Wednesday, May 20, 2009

iron crown

The val padana, for those who don't know, is very flat. Everything looks flat from the window of a plane, even mountains are squashed and foreshortened, but the val padana doesn't leave any room for topographical speculation, it is flat and fields and swept with the swirling lines of tributaries and tractor trails and everything is in mud coloured, from a pale sandiness to a rich brown, at least in this season and from this plane.
Monza begins with Theodelinda, lombard queen on a mission: to find somewhere breezy to spend the long hot sunmmers in the val Padana. And to build, of course, a nice church, standard practice for the 8th century. She dedicated the church to John the Baptist, who of course was beheaded, or as it's usually put in Italian, decollato a word that always make me look twice as it means 'un-necked', but also, in modern parlance, 'take-off' as in a plane. Surely the patron saint of airports, then? Oh I'm not going to explain that here it is much too hot.
Above is the redoubtable Theodelinda, anachronistically holding 'her' cathedral like toy or a relic or a prayerbook. In reality the facade, and this sculpture, are products of a much later age when, eager to cash in on the impeccable credentials of a long dead pious monarch, in 1300 or thereabouts, or roughly the heyday of Canterbury as a point of pilgrimage, the time of Dante and the guelfs and ghibbelines. Originally the front was quite a bold green and white stripe, bleached by 700 years of sun to a more sedate rhythm of greys. I am not sure about the clock tower, bit brummy to me, but at least you can see what time it is. Monza in the 1300's when Italy was all about communes and city states, went guelf, then ghibbeline, falling quickly under the control of the Visconti family from nearby Milan; it lost many of its ancient Lombard monuments including the city walls and the castle, but gained this fantastic gothic facade. Much simpler and smaller than the one in Milan, but also a hundred years older.
It was the weekend when I finally got around to visiting the duomo, in a quiet island of stone away from the carneval of weekend walkers crowding the main streets, and centuries away from the mad traffic that fills the outer band of roads. I found it surprisingly full of worshippers, considering it was Saturday afternoon. Everyone else was snapping away so I went bold and took one of my own.
Then creeping down the side aisle and out into a fine square courtyard, I found my way to the museum, underneath the church, beautifully laid out. There were no less than 4 young and heavily made-up women manning the ticket desk, combined age less than 70. They asked me, in their clipped little accents, if I wanted to see the iron crown as well as the museum, I didn't know what the iron crown was. Sure why not.
They sound like they're speaking arabic here, by the way, not in the sense that it is incomprehensible, it just has the same high pitch and sharp little sounds to it, a very odd sensation to be idly eavesdropping, and have for half a second the thought that you've suddenly acquired the ability to understand arabic.

So the iron crown turns out the be The Iron Crown, the crown of the Lombards, the one Charlemagne and Napoleon were crowned with. It is quite tiny, nothing like the British Crown and one can easily see how Boney could have snatched it and stuck it on his own head with a single gesture. It is kept in a chapel right next to the main altar, naturally Theodolinda's chapel, which has amazing frescoes that were being restored (this pic is nicked from the web) with some of the nicest horses ever fresked, I think you'll agree. The Sacrestan wouldn't let me in to see the crown to start with, well. not just me, he wouldn't let anyone in, we were 'some' minutes early. He couldn't say how many. So back down to the museum, where the gaggle of girls seemed very unsurprised by his behaviour, and started telling stories about him to each other for the benefit of the entire building it seemed to me. I moved on, past case after case of spectacular medieval art, like this beautiful pair of ivory plaques showing th Poet and his Muse. Looks like the Muse is doing all the work to me, what a surprise.

One of the cathedral's most famous treasures is this set, the golden Hen and with her seven chicks, (were there originally 12 as made possibly as long ago as the 5th century, and an allegory of maternal love you'll find throughout art history. Nice imagery for the queen who managed to make peace between the Pope and her husband, the agressive King of the Lombards. In exchange for all this help, Gregory the Great gave Theodelinda (but not, preumably, hubby, do I sense some passive aggression?) the iron crown, which isn't all that iron at all. The iron bit comes from the original crosspieces that arched over the top of the golden circlet. They were made, legend has it, from one of the three nails brought back from Jerusalem by Constantine's relic-hunter mum, Helena, some 250 years before Theodelinda's time.

The crown, used by Holy Roman Emperors and Kings of Italy, has of course gone through various trials and tribulations; a book token and a round of applause to whoever is the first to tell me what actually happened to those iron bits. I got back to the chapel just in time to visit the crown in the company of a couple from Hampshire, who, like me, found the connection with Napoleon the most interesting. We were not allowed to take pictures but I took some anyway. Here they are. The crown these days is kept in a little safe as you can see, previously it was kept in what looks like a chocolate box, actually several versions of the box are in the museum. below. not at all as glam as this high tech teca...

Filed under 'other stuff'' in the museum: this striking statue of John the Baptist that I thought must be modern, but turned out to be from the 1500's, four terracotta dudes that seemed to be waiting forr the theology bus, staring at me through the centuries, some interesting stonework, originally made for the facade but discarded and lost for years, now cleaned and on show, This is a bit from one of Pope Gregory's garments, nice needlework! Not clear if tall the patching was done in his lifetime, or in the 1500 years since...
The sword of Ettore Visconti, one of the fightin' Viscontis of Milan...from the 1300's
and finally some freasky stonework. Next time, I'm off to Milan!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In Which I Whinge

