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Archive for the ‘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. 

Fabulous.  

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. 

References: 

Map of Orbetello 

Casa Iris Bed and Breakfast

 

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News that the Museo del Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Works of the Duomo) in Florence is closed for over a year for an expansive restoration has been met with mixed reviews. The new museum will nearly triple the old museum’s size and will include a full scale replica of the facade of Florence’s first Duomo, Santa Reparata. The North/South and East doors of the Baptistery – the original panels, that is – will also be placed on display in the new spaces of the museum for all to enjoy. Concurrently, the Baptistery exterior is undergoing extensive renovation, to include the replacement of all of the original door panels with copies.

It is  a bit sad, and disappointing to the thousands how will visit Florence over the next year,  to think that the Nicodemus Pieta, Donatello’s Magdalene and the Della Robbia – Donatello Choir lofts, along with numerous other treasures of Renaissance art,  will not be seen again until the fall of 2015 when the museum is scheduled to reopen. Architect Rendering Museum of the Works of the Duomo

There are, however,  numerous options for visitors to experience the art of the Renaissance in Florence; the Uffizi, the Bargello Museum, the Museo di Firenze com’era, and – until 20 July 2014 – an extraordinary exploration of the art of Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo at the Palzzzo Strozzi. (More on that in another post).

So…if you wish to visit the treasures residing in the Museum of the Works of the Duomo, enjoy Florence this summer and come back in the fall of 2015 to celebrate what promises to be an incredible reopening.

Architectural Section
Museum of the Works of the Duomo – 2015

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View of the FaraglioniBelvedere, Capri

View of the Faraglioni
Belvedere, Capri

Ah, Capri. Azure blue seas, spectacular vistas and narrow lanes. Bougainvillaea, roses and the scent of lemon blossoms afloat sea borne breezes.

This island, located an easy ferry trip from Naples, Sorrento or many of the villages along the Amalfi Coast, is a must for those who wish to experience the new and the old of southern Italy in a day’s excursion. From the playground of wealth that is Anacapri to the ancient Villa Jovis on the dizzying promontory overlooking the bays of Naples and Salerno, there are easy ways to navigate away from the hoards of tourists who daily flock to the isle to experience, if even for a day, ‘la dolce vita’.

Regardless of where you begin your ferry trip, by commercial ferry or hydrofoil, you always arrive on Capri at the Marina Grande. This is a cacophonous, crazily busy and crowded place to begin your visit to the island, but it your only option.

After you disembark at the marina, you want to find your way to the ferry ticketing building which sits (as you face away from the island and across the docks) on your left. There is a large departure board which posts the departures for various locations across the Bay of Naples and the Bay of Salerno. It is good to review how the system works so that, upon your return, you can locate the correct dock and ferry to your ‘home port’.

You will note no reference in this article about the Blue Grotto. Why? Given that you must change boats at least twice, mid-water, that the grotto is incredibly crowded and everyone associated with entering the grotto expects to be tipped, I would avoid visiting this place. Often, the water is too rough to allow the small boats you must be in (and must lay down in to get into the grotto) can’t enter. Usually travelers don’t find out that they can’t enter until they are already on an excursion boat and are at the entrance site of the grotto. So…some advice.

On to several options for a one-day visit on Capri. If you get an early enough start, you can easily handle all of these options.

Villa Jovis Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso Capri

Villa Jovis
Church of Santa Maria
del Soccorso
Capri

VILLA JOVIS

For those who wish to visit the ruins of the Villa Jovis, where Tiberius chose to rule the Roman Empire for most of his reign, you can choose a taxi to carry you up to the high promontory (the drop to the sea is breathtaking) to the Villa for a visit. You can also walk from the village of Capri, though given the narrow (VERY narrow) roads, this options comes with a higher risk of injury!

Tiberius had the structure built on a dizzying plateau facing the mainland – and what a view it is.

The villa was completed in 27 A.D. and Tiberius rarely left. Stories abound about those who disagreed with the Emperor found their landing after being pushed off the precipice a bit final. Regardless, it is a spectacular ruin and, while you are in the area, you should visit the Church of Santa Maria del Soccorso. I have always smiled when I think what Tiberius would have said about, first, a church on the grounds of his villa and, second, what he would think of a building dedicated to the holy mother and to her intercession and relief.

Boggles the mind!

