Saturday, 30 June 2012

A day in Arezzo (where life is beautiful, but boiling)

I barely remember Roberto Benigni's 1997 film "Life is Beautiful" which was shot in the Tuscan city of Arezzo. But a day trip there on Friday made me think that life can be boiling as well as beautiful.

The heat was staggering -- over 40C -- so I spent much of the day dodging from church to church. Which I would have done anyway, of course! Arezzo has some rare beauty in its churches, such as the Romanesque Santa Maria della Pieve just above.

The church, dating from the 12th century, sits at the foot of the steeply sloping Piazza Grande, which is topped by the long, shady Vasari loggia. To one side of the piazza is the Palazzo della Fraternita dei Laici, with its lovely clock tower.

One of my favourite sites is, of course, San Francesco with its remarkable fresco cycle, "The Legend of the True Cross" by the great Piero della Francesca (can you tell I'm a fan?) This was my third visit to see these frescoes which I never seem to tire of.

For the first time, I did  take myself past the Duomo (which is wonderful) to the lovely little Gothic San Domenico with its asymmetrical exterior and wonderful wooden cross, one of three painted by Cimabue.This one dates from between 1260 and 1270 -- which I find amazing, in part because it looks so modern in many ways!

Cimabue, said to have taught Giotto, painted three such crosses, including one completed 20 years after this work and now hanging in Florence's Santa Croce.

Naturally, no amount of heat could dampen my appetite and I had a great lunch just around the corner from San Francesco, at Bacco & Arianna which is charming, stylish, and quite inexpensive. I was crushed that my favourite wild boar was not available, so I settled for a savoury pici with pesto di salvia (pasta with pesto made from sage.)

I did think the heat also justified a medium-sized gelato mid-afternoon and later, a whipped cold cappuccino.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Digging up Mona Lisa

Well, they're at it again.

Archaeologists and Mona-Lisa-ologists (yes, I did in fact make that word up) have resumed the hunt in Florence for the bones of the woman who may have become the famous Mona Lisa.

Workmen with mechanical digging equipment have resumed removing a cement floor from the former Convent of St Ursula in Florence. It's believed that beneath the floor is the tomb of a young woman named Lisa Gherardini, who is thought by many art scholars to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

Workers actually began digging for the tomb last year, but were stalled by a lack of funds, according to The Telegraph newspaper (the source for the above photo.).

However, the 110,000-euro cost of the renewed search will now be financed by authorities in Florence, the newspaper adds.

If researchers find bones, these will be sent to experts at the University of Bologna, who will attempt to conduct carbon dating tests and extract DNA.

That material will then be compared with DNA from the remains of Gherardini's children, who are buried in a church in Florence.

If enough remains are found, experts may be able to reconstruct the woman's face and learn more about her famous smile.

"I'm confident we're going to find something,'' art historian Silvano Vinceti told the ANSA news agency.

Vinceti, the head of the National Committee for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, found the bones of Baroque painter Caravaggio and has reconstructed the faces of other artists based on their uncovered skulls.

All this could solve a mystery which has intrigued art historians for centuries – just who was it who posed for the painting, which hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Lisa Gherardini was the wife of a rich Florentine silk merchant Francesco Del Giocondo, and the Mona Lisa is known in Italian as La Gioconda. The couple married in 1495 when the bride was 16 and the groom 35. She became a nun after her husband's death, and died in the convent on July 15, 1542 at age 63.

It has frequently been suggested that Del Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint his Mona Lisa (mona is the standard Italian contraction for madonna, or "my lady,") to either mark his wife's pregnancy or the recent birth of their second child in December 1502.

This is behind the notion that pregnancy or childbirth were the reasons for Mona Lisa's cryptic smile.

Other theories hold that the painting is actually a self-portrait of Leonardo or one of his male lovers in disguise. Proponents of that theory note that the painter never actually gave up the work but instead kept the Mona Lisa with him until his death in Amboise, France in 1519.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Santa Maria in Aracoeli

I have a soft spot for this very old church on the top of Rome's Capitoline Hill. It looks very austere but inside has some treasures.

My favourites, of course, are the 15th century frescos in the Bufalini Chapel, painted by Umbrian artist Pinturicchio depicting the life of Saint Bernardino of Siena.

Pinturicchio, who was born in Perugia as Bernardino di Betto, was a paid assistant of Perugino and worked with him on Perugino's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

Pinturicchio's work on the Bufalini Chapel was one of his earliest independent commissions.

Yet the church's most famous and important treasure is a miracle-working wooden statue of the baby Jesus, which is said to have been carved from an olive tree taken from the garden of Gethsemene. It's brought out from its private chapel at Christmas, for other religious processions; and even has been taken to hospitals and to the beds of Rome's sick and dying, and has been known to bring about amazing cures.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli was build over the ruins of a temple to Juno Moneta and its transformation from a pagan temple into a church dedicated to the Madonna was legitimized by an ancient legend.

According to this legend, the Emperor Augustus received a prophesy from the Tiburtine Sibyl, who predicted the descent from the skies of  "the King of the Ages." As she spoke, Augustus saw an amazing vision: the Virgin Mary standing on an altar in a dazzling light and holding the baby Jesus in her arms. The Emperor also heard a voice, saying: "This is the altar of the Son of God."

Hearing that, Augustus immediately raised an altar on the site, the Ara Coeli, or altar of the heavens.

Historians' reports about the church date from the 6th century.

I liked this little painting by Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg completed between 1813 and 1816 and titled: "The Marble Steps Leading up to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome."

Here's how it looks today. Roman friends tell me that in the local dialect, Aracoeli is pronounced: Air-AH-show-lee. Apparently the shuuuush sound is very Roman.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Getting lost in Rome's Borghese Gardens

I went for a stroll up to the Galleria Borghese on Sunday and decided to take a walk around some of the park. Actually, I really went for a walk AROUND the park! After getting a bit lost, I wound up going all the way around the circumference of the 148-acre park.

It was wonderful! I had visited the park many times, but usually remained around the Galleria. But today, I saw some sights I hadn't seen before!

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna:

A tartaruga fountain:

Eventually, I found myself at the top of the Pincian hill, catching some great views from far above the Piazza del Popolo, looking towards the Spanish Steps:

Over towards the Vatican:

And some beautiful rooftops of Rome!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Orvieto for the day

It's about 15C (60F) in Underground Orvieto -- a perfect break from a hot, hot day above ground, and an opportunity to learn about the mysterious Etruscan people who settled here long before the Romans, long Before Christ.

Orvieto, an ancient Etruscan city that sits high atop a massive hill formed of volcanic Tufa-rock and located about 95 kilometres northeast of Rome, is both beautiful and fascinating.

Its Duomo, with a spectacular 13-14th century facade, is one of the loveliest I've ever seen, and its streets and other churches so pleasant.

Yesterday, I desperately needed a break from the city and hopped a train out of Rome. Orvieto was just what I needed.

I had visited here before but was so rushed and disgruntled on that day that it was as if I had never really seen the city. So this time, I felt I was starting fresh, seeing the major tourist attractions for the first time.

Starting with the Underground Orvieto tour. Quite a contrast from the beauty above ground, but also very cool and mysterious. By walking through the caves and tunnels, it was easy to image the lives of the Etruscan people who lived here and set up their temples, workshops, and deep wells in the hundreds of caves that burrow beneath the city.

The  Etruscans established the city, called Velzna, between the 9th and 3rd century BC but were eventually driven out by the Romans.

The caves helped them stay cool when working in the summer, and warm during the late autumn/early winter when the olives are harvested and crushed into precious oil.

I wonder if they ate wild boar that was anywhere as delicious as the cinghiale I enjoyed (with polenta) at Trattoria Etrusca, near the Duomo?

Back above ground, I was of course fascinated most by the Duomo, and found some interesting sculptures on the facade, especially this Annunciation (for my collection!)

Some lovely Umbrian views from the walls of Orvieto:

And some cool street art on Via Michelangeli, which is crowded with craftsmen of all types, but especially wood-workers and ceramics makers.

I thought these were festive: