old man walks along his rows, pruning shears in hand, examining his vines leaf by leaf, bunch by bunch.  Other will do the harvesting – he is intent on seeing that his precious vines are free of pests and rot.  And so we meet Giovanni di Medici, scion of the Medici that come to establish the greatest center of arts and culture known to man. We did go through the painful experience of watching the miniseries before we came.  Were they trying to make Game of Thrones in 15th century Italy?

Dustin Hoffman plays the patriarch in the American Miniseries. He is the only actor in it, a minor role that dominates all the yelling and swordfighting of the attractive walking headshots that dominate screen time. The settings are gorgeous, some costumes are questionable and their makeup artist needs to be taken out and shot.  He/she/it got a high paying studio gig without ever looking at a Renaissance painting.  The series was unwatchable.  Whenever they photographed people in their paste on beards, and all tints of rosy lipstick, eyeshadow and eyeliner.  Would it have been too much trouble to get them Uffizi tickets for a day?  Just saying.

The Italian Renaissance – Why and How?

The rise of the Medici coincides with a seismic shift in European culture.  The Dark Ages seem to end almost simultaneously with the final fall of the Roman Empire. The Dark Ages seem to end almost simultaneously with the final fall of the Roman Empire.  The Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453.  Scholars grabbed their parchments and library rolls, and ran for boats to get out of Asia Minor.  With them they brought the tales of Greek and Roman antiquity, a pagan world.  Secular humanism emerged.  Art and poetry had new life.

Cosimo di Medici was active in the early gatherings of artists and he was willing to support free expression.  The Medici banks had faced all sorts of libel and slanders about their commitment or lack thereof to “Christian” values.  Christians don’t lend money at interest.  Their fortunes turned when the pope needed a lot of money.  They lent a fortune to the church at no interest.  The church awarded them a contract to handle all church finances in Europe, collecting from parishes, bishoprics, and city states to forward monies into Rome.  The Medici were literally in the middle of every major financial transaction in Europe from every skein of wool to every load of pepper. They reinvested their monies into palaces, castles, and art. The art told stories of heroes and monsters, warriors and queens. History was already beginning to repeat itself.

But I digress. Giovanni’s two sons, Cosimo and Lorenzo took the family from a banking power to a political power rising to the top of twelve or so competing families.

The elders from alliances with their enemies or near enemies – grabs for power, wealth or land – by marrying off their kids and agreeing to enormous dowries.  The young woman comes into the marriage with a lot of money, but it’s not hers.  However, she can always report to papa if she is concerned about investments.  Some children come from these unions, and several other children come from extramarital liaisons. Mistresses may have some power to claim the heart of mind – or to be discarded completely.

So, the families are split, then split again, bending like cypresses in the wind. Pines and pine cones are a common icon.

Marble and Paint

We did have Uffizi tickets, and it was as good a place as any to start. I was last in Florence in 1972 – enchanted by everything in the city, but much too ill to take the time to reflect on what I was experiencing. It was more than thirty years and several disastrous Mediterranean trips to learn that tomatoes give me immediate and violent food poisoning.

Now we were skilled at ordering risotto a la funghi or tartufo.

My mother is behind a lifelong fascination with Florence, and I always sensed it was my home.  I cut my teeth on slide frames as she prepared the lectures for her art history classes. She insisted that I was the spitting image of Simonetta Vespucci, the young woman portrayed in Botticelli paintings. Every woman feels comfortable imagining herself as some great beauty from the past.  I accepted mother’s sentiment, and the idea that my brother was “Mars.”  Funny enough, my first visit to Florence was a joint group with Uncle Bill, the Art History prof and a painting group.  One of the painters that summer wanted to paint my hair, the mane that took several minutes to untangle each morning.

It took forty-five years to get back here. The painted people in mother’s imagination were alive. After all those years and an extra hundred pounds, I no longer saw Venus and a possible previous incarnation. My body is scarred and the hair was sacrificed years ago. I moved past the selfie takers and on through the gallery.

Botticelli holds a partial answer to my big question.  He spent his life with the Medicis.  The first works are church paintings. A face looked out at me from a canvas, one of the hundreds of Madonnas in this museum. The baby in a Botticelli Madonna – an image of my son as a red-headed infant.  I sat down and closed my eyes.

 

 

The Duomo at night is quieter, and we decide to walk once again into the center of our old city.   the piazza is active, a festival atmosphere, but not nearly as crowded as the daytime.  The intricate black and white marble facade lets us know that we are in an important place.  Not a whole lot of reverence tonight.  Lighted toys are whirling into the air, and vendors are pushing their way through the visitors. This week is fall break for schools, and groups of Italian teens are everywhere.

It is an ideal time to examine the Baptistery doors, which are closed.  During visiting hours they are pushed aside for quick glimpses. The Ghiberti reliefs are a UNESCO treasure and a one of a kind human achievement.  I am visually tracing the lines and forms of some of the stories.  Around me are people reading their phones and guidebooks, glancing at the doors, or just standing in their presence. the entire spectacle of the cast bronze, and the inspiration of this artist seems to pass them by.

All these artists knew each other and worked together.  Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were two competitors among dozens.  Ghiberti spent 21 years on the first set of doors.  The second set was commissioned, and by then the project was so famous that every artist volunteered for the sculpting and casting of the Ghiberti designs, including Brunelleschi and Donatello.

