Category Archives: Landmark
Rain is rare in Malta. For most of the year, the archipelago is a cloudless, sunny idyll for vacationers. But since I like to photograph public spaces before they fill with people, I woke early morning and walked to Saint George Square. Valletta wasn’t awake yet, and I had the square to myself. It rained during the night, leaving the square largely a mirror of the surrounding architecture.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but the lovely square was once used as a car park for members of the House of Representatives. But fortunately, someone realized that this square, at the very center of Valletta, had a nobler calling. These days, it’s adorned with a fountain whose jets of water are in time with classical music. When the sun is up, children will dart in and about those streams of water as sunlight dances off their hair.
It’s such a rarity to see Valletta drenched in rain that I decided to try and capture the Grand Masters Palace reflected in the tiles of Saint George Square. To do this, I had to lower my tripod nearly to ground level. Then I used a panoramic technique to try and exaggerate the feeling of the place, the wide open square devoid of people. At this hour of the day, the square couldn’t be lovelier.
Though the Knights Templar may be the more famous, the St. John’s Knights, or the Knights Hospitaller, were an equally formidable military order.
Originally formed to treat the wounded and infirm, the Knights became an order of warrior-monks, and spent much of their early history fighting the anti-christian forces in Jerusalem and Holy Land. Among the Knights Hospitaller, Jean de Valette, Grand Master, soon emerged as a stalwart defender of Christianity, defeating Ottoman forces in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
As a result of that victory, de Valette became a beloved figure in Europe, and was offered the position of cardinal. He refused the offer, ostensibly because of both his modesty and his desire to be free from the papacy. Instead, he began the construction of a new city in 1566, reportedly laying the first stone himself. The new city was to be called Valletta and was located near Mount Sciberas, where much of the Ottoman army fought and died. De Valette would never live to see the completion of the city that bears his name, however; he suffered a stroke and died in 1568. The warrior remains here, entombed in a sarcophagus in St. John’s Co-Cathedral in the city he founded.
I wanted to see the city as de Valette and his Crusaders would have seen it, the ancient stronghold they held for nearly three hundred years. I woke early one morning, intending to see Valletta before the modern city came to life. The sun was breaking over dense clouds, and the effect was striking. Even at this hour, it was impossible to capture the city without cars and other evidence of modern life, but I felt that with the clouds forming an ethereal backdrop for its ancient architecture, Valletta must look for me much the way it appeared when it was a Crusader stronghold.
From 1530 until Napoleon’s arrival in 1798, Malta was under the control of the Order of St. John, or the Military Knights Hospitaller, an order founded to care for religious pilgrims and the infirm. In time, however, they joined their Crusader brethren in fighting, and the island remained a Crusader state long after other military orders lost their strongholds.
I think of this as I take in an evening view from the top of the Hotel Juliani. There’s so much history in such a small part of the world. Its location in the Mediterranean has made Malta a crossroads of sorts between European, Middle Eastern, and North African cultures, and like many of the world’s crossroads, its history has often been one of invasion and conquest. Invaded by Arabs and Normans and bombed by Axis forces during World War II, the island now faces a different kind of invasion — tourists.
From my vantage point on top of the hotel, my head swims a bit at the thought of such a long and storied history. Looking out over the curiously-shaped Spinola Bay, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Malta’s long history with its modern incarnation. It was dawn, St. Julian’s was beginning to come to life, and the city’s skyline was streaked with the headlights of passing cars. I found a spot that allowed me to capture the unusual curve of the bay, and framed the shot to catch as much of Malta’s past and present as one photograph would allow.
Looking at the beautiful Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, it’s difficult to imagine that Malta was once the province of Crusaders, the last one, in fact, and the most impregnable bastion of Christianity in the Mediterranean.
The St. John Knights, in return for fighting anti-christian forces, were given the island by Charles V in perpetuity as long as one condition was met — they were to send him a falcon once a year. They held the island for nearly three hundred years, until overwhelmed by Napoleon’s forces.
The church, perched above a series of steps leading to Balluta Bay, exists in the written record as far back as 1601, when a visiting bishop recorded that it was built in 1580. But that was simply a church on the same site; the present-day structure has been rebuilt or enlarged three times since the 1800s. The most recent incarnation, a striking Latin construction, was completed in 1958.
The church would be striking in any environment; in St. Julian’s — which is really just a fishing village at heart — it’s breathtaking. I struggled to find just the right angle to capture it. Ultimately, I settled on photographing it from the vantage point of a gentle curve in the steps, which focuses the eye on the church and the glittering reflection of the lights of St. Julian’s in the bay.
Although I love to photograph the Alps — it’s a stunningly beautiful place — it can be frustrating because finding the perfect view is difficult. It can be harder than you might imagine to capture that kind of natural majesty.
As soon as we arrived at Selva Val Gardena, I began exploring the village’s hiking trails to find the best view of the city and the mountains. This was a family vacation, but I couldn’t resist photographing the village.
This is one of my favorite spots in Selva Val Gardena — it’s a place where the ski slopes and the road seem to converge, forming a dramatic angle in the photograph. There is energy in this photograph that I like — the dynamic convergence of the two roads, as well as the three cliffs in the background that overlook the slopes. There’s the suggestion of something menacing about those cliffs, perhaps a warning of the mountain and its dangers.
Once again, I found a spot overlooking the village and set up my tripod. Even though the snow on the slopes was artificial and the cliffs gave a somewhat sinister cast to the scene, I liked it nonetheless — an Alpine village in the early hours of evening.
For the past several years, my family and I have spent the first two weeks of the New Year skiing in various locations in Europe. This year, we chose the Italian Dolomites, famous among skiiers for its Sella Ronda region. We chose a ski resort in the village of Selva Val Gardena, one of the three villages that make up the valley known as Val Gardena.
