April 10, 2004
florence trip ~ 9 april 2004

The day opened unpromisingly with rain, and concluded sadly with rain. The clouds, oppressively low set, the temperature in the 40's, the light hard and concreted.

Today was our trip into the Tuscan countryside to see the hill towns of Pienza, Montepulciano, and Cortona with Jonathan Arthur, a Cornish expatriate who moved to Italy with his artist wife sixteen years ago to start his family. As we sped down the Autostrada in a Benz stationwagon with a wheezy differential, I queried him about the Italian martial character ("They are not a very militartistic lot...they had two sorts of battles, of maneuver and by siege...they would maneuver for most of the spring and summer until they found a good flat spot for a battle, assemble their forces, muck about for a bit--at the Battle of ______--they only man killed was an unfortunate fellow who fell off his horse and was trampled to death--stop for lunch and fight until nightfall..."), Italian eating habits (White Collar: start at 0900, stop at 1300, have a substantial lunch, take a nap, and work again between 1600 and 2000, a snack for dinner. Blue Collar: start at 0800, quick snack for lunch, stop at 1800, and a big dinner), olive oil (Tuscany is about the most northern range for olives. Farther south, the typical method of harvesting them is laying a net below the trees to catch the olives, but more northerly, they must be picked by hand. Extra virgin being the early harvests with the greatest "bite". [note from my own study that virtually all virgins are hand-picked because fallen olives can bruise and then ferment and rot]).

The first stop, Pienza, a genuine Renaissance town, because this newcomer (construction starting in 1459), was purely a production of Pope Pius II, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who erected the town on the site of his birthplace village Corsignano as an ideal town to one day rival Siena (supposedly Piccolomini was still piqued that his noble family was exiled from Siena to Corsignano). It never reached this stage in spite of the fact that Pius II prompted his cardinals to build their own pallazi there, and the fact that Piccolomini issued a Papal Bull optimistically christening Pienza a "city". After his death, there was no further impetus for subsequent popes to pay it much mind, and it remains a small town famous more for Pecorino cheese than a rival to Siena.

Of that cheese I can't say enough. We walked into a cheese shop there and were enveloped in the earthy, pungent odor of Pecorino. There were many varieties lying open on the shelves from Pecorino stagronato nella Vinaccia (leftover grape pressings), to Pecorino di Fossa (buried in a hole, forcing the bacteria to work anaerobically), to Pecorino al Tartufo (scented with truffles), to Pecorino semi stagronato (very old, covered with bay leaves and a musty-looking mold, but heavenly in taste), and then Pecorino Fresco (the youngest). These cheeses are wine-like in the complexity of their bouquet, the differences in age contributing to their different characters. After sampling them in the cheese store (we bought a great deal and vacuum-packed them for transport), all I could think of all day was that damn cheese.

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The town itself is tiny and often described in the travel books as jewel-like. This is a suitable description because it is small and inset, almost artificial in it's antiquary perfection. It was here that Zefferelli filmed Romeo & Juliet and the town does seem lost in time. There is a beautiful path that overlooks the Tuscan country side (see the photos below). After an all too brief stop (and an encounter with a ferociously docile hotel cat), on to Montefollonico for a wine tasting with a very small estate bottled vintner.

Our winemaker is a retired professor of philosophy who was pulled into his old family business. His entire effort is concentrated in a small 14th century cantine. A bit cluttered, raising some initial skepticism in me somewhat, but the proof is in the pudding so they say, and after sampling his "Super Tuscan" Acerone IGT and his Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva DOCG we were believers. I do think the wines we tasted could use some aging so will likely sock them away for 5 years or so.

We then had lunch at "13_______" which is run by a handsome divorcee who used to run the same restaurant with her husband who then ran off with a younger woman. According to Jonathan, the town divided itself along the lines of those supporting her dining at her place, and those supporting her ex-husband and his mistress going to their new restaurant (which is now out of business). I initially ordered coniglio or rabbit but they were out so had grilled lamb instead, and started with truffle-scented gnocchi. My sister began with marinated Tuscan vegetables, and then had roasted duck, my father had tagliatelle with truffle sauce, and my mother a Tuscan vegetable soup with bread.

Finally, on to Cortona, a town first inhabited by the Umbrians, then the Estruscans, then the Romans, then sacked by the Goths, the a free comune during the 11th century, then a subject of the Kingdom of Naples, and then a subject of Florence. It's this town that lives under Frances Mayes's Tuscan sun. One story of the filming of the Diane Lane movie is that the producers decided that they must have fountain in the main square (which did not exist beforehand), but that the elderly ladies of the town found its endowment to be scandalous which resulted in the unfortunate fountain's emasculation. We didn't spend much time in Cortona as the day was coming to a close and we still had a drive to go for our return to Florence. Before 11 September it would have been mobbed with tourists. This has diminished somewhat since. We did see a wonderfully well-behaved dog, Tango, who resides under a shelf of ceramics in the main square.

