December 14, 2011


The Words that Started our Adventure
While in Italy, we went to Ravenna to meet the journalist and historian Andrea Casadio. His curiosity was piqued when he read an entry in a guest book at Dante’s tomb from 1910: “Mr. and Mrs. W.W. Beck, Ravenna Park, State of Washington.” 

Surprised that there was a Ravenna in the Wild West of America, he started doing research. His process led him to my husband, Gary Zimmerman, and resulted in an article in IN Magazine in May, 2009, and a continuing connection between Gary and Andrea. (For more information see the October 30 entry below.) 

Andrea’s editor agreed that there was a symmetry to our visiting Ravenna a century later and Andrea wrote a second article about the happenstance of our visit. Massimo Fiorentini, an award-winning photographer, took our picture (seen here as it appears in the article).

For those who wish to read the article in Italian, go to: The article begins on page 88. The picture of the two Ravenna street signs was taken by Gary.

Andrea was kind enough to mention my blog in his article so I am looking forward to having some Italian readers at this site.

November 3, 2011

Venice - So Easy to be Lost, So Easy to be Found

VENICE – So Easy to be Lost, So Easy to be Found

An Italian Balcony

Each time we travel, I send observations to my readers at the end of the journey. Here are some random thoughts about our 2011 trip to Venice along with some of my photos. 

Shutters in Shadows
--visiting our favorite restaurant, Algiubagio, sitting in the sun eating
     sarde in saor and pineapple carpaccio
--making side trips to Verona, Padua and Ravenna
--going up in the campanile in St. Mark’s Piazza to see Venice
     lying at our feet.
--twisting like salmon swimming upstream as we waded through the 
     pulsing hordes from the cruise ships
--counting how many times someone said, “Allora” on television and in live 
     conversations. We were certain, had we received a nickel for each 
     observation, we could have dined at the Danieli Hotel
--wondering how some things get connected: the sign in the internet shop 
     says that if you show the code for the internet connection you 
     purchased through Venetian Navigator, you can get a 10% discount in the lingerie store around the corner.
--finding ourselves amazed at how much press coverage the death of Steve Jobs received

Modern technology is changing the Italian language. Italians rely on their hands to help convey the meaning of their words, but with one hand on the telefonino, they are left with only one hand for gesturing.

Putti on a Palace
--you crave scrambled eggs and bacon, no matter how unhealthy they are for you
--your husband asks you a question and you answer with an affirmative, “Si!”
--you’re tired of washing underwear and socks in the bathroom sink
--you want a pharmacy that sells NyQuil for your sniffling, aching, coughing, wheezing
--you want to talk to your sister when she is two hours away, not nine
--you are looking for an American slant on America and not an Italian or British one.

An Open Door
BUT IT’S HARD TO GO HOME when you have begun to feel as if the apartment you rented is in your own neighborhood. You wander to tourist areas or prowl the sestieri and then you arrive at Calle Large San Lorenzo and it feels familiar, like you belong. You walk from your house to the internet store and
--the man in the mask shop waves to you
--the butcher lets you take the meat even though you forgot your wallet
     and must return later with the cash
--the bookshop owner tells you he has a new English novel (new being 
     a relative term)
--the sour-faced wine store proprietor smiles when you come in because you
    bring him your leftover water bottles
--every time you walk alone through Campo Santa Maria Formosa, an Italian tourist 
     stops to ask you directions and you regret your “Mi dispiace, ma non 
     sono italiana.”

But perhaps, in a way, I do know the city. It has embedded itself in my heart. It feels familiar and yet I share the wonder I see in the eyes of the tourists. Every day it amazes me anew, with the way the water changes color and the light glistens or darkens the canals. I stare agape at the buildings that stand like elderly matrons, their sides sagging, their facades peeling like overused makeup, their style long out of date. And yet they stand with a remembered elegance, reminding us of a time before electricity and motorized boats when they sparkled in candlelit chandeliers and music poured from every window. Sometimes, when the light is harsh, I must squint to see her former grandeur but by night she sparkles anew as if she does not know her age.

October 30, 2011

ANOTHER POWERFUL WOMAN (written from Seattle)

     I rose this morning and checked the weather before I decided what to wear. My computer said it was 61 degrees and would go up to 67. After dressing, I went out to get the paper. It seemed much colder than 61, but I was still sleepy and had not eaten breakfast, so perhaps my body was registering the temperature incorrectly. It was not until I went out to run errands later in the morning, shivering in my simple shirt, that I realized my computer was still set on Venice weather. It is a good metaphor for where I am: my head still back on the canal, my body adjusting to a new time zone.

