A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 2 –
Modena to Cassino
Because the amount of work produced during this northern Italian trip was vast I decided to split this blog up into two parts. Here is the second part.
Because of time, we reluctantly decided to skip the library in medieval Parma and drove three hours strait east to Modena. There, we headed to the fascinating Bibliotca Estense. It was the family library of the Dukes of Este dating back to the 14th century. It grew during the Renaissance and is now one of the most important libraries in Italy with a collection of over 500,000 printed works and thousands of other items.
The image of my being a kid in a candy store did occur to me. Adding to that was the great tour given us by the library’s warm staff. They made the collection come alive. Some of the highlights included the Codex De Sphaera-a 1469 Allegory of the Este family, a 1,200-page Bible of Borso d’Este with incredible illuminations on almost every page, and a quirky matchbox cover collection. It was endless and I could have spent months there. Perhaps we will again in the future. We spent the night in Modena at a very nice Best Western. After all of our months of travel and staying in Greek or Italian apartments or hotels it felt nice to be in an American style hotel. But only for one night.
The next morning we drove south to the small town of Maranello Modena. This was another starchitect-designed library that I learned about in ArchDaily. There is obviously some good work being done by architects these days in library design and this was certainly one of those examples. This small but active library was filled with light, students and interesting design. The downstairs gallery had an important show about stopping violence against women. The library also did a lot of work to help migrants and refugees.
Continuing south we came to the famous city of Siena. It is nestled in the hills of this region which looked a lot like the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s in California. The historic center of Siena has been declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and we can see why. It is one of Italy’s most visited tourist attractions but we lucked out. The cold weather meant that we had much of the old city to ourselves. We had our Thanksgiving dinner (pasta!) in a nice café. I missed the turkey but we had a wonderful walk afterwards in the cold moonlight visiting the sites of this Gothic gem.
The next day we visited the Siena Cathedral. Begun in the 12th century this is considered a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. It even included some wonderful book themed inlays on the floor.
One of the unexpected surprises was finding the Piccolomini Library in the Cathedral. This was when I was happy to have a good quality iPhone with me at all times.
The next night we continued south to the city of Spoleto. It is a strategically placed ancient city in the foothills of the Apennines. Our hotel room had a view of the famous Ponte delle Torri, a 14th century bridge over a steep ravine.
The main reason we came here was to visit our friend photographer JoAnn Verburg and her husband poet Jim Moore. They have lived in Spoleto part of the year for many years. They were unbelievably generous hosts and we got an inside view of Spoleto from these two talented Americans. I took a photo of them standing over some ancient Roman ruins inside the Spoleto Public Library.
All roads lead to Rome and eventually ours did too. From our earlier experiences on this trip we decided not to drive our little Fiat Panda into the urban core of Rome but, instead, find a cheaper place at the end of a good subway line on the outskirts. Thus, we arrived at the Urban Garden Hotel & Bar in the working-class neighborhood of Rebibbia, known as the home to one of Rome’s prisons. After spending so much time on this trip in very beautiful historic places it felt somehow refreshing to spend a little time living in another side of Italy. Fortunately, the subways in Rome are really good but, during rush hour, can be really crowded. It was usually an easy commute into the heart of the Eternal City and its libraries.
Roman libraries are an embarrassment of riches. The Biblioteca Casanatense was one of the great ones. It was founded in 1701 by the Dominicans and became a State library in 1873 after the suppression of the religious orders. Our librarian/guide was delightful and patiently waited while I photographed during our long tour. I was especially impressed by the sign above the door by a Pope threatening excommunication from the church to anyone if one dared to steal a book from this library. Serious stuff!
Speaking of serious stuff, our next stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. It is a landmark papal basilica founded in the 5th century and known for its Roman mosaics and gilded ceiling. Above one of the entrance doors was a bas-relief of “The Burning of the Heretical Books” which depicts book burning as a triumph of righteousness. Weird and serious stuff.
We lucked out getting access to the Biblioteca Vallicelliana. Established in 1565 it contains many documents from the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. This large library was just about to undergo a major restoration and many books had already been packed in boxes. I gingerly stepped around the boxes to photograph this beautiful place. I was especially impressed by their fascinating collection of old globes.
