Category Archives: Art and Architecture

The Godfather in Savoca

Al Pacino

Excitement is high among fans of The Godfather trilogy, with the release of the newly re-mastered films, three movies that are Shakespearean in drama – operatic, and complex. As one of those fans I delved into my archives to search for photographs I took in Savoca, location of a few major scenes of The Godfather, and a reminder of one of those serendipitous moments that occur from time to time in one’s travels.

A shady spot at the Bar Vitelli

It was in Sicily, about 30 years ago, when we came across Savoca, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the Ionian coast. We had driven through the mountains from Taormina, stopping here and there to admire the views from villages clinging to the sides of the mountains, and views of blue seas far below on which floated toy boats. We pulled into Piazza Fossia, saw a parking place opposite a pleasant looking bar with terrace which meant we could sit outside rather than in the inky black interiors preferred by the Sicilians, and entered Bar Vitelli.

The Bar Vitelli

We ordered drinks, and the owner, who was also serving, graciously waved me inside to see what else was available.  What she really wanted me to see was her wall of photographs of the stars of The Godfather and various artifacts to do with the film.  Most were of Marlon Brando – although he was never in Savoca for filming – Al Pacino, Simonetta Stefanelli, who played Apollonia in the film, and James Caan. 

Then I made the connection.  This was the small, cliff-side café where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sat with his two bodyguards (one of whom would later betray him) and drank wine. In fact, this small patio with the dappled sunlight playing on the tables, was the location of several scenes filmed over a six-week period during the shooting of the first Godfather movie. 

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had fled New York City to escape both police and a Mafia mob and came to Sicily to take refuge. Out hunting one day, he saw a beautiful Sicilian girl and immediately fell in love with her.

Back room of Bar Vitelli with photographs and connections to The Godfather

The Bar Vitelli was actually the home of the beautiful young girl he’d seen, and it is here he asks the café owner for permission to court his daughter, the lovely Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). A later scene, depicting a traditional Italian family Sunday dinner and a still later scene of the eventual outdoor wedding reception, was also staged on the terrace of the Bar Vitelli and in the tiny piazza in front.

La Signora watched me carefully and when she could see that I was suitably impressed with the display she sat me down and told me tales of what it was like when she had Pacino and Brando in her café.  Of course, I knew that Brando had never been there but everyone’s allowed a little bit of licence and in that small village of less than 100 inhabitants, The Godfather had sprinkled a little bit of magic on the Bar Vitelli. 

La Signora sits outside Bar Vitelli.

Savoca owes it’s connection to Hollywood to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola thought that Corleone, a town near Palermo and the book’s setting for The Godfather, looked too modern for his vision of the Sicilian village from which the family came. After much searching throughout the island, he found two small villages untouched by modernisation for his locations, – Savoca and Forza d’Agro.

At the time we were there, few tourists visited this remote village so La Signora was happy to spend time talking to us and showing us some more pictures of the stars of The Godfather, plus some newspaper cuttings she’d collected.

Back room of Bar Vitelli

I never got back to Bar Vitelli but I saw a short film a while back that showed it looking exactly as it had been when I visited, and as it was in the film – right down to the bead curtain in the doorway.  La Signora is no longer alive and the bar/restaurant is now successfully run by her descendants: Godfather tours (along with Montelbano tours) are now big business in Sicily, and Savoca is a port of call on the trail. 

It was nice to know that it hadn’t been commercialised at all, and that the stone-flagged walls covered in greenery, the terrace with vine covered pergolas, still offers travellers shade, along with coffee granita, supposedly the favourite drink of both Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola when they were there.

When I watch the 3-hour long film again on March 26th, I will be carried back 30 years to when I sat on Al Pacino’s chair in Bar Vitelli and heard first-hand from la Signora that, although Pacino may have come from New York, he was molto Siciliano.

This was the prettiest house we saw in Savoca, and we were told it belonged to someone very important. I wonder who it belongs to today?

  1.  In Savoca, apart from Bar Vitelli, the nearby Church of San Nicola was used as a location for the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia. The church is only a short walk from Bar Vitelli.
  2. Bar Vitelli is housed in the 18th century Palazzo Trimarchi, located in the Piazza Fossia, the town’s main square, near the Town Hall.

