Sunday, November 08, 2009

Alps. Italian Side, Alps. Gran San Bernardo Pass. Great Saint Bernard Pass.

 The Great Saint Bernard Pass
The Gran San Bernardo Pass
Italian Side, Alps

Continue to Swiss Side at Switzerland Road Ways, San Bernardo Pass

The Gran San Bernardo is an ancient and treacherous pass through the Alps: Switzerland on one side, Italy on the other. Conquerors, emissaries, migrations, tourists - all have climbed or ridden very carefully, and some with great suffering, through and over and even under it. There is now an alternative for modern rush days - take the tunnel, if you must. Don't. Don't do it. Go once over the real thing. Motorcycles do, in swooping lines around blind turns; why not you.

Grand San Bernardo Pass, the approach, Italian Alps

Cliffs and hairpin turns, called switchbacks, repeat, up and up, around, then sudden street lamps mark the summit, a modern alert to vehicles that summit congestion is coming.  For foot travelers, climbers, or those on horseback or donkey, the way to the summit is marked by pyramid piles of rock called cairns. See more panoramic views of the way up at ://

At the summit, Italian side, find Saint Bernard himself, San Bernardo di Mentone, sometimes called San Bernardo di Aosta because he was born near Aosta, Italy, at Mentone, in 1023 or so.  See this translation of his life at ://  Do a search for that, and hit the translation button.

The Saint.  He lived in these mountains for years, for most of each year, set up this comprehensive shelter hostel, equipped to serve travelers for longer periods as needed. Horses, cargo, all accommodated. However, it is disputed whether he did all that or not - see ://; the dates do not gibe for the founding and when he died, and the naming came centuries later.  History is never clear, and beliefs and tradition count for more than later facts, is that so? Sure.

There are a number of buildings at the summit: for coffee, for rescue equipment, bad weather lay-overs, a good stretch.   Before starting up the Pass, put your fleece or sweaters at the top of your stuff for an easy put-on at the top.

 Weather changes fast.  Here is the alpine lake at the summit, looking back at the Italian side with its hostel, the statue of Saint Bernard, and rest stop.  Sun breaking through, but that did not last.

Looking at the lake, there is a cross out there. Does it mark an event, or serve as a symbol for the monastery's activities. It does not stand out, but is there.

Fast weather changes. Still above freezing, but cold, windy.

We had periodic rain and hail on the way up, not serious, then back to sun part-time. See an overview of history and weather and famous people passing this way at :// 

Just around the lake is the passport checkpoint for Switzerland.  The border is not open because Switzerland is not part of the European Union.

This Pass is part of the ancient Via Francigena way of the pilgrims, coming from as far away as Canterbury, England, and other parts of Northern Europe, all the way to the Vatican. In the 900's, towns along the way were sizable.  See ://  You can walk it by yourself.  See

Now:  see the second half of the travel over the Gran San Bernardo, the Swiss side, at Switzerland Road Ways, Gran San Bernardo Pass.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Lucca - Volto Santo, Holy Face, Black Christ; Duomo di San Martino

 Exploring Charlemagne Era Connections - Austria and Italy

Duomo di San Martino, or Cathedral of St. Martin:
Lucca, Italy.

We are looking at roots of the old wooden sculpture of the Black Christ in the Cathedral of St. Martin at Lucca, Italy.   The Volto Santo.  This figure appears on the net in two forms we have found, so far:  a plain and a fancy.

1.1  The Plain Volto Santo.
See full size image

People's photos conflict: here is one, in a plain white robe with border, see ://  Here is a fair use thumbnail.

2.  The fancy Volto Santo.

Then there is the "Volto Santo" or "Holy Face", the photograph of a different figure, or is it the same but clothed differently, as is customary in many places, as liturgical seasons change.

Both are black, see  Here is a fair use of the Volto Santo from that site, do an images search for volto santo lucca to find it.
Lucca, Italy, is inland and northeast from Pisa, not far from the coast, in Tuscany. Florence is to the northeast.

