Thursday, November 19, 2009

Have you seen the book just published by Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act? (Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group) It's really quite good, and I think it's an important read, not only for North Americans who like to travel but for anyone. While there may be some points of view that Rick Steves and I don't agree upon, we are very much alike in several important regards: we both care deeply about humanity, we feel that travel is enriching, we believe in more than scratching the surface of a place, and we encourage people to plan a trip (hopefully more than one) and make memories to last the rest of your life.

I applaud this new book for many reasons, most of all for the chapter entitled, 'Turkey and Morocco: Sampling Secular Islam,' in which he writes that Turkey is a "good classroom in which to better understand our world because it gives us a peek at an emerging economy...The predictable question travelers get from loved ones is, "Why are you going to Turkey?" With each visit to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, my response is: Why would anyone not travel here?"

My sentiments exactly. If you haven't yet been to Istanbul, I hope you will plan a trip to this extraordinary city and see why so many of us are nuts for it, and if you already know Istanbul, help me spread the word!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Finally, here is the rest of my presentation for "Undiscovered Rome, Florence, and Venice":

*Language: I do not speak Italian, but I do know some key words and phrases which rarely fail to bring a big smile to the faces of my hosts and people I meet. The natives of any country love it when visitors try to speak their language. Italian may not be as widely spoken around the world as French, for example, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to learn some Italian vocabulary – it’s a beautiful language, and if you studied Latin, you’ll learn it in a snap. The Tuscan dialect is considered “standard” Italian, and though there are local dialects spoken in every part of Italy, almost everyone will recognize the Tuscan variety when you speak it and will most likely be happy to converse in it as well.

One of the most inspiring books I've ever read, and new this year, is La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language (Dianne Hales, Broadway, 2009). I loved this book from cover to cover, and I was hooked even from the first few words of the Acknowledgements: “Grazie. Grazie tanto. Grazie mille. Vi ringrazio. I wish there were more ways to say thank you…” Hales’s story of learning Italian is infectious, and even if you don’t have any desire or intent to learn Italian, you may very well when you’ve finished reading her tale. At the least, will find her journey charming, funny, fascinating, and, of course, bella. As Hales notes, only four countries other than Italy – Switzerland, Croatia, San Marino, and Slovenia, and not counting the Vatican – recognize Italian as an official language; but the Società Dante Alighiere, founded in 1889, has approximately five hundred branches around the world. (You may also be inspired to then read, or reread, Dante’s “14,233 eleven-syllable lines organized into one hundred cantos in three volumes,” if only because nearly every Italian Hales knows can recite at least a few verses from the Divine Comedy -- from a professor she learned of an anecdote from World War II, which is that a partisan shepherd in Tuscany had been ordered to shoot anyone who couldn’t identify prove he or she was Italian. The shepherd stopped a professor one night who was biking outside Pisa after curfew without any identification. The shepherd asked the professor to prove his Italian identity “by reciting the seventeenth canto of the Inferno. He got to line 117 but couldn’t remember the rest. The shepherd finished the canto for him.”) La Bella Lingua is nothing short of a love letter to Italy and Italian and is essenziale.

*Made in Italy
The Made in Italy tag was created to distinguish quality, handcrafted items from knockoffs in the marketplace, and though these items typically cost more, consumers know they are at least paying for something that isn’t machine-made. Made in Italy is also the name of a wonderful and essential book whose subtitle is A Shopper’s Guide to Italy’s Best Artisanal Traditions from Murano Glass to Ceramics, Jewelry, Leather Goods and More by Laura Morelli (Universe, 2nd edition, 2008). This is not a shopper’s guide – Morelli enhances our appreciation of (or introduces us to) the prodotti artigianali (most typical, handcrafted products) from Italy’s eighteen regions, and she has written a book that is informative, inspiring, and practical. Morelli writes that for her “the most impressive thing about Italian workmanship is that – even with today’s sophisticated technologies – no one has improved on the hand-wrought designs of these unsung masters. Even in the twenty-first century, their work is still recognized around the world as a benchmark of quality.” After the first edition of this book was published, Morelli’s inbox was flooded with e-mails from readers who wanted to share stories about their own travels and the artisans and shops they’d discovered, and they asked her about how to recognize authentic goods. She believes that “people will wait and pay more for a beautiful object when they can make a connection with the person whose labor and passion went into crafting it,” and I completely agree.

Chapter three covers Tuscany and Umbria, and Morelli has added a special section on shopping for leather in Florence to this edition because it’s been the most common request she’s received. She also includes excellent information on shopping in Italy, packing, money, avoiding scams, getting your stuff home, and a phrase that is the Italian craftsman’s motto: pochi, ma buoni… (“few, but good…”). Morelli loves to hear from her readers, and she may be reached at her website,, where readers may also subscribe to her newsletter, Laura Morelli’s The Real Deal.

*Marbled Paper flourished in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, in the 15th century. The Beyazit neighborhood of Istanbul was known as the printing and paper quarter, even as recent as the 1920s, and the streets there were once lined with workshops. The art of marbled paper making was known as ebru, the art of the clouds, and in addition to producing endpapers for books, and mats for decorative calligraphy, and decorative panels on fine woodwork, the largest output of ebru was for large sheets of pale patterns, on which were written important government documents and official communications which had to be unforgeable and unalterable. And ebru was both unforgeable and unalterable because any erasure of the writing would be betrayed by the break in the color pattern of the ebru background.

Marbled paper arrived in Italy through Venice, but today the making of it survives almost exclusively in Florence. Yet, I was surprised to read in an extensively researched book,
Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns (Richard Wolfe, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1990) that “Marbled decoration, as well as other types of colored
decoration, never became an extensive or integral part of bookmaking and bookbinding
in Italy.” Apparently the British and the French surpassed the Italians in this regard
(in Paris there is even an organization called the Society of Friends for the Binding of
Books); but there are a few shops in Florence that remain devoted to marbled paper and

the book arts that I particularly like: Giulio Giannini & Figlio, directly across from the Pitti Palace, isn’t undiscovered; but many visitors don’t know that it’s Florence’s oldest marbled-paper maker, founded in 1856, and that it began as a bookbinder that catered to the large foreign literary colony in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese and Casa Guidi Windows published in later editions by Giannini (Casa Guidi, by the way, is somewhat undiscovered: located right around the corner from Giannini at number 8 piazza San Felice, the palazzo was the home of Elizabeth and Robert Browning from 1847 to 1861. It is now owned by Eton College, and welcomes visitors Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. from April 1st through November 30th, and rooms may be rented).

Il Torchio in via de’ Bardi (via de’ Bardi 17) is probably my favorite marbled paper shop because there are never very many people in it and its leather and paper bound books are sewn entirely by hand. It was started by Anna Anichini, over 30 years ago, but the shop feels much older.

Last is Carteria Tassotti (via dei Servi, 9/11r) steps away from the Duomo. I’ve included this wonderful shop on my list even though it doesn’t stock marbled paper per se but its other handmade papers are beautiful, and the store also has a great selection of other appealing paper products, prints suitable for framing, journals, writing utensils, notebooks, greeting cards, bookmarks, etc. The Florence store is one of four in Italy, with the headquarters located in the town of Bassano del Grappa in the Veneto. Bassano was famous between the years 1660 and 1860 for the publishing work of the Remondini family’s company, which once had more than 18 moveable-type presses and employed over 1,000 people. The company was founded by Giovanni Antonio Remondini, an ironware dealer who moved from his hometown in the Po valley to Bassano. He purchased a printing press and some woodcuts from a bankrupt printer, and the family was from then on connected with publishing and the manufacture of prints and colored and decorated paper, and its craftsmen decorated paper by stamping it with wooden blocks and metal plates. “Remondini papers,” as the firm’s pattern papers came to be known, enjoyed an extensive reputation and popularity throughout Italy and Europe, even though they were not very frequently used in bookmaking. Remondini products were sold by traveling salesmen, and they sold all over Europe, in Russia, and in America. The fall of the Venetian Republic marked the end of the Remondini empire, and the various product lines of the company were sold off separately. But in 1957, Giorgio Tassotti relaunched the Remondini tradition by producing hand-colored prints, and by the 1960s he added a few more, and now there are 4,000 items in inventory. Today Grafiche Tassotti is a family company, and all its products are produced by the company itself.

Marbled paper is more than just a pretty product – as author Richard Wolfe notes, “Few people today are aware of the considerable role that marbled paper played in the everyday life of Europe and the Western world from late in the 17th century until late in the 19th.”
“Marbled papers were employed outside the book trade as well to adorn a great many products of everyday use. They served as wall coverings, as linings for the interiors of trunks, boxes, wallets, musical instrument cases and other containers; for covering boxes and other receptacles; as ornamentation in the panels of cabinets, furniture, and even harpsichords; as wrappings for toys, drug powders, and other consumer goods; for enclosing blank books used for writing, and for many stationery purposes; and as shelf papers for lining cupboards and cabinets and for many home decorating purposes.” For me, when I purchase marbled paper – and I never leave Florence without at least one paper find – I feel I’m buying a piece of artistic heritage, and each time it feels like a new discovery.

