Tag Archives: artisan

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 Tales – Common Man Walks Off The Bridge Again

Clet Abraham’s street art is frequently shown by the alteration of common street signs throughout Florence. But his anarchic acts don’t stop with a few signs (remember, he put the nose on the Tower of San Niccolò). In a town mired in a 500-year-old artistic patrimony, Clet continues to bemuse residents and visitors alike. Now the Common Man is back on Ponte alle Grazie.

Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge (Photo by Francesca Boni)
Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge (Photo by Francesca Boni)

One night last week, Clet and a couple of friends re-installed Common Man, a life-size black fiberglass statue, without permission, on Ponte alle Grazie, so that once again he is walking off into the future over the Arno River. Make sure you visit him before the powers-that-be mandate his removal … again.

Common Man (Uomo Comune) bears a striking resemblance to the black cut-out figure on Clet’s altered street signs. The bridge-jumping statue, which from a distance looks like it is made of heavy iron, is enjoyed by all (except perhaps the die-hard cultural naysayers) with photographs going viral on the internet. In 2011, Common Man was removed after seven days later city officials, taking weeks and a Facebook campaign to get the statue back into Clet’s possession.

Capturing bothe the Sun and the Moon (Photo by Francesca Boni
Capturing both the Sun and the Moon (Photo by Francesca Boni)

Alexandra Korey of arttrav.com asks “Is lack of permission an essential part of Clet’s art? Position and surprise are elements that contribute to the meaning of the works. Common Man walks perpendicular to traffic on the bridge, proud and determined as he takes the first step in his battle against bureaucracy and the daily grind. His removal, Clet admits, is part of the plan but ‘one can always hope that they might see the light and leave it up, at least for a little while longer.’”

Into the Sunset with Common Man (photo by Francesca Boni
Into the Sunset with Common Man (photo by Francesca Boni)

Alexandra continues by quoting Clet: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step. It represents one of those moments on one’s life in which one needs to make a decision even not knowing its consequences (the void below him is this unknowingness). So Uomo Comune decides to take this step, and invites everyone to do it. The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

Tuscan Traveler looks forward to whatever Clet thinks up next to surprise and delight Florence.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Casini Firenze

Casini Firenze in Piazza Pitti is the Best Destination for Fine Leather Goods

Casini Firenze is my go-to place in Florence for fine Florentine leather goods. When my touring clients ask me why, I simply say: Impeccable Service, Outstanding Quality and Unique Designs. Jennifer Tattanelli, as her father Giorgio before her, creates not only the perfect product, but the perfect shopping experience at the store located across from the Pitti Palace.

Casisni Firenze logo

Customer service is always top of my list of reasons for recommending any of Florence’s stores, restaurants, or artisans. Florentine business owners, waiters and shop assistants are not known for their “the customer is always right” attitude. At Casini Firenze the customer is not only always right, but becomes a friend of Jennifer and those who work with her.

Year after year, clients, now friends, return to add another jacket or pair of boots or purse to their collection of designs by Jennifer. Many treat themselves to the personal shopping experience offered by Casini and walk away with full wardrobes of shoes, handbags, coats and jackets, dresses, shirts and slacks, not only made in leather, but cashmere, silk, wool and fine cotton. Jennifer and her assistants know at a glance which pieces to show you so as not to waste you precious time in the Renaissance City (or to try the patience of your shopping-adverse spouse, significant other or friends for whom there are comfy chairs and offers of water, soda or wine).

Inside Casini Firenze located in Piazza Pitti
Inside Casini Firenze located in Piazza Pitti

Florence is a city famous for it’s artisans working in gold, paper or leather. Shops selling leather coats and purses have sprung up like porcini after a summer rain. But rather than offering a better product, these flash shops are selling jackets and bags made in China, Indonesia and Morocco. The quality of the leather and the workmanship is suspect. Casini Firenze has its own Tuscan workshop, where skilled artisans work with the finest tanned leathers to create designs by Jennifer Tattanelli.