Brunelleschi’s triumph was putting the dome onto the cathedral, leaving the interior without extra walls, columns or buttresses. The book Brunelleschi’s Dome (Ross King) is a worthy read, and it was wonderful to gaze at the dome again after reading the book a decade ago.  To accompany this feast for the heart, Chet orders gelato – not a little dish, but a massive cone with multiple flavors, whipped cream and sprinkles.  A balanced diet for dinner. It was the tourist treat that Rick Steves said to avoid.  We are so glad we didn’t.  We sat in the dark, gazing up onto the patterned bricks of Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, a vast eggshell perched upon the jigsawed black and white marble cathedral.

10/21 SAT –  Pitti Palace and Ponte Vecchio

We know the symptoms by now. Chet woke with abdominal cramps and needed a day in bed.  Next up on my list was the Pitti Palace. The branches of these families continued to spread, and the Pitti Palace sits across the river from the Palazzo Vecchio.  Between them are the stone walls, and a gentle river where boaters were out sculling the waters, their oars stirring up reflected leaves and hillside palazzos.

The PItti Palace is quite different from the fortress like Medici palaces.  The Medici were targets for assassination, so stone walls and torch rings offer more of a warning than a welcome. The elegant courtyards show off the structure, but there is very little evidence of living things.  The Pitti is graced with an open plaza, welcoming all.  It would be easy to envision servants, tradesmen, and arrivals of coaches at the gates.  The elegant apartments display centuries of decorative arts, arts that were used for living. My mother accompanied me on my walk through the second floor, stunning displays of fashion over hundreds of years, notes on conservation, explanations of when garments can be hung vs. laid flat in glass boxes.  And the shoes!  Oh such shoes.

My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I wanted more.  The ticket included the Boboli gardens, but I realized that I could no longer stand.  Instead I headed downhill, and leaned into the gates of a fabulous grotto where evening entertainments were produced. The Boboli Gardens will have to wait for still another visit.  I couldn’t take another step, and our apartment was a good couple kilometers away.  Luckily the shopkeepers let an exhausted woman sit for a bit to admire their goods.  I got across the Ponte Vecchio for a mere €500.

10/24 Bargello and Academia

The theme today, David and Goliath.  This story was a favorite of artists and audiences.  Interesting choice, if you replace Goliath with the ruling dynasties and David with the disenfranchised workers.  Chet wanted to see what choices artists made in telling this story. His perceptions changed my thoughts on the subject.

I tend to see “the whole picture” and sometimes I miss the main idea.  Donatello’s David is one of those times.  In photos a graceful youth has shoulder length waves and wears a wreath of flowers. His likeness has appeared in the backgrounds of hundreds of festive scenes. What have I been missing? We do not see the boy’s face in the photos. He has the body of a child, but you look up into the face, there is steel in the boy’s glance. There is no bravado, perhaps the remains of fear. The slingshot is dropped to the ground. The muscles are no longer tensed, not even in his sword arm.  He is spent, and the head of Goliath is under his foot. Other Donatellos ring the gallery, beautiful works, caresses for the eyes.  We wander the galleries and porches of this beautiful old palace, enjoying breezes, the warmth of faded frescoes telling us of a thousand sunny afternoons.

Our walk continues all the way up to the Academia. This is a working art school and it also houses the Michelangelo masterpiece, David. Scholars argue the scenario – Was the David conceived before or after he kills Goliath? Chet spends the better part of an hour examining the sculpture from every angle.  He is a warrior, with terrific artistic intuition – he reads words of art the way others of us read storybooks.

“This is the face of someone who is about to take aim.  Look at the tension in his face, his resolve and purpose.”

I followed his thought. “The head and body are turned for the shot. He doesn’t see you, or anyone else in this great hall.  He only sees his objective. The stone in his hand is his destiny.”  The man takes my breath away. He sits down at the back of the statue to study his idea. I wander off, distracted by the color and noise of the crowd.

It’s our last full day in Florence. We have a guest card for a nearby restaurant famed for its steak Fiorentina, a monstrous cut of greasy, bloody beef.  Neither of us can comprehend the idea of eating a kilo of meat, served nearly rare.  For some reason, just the sight of the enormous cuts has driven us to vegetarian meals night after night.

We tuck into a lovely plate of pasta, vegetables and wine.

 

10/25 Firenze/San Miniato/Lucca

“You know Con, there is something to be said for despotism.”  Uncle Bill – 1972

In July 1972 Uncle Bill and I went to an organ concert.  Even off-duty he was still explaining things, and the monks were serving Benedictine.  The rosy fingertips of a sunset were crossing the sky, bringing a flow to the red tile roofs of the Arno valley.  The energy was palpable – radiance from a warm day? shifting breezes? The view was indelible, a marriage of natural beauty and the efforts of man.  We sat on the low stone wall to reflect, then entered a cool darkened sanctuary for the music, a womb cut into the earth.

Our choice was the Arno Valley route, a series of side roads that would wind us about 60 kilometers toward Lucca.  On the road, we passed a truck of terrified Holsteins, eyes bulging and ears pinned back, peering out through the slats of the truck. Neither of us said a word, but we were glad we had passed on the famous steak.

And to our right, up the hillside were signs toward the town of San Miniato.

“Chet, can we take a break here?”

We wound up a roadway, into cobbled streets and paths, following the signs. I had been here before.

“Organ Concert”  The summer schedule was still posted on the church door, and there was the wall where I had enjoyed the Benedictine. The autumn sun showed different colors, the golds of fully ripened fields. The current signs said “White Truffle Festival.”  A special harvest was coming in.  A sausage and cheese shop held the answers.  One taste, and we now knew what this was all about.  The dense earthy flavor is like nothing else.

