Visiting Verona

Some months ago, we made arrangements with old friends from California to meet in Verona at the end of June.  Since we are all opera fans, we also bought tickets to see Aida at the outdoor Arena.

The Arena, a Roman structure, has been used for outdoor theatrical productions since 1913. Aida was the first opera produced there, and it is still produced almost every year, although these days there is a whole summer season.

Aida, set in an imaginary version of ancient Egypt, premiered in a conventional opera house in Cairo 1871, and at La Scala, in Milan, the following year.  But in many ways Aida was born to be seen outdoors.  The opera is more spectacle than story, and the famous triumphal procession has the proverbial cast of thousands — soldiers, priests, musicians, dancing girls,  and even live animals (4 horses in our production).  If Verdi had been alive a few decade later, he’d have been orchestrating Cecil B DeMille.

The staging was very imaginative — some of the players carried torches up to the top of the Arena to create an arc of light above the action. No elephants, though.  Apparently elephants featured in some pre-war productions, but they are rare these days.  Everything about the production – the singing, the music, the set design – was magnificent.  In truth, it’s hard to imagine a better production.

This was apparently not the first time I have seen Aida.  Although I have no conscious memory of it, my mother took me to a live outdoor performance of the opera in New York City when I was a toddler.  Who knows, maybe that early imprinting is why I’ve been a lifelong opera fan!

The Arena produces several different operas in repertory.  The sets are huge, so they store them outside the Arena between productions, allowing you to walk around them and see them close up.


The following evening, we saw an outdoor production of The Tempest at a different Roman-era theater.  The play had been shortened to a single act with a running time of just under two hours.  They cut a bit too much, in my opinion – I missed the reconciliation between Prospero and his nefarious brother Antonio.  But the actress who played both Ariel and Caliban was outstanding – it was the first time I had seen these two roles combined, and it worked surprisingly well.  It was also the first time I had seen Caliban played by a woman, which softened the edges of a character often portrayed as a monster.

We have seen many productions of Shakespeare’s plays but had never seen a performance in Italian.  While I could follow the action well enough, I missed the cadences of the original poetry.  Obviously my Italian still needs work!


During the daytime, we checked out the city’s more traditional attractions.  Verona was an important city in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, and the size of its churches, and the richness of its art, attest to that.  The church of San Zeno, an early bishop and the city’s patron saint, features a Madonna by Mantegna, a late 15th C artist who was famous for creating a sense of three-dimensionality in his paintings.  In this altarpiece, the implied light source for the painting matches the placement of the upper story church window – an effect that would be lost if the painting were ever moved to a museum.

An earlier fresco in the church left black space which seemed to have been intentionally designed for official graffiti.  You can see several notations for earthquakes (terremoto in Italian) which fortunately didn’t do much damage.  I also enjoyed the statue of San Zeno with a fish dangling from his crozier.  I thought it might be an allusion to the bishop as an apostolic “fisher of men,” but apparently he really loved fishing and was often seen with a fishing pole at the nearby river.

The bronze doors on this church were also notable.  In one of the scenes, depicting an exorcism, the priest is shown literally pulling a demon out of a young woman’s mouth.

The church of San Fermo is really two churches in one — something you see fairly frequently in Italy, where when someone wanted to build a new church they often built right on top of the old one.  The lower church features some very rare 12th C Byzantine style frescoes, while the upper church features a Renaissance painting that has been mounted so as to reveal the 14th C frescoes underneath. In this one church, you can track the dramatic changes in artistic style that occurred during the 300 or so years ending with what we now call the Renaissance.

The church of Sant’Anastasia features two sculptures depicting common laborers, a rare tribute to the people who actually built these magnificent churches.  Unusually, this church also has its original flooring, which used multi-color marble in geometric designs.

It was a wonderful if brief trip.












On the Loose in Andalucia

We recently visited three cities in Andalucia:  Seville, Cadiz, and Jerez de la Frontera.


Seville is famously hot in summer, which is why we visited in the spring.  Unfortunately, even in early May it was already 95 degrees.  Fortunately, it wasn’t too humid, so we stayed in the shade a lot.

The origins of Seville are murky, but it is clear that the area was occupied by the Carthaginians by the 3rd C BC.  In Roman times, it was a military base known as Hispalis.  It was conquered by the Moors in the 8th C, and retaken by Christian kings in the 13th C.  The city achieved its greatest prosperity during the 16th and 17th C, when it was the destination for the ships going back and forth from Spain’s colonial possessions in the New World.  The city went into decline in the 18th C, when naval operations moved to Cadiz.  These days, it’s hard to imagine the city as an important naval center – we saw a fairly large cruise ship docked on the river, and wondered how it was going to turn around.

The number one attraction in Seville is the Alcazar, originally a Moorish castle dramatically expanded by Christian kings beginning in the 13th C.  The building retains many of the most beautiful Moorish doorways, fountains and (especially) ceilings.  The castle was used by Ferdinand and Isabella to receive important visitors, and it was the place where Columbus received his fateful trans-Atlantic commission.  The palace is also justly famous for its magnificent gardens.  In modern times, the building has been used as a film set for Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and, most recently, Game of Thrones.

Seville Alcazar



Seville Alcazar

I didn’t find much to like about Seville’s Cathedral.  Despite some wonderful art, the overall impression seems to have been intended to communicate power, not faith, so it left me cold.  I did like the graceful Giralda (bell tower) though – a remnant of the mosque that once stood on the site.

