Lockdown Diaries: Day 58 (The Decameron)

Today, we’re not escaping anywhere. We’re staying locked down, in an Italian villa, back in the 14th century…

Locked Down in Literature: The Decameron

Medici villa (1470), Italy [Photo by Giuliano da Sangallo via Wikipedia CC-BY 2.5]
In 1348 the black plague struck Northern Italy, and ten young people, seven women and three men, escaped the city of Florence to shelter from the plague in a countryside villa. In other words, the ten young people went into lockdown… 🙂

To entertain themselves in their great isolation, they started to tell each other stories. Each of them told a story each night, for ten nights in a row; a hundred short stories in all.

This is the plot of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, a 14th century book of short stories.

So imagine you’re Italian, imagine it’s the 14th century, and imagine that instead of the relatively harmless coronavirus it’s the plague raging outside the walls. Light the candles, and listen:

Melchizedek, the Jew, with a story of three rings, escapeth a parlous snare set for him by Saladin

…Saladin,—whose valour was such that not only from a man of little account it made him Soldan of Babylon, but gained him many victories over kings Saracen and Christian,—having in divers wars and in the exercise of his extraordinary munificences expended his whole treasure and having an urgent occasion for a good sum of money nor seeing whence he might avail to have it as promptly as it behoved him, called to mind a rich Jew, by name Melchizedek, who lent at usance in Alexandria, and bethought himself that this latter had the wherewithal to oblige him, and he would; but he was so miserly that he would never have done it of his freewill and Saladin was loath to use force with him; wherefore, need constraining him, he set his every with awork to find a mean show the Jew might be brought to serve him in this and presently concluded to do him a violence coloured by some show of reason.

Accordingly he sent for Melchizedek and receiving him familiarly, seated him by himself, then said to him,

‘Honest man, I have understood from divers persons that thou art a very learned man and deeply versed in matters of divinity; wherefore I would fain know of thee whether of the three Laws thou reputest the true, the Jewish, the Saracen or the Christian.’

The Jew, who was in truth a man of learning and understanding, perceived but too well that Saladin looked to entrap him in words, so he might fasten a quarrel on him, and bethought himself that he could not praise any of the three more than the others without giving him the occasion he sought. Accordingly, sharpening his wits, as became one who felt himself in need of an answer by which he might not be taken at a vantage, there speedily occurred to him that which it behoved him reply and he said,

‘My lord, the question that you propound to me is a nice one and to acquaint you with that which I think of the matter, it behoveth me tell you a little story, which you shall hear.

An I mistake not, I mind me to have many a time heard tell that there was once a great man and a rich, who among other very precious jewels in his treasury, had a very goodly and costly ring, whereunto being minded, for its worth and beauty, to do honour and wishing to leave it in perpetuity to his descendants, he declared that whichsoever of his sons should, at his death, be found in possession thereof, by his bequest unto him, should be recognized as his heir and be held of all the others in honour and reverence as chief and head. He to whom the ring was left by him held a like course with his own descendants and did even as his father had done.

In brief the ring passed from hand to hand, through many generations, and came at last into the possession of a man who had three goodly and virtuous sons, all very obedient to their father wherefore he loved them all three alike. The young men, knowing the usance of the ring, each for himself, desiring to be the most honoured among his folk, as best he might, besought his father, who was now an old man, to leave him the ring, whenas he came to die. The worthy man, who loved them all alike and knew not himself how to choose to which he had liefer leave the ring, bethought himself, having promised it to each, to seek to satisfy all three and privily let make by a good craftsman other two rings, which were so like unto the first that he himself scarce knew which was the true.

When he came to die, he secretly gave each one of his sons his ring, wherefore each of them, seeking after their father’s death, to occupy the inheritance and the honour and denying it to the others, produced his ring, in witness of his right, and the three rings being found so like unto one another that the true might not be known, the question which was the father’s very heir abode pending and yet pendeth.

And so say I to you, my lord, of the three Laws to the three peoples given of God the Father, whereof you question me; each people deemeth itself to have his inheritance, His true Law and His commandments; but of whcih in very deed hath them, even as of the rings, the question yet pendeth.’

Saladin perceived that the Jew had excellently well contrived to escape the snare which he had spread before his feet; wherefore he concluded to discover to him his need and see if he were willing to serve him; and so accordingly he did, confessing to him that which he had it in mind to do, had he not answered him on such discreet wise. The Jew freely furnished him with all that he required, and the Soldan after satisfied him in full; moreover, he gave him very great gifts and still had him to friend and maintained him about his own person in high and honourable estate.