I’m perplexed by Chet’s question. “What do they give the pig after he finds the truffle? He gets a reward, right?”

What kind of gift would a pig like?  Apples? nuts? Pigs – sausage, roasts, chops, pate….Oh my gosh, they use truffles in pate.

Note to self.  Don’t eat pate that has truffle in it.  Someone might have cheated the pig.

Puccini’s City

We are seeing the exits toward Lucca, and I type in the address of La Romea, our B&B – “centrally located in a 14th century palazzo”   The highway becomes Europa Blvd., a broad avenue with tall trees and stately houses set back from the roadway.  On our right is a green embankment rolling down toward an impossibly well preserved wall.  The old moat is now a park. This wall goes on forever.  According to the GPS we are less than 1.2 kilometers away, but the time is 30 minutes.  That can’t be right.  Traffic is moving very smoothly. We turn into the city gate, and are faced with chewing gum – red barred signs, No Entrada, no autos.  What the heck?  Our trunk is fully loaded, and neither of us can carry bags any more.  I dial La Romea.

“Hello?”

“Hello, this is Mr. and Mrs. Hood.  We have a reservation to check in today – we are arriving in Lucca, but we don’t know how to get to your hotel.”

“We have no reservations for Hood.”

“But we corresponded by email several times in the last couple weeks.”

“Let me see – yes, I see the notes, but I don’t have your payment.”

“You didn’t ask me for a payment.”

“Oh I see.”  That room is ready for you.  Where are you?

“At the gate, but we see the signs.”

“Go ahead and drive through.  I will issue a residence pass for you. Call when you reach via Arancia and call again. I will come down.”

We poked the end of the car into the crowds of people in the marketplace, and into a rats nest of closed streets. One cannot park in these walled cities.  There are no garages, no driveways, and the streets were designed for oxcarts.  Roman chariot tracks became medieval wagons, horses and carriages, and finally the narrow Italian autos.  To complicate matters, white tents and striped orange barriers were being set up across all the pathways that were marked for passage into the city.

After a second phone call an impossibly slender and stylish woman comes down the alley – “You may park here – just for a few minutes.” She begins to haul our luggage from the trunk. One large bag is full of  coats, sweaters and shopping.  An autumn trip meant at least three seasonal changes.  “My B&B is here.” We look up at the back side of a stone building, and follow her into a hallway where a Vespa is parked.  The broad stone staircase beckons us, and she begins to drag the big bag up into the dark.

A heavy double door opened into the main hall – an inlaid stone mosaic floor, antique chests, leather sofas and bookshelves, painted plaster patterns framing the ceiling.  Over the past 16 years she and her husband renovated the palazzo where they now offer five elegant suites.

“I have you in Cielo, our Skyblue suite. By the way, there is a 25 Euro per night discount for Rick Steven’s friends, if you can pay in cash.”

That certainly explained the kerfluffle over the credit card deposit.  There wasn’t one.

Our hostess explained. “We are getting ready for Comics and Games. Lucca will host 100,000 visitors next week. We are completely full then.”

That explained the white tenting and orange barriers. Crews were busy setting up tents for the coming week’s Comics and Games events. Chet turned aside and looked out at the banners… comics and games?

“I thought it would be like a, a… some sort of Faire?”

“You mean like jesters and jousts?  Doesn’t look like it.”

Gaia continued with her welcome. “Our Puccini Festival is also going on.  If you like opera they sing a recital from 7 – 8 over at San Giovanni each evening.”

Puccini played here.  He hated this organ.

 

Puccini was from Lucca, and a leading family still runs the festival.  Each night a soprano and a tenor take the boards and sing their hearts out.  The singers change from night to night, but the program is favorites – the ones you could sing along if you weren’t listening. The town is much to small to host staged opera, but obviously the recitals provide lots of opportunities for young singers.  At the break, the impresario got up. “Tonight is a special night; it is our orchestral gala.  If you wish, you are invited back at 9:30 to hear a Mozart program.”  We enjoyed our wine and risotto, and returned to hear a small regional orchestra.  After the first divertimento our minds were wandering – it was drawn out to the length of a small symphony by playing every single repeat:repeat:repeat.

We slept like angels.

26 OCT – Alleycats

We met Julian, husband of Gaia.  By the time our second cappuccino was on the table, we were in a long conversation about old buildings and the life of a serial restorer.  How did you match period materials?  We admired the painted walls, not one matte color rolled on, but a series of glazes and finishes  that shimmer in every type of light. The wood floors and painted walls in our bath and dressing room were immaculate, but not new.

Down the stone stairs we went, ready to wind through the cobbled streets. Our guidebook had disappeared on our first outing in Florence, likely dropped in the Uffizi cloakroom.  A day later I had the presence of mind to download Rick Steves Italy onto our IPad – genius.  I’ll never buy another paper guide book.  The e books are hyper linked, indexed, maps can be blown up for details, and route icons can get linked into your phone maps.  OMG!  So, we had the map of the walk, and we took off toward the ancient coliseum.  It is fully repurposed now.  The side walls all became apartment buildings with shops underneath.  The old gates were filled in with pass through restaurants.

We admired one deli in particular, and later came back to enjoy a cheese platter as well as a cured meats plate.  I stayed with the cheese, and two absolutely amazing jams – pear with mustard, and teeny champagne grape berries in balsamico. The generous meat platter included many unfamiliar meats, things that I wouldn’t eat as a kid.  Oh, if only my mother had indulged my childhood wish to not eat fat. Chet rolled up the lardo, rosemary smoked lard.  I said nothing, even though he’s had four heart episodes over the years.

