Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Palazzo Strozzi: "Fire and Ice" and the Russian Avante-Garde

The best mostra, or art exhibit that I went to in Florence this fall, hands down, was at Palazzo Strozzi. It's title: The Russian Avant-Garde. Siberia and the East. I spent three hours viewing this extraordinary exhibit, which included 130 pieces (79 paintings, watercolours and drawings, 15 sculptures and 36 Oriental artefacts and ethnographical objects). I almost skipped it because of the reference to Avante-Garde artists, thinking it was only about radical modern art in Russia. But I read an article about the exhibit by Nina  Lobanov-Rostovsky in the Florentine, which described the exhibit as a "synthesis of the indigenous and the exotic, examining all the elements that went into the works of Russian modernists while simultaneously highlighting the shamanistic roots that are unique to Russian art." I wanted to know more.

The author of the article believed that the title "Avant-Garde" was misleading: "In speaking with all three of the show’s curators, they made it clear that they preferred their original title, ‘Fire and Ice,’ which would have referred to the scorched deserts of the eastern Russian empire, known as Turkestan, and to its frozen Arctic regions. Most of the artists included in the show belonged neither to the early nor to the later Russian Avant-garde, a name assigned to radical, innovative artists and movements that started taking shape between 1907 and 1914."

Artists Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Pavel Filonov, Natalia Gončarova, Wassily Kandinsky, Michail Larionov and Kazimir Malevič were included in the exhibit. Though Kandinsky was the only artist I was familiar with, I found the exhibit to be not only compelling but very moving, as the works portrayed not only the creative process of the artists, but also their spiritual journey. I paid an extra 5 euros to use the audio guide for the exhibit, and am glad I did, as it gave me deeper insight into the artists and the meaning they intended to convey in their works.

From the exhibit, I learned about Kandinsky's interest in theosophy and how he explored and used symbolism in his paintings. Kandinsky believed that the artist has a mission to move others along their spiritual path with his/her work. I was introduced to the work of Natalia Gončarova and her husband, Michail Larionov, who were considered to be at the forefront of Russian art in the early 1900s.

 I viewed Neolithic stone figures, wooden sculptures, reindeer horns and even a shaman's drum. "Siberian shaman rituals, Chinese popular prints, Japanese engravings, theosophical and anthroposophical theories and Indian philosophy are some of the elements that inspired the new Russian artists and writers in the development of their aesthetic and theoretical ideas, just before the October Revolution of 1917."

I saw the exhibit on a quiet week day, when there were not many people in attendance. When I left the Palazzo, I discovered it had rained steadily while I was immersed in scenes of Siberia. I felt serene and uplifted by the exhibit, and the rain-washed streets only furthered the sense that I had experienced a watershed moment at Palazzo Strozzi. This exhibit deserves a long, quiet study, and is worthy of more than one visit.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Montelupo Fiorentino : Ceramics Museum

During my stay in Florence this year, I only ventured out of town once, to visit the ceramics museum in nearby Montelupo. My interest had been piqued after seeing Montelupo ceramic tiles covering the floors of several rooms in the Palatina Gallery at Palazzo Pitti. I headed out on a cloudy day, taking a train on the Florence to Siena line. Montelupo is only 12 miles southwest of Florence, and it takes about 20 minutes on the regional train. I went early, as the museum was only open from 10-1 that day, and ended up spending several hours viewing the display.

Montelupo Fiorentino
Montelupo Fiorentino was one of the most important centers of pottery production of the Renaissance, both in Italy and other parts of Europe. Some pieces of pottery from Montelupo have been found in archaeological sites as far away as Central America, as well as in the Philippines and Scotland.

One of the many shops selling ceramics.
In 1977, the volunteers of the Archaeological Group of Montelupo Fiorentino discovered a large well inside a nearby castle that overlooks the medieval village. It seems the well was abandoned in the 13th century, and over time came to be filled with waste from the ceramic kilns. The fragments of pottery found in the well are now displayed in the recently built Museum of Ceramics of Montelupo.

Museo della Ceramica
The Museum is well laid out , with three floors of rooms filled with ceramics, divided by time periods. Each room has an explanation of the designs and colors used in making the ceramics of that time period, along with the history of Florence and how the ceramics were used by the rulers of Florence, in particular the Medici.

Tricolor Majolica, 1480
I found the museum to be one of the more interesting ones I've visited over the years, with detailed information about how the designs and colors changed over time. These changes came about as a result of influences from other countries as well as from demands by the Medici on how the ceramics would be used. As you can see from the photos below, the designs and colors became more intricate and complex as the skills of the artisans developed over time.

Eye of the peacock's feather, 1500

1509, when the color red was first introduced at Montelupo
Ceramics used by pharmacists (the doctors of the time) to store herbs and ointments
One of my favorites!
In the second half of the seventeenth century, Montelupo experienced a considerable drop in productivity, which eventually lead to the disappearance of the furnaces that were used in the majolica industry. However, in the early 1900's, when favorable economic conditions allowed for the resumption of the production of enamelwork, Montelupo once again began to produce majolica.

"Today, Montelupo Fiorentino is one of the most important centres of Italian ceramics, devoted to the production of the raw materials and of artistic majolica for export. More than 120 workshops employ a total of about 1,300 people who produce the raw materials (clay and pigments), traditional ceramics, ceramics of contemporary design, tiles and terracotta goods." museo montelupo

Montelupo itself is a small, quiet village, with a well taken care of centro storico. I stopped in for a slice of pizza before heading back to Florence.

A mosaic fountain in the centro storico.
For anyone interested in ceramics, the Museo della Ceramica is well worth the 3 euro train ride to Montelupo.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Firenze: Aperitivi!

One of the fun activities that goes on every evening in Florence, starting at 7 p.m. is going out for aperitivi. Aperitivi are beverages that are usually served before a meal to stimulate the appetite, and are usually dry rather than sweet. However, in many cases nowadays, a glass of wine or a cocktail will do. Many ristoranti invite people to come in for a drink, and provide snacks and hot pasta in a buffet style setting. Quite often, there's enough of a spread to make a meal of it, but you only have to pay for the drink. Depending on the place, drinks cost between 6 and 15 euros each: on the lower end, it's a pretty cheap meal!

Sei Divino, Ognissanti
Haruko and I have met for aperitivi several times, in different parts of the city. Sei Divino, in Ognissanti, charged 7 euros for their drinks, and provided a great spread of food. We got there at 7 pm when they were just starting to put out the 7:45 most of it was gone! They had several kinds of crostini (small slices of bread spread with patè) and bruschetta (grilled slices of bread spread with sauces), several platters of hot pasta, and salad.

Haruko at the Play Bar
Another place we tried, Play Bar on Piazzale Michelangelo, charged 8 euros for their drinks, and the food was plenty and good, but not as tasty as the spread at Sei Divino. One advantage we had at Play Bar is that we went there on a rainy Wednesday night, and the place was pretty empty, so the food never ran out while we were there, and there were more choices of vegetables. They had many kinds of olives, marinated eggplant, zucchini, artichokes, cocktail onions and garlic, in addition to polpette (meatballs) and a cheesy pasta dish.

Bevo Vino, San Niccolo
Another kind of place that serves aperitivi is the Enoteca, or wine bar. I visited the one in San Niccolo, Bevo Vino, several times with Anne, but not during the aperitivi hour, when they usually serve tapas with their drinks. As you can see, outdoor spaces often consist of tables and chairs positioned in the streets in San Niccolo, which becomes a pedestrian area after 6 p.m.

Though I had enough presence of mind to take photos of the bars, I neglected to take photos of the food. You'll just have to imagine it!

Friday, October 25, 2013

International relations

One of the perks I most enjoy about living in Italy is the opportunity it gives me to meet people from other cultures. My Italian friends have been instrumental in giving me the "inside scoop" on Italian life and language, but I've also learned a lot from other international connections.

