Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Venues just waiting for the season

Le Marche has 71 restored theatres that the region – for good reason – mentions among its highlighted statistics in the preamble to many of its tourist promotion guides. 27 of these are in Macerata province (where I live), most of them built in the 19th Century, many of them replacing or renovating even older structures, and one or two of them retaining their original materials. For the most part following the neoclassical horseshoe shape with two, three, sometimes four tiers of boxes, among them are numerous veritable jewels with ornate curtains, Baroque façades, and frescoes depicting ancient legends and the theatres' origins. Including among them the first public theatre made entirely of wood (Camerino 1728) and with designs by famous architects such as Antonio Galli (Bibbieno) and Giuseppe Piermarini (Teatro alla Scala Milan), the theatres were hubs of the town's cultural life, and their performances enjoyed popularity until into the early part of the twentieth century. However, the intervening world wars caused many to fall into disrepair, which resulted in widespread closures and a few cases where the buildings were actually condemned. Thanks to a late twentieth century revival in the public's interest for their cultural heritage, numerous restoration projects were launched to return their local treasures to their erstwhile condition. After being closed for as long as twenty years, some were reopened as recently as 2005.

To mark the start of the 2009/2010 theatre season, I thought it appropriate to profile two theatres – one of the largest, and one of the smallest.

Named after the town's well-known 19th Century composer and director of the Conservatories of Milan and Naples, Macerata's Teatro Lauro Rossi has a capacity of 550, and its most recent restoration – complete in 1989 – “returned the hall to its ancient physiognomy, freeing it from all decorative encrustations.”

But it's the festival currently running that attracts the attention more than the theatre's architecture or history - the 41st Festival Nazionale Macerata Teatro for the Angelo Perugini prize runs until December 6th. The competition is open to amateur drama groups only, and this year attracts companies from places such as Brescia, Tuscany, Salerno, and Liguria. Among the playwrights whose works are being performed are Woody Allen, Ugo Betti, Thornton Wilder, and Daphne du Maurier.

The second example of Macerata's theatre masterpieces is also the joint smallest, with just 99 seats. It's in Penna San Giovanni, and it's unique in that it's the only one in the province made entirely of wood, and one of just a few throughout Italy.

Built in the 18th Century by local craftsman Antonio Lozzi with two tiers of boxes, it's a Baroque gem with carved columns, floral motifs, and an embellished polychrome ceiling. The theatre's programme has yet to be finalized for 2009/2010, but it's worth a visit at least once for its intimacy and old-world opulence.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Le Grotte di Santa Sperandia and La Roccaccia

The cave on the northern slopes of Monte Acuto must have been difficult to see in the 13th century and even harder to get to. Carved out of the mountain's precipitous cliffs, it sits above the the rugged valley of the Laque river just a few kilometres from Cingoli. Today one can clamber down the steep slope on sets of wooden and travertine steps to the place of stone and solitude where Santa Sperandia spent so many years of Benedictine penitence. Just getting down there in the 1200s must have been an ordeal, never mind how one might survive in such an environment.

But Sperandia was no ordinary ascetic.

More than a mere visionary, she was also renowned for her ability to perform miracles, and is best known for her act of producing fresh cherries to some hungry labourers one cold and snowy January. She died in 1276, and her incorrupt body now lies in state in the Sanctuary dedicated to her in Cingoli, where she is the town's patron saint.

From the ridge of the mountain, the views are impressive. The closest town to the north is Cingoli, while to the south-east one can see Treia and Macerata. To the west you can see Monte San Vicino, while in the distance to the east lies Monte Conero and the Adriatic … on a clear day. Unfortunately, it was so hazy when I visited that I could barely see Macerata.

On the edge of the mountain ridge are the ruins of the 13th century La Roccaccia. Only a few crumbling walls remain, but the surrounding area is littered with the stones of the one-time important medieval fortress.

Monte Acuto with its man-made relics is an interesting place to consider the relationship between man and nature. It's clear that nature is slowly winning the battle to reclaim the territory of La Roccaccia, and Santa Sperandia's cave will remain intact for a long time, etched as it is into a cliff of stone upon which little grows. But the concrete shrine built into the cave in the 1970s covers a large part of its entrance, and it leaves you pondering what the intent was of its (evidently well-meaning) architects. One wonders what Santa Sperandia would make of this. There's little doubt she'd be less than enamoured with the quarries (and the accompanying drone of its trucks) that scar the hillsides below her erstwhile silent haven.

