My father just posted a couple of beautiful photos of the zucchini flowers from his veggie garden and asked if they were really good to eat. Simple answer: Yes, the flowers are scrumptious! However, Italians have two pieces of advice for my father: 1) pick the male flowers now and cook them up immediately, and 2) don’t let the zucchini squash grow beyond five inches long before harvesting it.
Americans are notorious for growing gigantic zucchini and then searching for ways of disposing of the tasteless watery squash. Garrison Keillor reportedly claimed July is the only time of year when the citizens of Lake Wobegon lock their cars in the church parking lot, so their friends won’t put a squash or two on the front seat.
Italians frequently buy their zucchini with the flower attached. The squash is firm, flavorful and can be eaten either raw or cooked in a dozen different ways.
But, back to the flowers. The gorgeous golden blooms should be plucked from the garden according to their sex. Judy Witts at Divina Cucina explains this well. The male flowers will never produce a squash, so snap them off and eat them now. Judy also gives us a recipe for fried flowers, the way most people love to eat the blossoms.
In Rome, you will find stuffed zucchini flowers, full of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, fried up in golden olive oil. If you want them stuffed, but not fried, cooking the ricotta filled flowers in a fresh tomato sauce is delicious, says Jamie Oliver.
Mario Batali offers a frittata decorated with blossoms, but you can also make an eggy frittata with both chopped baby zucchini, overlaid with golden flowers.
There is a wine bar in Florence that offers a focaccia with a light cheese, decorated with splayed zucchini blossoms, kind of a squash blossom pizza.
So my father should either cook up those male flowers now and the female blossoms when the baby zucchini is just long enough, or he should make a sunny bouquet to decorate the center of the dinner table. Zucchini flowers should not just hide away in the garden.
Susan Van Allen probably never sleeps. She has written three interesting books that are must-reads especially women traveling to Italy. Her travel stories have been published in many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, AFAR, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies, and CNN.com. She makes presentations about Italian travel at such venues as The New York Times Travel Show and Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. She has a touring business, which introduces women to the joys of various regions of Italy every spring and fall. She’s also been an actor and a television script-writer.
Instead of covering the entire country, the goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”. These three spots are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “Must See” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, I give readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—AND add in a Golden Day tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. I also steer readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of this beautiful tradition.
I believe you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore. What are some of the major misconceptions Italian-Americans have about Italy?
You’re right—I grew up on the Jersey shore, (West Long Branch, to be exact), surrounded by Italian Americans—including my mother. Her parents, my Nana and Papa, were part of the big wave of immigration from southern Italy in the early 20th century, and like the rest of these early immigrants they brought traditions from their homeland, that created an Italian-American culture. It’s radically different from Italian-Italian—so many Americans are shocked when they arrive in Italy and find it different from what they imagined.
A major misconception is around the food. American travelers are surprised to find no chicken parm on the menus, rarely spaghetti and meatballs served together as it is in America, and that the pizza that is most revered in Italy (from Naples) is not served in sliced pies, but in single servings of whole rounds, with soft centers, and eaten with a knife and fork—so delicious!
Another misconception is about Italian women. In the movies, we’ve seen all those Italian mammas with loads of children, stirring sauce at the stove. Sure, there are still Nonnas—grandmothers who spend days in the kitchen, but modern Italian women work, the birth rate is low—most have just one child, and husbands share in the cooking and child care.
Then there’s the endless tape about how dangerous the city of Naples is—and many travelers don’t even go to this marvelous city. An expression I grew up hearing was “Va’ a Napoli”—Go to Naples!—which meant: “Go to Hell!”. These days Naples is actually a flourishing city, with a vibrant historical center, amazing archaeological museum, fantastic food, and fabulous, welcoming natives—it’s a place to truly experience the vibrant soul of southern Italy.
The impetus came from my beginnings as a writer, when I got the best advice: Write as if you’re writing a letter to a dear friend. I approach all my writing that way, including 100 Places and 50 Places—which are actually a mix of guidebook and travel essay. Letters from Italy brought me the satisfaction of sharing my experiences more completely, and includes essays I’ve written for National Public Radio and Travelers’ Tales anthologies. It’s a collection of nine stories from my travels over the years, ranging from adventures climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli’s volcano, to truffle hunting in Umbria, and the joys of flirting in Rome. I loved including practical advice at the end of each story for places to stay, eat, and shop, as whenever I read other travel stories I’m dying to know the practical details, so I can experience the same things the writer has, and come away with my own take on it.
You share your favorites in 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Have you ever been tempted to leave one out – a restaurant, a hotel, a small church or museum – because you don’t want it overrun with tourists? Were you tempted to keep it to yourself?
I’m not the type to keep Italian treasures to myself—I believe abundant Italy has enough for all of us, and am thrilled when I meet readers at my signings or travel shows who’ve taken my advice and discovered for themselves some of Italy’s less-trodden spots. One woman made a whole poster of the great time she had on the island of Ponza for me, another was ecstatic about visiting the Tarot Garden (packed with stunning mosaics) in a less explored province of Tuscany, and often when I’m back in Italy and re-visit my favorite shops, (like Marina e Susanna Sent in Venice—run by two sisters who make gorgeous contemporary glass tableware and jewelry), I’m happy to hear that women have come in and bought beautiful souvenirs, thanks to finding out about their place in my book.
You take women on small group tours, custom-designed to experience southern Italy and Florence. Describe one of your favorite experiences from one of these tours.
There are so many favorite experiences from these tours! I love to open the door for women to be in places I’ve fallen in love with and be by their side as they are seeing, tasting, and feeling the spirit of these places for the first time. And then there’s the great bonding that happens among women from such a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages. In one short week—from our welcome aperitivo to the farewell dinner—with so many adventures in between, I’m always thrilled to see how friendships are formed that last well beyond the Golden Week.
A favorite experience from a recent week in southern Italy was when we ended our tour of Pompeii in front of the recently restored mural in the Villa of Mysteries—a jaw-dropping painting cycle that shows a woman’s initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. As our guide took us through each panel, she became overwhelmed with the beauty of it and got teary-eyed—so did the women surrounding me—all of us taken in by the deep passion of this creation from thousands of years ago! It’s a memory-of-a-lifetime we will always treasure.
