Not Your Typical Lecture Hall or Library in Bologna, Italy

I have spent plenty of my time in lecture halls/rooms on a college campus since I teach, but I teach at an institution that is barely older than I am (and no, I am not that old). So the buildings are nothing exciting – they are clean, they are practical, and they do their job, but they are definitely not memorable or give the impression that one is at a special place of learning. It is of course unfair to compare a college barely out of its infancy to the oldest university in the Western world, Bologna, but it is hard not to.

The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and was home to some very famous students such as Erasmus and Copernicus. The schools and venues of the university were scattered across town, but in the mid-16th century, the Palazzo dell’ Archiginnasio became the first permanent seat of the university until 1803 (when it moved to Via Zamboni, where it is still today).

Today, the Teatro Anatomico is a big tourist attraction, but oh, how exciting it would be to teach in this classroom (even though I do not teach biology, medicine, or dissection). The building was damaged during WWII but was rebuilt with mostly original materials it seems.

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Teatro Anatomico is the lecture hall for human dissections in oldest university in Europe.

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Teatro Anatomico is the lecture hall where the first human dissections in Europe took place.

Another lecture hall in the same building is Sala dello Stabat Mater; it is still used for talks and lectures today, and old decorations clash with modern chairs, screen, and projector.

The palazzo is also home to the city library, Biblioteca Comunale, which is really a working library and does not allow entry to  tourists but only to serious library users.

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Page of the medical book by Lucantonio Giunta from the mid-sixteenth century on how to take care of fractures.

Just across the square Piazza Maggiore is another gorgeous library that is just a “normal” city library used by residents. Biblioteca Salaborsa is a gorgeous, multi-story building in Art Nouveau style; it was once a botanical garden, military training ground, basketball court, and the Stock Exchange.

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Biblioteca Salaborsa inside the former Stock Exchange in Art Nouveau style

It was built on Roman and medieval structures, which can be viewed through the glass floor of the library or walked through on the lower level.

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The glass floor of the Biblioteca Salaborsa shows excavations of medieval and Roman settlements.

I love libraries anyway, but these environments are even more exciting. I wonder if students or library users are/were  inspired by the environment or whether it was just another building to be in to reach one’s goal.

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Impressions of Austria

It has been over a month since I last posted; time flies – especially when I am back in the classroom and papers waiting to be graded are  piling up. I also needed to take a break from posting since my blog postings could have easily turned into a rant about missing Italy  in particular and Europe in general. And since the semester has started again and I have met a new group of students, I am once again the oddity – the Austrian teaching in the US. Of course, this also means that I hear a version of the question “So what is it like – this Austria?” Well, how can one describe a whole country in a couple of minutes?

I try to avoid the well-known impressions of Vienna and Salzburg and of course Sound of Music (which very few Austrians know about; I learned about Sound of Music from a Scot on my semester abroad in Scotland, and this knowledge has come in handy when talking with Americans about Austria – but that is a story for another time). Well, so what is Austria?

Austria is centuries-old castles and grand palaces.

Schloss Parz

Courtyard of the Castle in Parz

Lambach Abbey

Interior of Lambach Abbey

 

Austria means rugged mountains hugging crystal-clear lakes.

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Traunsee in Upper Austria

 

And since Austria is small, these sights are compressed to have castle, and mountains, and lake all in one view.

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Lake Traunsee and the Castle Ort on an Island in the Lake

 

Austria is orderly.

Hearts in Gmunden

Padlocks on a Specially Designed Strcuture on the Banks of Lake Traunsee

 

And most of all, Austria is colorful; it is rich greens.

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Schloegener Schlinge of the Danube – The Danube Loop by Schloegen

 

It is ultramarine and chartreuse in lively contrasts.

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Austrian Countryside

 

And when the skies are grey, the buildings stand out in vibrant orange, burnt sienna, and playful pinks.

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Orange-Yellow Facade of Melk Abbey

Austrian House

Rust-Colored Townhouse in Obernberg am Inn

Staircase Melk

Pink Staircase Inside of Melk Abbey

So most of all, Austria for me is color; that is the five-second answer to what Austria is like.

Celebrating Beer in Bavaria

When states or counties put on exhibitions or fairs showcasing themselves, they usually focus on important historical events, natural sights, or maybe important figures. But Bavaria’s current state exhibition is about beer – of course. After all, beer was named Bavaria’s fifth element already in 1752 by Bavarian Chancellor Kreittmayr. Since beer brewing is historically closely connected with monasteries in Central Europe, it also makes sense that this exhibition is hosted in the Abbey in Aldersbach in southeast Bavaria.

The exhibition offers much – plenty of historical background on the production and cultural impact of beer, beer facts, interactive displays, curiosities connected to beer, a large beer tent with special exhibition beers and live bands, a tour through a modern brewery, and the art of the historical abbey buildings. We spent a whole afternoon at the exhibit and would have stayed longer had it not closed at six (the beer tent often stays open longer, but was closed early on the day we visited to prepare for a special event).

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Typical Interior of a Bavarian Pub (Photo from Pixbay – artist Stux)

Like many others, I have always connected Bavaria with beer, but many historical details highlighted by the exhibit were new to me while others were “oldies but goodies.” Of course, displays mention the Reinheitsgebot (“purity order”) from 1516 that limits ingredients used in beer brewing to water, barley, and hops, but I did not know that until the 16th century wine was more popular in Bavaria than beer. Beer started to become a more popular choice because less wine was produced following cold summers and the destruction of vineyards during wars. In 1784, Bavaria wall already called the “beer country” in travel notes.

Wall of Beer Steins

Wall of Beer Steins

 

Currently, about a half of all German breweries are located in Bavaria, where in 1900 the average annual consumption of beer per person was 250 liters or 66 US gallons. This number has decreased to about 145 liters (38 gallons) per person per year in Bavaria, which is still higher than anywhere else in Germany. In comparison, the average number for 2012 in the US was 27.6 gallon according to USA Today. Bavaria used to be the land of the breweries with 4,777 different breweries in 1905. This number sank to 1,566 breweries in 1960 and 616 breweries in 2014.

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Number of Breweries in Bavaria over the Years

 

The exhibition includes a display of typical pub games as well as other artifacts connected with the Wirtshaus (pub), such as a beer mat from 1900. According to the displays, beer mats used to be made out of hair felt and are thus still called beer felts, “Bierfilzl;” paper beer mats were introduced in 1890.

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Beer Mat/Coaster Made out of Hair Felt from 1900

 

Memorable curiosities connected with beer are a display of motorized beer crates that are raced on race ways, a game of wearing “beer goggles” that create the visual impact of being over the driving limit, and a competition of carrying 27 beer-filled liter steins, which add up to 63 kilos (nearly 139 pounds) and were once carried by one waiter at the Munich Oktoberfest. Even Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria, is depicted carrying only 12 beer steins on posters and beer mats throughout the exhibition, so I decided it was not worth my wait at the display to even try carrying that many beer steins.

Motorized Beer Crate

Motorized Beer Crate

 

Carry Beersteims

How many full beer steins can you carry?

 

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Beer in the Fest Tent – The glass depicts Bavaria, the female personification of the state of Bavaria

The large beer tent with live music, Bavarian culinary specialties, and specially brewed exhibition beers as well as two additional on-site pubs encouraged us to make a day out of the exhibition and we enjoyed lunch but the tent was closed later on to prepare for a special evening event.

 

A nice break from all the information about and tastings of beer is a stroll through the monastery grounds (founded in 1136) and a visit to its pink Baroque church Maria Himmelfahrt with its bejeweled skeletons of saints, which are pretty common in the Alpine region and completely fascinated me (more about the bejeweled saints in this posting). I was in awe by the amount of precious stones, pearls, and gold covering the bones and amused by some of the body positions that are much more creative than just lying on the back and looking up the ceiling.

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Room Inside the Monastery as Part of the Exhibit

 

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Reclining Bejeweled Saint in the Church Maria Himmelfahrt

 

If you are in the south-eastern part of Bavaria and are somewhat interested in beer, I highly recommend this exhibition that is open daily from 9AM till 6PM until 30 October 2016. Check the exhibition’s website for entrance fees, special events, and directions: http://www.landesausstellung-bier.de/

 

PS: All data is from the displays in the exhibition or from the official website.

Sacred Mountain in Italy

I have not posted for a while and the main reason is that I left Europe at the end of May and returned to the US. Even though it was great to see family, friends, and my dogs again upon my arrival in the US, I left (especially Italy) with a heavy heart; I was not excited about coming back. If my husband and dogs would have been able to come and stay with me in Italy, I doubt I would have left. Since my return to California, I have been a little in a funk, and although I have plenty of photos and blog ideas about Italy as well as Austria and Germany, I have put off looking through photos and starting to write. Maybe the “wound” of leaving was just too fresh to be touched in any way.

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View over Lake Como in Northern Italy from the Sacred Mountain of Ossuccio

Now three weeks later, it is a little easier to look back at photos from the last few months without criticizing California for not being Italy. Finding fault in California for being California is obviously not a very rational feeling but strong nevertheless. I miss that I could just walk anywhere without a plan or a guidebook, and more likely than not I would stumble upon something amazingly beautiful and of (high) importance in history and/or art. This is extremely unlikely to happen in California, especially in the suburbs, and I now need to make an effort to go/drive and find a sight (other than nature!).

An example to illustrate this is that several weeks I lived near and walked past what appeared to simply be a normal building in Florence, yet large groups of tourists were always blocking the alleyway by the house as I tried to pass through. I finally stopped to read the plaque one day and realized it was the site where Michelangelo lived (15 Via dei Bentaccordi in case you are wondering).

Another example is the trip to the small village of Ossuccio on the shores of Lake Como. We had arrived too early to meet with the landlady to move into our apartment for the week and had time to kill. We did not yet have a guidebook or any specific plans on what to see in the area, so we just started to walk up into the mountains surrounding the lakeshore to get a better view of the lake and ended up visiting one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Sacro Monte di Ossuccio (Sacred Mountain of Ossuccio). It is one of nine sacred mountains in Piedmont and Lombardy, and the UNESCO website highlights the impressive union of architecture, sacred art, and natural landscape of these complexes.

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View of Sacro Monte di Ossuccio with the 14 Chapels Leading to the Sanctuary

Unaware that these sacred mountains even existed, we walked up the steep hillside to reach the small church we could see from the center of the village. But the path itself became part of the sight as it wound past 14 chapels constructed between 1635 and 1710 depicting scenes from the Bible with the help of 230 statues of stucco and terracotta and frescos in Baroque style.

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Path Leading Up the Mountain and Past the Chapels

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Chapel 14: Assumption of Mary into Heaven

The nearly life-size statues by artist Agostino Silva were slightly creepy but also fascinating with their life-like body language and covered in what seemed a couple of centuries worth of dust.

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Another Interior of a Chapel

The steep path of about a kilometer forced me to take plenty of breaks to appreciate the view of the lake and Comacina Island below until we reached the church/sanctuary Santuario Madonna del Soccorso from 1532.

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View over Lake Como and Ossuccio

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Sanctuary of the Holy Virgin of Help (Sanctuary Madonna del Soccorso)

And this is what I miss about Italy (or Europe in general) – what was really just meant to be a short stroll to stretch our legs after the car ride and kill some time until we could move into our apartment turned into the discovery of a pretty major sight. This would not happen that easily and that often in California I believe. But maybe I do not give California enough credit and maybe I need to be more adventurous and leave the paths I already know around here and see what I can discover.

View of Lake Como with Comacina Island on the Left

View over Lake Como with Comacina Island on the Left

 

Watch Your Steps: Fascinating Italian Floors and Roads

Traveling through Italy, I have had a hard time paying attention to all the details; there is just too much to take in (and I do not know whether that is just the richness of Italy or whether I have learned to notice more details on my travels over the last few months). As if it was not enough to have fascinating ceilings (see previous post), or small details such as enticing doorways and small decorative details (see another previous post),  or street art that one could overlook (see still another previous post), Italy also has amazing floors and roads. That may sound absurd and you may wonder how a road can be that amazing – especially when considering American roads. However, the roads and floors are fascinating – partially because of their age and significance and partially because of their beauty.  It is difficult to figure out how to pay attention to ceilings above, art at eye level, and floors under your feet often at the same place.

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Interior of Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence

One way is to spend plenty of time and to pause to take in all elements; another way is to acknowledge all but focus on one element. I have to admit for example that I remember the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel but have no clue anymore what the floor looks like (I looked it up online and it is actually a very pretty, mostly black-and-white mosaic floor).

Over the last few months, plenty of floors and roads have stood out to me – some because of their beauty, some because of their historical significance or age, and some even for all reasons.

Some roads are not pretty or very artistic but they make an impact because of their age. Imagine who has already wandered these roadways; think about how many people have walked on these paving stones over the centuries!

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Road in the Roman Forum

 

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A Section of Original Brick in the Colosseum

Some pathways include details that might be overlooked at first glance:

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A “Road Sign” Carved in the Paving Stones in Pompeii Points in the Direction of the Brothel

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Small Pieces of Original Mosaic Floor in Pompeii

Many of the surfaces are beautiful and already well-known:

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The Famous Cave Canem Mosaic Floor in Pompeii

 

Others fascinate with their intricate details:

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Mosaic Floor in the Vatican

 

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Marble Floor in the Cathedral in Milan

 

Many of the surfaces also serve additional functions such as displaying astrological signs on a sort of calendar or support a superstition:

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Astrology Detail in the Marble Floor in the Cathedral in Milan

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Coat of Arms of Turin in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan – Legend has it brings good luck to put your right heel in the hole and turn three times around your axis.

And even ordinary streets become beautiful because of their surroundings:

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A Reflection of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

I know I have overlooked plenty of gorgeous floors and important roads in Italy while I was looking at or taking pictures of other elements, but at least that gives me a reason to visit again. Are there any additional floors and/or roads that you think are memorable and noteworthy?

Enchantment: Impressions of Venice

I was not sure what to expect of Venice; I was not that excited to go and see it. I thought I already knew it well enough even though I had never visited since pictures and descriptions of Venice abound. How could Venice surprise me if I had seen plenty of pictures of it on Instagram and Pinterest, in commercials, and as cheap posters of romantic sunsets over the town?

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Sun Setting over Venice and Campanile di San Marco

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Sunset in Venice

 

But even with this lack of excitement – or maybe because of it – Venice surprised me and turned out to be one of my favorite towns in Italy. I was sure this would not happen – it was too touristy after all, but it did enchant me. If I thought Florence was difficult to describe (see previous post), Venice and its surprising appeal seems even more difficult to put into words.

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A View of a Canal in Venice

 

Venice is too well-known even to those that have never visited and it has inspired plenty of artists. As American writer Henry James in his Italian Hours addresses this issue, “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it.” So how can this city still be surprising and enchanting? Isn’t the unexpected or novelty truly enchanting? Even though we think we know Venice even if we have never visited, Venice is difficult to compare and to completely “get.” German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mentions in Italian Journey that “Venice can only be compared with itself. The large canal, winding like a serpent, yields to no street in the world, and nothing can be put by the side of the space in front of St. Mark’s square – I mean that great mirror of water.” Venice is a “strange island-city, this beaver-like republic” (Goethe).

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Piazza San Marco with the Basilica di San Marco and Campanile

 

This strangeness and the city’s many sides accentuated by the quick change of light and reflection in the water are some of the reasons for Venice’s charm. It is hard to forget this city. As James explains, Venice – “the creature varies like a nervous woman, whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond …. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”

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The Top of Basilica di San Marco in Venice

One of the many charms is of course the water, the many canals and the numerous small steeply-curved bridges across them. Venice without the water would still be interesting but not as unique. The water reflects the light, the colors, and the mood; it prohibits the use of cars and Vespas and thus creates a quietness that does not exist in any other city.

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Small Canal and Bridge in Venice

What can be more stereotypically touristy than a gondola ride? But if in Venice and a tourist, I felt I had to give in and hire a gondola. And once I again I did not expect much; after all, it was just a small boat. And once again Venice and its experiences surprised me. The gondola ride was one of the highlights of the weekend, maybe because it was still early and we stayed mostly in small canals: “The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back…. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water. …On the other side of this small water-way is a great shabby facade of Gothic windows and balconies – balconies on which dirty clothes are hung and under which a cavernous-looking doorway opens from a low flight of slimy water-steps. It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting” (James).

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Gondola Passing through a Small Bridge in Venice

 

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Gondola Ride through a Small Canal in Venice

 

It does not take much to enjoy Venice; just take the time to look and soak in the light and colors because “the mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it, keeps playing with it — thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian ‘effect’” (James).

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Gondolas Maneuvering through a Small Canal in Venice

I remember the light glittering on the water, the waves rocking the boats, the water slapping against hulls and steps, and the smell of the damp walls battling the saltiness of the seawater. But it always comes down to the light as “the light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all. You should see in places the material with which it deals – slimy brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision” (James).

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Light Reflecting off the Water – View from inside the Bridge of Sighs

 

How to Describe Florence: Henry James’ Impressions

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A Small Street in Florence

Italy, especially Florence, has always inspired authors. To prepare myself for my travels to Florence, I browsed the travel notes of several authors and especially enjoyed Henry James’ Italian Hours (available for free on Gutenberg.org). James visited Italy 14 times between 1869 and 1907, and his writing shows deep appreciation for the Italian people, places, and art. Even though the descriptions were interesting and enjoyable to read before I left for Italy, they were more poignant once I actually had seen what James described. I was able to value the beauty of his comparisons and specific details once I was impressed by the same details. I was moved but was not able to describe the impression as effectively as James. Here are some of my favorite views and descriptions (all from the chapters “Florentine Notes”):

“The street is narrow and dusky and filled with misty shadows, and at its opposite end rises the vast bright-coloured side of the Cathedral.”

Via dei Servi

View of the Duomo at the End of Via dei Servi

“…the white walls of Milan must be likened to snow and ice from their base, while those of the Duomo of Florence may be the image of some mighty hillside enameled with blooming flowers.”

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Top of the Cathedral in Milan

 

 

“The place is the great Florentine Valhalla, the final home or memorial harbour of the native illustrious dead, but that consideration of it would take me far.”

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Basilica di Santa Croce

 

 

“…the large, quiet, distributed town-garden, with the vague hum of big grudging boundaries all about it, but with everything worse excluded, being of course the most insolently-pleasant thing in the world…”

Boboli Garden

Giardino di Boboli

 

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Boboli Garden with the Pitti Palace and Florence in the Background

 

“And the Medici were great people! But what remains of it all now is a mere tone in the air, a faint sigh in the breeze, a vague expression in things, a passive—or call it rather, perhaps, to be fair, a shyly, pathetically responsive—accessibility to the yearning guess. … Time has devoured the doers and their doings, but there still hangs about some effect of their passage.”