Book Review: La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

bella.comp.inddThe beautiful language. The Italian language is the subject whose story is beautifully told in Dianne Hales’ book, La Bella Lingua. Subtitled “My love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language,” Hales’ book is very thorough in presenting the history and development of today’s Italian.

Most engaging for me were the stories of her  falling in love with Italian, and the research on the book. Her personal experiences transported me to Italy, and brought me into the room for her conversations with various language teachers and experts, historians, and writers.

I also enjoyed learning more about the origins of the Italian language. She definitely prompted me to consider a closer look at Dante, and introduced me to several significant contributors to today’s Italian. I didn’t expect to find Galileo, but there he was. Verdi, Garibaldi, and many others–the famous and infamous–are included.

Perhaps food-related Italian words are most widely known in America–and a chapter is devoted to eating Italian. Other chapters celebrate art, love, and cinema, the Italian way.

For people with an interest in languages and linguistics, this will be a fun read.  For students of Italian, it’s a must. The book includes an index, chapter by chapter bibliography, and a discussion guide with questions. I recommend it!

Can I also encourage you to visit Dianne Hales’ website? Many great features will draw you back to it–Italian food and travel ideas, a blog with language learning helps, resources for teachers and students of Italian language, and a nice introduction to Dianne herself.

The cover of this book really appealed to me because of a dream I had in 2004. I was in Sorrento, studying Italian for two weeks at SorrentoLingue. About ten days into my two weeks there, I had a dream. I was in a boat, one of the colorful fishing boats found in that area, just me and the boatman. I was fishing with pole and line, but instead of trying to catch fish, I was fishing for words. Ever done that? I would reel one in and look at it, the Italian word I had caught, but it wasn’t the one I wanted, so I threw it back. Over and over, I cast my hook into the water but kept bringing in the wrong word. And there on Dianne Hales’ book cover–aside from the Venetian gondola rather than the fishing boat–I saw my dream depicted. And in addition to the book’s contents, the cover is a delightful reminder of my wonderful experience in Sorrento.

The abbey built by “my” pope!

I spent several years researching Pope Celestine V, and wrote a novel in which he was a significant character. Don’t bother looking at Amazon–it remains unpublished.

Touring the abbey, September 2004

Touring the abbey, September 2004

One of the most exciting days during my research in Italy was visiting the Abbey of the Holy Spirit, which was founded by Pope Celestine in the late 1200s. At the time of our visit, nine years ago, the abbey was in the middle of an extensive renovation, and was closed to the public. However, with the help of an Italian friend, I was given a tour guided by the architect who had worked on the restoration from its beginning.

At that time, we picked our way through construction debris and materials, plastic draping, and electrical cords. The paintings on the walls were just emerging as a blanket of grime was removed.

But most meaningful to me was a visit to the crypt–probably the oldest section of the abbey, because much of the existing construction was done after a devastating earthquake in the early 1700s. Long strings of construction lights left shadowy corners in the crypt, and dust from the restoration work covered the floor. The architect pointed out a fresco picturing the future pope, Peter of Morrone, with a group of monks.

I noticed a large panel of concrete in the floor with an iron ring set into it. When I asked what it was, the architect and my friend placed an iron bar through the ring and lifted the panel to one side. We peered in, but the poor lighting revealed nothing. Then my husband aimed his camera down the hole, and the flash went off.

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The ossuary of the Abbey of the Holy Spirit

The resulting photo is my favorite of our travels, an image that awes me to this day. We were looking into the ossuary, the place where monks’ bones were laid to rest. Amidst the dust, the human bones are visible, bones of men who served God hundreds of years ago. The monastery was closed more than 200 years ago, so the remains we saw were from the 18th century and earlier.

Today, the restoration is done, and the results are beautiful! Here is a video tour, narrated in English, of the Abbey and a couple of other nearby sites.

Have you visited a monastery? Is there a particular one whose history intrigues you? Tell us about it in the comments!

Book Review: The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento by Mary Jane Cryan

cryan bookIn 2011, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy–the Risorgimento–author Mary Jane Cryan  produced a book about the Irish and English who participated in the process.

Yes, this is one of those niche interest books–and perhaps a very small niche. Only 200 copies of the book were produced, and they can be ordered from the author. But the book is ideal for uncovering the fine detail desired by, for example, a historical novelist or writer of narrative history.

Perhaps you, like me, were unaware that any Irish or English participated in the unification effort in Italy. The Irish mostly joined forces behind the Roman Catholic church and the pope, whose control of central Italy was threatened, though a few supported Garibaldi. For the English, who for more than a decade had hosted a number of well-known Italian exiles, Garibaldi was a hero.

Cryan describes the experiences of both groups, as documented in personal and official correspondence, news reports and editorials, and other contemporary sources. In addition to key players, Cryan includes the experiences of a wide variety of people who participated in various ways–soldiers, journalists, wives, fund-raisers. The views of these participants, mostly outsiders but actively involved, add color and interest to the book.

Did I say color? There are great color illustrations too!

Cryan’s sources include material brought to light in recent years, and the book has end-notes, appendices, and bibliography.

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan has lived in Italy since 1965. From “About the Author”, Cryan “has been an international educator, journalist, and guidebook writer. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her contributions to historical research and cultural promotion…” Study of the Risorgimento is not new to her; it was the subject of her own doctoral thesis in 1985.

The book is for sale through Cryan’s website, Elegant Etruria, which includes articles on travel, history, and antiquing. She also offers services in travel consultancy and excursions.

Italian shoes: Legacy of my ancestors

Designer shoes from Taormina.

Designer shoes from Taormina.

I hired Roots in the Boot to research my family roots in Scigliano (Calabria), and learned that I come from a long line of shoemakers!! Every Gualtieri ancestor of my great-grandmother, Josephine, was a shoemaker–back as far as Pasquale Gualtieri, born about 1725.

Could my great-great grandfather's shoe shop have looked like this one, from Wikimedia Commons?

Could my great-great grandfather’s shoe shop have looked like this Sicilian one? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I would love to see a pair of their shoes, and I wonder what their shoemaking shop looked like. As I roam around Scigliano later this summer, I will be looking for shoe shops, and hope my Italian cousins there can tell me more about our shoe-making ancestors.

Several of the women in the family were cotton or silk spinners. I imagine this as “cottage” employment rather than work outside the home, but honestly, I don’t know. The villages that make up Scigliano are fairly small, but I don’t know much in detail about their history. Could there have been a weaving business there, turning their silk into luxurious velvets and brocades?

Could it be that at some point they combined their efforts, and made shoes like these?

Woman's silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woman’s silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Do you know the occupation of your Italian ancestors?

Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.