Italian Life Rules – Burnt to a Crisp by Lo Sciopero

As the tourist season starts in Italy, the savvy visitor knows to keep in mind that one of the Italian national pastimes is to go on strike. Some years see more of lo sciopero than others, but in these difficult economic and political times in Italy it is certain that 2014 is predicted to be a year of delays and inconvenience.

Just last month, I was on my way to France via trains from Florence to Milan and Milan to Lyon. The day of my travels, the Italian national railways went on strike for eight hours. Lucky for me I was traveling to Milan with the fantastic private rail company Italo and then on to France with the French TGV. But this is what the schedule board looked like in Milan. Note especially the cancellation of trains to the international Malpensa airport.

Train Station in Milan, March 2014

Train Station in Milan, March 2014

Lo Sciopero is a strike or temporary work stoppage. A sciopero can be national or regional or local and can affect only one service sector or many. They inconvenience everyone and help no one, but Italians keep exercising their right to strike.

The most common strikes are local, usually lasting from four hours to one day. Strikes often involve the transportation sector. They are almost invariably announced in advance, which at least helps alert travelers to plan around the dates of strikes and arrange alternative modes of transportation. Occasionally, to make things more complicated, they are cancelled or postponed at short notice.

There are many rail strikes in Italy. They generally take place at the weekend, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The law guarantees a minimum service, so some trains should still run. There are also frequent strikes of urban transport. These scioperi are generally announced in advance, and many city transport authorities will try to negotiate continuation of service during the rush hour to help commuters.

A large proportion of Italy’s air travel strikes have involved Alitalia, the perpetually troubled Italian national airline. Sometimes there are more wide-ranging strikes by ground staff or by air traffic controllers, and unfortunately there’s not much travelers can do about this, other than be patient. These strikes usually last several hours; sometimes they simply delay flights, at other times they can lead to cancellations.

Other strikes in Italy – by schoolteachers, students, taxi drivers, garbage collectors, tobacco sellers, even bloggers (2009 to protest a restrictive bill in Parliament) add to the ever-growing variety of Scioperi Italiani. Strikes may even occur in sympathy with strikers from other countries.

When there is a National Strike even the firefighters protest

When there is a National Strike even the firefighters protest

Work stoppages by state employees may affect museum openings. Strikes at individual museums will almost always be timed to back up against the weekly closed day.

Strikes in any industry happen almost every year in the week leading up to and after the national August 15 holiday.

Helpfully, the Commissione di Garanzia Sciopero tracks all of the national, regional, and local strikes and lists them on detailed online spreadsheets.

The granddaddy of all strikes is the national strike (lo sciopero nazionale), all transportation may be stopped or experience a slow-down, garbage won’t be collected, museums will be closed, and many stores, including supermarkets will be shut. National strikes are fairly rare, but it’s a day most Italians know it is hopeless to try to get anything done, better to stay home and catch up on sleep, read a good book or try out that new recipe for slow-cooking peposo di cinghiale.

Tuscan Traveler Tales – 5 Questions for Dianne Hales

 Your day job was as a science and health journalist (I believe, An Invitation to Health is in its 16th Edition), but sometime in the last ten years your writing focus changed to Italy and its language, resulting in the bestselling book La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. What happened?

Years ago I came to Switzerland to give a talk on sleep (I’d written a book on the subject) and, on an impulse, decided to take a train to Italy. The only Italian I knew was, “Mi dispiace. Non parlo l’italiano.” I was enchanted by everything I saw, but I really wanted to communicate with the Italians who were chattering all around me. So I decided to learn their language.

At the time I had a young child and a busy career, but I began studying Italian any way I could—with books, CDs, audiotapes, classes, tutors. My husband and I began coming to Italy every year on vacation, and we met more and more Italians. I liked them so much that I kept working harder to become fluent so we could become friends—and in many cases, we did.

La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language

La Bella Lingua, a memoir and a meditation on language

Along the way, I fell in love with the language. Whenever people ask me why I have such a passion for Italian, I think of Gabriella Ganugi, a chef who heads a prestigious culinary academy in Florence. When she told me that she had originally studied law, I asked how she had acquired her passion for food.

Signora,” she said. “We do not choose our passions; they choose us.” That’s certainly been my experience. The more Italian I learned, the more I wanted to know about its history—which has everything a writer could want in a subject: drama, passion, comedy, beautiful women, gallant heroes, jealousy, rivalry, unscrupulous scoundrels—not to mention glorious music and fabulous food!

One of my favorite “hidden” places in Florence is L’Accademia della Crusca. What did your research at the Accademia entail and what was your overall impression of the environment of the Medici villa and gardens?

One of the most colorful chapters in Italian’s history revolves around a high-spirited group of Renaissance men in Florence, who dedicated themselves to “separating the wheat from the chaff” of the Italian language. They called their group  “L’Accademia della Crusca,” the Academy of the Bran, and went over the top with names and mottos based on the making and baking of bread. They had chairs fashioned from grain barrels and commissioned symbolic paintings on the wooden paddles used to remove loaves from an oven. They adored eating and drinking together at lavish banquets with all sorts of odes and entertainments based on the language.

A pale (shovel) of L'Accademia della Crusca

A pale (shovel) of  Accademia della Crusca

La Crusca’s original location is now, fittingly enough perhaps, an Irish pub in the heart of Florence, but the Academy’s headquarters are in a Medici villa, where—I’ve been told—Botticelli’s Primavera once hung. I approached it like an awestruck pilgrim. I felt as if I were indeed treading on hallowed ground.

I marveled at the great Sala delle Pale, where the baking shovels—Galileo’s among them—hang like shields on the walls. I also got to touch, very gingerly, a first edition of Il Vocabolario, the first true dictionary in the Western world. The elegant library, a veritable cathedral of Italian literature, filled me with reverence for the language that the “Crusconi” fashioned as painstakingly as any work of art.

The tranquil gardens—well worth a visit—strike me as the perfect complement to La Crusca’s mission. Its founders wanted to select the “most beautiful flowers” in the Italian language—and now we have actual flowers and their verbal equivalents in the same place.

Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana

Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

What have been the three most exciting things to happen in your life as a direct result of the publication of La Bella Lingua?

The most incredible was becoming an Italian knight.  In recognition of La Bella Lingua’s contributions to the Italian language, President Napolitano named me a Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity), awarded to foreigners who promote Italian culture. There was a lovely ceremony at the Consulate in San Francisco, where I received some very impressive medals in three sizes—for business, dressy, and formal occasions!

I also have had the opportunity to present La Bella Lingua in Florence, the cradle of the language. I did one reading in the exquisite hall in the Palazzo Tornabuoni where the very first opera was performed and another in the medieval cloister that now houses the Società Dante Alighieri. I felt that I was truly standing in the shadow of Italy’s greatest poets and artists and, more remarkably, speaking a language they would understand if they suddenly came back to life.

Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarità Italiana

Dianne Hales receives Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana

The most touching experience has come from readers around the world who follow my blog [www.becomingitalianwordbyword.typepad.com] or join my La Bella Lingua group on Facebook. Some say that my book kindled great pride in their Italian heritage or inspired them to study Italian or travel to Italy. It amazes and delights me that our shared love of Italian has created a real bond that unites us regardless of where we live or what our native tongues are.

My favorite chapter was the one on Italian’s parolacce (bad language).  What makes it different from any other language’s swear words?  Did you add any to your vocabulary?

In Italy I’ve always heard parolacce (naughty words) swirling around, but I didn’t realize what a rich history they had. I interviewed a scholar of torpiloquio (which, I learned, is the formal term for foul language), who told me that Italians curse differently: Unlike French, German or English speakers, they express powerful emotions like anger, disgust, surprise, and horror with sexual obscenities rather  than scatalogical ones. There are literally hundreds of suggestive words, euphemisms and vulgarities for everything related to sex.

In my research, I also came across a Dizionario storico del lessico erotico italiano (Historic Dictionary of the Erotic Italian Lexicon), which lists 3,500 parolacce—a truly impressive number. A friend describes them as verbal spices that add zest to everyday Italian.

But even though Italians swear with gusto and creativity, I don’t advise foreigners to try the same. I never swear in Italy, at least not deliberately. However, I have mispronounced words in ways that sound vulgar—but I’m in good company. Pope Francesco did the same while speaking at the Vatican. I think we should both stick with “Mamma mia!”

What’s your next writing project?

When I was in Florence researching La Bella Lingua, I read newspaper reports about the discovery of archival documents from the family of Lisa Gherardini, the real woman in La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa).  Through a family friend, I met the researcher, Giuseppe Pallanti, who gave me a map of the city and marked with X’s the places where Lisa had lived.

When I went to the street where she was born—the rather sad and smelly Via Sguazza—I was struck by the fact that, while everyone knows Mona Lisa’s face (at least as Leonardo portrayed it), no one knows her story.

Dianne Hales signingcopies of La Bella Lingua

Dianne Hales signing copies of La Bella Lingua

I began thinking like a journalist and asking the questions of my trade—who, what, where, when, how and why. I rented apartments in Lisa’s neighborhoods in Florence. I came across a 500-year-old history of her family in the state archives. I walked her streets, visited her churches, found the chapel where she should have been buried—and the abandoned convent where she actually was interred. As I immersed myself in every aspect of daily life in Renaissance Florence, Leonardo’s Lisa began to come alive in my imagination.

The culmination of my quest, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, will be published this August by Simon and Schuster. I’m very excited about the chance to introduce the real Mona Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo—a fiorentina, a daughter of the Renaissance, a teenage bride, a merchant’s wife, a mother of six and, in her husband’s words, a “noble spirit”—to the world. I plan to come to Florence in the fall to celebrate the city’s most famous daughter in her hometown. I’m hoping to meet you and some of the followers of Tuscan Traveler then. A presto!

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera for Writers

Time to get out of Florence (or wherever you might be) and go to Matera in the south of Italy near the heel of the boot. Tuscan Traveler has written about Matera, its bread, and the Women’s Fiction Festival, one of the best conferences for writers worldwide.

