Trip highlight

Posted April 13th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports, Tuscanophilia

Pisan New Year

Just a “highlight” from Italy, where there is always something new old to rediscover. I went for a meeting right before Easter – and then, joined by my partner, wandered off to visit family and old friends, with a bit of sight seeing along the way. The day after Easter, we heard about and made it to the main Cathedral in Pisa just on time to see a ray of sun strike a very particular spot in the church that contains a marble egg, signaling the new year when it was traditionally celebrated, at least since the XII century, until 1749 when the city was required to adopt the Gregorian calendar. But the tradition seems to have been revived, marked also with a procession in full medieval attire (see picture below).

Not far outside the city walls, in the direction of the sea, an entire shipyard of roman ships is being excavated, buried in the sediment that long ago filled in the port of what is still often referred to as the Maritime Republic of Pisa – probably as a result of cutting down the trees used to build all those boats! Unfortunately that exhibit was closed when we peddled a few borrowed bikes over there to see it – and our visit too brief. But we did go into the Cathedral museum, which I had previously overlooked. After reading this caption about “The sculptures of the cathedral” in a room that contained samples of the different styles of carvings found in it, I started to see the place in a whole new light – lest you think of Pisa as a place to visit only to see the Leaning Tower:

“Those who go to Pisa can see monsters coming from the sea: this town is full of pagans, Turks, Lilbyans and also Parthians and mysterious Chaldeans frequent its coast” (Donizone, 12th century). At the beginning of the 12th century the monk Donizone was terrified by the infidels living in Pisa. The different “languages” spoken in the town at the time are well represented by the works preserved in this room. In fact, during its Golden Age, artists coming from all over the Mediterranean worked on the Cathedral. Romance languages were derived from spoken Latin but adopted a number of words from other languages. In the same way, Romanesque art comes form the Classic style but with the addition of elements taken from distant countries. The cultural heritage of ancient Rome is testified by the large quantities of classic marble inserted in the walls of the Duomo. The frieze of the Basilica of Neptune in Rome was used as the presbyterial screen in the Cathedral where it was completed with relief work on its reverse side by the workshop of Guglielmo, Rainaldo, and subsequently Guglielmo. These were the first known artists to take part in the decoration of the Cathedral. We can also admire three masterpieces of Islamic art: the Capital signed by Fath, the bronze basin bearing a long invocation to Allah and the famous Grifo. A combination of the lion and the eagle, the griffin was highly venerated by the Greeks and subsequently became a Christian symbol of the earthly and heavenly nature of Christ. Originally used as a perfume-burner, the griffin was placed at the top of the Cathedral until 1828, as a memento of Pisan victories over the Arabs.

The sculpture of David with the Lyre was carved by an artist from Provence and the momumental wooden Crucifix was also realised by French masters. Recent restoration has revealed the Crucifix to be the only surviving sculptlure of a group representing the Deposition, which originally decorated the main altar of the cathedral.

The trip ended back in Milan, where fashion still shows no sign of world economic trouble, pink is the new black – and a major advertising campaign, complete with pink snow, informs that it is “the color of life.” Were it not for the crumbling dollar, I might have come home with a pair of pink rimmed rose colored glasses. But I did have the chance to visit with Angela Pereira – the co-editor of this blog, who will soon be reporting from some upcoming meetings on science and policy, and also with Silvio Funtowicz and Bruna de Marchi, who may yet send in highlights from a recent trip to Ecuador, along with further reflections on Post-Normal Science – a topic I’ll come back to in the next post. But the more I ponder it, the more it seems like just plain common sense, which often seems lost in our feudal academic institutions.

Pisan New Year

Roundabout Ireland

Posted June 12th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports

I’m back… as the trip to Ireland was a vacation, just a few highlights and observations not unrelated to topics normally covered in the PNT. We (my companion Tom and I – joined later by some of his siblings), started in Dublin with a visit to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, which seemed really old until we got to the megalithic tombs seen in the later part of the trip. Because of a high water table, the grounds of Trinity also have the world’s largest Oregon Maple trees.

