Monday, February 27, 2012

Villa San Girolamo

Last week we had the good fortune of getting to tour Villa San Girolamo, the villa right above ours on Via Vecchia Fiesolana.  I had been curious about the uninhabited villa for ages, occasionally seeing the gates open and wanting to sneak in √† la James Bond, but alas, I bided my time until we got an actual invitation, and saved my spy gear for another occasion.

Built in the 14th century, the villa has been inhabited by various religious orders, has been visited by two popes, and has a beautiful private chapel with works by Michelozzo and Nigetti, which would more appropriately be called a church due to its grand size.

Its most recent claim to fame was its being used as the setting for the Oscar-winning film The English Patient.  It is told that Charles Strong, original owner of Villa Le Balze, stayed at S. Girolamo in 1911, and taken by the wonderful views of the location, decided to buy the land just below it and build Villa Le Balze.

From the garden, we could look below and see a section of our own villa, including the Secret Garden, and the arches of the east terrace.  You're welcome to visit our website if you'd like more information about Villa Le Balze's history, including its fascinating involvement in World War II, with before and after photos of the bombings.


Back to S. Girolamo, I must say its sad to see such a beautiful Renaissance villa empty.  Visiting it, one could feel it longed to be filled with grand dinners and laughter, and I longed to be in attendance!  Since the departure of the most recent order of nuns, the villa has fallen into disrepair and the owners into financial instability.  So, if anyone is in the market for a multi-million dollar villa in the hills of Tuscany, I know a guy who knows a guy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cerca Trova: Seek and ye shall find

Photograph by David Yoder, National Geographic

Today I walked into the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence only to find the UC San Diego logo on an elaborate set of scaffolding, flanked by those of National Geographic and the City of Florence.  As it turns out, they have started an in depth and highly technological search for Leonardo Da Vinci's infamously lost painting, "The Battle of Anghiari," once thought to be destroyed, but now believed to be hidden behind Vasari's political painting in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio.   Below is the finest known copy of what the painting looks like.

The original was done in 1503 and his since been lost for more than five centuries.  Now, Dr. Maurizio Seracini, a cultural heritage engineer and founder of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology at UC San Diego (was that around when we were there?) is leading the search for what is suspected to be Da Vinci's greatest masterpiece.  In Vasari's painting, there is what seems to be a hidden message: "Cerca Trova" or "seek and you shall find"-a command that Seracini is taking to heart, just as feverishly as Kevin Costner did his in Field of Dreams.

Photograph by David Yoder, National Geographic

The discovery of this painting would be invaluable to the art world, and would be an incredible achievement for Florence and UCSD.  I sure hope they make a miraculous recovery of it before I leave town.  Keep an eye out for the National Geographic special and click here and here if you want to learn more.  Witnessing real historical mysteries being unraveled is a far cry from reading about fictional ones in a Dan Brown novel!  It's so exciting to feel even the slightest bit a part of it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Riscaldiamoci con Amore

This weekend's group field trip was meant to be to Parma, Vicenza, and Verona, but we had to cut out some different sites and add in some impromptu ones due to snow.  We detoured from Parma to Mantova and visited the Palazzo Te, whose fake moat was covered by a poorly assembled ice puzzle, giving you some idea as to how these Siberian winds have been affecting the region.

The next day we visited two Palladian villas in Vicenza, the Villas Rotonda and Valmarana, which shine with classicism and geometric symmetry, and also his fasciniating Teatro Olimpico, an indoor Roman theatre that challenges your perspectival view of the three-dimensional stage.

Back in Verona, where we spent both nights, the town had kicked off Valentine's Day early with the celebration of the Verona in Love festival.  It's a particularly romantic city, as Shakespeare himself noted when he made it the setting for Romeo and Juliet (even though the historic Juliet was actually from Siena and "her house" in Verona is a falsification).  There were various concerts and artisan fairs scattered around town, and I particularly enjoyed one Italian's soulful rendition of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," complete with lines like "feeling your heart buhleebing." 

That evening I got an aperitivo and dinner with some of the students, and several of us decided to try the local specialty, horse stew with polenta.  It's the sort of meat from which you don't know what to expect, but once you've tried it, you say, "Oh.  It tastes like horse."  All I know is I didn't have to worry about anemia that night.

The best thing about the city this weekend was that you could feel it radiating love.  I told the students to stop complaining about the cold, because we could just warm ourselves with love, and as corny as it was, they all fell for the town's magic and agreed with me.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wool & Wine

To describe the cold in Torino this weekend, let me just say this: my watch stopped.  I only wish time had, too, because I would love to have spent more time in this classy, charming city.  Many things about it reminded me of Bologna, like the porticos, the lack of English speakers thronging the sidewalks, and the city's numerous public spaces, quaint stores, and elegant cafes (where I had to try a classic hot chocolate, which is literally melted chocolate, hold the milk).  We actually spent a lot of our time getting coffee and tea at various establishments about town just to warm up our footsies and chat.

Torino is famous for being the origin of FIAT, having an incredible chocolate tradition, and also for its tendency toward the supernatural, which is only perpetuated by the presence of the Holy Shroud (I went to see the replica on display in the cathedral, and I'll be honest-it really freaked me out).

The city is known for its museums, which is good because in the winter no one wants to be outside, and every day qualifies as a "museum day".  I visited both the Egyptian museum (second in the world only to Cairo) and the Mole Antonelliana, whose elaborate spire has become a Turin landmark, and which houses the really unique National Cinema Museum.  At this museum, we learned about the history and development of motion pictures and enjoyed the incredible layout, complete with elaborate movie sets and a huge space filled with red lounges showing movie clips.


The first night we enjoyed a delicious Piedmontese dinner at Porto di Savona (artichoke risotto, agnolotti, and cod with the creamiest polenta) and shared a bottle of Barbera wine to warm our senses, which was the key to survival.  Carlotta and I both want fur coats now, too, but I guess wool will do for the time-being.

Several times over the weekend I noticed myself feeling like I was somewhere else.  The Egyptian museum seemed like an elaborate Vegas hotel, the Mole film museum could be replicated in LA to much success, and most notably the snowy hills and streets, muted architecture, and war horse statues definitely made me feel like I was in northern Europe, perhaps Germany or Austria.

Carlotta lives in a villa (everyone here made fun of me when I told them this, as it seems that yes, I have very high standards now and demand villa-level accommodations wherever I go) where she is doing her program training before heading to Benin in a few weeks.  The hills and forests surrounding the building were blanked in brilliant white snow and it even flurried a bit one morning while I was there, which we enjoyed from her window-filled kitchen while sipping our tea.  But then it was out again into the harsh cold!

Saturday morning while Carlotta was busy I went on my own to the Pinacoteca Agnelli, a gallery that started as a private collection by the head of FIAT.  The collection is small, but packs a punch with four Venetian landscapes by Canaletto, a couple Picassos, and seven works by Matisse, my favorite of which is this woman meditating-she's just so effortlessly chic and I'd bet incredible insightful. 

I don't know what this place is called, but it was a really awesome enclosed area with antique book stores and swanky restaurants.  I would be here all the time if I lived in Torino.

This is the view of Torino from the Gran Madre di Dio (first time Carlotta and I have seen people bring their dogs into a church; today's culture literally is going to the dogs).  You'll see the mole in the background, and that's the river cutting through the middle.  I can only imagine how beautiful a springtime stroll along the Po could be in this town.

There are many things I didn't get to visit while there, especially some sites in the vicinity of the city, and I'd be happy to see everything in better weather and explore old book stores and try more foods.  So that's that!  Torino, I guess I'll be back.  And thanks, Carlotta, for another lovely weekend together!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Baby, it's snowing outside!

This morning I woke up, opened my shutters, and was shocked to see the city and the villa blanketed in snow.  Not since Dec 2010, when my flight back to the states was cancelled, has it snowed in Florence, and this is the first time in which I've been at the villa to see its beauty. 


Now it's certainly not what mid-westerners would consider a lot of snow, but believe me, Florence has already practically shut down in the aftermath of these few inches. Many of the staff arrived late this morning, and some are even hypothesizing about having to stay the night at the villa.  This is one of those times where being the only staff member to live on site is glorious!  I can just enjoy the snow instead of fighting it.


Even the top of the Duomo was a bit frosty this morning!

It's supposed to continue snowing the rest of the day and off and on for a week.  We'll see if I actually make it to Turin this weekend to visit Carlotta!