Gary and Andrea at Dante's Tomb
     Our last weekend in Italy, we took the train to Ravenna. Several years ago Gary helped a young journalist there solve a mystery. Andrea Casadio had located a signature in a guest book at Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, Italy, from 1910, for a Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Beck in Ravenna Park, Washington. Intrigued by the shared city names, Andrea began to research this mystical place in America that he could not find on a map. He contacted Gary and, after some research on the Becks supplemented by pictures Gary took of the area of Seattle still called the Ravenna neighborhood, In-Magazine in Ravenna published Andrea’s article.

     Gary and Andrea have stayed in contact, so we journeyed there to meet face-to-face. Andrea gave us an amazing tour of this city that was a seat of power in the Roman Empire and is filled with Byzantine mosaics. Andrea is a self-made historian and is far more knowledgeable about the region than the usual tour guide.

     We visited the archive where the book signed by the Becks is stored. The archivist gave us a personal tour of the rooms of ancient books that had formerly belonged to the Benedictine monks until Napoleon seized them for the state. I was struck by how the rooms, organized by subject, parallel Elena Piscopia’s education. We are most grateful to Andrea for the in-depth view of Ravenna. We appreciate his strenuous efforts at conducting his tours in English so that we might understand more clearly.

     Andrea had read my blog and knew of my interest in strong women, so he insisted I learn about Galla Placidia. We visited her tomb and he bought me a short biography. She is a bit more vicious than most of my heroines but her hold on power in the early fifth century was exceptional, her machinations not unlike those of Cleopatra. I am not sure I wish to write about her, but I will certainly add her to my list of remarkable women when I lecture about women who were feminists even before we invented the word.

October 17, 2011



We took two side trips last week: one to Verona to see Juliet and another to Padua to learn more about Elena Piscopia.


A Modern Juliet
My husband Gary has a genealogy client in California whom he had met only over Skype. Since the client, his friends and Gary and I were all in Italy at the same time, we arranged to meet in Verona. The client arranged a tour of the city and a wonderful lunch. We are still discussing the stimulating conversation with our new-found acquaintances from California and the memorable pumpkin gnocchi with truffles.

Of course, the highlight of any tour to Verona is visiting Juliet’s balcony. Since the balcony is unlikely to be authentic, the real fun was having the tour guide point out all the sites in the movie “Letters to Juliet.” I had not realized that there are really women who answer the letters left for Juliet, so the movie is based on some truth.

Souvenirs of Romeo and Juliet abound and I was struck by the contribution made to Verona by Shakespeare. It is believed that an Italian wrote an epic of this love story and that Shakespeare borrowed it, but it is the Englishman’s story that has lived through the centuries. His writing was so powerful that even today countless vendors make their living off of his creativity.


Elena's Status at the University 
We had visited Padua nine years ago and had even seen Elena Piscopia’s statue at the University of Padua, but I was focused on my Vivaldi book at that time and had not then decided to write about Elena. As we look for secrets to her life, we decided we must re-visit Padua. We had one of those days filled with blessings. I had made a list of all the places I wanted to see. All were open on a Saturday and their hours of operation coincided with our requirements. We toured the massive basilica of Saint Anthony and saw a cenotaph to Elena. Then we toured the University of Padua, where Galileo taught and Elena received the first degree awarded to a woman anywhere in the world. After lunch sitting in the sunshine, which was welcome for the wind had a nippy quality, we took a short bus tour of the city then returned just in time to visit the church of Santa Giustina. We knew that Elena’s tomb was in Saint Giustina and the tour guide at the University had encouraged us to see it.

She had described the rectangular tombstone, but we could not locate it. I approached an antique nun wandering in the nave who seemed to belong there. I went up to her and asked about Elena. She stared at me so blankly that I wondered if her mind was intact, especially when she grabbed my hand, her long fingernails pressing into my palm. Then she started to tell me about the tomb of St. Luke and to describe the other chapels clearly, but she shook her head that she knew nothing of Elena Piscopia.

Cornaro Coat of Arms on Elena's Grave
We wandered some more and I was ready to yield when Gary approached an elderly monk wearing an apron. Interrupting his arrangement of the kneelers at the front of the church, Gary asked about Elena Piscopia. His tired shoulders lifted and he began to walk slowly, but with an energy that demonstrated the vigor of his earlier years. We followed him down the transept to a chapel that was hidden behind two doors. Inside he moved aside a pew and pointed to the floor where Elena’s body lies. The words and the Cornaro coat of arms demonstrated its veracity. He allowed us to take pictures and kept shaking his head, almost as pleased as we were. When Gary handed him a small offering, the money disappeared quickly into the pocket of his habit.

We visited the street where Elena had lived and happened upon a tour of a Loggia for theatre presentations and an Odeon for musical performances built by one of Elena’s ancestors. The guide gave the tour in Italian and then offered to take us back to explain in English the things we had missed.

When the train crossed the lagoon toward Venice the sun turned the water the color of antique glass as it set on our day.

(Photographs contributed by Gary Zimmerman)


October 9, 2011

Searching for Elena

Searching for Elena

Elena Piscopia Cornaro was the first woman to receive a university degree (in 1678). There have been several biographies of her life so I know the facts; but I want to know more about her thoughts and desires and heart, so I am searching for her in Venice. Since my husband Gary and I arrived a few days ago we have searched for her at her family home, in the streets of Venice and in the library.

Elena's Home
The Cornaro home where Elena lived is now a municipal building for the city of Venice and we were able to explore the first two floors. It was later renovated by the Loredan family and now bears their name, so we have to extrapolate which features might have existed in the seventeenth century. The Cornaro coat of arms, however, is still ensconced over the back door. 

Cornaro Coat of Arms
As with my last book on Caterina Cornaro (from a branch of the same family, in the sixteenth century), I have drafted the story and am now searching for color and veracity before I begin the long revision process. We wandered the streets, trying to see what Elena and her father and mother could view from the Canal or from their home. Fortunately, Venice has altered little in the last few centuries, so much of what we see existed in a similar form during the time period of this book.

The libraries here still have our names in their databases so we gained easy access. The Querini Stampalia, where we began our research, has a modern entry and stairs but these lead into rooms that transport you to another time: tables with heavy lathe-turned legs, carved dark chairs and wooden floors whose creak under your shoes, no matter how gingerly you walk, is the only disruption of absolute silence.

Returning to Venice

We are nesting in the apartment we rented on our last trip and have already checked out the familiar necessities: the Coop grocery store where you must remember to use rubber gloves when handling the produce, the internet shop which is one of the few places with WiFi, and the local laundry.

Each day we walk past the best mask shop in Venice. Although the shop advertises papier-machè and uses traditional mask-making techniques, they also have extravagant ceramic masks in designs from the traditional to the modern to the imaginative. Three years ago we bought a small mask there and it hangs on the wall in our living room. The mask shop is right next to our favorite bookstore where cats rest on all the books that are stacked in gondolas or crammed onto shelves.

One change is in the location of our weekend Mass. In the past we have gone to Vivaldi’s church but the congregation was very small and apparently the church has been decommissioned. The church now charges admission and presents concerts. Venice is full of churches, so finding a local one with a convenient Mass was easy.

One new discovery, recommended by our landlord, is the wine shop near us where you purchase a liter of decent wine, siphoned from a jug into a 1.5 liter plastic water bottle for 3 euros (about $4.50).

We have returned to familiar restaurants and some new ones but we usually fix breakfast and dinner in our apartment, a graceful boon because food here is very expensive. 

June 22, 2011


I read Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, historical fiction about Nell Gwynn, an actress in the seventeenth century who was also mistress to Charles II. Nell used her body and beauty, along with her wit and charm, to gain both positions. My next book, about Elena Piscopia, is set in the same time period and I have pondered their different situations. Elena was the first woman to receive a doctorate and Nell bore male heirs to the king. Elena was born of a noble father whereas Nell’s father is unknown to history, and may have been unknown to her. The wealth of Elena’s family contrasts with the poverty of Elena’s. Elena studied with the best tutors while Nell sold oysters and later her body. The one common thread is their mothers.
Nell’s mother ran a bawdy house and a tavern and died in an alcoholic stupor. Elena’s mother was upright and educated but bore several illegitimate children to Elena’s father before they finally married. I wonder if having a mother whose status is precarious leads a daughter to strive harder to achieve something of her own.