Tiggers don’t eat lardo.  Alleycats do. I made friends with four of them before we headed out to a second evening of Puccini.

Rewards come to those who wait.  The fireplaces and chandeliers of Ristorante Giglio offered an inviting three hour meal late that night.

 

10/27  Carrara’s Marble Faces

The jeep jerked up the mountainside, pinning us flat against the rocks during its turns. In our discussions of building materials, Julio had agreed that Chet would love to visit Carrara. The wear and tear on the jeep was solid proof that it had been up and down these roads before.  The top of the mountains were sheer white faces, cut into terraces for giants.  The walls and cut blocks resembled a giant child’s playset, complete with lifting equipment and massive trucks to negotiate the mountain roads back down.

When we had donned our safety gear, we looked at photos.  How had the ancients removed the tops of these mountains and gotten the brilliant white stone down to the cities?  Some of the answer lay in the pine trees.  In some places the stones could be slipped down on rollers, as long as no villages of stone cutters got caught in the way.  For hundreds of years they used teams of oxen – two to three dozen beasts of burden at a time hitched up to work as a single unit, dragging blocks that measured 2x3x2 meters and weighing hundreds of tons each.  The mountains end at the Tyrrhenian Sea where barges could move the marbles to Florence and Rome.  Even mechanized heavy equipment can only do so much.  The laws of physics, and hours of daylight still rule this process.

Marble is still being taken from the hills.  UNESCO also has an initiative on the table to preserve the next range of mountains from plunder.

 

10/28 – Lucca/Siena/Montepulciano

We bade farewell to our hosts.  Our agriturismo visit was not too far away, but it was a day to look out at the land.  We scheduled a long midday break in Siena.  The town did not disappoint.  Tourist season was ending and Italian young people lounged on the sloping sides of the main plaza.

Chet loves horses, and the Palio is run in Siena each summer.  He works at a horse rescue where the idea of racing the animals is looked down upon.  Immediately he began to examine the course. “They can’t run on these bricks.  I wonder how they prepare the track.”

“Obviously the people stand down in the bowl of the plaza here.”  Then we climbed the steps into still another gorgeous duomo, also patterned and inlaid black and white marble.  The real treat was inside.  Nothing prepared me for the Piccolomini library.  By now libraries were becoming a “thing” for me.  Fabulous volumes were on display – numes and poetry from Gregorian Chant, illustrated stories and calendars.  The size of the parchment pages indicates that this book would have been presented on a stand in front of a congregation so that all literate parishioners could follow along in the services. These ancient tunes resonate through the years.  I have seen single sheets, but nothing prepared me for the presentation of so many in this splendidly painted and carved library.

We drove past golden fields that afternoon, once again shifting from Medieval splendor to the celebration of life.  More than once we stopped just to walk along a path for a few moments, arriving in Montepulciano as the moon began to tease her way through the rosy sunset.

Agriturismo Nobile is a working farm.  We called once we realized that we had no address for the place on our reservation form.

“Please, tell us where you are.”

“There is a large statue of a horse here.  We can’t bring the car in the city, and the roads are all one way.” The statue is a replacement for da Vinci’s one equestrian monument, a gigantic horse that was melted down for ammunition at some point.  The town replaced it.

A Roman god showed up in a van moments later.  Lorenzo apologized, “I’m dirty – I haven’t had a shower yet.”  A shower would not make him more beautiful – tall and muscular, long auburn curls, pruning shears on his belt.  He led us to the Agriturismo – which has no address, and set up our apartment for us.  “if you please, my uncle will be preparing dinner at 7:00.”

Tonight was the night – countryside air, platter after platter of items grown on the farm, wines, olive oils, and yes, this was the place for steak.  The six guests tucked in.  Home made dessert wine and biscuits finished us.

 

10/29 – Montepulciano – film

10/30 – Wine tasting

10/31 – Etruscan Museum

The Agriturismo Nobile days went quickly.  A ride back up the hill into Montepulciano joined old and new together.  It is a favorite film location.  The medieval plaza was filled with authentic looking wagons, market stalls and evidence that animals had been part of the work day.  PAs swept aside the mountains of sawdust and dirt, and a yellow sedan was parked next to the roped off sets and props.  These masterpieces of stagecraft were teched down to show age. At the same time, old structures were spruced up to look like they had been newly built some 500 years ago. Shiny burnt umber paint lent a sense of newness to the rooms surrounding the main square.

It turns out that The Medici was filmed here.  The new film will be about Michelangelo.  Hope they have a better make up artist

Who are the Etruscans, those first indigenous tribes in Italy?

We at first had intended to drive over to one of the big museums in Volterra or Cortona, but were tantalized by the banners from a nearby town. Chianciano was practically in walking distance.

Their portraits are nearly identical to representational figures we saw in Crete in 2010.  The body forms, the activities, markings around the eyes, bandings in the hair.  They settled in Tuscany, possibly at the time of the Trojan Wars.  Odysseus’ Ithaca is off the Italian Coast.  The Tuscans are represented as a lost tribe, bur from artifacts in museums, it is more likely that they were victims of genocide.  Shards of pots and utensils and broken bones are all that were left.  Deep underground a few graves gave us the story of the people, written right to left in letters recognizable as Greek, words unrecognizable.  In these hills people tore each other apart for millennia without giving us a clue as to why.

