Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Medici's - Part I

Sorry I'm so late.  The weather is behaving itself nicely around here for a change, in the 70's.  So am I gardening, sunbathing (not that I would) or lounging under an umbrella sipping an ice cold drink?  Of course not.  I'm out running in the midday sun, training for a half marathon that is sneaking up on me and causing me to worry about the lost training time when we were in Italy.  It takes a bit of recovery time to get my baked brain to function again but anyhow, where were we?  Oh yes...

It just so happened that shortly after our return to England, the BBC iPlayer had a programme about the Medici family.  The narrator was an art critic named Andrew Graham-Dixon.  I've never heard of him, but we'll not hold that against him, eh?  He spoke pretty good Italian as far as I could tell.  He pronounced the name MEH-de-chee, just in case you were wondering (I always have).  So here's what else I learned.

The Medici's were the first great modern art collectors and G-Dixon says they changed 'art', but I took it that he meant the 'world of art'.  That all comes later.  The Medici coat of arms had a simple design using 'palle' or balls on it and the narrator did use this as a reference to their boldness and bravado on occasion.  Some have speculated that these palle were meant to symbolise dents in the armour of a valiant knight, to imply this was a noble family, but in fact they represent coins.  Giovanni Medici, where the story begins, founded the Medici Bank in 1397, in Florence, Italy.

At that time, bankers were gathered in a market place, their desks a simple table ('banco' means bench).  G-Dixon says the custom was for bankers to shout out "I have 30 Florins to be repaid by Christmas!" or "I have 15 Florins to be repaid in two months!"  (One of the things I love in Britain is how the fruit and veg men on the street shout out their best deals still!)  There was a great deal of risk in lending money and if a banker failed, his table was broken, which is where we get the term 'bankrupt' (and possibly 'broke' as well?).  Bankers developed policies to reduce their risk. 

One of the Medici policies was not to loan to royalty; royalty never paid their debts!  (Between pertinent Medici portraits, buildings and art, the programme filled visual space with scenes from Florence; I particularly remembered seeing a man pushing a rack of clothing a fair distance from a building doorway down to the big market square, just like on the telly.  I was sure I snapped his picture, but can I find it? No.)

Of course the Medici's were devout Christians, bound by church law, and money lending was a mortal sin, particularly the collection of interest.  Dante's famous work placed usurers in the depths of hell, because it was "an offense against the good of God; the usurer sells nothing and gives nothing for his profit".  Dante pictured them sitting in the 7th Circle of Hell, their hands continually moving for all eternity, because they did nothing with their hands in life.  Right next to the money lenders would be where you found your blasphemers and your sodomites.  (I largely feel this way about bankers these days, so I sort of appreciated this idea).

Of course the church had a get out clause:  one could purchase salvation by sponsoring Great Art, say, by commissioning a painting or a statue.  This was actual church policy.   A successful banker with his greed and the sorrow of his clients' debt was a source of great division and so, G-Dixon said, it was fitting that Medici commissioned in 1401 a work of art for the Baptistry in Florence, the place that brought together all families at the baptism of a child.  In this case the art was decorating the front doors with bronze statues.  The doors were made by Lorenzo Ghiberti and he did such a swell job -- it took him more than 20 years -- that Michelangelo said they could be the Gates of Paradise, and so they have been known ever since.  

Nevertheless, there was still the ancient Christian distrust of wealth -- which seems to have largely disappeared, thanks to ideas associated with 'Protestant work ethic'.  Our next man was the son of Giovanni and the narrator dubbed him 'Cosimo the Cautious'.  As the head of a very powerful and wealthy family in the time of a democratic Republic, he kept his head down.  He dressed plainly, didn't hold many offices and even rode a donkey rather than a horse.  Still, political decisions were often made in his house.  

Turns out the monastery of San Marco was getting a bit run down and Pope Eugene IV got his friend Cosimo to pay for the complete renovation.  G-Dixon mentions the term 'money laundering' here.  While he was at it, Cosimo built himself a room in the monastery as his own retreat.  There are two notable features of his 'cell'.  One is that there is an engraved plaque signed by the Pope, so to speak, a kind of receipt I was thinking, or perhaps a ticket to heaven.  It specifies that Cosimo's hands (money) are now washed clean and he has attained salvation.  The other is that his cell has not one room, but a second one upstairs, so not as humble as the rest.

In his home, the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, there is found the Magi chapel, where Cosimo commissioned Benozzo Gozzol to paint a fresco of the procession of the three wisemen, bringing their expensive gifts to Christ.  G-Dixon shows us the fresco, particularly the portrait of Cosimo as one of the Magi.  He points out the blaze of bold colours, the wild animals, the horses wearing gold studded bridles (the equivalent of perhaps a Versace handbag today),  and how in Cosimo's private space he celebrates the joy of capitalism and consumables.  I was thinking he was practicing his 'spin' as well, making the now perceived link between wealth and wisdom.

The programme then shows us art by Paolo Ucchello, who used mathematical skills to give the illusion of space and create three dimensional paintings.  Also Donatello's statue of David  with curls and a helmet.  This was the first freestanding nude statue since Roman times.  I think it looks rather swishy, but apparently the artist 'captured David between puberty and adolescence.'  The woman who had the job of cleaning the statue had been at it for 18 months or thereabouts, so I guess she liked it pretty well.  She and G-Dixon had a chuckle about what a nice tush he - the statue - has.

These works are thought to have been commissioned by Cosimo, but still being cautious, he kept his more decadent side out of the city.  Renaissance Florence was said to be a violent and volatile place and a fellow needs a refuge, a bolthole away from all that.  So, we have the Villa di Cafaggiolo, a fortress in the Tuscan countryside where the Medici's escaped from all the tribulations of city life; they eventually had quite a few villas scattered around.  

At this point, G-Dixon mentioned turning food into an art form and he had a lively conversation with a chef with sub-titles.  The dish was apparently 'Liver loaf', something to do with chicken livers and bread soaked in wine.  I'm not making that jump somehow...sure it's liver, but it is art?  In any case, eating lots of meat and lots of spices were the mark of a wealthy food budget (La Spezia, a very popular tourist destination on the Med - and a lovely place - means Spice).

NB.  Photos don't relate much to the TV programme topics, they are just from our wanderings around Florence (one just to prove I was actually there).

Sunday, 27 June 2010


Venetian glass is a big deal 

and it is beautiful.   


There are of course many shops selling glass objects.  

Bill reckoned the American eagle was aimed at a very specific market.

We spent out last day at Venice on the island of Murano.

We visited a glass museum where photos were not allowed.  

Someone sneaked a few anyhow (and you know what a timid rule-follower I am...).  

I settled for jotting down names from the information panels throughout the displays, eg

There are some wonderful examples of beautiful glass objects here (v. tempting...)  


The history of glass making at Murano is beautifully explained here (along with a lot of other beautiful and interesting things to see).  I scribbled some notes at the museum but other than something about stiff competition with Bohemian glass (more popular because it was thicker and could be more easily engraved with the newer technology, wheels instead of diamonds) and the development of lattimo (milk glass), my notes don't make a great deal of sense, so this link is a far better bet.

We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what some of the glass shapes were as there were a huge variety of oil lamps.  One could either be sat on a table or hung by a removable screw on (glass) hook at the top.  

There was a neat cruet set for vinegar, oil, salt (practically my favourite food groups) and a candle holder.

"Chandeliers in the wind" used glass shapes like ribbons drifting in a breeze.

We saw tiny hollow tubes which were then cut into beads.  Glass beads have weight and substances that plastic simply can't match.  

As with all the museums we visited, we browsed the book and gift shop.  I noticed that a number of the coffee table books about glass art were by female authors, surname Barquier, another name prevalent amongst glass makers.  

Bill found a book about where to eat in Venice and noted the address of a restaurant he'd read about previously, call Vesuvio.  

Apparently it's the last restaurant in Venice with a real wood-burning pizza oven.  We left the book, but had dinner there that evening.  Not sure I fully appreciated the subtle difference between a pizza cooked in a "real" oven, but there you are.

