Saturday, March 31, 2012

Montecatini Alto beautiful to visit, would be a great place to live

Saturday, March 31
Every time we take an evening stroll, the distant lights of Montecatini Alto beckon us to come hither, but until today, we have not responded. Several times we had planned to take a day trip there, but other priorities always intervened. Nothing else is on our schedule today, so we take the 10 a.m. train and ride 20 minutes to Montecatini Centro, where we take a leisurely stroll through town, stopping to buy some gifts for family along the way. Walking to the base of Montecatini Alto should only take 20 minutes, but it takes us nearly an hour because of the interesting shops we encounter.

One of the most interesting features of Montecatini Alto is its historic funicolare, the oldest one in Europe, and it still uses the original two cars, little red cabs that remind me a bit of the cable cars in San Francisco. The trains leave every half hour, one starting from bottom and the other from the top; they pass each other in the middle. The trains consist of a single car divided into three compartments with seats, but the best views come from an outside standing-room-only balcony.

Built in 1898 and originally powered by steam, the funicolare connected the more modern town below with the ancient city above, which the locals referred to as the “castle.” A powerful electric engine replaced the steam boiler in 1921. The funicolare suffered serious damages in 1944 when a military unit in retreat set off explosions, putting it out of service. It reopened in 1949 and became a very popular tourist attraction. It was out of service for additional improvements from 1987 to 1992, but it has been in continuous operation since then.

The city below, Montecatini Terme, became a popular resort town in the late 1800s because of its thermal baths, promoted for both pleasure and health benefits. Although the spas are not as popular today as they once were, the fashionable restaurants, hotels, theaters and nightclubs have remained, and the town continues to draw tourists from all over Italy. We have been in Montecatini Terme during the evening, and the streets are always packed with well-dressed young people.

Colle di Buggiano viewed with a telephoto lens.
A round-trip ride up the funicolore costs us 7 euro each. Once at the top, we walk around the perimeter, enjoying the beauty of the surrounding hillsides and cities. We can see as far as Pistoia to the east and Montecarlo to the west. I particularly enjoy looking at Colle di Buggiano, because in my recent genealogical forays, I discovered that my great great grandfather spent some time there. Colle means hill, and the hill above Buggiano is still devoted to farmland, so we can imagine that one of the farms on the hillside might have been where Pellegrino and his family lived, along with perhaps many generations before him.

We end up in the center of town, a large piazza with at least four restaurants, most of which have outdoor dining. They are a bit pricey for our budget, but we settle on Il Giardino, which has decent prices for its primi piatti, though we are surprised to find the Coke that Lucy ordered cost 3.50 euro. The food is excellent, though, and we take our time to soak in the atmosphere of this quiet little city. It’s hard to believe that this city has been the site of numerous bloody battles as various surrounding powers coveted it for its strategic viewpoint. It once had 25 towers, but all but a few were destroyed in medieval and renaissance warfare.

In Montecatini Terme, walking
toward the funicolare.
 We notice that the entire piazza is labeled as a free wi-fi zone, and I recall reading that many hilltop cities in Italy are bringing in free or low cost wi-fi in an attempt to keep and attract residents. I can imagine us being very happy living up here, reading books in the piazza, sipping drinks (purchased from a grocery store, not the restaurant), writing and enjoying the free wi-fi. With our own Vespa, we could easily zip down the hill for a shopping trip and stop in at one of the cinemas, or hop on a train to spend a few hours satisfying our wanderlust. If I weren’t already in love with Montecarlo, this place would definitely be on my short list of places I’d like to live.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A day of new discoveries in Spadoni family genealogical research

Wednesday, March 28
Around this time last year I discovered the names of ancestors on Nonna’s side of the family back to the 1500s and on Nonno’s side to the 1700s. I thought then that maybe this is all that I can do, since the records don’t seem to go any farther beyond that, but today I ride off to Pescia to see if I can find any information about the brothers and sisters of my great grandfather Pietro Spadoni, mio bisnonno.

Pietro gave birth to my grandfather, Michele, and also to Enrico, who was the grandfather of the Italian relatives with whom we currently keep in touch. We have asked these relatives if great grandfather Pietro had any brothers, but no one knows. We have been told by some Montecarlo locals that a Spadoni was once mayor of Montecarlo, but we don’t think he was part of our line, because otherwise our local Spadoni relatives would be aware of this.

In going through the church archives last year, I did discover four names of people who were likely Pietro’s brothers and sisters, but Pietro and his brothers were all born in Pescia, in the province of Pistoia. Pietro moved his family to San Salvatore, a neighborhood just outside of Montecarlo and in the province of Lucca, in May of 1893. I make the assumption that his brothers and sisters stayed in Pescia, which is about two miles away, because that would explain why none of the relatives here even knew that Pietro had brothers and sisters. Two miles is not far now, but without cars and on crude roads, it would take at least a half hour to walk, so one didn’t just pop on over to Great Uncle Francesco’s house.

Today my mission is to see if I can find out more about these siblings. Did they survive to adulthood? Did they marry and have children, and are any of their descendants living around here? I have already been to the church archives and the town hall in Pescia. Today I go to the state archives, where I am told that official state records of family units are kept, beginning from the year 1866 up to the present (although records less than 75 years old are not open to the public). If Pietro’s father, Pellegrino, died prior to 1866, I might have trouble finding the files, but fortunately, he survived until 1868, long enough that the state should have recorded information about him and his family.

