Thursday, November 12, 2009

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.

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