Posts Tagged ‘books by Mark Gordon SMith’

For many years, this island in the Venetian Lagoon, not far from the Lido, was a secret of the city. Slowly, the word is reaching the world about a living treasure of enormous intellectual and spiritual importance; San Lazzaro degli Armeni.

Bookmarked by two Mocenigo family members who became Doges, Giovanni Il Cornaro was Doge of the city of Venice in 1715 when a group of seventeen Armenian monks arrived, seeking refuge after being ousted by Turkish occupiers in the area now known as Greek’s Peloponnese.


The Cloister of San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The rule of the day was that no religious orders were permitted to live in the canal-narrow confines of the city proper. An island, however, was another thing altogether. With the  support of the Venetian Senate, the monks were given an island within site of St. Mark’s Square. That island, once home to a leper colony,  became known as San Lazzaro degli Armeni, The Island of St. Lazarus of the Armenians.

Why all this history? Well, in order to better understand the treasure that lay securely within a very modern library, it is always helpful to have a framework in which to understand the gifts that they gave to Venice and the world.

The founder of the order, Mekhitar, was accompanied on his journey from Armenia to Venice with seventeen other monks. Mekhitar’s translated name is “The Comforter”-though this writer cannot locate any reference to how this was translated.

Knowing that the Armenian culture would continue to suffer a long and painful demise, Mekhitar took it upon the Order to begin the creation of what would become one of the extant three centers of Armenian culture; San Lazzaro, Echmiadzin near Yerevan in Armenia and Vienna.

Image result for Lord Byron desk San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The Illuminated Manuscript Library – San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The collection is now housed in two libraries; one contains over 150,000 volumes regarding Armenian language, religion and culture. Mekhitar’s priceless collection of over 35,000 volumes along with his personal library are contained in the larger of the two libraries.  The other, more modern, structure contains over 4,500 masterpieces of illumined manuscripts.

In addition to collecting works of cultural importance, the monks also established a book press where, from the mid 16th century until 1991 they printed innumerable books of primarily Armenian focus.

Lord Byron?


A brief aside for those who have a passion and interest in the work of Lord Byron. He arrived in Venice in 1816 and took up acquaintance with the monks. He eventually spent time on the island, studied the Armenian language and assisted in the compilation of an English-Armenian language grammar reference. It was in 1817 that Byron removed himself from Venice and the fellowship of the monks, and headed to Greece. It was there, in 1824, that he succumbed to a fever while living in Missolonghi.

Image result for Lord Byron desk San Lazzaro degli Armeni

The Memorial Marker – Lord Byron

Some of Byron’s items remain at San Lazzaro; a pen and desk he used and some other items. There is also a memorial marker on the island to remember his kindnesses to the monks of San Lazzaro.

Please make plans to include a visit to this fascinating and little known island when you are next in Venice.


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Route #20 – Vaporetto Venice

A visit to the island can only be made by leaving on the 3:15PM vaporetto #20 from S. Zaccaria stop near St. Mark’s Square to the island. Upon arrival, you are greeted by some of the monks who will lead you on a tour. The tour takes about an hour and you are back at S. Zaccaria by around 4:45PM.


San Lazzaro degli Armeni

Vaporetto Route information (to check for any possible changes in schedule) Tel: 011+39.272.2111

Monastery Tel: +

Web: Monastero Mechitarista

Join us in Italy on one of our small group excursions across Italy. Four itineraries.  Your own villa. Daily multi-lingual tour lead and support. Relax. Unwind. Come home again to Italy.

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Some friends recently invited me to join them on a visit to the Villa Medici in Poggio a Caiano, about fifteen miles west of Florence. What an incredible surprise.

This makes for an easy day excursion from Florence city center, by train, to an historic palazzo and beautiful small village in Tuscany.

Why visit?

Read on. This gorgeous Renaissance palazzo contains some of the finest art commissioned by the Medici family; from the time of Cosimo the Elder to Lorenzo de Medici (Il Magnifico) to the Grand Dukes. An additional ‘treat’ is that admission is FREE.

Facade Poggio a Caiano

Facade Poggio a Caiano


It was in 1420 that Palla Strozzi began acquiring land and buildings from the Cancellieri, the office of the administration, in Florence. It is at this time we find the name Poggio a Caiano mentioned for the first time in a few historical documents next to the names of Bonistallo and Caiano.

In 1488 another famous Florentine family began to show an interest in the area when Giovanni Rucellai purchased the possessions, buildings and houses of Poggio a Caiano.

The history of the city, however, has remained tied to another, even more illustrious and celebrated family, that of the Medici.

