Italian matters

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.

Conference: Philosophy of mathematics — truth, existence and explanation.

Philosophy of maths AND Italy — what’s not to like? So let me note that the second conference of the Italian Network for the Philosophy of Mathematics has been announced for 26-28 May 2016, University of Chieti-Pescara, Chieti, Italy.  

The invited speakers are Volker Halbach (University of Oxford), Enrico Moriconi (University of Pisa), Achille Varzi (Columbia University) together with ‘early career’ speakers Marianna Antonutti Marfori (IHPST, Paris) and Luca Incurvati (University of Amsterdam).

This is an English language conference, and there is a call for abstracts for contributed talks “in any area of philosophy of mathematics connected with the issues of truth, existence, and explanation”.  All the details can be found at the FilMat website here.

Postcard from Florence

Bronzino meets the Ponte Vecchio
Bronzino meets the Ponte Vecchio

To Florence for the better part of six days. The city is as usual wonderful in December, far from the summer heat and the summer crowds of foreign tourists (though we forgot about the Immacolata Concezione holiday, so there are Italian crowds for a couple of days). Blue skies and bright sun too.

The Uffizi is at long last being renovated and pictures rehung (the parts so far done are a huge improvement): the Leonardo Annunciation particularly beautifully displayed — On a sunny winter’s day, the view from San Miniato is breathtaking — Buy soap in that most beautiful shop, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, complete with its own frescos — The Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi as stunning as ever, and almost empty, so we can stay as long as we want — Night time walks round Florence, with added light shows (as above) — Rigoletto, conducted by Zubin Mehta, wonderfully sung with a fine cast and only slightly daft staging, then walking back along the Arno late on a fine night — A fresco day (Santa Croce, the Brancacci Chapel, and not least Ghirlandaio at Santa Maria Novella) — Fiesole — and more …

We eat and drink very well too (notably at Olio e Convivium and Il Santo Bevitore). So we have an exceptionally good time. We know we are lucky to be able to do this kind of thing.


Brilliant indeed

51OEUHk5YiLI was going to post about the delights of Amsterdam as a place to visit for a week — the cityscapes, the cafes, the restaurants, the museums large and small, the whole urban experience, all even better than we had hoped. But more or less as soon as we got back, I was felled by a nasty attack of a recurrent problem, about which all I will say is thank heavens for penicillin. Though industrial quantities of antibiotics do leave you feeling still pretty flattened, so it has been a few days of staggering from bed to sofa and back. But as I begin to feel more human I’ve had plenty of time to finish the book I’d just started before going away. Like Amsterdam, this too has been lauded to the skies by those who know it. It has been a delight, in both cases, to find that other people’s really warm recommendations are more than deserved (it doesn’t always happen!). And since you certainly don’t need me to tell you more about Amsterdam, but you might not have heard of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend — I hadn’t until a couple of months ago, from the much better read Mrs Logic Matters — maybe I’ll just sing its praises instead.

It really is absolutely wonderful. But I’m not going even to try, in my limping way, to say why. Rather let me point you to this New York Review of Books review of Ferrante’s oeuvre by Rachel Donadio, and/or this review from the New Yorker by James Wood. If these don’t get you reading, nothing will!

Postcard from Turin

It’s been a while since we were in Italy, so a quick city break — this time to Turin (a new city for us). The central city is rather impressive, wide colonnaded streets and some large piazzas. And with the streets being laid on pretty much on a grid system, you get some very long urban views, with occasional glimpses of the mountains beyond. We (unsurprisingly) had some pretty good meals, and paused not a few times in cafés — for the best ever macchiato, go to the delightful Caffe Mulassano. But the high point of our visit was (surprisingly) the Museo Egizio. Yes, of course this is famous, usually said to be the best Egyptian museum outside Cairo: but to be honest we went a bit dutifully, only to be bowled over. The collection really is quite overwhelming. The museum is undergoing refurbishment, and a  lot of the exhibits are still shown in a very old fashioned way, but even so, the cumulative effect especially of all the small ancient grave goods is astonishing. And the theatrically lit new display of the monumental statues is exceedingly dramatic. Surely unmissable if you happen to find yourself in Turin.

Florence, for body and soul

Piazza del Duomo

Florence in winter is a delight. You can get even into the Uffizi without queuing. Stand quietly in front of your favourite paintings or frescos for as long as you like without crowds around you all the time.  And when you feel like feeding body rather than soul, get into decent restaurants which are half-empty. It can certainly be cold: but with luck, you’ll be able to walk around under blue skies. We hadn’t expected snow, though! Nor had the Florentines, judging by the way everything ground to a complete halt for a day. But it did all look wonderful.

If you happen to be in Tuscany before January 23, do go to the Bronzino exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. It is a unique opportunity to see some 80% of Bronzino’s surviving paintings together. And the exhibition is quite beautifully put together and wonderfully presented (the contrast with the Uffizi’s dreadfully drear hanging could hardly be greater). And if you have the chance, get yourself on one of the weekly tours of the Contini Bonacossi collection acquired by the Uffizi a dozen years ago and still not on general display. It includes the wonderful Veronese portrait of Iseppo da Porto and his young son which we liked so much at the Louvre last year.

We ate well (surprise, surprise). These are the three places we’ll definitely go back to (and they will still be there after January 23rd, so make a note!):

  • Cibrèino (Trattoria Cibrèo) Via de’ Macci 122/r. This shares a kitchen of the very expensive Cibrèo restaurant next door: but you will eat as well for less than half the price. (You can’t book, and might have to share a table if there are only two of you.)
  • Olio & Convivium Via Santo Spirito 4. A modern take on Tuscan food — we liked the atmosphere, the food, and the stunning wine list.
  • Cantinetta dei Verrazzano Via dei Tavolini, 18/r. Fantastic place if you want a light (not cheap!) lunch.

A room with a view

Well, that isn’t supposed to happen. Heavy snow in Florence before Christmas. The city cut off. The airports closed.

But there are far worse places to be forced to stay a couple more days than planned. The galleries and the churches were still open more or less when they were supposed to be; the restaurants still a delight; and our welcoming and very comfortable hotel had no problem letting us stay on a couple of days (and we indeed had the very room that was used in the film A Room With a View: here’s the Ponte Vecchio from our terrace, the day after the snow.)

There were of course other tourists still around; but we were a sprinkling among real Florence out and about doing its Christmas shopping. Even the Uffizi was quiet. Still, after six nights, you begin to suffer from visual overload, and even I find that the thought of yet another meal out begins to pall. So it was good to get back last night to an equally snowy Cambridge.

The joys of Italian TV

This is fun. We’ve just got a small satellite dish installed and can now watch Italian TV (for free) while at home in Cambridge. The hope is that we pick up a little more of the language in a fairly painless way. “Italian TV? But that’s just girls in bikinis in every programme isn’t it?” Well, actually no. It’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation. In fact, it can be a bit old-fashioned in a rather charming way. For example, there’s a couple of quiz gameshows we’ve watched before in Italy (good for learners, because there are lots of pauses!) which seem much more gentle and warm-hearted occasions than the English equivalents. And the pride in la bella paese, the extolling of local food and wine and so on, that repeatedly comes across in the morning magazine programmes makes a nice change from our world-weary cynicism.

And I just love the sound of the language. Must be all those hours and hours spent once upon a time in Cambridge cinemas, at a very impressionable age, watching the likes of Monica Vitti (pictured!).

A Tuscan wine list …

Before it all becomes too distant, a few — ignorant and purely subjective! — wine memories from our Tuscany trip, mostly local wines from around Castelnuovo Beradenga. Quite a few of these wines are available from good merchants in the UK and USA, so these notes aren’t just of idle interest. Do go and indulge! The stars — as in (*) — represent the number of bicchiere in the Gambero Rosso wine guide. One star is pretty good, and three is a classic.

  • Fèlsina, Beradenga Chianti Classico ’05 (*). Still a bit closed(?) but opens up nicely after a few hours. I can get this in Cambridge and maybe I’ll put a few bottles under the stairs for a while. (Felsina’s recent top wines are by all accounts amazing, but we didn’t splash out this trip. I was going to say that this is their entry level wine. But actually, you go round the back of their winery, and can get last year’s unbottled at 1.80 euro a litre into your plastic box, and that’s pretty good too!)
  • Fèlsina, Beradenga I Sistri ’05 (*). Their chardonnay: very different from New World chardonnays and indeed from French ones. But I thought the ’04 we had last year was better. This is just a bit too heavy perhaps with surprisingly little nose. (But I’ve bought another bottle here, just to check, you understand …)
  • Poggio Bonelli, Chianti Classico ’01 (later years get * or **). This was recommended by our local restaurant, and comes from just down the road. Inexpensive but perhaps the best Chianti we drank all month. The bottle age made it very rounded, almost unusually smooth for sangiovese, without losing character. Excellent!
  • San Felice, Chianti Classico ’05 (*). Rather undistinguished, I thought, though others thought it better of it. Maybe I was just getting picky.
  • San Felice, Il Grigio, Chianti Classico Riserva ’04 (*). Rather better but again I wasn’t particularly impressed.
  • San Felice, Pugnitello [’04 I think]. Now this was something else. “Rediscovered” old Tuscan grape-variety. Quite excellent. Purple, complex, very full in the mouth, but not overwhelming. Very drinkable!
  • Ricasoli, Castello di Brolio, Chianti Classico ’04 (***). Very good indeed. A quintessential “modern” Chianti. (I suppose you might say it was a bit “middle of the road”, but it has enough character and texture — and I bet will be terrific in a few years).
  • Dievole, La Vendemmia Chianti Classico ’05 (*). Gambero Rosso says “easy drinking”, and yes, it was. Good for a light meal.
  • Dievole, Broccato [’04 I think] (*). This is a sangiovese blend, much fuller bodied. I think the Gambero Rosso underestimated this. Excellent for a heavier Tuscan meal! (An honourable mention too, by the way, to Dievole’s Rosato, which is terrific hot-weather quaffing wine — which we’d have drunk more of if the weather had been better.)
  • Villa Arceno, Chianti Classico ’05 (*). This is the really local wine, which our restaurant gives you as their wine-by-the-glass. Nothing outstanding, but as-it-were essence of good-ordinary-Chianti.
  • Lornano, Commendator Enrico ’04 (**). Sangiovese/merlot which we usually drink at the Bottega di Lornano. Seriously good for accompanying Tuscan-style food.
  • Castello del Terriccio, Lupicaia ’04 (***). No. Philosophers aren’t paid that much. This was by courtesy of a very generous son-in-law! Even so young was sumptuous. Classic. Words fail. And in a few more years must be unbelievable. (Drank this at Bottega del 30, surely one of the best restaurants in the world, just a couple of miles away. Sigh.)

Postcard from Siena – 8

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 (and, predictably, they were more or less empty of people). They are very fine, cool under the trees, tumble down a steep slope, and so the views out of the city are beautiful. Recommended.

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