Monthly Archives: May 2015

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 6 Questions For Susan Van Allen

Susan Van Allen probably never sleeps. She has written three interesting books that are must-reads especially women traveling to Italy. Her travel stories have been published in many media outlets, including National Public Radio, Town & Country, AFAR, Chicago Daily Herald, several Travelers Tales anthologies, and CNN.com. She makes presentations about Italian travel at such venues as The New York Times Travel Show and Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco. She has a touring business, which introduces women to the joys of various regions of Italy every spring and fall. She’s also been an actor and a television script-writer.

Susan Van Allen in Florence
Susan Van Allen in Florence

Your book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go was very popular. Now you’ve published 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Did you have a different goal with the second book?

Instead of covering the entire country, the goal with 50 Places is to focus on the major cities—”Italy’s Big Three”. These three spots are often overwhelming, and many travelers arrive with “Must See” lists and then miss out on the fabulous unique spirits of each place. With so many guidebooks covering Rome, Florence, and Venice, 50 Places is for those seeking a more personal approach, as though they’re traveling with advice from a trusty girlfriend. For example, for the major sites, like the Uffizi in Florence, I give readers focus to see the art as glorifications of different aspects of femininity—from the sensual Goddess Venus to the compassionate Madonna—AND add in a Golden Day tip for the perfect place for dinner afterwards. I also steer readers to less crowded places in these popular cities, such as the stunning Palazzo Barberini in Rome, or to immersion experiences, such as maskmaking in Venice, that gives travelers the chance to have a hands-on experience of this beautiful tradition.

I believe you grew up summering at the Jersey Shore. What are some of the major misconceptions Italian-Americans have about Italy?

You’re right—I grew up on the Jersey shore, (West Long Branch, to be exact), surrounded by Italian Americans—including my mother. Her parents, my Nana and Papa, were part of the big wave of immigration from southern Italy in the early 20th century, and like the rest of these early immigrants they brought traditions from their homeland, that created an Italian-American culture. It’s radically different from Italian-Italian—so many Americans are shocked when they arrive in Italy and find it different from what they imagined.

A major misconception is around the food. American travelers are surprised to find no chicken parm on the menus, rarely spaghetti and meatballs served together as it is in America, and that the pizza that is most revered in Italy (from Naples) is not served in sliced pies, but in single servings of whole rounds, with soft centers, and eaten with a knife and fork—so delicious!

50PlacesRomeFlorVenLG1Another misconception is about Italian women. In the movies, we’ve seen all those Italian mammas with loads of children, stirring sauce at the stove. Sure, there are still Nonnas—grandmothers who spend days in the kitchen, but modern Italian women work, the birth rate is low—most have just one child, and husbands share in the cooking and child care.

Then there’s the endless tape about how dangerous the city of Naples is—and many travelers don’t even go to this marvelous city. An expression I grew up hearing was “Va’ a Napoli”—Go to Naples!—which meant: “Go to Hell!”. These days Naples is actually a flourishing city, with a vibrant historical center, amazing archaeological museum, fantastic food, and fabulous, welcoming natives—it’s a place to truly experience the vibrant soul of southern Italy.

It seems to me that your recent book Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice is even more personal than the other two. What was the impetus for that book?

The impetus came from my beginnings as a writer, when I got the best advice: Write as if you’re writing a letter to a dear friend. I approach all my writing that way, including 100 Places and 50 Places—which are actually a mix of guidebook and travel essay. Letters from Italy brought me the satisfaction of sharing my experiences more completely, and includes essays I’ve written for National Public Radio and Travelers’ Tales anthologies. It’s a collection of nine stories from my travels over the years, ranging from adventures climbing to the top of the island of Stromboli’s volcano, to truffle hunting in Umbria, and the joys of flirting in Rome. I loved including practical advice at the end of each story for places to stay, eat, and shop, as whenever I read other travel stories I’m dying to know the practical details, so I can experience the same things the writer has, and come away with my own take on it.

You share your favorites in 50 Places in Rome, Florence, & Venice Every Woman Should Go. Have you ever been tempted to leave one out – a restaurant, a hotel, a small church or museum – because you don’t want it overrun with tourists? Were you tempted to keep it to yourself?

I’m not the type to keep Italian treasures to myself—I believe abundant Italy has enough for all of us, and am thrilled when I meet readers at my signings or travel shows who’ve taken my advice and discovered for themselves some of Italy’s less-trodden spots. One woman made a whole poster of the great time she had on the island of Ponza for me, another was ecstatic about visiting the Tarot Garden (packed with stunning mosaics) in a less explored province of Tuscany, and often when I’m back in Italy and re-visit my favorite shops, (like Marina e Susanna Sent in Venice—run by two sisters who make gorgeous contemporary glass tableware and jewelry), I’m happy to hear that women have come in and bought beautiful souvenirs, thanks to finding out about their place in my book.

Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii
Fresco from the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii

You take women on small group tours, custom-designed to experience southern Italy and Florence. Describe one of your favorite experiences from one of these tours.

There are so many favorite experiences from these tours! I love to open the door for women to be in places I’ve fallen in love with and be by their side as they are seeing, tasting, and feeling the spirit of these places for the first time. And then there’s the great bonding that happens among women from such a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and ages. In one short week—from our welcome aperitivo to the farewell dinner—with so many adventures in between, I’m always thrilled to see how friendships are formed that last well beyond the Golden Week.

A favorite experience from a recent week in southern Italy was when we ended our tour of Pompeii in front of the recently restored mural in the Villa of Mysteries—a jaw-dropping painting cycle that shows a woman’s initiation into the Cult of Dionysus. As our guide took us through each panel, she became overwhelmed with the beauty of it and got teary-eyed—so did the women surrounding me—all of us taken in by the deep passion of this creation from thousands of years ago! It’s a memory-of-a-lifetime we will always treasure.

What, in your opinion, is the best advice to give travelers to Italy?

Go ahead and plan with the help of books and online resources, but always be sure to follow your personal desires, your mood day-by-day. This means slowing down, and leaving time for spontaneity. That’s when the Magic of Italian Travel takes over, you’re immersed in the sensual pleasures and wonderful surprises of the Bel Paese, and the trip becomes a soulful, transformational adventure beyond your imaginings. Buon Viaggio!

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

50 Places in Rome, Florence and Venice Every Woman Should Go at Amazon.com

Letters from Italy: Confessions, Adventures, and Advice at Amazon.com

Susan Van Allen’s Blog

Susan Van Allen’s Web Site

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Bellini Museum

Visit Museo Bellini

Getting to view the collection of the Museo Bellini, located along the Arno in Florence, takes a bit of work. To understand its history, having some understanding of Italian helps. But for a new experience, a tour through the Bellini collection is as memorable, as it is fun.

Museo Bellini on Lungarno Soderini
Museo Bellini on Lungarno Soderini

To get in, you start by phoning or ringing the bell. Then make an appointment for a tour and turn up at the appointed time. The fee of 15 euro gets you three visits within a year.

As you walk in to the entry hall a mishmash of the ancient and the modern might make you wonder what is ahead. As you climb the stairs you are transported back to the early 20th century when Luigi Bellini, Sr. controlled the collection. It was the practice of antiquarians (Bardini, Contini, Volpi, Romano, Stibbert, Horne) to create “homes” filled with art that they might sell or trade or from which they couldn’t bear to be parted. The Bellini collection has this feel—fourteen rooms of a Renaissance home, but with a few touches that are medieval.

The centuries of art collide in the entry hall
In the entry hall Carole Feuerman’s art stands by ancient works

The visitor will find here a fresco of the school of Giotto, a bust by Donatello, a portrait by Tintoretto, a Della Robbia Madonna, a bronze by Giambologna, Ceramic from Xanto Avelli Rovigo, a Gothic tapestry, carved-wood Sansovino chest (armadio). Just when you have caught your breath the small doors enclosing a Fra Angelico gold-leafed Madonna are opened. There are ancient tables and chairs, a 19th century couch Luigi Sr. deemed “too modern”, statues, fountains, vases, minature bronzes, reliquies, carpets, and last but not least, a collection of crowns. Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, the tour is fascinating.

Family History

Some say that this passion for collecting and selling started in Ferrara with Vincenzo Bellini (1708-1783), who after twenty years as a priest, developed an obsession for ancient coins. He was one of the most illustrous numismatists of his time, even selling coin collections to Austrian Emperor Francis I. His son, Vitaliano, expanded the business into antiques and his grandson Giuseppe moved to Florence and eventually became an antiquarian with a store on Via della Spada.

Vincenzo Bellini collected ancient coins (1708-1783)
Vincenzo Bellini collected ancient coins (1708-1783)

A few generations later the most well-known antiquarian in the family, Luigi Bellini Sr. (1884-1957) was born in Impruneta. At nineteen he took off for New York to make an international name for himself, bringing clients back to the gallery in Florence. In the 1920s, he moved the business to a more impressive location on Lungarno Soderini, where the museum is today. He needed more room for both his business and his collection.

Fra Angelico Madonna in the Bellini Museum (photo bellinimuseum.org)
Fra Angelico Madonna in the Bellini Museum (photo bellinimuseum.org)

“You start as an antique dealer and end up being a collector without realizing that the germ of antiquity has infected you, it debilitates and consumes you and you will never recover. It is worse than tuberculosis,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Luigi Sr. and Nini Bellini by Giorgio de Chirico, Bellini Collection (ilgiornaledellarte.com)
Luigi Sr. and Nini Bellini by Giorgio de Chirico, Bellini Collection (ilgiornaledellarte.com)

A decade later, in 1931, he acted on his interest in contemporary art by opening a gallery with a couple of partners in Palazzo Spini-Feroni (home of the Museo Ferragamo, which has included pieces from the Bellini collection in its new exhibit). The gallery opened with an exhibition dedicated to the sculptor Arturo Martini and the painter Primo Conti. This venture did not last the test of time.

Following the war, Luigi Sr. concentrated on antiquities and rebuilding the city. He was instrumental in the reconstruction of the Ponte Santa Trinita “as it was and where it was”, by setting up an committee chaired by Bernard Berenson, the famed American art critic. They obtained substantial contribution for the reconstruction of the bridge, which had been dynamited by German troops, from wealthy American bankers. (Bellini’s own building on Lugarno Solderini sustained severe damage when the Carraia Bridge was also blown up.)

The destruction of the Santa Trinita Bridge
The destruction of the Santa Trinita Bridge

Four years before his death, Luigi was the prime organizer of the 1953 national exhibition of antiques held in Florence at Palazzo Strozzi. It was the precursor of the present Biennial Exhibition of Antiques held regularly at the Palazzo Corsini across the river from Museo Bellini.

The Bellini Museum and Gallery, 2015

Luigi Sr.’s grandson, Prof. Luigi Bellini, Jr., and his great-grandaughter Sveva are still active in the Biennial Exhibition, as well as other projects, including Luigi Jr.’s 2004 exhibition entitled “Bellini Collection Presents the Renaissance of Florence” at the Museum of Imperial Ming Nanjing in China. This was the first exhibition at the Imperial Museum to showcase western art.

One of the fourteen rooms of the Bellini Museum
One of the fourteen rooms of the Bellini Museum

For the past 130 years the Bellini collectors have shared a desire to live the past while at the same time be present in the modern life of Florence. Through the status symbol of their collection and the role of protector of the past, they strengthened their relationship with the nobility of the city while becoming acknowledged experts in private collecting choices and exhibition content.

Entry to the museum's rooms
Entry to the museum’s rooms

Lugi Sr., who controlled the collection between the first part of the 20th century, was known to believe anything created after the 1800s was too modern to be part of his private universe, but he was happy to support and advise the exhibits at Palazzo Spini-Feroni, which highlighted the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Mario Sironi, and Filippo de Pisis. Today Sveva Bellini produces exhibitions in the ground-floor exhibitions space introducing the most modern of Italian artists. The present exhibit with free entry, on display until June 4, is called Woodenkammer: Ogni Forma é Nella Natura.

Woodenkammer Exhibit until June 4, 2015 (photo izi.TRAVEL Italia)
Woodenkammer Exhibit until June 4, 2015 (photo izi.TRAVEL Italia)

Sveva, however, does not disturb the evocative collection on the primo piano of the the palazzo that invokes the passion of her great-grandfather, and generations before him, with rooms of ancient artworks styled in homage to earlier centuries. The masterpieces, the everyday objects and the walls and stairs are history revived, reaching into the present.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 5 Questions for Kelly Borsheim, Street Painter in Florence

The best bookstore for visitors to Florence, the Paperback Exchange, just got a fascinating new book. The title tells it all—My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy by Kelly Borsheim—and for any visitor to the Renaissance City it sheds light on a little-known artistic lifestyle, that of the madonnari, those who work with chalk and pastels on three large squares of paving stones between Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio, bringing well-loved paintings to “life” for a mere twenty-four hours.

Kelly and another street artist put the finishing touches on Raphael's Madonna of the Chair
Kelly and  Johnny finish Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair in Florence

Kelly, a sculptor with a studio in Texas, came to Florence just in time to fulfill a lifetime goal of seeing Michelangelo’s works before she turned forty. A few years later she joined an organization of pavement painters. (They are licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of using the designated spaces.) Her fascinating book contains hundreds of photos and the story of the little understood group of artists who have thrilled and amazed an audience of thousands of bystanders through the years.

Kelly Borsheim and her book about the life of Florentine street artists
Kelly Borsheim and her book about the life of Florentine street artists

You visited Italy for the first time in 2004 and in 2011 you published a book with the intriguing title My Life as a Street Painter in Florence Italy. How did you go from being a tourist to joining the small community of madonnari in Florence?

I backpacked around Italy for six weeks in the summer of 2004 and I fell in love with Anacapri and Florence. I decided to find a way to come back and stay for a longer period of time and returned to the Renaissance City as a student in the fall of 2006.

In early 2007, I met another student who created street paintings as part of the organization of madonnari (street painters) in Florence. She invited me to attend one of the meetings. Shortly after that, I returned to my home and studio in Texas. When I came back to Florence that fall, I went to Via Calimala where the street painters work and spoke with Claudio, the head of the organization. He had been instrumental many years before in having the city create three large squares on that street, consisting of street stones smoother than normal and outlined in brass. I was given a space on two different days in September while the senior madonnari were on holiday. 

Could street painting be considered performance art? What are the skills that make a successful street painter?

Yes, street painting is more of a spettacolo, a performance. Timing is important. I learned a bit about what to do and when to do it in order to help the passersby envision what I was trying to accomplish, whether or not they would be able to return to see progress later. We work large; we work fast. The idea is to create a “Wow” impression in one day. Like any performer: the more skilled we are, the better the show.

With a young assistant kelly reproduces Bartoni's Madonna and Child
With a young assistant Kelly reproduces Batoni’s Madonna and Child

Florence has an established group with most artists being fairly competent. I found that my having some drawing experience already made it easier to adapt my current skills to working large and in color, as well as working on a horizontal surface and in front of an audience. Physically, the work is very difficult and more tiring than anything created in a vertical position.

Kids are the best helpers
Kids are the best helpers

The history of madonnari is a bit unclear, but it seems that they were never really a part of the traditional atelier system that fine artists/professional artists were. There is a school for madonnari in Napoli that I believe was started by Gennaro Troia. The madonnari in Firenze have come from diverse backgrounds (and countries). Often they are art students temporarily in Firenze and working alongside master street painters.

Where else in Italy are there communities of street painters? Are there street art festivals?

I do not actually know if there are communities of madonnari, per se, or at least organizations such as we have in Florence. The madonnari mostly know one another because of the festivals. I have to say that I was thrilled by how so many of them welcomed me into the fold. I find so many in this community, either in person and on Facebook, to be wonderfully supportive of one another.

Festival in Grazie di Curtatone (photo by Luca Volpi)
Festival in Grazie di Curtatone (photo by Luca Volpi)

Yes, there are festivals and they are grand! I wrote about the two in Italia that I have attended: one in Nocera Superiore in southern Italy, not so far from the Amalfi Coast (in May) and the competition on Ferragosto (August 15) in Grazie di Curtatone in north central Italy. And there are other festivals in Europe and the US, perhaps in other countries.

You were a sculptor when you came to Italy. What are you working on now and how did your street painting experiences inform your present endeavors?