I walk into the state archives in Pescia and manage to make my request clear, and soon a clerk brings me a massive book, opening it to the two pages that make reference to my ancestors. One is for Pellegrino and his family, and another is for Pietro after he married and moved out. What a treasure trove of information these pages are!

The two oldest sisters, Abigaille and Carolina, are not found, so either they didn’t survive childhood or they have moved out. The latter is a distinct possibility, as they were born in 1828 and 1830, so they would have been 38 and 36 by 1866 and could hardly be expected to still be living at home. Without knowing who they married, my hope of finding out more about them is slim. But on the other siblings, I have much better luck. Eldest brother Francesco married, and his wife moved into the Spadoni family home, so I have her name and the name of their children. The same is true for younger brother Angelo, plus I find a little sister, Gioconda, that I previously didn’t know existed.

Francesco married Carlotta Lucchesi and had four children, Attilio, Eugenio, Maria and Pellegrino, although Maria died before she reached two months. And now I see something that really excites me! Francesco moved his family to the comune of Montecarlo in 1880, when Attilio would have been 19, Eugenio 13 and Pellegrino only 9. I remember probing my cousin Enrico about additional relatives, and he did bring up the name Attilio once, although he couldn’t remember if this was a relative on his mom’s side or his dad’s side. This gives me three male relatives who moved to Montecarlo and may have descendants living around here, including one who might have been the mayor. I will have to go to the Montecarlo archives another day and do more digging.

Now how about brother Angelo? He married Elvira Silvestri and they had, I think, six children, although two died when very young. But it looks like four could have made it to adulthood: Pietro, Emilio, Arturo and Attilia. And Angelo himself is listed as moving to Montecarlo in 1900. His male children would have been 29 and older by that time, so they may not have moved with him. Still, it’s very possible that some of them did, given the nature of Italian families at that time. Youngest child Attilia was only 22 and also may still have been in the house. This will be another topic to explore in the Montecarlo archives. It also raises the possibilities of more possible ancestors for that Spadoni mayor.

I find one more nugget before I leave. Pietro’s little sister Gioconda married a man from Pescia named Cesare Celli. They had four children, and one of them, Luigi, took a wife from Montecarlo.

I need to give some history before I explain why this may be significant. Other than the Seghieris I know here, there are only three other people I have met whose last names I know. I know Luigi Bianchi and his family because they own the butcher shop and grocery store. I know Marco del Ministro because he tutored me in Italian last year. About a month ago, when Lucy’s bike tire went flat, everybody told me to find Leino (pronounced Layino, with the accent on the first syllable), a retired motorcycle and bicycle mechanic who still does some work on the side. With some effort, I managed to track him down and get the bike fixed, so now we at least recognize each other when we pass in San Salvatore. While trying to find Leino, I discovered that this was his nickname. His real name is Silvano Celli.

Now I think it is likely that Leino’s grandfather may be Luigi Celli, one of the four children of Cesare Celli and Gioconda Spadoni. That would mean that Leino and I have the same trisavolo, or great great grandfather, making us third cousins—another research project for a future day.

I ride home well satisfied with my day’s discoveries, and after previously thinking I was nearly out of possible leads, once again I am filled with anticipation of what I may discover in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Good feelings at a birthday party

Tuesday, March 27
Today is a historic first--we are invited to an Italian birthday party. Never mind that it is a child’s party and we are the only adults. It still makes us feel a little more like we belong here.

The party is for the 12-year-old daughter of Davide Seghieri and Elena Benvenuti, residents of Casa Seghieri.  It is Elena’s idea to invite us. She is a guida turistica, a tour guide, and the only person we know in the neighborhood who speaks English. She is molto simpatica and makes us feel quite comfortable by introducing us to the nine girls at the party, who all say hello, in English. Then she involves us in the party when she can by having us draw names out of a cup to select which girls go first in one of the games, and she also has us ask simple trivia questions to the girls as part of the games.

Girls reach out to capture the Aerobe.
This is not a typical festa di compleanno. Many parents fork out big bucks to take their child’s entire class out to pizza or a movie, and the parents just sit off to the side while the kids eat, talk and make a general mess because they don’t really have anything else to do. Elena has planned games that involve the girls planning dance routines and acting out barzellette, or jokes. They also swing blindfolded at some piñatas, which in this case are really just paper bags.

We bring an Aerobe as a gift, and it turns out to be a great way to fill the gaps in action between the games.
Elena, Paul, paper bag pinatas.
While we are observing and helping, neighbors Dante and Antonella wander over and talk to us, which makes us feel a little more a part of the neighborhood. We take lots of photos to give to Elena, have some delicious torta, made by Davide’s mom and then we are off. It is a small thing, really, but it is the highlight of our day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Villa Bellavista an unexpected pleasure during a bike ride

Monday, March 26
View from the back of Villa Bellavista.
It is generally wise to research before exploring a tourist site in order to know what one is seeing, and I usually do. But still it is hard to match the serendipitous thrill of stumbling across something exciting that you knew nothing about and is not mentioned as a local tourist attraction. During a bike ride to Borgo a Buggiano today, I notice in the distance a massive baroque-style building on a knoll, and I as I pull into a parking lot to take a photo from afar, a workman comes out of a nearby building. “What is that huge building?” I ask.