*Olio & Convivium, in via di Santo Spirito (at number 4 / 055.265.8198), is a glorious outpost of Convivium Firenze, a Tuscan atelier gastronomico located on viale Europa near Porta Romana. The Convivium emblem is a coat of arms bearing the 14th century Guild of Oil Sellers and Grocers of Florence, featuring a lion with an olive tree branch in its claws. I haven’t yet been to the viale Europa store – though I hear it’s beautiful, in a restored farmhouse dating from 1300 – but the Olio branch is in historic Palazzo Capponi in the Oltr’arno. What makes both locations unique is that they each have a restaurant (more about meals here on my blog), and a fantastic shop, where you can select provisions for a take-away picnic (cheese, bread, salami, wine, etc.) and prepared dishes (pasta and vegetable dishes, salads, etc.), as well as a great assortment of noted Tuscan specialties (there is also a line of Convivium’s own products, including honeys, jams, pasta sauces, biscuits, etc., and the gift wrapping and presentation is, naturally, fantastic). Catering and cooking classes may be arranged, but to me the really special thing about Olio & Convivium is its olive oil tastings. Olio is one of the few places in Italy where you have the opportunity taste and buy so many oils – there are approximately sixty in stock at any given time, all from Tuscany, and many cannot be purchased outside of Italy. Like wine, Tuscan oils are all about the terra (land), and tasting them side-by-side reveals their vast differences. Tasters learn that you can’t tell if an oil is strong or light solely by its color, but since people tend to form an opinion based on color, the oils are poured into dark blue glasses so tasters can’t see the color of the oil. Bites of apple between oils is a great palate cleanser, and anyone can learn to taste the difference between an artisanal oil and a supermarket oil.

Olio’s oils are generally not for cooking – they’re better for salads, sauces, pasta, dips, etc. – and among the most popular here are Podere Forte and Villa Magra dei Franci. Oils that are also available in the U.S. are generally less expensive at Olio and are available in different sizes. Tastings are about an hour, and reservations are required:

*Vasari Corridor: For years I’d wanted to visit the Vasari Corridor, Il Corridoio Vasariano, but every time I tried it was closed for repairs, closed indefinitely, off limits to visitors, or, when it was open, too expensive. Finally, I had my chance, thanks to Wendy Perrin at Condé Nast Traveler. As readers may already know, Perrin writes an annual feature called ‘Trips of a Lifetime,’ and in one of her reports she included the Vasari Corridor and the name of a guide permitted to accompany visitors on a private tour: Alessandra Marchetti, an art historian in Florence. It took me a few years before I was able to arrange for a Corridor tour for myself, but in the interim I arranged for my boss and some colleagues to visit and they couldn’t have been more complimentary of Marchetti. Even thinking about it now, five months after my visit, the first word that comes to mind is “wow.” What an extraordinary experience.

The Corridoio was designed by Giorgio Vasari and was completed in just five months, for the wedding of Francesco I de Medici and Giovanna of Austria in 1565. The “urban footpath” as it’s called by museum officials is almost a kilometer long and begins in the west corridor of the Uffizi, continues to the Arno, crosses the Arno atop the shops on the Ponte Vecchio (the original meat market that was previously on the bridge was moved so its unpleasant odors wouldn’t offend the Grand Duke and it was replaced by goldsmiths in 1593), continues to Santa Felicità and to the gardens of the Guicciardini family, and ends in the Boboli gardens, at the Buontalenti Grotto. The Corridor was envisioned as a private passageway connecting the Uffizi (originally the administrative offices of the Medici) with the Palazzo Pitti (where various members of the Medici family lived). It’s amazing to look out the windows of the Corridor when you’re on top of the Ponte Vecchio, and more amazing when you reach Santa Felicità and realize that the Corridor has been incorporated into the church, creating a private loggia for the Medici! There really is nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world. (And as an aside, the ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Deposition’ frescoes by Jacopo Pontormo in Santa Felicità are what I refer to as “gasp worthy.”) The interior of the Corridor is lined almost entirely with over 1,000 paintings, most self-portraits by some of the world’s most noted painters from the 16th to the 20th centuries. A few portraits stand out, but although the collection is unique, it isn’t the reason you pay for the privilege to walk the length of the Corridor.

Marchetti is currently working on a doctoral thesis on Michelangelo (she even lives in a house in Settignano that Michelangelo lived in) and the tours she conducts of the Corridor benefit Friends of Florence (noted above). Tours must be reserved in advance (Vasari Corridor
For years I’d wanted to visit the Vasari Corridor, Il Corridoio Vasariano, but every time I tried it was closed for repairs, closed indefinitely, off limits to visitors, or, when it was open, too expensive. Finally, I had my chance, thanks to Wendy Perrin at Condé Nast Traveler. As readers may already know, Perrin writes an annual feature called ‘Trips of a Lifetime,’ and in one of her reports she included the Vasari Corridor and the name of a guide permitted to accompany visitors on a private tour: Alessandra Marchetti, an art historian in Florence. It took me a few years before I was able to arrange for a Corridor tour for myself, but in the interim I arranged for my boss and some colleagues to visit and they couldn’t have been more complimentary of Marchetti. Even thinking about it now, five months after my visit, the first word that comes to mind is “wow.” What an extraordinary experience. And Marchetti….I’ll get to her shortly.

The Corridoio was designed by Giorgio Vasari and was completed in just five months, for the wedding of Francesco I de Medici and Giovanna of Austria in 1565. The “urban footpath” as it’s called by museum officials is almost a kilometer long and begins in the west corridor of the Uffizi, continues to the Arno, crosses the Arno atop the shops on the Ponte Vecchio (the original meat market that was previously on the bridge was moved so its unpleasant odors wouldn’t offend the Grand Duke and it was replaced by goldsmiths in 1593), continues to Santa Felicità and to the gardens of the Guicciardini family, and ends in the Boboli gardens, at the Buontalenti Grotto. The Corridor was envisioned as a private passageway connecting the Uffizi (originally the administrative offices of the Medici) with the Palazzo Pitti (where various members of the Medici family lived). It’s amazing to look out the windows of the Corridor when you’re on top of the Ponte Vecchio, and more amazing when you reach Santa Felicità and realize that the Corridor has been incorporated into the church, creating a private loggia for the Medici! There really is nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world. (And as an aside, the ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Deposition’ frescoes by Jacopo Pontormo in Santa Felicità are what I refer to as “gasp worthy.”) The interior of the Corridor is lined almost entirely with over 1,000 paintings, most self-portraits by some of the world’s most noted painters from the 16th to the 20th centuries. A few portraits stand out, but although the collection is unique, it isn’t the reason you pay for the privilege to walk the length of the Corridor.

Marchetti is currently working on a doctoral thesis on Michelangelo (she even lives in a house in Settignano that Michelangelo lived in) and the tours she conducts of the Corridor benefit Friends of Florence (noted above). Tours must be reserved in advance (Marchetti’s e-mail address is and are limited to about 10 people, I think. The cost is approximately 290 euros, and for her part, Alessandra continues to have access to the Michelangelo archives. And by the way, her partner, in life and in business, is Paolo Cesaroni, a driving guide (not an art historian), and he has an inordinate amount of passion for Tuscany, which I mention because wonderful as Florence is, I think it's essential to get out of the city and explore the countryside. (Paolo's favorite part of Tuscany is La Maremma) / (39) 347.3803408 (cell)

Villa I Tatti
Visiting Villa I Tatti, the home of historian and critic of late medieval and Renaissance art Bernard Berenson from 1900 to 1959, remains one of the highlights of my life. Even the drive from Florence to Settignano was beautiful. Before Berenson’s death, at age 94 in 1959, he had bequeathed his estate to his alma mater, and since then Villa I Tatti has been the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies.

Berenson, often referred to simply as BB, wanted I Tatti to be a true center of scholarship, and the Center is devoted to advance study of the Italian Renaissance in all aspects, including art history; political, economic, and social history; the history of science, philosophy, and religion; and the history of literature and music. Each year fifteen post-doctoral scholars in the early stages of their careers are selected to become year-long I Tatti Fellows. If I had known about this Fellowship in my second year of college I would have made sure to earn that double major in art history!

BB and his wife Mary commissioned English architect Cecil Ross Pinsent (1884-1963) to oversee extensions and alterations to the Villa and to design a terraced garden. (Pinsent also designed the gardens at La Foce, which some of you may also be familiar with.) Seeing the inside of the Villa is amazing (there are 120 notable works of Renaissance and Asian art) but walking around the garden was just as much a pleasure to me, especially seeing the cypress allée (I am a nut for an allée of any kind of tree, but none more so than cypress). In order not to interrupt scholars, an I Tatti visit doesn’t include a visit to the library, with an impressive 300,000 volumes, an archive of more than 150,000 photographs and other visual materials (the Fototeca Berenson) and 600 journals. Julian More, in Views From a Tuscan Vineyard, wrote that Berenson “felt his time was wasted on pedantic scholarship, that art expertise was not creative, that he was just another Victorian leech on the talent of the Renaissance. It is touching, therefore, to know that he found solace in the Tuscan countryside, walking in the woods above Fiesole, coming from the glare of hot piazzas into the cool of incense-smelling churches. There was one particular oak tree, ancient as an Etruscan wall; Berenson loved to touch it. It made him feel neither Jewish, nor Catholic, but pagan. He was at one with nature.” (More also relates that, somewhat remarkably, Berenson, though Jewish, was able to spend the entire war years in Tuscany as he was looked after and hidden by Italian friends. “The GI who liberated him is alleged to have said: ‘What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?’” ) Berenson once described a walk he took near I Tatti above Vincigliata and wrote that “every step was ecstasy. Sight, sound, smell, the nobler senses, happy. I could not help stretching my arms as if in gratitude to the Maker of it all.” That’s precisely how I felt at I Tatti and in Settignano.

BB earned his reputation as the world’s greatest authority on Italian painting no only by writing numerous books, most notably The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (Phaidon, 1952), but also by purchasing works for Isabella Stewart Gardner, who commissioned him in the late 1800s to buy art for her in Europe. Many of the works he acquired became the core of the new museum she was creating in Boston, first known as Fenway Court and later as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, one of my most favorite in the world (see Eye of the Beholder: Masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Alan Chong, Beacon Press, 2003, for more details about this beautiful collection and about the works Berenson acquired). A wonderful book published after BB’s death is Looking at Pictures With Bernard Berenson (Abrams, 1974) that includes a great reminiscence by J. Carter Brown, then director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on the first time he met Berenson at I Tatti. The book also opens with a Berenson quote from 1952 that seems to me to reveal the basic philosophy and passion to which he devoted his life: “We must look and look and look till we live the painting and for a fleeting moment become identified with it. If we do not succeed in loving what through the ages has been loved, it is useless to lie ourselves into believing that we do. A good rough test is whether we feel that it is reconciling us with life. No artifact is a work of art if it does not help to humanize us. Without art, visual, verbal and musical, our world would have remained a jungle.” Another good book, especially to see photographs of what’s off limits on the tour, is A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti (William Weaver, photographs by David Finn, Abrams, 1997).

