Celebration in Chiomonte (Dennis Aubrey)


We are often traveling in Europe at the time of my birthday and every year that happens, PJ asks where I would like to celebrate. Usually it will be the Pont de l’Ouysse in the Dordogne or the Crispol in Vézelay, but this year I wanted to do something different. In 2015 when we went to Italy, we stopped halfway just on the Italian side of the Alps to stay at the Affittacamere Al Cantoun, a small hotel with a restaurant in the mountain town of Chiomonte, not far from Susa. We liked it so much that we stayed again on our return trip so that we could sample the wonderful cuisine of Paolo Aiello. So when PJ asked, this time I opted for a two-day stay in Chiomonte which we reached after a three hour run from Sisteron in the Provence through the Alpine passes. We stopped on the way to shoot the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame du Réal in Embrun.

We arrived in Chiomonte and parked in a square across town after we determined that our car would not fit through the arch that led to the church parking lot we normally park in. As we hauled our baggage into the hotel courtyard we found Stefano, who runs the Afficamare, sitting at table with his parents Fernande and Gaspare.

Affittacamere Al Cantoun, Chiomonte

Stefano greeted us in English, which was a bonus. On our last visit, we spoke almost no Italian (and what I know comes from innumerable viewings of the Godfather trilogy) and what we did speak was cruelly corrupted with pidgin Spanish. The family spoke no English and we stumbled from one language to another trying to find a common tongue.

We had a lovely dinner that night, of course, with a bottle of the local Chiomonte wine to accompany. Paolo came out to talk and in the course of conversation I mentioned that we did not see his fabulous torre di polenta con funghi, a fabulous dish with alternating layers of polenta, wild mushrooms and a rich cream sauce. He apologised and said that was a spring dish when the mushrooms were readily available. He asked if we would like it for my birthday; he thought he could get fresh mushrooms the next day. I greedily replied to the affirmative.

The following day was my birthday and when we went down to breakfast, Stefano asked if we would like to shoot a church in a small village on the other side of the valley. PJ and I were eager to do so and we set a time. When we arrived at 2pm, Stefano, Paolo and their father were there to accompany us in the small car. We could see the church, just a few hundred yards away across the steep valley, but it took about 15 minutes to drive there. Stefano, used to driving in the area and knowing the secret protocols, drove much faster than I would have dared. It was possible he was trying to give me a thrill, because I have a fear of heights. We arrived in Ramats in good shape, though, and were met by a family friend, Giorgio, who opened the church for us. Giorgio made it easier to communicate because he spoke French (he has cousins on the “other side of the mountains”, meaning France).

Paolo, Giorgio, Gaspare, PJ, and Stefano

The church, the Chiesa Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, is mostly 15th century with a Romanesque apse. Unprepossessing on the exterior, it possesses vibrantly colored frescoes.

Nave, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

There is some damage done to the 15th century frescoes, but for the most part they are in good condition, covering the vault, rear wall and sides of the apse.

Apse, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by PJ McKey

It astonished us to find frescoes like this in a tiny village perched on the side of a mountain in the Alps. This ensemble was created by an anonymous artist dubbed by art historians as the “Master of Cognet and Ramats”, referring to the frescoes at the nearby Cappella di Notre Dame del Coignet. The frescoes feature a fine annunciation on the apsidal arch and the life of Saint Anthony in the apse itself.

Apse frescoes, Cappella Sant’ Andrea a Ramats, Chiomonte (Piemonte) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We had a great time photographing the small church in Ramats, but then it was time to go home to get ready for my birthday dinner. And dinner did not disappoint! Not only did we have torre di polenta con funghi made with porcini mushrooms, but I had the boar stew, which was marvelous. After dinner, there was a fuss in the kitchen and then the entire family emerged with a birthday cake!

Birthday cake at Ristorante Al Cantoun, Chiomonte (Piedmont)

This cap to this perfect birthday was going to the town square to watch the final of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Juventus. We were torn in loyalties, because we are Real fans, but Juventus is in nearby Turin and we are big fans of their goalie, Gianluigi Buffon, and their now-departed midfield legend Andrea Pirlo. In the second half, Real scored three goals to take the match, but for me the amazing thing was watching PJ’s performance. Despite being happy for Real, she acted like it was a disaster of the first magnitude for the benefit of the Juventus fans surrounding us. Personally, I was in awe of the performance, worthy of Italian opera buffa or commedia dell’arte!

Watching Champions League Final in town square

The Aiello family made this day very special for me and we hold them dear in our hearts. The welcome, the cuisine, the fantastic alpine setting, all contributed to a most special celebration. All that is left is for us to learn to speak Italian so that we can do their welcome justice on our next visit!

The Mason of God (Dennis Aubrey)


In a world where what passes for news are articles about the megalomaniac Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and the Jenners, we occasionally find something worth consideration.

On August 25 a funeral mass was celebrated in the Italian town of Montefortino at the chiesa della Madonna dell’Ambro. The recipient of the mass was a Capuchin friar, Padre Pietro Lavini who lived as a hermit in the Sibylline Mountains near Rubbiano Montefortino and along the Gola dell’Infernaccio, the Gorge of Hell. A thousand people attended the service of the man who died two weeks prior, on August 9, 2015.

Why did they come to this mass? What did Padre Pietro accomplish with his life as a hermit?

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell'Ambro

Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell’Ambro

In 1971, Padre Pietro discovered the ruins of the Eremo di Santo Leonardo, an abandoned 12th century Benedictine monastery in the wilds of the Sibyllines. All that remained of the church were fallen stones and a single standing Romanesque arch. Pietro received permission from his monastic superiors and walked into the wilderness with the goal of single-handedly restoring the church. He spent the next 43 years working alone and by hand and rebuilt the church. When asked how he managed it alone, he responded that there were two in service of the restoration. God was the designer and he himself was the mason. He became known, in fact, as the muratore di Dio, the builder of God.

L'Eremo di Santo Leonardo

L’Eremo di Santo Leonardo

I’m pretty sure that Trump would characterize the small monk as a “loser” because he didn’t spend his life inflating his own reputation, sleeping with beautiful women and living in a gilded palace. There is no room in the Trump brand for someone who lives a life of sacrifice and renunciation, a life with values that run deeply in the search for the truth of the human soul. Trump lives in a tiny narrow band of reality that inflates its own importance by belittling the rest of the world. I’m sure that if he saw the abandoned meadow in the Sibyllines, all Trump could imagine would be an exclusive golf resort for his rich friends. Padre Pietro imagined an entire world in the fallen stones, and built it with his two hands.

Thanks to our friend Diane Quaid who brought the life of Pietro Lavini to our attention via this article in the Economist.

Fotographia Interruptus (Dennis Aubrey)


We have learned one clear lesson so far on this trip – photographing churches in Italy is a completely different experience than photographing them in France. In France, most of the time we enter, set up and spend the next three hours shooting to our hearts’ content. If anyone approaches us, it is usually to ask a friendly question, point out something that we might otherwise miss, or just look at what we are doing.

In Italy, when we are approached, we have learned that the invariable response is Vietato! La fotographia esta vietato! Usually this is the greeting from an officious petit fonctionaire, but sometimes just another visitor to the church who is anxious to convey to us that photography with tripods is not permitted without permission. At the Abbazia di San Silvestro di Nonantola which was being heavily restored during our visit, a man associated with the company restoring the church tried to stop us from photographing. I pretended to desperately understand his Italian, and my failure to do so annoyed him. I told him that I spoke French and he went off with his cell phone to call someone who could tell me to stop working in French. Whoever he talked to refused to help him so he just glared at me every time he walked past.

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

We will be very glad to get permission in the future, but the key question is “Permission from whom?” Sometimes it is a government figure if the church is considered a monument, but if the church is an active place of worship, it is different. Sometimes it is the senior religious figure at the church, the head priest, for example. We were told in the magnificent Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano in Modena that we had to write in advance to this eminent person and that they would give us permission if they felt it was appropriate. But we were not even allowed to hand-hold in the cathedral because our cameras were troppo professionale – “too professional”.

Nave, Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At the Abbazia di San Silvestro di Nonantola we were informed that we needed to contact the parish offices where someone (nobody could tell us who) would respond to our request. We are a bit suspicious of this since we wrote to the relevant authorities in Milan and Ravenna six weeks before our departure and never heard back, not even when we followed up with a second letter. Perhaps the Italian that we used to convey our request was not good enough to give the authorities confidence that we were not barbarians.

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We were perhaps misled by our experience at the wonderful Abbazia di San Godenzo, where we had two hours of solitude to photograph. Nobody bothered us or told us that it was vietato. Perhaps that was because the church was completely empty during the entire time we worked.

Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia)  Photo by PJ McKey

Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia) Photo by PJ McKey

We are enthralled by the wonderful churches that we have seen in Italy and will be back to photograph. But the preparation will be much more difficult and I am convinced that we will need help from higher authorities who can help us communicate with both metropolitan and church officials. Until then, we are so glad to be back in France where we can go in, look, study, and then photograph to exhaustion!

Crypt, Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

The Benedictine Abbey of San Godenzo (Dennis Aubrey)


A couple of days ago we headed to Florence to meet PJ’s brother Mark in the Tuscan capital for three days. We decided to take the old road between Ravenna and Firenze through the mountainous Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi. This road took us across the Apennines mountains where we came across the Benedictine monastery of San Godenzo.

Nave, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We were desperate to shoot with our full equipment, including tripods, after the restrictions of Ravenna and we found the perfect place at the Abbazia di San Godenzo, a 12th century Benedictine abbey. The church was completely empty during our two hours there and we were delighted to be able to photograph to our hearts’ content. The structure of the church is quite familiar with a nave and two side aisles, but there is no transept. The structure is unvaulted, but covered with a wooden ceiling.

Side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The elevation of the church is quite simple – the arcade arches are carried by sturdy piers and above the arcade is a series of clerestory windows. This is, as might be expected, a fairly dark church.

Tribune and nave elevation, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune and nave elevation, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The church had a couple of unique features, including a tribune dividing the crossing and an elevated apse above. Below the ape is a small dark crypt. There are stairs mounting to the apse on either side of the tribune.

Tribune from north side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Tribune from north side aisle, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

The highlight of the raised apse is the beautiful mosaic in the oven vault. This entire raised choir is a testament to the monastic origin of the church, since the altar used for normal services is below in the crossing.

Apse mosaic, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse mosaic, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The crypt is very interesting in itself, hidden behind the main altar and underneath the tribune.

Crypt, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crypt, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by PJ McKey

Inside we can see the darkened shrine with its groin vaulting.

Crypt interior, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Crypt interior, Abbazia di San Godenzo, San Godenzo (Toscana) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This post is just a small introduction to the church. We’ll do better justice to the Abbazia di San Godenzo when we return home in June. Meanwhile there will be plenty of other adventures to write about, including PJ’s ascent to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome above the Duomo in Florence.

Location: 43.926093° 11.618749°

A Brief Look at Ravenna (Dennis Aubrey)


Last Thanksgiving, PJ and I were dining with our good friend Diane Quaid, a hardy solo traveller who ranges across oceans and continents without a concern. Italy, China, Tibet, and Scotland are among her most recent adventures. At dinner that evening, Diane was talking about all the places she plans to see before she’s through.

Nave,  Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ asked me where I wanted to go – I responded “Ravenna, to see the Byzantine churches.” Well, here it is about seven months later and we are in this lovely Adriatic town.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

The delay in our trip due to my father’s health meant that we are only spending three days instead of the seven we had originally scheduled, and We tried to get permission to photograph with tripods, but the Italian bureaucracy was not forthcoming. So we basically have two days to photograph eight or nine sites, all without benefit of tripods. We agreed that this was really a scouting trip.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

Today we went to the Basilica di San Vitale and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo as well as the Battistero deli Ariani and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia.

Mosaic, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Mosaic, Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The churches were filled with people and we tried our best with our hand-held camera techniques. This is especially difficult with tilt-shift lenses, but we each managed a few shots that we can show, just to give you an idea of the extraordinary architectural riches here.

Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

We’ll follow-up with more detailed posts, but just wanted to give you a taste of Ravenna while we are still here.

Mosaic, Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Mosaic, Battistero degli Ariani, Ravenna (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Cognoscenti Travel


Mary and John McKean have founded a company called Cognoscenti Travel. John is an architectural historian who has been part of the Via Lucis community for several years now. Having followed the setup of their company, we are pleased to see that their offerings are public now. They describe Cognoscenti as follows: “We are a small company set up by enthusiasts and experts in architectural and cultural history. We only travel to slightly ‘out of the way’ places which we know well and love personally, and want to share with others. We exist because we have a passion for cultural travel and love our destinations.”

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Their latest tour is The Renaissance City scheduled for 23 – 29 September 2015 (7 days, 6 nights). The tour features the two greatest exemplars of the Renaissance ‘ideal city’, Ferrara and Urbino, both remaining magical and unspoilt today. John says that they have a couple of places still available. PJ and I would love to attend but our trip to Europe ends in June. We could not imagine a more knowledgeable guide than John and encourage any of our readers to take a look at the Cognoscenti site to see if the tour is appropriate for them.

Our 2015 Trip to Europe


The holiday season has been very intense for us but we have started to plan for our next trip to Europe in May and June. There will be some very familiar places where we will repeat our photographic exploits, but also an entirely new (for us) experience. We are going to Italy!

PJ and I were at dinner with our dear friend Diane Quaid in November and the conversation turned to bucket lists. PJ turned to me and asked if there was one place that I would like to go and I replied “Ravenna”. At that moment we decided to add Italy to our tour for 2015.

Europe Map 2015

So the general outline of the trip is as follows: In ➀ Vézelay we will stay at our home in the area, the Crispol Hotel, which will be our base for photographing and for a visit with Pere Angelico Surchamps at the nearby monastery of La Pierre Qui Vire, the birthplace of the Éditions Zodiaque. We are hoping that Janet Marquardt will be able to join us for the visit.

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

Dom Angelico Surchamp, September 20, 2011

From Vézelay we will make a long drive to ➁ Milan to photograph the Duomo, Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Battistero Sant Ambrogio, Battistero San Lorenzo Maggiore, Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro, and the Basilica di San Simpliciano. From Milan we drive a couple of hours to ➂ Ravenna, where we will photograph the Battistero degli Ariani, Battistero Neoniano, Chiesa San Michele in Africisco, Basilica di San Giovanni Evangelista, and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The amazing Byzantine churches with their famous mosaics are drawing us to this part of the world for almost two weeks.

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Image in the Public Domain)

Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe (Image in the Public Domain)

From Ravenna we have a treat in store – three days in ➃ Florence with PJ’s brother Mark Krausz. We’ll take some time to enjoy the city but will probably not have time to really work on the churches. We’ll save that for a return visit. From Florence we spend a night in ➄ Modena. We hope to photograph the Duomo, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo e San Geminiano.

From here, we head back to France, first the ➅ Le Puy area in the Haute Loire. We will shoot the Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy and several of the remote churches of the area, including one of our favorites, the Abbaye Saint-André de Lavaudieu. From here we go about an hour north where we will stay just outside of ➆ Issoire at one of our favorite hotels in France, the lovely Cour Carrée in Perriers. I was sick here for six days on our last trip so we are looking forward to returning and enjoying the hospitality and cuisine of Jean-Luc Villette. While in the region, we will be photographing the many spectacular Romanesque churches in the Clermont-Ferrand area.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

From Issoire we go to my omphalos, the Hotel Pont de l’Ouysse in ➇ Lacave in the Dordogne. I first fell in love with this hotel in 1986; PJ and I return every year to enjoy the cuisine and the region. From Lacave, we head to the ➈ Limousin where we will photograph the wonderful Romanesque churches surrounding Limoges – the Collégiale Saint-Pierre in Le Dorat, the Abbaye de Saint-Amand à Saint-Junien, the Église Bénévent-l’Abbaye, the Collégiale Saint-Léonard à Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, the Église Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul à Solignac, and the Église Notre Dame de La Souterraine.

From the Limousin we go a short distance northwest to ➉ Poitiers to visit our family friend Thérese Gayet at their home at Danlot, and then visit the city itself, along with our old family stomping ground at Chauvigny. From Chauvigny we go to ➀➀ Bourges to photograph the cathedral, then to ➀➁ Chartres for three more days documenting the restoration there. And then finally, three days in ➀➂ Paris in an apartment on the Ile Saint Louis will finish our trip. We are so excited to return, especially since the last journey was truncated by my illness.

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Apse, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Chartres, Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ and I have a great deal of research to do, mostly on the churches in Italy. It will be our first time to work there and we need to know the regulations and practices of that country. If anyone has any information or suggestions to make, on Italy or even the Limousin region, please let us know. It will, of course, be gratefully received.