Thursday, December 22, 2011

A number of friends and colleagues have been asking me for gift ideas for people they know who love Paris and France, and Tuscany and Umbria and Italy, and Istanbul and Turkey,...and therefore who also love art, music, history, and travel in general. Short of an airplane ticket or a hotel gift certificate, I always reply that the best gifts for people who love travel are books, and I don't say that just because I am an author. Rather, I truly believe that books (in any format) offer what literate, curious travelers want most: depth, background, and inspiration.

Without doubt, the book I am recommending most often right now is the one pictured above, The Louvre: All the Paintings (Black Dog & Leventhal, published on November 14th). This is no ordinary book, and it is not an updated version of a book previously published. It is a ground-breaking, extraordinary, gorgeous, must-have work of art itself, and it features every single painting in the Louvre's permanent collection. Every one. Three-thousand and twenty two of them. The book is 766 pages, it weighs a number of pounds (I'm not sure how many, but you need two hands to hold it), it's accompanied by a navigational DVD-ROM, and it's $75. And it's a perfect gift, even one for yourself.

Readers of my Paris book know that I am hugely fond of the numerous small museums in the city, whether devoted exclusively to a single artist (Delacroix, Picasso, Rodin, etc.) or to collections (Jacquemart-Andre, Cognacq-Jay, etc.). But there is no doubt that my most favorite museum on earth is the Louvre, the largest single museum in the world. When I was a student in the Hollins Abroad Paris program in 1979, my art history classes were held once a week at the Jeu de Paume (which then housed the French Impressionists) and once a week at the Louvre. We were required to go to each museum a second time each week to complete homework assignments, but I always returned to the Louvre a third time, every Sunday, when it was free (today it is free on the first Sunday of every month, as well as on Bastille Day and on Fridays after 6:00 p.m. for anyone under age 26). I loved (and still do) the enormity of the museum (I like knowing that I will never see everything), and I loved the beautiful parquet floors in the galleries and I loved the periodic views out the windows and I loved seeing the 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' sculpture that was then at the top of a stone staircase. Most of all I loved the paintings, some of them the largest I'd ever seen.

I know I'm not alone in my love for the Louvre -- it is the most popular art museum among Americans traveling abroad, who represent nearly 1 million of the museum's 8.5 million annual visitors -- and at the celebratory party for this new book last month I met a lot of other fellow Louvre enthusiasts. The party was given by American Friends of the Louvre, and I was initially embarrassed to realize that I'd never heard of AFL, but I now know that this terrific, non-profit organization was only founded in 2002, so I don't feel so ignorant. In addition to fostering collaborations between the Louvre and American institutions with exhibits, educational programs, and scholarly exchanges, AFL also helps finance Louvre projects such as renovations of galleries, restorations, fellowships, and educational programs both in France and in the U.S. AFL has provided grants benefitting all eight curatorial departments of the Louvre, and among the projects it has supported are the creation of Cy Twombly's 'The Ceiling' in 2008; fellowships in Islamic art and American art, 2005-2009; restoration of Greek and Roman antiquities in 2007; and the English version of Atlas, the museum's online collections database with access to the 35,000 works on display. Currently, AFL has pledged to raise $4 million to support the restoration of the museum's 18th century Decorative Arts Galleries, designed by Jacques Garcia and scheduled to re-open in 2013. Additionally, AFL has raised $146,000 toward a conservation program for the Louvre's extensive holdings of pastel drawings.

(Now that I think of it, a truly generous and meaningful gift would be a copy of the book along with, say, a bottle of French wine, some Mariage-Freres tea, a French press and some coffee, or even a bottle of Badoit avec gaz and a membership to AFL (there are 6 levels of membership, ranging from $500 to $25,000 a year). Membership at the Chairman's Circle level ($10,000 for 2 people for 1 year) entitles you to an annual trip to Paris focused on a major exhibition or theme at the Louvre. The description of the 2011 spring trip was among the most distinctive I've ever heard of, including a trip to Metz to visit the Pompidou Centre's new outpost; a private tour in the Louvre on a Tuesday (when the museum is closed to the public); cocktails at the Delacroix museum; visits to the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte and Chateau de Sully; lunch at the Chateau de Courances hosted by the Comtesse Serge de Ganay and the Marquise de Ganay and a tour of the home and gardens; and dinner in the home of a Parisian collector. Wow. AFL is at 60 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan / (212) 367.2645)

