Archive for the ‘Art Tours of Tuscany’ Category

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I drive south out of Florence into the spectacular hills of the Val d’Orcia south of Siena. This area of Tuscany is sparse and wide; recently plowed fields the color of burnt umber undulate across a countryside of dreams. The quintessential vision of Tuscany unfolds before me. Cypress tree lined gravel driveways approach gorgeous villas on hilltops, bell towers in the distance signal a village, a borgo, a city. The road winds its way toward the hills near Asciano where my accommodation for the evening, Villa Armena, awaits. 

The approach to the villa is straight out of The English Patient. A rough gravel road passes a few restored country estates, the infinite blue of the sky is pierced by cypresses. 

Laura, whom as I later learn wears many hats on the property, warmly greets me upon arrival. The room – actually a suite – is stunning, with views over the hillside from one set of windows, the pool and formal gardens from the other. The place is so quiet that I can hear the wind whisper around and through the trees that surround the property. 

The nearby Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore has been a destination on my Italy “hope list” for many years. After registering at the small front desk and leaving my luggage behind, I head to this incredible and historic abbey. (More to follow in an upcoming blog: Monte Oliveto Maggiore – A Stunning Abbey on an Emerald Hill).

After weeks of work with our small group tours, this place offers a welcomed retreat. Dinner begins at 19:30. Laura is also a sommelier and to accompany my selection of local pecorino cheeses with orange marmalade and honey, to be followed by sliced Chianina beef, she recommends a lush, flavorful Ciliegiolo

Dessert is hand made cantuccini (biscotti with pistachio-a unique twist on the traditional almond or pine nut) served with local Vin Santo. To top off a lovely dinner, I enjoy just a taste of the locally produced Grappa Reserva. 


Morning mist at Villa Armena

Upon rising the next morning, I open the windows to take in the garden view. Fog wraps the garden in the early light, making the view even more breathtaking.

The breakfast buffet is ample, replete with local meats, cheeses, fresh juice, cappuccino, yogurt, breads…the offerings go on and on.

After checking out, I head south from Buonconvento on the S2 highway.

The drive from the Villa Armena to Orbetello is stunning. The road winds across fields recently veiled in mist. As the sun breaks through the morning fog, soil shimmers as if crusted in diamonds, heightening the effect of near indescribable beauty.

Montalcino rises in the distance, a russet sentinel above the valley below. Once away from the hills of the southern Val d’Orcia, the road straightens and the land opens wide; Maremma. As I leave my car for an espresso at a local cafe, I know I’m close to my destination;  I can smell the sea. 

Thick emerald green umbrella pines, Pini di Roma as they are called, line the road. Bougainvillea in full bloom begin to appear as the road continues south. 

Orbetello is a wonderful surprise; a walled city whose leaders once controlled this area of Tuscany, later subjugated by the forces of Grosseto.  The white marble gate is at once an historic reminder of warning and an unforgettable way to enter the city center. 

Image result for porta orbetello

My destination is a lovely, lovingly and recently restored B&B on the Corso Italia; Casa Iris. Matthew and his husband, James, acquired the property several years ago and have created a beautiful retreat in the heart of the city. Steps from the Piazza Cortesini, the location could not be better. There are shops and many wonderful restaurants only minutes walk from the accommodation.   

Each suite provides luxury, comfort and privacy.  17th and 18th Century frescoes enliven the walls and ceilings. The couple was able to engage Maria Rosaria Basileo and her team of five other experts, whose previous work includes restorations in Rome’s Villa Borghese and the Sistine Chapel, to lead the property’s fresco renovation. 

Image result for casa iris

The furnishings were all carefully and lovingly selected to add an eclectic edge to the rooms. It took months of work with architect Giorgia Cerulli to bring the entire concept together. The results are stunning. 

A travel writer recently observed, “A great hotel experience often has less to do with the quality of the turn-down service and more about the fantasy that it creates…a great property is a microcosm of place, often representing a region’s or a culture’s mythology and aspirations for itself.”

