In Mola di Bari, the last stop on my journey, I asked my host whether a tiny structure tucked into a fork in the road was a church or a tomb of some sort. He told me it’s a calvario, the last stop on the procession around town that takes place on the patron saint’s feast day. Almost every town has one. Inside this one is a crucifix and an altar and a little shrine, all visible behind a locked gate. In the mostly-Protestant Deep South, where I grew up, there’s a shortage of saints and festivals and pilgrimage sites. The closest we’ve got is Graceland, a place that is still high on my List of Things to Do in This Lifetime.
I volunteer for an organization that plans to set up an artist residency in Mola, so this part of the trip included a little bit of scouting and picture taking. The residency is named after Don Pedro, a twentieth-century artist and architect who grew up there and produced a large public garden in the town during the 1970s. I also met with a few people who are interested in the group and who enlivened the trip quite a bit. The city is truly an iconic small town. The piazza is completely desolate during siesta (which lasts from about noon until four thirty) and is overrun with every age and demographic after dark when the carousel, puppet show, concert hall, and cafe scene come to life. You can’t take twelve steps without running into someone you know (this was true for me even after about two days) and that’s good because the main activity is walking around the huge fountain or along the water.
One of my first encounters in Mola was a meeting with the mayor. My new friend and translator took me to city hall to ask around and find out whether I could set up a meeting, and after talking to about five people in various parts of the civic building, we found an assistant who told us to come back at seven that evening. It turns out that the mayor was good friends with Don Pedro and he has quite a few stories about the artist’s vision and goals for refurbishing the garden. He was so enthusiastic about my planned trek to the garden that he offered to take us there the next day. So bright and early we drove there, listening to stories about the artist and his methods. About how Don Pedro had dreamed of a much grander project but had been limited by bureaucracy and budget. About the intricate details of the concrete and tile work and painting involved in such a huge project and which parts the artist had constructed himself and which required sub-contractors. About faded colors and areas that should be water features but now hold weeds. He pointed out that the parts Don Pedro constructed himself had withstood time and the elements more sturdily than parts that were added later with lesser craftsmanship.
It amazed me that a politician would have such an in-depth knowledge of art and such a passionate and sophisticated vocabulary for describing it. In general, the Italians have an impressive ability to talk about art much more adeptly than Americans (or any other group I can think of). For one thing, it’s not unusual for high-schoolers to take art history or art appreciation. I spoke with a high school instructor whose teaches Art History in English there, a brilliant way of incorporating two subjects into one. In Rome I had a cab driver who talked extensively about Bernini, sharing anecdotes about his career and informing me of which fountains I should prioritize on my visit. The term “art historian” doesn’t translate well, though. I had to tell people that I teach history and/or/of art but even that took a couple of tries.
When you live with the art and history on such an intimate and everyday scale, knowledge of it is a much less abstract thing than it is for us in the US. In Mola, the Norman castle is situated across the street from a newly constructed boardwalk which is being orchestrated by a prominent designer from Barcelona. The middle ages are as much a part of some cities as espresso for breakfast. But in many places, including Mola, there’s graffiti on the grounds of the medieval castle and gelato cups stuffed in the sculptures on the baroque fountain. With common knowledge comes less reverence, I suppose. But it is refreshing to see art that lives and exists as part of a town and is not stashed away in a museum, even when serving its original purpose means that it pays the price in wear and tear. Just like Don Pedro’s run-down garden.
Another excursion in the Puglia region was to the grottoes of Castellano, a series of underground caves, millions of years older than my much-adored catacombs but much more commercial, I’m afraid. Our guide was good and told us a little about the geological formations, but much of the tour was spent catering to the much-too-large unintellectual, multilingual group. The tour included stops for mineral formations that looked like a she-wolf, a ballerina’s leg, a snake, and of course, the Virgin Mary. If all these natural formations are supposed to look like something, then all the millions of years’ worth of drips and stalactites destroyed to make the electric lighting and paths and handrails are a rather widespread incident of iconoclasm. Before the people walking behind me in our over-populated cluster began naming which people of various ethnic groups in England who might get too fat to fit through the passageways (besides Americans, of course), they recounted which of their friends had gone into Australian caves despite a fear of such things and had to be escorted out. My sincere wish for Gollum to slip out from behind a rock and snatch one up like a fish did not come true, sadly. But if I walked too far ahead of them, I got entangled in a family that kept touching the delicate rocks and smacking one another. The mother actually slipped and fell as she whacked a son on the shoulder for some naughty moment. Soon after, the dad stopped traffic while he pulled a large bottle out of his purse and poured a drink for his other teenage son. In a cave, 2600 meters under ground. (Have I mentioned the trend of Italian men carrying purses? No, not man bags or satchels. This one was a white canvas shoulder bag with pink and purple paisley shapes outlined with beads and sequins. I remain baffled and amused).
I love that so much of human nature and the psychology of death and memory are represented by catacombs. All of that is entirely irrelevant, however, in the rock and mineral formations of a grotto which was formed in spite of human destruction, in harmony with tectonic movement and the flow of water and the patient layering of nature over thousands of centuries. The psychology in a cave comes from people-watching, studying how tourists react to nature and darkness, seeing the guides try to express enough geological wisdom that people learn something in a way that will hold their interest. It’s an awful lot like art history in that respect. By this point, I was back to my original set of issues that I had tried to leave behind for the summer: How do you teach art history as a useful skill and concept? How do you invoke art appreciation in kids who grew up fifteen minutes from one of the world’s great museums but never set foot inside? How do you make the middle ages relevant to an audience of professionals who think of it as a dead dark age or a setting for video games? Tolkien did it by creating Middle Earth. HBO did it with The Tudors‘ medieval equivalent of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Ruskin did it by immortalizing his beloved Venice in words and pictures. Where’s my niche in this grand and humble tradition?
After our field trip to il giardino the mayor took us for a little snack. I looked up from my Coca-Cola (it was too hot for coffee) and there was an enormous painting of Elvis watching over us. My kitchen in Park Slope also has an image of Elvis, a letterpress reproduction of a concert poster, and seeing him there in Mola was a reminder that I would soon be headed home.
[I’m home now and grateful for the experience. Writing about these travels forced me to find a relevance and humanity in the places, people, and art I encountered, making it a richer experience of adventures. Thank you for reading my words and traveling with me in spirit.]