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text 2014-08-28 00:37
Reading in Progress: A Traveler in Italy: Return of Ceiling Croc!!!
A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton,Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Isn't it weird how sometimes the right book comes along at the right moment? This is not going to be an epically loved book for me or anything, but it's the kind of book I've kept thinking I'd eventually set aside and stop reading. But then I've read just a bit more. And so on. It's been interesting enough to take me out of myself when I've really needed stress relief - and been the most fun in those moments where I've found myself rereading the same paragraph over and over because in my mind I'm having an imaginary trip to Italy. I've also discovered that travel books are a wonderful way for me to waste even more time online, because there are photos of almost everything if you dig around enough. Which is especially helpful since this guidebook dates from 1964 and the photos are all in black and white. I actually have another weird history/link post to make (Italy + Alice in Wonderland + alchemy + medicine + candy + British candy folklore), but this post had to come first.


After my post on Stuffed Crocodiles Hanging From The Ceiling - which a quote from pg 338 got me launched off on - I thought that'd be it for the crocodile-related entries. (In this book anyway.) But noooooooo! I did not suspect that 212 pages later there would be a Sudden Surprise Appearance of The Ceiling Croc! Remember, back on pg 338 it was just a mention of a crocodile in a sculpture, not an actual ceiling croc, that had gotten me all wound up over the beasts. (Technically the creatures here are both "alligators," but ceiling croc just sounds better.)


And so here's the quote. Imagine me reading this with my mouth open, making a ridiculous expression, saying to myself "wait, I just burbled on and on about these things, and now they pop up in an obscure town?!!" Specifically The Hermitage and Monastery at Camaldoli, in Tuscany. (More here and here.) Pg 550-552:


"I entered the monastery and found myself in an ancient pharmacy where nothing had apparently been altered since the Middle Ages. A dusty alligator hung from the rafters and beneath it a bustling young lay brother in horn-rimmed glasses stood behind a rampart of objects on a well-stocked counter. Near the door, where in other chemists' shops there is usually a weighing machine, I noticed an upright coffin in which a skeleton was propped. I went to examine it and read an inscription: 'In this glass you see yourself, foolish mortal. Any other glass is not telling you the truth.' On a shelf near by I saw a good selection of pickled vipers and I noticed some badger skins, which I seemed vaguely to remember are infallible in cases of sorcery.


There must be a mediaeval hypochondriac hidden away in me, for this was the place I had always hoped to find: the apothecary's shop in which one could ask for half an ounce of crabs eyes, or a packet of powdered coral, or perhaps even a jar of hart's horn jelly, the wonder drugs of yesterday. And it did indeed look at first sight as though, isolated upon this Apennine, men were still searching for the Elixir of Life. Who could say what countless little drawers held in the beautiful, age-blackened walnut panelling; what, in spite of his horn rims and his modern air, might not the lay brother have under the counter? Fascinated, I stepped into another, smaller room full of mortars and pestles and retorts (and another alligator), a room which gave the impression that an alchemist had just slipped out to look up something in Galen. A stuffed armadillo gave a homely touch to one corner and upon the wall, framed perhaps for ready reference, I read a formula which contained the words grasso umano - human fat.


[The store also sells modern things like razor blades, cologne, and face cream.]


...I asked where his customers came from. He said they were living at the hospice up the road and were on holiday. Every year people came to spend a week or two in the pine-scented air of the mountains, to walk, to ride, and to fish; and the pharmacy was the village shop."


Apparently the author of this book can't always be relied upon for facts - so I've been unsure how seriously to take some of his descriptions. It's hard to know how much artistic license he's taking. It's especially hard to tell because the book is 50 years old, and there aren't any citations.


But then I found this on wikipedia under Camaldoli:

"In the monastery of Camaldoli there is a welcoming room, a great hall, and an old style pharmacy. The pharmacy was originally a laboratory where monks studied and worked with medicinal herbs. These medicines would be used in the old hospital which can still be visited today. The precious walnut decor dates back to 1543."

