Italian matters

Postcard from Ravello

Down to Ravello for a few days to do nothing-very-much, after a busy stay in Naples (not a city we really knew at all, so a great deal to see!).

For holiday entertainment — having speedily devoured Kate Atkinson’s immensely readable new Transcription, picked up at the airport — I’ve been reading Norman Lewis’s classic Naples ’44.

No, perhaps entertainment is not quite the right word. The wartime diary is wonderfully well written, and often wryly amusing. But too many scenes are cruel reminders of how fragile our social order can be. Not perhaps what I needed right now. I just get all the more angry at the mad Brexiteers’ casual destructiveness.

And there I was, promising myself a temporary holiday from fretting about all that …

Another postcard from Rome

We always like to go to smaller, less-visited places — not just to avoid the teeming crowds, but also because we find that smaller galleries and churches and palazzi can be more humanly interesting and (not feeling overwhelmed) more enjoyable. Three final highlights of our stay have been seeing a fine exhibition Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times, visiting the small but stunningly frescoed Oratorio del Gonfalone, and going to the beautiful Villa Farnesina in Trastevere (above) which has frescoes by (among others) Raphael. Even the exhibition wasn’t busy, and we were the only visitors to the Oratorio (used for evening concerts and other events — you knock on a door in the street behind, and we were shown it by the President of the confraternity).  All wonderful.

And for when you’ve finished feeding the soul, a top restaurant recommendation: Pierluigi.

Oh, and a pro-tip for visitors to Rome: download the Mytaxi app. Works a treat and makes getting around so easy.

Postcard from Rome

A week or so in Rome, with beautiful sun, some wonderful food, coffees as they should be, quite a lot of wandering around back streets, and a less than frenetic cultural pace visiting a few churches and exhibitions. We arrived just as the not-so-United Kingdom formally triggered the process of leaving the EU. Seems somehow rather appropriate to show our feelings about this folly by leaving the UK for the Eternal City, for however short a time.

I must say that I have found the Brexit absurdities plus the Trump fiasco less than cheering. Though having nothing original or insightful to say about either, I’ve not wanted to bang on about them here. But the political news has been lowering and distracting enough to stem the flow of blog posts for a while. A few more days of sun and noisy civilization, and normal service ought to be resumed.

Another postcard from Florence

img_2432Some wonderful sunny days. Flights to Pisa and hotels in Florence both have enough spaces in December to risk last minute bookings when you’ve seen the weather forecast — but that’s not our way: so this has been sheer good luck. So we took advantage of the blue skies to “do” the Roman site at Fiesole — which perhaps in itself isn’t very exciting, but which does have a very attractively presented small archeological museum which is certainly worth the bus-trip up from Florence.

However, it’s not been all galleries, churches and sites. A certain amount of rather terrific food and drink has been consumed (for mid-culture sustenance, there is Eataly: and after a tough day we can recommend again Olio e Convivium, and Il Santo Bevitore, and a new discovery Il Desco). None will break the bank. And it is a tad depressing that a place as rich and cosmopolitan as Cambridge hasn’t anywhere to touch them.

But no, I shouldn’t say that’s “depressing” even in jest. What’s depressing is the evolving ghastly political news from America. And the continuing profoundly damaging mess that Brexit looks certain to be, thoughts of which are bound to nag away as you wander the side streets of old Europe.

Postcard from Florence

img_2385smBack to Florence for five days. Lovely in the winter sun. Does it perhaps seems a little busier with groups of Chinese tourists than this time last year?  But of course there are still nothing like the dire crowds of summer. One high point has been seeing the restructured Botticelli rooms in the Uffizi which were opened in mid October. The improvement on the familiar Room 10-14 is simply stunning. The old large square room  has been partially divided, to make more wall space. So now the Birth of Venus and Primavera are both beautifully isolated and quite wonderfully well lit too. They can never have looked better.

Here though is a painting from the Uffizi that we’d never noticed before, the Madonna of the Well (c. 1510). Not Raphael as you might think at a first glance, but by one Francesco Cristofano Guidicis, known as Franciabigio. Lovely though.

In another troubled world …


In another troubled world, a young woman – enigmatically beautiful – forever wanders the streets of modernist suburban Rome.

In this equally troubled world of ours, Monica Vitti, who played her so unforgettably, is 85 today.

Which makes me feel rather old.

Postcard from Venice


A wonderful eight days in Venice, staying a few yards from the delightful Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.  As we remembered from our last visit (too long since), if you avoid Piazza San Marco, then even the most famous galleries, churches, etc., are very surprisingly quiet. When we visited the stunning Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavone, very high on the guidebooks’ lists of must-visit sights, there was just one other family there.

Much of our time though was spent, as it should be, simply wandering around quiet corners by foot and vaporetto. The weather was really kind. We ate (mostly) splendidly. We were bowled over again. Next time, we must stay for longer.

La Traviata at La Fenice

Francesca Dotto singing Violetta was just stunning tonight. Here she is last year in Act I of La Traviata in the same fine production (filmed unofficially I suspect, but still well enough to give you some sense of both the staging and her performance).

“As we approached Florence …”

“As we approached Florence, the country became cultivated to a very high degree, the plain was filled with the most beautiful villas, and, as far as the eye could reach, the mountains were covered with them; for the plains are bounded on all sides by blue and misty mountains. The vines are here trailed on low trellises of reeds interwoven into crosses to support them, and the grapes, now almost ripe, are exceedingly abundant. You everywhere meet those teams of beautiful white oxen, which are now labouring the little vine-divided fields with their Virgilian ploughs and carts. Florence itself, that is the Lung’ Arno, (for I have seen no more) I think is the most beautiful city I have yet seen. It is surrounded with cultivated hills, and from the bridge which crosses the broad channel of the Arno, the view is the most animated and elegant I ever saw. You see three or four bridges, one apparently supported by Corinthian pillars, and the white sails of the boats, relieved by the deep green of the forest, which comes to the water’s edge, and the sloping hills covered with bright villas on every side. Domes and steeples rise on all sides, and the cleanliness is remarkably great. On the other side there are the foldings of the Vale of Arno above; first the hills of olive and vine, then the chesnut woods, and then the blue and misty pine forests, which invest the aerial Apennines, that fade in the distance. I have seldom seen a city so lovely at first sight as Florence.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Shelley, 20th August, 1818.

Encore #7: Postcards from Siena


Continuing the series of re-posts as we approach the tenth birthday of the blog. In the early years of the blog, The Daughter had a home near Siena, and we visited often, and we came to love the place. The photo above is her village a few miles east of Siena (and indeed the just-visible white blob in the middle distance in the centre of the picture, is the dome of the Duomo, which was covered for repair at the time). Here are some snippets from one visit in May and June 2008.

We have decamped back to Siena for the better part of a month. Or rather to a small village about 15km to the east. Siena is already bustling with tourists, but here things are very quiet. From one window, a few domestic sounds of village life; from another I can see half-a-dozen men slowly working in a line between the vines below the village walls. I suspect that logic postings here might be infrequent for a while, though I’ve brought a laptop and some things to work on when the mood takes me.

In the little piazza beneath our window, children have been celebrating their first communion. Being Italy, the occasion is marked before and after by a lot of noise, clanging bells and a brass band, and the inevitable gathering for food and wine. There are proud parents and grandparents, and the youth of the village dressed more for a party than for a solemn occasion. No doubt, it all means different things to different people: but these occasions are just part of village life, and I suspect that many of the participants are just comfortable through long familiarity with participating in religious services (with more or less regularity, more or less enthusiasm), and don’t worry too much about what it all means. It is what you do, and it ceremoniously links the occasions of life with the eternal verities.

We normally never watch breakfast TV, but here we have the excuse of trying to pick up more Italian: and actually it isn’t at all bad. The weekend show we watch has a nice slot visiting different places around Italy and talking at length about their local produce, and demonstrating a characteristic recipe. That — followed by walking through the woods onto the estate of Villa Arceno and alongside their vineyards — worked up appetites for Sunday lunch at a favourite restaurant, La Bottega di Lornano. But by then the weather was getting too threatening again to eat outside (even under their big awning). Still, a terrific meal as always, in Tuscan quantities, and we drank a favourite wine, Dievole’s Broccato. Prices in Italy are going up, and the pound is going down against the euro, so this is not quite the stunning bargain it would have seemed three years ago. But we still ate much better for less than the cost of a second-rate chain restaurant meal in England. Which is why we very rarely bother to eat out at home.

We went yesterday to the Archivio di Stato in Siena (which does guided visits three times a morning). The interest there — apart from the great ranks of volumes of documents — is an exhibition of the Tavolette di Biccherna. These are painted wooden panels that were produced as covers for bundles of civic account books, starting in 1258 with the practice continuing to the eighteenth century. The earlier ones, in particular, are fascinating (particularly interesting to see secular art of the time). Very definitely worth a visit: we enjoyed it great deal. There were exactly two other people there when we went.

Here, everyone has to park outside the walls of the old part of the borgo. But that’s no hardship. There’s stone and gravel put down between the olive trees just under the house, and you park the car among them, leaving it to quietly admire the views for miles over the hills. The trees have been brutalized since last year, obviously scaring the living daylight out of them, and as a result they are beginning to fruit like mad. I can report that the local olive oils vary, but from merely very good indeed to the amazing. (And judging from the ages on the gravestones in the village cemetery, they must have magically life-extending properties.)

It’s sunnier and warmer (for a while). This year the excellent restaurant just a few steps across the piazza has put a few tables outside, and will bring you a coffee and cornetto from when they open up in the morning, or an aperitivo in the afternoon. A great idea, but so far the weather has been such that we’ve only made use of it a few times. But this morning, sitting in the sun at half-past nine, it was already pretty hot. At last.

The meteo predicts that really good weather will start on Thursday. Since we are leaving on Wednesday, this is just a bit galling. This morning it was so cold we put the heating on again. And jazz last night in the little village piazza under our window was good, but not the balmy June night under the stars we might have expected, and the well-wrapped-up audience was understandably a bit thin.

Siena itself is like Cambridge at least in this respect: the tourists tend to stick to a small part of the city. So it can be very busy round the Campo and the Duomo. But other sights, even those the guide books warmly praise, can be more or less deserted. We did make one nice discovery a couple of days ago when it was dry in the afternoon. We found ourselves at the botanical gardens which we’d never visited before — the gardens, predictably, were more or less empty of people. They are very fine, cool under the trees, tumble down a steep slope, and the views out of the city are beautiful. Recommended.

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