Friday, September 30, 2011

Michelangelo’s David … Ingrid’s “Davids Under Wraps” in Juried Photo Show in Texas

“Remind me again, why did you go to Florence?,” asked more than one friend.

“To live abroad (not just travel through a city) and to take Barbra’s photography class,” I say.

“Oh yeah,” they reply, slightly remembering, but still not really grasping the intention.

I can see them thinking, as if to say, “I got a postcard so I know you were there, but where are the photos?”

At this point I step back, review my abilities to communicate and respond proudly, “You can see Davids Under Wraps at the A.Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas from September 30 – November 6. The artist reception is Saturday, October 22 from 4-7pm.” I take a deep breath and add, “My photo was one of 52 images selected from 376 international entries in a juried show entitled num6ers.” I pause again to allow time for that information to sink in. They do not know me as an artist; they know me as an event producer, so it makes no sense to them that I would have a photograph in a juried gallery show in Texas. Then I say, “The photo is of multiple Davids.” They seem to understand this comment.
I can imagine the next question being, “With all the beautiful bridges in Florence, why are you photographing souvenirs?”
Well, I don’t really have a logical answer for that other than Barbra’s direct instructions on the first day to my Beginning Photography class ...  “Just photograph.”

Having heard this before from art instructor Tom Brozovich in my first painting class, “Just paint,” I instinctively knew there was merit in her words, so photograph I did. I snapped photos of everything and anything that caught my attention and quickly recognized my lens was capturing images far from the interest of the normal tourist. I was living in a picture perfect postcard world photographing shadows, feet, sidewalks, junk on sidewalks, laundry, backs of statues, store windows, people hanging out of windows, street musicians, vegetables, plates of food, men wearing colored pants – in fact anything with color – and lots of souvenirs.
The David connection might have started when Dr. Rote, our art history professor, said, “Since the Statue of David was originally intended to be mounted on the cathedral roof, Michelangelo had to make David’s head larger than normal so it would appear to have a proportionate size to the body from the viewer’s vantage point at street level.”

This tidbit of information fascinated me as I surveyed Davids from all sides and in all reincarnations from key chains and statuettes, to being enclosed in snow globes. An interesting observation was that although Botticelli’s Venus was conceived in The Birth of Venus, a two dimensional painting, she often accompanies David in 3-D form. Their sizes are strikingly appropriate as a human man to woman, and they often pose together comfortably as if bonded in wedlock and capable of completing each other’s thoughts. “Stop and pick up frizzante water,” she yells out the window as he walks away on the street below. “Did you hear me David?” she adds, expecting a response. He waves in acknowledgment while mentally scheduling his day of modeling, a haircut, and scribing his biography.
I also found it interesting that she stands almost prudishly, partially covering her body, while he strikes a victorious pose with towel casually draped over his shoulder – either the anticipation or aftermath of lust being the only likely explanation. With the same childlike amazement I experienced in learning that our art school was located between two “Last Suppers,” I was equally shocked to find there were at least three huge Statues of David in public view. In my California home, there is a private view. The male and female sides of the shower are identified by David and Venus de Milo squeaky toys purchased at the DeYoung Museum gift shop in San Francisco. Their conversations also revolve around water, caldo (hot) and freddo (cold).  And, to answer the big question, “Why did I really go to Florence?” … to see the sky and clouds that have inspired artists through the centuries.


>>>>>  Johnson City is about an hour’s drive from Austin or San Antonio. If you can’t be there in person, be sure to check out the show images on-line at

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cinque Terre - Monterossa al Mare, red mountain at the sea

Larger than life manmade objects fascinate me: the pyramids, Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Statue of Liberty, temples of Abu Simbel and Petra, and the Duomo. Of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes is high on my list of architectural/engineering curiosities. In Greece, my parents commissioned an artist to hammer a bronze likeness of him and it hung over the fireplace in my childhood home. In college I painted him as a powerful man with hands on his hips, straddling an inlet of water. No one mentioned to me that his ancestor resided in Monterossa al Mare, rough translation, “red mountain at the sea.” Yet there he is, the Monterossa Giant, holding up the side of the mountain as if to save it from falling into the sea.

I knew nothing of the coastal area called Cinque Terre (five lands) other than people either seemed excited when you said you were going there or their eyes glazed over as if capturing a glimpse from their past. I didn’t even associate the area with being on the west coast of the Italian Riviera, as clearly indicated on a map. All I had ever heard about “5 Terre”, as you sometimes see it referenced, was that it had mountains and hiking. Needless to say, mountains and hiking had little interest to me. I did, however, want to see the marble hills of Carrara and the train from Florence to 5 Terre went right by, making the several hour trip worthwhile.   

Monterossa al Mare has the longest white sand beach of the string of five mediterranean seaside hamlets. Some of the students wore swimsuits under their traveling clothes and ran to the water before even checking into the hotel. That also did not interest me. What did interest me were the colors and the shapes that surrounded me while walking the road along the shore. Sometimes the closed umbrellas stood in a long row at silent attention and sometimes they opened in a symphony of color. I was mesmerized by the blue, and the expanse of one blue meeting the expanse of another blue at the horizon where the sky leaned down to embrace the water.

After several weeks of painterly cloud filled skies, grey and green marble facades, and the muted stone of the Florentine buildings, the brilliant hues of the seaside jolted my color pallet like water sprinkled onto a frying pan to test the heat. In Florence, most of the color was closed away inside museums and churches – such familiar colors that you could call them by paint tube names. Here color was readily accessible, and went unnoticed as an accepted part of daily life.  On the coast, color saturates the outside and flows from primary to secondary to tertiary, all living in harmony. A tunnel connects the old medieval section, where an internet café contains both a full suit of armor and computers, with the newer side where the big man watches over throngs of tourists on the beach. It’s an easy 20 minute walk on the beach road, wandering through all the colors of the city, from one end to the other. Outdoor cafes, gelato stands, paddle boats, lots of white legs and sun burns, fresh mussels, sea bass, musicians playing guitars and accordions in the tunnel, surprise downpours of rain, and sand that travels home with you, is all part of the enriching experience sans hiking.     

I realized only after we left that no one ever mentioned the statue’s origin, or the curious shapes of the closed umbrellas as they poked out of the sand, or the boats at rest on the calm water. It was as if these visual pleasures were simply expected. But to me, there is something very special about each of the five precious Italian charms on the coastal bracelet called 5 Terre. I will treat them with independent respect as the glint comes to my eye when someone mentions hiking in Cinque Terre, and I’ll remember the train's first stop, Monterossa al Mare, “red mountain at the sea” to some – color pallet of the Mediterranean to me.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Firenze and Fashion - Indulgence Runs Rampant

Indulgence runs rampant in the designer section of Firenze where the window displays are less about the variety of items and more about artistic sensibilities. Frivolous, extravagant, and often totally over the top, the designer store windows deliver a message to a different audience. It’s not about the color, the fit, the elegant fabrics, the bling, the avant garde coolness, or the sleek silhouette – that’s expected and left to the designer. They are crafted to satisfy the inner need of the buyer by connecting them with a higher reality shared by others who favor the label.

At these windows, the viewer already recognizes the label, has intentions to enter and buy, and has fully developed expectations of the brand. Unlike the windows in the tourist area which are packed with selections begging the tourist to part with their money, the designer windows near Via de Tornabouni and Via della Vigna Nuova are about fashion – they’re formulated to reach deep into the buyers psyche. The windows sell a sense of self-indulgence – of how it makes you feel to own and wear the item, and that feeling starts long before you ever try it on. The purpose of these window displays is not to influence a buying decision, but rather to reinforce the essence of the brand, which provides the reason to buy. The windows are fleeting and fluid sculptural installations that capture the impression of the fashion season of a designer without forcing the viewer commit to a lifetime of acceptance as one does with an old masters work in a museum. One striking window has huge gold frames with life size photos of a handsome man and a sexy model-type female. The massive snapshot plays out the real life story of the stationary mannequins.

