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Santa Maria della Scala in Siena: Going Medieval on Health Care

Directly across the square from the glorious cathedral of Siena, Italy, there’s one of the oldest existing hospitals in the world. It’s a vast complex, partly underground, built over centuries beginning in the 1100s.

The exterior looks modest, but just inside is the spectacular Pilgrim’s Hall, where over the centuries anyone could wander in and find free food, medical care, and compassionate social services.

The fresco above shows the Augustinian friar Agostino Novello, believed to be one of the most important leaders of the hospital, around 1305. He’s being robed in the modest dark cloak of his new job. Previously, he was a high enough churchman that he was entitled to rich and colorful silks. A pauper leaning on a stick stands to the right. The artist was Priamo Della Quercia, 1442.

The fresco above shows the (possibly legendary) time in 1195 that Pope Celestine III gave the hospital brothers the privilege of running their own affairs and choosing their own rector. The artist was Dominico di Bartolo, 1442-1444.

Above, a fresco shows one of the hospital brothers kneeling before an archpriest, describing a vision. The hospital cared for orphans and foundlings; possibly the vision was of the naked children climbing a ladder toward heaven and being scooped up by the Virgin. The artist was Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, 1441.

I’m not sure why the guy in the foreground above is working in his tighty whiteys, but he’s working with a sextant: part of the continual hospital expansion. Somebody else is piling up bricks. A group of nobles are inspecting the building project on horseback. A bishop rides a mule as a mark of humility. A person in a long blue robe is handing out money.

The two frescoes above show the wet-nurses for the foundling babies being paid their wages in grain. The artists were Pietro d’Achille Crogi and Giovanni di Raffaele Navisi. They worked in the Florentine Mannerist style, 1575-1577. Grain was collected from outlying farms, measured into sacks, and payments carefully recorded.

This fresco, “Caring for the Sick,” shows a crowd of clergy, doctors and servants taking care of patients. The surgeon in the center is about to operate on the fellow with his foot in the basin. A brother wearing the order’s square headpiece tends to a patient on a bier. An Augustinian friar hears confessions on the right. The place looks a lot like a crowded emergency room in a contemporary hospital. The artist was Bartolo, 1440-1441.

Another Bartolo fresco, “Almsgiving,” shows a crowd receiving bread, which the brothers distributed to all comers for centuries. A near-naked man in the center receives a nice warm cloak.

Bartolo also did the fresco above, “Marrying the Hospital’s Girls,” 1441-1442. Foundlings were not only raised and educated, but were launched into adulthood. Boys learned a trade, and girls received dowries so they could marry respectably. 

Today, a tourist qualifies as a pilgrim. A ticket to Santa Maria della Scala buys a little loaf of bread like the ones handed out for centuries.

To this day in Italy, emergency rooms treat anyone–including tourists from the USA–either for free or for a nominal fee. This is true in most European countries.

Traveling in Europe, I am mortified to think of the dismal medical options available to Americans unlucky enough to have no private medical insurance. In July of 2017, thousands of people waited for hours to be treated at a once-a-year free medical event at a fairground in Virginia, while the United States Senate dithered and threatened to take away health insurance from millions of people who only recently acquired it. The photo above is from an article in the Daily Mail

I’d like the USA to “go medieval” and provide health care for all, as the city of Siena was somehow able to do centuries ago. 

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

May 4, Liberation Day in Denmark

Yesterday I came upon a celebration in the park across from my hotel in Odense. A military band was playing tunes from the World War II era, accompanied by a chorus of civilians.

 The gentleman in the coat and tails, pictured above, kept a path open through the crowd.

Why? To keep a path clear for people like this elderly hero of the Danish Resistance.

When the Nazis overran Denmark in April of 1940, they just wanted the tiny country for strategic reasons. Danes were allowed to govern themselves for a couple of years. The people gritted their teeth and cooperated to some extent in order to survive. But underground, the resistance grew quietly. The Nazis tightened their grip and demanded that all the Jews be deported. Right under the noses of the Nazis, the Danes got together with their hated historic enemy Sweden. (They still don’t care much for Sweden). But Sweden was neutral, and so hundreds of boats spirited all the Jews across the water to Sweden, a few at a time. Virtually none were lost. Then the Danes turned their attention to matters like blowing up bridges and helping the Americans, the Canadians, and the British.

Liberation came at 8:30 pm on May 4, 1945. At 8:30 last night, May 4, church bells rang all over town and everybody from the park filed into the nearby cathedral for a service of thanksgiving.

Danish soldiers carried the flags of Denmark, the U.K., Canada, and the United States. Later, I thanked the soldier carrying the US flag. He and his friends thanked me for being Americans. I cried. This really was a moving ceremony.

When I left on this trip, I registered as always with the US State Department. They sent me two different travel warnings, advising me to avoid crowds and and any kind of public gathering. I am so glad I didn’t avoid the May 4 celebration in Odense, Denmark.

I stood around outside the church before the service and talked with Danes, who mostly speak perfect English. I thought about going into the church for the service, but it was all in Danish and looked like standing room only.

So I just walked back into the park and contemplated the war memorial.