Lucca was off our path for visiting this time, but old Lucca, in its Charlemagne era prominence (700s?), appeared by chance in two of our Austrian stops during our most recent trip. What is the history of the Lombards, of Lombardy.  How did Charlemagne, from Aachen, Germany (no boundaries in those days) figure so prominently.  His is a fascinating biography - see :// For more of Charlemagne, curl up with something like ://

We first found Lucca mentioned during a road trip to Austria:  at Austria Road Ways, Kremsmunster Abbey. Its founding dates from Charlemagne's time, and there is a Chalice from that period, with connections to the Queen of Lucca; who turns out to be one wise, gracious, pious and effective Queen Theodolinda of the Lombards, see ://,9171,872284,00.html; a/k/a Theodelinda, see ://  Sixth Century.

    Then we found a correspondence by name and image of Christ, between little old St. Martin's Church from Charlemagne's time in Linz, Austria, at Austria Road Ways, Linz, St. Martin's Church, Martinskirche.  And the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca. 

    This Linz Martinskirche has a faded fresco inside that seems to resemble the Black Christ from that period, or earlier; that is kept at St. Martin's Cathedral in Lucca, the Duomo di San Martino. Better photo needed of the Linz fresco.

      • So, we look at the figure of a Black Christ, knowing that there are many Black Madonnas, but this is our first exposure to an early Christian Black Christ.
      Why is the history of this figure not better known; it has a long history, even if conflicting. People go there and never even look it up, see :// Guide books do not even translate it.  See://

      Here is a start.  Note that this is history-based, not faith-based. We leave what people believe about something  to them. We are looking for factual context, origins, place in the middle ages and earlier, and after, and any legends or stories about it. Others can derive significance or not.

      • Why are there two figures: one plain, one fancy, at the Duomo di San Martino, Lucca
      Dressing the figure looks like the answer - as occurs at other shrines as different festivals and seasons turn.  Here is the plain Volto Santo again, from another site. See ://  This one is plain.

      • What is the history of The Duomo di San Martino 
       This, as seen now, was built in the 12th-13th Centuries, see ://  See also :// 

      There was already a church in the town in the 6th Century, a time of San Frediano (an Irish bishop), a Roman basilica style. 

      Earlier, there was a more "primitive" church of San Reparata, a 4th Century girl saint, perhaps 11, persecuted, survived first attempt to kill her in fires, survived, then was indeed killed (beheaded) but suddenly a dove appeared and flew up to heaven.  These are wonderful stories, adding to - not detracting from - a fact-based look.  Perhaps with all this detail you will not forget Reparata, as was part of the probable teaching purpose in embellishing and making these stories memorable.

      Saint Reparata figures prominently in other areas of belief and politics at the time, see ://  Do a find for Lucca there, to see the regional view. Lombards, politics, all.

      • Some guidebooks are useless in some areas.  Frommer's, for example,  thinks it is stylish to make fun of old things, that it thinks only strange people would believe in, and passes the Volto Santo by, almost entirely, except to be derisive. 
       Finally, there it is. Scroll down here and find its condescending reference, fair use quote:
      "This thick-featured, bug-eyed, time-blackened wooden statue of Jesus crucified was rumored to have been started by Nicodemus -- who would've known what he was carving since he was the one who actually took Jesus off the Cross -- but was miraculously completed. Hidden during the persecutions and eventually stuck on a tiny boat by itself and set adrift, it found its way to the Italian port of Luni in 782, where the local bishop was told in a dream to place it in a cart drawn by two wild oxen, and wherever they went, there the Holy Image would stay. The ornery beasts, miraculously submitting meekly to the yoke, wandered over to Lucca and hit the brakes, and the miraculous image has been planted here ever since."

      See //

      Perhaps it is a "fraud" in that it is not the original.

      Frommer's suggests it was carved in the 13th Century.  But, if it also was made at that time to replace an 11th Century rendition "that may have been copied from a Syrian statue from the 700's", then its history is consistent with preserving what to the people there is an important relic. This is apparently the only representation of the face made by someone, or derived from a representation by someone, who was there. That is an interesting point. What if he were dark skinned? What would white-faces around the world do.

      Maybe he was bug-eyed.

      At least this next site notes significance: that this is the only early figure we have that shows dark skin color on Christ; and it has the wits to make this comment: as probably he was. See :// And trace the origin to the sculptor, Nicodemus himself, say the legends. He took Christ down from the cross, so he would know. Is that so?  Can myth coexist with science. Here we go.


      Frommer, with all your profits, why not finance a carbon dating and historical research review of the Holy Visage statue here, and wipe the smirk off.  Proposed:  Facts, and respect, courtesy in opinion, but not condescension in guide books.  

      A confirming Frommer fact:  The figure indeed is dressed for festival procession on September 13 and 14, and May 3, of each year.  But get the tone again:  "The Luccans dress their Christ up ...."  Luccans used in this way and in this context sounds like Skywalkerans?

      Ugly americans at Frommer these days? Tour guide opinions and points and side stories can indeed be made to enhance a tour experience, add to the fact-base or legend surrounding a figure, but the tone matters.

      Monday, November 02, 2009

      Aosta - To the Alps. Romans and Castles. Aosta Valley.

      Romans captured Aosta from the Gauls in about 25 BCE, and made Aosta into a legion post on the way to the Italian side of the Alps. There is a great deal of gray stone, streets in grids.

      Signs are terrible. Aosta is a place on the way elsewhere, to the San Bernardino Pass, and yet try to find the ruins easily, with some idea of how much farther to go. We stop at towns like Aosta mainly for a gas-up and snack, and take a quick look around, but if sights are not well marked, take what we get and move on. The weather is looming and time passing,  and the signs, again, are awful. Aosta tourism, you are losing business.

      Then, Charlemagne (fast forward) passed through on the route Pilgrims used from more northern Europe to the Vatican. Read this fine description at :// Peasants, crusaders, royalty, all funneling through.

      Aosta, on the way to the Grand San Bernardino Pass. FN 1

      First, see the castles and vineyards, and terraced other things growing, on the way to Aosta and out the other side.

      Some castles along the way are identifiable by their silhouettes.  This one, Fenis, like Verres, were feudal military outposts, but also offered luxury to the higher-ups.

      The Bard Castle as a site dates from the 11th Century, perhaps parts earlier.  The Savoys occupied it in the 13th Century, and its site has housed a fortress since the first century - Romans set up there. See ://  Austrians also holed up there until Napoleon broke through its defenses, and then the entire castle was dismantled.  What we see now is a reproduction from the 19th Century, the castle then was decommissioned, and is now a museum complex.

      Above the D'Ael Bridge is a small tower castle, the Montmayer, by the Valgrisenche valley. Think broody. This could be Ussel's Castle - both lone towers, but the Ussel is a rectangle, and I do not recall seeing a rectangle.

      The castle at Verres is 14th Century, and was not only defensive. It also offered the good life - opulence, a palace atmosphere.

      Then start the climb and the switchbacks up.  You can choose the tunnel, but then you see a tunnel. There are tunnels now that whisk the motorcars as an alternative under and through, rather than switchback, peril and up and down. We avoided the long tunnels. Short ones are unavoidable - some being just a few thousand feet to a few miles, or mere roofing buttressed up, with open sides.

      FN 1  Passes.

      There are two particular historic passes over the Alps, among many, with names that have become household:

      1) The Grand San Bernardino Pass, here, from Aosta to Martigny, Switzerland; and
      2) Hannibal's route. More lateral, from France.

      The Grand San Bernardo Pass is a more north-south, from Switzerland into Italy or the other way, of course, with the monks at a hostel at the top, and the St. Bernard dogs to rescue the frozen, broken, traveler in the old days. Napoleon went this way.

      The Grand San Bernardino is usually routed as from Aosta, and the Aosta Valley, as the gateway, over the  to the Swiss town of Martigny.

      2) Hannibal's route; a lateral way from the French side of the Alps into Italy.

      We tried to do this. But just try to get to the town of Susa from Turin on a Sunday, and soon quit. Traffic impossible, no easy through route to find. We don't often give up, but did here. Next trip, start from France. There is a dispute as to which route he did take with his elephants, some say not on current roads at all, and vast archeological treasures are to be found in the ravines elsewhere. We quit and aimed back to Aosta.and