On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of its founding, the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei, the famed biscotti bakery, is opening its Piccolo Museo Bottega in the heart of Florence.
With the same spirit of simplicity and elegance that has always distinguished Mattei’s image world-wide, the well-designed space contains an archive of memorabilia and documents that tell the story of both the company and the Pandolfini family, who have been operating the biscottificio since 1904, when they inherited it from Antonio Mattei.
The museum of Mattei’s long history is divided into five sections dedicated to the various phases of the workmanship, from the historical tools to the ever-evolving packaging to the new takes on the decades-old recipe. And, of course, it will also be possible to buy and taste their scrumptious products.
Another goal of the Piccolo Museo Mattei is to highlight the synergy and relation between the two similar, but competing towns – Prato and Florence – by opening a “window” onto lesser- known Prato’s history in order to make both Italian and international visitors aware of one of Prato’s gourmet offerings.
The famed Antica Pizzeria da Michele of Naples opened a location in Florence in early May. Located at Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 22R, the Florence pizzeria will follow the same formula that has won it acclaim in Naples.
This means they only serve margherita and marinara pizzas (don’t try to ask for anything else, including extra cheese, pepperoni or mozzerella di bufala), as well as offering the same wine and beers that are served in the original pizzeria.
Reportedly serving 3,000 pizzas per night at the original Naples flagship location (in Via Cesare Sersale), where a line snakes down the street, da Michele has been the destination of pizza purists from around the world. Florence can now enjoy a taste of Naples. The Condurro family has served the same recipes since 1870 from the same location since 1930. The opening in Florence follows those in Milan, Rome, London and Barcelona, as well as in Japan (Tokyo and Fukuoka).
There is even a book (only published in Italian): “L’antica pizzeria da Michele. Dal 1870 la Pizza di Napoli.” Written by Laura Condurro one of the great-grandchildren of Michele Condurro, “Michele” of da Michele. She details the history of the Condurro family who for over a century has been able to preserve flavors and respect the quality of a typical and irreplaceable product of the Neapolitan culinary tradition, which has not allowed the “papocchie” (messes) that have nothing to do with the taste of authentic pizza.
Michele, the progenitor, passed on to his children and grandchildren the passion for a product that represents Naples in the world. Luigi, one of Michele’s sons, often repeated that: ”È la passione che fa fare bene le cose…io so fare bene pochissime cose nella mia vita, ma quelle poche cose le faccio con passione,con la convinzione di essere il migliore.” (“It is the passion that makes things do well … I can do very few things well in my life, but I do the few things with passion, with the conviction to be the best.”)
Owning a villa in Tuscany, producing fine wine and fragrant olive oil, is the fantasy of many Americans, but one that rarely comes to fruition. For years, Dr. Robert Buly nurtured such a dream, but once it came true he still had to keep his day job as a renown orthopedic surgeon in New York to fund his expatriate life.
A family history of immigration from Europe to the United States forms the basis of Dr. Buly’s interest in Italy and adds depth to his appreciation of the land of which he and his family now have stewardship. Although Bob and his family haven’t moved to Tuscany for good, his heart seems to be in Trequanda.
Grandparents Emigrate from Ukraine to Pennsylvania
Soon after the turn of the 20th century there was a grand immigration from Eastern Europe to Western Pennsylvania by those in search of work in the thriving steel mills, including Bob’s grandparents traveling from Ukraine for a better life. Their son, Mike (Bob’s father), who had just started to work as a plumber, rushed to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II. He was sent to Italy.
Mike Buly was a soldier in the U.S. Fifth Army. Moving north up the Italian peninsula he fought to liberate Italy from the occupying Germans at a time that it was essential to split the attention of the enemy forces as the D-Day landing was being implemented. As the Fifth Army entered Tuscany they took heavy casualties. Many of Mike’s comrades now lay buried in the American Cemetery of Florence.
Mike Buly Finds a Bride in Italy
Soon after the the town of Trequanda was liberated in southern Tuscany Mike and a buddy commandeered a motor scooter and took off through the countryside looking for a place to buy a few straw-covered fiascos of the local red wine. Seeing some lights on a hilltop, they droved into the village of Torre a Castello. A local festa di liberazione was taking place with music, dancing, food and, most important to Mike and his friend, a lot of local wine.