Despite the human intrusions, it's still a wonderful place to spend some time, whether as a destination in and of itself or as a stopover or excursion between/from San Severino and/or Cingoli. Just behind the cross where you can leave your car is a wonderful cool patch of green grass just begging for a blanket, a picnic, and a lazy snooze. I was hard-pressed to ignore its call …

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hidden Havens: Gola di Jana

The backroads around Matelica in the middle-western part of the region are peppered with signs announcing that you're on the Franciscan Assisi-Loreto pilgrimage route. It's been well-trodden over the centuries, but there are others without signposts that are even older. The town once stood on a route that connected the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas, and dates back to the ancient Etruscan and Umbrian civilizations. The names of the area bear testament to this history, perhaps none more so than Gola di Jana, which lies to the north-east of Matelica beyond the village of Braccano.

Jana (or Giana) was an ancient deity of the sun and guardian of the gates of heaven, opening them at dawn and closing them at sunset. The east-west conjunction of Gola di Jana suggests that it might have borne some relationship to this pagan god, since it has a natural alignment with the arc of the sun as it traces itself across the sky, particularly during the summer soltice's rising sun and the setting sun of its winter counterpart.

Conjectures and conjunctions aside, however, the gorge's stands of tall trees provide welcome respite from the summer sun, its steep sides converging into a narrow canyon whose precipitous cliffs you can touch with outstretched arms before you're boxed in by a waterfall fronted by an inviting pool with its crisp, clear water.

There's a whole host of different plants and trees on its short trail, attracting butterflies, dragonflies, and other inhabitants that likely seldom venture beyond this small pocket of natural diversity.

The road beyond the gorge's parking area opens up on to the hilly plains enclosed by mounts Canfaito, Pagliano and Argentaro, where you'll find the abandoned ruins of the Abbadia di Rotis. Old stone slabs in front of the abbey suggest an ancient temple where the very same Jana may have been worshipped.

(If you click on the photos, a full-scale version opens.)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Hidden havens: St Eustachio

The beautiful medieval town of San Severino (in Le Marche's Macerata) province and the nearby Roman settlement of Septempeda have several things in common (besides their location). One of them relates to building material – the stone used to build their respective edifices comes from the same quarry, tucked away in the Valle dei Grilli to the west of town. There the huge cavern that opens into the side of the sheer rock face dates back milennia, and you can see the score marks on the rocks from the chiselling work of the stone cutters. History records that the stone and lime from these quarries were highly rated in ancient times, and were transported to other places in Marche and even into Umbria.

There are several other smaller caverns in the area that likely served as quarries, but the largest of them is the only one that boasts a Romanesque church at its entrance. It's called the Gallo quarry, after a rooster that was thrown into a hole to try and find two lost monks - it (the rooster) eventually came out at a spring near Camerino, some 20km away. The monks? There's no account of what happened to them. Perhaps they teamed up with two oxen that went into the grotto and were never found again.

Although not quite as old as the quarry, the church at the quarry's entrance dates back almost 1,000 years, and covered a far larger area than its crumbling remains now hold on to. At one time an important Benedictine abbey, St. Eustachio in Domora started out life in Lombard times as St. Michael, and over the centuries served as a guest house on this important connection road between San Severino (in the Potenza valley) and Camerino (in the Chienti valley).

Inside the main structure with its large round eye for the rose window is a shrine of sorts in Gothic style, and underneath one can still see the cells which most likely served as living quarters. The “prodigious crucifix” from the abbey is now in the San Lorenzo Abbey in San Severino.

Across the river in another cavern are the remains of a circular tower, and all around (especially at this time of year), the burgeoning green tide of vegetation threatens to overcome the ruins.

A trail – likely the old road to Camerino – leads up through the valley, but it's not frequently used these days, and in the early walking season is overgrown, with brambles and thorns predominating. High up on the western cliffside the constant drone of a huge wasp's nest provides a natural "No Entry" warning to the steep and unstable slopes that reach to the top of the gorge. Against my better judgement, I braved it, but was turned back by a vertical face, and so once again held my breath as I slunk past the thousands of stingers just waiting for a chance to use them ...

