Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Death at the Duomo, 5 questions for the author

Death at the Duomo is the first book, just released, in a new series of mystery/thrillers set in Florence, Italy. The Renaissance City’s fictional murder rate is about to rise, requiring the pairing a young Florentine detective, Caterina Falcone, half American, half Italian, with Max Turner, an agent from the American Embassy. The first novel begins with an explosion outside the Duomo on a festival day.

Death at the Duomo High Res Front Cover 1500 PIXELS

(Most long-time readers of this website know that the author of Death at the Duomo and Tuscan Traveler are one in the same. So this is the semi-strange situation of a self-interview to announce the book’s launch.)

Where did you get the premise for Death at the Duomo?

I love mysteries of all kinds, but especially those set in countries not my own. My favorites are by Donna Leon, Fred Vargas, Jason Goodwin, Daniel Silva and Joseph Kanon. After I had lived in Florence for a few years, I kept discovering places or events that I thought would be perfect for a murder. One was the exhibit of anatomical waxes at the La Specola Museum (the site used in the upcoming Caterina Falcone mystery) and another was Scoppio del Carro (literally, the Explosion of the Cart), the event at the beginning of the first book. With the colorful history of Florence there are unending possibilities for intriguing plots.

Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Scoppio del Carro (photo by Joe Messina)
Do you prefer to write a novel or a non-fiction book?

I started Tuscan Traveler to keep my writing “up to snuff”. The website provided the basis for my first books, Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules, as well as giving me bits of information for my touring clients. I found, however, that it was more fun to incorporate the scenes from Florentine life, information about Tuscan food, and tidbits from historical Florence into a novel. So I gave Caterina Falcone a father who is a chef and restaurant owner. I learned that FBI agents are stationed at most US embassies, but have restrictions placed on how they operate in foreign countries, and Max Turner came to life. I especially enjoy exploring the experiences, good and bad, of foreigners when they encounter the Italian food and life rules, so each of the mysteries will involve tourists and expats in Florence and Tuscany.

Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
Museo La Specola (photo by Daderot)
What was the best part about being a writer in Italy?

I have a great group of writing friends who meet two times a year in Matera, a fascinating town in the Basilicata region. In the spring a small group meets for a brainstorming session. Death at the Duomo was born there. In the fall the Women’s Fiction Festival takes place. The second year I went the speakers included experts in forensics, cyber-crime and investigations of international crimes. The third or fourth edition concentrated on food writing. Recent years have been rich with information about indie publishing. Every year, literary agents and editors from major publishing companies are available for pitches from authors and staff panels on what’s new in the world of publishing.

matera-womenAre you going to write a memoir about your sixteen years in Italy?

No. Others have written much better books than I could, ranging from the more standard “under the Tuscan sun” narratives to innovative memoirs, such as Dianne Hale’s two books on language and Mona Lisa.

What are your favorite Italian-theme books?

Besides my own, I would pick any book by Donna Leon, The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev, any book by Beppe Severgnini, The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey, any book by Conor Fitzgerald and Medici Money by Tim Parks. Other books that I like can be found here.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Renaissance Beauty, It was Work

Caterina Sforza's Gli Experimenti
Caterina Sforza’s Gli Experimenti

Today, women turn to magazines—Elle, Vogue, and In Style—to learn the best hair and cosmetic tips. They also visit their favorite dermatologist. In Renaissance Italy, cosmetics and hair care were very much part of the conversation of the nobility. Caterina Sforza, after she retired from defending the castle and married a Medici, developed her own line of herbal cosmetics and put them in a book, Gli Experimenti (1490).

I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese
I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese

Isabella Cortese, an Italian Renaissance alchemist, wrote her own book in 1561: I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese (The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese). But before Caterina and Isabella there was a doctor in Salerno who did the research and wrote a health and beauty treatise that was followed for four-hundred years, De Ornatu Mulierum, one section of what became known as the Trotula Minor.

Trotula de Ruggiero, also known as Trotula of Salerno, was reportedly born around 1090, into a wealthy family, which must have encouraged the education of women. In a lucky accident of historical timing a new medical school was built in Salerno in place of a Benedictine monastic dispensary dating back to the late 700s.

De Ornatu Mulierum by Trotula
De Ornatu Mulierum by Trotula

La Scuola Medica Salernitana condensed the knowledge of old treatises of Latin, Greek, Arabian and Hebrew medicine. It was the most important school of medicine in Europe in the Middle Ages, the predecessor of the modern medical university. It was the first academic institution to offer degrees and boasted a very inclusive approach to medicine, fusing three scientific traditions—European (based on the classical Greek and Roman knowledge), Islamic and Jewish.

Its most progressive feature was that, unlike other schools at the time, women were permitted to study there and even teach. Trotula stood out from her contemporaries. She became a professor at the school. She reportedly wrote the Trotula Major and Trotula Minor, a group of treatises on women’s medicine. (Recent research questions the attribution to one person.) Over 100 manuscripts of the De Ornatu Mulierum, devoted to beauty maintenance,  were circulated throughout Europe for several centuries.

Portrait of a Lady by Neroccio dei Landi (1485)
Portrait of a Lady by Neroccio dei Landi (1485)

Being blonde was better in Renaissance Italy. Just step into the Botticelli and the Filippo Lippi rooms at the Uffizi to see that there is rarely a depiction of a brunette. Trotula provided the recipes to achieve the look:

Bleaching and coloring hair took five days. The bleach was made from walnut shells and the bark of the same tree, boiled in water to which “alum and oak apples” were added. The mixture was smeared through the hair, then covered with leaves, tied with strings and left for for two days (except when exposed to the sun, see below). The excess was combed out and for three days thereafter the hair was colored with a paste made from “oriental crocus, dragon’s blood, and henna mixed with brazilwood.” The final step was a thorough rinse with hot water.