By 1431 Cosimo dè Medici had bought six farms in the region. His grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent purchased more property in the area including all of the surrounding estates, began to build the Villa, initiated a complex project to contain flood waters by means of canals and stabilization of the banks of the Ombrone River and upgrading farming techniques on the estates north of the river.

In 1477, work began in earnest on what was to become the farm of  Poggio a Caiano – Tavola. Many highly skilled craftsmen moved to Poggio a Caiano, including masons, carpenters, furniture makers and artists. This colony of skilled labor constituted the nucleus of the town that was born as a “factory” for the Villa.

Franciabigio, Return of Cicerone from Exile 1519-21_ca._with additions by Alori, 1578-82_ca.)_01

Franciabigio, Return of Cicerone from Exile (1519-1521) with later additions by Alori (1578 – 1582).

Over time, Lorenzo and one of his sons who became Pope Leo X, commissioned artists as famous as Alori and Pontromo to create frescoes for the great rooms, especially the ballroom, of the villa.

pontormo Vertumnus and Pomona Poggio

Jacopo Pontormo, Vertumnus and Pomona (1520-1521)

The main ballroom, also referred to as the Room of Leo X, is a startling and unforgettable surprise.

Room of Pope Leo X Poggio a Caiano

Ballroom or Room of Leo X Frescoes by Alori, Pontormo, Franciabigio and others (15th, 16th and 17th Centuries)

Poggio’s location, between Florence and Pistoia, and the presence of the Villa Medici (which remained after the end of the Medici dynasty the summer home of first the Hapsburg-Lorraine and then of the House of Savoia-Italy’s first King used this palace as a country home after the unification of Italy) helped to maintain the prosperity of the small town.

Menerous rooms in many Medicean villas were filled with Still Life paintings; in Italian, Natura Morta. The Medici family was very passionate about cataloging the numerous varieties of vegetables and fruits grown in Tuscany.

Bartolomeo Bimbi Limoni Poggio a Caiano

Bartolomeo Bimbi, Limone (1715) Catalog of the many different types of lemons available on the estate and in Tuscany (Note the ‘shield’with the reference numbers below the painting.)

These innumerable paintings have been collected in to one museum at the Villa Poggio a Caiano. You should absolutely be sure to reserve in advance your entrance time for this unique collection of art.

A dear friend, Carla Geri Camporesi and her co writer Barbara Golini, who used to live near Florence in Impruneta, wrote a cookbook featuring many of these paintings along with recipes of the time. Even though written in Italian, the quality of the photographs alone are worth adding this volume to your collection.

From The Art of the Medicis to the Tables of Today

There is no charge to visit the collection of still life paintings, yet you must reserve with the villa directly to enter. Please see details below.


Scacciati (1642) Flowers - Poggio

Andrea Scacciati, Flowers (1642) Poggio a Caiano

At the End of World War II:

During the retreat of the German army in August of 1944, the city of Poggio a Caiano was heavily damaged by artillery fire. Many lives were lost in the town. The villa became a refuge to villagers who hoped for protection inside the estate’s walls.

Manetti’s famous iron bridge, one of the best examples of an early 19th Century suspension bridge with cables made of iron, was destroyed by the German Army. Only the two large stone entrance towers for the bridge remain.

After the war, Poggio became one of the principal centers for the art of straw weaving (braids, hats, etc.), or paglia: many of you may remember the straw braided Chianti bottles of years ago.

Post-war development was culminated by the separation of Poggio a Caiano from the nearby city of Carmignano. The comune of Poggio a Caiano became its own separate city on July 14, 1962.

Camignano, a mostly agricultural community challenged by a textile economy, suffered from the general crisis felt throughout agriculture in Italy in the last part of the 20th century.

Poggio a Caiano, however, with its fortunate location between Prato, Pistoia and Florence increased its development in industry and handcrafts, eventually becoming part of the wool and textile industry centered in Prato.

Poggio a Caiano


Located about 20 minutes outside of Florence by train.

Trains to Signa depart regularly (generally at :16 and :53 past the hour) from the Santa Maria Novella station in Florence. The trip takes about eighteen minutes. Train fare, each way, is Euro 2.60 per person.

Taxi fare from the Signa train station to Poggio a Caiano averages Euro 18 per taxi. This is the easiest way to enjoy a day excursion from Florence without the hassle of driving, parking and possible fines!

If you are in the area for lunch, I highly recommend:

Il Falcone, Piazza XX Settembre, 35,Poggio a Caiano, Italy

Tel: +39.055.877.065

Hours: (Closed Wednesdays)

Lunch 12.00 – 14.00
Dinner  19.30 – 21.30

Fabulous food, great service, warm atmosphere, fair prices and a very good wine list!