What, in your opinion, is the best advice to give travelers to Italy?
Go ahead and plan with the help of books and online resources, but always be sure to follow your personal desires, your mood day-by-day. This means slowing down, and leaving time for spontaneity. That’s when the Magic of Italian Travel takes over, you’re immersed in the sensual pleasures and wonderful surprises of the Bel Paese, and the trip becomes a soulful, transformational adventure beyond your imaginings. Buon Viaggio!
Getting to view the collection of the Museo Bellini, located along the Arno in Florence, takes a bit of work. To understand its history, having some understanding of Italian helps. But for a new experience, a tour through the Bellini collection is as memorable, as it is fun.
To get in, you start by phoning or ringing the bell. Then make an appointment for a tour and turn up at the appointed time. The fee of 15 euro gets you three visits within a year.
As you walk in to the entry hall a mishmash of the ancient and the modern might make you wonder what is ahead. As you climb the stairs you are transported back to the early 20th century when Luigi Bellini, Sr. controlled the collection. It was the practice of antiquarians (Bardini, Contini, Volpi, Romano, Stibbert, Horne) to create “homes” filled with art that they might sell or trade or from which they couldn’t bear to be parted. The Bellini collection has this feel—fourteen rooms of a Renaissance home, but with a few touches that are medieval.
The visitor will find here a fresco of the school of Giotto, a bust by Donatello, a portrait by Tintoretto, a Della Robbia Madonna, a bronze by Giambologna, Ceramic from Xanto Avelli Rovigo, a Gothic tapestry, carved-wood Sansovino chest (armadio). Just when you have caught your breath the small doors enclosing a Fra Angelico gold-leafed Madonna are opened. There are ancient tables and chairs, a 19th century couch Luigi Sr. deemed “too modern”, statues, fountains, vases, minature bronzes, reliquies, carpets, and last but not least, a collection of crowns. Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, the tour is fascinating.
Some say that this passion for collecting and selling started in Ferrara with Vincenzo Bellini (1708-1783), who after twenty years as a priest, developed an obsession for ancient coins. He was one of the most illustrous numismatists of his time, even selling coin collections to Austrian Emperor Francis I. His son, Vitaliano, expanded the business into antiques and his grandson Giuseppe moved to Florence and eventually became an antiquarian with a store on Via della Spada.
A few generations later the most well-known antiquarian in the family, Luigi Bellini Sr. (1884-1957) was born in Impruneta. At nineteen he took off for New York to make an international name for himself, bringing clients back to the gallery in Florence. In the 1920s, he moved the business to a more impressive location on Lungarno Soderini, where the museum is today. He needed more room for both his business and his collection.
“You start as an antique dealer and end up being a collector without realizing that the germ of antiquity has infected you, it debilitates and consumes you and you will never recover. It is worse than tuberculosis,” he wrote in his autobiography.
A decade later, in 1931, he acted on his interest in contemporary art by opening a gallery with a couple of partners in Palazzo Spini-Feroni (home of the Museo Ferragamo, which has included pieces from the Bellini collection in its new exhibit). The gallery opened with an exhibition dedicated to the sculptor Arturo Martini and the painter Primo Conti. This venture did not last the test of time.
Following the war, Luigi Sr. concentrated on antiquities and rebuilding the city. He was instrumental in the reconstruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita “as it was and where it was”, by setting up an committee chaired by Bernard Berenson, the famed American art critic. They obtained substantial contribution for the reconstruction of the bridge, which had been dynamited by German troops, from wealthy American bankers. (Bellini’s own building on Lugarno Solderini sustained severe damage when the Carraia Bridge was also blown up.)
Four years before his death, Luigi was the prime organizer of the 1953 national exhibition of antiques held in Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. It was the precursor of the present Biennial Exhibition of Antiques held regularly at the Palazzo Corsini across the river from Museo Bellini.
The Bellini Museum and Gallery, 2015
Luigi Sr.’s grandson, Prof. Luigi Bellini, Jr., and his great-grandaughter Sveva are still active in the Biennial Exhibition, as well as other projects, including Luigi Jr.’s 2004 exhibition entitled “Bellini Collection Presents the Renaissance of Florence” at the Museum of Imperial Ming Nanjing in China. This was the first exhibition at the Imperial Museum to showcase western art.
For the past 130 years the Bellini collectors have shared a desire to live the past while at the same time be present in the modern life of Florence. Through the status symbol of their collection and the role of protector of the past, they strengthened their relationship with the nobility of the city while becoming acknowledged experts in private collecting choices and exhibition content.
Lugi Sr., who controlled the collection between the first part of the 20th century, was known to believe anything created after the 1800s was too modern to be part of his private universe, but he was happy to support and advise the exhibits at Palazzo Spini-Feroni, which highlighted the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi, and Filippo de Pisis. Today Sveva Bellini produces exhibitions in the ground-floor exhibitions space introducing the most modern of Italian artists. The present exhibit with free entry, on display until June 4, is called Woodenkammer: Ogni Forma é Nella Natura.
Sveva, however, does not disturb the evocative collection on the primo piano of the the palazzo that invokes the passion of her great-grandfather, and generations before him, with rooms of ancient artworks styled in homage to earlier centuries. The masterpieces, the everyday objects and the walls and stairs are history revived, reaching into the present.
The best bookstore for visitors to Florence, the Paperback Exchange, just got a fascinating new book. The title tells it all—My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy by Kelly Borsheim—and for any visitor to the Renaissance City it sheds light on a little-known artistic lifestyle, that of the madonnari, those who work with chalk and pastels on three large squares of paving stones between Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio, bringing well-loved paintings to “life” for a mere twenty-four hours.
Kelly, a sculptor with a studio in Texas, came to Florence just in time to fulfill a lifetime goal of seeing Michelangelo’s works before she turned forty. A few years later she joined an organization of pavement painters. (They are licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of using the designated spaces.) Her fascinating book contains hundreds of photos and the story of the little understood group of artists who have thrilled and amazed an audience of thousands of bystanders through the years.