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo from suzyguese.com)

One of the geniuses behind the WFF is Elizabeth Jennings. About five years ago she came up with another great idea: Brainstorming at the Spa. This is an intensive weekend for writers that focusses on their individual writing projects. We asked Elizabeth a few questions about what she had in mind when she came up with the inspiration. (Details about joining the group from April 4 to 7, 2014, can be found below.)

The idea for Brainstorming at the Spa in Matera, Italy, came from the highly successful Women’s Fiction Festival held in Matera every September. Please describe the background of Brainstorming at the Spa and how the process works.

In the United States, it is not unusual for writers to hole up in a retreat and brainstorm their current books. Writing is a lonely business and a professional writer, under deadline and working hard, often needs help. The nicer the retreat, the better the work that comes out. There is just something about meeting with your tribe (fellow writers) and talking through your book, in a nice place, that helps you progress. Particularly if there is excellent food and wine to hand.

The process: you might have a couple of books to brainstorm, the current one and future ones or you might have just one book to brainstorm. We all operate on the basis that you are writing professionally, whether published or not. Everyone is very serious about their projects.

The bulk of the work is in the morning from around nine thirty to lunch and a couple of hours after lunch. We divide up the time over the four days so everyone has an equal slot. You describe your book, taking care to establish the genre and the emotional overtones you wish the book to have so that the other Brainstormers understand what you are trying to achieve. You give what elements you have at the moment. Some people bring a fully thought-out synopsis and brainstorm specific plot points. Some people bring a general outline and we work on fleshing it out together.

The writers write across a full range of genres and it is an international group (though we work exclusively in English) and the suggestions and plot points and insights forthcoming are extraordinarily helpful.

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

The Underground Spa at the Locanda San Martino

We work hard and then in the late afternoon we go to the spa and relax. Where we meet, the Locanda di San Martino has an underground spa guaranteed to relax you after a full day’s work.

We are guided through the brainstorming process by talented agent Christine Witthohn, who has Plot and Story at her fingertips. This year she will be joined by another well known agent, Marlene Stringer. Christine and Marlene also know the book marketplace inside out and their advice is priceless.

Fellow writers help you flesh out and plot your book and our agent coaches help us think in terms of marketability and promotion.

The four days are incredibly helpful. You know how you calculate things in dog years? One year equals seven? Well the Brainstorming at the Spa program operates on Brainstorming time. One day equals several months of agonizing over your book in isolation.

Have any published books had their genesis at Brainstorming at the Spa?

Lisa Marie Rice brainstormed a trilogy published by Avon: HEART OF DANGER, I DREAM OF DANGER and the upcoming BREAKING DANGER. Shannon McKenna brainstormed FATAL STRIKE and IN FOR THE KILL, published by Kensington. Kim Golden solved her plot problems for SNOWBOUND, which she indie-published in November 2013, and MAYBE BABY, which is under consideration with Kensington. S.G. Redling did some world building for DAMOCLES, out now from 47North.  Ann Reavis puzzled out the details of ITALIAN FOOD RULES, MURDER AT MOUNTAIN VISTA and SHADOW OF THE TOWER. Elizabeth Edmondson brainstormed VOYAGE OF INNOCENCE and a forthcoming mystery/thriller set in the 1950s. Elizabeth Aston plotted VALENTINE’S DAY published by Amazon StoryFront. Rosemary Laurey brainstormed a dragon series for Samhain publishing. Nancy Barone brainstormed THE HUSBAND DIET, published by Bookouture. Beate Boeker worked out the details of her TEMPTATION IN FLORENCE mystery trilogy and a stand alone novel MISCHIEF IN ITALY. Claude Nougat added nuance to FOREVER YOUNG. Beatrix Kramlovsky put the final polish on her MEMOIRS OF A VAGABOND.

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Brainstormers at Work in Matera (photo by Claude Nougat)

Why is the process so productive?

They say that productivity is the speed with which you eliminate wrong answers. The Brainstorming process just speeds up the creative process. Writers do not write in a straight line. We create our books in circles, looping around again and again, trying to make the book fit the images in our heads. The Brainstorming process helps this enormously. Articulating your problems and challenges with other writers, who get it, in a way that others cannot, helps you develop your book. A little like the old fashioned form of film development where the photograph slowly becomes clear.

Let us not forget that the pleasure principle is also at play here. Matera offers world-class food and wine. We work hard and well, we eat and drink well and we relax well in the spa. We meet in a beautiful venue. All these elements stimulate the senses and foment our creativity.

Is Brainstorming at the Spa only for creating ideas for an author’s future books? Are there sessions devoted to other subjects?

The Brainstorming at the Spa program is for professional writers and writers who are serious about their craft. So besides discussing our specific projects we also discuss markets, promotion, how to stay healthy while writing eight hours a day, how to brand ourselves, how to plan a career. All that good stuff.

Why is Matera the perfect place for Brainstorming at the Spa?

Matera is an extraordinarily beautiful city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is, per Italian statistics (ISTAT) the safest city in Italy. The Sassi district, where we meet, is an ancient city carved out of the face of the rock. A stone garden. It is quiet, with no traffic, the only noise the kestrels gathering at dusk. It is an enchanted city, out of time.. The  perfect place to dream your way to a new book.

Come to Brainstorming at the Spa 2014

If you would like to join the group this year, the date s are set for April 4 to 7, at Locanda di San Martino in Matera, Italy. Information and an enrollment form can be found here. If you have any question, please leave a comment on this post or contact me at tuscantrav (at) gmail.com.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev

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. Then her father arranges for an engagement at age ten (consummated with the fiancée, aged 30) and marriage at age thirteen (blessed by the Pope). She gives birth of her first child at fifteen.

The Tigress of Forli

As her greedy self-serving husband’s health deteriorated, Caterina keeps providing heirs (six), but also takes over the governance of their dominions (Imola and Forlì). 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.)

Elizabeth 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, Elizabeth only had to spend years in the archives of Bologna, Florence and Rome, gathering the facts from the dusty pages of history and the spinning them out in a breathtaking narrative of the tale of a true superhero.

Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forli

Elizabeth Lev, author of The Tigress of Forlì

Elizabeth, whose formidable resume takes pages to recount, agreed to answer a few questions about her life and The Tigress of Forlì.

I was transported reading your book The Tigress of Forlì, not only to the 15th century Italian city-states, but also to the Italy of today with its convoluted politics, family dynasties and love of gossip. Am I wrong, or has nothing changed in 500 years?

This is what makes history so fun. Human beings, the human condition, means that every age experiences desire for power, pleasure and possessions; but how it plays out against different backdrops and settings has an infinite variety. But amid the schemers and the scandalmongers, a few exceptional people stand out for forging their way in a complicated world and leaving a distinct mark. Caterina Sforza makes a wonderful guide to this era, as her unique viewpoint, enhanced by very human susceptibilities, shows us the Renaissance like we’ve never seen it.

What path did you take from life in the United States to ultimately living in Rome?

I always wanted to live in Europe, even as a kid. Whether it was Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or the Greek myths or the romances of Jane Austen, it seemed to me that all the cool stuff was always happening in stately drawing rooms or under marble porticos or driving along through picturesque European villages. It didn’t take long for me to discover the pictures that made the world even more brilliant: a Dutch still life or Florentine fresco. From the University of Chicago, I was thrilled to be able to study art history abroad for a year at the University of Bologna, and when I finished my degree, I came back to Bologna as a graduate student. My thesis director suggested I write on a Roman subject, and the rest is history.

It seems to me that you were working on a thesis when you were writing The Tigress of Forlì. First, how did you find the time and second, what was the subject of your thesis?

I first ran into Caterina when writing my thesis on the National Church of the Bolognese in Rome (Santi Giovanni e Petronio dei Bolognesi) while tucked away in Imola, where this glamorous countess had lived far away from the city lights for many years. I sympathized with her story—city girl transplanted to the country life—but didn’t actually start the book on her until many years later. At the time I was writing The Tigress of Forlì, I was the single mother of three kids, two teens and a toddler, with two teaching jobs, a regular news column and a full-time schedule of tours. Fortunately, getting up early is easier when aided by fine espresso and the hours spent with Caterina were like spending time with a dear friend.

Why did you decide to write about Caterina Riaro Sforza de’ Medici?

What a woman! What a story! Although victimized, she never made herself a victim, and always got up after any kind of fall. She lived in thrilling times: Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Pope Alexander Borgia, and she played a significant role wherever she went. Caterina was no wallflower. She left her mark, whether with her beauty, her courage or her cannons. She was an amazing challenge to understand. Not all she did was pretty, and to get inside the head and the world of a woman who made such surprising decisions took a lot work, but was so wonderfully worth it!

Giovanni de' Medici was the love of Caterina's life

Giovanni de’ Medici was the love of Caterina’s life

In reading the book, it seems at times that you get so under her skin that you begin to identify with her. Was this a plus, or did you have to make sure you weren’t projecting yourself on her?

There were many things in Caterina’s life that I identified with: being a single mother, and trying to figure out how to keep a family afloat in difficult circumstances among others. Indeed, I believe I brought a unique perspective to certain aspects of her story because I evaluated her options as a woman who had known similar situations. In some cases, where men dismissed her as power hungry or simply inept, I saw strategy. The hardest part to write was the tragedy of her wrongdoings. Caterina made terrible mistakes. In those cases, I found myself not projecting, but looking to her to see how one keeps going after a very public and humiliating fall. I must admit, there were days when I wished I was as tough as she was!

Caterina Sforza appears to be a very liberated, strong woman, once you get past the fact that she was engaged at age ten and forced to wed at age thirteen. Was she unique or were there other women who were equally agile at working the power dynamics of their time and assertive in taking the initiative?

Actually, there are many more remarkable women of the Renaissance than we recognize. Caterina grew up in a world that celebrated a 14-year-old girl named Agnes who had defied the Roman Empire, a world that named a Bolognese woman as patroness of artists, and Caterina herself was named for a 20-something woman from Siena who told the Pope “to be a man.” She was admired by Isabella D’Este—art patron extraordinaire—and knew Lucrezia Borgia (although she didn’t think much of her).

