Sunday, July 31, 2011

Week Three: San Miniato al Monte, Accademia, English Mass at the Duomo,

Monday, July 18 – San Miniato al Monte High on a hill overlooking Florence sits San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church built in the 12th Century. It is home to Olivetan monks, their monastery, and a cemetery. The church exterior is an elegant detailed mosaic of polished marbles while inside, roughly carved wood timbers support the roof and simple wooden pews provide an earthly religious setting.  An echo drew us to the front of the church where three monks sat facing each other. Their lips barely moved, but their chanting reverberated through the building and over the rooftops of Florence below.  
Behind the church is a cemetery. It appears to be designed in blocks graves with a block expansion when the last block filled. As expected, the names on the grave stones are Italian. Unexpected are the monuments and elaborate statuary. The early morning shadows and light beams cast a magical inviting aura over the city of the dead, begging a photographer wander the grounds and visit the souls.

The Flat      

With the exception of the door knob on the front door, which is positioned at my eye level (five feet higher than the sidewalk), a shoulder high key hole, and 14’ ceilings all things in our flat seem small. Reaching up makes me feel very small. When we enter or leave, people on the street look at us as if to jealously say, “Oh, they live here.” At least that’s what I imagine them to say except for our upstairs neighbors, who I have named Marcello and Sophia, who know we are transient and that the bats fly in the building at will.   I call this living space a flat while others call it an apartment or a house. I call it a flat because it is linear with one room in front of the other from the entrance door in the stair well to the great room with windows overlooking the street. We have a tiny two cup espresso pot, two tiny espresso cups, tiny wine glasses that double as juice glasses, purchased at the l’Italia 99 cent store, and we eat with espresso spoons and salad forks. Our colorful nativity sponges are each the size of a deck of cards and although there are ten, we ration their use so as not to disturb the nativity scene. The first selected was yellow and green, a familiar color for a sponge. The next selected was red and green, a tradition color referencing Christmas.

Thursday, July 21 – Accademia
The Accademia is less than two blocks away, but we only walk that section of the street on Monday when it is closed. On other days, crowds in cue and souvenir vendors flood the street as if they were waiting to enter a building which housed one of the most recognizable statues in the world, in fact it does, Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Its reproduction, in the outdoor Piazza della Signoria, looks of average size as it stands in a loose cluster of naked marble men and women in various poses. In the Accademia however, the nine head tall David stands on a pedestal by himself under a sky-lit dome. He is, in one word, magnificent – his entire 360 degree view.
The museum rooms are filled with marble statuary created by artists who intimately knew the inner workings of the human body. Beneath the surface of the polished marble your eyes can feel the warmth of the pulsating heart and the blood flowing through their veins. One room mimics an artist studio with displays of busts and a video showing the start to finish process involved in translating a smaller than life size sculpture into a larger than life size statue through use of markers on the small version, then calibrated to a larger version. The question that was never answered for me was, when you look at a block of marble, where does the artist make the first chisel mark. Days later on the train ride to Cinque Terre, we passed the town of Carrera. In the foreground, rows of standing slabs of hewn marble as far as the eye could see and in the background, mountains touching the clouds with huge chunks removed.        

English Mass In the Duomo

Today was Saturday and as I learned last week, you can walk in the side door of the Duomo at 4:50 at attend 5pm mass in English. I felt very comfortable in the cathedral when I was there with my parents in 1958 and felt the same at mass last week. The priest spoke of facing challenges and having hope; this week he spoke of making sacrifices and having faith.
About 100 people attended each mass and, having never attended a Catholic mass before, it was far less theatrical than I had anticipated. No strong incense, no clanging gongs, and no theatrical procession of clergy. There were two priests clad in understated robes and simple natural wicker baskets were passed for offerings. The younger priest who gave the sermon perused the audience before the service and selected people to come to the front and read. This was a nice touch. The first week and young man and his wife participated, this week a young woman. The most curious observation I made of the audience was that they all wanted to be there…and we all were there in body and in spirit.

