2014 Italy

PROLOGUE

Italy lives two lives: one in the present, one in the past. I like the one in the past.
And what a past it is: Vikings, elephants crossing the Alps, DaVinci, outfitting the Crusaders, Michelangelo, Mussolini, olive oil, Popes with illegitimate children. Back in the day, all roads really did lead to Rome. That’s because in many parts of the world there were no roads until Rome built them.

I’ve been to Italy four times, but this is my first trip to three of its most glorious parts:
* Sicily is the island crossroads between Italy, Greece, and Africa. Residents barely consider themselves Italian—or to put it another way, they think of themselves as the only true Italians.

* Tuscany is a spectacular landscape of vineyards dotted with hilltop towns whose names simply croon history: Pisa, Siena, Florence. This is where the Renaissance was invented, lived, and, sadly, ended—one of the greatest experiments in humanist governance and culture the world has ever seen.

* Emilia-Romagna, facing the Adriatic coast below Venice. That’s the Italy featuring cities such as Parma (Parma ham, Parmesan cheese), Modena (balsamic vinegar) and Brisighella (truffles, polenta). Most exciting to me is the chance to visit the thousand-year-old Bologna University, the oldest continuously operating university on earth.

Italy in the present is, frankly, in pretty bad shape. Its birth rate has plummeted, its government is dysfunctional (even for an Italian government, which is a pretty low standard), unemployment and corruption are a way of life, and no one knows what to do with the twin tidal waves of African and Arab immigrants.

Sounds great, no? I’ll write about it almost every day from October 8-22. Travel with me for two weeks and hear (and see) more about this familiar-yet-exotic country that has fascinated people for 25 centuries. Just scroll back to the top, enter your email address on the right, and click the Follow button. If you prefer using an RSS feed, just click here.

Grazzi!

By the way, to see my blogs from previous trips, just look to the right and click on the country about which you’d like to read (and view some photos).

THERE’S ITALY, AND THERE’S SICILY

Siracusa
October 10, 2014

While Italy only became a country in 1861 (thank you, Mr. Garibaldi), Sicily has been around roughly forever.

Situated between North Africa (Carthage), Greece, and the Italian mainland, its fate is to be a crossroads of civilizations over and over again.

This beautiful island of forests, fruit trees, and dramatic mountains was already inhabited when the Phoenicians arrived. Its famous bronze industry produced blades of the finest quality. It provided refuge for some tormented souls escaping north from the Trojan War.

In 735BCE Greek colonists migrated here, founding the town of Naxos. The island has always been more Greek than Italian. Subsequent colonists arrived from Corinth, Crete, and Rhodes; the race to settle the beautiful place was on. Doric and Ionic columns were built by their original designers. The indigenous Sicels, with their eternal flame near Mt. Etna, helped shape Greek mythology.

In 414BCE Athens pulled Sicily into the Peloponnesian War against Sparta by sailing into Syracuse (Siracusa), the harbor at the southeastern tip of the island. It was a bad mistake; the horseshoe-shaped harbor had no escape from the Spartan ambush, and a year later some 7,000 Athenians were captured and thrown into the immense 1000-foot deep limestone quarry behind the Great Theatre. I visited that quarry and that theatre today.

The theatre sits back into the small mountain from which it’s carved. It faces the harbor. In addition to providing theater-goers beautiful views, the arrangement makes for wonderful acoustics: the breeze blowing off the harbor keeps the sound snugly within the bowl of the hill around the stage and the seats.

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I clambered about the perfectly carved blocks that served as seats, aisles, and steps. It was easy to image patrons, wearing gowns and sandals, transfixed by the agonies of Medea and Electra.

The theatre and its environs were also a place to socialize, talk politics, and flirt. A 20-mile long aqueduct created a spring at the rear of the theatre (the front of the quarry, remember?). Inevitably, people started worshipping it, adding altars and burial grounds. The city built its main east-west street between the back of the theatre and the spring, adding to the bustle of the area.

I visited the quarry last. It looked as if a giant steam-shovel had gracefully emptied out an area the size of a football stadium. The walls were steep and smooth, marked by millions of parallel scratches made by the hand tools that had created and freed blocks of stone from the generous mountain.

I was the last visitor of day, which was perfect. At dusk it was still warm, and very quiet. Two-thousand year-old trees patiently stood guard. I could only barely hear the laments of the Athenian prisoners.

TWENTY-FOUR CENTURIES IN ONE BUILDING

Siracusa
October 11, 2014

I spent a lot of time with this one beautiful old building today.

After the Siracusans defeated the Carthaginians in the 5th century BCE, they erected an enormous temple to Athena. On its plinth were dozens of giant fluted marble columns, each several yards in diameter. Built on an exact east-west axis, it also had a series of giant columns inside holding the colossus up.

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Surrounded by a large piazza, the temple was a marvel, intended to stand forever. And it has, with some modifications.

The Romans didn’t touch the thing, but after Constantine both Christianized and split the Empire, that changed everything. In the 7th century the Byzantines (who inherited, developed, and eventually lost what was left of the Roman Empire) took the thousand-year-old temple and turned it into a church. They plastered up the spaces between the exterior columns, closing in what had been an inviting open space (insert favorite anti-Christian insight here).

Wall Modifications

Wall Modifications

A few centuries later the Normans (Vikings from northern Europe) sailed in and masterfully blasted out the set of interior columns along the rear wall, adding newfangled windows and enlarging it into a cathedral. When the baroque-era Spanish took over, they added side chapels and fortress-like crenellations on top. After the 1693 earthquake badly damaged one side of the building, revealing some structural weakness, the Spanish shored it up and added a gorgeous front–and, ironically, added one of the baroque era’s signature architectural items: stylized, fake Greek columns.

Later modifications

Later modifications

And that’s how it looks today: an incredibly graceful, patient building that started life as a Greek temple, was turned into a Byzantine church, evolved into a Norman cathedral, and then became a church-fortress of the renaissance-era Spanish.

Walking around the perimeter, you can actually see many of the original exterior Greek columns, now exposed to the elements. Looking up, you can see the then-new Byzantine roof-line. Inside, the Spanish chapels to their various saints are filled with paintings, gruesome little bones and other relics of the martyrs, and electric candles that consumers turn on for a Euro while praying.

Pagans. We’re all pagans to every religion except one. Atheists just go one religion further.

WANDERING THE MOUNTAIN OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH

Siracusa & Pantalica
October 12

After packing up and leaving Ortygia (the oldest part of the ancient city of Siracusa, in southeastern Sicily), we hit the road, driving northwest. About 20 minutes outside of town I asked “what’s that?” So we stopped at what turned out to be an enormous old cemetery.

Sooner or later, it seems that every group of people is obsessed with death. The obsession comes in infinite forms: Greek tragedies, Day of the Dead, Plague Pillars, Egyptian mummification, Masonic burial rights, on and on.

This cemetery was a great example of that very human concern. The inner side of the exterior stone walls had hundreds of two-foot by two-foot vaults stacked six high, where working people were interned. The middle classes were buried in the ground underneath small slabs. Along the cemetery’s main boulevard were the mansions of the wealthy.

Yes, mansions. These mausoleums, most over a hundred years old, are elaborate works of art. The architecture, stone carving, and design are worthy of the finest church. Spiral columns, delicate cherubs, suffering Jesus, and exotic palms—all in stone—decorated buildings that held up to 60 bodies of the well-to-do—or just a handful of those who had been extremely wealthy. The family name was typically carved at the top, sometimes with the family motto (“Honor, Courage, Faith”).

Of course, the richest and poorest have the same fate: here at the cemetery.

