Category Archives: Italy

A Bad Day for Santa Croce

A Spanish tourist was just killed by a falling stone fragment inside Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. How could this happen?

Santa Croce is one of the major sights in Florence. The interior is warmly lit and surprisingly peaceful, considering the number of visitors.

People pause to pay their respects at the tombs of the great and good:





Rossini, and many others I feel like I should know.

Santa Croce is said to be the largest Franciscan church in the world, with beautiful Giotto frescoes honoring the humble monk from Assisi. 

St. Francis is believed to have actually founded this church. 

And now, it’s closed while the authorities investigate why an unsuspecting tourist was killed by a chunk of falling stone.

No tourists will be gazing up at the beautiful ceilings for awhile. The faithful will have to light their candles and murmur their prayers elsewhere in the city.

Italy has artistic treasures everywhere, but it seems there is never enough money to properly take care of them, or to accommodate the number of visitors lining up to see them. 

In 1966, the Arno River overflowed its banks, flooding much of Florence. Damage to Santa Croce took years and years to repair. There are still high water marks in the building, and some of the artworks can’t be completely restored. I hope Santa Croce can be made safe again.

No doubt lots of ink will be used as the investigation goes forward. One article about it is at:

My Favorite Nativity Scene, with Angels on the Buddy System


My all-time favorite image for Christmas was painted into a fresco by an unknown artist around 1370 in the Umbria area of Italy. It depicts a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe. His smiling dog dances in delight.  This is part of fresco fragments from the long-gone monastery of Santa Giuliana in Perugia. The fragments, covering about 20 feet in width and maybe 12 feet in height, are now in the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria.  I’d travel back there just to gaze at them again.  I wrote about this fresco last Christmas, and took another look this year.


My favorite shepherd and his dog are really just side figures in a more conventional Nativity fresco. The entire fresco is too large to photograph in one shot, and my photography skills are pretty much limited to what I can capture on my trusty iPhone. So the view above shows the shepherd and his bagpipe, but not his joyful dog.


The other side of the fresco, which once covered a wall, shows the traditional Nativity scene with the stable, the town of Bethlehem, musical angels neatly arranged in pairs, some friendly cattle, and Mary and Joseph with their child duly wrapped in strips of cloth–the Biblical swaddling clothes.


The details are charming, the faces friendly and serene.


What I find most appealing is the artist’s careful concern for the ordinary people depicted. They are painted somehow larger than life, and in loving detail.  A friend of mine commented on the cozy-looking black socks worn by one of the shepherds on his way to the stable.  At least I think they are shepherds–or could they be the Three Kings? Whoever they are, their feet are REALLY big.  This fresco was placed high on a wall, under a vaulted ceiling.  The rules of perspective would have dictated that the feet should be smaller in proportion to the heads.  The artist chose to do the opposite. Maybe the artist didn’t exactly have perspective down pat.  Then again, maybe he (or she) just wanted to contrast grounded humanity with floating angels.  These folks definitely have their feet on solid ground.



The animals are grounded, too.  These are real sheep, solid and woolly. And each one has a unique personality, as animals do.

As a child, I always wondered what became of the sheep left behind on that hillside, after the angels in the story told the shepherds to get themselves into Bethlehem posthaste. Maybe the unknown artist of this fresco had an anwer:  the sheep trotted right along. The horned sheep seems to get what’s going on; he raises his head as though somehow lifted up by what he’s seeing.

On this Christmas Eve, my wish is for all of us to remember that we share this beautiful earth with many others. To those who celebrate Christmas and to those who don’t, I wish peace, friendship and health.

St. Jerome and His Lion: More Sightings


I’m always on the lookout for images of St. Jerome and his lion. Legend has it that when the saint retreated to the wilderness to study and pray, he came upon a lion with a thorn in its paw.  St. Jerome didn’t run or climb a tree.  He stopped and removed the thorn. From that day forward, the grateful lion stayed by his side. The fresco above is from a ceiling in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, painted it between 1540 and 1565.

