All posts by Ann

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure by Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto, author of three novels and numerous magazine and newspaper articles, lives real life in Brooklyn, but dreams of Italy ever since a life-changing year in a Tuscan village over fifteen years ago. The experience, especially the wine and food, finds its way into the pages of his new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure.

Many Americans dream of living for a year or two in Italy, but you actually did it. Over fifteen years ago, you and your wife and your eighteen-month-old daughter pulled up roots in New York and moved to Tuscany for a year. How did you make that happen when so many people don’t?

Good question. It must have been a combination of youthful indiscretion (we were in our early-30s at the time) and a burning desire to do something different. In reality, the move was part of my transition from the corporate world to that of writing/teaching, so there was going to be some limbo time while I wrote and planned…Why not spend it in Italy?

The “barn” in Antella where Andrew and his family lived for a year.

Your new novel, Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure, is set in the same small Tuscan town where your family lived during that year in Italy. Besides the setting and the food, how did your experiences in Antella, near Florence, find life in your novel?

Besides the setting and the food (which the novel makes clear are very important to me), the best thing about Antella was its representation of everyday life in Italy. There were no tourists (besides us!) and, therefore, a quaint rhythm that we loved. We spent a lot of time just hanging around the piazza or the café; I regularly visited the butcher (who quickly became a dear friend and ambassador) and the fruit/vegetable stand, the groceria and gelateria…Just immersing in a traditional community without the trappings and burdens of tourism was very special. We made friends that we keep till this day, and I paid homage to their lifestyle in the novel (even using actual characters, such as the butcher). It’s intended to juxtapose with life in America, in general, and New York City, in particular.

The title of your book and the wild boar cavorting on the cover imply that Italian food is another character in the story. It that true? And specifically, how does cinghiale (wild boar) figure in the plot?

Yes, it is so true! Food and setting are characters in this book, and the food in particular plays a very important function as it doesn’t just provide the characters (particularly the protagonist, Jacoby, who has a “golden palate”) with sustenance and pleasure, but also a real sense of wellness. It is eating well (and drinking well, I should add, as there’s lots of wine consumed) that validates the everyday beauty of being alive. This is somewhat grandiose sounding, I know, but I believe it to be true and something so often overlooked.

As far as the cinghiale goes, you’ll have to read the book to discover the very important role a particularly malevolent and large one plays in the plot. I’ll give you a hint: It’s very “barn to table.”

What are the best aspects of being an American living in Italy? What are the worst aspects of being an American living in Italy?

Beyond the obvious aspects of eating/drinking amongst natural beauty and human achievement, I love being an American in Italy because it’s liberating. There are no civic obligations, no need to follow the news or current affairs. My Italian is functional, but I can easily tune out any conversation and therefore not be privy to conversations others are having (all I hear is lovely language exchanged). I don’t worry about the day to day minutia that complicates life when one is at home and in the grind. This is a big part of the book where Jacoby wants to be an “American Italian” – an identity, I guess, slightly less official than an ex-pat.

I know this is contradictory, but the hard part is being removed from America, as there is – for me, at least – a need to follow what’s happening at home, if even only tangentially at times. I love America and so want to be part of that whole “more perfect union” prospect.

Andrew Cotto in Italy

How did your year in Italy change the trajectory of your life? Or did it?

As noted, I was transitioning careers, so my life was going to change at that point whether I spent it in Italy or not, but – that said – the experience of living, really living, somewhere else inspired a great appreciation of place and how the “where & when” of our existence has such an impact on our lives. I take this knowledge into the classrooms where I teach and the narratives I create. Obviously, my love of food and wine, also, increased dramatically, and this informs my life everyday as does the knowledge that there is a place on earth that I get to dream about regularly and visit fairly often.

What question do you wish people would ask about Cucina Tipica, An Italian Adventure?

It’s a tie between:

Where will the sequel take place?

Who will play Jacoby in the movie?

(TuscanTraveler should have asked Andrew to answer his own questions…)

Finding the Foods You Miss After Leaving Italy

To many of us who had the fortunate experience of living for years in Italy, we miss many things when we return to our home countries. For me the list is long and populated with the foods I despaired at finding on this continent. But I was wrong.

Burrata

Mozzarella in the U.S. is notoriously rubbery and tasteless. Burrata, the most decadent of all mozzarella cheeses, must be eaten fresh and doesn’t travel well from Italy

Burrata is a little mozzarella sack filled with creamy goodness. It’s made from fresh cow’s milk (Of course, I also love the version using the milk of water buffalos, but the breed is rare in the U.S. I wrote about mozzarella di bufala here and here.). The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella(“rags” of mozzarella) and cream, giving it an incredible rich, soft, creamy texture.

But then I discovered BelGioioso Burrata at Whole Foods. Of course, the company has deep roots in Italy. The BelGioioso story began over a century ago when the great-grandfather of the current BelGioioso President, Errico Auricchio, founded a cheese company near Naples. In 1979, Errico moved his family from Italy to America with the goal of continuing his great-grandfather’s legacy. He wanted to craft the best Italian cheeses in the United States.

When Errico came to America, he scoured the United States in search of the highest quality milk to begin his goal of making exceptional specialty cheeses. It was in Wisconsin that he found the dedicated dairy farmers and abundant green pastures that produce superior milk.

In addition to his immediate family, Errico also brought with him two master cheesemakers, Mauro and Gianni. They carried with them a strict focus on quality and a passion for crafting flavorful Italian-style cheeses using artisan methods. Mauro and Gianni remain part of the BelGioioso family today and work tirelessly to share their wisdom with each new generation of cheesemakers.

BelGioioso Burrata is not just close to the quality of burrata made in southern Italy, it is equal to that luscious treat, especially when paired with tomatoes from the farmers’ market, fresh basil, and a great extra-virgin olive oil. But what about that olive oil?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

My preference in olive oil is the Tuscan-style that has a crisp flavor, like fresh-cut grass, green and a slightly sweet. It has a peppery aftertaste that can catch in the throat. It took me years to find an oil that measured up to Tuscan oil in the U.S. – I had friends bring bottles from Florence – but finally in San Francisco I found Bi-Rite supermarket-branded Frantoio Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, made for the specialty market by Frantoio Grove in San Martin, California.

When I checked the Frantoio Grove website I found the following explanation from the owner:

The first step was to decide what style of oil to make. The vast majority of oil produced in California is made from Spanish varieties. Either the old growth canning olives (Mission and Sevillano) now converted to oil production or the modern varieties of Arbequina and Arbosana grown in high densities on a large scale. Both styles produce mellow more buttery oil, soft in flavor.  There are currently 50,000 acres planted to this style in California.

As a small producer, it made no sense to compete on their style of oil so I kept looking. The most interesting oil on the market to me were the Tuscan blends. These oils tend to be more pungent and peppery and, in my mind, more interesting. It was suggested that I consider growing an orchard using a single variety. After much research and tasting of varietal oils we decided on the Frantoio (Fran-toy-ō) variety and then planted Frantoio Grove in 2005.

The professional taster’s comments for the 2017 harvest are:

* Spicy grassy green aromas with warm undertones of cinnamon

* Soft and beautifully balanced on the palate with a complex mixture of green and ripe fruity notes (nutty, floral, artichoke, fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, with some wood/hay/straw.)

* The finish is long-pleasantly peppery and slightly bitter with a lingering nutty sweetness.

I clearly found the olive oil for me!

But since it is not inexpensive, I only use Frantoio olive oil for salads, veggies, bruschetta and burrata – any time the taste of the oil is an important part of the dish.

When I’m cooking with olive oil,  I agree with Samin Nosrat, who in her new book Salt Fat Acid Heat, recommends Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  I knew Samin when she worked at Zibbibo in Florence and she knows her olive oil. My personal preference is Costco’s Kirkland Signature 100% Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Dario Cecchini’s Panzanese Steak

I have written about the meat empire in Panzano, a tiny town in Tuscany. It’s been over four years since I have been able to savor a three-finger thick rare steak grilled by Dario Cecchini. I’ve written about Dario’s butcher shop and restaurants many times (here, here, here and here). And I have not had a steak to compare in the U.S.

But now I hear Dario has come to my continent. Instead of flying for eight hours, I just need to catch a plane to Nassau, Bahamas. Dario’s first steakhouse outside of Italy opened December 22, 2018. Called Carna, it’s located in the Baha Mar resort.

It’s time to take a vacation!

Uffizi Wants Its Painting Back!

In 2015, a German was appointed to run the most Italian of museums in Florence, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, the Galleries of the Uffizi (includes not only the Uffizi Gallery, but also the Vassari Corridor, the Boboli Gardens and the Palazzo Pitti), the first time a foreigner has run the museum. After only three years on the job, the new German director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, is drawing international attention by demanding the return of a painting stolen by Nazi troops in 1943 and presently in the hands of a German family. Schmidt says the German government has a “moral duty” to help bring the still life Vase of Flowers, painted by Dutch master Jan van Huysum back to the museum.

Tuscan Grand Duke Leopold II originally bought the painting in 1824, which he displayed in the Palazzo Pitti. Included in a large collection other Dutch masters, Vase of Flowers was part of the Uffizi’s collection (the gallery opened to the public in 1769) for over one hundred years before it taken down and hidden away in the Tuscan countryside to protect it (along with most of the art in the Uffizi) during World War II. But German troops found and stole this work, among many others, in 1943 as they retreated north away from the Allied advance.

The fact that Vase of Flowers survived the theft and journey to Germany came to light in 1991 after the unification of Germany. Intermediaries for the unidentified family have demanded payment – which the Uffizi refuses – while Germany says a statute of limitations on crimes committed more than 30 years ago stops it from intervening.

Schmidt has called on Germany to abolish the statute of limitations on works stolen by the Nazis so all looted art can return to its “legitimate owners.” “Because of this, the wounds of World War Two and Nazi terror have not yet healed,” Schmidt said in a statement on the gallery’s website.

With a most modern method, the ancient Uffizi made the controversy public on Twitter  with hashtags like #Nazis and #Wehrmacht to make digital demands that Germany return the stolen painting. With a link to a lengthy “appeal to Germany for 2019” the museum also posted on its website a video showing Director Schmidt affixing a black-and-white photo of Van Huysum’s still life in the Room of the Putti of the Pitti Palace, where the painting once hung.

Around the photo in bold red lettering is the word “stolen” in Italian, English and German, and a caption posted in front of it explains that the work was taken by German soldiers and is now held by a German family. Schmidt hopes that generating publicity about Vase of Flowers should make it harder for the Germans who hold the painting to try to sell it.

The New York Times reported:

The painting has been the object of “on-and-off negotiations” for decades between Italian authorities and agents for the German family that has the work, Mr. Schmidt said. He said he did not know the identity of the family, but that it was “very likely” that they were related to the soldier who took the painting during the war.

Last year, a representative for the German family offered to return the work in exchange for a substantial sum of money (Italian media reported the sum as 500,000 euros, or about $567,000), prompting the museum — and Italian judicial authorities — to take action.

“We’re trying to get the German family to understand that we are not in a legal position to buy something that according to Italian and international law we already own,” said Mr. Schmidt.

Italian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the painting’s movements since it was taken from Italy. They have reportedly asked German judicial authorities to cooperate in the investigation.

Director Eike Schmidt

Eike Schmidt, 50, was born in Freiburg im Breisgau, and studied Medieval and Modern Art History in Heidelberg, where he also completed a doctorate with a thesis on “The Medici Ivory Sculpture Collection in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” From 2009 until his move to the Uffizi in 2015, he was at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts as curator and director of the Sculpture, Applied and Textile Arts Department. From 1994 to 2001, he worked as a researcher at Florence’s Deutsches Kunstshistorisches Institut. Between 2001 and 2006, he was curator and researcher at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, from 2006 to 2008 curator of the Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Between 2008 and 2009, he worked at Sotheby’s in London as director and head of the European Sculpture and Applied Arts Department.

Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt’s Message to Germany

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Pick – New Biscotti Museum in Florence

On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of its founding, the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei, the famed biscotti bakery, is opening its Piccolo Museo Bottega  in the heart of Florence.

Shop in the Biscotti Museum

With the same spirit of simplicity and elegance that has always distinguished Mattei’s image world-wide, the well-designed space contains an archive of memorabilia and documents that tell the story of both the company and the Pandolfini family, who have been operating the  biscottificio since 1904, when they inherited it from Antonio Mattei.

A portion of the Mattei archives

The museum of Mattei’s long history is divided into five sections dedicated to the various phases of the workmanship, from the historical tools to the ever-evolving packaging to the new takes on the decades-old recipe. And, of course, it will also be possible to buy and taste their scrumptious products.

Another goal of the Piccolo Museo Mattei is to highlight the synergy and relation between the two similar, but competing towns – Prato and Florence – by opening a “window” onto lesser- known Prato’s history in order to make both Italian and international visitors aware of one of Prato’s gourmet offerings.

Piccolo Museo Bottega

Via Porta Rossa 76/r

Monday  3.00pm / 7.00pm

Tuesday / Sunday  10.00am / 7.00pm

Mangia! Mangia! – L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele Opens in Florence

The famed Antica Pizzeria da Michele of Naples opened a location in Florence in early May. Located at Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 22R, the Florence pizzeria will follow the same formula that has won it acclaim in Naples.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (photo: facebook.com/damichelefirenze)

This means they only serve margherita and marinara pizzas (don’t try to ask for anything else, including extra cheese, pepperoni or mozzerella di bufala), as well as offering the same wine and beers that are served in the original pizzeria.

Reportedly serving 3,000 pizzas per night at the original Naples flagship location (in Via Cesare Sersale), where a line snakes down the street, da Michele has been the destination of pizza purists from around the world. Florence can now enjoy a taste of Naples. The Condurro family has served the same recipes since 1870 from the same location since 1930. The opening in Florence follows those in Milan, Rome, London and Barcelona, as well as in Japan (Tokyo and Fukuoka).

Pizza Margherita da Michele

There is even a book (only published in Italian): “L’antica pizzeria da Michele. Dal 1870 la Pizza di Napoli.” Written by Laura Condurro one of the great-grandchildren of Michele Condurro, “Michele” of da Michele. She details the history of the Condurro family who for over a century has been able to preserve flavors and respect the quality of a typical and irreplaceable product of the Neapolitan culinary tradition, which has not allowed the “papocchie” (messes) that have nothing to do with the taste of authentic pizza.

Michele, the progenitor, passed on to his children and grandchildren the passion for a product that represents Naples in the world. Luigi, one of Michele’s sons, often repeated that: ”È la passione che fa fare bene le cose…io so fare bene pochissime cose nella mia vita, ma quelle poche cose le faccio con passione,con la convinzione di essere il migliore.” (“It is the passion that makes things do well … I can do very few things well in my life, but I do the few things with passion, with the conviction to be the best.”)

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Dr. Buly finds Podere Collalto

Owning a villa in Tuscany, producing fine wine and fragrant olive oil, is the fantasy of many Americans, but one that rarely comes to fruition. For years, Dr. Robert Buly nurtured such a dream, but once it came true he still had to keep his day job as a renown orthopedic surgeon in New York to fund his expatriate life.

View near Trequanda, Italy

A family history of immigration from Europe to the United States forms the basis of Dr. Buly’s interest in Italy and adds depth to his appreciation of the land of which he and his family now have stewardship. Although Bob and his family haven’t moved to Tuscany for good, his heart seems to be in Trequanda.

Grandparents Emigrate from Ukraine to Pennsylvania

Soon after the turn of the 20th century there was a grand immigration from Eastern Europe to Western Pennsylvania by those in search of work in the thriving steel mills, including Bob’s grandparents traveling from Ukraine for a better life. Their son, Mike (Bob’s father), who had just started to work as a plumber, rushed to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II. He was sent to Italy.

Mike Buly in Florence 1945

Mike Buly was a soldier in the U.S. Fifth Army. Moving north up the Italian peninsula he fought to liberate Italy from the occupying Germans at a time that it was essential to split the attention of the enemy forces as the D-Day landing was being implemented. As the Fifth Army entered Tuscany they took heavy casualties. Many of Mike’s comrades now lay buried in the American Cemetery of Florence.

Mike Buly Finds a Bride in Italy

Soon after the the town of Trequanda was liberated in southern Tuscany Mike and a buddy commandeered a motor scooter and took off through the countryside looking for a place to buy a few straw-covered fiascos of the local red wine. Seeing some lights on a hilltop, they droved into the village of Torre a Castello. A local festa di liberazione was taking place with music, dancing, food and, most important to Mike and his friend, a lot of local wine.

Fedora Gigli, who lived in a nearby village, was attending the celebration with seven of her female cousins. The two young American soldiers in uniform became the hit of the party. And that was the night Dr. Buly’s parents fell in love.

Italy was liberated April 25, 1945, and victory in Europe soon followed on May 8. Mike Buly could have chosen to take his well-earned discharge, but he reenlisted once his commanding officer confirmed that he could remain with the U.S. Army in Italy instead of going to the Pacific. He immediately started to jump through the Army’s bureaucratic hoops necessary to marry an Italian citizen, as well as to beg permission from Fedora’s family.

Mike and Fedora get married in 1945

Mike and Fedora were married in the village of Serre di Rapolano, just ten miles from where they first met. The entire village turned out for the wedding on November 29, 1945. Post-war Italy was in a state of chaos and poverty. Through the black market Mike was able to obtain gasoline for the vehicles, food and wine and even the hard-to-find ingredients for the wedding cake. His sister Stella, who lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, couldn’t attend, but sent Fedora a wedding dress. Fedora’s young cousin Giulio was part of the wedding party (he plays a big part, later). Fedora emigrated with her new husband to his hometown in western Pennsylvania. She and Mike would raise five sons. Robert Buly was the third.

When the Buly family finances could afford it, the seven of them would travel to visit Fedora’s extended family. (Remember the seven female cousins? They were only a fraction of the clan, all living near Siena.) Bob and his brothers became fluent in Italian since their mother spoke it at home. They all loved Italian food and the Tuscan lifestyle. Bob always dreamed of being able to have a place in the Italy that could produce olive oil and wine.

Finding a Place to Call Home in Italy

In 2006, after years of searching for a suitable place, Bob’s cousin Giulio (the 1945 ring-bearer) learned that Podere Collalto was for sale, approximately 6 miles from his own vineyard and farm, just outside the Tuscan town of Trequanda. Podere means farm and Collalto means high hill.  The hilltop farm with its classic expansive Tuscan view had land for a vineyard and already contained over 300 olive trees.

Olive Groves at Podere Collalto

From their large casa colonica (farmhouse), Bob’s family can see the towns of Montalcino (the home of world-famous Brunello) and Montepulciano (the excellent, but less well known, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). Bob felt that the climate and soil should certainly be conducive to producing an excellent wine. His cousin Giulio felt that U.S.-based Bob was crazy for attempting this endeavor. Giulio has his own vineyard of almost 6 acres and offered to sell a portion of his grape harvest. But, Bob, whose undergraduate degree from Penn State’s college of agriculture was in plant science, felt just buying grapes to make his own wine would not be the same. He wanted to establish his own vineyard.

Casa Colonica at Podere Collalto

The vineyard was planted in early 2008. The altitude provides a summer breeze which dries out the vineyard after rainstorms and cool nights to allow the grapes to rest. The soil in the region appears to be perfect for olives and grapes, rocky, full of minerals and drainage, and not overly fertile. Bob likes to say that Italians feel that, like people, olive trees and vines do better in the long run if they have to suffer and struggle somewhat as they develop.

Buli “Estate 44” Toscano Rosso

Bob started with 1.2 acres of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot grapes to create a red blend, known in the U.S. as Super Tuscan. He also planted some white grapes to be used for Vin Santo. In March 2012, he tripled the size of the vineyard and added a Shiraz varietal. The vineyard now produces about 1200 cases per year. Bob Buly called the winery Buli (the Italian version of his Ukrainian name). He named one of his red wines Estate 44, which in Italian is Summer of 44, to honor the soldiers who liberated Trequanda on July 1, 1944.

Bob has the help of not only his family, but also an enologist, Massimo Carpini, to employ more scientific techniques rather than the traditional Tuscan methods of his cousin, but harvesting the grapes is still labor-intensive and done in the traditional way. To bulk up his labor force Bob has managed year after year to convinced his American friends, professionals from all walks of life, to come to Tuscany during the vendemmia (harvest) for a few days of backbreaking physical labor, followed each evening by a great meal and a lot of wine from past vintages.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Frederick Stibbert’s Museum

Garden of Stibbert Museum

Coming of age in 1859, Englishman Frederick Stibbert settled in the villa his mother Giulia bought in Florence at the edge of town in the Montughi neighborhood. He was wealthy due to a large inheritance that he was determined and able to increase by means of financial dealings in Italy and in the rest of Europe. His real passion, however, was art – it was the only thing, reportedly, he had been good at in school – not as an artist, but as a collector.

He began to fill his mother’s villa with items he obtained in his travels as an international financier. For almost fifty years he frequented European art markets. He also traveled to Asia and Africa. The trips lasted for months. He returned every time with hundreds of pieces. Soon he also had dozens of agents across the world sourcing items for his collection.

Stibbert family ballroom

In 1874, finding that the Villa of Montughi was not able to accommodate his mother and sisters and so many collectibles, Stibbert bought the neighboring Villa Bombicci. Between 1876 and 1880, he joined the two villas into one building. He renovated the spaces for the collections and those for family life. To create display rooms, each with its own theme, Stibbert hired artisans such as Gaetano Bianchi, an expert in neo-modern atmospheres, the stucco artist Michele Piovano, the ceramist Ulisse Cantagalli, and an army of furniture makers, carvers, gunsmiths and outfitters.

Sala della Cavalcata

Stibbert was interested in the history of costume and uniforms from the Renaissance to the First Empire, but his obsession was for armor and armaments, not only from the knights of Europe, but also from Asia, especially Japan, and Islamic countries. He had distinctive halls created in the combined villas to house the armory, including the Sala da Cavalcata, a grand hall with a cavalcade of human and equine plaster figures clad in European armor, overlooked by a huge figure of St. George battling a dragon.

Stibbert’s armor for Duomo façade dedication

Stibbert not only loved to acquire armor, he loved to dress in the armor from his collection, and talked relatives and friends to join in the interpretation of historical scenes. In one historical procession, organized in 1887 for the inauguration of the façade of the Duomo (for which he donated thousands to fund the construction), he paraded as a fourteenth-century knight, with a custom-made armor.

Stibbert loved to dress up

Today, this eccentric museum still exhibits Stibbert’s own ideas of how the collection should be arranged. In other words, the rooms are specially designed to create the right atmosphere, the items are presented in ensembles, some of the costumes are remade and arranged in semi-theatrical poses.

The First Empire collection of all things Napoléon (whom Stibbert’s father fought as a Coldstream Guard) fills an entire room.

Napoléon’s coronation costume

The collection includes French arms, such as combat and ceremonial swords, sabers, and dragoon helmets, plateware and jewelry, the a decree for the modification of coats of arms of the city of Florence dated 1811 and signed by Napoleon, and the coronation costume worn by Napoléon in the Duomo in Milan in 1805. The coronation cape is green (in honor of Italy) and covered in Napoléonic symbolism: notably, embroidered palms, laurels and bees, stars surrounded by garlands composed of corn cobs and oak leaves, Napoléonic ‘N‘s, and on the left shoulder an embroidered plaque of the Grand Master of the Royal Order of the Iron Cross, with the inscription ‘Dieu me l’a donné, gare à qui y touche‘ (‘God gave me it. Heaven help him who touches it’). The shoes worn by Napoléon during the ceremony complete this unique costume.

Detail from fresco in mother’s bedroom

Stibbert wasn’t trained in art history, museum curation, or fine art. Unlike Bereson, Horne and Bardini, he did not purchase works necessarily for their value or for resale. He bought what he liked and he kept it all. The collection at his death in 1906 contained over 50,000 pieces. The result is an extraordinary example of eclecticism, in which different styles and heterogeneous collections coexist, united by the strong personal stamp of the collector.

Inside the museum, where you tour with a guide, the rooms follow one another presenting European, Islamic and Japanese weapons and armor, in environments that suggest the atmosphere of distant cultures, followed by neo-baroque or rococo rooms, full of paintings, portraits and wooden sculptures, religious art, including reliquaries, and vestments, furnishings and porcelain, travel souvenirs. The family’s living spaces have now merged seamlessly into the collection.

Japanese Armor Room

The vast garden behind the villa is laid out in the English style, with temples, grottoes and fountains, affording a delightful walk on leaving the museum. During a trip to Egypt made after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Stibbert bought some artifacts later used in the construction of the small temple that overlooks a small lake. He, along with his mother Giulia and sister Sofronia, were honored with awards for the garden and creation of various new flower varieties.

Malachite Room

Today, the museum frequently curates excellent themed exhibits highlighting certain aspects of the Stibbert collection. The museum is open from 10am to 2pm Monday through Wednesday and from 10am to 6pm on Friday through Sunday. The guided visits start on the hour and last for about one hour. Last entrance an hour before closing. Closed Thursday. Tickets are 8 euro. The garden can be visited without a ticket.

Special Exhibit: Feasts and Banquets – The Art of Preparing Banquet Halls

From March 30, 2018 to January 6, 2019, the Stibbert Museum presents “Conviti e Banchetti – L’Arte di Imbandire le Mense” which pulls hundreds of items from the Stibbert collection as well as from other sources such as Ginori ceramics, Meschi artificial flowers, and Opera Laboratori Fiorentini for sugar sculptures. Exhibits and items include those for the Renaissance banquet table, a Baroque feast, 18th and 19th century flatware and table settings, as well as kitchen equipment through the ages.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Expatriate Stories, Frederick Stibbert

The stories of immigrants and expatriates who choose to live in Italy are some of the best tales told about present and former residents of Florence and Tuscany.

Frederick Stibbert’s Villa in Florence

This is the first in a series of Tuscan Traveler’s Tales about the “foreigners” who put down roots in Tuscany. The first post is about Frederick Stibbert, a British citizen, who settled in Florence in the mid-19th century and left behind on of the most unique (and under-appreciated) museums in the world. First, his story:

The Grandfather

Frederick’s grandfather, Giles Stibbert was the source the impressive family fortune, but he came from very humble beginnings. Born 1734, in Norfolk, England, he went to sea as the cabin boy to the captain of a Far East trading vessel, but at 22 years of age he disembarked in India.

Giles Stibbert

Giles enlisted under the patronage of Robert Clive in the military arm of the British East India Company, which was a private corporate armed force, and was used as an instrument of geo-political power and expansion, rather than its original purpose as a guard force. It soon became the most powerful military force in the Indian sub-continent. Giles Stibbert quickly climbed in rank and wealth because, unlike enlistees in most state-sponsored militaries, there was money to be made as the East India Company plundered the resources of India.

In January 1765, Captain Stibbert was ordered to lay siege to the hitherto impregnable Moghul fortress of Chunargur. A month later, the fortress of Chunargur surrendered to Stibbert’s forces after a sustained and bloody battle. Lord Clive promoted Stibbert to the rank of Major. In December 1765, Stibbert married 20-year-old Sophronia Rebecca Wright, the daughter of a clergyman, in Calcutta.

