La Serenissima

Monday, June 23, 2014

Italian spirit – family, madonna, church and the piazza


Barzini writes that “The first source of power is the family … Italy has often been defined, with only slight exaggeration, as nothing more than a mosaic of millions of families, sticking together by blind instinct, like colonies of insects, an organic formation, rather than a rational construction of written statutes and moral imperatives … The family extracts everybody’s first loyalty. It must be defended, enriched, made powerful, respected, and feared by the use of whatever means are necessary …”

“The fact that the woman is the predominant character of Italian life, even if not the most conspicuous, can be read in many small signs … popular songs are dedicated to la mamma … Mamma mia is the most common exclamation … wounded Italian soldiers (have moaned) mamma, mamma, mamma. The next most common exclamation is “Madonna”, which is a supernatural equivalent, La Madonna is the universal symbol of suffering and self-sacrificing womanhood.”

He goes on to say that “It is principally the pressure of the Italian faithful and the zeal of the Italian clergy which prodded the Church to proclaim dogmas concerning La Madonna, codifying and sanctifying traditions and legends dear to the hearts of simple people.”

Everywhere you go in Italy, be it Rome and other large cities, large towns like San Gimignano or little places like Mont Auto in Tuscany, there are Madonnas and shrines on the corners or sides of buildings, and often in small alcoves dotted along the road as you are driving the back roads between towns and villages.

Of course at Christmas time, the Madonna is centre stage. She, and of course her new-born son, adorn Christmas cards, postage stamps, nativity scenes, Christmas gift paper, she moonlights in the form of decorations on Christmas trees, and of course, is the centre of attention inside churches.

Christmas aside, you will see her across various centuries in art galleries across Europe, probably none more so than in Italian galleries. She is shown regularly from the twelfth century to the Renaissance in various stages of her life from the Annunciation, to the very early life of Jesus as a baby through to his cruxifiction and death.

As Carla Coulson observes in Napoli:

“Most of Italy’s public holidays are held in honour of a  saint. Every city, town and village worships a patron saint or the Madonna as its protector … The Madonna di Sovereto (the protector of Terlizzi) was discovered when a pecora (sheep) got a hoof stuck in a crack in the ground. After the shepherd freed the sheep he noticed a divine light beneath the crack in the ground that led him to an ancient painting of the Madonna in the cave below … I flew to Sicily to see i misteri (ancient carved wooden statue depicting twenty scenes of the Passion of Christ) and La Madonna in Italy’s biggest procession at Easter. I was overcome with joy (in) the centre of Bari to discover that among the beautiful white stone streets were 120 brightly coloured tabernacles to the Madonna, all decorated with little skirts of fabric.”

La Chiesa – The church

La Madonna is, of course, seen in all of Italy’s churches. I’ve often heard people who have travelled to Italy say that if they see another church, they’ll go cross-eyed and perhaps totally mad. But aside from the number of churches, do we know what church we are looking at? Here’s the low down:

There are six main styles of church architecture in Italy and you can see all of them pretty easily. The Classical period,  from 200 to 400 AD, is exemplified by the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The Byzantine period, from about the fourth to the tenth century, represents a continuation of Greek architecture, and is characterized by round arches, the use of brick instead of stone, central plan, domes, and mosaics, as can be seen in San Vitale in Ravenna.

The Romanesque period, from about eight hundred to the early Renaissance in fourteen hundred, saw the construction of the Duomo at Modena. Probably the best known Romanesque church is the part of the Campo dei Miracoli – the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The best known building that combines Classical, Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine is San Marco in Venice.

Overlapping the Renaissance style is the Gothic from about the twelvth to the sixteenth century. According to a writer during the Renaissance:

"The ancient Greek and Roman architecture answered all the perfections required in a faultless and accomplished building, but the Goths and Vandals destroyed these” and "introduced in their stead a certain fantastical and licentious manner of building: congestions of heavy, dark, melancholy, monkish piles, without any just proportion, use or beauty."

The Renaissance began in Florence, and saw a revival of Roman architecture and an articulation of forms and space based on precise measurements and proportions based on man. Classically styled columns, geometrically perfect designs, and hemispherical domes characterize Renaissance architecture. There are probably thousands of examples of Renaissance architecture, from Bramante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, to Brunelleschi’s dome for the Duomo in Florence and the façade of Santa Maria de Novella also in Florence, designed by Alberti.

Then came the Baroque, best known for Rome’s St Peter’s Bascilica. Designed by Bernini it started in 1600 in Rome and spread throughout Europe. It was influenced by the Church’s encouragement that the representative arts should speak to the illiterate masses rather than the educated. It created a sensual and emotive experience.

The other noticable thing about the church in Italy is that you see so many of it's office bearers in the streets – priests, nuns and brothers of all ages!

Handy links and references – churches in Italy

Top churches to visit in Rome

Documents over 500 churches in Italy

Lists the different architectural styles and periods

Paolo Rossi – The most beautiful Italian churches

Nine amazing cathedrals in a slide show

The number of priests and nuns in Europe, US and Oceanania

CARA is a national, non-profit, Georgetown University affiliate conducting studies about the Catholic church.

Street life and la piazza

No matter how small the place in Italy, whether there is a large population or a small community, there is always a piazza. Sometimes they are grand architectural affairs with impressive paving and sculptures, other times the piazza simply occupies open space between intersecting streets.

Like the beaker on your bunsen burner in science class at school, piazze are transparent containers for life in all its manifestations. Friends of all ages, family, lovers, colleagues, children, and people walking their dogs –– can be seen either strolling, eating or drinking wine or coffee and TALKING!