Fedora Gigli, who lived in a nearby village, was attending the celebration with seven of her female cousins. The two young American soldiers in uniform became the hit of the party. And that was the night Dr. Buly’s parents fell in love.
Italy was liberated April 25, 1945, and victory in Europe soon followed on May 8. Mike Buly could have chosen to take his well-earned discharge, but he reenlisted once his commanding officer confirmed that he could remain with the U.S. Army in Italy instead of going to the Pacific. He immediately started to jump through the Army’s bureaucratic hoops necessary to marry an Italian citizen, as well as to beg permission from Fedora’s family.
Mike and Fedora were married in the village of Serre di Rapolano, just ten miles from where they first met. The entire village turned out for the wedding on November 29, 1945. Post-war Italy was in a state of chaos and poverty. Through the black market Mike was able to obtain gasoline for the vehicles, food and wine and even the hard-to-find ingredients for the wedding cake. His sister Stella, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, but sent Fedora a wedding dress. Fedora’s young cousin Giulio was part of the wedding party (he plays a big part, later). Fedora emigrated with her new husband to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. She and Mike would raise five sons. Robert Buly was the third.
When the Buly family finances could afford it, the seven of them would travel to visit Fedora’s extended family. (Remember the seven female cousins? They were only a fraction of the clan, all living near Siena.) Bob and his brothers became fluent in Italian since their mother spoke it at home. They all loved Italian food and the Tuscan lifestyle. Bob always dreamed of being able to have a place in the Italy that could produce olive oil and wine.
Finding a Place to Call Home in Italy
In 2006, after years of searching for a suitable place, Bob’s cousin Giulio (the 1945 ring-bearer) learned that Podere Collalto was for sale, approximately 6 miles from his own vineyard and farm, just outside the Tuscan town of Trequanda. Podere means farm and Collalto means high hill. The hilltop farm with its classic expansive Tuscan view had land for a vineyard and already contained over 300 olive trees.
From their large casa colonica (farmhouse), Bob’s family can see the towns of Montalcino (the home of world-famous Brunello) and Montepulciano (the excellent, but less well known, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). Bob felt that the climate and soil should certainly be conducive to producing an excellent wine. His cousin Giulio felt that U.S.-based Bob was crazy for attempting this endeavor. Giulio has his own vineyard of almost 6 acres and offered to sell a portion of his grape harvest. But, Bob, whose undergraduate degree from Penn State’s college of agriculture was in plant science, felt just buying grapes to make his own wine would not be the same. He wanted to establish his own vineyard.
The vineyard was planted in early 2008. The altitude provides a summer breeze which dries out the vineyard after rainstorms and cool nights to allow the grapes to rest. The soil in the region appears to be perfect for olives and grapes, rocky, full of minerals and drainage, and not overly fertile. Bob likes to say that Italians feel that, like people, olive trees and vines do better in the long run if they have to suffer and struggle somewhat as they develop.
Bob started with 1.2 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes to create a red blend, known in the U.S. as Super Tuscan. He also planted some white grapes to be used for Vin Santo. In March 2012, he tripled the size of the vineyard and added a Shiraz varietal. The vineyard now produces about 1200 cases per year. Bob Buly called the winery Buli (the Italian version of his Ukrainian name). He named one of his red wines Estate 44, which in Italian is Summer of 44, to honor the soldiers who liberated Trequanda on July 1, 1944.
Bob has the help of not only his family, but also an enologist, Massimo Carpini, to employ more scientific techniques rather than the traditional Tuscan methods of his cousin, but harvesting the grapes is still labor-intensive and done in the traditional way. To bulk up his labor force Bob has managed year after year to convinced his American friends, professionals from all walks of life, to come to Tuscany during the vendemmia (harvest)for a few days of backbreaking physical labor, followed each evening by a great meal and a lot of wine from past vintages.
Coming of age in 1859, Englishman Frederick Stibbert settled in the villa his mother Giulia bought in Florence at the edge of town in the Montughi neighborhood. He was wealthy due to a large inheritance that he was determined and able to increase by means of financial dealings in Italy and in the rest of Europe. His real passion, however, was art – it was the only thing, reportedly, he had been good at in school – not as an artist, but as a collector.
He began to fill his mother’s villa with items he obtained in his travels as an international financier. For almost fifty years he frequented European art markets. He also traveled to Asia and Africa. The trips lasted for months. He returned every time with hundreds of pieces. Soon he also had dozens of agents across the world sourcing items for his collection.
In 1874, finding that the Villa of Montughi was not able to accommodate his mother and sisters and so many collectibles, Stibbert bought the neighboring Villa Bombicci. Between 1876 and 1880, he joined the two villas into one building. He renovated the spaces for the collections and those for family life. To create display rooms, each with its own theme, Stibbert hired artisans such as Gaetano Bianchi, an expert in neo-modern atmospheres, the stucco artist Michele Piovano, the ceramist Ulisse Cantagalli, and an army of furniture makers, carvers, gunsmiths and outfitters.
Stibbert was interested in the history of costume and uniforms from the Renaissance to the First Empire, but his obsession was for armor and armaments, not only from the knights of Europe, but also from Asia, especially Japan, and Islamic countries. He had distinctive halls created in the combined villas to house the armory, including the Sala da Cavalcata, a grand hall with a cavalcade of human and equine plaster figures clad in European armor, overlooked by a huge figure of St. George battling a dragon.
Stibbert not only loved to acquire armor, he loved to dress in the armor from his collection, and talked relatives and friends to join in the interpretation of historical scenes. In one historical procession, organized in 1887 for the inauguration of the façade of the Duomo (for which he donated thousands to fund the construction), he paraded as a fourteenth-century knight, with a custom-made armor.
Today, this eccentric museum still exhibits Stibbert’s own ideas of how the collection should be arranged. In other words, the rooms are specially designed to create the right atmosphere, the items are presented in ensembles, some of the costumes are remade and arranged in semi-theatrical poses.
The First Empire collection of all things Napoléon (whom Stibbert’s father fought as a Coldstream Guard) fills an entire room.
The collection includes French arms, such as combat and ceremonial swords, sabers, and dragoon helmets, plateware and jewelry, the a decree for the modification of coats of arms of the city of Florence dated 1811 and signed by Napoleon, and the coronation costume worn by Napoléon in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The coronation cape is green (in honor of Italy) and covered in Napoléonic symbolism: notably, embroidered palms, laurels and bees, stars surrounded by garlands composed of corn cobs and oak leaves, Napoléonic ‘N‘s, and on the left shoulder an embroidered plaque of the Grand Master of the Royal Order of the Iron Cross, with the inscription ‘Dieu me l’a donné, gare à qui y touche‘ (‘God gave me it. Heaven help him who touches it’). The shoes worn by Napoléon during the ceremony complete this unique costume.
Stibbert wasn’t trained in art history, museum curation, or fine art. Unlike Bereson, Horne and Bardini, he did not purchase works necessarily for their value or for resale. He bought what he liked and he kept it all. The collection at his death in 1906 contained over 50,000 pieces. The result is an extraordinary example of eclecticism, in which different styles and heterogeneous collections coexist, united by the strong personal stamp of the collector.
Inside the museum, where you tour with a guide, the rooms follow one another presenting European, Islamic and Japanese weapons and armor, in environments that suggest the atmosphere of distant cultures, followed by neo-baroque or rococo rooms, full of paintings, portraits and wooden sculptures, religious art, including reliquaries, and vestments, furnishings and porcelain, travel souvenirs. The family’s living spaces have now merged seamlessly into the collection.
The vast garden behind the villa is laid out in the English style, with temples, grottoes and fountains, affording a delightful walk on leaving the museum. During a trip to Egypt made after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Stibbert bought some artifacts later used in the construction of the small temple that overlooks a small lake. He, along with his mother Giulia and sister Sofronia, were honored with awards for the garden and creation of various new flower varieties.
Today, the museum frequently curates excellent themed exhibits highlighting certain aspects of the Stibbert collection. The museum is open from 10am to 2pm Monday through Wednesday and from 10am to 6pm on Friday through Sunday. The guided visits start on the hour and last for about one hour. Last entrance an hour before closing. Closed Thursday. Tickets are 8 euro. The garden can be visited without a ticket.
