“Dog Days of Summer” Explained

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Aug 24, 2020

The popular expression “dog days of summer” has exactly zero to do with the effects of intense summer heat on our canine friends. Both ancient and celestial in origin, the phrase was translated from Latin to English about five hundred years ago and has since morphed in meaning—a common tendency when people don’t know the true origin of a phrase and seek some plausible explanation … perhaps it comes from a day when the weather is so hot that dogs lie around panting and acting lifeless and lazy; or a day not fit for a dog; or a day so hot even mad dogs and Englishmen can’t handle it. The phrase lives on but the original meaning has been long forgotten.

During Roman times (and back to the time of the ancient Greeks as well) there was a period when the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, rose and set with the sun. This phenomenon occurred for about forty days between early July and mid-August. The Romans thought the combination of the brightest light of the day, the sun, and what was normally the brightest star at night, Sirius, was responsible for the most extreme heat of the summer season. The star sometimes seemed to glow with other colors, and they believed its reddish radiance augmented the heat of the sun.

Geminus, a Greek astronomer from Rhodes, in 70 BCE had a more accurate view: “It is generally believed that Sirius produces the heat of the ‘dog days’ but this is an error, for the star merely marks a season of the year when the sun’s heat is at its greatest.”

Still, the contemporary interpretation of “dog days” has a certain resonance, maybe even appeal, especially in non-pandemic times when one could venture to the ball park on a summer afternoon: hot dogs anyone?!

Anacapri . . . The Hidden Side of Paradise

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Jun 28, 2020

Ah, the Isle of Capri, as in Sinatra’s tune from his “Come Fly with Me” album. A playboy’s and playgirl’s paradise known for its marina, piazzetta of fashionable sidewalk cafes, and “Capri pants” of the ‘50s and early ‘60s—made a fashion sensation by Grace Kelly. But take a public bus just three kilometers to the other side of the figure-eight-shaped island to the higher elevations of Anacapri and you’re in another world. “Ana” is a Greek prefix that means “above” but it could just as well mean “hidden” Capri.

Located on the slopes of Monte Solaro, Anacapri offers walking and backpacking trails that lead to rocky pine-and-brush covered terrain where residents still scratch out vegetable gardens and lemon groves amid the sunlight and fragrances of the Mediterranean.

You’ll also find a nineteenth-century architectural beauty: Villa San Michele. Swedish physician Axel Munthe built his villa on the ruins of an ancient chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, with the desire that it be as filled with Mediterranean light as a Greek temple. And indeed it features a loggia, pergolas and columns leading to a magnificent circular viewpoint overlooking the Bay of Naples. Munthe lived there for fifty-six years and created a sanctuary for migrating birds on Barbarossa Mountain. Today the villa remains as it was when he loved and lived in it; you must visit if you have not done so already.

Also not to be missed is the Chiesa Monumentale di San Michele, a jewel of Baroque architecture that’s one of the most delightful small churches in the region. Its simple white exterior keeps its charms modestly hidden inside where you’ll discover a hand-painted majolica tile floor with a splendid representation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from a luxuriant Garden of Eden.

But the walking and picnicking, with views everywhere of Mediterranean macchia and white-walled houses spilling over with bright purple-pink bougainvillea, is for me the joy of Anacapri. And should you continue climbing—or just take the funicular—ah, the views from Monte Solaro!

Ancient Rome Comes Alive in Naples

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Jun 14, 2020

One of the world’s greatest museums (and a favorite of mine) is the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. With over three million objects from antiquity, its collection is packed with Roman empire treasures excavated at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, including stunning mosaics and colorful frescoes and the fabulous Farnese collection of classical sculpture. I am always amazed by how few visit this extraordinary museum. If you love art and archaeology, it’s a must, and a MUST for anyone who visits Pompeii or the other sites. It’s like stepping into another world.

The bright pink museum is located in one of Naples’ graffiti-adorned neighborhoods. The building was originally a cavalry barracks, then the seat of the University of Naples. Charles III of Bourbon established the museum, then known as the Real Museo Borbonico, to house the antiquities bequeathed to him by his mother, Elisabetta Farnese, and to showcase the dazzling discoveries unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum that he funded to advance the prestige and fame of his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

A couple of surprising facts about the museum: it has an excellent collection of Egyptian artifacts (second only to Turin’s phenomenal Museo Egizio, the world’s oldest Egyptian museum). And, if you still aren’t convinced . . . there is one more secret (literally) for you to uncover here. The museum has a ‘secret’ room, known as Gabinetto Segreto, which has a large collection of erotic art and relics from Pompeii. Initially the room had restricted access to those of ‘mature age and known morals,’ but was finally opened to both men and women in 2000; in 2005 it was officially installed into the museum’s permanent gallery space.