Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Europe 2005’ Category

Last day in Rome: Capitoline Museums 5.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 24, 2007

Our last day in Rome, in Italy, in Europe…
We spent the morning in museums, starting with the Capitoline where we admired the massive bits of Constantine that are dotted about the entrance, found the Dying Gaul, the Boy removing a Thorn, the bird mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, assorted philosophers and the best of the busts of the emperors. Downstairs, linking the two museums is a terrific tunnel with tablets documenting all kinds of Roman writing, and some token Greek too. We had lunch in the restaurant on top of the museum overlooking the city, which once again had blessed us with perfect weather.

 My last journal entry was written at an outdoor cafe, Ristorante La Carbonara in Campo di Fiore, beside the famous bakery and near the statue of Giordano Bruno, the patron saint of Skeptics. (He was burned to death for heresy in 1600, for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun.) There was a farmer’s market in full swing, with fruit, vegetables and flowers for sale, not to mention the usual cheap copies of designer bags being sold by Africans keeping a wary eye out for the police. An energetic teenager was playing the piano accordion under the watchful eye of her patron, and we made friends with a couple of Swedish gays out walking their dog. It was a perfect night.

Posted in Dining out, Europe 2005, Italy 2005, Museums, Rome 2005, ScienceLovers pilgrimage | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Roman Ruins, 4.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 24, 2007

After a good night’s sleep we set off early to do the Roman ruins. We planned to begin with Trajan’s column and the Markets, but were distracted by a military parade at the Victor Emmanuel monument. After a great deal of messing about, they got themselves organised and put on an impressive display, complete with a marching band, the army, navy and air force, lots of dignitaries and the President of Italy, as well as a fly past of jets trailing the colours of the Italian flag. We asked one of the locals what the occasion was, but it transpires that there wasn’t one – this pomp and ceremony is almost an everyday event.

Trajan’s Column has been excavated very cleverly so that it’s possible to get quite close to the reliefs, which are still in extraordinarily good condition. (Perhaps they’re been restored?) I really like these columns because although they celebrate military victories, they show remarkable scenes from Roman life and I like the miniature stories they tell. The Markets are next to the Column, and are amazing – you can so easily imagine the hustle and bustle, even though they have spoiled the atmosphere a bit with interactive computers and interpretive displays for students inside. If it encourages Italian louts to value their culture and stop spraying graffiti all over everything, I suppose it’s worth it.

From there we did a tour of the Colosseum. It’s not until you get up close to it that you realise just how big it is, and of course it was swarming with other tourists and ‘gladiators’ wandering about looking foolish for photos. The queues to get in were horrible, so when a tout offered a tour which bypassed the wait, of course we took it – and it turned out to be very good. It was a small group, her English was good, and she had researched her story well.

On a beautiful sunny day it was strange to reflect on the human misery and cruelty to animals that was part of the spectacle, but the view of Rome from the top tier was brilliant. There was also a fascinating display of ancient artefacts inside the internal corridors, but with only one day left in Rome, it was time to move on. We went out under the Arch of Constantine to find the Palatine Museum, but our map led us astray and we ended up climbing to the top of the hill.There we saw the Domus Augustinian and the Domitian Circus, but by then we were hot and tired and we’d had enough. Just when we were starting to feel peeved because we couldn’t find the exit, there was the museum we’d been looking for! Alas, there was no congenial cafe to rest our weary feet, so we had a quick look at the displays and then pressed on for the Forum.

The ruins really are amazing. There was so much more than I had imagined, and from the Palatine it’s quite easy to work out what the buildings were. I found myself remembering my Form Two Latin text book, and its explanation of the basic layout of Roman houses, and wishing yet again that I had studied up on the gods and the order of the Roman Emperors before leaving home. We had planned to have lunch and then come back but we ended up traversing the whole complex, most of it along uneven cobblestones, clambering over rubble and endless steps and risking a ricked ankle.

It was hot, too, so we were very glad to find Cafe Alvaro exactly where it was supposed to be in Via dei Cerchi near the Circus Maximus, and we had a wonderful meal there. There were just four Japanese girls finishing a meal, and when they left it was just us – and it felt like dining with relations because Mama and Papa were having their lunch too, with their family. The fish I had was superb, and it was very nice indeed to be sitting down after being on foot from 8.30 am till about 3.oo pm!

Back at the hotel for a well-earned rest, we were tempted back outdoors by the insistent rhythmic music from a one-man-band busker in the alley outside. We had a meal at Gran Caffe Caffeteria, (great decor, dull food), and then strolled about looking for souvenirs, and I found some lovely brooches for special friends….

What a great day!

