Postcard from Ostuni, Italy: A white-washed citadel a few olive groves away from the Adriatic Sea

bicycle over ostuni

Experienced travelers as we are, hopping a train for the short ride to Ostuni from Lecce was easy. The flaw in our plan was what to do on arrival. Oh, this is why some people rent cars.

A travel blogger wrote the walk from the station up into town was only a mile or two if cab or bus was unavailable. Neither materialized after what seemed a long wait, so we took off on foot. What the blogger had failed to mention was that the walk was on a stretch of a no-shouldered highway. A sympathetic young woman with a baby on board turned off into a driveway almost immediately to come to the rescue of the two wayward seniors. We gladly hopped in the car. Getting robbed or kidnapped appeared much less likely than getting hit by an automobile. She spoke no English, but went well out of her way to drop us in the center of town.

And everyone in this white-washed town in the heel of Italy was as helpful and friendly, approaching us to offer advice on finding our way around. We were there post-prime-tourist season, so had to navigate our way around the tangle of narrow streets to several restaurants before finding one open for lunch.

But that is both the beauty and fun of Ostuni. Street names change almost every block, and a “street” is often what appears a private stairway. When it came time to try to find the bus back, a trio of men directed us down several flights of unpromising-looking stairs to exactly the right spot where a piccolo autobus transported us and a trio of teens to the station.

The statue atop the column in the middle of a plaza is Ostuni’s patron saint, Saint Orontius of Lecce. The first Bishop of Lecce, he was executed for his Christian faith by axe by a representative of Roman Emperor Nero. But of particular relevance today are the miracles he was credited with centuries later. Residents of Lecce claimed he ended an outbreak of the plague there in 1656, and in Turi it is said he brought an outbreak of cholera to an end in 1851. Better known, Saint Sebastian must be swamped with requests for protection from Covid-19, so maybe light a candle to Saint Orontius as well.

As for the bicycle perched above a rooftop? Pure whimsy.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Trying to appeal to friends with wine and gratuitous nudity

So I salute you, Dionysus of the abundant grape clusters: grant that I may come again in happiness at the due time; and time after time for many a year.

Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, quotation posted in Palazzo Massimo

Pondering what image to feature to entice you to glance at a few more photographs of ancient Roman art, thought about cats. The cat mosaic perhaps? Or the close-up of chicken feet? Or maybe hair styles of Roman women? Deciding I know my audience, finally selected wine served, if mainly spilled, by nudes.

These were snapped during a visit to another of the museums that house portions of the collection of Museo Nationale Romano. Built in the 1880s and formerly serving as a Jesuit college, Palazzo Massimo was transformed into a museum a century later.

The collection within focuses on artifacts from the 2nd century B.C. to 4th century A.D. Included are statues from Nero’s summer villa, Roman copies of Greek statues, floor mosaics and entire rooms moved lock, stock and barrel from several ancient villas.