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Extreme dairy farming in Sauris

View of Sauris di Sotto. Photo: Johann Jaritz.

Visitors to the holiday resort of Forni di Sopra in the Carnic Dolomites, close to the source of the Tagliamento river, will be surprised to see that there is not much of a river in town. This is because a large proportion of the water is tapped at source and piped along an 18km tunnel bored in the rock to the northeast, to Sauris/Zahre (Friuli), to help fill an artificial lake which powers a hydroelectric plant completed after WW2. The dam—and more than that the all-weather motor road required for the building process (both engineering feats at the time)—marked the end of the isolation of Sauris, a settlement scattered on a plateau some 1200–1400m above sea level.

 

Before the road was built, access was severely restricted; indeed it was total isolation in the winter months up until the early 1950s, when as soon as it was practicable at the end of winter, an athletic carabiniere would be dispatched on foot all the way to Sauris from Forni di Sopra to check up on the community. Unlike the other Dolomites villages that used to make a living by dairy farming and kept their cows in the valleys in winter, moving them to the high pastures (malghe) in the summer, the people of the alpine plateau (then as now in the low hundreds) overwintered at high altitude and it must have been hard.

 

They lived in isolation for months but they are still here to tell the story. Indeed, as Sauris re-invents itself as a successful year-round holiday resort and purveyor of speciality foods, it is also going back to its roots, which sheds some light on the origins of such a challenging lifestyle.

 

The key is the language. Centuries of isolation have preserved the 'Lingua Saurana', which is now recognised by the Italian state as a separate language. You may not hear much of it spoken these days (apparently it is mainly used within the family) but it has its own museum (in Sauris di Sotto; open in the summer Mon, Thur, Fri 10–12 & 4–6; Sat and Sun 10–12 & 3–6), choir, publications, poetry and liturgical texts and it is taught in the local school, though after the first wave of enthusiasm it is now no longer compulsory, just an option. Eminent philologists have pored over it. A variant of German, it has over the centuries incorporated some of the local Friulano from the neighbouring valleys and a number of German elements from across the mountains; its roots, however, are further away, in southern Bavaria; it is a form of the Mittelhochdeutsch of the 13th century. Documents (unfortunately lost in a fire) testified to a community from 1280. According to local lore, the founding fathers were a couple of stray soldiers/deserters who abandoned the wars that were ravaging Europe and embraced extreme dairy farming. They had with them some relics of St Oswald, which fostered pilgrim traffic and accounts for the dedication of the present church. (Quite what Durham Cathedral, which boasts the complete body of this 7th-century Northumbrian saint, makes of the matter is not known.)

 

Today the Sauris plateau is for the discerning. There is no through traffic, which means the only visitors are people that chose to negotiate the winding road from Ampezzo; but one is richly rewarded. The endless meadows are wonderful, the air is the cleanest ever, the water is like nowhere else. Sauris has re-invented itself out of these unique attributes. Pork is cured here and prosciutto di Sauris is now a recognised delicacy. Beer in the characteristic white bottles requires no pasteurisation; it has a growing number of devotees. Whether the Saurians will be able to revive the local art of weaving (flax, hemp and wool), with the women preparing the thread and the men doing the weaving, remains to be seen. Presently good food is at the forefront and one would be well advised to pay a visit in the summer, especially at weekends in July and August, to sample it at the open-air market.

 

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum.

Season’s Greetings

This Advent we’ve chosen twelve different depictions of the Nativity, which we have discovered in the course of Blue Guides research trips around Italy—plus one final one from our latest title in preparation.

1. The ox and the ass and the baby in the manger from an early Christian sarcophagus (4th century) on display in Palazzo Massimo in Rome.


Related title: Pilgrim’s Rome

2. Mosaic of the Adoration of the Magi (5th/6th century) in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The mosaics date from the reign of the Arian king Theodoric. Note the opulent dress and the Phrygian (eastern) caps of the Magi. The Madonna and Child are represented not in a stable but regally enthroned.


Related title: Blue Guide Emilia-Romagna

3. Sculpted relief of the Adoration of the Magi from the Lombard Altar of Ratchis (8th century) in the Museo Cristiano in Cividale. For a review of the current exhibition on the Lombards, running in Pavia, see here.


Related title: Blue Guide Friuli-Venezia Giulia

4. Mosaic of the Nativity, probably by Constantinopolitan craftsmen (12th century) from the cupola of La Martorana in Palermo. The bathing of the newborn infant is shown below right. Below left is Joseph, asleep and slightly apart from the others, as traditionally depicted in early renditions of this scene. Above him is a parallel scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds.


Related title: Blue Guide Sicily

5. Fresco of the Nativity by an anonymous Lombard artist (14th century) in the Romanesque Basilica of Sant’Abbondio, Como. The washing of the infant is again shown as a separate scene, and once again, Joseph is withdrawn to one side. Note the friendly ass, licking the baby’s face.


Related title: Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Lakes (pub. date to be announced)

6. Nativity scene from the predella of the famous Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano (1423) in the Uffizi. Once again, Joseph is shown asleep, somewhat apart from the group. In a separate, parallel scene, the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in a brilliant glow from out of a sky spangled with lovely stars.


Related title: Blue Guide Florence

7. Fresco of the Nativity by Pinturicchio (late 15th century) in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The red brick and the breeze blocks of the dilapidated stable are particularly well done and Pinturicchio’s love of a detailed background is given full reign here: on the rugged hilltop ledge on the left are the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Below them the Magi are seen coming round the mountain at full tilt. And just behind the Madonna’s head is a delightful scene of a crowd crossing a bridge.


Related title: Blue Guide Rome

8. Detail of an early 17th-century terracotta tableau of the Nativity from the Sacro Monte of Orta San Giulio, Lago d’Orta. The scene seems identical to any other Nativity, but there is a twist: the infant here is not Jesus but St Francis of Assisi (and if you look carefully at the entire tableau, in situ, you will notice that it is not an ox and an ass that shares the stable with the Holy Family, but an ass and a mule). The idea that Christ’s life and the life of St Francis shared more than 40 parallels was dreamt up by a Franciscan Friar of the Counter-Reformation.


Related title: Blue Guide Piedmont

9. Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi by Federico Zuccari (1564) in the Grimani Chapel, San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. The altarpiece is badly damaged (the head of one of the Magi is missing) but the colours are beautiful.


Related title: Blue Guide Venice

10 and 11. Not paintings, frescoes or sculptures, but live installations. The first is from Manarola in the Cinque Terre, where every year from 8th December the hillside above the village is covered with hundreds of illuminated figures, creating a sort of electric crib scene. The second is from Genga in the Marche, where every year from Boxing Day until Epiphany, people form a living crib in the Frasassi Caves.

Related titles: Blue Guide Liguria and Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino

12. The Three Kings by József Koszta (1906–7). Koszta was a member of the plein-air artists’ colony known as the Nagybánya School. This work, which belongs to the Hungarian National Gallery, is a superb example of the colony’s style: the use of light and shade, of texture and colour, and involving the transposition of grand themes to a Hungarian peasant setting.


Related title: Blue Guide Budapest

Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great War


The town of Gorizia stands on the Slovenian border in an expansion of the Isonzo valley, hemmed in by hills. It is a peaceful little town with public gardens and buildings in the Austrian style. After the fall of the independent counts of Gorizia in the 15th century, the city remained an Austrian possession almost continuously from 1509 to 1915 and its atmosphere is entirely Central European, despite the street names recalling heroes of the Risorgimento and Italy’s victories against Austria: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Diaz, Cadorna. In the First World War it was the objective of violent Italian attacks in the Isonzo valley and was eventually captured on 9th August 1916. Lost again in the autumn of 1917, it was finally taken in November 1918. The Treaty of Paris (1947) brought the Yugoslav frontier into the streets of the town, cutting off its eastern suburbs, but in 1952, and again in 1978–9, more reasonable readjustments were made, including a 16km-wide zone in which local inhabitants may move freely.