You visited Italy for the first time in 2004 and in 2011 you published a book with the intriguing title My Life as a Street Painter in Florence Italy. How did you go from being a tourist to joining the small community of madonnari in Florence?
I backpacked around Italy for six weeks in the summer of 2004 and I fell in love with Anacapri and Florence. I decided to find a way to come back and stay for a longer period of time and returned to the Renaissance City as a student in the fall of 2006.
In early 2007, I met another student who created street paintings as part of the organization of madonnari (street painters) in Florence. She invited me to attend one of the meetings. Shortly after that, I returned to my home and studio in Texas. When I came back to Florence that fall, I went to Via Calimala where the street painters work and spoke with Claudio, the head of the organization. He had been instrumental many years before in having the city create three large squares on that street, consisting of street stones smoother than normal and outlined in brass. I was given a space on two different days in September while the senior madonnari were on holiday.
Could street painting be considered performance art? What are the skills that make a successful street painter?
Yes, street painting is more of a spettacolo, a performance. Timing is important. I learned a bit about what to do and when to do it in order to help the passersby envision what I was trying to accomplish, whether or not they would be able to return to see progress later. We work large; we work fast. The idea is to create a “Wow” impression in one day. Like any performer: the more skilled we are, the better the show.
Florence has an established group with most artists being fairly competent. I found that my having some drawing experience already made it easier to adapt my current skills to working large and in color, as well as working on a horizontal surface and in front of an audience. Physically, the work is very difficult and more tiring than anything created in a vertical position.
The history of madonnari is a bit unclear, but it seems that they were never really a part of the traditional atelier system that fine artists/professional artists were. There is a school for madonnari in Napoli that I believe was started by Gennaro Troia. The madonnari in Firenze have come from diverse backgrounds (and countries). Often they are art students temporarily in Firenze and working alongside master street painters.
Where else in Italy are there communities of street painters? Are there street art festivals?
I do not actually know if there are communities of madonnari, per se, or at least organizations such as we have in Florence. The madonnari mostly know one another because of the festivals. I have to say that I was thrilled by how so many of them welcomed me into the fold. I find so many in this community, either in person and on Facebook, to be wonderfully supportive of one another.
Yes, there are festivals and they are grand! I wrote about the two in Italia that I have attended: one in Nocera Superiore in southern Italy, not so far from the Amalfi Coast (in May) and the competition on Ferragosto (August 15) in Grazie di Curtatone in north central Italy. And there are other festivals in Europe and the US, perhaps in other countries.
You were a sculptor when you came to Italy. What are you working on now and how did your street painting experiences inform your present endeavors?
I am still a sculptor and I am in the process of finding a home in which I can start working with stone on a daily basis again. I have been lucky in that some Italian sculptors invited me to participate in a symposium to carve stone in Tuscany two summers ago. That led to my going to Bulgaria for a similar event last summer. Currently, I am working on several figurative paintings. This summer I will return to Texas to carve some of the stone I left there. I hope to be back in Italy this fall.
Drawing is the basis of all of the visual arts. Drawing and painting helps my sculpting, and vice versa. Before I began street painting, I had little experience with color. The sense of touch is far more important to me. However, I enjoy pastel art. I also wanted to work large and street painting was great training for my first mural as an adult. In 2012, I designed and painted a mural (400 x 200 cm) for a collector in Caprese Michelangelo. I was thrilled since this little village is the birthplace of the great sculptor. I would love to create more murals!
In Florence, street painting is creating copies of masterworks. I learn best through the sense of touch. So, through the copies, I was able to understand how great artists solved problems of design. I am not sure that I would have allowed myself as much of the luxury of learning from copy work if I had not been working as a street painter.
What question haven’t you been asked about your book or your life in Florence that you wish someone would ask and what is your response?
I have been called “The What-If-Girl” by friends. I can imagine all sorts of things. And yet people still surprise me. I want to change the world, but I have not yet figured out how. The life of an artist is rarely easy, but the Internet has opened doors never before available to the majority of us. Musicians and authors are reported to have used the Internet to change the dynamics of getting their work in the hands, ears, and eyes of new fans and outside of middlemen and normal distribution routes. They are often in direct contact with those that love what they do.
Painters and sculptors create art that is not so downloadable, nor available for a low accessible unit price as a digital artist. Even giclée fine art reproductions cost the artist much more than the individual cost of a digital book or album.
I would like to find a way to get fine art into the lives of more people without actually giving it away. Or, I would not mind giving it away if an artist could still find a way to have a long-term place to live (of his choosing) and not want for food or other things that people choose to have in their lives (travel and even our own art collection!). Unless a work of art is a commission, the artist must find a home for her creation.
In 2001, I met my mentor, Vasily Fedorouk. He introduced to me the world of stone carving symposiums. Here is how it works: A community or group of people get together and decide that they want a handful of large garden-size sculpture for a public art garden. They buy or have donated some large pieces of stone. They organize the workspaces for artists and they chose these artists, sometimes by jury, others by word of mouth. This group provides to the artists the electric power to each carving site, the air compressor and hoses, tables, tents or lots of trees for shade, and of course the work site itself. They also house and feed the artists for the duration of the symposium, which can last anywhere from five to 30 days. They pay each artist a stipend so that he may pay his own living expenses back home, as well as for his travel. The artist creates a specific design, gives his desired dimensions of the stone to the symposium organizers, and brings all of his own individual tools. And he works and works until he is done or the time is up.
And the community? If they did a good job of it, they created a work site accessible to tourists and locals so that everyone could watch the art evolve. They received an “instant” sculpture garden for a lot less than any other means of acquiring large original artworks in stone. They may later place their new sculpture wherever they like, usually on a permanent display. This helps the community build a tourist destination. It is an investment that improves the quality of life for all the citizens.
As for the street artists of Florence, I have not figured out how they pay their bills. Madonnari work for tips, but the ones I know have other means of income and it is still a difficult life. The world needs more beauty (and less graffiti/tagging).
I am grateful every day. I do not earn enough in art sales alone but I am quite fortunate in many ways. I know that my artistic life is made possible by every single person who treats me to a meal, gives me a place to sleep when I am traveling, shares useful information with me, makes me smile, makes me think, says a kind word about my work to someone else, and helps me in any number of ways. I work a lot to not disappoint while I follow the individual path that I must travel. But I still want to find a way to change the world . . . and not be living on the street.
On April 25, 2015, Italy marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the country from Nazi domination. This year much of the focus is on the 200,000 partisans who helped bring about the country’s liberation.
Over one quarter of the participants in the Italian Resistance during World War II were women (55,000), many acting as couriers (staffette).
In 1943, the Resistance strengthened in Italy as many Italian men chose to join the Partisans rather than capitulate to the German policy requiring the Italian military to be incorporated into the German army or be rounded up and sent as laborers in Eastern Europe.
Women also joined the Partisans but their involvement in the Resistance was truly a voluntary one since they did not face these same consequences if they chose not to participate in the war effort.
The first female partisans were couriers and spies. They were known as Staffette, a word for relay or courier. Initially they brought, along with assistance in the form of food and clothing, news from home and information on enemy movements. Shortly, this spontaneous work became organized, and every detachment created its own couriers, which specialized in shuttling between the city centers and the command of the partisan units. They relayed messages to and from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Operational Groups (OGS).
Frequently, these women had to cross German lines to accomplish their missions. Each time, they ran the risk of discovery, which they knew could result in torture or death. Their work was delicate, difficult, and almost always dangerous.
Even when they didn’t cross the lines during combat under enemy fire, they had to pass through the steep slopes of mountain on paths off main roads with dangerous, cumbersome material, covering kilometers on bicycle or truck, often on foot, in the rain or snow. Even traveling by train or car, the couriers passed long hours, often forced to pass a night in a station or in an open field, facing the dangers of bombardments or a German ambush.
After a tactical operation, the retreating partisans were not always able to take those seriously wounded with them. If there were men too wounded to hide, the couriers remained to watch them, to give them the necessary treatment and to seek medical help. After a battle women partisans were frequently left in the occupied country in order to learn the enemy movements and to get the information to the partisan command.
During the transfer marches the women were the advance expedition. When the partisan unit arrived near a town, the courier was the first to enter in order to find out if there were enemy forces and how many there were, and if it was possible for the partisan column to continue on.
In addition to taking part in partisan activity, women also volunteered to work in the Women’s Groups for Defense and for the Assistance of the Freedom Fighters (gruppi di difesa della donna e per l’assistenza ai combattenti della libertà) or GDD. The GDD collected food, money and clothing. If these women were discovered supporting the Partisans in even these ways, they would be arrested and sometimes tortured or killed. The women in the GDD also played a key role in motivating other women into public activism and recruiting them to participate in various Resistance functions.
The key to the success of women in the Resistance was their collective, almost anonymous character. These were not superhuman beings, but members of the community, belonging to all levels of society. The Resistance of women was born, not from the will of a few, but from the spontaneous initiative of the many.
After the war, 200,000 Italians were registered formally as active members of the Resistance, of which official records show 55,000 were women. More were never identified as part of the fight against fascism and the Nazis.
The diary/memoir covers the resistance to the Nazis when they entry Turin on September 10, 1943 to the liberation of the city on April 28,1945.
Ada Prospero Gobetti recorded the events on an almost daily basis, a dangerous undertaking. She jotted down her entries in a cryptic English that only she could understand; at the war’s end she deciphered the jottings for publication. The act of keeping an anti-fascist diary during the Nazi occupation carried an automatic death penalty.
Her involvement in the resistance movement goes back to 1922. Ada’s husband, the anti-Fascist activist Piero Gobetti, founded the anti Mussolini/fascist pamphlet Rivoluzione Liberale. Gobetti was arrested and beaten to death by Fascist gangs at age 24.
Ada, who found time to translate Sir Francis Bacon and Alexander Pope while tending to her teenage son Paolo,vowed to continue his work, as did Paolo. Her pride in her son and at the same time her fears that he will be captured are central themes in this story.
This book reads like a thriller, it provides first-hand knowledge of how the partisans in Piedmont fought and who joined the struggle against the Nazis and the Fascists.
Ada ran a network of safe houses in Turin for anti-Fascists in need of refuge. Among these was the sister of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, Anna Maria Levi. She and Paolo smuggled weapons and explosives into the Susa valley, adjacent to the French border, over mule paths and dense forests.
“4 September. It had gotten dark by now and soon we left with the new Tommy gun and what was necessary for derailing the train. We did not know exactly at what hour it would pass, but by now it was certain that no more civilian trains would pass by before dawn. We had to make the preparations quickly in order not to miss the strike.” — Ada Gobetti
Irma Bandiera was the treasured daughter of a wealthy family from Bologna. She became a partisan fighter in the VII Brigade Gruppi di Azione Patriottica (GAP) Gianni Garibaldi of Bologna. As was common with those who fought for the resistance she took a battle name: Mimma.
Captured with encrypted documents by the Fascists working with the German SS, after transporting weapons to her brigade near Castel Maggiore, she was tortured, blinded and then shot, having refused to give up the names of her comrades. On August 14, 1944, her body was left lying on the road near her home for a whole day as a warning to others who sought to join the resistance.
In her honor, a formation of partisans operating at Bologna was named First Brigade Garibaldi “Irma Bandiera”. She was awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valor (Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare).
After The War
After April 1945, Italian women began to participate in the politics of their country in unprecedented number. Fifty percent of the women elected to the postwar Parliament had a partisan background. The gains Italian women earned through their courageous work with the resistance resulted in them acquiring a seat at the table of Italian politics that they retain today.
Pittura per l’eternità (painting for eternity”) is what painter Domenico Ghirlandaio deemed the art of Pietre Dure in the 15th century. Polychrome hardstone inlay uses delicately thin slices of highly polished colored stones that are cut and fitted together to create images; assembled so precisely that the contact between each section is practically invisible.