From March 30, 2018 to January 6, 2019, the Stibbert Museum presents “Conviti e Banchetti – L’Arte di Imbandire le Mense” which pulls hundreds of items from the Stibbert collection as well as from other sources such as Ginori ceramics, Meschi artificial flowers, and Opera Laboratori Fiorentini for sugar sculptures. Exhibits and items include those for the Renaissance banquet table, a Baroque feast, 18th and 19th century flatware and table settings, as well as kitchen equipment through the ages.
The stories of immigrants and expatriates who choose to live in Italy are some of the best tales told about present and former residents of Florence and Tuscany.
This is the first in a series of Tuscan Traveler’s Tales about the “foreigners” who put down roots in Tuscany. The first post is about Frederick Stibbert, a British citizen, who settled in Florence in the mid-19th century and left behind on of the most unique (and under-appreciated) museums in the world. First, his story:
Frederick’s grandfather, Giles Stibbert was the source the impressive family fortune, but he came from very humble beginnings. Born 1734, in Norfolk, England, he went to sea as the cabin boy to the captain of a Far East trading vessel, but at 22 years of age he disembarked in India.
Giles enlisted under the patronage of Robert Clive in the military arm of the British East India Company, which was a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force. It soon became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent. Giles Stibbert quickly climbed in rank and wealth because, unlike enlistees in most state-sponsored militaries, there was money to be made as the East India Company plundered the resources of India.
In January 1765, Captain Stibbert was ordered to lay siege to the hitherto impregnable Moghul fortress of Chunargur. A month later, the fortress of Chunargur surrendered to Stibbert’s forces after a sustained and bloody battle. Lord Clive promoted Stibbert to the rank of Major. In December 1765, Stibbert married 20-year-old Sophronia Rebecca Wright, the daughter of a clergyman, in Calcutta.
Giles and Sophronia spent six years (1768-1774) in England, during which three sons were born. The oldest, Thomas (1771-1847) was Frederick Stibbert’s father. The family returned to India, where Giles climbed in rank to Bengal Commander in Chief and was charged with reforming the Indian Army. He resigned in 1785. The family went to live in a grand manor house Giles had built outside of the town of Southampton, surrounded by 600 acres. Giles died in 1809.
The Father and Mother
Frederick’s father Thomas Stibbert was also a soldier. He enlisted in the Coldstream Guards and fought Napoleon’s forces in Egypt, Spain and France until the French defeat and the fall of the First Empire. Eventually, after living in Rome, he settled in Florence in 1836, where a couple of years later, at the age of 67 he married 33-year-old Giulia Caffagi from Stia, a tiny hill town north-east of Florence. She may have been Stibbert’s housekeeper. They were married in Malta and had three children: Frederick (also known as Federigo or Federico), born in 1838, followed by his sisters, Sophronia and Erminia.
Thomas Stibbert died in 1847 when Frederick was nine and away at boarding school at Harrow in London. In 1849, Frederick’s mother bought a large villa, once owned by the Davanzati clan, on the edge of Florence in a neighborhood called Montughi.
Frederick remained at Harrow, reportedly a very poor and rebellious student, until he matriculated to Cambridge, where he did no better.
In 1859, Frederick came of age, returned to Florence to his mother’s home, and came into his vast inheritance. As the only male heir of his grandfather Giles Stibbert, he inherited the wealth of his father and his uncles. He proved to be a good business manager and investor, as well as astute at taking advantage of the many changes caused by the early efforts for unification of the Italian State in 1861, and the role of Florence, as the nation’s capital in 1865.
Wealthy and brilliant, Frederick had an active social and cultural life, both in Florence and in London. Passionate about horses, he owned a stable of thoroughbreds. He never married, but was popular with both men and women. He was known to be a bit of a dandy, appearing frequently in London’s social magazine Vanity Fair.
He was devoted to his mother. His sister Sophronia married into the noble Pandolfini family and was famous for her gardens and orchid house. Erminia apparently died young and disappeared in history.
His multifaceted nature as an international financier, habitual traveler and passionate collector contributed to the realization of the greatest project of his life: transforming the Villa of Montughi into a museum. This goal drove his every action for fifty years.
The first documented guests to visit Stibbert and his collection were Francis, Duke of Teck, his wife Adelaide and his daughter Princess Mary, future wife of Britain’s George V, who left as a gift a guest book in which, among hundreds of others, are notable: author and poet Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the painters Telemaco Signorini and Michele Gordigiani, writers such as Ouida and Gabriele d’Annunzio, collectors Temple Leader and Constantino Ressman or Bagatti Valsecchi. And then Queen Victoria arrived at Stibbert’s villa in 1894…
In his last will he left the museum to the British Government, with the obligation to keep the collection in Florence and to establish the museum in his name. In case of withdrawal by the British, the bequest passed to the municipality of Florence, as actually happened in 1908 .
After Frederick’s death in 1906 the museum was opened to the public (1909).
A few weeks ago CBS Sunday Morning presented a story that started in the Italian Alps of the Dolomites where a woodcutter with the name of Fabio Ognibene (Everygood) was seen wandering through a forest of alpine spruce while pointing out which attributes of various trees – ones with long and straight trunks and few branches or knots – were perfect for making violins.
It seems Italian stringed-instrument craftsmen have been selecting spruce and other varieties of prepared wood from the Fiemme Valley for almost six centuries because the light and elastic mountain timber makes stringed instruments, including pianos, sound better. The alpine spruce at this elevation is chopped down in the fall during a waning moon when there is the least amount of sap in the tree. And then, after it is cut and cured, it goes to Cremona, Italy where the magic happens.
Cremona in Lombardy ( about 90 minutes southeast of Milan by car) is famous for its luthiers – makers of stringed instruments – who have been crafting high-quality violins since the 16th century. Its beautiful medieval and Renaissance architecture and fabulous cuisine make it an excellent place to visit even in this cell phone world where Alexa and Siri have taken control of selecting the music for the masses; and if you, like me, are skeptical about the ultimate future of handcrafted violins and cellos.
One of the first violin makers in Cremona was Andrea Amati (1505 – 1577), considered to be the inventor of the violin. The city’s most famous violin maker was the long–lived Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), who produced more than one thousand musical instruments in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Stradivarius violins continue to be regarded as the best in the world today.
Cremona is still home to more than 140 luthiers in workshops located throughout the city, as well as a luthier school. A visitor only has to look for signs the say “LIUTAIO” to be able to observe craftsmen (very few women have been encourage to apprentice) at their work.
In 2012, UNESCO decreed that traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona deserved protection on its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” In 2013, the grand Museo del Violino opened in Piazza Marconi in the city center. The museum has excellent multi-media exhibits about the history and creation of stringed instruments, including the reproduction of an historic workshop. A large display of violins, made in various centuries, including Antonio Stradivari’s 1715 “Il Cremonese” violin and others by Guarneri and Amati. The collection also includes examples of the viola, cello, lute and double bass.
The less high-tech Civic Museum Ala Ponzone-Stradivariano (Via Ugolani Dati 4), was dedicated in 1887 and the collection has been housed since 1928 in the 16th century Palazzo Affaitati. The original heart of the museum dates back to Marquis Sigismondo Ala Ponzone (1761 – 1842), who donated his private collection (paintings, archaeological artifacts, coins, and ornithology). The Museo Stradivariano was housed in the same location as a specialised and independent collection that includes artifacts and tools from the workshop of the maestro Antonio Stradivari, donated to the city of Cremona by the violin maker Giuseppe Fiorini.
The Gothic palazzi, the Torrazzo (one of Europe’s tallest surviving medieval brick towers that houses one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks), the Romanesque cathedral, and the octagonal 12th-century baptistery, make a tour of the historic center an evocative experience. Mozart once performed in 270-year-old Teatro Ponchielli in Cermona and the theater is still hosting concerts in 2018.
Go to Cremona this year between September 27 and October 14 for the 15th International “Triennale” Violin Making Competition Antonio Stradivari (XV Concorso Triennale Internazionale di Liuteria Antonio Stradivari), where modern luthiers worldwide compete in the “Olympics of Violin Craftsmanship.” Once the jury has completed its deliberations, the instruments will be exhibited to the public.
Then come back for the Cremona Torrone Festival in November. But that is the tale for a future post…
Florence, Tuscany and murder: It’s a combination that gave birth to a new series of mysteries that brings together Florentine history, locations and cuisine with murder and mayhem in the Renaissance City.
Alove of reading murder mysteries and thrillers coupled with a fascination for the museums, markets and trattorias, historic palaces, and the less-traveled alleys of Florence inspired Ann Reavis to write about the exploits of Inspector Caterina Falcone.
The first book Death at the Duomo begins with an explosion during the historical pageantry of the Scoppio del Carro. Inspector Falcone, who works with a special Florentine police unit that focuses on crimes involving foreign visitors and residents (as the criminal perpetrators or crime victims) in Florence and Tuscany, is directly involved in the investigation of the horrific event that resulted in the deaths and injuries to so many spectators.
In Secret of La Specola Caterina believes that her young nephew Cosimino is going to show her the secret of the museum known as La Specola. Their Sunday morning outing, however, reveals that the museum guards more than one mystery when they meet an American woman in the zoological exhibits.
Melissa Kincaid is in Florence enjoying a much-needed break from her uneventful existence in Dallas. She hopes for romance and adventure in Italy. What she discovers at Museo Zoologico La Specola changes the course of her life. Melissa’s meddling becomes Inspector Falcone’s biggest challenge as she tries to solve the case of murder in the museum.
Secret of La Specola throws Caterina and Melissa into the hunt for a heartless killer, while also introducing the reader to a little-known museum that contains not only 18th century zoological specimens, but also the finest exhibit of anatomical waxes in the world. The novel also explores the museum of the Palazzo Vecchio with its secret passages, tapestry workshop and battlement murder holes as it races toward the resolution of the crimes.
Both books are set, in part, in the family’s osteria operated by Caterina’s father and brother as well as other restaurants and the food markets of Florence. What would a tale set in Tuscany be without the fabulous Florentine cuisine?
The noblest families of Florence, having a palazzo, in the center of Florence would also have agricultural property outside of the city walls or further out in the countryside. These Florentinepalaces would store their foodstuffs, including wine and oil, in the basement or cantina. To facilitate the sale of wine tiny doors allowed access to the cantina without disturbing the palazzo residents. From the 15th century, until about 100 years ago, the wine holes allowed direct sale to the public; the transaction happened right on the street, through one of these portals.
In 2015, an association dedicated solely to buchette del vino – Associazione ‘Buchette del Vino’ – was started. It’s president Matteo Faglia reports that the association has documented 167 wine holes in Florence (they are protected from removal by the city’s agency for the preservation of historical arts and architecture). Not all are in pristine condition, but the Association has documented them in a fascinating photo gallery (with addresses) on its website. Fewer portals have been saved throughout Tuscany (about 70 in 28 locations).
Next time you are in Florence, try to locate at least those deemed the favorites by Tuscan Traveler, especially the one at Palazzo Antinori and the other in Palazzo Viviani.
In stories of medieval knights and castles it is not uncommon to read of defenders throwing large stones and boiling oil down on invaders trying to scale the walls.
Although Florence was a walled city – encircled by the last version of high walls and gates in 1333 – the ruling class worried as much about threats from within as those from outside. To defend the Florentine government from an insurrection by warring rival clans they made the Palazzo Vecchio a completely defensible structure with thick high walls, sturdy reinforced metal-studded doors, small high windows, and because they couldn’t put in a moat or a draw bridge, they added murder holes to the design of the civic palace.
Murder holes, known as meurtrière in French and caditoia in Italian, are high large openings designed for defenders to kill attackers. Projectiles can be thrown or shot at the attackers while the defenders remain relatively safe.
There two classes of defensive openings: holes in floors – murder holes – for dropping dangerous substances or shooting at attackers; and holes in walls, such as arrow loopholes, used for shooting projectiles. For arrows they are called arrow slits or arrow loops (archeres) and for guns they are called cannoniers.
Defenders selected the least pleasant possible items to throw on their enemies. In the popular imagination this was invariably boiling oil, but there does not appear to be a single documented instance of oil being used; some speculate that it was too expensive. Defenders instead would throw or fire objects, such as large stones and arrows, or pour harmful material and liquids such as scalding water, hot sand, quicklime, tar, or molten lead (all of which could penetrate armor more easily than other weapons), down on attackers.
The type of murder hole on the Palazzo Vecchio is the machicolation, piombatoio in Italian (a word that alludes to molten lead more than anything else). It is a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, a direct conduit to the base of the defensive walls.
The Palazzo Vecchio murder holes may have been added to fortify the building during the short-lived rule of Gualtieri di Brienne, Duke of Athens, brought in by the city’s ruling class in 1342 to realize a medieval version of “draining the swamp”. A fresco by Orcagna (1308-1368), entitled “Expulsion of the Duke of Athens,” has one of the earliest depictions of the Palazzo Vecchio. It is of St. Anne, on whose feast day in 1343 the Florentines rebelled against the tyrant. The murder holes he had incorporated into the battlements of the Palazzo Vecchio did not save him.
The last time the murder holes may have been used was during the Pazzi Conspiracy in 1478, when the Pazzi clan, with help from Pope Sixtus IV, sought to displace the Medici family as the de facto rulers of Florence.
The Gonfaloniere of Justice and members of the Signoria (the titular rulers of Florence) successfully barricaded themselves in the Palazzo Vecchio to ward off in the Pazzi and their supporters.
Hidden away on the top of the Palazzo Vecchio is the tapestry restoration workshop of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the agency that oversees all manner of restoration for Florentine museums and the artistic contents of public buildings.
In 1545, Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned twenty arazzi (tapestries) telling the Old Testament story (Genesis, 37-50) of Giuseppe Ebreo, or Joseph the Jew. The twenty tapestries, stretching a collective 260 feet, adorned the walls of the Sala dei Duecento (Hall of the Two-Hundred) of the Palazzo Vecchio, for over 300 years.
In 1882, ten of them were taken to Rome to be exhibited in the Quirinal Palace, the home of the Italian Savoy kings, now the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, where they remained until the 2015 exhibition.
Why the story of Joseph? The tapestries are masterpieces of allegory, explained exhibition curator Louis Godart, whose study found in Cosimo I de’ Medici, a man who felt he had a lot in common with Joseph.
Cosimo was from the “cadet” branch of the Medici family, one that lived outside Florence. He was almost unknown in the city until he came to power in 1537, following the assassination of his cousin, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici.
After establishing his rule, Cosimo sought to affirm his family’s political, economic and cultural primacy in Florence and in Tuscany. He sought important foreign alliances. He married Eleonora of Toledo, the daughter of Don Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, the Spanish viceroy of Naples. He wanted to raise his profile to the level of European royalty like Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Commissioning important works of art demonstrated both culture and wealth.
Louis Godart surmises that the story of Joseph is one in which Cosimo saw many parallels to his own life. For example, Cosimo felt he and his family had been “abandoned” by Florence and its citizens, much as Joseph had been sold off and abandoned by his brothers. Cosimo came to power at 17, the same age as Joseph when he is first mentioned in the Bible. Cosimo used skill to acquire power, much as Joseph became powerful by becoming an important and trusted adviser to the Egyptian pharaoh. Cosimo also, in time, forgave many of his enemies among the Florentine nobility, in the same manner as Joseph forgave his brothers.
In the 15th and 16th centuries tapestries were a common feature in European royal courts and the palaces of wealthy nobles. Cosimo sought out two of the best-known Flemish tapestry masters of his time, Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher. They had already worked in Italy for the courts of the Gonzaga family of Mantua and the Este Dukes of Ferrara. The preparatory drawings were entrusted to Florentine painters Agnolo Bronzino, Jacopo Pontormo and Francesco Salviati. The tapestries, woven with the finest silk and gold thread, were hung in the Sala dei Duecento, the seat of the Tuscan ducal government, in 1545.
There are some secrets in the tapestries. Woven into the top border of many of the wall hangings there is a ram, Cosimo’s ascendant zodiac sign, as well as a symbol of spring and new birth, an allegorical message for Florence under Cosimo’s rule. Also, in a little visual pun, Jan Rost, who soon after his arrival in Florence was nicknamed l’arrosto (the roast), signed the works with a meat skewer instead of with his name.
The final result of a decades-long restoration process, started in 1985, and carried out by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence and the Laboratorio Arazzi del Quirinale in Rome, was completed in 2014. The lengthy and complicated process had to be carried out by artisans at least as skilled as the original tapestries’ makers. Godart observed, “We have the best restoration schools in the world here. Thanks to our great know-how, we can protect our patrimony and teach others.” Italian experts have been called upon by UNESCO to intervene in areas where there are great cultural treasures at risk of war, natural disasters and wear and tear, but where the local skills to protect them are lacking.
Two videos of the tapestry workshop, located at the very top of the Palazzo Vecchio, can be found here (#1) and here (#2) (narration in Italian).