Posted by erich at 03:53 PM
florence trip ~ 8 april 2004

Today was a museum day. We had a guide, Simone, take us through the highlights of the Accademia (where Michelango's David stands forever looking off in the distance, contemplating the upcoming battle), and the Uffizi (old Italian for "Office"). Ironically, in my studies of modern art in college, Greenberg's school of art criticism concentrates on the turn away from perspective and figurative art to the two-dimensional, stylized and gestural; whereas the transition from the medieval to Renaissance is the opposite, moving from non-perspectival, flatness of Byzantine iconography with no shadows and no sense of depth--no sense in their religious imagery that Christ or the Virgin Mary might be mortals that we can connect to emotionally--to Giotto's early 14th Century Madonna Enthroned hints of shadows in the draping of the Madonna's robes, and of breasts, and the first intimations that these are more than icons, abstractions staring from the candlelit recesses of a medieval church.

Thus Brunelleschi's "discovery" of perspective began drawing figures out of the flatness of a painted medium, allowing subsequent artists to dissociate images from the iconographic, allowing depth both figuratively and psychologically as paintings allowed their subjects to become more human. Witness Fillipo Lippi's Madonna and Child with Two Angels--the Madonna, exquisitely beautiful (a fallen nun no less as Lippi who was raised by monks ironically had a habit of seducing pretty nuns), exquisitely real, holding a baby who looks like a real baby surrounded by angels that no longer float abstractly in the air, but are grounded.

Of course, Michelangelo considered painting inferior to sculpture, and his work is preeminently humanist, with David representing a non-Christian Classical theme, ambivalent in gesture and expression, his sling at rest--about to be used? or in laxity after use? To place his sculpture in context, one has to remember that the practice of the day was to make plaster models of a sculpture and use a special device to triangulate points in a piece of marble to guide the chiseller. In essence, the final step of sculpting marble was a mechanical, rather than an artistic process. Michelangelo abhorred the idea of treating marble as a blank medium and sought to chisel or reveal directly from his blocks the "essence" of that piece. For instance, the block of marble from which David emerged was known as Il Gigante. A challenge in Carraramarble; sixteen feet high, impossibly narrow, filligreed with cracks; the victim of a half-hearted attempt by Agostino di Duccio; refused by Da Vinci. In Michelangelo's mind, David was living inside the whole time.

This is actually the second time I've seen David, and he seems more ambivalent a gesture than the first time. Seemingly relaxed, but the tensile character of his right leg, the veins throbbing from his right forearm and hand, the trace of jugular, he really seems ready to spring into action for all the relaxation of his pose, which perhaps really is a pose.

In the Uffizi, we saw, among the aforementioned Giotto and Fillipo Lippi, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera.

Posted by erich at 03:53 PM
April 08, 2004
florence trip ~ 7 april 2004

Yesterday, my sister was complaining that her chest hurt. After I drew an ABG, ordered a stat EKG, and stat cardiac enzymes, my parents and I left her to her with John and set out on our own. It had rained in the morning, but we were optimistic that there wouldn't be any further precipitation and set out in search of pizza. We crossed the Arno, and began our reconnaisance in earnest. A flanking maneuver on the south side of the Piazza della Signoria found us in the Pizzeria il David where we found ourselves next to a elderly, but hale English couple. Though the service was slow, we had a good Pizza Napoli and a Pizza with sausage. The crust was thin and crispy, the toppings minimalist, just enough to provide flavor, not overburden the crust.

In the meanwhile the sky lowered and we began to notice people hastily moving inside with us. It had started raining quite heavily, with a healthy breeze, and a significant drop in temperature. As we left il David, it grew heavier, and we had to take shelter in the Aringhiera in the piazza along with hundreds of other tourists, shivering as the breeze whipped through the square.

Finally, the deluge lifted a bit, and in these little lacunae in the day's tempest, we finally made our way to the Palazzo Pitti, the final headquarters of the Medici clan, and home to their enormous art collection. As I've mentioned the palazzo is a rusticated monstrosity. The artwork is arranged pretty much as the Medicis kept it, in other words, not in a curatorial or chronologic order. This makes it hard to properly appreciate its interspersed Filippo Lippis, Caravaggios, Titians, and Rubens, where the Uffizi makes the thematic progression up to the Renaissance, the Mannerist era, and on much clearer (more about that later).

