Italy Travels 1000 miles the Third Week in May

There is a saying in Italy that “in place of blood, fuel runs in the veins of Brescians”. By the end of the 20th century, the area surrounding Brescia had become the center for motor racing competitions in Italy. None never more famous than Italy’s ‘Mille Miglia‘, one of the greatest classic car races in the world.  A four day event that combines the magical scenery of the Italian countryside with one of the greatest spectacles in motor sports.  A historical rally of legendary cars, a race of endurance competing across 1000 miles from Brescia to Rome passing through some of the most beautiful cities on the peninsula and most stunning landscapes on the planet. race 2017 The route for the 2017 event, which celebrates the MM’s 90th anniversary, will take 440 drivers through more than 200 villages and towns, seven Italian regions and the Republic of San Marino.

1956 Ferrari 500 TR Spider Scaglietti

Cars are selected exclusively from models that took part in at least one of the historical Mille Miglia races (from 1927 to 1957) and driven by a crews from around the world. Some like a 1928 SSK Mercedes are priceless museum pieces including 14 Fiats, 12 Alfa Romeos, 4 Zagato-built cars, 2 Maseratis and 4 Ferrari that completed the original course.  A race of rock star proportions where enthusiastic lovers of velocity line the route (a loop of a little more than half of Italy), standing along mountain passes, Tuscan hill towns, roundabouts, pass cathedrals and castles, plains and lakes going as fast as they possibly can. From Brescia to Rome and back again.

Click here for a short documentary of Italy’s Mille Miglia from Jay Leno’s Garage.

Italian MicroMosaic Jewelry – 1500 pieces per square inch

A reminder of a trip to Italy, the ubiquitous souvenir T-shirt is a wearable image that displays a special affinity for a place or brand associated with your travels. Victorian ladies in the early and mid-19th century traveling in Rome were also drawn to wearable images of their trip.  Micro-mosaic brooches made from tiny pieces of glass tile,  called tesserae, 1500 to 5000 pieces per square inch. Cemented to a stone or metal background the glass tesserae created images of the beautiful scenery, evocative ruins and architectural sights of their travels. The settings so small that these brooches appeared to have been painted or enameled, until they were examined under a microscope.

micromosaic doves of pliny

Capitoline Doves or Doves of Pliny

Archeological themes were popular motifs for Italian micro-mosaic jewelers of the time. Miniature versions of ancient architectural mosaics and classical antiquities were highly favored by Victorian travelers as a keepsake and memento of their Grand Tour of Italy. Other subject matter included images of flowers, pastoral scenes, Italian peasant life and animals, particularly portraits of dogs. Among the most famous dog images is Antonio Aguatti’s seated spaniel. The detail of the dog’s fur looks like a painting yet is made up of thousands of glass tiles.

dog Spaniel_Micromosaic

Spaniel in Landscape 

The years 1810 to 1840 marked the height of the micro-mosaic with fine pieces of jewelry designed by artisans in Florence and Vatican craftsmen who used glass tesserae to make replicas of famous paintings to replace fading originals. In the mid-1800s the quality of micro-mosaic declined due to increased demand, unskilled workmanship and less discriminating tourists who were satisfied with pieces of lesser quality.

A Convivial Look at Leonardo’s Last Supper

last supper

No one can deny the powerful visual presence of da Vinci’s Last Supper, Il Cenacolo.    However the 15 X 29 foot fresco-like painting on the wall of the Dominican refectory (dining hall) of the Church of Santa Marie delle Grazie in Milan, Italy completed in 1498 was not the first representation of la ultima cena. There were hundreds of “Last Suppers” painted long before Leonardo’s.

last supper ravenna

Last Supper – Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenna

A 6th century mosaic along the upper band of the right wall of the nave in the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna is considered to be among the earliest images of the Last Supper (an earlier 3rd century composition can be found the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus in Rome). The event is typical of early Christian iconography and the traditions of the Eastern Church. Symbols with hidden meanings and mystical elements are incorporated in decorative mosaics to tell a story and convey a lesson in creating some of the most beautiful mosaics in Western civilization.

 

The various depictions of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper have made it the most commonly painted meal in art history and the most famous dinner of all time. Relentlessly studied and scrutinized by art scholars and endlessly interpreted for a hidden codex and meaning, Leonardo’s Last Supper for me is a moment of simple conviviality that underlies a profound change in God’s relationship with man.

