Monday, 15 October 2012

Santons and Paper Mache dolls

While I had my late summer holiday in Italy my sister and her husband had theirs (complete with their labrador) in the South of France. The destinations for both this holiday and their holiday last September were chosen so that they could retrace the journey our father made in 1945.  He was a radar technician in the New Zealand Air Force who arrived in England in the autumn of 1944 and after spending the bitterly cold winter of 1944/45 here, found himself attached to an RAF unit sent to Europe to dismantle Nazi radar stations.  We have the letters that he sent back to his parents and it is these that have formed the basis of my sister's holidays.

The unit left Norfolk at the end of April 1945 and the family story goes that someone chased the lorry down the drive from the base waving the telegram to announce that I had been born.  There is then a gap in the letters (most annoying) although we do know from later ones that he spent VE day in Mons.  I never knew this when, driving to Luxembourg one year, my husband mis-directed me and I ended up driving right round the main square, cobbles and all!  After spending some weeks in the Taunus mountains near Frankfurt, (scene of last year's holiday) the unit moved to Languedoc.  While he was there my father decided he wanted to buy a present for his baby daughter.  He came home with a doll which he bought in Mende in the upper Lot valley.

For a child it was a strange doll and I never really played with it.  Although it is jointed at the shoulders and groin, it does not really bend.  It is made of paper mache and is obviously very old.  I know it is paper mache because I had a terrible accident and trod on it, causing a deep cut in the right cheek which revealed the paper mache.  You can just see the scar in this photo.

 It has real hair and is fully dressed with petticoat, heavy lace camisole and cotton knickers under the clothes you see here.  There are lovely shoes with straw soles.  I suspect a textile historian could date it roughly from the clothes.  It originally also had a headscarf to match the apron but this disappeared at some point.

My father, whose French was appalling, used to say that the person who sold it to him had said something that he took to be either 'Saint Anne' or 'cent ans'.  He also said that there had been a companion man doll and that the shopkeeper had tried very hard to sell him both.  My father refused, probably because he could not afford it.  For many years that is all we knew about its origins but some time after the horrible accident, I was telling some colleagues and one who had lived in Switzerland, told me that it was almost certainly a 'santon': a figure from a crib scene in a church.  So I decided that was probably the case as by late 1945 people in that part of France would have had nothing left and were probably selling off anything that could move to the occupying forces.  I looked into getting it repaired but gave up in the end.

And that was that until my sister decided to visit the area and said she would look into its origins further.  Interestingly this has shown that it is almost certainly not a santon.  Now we know that there are two museums with collections of these dolls: Marseilles and a very small museum in  Les Baux de Provence.  The museum does not appear to have a website.  This is apparently a very beautiful small Provencal town.   My sister and her husband went to this museum and learnt that santons are generally made from clay and are also smaller than my doll.  I was fascinated by the history of the dolls which seem to have made their way from Spain via Italy to Provence.  The church in Monetfiascone where I have just stayed had a large modern village scene with dolls and I remember that when I went to Rome at Christmas 1970 many of the churches had intricate crib scenes and there were queues of people waiting to visit them.  My sister and her husband bought themselves a modern santon as a souvenir.  They are not cheap!

Last week we decided my doll is just that, a doll, so I did a bit of Googling and came up with a very interesting article.  The article specifically mentions paper mache dolls designed for churches so I now think that is what I have.  My sister tells me that the santon tradition included dolls representing various occupations including an old couple who stand for fidelity, longevity etc.  So I think that probably answers the question.  But if there is anyone out there with more information we would love to hear from you.  Just put a comment on the the blog and I will follow it up.  If you are interested in the history of dolls you will also enjoy the Museum of Dolls in Paris. but do note that at least part of it is closing for redevelopment next January.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Alto Lazio: Gardens 2

After our visit to Vignanello we moved on to Bomarzo where we went for a walk in the Sacro Bosco.  It was rather gloomy when we got there but it did not actually rain.  This was just as well as we finished with a picnic lunch.  The design of the Sacro Bosco is attributed to Pirro Ligori and the sculpures to Simone Moschino.  It was commissioned by Pier Francesco Orsini in memory of his wife, Guilia Farnese.  The garden reminded me of Stowe Landscape gardens in Buckinghamshire as its main feature was a lot of sculptures and a folly or two.  There is no real planning to the garden, just the statues spread around a wooded area on a steep hill so, needless to say, there were a lot of steep steps.  I think the gloom added to the atmosphere.

