Sunday, September 18, 2011


Castles  and Capers   in Borgia  Country

Loggia  and fountain  of Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

Borgia, Farnese, Orsini… these  are just  a few of the powerful  families  who  held sway in  Etruria , an area north of Rome   that  the Italians  call Tuscia Viterbese . 

Borgia-Farnese  castle, Nepi 
Thanks  to  their   connections,  powerful   papal nephews  were able  to acquire  lands and create  magnificent  palazzi  and  gardens  in this now quiet area north of Rome. 

Nepotism allowed them to commission  splendid  estates and art work for  their private enjoyment and to dazzle  visitors. 

As  modern  TV series show,  many of the papal  family members   were not  always   up to religious  standards. 
Their lifestyles were often  more  outlandish and   exciting  than anything  a script  writer  could invent today.     

waterfall  near Borgia Castle  at Nepi 
Farnese  coat of arms, Nepi 

 Nepi - Borgia fortress

Lucrezia  Borgia,  daughter of Pope Alexander  VI, Rodrigo Borgia,  was often visitor  in Nepi where the  towers, massive walls and  underground areas still  ooze  history even when a modern day gastronomy festival is  happening.

One of the papal nephews  of  the Farnese  family  was  responsible  for  the magnificent  Palazzo Farnese, in Caprarola. Along  with the Palazzo Farnese in Rome –the present  French Embassy –  it epitomizes    Renaissance  architecture and art.

upper gardens  of  Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

upper gardens and Casina dei Piaceri

  Caprarola’s Palazzo Farnese,  designed  by Architect   Vignola, can be considered  the original  pentagon  for  it has  5 sides,   a circular  central courtyard  and  perfectly  square or rectangular  rooms.       And what rooms!

design  by Justin Bradshaw  
There are  frescoed  walls including  the  map room dedicated  to explorers. The  gilded ceilings  and multi-colored terracotta tile floors are  perfectly  maintained mosaics . The south-facing  rooms were used in winter,while  those on the northern side, were lived in  during the hot summers.
glazed terracotta  tiles of the loggia, Caprarola

 This hillside  town  named after  goats (capra=goat)   is  a perfect   place to   relax  in style, just as it was for  powerful men  of the past, from the   Farnese  popes and  cardinals to  Prince Charles  and  Italian presidents  in pre-Berlusconi  days.

view towards Rome from Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

The views from the loggia of Palazzo Farnese stretch  all the way to Rome (35 kms )  while   Mount Soratte’s  majestic   outline  looms  in the distance. 

fresco  by Zuccari , Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

The Zuccari  brothers and their crew of  decorators  did not  have to worry about  expenses   thus  the Palazzo , its  gardens , fountains  and the   Casina  dei Piaceri  show   papal nepotism  on a grand scale .   

Along the lakeside road  traveled by  artists, architects and stone masons  who   worked  with the wealthy families  of  Viterbo,  Vetralla  and  Caprarola  we find a simple  fountain  of Santa Lucia, emblazoned with Farnese  symbols.   
Santa Lucia, Lake DiVico , between Vetralla and Caprarola

Capers,  considered  an aphrodisiac, still  grow  today  on  the south facing  walls   and were    used  for  medicinal purposes, to help digestion and hangovers. 

Opening the hydraulic system for   giochi d'acqua
Interestingly ,   the word caper,   also means a  joyful leap  or  a  high- spirited escapade . Note  the  water games installed  to surprise  visitors with sprinkler systems that are still perfectly  functional today.

Another  “season  of capers”   happened  in the early 1900s when an   eccentric   Boston lady  and her daughters   lived at the Palazzo and their lifestyle  was immortalized  in   Gabriele D’Annunzio’s   “Le Vergini delle Rocce”.  
For more about  the palace and the underground multimedia  area  check  out Palazzo Farnese .

For more stories about  the palazzi and gardens of the area  purchase your signed  copy of "Etruria-travel, history and itineraries in central Italy".    