The Last Supper at Ravenna and da’ Vinci’s Last Supper are both “take-your-breath away” moments. Here are a few other unique and touching depictions of this dinner with friends that changed the world.

last supper 2

Embroidered Altar Dossal – 1633.

 

 

last supper 3

Sadao Watanabe

last supper peru

Arts and crafts store in Lima, Peru

Assisi Embroidery – Stitches Like Woodcuts

Umbria has been called the land of mysticism where the lives of saints like Francis and Clare of Assisi combine with vestiges of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance history to create a woven pattern in art that is unique. The earliest examples of Assisi Embroidery, also known as Punto Assisi or Ricami d’Assisi, date from the 13th century. The evolution of this style of embroidery includes a legend that St. Francis brought an example of the work back from China.

The convents and monasteries of Assisi started to make embroideries where the contours were embroidered with silk in one monochromatic color (usually in black or brown) then the whole of the background was filled in so that the main designs were outlined in silhouette and the background worked. In this technique the pattern is created by leaving the design unstitched and stitching the background in one colour. This photo negative style of needlework where the interior of the pattern is left plain or “void” is as referred to as Voided Work and gives Assisi embroidery a woodcut-like quality that is so compelling.

Assisi embroidery is worked in only two colors, one color for the background (traditionally red, blue, green or gold) with a monochromatic color that outlines the motifs. Fanciful motifs based on medieval symbology with elaborate scrollwork coexist with simplistic patterns from nature like flowers, branches and leaves creating a body of work both sophisticated and natural.

In  the 18th and 19th centuries the techniques of Assisi Embroidery were all but lost then revived in the early 1900’s when the “Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Feminale San Francisci di Assisi” was founded as a workshop teaching  young girls of the city to embroider. They took  traditional embroidery techniques and simplified them. Silk  was replaced by embroidery cotton, the outlines and contours made by counted stitch. The designs were simplified, made new or borrowed from wood sculptures and stone reliefs found in churches.

Assisi embroidery was commonly used for altar clothes and other ecclesiastic items and decorative items, pouchesassisi embroidery and tokens or favors and for household items creating exquisite tablescapes.

assisi embroidery 2

A More than Meets the Eye Moment -The Iconic Cross of San Damiano

The town of Assisi in Umbria is one of the most significant spiritual centers in the world. A land of religious fervor where saints walked the hillsides and forests and lived lives that changed the world. The gentle spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi continues to influence all who are open to the teachings of Francis who first heard God’s calling in a small church outside the city walls while praying at the iconic cross of San Damiano directing him to “Rebuild My Church”.

Crucifix of San Damiano

The iconic cross of San Damiano is not iconic in the sense of small graphic symbols on a computer screen or as references to powerful cultural figures but iconic as in a religious image or painting on a wooden panel used for prayer and devotion. The iconic Cross of San Damiano was painted in the 12th century by an unknown Umbrian artist living near Assisi. The cross is called an iconic cross because it contains images of persons who have a part in its meaning. As a religious icon and work of art the lines, colors and pictures teach the significance of the event and create a personal encounter with the sacred.

The symbolic meaning of an icon is part of a distinct spiritual tradition of the eastern church. Byzantine icons are religious imagery found in Eastern Christianity (peculiar to Byzantium, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia). Icons are images of a spiritual world both seen and unseen. They evoke a sense of spiritual mystery to engage us in a “more than meets the eye” moment. There’s often a lot going on in an icon (artistically and spiritually) and for early Christians it read like an open book.

Thought to have been painted by an eastern Christian monk living in the area, the imagery of the icon Cross of San Damiano expresses the Paschal Mystery of Christ. It is a layered and varied story with a cast of characters that were part of his death, resurrection and ascension into glory. cross-partGolden halos, medallions of red and mantles of blue,calligraphic scrolls, a Roman soldier and his son and groups of astonished angels all join together to teach us about the miraculous intercession of God in the life of mankind. Beautifully and skillfully painted icons, like the mosaics of Ravenna, are a medium for instruction and inspiration and a connection between God and man.

