Palazzo Colonna: A Hidden Palace in the Heart of Rome

Context Travel invited me as a guest on their exclusive tour of Palazzo Colonna.

Although I have spent years exploring Rome, I am often surprised by little things I have never noticed. A spider decoration above a door or a hidden flood marker on the side of a building can fill me with glee. “Ahhhh, how many others have noticed that?” I muse.

But on a recent tour with Context Travel I found that there are still several very big things in this city that I have overlooked, places that have been hiding in plain sight that I just hadn’t bothered to check out. Continue reading Palazzo Colonna: A Hidden Palace in the Heart of Rome

Ai Weiwei’s ‘Libero’ at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

Ai Weiwei is one of the best and most provocative artists working in the world today. Now Italians and visitors to Italy will have a chance to see the Chinese artists’s works up close in an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Continue reading Ai Weiwei’s ‘Libero’ at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence

CAMERA: Torino’s New Photography Museum

On October 1, the city of Torino (Turin) inaugurated Italy’s newest museum. CAMERA, the Centro Italiano per la Fotografia, will showcase Italian and international photography in a 2,000 square meter space just down the road from the Museo Nazionale del Cinema and other sights in Torino’s historic center. Continue reading CAMERA: Torino’s New Photography Museum

The Milano Duomo, Inside and Out

Over the weekend, I finally got the chance to check out Milan’s famed Duomo, that jagged, Gothic behemoth that defines the city’s traditional skyline. Also known as Santa Maria Nascente (Saint Mary of the Nativity), the Duomo is the second largest church in Italy (second only to Saint Peter’s in size) and it took more than 500 years to complete, with more than 78 architects and engineers heading the project from its groundbreaking in 1386 to its completion in 1965. Continue reading The Milano Duomo, Inside and Out

Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle

In 1499, Tuscan artist Luca Signorelli signed a contract to paint two remaining sections of the Cappella Nuova (new chapel) of the Duomo in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. By 1502 (or 1504, depending on which documentation you read), he had completed his “End of the World” fresco cycle in what is now known as the San Brizio Chapel. Continue reading Will Work For Wine: Luca Signorelli’s Orvieto Duomo Contract and His Intoxicating, Apocalyptic Fresco Cycle

Cool Italian Street Art from The Drawing Bike

Rachele del Nevo parks her bike every day on the corner of Piazza Della Rotonda within view of the Pantheon. It is here, right outside of Tazza D’Oro (one of the city’s best known coffee shops) that she sells her one-of-a-kind souvenir drawings of some of the city’s gorgeous landmarks. Continue reading Cool Italian Street Art from The Drawing Bike

Photo of the Day: Mithras in the Vatican

Before Christianity became the dominant religion of Rome, many people worshipped Mithras, the pagan God depicted here. Continue reading Photo of the Day: Mithras in the Vatican

Visions of Veronese Green in Venice

When you are the parent of young kids, you often find unusual things in your pockets. After a while, you get used to sticking your hand in your coat and finding a toy car or an action figure. For the past several months, I’ve been carrying around an unopened tube of Veronese Green* paint.

Giotto tempera paint in Veronese Green

Back in the fall, I bought a tube like the one above for my six-year-old son, who draws (mostly animals and Marvel superheroes) first thing in the morning and first thing when he gets home from school. Leo usually uses markers or crayons and has only used paint a few times. Still, I bought him the Veronese Green because it was such a complex shade to be included among the simple reds, yellows, and blues.

For some reason, I never took the tube of paint out of my pocket. Rather, on walks during the grey days of winter, I would pull out the tube from my pocket to spot-check things that appeared to be the same color.

Continue reading Visions of Veronese Green in Venice

A Show of Hands

The hand of Michelangelo's David, © Accademia

It all started with David.

Michelangelo’s statue of David was one of the first pieces of sculpture that I knew I had to see in person. Recognized worldwide as a symbol of Florence, David is marble come to life especially when you look at his hands. My European Art History professor many years ago urged us to study David’s hands — tense, veiny, and with visible knuckles and creases.

Ever since falling in love with David, I have developed a mini-obsession with men’s hands (of the marble and human variety). Are you a male sitting across from me on the tram idly glancing at your phone or reading a book? I’ve probably admired your hands (or found fault with them — sorry, but your cuticles are a wreck!).

Luckily, Rome has given me other opportunities to observe men’s hands without feeling like a creep. The Vatican Museums and the Capitoline Museums both house countless classical statues from Ancient Rome and Greece. It’s in fact likely that the artists who taught Michelangelo how to sculpt were familiar with and inspired by some of the ancient statuary now housed in these museums. Continue reading A Show of Hands

Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

Last week, I finally had a chance to revisit the Vatican Museums. It had been more than a decade since I had gone. And I had been reluctant to visit because of the crowds, which wrapped around the block. But my mother was in town, so I had a good excuse to go.

