New Madonna at San Bernardino

San Bernardino churchHow does a small village like San Bernardino, in the Cinque Terre, with only 10 permanent residents, 3 dogs and about 5 stray cats manage to keep its community alive? It has certainly been an experience being a part of this village,  warmly welcomed each time I visit, and feeling the need to contribute whenever I can to this small community: helping with maintenance, lobbying the Mayor for better services and listening to the local grumbles. Volunteer labour is an essential part to keeping this village alive, which in the past rebuilt the entire church!

Best of all is helping out at any festivities which are now few and far between. Even our local bar has closed as the younger generation have found work elsewhere so the social meeting point is now sitting by the bus stop. Yet the locals have not lost their resilience and resist by having the world come to them, renting out their rooms and apartments to tourists during the season. When this generation disappear the village will only be for second home owners and tourists passing through unfortunately.

Yet San Bernardino is in the hearts of many, especially those from Corniglia as it is their Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna. And at the festival to the Madonna early September a procession led by the local priest still hikes from Corniglia to celebrate. In fact it is the religious festivals which unite these communities (like many others throughout Italy) and bring back life and laughter to the hearts of all.

Madonna dei Tarsi statueSan Bernardino is entrenched in the heart of a local sculptor, Giuliano Carro, who having seen the public fountain moved to the opposite side of the church square thought something more spiritual should be placed on the space it left. So after months of study and work, and on finding a large sandstone boulder he took up his chisel and gave life to this statue: Madonna dei Tarsi
Described by the Mayor of Vernazza “as a work that is the result of the sweat of one of our artists who, out of pure passion, driven by boundless love for our places, without asking for anything, in all humility, and satisfied only by the ecstatic gaze of those who will linger and admire his finished work.”

Attendance at the inauguration was a must and with over a 100 people the air was charged with chit chat and laughter, like a huge family gathering. Young and old from Vernazza and Corniglia, and those who introduced themselves to me were invariably called ‘Basso‘ the family generated from this village.

Vernazza mayor with sculptor Giuliano CarroThe honor of unveiling the Madonna was given to the 3 oldest members of the community, looked on rather jealously by the two youngest members. And while Giuliano could hardly get the smile off his face, when asked by the Mayor to say a few words he responded  “I am a man of few words, and work with my hands.” He did however share one of his poems for the occasion (read by another local!)

 

Hands
the sun has not yet dawned
your footprints leave little trace
while you caress
the earth under the moon
step by step, like always,
every day until evening

Respecting it as you would a mother,View from San Bernardino
you love these plants like children
that cling to the rocks,

that challenge the absurd
but which without you
they wouldn’t last an instant

always thinking of your world
you are not afraid of it
for your life, when it ends
in every stone there is a memory
hands passed over a face
as a tear falls between the vines

to the moon, to the sun, to the stars
show your huge hands
hard hands, suffered yet true,
frank hands and outspoken words,
hands full of earth, yet never dirty,
huge hands, full of love

and his comment in the brochure- ‘Stop here for a moment and think about the difficulty and poverty but also the greatness and the dignity of the people that for centuries have shaped this earth. Think of their immense fatigue, their defeats, their will, their strength, their sweat. And then, if you want to, lay a flower, or say a Prayer.’

Mayor, Sculptor, Revered guests of honourThe crowd were almost moved to tears. My amateur video failed to capture the moment the drape fell as I had to join the grand applause and cheers that I am sure could be heard as far as the ferry boats chugging along down below!

It was time to party! You could not believe the amount of food and wine that was passed out to the tables, all volunteered from San B  and Corniglia locals . Generous helpings served by us with pride and affection to all the visitors who ate happily in front of the most panoramic view of the Cinque Terre.

The music blared old favourite songs and the partying and dancing continued on into the night. That’s what brings and keeps this community together.

The Madonna dei Tarsi now quietly sits and keeps an eye on us all and the rest of the Cinque Terre below.Cinque Terre, Madonna dei Tarsi statue

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Andrea del Verrocchio – The Master of Da Vinci

Verrocchio Exhibition brochureFlorence continues to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci with an exhibition of his MasterAndrea del Verrocchio at the Palazzo Strozzi. I must admit I am not a real fan of religious art and totally ignorant of who Verrocchio was so I had left my visit to the exhibition to the last week. I was however beguiled by the gentle serenity of the ‘Madonna’ in the publicity boards around town, her gaze lowered, her hair drawn back beneath a transparent veil so delicately embroidered as was the bodice of her gown, it had to be seen for real. The style was typical of many Renaissance painters that I did know like Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Perugino and of course Leonardo da Vinci all of whom painted the Madonna showing enormous tenderness towards her child, an earthly maternal love.

After the exhibition I explored further and discovered that Verrocchio was born in Florence around 1434-37, originally Andrea di Cione, the son of a construction worker in a family where the money was scarce. After his father’s death he had to support his mother and eight brothers and possibly for this reason never married. He became an apprentice goldsmith in the workshop of Giuliano Verrocchio and later took his name. As an artist with his own workshop Andrea del Verrocchio had such illustrious pupils as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico del Ghirlandaio and Perugino.
No one shaped Florentine Art in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent more than Verrocchio. Trained as a goldsmith, he discovered a bent for sculpture, emerging as the greatest bronze sculpture of his day. He practised drawing and eventually turned to painting. By c 1470, barely over thirty, he had become a beacon in his own right and with his lively workshop.” (Palazzo Strozzi info)

The bust evokes the ideal of female beauty in the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent, merging aristocratic grace with moral values…..and Leonardo drew inspiration from the innovative addition of arms and hands

David Victorious - VerrocchioMarble reliefs and bronze statues of heroes and heroines of the classical world were particularly popular with patrons of the time and it was interesting to see the developments in style and expressions and the attention  to detail was impressive.Alexander the Great - Verrocchio

 

 

 

 

Verrocchio came late to painting yet impressed his fellow artists with his detail on precious jewels, elaborate costumes and drapery bathed in light. His ‘window ledge’ baby Jesus became a new fashion and was copied by many. He studied innovative techniques with Leonardo on the ‘chiaroscuro” effects of light experimenting by painting on fine linen cloth reproducing true drapery soaked in wax or liquid earth modelled on dummies.