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)
Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)

Lengthy hours in the hot sun served as the heating mechanism that activated the “bleach” (the concoction described above for the first two days), were necessary. The process was difficult because upper-class women also wanted to keep their skin paler than pale. Therefore, they had to sit outside for hours fully covered to protect their skin with hats to protect their faces. The hat, called a solana, had the crown cut out in order to allow exposure to the sun’s rays to bleach the hair.

To cover the gray in black hair, De Ornatu Mulierum said to apply a mixture made by cooking “a green lizard in oil without its tail and head.” Then, oak apples were to be placed with oil in a dish and “let them be burned.” The ingredients were pulverized and mixed in vinegar with “blacking made in Gaul.” The paste was applied to the hair and left until all the gray was gone.

Portrait of a Women by Filippo Lippi (Uffizi)
Portrait of a Women by Filippo Lippi (Uffizi)

To encourage hair growth the  treatise said “take barley bread with the crust, grind it with salt and bear fat. But first burn the barley bread. With this mixture anoint the place and the hair will grow. In order to make the hair thick, take agrimonies and elm bark, root of vervain, root of willow, southernwood, burnt and pulverized linseed, and root of reed. Cook all these things with goat milk or water,” and apply to the head.

It was believed that seborrhea and dandruff were produced by worms growing under the scalp. To eliminate them Trotula recommended washing the hair with vinegar, rosemary water, nettles, mint, thyme and other herbs. And lice and mites were frequently a problem, even for the well-born: “For itch-mites eating away at the hair. Take myrtleberry, broom, [and] clary, and cook them in vinegar until the vinegar has been consumed, and with this rub the ends of the hair vigorously. This same thing removes fissures of the head if the head is washed well with it.”

Portrait of a Woman by Filippo Lippi
Portrait of a Woman by Filippo Lippi

Another recipe described the ingredients for a perfumed hair powder. “Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder, and it will smell marvelously.”

The upper-class Renaissance woman sought a high hairline, since a wide and high forehead was thought to be trait of intelligence and beauty during that era. Those who were not blessed with a naturally high forehead plucked their hairlines in order to get the desired effect. Then the area was rubbed with a pumice stone to hide any evidence of tweezing and to assure that no lines marred the brow. Thin light eyebrows were mandatory, so they were tweezed and bleached or cut to make certain that they were not too prominent. (Check out Mona Lisa’s lack of brows.) Eyelashes were to be short and thin, certainly not lush and long as is popular today.

Portrait of a Lady in Red, 1460-70 Italian School (National Gallery)
Portrait of a Lady in Red, 1460-70 Italian School (National Gallery)

Trotula’s work was translated to English in 2001 by Monica Green. (A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica H. Green. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2001).

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Italian Food Rules Goes On Sale

If you or your friends and family are going to Italy this year. Or if you want to do some armchair traveling, you should pick up Italian Food Rules and Italian Life Rules that I wrote after living in Florence for fifteen years. I broke every one of the “rules” before I learned to live like an Italian. I didn’t always agree with the rules, but I finally understood why they stood the test of time.

Beach Scene In Italy
Beach Scene In Italy

Did you know that Italians never drink cappuccino after 10 o’clock in the morning? Do you know why they never eat pizza for lunch? Why does the fruit vendor in the market yell at you when you check out the ripeness of the pears or the freshness of the green beans? I wrote about the rules and the reasons in Italian Food Rules.

Seen at the Florence Central Market
Seen at the Florence Central Market

Did you know that Italians don’t like wall-to-wall carpets? Why are they only allowed to have shutters in four colors in Tuscany? What’s the danger of air conditioning to Italians? Why are they carrying a neck scarf in the middle of the summer? Why is the Italian beach scene so different from the rest of the world, but exactly the same everywhere from Rimini to Calabria to Forte dei Marmi to Portofino? I tried to provide some insight in Italian Life Rules.

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From May 15 to May 22, the Kindle version of Italian Food Rules will be on sale for $1.99.

Italian Life Rules will go on sale at the Amazon Kindle Store for $1.99 from May 22 to May 28.

Digital books make great gifts and the paperback is the perfect size to carry in a pocket on your travels. Also on sale at Amazon.co.uk.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Aren’t the Spring Flowers Petaloso?

Spring flowers are much more part of gardens in America and England than in the evergreen Italianate gardens of Tuscany. But now is the time to tour the Bardini Garden of Florence to see the wisteria. It is surely petaloso. Or can we describe it that way? Is petaloso even a word?

Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)
Wisteria in the Bardini Gardens (photo by Helen Bayley www.helenbayley.com)

Early this February, in the small town of Copparo in central Italy, a primary school teacher, Margherita Aurora, was in a bind when one of her students, eight-year-old Matteo, used a made-up word in a written assignment.

Matteo described a flower as “petaloso” (“full of petals”). The word doesn’t exist in the Italian dictionary, but grammatically it makes sense as a combination of “petalo” (“petal”) and the suffix “-oso” (“full of”).

12778956_10153837051207209_2566454051572083941_oMs. Aurora marked the error by writing, “1 errore bello.” (“1 beautiful error”) But as only the best teachers do, she went a step further. She asked her class, “Did Matteo invent a new word? How are words created?”

With his teacher’s help, the students wrote to the Accademia della Crusca—the institution that oversees the use of the Italian language—to ask for their opinion.

imageTo their surprise, Matteo got a supportive reply. “The word you invented is well formed and could be used in the Italian language,” one of the Crusca’s linguistic experts wrote. “It is beautiful and clear.”

But, the linguist added, for a word to officially be part of the Italian language, a large number of people need to use it and understand its meaning. “If you manage to spread your word among many people who start saying ‘What a petaloso flower this is!’, then petaloso will have become a word in Italian.”

12671802_946244235430842_2005625424207388753_oMatteo’s teacher was thrilled by the reply. She wrote,”This is worth more than a thousand Italian lessons” on her Facebook page and shared pictures of the letter.

Cb_tAb1W8AEaoEgThis single act triggered a movement to do exactly what the Crusca had asked: make “petaloso” a widely known and used word.

10351262_1049581841766502_1159479361656688915_nHer original Facebook post has been shared more than 98,000 times. On Twitter #petaloso trended like crazy. Many tweeters used the word in context—demonstrating its wide use and commonly understood meaning, just as Accademia della Crusca had suggested. Italian companies joined the campaign, chefs created petaloso recipes, garden associations supported the idea, designers used it to advertise products, Italy’s prime minister joined the conversation on social media, the the story was reported throughout Europe, and even in the U.S. on NPR.

Life Stranger Than Fiction?

Accademia della Crusca is one of my favorite places. I’ve written about it before on TuscanTraveler.com.

51gW179x4BLImagine my joy when I read at the bottom of the letter from Accademia della Crusca to Matteo, a reference to an American author, Andrew Clements and his book, translated into Italian, Drilla.

The original American title is Frindle. The story is about an American schoolboy, Nick Allen, who likes to liven things up at school. When Nick learns some interesting information about how words are created, he’s got the inspiration for his best plan ever…the frindle. Who says a pen has to be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Things begin innocently enough as Nick gets his friends to use the new word. Then other people in town start saying frindle. Soon the school is in an uproar, and Nick has become a local hero. His teacher wants Nick to put an end to all this nonsense, but the funny thing is frindle doesn’t belong to Nick anymore. The new word is spreading across the country, and there’s nothing Nick can do to stop it.

41rY2x-D1-LThe reason the folks at Crusca learned about Frindle/Drilla was because a few years ago I gave the young son of an employee of the Accademia a copy of the Italian translation of this book that I had so enjoyed.

Maria Cristina Torchia at Crusca suggested that Matteo read the book with his teacher and his classmates. “[R]acconta proprio una storia come la tua, la storia di un bambino che inventa una parola e cerca di farla entrare nel vocabolario.”  (“It tells a story just like yours, the story of a child who invents a word and tries to enter it in the dictionary.”)  As petaloso started to trend in Italy, so did Drilla. The Italian publisher wrote to Crusca to thank them for the reference.

I hope that someday I’ll be able to report that petoloso has been officially added to the Italian lexicon.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – A Duomo Doesn’t Need a Dome

For years I told friends and family that the Duomo of Florence was called “duomo” because of the dome. Finally, because I was confused by the fact that Milan’s Duomo didn’t have a dome, I did the research. I was mistaken or just completely wrong.

Florence Duomo
Florence Duomo

Even the U.S.-based National Geographic got it wrong: “The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), nicknamed the Duomo after the enormous octagonal dome [emphasis added] on its east end, is the cathedral of Florence, Italy, and, arguably, the birthplace of the Renaissance.” There are two problems here. First is the duomo/dome mistake. And while Santa Maria del Fiore is a basilica, it is not one of the four major basilicas (see below), and should probably be designated as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

What is a Duomo?

Usually, “Duomo” is a term for an Italian cathedral church (or a former cathedral church). Italian for cathedral is cattedrale. To be designated a cattedrale, the church must have a bishop and a bishop’s chair (cattedra). But to make it more difficult, some, like the Duomo of Monza, have never been cathedrals, but are old and important.

Milan Duomo
Milan Duomo

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Lo Zingarelli, the main Italian dictionary, the word “duomo” derives from the Latin word “domus“, meaning “house.” In ancient Rome, the domus was the type of house occupied by the upper classes. It could be found in almost all the major cities throughout the Roman territories. The modern English word “domestic” comes from Latin domesticus, which is derived from the word domus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin was spoken only by members of the clergy, and so domus started to be used to address the “house of God.” A cathedral is considered the “house of God” or domus Dei and “house of the Bishop” or domus Ecclesia.

San Gimignano Duomo
San Gimignano Duomo

The most important church in each city is often called Duomo followed by the name of the city; for example, Duomo di Milano or Duomo di Firenze. This can include small towns, like San Gimignano in Tuscany, which also has a duomo, but wasn’t a cathedral, and the Duomo di Volterra, which was a cathedral with a bishop. There is, however, no church in Rome known as the Duomo or even, a duomo.

The Duomo in Florence

The official website of Florence’s Opera del Duomo tells us: “Santa Maria del Fiore, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, is the third largest church in the world (after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London) and was the largest church in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century. It is 153 metres long, 90 metres wide at the crossing, and 90 metres high from the floor to the bottom of the lantern. [The cathedral] was dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412, a clear allusion to the lily, the symbol of the city of Florence.”

Again, having nothing to do with “duomo” or “domus”, the dome of the Florence Cathedral is known in Italian as the “cupola”, as it is for any dome on any Italian church.

Consisting of two interconnected ogival shells, the Duomo’s octagonal cupola was erected between 1420 and 1434 to a design of Filippo Brunelleschi. His innovative approach involved vaulting the dome space without any scaffolding by using a double shell with a space in between. The inner shell (with a thickness of more than two meters) is made of light bricks set in a herringbone pattern and is the self-supporting structural element while the outer dome simply serves as a heavier, wind-resistant covering.

The cupola is crowned by a lantern with a conical roof, designed by Brunelleschi but only built after his death in 1446, while the gilt copper sphere and cross on top of the lantern, containing holy relics, was designed by Andrea del Verrocchio and installed in 1466.

Monza Duomo
Monza Duomo
What is a Basilica?

The Basilica was a Roman public building, a sort of tribunal. (The term basilica comes from a Greek word meaning regal or kingly.) When the ancient Romans spoke of a basilica they were referring to a large, high-ceilinged hall with three long aisles. In the centuries after the Roman Empire, the term basilica started to mean “big church,” because the first big churches were built in the style of the old Roman basilicas. Some architectural elements that you can often find in a church (for example, columns, apses, naves) were already present in pre-Christian Roman buildings. Nowadays, many of the main churches in Italy have the formal name of Basilica followed by the name of a saint; for example, Basilica di San Pietro (in Rome), Basilica di San Marco (in Venice).