Visited a number of old castles and monasteries – some abandoned and containing 14th century graffiti, others restored along with the “Great Gardens of Ireland” that surround them. The garden at the Birr Castle has the world’s tallest box hedges, some of the only unploughed areas of its habitat type, and what was the world’s largest telescope for about 75 years after it was built in the 1840s, aka, the Leviathan. This telescope, built by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, is set along the north to south meridian line, further marked with stones in the garden that point to a spiral of trees modeled after the whirlpool nebula M51, that he discovered in 1845 using this very same telescope. The trees were planted 150 years later in honor of this feat. The castle itself was off limits as it is now inhabited by the Seventh Earl of Rosse. Allowing visitors into the gardens and the science museum no doubt helps to pay for its upkeep.

Given that a national election was taking place, we learned a few things about parliamentary politics along the way, as we tried to figure out who the characters were that we saw on the ubiquitous campaign signs. We finally found out who “Bertie” is when it was announced that he won the most votes, but we left unsure who “Bertie’s team” will be, since he did not get enough votes to govern without forming a coalition. According to TaraWatch, negotiations are still underway, the outcome of which may have implications for whether or not there is a shot at saving the Hill of Tara, threatened by construction of the M51 highway – an issue I learned about from Afarensis blog. We visited the Hill of Tara briefly on the way back into Dublin and did not find the group that has been keeping a vigil but did speak with someone from another group, Friends of Tara, who told us about all of the alternatives available that have been proposed, including more mass transit. This should sound all too familiar to anyone who has read my posts about the ICC, or Inter-County Connector here in Maryland, on the outskirts of the capitol city of the US, which would not destroy ancient monuments that we know about, but would destroy important watershed and wetland areas as well as what remains of open space between Washington DC and Baltimore, and also preempt badly needed funding for mass transit.

I am making a purposeful digression here to observe that it is much easier to talk about global climate and other changes somewhere else or in the abstract, than the more immediate threats from the siting of new roads, mass transportation routes, and development patterns, where disagreements tend to be face-to-face. Some day, I will talk more about development controversies in “Muddy Spring”… But the point is that these issues are usually off the national radar screen and dismissed as local and parochial, although even local officials do their best to keep them off the table in election debates by saying things like, “we fully support the ICC but, after the election we will look at transportation throughout the entire region and have all the options on the table.” Yes, this is a reminder to Governor O’Malley of Maryland and his deputy, Anthony Brown, whom I am quoting from a pre-election campaign event (but not from a transcript so the quote may not be word for word). I suggest that, before any construction proceeds, that Maryland, DC and Virginia collaborate on the development of future scenarios of the regional landscape in 2050, in which the expected impacts of climate change and peak oil are a given. Then we can go back to bickering about transportation priorities and how to pay for them.

But back to Ireland… The Hill of Tara, important in Christian as well as pre-Christian traditions, contains just one of a number of stone monuments we saw that date back to between 2000 and 4000 BC, and that have been regarded as sacred and that have been protected by communities as well as private landowners for the past 5,000 years. Others we saw included the megalithic tomb of Poulnabrone in the Burren that dates back to 3,800 BC,  the cairns at Carrowkeel in the Bricklieve mountains near Sligo, and the passage tomb of Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne. The Hill of Tara just happens to be the closest one to Dublin but with the pace of economic development now taking place in Ireland as well as other well known places in the the EU, threats to the other sites may not be far behind. A common feature is that they are situated prominently on hilltops from which there are spectacular views into the distance, i.e., the kinds of places coveted by housing developers and home buyers, and are situated in relation to one another as well as to the sun, as part of the same landscape. The sites at Brú na Bóinne have been designated UNESCO World heritage sites, and the Hill of Tara was just added to the World Monuments Fund list of most endangered sites but the challenge will be to go beyond a piecemeal approach and implement an integrated landscape approach to conservation.

At one of the Heritage Centers, I picked up a copy of the latest edition of Heritage Outlook – a publication of the Irish Heritage Council that had some interesting articles on the subject, that brought my attention to the European Landscape Convention, which, of course, I intend to learn more about. It may be little more than paper for the moment, but the definition seems like a good point of departure: “Landscape is an area, as perceived by people, the character of which is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.” I have long suspected that one of the barriers to conservation is that, in spite of all of the talk about integrated approaches, the environment is compartmentalized into land, water, mountains, wetlands, oceans, neglecting the interactions between them, which is where all the interesting stuff occurs, and where the richest habitats are to be found.

