Friday, October 28, 2011

The Essence of Vernazza, the Spirit of Renewal

My heart goes out to all of those affected by the rage of nature that hit Italy earlier this week. The people, their villages, the landscape, the history; the destruction is felt worldwide. Think back to a FWiF story several weeks ago… Monterossa al Mare, “red mountain at the sea” to some – color pallet of the Mediterranean to me, where umbrellas stand in a long row at silent attention, sometimes opening in a symphony of color. Remember that image? Now, sadly that symphony of color is cloaked in mud, and the next southern-most town of Vernazza, has also suffered badly. The following story remembers my experience in Vernazza, a picture perfect place to envision as your eyes flutter shut and you float off to dreamland.

Vernazza is a cliff side town in the area called Cinque Terre (five lands) on the Mediterranean coast. Its arms stretch up to the sky, over hillsides of terraced vineyards and olive groves, and its toes dip down into the tide. There are no cars on the cobble streets. There is also no measureable time here – just the clock of the sun and the stars, and the snooze alarm of the soft sea breeze. Nothing is required of you here, other than that you experience and enjoy.
It is an unassuming village where all ages intertwine and cross paths with the unspoken rhythm of practiced respect. People take time to enjoy the air and water, chat with a friend, or bask in the sun. A man and woman actively converse in the middle of the street as men speak in hand gestures behind them. Four middle aged men pass the time playing cards in an outdoor cafe. Two seniors, without a care in the world, sit on a stone bench contemplating the vast fields of blue beyond.

Wet laundry is shaken out of second story windows and hung on the line. Shopkeepers sweep the doorsteps and restock bottles of lemoncello. Restaurateurs, readying for lunch, pile baskets high with lemons and smooth the tablecloth wrinkles. The only distraction here, if you want to call it that, is the uncanny feeling of getting lost in the easiness of the village. I learn from a waiter that the distraction of ease is often experienced by travelers who, caught up in the calm of the moment, miss the last train of the day and, without complaint, stay just one more night. 

I notice many more cameras hanging around necks than being used to snap photos as the real time experience far outweighs the captured digital moment. The friendly colors of the buildings wrap you in a comforting glow and the bold colors of the boats force you to smile as they bob in the water like bathtub toys. Two fishermen in a motor boat share camaraderie and float around the protected harbor with no apparent intension of heading toward open water or catching fish. They wave to a woman on the shore who wears an apron and carries a basket. She nods back with a wide grin.
Walking from the train station through the town, you instinctively know that Vernazza is a place of contentment and that the peace found here is the town’s complimentary gift to you. This is a genuine place where a fast-beating heart comes to find quiet and over-active children are content watching the water ebb and flow. The pace is slow, as you might expect to find in a Riviera beach town lost in time. Walk the narrow streets up to the church, or up the path overlooking the harbor, or sit for hours-on-end doing nothing. No one seems to be overly interested in what you’re doing, or how long you do it.

To the tourist, Vernazza looks and feels easy. There is a quiet solitude here, the kind that’s usually only found internally. You see it in the body language of locals and visitors alike. You see it in the casual way the laundry dries in the warm air and the way the buildings hug each other close. It is the essence of Vernazza – it is the refreshing language of simplicity, a reminder that life does not have to be complicated. Monterossa al Mare and Vernazza, the two northern most charms on the coastal bracelet called Cinque Terre have been tarnished, but their long history of resilience and undying spirit will help them thrive again. I’ll keep the serene and vibrant images of these precious towns close to my heart as they build a new future. I’ll recall a little boy lost in thought, staring at the clear blue water, and I’ll wonder if he’ll remember this lazy day by the tiny bay and someday bring his children here to share the special feeling of this tranquil fishing village.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Gargantuan Italian Meringue Cookies and Vino

I never thought I would ever say, “Not one more cookie or one more glass of wine,” (two of my favorite food groups), but I admit, those words go through my mind as I scan the kitchen on Via Ricasoli for a snack and see bags of amaretto cookies, lady fingers, biscotti, cantucci, and a wedge of panforte dusted with powder sugar. “Pasta, bread, pizza, pastries, desserts…no worry. You just walk it off,” everyone in-the-know seems to say. No one mentions that sweets are less expensive and more readily available than anything green or fruit-like. Sweets in Florence are the quick sugar-and-carb-rush partner to the caffeine jolt of espresso. Fruits and vegetables seem to be reserved as an accent color on a side dish at dinner. I have also heard that people drink wine at both lunch and dinner without getting drunk – another hard to grasp concept. But quickly, I find myself becoming a believer of carbs and vino as day-after-day of pasta, pizza, pastry, cookies, and wine leave my pants loose, my head clear, and me humming a happy tune. 

It’s impossible to ignore the lure of the Italian desserts. Whether or not you actually eat them or just admire their beauty, the mounds of sweets in the bakery window displays beckon you close like sirens of the sea. They are presented artfully, piled high and stacked side-by-side with shapes and colors creating tempting edible sculptures. The visual is an on-going surprise as the temporary installations morph throughout the day with the removal or addition of each sweet treat.

Biscotti, rugged sliced cookies, are displayed in baskets. They often contain nuts, such as pistachios or hazel nuts. They can also be plain or flavored with almond, chocolate, or orange. The dough is formed in a long log shape and baked in the oven. After baking, it is cooled slightly and then cut into slices, placed back on the baking sheet, and reenters the oven for the second baking. The result is a crunchy hard, slightly sweet, slice of goodness that Americans love to dunk in coffee or tea. The junior size version of biscotti is called “cantucci.”  Italians soften cantucci with a dip in golden colored Vin Santo (Wine of the Saints), a sinfully addicting after dinner combination. 

On the topic of sinful…there is the before mentioned sinful dessert (see post entry “Vin Santo Tiramisu”) and the today mentioned, sinful gargantuan meringues.  The only way to believe there could really be such a giant meringue cookie is to actually see one; the photos of Barbra show the portion size. Every bakery has their own version the cookie – some are high and top heavy, some are wide and flat without d├ęcor, and some are simply huge with chocolate dripping through every nook and cranny. The meringue cookie finds it way to my food category of “sinful” due to its simple nonthreatening ingredients – just sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, and air – and their weight, lofty like cumulus clouds resting on an earthbound plate. What makes them doubly sinful is that both your eyes and your stomach tell you, “Hey man, there’s no way you’re going to eat that whole thing in a single try,” as the devil on your shoulder urges you on to victorious consumption.

In the bakery windows, the arbitrary uninhibited shapes of the meringue makes them snap shot worthy, while the carefully wrapped and cream-filled cannoli resembles a new baby swaddled in a designer blanket awaiting a professional photo session. The way the cookies rise and fall on the platters, intermingling with their cake-bread cousins, makes me want to shrink so small I can use them as a climbing wall, resting on a chocolate chip boulder or stretched out in a crevasse, laying my body against the rippled egg white walls. In another dessert vision, I easily imagine my petite friend Nancy Pearl on the fashion runway wearing a sleek cannoli-profile cocktail dress with a chocolate dripped meringue, tipped on the side of her head as a pill box hat, and sugar crystal chandelier earrings dangling down, almost touching her red frosting spaghetti straps.

Face it, Italian cookies are an art form that activates my imagination and brings me joy.

The devil on my shoulder asks, “One more glass of wine, one more cookie?”

 “Why not!” I respond, “I’ll walk it off bakery window shopping tomorrow.”

It’s no surprise I’m drawn to the temporary food-art installations as they are reminiscent of the Italian “veduta paintings” of scenes with highly detailed landscape and architectural elements. There are so many sweets in the bakery window frame that it’s hard to focus on just one cookie, just as it is hard to select one tiny area in a veduta painting. Here’s the image of the veduta print in my living room. See the detail (from the lower left center of the painting). Just like a precious lumpy cookie in the pile, this painting detail is a treasure in itself. “Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga” by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1740 (note: work of art is in the public domain).

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Pity at Palazzo Pitti

To greatly simplify a long and fascinating story, the Palazzo Pitti was built by banker Lucca Pitti in the mid 1400s and was purchased in the mid 1500s by the Medici’s, one of the most wealthy, political, and influential families in Europe. Its grounds and gardens are in a word, huge, and in another word, weighty. There is something undeniably solid about the structure (both physical and visual) and its contents. The palace sits across the Arno River from center of Florence and today, the royal family’s living quarters have been reassigned as Galleria Palatina and are filled with the private art collection of the Medici’s. Inside are antiques, sculpture, silver, fine china, paintings, frescos, costumes and other artifacts and outside, more sculptures and fountains in the manicured Boboli Gardens.

The plot of land is the size of a village. Walking straight from the palace up the hill, location of the museum filled with fine porcelain, takes a minimum of 20 minutes. It isn’t until I find myself atop a hill, and catch a glimpse of the city of Florence in the distance, that I realize the true effort exerted in traversing the hundreds of sneaky, short elevation steps leading to this highest vantage point. Walking side-to-side on the flat land, the chances of getting lost in one of the many gardens within a garden, are high and as exciting as daunting. Even with the enormous size of the Pitti Palace, it’s easy to lose your bearings in the overgrowth for several minutes without a sight line to the massive building.  

Inside the palace, my legs get an almost tougher workout up the stairs and over what seems like acres of harder than hard stone floors. But walking through the interior galleries is a little slice of heaven akin to my favorite type of living experience. Be it overnight in a hotel or friend’s guest room, spending weeks in our apartment “Aldo” on Via Ricasoli, in the family home where I grew up, or in my current home in California – my attachment to a place is directly related to the manner in which the walls dress. How walls wear their clothes and accessories tells me how they feel about the day and influences how I feel when I wake and see them in the morning. I feel most comfortable living inside a space filled with art. In the palazzo, ceilings and walls are covered with frescos, detailed plaster cast ornamentation, deeply carved molding, gold leaf furniture, and hundreds of original paintings framed in bulky gold frames, hung gallery-style, fill the walls. To me, it’s not overwhelming, but rather calming. In this bedroom suite where royalty once slept, the over-stimulation of color, shapes and images sing the soothing lullaby of art.

Several years ago, in a traveling show at Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN, I discovered Giovanni Paolo Pannini and new a love for “veduta painting.”  Vedute means view in Italian, hence the style called “veduta paintings,” large scale paintings of panoramic views or scenes with highly detailed landscape and architectural elements. Pannini’s “Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga,” is a wall-size painting of the interior of a library type space with 60’high barrel ceilings and paintings covering every square inch of the walls. The room has columns, statues, people milling around, paintings scattered on the floor, and it makes you feel as if you just happened upon an art calamity, not unlike today’s flash mob. A print of that painting hangs in my living room, which itself resembles more of an art gallery than a staging area for a sofa and coffee table.

The fact that you are not allowed to take photos in the Pitti galleries softens the blow of me leaving without a snap shot of my favorite piece of art dated in the 1600s by Cornelis de Bailleur entitled “The Studio of Rubens.”  It is a veduta of an art studio filled to the brim with paintings and alive with all things that have always made artists’ studios a place of mystery and magic. Of the 2,500+ works of art said to be catalogued for the palace, I was saddened to learn that no one at the palace gift shop was familiar with my favorite piece; there was no post card, no book, and no museum literature. To add insult to injury, I cannnot find an image of it on the internet. In spite of this pity at Pitti, the gardens and sculptures make the trip worthwhile, so stop by and see my favorite painting when you visit the palace, and check the nearby antique bed to see if I have drifted off to sleep under the red velvet comforter, an uncatalogued work of art, dreaming of being in a veduta painting.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Florence “Sidewalk Still Life with Bicycle” in Juried Art Show in California

In elementary school, I had a girls Schwinn bike. It was blue with faux leather saddle bags and rubber hand grips with hanging white fringe. It had a silver metal bell mounted on the handle bar that rang when I pushed the lever with my right thumb, and it had a big red reflector on the back fender. I clipped playing cards to my spokes with wooden clothes pins and rode until I got dizzy just to hear the ti-tit-ti-tit-ti tit-ti-tit of the paper king and queen as the wheels rolled and rolled, while I peddled round and round, circling the street light in the center of our cul-d-sac. Other than that, I have never considered myself a bicycle person.

When I see bicycles, I think of Roy Tatman, even though I have never seen him ride a bike. He is an artist and has curated four art shows with bicycle themes. On the streets of Florence, and other towns in Tuscany, bicycles are common. I believe they’re used for transportation more than recreation as I’ve seen many more leaning against buildings, in wait for their owners to get off of work, than actually ridden. I have seen quite a few being walked, almost as if to get attention just as a single person walks his or her dog in areas known to be frequented by other single people walking dogs. Many of the photography students at Santa Reparata International School of Art gravitate to photographing bicycles, so I feel obligated to snap a few bike photos myself. The bikes that attract me are neither the coolest or the most expensive, I reserve my selection to those Roy might find interesting, bicycles with personalities or oddities, bicycles of “bicycle show” worthiness.

Marcello has a bicycle. He leaves it in the downstairs hallway of Ricasoli. I’ve seen him walk it several times, and it often leans against the outside wall of our building near our front door, but I’ve never seen him ride it. Sometimes in the late afternoon, his bike rests against the downstairs hallway wall. The smell from the warm rubber tires fills the hollow with a pungent odor, indicating he has recently returned from the sun burned streets of Florence. I imagine myself walking up the 53 steps to our floor, resting a moment, composing myself, and then going the next 17 steps farther up to his door. I stand erect, toss my pony tail back over my left shoulder, and lick my lips wet while simultaneously using the back of my hand to wipe away the beads of liquid dancing on the stage beneath my nose. I knock cautiously, but directly. He opens the door, still wearing clothes stained wet with the sweat of the day, and looks at me with wonder.

“Marcello,” I say casually, yet matter of factly, while my heart races, “Marcello sorry to bother you, but I noticed that your hot bicycle tires are sticking to the marble floor.” He looks instinctively back to the interior of his apartment and then back at me.

“Who es ita ata the doora?” his wife Sophia, in the kitchen chopping fresh vegetables and peeling garlic for dinner, calls out to him.

“Itsa no one,” he replies, “Justa the bata lady froma downstairs.”

“Whada bada lady froma downstairs?” she questions.

 “Noa noa, the bata lady,” he says again.

“Oha, the bata lady thata flapa her armsa lika birda?” she says referencing the night we made a ruckus, Barbra chasing a displaced flying bat with a broom and me opening wide the shaft window, visible from their apartment, and waving my arms to chase it outside.

“Yeah. The bata lady,” he responds to her and then turns to me and says, “Soa whada you saya abouta mya hota…whata hota?

I want to say… “You Marcello, you are-a hota,” my shoulders releasing their tension, but instead I say, “Youra rubbera isa,” and then I stop, realizing I am starting to speak make believe Italian. “Marcello,” I say, changing back to proper English, “Your rubber is so hot it stuck to the floor.” 

At that point he just shakes his head, passes by me on the landing, and jogs down the stairs. Before I make it to the bottom floor, he lifts his still-warm bike, carries it through the hallway, and out to the street. By the time I reach the front door and look his direction, I see a man in colored pants by the bikes, but it’s not my Marcello. The only thing I can ever manage to say, “Ciao Marcello,” I whisper into the wind, confident he’ll return by nightfall. Maybe he’s going to the singles bike walk, or to the restaurant where you park your bike inside the dining room, or to the graffiti corner, or to the wall where leaflets are posted. There are countless bike subjects lying in wait for Roy to consider … next stop … Bicycle Show Five, Florence.

One day I noticed a still life on a doorstep. It was a composition of three apricots with, you guessed it, bikes leaned against a nearby wall. “Sidewalk Still Life” was selected to be in a juried show at PlacerArts, Gallery 808 in The Arts Building (808 Lincoln Way in Downtown Auburn, CA). The show opens for Art Walk on Thursday evening, October 13 and will be up until November 15, 2011. Stop by – take a look. For more information, contact PlacerArts at (530) 885-5670 or