 I am still a sculptor and I am in the process of finding a home in which I can start working with stone on a daily basis again. I have been lucky in that some Italian sculptors invited me to participate in a symposium to carve stone in Tuscany two summers ago. That led to my going to Bulgaria for a similar event last summer. Currently, I am working on several figurative paintings. This summer I will return to Texas to carve some of the stone I left there. I hope to be back in Italy this fall.

Kelly's sculpture entitled Gymnast carved of Colorado Yule marble
Kelly’s sculpture  “Gymnast” carved of Colorado marble

Drawing is the basis of all of the visual arts. Drawing and painting helps my sculpting, and vice versa. Before I began street painting, I had little experience with color. The sense of touch is far more important to me. However, I enjoy pastel art. I also wanted to work large and street painting was great training for my first mural as an adult. In 2012, I designed and painted a mural (400 x 200 cm) for a collector in Caprese Michelangelo. I was thrilled since this little village is the birthplace of the great sculptor. I would love to create more murals!

A sketch of "Portrait of Niccolò da Uzzano" by Donatello
A sketch of “Portrait of Niccolò da Uzzano” by Donatello

In Florence, street painting is creating copies of masterworks. I learn best through the sense of touch. So, through the copies, I was able to understand how great artists solved problems of design. I am not sure that I would have allowed myself as much of the luxury of learning from copy work if I had not been working as a street painter.

What question haven’t you been asked about your book or your life in Florence that you wish someone would ask and what is your response?

I have been called “The What-If-Girl” by friends. I can imagine all sorts of things. And yet people still surprise me. I want to change the world, but I have not yet figured out how. The life of an artist is rarely easy, but the Internet has opened doors never before available to the majority of us. Musicians and authors are reported to have used the Internet to change the dynamics of getting their work in the hands, ears, and eyes of new fans and outside of middlemen and normal distribution routes. They are often in direct contact with those that love what they do.

Painters and sculptors create art that is not so downloadable, nor available for a low accessible unit price as a digital artist. Even giclée fine art reproductions cost the artist much more than the individual cost of a digital book or album.

I would like to find a way to get fine art into the lives of more people without actually giving it away. Or, I would not mind giving it away if an artist could still find a way to have a long-term place to live (of his choosing) and not want for food or other things that people choose to have in their lives (travel and even our own art collection!). Unless a work of art is a commission, the artist must find a home for her creation.

In 2001, I met my mentor, Vasily Fedorouk. He introduced to me the world of stone carving symposiums. Here is how it works: A community or group of people get together and decide that they want a handful of large garden-size sculpture for a public art garden. They buy or have donated some large pieces of stone. They organize the workspaces for artists and they chose these artists, sometimes by jury, others by word of mouth. This group provides to the artists the electric power to each carving site, the air compressor and hoses, tables, tents or lots of trees for shade, and of course the work site itself. They also house and feed the artists for the duration of the symposium, which can last anywhere from five to 30 days. They pay each artist a stipend so that he may pay his own living expenses back home, as well as for his travel. The artist creates a specific design, gives his desired dimensions of the stone to the symposium organizers, and brings all of his own individual tools. And he works and works until he is done or the time is up.

And the community? If they did a good job of it, they created a work site accessible to tourists and locals so that everyone could watch the art evolve. They received an “instant” sculpture garden for a lot less than any other means of acquiring large original artworks in stone. They may later place their new sculpture wherever they like, usually on a permanent display. This helps the community build a tourist destination. It is an investment that improves the quality of life for all the citizens.

An angel comes to life
An angel comes to life

As for the street artists of Florence, I have not figured out how they pay their bills. Madonnari work for tips, but the ones I know have other means of income and it is still a difficult life. The world needs more beauty (and less graffiti/tagging).

A Venus by Kelly lasts less than 24 hours
A Venus by Kelly lasts less than 24 hours

I am grateful every day. I do not earn enough in art sales alone but I am quite fortunate in many ways. I know that my artistic life is made possible by every single person who treats me to a meal, gives me a place to sleep when I am traveling, shares useful information with me, makes me smile, makes me think, says a kind word about my work to someone else, and helps me in any number of ways. I work a lot to not disappoint while I follow the individual path that I must travel. But I still want to find a way to change the world . . . and not be living on the street.

(All of the photographs in this post, except as noted, are from www.borsheimarts.com)

Kelly Borsheim’s book My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy  is available at Amazon.com.