Of the many masterpieces in Venice, and one of the many masterworks of the painter Tintoretto, is his Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, of which this picture is a detail. It’s in the Accademia Museum in Venice and was painted between 1534 and 1538. What Tintoretto gets, in an almost uncanny way, is the luminescence of the young girl. He paints rays of light that really do seem to emanate from her. She wears a powder blue dress, but she also seems like an ordinary pretty little girl dressed for church/temple in her Sunday/Friday best. The painting was done originally for the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carita, which the Accademia Museum now occupies.
From medieval times the neighborhoods of Siena have been divided into contrade. Even today, Sienese people are born both into a country, a city, and a contrade, such as the contrade of the Selva (forest), or Civetta (little owl) or Istrice (porcupine; can you see the quills?). There is intense competition between the contrade, which reaches its height on July 2nd and August 16th when there are horse races, the famous palio of Siena. The race takes place around a course in the well-known square of the city, the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo. Each contrade has its banner or flag; this is a picture of a display of them. The winning contrade received another banner, literally a palio (from Latin pallium), which gives the race its name.
Porto Venere, the ‘Port of Venus’, is on the Ligurian Coast of Italy, and I took this picture after arriving there on a small, wave-tossed boat on a stormy day. The coast here is rugged and rocky, and these are a few of the cliffs in a picture taken from near the port’s narrow entrance. A dramatic day, a tempest, and then the sky cleared.
As I walked along the harbour promenade this evening, at Santa Margarita di Liguria, and enjoying stracciatella gelato (those who know me know I eat no other), I came upon these two enterprising boys who had turned buoys into drums and were busking in the park. Such creativity one just can’t pass by. They were elated at the coins that were quickly appearing in their dish. I was certainly happy to add to their college funds. I suspect they’ll appear on many a Facebook page. If they keep this up through the high tourist season, they may be driving Ferraris by the end of the year.
This is the classic view of Portofino, the picturesque little tourist trap on the Ligurian Coast of Italy. The theory is–having come down to us from the Roman author Pliny the Elder,who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, when it also destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum–that the city was originally known as Portus Delphini because of the prominence of those playful cetaceans in its azure waters in ancient times. The dolphins, alas, have been replaced by the streamlined yachts of the super-rich.
I took this picture in the village of Barolo today. A pair of newlyweds came from their wedding on a scooter, dragging tin cans behind and a ‘Just Married’ sign on the back, the bride lovely in her gown. Only Italians could pull this off with this kind of style.
In the Barolo wine area of north Italy, a variety of grape called Nebbiolo is grown and made into many very fine wines. Spent a few hours there today, tasting and looking out over the rolling hills of vines, which are just now showing some new green growth.
There is a great tapestry hall in the Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella near Stresa, Italy. There are six enormous works, called the Unicorn Collection because they feature the unicorns in many scenes. The animal appears on the coat of arms of the family and represents its virtue. These extraordinary textiles were made by Flemish tapestry artists from Brussels in the mid-16th century. The tapestries are allegorical. They often show leopards, which were known by their Latin name, panthera. Pan-thera means ‘to take everything’ and was understood as a allegory of Christ by medieval theologians. Leopards went after nasty animals, like dragons. This one seems to be eyeing a lizard on the right, growling at him lest he think of bothering the little panther nursing and just visible beneath the mother’s body.
The Italian Neo-classical sculptor Antonio Canova (1857-1922) did many sculptures in his career, but in no subject did he excel more than in the reclining female nude. He did a few of them, perhaps even this one in the Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella. If you live in the United States you can see one –Reclining Naiad–in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like this one, the woman’s bottom is put on especially pert display. The MOMA nude lies on a panther’s pelt, adding an extra erotic charge, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you live in the UK, you’ll find another at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and if you’re friends with royalty you can find yet another in Buckingham Palace. Say hi to Liz for me, will you? That one’s being serenaded by a cupid with a harp. In Rome you can find Canova’s famous semi-nude of Pauline Borghese, in, logically enough, the Palazzo Borghese Museum. In the same place you can see the sculpture that inspired Canova, a sleeping Hermaphrodite from the Hellenistic period, around the second century BCE. If you want to thank him you can go to Venice and visit his monumental tomb in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which locals simply call, thankfully, the Frari.
Today, while touring the Palazzo Borromeo, on the Isola Bella near Stresa, Italy (see posts below), I took a picture of the spines of some old books in the library. One was entitled ‘Statues Antique and Modern’, though I couldn’t pull it out just to see how ‘modern’ modern got. I felt sad that hundreds of volumes sat on shelves, wired shut so tourists wouldn’t filch them. An unread book is a sad thing, but I suppose, in time, reading also destroys books. The one to the left of the statues book had lost the finish on its leather; more loved but more worn as well.
On the Isola Bella, a small island in north Italy’s Lago Maggiore, is the Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens. In the gardens live a small colony of white peacocks. Today, the boys were trying to impress the girls, who were completely uninterested. But the fellows never gave up, tracking the hens with their outstretched fans, like a big radar dish trying to send a signal. At least the many tourists trying to take their pictures must have bolstered their egos.
In the Palazzo Borromeo, on the Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore, near Stresa, Italy (see post below), there is a marvelous circular table with the top done in mosaic. There are around 9000 glass mosaic pieces–called tesserae–that compose a basket brimming with fresh spring flowers. Apparently it took 8 years to complete, by the early 19th century Roman micro-mosaicist Domenico Molgia.
I just came from sunny and relatively warm southern Italy yesterday. It was a bit of a shock to find temperatures in the low 40s Fahrenheit in Stresa. The morning, though cold, was beautiful. This is a view from the roof of the Hotel Palma, with the new snow on the mountains beyond and the Isola Bella floating in Lago Maggiore.
The Apulian town of Lecce is a wonderful place. It’s sometimes called ‘the Florence of the south’, but it really has its own character, incomparable to any other place. At night, when the city’s cathedral square is lit, as here, it seems otherworldly, like an enormous and ambitious stage set. You almost think opera singers will appear. Instead, kids are learning to ride their bicycles and everyone is out for their evening walk. Such a lovely sight.
One of Italy’s enduring icons has to be the bicycle. There was never invented a more elegant and efficient mode of locomotion. Even a crappy old junker, leaning against a wall in Lecce, seems proud of its classic design. I’m almost always on the move, traveling virtually all the year, and one of the main things I miss about a more sedentary life is the pleasure of riding my bike.