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Villa Borghese and Gallery of Modern Art, Rome, 3.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 10, 2007

We got up bright and early for our visit to the Villa Borghese, and enjoyed a stroll around the gardens while we waited for the gallery to open. Admittance is restricted to 360 people at a time, and they are very strict about the timing, so it is a very pleasant experience and one can see things properly, without a crowd around to spoil it. This was one of our best experiences in a gallery: no dreary queues and the opportunity to take our time and really enjoy it.

We bought a guide book so that we could work our way through the rooms, identifying the allegories on the ceilings, and then the paintings around the walls and the sculptures – everywhere! Cardinal Scipio Borghese (nephew of Pope Paul V) intended this villa to upgrade the importance of Rome, at a time when it was not the capital. (Italy wasn’t even a united country then, of course. Unification didn’t occur till the middle of the 19th century, when Garibaldi led the campaign to oust the assorted occupiers of the Italian states and unite them under Vittorio Emanuele in 1861. Rome and Venice were the last to join, in 1871.) Naturally, celebrating a reinvigorated Rome with magnificent artworks inspired by classical Rome meant that he himself became associated with the power of the Ancient Roman Empire (and boosted his ego). At least he had good taste!

Some people think that Bernini is too florid, but I love his sculptures. My favourites were the lifesize Daphne being turned into a laurel tree as she is pursued by Apollo in the Room of Apollo and Daphne; and The Rape of Proserpina in the Room of the Emperors. They are so lifelike that you can even see the indentations of Pluto’s hand pressing into the marble Proserpina, and Daphne’s fingers, transformed into leaves, seem like a natural extension of her body. They are magnificent.

There are fabulous paintings by Caravaggio too. They are in the Room of Silenus, and we were lucky that the ones we wanted to see were not on loan to other galleries. These treasures included Madonna of the Palafrenieri, a stunning self-portrait of the artist as Il Bacchino Malato, and most interesting of them all, St Jerome, old and scrawny but still hard at work on his scriptures while Death grins at him close by.

 From the villa, we then walked through beautiful parklands in search of the Temple of Diana and the lake. The temple was designed to look like an ancient ruin, and it’s very convincing. (Apparently there are also statues of Byron, Goethe and Victor Hugo but we’ll have to see if we can find them next time.) After getting just a little bit lost, (because the gardens are extensive) we found ourselves at – of all things – an enchanting Lost Dogs Home, called La Valle dei Cuccioli. It was such  a contrast to the LDH in North Melbourne (they do their best, but it is rather grim and forbidding in appearance) that it took us a while to work out what it was – there were cheery murals on the walls, and play places for the puppies, and a beautifully landscaped little lake with ducks. The dogs were captivating of course, especially to doglovers like us. By now I was really missing Sapphire and Chifley (who were, of course, being spoilt rotten by Aunty Glenda at home), and Tim was too, though he pretended not to.

From there we crossed the road to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. To us, modern art means 20th century art, but ‘modern’ in Rome means something different, and this gallery is devoted to works from the 18th and 19th century, though there are some from later on. It has works by Kandinsky, Cézanne, Modigliani, and there were many fine Italian impressionists that were unfamiliar to us. We saw Monet’s Water Lilies there, and also a charming portrait of The Bellelli Family by Degas, which is normally at the Musée D’Orsay. Most memorable was one which featured a couple seated in armchairs, with archaeological monuments growing organically out of their bodies and the chairs. It’s ambiguous, because it depicts people supported and enriched by their ancient Roman culture – but also burdened and taken over by it. If anyone reading this blog knows the name of this work or its artist, please let us know!

Another fantastic genre we hadn’t seen before was fascist art. These paintings were the response of artists to Mussolini’s regime from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and they are very striking. The most impressive was a massive mural of machine-like men arranged in rows one above the other, with Mussolini sternly overseeing his domain from the top. With some of these works it was easy to tell that they were not too impressed with the regime, but others appeared to embrace it whole-heartedly.

The sculptures were wonderful – a great gallery of the usual Roman gods, all conveniently labelled so that for once I could identify them easily. There was an enchanting one of a mother smiling fondly at her babe, and two superb small ones, of a conscript leaving, and then coming back home. Unlike the galleries in London and France, Italian galleries do not always seem to have inexpensive postcards of these interesting works of art for tourists to buy, and the rather expensive souvenir guide didn’t have pictures of the things I wanted to remember.

This gallery also has a very good restaurant, Cafe d’Arte, with most amiable waiters, who carved our turbot with great ceremony and aplomb! It was delightful to sit there in the peaceful sunshine, reflecting on our adventures, and dining on delicious food served with the usual excellent Italian wine.