He says it once belonged to the Kaiser of Germany, who used it as a vacation home. All the farms in the surrounding hills used to be forested, and the Kaiser used them as his hunting grounds, the workman says. He also tells me what street to take to get a closer look, and soon I am pedaling up to what I later realize is the rear entrance. It is surrounded by brick walls and iron gates, and as I circle around, I find both the front and rear gates are closed. No sign mentions whether this is open to the public, gives hours of opening or even provides the name of the estate, though I later learn that this is Villa Bellavista. I do find an aged sign that reads: “For Assistance of the Sons of the National Fire Department.”

As I continue around the villa, I find that the side gate is wide open and a few cars are parked by some smaller buildings inside. Now I park my bike and circle the grounds again, only this time right next to the building. It is surrounded by balconies and has four large towers, one at each corner. The front entrance has a porch with three arches and a large basin and fountain spraying water from the center. Imposing statues and trees line the entrance road. To the right is an elegant chapel. To the left is another huge building with a plain exterior. Servants’ quarters, perhaps? But no one could have that many servants. It looks more like a hotel or a factory.
View from front of Villa Bellavista, near Borgo a Buggiano.

Amphibious fire fighting vehicle.
A helicopter and two vintage vehicles provide more evidence that the building is owned by the fire department. All are emblazoned with “Vigili del Fuoco,” and though they look well maintained, they don’t appear to be currently active, so perhaps this is being developed as a historical museum. I realize that I am probably not supposed to be walking around the grounds, but it is late afternoon and no one is outside, so I take my time snapping photos.

As I ride slowly off the grounds, I see families working in the nearby farm fields, and I am struck with the thought that children have the privilege of growing up in the shadow of this historical villa, though they likely take it for granted, just as I took for granted many of the blessings of my childhood.

Back home, I look up the villa on the Internet and find very little information. Marques Francisco Feroni purchased a farmhouse with 45 farms from Grand Duke Cosimo III dé Medici in 1673 and built a flour factory, so that would explain the large and plain building. The villa was begun in the 1690s and completed in 1699, by which time the owner had been succeeded by his son Fabio, who then commissioned the building of the chapel. At one time, some considered it the second most beautiful villa in Italy, according to the Italian Wikipedia. For financial reasons, the family had to sell the surrounding farms and finally the estate itself, in 1829.

No online history is provided from 1829 to 1939, but the story about the Kaiser sounds plausible. It came under government ownership in 1939. It has been used as a rest home for retired fire fighters, and then a hospital for German soldiers and later for American soldiers. For a while, it was a sun therapy center and home for orphaned children of fire fighters. It closed completely in 1968 but reopened in 1992 as a museum devoted to the history of local fire brigades. According to the website, it is open only by appointment for group tours.

For me, it is more than enough that I have given myself an unscheduled individual tour of the outside. It is one of the reasons that taking bike rides in Italy can be so pleasant.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Piano, piano. We understand Italian better at church, movie, family visit

UFO sighting: Claudio catches the Aerobe.
Sunday, March 25
Counting the three months we were here last year, we have now spent almost five months in Italy. Our progress in learning Italian moves along slowly, but this weekend we notice some advancement. At one time, I could speak more Italian than I could understand; this is because I had done most of my study in books and had little opportunity to hear rapidly spoken Italian. Now that is reversed. I can understand more than I can speak. We can sense that we have improved. Piano, piano, Italian for slowly, slowly.

Last night we went to the movie John Carter in Montecatini and found that we understood everything that was going on. Not every word or sentence—not by a long shot—but every plot development and the gist of every conversation. Granted, it was primarily an action and adventure movie with a predictable love story, but we still consider this a milestone. Usually there are two or three places in a movie where Lucy and I look at each other and ask, “What just happened? Did you understand that?”

Today we decide to go back to the Valdesian church in Lucca that we attended last year. We are welcomed back by five or six people who remember us from last year, including the pastor, Domenico, and his wife, Iole. It is nice to be back in a familiar church, where everyone joins in singing from the hymnal and follows along in their Bibles during the sermon. Our first time here in February of 2011, I felt I understood about 30 percent of the sermon, and about 36 percent the last Sunday we attended in late April. Today I think I am up to around 45 percent, maybe even a little higher. It helps that we are able to read the Bible text in English, so sometimes I am able to anticipate what the pastor is going to say.

Another good catch by David.
Back in our apartment after church, we receive a delightful surprise visit from my third cousin Claudio and his son David, who ride up on their bikes around 3 p.m. We munch on dolce, both American and Italian, and talk about our families and our plans for the future. For the third time this weekend, we notice that our understanding has improved. Of course, there are still many feelings we can’t express, but we feel relaxed and content, because it is for times like this that we have come here—to be able to reconnect with the Italian side of my family and my past. We give David an Aerobe (kind of like a Frisbee) and the four of us play catch for about 10 minutes before they have to go. It is a great way to cap off a nearly perfect weekend. 
Claudio e Santo David.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A perfect day for pane and pecore

Friday, March 23
Pane delle dolomiti is absolutely the best bread we have ever eaten. It has a fresh, nutty flavor and is dense without being too heavy. We know by its brown color that it’s made with bran, but it takes other grains as well. Some types of pane integrale we have tried have tough, thick crusts, but in this bread, the crust is thin, and the inside is rich, moist and bursting with flavor. Molto saporoso! We used to get bread like this in Padova, but it took a long time in Tuscany to find a bakery that made it here.