Couldn't find any photos. But the ceiling crocs alligators might still be there...


[Here I'll note that I could now go off on another tangent about stuffed armadillos. I even own a framed photo of a taxidermied armadillo holding a beer bottle. Because, Texas. But I'm restraining myself!]


MOMENTS LATER: I may have said "squeee!" aloud when I found this:


Camaldoli’s Antica Farmacia: charity without words


I don't see the ceiling crocs in any of those photos - but the skeleton in the coffin is there!!!!


HOURS LATER: I think I've found two Flickr photos with ceiling crocs/gators - only it looks as though these are wall walking:


Farmacia - photo by Come L'abete (on the wall to the right, possible armadillo on back wall)


Simon Luca - photo by Come L'abete (you can't really miss this one)

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text 2014-08-23 18:15
Why I Will Eventually Have A Stuffed Crocodile Hanging From My Ceiling

I suppose I should add that the planned croc is going to be paper mache, mostly because (good) taxidermy is expensive. (The fact that I already own a lot of creepy decor is a secondary thought.) You'd think that this might have something to do with the fact that I used to live in Louisiana in a wildlife area that put gators (I know, not the same as crocs, bear with me) right around the corner from my house. But no - this is thanks to reading many history books and continually finding references to or illustrations of "stuffed crocodiles" hanging from the ceilings of homes of the nobility or inside churches. You'd find a vague reference here and there as to why (never more than a few paragraphs) - I never did manage to find a full book on the subject. Because yes, that's the kind of thing I always have kept my eyes open for.


Today I was reminded about The Stuffed Crocodile by reading - and yet again I can blame A Traveller in Italy - this (p 338) quote, from the chapter on Venice:

"S. Theodore's statue may be seen on one of the two columns in the Piazzetta in the act of spearing a crocodile, which symbolizes Evil."

Venice is known for having Saint Mark as its patron saint - but apparently the city was wildly fickle, because once that saint was Theodore. So instead of having all those winged lions (which are awesome, seriously, as a child I loved looking at those in coffee table art books) all over Venice we'd have Theo fighting off a croc. It's worth a moment of pondering just to imagine the change of artwork.


Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore (in which you only see Theo from the back, eyeroll)

Better photo - and yes, that looks like a dragon, not a croc. They were sort of interchangeable in some of the art. Also note, Peter Ackroyd quote! I need to read his book on Venice!)


I'd not googled for info on stuffed crocodile (and why they were hung all over the place) in a while, but this time I found much more information. In fact, here's 6min of video that answers all my questions. (And of course, more links after the page break, because I never can resist.)




The Inaugural Stuffed Crocodile - Idols Of The Cave (YouTube, 6min)

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text 2014-08-23 00:30
Reading in Progress: In Which I Find Yet Another Book I MUST Read...
A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton,Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate - Ivor Noël Hume
The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt's Ancient Treasures - Stanley Mayes

So it turns out A Traveller in Italy (1964) has been great bedtime reading - interesting but not so much that it keeps me awake. Well, not often. Every now and then there's a bit of history in it that makes me stop and grab my cell phone to do a quick wikipedia search. Which is not something that makes me sleepy. Luckily this only happens every 20 pages or so.


The last quote that made me want to go book buying was this paragraph on p. 320:


"I found the vast hall above the market occupied by...two statues of the Egyptian cat goddess, the gift of Padua's giant son, Giovanni Belzoni. I fell under his spell in early life, and have often wondered why his exciting adventures among the tombs and pyramids of Egypt, at a time long before anyone could read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, have never been reprinted. He was an attractive, good-natured giant, six feet six inches in height, who delighted audiences at S. Bartholomew's Fair and Astley's Amphitheatre in London during the reign of George III when, dressed as Hercules, in a panther skin, he performed prodigious feats of strength. He attracted an equally large Amazon, who became Mrs. Belzoni, and together the two giants went off to Egypt to sell hydraulic pumps to pashas. It was appropriate that the Paduan Hercules, who had studied engineering in Italy, should have been chosen to lift the colossal granite bust of Ramses II for transport to the British Museum; a feat which led him to explore tombs and temples up and down the Nile. He was the first man to excavate the temple of Abu Simbel, now a victim of 'vandalisme utilitaire,' and he was the first European to penetrate to the mummy chamber of the Great Pyramid. Though Belzoni was no scholar, he was one of the greatest of the Near Eastern travellers, and his Narrative, with the large volume of highly-coloured tomb paintings drawn and tinted by himself, is the most fascinating work of the kind in English. They still recall in Padua that when he returned in middle age, a famous traveller, bearing two cat goddesses as a gift to his native town, a gold medal was struck in his honour. Five years later the charming giant died on his way to Timbuktu."