The Godfather:

The Godfather revolutionized film-making, saved Paramount Pictures from Bankruptcy, minted a new generation of movie stars, and made the author of the book, Mario Puzo, rich and famous.  It is compelling, dramatic, and complex and it started a war between Hollywood and the high echelons of the Mob as the makers had to contend with the real-life members of the Mafia.  Location permits were withdrawn without notice at inconvenient times, Al Ruddy’s car was found riddled with bullets, and ‘connected’ men insisted on being in the cast (some were given film roles, whether due to threats or talent nobody knows)!

Dante Alighieri: 1321-2021

This year Italy celebrates the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death, a genius born in Florence but whose remains now lie in Ravenna. The poet found Ravenna to be the ideal place to complete The Divine Comedy and as the home of his burial, the city has been preserving Dante’s memory for seven centuries since his death in 1321. How his bones came to be in that city of glorious mosaics is quite a story.

Dante Alighieri: Photo by Rhodan59 via Pixabay

Although his name will be forever associated with Florence, the city of his birth, when he died in 1321 he had been an exile living outside that city for some 20 years. He had been exiled for life by the Florentines themselves after being on the losing side in a local fight for control of the city. Despite offers to return home, Dante defiantly refused to do so, regarding the terms as unjust.

Ravenna has the world’s most important Byzantine mosaics, a glittering jewel-box of 5th and 6th century art, described by Dante as being “of the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.”

Tomb of Dante Aligheri in Ravenna

He had been invited by Ravenna’s ruler to settle there and he had been a resident of the city for 3 years when he died, aged 56, already a major figure in the world of letters. He was buried outside the cloisters of the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) in a Roman marble sarcophagus where it remained for the next 160 years as his reputation in Europe continued to grow. 

The Cloisters

It is said that it was the lectures in praise of Dante given by fellow poet Boccaccio (who followed Dante’s precedent and wrote in the vernacular instead of Latin) which caused the Florentines to re-think their loss, and seventy-five years after Dante’s death Florence made the first of many requests for the return of his body. Ravenna said no!   In 1430 Florence tried again, and again in 1476, but got the same firm “No” as an answer.  Meantime, the sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor was commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work.

View to the Cloisters from the tomb

Florence, now a very powerful city, took umbrage. It was 1513 and Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici had just became Pope Leo X giving the Medici family the ultimate authority in the Christian world. Using the most powerful weapon in his authority, he issued a Papal Decree and demanded the return of Dante’s remains. Ravenna ignored the Decree. 

After this last attempt by Florence, Ravenna then moved the remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping where they were guarded by the monks for another 150 years. We know from a note left by a friar named Antonio Santi that on October 18th, 1677, he put the remains into a wooden casket and it was recorded in 1692 that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure nothing was stolen.

The tomb with bas relief

Dante’s reputation continued to grow over the ensuing centuries and in the late 18th century Ravenna decided to give Dante a more imposing tomb, to which end they commissioned a local architect to erect a small neoclassical mausoleum. This was lined with marble and topped with a dome to house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief: it was completed in 1781.

In 1805, a new threat appeared from France in the shape of Napoleon who had declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy”. Ravenna fell under Napoleon’s rule and as his armies looted their way through religious orders up and down the region, the friars were forced to abandon their monastery. But first they made sure that the poet’s remains didn’t become war spoils. After less than 30 years in his new mausoleum Dante’s remains were gathered up and put back in the wooden chest in which they’d spent most of the 18th century and in 1810 they were hidden in a wall of the chapel. Then the friars fled, forgetting to tell anyone what they’d done or where to find the bones, so that right up to the middle of the 19th century, pilgrims continued to visit Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that the mausoleum was empty. 

There are many Via Dante Alighieri’s in Italy and many other countries too because, like Shakespeare, his work is universal. This street sign however, is in Ravenna, the city in which he choose to live.

The remains, hidden inside the wall, might have remained there had they not been discovered by a worker at the basilica in 1865.  Of equal, if not more, importance, was the fact that someone spotted the note first put in the casket with the bones and labelled “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”). On examining the bones, doctors pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, and so they were accepted as the remains of one of the greatest writers of all time.

At last the bones, now in a heavy wooden casket lined with lead, could be placed in the mausoleum in Ravenna, the city that had opened its doors to the exile and where the poet wanted to be laid to rest.

Portrait of Dante. Credit: Photo by Gordon Johnson via Pixabay

But rest for Dante was still not possible because World War II was now raging over Europe. In 1944 Northern Italy was occupied by the Germans, and the Allies were bombing day and night.  Once more the poet’s bones had to be moved: this time they were buried in the garden of the basilica, where they remained until hostilities ceased. Finally, on December 19th, 1945, Dante was taken back to his Ravenna mausoleum.

Florence has given up seeking the return of its famous son and in a gesture of friendship, the city sends local Tuscan olive oil each year to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum. 

An Artist in Ice

Birthday Party on the Beach

The Buffet table at your holiday resort looks stunning, the food arranged with aesthetic attention to detail, and dominating the centre is a beautiful carving in ice, a pagoda, a ‘plane, a fantasie in ice with coloured lights making it dance and dazzle, or a bird, its neck an opaque white and the translucent wings poised as though to take flight.  In a few hours it will have dissolved into a puddle.

The people who create these centrepieces are artists in ice, men and women who have the ability to create these beautiful animals, birds, and flowers in frozen water to add a shimmering brilliance to the tables.  And they do this knowing it will all disappear in a few hours. Performance art? Or art installation?

Khun Panas Suchantra at the Dusit Thani Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand, was the resident artist in this ephemeral medium when I was last there.  He is involved in every aspect of the work, from the early discussions with the F & B Manager, the chef, and the General Manager if the event is of importance.  

I watched him work on various carvings over a three week period and never tired of the theatricality of the scene as he chipped and chopped, moved around with speed (the ice continues to melt as he works on it) and created delicate ice flowers and feathered wings with the precision of a mathematician.

Most ice-carving artists use many different types of chisels, plus a saw, to get their effects.   Initally, a V-angle chisel is used to score the outline and to draw on the uncut ice, gouge chisels with their round tipped blades are used for making patterns, and flat chisels are for shaving.  The saw is used for cutting and carving (see photograph below).

Khun Panas  often works outdoors in a covered Pagoda overlooking the sea, a piece of performance art that is much appreciated by the visitors to the hotel who gather round to watch in silence, as a solid block of ice is transformed into a three-dimensional sculpture. 

As he works, the mateial starts to melt and there is a sense of urgency about his actions but with a few quick movements he saws off a piece of the block on which he outlines a shape before beginning to chisel away the excess.

With the outer shape of the subject delineated he starts on the base cutting into the ice to enhance the main figure.  After that it seems but a very short time before the ice-carving is complete, to be taken into the kitchens and stored in the freezer until it is ready to be placed centre table at the buffet.

Japan is the country that has elevated ice sculpting to high art: you only have to look at the Winter Festival in Sapporo to see what visions they create.  It goes without saying therefore, that the best and most expensive tools come from that country, seasoned by years of experience in making Samurai swords.

Tools of the ice-carver’s trade

Saturday Sculpture Vimy War Memorial, France.

Vimy War Memorial

Overlooking the Douai Plain, the Vimy Memorial is located approximately eight kilometres northeast of Arras and is the centrepiece of a 250-acre preserved battlefield park that encompasses a portion of the area over which the Canadians made their assault during the initial Battle of Vimy Ridge. The imposing structure stands amid craters and unexploded munitions that still honeycomb the grounds which remain largely closed off to the public for reasons of safety.

The Memorial is dedicated to the Canadians who served their country in battle during the First World War, and in particular. to the 60,000 who gave their lives in France. It also bears the names of 11,000 Canadian servicemen who died there who have no known grave.

The rough terrain is because it cannot be properly excavated due to unexploded munitions.

Designed by W.S. Allward, it took 11 years to build. He had initially hoped to use marble for the facing stone but was persuaded that this would not weather in northern France. After a two year search he found a limestone of just the right colour, texture, and luminosity in the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace at Split in Croatia and managed to procure supplies from an ancient Roman quarry located in Croatia near Seget.  Oscar Faber, a Danish structural engineer who designed the substructure for the Menin Gate at Ypres, prepared foundation plans and provided general supervision of the work.

