Since ancient times, there have been shrines of the Gods, watching over Romans in their day to day life--and they are still there, but since Christian times, in the form of Madonnelle, shrines to the Holy Mother Mary on the facades of Roman buildings all over the ancient city. Some are painted, some sculpted, while others are mosaics or behind glass. And while others are at eye level to pedestrians passing by, most seem to be perched up high, usually on the second floor overlooking the street below.
They are all well maintained and beloved, with many displaying fresh flowers and illuminated at night with their own personal street lamp. Others even have ornate but functional canopies to protect from inclement weather. Still others have ornate frames, themselves works of art. Stone angels often are often surrounding the Madonna and intricate ironwork is often used to support the shrines.
"Today enters March, the wrangling arose underground and cracked the Earth,
God save the quarrel,
the witch, the femmena mandrega,
by dogma are angry and envious of Mankind."
--from Prete Grasso e dal Vilan che va a Spasso
(The Fat Priest and Villain Take a Walk, a childrens story)
This children's story warns against evil and reminds us of the Margolfa, a "mummy" carved into stone and used to ward off evil and the malocchio in the region surrounding Fiumalbo in the mountains of Emilia-Romagna. These stone heads are placed on walls and homes to scare away the evil that came from the deep, dark forests in medieval days.
Perhaps this superstitious tradition was begun by the ancestors of modern day Fiumalbini, who in times past actually hung the severed heads on doors and walls as a warning to their real world threats--invaders--to stay away.
While some margolfa are ancient, there are local artists still carving new ones today... and people still guard their homes from the malocchio with them.
You might also be interested in...
Small Towns of Italy - Fiumalbo in Emilia-Romagna
Monsters of Italy: Sardinian Mamuthones, the Stuff of Nightmares
Garden of Bomarzo - Lions, Monsters and Bears, Oh My!
Villa Palagonia, the Sicilian Villa of Monsters
Castello Incantato - the Enchanted Castle and Stone Heads of a Madman
To me, the old, weathered doors in Italy are a work of art in and of themselves. Their textures of aged wood, peeling paint and ancient, blacksmith forged hardware are wonderful subjects for my own photography.
But in the small mountainside village of Staiti in the Aspromonte National Park in Calabria there are doors that boast both colors and colorful words. They were painted by a Staitese artist, Teresa Gandini, with the help of local boys. Gandini is a well known artist in the area who usually paints local scenes of rustic architecture, gardens and floral settings. But in this case, not only her images, but also the words she paints on the doors are what transforms them doors into sheer architectural poetry.
They could very well be the doors to visitors' souls...
First of all, not all beaches in Italy even have sand to build Castelli di Sabbia (sandcastles). Secondly, even if you were on an Italian beach with lots of fine sand and started to build a sandcastle with your child, more than likely a group of Italian children would gather around, never having seen anyone do such a thing. Thirdly, if you are on a beach like Eraclea (near Venice), the bagnino (lifeguard) would come over to stop you and give you a fine. It's apparently illegal, by mayoral degree, to build sandcastles as they block the public access.
Curiously, there are still some very large sandcastle competitions all over Italy during the summer months... one of the most prestigious being on the lido in Jesolo, just east of Venice, another in the seaside town of Cervia near Ravenna, and yet one more in Alessio on the Italian Riviera west of Genoa. Another unexpected one is on Easy Living's Urban Beach on the banks of the Arno River in Florence, a hipster beach bar.
Recently, after the curators of the Palazzo Pitti ordered a routine cleaning and inspection of Raphael's La Donna Velata (the Veiled Woman), they discovered some significant and off-putting under-painting through the use of x-rays and ultraviolet techniques.
Amazed at what they found--a bizarre portrait of a bearded Michelangelo, they began to come up with a reason for this horrific image...
As many historians will tell you, Michelangelo and Raphael had a combative relationship and worked on different parts of the Vatican at the same time. As is well documented, Raphael painted the frescoes on the walls and ceiling of the Pope’s private library while Michelangelo was (as Raphael saw it) "laying down on the job" while painting the Sistine chapel ceiling. Raphael procured a key to the Sistine Chapel and had his spy secretly sneak in to check out Michelangelo’s progress. At times, Raphael himself would spy on the Master and record every detail of what he saw in his Eidetic memory.
Michelangelo later accused Raphael of plagiarism and claimed "everything he knew about art he got from me." Michelangelo hated Raphael and spread nasty rumors about him. The two were bitter rivals to the end.
With this new discovery, art experts now theorize that Raphael hatched his plan to get back at him... to paint the most ugly and grotesque portrait of a bearded Michelangelo underneath one of his own masterpieces, the Veiled Woman, knowing full well that someday, somehow, in the distant future, art historians would uncover his monumental joke upon the Master... once and for all times, shaming Michelangelo (who was rumored to be gay) as a cross-dressing, bambolina-hugging monstrosity--even if the shaming occurred after they were both in their graves.
When we planned out Voyage to southern Italy, one of the things on my bucket list was to stay in a trullo--the pointy roofed stone houses of Puglia. Trulli are dotted throughout the countryside, some in the more ancient style of chopped-top cone, others abandoned and in ruins, and many in farm complexes made up of as many as 6-8 trulli. Their roofs can be adorned with painted hex symbols by their owners and they are topped with a wide variety of finial, sometimes in the shape of stars. They are restored into B&Bs and year-round villas with some being very chic. But nothing can prepare the Voyager when he visits the UNESCO town of Alberobello, with over 1600 trulli clustered in the town center.
In Alberobello, there are many wonderful gift shops, and while some offer the standard tourist kitsch, what I loved about the town is the amount of local artisans offering their hand made products. You can buy beautiful jewelry in the many different religious and pagan shapes found painted on the pointy roofs, local pottery and ceramics, wooden bread stamps carved with your initials, hand made pocket knives (I came home with a sommelier version)... but my favorite local craft are the miniature trulli. They are all made using local stone to mimic the real stone and techniques used to built the real trulli. There are tiny ones that you can hold in your hand and large ones that you can place in your garden.
Here's a short video about trulli and how they make miniatures.
Perhaps a thousand years before Christianity adopted the egg as a part of the Roman Catholic holiday of Easter, the ancient Romans believed that "omne vivum ex ovo" - all life comes from the egg. The egg was a symbol of a rebirth in spring after the lean days of winter were over. Archaeologists believe that ancient Romans decorated eggs with dyes using onion skins, spices, beets and carrots (a tradition that is still done today in many Italian families). They were used as offerings and gifts during pagan spring rituals and festivals.
Today, the Uova di Pasqua carries on that ancient tradition...
A popular tradition is to give chocolate eggs as gifts, which themselves can be elegantly decorated. The simplest tradition involves giving a large chocolate, hollow egg to each family member, which is broken to reveal a present or treat inside.
Real eggs are died red (in the Greek tradition), representing when Mary Magdalen presented an egg to Emperor Tiberius Caesar as it miraculously turned red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. But the also decorate and paint eggs, often in glorious ways. Any artist can understand why--the egg is such a beautiful, blank canvas...