Of course, it’s both the ordinary and the inconguities that make you stop and marvel. For instance, Penelope Green, when strolling around Piazza di Spagna, enjoys the odd, yet not so odd at all, spectacle of “a tall Franciscan monk, his chocolate brown robes billowing in his stride, with a mobile phone in his hand.” Of course we should not be surprised at all – these people are living in the twenty first centuary like the rest of us.

I saw an amusing scene once, which caused me to laugh out loud. It didn’t happen in Italy, but it could have. I was in Jerusalem, just passing from the Muslim quarter to the Christian quarter where the path widens considerably (if it was in Italy it would have been a piazza!). I could hear a commotion ahead, before I could actually see it. Suddenly, rushing towards me was a group of eight or so young Italian priests, all talking at once, laughing and waving their arms about. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed them if I had been in Italy …!

Beppe Severgnini has the last word on the piazza. “An Italian piazza happens. Whenever we have tried to create one from scratch, the results have been indifferent. To understand a piazza you have to use it. And you can’t be in a hurry. The piazza will tell you all sorts of stories, in its own good time.”

In Rome, I always stay at an unbeatable hotel, for comfort, service and location, the Colonna Palace, in Piazza Montecetorio, opposite the Chamber of Deputies. The first time I stayed there I was highly entertained by a demonstration involving students, union members and ordinary family types. What distinguished this demonstration was that around midday, they downed their banners and stopped blowing their whistles, because it was time for pranzo (lunch). All was quiet until about 3.30 in the afternoon, when they put in another bout of placard waving and whistle blowing until 5 o’clock, when they decamped for an aperitivo!

 A favourite walk is along Via Campo de Marzio to Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. There are several outdoor cafés where you can sip on your preferred beverage and enjoy the passing parade of stylish people, some stopping for coffee, others having business meetings and some browsing in the windows of the surrounding shops.

Piazza di Spagna is always worth a look. Yes, I it can be touristy (although there are lots of Italians there too) but it is also quite lovely. I love the languidness of people lolling in the sun on the Spanish Steps. Leading from the Piazza is Via Condotti, where you can window shop or better still, check out the people there. One time I saw a discreet limo driver looking the part in a dark grey suit – with matching BMW 7 series – and Armani sunglasses, parked outside Bulgari. Bustling through the little cross-streets like via Mario di Fiori, vintage and new Vespers zoom past, some driven by immaculately dressed young women, no helmet and wearing heels 5 inches high!

I sometimes take the bus from via del Tritone, up past the Forum, Colosseum, the Palatine and Circus Maximus back up to Piazza Navona. I love this spot, especially by November when the summer hoards are gone and you can have a peaceful view of the fountains and palaces that fringe the piazza. It’s interesting to watch the waiters in crisp white shirts and black trousers, plying patrons with plates of pasta, crusty bread and glasses of vino. One time I listened to a great jazz trio playing at the far end of the Piazza near Via del Governo Vecchio.

When I stayed in Perugia for the Italian course, I loved experiencing the changes in the Piazze at the different times of day. In the mornings, on the way to class at the Universita per Stranieri, I walked down Corso  Vannucci, past Piazza Danti and Piazza Matteotti. At that time, the air was cool in the Piazze and Corso, the caffé tables were not yet out and food and drink deliveries were being decanted from the trucks to the various cafés and trattorias. The smell of fresh baked bread and coffee filled the air and the sounds of people greeting each other floated up between the medieval buildings.

Then returning after lunch, the same areas were throbbing with people eating, drinking and talking, shaded by umbrellas now needed to shelter from the hot sun. After class, at aperitivi time, the same spaces were crowded again, except this time people were clutching a prosecco and swapping stories about their day.

The buzz of the streetlife continued in the many streets off Corso Vannucci – the entrance to some marked by medieval archways, such as Via dei Priori off to the left, where my soon-to-become favourite deli/mini super was located. Some were looking at the fashion boutiques, others were planning and buying for tonight’s meal and some just strolling.

At the end of Corso Vannucci is the old medieval Piazza Danti, with a 14th century fountain, and the Duomo. Young people were relaxing on the Duomo steps, dozing in the sun. Others were crowding the outdoor cafés overlooking the Piazza.  A few feet further on is Via Battisti, framed by Etruscan arches and thronging with students on their way to Piazza Fortebraccio and the Università per Stranieri overlooking it.

 The buzz of modern human traffic melts into ancient spaces. Modernity with antiquity. On the western side of Giardini Carducci, is the well used system of commuter escalators (scale mobile) – three sets in all – which take you from the high position of centro storico down to the modern town, including the very efficient bus depot. The system is enclosed in Etruscan Towers, now subterranean!

Like a scene from a movie, Piazza San Marco in Venice is clearly a well-known hangout for people watching. But there are many other places in Venice that afford you the opportunity to watch life unfolding before your eyes. I was once enjoying a coffee and people watching at a nice café in Via Larga XX11 Marzo – a wide street that functions like a piazza – where I watched West Africans selling knock-off Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags. Well, that doesn’t sound so exceptional, but the vendors were positioned right outside a real Gucci store!! Word that the police were coming buzzed around and the vendors packed up hurriedly. Some time later four policia, with eyes averted and examining the prevailing cloud cover and the direction of the breeze, stumbled along, finding nothing wrong happening at all!! Pa-a-leeze …! The café staff just laughed and went on with their chores … they said this piece of theatre happens every day!

No matter where you are in Italy, take the time to sit in a piazza, listen and look, and your spirit will be rewarded.

Links and references – le Piazze

The six best piazze in Italy – covers all of the main ones

This is a fabulous site and gives information on many piazze, including lesser known, and in some cases less touristy, piazze.

Four piazze you must not miss

The meaning of piazze to Italians and Italian life