When we'd finished at the museum we shopped for a glass souvenir.  Bill ended up with cuff links.  I bought Christmas gifts.  

We enjoyed wandering the relatively quiet streets in Murano. 

We found a supermarket and found packaged salads complete with oil, vinegar, salt and plastic cutlery. Bread, sausage and salad served as a satisfying lunch.

We sat in one of the shaded porticoes of this church, next to this bridge.  

Somewhere in the distance a toothless old man played an accordion and when we found him Bill added some money to his hat for 'making his lunch even more perfect.'


Saturday, 26 June 2010

Evening in Venice

We fell into the habit of going walkabout after our evening meal.  

This was for several reasons.  

One was that the warm evenings were too delicious to miss.

Another was to walk off some of the huge amounts of food we consumed.  

Finally, places change into somewhere else after sunset.  


There are fewer people about. 


It seemed to me that more of the locals were out and about. 

The quality of the light makes everything seem a bit surreal, or more cozy or sometimes eerie.  

Bill likes to explore the funny little alleys and closes.  

I thought they had amazing names:  

Corte Bragadin, Campielo dei Fiori, Sotoportego Zulian.  Who thinks up such words?

Sometimes we could get just a glimpse of how Venetians lived, the light shining out of windows and doorways showing just a bit of decor inside. 

I do this at home as well.  As the nights draw in I'm often running in the posher streets, hoping the residents will have forgotten to close the curtains just yet, gawping at the grand interiors on display.  

I've tripped up more than once not watching where I'm going.

I did think watching one's step was a good idea, mind, having found this amazing little street that just ends in...canal. 
I wonder how many people have taken just that one step too far!

 Do the locals laugh when they hear a splash?

Friday, 25 June 2010

More Venice

I'm sure it's impossible to share adequately about Venice, but I'm going to try to hit the highlights of what we saw.  I know we missed a good deal of what was on offer and I hope we'll go back one day.  The man at the Hotel Ariel Silva wanted us to know that we could rent an apartment not far from the hotel; the nightly charge for an apartment that sleeps 6 is the same as for the small hotel room.  (On the other hand I see we might have done better had we known to book directly with his hotel...see, I just saved you loads of money right there).  

So let's start with the Piazza de San Marco (I have to be careful not to type pizza!).  There is found the Doge's Palace and the Bridge of Sighs.  I heard something about the Bridge of Sighs sometime when I was a child and the name stayed with me, but I'd no idea where or what it was until we came to see the real thing. 

My first glimpse of the Doge's Palace looked like fairyland to me.   Once inside, we started taking photos until we saw the sign that we couldn't.  I did notice that many people took photos anyhow and sat on benches where signs said not to and that the guards were either texting on their phones or asleep (!).  

I was sad not to be able to take photos of the 42 pillars with ornate capitals that had been renovated and rehouses.  It sounds dead boring, but the sculptures (of the hats associated with the various trades, the 7 sins, the zodiac symbols, the races of man, etc) were lovely especially considering the material of the pillars looked like concrete (but it was marble).  

Perhaps they thought we'd be more likely to buy a tourist book as a memento.  After careful consideration, we did not; this is partly a frugal choice and partly to do with limited packing space.   I was counting on the internet to help me out and I'm happy with my choice.  If you want to see the inside of the Palace without paying the entry fee or punishing your poor feet, check this out (thank you, Wikipedia!).  The references at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry are all spectacular and worth seeing without all those pesky tourists.

If you were actually interested, you could find more about Doges, but just from what I recall a Doge was  head administrator of the city, elected by a panel of the very wealthy members of a council.  The Doge had very little real authority, but perhaps quite a lot of influence. 

Strangely, once elected he had to spend the rest of his life in the Palace, only going out if accompanied by something like 8 council members.   The Palace is a combination of the legislative and judicial functions of government and perhaps the Doge could be compared to a President, or maybe a President-Practically-in- Prison (come to think of it, we've had a few of those).

There were 76 Doges over roughly 1,000 year's time and all their pictures, bar one, appear in the huge great senate hall (the largest in Europe) in the Palace; a black drape is painted over his allocated space.  He was convicted of treason against the city of Venice, and condemned to "damnatio memoriae", removal from remembrance   (Which is what I do with the people I have most detested in my life - pretend they never existed). 

