On Witches and Socks

According to a Christian legend, while the Three Wise Men were on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to the Infant Jesus, they bumped into a very old woman and asked her if she knew were the Son of God was, as they seemed to be quite disoriented. Unfortunately she didn’t know. Nevertheless, she offered them accommodation for a night, after all, she was the best housekeeper in the village, with the most comfortable home. The following day, the Three Magi tried to convince the old lady to join them to the visit to the baby Jesus, but despite their insistence, she refused, as did not feel like leaving the house, she was too busy with her housework after all.

Yet, very soon she repented for not having gone with them. She quickly prepared a basket of sweets and left the house in search for the Three Wise Men, but in vain. She stopped at every house she found along the way, giving candies to the children she met, in the hope that one of them was the baby Jesus. Since then, she goes around the world, giving presents to all children, so that she might be forgiven.The good ones will have toys, candies or fruit, while the bad ones get only coal, onions or garlic. That’s why it is tradition here in Italy to leave empty socks next to beds of children the night of the Epiphany, so that the old lady, that is actually called Befana, may fill them with presents. Befana’s iconography is a little scary, however, as she wears a dark and wide skirt, an apron with pockets, a shawl, a handkerchief or broad black hat on his head, a pair of worn slippers, all enlivened by numerous colored patches and she travels around the world flying on a broom.

ūü§Ēūü§Ēūü§Ē

Wait, wait, wait, but if Jesus was not born on Christmas day, even the date of his revelation to the Magi cannot be that certain. Why was it fixed on the 6th of January? Even in this case a Christian tradition actually overlapped a pagan one. We have go back to Roman Mithraic rites, again. If you remember, we have already stated that originally on the 25 th of December the winter solstice was celebrated along with Mithras, the Sol Invictus. On the twelfth night after the winter solstice, that is the day of the Epiphany, the death and rebirth of nature through Mother Nature was solemnized. But why after 12 days? Because the twelve days represented the twelve months of the years, therefore, the entire natural cycle. It seems that on those days, female figures flew over the cultivated fields, to propitiate the fertility of future crops, hence the myth of the “flying” figure, the so-called Befana.

Now, I cannot but go and look for a capacious sock, and advice you to do the same, you’ll never know.ūüėú

“The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long live the Befana!”

 

 

Advertisements

Christmas Musings

It’s over. I’m here, stranded on my sofa, unable to move, only my brain keeps on working on some lines that keep on echoing in my mind¬† : ” my heart ( but also head, stomach….I would add) aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as though ……”a ton of carbs I had swallowed.ūüė©Well, this is not the faithful reproduction of the poem, but I have got the feeling that Keats must have been thus inspired after having attended some Christmas family parties. However, after these three days of masochistic food marathon, I cannot help but wonder: what is this Christmas spirit about? What is it that we long for, as soon as Autumn sweeps away the summer sparkle? After a long pondering ūü§Ē, I¬†have come to the conclusion that the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with religion, births of Saviors, renewed feelings of empathy for humankind etc.; Christmas is all about the wonder of lights and food. It has always been so.

For example, before the fourth century A.D., the 25th of December was very popular even among the Romans, only that it was Mithras, originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun, the one to be celebrated. At that time, the 25th of December was considered the winter solstice, that is, the moment when days begin to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase, hence, the fittest day to celebrate the son of the sun. Of course, the best way to glorify such a god was to kindle lights everywhere in token of festivity. When the doctors of the Church perceived that this celebration was becoming dangerously popular even among the Christians, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day. That’s why we keep on lighting our towns and houses after so many centuries: in memory of the god of the sun!

Therefore, the popularity of those rituals stands in the power of light, rather than the name of the god it was meant to be honoured. Light is the symbol of life over death, fertility, joy and Christmas illuminations and decorations, wherever we live, make us arouse an instinctive sense of childish wonder, as if for a while all that light had the power to hide the ugliness of the world. It is that illusion that we long for.

The other question is: why do we feel compelled to overeat during Christmas holidays? Maybe, there are anthropological reasons, as it is now winter and we have to store fat for the long cold season. Some of you who might be reading this post in warmer climates might object this point, of course, hence, I would like to remind you that, first of all, we live in time of globalization and that if you are celebrating Christmas, it is because some European soldiers and monks settled in your lands centuries ago exterminating the people who had inhabited them bringing the traditions of their cold mother countries…….. in the name of the Savior, of course.

 

“Spelacchio”, a Farewell.

It is now official: “Spelacchio” is dead. He couldn’t make it for Christmas, and now it has become a long, slender, bare, dry , lifeless tree dressed up with lights and balls which, let me say,¬† make ¬†“Spelacchio” even more pathetic, if possible. What did it kill it ? Well, it seems it was the cool wind from the North which has blown over the capital for a couple of days – I have to say that it has been unusually cold these days here – that stroke the last mortal blow. Strange indeed, however, as firs don’t grow at tropical latitudes as far as I know, unless this one was of a peculiar kind.

However, if “Spelacchio” aimed at becoming a celeb, somehow it did it, even if for the wrong reasons. Lots of articles from all over the world have narrated its slow agony, and if “Spelacchio” (mangy) has sounded so pejorative, a newspaper from Moscow , Russia Today, has even been less genteel defining it “toiled brush“. Even the “Ghana News Agency” had something to say about it with an article entitled: “No Christmas Joy in Rome“.

However, the reason why this story has enraged all Roman citizens lies in its symbolism. “Spelacchio” represents, in fact, “the eternal city’s eternal decay” as The Guardian defined it. And there is no sign of any improvement. The capital has been in a state of chronic stagnation since Virginia Raggi, the bright star of the anti-establishment 5-star movement, has become Mayor of Rome. The streets are full of pot holes, there are piles of garbage everywhere, public gardens are often unkempt with weeds that grow as tall as a person. Even the Pope himself has decried the state of the city in a public celebration before the Mayor. Words unheard, of course.

So, farewell “Spelacchio”. I am sorry we have not been more welcoming with you, but try to understand us if you can. You were to be that ephemeral beauty, that sparkling illusion that lasts only few weeks . A childish illusion, indeed, which would have made us forget for a while the ugliness that surrounds us every day, giving a little hope. Maybe next year? Maybe.

“Spelacchio”: A Christmas Story


Once upon a time a beauty contest was held among the snowy valleys of Trentino Alto
Adige in order to spot the most, luxurious, beautiful fir worthy to represent the
Christmas spirit in the capital: Rome. The prize was very high: the fir would have
been placed in the middle of Piazza Venezia and would have been adorned with
hundreds of fabulous silver balls and kilometers of lights bulbs. For almost a month
it would have reigned over that ancient city, close to the Coliseum and the majestic
Roman Forum . It would have been admired by millions of people, thus
becoming a celeb. The administrators of the city had in mind to create something
memorable that year, hoping people would forget the shabby organization of the previous Christmas setup. They were so confident that they didn’t even look for a sponsor
to share the expense, as it should have been crystal clear that the merits were to be all
their own .

The winner was a tall, elegant, rich sort of fir and as it had always been very admired and envied in the entire valley, nobody objected that choice. A party to celebrate the victory was given, then, band and scepter in hand, the Fir was accurately prepared and delicately placed on a lorry on a bed of cushions and tied, so that the 700 and more kilometers to the capital might be not too tiring. It should have been at its best once in the capital. However, when the snowy cliffs of Trentino Alto Adige were no longer in sight, a sort of melancholy took possession of its heart. The air was no longer clear and sparkling, but humid and polluted. It seemed as if it could not breathe.
Furthermore, it had started to notice in horror that some pine needles were falling
off prematurely. Surely, it was the stress of the long journey, but fortunately they were very close to the final destination. Nobody would have noticed few pine needles missing, the Fir was sure.

Only when it was eventually crucified in the middle of Piazza Venezia, the most deserving of all firs understood the tragedy that was about to overwthelm it. It was not only for the few
needles that had fallen off, but it had lost almost a half of his green coat. It
stood there, defenceless, tired, mortified at its own ugly nakedness. Was really this tall
and huge scarecrow the “elegant”, “sober” tree promised by the administrators? When the children gathered around the tree they were, of course, disappointed and soon named it sneeringly: “Spelacchio“( the closest word in English I might think about¬† is “mangy”) The tons of lights that weighted on its humbled spirit and the hundreds of silver
balls that wounded its bare branches were not enough to hide the shabbiness of the
entire effect. Giving a look around from where it had been placed,  however, the Fir felt just a little relieved: that capital was not exactly what it had imagined. Dirt and garbage could be seen almost everywhere, the city seemed chaotic and noisy. Somehow, its presence perfectly fitted that place, it thought bitterly.

Sunset was the happiest moment of the day. The lights were turned on, so the Fir felt safely hidden behind the magic wonder that covered it all and imagined to be admired as it used to be, but the mornings were hideous and the Fir couldn’t bear to read in the disappointed eyes of passers-by its own failure any longer. So there it stands now, barer and barer day after day, waiting for Christmas to come, hoping¬† to be set free as soon as possible from its misery and humiliation . Much better to end up as a log in some warm fireplace that exposed in that cold square.

The moral of the story? Well, if your city administrators cannot even make a decent Christmas tree, it is very unlikely they will be able to bring the place you live to the standards it deserves. Think twice before giving your vote next time.

In the meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone!

 

Being Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders

What if you had been gifted of a unique talent but not allowed to express it freely because you were born woman. If Shakespeare had had a sister, endowed with the same degree of genius, or even more, what would have become of her, was Virginia Woolf’s question in “A Room of One’s Own”? Marriage, children, a woman ‘s¬† “career” was quite defined whatever her social status was at those times. Hence, Virginia Woolf ‘s conclusions were that had such a playwright existed, she would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed, her voice made dumb.

Sleeping Venus

Well, exactly at those times, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, a woman was struggling to gain hers as an artist. Born in Rome on 8 July 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.¬† Artemisia was soon introduced to painting in her father’s workshop¬† just like her brothers but soon Orazio saw where real talent harbored among his children and it was in those little, delicate fingers of her daughter. He encouraged her and taught her how to draw, mix color and¬† paint, but at the same time, she had to take her mother’s place, who had lately died, and bear the burden of the various responsibilities of family business, home management and the custody of her three little brothers. Whatever Artemisia had learnt, therefore, it was within the domestic walls. Even Caravaggio’s technique, the most popular and innovative painter of those times that had influenced her style so much, was not apprehended directly but through his father’s paintings. As woman, she was unable to enjoy the same learning paths undertaken by her male colleagues. As you can easily guess, painting was considered almost exclusively male and not feminine at that time. However; Artemisia’s talent was blossoming to such an extent that Orazio allowed her to work on his canvases. It was in 1610, at the age of 17, when she produced what, according to some critics, is the work that officially seals Artemisia’s debut into the world of art: “Susanna and the Elders“(Susanna e i Vecchioni).

The episode to which the work relates is narrated in Daniel’s book from the Old Testament. Susanna is a young and chaste girl, who is surprised naked in the bathroom by two elderly gentlemen attending her husband’s home. She is subjected to a sexual blackmail: either she will agree to submit to their appetites or the two will tell her husband that they had surprised her with a young lover. Susanna accepts the humiliation of an unjust accusation and only later Daniel will bring to light the lie of the two elders. Maybe it was a presage, but incredibly Artemisia will experience a similar event with devastating consequences in her life. In 1611, when Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi, a talented painter, to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Orazio decided to hire him to mentor his daughter privately, despite the rumors about his obscure past.¬† During this tutelage,Tassi raped Artemisia.¬†

Death of Cleopatra

Which were Artemisia’s options? Telling everything to her father? What if he had not believed her? Denounce the rapist? Bearing the consequence of public exposure and comments? She decided to be silent. She even continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, hoping he would marry her, thus restoring her dignity and future, but Tassi continually postponed the marriage, using his promise as a means of convincing her to continue sexual relations with him. Nine months had passed and rumors about the liaison reached the ear of Orazio. The two were confronted and eventually both Tassi and another “gentleman” Cosimo Quorli (who had tried but failed to rape Artemisia and had helped Agostino plan visits to her house when her father was absent) were charged.¬†The trial lasted seven months in 1612, and received, as you can well imagine, considerable publicity.

The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, Orazio would not have been able to press charges. “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me….I have never had any sexual relations with any other person besides¬† Agostino..” she declared, but these were only the words of a woman, therefore; during the trial she was subjected to a gynecological examination, first to verify her testimony and then tortured with the “sibille”, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to “prove” that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which, of course, seriously injured her hands, thus risking her career, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded: “it is true, it is true.”

Orazio Gentileschi’s self portrait

During the trial Artemisia discovered that Tassi could have never married her, because he already had a wife, a wife that he had planned to murder, but still alive. Furthemore; he had been engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law and had in mind to steal some of Orazio’s painting. Not exactly a Prince Charming. After the trial he was condemned to five years of imprisonment or, alternatively, perpetual exile from Rome. Of course, he opted for the second possibility, but he managed never to move from Rome. Hence; even if Artemisia won, her¬† in Rome was completely undermined and¬† an impressive¬† amount of licentious sonnets that saw her as protagonist started to spread. One month after the trial, in order to save her reputation Artemisia married a painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. She and her husband separated a few years later.

