A Book I'm Not (Exactly) Reading, Random Italian Art, A few Skeletons, and Syphilis

A Traveller in Southern Italy - H.V. Morton A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Warning: I'm about to go a bit link crazed. Specifically I'm dragging you in to what happens once I start googling and find things that interest me. (Translation: what I do on the internet at any time, on a daily basis.) Another warning, here's what I edited out of title of this post: May Contain Testicles, Teeth Removal from a Saint, A Cephalophore Reference and Tomb Artwork of a Famous Juggler. That was a bit too long.


Back in this post I told about rescuing this book - A Traveller in Southern Italy - from my family's Off To The Used Bookstore pile. I actually linked the wrong book - it's A Traveller in Italy - which makes a difference, because most of this book is about northern Italy. I'm totally not reading it...not really. ...Ok, not much. I do have at least a few examples of the problematic author I talked about in the last post - but that's to be in the review.


More interesting - for blogging purposes - is that what I have read has led to some really fun google searches for more about the country and the history. Of course I have quotes and examples! [Note: not enough skeletons in the book so far. I like my travel stories with skeletons, ghost stories, and a few ruins here and there. Also libraries. You'll note there is a link to some skeletons in artwork below, because that's just how my google searches lead me.]


The quote that started it on page 149 (but again, I'm not really reading this), about a chapel in the city of Bergamo, Italy:

"The gem of Bergamo is the building next to the church: the chapel to the memory of [Bartolomeo] Colleoni with money left by him for this purpose in his will. It was built at the beginning of the Renaissance, when architects erected the usual mediaeval church with a rose window and an open arcade, but, to be classically fashionable, covered it with medallions of ancient heroes strangely contrasted with scenes from holy writ. ...

...In another part of the little chapel is Medea, Colleoni's favorite daughter, carved in white marble, who died seven years before her father. She was not a great beauty, and the fashion of plucking the hair high upon the forehead did not suit her. Nevertheless she lives again in the resurrective art of sculpture in a marble gown of figured brocade, her head upon a tasselled pillow. Her delicate, intelligent face, and her slender neck, remain one of the memories of Bergamo."


It seemed a little odd (and insulting) to toss in that part about Medea not being a great beauty, because that's not the way other tourists describe her statue (that I've read so far, anyway). That's one of the many examples of the author using a tone which is...well, I don't much like the guy.


But I did want to see what these places look like, especially to find out more about the classical heroes bit, because that's vague. What I found was that there's a lot of interesting detail that A Traveller in Italy has left out - though of course that's after I've read many web pages of information.

Wikipedia page for the chapel: Cappella Colleoni, which has the following information about the art:

"Over the main portal is a rose window, flanked by two medallions portraying Julius Caesar and Trajan. The upper part of the basement has nine plaques with reliefs of Biblical stories, and four bas-reliefs with Hercules's deeds. The four pilasters of the windows flanking the portal are surmounted by statues of the Virtues."

What that doesn't tell you is that the reason Hercules was used was because supposedly Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he was a descendent of Hercules - in a sort of "I'm like him!" way instead of actual ancestry. I've only read bits about Colleoni online so far, so take that with a grain of salt.


There don't seem to be any photos of Medea's marble tomb-statue - here's an old black and white image on Pinterest, and the chapel's wikipedia page has something similar. This is probably due to restrictions on photographs inside the chapel.


What many sources online seem to agree on is that the Colleoni coat of arms has three testicles on it - in part as a joke because the Italian word for testicles (coglioni) sounds like Colleoni - and also because apparently Bartolomeo went around telling people he had three. Which is a real condition, but you can also imagine the type of person that would want to brag about this.


Google will now have forever in its files that I searched for Colleoni, coat of arms, and testicles. Fun, huh? I'll let you try that link to find out more - and I didn't have any one resource on this, it seems common knowledge. Of course it could be a bit of folklore always told to tourists - but then there is that coat of arms. [links: Time Out Venice, Veneto Insidequote from book on Venice via Google books, etc. - keep reading, I link to a photo of that coat of arms...]


At this point I bumped into the website/blog of Michael Harrison (I can't find out much about him - his About page is blank), who has multiple posts on his visits to Bergamo. And, more importantly, photos of what some of this looks like:


Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo (Michael Harrison, Left Side of the Road blog)

Scroll down and second photo is of the coat of arms in bronze - and you can't miss the testicles because the hands of many tourist have made them shiny. The Hercules sculptures/frescos are mentioned and are in the photos of the last image on that page (it's a slowly changing slide show) - here's an example of one, outside the sideshow. You can look at larger versions like that from this list - there's no gallery option.

[I really love that people document such art online - the odds of me actually going to this city are fairly low.]


The Eccentric, Unusual and Bizarre in Bergamo (Michael Harrison, Left Side of the Road blog)

Lots of examples of unusual art that you could easily miss - this is great info if you're preparing to visit. From that page, a quote in which there are both skeletons and skulls:

"I’ve been in hundreds of churches of all shapes and sizes in the past and after a very short while the Crucifixion and the Nativity start to become much of a muchness. To keep the interest going I always search for something different. In Bergamo the gem of the unusual (and the bizarre) are the macabre paintings behind the altar of the Santa Grata Inter Vites. However, other churches offer up items of interest.


