Italian Cabinets of Curiosities


_SM19502; Rome; Italy; 07/2011; ITALY-10296NF16

Unicorns’ horns, mermaids’ skeletons, dragons and exotic plants, precious metals,  magical mirrors, oddities and antiquities all arranged on shelves in “rooms of wonders” for the intellectually curious. The fascinating collections of the nobility, scholars, artists, scientists and eccentrics of 16th and 17th century Italy on the brink of a European age when exploration was beginning to discover exotic new lands with strange people and strange customs. A time when Italian intellectuals could easily imagine the far-fetched and unexpected and our inspiration for an Italian inspired Halloween.

The Mirabilia of Aldrovandi

Rare and precious things collected and displayed were called mirabilia in Italian. One of the earliest and most impressive collections was assembled by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). His cabinet of curiosities include more than 7,000 specimens including this illustration of a dragon he found lying dead in the countryside of bologna. Some actually existed but many were fakes that he apparently purchased in the belief they were real.

aldrovandis-dragon-His observations of animals, plants and minerals lead to a professorship at the Università di Bologna in natural history studies. A ridge of the moon is named Dorsa Aldrovandi and the plant genus Aldrovanda is also named after him. A remnant of his collection is still on display in the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.


A Duke’s Cabinet of Curiosities

dukeThe term “cabinent” originally referred to a room and one of the most elaborate in Italy was the Florentine Studiolo of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. A small barrel-vaulted space near the duke’s bedroom in the Palazzo Vecchio it was completed from 1570-1572 by teams of scholars and artists under the supervision of the likes of Giorgio Vasari. A Renaissance Man-Cave with cabinet of curiosities housed in secret rooms hinted at by thematic wall canvases to indulge in his interest in the fine and decorative arts. After his death (natural or otherwise) the objects were dispersed and the studiolo was dismantled until the early 20th century when it was restored and reassembled although not exactly as it was originally.

A Room with a View

Ferrante Imperato’s cabinet of curiosities is said to have contained as many as 35,000 plant, animal and mineral specimens including a crocodile hanging from the ceiling and a cross between a walrus and a platypus.  He collected fossils and stones believed to have magical properties and medical folklore such as the idea that wearing amethyst in the navel prevents drunkenness and sapphire cleans the eyes in such a way as to prevent lust.


Two Cabinets from Verona

cabinent cFrancesco Calceolari was the son of a pharmacist his cabinet was filled with specimens based on formulations for natural remedies. Cubby holes filled with unicorn horns, claws and nails, various dried and stuffed animals identified with scientific names like Canis pisces, Cicada marina and Cocodrili duo made up a curious pharmacopeia



Italian studioli filled with curiosities and mirabilia were part-collection, part-laboratory, part-retreat for many Italian and Europeans of the time. There were noted cabinets of curiosity in many Italian cities as well as famous collections in England, Austria, Sweden, Russia, Germany and Denmark and during the latter century in the United States. Many developed into legitimate scientific collections, many simply made for wonderment and maintained for their curiosity and observation of the odd.



Try a Little Benessere




Things have been a little tense the last few weeks on the global scene. Conflicts and polarizing issues are beginning to rob and replace our efforts to find contentment and joy in our communities and families. Our lifestyle is becoming dulled and we’re becoming less satisfied with our achievements and the measure of our worth.

Maybe it’s because we’ve lost the artistry of living that the Italians know so well. They call it benessere “a sense of well being”. Traveling in Italy and staying with my Italian family and friends has led me to believe that Italians seem to know how to balance work and relaxation, surrounding themselves with beauty and art in their homes and businesses, eating fresh and vibrant food and focusing on family and friends. Italian design and fashion, culture and living, the way Italians prepare and eat their food all combine to create a sense of well being that doesn’t depend solely on the size of your bank account or stock portfolio.

Italians have long understood how art and beauty forge and strengthen our emotional bonds to life to create a sense of well being and lighten our discontent. Here are 10 ways to use the Italian concept of  “benessere” to make the world a better place in which to live.

1. Green agriculture and eco-sustainability

Italy is a country with “ un cuore verde”, a green heart. A country that measures its worth by preserving and protecting the land. In Italy green agriculture and eco-sustainability have been a powerful movement for decades.The pleasures of the table and ecologically-balanced farming methods are encouraged by the Italian government and through private groups. Italy’s farmhouses and family vineyards and orchards have always been a model for land to hand cooking.The traditional agricultural roots of Italian casalinga (homestyle) cooking are a legacy of Italian cuisine that we can all benefit from.