This year, however, was different. For the first time that I can remember, there was no snow. There was artificial snow on the slopes, to be sure, (and the skiing was great) but the surrounding mountains were strangely snowless. Selva Val Gardena wasn’t any less lovely for lack of snow; it could be a picture postcard of an Alpine village. But there was nothing to indicate that this was ski resort in January — lovely as it was, it might just as easily have been the middle of summer.
But as I had no control over the weather and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity for a great shot, I managed to slip away and get some fine sunrise and sunset shots. Even without snow, I found Selva Val Gardena to be an enchanting place.
After photographing the Two Towers, I was tempted to make the climb up Asinelli, the taller of the two. It’s a long, vertiginous climb, but I knew the views of Bologna would be magnificent, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Getting to the top of Asinelli wasn’t the easiest of tasks — it’s a steep, narrow staircase that wasn’t designed with modern photographers and their equipment in mind. But once I finally reached the top and set up my small tripod (specially purchased for such occasions), I looked out from the tower and was rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bologna’s tiled roofs.
Just to my right I could see the Piazza Maggiore, the orderly little square square surrounded by much of the city’s history. Take steps in any direction in the Piazza Maggiore and the medieval city comes to life — the Basilica of San Petronio, the Palazzo dei Banchi, and the Palazzo d’Accursio all occupy exalted spots on this historic square.
But what most interested me was the spot in the distance — the Bolognese Hill, which is home to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. Technically, the hill sits on the outskirts of the city, on top of Karaulhaya Mountain. Inside the sanctuary rests the Madonna of San Luca, an icon of the Virgin Mary that is believed to have been painted by the apostle Luke. The icon was brought to Bologna from Constantinople in 1194 and placed on the hill, known as La Guardia.
As a framed the photograph, I found myself awestruck by the history of this place — before me, the tiled city and its towers, once a hub of medieval commerce, and beyond, the towering Bolognese Hill and its apostle-painted treasure.
Beyond the city’s towers, I entered Bologna’s winding medieval streets. Following one of these winding streets, I came to the Piazza Santo Stefano, an unusual little piazza that isn’t a piazza at all, merely a gradual widening of the street.
It’s an unusual and picturesque part of Bologna. The piazza is not, properly speaking, a square: the Via Santo Stefano gradually widens into an odd bit of geometry that is the piazza. The area has been known for centuries as ‘le Sette Chiese,’ or the Seven Churches, in honor of the imposing structures surrounding the piazza.
Nowadays, there aren’t seven churches; there are four: the Church of the Crucifix, the Holy Sepulchre, San Vitale and Agricola. The churches were built and remodeled at different times, and over the years, they came to be connected, almost as if they are growing out of one another. The result is a labyrinth that begins with the entrance to the Church of the Crucifix, the largest of the four. The faithful — or the merely curious — could spend hours wandering from one ecclesiastical wonder to the next.
I wanted to photograph the piazza, but because of its place as one of the most historic (and popular) places in the city, it was almost always full of visitors. I waited until evening, when I hoped to have it mostly to myself. As I set up my tripod on the piazza’s ancient cobblestones, my mind wandered to the generations of faithful who have walked those stones. I captured the historic piazza in the low light of evening, thinking of faith and its mysteries.
A short walk from the Two Towers is the Palazzo della Mercanzia, a striking building noteworthy for its two Gothic arches. Built in the fourteenth century when Bologna was a wealthy commercial center, the Palazzo was constructed to be a base for those governing trade in the city. The building still houses the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a building with an interesting history. The sides of the building are watched over by statues of four saints — the city’s protectors, as well as statues of St. Peter and St. Anthony of Padua. But under the watchful eyes of saints, the city’s business disputes were settled, and businessmen found to be unscrupulous were tied to a center pillar and publicly shamed.
In keeping with Bologna’s image as a city of epicurean delights, the Palazzo is now home to perhaps the most valuable of the city’s treasures: Bologna’s prized “official” recipes for Bolognese ragu, tortellini, and mortadella.
I made the short walk over from the Two Towers as early morning sunlight was breaking over the piazza. I had the area to myself and focused on the Palazzo, guarded by saints and repository of sacred recipes.
I made my way toward the Dolomites but decided to stop for a couple of days in the medieval city of Bologna. It’s a difficult city to get a feel for — it’s at once the rarefied city of scribes and scholars and a thoroughly modern, technologically advanced metropolis. What drew me in, however, was the city’s medieval center, the winding, terra cotta heart of the city.
Much of Bologna was destroyed during World War II, but the historic part of the city survived. This part of the city, built when Bologna was at the peak of its power and wealth, was once dotted with towers. In fact, one of Bologna’s many affectionate nicknames is “la turrita,” or the “city of many towers.” There were once hundreds of towers in the city; some were built for defensive purposes and many others built by powerful families, continually attempting to one-up each other.
Most of the towers long ago crumbled into history. But among the ones that still stand, perhaps the most well-known are Asinelli and Garisenda, the city’s “Two Towers.” They’re not as famous as their counterpart in Pisa, but perhaps more interesting: Asinelli is taller and Garisenda has more of a lean. Echoing their long history — they’re also older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa — is an inscription on one of Garisenda’s slopes from Dante’s Divine Comedy that mentions that exact tower.
The Two Towers are so tall and so intimately positioned with one another that it was difficult to capture them together in a shot. I used a panoramic technique to get them both in the frame as the sun rose over Bologna. They seem to me to be two old, time-tested friends: the sturdy and solid Asinelli and the whimsical, free-spirited Garisenda, eternally looking askance at the old city.