Over the centuries, the Popes have awarded the title “Minor Basilica” to churches that had unusual historical significance, or were especially sacred because of the presence of a relic or relics. There are over 1400 minor basilicas around the world, 527 just in Italy alone. These honorary basilicas include the great church at the Grotto in Lourdes, the Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice, the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The designation Major Basilica is restricted to the four greatest churches in Rome St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Update: During the week of 10 April 2016 the news site of La Repubblica Firenze reported that the tourist information signs at the central Florence train station had misidentified the Church of Santa Maria Novella as the Florence Cathedral.

(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)
(photo from LaRebblicaFirenze.it)

Mangia! Mangia! – Tuscan Holiday Treats for Spring

Carnival and Easter are the best times for desserts in Italy, especially in Tuscany. I have a sweet tooth, but have never been a big fan of Italian dolce. (I prefer French pastries and cakes.) But that all changes every spring. In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of giant Italian chocolate eggs and Colomba di Pasqua (the Easter Dove). Now it’s time to wrap up the quartet of Easter delights that are found in every pastry shop and café for the next two months – schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci.

Easter Eggs

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a large, rectangular, flat, powdered sugar-dusted, citrus sponge cake. The scent of orange peel and vanilla are the predominant notes and it is traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped Chantilly (my favorite) or pastry cream. You know you have the right sweet when you see the stenciled Florentine giglio, the symbolic lily of Florence, dusted over the top in powdered sugar or contrasting cocoa powder.

schiacciata-alla-fiorentina-You can sit down for a small square portion or take home a whole cake. During Carnival and Easter week, you may have to reserve your whole schiacciata alla fiorentina a day ahead of time at the best pasticceria, selecting a filling, or not, and requesting a white or chocolate giglio.

The name confused me in the beginning. In Florence, schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ and usually refers to a savory salt and olive oil drenched flat bread (similar to focaccia). There is also schiacciata all’uva in the fall, which is also a traditional bread dough, but layered with grapes from the new harvest. The only thing they all have in common is that they are flat, which perhaps makes sense.

Pellegrino Artusi (born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì, August 4, 1820 – died in Florence, March 30, 1911), the father of Tuscan cooking talks of stiacciata delle Murate, a cake fed only to condemned prisoners of the Murate Prison in Florence “in the 1700s” before they were sent to be executed, essentially their “last bite of the sweet life.”

SCHIACCIATA-alla-fiorentina-2--525x564Other food historians dispute this since the Murate was a convent until 1808 and Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment in Tuscany in 1786. Perhaps the Murate nuns devised the recipe and were baking the cakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday each spring.

Schiacciata alla fiorentina traditionally included lard in the recipe, but today olive oil or butter or Crisco replaces this. Some recipes you might try are here, here and here.

Today’s schiacciata alla fiorentina is a delicately scented, light cake that’s not too sweet. Artusi’s rule that it be no thicker than the width of two fingers is not always followed. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange juice and zest, and soft, spongy texture, make it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack and I know people who have it for breakfast up until Lent and then again on Easter Sunday. It pairs well with coffee, tea and a good vin santo.

For the best places to find schiacciata alla fiorentina in Florence check out last year’s competition winners and this slightly different list. My favorites are Bar Pasticceria Giorgio in the Soffiano neighborhood and I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi in Piazza Gaetano Salvemini .

Cenci

The last of my favorite Tuscan Easter treats is cenci. The literal meaning of the word is “rags” and these addictive fried flat strips of dough look like rags. You are supposed to stop eating them when Lent starts, but the bakers of Florence know that is impossible to do. And, anyway, you will have them again at Easter.

CenciThe recipe supposedly comes from ancient Rome. Other parts of Italy indulge in the treat during Carnival and so there are many names: bugie (lies) (Piemont, Liguria), chiacchiere (talk) (Lombardy), crostolo, grostolo or galano (Venice), frappa (Emilia), sfrappole and sfrapla (Bologna), crespelle or sprelle (Umbria, Lazio), and meraviglie (wonderful) (Sardenia). Artusi again weighed in saying they are shaped like rags so they should be called cenci.

The dough for cenci is usually not sweet, but flavored with anise or orange liquor or vin santo or grappa. The flattened dough is cut in a variety of shapes (in Florence it’s short raggedy rectangles), fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Try to make your own by using the recipes here, here and here.

I love the cenci from the bakery, Pugi, in Piazza San Marco, but others have their own favorite places.

From the beginning of Carnival and for about a week after Easter you will be able to indulge in chocolate eggs, Colomba di Pasqua, schiacciata alla fiorentina, and cenci. After that you will have to wait another year — as it should be.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Strappo, the way to save a fresco

Many people do not realize that the majority of frescoes in Florence have been removed and reattached in the place where they were originally painted. The process of “tearing” the fresco off the original wall is called Strappo.

Frescoes in the cloister of the Badia Fiorentina
Frescoes in the cloister of the Badia Fiorentina

Fresco (affresco) means “wet”. Paint is applied to wet plaster and becomes part of the plaster. This allows the fresco to look virtually the same for over a thousand years, so long as it is not exposed to water or sunlight. Frescoes are permanent because of their chemical composition. Lime paste, which is produced by heating calcium carbonate with limestone, is the active ingredient in the wet plaster on which the fresco is painted. When lime paste is exposed to air it changes back into insoluble calcium carbonate, a hard crust, with the process of carbonatation. If pigment is applied to this type of plaster when wet, it becomes trapped and is permanent because it is chemically stable. (Those who are interested in the full process of creating a 15th century fresco should read “How to paint a fresco (the Renaissance way)” on ArtTrav.com by Alexandra Korey.)

November 3, 2016 will be the 50th anniversary of 1966 flood of the Arno River in Florence, which killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of art masterpieces and many more rare documents and books. It is considered the worst flood in the city’s history since 1557. Many of the historic works have been restored. New methods in conservation were devised and restoration laboratories established. Some of the methods were already known and came into use immediately after the flood. One of those was the strappo technique used to save frescoes immediately after the flood, a race against time.

Cloister of Santa Croce November 4, 1966
Cloister of Santa Croce November 4, 1966

Frescoes demanded complicated treatment. Normally water, once it evaporates, will leave a layer of residual salt on the surface of the wall that absorbed it. In some instances, the resultant efflorescence obscured painted images. In other cases, the impermeability of the fresco plaster caused the salt to become trapped beneath the surface, causing bubbles to form and erupt, and the paint to fall. The adhesion of the plaster to the wall was often also seriously compromised. A fresco can only be detached when fully dry. To dry a fresco, workers cut narrow tunnels beneath it, in which heaters were placed to draw out moisture from below (instead of outwards, which would have further damaged the paint). Within a few days, the fresco was ready to be detached.

This film of the strappo technique probably dates from the late 50s – early 60s. It documents the phases of removing a 14th century fresco from a niche. The fresco was discovered under a plaster and brick wall. The strappo process is performed by a technician under the direction of the restorer Giuseppe Rossi.

The strappo process begins with a gentle cleaning of the fresco with deionized water and a scalpel to verify the resistance of the color. Next, a layer of cheese cloth is laid over the fresco and is attached or “painted” onto the surface of the fresco with protein colloid glue (animal glue formed through hydrolysis of the collagen from skins, bones, or tendons) that has been dissolved in hot water. After the first layer dries, the process is repeated three or four more times with the same glue and a heavier muslin cloth to create a a strong cover. It is allowed to dry.

The Ghirlandaio Last Supper at the Church of Ognissanti was saved by strappo
The Ghirlandaio Last Supper at the Church of Ognissanti was saved by strappo

The drying glue creates a stronger cohesion with the layer of painted plaster of the fresco than the fresco to the wall behind it. After two or three days the phase of the tear (strappo) begins. A gentle tug on the cloth will start the process of removing the painted plaster layer from the rougher dry plaster wall below with the assistance of a long flexible blade, like a putty knife. The fresco is laid on its face and excess plaster is removed from the back of the fresco layer.

Once the back of the fresco is clean layers of muslin and then canvas are applied using a strong non-water soluble glue (PVA or acrylic resins). This is allowed to dry.

The fresco with its new back is turned over and the layers of cloth and animal glue are removed with hot water and steam. The clothed–backed fresco is then attached to a new support of masonite, polyester resin or fiberglass. The fresco is then restored as needed with watercolor paints. Finally, the fresco is returned to its original position or moved to a safer location.

Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi (1335) restored after 1966 flood
Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi (1335) restored after 1966 flood

One of the best places in Florence to view frescoes that have been removed from their original plaster wall and replaced is in the cloisters at the Church of Santa Croce.

Refectory of Santa Croce 1966
Refectory of Santa Croce 1966

In the refectory is the 14th century fresco of the Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi , which has been restored and attached to a new base. The Last Supper was severely damaged during the 1966 flood. Along the side walls of the refectory are fragments of frescoes, some depicting the descent into hell, reposition onto wood backing.

This year in Florence there will be exhibitions, lectures, publications, films and much more celebrating the restoration of Florence after the flood that devastated the city almost fifty years ago.

Other media of interest:

Benozzo Gozzoli Museum Video of Strappo Technique (Italian language)

PBS NewsHour –  “Decades after Florence’s great flood, an art hospital renews still-damaged treasures

PBS NewsHour – “Photos behind  the scenes of the world’s largest art restoration center

Long compilation of original flood video

Modern restoration of frescoes

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Novels to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

Many visitors to Florence in 2016 will either learn for the first time or will remember the Great Flood of Florence, which occurred on November 3, 1966, fifty years ago. Both the nonfiction and fiction lists are sure to include books about the flood and the response of the world to the catastrophe. Tuscan traveler has chosen two books, one and old favorite and one new for this year’s holiday “picks” list.

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Lucrezia Borgia could have used the Renaissance version of Olivia Pope, but she is finally getting a proper revision of her reputation with two recent novels.

Any of the following novels will make great holiday gifts for those going to Italy next year or for for the armchair traveler with a love of all things Italian.

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

51EmmG3EazL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Donna Leon’s Death at La Fenice, the first novel in her beloved Commissario Guido Brunetti series, introduced readers to the glamorous and cutthroat world of opera and one of Italy’s finest living sopranos, Flavia Petrelli—then a suspect in the poisoning of a renowned German conductor. Years after Brunetti cleared her name, Flavia has returned to Venice and La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca.

Brunetti and his wife, Paola, attend an early performance, and Flavia receives a standing ovation. Back in her dressing room, she finds bouquets of yellow roses—too many roses. An anonymous fan has been showering Flavia with these beautiful gifts in London, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and now, Venice, but she no longer feels flattered. And when a talented young Venetian singer who has caught Flavia’s attention is savagely attacked, Brunetti begins to think that Flavia’s fears are justified in ways neither of them imagined. He must enter in the psyche of an obsessive fan before Flavia, or anyone else, comes to harm.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

51PUTD03R7L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. This is the first of four known as the “Neapolitan Quartet.”

The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila.

Elena Ferrante is the pen-name of an Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known. Though heralded as the most important Italian novelist of her generation, she has kept her identity secret since the publication of her first novel in 1992. The fourth book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, appeared on the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2015.

The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga

51CTmMUboFL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_With graceful, assured prose, this 1994 novel gives a wry but empathetic view of the human character and an authoritative command of fascinating background detail are among the distinguishing features of this deeply satisfying first novel. Set in Florence after the terrible Arno flood of 1966, it is told partially by narrator Margot Harrington, a 29-year-old American book conservator who has come to Italy as one of the “mud angels” who volunteer in the wake of the disaster.

Margot’s life has been a series of bright promises deflected to dead ends, and she hopes Florence will provide a key to her future. Art restoration expert Dottor Alessandro Postiglione–debonair, middle-aged and married–suggests that Margot lodge at a Carmelite convent whose abbess is his cousin. When the nuns discover a priceless (and proscribed) Renaissance manuscript of 16 erotic poems and drawings, the abbess asks Margot to sell it, secretly, so that the convent will have the funds to resist the overbearing bishop’s efforts to seize its treasured library.

Many strands wind through the rest of the narrative: details about techniques of book and art restoration, observations of convent life refracted through Margot’s Protestant sensibilities and such arcane (and humorous) information as the methods by which a canonical court decides whether a man is truly impotentia coeundi (and thus entitled to an annulment).

The Flood by David Hewson

51ZxgG7pQXL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_A dazzling Italian mystery, rich in intrigue and dark secrets, from an internationally bestselling crime writer at the height of his powers.

Florence, 1986. A seemingly inexplicable attack on a church fresco of Adam and Eve brings together an unlikely couple: Julia Wellbeloved, an English art student, and Pino Fratelli, a semi-retired detective who longs to be back in the field. Their investigation leads them to the secret society that underpins the city: an elite underworld of excess, violence and desire.

Seeped in the culture of Tuscany’s most mysterious city, The Flood takes the reader on a dazzling journey into the darkness in Florence’s past: the night of the great flood in 1966. Hewson is a favorite of mystery readers who enjoy his series featuring police officers in Rome, led by the young detective and art lover Nic Costa, which began with A Season for the Dead.

The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo

51Ef-T3FZ2L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lucrezia Borgia is one of the most vilified figures in modern history. The daughter of a notorious pope, she was twice betrothed before the age of eleven and thrice married—one husband was forced to declare himself impotent and thereby unfit and another was murdered by Lucrezia’s own brother, Cesar Borgia. She is cast in the role of murderess, temptress, incestuous lover, loose woman, femme fatale par excellence.

But there is always more than one version of a story.

Lucrezia Borgia is the only woman in history to serve as the head of the Catholic Church. She successfully administered several of the Renaissance Italy’s most thriving cities, founded one of the world’s first credit unions, and was a generous patron of the arts. She was mother to a prince and to a cardinal. She was a devoted wife to the Prince of Ferrara, and the lover of the poet Pietro Bembo. She was a child of the renaissance and in many ways the world’s first modern woman.

Dario Fo, Nobel laureate and one of Italy’s most beloved writers, reveals Lucrezia’s humanity, her passion for life, her compassion for others, and her skill at navigating around her family’s evildoings. The Borgias are unrivalled for the range and magnitude of their political machinations and opportunism. Fo’s brilliance rests in his rendering their story as a shocking mirror image of the uses and abuses of power in our own time. Lucrezia herself becomes a model for how to survive and rise above those abuses.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

UnknownBy the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Stripping away the myths around the Borgias, Blood and Beauty is a majestic novel that breathes life into this astonishing family and celebrates the raw power of history itself: compelling, complex and relentless.

The Memory Key by Conor Fitzgerald

Unknown-1The sniper’s bullet doesn’t quite dispatch notorious terrorist Stefania Manfellotto, but the investigation into the attack on the Rome university campus that leaves Manfellotto brain damaged—as well as the subsequent fatal shooting there six months later of witness Sofia Fontana—could finally deal a death blow to the career of Commissioner Alec Blume in Fitzgerald’s cerebral fourth mystery featuring the maverick American expat (after 2012’s The Namesake).

By rights, Blume shouldn’t even be involved in the politically sensitive probe, which falls under the jurisdiction of the rival Carabinieri. But that detail isn’t about to deter him once his old mentor, magistrate Filippo Principe, appeals for help, any more than he would dream of changing his opinion on a road rage homicide just because his lover, Chief Insp. Caterina Mattiola, sees it differently. Blume’s readiness to pursue any leads in an increasingly puzzling case helps make him an outstanding detective, but also, within a society that puts such a premium on personal relationships, a perennial outsider.

Bitter Remedy is Conor Fitzgerald’s most recent Alec Blume novel.

A Beam of Light  by Andrea Camilleri

51doaZBVrfL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_When Inspector Montalbano falls under the charms of beautiful gallery owner Marian, his longtime relationship with Livia comes under threat. Meanwhile, he is also troubled by a strange dream as three crimes demand his attention: the assault and robbery of a wealthy merchant’s young wife, shady art deals, and a search for arms traffickers that leads him deep into the countryside, where the investigation takes a tragic turn.

Also published in 2015, in Game of Mirrors Inspector Montalbano and his colleagues are stumped when two bombs explode outside empty warehouses—one of which is connected to a big-time drug dealer. Meanwhile, the alluring Liliana Lombardo is trying to seduce the Inspector over red wine and arancini. Between pesky reporters, amorous trysts, and cocaine kingpins, Montalbano feels as if he’s being manipulated on all fronts. That is, until the inspector himself becomes the prime suspect in an unspeakably brutal crime.

More Novels for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog, near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Fiction Categories: Tuscan Traveler’s Fiction Favorites, Historical Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Literary Fiction, Romantic Italy, and Italy for Kids & Young Adults.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before Going to Italy in 2016

With so many of your friends and family planning to travel to Italy in 2016, this holiday season is the perfect time for the gift of a book or two that will enrich their experience. Or, perhaps, these suggestions will serve as a reminder that you meant to catch up on a little reading yourself before the New Year.

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Tuscan Traveler’s Nonfiction Selection
Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered by Dianne Hales

514yVETXTTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_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. This is a must-read before visiting Florence. To walk in Mona Lisa’s footsteps with Dianne Hales in modern Florence imparts a sense of history and context enriching your time in the Renaissance city.