The cobbles on these streets are more familiar with the soles of leather bottom designer shoes rather than rubber of mass produced tennis shoes. The people shopping here are not the tourists with water bottles, zip-off pant legs, a travel book or street map in hand, and long fabric shoulder bags that resemble horse feed bags, purchased from the local street vendor. The fashion shoppers in this part of town are women and men who travel with a posse, an entourage, a companion, and charge accounts without plastic cards. They stay the afternoon as if visiting a museum and leave with logo bags of tissued treasures, which may or may not reach their hotel before the purchases delivered to their suites later in the day by a uniformed messenger. I see a man in linen pants sitting at an outdoor café next to a designer store. The café and the store have the same name. He alternates drinking wine and talking on his cell phone when I notice he is distracted by something in the store window. A woman models outfits from inside the store. Most get a thumbs-up. He is happy outside sipping wine.

I stand for an unusually long time staring into a window, fascinated by the open books applied to a wall and ceiling as a backdrop. In front of the book wall is a rack of warm winter jackets and scarves. On the floor below sit an array of sturdy boots, some with lined with sheep skin. I think of my friend Cathy and how she was appalled at the burning of the books in Fahrenheit 451. In the movie, all books are destined to be destroyed. The book-loving characters each select their favorite book to memorize and became that book for eternity. They walk through the woods all bundled up reciting their books to ensure that even after their book is found and burned, the words will live on through the spoken word. The display of coats and boots in this window seem far too warm for today’s 96 degrees, but offer just the right costuming for the characters in Ray Bradbury's controversial futuristic novel. I can’t help but wonder if I am the only person who made this connection between the window and the book, and if, in fact, the connection is correct.  
Earlier this morning, I came to this fashionista part of town to shoot photos before the sun hit the windows. I watched dressers fill a life size box on wheels with metallic globe shaped decor like giant Christmas balls and then push the box flush to the street side window. I was only slightly disillusioned to see that the window display was actually a box display pushed up against a window, one I suppose that could be turned around to become a flat wall against the window and a box display opening to the interior of the store, or for that matter rolled around the store to create a free standing wall. However clever the mechanics of the window box, it dampened some of the magic retained from the Macy’s, Gumps, and Neiman Marcus authentic display windows.  
Easily amused, I walk down the street in search of another “can’t take my eyes off of it” window. One elevated window has a white female mannequin wearing a short skirt with her legs splayed and sitting on a park bench. Like the nude men on pedestals in the Uffizi, you can watch a sea of heads bob up-and-down and turn to catch a peek up the white resin mannequin’s skirt. Her white mannequin girlfriend reclines on the astro turf grass wearing gold glitter pumps, with her leather handbag and a second pair of gold glitter pumps resting on a plastic boulder. Photos are intermixed with props confusing the already altered state of reality. As if not odd enough, somewhere in uncharted territory, reality and fantasy meet to offer up an even stranger experience. At different times of day, the reflections from centuries old buildings invade the designer showcase windows adding yet another surreal dimension to the unusual displays – look close as the soul of Firenze sneaks into bed with high fashion. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Chianti Under Foot, Not Your Old Time Fiasco

T I I A N C H – seven lonely letters tumbling from a scrabble bag to create a winning word that you can experience underfoot and enjoy as it slips over your taste buds – Chianti.

Chianti, the region located between Sienna and Florence, is best known for its lush landscapes, great wine and light green hued olive oil. From the village of Greve, it’s a short bus ride through an agricultural mecca to the Castello di Verrazzano, an actual castle dating back before the VII Century. The castle sits peacefully atop a hill overlooking a panorama of rolling hills and another castle in the near distance. The 220 acre property is a patchwork of agriculture with groves of olive trees and vineyards. The organically fertilized varietals include Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The formal gardens are groomed with an ease, making them more friendly and welcoming than stand-offish and manicured. Boar sausage is a specialty of the house and you can easily see a family of wild boars in a fenced area of the woods.
Does the name Verrazzano sound familiar? It should to the passengers in more than 190,000 vehicles who cross the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York each day. The double decker suspension bridge connects Staten Island and Brooklyn over the Narrows, a tidal straight. Giovanni de Verrazzano was born right here in the castle in 1485 and went on to discover New York Bay and the Hudson River. Wow.

Chianti is approximately 100 square miles with an excellent climate, making it the premiere grape growing region in Tuscany. The moist sea breeze floats over the land while a mountain range offers shelter and the renewing warmth of the golden Tuscan sun kisses life into the grapes.  
Unlike the old version of Chianti we recall as being poured from the straw covered bottles (called fiasco in Italian) which we were anxious to transform with candle dripping ornamentation, todays Chianti boasts an air of dignity and provides a good excuse to ask for another glass. There are several areas of Chianti and several types of Chianti, but a day trip to the heart of this wine country serves up Chianti Classico. 

To be designated “Chianti Classico” the grapes must have been grown within the old traditional Chianti region and wine must contain at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. The Italian government ensures the authenticity of wine by having it analyzed and tested by licensed government personnel. The approved wines are labeled with the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) meaning  controlled designation of origin guaranteed). A pink numbered DOCG label, bearing the  image of a Black Rooster, is sealed across the cap or cork to indicate the bottle has passed the quality review.
If you’re not staying the night (yes, there is overnight lodging in the castle) there's also a great tour down into the barrel rooms, a gift shop where you can buy wood wine boxes branded with the Verrazzano logo, as well as olive oil from orchards, honey, and balsamic vinegar – be sure to have lunch and arrange for a wine tasting. Swirl, sniff, taste, and, if you’re adventurous, finish it off with a warming shot of grappa. What are three seven letter scrabble words for Tuscany?  Friends sharing Chianti.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tina's Vin Santo Tiramisu & Fellini Insect Bites

Vin Santo Tiramisu
Tina Fallani teaches the History of Italian Cinema and Italian Cooking for Santa Reparata International School of Art. She spent time on the film set of Fellini’s Casanova as her artist father, Mario Fallani, was the master painter of frescoes for the film. With Tina’s background as a film editor on the Godfather Trilogy, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and a translation consultant on Willow, directed by George Lucas, there was a strong indication that we are in for a very special evening at Tina’s cooking class. 

Her city home is on the “altro Arno,” or other side of the Arno River from the main part of the town where we live, and the 48 steps to her apartment seem easy after mastering our 53 steps. “Welcome, welcome, come in,” says the small delicate woman with short dark hair, wearing a slim black dress. Having spent several years in the United States, she does not have a strong Italian accent nor does she eat European-style. A table for 16 is set in the formal living room. We are now a group of 18. “No problem” she says motioning us into her home, “there’s always enough food, we’ll just make the table bigger,” and in moments her pretty blond daughter and daughter’s good-looking boyfriend extend the table, add another cloth, and set two more places.

A hillside of vines and a lemon tree with ripe fruit can be seen out the living room windows while the open kitchen windows invite air from the Arno to float up over the rooftops, and join us inside as we prepare the meal. We scrub our hands and begin to slice and dice, peel and stir in a syncopated rhythm that infers an established routine from years of communal cooking. It is actually Tina’s carefree attitude and gracious style that choreographs our 18 novice apron-clad chefs in creating an authentic four course Italian meal.

