Monthly Archives: May 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta

Posted by on May 9, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta

UNESCO World Heritage Site #241: Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta

From the World Heritage inscription:

Ferrara is an outstanding planned Renaissance city which has retained its urban fabric virtually intact. The developments in town planning expressed in Ferrara were to have a profound influence on the development of urban design throughout the succeeding centuries. The brilliant Este court attracted a constellation of artists, poets and philosophers during the two seminal centuries of the Renaissance. The Po Delta is an outstanding planned cultural landscape which retains its original form to a remarkable extent.

Among the great Italian cities Ferrara is the only to have an original plan that is not derived from a Roman layout. It did not develop from a central area but rather on a linear axis, along the banks of the Po River, with longitudinal streets and many cross streets around which the medieval city was organized. The most significant characteristic of Ferrara’s urban history rests on the fact that it developed from the 14th century onwards and, for the first time in Europe, on the basis of planning regulations that are in use nowadays in all modern towns. This type of development is known as addizione ; the third phase was implemented in 1492, making Ferrara the only planned Renaissance town to have been completed.

The street network and the enclosing walls are closely linked with the palaces, the churches, and the gardens. Throughout the 16th century the city was planned with the aim of making it a future ‘capital’. Its evolution came to an end after the 17th century under papal administration, and the city did not undergo any extensions for almost three centuries. The city plan (1492) provided for doubling its area, an expansion limited to the south of the castle. This extension was completed by a new and very up-to-date defensive system made up of elements belonging to the various extensions carried out over several centuries (ramparts, keeps, semicircular towers, bastions, barbicans, etc.). These alterations completely changed the appearance of the city: new streets were created on a grid and buildings in a new style were built.

The most important monument surviving from the medieval period is the San Giorgio Cathedral dating back to the 12th century. The facade is a work of the master builder and sculptor Niccolo who, influenced by Benedetto Antelami, worked in the first half of the 12th century; the construction of the bell tower began in 1451 to a design attributed to Leon Battista Alberti. Standing in front of the cathedral, the 13th-century Palazzo Comunale was the first residence of the Este family and was joined in the late 15th century to the Castello di San Michele or Castello Estense. This massive, four-towered fortress was built in 1385 by the court architect Bartolomeo da Novara after a violent popular revolt. Works were carried out until 1570 with the creation of a noble residence with large halls to receive the court and embellished by frescoes and marble balconies and logge.

I’m surprised that Ferrara and the Po Delta are combined into one world heritage site. They could each probably stand alone and Ferrara isn’t the only world heritage site in the Po Delta. Mantova is also in the Po Delta and the case could be just as easily be made for combining those two.

Ferrara is an interesting city. The primary attractions are the Castello Estense (shown in photo) and the Basilica Cattedrale di San Giorgio Martire. There are many other plazas and squares to be found in the city as well.

Ferrara is an easy day trip from Bologna. It takes about an hour to get there by train, which run frequently throughout the day.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena

Posted by on May 8, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena

UNESCO World Heritage Site #240: Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena

From the World Heritage inscription:

The joint creation of Lanfranco and Wiligelmo is a masterpiece of human genius in which a dialectical relationship between architecture and sculpture was achieved in Romanesque art. The Modena complex bears exceptional witness to the cultural traditions of the 12th century and is one of the best examples of an architectural complex where religious and civic values are combined in a medieval town.

Modena is located in the Po plain at the crossroads of the ancient Via Aemilia linking Piacenza with Rimini and the road leading to the Brenner Pass.

