Italy, Music, Travel

Opera Nite: Carmen at the Teatro Regio

In an era when you can listen to practically anything practically anywhere, it’s a wonder anyone still bothers going to the opera. It’s an archaic, elaborate spectacle that requires an army of artists and wheelbarrows full of money to stage. The plots are flimsy and familiar, the music old fashioned and the acting stilted. And–what should be the nail in the coffin—you have to pay to sit still for hours.

But, as we discovered last night, lots of people still do go, at least in Turin, and with pleasure. As we arrived at the Teatro Regio to see Carmen, the place was rapidly filling up with flocks of elegant culture vultures, leaving their coats at the vast guardaroba, poring over the program and chatting with friends.

 

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The old theater, a few hours before it burned down

 

Turin has had a ‘Royal Theater’ since the eighteenth century, with distinct phases involving restorations, Napoleon and the Restoration. In 1936, a great fire destroyed it completely and it lay disused for thirty years as the country’s finances were occupied with war and its costly consequences. In 1967, the work of raising the phoenix was finally entrusted to the architect Carlo Mollino (1905-1973) and the theater was inaugurated 10 April 1973. Some attribute to Mollino the quote, “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic”. Whether or not it is true, it seems an good summary of his modus operandi because the theater is full of quirky design features. The stage is designed to look like a television set; the color scheme is reminiscent of a lava lamp with reds and purples; chandeliers are in space-aged globular clusters or stalactite pipes. As you enter the theater, there are circular holes in the walls of each entrance that allow you to glimpse another person moving in the same direction—giving the fleeting impression of a mirror image.

 

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In order to enter the theater, you must first pass through the ‘Musical Odyssey’ (‘Odissea Musicale’) gate, sculpted in bronze by Umberto Mastroianni (1910-1998). This, like everything else in the theater, has the feeling of a ritual designed to enhance the sense of entering an alternative, fantasy world.

 

Cancellata

 

Carmen is an opera based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée about a beautiful Roma woman who robs a soldier then falls in love with him. His corresponding love for her leads him to kill a man so becoming an outlaw, and then to kill her husband out of jealousy. She then falls for a matador and the ex-soldier kills her. The opera composed by Georges Bizet in 1875 is a bit different in that Carmen is not married and the soldier doesn’t kill anyone, with the result that the whole thing makes no sense.

 

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shameless hussy

 

One critic present at the opera’s premiere described the singer Célestine Galli-Marie’s Carmen as “the very incarnation of vice” (as if that would deter anyone) and it’s true, she’s a lot less inhibited than most operatic heroines. She works in a cigarette factory, has brigands for friends, tries to carve a cross in a colleague’s forehead in a cat fight, uses sexual favors to get out of trouble and abruptly ditches her besotted beau for a hotter prospect. Somehow, the mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan played the voluptuary with a violent streak in a way that also makes you think she is a noble, if sensuous, spirit simply obeying Nature’s imperatives. At the same time, though, I was reminded of a girl in my high school named Jackie, who was a holy terror, tore through boyfriends, had three kids by the age of 18 and had a feud with the town policeman. I vividly remember her punching a guy’s broken arm and stabbing rabbit fetuses during high school dissection class. Right up until fifth form, when she dropped out, I avoided her as I would a human volcano, but now I realize she was the perfect Bizet heroine.

The doomed lover Don Jose by comparison comes off as a wet noodle, who should obviously have married the nice girl Micaëla and saved everyone a lot of trouble. Just to clarify, by wet noodle, I am talking about the character, not the singer, because the tenor Andrea Caré (who is from Turin and has sung at the Met, the Royal Opera House and pretty much everywhere else) managed to fill the auditorium very nicely.

 

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Andrea Caré

 

The director set this opera in the Spanish Civil War and I’m not sure that really worked. At the opening of Act III a large propeller airplane inched closer and closer to the edge of the stage until I was worried it would fall into the orchestra pit and kill the brass section. John, ever the war nerd, was busy thinking that they must have been very successful brigands to afford what would then have been a brand-new plane.

In terms of stage craft, the whole spectacle was amazing. Each Act opened with a tableau vivant that looked like a beautifully lit photograph. The chorus of children singing Les Voici! was very beautiful, though they all looked like the cherished prodigies they are rather than scruffy orphans. The choreography was nice too, especially in Act II, which is set in a bar and people are dancing the flamenco.