Not everyone is tall and model-slim. Jennifer’s designing magic takes this into account. Her body-loving designs hide the “flaws” and emphasize the “assets”. Jennifer does not require women to transform their body to suit her creations; she prefers molding her fashion around the woman’s body as it is. She skillfully walks the tightrope between trendy and classical design and has something for every body type. Casini even offers custom fitting and design where you get to chose anything from the color and type of leather, the size of the lapel and the placement of the pockets. Since Casini has its own workshop, the custom-made item will swiftly arrive at your home within a couple weeks.

Giorgio’s Legacy & Jennifer’s Savvy Styling

Giorgio Tattanelli’s dream of owning a store came true in 1971 when he opened Casini Firenze in the prestigious Piazza Pitti. Giorgio has always been a leather artisan. His family’s leather production began just after World War II in 1945 as a small artisan business hand making bags, wallets and attaché cases using a small group of local expert Florentine craftsmen. Giorgio expanded his entrepreneurial ambition by visiting all the trade fairs around Europe, as well as successfully placing his family’s leather accessories in stores on military bases.

Jennifer designs jackets and shoes for both men and women
Jennifer designs jackets and shoes for both men and women

Giorgio’s dream was to create and offer a wide variety of traditional Florentine goods, guaranteeing his clients, both men and women, the best quality leather, excellent craftsmanship and a perfect fit at an extremely reasonable price.

In the meantime, he met and fell in love with an American girl from New York, a descendant of both the famed pathologist Dr. James Ewing and Samuel Clemens, better known as the author Mark Twain. She settled in Florence with him and they began a family.

Giorgio’s eldest daughter Jennifer was born in Florence and was brought up speaking English with her mother and Italian with her father. She spent most of the year with her siblings in Florence, but every summer they went to the Hamptons to visit their grandmother June Ewing, a well know artist and famed collector of American Folk Art.

Jennifer Tattanelli, owner, designer and lead stylist, at Casini
Jennifer Tattanelli, owner, designer and lead stylist, at Casini

Jennifer began her modeling and fashion career at CK (Calvin Klein) in New York City, but in the early 1990s she returned home to expand the family business with her father. Her imagination, international experience, artistic sensibility (based in the very modern world of NYC and the old-style arts and crafts of her grandmother), appreciation of the quality of artisanal Florentine leatherwork, as well as her design savvy have boosted Casini Firenze to be a unique shopping experience in Florence.

Jennifer personally likes to meet her customers, to discover their tastes and style at work and play, so that she can understand their needs. “Everyone’s lifestyle and body is different, so I like to learn about my clients and work with them individually, creating for them exactly what will make them feel special,” she says.

In 2011, the brand – Casini Firenze by Jennifer Tattanelli – was launched, taking Jennifer to a whole new level of design and products. She introduced a fabric clothing line with fine silks cashmeres, and cottons, and soon will be offering personally designed goods for the home (her crocodile iPad case and leather picture frames are just the first pieces of a planned expansion of artisanal items).

Jennifer lives with her family in Florence and still enjoys taking her children for summers in the Hamptons.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks from  Casini Firenze

My favorite pieces of Jennifer’s recent collections include:

The Intrecciato Pieno Fiore Leather Basket of infinity design. This seamless shopping bag (big enough to be a room accessory for holding magazines or books) is a miracle of historic Florentine leather craftsmanship. Handwoven on a form, each bag takes weeks for the leather artisan to complete. It holds its shape well and is reversible due in part to a seamless construction. The long leather handles make it comfortable to carry and the soft woven leather makes you want to pet it as you make your shopping rounds.

The Intrecciato Pieno Fiore Leather Basket of infinity design
The Intrecciato Pieno Fiore Leather Basket of infinity design

The reversible jackets made of antelope leather light as a feather. The leather tanning process is known as Pieno Fiore. It created a reversible product, which is smooth as silk on one side and soft suede on the other. You get two coats in one. Jennifer’s skill as a stylist comes to the fore with these elegant jackets that come in many different designs, short, long, and full-length, and in elegant, classical, fun and intricate designs. All can be made to measure or bought off the rack. The colors are varied. There is a perfect coat or jacket available for every man or woman. Amazingly, they seem to work for any climate.

The Intrecciato Optical Nappa Satchel is my favorite purse. Sleek, timeless and expertly crafted, it balances with all the outfits, formal and casual, for a local shopping excursion or a long trip to Florence. The adjustable strap and the rounded and soft construction with woven accents gently adapt to the body. The slightly scooped front pocket is cleverly designed to hold an iPad or a paperback book. Zippered on top with one another zippered compartment inside the bag and a tiny inside pocket perfect for a cell phone, this purse is secure in any situation. An extra zippered pocket is located outside in the back for safe storage of your wallet or your passport.

Pieno Fiore reversible leather jacket designed by Jennifer
Pieno Fiore reversible leather jacket designed by Jennifer

Finally, her footwear selection is fabulous. The boots are to die for! They feel great and are extremely comfortable to wear thanks to the forms that are used. Her evening shoes are glamorous; they add the finished touch to any dress, which is hard to find anywhere else. My favorite shoes are the ballerina flats with the interesting blunted toe, like a real ballet shoe, and the hidden lift in the heel that makes for added comfort while walking the cobblestoned alleys of Florence.

Casini Firenze in the United States

Like her father, Jennifer understands the importance of bringing her collection and accessories to the customer. She undertakes three or four trunk sale tours a year with stops in Boston, New York, South Beach, Dallas, Minneapolis, Aspen and Los Angeles. “Like”  Casini Firenze on Facebook to keep track of her travels.

Dove Vai? – Florence is alive this week with Florens 2012

It seems like just yesterday that Florens 2010 brought a lawn to Piazza del Duomo and a full-sized David moved from place to place around Florence. For the second edition of this global cultural event, the city is graced with seventy olive trees forming a grove around the Baptistry and three historic crucifixes inside. Across town, the piazza in front of Santa Croce, as if by magic, has grown a cross of its own, made of tons of marble.

The grassy lawn, know as the Prato, was the hit of Florens 2010
The grassy lawn, know as the prato, was the hit of Florens 2010

The olive grove is best seen early in the morning or late at night when the fewest people are around. The trees are only a small part of Florens 2012. Every day this week there are lectures, bloggers, food and wine, all of which are described on the Florens 2012 website.

Dwarfed by the Baptistry and Duomo the forest of olive trees are obscure the people
Dwarfed by the Baptistry and the Duomo is a grove of olive trees (photo by F. Boni)

Many of the olive tree are over 100 years old. Those made up of three or four twisted trunks are really branches of a tree that survived the 1985 deep freeze that turned the Arno to ice.

Olive trees older than any of those who enjoy getting lost in the grove
Olive trees older than any of those who are lost in the grove (Photo by F. Boni)

Florens 2012 tries to mix the references to the Garden of Gethsemane with environmental concerns of today. Neither symbol comes to mind as you wander through the trees.

No olive hang from these carefully pruned trees (Photo by F. Boni)
No olives hang from these carefully pruned trees (Photo by F. Boni)

In 2010, the Prato was in honor of Saint Zanobi, but most people just enjoyed the rare feel of grass in this city of stone. These ancient pruned olive trees may only make you think of the drought-caused blight on the 2012 olive harvest and wonder about the high price a liter of extra virgin cold pressed oil will cost in January 2013.

As you move inside the Baptistry, the Garden of Gethsemane gives way to the crucifixion with never-before gathering of three wooden sculptures by Florence’s favorite sons – Donatello, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.

The Mystery of the Cross inside the Bapistry
The Mystery of the Cross inside the Bapistry

The exposition is know as Mysterium Crucis or Mystery of the Cross. Florens 2012 casts its eyes back 1,700 years (only in Italy can you get away with that) to Emperor Constantine, who in October 312 (they are precise about the month and year) at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, saw a cross accompanied by the words in hoc signo vinces (in this sign you win). The curators ask you to bring your thoughts forward to the meaning of the cross today.

