The terraces of Lake Como and Bellagio, the lagoons and calli of Venice, Juliet’s balcony and strolling along the Adige in Verona, castle turrets, beautiful and historic cities, romantic gardens, inspiring statutes and works of iconic art, breathtaking landscapes that can’t possibly be real. Italy is a country of allure and romance. Mysterious and adventurous; a country of special places where physical boundaries seems to meet the spiritual world. It is easy to develop a deep and often unexplainable emotional relationship with a country that promises so much. Travelers come to Italy with all sorts of expectations. The best leave with memories that last a lifetime and play over again to make you happy and smile and return for more.
I have many romantic remembrances of Italy like those described above but there is a scenic strand of coastline along the Brenta River that links Venice to Padua that I fantasize about with a longing. It is known as the Brenta Riviera (Rivera del Brenta ). Architects, such as Palladio, designed summer residences (villas) for wealthy Venetians who were looking for a diversion from the summer heat of Venice. They would take “designer” barges known as a burchielli floating along the Brenta Canal (naviglio Brenta), stopping along the way to party. A floating version of a palazzo “schifanoia” like the Renaissance palace in Ferrara built for the Este family for diversions (delizie), a sort of banqueting house whose only purpose was for fun and recreation. The name “schifanoia” is thought to originate from “schivar la noia” meaning literally to “escape from boredom” and avoid the tedium of city life.
The barges were able to navigate through the shallow river and were pushed by oars from St. Mark’s in Venice (Piazza San Marco) through the Venetian lagoon to Fusina then pulled by horses along the Brenta. It is possible to follow the historical route of the 18th century Venetian in historical replicas of burchielli and motor barges navigating the Brenta from Padua to Venice viewing the villas along the way including Villa Foscari (La Malcontenta) Villa Widmann in Mira and Villa Pisani in Stra. I have driven S11 that runs along most of the canal’s length. We did this with our Italian cousins and stopped at Trattoria Porto Menai dall’ Antonia along the canal in Mira for a spectacular feast of scampi giganti griglia (giant shrimp, grilled) and other assorted seafood with prosecco. My drive and sightseeing along the canal was the beginning of an evocative romance with the Brenta.
One can only imagine a trip along the Brenta in the burchielli of the noble Venetians, entertaining their guests with comedians and musicians, slowly floating down the river in colorful, elegant barges decorated with mirrors and carvings traveling to their country villas as the life of the canal revealed itself with craftsmen’s workshops and fisherman along the banks. The 18th century Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni describing the anticipation of the villa season wrote “Tis time to set out for the villa. O’ longed for moment come at last. What anguish we’ve endured fearing we shouldnever go”. A romantic notion of Italy.
The Church of San Geminiano in Venice has faced many challenges. One of great architecturalchurches of Venice it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in the course of its history. Located in Piazza San Marco, on the opposite side to the Basilica, it was among the most decorated churches of Venice in the 16th century and displayed paintings by a number of prominent artists including Tintoretto and Veronese. Described in a book of the time by Francesco Sansovino as “being lavishly decorated within and encrusted with marble and Istrian stone on the outside, extremely rich and well-conceived in design, judged by everyone to be almost like a ruby among pearls”.
Now one of the lost churches of Venice, history records it to have been first built on the site in the sixth century as a gift to Venice by the Byzantine general Narses for help given by the Venetians at the siege of Ravenna.
The up and down history of the destruction and rebuilding of San Geminiano was effected by a series of fires, natural disasters and human whims that began in 976. In the early 13th century the church was again brought down as part of a major work on the Palazzo Ducale directed by Doge Sebastiano Ziani. The church was demolished by the Doge as it was right in the middle of the planned piazza.
During the the French occupation of the city in 1807 the church was again demolished by Napoleon to make room for the staircase of Napoleon’s Palazzo Reale.In the Handbook for Travelers in Northern Italy published in 1842, the author wrote that the destruction of San Geminiano was an example of “Gallic vandalism” as many of the works of art inside the church were either lost or scattered between Italy and other countries, placed in other churches or sold to private collectors.
It is reported that an altarpiece from the church, Tintoretto’s The Angel Foretelling Saint Catharine of Her Martyrdom, had been bought by David Bowie in 1987. After his death in 2016 it was acquired by an unnamed European collector. It will return to Venice for the 2019 Biennale for an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale. Following the exhibition, the altarpiece will remain in the Doge’s Palace on long-term loan. Proving that you can’t keep a good church, or in this case its altarpiece, down.
I stood under the oculus and felt the light shining down on me. Like a crew member on the Starship Enterprise or a saint chosen by God, I felt I could be beamed up at any moment and transported to another time and place even into heaven.
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. Commissioned in various forms by a series of Roman Emperors, the Pantheon as we know it is associated with the power and divine authority of the Emperor Hadrian who claimed it to be a perfect sphere resting in a perfect cylinder 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”.
The impression created by the concentrated light of the oculus or opening at the top of the dome that illuminates the inner rotunda created such an effect that when Michelangelo first saw the Pantheon acclaimed it as “angelic and not of human design”. No CGI program or special effects department could duplicate the intensity and brilliance of this moving disc of light against the stark concrete dome.
Historians have found that the beaming light of the Pantheon is very particular at certain times of the year. Every Summer Solstice at Midsummer on June 21 the sun reaches closest to the center of the Pantheon. The oculus or Great Eye in the ceiling of the Pantheon concentrates the light of the sun’s solstice rays so that they shine from the oculus through the front door . The drama and spectacle of this blinded by the light phenomenon entering through the massive domed roof is a wonder.
Of all the great buildings constructed during the peak of the Roman Empire, only this one still stands. Described as 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), and 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 monumental construction projects (the Pantheon inspired Brunelleschi’s dome for the Cathedral in Florence, Bramante’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica and the US Capitol building) from Michelangelo to Thomas Jefferson it remains an inspiration to always strive towards the Light.
The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is about to begin. Labeled “the greatest spectacle in racing” it is one of the iconic races of the world. This year Mario Andretti, an Italian-born American racer who over a five decade long career, contested the Indy 500 an astonishing 29 times and won in 1969 will be celebrating that 50th anniversary win at the brickyard.
Italians are no strangers to speed . The past and current history of Italian auto racing from Monza’s Grand Prix to Italy’s Mille Miglia, a thousand mile open endurance race notorious for fast cars and fatal crashes, may have began with the fast and furious chariot races of Rome. But the allure of Italian motor racing goes beyond the sound of carburetors and the endurance and courage of its drivers. There is a beauty in Italian racing that extends from the exquisite design of Italian coach builders (carrozziere) to the course itself. The Mille Miglia, known as the most beautiful race in the world, begins today on a figure-eight route from Brescia to Rome passing through some of the most beautiful cities and scenery in Italy including Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Siena and Mantua. Known as la corsa piu bella del mondo the race was first run in 1927 winding, climbing and driving through the classic countryside of Medieval and Renaissance Italy.
Citizens, fans, well-wishers and sightseers crowd along the route in amazement as 430* of the most fantastic cars on the planet drive by. Picnics and lunch breaks are a very Italian part of the race that began on Monday with a Holy Mass and blessing of the cars at the Duomo Vecchio in Brescia. But before the end of the race drivers will endure long (13 to 14 hours) days of driving in all kinds of weather navigating en route with a 3 volume analog logbook trying to stay on course and avoid ending up on an old Roman rocky dirt road. Arriving on Saturday’s Night of the Mille Miglia for the prize giving ceremony and a hero’s welcome as cars and drivers return from their epic journey.
*to be eligible for the race the cars need to have been created before 1957 and must have attended or be registered to the original race.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global initiative that celebrates the social, economic and political achievements of women past, present and future. On this day the world joins hands together to support, raise, inspire and motivate women across all fields of work. In Italy the day is celebrated as Festa della Donna and fragrant bouquets of bright yellow mimosa are found everywhere as a symbol of support and appreciation for women and all they do.
Over the centuries there have been many notable Italian women who have served as inspiring examples to all. Women dedicated to their families, their parents, husbands and children with talents that have extended within and beyond their communities and enriched the common culture of our world. One such woman was Giuditta Brozzetti whose name remains attached to the weaving cooperative she founded in the Northern Italian city of Perugia.
Her story begins in the middle of the First World War. As director of elementary schools for the city of Perugia she traveled the region visiting the village schools and passing farmhouses where women working in the fields tended to the animals and harvested crops to provide for themselves and their families as their husbands, brothers and fathers were at war. Brozzetti also noted that women in the villages were skilled weavers working on antique wooden looms hand-weaving textiles in the traditional way producing fabrics and ancient patterns of great beauty. Impressed by what she saw and recognizing the value in the quality and craftsmanship of their work, Brozzetti began bringing the textiles to markets in Perugia, helping to create another form of income for the rural women.