That’s all I really have to say, except that it was enjoyable, even for John, who has been humming Carmen tunes all day. Not me, though. For some reason, the tune that got stuck in my head was “Jingle Bells,” which is what the taxi driver was whistling on the way to the theater.

 

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Italy, Travel

Two Days A-Roving in Venice

First Day:  St. Mark’s Square

There’s an awful lot to see in Venice but it’s possible have a spectacular day doing just two things: floating on the Grand Canal and visiting St. Mark’s Square. In fact, this is what we did.

 

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The railway station is today in the upper left corner.

 

Arriving at San Lucia station in the morning, we bought two day passes, giving us unlimited access to public transport (ie vaporetti or ferries) for 24 hours. From the station it was just a few steps to a ferry dock and the next one came along in 10 minutes.

The public ferries may not come with a singing gondolier, but you have a choice of indoor and outdoor seating and you can still gawp at all the architectural magnificence. The previous week the city had been inundated by exceptionally high-water levels so there were signs of some clean-up, but over all it looked like business as usual. Tourists were visiting the museums, palaces and galleries and life was going on with impressive smoothness.

 

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The buildings were in a variety of styles, predominantly neo-classical or with Arab arches and decorated with whimsical ornamentation, like twisted chimneys or beautiful mosaics or friezes. In the past, many of the buildings were covered in frescos that have since been erased by storms and the sea air.

 

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I was especially pleased to spot the some-time residence of George Gordon, Lord Byron(1788-1824), who came to Venice in the winter of 1816. He lived in Mocenigo Palace with 14 servants, two monkeys, a fox, two mastiffs and (I believe) at least one parrot. Swam from the Lido to St. Mark’s Square, conducted multiple love affairs and studied Armenian on the monastery island San Lazzaro degli Armeni. He also wrote Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), a blank-verse tragedy in five acts set in 1355 and relating the story of the doge who was beheaded for conspiring to arrange a coup d’etat. You can read it here. Not only that, but Venice was where he started work on Don Juan.

 

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‘The Execution of the Doge Marino Falieri’ (1825-26) By Eugène Delacroix

 

Arriving in St. Mark’s Square, I had expected to notice the basilica first. Instead, I saw the enormous white block of the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian power for centuries. Next, I noticed the two tall pillars: one topped by St. Theodore, the city’s original patron saint, the other by the lion of St. Mark, the city’s adopted patron saint. Only then did I see the domes and colors of St. Mark’s, tucked almost behind the palace.

 

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There is a story precious to the Venetians that Saint Mark once travelled to the ancient Roman city of Acquilea, and that during that time he made a little journey to the islands that would later become Venice. There (it is said) an angel appeared to him and said, “Pax tibi, Marce Evangalista Meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” – “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here will your body rest.” Sure enough, most of the saint now rests in Venice (Coptic Christians maintain that his head is still in Alexandria). For this reason, the symbol of Venice became the winged lion of St. Mark, which is usually depicted saying, ‘Pax tibi’. Even today, if you travel down the Adriatic coast, in towns like Durres and Corfu, you will see stone lions, remnants of the extensive power of Venice’s old maritime empire.

 

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St. Mark and his symbol, the winged lion

 

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The basilica of St. Mark’s was built by Byzantine engineers around 1094, as a copy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. While the original no longer exists, St. Mark’s stands substantially as it did when it was first built, though a lot of ornamentation has since been added. The exterior is encrusted with beautiful pieces of polished stone, with shining mosaics and carving. The enormous interior is covered with ornamentation—golden mosaics, colorful mosaic floors, carvings and gem-encrusted furniture such as the glittering pala d’oro. Ruskin points out that it differs from northern cathedrals in many respects but particularly in its appreciation of color. He also points out that for an illiterate population it served the purpose of a kind of illustrated Bible.

 

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Some of the city’s most famous musicians were in charge of composing music for this sacred space, including Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1585) and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612) – you can still listen to the choral harmonies of ‘Maria Magdalene’ and the antiphonal brass majesty of ‘Sacra Symphonia Sonata Pian’e Forte’ . But if you want to get a really good idea of the basilica’s visual and acoustic splendours, you should watch this video of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin , which was filmed inside the church and performed using period instruments and with consideration for the echoes of the great hall. Monteverdi (1567-1643) was director of music at St. Mark’s for three decades starting from 1613 and gained fame throughout Europe not only for his sacred music but also for madrigals and operas—his Orfeo is still regularly performed today.

 

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I can’t help wondering if the Dutch diplomat and musician Constantijn Huygens was referring to Vespro della Beata Vergine when he wrote “[I] heard the most perfect music I had ever heard in my life. It was directed by the most famous Claudio Monteverdi … who was also the composer and was accompanied by four theorbos, two cornettos, two bassoons, one basso de viola of huge size, organs and other instruments …”. 

I was so excited about seeing the church that it seemed like a catastrophe when I couldn’t go in because of my backpack. John had already been swallowed up by the big door so I couldn’t call to him. Eventually I figured out that there was an arrow pointing me around the church. I followed it and came to another entrance, where an annoyed guard stopped me. I asked where I should put the bag and she said, ‘On the street, two doors along.’ I looked at the ‘street’ but it didn’t make any sense. I saw a high-end glass shop but it was closed. Dejected, I sat down and looked up at the carvings on the church’s exterior, waiting for John to emerge. In turn, he sat down with the backpack to wait for me, looking at some big seagulls and a couple of very lumpy purple lions.

 

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John walks in the footsteps of the Doges

 

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‘Secret Denunciations’ box

 

After San Marco, we decided to head into the Doge’s Palace. This was a vast palatial complex that included a lot of rooms where important things were decided by a bunch of important people. The head of these was the Doge, distinguished by a uniform of a horn-shaped hat called the corno ducale, a golden robe, special slippers and a ceremonial scepter. In the Correr Museum we saw a portrait of the Doge Morosini as well as his ornate corno. On the ground floor of the palace courtyard there was a gargoyle whose mouth doubled as a sort of snitch-box where the public could slip ‘secret denunciations’ of anyone working against the interests of the Republic. The palace featured a museum crammed with impressive paintings, a collection of old weapons in the armory, the giant Hall of the Great council covered with dramatic paintings including the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise, which is 22 x 7 metres.

 

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The palace tour ends, appropriately enough, in the dungeons. You travel across the Bridge of Sighs, in the footsteps of a millennium of convicts, and end up in a warren of dark cells several stories high. At the bottom is a closed courtyard containing a pozzo – a stone cistern designed to collect and filter rain so that citizens would have drinking water.

 

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A pozzo in every campo (which seems to be the Venetian word for ‘piazza‘).

 

After a couple of very hot chocolates (not the milky-cocoa kind but the melted-chocolate kind), we headed over to Museo Correr. This was a repository of maps, models, Doge portraits, foreign weapons, little bronze statuettes and a bunch of other stuff. In particular they were having a special exhibition devoted to Francesco Morosini (1619-1694), the Doge famous for his exploits in the Morean War. Exhausted, with a two-hour journey ahead, we decided to head back to the hotel.

 

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The corno ducale of the hero Doge Francesco Morosini. You can also just see the head of his cat

 

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Second Day: Cannaregio, Murano, Castello

The next day, John’s knee was hurting badly so he decided to rest it while I went back to see more  sights. This time I wanted to wander along the canals and little alleys, to go to the island of Murano and to see the Arsenale, where the great Venetian galleys were built. 

Setting out from the station, I was immediately interested in beautiful displays of cakes, including zaletti (cornmeal biscuits with raisins), baicoli (literally ‘sea bass’ because of their shape) and the so-called pan del doge ‘Doge’s’ Bread’. 

 

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After crossing my first bridge I saw a little market, including a fish stall. One of the distinctive smells of Venice is that of fish cooking, so it made sense that they would buy this local staple as fresh as possible. 

 

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Working my way through the little streets, finding lots of churches and bridges, I quite often found myself at a dead end, which was particularly disconcerting when there was nothing beyond me but sea water.

 

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Although I didn’t end up finding the ghetto (to my knowledge), it was an intriguing walk with plenty of interesting things to see, including this group of spry oarsmen making their way out to the lagoon. 

 

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At last, I came to the Campo dei Gesuiti, home of the huge baroque church Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Nearby was the ferry station Fondamente Nove so I decided to head to Murano Island from there. Looking out from the shore I saw the Cimitero di San Michele, a cemetery island that contains the remains of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghelev and Ezra Pound. Ordinarily, this would be my kind of tourist attraction but the day was a little cold and dark for me already and I had a limited amount of time. 

 

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So the next stop was Murano. Starting from 1291, glassmaking was confined by law to the island of Murano, partly to prevent the spread of fires on the main islands. The workshops on this island were responsible for several important innovations, including the invention of cristallo – glass that was transparent; milk glass that resembled porcelain; glass beads; chandeliers; high-quality mirrors and murrine technique using strings or canes of colored glass.

 

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The Museo de Vetro (Glass Museum) on Murano island was an intriguing place that guides the visitor through how glass is made in the first place, then takes you on a chronological journey through the various innovations made through the centuries.

 

 

Other highlights of this island excursion were seeing the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a man playing “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” with glasses and a spoon, finding a tiny local library and learning that it happened to be the feast day of the islands patron saint, Maria della Salute. Oh, also eating an enormous pizza with raddicchio on it. 

 

 

It was already time to go back to Venice and see the Arsenale. I figured that from the time I stepped off the ferry back at Fondamente Nove I’d be able to get to the Arsenale in 10 minutes. This did not eventuate. Instead, I wandered hither and yon, over canal, into alleys, across campi increasingly perplexed. At one point I saw the back wall of the Arsenale, but that’s as close as I ever got. Finally, I ended up in front of a church that turned out to be the one where Antonio Vivaldi had his baptismal rites done. I decided this would be sufficient sight-seeing for one day, so I managed to track down the closest ferry stop. 

 

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But this was not to be the end of my ramblings after all, as I took the number 2 ferry, which took me right around the long way between Giudecca and Venice. On the bright side, this meant I caught a tantalizing glimpse of the island where Byron stayed with the Armenian monks, Isola di San Lazarro. There is even a legend that he still haunts the island. 

 

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In the end I was frustrated by everything I hadn’t managed to do, but also feeling very fortunate to have been able to visit such an unlikely place, which may not be here very much longer. 

 

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Italy, Travel

Tuesday in Treviso

On Monday we arrived in the Veneto, Italy’s northeastern region whose most famous city, Venice, is still recovering from damage caused by record alta aqua levels. The region’s mainland boasts other cities Verona (see ‘Two Gentlemen of’), Padua and Treviso, which I spent yesterday exploring.

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University students walking along a path by the old city walls

Treviso’s historic center is encircled twice: once by medieval walls and once by water; the Sile River defines its southern edge and a man-made ‘fossa’ or moat surrounds the rest. This moat is fed not only by the Sile but also the Cagnan Grande, which also feeds into a couple of small canals within the city.  This muddy river runs north-to-south and meets the bigger Sile at the old city’s south-east corner. This moment of confluence, a painterly spectacle where the Sile’s deep milky green pushes aside the wheaten brown of the lesser stream, makes a cameo appearance in Dante’s in Paradiso Book IX (lines 49-51) as the spot where one Riccardo da Camino was murdered whilst playing chess. For this reason, the bridge surmounting the spot is named ‘Dante’s Bridge’, though the murder story is soft-pedalled in official signs.

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The watery nature of the city, with its weeping willows, river weed, water birds and ivy-covered houses creates a romantic scene. Swans, coots, cormorants and ducks were all paddling furiously and looked (I imagined) a little bemused by the force of the current. Wet pigeons sat glumly fluffed on branches sticking out over the river.

The streets uphill from Dante’s bridge feature medieval houses, pavement, convents, churches, piazzas and pretty shops. Here and there are remnants of frescos and old paintings. Including the town’s old Loggia dei Cavalieri, ‘the Knights’ Lodge’, which seems to have been a kind of open-air VIP lounge for knights during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries. Amazingly, its wooden beams still bear traces of the original highly colored paintings, including an upper frieze depicting exciting battle scenes.

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I learned some of the history of this intriguing structure at the Museo di Santa Caterina (entry 6 euros). To my delight, the church connected to this museum featured frescos by Tommaso Da Modena, who worked in the mid-fourteenth century and is known for the first person to depict a man wearing spectacles. Poor old Hugh of Saint-Cher probably thought he would go down in history for being a Cardinal Bishop but instead he’s remembered for being the world’s first four-eyes.

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Here, the frescos in question told the story of Saint Ursula, a British princess who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 fellow virgins but was murdered by Huns along the way. Da Modena’s fresco cycle actually belongs to another Trevigian church, the decommissioned Santa Margharita but for now they are displayed conveniently on easels at eye-level in Santa Caterina. I resisted taking photos but you can see details from the cycle here. I was unprepared for how engaging the images would be—the colours are fresh and bright, the figures are life-sized and also quite life-like. I particularly wondered at the delicacy of the skin, childlike in its color and translucency and rounded softness. And Ursula’s face is expressive and moving—clear-eyed, joyful and resolute. The scene in which she and her companions are murdered is an outrage not only morally but also visually—a complete departure from the peaceful, smiling balance of previous panels.

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cichetti

After seeing the church and a bit of the museum, I headed out for lunch. The day before, John and I had eaten at a little trattoria by the fish market. John had pork with broccoli-and-polenta cutlet and pomegranate sauce, while I’d ordered tagliatini with mixed seafood and radicchio, washed down with a glass of Incrocio Manzoni (dry white wine). This time I opted for the classic Venetian lunch of cicchetti, a kind of bruschetta topped with seafood and then a large cup of tiramisu, in honor of the fact that the divine dessert was created here in 1962 at the restaurant Alle Becherrie .

Going back to the subject of radicchio, this last vegetable is the town’s pride and joy. You can get variations of the thing in multiple manifestations, including as a cake. No I have not tried it; I think I’ll stick with tiramisu.

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Doing some post-prandial moseying, I was amazed to find myself face to face with a pretty bad likeness of Mario Del Monaco, the hunky Marlon Brando of the ‘Golden Age’ of opera. He was Pollione to Callas’s Norma; Andrea Chenier to Tebaldi’s Maddalena, an optimal Othello, a raging Rigoletto! You could have knocked me down with a baton.

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The OG Joker

It then occurred to me that John didn’t have anything to eat back at the hotel so I popped into a Pam’s and wandered the aisles marveling at local stuff like shrimp-paste sandwiches, jars of spiced-liver mix, prosecco and Bussolai Buranei (Venetian butter cookies).

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S for serenissima

Once I’d done the shopping, I headed over to the bus stop. School had just finished and vast hordes of teenagers were heading home. I was leaning against a wall reading Stones of Venice by Ruskin when it dawned on me that two boys were ‘facing off’ not two meters away from me and the crowd of hopeful onlookers threatened to engulf me.

A short boy was approaching and questioning a taller one. The questions were of a loud, repetitive nature and, judging by the tone, amounted to ‘Do you want a piece of me?’. The taller boy seemed not to want a piece of him just at that moment, but stood firm, though his leg was shaking a bit. The shorter fellow then launched into a monologue liberally sprinkled with ‘cazzo’s and an invitation to ‘vieni con me’. A few onlookers initiated a chant, guttural and symphonic, that I recognized from my high school years as an exhortation to fight. But the dulcet voice of reason piped up from a bearded earringed friend of the tall guy.

Ragazzi, basta,” he reasoned—guys, enough.

The tension was so defused and a group of four boys, huddled nearby, discussed some internecine matter with the seriousness of Roman consuls.

Then my bus arrived and I got on, always a nice moment. The trip had been very satisfying.

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a house on the Sile
Italy, Travel

Chocolate Town

‘There will be chocolate everywhere,’ banners around Turin have been offering this cheering prospect for the last couple of weeks. Naturally, I wanted in on the action. On November 8, we headed for Piazza San Carlo to inhale cacao fumes.

 

 

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Caffe San Carlo

John’s knee has been hurting a lot lately so while I went tripping around the stalls like Homer Simpson in the Land of Chocolate, he elected to stay at what may be the world’s fanciest café, Caffe San Carlo. 

According to their pamphlet, this café was the first place in Turin to get gas lighting and was frequented by such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas, the polar explorer Umberto Cagni, Marxist hero Antonio Gramsci, prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, painter Lorenzo Gigli and many others. 

 

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Piedmont’s Pride

 

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Taking pride of place was the famous chocolate variant in these parts gianduiotto, a mixture of cocoa, sugar and the ‘nocciola del Piemonte’  or ‘Piedmont hazelnut.’

Its name, according to this site, evokes a local story to do with Italian Independence, when two guys Giovan Battista Sales and Giovanni Bellone, set up a popular puppet show in Piazza Castello in the big market in Turin in the late 1700s. One of their characters, ‘Girone’ or Jerome, offered rustic criticism of society and was so popular they took the show on tour. Unfortunately, the Doge of Genoa (whose name was Jerome) objected to the tenor of their show, arrested them and burned their stuff. They recovered from this but back in Turin Napoleon’s ‘good behavior’ police also took issue with two offensive phrases in the Piedmontese dialect:

 

Liberté egalité fraternité, ij fransèis a van an caròssa e noi a pe“!

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, the French get a carriage and we walk for free!”

Viva la Fransa viva Napoleon, chiel a l’é rich, e noi ëstrasson

“Long live France, long live Napoleon, coz he is rich and I’m a lowly ’un”

 

Spectators at the trial were so amused by these lines that the infuriated judges sentenced the puppeteers to death. Luckily, the scamps managed to get away, finding refuge in Asti with the family of Giovanni Battista De Ronaldis, who’d been executed for inciting revolution. This gave the puppeteers the idea of creating a modern character who would explicitly criticize the political situation of the time, and Gianduje was born. This was a character resembling a cheerful farmer dressed in the costume seen below:

 

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The chocolates named for this character were invented by the local confectionary Caraffel and first presented at the Carnival in 1865, when someone dressed as Gianduje threw them into the crowd.

 

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Gianduja handing out candy

 

Sicilian Sweets

Sicily is pretty much the sweet capital of Italy so it was strongly represented, with stalls selling marzipan fruits (frutta da martorana), cannoli and torrone (nougat with nuts). Particularly popular are the sfogliatelle –layered pastries filled with something sweet. I bought two ‘little lobsters’ (arogostine) filled with pistachio cream.

 

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Chocolate cannoli

 

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little torrones, aww!

 

Novelties

One of the most impressive things I saw was a life-sized model of one of the public fountains particular to Turin, which feature the head of a bull. This one is not only modelled out of chocolate but also pours hot chocolate!!

 

 

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Delicious bullspit

 

And then there were these, artistically combining two of Italy’s great achievements, well three if you count the football…

 

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Non-Chocolate Treats

 

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You could swim in there but it would be scratchy

 

Cantuccini are what most of us call biscotti. The word cantuccio literally means ‘little nook’ but also, by extension, a crusty bit of bread that can soak things up. The traditional recipe, originating in Prato, involved flour, eggs, sugar, pine nuts and almonds. The barely wet dough is cooked twice for extra hardness and typically served after dinner with orange juice.

Another non-chocolate treat on offer were caldarroste, roasted chestnuts, which seem very exotic and festive to me because New Zealand didn’t tend to have them, at least not sold on the street.

 

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chestnut roaster

 

All in all, the cioccolaTO (TO= Turin) experience was very satisfactory excursion, even for John who had a little piece of gianduiotto with his coffee. He even got to see some of the fun on our way back to the number 57 bus back home. 

 

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Asia, Italy, Museum, Travel

Warrioresses of the Rising Sun

The Museo Arte Orientale (MAO) is one of the best museums in Turin, coaxing you into alien perspectives with amazingly beautiful artefacts and clear explanations, some of which are also given in English. The exhibition I saw today, Guerriere dal Sol Levante, or Warrior Women from the Land of the Rising Sun, showed not only a glimpse of the rare women who fought as warriors but also provided the historical, political and religious context for their exploits. 

The first thing the visitor sees is a video that gives a brief overview of the history of the onna bugeisha, the warrior woman in Japanese society. It ran through a long list of names, often illustrating their stories with cinematic reenactments and it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard of any of them before. So, instead of giving an account of the exhibition itself (as fascinating as it was), I have decided to limit myself to introducing you to some of the big names in Japan’s history of badassettes. 

 

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Meet Fyana: she’s a perfect war machine, but she has a heart!

 

Jingū (c.169-269CE )

Jingū was Empress Consort to Chūai, ruling as regent for her son starting from her husband’s death in 201. Legend has it that she led an army into a ‘promised land’, possibly Korea, and won a big victory. It’s not really clear whether she really existed though. The Koreans object, for one thing, to ‘Jingu-ism’. 

 

Jingu
Empress Jingū (Okinaga-Tarashihime no Mikoto, 1326). Collection of Aka-ana Hachimangū Shrine, Shimane Prefecture.

 

 

Tomoe Gozen (c.1154-?)

