Scusi, Do You Speak English?


Day 4, "Monk Mobile"

I suppose that the good fathers back at Archmere Academy would be heartily disappointed in me, if they knew that I was actually in Italia, the bosom of Roman Catholicism, on the Feast of the Assumption but made no effort to attend Mass. I won't tell if you won't!

A few of us -- Georg and myself, Brian and Ann Williams, Joan Iris, Gerry O'Neill, Glenna Gorlick and Charlotte Porter -- headed down to the nearby town of Castelnuevo Berardenga for morning coffee. (Actually, I'm a tea drinker myself, but most of the group had coffee.) The cafe was quite crowded, but luckily we managed to find seating. We were also fortunate to find that the price was the same whether you sat or took your drinks standing (apparently many Italian cafes charge for the seat as well as the drink). So we sat and chatted, and shared a newspaper which we all enjoyed looking at, though only Brian was able to actually read it. My favorite newspaper pastime was reading movie listings and trying to figure out what Hollywood movies were showing, by their Italian titles.

Brian offered to take us on another guided tour of Castelnuevo's more modest duomo. However, it was closed for renovations. I should mention here that we saw this all over Toscano (things being closed for renovations, that is). For example, most of the statues of famous Florentines in front of the Uffizi were concealed behind mesh cages in preparation for restoration, though they had put up posters showing you what famous visage you would have seen if the cage weren't there. Francesca told us later on that restorations are going on all over Italy in preparation for the big jubilee next year -- you know, the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. Oh that. She advised avoiding Italy next year, since every Catholic in the world will want to be there. (besides which, we all know civilization is going to collapse from Y2K and airplanes will fall out of the sky, but that's neither here nor there.) But 2001 should be a great year to visit, since the whole country will be prettied up & much art restored, but the religious pilgrims will be gone. It should be like visiting an Olympic city the year after the Olympics. So that's your travel tip for the day.

Anyway, back to Castelnuevo Berardenga. We were pleasantly surprised to find the Coop supermarket open, so we could pick up a few much-needed supplies. This store reminded me of the markets in NYC: tiny shops with shelves to the ceiling, pretty decent selection but only a few of each item. I was still feeling insecure of my ability to communicate in Italian, so I skipped the deli counter, instead picking up a few vegetables and assorted things. Charlotte became the hero of the day by buying enough toilet paper for everyone, which apparently had become a matter of concern for the folks in the bigger apartments.

After our brief sojourn, we headed back to Montalto for lunch, and then we all shipped out on the day's excursion, to the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Mount Olivette Abbey). This was a prosperous Benedictine abbey, built high up on a hill and fortified so it could defend itself. Somehow before we went, I got the impression that this abbey was the basis for Umberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose, which I loved & have read several times. However, Monte Oliveto is simply very much like the religious community in the book. The Name of the Rose is actually based explicitly on a different place.

Anyway, I sat with Alexandra Genetti on the ride there, and we had a long and really interesting talk about, well, about all sorts of things! I was especially glad to hear her opinions on modern vs. ancient astrological practices. I know almost nothing about astrology, so her expert discussion was often over my head, I'm afraid. But it was still fascinating to hear. Alexandra clearly has a wealth of knowledge, not only about divination but about astronomy as well. I hope she someday writes a book on the subject.

Once we got to the abbey (after a few wrong turns, for which poor Brian was teased mercilessly), we entered through a high gate that actually had a moat and drawbridge. It was easy to see how the abbey had thrived as an independant power, not under the authority of local governments, for hundreds of years. Above the entrance was a niche containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue was ceramic, not stone, so it had retained its bright colors (particularly blue). It was startling, almost garish, compared to the subtle faded colors I had seen on paintings and frescoes elsewhere. Christmas tree lights had been strung around the statue (I kid you not), which must add an incongruously festive air at night.

The granary at Montalto
The granary at Montalto. The terra cotta pots contained lemon trees, geraniums and petunias.