(The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio)

Recommended Book:The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Keep safe, keep sane – tell each other some stories! 🙂

Lockdown Diaries: Day 44 (An Idle Woman in Sicily)

Locked Down in London, Day 44: The Rubbish Dump

Having found that people now dump rubbish everywhere, the council had a change of heart and reopened the local rubbish dump (or as they fancily call it, the reuse and recycling centre).

We can’t go to the pub, a restaurant, the theatre, a museum or a concert – but we can visit the rubbish dump! Whoppee!

Virtual Escape: An Idle Woman in Sicily

Remembering the times when we were allowed to travel – when I was an idle woman in Sicily. 🙂

And we do so with a maverick 19th century traveller, Frances Elliot, who, having unwillingly and laboriously climbed to a look out point on the insistence of her companion, the Doctor, despairs of the view:

Before long the Doctor insists on our climbing the lesser fort of Euryalus to see the view…

What long, low, desolate lines! What a vast saddened plain! Plain, west, towards Lentini and Catania; plain, south, towards Ragusa and Noto; nothing but plain!

Not a fertile vega, dark with mandarin and citron groves, and broken by palms and magnolias, as at Palermo, but ashen, bare, desolate!

Oh! for a dash of red, purple, or orange, on the mountainside! A tawny sunset over ilex woods! or that pure coral tinge which mantles the northern peaks when the sun sets!

And the sea!

Just under Epipoloe there is another plain, boundless as the land; only this one glitters in azure and opaline, fading lines and broad circles breaking its surface.

The sparkle and gaiety of this second plain, with its harmonious ripple and fresh breathing airs, shadowed by great cirrhus clouds that come riding up from the south, make the monotony of the land even more solemn.

On land there are no trees, no houses, except the little heaped-up island-mound of Ortygia far away. There are rocks, ruins, and stones, and the dead, lone look of what was once a great city, trodden out by war and conquest!

But for its history, who would come to Syracuse?

The sun is setting in pale saffron tints over that wide channel, across which the Carthaginians came for so many centuries, Himilcon, Hannibal, Hamilcar, and afterwards Saracen Emirs, and Kaliffs, in fleets of galleys and triremes, their black painted sides outlined in gold and purple; the African captain at the poop, the dusky rowers rising and falling to the banks of oars, the dusky sails set for victory!…

(Frances Elliot: The Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily)

Although Mrs Elliot above seems to suggest that Syracuse is not worth a visit, nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact, she herself spent about a third of her book there. 🙂

Sicily is in fact a fascinating holiday destination, especially if you love history, the sun, the sea and Italian food. Oh and of course volcanoes!

Further Reading:Oranges Like Blazing FireAn Idle Woman in Sicily by Frances Elliot 
⇒ More books on travel in the Mediterranean by Frances Elliot - available on Project GutenbergA Brief Overview of Sicily's Fascinating History
Keep safe, keep sane – read a book on Sicilian history! 🙂

Lockdown Diaries: Day 30 (Hiking Vulcano)

Locked Down in London, Day 30: Our New Pet, Ede

About three weeks ago we acquired a family pet, whose name is Ede (that’s Eh-deh, not Eed). We feed it every day and it’s now feeding us in turn, and in fact we’re giving away one of its children today… no, it’s not a hen, much less a cow, although if this goes on much longer maybe we’ll be forced to start a farm!

Ede is a sourdough starter and took five days to grow; much to our surprise it then survived six days without food or water while we were locked down in Lancashire. We feed it regularly with flour and mineral water and then use portions of it to make bread without yeast. The bread is so tasty that half of of the first loaf went within five minutes of coming out of the oven, as we all “tasted” it.

As my contribution to the worldwide fight against coronavirus, I translated the recipe and passed it on to family via e-mail; and a local friend of ours is coming to collect one of Ede’s children later today (she’s collecting it from the doorstep because we’re good and law-abiding citizens)!

Virtual Escape: Hiking Vulcano

Remembering happier times… so today, we’re climbing Vulcano again, off the coast of Sicily, in glorious sunshine.

We arrive by ferry from the Sicilian town of Milazzo; and as we’re disembarking we’re assaulted by the overpowering stench of rotten eggs. Don’t panic! The smell is pervading the harbour, that’s true, but not the entire island; it comes from the nearby mud baths. Start the climb towards the crater and the smell will fade away, soon to be dispersed entirely by the sea breeze.

It’s an easy climb; small children and school groups are doing it too. As you go up, you will see the seismologic equipment (and the scientists working it) – this volcano is dormant, not extinct.

Seismographic equipment

The views open up as you climb:

View from halfway up

And on top, you’re rewarded with the sight of a classic geography textbook volcano (well, it is called Vulcano!). Sniff at the sulphur and touch the ground: it’s hot.

(Click on the pictures to enlarge.)

An unforgettable experience even if you’re not a geologist.

Happy climbing, amici!

Further Reading:
⇒ For those in need: recipe for the sourdough starter & and the sourdough bread made from it
⇒ I'm not the only one who thought their pet needed a name: Your Amish Friendship Bread Starter Needs a Name
Keep safe, keep sane – bake bread!

Appreciating Russians

Quote of the Week:

Venedikt Yerofeev (1038-1990)

“So tell us: where do they appreciate Russians more, this side of the Pyrenees, or the other?”

“Well, I don’t know about the other, but there’s no appreciation at all on this side. For instance, I was in Italy, and they don’t pay Russians a blind bit of notice there. All they do is sing and paint. I mean, one Italian’ll be standing singing, and another’ll be sitting beside him, painting the one that’s singing. And a bit further off there’ll be a third Italian, singing about the one that’s painting. It’d make you weep, and they don’t understand our sorrow.”

(Venedikt Yerofeev: Moscow Stations)

Vulcano, the Forge of Gods

Leer esto en castellano

Hephaestus and Vulcan

Hephaestus, the ugly and ill-tempered Smith-god, was so weakly at birth that his disgusted mother, Hera, dropped him from the height of Olympus, to rid herself of the embarrassment…

Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Well, right there you can see where the Spartans might have got their notions of throwing sickly newborns off the cliffs of Taygetus. But as regards Hephaestus, god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods of Mt Olympus, in this first fall he was lucky: he fell into the sea, where he was found by the nymph Thetys, who duly took him home. A few years later, Hephaestus repaid the kindness by setting up a little undersea smithy and making for her some useful household odds and ends, not to mention some fancy jewellery which caught the eye of Hera. Owing to which not only he was allowed to return to Olympus but was given Aphrodite for his wife. All’s well that ends well, or would have, except that he then said some unwise words to Zeus, who once again hurled him off the mountain… This time he was less lucky, because he fell on hard ground and remained lame for the rest of his immortal life.

Fast forward to Roman times. As we know, the Romans were quite ingenious when it came to engineering (my personal favourite is the corvus, a bridge for boarding Carthaginian galleys, the classic solution to the conundrum of how-to-turn-a-naval-battle-at-which-we’re-****-into-a-land-battle-at-which-we’re-so-much-better), not to mention their various other achievements that clamour for attention. Despite of this, the Romans seemed sadly lacking in imagination when it came to their religion: so much so that they didn’t bother to come up with their own – they merely imported in the Ancient Greek one. And so Hephaestus the Greek became Vulcan, the citizen of Rome. Long live the gods, under one name or another.

Vulcan’s Forge by Jacopo Tintoretto [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Now it so happened that when Hephaestus returned to Hera’s favour, owing to his ability to make fancy jewellery, he abandoned his undersea workshop and set up a new smithy on Mt Olympus. Or at least so says the original myth but myths are subject to change… and Hephaestus is reputed to have forges in more than one place.

The Greeks settlers on Sicily have already noted the place, but ultimately we probably owe the location of Vulcan’s forge to the incoming Romans who have hit on just the spot: a little volcanic island off the shores of Sicily, conveniently named…

Continue reading “Vulcano, the Forge of Gods”

Florence, City of the Renaissance

Renaissance – rebirth – is the Medieval realisation that the classical world, in particular Greece, has something to offer us. One of the places where you can observe Renaissance best ‘in action’ is the Italian city of Florence, in Tuscany, a northern region of Italy. For all that it’s a famous tourist destination, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you do enjoy immersing yourself in the Renaissance – because apart from that, there’s not a lot else to do.

Continue reading “Florence, City of the Renaissance”

Mediterranean Brilliance

Mediterranean brilliance hit me like a bolt of lightning; the whole of human life was enacted on a single, fabulous, public stage against a careless backdrop of thousands of years of sublime art. Colours, foods, markets, clothing, gestures, language: everything seemed more refined, more vivid, more vibrant…

(Cees Nooteboom)

New Horizon


whhheeeeᴇᴇᴇᴇᴇᴇᴇᴇEEEEEEEE! The scream of jet engines rises to a crescendo on the runways of the world. Every second, somewhere or other, a plane touches down, with a puff of smoke from scorched tyre rubber, or rises in the air, leaving a smear of black fumes dissolving in its wake. From space, the earth might look to a fanciful eye like a huge carousel, with planes instead of horses spinning round its circumference, up and down, up and down. Whhheeeeeeeeeee!

Small World by David Lodge

In response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: New Horizon.

A Petrarch Sonnet (Venice Balcony at Night)

A few weeks ago, when I was writing about Egyptian poetry, I made the point that reading poetry in translation is a deceptive exercise since you’re not reading the same poem that poet had, in fact, penned. You might like the translation but quite possibly would not like the original or vice versa. A sonnet by Petrarch today in two different English translations will serve to illustrate the same point… and the Venetian balcony at night will serve to illustrate the sonnet.

Un soneto de Petrarca (Un balcón en Venecia por la noche)

Hace unas semanas, cuando escribió sobre la poesía egipcia, he señalado que leer poesía en traducción es un ejercicio engañoso, porque no estás leyendo el poema que el poeta, de hecho, había escrito. Así que te puede gustar la traducción, pero lo original no, y viceversa. Hoy un soneto de Petrarca con dos traducciones ingleses servirá para ilustrar la misma idea… y el balcón de Venecia servirá para ilustrar el poema. El texto original italiano está abajo de los versiones ingleses si quieres leerlo – no hay que hablar italiano para apreciar la cadencia bella del idioma de Petrarca. (También puedes encontrar un enlace abajo para la traducción española.)

Continue reading “A Petrarch Sonnet (Venice Balcony at Night)”

Nelson, Naples…

There’s a new exhibition about to open in the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich, titled Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity. For the sake of those among you who ‘didn’t win first prize in the lottery of life’: Lady Hamilton is famous for being the lover of Admiral Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar and the saviour of England.

I first heard of Nelson when I was about seven and the Hungarian Television broadcasted the 1941 black-and-white tearjerker, That Hamilton Woman. Being too young to grasp that the handsome Royal Navy officer on screen was in fact Laurence Olivier, rather than Nelson himself, at the end of the film I was left with a life-long admiration for Nelson, a life-long dislike for Bonaparte and a complete unawareness of who Laurence Olivier was.

Moonlit Night in Naples by Sylvester Shchedrin via Wikipedia (Public domain).
Moonlit Night in Naples by Sylvester Shchedrin via Wikipedia (Public domain). This romantic scene evokes long forgotten memories of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in a location that – owing to the war – couldn’t possibly have been Naples…

Continue reading “Nelson, Naples…”

Oranges Like Blazing Fire

The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.

Chinotto oranges. Photo by Nadiatalent via Wikipedia.

Two widely quoted lines from an obscure poet. If you can name the island this quote refers to, I’m impressed. If you can also name the poet, you know far too much about literature and history – would you be interested in writing a guest post for me?

As for the rest of you, the hoi polloi, the mere mortals 🙂 reading this:

Continue reading “Oranges Like Blazing Fire”

The Doors of Venice

I wrote the weekly photo prompt post this week for Bloggers World, and as luck would have it, I was invited to write it on the subject of doors. Or entrances. Exits and gates. The means of leaving and entering enclosed spaces, basically. Owing to the limitations on that forum, I was only allowed to share one door to play the part of the challenge prompt.

So here come a few more doors, constituting my reply to the weekly photo challenge by Bloggers World and being this Sunday’s miscellany.

I should re-brand this blog Waterblogged: Dry Thoughts On Damp Venice the rate I’m going.

The Bridge of Sighs

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV. by Lord Byron

P1010832 View from Bridge of Sighs reduced
View from the Ponte dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs towards the Ponte della Paglia with the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. To the left, the New Prison, to the right, the Doge’s Palace.

I blush to admit it here but before I read City of Fortune, before I stood on the Bridge of Sighs myself, looking out at the view towards St Mark’s Basin, I used to be under the impression that the Bridge of Sighs in Venice had to do with sighing lovers, like some sort of a Juliette’s balcony. In fact, the Bridge of Sighs connects the Doge’s Palace to the new prisons on the other side of the canal and the sighing was done by the condemned men as they were led across the bridge, this being their last glimpse of the views of Venice.

Continue reading “The Bridge of Sighs”

A Take on the Column

A Service Message

As you might or might not have noticed, for reasons too tedious to go into here Waterblogged moved house and this is where it’s going to live from now on.

From your point of view, I hope this means that the site will load ever so much faster, even if I put photos on it… From my point of view, hopefully it means that I can spend my time blogging rather than fixing endless software problems.

For the moment the old site is still up with loads of links still pointing to it which I will fix bit by bit before taking it down. But it’s not being updated anymore. I tried to make this site look similar to the old one and in the end, I think it actually looks better. You’re welcome to disagree. 🙂

Normal service will resume here tomorrow with the Mediterranean Miscellany but in the meantime it occurred to me it would be a good idea to find out if your subscriptions did in fact safely transfer with the blog and is there actually anybody reading this, so…

…I thought maybe we could have a caption contest!

A Take on the Column

Amateur photographers say that it’s impossible to take a good picture of a column. Viewing the results of numerous attempts I made on Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square, I have to agree. Nevertheless, recently in Venice I managed to take this photo:

P1010702 reduced.jpg

Any ideas for a caption, please leave a comment.