Monthly Archives: April 2010

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Gelato, the Good, the Bad, and the Festival

Ben & Jerry's cozying up to the Duomo
Ben & Jerry's cozying up to the Duomo

I’m not a big “no-global” proponent; so if someone in, say, Vermont, is making great ice cream, I think it should be shared with the rest of the world. Therefore, when Ben & Jerry’s (full disclosure: I have eaten hundreds of pints of B&J’s in my lifetime) was scheduled to open a store in Florence that wasn’t a major issue for me.

But when that storefront is just a few feet from the façade of the Duomo and my favorite flavors (Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch and Triple Caramel Chunk,) of the Vermont ice cream have turned in to a frozen substance made by Unilever in Holland, renamed Caramel Chew Chew and Vanilla Toffee Crunch (because evidently there are no Heath Bars in Europe), then I’m just a little bit burnt to a crisp under this Tuscan sun.

Ice cream is an important part of the American culture, but here in Italy, it is a religion. On a weekly basis more Italians enter a gelateria than a church. They argue about gelato more than religion, too. Florentines, especially, can debate long and hard about their favorite gelateria:  describing the benefits of local gelato-masters vs. the new “foreigners” (from Turin or Bologna or Sicily); asserting that creamy cioccolato fondente is better than cioccolato extra noir that lacks both eggs and cream; and despairing that not only do foreigners commit the sins of eating semifreddo in the summer, granita in the winter, but the tourists also request a 5 euro cone (way too big) from any so-called gelato stand that stacks the factory-made blocks of ice cream, sculpts them into a hill, and drapes fruit all over the mountainous mass.

Italian gelato is a necessity, not a luxury
Italian gelato is a necessity, not a luxury

‘Gelato’ means ‘partially frozen’ or “icy” in Italian and the various kinds of ice cream served throughout the country are all known by that name.  You can order gelato in any little town, in any region and basically know what you will get. But it is important to keep in mind that Italy has only been a unified country for 150 years, so each of the former city states is justifiably proud of its own recipe: in the mountainous North, where it’s cooler, the gelato is thicker and creamier, often made with cream and egg yolks – chocolate, zabaione, and hazelnuts prevail. In the South, the gelato tends to be lighter, using milk as well as and fruits, such as Sorrento lemons, and nuts, like Sicilian pistacchios from Bronte.

To some the cone is as important as the gelato
To some the cone is as important as the gelato - RivaReno agrees

Florentines have had a 500-year love affair with gelato. Bernardo Buontalenti – architect, engineer and theatrical set designer – supposedly invented churned-over-ice, milk-based gelato for the court of Francesco de’ Medici to impress a visiting Spanish delegation in 1565. Today, there is a rich creamy gelato that bears Buontalenti’s name.

Cone or cup is a personal choice
Cone or cup is a personal choice

But getting back to Ben & Jerry’s … it’s one of America’s premium ice creams. If gelato is Italian ice cream, what is the difference? First of all, there is the percentage of butterfat. B&J’s clocks in at around 17%, whereas most Italian gelato averages 5% to 9%. Also, handcrafted gelato is served same-day fresh so binders and preservatives aren’t necessary.

But there’s more … David Lebovitz, chocolate maven and world-reknown ice cream aficionado, author of The Perfect Scoop, explains it best. “… for the most part, the machines used to make gelato move very slowly as they churn, introducing little air into the mixture so the finished gelato is dense and thick. Unlike standard ice cream-making machines, usually the ‘dasher’ (paddle) moves up and down while the canister turns, so little air is whipped into the mixture while it churns. Also the storage freezers used for holding gelato tend to be kept a few degrees warmer (up to 10 degrees F) than a normal ice cream dipping cabinet, so the gelato keeps its silky, creamier texture. Sometimes there are no egg yolks or cream in the base, so the gelato will highlight the highly-concentrated taste of what’s been added, like chocolate, coffee, or whatever flavoring is used, with less taste and texture of fat to intrude.”