Elizabeth Lev discussing the  fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia

Elizabeth Lev discussing the fresco by Pinturicchio that depicts Lucrezia Borgia

The women of the Renaissance were trained to be circumspect and modest, but they were also adept at running businesses and complicated households, and at times engaged in the battles for power that raged in their time. Very few actually found themselves in situations where the ability and will to rule came to the fore, but they were formidable when they did. Some dazzled with charm and others with ruthlessness, but Caterina had a substantial dose of both.

Caterina Sforza was an iconoclast in her own time – men rose to fight wars at her behest, wrote poetry in her name, sent snarky reports about her behavior, and debated the political wisdom of killing her off – but it is hard for me to determine how an illegitimate pawn of a noble family got on this rollercoaster to fame. Was it nurture or nature?

Caterina’s father, with all of his obvious flaws, believed in education, whether for sons and daughters, legitimate and illegitimate. As condottieri, the Sforza family also understood that ability to command and to wield weapons was their lifeline. Hunting, like sports today, also taught important life skills for that age. Take that kind of training and put it into a package of natural beauty, fashion sense honed in the glamorous Milan court, brains nourished by Greek philosophers, Latin politicians and Christian thinkers, then add a sense of self-worth given to her by family and faith, and you have the stuff of legend and song.

Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

Portrait of Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi

In a time without Facebook and Twitter, the word of Caterina Sforza’s antics seemed to spread throughout the peninsula and into France and Germany. Was this the reality or is just that in The Tigress of Forlì you are recounting the reports sent to various noble courts? Did the common man in Rome or Florence know of Caterina Sforza or was she just the concern of the highest levels of the church and the nobles of warring city-states?

Before Facebook and Twitter, the story had to be really good in order to spread. The ease of information in our age has led to an indiscriminate sense of its value. But an astounding character, like Caterina, who had impressed armies, would soon find pan-European fame, thanks in large part to the mobility of soldiers. They sang ballads of her in France, (“For a good fight call….”), and they whispered about her in Rome. Obviously, in the modern age, she would have been much more notorious, but perhaps the incessant hammering of the modern news machine would have stifled her. It is one thing to make outrageous choices with a few court ambassadors scribbling by the sidelines; it would have been another thing altogether on the ramparts of Ravaldino with news helicopters flying overhead and paparazzi hiding in the bushes.

Please describe how the research for this book was done. How many archives did you use? Were you handling original documents or had they all been copied? What was the best “ah ha” moment you experienced in the research?

The most fruitful were the archives of Milan, Forlì and Florence (where they kept accounts of everything!). It is amazing how well-informed these princes and leaders were. The Vatican archives allowed me to handle the diaries of Pope Sixtus IV, which were so intimate they made me feel like I was in the room at times. Most were copied, except for a few diaries, where the notes in the margins and a text alteration that had happened during Caterina’s lifetime were crucial parts of understanding the text.

The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended

The fortress of Ravaldino that Caterina Sforza defended

I was struck when I read the accounts of “the retort at Ravaldino,” the most famous event of her life, at how many different versions there were of the story. As I read each account, then read the author’s other writings, then researched the author himself, I began to see how much chronicles and accounts were manipulated in that age. One tends to think that these writers were serious men with a weighty sense of their duty to posterity, but one is a gossip, one is a stalker, one is trying to forge an alliance, one is hysterically prim and so on… It is sort of like reading the Italian newspapers today—read five stories, take an average mean, and you will wind up with an approximation of what might have really happened.

What I enjoyed most about The Tigress of Forlì is that it is a researched (and footnoted) work of nonfiction that reads as smoothly as fiction. This appears to be your first book. How were you able to achieve the descriptive flow?

I have been leading tours for fifteen years and teaching sophomores at Duquesne University for twelve. If you can’t tell a story and weave your facts into vivid picture of people and events, you will find yourself with snoozing tourists and students succumbing to their hangovers. Of course, much of the credit is due to my editor at Harcourt, who had the good sense to tell me to cut out a lot of the academic sounding explanations and always encouraged me to try to find the “voice” of my characters.

This story is so colorful, so exciting, so full of adventure that it almost reads like a movie script. Have you considered making the book into a movie or television series?

As I was writing the book, I saw much of it happening in my mind. The amount of information available allowed me to imagine the sets, the extras, the scenery and of course, as I got to know the people, I would sometimes cast them in my head. It was a great help when trying to get through rough spots where the words just stayed still and dry on the page, to try to see the events taking place, the exchange between the characters, and wonder who would make a good Caterina or Cesare Borgia or Machiavelli. But sadly, Caterina remains for the moment alive in words instead of images.

There are hundreds of convoluted family relationships, fluid political alliances, arcane minutiae about everything from home life to warfare, and more. Did you have a wall full of post-it notes and string to help keep it all straight?

It was a daunting task—learning about the Salt Wars, the Riario dynasty, the fluctuating friendships—and I grew to think about my job as “making perfume.” I’ve heard it takes 60,000 roses to make 1 ounce of rose oil. In many cases to get an event or dynasty straight, it felt like 60,000 sources for one paragraph!!!! The hardest part, however, was seeing my hard-researched work wind up on the editor’s floor. In earlier drafts I meticulously outlined the conflicts and characters, only to have my editor sweep in with her red pen and cut, cut, cut. My editor was a saving grace for the book, however, because a small dab of rose oil is fragrant, but being doused with it would be stifling!

I like to tell visitors to Florence that families like the Medici operated on the “five son formula” for successful dynastic growth. One son for the family business, one for the military, one destined for politics, one entered the church, and a spare. Did Caterina Sforza ascribe to this theory? If so, why were her sons so disappointing? Again, nature or nurture?

Caterina’s children made me much more patient with mine. Her older sons were too lazy for dynasty, too dumb for politics and too cowardly for the military. The interaction between Caterina and her oldest son was so tragicomic at times; they could have had a reality show! Her youngest son was, of course, her darling and became the hero known in the peninsula as “L’Italia”, and her daughter trusted her to help raise her own children, so despite the failure with the oldest boys, Caterina eventually must have done something right.

Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli's Sistine Chapel fresco?

Is this Caterina Sforza in Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel fresco?

Finally, Botticelli. Did Giovanni de’ Medici, Caterina’s last husband, grow up in a home where Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus were on the walls? Did Giovanni’s father commission these paintings? And, how did you learn that Caterina is depicted in The Purification of the Lepers by Botticelli, located in the Sistine Chapel?

The earliest mention of Botticelli’s two most famous works has them in the Medici Villa Castello owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici of the cadet branch and brother of Caterina’s husband. Caterina herself also lived there at the end of her life. Lorenzo is also the one who commissioned the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy from Botticelli. I find it comforting that this warrior princess found true love with a family of great art patrons—no wonder Botticelli loved painting images of how love conquers all!

Ludwig von Pastor, in his History of the Popes made an interesting excursus into the panel paintings of the Sistine Chapel. To be honest, he identified Caterina as one of the daughters of Jethro in the Botticelli image on the opposite wall. But Pastor also pointed out that the Purification, across from the papal throne, had several unique qualities that were all family references. I knew Caterina was pregnant at the time; all sources said that Sixtus doted on her, and the viper playing around the child’s feet seemed to allude to the Sforza family symbol. It was a great moment to be able to make a new argument for her identity in that great space!

What led to your involvement in the book, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches?

George Weigel has been a friend of mine for years and indeed it was he that introduced me to my agent when it came time to publish The Tigress of Forlì. George came to me when the Caterina project was over and asked me if I would like to co-write a book with him. He is an outstanding writer, with great turns of phrase and clear, powerful prose and I was honored to be part of this project. It was wonderful to be able to see these Roman churches as part of a community of worshippers and to feel the connections between the buildings we admire today and the burgeoning, vibrant Christian community of sixteen hundred years ago.

Do you plan to write another biography? If so, of whom?

I have recently published a book with Father José Granados on the Theology of the Body as expressed in the art collection of the Vatican Museums, and now I am trying to get back into more of an art history groove. I am looking to work on something involving Michelangelo and I am also looking at another project to capitalize on my specialized knowledge of the Vatican collections.

A review of The Tigress of Forlì by Elizabeth Lev can be found here.

Buy it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.it. Or visit Tuscan Traveler’s booklist.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – All About Giotto’s Bell Tower

I have a favorite take on the façade of the cathedral in Florence, which I turned into a Tuscan Traveler’s Tale. After reading the post, my father asked for the story on Giotto’s bell tower. (Note to father: I won’t be writing a piece on the dome, so please read the National Geographic article, Mystery of Florence’s Cathedral Dome May Be Solved by Tom Mueller, that just came out and pay special attention to the video embedded in it.)

Photo credit: mikestravelguide.com

Photo credit: mikestravelguide.com

Of course I had a take on the bell tower, too. It went something like this: The Florentines chose Giotto to design the bell tower because he was the most famous artist at the time (circa 1330). Giotto was a fresco painter, not a bell tower builder, so they gave him a good contractor and said “go for it.” Giotto died before the first layer was finished, so a guy named Pisano was hired. He almost finished the next layer with the sculpture-containing niches when he, too, died. Then a man named Talenti was brought in and he lived through the completion of the bell tower, so to be Florence’s bell tower builder wasn’t a completely cursed job.

Now all I had to do was figure out the true story.

As most people know, Giotto’s Campanile (Bell Tower) is a free-standing tower that is part of the complex of buildings that make up the Florence Duomo. Standing adjacent the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry of St. John, the tower is one of the showpieces of the Florentine Gothic architecture with its rich sculptural decorations and the polychrome marble encrustations. This slender structure stands on a square plan with a side of 47.41 feet (14.45 meters). It is 277.9 feet tall (84.7 meters).

