Kristine Schramer

Slow Museums: February 24, 2018 – Museo delle Navi Antiche di Pisa

In December 1998, a bulldozer working on the expansion of the San Rossore train station in Pisa brought up several scoopfuls of wood and ceramics, and work was immediately stopped. Archeologists were called in, and what they found were the remains of thirty remarkably preserved shipwrecks in what was once an Etruscan, then Roman port of the city. The Museo delle Navi Antiche di Pisa is not yet open to the public, but tours of the museum-in-the-making can be pre-arranged on two days of every month. We were lucky that this semester, the UGA Cortona Studies Abroad program’s excursion to Pisa happened to fall on one of those two days, so a group of students and instructors were able to view this incredible archeological discovery.

The museum is being created in the former Medici arsenals on the Lungarno Ranieri Simonelli.  The space is perfect for large displays, and our guide said that eventually catwalks will be constructed so that visitors will be able to view the boats from above.

In the foreground is a modern model of “Boat C”, known as the Alkedo, the ancient remains of which can be seen in the background.

The Alkedo was thought to have once been a private yacht due to its luxury touches, but when it sank it was being used as a commercial vessel, moving goods within the Arno and Auser river areas.

All of the boats were preserved because when they sank (probably during various floods) they were buried in semi-saltwater mud, and never exposed to oxygen.  To excavate them, archeologists had to first encase each one in a plexiglas shell to protect it from the destructive effects of oxygen and fix its pieces in place.  The boats were then taken to restoration labs, where over the course of years new techniques were developed to dry and preserve their wood.

This boat still has its plexiglas shell encasing its lower half:

On this boat was found a tablet with the name of a sailor and what is thought could be the name of the boat itself — the “Seagull”.  It, too, was a cargo vessel used within the river and canal system of ancient Pisa.  On it were found many shoulder blades of pigs, so it is believed the boat was carrying a cargo of prosciutto when it sank.

This smaller boat is remarkably similar to the gondolas of Venice, and is thought to have been used for similar purposes — transporting people and small loads of cargo within the canals of ancient Pisa:

Many of the nails used to construct these boats were actually made of wood — the nail-holes can be seen in the vertical “ribs” of this boat.  The boats were so well-built that in some cases archaeologists were able to remove the nails, take apart the pieces, and then later re-assemble them perfectly.

This boat is the only one found that is large enough to have traveled on the open sea.  It is still being pieced together by the conservators:

Most of the boats were found with cargo, often carried in amphorae like this one.  Traces of wine, oil, olives, and fig jam were found.  This amphora must have carried liquid, because it is painted inside with a substance to render it waterproof.  The painter dripped some of the substance on the outside of the pot, then tried to remove the drips by wiping them with his fingers, leaving four fingerprints behind:

Other items found on board the various ships include lids for amphorae, oil lamps, vessels used by sailors for for drinking and reheating food, and fancier, decorated pottery intended for sale:

In the entire excavation, only two skeletons were found: that of a sailor (about 45 years of age, in those days an elderly age) and his dog, who drowned next to him.

Slow Museums: February 25, 2017 – Siena

My museum today was the streets of Siena — I set out on a “Palio Hunt”, looking for symbols and landmarks of the contrade, but soon found other things that interested me.  Such as the strangely antique reserved (parking?) space in the alley behind the headquarters of the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank:

I saw these words on a building in the via dei Montanini.  They were in plain sight, yet camouflaged by the wall’s texture, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to have noticed them at all:

I assumed they were medieval, and with my poor Latin translation skills concluded that the phrase means something like, “True and Worthy”, which seemed a noble and fitting thing to inscribe on one’s palazzo wall.  Only later, while checking my translation, did I learn the true history of this inscription.  It’s Roman, dating from before Christ, and was originally part of a longer epigraph on an honorary archway that spanned the road at this very location, connecting two towers — the bases of which are still standing across the street from one other, now integrated into other buildings — and likely marking the northernmost limit of the small Roman military colony of Sena Julia.  Two fragments of the arch’s inscription were later re-mounted in such as way as to obtain the phrase “VERO ET VALE”; notice the partial re-integration of the V in VERO and the E in ET.  One theory is that the original epigraph recorded the visit of two Roman prefects, Severo and Valente, who are known to have been sent to Sena Julia by Antonino Pio, emperor from 138 to 161.  The inscription we see today has been known since at least 1480, and it’s one of the few traces of Roman habitation that still remain in Siena.

This one is not as old:

From Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto V, verse 133-34.  Spoken by Pia de’ Tolomei, a Sienese gentlewoman, whose story must have been so familiar at the time that Dante only needed to allude to it:

“remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me.”

Pia’s true story has since been lost in history, but there are many variant versions in art, including paintings, poems, novels, a classical opera by Donizetti, and a rock opera by Italian pop star Gianna Nannini (who I today learned belongs to the family of the famous Sienese pasticceria).  What these stories tell in common is that poor Pia was disappeared to a castle in the Maremma and then murdered there, possibly by her own husband, either out of jealousy or because he wished to marry another.

This is just beautful, and, even better, still being used to announce which pharmacy is “on call” tonight:

The idea of trying to keep the river of Saturday afternoon-strolling Sienese walking only on the left side of the street is amusing…

In Siena, even exhaust vents are lovely:


Mysterious letterforms in Pisa

During our excursion in Pisa today, one of the students asked me why there were triangles carved into some of the paving stones in the Campo dei Miracoli.  I had no ready answer for her, so I went back later to walk around and look more carefully.

These are the symbols or letterforms that I found carved into the pavement:

There may be even more, but these are the ones I found in the little time I had today to look for them.  The two circular symbols are located in the marble that surrounds the Duomo, while the triangle is carved into a slab of marble in the pavement running alongside the Camposanto.

What could these symbols be?  Some possibilities:

Location or measurement markings, such as for a meridian?  But they’re not regularly placed, nor spaced evenly.

Codes used by the stonemasons when producing the blocks, to assist in their placement? This theory came to my mind because it is also one theory put forth to explain the strange symbols on the bugne on the facade of the Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo in Naples:

Yet in Pisa, the blocks with symbols are merely paving stones, which I doubt needed the most precise placement.

My third theory seems more likely: that the letterforms on those marble blocks were leftover from the blocks’ former lives as Roman or early Christian inscriptions.  While walking around the Duomo, I found evidence that many of the marble pieces used in the building had been re-used:

(Feet included for scale and orientation.)

My final theory is that the letterforms are simply ancient graffiti.  All along the base of the Duomo’s exterior, I found carved names that might have been nothing more than the attempts of individuals in the Middle Ages to satisfy their desire to leave their permanent mark on the world:

Beyond these theories, I’m out of ideas.  If anyone out there has anything to contribute, please leave a comment!

This one, located in the pavement of the walk approaching the facade of the Duomo in Pisa, was easy to identify: the cross of the Knights of St. Stephen, the Roman Catholic military order that had its headquarters in Pisa.

Slow Museums: August 31, 2016 – Rome – Vatican


Slow Museums: June 3, 2014 – Florence – Uffizi

2014.06.03 Uffizi web

Slow Museums: June 2, 2014 – Rome – Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

2014.06.02 Santa Maria Sopra Minerva web

Slow Museums: May 13, 2014 – Assisi – San Rufino

2014.05.13 Assisi 1 web

Slow Museums: March 22, 2014 – Volterra – Pinacoteca

2014.03.22 Volterra Pinacoteca web

Slow Museums: March 22, 2014 – Volterra – Museo Archeologico

2014.03.22 Volterra Museo Archeologico web

Slow Museums: March 8, 2014 – Florence – La Specola

2014.03.08 La Specola Ticket web

2014.03.08 La Specola 1 web

2014.03.08 La Specola 2 web