We said goodbye to our farm family, and headed up the Autostrada.  This evening we would be with Gina and Steve, our friends in Vicenza.

 

11/02 Vicenza independent

I have no idea how Gina does it. She has a busy job, her home is always immaculate, scrumptious gourmet meals, laughter, conversation, and always a plan for the next interesting thing.  She strongly suggested the visiting Van Gogh exhibition.

Chet and I know this particular collection.  In the 1950s a Dutch industrialist bought up sketchbooks and several minor paintings.  The Kroller-Muller home is an open air museum.            The Vicenza installation did justice to this unique collection.  Once again, the evolution of the painter came, a piece at a time.  The first figure studies showed his interest in line and pattern, oversize hands beautifully articulated as peasants went about their daily works.  This follows the tradition of Michelangelo, who drew hands in detail, each tendon and ligament working toward a purpose.  From there, the sketches capture irregular facial features, and then a sense of movement goes through the people and the environment around them.  The constant movement in Van Gogh is what brings his works alive, whether they are pencil and charcoal on paper, or vivid colors of a landscape.

 

11/03 to Murano and the endless WaterTaxi – no cookies for you

We woke on Friday with no plan, except that we were not going into Venice this trip.  We spent a delightful week there about five years ago.  But, I thought that a box of Rizzardini meringues would be lovely for dinner.  So we got on the train.

We had not gone to Murano last time.  Murano glass is gorgeous, and I don’t need any more of anything.  So, from the train we picked up the Vaporetto over to Murano.  Plenty of time to enjoy the workshops and then pick up cookies for dinner.

Be still my heart – the vase of all vases rested in a case, a masterpiece of the glassblower’s art.  The air from his lungs resides in the open spaces, the fire of his imagination in the marvelous coils and twists of color.

After our walk, we got on the Vaporetto, with the intent of picking up our cookies and getting back to the train.  Route 4.2.a hits every island in the Venice lagoon, but it doesn’t get you back to the Grand Canal for a good couple hours.  A vaporetto is not the way to sightsee – it’s a bus and the windows are filthy.  we decided to get off at the train station and head back to Vicenza.

 

Saturday, November 4

In the Garden of Earthly Delights

Time to shop – Chet shows Gina a photo of “the scarf” and it is determined that I must have this lovely piece of ephemera – light, brilliant and totally fabulous. The fabric in this shop begins at 100 E a meter, and the windows make me dizzy.  Silks and wools take color like nothing else made by man, and the threads in tweeds reflect entire rainbows.  A piece of blue violet trapunto paisley is silk and wool, and a picture of Queen Elizabeth in the suit made of it rolls out of the bolt.  I was mad about the fabric, but I don’t look like her.  It’s doubtful that royalty will happen to me in this lifetime.

What I really want to look at are cappuccino machines; what are the best choices for home?  How would I order one?  And, how do they make homemade pasta?  Gina has been attending cooking classes.  I am so over grocery store boxes.  Will it be Costco forever, or can I master this?

Ooh, ooh, ooh!  It’s a holiday weekend and there is an open market.  It winds throughout the city, a real counterpart to the Florence swap meet that I encountered in 1972.  A gorgeous antique gaming table with inlaid marquetry of horses and banners, a workbench suitable for a real working kitchen, quilts, underwear, clothing, and lots of bites to eat.  We will come back for that.  Gina and I stop at children’s toys.  She has a 3 year old grandson and I can always pretend.  I love the handmade wooden nursery clocks, boats and bears hanging off of pendula, the sort of object that would have a little telling stories to herself night after night.  Gina decides to build a little nameplate out of the painted letters.

We meet the guys for sandwiches, then walk back through the squares for homemade cannoli.  At a stall with several wood sculptures, Chet comments that St. Francis of Assisi invented the Nativity Scene to help educate peasants.

Naps are important and Chet and I collapse.  Gina is running the dog.  I remember having a lot of energy, but not where it went. We are headed into a major event in town, a wine tasting.  Finally a chance to dress for an evening out.  The line of people leads into an old palazzo, some artwork on the walls, but the show stopper is 5-6 vintners in each room, each sharing 3-4 varietals.  I’m a weak drinker.  In California, two wineries with 5-6 sips each finishes me for the afternoon.  There must be 30 here.  An immediate decision:  We have been drinking some of the finest Chiantis in the world for two weeks now.  I’m going to limit to whites and sparkling wines.  They are absolutely delicious.  After the third table or so the heat begins to get me.  Not a good place to pass out.  I find a cold stone wall and lean up against it to rest the back and regain my senses.  The crowd is dressed in fashions that reflect creativity and style; others are in wrinkled trousers, hair man-bunned.  My makeup and hair are done – drenched in the warmth of hundreds of wine tasters, and possibly the flush of my own exploration.

 

We are going to walk back – right at the point when I’m thinking “Help!”  but Steve assures us that a pizza will break up the mile over stony streets.

 

11/05 – Vicenza

At the wine tasting, Gina held an animated conversation with one vintner in particular, the owner of an Agriturismo.  They have a single seating Sunday dinner and we plan to attend.  On the way out of town, past the golden rows of trees in a park, up the hill to Monte Berico and then through roads with old villas, we end up well outside the city. A turn down a dirt road leads us into the woods, paths strewn with gravel and leaves.  “There is a pig farm up here,” Steve comments.  He has ridden the long mountain road on his bicycle.  Even the thought of that makes me gasp.  Sure enough, there are lean tos and the donkeys and pigs are busy foraging.  The hillside setting and the weathered wood look like a Nativity Scene.  Chet says our entire concept of Nativity scenes came from St. Francis, to explain the story to medieval villages.