Inside there was a long walk to get to the abbey proper. Brian pointed out apartments where travelers could stay for very little money. Of course, staying in a religious community, the accomodations must be very spartan, and single rooms only. As we approached the abbey itself, many of the female members of the group pulled on sweaters or shawls. We had been warned that Italian churches are often conservative about attire, and don't take kindly to bare shoulders or short shorts. I heard that just a few years ago, women were often turned away unless their heads were covered! I had brought along a nice "grandma's black lace shawl" (someone else's grandma, not mine, but it still fit the bill). Wore it wrapped over my skirt when we were outside, and pulled it over my shoulders when we entered the building.

Inside the abbey was a cloister (an open courtyard surrounded by columns) with a lovely series of frescoes depicting the life of Saint Benedict, Santo Benedetto. Brian led us from painting to painting, explaining not only the meaning of each scene but its larger artistic and historical import. Some of the frescoes depicted silly miracles (if I may be so blunt). For example, Santo Benedetto's first miracle, as a young boy, was to restore his mother's cutting board which had fallen off the table and broken. Later on he was offered a glass of poison by a rival, but pointed his finger at the glass and made it break. Another time he restored a broken shovel by dipping it into a spring. One scene (which I had no trouble believing to be historically accurate) depicted the saint excommunicating two women, then forgiving them after their death.

An interesting phenomenon Brian pointed out was scratched out faces on the frescoes. Apparently, when common folk were allowed to visit the abbey in past centuries, they would often react to evil presences on the frescoes by scratching out the faces, as if to obliterate their power. We noticed that any image of a demon or the devil, unless it was too high to be reached, would have its face scratched out. A few scenes had dogs and cats in the foreground, and the cats would usually be entirely scratched away.

Our tour of the frescoes along the cloister was interrupted by a remarkable event: a monk who looked like he had just stepped out of The Name of the Rose (he was tiny, eldery and covered with warts) approached Brian and spoke to him briefly in Italian. Not sure what was going on, we all followed Brian upstairs in a rush, where the old monk unlocked the library (a process that took a great deal of time and exertion on his part, as the lock seemed to be stuck) and led us inside. We were only allowed to see the front room, where some of the newer books (17th and 18th century) were kept on display in locked cases. And there was also a beautiful wooden chest, decorated with biblical scenes designed in inlaid wood.

The monk asked Brian to translate while he told us a little about the history of the library and the abbey. He said that the library used to be open on a regular basis, but there had been some damage to the roof which they were slowly repairing. Someday it will be open again, but for now they only allow sporadic visits such as the one he offered us. He also said that the older books -- some as early as the 14th century -- were never shown to the public anymore, because fifteen years ago they had displayed 20 of their prized books, and 5 were stolen "on commission" (which I take it means the theft was paid for by an art collector).

That glimpse into the library was truly an amazing experience. I felt that the entire trip was worth it for that moment alone. (funny though, I seemed to feel that way all the time.) I wish we had had time to examine the books -- even just to read all the titles. But after a few minutes, we were ushered back out and the door locked behind us.

I wondered at times, how it must affect the privacy of the contemplative life to have turisti peering around every corner. For instance we were allowed to see (though not enter) the hall where the monks eat. There were only a couple of people inside, setting the tables (a task which must take hours, considering how many places there are to set). I wondered if they shut that door during meal times, or if they let the turisti gawk even during dinner.

The last amazing sight (and it was truly amazing) was the massive church. Every inch of the place was covered with detailed art. The benches all were decorated with the same inlaid wood, sometimes incredibly complex, Escher-esque geometric shapes which Brian described as "showing off". You could spend a year in there and not see everything.

My favorite part of the church was a little chapel containing a statue of Maria Bambina, the Virgin Mary as a baby. It was a little ceramic statue of the baby Mary, wearing a crown, resting in a golden baby bed. As in the statue of Mary outside the abbey, the use of ceramic allowed Maria Bambina to retain bright colors that were startling, livid, even garish, when compared to the softness of contemporary paintings. I have been sitting here for a few minutes trying to find a way to describe this sight, and I find that I cannot. Lavish and extravagent don't begin to do it justice. It was like a European interpretation of the Dalai Lama's baby bed. It was like an Egyptian tomb for a phaeroh's dolly. It was like a majestic altar to the cult of Betsy Wetsy. In fact, it was like none of those things. It utterly defied description. All I can say is, if you ever find yourself at the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, please seek out the Maria Bambina so you will see what I mean.

Outside the Abbey, we rested for a few minutes and picked up some much-needed bottled water. At one point a monk drove by in a little car that we immediately dubbed the "monk mobile." (It would have been too perfect if it were the same monk who had shown us the library, but alas, it was someone else.) We were amused to see that even monks drive like everyone else in Italia: tearing down the drive, honking to shoo the turisti out of his way. While we sat, Georg took a picture of an ice cream vending machine that read Un gelato? Buona idea!

Brian Williams asking directions of due signore
Brian Williams asking directions of due signore

Ken Genetti and Mike McAteer graciously did driving duty on the way home. We had a few more wrong turns, most amusingly when Brian, looking for a shortcut, tried to get us onto a small road marked on the map that would have taken us directly back to Montalto. We drove up to a small town (by town I mean three or four houses together), so Brian could hop out and ask directions of two older ladies sitting on a bench. (Thank goodness we had Brian and his excellent Italian, to ask directions or help when needed! The rest of us wouldn't have made it past "Scusi, signora, parle inglese?") One of the two ladies kept telling him "Go back to the good road!" But Brian kept insisting that the map said there was another road here. Finally the second lady piped up that yes, there was a road, and yes, it did go where we wanted to go.

Satisfied, Brian jumped back in the van and we headed on our way. About five hundred feet later, the road ended, and we found ourselves on two tracks in the dirt that dropped down a steep hill! After a few feet, Ken expressed his fear of getting us stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere. So we backed up until we could turn around, which turned out to be right in front of a pig pen. We enjoyed the "good old country air," which is to say, the stench of pig, while Ken and Mike got the vans turned around so we could get back to the good road. We all waved as we drove past the ladies on the bench, both of whom looked highly amused by the encounter. I hope we provided them with an entertaining story for their families and neighbors.

Back home, I strolled down to Arnell and Mike's little place (like Georg and myself, they were outside the castle walls in a cottage for 2; I liked to joke that we four were on our own if the Medicis attacked the castello again) for a chat with them. Arnell was the perfect hostess, offering me tea and cookies. While we were talking, Georg went looking for me and ended up in the office (below the Genettis' apartment). There was a TV in there, and a crowd had gathered to watch the Palio, a famous horse race. The Palio is held twice a year in Siena, in which various neighborhoods of the city (contrade) compete against each other. Apparently the race has been held every year for centuries, and the pagentry surrounding it has been built up accordingly.

While I'm wouldn't have missed the chance to talk with Arnell and Mike, I'm a little sorry I didn't also see the Palio. It sounded very exciting! Georg described it as "a short track stock car race on horseback." Apparently they race in the Campo, the piazza in the center of the city. They pull in all the tables from the outdoor cafes, cover the outer ring of the piazza with sand, and race right there. The Campo is vaguely triangular in shape, so there are some really sharp turns which caused a few collisions (thus the comparison to stock car racing). Apparently, more than one horse finished without a rider.

The contrada of the snails won, for the first time in seventeen years. By the time I wandered up to the office, the TV was showing the celebration in the cathedral of Siena: wall to wall people cheering, laughing, crying. I heard that last time, someone had jumped on top of the altar and started dancing. This time, the bishop issued a statement asking for more decorum inside the cathedral. Also, the Palio is famous for being corrupt. The horses are chosen by lot, so if a contrada gets a bad horse, they'll allegedly accept bribes to try and sabotage other riders. I imagine this might also contribute to the number of collisions.

For dinner, the Coda-Nunziantes opened up the granary for us, now used as a meeting hall of sorts, so we would have room to all eat together. It really was a lovely spot, with dwarf lemon trees, flowers and wisteria. We had pot luck (several different kinds of pasta, plus a rice casserole provided by the Genettis). Dinner was excellent, and afterwards I enjoyed a lively discussion with Bob O'Neill and Mike McAteer on the nature of mortal sin. Somehow, the setting seemed to lend itself to theological discussion. And I have found that no one enjoys an argument about minor points of dogma more than an ex-Catholic.

Tomorrow: Visiting Siena, reuniting with Francesca, and a little more bravery with the language barrier.

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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