That evening I reconnected with an old acquaintance from high school named Jeffery Blanchard. He now directs Cornell University’s Rome study program and has lived here forty years. We spent a fascinating evening together asking him about all things related to art, history and Rome. At the end of a great dinner we had barely scratched the surface. Not bad for someone I hadn’t seen in 50 years! Here is a photo that Jeffery took or us in his wonderful library.
Italy has three main National Libraries. One is in Naples, one in Florence and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome. This one was such a contrast to the historic libraries we had recently seen. It was built in the 1970s and was spacious, filled with light and also filled with a wide range of people using the library. The exterior was Brutalist in design but the interior was quite comfortable. It felt very 1970s but seemed very humanistic. It included a wonderful section on writers and artists displaying personal stories, artifacts and even a recreation of one of their living rooms. Again, our librarian/guide made it all come alive.
Ellen had done some research on local branch libraries in Rome and we visited one called Biblioteca Villa Mercede. This popular library was housed in a renovated small building on the grounds of an old convent surrounded by a beautiful park. The park even included a small cat sanctuary and we saw some happy kitties lounging around this feline paradise.
Founded in 1875, the Library of Archeology and History of Art was unusual for being the only public state library specializing in archeology and art history at a national level. Over the years it has been enriched with the donation of many collections. The density and height of the book collection was impressive but suggested the ongoing problem of storage for large libraries in densely packed Rome.
Earlier In the morning we saw old photographs of the original location for the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome. Our last library of the day turned out to be that original location. The Library of Archeology and History of Art administers this library which is simply referred to as Ciociera or “the Cross” because of the original layout of the building. It was interesting to be standing in the midst of the library we had seen in the historic photographs this morning.
On our last day in Rome we scaled back our ambition and only photographed two libraries. The Library of the National and Language Academy of the Lincei and Corsinian was impressive both for its scale and history. It is part of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei which included Galileo as one of its founding members. Its collection is made up of donated libraries from a number of people including the wealthy Corsini family, the inventor Marconi, Benito Mussolini, etc. We had a wonderful time being escorted throughout the collection by the librarian. We spent much of the time discussing his passion for Jimi Hendrix.
Because we had started late, we arrived late at our final destination – the State Archives of Italy. This was another Brutalist building that housed some of the greatest national archives of Italy. I was able to make a few photos just as they were closing but I know we will have to come back.
Rome is unlike any other city I have been to in my life. It contains the sophistication, density and craziness of New York but also contains layers of history stretching back over 28 centuries. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. Ellen and I had both been here separately decades ago and had seen many of the famous sites then such as the Vatican. This time we concentrated on libraries and the lesser known parts of the city. Throughout our four days in Rome I was continually fascinated by the place and could see coming back to stay here for a much longer period of time (Do I see a theme developing here?). Jeffery Blanchard said that he couldn’t see living any place else and I now understand the attraction. Of course, as a photographer I was visually overstimulated all the time. Here is a sampling of a few images from our wanderings of the streets of Rome.
I am of the generation whose parents lived and suffered during the Great Depression and WWII. Growing up on stories from that era I have a real interest in what that generation experienced. We ended our journey within an odyssey by visiting the small town of Cassino located between Rome and Naples. This was the site of one of the largest land battles in Italy during WWII when the town of Cassino was completely flattened. High on a hill above the town is the famous Montecassino Abbey. Founded around 529 it was sacked by the invading Lombards in 570. It was rebuilt and destroyed many times after that culminating in its destruction again by American bombers during WWII. Because of its importance it was quickly rebuilt and reopened in 1950s.
Before the destruction of the ancient abbey 1,400 irreplaceable manuscripts and other objects were sent to the abbey archives and eventually to safety in the Vatican in Rome. The rebuilt Abbey was spectacular and the views were unbelievable. Brother Don Giovanni took us through a selection of the vast archives of the library. His enthusiasm for the collection was infectious and we were overwhelmed by what had been saved from the destruction of war.
We spent the night in an Air B&B which was in a family’s home. The owner was very warm and we met his older parents as well. They had both lived through the war as children and the father vividly remembered the bombs landing on Montecassino during the battle. He even gave us a book of photographs from that time and his wife gave us a glass of her homemade lemoncello. The town was quickly rebuilt after the war and lacked the charm and beauty of other Italian hill towns. But meeting these warm and generous people reinforced my respect for some of the people who survive tragedy. Above one of the doors to Montecassino was a giant sign that simply said “PAX.” I think that says it all…