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Jerusalem – A Tale of Two Countries and a Trip Up North


Jerusalem – A Tale of Two Countries and a Trip Up North


One of the great things about Friday night and Saturday in Israel is Shabbat. In the ideal, this is a time to gather together with family and friends to count your blessings, renew your faith and have hearty discussions over good food and wine. We were lucky to be invited to a Shabbat dinner with Naomi Schacter who works at the National Library of Israel. The next day we were invited to Shabbat lunch with Lisa Wiseman who runs the American Center for the American Embassy in Israel. Both meals were home cooked and delicious. The conversations for both included a wide range of subjects and fortunately lasted for a long time. What a delightful way to enter into a new culture. The down side of Shabbat is that everything literally shuts down including cafes, pharmacies, public transportation and grocery stores. A few restaurants stay open, but they are the exception. It amazed me how completely Jewish Jerusalem observes Shabbat.


The trains come back to life on Sunday morning and we took one to the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. My replacement camera gear finally arrived from New York but was being held in customs until we jumped through their hoops, paid a huge Value Added Tax and then suffered some more. It all seemed quite silly but I really needed the equipment to continue our project. Needless to say, I was quite happy when I finally got the stuff.


Back in Jerusalem that night we had dinner with our friends MV and Michael at their apartment in the Palestinian section of eastern Jerusalem. Near their home we gazed out over the skyline of this fabled and troubled city. I marveled at the great faiths that consider this place sacred and the great suffering that has followed that religious passion.


The Al-Budeiri Family Library in the Old City was one of the top Palestinian libraries that I wanted to visit. Like the Khalidi Library, it is part of an old Palestinian family dating back to the Ottoman times. After getting lost several times in the maze of the old city with our friend MV we finally arrived at the old building that housed the library. It is also the home of Shaima Budeiri who is also the Librarian. It was amazing to be shown the tomb of the family patriarch which is located right in the library. Shaima showed us many wonderful old books, manuscripts and maps. She invited us to tea at her home and showed us the view of the Dome of the Rock from her rear window.

Afterwards, Ellen and I grabbed a falafel and watched the amazing world go by in this Arab section of the Old City. As we exited the Damascus Gate I realized how much I respected the depth of this culture and how comfortable I felt in this part of the city. Some people had told us it was very dangerous here but I didn’t feel danger, only a desire to know more.

The Fulbright really emphasizes “people to people” diplomacy. The idea is that the best way for people to understand each other is to talk with each other. One of the best ways I can do that is to give slide talks about my work. I gave another lecture to a group called the Public Libraries Managers Union of Israel. We traveled with two librarians to the little town of Matnas Mazkeret Baty near the larger town of Rehovot. Before my lecture I photographed two libraries in Rehovot. The small branch library was interesting because it contained almost no computers. The librarian explained that in this wealthy community the children are exposed to screens all the time. The library became a place where the kids could escape into the tactile world of books and games rather than a virtual world.

It was interesting to be in small-town Israel after spending so much time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. After my lecture we went on a historical tour of this village when it was a pioneering kibbutz. There were many similarities between how the history of this area is told and the stories I grew up on about the settling of the American West.

Ellen and I felt it was important to understand the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before I could photograph more Palestinian libraries I wanted to better understand the world they live in. To do this we took a one-day tour with a group called Green Olive Tours. It is an “alternative tour” from the many Israeli and Christian tours that we see everywhere in Jerusalem. We traveled from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem to Bethlehem in Palestine. Our driver explained that he has permission to do this trip into Palestine but our guide did not and we have to pick him up in Bethlehem. We travel a bewildering series of small, twisty roads that the Palestinians have to use. It takes over an hour to travel a short distance to Ramallah. The Israelis can use a separate fast highway that takes about 20 minutes. This part of the West Bank seems like a country of walls and people selling gum by the side of the road.


Our guide Yemen takes us to the Palestinian Parliament and Yasser Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah. He briefly mentions the suspicions that Arafat was poisoned but then we move on into the remarkable city center. After seeing the fascinating open air market we head to the world-famous coffee shop called Stars and Bucks. I guess that American copyright law doesn’t apply here as we walked by Blooming Dales.