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

Pala Tezi, Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, known as Il Perugino, 1500

A more primitive, but still endearing, lion is in the painting above, from the Galleria Nazionale of Umbria in the town of Perugia.

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The artist painted the lion and the saint sitting peacefully together in a simple landscape, in front of the cave that Jerome may have lived in.

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

Another painting by Perugino shows the saint in contemplation of the Virgin and child, accompanied by other saints.  In humble adoration, he’s set his cardinal’s red hat on the ground–and who is lurking beside him?

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

San Girolamo Penitente, Il Perugino, 1512

In turn, Jerome’s faithful lion gazes adoringly at him.  Isn’t this what we all love to have our pets do?

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

Detail from Il Perugino painting above

The lion’s face is distinctly human.  How many of us humanize our pets? It’s an ancient impulse.

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

St. Jerome, Pintoricchio, around 1495

The same museum in Perugia has another painting of the saint in the same pose–also with his cardinal’s red hat set humbly on the ground. It’s by Bernardino di Betto, known as il Pintoricchio.

The friendly lion is guarding the hat–and St. Jerome.  Who wouldn’t like to have a tame lion riding shotgun all the way through life? Jerome’s lion always had his back.

In medieval times, retreating to the wilderness to meditate was a radical action. Jerome would not have been the first man eaten by a lion in the wilderness. At a time when nature was frightening, St. Jerome was revered for being at one with nature. In our times, retreating to the wilderness still has its risks, but it’s becoming more and more an expensive luxury. Our wildernesses are shrinking and human over-development is routing wild animals from their age-old homes.


I treasure any wildlife sightings, like this fox right outside my window.  And I’ll keep looking for glimpses of St. Jerome and his lion.

My previous post about St. Jerome and his lion is at

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Happy International Cat Day!


Do cats deserve a day of their very own in the international calendar? Of course they do. A couple of years ago, wandering art museums in Amsterdam and Haarlem, I wrote about the many dogs that appear in Dutch paintings.  I mused that for me, the dogs served as a window into long-ago times and places.  Cats are the same. It’s hard to identify with people wearing heavy black robe-like garments relieved only by starched white ruffs and collars. But  these same people had pets they loved.  The cat above, looking out at the world from the safety of her person’s lap, has the same smug look as any cat of mine. I can understand people who appreciate their feline friends enough to immortalize them in art.


Cats in Dutch paintings are often up to no good.  The one above is about to make off with a plucked bird while the unsuspecting housewife is looking the other way.


Cats often gaze longingly at the food artfully arranged in Dutch still life paintings, and they add some “life” to still lifes that consist mainly of dead animals ready to be consumed.


Children have always liked cats.  This ceramic pet, complete with a bib and abandaged leg, sits in the now-quiet nursery at Wightwick Manor, a wonderful Arts and Crafts home in England. He looks a little anxious. I have a feeling his broken ear and broken paw happened when he got tossed across the nursery in some long-ago game.


I have a soft spot for all cats, but especially for the calico and tabby  varieties. They remind me of the pair that patiently wait for me at home.


Of course I’m always on the lookout for friendly cats on my travels. This handsome fellow was in York, England.


What about big cats? I love them too.  The fierce creature above is on an exterior wall of the very grand Pitti Palace in Florence.


Chatsworth House in England has a pair of regal lions who lord it over the Sculpture Gallery. I think part of our fascination with big cats is that we feel we understand them just a bit, especially if we live with their small domesticated relatives. Our pet cats give us a little insight into both long-ago places and wild places on this earth.

In my post “Dogs in Dutch Art,” I quoted a striking poem by David Graham:  “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”  A couple of months ago I received a lovely comment from the poet, who had just happened upon my post.  The main reason I keep posting is to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I was thinking at the time.  That must be part of what motivates a poet, too.