Perhaps the most interesting landscape in Ireland is the Burren which, because of the diversity of microhabitats in the rock formations, contains a unique combination of highly diverse flora derived from Arctic, Mediterranean, European mountain regions. As I learned about the geological processes that shaped this place, which includes the Cliffs of Moher, it made the megalithic tombs seem very recent. But the landscape only appears as it does because of farming and grazing practices that have been in place since those monuments were built by the first farmers, to whom the Burren looked very different. Among the major threats to the Burren now is scrub vegetation that is appearing as management practices change, and of course tourism. The picture above was taken on the Aran Island of Inishmore which is not, or is, considered part of The Burren – depending who you ask, but where geological continuities are obvious. The miniature house was like many seen built near regular houses around the Island – our tour guide on the Island, a local, said they were built for the Fairies, which may or may not be Blarney. Blarney was also among the castles we visited earlier on the trip where, of course, we kissed the stone. Now I’m reading The Book of the Burren, which is much  more legible than the Book of Kells… (and, of course, now that I am back, Al Gore’s new book, which was sold out at the Dublin airport).


Addendum to the last post – the pub that was out of Guinness turned out to be liittle more than a stones throw from the Guinness estate, which bordered on a lake that we saw the next day from an overlook in the Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains, also the source of Dublin’s water supply. To be fair, it was a Monday that followed a big game.

A sunny day in Dublin

Posted May 22nd, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports

Just thought I’d share… actually that was yesterday. Now in County Wicklow, where, to my friend Tom’s great disappointment, the pub in the town of Laragh ran out of Guinness. In other words, posting may be light over the next few weeks – but it usually is anyway.  On the other hand, if I get inspired, or blessed by the Blarney Stone, I may put on my SylviaTognetti, not Poggioli hat and send a few dispatches.

But what would Dante say?

Posted August 22nd, 2006 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Trip reports, Tuscanophilia

