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The Messner Mountain Museum at Firmian

Along with Castelvecchio, my other favorite castle/museum in Italy is the Messner Mountain Museum at Firmian near Bolzano. I was restrained about taking photos at most of the castles and museums I visited, but I indulged myself at this one. Everything about it — the site, the historic stone architecture, the modern intervention, and the art collection within it — is top class.

The castle sits on a wonderful hill with formations of columnar porphyritic rock; it commands a great view over the countryside and would be a ‘power spot’ in most cultures. The castle itself dates back to 945 AD, with a rich history thru the intervening years. The restoration and adaptation is wonderfully done, most of the additions created with beautiful reddish steel; a tunnel was cut through the rock in one place and an amphitheater carved into the hillside in another. And Messner’s collection of art, statuary, and alpine memorabilia is interesting, varied but linked by the themes of mountains and mountain mythology.

The whole ensemble is a pastiche — Tibetan prayer flags on an Italian castle, Indian deities on midieval defensive walls, Buddha’s disciples in a defensive tower — but a fascinating pastiche, and one that Messner earned the right to create as arguably the greatest mountaineer in history. It’s not for purists, and I’m not going to argue with anyone who calls it a rich guy’s vanity project, but I loved it. Beautiful hill, beautiful castle, beautiful restoration, beautiful collection. An excess of photos are below. (more…)

John Singer Sargent’s Carrara Watercolors

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Carrara, I’m not ashamed to admit, is because James Bond had a car chase there. Switchbacks, stone, and big machines, sign me up. Another reason is Edward Burtynsky’s stunning photos. His book, Quarries, features Carrara on the cover and first convinced me that the landscape would be beautiful. But probably the biggest reason is the series of paintings by my favorite watercolorist, John Singer Sargent. I’ve never seen them in person and I’m not sure how many he actually did, but for years I’ve grabbed them off the internet whenever I’ve seen them. They might not be as important as his paintings of Venice and I’m sure I attach more importance to them than most other people, but it’s the world’s greatest watercolorist painting one of the world’s great cultural landscapes. Fantastic.

Titles and dates for most of them can be found at the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery, along with some pencil studies that are interesting to see. As I understand it, he visited the quarries twice, in 1911 and 1913, the era of dynamite and oxen at the quarries, before the workers had the big machines and the wire saws they use today. I love how many of the paintings show workers carrying ropes up the mountain. The weight of the stone is obvious, but I’m fascinated too by how heavy the ropes would have been and how much effort would have been put into just moving them around. Not an easy place to work.

Another dozen more are below. (more…)

Carrara

Originally on my trip I had planned to go to Florence, but, after realizing how crowded it would be, I headed towards the coast. Instead of waiting in a long line and shuffling past Michelangelo’s David, I decided I’d rather ride around on the mountain where they quarried the marble for it. I still want to see David, but I’ve no regrets, Carrara is awesome. It has a sculptural quality equal to any statue. I didn’t quite capture it in the photo above, but the quarries girdling the mountain are creating a two-toned effect, weathered gray rock above a shining marble pedestal. It’s not as dramatic as the Cuernos del Paine, where glaciers created the two-toned effect instead of humans, but it’s the closest I’ve ever seen and an amazing by-product of the quarries.

That’s a beautiful cliff face. Many quarries are ugly scars, but not Carrara. I took a tour with Cave di Marmo, and then cycled around on the roads that are open to the public. It wasn’t quite as exciting as driving an Aston Martin with thugs shooting machine guns at me, but the downhills were fun, and a long unlit tunnel was sort of scary.

There was a ridge or saddle here in the past, and the quarrying is making separate peaks.

The current process in Carrara is to start at the top and work down in benches ten meters deep. They drill three holes — one from the top and two from the sides — that meet at a single point and then they run a cable with diamond-crusted studs through the holes to make a loop. The cable spins very fast and slices the stone, first one side, then the other, and then the bottom. Then with machines they tip the block over onto a bed of rubble and break it down into smaller blocks to haul down the mountain and ship all over the world.

The piles of rubble in the photos are there for practical reasons, to cushion the landing of the blocks as they are pulled away from the cliff, rather than sloppy housekeeping. I posted a movie trailer with footage from Carrara showing the process a few years ago. Since then I’ve seen the full movie, it’s great, highly recommended.

They use water to cool the cable as it cuts, so you see large puddles of milky water everywhere they are actively cutting. They fill the water tanks from springs coming out of the mountain, delicious marble-filtered water I had a chance to taste while I was riding around. I saw a trucker pull over to fill his water bottle at a roadside spring. I asked if it was ‘Buona’ and he said ‘Buonissima!!!’ Like holy water for a mason or something, perhaps my chisel will now carve with greater acuity.

It looks like a slow unhurried process with only a few people working at a time, but then you realize the size of the stone blocks they are pulling off the mountainside.

A Continuous Shape, Stonecarver Video

A Continuous Shape from Eyes & Ears on Vimeo.

A great portrait of stonecarver Anna Rubincam as she herself creates a three dimensional portrait in stone. I particularly like seeing the mix of hand and power tools used in the process. The directors talk about the making of the film here.

Palatki Cliff Dwellings

The third cliff dwelling site we visited was Palatki in the red rock country outside of Sedona. Someone told me it’s the best archeological site in Arizona, which may or may not be true, I don’t know Arizona well enough to really say, but it’s a wonderful place, amazingly scenic, with cliff dwellings and a collection of pictographs and a nice little museum. Docents lead tours right up to the dwellings and pictographs, and though I’m not always a fan of tours, the docents gave a lot of good information.

There are two sets of dwellings, tucked under the arch you can see at the base of the cliff. The dwellings were occupied from around AD 1150 to 1350 while there was a year-round water source. Nomadic people, understandably, decided the area was too beautiful to leave and built the dwellings.

It’s charming how they incorporated the boulders that were too large to move. Personally, I’d be leery of building a house anywhere that such giant boulders were accustomed to falling, but maybe if you sleep tucked against the talus it’s like sheltering beside your bed during an earthquake. The structure is still standing, so maybe that’s proof of concept.

There’s a lovely pictograph up on the cliff above the structure, an image outlined by a white circle. The docent said it may be a clan symbol, possibly based on a bear’s paw. The main collection of pictographs is in a shallow cave in another part of the site, and the docent did a great job explicating the different styles and ages, but it was too much for me to really process. This one, a negative-space image of a bear’s paw sited high on the rock face, was my favorite.

It’s a beautiful site. I’d never been to the Sedona area, but it lived up to all of the hype.

Montezuma’s Castle and the Sedona Chapel

After Bandelier, I visited Montezuma’s Castle near Sedona, another wonderful cliff dwelling site, this one perched in an alcove about a hundred feet up on a vertical cliff. The building is in good shape, though for obvious reasons you don’t get to go up into it (the park service website has some photos of the interior). I can imagine how much work it took to haul rock and mud up a hundred feet of cliff, but it was worth it. A spectacularly sited building.

On the same day, I also saw the Chapel of the Holy Cross about ten miles away as the crow flies. Another spectacular little building. They are obviously from different traditions — I’ve read a few versions of the chapel’s origin story and nothing mentions Montezuma’s Castle as an influence — but I was struck by similarities in the spectacle they both present as they perch overhead on the rock. I love how the cruciform shape is adapted to the contours of the cliff. There aren’t many buildings that do that, so it was striking to look up at two of them on the same day.

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