Thursday, March 31, 2016

Life's Defects

Life's Defects

Defects sometimes get the better of us.  At times the rarity of a defect can prove valuable as, for instance, in the case of the 1918 Inverted Jenny, 24¢ American postage stamp where at auction recently, someone was willing to pay $575,100 1.  At other times a defect, even a rare one, can prove disastrous as was the case of the o-ring gasket failure that led to the 1986 Shuttle Challenger tragedy.  And then there are physical aberrations like blemished tires that we don't hesitate to scoop up at a discount or injuries, also deemed defects that occur in life that some of us try to hide.  Take for example the story of the Duke of Urbino, Federico III da Montefeltro (1420-1482).

History records that the Duke lost his right eye while jousting. Considering                                                  
the medical abilities of the time, it's a wonder he survived the loss at all. Afterwards, and for the annals of posterity, he never permitted himself to be portrayed face-on due to a more than minor concern for his appearance.  This seems a little extreme when an eye-patch might have served him well, possibly even adding a sense of bravado and manliness to his brand.  Instead, as can be seen in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, he is portrayed like a playing card One Eyed Jack, only in profile.  To make matters worse, at least in my estimation, it is reported that he subsequently had the top of his nose, also damaged in the tournament, flattened with a file in order to increase his peripheral vision.  Without anesthetics, it had to have been excruciatingly painful.  This resulted in a flat deck on the bridge of his nose that forever marked him, especially considering his insistence on profile depictions.  Possibly such representations of him were his most flattering.  Then again as a man of arms, somewhat a mercenary, somewhat a general, could the loss of an eye have been more damaging to his Renaissance résumé than a weirdly angled nose?  Vanity sometimes gets the better of us, and sometimes, telling from the Duke who also suffered from an inferiority complex due to his rumored illegitimate birth 2, can last into perpetuity.  History has not passed him by though, for today, like the craze of a modern tattoo, his face borders on the notoriety of the Mona Lisa, her only defect, an insufficient smile.  

Such anomalies, like a visible smudge or an irregular decorative brush stroke can see value regulated to the trash heap.  For others it can prove to be treasure.  On the hunt for just such blemished prizes, though doubtfully none so rare as a diptych of a Duke or a misprinted stamp, if only it were possible, we took to the road recently.  Our destination was Vietri sul Mare.  

Implied in its name, sul Mare, Vietri borders the sea and sitting as it does at the beginning of the Penisola Sorrentina, better known as the Amalfi Peninsula, is practically a suburb of Salerno.  It was an easy 100 km ride from Calitri to Vierti, but only until we got close.  Then, as we neared Salerno with its free-for-all, big city style, we took an additional tug on our seat-belts and assumed a DEFCON 1 high alert status.  We were being especially vigilant of anything, whether moving or fixed, that might get in our way.  Once on the peninsula, I was grateful we hadn't far to go for it was the first town we came too following a series of tunnels.  A quick exit from the highway, followed by a whifferdill turning descent under the highway, and we'd arrived in the small seaside town of Vietri.  

The other half of the town's name, Vietri, led me to believe that the town had something to do with glass.  Initially, I believed vietri was some variation of the Italian word for glass, vetri. The slight difference in their spelling seemed explainable as a departure into local dialect.  It would be a treat to have a center for glass production so close to home instead of having to travel north to the Venetian lagoon island of Murano, so well known for its glass.  I was, however, way off on that count.  Vierti hadn't gotten its name from an association with glass at all.  I could also have convinced myself it had been named for a powerful local family, but as I soon learned, it most likely was derived from reference to the early Etruscans settlers in the area of Vietri.  Current thinking is that most probably the name of the town came from the term veteri which was the name Romans gave to early settlers and settlements 3. If only I'd studied Latin in high school, I may have known this. 

Rounding a corner, we found ourselves on main street Vietri, Corso Umberto I.  Also conveniently at hand was a gated parking lot that obliged us with an empty spot.  Apparently we'd been expected.  Soon afterwards, walking along Corso Umberto, we quickly realized that Vietri sul Mare was all about ceramics, not glass, its origins in the late Italian Renaissance period when the earliest earthenware factories appeared in the area.  Today it remains well-known for its ceramic handicrafts, ranging from dishes, flowerpots, housewares, artistic pieces, crockery, vases and tiles.  Its ceramics are known the world over and especially in the area of the Amalfi peninsula.  To simply categorize its creations as handicrafts, however, is a disservice.  Centuries of handed-down expertise and technical evolution have elevated these "handicrafts" far beyond simple run-of-the-mill terracotta ashtrays.  Instead, they are works of art for here expertise resides not solely in the art of pottery-making but extends into sophisticated decorative designs in addition to talented portrait and scene paintings on ceramics.  From the portrayals and meticulous renderings we saw, we could be persuaded to believe that the blood of Botticelli, Caravaggio, or Raphael ran through their veins.  It just may.  

There was so much to visit and see that we made our rounds, the length of Corso Umberto, before deciding what we might want to buy.  The range of choices was overwhelming and only compounded further when we discovered Ceramica Artistica Solimene.  It proved to be the surprise of our visit.  Right off, it presented itself like none of the other ceramic businesses we’d seen to that point. 
Located at the far end of Corso Umberto, near beckoning eateries like Ristrpub Sud Est and Bar Miramare, it had a modernistic Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim Museum look about it.  We were greeted with an irregular and undulating exterior surface accented with diamond shaped porthole style windows.  In appearance it was almost as though I'd zoomed into a picture of the structure, so far that it had pixelated into dots, some a shade of green, the majority an earth tone color.  Definite horizontal patterns emerged, one in particular reminiscent of a familiar Greek interlocking square wave pattern.  The only difference was that here the particular dots that dressed the surface were thick ceramic disks, thousands of them.  

This unusual building had been designed by visionary Italian architect Paolo Soleri, not Frank Lloyd Wright.  His Solimene Veitri sul Mare creation was completed in 1954.  I was spot on in my first impression in associating the design with Wright, however.  Collaboration with Wright had occurred when Soleri visited the United States in the 1940s.  In fact, it was while he was in Arizona that he'd spent over a year as an apprentice under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright's influences were clearly evident in Soleri's innovative Vierti creation.  This was confirmed once we were inside the Artistica Solimene ceramic studio.  The open interior featured a rotunda with forked concrete pillars rising multiple stories to a glass canopy.  The openness of its interior was one thing but it was the iconic spiral ramp, gradually sloping upward, so characteristic of New York's Guggenheim that confirmed my speculation.  

Every nook and cranny, the expansive surface of the ramp, side room offshoots, overflowing containers, and pile upon pile of beautiful ceramic creations cluttered the floor, filled shelves, and carpeted the surfaces of tables.  In places it was so close that it was difficult to get to a particular item that may have caught our eye.  Some items were pristine, approaching museum quality, many were of decorative value, and some simply flawed Searching through the clutter for our particular idea of treasure, we gradually worked our way through the studio.  We felt like archaeologists eager to scavenge through long lost shards and forgotten detritus.  It called for hours of exploration to properly investigate this cache.  Budding archaeologists without a grant, shy of the time necessary to do it justice, or simply because we were overwhelmed by the extent of the horde and thought a cappuccino best, we soon tired.  It was toward the end of our treasure hunt, however, after blowing the dust from dozens of pieces, searching through crates of plates, much of it the excess production of restaurant after restaurant customized dinnerware that we found what we were looking for.  In the end, we came away with a series of beautifully decorated fish plates, the future resting place of Maria Elena's frutti di mare and spaghetti alle vongole creations.  And oh yes, an ashtray that never made it to some Neapolitan bistro.
seconds or the result of overproduction.

We reserved our high-end art purchase for Ceramica Romolo Apicella, the ceramic studio of Artist Anna Rita.  She descends from an extended family of ceramic masters.  We did not get to personally meet Rita, but after exploring two floors of her art pieces we quickly appreciated her motto:

           "He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist."

We'd happened upon another beautiful ceramic studio and it was there that we splurged on the purchase of the head of the Lo Spirito della Primavera (The Spirit of Spring).  Today when the winter snows are thickest here in the States, she rings eternal the promise of spring.

We noticed there was an overt emphasis on owls in much of the Apicella artwork.  While the ancient Greeks considered owls to be signs of good fortune, this belief took a 180 degree turn when it came to the ancient Romans. Romans considered owls the harbingers of disaster and a bird of the occult, all adding up to bad luck.  Indeed owls can appear to be strange creatures.  Unable to move their eyes, they have to pivot their entire head in order to look around.  When I raised this point there that day, I was surprised to learn that there were good and bad owls.  Surprisingly it all apparently had to do with their ears.  I knew that the ears of owls were not aligned evenly and that the resulting geometry resulted in a heightened sense of hearing.  Could this seemingly unnatural misalignment, in contrast to the usual symmetry of nature, have contributed to their bad karma?  I think it may have, for as explained to us, owls without their ears visible were just fine, thereby consider-
 ed good owls.  This superstitious fact is borne out on close examination of their business card, which I happened to take away with me.  It prominently portrays what else but an earless owl.  Give a hoot or not, here's wishing you luck.

For a refreshing break we stopped by Gelateria Artigianale.  From the ads on every napkin dispenser on the tables outside their door they offered real Italian espresso, Caffè Vergnano.  While it is indeed a high octane brew, we were more in the mood for tall glasses of latte macchiato to the pleasurable accompaniment of Italy's marmalade filled version of the croissant, il cornetto.  The extra milk working to dilute the Vergnano's strong flavor just enough to indulge our American palates.  Yes, I must confess, we still haven't acclimated fully to high test Italian espresso.

Making our way back down Corso Umberto we next investigated La Bottega dei Ricordi, which was just jammed with ceramic surprises.  While Maria Elena browsed downstairs, I took a staircase to the upper level.  It was there that I met one of the artists at work, Theresa.  She sat in the middle of the room, apparently her studio, surrounded by colorful bowls of paint (see lead photo).  I watched as she dabbed her needle-like brush into one of the many colors, then as she methodically, with a play of her hands in a swirl or looping stroke, applied the color to the fluted bowl before her.  All the while she'd slowly turn the bowl.  It was like watching the stick and foot action of a drummer without the sound.  Far from mass production work, it was nevertheless repetitive, continuing until her steady hand was finished with a particular pattern.  While she was about this, we chatted.  Her curiosities took the form ... Where are you from? ... while my inquisitive counter questions were along the lines ... How long have you been doing this?  

Downstairs once more, I found that Maria Elena had made progress.  She'd been searching for some gifts, one in particular for our daughter.  At this point she was considering an espresso serving set - all together six demitasses, a sugar bowl and tray.  There only remained a final decision, which one of the many different sets to choose.   By some process of elimination, one I can't now recall, we made our final selection and had it bubble-wrapped first for the return trip to Calitri and eventually the States.  Today it sits on our daughter's dining room sideboard in competition with a Keurig coffee maker for attention.
By then it was time for lunch.  We'd been the length of Corso Umberto, end-to-end and back in fact, and seen its mealtime offerings.  Instead, we decided to head down to the lower part of the town, closer to the sea, to a quarter named Marina di Vietri.  After all, when looking for seafood why not go where the fish are.  But first we returned to our car to drop off our purchases.  From there it was a downhill walk along Via Osvaldo Costabile to the lower seaside part of the town.  I was thankful it was downhill all the way, but all the while I couldn't shake the thought that somehow we had to make the return trip.  

Unfortunately the first restaurant we thought we'd like to try was closed that day.  We continued to search until some passers-by directed us to an alley between two blue and purple colored buildings leading to the beach.  When we emerged from the alleyway onto Via Cristoforo Colombo we discovered Ristorante La Maison Felix.  Better yet, it was open.  Our waitress would be Francesca and the cook, Chef Peppe.  It was Francesca who showed us to an outside table under the
awaiting shade of an awning.  She went on to explain that they specialized in fish dishes.  Bingo, we'd apparently hit the jackpot.  As with Vietri sul Mare, I was once again curious about their name.  Of course Felix is an old Roman name meaning “Lucky” and the use of Maison may simply have been a step-up in an attempt to avoid using an overused word like Casa.  But as I am want to do, I imagined an alternate scenario.  I wanted to believe that the name of the place, La Maison Felix, French of course for The House of Felix, possibly had something to do with an overweight cat.  I was familiar with Alice’s Cheshire Cat, with its piano-key grin, but here Felix the Cat came to mind, who in my counter-history, took care of any fish leftovers.
We appreciated the opportunity to relax as we sipped a refreshing, thirst-slacking bottle of local Falanghina wine and awaited the arrival of our starters – thinly shaved prosciutto with snowballs of mozzare cheese for Maria Elena, and for me, the green and white poker chip like rounds of a caprese salad, hopefully sprinkled with basil and just oozing olive oil.  By our second glass of wine they'd arrived and I mimed a toast to Bacchus in gratitude.  They were consumed before the need of a third refill, the only sounds faint compliant mummers of gratification.

For lunch Mare sometimes makes a meal of a few appetizers.  She'd already enjoyed one and as her primo she enjoyed another, this time an antipasto of olives, cheeses, some salami and sopressata, little tomatoes, and to our surprise fried pieces of fish.  It was a generous portion and a challenge for her to get through, so I pitched-in less the cat got fatter.  My luncheon had to be pasta.  Show me an
Italian lad who doesn't consume a dose of pasta at least once a day and we'll both be looking at one sad Italian indeed.  Holding up my end of this notion, my primi piatti was a liberal portion of spaghetti alle vongole.  It put the flavor of the sea in my mouth.  I could only imagine the mouth watering presentation following a morning run to the fish shop we frequent in Calitri for some golden shelled clams nestled in fresh parsley, then home again for Maria Elena to serve-up this same pasta dish on our newly acquired ceramic plates.  I couldn't wait, but Mare always says, I shouldn't be thinking about my next meal while I'm eating.  I simply blame it on some repressed Neanderthal gene deep inside me whose sole purpose was to insure there was a next meal. 

We had just about concluded our meals when in front of us, farther toward the street, yet still within the confines of the patio, I noticed a quick movement under a table.  Moments later, I’d confirmed the source of the movement.  It was a mouse.  While mice don't get me excited, I decided to gently break the news to Maria Elena who doesn't like the quick movements of these adorable Topo Gigio creatures.  After all, it may have been a distant ancestor of an ancient squirrel-like rodent called a dormouse, once a Roman snack-time delicacy, especially enjoyed when doused with honey and stuffed with pork.  She'd eaten rattlesnake in Oklahoma, why not try a mouse?  It wouldn't be long before we'd agree it tasted like chicken!  But I certainly digress, sometimes needing to lasso my imaginings.  The incident, however, put a stop to any thinking about ordering a secondi piatti.  Instead, my thoughts returned to the name of the place, The House of Felix, whose namesake just possibly might be a cat and how a brief scamper had improved my theory about this feline’s diet.  I was now sure it was definitely fish and mouse.  Seeming to be unhurried, but now eager to retreat, we said farewell to Francesca and passed our best wishes along to Peppe, but only after appraising her of the little interloper off in a corner somewhere.  She indulged us by saying she'd get on it immediately, but I secretly knew she'd only put my imagined furry phantom Felix to work.  

While we'd been there, I'd noticed a bus stop across the street.  It had been busy all the while with small shuttle busses coming and going.  I asked Francesca if by chance it made the return climb into town.  We were in luck, the good owls must have been with us for that's just what they did.  Now comfortably revived, we took a bus back up into town for a small fee.  We exited in the park-like piazzetta near that now familiar landmark, the Ceramica Artistica Solimene, with more than enough energy saved to run the gauntlet back to Calitri.

A famous Roman once addressed an obstinate Roman Senate with the words "Veni, Vidi, Vici" ... "I came, I saw, I conquered".  In our case on that special day, we'd bravely come to Veitri, referred to as “The First Pearl of the Amalfi", for a special pearl or two of our own.  We'd eagerly explored it, end-to-end, top-to-bottom.  As opposed to a conquering vici mind-set, 
we'd instead been so captured by what we'd found, we hesitated to leave.  Here were both the treasures and blemishes we’d been searching for in the distilled traditions of Vietri sul Mare's superb ceramic craftsmanship.  Lately it seems, I have been writing about the echoes and ripples of past traditions.  Steeped in harmony and an alliance with the past, they run strong in Italia and even stronger in little Vietri, for in Vietri sul Mare they have been amplified with an infusion of modern technology.  Could Vietri's forefathers have anticipated making their piatti microwave and dishwasher safe?  Likewise could they have anticipated the advent of temperature controlled electric fired ovens?  Good or bad owls aside, would Botticelli, Caravaggio, or Raphael have considered it witchcraft to have modeled their works not with molds or clay sculptures, but with a 3D graphic program?  One foot in the past, the other in tomorrow, Vietri possesses a distinct quality of place worth experiencing, worthy of anyone's bucket list.
From that Rogue Tourist

1.  Inverted Jenny - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,


2. Montefeltro Duke of Urbino by Ralf K,


3.  History of Vietri - Italian Pottery and Ceramics,