In 1921 Brozetti founded a workshop and school in Perugia to showcase the handwork of the village women and teach the traditional hand-weaving ways and heritage patterns that dated back to Umbria’s Medieval and Renaissance textile traditions.
Today in Perugia’s San Francesco delle Donne, a deconsecrated 13th-century church, the entrepreneurial spirit of Giuditta Brozzetti lives on as a community based women’s cooperative continuing the tradition of hand-weaving following the same intricate patterns as the originals, many created on antique pedal looms. Kept alive by generations of talented, committed, entrepreneurial women creating brilliant textiles that connect modern Perugia to its rich and invaluable heritage and past.
According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook on health and well-being the way to a man’s heart was apparently through a tomato. Advice given in the Tacuinum was based on an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise, the Taqwīm as‑siḥḥahتقويم الصحة (“Maintenance of Health”), and describes detailed accounts of the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants including a veiled reference to the tomato.
During the 14th century manuscripts of the handbook were commissioned by northern Italian nobility during the 14th century as a practical guide for improving health. Lavishly decorated manuscripts illustrate nobles engaged in work, play and romance and the cultivation of all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Directions for the use, preparation and experience of the plant is explained through an elaborate iconography of meaning. Feudal lords, ladies and laborers engage in the work of the estate in a world where horticulture, health and personal relationships are intertwined.
Medieval gardens with wattled fences are carefully tended to bring out the best attributes of the fruits, vegetables and those who ate and tended them. In one scene a couple embraces in a garden of eggplants implicating their aphrodisiac properties. Inanother carrots are harvested and described in the Latin text to stimulate sexual relations but slow down digestion, and that the purple type, ripe in winter, are the best. Other scenes depict harvesting dill, picking chestnuts, the usefulness and dangers of cabbage, tending marjoram and making soup.
A mixture of medicine and myth where tomatoes become botanically related to the mandrake or “love plant”, believed to inflame a man’s amorous intentions and said to be able to “lead a man like a dog”. As dogs were often used to pull out the root of the believed-to-be-bewitched mandrake with a man standing in wait to see if the dog survived the mandrake’s deathly curse, it may have seemed like the mandrake and related tomato had powers to lead a man.
When the Spanish brought the first tomato seeds to Southern Europe in the early 16th century, a large percentage of Europeans feared the perceived properties of the fruit. But around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato’s popularity grew. The Italian pomodoro (pom d’or) apple of gold was becoming a sought after ingredient, juicy, full of flavor, both tangy and sweet. Italian cooks embraced it’s use in sauces that would eventually catch the eye (and taste buds) of a Queen named Margherita. Every Italian Nonna has her favorite recipe for a tomato ragu’ or marinara that keep her sons and grandsons close to home. So it may not be so far fetched to think that the tomato has powers both in and out of the kitchen.
The scale and scope of the Renaissance was huge so it’s no surprise that keeping a calendar of the months of the year would be any different. The fresco artists of Italy’s quattrocento were masters at large scale installations and often used their art to interpret the months of the year and bring attention to the passage of time and its implications. Fresco cycles with symbols and designs that represent the astrological horoscope and seasons can be found in the salons and halls of Italy’s most renown palazzi and villas. Many 15th century fresco artists interpreted the months of the year with such stunning results that their work is among the great art of the western world.
One of my favorites is in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Painted by Francesco del Cossa and Cosimo Tura, the frescoes line the walls of the Salone dei Mese(Room of Months) in the main hall. Designed for the Estense Court of Ferrara as a retreat for pleasure and diversions (schiafonia is thought to originate from the word schivar la noia meaning “escape from boredom”) Palazzo Schifanoia is a hidden jewel on a side street of Ferrara. With a rather plain and unassuming façade, the elegant marble entry with the Estense coat of arms may be the only sign that you are about to enter into a pleasure palace filled with rare beauty and earthly delights. The allegorical frescoes of the Ciclo de Mesi (cycle of months) are considered to be one of the greatest examples of humanistic astrological Italian art making it the most glorious wall calendar I ever saw.