Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bear, a Borgia, and a Bunch of Bikes

Our time in Italy is sadly coming to a close and soon this bear will be moving on to more exotic locales. But before we left the Veneto, I wanted my bipedal attendants to experience a city not fraught with kamikaze drivers – or at least kamikaze drivers in cars. So, on Saturday, we headed south to Ferrara, Italy’s most bicycle-friendly city. The city is friendly towards cyclists but I’m not sure how friendly cyclists are to pedestrians. I must say that we were nearly knocked over a dozen times by careening cyclists. If only I could find a bear-sized bike - I only seem to fit in the baskets.

That’s me (below) in front of the city's oldest big thing: the 12th century cathedral which, because it has a dome, is known as the duomo – just like 98.6% of churches in Italy. I feel particularly sorry though for the fellow behind me (although he does have a partner on the other side of the door) because he’s holding up the whole church. I bet he could really use a bottle of Absorbine Junior.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Ferrara! - like most cities in Italy, its history is shrouded in fog – and I’m being figurative not literal, although it is foggy here a lot of the time. It was a city of powerful rival families, ambitious popes and even Napoleon dropped by for a bit.

It was also the home of Italy's most famous priest - the book-burning Savonarola. He eventually made his way to “depraved” Florence where he sent boys from door-to-door to confiscate "pagan" books & artwork, mirrors & makeup, gaming tables & musical instruments, women's hats & dresses, all to be burnt in what became known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. As a former international fashion model, I can say that you can like beautiful clothes (and look good in them) without being "morally lax" or vain. Maybe he had Naomi or Kate in mind.

In any case, people soon tired of Savonarola's excessive zealousness (duhhhhh) and he would eventually be burned at the stake just like the books he hated. Ironic, no? A lot of Renaissance art was lost to the flames forever because of him. Serves you humans right.

Anyway, by the 13 century, the city was firmly in the control of the powerful Este family who, when not warring with their neighbours, made Ferrara a hub of music, poetry and the visual arts. One of the most notable Estes was Alfonso d'Este who married Lucrezia of that fun-loving Borgia family of promiscuous popes, incestuous sons and murderous daughters. This would be her third marriage (the first ended in annulment, the second in murder) and was apparently made tolerable by Alfonso's and Lucrezia's numerous affairs, including one with Alfonso’s sister’s bisexual husband, Francesco II. That ended when Francesco contracted syphilis. Too bad Savonarola was dead by then - he would have had his hands full with Lucrezia and the Estes.

Ferrara is also known for the architecture which flourished under the Estes. Its castle, which my bipedals selfishly did not photograph me in front of – although I would have looked great in front of it - was essentially built to protect the family from the city’s citizens. The Estes had just raised taxes again and the people were miffed. You’d think it would have made more sense just not to raise taxes than to build a whole castle. Eventually when, like people the world over, people got used to paying higher taxes and calmed down, the family took up permanent residence there.

Saturday was Valentine’s Day. We know almost nothing about St. Valentine except that he was a Roman martyr (although there were probably several by the same name) and that he was buried in Rome – the rest is all myth & legend. Because of this, the Catholic Church de-sainted him in 1969. Poor guy.

Anyway, he – or rather the day - didn’t even become associated with romantic love until Geoffrey Chaucer came along in the 14th century talking about courting birds & love on Saint Valentine's Day. In that spirit, I brought my bipedal & god-bipedal attendants to La Bottega del Cioccolato so we could all indulge in a glass of rich cioccolata calda, or hot chocolate. The women, of course, complained about the calories (bears don't have to watch their waistlines) but it seemed fitting in a city associated with crazy priests, warring families and a very dangerous Borgia that we end the day with our hearts & stomachs full of love & chocolate ... Happy Valentine's Day - especially to that very special donkey in my life!


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Grey Bear
What a wonderful lesson in history. You should be a teacher.It must be wonderful to be living in a part of the world that is so steeped in it. I hope you are keeping a daily journal or are bears like the elephant and have a great memory?
Lots of luck in your next place of residence.

Grey Bear said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for the kind words. I don't know of any teachers who are bears though. I don't keep a journal but I do use my blog to help me remember things. Bears have excellent memories but nothing like elephants!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!