We found it last winter in Lucca at Panificio-Pasticceria Chifenti. It is only available twice a week, on Tuesday and Saturday, and we learned that we needed to reserve a day or two in advance because it might be sold out by mid-day. This was no problem last year, when we went to Lucca often for language lessons, but now we go less frequently. We have started to order two loaves, putting one in the freezer, since we don’t always know when we can get our next loaf. We recently noticed some printed information on the bag the bread comes in: Chifenti has a sister store in Altopascio, Panificio Gianotti. Altopascio is the first stop when we take the train from San Salvatore to Lucca, so it shouldn’t be too far to bike there. Now that spring has sprung, the weather here is typically around 70 degrees, so off I go to see if Panificio Gianotti will also have our favorite bread in stock tomorrow.

I time my ride for future reference. It takes exactly 16 minutes. Yes, they will have pane delle dolomiti tomorrow, and they will set aside two loaves for signor Spadoni. On the ride back, I decide to take my time and try a different route. Several times while riding the train, we have seen an old man grazing a flock of pecore, sheep, in the fields near Altopascio. “Someday I’m going to get a photo of that,” I think, whenever I see him.  Hoping that today might be the day, I ride past a field near the train track, but he is not there. I come to a T in the road where I should go right to get home, but what’s that I see on the left branch? Sheep shit (scusatemi, I couldn’t resist the alliteration), fairly fresh, along with clods of dirt that could have been shaken from sheep hooves. So to the left I go, and within 500 meters, I am rewarded with a picturesque moment—about 50 sheep in a field, a bearded shepherd and a sheep dog.

The sheep are much larger and more multicolored that what I see in America, and many have large curly horns. Il pastore is not really as old as he looks from a distance. He is perhaps in his 50s, and it is probably his scruffy white beard and rugged work clothes that make him appear older. He has no objection to my taking some photos. The sheep stay bunched together as they graze on a rich patch of clover. Some eye me suspiciously as I kneel on the grass, but they quickly go back to their munching. Now I see that one has wandered about 50 feet away from the herd, with his head down, intent on his meal.

Che cosa fai?” the shepherd calls out. “Vieni qua.” With those words, his dog, who has been exploring the yard across the street, springs into action, running around the other side of the straying sheep and sending it scuttling back to the herd. I remember my own dog, who is part Australian shepherd, and think how happy he would be to have a flock of sheep to boss around. Woof E. loves to follow our chickens and keep them in a group, and if we try to get them in the coop in the evening, he really responds with enthusiasm.

The shepherd says he lives nearby, and his sheep graze on a variety of neighboring pastures. He lets them graze only a short time on each field so they won’t cut the grass too short or cause damage with their hooves. He uses the milk to make pecorino, an exquisite and popular cheese, but some of the sheep are also used for their meat. I ask him if he sells the cheese and meat, and he says no, it is just for family. However, that’s probably the standard answer he gives to stranieri. He must sell to the locals and perhaps give some away to those whose fields he uses more frequently. He asks me if these sheep are like the ones in America, and I tell him that our sheep are different and so are the conditions in which they are raised, usually on very large farms. His sheep, I tell him, seem very content.

Now it is time for his flock to move to another field. “Vado,” he says to me, and “Venite” to the sheep. With a little help from his cane fedele, they follow him down the road and leave me in the same condition as the sheep, very content.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Exploring mysteries of casa Seghieri

Thursday, March 22
This shows most of the eight units, taken from the west end while
standing on via Mattonaia. The first apartment is the grandmother
house, followed by Moreno, Fabio (three stories), Vincenzo,
Dante, Celestino, Davide and Sergio. Across the street are some
farm buildings owned by Ivo, who lives elsewhere and is the brother
of Fabio and Celestino. The hedge on the right is part of Mario's
yard. We live on the other side of Mario's house.
I still have not solved to my satisfaction the question of where my grandmother and her family lived here in San Salvatore. I believe it was in or next to a long house that Lucy and I call the Seghieri house. It is just two houses away from where we are staying now on via Mattonaia. This house is actually eight separate living units, each one built at a different time and in a slightly different style. Ivo Seghieri tells me that between 54 Seghieri relatives, including himself, once lived there at the same time. In addition, some of the four rough buildings behind it were also used as residences.

So this place was once practically Seghieri City, but that’s not the only reason I suspect it was my grandmother’s home. Last year I learned that it is the former home of Mario Seghieri, who now lives in the house between us and Seghieri City. Mario’s grandfather Natale was the brother of Torello Seghieri, my great grandfather. It would stand to reason that during the difficult economic times of the late 1800s, when extended families all lived together, that this would have been where Torello and his wife Ines raised their children, alongside those of brother Natale. In fact, Torello was the oldest of six children (three boys, three girls), and according to custom at the time, he would have been in line to inherit the home of his parents.

My grandmother and her brothers Ruggero and Seghiero left Italy in 1909, leaving Torello, Ines and youngest sister Rosina behind. Ines died in 1910 and Torello in 1915, leaving only Rosina. Four years later, she joined her siblings in Gig Harbor. Mario, the oldest living Seghieri we know, was born in this house five years later, in 1924, so there is no one around who remembers any of my ancestors.

I have heard that one can hire an expert to trace property ownership, but for me, family history is a hobby, and I feel like paying someone to do it for me would take away some of the thrill. Perhaps one day I will be proficient enough in the language and record-keeping systems to trace the property ownership records myself.