Casa Iris achieves that sense of place, of a culture’s mythology, in a remarkable way. After a painstakingly long and involved restoration, the owners have created a retreat that entices you to stay, to learn more about this lovely area of Tuscany, to relax and take in a sense of the ages. 


Map of Orbetello 

Casa Iris Bed and Breakfast


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Last Supper restored detail

I had the privilege of studying the panels of Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper during a visit to the Opificio dell Pietra Dura workshop in Florence’s Fortezza di Basso last March.

Given the condition of the painting at that time, it was difficult to believe that the restored panels would be ready to hang once again in their place of honor in the Basilica of Santa Croce by early November of this year.


On November 4, exactly fifty years from the date that Vasari’s work was inundated and nearly destroyed in 1966, the work was unveiled in its original home.

It is difficult to put in to words what this means to Florentines. When Cimabue’s Crucifixion was restored and unveiled, the city expressed the same deep sense of pride they do now. Florentines are justifiably proud of their artistic heritage, no more so than when a Renaissance treasure by Vasari comes once again to life.

This is no small piece of art. The completed work measures 8.6 Feet (262 cm) high by 19 Feet (580 cm) wide.

For forty-six years the panels were kept in secure storage, awaiting the moment when art restoration would successfully meet the scientific techniques required to carefully and lovingly repair the painting.  It was in 2012 that the panels were moved to the Opificio della Pietra Dura in Florence to begin the process of ‘rebirth’.

Vasari’s opus joins several other master works at Santa Croce, including Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper.

Below are some photographs taken shortly after the flood submerged this masterpiece for over thirty-six hours, as well as photos of the work’s recent restored unveiling.

In a word? GO!

Santa Croce Visiting Hours, Ticketing Information and Map

Shortly after the flood – note that the panels have been covered with linen cloth to stabilize the paint so that it would not flake off as the piece was moved and dried.

The experts bring the Last Supper back to life

The completed masterpiece, in its place of honor at Santa Croce


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Are you looking for a ten-day, four star hotel based, exploration of the art and history of Tuscany? Would you enjoy a small group of like-minded travelers who share a passion for the intriguing history of the world’s art center?

Room of Pope Leo X Poggio a Caiano

Poggio a Caiano: Medici Villa Ballroom (Room of Leo X) Frescoes by Alori, Pontormo, Franciabigio and others (15th, 16th and 17th Centuries)

Do you have a passion, a curiosity or an interest in learning more about the Florentine Renaissance, its famous artists, writers, sculptors and musicians?

JOIN US on our annual exploration of what once was the creative center of western European culture.

Our special, annual, exploration includes:

  • Round trip airfare from Charlotte, NC to Florence/Return (credit applied for those travelers who join us from other cities)
  • Transfer from Asheville, NC to Charlotte Airport outbound and return
  • Four Star Hotel in Florence city center
  • Overall group size limited to twenty-four guests
  • Private guides most days with group size is limited to no more than ten guests per group, all equipped with Whisper Phones for hearing our guides in the clearest way possible
  • Two separate full day excursions with private guides to Siena and Lucca
  • A vast and incredible array of excursions which can be added to your time on the tour
  • Open afternoons for explorations on your own, with support and guidance from your 24/7 tour leader, Mark Gordon Smith of Private Italy Tours LTD (www.private-italy.com)
  • All museum entrance tickets included
  • All ground transportation in Italy is included
  • Breakfast, daily, included
  • Two dinners – Welcome and Farewell at wonderful restaurants in the city center
  • Bound itinerary books for you to refer to in the course of your tour and to keep as a memory of your time in Italy

Tariff is $4150.00 per person, inclusive

No Single Supplement

View our Introductory Video about this incredible tour

Click on the photo below to download and view our narrated PowerPoint introduction for this tour.


PowerPoint Introduction Art Tour Tuscany

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