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Monday, November 7, 2016

Botz, Fango, Mud

In the first week of November, 1966, half a century ago, Florence was horrifically flooded.  Essentially mud and fuel oil from the overflowing Arno River, that crosses through town, covered much of the city center.  In most communities this would be a tragedy.  In Florence it was a catastrophe.  Real art masterpieces, not just the good stuff, but the greatest of Western civilization, were harmed.  Fifty years later, the restoration appears nearing its end.

I don't know if I should feel guilty for what I am about to say, but being here now, five decades later, is a remarkable experience.  We have seen a photographic exhibition and a multimedia presentation of the flood and its aftermath.  We attended a midnight opening of the just restored Last Supper painted by Vasari.  The mud covered work was saved with essentially glued on paper that took 50 years to safely remove and then restore.  Judas in pink, stunning!  It now hangs with a pulley system to raise it high in a matter of seconds.

A couple of days ago, I was reading about Paolo Uccello's painting.  Uccello, was the master of mathematical perspective that gave the Renaissance much of its greatness.  After learning what I previously missed understanding, we returned to the Ufizi to see again his Battle of San Romano with its hobby horse calvary and empty armored dead soldiers.  This guy was wonderfully weird.  His name is actually a nickname.  Uccello means bird, as the artist drew birds by the score and was apparently more comfortable with them than with people.  

Then, today we went to see his green frescos.  The book in which I was reading about Uccello, The Stones of Florence, by Mary McCarthy, was written in 1959.  The flood was in 1966.  And although restored, the frescos retain only a remembrance of their glory.  Luckily, the most amazing, Noah's ark docked just as the waters are receding, the viewer inside the boat looking down the gang plank, is the best restored.  But even it is a ghost of its past.  I felt a bit like Noah, living just on the other side of a moment that can never be recaptured.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Much of Florence's artistic glory is presented with an eye toward meaning, but given the sheer size of the trove, one is often overwhelmed.  After all, just how many Annunciations can one see in an hour and maintain a separate and unique understanding of each?  And each of these Annunciations is separated by a Coronation and an Assumption and an Adoration or two as there are multiple kinds of Adorations.  Too much!

Today, we visited the old Foundling Hospital, by which I mean the early 14th century Foundling hospital, though it served its mission, to save abandoned babies, well into the 19th century.  The building is one of the very first buildings to reflect Renaissance architecture.  (

Over the centuries, the hospital collected art.  Early on, for example, it commissioned Andrea della Robbia to decorate the facade with blue terra-cotta circles of babies.  Now, there are a great deal of blue della Robbia terra-cottas in Florence. The della Robbia family invented the process and were well known for their art.  But this large collection is just babies.  And the rest of the hospital's art, now displayed in a museum setting in the original building, is mostly baby focused.  All the same basic themes, Annunciations, Coronations and such, but with babies in each art work.

The hospital/museum also has an exhibit of the building's history and their dedication to abandoned children.  And opportunities to see "behind" the original architecture which is pretty amazing.  And a roof top terrace with, just maybe, the single best view of the city.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Real Amazing Food (without the usual suspects)

The food almost everywhere in Florence and Tuscany is good, really good.  However, it is very repetitive.  The steak, the bread soup, the tripe, the ragu pasta, the tiramisu and so on are great, but they are served everywhere in a similar traditional manner.  For all the good, there is little creativity.  I realize that America might seem this way to a visitor from abroad, but no, our tourist destinations have a variety of food choices and the best places highlight creativity.  Here the best is simply the same, prepared the best manner.  We have eaten well, we have enjoyed, but have not been amazed.

Two meals have stood apart from the museum-ish food personality of Florence.  We ate both this week.  The first was simple in the best sense.  The food spoke for itself.  We were invited to a "new season of eating" dinner.  And because the meal was going to be vegetarian, the menu relied almost solely on what was fresh and grown.  Yes, there was the traditional meatless bread and bean soup, Ribollita.  It may have been the best we have eaten, unashamedly using largish hunks of bread to replace flesh.  As well, we enjoyed a positively delicious pumpkin soup and another delicious bean and kale creation.  Yet, the meal's real stars were uncooked.  We enjoyed sliced raw onions, and sliced raw fennel and sliced raw tomatoes and so on.   The brightest star of the feast was sliced raw! artichoke.  All of the above we dipped in real first press olive oil from the family grove of one of the guests, washed down with Vino Novello, Italy's version of a fresh wine, similar to the better known Beaujolais nouveau.

Dessert was part of the shared Tuscan fare and yet very much exceptional.  The tiramisu, served plain out of a large baking dish, was just spectacular.  Then I helped hand whip lots and lots of heavy cream to top a modest layer of fresh chestnuts cooked and transformed into a sweet base layer to make Monte Bianco, white mountain.  This was a meal of the ingredients.

Then the next night we went by ourselves to a vegetarian restaurant.  I was a little skeptical for two reasons.  First, outside of a few "traditional" meatless foods like ribollita, this is meat eating region with its own breed of beef and its own breed of pig and its love of tripe.  Second, I often find vegetarian restaurants to be shrines to the idea of vegetarianism.  Their palette of spices is so predictable, they often smell the same.  Not so this past evening.  This meal was the best prepared food we had eaten in over a month.  We loved the hand made fresh spaghetti, with a breadcrumb, sun-dried cherry tomato, chili pepper sauce.  I could have eaten bowls of the stuff, but we had ordered a "unico" special that put three dishes on our single plates.  I also needed to eat our way through an extremely tasty, perfectly dressed fennel and orange salad and a delicious potato filled soft flat bread roll-up.  We were eating real creative cooking.  And loving every bite.