Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Florence (Firenze), Italy

My IWSG post is here.

Copyright bongo vongo, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Florence, called Firenze in Italian, is known as the Athens of the Middle Ages, and was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Because the Florentine dialect of Tuscan Italian was used by so many literary luminaries, it became the basis of Modern Standard Italian. The city was also the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from 1865–71.

The first Florentine settlement is believed to have been between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE. Then Etruscans moved in between the seventh and sixth centuries.

The city’s written history began in 59 BCE, upon the arrival of the Romans.

Porta San Frediano wall, Copyright Sailko

Porta Romana wall, Copyright Sailko

Firenze went from strength to strength under Roman rule. The cityscape quickly grew to include a military camp, a theatre, spas, an aqueduct, an amphitheatre, a forum, city walls, and a river port. Sadly, few of these structures have survived into the modern era. The city walls are a notable exception.

Starting in the fourth century CE, Firenze went back and forth between Ostrogothic and Byzantine hands. These two rivals were constantly fighting one another, laying siege to the city, losing power, and doing it all over again.

The Lombards took over in the sixth century, and then Charlemagne conquered Firenze in 774. Under Charlemagne’s rule, as part of the March of Tuscany, the city’s population and wealth grew exponentially.

Montalbano Castle, Copyright Joe Sapienza at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Copyright Sailko

Around 1000, Ugo (Hugh) the Great, Margrave of Tuscany, chose Firenze as his residence. This led to the Golden Age of the Florentine School of art, a naturalistic style which reached its heights in the 14th and 15th centuries. A lot of new construction also started.

In 1115, the people revolted against the Margrave of Tuscany. In its place arose the Republic of Firenze, officially the Florentine Republic. The city-state soon grew wealthy from trade with other countries, and the population swelled yet again. Even more new churches and palaces were built.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Firenze’s oldest hospital still in existence, Copyright Mongolo1984

Garden of Palazzo di Gino Capponi, Copyright Sailko

The city was beset by internal strife during the 12th through 14th centuries, when rival political factions the Guelphs and Ghibellines constantly, violently fought for power. Guelphs supported the Pope, and Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Firenze was one of the pro-Guelph cities.

After the decisive Guelph victory at the 1289 Battle of Campaldino, the Guelphs began infighting and split into White and Black factions. The Black Guelphs seized control of the city in 1301, destroying much of it in the process. Dante, a White Guelph, was tried on false charges in absentia, ordered to pay a huge fine (which he never did), and condemned to exile.

Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Copyright Sailko

In the 14th century, a groundswell of artistic, literary, architectural, musical, and scientific talent in Firenze heralded the birth of the Renaissance. All the political, moral, and social upheavals which had plagued the city on and off for the last few centuries halted under this new humanistic atmosphere. People also began rediscovering and falling in love with writers, philosophers, and scientists from Classical Antiquity.


Uffizi Gallery, Copyright Chris Wee, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Firenze became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1865. In attempts to modernise the city, many Medieval houses and the historic Piazza del Mercato Vecchio market were razed. New houses took their place, along with a more formal street plan.

The population grew to over 230,000 during the 19th century, and was over 450,000 by the 20th century.

Grand Synagogue of Firenze, Copyright CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Synagogue interior, Copyright Sailko

The city was occupied by Germans from 1943–44, after the Italians defected to the Allied side and refused to deport their Jewish community. Eighty percent of Italian Jews survived the Shoah, due in large part to righteous Italian Gentiles hiding them and smuggling them to safe territories.

The Nazis packed the beautiful Grand Synagogue with explosives before retreating, but brave resistance fighters diffused almost all of them. Very little damage was sustained, and the building was restored after the war. There are, however, still bayonet blows on the Ark.

Casa di Dante museum (not the original house), Copyright Photo20201 at WikiCommons

Fireworks over Ponte Vecchio, Copyright Martin Falbisoner

Firenze has more tourists than locals every year from April–October, thanks to its wealth of museums, historic architecture, churches, art galleries, theatres, bridges, monuments, gates, walls, and many other treasures.

Zabar’s

Copyright Fuzheado

Zabar’s is a specialty food store which opened in 1934 and moved to Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets in 1941. The building started life as the Calvin Apartments, four three-story structures erected in 1882, and stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, freestanding mansions which characterized upper Broadway at the time.

In 1890, developer Christian Blinn sold it to real estate investor Julia Schwarz, and in 1892, he entered a loonybin. He filed suit against her in 1901, claiming he’d been insane and had no knowledge about the sale.

The jury couldn’t decide, so the judge ruled in favor of Ms. Schwarz.

Copyright Fuzheado

In 1919, Ms. Schwarz leased the building for $30,000 a year to the C&L Lunch Company, and commissioned architects Whinston & Whinston to remodel and combine the four buildings into one complex. A small apartment on the next lot north, built 1890, was also included.

The Tudor-style Calvin Apartments opened in 1920. In addition to being beautifully decorated both inside and out, they promised on-premise dining. They were very expensive, with two-room apartments going for $165 a month ($2,134.09 today).

In the 1920s, the average NYC rent was only $40 a month, and houses sold for $15 a square foot. Not exactly apartments intended for normal people!

Enter Louis and Lillian Zabar.

Louis Zabar was born in Ukraine in 1901 and came to the U.S. via Canada in the early 1920s, after his dad was murdered in a pogrom. Lillian Teit was probably born in 1902 or 1903, though she pretended to be younger when she immigrated from Ukraine in the mid-Twenties, fearful she’d be deported for being too old.

Lillian lived with relatives in Philadelphia, and Louis lived in Brooklyn, where he rented a stall in a farmers’ market. Later, Louis became head of a grocery’s smoked fish section. When Lillian moved to NYC, she and Louis renewed their old acquaintance from their hometown and married 2 May 1927.

They started a deli in Brooklyn, selling Lillian’s wonderful homemade foods, among them stuffed cabbage, blintzes, coleslaw, and potato salad. When the couple moved to Manhattan, they set up shop in the third building north from 80th St. in the old Calvin Apartments. By that time, the complex had become a hotel.

By the time of his death in 1950, Louis owned ten Manhattan markets.

Oldest son Saul (born 1929), a med student at the University of Kansas, came home to help the family business. He thought he’d only be there for a few years, but it turned into the rest of his life. Saul became the store’s president, and middle brother Stanley became vice-president after graduating the University of Pennsylvania.

Youngest brother Eli operates his own food businesses.

In 1953, entrepreneur Murray Klein (1923–2007) joined Zabar’s and began transforming it from a small deli to one of the city’s most renowned specialty markets. He started as a floor sweeper and stock clerk, and quit several times, but eventually became a full partner in 1960.

In the 1970s, there were plans to buy a building on the west side of Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, but hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) enabled them to buy the entire former Calvin Apartments instead and expand that way. They also gained the rooms upstairs, which were once the Cedar Hotel.

Copyright Nate Steiner

Mr. Klein knew the store’s core clientele and most loyal customers were Ashkenazic Jews who went there for things like lox, pastrami, bagels, and babka, but he also knew good businesses need to draw more than one demographic.

To gain the patronage of a wider patronage seeking sophisticated food, he offered things like brie, caviar, white truffles, and gourmet chocolate. He also began selling household wares. Even more unusually, he sold at below-market prices and at a loss, even for luxury foods.

Copyright Rob Young

Zabar’s hasn’t yet featured in my books, but I look forward to including it.

More information:

http://www.zabars.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Zabars-Site/default/Link-Page?cid=ZABARS_STORY

http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/08/27/upper-west-side-essential-eats-zabars

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/10/realestate/streetscapes-zabar-s-broadway-between-80th-81st-street-its-horizons-widened-it.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/23/nyregion/lillian-zabar-co-founder-of-quintessential-deli.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/nyregion/07klein.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/nyregion/31zabars.html

http://historicalny.com/Historical_NY/Zabars_and_The_Hadrian.html

http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2020/02/tudor-charm-on-upper-west-side-2241.html

Walden School and West End Avenue

Walden School was a progressive, popular, innovative school on the historic Central Park West, founded March 1914 by Margaret Naumburg (1890–1983). While travelling Italy with her Barnard roommate Evelyn Dewey and her parents, progressive education pioneers John and Alice Dewey, she learnt under Maria Montessori.

She also studied education under John Dewey as a Columbia grad student. Though Columbia wasn’t properly co-ed till 1983, women were long accepted in the master’s and doctoral programs.

Fertile ground was thus planted for a new type of school, one not rigidly focused on formal textbook learning and a specific curriculum. Ms. Naumburg believed strongly students learn best by developing and following their own passions, and naturally absorbing information and knowledge.

The Children’s School, as it was originally called, had ten pupils and two teachers in a single room. Ms. Naumburg said, ”The purpose of this school is not merely the acquisition of knowledge by children. Its primary objective is the development of their capacities.”

In 1922, it was renamed Walden School, and eventually moved to 1 West 88th St. and Central Park West. Many people were off-put by such a radical-seeming school at first, but it went on to win much respect and renown.

Florence Naumburg Cane (1882–1952), Margaret’s sister and a Walden art teacher

There was no assigned seating, and teachers were called by first names. Even more radically, there were no grades, interviews took the place of entrance exams, and there was no formal preparation for college.

Students had great leeway in choosing their own course of study, and the visual and performing arts were emphasised. Walden frequently held art shows, musicals, panel discussions, and public demonstrations of science, arts, crafts, and wood shop.

Teachers got to know students as individuals, and tailored instruction to their strengths and needs. In keeping with its progressive principles, Walden was desegregated. Though it was a private school with tuition, this wasn’t a bastion of upper-class WASP privilege like certain other city schools.

Walden was particularly popular among intellectual, artistic families from the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village. Some students also came from other boroughs, and scholarships were available. By the 1970s, there were 500 students.

Walden merged with New Lincoln School in 1988, and sadly was forced to close in 1991 due to declining enrollment and financial difficulties.

Famous alumni include historian Barbara Tuchman, journalist Neil Barsky, design writer Steven Heller, dancer Jane Dudley, jazz singer Jeanne Lee, composer Robert Paterson, architect Edgar Tafel, artist Glenn Ligon, and murdered Freedom Rider Andrew Goodman.

Many of my characters from radical and intellectual families attend Walden. During the dark days of McCarthyism, it was safest for against the grain kids to be in alternative schools.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/02/realestate/cityscape-a-turn-of-the-century-vestige-threatened-on-the-west-end.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/23/nyregion/walden-school-at-73-files-for-bankruptcy.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1954/03/14/archives/education-in-review-influence-of-the-progressive-school-is-now.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/06/obituaries/margaret-naumburg-walden-school-founder-dies.html

http://peoplepill.com/people/margaret-naumburg/

http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_sc/assignment1/1914naumburg.html

West End Avenue was created in the 1880s as 11th Avenue’s northern extension, meant as a commercial street for the incoming moneyed residents of nearby Riverside Drive. The Upper West Side wasn’t very populated at this time, and thus this new street was the far west end of the city. It might as well have been Oregon Country in the 1850s.

Throughout its history, West End Avenue has been almost exclusively residential. Its 48 blocks are full of elegant 19th century townhouses, beautiful prewar luxury apartments (now mostly co-ops) about 12-25 stories high, and houses of worship.

Most of the stables for the city’s remaining horses are on side streets. The stables date to the 19th century, but are fully updated with 21st century technology and conveniences. The horses live upstairs, and the carriages are downstairs.

Straus Park, © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons, named for locals Isidor and Ida Straus, who chose to die together on Titanic

Residents describe West End Avenue as a village with a strong sense of community. Many families have lived there for generations. People know their neighbors, and only leave their homes feet-first.

The 70s and 80s are the Gold Coast, with the most beautiful buildings and wide boulevards. Parts of the avenue became run-down for almost sixty years in the 20th century, but now it’s back to its grandeur, and people are more worried about overgentrification than high crime rates.

Copyright Jim.henderson

Shortly after immigrating in 1921, my characters Katrin and Anastasiya move into a huge penthouse on West End Avenue, in fictitious early co-op The Fourier, named for venerable Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier. When the Konevs move back to the city in 1952, they also move into The Fourier, along with several other families in need of upgraded housing.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/23/realestate/if-you-re-thinking-living-west-end-avenue-quiet-convenient-diverse-involved.html

http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/straus-park/history

Victorian Flatbush

Large, detached Victorian houses, sprawling estates even, with big yards on both sides? Including garages and driveways? In a city known for apartments, townhouses, and rowhouses packed tightly together, with rather small backyards that don’t always have grass?

No, the subway didn’t go through a timewarp, nor did you get on the wrong train or miss your stop by several hundred miles. You’re in the western part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, home to the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the U.S.

Copyright Downtowngal

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Victorian Flatbush was developed from farmland in the early 20th century. Its dozen mini-neighborhoods and districts were among the city’s very first suburbs, representing the best of both worlds, proximity to the heart of New York and large houses to call home. It was originally advertised as The Village in the City.

Borders are Prospect Park on the north, Avenue H on the south, Coney Island Avenue on the west, and Flatbush Avenue on the east. Many of the streets have aristocratic names—Marlborough, Albemarle, Rugby, Argyle, Beverley, Stratford, Westminster, Buckingham, Clarendon, Newkirk, Cortelyou.

Victorian Flatbush contains Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, Beverley Square East and West, Fiske Terrace, West and South Midwood, Albemarle-Kenmore Terraces, Caton Park, Newkirk, Midwood Park, and Ditmas Park West. To date, five of these dozen districts have been designated historic districts, and the other seven are working on recognition.

No two houses are alike, and a wide variety of architectural styles are represented—Queen Anne (my favorite!), Tudor (my second-favorite), Shingle, Victorian, Georgian, Colonial Revival, Spanish Mission, Bungalow, Craftsman. Homes are set thirty feet back from sidewalks.

Copyright Onorland

The Albemarle–Kenmore Terraces, pictured above, consist of 32 houses on two cul-de-sacs and were built from 1916–20. The majority are Colonial Revival, but six are in the English Arts and Crafts style, inspired by the Garden City movement (self-contained communities with greenbelts, a countryside environment in an urban locale).

The Kenmore cottages have something quite rare in Brooklyn, actual driveways and private garages, not just a reserved parking space on the sidewalk next to a house.

Also in Kenmore, though not in the historic district, is the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church parsonage house (seen below), built in 1853 and moved to its current spot in 1918.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

The Beverley Squares were built from 1898 to the early Aughts, starting along East 19th St. Developer Thomas Benton Ackerson, who created much of Victorian Flatbush, initially offered East houses at a starting price of $10,000 and West houses starting at $6,500.

Disappointed by lacklustre sales, he erected relatively simpler houses in the remainder of the neighborhood. Unlike many modern luxury real estate developers in the city, he modified his strategy when he realized there was a limited market for his product.

Beverley Square East

Beverley Square West

Fiske Terrace began development in 1905, after the tragic razing of a forest, and has about 150 houses. Its Avenue H subway station, built 1906 and seen below, is the city’s only wooden cottage with such a purpose. In 2004, it was designated a landmark.

Copyright how_long_it_takes

West Midwood was developed 1899–1908, by the abovementioned Ackerson and another company, Germania. To maintain the Village in the City vibe, front yard fences were forbidden, and utilities were buried underground.

The 42 houses along Westminster Rd., created by Ackerson’s company, originally sold for $10,000.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Prospect Park South (represented above) began development in 1899, and is perhaps the most grandiose of all dozen districts. These houses have a mandatory minimum square footage of 3,500, some reaching over 10,000. One of the largest mansions in this district has a floor-through ballroom in its top story.

Original prices were over $5,000.

Copyright BeeGrace

Ditmas Park contains the additional Ditmas Park Historic District, with 172 houses built from 1902–14, plus the 1910 Neo-Georgian Flatbush-Tompkins Congregational Church. After the original wealthy residents moved out, many people from other parts of the city were attracted by the spacious houses for what used to be fairly cheap prices.

Many films and TV shows are shot in Ditmas Park because of the large concentration of Victorian houses.

Copyright Onorland

My characters Fyodora and Leontiy move to Ditmas Park in 1949 after the ugly discovery of just what their dream of suburbia is like under the surface. They’re viewed with hostility and suspicion because of their Russian origins, and their son Oliver immediately notices only white people live there. Ditmas Park provides the big house they wanted to upgrade to without leaving the city they so love.

My characters Nestor and Yustina also move to a large estate in Ditmas Park right after their wedding, and my Minnesota character Anton has a third home there.