After an hour of ogling in the increasingly hot morning, we headed to a nature preserve conveniently located at a small strip of beach. Once again I remembered that what we call a beach in California, the rest of the world calls an enormous landscape of incredibly beautiful sand and enormous waves. This beach was less than a quarter of a mile long and only ten feet wide. Still, German and Danish tourists lapped it up like it was the Copacabana.

After enjoying the sea breeze for a short time we headed west for the day’s big deal: the necropolis of Pantalica. We drove into the rugged mountains and wound our way toward the top, admiring an increasingly-deep canyon on our left. Finally the driver pulled into a bare patch of scrub and said we’d arrived. I saw nothing besides rock and dirt.

Byzantine village @ neolithic necropolis

But with a little squinting I began seeing the caves, first a dozen or two, and when my eyes became accustomed to the glare, the distance and sheer magnitude of the site, I saw hundreds, thousands of them in the surrounding mountains: caves obviously enlarged and shaped by human hand. Neolithic humans had come thousands of feet up this inhospitable mountain to place their dead in caves.

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Pantalica was inhabited around 1250BCE, and was continuously settled for at least 600 years. People eventually expanded the burial caves and used them for dwellings and for religious observance. We saw a few faded frescoes, old stone path markers, and niches for candles and other worship purpose. The Byzantines eventually ran from Arab invaders and hid up here. It was some of the same players in the local succession that was becoming familiar: pre-history, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, European Baroque.

chapel, byzantine cave

No matter where I travel, the monuments that last through the centuries are always about one of three things: war, death, or religion. Often, of course, about two, or all three.

DEVASTATING SICILY, FROM ABOVE AND BELOW

Mt. Etna & Catania
October 12

Geologically speaking, the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate meet underneath Sicily. Not surprisingly, this is an area of frequent, devastating earthquakes—such as the one that flattened eastern Sicily (including Siracusa) in 1693. This, by the way, explains why most Baroque-style churches in Sicily are unexpectedly plain inside—because they were rebuilt after the earthquake in the then-current Baroque style, but no one had the money to decorate them up to standard.

The largest mountain in Italy south of the Alps also sits on that plane where the Plates meet, and it is an extremely active volcano—Mt. Etna. Today I drove west across the fault line and up the mountain.

As we slowly wound our way up, the Mediterranean scrub gave way to a beautiful pine forest. The air was clear, the temperature dropped to a delicious 72—and I was completely unprepared for what came above that. At 6,000 feet (halfway up the mountainside), the road opened onto an enormous plateau. Outside the car was an eerie scene of devastation.

Lava. Black, crunchy, now-hard lava. Everywhere. Miles and miles of once-molten, now rocky lava. It had been just another day at the office for Etna back in 2002, but for the villages, ski resort, and people in the area, it had been a catastrophe. With temperatures of 1,000 degrees, the lava had incinerated everything in its twisting race downhill.

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Refocussing my eyes to the horizon 100 miles away, I could see the black diagonal smears that were actually the miles-wide lava flows from 5,000 feet higher up. Given the random serendipities of nature and the logic of wind, gravity, and moisture, here and there a small piece of forest had survived, a green oasis in the landscape of nude beige tree trunks.

We walked around silently, enjoying the beauty of the day while pondering the destructiveness on display. The contrast was somehow perfect. Villagers were, of course, already rebuilding. “Who would live in the shadow of an active volcano?” I mused. I, who could lean out my window at home and throw a piece of lava at the San Andreas Fault.

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Exhilarated (and a little winded from hiking around at 6,000 feet), we drove back down the northern slop of Etna. I was flying out of Catania the next morning, so we headed for the city and the airport hotel.

It was still before 3pm when we arrived, so we drove into the rather unattractive provincial capital. On a suggestion from historians Ken & Gillian Bartlett (for my money the world’s experts on Italy), I went to an attraction with no website, not even a mention in Lonely Planet. It’s the museum of the 1943 World War II landing in Sicily.

As is true with every history museum I’ve ever visited, the unconscious message of the museum is as interesting as the displayed material itself. With a deep love of history, and with 35 years of professional sociology and psychology behind me, I can’t help but focus on historiography—the study of how any given history is conceptualized and presented. For other examples (he modestly said), check out my blogs from Ukraine, Poland, China, and elsewhere (conveniently located to your right).

Anyway, I don’t know much about it, but in 1943 the Allies successfully invaded Sicily, knocking Italy out of the war, more or less ending the war in North Africa, and distracting Hitler from his little drama in the East. It was a turning point of World War II.

This museum was dedicated to that series of events. The most riveting feature was dozens of contemporary newsreels. They showed Hitler and Mussolini together before, during, and after the Allied campaign; showed the bombing raids themselves; the Italian military response; the post-bombing devastation in town after town; and the Italians welcoming the Allies as the Germans retreated.

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The museum had to face several questions people have been debating for three generations: was Mussolini a visionary or a buffoon? Was he a victim of German manipulation, or a fool who was playing out of his league? Were the Italians cowards, naifs, cynical opportunists, or the collective victim of a madman? Were the Germans invaders and occupiers, or military allies who were supporting their Fascist colleagues?

The museum mostly tread gently with these questions, primarily suggesting that the newsreel footage spoke for itself. I asked the docent about the museum’s message, and she simply said “War hurts everyone. Peace is better.” Of course, no one can disagree with that (except the enormous crowds braying for blood on the eve of war almost everywhere, including Italy), but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Like every history museum, this one accomplished its basic mission with me. I learned a little, realized how much I don’t know about yet another subject, and made me promise myself to read up on and fill in yet one more missing link in my knowledge of world history. It’s a long project, never to be completed.

The museum also reminded me that not every destructive force shaping human life is an unavoidable, unpredictable creation of Nature.

TUSCANY, BEFORE AND SINCE ROME

Lucca
October 14

Yesterday I flew from Sicily to Pisa—same time zone, different world. Today I took a commuter train north from Pisa. In a mere 30 minutes I went back in time to Lucca, a wealthy and powerful city a thousand years ago.

But let’s start at the beginning. Founded by the Etruscans, it became a Roman city in 180 BCE. As usual, the Romans built a rectangular street grid, a Forum, and an Amphitheatre. Today I walked those streets, had a coke in the old Forum, and touched the stones of the Amphitheatre.

The Romans built an earthen wall around the lovely town and its vital water supply. Eight centuries later the Lombards arrived from over the Alps, followed by the Franks (remember Charlemagne?). The medievals incorporated the Roman wall into a brick one, adding a moat. A third wall was added in Renaissance times. Like any good tourist, I walked atop that wall, turned into a promenade in 1810 by Napoleon’s sister, who kept an eye on the place for him.

Lucca was on the Pilgrimage Route between Rome and Canterbury (even back then it was Location, Location, Location), so it became a trade center (like San Francisco when it outfitted the gold miners heading into the hills above it). After importing Mulberry trees, it became the center of Europe’s silk industry, getting richer. The city used its wealth to bribe various empires, including the Holy Roman, the Hapsburgs, and the Medici of Florence.

So what did I see today? Giant Roman building stones incorporated into Byzantine churches, Norman walls, and 20th century apartments (including an interior hallway with an electrical meter wound around a Roman amphitheatre column). Gothic vaulting holding up the ceilings of restaurants and ice cream shops.

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apartment hallway w/Roman amphitheatre gateway

The buildings told other stories, too. Our Lady of the Roses Church was too close to the new medieval wall, so its front was closed, its back redecorated to become its front, and the middle stretched out, with a new side door. You can see the date of its completion above the then-new door as clear as day: 1333.

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Rows of houses that had faced the old moat were just a little too close when the medieval wall was added, and so they, too, were turned around. Now the moat is like a canal, the medieval wall has become a street, and the houses still stubbornly turn their backs on it.

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Successive eras are documented in every building, every street, every Romanesque arch and Renaissance column. At the same time, Lucca is alive and modern: a bronze sculpture of local son Puccini sits, familiar cigarette in hand, in a piazza near where he lived. Instead of invading armies, one dodges the wheels of local bicyclists. Tourists and townies stroll side by side.

And the pasta is great.

PISA: MORE THAN A TOWER

Pisa
October 15

I had already seen The Tower, just a block from my hotel: on the day I arrived here, yesterday morning, and on returning to the hotel from a day in Lucca. It was lovely all three times. Today I saw it officially, with a guide. It was breathtaking.

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The fact that it leans, of course, is what everyone talks about. It’s what everyone wants to photograph. And honestly—it’s the least interesting thing about The Tower. Because it’s absolutely gorgeous. And it’s part of a dazzling architectural quartet of buildings in the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles.

Started in 1173, the Tower started to lean only 12 years later. Periodic attempts to straighten it only made things worse, and in 1350 it was topped with a bell chamber and considered finished. Two centuries later, Galileo used the lean in his famous experiments, dropping various objects off the top to demonstrate the properties of gravity.

The Tower and its companions are built of white stone with dramatic horizontal stripes of dark gray marble. Other vaguely Eastern influences inside and out remind us that Pisa prospered after its military victories over the Saracens—when they brought back Arab ideas and technology in science, architecture, and philosophy.

Next to the Tower is the Camposanto. Legend has it that knights returning to Pisa from the 4th Crusade of 1203 brought a boatload of soil from Golgotha to provide holy burials for important locals. To enclose this area an enormous Gothic-style cloister was built. The eight-hundred-year-old tombs are fascinating. But the period frescoes lining the walls are beautiful—all 2,000 meters of them. They’re still in various states of restoration from the Allied bombardment of 1944 that melted the lead roof of the place.

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As a bonus, I saw the hanging lamp Galileo used to study the properties of pendulums. And if that’s not enough, there’s a life-size statue marking the remains of local genius Fibonacci, who introduced the decimal point and zero into European use.

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The only other site in Pisa I want to mention is the Piazza dei Cavalieri, a lovely open oval space surrounded by a half-dozen large medieval buildings. It’s dominated by a statue of Cosimo Medici, First Grand Duke of Tuscany. To unify the area, he created the Knights of St. Stephen to fight the Turks in the 16th century. They beat the Turks and saved Christendom (for better or worse). They provided a large-scale enterprise for the second sons of Tuscany’s rich and powerful.

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Across the square from Cosimo is a tower in which a Pisan general was starved to death in 1208 for treason—a story written about in Dante’s Inferno and Shelley’s Tower of Famine. A straight, unadorned tower, by the way, noticed by almost no one.

HOW OLD MONEY LIVED (AND DIED) IN TUSCANY

Siena
October 17

After an uneventful evening train ride southeast from Pisa, I arrived in Siena, the geographic center of Tuscany.

view from hotel window

Siena is a two-thousand-year-old city undulated over a group of hills. Within its medieval walls is a simply ridiculous amount of breathtaking art in virtually every visual medium: sculpture, painting, marble floors, frescoes, tapestry, architecture. And that doesn’t count its gastronomic arts: pasta, wine, olive oil. And cooking.

Originally a Roman colony, the city took off in the 12th century when it controlled the Tuscan wool industry, the Paris-Rome trade routes, and the area’s banking industry. To this day, its primary industry is banking.

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But that all came to a halt in 1348 with the arrival of the Plague. Within five months, 2/3 of the city’s 100,000 people died. All construction (“development”) stopped, and so seven centuries later one climbs the twisting, atmospheric medieval streets just as they were back then. Workshops, osterias, and shops make strolling—or trudging—quite colorful, continually bringing the magnificent city down to human scale.

For almost a thousand years, Siena has been divided into 17 contrada, or neighborhoods. Set up as local militias in the rivalry with the Florentines, each has its own community identity, and its own church, museum, social club, and fountain. Children are baptized in their contrada’s fountain as well as in the church’s. To this very day, marriage between people from different neighborhoods can be problematic.

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I spent some time in the Rhinoceros-and-Oak contrada (for me, indistinguishable from the other neighborhoods), learning its lore and visiting its surprisingly large museum. Proud ceramics, flags from centuries of parades, historic paintings, and other heraldic items touting the orange-and-green filled the place.

It’s easy to get lost in the city’s medieval narrow warrens, but it’s hard to be regretful. Every street is an architectural museum: three, four, and five colors of brick on a single exterior wall, showing the evolution of the city’s kilns. Limestone, travertine, and marble replacing each other in monuments, reflecting changes in style, wealth, and aesthetic competition. Bricked-up Romanesque arches as building owners added stories that required extra strength. Thirty and forty feet above side streets, linking unrelated buildings in an attempt to stabilize them all.

The city’s straightest, most impressive street? It starts as the Street of Banks, past massive, classic-looking structures (the way U.S. banks looked when I was growing up). Past a dozen marble churches it becomes Via Roma, and passes through Porta Romana.

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You do remember where all roads lead, right? For merchants, bankers, pilgrims, and the restless, this one definitely did. And a thousand years later, still does.

ART FLOURISHES AS AN EMPIRE CRUMBLES

Ravenna
October 20

I’ve always been a little shaky on the period between the Romans and the Middle Ages. Ravenna, in eastern Italy facing the Adriatic Sea and Constantinople—Istanbul to you moderns—is where some of that period’s crucial history took place.

You’ll recall that as the Roman Empire became overextended, and under pressure from “barbarian” tribes from over the Alps, it split the Empire into Western (Roman) and Eastern (Byzantine) halves.

With Rome itself descending into political chaos, Ravenna became the capital of the Western Empire in 402CE. That Empire collapsed in 476 when conquered by the Ostrogoths. This powerful tribe ruled Ravenna until it was reconquered by the Byzantines in 540 (who held it for 200 years until they lost it to the Franks, but let’s not get distracted by modern history).

The Ostrogoths were considered “barbarians” because they challenged the Roman Empire. But they were Christian—Arian, “heretical” Christians. And so they expressed their passion in religious art: some of the most breathtaking mosaic art the world has ever seen. The Byzantines who replaced them did the same. I spent yesterday immersed in both.

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It’s hard to convey the depth of color, the meticulous veracity, and illusions of movement these craftsmen accomplished. Above is a detail from a 5th-century chapel ceiling. On the left are the books of the four gospels; on the right are eternal flames that you, uh, want to avoid.

Below is the mausoleum of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, who died in 526. His death opened the door for the Byzantines. Led by Justinian the Great, these easterners had different artistic tastes: less emotion, less naturalistic perspective, and less sensuality.

Mausoleum of Theodoric (525 CE)

And so below is part of the enormous side wall of the Basilica of Sant’Appollinare Nuovo, created by the Westerners. But see the curtains—they were created by the Byzantines and superimposed on the classical, sensuous figures in the windows, whose hands are still gracefully curling around the columns. The curtains are a triumph of mosaic art—but they are a 1500-year-old example of censorship.

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Of course, censorship’s political cousin, historical revisionism, is equally old. When the Byzantines captured Ravenna, they entered the one-of-a-kind Basilica—12 graceful marble columns on each side, each column topped with a Corinthian capital, the walls featuring bigger-than-life mosaics of two dozen apostles, saints and martyrs.

Not surprisingly, they found a mosaic portrait of Theodoric, one of the most powerful men on earth, the Basilica’s sponsor (from his own money, thank you, not a penny from the Roman Church).

They didn’t destroy it, perhaps out of reverence for a Christian, or appreciation for his artistic patronage, or mere superstition. But they did find a use for it. They obliterated Theodoric’s name from the glittering wall mosaic, and, for posterity, lovingly inserted the name of the new most powerful man in town—Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

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MIDIEVAL ART IN THE REAL WORLD

Bologna
October 21

I left my merry band of graduate students (who had funded my trip) and was driven to Bologna, a charming medieval city that’s home to the world’s oldest university. On an empty autostrade at 95 mph, it only took 85 minutes.

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Begun in the fourteenth century, San Petronio is the 15th largest church in the world—and it isn’t even half-finished. From the start, it was a high-stakes poke at mainstream Christianity: privately funded by wealthy Bolognese (rather than by the Church), set on a north-south axis (rather than the conventional east-west), and intended to be larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. The Pope was not pleased.

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At that size it took forever to build, and eventually the townspeople’s money and interest dwindled. The enormous rear was sealed in brick, the lower half of the front entrance was plastered, the interior was exquisitely decorated, and everyone called it a day.

front of unfinished church

The result is one of the finest gothic brick buildings in Europe. It features an innovative sort-of mosaic floor waxed to an even surface, and has a perfectly-positioned hole in the roof that throws a beam of sunlight onto an elegant interior sundial (made possible by the church’s north-south orientation, right?).

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But after five centuries of glory, the importance of the church’s architecture, science, and tombs are now dwarfed by one of its 15th-century frescoes, which has become a battleground of civilization. Giovanni da Modena’s huge painting measures some 25 feet by 75 feet, covering an entire wall of a side chapel. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, it shows heaven with God, Jesus, etc..

Then it shows St. Michael deciding who goes to hell—and it’s a cast of thousands worthy of Cecil B. de Mille. In gruesome detail, it shows followers of the seven deadly sins getting their eternal punishment. It shows bishops and even cardinals damned to eternal torment for corruption. Every historical movement that would divide the church is condemned. As one example, the Arian Heresy (remember Theodoric and the Ostrogoths of Ravenna?) gets a horrifying comeuppance.

Another divider who gets eaten by a monster is clearly labelled Mahomet—Mohammed. And wouldn’t you know it, some people don’t like that. Muslims tried to blow up the church (yes, really) in 2002 and again in 2006. The church is now heavily patrolled day and night. Yes, these people believe they have the right to dictate every single portrayal of whatever they decide is meaningful to them. They don’t understand it’s just a painting. They don’t understand it’s a 500-year-old document of contemporary cosmology. They don’t care that their precious Mahomet is only one of many, many beings who are damned in the picture—beings including officials of the Church.

The stupid painting is another front in the battle of civilizations—you know, the one we thought was settled centuries before flush toilets were invented. There is no moral equivalence between the Muslim ideology and other religious ideologies. As Sam Harris notes, such violence is not a fringe misinterpretation of the religion. It is embedded in the religion’s DNA. That’s why “moderate” Muslims can’t stop this plague.

Christians haven’t blown up each others’ pictures for half a millennia; they’ve decided to accept each others’ existence, and to pursue their competition through the marketplace of ideas. There are no Jewish suicide bombers. Only Islam claims the right to control the world by destroying it.

Memo to Muslims: a picture of your prophet isn’t your prophet. It’s just a picture.

I told my guide how much I admired the Bolognese for continuing to exhibit the fresco, paying for its security and possibly risking their lives.

On the extraordinary irony front, however, I was hassled several times by volunteers at the church who demanded I remove my hat. A sign of respect, they said. It’s their church, they said. Especially when viewing da Modena’s fresco, they said. “It’s just a building,” I said. “If you want to remove your hat, please do. I show respect my own way,” I said.

“No,” they said, “here you do it our way.”

At least these primitive, superstitious, authoritarian Christians aren’t trying to blow things up. They only want to control minds. And if you don’t like their building or their rules, they let you leave without converting.

I entered the fresh night air of the modern city to walk the old streets on my last night in Italy.

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