Brunellschi's Crucifix from the Gondi Chapel of Santa maria Novella (1415)
Brunelleschi's Crucifix from Santa Maria Novella (1415)

But you may just want to stop and think about the artists who, each in different decades of the 1400s, carved such masterworks out of wood. Each artist had a very different vision and style, but each was influenced by the iconography and customs of their time.

Michelangelo’s sculpture is the most shrouded in mystery. Supposedly carved for the prior of Santo Spirito, this 1492 crucifix, was rediscovered in 1962, but not attributed to the artist until 2001.

Michelangelo's Crucifix from Santo Spirito (1492)
Michelangelo's Crucifix from Santo Spirito (1492)

If art historians have it right, Michelangelo was still a teenager when her carved the crucifix hanging today in the Baptistry. The delicate carving is interesting in comparison to Donatello’s (1413), which was not appreciated by his contemporary, Brunlleschi, who thought the life-like face of Donatello’s Christ looked more like a peasant.

Crucifixes from 1412, 1415, and 1492 are together for the first time
Crucifixes from 1412, 1415, and 1492 are together for the first time

Moving on to the modern, you must walk across town to Piazza Santa Croce where Mimmo Paladino has hauled in tons of marble to create a cross of his own. This is a very interactive piece with people actually encouraged to write on the gorgeous marble’s creamy white face. Art in public spaces is a theme of this piece, although you might wonder how the gold leaf fluttering off one of the blocks is going to last out 24 hours.

Mimmo Paladino and his design for Piazza Santa Croce (Photo P. Avallone)
Paladino's design for Piazza Santa Croce (Photo by P. Avallone)

Paladino’s cross includes bronze pieces – body parts, large geometric shapes – as well as monumental carved pieces of stone that are attached to rough-hewn block of marble, seemingly just cut out of the hill-side in Carrara.

Kids are loving the artistry of climbing on Paladino's Cross (photo La Repubblica)
Kids are loving the artistry of climbing on Paladino's Cross (photo in LaRepubblicaFirenze.it )

Part of the public interaction is to scale the heights of these blocks. Only in Italy, it seems. In the U.S. there would be at least warning signs or signed releases-of-liability or, most probably, a high fence.

It is hard to see the design from ground level , but that is part of the fun (photo at Artour.com)
It is hard to see the design from ground level , but that is part of the fun (photo at Artribune.com)

Another aspect of the planned interactiveness involves a a stone cutter who goes around carving out the graffiti left by passers-by. The “I luv Mario” and “Forza Viola!” are now carved into the stone for perpetuity or at least until it is sanded down after the exhibit is removed from the piazza.

The final design by Mimmo Paladino in situ (photo by LaReppublicaFirenze.it)
The final design by Mimmo Paladino in situ (photo at LaRepubblicaFirenze.it)

The Santa Croce installation provides the most Kodak moments. It is also the event you will have wished you had seen from the moment the first stone arrived until the last one is removed on November 11, 2012.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Clet is not just about Street Signs

I am a fan of Clet Abraham’s street art that is manifest by the alteration of common street signs throughout Florence. But his anarchic acts don’t stop with a few signs. In a town mired in a 500-year-old artistic patrimony, Clet continues to bemuse residents and visitors alike.

Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge
Clet's Common Man taking a step off the Alle Grazie Bridge

During the dark of the night on January 19 last year, Clet and a couple of friends installed Common Man, a life-size black fiberglass statue, without permission, on Ponte alle Grazie. Common Man (Uomo Comune) bears a striking resemblance to the black cut-out figure on Clet’s altered street signs. The bridge-jumping statue, which from a distance looks like it is made of heavy iron,  was enjoyed by all (except perhaps the cultural powers-that-be) with photographs going viral on the internet. It was removed seven days later by city officials, taking weeks and a Facebook campaign to get the statue back into Clet’s possession.

Alexandra Korey of arttrav.com asks “Is lack of permission an essential part of Clet’s art? Position and surprise are elements that contribute to the meaning of the works. Common Man walks perpendicular to traffic on the bridge, proud and determined as he takes the first step in his battle against bureaucracy and the daily grind. His removal, Clet admits, is part of the plan but ‘one can always hope that they might see the light and leave it up, at least for a little while longer.'”

The Common Man heads down river
The Common Man heads down river

Alexandra continues by quoting Clet: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step. It represents one of those moments on one’s life in which one needs to make a decision even not knowing its consequences (the void below him is this unknowingness). So Uomo Comune decides to take this step, and invites everyone to do it. The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

Clet's Self-Portrait -- 24 hours in the Palazzo Vecchio
Clet's Self-Portrait hung in the Palazzo Vecchio

Part of the controversy about displaying modern art in Florence is that foreign artists seem to be given a venue — Gregory Wyatt (U.S.), Botero (Columbia), and more recently Damien Hirst — while resident artists are not afforded the opportunity to show their work. The Palazzo Vecchio raised admission prices for viewing Damien Hirst’s diamond skull. While the Hirst skull was on display, Clet managed to install his self-portrait in a gallery in Palazzo Vecchio, where it went unnoticed for 24 hours. Another act of artistic disobedience.

The Common Man's new home walking across a lake in Signa
The Common Man's new home walking across a lake in Signa

Clet’s Common Man statue was finally returned to the artist by the officialdom of Florence and in a bit of neighborly cultural nose thumbing, the nearby town of Signa has given the Common Man a permanent home. Instead of walking off a bridge, he is now walking on water. He is striding across the lake in Renai Park.

We look forward to Clet’s next artistic endeavor.

Dove Vai? – To Savor ‘Cake Thinking’ at Palazzo Coveri

For a sugar high on a beautiful Spring day in Florence, walk on by Cake Thinking, a new free exhibit on display at the Gallery of Palazzo Coveri. The show, featuring the indulgent works of Tuscan artist Marina Calamai, is entirely dedicated to the theme of the dessert, interpreted in multiple manners and variations.

Cake Thinking at Palazzo Coveri
Cake Thinking at Palazzo Coveri

Arezzo-born Calamai’s creations depict a simple world that joyously combines the antique with the modern. These works are inspired by the art of Renaissance pastry-cooks, rediscovering and reconstructing the forms and colors of the sweetmeats that graced the table of Eleonora and Cosimo I de’ Medici. The artist has created an original style of painting, sculpture, and jewelry, with the theme of sumptuous cakes and pastries of all sorts, able to appeal to the eyes and the appetite at the same time.

A tart topped with a cherry makes a ring good enough to eat.
A tart topped with a cherry makes a ring good enough to eat.

Be sure to see the art-à-porter sculpture of “sweet” hats (meringues to profiteroles) that transform the ordinary into the unconventional – they can be worn as an ironic headdress or displayed as sculpture.

There are original audio “sound” paintings of the artist, including a diver taking the plunge into whipped cream.

A great fantasy - diving into whipped cream
A great fantasy - diving into whipped cream

The unique polyurethane foam sculpture entitled Corredo Cromosomico (Chromosome Complement), and the three-dimensional painting representing Cromosoma 4 (Chromosome 4), which is thought to be the gene responsible for the “sweet-tooth,” are the only two pieces that don’t look good enough to eat.

Don’t miss the celebrated installation Muffin, a huge cake that you can walk inside with a cherry on top, and, my favorite, the Kiwi table made with resin. There are also sweet silk scarves and jewelry in the form of cream puffs and cakes.

Kiwi table is a refreshing take on the fruit
Kiwi table is a refreshing take on the fruit

The Gallery of Palazzo Coveri is located on Lungarno Guicciardini, 19 in Florence.

Entrance to the exhibit is free and is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 1 pm and 3:30 pm to 7 pm.

The show ends April 16, 2011.