I don't have any good pictures that properly convey the cold and the rain, but have this one of my mother exiting the Palazzo Pitti to blue, virtually immaculate skies:

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As we walked home, with the sun returned from his brief hiatus, there were these scenes along the street:

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Once we returned home, I found my sister and John in repose:

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Posted by erich at 11:45 AM
April 06, 2004
florence trip ~ 6 april 2004

I should probably take some time to describe the Villa Bobolino. It was built around 1880, with the typical villa configuration; three stories, French doors opening out onto upper floor terraces. The owner is a Dutch woman that I haven't had a chance to meet yet. She bought the villa a few years ago and had it remodeled recently. It's a bit fanciful--modern Chronicles of Narnia, but has some nice Phillipe Starck pieces. It's been featured in some Dutch magazines and is nicer than some of the ponderous antique filled places we saw in the catalogs when deciding on a villa. With the French doors unshuttered it's airy and quite, yes, romantic. Pictures soon.

This morning we arose early-ish only to find that my father had blown the villa's fuses with his 110V hairdryer. He said that it practically melted in his hand. This required an emergency consultation with Messr De Looze, our landlord and was expeditiously remedied. We then set off for the Mercato Centrale. The main food market for Florence just northeast of the Piazza San Lorenzo. The market is housed in an enclosure and is filled with a variety of butchers, greengrocers, fishmongers. The pictures below give a sense of the variety of alimentari sold there. Particularly interesting is an Italian delicacy known as the Dirty Bird. It is also known by its Latin name as Foulus fowlus. While one would think this bird to be very rare, it is actually quite common. For instance part of its North American range is known to be a stretch of 70 in Raleigh between Brier Creek and Crabtree Valley Mall. Many Dirty Birds may be found squawking about a certain parking lot in the evening hours. The best way to prepare a Dirty Bird is to flatten him under a brick and grill him ( Pollo Squalore Griglio).

At the Mercato Centrale: Fish, Beef "Ahem" Oysters, Infused Oils, Strawberries, Octopus, A particularly colorful Fruitstand, Vegetables, Dried Mushrooms, and Olives
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Addendum, 7 April 2004
After resting in the early afternoon we ventured out again to Via de´Tornabuoni where royalty such as Salvatore Ferragamo (among the snottiest salespeople I've ever encountered, but really nice leathergoods and those classic Ferragamo ties), to Gucci jewelery (an extremely friendly and courteous young lady there), to Prada (where the sales staff were kept extremely busy by the constant flow of customers--including my sister and myself for sunglasses), to Pucci (a Florence native, my sister coveted a short short skirt that was labeled at 1700 Euros), to Giorgio Armani (where my father chatted with a Swedish saleswoman, trying to guess her nationality, who admitted that she wasn't the usual towering height of her fellow countrymen), to Gucci clothing (where I contemplated Tom Ford's last collection for them and the fact that I could never get away with tight-fitting Western inspired shirts and boots).

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In the evening, we prepared dinner with our market purchases. Soon the house was suffused with the aroma of olive oil, basil, sauteed shallots with which my mother prepares her mussels. To start with we had carciofi or artichokes dipped in lemon butter, followed by the mussels, and then spaghetti with vongole little clams that you don't find very often in the US. The artichokes and mussels struck me as being more tender than their American counterparts. The mussels were also meatier.

Posted by erich at 04:07 PM
April 05, 2004
florence trip ~ 5 april 2004

Again, I awoke late. I suppose my internal clock is out of whack with the change in timezone. The original plan had been to hit the Mercato Centrale, but it closes at 1400, and I was dressed by 1310. Instead, we caught a cab to Esselunga--Florence's equivalent to Star Market (Stah Mahket). Unfortunately, we were to learn that our cab driver over took us for a ride because the fare over was almost 20 Euros where the ride back was 8.60 Euros.

Pictures below:

Waiting for our "ride" to the supermarket, carciofi at Esselunga, and dining al fresco at Villa Bobolino:

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There really isn't much to say about Italian supermarkets. They are pretty much the same as ours (I was disappointed to find). I had hopes that their food-oriented culture would make even a run-of-the-mill supermarket a better than Whole Foods cornucopia, but no, pretty much the same. A lot of pre-packaged junk foods, convenience foods. Just a lot more bottled water.

We walked out of there with a couple hundred Euros worth of groceries, caught the non-rip-off cab home and ate a simple al fresco snack of bread, cheese, meats, and fruit on the terrace.

