Reading in Progress: A Traveler in Italy: Return of Ceiling Croc!!!

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

Isn't it weird how sometimes the right book comes along at the right moment? This is not going to be an epically loved book for me or anything, but it's the kind of book I've kept thinking I'd eventually set aside and stop reading. But then I've read just a bit more. And so on. It's been interesting enough to take me out of myself when I've really needed stress relief - and been the most fun in those moments where I've found myself rereading the same paragraph over and over because in my mind I'm having an imaginary trip to Italy. I've also discovered that travel books are a wonderful way for me to waste even more time online, because there are photos of almost everything if you dig around enough. Which is especially helpful since this guidebook dates from 1964 and the photos are all in black and white. I actually have another weird history/link post to make (Italy + Alice in Wonderland + alchemy + medicine + candy + British candy folklore), but this post had to come first.


After my post on Stuffed Crocodiles Hanging From The Ceiling - which a quote from pg 338 got me launched off on - I thought that'd be it for the crocodile-related entries. (In this book anyway.) But noooooooo! I did not suspect that 212 pages later there would be a Sudden Surprise Appearance of The Ceiling Croc! Remember, back on pg 338 it was just a mention of a crocodile in a sculpture, not an actual ceiling croc, that had gotten me all wound up over the beasts. (Technically the creatures here are both "alligators," but ceiling croc just sounds better.)


And so here's the quote. Imagine me reading this with my mouth open, making a ridiculous expression, saying to myself "wait, I just burbled on and on about these things, and now they pop up in an obscure town?!!" Specifically The Hermitage and Monastery at Camaldoli, in Tuscany. (More here and here.) Pg 550-552:


"I entered the monastery and found myself in an ancient pharmacy where nothing had apparently been altered since the Middle Ages. A dusty alligator hung from the rafters and beneath it a bustling young lay brother in horn-rimmed glasses stood behind a rampart of objects on a well-stocked counter. Near the door, where in other chemists' shops there is usually a weighing machine, I noticed an upright coffin in which a skeleton was propped. I went to examine it and read an inscription: 'In this glass you see yourself, foolish mortal. Any other glass is not telling you the truth.' On a shelf near by I saw a good selection of pickled vipers and I noticed some badger skins, which I seemed vaguely to remember are infallible in cases of sorcery.


There must be a mediaeval hypochondriac hidden away in me, for this was the place I had always hoped to find: the apothecary's shop in which one could ask for half an ounce of crabs eyes, or a packet of powdered coral, or perhaps even a jar of hart's horn jelly, the wonder drugs of yesterday. And it did indeed look at first sight as though, isolated upon this Apennine, men were still searching for the Elixir of Life. Who could say what countless little drawers held in the beautiful, age-blackened walnut panelling; what, in spite of his horn rims and his modern air, might not the lay brother have under the counter? Fascinated, I stepped into another, smaller room full of mortars and pestles and retorts (and another alligator), a room which gave the impression that an alchemist had just slipped out to look up something in Galen. A stuffed armadillo gave a homely touch to one corner and upon the wall, framed perhaps for ready reference, I read a formula which contained the words grasso umano - human fat.


[The store also sells modern things like razor blades, cologne, and face cream.]


...I asked where his customers came from. He said they were living at the hospice up the road and were on holiday. Every year people came to spend a week or two in the pine-scented air of the mountains, to walk, to ride, and to fish; and the pharmacy was the village shop."


Apparently the author of this book can't always be relied upon for facts - so I've been unsure how seriously to take some of his descriptions. It's hard to know how much artistic license he's taking. It's especially hard to tell because the book is 50 years old, and there aren't any citations.


But then I found this on wikipedia under Camaldoli:

"In the monastery of Camaldoli there is a welcoming room, a great hall, and an old style pharmacy. The pharmacy was originally a laboratory where monks studied and worked with medicinal herbs. These medicines would be used in the old hospital which can still be visited today. The precious walnut decor dates back to 1543."

Couldn't find any photos. But the ceiling crocs alligators might still be there...


[Here I'll note that I could now go off on another tangent about stuffed armadillos. I even own a framed photo of a taxidermied armadillo holding a beer bottle. Because, Texas. But I'm restraining myself!]


MOMENTS LATER: I may have said "squeee!" aloud when I found this:


Camaldoli’s Antica Farmacia: charity without words


I don't see the ceiling crocs in any of those photos - but the skeleton in the coffin is there!!!!


HOURS LATER: I think I've found two Flickr photos with ceiling crocs/gators - only it looks as though these are wall walking:


Farmacia - photo by Come L'abete (on the wall to the right, possible armadillo on back wall)


Simon Luca - photo by Come L'abete (you can't really miss this one)