The unoccupied houses, taken from the street side.
Meanwhile, today I decide that I want to find out more about who lives in the house now. I know that the two units on the west end are unoccupied. We call the end unit the grandmother house, because until a few years ago, the grandmother of Lucas Frediani lived there. She moved out around 2008 because it was too difficult for her to live on her own and go up and down the stairsDuring the two years she lived next door, the house was maintained in nearly the same condition as if she was still there. Lucas gave us a tour in 2010 because his mother and her sister, who were Seghieris, were thinking of renting it out to vacationers. We were very interested in this and asked Lucas to e-mail us with details on the arrangements, but then he wrote us that they had reconsidered and were no longer planning to rent.
Unoccupied houses from the courtyard side.

That same year, Lucas also showed us the empty unit next door that was and still is for sale. It is owned by Moreno Seghieri, whom we think is the uncle of Lucas. This apartment has been unoccupied for 40 or 50 years, except by pigeons who can squeeze in through some holes under the eaves. The roof leaks, the second story floor sags and it doesn’t have an indoor bathroom. It would have to be completely gutted and renovated to be livable.

Fabio owns the three-story house. The brickwork was
done by Vincenzo, who owns the next house. The
third and fourth are owned by Dante and Celestino.
We have also been in the two apartments at the other end. They have been thoroughly modernized inside and outside and have a beautiful yard. The one on the end is owned by Sergio Seghieri and his wife Silvana, whom I estimate to be in their late 60s or early 70s . Next door is their only child, Davide, and his wife Elena and daughter Flavia. Davide is an electrician and Sergio is a retired electrician. Elena, who speaks English well, is a tour guide working primarily out of Lucca.

It is the four apartments in between that have kept us wondering each time we have passed by. We have met Dante Seghieri, who is 86 and hard for us to understand. We know he lives there, but we were not sure which unit.

The middle four houses from the street side.
We are lucky today, because just as we walk over to see what we can find out, Ivo rides up on his bike to check on his animals and work in his garden. Ivo used to live in the big house, but now he just comes to tend his farm, which is directly across the street. He is more than happy to give us the details. Working from the east to west (left to right in the photo to the right), there is Sergio and Davide, as we already knew. Then comes Celestino, one of Ivo’s brothers whom we have not met, and Celestino’s wife Antonella, whom we have met. Next over is Dante, who is a first cousin once-removed to Sergio.

The next apartment is the only one not owned by a Seghieri. It used to belong to Mario, and then his son Fausto lived there, but they sold it to a Sicilian, who is a brick layer. Ivo only knows his first name, Vincenzo. Finally, there is Fabio, Ivo’s other brother, followed by the two unoccupied units.

The buildings in the back yard are in various stages of disrepair and are used only for equipment storage now. We still have many questions about the history of this place, such as which units were built first, who lived in each one before the current owners, who lived in the ones in the back, and so on. I think that Mario could give me some of these answers, and probably Dante as well, but I really should have a translator so I dont miss out on important details. I will see if I can arrange a meeting with Elena and at least Mario.
The two on the east end are the largest and are
thoroughly modernized.

We still entertain some fantasies of buying one of the two unoccupied apartments and gradually remodeling, but it is probably unrealistic. Our finances are already tied up in real estate in Gig Harbor, with no real prospects of coming up with the cash needed to buy something else. Still, we are admitted romantics—why else would we be here?—and we can’t shake the idea completely out of our heads. It would make an exciting conclusion to our six-month experiment of living in Italy.
This shows some of the buildings in the back, across the courtyard. There are more behind this, but these are the biggest. Some smaller garages are not in the picture, but they would be to the right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A surprising connection with the past found at Sunday mass in San Salvatore

Sunday, March 18
I took a dozen photos, and though this is hard to read,
it is the best I could get without bringing it portable
My second Sunday in the San Salvatore church is much like the first, though more people—about 60—attend, and I find a pleasant surprise after everyone leaves. This time I sit in the very front, and everyone has to pass by me when they leave, but nobody says anything to me. I leave and ride around the town for a 15 minutes. When I pass by again, the church door is still open but nobody is inside.

During the service, I had noticed that names were engraved in various places on the pillars and walls of the church. It seems that the interior of the church was refinished around 1960, because most of the names are dated a few years before or after that date. I assume the names are of people who donated towards the work. I have remembered that some years ago, my cousin Al told me that when he visited here in the 1970s, he talked to a priest who told him that one of the inscriptions is from a Seghieri family who had contributed. Now I am in search of that inscription.

Most of the inscriptions are on dark green marble on the walls that extends from the floor up about four feet. The lower parts of the walls are not well lit, and the inscriptions are a bit hard to find in the dimness, but I do find the Seghieri name near the front, beside an old freestanding confessional. I get down to look at the inscription up close, and what a surprise! The donation, in 1959, was from my dad’s uncle, Seghiero “Jim” Segheiri, along with his wife Leona and Leona’s sister Renata. It reads:
Spouses Seghiero & Leona Seghieri
Sister-in-law Renata Walter

I knew that Uncle Jim and Aunt Leona had made trips to Italy, but I had never talked to them about the trips. In fact, I was only 6 years old in 1959, and even when I was older, I didn’t know Jim and Leona well, though what I would give now to be able to sit down and pepper them with questions! I would especially like to know for sure where the old Seghieri house is, or was, although a half dozen other questions spring to mind in just a few seconds of thought. What became of the house when the last of Jim’s siblings moved to America? How did Nonno meet Nonna Anita Seghieri, Jim’s sister? What Seghieri relatives did Jim meet on his trips to Italy? What can he tell me about his mother and father, my great grandparents?