Posted by erich at 12:59 PM
florence trip ~ 4 april 2004

After arriving at the Villa Boboli around midnight last night, and reading for an hour about the Florence's conflicted past, I slipped into a profound slumber which could have continued indefinitely excepting my mother's knock at 1000 this morning. After all of us got ready, we ventured out on foot past the Porta Romana and down Via Romana, past the Piazza Pitti where we stopped at a cafe for lunch of coffee, lightly grilled panini, insalata Cesare, and piatti Sfzi___. I had a Campari Orange too.

We then continued on to the Arno which we crossed on the Ponte Vecchio (incidentally the only bridge not severed during the Second World War, the Arno being an important strategic line in the Italian campaign), the closer we came to the bridge the more tourists there were, festooned in their Oakleys, Pumas, and athletic gear that have become the uniform of travelers everywhere.

The weather was high sixties and dry. Perfect for sightseeing. Alas, no Baedekers or "Macintosh squares" here (see Merchant Ivory's film adaptation of A Room with a View).

Since this was a "familiarization" walk and there was no point in trying to see sights while the turisti were out in force, we just walked through the key spots: the Piazza Uffizi, the Duomo, the Piazza Santissima Annunziata with its statue of Ferdinand I made from bronze molten down from Turkish cannons from the Battle of Lepanto. This last plaza also houses on it's eastern aspect the Spedale degli Innocenti, a foundling's hospital (and likely the first in the world) where there used to be a rotating window where unwanted babies used to be abandoned until the late 19th century. Another feature are tondi featuring babies in swaddling clothes.

We rested there and then made our way back by way of the Via Cavour, passing the upscale shopping area (and stopping briefly in a Miu Miu boutique) and back across Ponte Vecchio. We detoured into the Bobolino Gardens financed by a visionary who made his fortune with pre-baked pizza crusts imported to the United States...just kidding...The gardens are the only central public gardens in the town and were comissioned by the Medicis. They lie behind the Palazzo Pitti and stretch a long ways southwest. The palace's backside has a courtyard and entrance where you can easily imagine horse-drawn carriages disembarking eminences of the time for a grand ball, or volta, or whatever it is they danced to. There is also a huge bathtub (carted off from the Roman baths in Caracalla). The garden lies astride a significant hill and provides dramatic views of Florence. Since my battery hadn't been charged in three days, alas there are no pictures currently. I'll have to go back for those.

The garden has long cypress-lined walks, many hiding places, and just feels suffused with history. At its highest point you can look west down upon a field of olive trees that looks just as you would imagine that spot where George first professes his admiration of Lucy in A Room with a View (and prompts her to play much Beethoven); suffused with sun, olive trees rustling in the breeze, wildflowers sprinkled about the grass.

After whiling away our time there, we made our way back to the Villa Bobolino where I downloaded my photos and we rested for a couple of hours until dinner time which we spent at Beccofino, a restaurant tucked between Ponte alla Carraia and Ponte Santa Trinitas. There we had Pea Soup with Mint, Risotto with Lard(!) and Celery Root, and Sea Bass Carpaccio followed by Tuscan Beef with Red Onions and Fingerling Potatoes, Roast Pigeon with Prunes, and Roasted "Baby" Chicken followed by Almond Cantucci, and Pistachio Mousse.

Then home. Then sleep (after reading for a few hours).

The pictures:

Morning, looking out on the terrace and garden:

Getting ready to set off, and looking in the distance off Ponte Vecchio:

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A tondo on the foundling's hospital in the Piazza Santissima Annunziata:

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A night time long exposure from the Ponte Santa Trinitas:

Posted by erich at 12:32 PM
April 02, 2004
florence trip day one~1126 EST

Leaving out of Raleigh-Durham yesterday afternoon I saw a mother beating her child in the Continental terminal..."You're ODD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I don't know what to do with you," I'm not sure I understand why some catchphrase pseudo-diagnosis might rationalize her boxing her son's little ears. I was embarrassed and appalled for everyone who saw this.

Tonight we leave out of JFK for Florence and a two week stay in the Villa Bobolino via Frankfurt. This includes a 8 hour layover in Germany for John, Eugenie and myself while my parents fly on ahead.

I'm presently in NYC where it's cold and drizzly. After a buzzy commuter flight to Dulles yesterday, I was imprisoned in a terminal tucked in the forolorn recesses of that airport for 5 hours before I could catch a flight last night to JFK. Then, after having 3 hours sleep over the last forty hours, I sunk, catatonic, for 8 hours sleep on Eugenie's couch.

This morning I picked up some croissants and madeleines at Balthazar. Their chocolate madeleine's are unctuous and...chocolatey (big surprise).

If you want to send a text message to my phone in Italy, try this. It may or may not work, but John, being well-traveled, says that SMS should work in Europe at no extra charge.

Below are a few pictures of Watson & Crick, my sister's little monsters:

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Posted by erich at 12:14 PM