The moon was shining when we approached Pisa, and
for a long time we could see, behind the wall, the leaning Tower, all awry in
the uncertain light; the shadowy original of the old pictures in school-books,
setting forth 'The Wonders of the World.' Like most things connected in their
first associations with school-books and school-times, it was too small. I felt
it keenly. It was nothing like so high above the wall as I had hoped. It was
another of the many deceptions practised by Mr. Harris, Bookseller, at the
corner of St. Paul's Churchyard, London. HIS Tower was a fiction, but this was a
reality--and, by comparison, a short reality. Still, itlooked very well, and
very strange, and was quite as much out of the perpendicular as Harris had
represented it to be. The quiet air of Pisa too; the big guard-house at the
gate, with only two little soldiers in it; the streets with scarcely any show of
people in them; and the Arno, flowing quaintly through the centre of the town;
were excellent. So, I bore no malice in my heart against Mr.Harris (remembering
his good intentions), but forgave him before dinner, and went out, full of
confidence, to see the Tower next morning.
Charles Dickens, Pictures From Italy

A few hours in England and I find that my long absence has not in any way dented my ability to whilnge and enjoy the whingeing of others, Daily Telegraph style: it's still open season on MP's and their naughty expenses, which makes for humorous reading, and thank goodness for little else seems funny at this moment.
Heathrow is hard to love. Our flight made excellent time, but we were left in a holding pattern for an extra half hour before we could deplane. I took the - for me - bold decision to be last off the 747. It was a very good flight, my travelling companion was a nice, interesting and discreet lady and we had the blessing of an empty seat between us so we both got some sleep in between the amazingly good airline food. Now there's a phrase you don't hear often. Bagage claim is like a bizzarro funfair attraction, a cross between riding the ghost train and the big dipper while preparing for the How Much Can You Lift contest. Except it is the bags that ride around while I stand helplessly hoping and dreading that this is the time one of those horror stories fellow travellers tell finally catches up with me. Speaking of tales, my row companion told me of a trip across Northern Italy; she and her husband thought they had booked an overnight trip South, they found their couchette, and were told they had to leave their bags in a luggage rack just outside. They fell asleep, only to wake up in the small hours to discover that the train had only gone for two hours before stopping in a siding, and everyone including all the FS staff, had left. Their bags they found strewn all over the carriages, laptops and valuables of course long gone. Ah happy thoughts.
But it seems my bag has been forwarded, I don't have to take it through customs, which is weird because surely at Milan there won't be any customs check. That can't be right, I have to go through all the hoops, don't I? Or am I going to be penalized for this later? Well, not having to cart my suitcase an inch more than necessary is a good thing, leaves me way more time to sneer at Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food restaurant, with its dusty balls and cheap font, in Terminal 5. The dreaded new terminal, according to the press, where so much has gone wrong. My new friend was quite cheerful about it, the new decor and the modern facilities, but then she's not English and can't be expected to have her whinge on even though it is 9 am which translates as 3 am Eastern time. I hate it, the battleship grey and the bolted trusses make it look like car auction house, I half expect a rusty Montego to come coughing down the concourse. The concourse, the corridors, the halls - it's all too much walking. There are lots of shops to distract you but they are stupid shops like Dior and Harrod's. Water costs two pounds and a sandwich ten. Standard airport thievery I know, and inexcusable really when you think that on a plane ticket costing, say, 850 dollars, about 500 of those dollars goes to the airpoprts for fees and taxes. divide by half, say, since there are two airports involved, and then multiply that by all the passengers passing through Heathrow and they suddenly seem like the meanest, most rapacious and ugliest carnies in the business.
Even more annoying is the gate system in Terminal 5 which only tells you your number at the last minute. There are three sets of gates, the A set, which is the same as the general waiting area, and then B and C which involve taking a 10 -20 minute transit vehicle ride... arghh more walking/carrying. So here I sit, twisting in my seat at least once a minute to observe my flight crawling slowly up the departure board, waiting to know where I should be going next. Talk about tenterhooks. It seems people get tired of waiting in A, and head off to B or C, depending on where they predict their flight will be leaving from - so the desire to flop down in your gate well before time is not just confined to me. How one decides whether to go to B or C must, I imagine, involve the close study of other flights to similar destinations, if an earlier flight to Rome is going from C 43 then maybe your flight to Paris will be going from a nearby gate. Except that this kind of logic does not apply: it's a puzzle of planes, maintenance and baggage, not an exercise in geography. Hence the constantly repeated announcement by that girl with the high bright young echoey voice that passengers should not go to B or C until they are asdvised to do so. She also reminds us every few seconds that she will destroy our bags if we leave them unattended. In the nicest possible way.
Termninal 5 is grubbier and more worn than I expected it to be but the good news is my time there was shorter and simpler than I expected. just 30 minutes before the flight to Milan was ready to leave, they put up the gate number - A11, only 50 paces from where I had been waiting. And off we go, leaving behind the drizzle of a London morning, headed, like Dickens, to see if the pictures in my head are to scale.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Waiting for Go

I should be doing stuff not sitting in a cafe writing this. Doing important stuff. Last minute things, I don't know, making sure my personal papers are in order, or that I haven't left something vital in the kitchen or the bathroom of the house I am about to leave for good. I have had this feeling so many times before when moving on permanently from a town or a country, the sinister calm before the storm, the fake spacious inertia, mucking about burning up minutes and hours whose loss I am so sorely going to regret tomorrow, or the next day, but knowing is not the same as changing something, the two stare at each other through the window of two trains pulling out of the same station.

My good friend Jessica, who took this picture, and who has put up with me for... ever, it seems is one of the knowables I will miss. Going to an unknown place is like one of those dot-to-dot pictures. In some cases, you can predict exactly what you're going to get, even though your first raggedy lines of reasoning may need smoothing out. I quite like the delicious darkness of the yet unilluminated picture in my head. New places are always less prestigious than in the imagination; like celebrities, they seem much shorter in the flesh, but in my experience they are better illuminated, and more practical. And I like filling in the empty map in my head with roads I know. But I have to get there before I can do that.