Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm so embarrassed about this, but I recently discovered that I'd completely forgotten to include a book that I love within the recommendations in my Tuscany and Umbria book. It's embarrassing because this isn't the first time this has happened. Last year I embarked on a major project, which was the reorganization of my bookshelves; yet even though I (with great difficulty) donated bags and bags of books to my local library, I'm afraid books are still housed two and three-deep on my shelves. As a result, sometimes titles are hidden and hard to see. Such is the case with the paperback edition of Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King (Penguin, 2001).

As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, I will never forget the day I first saw Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's Duomo (seen here in these four photos taken by Peggy Harrison). "As I walked down a narrow street, the name of which I no longer remember, I saw a sliver of it suddenly; as I approached it and discerned the different colors and patterns of marble, I was filled with a warmth and a happiness to be alive I've rarely felt again. Over the years, no matter how crowded Florence becomes, the Duomo will never fail to impress." I still love how you can see that fabulous dome from practically any spot in Firenze, and if you're a little lost, you can always find your way by locating the dome.

Ross King tells the compelling and fascinating story of the building of Santa Maria del Fiore's dome -- which began with an announcement on August 19, 1418 in Florence, where the cathedral had already been under construction for more than a century -- and ended twenty-eight years later. Filippo Brunelleschi "engineered the perfect placement of brick and stone" and defied all who believed his dome would collapse, and "in the proceess, he did nothing less than reinvent the field of architecture."

Santa Maria del Fiore was meant to replace the former church of Santa Reparata, by 1418 quite dilapidated, and it was intended to be one of the largest in Christendom. King tells us that entire forests provided timber for the church and huge slabs of marble were transported along the Arno on flotillas of boats. Santa Maria del Fiore "had as much to do with civic pride as religious faith: the cathedral was to be built, the Commune of Florence had stipulated, with the greatest lavishness and magnificence possible." The designer and original architect of the new cathedral was Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the stone fortifications of the city. Though he died after construction began, his plans were continued, and King informs us that a whole section of the city was razed to make way for the cathedral (and, in order to create a piazza in front of the church, not only were the inhabitants of the surrounding district displaced but even the bones of long-dead Florentines were exhumed from their graves surrounding the Baptistery of San Giovanni, which was just a few feet from the building site).

The Wool Merchants guild -- Florence's largest, wealthiest, and most powerful -- oversaw the Opera del Duomo and therefore had the responsibility for building and funding the cathedral. However, since their business was wool, none of the guild members knew anything about architecture, so they appointed a capomaestro (an architect-in-chief) to create the cathedral models and designs as well as coordinate the actual construction. Santa Maria's capomaestro was Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, who built a model for the cathedral's dome. The guild members also requested a second model, from a group led by a master mason named Neri di Fioravanti. While Ghini's model was Gothic, Fioravanti's group rejected the Gothic use of flying buttresses (which were at any rate rare in Italy) and proposed a plan that incorporated a series of stone or wooden chains around the circumference of the dome. Fioravanti had experience with vaulting -- he was responsible for the vaults over the great hall in the Bargello and the arches in the Ponte Vecchio after the old bridge was swept away in the flood of 1333 -- but this plan for the Duomo was far more ambitious. "It was this vision of a massive dome that seemed to rise heavenward without any visible means of support that for the next half century would both inspire and frustrate everyone involved with the project."

At a meeting in August 1367 the plan for the dome was approved by the guild wardens and later endosed by a referendum of Florentine citizens. I find it fascinating that, as King relates, approving Fioravanti's design was a remarkable leap of faith. "No dome approaching this span had been built since antiquity, and with a mean diameter of 143 feet and inches it would exceed that of even the Roman Pantheon, which for over a thousand years had been the world's largest dome by far."

I could go on, but suffice it to say that this book will surprise you, even if you know quite a bit about Santa Maria del Fiore. Of all the trivia I could continue to ramble on about, perhaps the most fitting footnote is that Michelangelo, in the late 1540s after he'd been named architect in chief of St. Peter's, was given three passes into Santa Maria's cupola so he and two assistants could inspect Brunellschi's methods of construction. King writes that Michelangelo was a proud Florentine, and that he claimed he could "equal Filippo's dome but never surpass it. In fact he did not even equal it, for the cupola of St. Peter's, completed in 1590, is almost ten feet narrower and, arguably, much less graceful and striking"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A few weeks ago, Kate McDonough - author of The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen, Limitless Ingredients, No Time (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and creator of the wonderful site The City Cook -- wrote a feature in her City Cook newsletter called 'Choosing Olive Oil,' which detailed a visit to the Baroni Alimentari counter in Florence's Mercato Centrale (she and her husband spent two glorious weeks in Florence, where they rented an apartment about halfway between the Duomo and the train station). I am already a Baroni fan (as you can see from the photos above, taken by the talented Peggy Harrison) but if I wasn't yet, I would be immediately after reading Kate's piece because I know that whatever Kate recommends is going to be worthwhile. I followed her on her site for months and actually sent her an e-mail note suggesting she think about writing a book, and I was happy to learn that in fact an editor at Simon & Schuster had already approached her. Later, I read something she wrote about radishes in a post entitled 'Spring Cooking,' and she kindly granted me permission to include it in my upcoming Paris book (publication date: July 12th).

