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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Week Five - Touching Venus and Stairwell Dining with Sophia

This is the week five entry of Five Weeks in Florence and by now you have figured out that week five is not the end of this saga, nor is this a typical blog. What of the Italian food, the shopping, the markets, and the wine. And, what about the original purpose of going to Florence – to take photos. Where are those “only you could take them” photos? These topics and visuals are all coming if you wish to continue to check in weekly. For today, the subject matter is touching famous art and anxiously anticipating Sophia’s, Marcello’s wife, Sunday meal.   

Dining in the Stairwell
Even on a hot day, the stairwell of 17 Ricasoli is dark and cool. Today is Sunday and in the kitchen upstairs, Sophia prepares the mid-day meal. The aromas of sautéed garlic and onion sneak in through our hallway window and Barbra is motivated to cook risotto. I will go to the store for a bottle of local white wine and some onions; she already has the olive oil and a black truffle stored in a cup of rice. My grocery list includes fruit, yogurt, eggs, and milk as it does in the U.S., but in Italy, ricotta, crostini, wine, olives and espresso are added to the food staples.

I instinctively know when to hop on and off of the sidewalk on my way to Supermercato Il Centro, the neighborhood general store. On the way home I walk on the sunny side of the street with my grocery bags slung across my body. I’m wearing my Italian peasant blouse and my Fellini-esque sunglasses, I feel very local as I nod “hello” to the latest batch of tourists hovering in the shade of the Accademia in cue to see the Statue of David.
When I return, the entire stairwell smells like a cooking school. The landings on each floor are large enough to fit a table for eight. I imagine that later in the day the landings will transform into family dining areas with tables covered in fine Italian embroidered linens and set with rugged blown-glass tumblers for wine. Food arrives in huge pots and platters from the different kitchens and the stair well turns into a vertical dining hall.
Sophia scoops Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato bread soup) into shallow ceramic bowls and Marcello pours Chianti from a big jug he filled at the local wine-bottle-refillery. Families share stories about the tourists, the heat, and treasured old recipes. Their laughter latches onto whiffs of Boar Ragù and Porcini Mushroom Pesto – the aromas of Sunday in Florence drift up the four floors of the stairwell and through the open apartment doors to be savored until the nighttime breeze sweeps them out into the street as we crunch our last biscotti.  

Birth of Venus

Many life size statues, including Pisano and Donatello, grace the outside the Uffizi Museum. A Leonardo DiVinci look-alike coaxes glances of wonder from the gathering crowd as he bows to acknowledge coins dropped in the open container at his feet and poses for photos. Inside, observational research quickly revealed that the famous artworks in the Uffizi Museum were covered with a sheet of suspended glass and the most famous paintings had a guard rail attached to the floor about 24” in front of the glass: such was the case with the Birth of Venus.
If David is the most recognizable male in Italy, his female counterpart is Venus standing in an open sea shell with long hair swirling about her body. David however, started as a statue whereas the image of Venus is extracted from a fantasy oceanic landscape in the painting Birth of Venus, 1484, by Alessandro “Sandro” Botticelli, which hangs on a wall in Room 10 of the Uffizi Gallery. 
I don’t remember the story of the painting’s importance from my college art history class, so will instead provide my immediate reaction to the masterpiece. Her flesh has the fragile quality of porcelain while the background landscape recalls the stitching of a tapestry and the detailed embroidery of the garments make them hang weightily on the other human forms in the painting. The waves in the sea resemble upside down cartoonish clouds and the softness of her hair mimics sea weed floating in the water. The piece is almost life size, approximately 6’x10’, with a heavy carved gold frame almost 8” wide. In one word, it is “luxurious.” 
Next to the painting is a 2’x3’ tactile reproduction of the Birth of Venus done in low relief white resin. It has a sign in Italian and English saying that the relief was donated to the museum by an art foundation. I did not notice that the information was given in braille. The highest parts of the relief shine pristine white from the gentle touch of millions of fingers, while the deepest shadowy incisions are dark and layered with the grime of warm handprints. I closed my eyes and rubbed my fingers and palms gently over the surface of Venus trying to imagine how it feels to the blind to see a famous work of art through the fingertips of their world. I was conscious to touch with respect, avoiding her tiny and delicate private parts.        

Venus is not the only guest in Room 10 at the Uffizi. Botticelli’s work covers the walls. His textures are exacting and facial expressions honest. The figures float on the backgrounds creating ethereal and magical kingdoms known only within the frame of the canvas. Transparent flowing fabrics and heavy red velvet robes indicate that the artist understood the make-up of inanimate objects as well as he understood that facial and body language reveals personalities. 

His small pieces, perhaps 8”x12”, explore the same detailed quality as his large pieces. I might guess that he changed from large work to small work depending on the availability of room in his studio or if he wished to sit or stand on a given day. Sometimes his backgrounds are as ornate as the foregrounds and sometimes they are sketchy, as if to avoid competing with the subject. Large or small – all works had the same intense detail where he wanted to have detail and were loose in areas he wished to allow freedom. Artistic freedom is carried on today in Italy as shown by a retailer in the thoughtful positioning of the perfect Venus between two iconic religious statues.      -end-

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