As I Tatti isn’t a museum, it isn’t officially open to the general public. But scholars, students, Harvard alumni, and people with ties to Harvard or with a special interest in the Renaissance may arrange visits upon request. No more than eight visitors at a time may be accommodated, and tours are offered on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons at 3:00 and last for about an hour, but no tours are held in August, during the Christmas and New Year holiday, and on days when I Tatti is closed. However, at this moment, visits have been temporarily suspended due to construction. You should contact the Villa I Tatti office in Cambridge for information about when tours will be offered again and for reservations: 124 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138-5795 / (617) 495.8042 / It’s recommended to write well in advance, and to confirm your reservation after arrival in Italy.

Villa La Pietra
Florence is bursting at the seams with things to see and do, so it’s hard to even consider venturing to the hills surrounding the city. But visitors who do will be richly rewarded, as it’s in the hills that most of Florence’s Anglo-American community lived. In addition to Bernard Berenson at Villa I Tatti, others in this community included Frederick Stibbert, Lina Duff Gordon, and Sir Harold Acton.

This community was quite large during the first decade of the 20th century, when everyone possessed spectacular villas with their attendant gardens. The British and American expats purchased the villas from members of the Florentine aristocracy, who were forced to sell them due to political and social upheavals resulting from the unification of Italy and the eventual move of the Italian capital from Florence to Rome. Though there is still a sizable British-American expat community in and around Florence today, it really thrived at this particular moment in Florence’s history, and the opportunity to buy these villas so inexpensively has not come again. Two world wars, post-war restrictions, and an increase in the value of the land significantly reduced the size of the community. Sir Harold Acton was the last survivor of this original community after Berenson’s death in 1959.

Acton was born in 1904 at La Pietra, the villa his parents acquired the year before. At various points in his life he was a poet, novelist, historian, professor, Royal Air Force officer, and philanthropist, and he’s best known to lovers of Italy for his many books, over 30 in all, including Memoirs of an Aesthete, The Last Medici, The Pazzi Conspiracy: The Plot Against the Medici, and The Villas of Tuscany. Acton was the inspiration for the character of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, and in 1985, he was made an honorary citizen of Florence. Upon his death in 1994, Acton bequeathed La Pietra to New York University, and though some very lucky students (approximately 300 per semester) study there throughout the year, the Villa and its magnificent gardens are open to visitors as well.

The name of La Pietra derives from the stone pillar indicating one Roman mile from Florence’s city gate of San Gallo, and is the first important milestone one encounters while heading uphill along Via Bolognese. Though the Actons recreated the Renaissance garden and formed an art collection (to become one of the finest in private hands in Florence), it was Harold who left an indelible mark on La Pietra and on Florence itself. Sir Harold (he was made a Commander of the British Empire and knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1974) became, with Bernard Berenson, one of the “sights” that cultivated visitors to Florence hoped to see. The La Pietra guestbook includes the names of Churchill, Charles and Diana, Lady Bird Johnson, Adlai Stevenson, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The Villa dates from the 14th century and has a typical Renaissance floor plan built around a once-open courtyard where the main axis extends through the house into the gardens. In fact, as Acton once wrote, “in Italian, ‘villa’ signifies not house alone, but house and pleasure grounds combined: the garden is an architectural extension of the house.” The grounds encompass 57 acres in all, and the garden is very fragrant in spring, with roses, iris, wisteria, and herbs (some say May is the best month to visit). The Villa’s art collection consists of more than 3,500 objects ranging from the Etruscan period to the 20th century, and La Pietra’s curatorial staff has adopted a policy that emphasizes preservation over restoration, and it has presented a nice balance between the house as a former home and now as a museum. The estate also features olive groves and fruit trees, and its long avenue of cypress trees, from the main gate to the main entrance, is one of La Pietra’s most memorable features (and note that the gate doesn’t accommodate the width of tour buses, one reason why La Pietra remains something of a secret).

La Pietra is on the route of Florence’s city bus #25 (from the piazza San Marco stop, it’s a 15-minute ride). Ask the driver to indicate where to get off – the stop is across the street from the Villa gate, where you press a buzzer for admittance. Guided tours of the Villa and garden are offered on Friday afternoons, and advance reservations are required by e-mail, phone, or fax. Tours of the garden only are offered Tuesday mornings, again with advance reservations. No tours are offered during August or from mid-December to mid-January. Villa La Pietra is at Via Bolognese 120 / (39) 055.500.7210 /

*Most of you may know that Fabio Picchi is one of the most famous chefs in Florence. His restaurant Cibreo -- named for an old, local dish made of chicken innards and coxcombs, which must be ordered three days ahead -- has continued to receive rave reviews since opening in the late 1980s, when he startled locals and visitors alike by not serving any pasta -- he maintains that pasta is not an original Tuscan specialty. He went on to open Cibreo Trattoria, Cibreo Caffe, and Teatro del Sale, one of the most unique Florentine eateries -- it's a trattoria at heart but also a boutique grocery store, theater, and private club. Membership is bought at the door for about 5 euros, and you walk back to a large room and find a seat at a table, sometimes sharing space with others. There is a glassed-in kitchen where you can see everything being prepared, and Fabio steps out every now and then to announce the next dishes being brought to the buffet tables. It's a bit chaotic, but the food is undeniably outstanding, and for about 35 euros it's an absolute bargain. But what makes the experience unique is that after all the courses are served, the tables are pushed to the side and rows of chairs are set up to make way for the evening's performance, which can be a comedy routine, a musical number, a poetry reading, a pianist playing George Gershwin songs, etc. Most of the audience are locals, and everything is in Italian but it doesn't matter if you can't follow along. When I went the performance was a one woman monologue by Picchi's wife, Maria Cassi, who is one of Italy's top comic actresses.

BUT, equally as good as Cibreo is a trattoria called Zibibbo, owned by Picchi's first wife and former Cibreo partner, Benedetta Vitali. Zibibbo refers to a grape variety unique to Sicily and the island of Pantelleria, and though it can be used to make table wine and grappa, it's most commonly used in a strong wine similar to Marsala. Unlike Marsala, spirits aren't added -- and the grapes are partially fermented in the sun, a process that's derived from a formula known in the Middle Ages -- and dried zibibbo are often used in desserts. Zibibbo the trattoria is on the outskirts of Florence. Vitali had already earned her respected reputation before she opened Zibibbo, and no one – locals and visitors alike – thinks the ten minute drive from the Centro is prohibitive because it’s one of the best culinary destinations in Florence. In an article entitled “Choice Tables: On the Fringes of Florence, Memorable Eating” (The New York Times, January 27, 2002), Maureen B. Fant notes that Vitali turns out some Tuscan favorites at Zibibbo but also plenty of dishes from southern Italy and the Near East, and others with no clear geographic roots. “Only a person of impeccable judgment and technical skill can pull off this sort of multicultural menu in Italy, and Mrs. Vitali has managed it.”

Vitali also offers several cooking classes, including an intensive course, A Day in the Kitchen, and An Afternoon Encounter, at Zibibbo, via de Terzolina 3r / / in the U.S.: Michael Melford, / (617) 491.0920].

....okay, my presentation notes are officially finished ... more about Istanbul in my next post!
And, still continuing with the rest of my presentation:

*Sempre Diritto! is a phrase you may hear in Venice, especially as a reply when you ask for directions. The back story, as adapted from Jan Morris: the first assault on Venice was made by Pepin, son of Charlemagne, in 809. The legend of his rebuff symbolizes the Venetians’ canny sense of self-defense. The original capital of Venice was the island of Malamocco, now vanished, half a mile off the Lido. The Venetian government at this time was more afraid of enemies from the mainland, not from the Adriatic, so Malamocco was perfect because it was as deep in the sea as possible. Pepin wanted to humble the Venetians, and he attacked the settlements from the seaward side and then finally faced the island of Malamocco. The government abandoned its then exposed headquarters and withdrew across the mud flats, through intricate shallow channels that only the Venetians understood, to a group of islands in the very center of the lagoon, called Rivo Alto – Rialto. Pepin took Malamocco and prepared to cross the lagoon in pursuit, but one old woman – so the story goes – stayed behind in Malamocco, determined to do or die, and when she was asked, “Which is the way to Rivo Alto?” she answered, knowing how dangerous the mud flats were and how turbulent the tide was, “Sempre Diritto!” – and Pepin’s fleet instantly ran aground and was ambushed by the Venetians and utterly humiliated. As Morris has noted, "no enemy has ever succeeded in taking Venice by storm." Indeed.

*The Ca'Rezzonico is to me the most splendid palace on the Grand Canal. A tablet records that Robert Browning died there, which is true, and according to J. G. Links in his incomparable book Venice for Pleasure, every gondolier and most guidebooks will tell you that Browning also owned the palazzo but he didn’t – it was bought in 1887 by his son, Pen, who restored it and redecorated it with such success that Henry James wrote, “what he has done here with the splendid Palazzo Rezzonico transcends description for beauty.” When you walk up the stone staircase you enter a huge ballroom that is completely frescoed in beautiful pastel shades with a grand Tiepolo ceiling of a god driving a chariot with galloping horses. What few visitors there are here probably don't know that all of this was restored by the America-Italy Society of Philadelphia in 1974. Other rooms contain a series of small paintings by Francesco Guardi. Together they represent one of the most valuable records we have of 18th century Venetian life -- there are ladies taking their moring cups of hot chocolate, others at their toilette, a family receiving visitors, and maked revelers at Carnevale, which then lasted six months. But perhaps the very best reason to come to the Ca'Rezzonico is that you can poke your head out the open windows and take in the view, and feel, just for a few minutes, what it might be like to live there.

*John Ruskin thought the Scuola di San Rocco was one of the three most precious buildings in the world, with the Sistine Chapel and the Campo Santo of Pisa. It is a treasure, and its history is interesting: the Archbrotherhood of Saint Roch was the wealthiest of the six scuole grandi, which were unique to Venice in that they were both repositories of art treasures and social institutions and obeyed the State rather than the church. But the real reason to come here is to see the magnificent paintings of Tintoretto, which literally cover the ceilings and walls of the ground floor hall and great upper hall. And a very thoughtful touch is the mirrors found in the corners of each room, allowing one to see the paintings on the ceiling without having to crane your neck or lie on the floor.

*The last “undiscovered” aspect of Venice I’m going to mention is that of its longstanding, historical relationship with the nations of the Levant -- the Eastern Mediterranean – and the Muslim lands further east. Wordsworth noted of Venice in the 18th century, “Once did She hold the gorgeous East in fee,’ and John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, originally published in 1851, recognized that Venetian medieval architecture was profoundly influenced by the Orient, and Deborah Howard notes in her excellent and more recent book, Venice & The East (Yale University Press, 2000), evidence of trade between Venice and the Islamic world dates back at least to the ninth century, and there were for many, many years about 200,000 Venetians living in Constantinople. Jan Morris, in her wonderful book The World of Venice, reminds us that “For more than a thousand years Venice was something unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia.” She continues by noting that “In Venice the Orient began. Marco Polo was a Venetian, and Venetian merchants, searching for new and profitable lines of commerce, traveled widely throughout central Asia. Decked in Oriental fineries, Venice became the most flamboyant of all cities… She was a treasure-box. Venice was ruined, in the long run, by the Muslim capture of Constantinople in 1453, which ended her supremacy in the Levant; and by da Gama’s voyage to India in 1498, which broke her monopoly of the Oriental trade: but for another three centuries she retained her panache and her pageantry, and she keeps her gilded reputation still.”

Though scholars have long recognized the seminal roles of Spain and Sicily in studies of east-west contacts in the Middle Ages, their roles are a little different as they were both subject to direct Muslim domination. Venice wasn’t the only Italian city engaged in eastern trade: Amalfi, Otranto, and especially Pisa and Genoa were all heavily involved at times, but the Crusaders all departed from Venice as it was then the eastern shore of Europe; Venetian merchants were active in places like Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Bursa, Acre, Damascus, Aleppo, Trebizond, and Tabriz; and according to Philippe de Montebello, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and writing in the foreword to Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797, also the name of an exhibit, “No other city in Western Europe cultivated as assiduously and successfully a Levantine trade and diplomatic network as Venice, and, as the Byzantine Empire gradually gave way to Islamic sultanates in the region, Venetians came increasingly into contact with Muslims and their ideas, culture, and way of life. Venice’s prosperity depended almost entirely on her role as Europe’s gateway to the richer civilizations in the East.” Montebello also notes that many works of Islamic art now in major Western museums passed through Venice and were acquired there in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Trade was the number one reason for Venice’s Eastern look and feel. Trade not only offered Venetian merchants the experience of visiting and living in the East but also created the wealth to sustain the building activity. In the year 1343, during negotiations to revive the Alexandria galley route – which had been interrupted for twenty years due to a papal ban on Moslem trade – the Venetian Senate made a formal declaration that was echoed in its official documents over the centuries:

“Since by the Grace of God our city has grown and increased by the labors of merchants creating traffic and profits for us in diverse parts of the world by land and sea and this is our lie and that of our sons, because we cannot live otherwise and know not how except by trade, therefore we must be vigilant in all our thoughts and endeavors, as our predecessors were, to make provision in every way lest so much wealth and treasure should disappear.”

As Deborah Howard also notes, “Trade was part of the creation myth of Venice, and its successful continuation into the future an article of faith: as a 15th century diarist Marin Sanudo observed, ‘It is worthy of note that, just as they have been merchants from the beginning, so the Venetians continue to be from year to year.’

I was stunned when I learned that a very large number of people – I no longer remember the number, but it’s huge – come to Venice and never leave piazza San Marco. That’s a shame of course, as much as I too think San Marco is an extraordinary piazza, but I wonder how many of those visitors know that the piazza is very similar to the courtyard of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus – the succession of double arches over every single arch was adopted as the basic theme for piazza San Marco. And the profusion of mosaics on the outside of San Marco, lifts the building right out of its Byzantine heritage into Islamic tradition. In Byzantium, even its most splendid church, Hagia Sophia known as Aya Sofya today, had a plain exterior; but by bringing color into the open arena of the piazza, the façade of San Marco extends the realm of the sacred into the forecourt just as the Great Umayyad Mosque or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem project a sacred aura of glittering color. The East displayed a kaleidoscopic brilliance to the European visitor, and merely by importing marbles, textiles, and spices, Venice could transport the rainbow palette of the Orient on to her own soil. Not by chance has the love of color become a commonplace in studies of Venetian art and architecture. And in fact Venetian color is the subject of another great resource for looking more closely at some familiar sites, Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass 1250-1550 by Paul Hills (Yale University Press, 1999). Hills notes that in San Marco, “Saracenic, oriental, and Western sources are interwoven in a visual bricolage.” The very first time I visited Venice and stood inside San Marco I immediately felt that it was different in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, and I wasn’t even sure I was still in Italy. Four months later I was in Istanbul, and it was then, when I was inside Aya Sofya, that I was reminded of San Marco and I knew that what I couldn’t put my finger on was that San Marco felt Eastern. (And by the way, my most favorite feature of San Marco is the floor, with its beautiful stone mosaics. I was happy to discover that J. G. Links wrote, “Of all the postcards sold in Venice, my own favorites are those of the floor of St. Mark’s. This marvelous fllor is of unfailing interest without turning it into a game, but a piquancy can be added by setting out to find the piece represented. The cards may be bought from the staff at the entrance and, if absolutely necessary, the stall-keeper may be prepared to tell you where to look for the original if he has had a good lunch.”)

There are likely not two other cities in the world more entwined together than Venice and Istanbul. I think it doesn’t take long to realize that you can’t absorb one city without also absorbing the other. In Eye of the Beholder: Masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, writer Alan Chong notes that “Mrs. Gardner understood that Islamic art was intimately connected with Venice. One expects to find Islamic objects in Mrs. Gardner’s museum, as one might have in a Venetian palazzo.” And in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, the underlying theme is the court-appointed artists’ struggle with true representation versus the Islamic-mandated ban on realistic likeness. “Believe me, none of the Venetian masters have your poetic sensibility, your conviction, your sensitivity, the purity and brightness of your colors, yet their paintings are more compelling because they more closely resemble life itself. They don’t paint the world as seen from the balcony of a minaret, ignoring what they call perspective; they depict what’s seen at street level, or from the inside of a prince’s room, taking in his bed, quilt, desk, mirror, his tiger, his daughter and his coins. They include it all, as you know. I’m not persuaded by everything they do. Attempting to imitate the world directly through painting seems dishonorable to me. I resent it. But there’s an undeniable allure to the paintings they make by those new methods. They depict what the eye sees just as the eye sees it. Indeed, they paint what they see, whereas we paint what we look at…One day everyone will paint as they do. When ‘painting’ is mentioned, the world will think of their work! Even a poor foolish tailor who understands nothing of illustrating will want such a portrait so he might be convinced, upon seeing the unique curve of his nose, that he’s not an ordinary simpleton, but an extraordinary man.”

Rosamond Mack, author of still another fascinating work, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600 (University of California Press, 2002) note that “the Ottomans permitted the Venetians to establish consulates in Cairo and Aleppo, the first the principal market for spices, the second for cotton and silk arriving by caravan.”

La Serenissima was touched in seemingly endless ways by Islamic culture, and visitors to Venice today can still see them – they’re detailed and illustrated in the first article in the handout, which you can read later – it’s not only useful to take with you on a trip to Venice but is interesting to read as an armchair traveler. (By the way, the article is from a magazine I only learned about a few years ago called Saudi Aramco World. It, too, is fairly undiscovered and may be of interest to you – though I was at first skeptical about the magazine’s mission, connected as it is to a fabulously wealthy oil company, the articles are extremely well written and a subscription is complimentary.)

If I’ve spent a lot of time on this one aspect, it’s because I feel it’s not only fascinating but important. As Philippe de Montebello also noted, “the exhibition encourages us all to view art across cultures and without bias.” And I leave this aspect with some wonderful words from Jan Morris:

“For if you shut your eyes very hard, and forget the price of coffee, you may see a vision of another Venice. She became great as a market city, poised between East and West, between Crusader and Saracen, between white and brown: and if you try very hard, allowing a glimmer of gold from the Basilica to seep beneath your eyelids, and a fragrance of cream to enter your nostrils, and the distant melody of a café pianist to orchestrate your thoughts – if you really try, you can imagine her a noble market-place again. In these incomparable palaces, East and West might meet once more, to fuse their philosophies at last, and settle their squalid bickerings. In these mighty halls the senate of the world might deliberate, and in the cavernous recesses of the Basilica, glimmering and aromatic, all the divinities might sit in reconciliation. Venice is made for greatness, a God-built city, and her obvious destiny is mediation. She only awaits a summons. But if you are not the visionary kind – well, pay the man, don’t argue, take a gondola into the lagoon and watch her magical silhouette sink into the sunset: still, after a thousand years, one of the supreme sights of civilization.”


*Accademia della Crusca – or simply, La Crusca – was founded in Florence in 1582 and is Europe’s oldest language academy, older even than the better known Academie Française. Its founders were a group of five, fun-loving Florentine intellectuals who mocked the excessive seriousness of the Accademia Fiorentina, founded in 1541 and no longer in existence. Leonardo Salviati, a man of letters and a grammarian, joined in 1583, and the group’s aim became the preservation of the purity of the Italian language as exemplified by the 14th century writers Boccaccio, Petrarca, and Dante. La Crusca also sought to raise the Tuscan dialect to the status of official language. Tuscan has been dominant since the 13th century and was endorsed as the official language of Italy after the country’s unification. (Dante especially is credited with standardizing the Italian language.) Salviati interpreted in a new sense the name of crusca (bran), as if to say that the Academy should separate good language from bad, separate the literary wheat from the linguistic chaff. The crusconi (bran flakes) decided that each member should be given a nickname, a motto in the vernacular, and a symbol linked to the cultivation of wheat (Salviati’s was L’Infarinato, “the floured one”).

I first learned about La Crusca because of an object I saw in the window of a wonderful Florentine art gallery, Ducci (Lungarno Corsini 24r / (39) 055.214.550 / I related this tale in a piece for Dream of Italy and for a ‘Foraging’ column I wrote for the travel section of The New York Times (September 25, 2005), so I won’t repeat every detail here; but the object I refer to was beautiful – it was made of wood, it was edged in gold leaf, it bore Italian words and featured a painting of a loaf of bread….I loved it, but had no idea what it was. I later learned the object is a pala (plural is pale), a baker’s shovel that is the symbol of La Crusca. (In addition to the pala images here, you can also see a number of pale lining the walls at Cantinetta di Verrazzano – one of my most favorite eateries in Florence at via dei Tavolini 18/20r – and in the pages of Elizabeth David’s Italian Cooking.) Ducci is, to the best of my knowledge, the only place in Italy where pale may be purchased, and each pala takes three artisans two months to make: one carves the wood, another applies the gold leaf, and a third paints one of the 156 La Crusca designs (note that there is no official partnership between Ducci and La Crusca as the Academy is a non-profit organization).

I visited the headquarters of Accademia della Crusca, located in the Villa di Castello, just outside of Florence (Castello is a Medici villa notable for its gardens, and the fact that Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ and ‘Birth of Venus’ once hung here). I’d made an appointment to see the Sala delle Pale, a beautiful room where all the pale are hung on the walls and the chairs of the Crusca members – stools with baker’s shovels as their backrests – line the perimeter of the sala. The original dictionaries are kept here as well – I marveled as I was shown original, leather-bound volumes of all the dictionaries, as well as all the written material of the Academy.

Ducci displays between a dozen and 16 pale at any time, and a small one costs approximately 375 euros while a large one is about 562 euros. I have two in my dining room, and they are stunning , even more beautiful than the one I first glimpsed in Ducci’s window. Ducci also has a number of contemporary pieces of art, as well as a great selection of Florentine and Tuscan etchings and an assortment of painted wooden boxes made to imitate marble, in the patterns of notable Florentine churches.

Today La Crusca is active in organizing museum exhibitions, notably Settimana della Lingua Italiana nel Mondo (Week of the Italian Language in the World, 2002); maintaining an archive and biblioteca virtuale; and publishing a semiannual newsletter, La Crusca Per Voi, dedicated to enthusiasts of Italian. Villa di Castello and the La Crusca offices are not open to the public without an appointment, but visiting the Villa's gardens does not require one ( The bus ride from S. Maria Novella station, on bus #28, takes about twenty minutes; ask the driver to announce the Castello stop. (

*The Badia and the Bargello. It took ten trips to Florence for me to finally visit the Badia Fiorentina and the Bargello, not because I didn’t try but because of their hours: the Bargello is open daily from 8:15 a.m. to 1:50 p.m., but is closed the second and fourth Monday of the month and the first, third, and fifth Sunday of the month. The Badia – or rather the interior of the church – is only open on Monday afternoons – but don’t quote me on any of this. Both are frequently on many insiders’ short lists of favorite things in Florence, and now I can say that they’re on mine, too.

The exterior of the Badia, or abbey, isn’t particularly beautiful, but its cloister is, and the best known work of art inside the Badia is Filippino Lippi’s ‘Vision of Saint Bernard,’ which is truly worth an effort to see and is in excellent condition. The Bargello was inaugurated by King Vittorio Emmanuele II as the National Museum in 1865, and today it is home to the finest collection of Renaissance sculpture in all of Italy, and is to sculpture what the Uffizi is to painting. It has what I sometimes refer to as the Hit Parade of Masterpieces, with works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Benvenuto Cellini, all of them remarkable. But actually I think what I love most of all is the interior courtyard, which is stunning – I could sit in it all day long, and even if I came here and never left it, I would consider the visit complete.

But the really interesting point about both of these notable buildings is the relationship they have to each other, as R. W. B. Lewis recounts in his wonderful book, The City of Florence. You may already know that the Bargello was originally named Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo – palace of the elected representative of captain of the people. It was the first specifically and designedly civic building to be constructed in Florence, as the magistrates met previously in rented private houses or churches or the Bishop’s palace. It was by intention a fortress-like building, militant-looking, even aggressive, and later became a prison. But it did not, as Lewis notes, stand in a hostile relation to the Badia across from it. Rather it “engaged in a kind of urban dialogue with the slim bell tower of the Badia – stoutly maintaining the rights and powers of the civic, as it were, but participating with the religious in the total urban enterprise. The dialogue is visible from many vantage points in the city: the Bargello and the Badia constitute the most striking pair of adjacent and contrasting monuments in all of Florence. And as you gaze upward from the second-story balcony of the Cloister of Oranges in the abbey, the Bargello tower and the Badia spire seem actually to be bending toward each other, caught up in an unending conversation.” Lewis clarifies this further when he explains that the current Badia campanile was rebuilt in 1330 after its 10th century predecessor was half destroyed during an anti-Benedictine uprising in 1307. It is topped by a very sharp steeple, above which there turns and twists a weather vane in the form of an angel: and hence the old Florentine expression, “to waver like the angel of the Badia,” a saying which I would refer to as “undiscovered” as I suspect most visitors have never heard of it.

Lewis refers to the urban rectangle of Orsanmichele, the cathedral, Badia-Bargello, and Palazzo Vecchio as the “defining urban statement of medieval Florence,” which leaves us with a vision that puts it all into perspective, one that encourages us to make every effort to visit the Badia and the Bargello.

*Buca dell’Orafo is a restaurant (via dei Girolami 28r, Florence, 055.213619) that is noteworthy because though it’s been recommended in a number of guidebooks, it is still very much loved by locals, who you will tend to see here at later hours for dinner than earlier in the evening, when there are more tourists. ‘Buca’ refers to hole or cellar, and indeed this is one of those places where you walk down into it from the street, and was probably once a version of what we might refer to as a “hole in the wall.” The chef has published a cookbook, which you can ask to see (though it’s in Italian), but what’s clear from the book and the menu is that the seasons are very much honored here. This isn’t a fancy place, or a place with inventive dishes, but each dish is prepared with care and each sings of its true flavors. Some of the dishes might be referred to as peasant dishes – you’ll find Tuscan classics like ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and crostini with mashed chicken liver – and when I was last there in May, on the menu for just a few weeks was fresh, shelled fava beans tossed with olive oil and small cubes of young Pecorino cheese, a classic spring dish. It was so memorable, and it tasted so much like primavera, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The atmosphere at Buca dell’Orafo is boisterous and fun, the service is attentive and helpful but not the waiters don’t hover, and it’s the kind of place you’ll remember and want to return to.

*Accommodations: I do not buy into the idea that accommodations are only places to sleep --- where you stay can be one of the most memorable parts of your trip, and the staff at your chosen accommodation can be enormously helpful in making your trip special. Deciding where to stay should not be taken lightly and deserves your best research efforts. Accommodations are not in short supply in Florence, and though some places to stay that I very much like and recommend are in the Centro, this also means that they’re more often than not very “discovered.” Two of my most favorite accommodation choices aren’t in the Center and are therefore a little less discovered, even though each has received much publicity in the States. The first is actually not one but a quartet of charming residences, or residenzi · Johanna, Johlea I and II, and Antica Firenze ( Partners Lea Gulmanelli and Johanan Vitta are the proprietors of these charming lodgings, all within a few blocks of each other near piazza San Marco. Each residenza occupies a portion of a floor in an old palazzo, so guests feel more like residents in a building – you’re given a set of keys for the portal, entrance hall, and main door, as well as one for your individual room. The bedrooms are inviting and furnished with old, quality pieces, and each residenza has cozy sitting rooms -- Johlea II also has a great rooftop terrace. Johanna I and II, the originals in this family of residenzi, are the farthest away from the city center, but with such affordable prices they are worth the longer walk or taxi ride. The newest residenza in the group, Antica Firenze, is the jewel in the crown. The six double rooms are painted in pastel colors and are, as Lea Gulmanelli told me, decorated the way she would want rooms in her own home to feel – stylish and comfortable. Antica Firenze is priced a little higher but also has more amenities, such as a full and very nice breakfast (only instant coffee and packaged biscuits are provided at the other residences), direct dial telephones, satellite television with DVD, modem connection, and hand woven linens and silk fabrics. Guests who prefer to stay at full service hotels may not find these residenzi to their taste (no concierge after 7:30 p.m., no credit cards accepted) but they represent one of the best values in the city. And, visitors who may wish to stay in the surrounding Chianti countryside may be happy to know about the group’s cousin, Villa Il Poggiale, in San Casciano val di Pesa (17 kilometers from Florence, The 14th century villa was once owned by the Ricasoli-Ruccelai family, and has rooms, suites, apartments, and a swimming pool. Rates for the Florentine lodgings range from 60 euros to 120 euros per night.

My absolute favorite place to stay in Florence is most definitely a splurge: ·Torre di Bellosguardo (via Roti Michelozzi 2, 055.229.8145 / fax: 055.229.008 / I love saying the name Bellosguardo, and I love daydreaming about Bellosguardo. And hardly a day goes by that I don’t wish I was there. Bellosguardo (“beautiful view”) may be an understatement, as the view of Florence from up here is astonishing, taking in every single Florentine monument, and is without doubt the very best view of the city anywhere (everyone will tell you and all the guidebooks say that piazzale Michelangelo offers the best views of the city, but trust me, it isn’t even a contender). Guido Cavalcanti – a celebrated poet of a noble family and a friend of Dante – chose the original fortress on this hill, above Porta Romana, to expand upon and create a hunting lodge/home. Later it was confiscated by Cosimo de’ Medici, and later still it became the property of the Michelozzi family, who retained it until the end of the 16th century, when Galileo reportedly set up his telescope here and scanned the heavens. (After such an illustrious history, it’s hard to imagine that Bellosguardo housed German officers in the torre (“tower”) during World War II, and that it became a boarding house and a school in the post-war years when the owner, German Baroness Marion Hornstein – who received the property after a divorce settlement from her husband, Giorgio Franchetti – couldn’t afford to keep it.) This exquisite villa is still a peaceful respite from the city below, with stunning gardens, a pool, and an avenue of cypresses to greet visitors. To say it’s a special place is yet another understatement. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of it, “…From Tuscan Bellosguardo, where Galileo stood at nights to take / The vision of the stars, we have found it hard, / Gazing upon the earth and heavens, to make / A choice of beauty.” Bellosguardo is now owned by Amerigo Franchetti, who, in 1980, decided to return what then was his rundown family inheritance to its former splendor.

When I visit Bellosguardo I am reminded of a passage in Marina Belozerskaya’s The Arts of Tuscany: From the Etruscans to Ferragamo: the “links between man and nature, city and countryside, natural and man-made creations have always remained intimate in Tuscany, and endlessly generative. The countryside is what Tuscans see just beyond their city walls, traverse as they go to the next town, or look forward to visiting on the weekend.” For when you are looking out at the panorama from the garden (which is really a series of terraces that tumble down the hill) or from the second floor veranda, you see clearly that the city of Florence is encircled by green hills – there is a marked boundary between city and country. If this were a North American city, there would likely be no end in sight of the surrounding sprawl.

The Bellosguardo staff is wonderfully helpful but understands that most guests seek privacy here. Each of the bedrooms (1 single, 8 doubles, and 7 suites) is a little world unto itself -- more like a living area than just a bedroom – and each is uniquely appointed with uncommon decorative details, and features like painted wooden beams, gilded four poster beds, or a 16th century rosette-studded ceiling. Each room has a view, either of the city or the garden or the surrounding countryside. The room beneath the torre is the most requested, and the room inside the tower is the most magnificent, on two levels with a sitting room (perfect for a small festa!) and views all around. A subterranean sports center, complete with sauna, pool, gym, and Jacuzzi, is a recent addition, and breakfast is served on the veranda or in the dining room and often includes seasonal fruit from the orchard. There is no restaurant (though one is being considered) but this is hardly an inconvenience as Florence is a ten minute cab ride away (or a twenty minute walk down the footpath). A reviewer once noted that in those ten minutes “lies all that is unique in this superb hotel. A recent visitor summed up the experience poetically. ‘Staying here in Bellosguardo,’ she wrote in the guest book, ‘is nothing short of touching eternity.’

At Bellosguardo, you feel from the minute you walk in the front door that you have stepped very far back in Florentine time, “you can feel the history” as one staff member told me. It’s incomparable, but it’s not luxurious: some of the linen napkins have holes in them, the tables wobble on the terraced veranda, and, on my last visit, outside telephone service was out and my friends didn’t have a sufficient supply of hot water in the shower (and, you have to come to terms, or not, with the parrot in the ballroom lobby: on my first visit I didn’t know about the parrot, and when it squawked, loudly, I nearly fell over). But I gladly accept all these (minor) shortcomings for the opportunity to stay at this remarkable haven. In looking over my notes from my last visit, I jotted down, “you don’t come here for luxe, chic, or a restaurant. It’s all about the view, the tranquility, and hearing the birds sing.”

*Further about accommodations I’ll mention some very good sources for places to stay that are unique: Bed and Blessings – Italy: A Guide to Convents and Monasteries Available for Overnight Lodgings (June Walsh and Anne Walsh, Paulist Press, 1999); The Guide to Lodging in Italy’s Monasteries: Inexpensive Accommodations, Remarkable Historic Buildings, Unforgettable Settings (Eileen Barish, Anacapa Press, Scottsdale, 1999); Books by Alastair Sawday, Special Places to Stay: Italy and his more recent Go Slow Italy: Special Places to Stay, Slow Travel and Slow Food ( / distributed in the U.S. by Globe Pequot Press); Charming Small Hotel Guides: Tuscany and Umbria (edited by Andrew Duncan, Duncan Petersen Publishing; This series, founded by Andrew Duncan and Mel Petersen in 1986 in the UK, deserves to be better known: the inspectors “go to great pains to try to get under the skin of each hotel; to draw a word-sketch of what the hotel really is,” and they are not afraid to mention any drawbacks of particular lodgings; Hello Italy! Best Budget Hotels (Margo Classé, Classé has mostly traveled alone to not only Italy but other European destinations as well, and she has an uncanny ability to ferret out inexpensive but clean and attractive lodgings. Of the sixteen Italian cities featured in this book there are listings for Cortona, Florence, Lucca, Assisi, Perugia, and Siena; Italian Bed and Breakfasts: A Caffeletto Guide (Michele Ballarati, Anne Marshall, and Margherita Piccolomini, Rizzoli 2006). Whether you reserve directly with the owners or request that Caffeletto make the reservation for you there is no extra charge. Caffeletto ( is Italy’s most successful bed-and-breakfast chain, founded by Michele Ballarati and Margherita Piccolomini (Anne Marshall provides the English text for the books). Caffeletto guides were the first high end guides to b&bs in Italy; Italian Hideaways: Discovering Enchanting Rooms and Private Villas (Meg Nolan, photography by David Cicconi, Rizzoli, 2007), features twelve places to stay in Tuscany and one in Umbria. Melissa Biggs Bradley, former editor-in-chief of Town & Country Travel and now editor of the online travel website Indagare, wrote the foreword to this lovely and useful book and notes that “staying in small, tucked-away hotels or renting a private villa is clearly one of the most authentic and inspiring ways to obtain an intimate view of Italy and her many-faceted charms”; Karen Brown guides ( I have found some of the most wonderful places to stay with the help of Karen Brown’s guides. There are no photographs of the properties in the books – but I think the line drawings suffice – and in addition to the thorough descriptions of lodgings (some of which are in palazzi, old mills, and buildings of historic significance), there are a number of useful tips offered that don’t appear in other guides.

My most favorite specialty hotel group for Italian accommodations is Abitare la Storia (literally “to live in history,” This Hospitality in Historic Houses association was founded in 1995 and features independently owned hotels, restaurants, and historical residences in both rural and urban areas. All are in buildings of notable architectural and scenic beauty, and each is unique. I have stayed at a number of Abitare properties and each one was memorable (and there were few, if any, North Americans). A unique aspect of the member properties is that they are owned and run by the owners themselves -- known as appassionati proprietari (“passionate owners”) – and they have renovated their homes, manor houses, palazzi, castles, and monasteries with care.

* Like Kathy, and many of us here, author Barbara Ohrbach Dreams of Italy, and on the heels of her successful book Dreaming of Tuscany she has just published Dreaming of Florence, published by Rizzoli. The subtitle alone tells you why this book is a must-have: Renaissance Treasures, Rooms with a View, Exquisite shops, secret gardens, stylish restaurants, artisanal crafts, delightful day trips. I’ve known Barbara for about ten years and in May I visited her in Florence at the apartment she rented. She felt that the only way to complete this book was to live there, so she moved in a year and a half ago. Can you imagine how wonderful an experience this is? There is such an overwhelming number of things to see and do in Florence, but when you have more than a year in which to do them, you can take your time and make many undiscovered discoveries.

I feature an interview in my upcoming book with Barbara, and one question I asked her was, What are some of your longtime most favorite things in Florence that you’ve been returning to over the years? She replied, “In this rapidly changing world, Florence is unique in that there are so many places we visited years ago that are still there, being run by the same family, just a different generation. The great museums are still there, of course, but spruced up, like the Bargello and the science museum La Specola – their essence has not changed. Trattorias like Camillo’s, Buca del Orafo, and Sostanza have been there for generations and are still good and delicious, maintaining traditional Tuscan tradition. Rivoire and Gilli are still the most popular caffes, and shops like Loretta Caponi with luscious handmade lingerie, baby clothes, table linens still going strong and run by her daughter. The Officina Santa Maria Novella is more popular than ever – I’ve loved it since the 1980s when my former shop, Cherchez, was the only shop in the world that carried its products outside of Florence, and I still love it. Artisans are thriving now with shops like Locchi still making and repairing crystal, and others still crafting exquisite silver objects, just to mention a few. The hotel scene, on the other hand, has changed: Pensione Hermitage, where I lived decades ago, is still there but restored and more expensive. The 4 Seasons has just opened and it has a spectacular garden that’s centuries old. Boutique hotels like JK Place and the Continentale are very chic, and historic residences like Palazzo Niccolini enable you to feel like you live in the city.

Barbara’s book is too heavy to bring along on your next trip, but it’s a fantastic resource to peruse before you depart, and with its many color photographs is also a wonderful souvenir when you get back.

*Friends of Florence: Like the British, Americans have had a long relationship with Florence, since the 19th century, so it’s not surprising that an organization known as Friends of Florence (FOF), devoted to preserving and enhancing the historical integrity of the arts in and around the city, was created as a U.S.-based foundation in 1998. What is a little surprising is that this relatively small foundation has managed to fund a number of major projects, the most significant being the diagnostic testing of the David that determined the course of the statue’s cleaning in 2004. In just 24 hours, FOF raised the $200,000 needed for the testing.

Founded by Contessa Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda (American born) and her sister, Renee Gardner, FOF was modeled after the non-profit Save Venice organization, and maintains offices in Washington, D.C. and Florence. (The Contessa also owns, with her husband, The Best in Italy, a rental and real estate agency mentioned previously.) Because Italian law doesn’t allow tax deductions for funding preservation, and because the Italian fine arts departments can’t attend to all of artistic works that need preserving, FOF really fills a significant void, especially since Florence holds more of those artistic treasures that anywhere else in Italy. Brandolini’s network of noteworthy friends – including Piero Antinori, Bona Frescobaldi, Bette Midler, Franco Zeffirelli, Zubin Mehta, Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, and Mel and Robyn Gibson – and the lure of Florence itself have ensured FOF’s success. One of the organization’s most recent completed project was the restoration of the Sala della Niobe in the Uffizi. I was in this room the summer before the work began, and couldn’t stop thinking about it: featured are the sculpture depicting the Myth of Niobe, one of the more tragic figures in Greek mythology. (Niobe had 14 children and in a moment of arrogance, bragged about her seven sons and seven daughters at a ceremony honoring Leto, daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe. Niobe mocked Leto, who had only two children, Apollo and Artemis, but Leto did not take the insult lightly, and in retaliation, sent Apollo and Artemis to earth to slaughter all of Niobe’s children.) Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to see these restored statues on my last visit, but I remember them as hauntingly beautiful and I urge visitors to the Uffizi not to skip this room.

For every U.S. dollar FOF receives, the organization applies 99.6 cents toward its projects, and Brandolini told me that no gift is too small – see my blog for a heartwarming story about a school in Dallas whose fifth grade students wanted to become patrons of the arts and managed to raise $2,500 for the cleaning of some of the statues in the Uffizi. However, to participate in FOF’s extraordinary annual program, you must become a Founding Patron (contributing a one-time gift of $30,000) or Patron (contributing $5,000 or more annually). Patrons have an exceptional opportunity to experience programs led by renowned experts in various fields of art, historical preservation, architecture, etc., and they “become true citizens of Florence, seeing the city in a unique manner not possible to the casual visitor.” A few past programs have been ‘Special Treasures of Tuscany,’ ‘Donatello: The Renaissance of Sculpture,’ and From the Classical World to the Renaissance.’

To learn more about FOF’s past and current projects, and its wish list, visit, where you can also find contact information for its offices in Washington and Florence.

--- the rest of the presentation will be posted this afternoon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Here is more of my weekend presentation on "Undiscovered Rome, Florence, and Venice":

*Returning to Canareggio: The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations, the gambling casino, and the Ghetto, a word which comes from teh Venetian word for 'foundry' because in 1516 the Jews were directed to the New Foundry, where cannons had formerly been cast. On the Campo Ghetto Nuovo there is a plaque which reads, "The city of Venice remembers the Venetian Jews who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps on December 5, 1943 and August 17, 1944." Visiting the synagogues -- on guided tours only -- is quite rewarding, and the Campo is rarely crowded. A parting thought on this old, historic community comes again from Mary McCarthy: "The Jews were the last representatives of the Eastern bazaars to remain in Venice; when the Star of David set in the 18th century ghetto, Venice herself was extinguished." Incidentally, Rome is home to the second oldest, continuous Jewish community in the world after Jerusalem, and Tuscany has a great number of htings of Jewish interest -- the historic roots of a Jewish presence in Tuscany extend back a long way, at least to the sixth century. Florence's Tempio Maggiore, built between 1874 and 1882 and located at via Farini 4 (, is a working synagogue and a museum. It's also among the most beautiful I've ever seen -- the exterior is constructed of alternating blocks of white and pink stone and is in a Moorish style, while the interior is a riot of painted geometrical designs on wood, in bright shades of red, orange, and blue, and it rarely sees more than one or two dozen visitors at a time.

*John Julius Norwich, in his excellent work A History of Venice, refers to Venice's Arsenale as having been "the supreme shipyard of the world, its secrets as jealously guarded as any nuclear armoury; its walls were two miles round, its payroll numbered 16,000 and in the 16th century wars against the Turks a new galley left its yards every morning for 100 years. The Venetian Navy, manned by free men until the slavers’ seventeenth-century heyday, was a most formidable instrument of war, and long after the rise of Genoa and Spain as naval powers, Venetian gunnery remained incomparable.” The Arsenale was the world's first dockyard, and its origins toward becoming legendary began in the 1100s, when Venice believed she was inadequately equipped for the future. In a little more than a decade she had put some 300 men-of-war ships to sea, but she would need more than this to fully exploit trading possibilities in the Levant and hold her own against competition from Pisa and Genoa. So an ambitious new shipbuilding program was initiated by Doge Ordelafo. Before this time, the shipwrights of Venice had been scattered all over the Venetian lagoon, many of them small businesses of their own. Ordelafo nationalized the shipbuilding industry, and over the next half century a complex of dockyards, foundries, and workshops for carpenters, sailmakers, ropemakers, and blacksmiths was created and it was called the Arsenale, a word which is derived from the Arabic Dar Sina’a, House of Construction.

Eventually the Arsenale's 16,000 workers were nearly all specialists, and when they operated at full capacity, the Arsenale turned out fully-equipped warships at the astounding rate of one every few hours. From this point on Venice could plan ahead, and undertake long-term shipbuilding programs as situations demanded and state finances allowed. She could standardize designs and build up quantities of spare parts, and she could build certain ships primarily for war and others for trade. The Arsenale is closed to visitors today, open only occasionally for Venice Biennale events, but all this attention to it is worthwhile because it was from this spot that the source of all Venice's wealth came, for without her fleet, she would have been nothing. However, visitors are welcome at the nearby Museo Storico Navale, on Riva San Biagio. There are two large anchors in front of its doors, which is what you see before the sign -- if not for the anchors you could easily think the building was just another part of the Arsenale. Once inside, you will likely discover that you will be almost alone -- few tourists find their way here. Looking at a bunch of boats might not sound exciting, but these are no ordinary boats: among World War II vessels and ship's models -- one with 48 oars on 24 benches -- there is also Peggy Guggenheim's personal gondola and the Bucintoro, Venice's ship of state in which the Doge made his ritual appearances. The original was destroyed by the French in 1798, but workers in the Arsenale recreated it in this model in 1837. A great feature of the museum is the tall windows that look out onto the lagoon, so that you have a kind of panorama of cruise ships, tugboats, gondolas, motorboats, and vaporettos floating by -- which seems appropriate for a city wedded to the sea. [I included an article in my book on Venice, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia about this museum, written by Suan Allen Toth, The New York Times, November 7, 1993]

*To again quote McCarthy, "And there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities -- Rome or Florence or Naples. The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian's, Quadri's, Torcello, Harry's Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture postcard of itself." Venetian glass in particular is something that every visitor encounters. It may seem like nothing more than a tourist trinket, but as Norwich informs us, “So important to the State were the sixteenth-century glass-blowers, masters of one of the Venetian monopolies, that they were given a patrician status of their own, and excused all kinds of impositions. As a cold corollary, it was publicly announced that if any glass-blower emigrated with his secrets, emissaries of the State would instantly be dispatched to murder him: legend has it that the two men who made the famous clock in the piazza of St. Mark, with its intricate zodiacal devices, were later officially blinded, to prevent them making another for somebody else.”

After you've seen a lot of Venetian glass much of it begins to all look alike, so that when you do actually see something distinctive it really stands out. A jewelry designer I met in 1990, whose work is truly distinctive, is Leslie Genninger, an American who has been living in Venice for about 30 years. She began working as an apprentice in a shop near the Rialto, working with antique glass beads, and then she branched out on her own and now offers a full line of attractive creations -- I'm wearing one of her bracelets today. Her shop and studio are conveniently located on the Grand Canal next to the Accademia (

Venetian glass can also be a source of inspiration: the necklace I'm wearing today was handmade by Kathy's mother, also named Kathy, who about six years ago or so was in Venice and decided she was going to learn the craft of jewelry making. She's created some unique pieces with Venetian glass, and you can purchase them through Dream of Italy (

Monday, November 9, 2009

Wow, I really cannot believe that I last posted nearly a month ago -- and I really meant to begin adding posts on a daily basis at that time! Ah well, it is what it is, and we're all busy...from this point on I will check in at least once a week (that seems reasonable) and hopefully even more often.

This past weekend I participated in a presentation for the Smithsonian Associates in Washington, D.C. The presentation was entitled "Undiscovered Rome, Florence, and Venice" and my co-presenter was Kathy McCabe, founder and editor-in-chief of the subscription-only newsletter Dream of Italy. After the lunch break, food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan (The Philosopher's Kitchen, The Opera Lover's Cookbook, among others) presented a program devoted to Italian Sweets, "La Dolce Vita!" It hadn't occurred to me that I should post my remarks online, but as one participant told me afterwards, "I couldn't write fast enough and you covered an awful lot of material." So, for those of you who attended, and anyone else who may be interested, I will be posting the full text of my presentation here everyday this week. Check periodically to see what I've added, and also note that I'll be including some material I couldn't present (attendees may remember that we ran out of time, and Kathy and I each had about 30 more minutes of undiscovered recommendations!). Please note that though I mentioned, credited, and recommended a number of books throughout my presentation, I didn't always credit authors each time I quoted from their works, so some of the observations below are not my own.


Hello! / Buon giorno! It’s a great pleasure and honor to be here among enthusiasts of both Italy and The Smithsonian. I’m here today because of my professional relationship with Kathy (I’ve contributed to several issues of Dream of Italy), and I wanted to meet Francine Segan, whose cookbooks, especially The Philosopher’s Kitchen, I really admire, and I admit a secret: years ago, when I was in my early ‘20s, I wrote to Smithsonian Journeys because I wanted to work there. At the time, I was a news and features reporter for an ABC affiliate based in Charlottesville, and I had become disenchanted with television news and wanted to work with what seemed like a great group of people putting together all these really interesting trips. I had an intern at the time who was quite skilled at photography, and we wanted to propose our idea for the Travel Channel – we thought of it years before that Channel actually aired – to Smithsonian Journeys because we thought the staff was organizing trips of substance that would also translate to television. The Travel Channel that aired has never developed into something I particularly like, and Smithsonian Journeys never offered me a job; but my intern, Peggy Harrison, became a professional freelance photographer and now she takes all the photos in my books. So sometimes, small inspirations you have early in your life develop into something worthwhile later in your life. I still love the trips Smithsonian Journeys organizes and I recommend them often. Peggy and I still love developing a story and meeting people. Though we have traveled together and separately to a number of places in the world, we are smitten with Italy, and Peggy even married a man with the last name of Palermo, a city which is not anywhere near those we’re enthusing about today but I’m sure Smithsonian has or will offer a fantastic tour of Palermo and the rest of Sicily.

I’m going to talk today about the words ‘undiscovered’ and ‘hidden’ in both a very general and broad way and a very specific way, and I’ll begin by first admitting that the words ‘undiscovered’ and ‘hidden’ are not ones I’m particularly fond of as they relate to travel. At times they remind me of those phrases that implore us to “be a traveler and not a tourist” and to “go where tourists don’t go.” The truth is that we are all tourists -- whether we like that word or not – and it isn’t a word we need be ashamed of. I live in New York, and when I walk by Rockefeller Center on the way to my office everyday, I am just as impressed by the sheer height of those inspiring buildings, with their gorgeous Art Deco interiors, as the throngs of tourists there taking photographs. Usually, buildings, historic sites, and natural features of the landscape have become famous for a reason: they are truly worthwhile, to both residents and tourists alike.

It’s just that there are different kinds of tourists, and I assume that all of you are here because you’re the kind of tourist who wants to do and see more than the highlights; who craves more information about a destination than is found in a guidebook; who believes that there is also value, interest, or beauty in the lesser known aspects of a place…the kind of tourist who knows that by slowing down and really looking around, even at a much-visited site, “hidden” things may be found. A great trip includes a mix of well-known sites and others that are less frequented.

So I’m going to begin with Venice, and Kathy will add some of her own “undiscovered”


*The music we’ve been listening to is from a disc named Concerto al Caffé, from the famous Caffé Florian on piazza San Marco. Florian’s hardly needs an introduction and is hardly hidden: it rightfully is one of Venice’s symbols. The Caffe was opened in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi as Venezia Trionfante (Triumphant Venice) but it soon became known simply as Florian’s. It’s not hard for visitors to guess that Venetian history literally unfolded just outside the caffe, but many people likely don’t know that the wounded soldiers from the 1848 uprising against Austria were treated inside its rooms; that the caffe’s clientele included illustrious ambassadors, merchants, writers, artists and the ordinary citizens of Venice; that it was the only caffe to admit women at the time; that the Venice Biennale was dreamed up in the caffe’s Sala del Senato; and finally that at the turn of the 20th century the caffe began hosting its own café concerts with a resident ensemble.

Except for ten years between 1805 and 1815, when Venice became part of Napoleon’s new kingdom of Italy, Venice had Austrian soldiers in the piazza until 1866. There was one interval in the 70 years of Austrian domination and it lasted 17 months. In March of 1848 Daniele Manin (of no relation to the Doge of the same last name) led his fellow citizens to the capture of the Arsenale, the fleet, and the piazza and forced the Austrian Governor to abandon the lagoon while he announced the re-establishment of the Republic. In April 1849 the Venetian Assembly passed a decree that ‘Venice will resist Austria at all costs.” But it turned out not to be a matter of cost: the Austrians re-entered the city in August and remained there for another 17 years, hating and being hated by the Venetians all the time.

I myself can’t imagine going to Venice and not spending time at Florian’s. Whether you sit inside or outside, it’s a supreme experience, and if the ensemble is playing the caffe levies an extra charge but it’s so worth it. And you can not only purchase cds of the ensemble’s music but also porcelain cups and saucers with the Florian logo, as well as coffee spoons, glasses, coasters, and aprons, allowing you to relive, sort-of, the Florian’s experience when you get back home. If only the coffee was as good at home as it is at Florian’s.

*next, the sestiere – area or neighborhood – of Canareggio. (Venice has six sestieri – the word means ‘a sixth part’) Canareggio is the most recently settled area of Venice, and can be a haven of tranquility in an otherwise crowded city, reason alone to spend time here. The two sites I single out here are the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ghetto Vecchio. Ca is the Venetian word for palace, and Oro is gold, thus the Golden House, which is mentioned in every guidebook, and is one of the most photographed palazzi on the Grand Canal. But for reasons which I’ve never been able to fathom its fame is not matched in numbers of visitors. Particularly noteworthy about the palazzo is that its walls were originally literally covered in gold leaf, and it’s been described as a cross between a medieval church and a mosque. The palazzo was built between 1428 and 1430 for the Contarini family, themselves noteworthy for providing Venice with eight Doges between the years 1043 and 1676. The architects of the Ca’ d’Oro were Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon, who also are credited with the Doge’s Palace and for creating the Venetian Gothic style. Unless you visit the palazzo you have no idea that it, like most other palazzi, was built around a small interior courtyard. In the center is a vere da pozzo – well-head – that you come across periodically as you walk around Venice but this one here is particularly beautiful. The Venetians developed an ingenious system of underground cisterns, known as pozzi, that collected, purified, and stored rain water. In the 19th century the Ca’ d’Oro went through a tough time when it was owned by a ballet dancer named Marie Taglioni. She removed the Gothic stairway from the inner courtyard – nothing less than an act of vandalism it seems to me – and she sold the palazzo’s columns to Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was then building her own museum, named Fenway Court, in Boston. In 1894 the C’a d’Oro was acquired by Baron Giorgio Franchetti and when he did in 1922 he bequeathed it and his personal art collection to the State. Today, after extensive renovation, the palazzo is open to the public as the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti. There are changing exhibitions, some of which are not all that interesting – remember the reason to come here is mostly for the building itself -- but among the items in its permanent collection are two gems, Andrea Mantegna’s San Sebastiano, and Francesco Guardi’s well known picture of the ‘Piazzetta San Marco,’ more often copied, perhaps, than any other landscape painting on earth (according to travel writer Jan Morris).

*Edith Wharton has written that “There is no short cut to an intimacy with Italy.” This is especially true if you expect to find undiscovered things. In the same way that you only uncover the best airfare to Italy by consulting a number of sources, you will only be knowledgeable about Italy if you not only travel there but read about it. This is not a secret: Kathy and I read everything we can get our hands on about Italy, whether it’s a book, a website, a blog, a newspaper, a magazine, a journal, a museum publication, whatever. You become an Italophile by devouring everything that relates to Italy, and something wonderful happens when you do: one book leads to another book, a reference in an article leads to an organization, a museum exhibit leads to the discovery of an artist whose work you admire, attendance at an event leads to new friends who are also Italy enthusiasts…and all of a sudden, you are part of an entire community of people who love Italy, and it’s a passion you can continue indulging in for the rest of your life. Don’t underestimate how much your world can expand when you welcome Italy into your life.

I’ve singled out a few books here today that fall under this special category I’ll call essenziale, essential. These are books that stand quite apart from others and are written by people who are truly intimate with Italy or with Venice, Florence, or Rome in particular, in some regard, and whose books I highly recommend you track down.

The first is Venice For Pleasure, by Joseph Gluckstein (J. G.) Links, Pallas Athene, London, eighth edition, 2008. In her introduction to the 8th edition, Jan Morris says “Venice for Pleasure is one of those very few guide-books in the English language which can stand permanently on their own as literature, like Richard Ford’s Handbook to Spain or E. M. Forster’s Guide to Alexandria.” Bernard Levin wrote of it in The New York Times, “Not only the best guidebook to that city ever written, but the best guidebook to any city ever written.” Links passed away in 1997 just after completing the 8th revised edition – try to find this one if you can as it also includes a section called ‘Venice for Children’s Pleasure,’ and ‘The Delights of the Brenta’ referring to the villas along the Brenta canal. Links hailed from a family of furriers in England, and he received the Royal Warrant and was appointed to the medieval post of Keeper of the Queen’s Furs. In 1945 he married Mary Lutyens, daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens, and they went to Venice for their honeymoon. The first edition of Venice for Pleasure came out in 1966 and Mary wrote a series of noteworthy books about the Ruskins and their friends. Venice led to the consuming passion of Joe’s later years, the work of Venetian painter Canaletto. His chance discovery of a hitherto lost painting (over his sister-in-law’s fireplace), led to a correspondence with the scholar W. G. Constable, who promptly invited Joe to succeed him as compiler of the catalogue raisonné of Canaletto’s works. Links continued working until almost the day he died, a few months short of his 93rd birthday. This book is included in the handout, and it’s worth repeating what I noted: “You must positively find this book before you go to Venice, even if you have been there a hundred times before.”

Another Venice book in the same category is Strolling Through Venice: Walks Taking the History, Monuments and Beauty of Venice by John Freely. I had the great honor of meeting Freely in Istanbul last year – one of his other indispensable books is Strolling Through Istanbul – and though he’s getting on in years, he doesn’t miss a beat, and his memory is astounding – I could barely keep up with the conversation. Freely and his wife Dolores had been in Istanbul in the early 1960s, then they left and moved to Venice, and then they returned to Istanbul, where they’ve been now for more than 30 years – shortly I’ll talk more about the historic connection between these two cities; but in this book Freely takes walkers to “every one of the 115 churches of Venice and its thirty-three museums, as well as identifying some three hundred of the city’s palazzi.”