It’s not often I blog about a book I’m reading. It has to be exceptional or part of a writing or a photography challenge, but in this case it is because I have just discovered a paperback by someone who writes travel articles that really appeal to me, the sort I used to enjoy in the Sunday papers before they turned themselves over to the advertising world.
I found it through Beachy Books, an Isle of Wight publisher whose listings have often included quirky and interesting books. It turns out that Julie Watson is also an Isle of Wight writer, someone I don’t know but someone whom I’d like to meet one day. So, as well as being happy to introduce a travel writer to those here who write on travel, I’m also excited because she’s from my area, a local writer!
Julie’s book is a collection of travel memoirs from her first independent trip to the French Alps to work as a waitress, to later trips to more exotic places like India, Russia, Egypt, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Borneo, to name but a few. And each tale is an anecdote, a story about her trip, not a list of restaurants and hotels, but about the chance meetings that occur on holiday when we open ourselves to new experiences, serendipitous moments that are evoked in exhilarating detail. And all this brought to us in a very personal, authentic prose. I finished the book feeling I’d learned something new about the places and the people.
Above is one of the Contents pages, from which you’ll see that the articles are short, bite-sized, and as the cliché has it “small but beautifully formed”, ideal for dipping into when you have a spare few minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite from so many great pieces but I think I’ll opt for Birdsong, an exquisitely crafted piece written in lockdown, a simple tale, yet one that when read, left me with the feeling that I had known that place, and I had known that moment. And I was strangely moved.
Available from all good bookshops and from Amazon, of course.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This unusual pairing of bronzes is Gli Equilibristi by sculptor Leonardo Lucchi. I took the photograph with a cheap throwaway instant camera in Cesena, Emilio Romagno in Italy, two years ago but unfortunately, my notes did not survive the trip (not a good one from the point of view of losing stuff).
I stood before this amazing balancing figure with the corresponding male figure at the foot of the stairs for a long time, returning a few days later to try and get a better picture. I could never find a time when there were no bikes or cars or wheelbarrows parked in the space under the stairs and my efforts at removing them were not professional enough so I’ve left them in.
The sculptor lives and has his studio in Cesena, a town I an keen to return to as I only had a few hours there over two days and I wasn’t able to explore enough. Lucchi’s work is so energetic, his figures depict strong movement and I just have to see some more. If you’d like to see some more of his work, check out his website below:
Been looking through my photographs to see what I could find that would fit this week’s challenge. Quite surprised to find very little. I thought I had an orange sunset at Wadi Rum but that turned out to be golden, and my terracotta roofs in Italy had taken on a brownish tinge by the time I blew them up. But I found a few, so herewith my selection from Spain, Italy, Thailand and Sweden.