Our next stop is the Banksky inspired artist hotel called the Walled Off Hotel. It advertises as having the “world’s worst view” referring to the Israeli separation wall right across the street. The wall is big and ugly and like the Berlin Wall this side is covered with all kinds of graffiti. Some of it is inspired, some is stupid and the graffiti itself in controversial because some feel it makes something pretty out of a horrible situation. The hotel and wall are quite surreal but the humanity and wisdom in some of the graffiti gives me hope. Humor is sometimes the best resistance.

As we leave the West Bank Ellen and I have our photo taken in front of one of the most famous Banksky murals showing a young masked man throwing flowers instead of a bomb. As we drive out I see two young Palestinian men with a massive new Settlement in the background. I wonder how long peace will last in this contested part of the world.

The last place we visit in the West Bank was the little town of Bethlehem where according to Christian tradition Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity is yet another powerful Christian shrine filled with tourist but nevertheless fascinating.

Not to waste any time, our next trip starts the next day as we head back to Tel Aviv for two nights. While we were about to take a cab to a small branch library a massive security lock-down began right in front of our hotel and stopped all traffic. Being resourceful, we decide to walk back to the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers that I had photographed at the beginning of our stay in Israel. The earlier photos that I made were during the day when it was closed. We hoped that it would be open this evening as we walked through the dark. Fortunately, it was open. While drug deals and prostitution were happening around us I was able to make images using my tripod of the library in this sketchy park while Ellen watched my back.

The Beit Ariela Public Library is the Central Library of Tel Aviv. It was housed in a brutalist style concrete building that contained all the elements of a well-run central library. I photographed a room containing the books and papers of one of the founders of Zionism. I also saw this modern library being used a lot. The library held great art and even a beautiful music library.

Its Children’s Library was a delight and contained beautiful examples of models of small rooms created by some very talented kids.

The Theater Library contained some fascinating set design mock-ups that traced some of the history of contemporary theater in Israel.

At the end of the day we took a taxi to the Beit Dani Library in a poor, mostly immigrant community in Tel Aviv. There was a lot of tutoring for the children here and I photographed an energetic group of Eritrean kids learning English. I also photographed a young med school student who was getting a break on the cost of his education by tutoring poor kids in this community. Good idea!

The next day we took a train up north to the coastal towns of Tirat Carmel and Haifa. This area is famous for its palm trees, beaches and Crusader and Roman history. Tirat Carmel had a modern library that incorporated the beautiful surrounding landscape into the library. It is located at the foot of the famous Mt Carmel. The fabulous librarian Lior gave a us an extended private tour after the library was closed.

Haifa is the big bustling city of the north. Beautifully located on hills overlooking the ocean it has a great cultural life as well as bad air from the refineries and near-by port. We spent only one night there and wished we had seen more of its attractions. The next morning we photographed the library at the wonderful University of Haifa. Perched high atop Mt. Carmel the campus was designed by famed architect Oscar Niedermeyer who also designed the Brazilian capitol of Brasilia. The austerity of Brasilia could be seen in the design of this campus. But somehow it seemed to work.

We then drove our Israeli rent-a-wreck car east for an hour to the amazing city of Nazareth. To avoid traffic in Nazareth Google sent us on a tortuous, circuitous route. Our car barely held together on the crazy streets but we finally arrived at what we thought was the library. We were surrounded by signs in two languages, Arabic and Hebrew. I realized why we should have learned these languages before we made this trip.


The library was no longer at this site but an older woman who spoke a little English took pity on us and gave us some very rough directions to the new location. On a wing and a prayer we headed back to the mean streets and finally came to the Abu Salma Public Library. My notes said that this was a “struggling library in the only majority Palestinian city in Israel.” What we discovered was a beautiful, modern library filled with a vibrant mix of young Arab students and really smart and engaged librarians. I photographed a young man who was just completing his medical degree and was about to become a doctor. This was the place he did much of years of study. The library ran counter to the popular narrative that young Arabs are poor, un-educated and dangerous. I realized that this library was an important part of our project because it broke the stereotypes.

Abu Salma Public Library, Nazareth, Israel


Nazareth is, of course, famous for being the home Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph. It is also where Jesus grew up. We went to the church called the Basilica of the Annunciation founded on the spot where it is believed that Mary was told that she was going to become a teen-aged Mom. It was a modern building but really well done. I realized that Mary was a rock star here and that the Catholic church gives a lot of attention to venerating this woman. It was refreshing to see a woman being given this high regard in one of the major established religions.

We were enchanted by the Old City of Nazareth where we spent two nights in a charming pension. The 80 year- old owner explained that the city is 60% Arab and 30% Christian. He was a fourth generation Nazarethian and was Arab and Christian. I found the vibe here original and the blending of cultures and religions healthy and fascinating. One slogan on a wall said “Nazareth Brings Us Together.” Its stone-paved alleys lined with crumbling Ottoman-era buildings captured my heart. As well as a religious destination, it is a city trying to reinvent itself as a sophisticated culinary and cultural destination. The food was fabulous. Like its library, Nazareth broke the stereotypes.

The next day we headed over to the Sea of Galilee where that guy walked on the water. We photographed the library at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee. It was designed by the same Israeli architect that designed the Tirat Carmel library. It was fascinating to see how a similar design was used by a public library and an academic library. Kinneret College contained about 50% Jewish and 50% Arabs. It seemed to be a good model for the integration of the two cultures. The earliest kibbutz was founded nearby here. The Jordanian border and the Golan Heights are right next door. And don’t forget that Jesus was baptized at the mouth of the nearby River Jordan.

Kinneret College Library, Kinneret, Sea of Galilee, Israel

As we drove back to Nazareth I photographed the beautiful Sea of Galilee and its surrounding wetlands. We have been focused for so long on libraries and cities that I found myself longing to spend much more time in this beautiful space. I did photograph Ellen reading a book at an Israeli version of a Little Free Library on the edge of the Sea. In the last light I photographed the famous ancient Roman town of Tibereus. Sadly, it has become something of a religious theme park and tacky tourist trap. We quickly scooted through the town and happily headed back for our last night in Nazareth.


Tibereus, Sea of Galilee, Israel











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Israel and Palestine: A Walk on the Wild Side


Israel and Palestine: A Walk on the Wild Side

Flying from Naples to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt took all day and we arrived at the Ben Gurion airport late at night. It felt incredible to be at the beginning of the third and final country of our Fulbright library road trip odyssey. Going through customs was surprisingly quick. I think flying on New Years Day must be good because we really didn’t experience big crowds anywhere along the way.

After sleeping in a little, we encountered a very trendy and upbeat Tel Aviv. Our hotel was right out of Lonely Planet with all of the hipster amenities. The coffee shops and cafes were totally cool and really good. All the signs were in Hebrew but many of them had Arabic and English as well. I thought that more English would be spoken here but most people spoke at least some of it, often with an American accent. The central part of Tel Aviv where we were staying was mostly beautiful in an unusual Bauhausian kind of way. This area is called “The White City” because of the large number of Bauhus inspired architecture that was mostly painted white. Ellen and I walked down to the beautiful sunset on the beach and still couldn’t believe that we were in the Levant.

The next day we met our Fulbright contact Noa Turgeman in her office. She was totally organized, helpful and proactive. I immediately felt the energy different here than in Naples. Noa also had a lens that I had ordered waiting for me. As I wrote about earlier, all my camera gear was stolen in Sicily. Fortunately, I had a backup camera body in Naples. Now that I had a lens for my camera I could begin to do some serious photography again.  We immediately headed to a rough part of town that contained the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers. This was a small pop-up library in a park filled with mostly African men. The library had odd hours and wasn’t open on this day. It was located near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station which also seemed pretty run down. But it was a relief to begin to make images again. My old Nikon D800 worked perfectly and my new/used 50mm lens was nifty.

garden library, tel aviv

Lightroom (DSC_0556.NEF and 1 other)

We finally made it to Jerusalem in the evening of Shabbat with black clouds lowering and the temperature falling sharply. Just as our taxi reached the edge of the city we heard on the radio the voice of that famous Jewish American rock star Lou Reed. He was signing Walk on the Wild Side which somehow seemed perfectly appropriate. Later that night it snowed in the higher parts of the city.

The next day we headed straight to the Israel Museum. It is the national museum of Israel and one of the largest museums in the region. It contains a world-class art and archeology collection. We went to the Shrine of the Book which contains the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.


It was very appropriate for our project to come here and I made plans to get permission to come back later with my Nikon and tripod. The scrolls that are on display are rotated through over time to give them a chance to “rest”. It was mind-boggling to see them and another priceless artifact called the Aleppo Codex. I was also shocked to see a photo taken right after the discovery of the scrolls. It shows a photographer with a 4×5 film camera placing his light meter right on the scroll. I am sure that archeological technique would not allow that to happen today! It was a hair-raising experience for Ellen too!

We briefly visited the Israel Museum but will have to come back as we ran out of time.


On a very cold and foggy morning we visited the moving place called Yad Vashem. It is a museum and memorial park dedicated to the Holocaust. Somehow the lousy weather only added to this somber but brilliantly designed place. We quickly took the audio tour through the main exhibition space. I couldn’t help compare it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Both are important, moving experiences but also very different.

We met the director of the Hall of Names which is a place intended to give a name and face to the Holocaust. Photographs and names are added to the collection as they are received for this ongoing project.

We were then given a private tour of the many different parts of the Museum and met several of the staff members. They were all top-notch professionals that helped deepen our understanding of the place. We saw a photo album by the contractors that built Auschwitz, IBM cards used by the Nazis and a collection of books in the library called Yizkor Books of the names of people of lost communities put together by the survivors.

We also saw an amazing exhibit on photography and the Holocaust called Flashes of Memory.

Like the National Libraries in Athens and in Naples, the National Library of Israel is our host in this country. We are committed to exploring this place with a camera. Hopefully, we can learn something about the essential nature of Israel through this national gem.

Our first tour is of the National Music and Sound Archive. It is an absolutely priceless collection that is focused on Israeli, Hebrew and Yiddish music and sound. The collection goes very deep and includes lots of old recordings and technology from the past. One surprising item was a record pressed into an old x-ray showing someone’s ribs.

I spent one cold morning photographing the construction site of the new National Library of Israel which should be completed in three years. The scale and ambition of this place was staggering.

As in the National Libraries of Greece and Italy, we are given an escort as we wander around the library. But as before, we are able to go pretty much where ever we wish.

National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

National Library of Israel, JerusalemNational Library of Israel, Jerusalem

Conservation Labs are always interesting because they have so much stuff. One surprising and disturbing display was of a young woman who had worked at the library and was killed in a suicide bomb attack a few years ago.

National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

The cartography department was amazing and we realize we could spend a whole day there and not run out of things to see. This is true of most of the library and we found ourselves having to pull out early from some departments because they were so full of interesting stories we would never leave the library.

National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

The American Center is part of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. Like we have seen in other countries, its mission is to engage with the local population and promote the US. American soft power at work. While we were visiting the Center there was an Arab language class taking place for Israelis who are working on environmental issues. There will later be a Hebrew class for Palestinians also working on environmental issues. Once they can speak the same language, they will begin to work together to solve some of the pressing local issues on water, waste, etc. Smart idea and the Center was a logical place for this to happen.

I had tried to contact several Palestinian libraries in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The only one that responded was the Khalidi Library in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was established in 1900 and was one of Ottoman Palestine’s first public libraries. It is the largest and one of the finest private collections of manuscripts in Jerusalem. The building was built in the 13th century and was re-opened in 2015 after being closed for 47 years. The librarian takes us to the roof of the library and I am stunned to see the Al-Aqsa Mosque so close. We were looking out over one of the most contested places in the world. It seemed so ordinary and was filled with laundry and satellite dishes.

Khalidi Library, Old City, Jerusalem

We were given a tour of both the old library and new library annex which houses the archive. We met several fascinating people including Raja Khalidi who is a young man from the old Palestinian family that founded the library. He has great plans for the future of the library. We also meet the artist Jack Persekian who has worked with the library and has done extraordinary art work on his own. Finally, we meet MV who is an American academic working in Palestine on a digital/cultural mapping project.  Because the library is about to go through some big changes we are given free access to photograph the place now before it is transformed.

After the Khalidi Library we plunge in to the Old City of Jerusalem. We head to the Western (Wailing) Wall. Because it is Shabbat no photography is allowed. I am happy not to be photographing and instead spend a long time just absorbing the amazing scene in front of us. We wandered through the old streets and bustling markets. We had lunch on Via Dolorosa and find out later that the cafe was located at one of the Stations of the Cross. We wander over to the Church of the Flagellation and view Christian iconography of Christ’s last walk down this very street. Again, words are inadequate to describe this place. I am left babbling “Oh my God” over and over.