...In the church of Santa Agata del Carmine it’s worth looking for the skull relics, in a chapel on the left hand side as you walk towards the altar, as well as a painting on the ceiling of a young Christ carrying a large piece of wood into his father’s carpentry workshop, presaging his walk to Golgotha. The Crucifix is literally hanging from the pillars and to the right of the altar is a painting of Santa Apollonia having her tongue pulled out as part of her martyrdom."

which led me to this page:


Santa Grata Inter Vites - Macabre Paintings (Michael Harrison, Left Side of the Road blog)

I love these paintings. Which isn't a surprise, really.


For more on the main who painted them (wikipedia): Paul Vincent Bonomini

Annoyingly I couldn't find a book on Bonomini. Though there'd be more hope of that if I could read Italian.


I didn't find any photos of the skull relics in Santa Agata - which isn't odd because it's often not allowed inside churches. (Though photography rules can vary from church to church.) Also I didn't find any images for that particular painting of the tongue removal, which could be because Apollonia is supposed to have had teeth removed under torture. (I can't tell if it's a separate saint that had her tongue removed or if Apollonia had various torture stories that involved teeth or tongue removal - and that's something that could take ages to research, so I'll leave it at that.) This wikipedia link for Saint Apollonia has several not-too-gory images of typical art for her (just don't look at this enlarged version of the thumbnail on that page if the idea bothers you). I particularly like this image - which is a stamp - I'd subtitle it "Here's my tooth - but I'd rather be reading this book!"


At this point I looked at the wikipedia page for Bergmo again, specifically the section titled Music. The name Donizetti was familiar - I'd just been looking at a photo of his (death)bed on Harrison's blog. So of course I went on to wikipedia: Gaetano Donizetti. And since I am not particularly knowledgeable about opera (I just know of the "popular" ones), I'd never read anything about him. I was fascinated by the story of his declining health and the attempted treatments as he was dying from syphilis. A lot of my interest has to do with how incredibly large the population of syphilis sufferers was, and how the disease was discussed in coded language of the time (because, gasp, sex). Donizetti's case is a perfect example of how this sexual disease caused further suffering in the population of wives and children of the infected: his wife,Virginia, gave birth to three children, none of whom survived, and later herself died - all of which could have been in part due to having been infected by her husband.


I found an interesting study of Donizetti's case, and the way he wrote about madness in his operas here:


Donizetti and the music of mental derangement: Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, and the composer's neurobiological illness. E. Peschel and R. Peschel, Yale J Biol Med. 1992 May-Jun; 65(3): 189–200. (pdf, 13 pages long, main page with abstract)


Don't be put off by that citation format - this is a very readable look at the story of his illness, and interesting descriptions of scenes in his operas. Here's a quote (I've removed the citations because I was too lazy to type, and for some reason Adobe wouldn't let me copy a quote):


"By January 1846, Donizetti's deterioration was so great that his nephew, Andrea Donizetti, had three Parisian specialists in mental diseases examine him...


[document produced by the doctors:]
"...They believe that M. Donizetti no longer capable of calculating sanely the significance of his decisions... Summing up, they believe that M. Donizetti should be placed for the present in an establishment designed for the treatment of mental alienations."

By one of those cruel tricks that well-meaning but misguided people sometimes use when they think they are "helping" someone whose mental status is compromised, Dr. Ricord, Donizetti's nephew Andrea, and Donizetti's manservant did not tell the composer that they were taking him to a mental institution. Instead, they made him think that they were accompanying him to Vienna, where he was due in mid-January as a court composer. When they reached the mental clinic in Ivry, they lied. They told Donizetti that his carriage had broken down and that they had to stay in a hotel while it was being repaired. Then they locked him up.

When Donizetti could no longer be duped into believing that his carriage had broken down, Dr. Moreau de Tours, the asylum's director, told him that his manservant had been involved in a robbery and that it was being investigated by the police. Becoming more confused and realizing that he was locked up, Donizetti thought that he himself was under arrest. At this time he wrote some distressful - and distressing - letters."    (p 191-192)


And the paper provides quotes from various letters. Even if you're not interested in the parts about opera, just the first four pages describing Donizetti's illness and treatment are worth reading. Because this is the treatment you'd get if there were people that wanted you to get well, and someone had money to pay for it - it's easy to imagine how this scenario could be worse if you were poor and friendless.


Randomly there's a cephalophore moment in this paper, because one of the operas Donizetti wrote that has a scene of madness is Anna Bolena.


Jumping back to famous people from Bergamo, here's just one more thing that I have to mention: Enrico Rastelli (1896-1931). It's not often you bump into a world famous juggler, not to mention one that has a statue of him juggling on his tomb. There's a link to video on his wikipedia page, and on this page - Juggling Hall of Fame: Enrico Rastelli - there's more links, detail about the type of juggling, and two posters with really lovely artwork.


So, yeah, that did bounce all over the place. My web wanderings never do seem to be linear.