Although tomato, garlic and basil are the three ingredients many of us believe to be the holy trinity of Italian recipes, in real Italian cooking the trio is called “soffritto,” a combination of carrots, onion and celery. As steam rises from the pasta water, three men easily master the rocking motion of a sharp rounded cutting tool with wooden handles called the “mezzaluna” (crescent moon), to create the soffritto. Capers, garlic, and parsley are chopped finely for crostini green salsa; mushrooms delicately stripped of their outer skin for a pasta sauce; and Parmesan and Fontana cheeses grated into feather light piles. John cracks and separates fresh eggs, flexing his muscles as he whips the orange yolks for custard.

“Ingrid, you stir the custard,” Tina turns to me saying, “in one direction.”

“One direction” I ask, waiting for an answer with a reason.

“Yes,” Tina says, “One direction,” offering no explanation.

She checks on the mezzaluna progress and adds, “And don’t stop. Keep stirring.”
Yikes. I have to commit. How many minutes of stirring? What will happen if stir clockwise? What will happen if I stir counter clockwise? Before I have time to answer my own questions, the wooden spoon in my grip rotates in the pot over the flame in a clockwise motion reminiscent of hand-cranking an ice cream machine. After several minutes, the good-looking boyfriend eyes my custard and speaks to me in Italian. I listen closely assuming that if he speaks of food or numbers, I will certainly understand. He sees that I do not understand. He walks behind me, takes my hand in his, and changes the speed of my stirring – almost immediately, the custard is cooked to perfection.

In the adjacent room, the student chefs peel and slice peaches for the dessert, which is now ready for assembly. A layer of custard, then a layer of lady fingers carefully dipped in peach nectar, and next a layer of sliced peaches, and continue the sequence until the pan is filled to the brim. Moving with precision, we perfectly place the dipped pastry fingers on the custard bed, until unexpectedly, we are almost out of peach nectar. Tina retrieves some other fruit juice from the refrigerator, but it is not enough for our remaining cookies, filling, and fruit. 
 “How about adding some Vin Santo,” Barbra pipes up. Vin Santo, wine of the saints or holy wine, is a favorite Italian treat served after dinner in a little glass tumbler with small crunchy biscotti-style cookies called cantuccini.  
In seconds, Tina motions the good-looking boyfriend to the top shelf in the kitchen from which he grabs a bottle of Vin Santo. “This will do well,” Tina says with authority, extending the sauce using the dessert wine with the same ease her dining table was extended. And, as the story will be told to future generations, that was the memorable night of strangers cooking together, eating delicious food, drinking fine wine, enjoying lively conversations about art and film, and…the true story of the unlikely invention of Tina’s “intoxicating” Vin Santo Peach Tiramisu.   

Fellini Insect Bites

I brought insect body spray and a post-bite itch stick from home. We’ve seen few mosquitoes; at most five. But at night, especially when it’s unearthly hot following an ungodly hot day, after we dose off and before we wake, we are a feast for biting creatures. Whether they fly or crawl is unknown. Barbra swears she saw a small spider, but our eyesight is so strained from working either in the darkened room behind our shutters or outside under the blinding sun, that her observation is not to be trusted. What is reliable are red welts, the size of dressmaker’s glass-head pins, which cover our bodies.

Our beds are positioned so that Barbra can fall off of either side. Her exterior side has only enough room to open the large shaft windows inward and her other side is the narrow center aisle, created by a small table separating the twin beds. The non-aisle side of my bed is an interior wall. I have learned to press my naked, bitten left arm against the nighttime chill of the wall to calm the sting from the bites. A few hours after we cooked at Tina’s, I awoke startled to find a large portion of my body pressed up against the cold wall as if being held by suction. I was picturing the execution, or was it satisfaction, of the bee captured under a wine glass pressed to a woman’s breast in a Fellini film. I can only guess it was the sinful Vin Santo Tiramisu that caused that particular crystal clear, big screen image from more than 30 years ago to be retrieved as if just recently filed in the motion picture canister of my memory.