Perhaps the most amazing place was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century this church contains the place where Christ was crucified, where he was resurrected and his tomb. As we entered the crowded church a group of monks were chanting and singing close to us. Again, it was almost impossible to comprehend what we were experiencing. All the years of reading the history of this part of the world came rushing back. It helped to have that grounding but the visceral experience of being there was the best. I often find myself with a real mixed feeling when I am in places like this. On the one hand I am appalled by the fanatical devotion to a story that may not even be true. I think of all the blood that was shed in the name of that devotion. On the other hand, there is no denying the power of the place and I choose to experience that at this moment.  This was certainly a place I will never forget.

We spent one day taking the bus and giving a lecture at the Central Library in Tel Aviv called the Beit Ariela. There were about 60 people that attended the lecture and afterwards I was interviewed by a reporter for an online magazine. But most of the time we spend in Jerusalem. The two cities are very different. I like Tel Aviv’s more laid-back life style. I am fascinated by Jerusalem’s history and I try to understand the intense feelings that religion and culture have generated here for over two thousand years. The city continues to be a flash point even up to the present. I don’t understand the Israeli right wing’s support of Trump or the Settler’s movement into Palestinian territory. But I am beginning to understand why this place is important. I do know that we are learning a lot and not just about libraries.

The weather has again turned very cold. We are wearing every article of clothing that we brought and hope that it doesn’t get colder. One night this week a storm blew in from Siberia and it snowed again in Jerusalem. Earlier last week a dust storm blew in sand from Egypt. Talk about a walk on the wild side. This city is magical.

Finally, this last image proves that not all parts of this trip are exciting or glamorous. Lots of it has been just plain hard work and sometimes we get a little tired. Here I am resting my eyes while downloading photographs on to my hard drives. Ellen has equivalent moments of road-weariness. And we are sad to think that this amazing trip will end March 1st!



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Four Weeks of Naples and Six Days in Sicily


Four Weeks of Naples and Six Days in Sicily

 So many people have told us that Naples is their favorite Italian city. When we first came here at the beginning of November I didn’t understand the attraction. During the month of December I was determined to find out why people are so passionate about this place. We started out by watching a film online called Four Days of Naples. It is a 1960s Italian film about the 1943 uprising by the citizens of Naples against the German army during WWII. They heroically and successfully kicked out the Germans before the Allies entered the city. It is hard to find but well worth seeing. It helped us with a little historical background on the people of Naples during the war. Of course, this region is one of the longest continuously-settled urban areas in the world.  Understanding southern Italy is understanding that long history as well.

We started that journey by going way back to the days of Pompeii. As many of you know, the Roman town of Pompeii and the surrounding area was completely covered in volcanic mud and ash in 79 AD. In an instant it was destroyed and preserved until it was rediscovered in the 1600s. One place destroyed was the nearby sea side town of Herculaneum. In one of the wealthy villas was a large private library of papyri scrolls that were carbonized in the destruction, but also preserved. Once the Villa of the Papyri was discovered people realized it was the largest surviving library from the ancient world. The National Library of Naples (our host) is where most of the papyri are housed. Researchers come from all over the world to study these very fragile and priceless objects. We were given complete access to the papyri and the scholars working there.

Papyri Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

The New Yorker published an article in 2013 called “A Very Rare Book” by Nicholas Schmidle. To make a very interesting and long story short it is partly about the Director of the Girolamini Library in Naples stealing books from his library over time and selling the books and manuscripts on the rare book market. We visited the Library a few times which is housed in the ancient Church and Convent of the Girolamini. The Library is now moving beyond the tragedy but the staff and new Director have their work cut out for them. We also photographed young scholars helping to catalog their vast collection. Their presence seemed to help move this beautiful place towards the future.



Across the street from the Girolamini was the Church of San Lorenzo with its famous Duomo. It is also the church that has the dried blood of a famous saint that turns to liquid once a year. It’s a big deal but we missed it.

Church and Convent of the Girolamini, Naples

A few blocks away in the gritty neighborhood of Forcella was the Annalisa Durante “Open Door” Library. It was set up by the father of Annalisa Durante who died in 2004 during an armed clash of the mafia gangs in the alleys of Forecella. The father was the only person in the library when we were there. He didn’t speak English but his powerful story moved us to tears. The memory of his daughter is sustained by the outpouring of donated books and events that are designed to stop the violence.