I head home and dash off e-mails to cousins Gloria and Lita Dawn. Cousin Al is deceased, but I want to know what Gloria remembers about the church in San Salvatore. She writes back that she doesn’t think Al actually saw the inscription up close, and neither do I, because I’m sure he would have said more about it. It is a real pity he didn’t see it up close, because the Renata Walter listed was his mother! Gloria doesn’t think that Renata made a return visit to Italy, but I assume that Jim and Leona came back from a trip, told Renata that they planned to donate to the church remodeling, and Renata contributed as well.

Leona and Renata Donati first came to America in 1909 from San Romano, about 100 miles north of San Salvatore, when they were 8 and 6 years old, respectively. In 1924, Renata married Alfredo Spadoni, the father of Al, so I have ties to the Donati family on both the Spadoni and Seghieri sides. When Alfredo passed away in 1944, Renata remarried Ralph Walter, which explains the way she is listed on the inscription.
Seghiero "Jim" Seghieri is probably
about 15 when this photo was
taken in Italy.

I also hear back from Dawn, Jim’s granddaughter, who writes that she has a lot of photos that Jim took on his trips back to Italy: “He was the family photographer and made us sit through many slide shows after their trips to Italy. At the time, they were terribly boring. With your familiarity and experiences in Italy, you might recognize many of the images photographed.”

Dawn is my age—actually I am two days older—so of course she would have had trouble sitting through the slide shows, but we are both excited about getting together and looking at them now, perhaps during the coming summer or fall. She also sends me copies of an old photo of her nonno and a letter that he received from San Salvatore, written by his mother not long before her death in 1910.

I have come here in part to explore my roots, and it is moments like today that make me feel that the connection, though distant in years, is still strong.

Learning Italian not exactly child’s play for us, but still entertaining

Friday, March 16
“Every time someone says he doesn't believe in fairies, a fairy dies. When someone laughs, a fairy is born.” This is among the lessons we learn at a children’s play in Lucca’s Teatro di Giglio that we attend as part of our self-directed program to learn Italian. Children’s entertainment is much easier for us to understand than adult theater and movies, where all the clever word play leaves us bewildered.
Wendy's dad and Peter Pan disagree, and Wendy is caught in the middle.

I have reserved seats in the balcony, front row, which gives us not only a great view of the play but also of an audience full of bambini, most of whom have come from their schools with their teachers. The play, titled Peter Pan: A story of few centimeters and feathers, is scheduled for 2:45 p.m., but when we arrive a few minutes before the scheduled start, only about 30 children are in the crowd. By 3:10 p.m., the floor level is packed with chattering kids, and now the play begins. The children immediately quiet down, listen respectfully and laugh at the silly antics of the actors.

View from the back of the balcony.
It is not meant to be a traditional story of Peter Pan, though there are similarities. Arturo is a scientist, very serious, devoted to logic, reason and knowledge. His daughter, Wendy, does not want to take on adult responsibilities and says she prefers to remain a child forever. Peter Pan, a fairy, comes along and wants Wendy to come with him to be his mother, which causes Wendy and her father to argue, and the father and Peter to fight over Wendy. In the end, the father agrees to lighten up and believe in fairies, and Wendy agrees to stay with her dad and grow up a little. Peter is back to the land of the fairies, but he will come to visit again if they call for him, or something like that. During the various exchanges, there are huge bubbles, an invisible boat, a pillow fight and other events which cause the stage to become strewn with feathers. As for the few centimeters, I’m not sure where that comes in. That must have been among one of the dialogues that we didn’t understand, because we still can’t keep up with rapid conversations, even in a children’s play.

Tomorrow we will come back to Lucca to watch a movie, where we will undoubtedly understand even less. It seems our progress is glacially slow, but we remain committed because there are so many things we love about being here. Now it’s time for a gelato, the passeggiata and a train ride, three of the pleasures that make our struggle to learn Italian worthwhile.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Inside the marvelous Firenze Duomo

Wednesday, March 14
I don’t want to sound like a philistine, but I have nearly had my fill of fabulous art and majestic churches, so yesterday I sat in a piazza and people-watched while Lucy toured the Medici library here in Firenze. Today, though, we see something that never ceases to interest and amaze me—a towering building constructed of stone, marble and brick that would stagger the imagination of any architect, engineer or carpenter—really anyone who likes to build things. It is the Duomo, formally called the Cattedrale Santa Maria del Fiore, and often referred to as the centerpiece of the city.

Like the pyramids of the Egyptians and the temples of the Greeks, this building amazes because it is so incredible to think it was constructed without modern cranes, excavators, drills, cables or any power equipment. At the time construction began in the 1200s, not even the planners of the time knew how to build the dome for what was then the world’s largest church. It is said they figured that by the time they finished everything else in the cathedral, someone would come along who could figure out how to make the dome. However, it sat uncovered for more than 100 years and became an embarrassment to the city because no one had the engineering expertise to complete a self-supporting structure of that weight and size.