That's the story as this author tells it (and he's unreliable, as I've blogged before) - so here's the wikipedia version, which is a bit more fleshed out (at least with cited sources): Giovanni Battista Belzoni


And thanks to the Internet Archive, here's his book:


Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia; and of a journey to the coast of the Red Sea, in search of the ancient Berenice, and of another to the oasis of Jupiter Ammon (1820)


I haven't done more than flip through the pages in that - I found myself more interested in the Further Reading section in wikipedia. Especially after I discovered one of them specifically mentions Belzoni's wife. Because she went along with him on those travels, I'm immediately interested - women managing to travel when they were encouraged not to do so (in particular periods of history) is a theme in books I've been reading lately.


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text 2014-08-16 17:16
Reading in Progress: A Traveller in Italy by H.V. Morton
A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton,Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

I've already posted about this book a couple of times - right away I'll say that this is an author I'd never quote or use as a historical reference. For multiple reasons that aren't terribly fascinating, so I'll hop right into the quotes that I wanted to share. Just be aware that you shouldn't trust any of Morton's quotes for accuracy.


I did like this quote (for bookish reasons) about Isabella d'Este, p 176 (section bolded for booklove, not in original):

"...her favorite son took as his mistress a beautiful young woman named Isabella Boschetti, who sought every opportunity to make trouble between mother and son.
Never can the Paradiso have been more precious than in those bitter days when she saw a spiteful young woman in the place she had graced for thirty years; but maybe she is not really to be pitied, for she must have known that trouble has a way of straightening itself out if you continue to collect books and to read them."

By Paradiso the author's referring to the rooms in the palace at Mantua that Isabella had decorated with paintings, etc. - doesn't seem to be what this area of the palace is typically called elsewhere. Or at least, not anymore. (That's a good example of the problems with reading an old travel book.)


In the section describing a tour of the Ducal Palace at Mantua, there was the following description of "the Apartments of the Dwarfs," p 171:


"In the heart of the palace, built to scale for inhabitants about three feet high, is a suite of rooms, or rather a miniature house, with midget staircases and even a tiny chapel in which I had to bend double."


Morton goes on into histories of various people (there were a lot of court dwarfs at the time) but makes no further mention of these rooms. Wikipedia isn't entirely helpful:


"Under his apartment in the Domus Nova, Vincenzo Gonzaga's son, Cardinal (later Duke) Ferdinand (1587–1626) had Viani design a series of ever-smaller rooms, long known as the Appartamento dei nani ("Dwarves' Apartments") and believed to have been built to house the celebrated court dwarves of Mantua. In 1979, however, Italian art historian Renato Berzaghi convincingly demonstrated that these tiny rooms are instead an exact reproduction of an ancient Roman original: the Scala Santa ("Holy Stairway") of St. John Lateran in Rome, and were intended for devotional purposes."


And there's a "citation needed" after that last sentence. Since most of the references to these apartments online are from sources earlier than 1979 - well, this is probably one of those I Will Spend Way Too Long Looking Up More Links adventures. And theoretically I did need to go do some laundry. (You can tell I'm sooo interested in laundry.)


Oh and some images of the palace are here (translated from Italian). Also here. Because of course I did have to get a glimpse of the place before I stopped googling.

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text 2014-08-01 21:15
A Book I'm Not (Exactly) Reading, Random Italian Art, A few Skeletons, and Syphilis
A Traveller in Southern Italy - H.V. Morton
A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton,Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Warning: I'm about to go a bit link crazed. Specifically I'm dragging you in to what happens once I start googling and find things that interest me. (Translation: what I do on the internet at any time, on a daily basis.) Another warning, here's what I edited out of title of this post: May Contain Testicles, Teeth Removal from a Saint, A Cephalophore Reference and Tomb Artwork of a Famous Juggler. That was a bit too long.


Back in this post I told about rescuing this book - A Traveller in Southern Italy - from my family's Off To The Used Bookstore pile. I actually linked the wrong book - it's A Traveller in Italy - which makes a difference, because most of this book is about northern Italy. I'm totally not reading it...not really. ...Ok, not much. I do have at least a few examples of the problematic author I talked about in the last post - but that's to be in the review.


More interesting - for blogging purposes - is that what I have read has led to some really fun google searches for more about the country and the history. Of course I have quotes and examples! [Note: not enough skeletons in the book so far. I like my travel stories with skeletons, ghost stories, and a few ruins here and there. Also libraries. You'll note there is a link to some skeletons in artwork below, because that's just how my google searches lead me.]


The quote that started it on page 149 (but again, I'm not really reading this), about a chapel in the city of Bergamo, Italy:

"The gem of Bergamo is the building next to the church: the chapel to the memory of [Bartolomeo] Colleoni with money left by him for this purpose in his will. It was built at the beginning of the Renaissance, when architects erected the usual mediaeval church with a rose window and an open arcade, but, to be classically fashionable, covered it with medallions of ancient heroes strangely contrasted with scenes from holy writ. ...

...In another part of the little chapel is Medea, Colleoni's favorite daughter, carved in white marble, who died seven years before her father. She was not a great beauty, and the fashion of plucking the hair high upon the forehead did not suit her. Nevertheless she lives again in the resurrective art of sculpture in a marble gown of figured brocade, her head upon a tasselled pillow. Her delicate, intelligent face, and her slender neck, remain one of the memories of Bergamo."


It seemed a little odd (and insulting) to toss in that part about Medea not being a great beauty, because that's not the way other tourists describe her statue (that I've read so far, anyway). That's one of the many examples of the author using a tone which is...well, I don't much like the guy.


But I did want to see what these places look like, especially to find out more about the classical heroes bit, because that's vague. What I found was that there's a lot of interesting detail that A Traveller in Italy has left out - though of course that's after I've read many web pages of information.

Wikipedia page for the chapel: Cappella Colleoni, which has the following information about the art:

"Over the main portal is a rose window, flanked by two medallions portraying Julius Caesar and Trajan. The upper part of the basement has nine plaques with reliefs of Biblical stories, and four bas-reliefs with Hercules's deeds. The four pilasters of the windows flanking the portal are surmounted by statues of the Virtues."

What that doesn't tell you is that the reason Hercules was used was because supposedly Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he was a descendent of Hercules - in a sort of "I'm like him!" way instead of actual ancestry. I've only read bits about Colleoni online so far, so take that with a grain of salt.


There don't seem to be any photos of Medea's marble tomb-statue - here's an old black and white image on Pinterest, and the chapel's wikipedia page has something similar. This is probably due to restrictions on photographs inside the chapel.


What many sources online seem to agree on is that the Colleoni coat of arms has three testicles on it - in part as a joke because the Italian word for testicles (coglioni) sounds like Colleoni - and also because apparently Bartolomeo went around telling people he had three. Which is a real condition, but you can also imagine the type of person that would want to brag about this.


Google will now have forever in its files that I searched for Colleoni, coat of arms, and testicles. Fun, huh? I'll let you try that link to find out more - and I didn't have any one resource on this, it seems common knowledge. Of course it could be a bit of folklore always told to tourists - but then there is that coat of arms. [links: Time Out Venice, Veneto Insidequote from book on Venice via Google books, etc. - keep reading, I link to a photo of that coat of arms...]

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