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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Beauty in Nature and Art

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread."

~ John Muir

How does it happen that some things remain engraved on a person’s mind and heart for a lifetime and others do not? One summer in my childhood spent with my family living in Italy also traveling briefly around Europe was such an unforgettable experience. My dad was invited to do some consulting work for international timekeeping. I was only nine years old at the time, but this adventure woke me to the wonders of the world, making a huge, long-lasting impression on my life. That summer I lived in a mind and heart place of continual wonder and marvel at the exquisite beauty embodied in so many God- and human-made creations, which I was seeing and experiencing first-hand.

People tend to learn best in one of three main ways: hearing, sight, or touch. I’m mainly a visual learner, so much of what I got to see in Europe etched itself permanently into my imagination. Being there was almost like a series of wonderful illustrations from a story book coming to life. Maybe because a lot of the tales I was familiar with were originally written and illustrated by Europeans.

In Italy, we stayed for almost two months in a traditional Italian village called Coazze, across the valley from a ski-resort. It was tucked in the hills west of Turin in the northwest part of the country. The three-bedroom space rented for my family was part of a larger stone and mortar home situated at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The rooms seemed small to me, maybe because seven of us were sharing them, but also Europeans don’t generally have built-in closets or cupboards. It must have been a challenge for my parents to store our clothes, food, and other stuff; have room to get meals together; and still have room for us to play. When it rained, I vaguely remember finding yarn or string and learning “Cat’s Cradle,” hand-clapping games and rhymes with my sister, coloring books and drawing on sketch paper taking up some of our time since we couldn’t go outside.

Much of the time, my siblings and I played outside in an enclosed, mostly grassy area behind the house. A novel highlight was when one of the neighbor children started coming over to play and taught us some rope-skipping and ball games along with phrases and how to count in Italian. Another joyful revelation was fireflies! Watching, catching, and viewing these twinkling, lighted creatures in a glass jar, beginning at dusk was a magical new experience.

On occasion, I got to go on a walk with one of my parents, but usually all four of my siblings, ages six and under (one in a Jerry backpack), came too. I cherished the trip down the road into town to buy fresh bread baked right there in an ancient stone oven. We could have taken this half-mile trip down to the village daily, maybe even twice a day, if it hadn’t been for the fact whoever went down had to hike the same distance back up that hill (or be carried in the backpack) to return home. It was frustrating to me I couldn’t go more often. Sometimes I offered a piggy-back ride to coax a sibling along for a bit and decrease the burden on one of my parents. But I couldn’t last too long going up that hill with a sibling on my back either. Eventually, I grudgingly had to take turns with my siblings going with one of our parents to the bread shop, while the others stayed home.

On our way to the bread store, I’d see to my right, uphill from us, a forest, which gave way to a steep, grassy, flower-strewn meadow. On the left, once we cleared a few houses and some trees, I could look down and view the town (less than half-a-mile away) with its mostly red-tile roofs, some gray mixed in, haphazardly situated at angles to each other on the green hill, below us. The hills all around were full of vegetation, including middle-sized, deciduous trees. The meadow above us on the right extended steeply down the hill on our left also, until it met up with the village. As I, with my family continued along down the narrow, roughly paved road under our feet, we’d come alongside a rock wall surrounding a pasture, which enclosed goats and sheep. I’d be delighted when they were close enough for observation. Eventually we’d come to the stone or white plaster-walled homes of the village, which then surrounding us on both sides. Somewhat further down a winding street, we finally arrived at our destination.

I savored the vistas on my way down the hill as much as the truly heavenly aroma and taste of the fresh bread from La Panateria—which bread I preferred above all foods, except maybe European chocolate and Nutella, which we were also discovering. I always wanted more. The wonderful smell of that heavenly bread baking would greet us even before we got into the village.

Once we arrived at the shop, if all my siblings had come along, my parents would put me in charge and have us kids wait outside while they went in to make a purchase. The kind elderly baker and his wife would usually come out and give my siblings and me bread sticks to share afterward. They would first remove their sturdy aprons dusted with white flour and hang them on a peg in their shop. They’d come out and pat our heads and hug us and say over and over, “belle bambinos.” I always believed their effusion was over all my blond siblings. With my strait, plain, brown hair, I never considered myself one of the beautiful children they were gushing over. Despite a temporary twinge of jealousy, I still ended up being filled to satisfaction, both by their generosity and the wonderful bread they baked.

Their simple, modest “peasant clothing” and head coverings (caps and scarves) were similar to what many of the town’s folk wore. I loved the novelty of it, as well as the cobbled streets; the potted and plotted plants; and the mostly plain, ancient architecture of the white-washed walls and arches. All these things were entrancing to me. They spoke to me of pleasant timelessness.

Another simple delight began when a neighbor showed my family a path through the nearby woods, which started a little way up the hill past our living quarters. Also, when she showed us where the “mirtillipa” (blueberries) were ripening there. Afterward my mom took my siblings and me on short hikes to walk or to gather the flavorful berries—which berries rarely made it into the bucket but did make my own and my siblings’ tongues and smiles a happy blue.

