I Giardini di Fantasia

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Aug 12, 2023

A mysterious fantasy world awaits in the Sacro Bosco di Bomarzo, colloquially known as the Park of the Monsters—a unique garden with dozens of sculptures of otherworldly creatures based upon classical mythology, all immersed in the natural vegetation.

The park was conceived by the eccentric Renaissance prince Pier Francesco Orsini  (1523-1585), the lord of Bomarzo, following the premature death of his beloved wife Giulia Farnese as a way to cope with his grief. He was assisted by one of the most famous architects of the period, also one of the designers of the Tivoli Gardens, Pirro Ligorio. The Orsini family symbol was the bear (orso in Italian).

This ”sacred grove” is considered to be the oldest sculpture park in the modern world, with most of the sculptures carved out of the bedrock on site and blocks of local volcanic peperino stone, typical of the region.

In the last century, surrealist Salvadore Dali would be deeply influenced by the gardens. He made short film there, and the park inspired one of his paintings, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Many have attempted to interpret the garden’s meaning, but to little avail. The mascherone (large mask) rock face, which has become the iconic symbol of the park, bears the inscription Ogni pensiero vola, which means “every thought flies,” so perhaps the intention is for our imaginations to take wing.

Bomarzo makes for a great day trip by car from Rome. When in Rome you can also check out Palazzo Zuccari, a 16th-century residence located on the Via Gregoriana just off the Spanish Steps. It is known as the “House of Monsters” for the decorations on its doors and windows, inspired by—surprise!—the Gardens of Bomarzo.

Not far from Bomarzo, in Tuscany’s Maremma an enchanting modern sculpture garden also backons, with a surrealist landscape of twenty-two massive, vibrant, fantastical, multicolored depictions of the Major Arcana of the mystical and mythical tarot cards.
The garden is the public art magnum opus born of the fertile imagination of self-taught French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. A vibrant celebration of feminism, the garden represents a beguiling fusion of pop, folk, outsider art and surrealism.
A great lover of Italy, de Saint Phalle was granted the land to create her magical world after a chance encounter with Marcella Agnelli, sister of Fiat industrialist Gianni Agnelli. She began work in 1979 and the colossal project consumed nearly two decades of her life.
Fully immersed in personally designing and building the statues (most measuring between 39 and 49 feet tall), de Saint Phalle hand-painted and decorated each with ornately detailed mirrors, mosaics, multi-colored ceramics and Murano glass, creating a kaleidoscope of colors, textures and shapes.
The garden’s largest sculpture is of the Empress, symbolizing the Great Mother archetype as a voluptuous woman-sphinx. The enormous hollow shell of its interior served as de Saint Phalle’s home while she worked on the garden. One of the figure’s breasts housed a mirrored and lavishly embellished living, dining and kitchen area, and the other a grand bedroom and bath.
Throughout the course of the project the artist enlisted a group of skilled collaborators in her “garden of joy.” Chief among those was her husband, Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical skills helped to motorize and breathe life into several of the garden’s features and monumental sculptures. But the overall phantasmagorical design could ultimately be the brainchild of only one supremely gifted individual.
In Giardino dei Tarocchi, a visitor can not only admire the art but interact with it, whether climbing the Tower or playing the Wheel of Fortune. Niki de Saint Phalle meant for her Eden-on-earth to be touched and enjoyed by children of all ages with all their senses . . . an evocation of—but also a brief respite from—the lifelong game of chance that is the story of the tarot.
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Allure of the Lakes

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Jul 22, 2023

Il Bel Paeseno other county compares with its undulating vineyard-covered hillsides, charming medieval hill towns, 5000 miles of dramatic coastline, and the jutting alpine peaks of the Dolomites in the north. But Italy is also blessed with some of the most alluring lakes, views that will take your breath away.

What could be more beautiful than a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks? The Dolomites are home to some of the most stunning mountain lake scenery in the world.

Here are some of my favorites: Lago di Misurina, not far from Cortina (the formerly grand hotel at the far end of the lake puts me in mind of Wes Anderson’s film “Grand Hotel Budapest” J), Lago di Braies and Lago di Dobbiaco—all of which are easy to visit, no hiking required.

Italy’s most famous lake of all is Lago di Como. Considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe it is shaped like an upside-down Y with the ever-popular town of Bellagio at the top of the east and west fork.

One ferry stop northeast of Bellagio is the charming lakeside town of Varenna.

Take a 45-minute hike from town to discover the Castle of Vizio, with its spectral inhabitants, captivating carved figures and splendid vistas.

Lago di Garda is Italy’s largest lake and a favorite of cyclists and sporting enthusiasts. It features many fairy-tale lakeside towns, especially further north.

At the southernmost point you’ll find the popular resort town of Sirmione with its iconic medieval castle.

Lake Maggiore, less than an hour from Milan and often overlooked for the glamour of Lake Como, is a favorite of mine with its old-world charm and quiet air of sophistication.

I especially love its beautiful Borromean islands—Isola Bella and Isola dei Pescatori in particular—which you can get to by ferry from the town of Stresa on the lake’s western shore.

An undiscovered jewel not to be missed west of Lago di Maggiore in Piemonte, is the picture-perfect Lake Orta, which (thankfully) remains one of Italy’s best kept secrets.

Nestled between the northern cities of Bergamo and Brescia in the Franciacorta wine region is Lago d’Iseo with its quaint villages and lovely lakeside promenades.

Central Italy is also blessed with three particularly stunning lakes. Lago di Trasimeno is in the green heart of Umbria, amid beds of reeds and white water lilies. It’s shallow and abundant in fish —19 different species — and is home to wild ducks, cormorants, and kingfishers.

Lazio’s Lake Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe, formed by a great eruption 370,000 years ago. Encircled by a crown of hills, its shores are dotted with enchanting medieval villages. Rarely overcrowded and abundant with beautiful black volcanic sands and crystal-clear waters, it is a favorite getaway for Italians and bird watchers. (You can reach it easily from Rome or Orvieto.)

A half-hour drive from Rome, you will reach another volcanic beauty—Lake Bracciano—and feel transported to another world. Romans looking for a quick escape from the city enjoy its exceptionally clean waters and its quietude—powerboats are banned. Surrounded by greenery, olive groves, quaint villages and the imposing Orsini Odescalchi Castle (a popular spot for lux weddings), it is also a favorite spot for bird watchers.

Italy’s lakes are gleaming jewels not to be missed in a country already rich in a multitude of natural treasures!

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In Vino Veritas

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Jun 17, 2023

“In wine there is truth.” These now-immortal words were famously recorded by the Roman scholar—and recorder of nearly all things—Pliny of the Elder. (He also identified and named the hops plant, hence his popular namesake IPA beer.)

In the spirit of veritas there was a second part to Pliny’s aphorism that has been nearly forgotten—in aqua sanitas—which means “in water health.”

For years, In Vino Veritas has been embraced by wine enthusiasts the world over. But hard as it is to imagine, not all that long ago the land of La Dolce Vita was not even on the “wine map,” so to speak, despite thousands of years of viticulture. In 1967 the 716-page New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits devoted exactly 4 1/2 pages to Italian wines. In truth, most native Italian wines were anything but world-class at that time.

Of course Italians, being masters of reinvention, have achieved nothing less than a total transformation of Italian wine-making—and the world has taken notice. Today virtually every wine anywhere in Italy, from Sicily to the Alps, is different (and far better) than it was 75 years ago. Have Italian wines surpassed French wines? Most experts would consider it a coin toss. Of the four wines that achieved Wine Spectator’s 2022 highest rating (97 out of 100) three were Italian and the other a French champagne . . .

And that’s the honest veritas.

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