March 31, 2011

Elena Piscopia and an Irony of Sainthood

An Irony of Sainthood
Elena Piscopia intrigues me because she was the first woman to receive a doctorate. In my research I also learned that she was known during her lifetime for her religious fervor. She took a vow of chastity at age eleven, unbeknownst to her family, and when she came of age she became an oblate, living in the world but following the mandates of the religious life.
When she applied for a degree in theology from the University of Padua, the chancellor, Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, decried, “What? A female doctor and teacher of theology? Never!” Women, he said, are naturally inferior in “cultural and social affairs” and incapable of difficult reasoning. They are also more receptive to Protestant arguments, a major concern of the Roman Church during this period. Patently unqualified for a theology degree, in the Cardinal’s mind, he did agree that Elena might pursue a degree in philosophy.
When she died at the age of thirty-eight, cries arose in Venice and Padua, “The saint is dead!” Some of her followers attempted to have the Church declare her a saint but the movement was short-lived and she was never canonized. Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, however, was declared a saint in 1960, for his defense of the Church against the Protestants and his support of the Council of Trent.
When a woman is taking doctoral examinations today, and is inclined to seek divine assistance, would she prefer to pray to Cardinal Barbarigo, chancellor of the university and defender of the faith, or to Elena Piscopia, scholar and pious woman?
For More Information:
You can find a short biography of Elena Piscopia and a picture of a stained glass window with her image at
For Fun:
Go to and click on the Elena Piscopia yarn pattern.

January 5, 2011

Highlights of Michele Genthon’s
Reports from Turkey and Cyprus

When we contemplate the cities of the world, images form in our minds. Say “Paris” and we picture the Champs Élysées and the Eiffel Tower. Mention “Cairo” and we visualize the pyramids. “Rome” elicits ruins and “Venice” water. Then we visit these landmarks and our imagination comes to life. We snap pictures of landmarks, not unlike the pictures we had studied in books. We share them when we return but these projections of reality are flat. They do not capture the soul of a location which, for us, is in the people we meet. We have this same experience everywhere we travel, but in Turkey it was magnified. Almost every person we encountered was friendly, gracious, and accommodating:

--the guide who offered a hand to me whenever the trek up or down the rocks was beyond my reach
--the Istanbul native who took us to dinner at Taksim Square
--the travel agent who served us tea
--the woman with the beautiful smile who cooked breakfast at the cave house
--the imam, the only English-speaker on the bus, who pointed out our stop
--the professor whose enthusiasm about the topic I was researching nearly matched my own.

In Turkey we visited Istanbul, Kuşadasi, Antalya, Ephesus, Perge, Aspendos, and several small towns in Cappadocia. In Cyprus we spent most of our time in Girne (Kyrenia), Gazi Magusa (Famagusta) and Lefkosia (Nicosia). Following are just some of the highlights:


Our first stop was “Istanbul, not Constantinople.” For you younger readers, that is from a song first recorded by the Four Lads in 1953. It was supposedly spring there. Flowers bloomed in the parks and tended roadways were lined with pansies, primroses, daffodils and masses of tulips, the flower they introduced to Holland. I say “supposedly spring” because it was cold. I wore six layers: camisole, long-sleeved shirt, short-sleeved shirt, sweater, sweatshirt and windbreaker. My hands were like icicles, as we had not packed for winter weather.

Each morning began with a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast: hard-boiled egg, dried fruit, olives and cheese. The food was excellent but I wonder again, as I do almost everywhere we travel, why fruits and vegetables in other countries taste so much better than those at home. I found myself enjoying sweet carrots, juicy oranges and musky bananas, foods I eat sparingly at home.

We visited the Kapali Çarşi (pronounced “charshi”), the world’s largest covered bazaar, multiple times. I had expected something like the Khan el-Khalili in Egypt but it more closely resembled the shopping district in Bologna, with wide streets and covered archways, decorated with mosaics and fountains.


Ephesus was a lesson in humility. At its grandeur, this large city was as sophisticated as any modern American city. Ancient visitors must have gawked with craned necks just as I did when I first visited New York City. Public buildings were massive constructions. Public toilets were plentiful. Storefronts were ornate. Street gutters carried away waste and running water was used for “air conditioning.” Walking the same street stones as the ancients, down the sloping avenue dominated by an imposing library, transported us backward and forward at the same time and it struck me that, aside from the development of the motor and the computer chip, we have not really progressed as far as we might believe.