At the book party, the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Antonin Baudry, gave the introductory remarks to all of us gathered there in a beautiful room. I was particularly drawn to his comments that, "All together, we are 'les Amis du Louvre' (what a beautiful formula!) because we are friends of art. We are also, I hope, a community that embodies more generally the friendship between France and the U.S. Art is a bridge, as we all know. Between countries, nations, or people. Also between body and soul, the work and the eye, matter and spirit." Baudry later said that a book is not only a book: "A book is a world. Just like a museum: the pages are open, the walls are windows. Body and soul, I said. Matter and spirit." Precisely.

The Louvre: All the Paintings is authored by a ridiculously talented foursome, Erich Lessing, Vincent Pomarede, Anja Grebe, and Henri Loyrette (Loyrette has been Conservateur General du Patrimoine since 1975 and President and Director of the Louvre since 2001, but each of these authors have very impressive credentials). Paging through this monumental edition is an absolute pleasure as I see works I consider to be old friends but I also see others for the first time. And what is especially appealing about a book of this sort is that I can choose to turn to a particular artist or school of painting (in the case of the Louvre these include Italian, Northern, Spanish, and French) and just get lost in it all. Literally, every day since I've had a copy of the book, I cannot wait to spend time with it. Each day has been filled with this lovely surprise.

It's easy to say that this book is for Francophiles and everyone for whom Paris holds a special place. But the truth is it's a book for any art lover, any traveler, any museum goer, any human being who appreciates beauty. Or, as Henri Loyrette states best in the book's Preface, through this illuminating volume, "all people -- from scholars to tourists, art professionals to students, the "learned" to the "unknowing" (to paraphrase the French philosopher Denis Diderot) -- will be able to reflect upon and preserve in their memory the paintings of the Musee du Louvre."

Warm and joyeuses wishes to everyone at this almost-end of 2011! My next posting will appear in early January.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I don’t think it’s been luck that has allowed me to bring back many souvenirs in my luggage without any mishaps. I have carefully packed bottles of olive oil, wine, liqueurs and jars of condiments; Venetian glass candies; and various pieces of ceramics and none have ever broken. I have also carried delicate lavender wands from Provence, prints and etchings, and glass perfume bottles from Morocco, and all survived happily in my carry-on bag (I always pack an empty tote bag in my luggage, and this becomes my carry-on bag when I’m leaving my destination). I use my worn articles of clothing to wrap around fragile items but I also usually bring some plastic bags and some bubble wrap. And I keep in mind something a UPS driver once told me: you should pack a box (or a piece of luggage, in this case) so that if it falls from a second story window nothing will break.

I have also had some items shipped on a few occasions, again with positive results. But I’m well aware that some travelers have had items break, whether they packed them on their own or had them shipped from a merchant.

Recently, my good friend Linda, who went to Italy for the very first time in October, had one of these experiences, and it reminded me that it’s worthwhile to share these stories, so here is Linda’s:

“Although I bought many souvenirs, the one thing I wanted most was a ceramic keepsake made by hand, preferably painted in bright colors. I liked the idea that I would be the only one in Brooklyn to have such a piece. Though I didn’t do much research into Italian ceramiche, I could tell that the ceramics on display at the street vendors along Via dell’Ariento in Florence were not to my liking. Then, on our last night, we were strolling along a little street near the Ponte alla Carrala, we came across what I hoped to find - a window display of beautiful ceramic lemons, platters in all sizes, with every detail glowing in the nighttime light. The store sign, made also of ceramic, simply said Giotti Ceramiche (Borgo Ognissanti, 15r,
I was hopeful there would be at least one piece I could afford, and when I returned in the morning I was so happy to buy not one but two unique pieces: a basket of lemons with grapes and a serving platter with a painted scene of a podere (estate or farm), cypress trees, and red poppies. I asked the staff at Giotti to have my items shipped, and we traveled on to Venice.

One week later, a box arrived from Giotti, but it was a flimsy box and I thought I heard a rattle as I carried it to my apartment door. Yes, my lemon-and-grape basket was broken -- one of the delicate leaves was chipped off -- and I was sad and slightly angry because the nice man at Giotti had assured me they package items like this all the time with complete success. When I was at the store I never asked about guarantees or refunds, but now I needed to tell them what happened and see what they would do. I took pictures of the box and pictures of the lemon-and-grape basket and sent an e-mail to Giotti. Within minutes, Laura (a Giotti employee) responded. After a few e-mail exchanges, Laura confirmed that a replacement piece would be in production immediately and that I could keep the broken one. She would look into why the packaging was faulty and would make a note for future shipments. Within 3 weeks a new box arrived and this box was strong and taped well and was clearly marked (and best of all there was no rattle sound when I picked it up). My new lemon-and-grape basket is now sitting on my kitchen table, and every time I walk by it I think of my first trip to Florence and my walk at night along that little dark street. But I also think that when I return to Florence (and I most definitely will return), I will go to the Giotti shop and give Laura a big hug (and buy some more ceramics!).”

Though Linda should have inquired about Giotti's policy on shipping before she left the shop, she carefully documented what had happened and took photos when she was home, and her story has a happy ending.

(Full disclosure: I happen to be the recipient of the original lemon-and-grape basket with the chipped leaf, and I completely understand why it caught Linda's eye! Linda knows I am nuts for ceramics, too, and I was only too happy to add this decorative piece to my collection. But beyond the usefulness and practicality - or just plain beauty -- of ceramics, one of the best reasons I seek them out is for the memories associated with buying them. Like Linda's memory of discovering Giotti's window in that little Florentine street at night, I remember where I bought every piece I have, making their value inestimable.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

I just realized I’d forgotten to mention some other books I’ve read since my Tuscany and Umbria book was published last year that I very much want to enthuse about, but since my last post was a little long, perhaps it’s better that I forgot them. In fact, this post will be a little long, too, and it’s devoted to only one book; but I think you’ll agree that this one, which is rather hard to accurately describe and that makes the word 'unique' sound trite, is worthy of its own post. (And it makes a very wonderful gift.)

I have never, ever seen a book quite like Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town by Douglas Gayeton (introduction by Alice Waters, preface by Carlo Petrini, Welcome Books, 2010), and happily it is a perfect example of a book that will never (or never should, anyway) translate into an e-book format: with a trim size of about 13" across x 11 1/2" from top to bottom, this is a book that's meant to lie horizontally, especially when you come across one of the fold-out spreads that opens to about 36" across. There are just certain types of books -- namely, those covering art and photography -- that simply must be read and viewed on bound pages.

Slow has a generous amount of text but is essentially a book of photos by Gayeton, a multimedia artist who has created award-winning work for National Geographic, PBS, Warner Brothers, and Sony. The book documents the years he lived in Pistoia, among my favorite Tuscan towns and one that many Americans never visit (more about Pistoia in an upcoming post). In the beginning of Gayeton's time in Italy he is dating an Italian woman, and becomes very close to her family; but even after she leaves to live in the States, he maintains a close relationship with her family members and meets many other locals in Pistoia who earn a place behind his camera lens. So there are many people who appear in these sepia-toned photos, and in most of them Gayeton has written in script around the edges of the pages, and around the heads of the people, describing the scenes. This, Gayeton informs us, he was inspired to do after one of his many visits to the Uffizi -- where "I could practically walk through the museum blindfolded" -- and among his favorite works are the smaller, pre-Renaissance paintings that incorporated narrative devices like "words floating in air" and "rays of light emanating from the heads of saintly figures" and "even diagrams and lengthy texts were painted directly on the canvas." When you see this book, you will understand immediately what he's referring to as the text in and around his photos is in English and Italian, and one of my most favorite attributes of the book is Gayeton's use of everyday Italian phrases (many slang) and their translation into English. Among these are A tavola non si invecchia mai (at the table one never grows old, a Tuscan proverb); Fuori dai piedi (literal: away from your feet / figurative: get out of my hair!); Meglio solo'che male accompagnato (better alone than in bad company); Conosco i Miei polli (I know my chickens, an Italian saying); Morto io morto il mondo (when I die, the world dies, also a Tuscan saying); Le morte non guarda infaccia a nessuno (Death looks no one in the face," also a Tuscan proverb); Questa vigna non fa una (literal: this vineyard doesn't make wine / figurative: you can't get anything out of him); Nelle botte piccola c'e vino buono (literal: in the small cask there's good wine / figurative: good things come in small packages); Tutti in piazza (literal: everyone in the town square / figurative: take to the streets); Fare due chiacchiere (literal: to make two (gossipy) comments / figurative: to have a chat); Scopa! (a game of "scopa" halts when the men notice a group of young women crossing the street; the word means a card game, a broom, and to have sex); and Meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista (better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist, an old Tuscan proverb passed down by the father of Dario Cecchini, the colorful, Dante-quoting butcher of L’Antica Macelleria in Panzano-in-Chianti). It doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that, as Gayeton notes, "most Italian sayings had evolved from the wisdom of peasants."

In addition to the fold-outs, there are a few of those pages where you lift the clear plastic to see the unembellished photo beneath, like those current and imagined drawings of Ancient Rome, for example, or Pompeii. I am crazy for this kind of thing, especially in a large format.

The story in the middle of all this family and of Pistoia is food, and Gayeton writes that "when I first moved to Pistoia I discovered that people here lived slow lives without knowing what Slow Food was. They were connected to the land, to the seasons. They not only knew their food but often who grew or made it." On the spread entitled 'Una Scampagnata' (scampare + campagna = to take a walk in the country), we are introduced to Daria, a cook at Villa di Celle, outside Pistoia. Her grandmother taught her how to hunt for wild salad, and Gayeton tells us that "it will take over an hour to pick and another to wash the dirt and bugs out of this salad (that's slow food)." Daria wisely asks, "who will know about such things after we're gone?" Gayeton doesn't have an answer, but a book like this certainly honors the food traditions of Tuscany and of Italy, and I believe that the people who read it are paying attention and spreading the word.

The real gift of this book is that you will learn an awful lot about Italian customs, culture, quirks, and language. You have to look at every photograph and read every surrounding word, and you'll find that even by just turning a few pages a wealth of knowledge is revealed. This kind of book can only be created by someone who is not only extremely observant but who really looks, smells, eats, listens, and ponders, someone who has the advantage of staying for a long while but more importantly sits patiently and soaks it all in. As Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini notes in his Preface, Gayeton's photographs and words "are rich and undeniably authentic, and could only have been made by someone with a deep sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond the boundaries of nations and languages, and represents the principles at the very heart of the Slow Food movement."

Perhaps surprisingly, if only because you expect to read that he still lives in Tuscany, Gayeton now lives on a farm outside Petaluma, California with his wife (who he met in Tuscany, though she's American) and daughter. Laura (his wife) started the first goat's milk ice cream company in the U.S., and they have their own chickens, roosters, goats, and cows. Their neighbors bake their bread, vegetables grow in their garden, eggs come from their henhouse, and Laura knows the people who make the cheese they eat. And when Gayeton received a phone call from the local cafe and learned that hawks had raided the cafe's henhouse and killed all the chickens, he gathered up all of his own eggs and delivered them to the grateful cafe staff. Which sounds an awful lot like life in Tuscany.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Was it better to be cool and look at a waterfall, or to be hot and look at Saint Mark's?...Was it, in short, ever well to be elsewhere when one might be in Italy?" These words of Edith Wharton -- from a book entitled Edith Wharton's Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell that I recently read -- are so quotable that I had to share them with you, and they also reminded me that I have a number of books to recommend since the publication of my Tuscany and Umbria book last year. I've been saving the list as a way to honor the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which was on March 17th, 2011. Here is a handful of titles, in no particular order, a few relating to Italy and others specifically devoted to Tuscany, that are not only good immersion reading but are great gifts for an Italy enthusiast as well:

How Italian Food Conquered the World by John F. Mariani, foreword by Lidia Bastianich (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Mariani is the food and travel correspondent for Esquire, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, and the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and, with his wife Galina, The Italian-American Cookbook. (He's not the John Mariani who founded Banfi Vintners in 1919.) He's also been referred to as "the most influential food-wine critic in the popular press," so it will not come as a surprise to know that he tells the story of how, indeed, Italian food has conquered the world with great spirit and wit. As Mariani writes in his Introduction, we can go to a restaurant anywhere in the world today and chances are very good that we'll find Italian dishes listed on the menu. Mariani has witnessed, over the last four decades, how the status of Italian food has gone from a "low-class, coarse ethnic food to the most recognizable, stylish, and influential cuisine in the world." And how this happened "has as much to do with changing ideas of ethnicity and a surging interest in wholesome ingredients as it does with taste and fashion." He shares the stories of a great number of people, restaurants, and products, such as Mamma Leone's, Elaine's, Patsy's, Sirio Maccioni, Mario Batali, Pizzeria Uno, Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Alfredo's Ristorante, Mary Ann Esposito, Marcella Hazan, London's River Cafe, Sophia Loren, Rice-a-Roni, and Chef Boyardee -- did you know the name derives from Italian immigrant Hector Boiardi? He worked as a chef in Cleveland and then opened his own restaurant, called the Italian Immigrant, and began canning his own sauces and then spaghetti. He provided the U. S. military with canned spaghetti with tomato sauce during World War II, and after the war he made new labels for the cans featuring his photo. He also changed the name to a phonetic spelling so Americans could pronounce it easier -- Chef Boy-AR-Dee (but most Americans still mispronounced it as Chef Boy-Ar-DEE, as they do today). "Italian food," says Bastianich in her Foreword, "is simply gratifying, effortlessly delicious, and nutritionally sound...It is safe to say that Americans have a love affair with Italy and its food and that they aspire to live the Italian style and eat the Italian way." This is absolutely true, but it wasn't very long ago that Italian food was considered inferior, especially to French cuisine. Mariani notes that Italian food just about everywhere outside of Italy was "regarded as little more than macaroni with red sauce, chicken parmigiana, pizza, and "dago red" wines. I highly recommend his enjoyable chronicle of a now nearly universally loved cuisine. (One small quibble: this book would have benefited from the services of a good copyeditor as there are a number of annoying typos.)

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran (Gotham Books, 2006). This is one of those Tuscan memoirs that I was prepared to dislike simply because I didn't like the title. And, as I note in my book, do we really need another Tuscan memoir? Like others I didn't think I'd like, this one, too, proved me wrong, so yes, I've added it to my (sagging) shelves and I'm recommending it to you. Doran was, as you may know (I admit I didn't recognize his name), a successful Hollywood screenwriter and producer whose wife, Nancy, a sculptor, saw their life together heading in a dead-end direction so she went to Italy and bought a crumbling farmhouse for them to fix up. She didn't consult Doran first, so right off the bat you can imagine how at least some of this story goes. But you can't imagine how truly hilarious their straniere in Paradiso story is, and how lovely, and beautiful, and memorable. In the telling of the story, Doran also enlightens readers to numerous Italian traditions, customs, and vocabulary, which I particularly love. So for the word cantina he notes that this is the "heart and soul of every Tuscan home," and if we think it's the equivalent to the American den, the English drawing room, or the French parlor we're wrong. "Every Tuscan home, no matter how humble, is guaranteed two things by law: a forno for baking bread and a cantina where the family can make wine. No one is guaranteed a bathroom, but every citizen must have their pane e vino." Initially, Doran really has no intention of actually living in Tuscany, let alone fix up a house and deal with all the local bureaucracy and the village personalities. But eventually, he warms to Tuscany, writing that "there is a fabric of life here, a texture that enfolds you in a way that as a young man I might have found smothering." He also comes to understand how much a sense of place can shape a person, and he believes there is no greater difference between Italy and America than the relationship to our natural surroundings. Though Tuscany is much older than America, it is actually more unspoiled, Doran writes, and "Tuscany is the reality, where our suburbia is the re-creation of that reality." So our neighborhood parks are really just re-creations of meadows, our malls are re-creations of villages, and swimming pools are re-creations of ponds. All of which has the effect of making our experiences one step removed from the immediate impact of life. "Our lives in the 'burbs are clean, efficient, well organized, and essentially soulless. And I would have never understood that if I hadn't come to live in Italy."
There is one tale I won't spoil here but will only say that it involves one of the workmen, Umberto, and 'The Sopranos,' and when I read it I was practically gasping for breath I was laughing so hard (and when I read it aloud to friends they were laughing, too). Yes, you really do need to read one more Tuscan memoir.

Edith Wharton’s Italian Gardens by Vivian Russell (Bulfinch, 1997). Edith Wharton’s lifelong love affair with Italy began at the age of 4, when her parents took her to Rome for a year. Russell set out, nearly a century later, to visit the gardens that Wharton had visited. Some gardens were no longer, and others denied permission to photograph; so Russell focused on those “whose stories could still be told in a visually provocative way.” The gardens featured are in Lombardy, the Veneto, and those around Rome, as well as those near Florence (Villa Castello, Boboli Gardens, Villa Petraia, and Villa Gamberaia) and those near Siena (Vicobello and Villa Cetinale – the cover photograph, in fact, is of Villa Cetinale). She relates a priceless vignette of Iris Origo (author of War in Val D'Orcia and The Merchant of Prato, two of my most favorite books) who accompanied her mother around Italy in 1911: “The sight of a cypress avenue leading to a fine villa or the mere mention of its existence in a guidebook, was to my mother irresistible.” I couldn’t agree more!

In a lovely book called The Garden Visitor's Companion (Thames & Hudson, 2008), author Louisa Jones opines that “gardeners are a curious lot. They want to know what is happening next door, down the road, in the next country or county.” I think this is absolutely true as people I know who are gardeners are interesting, curious, and passionate. They also have a wonderful ability to notice a thing of beauty in the most unlikely places. They are very much glass-half-full kind of people, as opposed to those pesky glass-half-empty kind of people. Jones also relates in her book that when she asked some gardeners in France what they particularly liked about gardens, they gave answers like this one: "You open the gate to a garden as you would open the first page of a new book, with the hope of living a moment of happiness in the discovery of a place, a story, a human adventure, a time to dream away from the bustle of everyday life, dream and escape…a moment outside of time." I just love that, and a book called Tuscany Artists Gardens by Mariella Sgaravatti, with photographs by Mario Ciampi (Verba Volant Ltd., 2004) is a large hardcover that is surely an embodiment of this sentiment. The book is beautiful and I recommend it not because it's very helpful in planning a trip (it isn't, unless it inspires you to include gardens in your itinerary); rather, it’s a book that highlights 30 artists who live (or lived) in Tuscany and illustrates what they brought to Tuscany and what Tuscany gave to them. It’s interesting to see how each artist interacted with the Tuscan countryside, and as Sgaravatti says, “I hoped to discover the connection between the artwork and the magic of the Tuscan landscape.” Among the artists included are Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender, Sandro Chia, Fernando Botero, Niki de Saint Phalle, Beverly Pepper, and Robert Morris. My most favorite is Sandro Poli’s Garden of Arcipressi, in the Marignolle hills outside of Florence – the photograph on page 82 is extraordinary: looking out from the pergola, covered with a grape vine, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is seen in the distance, behind a stretch of green trees. It’s a magical view, and not one you can reproduce at home, but this book may still be inspiration to anyone who gardens or is an artist.

The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk (Picador, 2010). "We decided to go to Italy," Cusk writes, "though not forever. Three months, a season, was as much of the future as we cared to see." In the novels Cusk read, "people were forever disappearing off to Italy at a moment's notice," for various reasons, and Cusk and her husband and their two kids left England for Italy as well, for their own various reasons. This is a book filled with many passages to ponder over and is a great read for anyone planning to spend an extended time in Italy (specifically Tuscany, Umbria, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Naples, the Cinque Terre). Cusk also details the family's drive to Italy, through France, and I admit I didn't much care for this early part of the book because I just wanted to focus on Italy and I didn't make many connections between the "getting there" and the "being there." But on page 38 readers arrive at 'Italian in Three Months,' which is the name of a new textbook Cusk is studying, and the family's Italian adventure begins. Cusk's retelling of her family's sojourn is not filled with a lot of humor but rather with great attention to wonderful details, like those about Tintoretto's painting of the Last Supper in Lucca's duomo (an absolutely fabulous painting that I love but is rarely given the attention it deserves in my opinion). Cusk writes that "perception is stronger than belief, at least for an artist, who sees such grandeur in the ordinary. In this it is the artist who is God. And it is a strange kind of proof we seek from him, we who are so troubled by our own mortality, who know we will all eat a last supper of our own. We want the measure of the grandeur taken. We want to know that life was indeed what it seemed to be."