Communion Of Dreams


Mmm. Cobbler.

Among other things, my Good Lady Wife is the exec of the local chapter of the AIA. And last night they had their annual awards dinner.

Now, you might think that such an event would be formal and fancy. But that would be ‘big city’ thinking. This is where it happened:

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No, I’m not kidding. Here’s another pic:

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It’s the Claysville Store, just off the Katy Trail at mile 150 outside Hartsburg.

Here’s a nice little video about the place:

 

Here it is from the Trail:

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And here are a couple of images taken from the Trail while I was wandering around:

20131018_173235And:

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So, if you find yourself on the Trail, or in mid-Missouri sometime and are looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, give them a look. Excellent, simple fare. Limited menu, and hours.

But man, the blackberry cobbler was delicious.

 

Jim Downey



Functional beauty.

A good friend shared this item from the NYT with me: A Tool’s Beauty Is in the Eye of Its Holder. It’s a good piece overall, but this particular passage resonated for me:

Why do such objects look so enticing, given that they were designed with very different objectives? One reason is their virtue (another old-fashioned term). It can be both refreshing and reassuring to see an object whose appearance is determined by such laudable qualities as economy, efficiency or reliability, rather than the hope of seducing us visually. Another factor is their honesty. It is easier to feel confident about admiring a utilitarian object, whose appearance is defined by its function, than it can be to enjoy one because of its styling.

Resonated? Yeah. Here’s an excerpt from a meditation about tools I wrote in 1995, and which has gained some recognition since:

This isn’t a respect borne of fear for their sharpness.  It is something more . . . something that is almost spiritual.  When you use a tool, it tends to take on the shaping of the use, and of the user.  It will conform to your hand, wear in such a way that it actually becomes more suited to the task, until in some ways it is easier to use the tool correctly than to use it incorrectly.

I think that this is why old tools, well made and well loved tools, are so valuable.  When you take them to hand, you can feel the right way to use them.  Some of the time that went into shaping that tool, training it for use, can be shared from one craftsman to the next.  So long as the tool is loved, cared for, and properly used, it continues to accumulate knowledge, storing the wisdom of the hands.

If you have a moment, I’d invite you to read both pieces. They make a nice pair.

Jim Downey

PS: Small milestone – this is blog post #1,400 for me here. Just thought I’d share that factoid.



“An abnormally excitable way.”

I woke about 1:00 this morning, rolled over and looked at the clock. My side hurt, the way it usually does. But it was the nasty bit of headache which had the bulk of my semi-conscious attention. I reached over to the nightstand, picked up the pain pill I had left there. I sat up enough to pop it into my mouth, then picked up the water glass, took a drink to wash the pill down.

About 4:30 I repeated the task.

I still had the headache when I finally woke at about 6:00, just before the radio came on.

* * * * * * *

Our house is about 130 years old. It has a narrow central staircase off the kitchen which leads to the second floor, making three 90-degree turns in the process. As far as I know, these stairs are largely original, though there were some minor modifications made at the bottom back in the 1950s.

Between the first and second turns there’s an exposed nail where someone made a mistake in construction. It came through the riser, but didn’t enter the tread properly. Part of the wood popped loose, and at some point broke away. But it doesn’t really hurt anything, and is out of the way, so no one has ever bothered to fix it.

I notice things like this.

* * * * * * *

The energy dynamic has changed again.

Well, to be honest, it is always changing. But while I had been riding fairly high in my bipolar cycle, now I can feel the old doubts, the old fears starting to creep back in.

Doubts? Fears?

Of failure, of course.

As I contemplate putting together the Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well, I start to worry. Will it be successful? How the hell am I going to reach the audience for Communion of Dreams to let them know about it? For that matter — can I even write the damned book, and if I do, will everyone just hate the thing?

* * * * * * *

Yesterday the Diane Rehm Show had a segment about migraines. From the transcript, this is Dr. David Dodick, neurologist at the Mayo Clinic and chair of the American Migraine Foundation speaking:

Well, Diane, when one does a functional scan, like Dr. Richardson just talked about, whether it’s a PET or a functional MRI, we see activation of certain regions in the brain and certain networks in the brain, particularly those networks that process sensory information, like light and noise and pain and emotion. So we see activation of all of these networks during migraine. And indeed what we’ve come to recognize now is that not just during a migraine attack.

But even in between attacks the brain is processing all of that sensory information in an abnormally excitable way. So, migraine was thought to be just a disorder that comes and goes and you’re perfectly normal in between. But we now recognize the fact that it’s an abnormal processing — abnormal network processing in the brain that continues even between attacks.

* * *

And that’s one of the reasons why we, as a medical community, absolutely must take this to sort of more seriously. Migraine sufferers are three times more likely to have psychiatric disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar illness. They’re twice as likely to have epilepsy. They’re twice as likely to suffer an ischemic stroke. They’re six to 15 times more likely to develop brain lesions.

 

* * * * * * *

I woke about 1:00 this morning, rolled over and looked at the clock. My side hurt, the way it usually does. But it was the nasty bit of headache which had the bulk of my semi-conscious attention. I reached over to the nightstand, picked up the pain pill I had left there. I sat up enough to pop it into my mouth, then picked up the water glass, took a drink to wash the pill down.

About 4:30 I repeated the task.

I still had the headache when I finally woke at about 6:00, just before the radio came on.

I’ve had this headache off and on for the better part of a week. Maybe longer.

The codeine I take each evening/overnight to deal with the torn intercostal muscle pain is also effective at disrupting the development of a full migraine. But the cycle still tries to complete. It’s annoying.

But some things you learn to live with. Like imperfections in old homes. Yes, I’ll see the Kickstarter through, as well as writing the book whether or not the Kickstarter is completely successful.

Some things you learn to live with.

Jim Downey

 



Italy, 2012: Rome Alone.

We left the villa early on Monday morning, since it was a drive of some hours back to Rome and we needed to get there about noon to allow some members of the group to make travel connections.

There had been rain overnight. When we left, this was the view of the sea from the villa:

 

 

Taking the inland interstate-style highway, we got to see part of the country we hadn’t before.

 

 

And I discovered that the rest stops in Italy are much like rest stops anywhere, complete with baffling toys…

 

No idea . . .

…and various products to help you stay awake:

Actually, I bought some of the “pocket espresso” things – and they weren’t bad. About an ounce of high-density caffeine with a lot of chocolate, in liquid form like an extra-small juice box.

* * * * * * *

We got to Rome, dropped off several people at the main train station. Most of the rest of us were back in the hotel we had stayed in the first few days of the program. We got checked in, dropped off bags and then made plans for the afternoon.

Most of the remaining group were leaving the next morning, just a few staying on to Wednesday. The bulk of the group made plans for dinner together that evening. But Steve & Amy needed to get a number of things done to wrap up the trip (and plan for the next one), so they were inclined to not join in on another big dinner.

In all honesty, I think they were also tired of being “in charge” and just wanted a little down-time. I know that when I have been in such a role for a week or two, I feel wiped out, and no offense to the people in the group but I am usually ready for a break.

So we spent the afternoon hitting a couple of different sights, mostly giving Steve and Amy time to do something of a post-mortem on the workshop – discussing what worked, what didn’t go so smoothly, how to perhaps change the schedule. I mostly kept my mouth shut, though occasionally I was able to offer some perspective as a tag-along. We had coffee & conversation on the Piazza Navona, then eventually Amy went off to take care of some errands and Steve and I went to see the Carravagio paintings (The Calling of St Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew) at the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi. Naturally, I had seen reproductions of these pieces, but seeing them actually in the space they were intended for was breath-taking.

Following this, we wandered back to the hotel room. We both wanted a chance to rest and shower before getting back together with Amy for drinks and dinner that evening.

Dinner that night was worth mentioning: a place which specializes in dishes with porcini mushrooms. We ate heartily, washed the food down with some local artisanal beer. According to Amy & Steve, such beer is a relatively new thing in Rome – but it was quite good, though it was odd to have it served in what was basically a champagne bottle.

* * * * * * *

The next morning we mostly went our separate ways. Steve & Amy needed to check out a couple different museums for the next program. I was tired of “Roman Stuff” and opted to do a bit of exploring on my own.

Starting with a completely delightful exhibit I had noted on previous wanderings: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Big Machines”. I had seen that there was a traveling version of this show which made it to the US, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it for myself. Here are a few images of the fun items in the exhibit:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, this *was* shown to be a fake entry – but it’s still fun to see it produced in da Vinci’s style.

This was mostly geared towards kids, but it was still fun to see actual mock-ups of a number of da Vinci’s drawings. And one thing which was completely new to me was the octagonal closet which was completely lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. You stepped into this closet, closed the door, and were able to see an infinite regression of images – like being in a room with two facing mirrors. Except that in this case, because of the placement of all 8 mirrors, you were able to see yourself from every angle – and it is a very odd thing to see your own back full size, in real time. What’s most impressive about this is, of course, that during da Vinci’s time it was impossible to make mirrors of sufficient size or quality to demonstrate this effect – he had done it all through basic knowledge of optics, applied as a thought-experiment. Very cool.

* * * * * * *

I got some lunch from a street vendor, then decided to go see this:

 

 


Yeah, the Trevi fountain. I’d promised a friend I would toss a coin in for her, and fulfilled that promise.

Two things I want to note about seeing the Trevi fountain: one, it was crazy with crowds. Seriously, just a block away there were few tourists. But in the square with the fountain it was packed. Nuts. Worst crowds I had seen anywhere in Rome.

And two, I had gotten to know my way around Rome well enough that it was pretty easy for me to dead-reckon with minimal reference to a street map. This got me to and from the Trevi fountain with minimal problems. This made me inordinately happy.

* * * * * * *

I made my way back to where the hotel was, stopping by once again to just stand inside the Pantheon. It was the sort of place I could probably visit a hundred times.

Along the way back to the hotel, I noted this interior courtyard:

 

 

No idea what that was. But it was cool.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off my bag at the hotel, I popped over to the Campo de’ Fiori – the little market square I mentioned previously. I got a beer and some snacks, sat down to write some notes and just observe what was going on in the square.

And what was going on was the take-down of the market stalls and subsequent clean-up:

 

 

 


One thing in particular I want to point out:

 

That’s one of those little motor-cycle carts as seen in “Roman Holiday”. I was a bit surprised to see that they’re still very much in use in Rome, since that movie is even older than I am. But quite a number of the different merchants had them, and they seem quite practical for such use given the narrow winding streets in the heart of the city.

* * * * * * *
Dinner that evening was again just the three of us: myself, Steve, Amy. We ate at a place not far off the Campo, which is to say not that far from the hotel. This was by design, since we had to be up early to catch a private van to the airport.

Which we did the next morning, leaving about 6:30. My flight was later than the other’s, but it made the most sense for me to just get to the airport a bit early.

Of course, as it turned out, things all ran late at the Rome airport for me, and I could have gone over much later in the day. And the delays meant missed connections and the usual travel-foo. But I got in to St. Louis eventually, and in time to catch the shuttle home.

Yes indeed, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”  I almost don’t believe it, myself.

Jim Downey



Italy, 2012: The ghosts nearby.

“Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old time irruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb – the one that contains the active volcano – seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high, and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall, – is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger-nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long, at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last – it had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.”

Mark Twain, Chapter 30 of The Innocents Abroad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Yeah, it isn’t quite that bad climbing Mount Vesuvius today. There’s now a very good path which switchbacks a couple of times, then winds around the mountain a fair amount, making for a longer walk but one which is still fairly steep, climbing the final 200 meters of elevation from the parking lot. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

Then once you’re to the top, you can walk about a third of the way around the lip of the crater. On one side, you look down into the crater, on the other out over the volcanic plains to the Bay of Naples:

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Naples.

 

There’s a dark patch of green surrounded by buildings directly above the corner post: that’s Pompeii.

 

 

At the top – at the very end of the public trail – there’s a little hut selling refreshments and souvenirs. And the prices are more reasonable than you might expect. But I decided that I didn’t really need either an ashtray or a skull carved out of black pumice.

Standing there on what’s left of Vesuvius, looking out over the plains below, I felt a bit melancholy. It could have just been the exertion to climb to the top. Or that I knew the trip was coming to a close. But looking out over the misty cities, it was easy to picture another eruption. There are millions of people within potential reach of the volcano. Naples – a city of some 4 million – is conceivably at risk. In the immediate area around the volcano some 600,000 people are subject to possible pyroclastic flows. Current scientific models indicate that there would probably be two to three weeks of warning before a serious eruption, but no one is entirely confident of that. And at best, it would take 5 -7 days to evacuate those most at risk.

 

* * * * * * *

 

We came down off the mountain, but in some sense didn’t leave it. It lurked there on the skyline as we went to Herculaneum.

I said that visiting Pompeii was “sobering,” but the primary thing that going there did for me was to help me envision what a Roman city was like.

Herculaneum was different. It was even more immediate – more “real.” That’s because of the way the city was destroyed.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was mostly out of the immediate ash cloud. In Pompeii, the city was largely buried by ash and small rock debris to a depth of several meters in the first few hours. This caused roofs to collapse, and entombed people in ash after they suffocated or died from blunt trauma.

Not so in Herculaneum. They only got a few inches of ash initially. This meant that they had a lot more time for the city to be evacuated. But when the blow came to Herculaneum, it came very swiftly – in the form of a pyroclastic flow of molten rock and debris moving at 100 mph and at a temperature of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those who were in the city died almost instantaneously, their flesh vaporized in the heat. All that was left was bone.

Likewise, structures were encased in the molten mass, and it happened so quickly that wood didn’t burn – it was carbonized, turned to charcoal, sealed in super-heated rock. Roofs didn’t collapse, as the structures were filled inside as well as covered over on the outside. Eventually, the entire city was covered to a depth of more than 20 meters. The result was a city which was even better preserved than Pompeii. Better preserved, and because of that more tangible. You couldn’t help but walk the streets, enter the houses, and feel like you were in a living city, one which had just misplaced its populace. The ghosts were still close here:

Vesuvius waits.

 

The boathouses where the final refugees died.

 

Courtyard of the baths.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Carbonized rafters.

 

Street scene.

 

At the wine merchant’s.

 

Wood on the outside of the wine shop.

 

A local snack bar.

 

Another street scene.

 

Wooden screw press, now carbonized and behind glass. This was probably used in the making or cleaning of cloth.

 

City above, city below. (Ercolano – the modern city, and Herculaneum).

 

* * * * * * *

It was our last night at the villa. Usually this is something of a party night for everyone, and for much of the group this was true. But somehow I just wasn’t really in the mood.

Jim Downey
PS: there’s an excellent collection of additional images from this trip, taken by Angie Bohon, another member of the group. They can be seen here, here, and here.



Italy, 2012: Arc of a Diver.

It’s funny the connections that your mind makes.

More on that later.

* * * * * * *

Saturday, July 21, was an all-day outing. This in large part due to the fact that to get to the site we were visiting required a couple hours on the bus.

So we had breakfast, gathered our things, picked up a picnic lunch prepared for us by the villa staff, and headed to Paestum, about 50 miles the other side of Naples. But to get there isn’t simple and involved dealing with a huge amount of “beach traffic.”

I don’t have a great deal to say about Paestum itself. Which is surprising, because I found it to be a pretty damned impressive site. The Wikipedia article linked above covers everything better than I could off the top of my head, and the simple facts of the place are pretty basic: settled by the Greeks sometime around 550 BC, with a strong Oscan influence/component. The Romans took the city over about two hundred years later, and made it their own (mostly by leveling the extant city and starting over – but doing so by covering over the older city, and leaving the three major temples). The city survived until the early Middle Ages, then was lost for about a thousand years.

What’s impressive – striking, even – is that those three temples are so damned BIG. Seriously, you look at something like this:

The Second Temple of Hera.

and it’s hard to get a handle on the scale of the thing. But here’s the same structure with people in front of it:

And it’s the same with the other temples. Which were all built from 550 BC to 450 BC. That’s 2,500 years ago.

Damn.

I also just didn’t know that Paestum existed. I thought I would have to go to Greece to see such temples. That also impressed the hell out of me.

So, without further ado, here are some images to share from the site:

Temple of Athena.

 

Temple of Athena.

 

Second Temple of Hera – side view.

 

Another view of the Second Temple of Hera.

 

Temple of Hera.

 

Temple of Hera – another view.

 

Steve lecturing as we sit on the Roman ruins.

 

The Roman amphitheater.

* * * * * * *

We finished up on the archeological site of Paestum, and then went across the street to the museum. There’s a lot in there to see, but we were primarily there to see an incredible collection of tomb paintings dating back to about 470 BC. These are notable for several reasons, including being some of the earliest renderings depicting gladiatorial games. One painted tomb in particular stands out: the Tomb of the Diver.

Here are a series of images from the collection, starting with my pictures of the Tomb of the Diver paintings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * * * * * *

After spending a nice long while sweating in the museum (this is Italy, remember, and the place was without any real climate control. Hell, most of the galleries only had one or two working lights on the track lighting systems, with another 20 – 30 bulbs burned out. Given that this included the tomb paintings, which have to be somewhat light-sensitive, I wasn’t too upset.) We were free to do a bit of souvenir shopping, and this was a good place for it. Near the museum/across from the archeological site there were a whole series of shops offering all manner of stuff ranging from the worst kind of kitsch to better kinds of kitsch to some actually halfway decent items. I completed some small purchases, then went off in quest of a beer.

Several other members of the group had the same idea. And before long we had a nice chat & drink session going across the parking lot from where the bus was to pick us up.

There was a lot of snoozing on the way back to the villa.

Jim Downey

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum: So, odd connections.

When I first saw the images of the Tomb of the Diver, it rattled something deep in my memory. It took me a while, but in poking around online after I got back, I sorted out what it was. This:

Now, Winwood’s Arc of a Diver came out in 1980. The album cover was the work of Tony Wright.

Did Wright see the main image from Tomb of the Diver, and so draw inspiration from it? No idea. But the discovery was made in 1968, and so it is certainly possible. And while the album cover is clearly in a different style, there are some similarities I find curious. Note the stylized human form. The depiction of the plant limbs. The general orientation of the diver.

It’d be fun to ask Wright, see if he remembers.



Italy, 2012: Source code.

I had mentioned previously that there “just happened” to be a major Roman coloseum behind our villa.

Well, no, actually, I said that the villa was built as the base for an archeological expedition to excavate and explore said coloseum.

 

“Our” coloseum.

But why was the coloseum there?

Friday afternoon, following a routine morning workshop and delicious lunch, we went to find out.

* * * * * * *

It started with a walk. Not a long walk. But one which came with a certain degree of excitement. Because we had to walk along about a half mile of heavily-used road. Which had no sidewalk. Which was only barely big enough for two cars to pass one another. And which was entirely on a long blind curve.

Yeah, fun.

Actually, we did it just fine, though on the way back later that afternoon two cars smashed side-view mirrors getting past us, sending bits of each flying. That was exciting.

Much too exciting. More than a few of us got a good set of scratches from stepping off the road into the blackberry bushes along the side when it happened.

* * * * * * *

Anyway.

We were going to Cumae.

Well, actually, we were *in* Cumae all along, from the villa to the actual archeological site. *That’s* why the coloseum was behind our villa: it was part of the whole settlement.

But we were going to see the oldest part – which was Greek, and dated back to about 800 BC. They came from here:

Ischia.

 
Recognize that? It’s the same island you can see in the first image in this travelogue. It’s Ischia. Which is where the Greeks first established a trading colony. Which they used as a base for establishing Cumae a short time later.

Here’s Ischia again – from on top of the Cumae settlement:

And here are some other images from the upper part of the settlement, which was first a Greek temple (to Apollo?), then a Roman temple to Zeus, then an early Christian basilica:

The larger blocks at the bottom of the structure are typical of Greek building techniques.

 

 

 

 

During the Christian era, graves for the clergy were dug within the basilica. Here are some images showing those:

Tight fit.

 

See?

* * * * * * *

Below the temples at Cumae was something quite special: the Cumaean Sibyl. Special because of the role that this Sibyl played in the early legends of Rome. The Sibyl was later employed by the Christians as having been a prophet of the birth of Christ. (And you thought that retconning was a modern idea…)

Here’s where the Cumaean Sibyl was supposed to have resided:

 

Looking in …

 

… and looking out.

 

* * * * * * *

As noted, the entire Roman settlement at Cumae was quite substantial. As we descended from the hill where the temples were, then past the Sibyl’s Cave, we came to the lower settlement area which contained plenty of evidence of a full set of Roman baths as well as a Forum and other structures. Here’s an overview of that area from the hill:

 


And here are some images from down among the ruins:

 

Note the terracotta pipes, used to draw steam through the walls and heat a sauna.

 
And here’s another shot of the coloseum, after we got back to the villa, to tie it all together.

 


* * * * * * *

One last thing, which explains why I titled this travelogue the way I did.

Cumae is important for one other reason, which I didn’t know until I started doing some research for writing this, and which has a very direct connection to my writing this.

Specifically, Cumae is the home of the Cumaean Alphabet. Which was a form of Greek used by those early colonists. It was adopted by the Etruscans, then by the Romans, and is the source of what we know now as the Latin Alphabet. Which became the alphabet we use today.

Jim Downey



Italy, 2012: Revelations.

Thursday morning (July 19) I spent time catching up on notes about the trip so far. At least that was the excuse I used to hide a while, spending time alone. Oh, the group was great, and everyone continued to be very easy to get along with and welcoming. But I had been spending much more time with people than I was used to, and my “extrovert batteries” were worn out. Furthermore, the rough & tumble of Naples just left me mildly depressed and feeling entirely unenthusiastic for the day’s outing.

Which, of course, set the stage for something completely remarkable to happen …

* * * * * * *

Following the morning workshop, then lunch, we loaded into the bus and headed for Baiae.

First, up to the top of Baia Castle, to take in the sights and to see a collection of sculptural items at the Archaeological Museum of the Campi Flegrei (Phlegrean Fields).

Baia Castle is your fairly typical 15th century European castle. But it offers some great views of the Bay of Naples:

 

 

One small note: you may recall having heard that the Roman Emperor Caligula once commanded that a pontoon bridge be built spanning the Gulf of Baiae, supposedly so that he could ride a horse across it and fulfill some prophecy. Well, that evidently actually happened, and said bridge crossed that middle image – going from the shore below the castle across to the port area on the left side of that picture, a distance of more than 3 miles.

The upper portion of the museum is a collection of Greek-inspired sculptural and architectural elements. But it was downstairs that I experienced something of an epiphany.

* * * * * * *

An apology to those who are just reading these travelogues for a bit of info about this portion of Italy. Because I’m going to talk about my fiction writing for a moment. If you haven’t read my current novel and have no interest in it or the prequel I am currently working on, feel free to skip this section.

This will also contain possible “spoilers” for both novels, as well as a bit of a reveal of the smoke & mirrors behind writing a novel. You’ve been warned.

As those who have read Communion of Dreams know, there are a number of scenes which pertain to one character’s dream-visions. Which, it turns out, are drawn from the dream-visions of another character in the book.

Those scenes are choc-a-block full of imagery which references Campbell’s monomyth ideas. Having them play out, be transferred, from one character to another within a dream-vision was a little bit of meta-synecdoche on my part, and was obviously meant to reference both the title of the book as well as what happens in the course of the story.

OK, that’s easy enough. Now, the prequel I have been thinking about and working on (by fits and starts) for the last several years is titled St. Cybi’s Well, and the time of the novel is today (though on a slightly different timeline/reality than our own). And the main character for that book is one of the characters mentioned just above. He is, in fact, the character from whom the dream-visions are drawn. That has been my plan all along.

What has also been my plan, but which I hadn’t quite been able to sort out how to accomplish, was that in St. Cybi’s Well much of the story will revolve around *how* this character came to have those dream-visions in the first place. This is further complicated by the fact that I don’t necessarily want the character to realize the full import of what he experiences within the context of the story – the reader should be able to draw out conclusions which the character wouldn’t, especially if the reader had already read Communion of Dreams.

OK, got all that? So, here’s what I experienced at Baia Castle: the revelation that the classical sculptures of Greek and Roman mythology could themselves be the conduit for the dream-visions. I got this by walking through the collection – not just walking through it, but by seeing the juxtaposition of different sculptures within the somewhat under-lit and under-stated layout of the museum.

See, like in most of the museums we had visited, the climate control there was non-existent. And whether in order to keep down temps a bit, or just to save money on electricity, the only lighting throughout the space was from windows along one side of the building. And the layout of the building was a series of almost cave-like ‘bunkers’ – rooms which were kinda long & narrow with a relatively low ceiling, and done up in neutral grey tones.

It was perfect. And in a moment my mind made the leap to imagery for St. Cybi’s Well. Because, like many of the different ‘holy wells’ in Wales, it dates back to the middle of the 6th century – not that long after the fall of Rome. And, in fact, the spread of Christianity to the Celtic lands was part of the cultural transference which took place. It’d be easy to tweak the history just a bit to include ‘lost’ sculpture & myth.

I felt in that moment the same way I feel now: like laughing maniacally.

* * * * * * *

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled travelogue.

The sculptural collection at Baia Castle was pretty remarkable in several regards. Here are a few of the more striking images:

Stick your favorite deity in the slot…

 

Prometheus. Not Ridley Scott’s version. The original.

 

Marble cinerary urn.

 

Bone box.

 

Marcus Aurelius

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was the huge Roman bath/resort complex at Baiae.

Prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this had been one of the premier places for the rich and powerful to gather and relax. Because of the hydro-thermal springs, Roman engineers were able to construct an elaborate complex which offered naturally hot mineral waters. Avoiding the need to run furnaces meant that the whole thing was cleaner and could be scaled *way*up from what was typical. As a result, at the height of the complex it was some 6 stories high along the hillside, and spanned 3 or 4 modern city blocks. Here are some images to give a sense of the size and luxuriousness of the complex:

Along the entrance.

 

Further along.

 

Floor mosaic. The floors are covered with a layer of dirt/dust – splashing water on the surface gives a sense of how it would have looked originally.

 

Another portion of the floor mosaic.

 

Another floor mosaic.

 

A sense of the size of the complex.

 

 

Note the dome in the middle distance – just one of several in the complex, used as one of the sauna rooms.

* * * * * * *

Following our visit to the Roman baths, we ventured to see how more modern Italians enjoy the seaside: we went to the beach.

Now, beaches in Italy are different than most of the beaches I’ve been to here in the U.S. Not that I’ve spent much time at beaches in the U.S. in the last twenty years.

Anyway, modern Italian beaches are highly commoditized. You pay for entrance. You pay for a reserved parcel of beach, which comes with an umbrella. You pay for a chair or chaise lounge. It is less like going to a beach than it is like going to Disneyland.

You can see this from a pic I took from Baia Castle, looking down:

Beach complex.

And here’s what it looks like from ground level (at a different beach):

Welcome to Disneyland.

 

Doesn’t that look fun?

But what the hell. A few hours at the beach was something a lot of people enjoy, and the bulk of the group was happy with the arrangement. Most of them donned swimming suits and even got a bit wet.

Me? No thanks. I burst into flame when exposed to direct sun. And I’m not exactly in what you might call “beach condition”. I was perfectly happy to park at the bar with a couple other people and enjoy some cold beer.

Besides, I wanted to mull over the revelation I’d had earlier. Such moments are rare, and not to be wasted.

Jim Downey



Italy, 2012: Nasty Naples.

OK, I’m going to get this right out in the open: I don’t like Naples.

Driving through the outskirts of the city previously, it seemed nice enough on first glance. But when you looked closer, that changed. At least it did for me.

I mentioned in the first of these travelogues that Italy had a somewhat casual attitude about many things, and that you just learned to roll with unexpected changes or closures or whatnot. No big deal. At least it wasn’t in most of the (admittedly small) part of the country I got to see.

But in Naples, that “roll with it” attitude is seriously tested. Because it seems like the whole city, and most of the population therein, is *trying* to make things difficult. Difficult for you. Difficult for one another. Difficult for themselves.

You expect any large city to have some not-so-nice areas. For some buildings to be a bit run-down. For the infrastructure to have the occasional problem. In Naples, all of this seems to have been taken almost to an art form. Lots of large apartment complexes look like they’ve been through a war – facades crumbling, paint long since peeled off, iron railings staining walls with rust. There are huge swathes of shanty-towns along the highways, as bad as the worst areas I’ve seen in developing countries. And where another country might have an odd exit ramp closed for maintenance, around Naples there were multiple such ramps and roads which were just fenced off and then used to pile garbage and the sort of debris generated by any large road system: tires, car body pieces, general crap which hadn’t been tied down properly, construction scrap, et cetera.

I was surprised to find out that the port of Naples has the world’s second-highest passenger flow in the world. The city is one of the major metropolitan areas in Europe. It’s almost 3,000 years old, and has a proud and colorful history. But today it is widely considered to be badly corrupt, and the advantages it has due to location and heritage are seemingly squandered.