Haruko and I, 2008
Haruko moved here last year from Tokyo, after making many yearly visits like I do. Over the years, we've supported and encouraged each other in our love of Italy. We're both limited to three months in our length of stay unless we apply for a special visa called permesso di soggiorno, which requires proof of being able to support yourself while you're in Italy. After spending several years making connections with other expats, Haruko landed a job working for a company that caters to Japanese weddings in Europe, and helps to make the necessary arrangements for those events, mainly in Italy and France. She now has a permesso that can be renewed yearly. Since we're both in Florence at the same time this year, we've had the chance to hang out often, going out for dinner or aperitivi, or just walking around centro and enjoying being together again in Italy.

Paola is a native Florentine that I met in 2006, and we try to meet up whenever I'm in Florence. She speaks English fluently and teaches English for Specific Purposes in Italian high schools. She has also written a series of books on the topic: Learning English for Engineering, for Design, for Tourism, for Business, etc. I recently invited her over for dinner (I made roasted carrot and leek risotto, which she pronounced to be excellent, high praise indeed!) and she shared a new project with me. She's developed a new method for teaching language, and has made protoypes (both book and computer) in three languages. She had an interview this week with an international publisher while attending a book fair in Frankfort, so I'm eager to hear how it went. Her ideas and prototypes were very impressing and inspiring. If her books sell, her hope is to be able to spend more time living in England, her favorite place to be. Brava, Paola!

Friends from Norway: Anne, Gitte and Mio
Anne is a new friend from Norway, who lives in the same apartment building that I do in San Niccolo. Anne has come to Italy to experience the life of an apprentice and record her experiences as a project for her post graduate studies. After teaching art in Norwegian schools, she noticed the lack of apprenticeship options, that it was a dying art in Norway. So rather than coming to learn about a specific type of art restoration, she's planning to work with several accomplished restorers of paper, wood, paintings and ivory. Her notebook is filled with writings and drawings about her experiences. In a few short weeks, she's lined up work in several botteghe (workshops) that will keep her busy for the 15 months that she'll be in Florence. Lucky for her, as a European citizen, she can stay in Italy as long as she likes without having to get a permesso di soggiorno.

Digging in on a dessert of Tomino cheese, honey and walnuts
Through Anne, I met her friend Gitte, who came to visit from Norway with her son Mio, and the four of us had several chances to eat together and have long conversations about our cultures. Since they already know a lot about the United States, we've mainly focused on what it's like to live in Norway, which is truly unknown to me. And it's so interesting! Anne, for example, was brought up in a remote part of Norway, where her childhood was filled with pagan traditions and Norwegian myth. Gitte has Danish relatives and once dated a Finnish man, so she had information on other Scandinavian cultures and how they interact (or not). Despite our cultural differences, it's surprising how many things we have in common, including the kind of incense we like to use, the books we've read, and the interests we have. And of course, our love of Italy!

These sketches give some idea of the opportunities available to learn about other cultures while living in Florence. There are many expats living here: people who have come to visit and can't bring themselves to leave. I find it a rich and stimulating experience to be in the company of others who are challenging themselves by traveling and living here, or in Paola's case, leaving Italy to experience other cultures. We encourage and inspire each other, which can be comforting when we are questioning our sanity about why we're here.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bentornata (Welcome home)

Ponte Vecchio
 A few parting shots of Florence, with color added by my gimpy camera. Kinda cool, I think!

San Lorenzo market
Ponte Vecchio from Ponte alle Grazie
Though it was touch and go at every stop on my flight home, I made it home safe and sound. On the flight from Paris to New York, I sat next to a woman who'd had her passport and wallet stolen in Barcelona, along with all her identification, credit cards and money. So my snafu with the cancelled flight seemed a minor inconvenience, in comparison. I spent the extra weekend enjoying the weather, the company of friends, and the beauty of Florence. I'll be going back soon enough to the same setting, so it's only a temporary parting.

At JFK, I was happy to see that the Customs declaration has been automated, making the process so much faster than the last time I passed through that airport. However, after going through Customs, I had the longest shuttle ride ever to get to another terminal for my flight to Kansas City. I arrived just as they were boarding: sigh of relief!

A fresh pot of Minestrone
My son Jesse picked me up at the airport, and surprised me at home with a fresh pot of Minestrone that he'd made. There was also a bouquet of zinnias from my garden, flowers that I'd planted in the spring. What a great welcome home!

Zinnias from the garden
It's a bit cooler in Lawrence than it was in Italy, and the trees are sporting their fall colors. I took some time the other day to get a few shots of the most colorful ones near my house.

Fall foliage in Lawrence
Since I lost the journal in which I write about my travels, I'm trying to recreate some of the events of the past month and will have more posts coming up soon. I'm thankful that writing on this blog has enabled me to record the highlights of my journey.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lo Sciopero (It's another Strike!)

The strike notice
Now for a lesson in the UNFUN things that can happen in Italy. They're calling it Venerdì Nero: Black Friday. It's the dreaded sciopero....they happen all too often, sometimes with little advance warning. Other times they are advertised a week in advance in newspapers or on flyers, like the one above from 2011, which lays out the exact time the strike will go on. (From the start of service to 6 am, from 9:15 - 11:45, then from 3:15 to the end of service, probably midnight. This means that people can get to work between 6-9:15, but won't have a way to get home.) Since I hadn't been reading Italian newspapers this week, I was not forewarned. The current strike was a protest in response to new austerity measures proposed this week.

So far I've managed to avoid the brunt of the Italian propensity to strike. When they happen, trains, buses or planes will stop running, sometimes for a few hours at a time, or like today, for 24 hours. And it usually seems to happen on Monday or Friday. I've been inconvenienced when the regional trains or city buses didn't run. But today I got broadsided.

When I got to the Florence airport at 5:30 a.m. to catch a 7:00 flight, I heard the word "strike" and knew I was in trouble. All the Alitalia flights had been cancelled, and all flights operated by Alitalia would be cancelled throughout the day. Oh boy, what does that mean? I've been very fortunate in all my travels abroad so far to have never missed a flight or had one cancelled on me. Until today.

I always fly with Delta, but to fly out of Florence, which does not have an international airport, many major airlines rely on Alitalia to get their clients to larger airports, like Paris, Rome and Amsterdam. I was scheduled to fly to Amsterdam on the first leg of my journey, then on to Minneapolis and Kansas City. flight. What's next? We were ushered to a line where we stood for about an hour while they re-ticketed everyone. Some people were rerouted to flights in Pisa and Bologna, and buses were provided to get them to those airports. Some would have to spend the night at the new destination. When it came to my flight, the news was different: I would have to wait two days before they could get me out of Florence. To be honest, it didn't bother me that much. I figured I could go back to the flat I'd rented or stay with friends. An unruffled agent booked me on flights to Paris, JFK and then Kansas City. Not my preferred route, but I can live with it. And I'd rather stay in Florence than face an unknown situation in Pisa or Bologna.

I left the airport and took a shuttle back to the city center. I sent a text message to Eleonora, the woman I'd rented the apartment from, asking if I could stay an extra two nights. I planned some back-up options: I could stay with Anne, who lives in the same apartment building, or go to an inexpensive hotel that I've frequented many times. Luckily, Eleonora agreed to let me stay, free of charge, and would meet me at the flat to give the keys back to me. So far, so good.

I got on a bus that goes to San Niccolo, only to learn that the bus would not be running after all, as there was a protest going on and traffic was stalled. Ah, Italy! I hauled my luggage back off the bus and waited with others in the same predicament. At some time or another, the buses would be running again. I chatted with tourists visiting from Amsterdam and Greece. After thirty minutes or so, another bus came ambling along. It was then that I realized I'd left one of my bags on the first bus. It was an overflow bag, nothing special, with an old sweater, some gifts I'd been given, and others I'd bought to take home. But I'd also put my new ticket and itinerary in the bag. And worst of all, the journal I'd been keeping of my travels was stashed in there. Uh-oh.....I need that bag!