The attractive, wide Corso Italia, lined with trees and some Art Nouveau villas, leads up into the centre of the town. The Palazzo Comunale was built by Nicolò Pacassi, court architect to Maria Theresa, in 1740; it has a public garden. The cathedral is a restored 14th-century building which contains a high altarpiece by Giuseppe Tominz (born in Gorizia in 1790).

Approached on foot by steps up through the walls and past a garden is the peaceful Borgo Castello, built by the Venetians in 1509. Here you will find the Museo della Grande Guerra, one of the most important museums in Italy dedicated to the First World War. Excellently displayed in ten rooms, it has the reconstruction of a trench, and the material illustrates both the Italian and Austrian fronts in the Carso campaign: what makes the displays all the more poignant is the fact that this part of Europe, which today belongs to Italy, was in 1914–18 fighting bitterly for the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph, of which it formed a part. A poster of the whiskered emperor adorns the wall of a mocked-up conning tower, exhorting his troops to bravery in action. Enamel badges in the display cases proclaim defeat and humiliation to the English, the Serbs and the perfidious Italians. The watercolour which appears at the top of this piece was painted by Paolo Caccia Dominioni, a lieutenant in the Italian army, who saw action at Castagnevizza and whose brother Cino was killed in a later battle.

The above text includes an extract from the Blue Guide e-chapter to Friuli-Venezia Giulia. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

Austro-Hungarian soldier, somewhere on the present-day Italian-Slovenian border.

Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from Aquileia

Augustus, ‘the revered one’, was the honorific title of Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history. He has given his name to the month of August.

Having no legitimate heir of his own, Julius Caesar formally adopted Octavius, and he exploited this position ruthlessly when the Republic collapsed after Caesar’s assassination. His uneasy co-operation with Mark Antony soon turned to open conflict. Mark Antony had taken command of the eastern portion of the empire, and when he allowed himself to become entangled with Cleopatra, Augustus seized his chance to brand them both as enemies of Rome. In 31 bc their navy was routed at the Battle of Actium and both committed suicide.

Back in Rome, with wealth and success to his name, Augustus could easily have become a dictator. However, that was not his way. Despite the ruthlessness of his youth, he now showed himself to be measured and balanced. His favourite god Apollo was, after all, the god of reason. Knowing that the senate was desperate for peace, he disbanded his army and the senate in turn acquiesced in his growing influence. The title Augustus was awarded him in 27 bc and he gradually absorbed other ancient republican titles too, as if the old political system were still intact. Behind this façade he was spending his booty fast. He claimed to have restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome. He completed the Forum of Caesar and then embarked on a massive one of his own, centred on a temple to Mars Ultor: Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder.

Augustus was keenly aware of the power of his own image. Not only was his temple adorned with a great bronze of himself in a four-horse chariot, but other statues, playing on ancient traditions, were distributed throughout the empire. Augustus appears in one of a number of stock guises: as military commander, veiled and pious priest, or youthful hero, as in the example shown here, a bust from the northern Italian town of Aquileia, where Augustus received King Herod in 10 bc and reconciled him with his two sons. One estimate puts the total number of statues of Augustus scattered around the realm at between 30,000 and 50,000.

The empire prospered under Augustus’ steady control: there was no challenge to his growing influence and poets such as Virgil and Horace praised his rule. A less lucky writer was Ovid, exiled to the shores of the Black Sea, allegedly for lampooning Augustus’ programme of moral reforms. In 2 bc the great leader was granted the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Fatherland’, an honour which left him deeply moved. He died in ad 14, and it was observed at his cremation that his body had been seen ascending through the smoke towards heaven. The senate forthwith decreed that he should be ranked as a god. By now the Republic had been irrevocably transformed into an empire, and emperors ruled it for the rest of its history.

This text extracted and adapted from Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome. ©Blue Guides. All rights reserved. For more on the town of Aquileia and its fascinating Roman and early Christian remains, see our e-chapter: Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere

“NOLI ME TANGERE”

The painter Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis (1484–1539) is always known as Il Pordenone, after his birthplace in Friuli, in northeast Italy. According to Vasari, Pordenone taught himself to paint. Certainly his early works are fairly unsophisticated. As he matured, he learned to paint in the Venetian style, with all that that implies in terms of colour and dreamy romanticism. His manner shows a particular closeness to that of Giorgione and Titian. This Noli me Tangere, which hangs in the cathedral museum of Cividale del Friuli, is a good example. It was painted in 1524. Christ appears in a Venetian-pink tunic. Behind Mary Magdalene’s flowing hair we see the angel at the empty tomb. Behind are the alpine peaks that Venetian painters so often included as backdrops in their altarpieces. Christ gestures skywards. We are to imagine him uttering the words put into his mouth by St John: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17).

When Pordenone left northern Italy in the late 1520s, he fell under the spell of Michelangelo, and his style altered forever, becoming much less spatial, much more sculptural, with highly mannered gesture and with an unsettling, barely suppressed violence. His writhing figures seem to invade the viewer’s space and intimidate him/her. There is something almost Gothic in his dwelling on the more tortured and gruesome aspects of martyrdom. All in all, Pordenone is a fascinating hybrid of Gothic and German elements forced through the Michelangelo mangle.

Important examples of his frescoes and paintings can still be seen in his native town, a pleasant provincial capital with a lively atmosphere and lots of places to eat. Some of Pordenone’s modern buildings are by the Brutalist architect Gino Valle (1923–2003), born in nearby Udine, who worked for many years for Zanussi, producing office and factory buildings for them as well as designs for a number of domestic appliances (including their first washing machine). The Zanussi company was founded in Pordenone in 1916 by the son of a local blacksmith. (It was taken over by Electrolux in the 1980s.)

Pordenone, Udine and Cividale are covered in Blue Guides’ e-guide to Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane

Towering nearly 80 metres over the harbour of Trieste, cranked at an angle of about 30 degrees, stands a huge pontoon crane: the URSUS. She has been declared a national monument and has been taken to the collective heart of the people of Trieste as one of the symbols of the city, more potent probably than the halberd of St Sergius which decorates all the lamp posts and civic buildings. The pontoon on which she floats was built in 1914, in Trieste’s San Marco shipyard. The crane itself dates from 1931, from the same shipyard. When it was announced in the spring of this year that funds for her restoration were insufficient, it caused consternation. “After all,” remarked a café proprietor on Riva Nazario Sauro, “this is the Ursus we’re talking about. She’s history. She’s been towed all up and down this coast to work, even as far as Croatia. We can’t just let her sink.” But her pontoon is damaged. Furious bora winds in March 2011, sweeping the coast at over 170 kmph, wrested her from her moorings and she went galumphing out to sea like a rogue elephant, bumping herself in the process. This YouTube video shows her mad stampede, as two tugs attempt to catch her.

But the thousands of euros of public money made available by the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have been deemed insufficient to cover the maintenance and restoration costs that her overhaul will incur. More money (according to the local newspaper Il Piccolo, around 40,000 euro) needs to be found—and quickly, or the existing 150,000 made over by the region will be used for other projects.

Ursus is a magnificent sight, even in her present rusting, hunkered-down state. Let’s remain bullish that the bear can be saved.

Ursus from the top
Ursus from the bottom

A palatial art museum in Trieste


Revoltella remained unmarried but he was not socially reclusive. His dinner parties attended by bejewelled beauties, his French chef’s extravagant concoctions and his gleaming gilded tableware were famous. At a gala banquet which he gave in honour of Franz Joseph’s brother Maximilian, on the eve of the latter’s departure for Mexico to take up his imperial appointment, the centrepiece, which drew gasps of wonder from the assembled guests, consisted of four hounds sculpted from butter attacking a wild boar confected out of sausage. It is difficult to gauge what motivated Revoltella. Was it business? Insecurity? A desire to impress? Ambition for social status, or for acceptance? A genuine regard for art? Did he have good taste? It is hard to say. His palace is a deliberate showpiece, but is neither impressively original nor depressingly vulgar. His chosen philosophers, whom he had sculpted at the top of the main stairs, were Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Leibniz: not thinkers, as such, concerned with the destiny of the soul, but physicists and mathematicians, an Italian, an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German. His collection of paintings contains the kind of thing that one might expect from a man of his time and status: Biedermeier portraits and romantic images of the Orient: there is a good Cairo street scene by Ippolito Caffi. In the study hangs a vivid Egyptian landscape showing the Suez canal slicing its way up from the Red Sea to Port Said.