Monday, 3 August 2009

Ancona in pictures

Ancona is Le Marche's capital and biggest city. Its history has been linked with maritime traditions and trade since the first settlements as far back as the 8th century BC, but it wasn't until 357 BC that the Greeks established a permanent outpost. Named after the Greek word for "elbow" (ankon) after the shape of its promontory, it became a municipum under the Romans and a base for the fleet ... the first city of the Byzantine Maritime Pentapolis (which also included Rimini, Pesaro, Fano, and Senigallia) ... an independent commune and a maritime republic ... and the largest commercial and fishing port of the modern-day Adriatic. Sections of the port area may be somewhat grimy, but its history emerges through its monuments and museums, with the old and the new sitting comfortably next to each other. Here's a short photographic essay from a trip I did a month ago on a writing assignment.

Faces of Ancona and a musical tradition

Trajan's Arch built in 115AD in honour of the Roman Emperor,
with the 14th century bell tower framed in its arch.

Red marble lion of St. Cyriac's Cathedral, built on the foundations
of the 4th century BC Temple of Aphrodite

Romanesque-Gothic portal of St. Cyriac's Cathedral

Decorated spouts of the Calamo Fountain,
otherwise known as the Fountain of the Thirteen Spouts

Statue of Pope Clement XII, created in 1738 as a token
of gratitude for his granting of free port status to the city

Blending the ancient and the modern - an Emperor and a Greek god

Silo art in the port

Colourful facade of a residential building

Seven centuries - the 14th cetury bell tower and the dome of the
18th century Church of Pellegrino and Teresa (the barfooted Carmelites)
are joined by a gilded group of recent creation

Section of the Porta Pia, grand entrance to the town, completed in 1789

Church of the Holy Sacrament, built in 1538 and rebuilt in the 18th century

Bell Tower and Cathedral

Trajan's Arch framing the bell tower and cathedral.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Hidden Gems of Italy’s Best-Kept Secret

For a recent article I had published on the Dream of Italy web site, click here.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

An adaptable stage

The Renaissance had a major influence on Italian, European, and even world culture back in the 15th and 16th centuries. But it wasn’t only in the fields of the arts, humanities, and sciences, it also played a significant role in the development of popular sport in Italy. Born in the noble palaces of Tuscany, and based on a combination of tennis and an ancient Greco-Roman game, il pallone col bracciale became the most popular sport of north and central Italy from the late 17th century until as late as around 1930. Using spiked wooden armlets, a leather ball was pounded back and forth between two teams of three, with a high wall on one side permitting deflection back into the field of play.

Such was its popularity that it spawned full-time professionals, massive followings – Goethe wrote about it, Leopardi eulogized it – particularly in the Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Le Marche, and special courts called sferisteri (singular sferisterio = ball court) were built throughout its popular realm. With legendary players coming out of Le Marche – notably Treia – it was natural to build such a sferisterio here, and in 1820 one hundred citizens raised the money, with construction starting in October according to the designs of one Salvatore Innocenzi. However, these were soon supplanted by those of a young architect from San Severino Marche, Ireneo Aleandri, and it was finally inaugurated on September 5th, 1829.

The prescribed dimensions for the high wall that borders one side of a sferisterio required a height of between 14 and 20 metres (Macerata’s is 18m), and a length of around 90 metres (Macerata’s is 88m). It also needed to be on the west side of the court to prevent the players from being disturbed by the rays of a setting sun (the game was played in the afternoon). The arena was also used for other activities such as circuses and an Italian form of bullfighting, which was a popular Papal State “sport”.

Upon the decline of pallone col bracciale’s popularity, the citizens of Macerata turned their attention to putting the arena to other uses, and in 1921, a group led by Pieralberto Conti, with funding provided by the soprano Francisca Solari, staged Aida – it was a resounding success, with over 70,000 seeing the production. However, rain ruined the following season’s production of La Gioconda, and following this failure opera in the arena stopped. Save for a few highly successful concerts in the late ’20s and early ’30s by Le Marche’s adored tenor Beniamino Gigli, the Sferisterio stood operatically idle until 1967, when Carlo Perucci from San Benedetto del Tronto breathed new life into it through his Circuito lirico delle Marche initiative. A new stage was built – it’s now one of the largest in Europe – new lighting was installed, and today’s annual opera season was born with the acclaimed production on August 3rd 1967 of Verdi’s Otello. Today it’s one of the most important on the Italian operatic calendar, and is arguably Le Marche’s (and certainly Macerata’s) leading cultural event of the year.

In 1992 the Eredi dei Cento Consorti (Heirs of the Hundred Consorts, a civil society), the provincial administration, and the associated comuni joined forces to form Associazione Arena Sferisterio, which today is responsible for the annual Sferisterio Opera Festival (also known as Macerata Opera). Over the years it’s attracted leading singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, and directors such as Ken Russell, Franco Zeffirelli, and Macerata’s own Dante Ferretti.

Since 2006, artistic director Pier Luigi Pizzi has introduced a common theme in the operas selected for each season, in 2009 selecting “deceit” to follow the previous years’ themes of “an initiating journey”, “the game of the mighty”, and “seduction”. “Among the multiple meanings of the word ‘deceit’,” says Pizzi, “we want to analyze those deeper and more painful ones: behind every deceit is a vital tension, and the same sense of life is provided by the constant presence of death. Don Giovanni consciously makes light of death, but he cannot escape the eternal damnation that he is destined for. Madame Butterfly is an innocent victim of the deceit contrived by the cynical Pinkerton that leads to her suicide. Only through death is she able to regain her lost honour, through cathartic purification. Violetta (La Traviata) is deceived by Alfredo Germont’s hypocritical father and yields to his shameful blackmail, accepting with dignity her tragic and desperate destiny. Her only redemption is death itself – sure, inexorable, even consolatory. Also the contemporary opera, an annual event initiated with my commission – which for this edition will be Camus’ Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding), a text of great drama and topical interest – adheres well to the underlying theme through a dramatic core that suggests a dizzying intertwining of illusion and death. Deceptive obsessions cross the centuries, as in the culminating piece of the festival, Händel’s oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth.”

2009 Programme:

Don Giovanni – Mozart

Sferisterio – Jul 23, 28, 30

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Riccardo Frizza

Madama Butterfly – Puccini

Sferisterio – Jul 24, 31; Aug 2, 5, 7

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Daniele Calligari

La Traviata – Verdi

Sferisterio – Jul 25; Aug 1, 4, 6, 8

Director: Massimo Gasparon

Conductor: Michele Mariotti

Le Malentendu – Matteo d’Amico

CineTeatro Italia – Jul 26, 29

Director: Saverio Marconi

Conductor: Guillaume Tourniaire

The Triumph of Time and Truth – Händel

Auditorium San Paolo – Aug 9

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Dan Rapoport

Friday, 12 June 2009

Caldarola's cardinals

La Stanza del Paradiso (the Paradise Room) is aptly named – it’s an exquisite jewel of ornate, animated frescoes that supplant reality with an atmosphere of rich colour and fabled history. Giovanni Evangelista Pallotta used to meditate here in the palazzo he built in the 1500s. Such surrounds cannot have been anything less than inspirational, and it must have been hard to drag himself away.

But drag himself away he did, to the prelate courts of Rome, where he became a cardinal in 1587 under Pope Sixtus V. And thus started a family legacy, with first his nephew and then two subsequent descendants reaching the rank of cardinal over a period lasting until 1834. Between them, the Pallotta cardinals participated in the election of 12 popes, held sway over prominent symbols of the Catholic faith including St. Peter’s and Loreto, and rubbed shoulders with royalty, intellectuals, and the artistic talents of their day. Today their legacy prevails through the grand edifices that dominate Caldarola – il Castello Pallotta (Pallotta Castle) and il Palazzo dei Cardinali Pallotta (Palace of the Pallotta Cardinals).

It’s in the latter that one of Le Marche’s most prominent 2009 art exhibitions is being held – Le Stanze del Cardinale (The Rooms of the Cardinal), a study in Baroque magnificence featuringCaravaggio, Guido Reni, Guercino, and Mattia Preti. The collection was the property of the second Pallotta prelate, Giovanni Battista Maria (nephew of Giovanni Evangelista), who was appointed cardinal in 1631 under Pope Urban VIII.

Having studied the arts and humanities in Perugia, Giovanni Battista entered the Pontifical Roman Seminary where he studied philosophy and law. As Pope Urban VIII’s representative, he travelled to Portugal and Austria, and was made legate of the newly-acquired papal state of Ferrara in 1631. Being in such an elevated position in the church afforded him the opportunity of
commissioning and acquiring an impressive collection from the leading artists of the time, which he proudly displayed to luminaries who stopped over in Caldarola on their pilgrimages between Rome and Loreto. Among them were Queen Christina of Sweden and Prince Casimir of Poland.

However, his pastime had its costs, particularly in a 17th-century Italy that was experiencing severe economic struggles and general decline – when he died in 1668, the paintings had to be sold to settle his debts. As a result of the dispersion of his collection, the exhibition was compiled by studying the cardinal’s inventories, tracking down each painting, and securing loans from a variety of public institutions and private collections, including the Rome’s Borghese Gallery, the National Gallery of Ancient Art, and the Doria Pamphilj Gallery; Florence’s Palazzo Pitti; the National Art Gallery of Bologna; the National Gallery of Capodimonte in Naples; and Genoa’s Palazzo Rosso. Where the original work could not be traced, another by the same artist of a similar subject has replaced it.

Amongst the more than 60 works on display is Guercino’s (so named because he was crosseyed) grand Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple – which was restored specially for this exhibit, along with several other works; several paintings inspired by Jerusalem Delivered, Torquato Tasso’s 16th century epic – Giovanni Evangelista was his official “protector”; and several that reveal Giovanni Battista’s appreciation of the female form – it seems that 17th century Italy did not frown on prelates admiring feminine nudity.

This is truly one of the pre-eminent events on the Italian art calendar, and should not be missed. Not only can you appreciate some of the finest Baroque art around, you can travel through Giovanni Evangelista’s paradise as you do so …

Le Stanze del Cardinale

Palazzo dei Cardinali Pallotta, Caldarola

May 23 – Nov 12, 2009


Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Stepping back into the middle ages

Even in shorts and a T-shirt, I was still sweltering, regularly looking for a break from the sun under one of the piazza's arched arcades. So how it was for the procession participants in their heavy medieval costumes, I can't imagine. To their credit, none of them showed any discomfort, and indeed few of them appeared to be perspiring.

Last weekend Camerino opened the medieval pageant season in our neck of the woods with their Corsa alla Spada e Palio, a 10-day journey back to the days of pomp and ceremony when the powerful Da Varano family ruled their papal dukedom for over 200 years. The festival dates back to the early 13th century, when it was decided to introduce pageantry and friendly but prestigious community competition into the normally solemn remembrance of the town’s patron saint, Venanzio.

The medieval festival was resurrected in 1982, keeping the centuries-old traditions largely intact. At the heart of the festivities is a sumptuous procession involving the three divisions (terzieri) of the town – Muralto, Sossanta, and Mezzo – dressed in full medieval regalia, who on May 17 converge from their various quarters on to the San Venanzio basilica for an evocative candle ceremony. The saint was persecuted for his faith and subjected to a succession of tortures, including whipping, being hanged from his feet, having his jaw broken, and being thrown to the lions. According to historical legend, he miraculously emerged from each of them unharmed, giving his faith credence and prompting the conversion of many pagans to Christianity. He was finally martyred during the reign of Emperor Decio, when in May 251 AD he was beheaded with 10 other Christians, and buried outside the town walls.

During the 10 days of festivities, the town’s three divisions take part in a series of competitions, with the main event being the Corsa alla Spada (a foot race for the esteemed sword). There is also archery, flag waving, drumming, and a variety of other musical and entertainment events.

Food naturally also plays a major role, and a number of taverne are set up by each of the terzieri, serving medieval fare in an authentic atmosphere with hosts dressed in period costume.

Here's a selection of photos from the day's culminating procession, along with the Corsa itself. (Click on the pictures to launch full-size versions of them.)