Tomoe Gozen  was sister-in-law, concubine and ‘milk-sister’ (i.e. they shared a wet-nurse) to Minamoto no Yoshinaka (1154-1184). She accompanied him into battle, led his troops on the battlefield and stayed with him until he was killed in the Battle of Awazu (1184). In the epic The Tale of the Heike, she is described as an exemplary warrior:

Of rare strength and skill in archery, whether on horseback or on foot, sword in hand, she was a warrior capable of facing demons or gods and alone was worth a thousand men. Expert in mounting the fieriest horses, descending the steepest slope, when approaching the battle, wearing heavy armour with tightened cuirass, a long sword and a powerful bow in her hand, she appeared to the enemy as a first rank captain. She had accomplished brilliant deeds, unequalled by her peers. And so, once again, when many had retreated or fled, Tomoe was among the seven knights who had not been hit.”

p.41 Guerriere dal Sol Levante/Warrior Women from the Rising Sun (Torino, 2019)

 

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Tomoe Gozen, a drawing by Shitomi Kangetsu (1747–1797)

 

 

Hōjō Masako (1157-1225)

The first shōgun for the first bafuku (literally ‘camp’ or ‘army HQ’) of the Kamakura shogunate was Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199).  Hōjō Masako was his consort and when her husband died, she became a Buddhist nun. At the same time, she continued to be involved in politics and became known later as ama-shōgun or the ‘nun shogun’. She helped create a council of regents for the her teenaged son, but he preferred his wife’s clan and rebelled (and was subsequently killed). Her second son was executed by a nephew in 1219 and the Minamoto line was extinguished.

 

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Hōjō Masako by Kikuchi Yōsai

 

 

Kunoichi (1500s)

According to a now disputed source, Investigation of Japanese History by Shisei Inagaki, Mochizuko Chiyo was a noblewoman who recruited prostitutes, orphans and abandoned girls to create all-female force of secret-service ninjas for the Takeda Clan. It’s a good story anyway.

 

ninja

 

 

Tsuruhime (1526-1543)

 When Ōuchi Yoshitaka’s power started spreading on the mainland of Honshu, the nearby island of Ōmishima fell under threat. When the head priest at the island’s Ōyamazumi Shrine died, his 15-year-old daughter Tsuruhime inherited his position. As she’d learned martial arts from a young age, she now took charge of the military resistance. When Ōuchi samurai invaded the island in 1541, she led an army that drove them back into the open sea. A few months later she raided the ship of an Ōuchi general, cut him down, then drove his fleet away with bombs called horokubiya.

 

tsuruhime01

 

 

Oan (1600)

In the period of the ‘warring states’ (1477-1573), warriors tended to prove their kills by collecting the heads of their victims. The heads then underwent a treatment called kubi genshō ‘making up of the heads’: washing, hair-styling, applying make-up and blackening teeth. This was usually done by women. The Oan Monogatari is the testimony of a girl named Yamada Kyōreki or Oan, the daughter of a Samurai, who had this unenviable job:

 

“My mother and I, together with the wives and daughters of the other samurai, were in the keep from which we threw bullets. The severed heads taken by our allies were gathered in the keep. […] Not even the severed heads scared us. We slept surrounded by the smell of blood from those old heads.”

 

Kuniyoshi_Yendo_Musha_Morito_holding_Head_Kesa-Gozen
“This one shouldn’t need much work. Stinky though.” (Head here actually belongs to a woman, story here)

 

The Jōshigun (1868-1869)

The Boshin War (or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing ‘War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon’) was a civil war fought between ruling forces of the Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return power to the Meiji Imperial Court. Aizu was the site of the bloodiest episodes and among those fighting was a 30-strong voluntary brigade of women later known as the Jōshigun. In that area, warrior-class women were trained in the use of weapons from an early age, particularly the naginata, a long pole with a curved blade at one end. Takeko Nakana was one of these women and, when she was wounded in battle, such was her valiant spirit that she asked her sister to behead her so that the enemy couldn’t take the head as a trophy. You can read the whole story-in-pictures here.

 

Nakano Takeko

 

 

 

Illustrated_Story_of_Night_Attack_on_Yoshitsune's_Residence_At_Horikawa,_16th_Century_2
Illustrated Story of Night Attack on Yoshitsune’s Residence At Horikawa, 16th Century (note woman in armour)