Chianti, Casks and Irises

iris florencePerfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.

In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.iris

Florence’s Once Abandoned Orphan

DavidYou do know that the 17 foot statue in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria is an imposter, a body double of Michelangelo’s David. The original “Davida” is safely housed under a doomed rotunda in Florence’s Accademia Gallery safe from the elements and the city’s roosting pigeons. After all, he’s been through a lot and the somewhat insulated environment of a museum seems a safe and sound place for David to call home.

For almost 400 years he stood in front of the town hall subject to the vagaries of Florentine politics which were not for the faint of heart. In 1527 he lost his left arm and hand in a civil disturbance when opponents of the government hurled stones at the statue. Before that he was an abandoned orphan, an unfinished block of marble for almost 20 years. He was thought to be too massive in size, too difficult to work with and of poor quality. It wasn’t until Michelangelo took an interest in this partially chiseled block of marble that he came to life. First as a proud symbol of the Florentine Republic, then as an expression of classic antiquity and sculptural greatness and now one of the most copied and recognizable figures in the world.

Today David’s celebrity goes way beyond the original intent when it was set in the piazza in 1504. Florence’s one abandoned orphan can be found on everything from refrigerator magnets to men’s cologne. Viewing David is an obligatory part of a “show and tell ” tour of Florence making David one of the most sought after celebrities in the world. Having a body double is certainly understandable.

Italian Selfies

Fillippino Lippi Uffizi
Fillippino Lippi (1457-1504)

Did you know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has one of the largest collections of portraits in the world?

Lining the walls of the Vasari Corridor, the hidden elevated  walkway that links Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace, are paintings by, among others, Tintoretto, Giordano, Rubens, Rembrandt, Corot, Larsson and Chagall. Uffizi curators hope to make the longest single passageway of portraits in the world and they are well on their way with over 1600 self-portraits currently in the collection. Just another reason for you to visit Florence in Italy, a country where you can find 60% of the world’s art treasures and 40% of those treasures in the city of Florence.

Renaissance artists share gallery space with contemporary painters from all over the world and include some of the most famous masters of painting from the 16th to the 20th century. Far from the “flash-blinded” self-portraits taken on cell phones these selfies in total would certainly have broken Ellen DeGeneres’ retweet record of her star-studded selfie group shot at the 2014 Oscars.

Wedding Planners of the Renaissance Create Una Stravaganza

It’s June, the traditional month for weddings. Historically, June has always been the most popular month for tying the knot. Nice summer weather, in-season flowers and the higher number of outdoor venues make it an attractive month for a party.  Wedding planners are busy with the details, dates and unexpected family drama that need to be handled to make sure the day of your dreams is a Romeo an Juliet event.

Planning a wedding for the royal courts of the Renaissance was a daunting task.  Bridzillas like Lucrezia Borgia, Caterina d’ Medici and the d’Este daugthers from the court of Ferrara demanded only the very best. These divas of the Renaissance and their families were the Kardashians of the day. In this case a Pope, a duke and lavish courts staged spectacular choreographed events to celebrate the occasion. Music, dance, masques, plays with elaborate sets were the stage for the wedding festa which could last for days.

Lucrezia Borgia (daughter of Pope Alexander VI)  had several weddings. Political alliances and strategic arrangements for power and money were often the reason for marriages in the Renaissance and Lucrezia was the poster child for matrimonial manipulations. Her first wedding was an opulent affair that took place in the Vatican with 500 ladies as her bridesmaids. Another more private, and yet another to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, was a event that resulted in the creation of Italy’s iconic pasta tagliatelle to celebrate the long, golden ribbon-like tresses of the bride’s hair.

Caterina d’Medici’s marriage to the future King Henry II of France was officiated by the Pope and commemorated by a wedding portrait   painted by Renaissance master Giorgio Vasari  who incorporated it into the décor of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. The wedding was documented as being a grand affair with the bridegroom participating in a joust.  As Queen of France Caterina was known for lavish and spectacular entertainments at court, called “magnificences” where  leading artists and architects of the day created  dramas, dances, music and elaborate special effects. Banquets were held in meadows, entertainments lasted for several days and food influenced by the sauces and seasonings of Florentine Italy (the use of giblets, truffles, olive oil, artichokes, pasta, parsley, spinach, crepes, custards, ices, sweetbreads, truffles and zabaglione) became part of French cuisine due to the influence of Caterina.

Not to be outdone by their sister-in-law (Lucrezia Borgia), Beatrice and Isabella d’ Este had weddings worthy of a Renaissance InStyle feature article. Prior to a magnificent banquet which followed her wedding ceremony, Isabella rode through the streets of Ferrara on a horse draped in gems and gold and Beatrice received a painting of herself as a wedding gift from Leonardo da Vinci.

medici and flooding of pitti by orazio scarabelli ,ock sea battle naumachiaBut if you thought that elaborate Renaissance nuptuals only focused on the bride, think again. When former cardinal and Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando de’ Medici married the French princess Christine of Lorraine ten months of preparations culminated in an event that lasted for a month. The Medici wedding of 1589 included the flooding of the courtyard  of the Palazzo Pitti for mock naval battles against the Turks, a soccer match and comedies in the Medici Theater with splendid costumes and stage designs. Said to be  one of the greatest court weddings in all of history it was a landmark in Renaissance art and architecture, theatre, music and political ceremonies.