The committee overseeing the cathedral eventually held a contest to see who could solve the riddle of completing the dome. Some favored the labor-intensive idea of filling the cathedral with dirt and building the dome on top of that. The dirt would be mixed with an occasion coin to encourage the public to assist in removing the dirt later. Another rejected idea was to use pumice to make the dome lighter.

Brunelleschi looks up at his
architectural and engineering
Firenze native Filippo Brunelleschi had already lost out in a famous contest with Lorenzo Ghiberti to design the doors of the baptistery, but since then Brunelleschi had gone to Rome to study the buildings of the ancients.  Now he insisted that he could build the dome, but he refused to reveal how he would do it, fearful that the job would be given to someone else once they realized how to do it. Giorgio Vasari records that Brunelleschi became so agitated during several dome committee meetings that he had to be physically removed. He finally came to the committee with an egg and issued a challenge. He bet that he was the only one of all these learned experts who could make an egg stand up on a flat slab of marble without supports. When no one else could do it, Brunelleschi broke the bottom off the egg and it stood upright. Naturally the others protested that anyone could have done that, to which Brunelleschi replied that they would say the same thing if he told them how he planned to construct the dome. He got the job, and today I have a chance to see how he accomplished this amazing feat.

Inside the top of the Duomo, from below.
We pay 8 euro each and wait in a short line for the privilege of climbing the 463 steps to the top. Initially the stone stairs spiral upwards with right angles. They are wide and the passageway spacious; it seems the climb will not be difficult. Then the passageway becomes narrower and the spiraling becomes circular, but it is not long until we come out on a balcony inside the dome, where we can see the frescoes much better than we did when viewing from the bottom. Still, we see that within another hundred steps or so, we will be on a higher balcony, so we pause only briefly. Once on the higher balcony, we take a longer break to admire the artistry of Vasari’s frescoes of the last judgment, which fill the inside of the dome. We try to figure out what the various scenes represent. We can see that the lower level is the underworld, and the figures seem to have been designed to scare the hades out of anyone who sees them, with demons poking, cutting, eating and using flaming torches on the tortured souls. Above that is the earth, and angels are pointing to way to various higher levels. The top figures, the 24 elders of Revelation, are skillfully crafted to look three-dimensional.

Vasari is usually given major credit for this work, although a number of other artists contributed.
Now we move higher and see the real genius of Brunelleschi’s design. He created two shells for the dome, an inner shell made of a lightweight material, and an outer shell of heavier wind-resistant materials, both shells thinning near the top. By creating two domes, Brunelleschi solved the problem of weight during construction because workers could sit atop the inner shell to build the outer shell of the dome. He left a hollow place between the two domes, which reduced the weight, and it also allows visitors like us to climb to the top between the shells.

This part of the journey to the top is the narrowest, and there are a couple of stretches where the people going up must use the same path as the people going down. We sometimes wait for a couple of minutes, crowded against the wall, so the people going down can pass. We were cautioned not to come if we were prone to claustrophobia, and this is one of the spots where that warning comes into play.

As we climb higher, we are able to see some of the oak ribs that Brunelleschi used to support the inner dome. I later read an explanation on the web site “To support the dome, Brunelleschi devised an ingenious ring and rib support from oak timbers. Although this type of support structure is common in modern engineering, his idea and understanding about the forces needed to sustain the dome was revolutionary. The rings hug both shells of the dome, and the supports run through them. Other than a few modifications to remove rotted wood, the supports still hold up the entire dome.”

This shows the herringbone pattern
that allowed workers to place bricks
without danger of them falling
from lack of support while the
mortar dried.
The site also explains how he was able to get the bricks on the dome to stay up and not fall to the ground during the construction: “Once again, Brunelleschi had an ingenious idea that is common practice today, but revolutionary in its time. He created a herringbone pattern with the bricks that redirected the weight of the bricks outwards towards the dome’s supports, instead of downwards to the floor. By observing carefully the curve of the dome as it took shape, Brunelleschi was able to place these bricks in key areas.”

Almost to the top.
The last stretch of our trek is the steepest, as we climb stairs that go straight up the curve of the inner shell. Metal hand rails have been added to make this ascent more secure. Once out on the top deck, we enjoy some fabulous 360-degree views of Firenze and the surrounding hills. On the descent, we stop in a room that displays some of the tools that were devised for the dome construction. I have read that Brunellischi become an engineer as well as an architect in order to solve the many construction challenges that arose. He designed new winches, hoists and cranes to bring the materials up, and he had an eye toward the future when he built in storm drainage systems and iron hooks to support interior scaffolding that would be needed later to clean and restore the frescoes.

The dome has withstood weather, earthquakes and time to stand today much as it did upon completion some 600 years ago. The span is 143.5 feet across, still the world’s largest span for a masonry dome. For his achievements, Brunelleschi was accorded the honor of being the only person ever buried in the cathedral, under his ingenious and revolutionary dome. We are awarded tired legs and sore knees, which we gladly bear for the thrill of having been able to view this marvel up close.
What we saw from the top.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Not only is life beautiful here but death is now hereby forbidden

Thursday, March 15
The crowded cemetery in Carinola.
As much as we like life here in San Salvatore, something I read online makes us discuss moving to a village in Southern Italy which, according to La Stampa, has recently passed an interesting new law. As of March 2, 2012, ordinance 9 prohibits the residents of Falciano del Massico from dying.  Here is the text of the ordinance: “. . . è fatto divieto, per quanto nelle possibilità di ciascuno, ai cittadini residenti o comunque di passaggio di oltrepassare il confine della vita terrena per andare nell'aldilà.” This translates to “. . . it is made forbidden, as much as possible for each person, for residents or whomever to pass beyond the boundaries of life to go to the afterlife.”

