Friday, February 27, 2015

Finding the Contessa Tagliapietra

There is a legend in Venice about a lovely girl known as the Contessa Tagliapietra. She was born in 1288 and died after a long illness in 1308. Her family lived here, in Campo San Vio, along the Grand Canal.
Actually, her home was in the foreground of this picture, closer to the old covered well and the canal, and was torn down in the Fourteenth Century.
The Contessa, who apparently gained her title based on her family's role in a war with Genoa, was very devout as a child. She would often cross the Grand Canal in a gondola to pray in the Church of San Maurizio, located on the opposite side. Her view of the San Maurizio side of the canal would have appeared somewhat like this.
As she grew older, her father became concerned that his daughter might be too devout, which could impact the marriage he hoped for her. Unable to dissuade her from her frequent trips to the Church of San Maurizio, he finally instructed all of the nearby gondoliers to refuse to transport her.
Thus, the next time that she set out to cross the Grand Canal to pray, every gondolier she approached denied her request for a ride. Finally, she went to the edge of the canal, took a linen cloth and, stretching it out on the water, stepped onto it and floated across.
There's more to the Contessa's story, filled with debates on miracles and myths, cults and devotions. For centuries Venetian mothers would set their infants over the entombed remains of the Contessa, praying for their safety in avoiding drowning in the canals.
For some time I've wondered what eventually happened to the remains of the Contessa. As noted, her home is no longer standing, nor is the original San Vio Church, where she was first interred. Past writings indicate her remains were next carried to the San Maurizio Church, which was later rebuilt. However, the reconstructed San Maurizio Church eventually was deconsecrated and now houses a beautiful collection of antique musical instruments. Here's what it looks like today. (Pay no attention to the unrelated protest going on out front, or the leaning bell tower from another church in the background. These things happen in Italy.)
While there seemed little question the Contessa's remains were moved from San Vio to San Maurizio, what happened next? Were they moved again? And, if so, where?
Needing to start somewhere, I visited the musical instrument museum, and was pleased to see several works of art and engravings from the old church intact. Although the former sacristy was locked, one could look through a glass window to what appeared to be an area for repairing or cleaning old instruments.
However, there were no obvious signs, art or engravings referring to the Contessa.
Before leaving, I approached the museum curator, who offered a word of greeting. At the risk of posing what might seem a very curious question, I asked him, as kindly as possible, if he knew of the story of the Contessa Tagliapietra. Our conversation, partly in Italian, partly in English, went something like this.
"Hello. Please, I speak little Italian, but do you know of the story of the Contessa Tagliapietra?"
"You ask, so I am wondering, do you know the story of the Contessa?"
"Yes, I do, how she floated across the canal, and I am wondering what happened to her remains."
"She is here!"
Recognizing my surprise and interest, he momentarily left his post and led me back through the old church to the sacristy door. He pointed through the window to what appeared to be a small white marble altar, reliquary or tomb, dark on the front, with wind instruments, a statue and some type of box on top. Within the tomb, he said, are the remains of the Contessa Tagliapietra.
I hope to write more about the Contessa in the future. For now, it's nice to just think of her floating through Heaven as she once floated over the Grand Canal.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Italy 2015

I arrived in Venice on February 25, and will be in Assisi from March 7 to May 6. Hope to be doing some posting, so please check back.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Walking from Gubbio to Assisi

Saint Francis used to walk between the Umbrian towns of Assisi and Gubbio. His most notable journey occurred after he returned his earthly possessions to his father, intent on following his "Father in Heaven." It's a walking distance of about 50 kilometers (31 miles) between the two towns. Although no one knows for certain the routes he followed, there are a few different trails that seek to capture the spirit and experience of a young Francesco.
The trails often overlap, generally are well-marked, sometimes are not, and weave in and out of the countryside enough that one certainly experiences paths Francesco might have chosen. And it is all rugged, beautiful and inspiring.
A very kind person gave me an early morning ride from Assisi to Gubbio, where I began a walk back to Assisi at the legendary spot where Francesco tamed the wolf of Gubbio, the small Chiesa di San Vittorino.
Surprisingly, at 5:30 a.m. the church was open.
The  early going was a straight and level country road out of town, a chance to leave behind a few of those kilometers. This was the path ahead, and the hamlet of Pont D'Assi.
Finally, the climbing began, along with the good views back.

The higher the climb. the better the views. Here's one of the last looks back to Gubbio.
Interestingly, not long after Gubbio disappeared from sight, Mount Subasio appeared in the distance, although Assisi wouldn't be visible for many hours.
The trails include everything from paved roads, to gravel roads, to dirt roads, to maintained paths to challenging combinations of rocks, mud and water. Fortunately, most sections were quite good for walking.
Far from the nearest town, deep in the woods, is the small chapel of the Madonna della Ripa.
It was gated closed, but the interior could be seen.
At about 17 kilometers is the hermitage of San Pietro in Vigneto, an imposing, enclosed structure with a small sign saying "No Visitors".
However, by the gate is posted a daily schedule for its occupants.
Things went smoothly for most of the hike. Where two or more trails converged, it usually wasn't difficult to find the way.
However, at about 20 kilometers there was a spot where the only marker in sight was a green arrow painted on a rock on the ground. In time it became clear that I had missed a turn for the red/white trail, and was now on a less traveled path. Eventually, there was a sign pointing the way forward, but that led to a long and wide stretch of mud, bound on both sides by dense brush. The mud worsened where streamlets flowed through. From the surrounding hills, the sun and the water flow, it seemed this was the right direction, south, traveling parallel to the Chiascio River. However, the mud went on and on. Finally, there was a stretch so deep that trying to pull a foot out resulted in a fall to my knee. In the spirit of Saint Frances, undoubtedly this was Fratello Fango (Brother Mud) reminding me to fall to my knee in thankfulness for a beautiful day and a safe hike. Soon after, the trail improved and led to dryer ground. 
(While people may debate the exact routes Francesco walked, I think it probable that he did not walk the Chiascio mud flats during the Spring, else instead of being Francesco d'Assisi he might have been Francesco del Fango.) 
A rising trail confirmed the Chiascio was close by.
Then the river became more beautiful, viewed from afar.
After about 7 kilometers of uncertain wandering, the main trails came back in view. From there, it was uphill to the Chapel of Sambuco.
After a long stretch of woods, the trail opened up more wonderful vistas, like this one looking back over many miles walked from those distant hills. 
The trail was leading closer to Valfabbrica, the only town of note along the route. It passed by the Chiesa di San Benedetto.
No keypad entry here.
Despite having not rained for a couple of days, the trail was still wet in numerous places. Any potential hikers would be wise to not tackle these trails during or shortly after heavy rains.
Soon Valfabbrica was in sight. Entering town meant crossing over the Chiascio River.
A short walk through town.
Then, on to the last segment of the hike, through a cute little hamlet named Il Pioppo, that ends almost as soon as it begins.
Finally, after another steep, muddy, trail climb, Assisi came into distant view.
The last few miles were mostly a pleasant downhill stroll through forests and farms, until reaching the road up to Assisi. The road offered good looks back at the last stretch.
And then, entering through Assisi's Porta San Giacomo.
It was about a twelve hour walk, usually at a brisk pace (considerably slower in muddy sections), stopping briefly to visit sites along the way. Often pilgrims take two or more days, staying overnight in Valfabbrica, and there's no shortage of exploring to do with more time. Some additional advice to those considering a hike: the various trail markers are usually dependable, but some are missing or worn out and some list conflicting distances. What you can be sure of is that there are two towns called Gubbio and Assisi, with a place in between that would be hard to miss called Valfabbrica. Beyond that, be prepared for an adventure. As you wander through the beautiful Umbrian forests, so peaceful and inspiring, it's easy to imagine a young Francesco coming along from the other direction, but for a brief difference of eight hundred years.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Assisi Gates

With one notable exception, one enters or leaves Assisi through her main gates. The exception is a once gated road used by busses and cars to reach the upper part of the city. There are more gates within and beyond Assisi's walls, but these are the main ones forming a periphery around the city. They all date back to the Fourteenth Century, when Assisi's current walls were constructed. First, Porta San Giacomo, looking in.
 And looking out.
Next, Porta di San Francesco, used to gain access by many visiting the Basilica di San Francesco, looking in.
And looking out.
Next is Porta San Pietro, often passed through by persons walking to or from Santa Maria degli Angeli, or driving out of town. Looking in.
And looking out.
Next is the seldom used Porta Sementone, an imposing structure not well located for contemporary foot traffic, and not useable by vehicle traffic. It was rebuilt in the early Twentieth Century. Looking in.
And looking out.
Next, Porta Moiano. Looking in.
And looking out.
Next is the heavily utilized Porta Nuova, close to the Basilica di Santa Chiara. Looking in.
And looking out.
One of my favorite gates is Porta dei Cappuccini, which one passes under when walking to the Eremo delle Carceri or when hiking on Mount Subasio. Here is looking in.
And looking out.
And finally, another favorite for hiking the many wonderful trails on the far side of Mount Subasio, is Porta Perlici. Looking in.
And looking out.
As noted, Assisi's current walls were constructed in the Fourteenth Century. Within the walls are found structures, walls, gates and ruins dating back to Roman times, as the city's footprint was once smaller and grew gradually over the centuries. An enjoyable (and hilly) two hour stroll is to walk the perimeter of Assisi, going in and out of these eight gates, before returning to the center of town for a gelato.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Assisi During Canonization Time

Following Easter Week and Easter Monday, a holiday in Italy, one might have anticipated the crowds visiting Assisi would diminish. Instead, over the next several days a new flood of visitors appeared from all over the world. It soon became apparent what was happening: tens of thousands of faithful, arriving in Italy for the following Sunday's canonization ceremony for two popes, were traveling in tour groups that also would bring them to Assisi. So, approaching the Basilica di San Francesco:
A notice of the news.
Waiting in line to enter the Basilica.
And waiting.
Scouts hamming it up by the Piazza del Comune.
A group passing through the streets.
Another group, by the Basilica di Santa Chiara.
The Basilica di San Francesco during an early, quieter moment.
Sunday, canonization day, was fairly peaceful here. However today (Monday), the post-canonization groups began to arrive. Leaving the market after buying a loaf of bread this morning, I found myself walking along in the middle of a lively group from China, whose leader was carrying a large Chinese flag! Such is life in Assisi.