The construction of the cathedral, dedicated to San Geminiano, and of the bell tower was decided when the Bishop’s See was vacant. The inscriptions in the cathedral and the text of the Relatio translationis sancti Geminiani provide invaluable evidence of the first phase of building (1099-1106), and mention the names of the architect, Lanfranco, and the sculptor, Wiligelmo. The new cathedral had to be larger than its predecessor, built by the schismatic Bishop Eribert in 1070, to prove that the clergy and people of Modena had returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Construction of the cathedral and the bell tower took place in an urban structure already largely formed. The cathedral was built on the site of that built by Bishop Eribert and destroyed to make way for it, on an axis oblique to the original. The Maestri Campionesi, architects and sculptors commissioned to maintain the building by the cathedral’s works office from the second half of the 12th century onwards, opened two side portals and the rose window in the facade, followed by the Porta Regia on the southern side (around 1180). Inside they enlarged the crypt, raised the choir, and expanded the roof in order to build a false transept (end of the 12th to start of the 13th centuries). The bell tower, whose tall silhouette is a landmark to travellers approaching the town, is closely linked to the cathedral by two arches.

Only minor changes have been made to the Piazza Grande. Its quadrangular shape has been preserved, and it has been lined on its northern side by the flank of the cathedral. The old and new Palazzi Comunali were connected by the clock tower (13th to 16th centuries) and blended in by the means of new facades and arcades (17th to 19th centuries). The brick Archbishop’s Palace, closely connected to the cathedral by a private passage, is on the western side of the square. It underwent a first transformation at the end of the 15th century, and an additional floor was added in 1776. Further changes were made in ensuing decades. The appearance of the southern side radically changed when the new Law Courts were built by Luigi Giacomelli in 1892 (replaced by a new building by Gio Ponti in the 1960s). The bell tower (Ghirlandina) and the cathedral are indivisible in both physical and stylistic terms. This monumental tower, built from the same materials as the cathedral, consists of six floors emphasized by small blind arcades lit by simple openings, and then by two- and then three-light windows on the upper floors. The austerity and power of the bottom half of the tower, which is reminiscent of Roman structures, is surmounted by an octagonal drum and an upper lantern which express the new feeling of the Maestri Campionesi for Gothic architecture.

I wasn’t really sure what to think of Modena.

I’ve been to many “old European city” world heritage sites. This isn’t the type of site that is going to jump out and grab you by the throat.

For starters, the site isn’t that big. It consists of the cathedral and the piazza behind the cathedral including the large city tower. The piazza doesn’t really seem like anything special and the facade of the cathedral isn’t overwhelming. (most romanesque churches aren’t)

The best part is certainly the inside of the cathedral. There aren’t that many romanesque cathedrals in Italy and this is one of the better ones. You can get a feel for the age of the building the moment you see the brickwork on the inside. The raised altar and what I assume is the crypt below it is also something you don’t see is most Italian cathedrals.

The back of the cathedral facing the piazza was under renovation when I visited in May 2013.

If you are in Bologna, Modena is a short train ride away and there are many things to seen and do in Modena besides the cathedral. It is worth a day trip, but it is probably not a destination in itself unless you are a serious world heritage enthusiast.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a)

Posted by on May 7, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa'a)

UNESCO World Heritage Site #239: Um er-Rasas (Kastrom Mefa’a)

From the World Heritage inscription:

Umm er-Rasas is strongly associated with monasticism and with the spread of monotheism, including Islam, throughout the region. The artistic and technical qualities of the mosaic floor of St Stephen’s church justify describing Um er-Rasas as a masterpiece of human creative genius. It also presents a unique and complete (therefore outstanding) example of stylite towers.
This is an archaeological site of the Roman, Byzantine and early Muslim periods. The site was founded in the 3rd century AD as a Roman military camp, closely associated with the frontier (limes) of the Roman Empire, the border with the desert and possibly with the eastern branch of the incense route.

The large camp (castrum) gave the site its ancient name – Kastron Mefa’a. The roughly square fortified castrum (about 50 m by 150 m is almost unexcavated. While the castrum itself became the core of the later settlement, the ruins of the Byzantine settlement outside it cover an area of about 200 m by 300 m.

Among the visible and partly excavated structures on the site are several churches. These can be easily identified before excavations, and attracted the main attention of archaeologists working on the site since 1986. For this reason much less is known of the character of housing, town plan and daily life.