Mayor Giulio Cesare Fava explains that the town lacks a cemetery and has been using the one of the comune next door, Carinola. However, the municipalities have been engaging in a big brother-little brother political feud for many years, and as of now, they aren’t speaking to each other. The cemetery has no more room. Fava says Carinola was planning to expand the cemetery, but because of ongoing disagreements, nothing has happened. “It hasn’t started, and we don’t know why,” he says. “They don’t inform us of their acts.”

Fava, who is a cardiologist and thus considered by town residents doubly qualified to enact the new ordinance, wants to see Falciano build its own cemetery to solve the problem, and some Falcianesi have offered their land. But building a proper cemetery will take time and considerable expense, and there will likely be a lawsuit by Carinola, because in the past Falciano had agreed to contribute to the expansion of the Carinola cemetery. In the meantime, Fava says most citizens are pleased with the new law. “The ordinance has brought happiness,” he says. “Some say that the problems were all resolved with a simple administrative act.”

It is well known that Italians love to pass laws to make their lives more orderly, and in principal, the citizens agree with this aspect of Italian culture. However, it is impossible to live within all the laws the government imposes, and this is so in Falciano as well. Fava says two elderly residents have already violated the law, and it looks like these “conscientious objectors” are going to get away with it. The mayor conceded that he is not planning to fine them.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Americans at a lively Italian church

Tuesday, March 13
From our Padova friends Steve and Patti, we are aware of a concert by an American university choir scheduled for tonight, so we lock our bikes at the San Salvatore station and take an 80-minute train trip to Firenze. The group is from Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania, and it is performing at an Italian protestant church, a rarity in Italy.

We arrive promptly at 8 p.m., just as the event starts, and the place is packed, so much so that the foyer behind the meeting room is also full. Ushers immediately recognize us as visitors to the church, though, and we are urged to go inside and stand in the narrow space between the wall and the wooden pews. The evening is about 80 percent concert and 20 percent church service, so the congregation sings a couple of its own songs, and then the Italian pastor speaks for a few minutes and leads the congregation in prayer before introducing the choir.

I estimate there are nearly 400 people here tonight, and I am told that this church is typically bursting at the seams every Sunday. So although protestant churches are uncommon here, this one is doing uncommonly well. I do think that in America, though, the fire inspectors would have something to say about how tightly they pack people in.

This is an Italian Assemblies of God church, which is a denomination separate from American Assemblies of God, although they sometimes work together on projects, as they are with this concert. The worship at this church is lively, which is normal in AG churches everywhere. After the pastor prays, everyone else does too, all at the same time, with enthusiasm and obvious emotion. I can’t help but wonder why churches like this are not more common in Italy, as Italians are noted for being expressive, passionate people who openly display their feelings. It is not unusual to hear Italians singing as they work, and Italian soccer fans are known worldwide for their rabid and insane public behavior.  So why are Italians so serious and sedate in church; why aren’t demonstrative churches like this more popular?

OK, I realize I am asking a question that is too profound to answer simply. I’m sure the reasons are numerous and complex, so I’m not expecting a simple answer. Afterwards I do talk to Randy and Diane, who lead International Christian Fellowship in Firenze, and they explain one major reason: The Catholic Church teaches that all other churches are cults to be avoided under threat of damnation. In fact, I read online that in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a document that says Orthodox churches are defective and that other Christian denominations are not true churches.  He maintains that protestant churches are merely ecclesial communities and do not have the “means of salvation.” Diane explains that her members encounter Catholics who have “been taught to cover their ears and run” when protestants to talk about their beliefs.

Well, I don’t want to provoke an argument about religion, so I’ll return to the story. The choir sings almost entirely in English, but the director introduces each song with an explanation of the content, and his words are translated into Italian. The acoustics are excellent and so is the choir. Audience members seem very attentive and appreciative, with many hand-held video cameras recording much of the entire event. The vice president of the college has accompanied the choir, and he gives a 20-minute sermon, all translated into Italian.

Afterwards several people greet us and introduce themselves, and we are given information about the church. Because the trains back to San Salvatore don’t run this late, we are staying overnight with Randy and Diane, but now they explain that they must go to a dinner with the choir. Would we mind staying too? Well, not if there’s dinner involved, of course, since all we brought with us were sandwiches, fruit and cookies, which we ate mid-afternoon.

The dinner has been prepared by members of the church, and it is a scrumptious four-course Italian feast. We have the opportunity to sit with members of the choir and also members of the church, and we feel useful because we can help translate conversations, and we are also able to give the choir members some tips about Italian life. Randy and Diane live about 45 minutes away, so we are among the first to leave. It is around 11:30 p.m. and nobody else is getting up yet, typical of Italian events, but this staying up past midnight is not commonplace for us old fogey Americans, so we are quite ready to hit the sack.

Note: Almost five years after this experience, we found a wonderful evangelical Italian church in Altopascio, near Lucca. It has great worship music and a small but friendly Italian community. Everything is in Italians and there are only two people in the congregation who speak English, but that's OK with us because we want to improve our language skills.
We have stumbled across our church home in nearby Altopascio.