Heavenly Prisms

Prisms of crystal illumination fascinate me. Beams of refracted light coursing through an object and projecting colorful rays on surfaces leave me spellbound. What I stumbled upon inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta at Camogli during a recent visit brought this vision to mind.

After leaving Chiavari on a grey morning in late September, I headed up the Ligurian coastline to explore some of the villages on the Riviera before reaching Genoa. Blue skies fought against the dark clouds that threatened rain for most of the morning, finally claiming victorious sunshine by afternoon. It was then I arrived at Camogli.

Harbor with fishing boats and tall pastel houses
Camogli Harbor with fishing boats and tall pastel houses

Pulling up on a road above the little village, I parked the car and walked down toward the waterfront. As tall narrow pastel houses began to loom up before me, my pace quickened. I could see a glimpse of the water just beyond them, on the other side of a small piazza. Finally reaching it, I noticed a bay hugging the cobblestones. It was very much alive with many colorful bobbing boats.

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta
Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta

After stopping for a delicious Affogato, an espresso with crema gelato, I wandered up to the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. It rose like a bulwark, a mighty fortress showing the wear of time and the relentless lashing of waves. I walked around it to the right and started ascending a narrow flight of old marble stairs.

Pebble mosaic in front of the church courtyard
Pebble mosaic in front of the church courtyard

I came upon this beautiful stone mosaic floor with star designs which made me think of Mary. She has often been referred to as being the ‘star of the sea.’ Perhaps this was intended to symbolize her.

As I turned and entered the thirteenth century basilica, I was immediately taken with its beauty and regal ambience. But what caught my eye more than anything else were the many crystal chandeliers hanging all about the interior. Dangling in chime-like elegance, it was a magnificent view to behold. It didn’t take much to envision this entire basilica lit only by the chandeliers at night.

The following photos were taken that day and I would love to share them with you.

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Altar outlined with Chandeliers
Entering the basilica
Entering the basilica
Basilica dome in a golden glow
Basilica dome in a golden glow
Gilded ceiling frescoes
Guilt ceiling frescoes
Marble Priest's Podium with overhead Baldacchino
Marbled Priest’s Podium with overhead Baldacchino-marble floors, marble everywhere!

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Built in 1200 next to the town castle as a chapel, the basilica stood high on a rocky promontory that was only accessible by a wooden bridge since it was separated from the coast. Today, after several renovations over the centuries, it rests on a cobblestone square reachable by a marble staircase. The neoclassical facade gives way to a beautiful baroque interior.

The remains of St. Fortunato, patron saint of fishermen and sailors, rests in the basilica as well as St. Prospero, patron saint of the city.

A peek out to the beach from a window in the basilica
A peek out to the beach from a window in the basilica

Before leaving the basilica, I saw the beach with sunbathers through a window. Heaven, sky, land and sea brought rhythm and harmony to this glorious old basilica. The modern and the ancient, today and yesterday, nature and golden prisms became one complete presence that lingers on in my storehouse of treasured memories.

Look Again! Eye Trickery on the Italian Riviera

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Beautifully painted facade on a house near Camogli known as ‘trompe l’oeil’ (trick of the eye)

The Italian Riviera is one of my favorite places on earth. Beginning from Genoa and running south along the coastline to Portovenere, small towns along the way are a delight to explore. Camogli, Nervi and Santa Margherita are a few of the exceptional little villages that delight and charm. But they have another unique attraction that is most outstanding. Many of their houses and villas are painted with gorgeous exterior decoration. Caught up in this fascination with illusion, I spent a good amount of time seeking them out.

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Painted on window embellishments on a busy corner in Camogli

While walking through the maze of streets in these villages just this last September, several tall narrow houses caught my eye as being especially ornate. When I looked closer I was stunned to realize that some of the upper story windows were actually painted-on. Other houses had painted-on shutters, window frames, fancy stencil work around windows and even flowering window boxes. I had never seen anything like this before, and so I needed to investigate.

I researched further and found that corner stones were often painted-on where there weren’t any, washing lines full of clothes and even birds nests up high near the roof. Unbelievable, yet so detailed that it was difficult to tell what was real.

Close-up
Close-up

There are interesting historical ways of thinking in these communities that have made a tradition of decorative illusionism. Since the Renaissance, painted illusions creating optical tricks were popular especially in northern Italy. The Ligurians in particular used cosmetic exterior decoration on their facades to create an illusion of beauty.

Many of the houses in Liguria were built tall and narrow because of space restrictions. Several share exterior walls and remain attached in a continuous line. But the Ligurians have a reputation of being a pragmatic people, so by painting on windows, shutters and all kinds of adornments, they were able to dress up their homes without the added cost. They knew just how to dazzle the eye with charming appeal by elegant artistry.

Painted-on cornerstones and window decor
Painted-on cornerstones and window decor

This top row of windows could be painted-on. The use of shading created incredible 3-D effects that makes it difficult to know for sure.

Painted windows that delight the eye
embellished windows that delight the eye–are the top shutters real? I suspect not. Notice the painted balustrade below the windows.

It’s not unusual to see painted garlands gently hanging below a roofline, colorful ribbons over doorways, arches, porticoes, and curlicues. Like a blank canvas, the houses were bedecked and embroidered in the most attractive styles. I never saw two that looked just alike.

Camogli--what is real and what is not?
Camogli–windows with curtains and red flowers are all painted on. (This is not my photo credited to Creative Commons)

Evidently trompe l’oeil was first used by the ancient Greeks and then by Roman muralists. During the early Renaissance, false frames were painted depicting still life or portraits spilling out of them, and window-like images were painted on walls and ceilings that appear as actual openings.

Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Oculus on ceiling of Spouses chamber in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa. This is all painted on a flat surface but looks 3-D
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso 1874

These two paintings, for example, depict the same effect as the house facades do. By using innovative painting techniques, a flat surface comes to life by creating a sense of depth, and the eye is tricked. Notice the little cherubs standing on the rim and the faces gazing downward. The bucket balancing on the pole is very effective.

Even the frame is painted to complete this visual effect of the boy crawling out of the frame. By looking at these examples of trompe l’oeil, it begins to explain how these house facades particular to the Italian Riviera are achievable.

To this day, as I re-visit Camogli and the other surrounding villages on the Riviera, I gravitate to any charming house gaily decorated and take a closer look. And sure enough, those painted-on windows, cornerstones, curlicues and embellishments are truly exquisite.

Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows
Building front with painted-on shop doors and windows- This photo is NOT of a building in Camogli, but in Paris. However, it is a great example of embellishment that looks real.

Related Article:

*Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Baroque Rome

From Pirate’s Cove to Diver’s Shrine, the Italian Riviera Abounds

San Fruttuoso Abbey Gardens
San Fruttuoso Abbey Gardens

Paradise exists and you don’t have to die to experience it.”    Anonymous

Imagine a tiny pristine cove with clear blue waters surrounded by exotic treasures only reachable by foot or boat. A small pebbly swimming beach stretches out between an old medieval abbey and the shimmering Mediterranean sea, with a quaint restaurant to the side serving cool drinks and delicious meals. Heavenly?

San Fruttuoso, near Portofino in Liguria, is where you will find this enchanting cove. Surrounded by the National Park of Portofino, hiking trails that hug the coastline and offer breathtaking views wind between Camogli and San Fruttuoso. Reachable only by foot or boat, it is well worth the effort. But if you travel by foot, allow yourself an hour and a half minimum. It’s a fantastic hiking opportunity with a lot of surrounding coastal beauty.

One of San Fruttuoso’s treasures, the ancient Benedictine Abbey, looms at the back of the beach and straddles the sand. A great slope covered with Mediterranean pine and holm oak rise behind it, along with old olive terraces that are being gently restored by an agriturismo program. There is also a sixteenth century watch tower just a short walk away.

The stone abbey with elegant dome is both medieval and romanesque in design. Built in the 10th century, the building has also been used as a pirates den, a humble fishermen’s home, and the residence of the prestigious Doria family of Genoa. The facade of the abbey was added in the 13th century. Originally boats moored directly underneath the arches of the abbey to unload cargo into the cellars, but more recently naturally occurring sand has built up the beach. However, you can still walk underneath the abbey and see a few boats resting on dry land.

During the summer months of July and August, impressive concerts are held in the cloister of the abbey.

Christ of the Abyss
Christ of the Abyss

Another treasure of San Fruttuoso, and a diver’s delight, is the bronze statue that sits on the ocean floor. Standing eight and a half feet high, Christ of the Abyss looks upward with outstretched arms. Submerged under 50 feet of water, it has become one of the most famous and popular diving sites in the world. Christ of the Abyss was placed in the waters on August 22, 1954 following the 1947 death of Dario Gonzatti, one of the first divers to use SCUBA equipment in his dives. Today the bronze statue is a shrine of protection for all those in the sea.

Interestingly, to make the statue, bronze was crafted from the melted down metal of ships, bells, and the medals of mariners, Olympic athletes, firefighters, and even soldiers who died in combat (donated by their mothers).

Every year in July, a celebration occurs in honor of Christ of the Abyss. A late evening mass is held on the beach, followed by a procession which leads down to the water. Here an underwater procession begins toward the statue. Once reached, a laurel wreath is placed around the feet.

Boats with glass bottoms run from the beach out to the statue if you don’t want to scuba dive. Another option is an exact replica of the statue viewable in the abbey. For those who want to scuba dive, there are options for excursions along the coastline. The dive around Christ of the Abyss  is in predominately shallow water and fairly easy. Red coral, octopus, grouper and moray eels abound so you won’t be alone!

Monastery at San Fruttuoso
Monastery at San Fruttuoso

There are no roads to San Fruttuoso, but there are well-advertised boat trips which leave several times a day from Camogli, Portofino and Santa Margherita. My suggestion is to enjoy the day by hiking the picturesque coastal path into San Fruttuoso, spend a few unique hours, and take a boat on back. A very enriching experience awaits you!

Below are links to provide you with more information on hiking trails and diving.

*Christ of the Abyss Diving Information

*Hiking Coastal Pathway from Camogli to San Fruttuoso Information/Maps

Cycling the Sun-Splashed Ligurian Riviera

“With the Mediterranean on one side and the Alps on the other, this new cycle-pedestrian path is one of the most beautiful in Europe, the first on the Italian Sea.”       Claudio Burlando, developer of Cycling Riviera

Cycling along the Mediterranean
Cycling along the Mediterranean

Liguria has a brand new cycling/pedestrian pathway that hugs the coastline and provides level, bump-free pedaling. Come experience the beauty of the Italian Riviera by bicycle. Cascading flowers cover old rock walls, palms sway in the cool ocean breeze that carry the citrus scent of lemon trees, and sandy beaches edge the wide expanse of the ocean. Vineyards and olive groves creep up the terraced hillsides, nourished by the warmth of sole. Sun-washed and sophisticated, the Riviera is picture-perfect.

Stretching for 74 km altogether, the Cycling Riviera pathway runs from Tuscany to the south of France. The eco-friendly cycling path is smooth and wide, with plenty of room for every speed of bicyclist. The first 24km stretch, from Ospedaletti via San Remo (think Casino) to San Lorenzo al Mare, follows an old railway line, winding though eight historic fishing villages. However, several options for shorter bicycling routes are given in the link at the bottom of this article. Some of the pathway goes through a tunnel that is well-lit and roomy.

“This is the first time in Italy we are replacing an old railroad with a cycle/pedestrian path that will create a protected natural environment, car free, and tourist friendly,” said Tullio Russo, a member of the private partnership that developed the project. The path provides access to pristine beaches and an ecological coastal sea park that protects a whale sanctuary. For those who want to ride further, the path becomes a gateway to the Milano-San Remo route. Mountain bikers can explore the nearby Maritime Alps.

Liguria is actually separated into two “Rivieras.” To the west is the Riviera di Ponente, which hosts resort towns like San Remo. The Riviera di Levante to the east, with classy Portofino and the dramatic Cinque Terre, is preferred by many writers and artists. Genoa, the Ligurian capital, separates the two of them.

During the 19th century, the Riviera was famous with European expats who outnumbered the locals. Wealthy aristocrats were attracted to the very temperate climate, amusing themselves with lavish botanical gardens. They gambled in the casino’s of San Remo, and dined in several fine art-nouveau villas.

Villa Hanbury
Villa Hanbury

The Villa Hanbury, also associated with Villa della Pergola, was popular with Queen Victoria and later Winston Churchill as a holiday stay. The last years of Alfred Nobel were spent here. Worthy of a peek, the villa is located in Alassio, just 20 km from San Remo and not far from the cycling path.

Of particular delight are the unique local wines and foods of Liguria. Stop along the way for a taste of the famous Taggiasche Olives, the unusual Albenga purple asparagus, or the Ligurian red prawns. The basil Pesto sauce is the culinary masterpiece of Liguria. Being on a bicycle makes so many things possible, providing the flexibility to explore as parts of the pathway wind through villages.

So much to see and do on bicycle, and so little time. Choose your itinerary and proceed with reckless abandon. A great memory is in the making.

(see link below for pathway sections, bicycle rentals and eating/drinking ideas along the way)

*Riviera Cycling Path divided into 5 routes plus where to rent, lodge, eat, and everything you need to know about cycling the Riviera

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