Among the extraordinary remains on the site are several mosaic floors, one of which of special importance. The mosaic floor of the Church of St Stephen shows an incredible representation of towns in Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, including their identification. At a short distance from the town, a well-preserved tall tower from the Byzantine period is probably the only existing remain of a well-known practice in this part of the world – of the stylite ascetic monks (i.e. monks sitting in isolation for long periods on top of a column or tower). The tower has no stairs and is in a relatively isolated area.

Um er-Rasas is surrounded and dotted with remains of ancient agricultural cultivation, from water reservoirs to terracing, water channels, dams and cisterns. There are two small cemeteries on the site, one immediately to the west and the other to the east. The Eastern is an old Bedouin cemetery, whereas the Western is a modern one. About 150 m separate the site and the main modern north-south road.

In this area there are several ruins of relatively new structures, from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, but now abandoned.

Um er-Rasas is easily the least visited World Heritage Site in Jordan. It isn’t easy to get to. It isn’t on the way to somewhere else and it doesn’t get anything close to the visitors of a place like Petra. In fact, when I arrived there was no one else there. There was no one working the ticket window and the doors were wide open. Others who have visited have reported the same thing.

However, I found this site to be absolutely fascinating!

The primary reason for its listing are its incredibly well preserved mosaic floors. They are easily the largest and best preserved mosaics I’ve ever seen. They are the remains of Byzantine church floors and there are several at the site. The largest one is from the church of St. Stephen. It has been excavated and currently rests under a shelter to protect it from the elements. Many of the human images in the mosaics were destroyed during the Byzantine iconoclastic movement of the 8th century.

The rest of the site is almost entirely still buried in rubble. I’ve never before had the feeling of visiting something unexplored like I had here. You can literally walk over the buildings and look down on the arches which are still standing. I even found a shard of pottery laying on the ground! There is still an enormous amount to be discovered here. It is just a matter of funding.

Um er-Rasas is approximately a 30 minute drive outside of the city of Madaba. Unlike the other world heritage sites of Jordan, I know of no regular tours which visit Um er-Rasas. You will probably need to hire a guide or rent a car to visit the site, but it is well worth it for those who are inquisitive.

Tuesday Travel Update – Emilia-Romagna Edition

Posted by on May 7, 2013

Ferrara, ItalyAfter two weeks in Jordan, I’ve arrived in Italy! In particular, I’ve spent the last several days exploring the world heritage sites in the Emilia-Romagna region. I’ve been in the region before but I’ve never spent any significant time here.

In a few days my G Adventures Photography tour begins in Venice and I had a week to kill before it started. The Emilia-Romagna tourism board is running an innovative program called Blogville where they invite bloggers to come and live in an apartment in Bologna. I applied, figuring that the dates and located worked well between my Jordan trip and my photography tour, but they had already filled their slots. However, they did manage to help me get a hotel room and I’ve used the time to go exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the region.
(more…)

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

Posted by on May 6, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

UNESCO World Heritage Site #238: Quseir Amra

From the World Heritage inscription:

Quseir Amra bears exceptional testimony to the Omayyad civilization which was imbued with a pre-Islamic secular culture whose austere religious environment only left behind insignificant traces in the visual arts. It is the best conserved architectural ensemble, if not the most complete, of all the Omayyad palaces and castles in Jordan and Syria.

Built in the early 8th century AD, this exceptionally well-preserved desert castle was both a fortress with a garrison and a residence of the Umayyad caliphs. The most outstanding features of this small pleasure palace are the reception hall and the hammam, both richly decorated with figurative murals that reflect the secular art of the time.

Approximately 85 km east of Amman and not far from the caravan trail which passes through Azrak, Kharaneh and Tubah, Quseir Amra is one of the many residences which the Omayyad caliphs built in the desert of present-day Syria and Jordan. These ‘castles of the desert’ had various roles. They were fortresses where garrisons could be lodged, on at least an occasional basis; they were places of relaxation where the caliphs could come back into contact with the traditional existence of Bedouin nomads. The fortress of Quseir Amra, square in shape, is in ruins with no thing more than the foundations remaining. But the small country house with its three-nave reception hall and hammam still exists with its extraordinary mural decorations. These murals, which were discovered by the Austrian, Alois Musil, in 1898 and made known in 1907, were restored by a team of Spanish specialist headed by the archaeologist, Martin Almagro.

Quseir Amra, which was probably built under Walled I (705-15), although a more recent theory suggests the reign of Walled II (743-44), is interesting first of all because of the remarkable architectural structure of the reception hall and also due the existence of a very extensive bath complex. Supplied by a noria and an aqueduct, it resembles Roman baths with its three rooms: the changing-room (apodyterium), the warm bath (tepidarium) and the hot bath (caldarium), in addition to the service room.

What gives Quseir Amra its uniqueness, however, is the figurative painting on the walls and vaults of the reception hall and hammam. There are historical themes (royal figures who were defeated by the Omayyad caliph) and mythological representations as well (the muses of Poetry, Philosophy and History, with their names in Greek), a zodiac, hunting scenes and hammam scenes as well as some imaginary themes (animal musicians, a hunter being chased by a lion), etc.

Quseir Amra is not large. In fact when we pulled up to it and I had no idea we were there. Quesir is Arabic for “castle” so I was expecting something…..bigger.

What is there is actually the bath of what was believed to be the summer palace of Walid II, the Umayyad caliph. The original structure was believed to be much larger and the remains of which may still be unexcavated in the surrounding area.

The building itself is not why it was listed as a World Heritage Site. What makes Quesir Amra special are the well preserved frescos inside. Unlike most Islamic buildings, the fresco designs are not simply geometric shapes. They show scenes of people and animals. The painter was mostly likely a Byzantine Christian who lived in the region.

Quesir Amra is approximately a one hour drive from Amman. Most visitors will not be visiting Quesir Amra as the primary destination, but rather as part of a day long trip to several desert castles between Amman and Azraq. Quesir Amra is small enough that it can probably be experienced in 30 minutes, including the small visitor center.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

Posted by on May 5, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

UNESCO World Heritage Site #237: Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor

From the World Heritage inscription:

The culturo-historical region of Kotor has exerted considerable influence, over a span of time and within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture and human settlement. Kotor and its neighbours were main bridgeheads of Venice on the southern Adriatic coast. Its art, goldsmithing and architecture schools had a profound and durable influence on the arts of the coast. It is among the most characteristic examples of a type of structure representing important cultural, social and artistic values. It is considered to possess outstanding universal value by the quality of its architecture, the successful integration of its cities to the Gulf of Kotor and by its unique testimony to the exceptionally important role that it played in the diffusion of Mediterranean culture in the Balkan lands.

Founded by the Romans on the Adriatic coast in Montenegro, Kotor developed in the Middle Ages into an important commercial and artistic centre with its own famous schools of masonry and iconography. Throughout the centuries, many empires battled for control of the city. In the 10th century, it was an autonomous city of the Byzantine Empire. From 1186 to 1371, it was a free city of medieval Serbia. It was under Venetian and Hungarian control for brief periods, an independent republic from 1395 to 1420, and then returned to Venetian control once again. French occupation from 1807 to 1914 was followed by Austrian rule until 1918, when Kotor finally became part of Yugoslavia. Throughout its turbulent history, a variety of buildings have been erected. The largest and most impressive of these is the St Tryphon Cathedral. The original church was constructed in the 8th century, according to the annals of the Byzantine Emperor. A new church, built in 1166, was subsequently damaged during the 1667 earthquake and then restored.

The limits of the World Heritage site coincide approximately with the crests of the natural sinkhole formation. At both ends, the site is bordered by the national parks of Orten and Lovcen, making a vast protected natural area. The Gulf of Tivat (formerly part of the approaches to Kotor) is omitted because of the authenticity of its settlements, which has been downgraded by recent industrialization (shipyards, harbour equipment).

Most of Kotor’s palaces and houses, many Romanesque churches, all of Dobrota’s palaces, and Perast’s main buildings have all suffered from earthquakes, and some have been partly destroyed. The city was evacuated by all its inhabitants after the most recent, on 15 April 1979. An intensive restoration and reconstruction programme has now been completed and the city is flourishing again.

Kotor is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas along the Adriatic, if not the entire Mediterranean. The Bay of Kotor is one of the most picturesque I’ve seen and it is surprising that Kotor isn’t listed as a mixed property (natural and cultural). It is only listed as a cultural site.

While a settlement existed in Kotar for thousands of years, the current walled city dates back to the Venetian Republic in the 15th Century. Kotor was passed back and forth between the Venetians, Ottomans, Italians, Austro-Hungarians, Yugoslavians and Serbians before coming part of an independent Montenegro in 2006.

Visiting Kotor is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik and there are many organized tours which leave daily. When visiting, leave plenty of time to climb the mountain behind the city which is the location of many churches and monasteries. Budget at least 2 hours to go up and mountain and back.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

Posted by on May 4, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

UNESCO World Heritage Site #236: Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Old Bridge area of the Old City of Mostar, with its exceptional multicultural (pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European) architectural features, and satisfactory interrelationship with the landscape, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The qualities of the site’s construction, after the extremely ravaging war damage and the subsequent works of renewal, have been confirmed by detailed scientific investigations. These have provided proof of exceptionally high technical refinement in the skill and quality of the ancient constructions, particularly of the Old Bridge. Of special significance is the Radoboija stream, which enters the Neretva on its right bank. This provided a source of water for the growing settlement, and from it springs a number of small canals used for irrigation and for driving the wheels of water-mills.

There has been human settlement on the Neretva between the Hum Hill and the Velez Mountain since prehistory, as witnessed by discoveries of fortified enceintes and cemeteries. Evidence of Roman occupation comes from beneath the present town.

Little is known of Mostar in the medieval period, although the Christian basilicas of late antiquity continued in use. The name of Mostar is first mentioned in a document of 1474, taking its name from the bridge-keepers (mostari ); this refers to the existence of a wooden bridge from the market town on the left bank of the river which was used by soldiers, traders, and other travellers. At this time it was the seat of a kadiluk (district with a regional judge). Because it was on the trade route between the Adriatic and the mineral-rich regions of central Bosnia, the settlement spread to the right bank of the river. It became the leading town in the Sanjak of Herzegovina and, with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks from the east, the centre of Turkish rule.

The town was fortified between 1520 and 1566, and the bridge was rebuilt in stone. The second half of the 16th century and the early decades of the 17th century were the most important period in the development of Mostar. Religious and public buildings were constructed, concentrated on the left bank of the river, in a religious complex. At the same time many private and commercial buildings, organized in distinct quarters, known as mahalas (residential) and the bazaar, were erected.

The old bridge in Mostar is actually not that old. At least the current incarnation of it is not. Originally built in 1557 under the administration of the Ottoman Empire, it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces in November 1993 during shelling of the town. The Bosnian Croat forces later admitted that they purposely targeted the bridge for destruction because they felt it was of strategic importance. (After the way, experts testified that the bridge wasn’t strategically important. The bridge was attacked because of its cultural significance.)

In 1998 UNESCO helped in the recreation of bridge which was completed in 2004, with the bridge being listed as a World Heritage Site in 2005.

The scars from the Bosnian War can still be seen in Mostar. Bullet holes can be seen in many buildings and a few still remain gutted. Although there is peace, the city is still divided between Croats and Muslims, a situation which is unlikely to change anytime soon.

I visited Mostar on a day trip from Dubrovnik, which is probably the easiest way to visit the city. There are tours leaving Dubrovnik daily.