* * * * * * *

After a morning workshop (I took some notes about the trip, enjoyed walking around the grounds of the villa a bit) and a nice bit of lunch, we loaded up to drive into Naples. Our first stop was the Naples National Archeology Museum. Now, you’ll note that if you go to their website, it is in Italian. Even though the link I used was supposedly for the English-language version. And I can’t find a way to change it to English. Clicking on the ‘English’ icon doesn’t seem to change anything. Which pretty much epitomizes my rant above.

This is a very substantial museum – both is size and in importance. It is said to be the most important archeological museum in Italy. It’s also a bit of a mess.

I’m not picking on the museum because I don’t like Naples. No, it’s the other way around: part of the reason I don’t like Naples is because of this museum.

What didn’t I like? Well, once again, the only climate-controlled area is in the main entrance hall and adjacent galleries. Which are full primarily of sculpture and ceramics. Some very nice sculpture and ceramics, works of art which need to be preserved and cared for, but nonetheless they’re much more stable than many of the other artifacts held in the collection. Artifacts such as extremely fragile wall paintings which were removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Artifacts which are in galleries which just have open windows, and so subject to high humidity and temperature variations.

 

* * * * * * * *

One last point, and then I’ll stop bitching about the state of the museum.

As noted, this is a very large facility, and a huge collection. Yet for whatever reason, they just randomly close off whole galleries. This isn’t done by the museum administration, it isn’t some clever plan to rotate exposure of the collection to help preserve it or anything. No, it’s just done by the guards. As in, one guard will get tired of standing, or bored of being by him/herself, and so close off a gallery and go sit and have a chat with another guard in a nearby gallery. It’s common to find two or three guards sitting on a couple of chairs or a bench, chatting away, half-heartedly keeping an eye on the throngs of people passing through the place, while a nearby gallery has been “closed” with a barrier rope and a couple of stands.

At one point either Steve or Amy had to go off and roust one of these guys to come open up a gallery which they had just closed, since it contained some of the most important wall paintings which Steve wanted to show us. It took some convincing, but worked. And when we were done, the guard closed off the section behind us as we left, and went back to having a good conversation with his two buddies in a nearby gallery.

* * * * * * *

Some of the items I took pics of inside the museum, where it was allowed:

Looking down on the Great Hall.

Roman dogs.

Decorative tombs.

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaic.

Part of the Roman erotica collection. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erotic_art_in_Pompeii_and_Herculaneum

* * * * * * *

After we had gone through and seen a number of specific items that Steve wanted to present to the group, we had some time to just explore the museum. I did so, but still had some time to kill. So I decided to pop out into the surrounding neighborhood and hit a couple of the “tobacchi” shops in quest of some stamps for the stack of postcards I had.

The first one did have some stamps. But they weren’t sure what postage I needed to mail to the US. And the denominations of the stamps were such that even to mail within the EU, you had to overpay what was required.

And they only had enough for just a few postcards. Sorry. The prospect of referring me to another nearby “tobacchi” store which might have more seemed to be offensive – why the hell did they want to help either me or the other stores?

So I hoofed it down the street a ways. From a distance I could see two more of the little standard signs the places used.

The first one had a workman doing something to the ceiling of the place, and he had a ladder up in the doorway. I tried to ask whether I could come in, or whether they even had stamps, and was basically told to piss off, complete with a few fairly universal gestures to drive home the point.

I moved on. Down at the bottom of a hill I found the location of another shop. But it had been shuttered for some time, given the disreputable state of things. I asked a couple of nearby people who were waiting for a bus and was once again told to piss off. The guy sitting outside his cheap shoe shop next door wasn’t even that nice about it.

I gave up. Hiked back to the museum to wait for our bus. Probably just as well – one of the four postcards I mailed was to my home. It still hasn’t shown up. I’m glad I saved a buttload of money and just brought the cards home and mailed ‘em from here.

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was Vergil’s Tomb, which is in a nice little park-like location overlooking the city.

Naples.

 

More Naples. Note Vesuvius in the not-too-distant background.

Whether Vergil’s bones are still in the tomb is anyone’s guess. But the group enjoyed going there, and we all drank a tribute to him.

* * * * * * *

We got back to the villa in early evening, in time for a shower and a drink or two before dinner. Going into Naples was depressing enough that I needed that drink or two. Or perhaps it was just because it had now been a full week that I had been in Italy, and the inevitable travel-weariness was starting to catch up to me.

Jim Downey



Italy, 2012: Pompeii, past and future.
August 4, 2012, 4:48 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Italy, Religion, Society, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am not an archeologist. I was not trained as an archeologist. I do not think like an archeologist (as was pointed out in this review of Communion of Dreams). As a result, it is difficult for me to look at fragmentary building foundations, or bit & pieces of walls, and envision a complete building. Extrapolating from that, it is even more difficult for me to envision a complete Forum, let alone an entire city. Particularly in Rome, all the subsequent over-building of the last 2,000 years made it all but impossible for me to really picture what a Classical-era city would look like.

Pompeii changed that.

* * * * * * *

First, a brief  refresher of what happened to the city of Pompeii in August of 79 AD is probably in order. (Yes, there are plenty of books and documentaries which cover this ground. And for an excellent and fairly short synopsis, I highly recommend Ann Pizzorusso’s new 4-part series, which can be found here: Pompeii – The Last Days. Seriously, Ann explains some fairly complex science in terms anyone can understand – a real skill I respect greatly.)

See this?

Mount Vesuvius as seen from the Forum of Pompeii.

That’s Mount Vesuvius, as seen from the Forum at Pompeii. It is currently 4,203 feet (1,281 meters) tall.

Take a look at that picture again. There’s a peak off to the left side of the overall mountain. That is the current cone of the volcano, and the height today measures to that point.

But if you extend the slope from the right, and the slope from the left, up until they would meet, that would be some 3,000 feet higher. That’s where the volcano used to be, before the eruption of 79 AD. It is estimated that during the course of the eruption the volcano lost something on the order of 1.5 cubic miles of material.

*That* is what happened to Pompeii (and Herculaneum as well as a number of smaller towns in the area). That material was deposited over the surrounding area as a combination of ash, rock, and pyroclastic flows.

Pompeii was first subject to heavy ash and debris falling from the sky. Some of this material was incendiary. All of it was heavy (well, when you get a couple meters of such material, it adds up). Roofs caved in, buildings collapsed. Toxic gases settled into lower areas, suffocating people. This was the first phase of the destruction, and lasted some 12 to 18 hours, tapering off towards the end enough that many of the survivors in the city were able to seek their escape.

Then a series of pyroclastic surges hit the city. The first couple seem to have been unable to break through the city’s walls on the north side. Subsequent ones flowed over the walls, blasting through the city of 20,000 in a minute or two. Anyone who hadn’t escaped died very quickly and very violently, basically being vaporized. Buildings which still protruded above the massive ash & pumice blanket were blasted away. People who had died and were buried by the ash were now sealed in by the molten rock of the pyroclastic surge. Hence the existence of the ‘body casts’ created by pouring plaster into voids discovered during excavations. Like this one, in storage amongst a bunch of amphora:

* * * * * * *

I said that visiting Pompeii allowed me to envision what a Classical-era city looked like. In part that is because the way the city was buried meant that there is much more of it left. The buildings aren’t just foundations and fragments (though they’re hardly complete). More importantly, the city hasn’t been over-built by generations of people who were re-inventing it. You get to see exactly how the city looked as a working city.

And, curiously, adding in thousands of tourists (the city get some 2.5 million visitors annually) actually made it easier for me to think of it as a living, working city, not just ruins. You’ll see what I mean in the following selection of pictures. Rather than try to give a tour of the city, I’m just going to select a good sample of the images I took, add some brief captions, and go from there.

* * * * * * *

Avenue of private tombs, outside the city walls.

Gate into the city. Part of Vesuvius is visible in the background.

 

Exterior of the colosseum at Pompeii.

 

Another portion of the exterior.

 

Interior of the coloseum. This would hold some 20,000 people.

Entry space of a small townhouse/villa. Partial plaster and pigment on the walls.

 

Painting under the portico of a small townhouse/villa.

 

Another portion of the portico of that townhouse/villa.

Small decorative image painted directly on the wall of this townhouse/villa. Not unlike how we put up framed images in our homes and offices.

 

Another small image.

 

A typical major street.

 

Another city street, this one with wagon wheel ruts from heavy use.

 

Interior of a temple courtyard.

 

Large temple near the Forum.

 

Large temple near the Forum.

 

Large temple near the Forum.

 

Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.

 

Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.

 

Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.

 

A bakery. The small free-standing stones in the background is a grain mill. The serving counter with embedded pots – which probably contained fast-food munchies of some variety.

 

Another bakery (these were all over – about one per block). Note the larger grain mill and oven in the background.

 

Looking down on the Villa of the Mysteries. The roof is modern, but the support columns are original.

 

Villa of the Mysteries columns from ground level.

 

Inside the Villa of the Mysteries.

 

Entryway to the root cellar at the Villa of the Mysteries.

 

Oven at the Villa of the Mysteries.

 

One of the mosaics at Pompeii.

 

Another of the mosaics still there.

* * * * * * *

We spent the whole day there, with a break for a picnic lunch sitting on the steps of a large temple, feeding the local pigeons and stray cats along with ourselves.

It was a good day. A sobering day. Walking in the ruins of an empty city – and I did come to think of Pompeii as a real city – was enlightening. Henceforth it was much easier to “see” the fragmentary Classical ruins as complete buildings.

But perhaps just as importantly, it was also easier to start to envision complete buildings as future ruins. More on that, later.

Jim Downey




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