Vimy Memorial from the road with designated pathway to the Monument

Postscript:

During the Second World War Germany took control of the site and held the site’s caretaker in an internment camp for Allied civilians. There were rumours that it had been desecrated and to demonstrate that this was not so, Hitler, who reportedly admired the memorial for its peaceful nature, was photographed by the press while touring it on 2 June 1940. After the war it was found that it had not been damaged in any way and that it had been carefully looked after by the Germans during the war.

The site of 250 acres, most of which is forested and off limits to visitors to ensure public safety, is of rough terrain and because unexploded munitions make the task of grass cutting too dangerous for human operators, sheep graze the open meadows of the site.

Gorlitz: Stunning in Saxony

For over half a century the delights of German Saxony remained hidden from a large part of the world due to it being part of the former East Germany. Since German reunification however, this lovely state in south east Germany is once again attracting visitors drawn there by its archecture, its craftwork and its traditions.

Sign for hand-made porcelain, Gorlitz

In Saxony, culture goes hand-in-hand with nature, and one of the many pleasures awaiting the visitor is driving or cycling on roads almost free of traffic. We drove from Leipzig through Dresden and on towards the medieval towns of Görlitz and Bautzen on nearly empty roads, bordered by massive tracts of yellow rape (the size of the fields a relic of communist collectivisation), the wind turbines on the horizon like giants with flailing arms striding across the hills.

The nearly 1,000-year-old town of Gőrlitz shares a border with Poland and Czechoslovakia (Prague is a mere 160 Kl. away) its glorious architecture virtually untouched despite the wars that raged across the land. To stand on the German side of the Peace Bridge and look at the blue, yellow and pink facades of the houses across the river in Zgorzelec on the Polish side, is to feel the full weight of recent history.

View of the Lusiarian Niesse River and the Polish town of Zygorzelic from the bridge in Gorlitz

Prior to World War II, Gőrlitz straddled both banks of the River Neisse but when the Allies redrew the boundaries after the war and divided Germany between the western powers and the Soviet Union, it lost its eastern suburbs. Fortunately for posterity, the Soviets did not knock down and rebuild the town in utilitarian style as they did in most of Dresden and Leipzig.

A walk through the crooked, narrow streets on the 15th century basalt cobblestones, forged from the mountain just outside the town, takes you on a fascinating journey through the past. Throughout its history, this former textile trading town has exercised political importance, initially by its position and dominance as a medieval trading post and then by its transformation into a residence for the bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th centuries. If some parts of it look familiar to you it is because it has been used as a location for more than one popular film, the most recent being The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A View to the Round Tower, a popular landmark in the town

Its position on the trade route to important places like Frankfurt, Leipzig, and Krakow and to special privileges granted to the town, meant that all merchants passing through were obliged to offer their wares in Gőrlitz. This gave rise to some spectacular architecture in the building of houses with impressive inner yards where the textiles could be displayed. Enormous squares, the sides lined by the houses of the rich merchants who dealt in wool and furs, richly decorated house fronts, fortifications and fortified towers, buildings from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau eras have made the town a 3-dimensional reference book of architectural history.

In the part-arcaded Untermarkt (Lower Market Place) is grouped one of the finest collection of Renaissance and Baroque town houses to be seen in Europe, a place of pilgrimage for architects the world over. In fact, 4,000 of Gőrlitz’s late Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Gründerzeit (German Industrial Revolution) and Art Nouveau buildings, are protected as National Monuments.

Once a Bishop’s Palace now a Museum in Gorlitz

The older buildings blend harmoniously with the Gründerzeit and Art Nouveau quarters, the Strassbourg Arcade Department Store with its stunningly beautiful chandeliers and the Art Noveau Karstadt Department Store being prime examples.

Gorlitz has a small town charm despite its centuries of architecture and is a good place to see craftsmen work in traditional trades like jewellery making, porcelain painting and toy-making: it is also an ideal place to sample the local specialities – Landskron beer and a fruit schnapps called Görlitzer Geister.

The Schönhof

If you are spending time in the region and want a break from the culture overload, there are many kilometres of cycle and hiking tracks along the Oder-Neisse to explore and guided tours by bicycle through the cultural regions of Upper Lusatia, Lower Silesia and Bohemia are available. Frequent stops are made in beer-gardens along the river for local delicacies washed down with the very special local beer or the equally delicious white wine of the region.

Dresden is only 100 kl. away and easily reachable by train or bus but I’m mindful of the fact that you may come to Gorlitz from Dresden, so I would suggest instead a trip to the fantastic town of Bautzen where Sorbian language and traditions still rule.

Bautzen will be the subject of my next blog.

This Image by Candid_Shots from Pixabay

All other images by Mari Nicholson

Cycling tours to Prague and Poland and along the Oder/Neisse are easily arranged by any of the cycling organizations in town.

Tourist information for Görlitz : Görlitzinformation, Brüderstrasse 1, 02828 Görlitz,

Email: http://www.gorlitz.de

SILENT SUNDAY

It is always sad to see deserted villages and town and even though they are being given status by UNESCO, they still harbour a feeling of meloncholy.

Fikardou Village – a Unesco Heritage Site in Cyprus

There is no escaping the fact that young people will no longer work at back-breaking, low-paying jobs on farms, and abandoned villages like these are a familiar site all over the Mediterranean. Even when some houses are restored by a local who works abroad, they are then used only as holiday homes. The greatest cause for concern then becomes the elderly left to fend for themselves when all the young people have fled to coastal towns for work.

Sculpture Saturday

Prior to taking a tour through the Vienna Woods I took a walk in the Stadt Park which is full of statues to musicians. Pride of place, of course, goes to the favourite son, Johann Strauss.

Link to Mind Over Memory who hosts this challenge.

Sculpture Saturday

One day late

Unknown in Salamanca

They must have run out of plaques when they erected this sitting man statue on the walls in Salamanca but a student told me it was the writer Unomuno. It’s not shown among the 20 most famous statues in that city of many statues, but I loved it.

Link to Sculpture Saturday

Germany’s Prettiest Town: Miltenberg on Main

It’s been a few years since I last visited the villages along the River Main in Germany but it was once a favourite driving holiday, especially in early spring when the flowers were in bloom and the street stalls were full of jewel coloured blooms, wrapped in flimsy coloured paper, just asking to be taken home.  Of all the lovely medieval villages along the route one of my favourites was Miltenberg, a town with a wide main street lined with half-timbered houses and small medieval alleys.   

Main Street, Tables Ready for Lunch

The beautiful houses that line its main street span the 15th – 17th centuries and the oldest dates back to 1339: what is so unusual is that all of these half-timbered dwellings are lived in.   In consequence, there is no feeling that this is a tourist site, a place where we come to gawp and take photographs.  Instead, we wander and look, dive into interesting looking shops, and stop off at cosy taverns serving local cuisine along with the wine of the area – and, of course, beer. 

The town has a few interesting sculptures dotted around the streets most of them honouring local artisans. I was also impressed by the quality of the goods for sale in the shops, at a quality-high price I may add. Even the mannikins that modelled the clothes looked beautiful as you can see from the picture below.

Viniculture and the wine trade, wood from the surrounding forests and stone, and the fact that the town was well-placed on the river for transportintg goods, was favourable to this location at the trading artery of Nuremberg and Frankfurt and the town grew rich.

One can see Miltenberg’s importance from the magnificent half-timbered houses, especially those in the Old Market Place (the Schnatterloch) and Germany’s oldest Inn, the Gasthaus zum Riesen, dating from 1590.  It claims to be Germany’s oldest Inn and an historical document tells us that a local owner at the time was granted the right to fell a hundred oak trees for its construction.   It is known for serving some of the best food in town and is especially noted for its roast salmon.

Germany’s Oldest Inn, Gasthaus ZumReisen, dating from 1590

From the Market Square to Mildenburg Castle, which was constructed in 1200 under the aegis of the Archbishop of Mainz, is an easy walk.  The castle doesn’t really comare to other castles in Germany being a relatively small fortress, but it is worth the walk if only for the wonderful views of the old city.

A small town but a supremely beautiful one, and a recommended stop on the way to or from Nuremberg or Frankfurt.