Giles and Sophronia spent six years (1768-1774) in England, during which three sons were born. The oldest, Thomas (1771-1847) was Frederick Stibbert’s father. The family returned to India, where Giles climbed in rank to Bengal Commander in Chief and was charged with reforming the Indian Army. He resigned in 1785. The family went to live in a grand manor house Giles had built outside of the town of Southampton, surrounded by 600 acres. Giles died in 1809.

The Father and Mother

Frederick’s father Thomas Stibbert was also a soldier. He enlisted in the Coldstream Guards and fought Napoleon’s forces in Egypt, Spain and France until the French defeat and the fall of the First Empire. Eventually, after living in Rome, he settled in Florence in 1836, where a couple of years later, at the age of 67 he married 33-year-old Giulia Caffagi from Stia, a tiny hill town north-east of Florence. She may have been Stibbert’s housekeeper. They were married in Malta and had three children: Frederick (also known as Federigo or Federico), born in 1838, followed by his sisters, Sophronia and Erminia.

Giulia Stibbert’s Bedroom

Thomas Stibbert died in 1847 when Frederick was nine and away at boarding school at Harrow in London. In 1849, Frederick’s mother bought a large villa, once owned by the Davanzati clan, on the edge of Florence in a neighborhood called Montughi.

Frederick Stibbert

Frederick remained at Harrow, reportedly a very poor and rebellious student, until he matriculated to Cambridge, where he did no better.

In 1859, Frederick came of age, returned to Florence to his mother’s home, and came into his vast inheritance. As the only male heir of his grandfather Giles Stibbert, he inherited the wealth of his father and his uncles. He proved to be a good business manager and investor, as well as astute at taking advantage of the many changes caused by the early efforts for unification of the Italian State in 1861, and the role of Florence, as the nation’s capital in 1865.

Frederick Stibbert with his medals earned in battle for Italy

In 1866 Frederick took part in the war for the Third Italian War for Independence with Garibaldi’s troops and was awarded a silver medal for his valor during the battle of the Trentino.

Wealthy and brilliant, Frederick had an active social and cultural life, both in Florence and in London. Passionate about horses, he owned a stable of thoroughbreds. He never married, but was popular with both men and women. He was known to be a bit of a dandy, appearing frequently in London’s social magazine Vanity Fair.

Stibbert’s Ballroom with portrait of his mother and sisters

He was devoted to his mother. His sister Sophronia married into the noble Pandolfini family and was famous for her gardens and orchid house. Erminia apparently died young and disappeared in history.

His multifaceted nature as an international financier, habitual traveler and passionate collector contributed to the realization of the greatest project of his life: transforming the Villa of Montughi into a museum. This goal drove his every action for fifty years.

The first documented guests to visit Stibbert and his collection were Francis, Duke of Teck, his wife Adelaide and his daughter Princess Mary, future wife of Britain’s George V, who left as a gift a guest book in which, among hundreds of others, are notable: author and poet Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the painters Telemaco Signorini and Michele Gordigiani, writers such as  Ouida and Gabriele d’Annunzio, collectors Temple Leader and Constantino Ressman or Bagatti Valsecchi. And then Queen Victoria arrived at Stibbert’s villa in 1894…

In his last will he left the museum to the British Government, with the obligation to keep the collection in Florence and to establish the museum in his name. In case of withdrawal by the British, the bequest passed to the municipality of Florence, as actually happened in 1908 .

After Frederick’s death in 1906 the museum was opened to the public (1909).

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Cremona, City of Violins

A few weeks ago CBS Sunday Morning presented a story that started in the Italian Alps of the Dolomites where a woodcutter with the name of Fabio Ognibene (Everygood) was seen wandering through a forest of alpine spruce while pointing out which attributes of various trees – ones with long and straight trunks and few branches or knots – were perfect for  making violins.

It seems Italian stringed-instrument craftsmen have been selecting spruce and other varieties of prepared wood from the Fiemme Valley for almost six centuries because the light and elastic mountain timber makes stringed instruments, including pianos, sound better. The alpine spruce at this elevation is chopped down in the fall during a waning moon when there is the least amount of sap in the tree. And then, after it is cut and cured, it goes to Cremona, Italy where the magic happens.

Cathedral and Torrazzo of Cremona (photo: finnair.com)

Cremona in Lombardy ( about 90 minutes southeast of Milan by car) is famous for its luthiers – makers of stringed instruments – who have been crafting high-quality violins since the 16th century. Its beautiful medieval and Renaissance architecture and fabulous cuisine make it an excellent place to visit even in this cell phone world where Alexa and Siri have taken control of selecting the music for the masses; and if you, like me, are skeptical about the ultimate future of handcrafted violins and cellos.

One of the first violin makers in Cremona was Andrea Amati (1505 – 1577), considered to be the inventor of the violin. The city’s most famous violin maker was the long–lived Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737), who produced more than one thousand musical instruments in the late 17th to early 18th centuries. Stradivarius violins continue to be regarded as the best in the world today.

Liutaio Gio Batta Morassi (photo: finnair.com)

Cremona is still home to more than 140 luthiers in workshops located throughout the city, as well as a luthier school. A visitor only has to look for signs the say “LIUTAIO” to be able to observe craftsmen (very few women have been encourage to apprentice) at their work.

In 2012, UNESCO decreed that traditional violin craftsmanship in Cremona deserved protection on its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” In 2013, the grand Museo del Violino opened in Piazza Marconi in the city center. The museum has excellent multi-media exhibits about the history and creation of stringed instruments, including the reproduction of an historic workshop. A large display of violins, made in various centuries, including Antonio Stradivari’s 1715 “Il Cremonese” violin and others by Guarneri and Amati. The collection also includes examples of the viola, cello, lute and double bass.

The less high-tech Civic Museum Ala Ponzone-Stradivariano (Via Ugolani Dati 4), was dedicated in 1887 and the collection has been housed since 1928 in the 16th century Palazzo Affaitati. The original heart of the museum dates back to Marquis Sigismondo Ala Ponzone (1761 – 1842), who donated his private collection (paintings, archaeological artifacts, coins, and ornithology). The Museo Stradivariano was housed in the same location as a specialised and independent collection that includes artifacts and tools from the workshop of the maestro Antonio Stradivari, donated to the city of Cremona by the violin maker Giuseppe Fiorini.

The Gothic palazzi, the Torrazzo (one of Europe’s tallest surviving medieval brick towers that houses one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks), the Romanesque cathedral, and the octagonal 12th-century baptistery, make a tour of the historic center an evocative experience. Mozart once performed in 270-year-old Teatro Ponchielli in Cermona and the theater is still hosting concerts in 2018.

Go to Cremona this year between September 27 and October 14 for the 15th International “Triennale” Violin Making Competition Antonio Stradivari (XV Concorso Triennale Internazionale di Liuteria Antonio Stradivari), where modern luthiers worldwide compete in the “Olympics of Violin Craftsmanship.” Once the jury has completed its deliberations, the instruments will be exhibited to the public.

Then come back for the Cremona Torrone Festival in November. But that is the tale for a future post…

New Murder Mystery Series Set in Florence and Tuscany

Florence, Tuscany and murder: It’s a combination that gave birth to a new series of mysteries that brings together Florentine history, locations and cuisine with murder and mayhem in the Renaissance City.

A love of reading murder mysteries and thrillers coupled with a fascination for the museums, markets and trattorias, historic palaces, and the less-traveled alleys of Florence inspired Ann Reavis to write about the exploits of Inspector Caterina Falcone.

The first book Death at the Duomo begins with an explosion during the historical pageantry of the Scoppio del Carro. Inspector Falcone, who works with a special Florentine police unit that focuses on crimes involving foreign visitors and residents (as the criminal perpetrators or crime victims) in Florence and Tuscany, is directly involved in the investigation of the horrific event that resulted in the deaths and injuries to so many spectators.

In Secret of La Specola  Caterina  believes that her young nephew Cosimino is going to show her the secret of the museum known as La Specola. Their Sunday morning outing, however, reveals that the museum guards more than one mystery when they meet an American woman in the zoological exhibits.

Melissa Kincaid is in Florence enjoying a much-needed break from her uneventful existence in Dallas. She hopes for romance and adventure in Italy. What she discovers at Museo Zoologico La Specola changes the course of her life. Melissa’s meddling becomes Inspector Falcone’s biggest challenge as she tries to solve the case of murder in the museum.

Secret of La Specola throws Caterina and Melissa into the hunt for a heartless killer, while also introducing the reader to a little-known museum that contains not only 18th century zoological specimens, but also the finest exhibit of anatomical waxes in the world. The novel also explores the museum of the Palazzo Vecchio with its secret passages, tapestry workshop and battlement murder holes as it races toward the resolution of the crimes.

Both books are set, in part, in the family’s osteria operated by Caterina’s father and brother as well as other restaurants and the food markets of Florence. What would a tale set in Tuscany be without the fabulous Florentine cuisine?

The eBook of Secret of La Specola will be discounted on Amazon.com from December 15 – 22, 2017. The paperback editions of both Death at the Doumo and Secret of La Specola are available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.it.