Contemporary iconographer Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) reminds us that icons are more than mere wood and paint making up a physical image rather “icons raise the soul and mind to the realm of the spirit.”

Today the Cross of San Damiano hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi.

Hortus Conclusus

As I begin to put my garden to bed for the Winter my thoughts are never far from its reawakening in the Spring. A typical read for me on a snowy winter day usually has something to do with gardening. “Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination” (Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897) that spurs a gardener to come up with new designs and combinations every year.

garden-ortoMy inspiration comes from a little known monastic garden at the University of Perugia that I visited with my Umbrian friends, Luca and Luigi. The garden houses a collection of plants which are of scientific value because they contain DNA that allows for the study of  ancient genetic lines. Historically the garden is reminiscent  of a Hortus conclusis, a garden surrounded by a wall in which medicinal herbs and edible plants were grown. Located on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the University garden (Orto Botanico dell’Università di Perugia) was meant to be “symbolic” in that the placement of certain plants was based on religious and cultural  customs and conventions reflecting myths and beliefs typical of the period.

The first part of the garden is elliptically shaped like an egg and surrounded by water features representing the rivers of the Garden of Eden.  A succession of symbolic plantings and trees create a pathway to renewal and healing with medicinal plants for treatment, hygiene and nutrition meticulously labeled with common plant names used during the middle ages. The arrangement of semi-circular open-air seating , the Theatrum, was once used by the monks to distribute food and medicinals to the city’s needy.

hortusDesigning a garden where every plant is meant to nourish the mind, body and spirit   within a confined space is a little like creating a metaphoric garden of Eden. Something I can exercise my imagination on over the next few months.

 

Truffle Times

white truffle
Some have described the aroma and flavor of the Italian truffle as rich and intense with a taste of honey and garlic reminiscent of the earthy woods in which it is found. Others have described them as a misshapen knot with an aroma best left in the leafy understory of the woods. Each to his own but I would suggest that you give truffles a try. Italians eat them raw, shaved over egg dishes or plain pastas, infused in olive oil or honey, in risotto and soft polenta (I had them over braised pigeon on my last trip).
A few years ago I stayed in the village of San Giovanni d’Asso, in the heart of  the Crete Senesi, where I was able to get up close and personal with the legendary white truffle. S.G. d’Asso is the home of the Museo di Tartufo, Italys first museum dedicated to the truffle. The museum created by a pharmacist, a chef and a botanist is located in a 13th century castle. But this is only one of the many wonderful things about the town, the other is a the town itself and a remarkable locanda (country inn) called Locanda del Castello where Selvana, her son Massimo create the most pleasant soggiorno for you to enjoy truffles, termes and Tuscany plus other activities from wine and cheese tastings to horseback riding and cycling.
Many cities and towns in Northern Italy, Tuscany and Umbria celebrate the white truffle with food festivals and markets during October and November. The town of Alba in Piemonte is the classic big box tourist destination for white truffles in Italy but the towns of Savigno, NW of Bologna (1-2-3 Sunday in November), San Giovanni d’Asso south of Siena (2-3 weekend in November) and Citta’ di Castello in Umbria (1st weekend in November) all have regional truffle festivals.
A good introduction to the taste of the Italian truffle is by way of a honey available at CosituttiMarketPlace . This luxurious millefiori honey has a precious sliver of Italian truffle in every jar. A balance of earthiness and sweetness. Here you can also find some recipes for using this honey in the most extraordinary ways.
Some interesting facts about truffles 
  • The aroma and flavors of truffles was thought to be so intoxicating that the Church in the Middle Ages regarded the seductive appeal of truffles as dangerous and they were banned from Medieval kitchens.
  • Rossini, the famous Italian composer, admitted that he had wept only 3 times in his life, “Once when my first opera failed, once again when I heard Paganini play the violin and once when the truffled turkey fell overboard at a boating picnic”.
  • A tartufaio, truffle hunter, accompanied by his trained dog will search early in the morning for truffles when the air is clear and favorable for the dog to smell out the truffle.
  • The most sought after white truffles are found only in select geological pockets in central and northwest Italy, Croatia and Slovenia, and the yield each autumn cannot keep up.
  • The amount of truffle oil required for most recipes costs 25 to 50 cents, a small price to pay for an aroma and flavor that is so unique and irresistible.