In the Piazza del Duomo
We cleared out at 5:50 for the 6pm mass in Italian.  Emerging from the peace of the sanctuary, just as last week, tourists were crowded all around the Duomo, as if they had no idea what was taking place inside.  They chatted, ate gelato, and when the chimes rang at 6pm, in unison they (all 2,000) seemed to turn and raise their cameras to the cathedral, rhythmically snapping photos as if the chimes somehow would enhance the image or perhaps bring back that special memory when they returned home. When the chimes stopped, the shutters stopped, and they returned to eating gelato.
...when the bat flew into our flat, the noise we caused running up and down the hall, Barbra with broom in hand, caused Marcello and Sophia to look down on us from their windows in the shaft. I quickly searched the Italian/English dictionary for the word bat and only found uccello the word for bird. To explain our situation, I stood in front of our shaft window flapping my arms using the international symbol for bat and repeating, “Uccello, uccello." They just looked at us with furrowed brows probably thinking, “Whatsa the biga deal – it’s a only a bata anda ifa theya shita ona youra heada itsa gooda luck.” After mass at the Duomo, I watched a woman laugh hysterically as she poured water on her husband’s head while he washed out the dung…and the good luck.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Week Two: Pointe a Poppi, Heat Wave, Fiesole, Raphael Gualazzi, Ciao Marcello

July 10 – Pointe a Poppi

Yesterday the SRISA summer instructors were invited to the home of the founder of the art school, printmaker Dennis Olsen and his wife Meredith Dean, a painter. I went as Barbra’s guest. It was a 2.5 hour trip from Florence to Pointe a Poppi, then a short trip by car to their hilltop. Thirty years ago Dennis discovered the abandoned medieval village of seven homes and a chapel. He purchased one home and since then other artists and academics have bought, restored, updated and live part-time in the stone homes. Dennis originally came to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship to study printmaking in 1969, stayed and opened the school. In recent years, he and Meredith split time between Texas and Italy.

We were greeted with cool drinks and platters of bruschetta (sliced dry bread topped with tomato, basil, cheeses, and olive mixtures).  After a short walk on their private hillside we enjoyed brunch on the loggia overlooking the valley below. Fresh pasta with pesto and tomatoes, salad nicoise (vegetables on lettuce with tuna and anchovy), bread and fresh fruit were set out like a photo buffet; desserts of delicate pastries, macedonia (chopped fruit) with a douse of lemoncello (lemon liqueur), and espresso finished off the perfect midday meal.

The positioning of the home, its windows and doors, allowed the breeze to sweep through with amazing accuracy to cool the space between the foot thick stone walls. The 360 degree view was that of a landowner of his kingdom. Everything in sight felt like it belonged to the top of the hill and their little village was the crown jewel. Visiting an enclave of art thinkers and doers living in a medieval village on a hilltop in Tuscany is one dream that was never on my wish list – perhaps because prior to this trip, it was beyond the realm of my imagination.

July 11 - Heat Wave
We hit what the Italian's call “a heat wave” in Florence. It was 96 degrees yesterday. We coined it “blazing hot.” We name the heat of each day as if it were art. Today, so far, it’s 99 at 3pm. We call today’s heat “ungodly hot.”  Heat with personality and a title is part of living the authentic experience downtown here in the hood. Our home is just two blocks from the Medici Palace and in a former life, we would have met at the corner café for espresso and a pastry. Of huge curiosity to me is understanding how the elite Florentine women got into those weighty layered dresses we see in paintings when their skin was overall sticky as mine is today; what did the artists wear as they painted the frescos, high off the ground in the suffocatingly hot, still air; and, what was the trick to making nightly pasta without heating up the entire house? 
We have three electric fans and put frozen bottles of water in front of the fans to chill the air as it circulates. We wear water drenched handkerchiefs around our necks and spritz our faces with chilled water from small pump bottles. We drink gallons of frizzante water – water with “gas” bubbles or mineral water that makes us feel like we’re supplying our bodies with healthy liquid. We have become quickly proficient in hand washing clothes and drying them outside the hall window. It is a simple life here in Florence and we are mastering the art of hanging the clothes on the line without dropping too many clothes pins to the rooftop below.

July 12 – Opening Windows
The days are long because it is very hot. The 96 degree temperature today feels cool compared to the blazing 99 degree heat wave of a few days ago. We rise between 6 – 8am and go to bed between 10pm and 2am. We have a system of opening and closing windows, letting the air circulate in the evening and then again early in the morning. We also keep the lights turned off, which often causes me to write in the dark from 11am until I leave for my 3pm class. Even a crack of light through the shutters of the 8’ windows heats the great room. We often work at the kitchen table wearing unshapen sleeveless dresses like the stereotype Italian Mama wears in movies.
My work space at the big table is facing the street with the stove hood light and exhaust fan turned on behind me. With the shutters closed, the room feels like a womb; it is almost completely dark and the warmth wraps my body in constant sweat; it is quiet, except for the low throbbing of the fan as it struggles to suck the stale air, while the faint hood light probably wonders why no one is cooking.  
The coolest room in the house is the bedroom with two twin beds and a tall window, just under our upstairs neighbor’s outdoor clothes line, cracked open to the shaft. This afternoon the oscillating fan, cool shaft air, and diffused light from the sky make this the perfect location to lie back on the bed, while our sheets spin in the wash, and we watch clips from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Around 8pm we’ll open up all the windows and hope the bat that flew in last night does not return.

July 13 – Fiesole
The picturesque hilltop town of Fiesole offers a spectacular overlook of Florence, a 20 minute bus ride away. The town has a cathedral, was home to artists and aristocrats alike, and is famous for its Roman ruins. A museum is built over some of the ruins so you can see details of the architectural site, including a grave and pottery, from inside weather protected museum.
The showpiece of the grounds is a 3,000 seat amphitheater where concerts are still performed – English rock band, Pink Floyd was there recently and jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd will be there next week. We had the thrill of watching and listening to Raphael Gualazzi, Italian singer and pianist practice shirtless on the stage for his jazz performance that night.

A seat at a sidewalk café was the front row ticket to a picture perfect sunset and activities that take place when the heat of the day subsides. The main square is a transition area between the bus stop, cafes, and roads to residences. Men and women walk arm and arm, young lovers kiss, and everyone stops for a gelato, birra, or vino. 

Our ring side seats offered an unexpected close-up view of as an automobile procession passed through the town. There were more than 40 classic sports cars with drivers enjoying our shouts of recognition - Fiat, Porsche, Jaguar, MGTD and even a Morgan, the first car I ever owned. If my eyes did not deceive me, Francis Ford Coppola was driving one of the classics. 

July 14 – The Shaft

The apartment building is configured with a central spiral staircase made of stone and polished with age. The long entry hall from the street to the stair well is a large abstract marble mosaic.  This treatment is also used on the landings of the four apartment levels. There are empty shafts in the building which I’m sure have an architectural name I do not know. I have seen three so guess there are four for structural purposes.
There are tall windows in the stair well that open on to one of the shafts and tall windows from some apartments open into the stair well. There are tiny ventilation windows, covered with iron grating, connected to the less desirable bedrooms of the apartment. The more desirable bedrooms have 8’ windows opening out onto the shaft. Looking down, our shaft seems to start on the ceiling of the floor below and is open to the sky above. It is the Italian version of the back steps in I Love Lucy where neighbors converse without being in each other’s immediate presence.
We hang our laundry on an accordion contraption attached to the exterior wall with four clothes lines each three feet long. Our upstairs neighbors have four clothes lines each twelve feet long on pulleys and an orange and pink vented plastic basket, which I guess contains delicate items. Their brightly colored kitchen towels have been hanging out since we arrived and I’m wondering if they were left there because they cannot see them since they are on the line closest to their wall. Last night the man of the house leaned out the window and watched me pin a dripping ruffled blouse to our clothes line. He was about fifty with thinning hair with a paunchy stomach beneath his undershirt, but you could tell he was a stallion in his youth. “Bona sera,” he said.

I knew that meant good evening so replied, “Bona sera” as I nodded my head politely. Had I been more daring I would have shaken my fist upward and said, “Ciao Marcello, Sophia lefta the kitchen towels outa fora two weeks, whada youa doin up there if youra nota cooking anda eating?” And then I would have cocked by head, raised my eyebrows, grinned, laughed, and turned away as old lovers do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Week One: Coming to Florence, Ricasoli, Santa Reparata International School of Art

July 4 – Coming to Florence

In 1971 if you would have told Barbra Riley and me that we would go to Florence together 40 years later, we would have said, “cool.” After all we were hippies – all things seemed possible.  We were in graduate school working on art degrees with the world at our fingertips.  Now Barbra is an artist and professor of photography at Texas A & M University, and during the summer she teaches at Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence.
As a child I had the good fortune of trav eling with my family and one of those memorable trips took us to Italy.  I knew I would return some day. I wanted to feel the lifeblood of country, not just the passing glance experienced as a tourist.

When the opportunity to sign-up for Barbra’s class occurred – it was an opportunity too hard to ignore.  It is July 2011, and only the heat of the day slows us from absorbing the magic of the cobblestone streets, looming a rchitecture, and abundance of history book art. We both came to learn and grow, still motivated by the desire to discover inspired by our flower child heritage. Florence, we have arrived.

July 5 – 17 Ricasoli

We have a second floor apartment, which is actually on the third floor, up 53 steps from the ground. The stone stairs are worn from centuries of footsteps while new pots, pans and oscillating tabletop fans await assembly. Most everything in “Aldo”, the name painted in trompe l'oeil over our entry door, is outfitted primarily from IKEA. We quickly noticed the overtone of religion in our apartment with the tiny statue of the big belly sitting Buddha on the call box by the front inner door and a nativity scene, complete with Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the wise men and assorted animals, under the sink with the sponges. The bathroom is clean, yet small. I take cold showers as the hot water is unpredictable and I leave the narrow sliding door open to ensure I don’t get locked in.

The light wood floors are done in a herring bone pattern with a foot wide border, all showing the same attention to detail as the mosaics found throughout the city. The great room is 16’x16 feet with 8’ tall shuttered windows opening to the active street below. We are less than two blocks from the Duomo, the cathedral most often seen on postcards from Florence, and a similar distance from the Accademia on Piazza San Marco, where Michelangelo’s David is located. Our school is three blocks the other side of Piazza San Marco. I am finding this to be a most pleasurable way to experience Florence – with a best friend, amidst endless art, and a new camera capable of zooming in on a cup of espresso two blocks away.

July 6 – Santa Reparata International School of Art

Conveniently located in Florence between two Last Suppers, the Statue of David, and the Harley Davidson store is my school – Santa Reparata International School of Art. It is in what appears to have been a retail space with street-side plate glass display windows and two large glass sliding doors that automatically separate when students approach. It has high ceilings, white painted walls, and lots of shelves filled with art books. 

There is a large painting studio, a printmaking studio, photo studio, and two lecture rooms. My photography class is taught in a lecture/studio room equipped with computers and big monitors. In this summer session there are 125 students ranging in age from 17 to 65.  Most are associated with one of seven universities in the United States. There are 16 instructors, many American, who offer daily courses in art history, fashion design, drawing, painting, printing making, and photography.

Four local cultural ambassadors offer two different one hour sessions each day on topics such as Italian Futurism; the relationship between Italian fashion and aesthetic value of food; the birth of Italian myths (1955-1965)from Vespa to the personal computer; and the Mafia in the fashion industry. The classes include lectures along with museum and point of interest tours. The cultural ambassadors will be taking students to the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, a cheese and wine tasting, cooking class, and a trip to the cinema. Many students will be attending opening night of the final Harry Potter film. Needless to say, attending art school in Florence is enlightening on many levels.  

July 7 – Inside Aldo

Our “Aldo” has two bedrooms, a bath and a great room. The ventilation in the small bedroom is inadequate so we sleep in twin beds in the larger room which has tall windows opening to an air shaft. The 14’ ceilings in the great room boast frescos from the 1800s and 12” high trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye – a term for realistically painting a flat surface to look three dimensional) crown molding that takes its shading perspective from the natural light through the street side windows.