Getting in was easy enough, as we had reserved tickets through the Vatican Museums online ticketing system. Rain poured down on us as we got off the tram and walked uphill to the entrance. Most everyone there at 9:30 a.m. were part of a group or had reserved online so we were all kind of in the same line (scrum) to get in. Getting through the main doors, queueing up at the ticket window to get our “real” tickets (our printed reservations were just that), and walking through security took about 10-15 minutes.  No big deal.

But honestly, the Vatican Museums left me wanting this time. Or rather they left me with the feeling that I never want to visit again. Continue reading Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

Lost in Translation: Ancient Stories in Art

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Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori

The first time I realized that my obscure knowledge of Rome had really sunk in was in the early to mid-aughts. Friends of mine had returned from a family wedding in the Italian capital. Specifically, the ceremony had been held at San Silvestro in Capite.

“That’s where they keep the reliquary of the head of John the Baptist,” I said, gleefully. I had most certainly been drinking but I was still impressed with my recall. My friends and I had a chuckle over my delight as we talked more about Rome and its macabre monuments.

For as long as I’ve been attracted to Rome and Italy, I’ve been interested in some of the more gruesome aspects of its history: its slaughter of animals during Colosseum spectacles, the chapels that contain body parts and whole bodies of saints. When you walk into Rome’s churches, you are literally walking on graves. And when you stroll through any part of this ancient city, you are stepping on top of sites where many people, from gladiators to Christians to non-believers, met their ends. Images and reminders of death are everywhere here, which is probably one of the reasons Rome’s citizens have developed a coping mechanism – a zest for life – over the years.

These are heavy things to think about. But Rome’s past is especially fresh in my mind these days when it is hard to turn on the television or open the paper (or browser tab) without learning about the latest horrible way that a human has died at the hands of another human or group of humans. There is no need for me to provide a link to any of these news stories; everyone knows what I’m talking about. But still it has been hard to square my interest in the minutiae of Rome’s destructive past with the horrors of today.

Just a visit to some of well-known tourist stops in Rome remind me of current events. San Silvestro in Capite has the head of John the Baptist in a silver filigreed reliquary. Santa Maria del Popolo has an exquisite and well-known Caravaggio that depicts Saint Peter being crucified upside down. Saint Agnese in Agone, the large church fronting Piazza Navona, has a side chapel with the head of Saint Agnes. She was 12 when a Roman prefect sent her to a brothel (for refusing to marry his son); she was eventually burned at the stake then beheaded. In the upper church of San Clemente one finds the chapel of St. Catherine, which contains beautiful Masolino frescoes of the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the life of St. Ambrose. Catherine’s beheading is depicted on the left side, a calm, colorful, 2-D rendering of a heinous act.

I could go on and on with the lovely art that depicts Christian martyrs and their horrible deaths. The crucifixions. The beheadings. The eventual saints who were drawn and quartered or buried alive or stoned to death. Of course we don’t have as many works of art showing the torture that the Christians, once they came into power, inflicted on the non-Christians. But there are a few. The solemn statue of Giordano Bruno in the center of Campo de’ Fiori is a powerful reminder that there were men (and women and children) killed for putting forward ideas that were not in line with the church doctrine. Bruno was burned alive for suggesting that the universe is infinite, that stars are distant suns.

Likewise, the Stolpersteiner, those tiny bronze pavements embedded in the ground outside homes of those Jewish citizens who were deported by the Nazis on October 16, 1943, memorialize those who were rounded up, tortured, and killed for being Other, for being powerless in the face of those whose power made them forget their own humanity.

I believe art and memorials are important. But the more that I see them around Rome – a city that has thousands of years of history painting on its church walls, engraved in its ancient buildings, and chiseled into statues – the more I am reminded of how torture and death are lost in translation from the stories we tell and the images we create of those stories.

Many of us up until this past year have been able to live with a sense of detachment from death. This is not to say that we have all had it easy and that we have not experienced the wrenching sadness of knowing death on a personal level. But death of the nature that is often depicted in art and enshrined in memorials around Italy has always felt like something that only happened long ago.

I still look at religious relics – the arms and doubting fingers and disembodied heads – with a sort of fascination. But while my thoughts used to be, “Look how barbaric humans once were,” I now think about how much further we – as a society, as humans – need to go.

A final note: as a quasi-agnostic, non-practicing, non-denominational Christian, I wish it were as simple as eliminating all religions. Humans get too exercised over beliefs that other humans have codified, no matter how absurd they may be. But I didn’t want to write this piece as an assault on religion. I’ve lived in majority Christian, Hindu, and Muslim countries and have known most people to be smart and kind and loving, in spite of or because of their religions.


Italy Blogging Roundtable

Please read these other posts on “Lost in Translation” from the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Note that we have a new lady, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso. Welcome!

Jessica – False Friends & A False Sense of Security
Gloria – Senza parole…
Rebecca – Lost in Translation
Alexandra – The alphabet of impossible Italian translations
Kate – Things my Sicilian Boyfriend and I fight about
Michelle – Lost in Translation: Adventures in Sola-tude

From Veronese to Futurism: Italian Art in the NYRB

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese
The Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese

I recently re-subscribed to the New York Review of Books and I’m glad I did. Besides providing some of the world’s most comprehensive and engaging book reviews, the NYRB often reviews art exhibits. In the latest Art Issue of the magazine, Andrew Butterfield reviews Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, an exhibition running in London’s National Gallery through June 15, 2014; Julian Bell looks at two new books about Piero della Francesca in The Mystery of the Great Piero (subscription required); and Jonathan Galassi writes Speed in Life and Death (subscription), a piece that deals with Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, an exhibition on view at NYC’s Guggenheim Museum through September 1, 2014.

There is also a poem by Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s note To Giovanni da Pistoia has appeared in many publications over the years, I’m not sure why it is being reprinted here. But the poem is always an illuminating read about the difficulties Michelangelo had in creating his most famous work.

Prodigious Veronese

A review of Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery, London

“For much of the twentieth century Veronese was regarded more as a skilled purveyor of decorative finishes than as a profound master, and his reputation was in decline, but of late there are signs of renewed interest, which this show and its catalog will certainly do much to advance. Perhaps more than any other picture in the show, The Family of Darius before Alexander [part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection] reveals his great strengths as a painter; it also makes clear why he can seem so foreign to common modern ideals of art and of the artist.” –Andrew Butterfield

Speed in Life and Death

A review of Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

“The Futurists wanted to sweep away what the poet Guido Gozzano called “le buone cose di pessimo gusto,” good things in the worst of taste, and replace them with an insolent, steely, polluting Machine Age. “Time and space ended yesterday,” Marinetti intoned. “We already live in the absolute”—that is, in a state of perpetual youth menaced only by death. “In every young man Marinetti’s gunpowder,” Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote. Marinetti not only wanted to end the monarchy and “de-Vaticanize”; he also argued for replacing the senate with an assembly of the young.” –Jonathan Galassi

The Mystery of the Great Piero

Reviews of the books Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man and Piero’s Light: In Search of Piero della Francesca: A Renaissance Painter and the Revolution in Art, Science, and Religion

“What more can we know about the artist, who died the day that Columbus landed in the New World and who for most of four centuries was nearly forgotten, only to reemerge as an indispensable fixture in modern schemes of art? The Met’s catalog ushers in Piero in the manner we have come to expect: he painted “magical pictures” that combine ‘intimacy and gravity,’ inspiring ‘a sacral awe.’ It points to his ‘almost primitive’ qualities and cites Aldous Huxley’s essay [PDF] of 1925 that names the Resurrection fresco in Sansepolcro as ‘the best picture in the world.’

“All this fits the occasion, but it mystifies. It makes it harder to imagine a human painter at work. Banker has been intent to reverse that process. To do so he has scoured the archives of Tuscany, Umbria, and the Marches. (Sansepolcro lies near the border of the three regions.) If, just possibly, he has been overzealous about tying up loose ends, he can nonetheless boast of personally discovering “over one hundred previously unknown documents specifically relating to Piero.” His methodology is sober and his inferences are toughly argued, and the result must surely count as a vitally important contribution to Piero studies.” –Julian Bell

Check out the New York Review of Books’s Art Issue for these and more reviews.

Five Fabulous Art Works in Rome You May Have Missed

Deciding on a favorite piece of art in Italy is similar to picking a favorite child: it’s an impossible task.

On some days, when thinking about Italy’s great art works, a certain color combo will grab me or maybe a dark mood has me preferring chiaroscuro over lighter fare. At any rate, this month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable topic is favorite work of art in Italy. So, I plan to introduce you five of my favorites. Continue reading Five Fabulous Art Works in Rome You May Have Missed

Five Favorites: Art in Tuscany

To many a traveler, Tuscany and art are synonymous. From the architecture to the numerous galleries to those gorgeous, green, and cliché hills, there’s an element of art in every corner of Tuscany. Continue reading Five Favorites: Art in Tuscany

Murals of Orgosolo, Sardinia

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When most travelers think of Sardinia, they think of the Emerald Coast (Costa Smeralda) – sea, sun, yachts, a veritable playground for the rich. In fact, Sardinia has a wild side and not just its macchia-covered nature trails. In the heart of Sardinia lies the village of Orgosolo, a sort of Sardinian “Wild West” known for years for its bandits, who would conduct brazen kidnappings and murders. During the first half of the 20th century, Orgosolo’s notorious reputation grew to such a point that it inspired the film Bandits of Orgosolo (1961).

While Orgosolo has since gotten a handle on its crime, the village’s unique history of rebellion as well as Sardinians’ struggles with the Italian state (i.e., in opposition to an army base on the island, among other reasons) has made the village a center of artistic political expression. Orgosolo today is known for the some 150 murals that decorate its houses, shops, and other outdoor spaces with images from Sardinia folklore, Italian history, and even international events. This unusual assortment of art encouraged me to find the best examples for my Orgosolo Mural Gallery on Flickr.

I’m going to let the art speak from here on out. But if you are interested in making a day trip to Orgosolo on your next visit to Sardinia, visit the Sardinia Tourism Board website for more information.

Photo © Jo McLure