The Italians by John Hooper

51C8HcD9EuL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_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.

This is the ideal book for anyone seeking to understand contemporary Italy and the unique character of the Italians. Fifteen years as a foreign correspondent based in Rome have sharpened Hooper’s observations, and he looks at the facts that lie behind the stereotypes, shedding new light on everything from the Italians’ bewildering politics to their love of life and beauty. Hooper persuasively demonstrates the impact of geography, history, and tradition on many aspects of Italian life, including football and Freemasonry, sex, food, and opera. Brimming with the kind of fascinating—and often hilarious—insights unavailable in guidebooks, The Italians will surprise even the most die-hard Italophile.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis

51SST5u0TGL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Did the waiter in Rome sneer when you asked for butter for the bread or for a cappuccino after dinner? Did your Venetian grandmother slap your hand when you reached for the Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on her spaghetti alle vongole? Did the Florentine guest in your home turn pale when offered leftover pizza for breakfast? Did the fruit and vegetable vendor at the Mercato Centrale yell at you when you checked out the ripeness of his peaches or scooped up a handful of cherries? In Italy, they love making rules, although they seem to obey very few. When it comes to the national cuisine, however, the Italian Food Rules may as well be carved in marble. They will not change and are strictly followed. Visitors to Italy violate them at their peril. When in Italy, enjoy being Italian for a few days, weeks or months, by learning the Italian Food Rules (written by the Tuscan Traveler, herself), taking them to heart, and obeying each and every one of them.

The Venus Fixers by Ilaria Dagnini Brey

51bCcEpYt1L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In 1943, while the world was convulsed by war, a few visionaries―in the private sector and in the military―committed to protect Europe’s cultural heritage from the indiscriminate ravages of World War Two. And so the Allies appointed the Monuments Officers, a motley group of art historians, curators, architects, and artists, to ensure that the masterpieces of European art and architecture were not looted or bombed into oblivion. Often working as shellfire exploded around them, the Monuments men and women of Italy shored up tottering palaces and cathedrals, safeguarded Michelangelos and Giottos, and even blocked a Nazi convoy of stolen paintings bound for Göring’s birthday celebration. Sometimes they failed. But to an astonishing degree they succeeded, and their story is an unparalleled adventure with the gorgeous tints of a Botticelli as its backdrop.

This is the best book, among many (and a recent cinema adaptation), that describes the work of these brave men. Ilaria Dagnini Brey has firm command of art and military history and does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of a war-torn country. Brey learned of the “Venus Fixers” while researching the 1944 bombing of Ovetari Chapel in Padua, her hometown.

La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

51XSVJbSs4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_A celebration of the language and culture of Italy, La Bella Lingua is the story of how a language shaped a nation, told against the backdrop of one woman’s personal quest to speak fluent Italian. For anyone who has been to Italy, the fantasy of living the Italian life is powerfully seductive. But to truly become Italian, one must learn the language. This is how Dianne Hales began her journey. In La Bella Lingua, she brings the story of her decades-long experience with the “the world’s most loved and lovable language” together with explorations of Italy’s history, literature, art, music, movies, lifestyle, and food in a true opera amorosa—a labor of her love of Italy. Like Dianne, readers of La Bella Lingua will find themselves innamorata, enchanted, by Italian, fascinated by its saga, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.

The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev  

512L-9ftOpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_How do you create the perfect Renaissance superhero? Art historian, Elizabeth Lev, narrates the story in her fascinating book, The Tigress of Forlì. The story starts with a baby girl, Caterina Sforza, the illegitimate child of dissolute, but noble Milanese father and a drop-dead gorgeous mother. She is tutored in the classics, learns how to ride a horse and hunt, and masters the management skills of a great household. She is married at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen. The cowardly husband is assassinated and all seems to be lost, but our pregnant superhero escapes her captors, takes up arms and captures the castle. All this happens before she turns thirty.

Then there is a steamy affair with a stable boy, a murder, and a bloody revenge. Machiavelli turns to negotiate peace, she marries a Medici, gives birth to the father of a future Tuscan Grand Duke, is widowed again, and finally loses her castle to Cesare Borgia. This, of course, is not the end of the story. She’s only 36 when Borgia drags her off to prison in Rome. (Spoiler alert: She lives to play with her grandchildren in Florence.)

Lev doesn’t fictionalize Caterina Riario Sforza de’Medici’s life. She doesn’t need to because this is a true case of truth being more amazing than fiction. No, she only had to spend years in the archives of Bologna, Florence and Rome, gathering the facts from the dusty pages of history and then spinning them out in a breathtaking narrative of the tale of a true superhero.

Italian Life Rules by Ann Reavis

51vTXhGkHWL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Italians have spent a thousand years perfecting a certain way of living. The Tuscan Traveler was back again with Italian Life Rules in which she describes how while Italy has a reputation of not obeying rules, there are some hard and fast Life Rules that are known and followed.

Why shouldn’t you greet some people in Italy with a cheery “Ciao!” How do Italian women stride across cobblestones wearing stilettos with five-inch heels and never twist an ankle? Studies show that Italians tip less than other Europeans. Why is that? Tourists can’t go to just any Italian beach and spread a picnic lunch out on the sand during some months. It seems like every shopkeeper in Italy demands exact change. Before traveling to Italy, read about the Italian Life Rules to heighten your anticipation of Italian life and to prepare you for the inevitable joys and pitfalls of your visit. When in Italy, enjoy being Italian for a few days, weeks or months, by learning first-hand the Italian Life Rules for a greater appreciation of what it means to be Italian.

50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go by Susan Van Allen

51KWRRKDm1L._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_The goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”—Rome, Florence and Venice. Susan Van Allen describes how these three cities 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, the author gives readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—and adds in a “Golden Day” tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. She also steers 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 a beautiful tradition. Although written with women in mind, this guide will give men a different way to look at the usual travel destinations.

Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts Francini

516q2Uz1ZEL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_To celebrate over 25 years in Italy, Judy Witts Francini of Divina Cucina self-published the collection of recipes she used for the past 20 years at her cooking school in Florence and wrote about in her blog Over a Tuscan Stove (now Divina Cucina).

The cookbook started out as a handwritten, spiral-bound, photocopied edition that she gave to her students. In 2008, she took the time to recreate it as a more permanent collection and developed a blog to go with it. Now it is out as an easy-to-use eBook.

There are almost one hundred of Judy’s favorite recipes, perfected in her classes and her home kitchen, in the pages of Secets From My Tuscan Kitchen.

To order an autographed copy, you can use this link.

More Books for Those Who Love Italy

In the right side column of this blog,near the top, there is a link to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Store. Buying books through the store does not increase the cost of the books to you, but does help to support this blog. The store can also be used to just browse for books about Italy without the need to make a purchase.

Tuscan Traveler welcomes suggestions for books to add to the list.

Nonfiction Categories: Italian Food & Cooking, Italian Memoirs & Essays, Italian History, Italian Travel Guides, and Tuscan Traveler’s Favorites.

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Pick – The “New” Duomo Museum

Florence’s cathedral museum, known officially as Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (Museum of the Works of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), hosts the world’s largest collection of Florentine Medieval and Renaissance sculpture. It reopened to the public on October 29, just in time for Pope Francis’s visit, after an expansion and renovation project lasting two years. The 45 million euro project was funded by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, and was design by Adolfo Natalini and Guicciardini & Magni Architects.

Sectional view of the Duomo Museum
Sectional view of the Duomo Museum

The museum is the anchor for what is known as Il Grande Museo del Duomo, which also includes the Duomo, the Campanile (Giotto’s Bell Tower), the Cupola (Brunelleschi’s Dome), the Baptistry, and the Crypt.

Inside the Museum

Known more simply as the Opera del Duomo or Duomo Museum, it now contains over 750 marble, bronze and silver sculptures and reliefs, including works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Arnolfo di Cambio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea Pisano, Antonio del Pollaiolo, Luca della Robbia and Andrea del Verrocchio, among others.

The museum displays the original artworks that have been removed from their positions from the façades of the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistry (thereafter replaced by copies) or taken out of daily liturgical use, either for conservation or modernization.

Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene
Donatello’s Penitent Saint Mary Magdalene

New displays effectively highlight Donatello’s Maddalena, sculpted in wood; the original bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistry, known as the “Doors of Paradise”; Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà; and 27 silk and gold embroidered panels designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo.

Reconfigured Doors of Paradise
Reconfigured Doors of Paradise

The Gallery of Brunelleschi’s Dome (1418–36), on the first floor, is one of the most educational highlights of the museum, housing 15th century wooden models including one attributed to Brunelleschi himself, period materials and the tools used to build the dome. The gallery also contains two large wooden models of the Lantern and of the Dome and video provides a virtual view of the building of the edifice.

Salone del Paradiso
Salone del Paradiso

Because the space of the museum doubled in the new renovation, visitors can also see many works previously held in museum storage, including forty 14th and 15th century statues and fragments of the cathedral’s original medieval façade, which are effectively displayed on a full-sized model made of resin and marble dust of the version designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (1296) that was subsequently destroyed in the 16th century and replaced in 1887 by the present façade. The new Duomo Museum project was under creative direction by Monsignor Timothy Verdon. He is reported saying that the biggest problem was “how to exhibit more than 100 fragments of the cathedral’s lost medieval facade, dismantled in 1586-87, forty statues, many monumental in scale, and some sixty architectural elements”. The medieval façade was rebuilt on the basis of an extant 16th century drawing. The grand room is entitled Salone del Paradiso.

Michelangelo's Pietà
Michelangelo’s Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà used to be displayed in a small niche room off a stairway in the old museum. Now it has its own room, the Tribuna di Michelangelo. This was Michelangelo’s next-to-last sculpture that, according to contemporary sources, “he meant to adorn the altar near which he expected to be buried in a Roman church. Begun around 1546-1547, the Pietà was abandoned at the end of 1555, when Michelangelo mutilated it: a destructive act due to the elderly master’s frustration at finding flaws in the marble block. Pieced back together, the work was acquired in 1671 by Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and placed in the crypt of the Basilica of San Lorenzo; in 1721 it was transferred to the Duomo and set opposite the Holy Sacrament altar.” (museumflorence.com)

Tribuna di Michelangelo
Tribuna di Michelangelo
American Director of the Museum

Monsignor Timothy Verdon was born in the United States (Weehawken, NJ, 1946). He is an art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale University.

His first interest in Italian art started as a teenager with visits to the New York City Metropolitan Museum. His first visit to Italy was a trip to Venice at the age of 18. He planned to immerse himself in Renaissance art and based his future studies on the use of iconography in Renaissance and Medieval art.

He has lived in Italy for 47 years and since 1994 has been a Roman Catholic priest in Florence, where he directs both the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage and the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore).

Monsignor Timothy Verdon
Monsignor Timothy Verdon

Author of books and articles on sacred art in Italian and English and has been a Consultant to the Vatican Commission for Church Cultural Heritage and a Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Villa I Tatti), and currently teaches in the Florence Program of Stanford University.

Monsignor Verdon’s decisions to make this not only a museum containing the past, but to use the communication tools of the present, served to create one of the most relevant museums in Italy for visitors of all ages and interests.

 Tickets

The combined ticket for the Baptistry, Bell Tower, Dome, Crypt and museum is €15 (Children 6 to 11, €3; under 6, free). Entry to the cathedral is free.

Photos and Video of the Museum

Get a preview of the Museum with a walk through described and photographed by art historian, Alexandra Korey.

The website of Il Grande Museo del Duomo has additional videos and photos.

National Geographic documentary about Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal and NYTimes.