It has taken almost two weeks to realize that bathroom mirror was not actually inset into the wall but mounted on a trompe l’oeil cubby.
Florentine gold candelabra-esque wall sconces and light fixtures with small frosted white flame shaped bulbs and with degrees of ornateness are found throughout the apartment. Previous tenants have left a bevy of books on travel, art, fashion, drawing and food – if we never left this apartment and read every book, our education about Florence and its wonders would be broad.
The big living area contains the kitchen with a dining table three feet wide and eight feet long, and uncomfortable upright wooden chairs with raffia seats that we have seen in restaurants. There are also two chocolate colored naugahyde bucket chairs and a leather sofa, mustard colored with a light texture. Take your pick – you can get stuck with sweat to any of the three leisure seating choices or rise with spaghetti like imprints on your thighs from the dining seats. Following the path of inventive renaissance artists, we cover the sofa and chairs with extra sheets and put pillows on the hard dining table chairs; then we commend ourselves on our abilities to adapt and create.

July 8 – Sienna

Sienna is like visiting the town where the people live who participate in medieval festivals would live. It was built on three hills with a huge bowl shaped piazza as the centerpiece.

The road system seems to be designed for function. Cobble stone streets  undulate up and down the hills and just about the time you feel you can walk no farther up or down, the street turns and you walk a slightly different direction.  It is steep, but not too steep for children, pregnant women, or the elderly. All roads ultimately seem to wind you to the center, the bricked Piazza del Campo, famous for a twice yearly horse race in which the 10 of the 17 contrades (communities comprising Sienna) compete.  Jockeys, riding bareback, race clockwise around the piazza for 90 seconds. The first finishing horse, with rider or not, wins bragging rights for the contrade and emblematic flags are posted throughout their section of town. The Palio horse race is held on July 2 and August 16, my birthday, and attracts a crowd of 20,000. Dangerous , yes; magnet for adventure photographers, also yes; catch a clip on CNN, yes again.

The buildings surrounding the piazza create a surreal backdrop to the gift stands selling souvenir postcards, scarves, and t-shirts bearing the image of Bob (or Ziggy) Marley and Michael Jackson. On a knoll above the piazza is the gothic style Duomo, a magnificent cathedral where white marble statues stand majestically on the roof against the clear blue sky. 

Inside, stories are inlaid on the floor like carpet, sculptured heads of religious figures perch on a high-up ledge looking down on visitors, arches loom, stripes repeat, statues stand like-like, frescos fill walls, and golden stars almost pop off the rich lapis blue field painted on the dome interior – it all left me breathless.

July 9 – The Street Below

Floren ce is rich in color and the street scenes outside our window makes us feel as if we are living in a movie set. Our street, Via Ricasoli, is active with foot traffic and scooters as it is a straight three block shot between the Duomo and home of Michelangelo’s David. Across the street on the second floor is a designer’s studio. When they work late at night, they open the shutters and we can see the rolls of fabric overlapping in color stories. White backdrop walls are moved from place to place. Sometimes they are draped with fabric and accessories or sketches are tacked to the surface. The people inside are young; they wear black and look trendy.
In a neighboring apartment must be a designer or design student as a book on fashion rests on the desk by the open window, illuminated by a crookneck lamp, with a sharpened pencil neatly lying in wait.

The sound outside is so clear, the quick snaps of shutters on cameras serve as a chorus to the smorgasbord of languages echoing up the street. Sometimes they travel in packs and come in timed waves when their tours are done. We recognize the voices of 40 German tourists walking single file, French women admiring the fine leathers in the store below, the over-speaking jabber of teenagers, and the in-step precision of a high school marching band from Mexico. The gongs from the bell towers start at 7a.m. and the whine of the ambulances bounce from one building to the next. An accordion player serenades tourists dining in the outdoor café across the street with the percussion section provided by luggage wheels jumping from one cobble stone to the next providing an unpredictable tempo. Occasionally, a rich voice offers snippets from a recognizable opera. Maybe a local or maybe a tourist caught up in the moment.