Blinded by the Light

I stood under the oculus and felt the light shining down on me. Like a crew member on the Starship Enterprise I felt I could be beamed up at any moment and transported to another time and place.

My first experience standing in the Pantheon, Rome’s ” temple of the gods” looking up at the vault of a “perfect heaven” was one of the most awe-inspiring moments I’ve had traveling in Italy. The oculus or Great Eye in the ceiling concentrated the light of the sun through the giant hole in the center like a “shield of gold where rain would form its clear pool on the pavement below and prayers would rise like smoke toward that void where we place the gods.” (Emperor Hadrian).

Every year, on June 21st, the rays of the sun at the summer equinox shine from the oculus through the front door. No CGI program or computer generated graphics could duplicate the itensity and brillance of light against the stark concerte dome. Of all the great buildings constructed during the peak of the Roman Empire, only this one still stands.  Hadrian’s giant sun-dial, a monument from classical antiquity, a tomb (the painter Raphael, the first two kings and first queen of Italy are buried here), a church dedicated to the Christian martyrs -the Pantheon is all of these. One of the most recognizable works of architecture on the planet, a statement that Rome remains eternal and a model for moumental construction projects from Michelangelo to Thomas Jefferson and an inspiration to strive towards the Light.

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Capri Blue

They say that colors are evocative, prompting vivid memories or images of things. Psychologists tell us colors have the ability to create deep emotional responses and that the vividness and combination of colors affect our moods. By manipulating and controlling colors artists can contribute to the overall feeling and visual impact of their work.

Italy is a country filled with the attraction of color.  Each meal in Italy is a work of art; with passion, freshness and flavors the brush strokes and history the canvas. Each landscape, monument and painting imprints on the psyche of the traveler colors that bring back memories of the trip . The intense ruby-red of a Brunello, the earthy terra-cotta of a Tuscany farmhouse, the grey-green silver leaves of the olive trees and the fire-red orange of flames grilling a bistecca are color memories linked to times, places and people that have made my travels in Italy so memorable. Yet, for me, Italy as an artist is at her best when she draws her brush strokes in blue. Smokey, vibrant, veined in stone or marble, mare or azurri, blue is the color that represents the revolution that united Italy.

My best use of Italian blue – the classic Capri Blue motocicletta

 

La Credenza

You cannot see and savor Italy without bumping into a familiar piece of furniture found in many Italian homes and restaurants, la credenza. Sometimes referred to as a sideboard, the history of the credenza begins with an act of faith. In 16th century Italy the word “credenza” referred to the tasting of food and drink by a servant for a lord or other important person (pope or cardinal) before it was served to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The word la credenza (Italian for belief or confidence) passed from the room where the act took place to the name of the long tables on which the food was served.

While traveling in Italy I’ve had a chance to taste some memorable food from the credenzas of ristorante and trattorie and from the homes of my Italian family and friends.  Now every time I see a credenza I’m reminded about the wonderful times spent enjoying the food and hospitality served from the credenzas of Italy. Like the spectacular fattoria credenza in Treviso groaning with the weight of l’arrosto pavone (peacock) and goose from the family farm. Or the credenza in my friend Alice’s country house in the Bolognese Hills where the buffet breakfast is the best I’ve had in Italy. Or the Tuscan credenza of Tenuta di Capezzana near the town of Carmignano, northwest of Florence, where I’ve spent delightful September afternoons with the Contini-Bonacossi family in the dining room of their Medici villa enjoying their exceptional wines and oils. I won’t soon forget the credenza in the medieval taverna of Castello Gropparello with my friend Rita learning the fine art of cucina Piacentina, Emilia Romagnan cooking from the hills of Piacenza. Our efforts filled the credenza with platters of faraona (Guinea fowl), stuffed vegetables, maltagliata and a Piacenza tart filled with plum jam. In the town of Pienza at Pius II’s Palazzo Piccolomini I saw where the Pope slept and the credenza that served him and down the street shoppers at Azienda Zazzeri can see and savor credenzas filled with wheels of pecorino where soft Sauvis, semi-matured Fucus and wine-infused Vinaceus are displayed with great attention.

As impressive as the credenza is at Palazzo Piccolomini, its purpose is no different from the credenzas found in the homes and restaurants throughout Italy. It was meant to serve. The Italian credenza reflects the warm and gracious hospitality of the Italian people and their desire to introduce you to their country and traditions. The credenzas of Italy are waiting for you  . . .

The History and Beauty of Trasimeno – An Umbrian Lake

While Hannibal was making a name for himself ambushing Romans on the shores of Lake Trasimeno history moved to imprint the event in the landscape of rolling hills and mountains that encircle one of Italy’s most panoramic lake views. Driving along the coastal road that edges the lake you’ll pass sites that commemorate the historical battle near Tuoro sul Trasimeno where the Carthaginian renegade general managed to surround and out manoeuvre Roman legions and one of the very few times in history when an entire army is ambushed by another entire army to win a battle. There is a short signposted itinerary to the main location of the action where visitors can follow an archaeological walk through the battlefield. Sites like Torrente Sanguinante (river of blood) and Ossaia (place of bones) take their names from the historical event which occurred here in 217 BC.

