The Atlas of Ancient Rome, a gorgeous, new two-volume set edited by Andrea Carandini, promises to be an “authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period.” The slip-cased set is available now. Continue reading The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Your New Favorite Coffee Table Book
Dario Fo, the Italian playwright/actor/painter/political rabble-rouser who won the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away today at the age of 90. Continue reading How Dario Fo Learned That He Won the Nobel Prize
Since ancient times, man has been interested in anatomy — how muscles and bones function and fit together and how the body works. But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the study of anatomy really took off, thanks in large part to the printing press, which helped anatomists, illustrators, scientists, and physicians get on the same page (pun intended). Continue reading A Special Harvest: Anatomical Theaters in Italy
Have you seen this book?
Many years ago, I found this book while browsing the clearance stacks at a used bookstore in Washington, DC. Published in 1990, Gli Alberi Monumentali d’Italia is a beautiful coffee table book full of color photos of legendary trees from Italy’s islands and central/southern regions. Roman pines, Holm oaks, olive, cypress, sycamore, lime, beech, poplar, carob, and other trees from Sardinia, Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, Campania, Molise, Abruzzo, Lazio, and the Marches are given biographical treatment with descriptions in Italian and English.
The curious thing about this book is that the spine has a “I” indicating that there are other volumes. But I’ve never been able to find volume II or even an online reference to it.
If you have a tip on where I can find a copy of other books in this series, let me know at iloveitalia at gmail dot com.
A lot of Italians still smoke.
This is hardly a newsflash for many. I have always known that Italians are more relaxed (than Americans, for example) about smoking. But it is still a surprise coming from a culture where smoking is stigmatized to where it is not necessarily expected but accepted across many generations.
Italy imposed a national smoking ban in public places in 2005–the fourth country in the world to do so–but that still hasn’t done much to curb tobacco consumption. While the insides of buildings, restaurants, and workplaces are smoke-free, Italy’s outdoor public spaces are rarely without a whiff of smoke. Bus stops, flea markets, parking lots, courtyards, balconies, and sidewalk cafes are all prime spots for sneaking a smoke.
Italy also makes it easy to smoke and keep smoking. The Tabacchi shops are still necessary for everyday errands, e.g., paying utility bills and buying bus tickets and passes. Paying your phone bill? Why not buy some cigarettes while you’re at it? No one will bat an eye.
When I walk around Rome, I still think it’s weird to see well-to-do couples sitting at an outdoor cafe, each with a pack of cigarettes on the table. Also odd (and unfortunate) is seeing several generations of one family sitting around an outdoor table smoking together. I cringe when I see parents smoking around their young children and babies.
Even though the air is smokier here, there is something refreshing about Italy’s nonchalance towards adults who smoke. There is very little social shame associated with smoking.
I was thinking about all of this the other day when I happened upon an appropriate passage from an Umberto Eco short story. In the 1991 story “How to Travel on American Trains,” one of many essays in How to Travel with a Salmon, Eco describes how, in America, those who smoke are social outcasts. And yet, when Italians smoke in America, they (and their habit) are treated differently.
Among the poor, too, there are those who cannot manage to abandon the ultimate symbol of marginalization: they smoke. If you try to climb into the one smoking car, you suddenly find yourself in the Dreigroschenoper. I was the only one wearing a tie. For the rest, catatonic freaks, sleeping tramps snoring with their mouths open, comatose zombies. As the smoker was the last car of the train, on arrival, this collection of outcasts had to walk a hundred yards or so, slouching along the platform like Jerry Lewis.
Having escaped from this railway hell and changed into uncontaminated clothes, I found myself having supper in the private dining room of a faculty club, among well dressed professors with educated accents. At the end, I asked if there was somewhere I could go and smoke. A moment of silence and embarrassed smiles followed, then someone closed the doors, a lady extracted a pack of cigarettes from her purse, others looked at my own pack. Furtive glances of complicity, stifled laughter, as in a striptease theater. There followed ten minutes of delightful, thrilling transgression. I was Lucifer, arrived from the world of shadows, and I illuminated everyone with the blazing torch of sin.
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.
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
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
“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.