The Giotto Groundfloor

On the death in 1302 of Arnolfo di Cambio, the first Master of the Works of the Cathedral, and after an interruption of more than thirty years, a successor was chosen in 1334. The lucky man was the celebrated painter, 67-year-old, Giotto di Bondone. Although he was charged with the entire cathedral building project, Giotto concentrated his energy on the design and construction of a campanile for the cathedral. His design was in harmony with Arnolfo’s polychrome theme for the cathedral.

Photo credit: belltowerproject.blogspot.com

Photo credit: belltowerproject.blogspot.com

The first stone was laid on 19 July 1334. When Giotto died in 1337, he had only finished the lower floor with its external marble decoration of geometric patterns of white, green and pink marble. His painter’s ethos led him to proceed with the external revestment while the building was going up, thus slowing down its completion. White marble from Carrara, green marble from Prato and light red marble from Siena decorated the surface and a series of hexegonal tiles in relief divided the bottom layer in a classical manner.

This lower floor is decorated on three sides with bas-reliefs in hexagonal panels, seven on each side. When the entrance door was enlarged in 1348, two panels were moved to the empty northern side and only much later, five more panels were commissioned from Luca della Robbia in 1437.

Here is my favorite Giotto tale: Vasari, drawing on a description by Boccaccio, who was a friend of Giotto, says of him that “there was no uglier man in the city of Florence” and indicates that his children were also plain in appearance. Vasari adds a story that Dante visited Giotto while he was painting the Scrovegni Chapel and, seeing the artist’s children underfoot asked how a man who painted such beautiful pictures could create such plain children, to which Giotto, always a wit, replied “I made them in the dark.”

There are a couple of stories that Giotto died of grief for having given the bell tower as he said, “a too small bed for your feet.” It was also rumored that Giotto died of a heart attack because he feared that he designed the base too small to support the weight and the height. In reality, the base of the tower is more narrow than it should be, perhaps to give the effect of greater vertical momentum. But Giotto died at age 70, a ripe old age for the 14th century. (Later designs sustained the height and weight of the tower by constructing four internal polygonal buttresses at the corners.)

The Pisano Part

Andrea Pisano, a goldsmith who learned to sculpt, was famous already for the South Doors of the Baptistery when he succeeded Giotto as Master of the Works in 1343. (Why didn’t the Woolmaker’s Guild, which was charged with paying for the construction, find an architect for the Master of the Works?) Pisano continued the construction of the bell tower, reportedly scrupulously following Giotto’s design, especially for the bas-relief hexagonal panels.

Photo credit: museumsinflorence.com

Photo credit: museumsinflorence.com

On the tower facade looking toward the Baptistery, the reliefs in the lower row depict the creation of man and woman, the beginnings of human work, and the “inventors” (according to the Bible) of various creative activities: sheep-herding, music, metallurgy, wine-making. In the upper register are the seven planets, beginning with Jupiter at the north corner. On the other facades, in the lower register are depicted astrology, building, medicine, weaving and other technical and scientific endeavors. In the upper registers with diamond- shaped panels are: on the south, the theological and cardinal virtues; on the east, the liberal arts of the Trivium and Quadrivium; to the north, the seven sacraments. (The originals of all these works are in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo.)

Pisano built two more levels, with two rows with four niches on each side and each level, but the niches on the second row are empty and covered in marble. The four statues on the west side were sculpted by Andrea Pisano and date from 1343. These Gothic statues are rather high-reliefs, left unfinished at the back. They represent the Tiburtine Sibyl, David, Solomon and the Erythraean Sibyl.

Photo credit: antoniohernandez.es

Photo credit: antoniohernandez.es

The four Prophets on the south side are already more classical in style and date between 1334 and 1341. The statue of Moses and the fourth statue are attributed to Maso di Banco.

The four Prophets and Patriarchs on the east side date from between 1408 and 1421: the beardless Prophets by Donatello (probably a portrait of his friend, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi), the Bearded Prophet (perhaps by Nanni di Bartolo), Abraham and Isaac (by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo) and Il Pensatore (the thinker) (by Donatello).

The four statues on the north side were added between 1420 and 1435: Prophet (probably by Nanni di Bartolo, however signed by Donatello), Habacuc (a masterpiece of Donatello, a tormented and emaciated prophet, portraying Giovanni Chiericini, an enemy of the Medicis), which the Florentines called “lo Zuccone” or pumpkin, because of his bald head, Jeremias (by Donatello, portraying Francesco Soderini, another enemy of the Medicis), Abdias (by Nanni di Bartolo).

Photo credit: antoniohernandez.es

Photo credit: antoniohernandez.es

For me, the best attribute of Donatello’s statues is that he knew they would be positioned in high niches so he made them with bowed heads so they would seemingly make eye contact with the passersby down below. (All the statues and hexagonal bas-relief panels on the campanile today are copies. The originals were removed between 1965 and 1967 and are now on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, behind the cathedral.)

Now, as far as I can tell, Pisano did not die on the job. It seems that he was busy building the bell tower from 1343 until sometime in 1346 when there may have been financial problems that stopped the work on the cathedral site. In 1347, he is listed as the Master of the Works for the cathedral in Orvieto. But in 1348 Pisano disappears. He was 58. The best guess is that he was a victim of the Black Death. Two thirds of Tuscany’s city dwellers died in 1348.

Talenti’s Top

The Black Death, for obvious reasons, slowed work on the Duomo to a standstill for a few years. Francesco Talenti was named the Master of the Works for the Florence cathedral project in 1351. He actually was an architect, as well as a sculptor. He also had worked on the Duomo in Orvieto.

Talenti designed the top layers of the bell tower. Each level is larger than the lower one and extends beyond it in every dimension so that the difference in size counters the effect of perspective. As a result, the top three levels of the tower, when seen from below, look equal in size to the lower levels.

Photo by Ann Reavis

Photo by Ann Reavis

The vertical windows open up the walls in a motif borrowed from the Siena campanile. These pairs of two-light windows (on the third and fourth storys), together with the single three-light window (on the fifth), give the entire structure a delicate and elegant aspect, typical of the Gothic style, but do not suffocate its overall “classical” effect. Instead of a spire, as designed by Giotto, Talenti built a large projecting terrace that not only forms a panoramic roof-top but also substitutes the cusp that was usually found on most Gothic bellowers. This lowered Giotto’s original design height of 400 feet to 277.9 feet. (Giotto was right; it was too tall.)

The top, with its breathtaking panorama of Florence and the surrounding hills, can be reached by climbing 414 steps.

Photo by James and Damaris Clayburn

Photo by James and Damaris Clayburn

The bell tower was finally finished after twenty-five years of construction in 1359. Reportedly, when Emperor Charles V of Hapsburg saw the bell tower, he said that it was such a precious work of art that it ought to be preserved under glass.

For Bell Fanatics

Since I live in the Duomo neighborhood, I have a love/hate relationship with the bells. Usually I don’t notice them. And then there is the rest of the time.

The original bells:

1)  The main bell is named for Santa Reparata and was made in 1475. Damaged, it was recast by Antonio Petri in 1705. It weighs 15,860 lbs.

2)  The bell called ‘della Misericordia’. Damaged, it was recast by Carlo Moreni in September of 1830 and weighs 6,414 lbs.

3)  The bell called the ‘Apostolica’, fused in April of 1516 by Lodovico di Guglielmo and weighing 5000 lbs.

4) The bell called ‘la Beona’. There is no information as to when or by whom it was cast. Its weight is estimated at 2760 lbs.

5)  The bell used for the office of Terce; it bears the name ‘Maria Anna’ and again nothing is known of its history. It weighs 2152 lbs.

6)  A small bell cast November 4, 1513, weighing 1400 lbs.

7)  The smallest bell, cast in December of 1514 and weighing 1000 lbs.

Total weight: 34,586 lbs.

In 1956-1957, following the replacement of the old wooden armature that supported the bells with a metal structure, and the shift to motor-operated ringing, the Commission appointed to oversee these innovations decided to exclude future use of the five smallest bells, four of which were deposited in the space corresponding to the big windows of Giotto’s Tower, while the fifth – the so-called ‘Apostolica’ – was set on the pavement of the bell cage itself.

Photo credit: museumsinflorence.com

Photo credit: museumsinflorence.com

In place of the bells thus ‘pensioned off’, five new ones were cast by the firm of Prospero Barigozzi. These are decorated with bas-reliefs by well-known sculptors, illustrating episodes from Mary’s life and illustrating Marian privileges.

The bells presently in use have the following characteristics:

1)  The ‘Campanone’ or ‘Santa Reparata’, of c. 5000 kg. And a diameter of 2.00 m., sounds the note LA;

2)  The ‘Misericordia’, of c. 2500 kg., has a diameter of 1,500 m. and sounds DO:

3)  The ‘Apostolica’, of c. 1800 kg., sounds RE. It has a diameter of 1.45m. and reliefs by Mario Moschi;

4)  The ‘Assunta’, of 846 kg. And a diameter of 1.27m, sounds MI and has reliefs by Bruno Innocenti;

5)  The ‘Mater Dei’, of 481 kg., has a diameter of 1.16m. and sounds SOL;

6)  The ‘Annunziata’, of 339 kg., sounds LA and has a diameter of 0.95m.

7)  The ‘Immacolata’, of 237 kg., sounds SI, has a diameter of 0.75m.

Each of the recast bells bears its own name and, in bas-relief, the arms of Cardinal Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, who consecrated them in the Baptistery on June 10, 1956. They also bear the emblems of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and of the City of Florence. On the last four there are in addition Latin verses.

The electric motor that controls the ringing of the bells was completely renewed by the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore in 2000-2001. (Thank goodness for this.)

Photo by Srabs683, Nov 2012

Photo by Srabs683, Nov 2012

The ancient ringing style, going back to when the bells were four in number, is documented in the fourteenth-century codex, “Mores et consuetudines Ecclesiae florentinae” (to be found in the Riccardiana Library), and varied according to the importance of the religious occasion, just as today:

1) “ut in dominicis” (on Sundays);

2) “ut in ferialibus diebus et in festis III lectionum” (on weekdays and feasts having three readings);

3) “ut in festis IX lectionum” (on feasts with nine readings);

4) “ut in summis solemnitatibus” (on the most important solemn feastdays).

At present several bells are rung together only for liturgical celebrations involving the archbishop or the canons. Bells rung singly indicate, every day, the “Angelus” (at 7AM, noon and at sunset, the penultimate hour of the day according to the ancient canonical way of computing the hours (11PM), which invites all to recite the ‘Credo‘ for the dying, and the first hour of the following liturgical day (one o’clock), which recalls the custom of reciting the ‘Requiem‘ for the dead. A bell is also rung to indicate the suspension of work for the lunch break (11:30AM) and the death of a Guard Captain of the Confraternity of Mercy.

Following tradition, ‘double minors’ are in addition rung for several of the more important devotional moments in the life of the Cathedral: the solemn rosary in the months of May and October, the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent, the Christmas Novena and for other occasions, as the Chapter may determine. The bells are not rung for single daily Masses or for other devotional functions.

In any event, there are plenty of bells heard throughout the day and night in the historic center of Florence.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Finding Rome on the Map of Love by Estelle Jobson

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks is expanding its focus to include books and movies with Italian themes. I am pleased that Estelle Jobson, author of Finding Rome on the Map of Love, agreed to participate in the first author interview.

(A full and ever growing list of books and films with Italian settings, authors,  and themes is easily found by clicking on the Tuscan Traveler’s  Amazon Store link in the right column. Amazon will pay Tuscan Traveler a small affiliate commission on any of your purchases. You pay exactly the same price as you would if you went to Amazon directly.)

Estelle has offered to give one free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Love to the person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding  they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click here or at the end of the post to leave your story.

Estelle in Rome    (Photo by Hugo Costa)

Estelle in Rome (Photo by Hugo Costa)

About Estelle Jobson

Estelle Jobson chose to leave a great job in South Africa to follow love and adventure to  a life as  ”Signora Stella” in a quiet neighborhood on one of the highest hills of Rome. After more than dozen years working in all aspects of  book publishing, she found herself tossed into the writing end of the business as she kept a journal of the joys, frustrations, and mysteries of life off the fast track in a country not her own. That journal became Finding Rome On The Map Of Love.

Life then led Estelle to Geneva where she once again has a busy day job. Her book, set in the seasons of Rome, is a fitting reminder that its good to take that unfamiliar path and Italy is the perfect place explore the map of love.

Cover and book design by Nicoletta Forni, of lovethyshoe.blogspot.ch/

Cover and book design by Nicoletta Forni, of lovethyshoe.blogspot.ch/

Finding Rome on the Map of Love

I loved the writing and the humor of Finding Rome on the Map of Love. Is this your first book and do you plan to write another?

Grazie! This is my first book, yes, although in my publishing career I have brought hundreds of books into the world for other authors. Right now, a great deal of creative energy goes into marketing Finding Rome, which deserves its rightful début. I wrote it over a year when I was a casalinga (housewife) and had the time and leisure to ruminate thoroughly and creatively. Such freedom and creative space is now limited by the otherwise very rewarding matter of earning a ‘proper’ income again. But I am brewing ideas on writing about a very different matter, women’s bodies and health, using humour to cloak information and provoke thought.

Your book is a meditation on assimilation (a South African expat in Italy). How long did you live in Rome and have you lived anywhere else in Italy?

‘Meditation’ is a good way of phrasing it, because living in Rome for 3 years gave me a chance to test-drive the mantra that emerges in Chapter 1: ‘You are enough. You have enough. You do enough.’ I managed to turn this into a way of life, effectively, even though now I am back in a conventional working life. I turned myself from a manic, frazzled career woman to a more balanced, less ambitious and considerably more contented person. This evolution is thanks largely to my time in Rome.

Have you traveled in Tuscany and do you have a favorite stop in Tuscany?

Yes, I have visited Florence itself, numerous times. I don’t have a specific spot that I love most. I travelled west to Livorno, and south down that coast, inland to Viterbo, and of course, back to Rome. Monte Argentario is spectacular, and I loved exploring the Etruscan ruins, from Tuscany to Lazio.

Do you have any observations about the difference between Florentines and Romans?

Yes, indeed! Apart from differences in vocabulary (e.g. schiacciata vs. pizza bianca), I would say the Florentines are generally a little more northern; meaning more reserved, and as they speak a ‘better’ Italian, more clearly enunciated, it is easier for me to understand. They say it themselves—their dialect is what Dante Alighieri formalized into what became standard Italian. I tried fiercely to get my head around the Roman dialect, but didn’t get much further than ‘Awu’ (hey), ‘Mo’ (now), and ‘Namo’ (Let’s go).

Estelle adopted the Italian Food Rules for the most part

Estelle adopted the Italian Food Rules for the most part (Photo by Hugo Costa)

I love the Italian Food Rules (i.e. “no cappuccino after 10am”). What is your favorite Food Rule and why?

Olive oil, always, and butter very rarely. In this shift from butter to olive oil, I evolved from a blunt-palated anglosaxon to being able to discern a good olive oil from a splendid one. To this refining of my palate, I dedicated the chapter: ‘An ode to the olive’.

I am studying Italian Life Rules (i.e. colpo d’aria) right now and I found one in Finding Rome on the Map of Love that I had recognized subliminally, but never put a name to: Italians always wear bathrobes with hoods. What is your favorite Italian Life Rule?

I just love coprire la pancia (covering your stomach), which implies that one gets a nap in after lunch, with one’s tummy snugly covered. Accordingly, Italian men wear vests as a matter of course, and I adore this mélange of tenderness with masculinity: to ward off the peril of a chill on one’s tummy.

I read that you seem to enjoy learning languages. Which languages do you speak and in what order did you learn them?

Yes, learning languages has long been a hobby and a love of mine. I grew up in an English-speaking home, heaving with books. Afrikaans was taught in South African schools from quite early on and in high school, I started with French where my linguistic love affair really took off. At university, I did a pure-languages BA, majoring in French, English, and Xhosa (a South African language, Mandela’s mother tongue). As there were no additional fees involved at varsity, I did extra courses, German and beginner South Sotho (another African language). Only years later, in my thirties, did I start learning Italian after I met the man in question. But no, I don’t speak them all that well and sometimes I jumble them up.

Likewise, you seem to have wanderlust. Which countries have you lived in for more than six months and in what order, starting at birth?

Ooh, yes! ‘Sagittarius: have suitcase, will travel’. I grew up in Cape Town and, as an adult, moved to Johannesburg for my first job. In my early thirties, I studied in New York for 15 months, then lived in Geneva for 2.5 years, then went back to Joburg for 4.5 years. Rome came next, for 3 years, and 2.5 years ago, I returned to Geneva. It suits me much better the second time around.

Which country that you haven’t lived in would you like to try for six months to a year?

I am more attracted to cities, than countries, as such. Which cities? Paris (big) or perhaps Lyon (smaller). Frankfurt. Sydney. Seattle. Toronto. Chicago. London. Bombay. How many chances do I get?

Rome at Night     (Photo by Hugo Costa)

Rome at Night (Photo by Hugo Costa)

As a booklover, do you box up a library as you move from country to country or have you given in to an eReader or do you have another solution?

I do schlepp books around with me, but circumstances have forced me to become frugal. So I use local English libraries, buy used books from English church sales and the like, and then I swap with friends and colleagues. Occasionally, I donate books to public libraries or leave them in airports. I haven’t made the e-reader transition, because I love turning pages and I appreciate the mastery of a well-produced book.

Italy seems to lend itself to memoirs. You are now living in Switzerland. Is there a genre of expat-living-in-Switzerland memoirs? Can you see yourself writing one?

Italy has been the source of inspiration for numerous ‘travel’ writers, indeed, I think because Italy is such a total-immersion setting and so rich in quirky anecdotes, steeped in history. Such writing has not taken off in quite the same way in Switzerland, on the whole. Might this be because the Swiss are less loquacious and more inscrutable? In Geneva, which is more of a mini-global village, however, swissness is fairly diluted. My friends and colleagues hail from all corners of the globe. A few are even Swiss. In the course of a day at work, I may speak French, English, Italian, and maybe some rusty German. I don’t think writing about Switzerland is going to be my next writing project, however. I am keen to write about the landscape of the body.

You don’t describe in much detail about how your Italian partner (“the Metrosexual”) assimilated to South Africa. Do you think Italians assimilate when they move to another country?

On the whole, I don’t think first-generation Italians assimilate particularly well, no. Their children might, but those who are newly uprooted tend to stick to what they know and trust, that which is di fiducia. This includes brands, cuisine, and social familiarities, such as finding a local Italian butcher, hairdresser, shoemaker, and tailor. For example, try as I might, I could not persuade the Meterosexual that Disprin is just as good (no, identical to) aspirina. He made a tentative go at South African braais (barbecues), but was not able to keep up with the copious drinking marinated by the fierce African sun.

In the same vein, did “the Metrosexual” become “more” Italian when the two of you moved to Rome, and, if so, how?

I wrote about this process in ‘Love is like an artichoke‘, about the slow peeling off and identifying of layers of identity. He did not change, but my ability to differentiate between what was him, what came from his family, what was Florentine, or broadly Italian (and then, which kind of Italian), became much more nuanced.

Roman Neighborhood of Trastevere  (Photo by Hugo Costa)

Roman Neighborhood of Trastevere (Photo by Hugo Costa)

What was the germinating idea for your book Finding Rome on the Map of Love and what was its path to publication?

When I moved to Rome, I was free to not work for the first time in my adult life. This luxury was strangely unhinging too. Simultaneously, I was flung into a brand-new setting and was processing cross-cultural conundrums daily, which triggered a flood of creativity. I carried around notebooks and scribbled away madly, recording snippets of conversations, words, and observations of events around me. From that heap of chaos, I pulled out themes and wrote them up, one by one, chapter by chapter. I wrote 45 chapters over a year, each one under 2,000 words and set myself the goal of 70,000 words. In so doing, I processed my personal path and deepened my understanding of Italy.