From the library (which contains a copy of Revoltella’s own travel journal, which he wrote during his trip to Suez in 1861), a false door designed to imitate a bookshelf leads through to a small cabinet, once a bathroom, where some of the early treasures of the collection are housed, among them a model by Canova for his famous heroic nude statue of Napoleon holding a celestial ball intended to carry a Winged Victory. (The completed statue, in Carrara marble, never pleased the little emperor. He felt that the golden Victory figure appeared to be flying ominously away, and the statue was consigned to the vaults of the Louvre until purchased by Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, who displayed it in his London home, Apsley House. It is still there.)

The collection in the adjoining building is rich in Italian art of the 20th century. De Chirico, Morandi, Carrà, Sironi, Burri: all are represented by at least one work. Particularly interesting are the local Trieste painters, whose work is less often seen in international collections. Piero Marussig is the best known; but also interesting are Carlo Sbisà (1889–1964), who found inspiration in the Italian Renaissance, and Bruno Croatto (1875–1948), known for his powerful realism.

The Draughtswoman, by Carlo Sbisà
Portrait in front of the Palatine ruins, by Croatto

The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo

by Charles Freeman

At the end of a recent tour of Friuli in October, I asked members of my group what they had enjoyed most, High on the list were the Tiepolos in the Patriarchal Palace in Udine. Commissioned in the 1720s by the Patriarch of Aquileia, Dionisio Dolfin, member of an aristocratic Venetian family, they were designed to highlight the link between the Patriarch and the patriarchs of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps the two finest works are Rachel hiding the idols from her father, Laban, and The Judgement of Solomon. Their state of preservation is remarkable.

The Judgement of Solomon (1726), fresco in the Patriarchal Palace of Udine. The subject was a popular choice of decoration for public buildings which also served as law courts.

Tiepolo was still young, just thirty, when he began his commission, but already his work is assured. The colours are rich, the soaring perspectives painted with the confidence that was to stay with him throughout his Europe-wide career. He always comes across to me as someone who loved painting for its own sake, not as a means of sorting out some internal angst.

So it was frustrating to arrive at our next destination, the vast Villa Manin, and to find that we were a few weeks too early to see the majestic Tiepolo exhibition that opened there on 15 December (and lasts until 7 April). It is open every day, even on the afternoon of Christmas day (further information and booking on the Villa Manin website).

The exhibition boasts a wide scope. There are works from Venice and the villas of the Venetian countryside, where Tiepolo spent much of his life, many of which have been brought back from the galleries as far flung as new York, Montreal, Helsinki and Stockholm. Several of the canvases are enormous—luckily the central rooms of the Villa Manin can take them—together with the preparatory drawings for them. So the vast canvas (7m by 4m) of St Thecla freeing the city of Este from the plague, from Este cathedral (completed in 1759 in commemoration of a plague of 1638) is there together with the preparatory study now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The opportunity has been taken to restore the canvas: in fact there is a sense of opulent generosity about this exhibition that is far removed from the austerity that is afflicting so many Italian archaeological sites at the moment.

The exhibition is linked to the Patriarchal Palace in Udine and the Sartorio Museum in Trieste, which contains a fine cache of Tiepolo drawings. So the show promises a true feast for those who find themselves drawn to an artist who is perhaps the finest Italian painter of the 18th century.

Udine and Friuli are covered in Blue Guide Northern Italy and Blue Guide Concise Italy. Charles Freeman is historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

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Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
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Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
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The Gentry: Stories of the English
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Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
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Roman Aquileia
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Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
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Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
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The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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