Sunday, February 22, 2009

And On The Subject of Caravaggio

Here's a funny kid quote...

I had the book of Caravaggio's paintings open on the dining room table as I was reading his biography and Asa started flipping through them, which led to long discussions of what most of the pictures were about. The longest by far was on his painting of the "Penitent Magdalen" because Asa wanted to know why this woman was so sad, what her story was, etc. I tried to explain as best I could what the painting was trying to represent about Mary Magdalen, but I had never discussed the term "prostitute" with my nine year old before, so that took a little deft explaining.

After which, she came out with:

"Well then, when she wants to become a mother she'll be able to really easily, because she'll have practiced a lot."

That one definitely had me almost ROTFLOL!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Review: M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio

M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio

Some books are so masterfully written that you almost don't have to be interested in the subject matter at all to get drawn into the story. I have to admit that despite having an art degree, I hadn't given much more than a passing thought to the artist known as Marisi, Moriggia, Merigi, Michelangelo Merisi, and simply M from Caravaggio. I've seen a couple of his paintings and they are quite stunning, but I didn't know enough about them or about him to feel as fascinated about them as I should've. Now I wish I could go in person and see each one of them, such is the depths to which this book pulls you into M's life and his art.

Part history, part in-depth art analysis, part detective mystery, this book is a just plain fascinating look into the M's world: the Rome and Italy of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the world of the Inquisition, corrupt popes, the Counter-Reformation, the world that ordered Galileo to stand trial for heresy for insisting that the earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa. Into this world comes M, a wild and woolly swordsman who got into frequent squabbles and eventually murdered a rival in the streets of Rome, a lover of nubile young boys, an intellectual and a painter of an extraordinary and often shocking new style. Though many of his paintings were commissioned by the rich and powerful or hung in prominent chapels, others were rejected by the church powers or removed from view before the public ever set eye on them.

The author, Peter Robb, does a wonderful job of drawing us into M's world, of helping us understand how and why his artwork was so powerful in its time, and of sorting through the often scant documents and testimony as to what really happened to M in the various stages of his life. My only complaint is that there's very few plates in this book. As the author takes you into each one of M's paintings in depth, I found it necessary to go check a large-format book out from the library with good quality color plates of each of the paintings being discussed. That really helped me see in detail what the author was describing.

Now I wish I could go back to Italy just to visit each of the chapels and museums that house these works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Like any subject that one learns about in depth, it becomes more fascinating the more you know and understand. It's also funny how it awakens your eye to the particular subject. Since reading this book, I've seen several images of Caravaggio's paintings that wouldn't have stood out to me before. Last night we were watching the National Geographic special on Mecca, and they showed one of M's interpretations of Isaac and Abraham in the video. Before, it would've been just another illustration but now I've spent pages and pages in analysis just of this one painting, so the image is so much more meaningful.

In short, if you have any interest in art, history, or just like a great non-fiction read, pick this book up. Be prepared to become immersed though, it took me quite a few weeks to thoroughly absorb all this book has to offer.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Italy Day 8: Part 1:: Biking from Perugia to Castiglione del Lago

This is one of a series of entries from my travel diary of our Italy trip last fall. This entry is from Day 8, September 22, 2009, our second day of cycling:

9/22/08: Perugia to Castiglione del Lago: 25 Miles
I just got out of one of the best showers of my life. I think the shower alone was worth the hotel room. Tons of hot water, big fluffy towels (which are not that common in Italy, where thinner non-fluffy towels are more common). After 25 miles of hill country biking and all afternoon exploring around town and climbing the castle with the kids, I was really ready for a good shower.

This was a terrifically beautiful day - fair and warm with big puffy clouds and a nice breeze. We left a little late after situating all of the gear for the first time in the trailers. Going down off the big hill of Perugia was fun and a little scary, especially when we rocketed into a tunnel, still wearing our sunglasses! Back down at the train station, we stopped for groceries at the Coop (pronounced Co-ope) store. The bikes attracted the first of many onlookers, and older gentleman who only spoke Italian and French. This was a bonus for me, since French was the first foreign language I learned, it's often the case that the first word that pops into my head when I'm reaching for the Italian word is French anyways. Between the two languages we managed to have quite a conversation about the bikes and our route to Firenze (Florence).

Despite the fact that drivers here are fast and zip in and out of lanes like crazy while using their horns profusely, they have been everything from polite to incredibly enthusiastic to us. Even when we are totally in the way, no one has honked at us except in a friendly "beep beep" way with a wave or a thumbs-up. One family pulled up by us and enthused in rapid Italian saying "Complimento" over and over. I have not felt nervous or afraid on the bikes here, despite no bike lanes and the closeness of cars, trucks, and buses. I find myself wishing that American drivers could all take a crash course in Italian cycling hospitality!

Our route from Perugia to Castiglione del Lago went southwest over some rolling hills. The sign for hills here looks like, well, a pair of breasts, and quickly earned the knickname "Boobs Ahead" from the Biking Clevenger Family. Soon there were familiar groans when we spotted another Boobs Ahead sign, knowing that meant another hill to climb. Most of them have been mild and rolling hills though, nothing too serious yet. We turned north toward a small town called Mugnano, and off of the main road.

We stopped for a picnic lunch in the shade of some olive trees by the side of the road. After lunch we set off again, went past Mugnano and some fields with grains and sunflowers, then up and over a small pass. From the top of the pass, we could see Lake Trasimeno below us. There was also a small shrine with the Madonna and Jesus at the top of the pass. We have seen several of these soo far, usually at the summit of a pass or hill. Maybe she watches over cyclists offering up their prayers to make it up the hills.

We descended to the road along the shore and followed it along the south and western ends of the lake, stopping to take some photos at a small park along the way. A nice person offered to take a family photo of us, which shows how pretty this spot was. From the park, we could see the town of Castiglione del Lago to the north, jutting out into the lake on a promontory of rock, with the castle at the very tip standing over the lake. It looked a long ways off in the distance, but that's our destination for today.

On the way into town, we passed this place:
and I assured the family that I had not booked us into "Casa del Mutilato" for our night's stay. We reached the old walled part of the city, and the bells of the church began to toll solemnly over and over. As I walked up the main street into the Centro to find our hotel, people in dark clothing began to file out of the church bearing flowers and then a casket. We waited until the funeral procession wound away down the street before we walked the bikes up to our hotel.

Our hotel, La Torre, looks wonderful. It is very close to the castle which has the kids excited of course. The owner (Signore Lucarelli, here in this photo with Wayne and the kids) has been extremely helpful and friendly, especially considering that the hotel is on many floors with not much room to store such large bicycles and trailer/suitcases. As Wayne did some maintenance on the squeaky trailer wheels, a small crowd again grew around the bikes, including a family from Germany who asked a lot of questions about the bikes and our itinerary. Signore Lucarelli found us a place in a courtyard across the street to safely store our bikes and trailers, so we are all settled in and ready to see the town and castle. Castiglione Del Lago literally means "castle of the lake", and one reason we wanted to come here is the beautifully picturesque castle at the end of town here. The kids are very excited to go explore!
Continued in part 2...

Friday, February 06, 2009

Connecting the Dots

When you unschool your kids, there's no timeline on the wall (unless of course they want one), no chronologically organized curriculum to walk them sequentially through the events of our world. It's really up to us as unschooling parents to help them connect the dots of all of the various experiences that they're exposed to and things that they learn or know. As Kathy commented on a previous post (which I completely agree with), unschooling is not unparenting, and in many ways it is harder than homeschooling. There's no roadmap, and it takes a person who is themselves interested and engaged in the world around them and inquisitive about everything to be an unschooling parent.

Some dot-connecting happened this last week around here. Seemingly disparate things come together, sometimes organized and sometimes by happenstance. One thing that we're doing as a family is watching all of the episodes of M*A*S*H consecutively. We're currently at the beginning of the 4th season. Of course, no TV show in history probably commented more on current events - either directly or obliquely through an analagous relationship between the Korean war of M*A*S*H timeframe and the Vietnam conflict, ongoing at the outset of the series. So a lot of questions come up, mostly about the Cold War, communism, how the U.S. became engaged in those conflicts and how that relates to our current world situation.

Last Friday, we happened to travel up to McMinnville to the new Space museum opened up at the Evergreen Aviation Museum. I have to say, I'm very impressed with both museums, probably the most outstanding that I've seen in this country outside of the Smithsonian's collection. Of course, the history of the space race is simply steeped in Cold War politics, and the space museum itself even houses a large piece of the Berlin Wall. So those topics of conversation that we've been discussing regarding M*A*S*H were re-examined in the light of the Space program. Also Kennedy's "We choose to go to the moon" speech was broadcast on continuous loop there, which led to discussions about Kennedy, his presidency, and his assissination. Coincidentally, we had also recently watched an episode of Red Dwarf (Tikka to Ride)that had the intrepid space bunglers landing in Dallas, Texas on that fateful day and inadvertantly causing Lee Harvey Oswald to fall out of the window of the Texas book depository. We had also just read several library books about Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and death, right around the time of his holiday and Obama's historical inauguration, and that all tied in as well.

If the kids watched, read, and experienced these things in an intellectual vacuum with no one helping them tie them together, the effect in their own head might be less than cohesive. But with all of our disparate interests, from the kids' loving to watch The Simpsons (which alluded to the grassy knoll and the Zapruder film in the episode Marge in Chains) to our field trip to our M*A*S*H episodes to our library books, they have a pretty comprehensive look at historical events. Of course, this is just one isolated area of history but discussions and connections like these come up constantly in the course of our unschooling lives, and that's how the dots all get connected, not via a curriculum but one at a time while living our lives. And as Kennedy himself says so eloquently, we may choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Italia Day 7: Biking Side Trip to Assisi

This is one of a series of entries from my travel diary of our Italy trip last fall. This entry is from Day 7, September 21, 2009, our first day of cycling:

9/21/08 Perugia to Assisi and back: 30 miles

Today we decided to ride the bikes to Assisi without pulling the trailers, just to shake everything down before we head out tomorrow towing everything along. We didn't really have a route picked out since we didn't plan on biking this part, but between the maps I brought along and the GPS we muddled through, only hitting a couple of snags along the way near the big freeway because there's only a few places that you can cross it.

After we descended down the enormous hill that Perugia sits on (knowing we'd have to come back up - gulp!) we could easily see Assisi on the hill across the valley. There was a headwind most of the way and only one short but steep hill in between. Between towns along the way were olive groves and fields of sunflowers that were already drying now in late Sepgember. You could imagine how beautiful they'd be in full bloom. We decided not to try to bike up the steep road to Assisi but parked our bikes at a parking lot at the bottom where they leave the tour busses and we walked up.

Assisi was a beautiful little town, lots of small picturesque streets and lovely views in every side out over the Umbrian country below. We went to the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, which is a fascinating place. I wish I could've taken photos inside but it is a very holy place and no photography allowed. The basilica is built on a hill on two levels: an upper basilica and a lower basilica, right over the top of each other. It was begun in 1228, immediately after St. Francis was canonized and only a couple of years after he died. Pope Gregory IX himself laid the cornerstone. St. Francis' tomb is here beneath the church and is the aim of a steady stream of pilgrims.

To me, this is the one Catholic saint that I was very interested in visiting. Patron saint of nature and of animals, Italy's first poet, and founder of the Franciscan order, he went against the overbearing opulence of his day and lived in poverty working with lepers and preaching to common folk. He wrote in his own Umbrian dialect, not in Latin, so that common people could understand his words. The kids and I read several books about St. Francis including Brother Sun, Sister Moon: The Life and Stories of St. Francis and his own hymn set to pictures, Cancticle of the Sun. The basilicas are frescoed with scenes of his life and death, including one of him receiving the stigmata which looked like laser beams were shooting him from heaven - that required a fair bit of explaining to the kids, who were not familiar with the idea of stigmata and were wondering why God would want to shoot poor St. Francis. On the lawn outside the basilica, the word PAX is spelled out in clipped hedges and inside is a big wooden sign painted with the word Peace in many different languages.

After visiting the basilicas, we stopped for pizza in a small place on an empty street, watched nuns go in and out of a convent up the road, and watched the local dogs, cats, and pigeons roaming the city. The kids have taken more photos of pigeons than anything else in Italy. Their photo albums will look like "The pigeons of Rome. The pigeons of Perugia. The pigeons of Assisi. The pigeons of Firenze"

After wandering the lovely and mostly empty streets of Assisi, in the afternoon we biked back to Perugia. We knew it would be quite a climb back up to the town and we ended up pushing the bikes up the steepest parts, but it was fine. It took us about four hours total to go the 30 miles round trip including all of our stops and detours.

Tonight we ate dinner at a little place down the street from our hotel. Eating "early" (7:30) here has the advantage of a nearly empty restaurant. We ended up next to a couple from Calgary who were very nice and we chatted with them for quite awhile. And now with plenty of food, I'm feeling tired and ready to turn in. 30 miles on the tandems feels more like 40 or 50 by myself (especially with pushing up those hills).