I just got home from Italy two days ago, and to continue the tradition of my corresponding with you about my travels, I will describe my most recent trip (April-June) which was seven weeks in Tuscany. As before, I stayed at my son-in-law’s house in Partina, a town of 600 with its own little castle cozily set in a valley in the mountains of Tuscany, about an hour and a quarter east of Florence. Bella Tuscany!!
The first three weeks in May I spent with Roberto (son-in-law) and my two grandsons, Marco (5) and Lorenzo (3). Daughter Claire came in the middle of the three weeks. Roberto’s father, Vivaldo, is recovering from a leg amputation and learning to use a prosthesis, and the grandchildren cheered him up with their constant gratitude for his ‘likka-likkas’ (suckers), gelato (ice cream), and other assorted (constant) treats.
On this trip Roberto made a point of speaking to the children mostly in Italian—it was amazing how much they picked up. They also enjoyed their cousins, Mateo (7) and Martina (4), and the ‘big’ cousins, Giampaolo (12) and Lucia (15). Roberto’s sister, Roberta, was a whirlwind of activity, serving us cena (supper) almost every evening. That always consists of one or two kinds of pasta followed by prociutto (Lorenzo’s favorite) salami, bread, melon, with good Tuscan red wine followed by espresso. The noon meal (pranzo) of which we also had many, is antipasto, pasta, meat (often roast rabbit), roast potatoes and a vegetable with wine followed by dessert and espresso. The wonderful food that I had, both at Roberta’s and Luigina’s (Roberto’s other sister) as well as in restaurants was world class. At Luigina’s house they served pizza from a wood burning pizza oven, about six feet wide. In this house also, one sees three huge prociutto hams hanging, and many bottles of homemade pureed tomato. When Claire asked Bruna (Luigina’s mother-in-law) how many bottles of tomato puree there were, she replied, “550”, and then added, “Yes, if there’s another war, we’ll just shut the door!”
Roberto took the kids for a train ride; they played in the Partina park, and in the little river that runs through town, and generally got to know life in a small Italian village.
After the three weeks of family, a friend, Jackie Myers came to visit for a week. We had fun eating, cooking, and running around to local places of interest. In Bibbiena, a close-by town, we visited the San Ipolita church (13th Century) with its Madonna and Baby wooden statue from the 12th Century. The bambino was gone and the sign said it had been stolen!! Sick!! We ate (again) at Il Casentino, my favorite restaurant which is five kilometers from Partina in the stable building on the grounds of a 12th Century castle. The food is rustic Tuscan and SO GOOD, and the view of the castle is superlative.
We went on to Ravenna to see the 5th Century mosaics, which I had seen with friends last year, which are spectacular. In two scenes of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, he is standing in water (the River Jordan) and his genitals are clearly visible. Jackie and I even walked on the beach and ate seafood at Rimini, on the east coast. There was a beautiful white marble Roman bridge there (1st Century AD) that we admired as we walked over it.
We spent a day in Florence visiting the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), the Duomo and Bell Tower, the Piazza della Signoria with it’s ‘David’ (copy) and perused the New Market (new in the 1800’s, that is) with all the good Tuscan things to eat on display.
When I took Jackie back to Rome to catch her flight back to Phoenix, I picked up Jan Neff, my friend from California. Jan stayed three weeks and since she had visited me in Partina last fall for two weeks, it gave us a chance to see some things a little further afield. We spent four days in Venice, which was great, although it is slowly sinking. One evening due to high tides and strong winds, most of San Marco square was flooded to about eight inches (including the church).
Since we didn’t have any hotel reservations (an iffy thing in Venice in June) we checked out quite a few. Some were full (compleat); the ones that weren’t were asking about $120 per night. To a backpacker like me, that’s over the top! So I asked and asked and finally about one block (!) from San Marco square I tried a three star hotel, which asked for $100/day. I told him that we were staying for THREE days and so I offered $75; he ‘conferred’ with somebody and said that his LAST (ultimo) price was $85. I ‘conferred’ with Jan and accepted! Always a little fun in the bargaining.
One day we boated over to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. It took about three times as long as it should have because we kept getting on the wrong boats and going to different destinations. Murano is where they do the glass blowing (moved it out of Venice a couple of hundred years ago because of the fire hazard). On Burano they have very brightly colored houses, and on Torcello there is a wonderful 8th century church with outstanding mosaics.
I had bought a couple of coffee table books about the “Most Beautiful Villages and Towns in Tuscany” and so we visited several of those. There were many 14th Century houses in these villages with several churches with their precious 14th and 15th Century works of art. We also took a little overnight trip to Gubbio (charming), Perugia, and Assisi. Assisi has pretty well recovered from the ’95 earthquake. Here we misplaced our car and spent a very hot hour and a half walking up and down hills, looking for THE parking lot (there are many!)
I had read a book during this trip (from Ruth? Gayle?) about the building of the dome on the duomo (cathedral) of Florence that really caught my interest and Jan’s too. How Brunelleschi could have built that in the 1400’s with that size and complexity to say nothing of the politics was truly more than amazing. It was the highest and largest dome built to that time, which Jan and I will attest to as we walked up 463 steps to view the construction (which was revolutionary) close up, as well as admire Georgio Vasari’s frescos that decorate the dome. You can hardly see these from below, as the top of the dome is well over 200 feet high.
Speaking of Vasari, I also discovered his “Lives of Famous Artists” on this trip. He was really the first art historian/biographer, dealing with Tuscan artists from 1250 to 1568, the date of publication of his 2nd edition. He died in 1574 while he was a court artist to the Medici’s. How fascinating to read his descriptions of paintings (as well as spicy anecdotes on the lives of the artists) and then view the same painting in the Uffizi or the Pitti Palace in Florence. He would often say –“and this painting can be seen here to this day”, although ‘this day’ was 450 years ago.
The roses in our yard were blooming like mad (pink and white, lavender, red and yellow) which didn’t compare with the neighbors’ flowers. We lived in a sea of color, which we admired as we went out the door every morning! We visited monasteries, convents, villages, markets, churches, and more churches, coffee bars, (ah, that cappuccino), and restaurants.
One day Jan and I bought pannini (sandwiches) and had a little picnic near the ruined church of San Galgano, a Gothic relic of the 13th Century. It’s this huge shell of a church, out in the middle of nowhere built in honor of Saint Galgano who died in 1151—the church was built in 1218. Beautiful! Since Jan had studied Michelangelo in detail, she was most pleased when we visited a house (museum now) in Florence where he had lived for some time. Previously many of my friends that have visited me in Tuscany had gone to Michelangelo’s birthplace, as had Jan. Vasari thought Michelangelo had a touch of the divine, as he changed and elevated Italian art to a whole new stratum—kind of like Tiger Woods, I guess.
The scenery in Tuscany is spectacular with its (small) mountain views—every hilltop being crowned by a castle ruin, or by a village with a church steeple. In Florence at the Bargello Museum we viewed the two competing bronze panels submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi (they took a year to make them), trying to discern the ‘elegance’ that the guidebook assured us was present in Ghiberti’s panel. However, by this time we had read the book about Brunelleschi and walked up to the top of the dome, which he constructed, so our sympathies were definitely “pro-Brunelleschi.” The competition was for the commission to make the bronze doors on the Baptistery in Florence, and Ghiberti won the commission (in 1401) and so spent 22 years creating them. Based on this success, he later got the commission for another set of bronze doors that Michelangelo labeled “the Gates of Paradise.” Really a good thing or Brunelleschi would not have been free to pursue the building of the dome, which had been designed about 1350, but nobody knew the technology to execute it. Well, Brunelleschi figured it out!! He had to design and build a special hoist/crane to lift the heavy stone blocks high onto the dome. Never before had they faced the challenge of this heavy, this high. It took almost two years to design and build the hoist/crane, but it was successful and did its job. After he died, the last embellishment was put on the top of the dome, which was a bronze ball, about 15 feet in diameter. The artist who made the ball, Andrea Vecchio, used Brunelleschi’s hoist/crane to get it up there. A young apprentice named Leonardo DaVinci was working in Andrea Vecchio’s shop and made some drawings of the crane/hoist. Ever after, the story goes, DaVinci erroneously got credit for inventing it.
Of all the countries in the world that I have visited (over 50, and I’ve loved every one!) to me, Italy has THE MOST! Given the scenery, the history, the art, the food, the people, the opera, the beaches, and my son-in-law’s house, for me it is incomparable. I expect to go again and again! But before my next trip, I am going to study Vasari’s books on the Lives of the Artists, with some notes on where some of the paintings, frescos, and buildings still can be seen, and go on a sleuthing trail. I’ll love it! Let me know if you’d like to come along! Best Wishes—-Travelin’ Carol