Monthly Archives: September 2010

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Have You Seen Arnie & Soot?

Within the historic center of Florence, the Arno River, the islands supporting its bridges and the intermittent riverbanks abound with wildlife. The observant and patient visitor can see carp, catfish and mullet under the Ponte Vecchio and from the balconies of the Lungarno Hotel. Midway on the Carraia Bridge and on the Rowing Club lawn, a family of nutria (kind of a cross between a mouse and a beaver) searches for scraps. Rats and mice pop up everywhere. Herons, ducks, gulls egrets and pigeons are not hard to find.

Nutria along the Arno
Nutria along the Arno

But there aren’t many cats.

Feral cats hang out in the Boboli Garden (they’ve got their own 2011 calendar), along the steps down from Piazzale Michelangelo (look for the ‘kitty kabanas’), and are starting to take up residence in the Bardini Gardens.

Cats on a ledge as the Arno flows past
Cats on a ledge as the Arno flows past

So it was intriguing to see an article entitled Fan Mail in the January 11, 2007 issue of The Florentine, Florence’s English language newspaper. Kate McBride, an expat photographer and poet, wrote this ode to a cat named Arnie, who apparently was living in a hole at the bottom of a pillar of the Ponte alle Grazie (the bridge upstream from the Ponte Vecchio, which once supported tiny houses where the nuns of the Grazie lived). Note to Kate: there are no muskrats in the Arno – those are nutria.

Arnie and Soot near home under Ponte alle Grazie
Arnie and Soot near home under Ponte alle Grazie

I went to look for the cat. And couldn’t find it. Granted Ms. McBride’s description of the exact location of Arnie’s home wasn’t precise and it is a big bridge. Each time I crossed that way I looked for the cat and in 2009 I found Arnie. Or maybe it wasn’t Arnie. The cat I saw was a large black and white cat sitting on a very narrow ledge inches above the waterline. I didn’t see the hole-home. But, like Ms. McBride, I couldn’t tell how the cat got to that spot or could leave it – the ledge cut off about four yards downstream and crumbled away to just an inch upstream.

Soot and Mother Duck in a standoff
Soot and Mother Duck in a standoff

The reason I now think that my 2009 sighting wasn’t Arnie is because this year there were two cats in the same spot – the same one from the year before and another of the same size, but with light brown and white fur. They were eyeing a mother duck and her sole duckling. (I only hoped that this was a modern mother duck, who stopped at one offspring, as is the Italian habit these days, rather than the possible alternative.) I now have reason to believe that I was seeing Arnie and his friend Soot.

Mother Duck with only one duckling
Mother Duck with only one duckling

This month, Kate McBride introduces her enchanting book about Arnie and Soot (Soot of the black and white patches) – Tales of Two Worlds: Arnie & Soot Navigate Florence. Told from the cats’ point of view the story follows first Arnie down from the hills near San Miniato to his new home in the Ponte alle Grazie. He encounters Soot along the way as well as other friends, both feline and human.

Arnie and Soot grace the cover of Kate McBide's book
Arnie and Soot grace the cover of Kate McBide's book

Ms. McBride uses these unusual protagonists to introduce young and old, alike, to her favorite parts of Florence – churches, theaters, shops, restaurants, etc.  Favorite Tuscan foods figure big in the story (this is Italy after all) and recipes are included. Canadian Ashley O’Mara illustrates the narrative. James O’Mara’s photography and Ms. McBride’s Polaroid shots provide the local Florentine atmosphere.

The last time I saw Arnie and Soot it was evening and a man was standing at the railing of the bridge, tearing off pieces of raw meat out of a grocery store styrofoam and plastic-wrapped package, aiming each bit at an angle toward the thin ledge where the cats sat looking up. I wondered if he was the same man Kate McBride saw almost four years ago.

Too much trouble for fat Soot - might as well wait for the evening meal
Too much trouble for fat Soot - might as well wait for the evening meal

Tales of Two Worlds may be purchased at the Paperback Exchange in Florence, from the publisher, Mandragora, and from Amazon U.K. or probably by contacting Kate McBride directly at info@arnieandsoot.com .

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Open House at the Synagogue

Every year in September (this year it was on the 5th) the Synagogue in Florence holds an Open House for the general public. This year it was a chance for everyone, Florentine and tourist, alike, to enjoy the exquisite restoration of one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, while munching on great food, listening to interesting speakers and music, as well as poking into parts of the grand edifice that are not usually open.

Florence Synagogue with its impressive copper dome
Florence Synagogue with its impressive copper dome

The Open House is part of a Europe-wide Day of Hebraic Culture, which included 62 locations across Italy: Giornata Europea della Cultura Ebraica.

In Florence, a bus was provided to take visitors to four other locations, including the Uffizi, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Pitti Palace, where works by Jewish artists, modern and not, were displayed.

The walls are painted from floor to ceiling in intricate designs
The walls are painted from floor to ceiling in intricate designs

In the garden of the synagogue, there were stands with food and books, a children’s lab and music. Free guided tours of the synagogue, its new expanded museum and of the Jewish cemetery in the Oltrarno were offered.

The Florence Synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Europe, was built between 1874 and 1882. The architects were Mariano Falcini, Professor Vincenzo Micheli, both Catholic, and Marco Treves, who was Jewish. Their design integrated the architectural traditions of the Islamic and Italian worlds.

Detail of the ceiling below one of the small domes
Detail of the ceiling below one of the small domes

Layers of travertine and granite alternate in the masonry, creating a striped effect. Old photographs show bold red and beige stripes, but the colors of the stone have faded over time. The overall form of the synagogue is the cruciform plan, similar to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The corner towers are topped with horseshoe-arched towers themselves topped with copper onion domes in the Moorish Revival style. Three arches form the main entrance, above it rise tiers of windows, with their paired arches sharing a single column.

The moorish designs incorporate Jewish symbols
The moorish designs incorporate Jewish symbols

Inside the building every square inch is covered with colored designs incorporating Moorish patterns, but with Jewish symbols and texts.

During World War II, Fascist soldiers used the Synagogue as a vehicle garage. In August 1944 retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to blow up the synagogue, but the Italian resistance managed to defuse most of the explosives. Only a limited amount of damage was done. The synagogue was restored after the war. It was restored again after it was damaged by the Flood of 1966.

Benner_sxThis past year, the dome was strengthened and resurfaced in copper and a new wing of the museum was added on the top floor. These improvements, coupled with the new lighting, makes a visit a must for those who haven’t been inside in the last few years.

The 2010 Open House drew more than 60,000 in Florence. This is the first year the synagogues of Italy went all out to involve their cities in the exhibition of masterpieces created by Jewish artists.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tale – Opera in Spoleto

Taking a short break from Tuscany in August, visitors are well advised to avoid the crowded beaches and head to Spoleto, arguably one of the most musical towns in all of Italy. In August, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM Spoleto) takes over where the Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi (June/July) leaves off.

Overlooking Spoleto - an Umbrian hill town
Overlooking Spoleto - an Umbrian hill town

CCM Spoleto is open to all students from around the world. In 2010, CCM offered the experience of a lifetime to singers, instrumentalists, conductors, accompanists, and stage technicians. Over 100 talented young people were chosen to travel to Spoleto and participate in numerous chamber and vocal concerts, orchestral concerts and operas, interwoven with Italian language classes, coaching, lessons, and field trips.

Rocca Albornoziana - the fort guarding Spoleto
Rocca Albornoziana - the fort guarding Spoleto

The tie between Cincinnati and Spoleto comes from the Festival dei Due Mondi, founded by Gian Carlo Menotti and Cincinnati’s own Thomas Schippers, the late music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. (Festival dei Due Mondi has been steeped in controversy since the death of Menotti in 2005.)

CCM Spoleto 2010, in addition to a vigorous concert calendar, included Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Cast members received coaching in Italian repertoire and many joined their I Solisti di Spoleto colleagues in a gala concert with orchestra at the close of the Festival.

Eutruscan Tarquinius attacks Roman Lucretia
Eutruscan Tarquinius attacks Roman Lucretia

The opera, The Rape of Lucretia, was directed by CCM J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair of Opera, Robin Guarino, and conducted by Annunziata Tomaro, instructor of conducting, CCM.  The singers, including J. Trombley (Lucretia), L.A. Orozco (Tarquinius) and N. Bouley (Collatinus), worked with CCM Spoleto’s renowned faculty and coaches to master their language and interpretive skills. Daily Italian language classes were included in the Opera Production Program.

Collatinus struggles to prevent Lucretia's suicide
Collatinus struggles to prevent Lucretia's suicide

Versatile directo­r Robin Guarino’s sphere of activity continues to expand beyond conventional opera production.  Lincoln Center has long been her artistic home as she has staged numerous productions at the Metr­opolitan Opera (including Don Giovanni, Così Fan Tutte, Die Zauberflöte, Le Nozze di Figaro and Lohengrin) since 1992. Nationally, her work has been featured at such companies as San Francisco Opera (Merola and Adler Programs), Glimmerglass Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Arizona Opera, Tulsa Opera and Virginia Opera.

The CCM Spoleto 2010 opera’s two performances played to packed enthusiastic audiences at the beautiful jewel of a theater, Teatro  Caio Melisso.  The graciousness of the theater was a striking juxtaposition to the found-item construction of  stage director, Stacy Taylor‘s, set and the military uniforms and feminine attire used by costume designer, Emily Wille, which took the story from ancient Rome and transported it to the 1950s.

We can’t wait to see what CCM Spoleto 2011 brings to music-loving visitors in Umbria.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Having a Bardini Kind of Day!

A couple of days every week a phenomenon overwhelms even the most hardened Florentine.  It is know to some as the “boat people” scrooge. It happens on the days when gigantic cruise ships dock at Livorno. Thousands of pastel-clad tourists shod in flip-flops are unloaded and stuffed into dozens of buses, which transport them to Florence for eight hours of hot, humid sightseeing. They are herded from the Academia to the Uffizi to the Duomo, then through Piazza Signoria and across the Ponte Vecchio.

To escape the armies of sweating, sore-footed deck-crawlers, the wise visitor to Florence will decide on a Bardini Day – a morning in the cool blue-walled confines of the Palazzo Bardini (Museo Stefano Bardini), a lunch in the Bardini Garden(Il Giardino Bardini), and a late afternoon in the hill-topping Villa Bardini.

Grand Hall of the Palazzo Bardini
Grand Hall of the Palazzo Bardini

Palazzo Bardini

The faithful reader of Tuscan Traveler already knows a bit about the Stefano Bardini Museum near the Arno so there is no need to repeat it all again, except to say that on September 6 and September 13, at 11am, free English language tours are being offered of the Bardini Museum by  Con gli Occhi di … And to repeat that the museum is almost always empty so it is soothing to wander through Stefano Bardini’s stuff before emerging into the noonday sun turning left to Borgo San Niccolo’ and then right to the entrance of the Bardini Gardens. (One caveat: To complete a full Bardini Day, it must be done on Saturday, Sunday or Monday because these are the only days the Museo Bardini is open.)

Bardini Garden

The Bardini Garden, unlike its popular well-worn cousin, the Boboli (a ticket to one gets the visitor into the other), is practically empty at all times. It is spread over almost ten acres, set on a 70 meter slope – the view from the top is panoramic. (The garden is open seven days a week from 8:30am to 6:30pm, so a Bardini Day can start here.)

View of the Duomo from the Bardini Garden
View of the Duomo from the Bardini Garden

Although it is named for the last owner, Stefano Bardini, throughout the centuries the garden has had several owners, predominantely the Mozzi family, who owned the property and the palazzo at its base off and on from the 13th century to the 1880s. The garden is now state-owned property, as a result of a testamentary donation by Ugo Bardini, Stefano’s son, in the 1960s. It was then abandoned for over 40 years.  Restoration started in 1998 and it opened to the public in 2005.

Baroque staircase climbs the Bardini Garden
Baroque staircase climbs the Bardini Garden

The garden is divided into three sections: 1) English wood in the west; 2) the baroque staircase in the center; and 3) the agricultural part in the east. Each part has its own history and a richness of components, among which water and sculpture play an essential role. Secluded pathways, grand vistas, flowering arbors, shaded benches and a high loggia, allow the visitor to create their own personal experience in the garden.

The edge of the English woods in the Bardini Garden
Looking out of the Villa Bardini to the edge of the English woods in the Bardini Garden

The loggia, with its spectacular view of the historic center of Florence, the cathedral dome, and the Arno River, is the perfect place for an hour or two respite. Lunch, aperitivi, as well as coffee and sweets are offered. On the perfect Bardini Day, one should plan to arrive at the loggia around 1pm to be refreshed and restored before going on to the Villa Bardini, only a couple of minutes away from the café.

Villa Bardini

Villa Bardini stands at the top of the garden and opens on to Costa San Giorgio, just up the street from where Galileo lived. The original 14th century villa was restructured and enlarged in the 17th century by the architect Gherardo Silvani for his friend Francesco Manadori (it was previously known as Villa Manadora or as Villa Belvedere, because of its magnificent view). It was later acquired by Stefano Bardini, who further enlarged it and the surrounding gardens. Bardini also added the loggia and a limonaia (greenhouse for citrus trees).

Designed by Roberto Capucci
Designed by Roberto Capucci

Abandoned for years, the villa, which once contained even more of the antique collections of Bardini, has been restored and transformed into a cultural center to host exhibitions, concerts, conventions and conferences,. It incorporates two new museums: the Roberto Capucci Museum containing many of the famous designer’s sculptural ball gowns and elegant party dresses); and the Pietro Annigoni Museum, dedicated to this contemporary painter, whose work was inspired by the great artists of the Renaissance.

Detail of afternoon dress by Capucci
Detail of afternoon dress by Capucci

Until October 17, 2010, the Villa Bardini is also hosting a temporary exhibit that is associated with the Caravaggio exhibits at the Pitt and the Uffizi – Caravaggio and Modernity.

Palazzo Web Site

Garden Web Site

Villa Web Site