I asked the driver what to do, and he told me to talk to some men in a kiosk across the street. When I went there, they told me to go back to the bus stop and wait for each bus on that bus line and ask the driver if they had found my bag. I did that for several buses, but the drivers were so rude (one even refused to acknowledge that I was speaking to him, and walked away) that I gave up and took the next bus to San Niccolo. I was told I could try the lost items office later in the day to see if the bag had been turned in. Okay.

I got back to the flat, got settled and called Delta on Skype about sending me an email with the new itinerary and confirmation code. An agent agreed to do that. I went out to get some lunch and ran into some of my new friends at a nearby osteria. Great! A pleasant diversion. When I returned to the flat, I hadn't received anything from Delta, so I decided to find out where the lost objects office is located. Get this: it's only open M-F from 9am to 12:30 pm. It was already past 3 pm on a Friday and I'm leaving on Sunday. So I figured that bag is a goner. I'm just glad I didn't have anything costly, like my passport, camera, phone, tablet or wallet in the bag.

I called Delta again, and this time got a wonderfully helpful and patient guy who tracked down the itinerary that Alitalia had created for me, and had them send me an email with the information I need for the flights. Great! I'm all set! And a friend offered to go to the lost objects office next week and see if my bag shows up. If it does, she can save it for my next trip here and send me the journal.

The upshot is that I have two more days to hang out in Florence with my friends, I have one less bag to carry, and I have a comfortable place to stay. Let's hope the flights on Sunday will go smoothly. Tonight I'll lay low, drink some wine that I'd planned on bringing home, and hit the hay early. I'm more upset about the loss of my journal than anything else. Two months of my thoughts and experiences gone! Sure am glad I have this blog to remind me of many things that happened.

Moral of the story: if you come to Italy, you have to learn to go with the flow and see what happens. Things will work out, one way or another. In the meantime, find some way to enjoy the delay. Tomorrow I'll enjoy the great weather and dine out with friends.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Firenze: La musica : playful, exquisite and sacred

I've had had the opportunity to enjoy many different types of music during my stay in Florence, from Gregorian Chant to classical piano and street music.

Gregorian chant in San Miniato al Monte
There have been several chances to hear Gregorian chant. The first time was at San Miniato al Monte, where Haruko and I  went to hear a lay choral group of men and women performing for an hour. The next week, I went with another friend to Orsanmichele for another performance, but when I realized it was the same group I'd seen with Haruko, and they were performing the same program, I didn't stay.

Santa Maria del Fiore: The Duomo
To be honest, I was hoping to hear only men singing, so I went to the Duomo one Sunday, where the 10:30 Mass is celebrated in Latin with monks (or priests) providing the Gregorian chant. It was lovely, with the music reverberating in the vast expanse of the Duomo, and the beauty of the cupola above me...a nice way to spend an hour in contemplation.
Brunelleschi's Dome (Cupola), with frescoes painted by Vasari and Zuccari
On another occasion, I went to a piano concert by a famous Italian pianist with my neighbors Anne and Catherine. It was held in a beautiful room in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, and the acoustics were incredible. We were also sitting near the piano, which gave us an excellent opportunity to enjoy the concert up close.  The concert followed a presentation on a new exhibit at the Palazzo, and afterwards we were treated to champagne and sandwiches. The concert was truly impressive, and surprisingly, it was free.
Gregorio Nardi at Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
The room where the concert was held, la Galleria degli Specchi (Gallery of Mirrors)
There are many talented musicians in Firenze who perform on the streets. I always stop to listen and give them a euro or two for their talent and effort to entertain.

This trio was playing in Piazza Santa Croce
A tourist couple started swing dancing to the music. They were superb dancers, and fun to watch!
The quality of these street musicians is always impressive: many of them seem to be classically trained. In all of my travels, I have rarely heard any mediocre music by the street musicians in Italy. For the most part, the music is arresting because it is of such high quality.

Accordion and opera: I bought an album from this couple when I first saw them in 2006. Very talented!
Playful: A zumba demo in Piazza Signoria. Enough said.
Classical violin on a side street.
It's so lovely to be walking down the streets of Florence and hear the strains of a violin, an accordion, or the beat of a trio playing jazz in a nearby piazza. It adds to the fun of being here, and to the majesty of the beauty that surrounds you everywhere in this city of creativity.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Firenze: Forte Belvedere, Zhang Huan exhibit

“Three heads – six arms”
Another place I visited on a sunny day was Fort Belevedere, also located near San Niccolo. Though we use the word belvedere in English, we mangle the pronunciation, which is more lyrical in the original Italian:  bel vuh dare(rolled r) ay, which means beautiful view. The Fort was recently reopened after five years of closure.

Long Island Buddha
I went to Fort Belvedere to see the great views, but also to attend the exhibition “L’Anima e la Materia/Soul and Matter” by Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist based in Shanghai. "Transience is what distinguishes his work: he makes massive yet short-lived ash statues destined to unravel in the wind. Apart from the ashes of incense, Zhang Huan uses metal, leather and bronze."

The works are "...constructed from incense ash collected from Shanghai temples; a laboriously involved process of weekly gathering and sorting. This medium has multiple significations: it is the actual substance of prayers, the dust of death and rebirth, the allegorical weight of spirits. Emitting an overwhelming scent throughout the gallery space these pieces recycle the hopes and wishes of others, sharing a cathartic ambience of cleansing and purity."   -

Ash Buddha
Aluminum Buddha, used to make the Ash Buddha
Peace 2
Cowskin Buddha
Another view of “Three heads – six arms”
Ocean view : ash on linen

View of the city
View to the east, with San Miniato al Monte in the distance
Both the location and the exhibit were visually stunning, and I'm glad I was able to get there on a sunny day, two days before the exhibit was to close. On the last day of the exhibit, I visited the second part, housed in Palazzo Vecchio. Several large ash sculptures were included, including Buddha and Jesus facing each other, as if in conversation, with remnants of incense sticks still evident.

the Buddha
incense sticks sticking out of the sculpture
Zhang Huan has some interesting ideas and materials, and I'm curious to see what he comes up with next!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Firenze: Giardini e Villa Bardini

Entering the Giardini Bardini
Yesterday was a cool, sunny day, and I decided to take advantage of it by visiting Villa Bardini and its vast gardens. The entrance to the park is just up the street from my apartment, but it's a steep climb once you're in the park to reach the villa, where art exhibits are held.

A steep climb!
The garden itself is best seen in the spring and summer, when flowers are blooming, but I had the place to myself and enjoyed the incredible views of Florence and San Niccolo.

The Duomo in the distance
San Niccolo!
il drago canale : The Dragon Canal
I was especially interested in the exhibit at the villa, as it had a connection to my stay in Paris last fall.  The exhibit, Il Rinascimento da Firenze a Parigi: Andata e ritorno (The Renaissance from Florence to Paris: There and back), refers to Italian treasures of the Museum Jacquemart-André in Paris that have now returned home (albeit only for a visit).  Famous works by Botticelli, Donatello, Mantegna, and Paolo Uccello were included in the exhibit. 

 Belvedere : Beautiful view!
I had stumbled upon the Museum Jacquemart-André in Paris last fall after seeing an advertisement in the metro about an exhibit being held there of the Venetian artists Canaletto and Guardi. You can read my post from last fall here:  Paris, Day 4, 2012.

The pieces by Botticelli at Villa Bardini were especially stunning, and I found the frames on all the paintings to be of particular interest: fine old wood frames, carved by hand. It seems ironic that many paintings I saw in Paris have followed me to Florence this year! There's also an exhibit at the Modern Art Gallery in Palazzo Pitti of Impressionist paintings that I first saw in the Musee D'Orsay.  Paris, Day 1, 2012

Twelve paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas are featured. So I've had a second chance to see these stunning masterpieces.  Impressionisti a Palazzo Pitti

I'd love to see this pergola when it's covered with blooming flowers
A few roses still blooming
The park and villa are an easy walk from my apartment, and I will definitely return in the future.