In spite of what’s going on in my country right this minute, I’m still proud to be an American. I trust that after some dark days, we’ll be able once more to stand with those less fortunate than ourselves, and welcome people into our country. Our young people, like young people everywhere, are our hope for the future.

USA Tax Day 2017

Nobody much likes to pay taxes. In the London National Gallery I came upon these two fellows, “The Tax Gatherers.” The painting is from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswale, most likely from the 1540s. The caption explains that it was probably painted as a satire on covetousness. (Do you think? It looks to me like a 16th century version of a biting episode of our “Saturday Night Live”).

In the 1500s, government authorities imposed taxes on items such as wine, beer and fish. The serious-looking gentleman on the left is apparently writing out a tax list. Once the tax rate was set, private individuals were entrusted with actually collecting the money from taxpayers. An unscrupulous tax-gatherer could obviously take advantage of this system. The man on the right, with his grasping fingers and face contorted by greed, looks more than ready to grab more than his fair share of whatever he collects. 
We all hope our hard-earned tax money is used well, but we suspect it is not. As Americans get their tax returns ready to stamp and mail (this year actually on April 18 instead of the traditional April 15), some people might have headaches. I came across a possible remedy in the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki.

It’s a wood carving of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, from the Pertteli Church, circa 1500. The caption helpfully explains that parishioners cured their headaches by holding it above their heads while praying. Worth a try, I would think!

Monkey Business with Tulips

I just flew over the fabled tulip fields of Holland.  Sadly, I only had a short layover in Amsterdam airport. But I fondly remember a tulip-season trip to Holland three years ago. Tulips were everywhere, in all their glory.

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Museums have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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During that trip, I hopped a train for a short ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

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But my favorite piece in the Hals museum was the little oil painting of monkeys going bananas over tulips. It featured monkeys going crazy over tulips, and it was based on an all-too-true historical event. (In the Dutch Golden Age, they didn’t have Twitter or “Saturday Night Live”).

"A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust, or the subprime mortgage boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight. Then as now, greed leads straight into monkey business.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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I’m plotting a return trip to Holland–one where I can get out of the airport and into the tulips.

Christmas Markets in Europe


This photo is of skaters at one of the great Christmas markets, the one that takes up the main streets of Munich. As I sadly and angrily think of the carnage this week at the market in Berlin, I thought I’d post some photos of markets I’ve loved over the years–not that I ever buy much.  The point is for people to be together, enjoying the season and laughing at ice and snow.


Vienna has some of the most beautiful markets, each with its own unique flavor. The one at the Rathaus–the City Hall–is the largest and has the most festive lights.  For weeks before Christmas, it’s packed day and night with happy people strolling, eating and drinking.


Inside the august halls of the Rathaus, the Christkindl angel speaks with thrilled little children. In Austria and Germany, the angel seems to serve somewhat the same function as a visit to Santa in the United States.  But it has not become a big photo op–it’s just a chance visit, all the more thrilling because it can’t really be planned.

Children sign up for gift workshops in the Rathaus, making presents for their loved ones.  No hovering adults are allowed.  I would love to receive a lopsided gingerbread man from the baking workshop.


My favorite Vienna market is the one in the plaza of the historic Karlskirche.

The Karlskirche market is especially kid-oriented.  There’s a big straw play area with animals ready for the bolder kids to pet.


One of the most popular activities at Karlskirche is to lead a gentle llama around on a leash.  As soon as I find the photo, I’ll post it! Meanwhile, I’ll dream of being in Austria or Germany again at a Christmas market–hopefully in snow.

I haven’t posted in awhile because on my last trip I caught a nasty virus which took awhile to overcome.  Am I discouraged about traveling? Not a chance.  I’ll be on a plane again as soon as I can. And I’ll be praying for world peace and harmony.

Join me next time for more explorations in European art, history and culture!



Rome in November

Sunshine and no crowds–well, hardly any. We got up early to arrive at St. Peter’s at 7am, opening time. 

We waited just outside Bernini’s spectacular colonnade, contemplating the fact that the oval space was once Nero’s circus–a chariot racetrack with assorted atrocities against early Christians as extra entertainment. 

We were among the first 10 people in line. Our reward? We were allowed in at about 8:10, and suddenly there were quite a few people–some more colorful than others. All were welcome.

Inside, the enormous church feels smaller than it is–the architects, including Michelangelo, made the statues  way up high in extra-large sizes, so they seem closer.

There’s a list of all 250 or so Popes, with the dates of their deaths. The two most recent, Benedict and Francis, are not listed because they are still among the living.

A couple of them sleep eternally, enclosed in glass, in the actual church instead of in the crypt below. I’m not sure why this is, but I especially liked the comfy Santa nightcap on this Pope. 

Some years ago, I was able to walk right up to Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta, sculpted when he was just 24. Now, visitors are kept way back–the result of a vandalism incident. It’s like the disappointing view of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre–all jostling people with their cameras.

The closest I got to the Pieta was this plaster copy of it the next day in the Vatican Museums.

Still, St. Peter’s feels very much like a working church, not just a tourist attraction.

I’ll cheerfully visit any time I’m lucky enough to be in Rome.