From the recorded lecture we got as we dutifully drifted from room to room (it's a BIG place) it sounded as though he was the only bad apple in the bunch, but apparently more than one got into hot water during their lifetime term.   Doges lasted up until the time of Napoleon, whose name crept up a lot on this trip, in Verona, Venice and elsewhere.   There were at least two significant paintings the recording told us about that once belonged to the Doge's Palace but are now - thanks to Napoleon helping himself - found in The Louvre.

An important symbol in Venice is the Lion of St. Mark.  From what I gathered, St Mark visited Venice and there was a prophecy that he would return.  However he died in Alexandria.  Some Venetian men stole St Mark's body from the Turks and buried him in Venice and so the prophecy came true.  The paintings show the lion as the symbol of the strength and power of Venice, his forefeet on the land and his hind feet in the sea.  Venezia is always represented as a woman, dripping with jewels and surrounded by symbols of her wealth.  Neptune generally figures large somewhere in there, given the source of Venetian wealth was the sea.

As it happens there was a new prison built next to the Palace, the first purpose-built prison, so they say.  The Bridge of Sighs, or 'Ponte dei Sospiri' in Italian (doesn't 'sospiri' just sound like a sigh?), is what connects the Palace with the prison and was so named by Lord Byron (a good friend of my namesake).  It underlines the Palace as more of an administrative building, like having police holding cells next door to the courthouse.   I would guess they all heave a sigh when they realise they are about to be locked up.  

I can't won't show you my photo of the Bridge of Sighs.  You'll have to see it here instead.  This is because it was all covered up with an advert (over scaffolding, I suppose, but who knows?) and I'm not going to help the advertisers out here.   I've never heard of them and I'm sure you can live without their product; I have.

[Warning:  more pictures follow than you probably care to see!  On the other hand, if you wish, you can click to make them larger...]

By the time we finished at the Doge's Palace, I didn't care that our ticket entitled us to see 3 other museums or some such.  

I was sighing to sit down.  

So we hopped on a vaparetto (having bought a 36-hour ticket) and rode all the way around the circuit, both merrily snapping pictures of everything at least three times.  

 It all seemed so magic, I couldn't help but try to capture it.  The day I begin to be blase about travel is the day I'm going to stay home.

You'll no doubt be bored to tears by the photos, but I'm certain I will long enjoy reviewing them.   I do love my digital technology!

Mind, to take these we insinuated ourselves onto the back of the boat and stood for a while, as all the seats back there were taken.   We did this in spite of the fact there were plenty of seats inside.

Eventually the back-of-the-boat seats were vacated, so it was a good move for taking photos, even if I thought it was a bit pushy at the time.  

On the back of that boat we met a nice young American  couple there for only about 4 days. 

She was originally from Denver.  

He said he was originally from Kansas, though he graduated from high school in  Claremore, Oklahoma.  (Who says it's not a small world?)

She had a great idea of taking photos of architectural details to make into a calendar as a gift for his has-everything-hard-to-buy-for grandmother. 

I suggested  street lights or  doors.  (Remember those?)

 The photos from the boat speak for themselves.  

I thought the ground floor gardens that faced onto the Grand Canal must be a very sumptuous use of space. 

Either that or the former building has completely caved and no one in their right mind would rebuild in this location given global warming, etc.

We did not visit the Peggy Guggenheim museum, neither of us being major fans of Modern Art.  

That said, Bill laughed when I 'interpreted' this piece to be
"... one definition of an Italian man's happiness:  a chair and a packet of fags..."
(You do know that 'fags' are what Brits call cigarettes?)  There were any number of times on this trip when an available chair contributed majorly to my own happiness. 

Bill fell in love with any number of old fashioned wooden boats.  

I agree that they are far more elegant than the plastic looking jobs.

Strangely, upon our return we learned that a friend in the running club, Terry, actually lived in Venice for three months, when he was a student.  

He's never mentioned this before and every time we learn something else about his amazing life, we're convinced he needs to write his memoirs...or maybe just a blog?