Monday, June 29, 2009

The Eternal Gratitude of Aliano

Our tour of Basilicata continues...

Aliano seems to bask in its infamy. Seventy years ago it had been a typical peasant village in remote southern Basilicata, scraping to survive, and ignored and derided by the central government. It would have remained hidden and forgotten in its lunar-like hills had it not been paid a visit by destiny.

When the Mussolini government wanted to silence the political writings and rabble-rousings of a Jewish doctor and anti-fascist named Carlo Levi, it could think of no punishment more severe than banishment from his northern city of Torino to the hinterlands of Basilicata. Modern communications and northern news filtered very slowly- if at all- from there, so Levi and his inflammatory activism would be safely out of their dictatorial hair.

Levi arrived in Aliano to find an abject poverty in stark contrast of his prosperous north, which seemed a world away. The remote locale was neglected and remained outside of time while resources were focused on northern industrial technologies and interests. Levi spent his two years of political exile acting as town physician while painting local scenes and characters and taking detailed journalistic notes which he would use to write his well-known book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. From his house on the edge of the village, Levi observed, interacted with, tended to, painted, and chronicled the life, hardships, and contrasts of a place within his own country that was foreign to him.

When he was released from his house arrest, Levi penned his most famous work, which shed light on the political, economic and social problems of the south, and would eventually bring attention and change to the region. And the town of Aliano could not have been more grateful.

Today, Aliano is still small and still remote, but the appearance, well-being, and status of the town is very different thanks to Levi, whose writings and presence continue to live on there. Many of the buildings have been spruced up and restructured, with more work obviously underway. The place looks tended to and cared for, unlike the descriptions of squalor that Levi chronicled upon his arrival. Inhabitants stroll the streets, gather in the piazza and coffee bars, smiling their friendly greetings at visitors. Tourists from across Italy come to see it, and cars bearing license plates from other European countries are parked in the municipal lot. The paese pays homage to their famous guest, who championed their cause, with numerous namings in his honor - a street, piazza, coffee bar, restaurant all bear his name. A statue of him stands at the entrance to town. Aliano is considered a "literary park," with placques affixed to buildings with quotes in Levi's words as he had described each landmark in his book, so visitors can tour the town and see it through his eyes and words.

The house of his interment has been turned into a museum. Many of his paintings are on display in the Museo della Civilta` Contadina (Museum of Peasant Culture).

It was Carlo Levi's request to be buried in Aliano and his grave lies in a panoramic spot in the cemetary, up above the village. It is sprinkled with pebbles left by visitors to show how beloved he was. Aliano is isolated on top of a hill with commanding views of the weirdly-eroded countryside and surrounding mountains. The town has come a long way since their illustrious guest came to stay, but the timelessness of their traditions and the splendor of their natural surroundings are unchanged. Nor is their affection for the man who served them so well and continues to impact their well-being.

All rights reserved. Valerie Schneider 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Lost Leonardo

Acerenza is a pretty place. Set up on a massif high at the end of a squiggly road, its position above the Bradano River has been enviable and strategic since before the Roman age. It has seen -and survived- many invaders through the millennia, but like many towns in this area it was the Middle Ages that left the most lasting features on Acerenza, endowing it with narrow pedestrian lanes and petite but appealing palazzi. Parts of the protective walls, punctuated with guardly gates, still cradle the compact centro storico. Captivating vistas are revealed from every overlook.

During the Renaissance period Acerenza was passed around as a baron's trophy, handed off from one noble family to another. Naturally, aristocrats ran in the same circles and entertained dignitaries and luminaries from other regions.

So what, you say? Well, a particular noble family who transferred to Acerenza from Florence had a famous friend, Leonardo da Vinci.

It was already known that the Segni family had been in possession of a Leonardo drawing of Neptune, a token from their artist-friend to Antonio Segni as a parting gift. When a historian named Barbitelli was conducting research in Acerenza and came across a painting that the current owners had always believed was a portrait of Galileo, he saw a striking similarity to a portrait of Leonardo in the Uffizi as well as what is believed to be a self-portrait in Torino, and remembered the family's friendship with the artist. When he saw an inscription on the back written backwards as Leonardo preferred to sign his works, he was convinced this was a lost Leonardo - not a mere portrait of the legendary man, but one created by his own hand.

So went the captivating narrative proudly proclaimed to us by a barista in Acerenza during our visit. He told us that experts from the art world as well as the authorities at the Leonardo museum in Vinci had authenticated the painting. All of Acerenza was buzzing about it, not just because it had been discovered in their town, but because somehow it had been swiped out from under them and put on display in a museum in nearby Vaglio instead of in Acerenza itself. The injustice! railed our barista (along with a few choice words about the politicians and fools who allowed it to happen).

Seeing as we were in the area and Vaglio was located only about thirty kilometers from our lodgings, we decided to head over and see the exhibit. Finding information on the museum and opening hours proved a little more difficult than you would think, considering they were currently caching a treasure that rocked the art world. We finally located a brochure on the Museo delle Antiche Genti Lucane, which they had translated into English as "The Museum of the Old People," which conjured up a vision of a room of old folks in rocking chairs, instead of a display of ancient artifacts.

Vaglio, in contrast to attractive Acerenza, was a fairly depressing paese that retained little of its historic charm and looked mostly rebuilt in concrete. The museum was likewise fashioned from cement, gated and fenced in such a way that it resembled a penitentiary. What was purported to be "the" museum on the ancient Lucani housed a rather meager medley of artifacts and somewhat cheesey reconstructions. We forked over fourteen euros (each) to peer at the painting (twice what we would have paid to enter the famed Uffizi!)

The discovery was recent and the exhibit was hastily assembled. Other portraits, prints, and documents from various sources, including the Leonardo museum, built a strong case to convince the viewer that this painting was the real deal. We jockeyed for position, being jabbed by elbows of cell phone photographers and inattentive patrons. A blustery academic pushed us over so he could stand front and center while lecturing monotonously to a handful of students who took no interest in his lengthy and obviously boring discourse.

Finally we were able to stand before the poorly displayed portrait. Lighting was misplaced and glared off the protective glass. We had to move around, backwards and forwards to get a good angle to compensate for the blur. The image of a middle-aged man with flowing auburn hair and a billowy beard was painted on wood, and was scratched and pocked. Blueberry eyes peered out and followed our movements.

Overall we felt a little cheated. The poor quality of the exhibit and second-rate lighting and display of this precious piece certainly dulled our experience. But we were impressed with the evidence that it is, in fact, of Leonardo, and based on the other sketches, are inclined to believe that it was a self-portrait. And it was pretty exciting to see it, since few people had even heard of its discovery - yet here it was tucked away in a forgotten town in Basilicata. I just hope it can ultimately return to Acerenza. It would definitely be more cherished and charmingly-displayed in that lovely village.

This portrait from the Biblioteca Reale di Torino is widely thought to be a self-portrait of Leonardo, too. There are certainly some interesting similarities.

Raphael's famous fresco in the Vatican, The School of Athens, is also said to contain a depiction of Leonardo, standing in as Plato.

For fun, watch this video of Leonardo da Vinci's Paintings of Women.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Back to Basilicata

I’m returning to Italy today, at least in thought and blog, because let’s face it, there isn’t a lot to say about Cleveland these days unless I want to expound on the public corruption scandals and depressing job market (I don’t).

Besides, after our Motherland sojourn I promised to fill you in on some of the great places we visited, so no time like the rainy-day present to get started!


Don’t you love it when you “discover” a place that feels vibrant, maintains its traditions, and boasts beautiful scenery and distinctive architecture? That’s what we found and adored about Ascoli Piceno and Matera. Both have a sense of uniqueness and civic pride for their towns and traditions that captivated us immediately.

We had the same feeling when we visited Pisticci, in southern Basilicata. What is often described as a “tiny town” is actually a pretty hopping place of about 19,000 proud Pisticcesi. Stretching along a ridge, it takes in some pretty impressive views of blunt-topped mesas, cultivated valleys, eroded ravines, and distant mountains. The eastern side slopes down to the plains at the Ionian coast.

