Tuesday, July 27, 2010


On a sunny Wednesday, my friend Fernando picked me up at the apartment bright and early. This time we weren’t headed out on some archaeological or culinary adventure, we were headed for Fernando’s academic base at the University of Salerno. We had two missions. First, Fernando needed to return galley proofs to his friend, Roberto Pellecchia, who has recently published a wonderful new book, Beaches, Coves and Hamlets of the Cilento Coast, absolutely indispensable if you plan to vacation in this area. Roberto is a medical doctor from Salerno whose passion is photography and the history and lore of his beloved adopted region. Our second mission was more pedestrian; Fernando had kindly offered to give me access to the bibliographical resources of his university. It’s rather shocking in this age of PDF files and on-line journals, but there is still a vast if shrinking amount of excellent scholarship published in Italian that is simply not readily available in the U.S., even at world-class research libraries such as we have at UNC and NCSU.

The University of Salerno is a name to conjure with. This was one of the most famous of all the original Medieval and Renaissance universities, with a history that stretches back to antiquity. The city itself derives from the Samnite-Etruscan trade outpost of Ima, which was superseded by the Roman military outpost of Salernum. As its military function faded with the pacification of southern Italy in the second century BCE, Salernum reasserted its importance as a center of trade, connecting Rome with the South along the Via Popilia and Via Annia. In the Late Empire, under the reorganization of Diocletian, it became the administrative hub for the southern states of Lucania and Bruttium. And during the troubled times of the barbarian invasions, Salerno fared relatively well since its strategic importance was so obvious. It was an especially important Lombard outpost under Arechi II, who vastly improved the fortifications and adorned the city with a number of public works.

The University itself was the heir to a much older medical school at the Greek/Roman city of Elia/Velia, about 70 miles further south along the Cilento coast. This was the famous Eleatic school of medicine and philosophy, home of such renowned scholars as Parmenides, where any number of famous Romans such as Cicero, Horace, even the emperor Augustus came to receive medical advice and enjoy the delights of the region.

The Schola Medica Salernitana reached the height of its glory between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, particularly after an African monk named Constantine immigrated to the region and reintroduced many critical medical and philosophic texts which had been lost in the West but had fortunately been translated into Arabic before the early Christians did their bigoted utmost to destroy ancient learning. Some of the Greek works of Galen and Aristotle, for example, are known to us today only because Constantine translated them into Medieval Latin. What a long, strange trip those manuscripts have had!

The University eventually declined, as the Salernitans sided with first one and then another losing political faction. Eventually most of the precious medical library was transferred to Naples and the university there began to eclipse that at Salerno.

Today the University is thriving and again has a medical faculty with a sterling reputation. But like many American universities it struggles to find room to grow; the old facility in the Medieval part of the city is entirely too small for a medical school, much less one of the most important universities in southern Italy, with some 43,000 students. Further, it along with a great deal of the Old City was heavily damaged by bombardment during the British-American invasion of the area in 1943. Today the two main campuses of the University are located in small towns several miles from the city, Fisciano and Baronissi.

It was to Fisciano that we were headed. We met Roberto at a local cafe, exchanged pleasantries and galley proofs and enjoyed a quick espresso, then drove the short distance to the University. Fernando had bagged one of the most prized perks of any academic, a great parking spot, so it was a short stroll to the building which houses his faculty, a beautiful, modern facility built, along with the rest of this campus, in 1988. The ground floor housed a student center with coffee/snack bar serving indifferent food at inflated prices; some things are universal, I suppose. Fernando’s office was on the third floor, a small cubicle which he shares with a colleague. Not even enough room for a bookshelf! Even when I served as the ‘mule’ for the Classics Department at UNC Greensboro, I had more shelf space. But in Europe everything is more crowded, even office space.

On the other hand, Fernando had the one essential for any contemporary academic, a blazing fast computer, and he sat and downloaded site after site where on-line Italian journals and books were accessible. I have enough bibliography at my fingertips now to keep me busy for several months at least! We made our way down a floor to the departmental library to retrieve an obscure book on Roman wine vessels which had probably not been looked at in years, and after humbly submitting our request to a stern departmental secretary, were allowed to take it to make photocopies. Another universal: officious academic clerical staff.

We headed over to the Bibliotheca by way of an exterior stairway with a spectacular view of Vesuvius looming on the northern horizon; all Fernando need do for inspiration, I suppose, is take a quick break on the stairway. We strolled past an avant-garde outdoor sculpture gallery and the equally avant-garde school of architecture, as well as an outdoor amphitheater being set up for a performance. The library itself is as modern in architecture as it is Byzantine in its cataloguing; parts of the classical collection were housed in four different areas on three different floors, and the shelving system seemed almost totally arbitrary to a novice like me. Thank God for the good old Library of Congress system! Then there was the ‘secret’ collection housed in a locked room which we needed to access. I had visions of the racy Raccolta Pornografica at the National Museum of Naples, recently opened to the public without permission from your local priest and now, predictably, the most popular part of this otherwise incredible collection. But, no, it was just more books in the classics collection, so we retrieved our racy tome on winemaking in ancient Egypt and returned the key to the stern librarians at the desk, who eyed us with considerable misgivings. Egyptian viticulture indeed!

Later we made photocopies of a number of articles and books which were not available on-line. Altogether a very productive morning for me.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the morning, however, was just comparing the life of an American and Italian academic, something Fernando and I have done periodically over the course of our friendship. Many things are the same, as you would expect, but others are quite different. For example, Fernando is classified as a ricercatore, a ‘researcher’ on the faculty of the Science of Antiquity, seemingly a plum job to an American academic for whom time away from teaching duties to do research is the be-all and end-all of academic life. But, no, it seems that here the teaching posts mark you as BPOC. So Fernando is actually on the lower echelon of the faculty pecking order.

Which is just weird, since Fernando is an incredibly prolific scholar. Look, I can’t pretend to be objective here, I am so fond of the guy, but by any measurable standard Fernando is a publishing dynamo. He tells me he has published more than anyone else at the University, and his CV certainly suggests that is true. And yet, I have the distinct feeling he is not that much appreciated by the powers that be.

So, why not? Well, first, I suspect, there’s the matter of academic politics. You’ve all heard the old joke, no doubt:
Q: Why are academic politics so vicious?
A: Because there’s so little at stake.

Fernando is probably the least equipped person I know to play the political games that promote you up the system. He is quiet, thoughtful, polite, kind, sensitive...in short he is one of the most genteel persons I’ve ever known, a uomo bravissimo, as his Italian friends describe him.

But then there’s the system itself, which can only be described, again, as Byzantine. In the Italian system, regardless of merit, there are only so many upper-level positions available or ever will be and, as Fernando bluntly says, unless the ones in those positions cooperate and croak, there’s just not much room for advancement.

Then there’s the whole weird system of academic affiliation. I haven’t taught in any part of the UNC system for twelve years now, but when I gave my talk last year on Roman foods, that was still my academic affiliation. I felt almost like a fraud. In contrast, my friend Elisa, who acted as mediator at the talk and who has taught at the University of Milan for some eight years now, asked if she could list them as her affiliation. Answer? Absolutely not! She finally listed the University of Texas Institute of Classical Archaeology, for whom she had been a research assistant several years before, and the head of that institute, highly esteemed in this country, was delighted to have her do so, she is so well regarded. Weird.

And then there is the whole system of exams, which I don’t even pretend to understand. Fernando tells me he recently was called upon to administer an exam for a young man who had never taken a single course in the department but wanted to teach at the high school level in the area of ancient history. Part of the exam was an oral component and the young man was allowed to choose a topic on which he could expound for a few minutes. “I think I’ll speak on the Crusades!” Needless to say he was asked to come back later, after he could at least define what constitutes ‘ancient’.

Unquestionably the most bizarre example of the Byzantine nature of Italian exams also involves my friend Elisa and became something of an international cause celebré in academic circles. It seems that doctoral exams are given only every eight years or so in Italy, and, as luck would have it, the exam for which Elisa was eligible was to be given on the day she was due to deliver her first child. Naturally she asked if she could have a slight variation in the schedule, perhaps a day in advance of, or after the scheduled date, if she went into labor on the due date. Once again, absolutely not! And, predictably, Elisa went into labor on the night before the exam. And so, at 10 am the next day, she dragged herself from her hospital bed, still sedated, schlepped over to the university, and, predictably, flunked her exam. So now she gets to wait another eight years before she will be given the grand privilege of being formally associated with the university for which she has worked creditably for 16 years and by whom she has been treated like dirt.

The American academic system is far from perfect, but compared to that, it’s absolute heaven.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


As if we needed any such lesson, the travel gods recently let us know just how fickle they are and how they love to entertain themselves at our expense. The Romans said it best: “The gods use us as footballs.” But a seasoned traveler must learn to put a brave face on it and wait patiently for better times. If you do, from time to time the travel gods will reward you in ways you never expected.

We were scheduled to leave Agropoli for home on Tuesday, but the schedule was tight. We were due to fly out of Naples airport at 8:50 am to make a connecting flight in Venice for the States. Understand, the last transatlantic flight of the day from Venice leaves at 11:35 am, and that’s the one we were booked on. So at 5:15 am, our wonderful friend Fabio roused himself with the roosters and took us to the Agropoli train station. We arrived by train in Naples a bit early, quickly found a taxi, begged the driver to get us to the airport as quickly as he could safely do so (Naples cab drivers are notorious for taking, let us say, the scenic route), and our friendly, efficient driver had us there in good order. That’s when the troubles began.

The plane, as so often, had originated elsewhere. It seems there was a missing passenger from the flight which had preceded ours but his luggage was accounted for. In this age of terrorist threats, that’s enough to raise a red flag, and airport security, out of an abundance of caution, delayed the flight until they could account for the missing traveler and make sure there was no threat. No argument from us, but as the minutes rolled by and we heard absolutely nothing from Alitalia, we were panicky. Finally we decided to book another route at our own expense, one which had us make a very tight connection in Rome before heading to Venice. It’s been a month since we’ve seen our daughter, and we were anxious to be home.

We landed in Rome ten minutes late, literally sprinted through boarding to make the connector, enjoyed a quick whiz in the plane’s W.C., took our seats...and waited...and waited...and waited. It seems something was wrong with the baggage routing system for the whole airport, and we were waiting for the luggage to board the plane! As the clock made its way inexorably toward 10:15 am with agonizing speed, our chances of making it home on schedule faded into the mists of the Mediterranean. Oy!

OK, it’s not the worst possible fate, we’ll stay in Venice for the night and have a more relaxed commute the next morning. The people at US Air were as nice as they could be, but after 20 minutes of bad Muzak, we learned there was no way to fly US Air the next day and the other option, an Alitalia flight, would set us back $1,600 and there was no guarantee of a connector in Philadelphia to RDU. But if we agreed to wait until Thursday they could make the switch gratis and guarantee a flight from Philly. We sadly deferred our homecoming with Amy and took the only logical option.

Meanwhile, the flight to Venice was uneventful after we finally took off, but in Venice we had no hotel room at the height of the season in one of the top tourist destinations in the world. And there was no wi-fi in the airport, so little hope of booking a room ourselves. Fortunately I found a very nice young man who worked for Turkish Airlines and, when I inquired about possible help in the airport with booking a room, he volunteered to help himself and fired up his laptop. “Hmm, nothing available here...or here...or here! How much did you say you’d be willing to spend? No, they have one for 480 euros per night, but nothing close to your budget. Let’s try away from Venice, maybe Chioggia, it’s only 30 km away.” My panic rose as I considered the distinct possibility of spending two days sleeping in the Venice airport or renting a car and driving back to Agropoli just to find a place to sleep.

Luckily Sandy was also on the job, and the travel gods decided to smile on us. At the other end of the airport was an office for just such knuckleheads as we, arriving in Venice without hotel reservations. When we finally made it to the head of the line, a very polite, soft spoken gentleman asked what our price range was, if the Lido, the barrier island that faces Venice proper, would be acceptable...and if we’d like a view of the lagoon! Not even five minutes later we had a room for $180 per night, guaranteed by our 20% down payment right there at his office, and were out the door to the water bus terminal. The whole thing happened so fast after two hours of agonized wait for my kind young friend to dither, completely over his head but still trying to help a stranded American, that I almost had whiplash.

What is it about Venice that’s so unique? In a word, everything. Venice is like no other world city I know, with the possible exception of Amsterdam, because transport within the city is exclusively by foot or water. No cars! Nada! It’s hard for an American, addicted as we are to the things, to adjust to such a radically different system. But enormously fun to try. Example: twice when we’ve taken tour groups to the city, we’ve had a bit of free time to wander around and explore without the students, and I’ve always wanted to see Santa Maria della Salute, that crazy-looking rotunda church katty-cornered across the grand canal from St. Marks. It’s just so totally over the top with its curlicue pedimental decorations and saints sprouting from the domed roof like God’s own turnip patch. And twice I’ve tried to get there by foot and run out of time. The streets of Venice are tortuous to say the least. Meanwhile, right there in my wallet was a water bus pass which would have gotten me there in five minutes, for free, and I never even thought of the possibility, I’m such a lubber!

The reason for Venice’s unique watery location, as so often in Italy, has its roots in human misery. It is a moot point whether there was ever a mainland Venetia, capitol city of the Veneti, the ethnic group of this region of Italy, today the Veneto. Perhaps it lies under the important Roman town of Altinum, 10 km north, which was gradually abandoned, subsumed by the lagoon and only recently revealed in large part through the magic of near-infrared aerial photography. What we know for sure is that, as Germanic tribes, Huns and eventually the fearsome Lombards invaded northern Italy in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries CE, wreaking destruction in their wake, many of the Veneti retreated to a number of small islands in the lagoon here and began systematically building up the marshy land by driving one wooden piling after another into the ooze and piling mud on top, thereby creating larger, higher islands and deeper, navigable canals between them. Because Venice lies close to the mouth of the Adige River which originates in the Alps, these timbers could be sent downstream from Alpine forests in their thousands. I once read an estimate of the number of pilings now incorporated into the 117 small islands that collectively make up Venice, and though I regret I have lost the figure, it was in the hundreds of thousands. Because the mud and salt of the lagoon provide an anaerobic environment for the pilings, the little critters that eat wood cannot do their thing and the pilings will last essentially forever.

The Venice we know and love today is largely a product of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when its location at the head of the Adriatic made it a great sea power, controlling the fabulously lucrative trade with the Byzantine Empire, thence back to Venice and thence either overland or by sea to all parts of central Europe. The only other sea power that seriously threatened ‘La Serenissima’ was Genoa, on the Ligurian coast, with whom Venice was almost continuously at war. The sea trade even survived the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The real decline came only with the discovery of the New World and control of Atlantic trade by Spain and Portugal. Needless to say, these were two other sea powers.

So the first thing you need to do on your trip to Venice is resolve to use the water as much as possible. That starts at the airport, where you wheel your luggage down to a staging area where you can opt for a vaporetto, the cigarette-boat water taxis which can get you to all points in the lagoon within about 30 minutes, but are rather expensive, or for a water bus, a much larger version of the vaporetti, operated by Alilaguna, slower because they are larger and make local stops, but very cheap. If you opt for the latter as we did, buy the round-trip tickets for $25 and you’re set for the trip back to the airport as well.

Where to stay? For my money, there’s no debate: Lido. You can stay on the islands of Venice proper and pay three to five times as much for a tiny room, or go out to this beach resort community, 10 minutes from San Marco by water bus, and enjoy a nice room in a quiet place for a reasonable price. And dabble your feet in the Adriatic after a hard day of touring; the Adriatic beaches are a five-minute walk away.

And by pure, blind luck, you may get a room like ours. We were booked into the Hotel Villa Laguna, right on the lagoon, with a stunning view of Venice. The hotel itself is described as a Hapsburg villa, but it reminds me of nothing so much as a large Cape Cod, complete with gables instead of the typical Venetian hip roofs, and with the Venetian lagoon where the Cape should be. The gracious concierge, Fabio, explained that the hotel had been completely renovated, inside and out, some three years ago, with ambitions to make this three-star a four-star. I have no doubt they will succeed; this was quite simply one of the two best hotels I’ve ever stayed in. The decor is exquisite, classic Venetian style, the dining facilities are gorgeous, the rooms are all set up as suites, with a nice sitting area, a large closet for luggage, a small kitchenette, a nicely appointed bath, and a bedroom, all decorated to the hilt. And our suite was one of the two in the hotel with small balconies, so that we could sit and watch the passing parade of boats and ships and gawk at that incredible city on the horizon. Hey, at this point I would have been content with a bug-infested mattress and a commode, functionality optional, so you can imagine what a happy camper I was.

But be warned, the suites are beautiful, but not necessarily quiet. The hotel is located on one of the main channels through the lagoon, and is right next to the main docking facility for the public transport company, ACTV, that is, Act V, pronounced Ahkt Voo, and the passing parade is noisy. A small price to pay, as far as I’m concerned. Fortunately most of the action dies down around 12 at night, and if all else fails you can shut all the windows and use the very efficient air-conditioning system. But then you’ll miss the fun!

Tuesday night we used to lick our wounds and recoup from the stress of the day. We ate at a local Lido restaurant, enjoying two pasta dishes that incorporated the local seafood for which Venetian cuisine is famous, and a mezzo of local white wine. And slept like the dead afterwards. Wednesday morning we were lazy, enjoying good Italian coffee in the room, a late breakfast in the breakfast room, also overlooking the lagoon, and one of the world’s true luxuries, morning naps. In the afternoon, off to the city for some desultory touring. ACTV makes it easy for you; you can buy tickets for unlimited travel on all water buses, plus the land buses that operate on Lido, for 6 hours, 12 hours, one day, three days, and so on. Best bargain anywhere. After disembarking at San Marco, we hopped on a local water bus, found comfortable seats facing the left side, and cruised all the way up the Grand Canal and then back again, seeing the incredible palazzi on first one side of the canal and then the other and cruising under some of the most beautiful bridges, such as the Rialto. Hey, if you just must do that gondola thing, go for it...once. Then take the water bus so you can really see the city. On the way back we hopped off at the Academia stop, across the canal from San Marco, and made our way through the labyrinthine streets to Salute.

Wandering the streets of Venice is another education in itself; almost surely you will nowhere else experience anything so much like the ancient city of Rome as here. Oh, sure, the Romans bequeathed the grid system of streets to the West, but guess which city did NOT have a grid system? Yep, Mater Roma herself. Add to that the chance of fires, building collapses, and garbage and human waste being emptied from the chamber pots of upper apartments (Roman apartment blocks were up to five stories tall), and a trip along a narrow Roman street must have been an adventure. I was reminded of that several years ago when a group of us were wandering through a narrow Venetian lane when suddenly a nonna on the third floor tossed the contents of her mop bucket out the window. They landed with a satisfying ‘Sploosh!’ right on the head of a Brit about five yards ahead of us, who proceeded to initiate a long string of blistering epithets of a caliber to make any self-respecting sailor envious. Meanwhile, Nonna paid not the slightest attention. Perfect! You can’t even BUY stuff like this! And only in Venice.

I’m happy to say we made it to Salute sans slop-bucket contents and found the inside as beautiful in its austerity as the outside is hideously ugly in its excess. For me, that’s just so...Venetian: another surprise around every twisting turn of the footpath or canal.