Villa Visiting Hours

Admission: FREE

Opening hours:
8.15 – 16,30 (November – February)
8.15 – 17,30 (March and October)
8.15 – 18,30 (April, May and September)
8.15 – 19,30 (June – August)
Closed on the 2nd and 3rd Monday of each month, New Year’s Day, May 1st and Christmas Day.

PLEASE NOTE: To vist the Museum of Still Life (Naatura Morta) it is necessary to book an entrance time by calling the Museum office at +

CONTACT US! If you are interested in any of our small group explorations of Italy, please send an email to private_italy@hotmail.com. One of our staff will reply to your inquiry as quickly as possible. We hope to share “our” bella Italia with you! Thank you for reading and following our travel blog.


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Beach, Vernazza, Cinque Terre 

It rises from the sea, a fortress of multicolored buildings.

The history of Vernazza is centered around its hook of a breakwater, and its geographic proximity to Genoa. Early 13th Century documents indicate that the townspeople swore allegiance to the authority of Genoa. In the mid-1500’s, to provide additional protection from pirates who plied their trade against all forms of merchant and private shipping, the town erected a large stone wall and fortress which still dominate the promontory above the harbor.

The Church of Santa Margherita di Antiochia (pictured to the left) has served as the duomo of Vernazza since the mid-thirteenth century. The bell tower that now dominates the village was completed in 1750.

There are no roads to Vernazza. In the late 1800’s its singular isolation was broken with the arrival of the rail line that now connects Genoa to La Spezia and, from there, to the entire Italian peninsula.

The sense of isolation still exists, though during the high season visitors fill the hotels and restaurants to capacity.

Still . . . of a warm summer evening, as I explore the many narrow “carruggi” alleyways and straight, steep stairways that lead to the sea, the sense of those who labored here for centuries comes easily.

As glasses and dinnerware clink in the sultry air, I already hope to return to  the beautiful, historic and unforgettable town of Vernazza.


Hotels Vernazza

For numerous reasons, accommodations in Vernazza are nearly non-existent. I recently had a client recommend the Inn – Villa Cinque Terre, but

Headlands of Vernazza with
Monterosso al Mare in the distance

note that it is 2.4 miles (app. 4 Km) above and away from the village itself.

Also, you can check accommodations in the relatively nearby villages of Levanto or Monterosso.

Restaurants Vernazza

There are not many restaurants in Vernazza. Cafes offer prepared sandwiches and drinks – an easy picnic if you are so inclined. If you arrive early in the morning during a hike along the trails, you can enjoy espresso, cappuccino and fresh hand-made rolls in any of the towns small coffee bars.

Il Pirate delle Cinque Terre

Via Gavino, 36 – 19018 Vernazza – La Spezia – Italia


Via G. Guidoni, Vernazza, SP 19018  Italy

Tel: +39.0187.812.222

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Lago Maggiore View

Imagine a crystal clear alpine lake surrounded by a crowning circle of Italian and Swiss alps, its shore ringed by romantic villages. Lago Maggiore, easily reached from Milan, is in the heart of Italy’s Lake Region.

Very close to the lake’s western shore are three small islands: Isola Bella, Isola Superiore dei Pescatori and Isola Madre. It was in 1632 that Carlos III of the House of Borromeo began to build a villa dedicated to his wife, Isabella D’Adda. The island, originally named l’isola inferiore or isola di sotto,  is named in Isabella’s honor.

The completion of the villa and gardens suffered through the onsets of Plague, political power plays and other vagaries of the day. It was not until the latter part of the 18th Century, under Giberto V. Borromeo, that the villa and its gorgeous gardens were finally completed.

The gardens and villa were designed w by the Milanese architect Angelo Crivelli. In 2008 the gardens reopened after detailed three year restoration and the results show. From the upper level garden terrace with its multi-storied grotto to the views of the lake and villages from the lower steps of the south garden, this is one of the finest and most beautiful gardens in Italy.

Isola Bella
Garden View

The Lake Region itself attracts visitors from all over Europe. The area is surprisingly free of the tourists hoards who descend upon Venice, Florence, Rome and other large Italian cities.

Access to the islands is very easy (see below) and you can visit the Borromeo Islands in one day.

Map Lago Maggiore


If you are in Milan, trains run on a regular basis, about every hour, from Milano Centrale Station to Stresa (Recommended starting point for your visit to the islands). I recommend using the faster/cleaner Eurocity fast trains that leave Milano several times a day. These stop at very few town north of Milan and make the journey far more comfortable and faster than are the regional trains. Travel time between Milan and Stresa on the Eurocity trains from Milan is about an hour. Note that the regional trains are, indeed, less expensive-but slower!

To check train schedules:

Trenitalia English web site

On arrival in Stresa, you can either take a taxi or walk to the ferry building. By taxi, six minutes, by foot fifteen minutes-and it is all downhill from the station to the ferry building.

Transport on the lake ferry’s is very easy. Ticket offices are located in all of the ferry buildings that dot the villages along the lake. From Stresa, the trip to Isola Bella takes all of ten minutes. Fares vary by departure point. For further information on fares and schedules, check:

Lake Region Water Transportation

Isola Bella Villa and Gardens: The villa and gardens are open from March 24, 2012 – October 21, 9:30AM – 5:00PM. Tickets for both the Villa and gardens are Euro 13.00 for adults, Euro 5.50 for children between the ages of 6 and 15. Children under 6 years of age enter at no charge.

Where to stay?

Watch for future posts with details. My recommendation is to use the town of Stresa for all your explorations of the Lake Region, with the exception of Lake Garda. More to come!

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In 1995, I boarded a train in Brig, a small city in southern Switzerland. Before taking a particular seat in a compartment, I asked the woman who was sitting against the window if the seat was open. The courtesy of asking was something expected.

She looked up, her open smiling face framed by gray streaked hair.

“Of course.” She nodded.

I took the seat next to the compartment door. About five minutes outside of Brig, she opened her small bag and asked if I would like a sandwich. I gratefully accepted.  We began to talk.

“I am returning from visiting a friend, from the war, who lives in Milan. She broke her leg and I wanted to visit to make sure she was getting the care she needed.”

“That was very kind of you. I am changing trains in Spiez before continuing to Interlaken.”

She looked wistfully out of the large window as scenes of central Switzerland flashed by.

“The war was difficult. Our family lost everything in the 1929 crash. My family was separated. I was in a camp for a time.”

“I cannot imagine.”

“I live in Belgium now, along the sea near Oostende. It is a lovely town. My apartment is on the top floor of a building and the terrace offers views of the ocean. My name is Rosalia.”

“I am Mark.”

Our conversation continued even as we came into Spiez. Within a few seconds of our train’s arrival, she reminded me that this was my stop. Without hesitation, we quickly exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I waved to her as the train departed for Zurich and countries north.

A few weeks after returning home, her first letter arrived. For the next ten years, we regularly exchanged letters. She would frequently correct my written French. I helped with her English. We often spoke by phone and kept in touch through my many corporate moves and life transitions.

She regularly mentioned  that she had no family with whom to celebrate Christmas.  I was able to travel during the holidays one year, and stayed with her in Oostende. She was overwhelmed by my gifts, I of hers. The sun faded early, as it does along the North Sea in winter,  on that Christmas Day eve. After having delighted in the stack of torn Christmas paper, she turned on the radio and we danced to music from the time of her war.

That same year, we traveled to Paris for a few days.  One evening, as we strolled back to her hotel, we passed a threadbare man who sat, hand in hand, on the steps of a small church near the Pompidou Center. She turned back, saying that she could not allow him to go hungry. She gave him some money and, in thanks, he unhesitatingly said, “You are my dear Saint Bernadette.”

What that man could not possibly have known was that Rosalia’s middle name was, indeed, Bernadette.

Over many years, we spent time together at her small villa along the Thunersee. Family visited a few times and stayed with her in Switzerland. My brother and I met her in Zermatt while we were climbing in the Alps. We spent time in Florida with friends. She visited my home a few times while I lived in Chicago.

I was able to return, after a long absence, for a visit. Time and age had taken its toll. She needed a full time assistant. Her attention span had shortened. She often confused me with a man, her lover, whom she had taken care of for many years before his cancer took him.

She stood, her assistant by her side, and waved as my train left the Oostende station.

She was a beloved soul, gone now. As one of millions from a generation of survivors, she understood the immeasurable loss of war and the horrific power of hate. She also understood the cryptic power of love.

Travels have often brought me back to traverse the stretch of track that borders the Thunersee. As the trains approach the Interlaken Ost station, I always imagine her standing along the lakefront of her villa in the distant shadow of the Beatenberg. Such memories.

She made me, and her many friends, laugh. From out of a soul who had experienced so much, she danced in the light of today, never far from her memories, yet never allowing them to overpower the gift of life.  When I was able to return to visit her grave, I left a small pot of Geraniums, her favorite, on the grave. I wanted her to know that all who loved her still cared.

On a bookshelf next to me are binders with every letter she ever sent, a loving and constant reminder of our friendship.

I miss her.

As I write this, I am again reminded of the wonder of travel, of the mysteries of seeming coincidence in what might have appeared a passing encounter. Travel truly changes our lives. If there is any other lesson than these, in my experience with my beloved Rosalia, it is that were it not for a certain train, on a certain day, in a faraway country of alpine beauty, all of this would never have happened.

She will forever dance in Oostende, smile away the wounds, a constant reminder of joy.

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