For further information, visit galleriadelpalazzo.com and marinacalamai.it .

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Clet Abraham’s Street Art

I hate graffiti. I especially hate graffiti on the ancient Florentine walls. I want to hang the idiot, who keeps painting YOGURT on the walls in my neighborhood, up by some painful part of his anatomy. I especially want to throw away the key when the paint is on stonework or frescos created over 500 hundred years ago and can’t be cleaned off or painted over. I’ve written about this twice, here and here. So I was perfectly willing to condemn all street “artists” in Florence.

The Common Man carried away the Do Not Enter bar
The Common Man carried away the Do Not Enter bar

Until now. Well not exactly now. I giggled at this artist’s whimsical street sign work a year or so ago. And then he graced Ponte alle Grazie with the most imaginative sculpture (subject of another post). It was only when I got up close with his art on the walls of the innovative café/gallery La Buchetta that I was willing to say “he may be a street artist, but …”

His name? Clet. Where did he come from? France. Underlying philosophy? “As long as there are roads, there will be street art.”

Do Not Park gets unbuckled by Clet
Do Not Park gets unbuckled by Clet

Cletus Abraham is not exactly your everyday street artist. He was born in 1966 in Brittany. His father is the French writer Jean-Pierre Abraham. Clet attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Rennes. His art was exhibited at various galleries of Brittany, after which he moved to Rome where he worked as a restorer of antique furniture. He exhibited in numerous galleries in Rome and Paris. In 2005, he moved to Florence. Did his arte nella strada begin here? I don’t know.

In 2010, the blogs started to twitter about Clet’s nighttime raids on Florence street signs. Clet said that he suddenly saw the overwhelming banality and primitiveness of the ubiquitous municipal signs that rule our lives. He wanted to give them another meaning — a political, religious and philosophic interpretation — without obscuring the readability of the underlying sign.

One of the first street sign silhoulettes created by Clet
One of the first street sign silhouettes created by Clet

It began with a crucified Christ hanging from a “dead-end” sign. Then Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man graced a “no-entry” sign. But the favorite has to be the Common Man who is carrying away the “no entry” bar.

Unlike the taggers and the spray painted ugliness on Florence’s ancient walls, Clet’s street sign art is a removable adhesive silhouette. His work can be found in Rome, Florence, Paris, Turin, London and Valencia. It may be coming to a city near you.

Frenchman Clet Abraham leaves his mark in Paris
Frenchman Clet Abraham leaves his mark in Paris

Alexandra Korey, of ArtTrav.com fame has already asked the question that most interested me: “What is the difference between your work and graffiti?” Clet answered:

I’m not sure exactly what the fundamental difference is between a graffiti artist and my work. I can say for sure that my stickers are easily removable. It’s essential to me to create works that are thematically in keeping with the support upon which I am working, to adapt myself thus to any situation with complete respect for the work of others; I try to offer a service with my talent and knowledge. It’s possible that some graffiti artists have a similar work ethic. We do have in common a taste for the mysteries of the night and of surprise; a healthy attitude [or preference] for liberty of expression and breaking of rules – but these are the bases of being an artist!

I may be persuaded that street art, when done well is a gift to the city and its residents, especially that which is not permanent or destructive, like the Clet street signs.

Near Arezzo, Clet painted the town of Popi for the Castello di Popi
Near Arezzo, Clet painted the town of Poppi for the Castello di Poppi

For Clet, street art is more of a hobby than a vocation. His works are experiencing a notable success with private collectors in Paris, Monte Carlo, and New York. Many private entities, such as Banca Popolare dell’Etruria e del Lazio, the Istituto Tommaso Crudeli of Udine and the Castello di Poppi, have commissioned works from him. He participated in three exhibitions organized by the FuoriLuogo (“Out of Place”) between 2008 and 2010.

You can visit his studio in Via dell’Olmo, 8r in the San Niccoló neighborhood where he sells small items (stickers, t-shirts, and pins) based on his work, as well as his enhanced city street signs, both new and weatherworn, discarded by the Florence road works department.

