Thursday, April 26, 2012

'The Triumph of Fame' desco da parto (commemorative birth tray) by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi [called Scheggia], 1406-1486 / in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchased in memory of Sir John Pope-Hennessy.

Do you know about Slow Art Day?  Founded in 2009, it's one of the coolest ideas ever: one day every year (in 2012 it's this Sunday the 28th!), people all over the world go to museums and galleries to look at a (very) small number of pre-selected works for five to ten minutes each, then they meet over lunch and talk about what they saw and experienced.  I am in love with this idea, which you might have guessed if you've read the Introduction to my Tuscany and Umbria book, in which I mention the Stendhal Syndrome.  The Syndrome is the name given for French novelist Stendhal, who felt physically sick after he visited Santa Croce, and refers to being completely overwhelmed by your surroundings (my translation: seeing and doing way too much).  Visitors to Florence who arrive with too long a list of must-sees are prime candidates for the syndrome, and author and Italian expert Fred Plotkin counsels against falling into this trap in his foreword to Claudio Gatti's Florence in Detail by advising, "Like it or not, one must adopt a policy of 'Poco, ma buono' (loosely translated as 'Do less, but do it really well') to experience what Florence has to offer.  A mad dash through a gallery will leave you with only fleeting impressions.  Spend ten minutes in front of one painting and you will see remarkable things that a two-minute look could not reveal; spend an hour in front of that same painting and your life will be changed.  To really pause and reflect, whether in front of a sculpture or a dish of gelato, is to find the presence of art and genius in all things."

So, naturally, Slow Art Day is hugely appealing to me!  Though there are venues that are officially participating in this celebration as I've described above, this doesn't mean you can't go to any venue you prefer and look at a work of art for as long as you want.  I have decided that I'm going to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to look at the beautiful desco da parto above.  I haven't been to see it in a few years, and if you have a copy of my first Tuscany and Umbria book (this was actually entitled Central Italy: Tuscany and Umbria) you may recall that I wrote about this in the introduction to the article 'Lorenzo the Magnificent' by Derek Wilson (originally appearing in ItalyItaly magazine, February/March 1998).

Giovanni di Ser Giovanni was the younger brother of Masaccio (whose frescoes adorn the Carmine chapel in the Oltrarno neighborhood of Florence) and the tradition of birth trays is derived from the custom of presenting sweetmeats to new mothers.  The image on the front of the tray (above) is, according to the Met's website, taken from Boccaccio's L'Amorosa visione (book six, 1342)  but this narrative was repeated by Francesco Petrarch in his Trionfi, and the motif is more commonly associated with Petrarch's name.  Again according to the Met, this subject was unusual for a birth tray as the most common themes were birth scenes or the marriage of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  "The birth of Lorenzo was viewed as an event of signal importance and the birth tray was plainly conceived as an augury of his future accomplishments," states the Met, and this stunning tray is an object of unique historical importance: Lorenzo kept it in his private quarters in the Medici palace in Florence, and it is believed to be the largest and most opulent birth tray known to survive with its original engaged molding.

The reverse side of the tray features the coats of arms of the Medici and Tornabuoni families (Piero de' Medici married Lucrezia Tornabuoni in 1444, and Lorenzo was their first son, born in 1449).

When I first saw this tray, I was truly in awe, for its beauty, but also because the imagery suggests such a promising life for a little boy who would indeed fulfill such enormous expectations. 

According to one study, published in the Empirical Studies of the Arts, museumgoers spend an average of 17 seconds looking at an individual painting.  I hope you'll use Slow Art Day as an excuse to spend longer than that in front of any work of art you choose, whether it's this Sunday or any other day. Remember, to borrow a phrase from this movement, "Slow down, you look too fast" and another from Henry David Thoreau, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."               

Monday, April 23, 2012

If you live in the New York Metropolitan Area and you are a Francophile, I hope you had a chance to see the Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden -- the exhibit closed yesterday and I (finally) saw it on Saturday.  Frenchman Patrick Blanc was the guest of honor at the Orchid Show this year, and if you don't already know he is internationally renowned for the invention of something called the vertical garden, which is one of the most amazing creations I've ever seen. 

Blanc devised a way to grow particular plants horizontally, without soil, indoors or outdoors, on surfaces of varying sizes.  The concept is hard to visualize unless you're looking at it (the photo above, from a revised and updated edition of Blanc's book, really doesn't do the creation justice), and I apologize that I'm not including any photographs of the exhibit's vertical walls in this post but I (stupidly) didn't bring my camera to the NYBG on Saturday and the photos on Blanc's website -- -- are protected (there are lots of other photos on the Web but I feel it's right to use them unless I can credit the photographer).  But check out Blanc's site and be prepared to be amazed!  See also a fascinating article about Blanc and his work in the Spring 2012 issue of France Magazine.  As writer Amy Serafin notes in her article, "A single wall can boast hundreds of species in infinite shades of green, with different shapes and patterns.  Each plant is selected to suit that particular environment."

In Paris alone there are more than 25 vertical gardens, including at the Musee du Quai Branley, BHV Homme, the Cartier Foundation, Six Senses Spa, and the Club Med offices.  I would say that going to see one is most definitely vaut le detour!  But if you can't get to Paris for a while, the new book mentioned above might suffice until you can: The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City (Patrick Blanc, Norton, April 2012).  Or, check out the Patrick Blanc projects in Miami, Charlotte, Racine, Tacoma, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  Fabulous!

Monday, April 16, 2012

I am always wary when I compile lists of favorite places to eat for a given destination -- especially when the destination is Paris – because I am always sure I will forget some worthy place(s). I had a nagging feeling that the list I included in my Paris book was incomplete, mostly because I did not include places I’d enjoyed many years ago (Le Procope, the original Benoit before Alain Ducasse acquired it, as two examples). I felt if I hadn’t been there recently it wasn’t fair to include them in case they’d changed beyond recognition.

But I was rather horrified to discover, when a copy of French Bistro: Seasonal Recipes crossed my desk, that I’d completely forgotten to include le Paul Bert! [18 rue Paul Bert, 11th arrondissement / (33) 1.4372.2401 / Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny] Le Paul Bert is on many peoples’ short lists of favorite Paris restaurants, and with good reason: it’s a true bistro, in all the best ways. I had such a terrific meal at the Paul Bert and it felt so good to be there that I was quite reluctant to leave (and I felt I could have stayed longer and no one would have minded) that it’s hard to believe I actually forgot about it. (But then, I also recently discovered that I’d forgotten a few other favorites, which I’ll share later.)

Anyway, one of the things that makes le Paul Bert unique is its menu of excellent renditions of traditional bistro dishes and modern interpretations. This new cookbook (Flammarion, English language edition 2012), by Paul Bert owner Bertrand Auboyneau and Le Figaro food critic François Simon, has a great number of appealing recipes that for the most part are not difficult to prepare at home. But the really valuable feature of the book is ‘The Ten Bistro Essentials’ which are: The Owner, The Chef, The Chalkboard Menu, The Wine, The Servers, The Table, The Décor, The Clients, The Ambience, and The Aromas. Though in some regards these are unique to the Paul Bert, they are mostly common to every worthwhile bistro you will ever go to, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in eating at Paris bistros (and isn't that everyone?) to read them! Take note of the following from ‘The Chef:’ “Bistros are a roaring success in Paris today due to their moderation, the culinary wisdom that the unlikely pair of owner and chef delivers. For all this, the chef is not second-best or a downtrodden Cinderella. He may not be in the spotlight, but he has the tranquil force of a navigator. He knows all too well that without him, the car would go off the road…Without him, [clients] would have their pâté en croute with asparagus Chantilly and a square-shaped dollop of garden pea foam. Bistro clients don’t know how lucky they are.” And this from ‘The Wine:’ “The bistro serves wines that suit a clientele with an environmental conscience.” And this from ‘The Servers:’ “A good waitstaff finds ways to sidestep the constraints imposed by the owner and obtain special privileges, like extra French fries. They give a perfect theater performance, never overacting (as you might see in a brasserie), but weaving their way through the dining hall as proudly as tango dancers. They are the stars of this urban choreography, and they know it.” And lastly a note from the ‘A Bistro Will Never be Perfect’ page: “The bistro resembles life with all its blemishes and even illustrates that there is no such thing as unmitigated excellence… the average bistro serves up to 150,000 dishes a day, which translates into 40,000 clients over 100,000 hours. Sooner or later, an accident will happen. What else can you expect? Don’t think of it as a disaster; it’s just life taking its course.”

At the back of the book is a list of thirteen (other) classic Parisian bistros that are favorites of Auboyneau and Simon (and that I suspect would keep any visitors to Paris quite sufficiently happy) as well as list of the Paul Bert’s suppliers (ooh-la-la, must check some of these out!). Also, note that L’Écailler du Bistrot, opened just next door by Gwenaelle Cadoret, Auboyneau’s wife, specializes in seafood. I haven’t yet been (but I am eager to go as I am a huge fan of seafood from Brittany, where Cadoret is originally from) but it apparently has its own distinct feel and ambience.

This book is not, as Auboyneau says, “your typical recipe book” nor is it a “restaurant guide” or “a book of photos” or “a bible.” Rather, it’s a book “about the twelve years of happiness we have shared with wonderful people: restaurant owners, wine producers, suppliers, cooks, dishwashers, and waiters, all of whom have contributed to the successful rebirth of the classic bistro.” Vive le bistro!