Friday, 26 May 2017

The 9,000 year old town of Matera

I have known about Matera for a long time, but when Andrew Graham-Dixon, Art Historian, and Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli went there for their TV programme 'Italy Unpacked' I decided that it was somewhere that I too would like to visit.  
The settlement goes back to palaeolithic times and occupies a picturesque location on rocks above a deep gorge. 
The town has featured in several biblical films - King David with Richard Gere, Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ, Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story, Timur Bekmambetov's Ben Hur - the architecture and dramatic landscape in the gorge create the perfect backdrop.
Matera declined in influence under the Greeks, and was destroyed by the Franks in 867, but it was rebuilt in the early c11th under the rule of Byzantium. An interesting fact for us was that during the c6th followers of Saint Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea and Cappadocia arrived in Matera fleeing from iconoclastic persecutions. They bought with them Greek religious rites and a community life that revolved around living in underground caves in a very similar manner to their previous existence in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, now Turkey.
The town consists of an attractive upper district and the silent lower Sassi (cave) district where people once occupied dwellings scooped out of the soft rock. Some of 130 rock churches were eventually occupied during the c15th by local people. Even up until the 1960s families of 8 or 10 together with their animals were still living in cave homes without any sanitation.
In his memoire 'Christ stopped at Eboli', Carlo Levi drew attention to the living conditions of the people of Matera, comparing the Sassi (cave) district to Dante's Inferno.
Matera has been continuously inhabited for over 9,000 years exceeded only by Aleppo and Jericho.
Four hundred years ago everyone in Matera, rich and poor, peasants and aristocrats, all lived in caves. 
The rich had grand facades, fashionable porticos, and ornate doorways which led into cavernous rooms hollowed out from the rocks
By the 18th century, the middle classes were moving out to build a new “upper” town of elegant palaces and piazzas. 
The fa├žade of one of Matera's churches, San Francesca, pays understated homage to 'Lecce Baroque'.
The city of Lecce - the Florence of the south, gives its name to what is called 'Barocco leccese'. It is unlike baroque seen anywhere else being exhuberant, fun, covered in putti, flowers, symbols and lots of hiddden messages - a visit to Lecce will be forthcoming
As the day draws to a close, and we drive onwards to our next destination, we take a final look back from the far side of the gorge to Matera's cathedral - a splendid c13th Apulian Romanesque style building dedicated to the Madonna della Bruna and St. Eustace.

Monday, 22 May 2017

South of Naples

They say that 'Northern Italy has euros but Southern Italy has soul'. It was certainly very noticeable that the south of Italy is far cheaper - for instance, who could resist a delicious Italian geleto that costs only 2 for a super double scoop in any of your favourite flavours?
In the south tourists are thinner on the ground, reminding me of a visit to Siena over 40 years ago, and having it almost to ourselves. 

Tourists clutching 'selfie sticks' were noticeably absent, but there were several delightful groups of chattering, happy, school children in the Baroque treasure trove of Lecce, one of Southern Italy's appealing cities.
A flight to Naples marked the start of our southern journey eventually ending up in what is known as 'Italy's heel'

It was hot - the sun shone brightly all day, everyday from dawn to dusk
Fine wines

delicious food was on the menu
freshly made pasta
80% of Italy's pasta is made from the durum wheat grown in this southern region 

We visited and travelled along the coast of the Adriatic Sea
to the 
rocky spectacular Gargano peninsula with it's dramatic geological coastline of caves, grottoes, 

and deserted beaches.

Cities were explored

 and quaint hilltop towns 

An ever present feature were the brilliant colours of both the wild and cultivated flowers
and the Olive groves were laden with blossom
In the next post we discover a link to Cappadocia in  Turkey which we visited over three years ago.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Different Horizons

 Now that early summer has hit the garden we are leaving it to it's own devices, and heading off to a country we know well, but visiting and travelling in pastures new. 
I am pleased that the Cercis siliquastrum - Judas Tree has decided to flower before we leave
and also the Himalayan Piptanthuys nepalensis

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Lyveden New Bield

To appreciate the background to Lyveden New Bield reading the previous post here would help

Rushton Hall, Sir Thomas Tresham's principal home was roughly 12 miles away, as the crow flies, from the manor of Lyveden. However, this too was another part of his very large Northamptonshire country estate. 
It was here that Tresham decided to build another of his enigmatic lodges covered in the symbolic images of his Catholic faith together with an Elizabethan moated pleasure garden.
It was begun in 1595 but still unfinished at his death ten years later in 1605.  
It does resemble a small unfinished Elizabethan manor house, but it was built purely as a garden lodge where Tresham could spend time alone or entertain his guests. Visitors would stay at Tresham's manor house in the valley, wander up through his fruit orchard, then stroll through the garden before arriving at the lodge where they would be wined and dined on arrival. 
Whilst exploring inside the lodge several Red Kites were patrolling the skies above
The design for the lodge was based on a symmetrical Greek cross of exact proportions. The four bay windows each have 5 sides and are 5ft long (5 x 5  = 25) The Feast of the Annunciation being observed on the 25th March, and the Nativity on the 25th December.
Again like Rushton Triangular Lodge Lyveden is dominated by groups of three representing the Holy Trinity. The walls carry shields in sets of three, separated by a trio of windows with diamonds also in threes.
Emblems and inscriptions run all around the frieze, there is Judas's money bag holding 30 pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, dice and Roman helmets to represent the rolling of a dice by soldiers to claim the garment Christ wore on the cross, and the mongram IHS, the first three Greek letters that spell Jesus. 
It was an exciting landscape to explore as we discovered the extent of the 400 year old moats, and the Elizabethan Snail Mounts also known as Spiral Mounts. Elizabethans enjoyed wandering up them to the viewing point where they could embrace the wider landscape set out before them.
As we discovered the second mount I was reminded of Charles Jencks, the 21st century landscape/garden designer, and the grassy, sculptural hills, he sets within his landscapes. I pondered that the Elizabethans appear to have got there more than 400 years before him!
These earthworks at Lyveden originally extended much higher, but remain rare examples of the Elizabethan garden 
They are carefully monitored to ensure that foot traffic does not damage the underlying structures. The grass is allowed to grow on the slopes to encourage visitors to follow and keep to the spiral pathway. The longer grass also provides a perfect habitat for wild flowers and butterflies.
An antique print of Dunham Massey showing an example of a Snail Mount
By the time of Sir Thomas Tresham's death in 1605, he had run up substantial debts. Between 1581 and 1605 he had paid penatlites totalling just under £8,000 (equivalent to almost 2 million pounds today). He gave each of his six daughters sizable dowries of over £12,000, but all of this was overshadowed by the expense of his building projects.
His eldest son, Francis inherited the titles, estates and debts, but immediately became embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot that same year of 1605. Along with two of his cousins he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his actions. He would have been hanged, drawn and quartered with his cousins and other conspirators had he not died unexpectedly on December 22nd 1605. Many thought that he died from poisoning while the official government version of the day was that he died from strangury – an acute inflammation of the urinary tract. Following his death, Frances was treated like a traitor. His land was forfeited and his name was attached to the list of other conspirators who wanted to murder James I. Despite not being tried, his corpse was decapitated, and his head set up over the town gate in Northampton, whilst his body was thrown into a hole at Tower Hill.
image Dunham Massey courtesy National Trust