October 22, 2013

Research in Venice

GONDOLAS (Written October 2, 2013)

This morning, while fixing breakfast in our apartment, I heard a gondolier singing, not an unusual occurrence in Venice, but his voice sounded like it was in the next room. I pulled back the curtains and shutters, and a gondolier was within arm’s reach, his face even with mine. All of a sudden there were gondoliers zipping back and forth in the canal beside our apartment, not their usual route, but it seems the water had risen and the gondoliers had changed their route.

A young Japanese gentleman’s face, raised up at the crumbling buildings, noted my presence. His face broke into a wide smile and he waved at me. I returned the wave and all three of the young Japanese couples in his boat waved. Like small children, their hands flicked back and forth rapidly, and their smiles were so wide they might have been attempting to escape their faces. I broadened my smile and waved back, and they waved all the more. My smile was, I hope, welcoming, but it arose out of my knowledge that they had mistaken me for an Italian resident when I also am a tourist.

It was almost as much fun as hearing music, somewhat organ-like, coming from outside the internet shop. As it came closer, I peeked out the window and saw three alpenhorns stretched the length of a gondola with three alpenhorn players making extraordinary sounds, the music of mountain heights reverberating over the water and bouncing off ancient palazzos. 

LIBRARIES (written October 12, 2013)

Aside from needing my Venice fix, to satisfy my addiction to the aging buildings lacing the canals, my primary purpose in going to Venice for the fourth time was to do research. I am working on a book about Elena Piscopia who, in 1678, became the first woman in the world to earn a university degree. We (Gary and I) spent a significant amount of time in libraries, and some wandering the streets for the ambience, but the city itself I had exhausted previously. No, that is incorrect! You can never exhaust Venice.

Libraries here are, for the most part, private and difficult to enter for the first time. We now have permanent library cards and wander into the antique rooms with carved desks and tables (now equipped
Cheating a Bit: This library door
is actually in Seville
with electric outlets), walk across the creaky floors to the card catalogs or computers, and sit among scholars in total silence, thumbing through materials both modern and antique.

The principal difference between their libraries and ours seems to be the purpose of the library. The libraries in Italy seem to be designed for the books. They are cool, requiring sweaters on even warm days. Many of the best materials are locked away and require an expert to locate them. They are focused largely on their own national navel and some of the librarians resent that I do not speak Italian fluently. They refuse to speak slowly enough for me to understand them. Fortunately, there are librarians in other libraries who go out of their way to assist and graciously assure that we find what we seek. Just to be safe, however, we never mention that the upshot of this research will be historical fiction.


In the last two years Elena Piscopia has been the topic of this blog seven times, but for newcomers I will re-iterate a bit of her history. She was born in 1646, a bastard daughter of a nobleman and a
My Photo of 2011 Improved
by Professional Photographer
Michele Burton
woman portrayed throughout history as a prostitute. The fact is that noblemen could not marry below their station in Venice and Elena’s father, Giovanni Cornaro, loved Zanetta Boni enough to produce five children with her before he was able to persuade the Republic to violate their laws and allow him to marry. There is no evidence that Zanetta was ever with anyone other than Giovanni Cornaro, but the portrayal of her lack of morality persists. Elena was eight years old when her parents were married, probably after the payment of an exorbitant fee. 

Elena was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic. She studied theology, philosophy and science. Intellectuals visiting Venice would come to the Cornaro household to hear her recite or dispute on topics. Her father promoted her shamelessly and fought to have her receive a degree in theology from the University of Padua.

The Cardinal who headed the University disagreed that a woman could have a degree in theology. A degree meant the recipient could teach and the Cardinal did not believe that women were qualified to teach theology. They are of a lower moral character and more receptive to the heresies of the Reformation, he argued. A compromise was reached and Elena received a degree in philosophy. The next year the University voted to prohibit women from receiving degrees. 

Elena was also religious, joining the Benedictine order as an oblate. When she died, at the age of thirty-eight, she was celebrated by learned societies as a scholar, virgin, and saint.

October 19, 2013


Although I do not particularly enjoy shopping, I thought my serous shopper friends might enjoy pictures of the shops and markets in Positano, Italy. The colors were almost enticing enough to convert me to their passion.

October 13, 2013

Venice, The Watery City

     Venice is built on a lagoon, its homes whose weight is borne under the water by heavy beams arranged in circular patterns, appear to float on its surface. Its wealth and power extended for almost one thousand years because of its facility in using the water to enrich the republic and its citizens. Now they say Venice is sinking. They talk of a great underwater system, a hydraulic water gate, that will keep the water from washing away the city; but, for many years now, all they have done is talk.
Venice has always been a victim of floods, but now they occur regularly. Acqua alta literally means “high water,” but in Venice it means much more.
A Hotel's "Water" Gate
Water Crawling into a Palazzo

It means a lagoon that laps over the edges of the waterside streets, splashing on passersby.  