Posts about dogs in art are at ‎and

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

St. Clare of Assisi

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare of Assisi, known also as Santa Chiara in Italy, was born on July 16, 1194 in Assisi, a hill town in Umbria. She was born to a wealthy noble family and was said to be beautiful.  In the natural course of things, she would have been married to a noble man in her early teens.  But she persuaded her parents to allow her to wait until she was 18 to marry.  By that time, she had found another love:  all she wanted was a life of prayer and poverty and service. She was one of the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and her presence is felt in Assisi almost as strongly as that of Francis himself.


The portrait of Clare above is from one of the beautiful frescoes in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis. Masses are held frequently.  I wandered into one and felt immediately welcome in a crowd of people from all walks of life.

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Clare heard Francis preach during Lent in 1212. On Palm Sunday of that year, Clare left her father’s house and went to the small chapel called Porziuncula (which means something like “small portion”). The tiny chapel, down the hill from the main town, still stands.


But now the Porziuncula is inside the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. When it is still a humble chapel outside the city walls, this is where Clare met Francis, intending to leave her old comfortable life behind for good.  Her hair was shorn and she traded her sumptuous gown for a rough plain robe and veil.

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Some of the rough-woven clothing worn by both Francis and Clare is on display in Assisi.  Ordinarily, I might be sceptical, but both Francis and Clare were sainted very shortly after they died, and it is wasy to believe that their clothing was preserved.

Francis sent her to a nearby convent of Benedictine nuns. Her father was not pleased. He tried to force her to return home, but reportedly she clung to the church altar, showed him her short-cropped hair, and declared that she would marry no one but Jesus Christ. Soon, though, two of her sisters joined her, and eventually even her mother became part of the order she founded.

At the time, monastic life could be fairly luxurious.  Following the teachings of Francis meant seeking out extreme poverty and completely selfless service to the poorest of the poor.  This was a radical choice that could have been dangerous, but Francis and then Clare received approval from the Pope. Clare’s order came to be called the Poor Ladies, and later the Poor Clares.


Today, the narrow medieval streets of Assisi look much the same as they did in Clare’s day.

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The city may be crowded in summer.  But last year I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of sunny December days there, soaking up great art in situ and being refreshed by the spirituality of the place. I’m hoping to do it again.


Clare is present in many ways, like this elegant 1888 statue.


She’s also present in lighthearted personal displays, like this doorside lantern where she stands cheerfully next to St. Francis and his namesake, Pope Francis.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Julius Caesar and the Ides of March

In the midst of the most turbulent American political season in decades, I recently re-read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. His source was mostly the historian Plutarch. The play is still relevant, and still illuminating on the subjects of loyalty to others versus loyalty to country, honest differences of political opinion, the uses and abuses of power, and whether and when violence is justified. And because it’s Shakespeare, every word is memorable. In history and in the play, Julius Caesar meets a bloody end.  But  Shakespeare gave him some memorable lines before he went down.  In the play, contemplating his risks, Julius Caesar says, “Cowards die may times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

This day, the 15th of March in year 44 B.C., did not work out well for Julius Caesar.  According to the historian Plutarch, a fortune-teller warned Caesar that something terrible would happen to him before the “Ides of March.”  There were other warnings, too:  a graphically violent dream by Caesar’s worried wife Calphurnia, men seemingly walking around on fire in the marketplace, a lion wandering the streets. Confident (or foolhardy) fellow that Julius Caesar was, he laughed at the portents and predictions. He even gloated, as he made his way to the Roman Senate on that morning.  When he reached the Theater of Pompey, where Senate sessions were being temporarily held, he figured he was home free.  But a lethal circle of assassins awaited him, knives concealed under their togas. Calphurnia’s nightmare came horribly true.

"Death of Caesar," 1798, VIncenzo Camuccini, public domain

“Death of Caesar,” 1798, Vincenzo Camuccini, public domain

Julius Caesar’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of fierce civil wars that eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire–a period that was stable, but definitely not democratic. Julius Caesar had already more or less ended the Republic:  at the height of his power, he had named himself “Imperator.”

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Could Caesar have avoided his violent end? Given his personality and supreme self-confidence, he probably could not. He had refused to resign when the Senate politely requested that he step down, and with one of his legions he had defiantly crossed the Rubicon River into Italy.  That was strictly forbidden. Military conquest was for the frontiers. Rome was for reasoned debate among civilized men.  Ever since Julius Caesar’s audacious and risky march across that border river, the expression “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a fateful and irreversible action. There was no turning back, for Caesar or for Rome.

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Looking back over the centuries, it appears that the common people loved Julius Caesar for his flamboyance and for the military glory he had brought home to Rome. But his aristocratic peers saw only danger ahead. They decided that Caesar had to go. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, his heir, Octavius, obligingly made Julius Caesar a god. No danger there, and the move placated the restive common people.


Today, the Roman Forum is a haunting place to wander, pondering the ups and downs of history. When I visited, I bought a book with clear overlays which shows how the various buildings must once have looked back in the day.  But even without a visual aid, it is not hard to imagine Julius Caesar and his entourage making his way through the Forum on his way to the Senate session on that fateful day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!

Poor Old Joseph

Wandering in the Pinacoteca in Siena, Italy, I started feeling sorry for Joseph, the often-neglected member of the Holy Family. It seems that in the 14th and 15th centuries, at least in Italy, there was a tradition that Joseph was an exhausted old man. His wife Mary is always shown as a pretty young woman, but poor Joseph  in these paintings looks tired and put-upon.

Taddeo di Bartolo, Adoration of the Shepherds, Siena 1362-1422


Joseph disappears in the Gospels after the episode where Jesus stays behind in the Temple after a family visit, and his worried parents have to search for him. In the serene Nativity scene above, are we to think of Joseph as the only one who foresaw the troubles ahead?

Here’s another worn-out Joseph:

Matteo di Giovanni, Adoration of the Shepherds, Siena, 1433-1495


The Biblical story tells us that the Holy Family soon became a family of refugees fleeing persecution, traveling to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod. Was Joseph resting up for the journey ahead?

And another image:

Pietro di Dominico, Adoration of the Shepherds with St. Paul, Siena, 1457-1502


Here, the Three Kings are just arriving in the background. In the story, Joseph has already traveled far with a pregnant wife, and now he has an infant as well, and faces more trudging down a dirt road. Is Joseph thinking, “Enough with the gold, frankincense and myrhh.  How about a tent, a baby backpack and some down sleeping bags?”

In the painting below, Joseph has his walking stick at the ready.

Giaccomo Pacchiarotti, Adoration of the Shepherds, Siena, 1474-1540


In all the joy of the holidays, I’d like to remember those who are refugees, or old, or tired, or discouraged.  I’d like to remember those who stay in the background and do the heavy lifting. I’d like to remember those who are in over their heads for one reason or another. I’d like to remember those who stick around to clean up after everyone else has celebrated and headed home. I don’t know the theology that informed these paintings, but I have a lot of sympathy for Joseph.


Simone di Filippo, Nativity, circa 1380, Bologna


In my favorite fresco, a humble anonymous work I wrote about a few days ago, Joseph looks aged, but cheerful and downright sprightly.  That’s my wish for all of us. My post about this delightful fresco is at…-for-christmas/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

A Medieval Dancing Dog for Christmas

An unknown artist created this enchanting image of a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe for his dancing dog between 1370 and 1390. It’s from a lunette–a semicircular fresco, divided into two parts–that once decorated the Monastery of Santa Giuliana in Umbria. Today, what is left of the lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Italy.

The shepherd and his dog occupy the far right-hand side of the nativity scene above. Why is this simple scene so special?  I love it for the way the ordinary mortals–and the animals–are as important as the Holy Family.


The musical shepherd, his dancing dog, and the cattle on the right-hand side of the lunette (the semi-circular scene)  are hanging out casually on the hillside, unaware of what’s going on in the stable.

I love the lifelike sheep, with their thick winter coats.

The shepherds stand on a flowery hillside, nudging each other in amazement at what’s happening in the sky above them–no doubt there were once angels.

The left-hand side of the lunette does show the missing angels, hovering over what looks like a typical Italian hill town much like Assisi or Perugia. A lucky cow and a donkey are special guests–or rather, they are hosting special guests in their humble stable.

All the elements of the Biblical story are here, in their simplest form. Gathered around the swaddled baby, we have musical angels, friendly cattle, and a proud mom and dad.

 St. Francis of Assisi, very near to Perugia, created the first three-dimensional manger scenes, in order to make the Christmas story seem more real to those he preached to. In early December when I visited , preparations were underway for a manger scene outside the Basilica in Assisi.

Francis is beloved for many reasons, but especially for his love for the working poor and the homeless.  Francis was all about radical humility. He was in demand in the palaces of the great, but he was determined to spend his time with the poorest of the poor.

Great artists like Giotto created wonderfully colorful frescoes illustrating the saint’s life for the Basilica that was immediately begun after his death in Assisi. A new pictorial language developed around the humble life of St. Francis, emphasizing his love for humanity, the joy possible in the most ordinary of lives, and the goodness of the natural world. The challenge was to honor the saint’s life without unduly glorifying him. The frescoes above were part of this artistic and spiritual movement. No doubt the anonymous artist who created these frescoes for a little monastery had seen the work of Giotto in the Basilica.  Although St. Francis is not the subject of the almost-primitive lunette I liked so much, his influence shines through in the simple everyday images.

I spent several happy hours soaking up the great art in this underappreciated museum. But I circled back several times to the damaged but charming fresco of the Nativity with the dancing dog.

Easter in Venice: One to Remember

Easter this year may not be the greatest in my memory.  I’ve been down for the past week with a bad case of respiratory flu–the one that we all heard the flu vaccine did not protect against. Just when I thought I’d made it through the winter without getting anything, the virus knocked me flat.  I can’t really complain, though.  After all, I know one person who ended up in ICU for two weeks with this crummy virus.  I’m getting better, but I may not even make it to church on Sunday.  I don’t want to expose anyone.

Anyway, I’m contenting myself with memories of my most spectacular Easter ever: in Venice, several years ago.  We got up super-early and hurried through almost-empty streets to the Basilica of San Marco, built in the 11th century and packed with pilgrims and tourists ever since. We were actually worried about getting seats. No problem! We breezed in the side entrance and found we could sit wherever we wanted.


What a perfect time to be there!  Typically, tourists wait in long lines, then get about 10 minutes to shuffle through the darkened cathedral, peering up in a vain effort to see the spectacular 12th and 13th century mosaics. Once in awhile some lights come on, and attendants periodically call for silence. Most times, I’d rather look at the mosaics in a book.


But during all of the many services on Easter Sunday, the interior of San Marco is brightly lit.  And worshippers get to sit down! This is why the best way to experience a church or cathedral that’s a tourist magnet is to actually attend a service.  Although we could not understand a word of the Easter service, we felt entirely welcome.  There were even some printed copies of the sermon in English–at least we thought it was the sermon.  Even in translation, it was hard to decipher.  But no matter.


We spent a wonderful hour soaking up beautiful sacred music, mysterious (to us) words, and an ambiance of golden light. We ventured to take a few photos, seeing that other congregants were doing so discreetly. Mostly, though, we loved having  time to gaze up at the 8,000 square meters of breathtaking mosaics depicting events from the New Testament and lives of various saints.


I’ll never forget the warm beauty of the mosaics in San Marco.

As a bonus, the Pala d’Oro, a golden altarpiece usually covered, was wide open and brightly lit. The Easter experience at St. Mark’s was so spectacular that we actually went back for another service later in the day.  The streets were getting crowded, and we figured we might never have this chance again.

Later on Easter morning, we wandered past the English Anglican Church. The doors were wide open and people were still filtering in. In we went. The place was austere compared to San Marco, but we could understand all the words. Afterward, smiling church ladies, stationed at a table in the foyer, offered small paper cups to us. All churches have smiling church ladies and I love them.  I happily accepted the little cup–lemonade, I thought, just like at home. Outside, next to the sparkling Grand Canal, I took a sip and stopped in my tracks.  It was champagne!


Am I planning another trip to Venice? Maybe someday, during whatever passes for the off season these days. I think I would like Venice in the dead of winter. But I keep readiing that floods are becoming more and more frequent–tourists slosh around in rubber boots and balance on temporary boardwalks.  The city, built on pilings in the lagoon, is slowly sinking even as ocean levels rise. There are high hopes for a new system of water control gates on the sea floor.

But there’s little hope for stemming the relentless tide of tourists.  Residents have left the city, moving steadily to the mainland over the past generation. It is just too hard and expensive to live in the beautiful and unique medieval city.  I just read that on a summer day, tourists outnumber residents 600 to 1.  Venice is becoming a victim of its own glorious success, first as a world naval power, and now as a tourist magnet.  Of course I’d have attended George Clooney’s wedding, but sadly my invitation must have been lost in the mail.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!


The Tenth Mountain Division


On this Veterans’ Day in the United States, I stopped by a local museum to see an exhibit honoring a special group of soldiers who served during World War II.  The Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs, Colorado is hosting a exhibit called “Soldiers on Skis.” A number of locals served as soldiers on skis.  They still hold reunions here.

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, military leaders realized that American soldiers would have to be combat-ready in all kinds of circumstances all over the world.  That included the treacherous mountain terrain of Europe and Asia–and, if it came to it, of the United States as well.  In 1939, Russian troops invading Finland had been held back by much smaller numbers of Finnish soldiers on skis.  The Finnish soldiers were able to use the rugged terrain of their home country to their advantage. United States military leaders took a lesson from the brave Finns. Soon Army suppliers were designing warm clothing and tents for mountaineering soldiers.



Serious planning for mountain combat began. There were already a number of recreational ski mountains in the United States, along with some ski racers and ski patrol men. The Army began recruiting efforts with men already skilled on skis and in mountain terrain. They found no shortage of volunteers. The 10th Light Division (Alpine) was activated in July of 1943 and based in Camp Hale, in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Among other training techniques, Army engineers actually built a glacier to mimic terrain the soldiers would soon see in Italy.  In 1944, what became known as the 10th Mountain Division shipped off to Italy.  They fought Axis troops in fierce and crucial battles in the Italian Apennine mountains near Bologna, Pisa and Lake Garda. (There’s an expert ski run called “Riva Ridge” in Vail, Colorado. I skied it for years without appreciating that it was named after a perilous ridge climbed by 10th Mountain Division soldiers on February 18, 1944, on their way to a vital attack that began on February 20).

Once the skiing soldiers had successfully helped to end German resistance Italy, they were to be shipped to Japan to fight in the mountains there.  However, they were not needed after the Japanese surrender. Since World War II, the 10th Mountain Division has been demobilized and reactivated several times.  To this day, the unit is light infantry, with special training and equipment to move in hard terrain.


I bought a book at the museum. It is The Boys of Winter: Life and Death in U.S. Ski Troops During the Second World War. The author, Charles J. Sanders, particularly honors three of the many men who gave their lives fighting in the 10th Mountain Division.  Their names are Rudy Konieszny, Jacob Nunnemacher, and Ralph Bromaghin.  I’m going to read their stories with interest.


Many of the great American ski areas were founded by skiing soldiers who returned home, sad at the loss of their friends but enthusiastic about sharing their love of the mountains and of skiing with a civilian population living in peace. Pete Seibert, an ex-soldier who became one of the founders of Vail Resort, no doubt had his fallen friends in mind whenever he set off down Riva Ridge.