So I ask it.  “Chet honey, why don’t they have pigs in the nativity scenes?  It’s pretty obvious they had to be there with the sheep and donkeys.”

Gina offers, “Because Jews don’t eat pork?”

This didn’t resonate with me. “Did the Italians know that?  I mean, do they care about what Jews do and do not eat?” Now that I think of it, nativity scenes look like every farm shed in this countryside. Anyway, Chet is not adding a pig to his manger scene.

Our four-course meal in the 1573 Agriturismo is sumptuous.  Squash risotto leads off, followed by roast duckling, polenta, spinach and potatoes.  Obviously we are expected to do farmwork for the remainder of the afternoon.  We can barely stagger outside to the gardens to look across at the hills.

A dusting of snow covers the foothills.  Above the line of clouds, brilliant white peaks play through, iridescent, a glimpse of heaven.  Winter is coming to the Dolomites.

 

 

WHAT IS IMAGINATION?

How do dreams and imagination tell a story? 

I wanted a very quiet and confining opening to Islands of Deception, something that would provide a stark contrast between the security of life in Holland and the perils of being a spy in the Pacific Islands. Hans Bernsteen is bookkeeper, stuck in offices when he wants to be outdoors taking pictures.

The only real information I had was that father’s family had owned some 300 stores that sold notions, textiles, and millinery supplies – what we call the rag trade these days. That meant that there had to be some 300 ledgers, pages of work that was tedious and exacting. Most of us cannot count and talk at the same time, so tasks would be solitary. There would be thousands of daily transactions to ink and pages to blot. I could almost feel the weight, lugging and shelving the heavy ledgers.

Two years after I had written those first scenes, I received an envelope from Amsterdam.

It contained a few 1930s photos that had escaped the dust and debris of the war. Imagine my surprise when I saw these bookshelves. Here was the room I had conjured, with the addition of the trolley tracks for carrying the heavy volumes to the proper locations.

I wonder if they ever imagined Excel?

DREAMS WE SEE

 

In Chapter Two Hans made a decision to convert.  I have no idea what my dad might have actually done about conversion because he never admitted his original background. It seems that he was reinventing himself into a man he would want to be. Night after night I experienced dreams telling me to hunt down the answer.

During the first drafting process I began research by hunting down a church that would have been there in 1939, and found Fifth Avenue Presbyterian on Google. Figured that was as good as any, especially since Presbyterian would be close to Dutch Protestant. More than a year later, digging through papers on something else, I found out that dad actually had gone to Fifth Ave. Pres. I stopped breathing on that tidbit of information.

Image result for fifth avenue presbyterian church

A few months later we flew to NYC to walk the terrain of the book, and made it a point to spend a morning there. That church certainly was a good fit – no iconography in the windows, simple brass fixtures, similar to Dutch churches and synagogues. Chet and I made up the scene with the two reverends fighting for the soul of the Jewish boy, and Chet picked Welfare Island, now Roosevelt Island in NYC for a place to end the chapter. I drafted it.Then Chet and I decided to try the walk to Welfare Island – now Roosevelt Island.

The tram landed near a little brownstone building. I turned to Chet. “If that is Episcopalian, I’m going to eat my shorts.” We walked around and around the little 1886 Chapel, over to the ruins of the mental hospital, and to what had been the soup kitchen. That was all real. When we returned to the church, a lady was going in with flowers. I asked her. “What is this called?” “Church of the Good Shepherd.” “What denomination?” “Oh, we’re just a small Episcopalian congregation.” Another series of nighttime dreams became real in the rainy morning.

Obviously a lot of the book came from places that are not me. Invented places became real. My job was to just wrap the words around the messages as carefully as I could.

See you soon!

Intimate Moments

Our most intimate thoughts and experiences are often expressed in our characters.  They are our closest confidantes, reminding us of loved ones, people who have hurt us, and sometime, ourselves.  Significant events in their lives matter to us, or we would just quit reading.

So what brings a reader into your story? Is it the portrayal of a major life event, such as a bride walking down the aisle, or is it the little moments that tell us what is really going on? When we are looking at people we love, what do we really remember?  It may be the way they looked, or what they wore, but often it is something smaller. For me, it is intimate moments, those close-ups in time that bring the story to life. They may be intense, or they may reflect the simplicity of life.  What scenes share is that they bring a vision to our readers.

Grandad had died.  After 71 years of marriage. Grandmother was composed and gracious, even though her house was full of people. The multitudes had descended. The  morning of the funeral, she was sitting out in the sun, with her long white hair drying in a soft spring breeze. I had stepped outside under the grape arbor. “Connie, would you mind doing my hair for me today?” It was so simple. She had been pinning up her long hair daily for more than 80 years. I picked up the hairbrush and began to brush through her soft hair, gave her a little shoulder rub, and then picked up the first pins. A few moments later the French rolls were  positioned.

Our long day was under way.

Welcome to my plot…

Why is plot so complex?

A plot is so much more than a trail of significant events.  In Islands of Deception, I had the personal accounts of my two main characters. Hans and Esther Bernsteen both led eventful lives, but for some fifty years they accused each other of lying. Ironically, they were both telling the truth, and their two stories were actually one tale of conflicts and secrecy.  How do we unravel this twisted trail and make it comprehensible?

Accurate events and times don’t do justice to characters who are experiencing desperate and perilous situations.  Imagination was the next part of the process.  It led me to an assemblage of  exotic places and dynamic people, material for vivid scenes.

There were days that I felt very much like the girl tied down to these railroad tracks, hearing the whistle of an oncoming locomotive. The real tension was not in the fact that there was a train.  Where was it going?

“The writing is stellar and the plot so well paced it becomes impossible to stop reading. Islands of Deception features great literary elements and I particularly like Constance Hood’s masterful use of suspense, developed around the switch in the plots.”

from READER’S CHOICE review

 

How do I find my plot?

Connecting the dogs; I mean dots…finding your plot

Islands of Deception: Lying with the Enemy is a story of a brother and sister, dual narrators. Are their lives one plot or two?  The trick is to sequence events, or to make it clear when things are concurrent.  So, I had a nice chapter on the young man’s experiences in New York City, and no parallel event for his sister in Amsterdam.  On a long drive, I turned off the radio, and started thinking about the two characters.  Ideas floated out of the ether.  What would her day in Amsterdam look like?  Where would she be a year from the originating date of the story?  Who would be around her…. the questions kept flowing, and as I turned over possibilities in my head, I began to get a clear picture of the young woman and events that would have been very likely to happen.

My best thinking does not happen at the keyboard.  I just use the keyboard to record what happened somewhere else. By letting the events flow, I ended up with a very sharp plot twist that brought all the pieces together.  In the words of an independent critic, “Islands of Deception features great literary elements and I particularly like Constance Hood’s masterful use of suspense, developed around the switch in the plots.”

For the record, my dog does not write at all.  The cat writes.  Arlecchina prefers good quality pens and Post-Its. She sits on my right forearm when I am working, ten pounds of calico retriever.  I take an Aleve mid-morning to celebrate her efforts and relax the shoulder.

OFF THE TRACKS – The Berlin Crisis

Chapter Seven

August 18, 1961

“Your name?

When were you born?

Where do you live?

Where was your father on September 1, 1939?”

Berlin was in crisis.

My student visa was cancelled. The tense officer addressed us directly, and the bare lights in the room threw a menacing glow on everything. Uncle Bill and I were now at the East Berlin Reiseburo, an official government transport office, negotiating the steps to get me to West Germany within the next three days.

“What is your relationship to this American girl?”

“Where are her parents?”

“Your wife is a Berliner? You understand that if you leave to escort the child, you may not return to Berlin?”

Bill smiled and explained that he was a U.S. teacher, with a work permit for the year.

“I will ask my superior.” The official turned away from us and went to a desk in the back.

“No, there are no family visas, transit visas, or work permits. All Americans are to exit Berlin via GDR transports. No one will be allowed to enter Berlin. You may stay with your wife and her family, or you may escort your niece.”

Continue Reading

OFF THE TRACKS From Chapter Four – Airlift to Berlin

The sweetness of the stay in Berlin was a first clue that this was to be a special summer.  

In the morning, Mutti Liddy handed me an umbrella and a shopping bag for the daily trips to the open market.   Once the vegetables and fresh milk were in her big leather bag, Liddy stopped at a candy stall and purchased a chocolate bar. I anxiously tried to communicate in German, “Nein danke – no thank you. I’m not supposed to eat sweets. Grandma Estelle does not allow us to have candy.” Mutti Liddy responded that chocolate is good for you, and purchased a second bar.   Then we sat down on a bench to enjoy the rich treat. Schokolade was my first German word after danke and bitte, thank you and please.   In the neighboring shops, Liddy began to announce the names of common food items that you buy at the dairy, butcher, green grocer and baker. I tried to pronounce them as carefully as possible, but I couldn’t say some parts of the hard words. There were some funny smeary vowels, sounds I had never heard before and couldn’t say. Other words were just plain fun, like kartoffel, potato.

It took the entire morning to shop and prepare the big midday meal. There were no cans to open, and there was no big refrigerator to store leftovers for reuse. Everything had to be made fresh. Liddy blanched a bag of fresh tomatoes, strained them through a colander and added cream and butter for fresh tomato soup. Campbells tomato soup had been in half of our daily recipes, and there was no such thing in Berlin. I also learned what happened if we didn’t finish a meal. It would sit in a dish in the pantry until the next mealtime. Best to clean your plate on the first attempt.

On the first day Mutti Liddy went through the big canvas suitcase and dictated what I could or could not wear. Monika was not allowed to intervene, but she had to submit to an interrogation about my wardrobe.  Yes, Monika had helped Ellie with the shopping, yes, this was the best quality that Ellie could afford, and yes, eleven year old girls in the US did wear pajamas made out of lingerie materials. The first items to be confiscated until later were the lacy pink pajamas, followed by training bras, a garter belt, and a pair of stockings. Mutti Liddy announced that such things were only appropriate after the sixteenth birthday, no matter how much the girl had developed. Monika’s younger sister Annike agreed. She had returned from a student trip and asked me why my mother had sent these items with me. She was sixteen and was now allowed to wear them. The bras and stockings had been a rite of passage in New York, but apparently that rite of passage was not observed in Europe. I was now a little girl again and we were going shopping.

Modern Berlin was all glass and steel, with the burnt shell of an old church marking the effects of war for all to see. Everything had been designed and built in the fifteen years since the end of the war. KaDeWe was the nicest department store in downtown Berlin. Liddy and Monika marched me in to get properly outfitted.   Their first selection was a pretty pastel pink dress with dainty white dots and a dark green sash. Monika had heard the fights about plaid shirt dresses for years, and I loved this dress with its narrow waist and long full skirt.

Then, Liddy selected underwear for a little girl.   The stockings and Queen Anne heels that had come to Berlin were a “no.” She bought Strumpfhosen – knitted leggings – to wear with the dresses, and the leggings were purchased by my waist size.   I may have only been eleven, but I was in a growth spurt and had just topped 5’6” a height not taken into consideration by the manufacturers of little girl’s leggings. The Strumpfhosen were much too short. “They will stretch.”   Monika showed me how to pull them on gently, rolling them upward one piece at a time, but it wasn’t enough.

As we went walking along the fashionable Kufürstendamm, the tights began to roll and pull, down, and down, taking underwear with them.   I tried to use my knees to control the twists of the fabric, and keep my underpants securely knotted up under a stiff cotton petticoat. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if I dropped my drawers right out in public.  Meanwhile, Annike and Monika strode along at a rapid pace, moving like a team of prize horses in competition. Liddy was the coach driver, and instead of a fair princess following the troupe, an ugly duckling was in tow.  The black orthopedic shoes were a nice touch with the pretty pink dress.

When we got home to hang up our city dresses, Annike started laughing. The mess of tangled tights, underwear, and a sticky cotton slip under the dress was enough information.   She now had a mission.   She had been following Liddy’s directions for years with mixed results. From now on, Annike would take over as confidante, to assist with misunderstandings and help me understand what I needed to do.   She sat down beside me at each meal, and instructed me in English which utensils I should use.   The fish fork was most impressive one. Fresh trout was served on a beautiful spring day and Liddy had steamed it up in white wine.   They were plated head and all. Lesson time.   Moni jabbed the fish fork in right under the head of the trout, and removed the head and complete skeleton in a single piece. Then she tucked into her neatly fileted fish and buttered potatoes. I stared at my plate and fork, wondering how this was going to come out.


 

ISLANDS OF DECEPTION

Based on a true story… 

Behind every story there is another question. “Why do I need to write this?”  Islands of Deception is based on notes that my father sent me near the end of his life.  We had been estranged for many years. The notes were fascinating.  All I knew about him was that he told stories, some of which bordered on the fantastic and some that made sense.

He was a spy. I could have left it alone, but his tale kept coming back to me.  Eventually my husband fished through hundreds of U.S. Army counterintelligence reports and found the matching narrative.  It was true and I was hooked.  For me the path led to research, assembling notes from the many years that I had been close to my aunt.  Her stories and his were often in conflict.  I had no knowledge of war or of the South Pacific, but people stepped up to help.  The more I learned, the more questions I had about these characters and their experiences.

Of course if someone is breaking up an espionage ring that operates through brothels and bars in exotic locations, the imagination has to come in to play.  The story becomes larger than its original life, and that is a good thing.

FROM KIRKUS REVIEWS – 

Author Hood (Off the Tracks: A Beatnik Family Journey, 2014) paints a vivid picture of war-torn Europe and the epistemological distance between those who see the inevitable and those who turn a blind eye to Nazi aggression. Her knowledge of the period’s politics is broad and her prose self-assured. The novel borrows from her father’s life, and her loving attention to her protagonist, beautifully drawn, is evident throughout. Hans is a complex figure, patriotic but conflicted, unsure where his loyalties should lie.

A thrilling, sensitively conceived historical novel.

 

 

Searching for History

As a lifelong reader of historical novels, I never had thought about how authors get authentic scenes.  Historical research has to be a passion. Long walks tell us what a strange place looks like, feels like and smells like.  Strangers’ stories reveal their passions and give us a glimpse into characters’ lives. Curiosity is our friend if it doesn’t kill us.

Islands of Deception: Lying with the Enemy was driven by curiosity. My impression of my estranged father was that he was a troubled soul. We did not really correspond. So, to my surprise a file of papers arrived in the mail some years ago. They were from my father, describing covert operations in the South Pacific during World War II. The stories were confirmed in US Army Counter Intelligence reports that were released recently. So, the search began for the pieces to link up the stories. This book can’t be a memoir, because too many pieces are missing. The actual report identified a spy ring operating out of a South Seas bordello. How can you write about that without making up some interesting characters? The choice at this point is to use factual information in a work of biographical fiction.

We went to New York for 10 days and walked the entire novel as it stands in the second draft. Many days it was an eerie experience. For one thing, I had assembled a hasty conversion of a Jewish boy to Christianity, and selected a picture from photos of old NYC churches. It turned out I had picked a Presbyterian church that my father actually attended several years later.

great storytelling, the masterful use of suspense, and a historic setting that will take you back to very significant moments in history.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian

In the conversion sequence I had also put together a meeting with a Presbyterian and Episcopalian minister as they are proselytizing the young man. They walk together to feed the less fortunate on an island in the East River, a place with a smallpox hospital, a mental hospital, and homeless people. On the island was a tiny old church. “If that’s Episcopalian, I’m going to faint.”  The Chapel of the Good Shepherd is indeed Episcopalian. 

 

 

 

 

 

We drove over to Fall River Massachusetts to Battleship Cove. The curator of the Patrol Torpedo boats spent hours with me on a PT boat figuring out how to apprehend bad guys in the Pacific. Dad’s notes had left off with a brief comment that they were apprehended as well as the location of the plantation. We came up with a very likely scenario as to how that may have happened.

So, I am in the process of taking things that I do not know, and making them into my own experiences so that I can write about them. The downside to this? I brought home another stack of history books.