You have written essays that have been published on Transitionsabroad.com on the topics relating to, in most part, navigating the bureaucracy of Italian life. Do you plan to create a book of those and other similar essays?

Transitionsabroad.com commissioned me to write how-to articles for ex-pats settling in Italy, which gave me a yet another opportunity to turn life’s experiences into writing. Feedback on internet-based writing is often immediate, direct, and gives me a bit of a thrill, so I have written a good number of pieces as a guest blogger, here and there. I have not thought of bundling them together, mostly because I regard writing for the internet as fast food and book publishing as fine dining.

Do you still drive a Vespa?

I have a Sym Tonik 125cc now, simply because the dealer was operating mid-summer. Guess where the Vespa dealer was? On holiday. In Italy! But actually, I ride my bicycle much more. I am looking forward to seeing myself appearing as a ‘chic cyclist’ in a bike book (The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Life on Two Wheels) to be published next month.

Estelle found Rome safer on a Vespa than on foot.

Estelle found Rome safer on a Vespa than on foot.

Do you still attend writing/publishing conferences? Which is your favorite and why?

On and off, yes. My favourite is the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a mindboggling beehive of publishers, authors, exhibitors, and events. As Europe’s biggest book fair, it is 27 football fields worth of books and makes me feel, as a publishing person, that I am part of a vast, thriving, and magnificent world of ideas that become ink.

What is an Interrobang? What place does it play in your life and do you think it will find favor on Twitter?

The interrobang is a punctuation mark, merging an exclamation mark with a question mark. It was developed in the early days of printing and destined for great things, but did not thrive. The ‘?!’ conveys both surprise and questioning. No other punctuation mark in English communicates two emotive elements at once. Not being very on active on Twitter, I can’t rightly say which direction it might go in, but the interrobang would certainly fit well into the twittersphere. Bring it on!?

Interrobang

Ask and answer two questions that are not included here, which you think should be part of any interview with you.

Who is your favourite feminist?

Can I have two? Both of them think (thought) out of the box. Helen Keller was a lyrical and prolific writer. She mastered several languages, read widely, and was a vocal activist for women’s and workers’ rights. And then Inna Shevchenko, of Femen, who essentially turned a little known Ukrainian group of activist-intellectuals into an international movement. Their success lies in a particularly deft and radical move: having women write slogans of protest on their own bodies.

Who encouraged you most to write when you were young?

Lots of English teachers did. But at my high school, Will van der Walt, was the most emphatic and inspiring. He took my literary interests very seriously and bestowed the utmost respect upon the teenage angst I spilled out upon the page. You will see that I mentioned him in the Acknowledgements of my book.

Estelle would have loved to drive this Fiat 500, but it wasn't hers

Estelle would have loved to drive this Fiat 500, but it wasn’t hers

Book Give Away

Remember:  Estelle will give a free copy of Finding Rome on the Map of Love to one lucky person who comments on this post with the best tale about a cultural misunderstanding  they observed, heard about or experienced in Italy. Click the link below.

Buy Finding Rome on the Map of Love at:

Amazon.com — U.S.

Amazon.co.uk — United Kingdom

Amazon.fr — France

Amazon.it — Italy

Find Estelle on Facebook, too.

Italian Life Rules – Galateo, the 500 Year Old Guide to Polite Manners

“Pleasant manners,” writes Giovanni Della Casa, “are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires, or the imagination of those with whom we live.”

In modern times when we are reminded that President Lyndon Johnson would hold meetings while sitting on the toilet; or there is a kerfuffle throughout the Twittersphere when Mayor de Blasio (correctly according to Italian Food Rules) ate pizza with a knife and fork; or tourists in Florence insist on greeting strangers with “Ciao!”; or foreign students think flip-flops and cut-off shorts are proper attire when touring a church, it is comforting to know that at least the Italians have Life Rules that govern almost every aspect of their daily existence. These rules were set almost five hundred years ago.

Frontispiece of the First edition of Galateo, 1558

Frontispiece of the First edition of Galateo, 1558

“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction.”

So begins Galateo, Trattato de’ Costumi (Galateo: Treatise on the Rules of Polite Behavior) a  short manuscript on good manners, written by the retired, but worldly (he was known to compose racy poetry), archbishop and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556).  First published in 1558, two years after the author’s death, it sets forth the rules on how to comport oneself in polite society.

Della Casa was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, a small town north of Florence, to a noble Tornabuoni mother and a highly educated father. He lived in Florence and Rome at the same time as Michelangelo. He attended university in Bologna and after deciding on an ecclesiastical career, he rose quickly to the position of Archbishop of Benevento, a small city northeast of Naples. His lasting legacy, however, is Il Galateo.

Portrait of Giovanni Della Casa by Pontormo

Portrait of Giovanni Della Casa by Pontormo

Purportedly for the benefit of his nephew, Annibale Rucellai, a young Florentine with an important lineage and a promising future, the treatise, in the voice of a cranky yet genial old uncle, offers the distillation of what had been learned over a lifetime of study of Greek and Roman humanistic texts and public service as diplomat and papal nuncio. (Archbishop Della Casa was once charged with setting up the inquisition in Venice to root out heretics.)

The University of Chicago Press has recently published a new edition, translated by M.F. Rusnak. As Rusnak discusses in the long introduction to Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior, far from being a book on table manners, the original Galateo was a “conduct manual, a viable tourist guide to acting Italian in Italy, and a learned analysis of literary language.”

Most Recent Translation of Galateo

Most Recent Translation of Galateo

As relevant today as it was in Renaissance Italy, Galateo deals with subjects as varied as dress codes, charming conversation and off-color jokes, eating habits and hairstyles, and includes citations to the works of Dante and Boccaccio.  Less a treatise promoting courtly values or a manual of savoir faire, it is rather a meditation on conformity and the law, on perfection and rules, but also an exasperated reaction to the diverse ways in which people make fools of themselves in everyday social situations.

As such, it holds a distinguished place among Italy’s rich history of etiquette books. These range from Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love, which describes how a medieval knight should behave to win the favor of his lady; to Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being nonchalant, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, devoted to realpolitik and therefore, stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior. In its time, Galateo circulated as widely as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Courtier.

The Prince by Machiavelli was published 25 years before Galeteo

The Prince by Machiavelli was published 25 years before Galeteo

Mirroring what Machiavelli did for promoting political behavior, and what Castiglione did for behavior at a noble court, Della Casa described the refined every-man caught in a world in which embarrassment and vulgarity prevailed. Galateo was written at a time when the medieval openness about bodily functions was being discouraged. Renaissance etiquette writers were all begging their readers to stop spitting and touching themselves in public.

Della Casa’s explanation for his rules of dress, table manners, gestures and speech is the need to avoid offending others. That is the basic bargain required to live in peaceful communities. Naturally, it never happens without a struggle. Not all Europeans agreed with Della Casa.

At the end of the 16th century, English readers assumed that Thomas Coryate , one of the earliest travel writers, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those prissy Italians wielding forks arrived at the royal court in France in 1533 with the Italian Catherine de’ Medici when the pope arranged for her to marry the future King Henry II. A century later, Louis XIV was supposedly so annoyed to see a court lady use one that he had hair put in her soup.

Catherine de' Medici took her forks to France in 1533

Catherine de’ Medici took her forks to France in 1533

In Richard II, Shakespeare, writing about forty years after Galateo was published, has the Duke of York complain to the dying John of Gaunt about “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy apish nation / Limps after in base imitation.” The French and the English disparaged Italian etiquette, only to lay claim in succeeding centuries to being the cultures of refinement, civility and propriety.

Galateo is divided into thirty chapters based around questions of etiquette. As with any modern manners book, it offers advice on proper dinner-table conversation and behavior. Have we not all been repulsed by people who, “oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater.”

Throughout, Della Casa urges a reasonable conformity to the customs of the country in which one lives. (He would have encouraged Mayor de Blasio to eat pizza with his hands in NYC, but not in Florence.) Clothes, Galateo suggests, should fit well rather than be loud and trendy. He urged his nephew to follow the refined conservative fashions in Florence, but when in Naples to wear the more elaborate costumes popular there. ”First of all, one must consider the country where one lives, for every custom is not good in every place. Perhaps what is customary for Neapolitans, whose city is rich in men of great lineage and barons of great prestige, would not do, for example, for the people of Lucca or Florentines who are for the most part merchants and simple gentlemen and have among them neither princes, nor counts, nor barons.”

Galateo disdains the Spanish style, but says when in Madrid, dress the part

Galateo disdained the Spanish style, but said when in Madrid, dress the part, get a collar

He recommended that people speak clearly and plainly, after having “first formed in your mind what you have to say.” He argued for civility but warned against sycophancy: “Flatterers overtly show that they consider the man they are praising to be vain and arrogant, as well as so stupid, obtuse, and so beef-witted that it is easy to lure and entrap him.”

Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice met his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.

The counsel itself remains timeless: “Most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more.” In modern times, the object of Della Casa’s disparaging comments would be the woman on the bus putting on her makeup in a cloud of perfume, someone on the park bench clipping his fingernails, the teenager who insists on tapping his feet to the music leaking out of his earbuds one seat over in a plane, and those who chat or conduct business on their cell phones in a restaurant.

“You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there,” wrote Della Casa to his nephew.

He was also irritated by people who interrupt constantly (they “surely make the other person eager to punch or smack them”), and people who describe their dreams in excruciating detail: “One should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.”

“To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.”

The Italian iPhone app for Galateo a Tavola (Galateo at the Table)

Italian iPhone app for Galateo a Tavola (Galateo at the Table)

Americans would be surprised at Galateo’s advice on how to behave at a dinner party: “You must not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this habit is for tavern keepers.” And “[i]t is a barbarous habit to challenge someone to a drinking bout. This is not one of our Italian customs and so we give it a foreign name, that is, far brindisi.” [The Italian fare brindisi or brindare for "to toast" comes from German ich bring dir's, “I bring yours."]

Manners matter. As Della Casa writes, the annoyances of everyday life only seem trivial or of small moment. “Even light blows, if they are many, can kill.” In the end, regard for the feelings of others lies at the heart of any rational society. In Italy, an ill-bred bore is described as “one who has not read Il Galateo.” (Or acquired the latest smart phone app: Galateo a Tavola. )

To read Il Galateo is to have “a viable travel guide to acting Italian in Italy.” To follow its lessons is a big step toward being Italian.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – A Dozen Top Italy Blogs

Every two years or so, everyone who maintains a travel website or blog should clean up their Blogroll. For those who have never clicked on a Blogroll link or even thought “blogroll” was a word: a blogroll is the list of other websites or blogs (hopefully with handy click-through links) that a blogger (or travel writer, a term I prefer) either reads, or believes should be read. A blogger may have exchanged links with other websites in hopes of greater shared readership, or may believe that a blogroll should be created and maintained as part of the website management to-do list, or may have a myriad of other reasons for the list.

Photo by Melika http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/writing/images/9349790/title/pen-paper-wallpaper

The problem with a blogroll is that, unless you are linking to sites like The New York Times (or, come to think of it, even if you are linking to TNYT), the links will  become stale as Tuscan bread, meaning it is impossible to get through anymore. Further, in a place like Italy bloggers tend to pick up and move back to Dallas, Denver or Derbyshire, the story ending with a still relevant “Twenty Things I Love about Italy” post written four years ago. (In Italy the twenty things really don’t change all that much, I’ve found.)

Even if the writer is still in-country and posting away, the frustrations of WordPress, Blogger, Typepad, LiveJournal, and the like, or the failure to maintain the payments for the domain name and/or server, will result in a “404 Not Found” status code or a “503 Service Unavailable” or some such pothole in the internet highway to “Life in Italy.”

So today, I wandered back into my Blogroll, inspired by A.K. at Arttrav.com who is in competition with some other fine writers for Blog Awards 2013 at Italy Magazine. Going through the Italy Magazine Blog Categories I found a number of sites that I hadn’t heard of and will follow in the future. That led me to the job of adding those to my Blogroll, which led me to check the links and do an early spring cleaning of the whole list, which can be found by clicking on the link found right below the Tuscan Traveler banner.

All of the boring back and forth of clicking and checking and deleting and linking and checking again and swearing and starting all over, resulted in the idea that I, too, could do the impossible and pick the twelve best Italy blogs. Of course, this is completely subjective and subject to change next week, next month or next year. But I hope that none of these folks get tired of Italy or done with writing or weary of the process of posting or get a “real” job that eats up all of their blogging time and energy because I love reading what they write and marvel at the photography skills of most of them.

Tuscan Traveler’s Top Dozen Italy Blogs

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Arttrav

Arttrav is a blog about art, travel, and expat life in Florence, Italy.  Alongside art historical information, exhibit and museum reviews, you will find articles about the people and events that make up the lively nature of Italian life. Alexandra Korey has a PhD in Renaissance Italian art history from the University of Chicago and a goal to make art accessible. She has a real job, but luckily it is internet-related so she can keep Arttrav going while at work.

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Emiko Davies Regional Italian Cuisine 

Living in Florence, for seven years taught Emiko Davies a few things about Italian cuisine. One, that recipes of Tuscany are not all there is to Italian food. Instead, there are twenty regional cuisines. Two, that traditions rule. On her site she shares the anecdotes, techniques and history behind some favourite traditional regional recipes. If you’re making a trip to Florence or indeed anywhere in Tuscany soon and you’d like some tips on where to eat or places to visit, you’ll find things throughout her blog, like her favorite gelato shops, breakfast spots, where to eat like a Florentine, panini and wine bars and other food adventures.

Emiko has one of the most beautiful food sites of any country. Her writing and photographs can be found in a number of places, both online and in print, so start with her “About” page to get an idea of where to find more of her stuff after you’ve devoured her Regional Italian Cuisine blog.

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The Bittersweet Gourmet &  Platform 17

Living in the Bel Paese, in the tiny town of Grezzano in Tuscany, about an hour from Florence, Amy Gulick was in love with an Italian, but oceans now divided her from the people to whom she’d been closest. For many of those early years it seemed every minor success she achieved in her adoptive country necessitated a number of setbacks. This tough, perplexing, sometimes sorrowful time was not without its joys, however. On the contrary: it was also thrilling, full of first-time experiences with food, art, travel, new friends, and a new lifestyle she would soon come to cherish. She now says that no word more aptly sums up her initiation into Italian life than “bittersweet.”

Amy is maintaining two blogs (I hope, because my favorite is Platform 17 with both its history posts and its “life back of beyond in Italy” stories, and the last post is dated October 2013 . . . ), a scrumptious home food one, The Bittersweet Gourmet, with recipes and the other with a great “About” story of why it is called Platform 17, the unluckiest number in Italy.

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Mozzarella Mamma

How does a young American woman brought up on field hockey, frozen vegetables, washing machines, takeout Chinese food and backpacking become transformed into a functioning Italian mamma with perfect pasta and luscious legs? Impossible, but Trisha Thomas is giving it her best and writing about it as she goes.

Over the past 16 years, she has been raising her children and her “mamma buddies” have provided the understanding and wisdom to get her through. One mamma friend summed up beautifully her concerns about being an Italian-style mamma. She said, “We try to teach them good values, we try to teach them to work hard and do their best, but somehow I think we are turning our children into mozzarellas.”

Trisha has jotted down her humorous experiences as she has both worked for a television news agency and endeavored to become a good Italian mamma without losing her American-ness. She divides the anecdotes into different categories—food tales, health stories, clothing issues, and lately, Italy’s political foibles.

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Rebecca’s Brigolante Blog

Rebecca Winke, originally from Chicago, joined her husband Stefano in Assisi in 1993, and shortly thereafter the couple began a lengthy renovation project on the Brigolante farmhouse, which has been in the Bagnoli family for at least eight generations.

She posts essays that touch on her life as an American transplanted to the Umbrian countryside. If you have ever dreamed of picking up and moving to the Bel Paese, you will enjoy reading the cautionary tales on her blog that arise from life in Umbria.  Her real job of running a fabulous B&B and raising children keeps her really busy, except in the winter when school is in session and the B&B business is slow. So I hope her memory is good and she gets a year’s worth of posts written down in January and February.

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Not Just Another Dolce Vita 

Ever since Sarah Mastroianni can remember she has been fascinated by the Italian language and has felt strongly connected to her Italian roots. She has a Master of Arts in Italian Studies from the University of Toronto, and experience travelling, studying and working in Italy. She like to hang her hat in Siena, but her stories take her all over Italy. This blog gives her an outlet through which to express her love for Italian language and culture, to write (another passion) and also to share her firsthand knowledge with other fans of Italy.

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Parla Food

Katie Parla is from New Jersey and she earned a BA in Art History from Yale. In 2003, shortly after graduating, she moved to Rome and since then has earned a sommelier certificate (FISAR) and an MA in the Cultura Gastronomica Italiana. She has written and edited more than 20 books and her food criticism and travel writing have appeared all over the world. (She never sleeps.) She is now a Rome-based food and beverage educator and journalist so her blog is here to stay.

Parla Food is her personal blog where she gets to take a break from her day job of lecturing, giving private tours, and writing for others. She writes mostly about food issues facing diners in Rome and in Italy. Sometimes she sneaks in a non-food related topic if she is really excited about something and wants to share. She recently picked up an archeological speleology certification from the city of Rome so we should be reading soon about what is underneath the streets of Rome.

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Rubber Slippers In Italy

It’s a long, long way from Hawaii to Italy for Rowena. Living in the land of pasta, pizza, and wine is everything you might imagine, but one thing remains true: You can take the girl out of the island but you can’t take the island out of the girl.  Like many who have suddenly found themselves in a new environment, the desire to document every experience gave birth to Rowena’s humble little page on Blogspot. That page grew into more pages, year after year, developing into compilation of recipes, travels around Italy, and discoveries in a place that is so very unlike Hawaii.

Her dogs Mr. B and Mads are along for the ride whether they want to or not because she is compiling the “100 Ways to Celebrate Italy” (80 and counting) a fascinating compilation of sagras, festivals, parades, and carnivals.

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Green Holiday in Italy

Anna is a freelance journalist living in a stunning corner of Italy, Abruzzo, and doing her bit for the planet: she recycles religiously, grows organic vegetables, shops and eats local and make an effort to keep her holidays as green as possible. She started this site to share her passion for slow travel in Italy.

She sees responsible travel as looking at the world around you closely, making conscious choices and giving back to the places you visit and the people you meet. Her site has some of the beautiful photographs found on the internet and is one of the very few places you can find a post that starts out: “Birdwatching in Italy has just become more exciting! After 400 years the Northern Bald Ibis returned to Northern Italy.”

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Rick’s Rome

Yes, most of the best Italy bloggers are women. But then there is Rick Zullo.  Quite a few years ago he came to Italy on an extended vacation (he called it a “sabbatical” just to make it sound impressive, but let’s be honest…).  About midway through that trip, he fell in love with Rome on his very first night in the city.  On the second night, he fell in love with one of its inhabitants (who is now his wife).  Rick found being an American in Rome to be challenging. Rick’s Rome describes many of his trials and tribulations, how he’s been able to overcome them or at least come to a compromise, making the most out of living in that fascinating, perplexing, chaotic city.

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Timeless Italy

Susan Nelson is happiest walking the cobbled streets of Italy and exploring ruins that have existed for thousands of years. She has an exquisite eye for the the great photo shot, ranging from the quirky corner to the breath-taking vista. Giant aqueducts, earthy catacombs, back streets and back roads, mystical legends of the saints — they all catch her imagination. She shares her thoughts and experiences through Timeless Italy; a perfect companion for the armchair adventurer. 

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Over the Tuscan Stove

Judy Witts Francini adores shopping the markets and being inspired to cook with local seasonal food. She began her career as a pastry chef in San Francisco and when she moved to Florence she started from scratch in learning a whole new way to cook and eat. In 1997, she started her website Divina Cucina with a dining guide to Florence and Chianti and also Tuscan recipes. Soon after she started sharing her thoughts and observations in Over The Tuscan Stove. Now she’s expanding into the world of travel apps.

She writes about meeting the individuals who grow, make and sell the authentic food of Tuscany,  learning from them the age-old family traditions. Her recent tours to Sicily and southern Italy have provided a whole new set of posts and pictures.

Baker’s Dozen

If you want to get into the act, you can always comment on any post that these twelve superb writers produce. But to get a real conversation going about all things Italy (and France and Spain and . . . ) join the Slow Europe Travel Forums at SlowEurope.com, created by Pauline Kenny the creator of the Slow Travel movement with her original site SlowTravel.

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What are your favorite Italy websites? Leave a comment here.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Duomo Façade, a Lesson in Italian Construction Projects

Recently, a photograph from the 1850s in Florence was posted online. It’s one of my favorite photos of the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, and it got me thinking once again about the wedding cake façade of the cathedral because once upon a time it looked like this.

Florence Duomo in 1850

Florence Duomo in 1850

I always tell people that even though the Duomo was finished in the 1400s, the ornate façade wasn’t added until the late 1800s. The way I put it is: In the 1400s they held a competition for the design of the façade and nobody won … and then they ran out of money and then one hundred years passed … and then another century and then another and four-hundred years later, Florence was going to be the capital of the new Italian state and they couldn’t have an ugly Duomo, so they held a competition … and nobody won … so they put a committee together and came up with the present façade that everybody, except for architectural purists, loves.

But I wasn’t completely sure this was absolutely accurate. I decided to dig around in my library and online.

Florence Duomo Façade - 400 years in the making

Florence Duomo Façade – 400 years in the making

The façade of the Cathedral in pink, white and green marble, the statues, rose windows, mosaics and cusps of Gothic inspiration is the fruit of the historic and romantic taste of the architect, Emilio de Fabris (1808-1883), who, until his death, designed and directed the construction that went on for a decade (1876-1886) with input from several architects who had attempted to produce acceptable earlier designs, among them Giovanni Silvestri (1822), Nicola Matas di Ancona (1842) (who just finished the design of the façade of Santa Croce), and Gian Giorgio Muller (1843-44).

The 19th century project was the second façade for the Duomo. The first only covered the bottom third of the front exterior wall of the cathedral. It was conceived by Arnolfo di Cambio and left unfinished at his death (circa 1302-1310). We can get an idea of what Arnolfo’s façade looked like from a drawing by Bernardino Poccetti found in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. Poccetti’s sketch was created in 1587, when the decision was made to dismantle Arnolfo’s half-finished façade and substitute it with a more complete and modern one.

The sketch by Pocetti of Arnolfo's façade

The sketch by Poccetti of Arnolfo’s façade

Between 1302 and 1587, there was another attempt to clothe the front of the cathedral. In 1490, the cathedral was declared to be in unsound condition. In the records of the Woolmaker’s Guild, which was responsible for the Duomo’s original construction, is a notice that the design for the original façade was contrary to all architectural rules and orders. The authorities resolved on its reconstruction. This decision was zealously supported by the most influential citizen of the day, Lorenzo de’ Medici. A meeting to consider the matter was convened within the cathedral itself, but, though many eminent artists attended, the discussion ended without coming to a satisfactory conclusion.

The first competition for its completion was announced in 1491, but the jury put off choosing the winner because they did not find any of the presented projects particularly convincing. In one of the upper floors of the Museo Opera del Duomo there are various models and architectural drawings proposed for the new façade to replace the one by Arnolfo.

The façade was left in its unfinished state until the reign of the Grand Duke Francesco I (1575-1587). Finally, the Gothic façade of Arnolfo was torn off in 1587. The court architect Bernardo Buontalenti proposed that the Medici Grand Duke undertake the project by including it in the program intended to modernize the city that had already been started in Vasari’s time. Buontalenti took part in the 1586 competition with a model of classical Baroque inspiration, which we are probably lucky was not carried out. Other participants in the competition included the sculptor Giambologna and Don Giovanni Medici (1566-1621), the illegitimate son of Cosimo I and Eleonora degli Albizzi (he was the architect of the Chapel of the Princes in San Lorenzo).

Madonna and Child by Arnolfo

Madonna and Child by Arnolfo

As part of the removal process, some of the original marble Arnolfo elements were integrated into the new flooring that was being laid in the interior of Santa Maria del Fiore.  A few statues were transported out of Italy and ended up in museums in France and England. But most of the sculptural elements and statues were stored inside the Opera del Duomo, later converted into the present Museum.

These statues can still be seen today in a room on the ground floor. Five were sculpted by Arnolfo himself: St. Zanobus, St. Reparata, the Madonna and Child (1296) with unusual glass eyes, the Madonna of the Nativity and the interesting Pope Boniface VIII, a solidly constructed sculpture whose partial rigidity seems to emphasize the impression of power and authority of the personage. (Dante would have argued against the inclusion of the hated Pope who he reserved a place in the eighth circle of hell in the the Inferno.)

Pope Boniface by Arnolfo

Pope Boniface by Arnolfo

The 1586 competition resulted in no decision, no construction.

A new competition was held in 1633, this time won by the Academy of Fine Arts. The execution was entrusted to the Opera del Duomo’s architect, Gherardo Silvani. The first stone was laid in 1636, but two years later everything was suspended because of the fierce criticism of the project by Silvani himself, who had also unsuccessfully presented a model of his own in the 1633 competition. At this time there was also some sort of scandal that erupted over the project. The new unfinished façade was condemned and removed.

Early 19th century postcard

Early 19th cent. postcard with painted columns

In 1689, on the marriage of Prince Ferdinando, the second son of the Grand Duke Cosimo III, with Duchess Violante Beatrice of Bavaria, the rubble and cement on the front of the cathedral were covered with a coating of paint, representing columns and other architectural decorations.  These eventually faded away, worn by time and weather, over the hundred and sixty years that passed before the Cathedral project was revived.

In 1843 Nicola Matas di Ancona proposed a design for the façade. Other architects argued for their own designs. In 1859 a new competition was held. Politics intervened and another competition was commenced in 1861. The judges were dissatisfied with all of the proposals. In 1863, another competition was held.  In 1865, the year Florence became the capital of Italy, a new panel of judges awarded the prize to Emilio de Fabris.

But, subsequent discussion rendered that decision null and void.

Another competition was called for. This time, the panel was chaired by Pietro Salvatico. He liked Emilio de Fabris’s design, but wanted some changes. A bit of back and forth ensued and in 1876, five years after the capital of Italy moved to Rome, the work on the present façade of the Duomo began. Ten years later, it was completed.

Florence Duomo as night falls

Florence Duomo as night falls

Then the critics began to weigh in, viewing the design and execution as those that would be expected from a committee, which attempted a modern concept while having to incorporate four hundred years of architectural history in the design. Architectural purists may not like the Duomo’s façade, but most of us are in awe every time we see it.

When a Florentine speaks of anything which was destined never to be completed, he would compare it to the cathedral, “La non sarà; già l’opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.”  (“It will never be finished; yes, indeed, like the works of Santa Maria del Fiore.”)

Francesca’s Footprints – A Student Finally Learns Something Important

It is a joy to learn something new and surprising. As a teacher, it is even better when I learn from a student. Here’s a story many of you at TuscanTraveler.com may know, at least in part. It’s about Ann, the Tuscan Traveler. She’s published a book! I wrote the Foreward.

Ann was a San Francisco lawyer in search of any enlightenment that nine months in Italy could bring her when she walked into my Italian grammar class in Massa Marittima, near the Tuscan coast, in 1998. To be kind, let’s say that she had no ear for my melodic language.

Francesca Al Vapore!

Francesca “Al Vapore”!

Changing focus, she sought to learn to expand her kitchen skills beyond admittedly delicious chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake to include Florentine and Tuscan recipes. I was conducting cooking classes for Americans and other tourists. Ann, unfortunately, could never master a passable soffritto or achieve al dente when it came to cooking pasta.

I was ready to give up on the notion that Ann was ever going to awaken to the state of being Italian even for a day, but then we started to delve into the customs and practices that make Italian food authentic. Maybe it is the lawyer’s need for defined rules and precedents or Ann’s love for research that, combined with her passion for eating, if not cooking, Italian food led her to collect what she came to call the Italian Food Rules.

Italian Food Rules FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 1000 PIXELS

After nine months in Florence became over fifteen years in Italy, Ann is still clearly American, but she knows more than most Italians about the basis of the food practices that are passed down from generation to generation. Her delight in each discovery has frequently been shared in her writing on TuscanTraveler.com and, now, in this enchanting book.

The facts, fictions, history and reasons behind the Italian Food Rules, as well as the revelation of the mere existence of so many customs or edicts, will assist any visitor to Italy by making their stay easier, less confusing, and richer. For Italians, their response to reading Ann’s list of the rules is usually “giusto, giusto” (“exactly right”) and then delight when they read the rationale and history of the gastronomic commandments passed down from their grandmothers.

I never knew where Caesar Salad originated (certainly not Italy), or why spaghetti with meatballs was considered an Italian dish, or why Americans always wanted a bowl of olive oil with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar delivered immediately to the table when dining at a trattoria. I enjoy eating lampredotto and lardo on a regular basis, being very familiar with these Tuscan specialties, but I never thought much about their origins in Italian history until Ann started asking questions, urging me to translate at Florentine tripe stands, and traveling to Colonnata to see where herbed lard is aged.

The bricks that form the foundation of the most loved cuisine in the world today are important and should be preserved. Ann Reavis has given us the gift of memory in her light and amusing book of Italian Food Rules.

You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook