At the beginning of 2014 I was so excited to hold my newly published book, Italian Food Rules, in my hands. I was even more pleased as the book was bought up by readers in bookshops in the US and Italy, ordered online in those countries and many more, and downloaded digitally anywhere a wifi signal could be found.
Some readers used Italian Food Rules in preparation for their 2014 vacations in Italy. Other people bought it as gifts for friends who were traveling to the peninsula. College students in Florence took a copy home to show their parents what they had to learn to “be Italian” for a semester. Expats in Tuscany put a copy on the bedside table of friends who were visiting, hoping to pass along the “rules” in a subtle way. Those long-time Italophiles got copies for themselves and more for friends to enjoy the memories of what is one of the most special and memorable aspects of Italy–the food.
Now, I am please to announce that almost a year later the companion book to Italian Food Rules has been published. Italian Life Rulesis available this week from online vendors, both in digital and print versions. Soon it should be available in bookstores in the US and Italy, either on the shelves or by request.
As the holidays approach, I hope you have some quiets time in a comfortable chair in a warm corner, perhaps in front of a crackling fire, and that there is a copy of Italian Food Rules and a copy ofItalian Life Rules to entertain you and give you a sense of being Italian for an hour or so.
Two days after the devastating Florence Flood, November 4, 1966, the twenty-foot torrent that swept through the city was gone, but the piazzas, streets, churches homes, and businesses were buried in mud, naphthalene heating oil, mountains of waste, household goods, wrecked cars and even farm animals that had been swept down the valley. There was no potable water or electricity. Food was in short supply because most of the stores, including the massive Mercato Centrale had been flooded.
The federal government was slow to act, but first the Florentines pulled together in solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor, and then as news of the enormity of the disaster spread, volunteers arrived from the neighboring hill towns. The stream of helpers soon became another kind of flood with thousands of people coming from every region of Italy, western Europe and America, pulled by the catastrophic loss of the historic and artistic patrimony of Florence, but also to support the Florentines in their time of greatest need.
Those that came were mostly young, in their teens, twenties and thirties. They filled the hostels and pensiones and even slept in rows of sleeping bags at the train station. With an extraordinary spirit of sacrifice this youthful multi-lingual army shoveled away tons of mud, wiped sticky oil off of marble statues, rescued sodden books, and distributed food and water. Thousands of young people dedicated their time to recover from the mud paintings, books, frescoes, carvings, statues and other works of art.
They went without warm showers, heated rooms, clean clothes and hot food. Because of their dedication and solidarity they were named “Gli Angeli del Fango” (The Angels of the Mud). The name was apt also because mud was a constant companion at work, while asleep and at meals.
“You could call them volunteers, except they hadn’t volunteered or been recruited: they’d simply appeared as though from thin air and set to work.
“It was always cold and always damp where they worked, and often where they ate and slept. There was, of course, a surfeit of Chianti dispensed from immense demijohns just as there was limitless talk and laughter. People fell in love: with art; with one another; with themselves, because how often did you get to be a hero, much less an angel.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in 1966:
“I remember that I was in Geneva at a conference on refugees and I wanted to see what had occurred, so I flew in to Florence for the day. I got to the library about 5 PM and I looked down into the flooded area. There was no electricity and massive candles had been set up to provide the necessary light to rescue the books.
“It was terribly cold and yet I saw students up to their waists in water. They had formed a line to pass along the books so that they could be retrieved from the water and then handed on to a safer area to have preservatives put on them. Everywhere I looked in the great main reading room, there were hundreds and hundreds of young people who had all gathered to help.
“It was as if they knew that this flooding of the library was putting their soul at risk. I found it incredibly inspiring to see this younger generation all united in this vital effort. It reminded me of the young people in the United States who responded with the same determination as they became involved in the civil rights movement.
“I was still shivering as I boarded the plane that took me back to Geneva, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the impressive solemnity of that scene – of all those students, oblivious to the biting cold and the muddy water, quietly concentrating on saving books in the flickering candlelight. I will never forget it.”
“[It] was the international community that worked to try to save Florence, this unique patrimony that belonged to the whole world,” said Mario Primicerio, former mayor of Florence on the 30th anniversary of the Florence Flood.
The fall of 2014 has been one of the wettest on record throughout northern Italy. The Arno is rising, but the cities that have seen the worst floods are Genoa and Massa Carrara. Genoa now in the eye of the storm is where a new generation of Mud Angels is coming to the aid of the port city.
Each day more Mud Angels are joining the struggle in the Liguria region. Most are high school and university students living in Genoa, but they are also from Eastern Europe and Africa and Italy.
Unlike the word-of-mouth organization of the Angeli del Fango of 1966, the modern angels are using social media, Facebook and Twitter, to put out the word about where the needs are greatest. As the rain moves east the Mud Angels will be helping in the hamlets and towns along the Po Valley. The spirit of world’s youth is answering the call of people in distress and once again they are saving great works of artistic and historical significance.
November 4, 2014 will be the 48th anniversary of the Florence Flood of 1966. The memory is still vivid in the minds of most Florentines; either they experienced the flood and/or its aftermath, or they have been told stories of the disaster by their parents or grandparents.
The question in the minds of many who live in the city split by the Arno River is: Can it happen again?