First up was this enormous statue of Good v Evil  which is situated at the bottom of the valley.  Nearby is this:

and no, it has not been tilted by an earthquake but is deliberately constructed at an angle.

As we climbed up the garden we came on several animal sculptures including Hannibal's elephants

and a lovely dog,

Probably the most famous sculpture is this one of Orcus.  Orcus was an Etruscan god who represents the 'wild man'.  The wild man features in many European festivals and folklore and is closely related to the Green Man that we often see represented in England.

I think a knowledge of mythology (which I don't have) helps when visiting this place.

The next garden was the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, near Viterbo.  This is a classical garden, again built on the side of a steep hill with lovely views overlooking the valley below.

As you can just see from the photo the bottom of the garden has a formal hedged garden.  The most important feature of this garden is a series of fountains and the water that feeds them which runs down the hillside.

This fountain depicts lanterns.  At the bottom there are two fountains with magnificent sculptures.

To the English eye, these gardens seem devoid of colour because there are almost no flowers, just a variety of trees.  On the final day we visited the Villa Farnese but I have no photos of this garden.  I have to admit that while I enjoy these gardens I really prefer architecture so the days we spent in towns with their churches and cathedrals were the highlight of the holiday for me.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Alto Lazio: Gardens 1

This holiday was billed as featuring gardens.  What the brochure didn't say (and there was no reason why it should have) is that all/most Italian formal gardens are built on hillsides and feature lots of terraces and steps. These proved to be a real problem for me - and for a couple of other people.  After falling up a step at one (I cannot do very steep steps any more) I felt it was safer to opt out of some parts of the later gardens. This means my photos are a bit restricted but if you go to the websites of the places you can see much better ones!

One feature of gardens in this part of Italy is citrus fruit.  These lemons were in garden of the Palazzo del Principe del Drago in Bolsena where there were also lovely pomegranates.  Of course all the fruit was on the trees at this time of the year.

The next garden we visited was the Castello Ruspoli at Vignanello.  It has a wonderful formal garden with hedges and examples of every kind of citrus fruit imaginable set in large pots at the corners of the beds.

As you can just make out in this picture there is a fountain at the centre

Beyond the formal garden is a lawned area much more reminiscent of English classical gardens.

This part of the garden runs right along the top of the escarpment.  However, to the right, there is a lower level garden, set out to look like a pack of cards.  You can make out the different suits of cards in this photo.

Here you can see how steep the bank is.  The castle is set high up for defensive reasons.

The roofs of these houses provided me with some of the images in my last post.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Alto Lazio: small details

Whenever I am out taking photos I am always on the look out for the less usual shot: small details, candid crowd shots etc.  This is quite a challenge when you are with a group, both because you generally cannot stop for long enough or move away from the group, and also because the photos tend to have the heads of group members in them!  A lot of my photos this time are like that and I do not think cropping in Photoshop is going to cure the problem.  But I did manage to find a few things that were a bit different and/or could be used as design inspiration.  First there were roofs:

The colour of the tiles was wonderful as were the lines.

Sometimes it is the angles even if TV aerials etc. get in the way.

And here are two shots taken from the roof of our hotel.


Still to come: the gardens we visited.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Alto Lazio: Bolsena

The first full day of our tour we went to Bolsena.  We were staying in a small hill town called Montefiascone which lay on the southern shore of Lake Bolsena although you could not see the lake from the main part of the town.

Bolsena town was on the opposite side of the lake and we went there by private boat.  It was a glorious day which everyone appreciated after our awful English summer.  The boat left from a small town called Capodimonte.  I had assumed this was connected to the china of that name but it appears that the Capodimontes were just a very important family.

Lake Bolsena is a volcanic lake and it reminded me of Lake Taupo where we used to spend our holidays as children.  There is a chain of volcanic lakes in this part of Italy.  We visited the largest, Trasimeno, many years ago and I have always wanted to go back.  This time we also visited another one on the last day en route back to Rome.  Crossing Lake Bolsena we circumnavigated two islands which had various religious associations.  Here is a chapel, one of three, on an outcrop that is very hard to ascend.

The town of Bolsena is very attractive and obviously a popular holiday destination.

There appears to be some uncertainty over whether Bolsena was an Etruscan town but its main claim to fame comes from the miracle that led to the doctrine of transubstaniation and the festival of Corpus Christi.

After spending some time in Bolsena visiting the main church and a palazzo, in the afternoon we travelled the short distance to Civita di Dagnoregio.  I had looked this up on Google images and realised that I would not be able to make the rather precipitous climb.  It is a virtually deserted town built on a volcanic outcrop and to me the path up to it resembled the Great Wall of China (not that I have been there).  So while the rest of the group climbed up I stayed at the bottom of the hill and took photos, then had an ice cream.

The countryside around was very rugged and in this part of Italy the towns all cling to the hill tops, many of which are volcanic outcrops.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Alto Lazio: Orvieto

Autumn is here and it time to get back to blogging. First, my late summer holiday.  In September I had a week in Italy with Art Pursuits  This is the third holiday I have had with them and all of them have been absolutely wonderful, if hard work.  I consider the holidays to be my adult education for the year!

This year I went to Alto Lazio which is the Etruscan area north of Rome. The holiday included Etruscan ruins, medieval cities and Rennaisance gardens.  I had not realised how hilly this part of Italy is and unfortunately my leg problems meant that I had to pass on some of the attractions including the Etruscan tombs which are underground.  I am having increasing problems dealing with steps and did not dare risk falling so on that day I had to stay on the surface and admire the views of the countryside.

I think the best day for me was the day we spent in Orvieto.  This is an amazing town built on a volcanic outcrop and approached by a funicular railway.  Please bear in mind that when you travel in a group, taking photos is a bit difficult and I am very disappointed with mine this time.  If you Google Orvieto and go to Images there are many photos so I am going to illustrate this posting mainly with shots of details. We were very lucky that one member of the group is a semi-professional photographer and he is going to send us all a CD of his photos which will be great.

This is the countryside around Orvieto.  You have to descend into the valley and then take the funicular up to the town.  Unfortunately Orvieto is a real tourist trap, partly because it is on the main railway line between Rome and Florence and partly because of the attractions of its cathedral and churches.  It was the only really touristy place we went to and reminded me of Oxford in that the tour groups all poured in at 10.30 am and then left from lunchtime onwards.

Building of the cathedral began in 1290 on the foundations of an Etruscan temple.  It was designed to house the relics of the miracle of Bolsena which led to the feast of Corpus Christi.  We went to Bolsena earlier in the week and I will do another posting about that.  The cathedral began as a Romanesque building but became Gothic.  The nave is wonderfully sparse in decoration but the really outstanding features are two chapels: The San Brizio Chapel with frescoes by Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli and Signorelli and the Chapel of the Blessed Corporal which also has amazing frescoes and the Reliquary which was made to house the consecrated host and the linen altar cloth stained with blood from the Bosena miracle.  Of course I could not take photos of these chapels but the third great feature of the cathedral is the facade which is covered in amazing bas reliefs depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament.

These remind you of how important visual art was in teaching people their faith in earlier times.  The facade also has wonderful paintings and mosaics and a copy of a sculpture of the Virgin and Child that is now in the museum next door.

After lunch we visited the museum which has a very well displayed collection of items from the cathedral.  The 'secret' bonus was that an art restorer was at work on a painting by Signorelli and we were able to discuss the work with her.  We also visited a couple of other churches but there was not much time for wandering through the streets.

The cathedral square, where some of us had lunch, was very touristy.  My eye was caught by the souvenir shops which had amazing collections of ceramics hanging on the walls.  I resisted buying anything and it was only later, when I read the official guide book I had bought in order to get photos of the cathedral's interiors, that I read that ceramics is one of the main industries of Orvieto.

I would really recommend visiting Orvieto despite the tourists although I am sure it must be much worse in the height of summer than it is in September.