Semi-precious stones like coral, garnet, malachite, jasper, lapis lazuli and amethyst are arranged in compositions to look like paintings; the natural grain of the stones and marble is exploited to create incredible effects (clouds, leaves and petals, skin, fur, etc.) that at first glance look like paintings.
The art is known worldwide as a specialty of 16th century Florentine artists, but it was also practiced at the courts of Naples, Madrid, Moscow, Prague, Paris and elsewhere. The colorful stones were arranged on tables, large and small, jewelry chests and cabinets of curiosities, to create landscapes and flower scenes. While the common belief is that the art form originated in Italy, some scholars argue that it had an Indian origin, or at least an independent history in that country. A famous example of pietre dure is the Taj Mahal, finished in 1643. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan asked for precious stones to be inlaid in white marble. The result was some of the most impressive pietre dure architectural designs ever crafted.
In 1588, the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando of Tuscany founded a workshop for the purpose of developing pietre dure and other decorative art forms. The ducal workshop, renamed the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which eventually became a museum and restoration laboratory, still exists today and it is the first place a visitor to Florence should go to learn more about the technique of inlaid stone. (Via degli Alfani 78r, Florence, tel. 055-218709; closed weekdays after 2 pm & on Sunday).
Scarpelli – Master Craftsmen
After leaving the museum go directly to Renzo Scarpelli’s store and workshop, Le Pietre nell’Arte on Via Ricasoli 59r. (tel. 055-212587; closed Sunday) There Renzo, his son Leonardo and their four collaborators create Florentine mosaics using traditional methods passed down from the Renaissance. Part art gallery, part laboratory, it is a huge fascinating place, where the old bricks, columns and stones of a 13th century stable have been brought to light after a painstaking restoration.
The Scarpelli Bottega d’Arte is open to all visitors wanting look around the workbenches, where the mosaic artists (mosaicist) labor, creating the stone shapes, and thus discover a bit about the secrets of this ancient art. The staff and artisans are invested in helping their clientele understand the importance and intricacies of the art form. Shoppers can purchase a wall plaque, medallion or cameo here, or even commission a unique masterpiece based on custom drawings.
Renzo Scarpelli was born in Firenzuola (northeast of Florence) in 1947. Working in pietre dure was not his family’s business. His personal passion caused him to apprentice in one of the most ancient Florentine workshops when he was only 13 years old. After many years of training and art studies, he managed to open his own studio in Florence in the 1970’s and was thus able to design his first creations in pietre dure, known in Florence as mosaico fiorentino or commesso fiorentino.
He is now known internationally as one of the master craftsmen in the field and his works hang on museum walls as well as in fine private collections. Fearing the loss of the art form, he has a deep commitment to using his talents as a teacher and passing down the art of Florentine mosaic work.
His son Leonardo was fascinated by the laboratory from early childhood, showing not only a ready willingness to learn, but great skill in his designs and his work with the stone. After completing his studies in mosaics and pictorial decoration, he decided to join his father in the bottega. For over ten years now, Leonardo has been signing works of his own creation and is considered one of the finest artists of the new generation, especially when it comes to modern design. His “painting in stones” is a blend of arts and crafts, tradition and innovation.
Renzo and Leonardo work together in the laboratorio and create artistic masterpieces of a very high quality indeed. Stefano and Pierpaolo, who boast many years of experience and a good grounding in painting, cooperate and support the laboratory production following instructions of the master craftsmen.
Gabriella supported her husband Renzo throughout his professional career and built up a business of her own in the unique design, fabrication and repair of pendants, earrings and necklaces in stones.
Catia, Renzo’s eldest daughter, after years of experience in other fields, has decided to follow the family tradition and is today responsible for running the business side of the company. She is assisted by Mayumi, who is key in sharing the pietre dure story with clients.
The Art of Pietre Dure
Craftsmen and artists worked together in an opificio delle pietre dure, or laboratorio, or bottega to create decorative artworks in stone. The painters play a fundamental part among them because they create the sketches. But in the beginning there is the stone.
The “stone seeker” (cercatore di pietre) is of prime importance. This is the person who knows everything there was to know about the raw materials and where to find them. In the time of the Medici dukes the maps of the cercatore di pietre were guarded and prized. (See this zen-like video of a cercatore di pietre going about his work.) The search for the right stones, carried out in the same places where Renaissance artists originally found their materials, is still a particularly painstaking job and a vital step in the production of pietre dure.
Many of the stones still come from the hills around Florence, among them “Paesina” stone and the “Gabbro” or granite from Impruneta or “Lilla” (quartzite) and “Alberese” (limestone) from Chianti, together with others from the river valleys near the Arno, including the grey “Colombino” stone and the “Green stone of the Arno”. These typical hues from the Tuscan territory are then combined with brighter colored stones like lapis lazuli, malachite and turquoises that are imported from abroad
The stones arrive at the laboratory, where each block of rough stone is cut into slices measuring about 3 mm thick. The commesso fiorentino then selects the colors needed from among the various stones, a process known as macchiatura or coloring, essential for the chromatic effect of the work.
Then the hard work begins – the cutting and matching (commettere) of the various hues (the origin of the name commesso fiorentino), so as to create a perfect match between the individual pieces and complete the composition of the entire inlaid design. An enormous amount of stone is needed to choose the perfect hue and matrix, which only emerges during the cutting of the stone in its raw state.
The paper design created by the artist is cut into dozens of small pieces that are then pasted onto the thin stone slices to capture the perfect matrix and color. Using the centuries-old technique that employs a curved branch of chestnut or cherry wood and a piece of wire, the artist (mosaicista) cuts each tiny piece by rubbing the stone with scouring powder and water so as to be able to cut the small complicated shapes as precisely as possible.
The mosaicista uses a series of files to finish off the shapes of the pieces of stone until they fit together perfectly and then bonds them with a beeswax and rosin paste. A slab of slate is used as a backing and support for the composition. The last step is the polishing, done by hand, which brings out the colors of the natural stone.
The Chapel of the Princes
“Painting for eternity” goes to the extreme in the Cappelle Medici, also known as the Chapel of the Princes, a grandiose mausoleum attached to the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. This tomb/chapel/throne room was erected between 1604 and 1640 to celebrate the absolute power of the ruling Medici dynasty.
The octagonal room, where many of the Grand Dukes are buried in gigantic sarcophagi, is encrusted floor to ceiling with semi-precious stone and marble inlay executed by the skilled workers employed at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. An internal coating of lapis lazuli was meant to cover the vast dome, but even the Medici didn’t have enough money to procure the costly stones and, in the early 19th century, it was finally painted in fresco.
My friend Nancy tries to get to Florence each year. While there she haunts the museums and the churches. When she goes home, does she take fine leather, golden bracelets, and marbleized paper? No, she carries a few tubes of toothpaste, a couple of bars of soap and a bag of Mattei brutti ma buoni.
Why? Because she likes sweets and loves to have everyday products around her that remind her of her trip. Products made in Florence. Little did she know how trendy she was until she ran across an ad for her toothpaste in an international fashion magazine.
Marvis toothpaste is made in Florence. It is now taking the fashionable world by storm. So what is the story? Toothpaste from Tuscany?
Dentifricio Marvis, as the Florentines call it, was originally registered by Conte Franco Cella Di Rivara in Florence in 1958. The company’s most productive period was during the ‘70s, when it became known for being particularly effective for smokers’ stained teeth. Many say the name came from a combination of the words Marvel + Vis (latin for strength).
Marvis was overshadowed by Crest and Colgate until it was bought by the Ludovico Martelli company in 1997. The Martelli family, with its patriarch Ludovico, started a Florentine cosmetics company in 1908. In 1948, when Ludovico’s son, Piero, took over, the company launched a brand of shaving products called Proraso (not something Nancy will buy, except as gifts for her sons).
Fans of Marvis love the extra strong minty freshness of the toothpaste (though there are those who swear by the jasmine Mint or the Amarelli Licorice), packaged in beautiful aluminum retro tubes. The design has found favor around the world at sites like Eataly and the Wall Street Journal. The Martelli company has been savvy in gifting participants at the Pitti fashion shows with miniature tubes of Marvis. The Marvis website is also a joy to behold, unlike most that Italy has to offer.
It’s distributed in over forty countries and sold at upscale pharmacies (as well as on Amazon.com). In Italy, Marvis can be found in both grocery stores and pharmacies.
It has YouTube fans (including a couple of guys who brush for the camera) and is stocked at MR PORTER, the menswear bellwether for when a brand has made it. Marvis gets a shout out on THE LINE and is included in its “stories“. Its name was dropped by former Valentino Chairman, Giancarlo Giammetti, and J.Crew’s Frank Muytjens, who reportedly called it one of the things he carries around the world with him.
The first product created was the Classic Strong Mint Toothpaste, which is still the best seller of the whole range, especially in Italy. All Marvis product are based on a minty taste declined in seven different flavours: from the strong freshness of the classic mint to the delicate flowery taste of Jasmine Mint. It retails for $9 to $12. The latest addition to the Marvis family, an alcohol-free mouthwash infused with tingle-inducing herbal extracts, remains strong even when diluted from concentrate.
The company wants to make the mundane activities of brushing teeth and shaving into a daily ritual of Italian pleasure.
When you visit Italy, don’t take that t-short back to your grandkids. Take Florentine Toothpaste!
Colomba Pasquale or Colomba di Pasqua (“Easter Dove” in English) is an Italian traditional Easter cake, the counterpart of the two well-known Italian Christmas desserts, panettone and pandoro. The colomba traces its birth to the Lombardia region, but is enjoyed throughout Italy at Easter time.
The dough for the colomba is made in a similar manner to panettone, with flour, eggs, sugar, natural yeast and butter. Some prefer the light yellow dough studded with citrus peel or dried fruits; others want to only enjoy the sweetened cake.
The sticky dough is fashioned into a dove-shape paper mold (or fashioned with two crossed halves of the dough to form the suggestion of a bird) and finally is topped with pearl sugar and almonds before being baked.
Some manufacturers produce other versions including a popular bread topped with chocolate, but purists would argue that this is an unnecessary exaggeration.
There are a couple of fanciful stories about the origin of colomba. One version has the colomba dating back to 1176, commemorating the Lombardian victory over Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. During the deciding Battle of Legnano, according to this version, two doves representing the Holy Ghost miraculously appeared on the Milanese battle standards.
Another legend dates the bread to 572, when Alboin, King of the Lombards, conquered Pavia after a three-year siege. He demanded the typical tribute, including a dozen maidens, 11 of whom succumbed. The twelfth girl, however, arrived on the fateful night with a sweet bread in the shape of a dove, a symbol of peace. Alboin was so charmed (or exhausted) that he set her free, spared Pavia from destruction and made it his capital. (He later was assassinated on the orders of Rosamund, his Gepid wife, whom he forced to drink from the skull of her dead father, which he carried around his belt, inviting her “to drink merrily with her father.”)
In more mundane times, the colomba was commercialized by the Milanese baker and businessman Angelo Motta as an Easter version of the Christmas specialty panettone that Motta company were already producing. Motta, however, does not rate as high these days among the producers. The honor of the best commercial colomba goes to Tre Marie and Bauli.
Many local Easter specialties incorporating the dove can be found throughout Italy. The dove, a pagan symbol of the coming of spring as well as the sign of the Holy Spirit in Catholicism, is the inspiration for a sweet called pastifuorti or moscardini in Palermo, pasta raffinata in Noto, and incanniddati in Syracuse, where it is shaped like a dove sitting with little candies at its base.
The village of Solomeo is perched on the Umbrian hills ten minutes outside Perugia, about a two-hour drive from Florence. This is the home of Brunello Cucinelli cashmere luxury clothing.
Brunello Cucinelli, the son of a rural laborer, decided to drop out of engineering school in Perugia in the mid-70s. (A few years ago, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Philosophy and Ethics from the University of Perugia). He got a loan from his local bank to try his hand dyeing cashmere a bright rainbow of colors.
Why cashmere? Cucinelli explains, “Because I never thought it would be thrown away. I wanted to manufacture something that theoretically never dies.” Other clothes may go to waste, but something made of cashmere goes from a piece of fine clothing, to every-day wear, to a favorite comfy knock-around-the-house outfit with holes or patches at the elbows. “You see the idea of guardianship; it all ties in together,” he has said. “[I]t has the fascination of eternity. You either pass it along, or find another use for it, but there is something eternal about it,” he told the men’s fashion magazine The Rake.
At the time there was no brightly colored cashmere being produced in Italy or elsewhere. He told the story to BusinessofFashion.com. “So I went to the dye shop and here we had the most famous dye expert, a young guy, who was wearing a ponytail and was very fashionable. … Alessio, he was 28 and I was 25, but he had such a taste and flair. I said, ‘I’d like this to be orange.’ ‘No, no. This is cashmere, you can’t possibly dye it. You’re crazy,’ he said. … [I said] ‘Alessio, you’re so young, how can you say we can’t possibly manage it? We can’t possibly do it? Yes, yes, come on, we can do it!’
“And I convinced him and talked him round. I took these six sweaters, three V-necks, three round [necks]… these six sweaters in six beautiful colors. In terms of the product, it was innovative. I was seeking perfection for one single thing. I was the man with the sweaters; the cashmere guy.”
The business started with 90% knitwear. Now, knitwear is only 35%, but still 60% of the collection is made out of cashmere. (In the winter collection, nearly everything is all made of cashmere.)
As the brand grew, so did the headquarters. In 1987, Cucinelli moved the business to the village where his wife was born, Solomeo. Slowly the company took over responsibility for restoration of the entire town, which today also encompasses a theater, an amphitheater, and the Aurelian Neo-Humanistic Academy, which hosts seminars on philosophy, history, architecture and spirituality.
There’s also a vineyard, a library and a school of arts and crafts that teaches masonry, gardening and farming, tailoring, knitting, cutting and sewing, darning and mending. In the tailoring course, students are awarded scholarships of 700 euros ($891) a month. Cucinelli relishes the exchange between students, artists and workers.
“Ever since my very first employee, I always thought the work should be done in a healthy and pleasant environment, with better human relationships. I can’t ease the weight of the job, which is often repetitive, but I can help with nice big windows for a beautiful view and to see the light outside.” While working conditions are important, his workers are also paid around 20% more than their Italian peers. The working hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 90-minute lunch break. (Many employees go home for lunch, but the company offers a lunch three courses daily for €2.80 – including wine and olive oil from Cucinelli’s vineyards and groves.)
To ensure the continuity of his company, the unity of the village—as well as for his daughters Camilla and Carolina who both work in product development for the brand—Cucinelli has set up an irreversible trust. In 2010, Cucinelli received the Cavaliere del Lavoro award, Italy’s top business recognition, from the president of Italy.
The trust is a separate entity from theFondazione Brunello e Federica Cucinelli, whose goal is “the improvement and beauty of humanity.” This Cucinelli thinks is part of the Umbrian culture, with a philosophy stemming “from Saint Benedict and Saint Francis, to never turn your back on mankind.” In 2011, the Cucinelli Foundation donated $1.3 million to help restore the Etruscan Arch in Perugia, dating back to the third century B.C. This year work is scheduled to start on Un Progetto per la Bellezza— “A Project for Beauty”—a plan for the development of a series of parks in the valley beneath the village of Solomeo
In 2012, the company gave Christmas bonuses of 6,000 euros ($7,513) each to longtime employees to mark the listing of the company on the Italian stock market to thank them for their support and for helping make the IPO possible.
Brunello Cucinelli’s business philosophy? “First, it is important to make a profit because there is nothing wrong with that and that is the purpose of a business,” he told FT.com. “Secondly, to take some of that profit for myself and my family, because there is nothing wrong with making Brunello rich. Thirdly, the profit must go to the workers to give their work dignity and lastly, profit must also go towards the local community, whether that may be a hospital, a theatre, a monastery.”
His responsibility to the customer? Again to FT.com, “If you buy a sweater for €1,000 and you know that the funds you are paying are also going to help to build a hospital and a school, wouldn’t you think better about it? If I know a product is made well I will buy. I don’t want to buy something that has harmed anyone, this is my absolutely strongest belief, and I believe other people think this too. Or if they don’t now, they will”.
He goes on to tell The Rake, “Quality artisanship and creativity could be used to create a brand that expressed exclusivity through very refined details. Otherwise, what would be the point of manufacturing in Italy if we didn’t take advantage of the top-quality artisanal know-how available here? I want to provide you with a garment that, when you look at it or put it on, it expresses all that is best in Italy. I want to communicate our heritage to you.”
British-born John Hooper took on the almost impossible task of explaining to the outside world what makes the Italians so unique. Hooper was not living under the Tuscan sun for the last fifteen years, but was reporting from Rome, so his new book, simply entitled The Italians, isn’t a view full of good food, beautiful people and quaint customs. It is a complex, but very readable, analysis of the culture, connecting the historical antecedents with the present day political complexities and economic woes.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t mention the fabulous food (see Chapter 8 “Gnocchi on Thursdays”) or the beautiful people (Chapter 6 “Face Values”) or quaint customs (Chapter 7 “Life as Art” and Chapter 13 “People Who Don’t Dance”) or, of course, the intricacies of Italian soccer (Chapter 14 “Taking Sides”). He, however, intertwines those discussions with a serious analysis of why Italy is having such a hard time joining the international marketplace and can’t play well with its neighbors, thus precluding any significant assistance with major problems like the influx into Italy of Africans fleeing in boats from Tunisia and Libya.
For those of us expats who have lived in Italy for years it is a fun book to read because the organization lend itself to dipping in and out of subjects where we get insight on cultural issues we’ve noticed for ages but never knew the “why” of. For the occasional visitor to Italy, The Italians will describe a fascinating world that is rarely seen on the tourist paths. (Jan Morris’s piece in Literary Review probably captures this best.) For Italians, reading Hooper’s book, I cannot rightly predict the response and leave that for other venues.
