Vigevano. The Renaissance in Lombardy

I’ve been working on this post for more than a year. Like many other posts written about Lombardy, this one got left in my draft pile. We spent one day in Vigevano, but as most of our time was taken up touring the fabulous Castello Sforzesco, along with a very good lunch, I feel I was cheated. When I return to Vigevano, I’ll stay in centro in a little apartamento overlooking the most beautiful Piazza in Italy, if not the world, the Piazza Ducale. Dream on.

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

One week in Pavia. Part 1, Ponte Coperto

Over the summer holidays, I plan to polish off a few of my unfinished posts from 2018. Some of these concern Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Instead of finalising these posts months ago, I’ve found myself crawling back down that rabbit hole of historical research, one of the great side benefits of travel.

In hindsight, we should have stayed longer in Pavia: a week was not long enough to explore the historical centre of town as well as the nearby villages and surrounding countryside. Pavia is a university town, and like many others, we found the student population added vibrancy and life to the city. The city is small enough to explore on foot, with castles, towers and churches from the Longobardian era through to the late medieval Visconti and the Renaissance Sforza periods. The Lombardian countryside, especially the wine growing district of the Oltrepo, provided glorious hill-top views of vineyards and wineries, with nearby small village trattorie. The nearby villages of the Lomellina area, known for their famous rice fields dating back to the 13th century, border the Ticino and Po rivers and are a short drive from Pavia. Dotted along the way are yet more red bricked, austere Visconti castles and solid brick Romanesque churches, as well as inviting rural pasticcerie, each one famous for a particular biscotto. Other side trips included travelling along the Via Francigena, the ancient camino that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome. Another day was spent in Vigevano, the most beautiful Renaissance town in Italy, challenging Urbino (in the Marche region) for that title. The little water-mill, the Mulino di Mora Bassa, contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to beautiful replicas of Leonardo’s machines, for those who are interested in the technical genius of Leonardo and his contribution to agricultural and hydraulic equipment.

Ponte Coperto,  Pavia

The Ponte Coperto ( covered bridge) dominates the entrance to Pavia, spanning the Ticino river. The river divides the city in two- Centro Storico on one side, the historical centre of Pavia, and the more suburban Borgo on the other. Borgo was once inhabited by fishermen and washerwomen but is now gentrified and charming, and provides some convenient Airbnb apartments as well as parking.

The Borgo district, now gentrified.

Il Ponte Coperto has had a few incarnations throughout history. It was built in Roman times and then rebuilt during in 1354 during the Visconti era. This medieval bridge was bombed by the Allied forces ( American/British) during WW2 and replaced between 1949 to 1951. The bombing occurred on three occasions, making it impassable during the 1940s. The new bridge was meant to be a replica of the old medieval bridge, but with some modern necessities. Indeed the modern bridge appears quite ancient and ‘authentic’ on the surface. Many of the original features have been included, such as a chapel, arches and a covered roof. The footings of the two earlier bridges can still be seen in the river near the current bridge.

Old Covered Bridge, Pavia, built in 1370s, damaged by allied bombing in 1944.  Source, G. Chiolini.  G 
The old Covered bridge after the Allied bombing in 1944. courtesy G. Chiolini

Of course there’s a story about the rebuilding of the Ponte Coperto: things are never straight forward in Italy when it comes to restoration and bureaucracy, even more so when dealing with a 600 year old bridge, known and loved for its strength and medieval beauty. Several experts estimated that the damage caused to the bridge by the Allied bombing was not so severe as to prevent a complete restoration, “as it was and where it was”. A lively debate took place around Pavia, involving engineers, historians and architects, the city council and in the general population, between the supporters of the old bridge and its “executioners”. Over a period of three years, the debate continued to rage until the old bridge was finally demolished in 1948, and replaced by the current copy. The current bridge was built 30 metres downstream from the old bridge, and is perpendicular to the river, unlike the old bridge which was shorter and wider and on a diagonal. The new bridge is taller, the new arches are thinner, and are constructed in reinforced concrete and veneered in red brick, a building material utilised in many medieval buildings throughout Pavia. The two portals are completely different. Even today, some consider this bridge a caricature of its former self. But of course, in the eyes of the casual visitor, the bridge looks like it fits in well and even appears to be an ‘old’ bridge. The same questions will always arise about the pros and cons of Restoration versus Renovation or Remodelling. There’s always a Disneyland aspect when attempting to copy an ancient building. At dusk, when the foggy mist of November hovers over the Ticino, then glides through the bridge after dark, making the air wet and cold and eerie, the bridge feels ancient. There are moments when you feel those medieval spirits crossing over the Ticino on their way to midnight mass in centro, with whispered stories of goats, Archangel Michael and a pact made with the devil.

Remains of the Old Covered Bridge

A few links relating to questions in this post.

https://www.liutprand.it/articoliPavia.asp?id=67

http://www.pavialcentro.it/en/monumenti/dal-ponte-coperto-san-giorgio-montefalcone-leggende/ponte-coperto

Kraków the Brave

Kraków is a remarkably city. It’s the surprise card of a three-week trip through Central Europe. Elegant and stately 18th and 19th century buildings line the narrow streets while the huge market square dominates the center of the old city. The manageable size of the city, the ease of getting around on foot, and the palpable creative and youthful energy one senses makes Krakow a great place to visit.

Krakow. Market Square on a sunny Autumn day.

The main square, Rynek Główny in Polish, dates back to the 13th century: at 9.4 acres in size, it is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. This space is overpowering, hypnotic and graceful. It is irresistible at any time of the day, and with this size, never gets too crowded. Often main squares in European cities are best avoided in peak times, especially in the tourist season.

One small corner of Market Square, Krakow

The square is surrounded by historic townhouses, churches and the central Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in the Renaissance style. The cloth hall today has small tourist shops selling Polish themed trinkets. The building is long, rectangular and graceful. Other buildings edging the square, include the Town Hall Tower, the 10th century Church of St Adalbert, and many restaurants covered by market umbrellas along with heavy-duty heaters.

Market Square, Krakow
Another beautiful building lining the Market Square, Krakow

Historically, Krakow has been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. It enjoyed its golden era during the 15th century, with Renaissance artists and architects flocking to the city. Despite the horrors of WW2 and the Nazi occupation of Kraków, followed by Stalinist control of all intellectual life, Krakow has, in the 21st century, re-emerged as a place of culture and education. In 2000, Kraków was named European Capital of Culture. In 2013 Kraków was officially approved as a UNESCO City of Literature. There are 250, 000 tertiary students in the city. Music venues are thriving, as well as the arts and literature. You can feel the energy in the streets.

The central market square attracts excellent musicians and buskers at any hour of the day.

After the Nazi invasion of Poland at the start of  WW2, Kraków became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city was forced into a Ghetto, which was later walled in: from there, they were sent to German extermination camps, at the nearby Auschwitz  and Birkenau. During that short period, 65,000 Jews from Krakow were murdered. The reality of this horrendous evil is reinforced through a visit to Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory in Krakow, a museum and exhibition of life in Kraków under Nazi occupation 1939-45, housed on the former site of Schindler’s factory. A visit to this display, which will take around two to three hours, is a must. Catch a taxi to the factory and buy tickets there. There is no need to go with a group or a guide. Warning: the exhibition is deeply moving and disturbing. The following photo collage is a media file, which opens as a slide show, depicting a few images from this museum.

There are also tours of Nowa Huta, a separate district of Krakow, and one of only two planned Socialist realist settlements or districts ever built and “one of the most renowned examples of deliberate social engineering” in the entire world.¹ A tour with Walkative Tours of Krakow with a guide well versed in the history of Stalinism, and its application in Poland, was available. But in the end, we chose the food tour, a great way to learn more about the traditional foods of Krakow.

The gentle sound of clip clopping horses in the streets nearby the central square.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, modern Kraków is brave, proud, lively and welcoming.

Wats of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai. Dawn’s aura breaks through the rain laden night clouds, illuminating golden finials along the sky line. Curlicues in the shape of birds or nagas reach into the sky in every direction, reminding me that I have not yet visited every Wat in Chiang Mai’s old walled city. There will always be more to surprise me.

Golden finials on Wats, this one on the shape of a Naga.
Decoration is elabourate, sometimes kitsch.
New Wats or temples are often built in the grounds of an ancient Chedi or Stupa.

Wat Suan Dok, with its hypnotic white temples, outside the old walls.

For The Daily Post’s photographic challenge, Textures.

Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Dalat, Vietnam

Serpentine dragons and pulsating fluorescent halos, frightening gods like angry superman, spiraling Gaudi-esque architecture and over the top mosaics, it’s hard not to smile when visiting the Linh Phuoc Pagoda in the small town of Trai Mat, 8 kms north of the DaLat, Vietnam. Although a functioning Buddhist temple with a monastery on site, most visitors are overwhelmed by the audacity and playfulness of the design.

scultures wind their way through the mosaic staircase
Sculptures crawl through the mosaic staircase

Funny, kitsch and impossible to photograph is the 49-meter-long winding glaze dragon covered in mosaics from 12,000 broken beer bottles. The main building is a seven-tiered-27-meter-tall-tower made from thousands of pieces of broken bowls. The winding staircases and columns are covered in colourful mosaics, reminiscent of Gaudi.

Fun
Architecture with a sense of humour.

Life sized sculptures climb the exterior of the bell tower building, or sit and wave from a ledge or play the flute. The same sculptures may be seen from another angle from the internal winding staircase.

fun
Gaudi -esque architecture

Built between 1949 and 1952, the religious site attracts many tourists who mostly arrive in buses. If you are staying in DaLat, the best way to get there is by the antique train, which leaves from Dalat station four times a day,  and rattles through the countryside to the village of Trai Mat. Cost VND 125,000 pp return journey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Vietnamese superman or religious icon?

 

 

 

Spare and Bare, Oamaru, New Zealand

Rust corragted iron shed with window, Oamaru

Not all the buildings in the Victorian precinct of Oamaru, New Zealand,  are covered with ornate detail. Many are delightfully dilapidated and spare, adding more character to the streetscape with their simple austerity. This preserved corrugated iron shed caught my attention. Was that window strategically placed to catch the reflection of the roof mouldings on a nearby building? I would love to go back and see what the window sees from other angles in different light.

Going spare in Oamaru
Going spare in Oamaru