Timeline of the Flood
3 November 1966
In 1966, heavy rains began falling in Tuscany in September. Soon, the earth of the Casentine Forrest, southeast of Florence, was saturated. The rains increased in October and November. It rained the first three days of November. On the 2nd alone, seventeen inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours on Monte Falterona southeast of Arezzo where the Arno is born. The early snow on the mountain melted and rivers of water flowed north and west toward Florence.
The Levane and La Penna dams in Valdarno, north of Arezzo began to emit more than 2,000 cubic meters (71,000 cubic feet) of water per second toward Florence.
At 2:30 pm, the Civil Engineering Department of Florence reported “an exceptional quantity of water.” Cellars in the Santa Croce and San Frediano areas began to flood. Streets failed to drain as the Arno backed up into the city’s drainage system.
Police received calls for assistance from farms and tiny towns north past Florence. The walls along river in the city still held, but floodwaters poured over roads and bridges, cutting off the little villages and forcing people to the roofs of their homes.
A worker died at the Anconella water treatment plant. In A Tuscan Trilogy, Paul Salsini writes: “At the aqueduct, a workman named Carlo Maggiorelli, fifty-two years old, had arrived at 8 o’clock Thursday night, carrying a thermos of coffee, half a loaf of bread and a pack of cigarettes. In a telephone call to officials in Florence, he reported that “everything’s going under.” But he refused to leave; he was responsible for the plant. Later, his body was recovered in a tunnel choked with mud. He was the first victim of the flood of November 4, 1966.”
By midnight on November 3, the Arno River in Florence had risen twenty feet from its normal level, but it still flowed between the high walls through the city.
4 November 1966
At 4:00 am, engineers, fearing that the Valdarno La Penna dam would burst, discharged a mass of water that eventually reached the outskirts of Florence at a rate of 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph). The wall of water overflowed the Levane dam and rushed toward Florence.
Florence’s newspaper, La Nazione, printed during the night, had a banner headline: “L’Arno Straripa a Firenze” (The Arno overflows at Florence). The article went on to report (translated by Salsini): “The city is in danger of being flooded. At 5:30 this morning water streamed over the embankments, flooding the Via dei Bardi, the Borgo San Jacopo, the Volta dei Tintori and the Corso dei Tintori, the Lungarno delle Grazie and the Lungarno Acciaiuoli. Many families are evacuating their homes. The river banks at Rovezzano and Compiobbi were overtopped shortly after 1 a.m. The Via Villamagna and the aqueduct plant at Anconella were invaded a short time later, and certain areas of the city are in danger of losing their water supply. There are indications that the day ahead may bring drama unparalleled in the history of the city. At 4:30 a.m. military units were ordered to stand by to cope with a possible emergency situation.”
The night guard on the Ponte Vecchio notified the jewelry store owners of the rising tide of water. Prudent vendors who rushed to move their wares were the only shopkeepers in the flooded areas to save their inventories. Later, the stores on the bridge were gutted by the water.
At 7:26am electric power failed in Florence. The Arno flowed over the parapets of San Niccolo bridge, as well as Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio. By 9:00am, hospital emergency generators (the only remaining source of electrical power) failed.
Landslides obstructed roads leading to Florence, while narrow streets within city limits funneled floodwaters, ever increasing in height and velocity.
After breaching its retaining walls on both sides, the Arno flooded the city. On the north side, it swept through the National Library, the Piazza Santa Croce and the church itself. Water filled the Piazza della Signoria, the basement of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio.
By 9:35 a.m. it reached the Duomo and the Campanile. Ten minutes later, the Piazza del Duomo was flooded. A twenty-foot vortex of water tore three panels from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gate of Paradise on the east side of the Baptistry and two from Andrea Pisano’s panels on the south.
At the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale the refrigeration units located below street level were destroyed and the main floor and all of the food stands were awash.
At the Accademia, water inched across the floor toward Michelangelo’s David although the statue was never in real danger.
On the south side, in the Oltrarno, where the land sloped uphill from the river, the damage was less.
The catastrophe was not only caused by the amount of water. The powerful flood ruptured heating oil tanks stored under or at ground level of most of the buildings, and the oil mixed with the water and the tons of muddy topsoil washed down the agricultural Arno Valley, causing far greater damage than that attributed to the water alone.
Twenty thousand families lost their homes, fifteen thousand cars were destroyed, and six thousand shops went out of business. At least thirty people were confirmed fatalities, but some reports put the toll at more than a hundred.
At its highest, the water reached over 6.7 meters (22 ft) in the Santa Croce area, more than twice as high as the flood of 1557.
By 8:00 pm, the water began to recede.
Treasures Damaged or Destroyed
Records after the flood estimated that 1,500 works of art in Florence were disfigured or destroyed. Of these, 850 were seriously damaged, including paintings on wood and on canvas, frescoes and sculptures. Among the casualties were Paolo Uccello’s Creation and Fall at Santa Maria Novella, Sandro Botticelli’s Saint Augustine and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Saint Jerome at the Church of the Ognissanti, Andrea di Bonaiuto’s The Church Militant and Triumphant at Santa Maria Novella, Donatello’s wooden statue of Mary Magdalenein the Baptistry of the Duomo, Baccio Bandinelli’s white marble Pietà in Santa Croce and Filippo Brunelleschi’s wooden model for the Cupola of the Duomo, in the Duomo’s Museum.