Pisticci extends a lengthy distance, unfolding across three hills and so it feels larger than perhaps it would if it were all clumped up together.

But apart from the beautiful natural setting, we immediately took a liking to the town itself. The white-washed buildings practically sparkled in the sunlight. We strolled the bustling Corso Regina Margherita along with a crowd of locals, peering into the windows of elegant-looking shops and stopping for an espresso in one of the classy cafes. The pedestrian street was worn so smooth it gleamed as if it was wet, and it was clearly the popular passeggiata point. We passed several restaurants we would like to return to try. (Unfortunately none of our photos of the Corso came out well.)

The town suffered a landslide in 1688 that carried away nearly half of the settlement. Not to be deterred, an arched retaining wall was built to shore it up, and a new neighborhood was constructed below the partially-ruined castle.

We climbed the narrow streets that led up to the cathedral, fashioned from stolid stone which contrasted with the whiteness that makes up most of Pisticci. From the panoramic piazza in front of the Romanesque church we spied the remains of the Norman castello, and looked down upon that new rione, dubbed the Dirupa district (meaning “precipice”). The ordered rows of sugar-cube houses all lined up like they where embracing, with their low-peaked rooflines distinguishing one house from the next. Laundry flitted in the breeze and housewives chatted in their doorways.

Meandering our way back to the business district of the centro we found the café tables packed with aperitivo-sipping and fashionably-attired groupings of business people while shopkeepers started shuttering their doors for pranzo. An older woman pushed a baby carriage while chatting amiably with her granddaughter swaddled within. A stream of ragazzi flooded the street, having just been freed from school.

During our brief visit three people greeted me familiarly, as if they knew me. One, embarrassed at realizing I wasn’t who she thought I was, said “Mah! You’re accent is American but your face is Lucana!”

We returned to our car smiling. Pisticci struck us as a pleasant, pretty place - livable, lived-in and alive.

Visit this lovely photo gallery for more scenes of Pisticci.
Pisticci is home to
Amaro Lucano, Bryan's preferred digestivo.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


The one question we used to receive constantly while living in Ascoli Piceno was, "come mai Ascoli?" (why are you living in Ascoli?) Now that we're in Cleveland, everyone is asking, "Why Cleveland?" where the current city motto seems to be, "at least we're not Detroit!"

The second question everyone asks is, "don't you miss Italy?" Answer: Yes. Every minute. With every fiber of my being. I miss the piazzas, I miss my routine, and my morning cappuccino (and my sweet, smiling barista) with my perfect cornetto. I miss...well, I miss so many things that if I continue to dwell on them and list them I will only sink deeper into the blues. But I really miss speaking Italian, and my friends.

I am in the place where I grew up, yet I feel displaced. I am surrounded by people who speak my native tongue, but often feel misunderstood. And I feel rather isolated, even though I am lucky to be in a neighborhood where I can walk to shops, restaurants and a locally-owned grocery store.

Yes, homesickness has set in. Several people have welcomed us "home," but if the old cliche is true that home is where the heart is, then home for us is definitely Italia.

So this week, just as I was starting to feel good and really melancholy, I received two emails from friends in Italy that confirmed my heart.

One wrote that "even though we haven't been friends very long you (voi, plural form) remain in my heart and I am sending you hugs and kisses". The other said "we miss you terribly, and I even miss calling you for no reason." Awww. Just when I was lamenting that some of my long-time friends had blown me off, these two have blown me away with their sweet sentiments.

Now excuse me while I go cry in my (watery and overpriced) caffe`.

Read About Places I Love in Italy:

-Matera - the City of Stone and a musical place
-Ascoli Piceno - The background and why we chose to live there
-Basilicata - The Land of Brigands and Land of Southern Hospitality

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is This Some Kind of Joke?

I have never talked so much about my car in the thirteen years I've owned it than I have the past two weeks, but here I am again blogging about Arnold.