For centuries people in the Cappadocia region of Turkey carved their homes out of the mountains and hillsides. There are few natural resources to build houses, and caves are fairly easy to hew out of the malleable stone, so people lived this way until just a few decades ago. Early Christian hermits chipped caves into the cone-shaped hills until, in the fourth century, Athanasius and others organized the recluses into monasteries, also carved out of the mountains. Whole basilicas sit inside the rock.

Entire cities were constructed underground. We have visited other underground villages, like those in Vietnam, but they were usually temporary. In Cappadocia passageways were chiseled between homes and even between cities, all underground. In spite of my claustrophobia, we descended eight stories under the earth to see some of the homes, complete with sanitation and ventilation. Although the invading hordes crossed this region repeatedly, on their way to one conquest or another, they were never able to conquer this part of the world “without castles.”

Even the hotels in this region are converted caves, but my claustrophobia won out here and I opted for a room above ground. When we arrived at the Antik Cave Hotel our host rushed downstairs to throw wood into the furnace so that our room and water would be warm. Our accommodations looked like a courtesan’s room in the Sultan’s palace: embroidered bed linens, purple curtains dividing the ro
om into two, niches for the lighting.


After extensive research in libraries and on the internet, we can be tricked into believing that we have a comprehensive grasp of a topic when, in fact, we have only understood the surface. I had already drafted my novel and wanted to go to Cyprus “for the flavor,” before beginning the endless editing process. It is fortunate that I did. I could never have imagined the height of the mountains or how they create a bowl around the island. I could not have imagined the colors of the water or the intensity of the sun. And I would never have met Dr. Mehmet Hacişevki.

Dr. Hacişevki has trained many of the travel guides in Northern Cyprus and helped establish their tourism industry. He also teaches international relations, has studied in France and Germany, and holds a wealth of information in his head. Prior to our adventure touring historical Cyprus, he read David Hunt’s book on Caterina Cornaro so that he would know more about the woman who had captured my imagination. I worry that academics will not take me seriously when they learn I am writing a novel, but Dr. Hacişevki said, “Then you will need to learn the facts but also capture the romance.” He took us to the heights of St. Hilarion, guided us through the remains of the Lusignan palaces and walls, and even described the significance of the plants that grow in abundance around those walls. I feel blessed by his knowledge and generosity.


We attended Easter Mass at the Holy Land Church, a small building that seats about 40 comfortably. The plaque on the outside wall says it’s a Hungarian church but there is no further explanation. On Easter about 60 of us gathered inside with 150 or more outside. A Franciscan priest celebrated the Mass, assisted by two African deacons. The accompanist was also African, playing on a portable keyboard that resonated in the small stone church like a small organ resonance. At Communion the Africans sang a native song. This was the only music that was tolerable. The cantor, singing in a falsetto voice, was tone-deaf. The priest did not know the music—but sang anyway. He sang the second line of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” loudly, with the same notes as the first line—while the accompanist played the correct notes—unintended discordant polyphony. The Ordo was sung in Latin but few knew the melodies. Even I who studied the chant music extensively was at a loss. The hymns dragged mercilessly but, unlike most Catholics, after Mass was concluded, everyone stayed for all five verses of “Amazing Grace.”

My most enduring image of Turkey is one we did not capture well on film. It is a metaphor for a country that was the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire and is now 99% Muslim. In Hagia Sofia, as in many Christian churches that became mosques, Muslims covered over the Christian images. Although Muslims respect Jesus, his mother and the saints, they are prohibited from representing human figures. When Ataturk, the Father of modern Turkey ruled, he converted Hagia Sofia into a museum and uncovered some of the artwork. Now, over the apse, there is a mosaic of Mary holding Jesus. To the right is a large medallion with the Arabic for “Allah” and to the left a medallion that reads “Mohammed.” Professor Hacişevki, my historical mentor in Turkish Cyprus, said that I was “precisely correct” in choosing this image as symbolic of Turkey.

Traveling is magical. We see history come to life. We satisfy a longing that our reading and study has stirred in us. It opens our minds and hearts to the world. Most important, we learn that people are simply that: people. Children smile easily, push their friends, sing spontaneously. Mothers kiss their babies’ heads, swat their children’s bottoms, and hold them close. Merchants hustle (in both senses of the word), cajole, and exaggerate. Religious leaders walk with hauteur but reverence. We all smile, we all laugh, we all cry. We are all the same.