Okay, so now you know what gelato is, but what happens when you walk into a Florentine gelateria?  Yes, there is a lot of gelato, but you also see semifreddo, sorbetto, and granita.  Generally these are all classified as gelato … remember? … frozen/icy. Here is a handy guide:

Carapina's Fruit Calendar - no flavor before its time
Carapina's Fruit Calendar - no flavor before its time

gelato – most everything offered, but there is also …

semifreddo – means “half cold” and is made from the same base as gelato, but has whipped cream folded in to create a frozen mousse.

sorbetto – is a sorbet, usually made with any kind of fruit, but chocolate and caffé flavors are making a strong showing, as well as herb-infused (basil, rosemary, etc.) offerings. Great as a palate cleanser between courses in an extended multi-course meal.

granita – shaved ice, made with water, sugar and fruit flavors – strawberry and lemon are favorites – or coffee (great with a dab of whipped cream), mint or almonds.  Served in a plastic cup or glass, but also on brioche in Sicily in the summertime.

Tuscan Traveler and Friend in Florence join the debate by claiming that not only does Florence have the best gelato in Italy, but that these are the best gelaterias in Florence:

Grom changes its gelato menu every month
Grom changes its gelato menu every month

Grom – Via del Campanile – corner with Via delle Oche – Piedmonte-based, consistently great, only the best ingredients, innovative, monthly flavor list online, best cone. Try: Zabaione, Crema di Grom, and Caffè

Gelateria La Carraia –  Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25r – Ponte alla Carraia – owned by the Florentine Innocenti family, creamiest gelato, best tangy yogurt, one euro cone heaped high (best value). Try: Yogurt, Pistacchio, and Nutella

RivaReno –Borgo degli Albizi 46r – newcomer (owners rumored from Milan and Great Britain?), most innovative mix-ins, great fresh fruit flavors, good cone. Try:  Lampone (raspberry), Otello ( chocolate with zabaione, brownie, and coffee), and Sweet Alabama (chocolate with peanuts)

Perché No? – Via dei Tavolini 19r – best name, traditional favorite (started in 1938, surviving war and flood), fresh fruit and nut flavors, best semifreddo. Try: Stracciatella (chocolate chip), Cioccolato Semifreddo, and Nocciola (hazelnut)

Why not? Gelaterias are open until midnight in the summer
Why not? Open until midnight in the summer

Gelateria dei Neri – Via dei Neri 22r – long-time Florentine owner, fantastic fruit flavors, creamy yogurt, best variety of chocolate flavors. Try: Chocolate with candied orange, Chocolate with hot red pepper, and Mandarino (tangerine)

Carabé – Via Ricasoli 60r – Sicilian owners, delicious fruit and nut flavors (ingredients brought from Sicily), best granita. Try: Cassata Gelato, Lemon and Raspberry Granita together, and Coffee Granita with whipped cream.

Carapina – Via Lambertesca 118r – young Florentine owner, trendiest, posts a calendar of ripe fruit and only makes those flavors when they are at their peak. Try: Menta (mint), Ciliegia (cherry), and Chocolate with ginger.

Vestri – Borgo degli Albizi 11r – superb chocolate shop with the best chocolate gelato and incredible thick hot chocolate (served cold in the summer) – mix the two for affogato (gelato drowned in chocolate). Try: Affogato with Chocolate, Pistacchio or Vanilla gelato.

May 28-31, 2010
May 28-31, 2010

Those visiting Florence at the end of May are in for a treat. The First Annual Firenze Gelato Festival will turn Piazza S. Annuziata into a giant gelateria where artisans of the handcrafted gelato will compete for the hearts and taste buds of Florentines and foreigners from May 28 to 31, 2010.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tale – Vasari Corridor is Open to All (Not!)

After three days, the reservation line reports all of the spots on the Percorso del Principe tours have been filled.  Tuscan Traveler suggests that such popularity calls for more tours on more days…

The Vasari Corridor, also known as the Percorso del Principe (Path of the Prince), is open to the general public until July 2010 on a limited schedule. A special part of the city’s historical heritage that has been under the control of few select guides and museum officials (often costing the visitor more than 100 euro for a short tour) has been declared open to all by the new mayor of Florence.

A Unique Opportunity

Visitors to Florence know that to miss the Uffizi, the Ponte Vecchio with its famous gold merchants, and the gaudy splendors of the Pitti Palace is to miss Florence’s best-known sites.

What many tourists do not know is that along this same sightseeing path they also have a unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Renaissance nobility. Here they can view a vast collection of paintings usually reserved for the pleasure of a select few. It is called the Vasari Corridor.