In the painting –The Baptism of Christ Vasari tells us “he was assisted by Leonardo da Vinci, his disciple, then quite young, who painted the angels, which was much better than the other parts of the work: and for this reason Verrocchio resolved never again to touch a brush“! Art historians however are not convinced about the legitimacy of the comment as Verrocchio left many works unfinished, being prolific in so many different fields.

He created outdoor sculptures based on classical models, popular in the Winged Boy with DolphinRenaissance and helped forge the fashion for monumental marble fountains, decorated with bronze statues like The Winged boy with Dolphin. He created metal candelabras, equestrian monuments and his work as a goldsmith could be as varied as the small Dove of the Holy Spirit to the gilded copper ball placed on top of the Brunelleschi Dome.

 

 

 

 

Verocchio's gilded copper ball

 

 

Da Vinci-The Virgin with the Laughing Child

 

 

 

And as a surprise finale we were introduced to Leonardo Da Vinci’s only known work of sculpture when he was still a young man, perhaps only 20, modeled in his master’s workshop. The Virgin with the Laughing Child. We have all learnt so much about Da Vinci’s master.

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Hooves clicking on Black Marble

Hiking in the National ParkOut in the heat hiking not far from Siena we are exploring an area of Italian marbleblack marble or commonly known here as Serpentine marble. And while we are no longer able to see the quarries where the ‘marble‘ came from, we are conscious that every step we take is on this precious material. Officially it is not really ‘marble’ but a serpentinite, “a metamorphic rock derived from the rock of magmatic origin that formed about 200 million years ago on the bottom of the ancient Ocean Tetide, where it underwent a process of hydration by interaction with sea water.” The name originates from the similarity of the texture of the rock to that of the skin of a snake, easily seen here in the village wall. Serpentine marble in village wall

The territory of Murlo is rich in outcrops of this rock and it was used to create the black and white dichromy in the Sienese Cathedral. Not an easy feat considering we are hiking amongst tough Tuscan hills around 27kms from Siena.


We are also lucky to be hiking with a mix of experts                                                          – our faithful Environmental guide Grazia, to give us all the info on the local flora, fauna and terrain underfoot                                                                                                          – a geologist Andrea, eager to explain the difference in the formation of marble and serpentinite i.e.  “Marble being rocks that having undergone a process of metamorphism at high temperatures and pressures that has made the minerals recrystallize.”                                                                                                                      – and Grazia’s father Ivo, who was born in the area, now a National Park, and keen to recount old farming techniques and memories of times past.

Cathedral SienaAt the time of the construction of the Cathedral, begun in 1215,  the ‘Opera del Duomo‘ responsable for the construction bought or rented land with quarries or rich in building stones,  vineyards and fields to obtain wine and bread for the workers, water for making mortar, and woods for work timber. Historical records show that the serpentine stones were partially worked in the quarry and each block of black marble weighed approx 80-100 kg and was carted by mules Siena Cathedralacross this rather rugged terrain. Unlike Florence there was no substantial river course to use as an easier alternative. In the end transport became so expensive and difficult that the black marble was used less and abandoned by the 14th Century.

We hike through typical Mediterranean vegetation dominated by holm oaks up and down hills, past some vineyards along trails that linked communities, ancient parish churches and monasteries. We are on our way to the Hermitage of Montespecchio, thinking of the poor mules that carted up to 20 tons of marble to Siena each 6 months and in this heat we are hard pressed to cart our small back packs laden only with bottles of water and lunch!

Now only the ruins of the church remain of the Hermitage, which was in its heyday a large complex and a wealthy one both from donations not only of money but also land and a healthy income to the Augustinian friars from the sale and transport of the black marble. The welcome shade renew our energy as we exlore the ruins from the 12th Century and despite the striped walls so typical of Romanesque architecture the place has an exotic almost Asian feel to it.

We are now close to Ivo’s birthplace and he delights in telling us that he was often here, looking for his pigs that sometimes went astray and enjoyed Old Tuscan schoolforaging in the woods. In the past there were large fields of grain and cereals cultivated on rotation, and each family depended on that and their livestock to survive. We pass the farmhouse, converted school, that he walked 3kms to each day with his 8 brothers and sisters, now a private residence used probably only on holidays.

Then next to the delapidated buildings where he’s was born he calls us onto the overgrown area which was once the paved ‘aia’ or piazza, where they would tie a horse in the centre and with his continuous circling thresh the grain with his hooves. They would gather the grain on enormous sieves and toss it into the area to separate the grain from the kernels. At the end of harvesting there would be a big dinner on long trestle tables in the piazza where all the families would meet and party.

Ivo's childhood home

 

The buildings and land were left to the Forestry department which has sadly left the buildings go to ruin and the local vegetation has taken over. There is a definite hint of nostalgia as Ivo reminisces, yet satisfied as we are appreciative of his stories of times gone by.                                                           So next time you are in Siena and enjoying its splendour you can appreciate even more the hard work that went into trasporting the black marble.

Farming tales

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