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  The city never rescinded Dante’s order of banishment, even long after almost everyone had forgotten what the original argument had been about; Dante died in Ravenna.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.

A Little Trip to Liguria

Although we’ve made many trips to Italy over the years, for whatever reason, we’d never spent much time in Liguria.  We decided to rectify that by spending a week there late last month.

Since Liguria is a long drive from here, we made a few stops along the way.

First was Gradara castle in the northern Marche.  In the 13th C, Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, the lord of Rimini.  Francesca found herself attracted to her husband’s younger, and much better looking, brother Paolo.  As Dante imagined the scene, Paolo and Francesca were innocently reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, when suddenly, passion seized them; no more reading was done that day.  Her husband discovered the affair and killed both of them.  The tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini has inspired artists ever since — it is the subject of numerous paintings and several operas, and draws tourists like us to the castle to this day.

Next stop was the Abbey of Nonantola, outside Modena.  Originally founded in the 8th C, the current church dates to the 12th C.  It is one of the last and largest buildings in Romanesque style, and its brick barrel vaults are quite a contrast to the pointed stone arches of Notre Dame, which was built at around the same time.  The museum next door has the original charter for the abbey, dated 752 — a document which carries the sigil of Charlemagne.

For our base in Liguria, we stayed in Imperia, about one hour west of Genoa on the coast (practically all of Liguria is on the coast).  We had a spacious AirBnB apartment with wonderful views of the harbor, both from the rooms and from the outside dining table.  We were blessed with spectacular weather — in late September, most of the summer tourists are gone, but the days were still sunny and warm.  Despite its popularity with tourists, Imperia and nearby Porto Maurizio are real towns (Imperia is the county seat) which still has plenty of activity even in the off season.  We had fun just exploring the towns, although since the mountains come almost down to the sea here most of the walking isup and down.  There are several nice walks along the beach, as well as a stunning yacht harbor.

The food is quite good in Liguria, but also very simple.  Here is the real home of the traditional “Mediterranean” diet, based on fish, vegetables, and olive oil — enriched, at this time of year, by some white truffles from nearby Piedmont.


We did a couple of touristy things when we could tear ourselves away from the town.  In Albissola Marina, we visited the Villa Faraggiana, an 18th C country estate which, unusually, still retains much of the original 18th C and early 19th C furnishings — paintings, statues, flying body art, even the wallpaper.  The ballroom had a 17th C mirror which predated the house, magnificent floors made of local tiles, and large wooden statues whose survival is especially miraculous given that they were originally used as candleholders.

We also visited the Hanbury Gardens, in Mortola, close to the French border.  In the late 19th C, a couple of English gentlemen created a garden full of “exotic” plants.  Although it was probably not the optimal time to visit — we were too late for the roses and too early for the citrus — but we enjoyed the vast collection of agave, aloe and cactus — very California-like.

On the way back, we visited Siena and spent several hours in its magnificent cathedral.  The cathedral floors are decorated with an unusual series of about 60 “paintings”in  inlaid marble, by various artists. Usually the floor paintings are hidden by brown paper covers, but for about 2 months a year the floors are uncovered.  Visitors are able to walk through the paintings on special paths which avoid wearing down the most delicate designs.

We then took a roof tour which allowed you to go up in the rafters and see the floors from above, which was pretty cool.

We also visited the “crypt,” which is not a cemetery but actually the remains of an older church.  The current church, built in the 13th C, was built right on top of the old one.  Some of the frescoes of the earlier cathedral were buried and not rediscovered until renovation work in the 1990s fortuitously uncovered them.  After years of seeing the faded colors of frescoes that have been open to the elements for hundreds of years, it was quite startling to see the bright original colors of these long-buried frescoes.

Reflections on One Year in Italy

We came to Italy one year ago this week.   A few things have not gone as planned — I broke my wrist less than a week after I arrived, and spent the first two months with my arm in a cast.  For the most part, though, things here have been even better than we imagined.

Our apartment is spacious and comfortable.  Our landlady, whose home this was for 35 years, has been especially gracious in helping us deal with the inevitable issues of living in a new country.

We have had an easier time than we expected making friends here.  There is a small English-speaking community — most are American, but there are some Canadian and Irish folks too.  But we have also found it possible to socialize with the people who have lived here most of their lives.   At first, people expressed surprise that we left California to move here — we were kind of a curiosity.  Now they seem to have gotten used to us.

Acquiring facility with the language has also been easier than we imagined.  I had a basic knowledge of Italian grammar based on studying it in high school many years ago.  And I could understand people who spoke to me slowly and clearly.  But I was terrified of speaking, particularly on the telephone, for fear I might make a mistake.  I had to get over that pretty quickly, though, because most people here don’t speak English.  If you want to get things done, particularly with the bureaucracy, you have to learn to communicate in Italian.  Fortunately, people are very accommodating with my fumbling attempts — I’m sure I sound like a second grader, but no one seems to mind.

Ted has made even more progress.  He knew only a few words of Italian when we arrived, but with the aid of private lessons he’s made enough progress that he recently passed the written test for a driver’s license in Italian — not an easy thing here, even for Italians.

The food is also better than we expected.  We seem to have stumbled into something of a food paradise here.   Although much of the terrain in the Marche and nearby Abruzzo is mountainous, a lot of fruits and vegetables are raised in the local valleys.  Green vegetables are available all winter — some winter vegetables, like spinach and chard, are well known to us, while others, like cicoria and agretti, are new.  Food is hyper-local here — you can buy locally raised chicken and lamb in the supermarket, as well as locally made bread, cheese and salumi (the generalized name for cold cuts). The porchetta truck (whole roast pig) rolls in once a week, and they sell roast chickens as well.  You can buy fresh pasta from several local stores.  The local fish market sells a wide variety of Adriatic seafood; San Benedetto del Tronto, about half an hour from here, is a major fish distribution center.  And all of the food, particularly the vegetables, costs much less here than we were paying in California.  The wine is very reasonably priced too although, as with the food, most of it is locally produced.

Ascoli is a city of about 50,000 — about the same size as Palo Alto.  But unlike Palo Alto or many other American suburbs, which are parts of major metropolitan areas, Ascoli is one of the largest towns in what is still a region of small villages and rural farms.  Most of the people who live here, work here, and vice versa.  That means you might run into your real estate agent outside the gommista (tire shop), your pharmacist in the square,  your fish vendor at the bank. And when you see them, you smile and nod and, if there’s time (as there often is) you strike up a small conversation.  That’s been one of the biggest and most unexpected differences between living here and living in the US.  In the US, no one has time to talk to you.  Here, almost every encounter is the opportunity for a small social interaction.  It’s nice.

The Wonderful Variety of Italy

One of the great things about living in Italy is that, within only a few hours’ drive, you can arrive at a place with its own, quite distinct history.  It’s like a whole continent in one country.  Here are some brief notes on four recent destinations.


In June, we spent a few days in Ravenna, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire during much of the 5th Century and the capital of the Byzantine Empire during much of the 6th.  The Romans once based their fleet in the nearby town of Classe; the port is now completely destroyed.

Ravenna is best known today for its remarkable mosaics which are in remarkably good condition despite their great age.  The iconography of the mosaics is quite different from those of medieval cathedrals.  The secular and the religious are mixed together — you can see a depiction of the ancient port of Classe right next to a parade of saints, or the emperor Justinian hard by Cain and Abel.  Jesus, often beardless, is depicted as the Good Shepherd, rather than the crucified savior.


San Vitale, Ravenna

There are more depictions of animals — not just sheep, but ducks, birds, even deer.  And the dominant color is a wonderful marine green, rather than the blue that became more popular later.


San Vitale, Ravenna

There is also a significant difference in style between the earlier and later mosaics.  The late Roman mosaics, like late Roman fresco painting, had figures with vibrant faces and a sense of motion, while the Byzantine mosaics were more stiff and formal.  Sometimes you can see the difference in style in the same church.  In the Basilica of Sant’Appolinare Nuovo, the excited and happy Three Kings (in late Roman style) bring their gifts to a stone-faced Mary (completed 50 years later).

After the Byzantine capital was moved to Constantinople, Ravenna became the peaceful country town it remains today.  It became the last refuge and final resting place of the great poet Dante, whose exile from his home city of Florence was never rescinded during his lifetime.  After his death, the city of Florence, recognizing its mistake, tried to get Dante’s bones back, and even built an elegant tomb for them in the church of Santa Croce.  Nothing doing, said Ravenna, and Dante’s real tomb remains in Ravenna till this day.


In July, we visited the city of Urbino, which had its greatest prominence during the 15th C, under the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro.  Montefeltro was the archetype of the Renaissance prince — a famous condottiere (military leader) as well as a great patron of the arts.  During his 40-year rule, he surrounded himself with a brilliant court, and built many beautiful buildings, including the Ducal Palace, which is today a major art museum.

Palazzo Ducale


The great painter Raphael was born in Urbino, and is represented by a couple of paintings in the museum — most of his major work, though is elsewhere.  The museum also includes several works by the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, one of the first to reintroduce perspective to European art.  I particularly love the Madonna here, with the angel whose carefully drawn pearl anticipates Vermeer, and with the baby Jesus and his incongruously pagan (but contemporaneously accurate) coral necklace — even today Italian babies are given coral necklaces to ward off the “evil eye.”

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

Piero della Francesca: Senigallia Madonna

But the real glory of the Ducal Palace are the works of intarsio, or wood inlay.  Intarsio can be found all over Italy, but the examples here are like paintings, almost three-dimensional.  There are depictions of musical instruments, knights’ helmets and architectural tools.  But my favorite is the little squirrel — probably a “red Calabrian,” now almost completely replaced by North American varieties.

Duke's studiolo

Duke’s studiolo – Urbino

Bolzano (Bozen)

The city of Bolzano is in Alto Adige, a region which used to be part of Austria known as Sudtirol.  It was awarded to Italy after World War I.  Nobody ever asked the residents which country they wanted to belong to, and Mussolini’s policy of “Italianization” (encouraging ethnic Italians to move to the region) wasn’t too popular either.  These days, the region operates under a special regional autonomy agreement, and is officially bilingual, with everybody learning both German and Italian.  A lot of the local residents also speak excellent English, which I understand is widely taught in the public schools beginning at a young age.

For the tourist, the region represents a fascinating mix of Austrian and Italian culture — you can get cakes or biscotti, pizza or dumplings.  The photo of a local kiosk indicates the wide variety of food on offer.  It’s also one of Italy’s most interesting wine regions, featuring local grape varietals such as like Lagrein, new grape varietals like Kerner developed for the Alpine region, international varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The town of Termano (Tramin in German) is also reputed to be the origin of the Gewurtztraminer grape.  So if you like wine at all, you’re likely to find something you like here.


But the real glory of the area is its scenery.  Bolzano has a spectacular location at the foot of the Brenner Pass, at the western edge of the Dolomites.  One of the local mountains is called the Rosengarten (Rose Garden) because of the magnificent rose-pink hue it takes on at sunset.


Der Rosengarten / Il Catanaccio

The area is filled with hiking trails at all levels — during the course of a day’s hike, you will enthusiastic young hikers, old people with stout staffs, and families with their children and dogs.  You will also encounter pastured animals — cows, sheep, goats, even the occasional horse, which meant that once in a while, you had to navigate around a cow gate.  And, this being the Alps, at the top of the trail, there’s always a little cafe selling food.


Pork ribs, fries, and beer on top of a mountain. What could be better?

We stayed mostly on the easier trails, helpfully marked with baby prams to indicate they were flat enough for strollers.  Even so, I found that good hiking boots (which I bought here in Ascoli) and walking sticks (thoughtfully provided by our hotel) made a huge difference in navigating the sometimes uneven surfaces.


The scenery was breathtaking — I kept expecting Julie Andrews to come running over the next hillside filling the air with the sound of music.  We heard no yodelers (although we did encounter a couple of tuba players in one restaurant) and no little goatherds (although there was an old guy chivvying the cows along).  All in all, quite a marvelous experience.

Lago di Garda

Garda is Italy’s largest lake, despite the existence of another lake called “Maggiore” (the “biggest”) some distance west.  It is very long, with Alpine terrain in the north and palm trees along the southern edge.

The southeastern part of the lake was part of the territory of Verona in the 14th C, and the towns are dotted with castles built by the Scaligeri, the ruling family.  Sirmione, at the south of the lake, has one of the best-preserved examples of a Scaliger castle.  It also has the ruins of a 1st C Roman estate poetically known as Le Grotte de Catullo.  The Roman poet Catullus did indeed grow near Sirmione, but he was nowhere nears rich enough to live here.  The name of the enormously wealthy family that actually owned the estate has been lost to history.  The estate is a ruin today, of course, but a small museum has preserved some of the floor tiles and frescoes.  Its most remarkable feature, though, is its spectacular site, which has enchanted tourists for centuries.



We also visited Gardone Riviera, on the western shore, which has a wonderful botanical garden (Heller Gardens), full of exotic plants and quirky statuary.

Our Italian friends were nonplussed that we didn’t take the opportunity to visit the house of Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, also in Gardone.  Got to leave something for next time, I guess.  🙂


Sunset over Lago di Garda








Roman Mosaic

We took a short trip to Rome last week, our first extended trip to the capital since we moved to Italy last year.  Although Italy has an extensive train networks, from Ascoli Piceno the quickest way to get to Rome is by intercity bus, through the Appenines via the route of the ancient via Salaria.

Since we had been to Rome before, we decided to concentrate on less-frequently visited sites during this visit.  I have a particular interest in mosaics, an art which flourished in late antiquity and during the medieval period.  Rome has comparatively few monuments during this period — the city’s population declined from 1 million during the imperial period to perhaps 50,000 at the beginning of the 15th C, and didn’t recover until a series of Popes, beginning in the latter half of the 15th C, decided to restore the city to something approaching its former magnificence.  But medieval monuments are there if you know where to look.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the 4 basilicas in Rome administered by the Vatican, has wonderful mosaics dating from both the 5th and 12th Centuries.  Just down the street, the church of Santa Prassede has some fascinating mosaics dating from the 9th C.  The mosaics in both of these churches follow what is known as the “Byzantine” style — no perspective, no individualized faces — but I found them quite lovely.

In the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, there is a wonderful 12th C mosaic of Jesus and Mary in heaven.  Jesus has his arm around Mary (a traditional Byzantine pose) but there was a certain affection in his gaze (unfortunately difficult to see in the photograph).


Santa Maria in Trastevere

At the nearby church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, we saw some frescoes done by the same artist, Pietro Cavallini.  The frescoes are not in the main church — they are in an upstairs room and you have to pay a small admission charge.  I have just enough Italian now to follow the guide’s explanations — good thing, because there were no written captions.  The guide was eager to point out the individualized expressions in the faces of the Apostles — something supposedly invented by Giotto, who worked about 50 years later, and an early harbinger of the Renaissance.

Despite what to us appears as forward-looking artistry, the frescoes were plastered over by a Renaissance-era cardinal, who found them old-fashioned, and only rediscovered during building renovation work in the 1930s.  Portions of the original frescoes have been irretrievably lost — St. Michael, for instance, was identifiable only by his sword and metal breastplate.  But as the fortuitous consequence of not being exposed to the air for several hundred years, the colors are still almost as vibrant as originally intended, without restoration.  No photos were allowed in this room — the picture you see here is scanned from postcards.


Pietro Cavallini: Apostoli from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere (1291)

We took a special tour of the Vatican which began with breakfast in the museum courtyard.  The 2 hours allotted to the Vatican Museum allowed for only the highlights — you could easily spend a whole day there — but it was nice to skip the line and get an early start.  The Sistine Chapel seems to be crowded no matter when you go, and is patrolled by guards who strictly enforce the no-photo rule (photos are allowed elsewhere in the Vatican).  The guards’ other function seems to be to keep people moving, otherwise the number of people too awed to move would quickly create traffic jams in the rest of the museum.  The guards reminded me of the demons in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, prodding along the reluctant souls of the damned with their pitchforks — too bad I can’t post a photo!  You’ll have to settle for a photo of one of the nearby “Raphael rooms”.


Raphael: The School of Athens

I saw the Sistine Chapel for the first time in 1970, before the major cleaning project begun in the 1980s, and remember being somewhat disappointed — 400 years of candle smoke had rendered much of the work too dark to see.  The restoration is controversial in some quarters — some people think they took off some of Michelangelo’s paint along with the candle soot.  But you’ll never convince me that these strong, vibrant colors aren’t what Michelangelo intended.

We also saw St. Peter’s on the tour, and I was as underwhelmed by the church as I have been in the past.  I know it’s a minority view, but something about the church’s sheer size (they have marks on the floor showing the limits of “lesser” cathedrals like St. Paul and Notre Dame) seems to me inconsistent with the Church’s spiritual message.  They’ve got some great art in there, though, including Michelangelo’s Pieta.


Michelangelo: Pietà

Interestingly, virtually all of the “paintings” in the church are actually mosaics, although you have to get really close to see that.


A painting-like mosaic in St. Peter’s.

Having seen at least one of Rome’s major sights, we returned to smaller sights for the last couple of days of our trip.

The Palazzo Colonna has been the home of the Colonna family for eight centuries.  These days, part of the Palazzo has been turned into a museum, open only on Saturday mornings, which displays the family’s art collection (Bronzino, Perugino, Carracci….)

Marcantonio Colonna played a big part in the victory of the “Holy League” (Venice, Spain and the Papacy) over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.  Colonna lost no time celebrating his victory with a series of magnificent ceiling murals depicting the battle — it’s awesome, but a bit over the top.  The palazzo had another moment of dubious fame in 1849 when some republicans (of the Roman variety) were holed up there, but were later driven out by French (pro-Papal) forces.  A cannon ball which arrived in the gallery at that time has been preserved where it landed.


On our last day, we visited what we thought was a standalone stained glass museum just outside the center.  The museum is actually at the Villa Torlonia, which has the unfortunate distinction of having been Mussolini’s official residence.  The house and grounds fell into disrepair after the war, and in the 1990s the Italian government decided to restore the place into the 19th C aristocratic villa it had originally been.  These days, the main house and several associated buildings feature exhibits of Italian art during the early 20th C.  We were particularly interested in the exhibit devoted to modern theatrical productions at Italy’s ancient Greek theaters, since we had enjoyed a performance at the ancient  theater in Siracusa (Sicily) a few years ago.

The stained glass museum is located in one of the buildings on the grounds, the Casina delle Civette, or Owl House.  This was the home of the last scion of the Torlonia family, who was apparently an unsocial fellow who preferred the company of owls, bats and other birds of the night.  He was, however, also a stained-glass enthusiast, and much of the work here was done by the best Italian stained glass artists of the early 20th C, and it has a particular style, quite different from that of the more familiar French and American stained glass artists working at the same time.  The whole place is worth a visit, if you have the time.

One more note — during an evening tour of Trastevere, our guide pointed out a 19th C building with the Latin inscription — PIUS IX P M OFFICINAM NICOTIANIS FOLIIS ELABORANDIS A SOLO EXTRUXIT ANNO MDCCCLXIII.  The building was Pope Pius IX’s official cigarette rolling factory, built in 1863. In many parts of Europe, even today, the government has a monopoly on tobacco sales, and it has been an important revenue source. These days, though, the Vatican bans the sale of tobacco in its tiny state.


Papal cigarette factory