Vasari Corridor seen from the Uffizi Gallery
Vasari Corridor seen from the Uffizi Gallery

The Vasari Corridor is an aerial passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio on one side of the River Arno to the Palazzo Pitti on the other. It passes over roofs and bridge of the Ponte Vecchio, and through galleries, mansions and churches. At over 500 meters (.33 miles), it is the longest single passageway of paintings and portraits in the world.

In 2010, the Italian Cultural Ministry and the City of Florence, urged on by Mayor Renzi, created a special “Prince’s Itinerary”, Il Percorso del Principe, as a guided tour to introduce the public to the Vasari Corridor. Still relatively unknown, it is one of the most exceptional and, until recently, hidden treasures of Renaissance architecture and art.

Tour participants not only see a fabulous art collection, but also are shown a hidden route with unique views and unexpected secret glimpses of the classic Florentine cityscape while walking above the heads of tourists swarming the streets below.

History of the Corridor

In the 1540’s, Cosimo I, an enlightened despot who ruled Florence and all of Tuscany, lived with his Spanish wife Eleonora di Toledo and their children above the “shop” in the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florence City Hall. Eleonora was in charge of the family finances and disliked living in the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1549, she found a house she did want, and so purchased the Palazzo Pitti from the debt-encumbered Pitti family, rivals of the Medici clan. She had the palace remodeled and enlarged. The façade grew to over 670 feet in length, becoming the grandest of the Renaissance palaces and the seat of the Medici dynasty for the next 200 years.

View of the Corridor Crossing the Ponte Vecchio
View of the Corridor crossing atop the Ponte Vecchio

Eleonora moved her family out of the city hall, thus forcing Cosimo to commute almost half a mile through the city streets to the government offices. A man with many enemies and one who did not mix well with the general public, Cosimo had to travel with a contingent of bodyguards. Each day they had to traverse a narrow chaotic bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which in the 1500’s was lined with malodorous tanneries and butcher shops.

Using the occasion of his son Francesco’s 1565 wedding to Joanna of Austria as an excuse, Cosimo commissioned his architect Giorgio Vasari to design an above-ground walkway from his home to the offices. Vasari, a true man of the Renaissance – architect, painter, author and art historian – took only six months to design and direct the building of the Corridor. Cosimo did not own all of the property between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti. Vasari thus had to get permission to build the Corridor through other people’s towers, mansions and businesses. When the Mannelli family refused permission for the corridor to pass through their tower, situated at the south end of the Ponte Vecchio, Vasari designed the passageway to be built around, but attached to, il torre dei Mannelli.

Spy windows allow the dukes to see out without being seen
Spy windows allow the dukes to see out without being seen

Cosimo claimed that the architectural wonder was for the amazement of the wedding guests and to remind the citizens of Florence of his power and authority, but he also gained an escape route from either home or office and a way to spy on the Florentines from above many of the busiest thoroughfares. The Corridor was also eventually used as a nursery for many generations of Medici children; and the elderly, infirm and lazy could be wheeled through the corridor in basket chairs. Apparently, however, the stench of the Ponte Vecchio remained a problem because in 1594, Cosimo’s son Fernando decreed that the butchers and tanners would be ousted and replaced by gold- and silversmiths.

The Tour

The Percorso del Principe Tour begins in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. It always numbers less than 20 participants and lasts about two hours. The tour group meets in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, proceeds to the Hall of the Five Hundred, Il Salone dei Cinquecento, where an Italian-speaking guide presents a short history lesson regarding the Medici, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Vasari Corridor.

The itinerary includes parts of the Palazzo Vecchio Museum. Each group is escorted through a number of governmental chambers to Eleonora’s Green Room, La Camera Verde, in the former Medici family apartments on the second floor. From there the group crosses a short sky bridge, part of the original Corridor, over Via della Ninna, and enters the east wing of the Uffizi Gallery. Tour participants have a chance to examine only the east hallway of the Uffizi – the ticket does not allow for free re-entry into the Gallery that holds the largest collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance art in the world.

The main branch of the Vasari Corridor is entered via a doorway located at the beginning of the west corridor of the Uffizi. The passage drops down a long stairway flanked by paintings from the Medici collection and then traverses the top of the arcade on the north bank of the Arno, turns right over the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, and continues on through to the Boboli Gardens of the Palazzo Pitti. Visitors exit into the garden and can remain there for the rest of the day.

Arno River seen from Mussolini's windows
Arno River seen from Mussolini's windows

Small windows all along the Corridor provide excellent views of the river and the city. The best view is in the center of the Ponte Vecchio through two large sets of windows that look west down the Arno. These windows were not part on the original design, but were installed at the direction of Mussolini during World War II because Hitler and Mussolini wanted to look at the view while they held private meetings in the Corridor.

German dynamite damaged the Vasari Corridor
German dynamite damaged the Vasari Corridor

By some reports, Hitler’s fondness for the Corridor and the Ponte Vecchio spared both when the retreating Germans blew up all of the other bridges crossing the Arno as the Allies advanced on Florence in August 1944. The Corridor, however, was damaged by the dynamite set at the ends of the Ponte Vecchio to block passage over the Old Bridge.

Near the south bank of the river, the Corridor passes through the interior of the church of Santa Felicita. A Corridor window looks over the gray and white pietra serena interior of the chapel, and a door enters a high rear balcony, similar to an exclusive box at the opera, where the Medici family attended services in comfort and privacy.

The Medici's balcony inside Santa Felicita
The Medici's balcony inside Santa Felicita

Past the church, the tour ends in the Boboli Gardens, next to the elaborate grotto designed by Bountalenti in the 1580s. At the end of the tour, participants may remain in the massive Giordino di Boboli to explore its many acres of walkways and gardens. Laid out for Eleonora di Toledo by Niccolo Tribolo in 1550, it is one of the finest examples of an Italianate landscape design.

The Collection of Paintings and Portraits

The paintings in the Corridor are arranged in three major groups.

The first collection, which starts at the doorway from the Uffizi Gallery and ends as the Corridor turns on to the Ponte Vecchio, is a group of 17th and 18th century paintings by Italian and other European artists. Acquired by the Medici clan, Cardinal Leopoldo de’Medici at his death left a collection of 730 paintings, 318 sculptures, 1,245 drawings, 589 small portraits, and thousands of medals and other objet d’arte. A small portion of his collection is displayed in the Corridor, including a number of paintings from the school of Caravaggio. Notable among the first collection are pieces by Guido Reni, Gerrit van Honthorst, Empoli, and Guercino.

The Medici collection along the first hall of the Vasari Coridor
The Medici collection in the Vasari Coridor

Next, as the Corridor starts across the Ponte Vecchio, there is the world’s largest collection of self-portraits, arranged chronologically, of Italian and other European artists. Cardinal Leopoldo, inspired to start the series, collected over 80 portraits in the 17th century.  The set was then augmented by earlier pieces obtained by other members of the Medici family.  Still more were added throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries by artist donation and acquisition by the Uffizi.

Only a portion of the total collection of self-portraits is hung on the Corridor walls at any one time. Those now on display include Giorgio Vasari, Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velasquez, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Antonio Canova, Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, and Carlo Levi. The last displayed, but not the last to reach the Gallery, is a self-portrait donated by Marc Chagall in 1976. A fake Leonardo da Vinci is also displayed – it was part of the Medici collection, but was found by x-ray to be painted over a 17th century Magdalene.

A special gallery - rarely seen
A special gallery - rarely seen

The last group of paintings, displayed in the Corridor where it turns toward the Boboli Gardens, is a collection of Medici and Hapsburg/Lorraine family portraits, many of them of the children. These give valuable insight into the attire and mannerisms of wealthy seventeenth and eighteenth century nobility.

Uncertain Future

Few tourists get to see the inside of the Vasari Corridor. The facility is frequently closed for months at a time, and the unique construction and length of the Corridor requires that tours must be undertaken in small groups guided by Uffizi personnel. There are ongoing discussions about whether the collection in the Corridor should be taken down and tours discontinued due to security and preservation concerns. Now there are rumors of a possible years-long restoration project planned for the corridor.

Details for the 2010 Tours

In 2010 until July 7, tours are available four times on Wednesdays (9:30, 11:30, 2, & 4), two times in the morning on Thurday (9:30 & 11:30) and two times in the afternoon on Fridays (2 & 4).

Tickets to the Percorso del Principe cost 19 euro and allow you to stay in the Boboli Garden at the end of the tour.

Tours are given only in Italian, but the viewing of the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi hallways and the Vasari Corridor is so interesting it’s worth the wait as explanations are made to Italian-speaking visitors.

Reservations should be made well in advance by calling +39 055.294.883 or through the Florence museum web site www.polomuseale.firenze.it.  (The title of the tour is Percorso del Principe and the person taking your reservation will likely not understand if you say “Vasari Corridor”.)

If you are in Florence, tickets can be bought without reservation (if available) at the ticket office on the back of Orasanmichele on Via Calzaiouli or the ticket office at the Pitti Palace.  If you make a reservation in advance, you redeem it and purchase your tickets at Door # 2 at the Uffizi Gallery.

The tour group is requested to meet 15 minutes before the tour time at the “Percorso del Principe” sign in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio

Dove Vai? – The Davanzati Palace: A Place to Escape the Crowds

Museo di Palazzo Davanzatti
Museo di Palazzo Davanzati

The Davanzati Palace Museum is finally – after over 15 years of restoration – open to the public and is well worth a visit. An added benefit is that the madding crowds of Florence haven’t found it  – yet.

The Palace, built by the Davizzi family around mid-14th century, was purchased in 1578 by the Davanzati family and remained in their possession until 1838, when it was divided into several separate apartments, causing severe damage to the mix of Medieval and Renaissance interior design.

In 1904, it was purchased, restored to its 14th century structure, and filled with 14th to 16th century furnishings by the antique dealer Elia Volpi, who opened it to the public in 1910 as Museum of the Old Florentine House. The contents of the museum kept changing because Volpi kept selling pieces of the collection, including virtually all of the contents in a controversial auction held in New York in 1916. (Volpi was sued, thereafter, for allegedly selling a fake Rubens and a fake Van Dyck – see the 1919 NY Times article.)

Main Staircase       (C. Keene)
Main Staircase (C. Keene)

Volpi sold the palazzo in the 1920s to two Egyptian brothers. In 1951, the Italian State purchased the empty building, restored and refurnished it and opened it once more to the public in 1956.

The Palace’s most important feature is its architectural structure, which represents a rare example of 13th century noble home, showing the transition stage from the medieval tower house to a grand Renaissance building. The original façade opened into a ground floor three-arch loggia (porch – now closed) and was used as a cantina and mercantile space. A 16th century loggia replaced the medieval battlements at the top of the building.

Courtyard Light
Courtyard Light

The interior courtyard gives access to the stone and wood staircase with rampant arches leading up to the four upper floors. There are large audience halls, dining rooms, bedrooms and agiamenti (toilets – a rarity in elegant houses of the period). All the rooms have floors in cotto and ceilings in wood. The walls of many of the rooms are decorated with frescoes and decorations that are quite popular in Florentine 13th century homes, representing curtains and coat of arms. The most beautiful rooms are the Sala dei Pappagalli (the Parrot Room) and the bedroom with scenes of the tale of the Lady of Vergi and her knight.

The present arrangement of the Museum reconstructs the setting of an old Florentine home, with furniture and household tools from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Bedrooms display ornate beds and linen chests, while the audience hall on the first floor exhibits a rare 16th century Sienese painted cabinet, a 15th centry painting showing the Game of Civettino and a marble bust of a child by Antonio Rossellino.

16th Century Bassinet     (C.Keene)
16th Century Cradle (C.Keene)

The kitchen on the third floor exhibits furniture and ordinary daily household items, together with working tools, like looms, warping machines and spinning wheels.

Included in a separate display is a very fine collection of lacework and samplers, ranging from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

The only disconcerting thing about a visit to this unique museum is that you cannot count of all four floors being open on any particular day at any specific time. Your four euro ticket may give you access to all four floors (a bargain) or it may only provide you a glimpse of the ground and first floor (interesting, but perhaps not worth the price).  It may help to ask before you buy your ticket. It may not.

The Parrot Room
The Parrot Room

Palazzo Davanzati

Address:  Via Porta Rossa 13 – Firenze – Tel. 055 2388610

Hours: Weekdays: 8.15 am – 1.50 pm; open second and fourth Monday of the month.

Holidays: 8.15 – 1.50 pm – open first, third and fifth Sunday of the month.

Closed on: the second and fourth Sunday of the month; the first, third and fifth Monday of every month. December 25, January 1, May 1

Entrance: 3 euro