Thursday, December 29


From the Archives: Heraclitus and Ursula

This was originally published on 04/01/2004, during my time studying abroad in Italy, which now seems so long ago, and deals with a visit to the town of Barletta in Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot. I hope, to introduce new readers to my Italian essays, to periodically post old pieces from the archives on this site over the next year.

The first thing I heard about Barletta was that it was home to the largest bronze statue left over from antiquity. The second thing that I discovered was, according to Professor Nessman, it was also the ugliest bronze statue left over from antiquity. And it wasn't even that old. Apparently some bits of the ungainly giant--either Heraclitus or Constantius II--had washed up on shore one morning during the early Renaissance. The townspeople decided to finish the job, with less than serviciable results.

Inspecting the completed sculpture in front of the church of Santo Sepolcro, Heraclitus's solemn, bag-eyed face looking more dourly Byzantine than classically antique, it seemed fine enough to me. Though for some reason, the top of Heraclitus's head was missing. Given the preponderance of flat roofs in the region, the danger of the Emperor filling up with rainwater seems a small danger.

We arrived in the dark Thursday evening. The outskirts seemed, at best, shabby, filled with haphazard high-rises with the occasional concession to tradition in the form of Italianate roofline dingbats. The hotel was on the outskirts of town in the beachfront tourist ghetto, a gleaming new pocket-sized four-star in hyper-clean imitation art-deco. The occasional nod to postmodernism showed up in a few crooked lines here and there that suggested the architect had hiccupped in the middle of drafting.

Still, I had a feeling I was going to like the complementary breakfasts, no matter who designed the place.

The mayor was footing the bill, and feeding us darn well, too. We soon were escorted next door to the Brigantino Due Restaurant to an extravagantly multi-course dinner of spinach pasta and fresh fish. In between the luxury, we were expected to take copious notes and measurements about all things Barletta, the net result being we would design a master-plan for the die-hard classicist town council who wanted something a bit more solid to show to the real architects to give them some ideas. So solid that he was willing to go as far as to let us stay for a week rather than just a weekend.

I was a bit agnostic about the town's prospects, though I planned to enjoy the food nonetheless. I hadn't seen much to suggest that a week or a month here would give us anything with which to save the place. The towns we'd passed nestled under the lofty peaks of the southern Appenines were choked with sprawl, and looked too busy trying to survive to be quaint. History, after all, had not been as cutely kind to the underdeveloped south as she had to the touristed hills of the Val d'Orcia or the cobbled streets of Arezzo.

Plus, there was the fact that our hotel's next-door neighbor was a video game parlor. The closest thing to classicism was the La Rotonda pizza stand at the bend in the coastal highway. To be fair, we had glimpsed the glorious floodlit Trani marble spire of the Duomo as we had driven past, but I wasn't about to hold my breath.

Not yet.

The next morning, the tour took us straight into old-town Barletta. We walked through the green, empty park around the stark sloped white walls of the old fortress. We'd meet the mayor there, though it seemed his Excellency was nowhere in sight and the heavy iron grill of the barbican was still locked. The moat was dry, but still looked thoroughly impassable.

And so we began to wander. We soon found ourselves standing on ancient paving stones, rich and mottled in their subtle rainbow of pink and yellow, their sharp edges glazed with hundreds of years of passing steps.

Then we entered under the arch of the campanile and passed into another world.

Narrow streets, iron balconies, a patina of beautiful peeling stucco. Time and antiquity pressed close as the walls of the tiny alleys. On our left hand, the austere white flank of the church rose; Saracenic arabesques and weird Romanesque gargoyles snarled at us across centuries of time. The tiny piazza before the Duomo was empty in the chill winter morning. We entered under the curve of an arch carved with a surreal bestiary of long-necked dragons and double-bodied centaurs tangled amid an Arabic tree of life, and found a small miracle of pale, clear light and even clearer stone.

A brief foray into the open door of the sacristy ended with the uncertain stare of a sexton, and so I slowly made my way around the ambulatory, bathed in the cool white light. In the north aisle stood a wooden half-length reliquary effigy of a swooning female martyr, eyes dark and raised to heaven, glossy and naive. Against the pale skin of her neck could be glimpsed a neat round red wound streaming precise drops of painted blood. Gilt gleamed on her ornate dress and carven waves of hair. St. Ursula, perhaps, by the limp cloth banner held in one dramatic outstretched hand. At her chest was a neat little glass window--and inside--

I wasn't certain, but it looked like a great curving shard of skull. The skull of a saint, inches away from me. I pressed my fingers against the glass, put my hand on hers, and simply stood there for a minute, astonished. It was--I felt chills, a faint quickening of my breath, confusion and excitement. Grotesque, perhaps, this disembodied fragment of someone else's life on display, and I felt that tingle of perversity. But soon, amazement overwhelmed it. But I was as close as humanly possible to a splinter of sanctity. Ursula, that great martyred princess of legend, who wasn't supposed to exist. Like the classical town that we were trying to re-build here.

I decided I was going to like Barletta.


Perhaps the ages have been unkind to Barletta's fringes, but amid the close-hugging townhouses of the old centro storico, the memories of the past still lingered, and lingered beautifully.

Barletta's only significant historic claim to fame, after Heraclitus, is a duel which pitted thirteen gallant but outnumbered Italian knights against a significantly larger group of occupying foreigners. Either Spanish or French, nobody I talked to seemed to be sure.

The overt act in the brawl occurred in a tavern off one of the tiny principal streets of the old quarter. The lofty, vaulted bar-cellar is still there, grand but empty. Its display cases are barren, the only exhibit a histrionic plaster effigy of one of the victors beating up a Frenchman (or was it a Spaniard?). About the only things of interest that remain are a stack of magazines, some marginally historic furniture and a tired docent. A mannered, historically accurate beaux-arts-Romanesque monument in the piazetta out front is about the only clue to who killed who here.

It may be Barletta's only claim to fame, but there are still hidden treasures tucked away from the prying eyes of beachfront tourists.

Around the corner from the tavern--around every corner, practically--could be glimpsed the facade of a graceful baroque church, springing to life with naive, glorious whirls of cherubim that seemed to unite the provincial perfection of Latin American baroque with the charming vigor of a New England Puritan tombstone. And to imagine growing up here, amid such splendid monsters and strange legends--it boggled the mind.

It's a slow town, an unremarkable town, even, the sort of average village that an Italian Garrison Keillor might make up meandering, poignant stories about. But a Garrison Keillor who would have grown up in the shadow of ancient churches with doors carved with linenfold panelling and images of the Host blazing above a chalice. In a history-soaked country, Barletta's shabby charm might seem ludicrous in comparison to Rome's hundreds of churches and eons of existence, but to an American like myself, it seems just about the right size. I could see myself being very happy here.

The town, for all my early cynicism, had a homely, homey beauty. Literally, it feels like you've stepped into someone's well-loved home. After all, our own Professor Marconi grew up in its welcoming, grimy alleyways and exotic stucco, beneath the forest of television antennae that bristle like spider-webbed ships' masts over the flat roof-terraces of the village.

We sketched and wandered, and wandered and sketched, and soon it was siesta time. The Puglians take siesta seriously: the cathedral's closed at least until four, and most shops hardly stir from noon to five. Clouds and chill gave way to golden-auburn late-afternoon light on the cornices of a dozen age-streaked stucco palazetti. Dead Christmas decorations still hung on the locked church doors.

Meanwhile, I had begun to inspect the people of Barletta, as well as her architecture. And it looked like they were perfectly happy to inspect me as well. I sat myself down on a metal bench in a little square that lay in the shadow of a grizzled white-marble civic campanile, cornices dark with the patina of age.

The piazza, humming with the din of midday traffic on the main street, seemed to be populated entirely by old men in flat caps. I sat there for a space, watching the pigeons waddle, heads bobbing, as the afternoon light caught the purple iridescence on their necks. Later, two five-year-olds started scrambling over the bench and eagerly demanded what I was doing, inspecting my sketchbook with cries of delight. After they had exhausted my meager Italian vocabulary, I excused myself and left them to clobber each other with delighted shrieks.

I continued to meander. In the cathedral, a cleaning lady was desultorily thwacking the base of the St. Ursula statue. Back outside, a young girl smoked on a balcony, giving me a diffident stare through the arched alleyway. On a convent square, an old man sat perfectly still in a darkened doorway, looking contented beyond compare. I offered a ciao to an old lady and a young woman hanging out laundry on a balcony, garnering a muttered giorno from the nonna. It was siesta. No need to strain oneself.

Almost everything was closed. Admitted, the scuzzy Lizard cantina was still open, its walls decorated by a single poster of Emilio Zapata, the bargain-basement Che. But the extraordinarily-named Shakespeare's Head English pub and the Irish jazz bar with the enormous Guinness advertisement painted on the front door didn't look like they would open for a while. The High Fashion Uomo store was, however, doing business with some exorbitantly large discounts, though given the quality of the flashy merchandise--something out of What the Well-Dressed Goombah is Wearing--it looked like the customers could use all the encouragement they could get.

But, goombahs or no, the town still slumbered beautifully.

Soon, a pink sunset was streaking the white stone of the church. Four kids, one sporting purple-streaked hair, sat under the wild Saracenic arabesques and munched potato chips. Within, the gleaming whiteness had turned to a serene pale gloom, illumed only by the warm sparks of light from the bulbs in the shrine to St. Roch, his downturned face kind in the darkness.

It was too dark to see St. Ursula, though, save for a tinselly spark on the gilded filigree of her dress. So I turned to leave. Perhaps I might return some day.

Plus, the four kids had started screaming and throwing themselves against the portal in some juvenile display of rough-housing. It seemed a good-enough time to leave.

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