The good news is, Bryan took it to a mechanic, reputable and recommended by the next door neighbor, who looked it over and said that the dreaded fuel injector problem was, in fact, just a cracked spark plug, which cost waaay less than we anticipated. Phew. He pumped up the air conditioner with juice and sent Arnold home with a clean bill of health.

Then. {sigh} Then we went out innocently today to run some errands, take care of some banking, maybe get an espresso (dare we hope that it be drinkable?). Bryan decided to make an unscheduled stop at a battery store, as the remote entry thingamajig had run dry from three years of disuse. Or something. Anyway, non funziona. I opted to wait in the car, while the store clerk took an insanely long time to replace one little battery. I watched several cars come and go, maneuvering in the weird, angled spaces of the parking lot.

Then. {sigh} Then I saw a car backing up in my direction. And not stopping. I hit the horn...just as she hit my car. Yes. Again. Just days after we got it back from the last go-round, poor Arnold was once again hit in a parking lot. Un-freaking-believable!

The young girl was very upset, and fortunately it was very minor - a few scratches and a little creasing of the bumper. But mamma mia! Are you kidding me?

If it hadn't just been fixed and painted we probably wouldn't have been too upset. If it had been our car in Italy, I probably wouldn't have even taken a second glance, since we had scrapes and scratches all over that little Fiesta (dubbed Guido, by the way, in case you were wondering). The other driver hopes to pay for the repair and be done with it, so we'll be off for estimates and such on Monday.

But I couldn't help thinking , is this some kind of joke? Is Candid Camera filming in Cleveland?

*This just in: this MSNBC article claims that Cleveland has some of "the most courteous, considerate drivers" in the country. Really? They're certainly not the most attentive!

Related Articles:

Bumpy Beginnings

Monday, June 08, 2009

Real Hospitality

The cobwebs that have gathered on the Pinon Tree are because I was traveling last week. I returned to Cleveland and the good news that Arnold's surgical procedures were completed. His muscular body is back to its original fine form. Unfortunately, the blood pressure problems that began just before we left for Italy weren't improved by lack of use, so we'll have to take him in for fuel injector work soon. How I miss our wonderful (and insanely inexpensive) mechanic in Ascoli Piceno right about now!

So where was I, you ask? I went to Washington, DC to attend a graduation. When my uncle died last year, his company established a scholarship in his name and my mother was asked to present the award to its first recipient. I envisioned a terribly emotional day; while I was in tears, it wasn't from grief, but instead was inspired by the graduates.

Hospitality High is a Washington, DC charter school, bringing in students from across the District to complete a full load of "normal" academic course requirements, plus training to enter the hospitality industry. My uncle was a great advocate in the school's formation and he mentored and provided jobs for several students in the past.

I gotta tell you, these kids are amazing. Their perseverance and desire to learn is phenomenal. Some must take the metro plus two buses just to reach the school. Many risk physical dangers, face incredible obstacles, and deal with tragic family circumstances, yet they come to school, push themselves and each other to keep going, and manage a 90% attendance rate.

In a city that is marked by a dismal 52% graduation rate, Hospitality High boasts an 80% college acceptance average. The Class of 2009, however, raised the bar...they proudly proclaim a 100% college acceptance rate! And we're not talking about second-rate schools here, but the likes of Michigan State, Delaware State, Johnson and Wales University (recognized by many in the industry as the top culinary and hospitality school), and the historic Tuskegee University (whose first president was Booker T. Washington).

No wonder the families of these students were tooting party horns, cheering loudly and dancing in the aisles! Their excitement was infectious; their stories and commitment were inspiring. One student entered the school with an abysmal grade point average of .59; when he graduated it had soared, along with his confidence, to a fantastic 3.0 GPA. Others saw family members killed or jailed, were themselves mugged or harassed, or faced homelessness, yet they went to school...and excelled. Some of the students were the first in their families to complete high school.

They welcomed us in, and I was clapping wildly, smiling broadly, and beaming proudly just for being in their company. We went to give away a scholarship, but we are the ones who came away richer.