Posted by: 4initalia | December 10, 2009

Italy is God’s Attic

A Dampening of Enthusiasm

We’re ten days from leaving. Has it been a year already? How can I leave now? I just found out that the Tabaccheria can recharge my bus pass. And Piero tells me that the best shoes at the open-air market, with the best leather at the best price, are sold by a vendor named Il Professore. And Elana showed me two new sweater vendors…. And….

But it’s getting cold, and a wet winter is a lot harder when you have nothing to ride in. I’m tired of getting soaked as I walk to the store, my head from leaky clouds, my feet from the puddles I can’t avoid, and from the side, as cars speed by and leave a sluice of mudspatter on my long black coat.

But I’ll never tire of Modena. It is a painting, with a million strokes, of shade and light and subtle color. It’s a thousand years of history, in buildings that have embraced for hundreds of years. It is the sound of bells, such proud voices, that for so many centuries have marked the hours, and warned the town of approaching danger. Piero told me that there is a language of bells; when he was a boy, every morning at 6 a.m., bells rang out the day’s weather: One bell for sun, two for clouds, three for rain, and four for snow. In the evening, while people pass below, the bells call to each other, “Are you still there?” “For eternity, like you.” “Till we meet again, my friend.”

Without a car, I walk in Modena to live, but I also live to walk. I have favorite rambles, to see places that satisfy every one of my senses. My walks begin in Piazza Grande, an ancient square studded with rounded cobbles gracefully bested by Italian women in stilettos.

Perched on the edge of the piazza is the Duomo, a grande dame draped in a luxurious stone cloak in vari-colored blocks of rose and creamy marble, like the coat from Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” Behind her is the bell tower, Torre della Ghirlandina, which for our entire year here has been sheathed in restoration scaffolding, but only recently has begun to emerge, like a butterfly from her chrysallis.

Last week I had a few hours to myself, so I struck out for my usual haunts. As I passed the Duomo, and its two medieval lions standing guard before the battered wooden door, I heard the organ playing. The door was locked, so I stood outside and listened. I love the power of church organs, but not the sound. Church organ music is often an annoying blither of ecclesiastical kvetching, or a towering crunch of cacaphony, a loud and loutish smudge.

But not this time. This organist literally pulled out all the stops. He tore up and down the scale in soaring crescendos, crystalline arpeggios, the music so monumental it could flutter the wings of an angel. Outside the church, I gloried in the melodic surge, a thousand tones clinging in harmony from every stone surface, falling lightly to my ears, in the square. Heaven sounds just like that.

Inside the Duomo – Pavarotti Sang In The Choir Here

The organ fell quiet, so I moved on, to the front of the Duomo, with its carved beasts of every description, and two Renaissance lions, snarling in agony with their stone faces upturned. Across from the Duomo, there is a secret street, Via San Eufemia, where buildings wrap around me, push away the cars and noise, where old Italy lies.

Italy is God’s attic. Along the streets, between commercial buildings, there are churches. For Italians, these are used for daily worship, for baptisms and burials, where families gather. But for a jaded American, accustomed to big box stores of stultifying sameness and graceless chapel beams of raw oak, an Italian church is gloriously disconcerting.

When I first arrived, I was afraid of open doors. I was afraid to step inside, because I wouldn’t know what to say when I got there. But now, in the freedom of language and leaving, I try them all. Italy has thousands of churches, tiny Venice has over one hundred of them. Modena has so many this town feels like a living Advent Calender. And every time I push open a church door I am astonished at the age and the art and the architecture of these buildings.

One of my favorites is La Chiesa Di San Eufemia. You would never know from her facade, but inside, she is as tiny and as gilded as a Faberge egg. I walked into San Eufemia the first time one evening in the middle of a service – and the church is so small, when I entered I was in the middle of the service. The mass, in Italian, held the velvet hush of bowed heads and softly rolling vowels; Italy, or God, is trying to claim me for Catholicism.

Still astonished by Eufemia’s trompe l’oile ceilings, painted to look like carved marble, I meandered down a cobblestone street, peering up at shutters hung centuries ago. Above the street, on the corner of a building, is perched a terracotta bust of the aristocrat who once owned this palazzo. A lovely sienna man who has been waiting for company for five hundred years.

My Terracotta Friend

The street ended in a long block of gray stone, with light radiating from a doorway cut into a dingy wall. I pushed on the glass doors They didn’t open, but a workman in gray overalls stepped up to help me: the doors slide apart. I stepped inside, and there was La Chiesa di San D’Agostino, a mammoth Renaissance behemoth built on a majestic scale: columns as thick as sequoias were topped with massive marble angels, pilasters, carving of every description. The ceiling was a series of murals – Moses with the stone tablets, the Arc. The marble and the paintings are dimmed by the smoke of centuries, but the audacity of the spectacle is impressive. And the altar, a wall of carved gold, glows.

All this, through a doorway I’ve passed a hundred times. My mouth would not close – how does Modena have so many treasures? And fabulous shoes, too??? These churches are all over Italy. I am overwhelmed each time I enter one. By a feeling is of hushed serenity, of the greatness of a God that can coax such beauty from its people. And by the thought of so much money spent by wealthy people to secure a spot in heaven.

San D’Agostino is amazing. But I have more time, and more places to see. There is a bicycle shop, “Bicycles Equipment, and Books or Curiosity” which looks like a shop window from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There are antique bicycles, artfully arranged, and antique books, and old valises. How do Italians do this? Make ordinary objects look like movie sets, make a walk so fascinating?

American Bike Shops Do Not Look Like This

I had never been to the Duomo Museum, so I stopped in. Three euros to enter, and there is no one there but me; lights click on as I enter each room. Filled with the treasures of the Duomo, the small museum proudly displays golden candlesticks, chalices, and reliqueries, elaborate containers for sacred relics. And there are vestaments, creamy silk embroidered with the palette of spring: powder blues, blush pinks, the fresh green of new shoots.

On the staircase of the Duomo museum, the sound of a voice lesson fills the chill air. A soprano voice learns “Adeste Fideles.” She sings in Italian, and her voice is more beautiful because she can’t control it. When a note is wrong, it sounds of burnished suede, but when she finds the pitch, it is lightest silk, floating to the sky. All of this on a stairwell, in a museum: I will never take another elevator.

Walking back on Via Emilia, a road built by Romans, I stroll beneath portici, covered walkways. Shops line the portici, and I savor every window. My favorite is a lingerie store. Such confections in lace and satin, on mannequins that revolve to show off every curve. One black number, a black satin thong, has a jeweled clasp at the back. Not a place I would put glitter, but Italian bodies are made for this kind of thing. On them it’s a fabulous idea.

Italians look good on the inside, too

I walk home, having had my fill of all my senses: in two hours, I’ve been carried into the sky with bells, an organ, a soprano. My eyes have drunk in the Duomo soaked in sunlight, the glittering letters of the bicycle shop, the spires of the ecclesiastical candlesticks. And I have breathed sewer gasses, tantalizing scents, the worst and the best of Italy. I’ve felt the cool air on my skin, I’ve tasted the satisfaction of having lived well.

This is my Modena, and this I will miss. But for now, I have to wash some clothes.

Did you know that Modena holds a memorial to 9/11, and in 2009, she held a ceremony to dedicate the memorial? See

Pavarotti sang in the colors of Modena, and his town honors him with a concert every September:

Or did you know about Modena’s street market? Laugh with me about trying to buy pants….

Or then there was the time we had to be rescued by Italian firefighters…..



  1. SO , in this, your last taste of Italy, you have awakened my own Italian memories, heightened my own appetite…..not in the previous blog’s eulogizing of all foods Italian…..but in your daily retelling of all things Italian: in the colors, textures, tones, frustrations, gifts that creep into the body and soul like an osmotic elixir when one sees Italy beyond the vacuum of a Holiday Inn and the sterile tour packages that let the visitor see but not touch what is truly Italian, truly Italy.

    My Italian soul is soaring,–and as you recount the bramble of roads, the unpredictability of repairs, hot water, transportation, temperments ,and weather, the lovely surprises arriving with every twist and turn (tiny churches bursting with treasures stunning us into silent devotion , glorious organ strains pushing through solid wooden doors, pastas surely formed by the hands of God, the rainbow of the countryside displayed in a shop window, clots of people filling up the night piazzas to greet one another and share a meal, a gelato,a luscious cappucino, a glass of ruby wine)– I am transported once again and with gratefulness to the gilded mercato that is all of Italy: the little flashes of silver something glinting in Tuscan sunlight; the dashes of color peeping from beneath a framed moment ( gold of sunflowers, roses of sunsets, blue mornings on winter cobblestones); clashes of Italian voices arguing on the street and jeering at the Genovese in the soccer stadium; hushes of Italian lovers whispering behind a portico, aching from a Pavorotti aria, sighing by a Venetian canal, weeping near the Pieta, lusting :for the endowed signorina leaning against an ancient stone backdrop, for the burst of love that is gelato, for the beauty in each moment, for incredible Italian shoes, for the sensibility of the amazing Italian soul.

    Thank you, Andrea. Thank you. Mille grazie e un millione di piu. Auguri a te. Ciao… and… hello.

    • Maxine –

      This is so beautiful – you should have your own blog!! So many images, to capture the essence of Italy – thank you for sharing your memories, in such a poetic way! Now, we need to go back……

  2. I finally have the time and the chance to check out your blog and I’m fairly impressed. You write with eloquence, irony and humour.

    I agree with you about what a chore it is to do laundry here, hence, after much complaining my husband agreed to buy a dryer. I admire the way you write about laundry. It makes it sound so adventurous!

    And we love going to churches….not for religious reasons but for the exact same reasons you like it. Because they’re majestic. They’re each a piece of a art.

    I’m now off to read more of your posts.

    Rambles with Reese

    • Now that I’m back in the States, I appreciate my front-loader washer that gets my kids’ clothes clean in 45 minutes. I hang out the clothes on the line – but there’s no Fabio! Sigh…..

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I really like your writing style, great info , appreciate it for putting up : D.

    • Thank you! For a funny story about amazing Italian food and cooking in Italy, see “Reality Bites.” I see a lot of articles I’d like to check out on your blog “Chefs of the Coast.”

  4. […] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: