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.”

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