pnt_sm0004.jpg Before it gets to be September, one more post about Florence and then I promise I will get back to more normal post-normal topics in science and policy….
My visit there earlier in the summer made me really wonder what it is people think they are buying when they buy GUCCI products, which is now only a trademark for a company that has little if anything to do with its more humble roots in the quality of design and craftsmanship for which the city is known, and, of course, with the Gucci family. On one side of the Arno river, there are, of course, still GUCCI stores in Florence. On the other side, in the older part of Florence, around where Guccio Gucci first started crafting leather, his grand-daughter Elisabetta, who grew up around the smell of it, and working in the family business, is now the artistic director for a gallery called Mirabili. In highschool where I first knew her, she was often referred to as “La Gucci” but I find it awkward to even say her last name now because it has practically become a figure of speech associated with fantasies that can be found in the ads in Vanity Fair, or with the power of well-heeled lobbyists in the corridors of the US Capitol – a place sometimesreferred to as Gucci Gulch.
Mirabili represents a group of artistic furniture designers whose work is on display behind a shop window that looks like no other – anywhere. At the time of my visit, they had teamed up with another art gallery for a combined exhibit of museum quality work, for which Elisabetta herself could easily have been mistaken. She is the only person I know with enough panache to wear yellow lipstick. It matched the yellow dress she was wearing on one of the days I visited with her. And when combined with a piece of jewelry made by one of the artists whose work was on display, and then the yellow wind jacket in which she left for the day – on a vespa – she is literally a self-designed piece of art work. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of that but, the next time I stopped by, she was dressed in a simple brown outfit that matched her battered leather Gucci daybook that she still has from way back when GUCCI was a just a family-owned but well-known and expensive leather goods shop in Florence. It was around that time that we spent 2 years in the same high school. She also wore her hair exactly the same way as now, pulled back in a pony tail – which accentuates an infectious smile. So I had the opportunity to have a few long talks with her about Florence past and present. image0005.jpg
First, a bit of background. Florence is a subject of obsession also among Florentines who have a reputation of being sharp-witted disenchanted and often cynical and sarcastic, holier-than-thou snobs whose directness of expression pushes up against the borders of the offensive – and is not directed only towards the arrogant and pompous (like Mussolini for example) – for whom an ironic smile can more than suffice. Even some Florentines will tell you as much, as did Candida Vig – another high school friend, who helped me to elaborate on a less verbose description I had written. As her husband Maurizio subsequently explained (in a comment on the previous post, (Petrified irreverence) it is the immense presumption of the Florentines that God is happy to have invented them, and was himself born in Florence but does not wish to admit it. He also recalls Roberto Benigni talking about episodes with his father who, upon observing a majestic display of stars, would say “my how many stars there are!” and would go on to conclude with a heavy dose of swearing. Maurizio goes on to explain, “We Tuscans, when we love and admire a person, often kindly offend him as a way to truly demonstrate our sincere and genuine affection.”
giangastone0001.jpgBut Florentines do remain enchanted with their own history. According to an American friend who also studied there, they are living off of it like whores. But as Elisabetta G. is the first to explain, they are for the most part trapped in this history that has given them their identity. As if to demonstrate, on a previous visit she took me to visit Alessandro Riccio, director of the Tedavi ’98 theater company that almost exclusively produces meticulously researched plays about the various characters in the Medici family, in authentic costumes entirely made by his mother. When I asked to take a picture of one of the renaissance gowns, she promptly put it on and modeled it – as you can see in the first picture above. Meanwhile, Alessandro put on the mask of Gian Gastone, the last of the Medici family. Some of my high school classmates were convinced that Gian Gastone haunted the school, which was situated in one of the former Medici residences on the outskirts of town. pnt_sm0002.jpg
Elisabetta also explained that, much of the innovation for which Florence is known, has come from those who have left, and sometimes returned, as did her grandfather who, while working abroad, saw possibilities he might never have imagined had he stayed put. Her most knowledgeable and appreciative gallery customers have been the Germans – she thinks this is because WWII left them with a tabula rasa, or a void to be filled. As for the city’s appearance, she directs her most caustic remarks towards the shop windows across the river that look like they could just as well be in New York or Paris, new buildings that are oblivious to their historic surroundings, and the bright and noisy fairs that also clash with everything around them. Other Florentines will tell you that, in the midst of all of this tourism generated wealth, the public schools do not even have tp in the bathrooms, or even doors on them. They are also subject to a bumbling municipal bureaucracy that hands out tickets and tows cars by mistake – it still takes 6 months to get a refund.
Interestingly, Sifossifoco [warning: link is to a blog written in Florentine vernacular] ponders whether the displays in those stores across the river are polluting their very way of thinking. He also comments on the even more insidious chromatic pollution of the city and wonders – if chromotherapy can heal, perhaps the wrong colors can also kill. What then might be the damage caused by the loud tourist busses, publicity posters, parked cars, flags hung on balconies instead of seasonal flowers – all of which could be avoided if the city had a color manager? (him and Elisabetta need to talk…)
image0003.jpg Not everyone else is oblivious. Over the past few weeks, in Piazza Santa Croce, Roberto Benigni has been talking to Dante – or at least to his statue, just as Dante spoke with his predecessors in the Divine Comedy. It was a warm-up to a recital of selected cantos from the Comedy which he also learned from his father, and has known by heart since long before he became Benigni the film star. Had I known of this before booking my plane tickets, I would probably still be there myself, and could also tell you what Dante had to say this time. But perhaps someone reading this blog can fill us all in?
However – I did finally find out what Dante said after the flood in 1966. At the time of that flood, I would not have been of any help had I been in Florence instead of visiting my grandmother in Pisa over a long holiday weekend. I was 11 years old, barely spoke Italian yet, and had my right arm in a cast – the result of having tried to spiral backwards into a turning jump on roller skates, as a few of my classmates were able to quite easily do. But over the years, I had heard of a song composed by Florentines during the clean-up, and was able to find it via google after asking and being told by Candida that it must be the one about the floodwaters washing the balls of David. This time I actually found a recording of it by Riccardo Marasco. Sung to the tune of La guerra di Piero (a popular anti-war song by the late Fabrizio de André), the song’s unnamed protagonist swims submerged in a sea of s___ of unclear origins (man or cow?), and ends up in Piazza Santa Croce where Dante exclaims: “Oh Florentines, you sent me into exile… take this s___ that God has sent you!.” It must have been an expression of sincere and genuine affection.