Monochromatic Medici –the Church and Chapels of San Lorenzo

san_lorenzoThe Medici were living large from the 13th to the 17th century. This powerful Florentine family produced three popes (Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI), numerous rulers of Florence (notably Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of some of the most famous works of Renaissance art) and later members of the French and English royalty. They ate, drank and made merry and some would say led Italy into the Renaissance. Through banking and commerce they achieved great wealth and political influence throughout Europe.

So I was very surprised when I first saw the unassuming Church of San Lorenzo ,the official church of the Medici where six of the Medici dukes are buried as well as other family members. Michelangelo was commissioned to create a chapel of tombs for the Medici family. His famous
sculptures of Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day are to be found here. The other part of the Medici Chapels is a domed octagonal room where the grand dukes themselves are buried. I like the gray and white interior and austere facade of San Lorenzo and I’m glad that Michelangelo left Florence without completing the exterior of the basilica. Work was abruptly cancelled by his financially-strapped patrons before any real progress had been made and the basilica lacks a facade to this day.

Don’t Get Caught in Area C

parking_discThis was not my first traffic ticket in Italy but it was one that definitely screamed I should have known better. Most of my previous tickets had been for parking violations. Either I let the time on my parking disc expire or decided to tempt fate by parking in a restricted area. Not an area that was clearly posted as divieto parcheggio or divieto di sosta (Italian for no parking) but a less conspicuous blue lined area which in Italy is a no parking space.

My previous tickets all involved immediate feedback; a notice on the window of my rental car and a follow-up trip to the local post office. Unlike the US, Italy’s poste italiane is not just for sending packages. Most Italians are there to pay bills; electric bills, phone bills but you can also take care of your traffic tickets at the post office. My Italian cousins took me there and showed me how to pay my fine (about 35 EU at the time) to the amusement of the Italians standing in line watching gli americani struggle with Italian bureaucracy.

The traffic citation I am writing about today arrived  at my home address 7 months after the fact in an official looking envelope from the Commune di Milano. Written on stationary with the colored seal of the city of Milan it was presented with an impressive security stamp and signed Resp. Del. Proc. Dott. Tullio Mastrangelo.  It eloquently began with “Dear Madam, Dear Sir and ended with we hereby inform you that a fine has been imposed  . . . in violation of the Italian Highway Code”. Not for parking, not for speeding but for driving in the infamous Area C, a restricted or limited traffic zone (ZTL – Zona a Traffico Limitato) in the center of the city designed to reduce pollution by limiting traffic and promoting “sustainable mobility and public  transport”.

I’m all for that but let the driver beware, traffic ticketing in Italy is at an all time high. In 2009  an article in the Florentine stated that “every 40 seconds, a motorist in Florence receives a traffic violation with police issuing approximately 90 tickets every minute”. That translates to 1,253 tickets a day making Florence one of Italy’s most heaviest fined cities.  Huge volumes of vehicular traffic in cities like Milan, Florence, Pisa and other Italian cities have ZTL and pedestrian-only areas in the historical and hotel district where only cars with special permits may enter. These areas are posted but can be easily overlooked especially by tourists. Some navigational systems like Garmin have created digital maps of Area C zones to alert motorists of current restrictions.

Contrary to popular opinion driving in Italy is not an extreme sport. Motorways are good and Italian motorists do not all drive Ferrari’s but driving in Italy can be extremely expensive if you don’t pay attention to driving restrictions. Like our Area 51 Italian Area C zones are off limits and crossing the border without proper authorization can get you in trouble.

Driving ticket 2

A Breath from the Renaissance

A weary traveler could benefit from knowing about the ancient workshops and antica farmacia (pharmacies) where healing ingredients from nature create an Italian sense of benessere. They can be found all over Italy if you know where to look.

Behind an unassuming entrance on Via della Scala 16 down the street from the Santa Maria Novella train station is one of the oldest farmacia in Florence, Santa Maria Novella Farmacia also known as the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. A fragrant universe filled with terra-cotta jars and gilded urns that was already well-known in Dante’s time. It was established in the 13th century by the Dominican friars of Florence who began to cultivate and prepare medicinal plants and herbs used in the treatment of the sick. Many of the products available for purchase today are based on the ancient recipes of the friars.

SMN products are truly unique. Soaps are made by hand, molded with antique equipment and aged like a fine cheese. Potpourri are made from flowers and herbs grown in the Florentine hills. Ancient and evocative preparations like elixir Alkermes (a rare but obtainable exlir said to offset weary and lazy spirits) were formulated by friar-chemists. There are calming waters for tired or puffy eyes, an aromatic vinegar (Aceto dei Sette Ladrei) said to be useful for fainting spells and an antihysteria water which I am pleased to say I haven’t needed yet. One of the first alcohol based perfumes, Aqua della Regina, was created here for Caterina de’Medici, an essence she took with her when she became the Queen of France. Every time I travel to Florence I live the life of a Medici princess and buy soaps, scented wax tablets and carta d’Armenia, little strips of paper  that smolder and freshen the air with a breath from the Renaissance.

Although the frescoes and imposing salons of SMN  Farmacia may seem more like a museum than a working pharmacy, don’t let the ornate interior and gilded furnishings deter you. There is much to see and enjoy and there is an English lista of everything in the shop. The sales staff is open to polite requests for information and help (although I have heard otherwise). Just plan what you would like to buy and ask for it with intention.