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Thursday 2 January

A quarter to ten P.M. only this time, back at Stefano's house, in bed. I hope I don't spend 4 hours writing my diary today!

I actually was woken up by Stefano knocking at my door this morning around a quarter to nine — A quick shower and shave, and away. The showers here, both the upstairs and the downstairs bathrooms, are as in Todi in the bed-and‑breakfast v. S. Lorenzo James and I stayed in back in '93: right over the tile floor; if the bathroom is properly arranged, it's not inconvenient at all, and even has its advantages: much less dangerous than a tub, and much easier to clean the bathroom.

Anyway, we hit the road very quickly, eating at a bar in a small town of the Val d' Elsa called Forcoli: I had a couple of cornetti and a caffé latte; then straight to Volterra per program, at first thru the plain then turning east up into the hills, a much more Umbrian landscape, in spots quite beautiful, with planes upon planes of hills, olive trees, red earth, pines and cypresses. . . Fewer castelli and churches visible in the landscape than in Umbria, but lovely just the same. When we left the earth was waterlogged and releasing vaporous mists all around, but little by little the weather cleared although never completely — and at 2 it turned sour again, clouding up and even dropping a bit of rain for a few minutes on the road back just before sunset.

The approach to Volterra was just short of stunning; we stopped in a couple of places for me to take pictures — the last being in a parking lot by the Badia where they promise you can see the Balze, a characteristic avalanche formation — but it was fenced off. The Badia is a large impressive austere medieval hulk —

Volterra has set up a massive indoors parking garage dug into the cliff, where we parked, exiting one level up straight onto a view of the side of the Duomo in the middle distance, the bottom of the building obscured by houses, but a red dome and the campanile quite attractive.

Almost immediately a medieval street leading into the very medieval piazza, about the size of Todi's but more impressive if purely secular: no churches, just palazzi, the most remarkable of which had a number of glazed terracotta plaques set into the walls; white, blue, green and a bit of yellow, principally the coats of arms in some cases of men in power thru the ages.

A bit behind the piazza a tiny space onto which give both the Cathedral and the Baptistry. The latter is a particularly nice building, with very pure lines — the inside unfortunately grossly obscured by high panels of a photo exhibit — and only two things extraneous to the fabric of the building, both of white marble, both of the early Renaissance and both lovely: an arch around the central niche, and a lovely baptismal font — 1502 — reading my Blue Guide later it turned out to be by Jacopo Sansovino so in fact I can trust my judgment. . . .

The Duomo, unusually, prohibited flash pictures; the pot aux roses was that they sell a lot of their own pictures and cards. . . . The fabric of the building inside is of minor interest, although pleasant and not spoiled, and nice foliated capitals; but there are a number of beautiful works of art, although everything much restored. The most attractive was a pulpit, reassembled in the 16c out of various medieval pieces, with a great deal of elegant if formal charm: a rectangular box of bas-reliefs supported by four dark columns carried on the backs of four passant symbols of the Evangelists. Some early 15c wooden stalls in the choir were roped off from a distance; some of the paintings were on loan or in restauro. I took a few pictures where I thought there might be enough light — blocking the flash with my thumb (in theory I can turn it off but I've both forgotten how and failed to get the button that does it repaired, so it would have been a whole storia to try).

Wandered around a bit and bumbled onto the high parapet road overlooking the Roman theater and baths:

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The Roman theater of Volterra.

completely closed to the public but an excellent view, like an aerial diorama, a museum exhibit, quite instructive. Nothing much left of the seats, but a fair amount of the scaena is left, and the ensemble is most attractive.

Around a corner and the small church of San Michele — very nice façade — then a little alabaster workshop, where the best alabaster in town is being worked by a very handsome young woman, who runs her own one-woman business with great success. Volterra is famous for its alabaster, mined locally, of which there are several types and grades; but to provide for the demand, inferior yellowish alabaster is imported from elsewhere, powdered alabaster is sintered with epoxy to form synthetic alabaster, and plastic coatings and chemical tints are added — and about 80% of what I saw thruout the town is pretty bad to very mediocre: sentimental 19c semi-prurient neoclassica to poor 1965 liturgical art to Buddhas to pretentious or overly ornate objects in various styles, incl. a truly hideous but technically perfect vase three feet tall, mis en vedette in the entry of one store, painted in blue and red with an Egyptian scene complete with hieroglyphs. . . . Not in this little atelier near S. Michele, which was closing for lunch but to which we promised to return after the 3 P.M. reopening.

From there down a long tree-lined flight of steps — Stefano has a diploma as a geometra although he's never worked as one, and commented on the shallowness of riser to tread, but it was not yet at the threshold of unpleasantness in walking — down to the Porta and Fonte di Docciola, an attractive medieval watering facility, a pool under some ogival vaulting; and a man came in several times with his red plastic bucket to the tap to wash his car, parked just outside the gate: much the function the pool and tap were designed for.

