Category Archives: Tuscan Traveler’s Picks

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.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Pietre Dure by Scarpelli

Pittura per l’eternità (painting for eternity”) is what painter Domenico Ghirlandaio deemed the art of Pietre Dure in the 15th century. Polychrome hardstone inlay uses delicately thin slices of highly polished colored stones that are cut and fitted together to create images; assembled so precisely that the contact between each section is practically invisible.

Rose trellis in stone
Rose trellis in stone

Semi-precious stones like coral, garnet, malachite, jasper, lapis lazuli and amethyst are arranged in compositions to look like paintings; the natural grain of the stones and marble is exploited to create incredible effects (clouds, leaves and petals, skin, fur, etc.) that at first glance look like paintings.

The art is known worldwide as a specialty of 16th century Florentine artists, but it was also practiced at the courts of Naples, Madrid, Moscow, Prague, Paris and elsewhere. The colorful stones were arranged on tables, large and small, jewelry chests and cabinets of curiosities, to create landscapes and flower scenes. While the common belief is that the art form originated in Italy, some scholars argue that it had an Indian origin, or at least an independent history in that country. A famous example of pietre dure is the Taj Mahal, finished in 1643. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan asked for precious stones to be inlaid in white marble. The result was some of the most impressive pietre dure architectural designs ever crafted.

Museo Opificio della Pietre Dure
Museo Opificio delle Pietre Dure

In 1588, the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando of Tuscany founded a workshop for the purpose of developing pietre dure and other decorative art forms. The ducal workshop, renamed the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, which eventually became a museum and restoration laboratory, still exists today and it is the first place a visitor to Florence should go to learn more about the technique of inlaid stone. (Via degli Alfani 78r, Florence, tel. 055-218709; closed weekdays after 2 pm & on Sunday).

Scarpelli – Master Craftsmen

After leaving the museum go directly to Renzo Scarpelli’s store and workshop, Le Pietre nell’Arte on Via Ricasoli 59r. (tel. 055-212587; closed Sunday) There Renzo, his son Leonardo and their four collaborators create Florentine mosaics using traditional methods passed down from the Renaissance. Part art gallery, part laboratory, it is a huge fascinating place, where the old bricks, columns and stones of a 13th century stable have been brought to light after a painstaking restoration.

Delicate but everlasting rose by Scarpelli
Delicate but everlasting rose by Scarpelli

The Scarpelli Bottega d’Arte is open to all visitors wanting look around the workbenches, where the mosaic artists (mosaicist)  labor, creating the stone shapes, and thus discover a bit about the secrets of this ancient art. The staff and artisans are invested in helping their clientele understand the importance and intricacies of the art form. Shoppers can purchase a wall plaque, medallion or cameo here, or even commission a unique masterpiece based on custom drawings.

Renzo Scarpelli - Master Craftsman (photo antiquariatoearte.com)
Renzo Scarpelli – Master Craftsman (photo antiquariatoearte.com)

Renzo Scarpelli was born in Firenzuola (northeast of Florence) in 1947. Working in pietre dure was not his family’s business. His personal passion caused him to apprentice in one of the most ancient Florentine workshops when he was only 13 years old. After many years of training and art studies, he managed to open his own studio in Florence in the 1970’s and was thus able to design his first creations in pietre dure, known in Florence as mosaico fiorentino or commesso fiorentino.

He is now known internationally as one of the master craftsmen in the field and his works hang on museum walls as well as in fine private collections. Fearing the loss of the art form, he has a deep commitment to using his talents as a teacher and passing down the art of Florentine mosaic work.

Leonardo Scarpelli - Mastercraftsman of the new generation (photo antiquariatoearte.com)
Leonardo Scarpelli – The new generation  (photo antiquariatoearte.com)

His son Leonardo was fascinated by the laboratory from early childhood, showing not only a ready willingness to learn, but great skill in his designs and his work with the stone. After completing his studies in mosaics and pictorial decoration, he decided to join his father in the bottega. For over ten years now, Leonardo has been signing works of his own creation and is considered one of the finest artists of the new generation, especially when it comes to modern design. His “painting in stones” is a blend of arts and crafts, tradition and innovation.

A cat in stone made by Scarpelli
A cat in stone by Scarpelli

Renzo and Leonardo work together in the laboratorio and create artistic masterpieces of a very high quality indeed. Stefano and Pierpaolo, who boast many years of experience and a good grounding in painting, cooperate and support the laboratory production following instructions of the master craftsmen.

Gabriella supported her husband Renzo throughout his professional career and built up a business of her own in the unique design, fabrication and repair of pendants, earrings and necklaces in stones.

The Scarpelli workshop (photo fondazioneartigianato.it)
The Scarpelli workshop (photo fondazioneartigianato.it)

Catia, Renzo’s eldest daughter, after years of experience in other fields, has decided to follow the family tradition and is today responsible for running the business side of the company. She is assisted by Mayumi, who is key in sharing the pietre dure story with clients.

The Art of Pietre Dure

Craftsmen and artists worked together in an opificio delle pietre dure, or laboratorio, or bottega to create decorative artworks in stone. The painters play a fundamental part among them because they create the sketches. But in the beginning there is the stone.