Once again, we had a rest at the hotel, and then went out in the late afternoon to visit the Pantheon. Learning about it in books at university doesn’t prepare one for the experience of visiting a building that was built by the Emperor Hadrian in the second century but is still is daily use, not just by tourists but for regular worship in the parts that are roped off. Now, the ‘temple of all the gods’ hosts shrines from the Tomb of Raphael to the kings of modern Italy, and there are numerous chapels lined with wondrous artworks, but the dome, and its central hole providing the only light, is just as it was. It’s an enormous space, and it was full of people, but there was only a soft echo as they whispered to each other out of respect for the numerous nuns and priests attending mass in one of the chapels. It is a mystical experience to be there, where shafts of light from the dome pierce the gloom just as they did nearly 2000 years ago. I loved it.

From the Pantheon we went on to find Piazza Navone. It was full of artists protesting about the mayor removing their right to be there after 35-40 years. I think he may have a point, as the so-called Festival of Reading was just a bookshop under a marquee, and the ‘artists’ were churning out endless cartoons of the tourists. It’s not like Montmartre in Paris, where you can still see artists of some talent actually painting and drawing…

And then, quite by accident because we weren’t looking for it, we discovered the Church of S. Minerva. It’s actually a basilica, and was built (in the 13th century) on the foundations of a temple to Minerva. What a treat! It’s Rome’s only Gothic church, and everywhere you look there are frescoes, statues, paintings, portrait busts, and sarcophagi. The roof, with its soaring arches and frescoes of St Thomas Aquinas (by Lippi) is breathtaking. Fra Angelico’s tomb was there, (along with a couple of popes) as well as Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross, still chastely covered to suit the prudes.

Rome by night is wonderful!

Posted in ArtLovers pilgrimage, Dining out, Europe 2005, Italy 2005, Rome 2005 | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Sistine Chapel & the Palazzo Barberini, Rome 2.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 9, 2007

We were picked up at the hotel by our guide, and then set off for the Vatican for the Sistine Chapel tour. Although tourists do it every day, I found it curious to drive in through the entrance and find myself in an entirely separate state, guarded somewhat laconically by gentlemen in Swiss uniforms. Apparently the Vatican has about 1500 citizens, but nobody (not even the Pope) has only Vatican citizenship. The Vatican issues only diplomatic passports, so all its citizens are diplomats, which must come in handy when trying to get out of parking tickets in Rome.
The queue was the longest I’ve ever been in, but our guide, Dani, made it endurable with witty chat and a wicked sense of humour. She warned us, however, not to dawdle off because once inside, there would be no way of finding each other again in the crowds. It was imperative to keep in sight the cheeky red loveheart she held up on a stick to guide us, and how right she was!

There was no sign of the new Pope Benedict XVI but I suppose he may have been busy checking his inventory – there’s a lot of loot in the Vatican. On our way in through the Museum, Dani pointed out some of the expensive gifts given to the Pope by Napoleon – he knew the right way to get a blessing for his enterprises in Rome when the Vatican became a separate state! On our next trip to Rome I want to have a closer look at these priceless things, because we were rushed past most of it in a bit of a blur.

Being in the Sistine Chapel that we had heard so much about was an amazing experience. It is a chapel, and there is some attempt to maintain the silence and dignity that a chapel deserves, so although one is cheek by jowl with hundreds of other tourists, there are only hushed whispers and the rustle of people moving about and pointing at the things they have come to see. The paintings on the wall (Perugino, Botticelli, Rossellini, Ghirlandaio, Signorelli, and the Last Judgement by Michelangelo) are magnificent but we were overwhelmed by the magic of the ceiling frescoes. (This was when I was very glad to have brought the opera glasses from home). To think that the conception, the design and the execution of the artwork on the ceiling was the work of one man who thought of himself as a sculptor not a painter, is just astonishing. We weren’t allowed to take photos , but it would have been impossible to do justice to these massive artworks anyway with our paltry cameras, so click the link here to see the frescoes – and make plans to go and see them yourself if you can.

Dani had told us to look out for amusing aspects of Michelangelo’s work and it was fun to find them in his painting of The Last Judgement. Michelangelo’s battles with the cardinal were legendary: Cardinal Carafa did not approve of the nudes. In retaliation for criticism that the paintings were obscene by the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, Biagio da CesenaMichelangelo immortalised his critic’s face as the door-keeper Minos, complete with ass’s ears and among the damned in hell . He also included his own face in The Last Judgement and on the ceiling as a kind of autograph – apparently it was against the rules of decorum for an artist to sign his name on a work in a church, (although Perugina did it above his baptism scene) and Michelangelo had been outraged to learn that another artist had been taking the credit for his Pieta. Since he worked on these frescoes for four years, from 1508 to 1512, lying on his back day after day, I think he was entitled to do as he pleased…

Alas, the tour did not allow for dawdling through the museum again (crowd control, I suppose – apparently they get 20,000 visitors a day in the chapel) so we were led briskly out via a stunning staircase with two separate spirals for going up and down. But Tim still managed to take some beautiful photos of the Pope’s backyard…


We made our way out into a broad avenue called Via Della Conciliazione where enthusiasts could buy souvenirs and the weary could relax over lunch in one of the cafes. Apparently the locals don’t like this avenue, because it means that St Peter’s is visible in all its glory from a distance, when they would rather that visitors came upon it almost by surprise. I do not understand this preference for clutter rather than spaciousness, and I thought the avenue seemed very appropriate for such an important building, even if it was Mussolini’s idea.

We then had the usual break to recuperate at the Hotel Regno, and in the late afternoon set out to explore the North East and Via Veneto. We watched cats scampering about amongst the Roman ruins in Piazza Sallustio, and made our way through heavy crowds and dense traffic in search of the Palazzo Barberini.

By then it was getting late and we were not expecting it to be open, but it was, and we had the place almost to ourselves! A splendid but rather gloomy staircase by Borromini took us to a series of galleries which house the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, holding works by Filippo Lippi, El Greco , Raphael, not to mention Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. The biggest surprise was finding Holbein’s wedding portrait of Henry VIII (to No 4, Anne of Cleves) because I had always assumed it was somewhere in England, (and it would be interesting to know why it isn’t).

By the time we’d explored everything the Barberini had to offer we were starving, so we found a very good seafood restaurant nearby, tucked in, and then made our way back to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

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Rome 1.11.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on November 11, 2006

And so to Rome….
We had seen a little of it en route to Positano when we dropped off our luggage at the Hotel Regno , and been captivated by what we saw as the taxi from the train station circumnavigated the traffic. It is the most enchanting city and twelve months later we are still hankering to go back there.

We arrived fairly late after our day in Pompeii, so we had a simple pasta at a cafe not far from the hotel, and then an early night. The Hotel Regno is a very comfortable and friendly place, centrally located on the Via del Corso, close to shops and walking distance to the best of Rome’s attractions. Our window overlooked a little walkway where there were good restaurants, interesting shops and sometimes buskers, but with double-glazing we didn’t realise just how noisy it could be until we opened them. With the window shut it was always quiet enough for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, a Bank holiday in Rome, we took a rather forgettable Bus ‘N’ Boat tour to orientate ourselves and then explored the Piazza Del Populo. This piazza is pleasingly symmetrical with twin churches, Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto either side of Via Del Corso, and there are two beautiful fountains at either end, one of Neptune and two consorts, and the other of one of the gods surrounded by allegories of the Horn of Plenty. Not for the first time, I wished I could remember more about the Roman gods. There is an Egyptian obelisk in the centre, and (at this time of the year when the summer tourists are gone) a peaceful atmosphere.

We stopped for a splendid late lunch at Cafe Canova where Frederic Fellini used to go. No one was eating inside, so I asked, in my uncertain Italian, if we might eat indoors and were ushered by a most amiable waiter to a lovely alcove decorated in 1930s style and surrounded by B&W photos of Fellini and his films, including Sophia Loren and the pneumatic Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. The waiters were most attentive and the lasagna was nice too. Tim had a carpaccio di Pesce, which he has since learned to make at home: super-thin slices of raw fish with EV oil, lemon juice and green peppercorns.

After a rest at the hotel, we took a walk and wandered about in the adjacent piazza. This was a good opportunity to scour the souvenir shops for little gifts for friends and family, and a shawl or two for me. Girls in Rome sling these shawls artfully over their shoulders in the cool of the morning, and stuff them in a handbag as the day warms up. Just the thing for Melbourne’s spring and autumn weather too…

As night fell, we found the Trevi Fountain, which was alive with tourists, but not overwhelming. (This glimpse turned out to be the closest we would get to it because the next time we saw it, it was inundated – pardon the pun!). We also discovered the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the back part of the Diocletian Baths, but it was getting late by then so we headed back for a simple dinner of Dory and chips(!) at Cafe Rosa’s where the waiter chivalrously pretended to be very impressed by our Italian. People are so kind and good-natured in Rome!

