Italy

Posted by Ellen

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.

Posted by Ellen

She sits by the waterfront in Trieste, Italy, apparently texting or checking her Facebook, but actually sewing, or maybe knitting.

Not seen here: the other seamstress of Trieste, sitting and chatting alongside her.

Posted by Ellen

Portrait de la la Repasseuse, by Laura Corrado, from the 2015 Royal Photographic Society International Biennial. 

Posted by Ellen

Through the window glass in Venice.

Posted by Ellen

The cold and the storms both showed up in Philadelphia this week, but somehow the effect we see here in a high mountain valley in the Tyrolean Alps is a little more dramatic and astonishing than it is out on the streets and sidewalks of Brotherly Love. Pretty much all we've got in town right now are slashing rains and chill.

Posted by Ellen

Villa at sunrise, San Quirico d'Orcia.

Posted by Ellen

When gas costs something like $9.50 a gallon, people run out of gas. Last April, this woman was pushing her car (and dog) through a neighborhood in Rome.

About half the pump price of gasoline in Italy is taxes, which have increased recently. Drivers have been driving less, and new car sales declined by 18 percent this year. As demand for gas fell, the price slowly started to drop; last week, a gallon cost only $9.17. Of course Italians buy by the liter, not the gallon, and they use Euros instead of dollars, but it all works out.

The photographer says that after taking the picture, he helped push.

Posted by Ellen

More than four millennia ago, people who called themselves Sicels built a town atop this hill, 300 meters above small streams in the steep-sided limestone valleys of southern Sicily.

Then came the Greeks and briefly the Carthaginians, then the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and finally, in the eleventh century, the Normans. The town had its name by then, Ragusa. As part of the Kingdom of Sicily, it slipped out from under control of the Norman duke Geoffrey and became a fief of the Chiaramontes, the most powerful family in Sicily.

At first glance, Ragusa's many centuries, particularly its medieval times, appear plain in the architecture and plan of the town clinging to the hill. But that's an illusion; almost everything here postdates a severe earthquake in 1692, which killed thousands of people and destroyed almost all the buildings, including a very large Gothic cathedral.

What we see today is Ragusa rebuilt, in the early eighteenth century, in the style known as Sicilian baroque. We also see Ragusa stratified; the rich people moved over to the next hill to rebuild their homes and churches–Ragusa Superiore–while the poor stayed where they were, rebuilding in the rubble– Ragusa Inferiore, known today as Ragusa Ibra.

Of the two Ragusas–essentially identical in age and architectural style–the poor folks' town, featured in this photo, attracts more attention from twenty-first-century tourists and is generally considered the more picturesque. The replacement for the ruined cathedral, however, is in Ragusa Superiore.

As an American, I have my doubts about places that look like this; I sniff Walt Disney and/or Hollywood and/or Colonial Williamsburg in the so-called Sicilian air. I fear this is a town populated by characters in costume whose main role in life is to get me to part with my money. But you know what? I'll take the risk. And if I ever get to Sicily . . . I can't promise I'll come back.