Today Lake Trasimeno is one of Italy’s most popular lake resorts, a holiday destination with excursion boats to its islands and well-tended beaches for swimming and sailing. I spent an afternoon along Trasimeno’s shores watching wind surfers and enjoying a picnic lunch of affettati misti (mixed cold cuts) with little to worry about except the bees and looking forward to traveling on to Perguia to visit friends and then on to the Umbrian hill towns and Assisi.  Although the Lombardian lakes of Garda, Como and Maggiore may be better known, the mirror-like beauty of Trasimeno is no less compelling. Off the tourist radar for most American travelers, it is mid-point in the Italian peninsula, just across the border of Tuscany into Umbria. My Perugian friend Luca who visited me in the States one summer commented that it reminded him of the resorts along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Trasimeno like Michigan is known for its lake perch (persico reale) and for summer family holidays with lakeside towns filled with art and history and a place to get away and enjoy nature.

The Pope Slept Here

Pienza is known around the world for being one of Tuscany’s Renaissance treasures and the home of a Pope with a vision to transform his birthplace into the “ideal” Renaissance city. Located in the breathtaking Val d’Orcia (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) overlooking Monte Amiata, the medieval town of Corsignano was to be Italy’s 15th century version of Renovation Nation.

Reconstructed and renamed Pienza under the Piccolomini Pope Pius ll, a new cathedral, town hall and palazzo were built. I spent an afternoon in Pienza and visited the Palazzo Piccolomini (the pope’s summer residence) with a signorina who spoke an Italian version of Spanglish. Slightly difficult to understand but well intended. The elegant open courtyard, the halls of period furniture and memorabilia and the gardens that overlook the valley below were well worth the cost of admission. Il biglietto d’ingresso interno was 7EU and for that price I got to see where the Pope slept. I also got to see priceless masterpieces, tapestries, weaponry, paintings and a scagliola table representing a map of the Sienese States. There was a chair that was used to carry the Pope in his travels and a medieval baby’s high chair.

But my favorite was the More or Less Clock, a huge medieval clock that is called more or less because it only works in 15 minute increments (instead of seconds). Ah, the Italian sense of time.

 

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens

Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens? At first you might think these are names of Senators from the time of the Roman Empire but rather than conveying the power and prestige of the Roman Senate these names refer to an illustrious group of cheeses from Pienza, an ancient Renaissance city a few miles from the wines of Montepulciano. Pienza is the capital of Tuscan pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese (cacio di pecorino) that is one of the most prized and favored cheeses of the Val d’Orcia. Known for its inviting and mild flavor, even when aged, Pecorino Toscano is the Tuscan relative of the more well-known Romano which because of its stronger flavor is preferred for some pasta dishes with highly flavored sauces.

Both are sheep’s milk cheeses (pecora means sheep in Italian) and both have PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status but the similarity stops there. Pecorino Toscano thrives under the Tuscan sun surrounded and influenced by vineyards, olive orchards and the clay soil of the Crete Senesi.  The characteristic flavors and aromas of the grass, herbs and wildflowers (wormwood, meadow salsify, juniper, broom, burnet) on which the sheep graze create a taste of Tuscany that is incomparable.

You can taste some of the best pecorino cheeses in Tuscany at Zazzeri, one of my favorite cheese shops in Pienza, where Maturus, Fucus, Siccatus, Sauvis and Rubens debate the best wine and honey pairings and whether apples or pears are to be chosen as an accompaniment. Walnut leaf wrapped or anointed with Tuscan olive oil, seasoned on wooden tables and displayed like a still-life from the Renaissance, these cheeses of Pienza were favored by Lorenzo the Magnificent and remain an evocative taste of Tuscany.

Italian Balls

It can be played on almost any surface. It involves a ball, a court and an opponent whose singular goal is getting close enough to a small white ball, called the jack or pallino without kissing it “baci”. Although the rules of the game are far from romanticized (the name comes from the Latin word bottia, meaning boss), the sport is considered to be both “simpatico e popolare”.  The name of the game is Bocce, a game with an international flavor that Italians have perfected  where athleticism is not limited by age . Everyone begins on an equal playing field or in this case a 60 feet by 8 feet “court”, “rink” or “alley”.

La Bocce vita can be highly competitive yet social. Bocce players can often be seen with a ball in one hand and a glass of wine (or can of beer)  in the other. No special equipment is needed to play bocce other than a good set of balls and the most prestigious ones come from Italy. According to Perfetta, an Italian bocce manufacturer that makes bocce sets used by the best Italian players and bocce champions in the world, a good bocce ball must be technically sound to “roll true and straight”.  Super Martel , another Italian company from Ferrara, has a  computerized processing system for making the ball perfectly spherical (one of the most important features of this sport) and has some rockin colors like nero-giallo, bianco-azzurro and rosso-fluo.

A good way to spend a happy hour, there is a definite leisurality to the game and although simple to learn bocce takes a long time to get good at, a metaphor for “la dolce vita”. I’ve watched bocce in Italy, I’ve played with my family and friends. Now I think it’s time to get some balls of my own and maybe this summer build that DIY bocce court in my backyard.