Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Contemporary art invigorates former Carthusian monastery

The giant “Alice” by Cristina Lucas is indeed stuck in a curiously odd place on the Isla de la Cartuja. Sevilla is bustling on one side of the Guadalquivir, but crossing the river on foot to this part of the island at first appears to be heading into somewhat of a remote no-man’s land.

For centuries, much of the clay for the city’s azulejos came from the island. In 1400, Archbishop Gonzalo de Mena chose the location for a Carthusian monastery. The founding of Monasterio de la Cartuja was in the nick of time to provide a suitable permanent home for the archbishop to rest, as he died in 1401. Christopher Columbus’ body was placed in the Capilla de Santa Ana from 1509 to 1536, but the archbishop’s tomb in the Capilla de la Magdalena Chapel is not the only one remaining within the ancient walls of the monastery.

Patrons of the monastic order, members of the Ribera family reside in sculpturally rich tombs dating from the 16th century and dominating the Sala Capitular. The 15th-century chapel with its colorful tiles serves a prime example of Mudejar architecture. Some of the bizarre images incorporated in the ornate motifs surrounding the tombs appear as though they emerged from the mind of someone who swilled some Wonderland “drink me” potion.

Government seizure of ecclesiastical property in 1836 left the monastery available. Englishman Charles Pickman rented and soon purchased the property to manufacture La Cartuja de Sevilla Pottery. Enormous brick chimneys erected there demonstrate both the size and modernity of the production facilities. In addition to tiles reflecting the city’s heritage, the facility produced mass-market earthenware dish patterns. A wall of rows of tiles serves as an outdoor “showroom” of sorts of the patterns available from La Cartuja.

The pottery factory still is in operation elsewhere in Seville, while the monastery and its grounds were refurbished when the city hosted the Universal Exhibition of 1992. Today the monastery is home to Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo.

Instead of turning left into “Argadedinam” or “Ebajodelaban” to explore the contemporary cultural center, it is wise to follow the right arrow on the whimsical directional sign. In addition to visual art, the café on the grounds is often a site for weekend jazz concerts.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths

Visualizing times gone by is difficult, even when surrounded by highly visible ancient remnants.

Baths to accommodate 3,000? That number finally hit me for some reason. Wait, how big was Rome?

The Diocletian Baths, built beginning about the year 290, could accommodate 3,000 people bathing, getting a shave and a haircut, exercising, reading in the library, gathering for gossip and, well okay, visiting the brothel. Not sure in which order these activities were engaged.

But the Diocletian Baths were not the only baths. There were hundreds and hundreds of them in ancient Rome.

Which finally sent me back to try to understand the immense size not of the sprawling Roman Empire, but of Rome itself.

The AlamoDome in San Antonio seems large to this girl; it can accommodate 64,000. The Coliseum in Rome could house somewhere in the range of 75,000 people, who could all exit within a 15-minute period after Emperor Diocletian (244-311) had executed some of the thousands of Christians he made into saints during several prime years of persecution.

But that was still a small house in Rome. Other special events attracted even larger crowds; close to 300,000 could gather to watch chariot races at Circus Maximus.

Wait, where did all those people come from? The majority were just locals. The population of Rome then was well over 1,000,000. So hard to envision an ancient urban environment that dense.

Things would change dramatically in only a view years. The collapse of the empire, invasions by those pesky Goths. The population evacuated for new opportunities or was devastated by pestilence. During the 1300s, with schism in the papacy between Rome and Avignon, Rome had fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

But I digress, once again.

The photos below are from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano housed on the grounds of the former baths and portions renovated/remodeled into cloisters for a Carthusian monastery, commissioned in 1561 by Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) of the Medici clan and designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564).

More recent remodeling to house the collection and special exhibits was completed in 2014. Thousands of the museum’s holdings once crammed akimbo into this one location are now spread out for improved viewing around several locations.

And, by the way, sometimes there was a lot of r-rated activity happening on the outside of those sarcophagi.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: The magnetic pull of cemeteries

Taking a little sabbatical in the midst of writing the final chapter of a book about the families living around the Coker Settlement, an assignment that has me digging, figuratively speaking, through the graveyard for long-buried clues about their lives.

So where did we accidentally wind up on our first day in Italy trying to walk off the fog from staying awake all night to fly across the ocean? A cemetery.

A beautiful, parklike cemetery with acres and acres of Renaissance-style arcades and mausoleums. The grounds of Certosa di Ferrara originally belonged to a Carthusian monastery founded in 1461, but the monks found their compound within the walls of Ferrara when Ercule d’Este, now resting there, expanded and fortified the city in 1492. The final blow, however, was delivered by Napoleon when he confiscated all church lands at the end of the 1700s.

With such wonderful names engraved there  – Chiavissimo Zabardi, known for his austere ideals and honest work before he died in 1910; Achille Valli, an early publicista who departed this world in 1915; Illuminata and Giuseppe Solovagione, with their photos perched atop a whole family tree of their descendants who later joined them – I could have wandered for hours wondering about their stories.

Yet, this was our first day in Italy. How could I spend it among the dead?

So the Mister tugged gently on my arm, and we left to begin exploring the more vibrant areas of Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, Italy.

Cemeteries are such peaceful places, but, after all, we will have much more time than we desire to spend in one later. Much later, I hope.