What followed were years of hard work, but also fame. He travelled and made herself known all over Europe and her genius reached even the court of Charles I. Of course, the consequences of the rape and subsequent trial had left inevitably a profound impression on Artemisia’s life and art, thus¬† transposing the psychological consequences of the violence suffered on her canvas. Very often, “la pittora”(the woman painter) as she was called, turned to the uplifting theme of biblical heroines such as Judith, Jade, Betsabeah, or Esther, who – fearless of danger and animated by an upset and vindictive desire – triumph over the cruel enemy, and somehow, claim their right within society. In this way, Artemisia soon became a kind of protofeminist, permanently in war with the other sex and able to incarnate the desire of women to affirm themselves in society.

 


(Un)Happy and Connected?

My mother and technology have always been two worlds apart, the simple tuning of radio stations was a mystery for her, just to give you an idea. So, when long long time ago she decided to buy me a mobile for Christmas, her choice could not but be based only on glamour and price, after all she would have done everything to make her beloved, spoiled, only daughter happy. It was my very first mobile and I can still remember how she was eagerly awaiting to read the surprise and joy in my eyes and how she hurried me to open my gift, after all, such new device was everybody’s wish at that time and so she assumed it was even mine. Once unwrapped my present, I remained a few seconds in silence watching the thing and said : “Give it back , I don’t want it”. It was not her choice of mobile that I disliked – a red, super expensive, flashy “Ferrari ” ( famous mobile brand isn’t it?), but that was the instinctive reaction to a thought that took possession of my mind at once : with that gizmo I could have been controlled. Even if she tried to hide it, I saw tears in her eyes. Since then and after many mobiles that thought has never abandoned me, it has been only put aside, but every now and then it comes back to claim its rights and that’s why my relationship with the connected world has always been something between love and hatred.

I cannot deny that more than once having a mobile has been more than useful , as
when I broke the axle and the axle shaft of my car while I was on my way to work
or, of course, that time I was left imprisoned in a lift and….. well, actually,
nothing more that vital I can remember. Two episodes in about 25 years! Of course, I love
chatting, texting, googling. ……but on the other hand I believe the control you
have on people being thus connected anyhow, anywhere, has increased rather than
reduced our fears and made our psychological space a bit too crowded and
suffocating. One example ? My mother. Again. I am sure whoever has an elderly parent knows well what I am about to say.  When I call her on the phone at home she rarely answers, of course, I am not worried as she might be doing something and I try and look for her on her mobile number: silence. After many unsuccessful attempts to reach her, my
mind begins to be haunted by the shadows of any possible disgrace, hence, I feel having no other choice than going and seek for her at home. And there she is, peacefully watching tv.¬† When I enquire about her mobile, she always answers candidly: “Oh, it’s off, my dear”. It’s her revenge for that Ferrari, I’m sure.

Whenever we want to control somebody it is often for a good reason, but hardly ever it is the consequence of a positive thought. We want to put at rest our fears, but if we take the phone any time doubts and apprehension cross our brain, we just end up reducing the freedom of others, even the freedom of making mistakes. Think about how the parent-child relationship has changed in this last decade. I see children continuously connected to their parents for any reason, much more that I used to be at their age, it is a continuous presence that can make them eventually¬† grow less responsible. I can witness this at school. If they forget their book, dictionary, money, snack or if they feel like having a problem with a teacher, no problem, let’s call mummy or daddy, and they’ll promptly come at any time of the day to help and solve their problems. However, they never forget their mobiles, strange indeed.

I can still remember my years abroad. I usually heard from my parents twice a month! Of course, it was B.E.M., namely, Before Mobile Era and as calls were expensive, I knew I had¬†to manage things myself and that it was no use calling them to tell my problems, if I had any, the only result would have been making them more worried. I’m sure the flavor of those happy years wouldn’t have been the same, had my mother phoned me three times a day.

The princes, princesses and their Queen, of course.

Of course, you may guess, what I might think of Whatsapp with its blue check marks or its noisy, chatty, crowded groups: I hate them. However, I cannot ignore how it has recently become quite common at school  to form Whatsapp groups to share information. There are three kinds of them, which I will list according to the degree of danger of breaking into your privacy: level 1 Рteachers (dangerous); level 2 Рteachers and students (very dangerous); level -3 teachers, students and parents (madness). So far, I have unsuccessfully joined some level 1 groups.  Last June I had my chance to experience level 2. The occasion was a trip to Sicily with one of my classes. I thought about creating a group for a while, but no way, I could not, I only resolved about giving my precious telephone number to two selected students, with the solemn promise of burning or swallowing it at the end the trip. I have to say that they have been fantastic and behaved like princes and princesses, I am not joking, but even aristocracy sometimes has its faults. One day inTaormina, we were on our way to the theatre, when my two colleagues and I had to stop to help one of our boys who thought he had lost his wallet. By the time we called the coach company and check whether the wallet had been left on the coach, they had all disappeared, vanished. We hoped they had seen the huge sign to Taormina theatre and turned left, but they had not, they had gaily followed the flow and turned right. Once arrived at the solitary gates of the theatre my colleagues started to text them on Whatsapp, of course, they could easily reach all their students and give directions, but  I could not. I was mortified. I was just about to call my two chosen ones, when I saw the name of one of them on my display. He asked me where I was where I was  and assured they would have joined me soon. When they all arrived, my collegues soundly reproached them, but I did not. I could not.I just smiled.

The Road to the Land of Red Onions

 

Rain.How long has it been since it rained the last time? Oh, dear, more than three
months ago. Since that timid, delicate drizzle of May the 19th, we have been
haunted by an incessant, suffocating, dehydrating, I-am-about-to-faint heat. Hence;
it should have been quite natural to choose as destination for the upcoming holidays
some refreshing places such as the Dolomites, Iceland, the Norwegian fjords etc. .
Anybody would have acted that wise, anybody but me. As this year it was my turn to
spot the location and being, honestly, quite fed up with going to the Dolomites, I
deliberately ignored my husband’s imploring eyes and since I am no Heidi, I was
determined, it would have been South, and deep South this time: Tropea, Calabria,

Can you guess, which is mine?

Light luggage and off we went. It is quite a long way, since Tropea is 700 kilometers far from Rome, yet we were particularly looking forward to being finally driving along the famous motorway A3 Salerno – Reggio Calabria. That fame had been earned by the world record waste of money and the prodigious length of time to have it completed: more than 40 years. For such a brilliant record we are mostly indebted to the Calabrian mafia, called N’Drangheta, of course. By the way; I cannot but rejoice by writing that I belong to that lucky generation that may say to have witnessed the end of it, as the motorway was declared eventually terminated only few months ago. After such an effort at the cost of 5.6 million euros per kilometer, what would you have expected it to be like?

Tropea red onion

Well, at that cost I would have supposed to see it supplied with any possible modern
device, Wi-Fi , service stations with jacuzzi and well-trained staff ready to massage your stiff neck after long driving hours and, why not, brass bands with singing festive children throwing rose petals at you at the moment of your departure as sign of gratitude for all the money given away in taxes all these years. That I would have expected. At least. On the contrary, we discovered it to be quite a narrow, neglected motorway. Still. After the first 53 km the three lanes become two and after a while, the emergency lane suddenly disappears never to be seen again, or at least we lost the sight of it. And for what concerns technology, I guess when long
time ago Italian novelist Carlo Levi¬† entitled his book “Christ stopped at
Eboli“, this choice must have been justified by the fact that right at Eboli, all the radio signals suddenly die out to be picked only intermittently every now and then. As for the service areas, there are just few of them and, as you can imagine, crowed by multitudes of thirsty, hungry people and tired, yelling kids. Nevertheless, after almost 500 km we had to stop, so we resolved to make our way to the bar for a little refreshment, which we did exactly with the same attitude Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley attended the ball at Longbourn.We quitted as soon as possible, of course. After one hour’s driving when we started to notice stalls with piles of red onions along the way, we understood that our destination was now close.

The crystal clear water of Tropea

I guess you may have understood that Calabria is one of the poorest Italian region with little industrial development . The local control of the Mafia, and the ineffective policies in the course of the past decades have kept this land backward. Even if it is blessed by amazing rocky and sandy costs touched by a clean, blue sea, still tourism is having difficulty in taking off for the lack of adequate tourist facilities but Tropea is one of the few exceptions. At the end of the motorway we truly found our treasure.

The coastal cliff of Tropea

 

 

 

 

 

One of the many charming restaurants in Tropea

 

 

The little town sits on top dramatic coastal cliffs in the gulf of St. Euphemia and the legend says that it was Hercules who, returning from Spain stood on the Coast of Gods and made Tropea one of his ports.    We walked through the charming old town through an incredible maze of lovely lanes, restaurants and cafes till we reached a place where we could experience the most stunning and breathtaking views of the sea and beaches. Here are some pics of the sea:

And at sunset you could also see the island of Stromboli :

Stromboli

And if you feel like having an ice-cream:

We were so glad to see such beauty and organization that we often used many words of deserved praise with the locals and what I loved the most was to hear them proudly say, particularly from young people, that much more can, must be done. It’s the dawn of a new,¬† substantial change, I’m sure. I heartily wish them so.

A picture of me.