Many considered the greatest loss to be the painted wood Crucifix by Giovanni Cimabue, the Father of Florentine Painting, in the Santa Croce Museum. The water there rose thirteen feet. The heavy wooden crucifix had taken on so much water that it had grown three inches and doubled its weight. The wood cracked and paint chips floated out on the water. After it was removed from the refectory, the cracks widened, mold grew, and the paint continued to flake off. It was years before the cross had shrunk down to its original size. The crevices were later filled in with poplar from the Casentine Forest, where Cimabue obtained the original wood, the same forest where the flood began. The Cimabue Crucifix became the symbol of both the tragedy of the flood and the rebirth of the city after the waters receded.
Archives of the Opera del Duomo (Archivio di Opera del Duomo): 6,000 volumes/documents and 55 illuminated manuscripts were damaged.
National Central Library (Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze): Located alongside the Arno River, the National Library was cut off from the rest of the city by the flood. The flood damaged 1,300,000 items, including the majority of the works in the Palatine and Magliabechi collections, along with periodicals, newspapers, prints, maps and posters. This was a third of the library’s collections.
Gabinetto Vieusseux Library (Biblioteca del Gabinetto Vieusseux): All 250,000 volumes were damaged, including titles of romantic literature and Risorgimento history; submerged in water, they became swollen and distorted. Pages, separated from their text blocks, were found pressed upon the walls and ceiling of the building.
The State Archives (Archivio di Stato): Roughly 40% of the collection was damaged, including property and financial records; birth, marriage and death records; judicial and administrative documents; and police records, among others.
Can It Happen Again?
Residents of Florence think of the 1966 Flood every year when the winter rains begin – even if they weren’t alive or living in Florence 48 years ago. The Arno still has a shallow riverbed. Each year the water climbs the Ponte Vecchio and covers the rose beds at the nearby Rowing Club, located under the Uffizi Gallery.
The plaques on Florence walls in the historic center remind us of the many floods that happened over the centuries.
The Arno flooded in a catastrophic manner eight times since 1333 – at a rate of about one a century (the one before 1966 was in 1844). Minor floods occur frequently – 13 times in the last 20 years alone.
In the 18th century, engineer Ferdinando Morozzi dal Colle compiled a list of all the floods registered from the year 1177 to 1761. He recorded 54 floods in 600 years: Once every 24 years there was a ‘medium’ flood, every 26 years a ‘big’ flood, and every 100 years an ‘extraordinary’ flood.
Two other disastrous floods, those of 1333 and 1844, both happened on the same day of the year, the day of the 1966 flood: November 4th.
The 1966 flood was the worst of them all.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed that the Arno could be tamed…but complex bureaucracy prevented any action, and by time the city government approved his plan he had moved on to something else.
“The Arno has been a problem since antiquity,” said Prof. Raffaello Nardi, who headed a special commission responsible for safeguarding the Arno river basin. “And even the old floods were caused as much by human error as by the forces of nature.”
Some believe it is only a matter of time. The Cimabue Crucifix is now hung on a metal device that can be raised far above the level of the 1966 Florence Flood if the waters start to rise again.
In the wake of the tragic 1966 flood of Florence, then-curator of Florentine museums Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti put out a call for Italian and international artists to donate art to replace the masterpieces that had been lost in the flood. As part of this campaign, the City of Florence accepted hundreds of notable works by artists from all over the world.
Thirty-two were by female artists including those whose donations have now been recently restored: Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Amalia Ciardi Duprè, Carla Accardi and Titina Maselli. This restoration project, sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) in collaboration with the Musei Civici Fiorentini, was led by Dr. Antonella Nesi, curator of Florence’s 20th century Civic Collections, and undertaken by Florentine restorer Rossella Lari.
After decades in storage, these and other works collected at Ragghianti’s behest have found a home at the newly-opened Museo Novecento in Florence. The 20th century art in Florence finally got scholarly and popular attention in 2014, first with the opening of the new museum dedicated to this period, and then at the end of September with a temporary exhibition at the Galleria di Arte Moderna at Palazzo Pitti called ‘Spotlight on the XX Century’ (Luci sul ‘900).
AWA has also agreed to restore a total of 28 paintings and sculptures to be exhibited at the Museo Novecento in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood.
As part of a project to safeguard and promote a hidden part of Florence’s heritage, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation has also published a new book about the female artists whose art forms part of the Florentine Civic Collections. The book by Linda Falcone and Jane Fortune, When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, published in October 2014 by The Florentine Press, provides additional and timely insight into this period.
With this book, the team continues Jane Fortune’s quest to bring to light Florence’s “hidden” female artists. Her book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, which became the basis of an Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, sought out examples from the Renaissance through the Early Modern period.
With When the World Answered, they wondered if 20th century Florence continued to be a powerhouse for female talent and what prompted the “Flood Ladies” to donate their art to Florence.
In four years of research and writing, interviewing surviving “Flood Ladies” and their families, Falcone and Fortune discovered women whose contributions to Futurism, Magic Realism and Abstractionism in Italy are worthy of in-depth study. This book tells the stories of 23 of these women artists because “their stories must be salvaged along with their art if we are one day to understand the true significance of their contributions.”
On October 21, the Museo Novecento will be hosting a premiere event for the living artists and their family members, with the book’s authors, top museum executives and Vice Mayor Cristina Giachi.
The public event is scheduled for Wednesday October 22, 2014, at 6:30pm when the authors will present their book at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (via Orsanmichele 4, Firenze), a venue that has supported women artists since Artemisia Gentileschi became its first female member in 1616. After the talk, attendees will be invited to visit the headquarters of this prestigious institution. The event is free and open to the public with registration at the following link: floodladies-talk.eventbrite.it
To enhance the connection between the flood, women artists and the City of Florence, The Florentine, licensed guide Alexandra Lawrence and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation will be offering a series of guided walks. On Saturday October 25 at 10am, the group will meet at Santa Croce and walk towards Le Murate, visiting and talking about some of the important spaces and artworks affected by the flood of 1966.
Saturday November 8 at 10am there will be a visit to the Museo Novecento focusing particularly on the newly restored works by female artists.
Both walks cost 33 euro including guide and book, plus museum entrance fees. To reserve, please contact Alexandra Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, contact: The Florentine Press, Alexandra Korey, Editor, email@example.com, Tel: +39 055 2306616
Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA),Linda Falcone, Director, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over 500 years after her birth we are still talking about her. A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her portrait. An emperor coveted her. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek through the Louvre to view her likeness. Yet while everyone recognizes her smile, hardly anyone knows her story or the story of women like her.
Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales is a blend of biography, history, and memoir. It is a book of discovery: about the world’s most recognized face, most revered artist, and most praised and parodied painting; about the woman and the men behind the portrait; and about the author Hales, who undertook a journey of discovery, about herself, her beloved Florence, and a mystery that intrigues her.
Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542) was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Her life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen. Her story creates an extraordinary tapestry of Renaissance Florence, with larger-than-legend figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.
Who was Mona Lisa, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?
Dianne Hales agreed to answer a few questions about her book and its subject:
Years ago while in Florence doing research forLa Bella Lingua, I was having dinner at the home of an art historian who casually mentioned that the mother of La Gioconda had grown up in the very same building on Via Ghibellina. I hadn’t known until then that Leonardo’s model was a Florentine woman—Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. I was immediately intrigued by what her life might have been like.
At the time the local papers were reporting discoveries of documents related to Lisa and the Gherardini family. I realized that the archival sleuth, Giuseppe Pallanti, had the same name as a friend of my husband’s. It turned out that they aren’t related, but he arranged a meeting.
When we met—on the roof terrace of the Palazzo Magnani Feroni overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno—Pallanti brought a tourist map. With a pencil he marked an “X” for Via Sguazza, where she was born, and another “X” for Via della Stufa, where she lived with her husband and their children.
The very next day I made my way to Via Sguazza, a dank alley that still stinks five centuries after its residents complained about its stench. I was struck by the contrast between the fetid, graffiti-smeared street where Lisa Gherardini was born and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that her portrait has become. The journalist in me sensed a story just waiting to be told. Pretty soon I was off and running.
Describe a bit about the archival research you did. Did you have help? What was the biggest “ah ha” moment and what was the greatest frustration you encountered?
I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses a staggering forty-six miles of manuscripts. With the help of historian Lisa Kaborycha, an American professor who lives in Florence, I tracked down a history of the Gherardini written by a family member in 1586.
I had never done archival research before, and I found it surprisingly exhilarating—deciphering the ornate script, turning the yellowed pages, inhaling their musty scent. I felt that I was traveling through time and encountering flesh-and-blood—Gherardini knights, robber barons, warriors, rebels—all so proud and pugnacious that they coined the word Gherardiname to describe their fierce “Gherardini-ness.”
My biggest ah-ha moment came at my computer in California, when I tracked down a record of Lisa’s baptism in the cathedral digital archives. Seeing the hand-scripted words—Lisa & Camilla & Gherardini—in the ledger made her real to me.
The greatest frustration was not finding any words of her own. Leonardo’s Lisa truly is a face without a voice. Fortunately, I found that a relative of hers—Margherita Datini, wife of the famed merchant of Prato—had left behind the largest cache of letters of any woman of her day. This feisty, intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who taught herself to read and write in her twenties, embodied the Gherardini spirit that Lisa may have shared.
Describe the choices you made to tell the story of a woman for whom there is very little “paper trail” and an artist who everybody was talking and writing about.
Thanks to Giuseppe Pallanti’s research, I had a framework for Lisa’s life, including the dates when her children were born and a record of her death. But as I read more about Leonardo and about Florentine history, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. How could I keep Lisa’s story from being lost?
An American art historian gave me some wonderful advice: Inhabit Lisa’s neighborhoods. That’s what I did. I walked the streets where Lisa had lived. I genuflected in the churches where she had worshiped. I explored the locations of the convents where she had placed her daughters.
Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, describes my book as “cultural history that reads like a detective novel.” I hadn’t envisioned it quite that way, but I wanted take readers with me on my quest so they could share the step by step revelations of what turned into a true journey of discovery.
How many interviews did you conduct while researching the numerous subjects covered by the book (Leonardo da Vinci, life of Renaissance women, art, politics and commerce in 15th century Florence, and the journey of the painting from Florence to Paris, and much more)?
Well over a hundred. I certainly drew on all the skills I had honed in decades as a journalist. Basically I followed the facts wherever they led—to experts in art, history, economics, women’s studies, fashion, food, religion, even antique silk-making. Each of them offered a different perspective. My challenge was to weave the threads together into a tapestry that would bring Mona Lisa and her Florence to life.
One of my friends says she knew she was ready for her oral doctoral exam when she could turn any conversation on any topic to the Italian Renaissance. That’s how I feel about Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Baseball? Did you know that palle (balls) were the symbol of the Medici—and that one of Leonardo’s patrons was Giuliano de’ Medici, who was a political ally of Mona Lisa’s husband?
How much of the project was devoted to research and how much to writing?
They overlapped over a span of more than three years. The feet-on-the-ground research, which I did during extended visits to Florence and Tuscany, kept leading me in new directions. I’d come home and dive back into the library or computer archives.
I didn’t write this book as much as rewrite it—some 80,000 words over and over again. It was the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken: organizing reams of material, finding the right tone, balancing anecdote and explanation, searching for the most telling details—and then polishing, polishing, polishing. I kept thinking of Leonardo applying tens of thousands of brush strokes to create his portrait of Mona Lisa. He inspired me!
What did you learn about the daily life of women in the late 15th century?
A great deal of research on women has been done in just the last three or four decades–and many of the findings are rather depressing. One historian called Renaissance Florence “among the more unlucky places in Western Europe to be born female.” This was particularly true for poor women, who were typically malnourished and illiterate, bred early, toiled endlessly and died young. Even women of the merchant class, like Mona Lisa, remained second-class citizens who passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.
This is one reason that I was fascinated to learn that Lisa exercised two of the few prerogatives available to Renaissance women: she decided how to dispose of the property and valuables she inherited from her husband and she chose to be buried, not with him, but in a community of sisters at the convent where her daughter lived.
Italian scholars gave me a more positive perspective than American feminist historians. As one Italiana put it, Renaissance women were not liberated in the way we use the term, but they were strong and central to the most important social institution in Italy: the family. And some, like Lisa Gherardini, inspired great masterpieces of Western art, which may be the most lasting of legacies.
Why do you think Leonardo da Vinci accepted the commission to paint a “housewife” and then carried the portrait around for years?
I believe that something about Lisa herself captivated Leonardo —“something inherent in his vision,” as the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark observed. How else, he asked, could one explain the fact that “while he was refusing commissions from Popes, Kings, and Princesses he spent his utmost skill … painting the second wife of an obscure Florentine citizen?”
Perhaps with his discerning eye, Leonardo saw more than a fetching young mother caught up in the delights and distractions of small children, with a blustering husband and a big quarrelsome blended family. Perhaps what intrigued him as an artist was a flicker of her indomitable Gherardini-ness.
Leonardo left Florence before completing Lisa’s portrait, and it traveled with him to his final home in France. Most of the art historians I interviewed believe that the aging artist spent years refining the painting with delicate brushwork and almost transparent glazes. It may be that during its long metamorphosis, Mona Lisa took on deeper meaning for Leonardo—as a demonstration of all that he had learned about portraiture and all that he understood about human nature. Would Mona Lisa recognize herself in the Louvre portrait? We will never know.
Why does Lisa Gherardini’s story matter? Is a model’s identity relevant in consideration of a work of art?
Mona Lisa ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece by an unparalleled genius. Yet learning about Leonardo’s model adds new dimensions to appreciation of the portrait. Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christian, a noble spirit. I relate to her, not just as a lovely object, but as a real person.
Beyond adding new perspective on the painting, Lisa’s story opens a window onto life in Florence during the most astounding artistic outpouring in history. Hers was the city that thrills us still, bursting into fullest bloom and redefining the possibilities of man—and of woman.
Do you have events scheduled in the U.S. and Italy where you will be discussing Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered? How can we find out about upcoming events?
Yes, I have a busy schedule ahead, with readings and talks in northern California, Chicago, Philadelphia and the New York City area. You can find the details on the events page of my website.
I will be in Florence from September 25 to October 10 and will announce the details on my website. In addition to readings and presentations, I am developing personalized tours of Mona Lisa’s Florence and some programs for writers and storytellers. If any of your readers might be interested, drop me a line at email@example.com
Have you selected the subject for your next book?
I am currently finishing a very different project: a college textbook on Personal Stress Management with my daughter Julia, a psychology doctoral candidate. However, I so enjoy “living “ in Italy—if only in my head—that I hope to return to an Italian topic soon.
Heard in any gelateria: “Are you sure you don’t have a one euro coin?”
In Italy, you never know when you are really going to need small bills and coins, so you hoard them. It’s part of becoming Italian.
“What’s the deal with change in Italy?” ask my touring clients after a day or two in the country. At the gelateria, the newsstand, the post office, museum, and not last nor least, the coffee bar, the customer is quizzed about the possibility of spiccioli (coins), so that no resto (change) is necessary. The person at the cash register is willing to wait until you go through all of your pockets and the bottom of your purse in search of 20 centesimi (cents) or a one euro coin.
Coinage seems to be a rare commodity in almost any shop, eatery, or even the government-run entities in Italy. You may be denied the opportunity to buy a newspaper or a bottle of water if you pull out a 50 euro bill. Even a five euro bill will be met with a frown if you are purchasing an 80 centesimi espresso.
“Mi dispiace, non ho spiccioli” (“I’m sorry I don’t have any coins.”) has become one of my favorite phrases in Italian. After 15 years, I sometimes say it just to spite Italian cashiers, even if I have a pocket full of change.
Italian vending machines frequently don’t give change, despite the fact that there is a coin return slot. Be prepared for a loss if you really need that Coke or candy bar.
The problem seems to stem from the Italians’ dislike of dealing with their banks. Understandable. No one, absolutely no one, wants to deal with the bureaucratic hassles and time suck of the Italian bank, least of all the small business person. A visit to the bank only invites the headache of poor service and a paper trail, two things sought to be avoided by most Italians. But this still doesn’t answer why there is such a hassle regarding change when you are buying stamps or tickets from money mills like the post office or the Uffizi Gallery.
In the 1970s, Italy literally ran out of coins. Banks issued what were called “mini-assegni” or “mini-checks” that took the place of change. These mini-checks looked like monopoly money to replace the small denomination coins that were in short supply. It was not until 1978 that the Italian government produced coins in large enough quantities to meet consumer demand.
Even the priest of two tiny churches in the center of Florence goes to the Jewish-owned grocery store in the neighborhood with his sacks of donation coins to get the amount converted into large denomination bills. It’s a win-win — there is no paper trail for the priest and the store gets a replenished supply of small coins. And neither has to enter the encapsulated security door of the local bank.
Seen in Venice: Two Americans trying to shake hands and kiss cheeks at the same time.
Who would have thought an innocent gesture of goodwill could cause so much confusion among friends, family and associates? When to kiss, how many kisses, left cheek, right cheek, both cheeks, lips or not? Visitors to Italy often have cheek kissing anxiety.
Have you ever greeted an Italian by going for a cheek kiss only to have them extend an arm for a hearty handshake and a cheery, “Buongiorno” or “Piacere?” Regions and cultures often dictate kissing rules, but the bottom line to the kissing dilemma is this: When in doubt, don’t!
Some things to consider before offering a cheek include how well you know the person, whether it is a business or social occasion, and your own motive behind the gesture. Keep in mind that much of this depends on the personality of the kisser. Most Italians are warm and demonstrative. They particularly enjoy bestowing their kisses on close friends and family, but for new acquaintances (potential future friends), in business settings, and with strangers, a handshake is the greeting of choice.
Don’t kiss someone you have never met before. Be a consistent kisser. If you greet someone with a kiss, don’t forget to do the same to say, “Arrivederci.” Offering your hand for a handshake after a hello kiss sends a confusing message.
If you have a sufficiently close cheek-to-cheek relationship, then start on the right and graze the cheek of the other person with your own, refrain from making the “Moi, Moi” or any other sound into the other person’s ear. Then switch to the left cheek and repeat. Not to make this difficult, but you may find that in some parts of Italy they start left cheek first and then right. When in doubt, pause and follow the lead of your Italian friend.
Stop at a kiss to each check. Unlike in France or Russia, a third pass is extremely rare in Italy. Don’t actually kiss the cheek unless it is a very, very close friend or family member. If your kiss includes a hug, make it brief, a few short taps on the back are appropriate, avoid pounding the back of the other person.
Usually the cheek kissing routine is between women and women and men and women, but there are regions in Italy, mostly in the south, where men greet one another with kisses on either cheek. Some suggest that Italian women who wanted their men to sympathize with their suffering when brushing up against scruffy, unshaven beards started this. The safest route for a man visiting Italy is to offer a handshake to greet other men. After that follow the lead of those Italian metrosexual friends. As a general rule, women have the universal power to dictate proximity. The woman has to take charge to avoid any awkwardness.
Ironically, the number one situation most fraught with danger is when a foreigner meets a fellow expat. If the person is a friend, or a friend of a friend, do you stay with the custom of Italy or fall back on the etiquette of the homeland? It’s probably safest to stay with the handshake until your relationship rises to the level of closeness that calls for kisses.
Allora: When in doubt, stick with your own cultural norm. There is no need to become Italian in all ways when visiting the country.
Who would have thought using a ubiquitous Italian word in Italy could get you into so much trouble. The word is “ciao” and if you use it at the wrong time with the wrong person you will leave a lasting negative impression.
Ciao is described as the Italian version of “aloha,” meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” so how can that be bad? As with many things in Italy, it all comes down to history.
Ciao comes from Venetian dialect, where the phrase s-ciào vostro meant, “I am your slave.” Often, s-ciào vostro was shortened to simply s-ciào and then to ciào. In Latin, the word is sclavus and in standard Italian schiavo, which is where the Venetian s-ciào is derived.
In the 17th century, servants when encountering their employer used the term: “I am your slave.” This transformed into “I am your servant,” used by a person of inferior social status to one of greater importance and finally, to “I’m at your service” when addressing a stranger of one’s own age or older. It was never used as a casual greeting before the 20th century.
In modern Italy, ciao is mainly used in informal settings, i.e., among family members, relatives, and friends. In other words, with those one would address with the familiar tu (second person singular) as opposed to Lei (courtesy form). With family and friends, ciao is the norm even as a morning or evening salutation, in lieu of buongiorno or buonasera. When used in other contexts, ciao may be interpreted as slightly flirtatious, or a request for friendship or closeness. Or it may seem to the recipient as an ill-bred form of address.
Some say that Ernest Hemingway introduced the word ciao to the American lexicon in 1929 in his book A Farewell To Arms with its Italian setting. Others say it traveled outside of Italy with waves of immigrants after WWI and WWII. Now, it is used throughout the globe as a salutation a greeting, both in writing and speech.
In Italy, however, it is still a very informal greeting. To use it with a stranger or an elder is an easy and unknowing way to offend. It is much better to get into practice before you arrive with the proper mode of greeting an Italian and then the salutation to be used when parting company. This is also important when saying goodbye when you are talking on the telephone with a stranger. Never say, “Ciao.”
When you are introduced or encounter a stranger, use the words buongiorno (good day) or buonasera (good evening), depending on the time of day (buongiorno before 1pm and buonasera after 1pm). These will become you favorite words because they will never offend and they can be used as both greetings or parting words. If you want to up your game a bit then piacere (my pleasure) is a good formal greeting (but never used for parting ways).
Finally, if you would like to split the difference, salve is a great greeting for a stranger or a friend, of your age or younger. Salve comes from the Latin verb salvere (literally, to be well, to be in good health). It can be very friendly, e.g. Salve! Come va? (literally, Hi! How’s it going?), but on its own it’s also a polite form of greeting without being too formal. It is commonly used as a form of salutation, (in fact the word salutation itself comes from the same root: salute). So, for example, when you are out walking in the countryside and you meet somebody you don’t know salve is a very good alternative to buongiorno. Like ciao, salve can be used at any time of the day, but salve cannot be used when parting.
When parting company, the safest word to use is arrivederci. Like salve it can be used with strangers. The formal version is arrivederla, which is wise to use with older strangers, priests, nuns, and people in authority. You may wish to start out with arrivederla and wait until the person you’re talking with tells you that it is too formal. (Permission to move to a more informal form of address always flows downhill from the person in the more elevated social position or older than you.) Arrivederci and arrivederla only mean goodbye – not hello – so you can’t use them to start a conversation, only to end one.
Americans have become famous for their “Have a nice day!” parting exclamation. Italians use “buona giornata” ([have a] good day) less frequently, but it is gaining popularity and can be used with most everyone except the most formal of folks. It is always used as a parting. Buona serata ([have a] good evening) is similar, but used usually when parting with someone who is going off to do something fun, for example, an evening at the theater, disco, or cinema.
Does this mean you can never say “ciao?” No, you will hear ciao being said all over Italy. But if you pay close attention, you’ll see that it’s almost always used between people who know one another or are in the same peer group. Among strangers, or when addressing an elder or someone in a more senior position, most Italians typically choose salve or some other more formal greeting.
This is changing. Younger generations are using ciao more and more as the word of choice for both hello and goodbye. But until the X or Y generations get into positions to set the etiquette rules, it is safer to stick to the more formal or at least neutral forms of address.
Your fast-paced ARKANE thrillers weave together historical artifacts, secret societies, psychological and religious references, global locations, a fearless female protagonist and hints of the supernatural. You’ve used Venice and Rome as settings. Your three short stories in A Thousand Fiendish Angels riff on Dante’s Inferno. Do you plan to return to Italy in a future book? How do Italy and/or the Italians inspire your writing?
I do love Italy, and how can one fail to be inspired by the architecture and cultural history of Europe in general! I especially like the use of the ossuaries and the Palermo Capuchin crypt in Prophecy, with the mummified bodies of monks and children. Creepy indeed! I do have an idea for a story set within the walls of the Vatican itself, catnip for a student of Theology like myself, so definitely more to come.
I also have Pentecost and Desecration coming in Italian language in the latter half of 2014, so I hope to expand my readership that way.
Desecration, your latest novel, is not part of the ARKANE series. Are you starting another series? Will you go back to the ARKANE characters in a future book? Is it possible that there will be a tie-in where Jamie and Blake from Desecration visit ARKANE?
You read my mind! In my next fast-paced novella, Day of the Vikings, out in May 2014, Dr Morgan Sierra is researching a Viking staff at the British Museum. When Neo-Viking terrorists take hostages and demand the staff of power, Morgan is aided by Blake Daniel, the reluctant psychic from Desecration, and together, they must work out how to stop Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse.
The next full-length ARKANE book has a working title of Inquisition, and will delve into Morgan Sierra’s Spanish Jewish heritage. Desecration is the first in The London Mysteries, and the next one, Delirium, will be out in July 2014, opening with the murder of a psychiatrist in Bedlam, the London hospital for the mad.
Your books take the reader to many countries (Israel, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, India). You know the saying some people eat to live and others live to eat. Do you travel to write or write to travel? Do you see a travel memoir in your future?
I think you know me very well, Ann!
I am a travel junkie and the books have been fuelled by my own experiences, but part of the reason I now do this full time is to be able to travel more, and make every trip research for another story. I am heading to Barcelona in June for research into Inquisition, and a visit to the Morbid Anatomy museum in New York in July will definitely give me some story ideas. I also plan to visit Mexico for Day of the Dead sometime, as well as heading back to India for a book around Kali. By combining the two, I can reinvest the book income into more travel, fuelling more books – a happy life!
I do intend to write a travel memoir at some point, as I would like to share the diary side of my trips and especially the spiritual places I have been. That is a way off though!
You are exceedingly generous in providing information to writers, especially those who wish to indie-publish, through your website and your podcasts. You also work as a public speaker on all aspects of indie-publishing and book marketing. You are either exceptionally organized or don’t require a lot of sleep. Does your work as an entrepreneur and your writing on TheCreativePenn.com help to promote your J.F. Penn novels? Do you want to keep up this pace or do you want to settle into a fiction writer’s life at some point in time?
I always wanted to be a self-help writer, and so TheCreativePenn.com and my non-fiction books, as well as my speaking, are ways in which I can help others on the journey of being a writer in this ever-changing market. I also find that I need the public speaking side to balance out my natural tendency to be an introverted hermit in my writing cave! It does me good to get out and have a conversation with real people.
I also started TheCreativePenn.com before I started writing fiction, and it was only the freeing aspect of blogging that enabled me to write stories in the first place. So I could never give it up entirely! That said, I am slowing down the pace of content on that side of things to focus more on the fiction as my readership grows.
A last question about your first book, Career Change: Many of the readers of TuscanTraveler.com dream of leaving their jobs, selling their home, buying a plane ticket and moving to Italy to create a new life and perhaps write their version of Under the Tuscan Sun. What are three ideas from your book that may help them fulfill their dream or, at least, assist them in making the correct decision?
The most important thing to think about is what really makes you happy. So for me, I had to reach the point of understanding that freedom of place (a rented 1 bedroom flat and no car) and a lower income made me happier than a higher income and a four-bedroom house and a car. By giving up my secure day job to become a writer, I sacrificed what most people consider to be “success,” for a risky entrepreneurial career with no guarantees. Lots of people thought I was crazy, as the definition of success for most people is a high status job, a big house and a nice car with lots of ‘stuff.’ If you can escape that mentality, you can downsize and suddenly have a lot more choice in your life.
So my 3 ideas are:
a) Decide what REALLY makes you happy
b) Make time to investigate options e.g. get rid of your TV, freeing up several hours a night; go to four days a week at work and focus on testing your ideas out part time
c) Eliminate debt and save a financial buffer – any new move takes a while to get going financially
Joanna Penn’s books are available at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, as well as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, ITunes, and Audible. Soon to be available in Italian on Amazon.it.
As the tourist season starts in Italy, the savvy visitor knows to keep in mind that one of the Italian national pastimes is to go on strike. Some years see more of lo sciopero than others, but in these difficult economic and political times in Italy it is certain that 2014 is predicted to be a year of delays and inconvenience.
Just last month, I was on my way to France via trains from Florence to Milan and Milan to Lyon. The day of my travels, the Italian national railways went on strike for eight hours. Lucky for me I was traveling to Milan with the fantastic private rail company Italo and then on to France with the French TGV. But this is what the schedule board looked like in Milan. Note especially the cancellation of trains to the international Malpensa airport.
Lo Sciopero is a strike or temporary work stoppage. A sciopero can be national or regional or local and can affect only one service sector or many. They inconvenience everyone and help no one, but Italians keep exercising their right to strike.
The most common strikes are local, usually lasting from four hours to one day. Strikes often involve the transportation sector. They are almost invariably announced in advance, which at least helps alert travelers to plan around the dates of strikes and arrange alternative modes of transportation. Occasionally, to make things more complicated, they are cancelled or postponed at short notice.
There are many rail strikes in Italy. They generally take place at the weekend, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The law guarantees a minimum service, so some trains should still run. There are also frequent strikes of urban transport. These scioperi are generally announced in advance, and many city transport authorities will try to negotiate continuation of service during the rush hour to help commuters.
A large proportion of Italy’s air travel strikes have involved Alitalia, the perpetually troubled Italian national airline. Sometimes there are more wide-ranging strikes by ground staff or by air traffic controllers, and unfortunately there’s not much travelers can do about this, other than be patient. These strikes usually last several hours; sometimes they simply delay flights, at other times they can lead to cancellations.
Other strikes in Italy – by schoolteachers, students, taxi drivers, garbage collectors, tobacco sellers, even bloggers (2009 to protest a restrictive bill in Parliament) add to the ever-growing variety of Scioperi Italiani. Strikes may even occur in sympathy with strikers from other countries.
Work stoppages by state employees may affect museum openings. Strikes at individual museums will almost always be timed to back up against the weekly closed day.
Strikes in any industry happen almost every year in the week leading up to and after the national August 15 holiday.
The granddaddy of all strikes is the national strike (lo sciopero nazionale), all transportation may be stopped or experience a slow-down, garbage won’t be collected, museums will be closed, and many stores, including supermarkets will be shut. National strikes are fairly rare, but it’s a day most Italians know it is hopeless to try to get anything done, better to stay home and catch up on sleep, read a good book or try out that new recipe for slow-cooking peposo di cinghiale.