ANACAPRI

My best recommendation, upon arrival at the Marina  Grande, is to escape the crowds and take a Capri taxi, famous for having only a fringed canvas cover over the driver and passenger compartment (they are lined up at the marina and at other locations across the island), and head directly to Anacapri.

If there is a soul to the island of Capri, I believe it resides in Annacapri, Upper Capri. The word “ana” derives from the ancient Greek word for
‘above’. You will discover a lovely central shopping area (where you can easily locate restroom facilities), access to the chairlift to Monte Solario and many good restaurants for lunch or dinner. This is a much less crowded place than the town of Capri above the harbor.

Seggiovia (Chair Lift) Monte Solario

For those who wish to ride the spectacular chair lift up to the summit of Monte Solario, the highest point on Capri, the chair lift ticket office and

View from Monte Solario Capri

View from Monte Solario
Capri

boarding area are just off of the main piazza in Anacapri. The approximately ten minute ride provides breathtaking views and an opportunity to experience something you may find difficult to discover on Capri: silence.

There is a small cafe and sun terrace at the summit where you can take photos of the Faraglioni, the lava rock formations that have helped define Capri. The cafe offers sandwiches, coffee, a few alcoholic drinks. Most visitors simply sit in the sun, or stroll with their cameras in hand to record their day on the island.

If you descend to the village of Anacapri, you will find a good restaurant, La Rondinella, located to the left of the piazza along the Via G. Orlandi. The shady terrace, as well as the lovely main dining room, offer fair prices and a relaxing place to take a breather during your visit to Capri. (See IF YOU GO, below, for details)

When you have completed your visit the Anacapri, I again recommend taking a taxi down to the village center of Capri town. It is a small and very intimate space, hence the often incredible crowding.

Belvedere and the View

From Capri’s piazzetta (small piazza), you should walk up the stairs directly to the left of the steps to the Cathedral of Santo Stefano. Follow the well marked walkway to the “Belvedere.” Keep walking up through the protected cover of shady lanes, along winding paths that front gorgeous villas. Your exertions will be well rewarded. You arrive at one of the most gorgeous overlooks on the island, directly above the Marina Piccolo on the north side of the island. This is a photographer’s dream and a dreamers never forgotten view.

Villa San Michele

The Swedich physician,Axel Munthe, made his home in the gorgeous villa on Capri. In 1929, his “The Story of San Michele” was published and has a strong following for those fascinated by the social history of the island. Perched over 1000 feet above the sea, the pergola and gardens are now revered among Italaophiles, who have given them the name “Grandi Giradini Italiani”, the Grand Italian Gardens.

After your visit to Anacapri, you can easily make a visit to this spectacular villa part of your day. (See IF YOU GO, below, for details.)

Giardini di Augusto

From the small piazzetta in the center of Capri, you can descend in about fifteen minutes to the spectacular Parco Augusto / Giardini di Augusto. The views of the Faraglioni from the high ground above the sea are unforgettable. You can walk back to the piazzetta in Capri in about thirty minutes…for those whose health does not permit much strenuous exercise, take a taxi!

When you tire of Capri and your explorations, you can either take the island bus (often very crowded), the incline railway (funicular) at the piazzetta in Capri or you can take a taxi back to Marina Grande for your return ferry trip to the mainland. (See IF YOU GO, below, for more details.)

IF YOU GO:

Capri Tourist Information site, in English

Welcome to Capri

Ferry Schedules

Ferry information from all major ports to Capri

Taxi Cost, Marina Grande to main piazza  in Anacapri, Euro 14 per taxi.

Taxi Rates – Anacapri Taxi

Taxi Rates – Capri Taxis

Seggiovia, Chair Lift, Monte Solario (from Anacapri)

  • From March to October, the lift is open from 09:30AM to 17:30PM
  • From 1 November to end of February, the lift is open from 10.30AM – 15.00PM
  • Price for the lift ticket, round trip: Euro 10.00

Villa San Michele

Open every day, year round.

Museum & Bookshop
Hours: January, February, November and December: 09.00AM – 15.30PM
March, April and October: 09:00AM – 17:00PM
May – end of September: 09:00AM – 18:00PM

Entrance 7,00 €

Giardini di Augusto

Entrance:  EUR 1.00

Restaurant

Via G. Orlandi, 295, Anacapri Napoli, Italy +39 081 837 1223

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Allegory with Venus and CupidAgnolo di CosimoCalled Bronzinoca. 1545

Allegory with Venus and Cupid
Agnolo di Cosimo
Called Bronzino
ca. 1545

Agnolo di Cosimo, called Bronzino, studied from the age of fourteen in the bottega of Jacopo da Pontormo. In 1545, he received a commission (most likely from Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany though some attributions list this as a commission from Francesco Salviati) for a painting to be given to King Francis I of France. The oil on wood painting is called “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” or “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.”