We walked back up the same way; while Stefano found himself a telephone at the top, I found the tiny chapel of S. Antonio, which has the most wonderful terracotta in the apse, an Assumption with S. Sebastian and S. John, framed in lemons and pinecones and other fruit, and labelled "robbiana" which I think means they haven't quite dared attribute it to a della Robbia, or they don't know which della Robbia did it. Also a triptych of St. Anthony by Priamo delle Quercie, mid‑15c, somber but rather good.

The nearby large church of S. Agostino where Stefano had gone — looking for me I think rather than really interested in it — since I spent a good deal of time in S. Antonio (the size of my diningroom, maybe 30% bigger) and his phone call had been quick — is of minor interest: I spent a minute or two in there — some tombs and frescoes but nothing truly extraordinary.

Then a walk around the block so to speak, starting to look for food; instead we suddenly wound up, via a little back street, up in the Parco Archeologico where there are some scant remains of Roman buildings (fenced off) and a bathtublike object but mostly a very attractively landscaped large park with a good view of the Fortezza, a mostly late 15c military fortress and prison still used as the latter now, so in excellent shape: a green-glassed ultramodern watchtower can be seen on one of its sentry walks; other than that, it certainly looks medieval.

Food turned out to be at an Enoteca, Sacco Fiorentino, back near S. Antonio, where we had a plate of antipasti: ham, smoked ham, boudin, sausages, 3 types of cheese (one of them a pecorino piccante), several kinds of bruschetta, all very good; and a flat sort of cross between a flatbread and a quiche, made of chickpea flour and eggs in a thin sheet and crisply fried: excellent, the best thing I've ever eaten made of chickpeas (easy, I'm afraid!) — and we split a ¼L of Poggio di Sole Chianti Classico 1993, a bit vulgar and purple. Then while he had a caffé: I had a grappa di Brunello (they had only one other, di Nobile di Montepulciano, but the waitress came back in fact to tell me they were out of it). A few — mostly empty — tables away, a family of five Americans, 3 small children and the parents, speaking no Italian, and the waitress very little English: they managed; the mother looked like it was uphill duty: it was hard to detect any particular enjoyment in her, although she didn't look miserable either —

Down a little street to the Etruscan Arch, not really Etruscan but Roman incorporating three large Etruscan heads; rather curious. Then back to Gloria Giannelli's studio where after a chat I bought the smaller of two beautiful plates I'd fallen in love with earlier, simple round shapes bordered with a pierced band of running ivy.

From there to a caffé: more telephoning [. . .] we had coffees, and I caved in and had a tiny little cup of chocolate-hazelnut gelato, which felt awfully rich: the proprietor, a young rather talkative pregnant woman, told me there's less fat than in American ice cream, which indeed she seemed to know about in good technical detail; never mind the eggs in gelato, how can it be bad for you, it's all natural.a

And out of Volterra under a nonexistent sunset in deep cloud; to Pontedera where I bought two shirts, Italian-made, expensive for what they were, one white one deep glaucous aqua. The store a tiny almost shabby front on a busy street; a nice salesgirl with beautiful eyes but wearing unnecessary powder or foundation or whatever — we talked about 20 minutes; Stefano made some phone calls. . . Pontedera is a busy commercial place but not much artwise: the church is an ugly massive misproportionedly wide yellow building with a plaqued-on façade of neoclassical columns —

Home to Stefano's folks by about 7:15, and at 8 an unescapable dinner of soup with tiny rice-shape pasta and a dab of mashed potatoes with stuffed chicken neck in thin slices, bits of veal, homemade pickled zucchini, pickled artichokes — all good: the vegetables with an unidentifiable herbal flavor, a bit tart — a tangerine: pace James, no pips and Mediterranean tangerines taste far better than American ones.

A very few minutes of pleasant and quiet unconstrained chat but the household likes its TV; Mrs. V. and her husband started to watch one film in the kitchen where we'd just eaten, and she invited Stefano and me to make ourselves comfortable in the livingroom — where I'd never been — at another TV; we did: a couple of good modern armchairs, Stefano settled into a film (not his parents' western but Down and Out in Beverly Hills, a story of homeless people among the wealthy) but I sat behind the TV briefly, then inspected his mother's large attractive crèche on the floor in one corner of the room — a small tree, much less attractive, in another corner — but quickly said good night to everyone, they know I spend hours writing my diary, and upstairs to bed (feeling quite full despite not believing I've eaten much today, even if Stefano says the plate of antipasto was a lot because the charcuterie — eppur, such thin slices — is full of calories) —

It's now a quarter past midnight; up to have a drink of water then to sleep. I've missed a couple of things but may record them tomorrow —


Later Note for the Web:

a This case of the famed Italian gelato (that's just Italian for 'ice cream', despite the absurd mystique found in some American quarters) is almost certainly what led to my case of food poisoning in the next entry; it was probably a touch of salmonella in the eggs. (There are no eggs in American ice cream.)


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Page updated: 17 Nov 03