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?!
Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.
Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.
The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.
Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!
These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio (cancelled this year due to COVID-19) are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a !0% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 7/31/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.
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!