What many people do not know is that Bronzino included an homage to the master, Leonardo da Vinci, in this complicated and convoluted work.

From Venus’s intimate embrace with her son, Cupid, to the upper right  bald figure of Time who holds the hour glass in his hand, most of the foreground of the work is relatively easy to understand. Move to the background and interpretations dissolve in what is a surreal backdrop of shadow and mannerist painting.

One particular figure is the subject of this article.

To the left of Cupid, whose naked buttocks disconcertingly intrudes on the left, is the figure of someone – a woman? a man? – in the midst of agony, anger and despair. Various interpretations have this figure representing jealousy or, by some, as the figure of syphilis, representative of unwise (out of wedlock?) intercourse. Regardless, it is clearly the image of someone in great distress.

Now, more back story.

In 1505, Leonardo da Vinci was given the commission for a fresco depicting the Battle of Anghiari to be completed on a wall in the Council Chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. His cartoon, long lost, depicted a tortuous configuration of horses and men engaged in the heat of battle.

It was to one particular figure that Leonardo gave the most fearsome features-one Niccolò Piccinino. A condottiero (military leader) of considerable fame and success, he succumbed to the forces of Ludovico Sforza at the Battle of Anghiari (1440). In the throws of that battle, as Leonardo portrayed the action, Niccolò’s fierce and focused face is grimaced in a combination of determination and madness.

battle of AnghiariCartoon copy by RubensOrig by Leonardo da Vinci1505Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Detail, Battle of Anghiari
Cartoon copy by Rubens – 1603
Orig by Leonardo da Vinci
1505
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Now, back to Bronzino.

It is believed that Bronzino was given the opportunity to study Leonardo’s design, most likely from a 1553 engraving by Lorenzo Zacchia. Historians believe Zacchia created the engraving from studying the actual cartoon. Leonardo’s figures made a deep impression on the young Bronzino.

During some recent discussions with friends in Florence, it was posited that Bronzino was so affected by the face of Niccolò Piccinino that he created a mirror of the condottiero’s face, and used it (in homage to da Vinci) for a face in his Allegory.

Below is a close up detail of the Anghiari face, flipped horizontally and a close up the Bronzino’s figure.

Bronzino, Leftda Vinci, Right

Bronzino, Left
da Vinci, Right

Whether this recent interpretation will stand the test of time remains to be seen. What is true is that there is a startling similarity in the faces – one on a cartoon created by Leonardo, and the allegorical figure included in Bronzino’s work.

IF YOU GO:

The Bronzino work, Allegory of Venus and Cupid, is in the National Museum in London

Battle of Anghiari, by Leonardo da Vinci.

There has been a great deal of inquiry recently about whether some of Leonardo’s work existed behind a ‘second wall’ in the Sala dei Cinquicento (once the Council Chamber) in the Palazzo Vecchio. In March of 2012, the search for this possible fresco was terminated, though these articles are interesting. Listed below are a few links for those who are interested.

New York Times

U.K. Telegraph

Discovery News

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Torment of St. AnthonyMichelangeloca. 1488

Torment of St. Anthony
Michelangelo
ca. 1488

A young Michelangelo, barely twelve years of age, copied an engraving while in the workshops of Domenico Ghirlandaio.

I never would have guessed this to be a work by the same master who painted the Doni Tondo, or the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

Originally attributed to ‘a student of the workshop,’ it was only after the 2008 purchase of the work by a New York art collector, that the panel was definitively studied and attributed to Buonarotti.

What a surprising and unusual piece it is.

Martin Schongauer, one of four sons of an Augsburg goldsmith, created a varied and complex set of copper engravings. The Torment is one of the few pieces that exist as a separate print. Martin’s more famous works are series: Passion, Death and Coronation of the Virgin, and Wise and Foolish Virgins.

How did this engraving find its way to Florence? The Medici Bank had many offices across Europe. It is possible that the work was sold to collectors in Bruges or Geneva, for example and then it was traded among merchants who traveled to and from Florence on business; all conjecture at this point, to be sure.

It is certainly difficult to understand why Michelangelo selected, or perhaps was given the commission to paint, his interpretation of this engraving. The young man tightened the design of the original engraving and, it is said by art experts, he studied the anatomy of fish so that a more lifelike rendering of sea creatures could be added to the work.

Why would Ghirlandaio’s workshop, in the heart of Renaissance Florence, select such an engraving for their study? Difficult to say. Perhaps it was the unique structure of the work, the elliptical, nearly hypnotic, central core that both draws you in and seems to circulate as you study it.

Martin SchongauerTorment of St Anthony1488

Martin Schongauer
Torment of St Anthony
1488

Regardless, the young Michelangelo created a painted wooden panel that moves the tormented saint from the skies above the middle eastern desert to the blue skies of Tuscany. In the background is a river scene that could easily be interpreted as that of the Arno River as it courses through the city.

Whether his work was created in the workshops of Florence, in his studio carving masterpieces in marble, or laboring under incredibly difficult conditions on scaffolds in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the diversity, skill and artistic eye of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni continue to fascinate.

The Torment is now in the collection of the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. As of this writing, I was unable to ascertain the engraving’s location or collection.

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Leonardoda VinciSalvator Mundi

Leonardo da Vinci
Salvator Mundi

An inscrutable smile, a curious pose and mesmerizing eyes are all reminiscent of the Mona Lisa. Over the course of centuries missing da Vinci’s have been coveted and searched for. No less true for the Salvator Mundi, Leonardo’s “Savior of the World.”

The story of the painting’s journey crosses country boundaries and centuries of time. About one hundred years after the painting was completed, an engraving was made of the work by Wenceslaus Hollar, a Bohemian engraver. Over twenty copies of the painting are known to exist.

It was in 1763, upon the sale of the contents of Buckingham House (now Palace) that the painting disappeared from view. 137 years later, in 1900, Sir Frederick Cook acquired the painting for his personal collection. Cook’s descendants sold the work at auction in 1958 for £58.00, believing it to be yet another copy-and a poor one at that.

As with nearly all works of the Renaissance, there were many copies made over the course of centuries. Such is certainly the case of the Salvator Mundi, whose copies number over twenty.

salvator-small

Salvator Mundi
Pre-Restoration

It was only upon further inspection and study by the art historian and New York art dealer, Robert Simon, and a team of other experts that the hidden secrets of the painting became known. Damaged by numerous attempts at restoration, including poor work on the wood panel upon which the work was painted, it took patience, the use of x-ray and infrared study as well as other scientific methods to discover that this is the original da Vinci.

There were many crucial points of evidence that have convinced the art world that this is truly by Leonardo. The attention to the detail of the painting, the beauty of the crystal orb that Christ holds in his left hand (a symbol of the world) and, most importantly, pentimenti, proved the marks of the master.

Pentimenti? These are preliminary positioning and design that the artist changes in the course of the work. The detail that finally gave the conservators the information they needed was, interestingly enough, was the thumb on Christ’s raised hand. Upon infrared inspection it was discovered that the thumb had originally been in a slightly different position than that on the final work. Further, the pigment’s consistency, the type of media used and the technique all prove, without doubt, that this is the original.

Art experts from Florence to Milan, New York, Washington and Paris studied the restored work and all have agreed; da Vinci’s work. What is still not clear is when or where the painting was completed. Some believe it was painted in Milan around the time of the Last Supper. Others believe that it was painted in Florence after Leonardo moved to the city in 1500.

Regardless, the fascinating and mesmerizing eyes, the finely captured blessing hand and the living and breathing figure we encounter only serve to add further mystery to the works of Leonardo.

After years of studying Italian Renaissance art, I have come to believe that it is Leonardo’s eyes that truly fascinate us. Their hypnotic similarity, their quixotic inscrutability are what draw us in. Give this some thought, a combined photo of an eye of the Salvator Mundi and an eye of the Mona Lisa. Hmmm…

The Eyes of Da Vinci

The Eyes of Da Vinci

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As part of the Art and History of Renaissance Art class, this video is used to introduce the students to the music and art of certain periods of Florentine art. I hope that you will enjoy this brief (Four Minute) presentation and, as always, thank you for taking the time to read about bella Italia with “Travels Across Italy”!

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