In the year 1212, the woman who became Saint Clare of Assisi founded the Poor Clares order of nuns. From the beginning, Poor Clares sisters were entirely cloistered and took vows of poverty much more extreme than those of other nuns of the time; they owned no property whatsoever, individually or collectively, and depended on alms for survival.
For the past 700 years, Poor Clares in Naples, Italy, have lived here, in Santa Chiara, a church and monstery complex built for them by Queen Sancha of Majorca and King Robert of Naples. The complex was extensively remodeled in the eighteenth century, with the addition of exuberant ornamentation, especially in this garden, that seems difficult to square with the nuns' professed poverty and simple life apart from the world.
Indeed, the tiled benches illustrate decidedly non-religious scenes, from masked pageantry at Carnival to peasants chasing after pigs. The tiles on the columns are garlanded in flowers and fruit: lemon trees, grape vines, figs and bananas. The designer was Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, an architect and sculptor known for imposing a personal stamp on every project, no matter what the client might have had in mind.
For two more centuries, the Poor Clares stayed on in Vaccaro's fanciful cloister, until 1995, some years after they had downsized to a smaller monastery next door. For the first time, their garden was opened to visitors from outside the order.
To start with, very close to home, we celebrate May 17 as the birthday of our little sister Carol, as well as the birthday, on the Stein side of the family, of our brother-in-law Bob, as well as the wedding anniversary of Richard and Arleigh Stein, as well as the 480th anniversary of the annulment of the marriage of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII of England.
Not only, not only. The very day of little sister's birth in 1954 is also known to history as the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, knocking the legalistic props out from under racial segregation in public schools, though of course failing to end racial segregation in public schools. And there's more, at least on a technicality: the Brown decision applied only to public schools run by the various state governments, not to schools in the District of Columbia, where everything was run by the federal government and also where, it so happened, our little sister was born. The Supreme Court needed to decide a separate case, Bolling v. Sharpe, to order desegregation of schools in Washington, D.C., but it efficiently took care of that detail on the very same day as little sister's birth. Eight days later, the D.C. School Board announced a desegregation plan, and thus, had little sister been smart enough to start school as a newborn infant, which she very nearly was, she might have enrolled in a newly desegregated classroom.
The photo above shows a bit of what Sis is up to these days: mosaicking the side of her garage to suggest a door and some pretty awesome windows.