It means water that creeps up through the drains in St. Mark’s Square.

It means streets that become inundated up to most men’s calves. It means temporary walkways, long rows of low buffet-like tables, placed end-on-end, that became the only dry means of walking from one location in the city to another. It means that the city must be navigated, as if each citizen becomes a tiny ship afloat in a maze of man-constructed canyons.

Barricaded Bank

Water Seeping into the Querini Stampalia Library

We have never been in Venice for acqua alta, always planning our visits so that they ended in mid-October, right before navigation skills are required. This time, however, water threatened us.

Our friend Andrea Casadio

Our friend Andrea Casadio, a historian from Ravenna, came to visit and told us, “You really should experience acqua alta.” We were dubious but right after he left, the water rose, and rose. The water fell from the sky with such force that I believed Andrea might have been a prophet who called up Neptune to his aid. Puddles became impossible to avoid.

Gary, Prepared for the Deluge
We bought boots as insurance and they were a bargain. For 10 euros each, we could carry the totem around in our back pack until the rain stopped its deluge, water receded, and all the tourists returned.

The gondolas that had been tucked away under their blue tarps as the lagoon churled and snorted, crawled out with their gondoliers attached, and started anew to entertain the tourists, taking them for a “stroll” in what was once as useful to the Venetian as a car has become to us today. We still have not experienced acqua alta, but perhaps there will be another time.

(Thank you to Gary who contributed many of these pictures.)

October 2, 2013



This is Gary entering our hotel. 


I wonder what tall people do?

And this is the most important historical sign in Naples:


TRANSLATION: Here one hundred years ago the Pizza Margherita was born.


There are so many reminders here of how our concepts of the world, the supernatural, and ourselves are intertwined. I will let these pictures speak for themselves.




  The area of Italy called Campania is in Southern Italy on the Western coast and includes Naples, the enormous bay that spreads out from Naples at its northern tip, and the Amalfi Coast with its winding roads, royal blue water, and towns stuffed into breathtaking cliffs. The sun shone throughout our visit and our days were filled with delight. 

SORRENTO (This section on Sorrento was written while we were there.)

Michele's Shot of Sunset from our Room
     Our hotel room in the Settimo Cielo (Seventh Heaven) hovers over a cliff and we feel like angels hovering over paradise. Sorrento lies at our feet, Vesuvius looms in the distance, and Naples sparkles at the other end of the bay. 
Gary's Shot of Sunrise from our Room

     You enter the hotel at the top on the first floor and then go down to reach the second, third and fourth floors. The back walls are part of the mountain, the halls cool as a wine cellar, the rooms spartan, like a monk’s cell, but larger. At the end of the hall is a Buddha whose belly we pat for luck each time we pass.

Cathedral at Sorrento's Square
     We are in the home of limoncello, and have sampled as many variations as possible. The town is charming. After a day of sightseeing, you stop by a bar on the square, order a prosecco (actually three proseccos since they bring a small bottle) with multiple “free” snacks and watch the cars rush down the street while pedestrians drift obliviously across the square, stopping to talk to neighbors and friends.

     Traffic is barred from the main street at night and everyone meanders among the shops and restaurants, conversation replacing the sound of the motors that whiz by during the day. The old town has narrow streets filled with pricey shops but, even here, the pace is relaxed. We were in town for the Sagra del Pesce Azzurro, the festival (of the blue fish) that ends summer. There were bells, fireworks, and a band whose melodies were unique, but whose rhythms could have been those of any band in the world. The city’s lights stayed on late, people milled in the streets and, even after we had retired to our room, the music floated up the hillside while fireworks exploded across our window.   


Villa dei Misteri - Pompeii
When we went to Ephesus three years ago I thought I would never be as enchanted by the ruins of another civilization, and perhaps that is still true, for what could be more impressive than a town whose streets all end at the library? Pompeii, however, is stunning just in its enormity. We spent a full day exploring the streets and sights. 


     Our driver kept saying that the Amalfi Coast is “one of the seven best coasts in the world.” Best at what I never asked, but if there are any places on earth that are magical, this would be one of them. It is easy to understand why past civilizations built fortifications here, but how they built houses straight up the cliffs and why the people remain is more questionable. 


     Enchanted? That words sounds like Disney’s Fantasyland, and Positano is a place where they work to entertain the demanding tourists, so perhaps it is a bit like Fantasyland. But it is more.
     It is a rugged land with hard-working people. It is a place where they grow olives, lemons and vegetables up the sheer faces of the cliffs. 


     But it is also a land where hopes fly down fiords, where songs burst from doorways, and where magic seems possible.

     No wonder it is a place where so much music has been composed, literature has been written, and movies have been filmed.