A table of butterflies in inlaid stone
A table of butterflies in inlaid stone

The “stone seeker” (cercatore di pietre) is of prime importance. This is the person who knows everything there was to know about the raw materials and where to find them. In the time of the Medici dukes the maps of the cercatore di pietre were guarded and prized. (See this zen-like video of a cercatore di pietre going about his work.) The search for the right stones, carried out in the same places where Renaissance artists originally found their materials, is still a particularly painstaking job and a vital step in the production of pietre dure.

Stones for cutting at Scarpelli (photo fondazioneartigianato.it)
Stones for cutting at Scarpelli (photo fondazioneartigianato.it)

Many of the stones still come from the hills around Florence, among them “Paesina” stone and the “Gabbro” or granite from Impruneta or “Lilla” (quartzite) and “Alberese” (limestone) from Chianti, together with others from the river valleys near the Arno, including the grey “Colombino” stone and the “Green stone of the Arno”. These typical hues from the Tuscan territory are then combined with brighter colored stones like lapis lazuli, malachite and turquoises that are imported from abroad

The stones arrive at the laboratory, where each block of rough stone is cut into slices measuring about 3 mm thick. The commesso fiorentino then selects the colors needed from among the various stones, a process known as macchiatura or coloring, essential for the chromatic effect of the work.

Traditional cutting tool  for pietre dure
Traditional cutting tool for pietre dure

Then the hard work begins – the cutting and matching (commettere) of the various hues (the origin of the name commesso fiorentino), so as to create a perfect match between the individual pieces and complete the composition of the entire inlaid design. An enormous amount of stone is needed to choose the perfect hue and matrix, which only emerges during the cutting of the stone in its raw state.

The paper design created by the artist is cut into dozens of small pieces that are then pasted onto the thin stone slices to capture the perfect matrix and color. Using the centuries-old technique that employs a curved branch of chestnut or cherry wood and a piece of wire, the artist (mosaicista) cuts each tiny piece by rubbing the stone with scouring powder and water so as to be able to cut the small complicated shapes as precisely as possible.

Each pomegranate seed is a separate stone
Each pomegranate seed is a separate stone

The mosaicista uses a series of files to finish off the shapes of the pieces of stone until they fit together perfectly and then bonds them with a beeswax and rosin paste. A slab of slate is used as a backing and support for the composition. The last step is the polishing, done by hand, which brings out the colors of the natural stone.

 The Chapel of the Princes

“Painting for eternity” goes to the extreme in  the Cappelle Medici, also known as the Chapel of the Princes, a grandiose mausoleum attached to the Medici family church of San Lorenzo. This tomb/chapel/throne room was erected between 1604 and 1640 to celebrate the absolute power of the ruling Medici dynasty.

The Chapel of the Princes
The Chapel of the Princes

The octagonal room, where many of the Grand Dukes are buried in gigantic sarcophagi, is  encrusted floor to ceiling with semi-precious stone and marble inlay executed by the skilled workers employed at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. An internal coating of lapis lazuli was meant to cover the vast dome, but even the Medici didn’t have enough money to procure the costly stones and, in the early 19th century, it was finally painted in fresco.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Marvis the Florentine Toothpaste

My friend Nancy tries to get to Florence each year. While there she haunts the museums and the churches. When she goes home, does she take fine leather, golden bracelets, and marbleized paper? No, she carries a few tubes of toothpaste, a couple of bars of soap and a bag of Mattei brutti ma buoni.

Marvis flavors for every taste (photo http://www.classicshaving.com  )
Marvis flavors for every taste (photo classicshaving.com )

Why? Because she likes sweets and loves to have everyday products around her that remind her of her trip. Products made in Florence. Little did she know how trendy she was until she ran across an ad for her toothpaste in an international fashion magazine.

Marvis toothpaste is made in Florence. It is now taking the fashionable world by storm. So what is the story? Toothpaste from Tuscany?

Dentifricio Marvis, as the Florentines call it, was originally registered by Conte Franco Cella Di Rivara in Florence in 1958. The company’s most productive period was during the ‘70s, when it became known for being particularly effective for smokers’ stained teeth. Many say the name came from a combination of the words Marvel + Vis (latin for strength).

Clever Marvis Puzzle
Clever Marvis Puzzle (photo 4.bp.blogspot)

Marvis was overshadowed by Crest and Colgate until it was bought by the Ludovico Martelli company in 1997. The Martelli family, with its patriarch Ludovico, started a Florentine cosmetics company in 1908. In 1948, when Ludovico’s son, Piero, took over, the company launched a brand of shaving products called Proraso (not something Nancy will buy, except as gifts for her sons).

Fans of Marvis love the extra strong minty freshness of the toothpaste (though there are those who swear by the jasmine Mint or the Amarelli Licorice), packaged in beautiful aluminum retro tubes. The design has found favor around the world at sites like Eataly and the Wall Street Journal. The Martelli company has been savvy in gifting participants at the Pitti fashion shows with miniature tubes of Marvis. The Marvis website is also a joy to behold, unlike most that Italy has to offer.

It’s distributed in over forty countries and sold at upscale pharmacies (as well as on Amazon.com). In Italy, Marvis can be found in both grocery stores and pharmacies.