Monday, September 5, 2011

Mysteries of Messina- sea monsters, a musical clock and a phantom museum

According  to  Greek mythology  the  Straits of  Messina  were home to   sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Celebrated  by  Virgil and Homer,   these dangerous monsters  represented  the difficulties   sailors  met  when   passing through   the  narrow passage   separating   Sicily from the  Italian  mainland.

The names  Scylla and Charybdis  ( in Italian  Scilla  e  Cariddi )  have   remained, even   in the  English language, to  signify  danger and  the plight of  having  to decide between two  evils.

Lovely beaches,  villages and medieval castles dot  both  the Calabrian and Sicilian  sides  of the Straits , but  the coast line is also marred  by  two huge steel  plyons used  between  1955 and  1994 to  carry electric lines across the straits. 
Let’s hope that  no other  monsters- giant wind towers or  Berlusconi’s planned  bridge- are constructed   here.
Madonna  greets cruise ships in Messina

When cruise ships  arrive  to the port of  Messina, they are greeted  by   the Madonna  della Lettera   and find that  they are  in the heart of  the city , making it easy  to explore  Messina  on their own.  

cruise  ships  next to an  historic church   

aftermath of  1908 earthquake 
 Most of the city  was  rebuilt  after  the 1908 earthquake  which killed over 150,000 people. The bombings  of  World War II  are another reason for   the city’s present low buildings and  wide  streets.  

Messina has seen  a succession of civilizations:  Greek  , Roman,   Saracen  and  Norman , but sadly very little of  these  ancient layers of  history  is  evident at first glance.  What  is evident is the amazing   astronomical clock on the bell tower next to the Duomo.
detail of  Duomo's main doorway
Messina's  rebuilt  Duomo 

the bell man, near Messina's Duomo 

moving figures on the clock tower

Created  by the  Ungerer brothers of Strasbourg  and installed  in the rebuilt tower in  1933, it  is more than  a reference point to  locate  the city center.
 The  gilded mechanical figures  representing people and happenings  of local history make it the city’s  major tourist attraction.  

 One wonders  today  about the  political mechanisms  and friendships that were activated (local bishop, governments of  Mussolini and Hitler) to organize and pay for  this mechanical wonder.
the angel  points out the season, month, day

the astronomical  clock, Messina 

Renaissance  fountain
   At   noon each day   the main  piazza with its magnificent 16th century  fountain,  Duomo  and tower  is crowded  with  tour buses and visitors milling around waiting for  the  show.    

A  young  couple, hoping  for tips,  entertains the crowds with  their interpretation of the  tarantella until the clock strikes noon and the bells peal. Then   numerous  mechanical beasts and statues  put on a sound and  motion  show that lasts for  a quarter of an hour.  
improvising  a profession in Messina 

dancing   couple  

A 4 metre  high gilded lion holds a banner, roars and moves its head and tail ,  a giant cockerel crows and flaps its wings  and numerous figures representing other  important  moments in the city’s history move  across the  fa├žade of the bell tower . 
tourist  train   Messina 

Following  the  show the crowd disperses to  indulge  in  ricotta filled  cannoli  at the nearby  pasticceria, or  to   ride the  mini train that criss crosses  the  city center. 

Another  of Messina’s mysteries  is the phantom   museum located  at  the  northern  end of the  modern single  track train  that runs  the length of the city  along the seaside.   
Phantom museum of the Sicilian Region

  The Regional Museum of Sicily, a  huge modern complex  meant to house the region’s art masterpieces must have cost  a fortune. 
 Upon arrival  at the end of the metro line  - the crude  reality.  The majestic brick  and glass building  has never  been opened, rather it is abandoned  to the elements and  overgrown with weeds.

Just  built  and abandoned

Visitors  find  the entrances  closed up  tight and  after asking around, will be  directed to an adjacent   building .     
 This was once  a spinning mill but for the past several  decades  is has been used as a storage depot where some of the region’s   treasures can be seen. 
entrance  and guardian at  old museum 
Courtyard  of old museum
bells at old museum entrance 

blue and white ceramics  in old museum