20190511_225015.jpgThere is a lot of artistic beauty elsewhere in Seville.  The Hospital de los Venerables, built as a rest home for older priests, boasts four masterpieces by Velazquez and Murillo.  The most famous is Velzaquez portrait of Santa Rufina, a 3rd C martyr and patron saint of the city.  According to legend, Rufina was a pottery maker, and Velazquez paints her holding a ceramic cup and saucer, whose iridescence dominates the painting.  I also liked his Immaculate Conception, depicting Mary standing on a transparent globe.  The two paintings by Murillo, of St. Peter and St. Catherine of Alexandria, are noteworthy for their intensity – they may depict saints, but the painter was clearly working with human models.  These four paintings, presented in a small room where you could view them at close range (and, at least when we were there, no crowds) were, by themselves, worth the entire trip to Seville.DSC05461


Hospital de los Venerables, Penitent St Peter, Murillo

DSC05464We also visited several aristocratic homes, now open to the public, which featured a hodgepodge of decorative arts, from Roman mosaic floors to Moorish tiles and ceilings to 20th C flamenco and bullfighting posters. Much of the older art was “repurposed” from older buildings, often decommissioned convents and monasteries, whose works were put up for sale in the 19th C, when concepts of historic preservation were different than they are today.  However the art was acquired, though, these houses have themselves become historic buildings, and are well worth a visit.Palacio Dueñas, a former private home now open to the public

Palacio Dueñas

Casa de Salinas

Casa de SalinasWe were lucky enough to visit Seville at the time of the annual spring fair.  Normally this fair is held in April, but it was held in May this year because Easter occurred in late April.  The fair originally began as a horse market, but these days it is mostly a parade of gaily decorated horse carts and social events featuring impromptu amateur flamenco.

The Feria also an opportunity for the women of the city to get dressed up in fancy flamenco dresses, whether or not they can dance.  We saw stores selling flamenco dresses all over town, although some are clearly hand-made.  The little girls get dressed up, too.  We even saw one toddler, clearly too young for ruffles,  with a Feria flower decorating her stroller.

Speaking of flamenco, we caught a fabulous performance at the Casa de Flamenco, a small venue run by a hotel operator who is passionate about the dance form. Nobody is really sure where flamenco came from.  The women of Andalucia were famous for their dancing in Roman times, but we don’t know what their dances looked like.  The Roma people (gypsies) didn’t invent it, but many aspects of the dance (especially the stylized hand movements and the non-Western musical scales) seem to be related to the probably Indian origins of the Roma.  About the only thing we know for sure is that the dance form has little to do with northern Europe, even though “flamenco” literally means Flemish.

Casa de Flamenco

We enjoyed the food in Seville a lot.  There is quite a bit of seafood here, which is interesting because it’s not that close to the water.  There are conventional restaurants in Seville, but many people prefer to take their meals at tapas bars, which range from simple places offering slices of jamon iberico to more upscale places featuring foie gras, white asparagus, and seafood with clearly Japanese-inspired presentations.


Jerez de la Frontera

Jerez is the center of the “sherry triangle” where all of the country’s sherry is produced – in fact, the word sherry seems to be an English mispronunciation of the Spanish Jerez.

In Seville, we had eaten at a restaurant that featured a wide selection of sherries.  They suggested we visit a small sherry producer in Jerez, Fernandez-Gao.  We called them while we were on the train, and luckily enough they had an English-speaking guide who was happy to give us a tour.

We learned that there are 5 types of sherry, only one of which, Pedro Ximenez, is naturally sweet.  (The “cream sherry” known internationally is a product created primarily for export.)  All the other sherry types are made from the Palomino Fino grape, and range from bone dry to medium sweet, and they can be done throughout the meal.

At the end of the tour, our guide recommended a nearby restaurant, La Carbonara, which offered dozens of sherries by the glass and where they prided themselves on matching different sherries to individual dishes.  It was one of the best meals of our trip.

Manolo @ Fernandez Gao, Jerez

Lunch at La Carbona

We also visited the Fiera of Jerez, which is always held in May and this year overlapped the one in Seville.  This fair was more horse-focused and featured a cavalcade of riders in traditional costume, including women riding side-saddle, which always fascinates me.  (How do they do that?)  There were also dressage exhibitions which we might have had time for if we hadn’t spent so much time drinking sherry.



Cadiz was founded by the Phoenicians nearly 2500 years ago, and is one of the oldest if not the oldest city in Europe.  Although you can see the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and some Phoenician sarcophagi in the city museum, these days there are few reminders of the ancient city.


The city was burned nearly to the ground by an attack by English and Dutch forces in 1596, so most buildings date from 1600 or later.  Interestingly, though, the old part of city hasn’t changed much since the 18th C – a late 18th C scale model of the city, beautifully executed in mahogany and ivory, is still remarkably accurate.


The cathedral in Cadiz has a wonderful exterior, but the best art is found elsewhere.  Several smaller sites featured works by Murillo, Goya and El Greco.  Surprisingly, these sites were not listed in standard guidebooks – we found out about them from a guide leading our walking tour.

For reasons that are not clear to me, many of the religious statues in this part of Spain are dressed in sumptuous clothing.  In Cadiz, some of the Madonnas also had real hair.  More traditional baroque sculptures are executed with a special vibrancy here, including one Madonna who seemed almost like she was dancing.

Despite its geographical location, Cadiz is a city that has long gone its own way.  Unlike other cities in Andalucia, it does not have a Feria, and you will see few stores offering flamenco dresses.  They do, however, have an active flamenco culture, here often in small bars rather than designated flamenco venues.  And, unusually for Spain, they celebrate Carnival in the old Roman manner, using it as an opportunity for political satire.  Sounds like Ascoli!  They also have a song contest during Carnival, featuring performances at the theater named for the composer Manuel de Falla, a native of the city.


The city was most prosperous during the 18th C, after it became the main port for Spanish trade with the Americas.  The same museum that housed the 18th C scale model also featured portraits of notable citizens of the town in the 18th and 19th C, including gentlemen with names like O’Reilly and O’Crowley.  Apparently many Irish Catholics, prevented from owning land in 18th C Ireland, came to the thriving port city to make their fortune (with some success).

During the Napoleonic wars, the area around Cadiz held out against the French blockade.  After the Napoleonic era, however, the city went into decline, as the British became the major naval power in the Atlantic.

These days, the main industry is tourism, although Cadiz remains a fishing port.  The food is amazingly good here, and surprisingly creative.  We enjoyed a number of things that are hard to get in Ascoli – oysters, deepwater tuna, and guacamole.  We even had a deer salad with a pumpkin-based dressing (fortunately not too orange). All this for prices that were low even by Ascoli standards.  We’ll be back!





Rome in the Spring

We have been to Rome a number of times before, but for some reason we have never been in the city in the spring.  Big mistake – April in Rome is glorious.

We spent a few days in Rome last week, partly with some friends from Boston who were here for the first time.  We visited some places we had seen before, and some that were completely new to us.

We booked a full-morning tour to the Coliseum and Roman Forum, which was a big win — lines are very long, especially for the Coliseum, and with a hired guide you not only skip most of the lines but you are able to navigate more efficiently.

It’s been a long time since we’ve been to the Forum — the last time we went, it was free.  These days, you pay to get in, but they’ve improved the signage a lot — even without a guide, you can get some sense of what you’re looking at.  I’m always impressed by the size of the place – in the 1st C, this was the civic center of a city of 1,000,000 people.   After the fall of Rome, no other European city would reach that size again until the 18th C.

View of forum from the Palatine

A major “renovation” of the Coliseum was done about 10 years ago.  The word is in quotes because obviously it’s still an ancient structure.  But they’ve improved the access a lot, reconstructed some of the ancient arena floor, and provided a lot more information about how the animals and gladiators got on and off the stage.  It’s a fascinating place.

Colisseo interiorColisseo interiorColisseo interior

We visited the Capitoline Museum, a place with amazing collection of ancient Roman statuary that somehow we’ve never gotten around to visiting before.  We tend to think of naturalism in art as something invented in the Renaissance, but some of these works, including a boy picking a thorn out of his toe and some of the portrait busts, convincingly demonstrate that the Romans knew how to do this too.

Capitoline Museum:  Boy with Thorn - Greco-Roman bronze (1C BC)

Most of the art in Rome is either ancient or Baroque, but there’s some medieval art too if you know where to look.  I was particularly impressed by the 6th and 7th C mosaics in the church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, a church in the Roman Forum built on the ruins of some imperial-era Roman buildings.  The mosaics were quite a bit more colorful and lifelike than the 9th C mosaics in the church of Santa Prassede, which are also masterful but are done in the more formal Byzantine style.

I was blown away by the church of San Carlo alla Quatro Fontane, which was designed by Francesco Borromini, a 17th C architect whose work is often overshadowed by his more famous contemporary Bernini.  That’s unfortunate, because Borromini was a genius in his own right.  This church, with its undulating convex-concave facade, is strikingly original.  Borromini was a master of trompe l’oeil (tricking the eye), which is hard to convey accurately in photographs, although this remarkable oval dome may give you some sense of it.

Santa Carlo delle Quatro Fontane - Borromini

We took advantage of the gorgeous weather to make our way up the Gianicolo hill, which offers some spectacular vistas.

Of course, no trip to Rome is complete without some visits to works by Bernini and Caravaggio.  I never get tired of looking at these.

I also said hello to one of my favorite paintings in the Villa Borghese, a depiction of John the Baptist by Bronzino .   The model for this portrait is believed to have been Giovanni de Medici, second son of Duke Cosimo I de Medici.  Bronzino, who also painted Giovanni as a toddler (in a portrait now in the Uffizi) here portrays him as a virile young man.  There were to be no mature portraits of Giovanni, though – he died not long after this portrait was completed, probably of malaria.  I think it is the poignancy of the unfulfilled promise of this young man that keeps drawing me back to this work.


Rome is a remarkable place although, as one of our Ascoli neighbors (and long-time Roman resident) recently remarked, no one who understands Rome really wants to live there.  The city is poorly administered, public transportation is poor, and (especially in the summer) it’s unpleasantly hot and incredibly crowded.  With a little advance planning, though, you can see a lot in a few days, and I hope to be able to visit the city regularly as long as we’re here.


Italy is so rich in historic monuments that international tourists, most with limited time, have to focus on the major sites.  One of the nice things about actually living in Italy is that we now have time to visit many of the smaller towns, many with fascinating histories of their own.

One of these in Montedinove, located in the hilly region of the Marche, about 40 minutes from where we are now living.   There are traces of human habitation here from the 6th Century, but the town was not formally established until the 11th Century.  It was connected to the Abbey of Farfa, one of the most important abbeys in Italy at the time, and was the home of a garrison of Templars, who had establishments n various parts of Italy to help Crusaders crossing Italy to reach the southern Adriatic coast, and from thence to take ship to the Holy Land.  The Templars helped to resist a siege by the armies of Frederick II of Sicily in the 13th C, and perhaps for that reason you can still see vestiges of Templar symbols here, even though the order was officially suppressed for heresy in the 14th Century.  The town went into decline after the Middle Ages, and eventually became part of the Papal states, where it remained until the unification of Italy in 1861.  These days, Montedinove is a town of about 600 known mainly for its apples.

There are two interesting churches here, which unfortunately are rarely open — many small towns in rural Italy don’t have the resources to keep historic buildings open on regular basis.  Under the supervision of FAI, a private organization which raises money for the upkeep of historic buildings, a number of these smaller sites are open several weekends a year.  FAI partners with local schools to provide student guides on these weekends, which is both a great way for the students to learn local history and a real benefit for tourists.

The Church of Santa Maria de Cellis was founded in the 12th C, with a second church built on top of it several hundred years later.  The practice of building a new church on top of an older one is quite common in Italy.  Sometimes the older church is completely buried under the new one, although occasionally you can reach it through an interior staircase. In Montedinove, where the church is built on the side of a hill, you can access either the older or the newer church by separate entrances.


The church is best known for its Gothic portal, built in 1368, which includes many late medieval symbols that are difficult to interpret today.    On one side of the portal, there are flowers (unfortunately difficult to see) which are believed to be Templar symbols.

The upper church also has a 14th Century crucifix .  The suffering face of Jesus, and his muscular arms, anticipate the more humanistic depictions which became common in the the Renaissance a couple of centuries later.  No artistic revolution ever comes out of nowhere.

The 18th C church of San Lorenzo, whose interior is done in an unusually restrained Baroque style, is to my mind remarkably beautiful.


The town also has, rather surprisingly, a sanctuary dedicated to the English saint Thomas Becket.  Thomas studied canon law at Bologna (neither Oxford nor Cambridge had been established in his era), and made many Italian friends, who were quite distraught to hear of his murder.  Not long after, when an individual appeared claiming to have possession of some of Becket’s bones, the local monastery built a small sanctuary for it. During the 16th Century, the establishment became a sanctuary of another sort for English Catholic priests fleeing Tudor persecution.  You can still see the bones today, although the current building dates only to the early 17th Century.

The town also offers some magnificent vistas of the surrounding Apennines, which we took full advantage of – as well as the local wineries!




Fabulous Florence: Part 4

One of the great things about Florence is that much of the art can still be seen in the churches for which they were originally designed.  There is so much great art in some of these churches they are virtually museums themselves.

In the 13th C, the two great preaching monastic orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, built churches on what were then the edges of town.  The churches were vast in size, to accommodate the large audiences for their sermons.  Over the centuries, notable local families endowed chapels within these churches and paid famous artists to decorate them, in order to advertise their own wealth and power.  Today, most of these families are gone, but their art remains.

Santa Croce, the Franciscan church, is most famous for who is buried there (Michelangelo, Galileo…) and for who is not (Dante).  The city never rescinded Dante’s order of banishment, even long after almost everyone had forgotten what the original argument had been about; Dante died in Ravenna.  Years later, the Florentines built a tomb for Dante in Santa Croce, and even commissioned a large statue on the 600th anniversary of his birth.  But the good citizens of Ravenna, who had sheltered Dante not only in life but for centuries of tumult thereafter, refused to give him up.  Can you blame them?

The saga of Galileo’s remains, though, has a happier ending. When Galileo died, he was not in good standing with the Papal authorities; to avoid controversy over his burial, the local Franciscans took charge of his remains. When, a century or so later, the Church started to have second thoughts about their treatment of the great scientist, the Franciscans produced his remains and erected a large monument to him inside Santa Croce.

The church includes both a late 13th C fresco of the life of St. Francis, done in the older Byzantine style, and an early 14th C depiction of the saint’s death, done by Giotto less than 50 years later.  Today, seeing these two frescoes side by side, it is possible to see just how revolutionary Giotto’s art must have seemed at the time.

Although the tombs get most of the attention, and most of the publicly available photos, my particular favorites include a marvelous Annunciation by Donatello, a pulpit depicting the life of St. Francis by Benedetto di Maiano, and a tomb executed by Desiderio de Settignano, a promising pupil of Donatello who unfortunately died young (which is why you’ve likely never heard of him).

The main altar was recently restored, which means you can see it again without scaffolding.

Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, is another repository of spectacular art.

A depiction of the Trinity, by Masaccio, features one of the earliest uses of perspective.  It is fascinating to compare this to a painting of St. Anne, Mary and the baby Jesus in the Uffizi by the same artist – a kind of “female trinity.”

The church is most famous, though, for two famous fresco cycles:  one set depicting the lives o the Apostles Phillip and John, by Filippino Lippi, and another depicting the lives of St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, by Domenico Ghirlandaio.  Although the frescoes depict Biblical events, many of the details are contemporary, providing an enormous amount of information about contemporary clothing, housing, even childbirth customs.

Many of the faces of the onlookers depicted local notables, which must have provided a great deal of enjoyment for contemporary visitors.  Maybe it’s just me, but Ghirlandaio’s third guy on the right, with the black hat, sure looks a lot like a time-travelling Jerry Brown.


Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel: Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1485-1490)

Brancacci Chapel.   On the other side of the Arno, the Brancacci Chapel, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, has magnificent frescoes done by two of the best artists of the early 15th C, Masaccio and Masolino, in collaboration, with additions by Filippino Lippi some decades later. The frescoes depict the life of St. Peter, and includes, along with the usual miracles, some relatively unusual stories, such as St.  Peter healing the sick with his shadow.   Surely the most unnerving, though, is the depiction of the death of Ananias.  According to the Acts of the Apostles, early Christians lived communally; the wealthier among them contributed money to the community, according to their abilities, and the money was distributed among the poor, according to their needs.  One wealthy man, Ananias, secretly held back a portion of his money.  Peter figured out right away what was going on, and asked him why he was lying to God, whereupon Ananias dropped dead on the spot.  The history of the early church was a lot more complicated than we sometimes imagine.

Santa Felicità.   Florence is a city where it’s often worth just peeking into a church to see what’s inside.  The tiny church of Santa Felicità, for example, has two great works by the 16th C artist Pontormo.  In his take on the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary is none too pleased on being approached by an angel – whatever the message, her life as she knew it was over. And you have to look at the Deposition for quite a while before you realize there’s no actual crucifix in the painting – very post-modern.

Bargello.   No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Bargello, a sculpture museum.The Donatello David, completed around 1440, is believed to be the first nude statue in European art since classical antiquity.  David’s androgynous appearance stands in sharp contrast to the more famous version by Michelangelo, executed some decades later.

Bargello: David - Donatello, c. 1440

Bargello: David – Donatello, c. 1440

The museum also includes magnificent work by Desiderio di Settignano, Luca Della Robbia,  Andrea del Verrocchio, Benedetto di Maiano, and the young Michelangelo.

Bargello: Bacchus - MIchelangelo, 1496-7

Bargello: Bacchus – Michelangelo, 1496-7

There is also a decorative arts collection which includes some spectacular ivories, some dating back to the 9th C, and some later work with decidedly non-religious content

Orsanmichele.  My favorite place in Florence, though, has to be the tiny church of Orsanmichele.  It was built in the early 14th C as a grain market – you can still see the chutes for grain delivery in some of the columns.  It was converted into a church for the city’s trade and craft guilds a few decades later.  Each guild commissioned a statue from a noted local sculptor.  For many centuries, these statues stood in niches in the church’s exterior, but eventually they were moved indoors.  These days you can see them close up in a (free!) museum upstairs, (the old grain silo).

Each guild chose its own subject – some were religious, some more personal.  The stone merchants chose to depict four of their own.  These guys could almost be talking to you today — you can even tell that one guy, immersed in his work, has forgotten to shave (some things never change).   The most impressive work, though, has got to the the doubting Thomas by Andrea del Verocchio, a work of such astonishing delicacy it’s hard to believe it was executed in bronze.

Until next time….

Bargello - museum selfie




Fabulous Florence (Part 3)

As is true in many historic Italian cities, the Duomo (cathedral) is part of a group of associated buildings, including a Baptistery, a Bell Tower, and a Museum.


The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence – construction started in the middle of the 11th C.  The building, like many medieval baptisteries, is in the shape of an octagon (signifying the 7 days of biblical Creation plus the 8th day, which is Paradise).  The interior is most notable for its magnificent 13th C mosaic ceiling, featuring a depiction of the Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell, and Biblical stories on seven concentric circles.  As always, the depictions of Satan and the damned are the most interesting, although Christ’s feet are pretty wild.

Many famous Florentines were baptized here, including Dante Alighieri.  Maybe when they were splashing water over his face, he looked up, saw the multiple levels of the afterlife, and thought, “Maybe I’ll write a poem about that someday”?

In 1401, the city announced a competition for the design of new doors for the Baptistery.  The jury eventually awarded the commission to two young artists:  an architect named Filippo Brunelleschi and a goldsmith/sculptor named Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Brunelleschi’s ego apparently got in the way of his being a collaborator, so he dropped out; he later built the famous Dome next door.

Ghiberti was only 21 when he received this commission, and he spent the better part of his life working on the Baptistery.  After spending 21 years completing the first set of doors, he received a commission for a second set of doors, which took a further 27 years to complete.  Fortunately he lived to be 77.   He set up a whole workshop to execute the project on which many younger artists trained – one reason why the date of this contest is sometimes used as the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance.  Michelangelo was so impressed by the second set of doors that he called them the Gates of Paradise.

The 1966 flood ripped the doors from their moorings and sent them sailing down the city’s narrow streets, sometimes with their panels detached.  Fortunately, all the panels were recovered, and the original doors, now restored, are preserved in the Museum across the piazza.

Museo del Opere del Duomo

Many of Europe’s great cathedrals have moved their important works to special museums, located like this one not far from the cathedral itself.  Few such museums, however, have the richness of this particular collection, which includes  the originals of both sets of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Donatello’s haunting depiction of Mary Magdalene as a penitent hermit, and Michelangelo’s last Pietà, in which the artist uses his own face as the face of Nicodemus.

The museum also includes a lot of sculptures that used to appear in various spots inside and outside the church, often at great heights. These pieces are now displayed indoors where ordinary mortals can actually see them.

One of the most unusual pieces is the altar of St. John the Baptist, which was executed by master Florentine silversmiths over the span of more than a century.   I’m betting medieval visitors went straight for the scene with St. John’s head on a plate, just as we did.


Since most of the best work that used to be in the Duomo is now in the Museum, the interior of the Duomo itself seems very bare.  Fortunately, it is now possible to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome from the inside.  A catwalk along the inside of the dome allows you to view Vasari’s dramatic Last Judgment frescoes up close.  Once again, the artist seems to be having more fun drawing the damned than the saved.  The final ascent, up what was originally a workmens’ staircase, emerges in the lantern above the dome, which offers spectacular views of the city.



Fabulous Florence (Part 2)

Uffizi Gallery

How does one write about what is probably the most amazing small museum in the world?  You can get through the place in 2 hours (3 if you look at the non-Italian collection).  The exhibition rooms, recently renovated, give you enough space and light to see the pictures and, if you go off-season and early in the morning (the museum opens at 8:15) it’s not impossibly crowded.

Ponte Vecchio is suprisingly empty at 8 am

Ponte Vecchio is surprisingly empty at 8 am

It’s impossible to cover everything, so here are some of my particular favorites.

The two Madonnas in the first room, offer an interesting contrast in how art was starting to change even as early as the 14th C.  One Madonna, by the Sienese artist Duccio, is executed in the older expressionless style, although Mary has a ghost of a smile. In the Giotto Madonna, though, Mary is looking right at you.  The Renaissance goes Boink.

Nobody does women’s faces like Botticelli, and the Uffizi has several rooms full of them.

Filippo Lippi’s models for his Madonna and Child are believed to his girlfriend and his baby son.  (Lippi, a monk, wasn’t exactly supposed to be fathering children, but his art was so lovely the authorities looked the other way.)  That baby grew up to be Filippino Lippi, who also did some pretty spectacular Madonnas.

This portrait of the Holy Family was done by Luca Signorelli, an Umbrian artist who did most of his work on walls, instead of as moveable paintings, and who is therefore not as well known as he might be outside of Italy.   I love Joseph’s scarf in this painting. The Italian commentary notes that this design must have been in vogue at the time, because it appears in a number of paintings by different artists done around the same time.  Italian men and their scarves.


Galleria degli Uffizi, Holy Family, Luca Signorelli (1490); Joseph’s distinctive scarf must have been in vogue at the time, since it appears in many paintings of this period

Leonardo da Vinci is represented by a wonderful Annunciation.  He is also believed to have assisted his teacher Verrocchio in his painting of John the Baptist.

Raphael is known for his portraits, but I was charmed by his depiction of John the Baptist as a leopard-skin wearing child.

The artist Bronzino did a lot of official portraits for his patron Duke Cosimo, but somehew even though he gets every detail of Eleonora’s sumptuous dress right he doesn’t forget to show a mother’s love for her son.

Galleria degli Uffizi: Eleanora di Toledo and Son - Bronzino, c. 1545

Galleria degli Uffizi: Eleanora di Toledo and Son – Bronzino, c. 1545

And I’ve always liked the portraits of Bartolomeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi.  Even though they are done individually you somehow get the sense that this is a happy couple.

Caravaggio is not well represented here (he did most of his work in Rome) but his painting of Abraham and Isaac is a masterwork.  The artist captures Abraham, knife already drawn, at the moment the angel tells him to stop.  Isaac is still terrified, and the little lamb whose face is next to Isaac’s hasn’t figured out that he’s next in line.


Galleria degli Uffizi: The Sacrifice of Issac – Caravaggio, 1602.

The Uffizi also has a tipsy Bacchus, a painting whose influence is still being felt.

The Uffizi also has a fine collection of art by non-Italian artists, including a fascinating Madonna by Durer, an old Rabbi by Rembrandt, a rare naturalist painting by Velazquez (check out the masterful depiction of the glass) and a portrait of a bullfighter by Goya.

The caption to a Madonna by Flemish artist Hans Memling notes that the angel is handing baby Jesus an apple as a sign of his impending Crucifixion.  But it seems to me the angel has a rather devilish grin.  What do you think?


Galleria degli Uffizi: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels – Hans Memling, 1491

When the Uffizi was first opened, the collection of ancient Greek and Roman sanctuary was regarded as particularly noteworthy.  The statues are still there, but these days excite less tourist interest.  One exception, though, are the Niobe statues, executed in he 1st C BC, which take up a whole room on the main floor.

Niobe, according to a Greek myth, was a woman who somewhat foolishly boasted to another woman, Latona, that she was the better mother because she had 14 children, and Latona only had 2.  Unfortunately for Niobe, Latona’s children were Apollo and Artemis.  Insulted, Latona got her immortal children to kill all of Niobe’s all too human offspring, one by one by one.  When Niobe realized what was happening, she begged to be allowed to keep the last of her daughters, whom she tried to shield with her cape.  Nope – the Greek gods didn’t do redemption.


Galleria degli Uffizi: Niobe trying to protect her youngest daughter (1st C BC): Niobe boasted to the goddess Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana, that she has 14 children while Latona had only 2; Latona arranged for the gods to kill all of them — Niobe pleaded in vain for them to spare her last surviving child. All the statues in this room were heavily damaged by a Mafia bomb blast in 1993, and restored in 2006.

This statue is particularly resonant for me because I saw it on my very first trip to Florence, in 1990.  This part of the gallery was out of service for many years due to a Mafia bombing in the early 1990s.  The Niobe room was badly damaged, and the statues needed significant restoration.  It’s nice to have them back, after so many years.

Pitti Palace

This palatial home of the later Medici is frustrating to visit.  The paintings are displayed on multiple levels and many rooms are poorly lit, which makes some of them difficult to see.  And unlike the Uffizi, where it seems every work is a masterpiece, the Pitti has far too many mediocre works.  There are some marvels, though, if you are patient.

Some of my particular favorites include:

  •  A Madonna feeding the infant Jesus by Artemisia Gentileschi, a remarkably gentle picture by an artist best known for her bloody depiction of Judith lopping off the head of Holofernes:


    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: Nursing Madonna, Artemisia Gentileschi (1609-1610); an unusually gentle image by a painter better known for her depiction of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes

  • Sweet-faced Madonnas by Filippo Lippi and Raphael:
  • A portrait by Raphael of a woman believed to be his lover:


    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: Woman with Veil, Raphael; believed to be a portrait of the artist’s girlfriend, Margerita Luti

  • A rare triple portrait by Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man.
    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery:  The Three Ages (of man), Giorgione (1500-1)
    Palazzo Pitti, Palatine Gallery: The Three Ages (of man), Giorgione (1500-1)


Fabulous Florence (Part 1)

We were lucky enough to be able to spend a week in Florence, just after the New Year holiday.  The weather was cold, but clear, so we were able to get quite a lot of walking done.

Since most of what there is to see in Florence involves this is going to be an extended art and history post, with a lot of photos — so many, in fact, that I may have to divide the material among several posts.  If you are really into this stuff, like we are, and want even more photos (with captions) you can go to my Google photo album.

Florence and the Medici

In order to understand why there is so much fabulous art in Florence, you first need to know a bit about the Medici.  The Medici were Florentine bankers who came to prominence in the 15th C, and whose principal client was the Pope.  (How there could be such a thing as “the Pope’s bankers” in an age where usury was still a sin is a fascinating story in itself, but one for another day.)

Florence at that time was a republic – noblemen, in fact, were barred from city government.  The city was administered by a rotating council of prominent citizens whose terms lasted only two months.  The early Medici (Cosimo the elder, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent) held no official leadership roles, and rarely served on the governing councils.  But somehow no important decisions in Florence were ever made without them.

All the early Medici were enthusiastic supporters of the arts in many forms  In addition to sponsoring painters, sculptors and architects, Cosimo was also a humanist who read ancient Greek; Lorenzo was a credible poet with a sizable library.  They were not only interested in acquiring art, but in sponsoring and developing it.

What made their art patronage so interesting was that it was not conservative, but “edgy.”  Brunelleschi’s dome, championed by Cosimo, was the largest dome built in Western Europe since the Pantheon, and Donatello was the first sculptor to produce nudes since classical times.  Botticelli received many Medici commissions, and the young Michelangelo even lived for a while in Lorenzo’s house.

The later Medici, beginning with Duke Cosimo in the 1530s, were also huge patrons of the arts.  But although the art included some fine work, the tastes of these later Medici ran to the grandiose and the splendid.

Two monuments, a few minutes walk away from each other in the center of Florence, illustrate this contrast.  The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi was the 15th C home of the Medici family.  Its most famous work is the Cavalcade of the Magi, by Benozzo Gozzoli a fresco executed in the 1450s which covers three walls of a small private chapel.  Although in theory a religious subject, the fresco actually commemorates a Council held in the Florence 1430s, attended by both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Byzantine Emperor, which was an attempt to repair the schism between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in order to present a unified front against the Turks who were then threatening Constantinople).  The attempt failed – Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the two churches remain divided to this day.  But the event put Florence on the map culturally — many of the Greeks who accompanied the Byzantine Emperor stayed on in Florence and became part of Cosimo’s humanist academy.

Cosimo wanted to celebrate the city of Florence hosting this event and his own role, without being too obvious about it.  The subject of the Three Magi provided an excuse to commemorate the visits of the two Emperors (who are depicted as two of the Magi), as well many other prominent citizens and visitors.  Cosimo himself is depicted as a man with relatively unassuming clothes, riding a donkey as a sign of humility – but he’s right in front.


Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459); the old man riding a donkey is believed to be Cosimo de Medici (Il Vecchio) and the younger man riding on the white horse next to him his son Piero


Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459); believed to be a depiction of Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologos, who had visited Florence in 1439

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)

The use of recognizable faces in art was still relatively new – although Giotto had pioneered the style a century earlier, most religious art still used the flat, expressionless faces that had been used since Byzantine times.  But the use of recognizable faces was to become a distinguishing feature of Florentine Renaissance art.

Just a few minutes away from the Palazzo Medici are the Medici Chapels, which the later Medici built for their family tombs.  The tombs are built of the most expensive marbles and executed by artisans of outstanding quality.  But the whole thing is rather over the top.

Michelangelo executed some of the earlier tombs, starting with some lesser members of the family.   The tomb of the most important Medici of them all, Lorenzo, was left unfinished — a simple cenotaph for Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano (murdered in 1478) with a single Michelangelo Madonna.  Perhaps fittingly, this tome is the most pleasing.

Medici Chapel - Capella dei Principi; monumental tomb

Medici Chapel – Capella dei Principi; monumental tomb


Medici Chapel: Michelangelo Madonna (c. 1520: part of unfinished tomb of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici)

The main branch of the Medici family died out in the mid-18th C. The Austrians marched in and stayed (with a brief interruption by Napoleon) until the reunification of Italy in 1860.  But the last survivor of the Medici family, Anna Luisa, provided in her will that the art of Florence belonged to the people of Florence and was not to be removed.  Amazingly, her last wishes were honored, and the Medici collections form the basis of the museums in the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti.
















Christmas in Ascoli

It’s our second Christmas in Ascoli Piceno and once again the city is lit up with Christmas decorations.  Much to my surprise, though, for such an apparently traditional place, the Christmas decorations are different this year.  There’s a big Christmas tree in Piazza Arringo, as there was last year, and the ice-skating rink is back.  And there are stars lighting up most of the main shopping streets.

But in the Piazza del Popolo, the heart of the city, instead of traditional Christmas items there are — giant illuminated snails.  On the balustrades surrounding the Piazza are a collection of other unusual animals – wolves, penguins, even meerkats.  There are climb-able crocodiles in the small cloister which normally houses the farmers’market.  And the stone elephants framing the door of a local bank now have a colorful companion.  Many people here don’t like the animals since they have no special association with Christmas.  But I think they’re kind of cute.  I even learned the Italian word for meerkats (suricati).

Most of the public Christmas decorations are secular.  Every church has its creche – our cathedral has a particularly fine 18th C Neapolitan one, complete with villagers.  And in some places (Florence for example), a creche might be set up outdoors, but it’s usually right outside a church.  There doesn’t seem to be the conflict between “religious” and “secular” Christmas that you often see in the US, which is kind of refreshing.  And people say both Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) or Buone Feste (Happy Holidays).

There are plenty of gifts, of course.  Traditionally, children got their gifts from La Befana, an old lady who helped the Magi find their way to Bethlehem when they stopped to ask for directions (I know, right?).  They rewarded her with the ability to give gifts every year on January 6, the feast of the Three Kings.


These days, children get gifts on Christmas Day, from Babbo Natale (Father Christmas, the Italian version of Santa Claus, usually portrayed as a kindly grandfather with spectacles).  They often get a second round of gifts from La Befana on January 6, especially if they are lucky enough to have grandparents living nearby.

That being said, there is less focus on gift-giving here (especially for adults), and more focus on social gatherings, than you often find in the US.  There are lots of public events and concerts throughout the holiday season.  Ingredients for special holiday foods appear. The fishmongers gear up for the traditional fish dishes of Christmas Eve, the butchers are selling stuffed capons, and those of us not lucky enough to have Italian grandmothers living nearby will find plenty of Christmas cakes in the local bakeries.  More surprisingly, you also see a lot of lentils.  Lentils remind Italians of coins, and cooking them at New Year’s, often with cotechino (a kind of sausage) is seen as a guarantee of good fortune for the coming year.

Although most Italians are at least nominally Catholic, but the level of observance varies widely.  The churches are full for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (even though it is still held at midnight here), but whether people are there for religious reasons or to greet their friends and neighbors and wish them good cheer is an open question. The same pattern holds on Christmas Day.  After everyone has finished their holiday lunch, it’s time to go out for a passeggiatta (leisurely stroll around town), if the weather is at all cooperative (which it usually is).


I’ve never spent Christmas in a large Italian city, and I suspect that the holidays there are the indoor affairs that they usually are in the US.  But in smaller cities like Ascoli Piceno, the tradition of celebrating holidays in public hasn’t completely gone away.  And that’s one of the things I like most about living here.


Happy Christmas to all!

Marvelous Mantova

Renaissance Italy was divided into 5 large territories, belonging to Milan, Venice, Florence, Naples and the Papacy, and a number of smaller ones, like Mantova  (Mantua), Modena, Ferrara and Urbino.  The rulers of the smaller states, lacking the money and territory to wage war against the big boys, made their living by hiring themselves out as condottieri  (captains of companies of mercenary soldiers).  Successful condottieri, like the Gonzagas of Mantova, became very rich men, and they used their money to hire the best artists, architects and humanists they could afford.   That is one reason why the relatively small city of Mantova has such astonishingly rich art.

In the 15th C, the Gonzaga’s court painter was Andrea Mantegna, who decorated the Camera degli Sposi (which, despite the name, was a formal audience hall as well as the lord and lady’s bedchamber) with frescoes of the Gonzaga family.  A master of the new techniques of perspective, Mantegna frescoed the ceiling with a fake “oculus,” or skylight, which creates the illusion of people leaning over the balustrade to peer down at the folks below.  One little cherub is even painted from the perspective of the bottom of his feet.

In the 16th C, the court engaged Giulio Romano to decorate the Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga’s summer palace (the name refers not to the hot beverage, then still unknown in Europe, but a local river).  The frescoes use startlingly bright colors and oversize figures.  In the most famous room, Romano depicts the mythological Fall of the Giants, in which an angry Zeus destroys the prior race of immortals by using thunderbolts, floods, and buildings.  Although the room is a standard rectangle, the artist creates the illusion of a dome by painting from floor to ceiling as one continuous canvas.

After the 16th C, the Gonzaga family went into decline, and supported itself by selling off much of its art to the royal families of Europe.  When Napoleon came through, he stole much of what was left.  Some of the older paintings have been recovered and restored (such as a portrait of Giulio Romano by Titian, which had been sold to Charles I of England and sold off by Cromwell to pay the crown’s debts).  But most of what remains in Mantova is the stuff that, because it was painted directly on walls or ceilings, couldn’t be removed.  Fortunately, that is quite enough.

In the 18th C, the house of Gonzaga died out and the city came under the control of the Austrian Hapsburgs, who would remain in charge until the reunification of Italy in 1860.  Buildings from this era include a wonderful rococo-style theater for musical performances — one of the first performers was a still teenaged Mozart.  The Theresiana Library, named after the Empress Maria Theresa, has a wonderful collection of old globes, including a 16th C one which depicts California as an island (as maybe, in some political sense, it is).

Mantova is also the setting for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto.  The title character, a court jester for a (fictional) Duke of Mantova, discovers his daughter has been seduced by the playboy Duke. Vowing revenge, Rigoletto hires a hit man with the wonderful name of Sparafucile (Shooter), who lives down by the river.  Sparafucile, unfortunately, shoots the daughter instead of the duke.  Hopefully, the folks running this boathouse are less inept than the hapless shooter.

Inside joke for opera fans

We also visited Sabbioneta, a much smaller town about 20 minutes drive from Mantova which was once the property of a younger son of the Gonzaga family, the grandly named Vespasiano.  In the 16th C, this fellow created a model Renaissance city here, complete with a regular palace, a summer palace with a gallery for displaying his collection (now lost) of antiquities, even a theater.  The tiny city went into decline after Vespasiano’s death, and still looks much like it did at the end of the 16th C.  As a result, it is much in demand for location shoots for Renaissance period dramas, including most recently the Netflix series on the Medici family.