The favorite Marvis toothpaste in Classic Strong Mint
The favorite Marvis toothpaste in Classic Strong Mint

It has YouTube fans (including a couple of guys who brush for the camera) and is stocked at MR PORTER, the menswear bellwether for when a brand has made it. Marvis gets a shout out on THE LINE and is included in its “stories“. Its name was dropped by former Valentino Chairman, Giancarlo Giammetti, and J.Crew’s Frank Muytjens, who reportedly called it one of the things he carries around the world with him.

The first product created was the Classic Strong Mint Toothpaste, which is still the best seller of the whole range, especially in Italy. All Marvis product are based on a minty taste declined in seven different flavours: from the strong freshness of the classic mint to the delicate flowery taste of Jasmine Mint. It retails for $9 to $12. The latest addition to the Marvis family, an alcohol-free mouthwash infused with tingle-inducing herbal extracts, remains strong even when diluted from concentrate.

Maris Mouth Wash
Marvis Mouth Wash

The company wants to make the mundane activities of brushing teeth and shaving into a daily ritual of Italian pleasure.

When you visit Italy, don’t take that t-short back to your grandkids. Take Florentine Toothpaste!

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Brunello Cucinelli, the Philosopher Businessman

The village of Solomeo is perched on the Umbrian hills ten minutes outside Perugia, about a two-hour drive from Florence. This is the home of Brunello Cucinelli cashmere luxury clothing.

Solomeo in the Umbrian Hills
Solomeo in the Umbrian Hills

Brunello Cucinelli, the son of a rural laborer, decided to drop out of engineering school in Perugia in the mid-70s. (A few years ago, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Philosophy and Ethics from the University of Perugia). He got a loan from his local bank to try his hand dyeing cashmere a bright rainbow of colors.

Why cashmere? Cucinelli explains, “Because I never thought it would be thrown away. I wanted to manufacture something that theoretically never dies.” Other clothes may go to waste, but something made of cashmere goes from a piece of fine clothing, to every-day wear, to a favorite comfy knock-around-the-house outfit with holes or patches at the elbows. “You see the idea of guardianship; it all ties in together,” he has said. “[I]t has the fascination of eternity. You either pass it along, or find another use for it, but there is something eternal about it,” he told the men’s fashion magazine The Rake.

Brunello Cucinelli for Women Spring/Summer 2015 (www.bazaar.ru)
Brunello Cucinelli for Women Spring/Summer 2015 (www.bazaar.ru)

At the time there was no brightly colored cashmere being produced in Italy or elsewhere. He told the story to BusinessofFashion.com. “So I went to the dye shop and here we had the most famous dye expert, a young guy, who was wearing a ponytail and was very fashionable. … Alessio, he was 28 and I was 25, but he had such a taste and flair. I said, ‘I’d like this to be orange.’ ‘No, no. This is cashmere, you can’t possibly dye it. You’re crazy,’ he said. … [I said] ‘Alessio, you’re so young, how can you say we can’t possibly manage it? We can’t possibly do it? Yes, yes, come on, we can do it!’

“And I convinced him and talked him round. I took these six sweaters, three V-necks, three round [necks]… these six sweaters in six beautiful colors. In terms of the product, it was innovative. I was seeking perfection for one single thing. I was the man with the sweaters; the cashmere guy.”

Brunello Cucinelli (photo by  Davide Maestri)
Brunello Cucinelli (photo by Davide Maestri)

The business started with 90% knitwear. Now, knitwear is only 35%, but still 60% of the collection is made out of cashmere. (In the winter collection, nearly everything is all made of cashmere.)

As the brand grew, so did the headquarters. In 1987, Cucinelli moved the business to the village where his wife was born, Solomeo. Slowly the company took over responsibility for restoration of the entire town, which today also encompasses a theater, an amphitheater, and the Aurelian Neo-Humanistic Academy, which hosts seminars on philosophy, history, architecture and spirituality.

Solomeo in Umbria in the Evening
Solomeo in Umbria in the Evening

There’s also a vineyard, a library and a school of arts and crafts that teaches masonry, gardening and farming, tailoring, knitting, cutting and sewing, darning and mending. In the tailoring course, students are awarded scholarships of 700 euros ($891) a month. Cucinelli relishes the exchange between students, artists and workers.

“Ever since my very first employee, I always thought the work should be done in a healthy and pleasant environment, with better human relationships. I can’t ease the weight of the job, which is often repetitive, but I can help with nice big windows for a beautiful view and to see the light outside.” While working conditions are important, his workers are also paid around 20% more than their Italian peers. The working hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a 90-minute lunch break. (Many employees go home for lunch, but the company offers a lunch three courses daily for €2.80 – including wine and olive oil from Cucinelli’s vineyards and groves.)

Brunello Cucinelli for Men Winter 2014/2015 (brunellocucinelli.com)
Brunello Cucinelli for Men Winter 2014/2015 (brunellocucinelli.com)

To ensure the continuity of his company, the unity of the village—as well as for his daughters Camilla and Carolina who both work in product development for the brand—Cucinelli has set up an irreversible trust. In 2010, Cucinelli received the Cavaliere del Lavoro award, Italy’s top business recognition, from the president of Italy.

Restored Etruscan Arch in Perugia
Restored Etruscan Arch in Perugia

The trust is a separate entity from the Fondazione Brunello e Federica Cucinelli, whose goal is “the improvement and beauty of humanity.” This Cucinelli thinks is part of the Umbrian culture, with a philosophy stemming “from Saint Benedict and Saint Francis, to never turn your back on mankind.” In 2011, the Cucinelli Foundation donated $1.3 million to help restore the Etruscan Arch in Perugia, dating back to the third century B.C. This year work is scheduled to start on Un Progetto per la Bellezza— “A Project for Beauty”—a plan for the development of a series of parks in the valley beneath the village of Solomeo

The Model for "A Progect for Beauty" (brunellocucinelli.com)
The Model for “A Progect for Beauty” (brunellocucinelli.com)

In 2012, the company gave Christmas bonuses of 6,000 euros ($7,513) each to longtime employees to mark the listing of the company on the Italian stock market to thank them for their support and for helping make the IPO possible.

Brunello Cucinelli’s business philosophy? “First, it is important to make a profit because there is nothing wrong with that and that is the purpose of a business,” he told FT.com. “Secondly, to take some of that profit for myself and my family, because there is nothing wrong with making Brunello rich. Thirdly, the profit must go to the workers to give their work dignity and lastly, profit must also go towards the local community, whether that may be a hospital, a theatre, a monastery.”

Brunello Cucinelli (gq-magazine.co.uk)
Brunello Cucinelli (gq-magazine.co.uk)

His responsibility to the customer? Again to FT.com, “If you buy a sweater for €1,000 and you know that the funds you are paying are also going to help to build a hospital and a school, wouldn’t you think better about it? If I know a product is made well I will buy. I don’t want to buy something that has harmed anyone, this is my absolutely strongest belief, and I believe other people think this too. Or if they don’t now, they will”.

He goes on to tell The Rake, “Quality artisanship and creativity could be used to create a brand that expressed exclusivity through very refined details. Otherwise, what would be the point of manufacturing in Italy if we didn’t take advantage of the top-quality artisanal know-how available here? I want to provide you with a garment that, when you look at it or put it on, it expresses all that is best in Italy. I want to communicate our heritage to you.”

There are thirteen Brunello Cucinelli Boutiques in the U.S.

In Florence, the Brunello Cucinelli Boutique is at Via della Vigna Nova, 47

The Brunello Cucinelli website encompasses both fashion and philosophy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – The Italians by John Hooper

The Book

British-born John Hooper took on the almost impossible task of explaining to the outside world what makes the Italians so unique. Hooper was not living under the Tuscan sun for the last fifteen years, but was reporting from Rome, so his new book, simply entitled The Italians, isn’t a view full of good food, beautiful people and quaint customs. It is a complex, but very readable, analysis of the culture, connecting the historical antecedents with the present day political complexities and economic woes.

That isn’t to say he doesn’t mention the fabulous food (see Chapter 8 “Gnocchi on Thursdays”) or the beautiful people (Chapter 6 “Face Values”) or quaint customs (Chapter 7 “Life as Art” and Chapter 13 “People Who Don’t Dance”) or, of course, the intricacies of Italian soccer (Chapter 14 “Taking Sides”). He, however, intertwines those discussions with a serious analysis of why Italy is having such a hard time joining the international marketplace and can’t play well with its neighbors, thus precluding any significant assistance with major problems like the influx into Italy of Africans fleeing in boats from Tunisia and Libya.

For those of us expats who have lived in Italy for years it is a fun book to read because the organization lend itself to dipping in and out of subjects where we get insight on cultural issues we’ve noticed for ages but never knew the “why” of. For the occasional visitor to Italy, The Italians will describe a fascinating world that is rarely seen on the tourist paths. (Jan Morris’s piece in Literary Review probably captures this best.) For Italians, reading Hooper’s book, I cannot rightly predict the response and leave that for other venues.

The Author

John Hooper was educated at St. Benedict’s School in London and St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge where he studied history. His wanderlust began early when at the age of 18, he travelled to the breakaway state of Biafra to help make a television documentary on the Nigerian civil war.

After graduating, Hooper worked for the BBC, followed by the Independent Radio News and the Daily Telegraph, and eventually became a freelance correspondent for a number of news organisations including the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and NBC. In 1976, he was appointed by the Guardian as its correspondent in Madrid. Over the next three years, he reported on the end of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and covered Spain’s eventful transition to democracy following the death of General Franco.

John Hooper in Rome
John Hooper in Rome

Hooper wrote his first book, The Spaniards, which won the 1987 Allen Lane award for a best first work of history or literature. In 2006, a updated version of the book was released, entitled The New Spaniards.

In 1994, he was posted to Rome as Southern Europe Correspondent for the Guardian and subsequently The Observer. Three years later, he brought to light the so-called ‘Ship of Death’ migrant trafficking disaster and was a member of the award-winning Observer team that investigated its aftermath.

After five years of reporting from Berlin and Afghanistan, Hooper returned to Rome as Italy correspondent for The Economist and the Guardian, and in 2012 he was appointed Southern Europe editor of the latter.

Before writing The Italians, Hooper wrote two interesting Kindle Singles: one about Beppe Grillo’s 5Star political party, entitled Alien Landingand second called Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia.

Seven Questions for John Hooper

Luigi Barzini wrote The Italians in 1964, a book that has remained in print and is still quoted today as one of the best books to define the Italian character. Your book, released early this year, has been well-received, and is also titled, The Italians. How has the Italian character changed in the last fifty years? In your opinion, what has been the biggest single influence on the Italian character in that span of time?

First of all, I should say that I didn’t know Italy in 1964. I first visited the country four years later as a teenager. But I spent a couple of months working, first in Rome and then in Tuscany, so I had a glimpse of the after-glow of that extraordinary period of economic growth and social change that so attracted foreigners to Italy in the late 1950s and the early 1960s and which inspired Barzini to write his book for them – a great book, in my opinion, which although some parts are now a bit outdated, nevertheless contains many observations that are as true today as when they were first written. That alone would suggest that the Italian character has not altered very much since 1964. But my impression is that Italians have become more materialistic and less happy and optimistic than they were then.

You are British and live in Rome. What is the biggest benefit of examining and writing about the Italian culture from the viewpoint of someone who has only lived in the country for fifteen years or so? What is the biggest handicap?

Well, I would say that 15 years is actually quite a long time for a foreigner to live in another country. I doubt if most of the books that have been written about Italy have been written by authors with that much experience of it. But having said that, I think that a decade and a half is still a short enough period for one to retain the curiosity and sense of being an outsider that you need to write a book like the Italians, because there comes a point when a foreigner ceases to be a foreigner and becomes one of the locals. At that point, you cease to be much use as a foreign correspondent and you become blind to the idiosyncrasies that you need to be able to see in order to write a book like mine.

The Italians (British Edition)
The Italians (British Edition)

How much extra research did you have to do to write The Italians or did it flow naturally out of the pieces you were writing for the The Guardian, The Observer, and The Economist?

No. Not at all. There is some material in The Italians that derives from my work as a journalist, but my aim was to write a book about all the things that we foreign correspondents do not touch upon. We write about politics and economics – and there is some of that in The Italians – and we write about dramatic events like earthquakes, but we write very little about society and our perceptions of the people who inhabit the countries on which we report, and all of that is at the core of The Italians.

I once hypothesized that Putin and Berlusconi were lounging around a pool one day and Vladimir advised that Silvio should follow his political path by moving from the post of Prime Minister to President and back again as a way to stay in power and out of court. Is this pure fantasy on my part or did Silvio Berlusconi see himself in the Italian presidency once Giorgio Napolitano stepped down? Is this the basis of Berlusconi’s recent “360 degree” turn against Matteo Renzi’s reform plans?

Berlusconi is nothing if not ambitious. I think that he may very well have once dreamed of becoming head of state. But I think that he realised that the sex scandals – Bunga Bunga and all that – made it impossible. On the other hand, I think that he felt that, having given such valuable support to Matteo Renzi’s programme of constitutional and political reform, he was entitled to a say in who would be the next president. In the event, Renzi outwitted him by finding a candidate [Sergio Mattarella] who was acceptable to the vast majority of the lawmakers in his otherwise divided party. That, above all, explains Berlusconi’s hostility since then.

In The Italians, you quoted a judge interviewed after a recent notorious trial: “Our acquittal is the result of the truth that was created in the trial. The real truth will remain unresolved and may even be different.” In a country where it sometimes seems that people spend more time in jail before the guilty verdict is rendered than after, do you see any possibility of judicial reform in the coming decade? Or is that what is needed?

It is certainly what is needed. But whether it will materialise is another matter. Renzi’s emphasis is on the reform of the civil, as distinct from the criminal, justice system. That is because the delays and uncertainties in the civil justice system are a main – possibly the main – obstacle to foreign investment.

How does the declining Italian birthrate and the declining rate of marriages affect what is described in your book as “amoral familism” where “[l]oyalty to the family superseded loyalty to any wider grouping, be it the village, province , region or nation”? Also, will these demographic factors have an affect on Italian mammismo?

One of the points that I make in the book is that, while the nature of the family is changing in Italy, family bonds remain extraordinarily strong. So far at least, I am not seeing a decline in that menefreghismo, that lack of a sense of broader responsibility to the rest of society, in the areas where it has traditionally been most prevalent – that is, very generally speaking, in the south and in the cities. But I think that it will fall away in time. As for mammismo, I’m not sure. Will Italian mothers with only one son be any less attentive and possessive than their mothers who had two or three? I doubt it. On the other hand, mothers with only one son are likely to be mothers who have a job, and who will just not have the same amount of time to devote to their children. So, on the whole, I suspect that mammismo too is destined to a gradual retreat.

In the interviews for the launch of your book, what question have you not been asked that you wish had been? And how would you respond?

That’s a very cunning question! Nobody has asked me if I have any regrets about my time in Italy. And I do: I have not spent as much time as I would like to have done on Italy’s many islands, and in particular on Sardinia.

Links

For more articles on The Italians and John Hooper look here, here, and here.

The Italians is available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.it as well as Penguin.com or at bookstores in the U.S., U.K., and Italy.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Italian Life Rules Has Launched!

At the beginning of 2014 I was so excited to hold my newly published book, Italian Food Rules, in my hands. I was even more pleased as the book was bought up by readers in bookshops in the US and Italy, ordered online in those countries and many more, and downloaded digitally anywhere a wifi signal could be found.

Italian Food Rules FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 500 PIXELSMany of the “rules” had first seen the light of day on TuscanTaveler. “Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil” has been the most controversial and received the most comments. “No Cappuccino After 10am” runs a close second.

