Canosa di Puglia Diary

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The Cathedral of Saint Sabinus

When I think of Canosa, this is what immediately comes to mind: the cathedral, archeology and Bohemund. A quiet yet dazzling city, Canosa can trace its history back to the seventh millennium BC, if not farther. Its name most likely derives from the word “cani,” which means dogs.

Canosa’s relationship with the Romans went through drastic changes. In 216 BC, when Hannibal defeated the Romans in the battle at Cannae – I saw this battlefield as well – the Romans were allowed to take refuge in Canosa. Later the city joined the opposition in a revolt against Rome. Then, under the guidance of Marcus Aurelius, Canosa achieved the status of a Roman colony.

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In 3 BC the city’s production of pottery received accolades. At that time, Canosa flourished as a rich city that minted its own coins. Construction thrived – many temples and thermal baths were built as well as an amphitheatre. An aqueduct was erected in 141. Canosa became a bishop’s seat under the Byzantines, but then was destroyed.

Under Norman rule, Bohemund of Antioch, whose original name was Bohemund d’Hauteville, took charge and revived the city. He held the titles of Prince of Taranto from 1089 and Prince of Antioch from 1098 until his death in 1111. This hero of the First Crusade gave the city treasures he had picked up in conquests at Antioch and Jerusalem, such as icons and reliquaries. During his reign, the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus was completed.

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Normal control of the city would come to an end, and the city would experience many hardships over the centuries, such as numerous earthquakes. The earthquake of 1689 destroyed the cathedral, for instance. Canosa was conquered quite a few times, too. While the First World War did not bring destruction to Canosa, an earthquake in 1930 did. Another tragedy followed 13 years later. There were 57 fatalities when the city was bombed during the Second World War. Canosa officially was given the title of City in 1962. However, the 1980s certainly did not start off well in Canosa. That’s when another earthquake struck. Now the economy derives mainly from agriculture and textiles.

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The images of Canosa that remain foremost in my mind are those of the cathedral. It enthralled me that every town in Puglia seemed to have an amazing cathedral. While I had not been a big fan of the Romanesque before this trip, I began to see dazzling beauty in the severity of the style. Architecturally, Apulian Romanesque structures were fascinating. I was only a few days into my week-long adventure in Puglia and already I had set my eyes on so many breathtaking gems. Each place had its own story to tell, and each story proved to be unique and riveting.

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The Normans had consecrated the cathedral to Saint Sabinus in 1101. Some elements of the original structure remain. The ambo dates back to the 11th century and has an austere appearance. In contrast, the bishop’s throne from the 12th century is by no means severe. It is decorated in Oriental style. I was mesmerized by the throne. Two elephant figures served as its legs, and other ornamentation included griffons, eagles and sphinxes. The attention to detail was astounding. For me this was the highlight of the cathedral and one of the highlights of my trip.

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The crypt was also intriguing with its three naves. The capitals on its columns once topped Roman monuments. The cathedral had undergone many changes during the centuries. In the 19th century, the façade was reconstructed, and one nave was extended in a Latin cross model.

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Another feature that had me in awe was the mausoleum of Bohemund, who was buried in a tomb in an adjacent square-shaped, domed edifice that featured one apse. It looked out-of-place next to the cathedral with its strange shape, but it definitely stood out. My favorite elements of this mausoleum were the two doors and their symbolism. One door had arabesque ornamentation and an inscription that praised Bohemund.

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The other boasted engraved figures. One showed Bohemund while another depicted his brother and rival, Ruggero Borsa. Two other figures symbolized their sons, Bohemund II and William, who had promised to end the family feud. By depicting Bohemund and his brother, they hoped that the siblings could resolve their differences in Heaven. The historical account rendered by the figures was intriguing, to say the least, and the plea for peace between the quarreling brothers was compelling. The attention to detail on the doors was amazing. I stared at those doors for a long time, unable to take my eyes away from the superb craftsmanship.

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The Mausoleum of Bohemund

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We also visited the Archeological Museum, home to some 2,000 artifacts found in Canosa. These objects included sculptures, marbles, coins, jewelry and pottery from Roman, early Christian and medieval Byzantine eras. The vases from around 3 BC especially caught my attention. It astounded me to think that this city had existed so long ago with so many ancient civilizations. To be sure, a sense of history seeped through the town. We also had a break, which I used to savor some gelato and a cappuccino.

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That’s not all there is to Canosa. Our schedule did not permit us to explore everything the city has to offer. There are also palaces, churches, a theatre, a castle ruin, temples and catacombs, for instance. However, we did get a firm grasp on the historical context of the city, the significance of the cathedral and Bohemund’s influence on the town. Then we were off to another destination, and I knew I would forever hold this city and the tales it told through its architecture close to my heart.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Altamura Diary

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We were to start our Tuesday in Altamura, but I was really looking forward to the next destination – the rock town of Matera. I thought that Altamura would be a place I would want to go through quickly in anticipation of our visit to Matera, which I had dreamed of seeing with my own eyes ever since receiving a postcard of the unique sight some years ago.

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It turned out that Altamura was not at all a place I wanted to visit quickly. I could have gazed at the cathedral the entire day.

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The door of the cathedral

Before our trip to Altamura, I had only heard in passing about the Altamura Man, the only complete skeleton of a Neanderthal, discovered as recently as 1993. I had read that around Altamura were the so-called masserie or large farmhouses, some even with turrets and watchtowers. Almond trees and vineyards were commonplace in the region.

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A sign asserting that bread has been made there since 1423

Altamura is not only famous for its archeological finds and cathedral but also for its bread, which has been produced there for centuries. Originally, each loaf had the mark of the family that had baked it. The Roman poet Horace was a keen admirer of the city’s bread. He praised it in his writing, too. “Their bread is so fine, the smart voyager makes sure he buys enough for his journey. . . .” We saw a small bakery where bread was being made, café tables set outside.

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Then we were ushered to the Church of Saint Nicholas of the Greeks with its simple façade. At one time, there had been a thriving Greek Orthodox community in Altamura. The simplicity of the design and large rosette dominating the façade gave the edifice a sort of intimacy. The portal was decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament, an adornment dating back to the 16th century. It was not open, but I was informed that inside there was one nave, some paintings from the 17th century and a baptismal font hailing from the 13th century.

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While gawking at the cathedral’s stunning facade, we learned more about the history of the city. Altamura was built on the remnants of a settlement hailing from 500 BC to 300 BC. During its Greek period (5 BC – 3 BC), the city’s high walls or “alta mura” were so wide that a chariot could be driven on top of them. In 1232 Emperor Frederick II, nicknamed “Stupor Mundi” or “Wonder of the World,” added to the population thriving colonies of Greeks, Arabs and Jews, so Altamura became a multicultural community. Plagues riddled the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 18th century, the city thrived, making a name for itself in the Kingdom of Naples.

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Then it was time devote all our attention to studying the exterior of the cathedral, an exquisite example of Apulian-Romanesque style with an exquisite portal of bas-relief figures that illustrated the life of Christ. Frederick II had the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption built in 1232, but disaster struck in 1316, when an earthquake destroyed it. Robert of Anjou was the leader who ordered the reconstruction of the three-nave structure, and one of the portals, hailing from the 14th century, bears his name. I was awed by the main portal with its intricate design. This is architecture at its finest, I said to myself. This is exactly what I came to see in Puglia – architectural gems that dazzled both the eyes and the mind.

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The interior of the cathedral was just as impressive. The ground plan of the three naves has a basilica model. The walls and columns boast rich ornamentation. The Neo-Gothic style plays a major role. The stunning wooden ceiling hails from the 19th century, and coats-of-arms representing emperors and kings decorate it. The marble altars feature paintings from the Neapolitan School. The carvings of the wood relief on the choir are splendid. Side chapels date back to the 17th or 18th centuries. One of the most significant chapels shows off two paintings that are some of the finest examples in south Italy. One depiction takes up the theme of Mary Magdalene, a work by Francesco Netti from 1877. Domenico Morelli’s Conversion of St. Paul is the other masterpiece on display.

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Of course, there is more to Altamura than its cathedral. We gazed in wonder at San Michele al Corso Church, built by the brotherhood of Purgatory in the 17th century. We marveled at the skulls and skeletons giving its simple façade a grotesque and macabre appearance. I later learned that inside the high altar and presbytery were Rococo gems.

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San Michele al Corso Church exterior decoration

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The Palazzo Vito De Angelis dates back to the 15th century and includes a Renaissance portal as well as a superb loggia. The Palazzo Filo hails from the 16th to 18th centuries and celebrates St. Philo, who was revered by Greek families. The Filo clan has made significant contributions to Italian history. The chapel and the arched portal are two of the architectural delights of this palace. I had ancestors named Filo on the Slovak side of the family, but, alas, they had nothing to do with the Altamura nobles. Most likely, they had been poor potato farmers in east Slovakia.

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A typical street in Altamura

Unique to Altamura, the claustri hold significant meaning for the city. These claustri take their name from the Latin claustrum, which means “closed space.” The claustri feature stairs, balconies, terraces, galleries, arches and loggia. They are certainly a treat for architecture buffs.

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The main altar in the cathedral

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Fantastic decoration in the cathedral

The history of the claustri can be traced to the settling of various ethnic groups during Emperor Frederick II’s reign in the 13th century. At that time, the various ethnic groups lived side-by-side, peacefully in a diverse, tolerant community. I reflected on how there is such a lack of tolerance in America, for instance, but not only in America. Many people hate Muslims and label them all as terrorists. Also, there is so much racial tension in the USA. I remembered the Bosnian War, when ethnic hatred ran rampant in former Yugoslavia. Would the world ever learn to live as the ethnic groups in the claustri had? I somehow doubted it, but, unfortunately, I am a pessimist.

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Back to the gems of Altamura. The north gate of Porta Bari took on a 17th century Baroque appearance. Saints Irene and Joseph made appearances on the stunning structure. Other religious sites in the town include the Church of San Dominico with a faced of limestone coated with majolica. North of the center is San Michele delle Grotte, a church dating from the 10th century. A 14th century fresco in the crypt is noteworthy.

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I left Altamura, not only excited about my next destination but also enthralled by the city’s charms. I would never forget that cathedral. It remains etched in my mind for eternity.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Molfetta Diary

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While traveling with a group through Puglia, we stopped in Molfetta for lunch. I was famished, so I could not spend all my time exploring this gem on the Adriatic. What I did see, though, impressed me a great deal. I meandered through the streets of the old town and gazed at the remarkable exterior of the Cathedral of San Corrado, for instance.

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The city can trace its roots at least as far back as the Neolithic age. In 4 BC it was a small fishing port. During the 10th century, the city was first mentioned in writing as Melphi. During the Crusades, the town flourished and greatly expanded. Pilgrims stopped in the city on their way to holy destinations. One of these pilgrims, Conrad of Bavaria, was in awe of the city. He became San Corrado, the saint who protects the city. During the 12th century, the town became a bishop’s seat. The port town also played a significant role in trade. Today it is one of the biggest ports on the Adriatic.

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The port dotted with small boats was so tranquil and peaceful. I looked out at the sea and felt at peace with myself and with the world. I was in the midst of making a difficult work-related decision. Gazing at the boat-speckled sea, I knew that, by the end of the trip, my head would be clear, and I would be able to do the right thing, to embark on the path that was best for me.

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The Cathedral of Saint Corrado, in Apulian Romanesque style, dates back to 1150, though it was not completed until the 13th century. The edifice has three domes of different heights. It is an example of a basilica model with contracted transepts. There are two bell towers, each 20 meters (66 feet) high. We learned about the interior, even though we could not go inside. The cathedral features three naves divided by four cross-shaped pillars. Round arches connect the pillars. Rich sculptural adornment abounds. A precious stone relief of Christ is situated above the main altar. Much of the decoration hails from the 16th century.

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Once again, the Apulian-Romanesque style took my breath away. I loved how the austerity of the exterior exuded such remarkable beauty. Before this trip, I had liked the Romanesque style, but it certainly had not been one of my favorites. During my time in Puglia, I gained a deep appreciation for the style that I had once thought to be too severe. During this vacation, I found myself in awe of every cathedral we saw.

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The Cathedral of Saint Corrado is not the only cathedral in the city. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption hails from the 17th century and has a splendid Baroque façade. The single hall lined with side chapels features exquisite paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Town Hall is also to be admired, situated in a 16th century palace.

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I recalled a story I had heard from my friend who lives in Italy. A lighthouse was built off Molfetta in 1853 to help ships navigate along the coast. A new wharf was constructed especially for this lighthouse, but, due to stormy winds, it caused an unexpectedly strong current. Many lives and vessels met tragic fates. Then, in 1857, the city built a lighthouse on the opposite (west) side of the harbor. It became the first lighthouse on the Adriatic.

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After eating a delicious lunch of spaghetti with tomatoes, I wandered down the narrow, charming streets of the old section. Some dwellings were being repaired; I saw some scaffolding along the way. I particularly liked the bright green shutters on one building and laundry fluttering in the gentle breeze.

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Molfetta was a place I would definitely have to visit again. It was one of the many stops that filled me with awe and wonder. Molfetta certainly was a place I would never forget.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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