New Blog Name: The Wandering Austrian

I have decided to try out a new site name for my blog; you may have noticed it: The Wandering Austrian. The URL stays the same, and I might change the title again, but I felt a change was in order. “Austrian in California” was a great fit when I started the blog as I focused on the experience of living in the US and visiting Austria from time to time, but since then I have started to explore other topics especially as I lived for a few months in Italy. Since my blog postings were often no longer about Austria or California or the clash of these two specific cultures, the original name of the blog seemed to limit me. I had ideas for new postings, but they often did not seem to fit the original title and concept of the blog.

The new title hopefully illustrates that postings will be more diverse and focus on more than just two cultures. Thank you to my friend Heather for coming up with the new title and letting me use it.

In keeping with the new name, you may have already noticed a couple of postings about Italy recently, where I will be for the next month.

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Shutters in Bologna, Italy

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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.

Street Art in Bologna, Italy

Bologna, also known as the Red City, is famous for its many rust-colored buildings, small alleyways, and of course porticoes, and even though the town has plenty of old-time charm, it also offers plenty of modern street art in some parts of town. Many of the pieces are large and intricate and much more than a quick tag and dash (although there are plenty of tags around the city as well).

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A small street with the typical architecture and already some graffiti.

Many of the pieces I found in the university quarter of town are large and intricate:

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Many of the pieces are entertaining and do not offer political comments (at least not as far as I could gather):

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The piece is close to four meters tall.

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A large doorway enhanced by art.

However, some pieces do seem to include more obvious messages, which were still lost on me (but I did appreciate the details in the pieces):

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Several pieces spell their message out rather clearly:

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Technology is phallocentric

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While many of the pieces are painted or sprayed onto the walls and doors,  a few of the pieces are also pasted and hung like wallpaper:

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And then there are murals that cover half a building/block:

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If you are in Bologna, look for more than old churches and palazzi. As I explore more parts of the city over the next few days and weeks, I am curious to find out if more large-scale art pieces exist outside of the university quarter.

Interacting with Art

I love art museums, and over the last few months of visiting Italy, Austria, and Germany I have visited plenty of them. But even though I am a fan, I have to admit that visits can quickly become monotone and especially lesser-known or eye-catching pieces are easily skipped, overlooked, or at least not remembered. Another issue with museums is that I love to “look” with my hands, which usually is not an option; indeed, most places  do not even want one to stand too close to the art to see the brushstrokes for example, and of course that is understandable, but the problem still is that it is difficult to become fully engaged – even visually.

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Detail of “Sunflowers” 3rd Version by Vincent van Gogh in Neue Pinakothek Munich, Germany  – no flash or touching but the guard was not happy with me

Sure some visitors are more active in museums and sketch and/or write, but this active appreciation of art usually is not created by the museum and the art; the visitor decides to sketch or write or maybe as student is required to complete an assignment or in need of extra credit. So the motivation for interacting comes from the visitor and is not created by the museum displays.

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Visitor writing about/drawing the art in the Bargello in Florence, Italy

 

Sure, museums catering to children and focusing on science usually include interactive displays, but very few art museums do, so I am always excited when a display invites me to interact and I am no longer a passive observer. A recent example was a display of modern art at the K-hof museum in Gmunden, Austria. One of the sculptures, for example, came with sticky notes and visitors were encouraged to react to the piece and to other comments already left on the wall. These comments changed my perception of the piece as I started to react to the comments stuck beside it. The piece was not famous but it was memorable because of the interaction.

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Christ Sculpture by Ferdinand – One note mentions that the artist does not want a God who suffers with him but a God who laughs with him.

 

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Notes responding to the piece of art: “Laughing about what? About me? [Without interest in my suffering?] No, thanks!” Another note responds: “Laughs WITH me (not about). Therefore I am also allowed to laugh about myself.”

Another example of interaction were the hobbyhorses depicting famous horses in art at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria. There was Marengo, the stallion from the painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Loius David; the horse’s description includes the achievement of galloping 129km in five hours.

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Ride the Hobbyhorse Marengo at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

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Painting by Jacques-Louis David [Public Domain} via Wikimedia Commons

And then there was also the much calmer looking hobbyhorse Pferdinand created by Franz Marc. The description of the horse lists a talent for expressive art.

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Ride the Hobbyhorse Pferdinand at the State Exhibit “Human & Horse” in Lambach, Austria

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“Blue Horse I” by Franz Marc [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These were just two of nearly a dozen famous hobby horses that were ridden by children in the courtyard of the exhibit, and even though no adults were playing when I visited, I could not see a sign that limited the activity only to kids.

More and more places also include replicas of the art that not only can be touched but is meant to be touched. These are geared especially towards visitors with vision impairments, but since my natural instinct is to touch, these replicas keep me entertained as well. I also realized that they help me notice details that I did not see before but now felt, and I could go back and look for them in the piece itself. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan includes one such replica, which is usually overlooked by visitors as it rests on a side wall. Read more about the artist who created this replica and many others in Italy in this article.

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Touchable Replica of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

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Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in Milan, Italy

Art museums could still do much more to encourage more active enjoyment of the pieces, but these examples show that change is coming.

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.

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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