Annalisa Durante "Open Doors" Library, Naples

Annalisa Durante “Open Doors” Library, Naples

On another day we went back to the National Library of Naples and photographed one of their more unique collections. The Library is enormous and is housed in a former Royal Palace. One of the former princesses was a big-game hunter and loved to go on safari in Africa in the early 20th century. I photographed her collection of her trophies that she donated to the library. It was amazing to see what constitutes a “collection” in a library. I also photographed a few Fascist-era items such as a bust of Mussolini himself and a map of Italy’s “colonies” in Africa.

Safari Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Safari Collection, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Conservations Departments in libraries are usually interesting places because they contain so much stuff to photograph. The one at the National Library was smaller than the one in Florence but I happily photographed there for several hours.

On the same day we visited the Born To Read (Nato per Leggere) program which is part of the National Library. Here we saw a program that supports reading early and often to children. We met the remarkable men and women that volunteer to make this happen and later the parents and children that participate. We also saw Hitler’s order to kill blind and disabled people written in braille on one of the windows as an earlier art piece.

Born to Read (Nati per Leggere) program, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

Born to Read (Nati per Leggere) program, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli

As I mentioned before, the National Library of Naples has been our host here in Italy. It is a remarkable institution that, unfortunately, seems under stress and is struggling with constant budget cut-backs. They are tasked with not only preserving the national memory of Italy but also preserving the mind-boggling Royal Palace that they are housed in. I am in awe of what they do, especially with the limited resources available.

The exterior of the school library Andrea Anguilli in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Sanitá hides a darker story. Due to neglect the basement contained thousands of books mouldering away. It was supposed to become a public library that, for some unknown reason, never happened. It is especially tradgic in this neighborhood of Sanitá which needs all the help it can get, including books. Here we saw several monuments to young people slain in the cross fire of mafia violence. This one statue claimed that the young slain boy is now “playing with the angels.”

On the same rainy day, we went to the Biblioteca Andreoli located in the Luzzatti District in the Industrial Zone of Naples. Finding the library was difficult in this bleak neighborhood. This is the home of the now famous writer Elena Ferrante who wrote the book which is now the hit TV series “My Brilliant Friend.” The story is set in this city and especially in this industrial neighborhood. Like most libraries, this one was filled with young people working away on their studies. We struggled for a common language but after they visited my web site they enthusiastically helped us and posed for their group portrait. There is hope in the world. Just look at their faces.

Biblioteca Andreoli

Biblioteca Andreoli

On another day we took a cab to the farthest northern edge of Naples to a violence-prone neighborhood called Scampia. The Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde” is named after another 14 year-old girl killed in Camorra (Naples’ mafia) violence. We attended a news conference at the library and listened to a panel of journalists, writers, politicians and neighborhood activists. It was a remarkable place and I struggled to understand what life must be like for the people living here. The building the library is located used to be a Camorra drug house/torture chamber. It took a long time to clean up and some of the items found were incorporated into a striking mural on the outside which included thousands of bullet shells. On the outside I spoke with an African refugee from one of the nearby housing projects and looked at the murals and security fencing surrounding the library.

Biblioteca di Scampia "Gelsomina Verde", Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde”, Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia "Gelsomina Verde", Naples

Biblioteca di Scampia “Gelsomina Verde”, Naples

The next morning we took a cheap flight to Palermo, Sicily. Our flight took us right over the Bay of Naples and towering Mt. Vesuvius. This is the semi-active volcano that wiped out Pompeii. I could see inside the crater. Palermo is a beautiful city located on the incredible island of Sicily. We got our rented car and headed straight into central Palermo to the Central Library of the Sicilian Region. It is housed in a remarkable old religious complex. The building was beautiful, the collection was wonderful and our guide was great. The architecture reflected some of the unique “Arab-Norman” mix that came out of this land conquered by many people.

The next day we headed to a place we had long wanted to see. It was a center for refugees run by the wonderful group called Libraries Without Borders (Bibliothèques Sans Frontières). We had visited a similar place in a refugee camp in Athens. We hadn’t seen much work that Italian libraries had done with refugees so this was especially important for us. While we were there a group of African young men were being tutored in Italian. I made many interesting images including a group portrait.

As we were leaving we came upon an a library that was founded by a former Italian Communist. The Gramsci Library contained a remarkable collection of newspapers and other material. It was an unexpected gift to find such a beautiful and significant library unexpectedly. I spent quite a while making several good images there.

After spending too much time at the Gramsci Library we drove for several hours through the incredibly beautiful green interior of rural Sicily to the coastal city of Catania. Towering above the city was Mt. Etna which is one of the most continuously active volcanos in the world. I was thrilled to see a faint wisp of smoke lightly emanating from its peak. Like most cities in Greece and Italy Catania had bad, gridlocked traffic. As we sat in our car inching through the streets someone opened the back door and swiped my camera bag from the back seat with my new Nikon D850 camera and six lenses. After I realized what was happening, I jumped out of the car and ran in the direction where I thought the robber went. A motorcycle zoomed by with a South Asian looking couple giving chase. By the time I caught up with them they indicated the robber had gone down the street and turned right. It was as if the robber had disappeared into thin air along with my equipment. Ellen met me in tears and didn’t know what had happened to me. I later filed a police report but really didn’t expect to get anything back. Ironically, a week later Mt. Etna violently erupted and I suspect that the gods were angry.

I was surprised that I was not as upset by all of this as one would expect. It is important equipment but hopefully, the insurance will cover most of it. It will be a pain to wait but I did have an older, backup D800 body in our apartment in Naples and will buy one lens to hold me over. What was upsetting was losing the images from the Libraries Without Borders and from the Gramsci Library in Palermo. All the rest of the images in this blog were made with our iPhones. At least Ellen and I have our health and we have each other on this long and remarkable Fulbright library road trip.

The next morning we met our friends Julie Blankenship and Dan Geiger from San Francisco at the Catania airport (which was later closed in the eruption). They are with us for the rest of the month in Italy. We take a break from libraries and head to the ancient coastal city of Siracuse. It was originally settled as one of the first ancient Greek colonies overseas. The remarkable cathedral is the home of the famous Santa Lucia. The church is amazing because it shows one civilization would build on top of another. We attended the weirdly moving parade for St. Lucy and see the statue of this early Christian martyr with a knife in her neck being carried down the street.

We spent the night in the wonderful Boroque town of Noto. Destroyed by a massive earthquake the town was rebuilt as a planned Boroque community. It was fascinating to see. The cathedral included an interesting sculpture and cross made from the remnants of the boats that have recently carried refugees to these shores.

Noto also had a small, beautiful library that included a nice Christmas tree made out of books.

After a long and beautiful drive along the coast we came to the industrial town of Gela. We drove down to the beach which may be the spot where my uncle Joe was killed during WWII. He was with the US Army Rangers during the invasion of Sicily and never made it back. I think about the sacrifice of people like him that allows people like me to live a peaceful life. This was my memorial for a man I never knew.

We end the daylight at the Valley of the Temples at the Greek Archeological Site of Agrigento. This is one of the top archeological sites in Sicily and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We arrived just as the sun had set and the lights came on. It is stunningly beautiful and I wished we had a few more minutes of light to look around. We then drive two more hours at night on roads under construction to our destination of Palermo, dinner and sleep.

Our next few days consist of visiting the Liberty House, the Sicilian Modern Art Museum, the Palermo Arab-Norman Cathedral, a Arab-Norman center, a remarkable Library in the Branciforte Palace and a Puppet Museum. Palermo is a remarkable city and I am already making plans to come back.

Our last week in Naples was spent with Dan and Julie exploring the wonders of this great city. Highlights include seeing the Nutcracker at the astonishing Naples Opera House, visitng the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Chiara and its library, going to the Museum at the Capodimonte Palace. One of the great life changing experiences for me was visiting the archeological site of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was a life-long dream come true.

I will always have a warm place in my heart for Napoli. This month has shown to me why Italians always consider this a great place, even if they don’t want to live here. I am sure we will return to this ancient city by the Bay under a volcano. Happy New Year!



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A Journey Within An Odyssey: Northern Italy, Part 2 – Modena to Cassino


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.

Codex De Sphaera-1469 Allegory

Biblioteca Estense, Modena

Biblioteca Estense, Modena

Lightroom (DSC_8470.NEF and 1 other)

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!

Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome

Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome

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.


Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

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.

EM+RD, Rome

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.

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma

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.

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

Biblioteca Corsiniana at the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome

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.