Some readers used Italian Food Rules in preparation for their 2014 vacations in Italy. Other people bought it as  gifts for friends who were traveling to the peninsula. College students in Florence took a copy home to show their parents what they had to learn to “be Italian” for a semester. Expats in Tuscany put a copy on the bedside table of friends who were visiting, hoping to pass along the “rules” in a subtle way. Those long-time Italophiles got copies for themselves and more for friends to enjoy the memories of what is one of the most special and memorable aspects of Italy–the food.

Italian Food Rules FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 1000 PIXELS - Version 3Now, I am please to announce that almost a year later the companion book to Italian Food Rules has been published. Italian Life Rules is available this week from online vendors, both in digital and print versions. Soon it should be available in bookstores in the US and Italy, either on the shelves or by request.

Italian Life FINAL DIGITAL FRONT 750 PIXELSSome of the Italian Life Rules have also made their appearance in TuscanTraveler. The most popular are those about Italian superstitions and the “joys” of going to the post office in Italy. The mysteries of “Ciao” have been explained and the confusion of kissing the other cheek has been highlighted. The Renaissance beginnings of the Italian Life Rules has interested many readers.

As the holidays approach, I hope you have some quiets time in a comfortable chair in a warm corner, perhaps in front of a crackling fire, and that there is a copy of Italian Food Rules and a copy of Italian Life Rules to entertain you and give you a sense of being Italian for an hour or so.

Italian Scooters_large

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Women Artists & the 1966 Florence Flood

In the wake of the tragic 1966 flood of Florence, then-curator of Florentine museums Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti put out a call for Italian and international artists to donate art to replace the masterpieces that had been lost in the flood. As part of this campaign, the City of Florence accepted hundreds of notable works by artists from all over the world.

The devastation of the 1966 flood in Florence
The devastation of the 1966 flood in Florence

Thirty-two were by female artists including those whose donations have now been recently restored: Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Amalia Ciardi Duprè, Carla Accardi and Titina Maselli. This restoration project, sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA) in collaboration with the Musei Civici Fiorentini, was led by Dr. Antonella Nesi, curator of Florence’s 20th century Civic Collections, and undertaken by Florentine restorer Rossella Lari.

Restorer Rosella Lari at work on a painting by Tintina Masselli
Restorer Rossella Lari at work on a painting by Titina Masselli

After decades in storage, these and other works collected at Ragghianti’s behest have found a home at the newly-opened Museo Novecento in Florence. The 20th century art in Florence finally got scholarly and popular attention in 2014, first with the opening of the new museum dedicated to this period, and then at the end of September with a temporary exhibition at the Galleria di Arte Moderna at Palazzo Pitti called ‘Spotlight on the XX Century’ (Luci sul ‘900).

AWA has also agreed to restore a total of 28 paintings and sculptures to be exhibited at the Museo Novecento in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flood.

Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai
Restored statue by Antonietta Raphael Mafai

As part of a project to safeguard and promote a hidden part of Florence’s heritage, the Advancing Women Artists Foundation has also published a new book about the female artists whose art forms part of the Florentine Civic Collections. The book by Linda Falcone and Jane Fortune, When the World Answered: Florence, Women Artists and the 1966 Flood, published in October 2014 by The Florentine Press, provides additional and timely insight into this period.

Co-author Jane Fortune presents the new book
Co-author Jane Fortune presents the new book

With this book, the team continues Jane Fortune’s quest to bring to light Florence’s “hidden” female artists. Her book Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence, which became the basis of an Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, sought out examples from the Renaissance through the Early Modern period.

Cover of When the World AnsweredWith When the World Answered, they wondered if 20th century Florence continued to be a powerhouse for female talent and what prompted the “Flood Ladies” to donate their art to Florence.

Linda Falcone, coauthor of When The World Answered
Linda Falcone, co-author of When The World Answered

In four years of research and writing, interviewing surviving “Flood Ladies” and their families, Falcone and Fortune discovered women whose contributions to Futurism, Magic Realism and Abstractionism in Italy are worthy of in-depth study. This book tells the stories of 23 of these women artists because “their stories must be salvaged along with their art if we are one day to understand the true significance of their contributions.”

Restoring the donated painting by Tintina Masselli
Restoring the donated painting by Titina Masselli

Events

On October 21, the Museo Novecento will be hosting a premiere event for the living artists and their family members, with the book’s authors, top museum executives and Vice Mayor Cristina Giachi.

The public event is scheduled for Wednesday October 22, 2014, at 6:30pm when the authors will present their book at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (via Orsanmichele 4, Firenze), a venue that has supported women artists since Artemisia Gentileschi became its first female member in 1616. After the talk, attendees will be invited to visit the headquarters of this prestigious institution. The event is free and open to the public with registration at the following link: floodladies-talk.eventbrite.it

To enhance the connection between the flood, women artists and the City of Florence, The Florentine, licensed guide Alexandra Lawrence and the Advancing Women Artists Foundation will be offering a series of guided walks. On Saturday October 25 at 10am, the group will meet at Santa Croce and walk towards Le Murate, visiting and talking about some of the important spaces and artworks affected by the flood of 1966.

Saturday November 8 at 10am there will be a visit to the Museo Novecento focusing particularly on the newly restored works by female artists.

Both walks cost 33 euro including guide and book, plus museum entrance fees. To reserve, please contact Alexandra Lawrence at a.lawrence@theflorentine.net.

For more information, contact: The Florentine Press, Alexandra Korey, Editor, editor@theflorentinepress.com, Tel: +39 055 2306616

Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA),Linda Falcone, Director, linda@advancingwomenartists.org.

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – A New Book on the Life of Mona Lisa by Dianne Hales

Over 500 years after her birth we are still talking about her. A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her portrait. An emperor coveted her. Every year more than 9 million visitors trek through the Louvre to view her likeness. Yet while everyone recognizes her smile, hardly anyone knows her story or the story of women like her.

Dianne Hales will launch her new book on August 5, 2014
Dianne Hales will launch her new book on August 5, 2014

Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, by Dianne Hales is a blend of biography, history, and memoir. It is a book of discovery: about the world’s most recognized face, most revered artist, and most praised and parodied painting; about the woman and the men behind the portrait; and about the author Hales, who undertook a journey of discovery, about herself, her beloved Florence, and a mystery that intrigues her.

 

Mona Lis at the Louvre (Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)
Mona Lisa at the Louvre (Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Lisa Gherardini (1479-1542) was a quintessential woman of her times, caught in a whirl of political upheavals, family dramas, and public scandals. Her life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence—and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen. Her story creates an extraordinary tapestry of Renaissance Florence, with larger-than-legend figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.

Who was Mona Lisa, this ordinary woman who rose to such extraordinary fame? Why did the most renowned painter of her time choose her as his model? What became of her? And why does her smile enchant us still?

Author Dianne Hales
Author Dianne Hales

Dianne Hales agreed to answer a few questions about her book and its subject:

When and how did you come to choose Mona Lisa as the subject for your new book project – Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered?

Years ago while in Florence doing research for La Bella Lingua, I was having dinner at the home of an art historian who casually mentioned that the mother of La Gioconda had grown up in the very same building on Via Ghibellina. I hadn’t known until then that Leonardo’s model was a Florentine woman—Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. I was immediately intrigued by what her life might have been like.

At the time the local papers were reporting discoveries of documents related to Lisa and the Gherardini family. I realized that the archival sleuth, Giuseppe Pallanti, had the same name as a friend of my husband’s. It turned out that they aren’t related, but he arranged a meeting.

When we met—on the roof terrace of the Palazzo Magnani Feroni overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno—Pallanti brought a tourist map. With a pencil he marked an “X” for Via Sguazza, where she was born, and another “X” for Via della Stufa, where she lived with her husband and their children.

A map of Mona Lisa's Florence
A map of Mona Lisa’s Florence

The very next day I made my way to Via Sguazza, a dank alley that still stinks five centuries after its residents complained about its stench. I was struck by the contrast between the fetid, graffiti-smeared street where Lisa Gherardini was born and the sublime symbol of Western civilization that her portrait has become. The journalist in me sensed a story just waiting to be told. Pretty soon I was off and running.

Describe a bit about the archival research you did. Did you have help? What was the biggest “ah ha” moment and what was the greatest frustration you encountered?

I started at the Florence State Archive, which houses a staggering forty-six miles of manuscripts. With the help of historian Lisa Kaborycha, an American professor who lives in Florence, I tracked down a history of the Gherardini written by a family member in 1586.

I had never done archival research before, and I found it surprisingly exhilarating—deciphering the ornate script, turning the yellowed pages, inhaling their musty scent. I felt that I was traveling through time and encountering flesh-and-blood—Gherardini knights, robber barons, warriors, rebels—all so proud and pugnacious that they coined the word Gherardiname to describe their fierce “Gherardini-ness.”

My biggest ah-ha moment came at my computer in California, when I tracked down a record of Lisa’s baptism in the cathedral digital archives. Seeing the hand-scripted words—Lisa & Camilla & Gherardini—in the ledger made her real to me.

Notice of Lisa Gherardini's baptism
Notice of Lisa Gherardini’s baptism

The greatest frustration was not finding any words of her own. Leonardo’s Lisa truly is a face without a voice. Fortunately, I found that a relative of hers—Margherita Datini, wife of the famed merchant of Prato—had left behind the largest cache of letters of any woman of her day. This feisty, intelligent, no-nonsense woman, who taught herself to read and write in her twenties, embodied the Gherardini spirit that Lisa may have shared.

Describe the choices you made to tell the story of a woman for whom there is very little “paper trail” and an artist who everybody was talking and writing about.

Thanks to Giuseppe Pallanti’s research, I had a framework for Lisa’s life, including the dates when her children were born and a record of her death. But as I read more about Leonardo and about Florentine history, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. How could I keep Lisa’s story from being lost?

An American art historian gave me some wonderful advice: Inhabit Lisa’s neighborhoods. That’s what I did. I walked the streets where Lisa had lived. I genuflected in the churches where she had worshiped. I explored the locations of the convents where she had placed her daughters.

Ross King, author of Leonardo and the Last Supper, describes my book as “cultural history that reads like a detective novel.” I hadn’t envisioned it quite that way, but I wanted take readers with me on my quest so they could share the step by step revelations of what turned into a true journey of discovery.

a98643_monalisa 2How many interviews did you conduct while researching the numerous subjects covered by the book (Leonardo da Vinci, life of Renaissance women, art, politics and commerce in 15th century Florence, and the journey of the painting from Florence to Paris, and much more)?

Well over a hundred.  I certainly drew on all the skills I had honed in decades as a journalist. Basically I followed the facts wherever they led—to experts in art, history, economics, women’s studies, fashion, food, religion, even antique silk-making.   Each of them offered a different perspective. My challenge was to weave the threads together into a tapestry that would bring Mona Lisa and her Florence to life.

One of my friends says she knew she was ready for her oral doctoral exam when she could turn any conversation on any topic to the Italian Renaissance. That’s how I feel about Mona Lisa and Leonardo. Baseball? Did you know that palle (balls) were the symbol of the Medici—and that one of Leonardo’s patrons was Giuliano de’ Medici, who was a political ally of Mona Lisa’s husband?

How much of the project was devoted to research and how much to writing?

They overlapped over a span of more than three years. The feet-on-the-ground research, which I did during extended visits to Florence and Tuscany, kept leading me in new directions. I’d come home and dive back into the library or computer archives.

I didn’t write this book as much as rewrite it—some 80,000 words over and over again. It was the most challenging project I’ve ever undertaken: organizing reams of material, finding the right tone, balancing anecdote and explanation, searching for the most telling details—and then polishing, polishing, polishing. I kept thinking of Leonardo applying tens of thousands of brush strokes to create his portrait of Mona Lisa.  He inspired me!

What did you learn about the daily life of women in the late 15th century?

A great deal of research on women has been done in just the last three or four decades–and many of the findings are rather depressing. One historian called Renaissance Florence “among the more unlucky places in Western Europe to be born female.” This was particularly true for poor women, who were typically malnourished and illiterate, bred early, toiled endlessly and died young. Even women of the merchant class, like Mona Lisa, remained second-class citizens who passed from the control of their fathers to their husbands.

The style of gown that Mona Lisa wore
The style of gown that Mona Lisa wore

This is one reason that I was fascinated to learn that Lisa exercised two of the few prerogatives available to Renaissance women: she decided how to dispose of the property and valuables she inherited from her husband and she chose to be buried, not with him, but in a community of sisters at the convent where her daughter lived.

Italian scholars gave me a more positive perspective than American feminist historians. As one Italiana put it, Renaissance women were not liberated in the way we use the term, but they were strong and central to the most important social institution in Italy: the family. And some, like Lisa Gherardini, inspired great masterpieces of Western art, which may be the most lasting of legacies.

Why do you think Leonardo da Vinci accepted the commission to paint a “housewife” and then carried the portrait around for years?

I believe that something about Lisa herself captivated Leonardo —“something inherent in his vision,” as the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark observed. How else, he asked, could one explain the fact that “while he was refusing commissions from Popes, Kings, and Princesses he spent his utmost skill … painting the second wife of an obscure Florentine citizen?”

Perhaps with his discerning eye, Leonardo saw more than a fetching young mother caught up in the delights and distractions of small children, with a blustering husband and a big quarrelsome blended family. Perhaps what intrigued him as an artist was a flicker of her indomitable Gherardini-ness.

Mona_LisaLeonardo left Florence before completing Lisa’s portrait, and it traveled with him to his final home in France. Most of the art historians I interviewed believe that the aging artist spent years refining the painting with delicate brushwork and almost transparent glazes.   It may be that during its long metamorphosis, Mona Lisa took on deeper meaning for Leonardo—as a demonstration of all that he had learned about portraiture and all that he understood about human nature. Would Mona Lisa recognize herself in the Louvre portrait?  We will never know.

Why does Lisa Gherardini’s story matter? Is a model’s identity relevant in consideration of a work of art?

Mona Lisa ultimately remains what it is: a masterpiece by an unparalleled genius. Yet learning about Leonardo’s model adds new dimensions to appreciation of the portrait.   Once I saw only a silent figure with a wistful smile. Now I behold a daughter of Florence, a Renaissance woman, a merchant’s wife, a loving mother, a devout Christiana noble spirit.  I relate to her, not just as a lovely object, but as a real person.

Beyond adding new perspective on the painting, Lisa’s story opens a window onto life in Florence during the most astounding artistic outpouring in history. Hers was the city that thrills us still, bursting into fullest bloom and redefining the possibilities of man—and of woman.

Do you have events scheduled in the U.S. and Italy where you will be discussing Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered? How can we find out about upcoming events?

Yes, I have a busy schedule ahead, with readings and talks in northern California, Chicago, Philadelphia and the New York City area. You can find the details on the events page of my website.

I will be in Florence from September 25 to October 10 and will announce the details on my website. In addition to readings and presentations, I am developing personalized tours of Mona Lisa’s Florence and some programs for writers and storytellers. If any of your readers might be interested, drop me a line at dianne@becomingitalian.com

Dianne and Julia Hales
Dianne and Julia Hales

Have you selected the subject for your next book?

I am currently finishing a very different project: a college textbook on Personal Stress Management with my daughter Julia, a psychology doctoral candidate. However, I so enjoy “living “ in Italy—if only in my head—that I hope to return to an Italian topic soon.

Get Your Copy of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered

mona-lisa-225Order the book from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.it, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and at a bookstore near you (including The Paperback Exchange in Florence, Italy). You can also go to Tuscan Traveler’s Amazon Bookstore (same price as online) to find this and other Italian-interest books.