A VERY WOLFSONIAN MEDITERRANEAN VACATION

Having recently returned from vacation, I thought that I would take the opportunity to blog about my travels, supplementing the photographs taken with my camera with images from the Wolfsonian’s wonderful collection of ocean liner and travel advertisements to compare contemporary and historical views.

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As my wife and I were interested in exploring the antiquities of the Mediterranean region, we opted for a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise traveling from Rome’s provincial seaport of Civitavecchia to Messina (Sicily), to Piraeus (Greece), to Kuşadası (Turkey), to Chania (Crete), and returning back to Rome.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS X. LUCA & CLARA HELENA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Our first stop, however, was a brief stay with friends in Latina, an hour’s distance from Rome. Latina was founded in 1932 by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who ordered the millennia-old swamps drained and cleared for agricultural development and settlement. Several books in the Wolfsonian library document the transition from Pontine marshes to a new agricultural community.

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 The new community’s buildings, monuments, and edifices were built in the rationalist style by such famous architects and artists as Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960), Angiolo Mazzoni (1894-1979), and Duilio Cambellotti (1876-1960). Originally named Littoria (for the fascio littorio), the town shed its fascist association and was renamed Latina after the war.

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It should be noted that Piacentini was also responsible for designing La Casa Madre dell’Associazione Naz. Mulitati e Invalidi in Rome with murals by Antonio Giuseppe Santagata (1888-1985), an artist whose work will be prominently featured in an up-coming Wolfsonian museum exhibition.

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 While there, I had hoped to visit the Museo Duilio Cambellotti (another Italian artist represented in the Wolfsonian collection), but time did not permit.  

Instead we watched our gracious hosts Roberto and Grazia put together a traditional Italian dinner and dessert from scratch and we drank and dined with friends.

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GIFT OF BETH DUNLOP

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Taking the train to Civitavecchia, we boarded Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas for our first ever cruise.

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My impetus for taking an Eastern Mediterranean cruise drew inspiration partly from living in Miami—cruise capital of the Western Hemisphere—but more directly from my interaction with the Wolfsonian library’s collection of ocean liner promotional materials. Combining gifts from Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., Laurence Miller, Thomas C. Ragan, and others, the museum can boast of possessing one of the finest public collections of passenger ship-related posters, brochures, menus, deck plans and other printed ephemera covering the post-World War I period through the present.

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GIFTS OF LAURENCE MILLER

Soon after the Wolfsonian museum merged with Florida International University in 1997, I had the opportunity to organize an exhibition of interwar ocean liner materials for a show titled Bon Voyage at the Green Library on the university’s main campus. In the course of curating the show, I remember being very much impressed by the luxurious architecture and design of the ships of yore.

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The ship that my wife and I sailed on, The Navigator of the Seas, was also beautifully designed and decorated, but with a contemporary style reminiscent of the work of architect Morris Lapidus (1902-2001) and glass-maker Dale Chihuly (1941- ). The combination of the use of glass and lighting creates an atmosphere of frivolity and joy in the public spaces.

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Different salons of the ship were thematically designed, so that travelers had the option of eating in a Viennese Secession-style café, a Gothic-style discotheque, and a Maya-inspired bar and dance hall.

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Having been working in the Wolfsonian museum for well over two decades, all of these motifs struck me as more familiar friends than exotic strangers. We had, for example, just closed an exhibition on vintage postcards of the Wiener Werkstatte featuring postcards from the Leonard Lauder Collection. The museum does have a large number of Viennese postcards of our own, including this one designed by Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

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 The museum possesses several stained glass windows (and numerous original drawings and rare books on the subject) not so very different from those featured in the Navigator of the Seas discotheque.

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Even the Chichen Itza barroom reminded me of a  booklet in the Wolfsonian library collection highlighting the Maya-inspired Art Deco façade of the Fifty-Four Sutter Medical Building and San Francisco Stock Exchange Building built by Miller and Pflueger in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

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One of the unexpected highlights of our cruise was the fortuitous seating in the dining room with two “goddesses” we dubbed Dionysus and Bacchus, and a convivial couple from California telling stories that would have made comedian George Lopez envious. My own Woody Allen impressions must have frightened away the final couple from the table!

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Our first port of call was Messina, Italy, from whence my family had migrated more than a hundred years ago, and where my great-grandfather had perished on his unfortunate return in the terrible earthquake and tsunami that leveled the city and the adjacent town across the straits in Calabria. The Wolfsonian library possesses a book that describes the natural disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of Sicilians in 1908.

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Our own brief visit to the city was thankfully calm and quiet.

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Although virtually all of the city’s ancient and historical buildings were destroyed in the quake, a few of Messina’s monuments remain (or were reconstructed) as can be seen from a comparison of these vintage Wolfsonian collection postcards and my own photographs of the locale.

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The Norman Cathedral dating back to the 12th century, for example, had to be almost entirely rebuilt following the quake, and again in 1943, after Allied bombings during the Second World War. The bell-tower boasts one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks, built in 1933 by the Ungerer Company with mechanically animated statues, which attract crowds of tourists every day at noon.

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After walking about the city and drinking a delicious café granita in one of the few establishments open during the holiday, we were back on board and sailing off to the Port of Piraeus for an excursion to the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece.

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The Acropolis Museum at the base of the ruins was a real highlight. The modern concrete building was expertly designed to provide a perfect complement to the archaeological site, using glass floor panels and reflective glass walls to provide peak through views and context for the statuary inside. Its outdoor café also provided a perfect vistas of the acropolis above.

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From Greece we effortlessly cruised overnight to the Turkish port of Kuşadası, gateway to the ruins of Ephesus.

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GIFT OF THE SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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Even on vacation, I can’t seem to stay away from libraries–even when all the books inside are long gone as in the case of the Library of Celsus.

For me, the recently excavated residences of Ephesus were a real highlight, offering visitors a view of their nicely preserved mosaic floors, marbled and frescoed walls.

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Our final stop before returning to Rome was the island of Crete and the city of Chania. Occupied by successive waves of Greeks, Ottomans, and Venetians, Chania has the appearance of Venice’s poorer, disheveled but somehow still appealing step-sister. while she lacks Venice’s picturesque canals and gondolas, the experience in Chania feels less Disneyesque and more authentic.

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A Greek Orthodox Church complete with bell-tower, spire of a Mosque, and existentialist graffiti testifies to the complexities of the island’s history and present economic state.

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Disembarking in Civitavecchia, we transferred to the Leonardo da Vinci Airport for a quick flight to Catania, Sicily and a bus ride to our hotel in Taormina for a week’s stay.

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Here we availed ourselves of the opportunity to see more ancient Classical sites, like the Greek Theatres in Taormina and Syracusa.

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GIFT OF BETH DUNLOP

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On another day we took a sunset tour of Mount Etna, the active volcanic system that looms menacingly and beneficently over the cities of Catania, Taormina, and the other cities of the region.

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Even in the touristy town of Taormina it appeared impossible to completely escape the presence of the Fascist dictator whose image dominates much of the historic propaganda collection of the Wolfsonian museum, as in this continuous profile of Mussolini.

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Even in Taormina, one could find Il Duce scowling down from aprons or from miniature busts carved from volcanic rock and sitting on stands of tourist trinkets.

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On the final leg of our trip, we flew back to Rome to spend a couple of days visiting friends and relatives and taking tours of the region.

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GIFT OF THE SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY

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First it was off to see some more classical ruins at Ostia Antica.

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The following day was spent touring Vatican City and the treasure-troves held in the Vatican Museums.

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GIFTS OF IDEAL GLADSTONE, IN MEMORY OF HER HUSBAND, JOHN

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There was so much to see in the Vatican Museums that we had limited time only to see more of what Rome had to offer.

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GIFT OF BETH DUNLOP

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Many of the tourists flocking to Rome are not aware of how much we owe Benito Mussolini for our views of the antiquities of Rome. The Italian dictator was determined to demolish all of the “decadent” edifices that had grown up around the monuments, and to excavate and restore Rome’s classical heritage. This was his not-so-subtle way of reminding Italians of the glories of the first Roman Empire even as he attempted to create a new and modern Italian Empire.

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His own architectural contributions to the city likewise attempted to ape classical styles to reinforce the same idea.

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With only one day left on our trip, we took to the highways and made pilgrimage to Assisi.

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Although I was away from the library for nearly three weeks, as you can see from this blog post, I was hardly ever far away from the Wolfsonian’s amazing collection.

~ by "The Chief" on June 23, 2013.

One Response to “A VERY WOLFSONIAN MEDITERRANEAN VACATION”

  1. I told him not to take work to the vacations, and now i realize that he was working and dreaming with this great blog! Anyway, congratulations, you got it!

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