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Pompeii, Monday 31.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 1, 2006

Lisa survived the bus trip from Positano by reading the newspaper and resolutely facing the mountain and not the sea; Tim heroically took the other seat. The bus drivers, however, are the real heroes – they are brilliant, the way they cope with the narrow spaces, skilfully backing up for other buses, and ignoring stupid German tourists asking dumb questions while they’re driving! Then it was the Circumvesuvia again, a rather grubby and slow little train after the comfort and speed of the Intercity trains, but eventually we arrived at Pompeii and found our way to the site.
Having learned Latin at school, we were both familiar with the story of Pompeii and its destruction in 79AD, but visiting it is a more magical, moving experience than we had anticipated. Walking into the site in the bright sunshine was almost uncanny: it was if we could hear the sandals of the soldiers on the paving stones, or the swish of a slave girl’s skirts as she made her way to market. It’s a bit like being at Borobodur, and trying to imagine it lying undiscovered for centuries; it just seems so impossible.
Thoughtful about the transience of life, we walked through the Forum and the markets, found those tragic casts of victims immortalised in their agony forever, the bakery (which of course appealed to Tim!) and the House of the Faun.
Some of the frescoes and artefacts have been removed to the Naples museum for safe keeping (and who, seeing the graffiti here could argue about it?) but there are still many beautiful frescoes in situ.
 Tim was most intrigued by the paving stones. (I just tried not to rick my ankle on them). From ruts worn by chariots into the stones, archaeologists have been able to calculate a standard axle length to allow chariots and wagons to pass over the stones. Tim’s grandfather, Eric Harding, who wrote a book about the history of Australian railways, Uniform Railway Gauge in the 1950s, measured these chariot wheel tracks in Pompeii too, and he found that they were 4’8 1/2″ – which became the standard railway gauge in Britain, Europe, Canada and the US. For some bizarre reason, Bolshies in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland elected to build different gauged railway lines, an expensive problem, still to be resolved today…
So much to see, and only a day to do it, so of course there was much that we did not have time for, but it was a most memorable day.

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Picture Postcard Positano, 30.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 1, 2006

We loved Positano!
The journey down was a bit of a trial because we couldn’t get on the early train from Arezzo and had first to detour via Rome to stash some of our luggage at our hotel. From Rome to Naples the trip was enlived by some kindly Neapolitans who warned us repeatedly to guard our belongings against their fellow countrymen, but our brief transit through the Naples railway station to the Circumvesuvia train and on down to Sorrento passed without incident, except that there was no time for lunch.
One advantage of our arrival after dark, was that we were spared the heart-stopping views along the Amalfi Coast. The bus hurtles along at breakneck speed along a very narrow road with corkscrew bends – above the sea about a thousand feet below; this is much easier to bear cocooned in the darkness than in daylight, as we were to find out on the return journey.  From the bus stop, however, one has to find one’s way down the hill to the hotel in the dark, a bit risky with my dodgy ankle – but it had to be done. There are no roads in Positano, just narrow winding paths down to the village…
By this time we were ravenous, and sorely tempted by luscious ‘cakes’ en route through the village, but mercifully the shop was closed, so we were spared the ignominy of discovering that the delicacies were in fact candles.
The Hotel Buca di Bacco was the perfect place to rest our weary selves. In no time at all we were shown to a delightful room with views over the moonlit bay, and then dinner, at last!
We began with parma ham and melon and antipasti from the buffet, and then I had ‘gilt-head fish’ (a kind of bream) in lemon sauce and Tim had a mixed fish combo. I don’t know how they source such luscious tomatoes in autumn – they have put me off Grosse Lisse forever. After that we had pasteria, a dessert recommended by our confidante on the train and finished up with cognac. We then took a short walk around the water and discovered that although their sand (volcanic) wasn’t as nice as our Aussie sand is, the beach is still spectacularly beautiful.
 Overlooking the sea at breakfast the next day was just like being in a picture postcard. From our room we have a wonderful view of the bay and the beach life below: fishermen, artists and beachcombers, and cruisers setting off across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Sirenuse Islands, the siren islands of Homer’s Odyssey. Positano has long enticed artists and writers – Yehudi Menuhin used to stay at this hotel, and people would gather to listen on the beach below when he practised his violin. Around the corner from the Buca di Bacco is a plaque recording John Steinbeck’s visit.
Half an hour’s walk in the warmth of the October sun knocked the stuffing out of us so we recuperated at a bar with a Crodina, a Fanta and the view, and then investigated the shops. There were beautiful ceramics on sale in the shops, and it would have been nice to buy one for The Lower Belvedere, but they were heavy and fragile, so we contented ourselves with a couple of tea towels.
At the Ristorante Al Cambusa we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, where the waiter’s line is: There’s only one law here: the lady has to sit and face the view and the gentleman sits to enjoy looking at the lady. I had omelette and salad and Tim had anchovies, but the basket of breads was best of all – a scrumptious dark brown grainy bread, a spicy type of tiny brioche, and a beautiful crusty bread with a light texture. Much nicer than Tuscan breads – I wonder why?
We were so lucky with the weather! Our favourite waiter’s imminent departure for London was a reminder that we had come on the last weekend of the season, and Daylight Saving was ending. Glorious sunshine and just a light mist of the top of the mountain from time to time, to remind us that winter is on its way.
Such a beautiful, beautiful place…but next we were off to Pompeii!

Posted in Dining out, Europe 2005, Italy 2005, LitLovers pilgrimage, MusicLovers pilgrimage, Positano 2005 | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Uffizi, Florence, 28.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 30, 2006

Tina and Thorolf had paperwork to sort out with AMEX in Florence, while we had tickets for the Uffizi so we drove into Arezzo and took the train again. It was a crisp and hazy morning, so after we’d gone our separate ways Tim and I took a sight-seeing tour on a bus. Alas, the driver conformed to all those stereotypes about Italian drivers and hurtled through the city at break-neck speed, pausing only at Piazza Michelangelo for us to admire yet another David…

Once inside the Uffizi, however, all was forgiven. What an amazing collection! I loved the pale faces of the Botticelli maidens, the massive statuary (even if it is mostly only Roman copies) and my favourite: the Tribune Room with its mother-of-pearl dome. It is a little unfortunate that this room is arranged so that visitors can only walk around the perimeter of the room with the statuary fenced off in the middle, so it’s not possible to stand there and see the pictures properly, but still, this is where the famous Bronzinos are, and it was a treat to see them. One of my favourite souvenir bookmarks at home is of Eleonora of Toledo, and now at last I could see the whole painting in all its glory, as well as the enchanting portrait of little Bia Medici, gazing solemnly out at the world.


Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni by Bronzino (Source: Wikipedia, Google Art Project)

There were Canalettos too, but not as fine as the ones in the Wallace Collection, and the Caravaggios are very badly lit. As seems to be usual in Italy, the Uffizi gallery guards/guides seem to do very little of either, and are so nonchalant that anyone could deface or damage these beautiful artworks and still they would be absorbed in their mobile phone calls or the fashion magazines they read while on duty. I love Italy and its relaxed attitudes to many things, but their care of world heritage artworks is scandalous.

We had lunch at the Uffizi cafe, where a most officious waitress was kept busy ejecting tourists who didn’t understand the rules about paying extra to have a seat at a table. The view is splendid, right over the roof tops of the city, and it was good to rest our weary feet!

In the afternoon we went to San Croce. The church was full of scaffolding but that didn’t prevent us admiring the monuments of many illustrious men (and one woman, Florence Nightingale). Rossini, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli and of course Michelangelo are all there, with the most amazing statuary above their tombs, and there are also beautiful frescoes by Giotto.

Within the monastery one can also contemplate the cowl and girdle of S. Francis (maybe), and there is also a school for leatherworkers, with wares for sale. Tim had already bought a rather swish leather jacket in the morning, so we weren’t tempted.

We took the late train back to Arezzo, but were unable to reserve seats and Tim ended up standing for most of the way, impervious to my offers to swap seats. My hero then drove us back to Monterchi in the dark, and a quiet dinner at home.

Next, off to Positano!

Posted in ArtLovers pilgrimage, Europe 2005, Florence 2005, Italy 2005, ScienceLovers pilgrimage | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anghiari, but not Poppi, 26.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 12, 2006

Donatella’s advice had served us well so far, but her suggestion of an alternative route to Poppi turned out to be a disaster for drivers not used to tortuous twists and turns in the back roads of Tuscany! I had read about Poppi in H.V.Morton’s A Traveller in Italy, and was keen to see his favourite medieval town. According to Morton’s book, written back in 1964 so not to be trusted entirely, 800 incunabula and 600 illuminated manuscripts were still in the town library, but I wanted to see the castle even if the books had been moved elsewhere. It was not to be.
After an eternity of narrow, winding, badly signposted hairpins and sharp turns up a precipitous slope, we had made it only to La Verna. The restaurant was closed but its hosts took pity on us and rustled up some tagliatelli Bolognese before we soldiered on to Bibbiani, a large industrial town of no interest whatsoever. There we turned around and went back, with Poppi visible in the distance but not enough time left to see the things I wanted to see.
It’s a good thing we had at least stopped off at Anghiari en route or the day would have been a total write off. Anghiari is the birthplace of Piero della Francesca and it’s a delightful little town with narrow winding pathways and plenty to see. It has a fairytale castle perched high above the Tiber valley, with stunning views to admire over coffee and cakes. This strategic position made it crucial in 1440 during the Battle of Anghiari, between the Milanese Visconti armies and the Florentines allied with the Pope.
Inside the Battle of Anghiari Museum there were ceramics on display, in an effort to revitalise the town and reverse the decline in population. The works of the master craftsmen from the early 1900s were there, juxtaposed with stuff about the battle of Anghiari which was apparently a decisive one and they are very proud of it. There are copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s cartoons of the horses in combat, but I was captivated by the scale models of the battle.
There were tiny little soldiers all lined up in very precise (and dare I say it? rather unItalian) formations across the plain, complete with the officers’ gaily coloured tents on the hill. There were fields of maize and sheep, and the river winding through the plain, with even a tiny Roman column toppled over, in homage to its more ancient history. Cute!
My favourite, however, was the painting of a 19th century schoolroom depicting boys learning their catechism. We asked permission to photograph it, and the boys went through a tremendous performance with their competing digital cameras, while I just snapped it with my so-last-century APS film camera – and that’s the only one that came out properly!

Posted in Anghiari (Tuscany) 2005, Europe 2005, Italy 2005, Poppi (Tuscany) 2005 | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Florence 25.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 11, 2006

 Planning to visit Florence from Monterchi via Arezzo was the only real mistake we made on this trip. We were led to believe that getting from Monterchi to the train station at Arezzo was just a short trip in the car, when in fact it took more like 35 minutes and was generally a nightmare. Driving us into Arezzo for our two trips there was also an imposition on our friends, Tina and Thorolf, because they had to drop us off and collect us. Next time, we shall find a nice hotel in Florence…

The train journey was easy enough, however, and it was only a short walk through the market to the Duomo. It’s an odd feeling to come around the corner from a place full of 21st century tourist junk to one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in the world. Brunelleschi’s dome is truly enormous (and dominates the entire skyline, as we saw later from Piazza Michelangelo) and the marble façade in white, green and pink marble is exquisite. After a momentary wait, we had no difficulty in getting a close look at Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, which may only be copies, but are still very beautiful. I do wonder what the omnipresent Japanese tourists make of the religious symbolism in such things as these. They’re probably just as confused as I would be if I tried to make sense of their religion and culture from a guide book…at least with a Christian education, all but the most arcane of the biblical stories are vaguely familiar to us. These ‘Gates of Paradise’ are said to be the first truly Renaissance art, and its the perspective that makes them so.

Somehow the illusion of depth in the panels makes all the images come alive in a way that the flat and often gaudy artworks of earlier periods can never do. What an inspired choice to complete them all in gilded bronze rather than multi-coloured – so much more tasteful!

Having gawped at the front façade, we went around to the south side and admired Giotto’s Campanile. In panels on the walls, are niches with dear little relief carvings of all sorts of subjects at the different levels of the tower. On the lower (hexagonal) level is the history of mankind, (according to Genesis, that is). There’s the Creation and the Labours of Man, including artisans of all kinds; the liberal arts: Navigation, Social Justice, Agriculture, Art of festivals and architecture (Euclid); and the Arts: Sculpture, Painting, Harmony, Grammar, Logic and Dialectic Philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), Music and Poetry (Orpheus), Geometry and Arithmetic (Euclid – who gets two spots – and Pythagoras).

Up above on the ‘lozenges’ there are allegories – the planets on the west side, virtues on the south, sacraments on the north and my favourites, the liberal arts on the south side: Astronomy, Music, Geometry, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, and Arithmetic. Most of them are attributed to Andrea Pisano, but of course all the originals are in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, just around the corner. These carvings are delightful, showing the lives and work of ordinary Florentines in intricate detail, and it’s surprising how little there is about them in the guide books. I liked the artisans best of all.

On the other side of the road there are massive statues of Brunelleschi and Arnolfo di Cambio, who was actually the one in charge of the construction of the cathedral but he doesn’t get as much recognition as Brunelleschi. Beyond the statues there’s the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, and to our astonishment it was queue free and only 6 euros entry fee! There we saw the real doors (but only 8 of the panels, why was that?) and I enjoyed being able to see the panels close enough to dredge up from memory what the scenes represented.

I was intrigued to find Michelangelo’s Pieta on the staircase, utterly unlike the Vatican one, (with just Mary and Jesus, in white marble), but rather a group of four in a sombre light brown marble: Jesus and Mary, and standing behind, Nicodemus, (who helped prepare the body for burial – and whose face might be Michelangelo’s self-portrait), and an unfinished female – was she going to be Mary Magdalene? Apparently Michelangelo didn’t like the quality of the marble so he didn’t finish the sculpture, and it’s true, it’s not as beautiful as the Vatican Pieta.

There were plenty of sculptures by Donatello, some by Lucca, and a lovely group of children playing musical instruments but I forgot to note the artist in my journal. In this gallery there were students sketching, which was nice to see, especially since it wasn’t crowded and everyone there seemed peaceful and respectful. One of the sculptures was astonishingly modern in style. Desiderio da Sattignano was one of Donatello’s pupils, and his Maddalena is a shaggy, drooping, forlorn figure, with stringy bits of hair like rags hanging from her. It was brilliant, I thought.

Downstairs there were things from Brunelleschi’s workshop: his tools, pulleys and winches, and lots of models of the Duomo at various stages in its construction up to its latest restoration. I love models like this – it reminded me of the tiny opera sets at the Musee D’Orsay. The Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo is a beaut museum and we really enjoyed it.

After that we had coffee and a pastry at the first (and only) self-service restaurant we were to use in Italy. We weren’t impressed. The waiter tried to charge us twice for the pasta and had to be reminded to bring us our macchiati. It’s around the corner from the Accademia, and isn’t recommended.

Despite our reservations for 12.00 noon, we had to queue till 12.30 to get into the Accademia, but counted ourselves lucky to be getting in at all. Was it worth it? Yes, of course it was. Most of the other artworks are no big deal, but David is magnificent. I know there are lifesize copies all over Florence, but seeing the real thing is worth any amount of queueing.

He’s huge but gorgeous, with massive hands, fingernails and muscles. When he was sculpted in the 16th century, his height – at 17 feet tall – would have made him even more of a giant, than he is to us in the era of 8 foot basketballers. I like the wit behind this kind of artistic irony and double-meaning, the man dwarfed by Goliath in the bible being a giant himself and built like a real muscleman.

We also saw some superb choir books decorated with gold and coloured mosaics so tiny you could only see the separate pieces by looking through the magnifying glasses they had as part of the display. How ever did they do such work?

The Plaster Room was full of casts from the workroom of Bartolini. I found a bust of Franz Lizst but not Byron, although he was there somewhere. Machiavelli was as I imagined him after reading ‘The Prince’ at home before we left – a full size sculpture, wearing C15th century robes and holding a book, and he has a sensitive and compassionate face. He didn’t deserve to have his name become the symbol of political cynicism, not at all. Mind you, I’m not sure how Bartolini did his subject’s features since he lived from 1777-1850…
After that, we were ready for a restorative lunch. We found a congenial little café and had simple pasta and gnocchi although our macciati turned out to be US style … at least the young waiter had the grace to look embarrassed when I scraped off all the milk and chocolate… By sheer good luck we then found a bookshop called Melbooks … and of course we stopped for a browse and found a couple more books to tide me over the next few days… After that we wandered through a beautiful cloistered courtyard, an oasis of peace and quiet, away from the tourists and the smokers, to find the Basilica di San Lorenzo. The façade of the Basilica is really ordinary (apparently no one has ever been willing to pay to have a façade added) but inside is superb. The Stations of the Cross are huge, fitting perfectly into position in the nave, which leads to a massive dome designed by Buontalenti. It has lovely bright frescoes with God the Father looking positively avuncular among the putti.

There are two impressive pulpits on marble columns depicting scenes from the Passion and the Resurrection by Donatello, and a fantastic huge fresco by Bronzino of the martyrdom of St Lawrence – it’s so full of figures I couldn’t work out what was going on, but I liked it anyway. In one of the side chapels, we saw our first real relic – the skeleton (complete with crown) lying with only head and feet exposed in a surprisingly small silver casket with a velvet covering. He must only have been about 5 feet tall. I think he was S. Zenobio; I should have written it down, but by then perhaps I was suffering from Stendhal’s Syndrome!

I found myself thinking about how much the nuns and priests of my childhood would have loved the power and magnificence of this church, tucked away behind a really ordinary facade. The main altar is exquisite, with delicate and graceful marble mosaics, beautifully coloured and arranged, and there are so many beautiful paintings of subjects that would have been dear to their hearts. We wandered about, marvelling at the funerary monuments here too: the entire Medici family (as far as I could tell) and Donatello as well.

When we’d had enough, we set off to the San Lorenzo museum, but couldn’t find the entrance. It was probably just as well because we were really tired by then and it was getting late. We headed for a little piazza and garden in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, after which the railway station is named.
The ride back to Arezzo was fun. We chatted to some friendly students about Australia, and Tim made silly jokes about kangaroos killing people. We practised our Italian, and they practised their English, and for once, our skills were about equal.

A marvellous day.

Posted in Art Galleries, Europe 2005, Florence 2005, Italy 2005 | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »