The Venice Trilogy – I: The Grand Canal

Venice needs no introduction. If it did, the Grand Canal would have been the logical introduction par excellence to the Serenissima Repubblica. The 4 km long Canal is the world’s most impressive ‘water promenade’, lined on both sides with a mosaic of facades showing Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and neoclassical inspirations, a wealth of styles matched only by the wealth of the maritime republic during its golden age, and a diversity reminiscent of Venice’s cosmopolitan past and the ‘reach’ of its trading activities. The whole city is one big postcard, a sequence of Canaletto landscapes.

A vaporetto (water bus) is the most practical way to admire the luxuries that Venice has to offer. I don’t think any means of public transportation in the whole world could offer a comparable spectacle. Among the most impressive buildings along the Canal are three XV century gothic palaces, all the work of Bartolomeo Bon. First there is Ca’d’Or with its filigree façade, dominated by quatrefoil windows and ogival arches typical of the Venetian Gothic style. Then comes the Palazzo Giustinian and, next to it, the Ca’Foscari, which once housed Henry III of France.

Palazzo Labio is another palace that -unlike the others, was not built directly on the Canal. The original owners were Catalan merchants that paid part of Venice’s debts and were allowed the privilege of building on the Canal. Two ‘fondacos’ (similar to some extent to caravanserai, with the triple function of warehouse, market and residence for merchants) stand as vivid reminder of how the daily life of Venice revolved around commerce. The first is the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, where German, Hungarian and Austrian merchants had their base, and the second, Fondaco de Turchi, was once the center of the city’s Turkish community.

Other marvels along the Canal include the Sagredo Palace, Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Santa Maria della Salute, and obviously, San Marco…but that is another story.

Reluctantly leaving the vaporetto, we started squirreling our way up and down the over 400 bridges that cross the infinity of small canals that form the tissue of the city. In a city of some 117 islands, you cross tens of mini-bridges every day. A walk around some of the city’s charming neighbourhoods, we sleepwalked back to the vaporetto again. As we approached the emblematic Rialto Bridge, we could hear a man singing in one of the gondolas, entertaining his ‘customers’. A beautiful gondola followed by many others, all brilliantly black as if polished with some magic shoeshine! It takes a year to build one such gondola, and the cost is around 30,000 euros, in case you are wondering why it is so expensive to have a cruise in one of these!

Lunch time at the Pescheria (fish market): a traditional, filling dish of spaghetti al nero di seppia (black squid ink), then off for some rest before heading to the ‘showpiece’ of Venice: San Marco! Enjoy the photos (click any to enlarge) and stay tuned.

Tuscan Treasures – VI: Florence

Nothing can prepare you for Florence. No matter how much you read, no matter how hard you work on planning your visit, Florence will stun you and sweep away your defenses. Its art will dazzle you, its architecture will charm you, and you stand absolutely no chance.

This should come as no surprise in a city where the Stendhal Syndrome is at home, but the Stendhal Syndrome gave way to another, more intense –and annoying- feeling: a feeling of sadness. Yes, sadness at the thought that such an aesthetic miracle was once possible…but only once.

At Piazza del Duomo I had the first attack of aesthetic anxiety, with my eyes restlessly moving between Brunelleschi’s unearthly Dome, Giotto’s elegant Campanile and a replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, three absolute masterpieces of art history only a few meters apart from one another. A stone’s throw from here is the Piazza della Signoria, where the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower stands as a noble reminder of how it all started. How did it all start?

It’s a long story, but the magnificence of Florence is easy to understand: it’s a city that accumulated wealth from wool, trade and banking, crushed or neutralized its enemies, and turned its attention to something where it was sure to triumph: art and culture. The world’s most famous patrons (the Medici) sponsored history’s greatest artists (from Masaccio to Raphael), and the city became the epitome of the humanist dream. Easy to understand, but you should have guessed: history is never that simple except in children books! In reality, there were complications. How about the Plague for a start? How about a Bonfire of the Vanities? And, to top it, a wave of political assassinations with wars included?

Back to the city, what do you want me to tell you about Florence that has not been told already? Shall I tell you that it’s the Medici’s immortal gift to humanity? That it is the birthplace of Renaissance Humanism and the school of the likes of Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Filippo Lippi, Fra Bartolomeo, Botticelli, Gozzoli, Dante, Machiavelli and others?

I can tell you about the graceful palaces like Palazzi Pitti, Medici, Strozzi, or I can tell you about churches that are home to priceless treasures like Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, or take you on a ‘cenacolo’ itinerary to admire The Last Supper(s) by Del Castagno, Andrea del Sarto and Ghirlandaio. I can accompany you across the Ponte Vecchio alongside the Vasari Corridor, or guide you up and down the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Galleria dell’Academia…I can take you everywhere, anywhere, but I cannot explain to you the grace of Florence in one or ten on a thousand messages, because immortal beauty cannot be explained in any mortal language. Still, I will post a series of articles that capture very interesting ‘moments’ in the city’s life. First, there will be a detour to talk about Venice! Stay tuned and enjoy the photos.

Tuscan Treasures – V: Pisa

‘Better a death in the family (in the house) than a Pisan at the door’ – A Genoese adage

The grudges provoked by a legacy of military, economic and cultural conflicts/competitions between Pisa, Genoa, Milan, Venice and Florence are still present –if somewhat faintly- in the popular memory. Nevertheless, not even the plague would keep the hordes of tourists from knocking on Pisa’s doors nowadays! They are attracted to the city not because of Galileo or Fibonacci (both were born here); they are attracted by a glorious, ehm, failure!

Question: How on earth could a failed architectural project become a top-rated attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site? The answer: if it is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I went to Pisa knowing what to expect: zillions of tourists posing ridiculously next to the tower, overpriced eateries and little more. I was wrong. First, the Tower is visually imposing, and second, it forms part of a magnificent complex that comprises the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Tower and the Camposanto (Cemetery). Together, they form one of Europe’s largest Romanesque complexes (if not the largest), all set against a vast ‘carpet’ of grass, which makes the white marble of the monuments in the Piazza dei Miracoli gleam even more.

Standing 58 meters high (and weighing 14.5 tons), the tower offers incredible views of the Cathedral domes and the city in general. Its story is a true saga of architectural pain and passion. Construction started in 1173, and 5 years later (upon building only 3 stories), it started leaning already due to the treacherous ground on which it was erected. Every trick imaginable was tried to straighten the tower: metal rings, underexcavation, building more stories in an asymmetrical elevation to counterbalance the angle of inclination (which resulted in a curious banana-shaped curve!)…and the result is one of Europe’s postcard-quality monuments.

In the XI century, Pisa had a powerful fleet that made it one of the 4 major maritime republics of Italy (together with Venice, Genoa and Amalfi). They participated in crusades, sacked Byzantine ports, won important battles, and conquered Palermo after defeating the Arabs. The booty and the riches that poured into Pisa from that particular endeavor made it possible to ‘think big’: they built the huge Cathedral which, in addition to showing an Islamic influence, also incorporates columns from the Mosque of Palermo and a huge metal griffin with Arabic inscription (now in the museum). The main attraction here is Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit, but one can still sit down, contemplate any of the lanterns, and remember how Galileo supposedly got his inspiration for the pendulum from the swinging motion of one such lantern.

The round Baptistery is Italy’s largest, and this time it was Nicola Pisano who sculpted the pulpit. The Islamic imprint is again evident in the decoration of the marble floor and the Arabesque motifs of the Font of Bigarelli. The Camposanto Cemetery is a peaceful retreat from the crowds that fill the Piazza outside…peaceful until you come across ‘The Triumph of Death’, an eerie fresco by Buffalmacco.

I can go on and on about the city’s historic center, its riverside houses, its hidden charms and interesting cuisine, but it is time for the jewel of the Tuscan crown, it is time for Florence. Tomorrow then!

Tuscan Treasures – IV: Siena

Doing Siena in just one day was a bad idea. In addition to the obvious attractions, the city is a charming place to walk around and explore half-forgotten corners and anonymous monuments.

Siena’s trademark medieval Cathedral (Duomo) inspired generations of architects with its striped façade. Once inside, the imposing scale of the interior and the wonderful floor marble intarsia are sure to distract you for quite some time before you finally notice the imprints of Michelangelo, Bernini, and Nicola Pisano, whose exquisite marble pulpit is one of the highlights. The Piccolomini Library inside the Cathedral is a tribute to the horror vacui that must have obsessed Pinturicchino!

Following the Cathedral, I headed to the Baptistery, where I admired a unique marble baptismal font, the fruit of collaboration between three early Renaissance geniuses: Ghiberti, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia. Following the Crypt and the Oratory with its early Cinquecento paintings, it was time for a break, and that meant only a change of itinerary! First, I had to visit the Museo dell’Opera to enjoy Duccio’s Maestà and his colored rose window.

It was time for lunch. After some delicious panzanella salad and cheesy risotto, I couldn’t resist the sweet temptation of Pasticceria Nannini, where I had traditional panforte and strong tea.

Refreshed, I headed to the scallop-shaped Piazza del Campo, where I found myself at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage historic center of Siena. More art awaited at the Palazzo Comunale which houses the extraordinary Civic Museum. It was here that I had the most comprehensive tour-de-force of Siena’s art from Gothic and all the way to Mannerism. Duccio, Simone Martini, Sassetta, Il Sodoma, Beccafumi…all the heavyweights of Sienese Art are here! At the Sala del Mappamondo, I came face to face with Simone Martini’s huge Maestà, while in the hall next to it (Sala della Pace) I could only sit down and contemplate Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, considered among the most important Gothic masterpieces ever. Incredible how the Sienese School remained faithful to the Byzantine aesthetic tradition while its neighbor (Florence) abandoned that very same tradition in favor of perspective, sfumato and other Quattrocento innovations, yielding more realistic and convincing art.

The views from Torre del Mangia brought my visit to a perfect end, and as the tower casted its shadow on the Piazza below, it was almost time to say goodbye. Goodbye Siena!

Tuscan Treasures – III: Via Francigena

Three years have passed since I walked the Way of Saint James (El Camino de Santiago) from France to Spain, and now I find myself on another road, a pilgrim one more time. Twice a pilgrim: a pilgrim of beauty in the footsteps of Fra Angelico and Gaddi and all the successors of Cimabue and Duccio; and a pilgrim of passion, walking the very same route once trodden by devout pilgrims coming from France -and beyond- on their way to the eternal city (Rome).

This route, known as the Via Francigena (the French Way), is obviously not as famous or as equipped as El Camino de Santiago, but one can still do parts of it in Tuscany, where it passes through San Gimignano, Lucca and other cities and villages. I did a stretch alongside San Gimignano, and I was immediately rewarded with a dreamy Tuscan landscape where the imagination too becomes a pilgrim.

Via Francigena has its origins in the 10th century, thanks to the diaries of Sigeric the Serious (the Archbishop of Canterbury) who left an account of the mansions where he stayed during his trip to meet the Pope in Rome. Just like other continental routes, the Via became not only a pilgrimage route, but also a space of commercial and cultural exchange, and an artery around which wonderful Romanesque churches, hostels, hospitals, towers and other buildings were eventually erected as the cities prospered and adapted their own urban tissue to the Via.

Today, the Via is a ‘Cultural Route of the Council of Europe’, given the role it played in bringing European people together throughout the centuries. You can learn more at the official website:
http://www.viefrancigene.org/en/

Enjoy the photos and stay tuned in for more.

Tuscan Treasures – II: San Gimignano

This medieval gem is not like anything you’ve ever seen. Some fifteen medieval towers dominate the horizon of this UNESCO World Heritage city, like giant Cyclopes casting their shadows over two elegant piazzas: Piazza della Cisterna (Cistern) and Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral). The obvious attraction here, other than the towers, is the magnificent Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall, 1298), with some fine works by Gozzoli, Lippo Memmi and other Renaissance masters. Having admired the collection, I climbed up the tower (as every tourist is expected to do).

The views from the Torre Grossa (54 meters) are breathtaking! Enjoying the panoramic view of this ‘medieval Manhattan’ as some cheesy guidebooks refer to it, I contemplated the green and blue matrix of distant fields and mountains. Then I turned my attention to Torre Rognosa, right across the piazza. Once the city’s highest tower (till Torre Gross was built in 1311), it stands on top of the old Palazzo del Podestà. Nearby, another palazzo stood with twin towers and an interesting story:
During the XII and XIII centuries, building a tower higher than the neighbour’s became some sort of a ‘national sport’! It was an exhibition of power and wealth, and eventually the small city became packed with over 70 such towers. In 1255, and to bring the frenzy to an end, it was decreed that no tower should be higher than the Torre Rognosa (51 meters), which belonged to one of the city’s most powerful families. Their rivals, however, had to do something about it, and they did. They built the twin towers (side-by-side) that, if placed one on top of the other, would exceed the Torre Rognosa in height!

It was time to visit the Duomo (Collegiata). The dazzling frescoes on the side walls make the basilica more of a ‘bible of the illiterate’: scenes from both the Old and the New Testaments cover the entire walls from side to side, while Memmi, Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio left their own marks clearly visible to the art lovers.
Back to Piaza della Cisterna, one could only join the long queues waiting for their fair share of the world’s best ice-cream at Gelateria Dondoli, where Chestnut, fig, Santa Fina (saffron cream) and other exotic choices never fail to surprise. Waiting for my turn, I had all the time I needed to admire the Piazza, its palaces (like Ridolfi and Pillari) and its towers, specially the mysterious Devil’s Tower, shrouded in myth.

Ice-cream in hand, I lazed in the shade of a tower, and slowly reminded myself of the city’s history: how it was saved from the huns, how it made fortunes thanks to the production of saffron (which is still omnipresent in the city’s cuisine) and to the Via Francigena (the pilgrimage route to Rome), and how it was hit hard by the plague and by coming under the Florentine dominion.

Via Francigena? That’s the next post. Stay tuned and enjoy the photos (you can click any of them to enlarge it).

Tuscan Treasures – I: Lucca

It is almost impossible not to like Lucca. It has a little bit of everything and caters to pretty much every taste. It may lack the skyline of San Gimignano and the monumental complexes of Pisa and Siena, but it has its own charm: where else can you laze in an oval piazza that was once a Roman amphitheater to enjoy a fig and walnut tart? Where else can you admire a Ghirlandaio, a Tintoretto and a Giambologna only a few meters apart? Or enjoy a piping hot cecina in the shadow of St. Michael? Or contemplate the city and the mountains beyond from a hanging garden on top of a 45-meter high tower (Torre Guinigi)?

But, in case none of that sounds interesting, how about a 4-km stretch of XV century walls? And how about a bicycle ride and a picnic on top of these walls?
Furthermore, if music is your thing, then mind you: this is the birthplace of Puccini! In the evening, music fills the air as several concerts resurrect the tunes of his Madama Butterfly and la Bohème.

Long before Florence became a wealthy metropolis, Lucca’s silk trade had made it a prosperous city of beautiful piazzas, Romanesque churches and cobbled streets that can still be enjoyed today.
But beyond the ‘birthday cake’ Romanesque facades and the crowds occupying the café terraces, Lucca rewards those who scratch beneath the surface with surprising wonders. Take, for example, the medieval labyrinth carved on the Cathedral wall and the fantastic animals depicted in its decorative roundels. Then comes the Church of San Michele in Foro, whose façade can keep you busy for hours trying to decipher the densely packed figures in and between the columns, while inside, Filippino Lippi’s magnificent ‘St. Helen’ present a wonderful allegory (that will be another post). A splendid XII century baptismal font in the Basilica of San Frediano makes a visit all worthwhile.

Still, Lucca remains to be somehow eclipsed by other Tuscan destinations like Pisa and San Gimignano, so, how about these cities? Stay tuned and enjoy the photos.