On the last hike we took in those wood, I came up on a large snake coiled on a short, terraced rock wall, right next to the path. I didn’t know what kind of snake it was, but I thought it could be poisonous. Trying to stay calm myself, I warned my siblings and Mom, “Go way around. There’s a snake on the wall ready to strike.” A few weeks later, in a city, I saw a replica of that same snake in a display case beside a syringe with a long needle. I showed my parents. We supposed from the display, which we couldn’t read because it wasn’t in English, the snake must be venomous. I felt God had certainly been looking out for us all that day!

Coazze wasn’t terribly far from the glorious Alps Italy shares with Switzerland. My dad took us there several times during our stay, including on a hike to see the Matterhorn more closely. When we were hiking up a foothill of the mountain, a stray dog started following us. I learned it liked to chase rocks and retrieve them. I and my family were all having fun with it until my little brother, despite being told not to, threw a rock too big for the dog to carry back to us. It wouldn’t stop trying to get its mouth around the rock to bring it back, until my dad hiked down to it and threw a different rock it could retrieve. I was so angry with my brother for his mischievousness.

On other travels in the Alps my dad brought us to some of the most splendid places, including towns full of the delightful, traditional Swiss chalets; gorgeous waterfalls; also, to swim in the highly reflective, nearly freezing Lake Como.

The scenery was breathtaking everywhere I looked as we drove through the Alps. Green, green hillsides, some scythe-mown, some filled with a variety of wildflowers; clear bubbling streams and gushing waterfalls; beautiful chalets in all shapes and sizes; ancient stone outbuildings and walls; healthy cows, in some herds each with a large, musical bell hung by a band around its neck; ancient water-troughs, wood-carvings, and metal-works; rugged, snow-covered peaks above and always in the background.

We’d get to the top of a drive up a mountainside to look down and see a zig-zagging ribbon of road stretching far down into the valley below. My dad told me the Alps, seem higher than they are, because the valleys descend to very low levels. Either way I was impressed by the craggy, ice-capped heights; the clear, crisp, fresh clean air; the crystal-clear, freezing water descending in small, rock-strewn streams and falls, into little or larger lakes, reflecting the view; the blue and white glaciers (one we got to go inside); the pure majesty and awesomeness everywhere before my eyes.

Beautiful scenery was just one part of the visual banquet I got to enjoy with my family that summer. My dad took us to Florence, where we spent an especially memorable week. I was amazed by the ancient, ornate bridges spanning the Arno River, which river was flowing under their arches. Bridges that were also the foundation and home for a variety of very old, interesting shops full of sundry exquisite and skillfully crafted items. The splendid piazzas with their cobblestones, fountains, and statues. The Uffizi Gallery was so full of masterful artwork, there was no seeing or getting enough of it all. Each piece was a marvel in and of itself.

I, with my family, including my rogue brother, got to climb to the top of the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo. Near the height where the dome begins my brother got away from whoever was holding his hand, put his face between two marble staircase pillars, and yelled at the top of his voice, “Hello down there!” His voice echoed for ages through the previously, peacefully, quiet building. I was so embarrassed and upset with my brother—again. My parents had told us, as a condition of climbing to the top, us kids needed to be quiet and respectful. I was also scared he could wiggle his way between the pillars and fall to his death. My dad made him hold my or one of my parent’s hands after that for the rest of our tour.

The numerous bronze or gold-plated doors with Bible stories carved into their myriad panels were also fascinating to me. My dad took the opportunity to point out what each was representing. The age of so many of the buildings and structures was beyond my comprehension, including an ornate bell tower built in the 1100’s still solidly standing in one piece. I was stunned by the artistry of the marble carvings and statuary all over the city. In fact, I was rendered speechless by Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia—and not just because he was so large and naked.

The red-tiled-roofed Duomo was almost as scenic from a distance, in a new way, as it had been inside and up-close. I remember a fluorescent orange, pink, and yellow sunset seen from a point overlooking the city that added a magnificent finishing touch, to make our final view of Florence beyond perfect. If that’s possible. And I believe it is, because to me it was!

Though Florence ended up being the most memorable for me, I was also enthralled by the leaning tower of Pisa, which, again, my whole family climbed. The spiral marble stairs, slippery and worn from years of use, wound up and up and up. There were almost three hundred steps. I had to be very careful climbing and watch out for my siblings. There were only handrails part of the way. It was scary in parts where the stairs were especially worn—to a down-ward slant. Oddly, the bell at the top wasn’t hanging “straight” relative to the tower, but to the ground. Apparently, the tower started leaning before it was completed. I think at some point, marshy ground nearby had to be drained to prevent further leaning. Because of its design with numerous overlapping arches, and the fact it was leaning, despite its hazards, this was my favorite bell tower.

When my family’s stay in Italy was over, we visited two other places my dad had been invited in Europe. After leaving Coazze, my dad took our family to Neuchatel, Switzerland. On the way there, once more, I and my family got to drive through and enjoy more Alpine splendor and some of the pristine and spectacular countryside of Switzerland.

After Neuchatel, my dad had business in Paris. Compared to Italy and Switzerland, the city of Paris seemed especially dirty to me. Some places we walked through smelled like urine or worse. There was trash on many of the streets, and on one street, I saw a man passed out on the sidewalk with foam coming out of his mouth and nose. No one seemed concerned. People just walked on by. My dad tried to help the man get up and move to a place he could be out of the way. The man seemed grateful to receive help.

There were also a lot of beggars, most of them children. My parents said their parents sent them to ask us for money, and we should not give them any. My parents would offer them a piece from a loaf of bread or cheese or some fruit we were all snacking on, but the beggar-children wouldn’t take it. This aspect of Paris made me feel uncomfortable, sad, and glad for my own family.

There was a lot to see in Paris. My dad took us on a whirlwind tour, not spending a lot of time in any one place. With my family, I got to see the Notre Dame Cathedral in and out. The stained-glass windows of all sizes and shapes everywhere throughout the building were very impressive to me. I wished I could spend more time looking at each one. At the time of day we visited, the interior was bright and full of light—which was different from a lot of the other dimly lit cathedrals we had visited. The height of the vault inside and the complexity of the intricate arches supporting the “flying buttresses,” as I now know they are called, outside, were fascinating and made me dizzy with looking up and trying to figure out how they worked, despite my physicist dad's "explanations.”

My dad also took us to see the Sacre-Coeur Basilica at the top of a grand hill overlooking Paris. Correct or not, I understood it to be a building that supposedly got whiter and whiter with the years. I was impressed by this possibility and by the beautiful architecture. That is until one of the nuns at the entrance, in a show of bad temper, because my parents didn’t give a donation, shoved my sister, who was just before me in line. It caused her to trip and nearly fall down the steps. This took us both by surprise and immediately diminished our awe and enjoyment of the building.

My dad also took us all to the top of the Eiffel Tower where I could see the whole city of Paris. It was thrilling and a little scary going up in the cage-like elevator and then up some stairs to the final overlook. Being in a structure built mainly of metal, and being able to see between supports, somehow didn’t seem completely safe to me after all the solid stone towers we’d climbed. I was glad we went to the top for the view, but I was also very relieved to get back down to firm ground.

Other places my dad took us (among more sites I can’t remember anymore) were along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees to see the Arc de Triomphe, which seemed huge and especially ancient to me; to numerous beautiful gardens, where I could have lost myself for hours; and to the Louvre Museum, where again it was impossible to take in all the paintings, statues, and other works of art that were housed there at the time. My dad put names to much of what I was seeing, but I only remember absorbing the artistry of the works, colors, textures, styles, and technique as much as I was able to distinguish at that age. We couldn’t touch anything or get too close, which was frustrating at times. Much of the work seemed to be up higher than my line of sight could appreciate. I did greatly admire what I could see and grasp about various famous art works there.

After our short stay in Paris my dad drove us to Dieppez, where we, with our car, an Opel Rekord, boarded a ferry to cross the channel to Brighton, England. The ferry ride was exciting. I wanted to be outside in the wind, with the sea spray misting around me the whole time, but it got a little cool. I alternately went out on deck and returned to a more sheltered viewpoint during our trip across the water.

From Brighton, we drove inland towards London. My dad arranged for us to stay overnight at a bed and breakfast in a quaint thatched roofed cottage on the way. Some of the “cottages” there were quite large. Each one, large or smaller, had its own charm and character including mixed variations of flowers, potted plants, landscaping, gardens, and hedges decorating it. I admired them all.

Another thing I liked very much were some huge ancient trees in some of the parks. One park we ended up visiting was home to a tremendously old, huge, and gnarly Oak tree. I have loved thatch-roofed cottages and knobbed, knotty, twisted trees with all their wonderful personality ever since.

In London, we got a glimpse of a few bright red double-decked buses, the London Bridge, Westminster Abe, and Buckingham Palace—while the palace guard was changing. We didn’t get to see much more of London or England because of the fog, rain, traffic, and a shortage of time. Miraculously (my dad didn’t know his way around London) and before I knew it, we were on a jumbo-jet on our way home.

The experience had offered continual generous and luscious portions from a highly visual feast. And even though I sensed, even at my young age, this was just a very small taste of all there is, it began in me a deep, life-long love and appreciation for beauty, creativity, and the arts. That time in Italy and parts of Europe was a glimpse of Eden or paradise for me.

These travels were the beginning of my recognition there is a Mastermind behind all that’s glorious. Every pure delight is ultimately from the Initiator and Inventor of all creation, of all there is in the world to take pleasure in and admire. I know now, outward loveliness isn’t needed for basic, physical survival, but it speaks to me in a way nothing else does of God’s intent to give humans joy. Its purpose is purely for endowing enjoyment. Though it also intimates, reflects, and speaks of inner loveliness—goodness, graciousness, and attractiveness in God and in human persons, character, and relationships—or the potential for it. Each person’s unique resplendence and talents (desires and skills) are a witness for the Master Creator, who made human beings in His image, also with the ability to enjoy and create beauty. This trip began my personal acquaintance with all these things.


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