Check out the videos of Clet and his work.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Artisan Woodworker of Cortona

Fifteen years ago on my second visit to Italy, I went to Cortona. Why? To have tea with Frances Mayes, of course. I planned to spend the following year under the Tuscan sun – a sabbatical from my law firm life. Who else would be the best source of info?

We did not sip tea under the shady arbor of grapevines, near the fragrant lavender patch, behind the golden and peach-colored walls of the restored Bramasole villa. No, we sat in the back of the Caffe Bar Signorelli in the main square of Cortona for two hours over countless cups of ever-weaker tea. I can’t remember what I learned about how to have an exceptional extended vacation in Italy, but I remember the author was charming and was a major proponent of buying a second home in Tuscany.

Umberto Rossi's showroom at the corner of Piazza della Repubblica
Umberto Rossi's shop in Piazza della Repubblica

On the same visit to Cortona, I also met Umberto Rossi. Some would call him a falegname – a craftsman of wood – although the better term would be artisan. Umberto is a master craftsman in “turned” wooden objects, using a lathe to make the thinnest possible wood bowl or objet d’art. But it was the fruit he created that caught my eye – apples of acacia or palisander wood, pears of tulipwood, and two cherries of cherry wood, joined by stems of lemonwood, no thicker than the real thing.

Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.
Umberto's pear of tulipwood and cherries of cherry wood.

I met Umberto in his small shop on the same square where I had tea with Frances. After a long discourse on how each item was made and the decisions that go into choosing the wood, the preparation, the tools and the amount of skill and labor that go into each item, I bought three pieces.

Umberto said he couldn’t understand why someone would buy a piece of his work and not ask about the type of wood or how it was made. That wasn’t a problem with me. I wanted to know about all of it. I had never seen such intricate craftsmanship with such an eye to detail outside of a museum. He invited me to visit his workshop just down the hill on Via Guelfa. My memory of this place is that it was crowded, dark, cold, and full of sawdust and pieces of wood, as well as all of the equipment needed for his work – but it was a long time ago, I may have the details wrong. It was there, looking at rough chunks of chestnut and olive wood, small logs of mahogany and rosewood, and even a cube of ebony, that the philosophy attributed to Michelangelo came to mind – Umberto seemed to look at a piece of wood and envision the form contained inside and it was his mission to bring it to life.

An apple made of palisander wood.
An apple made of palisander wood.

Then, Umberto invited me home to meet his wife, Dee, who, like Frances Mayes, was from the American South. Maybe it was that southern hospitality, but Dee kindly interrupted her dinner preparations to make coffee for the tourist her husband brought home with no warning. I never did learn how Dee Morton, an artist from Georgia ended up in a cozy apartment in a soon-to-become-famous, but now a definitely obscure, rocky hill town on the edge of Tuscany, with woodworker Umberto Rossi. Besides cooking dinner and making coffee, she was wrangling two kids, the youngest just one year old – it didn’t leave a lot of time for personal histories.

Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.
Turned and carved wooden objects in the window.

Last week, I went back to Cortona. Frances Mayes has since moved to North Carolina. Umberto’s shop was closed tight by ancient faded green wooden doors – no way to peer in, no big sign to say it was still his shop – but there was a small card taped to the door that gave a phone number and directions to the workshop. “Open on request.” As I debated the issue, a woman arrived wearing a warm coat and jaunty beret. It was Dee Morton.

Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.
Apples in a variety of woods in the showroom.

The shop is now a showroom – same size, but with elegant glass cases. Umberto’s exquisite work remains the focus, but now also there are Dee’s drawings and paintings on the walls and the artwork of their talented now-teenaged children on display.

Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona
Have lunch at La Bucaccia on Via Ghibellina in Cortona

I, of course, added to my collection. Then we went off to one of the best restaurants in Cortona, La Bucaccia, (Via Ghibellina, 17), for a lunch full of local specialties, but that’ s for a later post …