In the late winter/early spring of 1948, American playwright Tennessee Williams arrived in Rome in need of a change of scenery. Williams, of course, is known for his writing set in the American South, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” (written in 1947) and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” (1955), both of which earned him Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. But few people know – or, perhaps, they have forgotten – that Tennessee Williams was also inspired by his short stay in the Eternal City.
“As soon as I crossed the Italian border, my health and life seemed to be magically restored. There was the sun and there were the smiling Italians,” Williams wrote in his Memoirs.
If you consider yourself a stylish traveler, then you’ve probably already heard of LUXE City Guides. These handsome little guides give you the low-down on the chicest restaurants, bars, boutiques, and more in some of the world’s most happening cities. Now LUXE has announced its first foray into foreign language publishing with its guides in Italian. These guides are available for purchase online at http://www.luxecityguides.it and in bookshops throughout Italy.
Chances are, since you’re reading this blog, you prefer to get your Italy travel information in English. Luckily, to celebrate the launch of LUXE’s new Italian-language line, the publisher is offering 20% off of its Italy titles through June 30. You can snap up one of their guides to Rome, Florence, Venice, or Milan by ordering online at http://www.luxecityguides.com and entering LUXEITALY at checkout. (Note that this offer is available for worldwide shipping with the exception of Italy.)
Reading this post after June 30, 2011? Visit LUXE City Guides on Amazon.com.
On Tuesday, the Museo Archeologico di Morgantina, a small archeological museum in Aidone (Enna), Sicily, held an inauguration for the repatriation of an ancient sculpture of Aphrodite. The stone deity, known in Italian as the Dea Morgantina, had been a prized possession of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles until L.A. Times journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino uncovered that the Getty had illicitly acquired the Aphrodite and several dozen other ancient works of art that had been stolen from Italy and sold on the arts black market. This fascinating tale of the underbelly of the antiquities trade and the Getty’s role in the acquisition of looted art is the subject of Felch and Frammolino’s new book, “Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum.”
The Getty and many other top American museums are part of a long history of illicit art trade. Looted art has been trafficked for as long as art has been in existence, and Frammolino says this is due to the overpowering effects of antiquity.
“People who come in contact with antiquities — the history of it, the beauty of these antiquities, the thought that maybe somebody great had once possessed this — they lose reason”
While Los Angeles and the Getty Museum may still be reeling over the loss of such an iconic statue, Aidone has been readying for the repatriation of the Morgantina for decades. The Morgantina museum has devoted a new room for the display of the Aphrodite, which will complement Demeter and Kore, two other looted-and-since-returned statues, and other artifacts unearthed from this area of Sicily which was once part of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece). Following is a short video (in Italian) which provides a comprehensive look at the Dea Morgantina and its new home.
Photo © AP/via NPR
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farley in Manhattan to discuss his book, which has the tag line “In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.” What is the church’s strangest relic? I’ll tell you: it’s the Holy Foreskin of Jesus, also known as the “Santissimo Prepuzio” (Holy Prepuce) or the “Carne Vera Sacra” (Real Holy Flesh). Indeed, there is – or was – a relic that came from the body of Jesus Christ; the foreskin was the only possible piece of flesh that the Messiah could have left behind. How the church came to rediscover then later lose this most holy of relics – and how Farley came to live in the small, medieval hill town (now eclectic artist enclave) of Calcata to search for it – is the subject of his highly entertaining book which is out in paperback today from Amazon.com.
Italofile: How Did You First Learn About Calcata?
David Farley: Back when my wife Jessie and I were living in Rome for a few months, we would follow the suggestions of Time Out Roma (magazine) which had a small English language section at the time. One weekend, there was a small article about a day trip to Calcata, a town that sounded just strange enough that we wanted to visit.
Italofile: Did You Know About the Holy Foreskin Before You Visited?
David Farley: The Holy Foreskin was mentioned as a side note in the article. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that [this unusual relic] would make for an interesting book topic.
Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is the main subject of your book and a fascinating topic. But the hill town of Calcata, population 100 (!), is the other star of “An Irreverent Curiosity.” What Made You Decide to Relocate to Calcata?
David Farley: It was actually my wife’s idea. When we had visited a few years before on a day trip from Rome, we had enjoyed the weird Bohemian vibe of Calcata. Here was this medieval hill town full of artists from all over Italy and the world, with some people walking around in saris and Indian headdress. So it seemed like a bizarre place to spend more time in. Then, my wife reminded me of the relic, how it had been stolen. The book idea just fell into place.
Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is such a weird relic. Doesn’t it seem weird that this part of Christ was saved? And, in doing your research, did you come across other relics that were equally odd?
David Farley: The Holy Prepuce [another word for foreskin] had come up in relic research before. Saint Catherine [of Siena], the self-proclaimed “bride of Christ,” was known to have worn the foreskin around her ring finger. Other weird relics mentioned in the book include the Holy Umbilical Cord, Holy Bib (a “two-for-one relic…complete with breast milk stains from the Virgin”) and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
Italofile: How Did You Come Up With the Title “An Irreverent Curiosity?” I’ve heard there were some more irreverent working titles of the book before you settled on the current one.
David Farley: My editor at Penguin/Gotham Books came up with a title that he was quite enthusiastic about, but I couldn’t exactly share in his excitement. I had wanted to call it “Holy Foreskin” because a title like that would most certainly get someone’s attention. But he convinced me that no one wants to be reading a book on an airplane or the subway with the word “foreskin” scrawled across the cover. So I gave him three other titles: “An Irreverent Curiosity,” because when someone asked why the pope had banned the speaking of or writing about the Holy Foreskin in the year 1900, a Church spokesman said they feared such a relic could cause “an irreverent curiosity.” The other titles were Godforsaken, which I feared sounded too much like a D&D/fantasy book, but I liked that both the relic and the village of Calcata had become godforsaken (and when you think about it, it kind of sounded like “god’s foreskin”). And the last suggested title was “The Messiah Flap,” which no one seemed to fully appreciate except for me.
Italofile: Forgetting the book and its success, would you move back to Calcata again if you had the chance? Why or why not?
David Farley: Yes and no. For me, ideal was a few months when I was living during the week in the apartment of my friend Paul Steffen, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain and then spending the weekends in an apartment I was renting in Calcata. It was the best of both worlds.
Italofile: What advice would you give travelers who wish to visit Calcata?
David Farley: Go on the weekend, when the village is at its liveliest. The artists who live in Calcata have admirably managed to inverse the work week: They work two days a week—during the weekend—and then have five days to do what they want.
Italofile: Are you working on any other Italy- or relic-related books?
David Farley: It’s not easy topping the Holy Foreskin, so I’ll probably let someone else conquer, say, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary.
Thanks, David! It was a pleasure getting to know more about you and your book.
Have you ever wanted to rent a villa in Italy but didn’t know where to start? Or, are you having trouble being convinced of the value and/or utility of renting a villa over booking a hotel? This excellent guest post, from Linda Dini Jenkins, author of Up At the Villa: Travels With My Husband, provides five great reasons how renting a villa can work with your travel lifestyle and budget. And, if Linda’s five reasons don’t spur you to action, her fun photography, featured throughout this post, should have you wanting to research Italian villas right away.
Are you ready to start planning your Italy villa vacation? Let’s get started!
Five Favorites: Reasons to Rent a Villa in Italy
There’s nothing I like better than gathering up six of my friends and my husband and heading off to Italy for a villa vacation. The first time I did this, I was a villa newbie and didn’t know what to expect. But since that first world-changing trip in June of 2000, I’ve gone almost every year and the experience just gets richer and richer.
Most villa rentals are offered for a week at a time, with a Saturday afternoon arrival and a departure the following Saturday morning. But check around — I know some offer more flexibility, with shorter stay options; it’s up to the owner and/or rental company. But why, with all the affordable hostels (if you’re young) and wide range of hotels (if you’re older, like me) would I opt to stay in a stranger’s home for a week or two? Let me count the ways . . .
1. Unpack once. Maybe twice.
Packing and unpacking are not the highlights of anyone’s holiday. So even if you’re visiting two regions over a two-week period (one year, for instance, we stayed one week on the Italian Riviera in Pieve Ligure and one week outside of Rome, in Frascati) you can stay put for a week at a time and only have to re-pack once. That means you can focus your attention on the village or city you’re staying in, and not whether your underwear is dry enough to put into the bag today.
2. Live like a native.
You start to feel like this is your home. You relax a little, maybe get to know some townspeople or at least the keyholder or caretaker. You can practice your Italian. Frequent the local trattorias and caffés. Haggle with the natives over the gorgonzola or a colorful scarf at the weekly mercato. Take a rest in the afternoon. Stroll through the piazza, arm-in-arm, after dinner with the villagers. You can even do laundry in most villas (washing machine are common; dryers are a luxury, but your clothes will smell amazingly fresh from drying outside in the sun all day). Renting a villa lets you enjoy an authentic Italian experience away from the touristy fast lane that hotel living usually implies.
3. Eat like a local.
If you’re like me, trying out different restaurants on holiday is half the fun. I love exploring the side streets and finding out where the Italians eat with their families. And I also love going all-out once or twice during my stay and eating in a place that I’ve read or heard about. But during the course of a week or two, this can get expensive. What I really like is meandering down to my very own kitchen in my bathrobe in the morning and putting on a pot of espresso, then opening the bag of cornetti and letting the aromas wake everybody up. A little Italian yogurt (it’s so creamy over there!) and some fruit is all you need at the table to help everybody wake up and plan the day. No “I’ve got to get out of the room so they can clean” or “Where can we all go to get a cup of coffee this morning? (and will we all have to stand up?)”. It’s your house. Get started when you want to. And be sure to buy some food at the local supermercato and try cooking dinner once in a while. And eat it al fresco on the patio that no doubt comes with the villa. Watch the scenery go by as you sip a glass of local wine that’s still so cheap you can’t believe it, and mamma mia — you’ll wonder why you waited so long to do this!
4. Gather together.
This one’s easy: you’re traveling in a group and you want some quality time together in addition to seeing the sites. Where the heck do you do that in a hotel? The lobby? Usually, too small or impersonal. The bar? Only for so long and only at certain times of the day. In a villa, you’re home. There are living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, sitting rooms, bedrooms . . . you can hang out anywhere. Take a walk through the piazza. Lounge in the garden or poolside, if there’s a pool. The kind of stress you sometimes feel in a hotel vacation just isn’t here. A villa is your home away from home. Relax and talk to one another. Tell stories. Write in your journal. Take photos. Plan for tomorrow. Somehow, it’s different in a villa. You’re in control of your time and itinerary.
5. Save money.
While this is the factor that gets most people to try villa vacations, experienced villa renters realize that, although price is very attractive vs. hotel stays, the other four “reasons why” are really much more important. That said, imagine if you wanted to go to Florence or Rome for a week with another couple, and each couple wants its own room. Reasonable hotels start at around $150 and go to more than $500 per night for two people (much more, of course, if money is no object). Say you found something for $200 per room . . . that’s $2800 for two rooms for one week. And all you’ve got is a room. You have to buy all your meals out (you might get a little breakfast, if you’re lucky). And every time you go in and out of your room, you’ve got to turn in your key, then get it back, etc. etc. It can be a pain. Now, if you were renting a villa, you and that couple plus one or two other couples could stay in a well-appointed country home or updated city apartment (maybe even historic) for that amount and divide it three of four ways. So instead of $1400 per week per couple, you could be down to $700. And you’ve got all the advantages laid out above.
Finding the right villa takes some time, admittedly. You need to figure out the number of bedrooms and bathrooms required, the location, whether you’ll be driving or relying on public transportation, how much you’ll cook, to pool or not to pool . . . but that’s part of the fun of planning. You can spend as little as a few hundred dollars a week for a cozy place for two or tens of thousands of dollars for a grand historic palazzo in the country for a wedding or family reunion. For me, it’s the only way to go! Buon viaggio!
Linda Dini Jenkins is a unabashed Italophile and the author of Up at the Villa: Travels with my Husband, which was named one of the “Ten Travel Books I’d Give My Girlfriends” in 2009 by Journeywoman.com. Linda is also strangely attracted to Italian doorknockers. She blogs about travel and travel writing at www.travelthewriteway.com.
All photos © Linda Dini Jenkins
June is the classic month in which to schedule wedding, and this holds true in Italy, too. Therefore, with the marriage month fast approaching, I am delighted to be able to provide readers with an excerpt from Susan Van Allen’s wonderful new book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go.
An Italian Wedding
If you get an invitation to an Italian wedding, don’t waffle about how you’re going to pay for airfare or take time off work. Go for a once-in-a-lifetime unforgettable event. Prepare yourself for an extravaganza of delicious food and dancing until the wee hours.
It’ll be a rare invitation. These days Italians say it’s not practical to get married, so most are shacking up together for years, and the statistics for Italian marriages are at a historic low. Along with that, there’s the trend of “mammoni” or mamma’s boys, that is, men living at home and having their mothers cook for them and do their laundry until they’re well into their thirties. It’s inspired the government to step in to get things moving, and beginning in 2008 tax breaks will be offered to those earning low incomes who leave home to live on their own.
Still, if you’re in Italy, especially in June (thanks to Juno, Goddess of Marriage), you’ll run into Italian weddings in churches. I spent a week in Palermo one June where almost every church I peeked into had a marriage ceremony going on, with wonderful music and stunning get-ups from the bride on down. You’ll never see a real Italian wedding on a Tuesday or Friday, as that’s considered not a good day to begin any venture. Which is why when I was last visiting Ravello’s Villa Cimbrone on a Friday, the wedding party posing for pictures were Americans from Massachusetts.
Speaking of which, you may be considering getting married in Italy. It’s naturally a great place for a wedding, completely romantic, with locations from castles to vineyards to cliffs overlooking the sea that can satisfy every fairytale fantasy.
A major advantage to getting married in Italy is that you can cut your guest list down to a core group of dearest family and friends, who’ll be thrilled to be in on the adventure. Plus, what
better place is there for a jumping off point for a honeymoon?
As far as the nitty-gritty, it’s better to have a symbolic wedding in Italy rather than an official one, as the paperwork to make things official is complex and time consuming. To help get things set up, here are some companies that specialize in Italian weddings:
One of this company’s top “I Do” spots is a sixteenth century villa on the outskirts of Lucca, which sits on 300 acres of vineyards, olive groves, and woodlands. A special perk is a pre-wedding cocktail party exclusively for the bridal couple and all the service people involved in the festivities. Here, according to Doorway’s President Kit Burns, “Everyone becomes a family and the bride’s pre-wedding anxiety vanishes when she’s met everybody who’ll be doing
There’s a fantastic frescoed bridal suite at the villa, an arts and crafts workshop area for younger guests, and it’s perfectly located for day trips before the big event, such as a boat ride to the Cinque Terre.
Italy 4 Real
Intimate country weddings in Tuscan and Umbrian agriturismos, are Italy 4 Real’s specialty. The company’s philosophy is for clients to fully experience the environment they’re in, so they bring in local expert chefs and musicians and it’s all very traditional. Marriage ceremonies feature stunning backdrops of vineyards and olive groves. Brides and grooms are whisked off to nearby picturesque hill towns such as San Gimignano or Assisi for photo shoots. The company is owned by Rem Malloy and his Roman-American mother, Deborah de Maio, who Rem made a point of telling me he does not live with.
The Italy Specialists
Silvia Giardin, company founder and Veneto native, has been planning Italian weddings for thirty-three years. “Nothing is impossible” is her motto. I would love to have been invited to just one of the weddings she told me her company put together: a sunrise ceremony on a Venetian dock where the bridal couple wore pajamas and the party continued with a palazzo brunch…an extravagant affair at the Lake Como estate now owned by George Clooney…a wedding in Taoromina, Sicily where the ceremony took place at the Greek amphitheater and was followed by a reception at The Grand Hotel Timeo.
“An Italian Wedding” has such excellent tips for a destination wedding in Italy. But it is only one chapter in a book chock full of fun Italy travel suggestions for women. Van Allen also pays homage to must-see works of art, tiny villages, spas, shopping, family-friendly places, and other sights and activities that have either a feminine bent or that hold certain appeal for the female traveler. I especially love that Van Allen has included a calendar of Madonna Holidays and Female Saints’ Feast Days.
If you haven’t figured it out already, 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go is a fantastic gift for the Italy-loving woman in your life.
(Thanks to everyone who participated in the iPhone app giveway! The contest is now closed.)
Want to know another great gift? The ‘100 Places’ iPhone App! Publisher Travelers’ Tales has created a lightweight app that you can use as a reference on your trip to Italy or when you simply want to do a little armchair travel while standing in line or sitting in the waiting room. And, I’m offering Italofile readers the chance to win a copy of the iPhone app:
100 Places iPhone App Giveaway
To win the 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go iPhone app, simply comment on the post below or re-tweet this post using the hashtag #100places. Deadline for entering the contest is 11:59pm EDT on June 3, 2010.
Last year saw the release of the book the Monster of Florence, a true tale about a serial killer who terrorized the hills around the Tuscan capital for almost 20 years, from 1968 until 1985. While several men were tried for the heinous crimes, many Italians, crime experts, and the book authors Mario Spezi and Douglas Preston, believe that the real killer remains on the loose to this day.
I knew nothing about the sensational story of the Monster of Florence when I was first doing research for one of my Italy guides long ago. Certainly, I had heard of Il Mostro, the dark comedy by Roberto Benigni based on the crimes and the search for the perpetrator, but I hadn’t given it a second thought. You can be sure that the tourism boards did not wish to point out the areas where these crimes had taken place. In fact, two of the victims – Horst Meyer and Uwe Rüsch – were tourists who were camping in the Tuscan hills.
As a travel writer, I also wasn’t keen to reveal this scary piece of Tuscan history. No use in discouraging travelers from visiting Tuscany just because of a few terrible incidents, I thought. But looking back on one of my research trips, I realized that I had actually stayed in a hotel – by myself – just minutes from one of the crimes scenes. The thought of it still sends shivers up my spine.
The part that especially upsets me is a memory of strolling into my hotel in the early evening. I had gone to a local pizzeria and enoteca to pick up my dinner for the evening. I was strolling the quiet suburban Tuscan streets in the twilight without a worry. Little did I know that the Monster of Florence had likely prowled down this same street searching for victims or on his way back from a fresh kill. Did I mention that the story of the Monster of Florence was the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter? Did I also mention that this particular evening was September 10, 2001? Horrible events – both past and future – were swirling about and I had no clue!
Well, I still have no desire to reveal where my fateful hotel was. That would not be fair to the hotel. But above is a map of the locations of the crimes. On the Monster of Florence UK website you can view a timeline of the events and their locations. Read these at your own risk! You’ll never look upon the Tuscan hills in the same way again!
By the way, here is a full-length 48 Hours video of author Douglas Preston speaking of his own entanglement with the case as well as the more recent murder trial of American student Amanda Knox in Perugia.
Last November, the New York Review of Books released Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio under its NYRB Classics imprint. The tale, as reviewed by Tim Parks in the latest issue, is much darker than the Disneyfied version. After the jump is Parks’ full review. As always, I urge you to subscribe to NYRB; they often review books on Italy and even have an Italian version, La Rivista dei Libri.
By the way, if you’re visiting Tuscany with kids, you may be interested in venturing to the Parco di Pinocchio in the author’s hometown of Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini adopted the town’s name for his nom de plume).
Knock on Wood
By Tim Parks
The Adventures of Pinocchio
by Carlo Collodi, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco and an afterword by Rebecca West
New York Review Books, 189 pp., $14.00 (paper)
A voice yells from within a pine log, “Don’t hit me too hard!” The carpenter is astonished, his axe stayed. When they come unexpected, life and language are unsettling.
Brought into being by blows, the talking log proceeds to start a fight: the carpenter’s friend Geppetto has arrived to ask for a piece of wood and the voice mocks his yellow wig; Geppetto imagines he is being insulted by his friend and in a moment the two are on the floor, scratching, biting, and thumping. Consigned to Geppetto, the lively log contrives to bang his shins and provoke a second misunderstanding and a second fight before it is taken away.
Old Geppetto is something of an artist. His house is bare, but he has painted bright flames in the fireplace and a merrily boiling pot above them; when reality is hard, illusion may offer consolation. Now Geppetto is about to embark on a much greater act of creation: he will fashion a traveling companion who can “dance and fence, and do flips,” so that together the two can earn a “crust of bread” and a “cup of wine.” He’s thinking of company and economic advantage. But no sooner has Pinocchio been carved from his living log than he is snatching off Geppetto’s wig, revealing the reality of his maker’s baldness. Taught to walk, he runs off. When Geppetto catches up and starts to give the puppet a fierce shaking, he is arrested for assault and jailed. The artist has lost control of his creation. Raw vitality with no inhibitions, Pinocchio is freed into a world of hot tempers, vanity, ignorance, and appetite; a violent tussle is never far off.
Discovery.com recently reported that the master 16th century artist Caravaggio used a “camera obscura” among other techniques to trace the models in his paintings. According to a Florentine researcher, Caravaggio made use of a dark room, first described by Leonardo da VInci, and was able to fix the outline of his subjects in order to paint them.
It’s unclear whether the artist used or needed optical instruments to paint his famous scenes of food and banquets. These, of course, were the subject of a book we mentioned in an earlier post titled Caravaggio’s Kitchen by Gianni Ummarino. Several readers have written to us to ask how to obtain this book. We haven’t been able to find it on amazon.com or through other vendors. But we did find the author/photographer’s website. Go to ummarinoeummarino.com for more information.
Update! The title of the Ummarino book is 15 Ricette del Rinascimento (15 Recipes from the Renaissance) and can be ordered directly from Ummarino’s website.
Photo from Discovery, Inc.
I was hoping that with my first post of the new year I would look forward. Instead, with the passing of Christopher Hibbert, I thought it would be worth it to look back.
Until I read Hibbert’s obituary, I didn’t know too much about him, only that he was the author of one of the most prominent Italian history books on my shelf – Rome: Biography of a City. This book, along with The House of the Medici: Its Rise and Fall, established Hibbert as one of the English-speaking world’s foremost authority on Italy’s history.
Hibbert, 84, was working up until the end. His most recent book – The Borgias and Their Enemies – was published in October of last year. Like Hibbert’s other history books, The Borgias is set to be a definitive guide to the controversial Italian clan. In fact, the New Yorker included it in its list of notable books in the December 22, 2008, issue.
So, if you’re looking to learn more about Italian history in 2009, mark down Christopher Hibbert’s works on your reading list.
Earlier in the summer, we wrote about David Maraniss’ new book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. If you read the book and loved it or put it on your reading list, then you may be interested in attending a book presentation with the author.
On September 10 at 6:30 p.m., the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Washington, DC, and the Embassy of Italy will host the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and DC native for a discussion of his latest page-turner. If you’d like to go, you must RSVP to [email protected] or by calling 202-518-0998, ext. 1.
Another book talk coming up from the IIC will be with Eleanor Herman, the author of Mistress of the Vatican. The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.* That discussion will take place on September 24. Contact the above e-mail or phone number for more info.
*Update: This book presentation has been cancelled. To find out about rescheduling or other events, contact the e-mail address above.
I am supremely excited about two new nonfiction books this summer: The Monster of Florence and Rome 1960. Both describe tumultuous times in central Italy, the first being a period of time in Florence when an unknown predator or predators who “stalked lovers’ lanes in the countryside,” and the second describes the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Set in Florence and the Florentine hills, ‘Monster’ trails author Douglas Preston on his quest to solve – or, at least, learn more about – the case of the horrific murders of scores of young lovers from 1968-1985. Chosen by Amazon.com as one of the best books of the month for June 2008, and here’s the review:
When author Douglas Preston moved his family to Florence he never expected he would soon become obsessed and entwined in a horrific crime story whose true-life details rivaled the plots of his own bestselling thrillers. While researching his next book, Preston met Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist who told him about the Monster of Florence, Italy’s answer to Jack the Ripper, a terror who stalked lovers’ lanes in the Italian countryside. The killer would strike at the most intimate time, leaving mutilated corpses in his bloody wake over a period from 1968 to 1985. One of these crimes had taken place in an olive grove on the property of Preston’s new home. That was enough for him to join “Monsterologist” Spezi on a quest to name the killer, or killers, and bring closure to these unsolved crimes. Local theories and accusations flourished: the killer was a cuckolded husband; a local aristocrat; a physician or butcher, someone well-versed with knives; a satanic cult. Thomas Harris even dipped into “Monster” lore for some of Hannibal Lecter’s more Grand Guignol moments in Hannibal. Add to this a paranoid police force more concerned with saving face and naming a suspect (any suspect) than with assessing the often conflicting evidence on hand, and an unbelievable twist that finds both authors charged with obstructing justice, with Spezi jailed on suspicion of being the Monster himself. The Monster of Florence is split into two sections: the first half is Spezi’s story, with the latter bringing in Preston’s updated involvement on the case. Together these two parts create a dark and fascinating descent into a landscape of horror that deserves to be shelved between In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Less gruesome but no less engaging in its subject matter is David Maraniss’s Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World. Though not particularly about Rome, rather about the last Olympic Games that were held in Italy, Maraniss’s book covers one of the pivotal episodes where sports and politics collided. This book is due to be on shelved July 1. So, if you need to get in the mood for what is sure to be an interesting Olympics in Beijing, check out the review and decide for yourself:
Overshadowed by more flamboyant or tragic Olympics, the 1960 Rome games were a sociopolitical watershed, argues journalist Maraniss (Clemente) in this colorful retrospective. The games showcased Cold War propaganda ploys as the Soviet Union surged past the U.S. in the medal tally. Steroids and amphetamines started seeping into Olympian bloodstreams. The code of genteel amateurism—one weight-lifter was forbidden to accept free cuts from a meat company—began crumbling in the face of lavish Communist athletic subsidies and under-the-table shoe endorsement deals. And civil rights and anticolonialism became conspicuous themes as charismatic black athletes—supercharged sprinter Wilma Rudolph, brash boxing phenom Cassius Clay, barefoot Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila—grabbed the limelight while the IOC sidestepped the apartheid issue. Still, we’re talking about the Olympics, and Maraniss can’t help wallowing in the classic tropes: personal rivalries, judging squabbles, come-from-behind victories and inspirational backstories of obstacles overcome (Rudolph wins the gold, having hurdled Jim Crow and childhood polio that left her in leg braces). As usual, these Olympic stories don’t quite bear up under the mythic symbolism they’re weighted with (with the exception perhaps of Abebe Bikila), but Maraniss provides an intelligent context for his evocative reportage.
Gosh, I hope that I find the time to buy and read these fascinating sounding books before the summer is over!
The book – and now movie – Angels and Demons isn’t too kind to the Catholic Church, with murders taking place at some of Rome’s famous and not-yet-famous churches and squares, including Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria della Vittoria. But, city officials don’t think that will deter tourists from wanting to take an Angels-and-Demons-based tour, as this article from the New York Times suggests.
In fact, Dark Rome Tours and Walks has been taking tourists on the “official” Angels and Demons tour since 2004. Group and private tours are available, and start at €56 per person and last for four hours. The tour visits Santa Maria del Popolo, St. Peter’s Square, Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the outside of “Il Passetto,” the Vatican Corridor. Of course, you can visit all of these sites on your own for way less than €56 – indeed, among all the sites listed above, only Castel Sant’Angelo charges a fee (approx. €5) – so you may want to tote the book along and create your own tour.
I was browsing a bookstore on the Upper East Side yesterday when I saw that one of the store employees had highlighted Salman Rushdie’s new work The Enchantress of Florence. Yes, the Nobel-prize winning author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses is now trying his hand at spinning a tale about Florence during the time of the Medici and combines this story with settings in India and the near East. Here’s a short clip from Michael Dirda’s review in The Washington Post (this review is also on Amazon.com):
Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel — oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children — and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder.
In these languid, languorous pages, the Emperor Akbar the Great dreams his ideal mistress into existence, a Florentine orphan rises to become the military champion of Islam, and a black-eyed beauty casts a spell on every man who sees her. Other characters include Machiavelli and Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, Adm. Andrea Doria and Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula), not to discount various Medicis and the principal members of the Mughal court of Sikri, India. The action itself covers half the known world: the seacoast of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the battlefields of the Middle East, Renaissance Italy and the newly discovered New World.
Yet whatever the locale, The Enchantress of Florence is bathed throughout in Mediterranean sunlight and Oriental sensuousness. Its atmosphere derives from the Italian Renaissance epic, especially Ariosto’s magic-filled Orlando Furioso, and from such latter-day reveries of Eastern splendor as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which features Marco Polo and Akbar’s grandfather Kublai Khan).
Here, then, is a gorgeous 16th century that never quite was, except in operas, masques and ballets.
Could this be the summer’s big beach read?