As I included Baroni under the letter B in the Tuscan and Umbrian Miscellany of my book, I won't repeat everything I wrote; but Kate's posting made me unable to resist enthusing once again about this wonderful purveyor of Italian culinary specialties and a great spot for picking up gifts (for others and yourself). I first learned of Baroni from food guru and cookbook author Faith Willinger, but Baroni isn't exactly a secret -- anyone who walks around the interior of the Mercato will eventually find the counter. It's quite large and is on a corner so it's hard to miss. Baroni sells some of the same culinary items as you'll find elsewhere in Florence, but the real reasons to shop here are the smiling, helpful, and knowledgeable staff (who are family members; that's Paola in the photo above), the opportunity to taste olive oils, vinegars, cheeses, and hams, and the items under its own label. In particular, Baroni offers a selection of true balsamic vinegars at good prices, including a set of four tiny bottles of differing ages that are lightweight and easy to pack.

In Kate's piece on tasting olive oils, she covers olive oil basics; notes on the tasting she did with Paola; and afterthoughts on buying olive oil in New York (but which apply to anywhere in North America). I urge you to subscribe to The City Cook's newsletter -- which I think you will really like -- so I don't want to quote too much from it; but I do think some points are worth repeating, like "lesser grades of olive oil, including plain "olive oil" may have been extracted with the addition of chemicals"; and "the color of an olive oil -- from pale gold to vibrant green -- is due to the climate in which the olives were grown and how mature the olives when they were picked"; and, as to why there is such a range in price between one bottle of oil and another ($7 to $42, for example), "mostly the difference has to do with lower priced oils being blends and higher priced ones being artisanal oils grown, produced and shipped by a small producer that carefully cultivates, harvests, and presses its own olives and then packages and carefully ships the oil. But some of the difference is just a triumph of marketing. Another reason we need to taste."

Here's to Baroni and The City Cook!

Friday, June 17, 2011

"To travel through Italy is as close as one gets to being in paradise." That statement -- with which it is hard to argue -- is the opening line in a description of a book that was published after my Tuscany and Umbria book (or else I would have included it in my recommendations). The book is entitled Great Escapes: Italy (edited and compiled by Angelika Taschen, text by Christiane Reiter, Taschen, 2010) and it is the sort of book that sends you straight to your wallet after you've turned the pages because you will want to buy an airline ticket a.s.a.p.!

'Escapes' is the right word to describe these accommodation choices as every one not only captures the spirit of its Italian place but makes you feel as far from your daily life as possible.
Taschen has selected 35 hotels and inns throughout Italy, and while some are famous and expensive (Villa d'Este, Villa Feltrinelli, Hotel Splendido, Il San Pietro, Villa Cimbrone, etc.) the surprise is that a number are quite moderately priced while still being quite appealing, including the Pension Briol near Bolzano (rooms from 72 euros); Locanda Cipriani on Torcello (rooms from 100 euros); Hotel Flora in Venice (rooms from 120 euros); Villa Pisani near Padova (rooms from 170 euros); and the Casa San Ruffino in Montegiorgio (rooms from 110 euros). Even the rates at the hotel featured in the photo above -- Hotel Palumbo in Ravello -- are 200 euros for rooms and 350 euros for suites, which is not inexpensive but is also not the 900 euro rate at the Villa Feltrinelli on Largo di Garda. (Plus, if you want to discuss the finer points of paradiso, Ravello's got all the points covered and then some.)

Color photos accompany each entry, along with practical details but also suggestions for "Book to Pack," which I love. So for the Locanda Cipriani, for example, the recommended book is Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees, and for Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita in Matera it's Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi, etc. There are 5 recommended properties in Tuscany: Torre di Bellosguardo in Florence (see my book and see my blog notes in 'older posts' for more about this very special place), Villa Bordoni in Greve in Chianti, Adler Thermae in Bagno Vignoni, Castello di Vicarello near Siena, and Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole (about which I will post more later). There are 2 Umbrian recommendations: Palazzo Terranova near Perugia (rooms from 305 euros, villa from 840 euros) and Locanda del Gallo in Gubbio (rooms from 70 euros, including breakfast!).

[For the record, the place in this book that appeals most to me is the Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli in Apulia: no fax, no website, no e-mail address. Nine rooms without television, telephone and internet. Price upon request. Sign me up!]

This is an expensive book, $50, so I recommend it for purchase for true Italian enthusiasts and those who travel a fair amount to Italy or for those very interested in interior design and decorating. Otherwise, borrowing a copy from the library may be a better option. But don't overlook this book when planning your next trip - it is hugely inspiring!

Monday, June 6, 2011

There are only 26 days left to see a wonderful, wonderful exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled 'Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.' I say it's wonderful because this is one of those compact shows -- with only about 40 paintings and drawings -- that is not overwhelming, where you can stand for a considerable amount of time in front of each work and leave feeling you know each one quite well. It's a gem of a show, and if you live in the New York area, I encourage you to see it before it closes on July 4th!

I admit I was smitten with the title because I have a special fondness for pictures of open windows. It began when I saw Matisse's painting of an open window in Collioure, a Mediterranean coastal town in the Roussillon region of France near the Spanish border (and one of my most favorite places on earth). Starting with a large, framed poster of this painting, I went on to collect other open window paintings, and now I have a collection of six others on one wall of my bedroom. More than one of them is by Matisse, unsurprisingly as the subject of a recent book that I love attests: Henri Matisse: Rooms With a View (Shirley Neilsen Blum, Monacelli Press, 2010).

The Met's exhibit is jammed with some hugely appealing views, a number of them Italian (though none that are Tuscan or Umbrian). Among the featured artists are some well known names and others who are very much less so, including Caspar David Friedrich (that's his 'Woman at the Window' above), Georg Friedrich Kersting, Vermeer, Louise-Adeone Drolling, Adolph Menzel, Giovanni Battista de Gubernatis, Francois-Marius Granet, Massimo d'Azeglio, Johan Christian Dahl, and Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy (a relative of the novelist). The accompanying catalog is written by Sabine Rewald (Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator, Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Met; she's also the daughter of legendary art historian John Rewald, author of a number of books including the notable History of Impressionism (1946) and Post-Impressionism From Van Gogh to Gauguin, 1956) and is very much worth reading if you are unable to get to the exhibit.

Rewald writes that the Romantic painters found in the motif of the open window "a potent symbol for the experience of standing on the threshold between an interior and the outside world. The juxtaposition of the close familiarity of a room and the uncertain, often idealized vision of what lies beyond was immediately recognized as a metaphor for unfulfilled longing, as evoked in the words of the Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg; 1772-1801): "Everything at a distance turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events; all become Romantic."

While Rewald acknowledges that the title of this show is borrowed from E. M. Forster's 1908 novel A Room With a View, she admits the inspiration for it is an essay entitled 'The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism' by art historian Lorenz Eitner (Art Bulletin, 1955). I have tried in vain to find this essay online, but I certainly haven't given up the search and I'll report back when I've found it.

After I saw this exhibit, I decided to re-read Forster's novel, which I hadn't read for many, many years. I turned to a newer edition than the one I first read, a Penguin Classics paperback with an Introduction by Malcolm Bradbury (2000). I learned from Bradbury that Forster, who died at the age of 90 in 1970, lived through the late years of the Victorian age, two world wars, the Cold War, Vietnam protests, and Richard Nixon, which is quite a lot of history for one person to have experienced. I also learned that though Where Angels Fear to Tread was published first, A Room with a View was really his first Italian novel as he'd been working on it previously and then laid it aside to write two other works. Bradbury also mentions an essay Forster wrote in 1958 entitled 'A View Without a Room,' another essay I have been unable to find online (I did find a reference to a rare printed quarto of the essay but it's available for several hundred dollars).

I'm pleased to say that I loved the novel again, even more than I did the first time. Such memorable characters! Who can forget Lucy Honeychurch, Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, Cecil, the Miss Alans, 'In Santa Croce With No Baedeker,' and Miss Bartlett saying, "A view? Oh, a view! How delightful a view is!' And I found myself suddenly overcome by the desire to always reserve a room with a view on future trips. It's not that I haven't long appreciated the value of a view, but on many occasions I've been shown lovely rooms without a view and I've accepted them, happily. But here's the thing of it: a view adds one more dimension to immersion, which is what I ultimately celebrate in each of my books. Any detail that makes travelers feel like they are positively in their destination and nowhere else is what I'm after, and a view achieves this. Yes, true, views always cost more, so the likelihood is that I (and you, too perhaps) won't be able to enjoy them from a hotel window very often; but I will make a great effort to do so in the future.

If you've read A Room With a View you may recall that the Miss Alans did make their trip to Greece and Constantinople, and in fact they went around the world. "The rest of us," writes Forster, "must be contented with a fair, but a less arduous, goal. Italiam petimus." We seek Italy. Indeed, I certainly do, and I presume you do on occasion as well. Here's to seeking and finding rooms with views -- Italian or others -- in our future.