Monthly Archives: June 2017


Today brought the news that the opening of the British parliament is being set back by the time required for the ink to dry on the official copy of the Queen’s speech. And with that comes the disappointment of Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper that lookups for vellum have not spiked.

Not that the Queen’s speech is calligraphed on vellum. No, it’s done on an archival paper called goatskin, although it’s not made of goat skin. Well, fine. Onionskin isn’t made of onions either, and, for that matter, vellum is these days not often made of calf skin.

Why should it be? Ah, well. The name is not quite as pellucid as vellum is. It has a flavour of historical importance and gravitas, and of fillum – sorry, I mean film – but is nearly as factitious as Velma, Selma, and Thelma (all three names literary inventions, as far as can be seen). Its historical origin has been masked in the process of making it seem more historic.

Vellum was originally made of calf skin, yes: a parchment made of membrane cured and scraped and further prepared for receiving ink and sealing with a signet or binding in a volume. Latin for ‘calf’ is vitulus, and ‘of calf’ or ‘from calf’ is vitulinum (in the neuter). From vitulus came, scraped and polished by time, Old French veel (whence modern French veau and modern English veal), and from vitulinum came velin (whence modern French vélin), which – by some velleity of dissimulation – shifted the final n back to m in English to make it sound more Latin (compare venom from venin and pilgrim from pelegrinus). So now that parchment-type material called vellum is often not made from animal skin at all, the name has gained a fake classical look that masks its real classical origin. It has been treated to make it not what it simply is but what better serves our desires and displays our impressions. Let that soak in.


Our northern Italian transect culminated in Milan, city of millionaire milliners, the Toronto of Italy. Neither the prettiest nor the ugliest of cities, but an oversized cutlet of urbanism and urbanity plated on a broad plain, breaded with money and spiced with art, education, society, alcohol, and fashion.

Milan has been there since forever, in the middle of that plain. A common derivation of its Latin name, Mediolanum, means ‘middle of the plain’. It’s tempting to say it’s a plain city, but while it may be relatively plain for Italy, it’s still far more presentable than, say, Indianapolis or Winnipeg. And it has long been a magnet for power and money. The Castello Sforzesco is there to help you remember that fact.

From there you can walk along Via Dante and Via dei Mercanti, past all the stores, to the heart of the thing: the Piazza del Duomo.

You can see that the statue horse under the statue dude on the right is frightened by the festival of fancy spikes it sees before it. And also maybe by the crowds: the line just to get a ticket to be let into the line to get into the duomo (cathedral) was a solid block long, almost Godardesque in extent.

Or maybe the horse is spooked by that golden angel madonna on the top of the highest spike. I’m not sure how the palm trees, a gift from Starbucks for letting them open a store there (which is like opening a Taco Bell in Puebla or, um, a Starbucks in Italy, for heaven’s sake), are affecting the beast or the assorted tourists seated beneath its upturned tail. (The second photo is from two hours later. The sky cleared.)

We were with a group and had tickets in advance, so we had much less wait time to get in. The cathedral is, as expected, exalting, and, as is also to be expected, took exactly forever (6 centuries at least) to build – providing you can consider it finished, which I’m not sure it truly is. It is the largest church in Italy. (The pope’s place, St. Peter’s, is in the Vatican City, which is its own separate state. You knew that, right?)

People come to look up to the stone-and-glass heavens.

There’s even a sort of gaudy mechanical nimbus the bishop takes up to ceiling level once a year.

There’s a statue of St. Bartholomew, who is holding his own skin. I’m guessing he’s on the way to have it altered or to swap it in for the new season’s latest.

There’s a replica of the angel madonna (the one that’s spooking the horse). It’s covered in gold and guards an area that only a select few can get into. I suspect it’s the mascot of Fashion Week.

Speaking of gold and getting skinned alive, off the north side of the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria, its entrance guarded by the Scylla and Charybdis of Campari and Prada, the original locations of both, so you can get something intensely bittersweet and then go and have a cocktail after.

A view through it towards the south reveals the splendor not of the duomo – that’s at the east end of the piazza, with a western narthex as is normal – but the headquarters of Martini and Rossi.

Keep an eye out for the fashion police, though.

Milan has always been a city of fashion. The term milliner for a hat-maker (formerly used more broadly of purveyors of women’s fashion) comes from Milaner, i.e., someone from Milan – which used to be said like “millin’” by the British.

And there is millin’ around, especially in the piazza, but Milan is really a city that is going places. At night it goes, perhaps, to the opera (I did not visit La Scala, so no photo of that); at day it gets around, by underground train or above-ground streetcar

(most of which more modern than this classic one) or bike or simple perambulation. Or by car, though I can’t consider that the best idea. It goes shopping

or for lunch, perhaps to have one of the city’s eponymous expansive breaded veal cutlets,

but it goes, above all, to see and be seen.

In some cities, the sightseeing is all about the things that don’t move. In Milan, it is, above all, about what does move. And eyes are everywhere.


Bergamo is a city of highs and lows, of broad views and surprise turns, of windows on history, of glimpsed secrets.

Yes, yes, just like lots of Italy. When you have that much history, what do you expect? But Bergamo has perhaps a bit more and other.

Let’s get something out of the way to start: It’s pronounced like “bare ga mo,” with the stress on the first syllable, and it’s not related to bergamot, the citrus flavouring in Earl Grey tea (which is best said with the t on the end nice and crisp). Fair enough. Bergamo is not a tea-drinking kind of city.

You can see Bergamo from a distance across the lowlands to the south. You can see one part of it, that is. Bergamo is a city of two parts: the città alta, upper city, a dense medieval Italian town set on a thumb of mountain projecting into the plain and surrounded with 16th-century walls built by Venetians (who owned the place at the time), and the città bassa, lower city, which looks like any other modern northern Italian city, with buildings of a broad range of ages, all built for living and working in but not as much for showing off. Many people think the lower city only appeared in modern times, but it’s been there as long as the upper city has – the difference is just that the lower city has been erased and redone over time like a whiteboard, while the upper city is like that “please leave on” corner of the board.

And the lower city is the lower-class place, historically. The commedia dell’arte, a form of masked improvisatory comedy, drew three of its zany characters from Bergamo (zany? the term for them was zanni, which is the source of the English word): Arlecchino, who became Harlequin, he of the patchwork costume, emblem of romance novels and dime-store paintings; Brighella, who was the smarter and nastier big brother of Arlecchino; and Pedrolino, who may have been a forerunner of Pierrot. All three were lower-class sorts from the lower city who spoke in a broad Bergamasque accent.

Bergamasque? Yes. The term in Italian for a citizen of Bergamo is bergamasco. This shows up in English as bergamasque or, sometimes, bergamask. The latter also names a kind of rustic dance and associated music. And since Bergamo was held by the Venetians for some time and picked up some of the masquery and revelry, which also influenced the commedia dell’arte, it was quite reasonable for the French poet Paul Verlaine to write, in his 1869 poem Clair de lune,

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

This poem’s second line inspired Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque for piano (from which we get his famous “Clair de lune”) and Gabriel Fauré’s orchestral suite Masques et bergamasques.

All of which is very romantic and elevated. Lofty, even. Like that other part of Bergamo, the one you can see from a distance, the one you come from a distance to see. It’s on the mountain – which probably contributed the berg to the name. It’s a bit of a hike up, so you take the funicular.

You get off that and walk a stone-paved street uphill until you get to the old square in the heart of the old high city.

There’s a tower there that looms over the town: the Campanone. It has large bells in it that chime the time every quarter hour. At its base in an equally old building (with, in place of a lobby, an open pit showing excavated ruins) is the Museo Storico di Bergamo, the Bergamo Historic Museum, where you get a window onto the past – figuratively, in its detailed and digitally enhanced displays on the great cultural (musical, literary) and economic history of the town, and literally.

When you have done reflecting on that, you can climb the Campanone. There is an elevator if you prefer, or there are stairs if you prefer. At the top there is a view.

You can see the anfractuous streets of the old high city.

You can see that people actually live in this town (they also drive cars around it – watch out!).

You can see the cathedral.

You can descend before the bells right above your head chime the time.

The alta città is a nice place for wandering among the old narrow stony streets. Don’t expect to do too much shopping; there are stores, but fewer than you may expect, and many of them are not open when you pass by. You may lose your way, but if you do you will within 5 or 10 minutes find yourself somewhere you know, probably back where you started. It is small up there.

You can walk down to a gate and see a view to the spread of the lower city.

You can walk past closed gardens and open university buildings. You can go into the cathedral and see the beautiful architecture and beautifully painted walls. And perhaps you will even get a glimpse of something more.

You can buy one of their ubiquitous polenta sweets.

And have espresso with grappa in a brew pub for 3 euros for two. So much more fitting than Earl Grey tea.

And who knows what else you’ll see of the old and the new?


This name may look odd and perhaps funny to Anglophone eyes, with its rubbery double b and the quirky z, and the hints of bozo and booze. But it’s not an English word, it’s a German one, and the z is pronounced /ts/. It’s the name of a village in northern Italy.

Why would an Italian village have a German name? Because a century ago it was an Austrian village. The borders were redrawn after World War I. As with all towns in this part of Italy, it now also has an Italian name: Soprabolzano. Which looks even more superb. But both names mean the same thing: ‘over Bozen/Bolzano’. Or, I guess, ‘above Bozen/Bolzano’. It’s not exactly above Bozen (Bolzano); it’s uphill from it. Way uphill. And a little ways over (not over Bozen, over from Bozen). You can’t actually see Bozen from Oberbozen (or Bolzano from Soprabolzano).

What is Bozen/Bolzano? A city in the Italian (formerly Austrian) province of Trentino-Alto Adige (or, in German, Südtirol). On our recent lavish wine and food tour of Italy, we stopped through there and did a bit of sightseeing. We were left to our own devices for a few hours before we had to rejoin the group and go visit more wineries.

Bolzano (let’s just call it that henceforth, shall we? I could have used Bozen but I like the sound of Bolzano better) is a very attractive place for tourists once you get to the part that is attractive to tourists. There is a big square in its heart.

There are several blocks of cute pedestrian streets full of shops and cafés.

There is a musem there where you can see the more-than-5000-year-old body of the fellow now known as Ötzi. He was found by serendipitous chance by a couple, Helmut and Erika Simon, who were hiking on a high pass above the Ötztal, a valley north of Bolzano. His recovery and preservation have been a joint Italian-Austrian effort, but the place he fell and lay for five millennia was about 93 metres inside Italy. Well, not at the time; in fact, not until about a century ago. But when he was found, he was found in Italy (as a reanalysis of the borders after his finding revealed – the previous lines were on top of glaciers that were now no longer there), so the Italians get to show him off in a whole museum dedicated entirely to him and his appurtenances.

Photos are not allowed.

Never mind. You can look him up if you want to see him. He looks like a big scary doggie-chew-toy coated in whatever that stuff is they put on Krispy Kremes. Actually, in this case it’s just ice.

After Aina and I had seen him and gone for an Aperol spritz and bought a military-sized loaf of olive cheesebread,

we had more time to fill.

I had a map. On the map I saw that there were three cablecars of some sort (the map indicated each as funivia and Seilbahn) that went to places high above the town. One of them, the Rittner Seilbahn (Funivia del Renon), had a base that was an easy walk from the centre of town. We walked there, bought tickets, and got on, having no idea what we would see.

A heck of a view on the way up, for one thing.

It reached a summit and then kept on going, high across an alpine valley.

And let us off, 12 minutes after we got on and 1000 metres farther above sea level, in Oberbozen. We had found something higher, unexpected, out of sight, far above the valley.

People sat drinking beer on a patio. Hotels ringed a large open lawn. Everything looked Tyrolean. How charming. And alpine. And not at all what we had thought, when we got up that morning, that we would be seeing.

There was a church farther uphill.

We walked up to see it. It’s a striking modernist edifice, dedicated in 1991.

It has a statue outside it of its namesake: Blessed Rupert Mayer (1876–1945), a German priest who was outspoken for justice, a vocal opponent of Nazis and fascism.

I’m not sure the statue does him justice, but the building does. (Ötzi gets just ice, but Rupert Mayer gets justice.)

And the door was open.

How serendipitous.