2. Wine

Wine is not simply considered a drink in Italy. It is part of the local culture and the moderate consumption  of wine is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet. There are well documented reports about the benefits of drinking red wine and recently a lot of buzz about the healthy lifestyle and longevity enjoyed by the people of Sardegna and the dark red wine Cannonau, said to contain the world’s highest levels of antioxidants (two to three times the level of flavonoids as other wines). The people of Sardegna who drink this wine are 10 times more likely to live to be 100. Research and the known effects of flavonoids, have shown that moderate wine consumption may increase life expectancy while also lowering stress levels. Wine may not be able to solve all the world’s problems but reducing stress often allows us to put our problems in perspective and find a more balanced solution.

3. Love, Friendship and Conviviality

Love is in the air all year long in Italy and has been for centuries.  While we were busy developing the austere virtues of the Reformation, the Italians were relaxing in the inspiring glow of the Renaissance. And although we might want to identify the Italian style of love differently, Italians more often equate love with the concept of enchantment, charm or delight, innamorato. Italians take pleasure in the companionship of friends and opening themselves to life on the piazza. My Italian friend Luca once told me that his day would not be complete if he did not connect with at least one of his friends.

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Since ancient times Italian olive oil has been an integral part of the way Italians eat. High in polyphenols and protective antioxidants beneficial to heart health, extra virgin olive oil is an important part of a heart healthy diet reducing the risk of variety of diseases and promoting good health. Italians share their love of olive oil and Italy’s precious bottles of “liquid gold” are available all over the world.

5. Art and Design

Laura Biagiotti, known for her Italian cashmere collection, has said that “Italian fashion is meant to add the extraordinary to everyday life”. From ancient Italian cultures to the Great Masters of the Renaissance, Italian art and design transcend politics, gender, economies and cultural differences to inspire and elevate all peoples of the world.
6. Cheese

According to National Geographic writer and Emmy award-winning documentarian Dan Buettner the secret of longevity is encoded in an Italian cheese. Whether or not an Italian cheese can save the world remains to be seen but Buettner who travels the globe to examine and unlock the secrets of long life claims that a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese is a start. Eaten as part of a diet among people in Sardegna, designated by Buettner as a World Blue Zone (regions where long lived people can provide lessons for living longer and improving the quality of life), the cheese known as pecorino sardo made from grass-fed sheep’s’ milk results in a product with high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

7. La Bella Vita

Italy’s contribution to living a life of purpose and pleasure is eloquently summed up by Andrea Bocelli as he describes the essential elements of living life in Tuscany.

Man was created for living here, where, with the toil of his labour in the fields, he can procure everything that he needs for a tranquil life and where he can also meditate on the profound meaning and spiritual value of his time spent on earth safe from the contradictions, vices, absurdities and tensions of the increasingly oppressive reinforced concrete world“.

8. Espresso

Although Italians may not have invented coffee they have perfected its making and service. True Italian coffee beverages bring enjoyment and satisfaction to millions of people all over the world every day. And as an espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, a little goes a long way in lifting our spirits.

9. Family

family veneto

Our Italian Family near Vicenza circa 1900.

Italians appreciate their families and develop strong bonds with older family members. Elders are celebrated and family is revered. Loving grandparents provide child care, financial help, wisdom and motivation to perpetuate cultural and family traditions. In turn, elders are more engaged and feel a sense of belonging in their families and communities. Time and age is more irrelevant and society as a whole more dependent on family values with encouragement and supportive circle of family.

10. Relax and Recharge

Americans choose to work  much more than Italians in fact lately more than any European country. Now although this may have as much to do with a complex economy, tax policies and labor issues it still tells the story that Italians value time to relax and recharge much more than we do. In fact today 15th August , the Feast of the Assumption , is when all Italy, or so it seems, stops work to celebrate. In fact some Italians and businesses take the entire month off.  During  Ferragosto everyone pretty much abandons their career obligations and heads out of town making time to relax and enjoy life regardless of present circumstances.  Because fortunes always change , politicians come and go, the economy races up and down and it’s important to do something to make it all worthwhile.

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.