John Hooper was educated at St. Benedict’s School in London and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied history. His wanderlust began early when at the age of 18, he travelled to the breakaway state of Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war.
After graduating, Hooper worked for the BBC, followed by the Independent Radio News and the Daily Telegraph, and eventually became a freelance correspondent for a number of news organisations including the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and NBC. In 1976, he was appointed by the Guardian as its correspondent in Madrid. Over the next three years, he reported on the end of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and covered Spain’s eventful transition to democracy following the death of General Franco.
Hooper wrote his first book, The Spaniards, which won the 1987 Allen Lane award for a best first work of history or literature. In 2006, a updated version of the book was released, entitled The New Spaniards.
In 1994, he was posted to Rome as Southern Europe Correspondent for the Guardian and subsequently The Observer. Three years later, he brought to light the so-called ‘Ship of Death’ migrant trafficking disaster and was a member of the award-winning Observer team that investigated its aftermath.
After five years of reporting from Berlin and Afghanistan, Hooper returned to Rome as Italy correspondent for The Economist and the Guardian, and in 2012 he was appointed Southern Europe editor of the latter.
Luigi Barzini wrote The Italians in 1964, a book that has remained in print and is still quoted today as one of the best books to define the Italian character. Your book, released early this year, has been well-received, and is also titled, The Italians. How has the Italian character changed in the last fifty years? In your opinion, what has been the biggest single influence on the Italian character in that span of time?
First of all, I should say that I didn’t know Italy in 1964. I first visited the country four years later as a teenager. But I spent a couple of months working, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, so I had a glimpse of the after-glow of that extraordinary period of economic growth and social change that so attracted foreigners to Italy in the late 1950s and the early 1960s and which inspired Barzini to write his book for them – a great book, in my opinion, which although some parts are now a bit outdated, nevertheless contains many observations that are as true today as when they were first written. That alone would suggest that the Italian character has not altered very much since 1964. But my impression is that Italians have become more materialistic and less happy and optimistic than they were then.
You are British and live in Rome. What is the biggest benefit of examining and writing about the Italian culture from the viewpoint of someone who has only lived in the country for fifteen years or so? What is the biggest handicap?
Well, I would say that 15 years is actually quite a long time for a foreigner to live in another country. I doubt if most of the books that have been written about Italy have been written by authors with that much experience of it. But having said that, I think that a decade and a half is still a short enough period for one to retain the curiosity and sense of being an outsider that you need to write a book like the Italians, because there comes a point when a foreigner ceases to be a foreigner and becomes one of the locals. At that point, you cease to be much use as a foreign correspondent and you become blind to the idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to see in order to write a book like mine.
How much extra research did you have to do to write The Italians or did it flow naturally out of the pieces you were writing for the The Guardian, The Observer, and The Economist?
No. Not at all. There is some material in The Italians that derives from my work as a journalist, but my aim was to write a book about all the things that we foreign correspondents do not touch upon. We write about politics and economics – and there is some of that in The Italians – and we write about dramatic events like earthquakes, but we write very little about society and our perceptions of the people who inhabit the countries on which we report, and all of that is at the core of The Italians.
I once hypothesized that Putin and Berlusconi were lounging around a pool one day and Vladimir advised that Silvio should follow his political path by moving from the post of Prime Minister to President and back again as a way to stay in power and out of court. Is this pure fantasy on my part or did Silvio Berlusconi see himself in the Italian presidency once Giorgio Napolitano stepped down? Is this the basis of Berlusconi’s recent “360 degree” turn against Matteo Renzi’s reform plans?
Berlusconi is nothing if not ambitious. I think that he may very well have once dreamed of becoming head of state. But I think that he realised that the sex scandals – Bunga Bunga and all that – made it impossible. On the other hand, I think that he felt that, having given such valuable support to Matteo Renzi’s programme of constitutional and political reform, he was entitled to a say in who would be the next president. In the event, Renzi outwitted him by finding a candidate [Sergio Mattarella] who was acceptable to the vast majority of the lawmakers in his otherwise divided party. That, above all, explains Berlusconi’s hostility since then.
In The Italians, you quoted a judge interviewed after a recent notorious trial: “Our acquittal is the result of the truth that was created in the trial. The real truth will remain unresolved and may even be different.” In a country where it sometimes seems that people spend more time in jail before the guilty verdict is rendered than after, do you see any possibility of judicial reform in the coming decade? Or is that what is needed?
It is certainly what is needed. But whether it will materialise is another matter. Renzi’s emphasis is on the reform of the civil, as distinct from the criminal, justice system. That is because the delays and uncertainties in the civil justice system are a main – possibly the main – obstacle to foreign investment.
How does the declining Italian birthrate and the declining rate of marriages affect what is described in your book as “amoral familism” where “[l]oyalty to the family superseded loyalty to any wider grouping, be it the village, province , region or nation”? Also, will these demographic factors have an affect on Italian mammismo?
One of the points that I make in the book is that, while the nature of the family is changing in Italy, family bonds remain extraordinarily strong. So far at least, I am not seeing a decline in that menefreghismo, that lack of a sense of broader responsibility to the rest of society, in the areas where it has traditionally been most prevalent – that is, very generally speaking, in the south and in the cities. But I think that it will fall away in time. As for mammismo, I’m not sure. Will Italian mothers with only one son be any less attentive and possessive than their mothers who had two or three? I doubt it. On the other hand, mothers with only one son are likely to be mothers who have a job, and who will just not have the same amount of time to devote to their children. So, on the whole, I suspect that mammismo too is destined to a gradual retreat.
In the interviews for the launch of your book, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been? And how would you respond?
That’s a very cunning question! Nobody has asked me if I have any regrets about my time in Italy. And I do: I have not spent as much time as I would like to have done on Italy’s many islands, and in particular on Sardinia.
For more articles on The Italians and John Hooper look here, here, and here.