Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 27, Pistoia, City of Life
“I travel not to see new things but to see things anew” As I enter the final week of my three month Tuscan Adventure I find to my surprise that I am looking back on the trip as if it already belonged to my past. I ponder as to just what all this was about and why it turned out the way it did, after all I came here, to Italy, to the ‘home of sculpture’ to carve marble… Cararra marble to be precise, and yet here I am, wandering Tuscany like a nomad, following the slightest whim here there and everywhere, enjoying the pure unadulterated joy of slipping the leash and roaming to my heart’s content. So what was it all about? Well, from those first tumultuous days in Pietrasanta, through the subsequent chapters, I have come to the conclusion that it was nothing more or less than a much needed replenishment of the soul – my soul, my bruised and battered soul. For we are all very different people – you and I… the people in the picture above, we all have our wants and needs, our comfort zones, our achievements, our trials and tribulations; we are all searching and striving for something, but what? Speaking personally I reach for the stars, but my big fear is that life will grow stale, that I will grow stale, that I will give up on ‘the dream’. I never ever want that to happen and so for me I simply must hit the refresh button from time to time, recharge my batteries… and simply drift a while. I really have no idea why people travel, what they are looking for, or what motivates them. I see vast hordes of tourists in Florence, in Pisa, in any place that shows up in large letters on the map. I see them in all the places the Lonely Planet guide gushes about, and yet I don’t see them in places like Pistoia. I don’t see them hardly at all outside of the rarefied atmosphere of the hallowed tourist circuit, and so I can’t speak for them, I can only say that when this trip really is history, when I have to strain for the names of people and places, of details and itineraries… it will be the ‘Pistoianesque’ episodes that come flooding back. And so, here is my day in Pistoia, a quite wonderful town that simply brimmed with life.
I had originally planned to visit Pistoia on a Friday but having read about the Saturday market I revised my plans so that I could see this weekly event for myself as I love the life and vitality that surround the traditional street fair, and immediately on arrival I sensed that this was going to be something quite exceptional. For one thing it was huge – and packed. The streets were utterly jammed. And not only that, whereas with most markets there is a certain amount of ambivalence on the customer’s part, these hardy Pistoians seemed positively intent, devoted, to the task at hand. This was no leisurely pastime, this was very much a full body contact sport with mothers, daughters, sisters (for it was an overwhelmingly female crowd), friends and neighbors shopping, grabbing handfuls of clothes (for ‘attire’ was what this was all really about). Honestly, I have never encountered such serious shopping in my life. Later I would discover just what was driving such a frenzied zeal for bargain basement clothing, but at the time I imagined that many of the women shopping with one hand while holding several dresses, tee-shirts, sweaters, you-name-it under their free arm (none of them even tried on, or so much as held up for a guesstimation) were in fact proprietors of the many tiny stores that I would find in even the smallest villages. But whatever the reason, such intense active, nay frenzied purchasing – not ‘shopping’ but actually buying, made my head spin. Closer inspection revealed quite an impressive infrastructure of near identical unmarked white Mercedes vans. I was later to notice these very same vans in Lucca, and no doubt they make their way through a fixed calendar that takes them to every corner of the region on a rotating schedule. But the way these intrepid marketeers went about their business was impressive indeed. Each van had a massive electrically operated canopy that glided in and out and afforded a huge area to shade against both rain and sun. Not only that, but as we are about to see, these canny entrepreneurs could transfer the contents of the van onto the street, and vice versa at lightening speed. However Pistoia was not all about market stalls, far from it. The town boasted several contemporary art galleries including this quite impressive display of photography.
…there seemed something very strange about them. If I didn’t know better I would have guessed that these formed some sort of modern day parody of medieval heraldry, but no, these were in fact the proud crests of some of the most powerful families of their time. Clearly it was time to gather a little perspective on all this. I had noticed a sign at the museum adjacent to the cathedral advertising tours (in fact, as with many Italian museums and institutions a tour is the only way to view them as one is not allowed to simply wander around them willy nilly). As it turned out – to my delight – I was the only person signed on to the 1:30 tour and so my excellent guide; Stephanie, pictured above… a trained archaeologist and local historian fluent in English, treated me to a private tour that lasted well over an hour and revealed a treasure trove of history regarding Pistoia and the surrounding area of Tuscany.
I can’t even begin to surmise all of the information I discovered about the town, about the cathedral and the bishop’s palace – site of the museum, and the myriad of interesting facts and details… you’ll just have to make sure you sign up for the tour yourself when you visit Pistoia, but one look at the facade of the place should tell you that these buildings have had a very, very long and interesting history. Talk about re-use, re-cycle, re-purpose! These bricks, stone and mortar have seen it all. By the time I resurfaced from the tour I re-emerged to a vastly different scent – the humongous market… was gone. Vanished. Those canny marketeers wasted no time in packing their wares into the van and hitting the road, which perhaps explains at least some of the feeding frenzy I witnessed on my arrival – those ladies knew the ropes, they had just so much time to make their purchases before the vans would disappear for another week: marketers out there, take note! So much impressed me about this town, not least the architecture. Just look at the sublime artistry of these doors, exquisite in every detail. Such work leaves me dumbfounded. But perhaps even more amazing is their condition – immaculate and ungraffitied, unvandalized, maintained and perfect!
These buildings were magnificent, and now with the market, the people and the streets cleared of clutter I could admire them in all their glory. It was as though these superb bas relief carvings, although many hundreds of years old, were suspended in time… perfect as the day they were carved. The expertise, the craftsmanship, the sheer skill on display here is quite mind boggling. All the stonework you see here was carved completely by hand. For unlike for instance, even Victorian buildings these monumental edifices to the masonry arts were achieved exclusively with hand tools, as evidenced by the faint chisel marks captured in the picture below. If I may be forgiven for indulging in some carving jargon for a moment these master masons didn’t even use a ‘drag’ finish – of the kind found on the majority of buildings of the late middle ages. In other words they didn’t ‘scrape’ the surface in order to achieve a uniform finish, they ‘boasted’ it with chisels. A quite masterful display! To a stone carver such as myself these ancient Tuscan towns are a veritable treasure trove of masonic artistry, and as I wandered the side streets and back alleys I traveled back in time with each new revelation as I pieced together the evidence of centuries of Banker Mason wizardry. From the lowest back street, to the magnificence of the Cathedral the sense of history was palpable. I found myself particularly drawn to, and intrigued by, this piece of medieval artistry. Remember, as I have mentioned many times previously, artistic expression was very limited for the sculptors of the Medieval Europe, even here in Tuscany, and so when a commission such as this came along it took a brave and exceptional sculptor to push the envelope and inject anything resembling a personal style, or god forbid, a statement, but as we look closer at this little masterpiece we find it comes alive with statement, with artistic licence and even humor!
Apart from anything… just look at what a diverse crowd this represents: we have men, women, young and old, rich and poor, all sitting at desks and, however unrecognizable to modern standards of education it may seem… they appear to be learning to read, most likely from the bible. But each character-study is a little gem in of itself. Add to that the quite brilliant manipulation of perspective required to fit this fascinating scene into such tight confines, I’d have to say that it all adds up to quite a little masterpiece, and well worth the trip to Pistoia alone – at least in my books. As if the day had not been full of rich and rewarding experiences Pistoia was about to toss one more hat into the ring: As I was about to head back to the railway station I began to notice groups of brightly dressed children assembling in considerable numbers along the very streets that just hours before had been bustling with market stalls and throngs of people. Children sporting various colorful paper costumes were busily scribing yellow stars in chalk upon the pavement, and as I slowly walked around the center of town their numbers grew to the point whereby they had it completely surrounded. Sensing their new found power born of sheer numerical advantage the children succumbed to a sort of collective madness whereby they no loner seemed able, capable or even interested in curbing their zeal. Pretty soon all sense of order was abandoned as the children took command of the situation… …and duly started chalking stars here there and everywhere… anywhere they felt so inclined! However, order was eventually restored. Lines were whipped into shape. Everyone waited. But for what? I had no idea. They held hands like this for the longest time. Whole minutes passed. Then… a distant roar signaled that the wait might be over. Rapidly the noise got louder and LOUDER until EVERYONE STARTED YELLING, YODELING, SCREAMING AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS
And then, just like that, it was over Within moments the streets were empty. What was all that about? I haven’t a clue, and I don’t really care.But what a lovely moment it was. Why not? Why not bring all the children into the town center so that they could feel empowered, in the majority, and free to yell and hoot and howl to their heart’s content? You see, this is why I travel. Not for the known, the explained, the famous or the renowned, but for the unfamiliar, the unexpected. To experience scenes such as this – to be the only one who is not in the know, for then I feel truly blessed with the gift of seeing things as they are, free of intellectual notions and preconceived ideas. For a while I am able to view life as a very young child would see it. Why were all these people holding hands and yelling? I don’t know, but for a while I got to yell right along with them and it felt good – very, very good indeed. You ought to try it. But unless you happen to find yourself in a town that collectively decides to yell at the same moment you may just run into trouble. So, that’s why I travel, because once in a while I will discover a time and a place where the world, my world, is turned upside down.
Until next time, thanks for stopping by.